Archive for March 4th, 2011

Conscientious TAs

March 4, 2011

Yes; they do exist; and it is a pleasure to work with them; and, I have/had the honour of working with a few. I was reminded of them when I read this post of ZapperZ about his own TA-ing experience and what it taught him:

After that semester, I TA’ed only for one more semester before I received a research assistantship and didn’t have to do any more teaching work. Still, I think I learned quite a bit in executing that responsibility. I certainly sharpened my skill as an instructor quite a bit, and learned what worked and what didn’t. But most importantly, I realized that students will try to get away with as much as they can if you let them.

Of course, needless to say, TAs who try to get away with as little as they can are also plenty!

Make ’em Share ’em

March 4, 2011

That is the way to progress; the seed article talks about how bio-engineering benefits from tool making and sharing; it is true for scientific software too, by the way:

We do not know how to make biology easy to engineer (think playing with Legos or coding software with Java). However, technical inventions prototyped over the past six years point the way to a future in which biology is much easier to engineer relative to today. For example, in the summer of 2009, a team of undergraduates at the University of Cambridge won the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition by engineering seven strains of E. coli, each capable of synthesizing a different pigment visible to the naked eye. The resulting set, collectively known as E. chromi, required rerouting the metabolism of the bacteria so that natural precursor chemicals are converted across a palette of seven colors, from red to purple; such genetic color generators can be used to program microbes to change color in response to otherwise invisible environmental pollutants or health conditions. A few years ago such a project would have required several PhD-level experts in biology and metabolic engineering and would have likely taken a few years. Today, undergraduates can perform such work in months. This change in reality is due to two advances—tools and sharing—both of which are ready for their own revolutions.

Take a look!

Compilation errors of humans–while reading

March 4, 2011

Computers are notorious for interpreting language in an overly literal fashion; a single misplaced parenthesis in an otherwise flawless piece of software code can cause a computer to halt in utter incomprehension halfway through the compilation of that code.

Humans, when reading natural language, tend to be far more robust at this; once one is fluent in, say, English, one can usually deal with a reasonable number of spelling or grammatical errors in a text, particularly when the writing style is clear and organised, and the themes of the text are familiar to the reader.

However, when, as a graduate student, one encounters the task of reading a technical mathematical paper for the first time, it is often the case that one loses much of one’s higher reading skills, reverting instead to a more formal and tedious line-by-line interpretation of the text. As a consequence, a single typo or undefined term in the paper can cause one’s comprehension of the paper to grind to a complete halt, in much the same way that it would to a computer.

In many cases, such “compilation errors” can be resolved simply by reading ahead in the paper. In some cases, just reading the next one or two lines can shed a lot of light on the mysterious term that was just introduced, or the unexplained step in the logic. In other cases, one has to read a fair bit further ahead; if, for instance, the conclusion of Lemma 15 was difficult to understand, one can read ahead to the end of the proof of that Lemma (in which, presumably, the conclusion is obtained), or search ahead to, say, Proposition 23, in which Lemma 15 is invoked, to get more clues as to what Lemma 15 is trying to say. (The use of search functions in, say, a PDF reader, is particularly useful in this regard.)

It is also good to keep in mind that no author is infallible, and that in some cases, the simplest explanation for incomprehension is that there is a typo in the text.

That is Terence Tao, here.