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Writing Help

This isn’t exactly timely for most students, but I wanted to make sure I posted it eventually.

Penn State Learning is an academic unit that provides students with assistance in a variety of areas, including by offering tutoring in writing. Writing is never easy, and one thing that always helps get a better result is to have someone review your work with a fresh set of eyes—especially when those eyes themselves belong to a solid writer—and that’s exactly what the the writing tutors can provide you, for free, on a schedule that works for you. I strongly encourage everyone to pay at least one visit to the writing tutors next year to have them help you out with one of your school assignments. Ideally it would be one of my assignments, because reading things that aren’t written well is really exhausting, and that makes me cranky.

Journals for SRA

Periodically students will ask about academic journals that might be relevant for those in the SRA field. Below is a brief list of recommendations, all of which are accessible through Penn State’s library. Hat tip to Mark Stamp for compiling most of these entries. If any readers have additions to recommend, please let me know.

The Data is Coming from Inside the House

Like any self-respecting new dad in 2014, my non-work time involves in large part watching videos on Apple TV while keeping an eye on my daughter with the video monitor. Even though my house isn’t exactly palatial, and even though I’m rocking two wireless access points (an AirPort Extreme on the first floor, and an AirPort Express 802.11n (2nd Generation) upstairs), the Apple TV wasn’t getting great performance on either the 2.4 GHz band or the 5 GHz band, which made streaming videos a bit of a drag. I did some limited testing and I believe that the problem was at least exacerbated by interference from the video monitor. I considered removing the child from the equation in order to improve my Netflix experience, but my wife protested. The best solution would have been to run some CAT 5e cable from my basement (where my modem and wired router live) to the family room where the Apple TV lives, but that sounded like a lot of work.

I saw the NETGEAR Powerline AV+ 200 Mbps Nano Kit on sale for $30 at Newegg last week and on a lark decided to buy it and try it out. The kit is designed to extend your wired network using the electrical outlets that already exist in your house.

NETGEAR Powerline AV+ 200 Mbps Nano Kit
NETGEAR Powerline AV+ 200 Mbps Nano Kit

Thus far, it has proven to be an awesome solution to my Apple TV issues. The setup couldn’t have been easier. I plugged in one unit in the basement, and connected it to my router. Then I plugged in the other unit in the family room, and connected it to the Apple TV. Everything worked instantly, and I had to do zero setup or configuration beyond that. I haven’t had any video streaming or performance issues since I set up the kit. I also haven’t quite wrapped my head around how this thing works yet, but with results like this, I’m OK with that.

Playing with Ubuntu and Wireshark

After about a year of saying, “One day I should create a detailed walkthrough that describes how to install Ubuntu and Wireshark in a VirtualBox virtual machine,” I finally went ahead and created a detailed walkthrough that describes how to install Ubuntu and Wireshark in a VirtualBox virtual machine. I know that this will be useful for my IST 220 and SRA 111 students, and I hope that others find it useful, too. If you find any mistakes, or have suggestions on how to improve it, please let me know.

A Public Substitution Announcement

For whatever reason, I have a tendency to write pau.edu instead of psu.edu when I’m writing in iOS. This happens at least a few times per day, and it’s really annoying… or at least it was until I remembered that I could use iOS’s text shortcut feature to reduce the pain. If you or anyone you care about suffers from this or a similar affliction (like typing gmial.com instead of gmail.com), this may help. Simply go to Settings > General > Keyboards > Shortcuts, and then enter the text in the example below. The best part is that this substitution will sync across your devices.

Obama on legalization

In B LAW 341 on Friday, our study of the structure of the courts and our federal system led to a brief had a brief discussion of marijuana legalization. Coincidentally, over the weekend the New Yorker published a fascinating and lengthy interview with the President as he begins final year in office before attention really turns to the 2016 race. In the interview, he discusses his thoughts on marijuana legalization:

When I asked Obama about another area of shifting public opinion—the legalization of marijuana—he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

Is it less dangerous? I asked.

Obama leaned back and let a moment go by. That’s one of his moves. When he is interviewed, particularly for print, he has the habit of slowing himself down, and the result is a spool of cautious lucidity. He speaks in paragraphs and with moments of revision. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of a sentence and say, “Scratch that,” or, “I think the grammar was all screwed up in that sentence, so let me start again.”

Less dangerous, he said, “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.” What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” But, he said, “we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. “Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.” He noted the slippery-slope arguments that might arise. “I also think that, when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user is profound and the social costs are profound. And you do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?”

This doesn’t resolve the enforcement question, but it gives a sense of his thoughts on the matter.

Streaming “Downloaded”

I’ll be hosting an informal screening of “Downloaded,” Alex Winter’s documentary that explores the social, business, and legal perspectives of the digital media sharing revolution, on Thursday, October 3 from 6p to 8p in the Cybertorium, 113 IST Building. Afterward, we can do a discussion if anybody is interested. I think this event might be of particular interest to students enrolled in IST 220 or IST 432.

Registration is not required. Hope to see you there.

The new normal

Last semester I taught two sections of SRA 111, with a total of around 100 primarily first- and second-year students enrolled. For each of the six ANGEL-based quizzes during the semester, I have a policy that students can use a double-sided sheet of their own handwritten notes, but cannot refer to any other materials.

The first three quizzes were held in class and I was able to enforce this restriction. For a variety of reasons, I allowed the students to take the fourth quiz on their own, at their own convenience; but I made clear that the same rules were in effect and that I was placing trust in them to observe our academic integrity policy. After the quiz, I asked students to complete an anonymous survey; 81 of 97 did. The results were interesting:

  • 43 students referred to our course PowerPoints during the quiz
  • 8 discussed the quiz questions or answers with classmates during the quiz
  • 11 searched the Web for answers to the quiz questions

I received a lot of interesting open-ended feedback, as well. One response can be paraphrased as: “Though I’m not proud of violating the academic integrity policy, I’ve spoken to other students and we’ve decided that professors should expect this to happen. I took notes and studied, but there were things that I couldn’t recall, and even if I can get the answer, I am learning when I look it up.”

I also asked students if they preferred in-class or out-of-class quizzes. 64.2% strongly preferred or somewhat preferred out-of-class quizzes (I wonder why); 17.3% strongly preferred or somewhat preferred in-class quizzes; and 18.5% had no preference.

The attendance dance

(I apologize for the title of this post.)

In my eight or so months of teaching, I’ve been shocked to discover that I’m apparently fairly retrograde in at least a few areas. I think I’m more willing to lecture for longer periods of time than are some of my colleagues; I’m not a big fan of unproctored, at-home assessments; and I take attendance at every class.

As the end of the semester approaches, my attention turns to that last item. I use ANGEL’s PIN system to handle attendance for me (ANGEL provides a PIN for me; I put it on the board; students enter the PIN back into ANGEL; and ANGEL records the results), which more or less works well. 1 The problem is that the default attendance report ANGEL provides me is essentially useless:

The default ANGEL attendance report
The default ANGEL attendance report

As you can see, there is no tabulation of any kind, which defeats the entire purpose of the attendance regime (I would like to know how many times a student did not attend class; radical, I know).

It took me a while to figure out how to solve this problem, so I thought I’d share it here. First, from the Attendance Manager, click the Export link. I prefer CSV format:

Export to CSV format
Export to CSV format

Next, open up the file in Microsoft Excel:

The raw export
The raw export

Every row in the spreadsheet is a student name and the student’s attendance entry on that day (assuming the student entered anything; if he didn’t, then there is no entry!). I’m not sure why the export is prepared in such a non-useful way (at least from the perspective of my use case, which I’m assuming is the most common use case). However, we can very quickly and easily create a PivotTable which displays the data in a far more pragmatic fashion. I’ll assume that you’re cool and are using the Mac. Click the Data tab in the ribbon, then click the arrow next to PivotTable, and select “Create Automatic PivotTable”:

Creating an automatic PivotTable
Creating an automatic PivotTable

Instantly, you’ll be presented with a great report that provides tallies of student attendance by day (in the screenshot below, I’ve hidden some rows and columns so that you can get a sense of the entire PivotTable):

The final PivotTable
The final PivotTable

There’s a column for every student, and the last row in the column shows the number of times a student was present in class. If I need to know the number of times a student was absent, I can get a count of the number of days where attendance was collected by counting the date rows in the first column, and finding the difference.


  1. There are some problems, of course. First, ANGEL doesn’t allow me to IP filter student PIN entries, like it does allow me to IP filter student assessment submissions. Second, students will forget to enter the PIN, which results in an e-mail to me and then me having to log into ANGEL and click a dozen or so links to manual edit the student’s attendance. Lastly, when there are days when I specifically don’t take attendance (like quiz days, where the quiz submission itself is proof of attendance), I still need to remember to go into the ANGEL Attendance Manager and set a default of “Excused” for every student, or else at the end of the semester students will think that ANGEL screwed up by not recording their attendance.

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