More Immigration News

And just after writing the post below, I discovered that a US immigration application (one of several applications needed to get a green card) got approved after 14 months. Hooray for immigration services on tax day!

UPDATE: I just wanted to add a note of thanks to the immigration staff at Cornell, who have been unbelievably helpful through all of these applications, even as I’m somewhat less closely tied to Cornell than I was when I filed the relevant applications. To make this a little topical, if there are any grad students out there today trying to decide which grad school to go to, and are worried about the prospects of dealing with U.S. immigration, Cornell students at least are in good hands.

Australia Australia Australia

I’ve been buried recently under (amongst other things) a mountain of immigration paperwork. So it was with some trepidation that I realised that my Australian passport was about to expire and I needed a new one. It wasn’t exactly reassuring to think I’d be dealing with another immigration and citizenship agency, and potentially would be without my passport for a while as the new passport was produced.

Anyway, when I dropped my passport off at the New York Consulate last Friday afternoon, I was worrying that I’d have another long wait until the relevant paperwork was completed and I had a new passport. But yesterday afternoon I got an email saying the new passport was printed (in Washington) and today I got a call saying it is ready to collect in New York. Excellent levels of efficiency Australian consular services!

Why I Hate Sakai

I’ve had to use the Sakai course management software this term, and it’s really the worst software I’ve had the misfortune of using in a long long time. If anyone out there has the choice between using it and using a commercial product like Blackboard, I strongly recommend the commercial product.

I’m usually quite happy about using open source products. (This post is being composed in Firefox, for instance.) But Sakai is way from being ready for critical usage.

There are two really big flaws that have caused it to be an unremitting nightmare to use all semester.

First, the software is too stupid to handle having multiple tabs open on the same login. So for instance just this morning, I was trying to write an assignment in one tab, while having older assignments open in another tab so I could compare what I was doing with what I had already done. When I went to save the new assignment, the software thought for some reason I was trying to edit the old assignment, and, I guess in a fit of confusion, completely lost the assignment I had written. I guess I’ll just have to rewrite the whole thing – perhaps this time in TextEdit so I can save it before having to deal with the monstrosity of Sakai’s data saving.

This also comes up when entering grades. The server I’ve been using is painfully slow, which might not be the fault of the software. (Though the server runs a lot of other software at much higher speeds.) So it can be a long and painful process entering grades, since this requires opening a new page for each student, entering a number, and then going to a new page that registers that the number has been saved. In Blackboard this process can be speeded considerably by opening the pages for different students in different tabs, and while some pages are loading, entering grades in other tabs. (Or you could, if you were more confident in getting this right, enter the grades in Excel and try to manage the grade import functions. But that’s always seemed like a very hit and miss approach to me.) Sakai can’t handle this because if you open multiple tabs, then do anything in any one of those tabs, it will take the inputs as an attempt to modify the last opened tab. This led to worlds of confusion before I figured out what was happening. And it led to some painful times waiting for pages to open so I could enter grades one by waiting around one.

Second, there are very few capacities for error correction. The main reason I wanted to use course management software was so I could give the students small quizzes on the reading before each class. But in Sakai there is no way, once a quiz is posted, to change it. So sometimes I’ll write questions that are ambiguous or confusing, and one of the students who is first to take the quiz will ask about this. Even if I wanted to, there is no way to change the quiz, short of deleting it and posting a new quiz. (Which would then delete the fact that some people have taken the quiz.)

This is perhaps carelessness on my part, but there are quite a few things that need to be changed from the default settings every time you run a quiz, and which if you forget to change before posting can’t be changed after. For example, questions in a quiz by default are worth 0 points, which isn’t maximally helpful. On a couple of occasions I failed to change the default value before releasing the quiz to students. There’s nothing much, it turns out, you can do about this once it has been released. Perhaps a better user than me wouldn’t have made such a mistake, but it’s really quite annoying that the software doesn’t have the capacity to let you fix mistakes like this.

There are other serious bugs too. Once you post a quiz, there are two different points on the site where it purports to let you change various settings, such as due dates. But only at one of these points will changing the settings make a difference to changing what the students see. At the other point you can make changes, hit save, and if you go back to the same spot it will look like it has saved the changed settings, but this won’t affect what the students see.

Perhaps Sakai will one day be better than its commercial rivals, as Firefox is better than IE. But that day hasn’t yet come, and it’s hard to see it coming in the near future.

Cornell Meta-Ethics Workshop

As part of an ongoing series of workshops on issues to do with philosophy of language (broadly construed), the Cornell philosophy department is running a workshop on evaluative and expressive language. The workshop will be on April 26, from 1-6pm, in room B21, Lincoln Hall. (That’s the building next to Goldwin Smith Hall, where the department is.

The speakers are Chris Potts (UMass-Amherst), Mark Richard (Tufts) and Jamie Dreier (Brown), with commentary from Cornellians Sally McConnell-Ginet, Andrew Alwood and Brent Kyle. It should be a fun day, and quite informative if past workshops are anything to go by. If you want to attend, contact Matti Eklund (me72 at cornell dot edu) for more details.

Blackboard Tiles

This stuff is great. I’ve been teaching a slightly-harder-than-usual logic course this semester and I really wanted a blackboard for my office, for practicing proofs on.

One of those things that I think good logic students quickly realise is that it’s one thing to be able to follow a proof in class, and quite another to be able to reproduce it yourself in homework or on a test. Well one of the things that I’ve learned from teaching logic is that it is one thing thing to be able to scribble a proof out on a notepad, and another to be able to present clearly on a blackboard during a lecture.

Why? Well, it has something to do with the fact that one’s notepad is uebersichtlich – scrawling out some complicated instance of an axiom isn’t that hard if the axiom is at the top of your page, but it can be a bit harder when that axiom is 2 blackboards back, or on the other side of the room. (My logic classroom has 6 huge boards that scroll past each other – I rather like that, but it can make it easy to loose the first part of a proof.) So I think that for me to write a proof on the board requires that I know more of the proof off by heart than when I’m just writing it on paper. Second, of course, there’s just more pressure when 30, or 60, eyes are on you, all waiting to be reminded what the induction hypothesis 2 boards ago actually was. And third, when I’m putting a proof on the board I’m often talking at the same time. And as teachers everywhere know, talking goes faster than writing, so you’re basically running two trains of thought at once anyway.

So I’d been yearning for a blackboard in my office, and then I found this stuff. . It consists of flexible blackboard tiles that stick to your wall (they’re removable and re-positionable- they come off my white-painted wall easily, without leaving a mark, and stick right back on, and, surprisingly, it’s really easy to write on them with chalk and clean them off. (I imagine if your wall is a different colour from your chalk you’ll end up with a chalk-coloured “halo” around the board though.) They’re a bit smaller than they look in the photo – each tile is about the size of a US letter sheet of paper – and I ended up buying 2 packs of 4. Also, I think the tiles are a little prone to getting scratched by the chalk – I can imagine having to buy some more after a couple of years or so. But they look great on my wall and they do the job (every Tuesday and Thursday morning before my logic lecture…)

Some links

Robbie Williams has moved Theories n Things to a new WordPressy home.

As he notes there, Fafblog has, it seems, for now, returned.

Dialectica is having a special issue on vectors, a topic on which a few Rutgers people have been making interesting contributions recently. (For example, in this book. By the way, there’s an interesting surprise if you click through that link.)

Paul Bloom and Joshua Knobe diavlog over innateness and norms, another topic of much interest around Rutgers.