Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Science Books

The last 10 days have been very busy, with trips to Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. The time in planes and airports gave me an opportunity to complete the 'History' book, "Wild Swans" as well as a thick book of poetry, "The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova".

I ventured into one bookstore and had a wonderful time purchasing the following books:

Snowball Earth (2003) by Gabrielle Walker. This is the story of a new interpretation of geologic history to show that 700 million years ago the earth was completely frozen over, becoming a giant snowball. Fascinating! I can hardly wait to read it.

The Book Nobody Read (2004) by Owen Gingerich. The title is a delight and the book traces the history of Copernicus'book "De revolutionibus" which first outlined the idea that the sun, not the earth was the center of the universe.

The Labyrinth of Time: Introducing the Universe (2005) by Michael Lockwood. Time is a topic that has always fascinated me. I tend to buy most books that discuss this elusive concept.

On the Shoulders of Giants (2002) by Stephen Hawking. I noticed this book when it was first published and then noticed that it has been republished as a series of five smaller books, each one focusing on one of the major sections of the original book. The book is a compendium of the writings of five famous scientists: Copernicus (note the overlap with the second book in my list), Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein. The price for the softcover version of the original book is substantially less than the cost of the five separate books.

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman. (2005) by Michelle Feynman. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the books about Feynman and am ever hopful of reading his famous 3-volume set "Lecture Notes of Physics" which is still a classic, 40 years after its original publication. For those new to Feynman, I suggest the biography "Genius" by James Gleick. My general plan is to first renew my understanding of calculus and to then tackle both the Feynman "Lecture Notes" as well as Roger Penrose's "The Road to Reality".

Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics (2005) by Paul Ormerod. This looks like a gem, with potential implications for education, particularly universities.

Stalking the Riemann Hypothesis (2005) by Dan Rockman. This is the second book I have purchased on this conjecture which is becoming a hot topic, perhaps because the idea involves the easily understood concept of prime numbers, and perhaps because there is a reward of a million dollars for the person or persons who successfully prove or disprove this 150 year old hypothesis. This is a branch of mathematics that may, or may not, involve the ideas of calculus, and as such is a topic I can play with while simultaneously playing with calculus.

My plate is full, and the excitement is palatable. Learning is never dull.

Friday, June 17, 2005


Learning has many facets, more than a diamond.

Yesterday the university library set up a trial period for the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. I had been discussing the software package Grokker with a colleague earlier in the day and decided to see what the OED had for the word grok. Perfect. The first use of the word was in the science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which I read forty years ago, and which I still remember. I have just realized that my primary Learning goal is to grok calculus.

I then tried looking up google in the OED. I was surprised that it was not there. There was reference to an arcane cricket term, but nothing on the search engine or using it.

Now to close the circle by looking up calculus. This is getting scary. The first use of the word calculus, meaning computation or calculation, in English was in 1684 by a person by the name of Burnet. The modern meaning as a branch of mathematics was first noted in 1702 when Ralphson published a mathematical dictionary and compared Newton's fluxion's with Leibnitz's differential calculus.

One, me in particular, should look up at least one word in the OED every day. I am optimistic that the library will decide to obtain a regular subscription that would give all students and faculty online access.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Time Management continued

Since I have a fairly flexible approach to scheduling my Learning activities, I have created the following table to permit monitoring of my progress:

This requires that I, more or less,
(1) keep track of how much time I spend on a particular activity during the day, and
(2) remember to update the table.

This whole process raises at least two points:
(1) the table provides an overall form of feedback information enabling me to make adjustments to my time commitments throughout the week, and
(2) is this more time consuming and trouble than it is worth?

The latter question must be answered by the individual. I like the feedback at the moment, but may find it tedious after awhile. It does give me a way of not straying too far from my original intention at the start of the week, but it might be possible to accomplish the same aim with some simple mental discipline.

As an aside, you can see that I am beginning to renew my mathematics activities. I now have the Michael Spivak book, "Calculus. third edition", have completed studying the first chapter, and am thoroughly enjoying it. I will add some additional information in a future post on how I create my e-notes for this activity.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Straight Lines versus Random Walks

Self-directed Learning always involves a tension between focusing in on a topic and selecting a different topic. There has been a general sense during the last century to favor a specialist approach, exemplified by the saying "Jack of all trades and master of none." My preference has been more eclectic, as one can see from the books I wish to read at the moment (see previous post).

I finished reading "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" last night and this morning I went to the amazon.com web site to see what else I could find on T. E. Lawrence. This quickly moved to a more general search for books on a history of the middle east. Should I buy a biography of T. E. Lawrence, or one on the Ottoman empire, or one on Islam, or one on the overall history of the middle east? Or none of the above? The goal yesterday was to complete Lawrence's book and then move on to a couple of books on China. I know of no formula for making such decisions.

The hour just spent viewing descriptions, excerpts and reviews of a variety of books is itself a valuable activity, one that has only become possible in the last decade with the creation and evolution of the web (thank you Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau).

While there is a strong feeling of leaving unfinished business, I have decided to move to the two books on China by Jung Chang. Yesterday I commented that books like "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and "Wild Swans", while clearly non-fiction, could easily be considered novels. However in organizing some the piles of books in my office this morning I noticed a book I purchased in the Calgary airport while waiting for our connecting flight to Lethbridge. This was after about 26 hours in planes and airports so it is no wonder that I forgot that I had bought it. The book, "The Master" by Colm Toibin was a 2004 Man Booker Prize finalist. It is a novel about the life of the writer Henry James.

To summarize: I now have two history books on my list of readings (the two books by Chang) and have a novel that I want to begin, which falls under the category of Literature. I hope to begin both "Wild Swans" and "The Master" today.

Returning for a (brief) moment to the phrase "Jack of all trades and master of none", I tried googling this phrase and found a number of fascinating web sites. Here is the first one, on instructional design: http://www.gdrc.org/info-design/jackofalltrades.html

Monday, June 13, 2005

Time Management

I spent a full hour earlier this morning (while waiting for my car to have regular maintenance) making a few notes about studying, with particular reference to mathematics as I am interested in bringing my understanding of calculus up to a fairly high standard.

The question of motivation does not arise in my case as I am definitely interested in this venture. I find mathematics intrinsically interesting and fun.

The primary issue for me is one of time management. I have set up a criterion of 10 hours/week for activities related to the Learning of calculus. Much less than this is equivalent to 0 hours/week. However I am not yet prepared to identify a specific time period during the week as I find that level of precision to be counter-productive. It is enough to monitor my time and simply make sure that there is no slippage of commitment.

Within the ten hours/week I hope to distribute my time across three types of activities:
1) making notes (sometimes on paper and sometimes electronically)
2) completing exercises
3) reflection comments.

However I have two other commitments for time that are directly related to Learning. One is about History where I have identified 3 books that I wish to read:
1) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
2) Wild Swans by Jung Chang
3) Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang & Jon Halliday.

The other is on the topic of personal journals where I wish to read:
1) John Fowles: The Journals volume 1
2) Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection
3) Some of the Dharma by Jack Kerouac
4) The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (2 vols.)

A cursory glance indicates 8 additional non-fiction books beyond what I am reading for mathematics.

Finally, I like to have one novel on the go at any one time. Since my classification system is quite elastic, I include "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" as well as "Wild Swans" as falling under this category. This has the advantage of not adding to my total.

Let's tie up the arithmetic and verify that I have a do-able agenda.
1) Mathematics (10 hours/week)
2) History (6 hours/week)
3) Notebooks (5 hours/week)
Total time reserved for Learning: 21 hours/week (average 3 hours/day). This is a substantive commitment, perhaps unrealistic, but worth a try.

I will put mathematics on hold until the Spivak book arrives. History and Notebooks are the foci of the moment.

Saturday, June 11, 2005


I like books.

At the moment I am reading "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia - a great movie starring Peter O'Toole). I have been aware of this book for almost as long as I can remember but I was never in a position to match my interest with the actual opportunity to purchase it until a couple of weeks ago while browsing a bookstore in Sydney NSW as we were waiting to return home from a four-month stay in Australia. While noticing a recent biography of Mao Tse-tung in the section on new books (which I had seen mentioned in a Canberra paper a few days earlier in an article on the author, Jung Chang - who also wrote Wild Swans, and which I had bought the previous day) I happened to see the Lawrence book right beside it (someone had placed it there after having second thoughts about buying it). I seized the moment and am glad I did.

If you can follow the convoluted prose in the previous paragraph you may realize that I now have three books to read:

  • Wild Swans
  • Mao: The Unknown Story
  • Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The first two promise to provide a rich tapestry of detail about Chinese history while the latter gives a first-person account of the war in the middle east as part of World War I. I do not consider myself knowledgeable on either topic.

However this morning, after reading a few chapters from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I was glancing at a book by Michael Spivak called Calculus, published in 1967. I have ordered the most recent edition of this book and am expecting it to arrive next week. In the meantime I had borrowed the first edition from the University library. At one point in a discussion of the properties of numbers Spivak mentions a reference. I turn to the references section and notice the following quotation at the preface to the suggested references:

A man ought to read
just as inclination leads him;
for what he reads as a task
will do him little good.
Samuel Johnson

Friday, June 10, 2005


Excitement this morning. A couple of days ago I faxed an order for a calculus textbook, but then last night I noticed that the Web page that I used for the invoice had last been updated in 2002. I sent them an email asking if the order would still be filled and I have just received word that my order has been shipped.

I am still amazed at the high level of communication that is possible via the Web. I obtained the order form by printing a Web page and could have placed the order via the Web as well, but there was a message indicating that the process was not electronically secure so I opted for fax for that step. Later this morning I will check my charge card status via the Web to see if I have been debited the correct amount.

I am also using VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) to talk to colleagues in Australia for free (legally!). And I am using this Blog to share these thoughts with others.

I received an Honors B. Sc. degree from the University of Alberta in 1965 in Mathematics but have not used that knowledge in any specific way since then. Needless to say my calculus knowledge is a bit fuzzy. I have begun reviving my interest in the topic, which I once found fascinating (!), and have a purchased a variety of books on the subject in the last 6 months. I have used the Web extensively to find reviews and comments on calculus books, primarily using Google and amazon.com. I have then placed orders to both amazon.ca and chapters.ca. At the same time I have browsed a number of bookstores and bought a few books that looked interesting.

As indicated in the title for this blog, note that this is all initiated by myself, with the motivation being simply interest in the topic. Learning can be fun. Particularly when one is in the driver's seat.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

posting images

This morning I Learned how to post images to this blog. The initial goal was to have a small thumbnail of myself appear in my profile. The first effort placed it on the blog as a new post. I then Learned how to delete this post. I then realized that the profile image required a link to the image on a web server. Each day brings something new.

At the moment I am Learning more about how to use the Blogger software than using the software to Learn about something else (i.e. sharing some thoughts about Learning using the Web). This makes perfect sense to me. Each time one discovers a new tool, there is a step backwards as one becomes familiar with it before one can apply it to a useful purpose. Mechanics have over a hundred different tools, which they use with their hands. How many tools should one have that can be used by one's mind? For example, my favorite tools are Dreamweaver, Inspiration, MindGenius, cmap, Excel, Mathematica, AceFTP, Picasa and ZoomBrowser.

I forgot to mention pen and paper!

A couple of days ago I added Blogger and this morning I added Hello (which allows me to easily place images on this blog). Some people find the Learning associated with technology to be overwhelming, but I find it exciting. Life is not meant to be boring.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

novice difficulties

I am aiming for fairly regular posts. But as I tried to make my second post I realized that I had not made a note of my username and password for this activity. Fortunately the system is Dale-proof and my email address was sufficient to obtain this information. So I am back in business.

The title of this blog (my first) has three key words. Each captures an important role. Of the three, Learning holds center stage. On the right is Self-directed, and on the left is the Web. The spotlight is on Learning. An interest is this topic drives my other professional interests. The emphasis on self-directed helps set the scene as I am primarily interested in Learning that is initiated by the learner. There are at least two senses in which this is important. One, all Learning might be said to have this dimension as an individual who is genuinely not interested in Learning is unlikely to experience much in the way of Learning. Two, my interest is more in Learning that is genuinely initiated by the individual than in an educational process that has been formalized. Much (most?) learning occurs outside of schools and universities. It occurs when one is alone, it occurs when one is on the job, it occurs when one is socializing and it occurs when one is playing. Finally, there is the Web. Although technology has a subservient role, it is still a major player. The Web may be a youngster on the stage but the role is becoming increasing important as the play develops.

The above metaphor may be a bit strained, but it is a beginning. Comments are welcome.

Monday, June 06, 2005

First Message

This is primarily a test to verify that I know how to post messages successfully. There is little point in continuing these activities until I am confident they are appearing here rather than on the far side of Pluto, which is where my trashed files end up.