July 14, 2014

Ancient Nubia

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The last online course completed in my recent burst of MOOC study was Ancient Nubia by Emory University on Coursera. Ancient history courses are dominated by Mediterranean cultures (at least the ones presented in the English language). Ancient Greece and Rome are well represented in online courses and podcasts. Thus opportunities to study other ancient civilisations must be seized on the rare occasions they arise.

Nubia is the region immediately south of the Nile’s first cataract, and stretching down past the sixth cataract. In modern geography this is the area between Egypt south of Aswan, and Sudan north of Khartoum. Civilisation arose here soon after ancient Egypt, and there was extensive interaction between the two. Trade had definitely commenced by the time of the Old Kingdom (as there are texts describing the commerce); Pharaoh’s during the Middle Kingdom conquered various parts of Nubia; and, in the New Kingdom, Nubian kings returned the favour conquering Egypt in 760BC and forming the 25th Dynasty – a period known as the reign of the Black Pharaohs. Nubia was also influenced by (and influenced) societies in central Africa and in it’s later years by Axum.

Archaeologically, Nubia has received a great deal less attention than it’s famous northern neighbour. However, when Egypt decided to build the Aswan Dam it became clear that many Nubian ruins would disappear under the resulting lake. Numerous studies were undertaken before the flooding, and since the Nubians sometimes built in stone and had a written language, a great deal can be determined about them.

This 8 week course is presented by Dr Peter Lacovara and covers the history of Nubia from prehistorical beginnings until its decline around the 3rd century AD. The course progresses chronologically and is largely focussed on major events and archaeological artefacts. Each week consists of around 30 minutes of video and a multiple choice test. There is no exam. There is however a class participation requirement. Posting in the forums every week on a set question is worth 5% of the overall course mark. This forced participation may work well in small classes, but in an online class of several hundred it just resulted in a great deal of what essentially became little more than “me too” posts. The first few had interesting information, but they soon decayed into a waste of space. I avoided this part of the course.

The video lectures are mostly the presenter sitting down and talking to the camera. Occasionally there are interviews, slides or short documentary extracts. The lecturer seemed uncomfortable talking to the camera, but was fine in interviews. Production quality is consistently high.

A worthwhile, but basic, course on Nubia.


July 2, 2014

Swan Gallery

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Radio became very important to me while doing postgraduate research in the mid-90’s. I didn’t have a TV, so the radio became my main source of entertainment and news (the Internet not being as all encompassing as now). The local university radio station, RTRFM, was a favourite and I would routinely listen to the excellent Strictly Rhythm show on Saturday nights with Ben Stinga. He introduced me to Detroit Techno, Chicago House and related styles. It was the only place I knew to hear such music, and the Usenet news groups were the only place to find people discussing similar music.

One day there was a message on the newsgroup from someone else in Perth! Even better was his invitation for anyone in Perth to a DJ set he was performing. My only contact with other locals was that radio show – I wasn’t even aware there was a local scene. So I sent the guy an email. He wrote back, just as amazed as me there was someone else so nearby online, and gave me the details.

He was performing at a party in the Swan Art Gallery on Hay Street. I hadn’t heard of it before, but that wasn’t surprising. I knew Hay Street though, one of the main thoroughfares in the city centre, it contained many shops and what passed as boutiques in Perth. Based on my knowledge of art galleries, Hay Street and his 10pm starting time, I quickly built an impression of what to expect.

I imagined an opening exhibition at a hip gallery. Polished jarrah floorboards, modern art. The cool crowd sipping champagne and cocktails while saying things like “Yes, this is a slammin’ Millsian beat.” I dressed appropriately – dress shoes, nice trousers and collared shirt.

My first inkling of trouble began as I walked down Hay Street. I started in the centre of town and just kept walking. I soon passed out of the business district into the area between the city and West Perth. I had never been there before. Nowhere in Perth is dangerous, but this part of town was definitely rundown. I later discovered the whole area had been marked for demolition and redevelopment. Thus it provided cheap space for artist’s studios. The Swan Art Gallery was actually an old warehouse used as an art collective by a bunch of struggling artists – part studio, part squat. At least until it fell down, probably quite soon judging by the look of it. Everyone was dressed in a grungy style. The event was the birthday party of one of the artists.

I had come this far, so attempted to enter and was immediately stopped. “Who are you? How do you know Beth?”. A couple of unfriendly people were guarding the door. Perhaps they thought I was undercover police – at the time they had a hilarious reputation for dressing inappropriately. I said I didn’t know the birthday girl, but was invited by the DJ. They checked and let me in. I clearly stood out and apart. The DJ was asked how he knew me and he replied I was just some geek off the Internet. His group of friends didn’t want to talk to me. When I tried to start a conversation with his girlfriend, she walked away saying she had lost her drugs and needed to find them (I later saw her crawling around on the dirty floor, so maybe it was true).

I just found myself a nice spot with good acoustics and listened to the music. The guy who invited me had passable DJ skills, but he played good music – lots of old techno classics I had never heard before. He played for just over an hour before the “proper DJ” took over with a happy hardcore set. I left.

Not a very impressive entrance to the local scene. For some time, the experience stopped me going to other events promoted by Ben Stinga on his radio show. Eventually I did start going to some of his club nights and discovered very little overlap between the art studio crowd and the welcoming people meeting through the Strictly Rhythm radio show. But that is a whole different set of memories (and one for later).


June 24, 2014

ANU-ASTRO1x Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe

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For my second course on EdX, I took ANU-ASTRO1x Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe from ANU. A nine week introduction to modern astronomy taught through the lens of 9 “mysteries”, or open problems in astronomy research (as opposed to the more traditional syllabus of Duke’s introductory course).

Each week consists of a set of video lectures totaling around an hour, interspersed with multichoice mini-tests. These mini-tests are part of the assessment, but are very easy and can be attempted as many times as desired (guaranteeing a perfect score). There is also a weekly test containing both multichoice and mathematical questions. While mathmatical confidence is required, the maths used in both lectures and tests is not particularly advanced, and never gets beyond the high-school level. For comparison, it is easier than the Duke course. The course is taught by Paul Francis and Nobel Prize winner (for work on the accelerating universe) Brian Schmidt. Both are good speakers in a well-produced series, using a format of almost conversational back-and-forth lectures with pictures and notes appearing projected behind them.

The final exam is based upon a “mystery universe”. Each week a bit more is revealed about an alternative universe with slightly different physical properties compared to our own. Students can ask for specific data (as if they were well connected astronomers in this other universe) and it may be provided in the information presented the subsequent week. This is a brilliant teaching idea, but I can only imagine the work that must have been required to create it. There was lively discussion in the forums each week on how the universe worked, even I had a quick go at analysing some of the data. Apart from the interest and intrigue generated by trying to solve a puzzle, the major benefit of this is that the maths couldn’t be double-checked by researching currently known information. In the Duke course, with it’s hard problems, I often found myself on Wikipedia checking if my results were approximately realistic. Here I had to rely on myself to check everything made sense.

The course starts with the expanding universe and the big bang, before moving onto dark energy, black holes, quasars, gamma-ray bursts and dark matter. None of which are completely understood. The course ends with a look at solar system formation and the prospect of life outside Earth. Both areas are very active research areas as old theories buckle with new exoplanet discoveries.

This is a very good introductory course in astronomy. I wish I did this course before the Duke course. Furthermore, it is actually the the first course in a series of four (the next on exoplanets is starting today). So I’m looking forward to learning more.


June 10, 2014

Cryptography I

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Cryptography is a very important part of the modern world, especially for anyone active on the Internet. For some time, I have wanted to do a course on the maths behind modern cryptography. So I promptly signed up after discovering Stanford’s Cryptography I on Coursera.

This 6 week course is the first half of a larger course comprising a complete introduction to the subject (Cryptography II runs separately). The course consists of 12 well produced, information-packed lectures presented at a rate of 2/week by the lecturer Dan Boneh as a series of slideshows with annotations added as the narration progresses. The lectures run for around an hour and a half each, so that is 3 hours/week just for the lessons – if you only need to watch them once! There are also 2 assignments per week: a standard Coursera multiple choice quiz; and, an optional programming assignment (although distinctions are only available for those that do both). The course notes suggest 5-7 hours are required per week to complete the course, but I never took less than 10 hours/week (normally just over that figure), although that includes time on the programming assignments.

The course is heavily maths based. It starts with an introduction to discrete probability, before going through various encryption systems. Block ciphers (like AES), message integrity (using system like CBC_MAC), authenticated encryption (eg. TLS), basic key exchange (RSA) before an introduction to computational number theory and public key encryption. All the maths content required for understanding course is presented during the course, but students still need to be very comfortable with maths as it forms the basis of every lecture. I found this course hard, I had to watch many lectures twice, and the assignments took me some time to get right. Unlike other courses, it did not get easier as it progressed – the difficulty level remained constant.

This is one for those with a theoretical interest in cryptography as the practical side can be summed up as “use a modern industry standard encryption system, never write your own!” A challenging, but interesting course.


June 1, 2014

Too Many Game Reviews

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So many games. Between bundles, sales and miscellaneous sources, I seem to have accumulated quite a pile. A quick calculation suggests I have only played 10% of the games I own. Some I have peversely avoided playing due to the time they take to play, assuming they are any good. Thus various well reviewed strategy games and rpgs sit unloved in my library. Meanwhile, I have played a few shorter titles recently, and here are some equally short reviews.

When starting to play games again, at first I finished all of them. Now I am a bit more selective. A game has about an hour to impress me to play on. Most games don’t reach this level and are quickly deleted. Then another filter occurs a few hours in. Often I just drift away from a game when it becomes too hard or I lose interest. Then there are the few games I play to completion. Take that into account when reading the reviews.

Hotline Miami

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