Finding a decent highly-portable travel laptop.

For about the last year I’ve been pondering a new laptop.  My old machine is still running quite nicely, despite it being nearly six years old.  It’s been upgraded significantly, but it is a massive block of computer compared to some of today’s options.  I’ve been attending a number of conferences and workshops involving air travel, and every ounce and square inch in my carry-on luggage makes a big difference.  The six-plus pound Toshiba was pushing the limits when cramming onto an Embraer RJ145 commuter jet.

I’m comfortable with  linux based operating systems, and by extension not too uncomfortable with the Mac’s Unix-based OSX operating system.  So when I saw a Macbook Air a few years ago, it seemed a very attractive option for travel.  However, when I specced out a decently powerful machine on Apple’s site, I always ended up somewhere between $1200 and $1700…far too much to make an impulse buy on this teacher’s salary.  I looked at the netbook options (dwindling from the marketplace, unfortunately) and low-end laptops, but it seemed that no one wanted to offer small highly-portable computers with good current processors and memory without charging an arm and a leg.  I asked around, looking for the “windows equivalent” of the Macbook Air at a sub-$1000 price.  I want small.  I want power.  I want memory.  I want inexpensive.  Nothing seemed to meet my desired specs.

Enter the Acer V5 171 series.

My new Acer laptop in a lab setting

The Acer V5 171 series is a very affordable (~$500) line of small notebooks with excellent modern processor and memory options. As shown, it is an i5-3337u with six gigs of ram for $499.

Riding the same chassis as Acer’s Chromebook offerings, this is a deceptively small machine considering the available horsepower under the hood.  I bought a mid-range model with an i5 processor, six gigs of ram, and a 500 gig 5400-rpm hard drive that sold directly from Acer for $499 (normally $579).  You can slash the price even further under $500 by opting for an i3 processor model, and for a bit more you can upgrade to an i7 model with eight gigs of ram.

Versus the Macbook Air, it is certainly a cheaper machine–by about $800 in a similar configuration.  The Macbook has advantages, such as a solid state hard drive (faster and more durable than the mechanical drive in the Acer) and a more sturdy metal chassis.  The Acer’s processor has the edge at a 1.8ghz i5-3337u vs. the Mac’s 1.3ghz i5.  The Acer also has more standard memory in the configuration I bought, 6Gb vs. 4Gb.

Either of these machines would have (in my possession) ended up with the Ubuntu linux operating system in a dual-boot configuration.  I looked at native Ubuntu laptops from System76 and ZaReason, but at the time I looked neither had a small 10″-12″ laptop at a comparable price.  If either of them had a ~12″ three-pound laptop for slightly less than the Acer Win8 machine, I would likely be typing on that now.

So far I’m quite happy with my choice.  Time will tell whether this little machine is durable and well built.

It was a little difficulty to get Windows8 and the UEFI to play nicely with Ubuntu, but a couple of hours of research online led me to working solutions.  I anticipate upgrading to a SSD in the reasonably near future, but for now I am enjoying the space available on the 500 gig drive.  There was plenty of room to shrink the Win8 partition to make space for Ubuntu.

In the next few months I’ll travel several times, and I anticipate this little laptop will be my primary computing companion.  Hopefully I’ll have good news to report on its quality and durability.

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Life Long Learning in Theory and Practice

Many people have an idyllic image of a teacher’s summer.  Long lazy days relaxing at the pool, cruising the countryside, or sipping Mai Tai’s on the beach.  Days on the golf course, the tennis court, or the track.  Nights on the town.

Many teachers do enjoy a few of those kinds of activities, but many of us also spend the summers working to improve ourselves in ways a bit different from a golf handicap or a bowling league average.  One of the things that I most look forward to in summers is exploring academics and hobbies that all too often go neglected during the school year.

For the first few years that I taught I turned my summers toward academics by necessity, as I was taking classes to earn my full teaching license and to work toward my master’s in education.  However, I wedged in a few things that were just for me.  A Physics Teacher Resource Agent workshop on light and optics in 2008.  A wonderful class called “How People Learn Science and Mathematics” taught by Paul Adams at Fort Hays State (online) in 2008.  A one-day workshop on technical writing in 2008.  A week-long Modeling Physics workshop at Emporia State in 2009.  The list goes on.

Sure, they’re all nominally “job related”, but they weren’t required, and I wasn’t taking them because I had to.  They were just for me.

And I sometimes do even crazier things.  The “How People Learn…” class at FHSU in 2008 required some small papers and then a substantial research paper at the end.  I decided to teach myself LaTeX, a computer type-setting language favoured by math and science writers, but infamous for its arcane commands and language.  I started using Zotero, a research note-taking and citation aide, and a utility called BibTeX to organize my citations into automatically generated bibliographies.  The combination worked out very well.

My research students are working on about a half dozen highly technical projects in my current summer job as a QuarkNet research teacher at the University of Kansas,   I’m making my way around each group, trying to learn the basics of each of their projects, even as I primarily work with the cosmic ray detector group.

My first acclimation to working with a group of high energy physicists was to dive into Linux with gusto.  I began dipping my toes into the Linux waters in the mid-1990s, but never made the full jump.  It is the operating system of choice in particle physics and in many other areas of science, math, and computer science.  I haven’t really used Microsoft Windows for a few weeks now.  My dual-boot laptop and desktop have been humming away in Ubuntu Linux and I feel like I’m ten times the Linux user now as I was in May.  I’ve even SSH‘ed into servers at KU through my Nexus 7 tablet (thanks to JuiceSSH).  That’s just…awesome.  To a seasoned Linux user that will seem lame…but from a relative novice’s point of view, it’s still cool.

I’ve also taken the opportunity to attend a number of lectures at KU on particle physics topics and scientific programming.  Most of these lectures are given live (and interactively) over web video conferencing, some have been from CERN, some from affiliated universities.  It’s been close to ten years since I was in my graduate physics classes, and I can tell my advanced math and physics needs some upkeep.  Thankfully I have an ample home library, including a great book by David Griffiths called Introduction to Elementary Particles.  It’s helping me keep up a little better.

Another one of our research groups at KU is working on custom antenna designs for use in detecting meteor showers with incidental radio reflections.  The research students are using a computational modeling program called 4NEC2 to design and evaluate their antenna designs.  While I’m not working directly with their research group on a daily basis, I want to learn along with them, so I taught myself how to use WINE to install and run 4NEC2 in Linux.  I’m continuing to learn how to use the program, both to help my research students and also to use in my own amateur radio operations.

As I write this I’m working through a classic Linux task, compiling a program from source code.  The program is ROOT, a data analysis program used by particle physics researchers, developed (as was the World Wide Web) at CERN.  I’ve hit a snag or two.  I’m going through reams of help files, MAN(ual) files, and google searches.  I’m about 90% of the way there…and when I get done, I will have two things.  A copy of ROOT working on my machine, and a new but well-developed beginner’s knowledge of compiling software in Linux,  and troubleshooting all of the surprises that come up along the way.

So what is it about learning that keeps me from spending my summers getting up late and playing video games all day?  There’s something of a triumph in each new skill learned, each topic mastered.  At the end of the day I can do more than I could the day before, or I know something I didn’t know, or understand something I didn’t before.  I’m ready to share more with people to help them grow and triumph.

While my contributions back to the KU QuarkNet program are modest so far, I did introduce many people in the department to the wonders of VPython, a great platform for making computational physics models.  So great, in fact, that it is something my Ottawa High school physics students genuinely enjoy working with.  Let me repeat that in another way:  my regular high school students, few of whom have ANY experience programming, actually ENJOY working in VPython, creating their own Python programs that simulate the physics they are learning about in class.  That’s so cool.

That’s so very cool, and I hope it’s something that helps them realize how rewarding it is to learn, and to keep learning.  Even when they don’t have to.

The Cosmic Ray Muon Detector project update

The research group I’m mainly involved with spent the first few days setting up and plateauing two QuarkNet cosmic ray muon detectors.  I am setting up and plateauing a third, which has been assigned to me to use with my classes at Ottawa High School.

The CRMD research team is working toward taking useful data with the CRMDs on any of a variety of topics such as directionality of cosmic ray muons, or effect of altitude and/or shielding (using Malott hall as the shield).  They are looking toward extending the research done by last summer’s CRMD research team on muon-triggered radio analysis of cosmic ray showers.

Adventures in Summer 2013

University of Kansas.  Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.  Fermilab.  A year ago, these were places I knew of…this summer, they’re places I’m very fortunate to be involved with.  As the summer continues, I’ll be posting updates on the Quarknet projects I’m helping to lead at KU, and my workshops at Fermilab, Princeton PPL, and Oak Ridge. 

Splitting classes based on math, reading, or other developmental indicators…

Yesterday I sent out a question to a number of listservs I am active on, each saying essentially the following:

Greetings all,

…(W)e are meeting with our administration tomorrow to discuss the topic of offering regular and advanced levels of sophomore (high school) physical science.

The other physics teacher and I have thought for years that we could target the classes to our student population better if we divided them into lower and higher math levels.  We spend an inordinate amount of time teaching remedial math (e.g., spending four to six weeks trying to teach the meaning of and how to find slope of a line) to the students with lower math levels, and find it very difficult to present the physics  material to classes that are so broad as to have students ranging from 3rd/4th grade math&reading to those  who are two or more years beyond their academic grade level.

We were told that we are switching to a sophomore physical science course, and we want to take the  opportunity to steer students into “Physical Science” and “Advanced Physical Science” based on some academic indicator (such as concurrent math class or specific class math grade).  There is opposition in our district to offering different sections of this course.

I have been running searches of The Physics Teacher and American Journal of Physics, hoping to find  research on grouping students by math and/or reading level.  So far I have not found any research one
way or the other…perhaps my search terms are not good. If you have ideas, would you please email me directly post below so that I see it immediately?  We are meeting on this topic tomorrow (Wednesday) and it’s imperative that we present our case as best we can.

I’m also more than happy to reverse what I am recommending if the research says that broad ability levels (2nd grade–college) are beneficial in the same physics/chemistry/physical science classroom.

I’ve been meaning to start a couple of blogs, one for my classes (day-to-day teaching, aimed at my students) and one for physics education (aimed at fellow teachers and at the physics education research community).  This seems like as good a time as any, and I should be able to reach, read, and respond on this blog even from computers at work.

What say you, blog-o-sphere?  Should we be pushing to differentiate students into two class levels, or is it better to keep them in one heterogeneous group?

All the good physics blog names are taken…

I’ve been threatening to begin a professional physics teaching blog for some time now, something where I can post bigger things than the 140 characters I can post on my twitter account.

I’m in my sixth year of teaching high school physics, and I have taught students from freshmen through seniors in two levels of physics and some other courses.  I am implementing modeling physics and standards based grading in my classroom, both of which I consider to be transformative to my teaching.

I hope to focus my thoughts on teaching, learning, and educational issues through blogging.  The hectic pace of an academic year often leaves too little room for reflection and contemplation, so I am creating a forum where I can post my observations, thoughts, and ideas, and discuss them with colleagues and others.

I have gained so much from reading and participating in other educational blogs that I hope that I can contribute something back to the community.