21 October 2013

Don't Text and Drive

There are certain classic physics labs. The ruler-reaction time lab is one of those. It is simple, requires little equipment, but gives students something they can relate to. 

Good Artists (Teachers) Borrow, Great Artists (Teachers) Steal

 A while ago, I saw on my Twitter feed a picture from a teacher who does a variation of this lab (I didn't save that tweet, so I can't properly credit that teacher). It showed students with a cell phone in one hand and their other hand waiting for the drop. So I modified that lab for my students. They went through 5 trials to get a reaction time with no distractions. Now comes time for the distraction.

I can use a cell phone in class?

While I had my guys, working in teams of three with one being tested and one dropping the ruler and one receiving the text message from the testee, using cell phones, I realize now that any active distraction will do. I could even have them using calculators. What matters is that the brain is trying to actively focus on two things at once. I could have the third team member ask the testee to use a calculator to calculate something "What is 5+7-5* I meant 23+3.....".

The results were as expected; the average distracted reaction time is more than the undistracted reaction time. And most students will see their distracted times more deviated than the undistracted times. The lesson here is that while you might get away once or twice with texting while driving, you cannot always count on a good reaction time.

06 October 2013

Why I still use WinPlot

Why I still use WinPlot (even on my MacBook)

WinPlot has been a major tool for me for more than 15 years. When I want to add a graph or a set of axes to a test or homework it is my go-to app. It has the perfect combination of ease of use and lots of features. I have written a couple of posts on WinPlot before (here and here). However, when my school changed the teacher laptops to MacBooks, I couldn't take the program with me.

My requirements for a replacement are basic. I want to make graphs of functions (sometimes piece-wise), change the scales on both axes independently, and label the axes with appropriate units. An example is below. I knocked this one off in about 10 minutes for my AP class. I wanted to give them some idealized elevator acceleration data they could practice with so that they might be able to do something with the messy data they got. Note the labels for the y-axis and the x-axis.

I have looked for such a program for my MacBook, but have not found one as flexible. The app Grapher that comes with OS X does not have all the flexibility needed. I even looked at using gnuplot, which I consider the Ferrari of plotting programs. However, since I would be using it only sporadically, I need a GUI to help me navigate all the available options. Haven't found one that works on Macs.

Bottle that Vintage

My OS of choice at home is Linux. And so I am familiar with the Wine project. It allows one to run many Windows programs in Linux. And since the latest Apple OS's are based on Linux, there is hope. I could have delved in the back room of the Terminal application, but I came across something better.

Wine Bottler is a program that takes a Windows program and makes a Mac app for you. You can then run them just like any Mac app (with some limitations). It was easy to make a WinPlot app that runs just fine on my MacBook. I can run it just like I did a few years ago. But there is a price. While I could just copy-paste the graphs between programs in Windows, I can't do so with the Wine-Bottled versions. I just have to save the graph as a graphic file and then import that file into the document I am creating.

Another price is that the apps made by Wine Bottler are bigger than the native version and you have to have the X11 app installed. But if you have a favorite Windows program and want to find a way to run it in OS X without installing Parallels, you might want to check out Wine Bottler.