Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Quality Wasted Time

When I first started this blog, its mandate was to talk about engineering-lifestyle things, like freaking out about midterms and being jealous of MIT. I've strayed a bit from that ideal over the years, but I'd like to get back to it now with a discussion about the quintessential student pastime of wasting time on the internet.

Now, since you're reading my blog, I'm going to take it for granted that you already appreciate the benefits of spending time on online activities that are not, strictly speaking, useful. With that in mind, we can skip the moral questioning and get straight to the fun stuff: did you know you can download parts of Wikipedia as books?

It's true. I'm not referring to WikiBooks either, which are notoriously incomplete and haphazardly edited, but actual PDFs/ODT files/ZIM files/physical books made from the content of Wikipedia itself.

This might not sound like that much of a time waster, because navigating Wikipedia the conventional way is probably even more of a time waster due to all the link-hopping. Reading a book of encyclopedia articles could also be considered a constructive use of time. To both of these objections I present: this six hundred page book of chess variants. Clearly this is a waste of time and something I would never have wasted time on before it became possible to load onto an e-reader.

So you now have a couple thousand new books to read (starting, perhaps, with Philosophy of Science, Neuroscience, LGBT themes in science fiction, fantasy and horror, Consciousness, Complex Dynamics, or University Genetics). Interestingly, Creationism and Intelligent Design is one of the larger books, probably because the arguments, lawsuits, and politics involved are distressingly entertaining.

Moving along, I've also taken to wasting a fair amount of time on the Khan Academy site. Again, studying mathematics through a tutoring site (an incredibly good tutoring site with video tutorials from one instructor spanning topics from basic addition to vector calculus) might seem like a benign time waster, but I assure you it is quite possible to spend far too long there.

For one thing, the Khan Academy has discovered that the future is games and uses a gaming-inspired reward system to motivate students to study more. This only affects people who log into the site (with a Google or Facebook account) but should you be so unwise as to do so, you'll suddenly have the option to gain lots of points by watching video lectures and answering simple interactive math tests. Since the tests are aimed more at the elementary level than the university level, it is quite possible to gain ludicrous amounts of utterly meaningless points in the span of a few hours if you're willing to answer lots of arithmetic questions. I don't personally recommend doing this but, having done it, I have a renewed appreciation for not having to manually multiply dozens of three-digit number pairs together for homework anymore.

Seriously though, Khan Academy has a lot of good stuff for anyone who wants to learn stuff (mostly math, but there's a couple biology, chemistry, and history videos available for good measure). It's a similar type of time waster as watching lots of TED talks and you can even combine the two by watching a TED talk about Khan Academy.

In other news, I have a free unlimited internet connection and am really good at arithmetic again for no apparent reason.

In actual other news: brains, concepts, plasticity, self-organizing, going to CogSci 2011 woohoo, Shad BrainLab, iGEM, software, interfaces, coding Saturday, going to be awesome, can't say much about any of these things, but they're all awesome.