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December 31, 2005

A bad reflection

(I’m still mining this recent email exchange.)

There’s more to the problems with the internet than can be solved by replacing the technology. The trouble is that the problems aren’t technical; it’s that we’re trying to create a new mode of communication which eliminates problems we’ve covered with fragile hacks in the non-internet space. We haven’t solved these problems efficiently in real life; why do we think we’ll do better on the internet?

The following paragraphs probably should be subject to normal disclaimers regarding me sounding off on a subject in which I have no formal background, and in which specialists exist who might demolish most of my claims.

Security issues, particularly surrounding fraud (the most popular form of internet crime, barring perhaps extortion and/or the violation of various local blue laws,) are largely issues of identity and trust in the real world, because they’re about being accountable (or avoiding accountability.) Think about the mechanisms we have for proving our identities in the physical world. They’re largely biometric: height, hair color, eye color. Shape of face, fingerprint, retinal scan, dental records. DNA. Fine: we can establish individuals that way. Generally we do it in a very sloppy way: we introduce each other. We use driver’s licenses or passports with photos to “prove” that the name we introduce ourselves with loosely matches the biometric data we possess. Then we deliberately cripple or restrict the effectiveness of these tokens, because they’re government-issued and we don’t really trust the government. Or, we trust other individuals who introduce us to each other to do that introducing accurately.

If I’ve characterized that properly, identity (and accountability) in the physical world is based on trust and very loose pattern matching.

The “loose pattern matching” is a tough thing to do online, largely because the biometric data involved is either unavailable (got a fingerprint-reader to get access to your laptop yet? How about a retinal scanner to buy from Amazon?) or subject to distortion (it should be possible to put up a sock-puppet face on a webcam with existing video software, though it might not be possible yet to generate full-motion on the fly. Maybe with specialized hardware.) So we rely on trust: we generate cryptographically strong digital “signatures” which stand in for the biometric data, and use those to establish our identities.

Now, the mere existence of a digital signature isn’t enough. (It’s enough for encryption, but not enough to establish identity.) No, we need to have someone sign the public keys to verify that they belong to who they say they belong to - PGP created the strange social phenomenon of “key-signing parties” where people show up with others who will verify their identities, or paperwork, and sign each others’ keys, and trust that degrees of separation and chains of trust—Thawte calls it a “web of trust“—will mean that all keys will be trustworthy. Have you ever asked to see the ID of someone who was just introduced to you? That would be the act of a true paranoiac in the offline world, yet we do it all the time online.

In other words, online, we go back to our existing real-life methods, the fuzzy and imperfect ones.

This is a common problem with some phishing and all pharming scams: they take advantage of the server-certificate method of running encrypted websites. People assume that a secure website is a secure website when they see the padlock on their browser, and they don’t think about the identity-confirming aspect of the certificate. It matters that https://www.paypal.com is not https://www.paypal.scams.com. And even that identity function is based on trust.

The point is that the mechanisms we have for identity and accountability in the physical world are fallible, and in translation to the internet they become either unfeasible (biometrics) or so complicated only hardcore crypto-heads or paranoiacs like myself use them (trust). There are a lot of very smart people who have done a lot of involved thinking about trust and how to create it in an online environment; unfortunately, none of them have made it into software my mother can install and understand.

And I think it’s unreasonable to blame problems on the internet when we’ve “solved” them so poorly elsewhere.

Now Playing: Deep End from School Of Fish by School Of Fish

Posted by pjm at 11:18 AM | Comments (0)

December 30, 2005

Snow hunting

With highs in the 40s for the past few days and green grass on the park across the street, of course I’m thinking about cross-country skiing! Except that my favorite, Notchview is now an excessively long drive for an hour or two of skiing. So I’m doing some research on where to go around here.

A few years ago, A and I read Bill McKibben’s book Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, in which he sets out to spend a year training hard for ski racing. Not long into the book, a familiar theme of athletic-training stories cropped up: training conditions are less than optimal. Runners’ books tend to be litanies of injuries kept at bay during heroic racing seasons; McKibben’s could have been subtitled “The Quest For Snow” if it hadn’t been for other family issues which came up in the course of the year. McKibben’s choice of coach also intrigued me: Ray Browning, co-author of Serious Training for Endurance Athletes.

Anyway, in snowless winter, McKibben sometimes mentions the Weston Ski Track, a 2K loop in the Boston suburbs where a small team of dedicated maniacs with snowmakers maintain a 2K loop throughout the winter. From their website:

Our snowmaking and grooming expertise means that under almost any circumstances you can cross-country ski on our trails. … Even though your backyard is green, our teaching area has plenty of snow.

He made it sound roughly as attractive as a twenty-miler on an indoor track, but looking at the site now, they seem to have quite a bit of trail out there—even if they’ve only got 1K open right now. I’ll have to swing out and check it out sometime soon. All the other interesting places seem to be in New Hampshire: next on my list is Windblown.

Now Playing: 0408 from El Momento Descuidado by The Church

Posted by pjm at 10:12 PM | Comments (1)

Broken at the endpoints

The other week, I was involved in a small email discussion regarding an article in the Technology Review titled, “The Internet Is Broken.” It’s the cover story of TR’s December/January issue, so I’m a little confused about why, so far, there are only six people who’ve bookmarked it in del.icio.us, two of them being myself and the person who originally sent me the link looking for an opinion.

It took me a little while to read through, but I finished unconvinced of the central premise of the article: “The Net’s basic flaws cost firms billions, impede innovation, and threaten national security. It’s time for a clean-slate approach.” The arguments presented in the article failed to support that idea. The argument seemed to be, “Now the internet has grown so large, there are all kinds of people abusing it with spam, spyware, phishing and pharming, and oh, by the way, DNS is vulnerable to cyber-terrorism.”

I agree with bits of it. The protocols we use for email are built in a way that makes it very difficult to prevent spam. DNS, the system we use to translate domain names into numerical addresses, depends on a small set of “root servers” which, if cracked, crashed, or DDOSed, could cripple large sections of the ‘net.

Where I disagree is that these are problems with the core protocols of the internet. Vint Cerf makes this point later in the article:

“I’m not happy with the current state of affairs. I’m not happy with spam; I’m not happy with the amount of vulnerability to various forms of attack,” says Vinton Cerf, one of the inventors of the Internet’s basic protocols, who recently joined Google with a job title created just for him: chief Internet evangelist. “I do want to distinguish that the primary vectors causing a lot of trouble are penetrating holes in operating systems. It’s more like the operating systems don’t protect themselves very well. An argument could be made, ‘Why does the network have to do that?’”

This is the issue: the internet is a low-level protocol. It doesn’t know what’s in the packets, and it works because it doesn’t know what’s in the packets. We undo the packets at the end-points, and that’s where the trouble begins. The problem is not with the internet so much as it is with us not realizing what we need to handle at the end-points. (Or, as one commenter on the original article suggested, the problem isn’t the internet; the problem is Windows. But that’s only about 75% true. OK, 90%.)

Put another way, the internet is a “stack” of protocols. Things like email, IM, and the Web are pretty high on the protocol stack; the only nodes on the ‘net which get that high are end-points. The intermediate nodes all work much lower on the stack. Changing that requires much smarter (and consequently slower) nodes out in the middle of the network.

This is, however, just the introduction to how I started thinking about this. More tomorrow.

Now Playing: Ignition from Between 10th And 11th by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 8:06 PM | Comments (0)

December 29, 2005


There’s water dripping from the top of our living-room window frame. I’ve removed the shade, which the water was running over, put towels and pots under the window to catch the water, and phoned the landlord (due here in a few hours.)

I also took the daring step of going out on the roof in front of my office to see if there was an obvious problem with the gutters which would be causing a leak. Answer: no, but maybe I don’t know what to look for (i.e. the problem is non-obvious.)

It’s not a gusher, but I’ve soaked one towel already (it’s in the dryer, getting ready for another shift.) Not a great sign.

Update: 12/30: the weather cleared up, so there’s no new water coming in. The landlord came and was as mystified as we were. The wall above the window is dry, and there’s no obvious damage to the exterior of the house. Supposedly there’s someone coming to check it out next week; in the meantime, we’ve got some 2-mil poly sheeting tacked under the window frame to funnel any future water into a pan on the floor.

Now Playing: Subterranean from Songs From The Other Side by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 12:24 PM | Comments (3)

December 28, 2005

In which I equate electronic-hobbyist supplies with linens

This gift required a speakerectomy this evening, an operation which involved the removal of twelve small screws, cutting one wire, then replacing the twelve screws in reverse order. I learned these things:

  • Small Philips-head screwdrivers stink. Flat-head screwdrivers are much less prone to stripping the cheap screws used in cheap electronics.
  • Of course you can’t just unplug it.
  • It’s easier to cut a wire when you know you have a spool of solder around to re-attach it if necessary.

Solder to a geek is like a towel to a hitchiker. If you’ve got it, even if you never use it, you become more confident in your ability with small wires. One of these days I’ll fix that box of nifty pedals dating back to my guitar-playing days… it might be nice to have my Fuzz Face back.

Now Playing: Dance Along The Edge from Concrete Blonde by Concrete Blonde

Posted by pjm at 10:26 PM | Comments (3)

December 27, 2005

Tough questions

The hardest question I’m asked about graduate school comes in a few forms. “What degree are you going for?” is one; another is, “How long until you finish?”

The most truthful answer I have is along the lines of, “Ask me again in eighteen months.”

My school is more honest than most about the ambitions of its graduate students. In order to start the Ph.D. program, we’re required to finish the M.S. first. I know this doesn’t sound any different from most Ph.D. programs; the difference is that there isn’t much distinction made between those of us in the “Ph.D. track” and those who aren’t. Aside from some suggestions about whether we do a “project” or a “thesis” in the final semesters of the M.S., the biggest difference is in the paperwork required to advance into the Ph.D. program.

I like this, because my own ideas about where to stop change roughly once a day. (There are plenty of days when I don’t think about it at all; I change my mind more often on the other days in order to keep the average up.)

What’s pretty obvious, though, is what they want me to do. Most of the people I talk to in the department are either in the Ph.D. program already (students,) or went through it already (faculty.) Of course I should go the whole way, they say. I haven’t been so rude as to ask why I should, because I don’t think they would have a good answer; for the most part, I think they’re more in favor of the idea of me as a student than thinking about me on the job market with a Ph.D.

The open question is research. Will I like it? Will I be good at it? If the answer is “yes,” then I’m in for five years and the full boat, because that’s what the Ph.D. is all about: proving I can do research, so someone will pay me to do it. If the answer is “no,” I stop with the M.S. and find someone who will pay me to develop and/or run nifty systems.

And until I’ve done most of the coursework for the M.S., I won’t be seeing much research, let alone figuring out whether I like it enough to make it a career. So… ask me again in eighteen months or so.

Now Playing: It’s Good To Be King from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

Posted by pjm at 10:18 PM | Comments (0)

Special day (twice)

Today would have been my grandmother’s ninety-ninth birthday, by this morning’s math.

It’s also the third anniversary of the day we brought Iz home from the Dakin. He was a four-month kitten who had only just arrived at the shelter; I doubt he spent more than one night there before we scooped him up. They took him out of the quarantine cage (he hadn’t had his vet exam yet,) and handed him to me, and he purred, at which point we were pretty much sold.

It’s hard to believe it has only been three years (and three apartments, unfortunately;) I can barely remember when he wasn’t buzzing in my ear for breakfast.

He loved the wide windowsills in our Northampton apartment, and while we lived there he spent hours camped out behind the curtains, watching the parking lot. Now, he’s sacked out on the couch as though it’s just like any other day.

Window kitty

Posted by pjm at 12:34 PM | Comments (1)

December 24, 2005

Solutions for future dilemmas

The solution to the gift dilemma turned out to be the gift shop at the Eric Carle museum.

Now Playing: Knights In Shining Karma from Apple Venus Volume 1 by XTC

Posted by pjm at 4:02 PM | Comments (0)

December 23, 2005

You can(n't) go back

Yesterday afternoon I went back to my old workplace. I managed to leave a framed poster in my office on my last day in August (oops,) and this was the first time I’d been back in Amherst when I could reasonably expect the office to be open (that is, weekdays.)

It’s a different place, of course; they lost their receptionist this fall, as well, and there are new people in the building. It’s slower to change than many places its size, though, because it’s a good place to work so people don’t generally want to leave. I collected the poster and stood in my successor, N’s, office door for an hour or so, distracting everyone walking by and answering the same questions. Yes, it was a lot of work. Yes, I miss being here (in the sense that I miss being able to shut off the office lights at 5 and leave the work behind.) Yes, school is the right place for me now.

One of the things that was brought home to me was how important it actually was for me to leave. Not that I was doing a bad job, but because I had stopped coming up with good solutions to the existing problems. It was gratifying to talk with N for a while and hear what he had planned for replacing the geriatric office server, among other things, and upgrading the web server I built. (I just deleted the phrase, “my web server.”)

He has some creative solutions happening, with a mix of rebuilt machines and new hardware, doing interesting stuff with a minimum of waste and expense. As I was leaving, I thought it was good that he took over, because he was getting things done where I was stagnating. It’s as though I needed to leave just so they could have someone new in the job.

It’s funny, but I have a way of picking good employers to be from.

Posted by pjm at 4:26 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2005

Gift dilemma

I may have mentioned that I have these nieces.

As you can imagine, this is a big time of year in the Uncleing calendar, though I am given to understand that an even bolder typeface reigns in the Grandparenting calendar. I find myself right now with two University t-shirts with which the girls can trumpet (ahem sorry, can’t help myself) their association with this stellar and exclusive institution of higher learning. (When I am done, four of their relatives will have degrees from this university, tying the number with paper from their father’s alma mater; one of their great-aunts, who counts on both sides, gets the deciding vote.)

Anyway, this is all well and good, but I now have two competing ideas. First, I’m not sure I want to be just a “clothes uncle,” particularly when I was the one who first found what they really want. Second, I am remembering the size of the haul last year, and I’m wondering if they actually remember who gave them what—that is to say, am I worried about nothing?

And yes, I saw the research on Barbie torture.

Posted by pjm at 8:02 PM | Comments (1)

Quality control

Any complaints of perforated wrapping paper should be reported to my assistant.

Posted by pjm at 4:00 PM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2005

More about women in CS

It looks like my post last week about Maria Klawe’s talk about women in computer science got some attention. In addition to a greater-than-usual comment volume, the post was excerpted in a Computerworld Blogwatch post yesterday, with the kind comment, “A really interesting read—if you click through to just one item today, make it this one.” Given that the bulk of the post came from Dr. Klawe, not myself, I won’t let it go to my head. In light of some of the comments I’ve had, as well as the extended comment posted at Thus Spake Zuska, I think I need to address some of the other issues raised. Since this will probably get long, I’ll continue in an extended entry.

Before I get too far, though,to the hundred or so people visiting for the first time from Computerworld’s IT Blogwatch, welcome! I’d like to say that I’m always as interesting, but this is the personal weblog of a CS graduate student and occasional freelance sportswriter, so it’s not quite as reliable as reading a magazine. Feel free to check out my feeds if you’re interested, though.

Continue reading "More about women in CS"

Posted by pjm at 3:18 PM | Comments (4)

Concentrating elsewhere

I’m doing a lot more writing in my new, other weblog right now.

Before you feel left out, however, I should point out two details: first, it’s all about installing Sakai and blojsom (and eventually, I hope, making them work together.) Second, it’s installed and running on my laptop, which means it’s pretty much unavailable anywhere else.

Now Playing: Hold Her Down from Fear by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 10:53 AM | Comments (0)

December 19, 2005

Email I just sent to the MBTA

Some names and locations have been obscured in a futile attempt to limit the amount of personal information about me available to anyone who knows how to use a search box.

From: [me]
Subject: MBTA Bus Route 101
Date: December 19, 2005 7:02:54 PM EST
To: lwebster@mbta.com

This afternoon, [A] and I set out for Northeastern University. We live on [a street] in Medford, so we walked down to the bus stop at the end of our street, at [specific location], intending to catch a [route number] bus to the Sullivan Square Orange Line station.

According to mbta.com, that bus route passes [intermediate landmark] at 1:23 PM, and again at 1:53 PM, on its way to Sullivan Square. Not wanting to miss a bus running early, we made a point of getting to the stop at 1:23. There were three others waiting at the stop, so we knew we hadn’t just missed a bus.

So we waited. And waited. And waited. By 1:40, we knew the 1:23 bus just wasn’t coming. By 2:00, we’d pretty much given up on the 1:53 bus as well, and we were cold and miserable standing on a breezy street corner waiting for a bus which never came. We gave up, walked back home, and drove our car to Wellington Station, where we paid to park and caught an Orange Line train.

Now, today wasn’t a particularly cold day, as New England winters go. The sun was even out. I shudder to think what it would be like to wait at that stop on a below-zero day, or one of those wonderful days when it’s around 35 degrees and raining.

I recognize that bus shelters are expensive, and that it’s difficult to keep busses on a schedule. However, if there was some predictability to the busses, at least people could minimize the amount of time they spend waiting out of shelter.

Furthermore, even if the busses were off schedule, if they ran at the scheduled frequency, at least your customers could be assured of not waiting any longer than (in this case) half an hour, at worst. Instead, it appears that the bus which was supposed to be at [intermediate landmark] at 1:23 PM wasn’t running at all.

We will be filing On-Time Service Guarantee reply cards as described in your Customer’s Bill of Rights. But far more than a free fare, we’d rather have bus service we can count on to be there when it’s supposed to.

Thank you for your concern,


Sure, 1:30 in the afternoon isn’t exactly rush hour. But you can’t just not run a bus because there aren’t going to be enough people to make it worth it—you said it would be there, and if there’s one person out there counting on that bus showing up, it should show up. That’s what it means to offer a service.

Update, 20 December: We got an apology from the T:

“I apologize about the poor service. There is no excuse for this. An operator called in sick and we were unable to cover the work. The normal follower on that trip was late as a result of the overflow of passengers. We currently have 27 new hires in training and expect to see service improve as a result. I encourage you to seek reimbursement as it is your right and I hope you continue to ride with us in the future. I think you will see a improvement in service. Again, I apologize for the poor service and I hope to serve you better going forward.”

That’s nice of them.

Now Playing: Up All Night (Frankie Miller Goes To Hollywood) from Hard Candy by Counting Crows

Posted by pjm at 7:20 PM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2005

I can't hold out against JSP any longer

In my first web-geek job, I had a really bad experience with Java on the web. Specifically, I wound up trying to run a site with a message board package which depended on what was, at the time, a profoundly awful Java web server. (It was gruesomely slow and crashed at an alarming rate.) I was left with the impression that Java was too slow, too unstable, and too complicated for the web. (Applets included, and I actually still hold that opinion.)

In my next job, I liked working with LAMP, which was powerful enough for what I needed to do, easy to install on my server, and thanks to a few lucky guesses when I built the server, pretty darn snappy. I got pretty comfortable with that. Meanwhile, the enterprise web application world, still infatuated with the “Java” buzzword, was playing around with a few packages I knew only by name: Tomcat, JSP, and Maven, just to name a few. Tomcat, as it happens, is the stable model for mediating between Java applications and the web. JSP… well, JSP goes “inside” Tomcat. Maven calls itself a “project management and comprehension tool,” which I find a bit whimsical.

And there are now some pretty powerful applications built on Tomcat and the associated Java technologies, particularly that Sakai package I’ve mentioned. I’ve reached the point where I really need to figure out what’s going on in here—not least because I need to learn more about what’s going on inside Sakai, whether we can improve it (MPOW is moderately interested in making contributions to the Sakai code-base, and significantly interested in being able to bend our own installation to our wishes,) and whether I can integrate other tools (specifically, blojsom, the only weblog engine I’ve found in Java. Which you’d think would tell you something about Java and the web, but never mind. It is, after all, shipping with OS X Server.)

I’m still not convinced that writing web apps in Java is a good idea in general, but the fact is, I need to know how it’s done. So I’ve spent some time installing Tomcat here on my Powerbook. Sakai and blojsom come next.

Now Playing: Clean Up Kid from Songs From The Other Side by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 10:29 PM | Comments (1)

December 17, 2005

Long since expired

Everybody has something they check—the way someone holds a spoon, the rings on their fingers. I check online order forms. Specifically, I check the form where the customer is expected to fill in the expiration date of their credit card.

There, did you notice it too? The one which would let you fill in a date in 2003? Oops, someone hard-coded the years into the order form. This is not a forward-thinking webmonkey.

After once re-hard-coding an order form at my old job for a newer set of years, I changed our code such that it automatically provides the current year plus the next ten as options. It’s not hard:

<select name="year">
$this_year = date("Y");
for ($i=0; $i<10; $i++) {
echo "<option>";
echo $this_year + $i;
echo "</option>\r";

Go forth and write similar code in whatever other template system the Man is forcing you to use…

Now Playing: Forever from Us And Us Only by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 11:28 AM | Comments (1)

December 16, 2005

It's over

I just finished my last final. The semester is done. I’d like to thank my cat, my laptop, my girlfriend, and several pounds of jellybeans.

Posted by pjm at 1:08 PM | Comments (2)

Isn't there a rule about volunteering

Yesterday, someone from MPOW asked about weblogs. “Does anyone know anything about weblog software? Tell [another student].”

I spooled off a list of weblog packages and websites into an email, and sent it to this student and my supervisor. The response was something like, “Oh, [pjm], this is great! Why don’t you take this project!”

Now I’m installing blog software. Does anyone know anything about integrating blogs and Sakai? I’m thinking of starting with Wordpress and Textpattern.

Once I finish this last final, of course.

Now Playing: Minnesoter from Come Down by The Dandy Warhols

Posted by pjm at 11:09 AM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2005

Bikes in wintertime

A few days ago, when we got the Ugly Storm, I mentioned bicycling through the winter. It’s not really something I’ve done before, so I don’t feel like I can be an authority on it, but so far this semester I’ve only driven to campus three times (making that $200 commuter parking pass really expensive,) and I feel like I could make it through the year yet. That said, I think the Scoplaw has always been more at one with his ride than I have and could speak more helpfully if he wasn’t in the midst of writing exams, and what got me looking stuff up was this recent post on Bostonist.

The Ugly Storm switched to rain for a few hours around noon before going back to snow. As a result, there was a lot of wet snow that got packed down hard and never scraped up by the plows. Over the warmer days since then, they haven’t softened, but they have re-frozen. On any less-travelled street, which includes nearly any street I ride on my way to campus, there are big islands of lumpy white ice which aren’t going anywhere until, I expect, March, unless someone does some hard-core salt-and-pickaxe work.

So one aspect of winter riding, which I met on my way over to the lab this afternoon, are these navigation hazards. They’re fine if you go straight across and don’t shift balance, but I tried making a corner over by the Sci-Tech building and wound up dumping the bike in the middle of the street. I’m happy, now, that I didn’t swap my knobby tires for slicks when the bike was new, though I might want some once these pavement-hard death-traps have melted.

The other obvious part is drivers. The roads are narrower now, so I’m more likely to be riding out in the road. That’s another caution-and-lights issue. (You do have a blinking taillight and bright headlight, right?)

Less obvious is storage. I can stow my bike in the basement at home, but my problem during last week’s storm was locking it up on campus. I usually use the racks, but yesterday I talked to one of the department staff and found out that if there was actually snow or freezing rain coming down, I could lock it to a staircase out by the building extension, which would keep the lock from freezing up (and the bike from sitting too long and freezing up, like it did last week.)

The catch is this: according to Massbike, a bike kept inside rusts faster than an outdoor bike. I’m not really sure why this is, but I suppose oxidation, like most chemical reactions, would happen more slowly at low temperatures. And when there’s slush and other salty mess on the road, there’s a lot of gunk getting kicked up into the chain and gears. (You’ll notice that it’s getting kicked up onto you, as well, but you’re easier to clean off, and you don’t oxidize.)

So the Winter Cycling pages suggest fenders. I’ve seen bikes with fenders before, but it wasn’t until I saw that suggestion that I realized how useful they’d be in winter. Front fenders, in particular, could keep a lot of gunk out of the chain ring.

Beyond that, regular wipe-downs of the bike and keeping the chain well-lubed seem to be the way to go. I have some chain grease, but I need to spend some more time with my bicycle maintenance handbook figuring out how to use it effectively. I think I essentially killed my last bike by not taking better care of it; it would be nice if this one lasted longer.

Now Playing: Reincarnation Song from Dulcinea by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 6:19 PM | Comments (0)

Maria Klawe: Why do so few women major in computer science?

This is a really long post, because I got a lot of notes from Monday’s colloquium. The title was “Gender, Lies, and Video Games: The Truth about Females and Computing,” and proposed to discuss

…how girls and women differ from boys and men in their uses of and attitudes towards computers and computing. From playing computer games to pursuing computing careers, the participation of females tends to be very low compared to that of males. Why is this?

I’ve known one or two women in CS, but the gender balance issue wasn’t a big one for me until this semester. After all, what could I do about it? I happen to be in a department with roughly equal numbers of men and women as faculty and graduate students, which seems to be an anomaly in the field.

Then, a few weeks ago during registration for the spring semester, one of the (relatively few) women in Comp 11 asked me if she should register for the next course in the series. Of course, I said, if she likes what she’s doing in Comp 11, she should take Comp 15. Then she floored me with the next question:

“How many courses will I have to take before I catch up with all these boys who already know everything?”


Continue reading "Maria Klawe: Why do so few women major in computer science?"

Posted by pjm at 10:58 AM | Comments (6)

December 13, 2005

A load set down

Algorithms is over, and I survived.

I still have an Operating Systems exam on Friday, and I will be studying for that over the next two days. I will also be doing normal-person things, like sleeping and buying groceries. And I will catch up on a few posts I have in the queue, including Audrey’s request for bike-winterization notes, a long post about Maria Klawe’s talk yesterday, and maybe some discussion of what my experience this semester showed me and where I’m going from here. Maybe.

Maybe I’ll find a place that sells decent beer, instead. Or exercise, or something.

Now Playing: You Don’t Know from Monday Morning Cold by Erin McKeown

Posted by pjm at 4:23 PM | Comments (0)

December 11, 2005

I have become an undergraduate

My nieces are in their sleeping bags on my bed, because it has the door that closes and they don’t like the idea of having Iz wake them up at 5 AM expecting breakfast.

My brother is, I think, on the couch, but I can’t tell if I’m hearing him playing with the cat or if it’s the springs in the sofa-bed squeaking.

I am upstairs in my office, having decided this morning that I will be better able to code the Algorithms programming project in Java rather than C. (So far, I am right: it still doesn’t do anything useful, but at least I have some feedback from Eclipse that what I have written so far should compile.) If I sleep, it will be in the guest room, which adjoins the office.

I am promised that the girls are capable of eating their weight in pancakes, and I intend to test this empirically in a few hours.

Despite the past nine years of conditioning myself to wake up before 8:30 or so, I have reverted to my undergraduate schedule, which was, roughly:

  • Work (for some approximations of “work”) until approximately 1 AM.
  • Sleep until the last possible moment allowing a shower and arrival at the dining hall before breakfast closed. This time varied by dorm, but in my senior year, when I lived next door, it was almost 9 AM.

I could make it to work in Pennsylvania if I was out of bed by 8 and ran at lunch, but once I moved back to Amherst I had to be up around 6 every morning in order to run before work. I got on a 6-to-10 schedule which worked pretty well for me. Until now.

The problem is, I have conditioned A. to running in the morning, and Iz to being fed at 6 AM (or, as he prefers to interpret it, “half an hour before dawn cracks.”) Therefore, it’s a bit harder to work like an undergrad than it used to be.

However, I seem to do my best work between 11 PM and 1 AM.

Now Playing: The Wee Hours Review from by Roman Candle

Posted by pjm at 12:59 AM | Comments (1)

December 9, 2005

We were always out shovelling

We did not, in the end, get an inordinate amount of snow today. However, the hour or so in the middle when it shifted to rain, then back to snow, means there’s an inch-thick substrate of slush underneath, and all the streets are glazed with a packed and frozen layer the plows just can’t scrape up.

In other words, this weather is why God made knobby tires for bikes.

However, I need to look in to some form of indoor storage for days when it’s actually coming down; spending five minutes blowing on the lock to thaw it enough to insert the key isn’t my idea of time well spent, right now. I think I also need to look in to winterizing my ride a little better.

Now Playing: Rain King from August & Everything After by Counting Crows

Posted by pjm at 8:35 PM | Comments (2)

December 8, 2005

Not the longer post I had planned

I have a programming project due at midnight this day, but I think it’s worth making time for this:

Gender, Lies, and Video Games: The Truth about Females and Computing

Maria Klawe
Princeton University

This talk explores how girls and women differ from boys and men in their uses of and attitudes towards computers and computing. From playing computer games to pursuing computing careers, the participation of females tends to be very low compared to that of males. Why is this? Opinions range from girls wanting to avoid the math and/or the geek image of programming to girls having better things to do with their lives. We discuss research findings on this issue, as well as strategies to increase the participation of females in computing.

Posted by pjm at 5:59 PM | Comments (1)

December 7, 2005

One down

I’m about an hour removed from the end of one of my three classes. We submitted the last of our five projects last night, and since each one built progressively on the last (we developed crude games in Java,) we demoed them today in class.

I volunteered to start, because, I explained, I was insecure about mine and I wanted to show it before anyone could compare it with anything other than their own. I ran through it, realized I was rambling, cut it short and sat down.

Then I was both reassured and impressed by what my classmates had done. Reassured because I had imagined everyone else was doing really intricate programming, when in fact I’d been just as involved, maybe more, as anyone. The visual appearances ranged widely—one guy had rewritten his for Java3D after we’d covered it in class, and others hadn’t gone far beyond squares and circles—but I was really impressed by the range of game play, considering that we’d all been working from the same assignments. I wouldn’t claim any of them are about to take the world by storm, but one woman actually had a format I’d never seen before and can’t actually describe; you’d have to see it.

Now, that’s done: on to the Algorithms final, tomorrow at noon. High noon. Cue the showdown music.

Now Playing: This House Is Not For Sale from Love Is Hell by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 8:48 PM | Comments (0)

Strong feelings

We had a colloquium on Monday featuring a talk from a Yale professor. The topic was relatively interesting, though I probably looked disinterested since I was so exhausted I was ready to nod off in the middle.

The curious part, however, was that rather than the ubiquitous Powerpoint slides, she had hand-drawn transparencies. At this two-day remove, I’m probably not word-perfect on this quote, but she explained it like this: “I don’t think it’s possible to do really good computer science unless you hate computers.”

We must have looked puzzled, because her expansion of that comment was, “You really need to use them a lot to get to hate them.”

I guess that’s a different kind of passion?

Now Playing: From The Skyline Of A Great Big Town from Kids in Philly by Marah

Posted by pjm at 1:40 PM | Comments (0)

December 6, 2005


Maybe I should’ve guessed something was up when I saw that the swim coach had his parka on. Turns out there was an issue with the heaters. Not for the pool water, but for the airspace. The pool, as it turned out, was just fine as usual, particularly as we got warmed up.

He seems to have nothing more to add for my freestyle form, but that just establishes that there’s not much more wrong—not that there’s nothing I could make better. I’m thinking about my turns more, as well, which means I’m blowing them as often as I’m getting them right.

I know I’ve promised some longer posts, but I’m jammed with deadlines.

Now Playing: She’s So High from Leisure [US] by Blur

Posted by pjm at 3:09 PM | Comments (0)

December 4, 2005

High bandwidth

I talked with the guy who set up the wireless at the meet. He happened by while I was working on the laptop and asked how it was working for me. I mentioned that I’d had no trouble joining the network, but a little trouble getting outside it yesterday.

“Well,” he admitted, “That may have been because we were listening to the streaming audio from the UNH football game.”

Posted by pjm at 6:13 PM | Comments (0)

The frustrating part is that I know I could do better

My events for today were very early in the meet, so even though we’re only about halfway through the day, I’m already done.

I took full advantage of the sprint lanes this morning, doing eight or ten starts off the blocks while they were open, then moving to the warm-up pool when they closed the competition pool to start racing. I had more good starts (functional goggles) than bad, so I was relatively confident. I also was borrowing a cap from my brother, with the idea that having it on over the goggles might help keep them attached.

Continue reading "The frustrating part is that I know I could do better"

Posted by pjm at 12:24 PM | Comments (0)

December 3, 2005

Disaster management in the pool

It’s been a few hours since my only race today; I have two tomorrow. The wireless connection is sketchy but mostly usable.

We got here in time to check in, but without a whole lot of time to warm up in the competition pool; they were setting up sprint lanes (where you can practice a block start, then get out at the other end of the lane,) as we checked in. After changing, I did a few laps in another lane before moving to a sprint lane to try my first block starts since New Englands in April. They didn’t go very well—in the first two, my goggles wound up around my nose, and on the third, they stayed on but filled with water. Then we were whistled out for the start of racing. I wasn’t terribly confident about my start.

I mentioned this to my brother. “All you need to do is get in the water,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be perfect.” In other words, do what you can to protect the goggle seal.

Continue reading "Disaster management in the pool"

Posted by pjm at 3:07 PM | Comments (2)

Colonies Zone Short Course Meters championship

Good grief, there are a lot of people at this meet. I suppose because it’s the whole Zone (Virginia and north) and not just New England, but we’ve got the Wheaton pool jammed full. It’s incredible.

Among others, I ran in to a high school cross-country teammate. He was one of those who struggled through cross-country season, then (being built like Gumby) was a really good swimmer, particularly in backstroke. He’s just come back to swimming in the last year, after burning out in college, and seemed really pleased to see me—specifically mentioning how much he liked watching “us” (me and the other front-runners) running. It was quite a lift.

Wireless is sketchy but usable. Full report on my race is on the way. They have a video camera on the pool, hooked to a Tivo on the deck running about twenty minutes delayed, so you can go over and watch your race when you’re done; as a result, some of the report is based on what I saw and was aware of during the race, and some of it I learned later.

Posted by pjm at 2:38 PM | Comments (0)

December 1, 2005

The light of the oncoming train

We’ve reached that stage in the semester where there is a pretty clear accounting of what must be covered in class (not much) and what work must be done (quite a lot) before it is Over. My list is long, but seems manageable; I have two sit-down exams and two projects between three classes, plus a last homework assignment in one of them.

The professors of both sit-down exams have pulled variants on the give-us-more-rope theme; one has given us half the questions for the exam in advance, to prepare at home, (because then he can give us a four-hour exam in a two-hour time slot,) and the other is allowing us to bring “a single sheet of paper” to the final. The composition of this single sheet of paper, of course, will become such an obsession to most students that they will, in fact, study fairly well by composing it. I’m not sure it will work for me; what I put on the sheet will probably end up not helping me much.

I have at least two lengthy posts turning over in my mind, one on women in CS (no deep thoughts, just some observations from what appears to be an anomalous department,) and one about the first arguments in the which-degree-do-I-stop-with case. (I have eighteen months to worry about it.)

Posted by pjm at 10:50 PM | Comments (0)

Weird spam comments

I think someone’s trying to flood MT-Blacklist with junk. I’ve had, now, two different spam comments on old entries without real URLs, just (apparently) random seven-letter domains with (apparently) random subdomains and a dot-com on the end. Both messages contained mostly garbage text, with junk names and email addresses, then three domains: one in the link field of the submission, and after the garbage text in the body, an HTML line break followed by <a href="http://junk_url_2">link</a> http://junk_url_3.

I have to assume this is just some kind of crap-flood. I’m deleting the comments, but not reporting the URLs or putting them in the blacklist. Maybe it’s time I upgraded to MT 3.2? (Or switched to something else?)

Posted by pjm at 1:47 PM | Comments (1)