Thursday, October 28, 2004

A tale of two school districts: Part One

As you may note from my biographical information, I'm on sabbatical for the 2004-05 academic year at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Part of the logistical complexity of relocating was taking care of my daughters' schooling. Rather than go into all of the details, I thought I'd do a (probably inadequate) comparison of the two public school districts involved --- the one outside of Seattle we came from and the one here in Gainesville. I'm dividing this article into two parts: the first presents statistical and financial information and the second outlines my family's subjective experiences.

The Communities

Our "home" school district is the Northshore School District, located in the Seattle suburban cities of Bothell, Kenmore, and Woodinville (just across Lake Washington from Seattle), with a total population of around 60,000, according to my sum of the profiles from the 2000 census. Including unincorporated areas, the total population is around 112,000, according to the District's web site. These cities could probably be described as "moderately well off suburbs", with a mixture of housing ranging from trailer parks to $500,000 dollar or more homes. This is in contrast to the more wealthy suburbs of Bellevue, Medina, Mercer Island, etc., with ample $1 million plus homes (and their own school districts).

Our adopted school district is Alachua County. This includes all of Gainesville (a city of around 100,000), plus surrounding suburbs (for a total county population of around 215,000).

The Northshore area is significantly more well-off than Alachua county. Comparing the abovementioned census data with information from the city of Gainesville, Alachua county had a 2000 median household income of $27,600, while Bothell, Kenmore, and Woodinville had median household incomes of $59,264, $61,756, and $68,114, respectively. The statewide comparisons are not quite so dramatic, with Florida 2002 median household income of $38,934 and Washington 2002 median household income of $46,863, according to the US Census (as an aside, that Census web page clearly shows the inflation-adjusted decrease in median US incomes over the 2000-2002 time period).

The Districts

Alachua county is a larger school district, with 28,492 students to Northshore's 19,300 (both numbers for the 2001-02 school year). Alachua county's 2003-04 school general fund budget was around $162 million (approximately $5700/student), while Northshore's was $150 million (about $7800/student). In both cases, about 2/3 came from the state, so this is not merely the result of different local household incomes. Note that, while the Florida median household income is 83% of Washington state's, Alachua county schools are funded at 73% of Northshore's. Some of this (the difference between 73% and 83%, not between 73% and 100%) might be accounted for by lower cost of living in Florida (though our experience is that much of that is reflected in the cost of real estate, rather than day-to-day expenses, which would impact schools' capital budgets, not general funds).

I could spend an enormous amount of time going over similar comparisons, but I believe I've made my point. The factual information shows the very clear financial differences between the two areas and school districts. However, all of this is merely meant as context; my real purpose here is to discuss my family's subjective experiences. I'll do that in my next article.

Daylight Saving Time

We will bid a fond adieu to Daylight Savings Time this Sunday morning; click on the article title to take a quiz about DST and find more information about it.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Fewer women in computer jobs these days

When I was an undergrad at Washington University in Saint Louis, the number of women majoring in Computer Science was approaching 50%. Now, as someone who teaches CS, I note that the percentage is much, much lower. Often, there are only one or two women in the classes I teach --- sometimes none. And I don't think it's just me. This eventually translates into fewer female computer professionals, as the referenced article describes. In 1983, when I graduated, over 30% of computer professionals were women; in 2002, only a bit over 27% were. I suspect that the percentage today is even lower. Note that this is counter to gains that women have made in natural sciences and other engineering disciplines. What is it about the computing that is different than other technical disciplines? I don't see how it can be the subject matter. Whatever the cause, the profession and society are all the poorer for the lack of diversity of ideas behind the products we make and the research we do.

Friday, October 08, 2004

You are what you run

Lest anyone think that this is a political blog (it isn't), I thought I'd quickly leaven my musings with some more typical content. A computer geek at heart, let me spend some of your time writing about a selection of the software I find most useful and/or interesting these days. Please note that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list of what I use, just some representative programs that are at the forefront of my mind right now.
Mac OS X
I've used and programmed many different computers, from those without a real OS (AIM-65, KYM-1), to TOPS-10, DOS, Mac OS, and various flavors of Unix. Sometime in the '80s, my preferred work environment shifted to being mainly a Unix-based one (at first, Sun OS, later Linux), with a Macintosh as a secondary machine. At that time, a good chunk of my programming was still on DOS machines, because they were easier to interface with external devices (though I did write some device drivers for IBM's AIX). I even wrote a graphical windowing system for DOS, before Windows came out, to support GUI development for some of the applications I needed to write. My work environment changed radically when Mac OS X came out. Or maybe it didn't. I still use Unix and Mac OS, except now they're one and the same thing. Don't get me wrong, Linux is great, but it has been only 90% of the way to working for most of the desktop machines I've used. These days, I've got better things to do with my time than chase down problems with graphics or audio card drivers.
Up until about the middle of my dissertation writing, I primarily used Microsoft Word for my text editing needs. Keep in mind, this was Word 3 on a Mac, not the horrible bloatware that passes for a text editor these days (the one that knows better than you what you meant to write and how it should look). For those of you who aren't familiar with dissertations, they're basically books with large numbers of citations into a long bibliography. And they're frequently rewritten and reformatted. So, there I was, using Word to write the thing, along with a shareware program (I forget the name) that I ran on the Word file to format the citations and bibliography, as well as renumber the figures, tables, chapters, sections, etc. It just became untenable. I'd used LATEX before, and thought I'd give it a spin. I've never gone back. LATEX separates the definition of document structure from document appearance, allowing the writer to concentrate on writing and not on pondering why changing a list from enumerated to bulleted in one part of the document induces Word to change another list elsewhere to being enumerated with lower case Roman numerals starting at 15. On top of that, it uses a plain text file format and runs on just about any computer ever made (well, except for that AIM-65), so I'll never be in a situation where I have document files that I can't read or print. On Mac OS X, I recommend using i-Installer to install the teTeX distribution.
LATEX is a system for formatting documents; it's not an editor. I use XEmacs, an editor that also runs on just about any machine under the sun, has a basic GUI, but most importantly has specialized modes for editing LATEX, C, C++, MATLAB, HTML, plain text, etc., etc. If you've used Microsoft Visual Studio and liked the syntax highlighting, imagine an editor that does this for pretty much any document type that involves syntax.
Desktop Manager
One of the things I like about Unix is the virtual desktop managers available under X (since about tvtwm). This is something that was missing from Mac OS X. Recently, however, I've been using Desktop Manager. This is really impressive alpha software that's pretty solid and feature complete.
This is a Java-based (and, therefore, OS-independent) eBay bid manager. I'm not a very active eBay'er, so I use this to quickly come up to speed on the going rate for whatever I'm interested in buying or selling and, when I'm buying, to let it auto-bid up to my limit near auction closing time.
Mac OS X has iPhoto to help organize digital photos and iMovie and iDVD to help create videos. But, it has no counterpart to iPhoto for organizing video. When you use a video camera, you end up with a large number of clips, each corresponding to a press of the "record" button. Some are good, and some are shots of the ground that happened when you forgot to stop recording or hit the "record" button by accident. CatDV is really overkill for what I need, but it allows me to catalog and sort through my video clips, selecting those for importing into iMovie. I mean, I'd be the first one to say that video of my daughter when she was two trying to kiss the camera is incredibly cute, but there's really no need for two dozen different shots of this on a single DVD.
I recently got TiVo. It's kind of weird to turn on the TV and have a selection of things I'd like to watch --- more than I have time for. It's also nice to be able to start watching a "live" 9PM show at 9:15PM, when my kids finally got to sleep. TiVo has a neat feature called the "Home Media Option" (which is no longer an extra cost option) that allows one to access music and photos on a computer over a home network. JavaHMO goes far beyond the TiVo software, providing access to weather reports, movie listings, streaming web radio, and, with the new version, email, Usenet news, RSS feeds, stock quotes, and arbitrary web pages. It's written in Java so it's cross-platform; I run it on my Pug Server, which is basically a Linux box with a pair of RAID 1 mirrored hard drives. No need to buy a special network music device.
Since my Pug Server is running all the time, it seems logical to place my iTunes library on it so I can access it from any Mac in the house (not to mention my TiVo; see above). mt-daapd is an iTunes server that runs under Linux.
A web site that will inform you when the contents of any web site changes. You get an email listing the changes at most once a day.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Manifesto for a Web Log

I decided to give this blog the ironical name "Expert Opinion" to poke fun at myself. In principle, I am an expert. I have two Bachelor's degrees, one in Computer Science and one in Electrical Engineering, and I have Master's and Doctoral degrees in Computer Science. I'm an Associate Professor in Computer Science at a major university and have been teaching CS students for 12 years. I've been programming computers and building computer-controlled hardware for something like 26 years. However, I'm also the person who said, circa 1992 or 1993, "Why would anyone buy books from when they can go to their local bookstore and browse?" Needless to say, if I had clued in on the commercial prospects of the WWW a bit earlier, I'd now be paying someone else to write my blog (or maybe I'd be funding Spaceship One, instead of Paul Allen). Well, I found myself wondering recently, "Why do people spend so much time on blogs? They're just self-publishing taken a bit to the extreme, and likely a massive waste of time." So, I've started my own to find out. Like 90+% of the other blogs, this will be filled with rambling discourses on whatever topics strike my fancy at the time. If you enjoy it, please let me know. If you don't like it, you might as well keep it to yourself; I get enough negative feedback for the papers I send to scientific journals.