Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Oracle of Starbucks

Behold the Oracle's wisdom:

Personality type: Clueless

You don't go to Starbucks much; when you do you just tag along with other people since you have nothing better to do. You would like to order a Tazo Chai Crème but don't know how to pronounce it. Most people who drink Grande Mocha are strippers.

Also drinks: Wine coolers

Can also be found at: The mall

Man, this Oracle is spot on! Thanks to Ernie's 3D Pancakes.

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Monday, June 27, 2005

AAAS: Building strength in computer science

The title above links to a news story from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which, among other things, publishes the respected academic journal Science. It's about a report, "Preparing Women and Minorities for the IT Workforce: The Role of Nontraditional Educational Pathways." This is a topic near to my heart, as a Computer Science faculty member, as a faculty member at an institution that purports to facilitate access by non-traditional students (i.e., students who are not full-time, 18-21 year-olds), and as the father of two daughters. The entire report is 178 pages long, so I hope you'll excuse me if I focus instead on the news article and the 12-page executive summary.

The news article conflates together the issues of under-representation of women and minorities in Information Technology/Computer Science (IT/CS), the recent drop in CS enrollment, and support for non-traditional students (here meaning: students who are non-traditional because of their age and/or part-time status, not merely because they are women or from an under-represented minority group). Among other things, it gives the case study of Tanya Gunn, who started taking night classes in CS in the early 1980s. Here's an interesting quote:
"There weren't that many women majoring in computer sciences," Gunn said in an interview. "I kind of struggled because a lot of the guys in the class, including the instructors, really were stand-offish. It was like I had the plague, and they didn't know what I was doing there. 'She's a girl -- let's don't talk to her. This is a boys' club'."
There's a problem with this: the early-to-mid 1980s were the peak of female CS enrollment; many departments had around 50% women students! I guess that this was a difference between night classes and full-time study, which brings me back to this issue of conflation:
The new report found such themes common among non-traditional students. Even now, the authors report, traditional four-year schools often are not structured to meet their needs. Instructors are not always sensitive.
The case study was a non-traditional woman student in a non-traditional CS program, at a time when traditional programs were apparently receptive to women and graduating them in increasing numbers. In contrast, the non-traditional program seemed at best insensitive to her. Can you see the problem I'm having here? In what way do the problems in a non-traditional program say anything about the traditional ones? At best, you could say that the non-traditional program wasn't like the traditional ones in terms of accepting and encouraging women, but that seems a failing of non-traditional programs of the time, not traditional four-year schools.

That's not to say that four-year schools do meet the needs of non-traditional students -- they don't, in general. And there's good reason. Because of job and family commitments, non-traditional students attend night classes: one or two at a time, for a number of years before getting their degrees. This is a considerable sacrifice for them, being away from their families, perhaps working in a job they don't like so they'll have the time to go to school, doing without time to relax, etc. But, the effort is self-limiting -- eventually, they'll graduate -- and rewarding -- upon graduation, they'll get a career change. Now, consider the faculty who teach night classes. They make similar (though less extreme) sacrifices, working in the evenings when their children are out of school and so not seeing them, perhaps for days at a time, the abnormal social lives and sleep schedules of people who work the late shift, etc. But, for the faculty, this is not a self-limiting or rewarding existence: they look forward to a career of doing this, with no better reward than their colleagues who teach traditional students.

Is it any surprise that "for-profit schools such as Strayer University and DeVry Institute of Technology were the top U.S. producers of computer science bachelor's degrees in 2001" (links added by me)? Go to those "universities'" web sites and look around. Do the "Bachelor degree" majors sound like those that other universities offer? Who are the faculty members? Can you even find information about the faculty (I couldn't)? It's easy to find investor information, however.

In fact, contrary to the AAAS news article, I couldn't find a CS degree program at either; instead, they have a strange combination of specific and generic BS majors, like Computer Networking, Computer Information Systems, Internetworking Technology, and Database Technology, all of which seem to be a mixture of very specific, skills-oriented courses (e.g., "Administering Windows 2000 Professional") and general-education classes.

The executive summary itself doesn't have "Computer Science" in the title, and the cover has a photo of a woman assembling some kind of electronic device. So, maybe it's not about CS, and the news article was misleading. Then, I read the abstract, which says, "It was sparked by the finding that the nation's number one producer of bachelor's degrees in information technology and computer science (IT/CS) was not a major research university, but instead was Strayer University..."

The rest of the summary isn't too much better. There are several recommendations. One is that CS/IT curricula go through a standards process similar to that done for engineering (which is via the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET). There already is one, run by CSAB, which is part of ABET. I'd be surprised if any for-profits were CSAB accredited. However, CSAB accreditation isn't considered very necessary by many excellent CS departments, and perhaps it should be, at least for marketing purposes.

Other recommendations will certainly increase enrollment at traditional schools, by increasing access and funding. I think the idea of changing financial aid to better match the need of part-time students with full-time jobs is well taken. Some financial aid is already based on credit-hour, rather than time, limits, but some is still targeted at four year durations. Internships and co-op programs can be very valuable, if properly managed, but do require significant oversight to ensure that projects have real educational value and in any event are standard parts of many engineering-based CS degree programs.

The summary also makes some points about the lack of CS/IT faculty diversity, and notes the pipeline problem. It then mentions that over 50% of CS doctorates are awarded to foreign students. This seem a non sequitur. Are the authors implying that too many foreign students reduces faculty diversity? No explanation is given. There is a suggestion that admission criteria need to be changed "to emphasize the applicant's problem-solving IT/CS skills in the admissions process rather than his or her programming experience alone." Personally, I'm not aware of a requirement that incoming students to a four-year degree program already have computer exposure, and I'm not sure how programming experience would be assessed prior to admission, so I'm not sure where this is coming from. Freshman CS1 classes start from the beginning.

The argument that increasing access for non-traditional students will increase the diversity of the CS/IT workforce is well taken. However, I don't see that this will be much more than at the margins. Certainly, if we want to increase the number of women and minority members in the profession, we must attract them from the enormously larger traditional college student population. Their absence should serve as a "canary in a coal mine," warning us that something is terribly wrong. As I've said before, I consider this to be a very different issue that the recent drop in enrollment, which will be self-correcting as the employment picture brightens, as it has been in the past.

A final note I'd like to make is the lack of distinction made in the news article and summary between the for-profit schools and the traditional universities. I find the skills-oriented curriculum of the for-profits especially troubling considering the extended educational periods of many non-traditional students. Of what use is studying Windows 2000 administration to someone who won't graduate for six or more years? Even in the lower-level courses, there's a big difference between learning how to program in Java (or PL/I, thinking back to the early '80s) and learning fundamental concepts of program design and implementation using Java as a particular tool and example. I understand completely that, when you're hungry, being given a fish seems like the best possible thing. But, in the long run, a fishing rod and some lessons on how to use it are best. Strayer and DeVry may have slick advertising (by the way, look at their web sites -- do they appear to be targeting non-traditional students?), but they also have stockholders and that's where their interest lies -- providing a return for their stockholders. If you're considering one of these schools, ask yourself this: what are they selling? It's certainly not their faculty, who are almost absent from their web sites. But the faculty will be the folks you learn from and traditional schools know this -- that's why departments' web sites always list faculty and link to their personal web pages.

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

IT: The unfriendliest profession?

As I've written about before, the number of women (and their percentage) receiving degrees in computer science and related information technology (IT) fields has greatly declined over the last 20 years. And, as I've opined, one good reason for this is the nature of the IT workplace, well summarized by the following quote from the Tech Republic article linked from the title above:

In many ways, IT is unfriendly [to women] because of the nature of the job. IT is a 24/7 job. Achieving any significant position in IT often means putting your career before many other aspects of your life. You will find yourself putting in 70- or 80-hour weeks, becoming deeply committed to both the short-term and long-term needs of your career, and this will result in the loss of time spent with family or in personal activities.

When asked in a recent survey if their IT jobs were meeting expectations, 52 percent of women said they worked more hours than expected. The same survey stated that 40 percent of the men felt the same way. It is hard work, and most people, especially those who want to participate in a significant family life, are not willing to make the sacrifice.

While there are certainly many other factors involved, simply put: women are less accepting of sacrificing their lives on the altar of their company's bottom line. One way to look at this is that, traditionally, this has been expected of men and so men are acculturated to it. Or maybe women just have more sensible priorities. In any event, as an educator in this field, and given these characteristics of the field, I'm not surprised that enrollment craters whenever the job market begins to look even a bit bad.

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Monday, June 20, 2005

Why US carmakers are in deep shit

OK, Dodge just came out with the 2006 Charger, which is sort of like an incredibly ugly version of the new Ford Mustang. But, tell me this: do you think it makes sense to come out with a new car that sports a 17 mile/gallon V8 when oil is selling for close to $60/barrel and contracts for later in the year (i.e., winter) are over $60/barrel? Think that "charger" will become synonymous with "bad timing"?

Some good specialized podcasts

A while back, I blogged about what I thought were the best podcasts out there. There are other podcasts that I listen to, and some of those I even consider pretty good, but targeted at more specialized audiences. So, here is my current list of "best special-interest podcasts":
  • D'Arcy Norman Dot Net, a podcast from the Learning Commons at the University of Calgary. This podcast focuses on educational technology, such as the use of blogs, wikis, etc., in higher education. Grab the feed at <>.
  • Continuing the theme of educational technology, there's Edupodder, out of San Jose State University, which currently has more of a focus on the use of podcasting itself in education. Its RSS feed is at <>.
  • You sysadmins out there should check out In The Trenches, where Kevin Devin spends 20-40 minutes each day talking about various issues he's had with his own company's systems and other topics of general interest (or of general annoyance) to systems administrators everywhere. I'm only an amateur sysadmin for my own personal machines, but I still scan his shows for an interesting tidbit or story. Get it at <>.
  • For something completely different, you might listen to Hot Radio, an investing podcast. It's really a marketing vehicle for Steve Wirrick's stock/option picking service, and I went back and forth about including it in this list (I'm not a subscriber to his service). However, the podcast is just too entertaining for me not to mention it. Mr. Wirrick has a great deal of enthusiasm (he's the kind of person who says things like, "anywho" -- at least, in the podcast; I don't know about in real life), and even if you're not interested in stocks, I think this is a good example of how to use podcasting as a marketing tool (though I don't know how successful it is in generating business). The feed is at <> -- some podcast clients may have trouble retrieving the audio files.

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Update:I updated D'Arcy Norman's feed location; seems I've been using a deprecated location for a fews months now!

Fake CD copy-protection

My interest was piqued by the article linked from the title, which is really rather confusing if you read it carefully. Basically, it talks about some sort of copy-protection strategy being incorporated into audio CDs that allows record labels to limit copying. The article says that the copy-protection prevents the content from being transferred onto iPods because it uses Microsoft DRM. Now, this didn't seem to make any sense, because the CDs are still "Red Book" compliant, which means that they adhere to the standards that govern, among other things, data formats, and allow CDs to play on any CD player. A little more poking around brought me to
this article, which makes it clear that this copy protection applies only to PC users, and that no protection or restriction applies to what can be done on Macintoshes. Reading between the lines on the copy-protection vendor's web site, it seems that what they do is add software onto the disk to "fool" a computer into not recognizing the disk as an audio CD, but rather as a collection of audio files protected by Microsoft DRM. Apparently, this is taking advantage of a feature of Windows, and the promised future "Macintosh compatibility" is not the enabling of Macs to read the audio content, but rather getting the protection scheme to work on Macs. Even on PCs, this scheme is easy to get around, perhaps as easy as holding down the shift key while inserting the CD, and apparently Sony will tell anyone who complains how to work around the copy protection!

So, what is the logic behind producing "copy protected" CDs with trivial methods for circumventing the copy protection? If you're paranoid, you might agree with this Slashdot posting, which suggests that what they really want to do is to make all acts of illegal copying -- copyright violation for unprotected disks -- into felony violations of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) -- circumvention of an encryption device.

And for anyone who thinks that copy-protection can work for digital media, consider that: 1. it only takes one person who breaks the protection to render it irrelevant as non-protected versions proliferate and 2. it is usually a trivial matter to intercept the digital stream somewhere before conversion to analog and copy that stream to an unprotected format (and the software for doing so has many legitimate uses).

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Friday, June 17, 2005

An ode to Usenet

One of my favorite quotes from The Princess Bride is when the grandfather says, "When I was your age, television was called books". Well, in my youth, blogs and web discussion forums were called "Usenet". I've often wondered about the balkanizing effect of having various topical discussion scattered across thousands of web sites, rather than "centralized" (in a distributed sort of way) via a news server: a one-stop shop for all discussion forums. In fact, RSS feeds and aggregators are a response to this balkanization, allowing each of us to, in effect, create a virtual news server of just those news streams we're interested in. However, this approach has three problems:
  1. We have to rely on serendipity to find feeds of interest, as opposed to just searching the news server.
  2. Each news source is distributed in a centralized fashion, with the originator bearing all of the bandwidth costs. Usenet is a distributed model. But, then again, each site (ISP, company, university) has to maintain a dedicated server for Usenet news. We'll call this a tradeoff between concentrations of disks for local caching versus concentrations of bandwidth for distribution.
  3. The posting interface is separate from the reading interface. You can't post comments from any RSS aggregator I know of. Not only that, but there are really two reading interfaces, the aggregator and the web site itself, with different user interfaces.
Anyway, this was all brought to mind by the coincidence of the article linked from the title and an email conversation with a colleague about creating some sort of online discussion area for UW faculty separate from UW itself and the obsolescence of Usenet for this purpose.

Well, Usenet lives on, and you can still read and post to newsgroups via Google Groups. They're also supposed to have an archive of Usenet since the beginning of time, but it seems the search is still beta. Here's the earliest post of my own I could find:

Newsgroups: net.emacs
From: (Michael D Stiber)
Date: Wed, 16-Jul-86 07:46:31 EDT
Local: Wed,Jul 16 1986 7:46 am
Subject: GNU Emacs on the IBM RT

Does anyone know if GNU Emacs has been ported to the RT yet, or 
if there are plans to?

                     Michael Stiber
                     USENET:  ...{ucbvax,ihpn4}!ucla-cs!stiber
I'm pretty sure I posted before then, but it still brings back memories.

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Monday, June 13, 2005

The Phantom Professor: Double trouble

"...she went to the best private school in San Antonio.”
So... hard... to... resist.

Best private school in San Antonio? Is that like... No! I won't say it! Feel free to make your own smartass comment after reading The Phantom Professor's three-parter. I'm a New Yorker only on my mother's side.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

CS enrollment: start of the next cycle?

The above linked Computerworld article summarizes statistics that indicate that pay is once again rising for information technology (IT) workers. Moreover, pay is rising faster for those without certification (as opposed to those who are certified -- passed a standardized set of requirements, typically tests). The article interprets this as pointing to businesses starting to place greater value on experience, but it's not clear to me if that is merely the study's author's interpretation or if there is actual data to support it. An alternative explanation would be that the pendulum is once again swinging back in favor of core CS academic exposure -- fundamentals that are applicable to a wide range of problems -- over narrow, skills-specific training (not that experience isn't always something valued).

Either way, this suggests that the cyclical nature of engineering employment is once again expressing itself, and we should start seeing student interest (and enrollment) perk up again. One word of caution to prospective students: making a decent, secure living is important, but if you have a choice, choose a field that you can feel passionate about.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

College expectations

I'm linking to an article from the Staten Island Advance about the graduation speaker at the College of Staten Island (CSI), author Erica Jong. The article struck me because of the very stark difference shown between the expectations of the students and families on one hand and the faculty, speaker, and administration on the other. In this case, the differences were over the appropriate nature of a commencement address, but it seems to me that this echoes much deeper differences, and not just at CSI. Of course, being a smart-ass, I won't try to resist making snide remarks here and there.

CSI is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, awarding Associates degrees and also Bachelors and Masters. My guess is that the graduates were mostly Associate degree recipients. To make a long story short, Ms. Jong gave a talk about the misuse of words in advertising, politics, and other aspects of daily life, in which truth is replaced by propaganda. She makes the point that this is now so pervasive that most Americans no longer expect that what is said publicly is the truth. She then connected this to the idea that a college education can prepare someone to discriminate between the truth and PR and that it is her hope that the graduates will go on to demand the truth. This doesn't seem to me to be very controversial, or even an unusual commencement speech.

That is where I part company with at least some of the students and family in attendance. They booed. They tossed beach balls. They told her to shut up or go home (though I think she's a New Yorker). Their reaction is best summed up by one parent's remark:

She gave a political speech when she was supposed to be doing a pep talk... Whoever heard of a commencement speaker talking about body bags?
For those who aren't aware of it, commencement speakers' topics can run the gamut from humorous observations to very serious. I have to imagine that body bags were probably mentioned now and then during Vietnam-era commencements.

This reaction seems to be similar to other "differences of opinion", such as those regarding "liberal faculty", making courses more "relevant" (i.e., practical), and the general idea of universities as vendors and students as customers. One possibility for this might be an increase in the population attending college -- many more have purely economic expectations than used to be. I would expect that this would be especially true for an institution like CSI, where likely most graduates are the first people in their families to receive a college degree. However, I'm not sure that this is the entire, or even the best, explanation.

I suppose my idea isn't completely different, in that I agree that the number of students in college for purely economic purposes has increased. We've gone from a society in which college was a pathway to a better life (but where there were other pathways on which one could make a living) to one in which it is becoming necessary to support any middle class lifestyle. Certainly, in the past, there were plenty of students who went to college to make more money, and parents who sacrificed to send their children to college so they could have better lives. Egotistically, I'll mention Richard Feynman and myself as two examples of people who were the first in their families to receive college degrees. Certainly, earning potential was a big factor in me gong to college. But there was also the idea of education being a catalyst for personal growth and fulfillment -- a better life not being just making more money.

We are now moving into an era where a substantial number of students and families won't give a rat's ass about "personal growth and fulfillment". They pay money, they want the tools and certification to get jobs, and they resent being subjected to "irrelevant crap". I don't know how to respond to this. Certainly, I feel that this is not the best mode of operation for a university. I've stated before that I don't view students as ordinary customers of universities, both because universities have other customers (employers, governments, society as a whole) and because the "product" that we deliver is rather unique in that its true value is likely not to be seen by students or families until many years after graduation. So, are we failing in our jobs by not getting students to the point where they understand the idea of education as more than training? Should we change our core values? Or should we develop a bifurcated higher education system, either within existing universities or by ceding part of higher education to the universities of phoenixes?

OK, and now for the snide remark. Here's a quote from another attendee:

It was disgusting, despicable. She called politicians liars, called us all liars. She trashed America. Mostly, she just wanted to talk. It was personal spewing. There was nothing about graduation."
Wow! A person who got upset at a speaker who noted that politicians lie. Next thing, folks will be defending used car salesmen and spammers.

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Monday, June 06, 2005

Diebold Voting Systems: built to be hacked

The title of this posting would be an unusual slogan for a product that is supposed to make us confident in our voting system. It seems that Diebold optical scan voting machines -- not the newer touch screen machines, but machines that have been in use for years -- are not only hackable, they are designed to be hacked. In other words, they have built-in back doors. Here are some great quote from Bev Harris:

It's probably not an accident, because you can look back through the source code to see that [Diebold] went through some programming contortions to keep this thing there. It had to have been expensive for them, frankly. When we saw the way they designed it [the back door], Harri [Hursti, computer expert] said 'We have the Holy Grail'. The Elections people are very concerned... My question was, can you [hack the machines] in a way that wouldn't be detected. And the answer we found is yes, absolutely... They made up their own computer language! Which is a flat-out violation of all FEC standards. It's completely against federal law not to use standard language... We need to now get the complete set of memory cards used in 2004 and have them looked at by the right experts. We need cooperative counties with some anomalies and Diebold scanners. Someone needs to examine those memory cards to see if they were misused in 2004.

So, a smoking gun that Diebold machines are designed to ease election rigging. This from a company whose CEO promised to "deliver Ohio" for G.W. Bush. Makes those folks demanding an investigation into the Ohio vote in the last presidential race sound less paranoid, doesn't it?

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Newsflash: unknown egotist makes incorrect prediction

Well, I was wrong. Too bad I promised not to edit my prediction of what Apple would agree to with Intel. I think this makes two major announcements this year for which the Apple rumors were right (the other being the Mac mini). What's wrong with this picture?

My Apple/Intel prediction

OK, so the news is all abuzz about Apple shifting to Intel. Intel's CEO is reportedly in the Bay Area and will appear at Apple's World-Wide Developers Conference (WWDC). You can probably find someone on the web pushing just about any point of view about all this. After some thought, I decided, "Why not me, too?" So, with about a half hour before Steve Jobs' keynote address, let me make my prediction. I'll even promise not to edit this after the start of the keynote.

There's a lot of talk about "Mactel" desktop and laptop machines, even the idea that the Mac mini will move first to Intel. And, of course, the return of the clones. However, Apple understands that great design and product integrity are among its core strengths, and I don't see them giving up on that solely to allow anyone to install Mac OS on a vanilla Intel box. I could be wrong about this -- maybe Steve does plan to try to "checkmate" Microsoft by allowing this. However, continuing with my assumption, I would also submit that there isn't a massive need for Intel on the desktop or even 90% of Mac laptops. Not only that, but, more importantly, keep in mind that the Pentium architecture (including the Pentium M, usually touted as the chip for a Mactel laptop) is only 32 bit, and Apple has its sights set on 64 bit machines. Consider all of the problems with backwards compatibility of existing Mac software with the Pentium architecture, and the future need to shift away from 32 bit Pentium software to 64 bit software. Apple is already transitioning from 32 bit PowerPC (G4) to 64 bit PowerPC (G5). It's asking a lot for Apple and developers to have to shift two more times.

That brings me to my prediction: Xeon Xserves.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

And this one was just right

I've just finished getting used to my latest toy: an iPod Shuffle. Yes, that's right, I became part of the collective a little while ago -- actually, when we got a 40GB iPod at the end of last year. For the children, of course. Really. This way, we can have our entire music and audio book library with us during long car trips. And a device like the iPod does a great job of doing just that -- acting as a portable audio library.

But what about when I'm walking home after walking my daughter to school? Or when I'm running? A 40GB iPod is overkill for that. Besides, I can't listen to music when I run, as it interferes with my breathing rhythm. I can, however, listen to podcasts. Hence the Shuffle. I know that many people fault it for not having a display; even a simple track number. However, I don't see how such a display would be helpful for me. If I'm running along, I just want to hear one podcast after another. If I get to one I don't like, I skip to the next. That's about all I can do when running, anyway. And the best thing is that the Shuffle easily fits into the little inner key pocket that running shorts have (with room to spare for keys). I don't know of any flash memory based MP3 player with a display that is this small or light.

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