Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A very sparsely populated map

Courtesy of Pharyngula and Crooked Timber, Frappr! provides a map that readers of this blog (both of you) can add themselves to. It's pretty neat, in spite of that exclamation point. Please feel free to add yourself to my map.

Garden photo of the week

Fava bean seedling
Originally uploaded by stiber.
We plant our fava beans in early October each year for harvest in late spring. The new seedlings are just coming up now. It only occasionally drops below freezing here in the Seattle area, so the plants have no trouble (they're supposed to be hardy down to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit, I believe). They'll flower in early spring, filling the garden with a wonderful, sweet scent. In June, shortly before it's time to plant warm weather crops, they'll be ready to harvest.

We like to harvest the beans when they're large and thus need to be peeled after cooking (this is after shelling; the beans themselves have a thick skin). Our usual approach is to quickly blanch them in boiling water, let them cool, then slip them out of their skins. We then saute them in olive oil with garlic, chopped onion, chopped tomato, and whatever seasonings strike our fancy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I've got a problem

I guess I need to be extra alert now that zombie season is upon us.

You made it. Barely.
Congratulations! You scored 48%!
Whether it was the fact that you could run faster, or were just plain lucky, you made it out alive. Even you aren't sure why. But you're sure as hell not going back, or risking your ass for anyone else from now on.

My test tracked 1 variable How you compared to other people your age and gender:
You scored higher than 7% on survivalpoints
Link: The Zombie Scenario Survivor Test

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Fast reaction to college gender gap

I'm at a conference on engineering education the second half of this week. A good portion of the conference focuses on how to increase participation in engineering by under-represented groups, which includes women. This, of course, has been a matter of concern for years, and the National Science Foundation has taken an especial interest in this, which includes requiring that all grant proposals address the broader impact of the research, of which a major component is to "...increase the participation of women, minorities and people with disabilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)." So, it was especially ironic for me to read the USA Today article linked from this post's title.

Colleges that want to compete for the dwindling pool of men should emphasize male interests, such as sports, he [family therapist Michael Gurian] says, and offer more male role models.
As that article states, female college enrollment has reached an all-time high, with significantly more women than men earning degrees. This is a very recent phenomenon, but already people are saying that something needs to be done about it. I especially like the quote above, since of course so few colleges place much emphasis on sports (for example, we never hear about college sports in the mass media). Funny, but I believe that men far outnumbered women for many years (technically, centuries) before there was any call to do something about that. Meanwhile, enrollment of women in engineering (especially computer science) continues to drop.

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Bill Gates surprises students as "stand in" professor

It seems Bill Gates is touring colleges these days, giving pep talks to students about how exciting technology careers are. The message is spot-on of course: technology careers are incredibly exciting and rewarding. I'm mostly curious why his tour doesn't include the closest (and at times largest, depending on enrollment fluctuations) CS degree program to his office. If I were an egomaniac, I'd think that he's not happy with my previous open letter. If I were a realist, I'd assume he wasn't aware of it...

Dear Mr. Gates,

I'm very sorry that my open letter annoyed you; please take it in the manner in which it was meant: as a helpful suggestion.

Humbly yours,
Mike Stiber

[Thanks to Daniel Lemire for pointing the news item out to me.]

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

OrganicHTML for blog

OrganicHTML for blog
Originally uploaded by stiber.
This is what my blog looks like to OrganicHTML. It reminds me of ikebana; I'll take that as confirmation of my own inner beauty.

Accuracy versus precision

Some (perhaps most) people confuse the definitions of accuracy and precision. They are not the same things. Apparently, this is something that statistics majors learn; I know that it is an important part of the scientific computing curriculum. Not understanding this is why many people say things like, "you can prove anything with statistics," when they should say, "you can use a large amount to seemingly precise data (the real precision of which you may be obscuring) to distract the audience from realizing that your statement is wildly inaccurate."

Sometimes, analog is better

These people need a clock. Not to mention a grip on reality. But they could start with the clock.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Garden photo of the week

Grape Leaf
Originally uploaded by stiber.
Nature is giving fair warning: be prepared to rake leaves. Here in the Seattle area, this means while wearing boots and waterproof jacket and pants. At least I now have the hops cleared away from the compost bin.

Friday, October 07, 2005


This blog is one year old. Time to go to sleep.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I never noticed

My computer was hacked into. Ten years ago. At the time, my main workstation of choice was from Sun, with a Mac used as a secondary machine. I actually didn't initially notice that my Sun workstation was compromised, and even afterwards my first reaction was to just contact the cracker and ask him to be cool about it. Yes, that's old school thinking, though it probably wasn't too far off the mark at the time. The break-in, of course, was the result of amateur sysadminning (by me) and easy availability of "root kits" that allow even novices to break into unhardened machines.

That's no longer the case, as the Infoworld article linked above discusses. Computer break-ins, and software development towards that end, is becoming more professional and more targeted at generating monetary damage. On the other hand, I've moved on to using Mac OS X as my primary work environment. As far as I can determine, there is still no "real" malware for Macs (by "real", I mean software that can do its thing without user intervention -- that doesn't require the user to install the software himself). Maybe it's the benefit of being on a platform with relatively low market penetration. I suspect, however, that there are fundamental architectural differences between Mac OS X/Unix and Windows -- primarily the monolithic nature of Windows that creates single points of failure for security -- that make it much easier to break into Windows machines. I even don't have much of a spam problem, other than the need to periodically check my spam trap to see if any good messages got erroneously flagged.

That's no reason for complacency, however. Never give crackers the keys to your computer. Use the software firewall that comes with OS X (under "Sharing" in System Preferences) and only allow connections that are absolutely necessary. Only turn on network services (also under "Sharing") that you really need, and even at that, only those that use encrypted protocols, like ssh. Use a hardware firewall at home. Have separate sets of "secure" and "insecure" passwords, and never send secure passwords over unencrypted channels. Never use your computer password for a web site. Change passwords periodically, on the assumption that you'll occasionally (by mistake) send a secure password unencrypted across the net. Don't install software if you're not confident of the honesty of its source. Set "Software Update" to check for updates automatically, and install security updates promptly. Have I forgotten anything? Check out this macCompanion article for more.

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Spam, DOS, and cell phones

I've always been surprised at the lack of spam on cell phone SMS. For the most part, everyone who has the ability to receive short messages on their phone has an email address, and there's no fundamental reason that spammers couldn't send messages to lists of cell phone numbers. I assume that the phone companies employ spam filters, so at least long messages and messages that contain HTML get rejected. But maybe the spammers have decided that short messages to cell phones doesn't pay in terms of money received (for one thing, there's no connection between reading the message and getting on a web browser to give the spammers your money). The story linked from the title raises another issue, which is the launching of denial of service (DOS) attacks on cell phone networks. By sending messages from the internet fast enough (easily achievable with a single computer), voice traffic can be halted -- a result of the dual use of network control channels (the ones used to set up voice calls) to also carry the short messages (because their bandwidth requirements are expected to be low).

The take-home message, as always, is that a cell phone is a luxury -- there's no substitute for a land line, switched network telephone in an emergency.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

On the death of meritocracy

According to my naive way of thinking, one of the fundamental precepts of modern university education is that of meritocracy -- that students can control their futures by excelling at their studies, and that being better at things that matter will be the key to success and happiness later in life. Now that it has been a few days and it still seems that President Bush has nominated a female version of Michael Brown to the Supreme Court (OK, and former lottery commissioner instead of horse show official), I have my face rubbed in the ugly reality: who you know really does matter more than what you know. Choose your path through life based on doing things that will let you meet the right people, rather than provide you with the best educational and life experiences. And pick your parents wisely (sorry, kids).

Links: Daniel Drezner has some interesting links, while Michael Bérubé provides some comedic relief.

Monday, October 03, 2005


I always had mixed feelings about the TV show "Firefly". On the one hand, it had great chemistry among its characters (something that "Enterprise" sadly lacked). On the other, I've never been a fan of "horses and spaceships" space opera. In any event, the point was moot, as the show was inexplicably cancelled before any reasonable person would expect a large audience to grow.

So, I was very curious to see the new Serenity movie, and I must say that it's one of the best SF movies in recent years. (Notice that SF doesn't include Lord of the Rings.) In many respects, I'd put it up with the best of Star Wars: it has a great feeling of concrete reality to it, the characters' interrelationships are interesting and the viewer cares about them, there are actually reasons behind the things that happen (someone thought about more back story than appears in the movie, though I wish someone had spent about five minutes thinking through the movie's "geography".), and there is a point to the whole exercise. In some ways, it's better than Star Wars: more mature, three-dimensional characters, a palpable feeling of risk (that characters aren't necessarily safe just because they're main characters), and a ending that is satisfying beyond the old standby, "those bad guys blowed up real good".

I think I'll buy the DVD version, which is something I don't do very often (excepting the kids' movies).

Links: review at Wired, Internet Movie Database, official movie web site.

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Petition for scientific support for Darwinism

The link above is to a petition on an archeology web site asking for signatures from scientists whose work depends on evolutionary science. They originally called it a "four day petition", to show how many signatures of scientists they could get in that span of time, given that the Discovery Institute had a petition that took four years to get 400 signatures. The four day petition got 8000 signatures.

It's still going strong, so sign away. How does evolution affect a computer scientist? In my case, I work in the area of computational neuroscience, studying (among other things) synaptic transmission across the inhibitory synapse at the crayfish slowly adapting stretch receptor organ. Because of common descent, the neurotransmitters and ion channels in crayfish neurons are also in human neurons. For these, and a number of other reasons, we expect that the things we learn about information processing in invertebrates will also apply to vertebrates, mammals, and humans.

As another example, I'm making evolutionary computation the theme of the introductory computing course I'm teaching this quarter. The success of stochastic optimization algorithms like these provides strong mathematical support to the idea that the combination of randomness, inheritance, and selection can produce solutions to complex problems.