Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Great iPod analysis

Follow the link above to a post at Daring Fireball about iPods, why Apple has dominated the MP3 player market, and why it will likely continue to do so. I've lost count of the number of times I've chosen some piece of software or hardware over another because it did less, rather than more. Now, think of all those VCRs blinking "12:00" out there. As John Gruber says, "That it lacks many non-essential features is itself a feature."

Monday, March 27, 2006

CS enrollment continues decline

The title above links to data from the Computing Research Association on undergraduate computer science enrollment. The number of new students entering the CS pipeline continued its decline in Fall 2005 to about 8,000, from a high of around 16,000 in Fall 2000. Note that these figures are for US PhD granting departments only. This decline has had an impact on total enrollment since the 2001-02 academic year, and for the first time (during 2004-05) impacted the number of Bachelor's degrees granted (down 17% from its peak in 2003-04).

I take this as good news, not bad. Since the dot-com bust around 2000, the number of CS degrees granted rose from around 10,000 or so to 14,000, and is now only down to a bit less than 12,000. Continued decreases over the next couple years will start the pendulum swinging the other way, with companies increasing pay and benefits, and maybe even improving the work climate. The message will filter through to prospective students, and new enrollments will increase.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring is not all fun and games

Originally uploaded by stiber.
For a gardener, especially one tending a garden mostly neglected for a year (while I was away on sabbatical), spring is the time of an almost overwhelming list of things to do. Foot by foot, I'm pulling weeds from garden paths and beds. Pretty much one entire side of my garden is still waiting for cleanup. But, there are the rewards, such as these flowers. Note the blue sky; yes, in the Seattle area.

Monday, March 20, 2006


Originally uploaded by stiber.
The bees are doing their thing, ensuring in this case that we get a big crop of juicy plums in July.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Helleborus niger

Helleborus niger
Originally uploaded by stiber.
The sun and warmer temperatures have returned, as we now enter the period of sun mixed with rain in the Pacific Northwest (as opposed to the months of grey skies and drizzle that we've just passed through). This is the last of the winter garden photos for the year, as I (at least, mentally) move on to spring garden chores and spring flowers and foliage. I've started a public web gardening calendar (with dates for the Pacific Northwest) that has a web interface and can be subscribed to by iCal at iCal Exchange.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A problem of perception?

The title above links to a New York Times editorial about outsourcing, the computing profession, and employment. As anyone in education knows, the number of students interested in computing careers has dropped significantly, in reaction to the dot-com bust and fears of outsourcing. However, as in many previous cycles of engineering employment, things have now entered the stage of overreaction. The article rightly points out that the employment situation has improved to the extent that there are now more computing jobs than at the height of the bubble -- I've heard anecdotal stories from industry that are consistent with this. And fears of outsourcing have been overplayed.

Fundamentally, it doesn't make any sense to make a multi-decade career decision based on employment statistics from last year (not to mention as long ago as the dot-com bubble burst is now) -- unless you think that computing careers are going the way of blacksmithing. The real crisis is that the field is losing the battle to attract top students. Right off the bat, we lose half of the best students: women. This is not just a US phenomenon. We need to do a much better job of providing accurate information about the profession to K-12 students and teachers. Yes, as companies want more employees, salaries will increase. But, as I think we've learned, to have a profession that is perceived to be attractive only because of high wages is to have one with a very shaky interest base. We need to emphasize the non-monetary, psychological rewards of our profession. We need to work to nurture that kind of reward structure, both in higher education and in careers.

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What would the ideal computer science department look like?

Starting this fall, my campus will be admitting freshmen for the first time (up till now, we've been only upper division and graduate; don't ask why). As is the custom in Washington State, planning for this commenced approximately a year before the start date. I've been intimately involved in our CS lower division curriculum design, and am now turning my attention to what I will refer to as "educational environment". By this, I mean everything other than classes that contributes to learning and, just as importantly, to making the CS program an inviting, exciting, and comfortable place in which to learn -- that make a department a community.

As I've written before, our profession is in desperate need of new approaches. While part of that involves rethinking our curriculum and how we teach, I think a big part is also non-curricular: activities that students and faculty engage in outside of class, design of laboratory spaces, etc. For example, a typical computer lab is a room filled with desktop computers, all facing the same direction. In the past, this invited students to concentrate on working on the computer, I suppose. Also, it didn't require much design thought on the part of faculty. Nowadays, students have their own computers, so why spend time in a computer lab? The only reason would be if they're forced to, for instance because they don't have some required software. This is pretty much the polar opposite of an inviting workspace, and certainly not the way to encourage participation in the profession by students who are uncertain about their major. Ideally, a computer lab should be a place students want to spend time in, to think about their studies, work with other students, even relax and hang out.

The lab's just one part of the puzzle. There's also the overall environment, including organizations, events, traditions, etc. So, what I'm doing here is soliciting ideas: what do you think would make an ideal CS department? You don't need to assume anything, and you can address any aspect of the department (of course, I reserve the right to pick and choose from your advice). Please contact anyone you know who might have some advice to give and ask them to either comment to this post or email me. I'll even put my money where my mouth is, and give a gift certificate to Amazon.com or a membership to LibraryThing to anyone who submits a "surprisingly great" idea (either $10/1 year membership or $25/lifetime membership, depending on how great the idea is).

I'll summarize the suggestions in a later post, and also let you know what eventually happens (and, in future years, what the impact is, at least anecdotally). Besides all of the non-lab-related matters, I'm also looking for lab design ideas. Currently, we have one lab with around 30 Windows machines and one lab with around 15 desktop Linux machines and a 15-machine Linux cluster (so, basically a room that can hold 30 machines on tables set up in rows, but that only has 15 machines on tables).

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A spam book?

I recently received an email from those fine folks who bring the "World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics" to your email inbox each year. They've been criticized for running their spamference without recourse to peer review of even the most rudimentary kind, at least in some cases. Now, it appears that they may be taking a page out of the Republicans' play book: soliciting "science" that supports their approach to conferences. Here's an excerpt from the email I received:

Based on your participation in conferences, we would like to consult your opinion and your possible contribution regarding the idea of collecting, in a multiple-author book or symposium proceedings, reflections and knowledge regarding conferences organization and quality standards/means. It will only take you about 30 seconds to give us your opinion and your potential support as a reviewer and/or paper contributor...

Apparently, the only qualifying factor needed to contribute to this work is participation in conferences. Science was never easier!

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