Thursday, December 27, 2007

Will everyone please stop eating so damn much?

Or at least get some exercise. Or maybe it's the growth hormones in the various food we eat these days. All I know is that I went out with my family to take advantage of some after-Christmas sales, and there were literally zero men's small ski jackets out there. Even mediums were almost impossible to find. But there were an enormous number of XXL and even XXXL about. Did stores over-buy on the large sizes or under-buy the smaller ones? I asked around and, nope, that's not the case. There just are more and more people who need elephantine clothing. At least, in the US (as anyone who has traveled overseas will attest to).

Does this explain that Costco sells relaxed-fit men's jeans with 30-inch waists? I mean, who do you know with a 30-inch waist who needs relaxed fit? How big can your ass be if you have a 30-inch waist? Of course, the real reason is that they just order relaxed fit; they don't believe that there are many people out there who don't need it. This assumption, in my opinion, begins to break down at the smaller waist sizes.

OK, I'm glad I got that off my chest. It just pisses me off that buying clothing has now become an ordeal (I suppose, unless I want to pay the extortionate prices that REI charges). It didn't used to be that way...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Just you wait, Henry Higgins...

Maybe a little dated, but by this point there's plenty of humorous comments to read. Hilton Locke, who works on Microsoft's tablet PCs, states, "I will say that if you are impressed by the "touch features" in the iPhone, you'll be blown away by what's coming in Windows 7." First of all, I think MS is very smart in going back to serial numbers for their OS releases: they are neutral names and nobody can make a fuss about the year they get released or whether their features or performance match their names. And they don't have to worry about running out of cool cat names.

I'll leave it to the comments on Locke's blog to remark on bragging about how a desktop OS not scheduled to be released for three years will exceed a palmtop UI available right now. Consider instead the following quote from the same blog post:

Now if only we could convince more OEMs that Windows Touch Technology is going to drive their sales.
I've got an idea on how to do that: have that technology actually drive their sales. There's no substitute for delivering on promises.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Editing a textbook

Little Editors
Originally uploaded by stiber
The Angry Professor complains about the state of copyediting in the publishing business today. I'm working on a textbook on "Signal Computing" -- digital signal processing fundamentals for computer science students. I believe that I have an advantage in the copyediting department.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Googleplot and recommendation systems

Daniel Lemire finds recommendation systems (I can't bring myself to call them "recommender systems", since they seem to me to be targeted more at recommendees) fascinating, though he is less than impressed by their implementation, such as Google's pagerank. Personally, I don't need sources of more information; I need lower volume and greater signal-to-noise ratio. A system that recommends that I not read something -- now that would be valuable (perhaps you're thinking the same thing right about now).

But he's right about one thing: Google's chart API is the rebirth of GNUplot. Except that it's not really open source. Anyone want to write a MATLAB function to export a graph as a Google chart?

Another book rental service

I'm still not convinced that this idea makes any sense. But there's at least two groups of people out there who've managed to raise enough money to have a go at it. That's more than I can say.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Netflix for books

Background: once upon a time, when just went public, I said something like, "Why would anyone want to buy books on the internet? Half the fun of buying books is browsing a bookstore!" Another great moment in personal financial stupidity. Nevertheless, there's now a company that wants to emulate Netflix by renting books online, by subscription. Exactly what is the difference between this and a library? At least, for Amazon and Netflix, they are competing with for-profit businesses. Paperspine's competition is your local library, which likely also has an online catalog. Is it worth $10 a month or more to not have to pop by the library?

Monday, December 03, 2007


Originally uploaded by stiber
I kid you not: a college campus in the Seattle area closing due to rain. This is the first time there has been flooding in this area since I've lived here (over 10 years). Our buildings are safe from flooding (I believe), but it's conceivable we could end up 50% cut off, with only 1 access route open.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The dangers of '70s nostalgia

Lessons learned from last night's Battlestar Galactica:

  • While it might be better to be a hammer than a nail, apparently being a razor isn't all it's cracked up to be. No, I don't understand what that means, either.
  • More highly developed robots are less talkative.
  • Tricia Helfer ("Number Six") is so hot that neither man nor woman can stand before her.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Coming back up for air

I'm always impressed by people who can go to conferences and blog about their experiences during the conference. I typically find myself struggling to fit all of the conference-related activities into each day. And then there are the conferences with long travel times (20+ hours to Montevideo, Uruguay, for example) and jet lag to contend with, during which I consume mass quantities of coffee in a sometimes vain attempt to stave off narcolepsy (despite the fact that I'm not much of a coffee drinker). Maybe next time I'll take a bunch of decongestant, instead.

Presentations, be they oral or poster, are always curious things. Oral presentations are often a complete waste of time. My understanding is that, once upon a time, oral presentations at scientific meetings involved people reading their papers to the audience. While, on the surface, this might sound dreadful, upon further reflection I think this is a better approach. For one thing, this would greatly reduce the number of oral presentations. For another, it could (note the conditional) engender more discussion among the participants. Right now, presenters try to make their points in a few slides and questions are basically at the end. There's no time for serious questions, clarifications, or the like, so questions tend to be of the "got ya!" or the "let me tell you about what I've done that may relate to this" varieties. And those are the good talks -- the bad ones are those that are incomprehensible or those in which the presenter hasn't confined him or herself to a few slides and everyone is at the mercy of the session Chair's ability to cut the speaker off so that they can make the next coffee break in time.

Posters are sometimes better, but they unfortunately try to serve two purposes. One purpose is to provide a forum for more embryonic work, often that of students. The other is as a "booby prize" for submissions for which oral presentation wasn't justifiable but which were still above the "ramblings of a crackpot" cutoff used for rejections. So, one's first task is to find those posters that one is interested in and then locate the author (who may or may not be there at the moment). If you're lucky and do both of those, odds are the author is in the middle of talking to someone else and then you have to decide if you want to listen to the last five minutes of that conversation, trying to understand what they're talking about, before you finally ask the author to essentially repeat the whole conversation with you.

So, what's good about conferences? They're basically the only place I can go where I can meet and talk to people who are interested in the same things I'm interested in, research-wise. I can have research for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night drinks. I can sometimes make contact with future collaborators. I can get ideas for the next thing I'd like to do. I can be re-energized to continue to find ways to carve out space for research in a life with plenty of family, administrative, teaching, and service demands.

I'd like to run a conference in which oral presentations are done in a more old-fashioned way, where papers are read and discussed in a seminar format. That way, we could all go through each other's research with a fine-tooth comb. What a frightening prospect! Anyway, back to seeing if I can bring the number of unread emails in my inbox below 50.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Review: Sony VGP-BRMP10 Bluetooth Presentation Controller

I'm getting ready for a conference trip and have finally gotten around to getting a bluetooth presentation remote. The remote I purchased is the Sony VGP-BRMP10 Bluetooth Presentation Controller. The VGP-BRMP10 is a bluetooth remote that includes all of the functionality of a bluetooth 2-button mouse. It has a trackpad with a "scroll line" on its right hand side that emulates a scroll wheel. It has two mouse buttons (left and right; too bad for us Unix 3-button types, but really that shouldn't be necessary for how this device is used). It has next and previous slide buttons that send "page up" and "page down" keycodes. It also has a start/end slideshow button that sends F5/ESC (I'm not sure under which circumstances it sends which). It comes with a manual and two AAA batteries (the packaging says that these should last for around 14 hours); no bluetooth USB dongle, so you'd better have one or have a machine with built-in bluetooth.

So, how does it work with a Mac? Sony's site only lists compatibility with Vaios, though the box has a Windows XP/Vista badge. I tested it on my 1.33GHz 12" Powerbook G4 (I like to travel light) with built in bluetooth. I used the Bluetooth Setup Assistant to set it up as a mouse and this went without a hitch. The Keyboard Setup Assistant also ran, but I don't see how that would be very useful, so I just closed that window. I then used the mouse system preference pane to set the trackpad speed.

After that, the remote works almost perfectly. The only thing that doesn't work is use of the "slide show" button to start a slide show (I tested it in Adobe Reader, as I generate my presentations as PDF using LaTeX, and also in PowerPoint). However, that button does work to end the slide show (it seemed like I had to press it twice with PowerPoint, though). Since you have to plug your laptop into a projector anyway, this is not an important feature. It would probably be possible to get it to work with some keyboard remapping software (which, for all I know, is built into OS X; I just haven't wanted to spend the time to play with this).

Ergonomically, the remote seems fine to me. It's not very smoothly shaped, but the large battery compartment makes the back of the device fit nicely into the curve of your fingers with your thumb positioned to hit the buttons or use the track pad.

Amazon/PC Universe has been selling this remote for $80, which seems a very good price indeed for the features it has. The only thing it's lacking is a laser pointer, which isn't a big deal for me, since the cursor is visible in Reader and I think that's a better way to point anyway (for one thing, it stays put where you leave it, so nobody can tell if you're nervous).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Letter to the editor

Follow the link above to my letter published in The Seattle Times. It's in response to the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction trying desperately to keep WA using a failed math curriculum.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Measuring science

This post was inspired by an excellent one by GrrlScientist, linked from the title above. She starts off discussing journal impact factors, which are a measure of the average number of times a paper in a journal is cited by others. Then there's what is essentially a personal impact factor, which is the number of times a particular researcher's papers are cited. These have problems, which the H-index is meant to address. Briefly, a person has an H-index of h if he or she has at least h papers cited at least h times. So, if I have 100 papers, each cited once, then I have an H-index of 1. If 99 are cited once and one is cited 43,000 times, my H-index is still 1. If 95 are cited once and the remaining 5 are each cited at least 5 times, then I have an H-index of 5. And so on.

So, first of all, there is the question of gaming the system. It's unlikely that I can convince 43,000 of my colleagues to cite one of my papers (but, if you'd like, pick one from my CV on my UW home page and cite away). But if I'm only shooting for, say, an H-factor of 20 or so, then that might be doable. Supposedly, people do try to game the system by doing things like citation swapping, though this seems to me to represent time better spend being a more productive researcher (rather than just trying to look more productive or impactful).

Though I may be unconvinced about the effects of such gaming, I see this as a fatal flaw of any attempt to extract a simple metric from the interrelationships among such publications. Just look at how much effort Google has expended on providing good search results. Since these results are presented in a sequence, presumably from most relevant (or "best") to least, they have been implicitly assigned a single measure. And there's a cottage industry surrounding pushing sites' ratings up that has nothing to do with their content. I'll come back to this idea of creating a one-dimensional ordering later.

To me, there's another problem with metrics such as this. Let's say that my H-index is 11, as computed using Google Scholar. Furthermore, let's assume that issues such as self-cites (citing one's own work) and co-cites (citing of one's work by collaborators; I'll revisit this topic, too) don't effect rankings (these may be invalid assumptions). There's still one problem: is an H-index of 11 good? Bad? Middling? If we read Wikipedia, we learn, "In physics, a moderately productive scientist should have an h equal to the number of years of service while biomedical scientists tend to have higher values."

But what about computer scientists? We could consult a listing like the CS Meta H index. We would then have to compare my H-index with other faculty at similar stages in their careers who are working at similar institutions and who have had roughly similar career paths. Unfortunately, that information isn't in the index. We need to know a lot about different universities, different CS departments, and individual faculty. Maybe it would just be easier to read one or two of my papers and judge for yourself.

Coming back to the subject of co-cites, this could be considered a sign of an attempt to game the system. On the other hand, it would make more sense for me to make gaming arrangements with colleagues with whom I have no direct professional connection. (Hmm. Three more strategically placed citations will get me to an H-index of 12; five more in just the right spots will get me to 13.) But what about people who collaborate widely? Their papers will have lots of co-cites, but their work will also be more broadly influential because of all that collaboration. So, when I've prepared materials for external review, I always separate out the co-cites. Make of them what you will.

The desire to create this scalar (one-dimensional) metric of scholarly is a natural one. When I look at the complex dynamical behavior of a neural network, one of the first things I want to do is extract a single measure to characterize that behavior, so that I can then more easily examine how behavior depends on various parameters. But I have a very carefully defined question in mind when I do this. When we measure science, what is our question? Are we asking if a particular scientist is "good"? What is good? Does it mean that the scientist's work has impact in the field? How can we really ascertain this without understanding the field and the scientist's contributions in that context?

Einstein had four papers that changed the field of physics forever. But that's just an H-index of 4. I was discussing this with one of my colleagues, however, and his opinion was that 4 was a reasonable assessment of Einstein, and that we should want to hire and promote scientists who are consistently productive, not ones who have one brilliant flash of insight and then nothing approaching that for the rest of their lives. But how can we tell the difference between consistent, quality productivity and a laser-like focus on getting out each least publishable unit? To me, the only solution is knowing the person; we can't reduce the behavior of that large a neural network to a single useful measure.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Three years

I've been posting to this blog for three years today. No groupies or offers to appear on The Daily Show yet.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sun going the way of Silicon Graphics

So, now that Sun Microsystems has changed their ticker symbol from "SUNW" to "JAVA", they've agreed to be a Windows OEM. I remember when Silicon Graphics started shipping Windows on their machines; I thought, "Why bother buying an SGI machine anymore?" By shipping a commodity OS on their hardware, they are instantly placing themselves in direct competition with the other PC server vendors. The only two places they can compete are hardware and price. And they're big losers in the price wars. Contrast that strategy with Apple's. While there may be some small differences in hardware or price between Apple and Windows server vendors, the big differentiating factor is the software.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A year of bicycle commuting

It's been a year since I started bicycle commuting. I had an informal goal of riding 2000 miles in this year, including all types of riding. I've gotten to 1560 miles, which isn't too bad, especially considering that I had one virus after another for about six weeks this past spring (one of the joys of parenthood). I guess I'm feeling pretty good about this, and now I have something to shoot for next year: at least riding more than 1560 miles, and hopefully going 2000 miles (if I can stay healthy and ride a century or two, this shouldn't be a problem).

Friday, September 07, 2007

Declaring creativity bankruptcy

I previously wrote about an iPhone copycat product. An unknown company can probably be excused (at least, by those of us who have no intellectual property involved) the desire to make a quick buck off of the latest Apple product. But a large, well-known company? I submit that this is the creativity equivalent of declaring email bankruptcy: Nokia's admitting that they'll never catch up with the rate of innovation of one of their competitors. And this product is vaporware! That's right, they can't even imagine making something that looks significantly different than the iPhone. Sad.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Holy crap

Has anyone every heard of something like this happening? I mean, other than for items purchased at Nordstrom? I had to triple-check the URL to be sure it wasn't a hoax, and even then I was thinking that someone might have hacked Apple's web site (the fact that it was linked from Fake Steve Jobs' blog didn't help). Mr. Jobs, you're a mensch.

Inbox zero, five sentences, and email bankruptcy

I just watched Merlin Mann's "Inbox Zero" video on the bus today, and am dedicating myself to incorporating this into my daily life over the next week or so (the part about ignoring my email and getting work done is easy; processing my inbox is harder). I'm especially intrigued by two enhancements to this: five sentences and email bankruptcy:

five sentences
Brought to us by Mike Davidson, this is a nice way to get people used to received brief replies without being offended: put the Q&A with web link in your signature. For what it's worth, Guy Kawasaki has opined that five sentences is the optimal length for emails.
email bankruptcy
This is another way to say, "Face reality, you're never going to do anything about the thousand emails in your inbox." Just send out a blanket email: a global reset of all of your email communications. Tell them that they shouldn't wait for replies to anything they've sent to you in the past, and to resend anything that is urgent. Lawrence Lessig has done it. So have others.
Of course, this begs the real question. As Merlin points out, email isn't either problem or the solution, but it can serve as the canary in the coal mine. The fact that so many of us are hopelessly behind is symptomatic of a fundamental underlying problem in our workflow that we need to address. In this way, email bankruptcy is just like the financial kind.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


In honor of Apple's newly announced iPod lineup, a very funny fake ad. The blinking "12:00" is a nice touch.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Remote access via iPhone

It's hard to describe how neat it is to see your computer's desktop on your cell phone. Or to browse your files there. I know, there are other ways to accomplish this, and it's not too different than VNC. But, still very cool.

Monday, August 27, 2007


Sometimes, the simplest things are the most important. Like the "silent mode" switch on an iPhone. The easiest way to silence a RAZR? Turn the volume all the way down. Meanwhile, TVs have had mute buttons since they made infrared remotes.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Whatever happened to originality?

Meizu multi angle
Originally uploaded by stiber
It doesn't seem that anyone's even trying anymore; they just rip off whatever they want. Even if some say that there are signifcant differences with the iPhone.

Then again, just about every portable device that makes sounds has buttons arranged in a circle around a central button, so maybe this isn't really all that new.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

1300+ miles on a single tank of gas

Here's a guy who had his Toyota Prius converted to be a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), with a larger capacity battery pack and modified power management to increase its range on the electric motor. He got over 136 miles per gallon and went 2 months between fill-ups.

Then again, I've gone 1500 miles on my bike with zero fuel consumption.

(via davem5321).

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

iPhone price and profits comparison

The title above links to an interesting article that shows that, like many Apple products, the iPhone's reputation as an expensive device doesn't hold water when you compare total cost of ownership. And you get to experience the satisfaction of using an elegantly designed product for all that time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More evidence that CS enrollment decline is ending

As I wrote in my previous post, I see CS enrollment up sharply this fall. Here's the first news article I've seen on this subject. Note that it tries to make it seem that UMBC (Univ. Of MD, Baltimore County) is bucking the national trend, but the comparison made is between fall 2007 and fall 2006. We will see more stories like this as fall approaches.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Improvements in CS enrollment coming

As the linked article shows, new enrollment in CS continued its decline last fall, but just barely. Degrees granted, of course, lags the new enrollment trend by at least four years. Anecdotally, I see enrollments trending sharply up this comming fall, which is just what would be expected from previous patterns in engineering enrollment.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Math wars

The title links to a Seattle Times article about the conflict between advocates of "reformed math" education and those of us who think our children need to develop solid computation competency (yes, I have a clear bias). Here's one teacher's summary of "reformed math":

"It makes higher math more accessible to them," said Zandria Hopper, a fifth-grade teacher at Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary School in Sammamish. "They are pressed to justify and reason from kindergarten on."
However, check the article's sidebar, which compares two fifth-grade problems -- one "reformed math" and one traditional. The reformed math problem is 14x9=? The traditional math problem is 492x98=? Which students do you think will get into top-tier universities?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Success at last?

We finally received a replacement phone for the old Sony Ericsson T637. Activation went smoothly, and supposedly everything will work out fine, billing-wise. We'll see. Meanwhile, I've learned that while our old plan didn't charge for receiving text messages, the new one does, and only the iPhone has messaging included. Oh well, that wasn't a big criterion.

Topics: .

Monday, July 09, 2007

Resistance is futile

Well, the new phone for my wife apparently was delayed in shipping long enough that the order was cancelled. Or something like that; the person I spoke to at AT&T didn't really understand why the order would be cancelled. Anyway, she re-placed the order. But, since that would put me well beyond the 14-day time limit for returning the iPhone, I got my iPhone activated on an individual plan, with my wife's phone retained on the old plan, and with the AT&T's representatives' assurances that the billing will all be worked out when we activate everything under the final family plan so that it won't cost any more than the plan would have cost in the first place. I'll let you know how this turns out, so others who are still under old AT&T family plans will know what their options are.

Anyway, I've now been playing with the iPhone for two days, and I have to say that it's like carrying a small work of art in your pocket. When I use it, I get the same feeling I get from looking at a Movado watch. That's not to say that there aren't some improvements that could be made to the software, of course. Meanwhile, here are some interesting web applications I've found:

  • The iPhone widget is maybe the slickest one out there. Fifteen day forecasts and animated satellite imagery in a quickly loading, nicely formatted web page.
  • There are web-based "desktop" applications, like AppMarks and MockDocks that provide web pages that look more or less like the iPhone home screen, except that you can choose which icons appear on it.
  • The whole idea of an always-on, full web connection in my pocket is changing my thoughts about small tools. One PIM tool that I've been investigating is Tasks. It has a mobile interface, and would give me access to all of my to-dos everywhere, all from a central repository on one of my web servers.
  • is a good idea, except that it sometimes doesn't return known cheap gas stations. Still, if you're on the road and you happen to know (or know where to look up) the zip code you're in...

Topics: .

Friday, July 06, 2007

A little bit slower now

My saga continues. Yesterday, I was optimistic that the new phone would ship from AT&T in a day. Well, a phone conversation later, and I've now learned that the customer care part of AT&T and the folks at AT&T who actually have the phones are two separate parts of the company. Imagine that! And, despite the fact that they'll ship it next day air, shipping itself can take 3-5 business days. Am I the only person who finds that strange? This will bring me right up to the 14-day return deadline for the iPhone.

Anyway, I was also a bit optimistic about the iPhone working without actual phone activation. Despite others' experiences, my iPhone doesn't work via wifi. I swear it did for a little while, but now it just tries to activate EDGE, fails, then gives up. I'll remain optimistic that it will eventually prefer wifi to EDGE when available and that it's just in a different state than a machine that was temporarily activated and then had its AT&T contract cancelled. Another interesting item is its clock, which apparently isn't synchronized when synced with iTunes; it must sync directly over the net. I guess this isn't surprising. In any event, it appears I am truly in limbo, with an iPhone that is really only usable as an expensive, low memory capacity iPod.

Topics: .

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Not so fast, yet

In my last post about my iPhone activation experience, I concluded with:

So, after much fuss and bad feelings, I finally get pretty much what I expected to get in the first place...
I was a bit hasty.

It's now four days later, and still no service on my iPhone. I called AT&T on Tuesday, and found out that the new phone for my wife needed a supervisor's approval, which took two hours on either Saturday or Monday (I'm not clear about that part). Unfortunately, the order processing took only one hour. So, without a supervisor's approval in the system, the order was cancelled. I'll dispense with commenting on the obvious stupidity of that workflow. Anyway, a supervisor's approval was extracted on Tuesday and, hopefully, the new phone will ship today.

Now for the interesting point. Despite the fact that my iPhone isn't activated with AT&T yet, I was able to sync it with iTunes yesterday. That's right, all features working except the phone feature. Seems like there is a mode that others have discovered: iTunes being signaled by AT&T to enable sync is independent of AT&T service and the iPhone takes its cue strictly from iTunes. Besides the obvious abilities to have machines for software test, etc., this indicates that Apple can easily switch service providers.

Topics: .

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rewarding behavior

The saga continues. When we last left off our hero was disconnected after a long hold. A second call yielded an AT&T customer service representative who clarified matters somewhat: we are "old" AT&T customers, and the iPhone plans only apply to customers of the "new" AT&T. Unfortunately, none of their literature, online or printed, says anything about this. Are there so few people who stay with cell service for so long? I mean, the phone works, we don't have trouble with the coverage, and the price is competitive, so why would we bother to switch? Anyway, I had to leave home to take our new dog to obedience class, so that's how it stood.

After obedience class, where we learned all about the importance of consistency and rewarding desired behaviors, I stopped by an AT&T store. The guy there wanted us to switch to a new rate plan and pay $80 for a new phone for my wife (our old phone won't work with their new network, he said). I pointed to their own literature and challenged him to find where it indicated that the rates didn't apply to long-time customers. He called AT&T customer service, and I got nowhere with the person on the phone. I did get a number to call to ask for a supervisor and, with much screaming and yelling and walking out of the store telling everyone around to avoid AT&T, I headed home.

At home, I get through, get a supervisor, and get irate. She puts me on hold so she can talk to her supervisor. At this point, I'm reminded of the experience of buying a car, at the point in the negotiations when the salesman shakes his head and says he'll talk to his manager and see what he can do. Of course, this is all theater: they spend some time talking about the weather or baseball and, after a suitable interval, he comes back and the dance continues.

Same thing here. The AT&T rep finally agrees to a "special plan" that they usually don't use, but which will work with the iPhone. The plan will cost the same as our old one, plus $20 for the iPhone data plan. She also will get my wife a new phone, with bluetooth sync capability with Macs, for free. And I can activate the iPhone once the new phone arrives, which may not be until Thursday because of the Independence Day holiday.

So, after much fuss and bad feelings, I finally get pretty much what I expected to get in the first place, and AT&T has rewarded me for my irate behavior. Which I hate.

Topics: .

More on my AT&T adventure

More than an hour and a half later, I spoke with one AT&T representative who assured me that my phone was activated but, when she couldn't call me on it, decided that it was an iPhone problem. She gave me a phone number for an iPhone help line, which also turns out to be an AT&T number. The folks at that number couldn't help me; they transferred me to someplace else within AT&T -- a place they couldn't give me a direct number to. Now, after waiting on hold for a half hour, I got disconnected.

Topics: .

AT&T: not ready for success

Yes, that's right, I bought an iPhone last night. I didn't need to wait all day, just showed up at around 6:30 and waited less than an hour. But even strong, though not insanely crazy, demand for the new device is apparently too much for AT&T. There was apparently something about my AT&T account (I'm a current AT&T customer) that requires attention by a human being there. But, when I call AT&T at their iPhone activation line, all I get is a message (sounding like a recording on a cheap answering machine) that says that, due to high call volume, I can't be helped right now and should call back. Did AT&T just have no idea how many phones might be sold? Or do they prioritize existing customers below new ones? Oh well, patience is a virtue.

Topics: .

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sympathy pains

Here's a quote for you:

I didn't see it coming, but I sure felt it roll over my head. It feels really strange to have a truck run over your head.
This from a bicyclist who suffered only a concussion (his helmet was flattened). When I read that quote out loud, my daughter said, "That story you read made my head hurt." Amen.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

This is math?

Follow the link to a Kirkland Courier Reporter article on a math class in a suburban school district located near where I live. In a typical "reform math" class, fifth graders spend time inventing their own ways to solve the "problem of the day": 55 x 20. Their teacher waxes poetic about the superiority of this approach over "memorization of formulas". No mention of the fact that solving 55 x 20 is not important enough to spend that much time on. And that this time might be better spent on inherently more interesting things, like why multiplication works, the structure of number systems, etc. And that this is, at best, a fourth grade math problem.

Meanwhile, the students either lose the possibility of future careers in science or engineering, or their parents tutor them, or their parents spend money on math tutors for them (a booming business in Washington state). And then their parents join Where's the Math? to pressure school district officials to inject sanity and rigor back into K-12 math education.

Monday, May 21, 2007

"the spectre raised by new research conducted by Microsoft"

Always interesting to read an article that contains such a quote.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Free information

Google has just released an experimental telephone information service (AKA "411" in the US). Not only can you ask for a business' phone number, you can request that the information be sent to your mobile phone by text message. Will phone companies respond by reducing their extortionate rates for information?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cause and effect

Some articles in the latest round of debate over the future of the computing profession:

Which is cause and which is effect? Decreasing numbers of students interested in computing? Unpleasant working conditions, compared to other professions, many of which having less onerous coursework? Increasing immigration and outsourcing preventing salaries from increasing? Likely, this involves at least one feedback loop; I am concerned that the feedback will make matters worse, not better.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

1000 miles for Earth Day

I must admit that I started commuting to work by bicycle for health and family logistics reasons, but there's a certain symbolic significance of the fact that, due to a ride I went on with the Cascade Bicycle Club yesterday, I have clocked over a thousand miles since September -- just in time for Earth Day. Besides all of the gasoline I haven't burned, there's also the second car we haven't bought. My next goal: 2,000 miles by this September.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Women and the computing profession

The title above links to yet another article, this time from The New York Times, on the decreasing number of women entering the profession. If you've been reading articles like this, you'll likely detect the slow evolution of the message to include more assertions that demand for graduates is much higher than is perceived. All of the hard data I've seen supports the assertion that demand for computer professionals is higher now than at the peak of the dot-com boom.

One curious item, on page two, is the note that the University of Washington, Seattle "never had a programming requirement." Perhaps what was meant was for freshman admission? Because the introductory CS sequence, 142 and 143 (and the equivalent courses for transfer students) are pretty typical intro to programming classes.

Update: Here's a link the UW Seattle CSE department's "Why Choose CSE?" web site mentioned in the article.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Is Microsoft Dead?

I can remember moving to the Seattle area in 1997 and being advised that Sun, Apple, IBM, and the various Linux concerns were all dead; they just didn't know it. Microsoft had won, and that's all there was to it. Is Paul Graham's essay about Microsoft similarly accurate? I would say that you ignore Mr. Graham at your own risk. He has also written a follow-up, Cliff's Notes version in which he emphasizes that what he means is that software startups no longer need worry about Microsoft. And this in turn reminded me of software startup proposals in the early to mid '90s, in which the mere rumor that Microsoft would do something even vaguely similar was enough to eliminate any chance of financial backing. You just couldn't compete with Microsoft. These days, the issue isn't whether one can compete successfully with Microsoft, but rather that Microsoft is no longer a credible source of new ideas. The best they can do (as Mr. Graham says) is buy them. And, sometimes, even that doesn't help.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Neuroschool 2007

This looks like an interesting experience for students interested in between experiment and theory in neuroscience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Gentleman's C: I hate traveling.

Over at A Gentleman's C, the Angry Professor seems to be channeling me.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Bill Gates eats his cake

Bill Gates was in Washington today to testify in front of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. In his testimony (PDF), he said:

A top priority must be to reverse our dismal high school graduation rates – with a target of doubling the number of young people who graduate from high school ready for college, career, and life – and to place a major emphasis on encouraging careers in math and science.
He also said:
College and graduate students are simply not obtaining science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) degrees in sufficient numbers to meet demand. The number of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded in the United States fell by about 17 percent between 1985 and 2004.

Unfortunately, he then goes on to say:

...the terrible shortfall in our visa supply for the highly skilled stems not from security concerns, but from visa policies that have not been updated in over a decade and a half... I personally witness the ill effects of these policies on an almost daily basis at Microsoft. Under the current system, the number of H1-B visas available runs out faster and faster each year... Barring high-skilled immigrants from entry to the U.S., and forcing the ones that are here to leave because they cannot obtain a visa, ultimately forces U.S. employers to shift development work and other critical projects offshore.

So, on the one hand, Bill Gates wants more Americans to seek technology careers. On the other hand, he wants the ability to hire more immigrants. From a potential student's point of view, these seem contradictory goals, the latter reducing the attractiveness of such careers by decreasing pay and security and therefore decreasing the number of students who might want to major in technology fields. From Bill's point of view, they are entirely consistent: increase the supply of labor to drive down its cost. (Boy, I hate sounding like Lou Dobbs.)

Oh, and in case you thought Bill's point of view was purely that of a disinterested philanthropist, he also lobbied for tax breaks for his and similar companies.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Gee, Officer Krupke...

Computer Science is misunderstood. See the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette article linked from the title. Is it really the case that all we need to do is win the hearts and minds of parents? Whatever happened to teen rebelliousness?

Friday, February 23, 2007

More on the trouble with CS education

The title links to a Stanford press release in which Prof. Eric Roberts indicates that the problem underlying the current decline in CS enrollment lies with CS education. I agree with this: introductory CS classes, for instance, are probably the most in-your-face, student-unfriendly courses at a university. The article goes on, however, to say:

Universities also struggle with attracting enough computer science educators. 'In the '80s boom, there was one year in which there was one applicant for every seven open [teaching] positions, which means that six of the positions just did not get filled,' says Roberts. Today, there are more applicants than openings, but the ratio—hovering at around two to one—still stands in stark contrast to that in most humanities departments, where hundreds of applicants compete for one faculty job opening.

'I used to argue that Ph.D.s in computer science probably lowered your salary, because they opened lower paying jobs [in academia],' Roberts half jokes. 'There's an economic incentive not to teach but to go off and make your killing in the field.'

So, on the one hand, CS faculty are paid too little compared to industry. I'm happy to agree with someone who says I'm underpaid. On the other hand, there are not enough people trying to get faculty positions (two per job opening). Presumably, he wants more applicants and higher pay, not realizing that these are diametrically opposed goals. The reason pay is low is because there are more applicants than positions. If the number of applicants rose to the same level as in the humanities, then pay would fall to the level of that for humanities faculty.

Oh, well, Eric, thanks for playing anyway. We have an assortment of lovely virtual prizes for you to take home.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bad news and good news

Well, I guess I wouldn't call it good news; just perhaps the cessation of worsening news. Interest in majoring in computer science among freshmen is down 70% from its peak in 1999 and 2000. That's the bad news. The lack of worse news is that it was the same in 2006 as in 2005, so perhaps it is bottoming out. If you follow the link from the title, you'll see that this is the second such recorded cycle in CS interest. We're lower than the last trough, but from what I can recall of the mid-'80s, the job climate is better now.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Math Education: A University View

Following up on a previous post, there's a new video about "reformed math" by Clifford Mass, a UW Seattle professor of Atmospheric Science. He doesn't say anything that most other university faculty would say: our K-12 math education system is failing our students, as they discover when they reach college. Unfortunately, that's a bit late.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

My Mathematics Genealogy

Follow the link above; unfortunately, my advisors and myself are not close enough to being mathematicians to produce a very full genealogy.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

UCLA identity theft

As a UCLA alumnus, I was not happy to hear that a database containing personal information of alumni, students, and employees was penetrated by a cracker recently. I didn't hear about this from UCLA (presumably, they are still sending out letters to the 800,000 affected people) but rather from Oscar Boykin, a fellow alumnus at the University of Florida. If you're a UCLA alum, ex-employee, etc., follow the link from the title to learn more about this and find out if you need to place a fraud alert on your credit report. My question: is there any reason that everyone shouldn't put fraud alerts on their credit reports all the time?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Three bicycle stories

Cross Training
This is the (academic) year I made the commitment to become a bicycle commuter. I've been riding daily since the start of the academic year, and what do I have to show for it? Well, in the past, when I went skiing, I felt it in all my muscles -- especially in my quads. This year? I can ski all day and not even feel it. I'm almost as fresh at the end of the day as at the beginning.
"Learn how to drive!"
I had my first run-in with an asshole driver today. (Which is pretty good, given the time I've been commuting by bike, and probably says something about driver courtesy in this area.) He wanted to change lanes and seemed to take exception to the fact that I was already in that lane, and ahead of him. He showed his lack of originality with the aforementioned quote. You guessed it; he was driving a pickup truck.
The curve approaches
Sand on the ground and my speed
Hazardous mixture

Friday, January 19, 2007

Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth

A little over two years ago, in a posting comparing schools here in the Seattle suburbs with those in the Gainesville, Florida area, I wrote, "... Northshore uses the Everyday Math textbooks, while Alachua uses Harcourt Math. Both series are, in our opinion, excellent." That was from my wife's and my points of view as parents of a second-grader, with whom we work outside of school on supplementary math and other subjects. As the YouTube video linked from the subject line above indicates, our assessment probably isn't reflective of the full K-8 experience of most families.

First off, go right now and watch the video; it's excellent. Seriously, watch it.

My opinion of Everyday Math was based on two of its aspects:

  1. Because of its spiral approach, it introduces algebraic concepts very early and at a level that seemed appropriate for those children.
  2. It has some very interesting ways of teaching concepts such a addition and subtraction that seem, to me, to make their relationship as inverse operations intuitively obvious. Again, a more advanced concept introduced in what seemed an age-appropriate manner.
It is important to keep in mind that this was coming from a parent of a child who was far ahead of her grade level in math (not to brag, but as a fourth-grader, she is doing seventh-grade math) and who did extra work at home. The YouTube video points out some matters that have become much clearer as time has passed and my children have worked with math textbooks in higher grades.
  • There's not much practice in the textbook. This is offset by extra materials used by teachers in our school here (such as Mad Minute), and by our own use of the Singapore Math books.
  • There's all sorts of irrelevant materials in the textbook. A chapter on patterns has a page on Native American crafts, but that page says nothing about the patterns in those crafts. It's basically a generic, too-brief overview of such crafts. Certainly, there is a strong connection between weaving and patterns, but nothing is said about that there. We fix this ourselves by talking about such issues.
  • Exercises at the end of sections are a mish-mash of all sorts of problems. On the one hand, review is good. But why have the first problems in a section of a late elementary or early middle school textbook be a series of very simple addition or subtraction problems? It distracts the child from the topic just learned, and makes her wonder if maybe there isn't some sort of trick involved and those problems aren't as easy they seem. It could have made her less secure about her math ability! (Actually, by this point, our older daughter is quite cynical about these "baby problems" and isn't bothered by them.)
  • It has all sorts of bizarre approaches, such as those detailed in the YouTube video (did I mention that you should really watch it?). Stuff which leaves me wondering if the authors were on peyote when they wrote that section. For our daughters, these are just random and interesting things, and they rightly dismiss them as inefficient and confusing. They ask their teachers if they have to do it that way, and do so for the few problems where it's required, reverting back the much more efficient, standard algorithms they are familiar with.
As a Computer Science professor, my observation is that I can see the effect of this approach to education. At the end of my third week teaching freshman calculus (I plan to blog about that shortly), I have noted that the de-emphasis of topics such as division of fractions impacts college-level math. Unfortunately, we're on the quarter system here, and so there's not much leeway to address these issues in class. However, I am making a mental note for myself to discuss this with our Quantitative Skills Center folks; maybe a review of K-12 textbook content would provide some ideas for remediation. In the final analysis, that is what these textbooks have done: pushed topics they think too time-consuming into university education time.

Additional Links: Reviews of UCSMP Everyday Mathematics, Where's the Math?, Donald Simanek's documents and links on education.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The last syllabus you'll ever need

Over at Halfway There, Zeno has a post about a one-size-fits-all syllabus. It certainly is the case that course syllabi have evolved from a means of clear communication with students to written contracts on the nature of courses. Perhaps we should take a page from software End User License writers, who typically tell us we have no rights and that they can change the contract anytime they want and that a post on some web page we'll never check shall be considered sufficient notice of such change.

Oh, well, I guess I'm not curmudgeonly enough yet to do this. But, if I'm told one more time that my use of the word "should" in a homework assignment can be reasonably interpreted as advice, rather than a requirement...

P.S. If you're a student reading this, I hope you realize it is in jest. I am well-known for my voluminous syllabi. The next best thing to a captive listening audience is a captive group of readers.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


I've been along time user of the NewsFire RSS reader. Unfortunately, newer versions require OS X 10.4, and I have delayed upgrading my machines long enough that I'm just waiting for 10.5. Additionally, NewsFire is just incredibly slow (at least, the older version I can use) and crashes frequently. It might have something to do with the 360 or so feeds I track.

Anyway, I've left all my troubles behind, now that I've adopted the Vienna RSS reader. Fast and reliable. And free.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Roll your own syndication

I generally try to make my course web pages act as web portals for the course, with all the information students need (except, of course, for the pearls of wisdom contained in their textbooks and my lectures) there. I've also been increasing my use of blogs (and now, podcasts). Therein lies my desire to syndicate RSS feeds onto my web pages. Previously, I had been using (there are other similar services), which provides the ability to includes JavaScript on your web page that will generate customizable HTML summarizes from RSS feeds. The problem I had with this was increased page load time: I was dependent on responses from their server. Now, I've found a new tool that works much better: RSS2HTML, which is a free PHP script that generates HTML according to a template that you write. There are three ways that I've been using it:

  1. As a "complete web page generator". I use the PHP script, customized to hard-code the RSS feed and template file URLs, as my web page (for example, renamed as "index.php"). This is useful when the only feature available to you on your web site is PHP script execution.
  2. As a server-side include. For example, the SSI code on one of my course pages will cause the PHP script to generate suitable HTML to be included for the course blog's RSS feed. The template file here is just an HTML snippet. This requires both PHP script and SSI support on the web server.
  3. The third approach is what I'm using as of this date for the list of upcoming conference deadlines I place in this blog's sidebar. In this case, I can't make use of either local PHP scripts or SSI, as Blogger doesn't support them. So, I rolled my own RSS to JavaScript service by placing a modified rss2html.php script on another server, and use it to generate JavaScript output, rather than HTML (the script doesn't care what's in the template, other than the variables that it replaces with feed information). So, the template contains lines like:
    document.writeln('  ~~~ItemDescription~~~');
    There was one problem: the RSS fields can contain single quotes, which will of course screw up the generated JavaScript. To fix this, the PHP script must be modified. Specifically, lines like these:
    $this->ItemTitle[] = trim($this->title);
    $this->ItemDescription[] = trim($this->description)
    must be replaced with lines like these:
    $this->ItemTitle[] = str_replace("'", "’", trim($this->title));
    $this->ItemDescription[] = str_replace("'", "’", trim($this->description));
    This will replace single quotes with HTML entities that display as quotes but won't act to close the strings in the document.write() calls.

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