Monday, October 25, 2010

Mobile Scholar: Part 2

Awhile ago I promised I'd write about my adventures attempting to turn my iPad into a laptop when traveling. I guess a lot of this is soon moot since Apple just announced the new Macbook Air, which replicates most of the lovely features of the iPad (solid state memory, for instance), but in the meantime what we have is what we have!

For my upcoming trip, the tasks I need to complete are: review several papers, work on a paper due in a few weeks, take notes in meetings, and keep up with the usual barrage of emails. To prepare, I've found a few applications to help make being laptop-less, and at many times network-less, a bit easier.

1. Dropbox for iPad
This is just about the most useful application ever invented. I know, I know, rsync has been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth, but honestly I just never found it usable. I use too many different operating systems and machines and devices that rsync-based solutions were just a nightmare.
Dropbox has been positively a joy to use.  For this trip, on my laptop I downloaded the papers I need to review into my Dropbox folder. Then I synchronized them to my iPad/phone.
Also, most all of my past papers and work-in-progress papers (including my thesis) are stored in Dropbox. I guess this is a bit risky in case they're evil or their servers go down, but it's just a gem when traveling.
2. iAnnotatePDF
From Dropbox, you can send PDF files directly to iAnnotatePDF. I really like to use this application when reviewing papers, because I can put text notes in the margin, circle and highlight things, etc. I mostly use it for commenting on papers written by colleagues and students, but sometimes I use it for conference and journal reviews. 
Its cloud support is a bit weak. Your workflow turns out to be DropBox -> iAnnotatePDF -> [Annotate stuff] -> GoodReader -> Dropbox. 
3. GoodReader
This is the best $.99 you'll ever spend. It strangely claims to be a PDF reader, but really it's a just nice way to access the filesystem, and read/write files to Dropbox, GoogleDocs, WebDAV, and whatever else cloud service you might use. You also can use it as a nice wget/fetch service (e.g., grabbing files off the net and storing them on your iPad). It's indispensable.
Remember my last post about
pseudo-anonymity? I figured
handwriting recognition would
fail if I wrote like a 10 year old.
I'll have you know I am a
Picasso in real life.
4. AudioNote
Honestly, I didn't get this application for the audio recording feature (though that is nice), I got it because you can both take notes with typing as well as sketch with your finger in the same document. I tried about 10 different note taking apps, and this was the only one that handled this feature well. 
5. Instapaper
Every time I see an article I want to read but don't have the time for, I have a little function in all my web browsers, "Save to Instapaper". It pulls down the text (sans advertisements), syncs to a server, and then syncs to all my mobile devices. Then when I'm sitting around in airports I catch up on articles.
I also use Instapaper when I want to save local information about the city I'm traveling to and might not have net, such as train schedules. Sometimes I use Dropbox for that too, but Instapaper is even more convenient because it's a simple one-click process.
6.  RSS
I am still looking for a good RSS reader that syncs with Google Reader. I've just found Mobile RSS which seems pretty decent at first glance. I was using Reeder for awhile, because everyone was singing its praises, but I found it to be too minimal - to the point of being unusable. A few people spoke highly of Byline, but the one time I tried it my finger slipped and I unwittingly did something awful, like, marking several hundred articles as read or unsubscribing to some feeds. I thus deleted the application in a big puff of disgust. 
I'm all ears if anyone has RSS reader suggestions.  
7. Off Maps / OpenStreetMap / OpenMaps
A colleague recommended some open maps apps (heh) to me, and I'll be giving them a shot on this upcoming trip. I'm more inclined to just suffer roaming charges and use Google Maps, but I like the idea of open source maps, and will give it a shot.
8. VLC
This is a jack of all trades video player. It's probably the most useful app I have on my laptop, so I'm thrilled to have it on the iPad. It's great for copying video files to your iPad that you don't feel like converting to some goofy iTunes format (e.g, AVI, XviD, etc). 
9. iSSH
This application is indispensable when traveling. With it I can connect to machines anywhere in the world, easilly get a shell, tunnel stuff, get a nice VNC connection to someplace, etc. Well worth the $10. 
I think that's it. I'm still working on a workable LaTeX solution, which hopefully I'll figure out by the time I write Part 3 in this series.

Sadly blogger is practically unusable from the iPad, so I probably won't be around much for the next week or two.  There are a few blogging apps, but I'm not really ready to shell out for them - I'd rather just google give better support native editing on the iPad. *ahem, evil overlords, ahem*.

Hope you all have a good week and see you soon.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pseudo-anonymity: Defense

Back to our FIFO queue! Today we have...

The other day I made a mistake and left a comment on someone's blog under my own first name instead of the pseudonym. I deleted it as soon as I noticed, but then I got a bit paranoid if anyone could see who I am just from that one single comment. So I googled my first name.

And got the shock of my life.

I am there, my workpage pops up immediately, right on the first page of results... 
How googleable are you? 
I meant to post about this topic months ago, but found myself struggling with how to appropriately discuss it. The problem with me writing a post like this is I could give hints on how to 'out' someone who is blogging/internetting pseudo anonymously, and I don't really want to do that for obvious reasons. The good news is that most of the techniques to de-anonymize bloggers remain firmly in the realm of researchware, but I wouldn't bank on that being the case for too much longer.

Instead, I'd like to suggest a few defensive things pseudo anonymous netizens can do to help maintain their anonymity. Some of these suggestions are social, some are technical, but nearly all are grounded in the privacy literature.

1) Don't tell anyone you know in your open (non-anon) life about your pesudo-anonymous identity/blog. Someone will tell someone, and the next thing you know someone posts something somewhere revealing your real name. People are awful at keeping secrets, and if you ever become a famous (or controversial) blogger you run the risk of someone accidentally (or purposely) outing you.

2) Don't write things that would be devastatingly embarrassing for you if you were outted. As I said, right now it's easy to be a little bit anonymous online, but I would not at all bet on that trend continuing. I saw a paper presented at a conference recently that scared the crap out of me, so do take heed.

3) If you blog, turn on the comment approval settings. If you use facebook or other social networks, even if it's under your pseudonym, turn on the settings to approve your wall posts / picture sharing / etc. Seriously, lock that puppy down. Better to introduce a delay then suffer the consequences of someone commenting, "Great post, Imelda D! See you at lunch tomorrow."

4) Never forget: once it's out there, it's out there. There are no takebacks in the era of RSS feeds and google. There is no ephemerality. Be extra careful when you post something not to sign your real name, discuss something specific about your location, etc. You have absolutely no idea who is subscribed to get a blog's comments, and once their RSS reader grabs it, there's nothing you can do.

5) There is a lot of literature on how people can infer your identity based on your interests, social network friends, etc. (See references in this post). Some people who work in the security/privacy fields make their name on this kind of thing, no pun intended. Again, this supports my first suggestion to keep your pseudo-anonymous life and your non-anonymous life as separate as possible. If you need to share something personal, change some details here and there. You know, say you love dogs instead of cats.

6) Use Tor, or another anoymizer web browsing service when visiting other people's blogs/websites. Definitely anonymize your IP when commenting elsewhere under your pseudonym. While Google Analytics provides a slight layer of anonymity and lets your individuality get lost in the noise, not all trackers are so gracious. Remember, every time you hit a webserver, your IP address is logged. It is trivial to deduce who you are based on your IP. So you are completely relying on the good graces of the website/blog owner not to out you. By using an anonymizer, you can at least protect yourself a bit better.

I think that's it for now. Happy pseudo-anonymous blogging!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Things I don't have to think about today

John Scalzi posted an absolutely breathtaking poem in his blog yesterday - check it out.

(Normally I'd post excerpts to tease you, but I'm loathe to perturb poetry. Just trust me, it's worth the click!)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bravo, Cornell and XKCD!

While writing my post the other day I visited a number of CS department websites. Cornell's has a rotating image highlight on its front page. Two of them really caught my eye:

Big kudos to Cornell - a picture is worth a thousand words.

Also kudos today to Randall Munroe (XKCD), for today's comic. In addition to beautifully articulating my frequent frustration with tech support, I love that the uber-smart CS superstar is drawn as a woman. Thanks for helping represent!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Firing Squad Science

When I was at my last place of employment someone recommended a book to me, "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman." I can't remember a single bit of advice from it, other than to be bold and always sit at the main meeting table, because you are taken more seriously that way.

But one thing I seem to remember from it is, perhaps incorrectly, is that when a man walks into a room he quickly assesses who is in charge. He is trained to do this, either by his social upbringing or it's wired into his genes hailing back to alpha-male primate days. In contrast, women do not usually assess workplace/social situations with the same sort of hiearchical eye by default. Thus, I try to look at these situations from multiple perspectives when I am in them, just to try to get a handle on what might be going on.

Recently I attended a talk where I watched what looked like a monumental power struggle play out, and was really not sure what to make of it. A male grad student was giving a talk. Another male person (grad student? postdoc?) kept interrupting Every. Single. Slide. to nitpick one thing or another. About halfway through the talk, Senior Professor (advisor to the student, I think) started interrupting with clarification questions, which started out nice and then got progressively more aggressive as the talk went on. He and others also snickered from time to time at several of the slides, which as far as I could tell just had equations on them.

Toward the end of the talk, Outsider Postdoc starts asking questions and eggs on the first interrupter guy, while still trying to occasionally include the speaker in the discourse. A few other men start chiming in with their two cents, some reasonable, some insulting, and eventually the entire thing dissolves into a rapid-fire bloodbath with the speaker left lying on the ground twitching, croaking, "This work is preliminary...just a first step..."

After a very long and uncomfortable time, my colleague and I managed to escape the seminar room and as we were walking back to our department felt extremely unsure about what had just happened in there. My colleague remarked that they actually weren't sure who the speaker was, because the audience members talked so much.

The funny thing is, of all the things those audience members said, I think only about 10% of the points were really about the research. The other 90% were "Look how smart I am" and "My slide rule is bigger than yours."

In science, I think there is a difference between precision and nit-picking. You can help someone in their research to find the clarity necessary to be strong as scientists without publicly humiliating them. You can ask useful questions politely while still demonstrating your intelligence to whomever it is you're trying to impress.

Having been executed this way before, sometimes I just want to stand up and call out for a cease fire.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Content suggestions for departmental websites

I'm sure you've all seen the now infamous XKCD comic on this, i.e., why the heck can't we find anything on most universities' websites?

I can (kind of) forgive universities et large. Professional web design is expensive, and if a university shelled out a lot of money in 2006 to make a flash(y) website, in this economy I can sort of forgive them not wanting to update.


Computer Science departments honestly have no excuse. They have a plethora of free labor (undergrads) who have likely been writing web code since they were tweens. All they need is someone (department head? faculty committee?) to figure out what sort of content they want, write it down, and let a few undergrads loose on it. Done, problem solved.

Honestly, it's not about fancy designs, it's about allowing people to find the information they need easily, and keeping that information current. Here's all a department needs. This information helps everyone - new people, old people, visitors, etc.

  - Faculty:  Name, Title, Contact Information, Research/Teaching Interests.
  - Staff: Name, Title, Contact Information, Job Duties.

Bonus points if this information is current. I find it really weird when I go to a department's website and someone who got tenure 3 years ago is still listed as "Assistant Professor", or someone who left to go to another university is still listed.

Staff job information is useful too. One of the new students in our group didn't know where to go to get pencils. Why wasn't this info on the webpage? (i.e., "Office Supplies, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, Room 227")

Bonus points for a headshot. When I attend an event where I know a particular person will be, I like being able to identify them in advance. I had to attend something last week and talk to someone, and due to lack of a photograph, I had to go up to every person and ask, "Are you so-and-so?"

  - Address
  - Phone Number
  - Email address for general questions
  - Directions

You would be shocked how many places don't list directions to their department, or don't put their address in an easy-to-find place. I know, in this day and age, people can use google maps, but it's the principle of the thing. It should be easy for visitors to find the information they need - there's no other reason to have a website.

  - Main areas of interest
  - Links to relevant faculty/staff/students

This section honestly doesn't need a lot. If the department wants to throw in something about student project highlights, that's fine, or maybe a mission statement of some sort. But honestly, this should just give people a quick overview of what this department is all about. Short and sweet.

 - Degrees Offered
    - B.S.: Overview
    - M.S: Overview
    - PhD: Overview
 - Courses Offered
    - 2010 Course Listing
        - Schedule
        - Syllabus

  - Upcoming Talks
  - Whatever else is important (new grants, new faculty, new graduate students, etc).

That's it! Done.

Frankly, not having this stuff and having tons of other useless stuff is just embarrassing. It reflects poorly on the department, regardless of institution/program prestige. It simply displays an inability to organize and be responsible for content. Who'd want to attend school / work / visit a place that can't even build a website?

Also, again, being consistent with wanting to hire people / have students with disabilities, make sure your website is accessible. This is not about grumbling about having to comply with some law, this is about making sure that the millions of people with disabilities out there who have an interest in Computer Science can actually learn how fantastically wonderful your department is without having to go to great effort. This can be woven into a lesson to the students - inclusive software/hardware design is hopefully already a strong component of the department's teaching anyway.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And the Truthy Shall Set You Free

I've just read about a great project at Indiana called Truthy. (Here's a linky). The idea is simple: during the upcoming election, their system will detect smear campaigns on social networking sites in real time, and post some visualization of how the meme spreads over time. The idea is to try to prevent "astroturfing", which are well-organized political campaigns masquerading as grassroots efforts.
"The team will then generate diffusion network images that visitors to can view as groups of nodes and edges that identify retweets, mentions, and the extent of the epidemic...
Menczer got the idea for the Truthy website after hearing researchers from Wellesley College speak earlier this year on their research analyzing a well-known Twitter bomb campaign conducted by the conservative group American Future Fund (AFF) against Martha Coakley, a democrat who lost the Massachusetts senatorial seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy. Republican challenger Scott Brown won the seat after AFF set up nine Twitter accounts in early morning hours prior to the election and then sent out 929 tweets in two hours before Twitter realized the information was spam. By then the messages had reached 60,000 people.

Menczer explained that because search engines now include Twitter trends in search results, an astroturfing campaign -- where the concerted efforts of special interests are disguised as a spontaneous grassroots movement -- that includes Twitter bombs can jack up how high a result shows up on Google even if the information is false...

'One of the concerns about social media is that people are being manipulated without realizing it because a meme can be given instant global popularity by a high search engine ranking, in turn perpetuating the falsehood,' Menczer said."
Definitely a clever approach to the problem, and if you're a twitter user, get involved!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Honeybee Mystery Solved!

This article made me really happy. In case you weren't aware, since 2006 honeybees have been dying in droves, and no one knew why. All I could figure was that some seriously weird X-Files stuff was going on. But it turned out it was a virus-fungal double whammy. So, no aliens or mutant corn, just something pretty humdrum as far as nature is concerned.

Image by BrainPop
The nice part about the article was how the different scientists collaborated - all due to some clever networking:
"Human nature and bee nature were interconnected in how the puzzle pieces came together. Two brothers helped foster communication across disciplines. A chance meeting and a saved business card proved pivotal.
But it took a family connection — through David Wick, Charles’s brother — to really connect the dots. When colony collapse became news a few years ago, Mr. Wick, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Montana in the 1990s for the outdoor lifestyle, saw a television interview with Dr. Bromenshenk about bees.

Mr. Wick knew of his brother’s work in Maryland, and remembered meeting Dr. Bromenshenk at a business conference. A retained business card and a telephone call put the Army and the Bee Alert team buzzing around the same blossom.
I love that. (And not just because I'm a sucker for bad puns.). Person C connects Persons A and B, and fabulous science happens.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Diversity hiring - walking the walk

As as mentioned earlier, I like to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to jobs, both inside the academy and out. So reading various ads, I've become fascinated by their wording. The way things are phrased and formatted conveys a lot of information to me.

For example, when the ads says, "We expect candidates to have 18.5 years experience studying the effect of RF signals being used near the great barrier reef, and can teach advanced classes in fluid mechanics and 20th century literature," I think, inside job. The phrasing implies they have a particular candidate they wish to hire. I exaggerate here, and don't wish to call out any particular institutions, but, seriously? Why are they even advertising? I suppose laws / their institution requires them to advertise broadly, but this ad really excludes just about everyone, which completely defeats the purpose of those laws.

But even more than that, I am intrigued by how statements of diversity are phrased. According to institutions that are Equal Opportunity (EEO) and/or Affirmative Action (AA) employers, federal law says they must at the very least include this:
 FooBar is an Equal Opportunity / Affirmative Action Employer. 
But some institutions go beyond this, and actually craft wording into their ad which makes me believe they mean it. For example, when they say something like, "We are committed to building a diverse organization, and strongly encourage people from minority groups, women, and people with disabilities to apply," I am far more likely to believe them. And when they even go beyond that and explain what steps they've done to build a more inclusive workplace, such as on site childcare, a fully accessible campus, etc., I am even more likely to believe them.

When it's just written as a a token phrase, particularly if it's in a tiny tiny font at the bottom of the page, and particularly when I go to their webpage and see that all their employees/faculty look like this -

- I tend not to believe them.

So, job ad writers, if you truly want to recruit candidates who have disabilities, minorities, and women, and you want to make that picture more diverse, then bring it out in your language. Just as you would like applicants to explain in their cover letter how they are a good fit for your institution, make it sound like you want your institution to be a good fit for them. Otherwise I think people are probably less likely to apply. I know I would be.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Scary smart women

I have a few things in the queue that I meant to write about ages ago, but I kept getting distracted by other topics. So, here we go! (We're FIFO)

Just a thought, but you may be interpreting intimidation as sexism. A lot of times people are discomforted by having a conversation with a smart person. This discomfort probably conflicts with the initial impression given by an inviting appearance.
I thought I replied to this comment, but it's not showing up, so perhaps I forgot. I'm not in any way meaning to pick on Tyler, because I am taking his comment completely out of context, but I have heard variants of this argument used before and would like to discuss it. The argument usually goes something like this: "It's not that he means to be a jerk, it's just that she intimidates him."

I can't think of anyone who intimidates me who is both friendly and smart. Once I had a friend who was a musical and programmer savant, and I suppose I found myself a bit intimidated by him just because he was so smart and so talented. And I guess a few months ago when I read about Terry Tao I felt like a slacker, because I always had to work my tail off in mathematics. You could take an infinite number of copies of me and an infinite number of pencils and I'm not going to win the Fields medal, I can guarantee you that.

But even when I encounter someone who is {smarter, more successful, more X} than me, I don't really view them as a threat whose Life I Must Destroy. I don't view them as someone who is going to take resources away from me. Like most warm-blooded humans, I'll probably feel a twinge of jealousy, but they'd never know it. I'm not going to start acting like a jerk to them.

In dating situations, I suppose I can forgive men being intimidated by women and acting goofy because of it. But in professional interactions, men being intimidated by smart women and acting poorly because of it is a form of sexism. It implies the inherent possibility of a non-professional relationship at some future time. And furthermore, it implies inequality between the sexes because a man with those same attributes is probably less likely to elicit the same sorts of goofy behavior.

I of course can't speak for all women,  but for myself and other women I know, we just want to be treated politely and respectfully, aka, professionally. Not strange specimens to act weird around, or to point out our Otherness at every possible moment, or to always be viewing us as competitors Who Must Be Destroyed. There's enough cool problems in science that we really can all peacefully occupy the same space.