Monday, March 28, 2011

Jean Bartik

This week at Scientopia, I write about computing pioneer Jean Bartik, who sadly passed away last week.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Agent's Smith Registry

I have just discovered the joy that is This one is probably my favorite so far:

Image Description*: Panel 1: Neo says, "So you just keep duplicating
your program over and over? Aren't you afraid of registry errors?"
Panel 2: Agent Smith says, "Mr. Anderson...Do you honestly think that I would allow
there to be any errors in my system's regist.."
Panel 3: Hugo Weaving in drag with an outlandish orange and yellow costume.
Panel 4: Agent Smith (I think?) with white light coming out of his eyes.

While we're talking about The Matrix, I just stumbled across this video of a recreation of a scene from the film in Lego. I somehow missed it the first time around when it came out in 2009, so in case you did too here it is:

You can also watch the side-by-side with the original film. It's amazing. 

* From now on I'm going to try to make my captions more accessible to readers who are blind and/or visually impaired. Please call me on it if I forget!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Oh, my, did a *girl* hack HB Gary?

Today at Scientopia I discuss the HB Gary hacker.

Friday, March 18, 2011

RSA hack - Trouble with a capital T

It seems RSA was hacked today. This means, if you use one of those nice little SecureID fobs to connect to your corporate server or bank, it may have been compromised.

This is a big deal. Using two-factor authentication is an industry gold standard, and RSA is one of the most prolific manufacturers of such fobs.

Securious has a nice write up of the fact vs. fiction surrounding the attack, including a note that this was an APT attack, not some random script kiddie in Germany.

I'm not trying to stir up panic here, but if you work with sensitive data, this might be a good time to add another layer of encryption on it*. There are lots of free solutions, like True Crypt, or if you're on a Mac the easiest thing to do is create a password protected disk image. Remember not to use the same password for your encrypted disk partition that you use for anything else (logging in, email, etc.). But also don't lose this password - if you do then your data is "irrevocably lost". Whee!

* Obviously all the "check with your (IT) doctor" disclaimers apply here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Finally, some useful internet activism

Great article in this Monday's Technology Review on different websites/apps set up to help people in Japan, such as Ushahidi, SparkRelief, and Hurricane Party.

I was happy to read about these efforts, and encourage you to participate with them and/or donate on your own.

For monetary donations, InterAction has a list of verified charitable organisations who are accepting donations, which also describes how they will use the funds. Definitely check InterAction or with the Better Business Bureau before donating - there are a lot of scams out there.

For non-monetary donations, you can donate frequent flyer milessocks, or send hopeful letters. (The sock guy mentioned letter writing as a thoughtful gift the Japanese will appreciate, which I think sounds like a great idea).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Channeling Ledisi

I've always been a big fan of Motown, so I was really excited to learn that for Black History Month the White House hosted a special Motown concert, broadcast by PBS last week. They had the greats - Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder,  and some newer musicians who are incredibly talented, like Amber Riley and John Legend.
The Supremes 

If you like Motown, check it out, absolutely worth an hour of your time. But the thing I want to highlight for this post is the difference in stage presence between two of the performers.

Now, keep in mind, this is a small venue, with chandeliers and pictures of George Washington in the background, an unusual repertoire for some of these artists (poor Seal), and a very lackluster sound engineer. Oh, and - performing in front of the Obamas. It's enough to make anyone nervous, even the big stars.

In the video, go to Chapter 9 (around 29:05), and watch and listen to a minute or two of Natasha Bedingfield's performance.

Now, skip back to Chapter 5 (around 15:14) and watch and listen to some of Ledisi's performance.

Spot a difference?

Ledisi is so relaxed in the music and the song and herself. She's not in any rush, she's not trying to be something she's not. She's just there, singing. As a result, I think the audience feels relaxed, and in sync with her.

I think this is something to aim for when interacting with people - when giving talks, interviewing for jobs, networking at conferences, teaching, whatever. When you're comfortable and at ease with yourself it shines through to others. The people who try too hard, you can spot them a mile away.

So my personal aim for the spring is to channel Ledisi. Because she's just made of awesome.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day!

Today is March 14th, or 3/14, and in geek culture we celebrate today as Pi day. Usually by wearing Pi T-shirts, baking pies, ordering pizza, and other such things.

I'm sadly too busy with deadlines and travel to cook, and don't own any Pi t-shirts, so instead I thought it would be fun to post some incredibly corny filk, complete with wonderfully punny pictures. Enjoy!

(cross-posted to Scientopia)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Social Network

Due to circumstances beyond my control (a long plane ride), I watched "The Social Network". I didn't really want to watch it, but also sort of did, kind of like a train wreck. I also wanted to see sudo*-Matt Welsh's cameo teaching Operating Systems.

I was pleased that Hollywood got some of the technobabble correct (apache with a SQL backend), and I loved that the closeup of Mark's laptop showed it running *nix. I also thought it was cute they re-branded the iBook laptop as "Book".  

However, I was greatly displeased with how the film portrayed women. By my count, there was only one female character who was not: a flake, a flirt, a drunk, a girlfriend, or crazy - and she was a lawyer with hardly any personality depth. Why were there no female engineers, or CS majors? Or, heck, I'd even take an Art History major. Just somebody with some brains to accompany the legs.

I was also displeased with how Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed. I don't know the real Mark, but the director seemed really dedicated to employing the geek-with-zero-social-interaction-skills trope. Couldn't the actor have smiled occasionally? Been somewhat friendly now and then?

So, Hollywood, your scorecard is: B+ for suspending my geek disbelief, but an F for perpetuating stereotypes.

(*) Pun intended! 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Signal Boost: TechWomen is Seeking Mentors

TechWomen, a new initiative sponsored by the US State Department, is looking for Mentors. Here's an excerpt from the Anita Borg Institute press release:
Palo Alto, CA, March 1, 2011 — The U.S. Department of State’s TechWomen initiative is now accepting cultural and technical mentors for its cutting-edge international exchange program that will bring the power of global business, technology, and education together to empower women and girls. TechWomen will pair female mentors from Silicon Valley with 38 women from communities with predominantly Muslim populations. These “TechWomen” will participate in a professional mentorship and exchange program at leading technology companies beginning in June 2011. Mentor applications are open until March 25, 2011; access the application for both technical and cultural mentors here. TechWomen is a public-private partnership in conjunction with the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Institute of International Education.
If you're interested in participating, you can learn more about the program here. It sounds like it could be a lot of fun!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dangerous by Design

I recently read this article, which describes hundreds of infants (and adults) mistakenly being over-radiated in hospitals.

Like others who were interviewed in the article and those who commented on it, I too am shocked and outraged. But not for the reasons you might think.

The problem is the manufacturers of this machine violated one of the most central tenants of systems design, and that is:
The system should be designed to help the user prevent errors
These CT scanners are clearly not well-designed to help radiology technicians avoid making mistakes. It should be difficult, not easy, to overdose an infant. There should be a scale on the exam table - if the patient is below a certain weight the radiation level will be limited, and only by entering an override code can that the dose be increased.

The system should run through a step-by-step procedure with the technician, requiring them to verbally say, "Yes, I have properly positioned the infant." "Yes, I have shielded them." etc.

Really, very simple stuff - but could help prevent an avalanche of errors.

I agree that increased licensing / re-certification of techs is also a good idea, but they still need to be using  systems designed to help them make fewer errors in the first place.