Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Huge Ratios

I work in one of the nicest buildings on campus, so I often see campus tours of future students and their families come through. Student-teacher ratio is a big thing to a lot of people, so it always surprises me when I see the ambassadors (tour guides) showing off the 500-seat auditorium. Shouldn't they avoid that room?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Second Grade Economy

I was talking with two second graders on the way to school this morning. One mentioned a few people he knows that have to work two jobs, and the following exchange took place:
Me: It's just a hard time for people right now.

D: It started right when Barack Obama became president. It must have been something he did.

A: Maybe Obama will make the bosses of companies pay less so they'll have more money to pay their employees.

Obviously the economy didn't start going down right when Obama came into office like D said. I wonder where kids get that stuff, though. Is it like a game of Operator, with news agencies not quite reporting everything properly, then parents not quite understanding what is reported on the news (or maybe they listen to Rush), then the kids don't quite understand what their parents say, and then other kids at recess don't quite understand what the other kids say, and then one of them talking to me blames the entire recession on Obama?

If only the fix could be as elegantly simple as proposed by A. Just lower taxes so everyone will have more. In theory it's a great idea. The problem is that the bigger government gets, the more we depend on it. Private enterprises can't compete with government subsidized programs, so they fail. Then when tax revenues dip, the government programs fail. So do we raise taxes to prop up government programs and further reduce the amount available for private spending? The opposite effect, at least in the short term, of lowering taxes means government programs will be cut, and although that leaves people with more of their own money, it takes time for private enterprises to grow back, and the poor who rely on government programs while not paying any taxes themselves simply see a cut in services with no more money to make up the difference.

There are no easy answers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Feel the Chemistry

My office is in the same building as the Chemistry Department. It's in a renovated portion of a storage room in the basement, but it's nicely done, so it's not as bad as it sounds besides the poor cell phone reception.

In the classroom right next to my office, Chemistry holds weekly departmental seminars, where they bring in experts from around the world to hold lectures. The following are some of the exciting topics recently:
  • Tuning Photophysical Properties with ancillary Ligands in Ru(II) Mono-Diimine Complexes

  • Meso-Tetraarylporphyrins - Synthesis of, Selective Derivatization, and Possibilities of Application

  • Catalytic and Regulatory Mechanisms of Tyrosine Hydroxylase

    ...and everyone's favorite...

  • Nanomolecular Architectures: The Application of Crystal Engineering to Metallodendritic Assembly

Mixed in with all these loquaciously incomprehensible seminar sessions is this presentation coming up in a couple weeks:
  • How To Make Your Students Hate You Less If Not Necessarily Love You More

I might just attend that session instead of only eating their treats and going back to my office.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Celebrity Death Match

During the Pitt-UConn game that just ended, one of the announcers made some comment in an ominous-sounding voice about a player calling the game a "celebrity death match." A quick search turns up about 100 hits of the same AP article, most of which contain some reference to celebrity death match in the title. The article contains the following:
"We want UConn. It's going to be just like it was the last time -- it's going to be a celebrity death match," Blair said, laughing, invoking some pro wrestling terminology.

Nope, he's not referring to pro wrestling.

With all the research sports writers are used to doing for obscure records like the most consecutive home court regular season nonconference wins, you'd think they could have googled "Celebrity Death Match" and clicked on the first link to figure out he was talking about a bloody claymation MTV show pitting various celebrities against each other.

It was simply a way of stating that it's going to be a physical game, and someone might get bloody. As much as the sports media made a big deal about calling this game a celebrity death match, they have no idea what it even means. Of course, it doesn't come close to how excited they are when they get to say "Big Dance". Every time someone writes or says "Big Dance" I can picture them thinking, "Hee hee, I understand the phrases that athletes use. I'm in. I'm down with the playas." Of course, you are.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Little Brother


Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author and activist. His book Little Brother stands in both the science fiction and activism camps. He builds an argument for everyone to learn more about the technology that is pervasive in our lives, with a story of daring teenagers taking on the government. The book's byline, "Big Brother is watching you. Who's watching back?", hints at this showdown between technophiles and bureaucrats. San Francisco is turned into a police state after the Bay Bridge is blown up by terrorists. A group of teenagers fight back against abusive behavior by agents of the government, using their tech-smarts to expose injustices and force the government to reign in an overzealous Department of Homeland Security. Although at first glance the storyline appears over the top, neither the injustices being done nor the technologies used to expose them are very far off from what is happening today. Political ideologies aside, what saves the lives of these kids and many others is education and openness.


The most obvious work that this book may be compared to is George Orwell's 1984. In that book, Big Brother is the iconic face of The Party (or government), and Winston Smith is the protagonist who rebels and is eventually brought into submission by The Party. At the beginning of Little Brother, the protagonist Marcus goes by the handle w1n5t0n, pronounced Winston. The term Little Brother is used by the media in the book to describe the members of the Abuses of Authority movement, "who watch back against the Department of Homeland Security's anti-terrorism measures, documenting the failures and excesses." There are several similarities in the storylines, with characters devising methods to avoid surveillance, dealing with issues of who to trust, and government-sponsored torture. The most notable deviation from the 1984 script, other than Marcus being a nonconforming teenager rather than an experienced government employee like Winston, is that Little Brother has a relatively positive ending. Although the strings are not tied up as neatly as a Perry Mason episode, it's not at all a stretch to say that Marcus and friends "win" in the end.

Another book that provides a more scholarly approach to a similar topic is Larry Lessig's Code: Version 2.0. Both books point out that technology may be manipulated to whatever end we desire. The only way to ensure biases or bugs are eliminated is through transparency, since trust is often lacking. An important concept in Lessig’s book is that of latent ambiguities, which come about since technology moves faster than the law. A current example of this is the complaint from the Author’s Guild that Amazon’s e-book reader Kindle would be able to read books aloud without…gasp…purchasing audio rights. [Doctorow's response to the Kindle controversy]

Little Brother is aimed at young adults. It seeks to lure in these digital natives with fast-paced action, distrust of adults, cool technology, and a sprinkling of sexuality. It is important that this next generation make the leap from being consumers of technology to producers, so there will be new creators of technology to take the place of the baby boomers as they begin to retire.

In the foreword of the book, Doctorow states the following: "This book is meant to be something you do, not just something you read. The technology in this book is either real or nearly real. You can build a lot of it. You can share it and remix it. You can use the ideas to spark important discussions with your friends and family. You can use those ideas to defeat censorship and get onto the free Internet, even if your government, employer or school doesn't want you to."

In the afterword, Bruce Schneier, a well known security technologist, and Andrew Huang, a researcher known for hacking the Xbox, point out the amount of dysfunction in the world today. Security through obscurity seems to be the pervasive method in the world for keeping us safe; however, openness and courage to stand up for our freedoms is what will make us safer. Schneier admonishes us to pay attention to the world and try to figure out how it works, and by doing so we will begin to worry about the things that will actually make us safer and stop relying on technologies that can be defeated with a little bit of knowledge and a ballpoint pen.


The book follows the exploits of a seventeen year old high school student, Marcus Yallow, who uses technology to his advantage work his way around the technical measures instituted by his school district to keep the students in line. The school is truly a place that Paolo Freire would speak out against, as students are monitored and disciplined for speaking their minds; they are oppressed, rather than being allowed to participate in the learning process.

In rebelling against the oppression, these students learn about and utilize technology to encrypt chat sessions, block RFID tracking, and confuse gait-recognition cameras in the halls. As they are out skipping school, a terrorist attack occurs, and Marcus and his friends are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as possible suspects in the attack. After being held and questioned for several days and then released, they return to a city which has been locked down by the DHS. Innocent people are being stopped and questioned by police to ask why they visited certain parts of the city, since they are tracked by their RFID cards that are used for payment on bridges, toll roads, and mass transportation.

Marcus organizes an underground movement utilizing a special Linux distribution called ParanoidLinux that could run on Xboxes that had been handed out for free by Microsoft the previous year. They teach other youth around the city to reprogram RFID cards to throw off the DHS's data mining techniques. The movement gains momentum, but eventually it becomes obvious that the DHS has infiltrated the so-called Xnet. A small group of Xnet members use encryption technology to create a trusted group within the Xnet. The more this trusted group organizes and tries to rebel, the more they realize that the DHS is closer to figuring out who they are. Their only choice is to go public with the abuses being handed out by the DHS, as they bring in more agents and apply more pressure to finding these supposed terrorists.

In a conversation with his father, who did not know Marcus was the leader of this group rebelling against the DHS's tactics, his dad points out that, "The Bill of Rights was written before data-mining. The right to freedom of association is fine, but why shouldn't the cops be allowed to mine your social network to figure out if you're hanging out with gangbangers and terrorists?" Marcus' response was, "Taking away our privacy isn't catching terrorists: it's just inconveniencing normal people." His father seems willing to accept the inconveniences of being stopped without cause while looking for the bad guys, while Marcus is actively fighting for rights guaranteed us in the Constitution. In the process they address some of the latent ambiguities that Lessig discusses in Code: Version 2.0.

The publisher provides a free Teacher's Guide which contains writing activities for students with thought-provoking questions to help students enhance their analysis of the book. This is a nice addition for classroom use, covering issues such as understanding truth and reality, history, research techniques, code transparency, privacy and surveillance, righteous rebellion, torture, legal and civil rights, marketing techniques, protests, trust, and problem solving. There is really something in this book for everyone. With the book’s Creative Commons license, a teacher can download and distribute the book for free to students. If the sex or some of the language is a little too risqué, it can be legally modified.


Very little can hold the short attention span of the upcoming generation, but this novel has what it takes to keep them motivated to turn the page while learning a little bit about technology. The action and exciting technology are enough to keep the reader hooked, even as Doctorow explains the basics of cryptography, networking, IP tunneling, and RFID. It is enjoyable to learn more about the technologies, even though most people would not admit to being interested in such things. He directly ties technology into the story and how these teens are using the technology to fight back. Schneier states, "Cory invited me into the last few pages of his book because he wanted me to tell you that security is fun. It's incredibly fun. It's cat and mouse, who can outsmart whom, hunter versus hunted fun. I think it's the most fun job you can possibly have. If you thought it was fun to read about Marcus outsmarting the gait-recognition cameras with rocks in his shoes, think of how much more fun it would be if you were the first person in the world to think of that." Doctorow did a good job of showing how fun and interesting a more advanced understanding of technology can and should be. With the afterwords by Schneier and Huang, he ties back to his statements at the beginning of the book to explicitly remind the readers why he wrote it.

Unlike movies like Independence Day, Jurassic Park, and The Net, where technology is incorrectly utilized in unrealistic ways, the technologies in Little Brother either already exist or would be relatively easy to implement. The ParanoidLinux distribution mentioned in the book did not exist at the time the book was written, but interested Open Source programmers have begun putting together an operating system that mirrors the capabilities mentioned in the book. Much of the software used already exists, but the ParanoidLinux distribution is simply bringing them all together in one package. The use of real technology is very important, as it removes some of the need for suspension of disbelief, making it easier to get lost in the story.

A more in depth look at the characters in the story, however, reveals a superficial, one-dimensional nature to most of the players. There was just a lack of complexity that was somewhat distracting. The evil characters are pure evil. His friends and family are either 100% supportive of him or want absolutely nothing to do with his plans. We do get inside Marcus' head as the majority of the book is written in first person, from his point of view. We see Marcus' inner struggle and growth as the reluctant leader in the rebellion he spawned on a whim, but see little character development in those around him. Marcus does have fights with one of his friends and his girlfriend, but they seem to be more devices in furthering Marcus' growth rather than their own. I kept waiting for the twist, like his girlfriend being a spy or his dad working to help the DHS improve its data mining techniques as they close in on Marcus. That twist never came. Even the supposedly surprise DHS informant was not out of line with previous interactions with that character.


As technology departments at universities around the country struggle to attract females into their programs, Little Brother can be used as a recruiting tool. There are just as many tech-savvy, important females in the story as there are males. Computer Science suffers from a lack of understanding among both males and females as to what you can do with a degree in that field besides sitting in a dark basement writing line after line of code. Being able to program is an important part of the story, but so is understanding and using technology that has been created by others in unique ways.

I hesitate using the term "must-read", but Little Brother is high up on my recommendation list. It is not often that a book with a decidedly technology-rich storyline can reach out to both readers that are tech-savvy and less knowledgeable in a way that makes them want to learn more. Doctorow makes it easy for his readers by telling them what he wants them to do when they finish the book, presenting a compelling story, concluding with another call to action, and providing a list of more sources to turn to with their new-found interest in security, technology, and counterculture books and electronic resources.