Geekamama


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Aunt CompSci wants YOU!

Can social media inspire more young women to explore computer science? It’s an idea Jocelyn Goldfein, a Director of Engineering at Facebook, discussed in an interview with the Seattle Times a few weeks ago. Bringing more visibility to the women who built popular features like the news feed and photo viewer could interest teenage girls in tech-related careers, she says.

I’ll admit that it’s a start, but I think it’s going to take much more than that.

Software engineering has a big strike against it right from the get-go: it’s still perceived as a guys’ world–one full of gadget-loving geeks whose idea of a good weekend is blasting their way through the latest shoot-em-up video game. Guys who are intelligent to the point of cockiness, but lacking somewhat in social awareness. Most teenage girls aren’t going to find the appeal in a world like that.

When I look back at my high-school self, I see someone who already knew what her career was going to be, and the only keyboarding involved would be writing up the news stories I’d been chasing all day. Journalism seemed like a great fit for me; I earned scholarships and assembled a good clip file. But as I learned more about the hours and workdays, the shine came off a bit. When I was a senior in college, I got interested in the potential of the World Wide Web thing–remember, this was the mid-90s, when it wasn’t the ubiquitous presence that it is today. Less than a year after I finished my Journalism degree, I was back in grad school studying computer science.

I’d like to claim that what changed my course was the foresight that we were on the edge of a paradigm shift, and I wanted to be in on the beginning. But in fact the only reason I even knew about the web was because some friends of mine had gotten me interested in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), one of the early chat networks, and people who were more tech-minded than me were starting to talk about this internet thing.

What draws people into the field that eventually becomes their career? For many of my female peers, it was because computers and programming were something they got into when they were young, and that appeal never went away entirely. But when it came time to choose a degree program, a lot of us looked elsewhere. Is that because that other career path simply seemed a better fit? Or did the idea of darkened rooms, flickering monitors, and the complete lack of a social life put us off?

These days, there are a lot more young women online than there were when I was growing up. But most of them are there to use the software, not to create it. Knowing how to use a computer isn’t anything special anymore; in fact, it’s more or less required in our day-to-day lives. And yet, the number of women studying software and systems is down from previous decades. Less than one in five computer science majors are women, says the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

To draw more women into the fields of computer science and engineering, the most important thing we need to do is change the perception that’s it’s a playground for “brogrammers.” And yes, maybe Goldfein’s idea of giving more visibility to female programmers will help with that. But I think it’s the wrong presentation. “Look at this woman who is a programmer!” is not going to do it; all it does is emphasize the rarity of women in the field. We have to get to “Look at this programmer who happens to be a woman,” before we can achieve that mental shift.


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Hashtag #momfail

I know, I know, everyone out there thinks I’m a paragon of parenting perfection. Thank you, thank you very much. But I have my MomFails just as much as anyone else does, and sometimes I even tell people about them.

There was the time we left Kiddo’s favorite stuffed animal Doggie at home when embarking on a week-long trip to California. There have been numerous occasions when we’ve gone out to dinner, only to find the diaper bag was missing some important equipment. And then… there are the ones I feel compelled to share with the Twitterverse.

Oh well. At least I’m not alone.


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Is privacy just an act?

I keep trying to write something up about the recent New York Times article on how Target gleans information from shoppers to better, well, target them as customers. I’ve swung from “that’s a little eerie” over to “yeah, but data mining can be fun! and beneficial!” to “the practice shouldn’t be banned, but customers need to be aware that it’s happening.” In the end, the one thing that I keep coming back to is this: it’s a little silly to complain about our personal data being used, when we put so much of it out there voluntarily.

Update: Here’s a better summary of the issue: How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did

 

Any time you use a credit card, sign up for a discount shopping card, or create an online account with your personal email address, you’re giving the recipient a way to keep track of the actions associated with that ID. Ever give a doctor’s office or other service your social security number? I’d put money down that they aren’t planning to use it for tax purposes.

People share personal stories on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, choosing to pull back the curtain to the world. Once it’s out there on the ‘net, it’s out there forever. People have lost their jobs because of their Facebook updates, and have been detained by TSA for what they posted on Twitter.

Personally, I’ve been an un-fan of Facebook since the update last October. For the past five months, the songs you’ve listened to and the news stories you’ve read on many websites have gotten shared automatically, rather than letting you choose for yourself. Oh, and that can happen even when you’re not signed in. Sometimes it surprises me how many people are okay with that.

Those of us who are parents have another privacy issue to consider: the privacy of our children, many of whom may not be old enough or savvy enough to realize the implications of the way their parents share (or overshare) information. I wrestled with this issue myself not long after starting this blog, when considering whether I should post pictures of my cute little Kiddo here.

I’m not deluding myself; even though I use a nickname for him here and on Twitter, it wouldn’t be that hard for someone to find out his real name. Birth certificates are public records; depending on the state, all you might need is the child’s date of birth and the full name of one or both parents. How to find those out? Marriage, divorce, and name change records are public data too. And if those don’t pan out, there’s always Spokeo, where fifteen bucks will buy you all kinds of personal information.

Oh, but there’s a much easier route. One common practice on Facebook is to tag pictures of children with the names of their parents. Look for pictures of me, and you’ll find pictures of Kiddo captioned with his real name. Many of those are in albums restricted to “Friends of friends” — which really isn’t a restriction at all, considering how most of people’s hundreds of friends also have hundreds of friends themselves.

So, given all that, isn’t it a little hypocritical to complain about the way Target collects and uses personal data about individual shoppers’ purchases? In my view, the only line that they might have overstepped is not giving customers more disclosure that by shopping at Target, the company reserves the right to track the data that they volunteer. Discount cards and internet hotspots have this buried in the fine print that people generally skip over when they sign up, but there’s no notice on the door when you walk into Target. I’m sure that Target isn’t the only retailer that does this, either. They’re just the only one that got caught at it.


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On pins and egos

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally gotten myself sucked into Pinterest.

I’ve known about it for a couple of years now because one of my online friends was one of the very early beta users for it. She told some of us about it, I took a look, but wasn’t convinced. It seemed like it could be great for designers, or event planners, or anyone whose job and/or interests spent a lot of time focusing on visuals. Browse around the web and save images of stuff you like? I didn’t see the appeal.

Pinterest aims to connect people through the things and images they find interesting — that’s their mission statement, loosely paraphrased. When an image on the web catches your interest, you can “pin” it to a board – think of the virtual version of tearing out pictures from magazines and pinning them to a corkboard. You can have multiple boards, grouping your pins into different areas. As you pin images, they’re immediately visible to other users, who can then repin them to their own boards. Each pin includes a link back to the site of the original image, so if you pin an image from someone’s blog, you’ll have an easy way to get back to that blog post later.

Now, since the site is driven by the idea of using images found anywhere, without necessarily obtaining permission from the owner, there are some copyright tangles the company is currently working on untangling. Someone who makes a living creating unique images likely wouldn’t appreciate a casual visitor distributing them without permission. Pinterest does provide a browser add-in that automatically links a pin’s image back to the source site, but the site doesn’t provide any way to set security on your pins. Anything you pin is immediately available to the rest of the world, regardless of whether the original image wasn’t publicly available.

I can understand and sympathize with the people and companies claiming it’s copyright infringement. On the other hand, my own stance on publishing content to the Internet is that once you let it out there, it’s out of your hands and into the wild. If I write something on this blog or post it to Twitter, I must assume that anyone in the world can–and could well be–reading it. That includes family, friends, employers, and whoever it is that you’re writing snarky notes about. Even if a web site is configured to prevent people from right-click-copying an image, or a Facebook status is privatized to a select group of people, a really determined person can simply take a screen shot.

But I digress. Pinterest. I resisted, until last week. A different online friend posted a picture of a cake resembling a basket of M&Ms, and mentioned that it was from one of her husband’s Pinterest boards. That was the tipping point; while it’s no secret that the site’s primary user base is women, there had to be something to it if both my friend and her husband were on it.

I’ll just take a look, I thought. And then, I’ll set up an account, but just to follow other people I know. I’m not going to actually use it.

(People who’ve known me for a couple years may recognize this particular thought process.)

Username? That’s an easy decision, and besides, I wouldn’t want anyone else taking this one. And what the heck, I might as well throw some content up there, just for the heck of it…

And HERE is where Pinterest really sucked me in. Because as soon as I’d pinned a handful of images, mostly books and kid-related items, people started repinning them. Within that first hour, I got 24 repins. Do you know how long it took me to get 24 comments on this blog? Or 24 retweets on Twitter? Weeks and weeks. But on Pinterest, I got immediate validation that people liked me! They really liked me! (My pins, anyway.) I was hooked.

Prospective social media sites, take note, because I doubt I’m the only person who reacted like that. Everyone wants to be liked by others. Make your site members feel like they’re immediately popular, and they’ll come back again and again to get that ego boost.

And speaking of ego boosts, my own boards are here. Just in case you’re curious… or want to help feed my ego. 😉


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Newsflash!

Just in case you haven’t been closely watching your browser’s address bar, the primary URL of this blog is now geekamama.net. Now you don’t have to remember my first name, middle initial, and last name anymore when you’re trying to construct the URL to get here. Shielding that information from the general public is probably a good idea for me as well. If you’ve got the old URL bookmarked, it will still bounce you over to the official address; they’re both managed by WordPress.

Why .net instead of .com? Oh, it probably has something to do with when I took my first Networking class, back in the fall of 1995. A year and a half before then, in March 1994, Jon Postel had published an RFC* describing the set of top-level domains**, and what each one signified. They were:

  • COM – intended for commercial entities, i.e. companies
  • EDU – intended for educational institutions
  • GOV – intended for government agencies
  • MIL – intended for use by the U.S. military
  • INT – intended for organizations established by international treaties
  • NET – intended for the administrative computers of network service providers
  • ORG – the miscellaneous TLD for organizations that don’t fall into any of the other buckets

Over the past 18 years, ORG has come to be associated with nonprofit organizations, rather than being a catch-all for all the leftovers. NET has taken over some of that, but more often seems to be picked up by organizations as a secondary address that redirects to their main site, preventing potential confusion. (It doesn’t always work; compare www.toyota.com and www.toyota.net for an example.)

And COM? Poor COM. It’s evolved into the generic top-level domain for any and almost every web site out there. Businesses, blogs, news agencies, social networking sites, you name it. Even my smartphone browser provides a shortcut key for adding “.com” to the end of whatever you’re typing. I suspect most people sending email and surfing the web don’t ever think about what that trio of letters at the end of the address even means. It’s just a piece of punctuation at the end of a domain name.

So to answer the question of why I went with geekamama.net instead of geekamama.com: I confess it was sheer pedantry. This blog represents neither a commercial entity, nor an educational institution, nor a government department, nor a military agency, nor a non-profit organization, and it certainly didn’t come about through any treaty, let alone an international one. I picked .net because I’d been under the impression that .net was meant to be the TLD for recreational-use domains, until my husband (who has even more familiarity with this networking stuff than I do) asked if I’d become an internet provider.

I’m not sure why Postel and his contemporaries didn’t include a domain specifically intended for personal or private use. But perhaps it was because back then, no one realized what the simple concept of an interconnected network of networks would become. Maybe they didn’t realize that one day, people would rely on it not only to exchange scientific theories, but also to entertain themselves by sharing LOLcats and spamming friends with email forwards.

But fear not. If your fingers have been accustomed to automatically appending “.com” at the end of an address, you won’t go astray. I now own geekamama.com as well, and it will redirect you right back here. Anything for the hit count. 😉

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* Request for Comments. It’s generally considered a specification for how pieces of the Internet or Internet-related technology. Officially, it’s a proposal for discussion, but in many cases it’s considered canon*** even if it hasn’t been formally accepted as an official internet standard.

** This is the last piece of a website’s main URL or of an address email address. Generally abbreviated as TLD.****

*** I am aware that “canon” traditionally refers to ecclesiastical matters; however, in the geek world, it’s also used informally to mean the official backstory of a particular piece of fiction, and has been expanded in casual conversation to mean “the unofficial Official Way It Is.”

**** Not to be confused with the initialism TLDR, which stands for Too Long; Didn’t Read, and is used (usually in a deprecatory manner) to indicate that a piece of writing is not concise enough and/or interesting enough that the reader reads all the way to the end. Which is what this blog post has become.


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And now, the other side of the wall

Last week I talked about some of the puzzle events I play in. I also help run them, which includes creating the puzzles. And boy oh boy, you can pick up some really strange skills and knowledge when writing puzzles.

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve had lots of exposure to some very commonly used ciphers: Morse code, Braille, semaphore, ASCII encodings,  binary representations of numbers that correspond to letters of the alphabet. These turn up frequently in puzzles, although these days there’s been a trend to at least disguise that it’s an encoding-based puzzle. But after a time, you get to recognizing at least some of the most common letters; perhaps even being able to read them off without needing to look them up on your pocket geek card.

I’ve also had cause to look up more obscure knowledge. Do you know which words in the English language don’t use any vowel other than Y? I did at one time (at least, all the ones in my electronic dictionary.) What do the number ranges in the Dewey Decimal cataloging system mean? I needed to know that too for a puzzle I was creating a couple of years ago. Convert numbers from base-3 to base-10 without using a calculator? Yeah, I’ve got that.

While I’ve never quite gotten the hang of anagramming words in my head or deciphering cryptic crossword clues, I have picked up the habit that many authors have of seeing something unusual and thinking, there’s a puzzle in there somewhere. My personal favorite that I created using environmental data is from couple of years ago. One night I noticed that every other pillar in one of the Microsoft garages had both a row/column designator, and an arrow pointing north. I turned that into a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure game with a secret message embedded in the only successful path.

Sometimes, what we authors think is elegance falls flat with the solvers. [Note: One near-universal technique in writing puzzles is indexing, where you’re given a phrase and a number, and you take the letter from the sentence that corresponds to the number.] One year I designed a puzzle with a set of clues and answers, where the first hidden message came from indexing by the length of the answer into the clue, and then a second message came from indexing by the length of the clue into the answer. I thought it was brilliant. Everyone else… not so much. I still believe the design itself was elegant, and that the failure was just in my implementation. Well, we all have our little delusions.

It’s simultaneously much easier and much harder now that most solvers have smartphones – literally the entire internet in their pockets, as long as they stay within their carrier’s coverage area. It only takes a moment to look up the track listing for a collection of CDs, or the intersection of two particular interstate highways. I suspect that the greater availability of wireless connectivity is fostering an increase of puzzle styles that depend less on knowing (or hunting) trivia, and more on insight. To me, those are the ones that require more work to develop, but give the solver more satisfaction when they finish it.

As an author, you walk a narrow line in creating these puzzles. You want the insight to be just hidden enough so that the solvers feel smart in finding it, but not so obscure that they lose interest in looking for it. One philosophy I’ve heard is that there should be an inverse correlation between the amount of time needed to catch the insight and the amount of time required to do the rest of the puzzle. If it takes a long time to figure out what you need to do, then actually doing that work should go more quickly, and vice versa.

There are probably as many theories about how to create puzzles as there are puzzle authors. Everyone’s got a different feel for what’s “too hard” or “too easy,” and that line is also influenced by the size of the event you’re creating. For a weekend-long event, a 45-minute puzzle is considered quick. For a five-hour walking event, that same puzzle is one of the long ones. In the end, though, the best thing to hear from someone who’s solved your puzzle isn’t “That was easy!” or “Wow, that was really hard,” but rather, “That was fun.” It’s a battle of wits between author and solver; one that in the end, the author intends to lose.


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IRL vs. WWW

During the work week, I do a pretty good job of keeping on top of my online social circles. Five minutes here, fifteen minutes while eating lunch, draft a blog post on my phone while watching my test automation run. Weekends, however, are a different story.

This past weekend, for example, we were in the U-District on Saturday morning for Will Bake for Food. We loaded up on sweets and treats, then headed over near Seattle Center for lunch, meeting up with my sister and her boyfriend while we were there. We returned to the Eastside briefly, just long enough to pack up a bag for Kiddo and drop him off with the friends who were babysitting him, and then we headed right back to Seattle for an evening fondue party. Sunday found us back at Kids Quest Children’s Museum for an hour or two, then at a nearby restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. Once home, naps all around. Not a whole lot of time in there for extended online interaction.

Not all of our weekends are quite that packed, but quite a few of them are. Between now and the end of the year, we’re got only one unscheduled weekend. So finding time for internetting is harder to do. Every year I expect this sort of thing from the summer months, but it surprised me a little bit to find our November and December just as packed and pre-planned as six months ago was.

Sunday nights are generally for getting caught up on TV that we missed during the week, and skimming my favorite sites to see what internet drama popped up while I was off in the real world.

Just kidding. I save that for my Monday mornings.