Hello, World!


Opinion columns from
The Daily Princetonian


Brian W. Kernighan

Copyright © 2013

All rights reserved.


This volume, updated in May 2013, includes 45 opinion columns written for The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper at Princeton University, from 2006 to 2013. I'm grateful to the Opinion editors each year, who offered advice and their own opinions, and accepted with good grace my unwillingness to change my deathless prose to match their editorial requirements. I'm also deeply indebted to my friend and fellow columnist Joshua Katz, Professor of Classics, for his unfailing support.

  Princeton, NJ, May 2013

Table of Contents

Advise and consent (10/02/06)
Can you hear me now? (11/06/06)
The sounds of music (12/04/06)
Too precious to waste on the young? (02/05/07)
What do they teach in professor school? (03/05/07)
Lost and found (04/02/07)
The Sons of Martha (05/07/07)
Sometimes the old ways are best (09/17/07)
By the dawn's early light (10/15/07)
Other princes (11/19/07)
Making the grade (1/21/08)
Where the books are (2/18/08)
The bleeding edge (3/24/08)
By the numbers (4/21/08)
Native guide (9/11/08)
Leading indicators (10/20/08)
What would Orwell do? (11/24/08)
The ratings game (1/7/09)
Washington crossings (2/16/09)
Gladly learn, and gladly teach (3/23/09)
What makes smart phones smart? (4/20/09)
How was your summer? (9/21/09)
Home alone (10/19/09)
A sense of where you are (11/23/09)
Millions, billions, zillions (2/22/10)
Action figures (3/29/10)
Friends and family (4/26/10)
Call me Ned (9/27/10)
We're number one! (10/25/10)
Sic transit (11/30/10)
Anti social (1/31/11)
Enter to grow in wisdom (3/1/11)
Read any good books lately? (4/4/11)
Spring is sprung (5/2/11)
Powerless (10/3/11)
Give me your undivided attention (11/7/11)
Who goes there? (12/5/11)
So you want to write a book (3/12/12)
Preview of coming attractions (4/16/12)
I don't belong here! (9/24/13)
Watchbirds (10/22/12)
D construction (11/26/12)
The very model of a modern major major (2/3/13)
Somewhere in time (3/4/13)
Hack Princeton (4/19/13)


Also by Brian Kernighan

The Elements of Programming Style (with P. J. Plauger)
Software Tools (with P. J. Plauger)
Software Tools in Pascal (with P. J. Plauger)
The C Programming Language (with D. M. Ritchie)
The AWK Programming Language (with A. V. Aho and P. J. Weinberger)
The Unix Programming Environment (with R. Pike)
AMPL: A Modeling Language for Mathematical Programming (with R. Fourer and D. M. Gay)
The Practice of Programming (with R. Pike)
The Go Programming Language (with A. A. A. Donovan)
Understanding the Digital World

Advise and consent

October 2, 2006

Shopping period is over, schedule conflicts are resolved (though not always in ideal ways) and everyone is settled into their courses. Academic advising is on the back burner until late November.

By now I've advised my new freshmen, caught up with most of my sophomores, and talked about courses, independent work, grad schools and jobs with a lot of juniors and seniors. Whether good or bad, much advice has been dispensed, and I sometimes wonder what effect it has.

I started academic advising in the fall of 2001, late on a Monday afternoon. My qualifications for the job were that I had been on the faculty for one year and had taken a three-hour course that morning. Adviser training was a blur of course numbers and prerequisites and premed requirements and AP credits and distributions, all knotted together by intricate paths through departments and certificate programs that I had never even heard of, let alone known intimately.

"Unprepared" doesn't begin to capture how woefully ignorant I was of what my innocent new freshmen would need to know and of how to steer them safely through the maze. Nor was I alone; most new advisers come to the position with a similar lack of expertise.

In the event, I muddled through, rescued dozens of times by real experts like John Hodgson, the Dean of Forbes, his counterparts from the other colleges and my more experienced faculty colleagues.

In retrospect, it appears that no one was permanently damaged. The last of that group graduated last June. A handful took five years instead of four, but they all eventually made it, apparently in good condition, and they have gone on to a variety of successes, including four or five first-rate grad schools, a med school or two and some truly interesting jobs. I can't claim any agency for this, of course, but I do take a great deal of pleasure from it. I've also made some wonderful friends, both among the students who were so patient with my learning curve and among the residential college staff and faculty advisers.

I've gotten better at advising over the years — the weird rules about rescinding a pass/D/fail have finally been internalized, and I can tell you how to get a summer course approved — but much remains just as fuzzy as it was then. The difference is that I don't worry about it as much, not because I care less about my advisees but because I now know where to get help and I've seen how the system bends ever so flexibly when it should.

I've also figured out what the job is, at least to some degree. Harry Truman once said, "I have found that the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want, and then advise them to do it." Weighing in from an earlier time, Samuel Johnson wrote, "Young people are readier to talk than to attend, and good counsel is only thrown away upon those who are full of their own perfections." In short, the adviser's role is to listen to your story, get you to say clearly what most appeals to you, agree that it's a fine idea, then sign the mysterious SCORE form.

All this presupposes, however, that the advisee has thought pretty hard about what he or she wants to do, and that's the place where things sometimes break down. "Do you know any good courses?" I've been asked that very question (though not recently), and of course the answer is "Yes, lots of them", but it doesn't really narrow the options.

By hearsay and even a bit of firsthand experience, advisers will know of some really good courses that might fill a gap or painlessly kill off a distribution requirement, but no adviser should be telling you what to do if you haven't figured out at least the basics for yourself. To get anything out of this exercise, you have to put something into it. Showing up for an advising appointment without even a copy of Course Offerings isn't the best way to plan for the next semester or for your ultimate escape with degree in hand.

So talk to friends and family, dig through online opinions and set out a tentative plan. If you've done your homework, the rest is easy — your adviser will be able to advise and happy to consent. Keep it in mind for when you meet again at the end of November.

Can you hear me now?

November 6, 2006

I'm certainly not an uber-geek, but I spend a lot of time with computers and I teach a course about how computers and communications affect society, so in theory I should be an expert on things technological. But every once in a while there are hints of cracks in the facade. This year they've converged on a pervasive technology where I've clearly fallen way behind.

In July there was a story of a guy cheating on his wife and trading hot text messages with his girlfriend via cell phone. He decided to upgrade and sold the old one (the phone, not the girlfriend) on eBay, where the buyer, who was doing a study about what information remains on secondhand cell phones, discovered the messages. One imagines that the guy might be a bit worried that his wife will find out.

The story was a great example for the first lecture of my class, illustrating how technology can have utterly unexpected consequences. For me it was intriguing on several fronts (leaving aside how satisfying text-message sex might be): why would the messages be stored on the phone, and how many could it hold anyway?

My class right now is in Peyton 145, a decent-enough lecture room compared to most, in an almost unknown building just east of the tortured metal of the new science library. One thing that Peyton 145 has going for or against it, depending on your point of view, is that there's cell phone coverage in the room. This is a new experience — my previous classes have mostly been in the basement of Friend, which is still mercifully beyond the reach of Verizon, T-Mobile and the rest.

At the beginning of one lecture, someone found a cell phone on the floor, presumably dropped during the previous class. I left it on the table at the front of the room, figuring that its owner would eventually retrace his or her steps. Silly me — there's a much more obvious solution if one is tech savvy. Twenty minutes into the hour it rang, and when I answered, a female voice said "Do you have my phone?"

I worked for many years for AT&T, the company that invented the cell phone and that, famously, believed the consulting firm that advised them in 1983 that there would never be much of a market for a portable phone. AT&T subsequently went through grim times, including being bought out, but the consulting firm continues to thrive. Draw your own conclusions, though it does suggest there's no need to be right if you're convincing.

At AT&T I even worked for a time on software for figuring out the best places to put cell phone equipment, so perhaps it's a kind of rough justice that my own cell phones have never worked very well. The campus is full of students permanently on the phone. The highways are dangerously crowded with idiots blathering at 75 miles an hour. In the city, schizophrenics talking to themselves are vastly outnumbered by hands-free cell phone users, acting just as oddly but providing cover for the truly disturbed. My phone, however, didn't work at home, in my office or anywhere else. The final straw came last month when I spent three days in midtown New York and was unable to make a single call.

Thus it was that I found myself exploring the cell phone stores that have sprung up like Starbucks on every corner and in every mall. Salespeople were always polite but visibly astonished at the antiquity of my phone (bought in 2000, shortly after the end of the Jurassic period) and my usage pattern (rarely more than one minute per month), and it was hard to find common ground. I just want to make occasional calls. What would I do with a "basic" phone that only has Bluetooth, a video camera, voice dialing, downloadable ringtones, an Internet browser and calling plans that begin at 700 minutes a month?

In the end, I bought a new phone that appears to have most of the above, though I have yet to plow through the 120-page instruction manual to be sure. It lets me make phone calls, but it often doesn't work in my office and barely in my home. It takes pictures but refuses to send them anywhere. And it costs more. So I am now less ignorant of this brave new world but no more happy in it. I have no desire to emulate the multitude whose phones have been surgically attached to their ears so they can talk 24/7, but it sure would be nice to have a phone that works.

The sounds of music

December 4, 2006

"Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
      Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
      Become the touches of sweet harmony."

The iPod has been an enormous success: 60 million have been sold, and even a short walk around campus suggests that thousands of those sales have been to Princeton students, for whom the distinctive white earbuds are the path through which the sounds of music creep.

In mid-October, Newsweek interviewed Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, for the fifth anniversary of the iPod. Mr. Jobs was asked whether he was worried about Microsoft's about-to-be-released iPod competitor, the Zune. His response also mentioned ears, though without Shakespeare's imagery or language. "In a word, no. I've seen the demonstrations on the Internet about how you can find another person using a Zune and give them a song they can play three times. It takes forever. By the time you've gone through all that, the girl's got up and left! You're much better off to take one of your earbuds out and put it in her ear. Then you're connected with about two feet of headphone cable."

I'm not au courant enough with today's social customs to know whether this "stick it in your ear" approach would be deemed sweet or romantic or just gross, but Mr. Jobs does know something about marketing, so I would put my money on his conclusions, if not his technique. A bit of quantitative reasoning shows that 60 million iPods at perhaps $200 each is $12 billion. That revenue would be a modest drop in any Microsoft bucket, but it's not shabby either.

At the heart of the rivalry between the iPod and the Zune is a life-and-death struggle to make money by selling something — digital music — that can be copied in unlimited amounts and distributed everywhere in the blink of an eye, and all for free. When Napster appeared in 1999 (how long ago that seems now), it showed that there was a huge demand for music, especially if the price was right, and Napster's price of zero was hard to beat.

The recording industry decided that they were losing money because people were downloading music for free instead of paying high prices for CD's with a dozen songs, only one or two of which were good. The RIAA sued Napster out of business and then began to sue potential customers, a marketing strategy that continues to this day. Apple came up with a better idea — offer songs online for a flat 99 cents and sell great portable gadgets for playing them. Apple has resisted pressures to change the pricing structure and their digital rights management has been pretty reasonable, so their business is booming.

By contrast, the Zune appears not to be as well thought out. I can send you a song wirelessly (the Zune's big selling point) but the song can only be played three times, and, no matter what, it disappears into the ether or the bit bucket after three days. Music that you might have bought earlier through Microsoft's "Plays For Sure" program won't play at all on the Zune. It doesn't work with Windows Media Player and not yet with Vista, the brand new version of Windows. Microsoft often gets things right in the end, but I suspect that the iPod will hang on to its market share for a while yet.

Let's do a bit more QR. Apple has made $1.5 billion selling songs through iTunes; that's 1.5 billion songs or about 25 songs per iPod. But a typical iPod can hold thousands of songs, so most iPods contain little if any music purchased from Apple, and I'd be willing to bet that most of the songs still come from sharing of one kind or another, in spite of the RIAA's efforts.

Meanwhile, my personal search for good music involves a weekly visit to the Princeton Record Exchange. After some initial binge buying, it became clear that discipline was called for, so now I won't buy any CD that costs more than $2. That doesn't limit me much, and my collection has exploded in the past five years. Two dollars a CD is way below 99 cents a song, and I don't lease the bits — I own them, in an open format that will never go away. With low prices and no DRM, I buy all kinds of music on speculation, and pass it on to someone else if it doesn't work out. One final QR exercise: I could rip my 600 CD's into MP3 and load them all onto a single iPod with room to spare. Maybe it's time to buy one after all.

"Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn:
      With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear
      And draw her home with music."

Too precious to waste on the young?

February 5, 2007

"What am I going to take?" is the burning question for everyone during shopping period. The good news is that there is an endless number of interesting courses, from AAS to WWS; the bad news, of course, is that they're all scheduled at exactly the same time. Whoever said that "Time is nature's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen at once" had never seen the pileups on MW and TTh at 11 a.m.

There's another group who worried about this question a few weeks ago, people that we all see but don't really notice. In the back of almost every medium to large class is a collection of students who don't fit the 18-to-22-year old demographic of the typical Princeton undergrad; indeed, many of them look more like grandparents (or, as my wife observes, like me.) These are the community auditors.

I had never heard of community auditors until five or six years ago, when someone asked if a couple of them could attend my class. The ground rules were simple: auditors had to sit at the back and say nothing (just like regular undergrads). In fact, it's a bit more complicated than that — they have to stand in line, way before the semester starts, to sign up for the one or two courses they want, hoping that the auditor quota won't be reached. They also pay a not inconsequential fee of $120 per course.

Ever since, I have had a few auditors in each of my classes. They are readily identifiable by age, though not all are "senior citizens," but they are also distinguished by a degree of regular attendance and attentiveness not always achieved by the younger generation. They are, to a man or woman, remarkably nice people, accomplished, eager to learn and great fun to talk to. Some have become good friends, an unexpected but wonderful benefit.

When I first encountered community auditors, it occurred to me that I could audit courses too. In theory, there might be time to audit one course each semester, though in practice it usually only works in the spring. It's been pretty easy to disguise myself as a community auditor; indeed, I was even carded once in POL 380 by a clipboard-carrying lady who was weeding out interlopers. ("Faculty," I whispered, and she left me alone.) By now I've audited half a dozen courses, not only filling in some of the giant holes in my formal education, but also seeing how gifted teachers do their thing so well.

One gets a different perspective on the educational process by sitting in the back instead of standing at the front. It's easy to estimate what fraction of students cut classes, by counting empty seats over the semester or by noticing which familiar faces show up only infrequently. One can see what's happening on the laptops whose screens are hidden from the instructor. (There's some diligent note-taking, to be sure, but also a lot of equally diligent emailing, chatting, game-playing and random surfing.) One can monitor the student diet, or at least portable components like bagels and coffee. And one even gets hints of social life by observing the whispered conversations, the continual checking of cell phones and the occasional semiprivate public displays of affection. "Multitasking" is the most positive spin one could put on these lecture-hall activities, and not surprisingly, those who sit further toward the back of the room seem to pay less attention to the front and more to the distractions.

Sleeping in class, however, is more easily seen from the front. Some narcolepsy is caused by boring lectures and lecturers, but it's also true that most students are in the middle of four years of major sleep deprivation, and class is the only time to catch up. So I'm pretty sympathetic to those who doze off — I've certainly followed suit in some late afternoon seminars.

But what about those who just never show up? It has often surprised me how frequently people cut classes. An individual Princeton course retails for $4,125 (a startling figure that you can verify on the Continuing Education website). It's not a meaningful computation, of course, but consider: if a course has 24 lectures, that's about $170 each, which is more than pocket change. It would seem like a Good Thing to go to every lecture and pay attention at least some of the time. Failing that, is it better to surf and sleep in the back of McCosh 10 or in the comfort of one's own room? Good question. Maybe we should ask the community auditors. I think they have it figured out.

What do they teach in professor school?

March 5, 2007

This is the time of year when our department begins to interview faculty candidates. Every week we see one or two bright young things (relatively speaking — they are usually in their late-20s or even mid- 30s) who want to join the academic rat race. They spend a day or two talking to faculty members for half an hour each, they have lunch with the chair, they go to dinner with the few people whose waistlines and stomachs can stand yet another dinner at some downtown restaurant and they give a talk late in the afternoon in a darkened room where everyone from grad students to senior faculty can fall asleep together. From this process, we pick the best and the brightest to educate the youth of America.

It's clear that most of these worthy people have had a lot of advice on how to give a formal academic presentation. Their PowerPoint slides are beautifully organized, the background designs are works of art, bullet points fly in from all directions, the animations jump and spin and the sequence follows an immutable formula: the problem, the prior work, the contributions of the thesis, the future work, the acknowledgments. It's incredibly soporific, and I confess without much embarrassment that I often doze off.

But when I wake up, I wonder — these fine young people have been taught how to give a great job talk, but what have they been taught about giving two or three lectures every week to real students? What do they know about the reality of being a professor? If they had gone to Prof. School, what might they have learned?

One thing they should have learned already is that PowerPoint is a two-edged sword. In the right hands, it can be persuasive and effective, but in the wrong hands (that is, almost everyone who uses it), it provides form without content, five minutes worth of talking points to spread over an hour. If we could somehow convert PowerPoint slides into pills, insomnia, like smallpox, would be eradicated from the earth.

The big problem with PowerPoint is that it almost mandates tightly scripted presentations that are little more than a reading of the slides. Whether one reads the text verbatim or paraphrases it in real time, the effect is the same: the listeners know exactly what's coming up, they can read it faster than you can, and they tune out, perhaps not to return until several slides later. Nor is there room for spontaneity or changes of plan. Some of the very best moments in my classes have come when the lecture veers completely off what I had planned — someone asks a question from left field, or a demo goes awry, or a chance visit to a web page leads to something unpredicted but instructive. (Naturally, some of the very worst moments have arisen in much the same way, but we'll save those for another column.)

In practice, one learns the tricks of any trade through hard experience. One thing our young aspirants will have to learn quickly: Never ever say anything in the last 10 minutes of a class that even hints that the ordeal might be over. Don't say "Next time...," even if all you had in mind was, "Next time the Red Sox win the Series..." Suffering students hear only the promise of release, and they start to load notebooks and cellphones and iPods and laptops into their backpacks; one can hardly hear the "..." over the din.

It's even worse to run over time, of course — most people can only endure so much anyway, and they get justifiably restless when the allotted time is up. They have other classes and important obligations like lunch or practice, and it's unfair to make them late. But what if there's some topic that you just have to cover so the course doesn't fall hopelessly behind the syllabus? The natural tendency is to realize, about five minutes from the end, that there's still 15 minutes of material, and this requires speaking at three times the normal speed to fit it all in. Naturally, no one is paying attention, so no one will understand or even remember what you said, and you'll just have to do it again next time anyway.

Would we do better if there were formal courses? My wife, who used to be a sixth grade teacher, got her first position on an emergency basis, replacing on short notice an incumbent who had become ill. She was forced, after the fact, to take education courses, not because she was a poor teacher (quite the contrary), but rather to ratify her otherwise irregular position. To this day, she swears that the only thing she remembers is that women were not supposed to wear red dresses, lest they inflame the students (in sixth grade, mind you). I don't even have the advantage of an education course. Like my colleagues, I've learned only through-on-the job training. So I know enough not to wear a red dress, and, finally, I only say "finally" when it's really over.

Lost and found

April 2, 2007

I found a cell phone on the Street at the beginning of spring break. A night of exposure to the bitter cold had not dimmed its brave little backlight, and there was no car traffic, so it hadn't been crushed either. I took it home to warm up but couldn't see a way to tell who owned it except by calling "Susie" or "Mom" or perhaps "Dad's cell," and that seemed too much like an invasion of someone's privacy. The phone beeped a couple of times during breakfast, I think because "Susie" was trying to leave a message, but there was still nothing to identify the owner.

So I carried it to Public Safety down by Baker Rink, where this was evidently such a common occurrence that they had a well-established protocol for dealing with it. "No problem," said the lady who took it off my hands. "It happens all the time." By now the phone and its owner have long since been reunited, but it surely would have been a major nuisance if they had not — quite apart from the expense of having to buy a new one, there must have been a hundred numbers stored in the phone, and who knows what other precious information.

By contrast, prox cards are at the low end of electronic sophistication, but they too must be a nuisance and expensive to replace. In spite of that, lost ones are readily spotted; I've found half a dozen in the past few years. There's usually no problem identifying the owner, though one card was so badly beaten up that it had clearly been lost for months. That one was autopsied so my class could see for themselves why the badge office says "don't punch holes in your prox."

Not every found object is as interesting or valuable as a phone or as easy to associate with its owner as a prox, but some detritus is both useful and anonymous. My personal best was a crumpled $20 bill, looking like any other piece of random litter outside Dillon Gym, but more often one sees only pennies, which are hardly worth picking up these days. I found a 128 MB flash drive once, not one byte of which stored anything at all, let alone the owner's identity. It seemed like a lot of memory at the time, but in light of today's 4 GB capacities, it's more like finding a penny.

There's something especially useful that is sometimes lost on the Street and other parts of campus: unopened beer cans! There's no shortage of empties, of course, but it's hard to tell which ones are really pristine — in poor light, from a distance and at a walking pace, it takes a sharper eye than mine to distinguish full from empty from some leaky intermediate state. Furthermore, local tastes seem to run to corn-flavored soda water like Busch Natural Light, so there's little incentive to do a careful investigation.

Back on the high-tech front, someone found an iPod Nano in my class a few weeks ago and left it with me to track down whomever it belonged to. Email to class members drew no response, so I played with it for a while, looking for its owner's name. In theory and in common belief, iPods are easy and natural to use, but it took me more than a few minutes to figure out how to make the click wheel do its thing; online reviews suggest that I'm not the first person to think that the Nano isn't as user-friendly as its bigger siblings. Of course I was discharging its tiny battery while searching, so it had to be turned off before it ran down completely. That required consulting an expert (i.e., the nearest person under 25), who showed me how to hold down the bottom button long enough. Eventually I did discover a screen that said "Joe's iPod," so Joe got his expensive toy back. Surprisingly, the accompanying cable that had gone missing at the same time was still lying on the classroom floor two days later; it clearly hadn't been worth picking up, any more than pennies are.

Today's trend is to combine functions into ever smaller and more powerful electronic devices, like Apple's forthcoming iPhone, which will combine the functions of an iPod and a cell phone, and which could certainly be a prox as well. That means we can pack more in — music and movies and messages and phone numbers almost without limit. But it also means that as gadgets get smaller and smarter, we're more vulnerable to losing something big when we lose something small. Meanwhile, if you want to misplace some money or decent beer, how about dropping it outside my office so it's easy to find.

The Sons of Martha

May 7, 2007

During the great Nor'easter of April 2007 (exactly three weeks ago!), there was a flurry of Public Safety announcements to the effect that "nonessential personnel" could stay home rather than face multi-hour commutes over flooded roads.

Naturally one wonders, "Am I essential or could they do without me?" That was never spelled out for faculty, and cynics could argue it either way, but at least indirectly one of the messages appeared to answer the question: "The academic schedule is operating as normal." Unlike students, who clearly need not be present for classes, faculty must be.

But who are the real "essential personnel"? In various ways, we all are — the place wouldn't be the same without us — but let me put in a special plug for a group that is often pretty much invisible and whose contributions are easily overlooked.

Think for a moment about the building services people who keep things running, often very early in the morning, probably for modest pay and zero recognition, if indeed they are even noticed as we go about our business. I think of Pearl Holloway, for example, who keeps the Computer Science Building shipshape. I'm an early person, and I often arrive at my office by 7:30 or 8 a.m. But I have never gotten there before Pearl has been around to empty the trash and generally straighten up the mess we left the day before. When I walk across campus at 6 a.m. to get a paper at the Wa, I often run into grounds crews, like Frank and Marco, who are already on the job, shoveling and sanding the sidewalks in the winter or repairing the ravages of the weather or cleaning up leaves and other debris so the campus is always neat. Indeed, there's a small army of essentials: wonderfully friendly and helpful people who labor in the background so we can have an easy and comfortable life here.

So what does this have to do with the Sons of Martha?

In 1922, Rudyard Kipling was commissioned to create a ceremony for graduating Canadian engineering students. This secret "Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer," which I went through in 1964, is held in early May. The only public manifestation is that Canadian engineers wear, on the little finger of the working hand, an Iron Ring symbolizing the engineering profession. Legend has it that the original iron rings were made from steel salvaged after the collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907, an engineering failure of such magnitude that it has not been forgotten to this day. Modern iron rings are stainless steel; mine, which predates that era, rusted for months until my finger came to an understanding with it. I often identify Canadian engineers by their rings, and I still have the one that my father received in 1931 and wore until his death.

In 1907, Kipling wrote a poem called "The Sons of Martha," which he used as part of the iron ring ceremony. His inspiration came from Luke 10:38-42. Jesus visited Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, at their home. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus to hear him speak; Martha, worried about providing for her eminent guest, complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping. Jesus chided her gently, and, in Kipling's poem, her descendants forever after are consigned to working in the background to help everyone else: the sons of Mary:

    The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
    But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart
    And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
    Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.
    It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
    It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
    It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
    Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

Kipling's poem speaks mostly of heavy machines and those who operate mechanical systems (and of course he wrote before women engineers), but the spirit of the poem applies far beyond that. Translated into modern terms, most of us pay no attention to those who work long and hard behind the scenes with little recognition, let alone thanks. Think about them the next time that someone nearly invisible keeps the machinery working for you. Where would we be without today's sons and daughters of Martha?
    They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and —
    the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!

Sometimes the old ways are best

September 17, 2007

Last week I went to check out the room where I'm teaching this fall. It's the same one as last year, so its quirks are mostly familiar. The tangle of wires at the front is the same, but I got pretty good at dodging them last time, a skill that should come back quickly. The spotlights that shine directly on the bottom half of the screen seem to be aimed a bit higher than last time, so projecting while using the board might be harder. The room lighting level remains so dim that the back rows disappear into the gloom, which makes them great for napping, but less so for pedagogy. The laptop projector and my new Mac came to only a fuzzy agreement on what to display, so I'll probably wind up using my ancient PC.

Last year I was on a panel to discuss technology in education. The purpose was presumably to look forward to new and better gadgetry for teaching, but I was not the right person to lead the charge: in spite of being in a high-tech field, I'm basically a reluctant late follower for most aspects of technology, and especially in the classroom. I've never tried clickers. I don't blog or chat. My first life is busy enough that I couldn't cope with a second one. I use Blackboard only under duress: it's the only way to get pictures of the people in my classes. (Note to students: please update your high school yearbook shots — you don't look like that now.)

I do like to use a variety of media in class. Foils on an overhead projector are usually best because I can change the sequence, slide them up and down for better visibility, play peekaboo and write on them. Powerpoint is deadly, but a laptop is good for pictures, demos, experiments or anything dynamic. And the board remains best for answering questions, elaborating on some topic or making rough sketches. (As anyone who has been in my class will attest, rough is as good as it gets.)

As I thought about the panel, it became clear that what we really need is not new technology, but simple old-fashioned technology that works. For example, I'd like a whiteboard that's well lit, though I could live with a decent blackboard, which is preferred by colleagues who are even more backward-looking. I'd like an overhead projector that shows a bright sharp image that can be seen from anywhere in the room; the field of optics has been around for over 300 years, and by now we ought to be able to make a projector that will focus the entire image, rather than forcing me to choose which part will be too blurry to read. I'd like a bright sharp laptop projector, and it would be wonderful if both projectors could be used at the same time.

There should be light on the board so my scribbles can be seen, but no light on the screen so the images aren't washed out. I want the students in bright light too so I can see them — keeping students in the dark literally as well as figuratively is a bad plan, since it puts them to sleep.

The hard part, of course, is that I want all of these simultaneously, so I don't have to keep fiddling, especially not moving the screen up and down. It would also be great if there were no noise from fans, air conditioners and projectors, so we can hear each other.

There's another old technology that would be a big help: complete information about who's there. Though I can never aspire to the level attained by my colleague Joshua Katz, who knows everyone by the end of the first week, I do want to know who my students are. As a minimum, I'd like name (including preferred name, in case Jonathan Pippington Squeak III prefers "Pip" to "Jon"), netid so I can send spam, picture (a current one would be nice), year, and perhaps major and/or residential college. It would also be helpful to know gender, since that can't always be determined by name alone.

I can get some of this from Blackboard, though only by scraping the screen. Some comes from the registrar, but only in PDF. Peoplesoft reveals a bit more, but only when I submit grades. And I find out gender reliably only when I meet someone in person. It's not rocket science to provide all of these from a single source, in a useful form (not paper!) and continually updated, but we're not there yet.

I'm no Luddite (after all, Ned Ludd went around breaking machines intentionally, and I only do that accidentally when I trip over the wires), but on balance, I don't need a lot of classroom technology. I'd be almost content if I could see my students, and they could see a screen and the board at the same time.

By the dawn's early light

October 15, 2007

Most mornings I walk to the Wa to get a paper. The campus is usually quiet and deserted, although during big party weekends or Reunions there are sometimes groups of boisterous guys on the Street, barely able to stand upright but full of bonhomie if they know me. ("Professor! Want to go to PJ's?") If the weather is warm there are occasionally bodies sleeping on the grass, not always frosh preparing for Outdoor Action. As I walk past Walker and Patton Halls I might hear alarm clocks for days on end, with their owners gone or perhaps just totally wiped out. And a while back I encountered a forlorn young woman in heels and a long black dress, just outside 1901 at 6 a.m. She recognized me (and I her — she had been in my class a couple of years earlier) and asked me to prox her in. But my prox only works at the computer science building, so the best I could offer was to call Public Safety, an offer that for some reason she refused.

Much of the morning action involves other species. Long ago, before Whitman College was even a gleam in someone's eye, let alone a giant construction project and now home to 500 students, there were the Dillon tennis courts. As I walked through them one morning, reading the headlines in The New York Times, I sensed something nearby. I looked up and there was a red-tailed hawk on the fence, not even 10 feet away. Let me tell you, this was one serious bird — you would not want to do hand-to-hand combat with him. I stopped long enough to get a good look, but did not try to get closer. I've seen other red-tails and goshawks on campus, but this one was the closest, and the most impressive. Sadly, Whitman has destroyed his habitat and we won't likely see him again.

Squirrels (which are sometimes hawk food) probably outnumber students and are great fun to watch; their ability to run and jump and chase each other puts even the most talented varsity athletes to shame. I was on McCosh Walk one morning when, with a thump, a squirrel landed on the sidewalk right in front of me. Even though he had fallen from 30 feet up, he just shook himself and ran back up the tree. If I fell out of a tree, it's for sure I wouldn't climb back up for another try but for the squirrel, it seemed to be all in a day's work.

Morning sounds are interesting too. I once was at a luncheon with a famous naturalist who told us that mockingbirds can only handle about five different songs before they repeat themselves. Tell that to the ones that sing outside Cloister and Cap in the morning; I lose count when they get to a dozen different calls, not even including the distinctive "watch out" warning that they use to tell their buddies that one of the Street's resident cats is nearby.

We had a family of baby deer living on our property some years ago, our own personal Bambi triplets. It was a gift of beauty — the three tiny deer spent much of their time just outside our windows. When I set off to the Wa at 6 a.m., they would often be sleeping on the lawn and sometimes I could get within 15 or 20 feet of them before they decided to leave.

Deer are a big problem in Princeton, the embodiment of "attractive nuisance." They eat bushes and flowers, and we gave serious thought to physical violence after they ate every single flower on the porch one night, but they are lovely to watch, so we made no effort to chase them off.

The next year our triplets returned as teenagers, this time sporting numbered tags in their ears and transponders around their necks so the authorities could keep track of their movements. We never did give them names, but their numbers made them seem like part of the family — "Little 82 was on the lawn this morning," or "I haven't seen 53 for a couple of days."

They came back again a third year, by now middle-aged matrons who spent their afternoons ruminating under a tree, but the numbered tags left no doubt that they were ours. Sadly, we haven't seen them this year. My wife fears the worst — the deer police rounded them up — while I choose to believe that they went south for the winter and spent the summer in New England. Someone must know where they are if the transponders still work. And we live in hope that they too will come back for Reunions.

Other Princes

November 19, 2007

At a flea market many years ago, I paid 50 cents for a badly worn paperback copy of Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince," a book that I had often heard of but never managed to read. Some previous owner of the book had thoughtfully highlighted all the good bits with a heavy yellow marker, so there was no need to read the whole thing, though I have now done so several times over the intervening decades.

Most of Machiavelli's advice to his own Prince, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is timeless wisdom, because details change but people don't. Consider this from Chapter 18: "Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them." Or, as expressed in more modern idiom by Samuel Goldwyn, "Once you can fake sincerity, you've got it made."

A few years back there was a small industry of business books based on "The Prince," with titles like "Management and Machiavelli" or "The Mafia Manager: A Guide to the Corporate Machiavelli." I have no idea whether any of these were really more helpful to their readers than the original might have been, though one is naturally skeptical of fads. But making another pass through my copy started me wondering whether there might be a market for some Machiavelli aimed at faculty or university administrators. I'm open to suggestions for titles, and even for content, since there's clearly some potential.

For instance, I'm a member of the Committee on the Course of Study, a small group of faculty, students and administrators that deals with routine curricular updates like adding and deleting courses, and sometimes takes on larger tasks like the proposed changes to the academic calendar that occupied much of the committee's time for more than a year. Ultimately our carefully constructed proposals met with so little approval that the topic has been tabled for a while (certainly until I have rotated off the committee, which is long enough for my purposes).

This committee experience reminded me of another of Machiavelli's insights: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." This surely applies with particular force to university administration — four-year residential colleges and grade deflation are merely two of the more recent in a long series of "new orders" that have been difficult indeed for those who have tried to lead them.

I bought my copy of "The Prince" long before my current association with Princeton, so the subtitle on its cover, "Introduction by Christian Gauss," meant nothing to me. For those of you whose knowledge is similarly skimpy, perhaps even those who live in Gauss Hall, "A Princeton Companion" helpfully explains that Gauss was one of Woodrow Wilson's original preceptors, an exceptionally popular faculty member, chair of the department of modern languages and for over 20 years Dean of the College, a position in which he became "perhaps the best known college dean in America."

Gauss completed his introduction to this edition of "The Prince" in 1951. According to the "Companion" article, "One autumn day in his seventy-fourth year he went to New York to deliver the manuscript of his introduction to a new edition of Machiavelli's The Prince [...]. That evening while he was waiting in the Pennsylvania station for the train to take him back to Princeton, his heart failed and he fell dead." Though one hopes to live well beyond 74, if one is not so fortunate there are surely worse ways to go than peacefully after a long, productive and much appreciated life.

"The Prince" itself is not a long book, only 127 pages in this small paperback, so Gauss's 25 pages of introduction were a significant contribution. Gauss, writing only a few years after Hitler and Mussolini and with Stalin very much in power, ascribed the rise in popularity of "The Prince" to the emergence of new types of states and the clashes between them. I wonder how he would have changed his introduction if he were writing today, with one ill-managed great power and a host of scarily random smaller players.

I also wonder what Niccolo himself would do today to get his message across. Would he work behind the scenes in Washington or some other capital? Would he write learned articles in obscure academic journals? Would he be a cable TV pundit or have a blog? And what would he think of today's Princes? "A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent." My bet, sadly, is that he would have found discouragingly few to be "great" or "most excellent." But that leaves a golden opportunity as you rise in your chosen field, for we are sorely in need of some most excellent Princes.

Making the grade

January 21, 2008

I'm writing this column as therapy, a break from grading the final exams for my course. Samuel Johnson once described a second marriage as the triumph of hope over experience, and I see a sort of parallel with teaching and then grading. Every semester begins with a burst of new energy and a brand new group of some of the smartest and nicest people one could ever hope to meet. I spend the whole semester getting to know them, while talking about interesting and important topics. This is the "hope" part, and it's nothing short of wonderful.

Then comes the final exam and the "experience" part: every year I discover again that in spite of my best efforts, and certainly the best efforts of the students, not everyone learned everything that I had hoped to teach them. This year, pretty much everyone mastered the difference between a bit and a byte, and most proved able to make the distinction when it mattered; that's an improvement over some previous outings. A discouragingly large number still don't grasp binary numbers, and certainly not how to do simple arithmetic on them. Indeed, it seems that some don't even know how to do arithmetic on decimal numbers, at least under time pressure. I'd feel more superior about this if it weren't for the fact that when I checked my own arithmetic, nothing more complicated than adding up points for various questions, I found errors in two or three of the first five.

One hopes that students will hang on every word of a lecture and remember it clearly for the exam. But experience shows that recall is less than perfect: some students appear not to have to been in class at all, and some of those who did attend were present only in body, devoting their classroom time to sleeping or surfing or socializing. I did get full attention in a few lectures, however, notably the one where we examined MPAA and RIAA "cease and desist" letters sent to OIT about students who were uploading allegedly copyrighted music and movies. The letters are interesting in themselves, and they are based on technical topics from the class, like IP addresses, peer-to-peer networking and digital signatures. In one of those golden teaching moments, a student said "Suppose, just hypothetically, that a student was caught uploading an MP3. How did they know?" Suddenly the whole class was on high alert, and we had a great discussion about this purely "hypothetical" situation. I haven't gone back yet to see if I can correlate attendance with how well people answered the final exam question about this topic, but I'll bet that those who were present did fine.

Why should one have to know any of this technical stuff? I think it matters if one is to be an educated citizen. For instance, surveillance equipment is getting cheaper all the time. How cheap? One of this year's questions asked a peripherally related question: how much disk capacity would you need to store everything you're heard in your whole life? It's not much, about 10 terabytes (work it out — get 5 points on my exam), which even today would only cost a few thousand dollars, and which will likely cost less than a hundred dollars by the time today's freshmen have graduated, thanks to exponentially falling costs. Video is at most 10 times that.

Energy costs for Internet servers are growing at about one percent a month. When will today's gigawatts for servers become terawatts? (Another five points.) Parents can now buy systems that will monitor where their teenagers drive and display the results on a map via the Internet. How might this work? What is the main concern about the impending purchase of DoubleClick by Google? What's the technical issue behind the current European Union vs. Microsoft fracas and how does it relate to the ongoing battle in the United States that began nearly 15 years ago?

One of my questions came from the current presidential campaign. When John McCain made the now obligatory stop at Google in May, he was asked one of their standard interview questions: how would he sort a million 32-bit integers in only two megabytes of RAM? Great amusement from the audience, of course, and Eric Schmidt '76 let him off the hook quickly. But wouldn't it be striking if he could have answered the question or perhaps the variant of it that I subsequently asked on my exam? When Barack Obama was asked the same question in the same setting in November, he gave a witty and technically correct answer. (There's obviously some alert geek on Obama's campaign staff.) I'm delighted to report that the majority of my kids got it right too. It's clear that they'll be ready in a few years when they're starting to run the world, and I for one am looking forward to that.

Where the books are

February 18, 2008

"A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” — Shelby Foote

The first problem set for my class last September asked some questions about prox cards. One required students to speculate about why checking out a book at Firestone uses neither the wave of the prox that unlocks doors nor the swipe of the magnetic strip that pays for food. Most people figured out the likely answer (which is left as an exercise for the interested reader), but I was surprised that some confessed that they had never been in the library and thus didn’t know what happens when a book is checked out.

I visit Firestone four or five times a week, which is hardly unusual for some disciplines, but perhaps outside the norm in technical fields like computer science, for which the claim is sometimes made that “it’s all online anyway.” Many of my visits take me no further than the Dixon collection, a marvelous resource for which one need not even climb the stairs — a room full of new books and students racked out on couches. Five minutes of browsing is usually enough to find two or three promising books to carry home. I’m biased towards history, popular science and detective stories, but some of the best finds have been pure serendipity — an interesting title or topic that I would never have seen if the book were not right there in front of me.

Sometimes one of these accidental discoveries is so compelling that I want to read whatever else the author wrote. Or maybe something reminds me of an author whom I enjoyed before. Either way, that’s where one needs the rest of the library, since that’s where they keep the rest of the books.

Thus one of my most frequent downstairs destinations has become B-1-P, which holds Firestone’s remarkable collection of detective stories and murder mysteries. This corner of the stacks presumably has limited value for scholarship, but if you’re looking for escape literature, it’s hard to beat. I’ve found pretty near all of the Spenser stories I missed in my previous life. (That’s not the Faerie Queene guy, in case you hadn’t guessed, but Robert Parker’s flippant Boston private eye.) Several authors write detective stories set in Rome at the time of Julius and Augustus; they may not be historically accurate, but they’re good enough for me. And I’ve recently become intrigued by a Nora Roberts series of police procedurals set in 2058. I found some of these in the online catalog, but mostly it’s been pure shelving serendipity — an interesting title or cover, or an author who appears often enough to suggest publishing success.

I had a real reason for digging in the stacks last fall, trying to track down a couple of words coined by the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein that have become part of popular culture. The most widely known is “grok,” from “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), which the OED defines as “To understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with. To empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); and to experience enjoyment.” It shows up today in names like Grokster, the file-sharing program that certainly did permit millions of users to experience enjoyment. Understandably, the purveyors of movies and music were most unsympathetic to the communication that Grokster enabled, and their lawsuit eventually led to a Supreme Court decision that shut down Grokster permanently.

The other memorable Heinlein coinage is TANSTAAFL (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”), from “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” (1966). Wikipedia identified the source, but I’ve learned to be a bit cautious about the accuracy of what one finds there, so down I went, and spent half an hour in the gloom of B-1-D to make sure I had the references right. (Apropos of Wikipedian reliability, another class assignment asked students to edit an article that they thought needed fixing; the intent was to remind them subliminally of how an online encyclopedia determines its version of truth.)

Lest you think that all trips to the library are just for fun and games, I do read occasional serious stuff, but the path to it is often much the same: a browse through Dixon or perhaps a review suggests a topic or an author, and then it’s time to hit the stacks. For example, a few months ago I came across a new book by my colleague Tony Grafton, with the catchy title “What Was History?” It turned out to be (sorry, Tony) too heavy going for bedtime reading, but of course it’s not the only book he wrote. So back downstairs, this time to C-10-N, to find “Bring Out Your Dead.” From the title, one might almost think it misfiled; it goes very nicely with Parker’s “Death in Paradise” and Roberts’ “Divided in Death,” the cop novel that I picked up on my return trip through B-1-P.

The bleeding edge

March 24, 2008

"There's no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers."

- Walt Mossberg, The Wall Street Journal

Every year, a handful of students ask for advice about what they should buy to replace ailing computers. The best I can offer are generalities: know how much you can spend and what you plan to use it for; after that, it's a bunch of tradeoffs among important alternatives. It should be thin and light but with a big screen and long battery life. It has to be cheap but have lots of features. And so on. The only thing you can be sure of is that you won't be happy once you get it.

Recently I found myself on the other side of the question when a dear member of my family, who shall remain nameless here, spilled a glass of milk on the keyboard of the main laptop that I use at home. This proved to be almost the coup de grace - most keys did nothing, random keys became permanently stuck, and the touchpad didn't work at all. The machine is too old to repair but it holds so much useful data and programs that I couldn't just toss it. I managed to get it limping along with outboard support systems - a keyboard, a mouse and an external drive, rather like a heart-lung bypass machine - but now it's making ominous groaning noises, which I hope come from the fan and not the internal disk. Either way, it has to be replaced.

I wasted a month surfing sites like amazon.com and cruising big-box stores like Best Buy, trying to find the right balance among utterly unsatisfactory compromises. In spite of the many advantages of a Mac, they cost too much and it really seemed necessary to get a Windows PC for compatibility with everything I already have. But I kept getting stuck on one crucial point: new computers only come with Vista, Microsoft's latest operating system.

My first encounter with Vista last fall was traumatic: I discovered only a day or two before the first lab in my course that all the public cluster machines had been surgically altered to run Vista, and that the computers offered to incoming freshmen came with Vista as well. My carefully crafted lab instructions were just plain wrong, because Vista was different from XP in so many little ways.

With a lot of work, I managed to find a path through the maze of differences, but it left me with a bad impression. My enthusiasm was not increased by endless stories about incompatibilities and lack of drivers, so severe that even senior Microsoft people were taken by surprise when they tried to eat their own dog food by using Vista. (A recent class action lawsuit alleges that Microsoft misled consumers about Vista's hardware requirements and compatibility; the email exchanges among company executives that form part of the case make interesting reading.)

Microsoft will eventually work through the technical issues and in a year or two Vista will be fine, but I needed a new machine right away. XP is about to be discontinued, and most computer manufacturers sell only Vista machines. Fortunately there are still a handful on the market that come with XP; indeed, the number may be growing, at least while Microsoft smoothes out some of Vista's rough edges. So I bought one of these trailing edge computers, thus confirming my standing as a technology "late follower."

The good news is that Moore's Law continues to operate: every year or two technology advances enough that we can get roughly twice as much computing power for the same price. For a modest sum, I bought a machine that's more powerful than any other I own, except maybe the MacBook Pro that cost four times as much. It runs the old familiar XP. It only took me a couple of days to install the programs that I need, while carefully excising the unwanted trial versions of software that Mossberg calls "craplets," though I am still trying to defeat whatever turns the fan on and off every minute.

The bad news is that I now have yet another computer to look after. A quick count reveals 8 working laptops scattered between home and office; my office looks vaguely like a higher-tech version of one of those places with rusting cars in the back yard. It seems a shame to just discard perfectly good computers, and I have grand plans to use them for experiments with operating systems and networks, but somehow there's never enough time. So I predict that sometime next year, I'll have to add laptop number nine. Will it run Vista or Mac OS X or none of the above? Yes, though I don't know which. Will it still be "confusing, unpredictable and unreliable"? That you can be sure of.

By the numbers

April 21, 2008

Last weekend my wife observed, quite correctly, that our CD collection has gotten totally out of control. It has long since overflowed the shelves and there's no organization either, with odd combinations like Simon and Garfunkel between Hildegard von Bingen and two versions of Bach's B Minor Mass. We could buy another set of shelves to match the first, but the company that made them went bankrupt recently, an early victim of recession.

As befits my position as the family tech person, I offered a technical solution: put the entire collection on a single iPod. There would enough room for whatever we might add for the rest of our lives, and it wouldn't take any space at all. I don't think my wife was convinced, but nevertheless I went to the online Apple store to see what might be available.

Under "refurbished iPods," I discovered a range of options from a one GB Shuffle with "up to 12 hours of music playback" to a 160 GB Classic with "up to 40 hours". This looked strange. If a one GB device gives me 12 hours, presumably a 160 GB device would give me about 160 times as much, or nearly 2,000 hours. I own a Shuffle and it does hold roughly what Apple says it does. So how did Apple come up with that number for the big iPod? The answer, of course, is that they're talking about playing time, not memory capacity. I totally misinterpreted because I was fixated on getting enough gigabytes and not thinking about time at all.

We are surrounded by so many numbers from so many sources that we don't even notice most of them, let alone think about them critically. It's only when something flagrant appears, or when we're forced into careful study, that we pay much attention.

The "Corrections" column in The New York Times is mostly devoted to repairing names and quotations, but it often has numeric gaffes to report as well. Sometimes the issue is analogous to my error of using the wrong units. For instance, on March 13: "Americans used 3.395 billion barrels of gasoline [in 2007], not 3.395 billion gallons." A barrel of oil is 42 gallons, so that's significant. On April 10 we learned that Mexico's daily oil production last year dropped "to about 3.1 million (not billion) barrels a day." Such errors, off by a factor of a thousand, are surprisingly common, perhaps because no one has much intuitive feel for large numbers, and words like "billion" and "trillion" have come to mean just "big" and "really big."

Greekoid prefixes like giga and tera, though familiar from our techno gadgets, are just as metaphorical to most people, and further-out ones like peta are even worse. The Times printed another correction on March 25, noting that a petaflop is "a thousand trillion instructions per second, not a million trillion."

It's often said that if we all used scientific notation, these problems would go away; after all, no one would confuse 10 to the 15th power (10 with a superscript 15, or sometimes 10^15) and 10 to the 18th, and we wouldn't need compounds like "million trillion." Having covered this topic in class for some years now, I'm skeptical. And we would still have typographical problems: a story in the Times' Sunday magazine last December talked about 10 to the 50th chess positions, which is a truly huge number, but it appeared as 1050 in the online version.

At least numbers like "a petaflop" are round. One of my pet peeves is numbers that are speciously precise, since they almost always indicate that whoever produced the number wasn't thinking about it at all. For instance, on March 16, a Times story about mega-yachts, favorite toys of the super-rich, quoted the editor of a yachting magazine as saying "When a yacht is over 328 feet, it's so big that you lose the intimacy."

I move in a rather different social circle, so I don't have much experience with this kind of intimacy, or loss thereof. The thing that caught my eye was the length beyond which a yacht ceases to be intimate. Size clearly matters, but where does the oddly precise value 328 come from?

Once you've seen a few of these, it's pretty obvious: another kind of number numbness. Three hundred twenty eight feet is 100 meters. It's common journalistic practice to convert metric units into more familiar English units, but the conversion is often done blindly - whip out the calculator and write down whatever it says. The result is meaningless precision: the original ballpark figure of "a hundred meters" has become a pseudo-scientific "fact" with three "significant" figures.

This kind of numeric cluelessness is likely to be with us for a long time, though I'm trying to stamp it out locally. Meanwhile, if I had billion dollars, I wouldn't spend any of it on a yacht that was a hundred meters long, but I would definitely buy my wife an iPod with 160 gigabytes.

Native guide

September 11, 2008

Princeton is a different place in late summer. Students and faculty are for the most part enjoying their last few weeks of freedom before the treadmill starts again, so one might naively assume that the town is even quieter than it is earlier in the summer when sports camps and institutes for the (presumably not athletically) gifted fill the campus with kids who barely qualify as teenagers.

But Princeton has become a tourist attraction. The Orange Key groups seem more numerous and bigger; it's not unusual to see three of them running at the same time. And it was a bit of a surprise to watch five tour buses unloading on Prospect Avenue one Sunday morning. What are all these people doing, and why are they doing it when there's no one around but other tourists?

I suspect that most of them are coming because of the Princeton name and aren't really sure what to look at. If they rely on the freebie maps handed out in town, they're not going to see much; those maps have only the loosest connection with reality - Nassau Hall but none of the surrounding buildings, the library but not the chapel, the art museum but not Murray Dodge, Prospect and Frist but no Robertson or fountain.

From time to time, however, there are visitors who have more on their agenda than the tour and the art museum. On one desperately hot and muggy Sunday in mid-August, I was standing on Nassau Street waiting for the light to change so I could walk down University Place, when an elderly woman asked if I lived in Princeton. Yes, I replied, and she said, "Could you tell me where the statue of John Nash is?"

This startled me, since I had seen Prof. Nash walking across campus only two days earlier, looking quite well, and it's not the custom in this part of the world to erect statues of living people. For a brief disoriented moment all I could think of was the Seward Johnson sculpture beside the Palmer Square kiosk. Then it dawned on me - she was really asking about another famous Princeton personage, Albert Einstein. There is a bust of Einstein on the walkway that leads toward the monument in front of the Princeton Borough offices. It's not a big statue like the imposing one on Constitution Avenue in Washington, but it's definitely him. ("Newspaper Reader," another Seward Johnson piece, is on that same walkway if you ever want to check out off-campus sculptures.) I aimed her in the right direction and headed on down University Place.

Where only a few moments later, a young woman who looked like any Princeton student stopped me and said, "Are you a professor here?" Some of us apparently look the part; in any case, there didn't seem to be any harm in admitting it, and she began a series of questions. "What department are you in?" When I replied "Computer Science," it was clear that she had hoped for something better; with a politely disappointed look, she asked, "Where's the train station?" I pointed her toward the Dinky, but after a few steps she turned back and asked how she could get an internship. That's pretty random no matter what, and I told her that it would probably be tough if she weren't a student here. Disappointed again, she turned toward the train, but paused once more and said, out of the blue, "Did you know Einstein?"

So much for my self-image as the still-youthful professor. Sadly, I did not know Einstein; I was in elementary school when he died in April 1955, and I didn't even live in the same country. But as it turns out, my wife did know Einstein, sort of. She grew up in Princeton, where her father was on the faculty in the English department, and when she was about 5 years old, he took her to meet the great man. She remembers this clearly; he was incredibly kind, they talked about cats, and she got his autograph.

Occasionally I've been stopped by intrepid tourists, far off the beaten tracks of the campus and the tour groups, asking where Einstein lived. That I do know; in fact, one of my favorite long walks takes me down Mercer Street, past the house where Einstein lived for many years (including when my wife visited him). As I pass it, I wonder - what was it like to have Einstein as a neighbor? And I also sometimes wonder if anyone among us will prove so famous and influential that 50 years from now people will make pilgrimages to the places where he or she lived. There are a lot of amazing people here, so as you settle in for another year, keep your eyes open for the politician or athlete or scientist or literary giant who will never be forgotten. Who knows - if you play your cards right, it could even be you.

Leading indicators

October 20, 2008

If all goes according to plan, you're reading this at nearly the maximum stress point of the semester: the beginning of midterm week. Fortunately, good time management and study skills will let you take this in stride, though your less organized and less diligent friends are probably in a total panic.

There were warning signs that midterms and their accompanying stress were coming. One of the first indicators in my class is that people start to miss assignment deadlines. The reasons vary, but old standbys like "I forgot" and variants of "the dog ate my homework" are popular: "My computer crashed, and I lost the whole problem set." There seems to be a strong correlation between disk failures and midterms; maybe disks stress out too, in a display of empathy with their owners.

People start to fall ill because there are always evil bugs going around, and living in close quarters is a great way to exchange them. I've been auditing SOC 250: The Western Way of War, a fascinating course taught by professor Miguel Centeno. Some days the sound of 100 students coughing drowns him out entirely, and I wonder why I'm voluntarily sitting in the middle of a germ warfare zone. Stress must weaken the immune system since it's for sure that the number of requests for extensions and/or mercy because "I've been sick" starts to rise in the week or two before midterms.

And then there's attendance at lectures. My deadest day of the year is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, of course, but the second lecture of midterm week is not far behind. Everyone is desperately cramming for exams or trying to catch up with papers due or maybe just hoping for a few hours of sleep. It's more efficient and certainly far more comfortable to sleep in one's room than in lecture, so it's no surprise that half the class fails to show.

I do expect close to a full house today, however, since that's when I hand out the midterm exam. People are faced with an unpleasant choice: drag their tired and sick bodies to class to pick it up, or make a special trip to beyond the edge of the known universe (my office in the Computer Science Building). Most decide that it's less effort to come to class because it's closer and there's still a chance for a decent nap at the back of the room.

The perpetual construction on campus also added a bit of stress all around. I was originally supposed to teach in Peyton 145, but some schedule slipped (the dog ate the blueprints?), and the room wasn't ready in September. This left me in a bit of a bind. Officialdom offered a room with 98 seats (I counted them); a bit of quantitative reasoning suggested that this would probably not hold the 130 students and 10 community auditors who had signed up. Furthermore, the web page that gives information about classroom sizes was broken and stayed broken until weeks after the dust had settled, so there was no way to explore alternatives short of wandering the campus.

After some tense last-minute negotiations, I wound up in McDonnell A02, a huge room that seats more than 300. The big drawback of a huge room is that students sit way in the back, where it's better for sleep and socializing. The instructor can't see them in the gloom; there's no personal contact and little chance to get to know anyone past the first few rows. In the first lecture I tried to get people to move forward but was pretty much ignored, and over time more and more students wound up in the very back.

Last week we moved back to Peyton. We just fit, and enough people skip each lecture that the regulars have room to spread out. Life is mostly better: I can see everyone, though the lighting is still poor, and the controls are terribly awkward. I can use overheads instead of PowerPoint, which is liberating. There's a full-size table where I can spread out my junk. Best of all, I'm getting to know some of the back-row population. In the long run, I hope that's good for them; it certainly is for me. In the short run, though, loss of anonymity and interference with regular sleep must surely add to the stress of midterm week. Hang in, everyone - with luck, you'll live through it.

What would Orwell do?

November 24, 2008

George Orwell delivered the final manuscript of "Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel" almost exactly 60 years ago. The book has had a strong influence on language through words like newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother and of course the adjective "Orwellian," but fortunately Orwell's dystopia didn't materialize in the real year 1984.

One of the technological ideas in "1984" was pervasive surveillance and monitoring through the "telescreen," a two-way communication device that was very difficult to hide from. In Orwell's novel, surveillance was a government activity. That's still true today, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, with ubiquitous cameras and greatly increased monitoring of communications like e-mail, sometimes within the law and sometimes arguably well outside. Orwell could have written a fine new edition exploring how governments might use today's technology.

I've been struck, however, by a different kind of surveillance that was not part of Orwell's worldview at all, at least as I remember the book. (I had planned to re-read "1984," but the three or four shelves of Orwelliana in the depths of Firestone hold but a single copy, in Polish.)

The surveillance I have in mind is not governmental but commercial. The march of technology has given us ever smaller and cheaper gadgets, especially computers and cell phones, and pervasive communication systems, notably the internet and wireless. As an almost accidental byproduct of this progress, we have voluntarily given up an amazing amount of our personal privacy, to a degree that Orwell might well have found incredible.

In my class I sometimes ask whether people would willingly carry a device that can track their every movement and report exactly where they are at every moment. Of course no one would ever do that, but in fact everyone does, since every student carries a cell phone that is never turned off. Older phones only know to within a few hundred meters where you are, but newer phones with GPS have you pinpointed within a few meters.

So phone companies know where your phone is. Would they reveal that information? As I write this, we have just learned that Verizon employees have been checking out President-elect Barack Obama's cell phone records. Clearly this was unauthorized, but it's not hard to imagine ways in which your physical location could be used commercially, for example to send location-dependent advertising to your phone. Would you be willing to let the phone company use your location in return for lower rates or a sexier phone? Experience suggests that most people would be quite happy with such a trade - privacy is good but it is often given away or sold off quite cheaply.

On the internet, students are astonishingly willing to broadcast the most intimate details of their lives on myspace.com and facebook.com, though this pendulum may be swinging back as it becomes clear that more than just your friends are watching: prospective employers check out candidates, as do college admissions offices.

Facebook and similar sites have an enormous amount of data about relationships among people, though their attempts to make a profit from it have met with mixed results. There was real pushback a year ago when Facebook exposed purchases made by members on third-party sites; this was deemed going too far. On the other hand, when Facebook added a "news" mechanism a couple of years back, a surprising number of people didn't mind having their changes of relationships and other facts broadcast far and wide without explicit consent -  privacy given away again.

Most websites use cookies to track repeat visitors; companies like DoubleClick, recently acquired by Google, sell this information to advertisers. We were talking in class last week about how cookies work. I was faced with the usual wall of open laptops (in some ways a sore subject, to which we may return some day), but for once they provided a teachable moment. I asked everyone to pause in their chatting, surfing, twittering, mailing and similarly crucial activities and count the cookies on their computers. "How many do you see?", I asked. The first answer, quite representative, was a shocked "I can't count them!" That led to a discussion of whether the benign uses of cookies outweigh their privacy-invading role of monitoring what sites you visit. Most people seemed a bit taken aback at all of this, and I'll bet that a fair number of cookies were subsequently deleted. This is one place where you can recapture some privacy at no cost - if you stop accepting cookies from third parties (the advertising companies), the web keeps right on working.

Scott McNealy, at the time CEO of Sun Microsystems, once said "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Sadly, it's pretty close to true these days. The remarkable thing is that we seem to have given it away, and continue to do so, for pretty much nothing at all in return. Orwell could have written a book about it.

The ratings game

January 7, 2009

Every November and December I spend quite a bit of time writing letters of recommendation for students past and present. This activity peaks in the late fall because the deadline for most graduate school applications is the end of December. Given the perilous state of the economy and the sometimes bleak job prospects faced by current seniors, grad school looks like a good way to ride out some of the storm while improving one's mind and credentials.

It normally takes me nearly a day to write a letter that captures what I know of a person and describes the work he or she has done. Fortunately, it's often possible to use the same letter for every place that someone is applying to, so the effort can be amortized over half a dozen schools.

Some clerical parts of the process have gotten better over the years. I once wrote, addressed and mailed 33 [sic] real physical letters for a friend who was trying to get a teaching job. (He was a great teacher, but times were tough, and he wound up programming at a software company.) Today, physical letters are actively discouraged, and writers are supposed to visit a website, fill in some checkboxes and upload a letter. Commercial operations like Embark and ApplyYourself provide this service for universities; Princeton's graduate school uses Embark. For the first few years, these systems were terribly clumsy and unreliable, but the kinks have gradually been worked out, and mostly things work fine. Some universities and fellowship operations roll their own application systems; those too have gotten better, though they still have bugs. One first-rate university on the West Coast wrote its own system. I have a good friend there, and every year I can pull his chain by pointing out some new glitch or rookie mistake in the user interface, even though none of it is his fault at all.

Perhaps surprisingly, the hard part of recommendations is not the letter itself, but that every single university or fellowship wants something a little bit different from all the others. Some insist on telephone numbers with separators between the digits, while others refuse them. Some require Word documents while others insist on PDF. A few set length limits, so my carefully crafted 800 words have to be chopped and mangled to fit an arbitrary limit like 600.

The thing that irritates me the most, however, is that almost without exception, each place wants the applicant rated against his or her peers on a bunch of dimensions. A typical form lists eight or 10 desirable attributes like creativity, ability in written expression, oral expression, personal character, research ability, teaching ability, and the like. It asks me to assess the applicant on each, against other students, on some non-linear scale like "best ever," "top 1 percent," "top 5 percent," "top 15 percent," down to "bottom 50 percent."

This is ridiculous, to put it mildly. Occasionally there is someone who is clearly the academically strongest this year, but even so, it's impossible to slot that person into "top 5 percent" on "written expression." What could it possibly mean to say that Jack is in the top 25 percent in "integrity"? If Jill is in the top 10 percent in creativity, and Jack is only in the top 20 percent, does that mean that she'll do better than he will? It's not at all clear that these fine distinctions on unquantifiable characteristics have much to do with likely success as a grad student, where perseverance and the ability to sustain or at least feign interest in one's topic for years are more important.

So the natural tendency is to place everyone in one of the top couple of positions, on the theory that anyone merely in the top quartile is doomed. This leads to a Lake Wobegon effect, where all the children are above average. I suspect that the attempt by universities to get a fine-grained and multi-dimensional ranking of their applicants is destined to fail, because most recommenders can't or won't make the distinctions that are asked for.

In a way, this is the same situation that we see every August when US News and World Report publishes its ratings of college and universities. For about eight years in a row, Princeton was number 1 (naturally) but slipped to number 2 last year (clearly some kind of error at US News). Everyone knows that such rankings are meaningless: the criteria can't be quantified, the data is necessarily flaky, and it's all combined with arbitrary weights. It's the same with grad school applications, and pretty much anything else that asks us to rank-order people. There's no way that anyone can put Jack ahead of Jill or vice versa with the precision that's expected in these forms. Let's stick with careful written assessments. People can't be reduced to a single number or even a dozen numbers, and we shouldn't even try.

Washington crossings

February 16, 2009

There are only two groups who routinely ignore the traffic lights on Washington Road: drivers and pedestrians.

Almost every day I cross Washington Road several times. In the early morning when there’s hardly anyone around, drivers rocket by at 50 or 60 miles per hour and feel completely free to ignore the lights, especially if they’re coming up the hill and making a right turn onto Prospect Avenue. One steps into the street at one’s peril: Eternal vigilance is the price of survival.

Later in the day, say when classes change at 11 a.m. or noon, there’s a surging tide crossing in both directions in front of the Robertson swimming hole. I’m struck, so to speak, by the devil-may-care attitude of students, who ignore cars, traffic lights and the laws of physics as they cross the street, totally wrapped up in their cellphone conversations and oblivious to the cars and trucks speeding by in both directions. Only a fortunate coincidence — a few drivers are not talking on their own phones — prevents a higher death toll. Young people think themselves immortal (age will correct this misapprehension eventually), and fortunately most drivers are alert enough that the illusion is preserved; everyone so far has escaped unscathed. (Someday I must look into whether “scathed” is a word that could be worked into a column, but that’s for another time.)

Boulders and fences are an attempt to eliminate jaywalking, but casual observation quickly reveals that they don’t accomplish much. The flashing lights between Fine and the Lewis Thomas Lab are a great idea, but only if drivers pay attention. Sometimes they do. The free-fire zone at the end of William Street across from the library and the chapel is total anarchy, with no rules of engagement at all; it’s sufficiently dicey that I normally come up Shapiro Walk instead of William so I can use the traffic light.

Perhaps one could think of the local crossings as tryouts for the big leagues. I spent half of last summer commuting to New York. Part of the trip was a mile-long walk from Penn Station down 8th Avenue early in the morning and back up in the late afternoon. In New York, pedestrians and drivers are in fierce competition, certainly for high stakes if not literally to the death (usually, but there are unfortunate exceptions). An aggressive pedestrian can save several seconds by trying to beat out a speeding cab or truck. An aggressive driver can save an entire cycle of a traffic light by 60-mile-an-hour intimidation. With the stakes so high, it’s clear why the competition is so intense. Even though my schedule didn’t matter a bit, I joined the game as a matter of personal honor. It became obvious after a few near-scathes, however, that I didn’t have the requisite skill to participate, and I went back to dutifully waiting, just like any other rube, until the lights were in my favor. And even then I looked both ways before crossing. In hindsight, this was probably prudent: a recent article in the New York Times observed that pedestrians over 65 are much more likely to be killed than more spry and alert younger folk; clearly something happens suddenly when one hits that magic birthday, at least in New York.

Back in Princeton, crossing Nassau Street is a variant of the Washington Road game. There are fewer traffic lights and they have long cycles. As compensation, there are several places where in theory a pedestrian can simply walk across the street and the ever-courteous and alert drivers will wait patiently until he or she is safely on the other side. But as Yogi Berra might have said, “In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.” In theory, pedestrians have the right of way and need merely step into the street to exercise it; in practice, one runs the same risks as on Washington or 8th Avenue, though typically there’s so much traffic on Nassau Street that the closing velocity is lower and the odds of surviving are correspondingly higher.

I suspect this low-level warfare will go on for many years, though in theory (there’s theory again) the planned pedestrian bridge across Washington Road will eliminate one of the points of impact. In practice it would not be a complete surprise if the bridge were ignored, since it will always be easier to cross at street level than to climb up and back down. The only solution is likely to come in some not-too-distant future when the entire campus is covered with buildings — we’re well on our way — and the roads have all gone underground, in our own local version of Boston’s Big Dig. Let’s hope for the day when Washington Road becomes a pedestrian mall. Meanwhile, look both ways before crossing the road.

Gladly learn, and gladly teach

March 23, 2009

More than a dozen years ago, I taught for one semester at Harvard. A good friend was taking her sabbatical and asked me to take over her course. This was well before I came to Princeton, and, though I had done occasional adjunct teaching, I had never spent real time at a university. Thus I blithely agreed to what turned out to be six months of total immersion.

CS 50 is Harvard’s general introduction to computer science, loosely equivalent to COS 126 here, except that it was much larger and had a much broader spectrum of students: everything from hotshot freshmen who had learned programming in utero to terrified seniors still trying to satisfy their QR requirement. So one big problem was to find a middle ground among very different levels of experience and interest. The other problem, which I discovered only after it was much too late to chicken out, was sheer size: the initial enrollment was 457, a number still burned into my brain.

I have never worked so hard in my life. I had 31 teaching fellows (as Harvard styles its teaching assistants), all but one of whom were undergrads. As one might imagine, this raised some interesting issues, like ensuring that teaching fellows didn’t wind up grading their significant others’ work.

But in the end it all worked out — thanks to hard work by everyone — and I had the time of my life. The experience taught me that I could handle absolutely any teaching challenge, from making up exams and getting them graded to printing 10,000 pages of lecture notes overnight to dealing with discipline cases and the inevitable personnel issues (cf. significant others, above). 

Thus when Princeton became an option several years later, the academic life was not a leap into the unknown but a chance to resume something that had been enormous fun. In fact, COS 109: Computers in Our World, the course I’ve been teaching here each fall, began as an attempt to do a better job for less technical students than had been possible in CS 50.

Last week I went north for spring break, to Cambridge instead of Cancun. I gave a guest lecture in a programming course and spent a day hanging out with friends from Harvard’s computer science department. Some of them have gone temporarily over to the dark side by taking on serious administrative responsibilities. It’s clear that the financial meltdown of the past six months has made their lives far more complicated than they had expected when they signed up, and they’re very busy trying to keep things running smoothly. The same is true here, of course, though I wonder if Harvard’s problems are somewhat more severe overall. Fortunately, this is way above my pay grade; I’m glad to have good people in charge and lucky not to be directly involved.

But the high point of the trip was meeting a young man who had been in my class in the fall of 1996. Given the class size, it was not surprising that I had no memory of him. I’m enough of a digital packrat, however, that I still had his grades: he stood eighth out of nearly 400 survivors, which is a mark of exceptional talent. He had taken the course as a sophomore and almost on a whim, since he had planned to be a government major. I can’t claim credit for anything beyond somehow accidentally releasing his inner geek, but he enjoyed the course enough that he switched to computer science. He went on to get his Ph.D. in CS as well, and for the past couple of years has been teaching CS 50! This kind of full-circle experience has surely happened to some of my colleagues here, but never before to me, so it was especially rewarding.

Harvard routinely records large lecture classes — somewhere there is a dusty box of my VHS tapes — and today lectures are freely available on the web. My young friend is a dynamite teacher, and his first lecture alone has provided me with three or four ideas for COS 109 next fall. We spent an hour trading stories of the class and how much fun it was despite the workload. In fact, the sheer enjoyment of teaching seemed to be at the center of everyone’s conversation. The regular folks are wrapped up in current courses and full of ideas for new ones. The deanly types are always looking for some way to get back into the classroom. I don’t suppose anyone would volunteer to teach for free to help out in tough times, but there was definitely a sense of wonder that one can get paid to have such a good time.

Harvard is a different place from Princeton, but that pervasive desire to teach and to do it well is one of the things that links the two and indeed all good schools. Chaucer’s clerk is alive and well, gladly learning and gladly teaching.

What makes smart phones smart?

April 20, 2009

It’s hard to sit through a meeting or go to a lecture these days without seeing someone lovingly stroking an iPhone, perhaps researching some vitally important topic or (much more likely) reading e-mail or playing a game. The iPhone was always a sexy toy, but it’s become the geeky tool of choice, even for people who are far from geeky.

iPhone owners always have a new toy to show off, some cheap or even free program they got from Apple’s App Store. Some are pointless but amusing, like the one that pours a glass of beer as you tilt the phone. Some are fun games. Some are useful, like the ones that help navigate from here to anywhere. And some are simply remarkable.

In my class few weeks ago, part of the lecture was to be about Django, a software system that makes it comparatively easy to build web applications. Django is named (for no reason known to me) after Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist of the 1930s and 40s. Thus my musical selection of the day was some of Reinhardt’s music. As the CD was playing, one of the students in the class pulled out her iPhone and 30 seconds later showed me that Shazam, a free iPhone program, had found the album I was playing, complete with artwork, and Amazon was offering to sell it to me.

Arthur Clarke’s famous Third Law says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Shazam is not magic: the various technological pieces are straightforward, though the specific algorithm that can so efficiently identify one tune out of zillions surely qualifies as advanced technology. Some deprecate the whole thing with comments like “It’s not really very good at classical music.” True enough, but viewed more generously, it’s nothing short of astonishing.

A couple of weeks earlier, a friend from Google aimed his Android phone at the bar code on the back of a book in my office and a few seconds later showed me the web page where Amazon (again) offered to let me read pages in the book and of course to buy a copy. We can see where this is going. Pictures of landmarks? Of items in a store? Of famous people? Of ordinary people like you and me? No problem: camera phones, universal connectivity and powerful central computing services working off huge databases are going to make such apparent miracles routine.

What does it take to create such systems? Phone applications sit atop a huge library of supporting software, of course; no one starts from the bare hardware, so we really are standing on the shoulders of, if not giants, at least a myriad of helpful programmers who have gone before. But the other thing is that the companies that sell the phones — Apple, Google (indirectly) and others — have provided enough entree to their systems that anyone with some programming expertise and a bright idea can create something new that will make the phone even more appealing. This open environment unleashes the creativity of thousands of people. Some ideas are brighter than others, but no matter what, there are far more good ideas than Apple or Google could have produced on their own. A thousand flowers can bloom, and some of them will be beautiful.

I’m not sure whether opening up the programming interface was entirely public-spirited on Apple’s part, but with the threat of Android, an open platform with Google muscle behind it, things did open up, and today it’s quite possible to build interesting software fairly quickly for iPhones and Androids. Google came a bit late to this party and is definitely playing catch-up. The first Android phone seems clunky next to the iPhone, though it has a real keyboard, not a simulated one, and it has a few tricks that the iPhone hasn’t yet managed, like a neat integration with Google’s Street View, so you can look around a location by turning the phone or yourself.

There were two phone projects in my class last spring, but it was early days, the development systems were rough, and writing code was hard going. In spite of that, the projects were very good, and one was so successful that a couple of the students who built it are selling it on the App Store. This year the development systems from Apple and Google are more polished and stable. I have half a dozen projects in the class and two JPs devoted to phone systems. The majority are iPhone-based, but a couple are using Android, with phones donated by Google. For sure there will be some winners this time, too.

I kid my students about endowing a chair when they become rich and famous, but the real reward is watching enthusiastic and creative people convert dumb devices into smart ones. That really is indistinguishable from magic.

How was your summer?

September 21, 2009

Very nice, thank you. Like many of you, I had both a vacation and a job. For part of the summer, my wife and I rented a house overlooking the upper Delaware River, one of those places that describe themselves as “away from it all.” Indeed it was. In the week we were there, we never saw another person on the road leading to the house. The nearest sign of civilization (defined as grocery store and gas station) was more than five miles away and in a different state. There was no cell phone service within that radius either. We did have satellite TV, from which I learned that Dish TV has just as many truly lousy channels as Comcast does in Princeton, and just as few good ones. Fortunately, the combination of Dish plus old-fashioned telephone provided Internet access, albeit with painfully low bandwidth, barely enough to manage e-mail but definitely not enough for Netflix. People who say that cell phones and the Internet are going to replace other services have clearly never spent any time in the boonies.  

You might reasonably ask why vacation didn’t last longer. To those not in the academic game, summer must seem idyllic: three months to travel or lie on the beach or just veg out. Of course the reality is not quite like that. First, faculty don’t get paid for those three months. More important, no one can just stop their professional activities for more than a modest period — life here may not literally be publish or perish, but one has to keep up. So the summer offers a change of pace and perhaps different kinds of things, but it’s not for totally goofing off. One works, just differently.  

My version of “working differently” was to spend a while at Google in New York, writing code to explore some especially grimy data with the hope of finding ways to make it better. This was a typical summer intern gig: exceptional people, great fun, lots to learn and almost sure to have no effect whatsoever, positive or negative, on the company’s bottom line. I shared a Dilbert-like cube with three other programmers whose combined ages barely exceeded my own. One of them, poor guy, was a Princeton undergrad who had been in my class a year earlier. I’m sure he would have preferred to escape the all-encompassing Princeton bubble, but he took enforced togetherness with great good grace, and it was a pleasure to have a friend sharing the space.  

For me, programming at Google was a way to keep up with real-world software development. For students, summer internships offer more, because they are a remarkably effective way to decide what kind of “permanent” job might appeal. (The quotes around “permanent” acknowledge the realities of today’s perilous economy.) When I was an undergrad long ago, I spent a summer working in an office for the Ontario highways department. The people were nice, and I got to see some early computers in action, which helped steer me toward a lifetime interest, but the job itself was so indescribably boring that it convinced me that I would never again work for a government agency. By contrast, as a grad student, I had a wonderful summer at MIT, using the first time-sharing operating system to help build the next version. I made friends that I still see from time to time, and the job provided contacts and experience that led to fantastic jobs at Bell Labs for the next two summers. Those internships told me that I had found employment paradise, and I went there permanently (well, for 30 years) right after finishing grad school.

Not every internship works out well, but even a bad experience teaches us something about environments and about ourselves. In effect, a summer job is an interview that lasts two or three months, with each party assessing the other for long enough that decisions are based on enough time together that they are likely to be sound. No hasty marriages; better to live together for a while first.

But now, vacations and internships are finished, and summer, much too short, is over. In spite of that, I’m glad that September is here again. One of the appealing parts of the academic life is the big annual cycle. In June, we all head off for vacations and internships. Every fall there’s a fresh burst of energy as everyone comes back to campus. We greet old friends and make new ones. The freshman class is eager and enthusiastic. (That will diminish around midterm week and be noticeably reduced by sophomore year.) People who live and work in the real world don’t have this wonderful experience — their treadmills run at a pretty steady pace throughout the year, and there isn’t a lot to distinguish one part from another. We’re lucky to get an annual rejuvenation, so enjoy it while you can. Welcome back! How was your summer?

Home alone

October 19, 2009

There’s a new phrase in the Princeton lexicon: “self-isolation,” the state of living alone to avoid infecting everyone else with swine flu. A variant form is also common, in e-mail that begins “I’m self-isolating...”, followed by an apology for skipping class or missing an appointment, and often accompanied by a plea for an extension on an assignment. My first lecture in COS 109: Computers in Our World generally includes advice on how to do well in the course. One suggestion is simply to come to class, since the material covered there could be intrinsically interesting or useful, and sometimes, just coincidentally, might appear on an exam. This exhortation is ignored most years, with attendance eventually stabilizing at the University-wide norm of about 75 percent for biggish classes.

This year’s first lecture also included some house rules, the first of which was “Please don’t come to class if you’re sick.” This apparently contradictory request seems to have caught on, judging by the amount of e-mail from students coming down with, in the middle of, or not quite recovered from swine flu. For my part, though I would love to have everyone in class every day, I’m grateful indeed that people are staying away when they’ve got a communicable disease.

I haven’t kept accurate records, but in the first three weeks there were at least a dozen self-isolators in my class of 110, so one might estimate that 10 percent of undergrads have already had swine flu. What will happen next? I certainly don’t know, but the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a press release late in August that gave some possibilities. WHO said that “there would be a period of further global spread of the virus, and most countries could see swine flu cases double every three to four days for several months until peak transmission is reached.” (This comes from Wikipedia’s version of a widely disseminated news story.)

Since I’m teaching a QR course, the numbers in this story presented an opportunity for a couple of questions in a problem set. “Suppose there are 1,000 people with swine flu today. If the doubling period is four days and peak transmission is reached after two months, how many people will be infected? (This is the optimistic scenario.) Now suppose that the doubling period is three days and peak transmission is reached only after three months, a pessimistic scenario. How many people will be infected?”

Truly interested readers are invited to pause here and work this out for themselves; the uninterested can read right on for the answers.

Two months is 60 days, so in the optimistic case doubling every four days means that there are 15 doublings. If you were ever in COS 109, you will certainly remember that two to the 15th power is greater than 32,000, so the hypothetical 1,000 original cases have become 32 million, roughly one-tenth of the population of the United States. Things are not so good in the pessimistic case, however. Doubling every three days for 90 days is 30 doublings, and two to the 30th power is more than a billion, so our original 1,000 victims have become well over one trillion. Given that the population of the world is less than seven billion, everyone would have gotten flu well before the end of three months. There are several useful quantitative lessons here, including the approximations that link powers of two (like two to the 30th) to powers of 10 (like a billion), and the important fact that no exponential growth can go on forever.

Of course these are simple-minded models, but diseases do spread exponentially (for a while) if they are contagious enough and if people’s behavior encourages the spread. Hence the request to isolate yourself — you’re much less likely to pass it on.

Whether you’re one of the unlucky 32 million or everyone gets it, it’s no fun to be sick when far from home, and even less so if the flu combines with painful complications like strep throat. If you have nearby family or supportive roommates to bring sympathy and food, they can offer comfort, but it’s still a grim time. I got the regular seasonal flu about 10 years ago, presumably from a student, and I thought I would die; indeed for a couple of the worst days, death seemed like a fine option. Every year since, it’s been a flu shot for me at the earliest possible moment, and so far I’ve have managed to avoid getting sick again. I’m old enough to probably have a few swine flu antibodies from a now-forgotten childhood illness. But just in case, please continue to stay home and enjoy your self-isolation as best you can. Once you’re truly well again, come back to class. It will be really good to see you, and who knows — some of the material might be interesting, useful, and maybe even on an exam.

A sense of where you are

November 23, 2009

I was trekking across campus on a recent Sunday afternoon. It was a beautiful day, and the campus was dotted with tourists and students enjoying some sunlight and the last of the leaves still on the trees.

A couple of about my age was standing in front of the chapel, holding a campus map but looking very lost. As I walked past, the man said, “Excuse me...” in a heavy accent, perhaps Russian. I asked if I could help, and they said, almost in unison, “Where are we?” “In front of the chapel” was true but not helpful, so I looked at their map. I have good map skills, but even so it was pretty confusing, because they were holding it upside down, so all the building names were upside down, too, even the ones they had carefully highlighted in yellow.

After turning it right side up, the better to read the building names, I pointed out the chapel (now recognizable), and told them where they were. But what they really wanted to know was how to get to Fine Hall. Conjecture: one or the other (or both) was a famous mathematician, and there was a gathering at Fine? In any case, it was now easy to guide them — turn right on Washington Road and look for the really tall building. I watched to be sure that they made the turn, and no doubt they got there safely.

Princeton does a fine job with its online map, the one that can be neatly printed on a single piece of paper. I’ve seen these in all kinds of hands over the years, and I’ve given out my fair share to random visitors as well; I even used to carry an extra one since it was so useful. On the other hand, the University does less well in identifying buildings when you’re standing in front of them. You’ll look in vain for a name on the computer science building where I hang out. The E-Quad says, “School of Engineering and Applied Science,” but when did anyone ever call it that? Fields, Forbes, Foulke, Frist, Friend, Frick — it sounds like an excerpt from Dr Seuss. Don’t confuse Fisher Hall, home of the economists, with Fisher Hall at Whitman. If you’re sick, go to McCosh, not McCosh.

In retrospect, I wonder if my tourists really wanted the old Fine, which is where the mathematicians used to hang out. Perhaps I should have sent them to Jones. That’s the current name for the building attached to Frist Campus Center that was Fine, when the current Frist was Palmer Labs (not to be confused with Palmer House, the university’s up-scale bed and breakfast). Palmer Labs used to be home to the physics department before it departed for Jadwin Hall, not to be confused with Jadwin Gymnasium, which is even further away.

Two statues overlook the north doorway of Palmer (oops, Frist). The one on the left is Benjamin Franklin, readily identified by his distinctive coat, which was apparently deemed quite fashionable when he was the American ambassador in Paris from 1776 to 1785. The other statue is Joseph Henry, who is much less well known, though it’s his name on Joseph Henry House, just a stone’s throw from Nassau Hall, and perhaps Henry Hall, next door to Foulke Hall. Henry, who taught here from 1832 to 1848, was an exceptionally accomplished scientist of the time, second only to Franklin; he discovered much about how electricity and magnetism work and even lent his name to the unit of inductance, the henry. Surely immortality is having your name used for a fundamental unit of measurement and spelled in lower case, like volt or watt.

Back to the statues. In the 1930s, there were two scientists on campus whose wives were pregnant and due to deliver at almost the same time. The men (who I shall call Smith and Jones) agreed that the parents of the first child to arrive could choose whichever of the two famous names they preferred, and the other parents would take the leftover. I heard this story from Joseph Henry “Smith,” who I knew well, but I know nothing about Benjamin Franklin “Jones.” One also wonders whether the wives concurred with this decision process, and of course what might have happened if the newborns were female, though those are stories for another time.

I’ve wandered around a fair number of university campuses over the years. Some of them carefully label each building, so there’s no doubt about where you are, but others, like Princeton, seem to prefer a sort of security by obscurity: if you don’t know what a building is named or what it houses, perhaps you don’t need to know. So always carry a map, and be sure you know which way is up.

Millions, billions, zillions

February 22, 2010

Big numbers are everywhere these days, what with lost jobs (millions), bailouts (billions), and the budget and its deficits (trillions). I think most of us don’t grasp these numbers at all, to the point where words like million, billion and trillion have become synonyms for “big,” “really big” and “really really big.” Technology has its own set of “big” words as well: mega, giga and tera are part of everyday speech, while further-out ones like peta and exa now appear in public with some regularity.

Since most of us have no intuition about big numbers and probably don’t know the data that they are based on anyway, we’re at the mercy of whoever provides them. Here are a couple of recent examples. 

There was much buzz before Christmas about Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers as potential gifts, along with speculation about a tablet device from Apple. (The iPad was announced in late January, but won’t ship until March, so that’s a topic for another time.) On Dec. 9, The Wall Street Journal said that the Nook e-book reader from Barnes & Noble has two gigabytes of memory, “enough to hold about 1,500 digital books.” On Dec. 10, The New York Times said that a zettabyte (10^21 bytes) “is equivalent to 100 billion copies of all the books in the Library of Congress.”

By good luck, I was right then in the early stages of inventing questions for the final exam in COS 109, so this confluence of technological numbers was a gift from the gods. On the exam, I asked, “Supposing that these two statements are correct, compute roughly how many books are in the Library of Congress.” This required straightforward arithmetic, albeit with big numbers, not something that most people are good at. The brain often refuses to cooperate when there are too many zeroes. Writing them all out might help, but it’s easy to slip up. Scientific notation like 10^21 is better, but units like “zetta,” completely unknown outside a tiny population, convey nothing at all to most people.

Since intuition is of no help here, let’s do some careful arithmetic. Taking the Journal at its word, 2 GB for 1,500 books means that a single book is somewhat over a million bytes. Taking the Times at its word, a hundred billion copies is 10^11; dividing 10^21 by 10^11 implies that there are about 10^10 bytes in a single copy of all the books. If each book is 10^6 bytes, then the Library of Congress must hold about 10,000 books.

Is this a reasonable estimate? One useful alternative to blind guessing is a kind of numeric triage, which led the second part of the exam question: “Does your computed number seem much too high, much too low, or about right, and why do you say so?” Of course if one didn’t do the arithmetic correctly, all bets are off. A fair number of people found themselves in that situation, and thus had to rationalize faulty values from hundreds to bazillions. 

Those who did the arithmetic right were better off, but some still had trouble assessing plausibility. Apparently even small big numbers are hard to visualize, for a surprising number thought that 10,000 books was reasonable for a big library: “I would guess that even Firestone holds over 10,000 books” was a not-atypical response. That’s not reasonable, of course — even I have close to 500 books in my office, and I’ll bet that many humanities colleagues have thousands.

Let’s look at another example. At Christmas, my wife gave me “Googled: The End of the World As We Know It,” by Ken Auletta. It’s an interesting history and assessment of the most successful technology company of the past decade, though there were places where the fact-checking was a bit spotty. For instance, it claims that Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt ’76, graduated from Princeton in 1979. But in exam-creation mode, what caught my eye was the very last sentence, which says that Google stores “two dozen or so tetabits (about twenty-four quadrillion bits) of data.”

Another gift! There is no such thing as a tetabit; if quadrillions is correct, then the word should have been petabits. So I asked, “How many gigabytes does Google store?” This required converting petabits to gigabits, then dividing 24 bits by 8 bits per byte to get 3 million gigabytes. But “tetabit” is also only one letter away from another valid unit, terabit, so the second half of the question asked, “If tetabits really should have been terabits, how many gigabytes would there be?” I’ll leave that as an easy exercise.

What are we to do when the country’s premier newspapers and highly qualified authors of important books can’t get the numbers or the units right? Most numbers just go right by; we don’t have the time or background to pay much attention, and we act on intuition and gut feelings, however faulty. Could we do better? Eternal vigilance is a partial answer. Informed skepticism, a little knowledge and some grade-school arithmetic will also help, but only if we use them.

Action figures

March 29, 2010

Last fall I read a most enjoyable book by Paul Collins, called “The Book of William” and subtitled “How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World.” The First Folio was published in 1623, the first collection of all of Shakespeare’s plays. The material was pulled together after his death by John Heminge and Henry Condell, who had known him well and acted in some of his plays.

Collins tells a fascinating story of the initial collection of plays after Shakespeare died in 1616, the modifications in later folios, the disastrously bad edition by Alexander Pope in 1725 and the Folio’s steadily increasing value as a historical document and financial asset. He trekked around the world to visit as many of the surviving First Folios as he could, and wrote engagingly of the people and places he saw. If one is a serious bibliophile, this must be well-trodden ground, but it was all new to me, and very well done.

Having read Collins’ book, I really wanted to see a First Folio for myself. The Folger Library in Washington, D.C., has a lot of them, but it turns out that there’s no need to make a trip: Firestone has a copy in its Rare Books collection, and thanks to a current exhibit in the Milberg Gallery, you can just walk in and there it is.

Why is it on display? For the past several months, Firestone has featured an intriguing exhibit called “The Author’s Portrait: O, could he but have drawne his Wit.” There are over a hundred significant rare books and other artifacts that include portraits of their authors; the collection includes works by, and often more or less contemporaneous pictures of, people like John Milton, Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Bernard Shaw.  

The First Folio is there because of its frontispiece, the famous engraving of Shakespeare. You’d recognize it for sure. I did because it’s the one in the Complete Works that I bought for a couple of dollars at a used book sale years ago, long before I knew anything about the portrait or indeed any of the history of how Shakespeare’s plays were collected.

It was also sometime last fall, perhaps with The Book of William in mind, that I happened to notice something unusual in the window of the toy store on Palmer Square, just down the street from Teresa’s. Just what every kid wants — a Shakespeare Action Figure with Removable Quill Pen and Book! Unfortunately, this improbable “action” figure appeared to be pretty badly done. It was only five or six inches tall, made of hard vinyl and rather crude in execution. The tiny removable book and quill pen would be lost immediately by even the most careful child. I looked at it several times over the next couple of months but could never bring myself to spend money for something so poorly made, though it might have made a tongue-in-cheek present for a friend in the English department. Eventually it disappeared, whether sold or shipped back one can only speculate, and the opportunity seemed to be gone.

But thanks to the miracle of Google, I was able to find the company that sells it. Indeed, its online catalog has an army of action figures, from Alexander the Great to Annie Oakley, from Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde, from Franklin to Einstein, from Jesus to Freud. Some of these famous people also have removable parts, and the Deluxe Jesus comes with five (vinyl) loaves, two small fishes and a jug for converting water to wine. (I am not making this up.)

Einstein and Beethoven apparently have no removable parts. The latter omission is a bit surprising, since Beethoven is often pictured as writing with a quill pen, and there’s not much difference between a tiny plastic book and a tiny plastic music manuscript. None of the figures are particularly accurate representations of their originals, at least as I remember images; for instance, neither Einstein nor Beethoven has nearly as much vinyl hair as they seemed to have had in life.

Here’s a question: who would be our campus action figures, Princeton stars that combine great distinction with real distinctiveness? Cornel West GS ’80 comes immediately to mind; no one else here is so instantly recognizable. Paul Muldoon would surely qualify. Joyce Carol Oates would be a wonderful addition to the group. My fellow ‘Prince’ columnist, Tony Grafton, is a natural. Of course President Tilghman belongs, and if she were to carry the mace that signifies her office, that would be a really impressive removable part. So give it some thought. It’s likely that suggestions would be welcomed by the company, which must be looking for ways to keep their list fresh, and I’ll bet that there would be a decent local market for our very own Princeton action figures.

Friends and family

April 26, 2010

Princeton has often seemed to me like a sort of big extended family. Like all families, some of the members are a bit odd and a few don’t get along, but for the most part we have enough in common that we generally enjoy each other’s company.

This family feeling is particularly obvious at Reunions, when tens of thousands of alumni greet each other like long-lost relatives, but for me there was another reminder early this year. The Office of Information Technology’s directory service finds names, numbers and e-mail addresses for students and faculty, but it turns out that there is a lot more there than you might realize. Every so often, I run a program that extracts information from the database and converts it into a format that’s more convenient for my own weird searches. This spring, I discovered that what used to be about 25,000 items had blossomed into nearly 100,000. Most of the new entries are no more than a name or a netID, apparently for people long since departed, since they are listed only as “department unknown.”

Some 1,700 entries, however, reveal a family connection. A listing like “Jonathan Huffington Post III ’77 P09 P13” says that Huffy is a parent of a current freshman and a son or daughter who graduated last year. There are on average 140 such entries for each of 2010 through 2013, which suggests that well over a hundred students each year are “legacies,” the standard term for the children of alumni. I haven’t checked with officialdom for accurate numbers, and the OIT data is certainly not complete, but this is pretty consistent with other sources. (There seems to be no analogous “G13” notation, but surely there are grandparents as well, and in fact it would be a nice programming exercise to try to find them mechanically from the OIT data.)

This all reminded me of another aspect of family: siblings in classes. I was pleasantly surprised in my first year here to encounter two sisters, one in the fall and the other next spring. (Hi, Grace and Joyce!) I’ve kept a casual record ever since, and found that it’s not at all unusual to have a brother or sister of a former student in one of my classes. Over the past 11 years there have been 36 that I know of, including two semesters with twins in the same class. It’s only moderately embarrassing that I never could reliably distinguish between Adam and Matt, or Jessica and Tiffany, but others would certainly have had the same problem.

I’ve also run into a fair number of children of friends, even if the parents didn’t go to Princeton. If your name is Smith, you’re anonymous unless someone tells me, but if you have a distinctive name, it’s not too hard to make the family connection. Surprisingly, a modest handful of these parents have said that they learned to program from one of my books, which is incredibly rewarding, even though it does remind me all too clearly of the passage of time. Someday this comment will come from a grandparent, which might well be a sign that it’s time to move on to “department unknown” status.

I’ve also had well over a dozen students whose parents are Princeton faculty or staff. Again, if the name is distinctive, it’s not too hard to infer a connection, but usually there’s no clue. For example, last fall I was on a committee with a colleague whose family name is fairly common — not Smith, but well within the Census Bureau’s top 100. During one of the endless meetings, he casually mentioned that his daughter had graduated a couple of years earlier. Something clicked — indeed she had been in my class, but (and this seems to be an inviolable rule) she had not given the slightest hint that her father taught here. Not that it would make any difference, but in most cases, I learn of this kind of family connection only well after the fact; indeed there were two other faculty children in that same class.  

Lots of schools must have a similar kind of friends-and-family experience, but it seems especially strong at Princeton. The continuity over years and generations adds to the sense of community and enriches the experience for all of us. Certainly it’s a pleasure to discover that a student that I have come to know today has a connection that goes back 25 or 30 years and perhaps even further. When you go to Reunions next month, watch for recent grads marching with their parents and their parents’ friends and everyone’s young children, all having a wonderful time. As Tolstoy said in “Anna Karenina,” “Happy families are all alike.” The Princeton family has a lot of very different members, but it seems remarkably happy, and it’s great to belong to it.

Call me Ned

September 27, 2010

The term “Luddite,” often aimed today at people who complain about new technology, comes from the (perhaps fictional) Ned Ludd. Ludd was said to have destroyed textile machinery to protest its negative effect on his livelihood and way of life during the early days of the industrial revolution in England. Or, as urbandictionary.com explains, “A group led by Mr. Luddite [sic] durring [sic] the industrial revolution who beleived [sic] machines would cause workers [sic] wages to be decreased and ended up burning a number of factories in protest.”

While looking for more accurate information about Mr. Ludd, I came upon an essay by Thomas Pynchon, published in The New York Times Review of Books on Oct. 28, 1984. Under the title “Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?” Pynchon wrote, “Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead.”

Well, maybe. But that was then and this is now. Although I’m hardly a Luddite, recent painful experiences lead me to take issue with the phrase “so user-friendly.” For instance:

I used to have excellent map skills, and in fact probably still do, but today large-scale detailed paper maps can be hard to find. Google Maps and its competitors are helpful if one has immediate and speedy access to the Internet on a big screen. But on the road in a car, that’s not the case, so I’ve been an early adopter and (in unfamiliar territory) a regular user of a GPS. The first one of these, bought for my wife, proved invaluable when off the beaten path; it was comforting to know that we could always find our way back to civilization — that is, the nearest interstate. That first GPS cost more than $500, in part because it was bundled with a PDA (personal digital assistant), a now-vanished technology that we never used anyway.  

Our second GPS was bought for driving to Yellowstone a couple years ago, a trip with frequent diversions into small towns in the middle of nowhere as my wife dug into her family history. The new device, made by the same company, cost less than half what the original did and it had a bigger and brighter screen, but it was markedly less user-friendly, to the point where I seriously considered acquiring a small sledgehammer.

It no longer told us what road we were on, just the name of some upcoming cross street. It no longer showed a track of where we had been to help us avoid traveling in circles. It replaced the easily identifiable car icon by one in a shape and color that made it indistinguishable from the background. It removed any hint of a scale from the display, so there was no way to tell whether the next tiny village was a mile away or a hundred. It didn’t let us pan around the screen to see context. And it had a mind of its own about interchanges, maniacally zooming in whenever we came near a complicated intersection, so we could tell only that we were somewhere in a maze of ramps.

Gearing up for a trip late this summer, I bought a newer version of the same GPS, at a third of the price of the previous one. This model does tell us what road we’re on, and the car icon can now often be distinguished from the background. It also has a large repertoire of recorded street names, so it can say (in the voice of a robot female drill sergeant) “in point one miles turn right on Prospect Avenue.” Unfortunately, its tiny little processor can’t keep up with this task, so the message is more like “in [snap crackle pop] turn [long silent pause] on [static].” There’s still no scale or panning, and it’s even more aggressive about zooming in on interchanges.

There’s an art and even some science to creating good user interfaces. One of the simplest rules is to enlist potential users as victims and get their frank opinions before the design is frozen.  Our world is full of gadgets and systems like my GPS that have focused on elaborate “features,” apparently at the expense of this basic step. It’s hard to believe that such flaws would not have been remarked on by anyone who tried to use the device in real life. In recent weeks I’ve struggled with cell phones, cable TV remotes, computer networks, e-mail and online calendars. An expert would charge a huge consulting fee to explain how their user interfaces are the antithesis of friendly. I’d happily spell it out for free; just ask.

We're number one!

October 25, 2010

Every August, US News & World Report publishes a popular issue that ranks U.S. colleges and universities. If memory serves, Princeton has been ranked first in “national universities” for the past 10 or 11 years, with two exceptions. Several years ago we slipped to second place for a year, clearly because of some technical glitch at the magazine. This year Princeton was again second, this time perhaps because I am on sabbatical, along with several distinguished colleagues whose presence adds so much to the environment.

Each year the University is appropriately restrained when it graciously acknowledges the results, pointing out that Princeton is happy to be highly ranked, but that there are plenty of good schools and prospective students should not base their choices solely on rankings. Of course everyone is quietly pleased to have Princeton’s greatness recognized.

There are many such rankings, from a veritable smokestack industry of suppliers. One of these is the National Research Council, a highly respected nonprofit institution that has provided “science, technology and health policy advice” to the federal government ever since the first of its constituents, the National Academy of Science, was established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Along with advising, from time to time the NRC ranks graduate programs at U.S. universities. The last study was published in 1995, so it was more than a bit dusty when the NRC undertook an update some years ago. The new results were due to appear in 2005, but for whatever reason were delayed until the end of September, just a month ago.

Princeton did very well in this exercise, with many departments in the top handful in their respective cohorts. Computer science, the department that I know best, went from sixth in 1993 to second. Wonderful! We’re No. 2!

Sober second thought, however, makes one a bit cautious. Princeton computer science is a fine department, but is it better than, say, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which came in third? MIT was second in 1995, after Stanford and followed by University of California, Berkeley; Carnegie Mellon University; and Cornell — a quite reasonable result. Other computer science departments were jerked around wildly; for instance, computer science at the University of Washington went from ninth to 38th, a most unlikely outcome.

I asked friends in other departments about the rankings. One colleague here calls the results “completely nuts.” In his discipline, the top school has no faculty in several major areas of the field, while the three schools that are Princeton’s main competitors for graduate students are well down the list. Naturally those who move up are happy; another school congratulates one of its departments on rising from 81st to “in the top 12,” a dramatic leap that might be taken with a grain or two of salt.

How do such wild results happen? In the 1980s, statisticians at Bell Laboratories studied the data from the 1985 “Places Rated Almanac,” which ranked 329 American cities on how desirable they were as places to live. (This book is still published every couple of years.) My colleagues at Bell Labs tried to assess the data objectively. To summarize a lot of first-rate statistical analysis and exposition in a few sentences, what they showed was that if one combines flaky data with arbitrary weights, it’s possible to come up with pretty much any order you like. They were able, by juggling the weights on the nine attributes of the original data, to move any one of 134 cities to first position, and (separately) to move any one of 150 cities to the bottom. Depending on the weights, 59 cities could rank either first or last!

To illustrate the problem in a local setting, suppose that US News rated universities only on alumni giving rate, which today is just one of their criteria. Princeton is miles ahead on this measure and would always rank first. If instead the single criterion were SAT score, we’d be down in the list, well behind MIT and California Institute of Technology. If the criterion were ZIP code, which is nonsensical but objective, Princeton would be near the bottom (though still above Harvard and Yale!), and no school outside the northwest could compete with the University of Washington’s 98195.

To its credit, the NRC makes its data and methodology freely available, so you can create your own lists with any criteria you like. I often ask students in COS 109: Computers in Our World to explore the malleability of rankings. With factors and weights loosely based on US News data that ranks Princeton first, their task is to adjust the weights to push Princeton down as far as possible, while simultaneously raising Harvard up as much as they can.

The exercise is meant to demonstrate convincingly that such rankings don’t mean much. Most things in life are far too complicated to rank in linear order — almost everything is a messy combination of properties, and those properties are differently important to different audiences. The next time you hear that Princeton is number one, be grateful for the compliment, but remain a little skeptical.

Sic transit

November 20, 2010

I’ve been doing a lot of driving lately, and it has given me plenty of time to listen to music and ruminate on the important questions of life, like what determines the price of gas.

Prices have fluctuated a lot over the past few years, though the long-term trend is mostly up. For example, on opposite corners of an intersection in North Jersey there are two gas stations that I used to frequent, now both abandoned but still sporting signs advertising the price of gas when they went out of business. One says 87.9 cents for regular, but it’s been closed for well over a decade and dollar a gallon gas is surely gone forever. On the other corner, the last price was 363.9 cents. That station must have died during the spike in prices three years ago, which I remember vividly because I drove to Yellowstone and back and never saw gas below $4 a gallon. Today prices are just under $3, but I’ll bet there will soon come a time when 363.9 is in range again.

Whiling away the miles from Boston to Princeton a few weeks ago, I also saw a remarkable spread of prices even on the same day. The cheapest, 252.9, was in New Jersey, which always seems to offer a bargain, but I had been forced to refuel in western Connecticut at 309.9, which irritated me no end. When I arrived in New Jersey, with a nearly full tank of expensive gas, the price at the Garden State Parkway service center was 257.9, only a nickel above the lowest price anywhere. This was a bit odd, since the service centers don’t gouge but they’re not normally cheap either, a fair trade for convenience. Someone is leaving money on the table by not setting the price higher than any random corner station.

It was only a month or two ago that Governor Christie backed out of New Jersey’s commitment to a new railroad tunnel under the Hudson River, citing the cost (about $3 billion for New Jersey if I recall). I’m certainly not an expert on such matters, but it seems that he could have done better on this decision.

Let’s do some quantitative reasoning. As a rough estimate, there are 5 million vehicles in New Jersey (one for every two people, give or take). At 10,000 miles a year and 20 miles per gallon, that’s about 500 gallons per vehicle per year. If the gasoline tax were raised by 20 cents a gallon, which would bring prices more or less into line with surrounding states, a typical driver would pay an extra $100 for gas over the year, and the state would collect an extra $500 million in taxes. In a few years, that would cover New Jersey’s share of the tunnel’s cost. Of course there are downsides — gas taxes are regressive, falling unequally on the less affluent — and my estimate might be too optimistic, but it’s worth considering.

I commuted to New York on NJ Transit for much of the summer. The train trip is wearing but a lot less tiring than driving would have been, and always much cheaper since NJ Transit gives a generous discount to senior citizens. The existing tunnel under the Hudson, with only two tracks, operates at capacity all the time, and the slightest glitch causes delays. I spent hours sitting in morning trains waiting to get to Penn Station, and a similar amount in the afternoon waiting to leave the city. (Twice I also sat for hours in the middle of nowhere when trains were held up by what NJ Transit euphemistically calls “trespasser incidents,” in which some unfortunate soul decides to end it all by walking in front of a high-speed train and the entire Northeast Corridor is shut down while the authorities investigate.)

On return trips from New York, I often chatted with a distinguished NJ Transit engineer who was designing electrical systems for the new tunnel. He was remarkably instructive on technical matters, and it was reassuring to see the high level of competence that went into the planning. It’s a shame that his work for the past five or 10 years will be for nothing.

On the other hand, it’s good to see some local sanity: it sounds like plans to replace the Dinky by a bus are not moving very quickly, if at all. Anyone who takes the Dinky regularly knows how convenient and reliable it is and how unlikely it is that a bus would provide service as good.

I drive between Princeton and Boston rather than taking the train because it costs half as much and is a lot faster. But for the long run, our public transport choices as a society often seem wrong-headed. If we each optimize for ourselves at the expense of the whole, eventually it will catch up with us, as we run out of gas and our infrastructure collapses around us.

Anti social

January 31, 2011

In a single day recently I got five separate invitations to join someone’s “professional network” at LinkedIn. Two were from people I had never heard of, one was from a colleague from a previous life, and two were from former students that I remembered fondly. It’s always a pleasure to hear from friends, but they may not realize that invitations are being sent in their name automatically. In any case, I don’t use LinkedIn, so the messages are ignored and eventually LinkedIn gets tired of resending them.

Facebook has gotten some pushback for the same kind of outreach — last week the company agreed not to send unsolicited invitations to non-members in Germany. This is not the only example where users have been upset. Last month a new feature made it easy to unwittingly hand out one’s own address and cell phone number to advertisers. That bothered enough people that it was rescinded three days later. Since I don’t use Facebook either, I don’t have to worry about the effect of continually changing privacy policies and occasional bugs, like the one that let a hacker post to Mark Zuckerberg’s fan page last week.

I also received unsolicited mail from Twitter last month. Some misguided soul wanted to follow me; all I had to do was create an account and start tweeting. That’s unlikely to happen. I once heard someone characterized as “a person who puts the twit in Twitter,” and would rather not belong to that group. The aphorism “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt” is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln; whoever its author, he was perhaps paraphrasing Proverbs 17:28, “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” My lips are sealed, at least on Twitter.

Whenever an invitation arrives it means that someone, however well-intentioned, has handed out information about me, vouched for its authenticity, and given the recipient carte blanche to use it. For example, LinkedIn’s privacy policy says “By providing email  addresses or other information of non-Users to LinkedIn, you represent that you have authority to do so. All information that you enter or upload about your contacts will be covered by the User Agreement and this Privacy Policy and will enable us to provide customized services such as suggesting people to connect with on LinkedIn.” That seems to say that if your contact list includes me, you’ve told LinkedIn that it’s OK to spam me.

Social networking sites are useful, but their business model is to sell detailed information about their users. As a result, our personal data spreads far and wide, our privacy is eroded and our risks increase. In mid-December I received e-mail from my friend Charlie, sent to a small private mailing list. It said, “Apologies for having to reach out to you like this, but I made a quick trip to the UK and had my bag stolen from me with my passport and credit cards in it. The embassy has cooperated by issuing a temporary passport, I just have to pay for a ticket and settle hotel bills.” It went on to ask for a loan, and gave a UK phone number.

It was possible. Charlie is a frequent traveler and could have made a trip; I hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks. I called the number in England, but it didn’t ring, which was odd. I replied to the mail and received a personal response: “Hi Brian. I am in a bit of trouble, please lend me $1,800. Western union will be OK, let me know if you need my details for the transfer. I will pay back once I return to the States.”

I asked for instructions but I also asked a question that only the real Charlie could possibly have answered. Back came precise instructions for sending money by Western Union but there was no answer to my question. I was way beyond suspicious at this point, and a quick Google search revealed that this was a phishing attack that had been going on for months; the perps hadn’t even bothered to change the script or the phone number. We learned later that Charlie’s Gmail account had been compromised, providing the bad guys with lots of potential targets, but the scam could equally well have been based on information gleaned from a social network.

As Zuckerberg said on his blog last May, “When you share more, the world becomes more open and connected.” The flip side is that as more and more of our personal information becomes available online, we are ever more vulnerable. Real friends are beyond price, and e-mail and social networks make it wonderfully easy for us to keep in touch, but not every “friend” is really a friend, and relying on the kindness of online strangers is most unwise.

Enter to grow in wisdom

March 1, 2011

A sabbatical offers a year without teaching or other responsibilities (though with a commensurate reduction in pay). It’s a chance to renew oneself, learn new things and in my case try to write a book.

The sabbatical is working out well. I’ve been spending much of my time at Harvard, where the computer science department and Berkman Center for Internet and Society have both been welcoming and supportive beyond measure, another reason why the time is so enjoyable. I have a comfortable office among old and new friends, less than a 10-minute walk from home. There’s free coffee, a new computer and lots of interesting things to do. I would be happy to have a sabbatical every year, though Princeton is unlikely to support this, and Harvard might tire of my presence.

Harvard and Princeton are quite different places, of course, but there are times when their similarities seem unusually close. For example, both schools are major tourist attractions. One of the most popular local sites is the statue of John Harvard, which stands (or in his case sits) in Harvard Yard outside University Hall. Harvard didn’t found Harvard University nor did he attend it, as the tour guides are fond of pointing out, but when he died in 1638 after barely a year in the colonies, his will left nearly £800 and his library of 400 books to the new college just starting up in Cambridge, and this was enough for naming rights.

Tradition has it that if one rubs the statue’s left foot, it will bring good luck. Most of the statue is dark brown, but the left foot always gleams golden and bright, and at almost any time of day, some tourist is rubbing it while someone else is taking a picture. People who cross the Yard regularly try to walk behind the shooters so as not to interfere, though sometimes the crowds are so thick that it’s impossible.

John Witherspoon, who was born almost a hundred years after John Harvard died, has his statue in Firestone Plaza. The two Johns both have longish hair and wear similar clothing — styles evidently didn’t change rapidly at the time, at least as imagined by sculptors who lived 200 years later — and both have a big book in hand. But Witherspoon is standing, resting his book on the outstretched wings of a tough-looking raptor, and there’s no sign that anyone has ever tried to rub his foot; somehow one gets the feeling that he would not have approved.

Like Harvard, Witherspoon was a minister, and he left his library of 300 books to Princeton. Unlike Harvard, who died at 30, Witherspoon had a long, rich and influential life. He was a popular teacher whose students included Aaron Burr, James Madison and dozens of senators and congressmen. He was the sixth president of Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey), a congressman and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. With a little better luck and timing, or the services of a good public relations firm, we might all be at Witherspoon University today, but his name lives on only in a dorm, a nearby middle school and the street that leads from FitzRandolph Gate to Small World Coffee. By contrast, John Harvard is immortal.

Another similarity strikes me on my usual walk across campus. On the south side of Harvard Yard, a small gate leads in from Massachusetts Avenue. The Dexter Gate, which was built in 1901, leads through a dark passageway under a dorm into almost an alley at the rear of Widener Library. But it has two of the most compelling inscriptions in the whole place.

Over the entrance is written “Enter to grow in wisdom.” The words come from Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869 to 1909. Eliot was an educational reformer, generally credited with modernizing Harvard, including innovations such as standardized entrance exams, an elective system and written examinations. (The Harvard Crimson noted in September last year that less than a quarter of undergraduate courses now have written final exams, so Eliot’s influence in that sphere seems to be waning; I would not be surprised to find a similar trend at Princeton.)

But back to the inscription. It would be hard to improve upon the sentiment of Eliot’s words. What better goal for those who come to a great university than to grow in wisdom?

The inscription on the other side of Dexter Gate, hard to see as one leaves campus for Massachusetts Avenue and the bustle of Cambridge, is another Eliot quote: “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” The words are different, but in spirit they seem almost the same as Princeton’s own “in the nation’s service, and in the service of all nations.” Surely, words to live by, in both directions and at both places. It’s so easy to take these wonderful universities for granted; entering or leaving campus we might occasionally pause to think about why we’re here.

Read any good books lately?

April 4, 2011

My wife and I spent our sabbatical in a lovely house on a quiet street in Cambridge, a short walk from Harvard Square and the university. It belonged to a couple of professors who were spending their sabbaticals in the real Cambridge in the fall and then in Singapore in the spring.

One of the many charms of their house was that it was crammed with books. Some of those reflected busy professional lives; she had a lot of books in Chinese and his dealt with environmental issues around the world. But many fell into the category of books I should have read but hadn’t — serious fiction whose titles I knew well though not their contents, scholarly biographies of important people, deep studies of philosophy and religion, big books on politics and economics. Indeed, a whole year of full-time reading would not have been enough to get through even a tenth of them.

I did read a dozen heavy tomes that appealed in one way or another, like Jared Diamond’s “Collapse,” which I had started when it first came out but never finished. There was a John Keegan history of World War I that I had somehow missed (be glad you didn’t live in Europe in 1914) and I re-read Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” (be glad you didn’t live in the 14th century). But after a while I began to yearn for books that weren’t in the “should have read” category. I wanted lightweight popular history or complete fluff like detective stories. The “light” part was important figuratively, since my brain needed a break, but also literally, since it’s just too much effort to hold up a 700 page book while reading in bed; lightweight is good.

Maybe this is where the Kindle and its kin shine.  Smaller e-book readers don’t weigh as much as even one real book but they store lots of them, and online book sellers make it seductively easy to buy more — one click and you’ve got it, no matter when or where you are.

Are e-books the future of reading? In Amazon’s latest earnings report, CEO Jeff Bezos ’86 says “Kindle books have now overtaken paperback books as the most popular format on Amazon.com.” Barnes & Noble said much the same for Nook books, though one should be careful to read the fine print — that applied only to online sales, not those in brick and mortar stores.

I don’t understand the economics of e-books.  Since their production and distribution costs are close to zero, one would expect them to be quite a bit cheaper than their physical equivalents, but they are often comparably expensive — immediate gratification has a price.  For instance, when a new cop novel by one of my favorite authors was published last fall, the Kindle version was only 10 percent less than the physical hardback.  The paperback version just appeared; it’s five bucks cheaper than the Kindle edition! This all seems weird, given that when you “buy” an e-book, you don’t even own the bits. Like most digital media, the book is “licensed, not sold,” and you only have a transient right to make limited use of it. You can’t sell your e-copy to someone else nor can you donate it to a local charity for their annual book sale. And as we saw with the Orwell copyright fuss in 2009, Amazon can even unsell the book.

I don’t own a Kindle, so when we returned home, I headed over to Firestone to find some lightweight entertainment. To my delight, sitting on the shelf in the Dixon collection was the very same hardback cop novel by the favorite author that I had seen on Amazon.  No waiting, no fourteen dollars, just bring it back within a month.

As I was checking out my handful of books, the young woman behind the counter commented on my choices. I said that they were only for enjoyment (I probably said “trash” to convey that they were certainly not “learned”). She said, “I’m really looking forward to reading books that I want to read.” From this, you could safely infer that she was a senior and had finally had enough of books that other people told her she had to read.

Naturally I asked the standard and probably irritating question — is your thesis done yet? “Not even close,” she replied, which is definitely the standard answer, especially at the beginning of April. Hang in, dear seniors. In a couple of weeks, your theses will be done. In two months, you’ll be free. You’ll miss Princeton more than you could imagine, but you will finally be able to read any book you want and purely for your own pleasure. With a bit of luck, you’ll be near an outstanding library that lets you wander freely through its collection, wherever curiosity and serendipity lead. It’s a great experience and a lot more fun than any e-book. Enjoy.

Spring is sprung

May 2, 2011

At last! As is often the case in Princeton, we went from frost alerts and furnace weather to “turn on the air conditioner” in about a day. Spring is a lovely time here, with flowers everywhere and delicate shades of new green on trees and bushes. Maybe this was the image that F. Scott Fitzgerald had in mind when he described Princeton as “rising, a green Phoenix, out of the ugliest country in the world.”

By now, the flowering trees have mostly done their thing: the magnolias by the Scudder Plaza swimming hole have dropped their petals into a slippery mess, but they were great while they lasted. The ethereal archway of flowering pear trees along Witherspoon Street is now just fresh leaves. The cherry tree in our backyard exploded into blossoms in a single day. According to my wife’s records, this happened about 10 days later than it did last year, further evidence that spring was a bit overdue.

One downside of all this burgeoning plant life is that the lawn has started to grow like crazy as well, along with a healthy crop of dandelions, and everything has to be mowed frequently; if one lets it slide for a couple of days too long, there’s a danger that small children will get lost in it. Of course if we continue to get rain all the time, that will make the grass grow even faster while preventing me from mowing it often enough.

Spring is an active time on the wildlife front as well. We haven’t had deer on our property for several years now; we sometimes wonder whether that’s the natural cycle of life, or the unhappy result of hostile action by the deer police. But there are plenty of birds and of course uncountable squirrels to entertain the family cat.

Canada geese, which are pretty much permanent residents of the area, appear to be getting ready for new family members; it’s quite common to see a pair with one standing guard while the other sits quietly on the ground in the hatching position. Soon there will be a bunch of new geese, which are very cute when they’re young; unfortunately they rapidly become adults with the same unpleasant habits as their parents. When I was a kid growing up in Canada, one normally saw Canada geese only as they flew south for the winter and back north in the spring. They were mysterious and magical — amazing flying machines. The latter is still true, but as year-round residents and pests, they are now anything but magical.

One good place to watch wildlife is the pair of paths that run along Lake Carnegie, between the lake and Faculty Road. (I will defer discussion of wildlife on the Street for another time.) Not far east of Washington Road, and easily seen from the paths, there’s a small island in the lake. A group of Canada geese hangs out there, making a great racket almost all the time. I can’t see what they’re excited about, though perhaps it’s some kind of turf thing with the other big birds in the same area. Those look like cormorants, though I’d be happy to have a bird expert correct me. They spend most of their time standing on dead logs, gazing silently out at the lake. I’ve seen an occasional heron in the area as well, usually gliding along a few inches above the lake surface, and I think that I spotted one of the local eagles a couple of weeks back, though it was so high up that I couldn’t be sure.

To me, turtles are the most interesting wildlife in the lake area. If the weather is warm and sunny, turtles like to bask on the half-submerged logs. I’ve seen as many as 30 on a single log, packed side by side as close together as they can get. Many of them are quite substantial, a foot or more in diameter, and a few are noticeably bigger. Again, I’m no expert, but the majority appear to be snapping turtles. Not that I propose to move in for a close-up inspection; snappers really do bite, and they don’t seem to have pleasant personalities either. On the other hand, these turtles are skittish, and it’s hard to sneak up on them even to take a picture. The slightest sound or movement leads to a mass dive into the lake, leaving the logs bare — it’s turtles all the way down.

Fall in Princeton is nice, but spring is the best. The weather is getting warmer, the world is young again and everyone can look forward to the end of classes and exams. But it’s too short. Reunions and graduation will come and go in a flash and then it will be hot and humid summer.

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
          Old Time is still a-flying:
    And this same flower that smiles to-day
          To-morrow will be dying.


October 3, 2011

Hurricane Irene arrived in Princeton on Saturday, Aug. 27, after a huge media buildup, where every channel seemed to be all Irene all the time. We had battened down our hatches and laid in enough food and drink to last for four or five days, so all was well on that front. As it turned out, at least in this area, the winds were not as strong as had been predicted, and we personally got lucky — no fallen trees, no flooding, no power failure, just a lot of small-scale debris on the lawn.

On Sunday afternoon, when things had settled down and the rain had temporarily stopped, I walked downtown to survey the damage. It didn’t look too bad, though there was a large tree lying across William Street near 185 Nassau. As I walked back along Olden Street towards Prospect, however, the big oak at the corner by the Fields Center seemed to be leaning a lot more than normal. It had started to pull up the ground around it, so I skirted it carefully; only a minute later there was a loud crack and a thump as it went down.

When I got home shortly afterwards, my wife told me that the power had just gone off, which didn’t seem like a coincidence. After a while, I called PSEG, where a robo-person walked me through a voice-recognition dialog (“Please press or say two”) and assured me that although no problems had been reported in my area, someone would call back with a resolution by Sept. 4, a full week away! That was the first real inkling of the extent of the problems.

In retrospect, we were lucky indeed. Our power came back two days later, which seems to have been about the norm in Princeton. Many people in the Northeast were not nearly so fortunate; their power stayed out for days, and there was disastrous flooding in many parts of New Jersey. We never did hear back from PSEG, which clearly had bigger problems to deal with.

All this is a reminder of how dependent we are on infrastructure without which we can’t operate at all, let alone enjoy the services that we take for granted. For example, our house has a gas stove with an electric igniter. If my wife had not laid in a large supply of matches, we would not have been able to cook. Luckily I had bought half a dozen cheap LED flashlights last year, so we could even cook in the dark, and they’re better for reading than candles are. Fortunately our gas supply was unaffected and we had clean running water throughout (and thanks to a gas water heater, it was hot); many people did not. Our furnace burns gas, but the motor that drives the fan that forces the hot air needs electricity and of course so does the specialized computer that controls the whole thing, so it’s just as well that the power failed when the temperature was in the 70s instead of the teens. Of course there was no air conditioning.

Our cordless phones were all useless, but we have one old-fashioned phone that doesn’t need house current; it operates during power failures thanks to Verizon’s backup batteries, which are probably good for a week. Cell phones might have lasted a few days if used sparingly. Computers could soldier on with batteries for a few hours, but since the wireless router in the basement needs electricity, we were disconnected from the Internet. Naturally the TV and the cable box were dead, so we had no news.

Locally, things came back to normal quickly, but next time could be different; after all, this was just two days of heavy rain and moderately high winds, and, unlike earthquakes, there was plenty of warning. The more our lifestyle depends on robust and complex infrastructure, the more vulnerable we are when major disruptions come along. The longer we go without problems, the harder it is to cope when troubles do arise, or even remember how to do things. Where are the flashlights and matches? How do I silence a powerless smoke detector with a weak battery that’s beeping in the middle of the night? (Answer: swear a lot, rip it off the ceiling and put it outside.) How long will food last in the refrigerator? How do we open the garage door when the opener doesn’t work?

We depend on an intricate web of electricity, phones, gas, water, roads, sewer systems and of course an army of people who work long and hard when things get rough. The longer we shortchange and cut corners on maintenance and upgrades and lay off experienced workers to make financial numbers look good, the more likely it is that there won’t be any resilience when it’s needed. Those who say that there is no role for government and that market forces will take care of everything might want to think a little more deeply about what happens when things go seriously wrong.

Give me your undivided attention

November 7, 2011

As I was wandering the campus on a beautiful Sunday a couple of weeks ago, I saw an unusual number of couples walking hand in hand where one of the pair was simultaneously talking on a cell phone. Strangest of all was a couple who were both talking on their phones. It’s possible that they were talking to each other, but somehow I doubt it. It does seem a shame to waste an idyllic stroll with one’s significant other by talking to someone else on the phone.

It’s not at all uncommon to see parents talking on the phone while pushing a stroller. Presumably being ignored by one’s parents builds a child’s character and independence, but again it seems like a missed opportunity for a bit of togetherness. Maybe it’s just payback when teenagers don’t want to be seen with their parents, a phenomenon you can observe in family groups where a bored and disdainful teen chats on the phone while the elders point out the campus sights. And I suppose it’s some kind of delayed compensation when those same parents helicopter in to monitor their kids after they arrive at Princeton.

But cell phones do seem to encourage us to do too many things at the same time. Last spring I saw a guy riding a bike, steering and holding his dog’s leash with one hand while talking on his phone with the other. The dog seemed quite happy; from the canine perspective, this experience might really be quality time. One wonders, however, what would happen if the dog decided to chase a squirrel, or the bike ran into one of the giant potholes that had opened up over the winter, or a cell-phoning parent and stroller suddenly came out of nowhere.

Professors Sam Wang and Alan Gelperin of the molecular biology department gave a very interesting talk in April about NEU 101: Neuroscience and Everyday Life. One of their topics was experimental results that show unequivocally that multi-tasking is not as efficient as doing tasks sequentially — overall performance suffers when we try to do two things at the same time. In lectures the problem is the distracting effect of texting, tweeting and checking Facebook while the person at the front of the room is trying to explain something. There’s little doubt that people who play with their phones and computers while sporadically tuning in to the lecture do not learn as well as those who focus. Is this clear-cut educational penalty going to cut down on the use of laptops in the classroom? My bet is not, based on discouraging conversations with a fair number of my colleagues and my own unsuccessful attempts at moral suasion.

But perhaps that’s not the important battle. About the same time, another study showed, again unequivocally, that driving while distracted is a major cause of auto accidents; cell-phone use, especially texting, is implicated in perhaps a quarter to a third of all fatalities. This is totally believable; one doesn’t have to drive far on a typical interstate to see someone weaving between lanes or drifting onto the shoulder or slowing down dangerously because they’re looking down at a phone. Of course there are plenty of other driving distractions, like eating, reading, shaving (not me), putting on makeup (ditto), fiddling with the GPS and holding animated conversations with passengers. But texting seems to be the equivalent of being well over the legal limit for alcohol.

A recent article on the growing use of glitzy graphical interfaces in cars suggests that this is going to get worse before it gets better. In ancient cars like mine, the controls are buttons and knobs of various sizes and shapes, which can be manipulated by feel. But the trend in new cars is toward interfaces that require looking at a touch screen to select items from a menu, just like a phone or a computer screen. You can’t operate such interfaces without taking your eyes off the road for significant periods of time. Here’s a bit of quantitative reasoning: at 75 miles per hour, a car travels 110 feet in one second, so if you poke around on a screen for three seconds trying to adjust the radio, you’ve covered the length of a football field without seeing what’s around you.

It’s hard to imagine that people would do something so potentially disastrous, but they do, just as they drink and drive. Another thing that Sam described in his talk is that the brain doesn’t reach its full maturity until one is well into one’s twenties. This means that teenagers, and even some of you, dear readers, do not assess risks as well as you will in a few years. So in the meantime, let me encourage you in the obvious: don’t drive while distracted by any of these things. You might even put aside your laptop and your phone to spend a bit of quality time with the people right around you.

Who goes there?

December 5, 2011

The November 2011 issue of The Atlantic has an article by James Fallows called “Hacked!”, which describes the ordeal of Fallows’ wife after her Gmail account was compromised, causing her to lose (at least for a while) essentially all of her online life, including six years of mail, photos, and personal documents. Her correspondents were told that she had been mugged in Madrid, but the rest of the story line reminded me of an incident of my own a year ago: an urgent email from a friend, sent to a very small mailing list, asking for a short-term loan.

In both cases, someone had obtained the victim’s Gmail password, and that was enough to let the bad guys focus on very accurately targeted groups of potential victims.  Phishing attacks like these are getting more sophisticated. There’s probably no one alive who hasn’t received a Nigerian scam letter, offering to split ten or twenty million dollars if the recipient will just send along some bank account information. Those are so bogus that it’s hard to imagine that anyone would bite, though apparently some still do. But an attack like the one reported by Fallows is far more plausible because it is so precisely targeted; that’s why it’s called spear phishing.

How are accounts cracked? Sometimes it’s through systematic password guessing, or asking for a password reset, which is what happened to Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account in 2008. But it seems that the most common problem is using the same password for more than one site. If you do that, your security is no better than that provided by the site with the weakest controls: even if Google does a perfect job, that won’t help you if some other site can be easily broken into. A break-in at Gawker in December 2010 stole more than a million passwords; Fallows says that this might have been the vector for the attack on his wife.

Our online lives are increasingly controlled by passwords. I tried counting mine, but gave up at a hundred. Many of these are throwaways, of course — who cares what my New York Times password is — but others matter a lot, like the one for posting student grades. That’s different from what I use in the computer science department, which in turn is different from one I use at Google, which is different from the ones for access to my credit card account, administering my computers, my Internet domains, the wireless router in my house and on and on and on.  A handful of these are used every day, but most lie dormant for months or even years; there’s no hope of remembering them and I probably wouldn’t notice if someone did break in.

An extra complication is that every site, no matter how insignificant, has a different set of rules for what constitutes a valid password, a capricious combination of dos and don’ts. For instance, at the U.S. Copyright Office, where I recently registered my new book “D is for Digital,” a password must have eight characters with two letters, one number and one special character (but not an ampersand!), and no consecutive repeated characters; it must not include the user name or any part of it, or the names of a spouse, children, pets, or one’s own name, or any sports teams or players, or any part of a social security number longer than one digit or (and this is the killer) “words that can be found in any dictionary, whether English or any language.” In my case, all this fuss was for a password that I used exactly once and will likely never use again.  

Passwords are out of control. They’re too numerous and too weak to be the all-purpose authentication mechanism. We need so many and the rules are so arbitrary that one is forced to write passwords down, re-use them, and probably create them with some kind of pattern anyway, all of which adds to the risk. Here’s a question that you should ask yourself: if a bad guy saw a couple of your passwords, could he guess more? Electronic break-ins at large sites are not uncommon, and passwords are one of the marketable results.

There aren’t many good alternatives on the horizon either. Perhaps biometrics like fingerprints or retinal scans will be practical some day, but for now the best we have is two-factor devices, where you have to know something (a password) but also have something (like a device that generates an additional one-time password whenever it’s needed). Some companies, including Google, offer this service, and if you have a smartphone, there’s no extra gadget to carry; it’s just another app. But if someone steals your phone, you’re back in the same pickle. Life was much easier when we didn’t have to spend so much of it trying to remember how to prove who we are.

So you want to write a book

March 12, 2012

“... of making many books there is no end”
            Ecclesiastes 12:12

When Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press around 1440, it didn’t make writing a book any less work, but printing one became a lot easier. As Gutenberg’s technology has been refined over nearly 600 years, the words of Ecclesiastes have become even more apposite.

When I was a grad student here in the late 1960s, people typed their Ph.D. theses themselves or paid a typist a dollar or two a page to type it for them. For three drafts of a 200-page thesis, that was serious money for a starving student, as well as being slow and inflexible. Being comparatively poor — though not starving — and basically cheap, I took a technological approach by writing a program that would format and print my thesis on printers at the Computer Center, the ancestor of the Office of Information Technology.

It’s probably hard to imagine now, but there was only one computer on campus at the time, an IBM 7094 that sat in a large air-conditioned room in the E-Quad. To print a new draft, I handed three boxes of punched cards to the operator: 1,000 cards of program and 5,000 cards of thesis text. (For the benefit of readers not alive in such ancient times, a punched card is a piece of stiff paper about 7 inches by 3 inches with holes punched in it to represent information like letters and numbers; each card holds up to 80 characters.) This let me make a large number of revisions in short order and perhaps improved the writing style, though it had no effect on the research results. In the end I produced what was probably the first machine-readable and computer-printed thesis at Princeton.

Ever since, I’ve been intrigued by tools for book authors. After graduation I spent the next decade doing research in document preparation software and wrote several books where my co-authors and I did everything except for the actual printing and publication. In the early days, this meant producing photographic paper with high-quality images of the pages, which were sent to the publisher, who in turn sent them to a printer to be turned into printed and bound books, shipped to warehouses and bookstores and eventually sold to millions of enthusiastic readers. (That last part is exaggerated, unfortunately, but the rest is true.)

This approach had real advantages, not the least of which was rapid turnaround. It was possible to create a clean new draft in no time, which made it easy to polish the text. It also meant that we were safe from copy editors, who generally didn’t understand what they were editing and often converted arcane but correct material into something just plain wrong. Printers were even worse, since they could never transcribe computer programs accurately.

We have now entered a new age in the relationship between authors, their publishers and copy editors and printers and their readers. Enterprises like Lulu and Amazon’s CreateSpace remove the intermediaries, making it possible for anyone with a bag of words to convert them into a book, printed on paper or distributed electronically or both, without ever going near a traditional publisher. The technology is remarkably simple — upload content and cover files, set a price and have the book available within hours. Copies are printed on demand, not on speculation, which means no inventory and much lower prices than conventional channels.  Royalty rates are much higher, a win for a successful author.

I tried self-publication for my latest book, “D is for Digital,” which I published through CreateSpace after a brief flirtation with Lulu. The elapsed time from when I decided the content was good enough until it was listed on Amazon and the first copy sold was about 24 hours. The cover shows that I have no talent as a graphic designer, but otherwise the book is indistinguishable from one produced by a regular publisher. Since there’s no intermediary, the $14.95 price is a third of what it would have been. Of course, publishers do provide useful services, like publicity, which I’m not good at.

The ease with which one can publish a real book is already changing publishing, and it’s going to change other things as well. For example, in some disciplines it’s expected that an assistant professor will publish a book as a necessary part of the tenure process. But what if publishing is no more complicated than reformatting one’s thesis and designing a cover? The result is clearly a book: It has an ISBN, it can be purchased through Amazon — how does that differ from a monograph laboriously shepherded through a university press? Not at all, it would appear. We’re at the stage where anyone with an idea and enough words can have a book in print in a week. With electronic versions, it’s even easier; I converted all my previous ‘Prince’ columns to a Kindle book in a couple of days. (Advertisement: you can buy it on Amazon!) Will “I published a book” lose its cachet? Stay tuned. I’m working on a book about it.

Preview of coming attractions

April 16, 2012

This Thursday through Saturday, and next week too, the campus will be crawling with youngsters (comparatively) wearing lanyards and exuding a combination of cockiness, feigned sophistication, innocence and wide-eyed wonder. It’s Princeton Preview, when a horde or two of admitted but not yet decided high school students visit Princeton to see if they want to be Princetonians instead of heading off to Stanford or Harvard or, all heavens forfend, Yale.

How do people make this weighty decision, especially if it’s a free choice among equally good schools? I’ve talked to enough prospectives over the years to know that it’s not always a slam dunk, and little things can wind up making a big difference.

One obviously irrelevant but influential factor is the weather. I dimly recall that when I visited Princeton long ago trying to decide on a grad school, it was cold and rainy most of the time, and I never saw the campus in its amazing spring splendor. Luckily the awful weather didn’t dissuade me from what, in retrospect, was clearly the right choice, but I’ve often wondered whether some data miner in the depths of West College is looking for correlations among temperature, sunshine and acceptance rate. If there is a correlation, then surely the famous Princeton Weather Machine will be turned on for Preview as it almost always is for commencement.

Do campus tours make a difference? I remember going on tours with my son when he was making similar decisions a few years ago. One tour of a small New England liberal arts college took us through an actual dorm at about midday, an experience that made me realize messy rooms were not a phenomenon unique to our teenager. No other tour ever revealed so much dirty laundry, both literally and figuratively; perhaps this is one of several sound reasons why Princeton tours never go through dorms. Of course, prefrosh stay in dorms with their hosts, where they will quickly learn about a range of housekeeping standards.

I happened to be visiting Yale on the first day of spring this year and got a chance to see both tours and weather at work. It was a perfect day: warm, sunny, the trees in full flower and the campus full of happy sunbathers. It was actually so warm that at one point I went inside the Beinecke Library to cool off, check out the new Shakespeare exhibit and pay my respects to the Gutenberg Bible that is pretty much on permanent display there. I sat down in one of the comfortable leather chairs a few feet away and watched no less than five campus tour groups come through in half an hour, each one getting a good close-up look at this amazing historical document while listening to a pitch on the rich resources that Yale offers. I don’t know whether many of the somewhat bored-looking high schoolers in the groups realized how remarkable this access was, but the adults certainly did, and it won’t hurt Yale’s yield a bit.

Do all the information sessions make a difference? For my sins, I’ve been drafted into being on a Preview panel where the panelists answer questions, mostly from parents (if experience is a guide) and less often from students. I did this once before and remember none of the audience questions, only that it was fun. One of the other panelists was a woman who had been in my class a couple of years earlier, and it was nice to talk to her again, an added benefit. I’m going to guess that for the most part, whatever is said in this setting won’t change many minds. The event does seem geared more to parents than students, and realistically, it’s the student who ought to be making the decision.

That leads to another question, of course: do parents make a difference? Probably they do, though one suspects that it’s sometimes negative: if Mommy and Daddy lobby too hard for a particular school, there’s a natural tendency to rebel by choosing someplace else. Fortunately, most parents are wise enough to know this and bite their tongues throughout the decision process.

The bottom line for most college applicants is that if you have thought hard about what matters to you and made sure that the schools you applied to will do well in those things, then it doesn’t actually much matter where you go. The experience will be different for sure, but not in any predictable way, and for the most part, it will be what you make of it, independent of weather, tours, panelists and parents. So let’s hope all our visitors applied to schools that really make sense for them, thought hard about what they want in a school and, in the end, make the right decision: to come to Princeton.

I don't belong here!

September 24, 2012

For 10 years, The Daily Princetonian’s weekly Opinion column was written by John Fleming, who retired in 2006 after 40 years in the English department. Professor Fleming’s column was called “Gladly lerne, gladly teche,” a phrase from the Clerk’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

I first met Fleming at a dinner at Forbes, one of those occasions, all too infrequently attended by undergrads, where a distinguished faculty member would grab a hasty bite then deliver a talk on some academic subject and lead a brief discussion. It was the first such talk I ever went to, and I no longer remember the topic, though a vague memory remains of something in prospect narrow and dry as dust. As it turned out, what I saw was an academic stand-up comic, doing hysterically funny riffs on some esoteric bit of medieval literature. I don’t remember any of the punch lines, but I still recall chuckles, giggles and outright belly laughs. How could a man with such awesome academic credentials be at the same time so side-splittingly funny? My late father-in-law was a professor in Princeton’s English department, so the breed wasn’t totally unfamiliar, but this breadth of talent was new to me.

I got to know John better over the next few years. He used to open the pool at Dillon Gymnasium every morning, so I often ran into him on my walk to the Wa to get a paper, and we sometimes fell to talking. As I learned more about the remarkably erudite man behind the witty ‘Prince’ columns, it was clear that I just didn’t belong; I felt like a puppy running beside a real dog. It was a struggle to keep up the pretense that I was a member of the same faculty.

So you might imagine my feelings when five or six years ago the Opinion editor asked me about writing a regular column to continue the tradition that Professor Fleming had set. The editor said that several faculty members would write in rotation, so the load would be divided among us and so would the responsibility for filling Fleming’s shoes. But it was still a daunting prospect, and sharing the shoes with my current fellow columnists, all writers of great talent, does not make it easier.

John Fleming continues to write. His blog lets him adjust length and frequency to his taste and to include pictures; it continues to be erudite and witty and often very funny. There’s no keeping up with him.

On our last night in England after a long (though too short) vacation this summer, my wife and I stayed in Southampton, where I discovered a modern statue of an important person from long ago: John Le Fleming, mayor of the city in the early 1300s. I took a couple of pictures and sent them off to Professor Fleming in the hope that he might find them amusing. There followed in short order a note of thanks and a new post in his blog, about famous Flemings, starting with Southampton’s Le Fleming. It was entertaining, instructive and funny.

How is it possible to keep up with someone so exceptional? I don’t belong here.

There is a common psychological disorder called “the Impostor Syndrome.” Wikipedia says of its victims, “Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study or what external proof they may have of their competence, they remain convinced internally that they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are really frauds. Proofs of success are dismissed as luck, timing or otherwise having deceived others into thinking they were more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.” Sounds familiar to me.

And it might well sound familiar to you as well. Everyone here is very good at something and often very good at several or even a bunch of things. Indeed, some of you are simply off-scale in your accomplishments. Faculty advise presidents or write best sellers or win Nobel prizes. Undergrads routinely win Rhodes scholarships or lead the University orchestra or win an NCAA championship or make a credible stab at solving environmental crises. A few do several of these simultaneously. And most manage to do it while remaining really nice people and even have lives at the same time. How did normal people ever get here? We don’t belong!

But maybe we do. If you probe your superstar friends and colleagues a bit, you will find that they often suffer from the impostor syndrome, too. It affects the newly arrived most of all, of course — new faculty members and especially new freshmen — but everyone has a twinge from time to time. So take pleasure in having amazing people as friends, and take solace from the fact that you’re not entirely an impostor either.


October 22, 2012

When I was very young I often read a cartoon series called “The Watchbirds” that gently discouraged various kinds of childhood misbehavior. Each strip included a couple of sketches. One was a “watchbird” watching a child; the other said “This is a watchbird watching you.” The meaning was clear: anything bad would be noticed.

I was reminded of watchbirds this summer while on vacation in England. England does a remarkable amount of routine surveillance of its citizens and visitors. Orwell would surely have been surprised at the number of closed-circuit TV cameras on streets, in buildings, at landmarks and, for all I know, in private homes. Indeed, “CCTV in use” was one of the most common signs.

Most of the cameras are meant to discourage theft, vandalism and other anti-social behaviors. Sometimes, however, an outsider may not know what’s illegal. As George Bernard Shaw once said, England and America are two countries separated by a common language. I’m still uncertain about a large sign in a parking lot in York that said “No fly-tipping.” Right beside it was a CCTV camera; if I had inadvertently tipped a fly, it would have been recorded.

There are thousands of speed cameras on English highways as well, to encourage drivers to stick to the speed limit. The locations of most are not only well known, but published; my AA map listed thousands, and my GPS warned of them all the time, with a muted but irritating ding whenever one was coming up. I was never caught speeding, but a newspaper story claimed that 20 percent of all drivers had received an automated ticket in the previous year, a stunning number if true.

Cameras are at least familiar. There’s another kind of pervasive surveillance that goes on all the time, and not just in England. The Internet has become a worldwide system for watching what we do online, quietly recording pretty much everything. Kinnari Shah ’14 and Matt Dolan ’13 wrote about this in articles in September; let me add my two cents’ worth here.

The basic Internet tracking mechanism is the cookie, a bit of text that is deposited on your computer when you browse to a website. The next time you return to that site, the cookie is sent back to the site where it originated. This gives the site a way to recognize you as a return visitor, and thus to know that you are already logged in and perhaps have some items in a shopping cart.

That sounds benign, but cookies are used extensively for tracking because what you might think of as a single site often includes components like images from other sites, each of which gets to deposit and retrieve cookies too. Aggregating that information makes it possible to build up a very detailed picture of the sites you’ve visited.

But wait — there’s more. Most sites today also include trackers based on Javascript, the programming language that browsers use to provide dynamic effects. Javascript trackers can track your return visits, but they can also do more invasive monitoring, including reporting every mouse click and even where your mouse moves as you poke around a page.

Javascript tracking seems to be on the increase. A browser add-on called Ghostery blocks trackers, using a long list of known offenders; that list had more than 1,100 trackers a few days ago and continues to grow. One of Ghostery’s services, besides the vital one of eliminating the trackers before they can do anything, is to report on what it found. It used to be that a typical page might have four or five trackers, and the most I had encountered as of two years ago was 12. Today a dozen trackers per page is common, and I’ve seen as many as 18. (If you see more, let me know; this contest has no real upper limit on the score.)

Many Internet companies make their money by learning as much as they can about us and selling that information to others. That’s the quid pro quo: we get valuable services like search and social networks for free; advertising revenue pays for them. The downside is that we’re being watched all the time. It’s possible to reduce tracking by turning off cookies and using blockers like Ghostery, but it requires continuous vigilance, and if everyone did it, the free services would eventually go away, a high-tech version of the tragedy of the commons.

At the moment the surveillance is for commercial purposes, but it’s not a giant leap to imagine governmental scrutiny as well. That certainly happens in other countries, and there have been plenty of attempts here by various agencies to obtain information about individual users from companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter.

That brings us back to watchbirds. What are the limits on tracking and monitoring? How do we know when we’re being watched and for what purposes? This is not a new question: 1900 years ago, Juvenal asked, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” It’s even more important today when we’re all connected all the time. Who is watching the watchbirds?

D construction

November 26, 2012

To P/D/F or not to P/D/F, that is the question. And today is the deadline for deciding.

P/D/F is a good idea. In theory it offers a way to take a course that might be interesting but challenging, without jeopardizing one’s grade point average if the course turns out to be too tough.  The truth, however, at least as far as I can tell from a dozen years of teaching and advising, is that in practice P/D/F is used primarily to lighten the workload — by choosing to PDF, you can get by with significantly less work than if you’re striving for a good grade.

I’m strongly in favor of low-risk academic exploration, and pretty sympathetic to workload management, though as I remind students in my course every fall, P/D/F has three possible outcomes, only one of which is good, and it’s unwise to probe the boundary between P and D too closely.

Having three outcomes is a lot better than plain pass/fail. From the instructor’s side, coming up with fair grades is hard enough and an F is a serious sanction that one is reluctant to use without very clear grounds. D is often a suitable middle ground: it sends a strong message, and it sticks to the student’s academic record, but it’s not fatal.

How many people P/D/F a given course? Those numbers are certainly known in registrar-land, but they seem to be a closely held secret. By virtue of being on the right university committee, I once saw the statistics for my own course for a five or six year period. I don’t now recall the exact details, but if memory serves, P/D/F-ers varied from about 25 percent to as high as 75 percent, a surprisingly large range. Would it change the way that faculty teach if we were to learn ex post facto how many students had P/D/F’ed a course? It seems unlikely, but my attempts to get this aggregate information have thus far been to no avail. Everything is anecdotal, and one learns only from individual students who volunteer the information.  Of course I can make a guess from the apparent effort that a student is putting in, but that’s not very reliable; some of the hardest-working people in my class are worried about passing, not about whether they’ll get an A.

The P/D/F election deadline used to be much earlier in the semester, before midterm week and thus before most students had received any real feedback about their likely success in a class. That probably wasn’t fair, and every so often a proposal is floated to move the P/D/F deadline even later. In the limit, say some, why not let students make their choice after their final grades are received? This isn’t likely to fly with the faculty, however, since it amounts to a game in which the dealer plays with all cards face up, and the end result would be a weird sort of Gresham’s Law in which the only grades were A and P.

Perhaps the deadline could be after the final exam but before the grade is revealed? That’s only marginally better, and at least seems just as unlikely to happen. The current deadline is a decent compromise.

I recently had a visit from a student in this year’s class. She had been planning to take advantage of the P/D/F option, but was pleasantly surprised by a better than expected midterm grade. Now she was wondering whether to take it for a letter grade after all. There was a real chance of doing well, but she worried that a poor grade would hurt her GPA and thus diminish her future prospects. It’s never going to be an easy decision in such a situation, but since COS 109: Computers in Our World is a QR course, let’s do some quantitative reasoning. Suppose that she’s a strong A student and will sustain a 3.95 GPA to the end. If she does horribly for the rest of the semester (most unlikely, given her obvious effort) and only manages a B–, her new GPA will be 3.91. She would take a hit but it won’t make the difference between grad school at Stanford and flipping burgers at McDonald’s. It’s still a tough decision, but not nearly as fraught as she might have feared.

So today is the big day. For most people, it’s a non-event: the large majority of students never use all of the four P/D/Fs they are entitled to. For those of you still on the fence, my advice is simple: Do whatever you like. You might get luckier than you thought and pull off a decent grade, especially if you do work a little harder. Or it might be better to focus your time on other courses or on having a life; there’s no shame in that. Just don’t slack off too much. Remember, I also have to make a decision: to D or not to D.

The very model of a modern major major

February 3, 2013

A few years ago, a big push called “Major Choices” tried, quite reasonably, to get students to explore the many fine options among smaller departments, rather than to follow the path of least resistance into the big ones like economics.

As the dep rep for the computer science department at the time, I went to any number of lunch and dinner gatherings in some or other residential college and described the wonders of concentrating in computer science. The program is still active; mail about it last week pointed to a website with useful information and helpful comments from current majors. (“Why would anyone want to date a sociology major? We are naturally empathetic, so we can give you what your friends don’t know you need.”) But Major Choices didn’t have a discernible effect on computer science; our number of concentrators continued to hover in the low 30s per year.

Something has changed in the past couple of years, and computer science has gone from well down in the pack to a scarily big department. We used to have 60 majors; now we have 165.

And that’s just majors. A lot of students seem to find our courses appealing even if they have no plans to concentrate in computer science. COS 126: General Computer Science has 458 registered, more than the traditional leader, ECO 100: Introduction to Microeconomics, which has 437. Enrollments for this semester are astoundingly high overall, with well over 1,700 in CS courses, where last spring it was a little over 1,300, and in spring 2009 about 750. We’ve more than doubled in four years.

There’s a handy rule of thumb for exponential growth patterns like this, called the Rule of 72. Divide the doubling time (say four years) into 72, and the result is the approximate rate of growth, in this case about 18 percent per year. If this continues, it will be only a few more years before everyone at Princeton is taking computer science courses every semester.

Naturally the giant increase in enrollments is causing angst within the CS department. How do we find preceptors for a class of 450? How do we grade assignments for a class that big? The administration is not going to let us hire more faculty for what might be a short-term transient — faculty slots are one of the most rigorously controlled of all resources — but something has to give. In our case, that means more lecturers and, something not often seen at Princeton, undergrad graders for the introductory courses.

Why is computer science so popular all of a sudden? Leaving aside its intrinsic interest, of which there is some, perhaps to concerned undergrads and their parents it seems like a path to a good job in uncertain economic times. The latest exit survey from Career Services suggests that a typical CS graduate has no trouble finding a job and might well pull down $100K a year. For adventurous souls, a solid computer science background might offer a chance to do something neat, like a startup. The barriers to entry for creating a new business are almost non-existent: hardware, software and scalable infrastructure are somewhere between free and dirt cheap. All you need is a good idea and someone to implement it.

If you do have a good idea, however, it’s better to do the implementation yourself than to contract it out to a random programmer, who might well have ideas of his or her own, or the ability to adapt yours and leave you behind. You may recall the movie “The Social Network,” which describes (presumably with artistic license) the early days of Facebook. Without in any way judging whether the Winklevoss twins had a legitimate case, they might have done better if they had spent less time rowing and more time programming. If you aspire to be as successful as Mark Zuckerberg, it surely helps to have his intelligence and drive, but it’s also highly desirable to have some of his programming skill.

The University publishes enrollments in the big departments every so often, and it always says, “Undergraduate concentration patterns have remained fairly constant over the years.” That seems true enough: the top pair is usually econ and politics, with WWS, history and molecular biology not far behind. Naturally there’s more churn further down. CS wasn’t even in the top 10 in 2011-12, but if nothing else changed, we would be number three in 2012-13.

The current boom in computer science enrollments won’t last, though the long-term numbers will likely be higher than they were five years ago — computing is too central to disappear entirely. Fortunately there are all kinds of great departments. Pick a major because it’s really fun and interesting, not for its cash or its cachet. Of course, if the major happens to come with some of those extras, that’s not a bad thing either. Computer science, anyone?

Somewhere in time

March 4, 2013

Last week the ‘Prince’ reported a groundswell, or at least a tremor, of support for a plan to make the Wednesday before Thanksgiving a de jure vacation day — currently, it is merely a de facto day off. The price would be starting classes a day earlier in September, which would cut into freshman advising and other festivities.

It’s not hard to think of ways to improve Princeton’s idiosyncratic calendar, though there’s rarely agreement on the proposed solutions. I’d be happy, however, if that Wednesday were an official holiday. My own experience is that lectures on the day before Thanksgiving are sparsely attended; typically only about a quarter of the class shows up, though it was somewhat better this year when Thanksgiving came less than three weeks after the end of fall break.

The biggest problem with the existing calendar is the huge gap between the last class in December and final exams in mid-to-late January. That break is over six weeks long, which means that everyone, both the students and professor, has forgotten the entire course by the time the exam rolls around.

No other school in our “peer group” has exams after Christmas. Harvard changed its calendar a few years ago so that exams are finished before the holiday. There are no exams in January, and, indeed, not much academic seems to happen then. From a distance it sounds like Harvard types just get a month off before things gear up again in late January. Winter in Cambridge can be so awful that spending it in California or Cancun would seem preferable, but Wintersession is popular, with activities like hip-hop and scuba diving (presumably in a heated indoor pool, not under the ice on the Charles River) among the 150 different offerings.  

The cost of this calendar rearrangement is that Harvard’s fall courses start right at the beginning of September. The schedule change has also had some unexpected side effects on exams themselves. There are now relatively few in-class final exams at Harvard; in fact, the default is no in-class exam unless the faculty member explicitly chooses otherwise. My friend Harry Lewis, longtime computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College, says in his blog that there are powerful incentives to give take-home exams: since those have to be completed during reading period, all the work is over before the exam period and the holiday. Give an early take-home and be done in time for Christmas — sounds good to me.

Will Princeton ever change its calendar? I’m skeptical. Calendar reform is hard. One of the most vivid examples is the attempt by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The ancients had a pretty good idea of how long the year was, but 365 and a quarter days is about 11 minutes too long. According to Wikipedia, “The discrepancy results in a drift of about three days every 400 years. At the time of Gregory’s reform there had already been a drift of 10 days since Roman times, resulting in the spring equinox falling on 11 March instead of the ecclesiastically fixed date of 21 March, and moving steadily earlier in the Julian calendar.  Because the spring equinox was tied to the celebration of Easter, the Roman Catholic Church considered this steady movement in the date of the equinox undesirable.”  

Gregory’s papal bull “Inter gravissimus” decreed that 10 days would simply be dropped from the calendar to bring things into sync. He also made sure this wouldn’t happen again in the near future by adding a secondary adjustment to leap years every 100 years (years divisible by 100 are not leap years) and even a tertiary adjustment every 400 years (2000 was a leap year).  

The late 1500s were a time of religious strife in Europe — nothing new there — and Gregory’s quite sensible solution was rejected by Protestant countries, notably England and its colonies, which didn’t adopt the scheme until 1752, when the calendar went straight from Wednesday, Sept. 2 to Thursday, Sept. 14. (Can you imagine getting something similar through Congress today?)

Russia took a while longer to join the party; the Gregorian calendar wasn’t adopted there until 1918, after the revolution. Greece, another Eastern Orthodox country, waited until 1923, and there are still countries that do not use the Gregorian calendar today.

So what does this have to do with calendar reform at Princeton? Well, in the absence of a powerful, infallible leader like Pope Gregory, it’s unlikely that big changes are going to happen here. Maybe little ones are possible, though. Let’s see if we can make a start by declaring the Wednesday before Thanksgiving a holiday. Head home early, enjoy the extra time with your family — as you would have anyway, but with a clear conscience — and faculty won’t face the dilemma of whether to prepare a lecture for an empty room.

Hack Princeton

April 19, 2013

The word “hack” has been around for a very long time; the Oxford English Dictionary dates its first use to around 1200. But today, axe murders aside, one sees “hack” and derivative forms like “hacker” and “hacking” most often in the context of computer use and abuse.

Wikipedia defines a hacker as someone who “uses his skill with computers to try to gain unauthorized access to computer files or networks,” and most people think of hackers as evil, the ubiquitous bad guys who threaten our privacy and security on the web, and online activist groups like Anonymous that attack government and corporate web sites. But originally the connotations were positive.  “Hacker” as a computer word comes from 1976 and probably originated from the local jargon for the amazing pranks that MIT undergrads pulled off.  In this view, a hacker is a compulsive programmer, someone who programs as an end in itself, just for the fun of it.  

The positive meaning also appears in “hackathon,” a portmanteau so new that it hasn't yet found its way into the OED.  A hackathon is a competition where individuals or small teams create new computer systems in a 24- or 48-hour marathon. Some students gave me a neat T-shirt a couple of weeks ago to advertise Hack Princeton, which was held at the end of March. The event was a great success, drawing well over 100 participants from 18 different universities.

What’s the appeal? Nearly 40 years ago, Fred Brooks wrote a classic computer science book called “The Mythical Man-Month” (after the fallacy that adding more people to a software project will help complete it faster). One of the most eloquent parts is the explanation of “the joys of the craft,” some of which is excerpted here.

“Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?

First is the sheer joy of making things. Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and to find it helpful.  […] Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures. Yet the program construct, unlike the poet's words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separately from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.”

There’s one more potential joy that wasn’t an option when Brooks wrote in 1975: a slim but real chance for fame and fortune if one’s creation becomes popular. To computing old-timers like me, it's still pretty remarkable that a handful of students can build a significant piece of software over a weekend, something that might conceivably form the basis of a viable business. But there are powerful and expressive programming languages, lots of libraries of open source code available for the downloading and free tools that help quickly cobble it all together into a working system. Getting a prototype off the ground isn't as tough as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Furthermore, if the idea is good and the system proves popular, it's trivial to scale up to any number of users. Cloud services like Amazon Web Services that provide computing and storage via the Internet support everything from tiny student projects up to, well, Amazon, and the price to get started is hard to beat — it's free.

So a hackathon is a fun way to explore an idea and build a prototype in a friendly competitive environment, and perhaps get some recognition and reward if things go well. Group projects in courses offer a chance to create systems larger than a weekend hack but smaller than a startup. In COS 333, for example, students spend 10 weeks working in small groups on projects of their own devising. The projects are almost always very impressive, and often they are remarkably sophisticated.  Some have real staying power as well, since they hit on the right combination of features and implementation. ICE, the Integrated Course Engine, is perhaps the most successful of the lot — everyone uses it — but there are four or five other TigerApps that originated in the class.

Come to a hackathon sometime, or drop in on the COS 333 project demos during reading period. You’ll certainly see some great work, and who knows — you might even spot the next Facebook or Angry Birds or ICE before everyone else does.