Saturday, July 11, 2009

Good Lifehacker post on how crackable WEPs are. When I take out my laptop in a public area I don't see nearly so many anymore, but I'm sure there are still a lot of people out there who don't understand the difference between WEP, WPA, and WPA2 and aren't aware that they need to upgrade their wireless network security.

I don't really get to study wireless networking until fall semester, but just for the heck of it I'll explain the differences here. WEP, WPA, and WPA2 are all methods of encrypting data before sending it out over a wireless connection. The encryption is done by software embedded in the router, and it only lasts as long as the data is being transmitted--the data is decrypted again before it reaches the wired network.
  • WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encrypts data with 64- or 128-bit encryption keys. The problem is that the keys are static, meaning that any hacker worth his or her salt can crack them in a reasonable period of time.
  • WPA (WiFi Protected Access, also known as TKIP--Temporal Key Integrity Protocol) uses 256-bit encryption keys, but changes them at set intervals. Better than WEP, but crackable with a bit more effort.
  • WPA2 is based on 802.11i, which is the standard for commercial-grade encryption products. It is the best of the three in that it actually generates a new encryption key for each session.
One Lifehacker commenter, MaribelAlligator, offered a really good analogy to describe the effectiveness of each of these methods:
I like to use the analogy of door locks. WEP is closest to a bathroom or bedroom lock (the kind you can unlock with a stiff pin). It'll let people know you don't want them to enter, but anyone with a the slightest bit of knowledge can get past it. WPA is like a standard door lock; it's a lot more secure, but it is still possible to get by for someone with the right tools, knowledge, and circumstances. WPA2 is like a bank safe. It may be possible to defeat, depending on how it's been set up, but it's not realistically possible for anybody to actually do so... yet.
Someone else in comments likened WEP to a "No Trespassing" sign--the people who will read the sign and go away aren't the ones you have to worry about. Someone who wants to get in very badly, however, will find a way.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Done with my PC Hardware and OS Maintenance class. Eight weeks, nine hours a week. It was kind of brutal, but I mostly enjoyed it.

Our instructor showed us our grades at the end of class--I got a 99.25%. Don't know if that's the highest in the class, but it's up there. "Nice job," he said. "You deserved it." I said that the class indicated to me just how much I had to learn, but he pointed out that now I understood that it was all stuff that was knowable. And that's important.

So now I'm focusing mostly on my Networking course...and it's starting to get interesting. It helped that the week before networking started, our hardware/OS instructor gave us an introduction to most of the concepts, and there are two good chapters in the textbook that provide a nice overview of local and wide-area networks. It was good to take this course before plunging into networking--some of my classmates who had taken networking first mentioned that they'd been a bit lost and wished they'd taken this class first. I suspect it's a good prerequisite for a lot of things, but most of all, it gave me confidence.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Neither X nor I play many video games. He used to play Quake in graduate school until it started to give him a headache, and then he stopped, pretty much for good. I've played a couple that tend to involve having complete control over a world of tiny, terrorized pixellated people (i.e., Black and White, or Ghost Master, which involves scaring sorority girls screaming into the night), but I think the violence and the scantily-clad women put me off. I'm a bit more conflicted about the violent games. While I'm not too sensitive to handle a violent game, it seems almost like disrespect to be sitting safely in air conditioned comfort pretending to do things that are getting American soldiers killed in dusty, 120-degree conditions where IEDs, snipers, and suicide bombers abound.

But I tend to agree with the women described in this video who glance at the box illustration of an impossibly tall, voluptuous, mostly naked green-skinned alien woman with reptilian come-hither eyes and say, "I don't think this game is for me." Why can't they outfit Lara Croft in camouflage? For the same reason, I suppose, that the regulation uniform for all the women in the first Star Trek series was a minidress that hardly covered their posteriors: it sends the message that this is for the guys, and if you're not willing to be eye candy, you have no place in it.

One thing the folks who made this video seem to understand is that just because there are lots of women playing games doesn't mean that they are "gamers," just like throwing up a bunch of pink websites about losing weight, parenting, and pleasing your man in the bedroom doesn't make the Internet female friendly. Women don't want separate but equal. They want respect. They want not to be patronized or ignored, and they don't want to be seen as some sort of threat (although, well, they may very well be.)

Don't know if I'll ever seriously get into games. It seems like time and money that could be better spent elsewhere, doing more interesting things in the real world or working on more interesting, practical, tangible projects. But maybe I'm just getting old.

Monday, June 15, 2009

summer reading (hahahahaha)

I've just belatedly discovered Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a Spanish novelist from Barcelona who's apparently written a couple of interesting novels about Barcelona in the first half of the 20th century: Shadow of the Wind and a prequel of sorts, The Angel's Game. Barcelona l'entre deux guerres? I'm so there.

To be frank, I'm always a little suspicious of books described, as the first one was, as "an international phenomena" [sic]. Even when the book marketer appears to know the difference between Greek irregular plural and singular endings, I worry that novels with this label fall into the same category as those of Paulo Coehlo, James Canfield, and Khalid Hosseini: deluding the typical middlebrow "bookworm" into believing that he or she (and it's usually, to my everlasting mortification and shame, a "she") is a broad and deep reader of Great Literature, in part through the inclusion of some "inspirational" New Age and/or exotic element that never rises to the level of true magic realism or authenticity. It sounds as though The Angel's Game may verge on this classification, and that Zafon, having apparently relocated to the epicenter of literary badness (Los Angeles), may be tending in that direction, but I'll keep an open mind and read it anyways...after I've read the first novel, which might be pretty damn good. Sounds like he's Catalan writing in Spanish to get a wider audience--Catalan purists are probably balking, but that doesn't necessarily discredit the book. The translator is Lucia Graves, granddaughter of Robert, though a literary pedigree like hers doesn't always guarantee a brilliant turn of language.

Last night, unable to sleep, I started Snow (Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature). While the jury's still out on whether it's truly good or merely a subway read masquerading as something more profound, I found particularly chilling one early section in which a mild-mannered university administrator is confronted in a pastry shop by a small-town religious fanatic apparently intent on avenging the suicides of a group of devout young Muslim women prohibited by the State from wearing headscarves to class. It really resonated with me after all the news about the appalling murder of George Tiller a couple weeks ago and the way it's been condoned by the right-wing media and the born-again Christian community. The Turkish struggle between modern secular and the traditional religious sensibilities and the resulting violence is instructive. You would think that sort of thing would be behind us, the most powerful, technologically-advanced nation on Earth, but you'd be wrong...and I'm secretly terrified of the political and cultural instability concealed beneath our current optimism.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I'm not in any way deluded that being able to get a perfect score on a 100-question exam (or three) prepares me to fix people's computers. In fact, I have to wonder whether a better-designed test would make students go through a series of scenarios where they installed Windows and showed that they could demonstrate grace under pressure while troubleshooting impossible problems for (simulated) customers from hell. Multiple choice is easy, and not simply because when in doubt you choose c.

Which is partly why, I suspect, my Linux instructor finds most industry certifications a little suspect. Last time I went to visit him he showed me a certificate verifying the fact that he had printed out the piece of paper and stuck it up on his bulletin board. He gave me some excellent advice with which I'm following through this fall: 1. learn C, and 2. take the wireless networking course which was being offered. Before he started teaching he apparently spent most of his career in academia and academic computing, and he's the kind of technical guy I've spent a lot of time around: an expert Linux user who knows system administration, networking, and security like the back of his hand, and, well, there's no other way to put it: he's a geek. He'd fit right into my current workplace. As a nondegree student, I don't have an advisor, but if I wanted a mentor, he might very well be a good prospect. I'll certainly see a lot of him in the coming years, as he teaches most of the system administration, networking, and security courses.

But I also will probably end up seeing a lot of my current instructor, as well. He has an industry background and emphasizes Windows systems--not so much out of advocacy as out of necessity. Despite the inroads by Apple and Linux into personal computing, despite their ever-increasing user-friendliness and "cool" factor, the vast majority of computers are still and will be Windows boxes for the foreseeable future. He teaches the Windows system administration courses, which I will end up taking, and he also teaches a computer forensics course which I hope to take in the spring. (I would have taken it this fall but for schedule conflicts.) He's worked for some major hardware manufacturers (as far back as the seventies) and run his own repair and maintenance shops, and so his approach is very industry-oriented. Where my Linux instructor reminds me more of X and my co-workers in the academic computing world, this guy reminds me more of my father and his crowd--the sort of engineers and technicians who design, make, and troubleshoot commercial hardware and software. And what he has to say is that certifications are important--maybe not so much in academia, but definitely in the private sector.

I don't think I've seen such different outlooks laid out so clearly before, and yet somehow I know that I need exposure to both of them--the exacting, independent, mostly self-taught hacker who doesn't suffer fools gladly and the ex-industry guy who knows that you have to in order to survive. They're both excellent teachers...and I'm not sure I would have gotten the benefit of either of their experiences if I'd just gone directly into courses at Major Midwestern Engineering School.

I still don't know where, exactly, this is all going to take me, but I think I'm on the right track.


"How many people have taken the Transcender exam?" our instructor asked last night. One or two out of the entire class of fifteen hesitantly raised their hands.

Access to a Transcender testing program was a requirement for this course. For about $70, you get access, for six months, to several practice tests geared to help you prepare for a certification exam--in our case, the CompTIA A+ Essentials certification, the basic cert you need to become a PC technician. Our instructor recommends it as the best exam preparation out there. He is also using the tests as our in-class exams--there are three tests which we'll be taking over the duration of the course, and then for the final we take all three at once. His rationale is that taking the test over and over forces us to learn the material, and that's more important to him than performing well on an exam we haven't seen, especially because the correct answers are accompanied by detailed explanations.

I was a little surprised that no one had taken it yet. I admit, I'd put it off too--partly because the first five questions seemed so daunting. What's the difference between SCSI-1 and SCSI Wide Ultra? Why didn't a text file remain encrypted when you copied it from one drive to another? Every question I encountered seemed only to remind me how little I knew. How could I possibly pass this exam, let alone get a perfect score? But these least two thirds of the class shouldn't be put off by exam anxiety.

So tonight I tried it. First try: got a 56%. Eh. Not bad, considering that I made a lot of guesses, especially in the section about printers (which we haven't gotten to yet). Probably took me half an hour to do a hundred questions. I went back through all the questions and looked not only at the correct answer for each but also the explanation for why it was correct. If you understood something about memory, or the Windows boot process, or hard drives, you could remember what you needed to know about some questions. Others were simply memorization: how many pins on a RIMM module?

Second try: 7.5 minutes, 96%. I'm a fast learner.

Third try: 6 minutes, 100%.

I'm wondering if anyone else in the class is going to try for the fastest perfect exam time, too.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Website Is Down

The slightly NSFW part which occurs in the second half is probably the funniest part of this video.

After the hilarity wears off, the viewer is left with the realization that yes, there are an awful lot of people out there who think the Internet is just a series of tubes, and you know what? You still have to be nice to those people.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

do you know this guy?

Nick Burns, Your Company's Computer Guy.

Granted, these people seem kind of...befuddled, that's a kind way to describe them. But in the past few years I've gotten accustomed to befuddled, because there are lots of different ways to be befuddled about science and technology. And I have to admit, I've been them, at one time or another, just wanting things to work and not really caring about the underlying technology. They have all my sympathy: it is the stupid email attachment that's stupid, dammit, because everything worked fine before, and the user hasn't done anything differently, and all he wants to do is open his attachment and get on with his overwhelming todo list.

(I should add a disclaimer here: our IT guys at Major Midwestern Supercomputing Center are really fantastic. They're patient, they're respectful, they're sweet and funny and overworked, and they're nothing like this guy. But I've known lots of people who exhibit these characteristics and probably don't realize it, especially when it comes to their nearest and dearest. Our instructor tonight said he once showed this to his wife and said, "This is the worst IT guy in the world!" To which she responded, "He's exactly like you, honey.")

This is now one of the major rules of classroom etiquette in my technical PC maintenance course, which started tonight: that we respect each other and our deficiencies. At any time, someone might call "Nick Burns!" on us.

And with good reason. Some of the other students in my class already have enormous amounts of experience--they're sound engineers, self-taught IT guys, gaming programmers, honorably discharged Army computer specialists. I'm the only woman in the class (so far) and probably, even with my credentials as a technical writer at a major academic supercomputing center, the least experienced of them all. I'm prepared to learn from them as well as from my instructor.

It was a really great class tonight. Tonight I finally learned how to count in binary and hexadecimal and to convert between those two systems and decimal and octal. And then we got into the strange semantic language of logic gates, and I was excited about that too, because I'd had preparation for that twenty-one years before in symbolic logic, during my first semester of college, and I could remember and deploy some of it now.

I can do this. I can do this! I'm excited and looking forward to the next class. For once I almost felt like one of the boys, and not a silly female impostor.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Good news...

X just found out that he got tenure. It's the end of a long, hard road. Ever since our first date (at the Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh, twenty years ago this year) I've known how much he loves astrophysics, how important it is for him, and how hard it would be for him to have to leave it to do something else. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into his doctoral, postdoctoral, and tenure-track work (and most of the tears were probably mine, on his behalf). I'm so proud of him right now, because not only is he a good researcher (he'll be modest about how good, of course) but he's a great advisor to his grad students and the best husband I could ask for, and a cool uncle (how many nieces have the telescope they'll ask for at eight already selected specially at birth?)

So, congratulations, my darling. I know it's still sinking in. I love you.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Graduation week...

From Girl Genius, a favorite webcomic around here. The timing for today's installment seems...uncannily, almost deliberately apt. Hmmm.

Anyways, happy graduation week to all college instructors and professors out there...I hope you're enjoying a much-needed break before the onslaught of summer classes, travel, research... X certainly will be...


Well. I just took my last final--that will be all.

I didn't do as well as I'd hoped, but I survived (mostly) and I'm going back for more.

Some things I learned this semester:

  • how to create simple and moderately complex programs in Visual Basic, bash, and C
  • how to document my code
  • how to work with conditional statements, subroutines, loops, functions, and arrays
  • how to use server-side includes in a web page
  • how to write (simple) algorithms from scratch
  • how to do just about anything in bash
  • how to take a PC apart and put it back together
  • how to install Ubuntu on a laptop
Some other, less tangible things I learned:
  • How you study and prepare for, and how you're evaluated in computer science courses is very different from how you study and prepare for and are evaluated in humanities classes. This should have been obvious to me, but it wasn't. It's even had me questioning whether, when I was an undergrad with a GPA of 3.8, I was even a very good student, because it seems to me that college wasn't very hard for me at all, that my major just wasn't very challenging. (I suppose that might also be true for a lot of mathematically or technically oriented students who bragged about being able to pass a course without ever cracking a book, but couldn't write their way out of a paper bag.)
  • Deeply connected to that first point is that time management was a huge issue for me. Too often, I underestimated how much time it would take to complete an assignment or study for exams--there was a lot of late night panic that probably wouldn't have been necessary had I really been better at gauging the time required.
  • I realized that I actually do care about my grades, and that it's OK--more than OK--to care about them. I don't really have a lot of respect for my two prior degrees, because despite a stellar academic record (at least on paper), I don't feel as though they've really gotten me all that far, so I'd kind of given up on caring whether I got A's or not. But it turns out that I do care, actually...and if I ever want to get a graduate degree in computer science at Major Midwestern Engineering School, I will have to care, quite a bit. In any case, I think A's in these classes will actually be more of a measure of achievement than the A's I got for my bachelor's and master's in English. Those grades really only measured how well I could snow my professors with my writing ability. These grades really will measure how well I understand and demonstrate tangible, useful skills.
  • I can do this stuff. If it takes me a long time, if I feel like I'm swimming through molasses, it's because I've never done it before, not because I'm stupid. If I keep practicing, I will get better. Most of all, I don't need X or anyone else to hold my hand.
  • I really need to restructure my life to accommodate both this and my work. Some things are just going to have to go by the wayside. Meals are going to get a lot simpler. Everyday routines are going to have to be a lot more streamlined. There will be no time for sloth or fussing of any sort. This is not a bad thing. I can see now why the uniform of the programmer/developer/computer scientist is a t-shirt and jeans or, in my husband's case, khakis and oxfords. "I don't have to think about what I'm going to wear," he says, standing before his rack of identical white or blue shirts and beige trousers. But I hope to still be able to bake French bread every once in a while. There should be some pleasure to life, after all.
OK, now I have to turn my brain off and stop thinking about computer science for a weekend. On Monday there will be plenty of time for that sort of thing. Class starts Tuesday, and I intend to show what I'm capable of.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

you are going to be a stunning programmer someday...

I heard this today, quite out of the blue, from a cow-orker who has been coding since I was in junior high school. I'd mentioned earlier in the conversation that I'd just written my first C program (it's very basic) and now had a better understanding of compiling and running C programs from the command line (one of the topics covered in the tutorial I'm working on), and so he asked me what I was learning in my coursework, and what my background was.

"English," I said, half apologetically. "Completely nontechnical."

"Wow," he said. "You are going to be a stunning programmer someday. Better than a lot of programmers who come from science and math backgrounds."

His reasoning was that with a strong grasp of language, grammar, syntax, and stylistics, I would become very good at it over time...and that I'd be able to do something that programmers from technical backgrounds often didn't--make my code readable, easy to understand and update. "Never mind the math," he said. "You can look it up, learn it later."

I don't know if that happy state of affairs will ever come to pass, but it's encouragement I really needed to hear right now. I am still fighting a tendency to see technology as something that's off limits to someone like me, to see a huge yawning gap between him (a subject matter expert) and me (a mere technical communicator). But when I mentioned the networking course I'd be taking, he said, "That's the kind of course that is a great leveler. You don't need a scientific background to understand networking. You'll be leaps and bounds ahead of people who don't have a formal background in networking."

And maybe it's a bit of a challenge: you will be a stunning programmer someday. An expectation to live up to. In other words: this is something that should, actually, come easily to me. And perhaps, if I force myself to to see it as a potential to reach rather than as a set of odds to beat, it will start to come more easily.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

taking a breath...

Yeah, I need to post more. But coursework got in the way, and so did life. Work on the project I began with in January ramped up and then ended abruptly, and then, serendipitously, I hooked up with another group that needed a lot more documentation-type stuff. There will, hopefully, be some design work a little later, but for right now I'm enjoying getting to do what I like best: making information accessible to larger groups of people...and applying some of my new skills.

Currently, I've taken over a tutorial (which is probably less than half complete) for new users on a distributed system of supercomputing resources around the country (currently, we have two such machines here at Major Midwestern Supercomputing Center). Users are mostly scientists from a huge range of disciplines and their undergraduate and grad students, and many are new to scientific computing, so in addition to getting them used to using the user portal, I have to help them get used to working with the UNIX shell.

So right now, as a matter of fact, I'm putting together a section on shells of various kinds that users are likely to encounter at different institutions: mainly, csh, tcsh, and bash. I'm still puzzling over how to explain the differences between the shells in a way that is useful and will make sense. But I'm also working on creating a very basic tutorial on getting around in UNIX, because I've noticed that existing documentation often instructs users to do things like this:

rm -rf directory/subdirectory

If you don't know that rm -rf should be used with caution and type a wrong filename, the results could be disastrous. Oh, and you could accidentally clobber files while trying to redirect output, and make a lot of mischief with tar and other utilities if you don't know what you're doing with them.

Besides, when I don't know a system, cookbook-style instructions, which often seem to communicate, "Just do this, don't ask questions, and everything will be OK," make me feel helpless and disoriented. And the man pages are not really written for novices. I know that I could probably just link to half a dozen Linux tutorials for beginners, and I will anyways, but that also seems like it could be overwhelming, so my plan is to take the commands and utilities I find sprinkled throughout the original documentation and devote a screen or two to each one, just to explain what it does, some of its common options, and what users might want it for later on.

So my coursework is yielding tangible results already. I think the feeling of being a novice user is also helpful and something I want to hold onto for a while--part of the reason such tutorials are necessary is that the original authors of current site documentation are mostly technical experts and seem to have forgotten--or perhaps never known--what it's like to see UNIX and computing in general as a black box.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


want to see this. Desperately.

yep, same guy who made Helvetica. Go figure.

For this I blame my friend and cow-orker b., who is taking a break from graphic design for a little while to go collect his sweet baby boy from Korea.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How To Take Your Computer Apart

How to Take Apart a Computer -- powered by

I think it's funny that this guy prefaces this video tutorial with "Don't know why you'd want to take it apart, but..." when so many final exams in beginning computer hardware classes, like mine, involve taking apart a computer and putting it back together. (Of course, I think it's the reassembly that's the real challenge.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fun with cat

When I started learning about the Bourne shell this semester in my Intro to Linux class, I discovered cat. No, you can't get a whole book out of it, though this interview (with the accompanying proposed O'Reilly cover) was my favorite April Fool's Day joke.

However, cat is actually pretty useful. Short for "concatenation," it directs standard output of a file or a command to the terminal.
The most basic use of cat is to type the command at the bash prompt, followed by a line of text. Here's what happens:
$ cat print this line of text
print this line of text
The command line is "standard input." The line that prints out to the shell is "standard output."

Use cat to quickly view files.
OK, maybe that's not incredibly useful, at least for our purposes. But, say, what if you have a really messy home directory, with a lot of practice files? Like this:














You could go into an editor like joe or pico and open each file individually--kind of the way you have to do with most GUI word processing/text editing applications. Or you could do it much more quickly with cat:
$ cat soopersekrit
ok, here's a soopersekrit file that I'm going to copy.

seems pretty intuitive.
C-x-s saves.
That's all! I think I was trying out the joe editor with this file. Nothing to see here. But this could be really important later--say, what if you're investigating an intrusion incident and you're going through a huge number of files and directories to see if there's a nasty little rootkit script hidden away there somewhere? That can speed things up tremendously, although the security engineers I know probably use scripts that automate that process. For longer files you want to use | (pipe) and the more filter.
$ cat jeoffrey | more
This will show you a page of a file at a time--like the one above, "For I will consider my cat Jeoffry," a long, affectionate paean from harmless 18th-century religious lunatic Christopher Smart to his feline companion. (I like to use it for playing with long files, because it's a charming poem, and because it seems appropriate to use with cat.) Just press the spacebar to proceed.

Use cat to redirect output from one file into another.
You could use cp or mv to do this, but you might find cat more expedient. Here you use the redirect output symbol (>):
$ cat fun_with_cat > fun_with_cat_backup
Always be very careful with this command, though, because if you try to redirect output into an existing file, it will replace any content in that file. To safeguard against this, you can enable a feature called noclobber, which displays an error message and won't permit the command to be executed.

Use cat as an editor.

Want to get something down quickly, without leaving the command line or opening up a new shell? Just use cat to start sending input to a new file:
$cat > notes_on_cat
Things I can do with cat:

1. Preview files quickly.

2. Redirect the output from one file into another. (careful!)

3. Use cat as an editor.
When you're done, control-d saves and exits the file. But as with redirecting output, be careful that if you return to the same file that you don't end up overwriting what you've previously stored there. To pick up where you left off, use the append output symbol (>>):
$ cat >> notes_on_cat

OK, what was I saying? Cat is a very useful command.
Cat does have limitations as an editor, though--you can't go back and edit text, and you can only delete the line you're working on. So while I first attempted to draft this entry entirely in cat, I found it a wee bit impractical. But for taking notes while playing around with the Linux shell, it's incredibly useful. There are lots of other things you can do with cat involving pipes and tees and filters, but these are the three I've found most helpful lately. I'm hoping to add more of the useful things I've gleaned from my classes here--it actually provides something of a review for me and keeps me in shape as a technical communicator.

Monday, April 6, 2009

the luxury of being alone...

"For my belief is that if we live another century or so...and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves...if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come..." --Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One's Own, 1929

Right: This nine-year-old girl currently shares a bed with two little brothers in a California motel. Her parents and a baby brother have the other bed. (Credit: Monica Almeida/NY Times)

Reading this article about families displaced by the economic crisis (can we call it a depression yet?) has been causing me to reflect on one of those privileges, generally afforded more to men than to women, and far less to kids from families in straitened circumstances: private space.

It's something I've taken for granted--X and I don't have children, so we rattle around in a 2100-square-foot, four-bedroom house. When I started coursework in computer science, though, I found myself working a lot more on the Windows box in the library, which I need for two of my classes (and now use for the third, with a PutTY connection). Being down there with X and the cats was pleasant...but, I have to admit, kind of distracting. So last week, with X's blessing, I moved the library computer upstairs to my study and realized how important it was to have a dedicated workspace where I could think and concentrate without interruption.

I've discovered now that I can work--really get lost in my work--for long periods of time without getting distracted....and that I'm not lonely--just knowing that X is somewhere in the house is comforting, but I don't have to be in the same room with him.

I think, though, how lucky I've been, mostly. Growing up, I had my own room on an upper floor in my family's house, which I did not have to share with my sister. I had a desk and bookshelves, and it was quiet. My mother, like most mothers, made a lot of noises about me spending so much time in my "ivory tower," but I was (and continue to be) rather introverted, and it was a sanctuary without which I would have gone nuts. This is what I would do when I came home: walk into my clothes closet (a tiny 4 x 6 space), close the door, breathe deeply in the darkness, and emerge into my room as though it were separate in space and time from all the craziness in other parts of the house.

I think now of women and girls who no longer have rooms of their own, who live in motel rooms and with relatives, with no place to put their books or do their homework or sit quietly and think, or write. Will they again, someday? What will it do to their hopes and dreams, all this overcrowding, this lack of lockable doors? That private space, so briefly a common expectation in shared Anglo-American culture less than ten years after Virginia's death, is now more important than ever.

Project Dignity in Southern California is helping the family of the young lady in the picture pay their motel bills each month while they get back on their feet...and hopefully, give her a room of her own sometime soon.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Here I have to pen a belated valentine to my beloved X.

I met him for lunch in Campustown today, and we were talking about my classes. I was telling him about battling a serious case of (beginning) programmer's block, and how I figured out how to fight it on Sunday evening by getting out my notebook and just writing pseudo--

"Code," he finished. "I was just going to suggest that." He also suggested something else I hadn't thought of: when he doesn't know where to start, he starts by writing descriptive comments: i.e. "This program will do _____," or "The user now inputs _____ variable."

From the moment that I, while contemplating the end of my full-time job, came up with the idea of going back to school, he has been, without any hesitation whatsoever, my biggest cheerleader. Actually, the general response from my boss, co-workers, and assorted friends and family members has been overwhelmingly positive...not really surprising, considering that most of the people I work with or hang around with are geeks who think computer science is good for everybody, but it's still a revelation compared to the general reaction I got from family, friends, and acquaintances when I started graduate school fifteen years ago, which was mostly veiled hostility, outright suspicion, and, in one puzzling case, malicious glee. Only X was unconditionally supportive.

But this time he's not just supportive, but excited. I suppose there's some inherent risk to having a spouse who long ago mastered everything you're studying now, that he might push or be impatient with you, but X has been none of those things. While I struggle with code late at night he sometimes camps out in a recliner in the library and dozes, in case I need his help with something. I think his training as a professor probably contributes toward his unflappability in the face of my ignorance and occasional stubborn inability to learn. He's also deeply aware of all my old math and computing hangups. More than anything, I think he wants me to fly...and he doesn't want to do anything that might damage my fragile wings.

Now he smiled at me, in the noontime sunlight. "It makes me so happy that you're doing this," he said, again, for maybe the hundredth time. He knows I won't fail. For him, this whole decision is a no-brainer. He doesn't know what the future will bring for me, but he knows that this will only help me, that the unpaid leave from work, the tuition (inexpensive, but still around $1500 a semester for a full courseload) is an investment, that it will make me more valuable in the future, when things are better. And for once, I don't find negative thoughts interfering with my ability to concentrate; I don't find myself questioning the purpose of what I'm doing, how I'm spending my time. I want to make this whole effort entirely worthwhile, and I want to make him proud of me, and there's really no need to keep these two goals apart.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Morrow, James. Shambling Towards Hiroshima.

X, who knows my love for all things Godzilla, will know what I'm talking about.

And Morrow is the guy who once said, "'There are no atheists in foxholes' isn't an argument against atheists, it's an argument against foxholes." If he's got a sense of humor, maybe he'll read a little like Mark Twain (who dabbled in science fiction a bit himself, after all). Here's hoping. I'm very picky about science fiction in general.

Via Scalzi.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

catching up...

So. Three weeks have gone by, and this marks the fourth. How are things so far?

I'm still adjusting, I think. And there's a lot to adjust to. I haven't been a student since the spring of 2000, and a lot has changed since then.

I don't really worry too much about being a returning adult student. For one thing, I don't want to be That Woman, the one your mother's age who sits in the front of the class ostentatiously taking notes and nodding violent comprehension and shouting out the answers to all the questions and and monopolizing the professor and trying otherwise to show what an exemplary student she is, the one she should have been thirty years ago except that flunking out/marriage/pregnancy/miscellaneous adolescent rebellion got in the way.

No, I was the perfect student twenty years ago (minus the more obnoxious habits, I hope) and it didn't really get me very far. These days, I sit in class, I listen carefully, I take down anything I haven't heard, I don't speak up unless no one else has the answer, I ask questions not for the sake of asking questions but because I really need to know something or am intensely curious about it, and I don't obsess over my grades. But what I'm thinking about when I sit down at my machine and log on to the Windows XP VM two nights a week in class, or get into the online course website other evenings, is what I can get out of this session, how it will affect what I want to do later.

I do things differently, though. When asked for freehand drawings of both the exterior and internal workings of my home PC, I supplied diagrams created using PowerPoint. "I'm a technical writer," I said to my instructor. "This is how I do stuff." Freehand just wasn't going to cut it. I was a little startled that no one else in the class had thought to do this--it seems that if you have tools at your disposal, you should do things properly, and it really didn't take me that long.

One thing I'm still getting used to is the treadmill of studying, homework, studying, homework--and taking two of my classes online kind of complicates things. I have to be careful to check the schedule diligently for unexpected assignments, as there is no physical classroom where the teacher reminds everyone.

I'm also getting used to just how cut-and-dried these courses are: either you get something right, or you don't. Either it's true or false. Either the walkthrough or program works, or it doesn't. I suppose you could have points subtracted for poorly-written code, but still, it's a much less subjective system of evaluation than I was ever used to, and I find the decrease in the number of potential areas rather gratifying, not to mention the immediate feedback from those exercises which are graded automatically. I realize that there are other intangible ways in which I might be evaluated, but at least I'm not second-guessing myself so much about whether I've mastered the material.

Mastering the material, however, is one thing. Mastering Linux or VBasic programming is a horse of an entirely different color. X has warned me about not just blindly following recipes but becoming aware of similarities, parallels, differences in operating systems and languages, fundamentals that are universal (or nearly so). If something goes wrong, I don't want merely to figure out how to fix it and move on (though sometimes that's expedient and necessary): I want to understand what's gone wrong, to gain more insight into the system, so that I can handle similar or related problems later on. So as I do my homework, I try to make myself understand as much as possible, because I want to be able to call on every bit of it when necessary.

And then there's the time management issue. In the humanities, graduate seminars take place once a week. For undergraduate classes, you can often do all your preparation in one sitting--read through Paradise Lost or the "Cyclops" section of Ulysses or whatever in a single evening, scribbling marginalia as you go. But this is different. I tried doing all my programming homework in a couple of days, on the weekend, and discovered the following weekend that life had interfered to such an extent that most of what I'd learned had slipped through my fingers and I had to go back and review it all over again. So I'll do what my Linux instructor strongly urges and try spreading out the whole thing over the course of a week, working for half an hour to an hour on each subject every single night. As I've said before, practice makes perfect.

Friday, January 30, 2009

signs of the times

Things are bad all over. This week we heard that Caterpillar and some other global companies are laying off workers by the tens of thousands. The jobless rate has reached levels not seen since the early eighties, and it's expected to get worse in 2009 before things pick up and turn around.

That's not, of course, how most of us measure economic decline--our index is more anecdotal in nature. Yesterday I tried to buy lunch, only to be told that my bank card was invalid. No, not because I've run out of money, thank goodness. Apparently someone tried to make some purchases using my card number, one of them rather substantial. Fortunately, they were declined, and the bank put a block on my card number. I'm not sure whether it was an honest mistake or someone just trying out my card number with different PINS until they got the correct one, but it made me think immediately of stories like this one, in which an LA consumer columnist had his money and plastic stolen out of his gym locker by someone who immediately went on a spending spree and bought himself a nice new Macbook, among other things. As people get more desperate--either to meet basic needs or to feed a mass consumption addiction acquired in the last couple of decades--you can bet that there will be more ID fraud than ever. And most of it won't even involve physical theft.

Another sign of the times: more insider threats. From Wired:
A logic bomb allegedly planted by a former engineer at mortgage finance company Fannie Mae last fall would have decimated all 4,000 servers at the company, causing millions of dollars in damage and shutting down Fannie Mae for a least a week, prosecutors say.

Unix engineer Rajendrasinh Babubha Makwana, 35, was indicted (.pdf) Tuesday in federal court in Maryland on a single count of computer sabotage for allegedly writing and planting the malicious code on Oct. 24, the day he was fired from his job. The malware had been set to detonate at 9:00 a.m. on Jan. 31, but was instead discovered by another engineer five days after it was planted, according to court records.
Let's set aside the utterly moronic, self-sabotaging nature of this kind of attack. You're pissed off because you think your company screwed you by firing you? You think you're going to show them a thing or two? Well, Mr. Makwana, you just guaranteed that you'll never work in IT ever again, ANYWHERE. Duh.

But R. B. Makwana is a statistic, or will be soon. Insider threats are on the rise, and as the recession deepens, organizations will be at risk not only from disgruntled employees like Mr. Makwana, but also from employees who are dealing with increasing personal debt and are desperate for cash. Obama's administration just put out their cyber security agenda, a major aspect of which will be battling cyber-espionage. If it were a big deal back in August, when this agenda was actually formulated by Obama's campaign, it's an even bigger deal now.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy days are here again

Yeah, we had a little management turnover this morning.

How does it feel? Weird. I have a president who won by a landslide even though he's a liberal Democrat, an egghead former college professor, and--oh, yeah, is black and has the middle name Hussein. President Barack Hussein Obama. Also, I used to live in his neighborhood, which is a little like Berkeley, except colder.

What's it mean to me? More than anything, this is a guy who believes in science.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
I don't consider this promise to be pie-in-the-sky demogoguery, or a sop to the reality-based community or to environmentalists. Obama's not your run-of-the-mill politician--he was, after all, a law professor at the University of Chicago and is surprisingly intimate with the scientific community. Which is partly why he picked this guy to head the Department of Energy. In fact, there are now three or four physicists in major posts in his administration. Pinch me, I must be dreaming!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tonight I submitted the first exercise for my Intro to Linux course. The instructor expects us to practice, so that's what I'm doing. I used an editor I'd never heard of before, called joe, but I'm thinking about doing the next entry in emacs instead. joe seems very user-friendly, a lot like pico, actually...but I have the feeling that using an intuitive editor like joe or pico marks me as something of a n00b.

I've been thinking a lot about practicing lately. X, my husband, bought me a digital piano for an anniversary present, which is an extraordinary gift and out of which i hope to get as much as I can. When I was in high school, I was a competent pianist, but not a really good one, and it strikes me now that perhaps part of the problem is that I didn't really know how to practice. Practice, for me, used to consist of simply going over and over a piece from start to finish and hoping that the difficult passages would sort themselves out. I don't think that's really very productive. So I went looking for some tips for effective practice and came up with these methods from a music professor at Missouri Western State College. He suggests a lot of different techniques, many of which involve mixing things up (practicing at different volumes, tempos, playing everything staccato or legato, stopping abruptly after each measure, etc.) but the thing that really sticks in my head is that if you play something seven times perfectly, you've committed it to physical memory: neurologically speaking, seven is apparently a magic number. (Which means you have to get it right from the first--erasing that stimulus and replacing it with something else takes five times as many correct attempts.)

And so I tried it with some passages from Debussy's Clair de lune that involved some complicated fingering. Practiced these passages up and down, over and over, refusing to go on until I'd mastered them, and although I haven't quite got them perfect, I can already feel my fingers automatically depressing the right keys, and doing so in a manner more agile and flowing than I can ever remember.

So. Practice is key. Once isn't enough. Even if you think you've grasped something from reading it through the first time, it doesn't mean you've mastered it. And mastery is what I'm going for here. I want to make these commands automatic. I used to watch my husband or my co-workers working in UNIX/Linux and marveled at their ease and fluency with commands that I had to piece together from online help pages. Now, I can start to imagine being like them.

I'm starting to understand what that means now.

Monday, January 12, 2009

There's been a change in the program.

Seriously. It was bitterly cold last week, busy at work, classes started...somehow, that doesn't seem enough of an excuse not to post here, but I'm back now.

On Friday, January 9, I went in and took my placement exam in the Administration wing. For about fifteen minutes before the test, I was the oldest person there...until a woman in her sixties huffed up, arms filled with math review books, and announced that she was there for her "re-assessment."

We had to put all our belongings in lockers--everything. I'd brought along a pad of paper to do scratch figuring on, and several pencils, but I wasn't allowed to bring them in--everything would be supplied, including a graphing calculator, which I actually used once or twice.

This exam was, in fact, multiple choice. But that didn't matter so much, as I did a lot of figuring and came up with the right numbers. There were a few problems for which I simply eyeballed things and didn't bother working them out, but somehow I don't feel bad about that at all, not since I discovered that there's a lot of eyeballing that goes on in mathematics. The exam began with geometry and moved through algebra and pre-calculus into trigonometry. By the time I got to trigonometry I was kicking myself for not having reviewed the stuff I'd learned in tenth-grade physics, because if I'd remembered most of it I would have done better on that section. I seemed to recall that trigonometry was actually pretty easy.

I wasn't nervous or anxious at all. At some point--about an hour and a half in--I started to get bored, hoping the exam wouldn't last much longer. And the woman I'd seen coming in earlier was a terrible distraction. She had a hacking cough and kept leaving the room for various reasons, and from the corner of my eye I could see that she was stuck on the same geometry problem long after I'd moved on to algebra.

What made me proudest was being able to figure out simple functions. I'd never seen functions before--or if I did, I didn't remember them--and it probably took me three times as long to solve those problems as it did the students who'd just graduated from high school a year ago--but I figured out that all they were, really, were nested equations.

After a poor showing in trigonometry, where I just simply started guessing at random, the test ended (probably because I was doing so badly) and I went up to get my score. The woman behind the desk took the paper from the printer, highlighted something, and handed it to me. "That's the class you can start with," she said. I looked at it. I'd tested out of College Algebra. The class I would begin with would be trigonometry. Hot damn!

So that has changed my plans for the next semester. Now that I've got documented proof that I've tested out of algebra, I could take beginning programming and the introductory Linux course in addition to the basic hardware/OS course that meets at Parkland on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I will be taking trigonometry in the near future, but I need to get these courses out of the way fast. And I'm rejoicing, because it brings me that much closer to where I want to be.

After trigonometry, which I've no doubt I'll pass with flying colors? The big, bad C-word, of course. Oh, yes. Bring it on.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Portrait of the blogger as a failed math student

Tomorrow I take my assessment exam. I don't have high hopes. I'm expecting to be put in basic algebra. Placement in intermediate algebra would be nothing short of miraculous. Pre-algebra would be a humiliating setback, but at least it might be easy. Tonight I'm going to do one more review and hope that the practice questions help me not to make too poor a showing.

I feel almost as though this is some sort of disability. Curious, considering that I scored a decent but not great 650 on my math SAT just before my senior year. But that was a surprise to me at the time, too. Like most women, who attribute their success to chance and the pity or ulterior motives of others, I chalked it up to dumb luck and multiple choice format.

While I suppose being able to choose from a, b, c, or, d may have had something to do with my score, I suppose it's finally time to face the likelihood that I may not have been as bad at math as I thought I was. For one thing, I did pass Algebra II, the only class in which I ever got a quarter grade of D and the last math class I ever took--with a C average--but it was, after all, a passing grade. There was one quarter, sophomore year, when I got a D in Algebra II. But now that I think back, there was probably a lot more to it than lack of ability. (For one thing, that was the year I sat in the back of the class and couldn't see the board. I got glasses the following summer.)

A common exercise in college composition courses is to ask students, especially those who have the same kind of antagonistic relationship with writing that I've had with math, to write their "writing autobiography," which is intended to help them confront internal obstacles and events in the past that may have contributed to writer's block. So that's what I did. I was going to post it, but realized it was way too navel-gazing and whiny and would send prospective readers screaming away. The upshot is: early on, I was told I wasn't so good at math, and to save face, I decided that math wasn't important at all and concentrated entirely on English and history.

Later, in college, things got a lot more complicated. (When men are involved, they always are.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

well, this is it

So it's finally happening. Next week, I will be confronting mathematics and computer science for the first time in more than twenty years. And I'm going to blog about it here.

I don't know how original the premise of this blog is, and frankly, I don't much care. I'm a woman in her late thirties, married, no children, a nontechnical professional surrounded by developers and engineers, married to a physical scientist, with an advanced degree in English literature, and I haven't had any math since I struggled through Algebra II in tenth grade.

Well, maybe that's not entirely true. I seem to recall, during accelerated physics that same year, getting some rudimentary trigonometry, which I've all but forgotten. But the fact is that throughout my elementary and secondary years, math and I were enemies.

Now, I want to take computer science--to really learn to program and administer computing systems for the first time. I want to study networking and computing security. I'm at a crossroads in my professional life, and I want to be better at what I do, be a better colleague, get more respect from my co-workers, and my current plans are to get a certification in network security at a local community college--even if it isn't enough to help me break into the field, it will, hopefully, make me more valuable. But for all that, I need to shore up my skills in basic math and finally move beyond it into calculus.

And I'm a technical writer. Communication is supposed to be my gift. (It isn't always.) But what I'm hoping is that by writing about my studies here I'll be able to understand better what I'm learning, retain more of it, get into a mindset that helps me confront this whole enterprise without being so afraid of it. And I'm wondering, too, if there are other people--particularly women--like me. Women who were told early on that math and science and computing weren't for them, who accepted and believed that, and who spent their whole lives behind an invisible barrier of innumeracy. Women who are held back from further advancement, treated as lightweights, paid significantly less than younger, less experienced men with technical backgrounds to do the same work. Women who lack the confidence to stand up for themselves professionally, who are relegated to support positions, considered expendable when the need for job cuts arises.

And it's really not getting much better: the numbers of girls who enter computer sciences continues to drop precipitously, for one reason or another, resulting in the obstruction of an important road to economic and social parity. I suspect that there continues to be a general culture of hostility towards women in technical fields. And it seems to me that the only way to combat it is to start to populate these fields with older women who can help make mostly male, highly technical workplaces and educational programs more receptive to young women just coming out of high school.

So what I'm going to try to do with this blog is to describe what I learn, work out problems I'm having, talk in some detail about what it's like to return to a subject that was my bĂȘte noir when I was a teenager, and, hopefully, slay this dragon once and for all--or--perhaps this is a better metaphor--put it to work for me. And if I can do it, maybe others can, too.