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.