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Comments

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Ask Slashdot: Why Are Tech Job Requirements So Specific?

word munger Internal hires (465 comments)

My sense is that a lot of the super-specific postings are written that way because the folks doing the hiring already have someone in mind. So they can say, "Candidate X may have an MS from MIT, but they only know Excel 2010 while my coffee buddy Ron is proficient in Excel 2013!"

about 10 months ago
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I paid attention to news of the Marathon bomb ...

word munger Re:I ran the marathon (317 comments)

No, no photos of the bombs anyways. I think he was too busy freaking out to think to take pictures.

about a year ago
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I paid attention to news of the Marathon bomb ...

word munger I ran the marathon (317 comments)

I ran the marathon and my son, watching the race from a rooftop on Boylston, saw the bombs go off. I didn't obsessively follow the news about the bombings, but you can bet that I was interested. Glad to see they caught the bad guys, and that life in Boston can return to a semi-normal state.

about a year ago
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My in-use, non-TV displays add up to (diag.):

word munger I have a computer attached to my TV... (264 comments)

My "TV" is used perhaps 50 percent of the time as a computer display, either to show Netflix rentals, as a display for my MP3 collection, etc. Even when I use it as a TV, I'm running a DVR, which is essentially a heavily modified Linux box.

Also, my Prius has a display used for showing fuel efficiency as well as the rear-view camera picture. Does that count?

more than 3 years ago
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The Top 50 Gawker Media Passwords

word munger Re:So what? (209 comments)

Well, 123456 wouldn't work on every site, so I kind of doubt that.

more than 3 years ago
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The Top 50 Gawker Media Passwords

word munger What this shows us (209 comments)

This doesn't show how stupid people are about their passwords; quite the opposite. All you're using the password for is to comment on a stupid blog post. It's actually kind of interesting that a lot of people seem understand that concept and so don't spend a lot of time generating a secure password.

more than 3 years ago
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How often do you Google yourself?

word munger Bing? (225 comments)

Here's the real question: Have you ever Binged yourself?

more than 3 years ago
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Early Review of 11" Macbook Air

word munger Re:I dunno man (348 comments)

I agree, thinness is probably overrated, but lightness isn't. Since we don't have flexible high-res screens, however, the "fold-in-half" laptop isn't going to show up any time soon.

I have an original MacBook Air, and absolutely love having a full-size notebook in such a lightweight package. I really value the full-sized screen and keyboard, and I bought a very small bag that's easy to carry along with me. Now when I'm out and about, I'm carrying a laptop *and* case that is smaller and lighter than most laptops out there. I even have room for a magazine or a book and a notepad.

That said, I actually don't see anything in these new models that will convince me to ditch my nearly-3-year-old MBA.

more than 3 years ago
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Old (unused) mobile phones I've got hanging around ...

word munger Handspring Visorphone FTW (307 comments)

The only old phone I have is a Handspring VisorPhone, circa 2000, which I keep for sentimental reasons. It could do everything the iPhone does, only slower and with a much cruder interface.

more than 4 years ago
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Google Seeking Patent On Ads For Street View

word munger Way to completely destroy utility (86 comments)

Congratulations, Google! You've figured out how to change a useful feature (seeing what the street really looks like) into a useless one (overlaying the street view with things that aren't actually there)! Brilliant!

more than 4 years ago
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Secretarial Mistake Costs Pepsi $1.26 Billion

word munger Right. It was the *secretary's* fault (11 comments)

It couldn't possibly be *management's* fault for creating a system in which a clerical error can result in a $billion-plus loss.

more than 4 years ago
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On the Economics of the Kindle

word munger Re:Color is hard to do (398 comments)

You might be able to do it with something less than 1/4 the b/w resolution, by using, say, half the pixels for black, then distributing the other three colors over the remaining half. You'd have lower resolution for color images, but text would crisper and cleaner. So if you could double the pixel resolution, you could add color without decreasing b/w resolution.

OTOH, I'm not sure this would actually work at all. When you print a halftone, you can actually overlap colors. You can physically print Cyan over the Black. But with e-ink, each pixel has to be a particular color. So you couldn't have a black screen if only half of your pixels have the option of displaying black. It would be gray at best.

more than 5 years ago
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Scientists Discover Proteins Controlling Evolution

word munger Re:old news and a link (436 comments)

Yep, it happens all the time. PZ has an excellent take on it and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he's right. This is science by press release. Let's wait for the actual report (and other scientists' analysis of it) before we come to a conclusion.

more than 5 years ago

Submissions

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New site collects expert blog posts

word munger word munger writes  |  about 6 years ago

word munger writes "Yesterday we launched an important new version of an significant website. ResearchBlogging.org has collected over 1,700 blog posts from hundreds of scientists and other researchers, giving readers an expert take on cutting-edge research. It's different from other "science blogging" sites because every post on the site is written by someone who's actually read the original peer-reviewed study, instead of just passing along a press release or an abstract. Registered users can "flag" posts that don't meet our guidelines, so we ensure that only the best stuff gets published on our site."
Link to Original Source
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Copyright advocacy group violates copyright

word munger word munger writes  |  about 7 years ago

word munger writes "Commercial scholarly publishers are beginning to get afraid of the open access movement. They've hired a high-priced consultant to help them sway public opinion in favor of copyright restrictions on taxpayer-funded research. Funny thing is, their own website contains several copyright violations. It seems they pulled their images directly from the Getty Images website — watermark and all — without paying for their use! Clearly their agenda is simply to make using copyrighted materials inconvenient and expensive for everyone but THEMSELVES."
Link to Original Source
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word munger word munger writes  |  more than 7 years ago

word munger writes "The F-word is censored from nearly all U.S. broadcast TV (except when someone like Bono slips it into a live telecast), but people use it every day in casual conversation. Meanwhile vicious insults like "nappy-headed ho," while they did result in Don Imus's firing, are repeated ad nauseum on every newscast covering the event. What curse words are truly offensive, and who do they offend the most? On Cognitive Daily, we surveyed over 700 readers to find out. The results? The F-word is only mildly offensive — not even as offensive as "ho." What's more, as people get older, they react more negatively to some words, like "suck" and "ho," but other words bother them less. It all suggests that censoring particular words makes less sense than evaluating words in context. Depending on who is watching and when, the FCC might want to reassess its censorship policy."
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word munger word munger writes  |  more than 7 years ago

word munger writes "Publishers send me a lot of science books to review. Nearly all of them get tossed in the trash within 60 seconds of opening the package. But some books seem interesting enough based on the cover and blurbs that I'll sit down and start to read. Very few are worth reading through to the finish. Yesterday I persisted in reading one a little longer than usual, just to see how bad things would get. Oh, boy, did they get bad! The book was actually painful to read. I realized that this book actually exemplified everything I hate about bad science writing, so I decided to write a post summing up the ways science writers almost always screw things up. Here it is."
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word munger word munger writes  |  more than 7 years ago

word munger writes "On Cognitive Daily we get a lot of complaints that our graphs aren't complete. We always omit error bars because we have found that most people misunderstand them. But perhaps our readers are more sophisticated than that. We put them to the test — and they failed, unable to correctly interpret the error bars on two sample graphs. Think you can do better? The polls are still open. But beware, you're not likely to succeed — even most scientists published in peer-reviewed journals don't get it right.

But we wonder: If sites like Cognitive Daily took more time to present and explain error bars, perhaps more people would understand them, and in the end, that would be a good thing. What do Slashdot readers think? Should mainstream media report scientific data, complete with messy error bars? Would that help the general public understand science better?"
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word munger word munger writes  |  more than 7 years ago

word munger writes "The cover story in this month's Scientific American, written by Bill Gates, discusses one of the toughest problems in robotics: "how to simultaneously handle all the data coming in from multiple sensors and send the appropriate commands to the robot's motors, a challenge known as concurrency." Gates believes that robotics today is like the world of computers 30 years ago. Robots, like computers in the 1970s, have widespread applications in industry, but the models available for home users tend to be expensive and have appeal mainly for tinkerers and hobbyists. Microsoft's solution to the problem is to design a proprietary operating system for robots, built for everything from home surveillance to mars rovers. Could this be the world's next mega-monopoly? I discuss some of the implications at Cognitive Daily."
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word munger word munger writes  |  more than 7 years ago

word munger writes "A few weeks ago, Chad Orzel read a New York Times article which analyzed the best high school writing on the new SAT test. The Times' writer appeared surprised that the best high school writing was so ... bad. So did I.

Chad, on the other hand, wondered if the best bloggers could do any better under the same conditions, so we decided to put it to the test. Over 500 people tried our timed online test, but just 109 scoreable responses resulted. We had professionals grade all the responses, and now we've created a web site where readers can rate the essays themselves, as well as find out the professional score.

So who's a better writer, a blogger or a high schooler? You can read my or Chad's analysis — or better yet, you can decide for yourself...."

Journals

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What is wrong with plagiarism?

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Okay, so my students are writing essays about "binge drinking." There's a ton of literature out there about "binge drinking." Why should they have to reinvent the wheel? Isn't it easier just to go out on the Internet and copy and paste your way to an essay? Especially if you're a bio/engineering/computer science major and you just need to get your damned English 1102 requirement out of the way? Damn straight it is.

Yeah, part of it is my own damn fault. After all, could I have picked a more boring topic? I mean, really--haven't they already had this crap pounded into their heads for 4 years of high school? Well, maybe I could have made it more interesting for them. But dammit, I've got my own shit to do. I'm supposed to be a grad student, and this is my damn side job. Yes, I'm trying to do a good job here, but I also need to graduate.

What about the ESL student, who really struggles even to write a sentence? What about him? How's he ever going to learn how to write if he doesn't do it? I know, I know, no one's going to expect this guy to write, as long as he programs the damn computer, or tests the viscosity of the fluid, or whatever his technical job asks him to do. But I've got a job, too. If the fluid isn't viscous enough, it's my job to say so. But damn this sucks.

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Oh, the pain!

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago I wrote in my journal last night. Honest, I did. And I promise you, it was some of the best literature ever created. Honest to God. But I forgot to click "save" before I exited from my Web browser, and all that wonderful creation was lost forever.

It reminds me of a story I heard once. I have no idea if it is actually true, though. This guy is walking along a beach in Spain. In the distance, he sees another man drawing a picture in the sand with a stick, using deft, authoritative strokes. As he approaches the drawing, at first it seems like a random assortment of shapes and lines. But then he begins to see other things in the picture. He begins to realize that it is a masterwork, a work of art unlike anything he has ever seen. He turns to ask the artist a question about his sketch, but he has already begun to stroll off down the beach. Finally, the man recognizes the artist's profile: it's not just any artist, it's Pablo Picasso, and he has created a priceless work of art! But now the tide is beginning to come in; already some portions of the bottom of the image have started to wash away. The man looks around in vain for some way to preserve this great work, but he has no camera, no means to even make a sketch of what he sees (and even if he could, it certainly would bear no resemblance to the great work before him).

His mind races... perhaps a plaster casting could be made of the great work... or he could build a dam out of sand to stop the onrushing tide... but even as he thinks, another great wave washes out the bottom third of the work. As wave after wave slowly erodes this masterpiece, the futility of the situation becomes more and more monolithic. Even Picasso's footprints in the sand begin to wash away in the onrushing tide, as the man's tears form tiny craters in the strip of sand that remains.

Okay, so I'm not Picasso.

But it's still damned depressing.

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American Music

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago

Today we went to see "Let me Sing" at Charlotte's Booth playhouse. It's kindof a history of American musical theater all in one play. Not a bad show, but it hits you a little over the head with the race issue. Five second summary: The whites stole "American" music from the African Americans.

I think there's no doubt that without the influence of African Americans, music as we know it today would be completely different. On the other hand, I think the show implicitly diminishes the real talent of composers such as Gershwin and Berlin. Gershwin, I know, was careful to acknowledge the influence of the African American muscial tradition, but from the perspective of this show, Gershwin was an out and out thief.

Other than that, there were some pretty good performances in this show. Some very noble efforts, too, such as a duet that combined "Can't stop lovin' that man of mine" with -- oh, now I can't remember, but it was a completely different song. It kind of worked, but the two songs got a little muddled.

Anyway, it was good fun. I do think the show had an important message, but it would have been better if the show could have made its point a bit more subtly.

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Wine

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a very friendly glass of Cavit pinot grigio. I'm going to try to describe the experience as precisely as I can. First of all, this is not at all the ideal setting. My beat-up wooden kitchen table is a pale yellowish color, which doesn't allow me to see the color of the pinot clearly. The glass, though elegant, is etched with a lovely floral pattern that again distracts from a proper appreciation of the color and texture of the wine. I've just finished a cup of coffee, and I have a mild headache. The wine should take care of that in a few minutes. In the background, my daughter is in the next room, watching the "bonus material" for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, so my careful meditation over my glass is punctuated by laser blasts and George Lucas' high-pitched overanalysis of the film.

I lift the glass to my nose, swirling the amber liquid more clumsily than I should. There's not too much of a smell to this wine. A hint of must, perhaps a piney aroma. The color of the wine is pale yellow, with not a lot of shape to it--I don't see much difference in color from the deep center of the glass to the edge where there is less wine.

The first sip. I let the wine flow between my lips into my mouth. As it first pools into my tongue, I get my first taste. The pine becomes stronger, overwhelming the must with its crispness. There is also a lightness to it. Slightly sweet, like green grapes, or kiwi, but with a much sharper texture. As the wine slips over the edge of my tongue into the base of my mouth, the flavors intensify, and the wine warms through contact with skin. The wine slides down my throat, with a hint of dryness. Again pine is the most prominent taste.

After about a half a glass, I can feel my headache begin to slip away. This is a wonderful way to take the edge off of a busy Saturday afternoon!

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rappin'

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Yo! Just heard Melly-Mel on NPR today. Turns out Grandmaster Flash performed one of the first records to be indoctrinated into Smithsonian's recording hall of fame, which just happened over the past couple of days.

I was fairly big into rap music in high school. I remember not liking Grandmaster Flash as much as Whodini, Egyptian Lover, and L.L. Cool J. But of course what made Grandmaster Flash different is that they covered more "serious" topics such as drugs, crime, etc. in some of their raps, so they are the ones that got noticed by the intellectuals. Compare:

Street kid gets arrested
Gonna do some time
He'll get out three years from now
just to commit more crime

to this:

My radio, believe me I like it loud!
I'm the man with the box that can rock the crowd,
Walking down the street
to the hard core beat
While my J V C vi-BRATES the concrete!

The first is in the Smithsonian. The second set up L.L. Cool J for a career in TV and movies. Sadly, in sync with the lowbrow tastes of the rest of America, I have to say I prefer L.L. Cool J too!

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Rain. It's a good thing.

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Today I emerged from Fretwell hall to see the first misty raindrops of the month, gently trickling down the red brick pathways of campus. The drizzle was slight enough to just dampen me on my quarter-mile walk to the parking deck, but heavy enough to still feel like rain. This is nostalgic weather for me, reminding me of too many Seattle days waiting for the school bus, or walking to The Cricket for an evening of conversation and endless coffee refills.

Now, sitting in my dusky kitchen, I stare out into my glowing gray backyard, droplets of water glistening on our bare maple. Every so often, a car whizzes by on the road behind the Leland Cypruses, with that familiar sound of tire on wet pavement.

So many times as a child, I woke up to that sound, the only notice that it had been raining. So many times, I walked down dark chilly stairs, onto our squeaky porch, and began unbundling newspapers for dark morning delivery. So many times, I remember putting an old paper atop the stack as I carted them up 75th street, raindrops creating mini supernovas atop yesterday's news.

Here, now, I can only dream about those days. The damp drips are familiar, as are the tires. But the maples and cypruses and sweetgums are not. The cardinals and bluebirds are not. If a mallard or a seagull waddled by, things would seem more appropriate. But there are no papers to deliver on my front porch. There are no mountains behind the clouds. Those things gradually fade into memory, only to be reawakened some other day, drip by shimmering drop.

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Emergence

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago So. What now?

I think a key to a productive life is simply to not to ever slow down. It really could work--just never stop for a rest, simply move from one tough task to the next. The question is, are we then reduced to the status of automatons? I've just finished grading literally hundreds of student essays. (Okay, it was actually about 40, but you get the idea!) My immediate inclination is to sit down on my comfortable green couch, uncork a bottle of cheap wine, and channel-surf my way into oblivion.

On the other hand, attractive as a persistent vegetative state may seem right now, in six months I would be knocking myself for having achieved nothing. I find myself thinking that platitude to which I was first introduced reading the "Thomas the Tank Engine" books to my son: "a change is as good as a rest." That's a pretty believable lie! A truer statement: "a rest is as good as a rest!"

Boy, reading over what I've just read, I can think of only one thing to add: Welcome to my aphorism hell.

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still grading

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Man! I'm still not even halfway through. I'm now on number 17 out of 45. Grading is unbelievably challenging because each student has a new set of problems. Some students have mastered the basics, so you need to push them to develop their voice, or find a more unique and interesting way to tell their story. On the other hand, others have so many problems that you just need to pick a few of them for them to concentrate on so they'r not overwhelmed.

Yes, it's challenging, but it truly drains your brain. It's not menial labor, not by a long shot. It's not even semi-menial--it's full-fledged, high-octane, thinking work. Of course the answer, given how little they're paying me, is to drop down the octane a couple of notches. To coast. Unfortunately for me, I have too much respect for my students to do that. One thing I can say for sure is this is the last time I'm going to promise to do all my grading in two days. It's a minimum of a week from here on out.

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Grading, Grading, Grading

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago

[Sung to the tune of "rawhide"]

Grading, grading, grading,
Let's keep them papers grading,
grading, grading, grading, away!
Write 'em up, move 'em out, roll 'em up, send 'em in,
Write 'em up, move 'em out, grading!

It's blood and sweat and typos,
It's rolling, dangling participos,
It's incomplete sentencos, grading!

Write 'em up, move 'em out, roll 'em up, send 'em in,
Write 'em up, move 'em out, grading!

Write 'em up, move 'em out, roll 'em up, send 'em in,
Write 'em up, move 'em out, grading!

I'm about 1/5 of the way through grading 40-some-odd essays about "kids these days." Whew!

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Oh, yeah, a DAILY journal!

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Daily. Daily. Daily. Daily. As in seven days a week. This is going to require some discipline. I have a good excuse, though. I really do. I was dealing with frantic children. Children who shouldn't have to be personally responsible for their own fates. You see, my kids (age 9 and 11) had to fill out admissions forms for private school yesterday. In ink! If they mess up, they might not get in! Of course, it really wouldn't be the end of the world if they didn't get in. My son, just like hundreds of others, would simply be bussed for an hour an fifteen minutes each way to a remote school for the privilege of sitting in an overcrowded trailer. Somehow I don't think this is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he was advocating a free, public education for all.

I rode a bus to school from the fifth grade on. I guess this would be one good reason for me to support public education today, but I'm afraid public education in Mecklenburg county in 2003 is not what it was in Seattle in 1980. The only class I ever had in a trailer was music in fifth grade. More than half of Bradley Middle school (where my son will likely be assigned) is in trailers. Class size is 35, compared to 20 at the private school we're considering.

But look at the good news in today's Charlotte Observer! Our property taxes will be going down! At least we won't have to pay more for our crappy public schools!

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Menial versus semi-menial labor

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago I was looking over last night's entry, and I think I might actually have a semi-decent point there. I wonder why that is? Why is it that I can handle mind-numbingly dull work, but not semi-boring-but-occasionally-interesting work? I get up every morning and fastiduously do the dishes, making the kitchen spotless [all right, if I was truly fastiduous, I'd have done the dishes last night, but I'm on a roll here, okay?], but my home office is a complete disaster area. To clean the office is definitely semi-menial. I need to think about where things go, what I need to keep and what I can throw away, and whether it would be better to neatly arrange all the computer cables or just pile them in a stack behind the desk. That must mean that doing the dishes isn't semi-menial but in fact fully menial. The difference, of course, is that the dishes have become routine. I don't have to think about the dishes--I can think about anything I want while I'm doing them (for example, all the semi-menial jobs I'll need to put off today), so actually, my mind is more engaged when I'm doing the dishes than when I'm paying the bills or cleaning the office. So I either need to be a dishwasher or a brain surgeon, but definitely not an accountant, a hairdresser, or, I'd venture a guess, even a computer programmer. These would all qualify as semi-menial jobs, and therefore they're not for me.

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Whew. Almost forgot!

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago 11:20 on a Saturday night. Almost forgot to do the journaling thing today. Just finished watching the U.S. Figure Skating Championship. I just have to say, the U.S. Men are a bunch of complete wusses. The first guy up falls down after about 30 seconds and quits. The next guy breaks a little ribbon on his pants and wants a do-over. Meanwhile one of the ladies in pairs opens up a gash in her knee requiring several stitches, and she gets up, finishes her routine, and wins a bronze medal!

After the men fell all over each other trying to lose the national championship, the women got in their and laid down one awesome performance after another. You could almost make a legitimate case that Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes could have split the title, they both skated so perfectly. That's what sweet Peggy Fleming said anyway. Don't make me laugh, Peggy. Michelle skated a flawless routine, and Sarah lumbered through an easier one, just barely avoiding mistakes all the way through.

Today I spent nearly the entire day in front of the computer, either recording student grades or paying bills. Basically, I was an accountant for a day. There's one career to scratch off the watchlist. Talk about dull!

Actually I don't mind doing menial tasks on the computer--it's the semi-menial ones that truly bug me. I could do data entry for hours on end (and I did, in college--that was my work-study job). But recording student grades is a pain because you have to kinda semi- pay attention to what you're doing. And you need to make sure you don't skip anybody, and you have to sort through e-mails asking for tonight's homework, etc. etc. It's a semi-menial job. Same with paying the bills. You have to at least pay enough attention to remember if you paid that bill last month, or what you spent $46 on at Target last month. Then you really need to pay attention when the checkbook doesn't balance, or you put the wrong bill with the wrong check or something. Classic semi-menial job. Give me straight data-entry or word processing over that stuff any day. Either that or hard core, serious, to-the-bone thinking. None of that inbetween stuff for me!

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Yet another Journal entry

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Home.

Happy to be here after a rough first week of classes. Martin Luther King, I am eternally grateful for you having been born in early January. No class until Wednesday! I think mainly the teaching is what's exhausting me. I can handle taking several classes, but teaching them truly wears on my soul.

That said, I think I'm becoming a better teacher--more demanding of my students, but more understanding of what they're going through.

All this journaling has me writing more than ever. Commontext Blog, this blog, posting on kairosnews. I don't know if I'm saying much of importance, and I don't know how long I'll keep it up, but for now it feels good.

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Journal change

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Now this will be my personal journal. Instead of posting my pontifications about slashdot, I'll simply use this as a space to record my deepest, darkest, inmost secrets. Well, maybe not those, but it'll be a place to speak my mind. Not that I don't do that anywhere else I happen to be online. Okay, in all honesty, I'm doing this because a journal is a requirement for my English 5104 class, and this is the most convenient place to keep it. Nonetheless, I expect it will be a fun project.

Where to begin? I'd say the beginning, but I've already written about that elsewhere. How about just describing my day so far? The day started off poorly because the wife and I stayed up too late last night. No, we weren't doing THAT! Get your mind out of the gutter. Actually we were watching a really bad movie from 1988: "Satisfaction," with Justine Bateman, Julia Roberts, and Liam Neeson. Guess who got top billing? Hint: it wasn't Julia or Liam. I have to admit I had a mighty big crush on Justine in the mid '80s.

Anyway, we were being "good" and turned the TV off at 11:00 (halfway through the movie--don't worry, we've got the rest on TIVO), but then we sat talking and drinking wine until past midnight. At 35, I can't get by on just 6 hours of sleep anymore, so when the alarm rang at 6:15, I got up, woke up my son, and instead of going for the usual morning run, went straight back to bed. By 7:15 the kids were up and dressed. We ate breakfast with them in our bathrobes.

Since then it's been work, work, work. If you want to see what I've been up to, visit the commontext blog.

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More on trolls

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago In addition to the "seemy underbelly" trolls, many slashdot trolls are subtler. Regular slashdot contributors have identified certain biases in the slashdot community: Anti-Microsoft, Pro-Apple; Anti-copyright, Pro-open source; Anti-Establishment, Pro-individual liberties; Anti-newbie, Pro-technophile. These biases are so pronounced that even a well-formed argument that flouts the basic biases of the community will be regarded as a troll. This comment is an excellent example. While it's well-argued, it's also a comment that has been posted several times, to several different slashdot articles. It's there to "rock the boat," and many readers have taken the bait and actually responded to the comment. At the same time, it's been modded down to a "-1 troll."

But what if the comment had not been repeated? Does commentary such as this promote healthy debate, or is it merely a distraction from the more compelling issues at hand? If members of the community have a known set of values, doesn't it make sense for them to exclude those who don't share their values? Should a gun-club admit gun control advocates to its membership? The main point of the club in this instance is to share with other gun owners--obviously there is a time and a place for gun control debates, but probably not in the day to day workings of the club.

On the other hand, users rely on slashdot not only for camaraderie, but also for news and answers to technical questions. Perhaps an open exchange of views is important in such a context.

In the end, it's important to remember that slashdot is in many ways self-defined, but it's also still a constructed community. Its editors created the code that runs the sited, including the moderation system itself. Editors select the stories that appear on the slashdot front page. Yet in certain critical ways, the editors have chosen to place much of the control of the site in the hands of its users, making it a very unique community indeed. I hope my analysis has shed some light on the workings of this fascinating community--a community I will continue to be a part of in the forseeable future.

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Flaming trolls

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Slashdot has an ugly underside. This is the world of trolls. Trolls come in several flavors. The classic definition of troll is "an electronic mail message, Usenet posting or other (electronic) communication which is intentionally incorrect, but not overtly controversial." FOLDOC makes a distinction between "troll" and "flame bait", which is a less subtle post intended to incite. On slashdot, the idea of a troll has evolved to subsume classic trolls, flame bait, and off-topic posts.

Any front-page story on slashdot will inevitably be bombarded with trolls. Simply changing the moderation threshold to -1 reveals a whole new world of crude, even hateful posts. Many of these are immediately moderated down by the site editors, and others are quickly caught by community moderators, but occasionally such a comment slips through the radar, giving the slashdot community an edge rarely seen in mainstream journalism.

Perhaps the most notorious troll is the hideous goatse link. Someone has apparently registered the domain "http://goatse.cx" and used it to host an obscene image. I won't include a link here, but if you're brave, type the url into your browser address box to see it. Trolling comments would include a link to this site in an otherwise innocuous statement. Venemous flame wars ensued.

Because slashdot makes it easy for anyone to post a comment anonymously, and because of the site's popularity, these acts of vandalism are probably inevitable. Like the red-light district of a city, the world of trolls is an intriguing place to visit. I'll probably spend a few more entries discussing them.

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Moderation and slashdot

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago Slashdot uses a unique community moderation system to determine which user comments are most valuable. The basic idea is that each comment starts with a certain "value," expressed in points ranging from -1 to +5. Anonymous posts start with a value of 0, and signed posts generally start with a value of 1. Users can then choose which comments they see by selecting from a "threshold" menu button at the top of the list of comments. That's when the fun begins!

Moderators, chosen from the pool of registered users based on their previous contributions to slashdot, are periodically given five "points" with which to moderate the comments of others. They can use the points to moderate a comment up or down. They can also choose from a set of descriptive words ("insightful," "interesting," "funny," "off-topic," "troll"). Users build "karma" by having their comments rated highly. "Karma" used to be an actual numerical value which was increased for positive moderations and decreased for negative moderations. However, it is now represented only as a qualitative value ("good," "positive," "negative," "excellent"), apparently an effort to reduce the number of users who view slashdot as a "game" you can "win" with more karma ["karma whores," in the slashdot vernacular].

Okay, now let's see how this system works in practice. I've chosen to analyze a portion of a discussion about a news story describing a successful test of a military laser capable of destroying artillery shells in flight. Here's a link to the archived conversation:

Laser Shoots Down Artillery Shell In Flight

The first poster starts off with a relatively interesting question: wouldn't the momentum of the projectile still carry it forward to its target? The first respondent, "kbonin," offers a fairly reasonable response--the laser would cause the explosives within the projectile to detonate, completely destroying it. The next response, by "Anonymous coward" [respondents who post anonymously are automaticaly given this shameful moniker], mentions that s/he has seen a television show explaining that lasers destroy missiles by igniting the fuel that propels them. The fact that this comment was posted just two minutes after kbonin's response probably means that "Anonymous Coward" was in the process of writing his/her own response when kbonin's response was posted.

The conversation really starts to get interesting with ceejayoz's response to Anonymous Coward. "*sigh* Insightful?" is a dig at the moderation of Anonymous Coward's response. Then ceejayoz corrects the factual error in Anonymous Coward's response--we're talking about artillery here, not missiles.

MonadicIQ takes the conversation in another direction with a joke about Captain Kirk. Apparently the moderators weren't as impressed with MonadicIQ's original comment as they were with charlesbakerharris's response: "That's a *phasor*. Lasers are so 2280." But in the end (not the end of the conversation, just the end of the small portion I've arbitrarily selected), the moderators are most impressed with TheSync's observation that missiles kill with shrapnel, which the laser would cause to fall short of the target.

What's interesting about slashdot is that the conversants are aware of the varying levels of expertise of the individual participants, but also that they have enough confidence in the slashdot system that they believe the correct response will eventually be generated. The system works because the participants have implicitly agreed to a set of conventions.

What complicates the scenario for online discussion is that the "discussion" itself is not the same as a normal discussion--rather than two participants, there are thousands, and there is no assurance that anyone is "listening" to anything you "say." Indeed, in the snippet of slashdot discussion I examine here, no one person speaks more than once. What's most striking to me is that even though it's clear that the online discussion is very different from a "real" one, the participants instinctively act as though it is real, and they trust the moderation system to out those who flout the conventions of actual conversation.

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Time in slashdot

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago In the slashdot community, the concept of "time" is unusual. On slashdot's home page, news items appear at a rate of about one per hour. The "news" for the most part, isn't new at all--it consists of links to news stories previously published on other Web sites. Yet because slashdot's community has come to rely on slashdot as a source of news, readers frequently complain when a story is "old" or a "repeat." The notion that slashdot repeats itself is so commonly held that in today's discussion about the new game The Sims Online, an anonymous reader jokingly complains that The Sims can't actually be like slashdot because it can't "simulate repeat stories."

Another reader, dtml-try MyNick, attempts to point out that this story is a duplicate of a previous slashdot article. The moderators aren't buying this one, however--the previous article on slashdot linked to a different outside news source.

Within the comments section on individual articles, time can be an even more confusing concept. As the default, articles are displayed in the threaded mode. In this mode, the oldest comments are displayed first, which makes some intuitive sense from the reader's perspective. Reading from top to bottom, the comments play out like a conversation. The reader gets the sense the ideas are being built and developed. This chrono-logic begins to fall apart when we realize that slashdot has thousands of users, each of which may be replying to the same story simultaneously. Consider the following three comments, each posted to a story about Microsoft's attempt to preserve the brand name "Windows."

1
2
3

Comments 1 and 2 were posted at 12:17 p.m., with comment 3 posted at 12:18. Certainly the authors were writing their comments simultaneously--each had an "original" comment--yet the third commenter (Captain BooBoo) acknowledges that his comment is already "redundant" in a subsequent post!

A further wrinkle is added when comments are displayed as "threaded." Any response to a comment appears directly below the comment. Generally this makes a lot of sense--then we can follow a "thread" of conversation about a particular aspect of a topic. But what it means for the sense of "time" in the overall discussion is important. I could post a comment at 1:00. Someone else can then post a separate comment at 1:15. Then at 1:30 a third person can respond to my original comment. This third comment actually appears second in the list of comments. Of course, experienced users know to look at the time stamp appearing on each comment, but with often dozens of replies to a single comment, breaking down the timing becomes more complex. The "simple" act of reading through a list of responses to an article becomes more difficult, and what seemed like an intuitively sound way to organize comments starts to look more like a labyrinth than a coherent conversation.

Though readers [and moderators] typically are able to keep track of all this fairly reliably, savvier users (such as Captain BooBoo) above acknowledge the difficulty of keeping track of conversation, and offer cues to other readers: important both for saving face--showing that they understand the "rules" of the "game"--and for preserving the illusion that a "real" conversation is taking place.

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Basic description of slashdot

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago It seems a bit silly to be posting this to slashdot, but according to the methods described by Geertz, it's a fundamental step. Geertz's method relies on "thick description"--careful description of even the most seemingly benign aspects of a community.

Slashdot originated as a technology news web site: editors would post links to other interesting technology sites, providing a sort of central clearing house for tech news. The difference was that slashdot allowed its readers to post comments about the story being covered. Eventually thousands of computer nerds began to virtually congregate there to discuss the latest news on technology and science. Often the most popular news stories would accumulate hundreds of comments. For the most part, comments were interesting, informed, and on-topic, but after a while, a few troublemakers began posting deliberatly misleading or off-topic comments.

Being nerds, the slashdot editors developed a very technical way of managing online discussions to separate interesting comments from worthless ones--in technical terms, they described it as separating the signal from the noice. Here's the system they came up with: comments are "moderated" by the site's regular readers. The best comments can be ranked as high as 5, with the worst comments moderated down to -1. Moderaters can also add descriptive words, such as "interesting," "insightful," or the damning "troll," signifying a comment that is obviously only looking to pick a fight. The trick to this community-level moderation is that a given reader only gets a few "moderation points" at a time, and they can only rate a single comment one time. Otherwise, moderaters themselves might abuse the system. There are many more rules to moderation, but this is enough to give you the idea.

The more important point is that moderation allows Slashdot to "shape" knowledge. Highly rated comments carry more authority, and so a reader can use the ratings to sift through hundreds of comments, with the option to choose to view only comments rated at a certain level--say 1 or 2. Does it work? Though there are frequent disagreements, it's generally true that by the time an issue has been thoroughly discussed, the reader comes away feeling that they have a good sense of the "truth," or at least the range of opinions on the issue.

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Ethnographic Analysis of Slashdot

word munger word munger writes  |  more than 11 years ago After 10 years as an editor and writer of college textbooks, I have decided to return to the fray: I'm now back in graduate school, as a master's candidate in rhetoric and composition. In graduate school, you are asked to do bizarre things like "ethnographic analysis." Since it is one of my favorite communities, I have decided to do an ethnographic analysis of Slashdot.

All right, first question. What is an ethnographic analysis? Frankly, at this point, I don't have much more of an idea than you do. However, a quick Google search points to an article which appeared in JAC: an interview with Clifford Geertz, the most famous and vocal of the proponents of enthnographic research.

Here's my 99-cent summary of the method, based on what I gleaned from the interview, as well as what I found in a book I happened to find on my shelf: The Interpretation of Cultures by -- you guessed it -- Clifford Geertz [I don't know where it came from -- I certainly didn't buy it. Maybe it was required for one of my wife's college classes. Oddly, the spine hasn't even been cracked :-) ]. Geertz is critical of earlier anthropologists who claim that a ethnographic researchers should attempt to be completely unbiased, making as minimal of an impact on the community they observe as possible. Geertz argues that this proposition is preposterous. How can a nerdy, milk-white professor-type visit a balinese village and not have an impact on the community? It's impossible for such research to be objective, so rather than throw his arms up in dismay, Geertz chooses to embrace the subjectivity of the method.

Geertz says in the interview that his description of a balinese cock fight is his most famous example of ethnographic analysis. Fortunately for me, this episode happens to be included in The Interpretation of Cultures. I've just read a good chunk of it, and it truly is a fascinating read. Geertz takes pains to point out how the people of the balinese village he visited didn't really accept him until the entire village had been raided by the police for conducting a cock fight. Geertz and his wife were questioned by the police in the presence of some of the village elders, who rose to an eloquent defense of the couple -- despite the fact that everyone in the village had ignored them for weeks before. Clearly their impact on the village had been profound, even before anyone had officially taken notice of them.

The slashdot community is a much more vast and sprawling one than the tiny village Geertz observed. In this sense, I doubt my research will have the same level of impact. But you never know! My plan is to keep my "field notes" in the form of this slashdot journal. That way, any visitor to my journal can easily see what I'm up to and (if they care enough) even comment on each entry. Should be an interesting ride.

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