August 2003 Archives

comment spam

| 14 Comments | 11 TrackBacks

Got several spam comments from "vig-rx" today on various blogs I maintain. A quick look around the blogosphere indicates that the person or 'bot responsible has been busy-busy-busy today.

Mine all came from the same IP address,, which I've added to the banned list in my blog. If you've gotten some of the same comments spam, but from a different IP address, I'd appreciate knowing where yours came from so I can add it to my banned list.

Update, 1 September, 11:52am
I followed the trackback from Shelleys' blog, and from there found her excellent information on blocking comment spam from a post she wrote last October (only a week after I'd started blogging, which is probably why I didn't see it then). Thanks, Shelley. Much better solution than the IP banning approach.

my worlds

Via Matt Kirschenbaum, this lovely essay entitled "What Does a Professor Do All Day, Anyway?"

It ends with these paragraphs:

What's the common denominator, then, in what professors do all day? Translation. We translate from a field of knowledge to people who want to know about it. In my case, I translate between the people of today and the people from the past of the United States. Other professors translate physics, or business, or languages, or other cultures. We all live in at least two worlds. One of those worlds is a world of ideas, of print and numbers, a world almost limitless and impossible to master, growing every time we turn our backs. The other world is the immediate and human world of classes, committees, office hours, deadlines, budgets, advising. Without being a citizen of both worlds, an active participant in both worlds, we are diminished, our ability to teach diminished. The dichotomy between teaching and research is no dichotomy at all if we understand that a professor journeys back and forth between two worlds, translating among many people. All in all, it's not as embarrassing or boring as you might think, especially when your students see fit to give you an award for doing what you love doing all day anyway.


today's poem


Robert Frost�(1874�1963).��North of Boston.��1915.

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I build a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

tonight's soundtrack


How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that's so cold?
Maybe I'm just too demanding
Maybe I'm just like my father too bold
Maybe you're just like my mother
She's never satisfied
Why do we scream at each other
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry

professorial ethics and boundaries

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Elouise and George have written a bit lately on the issue of students reading professorial blogs, and on professor/student relationships generally.

Like Chuck (who commented on Elouise's post), I find that I'm not entirely comfortable discussing this topic in a forum where I know that students are regular readers and participants. I think, however, that there's real value in a community of colleagues discussing these questions.

So, I thought I might set up a private forum somewhere (where? I don't know. I'd love an alternative to Yahoo! Groups for mailing list or forum capability, but I don't know of a good one off the top of my head) for this discussion. If you're interested, let me know (ell/at/mail/dot/rit/dot/edu), and I'll "include you in."

control freak

| 22 Comments | 7 TrackBacks

When I was in high school, I went to an Al-Anon meeting with a friend. It was my first exposure to a 12-step program. I hated it. The fact that the whole program depended on my admitting that I was powerless over (meaning not in control of) some aspect of my life was a deal-breaker for me. Because I'm all about control. Always have been. (It will come as no surprise to players of Magic: The Gathering that I typically play a Blue/White control deck...)

Since I've been lucky enough not to have needed a 12-step program, the control issues have come back to haunt me in other ways. I was thinking about that this week, writing this post and mulling over whether to post it. The news of mazeone's death helped push me to change the post status from "draft" to "publish."

rest in peace

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From Joi's blog, I learned that a regular on the #joiito IRC channel--Mike Lea, aka mazeone--had committed suicide this weekend.

Joi also linked to Mike's web site. The diary/weblog portion of the site broke my heart.

07/18/03-09:21:54 PM Friday -- touching the rocks and flying i will never be a writer, an artist, a musician, a programmer; i will never be an athlete, a monk, a dancer, a mechanic; i will never learn how to talk to people, meet strangers, make friends; i will never have a happy childhood, another chance to make the connections that i missed, another chance with friends i have lost. i will never be, i will never learn, i will never have.

safari cookie problems


Ever since I switched to my new Powerbook, my blog's cookies don't seem to "stick" in Safari. They're fine in Mozilla, but not Safari.

I haven't changed anything on the pages, so I'm baffled. Yes, I've got Safari set up to allow cookies. But when I list cookies in the security pane, it shows only my login cookie, not my comments cookie. Any ideas?

why i still hate wikis

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I'm not posting this on Many-to-Many, despite the fact that it's really a follow up to my other posts there. I don't want to stir the pot and start a debate right now. I just want to express my extreme frustration with trying to use a wiki, before I explode.

Tonight Dorothea and I started talking about the architecture for the syndication project wiki (pie/echo/atom/whatever). I figured it made all kinds of sense to create wiki pages for our discussion, so I created one for our thoughts on topical organization, and one for our thoughts on audience-focused organization. The file names both included FirstDraft at the end, because I'm accustomed to keeping drafts separate from "production" files.

After I'd edited them a bit, though, I realized that given the nature of the wiki, it made more sense to simply name them with the topics, and let the drafts evolve into the finished products. But it turns out there's no way to rename a wiki page. Once you've picked a name, you're stuck with it. And while the documentation refers to a DeletePage action, I'll be damned if I can figure out how to implement it (and I resent having to do so, anyways, since I don't want to delete it, I want to rename it).

I spent a good hour going through the docs for MoinMoin, which are about as well organized as every other wiki I've ever dealt with. No luck. No way to rename, no help on how to delete. I give up. The pages will probably join hundreds of other orphans on the site. Blech.

It seems to me that wikis are designed for people who don't really care whether their informtion is organized or accessible. People who want to throw stuff out and not worry about what it's called or what its context is. This is so not how I like dealing with content. I think names matter. I think structured information has value. And I think clear, well-organized documentation is essential.

It's easy for me to consider using blogs in a class--I can implement them in a way that I'm relatively sure will cause minimal frustration and confusion for my students. But wikis are another story. I can't see subjecting my students to this level of frustration--with formatting, with renaming, with organizing, with finding information.


our kids have other plans

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We were invited to dinner tonight at a good friend's house, along with the kids. "Sorry," we said. "We can definitely be there, but our kids have other plans." She was amused, since they're 6 and 9 years old, respectively. But it's true. The older one is with his grandmother for the day and overnight, and the younger one is at an all-day birthday party and sleepover. So it's just us old folks, with 24 hours of freedom stretching out in front of us. Wow.

It's an absoutely beautiful day--sunny, temperatures in the 70s, so we're off to Seneca Lake to hit some of our favorite wineries...probably Fox Run, Anthony Road, and Torrey Ridge, today, since they're all on the near side of the lake. (Torrey Ridge is home to our favorite wines for summer grilling, a Baco Noir and a Pinot/Baco blend they call Summit, both aged in toasted oak for a nice smoky flavor that goes wonderfully with barbecue.) Alas, our favorite Asian bistro, Kyo, isn't open for lunch on Saturday. We'll have to go with Plan B, where we eat at the caf� at Fox Run. Sad, isn't it?

Then home again, to shower, change, and head out to the dinner party. Our job is to bring margarita fixings for the eight adults--a perfect assignment for Gerald, who's been perfecting his cocktail-mixing skills this summer and mixes one mean margarita now. (Cointreau rather than Triple Sec, fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juice, and good margarita salt for the glasses. Mmmmm-mmmm.)

recent viruses and lost opportunities


Why, oh why, doesn't Apple take advantage of all the current virus traffic to run ads that point out that Mac users don't get these viruses ??? It seems so obvious.

We were watching NBC news last night, and they were explaining the SOBIG virus and how it works. Not once did they mention that it only affects computers running Windows. (When I remarked about this, Gerald gently reminded me of the MS-NBC relationship. Duh.)

Even on campus, none of the dire warnings about having your computer carefully checked by the tech folks before connecting it to the network mention that Mac and Linux users aren't affected.

What an (unseized) opportunity for Apple to push OS X. How much lost time (which equals money) goes into (a) installing security patches on MS systems and (b) cleaning up the mess that viruses make when they get past the patches? One would think that would factor into purchasing decisions up front.

mt courseware documentation and templates

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Okay, I think I've "gone about as fur as ah c'n go" for this first version of the courseware. I'm ready to call it version 1.0, I guess, with all the caveats that go along with that.

You can see it in action on my fall course site, though I'd respectfully ask that you not post comments related to the courseware itself there--it's a production class site. This post would be a better place to discuss process.

mt courseware project nears completion


Well, of course, completion is a relative term. It will soon be "done enough," I think, for use this fall.

Today's changes:

  • Dropped the "topical archives" for now--I decided they didn't add much, since most materials will be available in the appropriate daily archives.
  • Added a "course outline" item that includes the date and title of each day's topic, and links to the daily archive for that class (much like the calendar, but with the addition of the topic so you can scan for a topic of interest and look at that day's materials).
  • Entered the class topic post and the readings post for the first four class meetings (two weeks' worth of classes), and things seem to be working the way I'd like.

I'm realizing as I do this that I probably shouldn't have used the date format for individual archives, since when I create the entry MT automatically saves it for the current day. I can then edit the date and time, and the entry is then saved in the "right" location...but the original "wrong" file is not deleted automatically. And if I've got trackback pings being sent (to a weblog reading, for example), readers following the trackback will be directed to either the "wrong" file (thus missing up to date comments), or to a 404 (if I've deleted it). I suppose I could leave redirects behind, but that would be a serious pain to do by hand each time. If I'd left the individual archives in their standard non-date-delimited locations, I wouldn't have had this problem. :( (Another solution would be to have MT let me enter the publication date when I first create the entry, but I don't know if that's doable. Is there a plug-in to facilitate that?)

By the weekend I'll post templates and instructions on how to replicate the structure, as well as some caveats on what doesn't work smoothly, and where I had to cut corners because I couldn't wrestle MT into doing what I wanted. (One big one was the fact that I couldn't specify multiple categories for selection in the calendar, and so had to add an extra category to items that needed to be displayed in the sidebar calendar.)

Update, 9pm
Since the site wasn't "in production" yet, I decided not to worry about broken permalinks. So I changed the individual entry archives to non-date-delimited structures. Now they're all stored in the archives directory (archives/file_name.php), rather than in archives/year/mo/day/file_name.php.

Daily and monthly archives are still in the year/mo/day directories, however.

photos from white lake

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tinyfriday.jpgI tried to post my vacation photos in a TypePad photoblog, but got frustrated. I can't figure out how TypePad orders the photos, and I can't find a way to reorder them. So I gave up, and uploaded the files to an Ofoto album instead. The photo to the left is a preview version--it's the view of the lake off the back deck of the house, taken early Friday morning.

I set the album up so it doesn't require you to log in. I don't get charged for bandwidth. And family members can order prints (though I've found they tend to print a little dark, unfortunately...).

The new computer is up and running, and I like it. A lot. More on that tomorrow, when it's hooked up to the 23" cinema display again!

back from detox

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I'm back from my week with my family at White Lake. It was a wonderful trip. While I did bring the computer, and dial-up information, I logged on a total of two times all week, both times for less than an hour.

The first time I went online was Friday morning. We'd heard some strange conversations on our walkie-talkies Thursday about a brownout or power problem, and I thought I'd try to find out what was going on. So I (we) didn't even know about "the great blackout of 2003" until after the worst of it was already over. Up in our little rural corner of the world, the blackout had no effect. (In fact, as I was writing this I had to go onto CNN's site to find out what day the blackout was, because I couldn't remember what day I went online.)

The best part of the trip was that by midweek I'd stopped blogging things in my head. I hadn't realized how much I'd begun to detach from real life, always running meta-commentary in my head to save for later blogging. Letting go of that was very refreshing. It's not that I don't want to blog, it's that I don't want to do it all the time.

I'll try to post photos of the trip later today or tomorrow on a TypePad photoblog. But since my new 17" Powerbook arrived while I was gone, that may get delayed. Priority will be on switching machines, installing new software, and seeing what the online world looks like when you hook a 17" powerbook up to a 23" cinema display. (It's good to be a funded researcher.)

outta here

We're leaving this afternoon for a week at White Lake in the Adirondacks. Big house with a private beach and dock. I may do some occasional dial-up, but I doubt it. Blogging can wait 'til I return.

The vacation is well-timed...I'm in a bit of a funk, and could use some time away with my family, away from computers and offices and stresses of all kinds.

See you all next week.

the day the blogging died

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Blogistan Pie. A wonderful rewriting of "American Pie," by xian (Christian Crumlish) at Radio Free Blogistan.

An excerpt:

And they were singing Bye bye wiki necho or pie
Took my standard to a body
But the body had died And the good ol' boys
Drinking kool-aid and lies
Singing this is the day blogging died.

rules? i don't need no stinkin' rules!

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Everywhere you look these days, bloggers are writing policies and rulebooks. For themselves, for others, for everyone. With calls for accountability, integrity, consistency, appropriateness, and ethical behavior, it seems that every blogger I know is publishing their own set of guidelines for blogging.

Feh. A pox on all their rules, that's what I say.

How many of us have published rules to govern how we talk to our friends? I'd be horrified if a friend had to consult his or her published personal policy statement before saying something to me (or correcting a misstatement, for that matter).

In his wonderful essay "A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy," Clay Shirky talks about persistent patterns in online groups:

In the political realm, we would call these kinds of crises a constitutional crisis. It's what happens when the tension between the individual and the group, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, gets so serious that something has to be done. And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it's not just "We need to have some rules." It's also "We need to have some rules for making some rules." And this is what we see over and over again in large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.

I buy Clay's argument. Except for one thing--I'm not sure I think of (or want to think of) webloggers as a "group," any more than I want to think of "writers" or "poets" or "programmers" as a group. My weblog is simply a tool that allows me to publish thoughts, questions, and ideas online. It's not an application for citizenship in "Blogaria" or "Blogistan" or any of the other geographic metaphors people use to describe the diverse collection of self-published websites that blogs have enabled.

I don't want a rulebook. I have my own sense of right and wrong in my head, and I use it to guide my writing. I pulled a post--once. It was something I wrote about my personal life, and though it was oblique in its references, it hurt someone I care very much about. Leaving it online would have compounded that hurt by extending the number of people who read it. So I pulled it a few hours after it went online. Expunged it from my archives entirely. Asked the one person who'd linked to it to remove the link. It never made it into any republished versions of my RSS feed, so for all intents and purposes it's been "disappeared."

Was that unethical? According to most of "ethical blogging guidelines" I've seen out there, it would be considered as such. But I know I did the right thing, and that's really all that matters to me. I'm rather glad I hadn't written public rules for myself that would have caused me to rethink or regret (or worse, not take) that action.

David Weinberger has written about the concept of "leeway," and it's that concept that I see missing from most of what I see. He also spoke at Supernova this year about the problem with making social relationships explicit. He said "When I make trust explicit, I kill trust." (When was the last time you said to someone "I trust you explicitly"?)

Jonathon Delacour writes that "I've never set out to 'deceive' anyone, though in retrospect it would have been infinitely better to have made it explicit much earlier that my interests (and my writing) were shifting from writing conventional weblog entries to telling stories. I regret that I didn't. Take this, then, as a belated announcement."

I rather wish he hadn't done that. The explicitness of his "ethical guidelines" and his announced direction for his writing somehow diminish for me the experience of reading his blog. That makes me sad.

I don't know whether the current flurry of calls for accountability will snowball, or simply die away. I hope for the latter, but I'm braced for the former. Don't be looking for any published guidelines here, though. You'll have to trust me implicitly, or not trust me at all.

(For more reading on this topic, I suggest taking a look at what Jonathon Delacour, Jill Walker, Mark Pilgrim, Chuck Tryon, Shelley Powers, and Dave Winer have to say on the topic. I know I've missed some--feel free to add your own "ethical guidelines" or "personal posting policy" link to the comments here.)

css frustration

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I'm working on the design for my MT-driven class website for this fall, and I'm running into a problem with displaying it in Safari. Not sure if it's a Safari bug, or a problem with my CSS, but it's driving me nuts. (Seems to work in Mac IE5 and Mac Mozilla...haven't tested it on a PC yet.)

The problem is that I have a tiled background image, which I want to have appear behind the sidebar and title bar. So I set the background-image property for the body to use that image. Then I set the background-color for the main blog content to be white.

The problem in Safari appears when the blog content takes up less space on the page than the sidebar. At the point where the blog content ends, the white background spills over to the left, into the sidebar--for no apparent good reason that I can see. I've tried tweaking z-indexes (z-indices?) and height properties for both blog and sidebar, to no avail.

So, is this a Safari thing? Or am I missing something that I could do in my code to make this work properly? Wise counsel from those learned in CSS lore would be greatly appreciated.

wikis and information architecture


I participated today in an IRC chat on "wiki gardening" for the Atom/Pie/Echo syndication format project wiki. There are over 700 pages on the wiki, which makes it pretty darn big by anyone's standards. Of those, more than 80 are "orphaned" pages (pages that no other pages point to).

The topic of the chat when I joined was "organization of the wiki," and it became painfully clear that most of the people generating and organizing content on the site had little or no background in information architecture. (I was particularly amused when someone asked what the difference was between the FrontPage and SiteNavigation items on the main navigation bar of the wiki, and I realized that despite the link, the SiteNavigation page didn't even exist.)

It got me thinking about Christina Wodtke's book Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. In her introduction, Christina has a section entitled "Why Bother?"--and I'm going to quote directly from it, because the example she provides is so perfectly suited to this situation. (I've done a minor edit in the third paragraph, however.)

In 1844, Sara Winchester, convinced that the ghosts of all the people who had been killed by the Winchester rifle would come after her for revenge, asked a psychic for advice. The psychic told her the way to keep the ghosts at bay was to build a house--that the sound of hammers must never stop. For 38 years, Sarah kept a team of workers building on to her house. She never made blueprints, although occasionally she would sketch out what she wanted on a random piece of paper or a tablecloth. The resulting house is a rambling four acres of stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that open to brick walls, and windows in the floor: The Winchester Mystery House.

Flash forward to 1998. A CEO has heard about this Internet thing. Convinced his company will fail if he doesn't deal with it, he asks a consultant for advice. The consultant tells him that to keep his company afloat, he must build a web site. For all these years, until now, teams of people have been working on this site without a blueprint. Occasionally they have plans for one area or another drawn on a cocktail napkin by the east coast sales team and faxed to the design team on the west coast.

Now the web site is huge, with thousands of pages with links that lead nowhere, marketing speak that says nothing, and outdated facts: The Winchester Mystery Site a giant wiki!

Okay, okay. She didn't say wiki. But what a great parallel. Teams of people working on the site without a blueprint. Occasional partial plans generated by a subset of people in chats or meetings. Hundreds of pages, links that lead nowhere, and outdated/orphaned content.

Wikis, as Clay Shirky has said, remove personality from the process. But by placing the emphasis entirely on "bottom-up," emergent content, they also remove organization and structure from the process. The resulting "mystery site" becomes frustrating for users who aren't already intimately familiar with every nook and cranny.

I'm not a web services developer (and I don't want to be one when I grow up, either). But I am an information architect, and an interested observer of this process. And in general, I don't like to complain publicly about something that I'm not willing to help fix. So I'm going to take a stab at creating some navigation pages for the project wiki, focused on the kinds of users that the wiki currently has, as well as those it's intended to serve. That means not just experienced developers, but also interested laypeople. And probably some categories in between.

Because it's a wiki, it's by nature a collaborative space, and you can play, too. Once I've got some first cuts at organizational structure done, I'll put them on the SiteNavigation page of the wiki. And by then there may well be a documentation-focused blog to support the effort (work is underway to make that happen), where comments and suggestions for revisions will be welcome.

I leave on a family vacation this Monday, with limited or no Internet connectivity while I'm there, so I don't know how quickly this will happen. But I will try to get something up before I leave.

jonathon's back!


When I started blogging last fall, one of the early additions to my blogroll was Jonathon Delacour. His writing was powerful and evocative, and it somehow resonated with me. I was saddened when he decided to take a break from weblogging, but encouraged that he left the door open for a later return. And now he has.

He's returned with a really thought-provoking post on weblog ethics, which will probably push me into a response later this week--or perhaps after I return from next week's offline vacation.

So, Jonathon, the answer to your public question is "yes!" (As is the answer to the private question you posed to me regarding extroverts.) Welcome back, my friend.

what a friend we have in jesus

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In today's email:

From: Tribe <>
Date: Wed Aug 6, 2003 2:07:19 PM Canada/Eastern
To: Elizabeth Lawley <liz [at]>
Subject: New Invitation from Jesus Christ

Jesus would like to add you to their personal friend network at Please use the following URL to log on to and approve or reject this request:

mt courseware update

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I'm chugging along on the MT as courseware project. It's forcing me to brush off my rusty SQL skills, learn more about MT plugins, and really think about organization of information. All good things.

I struggled for a while with the calendars, because I wanted them to link not to a specific entry (which is the default in the provided templates), but rather to a daily archive. That way all important entries for a given day--due dates, class topics/readings, in-class exercises--would be displayed together on that date. I finally found the solution on Sillybean's blog, in a post entitled "Various tricks with archive calendars" (caution to Safari users; I have to reload the pages on that blog several times in Safari to get the right style sheet. not sure why).

My next problem with the calendar was that there's no way to limit a calendar to a group of categories--you can have it find entries in one category, or in all categories, but that's it. I wanted the calendar dates to be linked to an archive if anything in the due dates, class topics, class readings, or in-class assignments showed up on that day. The solution I ended up with here was to create an "extra" category of "calendar," and assign that as a secondary category to anything that fell into the above categories. Kind of a kudge, but it works.

The main page of the course site is now showing only current entries with categories of "news," "due dates," "in-class exercises," or "discussion questions"--the things I want students to see first when they go to the site. This was accomplished using Brad Choate's MTSQL plug-in, and this SQL query:

SELECT DISTINCT entry_id FROM mt_placement right join mt_entry ON mt_placement.placement_entry_id = mt_entry.entry_id WHERE entry_created_on <= NOW() AND TO_DAYS(NOW()) - TO_DAYS(entry_created_on) <= 10 AND entry_blog_id = 9 AND (placement_category_id = 64 OR placement_category_id = 65 OR placement_category_id = 61 OR placement_category_id = 50) ORDER BY entry_created_on DESC

What this does is look for all entries from this course blog that have been assigned any of those categories (the blog ID and category IDs would vary based on your implementation, of course), limiting it to entries published in the past ten days, excluding post-dated entries. Duplicate entries (for example, something that somehow shows up in both "news" and "discussion questions") are removed with the DISTINCT modifier. Don't ask how long it took me to write that, or how much time I didn't spend with my family while I puzzled it out.

Update, 8/5
An alternative to the SQL approach would be to use PHP to hide post-dated entries. This approach is described by Sillybean in the Using Movable Type as an events calendar entry. Basically, you would use an MTEntries tag to limit to the desired categories, then use PHP to hide an entry based on some date calculations. MT would be generating a big page each time, but most of it would be stripped out by the PHP code.

I've also created a syllabus category, and a separate syllabus page. That template lists items in ascending rather than descending order, and strips out all of the date and related posting information.

I've not yet worked on the individual entry pages, but I plan on using the same basic template as I've got on the main and syllabus pages. I may use an include for the sidebar material. The advantages of an include would be not having to modify three different index templates when I change it, and less load on MT in terms of generating index pages with complex calendars. The disadvantage is that pages will load more slowly (as they do with this blog, which uses includes for the banner and sidebar). May try some usability testing this summer to see how much the lag time in loading with includes bothers my target audience.

I'm having to give a lot of thought to the categories to use. Right now I have topical categories for each of the main areas we cover in the class, as well as structural catgories (like syllabus, due dates, in-class exercises, etc). Once I've settled on categories, I'll build some hand-coded archive menus to allow students to see all the posts on a specific topic. (If I have the archive menus auto-generated, it will mix the topical and structural categories, which would be confusing.) The topical archives will point to archive pages that have a standard date/title heading format with comments and trackbacks enabled. The structural pages, like the syllabus, will vary in their layout and presentation based on the content being presented (some will be ascending date order, some descending, some with comments and trackbacks, some without, etc).

This won't be a "plug and play" solution when it's done--anyone who wants to use it will have to a) add in their own categories, b) figure out the id #s for blog and categories for the sql query on the main page, and c) install the MTSQL plug-in as well as d) changing content, look and feel, etc for their course. But I will provide all of my templates when I'm done, which should save you a good bit of the work.


duplicate pings from radio weblogs

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Apparently Radio is now offering trackback tools for its weblogs. I know this because I've gotten pinged by several of them today. This would be a Good Thing, but for one problem--most of them have been duplicate pings. Some pinged me twice, some pinged me as many as four times. Ick.

I've manually deleted a bunch of the extra pings from the entries, so that they don't clutter up my pages. But if anyone from Radio is reading this (like Jake Savin, maybe), I'd be grateful if they'd look into what it is about either the infrastructure or the interface that's causing this problem. :(

For troubleshooting purposes, this URL pinged one of my entries 4 times:

This one pinged me twice each on two different posts:

are women really less interested in computers?

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In Chapter 5 of Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher take on the idea that women simply don't find computing as interesting as men do.

Back in January, I quoted a New York Times article on women and computing. In it, a female math teacher draws a parallel between this common assertion and the conventional wisdom surrounding women and math back when I was a kid:

''When I started in 1972,'' she said, ''there were three girls in calculus out of a senior class of about 50. Now there are three sections of Advanced Placement calculus, in a class about the same size -- in other words, about 75 percent of the senior class. This would not have happened if we had bought into the reigning mantra of the time, which was, 'Boys are naturally interested in mathematics; let them do it. Girls are more talented in literature and history; why ask them to change?'

Margolis and Fisher echo my story about my high school math experience, saying:

Many once-enthusiastic female students find themselves in a descending spiral of eroding interest through the corrosive effects of lack of confidence, negative comparisons to peers, poor pedagogy, and biased environments.

Research has already shown that prior experience in programming is not a good predictor of success in a college CS program. However, the feeling that many women have of "being behind" because they don't seem to know as much as their male colleagues, is in and of itself a major factor in their erosion of confidence. Women's loss of self-confidence in scientific and technical fields has been documented by researchers in a number of academic disciplines. And because women's confidence in their technical abilities may already be weak, they are far more at risk in classrooms with poor pedagogical practice.

Some things really jump out at me here in terms of small things that we as faculty can do differently to change the climate for the women in our classes. At the very least, those of us teaching in intro classes should tell the students that prior experience is not necessarily a predictor of success in class. They need to hear that from us to believe it. (And it's certainly true in my classes--quite often the students who come in believing they know everything about making web sites are writing embarassingly bad code and implementing pages with no sense of basic design concepts. Those who come in tabula rasa are in much better shape by the end of the quarter, because they have no bad habits to unlearn.)

Margolis & Fisher note the importance of relationship-building between faculty and students. This is always a challenge in our department, where intro classes have 35 or more students, and the 11-week quarter system leaves faculty with barely enough time to learn their students' names, let along develop lasting relationships with them that make them feel valued. Nonetheless, it's the building of those relationships that makes teaching a rewarding profession, and it's something we all need to do on some level to stay sane.

Our freshman seminar classes are one place where students can form a bond with faculty members. Unfortunately, many sections of freshman seminar in our department are taught by professional staff. While these are student support staff members, who do a fabulous job in the class and who are wonderful resources for the students, it is still a lost opportunity for freshman to develop a mentoring relationship with a faculty member.

The clear message in this chapter is that the burden is on the institution to find a way to bolster and reinforce the confidence--and through that, the interest and commitment--of female students. Later in the book they detail specifics on how those kinds of changes can be implemented.

(This is one in a series of entries from mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the "unlocking the clubhouse" category page.)

new competition for our grads


primates.gifVia Pete Bevin, I found Primate Programming, Inc., which "is dedicated to the advancement and gainful employment of non-human great apes within the United States information technology sector."

According to a recent press release, "experiments last month with baboons have proved that higher primates can perform software testing, traverse complex menus, and code simple XML schemas. The finding have implications for the entire software industry, with some scientists predicting routine programming such as maintenance and report writing will be performed by teams of primates within 10 years."

I particularly liked this passage:

McAuliffe discovered the subject baboon behavior did not include the sharing of source code. In fact, many subjects were territorial, in some cases blocking the progress of other animals, with aggressive and subtle passive-aggressive behaviors. Males who could manipulate the laptop keyboard and traverse complex, multi-way menus gained an immediate increase in social status within the group. This led to some social friction, as more knowledgeable males enjoyed higher social status at the expense of then-alpha, more physical males. None of the baboons, regardless of rank, could perform an error-free compile or handle Windows registry tasks.

hey! you! get out of my wine!

Wish I didn't need this article right now. Stupid bananas.

we have met the enemy and he is us


(That's one of my favorite Pogo quotes of all time. So glad I've found a way to use it as a post title.)

Sam Ruby points to a wonderful post by Phil Ringnalda entitled "There is No They."

What Phil describes--the "small town" feel of weblogging where change is effected by "us" rather than "them"--is a big part of why I like using weblogs in classes. I'm often asked by colleagues why I don't just use the conferencing tools already available to me--the Prometheus-based courseware, the FirstClass conferencing system, etc. The reason is that when I use weblogs in a class, we become a part of the big small town that is the technical weblogging world. The example I like to use is how Shelley Powers, author of the new O'Reilly book Practical RDF, stopped by our XML class weblog to comment on students' posts when we talked about RDF and metadata.

When you know that the author of the book you're discussing may be reading your posts, and may stop by to debate with you, it has a significant impact on the tone and content of the discussion--and that influence is primarily positive.

(As I was writing this post, Anil Dash [of Six Apart] commented on my last post about TypePad. An excellent example of exactly what I'm talking about! Knowing that Anil and others in the technical development community read this blog keeps me honest in my comments and criticisms, because I know I'll be called on it if I'm out of line!)

proud mama


It really is back-to-school season. I've spent the weekend working on course materials, and my older son just cleaned out his backpack. ("Mom! Look! The missing SandwichKeeper!") I told him to toss any papers that he didn't want to save, and he pulled out one and nonchalantly said "I don't really care about this, but you might want it."

It's just a short "research report" on the rainforest, typed on the computer and then printed out. But I have to say, it's pretty sophisticated writing for an 8-year-old. (He's 9 now.)

We need to save the rainforest for many reasons. One is that there will be less runoff. The trees will hold the soil so the rain does not wash away.

Another reason is that we will lose oxygen. The trees will take in less carbon dioxide, and they will breathe out less oxygen.

Another reason we should save the rainforest is that there will be more droughts if we do not. The humidity will stop and the dry wastelands will contribute to the global warming so there will be more droughts.

The final reason that we should save the rainforest is that we will not find all the new species. There may even be a plant that can cure cancer, but it will probably be destroyed before we discover it.

This is why we should save the rainforest.

I read it, then say to him "Wow. This is really good. Where'd you find all this stuff out?" "We did research." "So, did you mostly just copy the stuff you found?" "No. That would be cheating. I did the research, then wrote it in my own words."

I just wish that more of my 18-year-old freshman students at RIT (a) wrote this clearly, and (b) had such a clear grasp of academic ethics.

integrating blogrolling


I'm a big fan of Jason DeFillippo's Blogrolling service--a paying member since way back in November of '02, in fact.

It's an excellent service, and one that's useful to both neophyte and experienced bloggers. So I have to agree with him that pings to the service really ought to be integrated into the MT (and TypePad) engine. Sure, MT users can add the blogrolling RPC address into their MT configuration manually (Weblog Config-->Preferences-->Publicity, add to the "Others" box.). But that assumes that they know to do it--which most will not.

On a related note, one sour note in MT's new TypePad is that I can't find any way to integrate my blogrolls (yes, I have big advantage of being a paying member is that I can maintain separate topical blogrolls--not just the ones that appear on the sidebar here, but also short-term blogrolls for classes). The TypeList feature is nifty, but I've already built my lists of people, and I want to be able to update them in one central location. As a Pro user, I can add the code to my templates, but I'd really like to see it incorporated into the interface directly.

mt as courseware

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One of the most active entries I've posted this year was my wish for a good open-source courseware package. I ended up looking at a few of the suggestions, but to get what I wanted, all would have required too steep a learning curve and customization process.

So, today I decided to see if I could leverage my existing knowledge of MovableType to generate something that met my basic needs for courseware. I plan on keeping the grades in our Prometheus-based courseware (saves me the hassle of dealing with password-protected stuff, and importing class lists), but putting everything else into a customized course blog. That allows me to make the course content easily accessible to students, colleagues, and other interested parties--and to allow comments and ideas from people outside of the class to become part of the

The beginnings of the course site can be found at I've done nothing yet with aesthetics, obviously, because I wanted to first think through functionality.

I put in a fake due date for a paper, and post-dated it to September 25th. Unfortunately, that pushed the post-dated entry to the first page, which I didn't want.

I could have limited the categories on the first page, but MT doesn't support category exclusion. I thought about installing the ExcludeCategories plug-in, but decided that was too limiting in terms of functionality.

Instead, I installed Brad Choate's MTSQL plug-in, which is far more flexible in what it will allow me to do. I then replaced the <MTEntries> with a SQL-based tag to select only entries published today or within the past 15 days. There's probably a much more elegant way to do it than what I came up with, but it works:

<MTSQLEntries query="select entry_id from mt_entry where entry_created_on <= NOW() AND TO_DAYS(NOW()) - TO_DAYS(entry_created_on) <= 10 AND entry_blog_id = 9">

That fixed the problem of post-dated entries showing up "before their time."

Next, I added a bunch of categories, falling into two groups. The first group was structural categories--like "due dates," "assignments," and "readings." The second group was topical categories--like "HTML," "Unix," and "History."

Then I tweaked the calendar, so that all three months of the quarter would be displayed in calendar form, and only "due dates" would appear. (Though I'll probably change that to include a new category of "class topics" as well.) That allows students to click on a highlighted date to see what's due that day.

The main page will show all current entries, probably with the exception of due dates. It will include news, suggestions, discussion topics, resources, etc. Then there will be two category menus--one for each of the two sets of categories. Students can either see everything posted related to a topic (like HTML), or everything of a particular type (like assignments).

I'll start with comments turned for all entries by default, so that students can ask questions about specific posts. I'll also set MT up to email me with new comments, so that I know when there are questions.

typepad goes live!


For the past several weeks, I've been participating in the beta test of the new Movable Type-based hosted blogging service, TypePad. The service will be going live on Monday, and it's now fair game to blog about it. So here's my take.

I love MT (it's what powers this blog), and its range of features. But there's no question that it takes a fairly high level of technical sophistication to install and configure it. When people who want to start a blog ask me how to go about it, I end up either installing MT for them, or (reluctantly) pointing them to Blogger's Blogspot hosting service. (It's not that Blogger isn't a good tool. It's just that MT is...well...better. It has integrated comments, trackback functionality, customizable archives, and other things that just make it work in a way that's more elegant and functional.)

TypePad takes the power and flexibility of the MT engine, and puts it into a user-friendly hosted service. At the basic level, it is truly point-and-click. No writing HTML, no tweaking CSS templates. Drag-and-drop layouts, menu-based component addition, and automated content generation take much of the stress out of blog setup and maintenance.

Beyond that, TypePad adds a lot of nifty features that aren't available (yet, at least) in MT. One of those is an excellent photo blogging tool. It alone is worth signing up for, I think. Easier to use and configure than the iPhoto/.mac combination I used to use. As easy as Ofoto. (Hmmm. Would be even more perfect if Six Apart cut a deal with Kodak to provide prints from TypePad photoblogs...)

The big problem with hosted services, of course, is the dependence on that service for your URL. If you decide to switch from Blogspot to TypePad, for example, you can't keep your address. The idea that you should keep content you value on a domain that you control has recently been termed Robb's Law, based on John Robb's experience moving his blog from a hosted service. That's why this blog now lives at, rather than, too.

TypePad, however, will be offering domain mapping on Plus and Pro accounts, which means you'll be able to have your own domain point to your TypePad site. That's a big, big deal. And it means I can recommend TypePad to new bloggers with a clear conscience.

The only downside of TypePad vs Blogspot, so far as I can tell, is that Blogspot offers a free option (which includes banner ads), while TypePad's basic service starts at $4.95/month. A small price to pay, I think, for an ad-free, feature-rich service...but there will still be people drawn to Blogspot for free service. On the other hand, TypePad is wisely offering a 30-day free trial option for new users, which means it's easy to try it first and see if you like it enough to pay.

I'll be signing up for a TypePad site, even though I still plan to run mamamusings here on a full MT engine on its own server. I'll probably move to TypePad once domain forwarding is enabled, and use it to set up blogs for family members.

Meanwhile, if you count yourself among my friends, I might be able to help cut you a good deal on a brand-new TypePad account of your very own. Drop me an email (not a comment here, please) if you're interested.

when you assume...


Discovered Breaching the Web via my Technorati Cosmos (which, alas, has shrunk considerably due to the domain change).

Can't find a name for the blog's author, but I quite liked the post entitled "Don't Assume I'm Like You," which I will quote extensively here:

Don't assume that because I'm successful, my parents never divorced. Don't assume that because I'm progressive, I'm also vegetarian. Don't assume that because I'm a professional, I don't like homemaking. Don't assume that because I dress conservatively, I disapprove of clothing you think is "skanky." Don't assume that because I'm married, I like children. Don't assume that because I have a Ph.D., I look down on people who didn't finish high school. Don't assume that because I criticize a country, I don't love it. Don't assume that because I look a certain way, everyone in my family looks that way. Don't assume that because I work with you, I like you. Don't assume that because I'm straight, I don't know (and love) any gay/bi/trans people. Don't assume that because I'm quiet, I have nothing to say. Don't assume that because I go to your church, I agree with your politics. Don't assume that because I'm a feminist, I look down on housewives. Don't assume that because I knit, I want to make something for you. Don't assume that because I'm cute, I'm not strong. Don't assume that because I act unashamed of something, you can comment on it. Don't assume that because I'm related to you, I agree with you. Don't assume that because I'm smiling, I'm not angry. Don't assume that because something is in a predicate in this paragrah, it's true. And most importantly, don't assume that if I look like you, I am like you.


Sounds like it's probably a woman. And probably a woman I'd like to have as a friend! (Though, of course, that means I'm making assumptions!)

does IT share CS mythology?

In the fourth chapter of Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher spend a good bit of time describing the CMU environment, and discussing the mythology surrounding the computer geek persona. They discuss popular culture portrayals of technogeeks, as well as internal institutional imagery.

One of the reasons Tona and I felt it made sense to do our study is that at RIT, the distinction between IT and CS (as well as SE) creates a different type of environment. At least from the faculty point of view, IT and its students vary significantly from the standard geek persona. The "persistent image of the the computer science student" that the book describes is something that IT has tried to distance itself from.

Our biggest question, really, is whether IT has done that successfully. Do the students perceive IT as qualitatively different from CS? Or do the same images persist in their understanding of the field? This is important. At CMU, they found that:

while the stereotype of the computer science student as someone who is myopically focused on computing is rejected by many male and female students, women report more distress and are more affected by the perceived diference between themselves and their peers. [...]
The rub for women in computer science is that the dominant computer science culture does not venerate balance or multiple interests. Instead, the singular and obsessive interest in computing that is common among men is assumed to be the road to success in computing. This model shapes the assumptions of who will succeed and who "belongs" in the discipline.

It's also worth thinking about this from the end of the chapter:

It is important to note that it is not only women who resist a myopic focus on computers. Some men resist a narrow orientation but do not question their ability to become computer scientists because their gender has not rendered them suspect. The social history and culture of computing, based on the activities and culture of boys and men who have made computing the central focus of their lives, contribute to boys' sense of belonging and girls' sense of "outsidership" in computer science. The model of a successful computer science student is viewed through a male prism. This perspective bolsters men's confidence and sense of belonging. The same culture expects little success from women. Women's interest in and attachment to computing are considered outside the norm, and their abilities are never taken for granted. This places women students, especially those who resist becoming myopically focused, at high risk in the discipline.

Given all this, and the fact that there are very few women in our entering class, I'm thinking about expanding the first year of the study to include the handful of women entering CS at RIT this year. It would be interesting to see how much the "geek mythology" perceptions differ (if at all) between students in the two disciplines, and how they perceive each other.

(This is one in a series of entries from <a href="<$MTBlogURL$>">mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the "unlocking the clubhouse" category page.)

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