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April 30, 2006

Visit to Princeton

I was recently asked to join the advisory committee for the Computer Science department at Princeton. The committee meets every 18 months or so, and last week I went out for my first meeting.

We were there for a day and a half. We met with some undergraduates, some graduate students, some junior faculty, and some senior faculty. It was an incredibly impressive group. Princeton has a smaller CS department than the traditional CS powers such as MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, and Berkeley, but the quality of the program is top-notch. The department has a new building (well, new since I went there; I guess it's about 15 years old now) and is growing.

Especially impressive is the collaboration between the department and others at Princeton. There's a genomics institure, a neuroscience institute, and a brand new information technology policy institute, headed up by Edward Felten. Someone had prepared a slide of all the departments or institutes that collaborated with CS and there were about 20. The statement was made that the natural sciences are becoming information sciences, because so much work in biology, chemistry, etc. involves modeling, simulation, and data analysis. Princeton is certainly a leader in this kind of collaboration. As I usually do when I look at the course catalog now, I wish I could go back and take all the classes that weren't available when I was there. One really cool-looking class is the quad-listed CHM/COS/MOL/PHY 231-4, "An integrated, quantitative introduction to the natural sciences," which is set of four courses that introduce physics/chemistry using examples from biological systems and computational labs.

At dinner on Thursday (filet mignon, served at Prospect House, entertainment by the Roaring 20), I was sitting across from both Peter Weinberger (formerly of Bell Labs, now at Google) and Brian Kernighan (who teaches at Princeton), so I had 2/3 of the authors of awk at my table.

Posted by AdamBa at 10:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 25, 2006

Something Mysterious That My Computer Does

Here's something I don't understand. When I run Firefox and click on a mailto link, what happens is:

  1. The Firefox app (all windows) freezes completely for about a minute, while the rest of Windows works fine.
  2. Then it launches between 58 and 63 (from my counts so far) Internet Explorer windows, each with the bogus mailto link as the URL and an error message in the main window.
  3. Firefox then unfreezes, and once I close all the IE windows, the system is fine.

There is something so delightful about this, the way it launches a random number of windows, and such a strange number...it's one of those cases where I can't understand why the code would do that. One window, or an infinite number, I could see, but why such a random (and slightly variable) number? It almost makes the computer seem human. As a result, I have no desire to try to fix it.

Posted by AdamBa at 07:09 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 21, 2006

Microsoft Employees are VIPs at DiscoverU

There's a place in Seattle called DiscoverU. It's a "lifelong learning organization", whatever that means. Basically it's one of those places that offers all sorts of classes for adults. It's like the Learning Annex in New York, the slightly off-kilter adult education place that Lisa Loeb went to on #1 Single. They offer clases all around the Seattle area, including on the Eastside. They're really an instructor-student connection maker and payment taker, so the classes are wherever the instructor offers them.

Normally when you register for a class you pay a $10 registration fee (which is good for 60 days), or you can pay an annual fee of $15, or a VIP membership of $39 which gives you $5 off every class. BUT, I noticed that on the registration page, the button you button to select "VIP Member", also lists "Microsoft Employee". I take this to mean (although my email to confirm it went unanswered) that Microsoft employees get the no fee and $5-off deals all the time.

So hey, I guess we can take advantage of this perk to sign up. They don't seem to be offering "Telepathic Animal Communication" this time, but you can sign up for "Brain Gym" or "The Beast of Revolving Credit" or "Making a Living Without a Job" or "Become a Mystery Shopper" or "Dating People With Children" or "Beginning Ornamental Steel Welding" or "Introduction To Your Life Purpose" (some of these classes sound like Isabella, but in person). If none of those work out, you can always try "Introduction to Blogging". "Become a media star from the comfort of your own home!", it says.

Posted by AdamBa at 09:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 18, 2006

A Former Microsoftie: Kapenda Thomas

I was sitting in a class today where the subject of developers vs. PM vs. test was being discussed. I've written (in Proudly Serving) about how important it is for Microsoft that the test team gain full respect from dev and PM. Unfortunately there is a lot of history there. This is a piece of it.

Back in 1994 I was working as a dev on NT networking. This was in the days when test was just told to deal with whatever dev threw over the wall. In networking we had a huge lab where we ran stress, and we had hired these two contractors to work in the lab. Their jobs were pretty menial ones: they had to wait for a new build to come out, put it on a large number of machines, set up debuggers and network sniffers, start stress tests, and then wait for machines to hang or crash. Since builds came out at all hours of the day and the lab was pretty big, these guys were there a lot.

I remember their names: Bryan LaPorte and Kapenda Thomas. There were lots of contractors working in labs, but I remember those two. First of all, despite the working conditions (which I guess relative to most of the planet weren't that bad), they had chosen to be happy. I didn't think of it in those terms, but that's what it was. They hung out together, listened to music, told jokes, whatever (and being contractors, they got paid pretty well).

But the real thing that impressed me was that Bryan and Kapenda made a serious effort to learn about what they were working on. Whenever something broke in the lab they would call in one of us developers and we would futz around in the debugger or look at the network sniff and eventually decide what the problem was. Most testers would just ignore us while we were doing this work, but Bryan and Kapenda would actually pay attention. Remember this is at a time when they were likely explicitly told that this wasn't their job. They did it anyway, and eventually they picked up enough to do some preliminary analysis on crashes. I mean just basic stuff like doing a stack trace, making sure symbols were right, poking around in memory a bit, etc. but still it was very helpful because it helped route problems to the right developer. They were the only testers (contractors OR full-time) that I ever remember doing this, so I noticed it.

Anyway I was sitting around today and started wondering whatever happened to those guys? So I looked them up. Bryan (assuming it's the same guy) is now working at Microsoft full-time. And Kapenda (I'm pretty sure it's him, since the name is unusual) is now the CEO of a search company in the Seattle suburbs. Pretty impressive, and I knew the guy when he used to rock and roll. There's a moral in here, but it's too obvious to bother.

Posted by AdamBa at 11:49 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 16, 2006

Microsoft's Workplace Advantage

As I mentioned recently, Building 21 at Microsoft is scheduled to be remodeled following Microsoft's new Workplace Advantage plan. The goal of Workplace Advantage is to reconfigure offices to fit the 4 employee types that were identified after studying the workforce: travelers, orchestrators, concentrators, and providers (examples of which, respectively, are sales, program management, dev/test, and IT). The categories differ in how much time they spend in their offices, how much they interact with their peers while there, how many meetings they have, etc. The basic thrust is that private offices and formally scheduled meeting rooms may work for some people, but it doesn't necessarily work for all types.

If you're a Microsoft employee who is curious as to some of the plans, then schedule a tour of the Workplace Advantage showroom is Building 27. The former cafeteria has been remodeled into a mock office area that shows off different spaces: smart room (high-tech meeting room), standing meeting room (no chairs, high table, half the size of a traditional one), short-term parking (half-size office), closed workpoint (roughly 80%-of-full-size office), situation room (several offices and a meeting room in one open space) and a think tank (big open space with couches, displays, etc). Walls are often glass, of a kind that can be used like a whiteboard. Even the walls are covered in "high resolution paint" (no, really) which evidently does a better job of showing a projected image.

There are definitely some interesting ideas there. Desks are on wheels so they can be moved around easily. The standing meeting room, beyond taking less space, evidently encourages more efficient meetings, which is good. In one area they had a "studio", in which a group of closed workpoints were clustered around a wider hallway containing a table and chairs for impromptu meetings. Since the workpoints are smaller then a current office, the overall space used is the same as having only private offices, but instinctively it seems like a better use of the space. The closed-off areas used sliding doors instead of swinging doors, which saves space in every office (we were informed that a swinging door took up 9 square feet and just doing that conversion all over campus would be like getting a new building for free). The kitchen was relabeled the "mixer" and recognized not just as a place to get spiced cider mix, but also a common spot for employees to collide and interact.

It remains to be seen how much of this will become reality. The woman given the tour enthusiastically assured us that Facilities would be at the ready to reconfigure walls and doors at a moment's notice, which is the kind of thing you say when you don't have a budget in front of you (she also talked about how studies had observed how much time people spent walking to get printouts, so there would be more printers available; when someone pointed out that Microsoft had moved all its supplies down to the first floor, she was shocked). Although you get more flexibility at a group level, you lose one nice feature of today's buildings, which is that when groups are moved around within Microsoft, they at least know what they are getting in the new space (the same thing they had in the old space). If you like private offices and standup meeting rooms and you get reshuffled into a building with short-term parking and a think tank, how long will you have to live with it? I can see "My team's workspace doesn't match my personal workstyle" becoming a hot discussion topic on Mini-Microsoft circa 2010.

It's also hard to compare to current offices because the place just looks so dang nice. It's like those before-and-after ads for acne cream, where the model, in addition to having somewhat clearer skin, also has a new haircut, nicer jewelry, professional makeup, and better clothes. Does the standup meeting room look compelling because it is, or because the table and wallpaper cost so much? The early Microsoft buildings had dark wood trim; newer ones have light wood, which is less oppressive; and here we have metal, which looks clean and modern. Plus, the Building 27 cafeteria has nice high ceilings and as the piece de resistance has a giant skylight, which gives the whole area a nice "in the future all buildings will be made of glass that is as strong as steel" sheen.

To me the most impressive part is not the specifics, but the fact that this is happening. Microsoft has long sold the private office as an advantage, and to step back required some serious corporate reconsideration. And even if the company isn't going to redo your workspace every season, it is nonetheless apparent that the company is prepared to spend some serious money here to get this right. There are people who are already complaining (or at least there are rumors about people complaining; the front-line complainants may be imaginary, but let's ignore that and get on with my meta-complaint) about this as some nefarious plot by the company to screw over its employees, which I find appalling; even ignoring how ridiculous it is for our own employees to think we are evil, if you look over the Microsoft competencies/values/skills/etc, they are all about being flexible, trying new things, and being willing to fail. I fail to see how a knee-jerk "I must have a private office" reaction jibes with being an employee here. At least try it, right?

But, of course, the thing is that nobody knows. Nobody knows if flex space is really better. Sure, there are some obvious advantages. At the small company I worked at before Microsoft we were all in cubicles, and it was the tightest-knit development team I've ever been on. If you look at the literature on pair programming, some of it applies to open workspaces also: the ability to quickly get help from others, getting back on task quicker. And the hidden fact that nobody talks about, which is that it's harder to watch porn and have phone sex when you have someone sitting next to you. I don't doubt that within the Panopticon-like confines of an open workspace, I will spend more time working and less time distracting myself. But the work we do has something of an art to it, and it could be that time spent goofing off is actually beneficial in the overall scheme. Or maybe not. Who knows. But hey, I'm willing to give it a shot.

Posted by AdamBa at 02:36 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 11, 2006

My First Wikipedia Edit

When I wrote yesterday's article about ambigrams, I meant to mention xpedx, a company with an ambigram logo. But looking at the Wikipedia entry, I saw that it had a list of such logos. So I decided to edit the Wikipedia entry directly. Ook! It turned out to be a combination of the sacred and the mundane...it's pretty easy to edit stuff (which is the idea of course) but I'm still a bit nervous wondering if someone is going to remove the change an hour from now.

On a related note, as I like to say, on John Langdon's website he mentions that a second edition of Wordplay is now for sale. He describes it as "about 98% of the 1992 edition, plus about 25% new material: many new ambigrams, several new essays, plus a 16 page color insert featuring a number of my word-illusion paintings." Plus some other stuff too. And guess who wrote the Foreword?

Posted by AdamBa at 08:01 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 10, 2006


I noticed that The Da Vinci Code is finally out in paperback, in anticipation of the movie. I haven't read the book; I once started leafing through Angels and Demons in a bookstore but when I hit the part about "The Internet? We invented it!" I gave up. I'm sure The Da Vinci Code has similarly superheated prose, yet I suspect if I could wade past that I would probably enjoy the story.

The plot of Angels and Demons involves "ambigrams", which are drawings of words that have meaning when inverted or rotated (that's a lousy definition of an ambigram; look at the Wikipedia entry for a better one, complete with examples and links). One version of the book cover (see image on the left) has an excellent ambigram of the title. The actual effect of ambigrams in the plot is somewhat ridiculous. "The word FIRE written so it reads the same upside-down? Gak! It must be the work of the Illuminati...or at least a reasonably clever graphic artist!"

The A&D ambigrams were done by John Langdon, whose book Wordplay has some good examples (as a thank you, Dan Brown named the protagonist Langdon; he reappears in The Da Vinci Code). My first introduction to the concept, however, came from Scott Kim's book Inversions, which I like better than Langdon's. Kim is currently working as a graphic designer, including projects for various computer games.

If you want to try some ambigramming at home, you can start with the ambigram generator. This does very simple ambigrams by producing one-to-one letter inversions, a technique that Kim discussed briefly in his book, but which generally is not the best way to do it, except for words that naturally take to it, such as "toy" or perhaps "Stravinsky". "Vista" is also such a word, although I don't think Microsoft has considered an ambigram as the logo. Microsoft is trickier. You could reverse "Mi" into "oft" and then with a bit of work get "cros" to self-invert, particularly if you picked a gothic font where square "o"s looked right. However, a better approach might be to start with the middle o inverting to itself, then invert r to s (not hard) and c to o (also not hard). That leaves inverting Mi to ft which is a bit tricky (since the first has 4 verticals and the second only 2), but you could probably do it by using a font where the bottoms of letter had an exaggerated spur-like serif that went back to the left, which you could attach to the bottom half of the f and the t (since people tend to look at the top half of letters when reading). This same appendage would also make the r to s inversion easier.

Posted by AdamBa at 09:58 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack