NCUR 2009 Day 1 morning

NCUR 2009 kicked off today and I’ve already had a good time. I didn’t get up early enough to be at the start of things, but I did wake up in time to go get breakfast. After some banana bread and coffee I headed to the hall where all the posters were on display. My main intention there was to give my friend some support. His poster was on building solar power into small vehicles like golf carts and he tells me he got a fair amount on attention. I looked around the rest, but I didn’t really find anything that was of particular interest to me. However I did spend some time talking to a girl who had done work on exploring the possible application of Hamiltonians Systems that obeyed conservation laws and had symmetry. Her preliminary research was interesting but what I thought was more interesting was that she planned on applying her ideas to design of airplanes and jet engines and I hope that her work yields some interesting new technologies.

The main attraction of the day was paleontologist Jack Horner who might just be the most famous dinosaur hunter in the world. His talk was really interesting and he talked about everything from how he got interested in dinosaurs and never really got a formal college education. He also talked about dinosaurs in general, Jurassic Park and new genetic technologies that are being used to explore the relationship between dinosaurs and birds. What I really liked is that he stressed that scientists should communicate their work and make it accessible to the general public. I very much believe in this and I try to do this in my own small way by writing this blog. There was a QA session at the end of it, which also brought up some interesting points, including T-rex vs spinosaurus, dino-chickens, velociraptor intelligence and a very short detour into creationism (to which Horner’s answer was “I’m glad my God doesn’t trick me”).  I hope this was being recorded and gets put on YouTube soon. 

I just finished lunch and I’m currently waiting for the robotics session to get started. I’ll have another update later.

National Conference on Undergraduate Research 2009

My posting rate has been rather down lately because I’ve been working on a presentation and paper for the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. It’s taking place in La Crosse, Wisconsin and so at this moment I’m sitting in a hotel on the outskirts of the city, writing this post on free wi-fi. There are some interesting presentations coming up in the next  few days on a number of computer science and Electrical Engineering topics. My own presentation is on my recent research which has been on applying formal grammars and Lindenmayer systems to the study and creation of artistic patterns. My presentation has been put in the same group as presentations to do with programming languages which I’m looking forward to attending. 

The real conference starts from tomorrow (Thursday). I’ll have my laptop with me so I might try my hand at some live blogging. More likely though, I’ll be writing a wrapup every night. For tomorrow there are some interesting robotics presentations which I might my way to if I can get up in time. After that I plan on attending presentations on networks and parallelization. There are two more sessions after that and I’m undecided between attending some more presentations or looking at some posters. I’ll probably end up choosing the latter just so that I have the chance to walk about. Right now I think I’m going to call it a night so that I can stay up for a full day tomorrow.

Is WordPress professional enough?

My college has recently started rolling out WordPress MU to students in a small scale experiments. From what I hear, it seems like IT expects WordPress to gradually replace the existing static web pages that most college groups now have (most of which are never updated I might add). I think it’s an interesting idea and I’m all for it. I hope this will make it much easier for college groups and students to maintain a stable web presence.

But there is a particular little question that I’m currently trying to answer. The foreign languages center has a program for students to make ePortfolios: basically small websites where students can show off all the language experience they’ve gathered over their years here. It’s a good idea with a decent amount of support from the faculty, but the uptake has been rather slow. Till now we’ve been using a standard Dreamweaver template where students just fill in the blanks with their own text, images and video. However this approach doesn’t seem to have gelled well with the students. There are a number of different reasons. Despite how easy Dreamweaver makes a lot of things, there is still a considerable learning curve. People who aren’t naturally inclined to such things need a reason to learn and use them and I don’t think making an ePortfolio is a strong enough motivation. Also students actually need to have Dreamweaver in order to do something, which means they need to go use a library computer. I’ve made some templates for the portfolio but due to the slow update, we haven’t really been able to get students past the basic one. I’ll eventually put the templates up for download once I clean them up a bit.

At this point in our story enters a brash young outsider: WordPress. In a static scenario like the college ePortfolio, WordPress is a total game-changer. It makes things a lot easier for people who are not used to making their own sites. It’s a great tool for anyone who wants to quickly put their information out on the web. I run this site on WordPress with a custom template and widgets. However, if you want to set up a professional web site which will mostly stand as evidence of you work and not a rapidly changing blog, I’m not sure if WordPress is the way to go.

My college is rolling out the Multi-User version of WordPress to students, which makes perfect sense for a college setup. But for the end user, MU does have some serious constraints. Most importantly you can’t install your own plugins or themes and so if you want something that the native installation doesn’t provide, it may not be very easy to get it. This in turn leads to the problem of sameness. Because you have only a small number of themes and other options to choose from, your site is bound to look very similar to someone else’s. I personally think this is a big problem if you seriously want your site to be a reflection of yourself on the web. This was the main reason I decided to take the plunge and move to paid hosting.

For most students this doesn’t matter. Their blog is mostly something personal and so it doesn’t really matter much if it stands out visually. An ePortfolio is different however. By definition, it’s meant to be be professional and needs to stand out. It’s meant to be something that you can send to potential employers and will reflect favorably on you as a professional. I think is very hard to do with a stock WordPress MU blog. Even if you stick to a clear format with well thought-out pages (which is how we’re trying to proceed), you are still completely at the mercy of the original design which might not be anywhere near what you want. What’s worse is that you might start trying to bend your content to fit the design. This might work out for good designs, but if you do it too much you’ll completely loose your own style. Loosing your personal style when putting together something that you want a lot of people to see is self-defeating.

The current Dreamweaver is very reminiscent of old-school web design with lots of tables and fixed-width elements, both of which are falling out of favor with current generation of web design. WordPress has some very good modern themes, and anyone moving to WordPress needs to utilize this instead of trying to pull their old designs along with them. The definition of what is professionally acceptable changes every so often and at this point in time, fluidity and flexibility are definitely the way to go.

For myself, a considerable amount of effort went into selecting this theme that I’m using. From the start I wanted something clean and sharp which would encourage readers to look at the content and not get distracted. Hence the choice of a mostly monochrome template which places emphasis on the categories and the main post body, while the sidebar makes search and RSS prominent.

I’m still uncertain as to whether or not using WordPress for a professional ePortfolio is a good idea. If it was a standard WordPress install where students could change the look and feel of their Portfolio to suit their style, I’d be all for it. But with MU, I’m not quite so sure. I would really appreciate feedback from my users on this matter and any experiences they could share would be appreciated. I’m going to keep thinking about this matter and I think I’ll have a part to play in whatever direction we go. I think it is very important for everyone to have a strong web presence, students especially. Tools like WordPress make that much easier to accomplish, but sometimes you just have to take a step back to make things the way you want them.

Portable Ubuntu and dual monitors

I love dual monitors. Roughly half of the labs I spend my time in have dual monitors. The others don’t and hence I try not to spend much time in those. Unfortunately one of those single monitor labs is the only computer science Linux lab that we have, so by necessity I actually do need to spend a considerable amount of time there. And whenever I’m there I miss not having a second monitor.

If you’re not someone who hasn’t used dual monitors for a while, then it can be somewhat hard to understand how much easier two monitors make your life. Two monitors provide a very natural division of information that you need on your screen. One monitor contains reference information, this is stuff that you’re always looking at, but that you’re not actively interacting with. The other monitor contains whatever things that you are actively interacting with. For me as a programmer, one monitor generally contains API references in a browser (Chrome on Windows, Firefox on everything else). The other monitor contains my editor/IDE. Unfortunately I do most of my programming in the Linux lab which are all single monitor machines or on my laptop, which I rarely hook up to an external monitor.

There are a  lot of Windows dual-monitor machines available in other labs, but the only thing I like about Windows anymore is Google Chrome. Our Windows machines aren’t locked down, so students are allowed to install software as long as it isn’t something dangerous. I was considering installing some sort of X server on some of the machines. But I generally move about machines quite a bit and so I don’t want to be installing X servers on every machine I’m on.

My next thought was carrying around a bootable Linux USB drive and running off that. I was seriously considering doing that when I came across an interesting SourceForge project via Reddit which uses virtual machine technology to let you run Ubuntu like an application right in Windows. And yes, that was the answer to my problems. Last evening I downloaded the Portable Ubuntu image to a  lab machine and gave it a test run before moving it onto my 4GB USB drive.

My experience has been mostly positive so far. The Ubuntu installation is somewhat out of date (it’s the 8.04 version of it). But that really isn’t a problem for me. In fact, as it turns out, I haven’t really been using it as a full fledged Linux distribution. For the most part I use it as an interface to my college’s powerful Linux clusters.  I have pulled my personal Git repository to it, but for the most part I think I will be working directly off my college’s machines. The greatest benefit is that I can run normal Windows apps right alongside it. This means that I can have a bunch of terminals and Emacs open while at the same time having Google Chrome and some other Windows-specific software I need. The system really comes into its own with multiple monitors. It’s useful to think of one monitor as a Linux screen and the other as a Windows screen. I’ve only been using it for a day, but I’ve already found it a natural way to work.

As a final note, I would like to put out a little disclaimer: I’ve only used this on powerful machines. The lab computers are 3GHz Core 2 Duo machines with 3.5GB of RAM. Performance is quite acceptable and whatever is happening on the linux side doesn’t seem to be affect the Windows side at all. However, on a machine that is much slower or has significantly less RAM, things might be a good deal slower. If you’re stuck using a Windows machine but would rather use Linux, this is a great way to go if you have a fast enough machine.

Sunday Selection 2009-04-05

Reading:

Almost Perfect I was born too late to be part of most of the technical innovations of the 80s, and not being born into a particularly technological family, I missed most of the 90s too. But I love stories about important events in the computer industry. In some ways they feel like the folk tales of particularly interesting, somewhat quirky culture. This is one of those stories which talks about Word Perfect, the word processor of legend.

Media:

The Sixth Sense Ever wondered when technology would stop being locked inside a box? This presentation is a look at what information technology really should be like.

Software:

Nexuiz This is an open source first person shooter available for Windows, OS X and Linux. They just released version 2.5 and as the screenshots show, it can hold its own pretty well against commercial offerings.