Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Software Engineering: Best Job in America

Money Magazine has listed software engineering as the number one Best Job in America. Even with the threat of off-shoring jobs, a computer science degree isn’t looking so bad after all. In fact, of the top 10 jobs listed, 4 of them could be obtained by someone with a CS degree. Having been both a software engineer and now a college professor (number two on the list), I can attest that both jobs are very rewarding.

Club a la 700

This morning I sat in the audience during the taping of the 700 Club, the daily news show hosted by Pat Robertson, Gordon Robertson, and Terry Meeuwsen. The 700 Club is filmed at the CBN headquarters which is located on the Regent University campus in Virginia Beach. The show is broadcasted daily on several cable stations.

When Becky and I first moved to Virginia, our tourist book mentioned that the 700 Club was filmed in Virginia Beach, and I really wanted to see it being filmed. Becky thought that I was crazy. I’m not a frequent viewer of the 700 Club, but I’ve always wanted to see some TV show being filmed live, and this is the first opportunity I’ve ever had. Living in Searcy, Arkansas doesn’t present many opportunities. Since I’ve got tons of spare time these days, I figured I could take off one morning to see the taping. wink

I was only one of five audience members (apparently the audience size fluctuates from day to day). Pat came out before the show began and said a quick prayer for us and the show and then joined Terry who was already positioned at the news counter.

The show began with comments on the recent Pope vs. radical Islamic spat. There was a piece about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and then talk about Iraq. The show was mainly scripted, but Pat made several remarks off the cuff. I believe it’s these types of remarks which have gotten him in trouble in the past. After the piece on Ahmadinejad which focused on his desire to bring about the end of times, Pat exclaimed: "Well, that is just weird..." smile

Dr. Kevin Leman, a prominent Christian psychologist and author, was the single guest. My mom would have liked to meet Dr. Leman since she’s a big fan of his Birth Order Book. He was interviewed by Terry and talked about his new book on single parenting, but as soon as the interview was over he bolted. I guess I’ll get that autograph some other time. wink

After the taping Pat thanked us for coming, and Terry hung around and talked to each of us. We then were given a tour of the CBN building. It was like touring a museum since there were numerous pieces of original art including the largest painting of the Lord’s Supper produced in the 20th century. Our tour concluded with a very earnest prayer (which I really appreciated). After that I met up with Becky for lunch.

I really enjoyed getting a behind-the-scenes look at how a TV show is ran. The guys at CBN are real pros. Now it's back to the grind...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Our bean has a heart!

This morning Becky had her second visit to the obstetrician. Since we were going to hear the baby’s heart beat for the first time, I got to tag along. At just 11 weeks, our little bean (ok, he’s probably the size of a walnut now) has got a strong heart rate!
Perfect for a future tennis star...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Thinking about next fall

The fall semester has just begun, and I again find myself wishing I was back in front of a classroom. As I contemplate returning to teaching next fall (God willing), there are several things I’d like to do differently. Here are three nuggets I have come across recently that have gotten me thinking about next fall:

1) Pair Programming

Pair programming is a relatively new way of teaching students how to program in CS1 classes. I first learned of pair programming in a recent CACM article entitled "Pair Programming Improves Student Retention, Confidence and Program Quality" by McDowell et al (2006). McDowell has written on the topic since 2002 and even provides a video on how to teach pair programming.

In McDowell's experiments, they found that more students completed their course, were more satisfied with their work, and stuck with the CS major than students that had to program independently. They also found that the paired students performed similarly on the final exams which means the paired students were learning to program just as well as the non-paired students. The article also discusses how this could be useful for retaining women in CS.

Like every other university, Harding has seen a downward trend in the number of CS majors over the last several years. I think paired programming may be one of the tools we could use to assist us in building back up enrollment. I’m excited to try it in my introduction to programming classes soon.

2) Programming with Alice

Becky recently met an instructor who was teaching middle school and high school teachers about Alice, an alternative programming language which teaches programming by manipulating objects in 3D space. When the instructor leaned that Becky’s husband taught programming courses, he handed her an intro to Alice textbook which she passed on to me.

Alice was developed at Carnegie Mellon, but it's soon to be overhauled by Electronic Arts which will give it a really crisp look that the XBox generation has learned to expect. Alice allows students to quickly get an animation running without the boring details of variable declarations and semicolons.

I’d really like to teach Alice to a group of students who have no programming background and see how they do. If I can get them excited about Alice, I may be able to get them excited about computer science.

3) Limit wireless Internet access during class

Dennis Adams wrote a fantastic Viewpoint piece entitled "Wireless Laptops in the Classroom (and the Sesame Street Syndrome)" in the September issue of the CACM (2006). Adams, a professor at the University of Houston, opened the article with two examples of “laptops gone wild” in the classroom: a 2002 school brochure which inadvertently contained a photo of a student playing Solitaire while his unaware professor lectured, and 2) a Wall Street Reporter who witnessed several students using chat rooms, IM, and surfing the Web while Adams lectured.

Adams rightly points out that professors need an off button- a way to turn off wireless access or at least limit access during class. Professors cannot be expected to compete with Google, IM, Solitaire, FaceBook, et al. during their lectures or provide constant infotainment. No professor, no matter how good, can compete with the infinite number of distractions that the Internet places just inches in front of a student. Adams is not alone in his assessment.

I have personally used embarrassment tactics as a means to ensure only proper use of laptops while I lectured, and I’ve had some modest success. I called out one of my students who was using MS Paint to create a picture while I lectured, and every day after that he sat very alertly. I’ve been fortunately enough to teach to small classrooms where it’s easy for me to roam and see what my students are doing, but such a strategy certainly doesn’t work in large classroom settings.

Someone is going to create some software that allows only limited Internet connectivity during class, and that person is going to make a killing. And of course the guy who invents the software to circumvent the policing software is going to be the next Shawn Fanning.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Remembering 9/11

Today is the five year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I didn't know anyone personally who was lost in the attack, but like everyone else, it affected me deeply.

My friends and I were talking over lunch yesterday about how we first found out about the attack. I was listening to Fox and Friends while shaving and getting ready for a day of teaching (it was my fifth year teaching at Harding Univ). I remember one of the hosts saying that they thought a plane had struck one the Twin Towers. I ran over to the TV and couldn’t believe the site... what kind of horrible pilot would make such a huge mistake? I watched for a little while and then witnessed the second tower being hit; this was no accident. There wasn't anyone around to talk to about it (my roommate had already left), so I raced over to the office and found Dana Steil (a colleague of mine in the CS department) who hadn't heard about it. Dana turned on the radio, and I just sat at my desk wondering what was going on. A few minutes later we went to chapel, and I think I remember President Burks announce what was happening, and we prayed for quite a while about the situation. I don’t really remember what happened the rest of the day... it’s a fog.

Although I normally avoid the many 9/11 shows and movies that come out near the anniversary, I decided to see the World Trade Center (starring Nicholas Cage) this weekend after several friends had recommended it. Becky and I were genuinely moved by the courage of the men and women who ran into a huge disaster just to complete strangers. I especially liked the Dave Karnes character who, feeling that God was calling him to action, raced to Ground Zero from his home in Connecticut to search for survivors after everyone else had called it a day.

It’s tough to watch parts of this movie, but you will definitely leave the theatre knowing that courage and goodness are not in short supply in America.

May God bless and comfort those who are still deeply scared by these attacks.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Google's cached date = last request date

Vanessa Fox, a member of the crawl team at Google, announced on Tuesday that Google would start posting the last request date on their cached pages. Google used to only indicate the date that the page was last retrieved, so if Google made an If-Modified-Since request and the web server responded with a 304 (not modified) response, the cached date would be left unchanged. Now the cached date will indicate the date of the 200 or 304 response. Matt Cutts also discussed this change and even made a little video for those that needed a visual explanation.

Frankly, I was very surprised to learn that Google’s cache date worked this way. In effect, it’s was much like Yahoo’s Last-Modified date… it was really just an indication as to when they noticed the page changed. I have crawl data from 2005 that indicates Google would periodically issue regular HTTP GET requests, possibly just to verify that the content had indeed not been changing.

I’m not totally sure what MSN’s cache date is indicating. From my 2005 crawl data, MSN apparently never issued an If-Modified-Since request. If they are still operating with the same crawl policy, then they are storing the time they last contacted the web server, so their cache date would indicate the same thing as Google’s.

What this means for Warrick: Google will more frequently now have the most recent version of a page. Therefore Google’s overall percentage of contributed resources will likely increase in the reconstructions I’ve been performing the last few weeks.

On a side note, someone asked Matt Cutts why Google does not post the cached date of PDFs, and Matt said he was going to ask the crawl team about it.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Rainy Friday

The Hampton Roads area is currently being doused by tropical storm Ernesto. Regent, ODU, and practically every school in the area has shut-down due to the flooding. I attempted to drive over to ODU just for fun, but I was stopped at every turn as the photos belowillustrate. It's just the beginning of a beautiful Labor Day weekend. :)

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View it while you can: Microsoft UK commissioned Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to produce a couple of spoof training videos with Gervais playing David Brent, the boss from the UK’s The Office series. For some reason, Microsoft apparently didn’t want these videos to ever be shown publicly and have started an investigation as to how the videos were leaked. The videos still remain on Google Video, so watch them while you can… they are hilarious!

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Agassi- you are a stud. How far can he go on his final tournament stop, the US Open? More importantly, can I get Becky to go along with naming our future son (if it’s a boy) Agassi McCown?

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Thanks, Elrod, for taking some photos of the new chapel at Harding. It looks great!

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Congratulations to Becky on being awarded Regent University’s Employee of the Month. She received a choice parking spot for September, a little spending money, and a letter of recommendation signed by Pat Robertson (you can’t have too many of these sitting around the house). Becky also was awarded the School of Education’s Staff Member of the Year last May.

An employee will go home and ask his neighbor, "Hey, did you get an award?" "No man. I mean I slave all day and no one notices." Next thing you know, he smells something funny from his neighbor's house. Neighbor hanged himself due to lack of recognition. - Michael Scott (The Office)