Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Watch out

Three things I never realized were so dangerous:
  1. Flying kites
  2. Posting an "Electric Slide" video on YouTube
  3. Using my laptop while driving (well, I was pretty sure this was a bad idea before)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Becky's first baby shower

On Sunday our church (Stephanie organized) threw a baby shower for Becky. Thankfully I was not forced to participate, but when I showed up at the end of the shower to help pack-up the goods, I couldn’t believe how much stuff there was. There were tons of socks, blankets, and clothes… even a little baseball mitt. A couple of women made a blanket and an "Ethan Andrew McCown" pillow. Becky and I are really blessed to be part of the family at Bayside. It’s gonna be really tough to leave in August.

And on Saturday night Becky and I saw Amazing Grace with some friends. It’s the true story of how William Wilberforce helped end the slave trade in 19th century Britain. The movie was very well done, and it was inspiring to how much good this man was able to do by letting God work through him.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Google: From search engine to Singularity

Philipp Lenssen has written an interesting article about how search engines (or more specifically Google) may evolve over time. As its AI improves, Lenssen sees Google growing into an all-knowing entity, capable of inferring new levels of knowledge and reaching conclusions from its vast quantities of data, even referring to itself as "me". (Yes, Google may some day be responsible for the Matrix, the Terminator, or just good old-fashion space mission sabotage.) Lessen has talked about the emergence of the technological singularity before; it's an interesting concept for the science fiction lover.

On a totally unrelated somewhat related note, congratulations to Frances E. Allen, the first female to win the distinguished A.M. Turing Award. Allen has contributed to work in weather prediction and code breaking, two areas from which a Singularity might draw from.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A new car!

This weekend we traded in our ailing Plymouth Breeze for an '06 Toyota Camry. It's a long way from my Jeep Wrangler days, but if you consider the reliability, resale, gas mileage, price, and baby-room, it's just what we needed. Plus it has sun roof! A nice thing about Camrys is they only need to have their oil changed every 7K miles... much better than the 3K I'm used to. (I would have gotten a hybrid, but they don't make 'em cheap.)

We had to go through the customary bargaining game where they give you a number, you give them one, they send out the manager, you get a new number, etc., etc. The line "That's just not good enough" came in handy, but it was tough on Becky since she had to endure the process with lower-than-normal energy levels. Man, it's tough being pregnant.

Last night after church I rented a movie for us called The Greatest Game Ever Played. It's based on the true story of 20-year-old Francis Ouimet who faced his idol, Harry Vardon, in the 1913 US Open. Very inspirational, even if you don't like golf.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Be afraid, be very afraid

Hey, Windows user- if you haven’t made sure you’re running the latest version of Internet Explorer, do it now. If you’re lacking the motivation, take a look at this video that shows just what might happen to you if you were to misspell google.com. Scary. (See a blog posting about this video here. Note that the link to the video on that site is currently broken.)

You also can't always trust websites that you normally trust. A few days before the Super Bowl, the official website of Dolphin Stadium was hacked (that's where the Super Bowl was held). Website visitors running Windows might have been infected with a Trojan keylogger/backdoor if they hadn't already installed a couple of Windows security patches.

And if you’re thinking you’re safe from attack just because you’re running some other OS, take a look at this recent report: Some researchers set up 4 Linux boxes and watched as the servers were attacked on average once every 39 seconds. The hackers most often attempted to access the machines with user names of "root" and "admin" using passwords which were variations of the user name or "123." Man, I thought I was the only one using 123... wink

Another recent study states that 70% of websites are at immediate risk of being hacked! Well, maybe that number is a little high. But the point is, if you are on the Internet, you better watch out. Have a nice day. smile

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wow, you look so good in that photo... is it actually you?

Here’s a little function you may want for your photo editing software: The Beauty Button. Researchers at at Tel Aviv University have developed a program that can make an image of a person’s face more attractive by moving or distorting portions of the face to conform to factors that we all find beautiful. You can read the full article here.

According to Cohen-Or, one of the researchers behind the software:
Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is merely a function of mathematical distances or ratios. And interestingly, it is usually the average distances to features which appears to most people to be the most beautiful.
In other words, average is beautiful. So would you want to apply the beauty function to your photos? I’m just wondering what my friends and family would think when they saw my wedding album and didn't recognize the guy kissing my wife. Sure, give me a tan and remove that zit, but leave my nose alone, please.

Speaking of beauty, my wife’s birthday is today! She’s still a youngin’… not even 30 yet. If you’d like to send her a happy birthday note, you can reach her at beckymccown1 at yahoo dot com.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Harding gets a face-lift

Designing a website is really difficult. It requires a unique combination of a good eye and technical know-how. I have plenty of know-how, but if you’ve seen any of the websites I’ve designed, you know that’s where my talents end.

Harding recently redesigned their website. Shawn Spearman spear-headed the project, and I think he did a really good job. You can see the before and after screenshots below.



Since I’ll be teaching principles of website development (as part of my Internet Dev class) when I return to Harding next year, I thought I’d put my critical analysis cap on and list some things about the new site that I liked, and some things that I thought should be changed.

What I like:
  1. The logo at the top with the background composed of photos from around campus- very clean and professional.
  2. Letting Google do the searching. Previous versions of the website used their own in-house searcher which did a very poor job.
  3. Intuitive navigational menus which seem very well organized.
  4. Phone numbers and addresses prominently displayed throughout the website.
  5. Nice photos arranged on the sides of pages.

Some things that need to be changed:
  1. The root page is too wide which causes some users to have to use their horizontal scrollbar to get access to the Search box (a big no-no is to make users scroll horizontally).
  2. Not enough width was given for actual content. If you take a look at this page, you’ll see the content is mashed to the side with only 3-4 words per line. If you were to print out this page, it would take 20 pages when it should only take 2. I would recommend scrapping the left border which is functionally useless, and/or using a smaller sized font for the main content.
  3. The links on the left side of each page are the same color (black) and size as the text next to it. The links aren’t underlined, so users must guess what is and what isn’t a link. Although most links are on the left, they also appear on the right which makes finding the links a real pain.
  4. Some of the navigational links contain deep hierarchical menus which should be avoided. This rule is of course violated in Windows (Start > All Programs > Accessories > Off to see the wizard…), and so it’s trained others to think it’s ok. Well, it’s not. I dare you: Try to select Future Students > Adult Ext. & Ed. > Not for Credit > Kids Kollege. It took me three times.

For those of you who want to know more about designing usable websites, here are a couple of useful links:

Web Curator Tool, standardizing PDF, and orphaned works

Some notable events in the world of digital preservation:
  • The National Library of New Zealand and the British Library have collaborated to produce the Web Curator Tool (WCT), a tool that allows non-technical users to archive websites in a simplified manner. It’s essentially a wrapper around the Heritrix web crawler with numerous management functions added on. In a recent article, Philip Beresford from the British Library discusses the history of WCT and shows how it can be used to crawl and archive a website.

  • In an effort to convince the world that the PDF format is ideal for long-term storage, Adobe is submitting it to ISO for standardization. Microsoft has also submitted their Ecma-approved Office Open XML for standardization to ISO, a radical departure from the "secret-sauce" mentality Microsoft has held for years. Governments and other organizations are slowly becoming aware of the problems created by storing their data on closed formats that change over time, and Microsoft and Adobe don’t want to be dropped from their largest customers. By standardizing these formats, interoperability should be much less of an issue in the future.

  • Brewster Kahle, co-founder of the Internet Archive, recently lost a U.S. appeals decision in Kahle v. Gonzales. Kahle, along with several notable companies like Google, MSN, and Yahoo, are trying to get orphaned works (copyrighted work whose owner cannot be reached) into the public domain in order to remove legal barriers that prohibit the scanning and digital distribution of those works. Kahle rightly blames Disney for the mess:
    What happened is that some overzealous copyright laws got passed with heavy lobbying from folks like Disney and these are screwing things up... Instead of keeping just Mickey Mouse or just the profitable works under copyright for longer, they fundamentally changed the structure of copyright.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Dungy & company: Super Bowl champions

Last night the Indianapolis Colts played an impressive game, knocking off the Chicago Bears 29-17. Becky and I had a great time watching the game (and celebrating her birthday) with a large group of friends over at the Reaves’ home (now that I’ve seen a Super Bowl in high-def, I don’t think I can ever watch it in low-def again ). I was pulling hard for the Colts since I wanted Manning to get his first Super Bowl ring, and because of the tragedy that the Dungy family had been through the previous year.

This was a momentous Super Bowl because it was the first time either team (in this case both teams) had a black head coach. But that distinction wasn’t what Dungy thought was most important. Here’s what he said during the trophy ceremony:
I'm proud to be the first African-American coach to win this, but again, more than anything, Lovie Smith and I are not only African-American but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord's way. We're more proud of that.
Dungy and Lovie are both roaring lambs, guys that exemplify Christ in a demanding, stressful job. There's a website that talks about their story and their search for something "beyond the ultimate." Now if only we could get one of them to take the head coaching job in Dallas... smile

Best Super Bowl commercial? My votes go to Kevin Federline ("Federline! What? Fries!") and the slap commercial.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Nelson awarded NSF Early Career Development Award

Congratulations to my advisor, Dr. Michael L. Nelson, for being awarded the prestigious Early Career Development award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Michael is the first winner of the award in the ODU CS department, and only one of four ODU faculty to have ever received the award. The award comes with a $541K grant which will be used for research in digital preservation and fixing up his old Galaxie.

The ODU website has a detailed article about the award, and I’ve put excerpts here:
The grant of $541,000 to Nelson rewards his out-of-the-box thinking about tactics to preserve digital data. He says that the ever-more ingenious Internet strategies used to disseminate spam e-mails may someday be employed to preserve data. The title of his project is “Self-Preserving Digital Objects.”

“Can we create digital objects that preserve themselves?” Nelson asks. “I want to explore this.” He said that e-mail spam and viral videos are the best current examples of the approach he proposes.

Mischievous e-mail or a humorous video clip can “live in the Web infrastructure with minimal hierarchical control,” he said, and that is precisely how he plans to preserve digital objects containing data for technical papers, historical documents, Web pages and the like.

“I’m going to investigate if these properties can be applied to content other than pop culture ephemera,” he said.

Most approaches to preserving digital information involve putting “dumb” objects in “smart” repositories. But, Nelson noted, “This reveals an implicit assumption that the repository is going to be long-lived.” A repository—which he sometimes calls a “fortress”—could be a digital library maintained at a university or the host memory of Yahoo.

The “deadly embrace of repositories” is a phrase coined by computer scientist John Kunze at the University of California, and Nelson likes to repeat it. “Information goes in, but is often difficult to extract. I especially like that phrase as a succinct, vivid description of repositories,” he explained.

Nelson said he is not advocating abandonment of repositories or other conventional digital preservation techniques, but he believes an alternative is needed. “These repositories are expensive and they are complicated software systems that require preservation themselves. I’m interested in digital objects that can live longer than their repositories, in information that can live longer than the people or organizations charged with their preservation.”

In just a few years, Nelson has become an internationally recognized expert in the areas of digital libraries and digital preservation, said Maly. “We are extremely proud of Professor Nelson winning the prestigious NSF Career award and we look forward to integrating the results of his Career award into both our graduate and undergraduate curriculum.”

Nelson, a former NASA employee, earned master’s and doctoral degrees at ODU before joining the computer science faculty in 2002. In addition to this grant, Nelson has been principal investigator or co-principal investigator on eight grants totaling $1.8 million.

Maly and Nelson are members of the Digital Library Research Group @ ODU. The group has developed several Web services that are used internationally and was a founding member of the Open Archives Initiative (OAI). The new “mod_oai” module is housed at ODU under Nelson’s direction. Funding for the group comes from many government agencies involved in data preservation.

ODU is one of only a dozen universities in the United States that offer courses in digital libraries.

Technologies of Google at ODU

This semester I’m sitting in on CS 891 - Technologies of Google Seminar led by my advisor, Michael L. Nelson. Here’s a brief description of the class:
This seminar will focus on Google and the technologies they have created or adopted to build their enterprise into what it is today. Although many of the technologies we will study are applicable to all search engines applications, we will focus on a breadth-first discussion of Google's technologies rather than a depth-first examination of a single research area. We will cover 3 basic areas: (1) initial contributions to crawling and ranking; (2) information retrieval applications; (3) custom infrastructure for deploying web-scale applications.
Students are presenting 20 papers throughout the semester that Michael has accumulated. Last night the papers The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine and The PageRank Citation Ranking: Bringing Order to the Web were presented to the class. These are the first papers on Google from founders Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page who were graduate students at Stanford at the time. What’s interesting to note is the second paper on PageRank is only a technical report: apparently it was rejected by SIGIR for not rigorously evaluating PageRank (according to a talk by Monika Henzinger). Brin and Page never did the extra work required to get it published, yet it is obviously one of the most influential papers about ranking search results ever written.

If you’d like to see the presentations made in this class, the slides will be posted to the class website on a regular basis.