Wednesday, December 31, 2008


At midnight tonight, we transition from 2008 to 2009. On some level, it's arbitrary - what makes this date more important than any other moment in time? However, the thing that I think does is what it symbolizes. A blank slate, or tabula rasa, which allows us to begin anew. Could we begin anew on September 24th, let's say? Sure, but the symbolism of the new year is very powerful.

Many people choose this time to set resolutions. What can I do differently? Just remember, if you set these goals, use milestones. Don't just say "I want to go to the gym more" or "I want to stop smoking" or "I want straight A's next semester". The problem with goals like this is that timelines are very cloudy.

It's all well and good, for example, to say "I want to get straight A's", but if you make that a resolution and forget about it until April, you may discover you are closer to straight "F's". Instead, you should remember this goal. Make sure every Friday, let's say, you devote extra time to studying.

The same type of thing happens sometimes when people say "I want to lose 30 pounds this year" - they get to April and they have lost two pounds, and they just sort of say "heck with it". If people dedicate themselves to it, say "3 pounds a month" and weigh themselves on the first of each month, they know what they're doing right and wrong as time goes on.

A resolution is not powerful if you don't revisit it, otherwise it is just wishful thinking.

I want to thank you all for a great year. Teaching has improved my quality of life and my happiness, and many of you have made impacts on my life in the same way I've made impacts on yours.

I wish you all a safe and happy holiday, and I hope your resolutions for 2009 come true.

PS: In some computer programming, languages (for example, Perl or C++), typing out
would increment the variable Year by 1, hence the title of today's blog.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Step by Step Identity Theft

I saw this article a few months ago in Scientific American - turns out it is also online. One person talks about how he stole someone's identity, step by step.

People think of it as "hacking" - but a lot of times, it is not only hacking. Much of the background you need, if it's from someone you know, can be done in an easier fashion without a computer. It's really more of a matter of social engineering. Why should I spend hours trying hack your computer when I can bring up in casual conversation "What bank do you use" or "were you born in Paterson" and get the answers to things that you need.

Web Link:

Friday, December 26, 2008

Better passwords and spelling

I noticed once that I always spelled the word "receive" wrong - this was back in the late 1990's. The problem, of course, is that tricky "i before e" rule. Our school's server required us to change the password every three months, so I decided at that point that I would change it to a combination of the word receive and some numbers (the school server also required numbers in the password).

Ever since then, there are times when I find I spell words wrong, and in order to fix that, I will make a password the correct spelling of that word. It kind of serves two purposes - one, I will remember it - I am usually aware of words I spell wrong - and two, I end up getting in the habit of spelling the word properly.

On accounts where I have to change my password every few months, I still to this day stick to this, and have retrained myself to correctly spell receive, judgment, and many other words that I would otherwise type wrong the first time.

I know it's a silly little thing, but it has helped improve my spelling a bit, and it's certainly a better choice of password than something easily guessable, like something to do with my family, or profession, or something else of that nature.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Free Macintosh Utilities

I realize I am very PC-centric here, but I do appreciate the Macintosh universe. As a matter of fact, I used to work for a grant-funded project at Montclair, and they gave me a Macintosh laptop to use, and I used it for a few years.

One of my friends has the iPhone, and he showed me a tool called "Telekinesis" - this is a tool that allows him to control his Macintosh from the iPhone. It turns out this free tool is one of a few from a group called Blacktree. They've got a few other tools as well. If you're a Macintosh users, their site is worth checking out.

If you're reading this over the break - I hope you're enjoying your time off as much as I am!

Web Link:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Personality Types

If there is one thing I am always searching for, it is more knowledge in this life. I hope many of you are the same.

What is interesting is that we are often so focused on the outside world that we neglect taking the time to learn a little bit more about ourselves. I am definitely included in this.

Although we all are unique, we do share some traits that are common to different types of personality, and that is the basis behind many of the different types of personality tests that exist. Though no personality test can fully capture who you are (there is always free will), it's amazing that answering some questions can sometimes lead to some great truths inside of us.

There are many free tests on the Internet that allow us to figure out a little more about who we are. Again, nothing is set in stone, but it's interesting to see based on a set of questions that the computer can generalize our tendencies.

One of the most common personality tests is the Myers-Briggs test (based off of Carl Jung's work in psychology). There are a number of free online test available which will narrow your personality down in to one of 16 categories. I've linked one below.

Test link (

If you're wondering, my personality has consistently scored an INTJ. Oddly enough, according to Wikipedia, this is the third rarest type.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The End

All my grades are in, and the Fall 2008 semester has drawn to a close. There were of course high points and low points, and I'm tired, as I am sure many of you are. It is always bittersweet to have the semester end; on one hand, it's great to see people grow and move on, but on the other hand, it's sad that many of you will move on.

I'm going to take a few days to just enjoy the deliciousness of doing nothing, but I will return soon.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Netflix and data mining

In a few of my classes, the topic of data mining came up.

Basically, it comes down to taking existing data and drawing conclusions from it. This can be seen, for example, if you have an account. Amazon shows you suggestions of other items that you might be interested based off of what you are viewing. The way that is done is through a process called data mining.

Basically, it doesn't take a genius to say if someone buys season 1 of a TV show (say, House, M.D.), they may be interested in season 2 of that same TV show. However, if you like House, M.D., you might also be interested in something that may seen completely different - let's say, a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Amazon can tell that by taking everyone's past purchases and analyzing what people who bought a certain DVD liked, and comparing that to your past.

There are many other places where this happens - for example, credit card companies use data mining to guess if a transaction is fraudulent or not - based on your purchasing habits. For example, my credit card was rejected when I tried to go skydiving, because based on what I've charged, they thought that it was so out of character for me that they blocked the transaction, and I had to call in and verify that it was indeed me.

Another place that this happens is on sites like Netflix and Blockbuster Online. Of course, they want you to enjoy movies, but the underlying reason is so that you come back and stay a subscriber. Therefore, it is best for them to have a good data mining algorithm in place to show you movies (and therefore keep you subscribing).

As a matter of fact, if you can provide them a better algorithm than they have, you can be eligible for prize money - up to a million dollars, if your data matching algorithm is substantially better than theirs.

Web Link:
Thanks to Brian E. for the heads up!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Let Me Google That For You!

There are a lot of times that my familiarity with computers gets the best of me. Someone will say something that I don't understand (in an instant messaging conversation, let's say). I immediately will put that in to Google and figure out what it means. However, not all people think that way, leading to me explaining something that could very easily be put in to Google.

I'm usually very polite about it, but many computer people are not, and I am sure one of them is behind the site LetMeGoogleThatForYou.

For example, if you were to say "I have to get a new hard drive" and someone responds with "what is a hard drive?", you could link them to this:

It's basically a snotty way of saying "you could look this up yourself".

I got a good laugh out of it, anyway.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Paperback Swap

I ran in to a site called Paperback swap a while back. It's a great site for free books - basically, here's how it works.

1) You post 10 books that you don't really read.
2) You get credit to request a book from someone else. No charge, not even postage.
2.5) If you use the link below or put in my school email address, I also get credit for referring you and I also get a free book :)
3) If someone requests a book from your list, you mail that to them at your expense (media mail is usually very inexpensive - $2 a book) - when the person gets that book, you get credit and can request another book from someone else.

Repeat as often as you like. - Our online book club offers free books when you swap, trade, or exchange your used books with other book club members for free.

If you are looking for books and you're not a snob about the condition of the books, it's a great little site. I've received Infinite Jest, Moneyball, and other books from the site recently.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

FiOS or Optimum?

One of the great things about teaching technology (along with one of the most challenging) is keeping up with the technology. I feel like computers change a lot quicker than, say, math does, especially at the introductory level. Not only do teaching methodologies change, but the content changes. If we were still teaching what we taught 15 years ago, we'd be laughed at, but you could likely get away with a math textbook that is 15 years old.

Anyway, one example is when we see new Internet options show up. I remember the DSL versus cable modem argument, and trying to explain to people that despite commercials, DSL was indeed slower if you got the basic package.

Then FiOS started to arrive.

FiOS is the Fiber Optic Service, and basically, it's a new alternative from Verizon. As they replace older phone lines with Fiberoptic cable, they will be able to offer an Internet experience that compares favorably with Optimum's basic plan, and they've made claims that they will have higher bandwidths than cable in our area, which is more competitive than other areas.

North Jersey recently did a comparison of both, and the results surprised me a bit.

Web Links:
Deal Comparison (

Thanks to Sue for the heads up!