Friday, November 30, 2007

Facebook Makes Beacon Opt-in!

I was planning to write a post about Facebook beacon (privacy concerns, bad website design, etc) but just hadn't gotten around to it. Well, they announced yesterday that they are fixing it, so now is the perfect chance to actually tell you about Beacon.

For those that don't know, Facebook recently implemented a new feature called "Beacon." This feature was opt-out, meaning that every Facebook user was signed up for using it unless they said "no." That sounds easy enough, but the way it was designed was even more frustrating. What beacon does is it shows your Internet activity to your friends by posting it in their news feeds (a list of all recent Facebook activity of all friends that have chosen to share that activity). This includes purchases at websites such as Amazon and, as well as other activity such as game playing at Kongregate. At each site a link appears for approximately 10 seconds in which you have the option to "opt out" of the activity showing on Facebook.

I have experienced this link, and I only barely caught it in time. It was hard to notice as it was displayed outside of the area I was expected to be looking at on the site (i.e. bottom right of the screen). I probably only caught it quick enough because I knew it must be around somewhere.

One would hope that this mere 10 second window is not the only chance to decline your friends, relatives, and coworkers the chance to know what you are doing in the privacy of your own home. Technically it is not, as the "privacy" setting area of Facebook allows you to choose whether or not to show activity on that website (above picture). However, the option only appears after you have seen the "opt out" link for that site (i.e. bought something, played the game, etc), and if you choose to "never" show the activity it will still not remove it from the news feed of your friends. So it is not a true second chance as once you miss that first 10 second window that activity will be there for the entire Internet to potentially see. Also, the privacy setting defaults to "notify me first" even if you chose "no" on the initial 10 second window.

As you can undoubtedly tell, Beacon was not well designed. There are ethical flaws, privacy flaws, even common sense flaws. It worries me as to what type of people are working at Facebook; when I was an undergraduate in Computer Science we talked about the ethics of the business, and this type of feature would certainly fall into the category of bad computing decisions. I know Zuckerman is only 23, but I'm not that much older than him and I can see the flaws a mile away.

Not surprisingly, the users of Facebook rallied for their rights! Not only was there a Facebook petition group (as of this posting there are 57873 members), there was also a petition that grew with each passing day. There were also blogs that shared information on how to "block" beacon from working.

facebook group

The good news is that they have apologized for the error of their ways (again), and are going to fix the problem. Unsurprisingly they will now be making the program opt-in. The main change will be that the default is now "no, I don't want you to share this!" instead of "oh yes, please, I would love you to share this!" I can't wait to see it in action. There are many other concerns beside the fact that friends might see your activity, such as the fact that Facebook will now know your activity either way. Hopefully this concern will also be considered in their revamp of the service. I'm sure many users will eventually warm up to sharing *some* of their activities, especially since people are generally more likely to participate in something when they make the choice themselves!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tragedy in VA -- W&M Fencing

As some of you may know, I was on the fencing team throughout my time at Virginia Tech. One of the many other schools that competed in Virginia was William & Mary. During the weekend of November 10th one of the cars traveling with their team during a trip for a competition was involved in a crash. This crashed killed their coach Pete Conomikes and injured the members of the team that were also in that car. I just found out that although two of the injured players are OK, one of those team members Ben Gutenberg has died from his injuries. He was a freshman.

There are many things that have gone through my mind the past few weeks about this accident. One was that I wish I had been more involved in MACFA to have known Pete better (he coached the men's team, W&M doesn't have a women's team). Everyone has always revered him as a great coach, especially among those teams that are club and not varsity (i.e. all VA teams). I am sure the Ben was also a fabulous person, with a wonderful life ahead of him. On another note, I'm extremely thankful that it was not the VTFC involved in the crash. I'm quite sad that someone has died, and his death has hit many of the fencers at VT hard enough without it being a fellow Hokie. I can barely imagine the pain I would feel if one of my friends still at VT was killed on their way to a tournament.

It also reminds me a lot of what traveling to tournaments is often like. Many times you either have to leave very early in the morning the day of the event or in the late afternoon or evening the day before the event, because students can't get out of classes on time to leave earlier. It is common to need to drive at night on the way home from a tournament as well. For our team, the drivers are always team members. What is so scary about the W&M crash is that it really reminds me of how easily it could have been us. It still could happen to them. The one thing that puts my mind at least partially at ease is knowing that we always tried to have older more experienced people driving, always ensured that the people driving were not worn out, and always made sure to switch off drivers so no one became fatigued. I am in no way implying that W&M did not do these things, but at least I know VT fencers are working to try to make their trips as safe as possible. Hopefully their luck will continue to hold out. What a way to be reminded about how dangerous it is to drive.

My heart truly goes out to all of the W&M fencers. I've met a few over the years but I think everyone I had met has since graduated. Still, I wish them the best and I hope that their hearts heal. I hope their team is able to heal over time, that they will still travel for their tournaments next semester (sometimes getting back into it can be the best thing for you), and that no other disaster befalls them. Life has become too short for too many this year.

Grad Student Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving as a graduate student who chose not to go to school in the same state as the one that houses their parents. It's an interesting experience.

Ever since starting graduate school I have yet to make it home for Thanksgiving despite the fact that every year prior I have spent the holiday exclusively with family. Part of this change comes from the fact that our last day of class before Thanksgiving is the day before Thanksgiving. Couple that with the choice between an 11 hour drive home (without holiday traffic) or a $500+ airplane ticket for only a few days visit, and staying at school sounds like a great idea. Besides, who has time for celebrating holidays anyway? A break means even more time to catch up on research! Right? Right?

Ha! Of course we celebrated. The first few years here I ate at a friend's house with a slew of other grad students, and this year my house hosted the party. The great thing about grad student Thanksgiving is that it's potluck. The bad thing about hosting is that it means you are in charge of the turkey!

Fortunately for us, the Internet is there to help and mothers are only a phone call away. Not only did we not set the turkey on fire, it actually turned out quite well! We (myself and the 2 housemates who were in town) also made mashed potatoes, biscuits, cranberry relish, apple pie, and stuffing. Everything was from scratch except the stuffing (because really, who can tell the difference anyway?). Everyone who came brought at least one side dish and/or drinks, and we had lots of help setting everything up just before eating. Not to mention that the first few people who arrived were put to work cutting apples for the pies!

Potluck Thanksgiving really is the best type of Thanksgiving. Not only are you not responsible for creating an entire meal in a single kitchen, but you have the chance to try food that others like and enjoy making, some of which you may have never before eaten! One of the best statistics about our group was that out of the 10 of us, only 4 were Americans! I should have invented some interesting tradition and made them all take part in it....

One of the other great things about grad student Thanksgiving is that you make the rules. It's like having family over, except that nobody fights about what to do. We decided to play Cranium, which was a blast. Although, the trivia was so incredibly simplistic that answering a red card was kin enough to cheating. Of course the foreign students had the hardest time with the game as it was all American trivia, or "act like this famous American that even some Americans don't know"...but my team (2 foreigners + me) was very proud of me when I knew that Transformers was the show were the leader was Optimus Prime! Everyone had fun despite the some of the boys being very competitive (I thought I said this was better than a family gathering??), so I would call it a hit.

I do miss spending the holiday with family, but our way is still fun. In a sense you can be even more thankful for family when they are a phone call away and not an elbow away! In all seriousness though, I hope to have Thanksgiving with my family again soon, but until then I will happily enjoy the time with my fellow academic sufferers.

Oh, and aren't you jealous that as grad students we can actually fit 10 people into our kitchen relatively comfortably along with all of the food? I knew you would be.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Doodle me this

This semester I've been introduced to an amazingly useful website called Doodle. Doodle has made planning an event incredibly easier. You can use it to determine what time everyone wants to go to a movie, what movie they want to watch, etc. After you set it up via 3 easy and intuitive steps, you only have to share the URL to the poll with your friends and they can give you their preferences on whatever you are trying to decide. They can also edit their responses without registering or doing anything special.

Although this site has been fabulous to use, there are a few things that bother me. For instance, anyone can edit any entry into the poll. Hopefully you are only using Doodle to schedule an event among people who are unlikely to be underhanded, so it shouldn't be an issue. I would assume that no one would use the site for something important (in the grand scheme of things), but it's still possible. On the flip side, many people do not seem to realize they can edit or delete their entries as the links are on the top left side while the poll itself is on the bottom. I would love to see a slightly more intuitive link placement.

I was also surprised when I entered 6:00, 7:00, and 8:00 as my labels and then in the poll ended up with 6:00 AM, 7:00 AM, and 8:00 AM. If I had been thinking I would have realized that since they are trying to interpret my input into times that such a thing would happen, but being from the USA I didn't really think about it (come on, who really thinks in military time?). For the poll I was creating it would have been obvious that they were meant to be PM times if no label had been added, but oh well. I don't think this is necessarily something that they have done wrong, but it would be nice if there was some explicit statement that AM and PM would be tacked on to the input for those of us multitasking like mad and therefore not really thinking things through.

So, what's the point? You should use Doodle! Especially if you need to schedule a movie outing among many people and you aren't particular on the time or day. Or really, any time you need to schedule anything in grad school among more than 3 people you should use Doodle and save yourself a headache. It even tallies each option for you so it's easy to see the most popular one! With all of the organizing I do throughout the year, this site may become my new best friend.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What was the paper about that thing I read last year?

As a graduate student, I often find myself reading papers, books, etc. Unfortunately, I have also found myself trying to remember in what paper I read a particular fact, where I saved the paper (in either paper or electronic form), or why/when/if I even read a specific paper that's lying on my desk.

At first I took notes in my paper notebook, which I highly do NOT recommend. Not only is it harder to find the notes later, it's harder to read part of a paper and then come back. It's unlikely that the estimate you make about how much more paper you need will actually be correct. It also doesn't help in the slightest toward keeping the papers you've read organized.

After that failure I started keeping notes on the computer. I tried Word and OneNote, and found that OneNote was relatively good for organizing. I could organize papers based on their topic by tab, and by paper via pages. This way worked fine for a little while, but then it became a bit cumbersome especially as I started using multiple computers. It also was not ideal as it didn't allow for a paper to fit into more than one category, nor did it allow for viewing a simple list of previously read papers.

I had heard of citation managers that other students were using on their computers, but many had complaints about them. It still would not solve the problem of multiple computers, as most were still just regular computer programs.

A few months ago I was talking with another grad student about how I needed to find a good citation manager, and luck would have it that he had just started using one that he loved. This particular citation manager is called Aigaion and is web based, coded in PHP. Since I already have a web domain that allows PHP, setting it up was a snap. I can create nested topics, assign any topics to a particular paper, write comments about a paper, and upload the pdf file or link to it. Searching is simple, and I can also export to BibTeX if I need a list of papers for LaTeX.

Unfortunately I still haven't finished putting all of my previously read papers in the system. However, I'm still impressed with how instantly organized I am just by uploading papers and categorizing them. I highly recommend Aigaion if you are looking for a way to organize papers, books, etc. I'm sure there are other similar programs, but so far I have only used this one and have used it successfully.

I'm almost I'm going to ramble for awhile...

This is so incredibly wrong on so many levels.

The sheer idea of a family trying to sabotage a teenage girl online makes my skin burn. A mother helped create a fake MySpace profile so that she could see what a teenage girl down the street was saying about her own daughter. Then her and her daughter talked to the teenager as if they were some new person in the area that wanted to be her friend. After the fake person and the teen had become good friends, they told her they had heard she was mean and that they didn't want to be her friend anymore, then posted demeaning things about her online such as statements that she was a slut. As far as the girl knew, she had just lost a new friend and people were talking about her behind her back. She committed suicide that night, age 13.

Whether or not she had killed herself in the end, how could an adult not realize how wrong it was to purposefully try to upset and trick a child? Even if the teenager hadn't had depression to begin with, how devastating is it to be told that you are cruel and a bad friend when all you are trying to do is be yourself, fit in, and make friends? From my experience, adults tend to think children are "cruel" because they misunderstand their motivations and think them to be much more conniving than they are. Usually the kids are just making mistakes on interactions with others because they are still learning. It's a shame that a parent would treat a child as an adult, make such a poor decision on how to deal with what was probably a fight between two kids, responding is such a way that is not ever appropriate.

What is the world coming to that even an adult can be so vindictive and mean? Since when is such horrible ill-spirited trickery OK? How incredibly heartless.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mom, get off the phone!

comic from

A recent study has (unsurprisingly) discovered that teens use IM more than adults, apparently to avoid embarrassing themselves. Afraid Johnny won't want to go out on a date with you? Just IM him, and then close the window if he says "no." That way he won't see you get embarrassed and you can run away. One kid broke up with his girlfriend this way, which he claims probably saved him from bodily harm (haha). Does anyone else think that maybe the phone would have accomplished that same goal without being completely impersonal?

I think one of the main reasons that teens prefer personal conversations to be on instant messenger instead of the phone or in person is that they can't be easily overheard. At school or around town, if a kid makes a fool of him/herself many of his/her peers or complete strangers will witness it. For a teenager, that is potentially devastating (even if only in his/her own mind). At home one's parents or sibling could overhear any spoken conversation, which takes away one's privacy. For a teenager this is of course not acceptable, as obviously parents have no right to know what their kids say to their friends. So I don't think that teens necessarily want to avoid embarrassment with the people they talk to on IM, but that they want to keep other people from knowing of their embarrassment. Because, like, you know, that would be totally uncool.

Too Perfect not to share

As everyone knows, script writers in the USA are currently striking. How can they possibly get their message out? Certainly not by writing a show about their plight and performing it themselves. Oh wait...they actually know how to make a point, how to make jokes, and how to communicate! But certainly they wouldn't use their skills to fight for their own rights or make fun of their bosses, would they?

Well, why not? Looks like someone did write a script and someone else actually owns a camera. As one of my friends said, "Here's your moment of Zen:"

Goooooooooooooooooooooooooo, YouTube!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Crazy? No.... Revolutionary!

Of all the articles I've seen related to the dates of presidential primaries, I have to mostly agree with a recent commentary article on CNN.

The writer Roland Martin makes a lot of points that seem valid if sometimes flippant. For instance, why should are Iowa and New Hampshire be first? Did their governors beat the other governors at chess? Were they the big bullies of the early government? I'd like to quickly quote the article:

"But that respect for tradition -- Iowa and New Hampshire have always been first in line -- has gone out the window, and the Republican and Democratic national committees have struggled to keep order.

Folks, this cat is out of the bag, and it's never going to be the same again. And frankly, it shouldn't." -- Roland Martin, CNN

Of course, my main issue has nothing against Iowa or New Hampshire. It doesn't really matter to me who the first 2 states are. Although I agree that it is going to quickly get out of hand with states changing their dates like kids trying to be first in the lunch line. However, I also agree that in the end forcing change may be for the best. I'm not a political scientist but I feel like the long primary time span was designed so that candidates had time to travel around the country in an era where airplanes weren't exactly commonplace. Do we have that problem now? No. Do we need to have candidates travel to Iowa for those people to see them debate? No. We have TVs, radios, and Internet. Word travels exponentially faster than it did when the primaries first started. So why are we still doing things the way they were done hundreds of years ago? Since when was the status quo the best way to do things? (Ah yes, my liberal strain emerges...)

Mr. Martin seems of the opinion that having all primaries at the same time would just be crazy. But why? I think it's a great idea (revolutionary, even!). Now no state will heavily influence the voters in other states. Everyone will actually vote for who they want to win, as opposed to who they think has the best chance of winning. *gasp* People actually making decisions for themselves? I know that is actually a crazy idea, but I have a hunch that if the media was forced to focus on all candidate's platforms more than who won Iowa or New Hampshire, it might actually work better...besides, it's only the delegates that really have a say in the end anyway, so why not give it a shot?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Place I Love, that Bleeds Orange and Maroon

At the end of May Tim and I started a road trip across country. We began in New England, drove down to VA, drove across I-40, and then up to San Francisco. I continued on to WA afterward for my summer internship, whereas Tim stayed in Palo Alto for his own experience with getting paid.

Although the first few stops were to see family and old friends (including a friend of mine's wedding), our first stop after the trip truly began was in Blacksburg. I hadn't been back since the summer after I graduated, so I certainly wasn't going to miss the opportunity.


Since we were short on time, we decided to bike around campus. Conveniently we had both of our bikes on the back of my car. The ironic part about this aspect of the adventure is that I have never biked in Blacksburg. When I lived in the dorms I walked, which made sense given all of the stairs, hills, and winter weather. When I lived off campus I took the bus, drove, or walked to get to campus and then walked around throughout the day. Thanks to the speed of biking I was able to show Tim much of campus in only a few short hours, including the duck pond where we sat for a rest. I certainly didn't sit around campus enough when I was in school.

Stadium sign

The last time I was at VT, the stadium was undergoing renovations. The South End Zone was complete, but the West Side was still under construction including the press box. It was absolutely amazing to see the finished product. Even the sign outside is monstrous, so of course I had to stand in front of it. The end result of the construction is actually very beautiful, thanks to the design as well as our wonderful Hokie Stone. If you ever get a chance to go to a Hokie football game at Lane Stadium, be sure to check out the outside of the stadium. And of course I highly recommend attending a Hokie football game at least once in your life (preferably at least once a season, but even I can't manage that!).


Of course this was also the first time I had been to VT since the shootings in April. It was heart wrenching to walk around the memorial, and see Norris blocked off with fences, tape, and security guards. At this point they still hadn't decided what to do with it, so it could have been the last time I ever saw it standing. It was almost surreal to stand there, remembering all the times I walked through the front doors for class up on the second floor.


I also showed Tim the War Memorial, and on our way over there we saw many trees tied with black, orange, and maroon ribbons. They seemed like a fitting gesture to show that the entire campus was affected, but would pull together. With the majority of students gone for the summer, it was as if they were the silent guard.

us at Torgersen Bridge

One can never visit VT without a picture at the alumni mall (Torgersen Bridge), so of course we swapped cameras with another couple that was there. Although bad things did happen at my glorious Alma Mater, the campus is still beautiful and as wonderful as I remember it being. I'm glad I was able to visit, and although it made the April events seem even more real (if that were possible) it also brought a sense of closure. I have returned, all is as well as it could be, and it will be even better next time.