Required checkboxes don’t make sense

Recently while filling out a bank form online, I had the option to receive emailed statements rather than dead trees in the mail. The checkbox looked like this:

Receive email statements

I preferred the dead trees, so I left the box unchecked and clicked “submit.” The page came back with an error and pointed out that checkbox actually looked like this:

Receive email statements *

Of course, I wasn’t being given the option to receive emailed statements, but rather the bank needed me to acknowledge that I would receive emailed statements, despite my preference.

It doesn’t make sense when you think about it. A checkbox field is always a required field, whether or not it has a little red asterisk. It only returns true or false; it can’t return null. It doesn’t make sense to give the user an error saying they didn’t give an answer for the checkbox, because not checking it is an answer. Continue reading

Four great questions to ask in a technical interview

I’m excited to be able to say that I accepted a great job offer at a dot-com in San Francisco. I get to start right after I graduate in May. Now that my job search is over, I want to share some of the questions I had for interviewers that got the best responses on the spot.

• “If you had to work in a different group or department within your company, what group would you join? Who is working on something you’re interested in?”

Hands down, this question got the most, “Ooh, that’s a good question,” responses. I like it because it tells me what groups have exciting new projects within the company, and whether the employees are excited about their company’s up-and-coming projects. I get excited when engineers are excited about what their coworkers are doing. I think interviewers like this question because it’s a little out-of-the-box and because they get to talk about their own experiences with and opinions of the company.

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Library research does not need to be taught in every introductory course.

In four years of college, I’ve tried to get both depth and breadth into my class schedule, as a good liberal arts student should. In addition to computer science classes (my major) and Japanese classes (my minor), I’ve taken introductory classes in philosophy, math, cognitive science, history, English, and physics. However, taking a breadth of classes has led to an unintended consequence: I’ve had to endure four or five different introductions scholarly research.

The format is always the same: a research librarian comes to class, loads the PowerPoint deck, and proceeds to tell us how to search the library catalogue, order books from Interlibrary Loan, cite a source, and use Google Advanced Search. They’ll probably throw in a few slides on why Wikipedia is unreliable as a scholarly resource. Continue reading

Your laptop in class is distracting me, too.

In December I posted my thoughts on whether professors should allow students to use laptops in class. My main point was that regardless of whether it’s okay for students to distract themselves, their laptops are also distracting and disrespectful to the rest of the class and the professor. Most of the commenters disagreed with me, but my classmate Cordelia feels the same way. She posted this morning on her blog, One Two Six Oh Four, an illustrated example of how frustrating it can be.


Find the rest of the comic here.

Please don’t use someone else’s PPT deck

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by a New York community based around the site LessWrong. The lecture focused on the site’s first core sequence, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions. The subject matter and the meetup group were great (and highly recommended!), but the presentation suffered from one obvious shortfall: the presenter used someone else’s slide deck.

I happened to be at a party with the presenter the night before the lecture, and he told us how excited he was that an eminent authority on the subject had given him the slide deck he usually uses for the lecture. The presenter went on about how his presentation would be much better now with slides that were literally crafted by an expert.

Unfortunately for him, slide quality on its own doesn’t make a great presentation. Continue reading

Twitter and chat in class are signs of bigger problems

Last month I attended a “Technology in Education” panel in which one of the student panelists described a class she took while studying abroad. She praised the professor’s idea of creating a Twitter hashtag for the class. He would project the twitterstream containing the tag onto the screen during class, so the students could see what the others were tweeting, share links, and ask questions.

On Reddit two days ago, an education professor bemoaned his university’s chatroom system. His class is conducted in a computer lab, where all the students have access to a shared chatroom (which the professor cannot disable). The professor does not watch the chatroom while he lectures, but he can see afterward that a bunch of students use the chat to post about how bored they are.

Plenty of sites claim that Twitter and other chat services are great tools that improve in-class student engagement. I disagree; I think these tools are half measures that imply there are bigger problems in the class.

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Senior research project: campus map browser app

Last month I alluded to my research project for this semester: making a browser app to provide walking directions for my campus. While driving directions are readily available, our existing campus maps are a little hazy on the walking instructions between buildings. If I can finish the app and get it on the college’s website, not only will it keep prospies and freshmen from getting lost, but it will settle a lot of arguments about the quickest way between buildings.

So far it can find the shortest distance between two points on the quad. My data consists of lat/long coordinates pulled from Google that represent intersections of sidewalks. Javascript calls the Google Maps API to get the shortest distance between those two points and runs Dijkstra’s algorithm, short-circuiting when it finds the goal. Then it gives me an array of points from start to finish, which the API uses to draw a line on the map.

There’s still plenty to do. In the next couple weeks, I need to figure out how to pull the coordinate data for the rest of the campus. If I can’t find a way to automate that, I’ll have to do it by hand, which is daunting. Even then, I know I’ll have to manually collect the data on which graph nodes are connected, because while I can plot down points on a custom map, I can’t find a way to automate connecting them (for that to happen, Google would have to be able to see where the sidewalks are on the map).

My long term goal is to have a package I can give to other campuses so they can replicate my project, but first I have to get my version set up. More updates to come!

New year’s resolution: stronger passwords

I’ve liked to think my password is pretty strong. It has a good mix of symbols, lowercase letters, capital letters, and numbers. However, you’ve probably already picked up on the biggest problem: like most, I have one password I use for everything. XKCD has a great explanation of why this is a problem. For example, If I’d had an account with Gawker when its servers were compromised last month, I might have been in trouble. For all I know, I already am in trouble from a different site I use having been hacked.

For the new year, no more! My new year’s resolution is to use only unique passwords for all my different accounts online. Continue reading

Many high schools offering “Computer Science” really aren’t

The following post is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote this semester examining the use of high school computer science classes to increase the number of women in computer science. Yes, the high school I reference is the one I attended.

A major issue in teaching computer science in high schools is that not only do the students not understand what computer science is, but frequently neither do the teachers and administrators. High schools frequently offer classes under the heading “computer science,” that are actually courses on keyboarding or using applications. Continue reading

Should colleges ban laptops in class?

A debate has sprung up on my campus lately about whether it is acceptable to use a laptop in class, with a technology panel and two school paper articles on the subject. I wrote last January about my decision not to use a laptop in class based on my inability to keep up with typed notes, but rather than actual note taking, the current debate is largely over the way that students slack off with their laptops in class. While many students do use their laptops to take notes, it is my impression that even more use them to check their social networks instead of paying attention to the lecture. Continue reading