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I went to see William Gibson talk at the writer's festival this week, and I mostly just wanted to brag, so I guess I have to write about him. ;)

As the Internet no doubt can tell you, he's an interesting speaker, and I was surprised to find him less polished than other authors I've gone to see. And I don't mean that as a bad thing at all: in a lot of ways it made him feel more human. I've noticed that there's a whole subset of authors who feel that they are God's Gift to the Genre ([personal profile] miko usually uses Robert J. Sawyer as her prime example of this) and I'm always a little leery at the beginning of a talk as to whether this is going to be one of those but Gibson put me immediately at ease. Very candid, very honest, and pleasantly funny when talking about how he writes.

I particularly loved when he was talking about crowdsourcing details. He'd been looking for some information about where to find security cameras in some area (an airport maybe? I forget.) and got a pile of different responses to his twitter query. Of course, he says none of them agreed with each other, but then he points out that as a fiction writer, he doesn't have to worry about the accuracy of responses: he can choose the one that works best with his narrative and modify as necessary. I love this, because it's almost exactly my approach to using biology within artificial life algorithms: I don't really care if a model is rudimentary or even proven to be inaccurate in living organisms. If it's interesting and fits my code narrative, I can use it as a base for neat ideas anyhow. I guess artificial life is pretty much the speculative fiction of the code world. I mean, I basically spent a year wondering if email could be treated like proteins and whether we could develop immunity to bad emails. That's my master's thesis, but doesn't it sound a little like spec fic?

I've been out to a few other writer's festival events, including a very inspiring talk by the exceptional Jane Goodall, but William Gibson is the first author whose talk made me think, "wow, I should really get back to writing." I do a lot of writing, but very little creative writing nowadays, and he's the first to make me really yearn for it.
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Tuesday's post on Geek Feminism entitled : "Quick Hit: Men, Medicine, and Meritocracy vs Affirmative Action" has some interesting discussion going on in the comments. The article is about how med schools in Canada are seeing more female applicants than male ones (and are accepting a lot of women) and some of the "stealth" affirmative action that's been taken to keep medicine from getting very disbalanced.

Wednesday's post on Web Insecurity is about firesheep. Nothing too insightful, just lauding the cleverness of it in a social hacking sense, and thinking, "why didn't we ever bother to build this in university?" (We did similar hacks for fun and education of our peers.)

Wednesday's CU-WISE blog post is on the subject of Dot Diva: The Webisode. (You can also see an extended version of the dot diva post on Geek Feminism.) We see a lot of outreach aimed at teaching girls computer science, but this is a project that tries to tackle the image of computer science. Their inspirations included the changed attitudes towards forensics thanks to shows like CSI. I'm torn because I found parts of the webisode awkward, but others fun, and I really think they've got some good brains and ideas behind this project.

Thursday's Web Insecurity post Why 12 year olds may be our best bug hunters is about this cool 12 year old boy named Alex Miller who collected on one of the Mozilla bug bounties. I always find adult reactions to smart kids can be a bit strange and sometimes condescending, so this is me musing on how the 12 year olds I've worked with are actually pretty awesome.

In non-blogging news, I'm working on some stuff about web standards vs attacks and vulnerabilities that I'll probably be posting privately soon for comments and ideas before I start putting together more comprehensive ideas for the IETF websec group. Their current discussion on dnssec irks me because it seems... mildly irrelevant to some of the real problems I assumed the group was destined to solve. I'm biased on the subject of DNSSec (see The Futility of DNSSec), but surely websec should be talking about more broad initiatives?
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I'd been trying very hard to avoid answering any of the feminism and clothing questions because they didn't really interest me, but I was personally disappointed with the first post about them, and then got inspired by one of the HL Project books, so I wound up writing two essays about women's clothing, business, and geekery:

Who are you dressing for? re-evaluates a reader question, keeping in mind this quote I got from a 70's feminist business guide:

In business you are not dressing to express personal taste; you are dressing in a costume which should be designed to have an impact on your bosses and teammates

And this spawned another post regarding the question Can you dress well and be taken seriously as a woman in technology? (Which was actually part of the first post originally, but it was too long so I chopped it in half.)

Clothes are a common hot-button topic on another mailing list I frequent, and it's clear that womens' experience in this area varies wildly (which is why I was trying to avoid these questions myself). So unsurprisingly, my answer wasn't satisfying to at least one person (although I don't seem to have the stream of disgust evident on the earlier post that I didn't write, so I feel pretty decent about the whole thing).

Anyhow, what I'm getting at is that Mary sensibly put up a call for guest posts on the subject of appearance and presentation issues, because as she says, we don't really have anyone who's willing or able to write some of the posts that people seem to want. If you can help, we'd love to hear from you!
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I got this excellent story about a very funny computer manual via twitter, and I'm trying to use it as inspiration during revisions.

Here's the message I'm getting: You don't have to be boring.

Computer manuals, academic papers, and conference presentations aren't known for being good reading or watching, but that doesn't mean you have to be completely dull. I'm shocked at how few people seem to realize that you can be compelling and still be professional. Now, some of this may be just an eye-of-the-beholder thing, but I watched a grad student get up in front of a class to give a presentation, which consisted of his entire essay on overheads. He then stood with his butt directly in the face of the prof who was marking him, turned towards the screen and read out the essay. Slowly. In a dull monotone. And continued to do so even when the professor tried to engage him and finally, to at least get him to move. Clearly, there was room for improvement there, and I see this sort of worst-case presentation surprisingly frequently from my fellow grad students and intellectuals. It seems to be a prevalent problem that people see no reason to make their life's work more compelling, and I just don't understand why.

I'm currently revising my PhD thesis proposal, a supposedly boring document which explains to my thesis committee what I want to do so we can negotiate on what I need to finish in order to earn my PhD. So here are three writing lessons I'm reminded of by the Franklin manuals:

Play with the titles: even stealthy snark can improve your writing

Go click that link and look at the first example where the intro section starts with, "The Ancestral Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan" instead of a more traditional title like "Let's get started." Now, you're probably protesting already: Surely, this would not be acceptable in a professional environment! And sure enough, it's not. But it's perfectly acceptable to use a temporary title that makes you laugh while you're editing a document. Or if, like many academics, you write using LaTeX where comments are easy to fit in the document, you can leave yourself a few funny ones. Doing a presentation? You can probably leave the odd funny title out where other people can see it, as long as it's not in some way offensive. I do this all the time, and no one's complained, and sometimes it can garner a few snickers from the audience, which is always fun. :)

Why bother? You may have heard the advice to smile while you're doing a phone interview because it changes your tone. A little giggle before you write or a smile when you present that slide can do the same for you as that secret telephone interview smile. And the other great thing with temporary, silly titles is that they're often things that don't require a whole lot of thought, since you aren't planning on keeping them. I find them great for dealing with a spot of writer's block while outlining a section. Sometimes, once I've got a silly title, I find out that the section I wind up writing needs to be completely different from the one I thought I'd need there.

Examples are allowed to be fun

Apparently both the manuals described there make pop culture references as they try to explain difficult concepts. If you've never done this, you should try it. It can be as simple as using names and ideas from a favourite TV show in your examples, or sometimes you can leverage stuff people know to build more complex metaphors that a least some segment of your audience will intuit easily. For example: My supervisor sent me this great article explaining security principles using examples from star wars. It's fun, it gets the point across, and it's a lot more memorable than some lectures I've seen on similar topics. This is especially great as a presentation technique: take all your examples from one movie and then you can add in pictures to match! I saw this incredibly well done in a presentation at Yet Another Perl Conference::Canada some years ago.

Why do it? It's a fun way to inject some playful stuff without seeming less professional, and a well-chosen example can provide a lot of nuance and motivation. For example, I used to do something similar when I presented my computer immunology work. When you do computer immunology, you wind up having to explain the basics of protein-matching within the immune system a lot. This basically results in endless processions of blobs with lumpy detectors attached to them. I replaced my protein-blobs with cars, and made detectors that protected you from an infection of compact cars. Much more fun, plus people could play gues-the-make-and-model if they were already familiar with the immunology, which mean they didn't tune out at the beginning. And it secretly reminds people that just like there are millions of cars with the same make/model and thus the same shape, plus or minus a few dings, we similarly have lots of proteins of each type, and they each have the same shape, plus or minus a few dings.

OMG, Pictures

Go scroll down and look at the cartoons. Cute, eh? Or scroll back up and look at the difference between the typesetting in that first example vs the second one with the picture and the nice typesetting:

older manualnewer manual

Although the content in the second one apparently isn't as nicely done, it's certainly a lot easier on the eyes, isn't it? So why do so many academics do presentations without a single picture on the slides? Use graphs! Use cartoons! Use a little bit of clip art! Need some inspiration? Take a look at the fun flickr photos that illustrate Cate's blog: Accidentally in Code (Here's a recent favourite post). I try to do this with my own web security blog (here's one I put with an article on how spam isn't making money. It still makes me laugh.) Flickr's a great source for creative-commons content that you're free to use if you don't have the right picture yourself. And yes, those pictures can be the sneaky snark from tip number 1: I used to accompany the slide explaining gene libraries with a picture of... a Levi's jean store. I don't know if anyone noticed other than my sister (who found the photo for me), but I knew!

I'm sure you can find plenty of reasons that pictures help your audience learn. But there are also two sneaky reasons this is a good idea: if you make space for pictures, you often have to cut down on the number of words on your slides. Generally speaking, less is more when it comes to slides, and shrinking them down may serve as a good reminder that you probably should be presenting just a basic idea, not your entire paper/life's work/declaration of independence. You want a few gems, not a novel. And that brings me to the second reason this is a good idea: in doing so, you've put a lot more work into your slides, and it shows. Having pretty slides with pictures on them says you thought about what was an appropriate picture, took time to find it, edit the slide so it fit nicely... basically, it's another way to dress up nicely before a presentation, only its your slides rather than you with the nice clean shirt.

This doesn't always work for academic papers, but it's worth sitting down and thinking: are there ways I could illustrate this data? These examples? Sometimes a well-placed diagram can make a world of difference. Not sure how to start? Ask someone. Try explaining your work to a friend and see if you wind up scribbling something down on a napkin to make it make more sense, or what hand gestures you're using. Try to imagine presenting your work with slides that have only pictures (seriously! I've done it and it's a great exercise.)


So, there's three things I'm going to try to keep in mind while I finish up this draft. It's gotten me thinking of a few more tips I'd like to keep in mind (such as how to be more concise... oops), but I've got to get back to making my thesis proposal more awesome. Wish me luck!
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Posting about my new gig blogging for the Geek Feminism blog reminded me that it's been a while since I let people know some of the other places to find me, so for the record, here's some places I update regularly:

  • There's my personal web page and my academic web page, which are mostly updated with new publications, presentations, and photos.
  • I write for the Geek Feminism blog.
  • I write for the CU-WISE blog, run by my local Women in Science and Engineering group, which is full of cool young women. We do a lot of social/academic activities at the university, as well as outreach such going to talk to Girls@VV and, yesterday, the IBM EXITE camp.
  • I have another personal/research blog over at WebInsecurity.net although I admit, it hasn't seen much use lately because I've been taking all that writing and putting it directly to the thesis.
  • I'm terriko on twitter
  • There's always my flickr stream -- I only post a few photos here, but I upload stuff constantly.
  • And I'm also terriko at LibraryThing. Which reminds me that I should really review this fantastic little book I read on the weekend called Princess Ben...

So there you go, more Terri links than anyone really needs all in one handy post. :)


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