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Christine Spang the end of an era

The world around me seems to whirl these days. One week ago, I graduated from MIT. People I've known during the last four years have been dispelling to various parts of the globe one by one, day by day. California, Canada, Indonesia, Seattle. Some will be back again. Some will not, or if so only to visit. pika is a continuous bustle of activity as the summer has commenced and it has filled with creative and adventurous MIT students who've suddenly found themselves having free time. A hammock being built on the roofdeck. Thrice-weekly icecream forays. Common areas overflowing with people playing musical instruments, chatting, and messing around on laptops. Summer's warmth has arrived, bringing with it farmer's markets, strawberry picking, and swimming expeditions.

While it's wonderful to get to meet so many new people living in a college environment, I can't help but feel sadness thinking about everyone who's left. There are always more friends to be made as new people arrive, but old ones moving away leave bittersweet memories, and the new relationships are always a bit different as the age discrepancy between me and others changes. Or the me-the-ephemeral-collection-of-thoughts-which-when-regarding-other-people-sometimes-involve-the-mentor/mentee-distinctions-caused-by-one-party-being-older-or-more-knowledgeable-than-the-other-at-least-in-certain-areas changes. The end of a semester always feels like this, but this year even more so as the people I started university with start down new paths.

For me, that was going to involve staying on at MIT to complete a one-year master's program, the "M.Eng." in electrical engineering and computer science. That plan, too, has changed. I've deferred the degree and accepted a full-time engineering position at Ksplice, an exciting early-stage Linux startup here in Cambridge. I'd been working at Ksplice part-time since January before joining full-time immediately following graduation. Ksplice is the realization of ideas I saw being born on the whiteboard at SIPB when I was a freshman, and it's fun to see that play out in a small, ever-changing, low-bullshit company.

All in all, there are many more exciting things down the road, and, working at an MIT startup, I haven't even escaped the MIT/Cambridge reality-distortion bubble yet. Still, it's tempting to resist change and let myself romanticize the good old days, hoping to catch every person I've ever enjoyed spending time with and hold them down here forever. That's not the way life works, though. Change happens.

Posted Mon 14 Jun 2010 01:27:32 AM UTC Tags: tags/mit

I'm taking this class called Music Since 1960 this spring with this great guy Evan Ziporyn (of Bang on a Can pseudo-fame). It's really one of those classes that depends entirely on the teacher, and Evan makes it a great class, despite being out of town relatively frequently to play with Bang on a Can. He leads discussions without dominating them, has street cred, and knows lots of people who he can bring in as guest lecturers for those times when he is not around.

One thing we had to do for the class was to come up with a 15-minute presentation from a post-1960 artist of choice. I chose to present about the Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1974-1997).

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was, perhaps surprisingly, not actually an orchestra. It was basically a chamber group whose members played numerous instruments. The membership was fluid, with only the British co-founders Simon Jeffes and Helen Liebmann staying with the group continuously, and the rest of the musicians coming and going.

The group was created as a response to an experience Jeffes had while in the south of France, while suffering from food poisoning. He writes,

I was laying in bed delirious, sort of hallucinating for about 24 hours. I had this one vision in my mind of a place that was like the ark of buildings, like a modern hotel, with all these rooms made of concrete. There was an electronic eye which scanned everything. In room one you had a couple that were making love, but lovelessly. It was cold sex with books and gadgets and what have you. In another room there was somebody just looking at himself in the mirror, just obsessed with himself. In another room there was a musician with a bank of synthesisers, wearing headphones, and there was no sound.

This was a very terrible, bleak place. Everybody was taken up with self-interested activity which kept them looped in on themselves. It wasn’t like they were prisoners, they were all active, but only within themselves. And that kept them from being a problem or a threat to the cold order represented by the eye.

A couple of days later I was on the beach sunbathing and suddenly a poem popped into my head. It started out ‘I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe, I will tell you things at random’ and it went on about how the quality of randomness, spontaneity, surprise, unexpectedness and irrationality in our lives is a very precious thing. And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what’s most important. Whereas in the Penguin Cafe your unconscious can just be. It’s acceptable there, and that’s how everybody is. There is an acceptance there that has to do with living the present with no fear in ourselves.


What a beginning for music that came to be described as "exuberant folk", and which incorporated musical styles from Africa and folk music with the more complex, "intellectual" classical traditions of upper-class Europe! Jeffes started out studying classical guitar, but felt that his studies were dead and lifeless and dropped out, dabbling in rock and avant-garde before deciding that he didn't actually want to throw out the whole of the European classical tradition, what he described in an interview as "the music of our people".

What came of his choice of direction was "cafe music", as he describes:

Ideally I suppose it is the sort of music you want to hear, music that will lift your spirit. It is the sort of music played by imagined wild, free mountain people creating sounds of a subtle dream- like quality. It is cafe music, but cafe in the sense of a place where people’s spirits communicate and mingle, a place where music is played but often touches the heart of the listener.

To me, it evokes a sort of low-key romantic European cafe, with people chatting and music that is not too loud, and many many books. Life! Spontaneity! In many ways I am not a romantic, but day-dreaming about cafes and beautiful, human music is not one of them. Some of the PCO's songs are so good in that way that I nearly can't listen to them, it's too painful. Perpetuum Mobile and Rosasolis come to mind.

One good side effect of researching the group for the class was finding video of the group playing and of Simon Jeffes speaking, albeit most of it from a bizarre 1989 BBC studio performance, which includes such gems as Simon Jeffes playing two penny whistles at the same time (Salty Bean Fumble), and just being able to see what fun they're all having while they perform.

I also discovered that Concert Program is a wonderful "snapshot" studio album, not a release of all new music but just a picture of the group at a particular point in time. It contains some subtle variations on pieces that I know well from their original releases (Music from the Penguin Cafe, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Broadcasting from Home, and Signs of Life)..Union Cafe is an album that I didn't know about before researching for the presentation.

Tragically, Jeffes died in 1997 of an inoperable brain tumour. His son Arthur continues his legacy today with his group Music from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which plays PCO pieces as well as new compositions.

If only all assignments could be so fun and rewarding.

Posted Mon 26 Apr 2010 06:56:06 AM UTC Tags: tags/mit
Christine Spang shortening URLs in barnowl

I post to identica through BarnOwl using Nelson's Twitter extension. This generally means I want to shorten URLs in my posts ("dents" as they're called on identica) so it's easier to fit them into the 140-character limit.

Luckily, BarnOwl can be extended using Perl, which, combined with some libraries from CPAN, makes this task simple. Here's the snippet I wrote:

package ShortenURLs;
use BarnOwl::Editwin qw(:all);
use Text::FindLinks;
use WWW::Shorten 'Bitly', qw(:short);

my $bitly_username = 'YOUR_BITLY_USERNAME_HERE';
my $bitly_apikey = 'YOUR_BITLY_APIKEY_HERE';

sub shorten_urls {
    my $text = save_excursion {
    my $linkified_text = Text::FindLinks::markup_links(
        text => $text,
        handler => sub {
            my ($url, $before, $after) = @_;

            my $short_link = q{};

            # hack around Text::FindLinks including trailing )
            # characters in URLs, which 99% of the time I don't
            # want, since it probably means I've surrounded the
            # link in parens
            if ($before =~ m/\($/ && $url =~ m/\)$/) {
                $url =~ s/\)$//;
                $short_link .= ")";

            return short_link($url, $bitly_username, $bitly_apikey).$short_link;


BarnOwl::new_command('shorten-urls' => \&shorten_urls);
BarnOwl::bindkey(edit => 'C-l' => command => 'shorten-urls');


You'll need a account, and to enter your username and API key from that account in the relevant locations. Paste the snippet into e.g. ~/.owl/, and add require "$ENV{HOME}/.owl/"; to your ~/.owlconf.

It has a sort of ridiculous dependency chain that I am too lazy to cull, which you'll need to install, probably using cpan. I recommend using local::lib if you're installing without root. (I found this to be a pretty good walkthrough). Installing WWW::Shorten::Bitly and Text::FindLinks should pull in all relevant dependencies.

And that's it! Hit C-l in the editwin and all the links in it will be replaced with shortened versions.

Posted Mon 12 Apr 2010 05:23:41 AM UTC Tags: tags/mit

I've been engaging in an experiment in shoelessness since about the beginning of September. My impetus for this was a variety of small things that built up over time:

  • Over the summer, I ran a couple miles around three times per week, and found it pretty ridiculous that even with this moderate amount of running my right knee would ache afterwards.
  • Friends of mine have been experimenting with thin-soled shoes such as Five Fingers since last winter or so.
  • This book.
  • Articles like this one, and this site among other places on the Internet.

In the end I became pretty convinced that not wearing shoes if you don't have to is just plain superior to wearing them, so I decided to give it a try.

At first I felt somewhat self-conscious going barefoot, as it's not exactly the norm around town. But after a few weeks it just felt natural. People notice, but not all that many actually say anything about it. And now walking brings the added variety of sun-warmed tile floors and dew-damp grass. Even gravel is just another interesting texture. Sharp objects have been a mythical problem that I just haven't encountered. You gain a sort of sixth-sense for not stepping on things you shouldn't step on while paying a minimum of attention.

Right now I generally cycle to campus every day in a pair of old beat-up Crocs and then leave them clipped to my bike with my helmet. Metal petals are pretty sharp on bare feet; I've been meaning to see if some modifications will make the pedals more bare foot friendly but just haven't gotten around to it yet. Plastic pedals tend to be okay, if not the most comfortable things in the world. Cycling with sandals also means that I have backup in the rare case of some belligerant shop owner (though I haven't actually ever been asked to leave a store).

For running, I settled on wearing some FiveFingers KSOs. I tried going actually barefoot a couple times, but found running on city surfaces, even by the Charles River, to be extremely abrasive. Perhaps I am just not hardcore enough! The FiveFingers were a bit uncomfortable at first--my smallest toes tended to hurt while wearing them, and the tip of my second-longest left toe got a minor blister the first time I wore them. After wearing them four or five times, though, those problems went away and I'm pretty pleased with them overall. Running is fun again, and I no longer fear that every time I go out I'm harming my knees.

In the beginning, I tried really hard to have a proper barefoot gait, without a hard heel landing. For a while this meant I was actually trying to land on the ball of my foot, which I don't think was the right thing. What feels right and comfortable for me now is a nearly flat-footed landing with a soft heel strike that rolls into the rest of the stride. But I don't really think about it at all; I just move forward and it works itself out.

The next challenge will be figuring out the best way to tackle getting around when it gets cold out. But I'll burn that bridge when what I'm doing now gets uncomfortable.

Posted Wed 15 Oct 2008 10:11:00 PM UTC Tags: tags/mit

I present proof, in the form of me looking like I'm about to die during the Boston Beanpot Classic road race this past weekend:

Beanpot Road Race

My teammate Lisa (right) looks a bit happier about the death part than I do.

At any rate, it was a fun home race weekend despite a lack of sleep going in, and the death felt pretty good for being death. The road race and team time trial were hilly, and the Tufts Criterium had lots of fun corners. MIT had a good showing (race results here)--now we just need to dominate the upcoming UVM and ECCC Easterns races!

More funny faces can be found on Flickr. Cyclists are fun people, and every race I've gone to I've had a blast at. I'm glad I decided to race with the team this spring, despite being too busy to come out for every race weekend.

Posted Mon 14 Apr 2008 08:21:00 PM UTC Tags: tags/mit

(Disclaimer: I work for MIT Information Services & Technology blah blah blah I am a student blah blah these are only my words and do not represent the opinion(s) of my employer.)

Way back in the day in 1983, MIT started something it called Project Athena, which had the goal of investigating how computers could be used to enhance education at MIT. This project became the origin of such pieces of software as the X Window System and Kerberos, as well as a campus-wide network of workstations all running similar software. In 1991, Project Athena ended, but the Athena system continued on, taken over by MIT Information Systems.

It's 2008, and Athena still exists at MIT--walk into a computing cluster, and chances are all the machines will be running Athena software. (Unless that particular cluster has been taken over be Athena's evil sibling, often referenced as "WinAthena", which often seems to be maintained by no one, and whose existence is sometimes denied by those who maintain and support Real Athena. Not many machines have suffered this agonizing fate, luckily.)

Unfortunately, as the years have progressed recently, fewer and fewer resources have been put into the development of Athena. In many ways it is no longer on the cutting edge of things as it has been in the past, though it is certainly still useful. Some students these days, however, even think of Athena as only "their MIT email" or maybe use it occasionally to print something in a cluster on the way to class. I've seen people grow frustrated and storm out of a cluster due to things like instructions for using a flash drive that involve more steps than just plugging it in. While on the one hand it's easy to laugh at people for a lack of patience or being open to a computing system that is not either Windows or Mac and perhaps a bit more complicated on the surface, on the other hand, some of these things really should just work by now, and on other UNIX-based systems they do--but Athena has lagged behind.

When you log into an Athena workstation for the first time, you are confronted with what looks like this:

Clean MIT Athena login

That's GNOME 2.8, and it looks kind of like the GNOME 2.8 default but uglier. When you look under the hood, there are pieces of the system that obviously originated in a time where nothing better existed and so something new had to be created--the "xlogin" login system doesn't support PAM, and the login path involves a hairy maze of scripts that perform various tasks. Under the hood, the base OS is currently RHEL 4 or Solaris 10. I still can't remember what the right options are to feed RPM whenever I need some information that I think I should be able to get from it. These things were once necessary but today just look crufty.

Some people have tossed around the idea that everyone has a laptop these days and thus clusters are uselessly expensive, but it's been met with a lot of resistance. I'm all for progress, but I use clusters all the time! They're one thing that makes it an easy choice for me to have a really portable laptop, because when I really need computing power or screen space on campus away from my room, there is always a cluster nearby. They're also nice isolated places that can be associated with "work mode", which is good for productivity. Beyond all this, Athena provides a common platform that all technical classes can depend on, from providing standard and specialized academic software to standing as a baseline of "make sure your code works on this before handing it in because that is how it will be graded".

At any rate, things are finally happening on this front. Athena can't stay RHEL 4 forever--while AFS allows non-system software to be easily updated for all machines without requiring any OS release, hardware moves on and compatibility is lost, and the rest of the world is coming up with new awesome things that Athena machines are missing out on. A student group that I am vaguely involved with, SIPB, took the early initiative with this and created DebAthena, which takes stock Debian and Ubuntu and allows it to closely resemble an Athena environment. We even run a campus Linux dialup using the packages. (I won't claim to have done much work on DebAthena myself because, well, I didn't.) Amazingly, the Athena release team has decided to work with the SIPB on the next release of Athena.

So, what I really just wasted over 600 words prepping for is to say that Athena 10 will be based on Ubuntu. This is only relatively new news, but I am lame about finishing blog posts. There are a variety of reasons why Ubuntu was chosen over Debian. Some of them are lame and some of them are not. Even so, I am excited about this prospect--and it should be possible to peripherally support Debian in such a way that was not possible with Athena 9.4.

I really like Athena. Even coming to MIT with a background in Linux there has been a steep learning curve, though, and I think that things could be better. Lots of people here have their first encounter with a 'nix system in the form of Athena, and we should strive to make that experience as good as possible. I'm kind of skeptical on the expected release date of this upcoming summer, but as long as it happens soon it will be a big step forward.

In some ways it's kind of sad that I'm excited about a big part of a research institution catching up with others--but inertia is a strong force, and dealing with thousands of workstations is no trivial task. I kind of long for the exciting days of creating new big pieces of free software like X. I bet I imagine those days as being better than they actually were.

Posted Thu 10 Jan 2008 10:19:00 PM UTC Tags: tags/mit

In MIT-land, IAP is over, and classes have been running again for a week. This term I'm doing things such as learning Scheme in the intro CS class 6.001, "The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs" -- otherwise known as SICP. No DrScheme jokes. Ari, this means you.

IAP was great fun -- it's kind of a like a mini-summer in between terms. I played in a LARP, participated in the MIT Mystery Hunt on the same team as Mako, and made a robot.

But now it's back to the grindstone. But I'm looking forward to this term more than I was last term. (Famous last words.)

Posted Mon 12 Feb 2007 01:23:16 AM UTC Tags: tags/mit

LARPing geek paradise. And we're only on day three of ten. I love IAP. (Assassin's Guild, Centauri Game Headquarters)

(me, far right)

Update: Game's over. I transcended my biological body and became an android the night before game end. It was pretty damn awesome and exciting.

(Name badges are race-colour-coded, so new race means new name badge... yay GMs!)

Posted Sun 21 Jan 2007 05:43:45 PM UTC Tags: tags/mit

One of the student groups I'm involved in at MIT is the SIPB, the Student Information Processing Board. It's a volunteer computer group so old that they called it "information processing" back then. They run a bunch of different servers and provide lots of cool services for the MIT community. One of the things that they do is teach classes about various things related to computing during IAP, MIT's Independent Activities Period.

So back when I had just gotten started with the group, one of the members was like, "Hey! You want to teach an IAP class!" and, being a frosh, I was like, "Er, I didn't know that... but, um, okay." So I taught one about Debian, of course. This year's topic was Giving Back: Contributing to Debian and the New Maintainer Process. It was a three-day series, as described here. The lengths of the talks varied, with the first day being ~45 minutes, the second being ~1.5 hours, and the last being ~30 minutes.

All of the lecture materials can be found here.

The audience was on the high side of technical, and a lot of the slides were more to nudge me into what I was talking about rather than to be really awesome slides. Which probably should have involved less text.

The packaging crash course definitely drew a much larger audience than the first or third parts, which mostly consisted of people I know who work on Debian-Athena, the unexpected appearance of my friend Aaron Swartz who's in town for a couple weeks, and a few faces that I didn't know.

Maybe next year I'll try to plan something that just involves a more intensive packaging course. Because, although I procrastinated, pushed the original lecture dates back a week from original plan, and made my lecture slides on the day they were presented, I actually did have fun. And it's good practice.

Posted Wed 17 Jan 2007 10:00:37 PM UTC Tags: tags/mit

Sailboats on the Charles River

Posted Fri 03 Nov 2006 07:22:33 PM UTC Tags: tags/mit