Yesterday, despite the thick snow, we went to see Norma at the Zürich Opera. Last time I went to the Opera was six years ago, for Aida.
The mise en scène was interesting, with very stiff and formal poses and a set that looked like something between a modern art installation and a science fiction setting. The costumes somehow reminded me of the Star Wars prequels. Still this worked, and I think it was a good choice, balancing Bellini’s music which can be a bit pompous.
I really loved the duets between Norma and Adalgisa, but I actually enjoyed the whole opera and was moved by all the arie, it was really an astounding performance, which I recommend heartily.
The show features both german and english super-titles (they are above the scene), I found them to be in stark contrast with each other, where the german text felt very literary and dramatic, and quite close to the bits of Italian I could parse. The english translation was really plain, often with precise words replaced by more generic ones. So if you can, read the german text…
It is no secret that diversity is an issue in computer science, a lot has already been said and tried to improve the situation, with little success, and sadly I don’t think there is a silver bullet as this is a complicated problem.
Still it makes sense to challenge the way we think about things: computer-science tends to be dominated by a few communities, which, even though they are quite international, tend to replicate their thought patterns and their preconceptions. I cringe every time someone want to build another Silicon Valley: one is enough, we need something else.
One enduring pattern is that text is ASCII: a majority of the people working from IT come from a culture whose written language cannot be expressed properly using simply the characters used in modern English yet they build systems were this or that text field cannot contain anything else but English characters. A majority reproducing a pattern that does not suit them as users.
How can you challenge the assumptions on who works in information technology if you cannot even challenge the idea of what text is? In this case, de facto standard is only usable by a minority, the fraction of web-sites that are pure ASCII has been falling steadily, yet the number of applications and system that can only properly process ASCII is huge.
I’m certainly not claiming that fixing that particular technical problem would in any way improve the diversity situation, but I have the feeling that the underlying problems are similar: a system that has worked for some time, with a large body of evidence showing that it is broken, an unwillingness to change because this would challenge some core processes and assumptions…
Last Friday I went back to EPFL to listen to the last lecture of my PhD advisor, André Schiper. His Leçon d’honneur had the title Replication for fault-tolerance: what have we learned in forty years?. The school needed to change the room of the presentation multiple time as more and more people registered for the talk. In the end we ended up in one of the large amphitheatres in the Centre Ouest. This was a very moving event, many of André’s PhD students and Postdocs came for the occasion.
The presentation was a rare moment: it is quite rare in computer science to look at an issue from a 40 years perspective, from the pioneering papers to the maturity and use in the industry. This was also a reminder that research is not a straight line: there has been a lot of confusion, abstractions and models which ended up being irrelevant or useless, important papers that were ignored or misunderstood, problematic ones that ended up stealing the spotlight. This lecture certainly gave me a sense of closure on what I did during my research career and I hope the slides will be available online soon.
While I have my own PGP key, and plugins installed for the mail application, I don’t often encrypt e-mails, as I’m pretty much alone in having encryption setup. This is not surprising, as setting up PGP is hard: the journalists contacted by Assange did not even know what it is.
Thanks to the NSA, there has been a renewed interest in simplifying encryption, for instance Threema uses QR-codes for the public key exchange. Recently a friend sent me an invite for a new service: keybase.
The idea of Keybase is to offer tools to use PGP to associate with your identity various web properties: if you look at my profile, you will see that this website, my twitter account and my git account are associated with my account, with online, cryptographically signed, machine readable documents proving this. Keybase is also a command line that simplifies some PGP tasks, you can also host your private key in an encrypted form on their website.