Steuard and Computers

Despite spending a lot of time working and playing on computers over the years, I've never really entertained the thought of going into computers as a career (and this despite the fact that a substantial fraction of my friends in college majored in computer science). But hey! If that physics thing doesn't work out, I've got a second career just waiting for me (ignoring that whole dot-com collapse, anyway).

I've gone through a lot of computers and operating systems over time. I grew up on DOS and Windows, and my first computer in college ran Windows 95 (Kim's computer still runs Win 98). But starting in college, I was introduced to UNIX on various campus servers (let's not talk about that one VAX cluster), and I decided to try Linux on a partition of my own computer. Over time, that became my primary operating system, with Windows only there for a few games. And recently, I was finally seduced by the Linux-like flavor of Mac OS X: my current computer is a Macintosh PowerBook G4, and I love it.

I'm a pretty good programmer when I actually get to do it, particularly considering my grand total of one year's classwork in the field. My preferred language is C++, though I can make a decent stab at C and (I think) Java with a reference book in front of me, and I've taught myself at least the basics of Perl (and Mathematica, to the extent that it counts as a programming language). I've done some cool things in C++ over time: I wrote a nifty X-based graphical simulation of an interesting quantum mechanical system (the "Paul trap", which confines particles using only electric fields) as a research project after my sophomore year in college, a full-fledged (and quite successful) simulation of a Compton scattering experiment for a lab class early in grad school, and at least one quick program to clarify a point in a research project in conformal field theory. (Most of my research-related "programming" recently has used Mathematica.)

My only "current" C++ programming project is thoroughly on the back burner at the moment: my friend David Bunde and I once started writing our own version of the game Civilization (first inspired by a new perspective on the technology system). Maybe one day we'll find the time and inspiration to work on it again. As for Perl, my Custom Tolkien Book List (linked below) is one public example of my work; I've also written scripts to generate my Tolkien FAQs from one source file (both the text and HTML versions), and to run a weekly "movie night" voting system for some friends in grad school (you can see an example of what it looks like).

I also code for the web fairly well, though I only rarely take the time for it. I write pretty much all of my code by hand, and in general I place a premium on making my work accessible to as many platforms, connection speeds, and web browsers as possible (as one part of that, I make a point of validating my HTML and CSS). In the case of this site in particular, I've taken a somewhat looser approach: while I've tried to make sure that it's not bad on any platform, I've decided to push the envelope at least a little bit with some parts of the CSS 2 specification that apparently aren't supported by all browsers yet (Internet Explorer in particular). On the other hand, I've set those features to be turned off by default for parts of my site that ought to be more broadly accessible (like the tutorials and research sections).

My Tolkien Meta-FAQ takes the opposite approach from this site: it is very simple (and thus very accessible) but nicely streamlined, and while it doesn't have many flashy features it includes a fair bit of less flashy polish, including detailed site structure information using <LINK> tags, layout using style sheets, and a cute "favicon" rendered with the POV-Ray raytracer (I've used POV-Ray for physics research presentations, too). The site also includes my Custom Tolkien Book List, a CGI script written in Perl that takes the user's reading preferences and suggests a good order in which to read Tolkien's books (along with commentary and section by section recommendations).

I even end up doing programming-like things with other software when it's possible. The grade spreadsheets for my classes are highly automated (though of course I do the final grade assignment personally by hand), including fancy features like dropping the lowest homework score, scaling tests, and assigning tentative letter grades. As another example, I make heavy use of Smart Playlists in iTunes to accomplish all sorts of handy effects. I've even dug into the internal data format a bit to create Smart Playlists for half star ratings in iTunes, which are impossible to distinguish using the usual user interface.

I play games on my computer, too, though thankfully I haven't done much of that recently. At various times in the past I have been completely hooked on Nethack, Myth: The Fallen Lords, and Civilization I-III. (The multiplayer aspects of the latter two are the best things about them; part of the reason I don't play them as often anymore is that my friends in Chicago weren't as into them as my college friends were. You'd think that distance wouldn't be an issue for network gaming, but hey.) I finally beat Nethack a few years ago, when Elwing ascended to demi-goddesshood.

Of course, I spend time online, too. I generally use the Mozilla Firefox web browser; it's fast, has great standards support, and doesn't support an ever growing near-monopoly. I have been a regular participant in the Tolkien Newsgroups on Usenet (though less so in the past few years); more information on that hobby can be found at my Tolkien newsgroups page. I also keep in touch with a fair number of friends by email more than anything else, so that takes time as well. These days I usually read mail using Mozilla Thunderbird, though I still use mutt at times. I use SpamAssassin (with procmail) to handle the ridiculous amount of spam generated by my websites and my newsgroup participation. My GPG/PGP public key is available if you want it.

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Copyright © 2004-13 by Steuard Jensen.