Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


JANUARY 2, 2012 8:57AM

The manuscript is in the mail

Yesterday afternoon I submitted the latest revision of my manuscript to my publisher. My New Year's Day gift to myself. It's a non-fiction book about computers, in the general category of popular science.  This is how the process worked, if you're curious and thinking of doing such a thing yours… Read full post »

NOVEMBER 10, 2011 6:11PM

Science and Public Understanding

chemical science_experience_01In science classrooms across the country, children learn how to carry out experiments. Imagine two sixth graders looking over a second-story balcony (properly supervised, of course). Jane holds a notebook, pencil at the ready. Jim holds a golfball and a large marble at arm's length over t… Read full post »

NOVEMBER 8, 2011 7:58PM

The Rational Beast

Human beings are rational animals. We're not the only rational animals, contra Aristotle; the great apes and some birds, for example, behave rationally in many situations and sometimes show remarkable flashes of insight. Even if we're not uniquely rational, though, human beings are more rational, mor/… Read full post »


I'm partial to stories about ghosts and the supernatural. Supernatural literature goes back centuries; it's a rich source of themes and ideas for modern entertainment. Here are three of my favorite stories-turned-into-movies.

So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only,Read full post »

AUGUST 28, 2011 10:51AM

Unwanted visitors


We live on a small cul-de-sac off a busy road. Our house has a long driveway and is barely visible from the street, through the trees. Our neighborhood is so quiet that we don't even get trick-or-treaters for Halloween. Weeks can go by without our seeing the neighbors outside their… Read full post »

AUGUST 23, 2011 6:15PM

Rick Perry and the end of the world

Last week, during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Rick Perry gave his views on evolution:

It's a theory that's out there. It's got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution, because I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one's right.

Should we… Read full post »

AUGUST 21, 2011 11:19AM

Yak with me


Aa, aal, adit, aline, avo, azo, azon... Do you know these words? If you do, it's probably from playing Scrabble.

There's only a weak sense in which I "know" these words. I have a vague memory that aa is a Hawaiian word for a kind of cooled lava, and that/… Read full post »

AUGUST 3, 2011 9:45AM

The Arts of Fiction


Every true apprentice writer has, however he may try to keep it secret even from himself, only one major goal: glory. The shoddy writer wants only publication.

"Glory? Nonsense," my friend said. We were sitting at an outdoor cafe. I shifted in my seat. She had actually written books; I… Read full post »

JULY 29, 2011 8:27AM

My life on Facebook, Part II

About a year ago I collected two years' worth of my Facebook status updates and published them as a single OS post.

I'm no master of aphorism (wouldn't that be an exotic handle?) in that my observations seem to center mostly on movies, food, and our cat, but for anyone who's… Read full post »

MARCH 16, 2011 7:06PM

Movies, vision, and writing

If you're watching an action thriller (I have unfortunate tastes in movies), you'll sometimes see a guy with a gun drawn, hiding behind a pillar in a garage. He'll poke his head out and then pull back too fast for the bad guys (or possibly the good guys) to put holes/… Read full post »
DECEMBER 5, 2010 9:04AM

Favorite movies remade

Early this morning I was working on an idea for the book I'm writing. It didn't pan out--too jokey. But perfect fodder for a blog post. Imagine a remake of your favorite movie, taking modern technology into account. Here are a few possibilities.

News Feed 

bergmanIlsa Lund
Heading to
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DECEMBER 2, 2010 5:18PM

Stuff I didn't learn in kindergarten

It's been said that all you really need to know is what you learned in kindergarten. I've discovered that this isn't true. Six-year-olds don't understand very much about life or even themselves, much less the way things will be in the future.  Here's a taste.

It may be years or evenRead full post »

NOVEMBER 27, 2010 2:00PM

Okay, so you're in a horror movie...

Yesterday, during the rain and gloom, I was chatting with my wife about our long history of watching horror movies together. In a fit of inspiration (though you may call it something else) I put together the chart below. The image is linked to a larger version on Facebook.

Imagine that… Read full post »

NOVEMBER 24, 2010 10:13AM

The Woodrow Wilson Dime

Lately, to unwind in the evenings, I've been re-reading a comic novel by Jack Finney. Finney is best known for The Body Snatchers and Time and Again; this is a fluffy fantasy called The Woodrow Wilson Dime, originally published in 1968. Benjamin Bennell, a twenty-something office drone, finds a porta… Read full post »
SEPTEMBER 19, 2010 12:07PM


Yesterday afternoon I went to a birthday party, where I played  hide-and-seek with the hosts' four-year-old little girl, L. It reminded me of the work of my friend Greg, a cognitive scientist who has used hide-and-seek as a task in some of his case studies [PDF]. (Long-time readers of this blog/… Read full post »

SEPTEMBER 13, 2010 9:36AM

How to spam OS

So you'd like to be a spammer. It's not a career path your parents would be proud of, I suppose, but if you're going to do something, do it well. Here are three strategies for successfully spamming OS.

Shoping spam: Create an account on OS1. (For this strategy to work, it helps/… Read full post »

AUGUST 20, 2010 9:10PM

Let me offer an analogy

The Laura Schlessinger controversy has gotten me thinking about analogies. I find that when I try to make my views clear, especially to someone I disagree with, analogies come in handy.

For example, here's the opening to Schlessinger's recent radio conversation:

SCHLESSINGER: Jade, welcome… Read full post »
AUGUST 19, 2010 11:17PM

Open Call: Stop word stories

Here's the challenge: Write a story using only words from this list.

Here's the backstory: One area of computer science, information retrieval, deals with the comparison of documents, especially the identification of documents that are similar to each other. Imagine typing a query into a search engin… Read full post »

AUGUST 2, 2010 11:53AM

A Guide to the Mythology of Tomorrow

In the earliest days of the cosmos, at the dawn of coordinated universal time, Titans walked the Earth. They numbered twelve: the brothers Ocearus, Compilus, Trieus, Hypertexton, I/Opetus, and Kernelus; and the sisters T1, Rheatime, Mnemoleak, Tetris, BBS, and Bootis. The elder gods reigned over a pe… Read full post »

I will be in Philadelphia for a business trip in a couple of weeks days, and there's a chance I'll have some free time on Friday evening, August 6, for drinks. Is anyone game for an OS meet-up?

I propose to meet at the Irish pub Slainte, on 3000 Market StreetRead full post »

This post has been sitting around in draft form for a few weeks. It's from January 2, 2009; I'm reposting it now simply to make it visible on my blog.

Ignaz Semmelweis is a famous name in the history of medicine. This is his story, in brief, selectively paraphrased/

Read full post »
JULY 21, 2010 8:32AM

Avoid cliches like the plague

 "It is my practice at this hour to read some improving book..."

I grew up in a house full of books. Jeeves would not have found all of them improving, but for a young writer many of the books definitely were: Strunk and White's Elements of Style, Fowler's Modern English Usage,/… Read full post »

JULY 18, 2010 8:32PM

My life on Facebook

A friend on Facebook recently asked me how to delete all of one's Wall posts (the Facebook equivalent of an OS post) at one go. For people on the job market, this is a useful thing to think about. Of course, Facebook doesn't allow you to do this, given their business model. You… Read full post »

JULY 16, 2010 7:34PM

Five bits of arcana

Here are five things you may not know:

On language: We sometimes choose our words carefully, because two words describing the same general concept may have slightly different shades of meaning.  Are there any words in English that mean exactly the same thing? There's just one pair of exact synon… Read full post »

JULY 13, 2010 11:13AM

Fashion demons

I'm mostly oblivious to fashion. The other day I put on a pair of pants that I hadn't worn for some time. My wife looked at them dubiously. "Do guys still wear pants with cuffs and reverse pleats?" she asked. "They did in 1990," I said, after a bit of calculation.… Read full post »