Monday, October 27, 2008

In case you were conflicted...

Video of McCain's pastor friend claiming that America was founded in part to destroy Islam, which is a false religion not about the living God:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Female Chauvinist Pigs: an accurate portrayal of the "empowered female"

I just finished reading Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, a polemic on the inappropriateness of equating the objectification of women with sexual liberation.

In this book, Levy focuses on the objectification of women by women: there are women who play the role of the cartoon woman with the big boobs and lack of personality, and there are women who are "female chauvinist pigs," playing the role of the strip-club-going, misogynistic cartoon man. Levy's main point is that our present society seems to confuse sexual objectification for female liberation: while sexual liberation is an important aspect of female liberation, 1) what we have today is not really liberation and 2) there are other, more important aspects of liberation (i.e. serving in political office, running a company). Levy provides a compelling take on how we got to where we are now, starting with the beginnings of radical feminism and continuing to the present, describing the situation of women from lesbian "bois" in San Francisco who act tough to anorexic high school girls who compete to be the "skankiest."

The book describes the disturbing phenomenon of misogynistic women who claim to hate "girly-girls" but are obsessed with pornography. Levy talks about how the producers of The Man Show, which features ditzy, large-breasted women jumping around, see their job as a great defense against being seen as "that prissy little woman." Levy writes of these women who try to be seen as "one of the guys," "It can be fun to feel exception--to be the loophole woman, to have a whole power thing, to be an honorary man. But if you are the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven't made any progress." Levy also criticizes Camille Paglia*, who tries to associate herself with what she sees as the masculine, writing, "Paglia's equation of all things aggressive, arrogant, adventurous, and libidinous with masculinity, and her relgation of everything whiney, wimpy, needy, and compacent to femininity, is, among other things, dopey."

The take-away message Levy offers is for women (and men) to separate women from the objectification to which men have subject women. Levy writes, "Without a doubt there are some women who feel their most sexual with their vaginas waxed, their labia trimmed, their breasts enlarged, and there garmets flossy and scant. I am happy for them... But there are many other women... who feel contrained in this environment, who would be happier and feel hotter... if they explored other avenues of expression and entertainment." In her last paragraph, she writes, "If we believed that we were sexy and funny and competent and smat, we woul dnot need to be like stripper or like men or like anyone other than our own specific, individual selves." Out of context, this advice may seem obvious and trite, but Levy has shown in this book that it is anything but.

Not only is Female Chauvinist Pigs a fascinating read, but Levy makes very good points backed up by careful thought and good research. All who care to think about the role of women in American society today should read this book.

Related note: I also read a somewhat related article on how it is seems to be no longer good enough for women to be smart, if they are not smart and sexy they're intelligence somehow does not count. This is with respect to how the Boston Globe equated MIT's growing well-roundedness with the fact that their female students are posing for fundraising calendars.

* A total anti-feminist goon and a faux intellectual.

Republican campaigns fabricate lies from air

Here is another instance of Republican candidates making shit up. (Thanks, Seth, for telling me about this.)

In the Congressional race between Democrat Darcy Burner and Republican Dave Reichert, Reichert has decided to accuse Burner of lying about her education. Burner had made some remark about studying economics as an undergraduate at Harvard and Reichert's campaign confirmed with the Registrar that there was no record of this with the college. Unfortunately for Reichert, Burner did have a special emphasis on economics within the computer science department and had taken five economics courses (which, as former dean Harry Lewis says, must have included difficult, mathematical ones rather than fluffy ones). Harry Lewis even went so far to make a video about how Darcy Burner studied economics, which I show below.

The media has been eating this "scandal" up so much that Seth and I (but mostly Seth) wrote to the Seattle Times.

We do not live in an efficient society when valuable human resources are spent on remedying these "crises" that Republicans create. Voters should be well aware that this is time the campaigns and media spend away from the real issues, of which there are many.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mon is immortalized

I found this website,, where Asian kids submit correspondences with their parents. My submission made it in!

Facebook friends

Facebook message sent by my mom regarding a photo of me kissing my roommate on the cheek:

Your picture shows you are gay that is no good.

People who don't hold doors

While I agree with the European view that Americans are rather silly in how they run around opening doors with each other, there are two situations in which it is terrible form to let the door close:
  1. You live in a building and you see other people who live in the building with their hands full of groceries. They are about five feet away from the door as you exit the building. If you allowed the door to close, they would have to put down their groceries, fish around for keys and maneuver through the door while holding it themselves. If you leave them to do this, you are one oblivious motherfucker.
  2. You are exiting a building with a prox card (perhaps a university building) and you see someone walking up to the building. You would not even have to hold the door open if you only opened the door all the way. If you instead slide through the smallest crack of door that remains open from when the previous person opened the door*, letting the door shut right as the poor next person walks up to it, you are either extremely rude or completely socially unaware.
I have encountered oblivious goons who have failed to hold the door in both situations. The latter situation happened just a few hours ago, causing old resentments to rise anew. I do not understand how such people might have friends in the world.

*Rather than go through the risky acrobatics, isn't it easier just to open the door?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Colin Powell endorses Barack Obama

This is big that conservative former Secretary of State under Bush is endorsing Obama. From the CNN article:

"I think he is a transformational figure, he is a new generation coming onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason I'll be voting for Sen. Barack Obama," Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Powell said he was concerned about what he characterized as a recent negative turn of Republican candidate Sen. John McCain's campaign, such as the campaign's attempts to tie Obama to former 1960s radical Bill Ayers.

"I think that's inappropriate. I understand what politics is about -- I know how you can go after one another, and that's good. But I think this goes too far, and I think it has made the McCain campaign look a little narrow. It's not what the American people are looking for," he said.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Is education really getting worse?

I always hear people lamenting the state of current primary/secondary education: it is not what it used to be. I do not proclaim to know very much about this, but it is really the case that education is getting worse*? There are various alternate explanations to why it may seem as such:
  1. Other countries are catching up. One measure of the US "falling behind" in education is that other countries are performing much better on all sorts of exams. While the US is not putting a lot of investment in math and science education, countries like China, Russia, and the Czech republic are churning out math Olympians.
  2. Because more people are educated, the standards have become higher. Now that more people are getting educated, people are no longer impressed when someone else knows the entire Western canon**. But in seriousness, people were considered well-educated before when they knew the basics in a lot of things and then did some medium-depth study of classics or something like that. It takes a lot more to be impressively well-educated today. My evidence for this point is that education at the top (at places like Harvard, at least) certainly does not seem to be getting worse. When I talk to my professors who are over 60 and went to Harvard as undergraduates, they seemed to have a lot less pressure and more free time. (But does pressure = better education?)
  3. When we think of education "back then," we were taking a median or mean over education of only a portion of the population. Since then, education has spread to all, causing the overall quality education to become worse. (This is similar to saying that the quality of asymmetrical dresses was much higher "back then," two months ago when they were only on the runways. Of course they would be; there is a reason why certain designers design for Chanel and others design for Target.)
There has been some evidence that education is getting absolutely worse. Someone told me that at Andover they have to write their own geometry textbooks because the textbooks on the market no longer contain anything rigorous (proofs, mathematically derived explanations, etc.). There are also structural (to society) reasons: people who would have become teachers in the past have many more higher-paying, more prestigious career opportunities available. (The increased opportunity may have caused a decline in teacher quality which caused a decline in the valuation of education which cause a decline in teacher quality which caused a--okay, you get it--cycle.) A more specific example of this is that women now have career options other than teaching, which means that a lot of women who would have made good teachers are now being professors, CEO's, and the like. Finally, if the third reason is true then it could very likely be causing the absolute quality of education to be getting worse, especially with things like No Child Left Behind which insist on pulling down the overall quality of education until everyone is at the worst level.

*I mean absolutely worse, which is the common usage of the term. I mean, when your favorite Olympic runner's world record gets broken by someone else, you don't go around bemoaning the fact that s/he is getting worse by the day.
** This is a facetious point. People are no longer impressed because there is no longer a fixed Western canon and also people have come to devalue education to the degree that familiarity with literature is no longer impressive to most.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sarah Palin is not a role model to women

John McCain, you are wrong.

The JY Intro CS curriculum

I have long been of the the opinion that assembly (or even bits) is the best first programming language to teach, and I have long been appalled at the practice of teaching Python to poor naive starting programmers, but recent events* have caused me to change my opinion. The introductory curriculum I propose for people who have had none to light experience is:
  • Introduction to Python via requiring students to write something making good use of Python's very nice libraries for doing nasty things, such as I/O, regular expressions, and interacting with the WWW.
  • Introduction to why Python is not great by requiring students to write something in Python that is very slow for large sizes. Maybe implement a minimum spanning tree algorithm or something like that.
  • Introduction to C! We will write the same thing in C. After a couple days of pointer chasing and pulling hair out, we will emerge as better, stronger, programmers. Now we can run our programs 1000 times for the time it took to run our last program once!
  • Introduction to the necessary evil of object-oriented programming through revealing some difficulties of practicing good data abstraction in C. Maybe have people write something like a binary tree in C and have them try to make their library be more opaque about data members. (So OO programming is not actually necessary, but might be a necessary evil in present-day CS education for practical reasons.)
  • Now we program with actually cool languages that do things right. Haskell, anyone? (This might be the bonus extra part of the class that might happen after the semester ends.)
When I am a professor, students will have evolved enough such that such a curriculum will not be considered ambitious at all. ;)

Python, despite the fact that it is incredibly unprincipled, is a decent first language because it gives you great mileage. You can go very far with Python in a week; you can go very far with Python with a few lines of code. (Adam was writing code that took logged onto password-protected sites and processed/parsed the HTML for keywords to download specific files within a couple of days.) Starting with Python makes people excited about their potential power and shows them that tools can be powerful. It is, however, bad to stay in Pythonland for too long because Python enforces no good programming practices. (You get too far being a bad programmer and so become in danger of never becoming a good programmer.)

Why would you want to become a good programmer? Besides the obvious reasons ("you will get much further when you build large projects", etc.), you can't live in Pythonland forever unless you plan to live forever (and have deadlines extend forever). Though Python has nice foreign function interfaces in C, there exist times when you will want to write your own C. One of my favorite conversations demonstrating my power from good choice of language (in discussing some small simulation to solve a problem in a randomized algorithms course):
  • Naive friend: Does your thing take a really long time to run for n=10,000?
  • Powerful Jean: Um yeah. It takes a whole minute, maybe?
  • NF: Oh. Mine has been running since before dinner.
  • PJ: Haha. Should have used C.

Why I previously did not believe in any Python at all. Programming abstractions are not opaque, so many things in programming make much more sense when one understands why they are the way they are. (For instance, the difference between a linked list and array--and the reason why linked lists exist at all--make more sense when you have a feel for memory and issues regarding contiguous memory.) It doesn't make a lot of sense to teach programming with broken tools 1) things will seem arbitrary to students unless they understand why things are broken, and 2) unless you are getting some mileage out of them. (I see bits as the least broken abstraction, and then assembly, etc.) One of my first languages was Java, one of the most broken languages of all time, and things made little sense to me until I learned C.

Note. Learning to program is not the same thing as learning to think. Learning to program is a process that involves getting to know one's tools. Learning to think is a process that involves developing one's mind so that one can make good use of tools. Thinking models are, unfortunately, not yet the same as the tools we currently have, so as of now these two sorts of things should be (initially) taught separately and in parallel. As of now I lump really high-level things like Scheme with the high-level thinking stuff because 1) Scheme is so simple and nice (has only one main rule and is unityped) that it is great for teaching reasoning about recursion, continuations, and other such things and 2) Scheme isn't the best for helping people develop great programming practices (modularity, incremental testing, good abstractions, etc.).

*I have been advising my boyfriend, Adam, an economics consultant, in learning to program. So far he has written a lot of useful Python to automate his work and he has written a binary tree in C. He is the coolest beginning C programmer around because I showed him gdb, valgrind, and gprof.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Teachability of writing, math, and programming

One of my strongest views is about the teachability of writing, math, programming. It is total bullshit when an otherwise smart person says that they "can't write," "can't do math," or "can't program."

On writing: just as mathematical ability is the sign of reasoning ability, good writing reflects clear thinking. Clear thinking can occur naturally or with the help of various constructs for aiding clear thinking. Some people become good writers naturally; others need to see more examples, get more feedback, and have more practice. While you cannot teach style, you can teach a general command of the English language.

On math:
if you can reason, you can do math. Most people are able to reason about things they care about, so most people should be able to do math. Many people have a complex that they "can't do math," probably because they were not taught math very well. I am a firm believer in this "math complex" because I have convinced at least a couple of people that they have "math complexes" and they have gone on to be quite successful (and proficient in math!) after this change.

On programming: a set of good programming skills is isomorphic to a set of good writing skills: you need to be able to express what you want clearly, concisely, and efficiently. You need to know your tools (C, Java, Haskell vs. the English language) and how to use them. Again, you can't make any old goon into an elite superhacker with style, but you can make any goon a proficient programmer.

Lack of proficiency in any of the three reflects either a lack of interest (very likely, especially in the case of the third) and/or a failure of education (also likely).

Expectations of low ability cause deadweight loss

I was talking to my college roommate, Aliza, who is teaching high school English with Teach for America, about how people good at one thing are not expected to be good at other things. She said that her students are often shocked when she demonstrates ability to do things other than English--in particular, they are shocked when she can do math, as she sometimes does when calculating GPA's in her head. We discussed how such expectations are bogus, and it was the expectation of our parents that we would excel in everything that caused us to have more well-rounded abilities. I told her about how when I was very small I could do all kinds of math but couldn't put sentences together, and she told me about how her reading ability was in such contrast to her math ability that her first grade teacher expressed confusion to Aliza's mother. We were both forced to overcome these early challenges, and though we ended up choosing careers (or the beginnings of careers) with what felt more natural, both of us became proficient in the basic skills--I am now able to express myself through writing and she can now do math. For both of us, it had been very important that parents, teachers, etc. expected us to be good at more than one subject.

It is an interesting (and harmful) phenomenon that people are only expected to be good at one thing. (For instance, people who are good at writing are not expected to be as good at math; people who are good athletes are not expected to be good at school.) I propose that it is this self-fulfilling prophecy rather than any sort of truth that causes people to have specialized skills. Few people are so lacking in natural aptitude that they cannot acquire the skills to be proficient in writing, math, or (yes, even) programming. The reason you see so many seemingly smart people who are not proficient in all necessary things is due to a combination of poor teaching and lack of self-motivation (due to expectations from self and others and other psychological barriers).

I've stated briefly in my post about math kids the reason why people good at one thing should be good at other things: if you have the educational background/natural ability to really excel in one field, you should also have the educational background/aptitude for at least proficiency in everything else. This is why it is not surprising when kids who are good at math are also good writers, musicians, etc. The same goes for good athletes: someone who excels at football likely had good early childhood nutrition and parents who didn't beat him/her, and this is enough background to expect that they had everything required to be proficient in reading, writing, math, art, etc. (The reason you don't see more football players who are also great writers and musicians is because nobody requires them to develop these other abilities.)

So why is it the case that expectations are such? There have existed people living in a better time: think of how many well-rounded scholars, thinkers, and "Renaissance men" have existed in the past. Well-educated people were well-educated and expected to prove mathematical theorems while discovering physics phenomena while painting. Things have come to the way they are today because of too much democracy and laziness. People like the belief that you can only be "really good" at one thing because 1) it makes people feel better about themselves when they see other people who are good at something and 2) people who are good at one thing can become lazy and not try hard at other things.

It is my belief that most people are not such idiots that they cannot become good at things if they tried, as people are generally pretty smart about things they care about (whether it be math, politics, sports, or clothes). For this reason I'm not too patient with people who use the excuse that they are "not good at X" for various things. Try harder?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Another reason you don't see as many women in CS/math in America

From a New York Times article:

The United States is failing to develop the math skills of both girls and boys, especially among those who could excel at the highest levels, a new study asserts, and girls who do succeed in the field are almost all immigrants or the daughters of immigrants from countries where mathematics is more highly valued.

The study suggests that while many girls have exceptional talent in math — the talent to become top math researchers, scientists and engineers — they are rarely identified in the United States. A major reason, according to the study, is that American culture does not highly value talent in math, and so discourages girls... from excelling in the field...

“We’re living in a culture that is telling girls you can’t do math — that’s telling everybody that only Asians and nerds do math,” said the study’s lead author...

Research supporting claims about gender issues

One blog reader asked about statistics on female dropout rates in computer science. I haven't yet found good female vs. male dropout statistics, but I discovered various facts:
  • It is an alarming (to some--not surprising to me) and fairly heavily researched phenomenon that women drop out of engineering fields with much higher frequency than men (link).
  • More than 50% of women drop out of technical university in Germany (link).

You can read about women in engineering in one of the largest surveys on the subject. I found this on Erin Taylor's blog, where she discusses various issues with retention of women in engineering programs.

Here is a link to a paper On the outer: women in computer science courses about how being in a primarily male domain makes things difficult for women:

After more than three years researching the question "Why women drop computer science" at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, I am surprised so many women succeed given the overwhelming odds against them. Women who take computer science are 'different' not simply because they are women, but because they have chosen a subject which has been primarily a male domain. Once enrolled, they find themselves 'on the outer', facing difficulties not usually experienced by white middle class men who take computer science. There is evidence that other minorities also suffer alienation in what is essentially a distinct subculture whose origins will be discussed later.

I also found an online chapter to a book Barriers to Women in Science and Engineering by seemingly reputable people, including a Columbia CS professor, discussing the difficulties women face at every stage of their career. As this supports many of the points I made earlier, I recommend that you read the chapter:

We find, instead that women face barriers to entry and achievement at all stages of the academic ladder. We have identified a series of mechanisms that mitigate against the progress of women in academic careers in science and engineering. First, such extra-academic factors as the differential socialization of men and women and marriage and family. Second, the normal working of everyday features of academic science such as advising patterns have the unintended consequence of excluding women.

Thirdly, there are sources of subtle and not-so subtle bias derived from the taken-for-granted male model of doing science that also discourage women from full participation. Needless to say, these characteristics are often intertwined and a phenomenon discussed in one category of analysis will also overlap into another. In the following sections we discuss examples of each of these three types of barriers to entry into scientific careers and offer suggestions as to how they can be eliminated or at least lowered.

Overreacting to sexism? Recalibrate your definition of "overreact," my friend.

After my various posts and follow-up posts about the more subtle gender/culture discrimination that occur because our objective standards are not so objective, I have had various people tell me that I am overreacting. These people say I think about gender too much, in ways that are too extreme, etc.

People may feel this way because I chose to focus on more subtle forms of gender discrimination rather than the more obvious ones. To show that discrimination is a "real" problem, I have compiled a list of more obvious gender discrimination, ordered from most egregious to least:
  • When I was an undergrad, a (much older, grad student) project partner spent most of one work session talking about our "hot" female professor and how he could not pay attention to any of her lecture. The same partner said that in fact, he had trouble listening to any woman he found attractive. (Um, so are you not listening to me or are you telling me you find me completely unattractive?) The same partner, when we first became partners, asked me if I had any cute friends he could date.
  • When I was working at a sort of freshman advising table at Harvard as a senior with a male classmate, one male student in line allowed people to cut him until he could seek advice from my fellow adviser. (According to me, there were no discernible differences between the two of us except for the fact that I am female*.)
  • When I was a teaching fellow for an introductory computer science course, there was a male student notorious for disrespecting the female teaching fellows. He would do things like avoid seeking help from female teaching fellows at office hours and generally show disrespect and doubt of their abilities. There was also an incident where he was upset at having a female (and foreign) project partner and left her at least one harassing voice mail.
  • This was worse when I was younger, but male friends would always try to tell me how to do my homework. Male peers also like to offer to debug my programs. Don't you have better things to do with your time?
  • When I was accepted to a math/science summer program, a male peer commented that he supposed it helped to be a girl**.
  • As a senior in high school I considered going to MIT but was discouraged by almost everyone I knew. (I applied to MIT early action and was accepted.) The most sexist of the discouragement: a father of a friend told my father that "MIT is no place for women." So I went to Harvard instead, and now I am at MIT for grad school. (Count it?)
  • When my mother tells people I want to do research in computer science, various (old male) friends comment on how surprising it is because I don't seem like the type who would be successful in such a field. What does that even mean?!
  • Teachers, family friends, and relatives have all tried to talk me out of doing computer science. What they say ranges from (when I announced I was premed) "Oh good, I always knew you wouldn't keep doing computer science" to (when I announced I was going to grad school for CS) "Really? What a waste of a pretty girl like you. Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
Imnsho, all of these are equally harmful manifestations of sexism. I am not overreacting when I say that women should not have to put up with this sort of discrimination. Ever wonder why more women don't stay in computer science? (Probably not, since you probably take it as given that women just don't have innate interest.) Start here, and then maybe you will understand the previous posts***.

* By various objective standards I was more qualified because I had taken more relevant courses, had more teaching experience, had various interesting industry experience, and done more kinds of research.
** This is one of the reasons I am adamantly opposed to affirmative action for the purpose of balancing numbers. Reversing past injustices requires much deeper societal changes rather than lowering standards too late in the game. Though most programs don't lower standards, those who do really hurt the groups that are supposedly benefiting.
*** This is mostly targeted at the white male computer scientists who asserted I was overreacting.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Are math kids really smarter than everyone else?

I was wondering whether I inappropriately conflate mathematical reasoning ability with intelligence. While I don't actually think
intelligent <=> good at math,
I have been accused of having various biases, including
  • Having (perhaps disproportionately) large amounts of respect for people who are good at math.
  • Thinking someone who is very good at something else (writing, art) must also have the ability to be good at math if they tried (or perhaps they already are good at math).
  • Thinking someone is smarter than me because they are better than math.
This heuristic I have developed makes a lot of sense given that the "math kids" at Harvard were really the best math kids in the world. Since being the best math kid in the world is highly correlated with being good at other things, I came away from undergrad with the impression that people who are good at math will school me in any subject. Taking chemistry? The math kids in the class will probably crush the premeds. English concentrator? You probably can't even tell who the math kid in your section is, s/he speaks and writes so well.

In summary, I don't think it's actually true that math kids are smarter. Different people are good at different things, and if someone is extremely good at one thing it is likely that they 1) have had a good education and/or 2) are "smart" in general, and as a result will be good at many other things. (It is not so unreasonable to think someone very good at music should also have the aptitude to be good at math!)

How much natural aptitude and education affect how "smart" someone seems is the subject of a future post.

Computerized beautification

This NY Times article talks about a computer beautification program that takes in people's faces and recalculates the optimal distances between features to generate a theoretically more beautiful face. There is a slideshow of various generated images, but most of the faces stayed pretty much unchanged. This seems like an interesting (though not the most interesting) research question combining psychology and graphics. It is always fascinating what kinds of research makes it into mainstream media...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Religion is ridiculous, but then again so are sports and everything else

Sports are ruining the forward progress of our country. Too often, sports fanatics get together and do various things like roast meat from the backs of their cars. There is often bloodshed in the name of sports teams, often occurring between impassioned sports fans. Then there is also the sacrifice made by athletes themselves, many of whom suffer permanent physical injury from repeated concussions and ligament damage. Never mind that recreational sports provide a framework for exercise and the building of community; the fact that Sports have manifested itself in such an ugly way shows that it is a waste of anyone's time. As a result, we should make fun of athletes and sports fans as much as possible with the assurance that we are better than That.

This line of reasoning is not so different from the attacks on religion. While I am unabashedly atheist, I think projects like Bill Maher's Religulous (which I have not personally seen) miss the point. While religion has lent itself to excessive fanaticism and fundamentalism, the Bible Belt's Christianity and the Taliban's Islam reflect perversions of religious ideology rather than the negative effects of religion. When analyzing the problems of a society, considering the reasons for the perversion and the ways in which religious philosophy have been perturbed is a much more productive use of time than bemoaning religion for causing such evil. The fact that people do ugly things in the name of religion is not evidence of the corrupting power of religious ideology but a symptom of greater societal problems. In particular, examining religious fundamentalism in the United States reveals not the "evils of religion" but that the United States has areas that are so backwards and uneducated as to have people susceptible to such superstition.

By "religion," first consider not the loaded word it has become but the essence of belief--the Platonic form of what is embodied in the holy text. This is the pure thing separate from the associated religious institution and from the manifestion of religion in past/present/future society. In general, pure religious ideology provides a theological/metaphorical framework for living. If you go back to the texts of the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-Gita, they provide ideas to think with and concepts to believe in. Engaging with these texts abstractly on the level of metaphor and metonymy provides great insight into how to live. There is nothing in the texts themselves proposing any sort of fundamentalism or closed-mindedness*. The Old Testament teaches justice; the New Testament teaches love; the Bhagavad-Gita teaches selfless service. None of these are bad concepts; perhaps the cocky libertarians who go around denouncing religion without knowing very much can learn something from religion.

Abstract consideration of religious texts is not that far off from what we can expect from religion in present times. If you look outside of the United States, there is evidence that people are able to engage with religion in a rational way. The same monotheistic, "enclosing" (to quote on criticism of Christianity) religions that cause all sorts of bad things in America are causing people to do just fine in Europe. I have heard the Anglican Church described as something of a "social club," and one friend even reported viewing a baptism being performed in a pool. (The validity of this report is questionable.) In Italy, home to the Vatican, people seem to take what the Pope says much less seriously than people do around here. People are able to handle a much less serious form of (the same!) religion and engage with it on a much more intellectual level. (And don't forget the Far Eastern religions: who has heard of people starting wars in the name of Buddhism?) In very few developed, first-world countries is religion one of the reasons why it is still a question whether women should be allowed control over their own bodies.

I hope this leads you to conclude that "religion" is not the root of the problem. Religious fundamentalism derives not from the principles of religion but from people needing simple frameworks to fill a void. This void comes from the lack of education. Religion provides a simple, closed way to explain the world; it provides easy answers for people who do not have access to more complex answers. To believe that people are not better than the narrow mindsets they have when only exposed to religion is to have too little faith in humanity (or too much faith in one's own genetic superiority). Lack of exposure to many ideas causes general fear and suspicion of new ideas; it is this fear that leads to the superstition and fundamentalism that characterizes too much of the religious belief in the United States.

To conclude, saying "religion is preventing the forward process of our country" is a useless statement. Appreciating religious texts and deriving moral and spiritual wisdom from them is one thing; deriving a closed-minded way of living from religion is a totally different thing. Blaming religion for the problems in America today draws attention away from the real issues at hand: the inequality of education and wealth that causes religious fanaticism to prevail in parts of the United States*.

* There are parts of the Bible saying to kill all people worshiping another God, but we must perform an amortized analysis, since most of the Bible does not say things like this.
** This is one reason libertarians are goons. The same people who go around saying that what you get is what you deserve also enjoy going around making fun of people for reasons that stem from lack of education, which ultimately come from inequality and things like lower taxes (and thus less funding for education).

Fun fact: There is nothing in Judaism that says you can't get buried in a Jewish cemetary if you get a piercing or tattoo. (The New York Times says so.) Be careful about conflacting religious doctrine with rules of the religious institutions and religion in practice.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Blast from the past: me in USA Today on choice of Harvard commencement speaker

Today, while engaging in various heuristic methods of confirming that I do exist to people other than myself*, I discovered this article in USA today, "Students are getting a say in commencement speakers," quoting me on Harvard's choice of J.K. Rowling:

"I feel cheated," says Jean Yang, a Harvard senior majoring in computer science. "It feels like a very trendy choice."

Yang says that although Harvard obviously thought more about giving students a popular speaker this year, most students just want to be inspired on their graduation day.

"When I look back at my commencement, I want to be reminded of something I was a part of," she says. "I don't want to think of it as the time of Harry Potter."

To provide some background, the commencement speaker at Harvard this year was J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Since this is no longer relevant, I'll just briefly summarize my thoughts: prior to graduation, I had been disappointed in the choice of commencement speaker given previous speakers (Bill Gates, Mother Theresa, etc.). Especially since I have only read one of the Harry Potter books, I felt that the graduation speaker situation epitomized the university's pandering to students' desires rather than focusing on giving us an education. (Harry Lewis expresses criticism of the commodification of education as it relates to an evolving Harvard in his book Excellence Without a Soul. I agree with many of these points.) Anyway, most of the criticism I had in choice of speaker is no longer relevant since the speech happened months ago and was actually very good. J.K. Rowling gave a very good speech, The Fringe Benefits of Failure, about how failure is educational, that we should keep our imaginations open, and that we should remember our positions in the world and not forget those less fortunate. This was a particular appropriate speech for our graduation, where President Drew Faust's address to us expressed her concern that so many students came to Harvard with idealism and optimism and would end up forgetting much of it to do consulting or investment banking. I am happy to report that Rowling surprised me by giving us appropriate and relevant advice as we headed off into the (perhaps particularly soulless?) unknown.

*I was... not... Googling myself...

Sunday, October 05, 2008

SNL skit of VP debate

I wonder what Palin will think when she watches this skit with the sound off.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Summary of vice presidential debate

Palin: I will smile at you so you go easy on me. May I call you Joe?

Biden: That's my name. Now let me tell you some facts. John McCain is out to ruin America, and that's the truth.

Palin: But Barack Obama is terrible. He voted against X.

Biden: John McCain also voted against X, and Barack Obama had a reason.

Palin: I don't have notes telling me how to respond to that, but good thing while you were talking I was able to read more of my notes. Let's talk about something I know about instead. [Smile.] Barack Obama is terrible because he voted against Y.

Biden: That is not true. John McCain voted against Y.

Palin: You make me nervous, so let's talk about something I know. When I was mayor, in, you know, Alaska, I lowered some taxes.

Biden: I admire that. Back to the point.

Palin: Um. The point. Let's talk about the American workers. You guys are really, really great so I will smile at you. This is why you will vote for me.

Biden: But Joe Biden really cares about the American workers. Nobody is a bigger friend to American workers than Joe Biden.

Gwen: Back to the questions I'm asking.

Palin: I don't know how to answer them. It's because I'm a Washington outsider, not because I didn't really bother to get a great education or figure out what's up. If I smile and remind you that I've only been a candidate for 5 weeks, you won't even remember tomorrow that I've had my whole life to stop being clueless.

Biden: This is too easy.

Palin: Instead of answering questions or saying anything, I will smile.

Biden: I can smile too.