Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Upcoming event: Malalai Joya in Boston

I would like to thank Alyssa Aguilera for letting me know about this.
Malalai Joya is speaking at various locations in Boston (including MIT and Harvard) in the next few days. There is a schedule here. From Facebook:
Malalai Joya, called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan", is a former member of the Afghan parliament who has repeatedly stood up to the warlords, for women's rights and democracy. A former teacher who set up secret schools for girls, an orphanage and free clinic in her impoverished home province of Farah during the Taliban era, she ran for parliament in 2005 to protect her schools and won, becoming the youngest person elected to Afghanistan's new Parliament at the age of 27.
From the End Violence calendar:
Thursday, October 29th, 2009
Malalai Joya comes to MIT to talk about women's rights, her work, and the struggle for women's rights in Afghanistan.
Called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan", Joya is a member of the Afghan parliament who has repeatedly stood up to the warlords, for women's rights and democracy. Despite having had four assassination attempts against her, she refuses to remain silent and continues to fight for women's rights.
Location: MIT Campus Room 10-250
Event starts at 7 PM
Event is free and open to the public. Donations for the costs of bringing Joya here and for the Defense Committee for Malalai Joya are encouraged and appreciated.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Breaking out of the "Good Girl" mold

I recently finished Rachel Simmons's The Curse of the Good Girl, which is about how expectations of perfection limit girls' personal and professional development. Simmons presents a societal perception of "good girls" as being intelligent but not opinionated, accomplished but not intimidating. Good girls always say yes, never complain, and always do the right thing. Simmons argues that the impossibility of these standards causes girls to lose their identities*. Because the pressure to be nice causes girls to avoid addressing conflicts, many girls only have "nice mode" and "out-of-control mode" and enter into adulthood unprepared for addressing emotions of anger and frustration. The pressure to appear perfect also causes adolescent girls to be risk averse in the classroom and on the playing field, keeping their mouths shut and "playing nice." Because society expects girls to be perfect, they also take it much more personally when their mistakes are made known. The combination of these behaviors prevents many girls from making mistakes, getting feedback on those mistakes, and learning from their mistakes. Simmons asks parents and educators to recognize what is happening in order to change expectations and, ultimately, girls' behaviors.

While I wish Simmons had provided some speculation as to 1) how these standards of the "good girl" came about and 2) ways in which society reinforces them, I liked this book for thoroughly exploring the consequences of society's expectations of girls. Simmons's main points particularly resonated with me because the "curse of the good girl" is one of my main complaints about Harvard as a male-dominated institution. It had always bothered me that the "good girl" is a ubiquitous character at Harvard, playing the nonthreatening and admiring audience to the equally ubiquitous omniscient male "section hero." As my college roommate Marianne puts it, at Harvard it is difficult to be a woman who thinks about these things without becoming cynical.

I recommend this book to all parents of daughters, to all educators, and to women who wonder why they find themselves and other women exhibiting self-destructive nice-girl behaviors**.

* The book Reviving Ophelia raises questions about what causes the loss of self in adolescent girls. This had been something we talked quite a bit about in my all-girls middle/high school.
** I get the feeling that this book is primarily for people who deal with adolescent girls. There are many exercises in the book for the reader to do with an adolescent girl. While I still found the book useful, doing those exercises alone was somewhat awkward. ;)

Feministing tour

I attended the Feministing blog tour at Boston College today. Miriam Perez and Courtney Martin from blog and a BC senior Rachel Lamorte were held a panel discussion about feminism and feminist activism after they spoke briefly about issues important to them. Rachel spoke about feminist activism on BC's campus, Courtney spoke about how she became a feminist, her life as a feminist blogger/writer, and what blogging has taught her, and Miriam spoke about coming out as queer. Courtney and Miriam also signed books: Courtney signed her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and Miriam signed Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape, in which she has a chapter.

Before this panel, I had not thought much about how much the blogosphere has facilitated the evolution of "young feminism." As Courtney joked, blogs like Feministing provide a way for the "lone feminist in Arkansas" to connect with like-minded people on the internet. (I didn't realize that Feministing has half a million unique readers per month.) Feministing (along with Shameless, Bitch Magazine, etc.) have been great for me personally in exploring my views on various feminist and other issues (portrayal of women in the media, reactions to feminist/anti-feminist comments by public figures, male chivalry, "sexy" Halloween costumes, general activist issues, etc. etc. etc.). I had not realized that I had stepped into something fairly new: the internet has enabled bloggers to evolve "the face of young feminism" and to reach out to a much larger audience than the older generation of predominantly white, upper-middle class female feminists.

Attending this panel made me realize that both at Harvard and at MIT, I did not encounter a women's group like the one at BC. BC seems to have an active group of feminist activists; they also seem to have men's groups interested in stopping sexual assault etc. I was happy to see some men at this event, a couple of whom asked questions and commented about men's roles in feminist activism*. Maybe it's just that I haven't been paying attention, but a quick search of MIT resources doesn't turn up much. (Harvard did get that controversial women's center while I was an undergraduate there.) If anybody knows about feminist activism on MIT's campus, please let me know.

I bought Yes Means Yes! and it is amazing so far. Thanks to Alicia Johnson, BC '11, for organizing this event!

* Courtney had a great answer to this question: she said that playing the apologetic, priveleged role puts men in a disadvantaged position. She suggests than an "authentic way" for men to particpate in feminist conversations is to think about the ways in which they have an haven't been privileged and the role this has played in their lives.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some useful websites

Umbrella today? texts you in the morning if there is a forecast of rain. You can set the time at which it sends the text.

Gethuman gives you tips about how to get a human on the phone for various customer service websites for banks, phone companies, etc. It also tells you average wait times, etc. Some highlights from the instructions:
  • Press 0 at each prompt, ignoring messages.
  • Don't press or say anything.
  • Say "Technical Support" or "CRG" if you want to cancel services. If you want to make programming changes say, "ACE". The robot woman will then say, "One moment while I transfer you" instead of asking you about 50 billion questions.
  • Press 000#; at prompt press #

A nice counterpoint to de Millo, Lipton, and Perlis

Asperti, Geuvers,and Natarajan have this fun paper, Social processes, program verification, and all that, which provides a nice counterpoint to the 1979 De Millo, Lipton, and Perlis which supposedly killed the verification effort at the time. The De Millo paper argues that because proofs are social processes verified by the intuition of mathematicians, mechanized verification is a useless effort.

My favorite quote from the De Millo paper:
The verification of even a puny program can run into dozens of pages, and there's not a light moment or a spark of wit on any of those pages. Nobody is going to run into a friend's office with a program verification. Nobody is going to sketch a verification out on a paper napkin. Nobody is going to buttonhole a colleague into listening to a verification. Nobody is ever going to read it. One can feel one's eyes glaze over at the very thought.

From this paper:
As we have already observed, the gloomy predictions of De Millo et al. have been largely refuted. Formal verification is at present a concrete reality, permitting correctness proofs of complex software applications. For instance, in the framework of the Verifix Project a compiler from a subset of Common Lisp to Transputer code was formally checked in PVS (see Dold and Vialard (2001)). Strecker (Strecker 1998) and Klein (Klein 2005) certified bytecode compilers from a subset of Java to a subset of the Java Virtual Machine in Isabelle. In the same system, Leinenbach (Leinenbach et al. 2005) formally verified a compiler from a subset of C to a DLX assembly code. The Compcert project, headed by Xavier Leroy, has recently produced a verified optimising compiler from C to PowerPC assembly code, based on the use of the Coq proof assistant both for programming the compiler and proving its correctness (Leroy 2006; Tristan and Leroy 2008). Similar achievements have been obtained in other fields of computer science, spanning the range from hardware (Harrison 2007) to operating systems (Alkassar et al. 2009; Klein 2009).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Vegan/vegetarian food shopping note

If you subsist mostly on almond milk, organic yogurt, and vegan fake meat products, you are better off (on average $1/per item) shopping at places like Harvard Organic Co-op than Star Market, which kind of rips you off on these things (and has far worse selection). The fruit is actually comparably priced as well.

Deal hunting with RSS

A cool thing in life involves adding RSS feeds from deal sites (for instance, monitor deals from Ben's Bargains) to Google Reader. You can just add the URL directly as a subscription. <3

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sharing good reads

I recently became a member of goodreads.com, a website that allows friends to share books they have read along with ratings and optional reviews of the books. Become my friend to see what I have read!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The memoirs of Donna Williams

I recently read about Donna Williams, an Australian woman thought to be deaf and psychotic as a toddler and later diagnosed as autistic. She has written several books about her life, the first of which is the once best-selling Nobody Nowhere. She writes of its accidental publication:

I wrote the first of my four autobiographical works, Nobody Nowhere, on the verge of suicide after a wild half-crazy life with abuse, homelessness and ultimately hope for belonging only to find I was terrified of real closeness. I had a last inkling of hope that I couldn't truly say I'd tried my hardest to cope if I'd never fully disclosed the nature of my own private world. So I wrote out everything that mattered... and decided to give it to one child psychiatrist in the hope they could tell me what kind of mad I was... My intention was to then shred it, burn it and leave this world. Instead it was passed on to his colleague, then from her to her publisher, from him to an agent and from there out into the world it became a number one international bestseller...

In this book about her early life, Williams discusses extensively her "ghosts" Willie and Carol, two different and opposing personalities who help her exist in society. From the website:

Carol plays the mother's doll, intertwined with Willie's violent and defensive outbursts and fierce self protection mechanisms. Between Donna's autistic responses and behaviours, Carol, behaves like people on TV sit-coms, goes to school, even goes through the motions of 'friends', and develops a broad range of mimicked speech, stored phrases and charicatures, saving Donna from a life in an institution and often from the very real threat of death.

As the teenage years approach Carol and Willie fight it out for control of the body with the real Donna on the sidelines as the lot of them drift into homelessness, poverty and domestic prostitution passed from stranger to stranger.

I plan to read this book once I acquire it. Williams also has an extensive website which I recommend reading.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The novels of my nonage

In my abundant spare time today (read: while crossing streets) I reflected upon the books that shaped my youth. Since I love reminiscing and since I think they are rather telling, I will share my most memorable reads here.

Middle school: Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game. I love historical fiction and detective novels (there was a lot of Agatha Christie). I also loved those female novelists of the Victorian/Romantic genre: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, etc. (I read Jane Eyre maybe 10+ times. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 5+ times.)

An embarrassing truth is that I read a ton of young adult novels (Beverly Cleary, R.L. Stein, Babysitters' Club, Caroline B. Cooney, etc.). I do not recommend that other middle schoolers take this path.

9th grade: This might have been the year I lost to being a teenager, the year I read only magazines outside of the required school reading (Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, The Bible, King James Version)? The Odyssey was probably the book that left the biggest impression me.

10th grade: I was a huge romantic: Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky) made the concept of atonement enter into my thinking; This Side of Paradise (Fitzerald) made me fall in love with the F. Scott Fitzgerald rich-intellectual-white-1920's-boy lifestyle. (I have since fallen out of love.) Bruce Hall's Tea That Burns about the history of American Chinatowns also gave me some perspective about my life as a Chinese-American.

11th grade. I was such a wannabe-intellectual: The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson; Sartor Resartus (Carlyle). I also continued my Fitzgerald obsession and read things like The Beautiful and the Damnehd, Tender is the Night, etc. I even read Zelda Fitzgerald's autobiographical Save Me the Waltz. (I recently got closure with respect to this from reading Nancy Milford's biography, Zelda.)

12th grade. Looking for meaning: Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf). Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles also made me think a lot about life. This may have also been the time I was in love with Oscar Wilde's poetry, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol. King Lear also left a deep impression. I also found Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead fascinating, but I did not become an Objectivist.

Freshman year. Soul searching: Siddartha (Hesse); The Bhagavad-Gita; A Room of One's Own (Woolf). This might have also been when I read Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and stopped eating forevermore.

Sophomore year. I read a bunch of Greek tragedies which I liked a lot. I also read The Brothers Karamazov, which I had started shortly after Crime and Punishment changed the way I thought about things. By this point, however, I was too jaded (or something) for Brothers to capture my attention/imagination in the same way.

My favorite book this year was probably Introduction to Algorithms (Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, Stein).

Junior year. Lolita (Nabokov)--this was when I discovered Nabokov. I also read Hemingway's Garden of Eden, which made me think a bunch about gender roles. After reading Watson's The Double Helix, I became fascinated with the concept of the "gentleman scientist:" if Watson and Crick played squash every day while discovering the structure of DNA, then I should be able to have leisure and greatness at the same time, too!

Senior year. I started reading Saint Augustine's Confessions, which was really interesting. I also read some Camus. By this point a lot of ideas were already in my head, so I don't know that things really "changed my life" the way they used to. The closest was probably Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex, which sparked an extreme interest in gender ambiguity.

Post-graduation I've been reading a lot more non-fiction and discussing most of the interesting books in my blog, so I won't list them again. :) I would love to hear what your favorite books were!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sheryl Sandberg: Don't Leave Before You Leave

Claire Le Goues sent me this nice article by Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg about how women should not plan too far in advance to slow down their careers before they actually have children. Sandberg says that this tends to slow down women's careers more than it should and gives the following advice:

Making decisions too early, trying to plan life too carefully, can close doors rather than keep them open. Any time you make a plan, you do it with imperfect information; the further in advance you make that plan, the less information you have. You never know how you will feel or what choices you might face. Take life one step at a time and don’t make decisions before you have to.

I think this article gives great advice about not letting perceived limitations get in the way of one's career.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Overhead on the MIT Saferide shuttle

I overhead the following conversation conducted in earnest by two (presumably) undergraduate women on the shuttle to Boston the other day:

Woman #1:
Sometimes I don't know what the point is of working so hard. I mean, what if I graduate college and then get married right away?
Woman #2: Yeah...
Woman #1: I mean, that's what my mom did.
Woman #2: I think I'm going to work for 5-10 years, then start popping out the babies.
Woman ?: I would get so bored. There would be so much Oprah...
Woman ?: Yeah, a lot of talking on the phone...

I will admit my first reaction was one of disbelief: a combination of "can you believe these girls?!" and "what a waste of an MIT education!" I was struck by how resigned these girls were to their fates, and how unreflective they seemed to be about the other life possibilities out there. I was particularly surprised to hear such a conversation on an MIT shuttle: it seems like if you are going to spend all this effort (and tuition) on an undergraduate education in order to stay at home, it is a waste of your own time/money and the institution's time/money that you did not get a liberal arts education.

Though it is easy to blame these girls for not having more agency in deciding their futures, we must take some societal responsibility for these attitudes. Most people do not really know what's out there for them at age 20 and follow models that others have set out for them. While the young man who does not know what he's doing with his life will often find himself enrolling in law school, business school, or some prestigious Ph.D. program, the young woman who does not know what she's doing may have much less career-oriented paths to fall back on*. While I fully believe in the freedom to choose, it is not freedom if the chooser is not aware of what the choices mean. Choosing to go to MIT and work hard seems to be at odds with the "choice" to stay home with Oprah and the phone; I believe that if these women were aware of their life choices, they may choose differently. (Even if they chose to stay at home, they may discover that Oprah and phone are not the only possible activities.)

While on the shuttle, I wanted to tell these girls that they do not have to be like their mothers. Perhaps I will do that if there is a next time.

* This is an instance of the phenomenon where many women default to their mother's template of domesticity, often without reflecting upon why they are doing this. (I discuss this in my post about My Mother My Self.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Aggressively marketed enlightenment

Allow me to begin with an anecdote about the time I almost joined a cult.

One day last May I was innocently wandering X* Square when I came upon a sign regarding massages at a Dahn Yoga studio. Always in want of a good massage, I inquired within. What commenced was the most extensive set of influence techniques** I have ever witnessed. Each event below ends with an influence technique:
  1. I walk in and ask about massages. Y*, the head of the studio, asks to make an appointment to see me in 45 minutes. (Asking people to make small commitments to enhance their bond to the thing in question.)
  2. All around the studio, there is information about how Dahn yoga can improve every aspect of your life and there are testimonials about how it has changed people's lives for the better. (Yikes.)
  3. Y asks me to fill out a 10-page questionaire (Small commitments thing again. People don't like to think they've put in effort for nothing.)
  4. Upon hearing that my physical therapist told me to seek more restorative forms of yoga, Y asks, "So you would say your PT sent you here?" (People like to be consistent; you can take advantage of their desire for consistency to bend what they say slightly in order to influence them to do things.)
  5. We jump around for about 30 minutes in a one-on-one session. (One-on-one attention makes people feel like they owe something.)
  6. The whole time, Y told me things like the vibrations from jumping around were good for my brain, and that I was loosening my organs. (People are suckers for things they want to believe.)
  7. After the jumping around, Y gave me a brief massage. When the massage was over, my contact was bothering me, so I was rubbing my right eye. Y began rubbing his left eye and said that his eye was bothering him too. (Mirroring, a phenomenon that occurs when people are bonding, is oftne used by salespeople for influence purposes. You can also hypnotize someone by mirroring: if you consistently lag without the other people noticing, you can begin leading and have them follow. Apparently you can make someone's cheek itch by scratching your own cheek.)
  8. Afterward, Y asked me how I liked the session. (Asking people how they feel after you give them something will influence them to say good things about your product. Then you can take advantage of their desire for consistency.)
  9. Y then told me that I had a lot of passion, which made me a good fit for Dahn Yoga. (Appealing to people's vanity is a great way to get them to use your product.)
  10. Y said since I liked the session so much, since I was looking for something to help with my neck/shoulder injuries, and since my PT sent me there, it looked like I should continue going. (Consistency again.)
  11. Y told me that there were often weekend gatherings where young people get together and there is a lot of energy. (Appealing to people's desires for community can get you a lot from them.)
  12. Y then asked me if I would be willing to commit to multiple years of Dahn Yoga. Then he pared down to one year, then six months, then three months. I finally gave in at one month. (Asking unreasonable things of people will cause them to feel guilty and be more likely to acquiesce to smaller requests.)
  13. When I was leaving, Y asked me when I was going to come again. (Commitments.)
  14. Y said that I should plan to come either a few minutes early or stay a few minutes late so that he could show me take-home exercises. (Commitments.)
  15. I never went back. For a couple of weeks afterwards, I often got phone calls from "Y from Dahn Yoga, X Square," asking when I was going to come back. (Connection/commitment.)
It was fortunate that the few bigger things caused me to notice the subtle manipulation: apparently these techniques are what causes many people to pay a lot of money (and sometimes devote their lives) to Dahn Yoga. The most sketchy thing was that 1) jumping around is not yoga and 2) there is no scientific basis to the "brain vibrations" business. I was also somewhat disturbed/confused by the "Brain Respiration" uniforms hanging in the bathroom. What caused me to think that there was intentional deception rather than just innocent evangelism of bogus ideas was the mirroring. Upon returning home I read their Wikipedia page, which linked to some references about how people had complained about Dahn Yoga's manipulative marketing, how people claim it is a pyramid scheme, and how at least one family has asked a cult deprogrammer to intervene with their son who had sold all of his possessions to live according to the way of Dahn yoga.

My Dahn yoga experience caused me to think more about the aggressive marketing of Bikram yoga (also see Wikipedia page and the Bikram Boston site.), a multi-million dollar franchised corporation which similarly claims to solve all health problems and has many testimonials from people saying that this has changed their life (and solved all of their problems). Bikram yoga has a similar script of telling you during the practice that. Bikram also has its own set of influence techniques: the instructors establish a clear teacher/student relationship and make you feel that you are not good enoughand must improve, causing you to return time after time even though you are spending a lot of money to be uncomfortable. (At least, this happened to me.) After a month and a half of Bikram, I talked to a middle-aged couple who said that everyone they knew who had done bikram had quit after less than six month due to injuries. This caused me to quit abruptly after I realized I wasn't getting any better. Though I wanted to believe the instructors when they said "this is the best thing to do if you have a neck injury" and "don't worry, you'll get worse before you get better," I had lost faith in Bikram.

I hypothesize that, like me, many are drawn to "programs" like Bikram because of a combination of 1) injuries and 2) desire for an easy path to spirituality. If I had not had that neck injury (that, by that point, had not healed for 10 months), I would not have been so desperate for things that promised to fix everything. I have also been told that though I am areligious, I have a strong desire for explanation and order: religious tendencies, if you will. I had come across bikram/dahn at a time when I believed that I could find "the solution to everything," " the relevation that changed my life." I also had many qualities that made me particularly receptive to this form of prepackaged, aggressively marketed enlightenment: I was not accustomed to waiting long to get anything that I wanted, most of my life and self-image were already comprised of aggressively marketed components, and the specific marketing of Bikram/Dahn appealed to my needs***. In an alternate universe that has a slighly more unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate, as I would be living in blissful, ignorant poverty?) outcome I could see myself devoting large amounts of time and money to something like this.

While the aggressive marketing aspect of Bikram and Dahn are harmful, they are not necessarily all bad. On one hand, this aggressive marketing is harmful because it preys on people's desire for spirituality and desire for an answer in order to market a product that is, essentially, fake. On the other hand, many people do believe in things like Bikram and Dahn and are perfectly happy about that. Bikram and Dahn could also be giving people health benefits, since they may not otherwise stretch or exercise****. The mental aspect (placebo effect) could also be improving lives. The major thing that makes something like Dahn Yoga more harmful than a religion is how aggressively it extracts money from Dahn practitioners. One might say that people who spend all of their money on Dahn deserve it, but many are young people who may be living on their parents' money. (See the external links on Dahn wikipedia page for stories on Dahn harm.) These people can believe what they want, but it may be our duty to make the information available to them that they are worshiping at the (very expensive) Church of McDonald's.

Since leaving Bikram, I have found a form of aggressively marketed enlightenment that better fits my lifestyle needs: heated vinyasa flow yoga. I like these studios much better because they do not claim to solve all problems and they do not claim to be the end-all be-all of spiritual needs. In fact, some instructors recommend other forms of yoga (like yin) that are more restorative. While it is somewhat ironic that instructors tell me to relax and breathe while cuing me through cycles of posture changes so fast they leave me out of breath, this has been a step in the right direction for my type A, impatient personality. I have become better at relaxing, better at being patient, and better at not pushing myself too hard--learning to modify postures in yoga has been one of my first lessons that it is often better for me not to do everything that I possible could. My dabbling in Spirituality Lite has had positive effects on my wellness (by first of all teaching me that this is is a concept), both physically and mentally. One day, I might be ready for The Real Thing. ;)

* Names obfuscated to protect ...?
** Good thing I read Cialdini's Influence, a book on psychological influence techniques used by salespeople, prison camps, and cults alike.
*** The message of both was that if you paid them money and kept coming, everything would be better. (The Bikram instructors' incessant "constructive" criticism also addressed my need to have my butt kicked.) This is an easier message to swallow than the prescription to slow down, take it easy, and find spirituality within. (For Bikram, the heat also tells you that you don't need to wait for your body to be ready to open: we'll just heat up the room so it happens instantaneously! This panders to the need for instant gratification in an extreme way.)
**** Bikram is actually a pretty good workout. One of the reasons I first took it up was because when I read the bios of Olympics athletes I discovered some of them would do 1+ days of Bikram a week to maintain flexibility. The Harvard crew team at one point also required a day of Bikram a week.

Tech interview preparation

This is adapted from an e-mail I wrote in January 2007 (when I was a junior in college--after I'd gotten internship offers with Google and Microsoft but before I knew anything about life). Though my Google full-time conversion interviews were more of the same (of the technical stuff--the interviews were longer, so the questions were a little deeper), this is probably mostly relevant for applying to internships.

For Harvard people: At the Office of Career Services they have (or had?) a nice small booklet on how to prepare for the interview. It gives some pretty good advice about how long you should spend preparing (the number of hours in proportion to how long your interview is) and it has you do a self-evaluation.

Here are some websites with puzzles:
The programming questions on this one are good as well.

This website is good for the nontechnical aspects of the interivew:

So some non-technical questions I've gotten are:
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What was your favorite computer science class and why. (You will often be given questions based on what you say your favorite class is.)
  • Tell me about a time you solved a problem creatively.
  • Have you been in a situation where a project you've been doing has gotten off schedule and you couldn't make the deadline? What did you do?
  • Have you ever been in a situation in which someone has pushed you to do something that you didn't want to do? How did you respond?
Some technical questions I've gotten are:
  • How would you represent friendship networks on Facebook? (Say you have a list of people and their friends.) I was asked on what data structure I would use, running time for searching through it, space complexity, etc.
  • Given a vector of numbers, how would you find the median? Second part: say we chose a number and then put everything less than it on one side and everything greater than it on the other side. Assume we could throw away half the list each time. What would the running time be?
  • How could you get unbiased flips out of a biased coin? (Say you had a 2-side coin of unknown probability p of landing on heads--if you wanted to make an unbiased decision between 2 choices using the coins, how would you do it?)
  • Write a hex to decimal function.
  • Write an insert function for a circular linked list. If we are inserting into an empty list, how can we make it circular?
  • Write an insert before function for a singly linked list if you're only given the pointer to the node you want to insert before. (Hint: How can you turn this into an insert after function?)
Some good advice I've gotten has been:
  • The most important thing is to talk through how you are getting the answer. Even if you don't get the answer, talking through it to show how you think is very important.
  • If you get something wrong and they tell you the answer, don't argue with them unless you are sure your answer is right. (Think through it first, and discuss rather than argue!)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mothers and daughters

Upon my college roommate Marianne's recommendation, I read psychotherapist Nancy Friday's My Mother My Self. Originally published in 1977, this was the first work to explore the mother-daughter interaction. It addresses how mothers serve as a role model for daughters' self-esteem, attitudes words men, and attitudes towards sexuality.

While I found this book somewhat dated (for instance, in its casting of the mother as the homemaker with frustrated ambitions) and somewhat unscientific in some its wishful "just-so" descriptions (Friday makes a weak connection between repressed anger and cancer), it helped me to examine and to better understand 1) my relationship with my mother and 2) how I derived some of my views on life.

In particular, Friday makes the following thought-provoking points:
  • Mothers often start out (and often continue) to see daughters as narcissistic extensions of themselves. Friday says this explains the degree to which mothers fuss over their daughters' appearance, reputation, etc. and why mothers are often so critical of thier daughters.
  • Society* tells women they are not complete without a man, without their children, etc. As a result, mothers often cling to their husbands and to their children, especially to their daughters. As a result, daughters are not "let go" in the same way that sons are. For this reason, many women have symbiotic relationships with their mothers. (Friday points out that it is not necessarily bad to have these symbiotic relationships, but it is important to recognize them for what they are.)
  • Often as a result of not being "let go" by their mothers, many women go from having a symbiotic relationship with their mother to having a symbiotic relationship with their husbands. Friday points out that it is good for women to live on their own and have independent lives after separating from their mothers; this helps them realize that they can be on their own and not die.
  • It is not usually acceptible to acknowledge the competition (general and sexual) that almost always exists between mothers and their adolescent daughters. This competition often causes many problems between mother and daughter; it helps to understand the competition as the root of the problem.
  • Women often (consciously or subconsciously) adopt their mothers as a model for how they behave domestically. Many women will have fabulous and independent single lives in their 20's and then become quite similar to their (homemaking*) mothers after they marry. Friday's explanation for this is that these women can invent their own models of how to live while they are single, but they default to patterns they learned from their mothers once those apply. Recognizing this is step towards breaking out of the patterns.
  • Our attitudes about our bodies and towards sexuality have to do with our mothers' attitudes and things she taught us when we were very young. It is helpful and h to reflect on our mother's attitudes.
My Mother My Self was helpful to me because it provided another world-view in which to frame issues I often think about regarding mother-daughter relationships, gender roles, etc. I would recommend reading this book with a healthy level of skepticism. (I have found the phenomena that Friday describes to be true; I am more suspicious of the reasons she provides for their occurence.) If nothing else, it is interesting.

* This is one of the places where (I hope) the book does not age well.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Some more things I learned about saving money

I would like to thank everyone who gave me financial advice!

My friend Jie recommended the following blogs:
From these blogs I learned that there are many online coupons.

I also came up with some more ideas for saving money*:
  • Subsist mainly on free food, such as that broadcast over MIT's vultures mailing list for free leftovers in Stata. (I have friends who actually do this.)
  • Befriend the admins in your building so that they text you about free food before they send out the free food announcements.
  • To fill in other gaps, join as many research groups as possible. Many of these are likely to provide a free lunch or snack. Tangentially collaborating with research groups in other departments will keep the level of suspicion low.
  • To fill in the rest of the gaps, meet a succession of older people with jobs to date on sites like OKCupid* and go on 1+ dates with each of them. Act very poor but charming during the whole dinner; if you are lucky they will pay. (This assumes that these sites contain a large number of people willing to take me to dinner, and that these people do not communicate with each other.)
  • Invest in a sewing kit and a set of patterns. Attend corporate talks and get as many free t-shirts as possible. Stay after the talks to get the leftover XL's that nobody wanted to collect fabric for making pants, dresses, handbags, etc.
  • Hang out in each T stop and befriend the T operators so that you can get free public transportation. ("Sorry, X--I can meet you in Porter Square, but I'll have to leave there between 9 and 12. If you want to stay later, we can meet at Government Center.")
  • Sell your furniture and move out of your apartment. During the week, sleep on a cot in your office. On the weekends, spend the night with hard-partying friends who think you're staying over just because the T stopped running. If this is unsatisfying and you would like a bed to sleep on, date a couple of people at once and spend your time between their apartments. (Befriending some empty nesters with spare rooms/beds should also work.) Either that, or convince your advisor to buy a group bed for one of the offices.
  • Become friends with freegans.
The conclusion is that living in the Stata Center cannot fail you, since it will also let you save on heat, hot water, and electric bills. :P

* Most of these are untested.
** Thanks to Eugene's peer pressure and my own curiosity I had an OKCupid account for 2-3 days (not for this reason!!), during which time I met some colorful people and decided it was best to leave the site.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

My attempts at money management

I recently discovered that I have been bleeding money out of my ears every day. I have taken the following measures to stanch the flow of money/blood:
  • Gotten an account at Mint.com, a website that syncs up with your bank and credit card accounts and shows you how you are doing with respect to your budgets. Thanks, Joe Near, for showing me this site!
  • Started following the advice of the Tight Fist (thanks, Eugene), a great tongue-in-cheek blog about how to save money. (I have been thinking quite seriously about their advice about how using too much soap just makes you need other things more, like moisturizer... If you give a mouse a cookie...)
  • Stopped shopping at Whole Foods/Harvest and started shopping at Star Market. This, combined with a reduction of variety in my diet to the staples of tofu sausage, eggs, noodles, vegetables, and fruits, saves me multiple 10's of dollars on groceries per week now.
  • Stopped buying random things I don't use full price from the internet. The next step will be finding deals when I need them... (I am currently operating under the assumption that I will not require anything new--this is not sustainable.)
Next on my list: using the library instead of buying 10,000 books / year.

I am still not to good at this thing, so please give me tips! :)