Friday, December 26, 2008

Wish list

I now have an Amazon wish list. If you ever wish to get me a present, feel free to consult this list!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The most fascinating computer scientist?

According to his website, Jay Earley is a nationally known transformational psychologist and author of the book Interactive Group Therapy: Integrating Interpersonal, Action-Oriented, and Psychodynamic Approaches. A psychology Ph.D. graduate of the Saybrook Graduate School and the Gestalt institute in San Francisco, Jay now offers Life Purpose Coaching and Change Agent Coaching. If you want to find your life purpose or make a difference in the world, Jay is the guy to see.

Jay Earley is also one of the most important computer scientists of the 20th century. At the bottom of his bio you will find the following paragraph:

Jay also has a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon University and was formerly on the U.C. Berkeley faculty, where he published 12 computer science papers, one of which was voted one of the best 25 papers of the quarter century by the Communications of the A.C.M.

According to one of my undergraduate professors, Jay Earley had finished his Ph.D. at CMU at a ridiculously young age and was a very young (early 20s) faculty member at Berkeley when he decided to switch directions. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on what is now known as Earley parsing, an algorithm for parsing any context-free grammar. This algorithm has been quite influential in computational linguistics but is also cited in other areas. Just yesterday I came upon the paper when tracing citations from a paper about preventing SQL injection attacks.

You may find a partial list of Earley's publications here.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Repression causes oppression

I just finished Rachel Simmons's book Odd Girl Out* about the "hidden culture" of aggression between girls: the silent treatment, the taunts that are presented as jokes, the underhand barbs that girls use to undermine each others' self-esteem. Simmons uses information from interviews and secondary sources to describe the phenomenon of female bullying that occurs among pre-college age girls. Simmons describes how contrary to conventional wisdom about how bullying occurs as acts of obvious violence/malice against social outcasts, what often occurs is more subtle bullying through subtle remarks and social exclusion. Girls who are "all that," who are aggressive, competitive, or "too" anything (popular, pretty, smart, confident, aggressive, non-conformist), are often the targets of this aggression: other girls use bullying tactics to subtly undermine confidence because this is the only mechanism girls have for competition and confrontation. One result of this bullying is that many women grow up not trusting other women. Arguably more important is the consequence that many women who once were aggressive and/or confident suffer from lowered self-esteem and develop a self-effacing, non-threatening persona that can be harmful to their later career success**.

Simmons argues that this bullying occurs because of the pressure on girls to be "nice," "perfect:" since society expects girls to be well socialized and not taught to deal with feelings of competitiveness and jealousy, these feelings surface in ways that are subtle, manipulative, and difficult for teachers/parents to address. Simmons supports this point by describing the phenomenon that more marginalized girls, such as black, lower-income girls, are not brought up to be perfect, have no issues with being aggressive and confrontational and tend not to have this "culture of hidden aggression." The culture of hidden aggression affects not just girls, but women: there is a Calfornia-based professional training program that actually teaches high-powered women to cry and act less dominant in public so that they will have a more pleasing public image. Simmons makes a good case for why changing societal expectations for women (not to be perfect; not to be always nice), teaching girls that confrontation and aggression are normal, and allowing girls to be aggressive and competitive would benefit everyone.

While I wish this book had more hard factual evidence (its anecdote to survey result numbers ratio is very low; some parts of the book seemed too personal to be convincing to the nonbeliever), the bullying it described is exactly the kind of bullying I both experienced and took part in. This book supports my previous post about how gender-balanced environments can make it more difficult for individual women to succeed because they are simultaneously judged by how aggressive and self-promoting and by how non-threatening and self-effacing they are.

* New York Times bestseller some time ago and the first book to explore the subject of female bullying.
** As a result of peer ridicule of my tendencies to prefer reading to small talk, to be eager to answer question in class, and to generally care about the material in school, I went through a long period of decreased social confidence and became much less aggressive and non-threatening. This was followed by a long period of decreased intellectual confidence because my non-threatening behavior didn't really help me have an formidable intellectual presence.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Higher taxes, please!

In his blog, conservative Harvard economics professor (and Principles of Economics textbook author) N. Greg Mankiw writes that Obama's tax plan is bad because it will cause him to work less*. Mankiw writes:

If you are one of those people out there trying to induce me to do some work for you, there is a good chance I will turn you down. And the likelihood will go up after President Obama puts his tax plan in place. I expect to spend more time playing with my kids. They will be poorer when they grow up, but perhaps they will have a few more happy memories.

I, too, have had the experience of anger and frustration when I receive a paycheck that is 2/3 what it is supposed to be. If we step back and look at the bigger picture, however, we may see that higher taxes may be what we need to revive leisure. In current American society, people work far too much: none of my college friends have 9-to-5 jobs and I don't even think twice about the 80-hour workweeks ahead in my academic career because my other options look about the same, timewise. I argue that we should have higher taxes because they create incentives for people to work less. Higher taxes are good because 1) working too much is an externality and 2) it can be internalized with income taxes.

First I would like to establish that overtime work in a society where there are always positive returns to work is an externality**. Besides the obvious immediate effects that one person's working too much has on friends and family, who must absorb the burden, the fact that there are people who work 100-hour weeks has a negative impact on coworkers and society as a whole. As people began working 60, then 80, then 100-hour weeks, society came to grow accustomed to longer workweeks. Because people benefited (accrued more wealth, became more distinguished in their field) from working more, working unnatural numbers of hours came to be seen as something good to do. As a result, in the last half-century American culture evolved from one where the upper class prided themselves on not working to one where "conspicuous work" replaced conspicuous consumption as an indicator of wealth and status.

One negative result of having a culture of overwork where returns to work are not capped is that it creates a winner-take-all society: that is, it is much better at the top rather than near the top. Because people have come to find it acceptible to work all the time, and because working more gets more returns, people have work more even when they are better off than most other people already. The people at the top already have what they need to "climb higher" (a base amount of capital, a good network of contacts, an established reputation, etc.), working harder will take them further than working harder would take someone not at the top. This brings society to an equilibrium where there is a concentration of wealth and talent at the very top rather than having wealth/talent distributed among a larger percentage of people, institutions, etc. This is as true for talent as it is for wealth: for instance, most of the top American computer science research comes from a handful of institutions. The implications here are, then, that if someone wants to "go places" as a computer science researcher, they must join in the culture of conspicuous work and devote 80 hours of their week to their work. Thus low taxes have helped create a society that has a concentration of many of the desirable things in life at the top.

Not only does this culture of work make it much better to be at the top, but it makes it much harder to stay at the top. Since it is acceptible and even considered admirable to work as much as possible, and since it is so much better to be at the top, there are many more people working very hard to be at the top than there people at the top. There is much less stability at the top than there has been historically, and since (again) it is much better to be at the top, there are many people working very hard to either get to the top or stay at the top. (There is an interesting article about Silicon Valley millionaires who work 80-100 hours a week in order to maintain their lifestyles.) This perpetuates the culture of overwork and keeps us in the bad equilibrium.

The second part of my argument is that since monetary incentives helped to create this culture of overwork, we could internalize this externality with income taxes. The culture of 100-hour workweeks initially came about because of investment banking culture, which developed because of monetary incentives. First of all, investment banking is completely driven by monetary incentives because the skills required are equivalent to the skills required for many other things: the one difference is money. Also, in other fields, people did not work as hard before this intense i-banking culture developed. For instance, academics did not seem to work as hard. For instance, James Watson's account of the discovery of the double helix talks about how he would play some sort of racquet sport with Francis Crick in the afternoons. While it could be that the faster pace of life has caused people to work more because it is now possible to make people work all the time, that can't be the whole story. When people going into academia have an alternative choice that involves working much more, it is inevitable they do not feel as bad putting in 10 more hours a week than they would have otherwise.

The externalities caused by working too much outweigh the gains: despite working more than Europeans, Americans are shorter than Europeans and not necessary producing more. A more aggressive tax structure would remove many of the incentives to work more and create a society where people lead more balanced lives. We may be poorer, but we can spend more time playing--and hey, this might make us more productive.

* According to Mankiw, he faces a 62% marginal tax rate with McCain and 93% under Obama.
** An externality is an action that has a negative side effect for which the market does not does not account. To argue that overtime work is an externality, I would need to convince you that it has negative impact on the people who are not doing the work.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama nation!

Someone put together this page of Obama headlines.

Glasses for poor eyesight; sociometers for poor social sense

I recently finished Honest Signals, a book about social signals between humans across cultures and how it is the best predictor of outcomes of social situations from sales pitches to dating. Written by MIT Media Lab professor Sandy Pentland, this book discusses experiments that quantify what psychologists have thought for a while about the role of things like influence (how much effect one person has on another person's speech patterns and behavior) and mimicry (mirroring another person's behavior) in determining social outcomes. The authors have developed a sociometer, a device that measures things like change in vocal pitch, amount of gesturing, etc. This book provides "quantitative" evidence behind what many other psychology/business books say about the role of subjective judgment in important personal transactions. Pentland reports that data from the sociometer to predict which sales pitch will get chosen, which two people will exchange numbers during speed dating, etc. Pentland claims that the content of a presentation or proposal has to do with objective content, and sometimes it is the amount energy and confidence that a startup has (and not the content) that will determine whether it will succeed. It may be for this reason that a venture capitalist will almost always schedule a face-to-face meeting before agreeing to fund someone. Pentland also makes the interesting suggestion that these social, non-objective interactions are more productive than interactions that have tried to remove influence from social signalling. He gives the example that United Nations proceedings, which have speeches go through a translator, tend to be not as influenced by social signalling but are also infamously unproductive. Pentland suggests that the sociometer could be adapted to be used as an aid for people during negotiations, presentations, and other such things to enhance social sense.

Since I have been indoctrinated with this stuff already, what Pentland says it not particularly controversial or novel, but I found it to be quite interesting. I do, however, which the book discussed more methodology--it seemed to go from "we could used the sociometer to make predictions" to "this was our r-squared coefficient." I would have liked for there to be more discussion of the qualities that the sociometer measured, the theory behind why things work this way, etc.

* The most notable one I know is Influence (Robert Cialdini), which provides interesting insight into subtle psychological manipulation tactics that play on people's instincts.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Stretch dynamically

This New York Times article describes new research showing that not only does static stretching not help warm you up, but it actually weakens your muscles:

"Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements."

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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why care about gender?

Q: Your point of view seems too gendered. Why do you waste your time with this crap instead of becoming more competent so people respect you more (or something like that)?
A: Because it is usually the case that people (not just white males) do not question the white male cultural standards by which much of our society is evaluated. Ignoring gender issues hurts non-males the way ignoring cultural differences hurts non-whites.

For instance, consider the differences in self-presentation between Chinese and American culture. An American might get the impression that his Chinese colleague is not so bright because the Chinese colleague prefaces everything with "I do not know what I am talking about, but..." (If people believe John McCain for repeating lies while there is much reason to not believe him, then how do you expect to not be influenced by what your colleague says?) What the American may not know is that the Chinese are quite influenced by the ancient intellectual philosopher that the dumber you appear to be, the more you can learn from others. As a result, Chinese schoolchildren (and adults) are taught to be humble and to be good students. This does not involve posturing, showing off knowledge gratuitously, and all kinds of other things that are often over-valued (imnsho) in American society.

Q: The "male" standards to which you refer seem to be "objective" standards. Isn't this a good thing?
A: You are absolutely right that "male" standards are "objective"... if you mean that males like to think such standards are objective. I have a proof that these standards are not objective. Suppose we take male standards to be objective, and suppose males value competence, which is measured by outward display of competence. Oh, and suppose by objective, we mean based on some absolute scale and not influenced by emotions, how much we like the person, or anything else bad like that. Given any two people, we will place them on some objective competence scale based on their Outward Display of Competence (ODC). WLOG, the presenter of competence encodes the ODC as English sentences which are sent through some channel and processed by the evaluator of competence. But oh wait, the brain is not a dependable processor and goes around filling in the blanks (and replacing things) left and right. (Psychologist and neuroscientists have shown this as much as anyone can show anything.) So even if there existed a semantic encoding that the presenter and evaluator could share, the evaluator's brain just added a bunch of layers of noise--noise dependent on the evaluator's background, which includes gender, culture, what s/he ate for lunch, and a bunch of oher things. So much for that. =><=

You seem to want to view male and female as different cultures. Is this specific to American culture?
A: I have evidence that this is not specific to American culture. As I stated in my previous post, Deborah Tannen talks about how in cultures where men have indirect patterns of speech and women are direct, the indirect manner is valued more highly. I will state without much empirical evidence, however, that American culture is quite behind in gender equality issues. If we consider the differences between typically male and typically female modes of interaction and compare this to what is valued. I do not believe this difference is as great in, say, Israeli culture, where women join the army and are treated more like men.

Q: It seems that going to an all-girls school ruined you because not only did it cause you to view everything in terms of gender, but you seem to have had terribly difficulty dealing with a gender balanced environment upon arriving at college.
A: First of all, I don't view everything in terms of gender, but I do think it's important to not ignore the gender completely when considering interactions with people. How I deal with gender differences is similar to how I deal with cultural differences: when I interact with people, I interact with them according to my default set of assumptions on how they are supposed to behave. If I develop negative impressions ("Gee, this person is really an idiot;" "This kid is a total goon") I will back off and reevaluate based on gender and cultural information. Could I be evaluating this person as an idiot because they are not showing off their knowledge enough, or because they are showing off so much that I think they must not know anything? Do I think this person is a goon because they come from a background that values different things than what I value? (For instance, I may think someone is a total goon if when I try to talk about computer science all they talk about to me is "partying," "cute boys," or some other topic I find insipid, but this may be a result of their socialization.)

Secondly, I would like to point out that I have not done so badly as a woman in computer science. I mean, I continued doing computer science after I became somewhat unhappy with various aspects of it, including issues I had with the gender imbalance. I believe that I stuck with computer science perhaps because I had the all-female environment for many years for the following reasons:
  1. Look at the facts? Many women drop computer science for various vague reasons like they feel like they can't handle it (which is often false) and other things. I am still doing computer science, I am still doing computer science as a graduate student, and I am still doing computer science at Big Bad MIT, which has not know to be particularly friendly to women.
  2. From my high school experience I gained the confidence that I was not an idiot (like some fellow computer scientists often try to make me--and other peers--believe).
  3. I did fine (and some may even say, excelled) academically, socially, and generally in my mostly male summer programs whiel attending my all-female high school. Therefore I do not believe my high school prevented me from learning to interact with males in an academic setting.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dominance hierarchies, the inversions thereof, and whether women can afford to be nice

Derek, a very tall, bearded graduate student on my floor, inverts dominance relationships for fun:
  1. He has some sort of masters' student working with him whom he enjoys calling his "boss" and
  2. he will lay down on the ground when babysitting small children so the children are taller. He explains that he does this because he is a big guy and all still understand that he is dominant.
When he told me about this practice, I marvelled at the genius of the idea and was quite excited to try it out. Unfortunately, several people told me that this may not work so well for me.

"But wouldn't my acting subordinant make people think that I was inverting the dominance relationship and, in doing so, establish my dominance?"

Apparently not. I was told that since I am a "small Asian girl," my dominance is not taken as a given, and the best I could hope for is dragon lady*.

We can infer a few stylized facts from this anecdote:
  • Dominance is something that some people (perhaps men?) establish and/or reference in interactions not only with peers, but with non-peers (such as small children).
  • The establishment of dominance is such a recognized/accepted/overused gesture that the absence thereof can signal dominance. (An analogous situation in presentation of wealth: tasteful concealment of wealth connotes greater wealth than an ostentatious display, which labels the offender as nouveau riche.)
  • The dominance of petite Asian women is not taken as given and therefore people of this type cannot take advantage of negative signalling.

I bring up this story because I have recently been thinking about gendered "cultural" differences and their role in the success of women in computer science. In a recent post, I discussed a theory on the male model of dominance vs. the female model of cooperation and how this impacts the way women are viewed in the heavily male-populated field of computer science. I was discussing this with a very successful female computer scientist, who wondered if she would have been as successful if she had not taken such a "hardass approach" to certain things. She posed the questions of whether women in male-majority fields are required to actively establish dominance and whether this is a good thing.

The Derek story and other experiences have convinced me that as a petite Asian woman, it is important for me to actively establish some sort as dominance so as not to be forced into a subordinant position. That is, in order to interact on the same level with many of my peers I must first signal that I am competent and not going to tolerant shit. I conclude that I personally, for some reason or other, need this active reestablishment of dominance for "success," and I deem this to be a good thing because currently the entire world (not just the field of computer science) judges Things That Matter To Society (intelligence, worth, etc.) by "male" standards**.

Note: I think it is complete bullshit that the world is this way, but as far as whether it is bad that computer science judges women by men's standards my answer is no, since in this case my chosen calling forces me to develop skills that will earn, in expectation, greater respect by The People Who Matter To My General Success.

Small Asian girls sleep a lot (false) and it is getting close to my bedtime (true), so I will wrap up this post with some additional analysis:
  • Asian cultural things don't help when being judge on the "dominance scale." Humility, modesty, and general deference seem to "reveal" incompetence, insecurity, and other things that do not cause people to achieve success. After changing these behaviors, however, I was still told that I could only hope to pull off "dragon lady," so it is likely that 1) people associate Asians with these qualities and/or 2) being petite and being a woman are condemning traits.
  • Being petite definitely contributes to difficulty in establishing dominance. Since I have no experience as a a tall woman, I do not have much else to say about this.
  • After I got my hair cut very short I felt like I was taken more seriously, but this may have been psychological. An explanation for why this may have been so is that people have strong priors about Young Asian Women With Shoulder Length Hair (of which there are many) and few priors about Asian women with the very short Jean Seberg A bout de souffle haircut (and variations thereof).

*A reference to Jeannette Wing, Asian female professor of computer science and some big something-or-other at the National Science Foundation.

**According to Deborah Tannen, across all societies it is the male mode of whatever that is valued higher. For instance, in societies where men use an indirect way of speaking and women are more direct the men are considered more talented and refined and the women are considered crude. Women never win. Oh, and this is more evidence that the dominance-criteria is "male" rather than "objective," "good," or anything else like that.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Republican military men on John McCain

Republican military men discuss how McCain is hotheaded and "not a peacetime president." Pundits and people who know things about the army discuss how McCain would likely cause us to bomb Iran and how this would be a terrible thing for America. (From the video: we would awaken the "nuclear genie;" pick which American city you want destroyed because they will destroy at least one.)

It is a very well done video. Stop the insanity!

Gender balanced environments: harmful?

I arrived at Harvard after seven years at an all-female school and many years of mostly-male computer science summer programs. During freshman year, I would often joke to my roommates that the gender-balanced community was too much of a culture shock to me: perhaps I should transfer to either Wellesley (an all-girls school) or MIT (which has a 60/40 male/female ratio). This made little sense to my roommates, but I finally have an explanation of why the near 50/50 gender balance made Harvard difficult to navigate: as a woman in the most gender-imbalance department in the college (computer science), I found it difficult to develop a voice that suited me in my computer science life as well as the rest of my life. In this post I present the following point: women face a particular set of difficulties when they are in a male-majority field within a greater, gender-balanced community.

At the foundation of my argument is the idea that men and women in our society evaluate their same-gender peers in different ways*. While men tend to perceive conversation as ways of achieving dominance, women often view conversation as a way to cooperate. Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen says that men tend to do more public speaking, or report-talk, while women tend to do more private speaking, or rapport-talk. According to Tannen, the dominance view causes many men to establish authority/competence in conversation and view modesty, qualifiers, and conversational deference as signs of insecurity or incompetence. The cooperation view causes women to hide their competence in favor of building trust and view displays of authority/talent as obnoxious. Tannen also writes about how groups of males tend to value talent in each other, targeting their criticism towards those deemed to be incompetent, while groups of females tend to have more group values, targeting their criticism towards those they deem to be singling themselves out.

If we take these descriptions to be true, then we can explain why it is difficult to interact as a woman in a male-majority environment within a gender-balanced community. In a male-majority environment, men evaluate women as they would other men, making it difficult for women to be as successful if they are modest and polite (i.e., wait for people to finish speaking before saying what they want to say, in which case they may never get to speak). In a gender-balanced community, women are judged by men by men's standards, by women by women's standards, and everyone by how well all people (men and women) judge them. Ideally, men and women adjust standards when the groups mix, so the problem comes from women having to be judge by men's standards while still having to interact with other women. In this case, women are pressured to single themselves out while risking ostracization by female peers.

It is my theory that coming from an all-female environment, I was particularly sensitive to the judgment of fellow women and so I was particularly careful to display modesty and politeness. This was particularly harmful to my desire to be listened to and taken seriously by my computer science peers, where I felt like people were always talking over me and telling things in a somewhat condescending manner. I hypothesize that this is because the computer science department was male-majority, my peers were accustomed to evaluating each other on a male rubric. Since I did not realize that interaction with my academic peers required different behaviors from my interaction with my other peers, I was often quite frustrated with not getting listened to, getting talked over, etc. (Harvard is actually dominated by Tannen's "male" style of interaction, so I was generally confused about how to behave.)

Epilogue: Things didn't actually turn out that bad for me, since I became angry/bitter/cynical/jaded/mean and become quite successful that way. I am now at MIT and love it because the 80/20 male/female ratio makes it so that there is no question that I can be as mean as I want and not be ostracized by the other women, who are usually not even around to see me be mean. Also, I am my advisor's first female graduate student so my group members don't even know that women are supposed to be ncie. As a result, I am as mean as I want and really enjoying myself at MIT. This is particularly liberating after 7 years of being nauseatingly un-mean at my girls school. And by "mean," I mean that I no longer care as much what people think.

*My evidence is from experience and from the book You Just Don't Understand, by Deborah Tannen. Though Tannen's book is somewhat stylized and generalizing, Tannen says many things that seem correct and relevant. One good thing she does is she does not make claims as to why things are the way they are; she merely states her findings.

**Side discussion: Who has it right? I was talking to a friend about how all-girls environments are tricky to navigate because people are ostracized for showing off too much, and the friend says this seems like total waste. I pointed out that the "male" manner of competing and displaying everything also breeds waste. (Think peacocks or other birds with lots of useless feathers that cause them to be eaten much more quickly.) Also, many people at my high school were competitive, but we mostly kept it secret and would only ever go as far to say we "competed with ourselves." ("Lorrie did 3 points better than me. Man, I really need to do 4 points better than myself next time.") I don't claim to have a stance on "who has it right;" I just want to point out that there are differences. Both sides involve a bunch of waste.

Friday, September 26, 2008

SMLNJ on 64-bit Ubuntu

I had some trouble with this but found a helpful link here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gloria Steinem on Sarah Palin

A feminist discusses her views on an anti-feminist here.

Also, regard the Women Against Sarah Palin page.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Craigslist: An excellent way to purchase items

A few months ago, I purchased a piano on Craiglist. It's been almost three months now and the piano still works, so it is appropriate to share my story as evidence that Craigslist is a great way to make markets more free.

One day, I decided that I desired a piano. I went on Craiglist for about half an hour or so while at work and e-mailed various people about seeing their pianos, digital and otherwise. Towards the end of my search, I struck gold. Some guy was selling a Yamaha PF-80 digital piano with weighted keys and a sustain pedal for $300. This is a total steal, as the internet reports that used ones have sold for as high as $1500.

The piano acquisition story is as follows: I e-mailed the guy, we arranged a time for me to view the piano, and we arrived at the guy's apartment to discover that he had been using the thing as a TV stand. Apparently, he had a roommate who went to Berklee school of music who left the piano with him. The guy wouldn't take checks, so we drove to the bank and performed an exchange of cash for piano. The piano was incredibly dusty and required some cleaning before we could move it. It now sits in my apartment under a nice cover. It works fairly well except for the right speaker, which has been damaged some from the TV.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Anna Quindlen on Sarah Palin

Anna Quindlin has a great piece about the hypocrisy of the Republican party, the hypocrisy of Sarah Palin, and how Palin should be judged not as a woman but as a politician.

Sarah Palin: A Goon

For those of you who haven't heard, McCain has chosen for his running mate a former Alaska mayor of a town of 9,000 with two years of "real" political experience.

Frank Rich has a good piece about how the whole Palin affair is such a sham. He writes:
"We still don’t know a lot about Palin except that she’s better at delivering a speech than McCain and that she defends her own pregnant daughter’s right to privacy even as she would have the government intrude to police the reproductive choices of all other women. Most of the rest of the biography supplied by her and the McCain camp is fiction."

Jonathan Alter (who is sometimes also a goon) has written a nice piece in Newsweek, McCain's "Hail Sarah" Pass, about why he thinks Palin is a goon. He writes in apostrophe to McCain:
"Your campaign against Barack Obama is based on the simple idea that he is unready to be president. So you've picked a running mate who a year and a half ago was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town of about 7,000 people. You've selected a potential leader of the free world who knows little or nothing about the major issues of the day beyond energy. Oh, and she's being probed in her state for abuse of power."

Krugman also has a piece about what he sees wrong with Palin's position:
"Can the vice-presidential candidate of a party that has controlled the White House, Congress or both for 26 of the past 28 years, a party that, Borg-like, assimilated much of the D.C. lobbying industry into itself — until Congress changed hands, high-paying lobbying jobs were reserved for loyal Republicans — really portray herself as running against the 'Washington elite'?"

Monday, September 01, 2008

A prototype for saving American education?

This past Newsweek ran this story on a Teach for America alum turned head of D.C. schools who has a plan to save the D.C. school district by changing the teaching profession from one dominated by teachers' unions and job security to a higher-paced one with incentives more in line with student achievement. She was hired (and is backed) by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, who says he will do whatever it takes to reform the school system.

This story is quite inspirational because Rhee's plan, if it succeeds, will do to D.C. schools exactly what the schools need for a makeover. Rhee and Fenty have somehow managed to take power from the teacher's union(s?) and school board to do things like firing 100+ non-union central office workers and 36 principals. Also part of the plan is a "probation" for teachers that involves observation for a year and can result in a salary of as much as $130,000 per year. This is much closer to what the American education needs than vouchers, No Child Left Behind, etc.

Below is the Newsweek header.

An Unlikely Gambler

By firing bad teachers and paying good ones six-figure salaries, Michelle Rhee just might save D.C.'s schools.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ergonometry and relaxation

I have taken the last week away from computers due to a neck injury from last December. (My monitor was to the right and after a particularly long and difficult randomized algorithms take-home final I was left with a neck spasm/knot that I've gone through physical therapy to heal.) My injury shows that it is very important to have a good ergonomic setup! Thus, I am putting together the following things to help.

Ergonomic setup
  • Having a good chair is very important! Considering companies pay thousands of dollars per chair, you should invest at least a couple hundred. My new floormate Derek Rayside recommended that I get this Zero Gravity chair, which was $180 and came with free shipping. He uses his computer while sitting at this and has his monitor mounted on an arm (which you can pick up at a computer accessors store such as MicroCenter in Cambridge).
  • I discovered keyboards with built in mice. I haven't used mine yet, but I will let you know. (My arm gets tense sometimes from being outstretched all day.) People also seem to like Kinesis keyboards. At Google an ergonometrician (<-- I made up this word) came by and told me to type wiht my keyboard in my lap. I think this is a good idea.
  • Monitor positioning is very important. The top of your monitor should be eye level.

Relaxation methods for once you develop some work-related injury
  • Bikram yoga. This is the hot yoga, where the room is heated to 105 degrees to loosen all of your muscles, help you flush toxins, etc. It really gets your blood flowing, and important step in healing injuries. In another blog post I documented my first bikram yoga experience.
  • Salt-water floatation. You float in concentrated salt water for about an hour. This is an anti-gravity experience that relieves a lot of tension--very good especially if you have spinal problems. It is also very relaxing in general.
  • Massage. Harvard had subsidized massage for its undergraduates ($60 for an hour session). I discovered that I can still get the alumni rate of $70/hour. Massage is very good for relaxing you, but you have to remember to stay relaxed for the effects to last. The Bikram Yoga center in Harvard Square has hour-long (and half-hour long) massages at similar prices.
My masseuse said that lots of runners come in with neck injuries because 1) they don't think to stretch their necks and 2) running doesn't exactly loosen your neck. Be careful!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Appalling treatment of "illegal immigrant"

New York Times article Ill and in Pain, Detainee Dies in US Hands about a Hong Kong immigrant who became illegal after the US immigration process denied him legal status. This guy had been living in the US for 15 years, worked as a programmer, and had a wife and two US-born children. He was trying to become legal when officials decided to detain him. He got cancer so bad that his spine fractured but was denied treatment because they said he was "faking it."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Cyberattacks on Georgia

This article describes the cyberattacks on Georgia before the actual attacks began.  It is really cool to think about the importance of computers and good computer security!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

CS Grad School Part 5: School Visits

You should begin hearing back from schools in February. I heard back from my first schools--Penn, UW, and Berkeley--on February 6. After asking around I conclude that they do not tell people at the same time, and when they tell people depends on when they decide to admit you and how much funding they have. I heard that how CMU (and probably other schools) do it is they admit the people they definitely know they can fund and then they wait to either hear about more funding to hear from students going to other schools before admitting other people.

School visits are usually in late February/March and are a great opportunity for visiting the campus, talking to professors, talking to grad students, and escaping your native climate. Schools will cover the expenses of these visits up to a certain amount (not guaranteed to cover all costs!), so it is important to book your tickets (and ask about accomodations) as soon as you hear from the schools. (Most schools reimburse you for booking your own tickets, and only CMU offered to do the booking for me.)

Some advice I have compiled about school visits:
  • One of my professors told me to make a spreadsheet with qualities I'm looking for in each school, but one of my other professors told me that there is no good way to rationalize the decision so I should go with my gut feeling. I did the latter, mostly because I have never found spreadsheets to be useful and because I had a good idea of what I wanted in a school.
  • You may not get a whole lot of time with professors, so it is good to look up some information on the school and the professors' work beforehand so you can ask informed questions.
  • Not all professors you talk to expect that you have looked up their work etc. Given time constraints, focus on the professors you think you'll want to work with.
Overview of school visits. These are really fun times when you have scheduled time to meet with professors and current graduate students, you are given good food and drink, and you are generally shown a good time because the schools want to convince you to go there. This is a fun time in your life because it is likely that you'll run into other prospective grad students at more than one school and it's a little bit like one big traveling party.

The schools I visited, in chronological order of my visits:
University of Pennsylvania. UPenn has an extremely strong programming languages group of Benjamin Pierce, Stephanie Weirich, and Steve Zdancewic. They are also very good in things like computer vision and natural language processing (I am told). Their very-goodness is also a new development, as they acquired many Bell Labs (New Jersey) people when that disintegrated. The Penn visit involved many meetings with professors, a poster session, a nice dinner with professors and grad students, a bar crawl, an exclusive Frieda Kahlo exhibit, and probably other things. Penn might have been the only place where they had me meeting exclusively with professors (except MIT), and for a long time (half hour, hour?) each. Everyone was very nice and working on cool things. One of the main reasons I decided not to go there was because I wasn't ready to commit the rest of my life to the flavor of theoretical programming languages theyw ere do research they were doing there. (Penn, CMU, Harvard, and UW are the three places in the states where you'll find the theoretical, POPL/ICPF, theorem-proving kind of PL research.)

MIT. I loved MIT's visit weekend. The first day had various tours, then a dinner with the faculty, then things around Boston. The second day they had a representative sample of the faculty give three-minute long presentations and then allowed the rest of the day for meetings with professors. These were short (20 minutes?) and with a large number of professors. I liked MIT's atmosphere because it was quirky, fast-paced, and had a good sense of humor.

Stanford. Stanford has a much more corporate atmosphere than the other schools. Their research is very applied--people often start companies from the research. The professors were surprisingly nice and seemed to know my name before I got there, which is always a good sign. The grad students there seem like they are treated very well. The visit weekend also included a fun trampoline jumping event. Some of the reasons I chose not go to Stanford: it is very west-coast and corporate, there isn't much of a grad student presence on campus (people treat it like a job and often work from home), and I met a grad student who had done his undergrad at MIT and convinced me that I would love MIT.

Berkeley. Berkeley was the reason I applied to grad school, and during my visit weekend I concluded that Berkeley (the place) is indeed heaven on earth. UC Berkeley also had a great vibe, with its lush green campus and diverse student body. The professors there were also doing great PL research. The main reasons I didn't go to Berkeley was because I felt like MIT was a better personality fit--despite my love for California, I think I am more of an east-coast academic, whatever that means. I also felt like Berkeley's department was much bigger than MIT, probably because there is a lot of collaboration between professors. While this is the reason many people choose to go to Berkeley, I found MIT to be more personal for the reason that professors have their small empires which they tend to with care (in some situations).

UW. This was probably the most fun visit weekend because they are quite generous with the alcohol. (Other grad students I have met have said the same thing.) The grad students at UW seem very happy and to like what they are doing. Two reasons I did not go to UW: Seattle is really far north (and so there is very little light in the winter), and in terms of PL guys they only had Dan Grossman because Craig Chambers was on leave at Google.

CMU. I was very tired by this visit weekend and it was also close to the due date of my thesis, so I didn't spend very long here. Fortunately, I had grown up in Pittsburgh across the street from CMU so I know a bit about Pittsburgh and the area surrounding CMU. CMU has a great CS department; CMU is based around is department, which is an amazing thing if you are into that. CMU's PL group is also basically the department, which is like a candy store if you are a PL nerd. (Correction: I have since learned that the department has many more faculty than the impression I got when I visited. It has been brought to my attention that less than 15% of the faculty work on PL.) Despite this, the draw of CMU and its PL group did not outweigh my desire to not live in Pittsburgh anymore. (I had lived in Pittsburgh for thirteen years, from the ages of five to seventeen. It is a little small for me to return there anytime soon. It is, however, a great city because 1) it is great for raising small children and 2) the graduate stipend goes a long way because of lower costs of living.) Thus, I disappointed my advisor and did not choose CMU.

This is one of my "applying to grad school" blog posts.
  1. Deciding to Apply
  2. Standardized Tests
  3. Fellowships
  4. Applications
  5. School Visits
  6. Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors
  7. FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science
You may also be interested in these blog posts I have written: