Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Cultural Significance of Free Software

Lambda the Ultimate informs me that you can read Christopher Kelty's book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software online. I haven't read this but would like to better understand the implications of free software, so this is on the list. I found it interesting that the public can use this book as they can free software by modulating it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Readers by Author

Thanks to Neha for sharing this fun post on Readers by Author via kottke.org. Some highlights:
  • Ayn Rand: Workaholics seeking validation.
  • James Joyce: People who do not like John Cusack movies.
  • Richard Dawkins: People who have their significant other grab them under the table in order to shut them up whenever someone else at a dinner says something absolutely ridiculous and wrong.

If you judge me by my favorite author according to this, I am a female high school French teacher who has my masters' degree. ;)

Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?

Another one of David Brooks's recommended essays of the year, David Grann's "Trial by Fire" is a masterful piece of journalism about how law failed Cameron Todd Willingham, who was most likely wrongfully executed for arson in the fire that killed his three daughters.

In Brooks's words, "Grann painstakingly describes how bogus science may have swayed the system to kill an innocent man, but at the core of the piece there are the complex relationships that grew up around a man convicted of burning his children. If you can still support the death penalty after reading this piece, you have stronger convictions than I do."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stuff Asian People Like

I recently discovered this blog on what Asian people like, similar to the popular blog Stuff White People Like*. Among my favorites are #38 White Guys and #63 Squatting**.

* Stuff White People Like has been around since January 2008; Stuff Asian People Like started February 2008.
** It's probably not what you think it is--unless you are Asian.

How to get into grad school and stay there

Harvard computer science professor Matt Welsh has two useful blog posts, How to get into grad school and How to get your papers accepted.

David Brooks's recommended health care essays

David Brooks gives out annual Sidney awards to the best magazine essays*. The essays about health care are quite good:
  • Atul Gawande's "The Cost Conundrum", the most influential essay of 2009, investigates why McAllen, TX is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Gawande writes, "When it comes to making care better and cheaper, changing who pays the doctor will make no more difference than changing who pays the electrician. The lesson of the high-quality, low-cost communities is that someone has to be accountable for the totality of care. Otherwise, you get a system that has no brakes. You get McAllen." He says, "We will need to do in-depth research on what makes the best systems successful—the peer-review committees? recruiting more primary-care doctors and nurses? putting doctors on salary?—and disseminate what we learn... we... need to fund research that compares the effectiveness of different systems of care—to reduce our uncertainty about which systems work best for communities. These are empirical, not ideological, questions." He holds up the Mayo Clinic model as an ideal in opposition to McAllen's model and calls for incentives to encourage that model: "The decision is whether we are going to reward the leaders who are trying to build a new generation of Mayos and Grand Junctions. If we don’t, McAllen won’t be an outlier. It will be our future."
  • David Goldhill's "How American Health Care Killed My Father". Goldhill writes, "The most important single step we can take toward truly reforming our system is to move away from comprehensive health insurance as the single model for financing care. And a guiding principle of any reform should be to put the consumer, not the insurer or the government, at the center of the system. I believe if the government took on the goal of better supporting consumers—by bringing greater transparency and competition to the health-care industry, and by directly subsidizing those who can’t afford care—we’d find that consumers could buy much more of their care directly than we might initially think, and that over time we’d see better care and better service, at lower cost, as a result." I disagree: while people should be given incentives to remain in good health, people should have some financial protection against accidents. (To friends who have thought more about this: this is your cue to comment.)
  • Jonathan Rauch's "If Air Travel Worked Like Health Care", which, in Brooks's words, "takes the form of a customer trying to book a flight with a customer service representative."

* This is the first year I've been aware of them; I'm taking his word on it.

Friday, December 25, 2009

MIT missed connections

I came across I Saw You MIT, a Craigslist-style "missed connections" page. I'll admit that I never read Craigslist missed connections, but this page seems like a decent winter break procrastination tool*.

* Especially for those fascinated by MIT undergraduate culture. I'm looking at you, you-know-who-you-are.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Star Trek turns women away from computer science

Thanks to Derek Rayside for sending me this article about how Star Trek decor "stops women from becoming computer scientists. Prof. Sapna Cheryan at University of Washington reports on a study where they surveyed the impressions of college students on computer science after spending time in a room decorated with Star Trek and other "geek" paraphernalia and after spending time in a "neutral" room. They report that women were less desiring of joining the "geeky room" after graduation while men did not express a similar bias. While the results of this study seem somewhat "well, duh" and the experimental setup may seem a bit cheesy*, this sort of research is probably important for helping institutions identify what is driving underrepresented minorities away from fields like computer science.

* It seems like a cleaner way to arrive at the same conclusion is to test whether women express stronger preference for room decor than men do. The current setup (and the current reporting) makes all sorts of assumptions about the gendering of geek culture and women's interest in Star Trek and comic books. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it perpetuates gender roles which 1) may be societal constructions and 2) may be harmful.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Python is for girls

Thanks to Phil Guo for sending me this.

Guido van Rossum, the Benevolent Dictator of Python, said he was going to wear this shirt to PyCon: "Python is for Girls."

From the site: "This Design is actually one of those ideas you get when you had a couple beers with your friend. Even if the design isn't clear about it, lets make sure we are on the same page: Python is a great and powerful language and so easy to use that even cute girls can use it. This is proved."


* My issue here is that this perpetuates harmful stereotypes about the abilities of boys and girls. By the way, before men co-opted programming as a "macho" task requiring special masculine abilities, programming was viewed as "women's work." Also, I must remind you that with the ease of use of Python comes with trade-offs. Recall my favorite programming language conversation:

  • 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.
Girls, if you care about performance, use C. ;)

IAP C/C++ and Haskell classes

Over IAP*, Sasa Misailovic and I are teaching a three-unit, 6-day/lecture C/C++ course focusing on C memory management (why you would use a C-family language rather than a memory-managed language) and C++ classes (why you would use C++ rather than C for this purpose). We intend for this course to be most useful for undergraduates who want to learn C for systems classes. (60+ undergraduates have already registered!) More information here:
Joe Near and I are teaching a two-day Haskell course: the first day will be an introduction to Haskell concepts (the type system, monads, type classes); the second day will be a demonstration of applications for which Haskell is useful. We intend this course to be for people familiar with functional programming who want to pick up Haskell. More information here:
* MIT's Independent Activities Period between terms in January.

Spotlight on ginger

Many know of my obsessions with coconuts, yogurt, fruit, and soy chorizo. One of my lesser-known (but equally strong) obsessions is with ginger snacks. I usually get crystallized ginger (made by cooking ginger with sugar), which is supposedly good for colds and indigestion. Today I came upon naked ginger, which is uncrystallized but still involves sugar. (I prefer naked ginger to crystallized ginger.) I always feel good about eating ginger because it tastes like candy but makes me feel like I am doing positive things for my body*.

* This is kind of like my previous 5-day-long fling with Viactiv, but healthier**.
** I would like to think...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Naked Comedy Showcase

After attending The Slutcracker, I topped off my night of nudity by going to the Naked Comedy Showcase at the Oberon in Harvard Square. The show was hosted by Boston comedian Andy Ofiesh and featured local comedians including Cameron Moore, Phone Whore, Chris Fleming, and Zach Sherwin* (a.k.a. MC Mr. Napkins). All comedians performed in the buff; some of them made reference to their nudity while others just did their bits. They also took a few people from the audience who came up to the stage told jokes in the nude. There is another show January 8, 2010 at 10:30 pm: consider going!

* A hilarious hip-hop rapper comedian. Top hits include Plush Pig and Sphygmomanometer ("and now in morse code...").

The Slutcracker

The Slutcracker, a "sexy freaky holiday zeitgeist spectacular" burlesque version of The Nutcracker, is playing now in the Somerville Theater*. Starring the wonderfully talented dancer Malice in Wonderland as Clara and based on the slutcracker prince (a pink and glittery personified vibrator) fighting the prude fiance, the show is thrilling and well-choreographed. Dances include the Bacchanalia Harem (featuring dancers with names like Cherry Phosphate, Decolletage, Femme Brulee, and Havana Tormenta) and the Dance of the Reed Pole (featuring Sugar Dish). I recommend catching it while it's still playing**. Read the press here.

* I saw it this past Friday; it's showing today and next weekend (Dec. 17-20).
** Leave the kids at home.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Hyatt layoffs

Fellow CSAILer Rachel Sealfon brought it to my attention that several Boston area Hyatts laid off their workers and replaced them with half-wage temporary workers under circumstances with questionable ethics. Though many important people, including Governor Deval Patrick, have asked patrons to boycott the Hyatt until the workers have been re-hired, the Hyatt has done little to rectify the situation. We wrote a letter to MIT President Hockfield asking for MIT to use its partnership with the Hyatt on Memorial Drive to pressure the Hyatt for more ethical treatment of its workers.

You can do the following to show your support:

Monday, December 07, 2009

Grad school application advice

CMU professor Luis von Ahn (the inventor of Captcha) has this blog post of application advice. Advice #1: "DON'T start your research statement with a quote from Albert Einstein. You may think that's a good idea, but so do the other 50% of the applicants. Hell, don't start it with any quote, unless it's from something like Gossip Girl. XOXO."