Thursday, December 16, 2010

Romania Road Trip

The long-awaited post on my October trip is finally here.

High-level Synopsis.
I tagged along with my friend Florian on the tail end of a Balkans road trip and then spent a few days in Vienna. The itinerary included Serbia (2 days), Romania (5.5 days), Hungary (1.5 days), and Austria (4 days). The Romania portion involved a lot of driving with my German friends Florian and Lorenz. The Austria portion involved a lot of running around Vienna being loud and American with my friend Kate. (Balkans-related photos here; Vienna photos here.)

The Trip.
I started by meeting some German students in Belgrade, Serbia, where they were stopping during their Balkans road trip. The eastern Europeans in the group introduced me to the meat-eating culture: I broke my no-red-meat principle to sample the ćevapčići and pljeskavica. (If you go, make sure to have burek for breakfast, too.) Belgrade is intense: people party hard amidst remnants of the NATO bombing in the 1990's. (We went to a really cool club in an abandoned building.) Our Serbian friend described the culture as "People live like there is no tomorrow."

After a couple of days in Belgrade we made our way to Romania in Florian's parents' minivan. We passed the Serbian town of Golubec, where we drove past a medieval fortress. It was not sufficiently satisfying to just observe the fortress from the road, so we scaled the side of the fortress to get to the top. The dopamine high from fearing certain death throughout the treacherous climb led us to instate the tradition of having one adventure per day. The most dangerous adventures may have involved the other road trip participants going to sleep while I drove in the night.

Our first Romanian destination was Targu Jiu, where we found a place to eat by asking some pedestrians and where we found a hotel by driving to a street where we thought there might be hotels. (The first hotel was too expensive, but they pointed us to a more reasonably priced one.) There I learned about the sculptor Brâncuşi, who walked to Paris to meet Auguste Rodin (of "The Thinker" fame) and then turned down an invitation to study with him, saying "nothing grows in the shade of a tall tree."

After Targu Jiu we spent a few days in the city of Sibiu, which has beautiful churches and other architecture. We drove out to some locations including a fortified church, the medieval town of Sighişoara, and Vlad Dracul's castle. We were particularly haunted by the village of Hunedora, which housed the ruins of a beautiful castle alongside industrial ruins from the Communist era. In the midst of all this were these ornamental gypsy houses decorated with tin with begging gypsy children all around. We exited Romania by way of Timișoara, the most modern city we visited in Romania. There we saw the rose garden, many churches, and Piazza Unirii, a beautiful square. We are not sure why, but we witnessed at least 3-4 weddings in the day we were there.

On the way back to Vienna we drove through Hungary without a map or idea of where to eat/stay. We drove toward Budapest, stopping in the city of Szeged for dinner. We again asked some pedestrians for a dinner recommendation but ended up going to an amazing restaurant on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. There we tried the local specialty, carp soup (the Hungarians love their paprika), while listening to live traditional Hungarian folk music. We then had a bigger adventure in Budapest, where we drove the streets trying to find a hostel from Florian's memory of his last visit there ten months previously. Budapest turned out to be much more of a hot spot than the Romanian cities: the first two places we tried had no vacancies. (It turns out that it is currently trendy to go to Budapest, Prague, and Vienna on the same trip.) We spent most of the next day relaxing in the geothermal baths (which had a surprisingly large and varied selection of baths, saunas, and steam rooms) before heading back to Vienna.

In Vienna I met my friend Kate and we did the standard tourist activities. On the first day (which was also my 24th birthday) I had half a day before Kate arrived, during which I walked through the quarters, got acquainted with a a live Mozart statue, visited the Mozarthaus, and walked into an amazing artist's studio because I liked the way the paintings looked. Kate and I spent our time hanging out in cafes and palaces. We proudly represented America by loudly saying "RAWWR!" (see photo from the Pratersauna, a club in a former sauna) whenever there was doubt as to our origins. All in all, Vienna was as (everything had a curlicue or flourish) as expected.

The driving was quite memorable. There is no interstate highway system in use, so we drove through the main road, which most often had two lanes and passed through the centers of villages. Driving was not as fast as expected given the 60 km/h speed limit, the presence of tractors, cows, and baby carriages, and the difficulty of passing slower vehicles. Night driving was particularly exciting because there were no lights and many exciting curves marked with multiple glowing arrows. Florian often drove the day shifts because of his love for the "national sport" of passing cars. As a result the bulk of my driving experience to date has involved night driving in the Transylvanian woods. I am surprised we are still alive.

I loved Romania a surprising amount. The countryside was beautifully natural: for the first time I observed someone cutting grass with a scythe. On one drive we encountered the most breathtaking sunset I have ever seen. It was also interesting going through Romania during an off tourism season because there were no lines and also no special performances for tourists. I am really glad I went to Romania before it became more modernized (and before there is an interstate highway).

A final important thing I learned on this trip is that you can travel in luxury with carry-on luggage using do-it-yourself travel size containers.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Art of Taking Breaks

The serious runners I know take one day off from running each week and alternate training and rest days. Most runners who race also understand to taper: easing up before a race so that your body can heal and reap the benefits of the training. Good coaches teach runners to honor the limitations of their bodies and to take precautions to prevent injury. Given the high injury (burnout, loss of inspiration, apathy, etc.) rate in academic programs, professors should preach analogous rest-based approaches to academic challenges.

I could have used such advice, as I certainly did not appreciate the value of mental breaks for most of my life. My first two years of college were governed by a rigorous schedule of studying, eating, sleeping, and light socializing. I did not realize how extreme my lifestyle was until my friends Jeremy and Marianne suggested that I do some activity with them as a break the night before a big exam. I looked at them blankly. I did not take breaks longer than 15 minutes.

Fortunately, I have moved away from such a regimented lifestyle with such short breaks. After my work came to require more creativity and after reading articles about daydreaming gives our brain critical downtime for our creative processes, I came to appreciate downtime. A repetitive stress injury and my measures to recover (yoga, taking more time off) have taught me that stepping away from my work can help productivity. I have also started taking breaks from from digital devices altogether. (There is a nice NY Times article about how digital devices are not conducive to rest.) My experience has shown that small breaks can be immensely helpful for productivity.

As a move from mental sprints (short deadlines and well-defined tasks) to mental marathons (the long deadlines and ambiguous tasks of my Ph.D.), my next conquest goal is the art of the extended break. After speaking with some friends who went on meditation retreats, I looked into doing one and discovered that the required length for a first retreat was a few weeks. This had seemed like blasphemy: I had not been away from e-mail for longer than a a couple of days since graduating high school. I have since come around to the view that the brain's rest process cannot be rushed: if you need a mental break, you should accept the time that your mind needs to recover. The solution to feeling overwhelmed by tasks at hand may not be to slog through and face them unproductively, but to step completely away and return when ready.

In the last few years, I have come to the view that practicing Frederick Taylorism (maximizing productivity according to a greedy algorithm) on my life only works with small, well-defined tasks. If I am pushing your mind to its limits, strategically resting (for possibly long periods of time) can take me much further.

By the way, Cal Newport has a related post on Study Hacks where he advises students to do less so they can enjoy what they do more (and thus be better at it).

Monday, August 16, 2010

America's Unnecessarily Crowded Prisons

I read this column by Neal Peirce about how America locks up all kinds of people for unnecessarily long periods of time. According to Peirce and his sources, people caught for street drug trafficking and heck, even importing orchids without properly doing paperwork are thrown into jail alongside rapists and murderers. Peirce does a nice job of highlighting the present problematic situation.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Friendship Among the Self-Reliant

My college roommate Marianne sent me this Wilson Quarterly article by Daniel Akst calling for Americans to value friendship more. We are more disconnected from each other than ever before: though half of American adults are unmarried and over a quarter live alone, we have only one third the number of non-family confidants than we did two decades ago--and a quarter have "no such confidants at all."

In the article, Akst provides hypotheses for why friendship has become so weak. A major reason is the rise of false friendship: University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo say that Americans are lonely "not because we have fewer social contacts, but because the ones we have are more harried and less meaningful." Other factors include the tendency for people to buy what they need (therapy, pets), the "cult of busyness" (people are too busy to develop meaningful intimate relationships), the culture's "reverence for self-sufficiency," the "remorseless eroticization of human relations" (providing a context where "bromance" is a legitimate concept), divorce, and the "wildly inflated view of matrimony to subsume much of the territory once occupied by friendship."

I particularly like the way Akst addresses the phenomenon of viewing one's significant other as the one-stop shop for social needs. He writes, "Your BFF nowadays—at least until the divorce—is supposed to be your spouse... except that spouses and friends fill different needs, and cultivating some close extramarital friendships might even take some of the pressure off at home."

This article provides an excellent reminder for us not to let work or a significant other distract us from developing meaningful friendships. Sadly, too many people forget that friends are important for providing stability and happiness.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Guided mental conditioning

As I've gotten bored in my ten-year relationship with running, I have been exploring various group workout options. Participating in instructor-led workouts has been surprisingly good for improving my mental strength.

My latest activity is an indoor cycling class I do 1-2 times a week at the Pro Club, the swank gym where Microsoft gives us a virtually free membership. For those of you unfamiliar with these classes, they have an enthusiastic instructor on a bike telling us to work harder so we can give it our all when we're chasing Lance Armstrong up the last hill in the Tour de France. It's somewhat goofy of me to do indoor cycling when I haven't used my bike for over a year, but I love the intensity of the workouts. Each class the instructor leads a different workout: there have been various hill workouts and interval ones. The instructors have been surprisingly good at getting me to push myself: they tell us how our body should be reacting to each resistance/cadence (breathing should be heavy, heart rate should go up in the first 10 seconds, etc.), they don't tell us in advance how many intervals are left, and at the end of the intense parts they emphasize how little time is left ("Twenty more seconds! Give it all you've got!"). It's kind of like having a coxswain--in fact, these workouts are quite similar to the machine workouts I used to do on the crew team*. Some of the workouts have been, as one instructor calls it, "quite a head trip" because they require so much focus on exerting power while maintaining form. I leave many workouts barely able to walk--it has been a while since I have been able to push myself to run this intensely.

This summer I have also continued doing heated power yoga 3-4 times a week. I have been doing baptiste yoga at Be Luminous, an amazing (and amazingly Lululemon-land**) studio by the Westlake Whole Foods. Not only do the instructors lead physically intense yet fun workouts, but they also pay attention to precision of alignment and the mental aspects (focus on breath, being present) in a way that leaves me feeling incredible afterward. The instructors coax us to push our limits by describing the physical beauty of the poses and the intensity we should feel. Yoga tests my focus in a very real way: if I lose my concentration, I will likely fall out of a pose. I leave the studio feeling mentally and physically cleansed.

Both cycling and yoga force me to be in the moment and focus on the physical: the combination (along with some moderate running) has kept me (arguably) sane after long days of reading bytecode***. I encourage skeptics to try out such "group fitness" activities--other people can get you out of your head much better than you can.

* I used to row crew, where the coxswain is the person who tells the rowers how quickly and how hard to stroke.
** My fellow yogis are rather well-dressed in high-end yoga gear as a result of what I call the "yoga arms race." Each age group of people sees people 10 years older (and 10 years wealthier) looking better than they do, so they spend more on flattering spandex.
*** Coconut juice has also been a key factor.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Morality TV

As I have recently gotten more into reality TV*, I have been pleasantly surprised/amused by how it has made me realize I could be a better person.

The most fascinating of the bunch, in a trainwreck/rubbernecking way, is True Beauty, a show where contestants are secretly judged on their "inner beauty." This season the premise was that the contestants were competing to be the "face of Vegas." While they are competing in challenges revealed to them (being voted the best tour guide on a bus tour, shooting the best ad for a restaurant wearing only food, etc.), the contestants are also being judged on their performance in hidden challenges (opportunities to steal, cheat, help someone, etc.). I initially felt somewhat dirty about the voyeurism of the show and about the hypocrisy of the judges (and the show itself!), who make fun of the contestants for not being nicer people. Human nature compelled me to continue watching, and though I found some of the criteria for evaluating inner beauty to be questionable (preferring sins of omission to sins of commission, etc.), the show made me realize how much nicer I could be. By the end the judges were splitting hairs--it came down to things like who threw a temper tantrum under pressure vs. who talked about other contestants behind their backs. I was impressed with some of the contestants' niceness despite being under the pressure of being on a reality show for weeks. It was refreshing to see diva behavior not being rewarded**.

Another show that is actually quality is What Would You Do?. In this show they set up hidden cameras at the site of various social experiments and see how onlookers react. For instance, they have someone stealing a bike and vary the gender and race. (When a beautiful blond woman steals a bike, everyone offers to help, even when she says it is not hers.) Some other scenarios include a girl at a bar being taken away by a stranger, shoppers who are the victims of racism, and a lottery ticket holder who is cheated by the store owner. For each scenario, they have interviews with academics who study the particular situation at hand, people who have been involved in similar real-life situations, and the people who walked into the hidden camera experiment. This show does a great job of making people aware of situations they should be aware of and providing some guidance on how to properly react. (For instance, it's important to speak up if you see a girl who you think may be assaulted because she could be killed.) Since this show is more serious and less flashy than True Beauty I have, unfortunately, only watched two or three episodes. (But don't let this stop you!)

While we're on the subject of reality TV, I would like to briefly discuss this season's The Bachelorette, starring Ali Fedotowsky. To paraphrase one of my friends, it's amazing: this woman is dating (at least, initially) 20+ guys and managing them well. Yes, the show can be cheesy and they sometimes cut the footage in a groan-inducing way, but the way Ali forms and maintains relationships with these men is quite interesting. (This is what courtship looks like when it's not through IRC!) I have gotten some of my friends hooked; I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already.

So... If you are waiting on work/e-mail responses for me, I have been hiring my, um, proxy to watch and summarize these shows for me. ;) (Okay, I need some form of entertainment while cooking, right?)

* Note that my relationship with TV is fairly new; at the end of the spring I was confused that the shows I watched were no longer on. (For those of you less aware of real life than I am: TV shows come in units of seasons.)
** But it's predictable that reality TV would have come to this. Rubbernecking in the lives of angry, unbalanced people has become so ten years ago.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2010

I just returned from 60th Nobel Laureate Meeting for chemistry, physics, and physiology in Lindau, Germany. What a week!

The Lindau meetings provide a way for Nobel laureates to pass on advice and inspiration to young researchers. In 1951, Count Lennart Bernadotte became the patron of a meeting that included 7 laureates, 400 doctors, and 70 students. This year, Count Bernadotte's daughter Countess Bettina Bernadotte presided over the meeting of 59 laureates and 650 young researchers. The group of young researchers was quite diverse, with 171 from Germany, 94 from the United States, 36 from China, and representation across many other countries. The program consists of four days of morning lectures followed by parallel sessions of afternoon talks, panels, and discussions. The meeting provided a stimulating atmosphere to reflect upon how to solve society's big problems.

Through talks, discussions, and panels, the Nobel laureates gave excellent advice about pursuing scientific research. Professor Oliver Smithies shared his passion for doing experiments and described his procedure for keeping organized lab notebooks. When asked about his hard work, he said that he viewed it not as working hard but as playing hard. Professor Martin Chalfie talked about the cumulative nature of scientific success and the different routes by which one could arrive at it. Some laureates discussed the importance of translational research (actually working with patients); other laureates emphasized the importance of basic research, talking about how they ended up solving problems that they did not predict when choosing an initial research direction. Many of us did not know whether to feel better or worse when one laureate said that after winning the Nobel Prize, he still has to cite possible reviewers of his funding proposals. :)

Attending the meeting helped me to better understand the Nobel laureates as real people. Professor Chalfie talked about how he had not been a science superstar earlier in life; Professor Kurt Wuthrich said that he had come u his work in proteins through his early interest in sports. When asked about his non-science passions, Professor Smithies said that he was also passionate about flying and about his wife, and that the ideal Saturday consists of flying in the morning, taking his wife to lunch, and then doing experiments in the afternoon. At lunch, physics laureates Professors Cronin, Smoot, 't Hooft, and Gross were very approachable and talked about everything from pranks they pulled as students to the technological singularity. Many of the laureates also brought their spouses who were not in science--this provided a nice view into their lives.

At the meeting, the Nobel laureates also discussed social issues that scientists should think about. They addressed the usual topics of global warming and the energy crisis. Prof. Christian de Duve gave a talk on evolution and said that the future of human life is threatened by overpopulation as a result of evolutionary success and suggested population control as a possible effective solution. Prof. Harry Kroto gave a talk (which I did not attend, but heard about from many people) about the "GooYouWiki" world and the importance of educating the public about science. Science communication was a common thread among many of the topics and panels: it is necessary not just for having lasting impact in one's field, but also for having impact of science policy.

I was happy about the meeting with respect to representation of women in science. Though the ratio was quite skewed when it came to the laureates, the ratio was much better among the young researchers. Chemistry laureate Professor Ada Yonath talked about her granddaughter at the end of her lecture to show young women that they could do science and have a family, too. Dr. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi talked about the importance of having a supportive partner and told the story of how, in lab on her wedding day, she received a phone call from her partner asking whether she was still coming. Professor Smithies, when asked about the leaky pipeline of women in science, said that it is important to recognize that some women want time to raise children. In his evolution talk, Professor de Duve said that we may be better off putting women in charge, since females may be more wise as a result of having evolved to consider the future when taking care of the young.

Besides being an incredible academic/research learning experience, the meeting was also a great social experience. As you can see in my Lindau photo album, many of my memories are not from talks but from social events. The Monday dinner was quite a bonding experience when everyone joined together to be paired with a stranger in dancing the polonaise. I loved meeting fellow young researchers at events such as the Grill & Chill, the Bavarian evening, and the boat trip to the isle of Mainau. It was interesting to learn about the academic, research, and life experiences about people working in different fields and research environments from me.

I am grateful for the Bernadotte family, Microsoft Research (my nominating institution), and everyone else who made this experience possible!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Quitting Coffee

It has been four weeks since I quit*; it had been four years since my relationship with coffee began. I am glad to put that period of my life behind me.

After years of looking for more time in my day, I thought I had found the solution by including coffee in my morning routine and decreasing my quantity of sleep. My decision had been backed by some pop scientific research that coffee could be a health drink: the negative correlation between coffee and Alzheimer's, the negative correlation between coffee and gout, etc. (In fact, I have a blog post here about why I started drinking coffee.)

My decision to quit was driven by several reasons. I found that I sleep better (at the right times and more deeply) when I haven't had coffee, coffee is hard on my stomach, and that I had become quite addicted (in that I function significantly more poorly in the absence thereof). I had also developed an awareness of and distaste for how wound up coffee makes me.

Quitting has been difficult for the obvious alertness reasons. In addition, my concentration got worse and I felt hungry more often. My hypothesis is that as a stimulant, caffeine stimulates the part of my brain that helps me focus. The hunger can be explained by the "fact" (checked against the internet) that caffeine can be an appetite suppressant. Not being caffeinated has also made social interactions more difficult, perhaps because it has become more difficult to focus on conversations. The good news is that all of these issues have (slowly) been going away.

Despite the challenges, I have been enjoying my coffee-free existence. My quality of sleep has improved, which has helped me to be more naturally alert and focused. It has been a relief not to have to look for sources of caffeine on weekends and when out of town. In general, I have been feeling less wound up and more well.

For those of you thinking about quitting: don't be afraid to do it!

* Somewhat ironic is that it happened the day I arrived in Seattle. I have since had decaf twice, but that is it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

PLDI 2010 in Toronto, Canada!

I just returned from PLDI 2010 in Toronto, Canada. The papers, talks, and non-technical content were all great!

This year parallelism and concurrency seemed to be the hot topics, as there were two tracks for each of those. According to the program chair Alex Aiken (if I remember correctly), there were relatively high acceptance rates for papers on types, static analyses, and programming language designs. Some papers that I particularly liked include Viktor Kuncak et. al.'s Complete Functional Synthesis about using decision procedures at runtime for synthesizing program expressions, Khoo Yit Phang et. al.'s Mixing Type Checking and Symbolic Execution on a hybrid type-checker/static analyzer, and my adviser Armando Solar-Lezama's Smooth Interpretation with Swarat Chaudhury on smoothing program spaces for analysis/synthesis. The other papers in the verification session with me (Zach Tatlock's Bringing Extensibility to Verified Compilers, Adam Chlipala's paper on type computations and meta-programming with Ur, and Michael Emmi's Parameterized Verification of Transactional Memories) are also cool.

This year they reduced talk length to 15 minutes (instead of 20), which people seemed to have strong thoughts about. The general consensus seemed to be that people appreciated having the time limit for others' talks, as people who worked hard on their talks would take the effort to make a good 15-minute talk, and the short length kept people awake and even enticed people to attend talks on areas of marginal interest. People generally seemed unhappy/concerned about the shortened time for their own talk. Also, someone commented that having shorter talks made them more intense and left less (perhaps necessary) time for zoning out.

This year there was no PLDI-wide outing, but having everyone staying in a huge hotel (Fairmont Royal York) with its own bar, restaurants, shops, etc. promoted PLDI-wide unity. There were also many restaurants and tourist attractions within walking distance, which made it easy to embark on food and other excursions with fellow PLDI-ers. Being by the waterfront was also nice: Tom Ball led a running contingent along the waterfront path every morning at 7am. Before and after the conference, I managed to do a fair amount of sight-seeing: pictures here.
(Toronto is huge and has so many interesting neighborhoods! I loved Kensington Market and Old Cabbagetown. Toronto also apparently has multiple Sri Lankan restaurants!)

This was a big conference for me because not only did I give my first conference talk, but my paper with my MSR mentor Chris Hawblitzel (Safe to the Last Instruction: Automated Verification of a Type-Safe Operating System) won the best paper award!

Talk slides below:

Articles about Women and the Workplace

One week away and I've collected so many articles about women in my inbox!

Women in Science
  • Gender stop-gaps - a Nature article about the under-representation of women in academic science and the measures being taken/advised to address it, including growing the applicant pool, providing a more family-friendly environment, and increasing mentoring. This article also cites organizational changes as important: for instance, a researcher noticed that in smaller biotech startups with flat organization structures, women were as likely as men to hold a patent, while at universities and larger companies men patented significantly more.
  • NCWIT Report Examines Women's Declining Participating in Tech - a blog post describing a report about the attrition of women in IT careers compared to the past and compared to the numbers of women who pursue tech-related fields in college. The report also describes barriers to participation and how to address them, recommending an "ecosystem of reform."
  • Daring to Discuss Women's Potential in Science - a New York Times article about a proposed law that would require the White House science adviser to oversee workshops promoting gender equity. In this piece Tierney raises the question of whether bias exists. This point is not the most relevant to raise, as the existence of differences does not invalidate the need for equity. Rather, learning about differences can educate us about how to provide equal opportunities and make progress in a way that allows people with different cultural backgrounds and strengths to contribute. This Jezebel post makes some good criticisms of the article.
More general
  • Dressed to Distract - New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd discusses the firing of Debrahlee Lorezana from Citigroup, for the reason that her looks and dress were "too distracting" for her male coworkers and supervisors. Dowd points out that while this is usually the other way around (beautiful people get what they want), women are often punished professionally for being too beautiful. Dowd writes, "A male friend once told me he was looking for an unattractive personal assistant so he wouldn’t be tempted. And when I was hiring a Grace Kelly blonde as a researcher a few years ago, a male colleague asked me not to because it would be 'too distracting' to him; two girlfriends cautioned me not to because it would be depressing... for me to work with someone so good looking."
  • In Sweden, the Men Can Have It All - a New York Times pieces about gender equity in Sweden, where women have equal rights at work and men have equal rights at home--85% of Swedish men take parental leave. This is part of the women around the world series.
  • A short history of "feminist" anti-feminists - a nice Slate piece about "the early sisters of Sarah Palin," women who claim to be feminists but organize in opposition to the feminist movement. And (yes!) the article cites Camille Paglia ("I'm not soft and silly like all the other women") as the "iconic leader" of a group of contemporary anti-feminists including Christina Hoff-Summers ("why can't a woman be more like a man?").

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reviewing resolutions: time and technology

Earlier I wrote about my New Year's resolutions regarding time and technology. Since we're halfway through the year, it's time to evaluate how we're* doing.

While I have improved at spending time the way I want to, I need to be more honest about how much time actually exists. Being more honest with myself about how much I slack off/am capable of working has helped me to do more things I enjoy. This past spring I have taken up acrobatics, gotten involved with Graduate Women at MIT, been meeting new people, going to shows, etc. without taking a terrible productivity hit. A problem is that I often do too many things I enjoy, making it difficult to appreciate each thing (and to get enough sleep). My friend Geneva linked me to a Zen Habits blog post about slowing down and enjoying life more: I plan to take its advice about doing things more slowly and mindfully. I would like to arrive at an equilibrium where I am doing what I want and I am not rushing through life.

As the increase in my non-work activity has increased my volume of e-mail and phone communication, improving my relationship with technology requires more drastic measures. My goal is to limit my electronic communication and internet use to activities that enhance my experience of the physical world. Compartmentalization will be important in reaching this goal: separating productive use of technology (writing e-mails to friends, reading informative media pieces, etc.) from unproductive use (browsing online sales instead of going to bed) and separating time for engaging with technology from time for engaging strictly with the physical world. To get into the habit of interacting with the physical world I plan to have explicit, contiguous "off-grid" blocks of time when I don't use my phone or the internet: I am going to start with one hour each weeknight and five hours (at once, but either day) each weekend. I would like to reach a point where I can leave my phone and computer for extended periods of time without causing anyone (including myself) anxiety and where checking e-mail/Facebook is not the first thing I do every morning.

Here's to slowing down and enjoying life in the rest of 2010. :)

* Yes, editorial "we" again. ;)

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

CRA-W Grad Cohort 2010

April 22-24 I was in Seattle for the Computing Research Association's Grad Cohort for Women. For the last ten years, the CRA has annually been sponsoring graduate women in computer science in their first through third years from across US and Canadian institutions to convene.

Initially skeptical of women-only conferences ("I don't need a special conference to network and discuss research"), I signed up for this upon my friend Oshani's recommendation. CRA-W Grad Cohort turned out to be a highly positive experience. One of the senior women sums it up well in an explanation to a male colleague: "Imagine if you went to work every day and there were only women. Imagine if you went to a conference, excited to discuss your research ideas, and there were only women around. Wouldn't you be excited to encounter another man?"

The program was informative and thought-provoking: there were helpful sessions and panels on topics such as presentation skills and interdisciplinary research. There was also a session on touchier subjects such as how to deal with small-scale harassment and how to identify and handle bias. Additionally, there was a poster session where the second-years presented their research. The program also made good use of the meal times to allow graduate women to network with other women (graduate students and professors) in the same area and at the same point of the academic progression.

It was incredible to be surrounded by and discuss research with so many women in computer science. (It was also somewhat overwhelming because I had never imagined there to be so many women in CS!) The dance party that took place the evening of the first day was also one of my most fun activities in recent times. I highly recommend attending this meeting*!

* There is also the Grace Hopper Celebration for women in CS in the fall.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Revival of MIT's PL offsite tradition

Upon Prof. Saman Amarasinghe's (persistent) suggestion, I organized (with some other kids) an MIT programming languages/software engineering off-site with six PL-related groups. Each group had 30 minutes to present their work. There were two professors panels, one on research advice and one on the future of MIT programming languages research.

The goals of the off-site, as state on our website, were to "discuss the current and future directions of MIT's PL research." The event was surprisingly productive in terms of getting everyone up to speed on what different groups were working on and in terms of discussing what students and professors should do to improve the research experience at MIT.

During the research advice panel, one professor gave four pieces of advice: 1) learn, 2) teach, 3) do slow research, and 4) have an attitude. The third point sparked quite a bit of controversy among the other professors, most of whom argued that computer science research is inherently fast-paced and thus our research practices should adapt to accomodate the pace. Another interesting thing was that most professors seemed to agree that the current peer-reviewed conference model is not the best model for how PL research should work, but there was not consensus on how it should be done.

During the future of MIT PL research panel discussion, there was some interesting discussion not just about what the future of PL entailed, but how much of the present and past to retain. (A big question was the degree to which it is important to teach type theory to MIT students and, given nobody at MIT does type theory research, what the best way of doing that would be.)

A result of the off-site was the goal to stay more connected throughout the year. I would be curious to hear how other schools' programming languages groups sync up to discuss ideas and learn new concepts.

Oh, and if you don't believe this actually happened--there are some nice photos here with a group shot here.

Grad Women @ MIT Keynote: The Evolution of Bias

I'm excited for Dr. Freada Klein's keynote talk for the Graduate Women at MIT spring kick-off. Description of the talk, "The Evolution of Bias," is as follows:

Though women have been a part of the work force for decades, they still face bias, implicit and explicit, in the workplace. Freada will describe how these biases have changed as a result of research and policy over the years, focusing on the most recent research on implicit biases.

There will be refreshments and an opportunity for mingling and discussion following Freada's talk.

The talk will be 5:30-6:30 (with reception following) in 46-3002.

Freada's husband Mitch Kapor is tweeting to advertise the talk.

Friday, April 23, 2010

C/C++ course on MIT's OCW

Eunsuk Kang and I taught a C/C++ course for undergraduates during MIT's 2010 Independent Activities Period. The course description is as follows:

Ever hang your head in shame after your Python program wasn't as fast as your friend's C program? Ever wish you could use objects without having to use Java? Join us for this fun introduction to C and C++! We will take you through a tour that will start with writing simple C programs, go deep into the caves of C memory manipulation, resurface with an introduction to using C++ classes, dive deeper into advanced C++ class use and the C++ Standard Template Libraries. We'll wrap up by teaching you some tricks of the trade that you may need for tech interviews.

We see this as a "C/C++ empowerment" course: we want you to come away understanding

  1. why you would want to use C over another language (control over memory, probably for performance reasons),
  2. why you would want to use C++ rather than C (objects), and
  3. how to be useful in C and C++.

The materials are now online on MIT's Open Courseware.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The gender gap in Silicon Valley

Thanks to Clarissa for sending this.

A recent NY Times article Why So Few Women in Silicon Valley discusses the (sometimes surprisingly overt) sexism and other factors that are responsible for women creating only 8% of venture-backed start-ups and being 6% of the chief executives at the top 100 tech companies.

Fryer-Levitt math gender gap study

Thanks to Jie Tang for sending this.

Economists Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt have a 2009 study, "An Empirical Analysis of the Gender Gap in Mathematics," in which they analyze the gender gap in the US, explore causes, and discuss cross-country data which shows that countries with same-sex schooling don't have this gap. Paper here; abstract excerpt below:

We document and analyze the emergence of a substantial gender gap in mathematics in the early years of schooling... in the United States. There are no mean differences between boys and girls upon entry to school, but girls lose more than two-tenths of a standard deviation relative to boys over the first six years of school... We explore a wide range of possible explanations in the U.S. data, including less investment by girls in math, low parental expectations, and biased tests, but find little support for any of these theories... The cross-country data reveal that girls do not lag boys in math in countries with same-sex schooling, raising an intriguing question as to whether this relationship is causal.

I am not surprised. Since traditional gender roles are so ingrained in our consciousness, it is natural that young men and women would look to them in determining acceptable behavior*. Having young women hold back in math causes a feedback loop that makes it increasingly difficult for young women to develop their mathematical ability: as fewer women become good at math, 1) people become less accustomed to seeing women who are good at math, making it difficult for women to proves themselves w.r.t. math and 2) women with mathematical talent are less likely to develop it, since they are not expecting to be good.

These findings corroborate the hypothesis that the US gender gap in math is largely due to cultural factors. (See my other link.) They also fit with my personal experiences: one of the biggest social challenges I faced in leaving my all-girls high school for a coed college environment was having people treat me like I shouldn't know what I'm doing when it comes to math. This was not only frustrating but also harmful to my self-confidence--it probably caused some amount of deadweight loss in my mathematical development.

Shifting current gender roles could go a long way in bridging the gender gap.

* I am curious to see studies analyzing how other traits associated with masculinity (physical strength, debate ability) fare under an analogous analysis.

The Evelyn duo

Amanda Palmer's latest musical project is Evelyn Evelyn, a fictional singing conjoined twin duo Evelyn and Evelyn Neville created with Jason Webley. Evelyn Evelyn's eponymous album is brilliant and hilarious, featuring songs like "Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart." The genre is neo-cabaret/circus/jazz/other. Wired reviews the album positively here.

I didn't get to see them at the Oberon this past week, but they'll be playing at the House of Blues in Boston June 19.

To provide another perspective, I am compelled to link to this blog post regarding the ableist issues with Palmer's and Webley's representation of conjoined twins.

Gender imbalance among Harvard's CS undergrads

I was recently interviewed for this Harvard Crimson article about the dearth of female undergraduates concentrating in computer science at Harvard. While the article misrepresents some details about me, it gets it right that a large factor in the skewed ratio is the male dominance in terms of both numbers and culture (which manifests in things like problem set groups).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Safe to the Last Instruction

Chris Hawblitzel and I just submitted the camera-ready version of our PLDI 2010 paper Safe to the Last Instruction: Automated Verification of a Type-Safe Operating System.

The main idea is as follows. Much of traditional operating systems verification is quite difficult because the projects verify properties of low-level code. Microsoft's Singularity project aims to make the verification process easier by verifying an operating system written in a higher-level, type-safe language (C#) that provides memory safety properties for free. The problem here is that OS's necessarily have low-level code--for instance, context-switching code involves moving the stack pointer. We propose a verification approach that involves designing the OS around a small low-level "Nucleus" that we verify using Hoare logic, verifying the interface between the Nucleus and higher-level, type-safe code, and writing the rest of the OS using the higher-level language. We describe Verve, a prototype OS verified automatically end-to-end for type safety.

Abstract below; paper here:

Typed assembly language (TAL) and Hoare logic can verify the absence of many kinds of errors in low-level code.We use TAL and Hoare logic to achieve highly automated, static verification of the safety of a new operating system called Verve. Our techniques and tools mechanically verify the safety of every assembly language instruction in the operating system, run-time system, drivers, and applications (in fact, every part of the system software except the boot loader). Verve consists of a “Nucleus” that provides primitive access to hardware and memory, a kernel that builds services on top of the Nucleus, and applications that run on top of the kernel. The Nucleus, written in verified assembly language, implements allocation, garbage collection, multiple stacks, interrupt handling, and device access. The kernel, written in C# and compiled to TAL, builds higher-level services, such as preemptive threads, on top of the Nucleus. A TAL checker verifies the safety of the kernel and applications. A Hoare-style verifier with an automated theorem prover verifies both the safety and correctness of the Nucleus. Verve is, to the best of our knowledge, the first operating system mechanically verified to guarantee both type and memory safety. More generally, Verve’s approach demonstrates a practical way to mix high-level typed code with low-level untyped code in a verifiably safe manner.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


In the last couple of weeks I've spent a bit of time on Chatroulette, a site where you can video chat with random strangers in sequence, moving on to each next chat by clicking "Next." Here is a great video explaining how it works. Jon Stewart has a hilarious piece about it as well.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Bold Sell public speaking competition

Yesterday I attended the finals of the Bold Sell Competition, where contestants have to pitch a product they've never seen before using 6 slides they see as the audience sees them. (The organized has a blog post about this here.) This year's competition, a collaboration between the MIT Sloan Sales Club and the Harvard Business School Public Speaking Club, was completely hilarious. Contestants had to sell products from sinus-cleaning snakes to human-powered transport balls with all kinds of wacky target markets (a young Bill Gates sitting by CRT running an early version of Microsoft; a jail-bound Martha Stewart), revenue models, marketing teams (male dancers wearing only shiny lame shorts), competitive advantages (, and descriptions of the competition. Below I include the video of the first place winner from this year; there are more videos here. There is a video of last year's winner here.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Desk in the closet

Thanks to my college roommate Aliza for sending me this. As Aliza says, I was about six years ahead of the trend by having my desk in the closet of our "study room"* freshman year. Also of note is the fact that freshman year of college was six years ago...

* That's a whole suite of stories in itself.

Monday, March 01, 2010

My first aerial acrobatics class!

Sunday I had my first aerial acrobatics class at Aircraft Aerial Arts* with Jill Maio. It was so much fun! The class consisted of three women (including me) who had never been on the equipment (corde lisse, aerial silk, and static trapeze) before. Jill (patiently) taught us basic skills such as how to climb the ropes, how to pose on the silks, how to go upside-down, and how to do seated and standing poses on the trapeze. I was able to do much more than I had expected--and it wasn't scary at all! I signed up for a 7-class introductory series this March through April. Cirque du Soleil, here I come!

* This place is really convenient--it is a 5-minute walk from Inman.

A.R.T.'s Donkey Show

Saturday I went to the American Repertory Theater's Donkey Show, which "tells the story of A Midsummer Night's Dream through the great 70s anthems." My friend Firth accurately describes it as "just kind of a big party." The show takes place at the Oberon, which has a stage in front of a large open dance floor area. There are raised platforms where audience members can rise to dance with glitter-covered "fairies" before the show. The show happens not just on the stage, but on the catwalk around the club and on the raised platforms as the audience dances to retro disco hits such as "We are Family" and "Ring My Bell" around the performance. After the show (at least, the 10:30 show) the DJ keeps the glitter-covered audience dancing for another hour before they kick everyone out. If you go, I recommend dressing 70's disco! (And I definitely recommend going!)

I posted pictures here.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Aircraft launch: aerial acrobatics in Boston

Tonight I went to the Aircraft launch, the opening party for Aircraft Aerial Arts, a new aerial acrobatics school in Somerville*.

The party was (and the studio is) in this cool space in a garage on Webster Ave. in Somerville. There was a silks apparatus, a hoop, and a static trapeze hanging from the ceiling and then space around to watch. Through the course of the night there were various performances, including one performance by owner Jill Maio in the back room with an extra-high silks apparatus. Jill also did this awesome maneuver where she took down the silks apparatus and hung up a cord lisse by climbing up the silks, hooking up the cord lisse, and switching over.

In between the performances people drank wine and hung out. It was an interesting scene--the studio was filled with people from the Boston circus/acrobatics community and other random curious people (like me). I was told that Boston has quite a strong and growing circus/acro community.

Thanks to Ben Reynolds for telling me about this event!

* I am really excited about taking up aerial acrobatics! I signed up for a silks class next weekend. Thanks, Amy Cohen, for telling me about all these cool circus things. :)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Computer engineer Barbie

My friend Rishabh's dreams have come true. Computer engineer Barbie is here by popular vote. Mattel even worked with the Society of Women Engineers to make sure that she is wearing the appropriate "geek chic" attire. Bravo, Barbie.

Graduate Women at MIT gets some press

I have been involved in starting Graduate Women at MIT, an institute-wide women's group. We got some press in the MIT Tech today, which provides an exciting start to our kick-off spring.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Classy Asian Ladies

From Eugene.

If you are a single white man who loves Asian ladies,, an "Exclusive Upscale Online Dating Service," is what you need. The site boasts:

Our beautiful Asian ladies all live in the US already. They will not try to marry you to get a “green card” or to become financially dependent upon you.

In the "Why Asian Women" section, the site says:

It seems that in today’s society the average woman is becoming very competitive and even a bit more masculine than their counterparts in earlier generations. All the while it seems to be just the opposite is taking place for Asian women who tend to retain their sense of femininity and well-known cultural attitude of gentle and caring support.

On one hand, such a thing seems racist, sexist, and wrong. On the other hand, this may provide an efficient way for "classy Asian ladies" to find the "high quality, sincere gentlemen" they've been looking for*. Thea Lim has a nice Racialicious post makes a good argument for the former**: that this site perpetuates oppressive stereotypes of Asian women and encourages the sexual solipsism of white males seeking the ideal submissive mate.

* Like the controversial Ashley Madison, a dating site for married people--"have an affair, guaranteed!"
** I don't agree with Lim that homogenizing a race of people is bad a priori.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

BOC presents A Little Night Music

The other day I saw Boston Opera Collective's performance of Sondheim's musical A Little Night Music at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. It was fun--some actors, such as the Stephanie Piraino, who plays Anne Egerman, were quite good. I recommend going, especially if you are a student. (Tickets are $15 for students and $25 for non-students. It is showing again next weekend.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Misogynists are women, too

Being a woman and identifying as a feminist does not mean that I am not a misogynist. Ever since I read Rachel Simmons's Odd Girl out and Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs, I have been thinking the silent prevalence of female misogyny and about my own misogynistic tendencies. By misogyny, I mean judging women by harsher standards than those used for judging men.

While it is easy to identify blatant cases of misogyny, it is difficult to recognize misogyny that echoes society's views and/or reaffirms what people often want to think. More obvious cases of misogyny in society are public figures like Camille Paglia, a self-proclaimed feminist who has said things like "Women are forever softening, censoring, politicizing." There are also the women who adopt society's language for oppressing women, denouncing other women as "sluts" and "whores." Then there are the women who don't trust the abilities of other women before they prove themselves, who don't think women have the same baseline ability as men, who enjoy being "not like the other women," and who get annoyed with some women for being so bubbly and so... girly. (Don't they know they should act more like men?) I used to be this kind of woman.

There are many reasons why women have misogynistic tendencies. Many women in our society grow up internalizing misogynistic values, so it is to be expected that these values will be reflected in attitudes towards other women. There is also the element, which Rachel Simmons describes, of the oppressed oppressing based on the same criteria. It is also easier for women--or anyone--to believe that they are somehow different and special rather than accept society is unfair, and in particular unfair to people like them.

Like everyone, misogynists can change. The first step is to recognize misogynistic tendencies--the most pernicious behaviors are those that you don't know about. Before writing off a woman as a bitch or whore, it may be good to ask what factors influenced you to see the woman that way. When you meet a woman, be conscious of how you are judging her and recognize how much you are expecting her to prove herself. How does this compare to when you meet men? Do you dismiss women for being incompetent, a bitch, or a slut? Awareness can go a long way in changing behaviors.

Women need to recognize female misogyny so they can improve the way men see women and the way they see themselves. Men and women need to recognize that female misogyny occurs not because women are petty, irrational, or unworthy of respect, but because of much more complex factors. It is everyone's duty to call out misogyny whenever they can, even (and perhaps) especially when it is exhibited by women--even if it may be a sensitive subject.

* This issue has been addressed by works such as Rachel Simmons's 2003 book Odd Girl Out and the 2004 movie Mean Girls.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Women and sex: upcoming film screenings of interest

MIT's Women and Gender Studies has some cool upcoming film screenings, with discussion afterward:
  • The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships (Monday, 2/1 7pm in 6-120) by the Media Education Foundation.
  • Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk About Sex (Thursday, 2/4 7pm in 6-120) by Melissa Tapper Goldman.
Read more here.

The Facebook generation is getting a little bit married

Upon Feministing's recommendation, I read Hannah Seligson's A Little Bit Married, a book about the phenomenon of today's 20-somethings moving into long-term relationships with cohabitation without marriage in sight. I had picked up this book hoping to better understand questions like what it means to live together, how and when to get out of cohabitation situations, and how to make decisions based on a significant other you're not married to. This book was quite educational with respect to each of these questions.

Seligson writes that along with the courting phenomena of the hook-up and the college marriage is "a little bit married," there is the situation where a couple will be practically married (cohabitating, sharing vacations, sharing family holidays, sharing pets, etc.) for several years without being actually married. These relationships may end in marriage, but they may also end with one person getting a new job and moving away. Seligson states a few reasons for this phenomenon. The biggest seems to be that the twenties have become the "Odyssey years"--people tend to go through several jobs and travel before they settle down in their thirties. Because people are hesitant to settle down and commit before they have "made it" career-wise/financially, there is now this extra 10-year period where people are looking for companionship and ultimately a life partner but this may not be the biggest priority. Seligson calls us the "Facebook generation"--people used to a certain amount of physical isolation, connected through social networks, and used to getting what we want (and hence picky about partners). According to Seligson, to be married in your twenties now puts you in the minority and people of our generation will probably be in several long-term relationships before marrying.

There are many questions that arise in an "a little bit married" (ALBM) situation. (While the cover of the book suggests that it is about how to get the guy to propose to you, this is not the case!) Besides describing "case studies" in ALBM, Seligson discusses how to navigate career commitments and relationships with the significant other's family, how to decide whether to live together, how to negotiate the logistics of living together, how to decide whether to break up, how to break up (when you live together), how to move things along if you want to know where it's going, how to decide whether to get married, and how to view compromise/sacrifice in relationships. She also gives some thoughts on how women can balance the competing forces of "I can't let marriage get in the way of having a career" and "my eggs are drying up." Since most of these issues were not relevant to people who I know of my parents' generation and I haven't had enough friends my age go through this kind of thing, this book gives the best advice I've seen about these sorts of things.

I highly recommend this book, especially to people who are a little bit married (which many of my college friends now are) and to people at transitional stages in their lives (ahem, college seniors) trying to figure out how much to base their decisions on the decisions of their significant others. This book provides a lot of the perspective I haven't gotten from peers and people of the older generation.

Why a woman can't be more like a man

Thanks to Margo for sending me this article last week.

In response to Clay Shirky's "A Rant About Women," Kate Harding wrote this piece answering the question of why a woman can't be more like a man. The "manly" qualities they are talking about here (loosely) are confidence/arrogance, stubborness, and ruthless ambition.

Clay Shirky writes, " would be good if more women see interesting opportunities that they might not be qualified for, opportunities which they might in fact fuck up if they try to take them on, and then try to take them on."

Kate Harding's response is that 1) women are often punished for acting like men (they are considered frigid bitches and still not given recognition), since everyone expects them to act like women and 2) it shouldn't have to be the case that women have to act "like men" to succeed. She writes, "So no it's not like I think Shirky's giving out bad advice here... I want a better world for women who don't have a 'screw you' streak a mile wide, too. The other part, the much greater part, involves recognizing what happens to women who 'act like men' -- i.e., who act like they deserve respect, fair pay and acclaim for good work -- and calling it out until it stops."

For most of my life I've received advice along the lines of what Clay Shirky says and I haven't thought much about Harding's argument, but Harding makes good points that are worth thinking about.

That's Why I Chose Yale: the mini-musical

This Yale admissions video is a must-watch*. It is so well done.

* I rarely watch random videos and only watched this one after multiple people sent me the link.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Next Barbie: computer engineer

I'm really amused by this Barbie vote for the next Barbie: will she be an environmentalist, surgeon, architect, news anchor, or computer engineer? It's especially amusing(/terrible) is that Barbie seems to adopt a new career only every few years.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Some songs I like

It has been noted that I don't really discuss my music preferences*. Below are ten songs I'm really into right now:
  1. Dresden Dolls, "Mandy Goes to Med School"
  2. Tom Waits, "Tango Till They're Sore"
  3. Iggy Pop, "King of the Dogs" (fantastic video)
  4. Amanda Palmer, "Oasis" (great video)
  5. The Bird and the Bee, "Man"
  6. Jesca Hoop, "Silverscreen"
  7. Jill Tracy, "Evil Night Together"
  8. Tom Waits, "Jockey Full of Bourbon"
  9. The Bird and the Bee, "Polite Dance Song" (amazing video)
  10. Alice Smith, "Woodstock"
Side note: I want to learn improvisational jazz on piano. I would consider myself to be an intermediate pianist. (I previously played for 10+ years but haven't really played for the last six...) Any advice?

* This might have started in college when my roommates made fun of me for listening to a lot 90's music (Everclear, Third Eye Blind, and gangsta rap)...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

On collaboration

A friend told me that she was thinking about getting a power couple to mentor her and her boyfriend as a couple. She said that people call her and her boyfriend a power couple because both of them are graduate students with ambitious career plans, and that the fact that both of them are so ambitious worries her because it's difficult to negotiate compromise and determine which fights to pick. This got me thinking about how there is little guidance to have the impressive, synergistic net horizontal* collaborations like these couples have.

I have been thinking about the issue of horizontal collaboration quite a bit in an academic context. While I have gotten advice about how to succeed as an individual and how to navigate the vertical advisor-student relationship, I've gotten significantly less guidance about how to handle situations where there are non-binding commitments between equals. I have been given little guidance about 1) finding someone I can work well with, 2) negotiating a set of goals, 3) negotiating interfaces for working, and 4) actually working with the person (communicating with the appropriate frequency/via the appropriate media, negotiating power and respect, compromising rather than withdrawing--and getting the other person to do the same, etc.)**. I am not even sure if this is the appropriate set of questions to be asking.

There are various reasons why I think people don't tend to give advice about how to enter into successful collaborations. First of all, the degree to which people are good at/enjoy working with others is often accepted as a personality trait that isn't likely to change. Secondly, many people have this ideal of the "lone genius" and believe that smart people do not need to work together. (When I told a professor that I wanted to work on my horizontal collaboration skills, he said I didn't need them because the best people work alone or with their students.) People also have a belief that people who don't work well with others don't desire to work with others. Yet another thing is that in many aspects of life, people don't get to choose who they work with, so understanding how to choose people you work well with and how to work with them isn't the most useful skill to have.

When I told a professor from undergrad about my desire to improve at peer collaboration, she suggested that I approach a peer and do a project in the intersection of our interests. Following her advice, I propositioned my officemate to enter not only into a collaboration (on a programming languages topic in the intersection of our interests, specifics to be decided) but also a meta-collaboration about how our collaboration is going. So far we have collaborated on better understanding the components of collaboration (the spectrum from horizontal to vertical, the size of the interface). Collaborate, collaborating, collaboration, collate***. I will let you know how this goes--I think these lessons will apply to life in general.


* I refer to vertical relationships as ones with clearly unequal power balance and horizontal ones where the power is equal and neither person's interests or goals subsumes the others.
** I think these things apply to romantic relationships as well.
*** One of these is not like the others.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2010 New Year's Resolutions

Given that we're over a week into 2010, it's time I committed to some resolutions. In Influence, Cialdini says that the way to do something you want to do is to commit to it publicly, so here goes.

I have the following two resolutions:
  1. Change how I interact with technology so that it's enhancing my quality of life rather than distracting me from reality. While the things like my phone and the internet (e-mail, Facebook, and Google Reader) are good for connecting me with people and keeping me up to date on current events, I'd like to figure out how much is too much and get rid of everything superfluous. For instance, while Facebook is great for letting me know what friends I haven't seen since high school are doing, it's bad if I'm spending the afternoon Facebook stalking rather than having face-to-face contact. Also, reading random junk mail about EMS sales is about as unproductive and as unrelaxing as watching TV commercials. My friend Chenxing recommended that I look at and gave some other suggestions about reducing junk mail, opting out of credit card offers, etc. So far, I've unsubscribed from 20-30 mailing lists and have set up filters on my e-mail inbox so that there are fewer distractions.
  2. Change things so that how I spend my time reflects what I value. At this point in my life, 1) what I'm "too busy" for reflects my own lifestyle choices rather than anything that's been imposed on me and 2) I'm not actually "too busy" for a lot of things. I've been learning that my being "too busy" is self-imposed barrier to having more fun that results from guilt about not working as much as I could and from living in a culture where how busy you are reflects how cool you are. In the coming year, I want to be more honest with myself about how I spend my time and how I want to spend my time. I will work on recognizing the that I (usually) have time for 1) seeing friends, 2) doing fun things (such as attending fun talks and taking up rugby), 3) reading blogs and news, 4) sleeping, and 5) doing things for other people.

A Girl's Life

Rachel Simmons has a documentary A Girl's Life (streaming free online) that talks about the body image, social interaction, and other issues that 21st century adolescent girls face. Simmons discusses media pressure on girls and how it affects girls' self image, how technology affects the way girls interact (addictive texting, cyber-bullying), girl-on-girl physical aggression, and how single-sex education can benefit girls.

Though I have my usual issue with Simmons's work that she doesn't provide insight into why the situation is so precarious for girls, this video is interesting and information and provides an accurate portrayal of certain facets of adolescent life for teenage girls.

I am glad that my all-girls middle/high school took care to discuss these sorts of issues. For instance, we had someone come talk about her doctoral dissertation on the distortion of the female body in the media, from the sexualization of Ariel in The Little Mermaid to editing of magazine model photos. What was the experience of people who did not go to all-girls schools with respect to this kind of thing?

* This presentation, by the way, was met with a good amount of hostility and suspicion by middle school girls struggling to socialize themselves into a world with these media-created standards.

How to have more sex with Richard Wiseman

Friday I went to How to have more sex with Richard Wiseman*, part of Richard Wiseman's book tour promoting 59 seconds, his new book busting myths from self-help books and providing tips and tricks based on psychology and other research. According to his Amazon biography, he has done research in "offbeat areas of psychology, including deception, humor, and luck" and is a "passionate advocated for science." He talked about things like magic tricks and how they take advantage of psychology, optical and aural illusions that take advantage of perception, and his experiences debunking myths of the paranormal (for instance, fire-walking). He showed us a few of his videos, including the amazing color changing card trick.

* It took me a while to realize that the talk title was based on talk titles that parse "How to have more sex, with Richard Wiseman."

When to buy

I came across this helpful blog post about when to buy things. Some highlights:
  • Airline tickets—For domestic nonholiday travel, look for the lowest fares 21 days from your departure. Fares are updated at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 8 p.m. on weekdays, and airlines file one update on Saturday and Sunday. Lowest fares are filed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and occasionally on Saturdays. Wednesday is generally the cheapest day to fly and Sunday the most expensive. (Exception: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving—the busiest travel day of the year.) For holiday travel, start looking in September to get a good price. Fares can change quickly, and much depends on the carrier and the market.
  • Coupons—While coupons are available throughout the year, the most coupons appear in the Sunday paper during November and December. The best deals on turkeys can be found two weeks before Thanksgiving to Christmas. In spring, you’ll find coupons on seasonal produce, ham, and frozen food (apparently March is National Frozen Food Month—who knew?). Summer coupons offer discounts on grilling items and ice cream. Autumn brings coupons on soup and other canned items.
  • Champagne—With steep competition to be your New Year’s Eve bubbly, Champagne houses drop prices during the holidays.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lawsuit against Dahn Yoga

My friend Arun pointed me to this article about a lawsuit against Dahn Yoga calling it a "totalistic, high-demand cult group." See my previous blog post about Dahn Yoga here.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Is Food the New Sex?

In his Sidney awards II, David Brooks recommends Mary Eberstadt's article Is Food the New Sex?, which makes the observation that while people have become increasingly unprincipled about sex, they have become increasingly principled about food. Eberstadt says that the people who have become moralistic and evangelizing when it comes to food tend to be the same people with liberal views about sex:

In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the rules being drawn around food receive some force from the fact that people are uncomfortable with how far the sexual revolution has gone — and not knowing what to do about it, they turn for increasing consolation to mining morality out of what they eat.

Eberstadt says that the emotional harm that free sex has caused may cause people to redevelop morals about sex, saying "where mindless food is today, mindless sex — in light of the growing empirical record of its own unleashing — may yet again be tomorrow."

While the tone is somewhat moralizing and conservative when it comes to issues of sex*, I recommend reading this piece. The parallels Eberhadt draws between moralizing about food and sex are interesting and apt. While I disagree with the way Eberhadt frames views on food/sex in terms of morals, her characterization of morals as subject to trends is though-provoking.

* The piece is written from a fairly moralistic point of view in general.