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).