Monday, December 29, 2008

Another for the Map Archive

An interesting prediction. Clearly the most suspect part of his prediction is that the boundaries would be along state lines. Oh, and that Kentucky and Tennessee would be grouped with the northeast. And well, really, all of it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Women in Computer Science Worldwide

Updated 12/24/08: I've updated the map to reflect the anecdotal and cited information from the comments. Also, I changed the coloring scheme to be one from ColorBrewer, so hopefully the distinctions are clearer. Thanks all!

Percentage of Computer Science Undergraduates that are Women
Dark blue: < 15% Medium blue: 15% to 30% Light blue: 30% to 45% Purple: 45% to 55%

D. Eppstein pointed out, as a comment to the previous post on sex vs. gender, that the percentage of women in computer science varies greatly by country, and that "any argument that the correlation between gender and CS skill is sex-based would have to take account of that." I've heard lots of anecdotal evidence that this is true, but was curious about the numbers. The most comprehensive resource I could find was a summary of women in computer science by country from the Anita Borg Institute. Sadly, it was rather brief and didn't have the same information about each country (understandably). I took the information from that file to make the map above based on the percentage of women undergraduates in computer science (or math/computer science, or whatever the file had info on). I'm sure that information exists for many more countries than I've labelled, and I'd love to know what it is. If you know, please leave a comment with your source and I'll add it to the map.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sex vs. Gender

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the difference between sex and gender. And it makes me wonder, "is this one of the subtleties that causes confusion about the women in cs issue?" But first, I suppose I should explain what I see as the difference between the two words/ideas, which understandably cause much confusion and are frequently used in the definition of each other. Sex is the biological condition of being male or female. (Already this is more complicated than I'm saying, since of course there are people who don't fix nicely into those categories based on their bodies or their chromosomes.) Gender refers to the set of characteristics that are associated with sex groups. So, "liking dolls" is a quality that is thought of as being gendered female. It does NOT mean that all women like dolls, or that all doll-liking people are all women. I like to think of it as a statistical correlation. And it does not and should not imply causation. Being a woman does not cause you to like dolls. (Believe me.)

And this is where Larry Summers went wrong. (You knew I'd get to him eventually.) He looked at the low numbers of women in the sciences and decided that it must imply that women (sex) do not have the intrinsic aptitude for the field. In other words, the smaller number of men who like dolls (or admit it) implies that men can't like dolls. They just don't have the intrinsic ability to like dolls (or the color pink, or cooking, or English literature, or...). Which is obviously ridiculous. Computer science is currently gendered male. There's a (strong) statistical correlation between being in computer science and being male. But gender is a socially constructed concept. So don't tell me that women (sex) just aren't as good at computer science as men or pretend that the current gendered norm means anything about a more permanent biological state.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Better Reality

There's a new ad out about clean coal, and it makes me happy every time I see it. The ad consists mostly of a guy who says he's showing you around a clean coal plant, but he's standing in the middle of an empty field. Because of course, there's no such thing as clean coal. To paraphrase the TV show The West Wing, clean coal is just something that pollsters came up with because it sounds better than regular coal. Yet it was all over the presidential debates from both candidates. But hopefully now that the election is over this problem can actually be examined.

Perhaps it'll be examined by the new energy secretary, Physics Nobel laureate Steven Chu. It's thrilling that there will be smart people in office who are actually interested in doing something about climate change. (A nice NY Times blog post about Chu.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Day Without a Gay

Continuing the Join the Impact campaign against California's Prop. 8 and for gay marriage and gay rights, tomorrow is Day Without a Gay*. The organizers urge everyone, not just gay people, to "call in gay" to work and instead donate your time to local service organizations in need of volunteers. They also suggest not consuming for a day. The goal is visibility for gay issues. As I've mentioned earlier, it's part of a larger movement which frames these issues in terms of civil rights.

I'll be participating, though I admit it feels rather like it won't have a big impact. After all, it'll just be another day when I don't go to campus and stay at home to work. Though I will be avoiding my neighborhood coffee shop at which I have "regular" status.

* Here, "gay" is being used as an umbrella term. In fact, that's usually the way I use it. If you prefer, whenever I say "gay" you can replace it in your head with "LGBTQ" or "queer" (for the more social theory academically minded among you).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Adjuncts, Adjuncts Everywhere

A report was released today by the American Federation of Teachers (see also the Inside Higher Ed article) which details the large numbers of adjunct teachers who now teach a large percentage of courses at all types of colleges in all disciplines. (Note that this includes graduate students who have full control for a class, but does not include TAs in classes run by a tenure-track faculty member.)

Across public colleges and universities, the report finds that full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty members make up only 41 percent of instructional staff, while full-time non-tenure-track make up 20 percent, part-time faculty members off the tenure track make up 20 percent, and graduate employees are another 19 percent.

This has been flying under the radar for awhile now, and I'm glad that it's getting some press due to this report. It's clearly a problem for students and faculty alike, yet I doubt that this trend will change anytime soon, especially given the economy.

The Inside Higher Ed article also gives a table showing the breakdown by discipline. Computer Science/Engineering fares well - we have some of the lowest numbers of contingent instructors. In fact, the numbers seem to mirror the discipline gender breakdowns I discussed recently, with "male" disciplines having lower numbers of contingent instructors. My guess is that this is due to money - "male" disciplines are more highly valued -> get more money -> can afford to hire tenure-track faculty -> have fewer contingent instructors. So, for example, 54% of undergraduate courses in Human services at research universities are taught by contingent instructors while in Engineering/Computer Science that number is 29.6%.

More to the point, at 29.6% it's amazing we're at the low end of the spectrum. The high end is for undergraduate Education classes at community colleges - 77% of classes are taught by contingent instructors. I can only imagine what a mess that creates of department community and resources.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Join the Impact

A few weeks ago (Saturday, Nov 15th) was the Join the Impact protest against California's Prop 8 which removed the right that gay people had previously held to marry. Simultaneous protests happened across the country. I went to the one in DC and we marched from the capitol building past the Washington monument (or as one of the protest organizers called it, the national phallic symbol) to the White House. There were somewhere between 5 and 10 thousand people there, despite the tornado warning and heavy rain. It was a wonderful protest and the start of what I think will be an exciting movement.

One of my friends from college was the organizer of the DC protest and Pam's House Blend has a nice interview with him.

Go to Join the Impact for information about future events.

Monday, November 24, 2008


SoCG titles/abstracts are due today. The full papers are due in a week (December 1st). Also December 1st, the early registration deadline for SODA.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Gender by the Numbers

There have been a lot of questions about how computer science relates to other fields in terms of the percentage of women vs. men. As is to be expected when a bunch of scientists talk about these types of topics, we want the data. Happily, the Association for Women in Science collects statistics about all of these questions - both for within the sciences comparisons and for comparisons with other disciplines. I used this data to create the charts shown here. Both are based on the data for bachelors degrees awarded in 2004-2005 (in the US, I think). Also, note that the percentage of female graduates overall is much higher than the percentage of men. So, to answer some of the questions by commenters:

  • Yes, Physics and Math/Stat are doing much better than CS at graduating a higher percentage of women.
  • Yes, there are a few disciplines that do just as poorly in graduating men.
  • Yes, if we define computer science more broadly, our percentages of women do go up, but no, we still don't reach parity (see chart below).

The next chart decomposes the bars labelled "Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services" above. Note that despite that we almost reach 40% women in some of the subfields, the overall percentage is still only just over 20%, and the "Computer Science" category has about 17%.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Computers in Boys' Bedrooms

Josh, commenting on the last post and discussing the "computer scientists are geeky" stereotype, brought up this question:

A question I've often wondered is: why is it that CS has this stereotype much more than biology or chemistry? In the past, say, 50 years those two fields have seen dramatic increases in the relative fraction of women, but CS not as much.

I'm actually not going to answer the "why does CS have this stereotype more" part of the question - I wish I could. Instead I'll float one theory I've heard to answer the second part. One way Bio/Chem/Math/Physics is different than CS is that students mostly don't have experiences with the other sciences outside of the classroom, so everyone is on an even playing field. CS on the other hand became a possible household activity when the personal computer boom happened (around the mid 80s). So while women were on an equal playing field with men in terms of experience with computers in the 80s, by the early 90s this had changed drastically. This possibly causes societal norms to come into play more than if CS were only a classroom thing. Perhaps this is one of the causes for the number of women in the field not increasing in the same way it is in the other sciences.

But that's all guesswork. What's known is this, a Stanford CS Education study discussing gender stereotypes about computer science:

Many of these stereotypes are reinforced by the students previous computer knowledge. More than 75% of the boys in the introductory computer science class had reported using computers before high school, whereas only 20% of the female students reported similarly.

These stereotypes were also seen in the home. Parents were more likely to encourage their son's computer interest over their daughter's. Often the family computer is kept in the boy's room instead of in a common space or in the girl's room. Many girls reported that their brothers had computers at home but they rarely were allowed to use them. Girls mentioned more often in interviews that they wished they had a computer at home, whereas boys were more likely to report having a computer at home that they rarely used.

Since girls were neither encouraged by parents or teachers they often resorted to working on their own in computer science classes. Even in classes in which group work and interaction was the norm, the girls were very often isolated from the rest of the group. Studies have shown that isolated individuals tend to be evaluated more extremely than those in a large group of people. So not only were girls often discouraged from pursuing computer science, but they were often evaluated more critically.

There were also comments on the last post mentioning that this was depressing. Perhaps those people now feel even more depressed. Instead, I believe that it's important to recognize and name these societal problems. I believe the identification is itself useful and empowering. It's also the first step towards change.

Monday, November 17, 2008

News Flash: Less Women in CS

There's a NY Times article about the lack of women in computer science. It's a good (though short) survey of some of the literature on this topic and emphasizes something I frequently forget - in the early 1980s there were almost as many women entering computer science as men. Yet another counter-argument for those who believe women aren't in computer science because we can't handle it or just don't have the "intrinsic aptitude" for science.

One thing I think the article missed in its emphasis on the hypothesis that gaming as a guy's thing drives away women's interest in the field is the use of the computer as a communication tool. (Because we all know women like to communicate more than men.) It seems that instead of trying to come up with some game that will make girls think gaming isn't only a guy's thing it would be more productive to emphasize the communication aspects of computing and link those to computer science.

Also, the article was in the business section. To me, that seems appropriate.


An amusing piece of trivia from my college online paper: Obama was rejected from Swarthmore. Somehow, I doubt he cares right now. This guy on the other hand is a fellow Swat alum.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Proposal Process

I've been working (in a very very preliminary way that mostly involves writing a paper for SoCG) on my proposal. Also (full disclosure) I'm one of the grad student representatives to my department's education committee, which has been discussing changing our process. So I've been thinking a lot about the process, how it works, whether it's good, whether it does what it means to, etc. Which leads me to ask - what's your proposal process like? Does it get students through the system in a reasonable amount of time (reasonable is not a code for short, I actually mean reasonable)? Do students enter the writing process/ leave the school knowing "what they should?"

I'm rather frustrated with the process at Maryland. (The qualifying exams process, on the other hand, I liked.) It consists of two sections which take place at the same time - the reading list and the research talk (with accompanying write-up). The reading list is a list of 30 papers in your broad area (for me, that means Theory) which are divided into three subareas of ten papers each (for me, this might include 10 papers "outside" of Theory in application areas). The proposal itself consists of about an hour long talk followed by a Q&A section. The Q&A section is divided into two parts - the part with the open audience and the closed section. The open section is like the end of usual research talks, and the closed section is (as far as I know having not had one myself) an oral exam with your committee members. During the oral exam, committee members can choose to talk about the research talk you just gave or quiz you on the reading list. The research talk is generally considered to be the main portion of the proposal, and most people at Maryland wait until they're about a year away from graduating before proposing.

I'm fine with these two components, but I don't think that having them at the same time works well. I actually think it sounds great to spend a lot of time thinking deeply about papers in Theory while not trying to immediately use them in research - just appreciating the papers as they are. But trying to do this while also preparing a research talk (and working on creating the results for that talk) means that instead of spending the effort on the papers that they deserve, most people rush through them or pick papers they've already read in their very narrow research area. Which also means that it's "better" to have committee members who won't ask about the papers. In a passing conversation with Bill recently about whether he'd be on my committee he made the point of mentioning that he does indeed ask questions about the papers, and that often students rule him out for this reason. Which I took as yet another symptom that the process doesn't work the way it should. Yet it doesn't make sense to hold myself to a different standard either. So what's the ethically and professionally best course of action that still allows a quick proposal? And yes, Bill, I'd be happy to have your opinion too.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Yesterday evening I went to the Lincoln Memorial, as it seemed the appropriate place to continue celebrating with some quiet contemplation. I was not alone. A large wall erected by AVAAZ, an international activist group, congratulates Obama and leaves room for visitors to sign. Many many have, expressing their wishes and hopes. It was beautiful.

I had forgotten that in addition to the Gettysburg Address, the words of his second inaugural speech are inscribed on the wall. It echoed some thoughts from a NY Times Op-Ed about the election of Obama finally ending the struggle from the Civil War.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'.

Symbolically, I like the idea of this election marking the end of this era. Realistically, I don't believe that racism is dead.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


After a day of volunteering, for me and many thousands of others, and months of worrying that somehow, despite everything, Obama would not win, it happened! And Washington, DC took to the streets. I watched the returns and Obama's speech with my friends and then took a short walk outside to be part of the revelry. There were cars honking and people cheering. The city felt unified instead of segregated as usual. And indeed we were - 93% of us voted for Obama. After two hours of standing in line to vote, my neighbors and I were unified in our worry. On the way back from volunteering in Virginia, I spoke to a woman on the Metro who was worried that somehow, someway, despite everything, the election would be stolen. She spoke of plans of canned goods and hiding out in a basement while riots commenced. But thankfully, instead of riots there was cheering (and a large police presence) and the black and white residents of the city celebrating together. It was, and is, amazing.

Beyond my city, I have unloaded some of my cynicism and believe that America's image in the world has the chance to change. It is precisely what Obama said last night: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." When sitting in a bar in Belfast, N. Ireland last spring I talked to two older Catholic men. They saw their own struggle echoed by the struggle of African-Americans in the U.S. and said that if Obama could do it, they had hope for themselves and their country. When living in Ghana in 1997 the U.S. flag was everywhere - painted on the sides of stores, homes, and vans, it represented the hope of something better. When I was there in 2003 during the start of the Iraq war, some of this hope had turned to skepticism - a skepticism which was projected on to me as I was asked if I supported Bush. Now I believe, I hope even, that Obama's election can change the world's, and my own, view of America. It turns out I'm patriotic.

I first voted in 2000 in the Gore/Bush election which lasted long after election day. My candidate did not win, and the election felt - was - stolen. 2004 felt like a repeat of 2000 with less blatant thievery. Hence my cynicism. But yesterday I got to vote for a president who won. And I have hope.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The New Poll Tax

Rachel Maddow saying exactly what I've been thinking, but much more eloquently - long lines to vote are a poll tax.

Phone Banking

I went to Virginia to volunteer for Obama last week. I had been hoping to go door to door, but apparently they don't do that in the afternoons, which makes sense. So instead I ended up phone banking (which I could have done from the comfort of my home through the Obama website). I made calls for about an hour and a half and in all of that time spoke to only four people. Phone banking is a deadening experience. But the four conversations I had were actually a nice break, and occasionally amusing. Of those four, three were Obama supporters. I was calling people the campaign had identified as being "sporadic" or "persuadable" voters, so this ratio was in no way indicative of a more general polling sample. The fourth person was still undecided, or really, didn't want to talk to me then since she was at work. One of the three Obama supporters identified herself actually as a Hillary supporter who "wouldn't vote for a Republican if you paid me," but wasn't excited about Obama himself. I told her I was also a Hillary supporter, but was now supportive of the nominee. And despite my original reluctance to jump on the Obama bandwagon, it's true that I'm now supportive of Obama, and desperately hope that he wins tomorrow. In fact, after hearing the latest whispering about Obama's potential to create a "new New Deal," hopefully to include the infrastructure necessary to actually use clean energy, I'm excited about Obama.

So, despite the dull, uninspiring, unhelpful feelings that come with phone banking, I'll be back at it tomorrow (and possibly tonight). Tomorrow I'll hopefully be doing the voter outreach in Virginia in person - reminding forgetful folks that it's election day and talking to the still undecided voters (despite my disbelief that either group exists). And just in case I forgot myself that it's election day tomorrow, I just got a robocall from Obama thanking me for volunteering and encouraging me to keep doing voter outreach through tomorrow. Here's to the ground game.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How About Some Chairs?

I'm anticipating an election day problem. Lots of people go to the polls. No really, LOTS of people go to the polls. 98% of eligible Michigan voters are registered to vote (if that's actually true, I'm amazed). So, lots of people show up. And there are long lines. Waits in Florida for early voting are already two to five hours. Now imagine that you're older or on crutches or otherwise not able to stand in the sun or cold (depending on where you live) for two to five hours (really not an unlikely possibility). It's hard enough that people need to find two to five hours in order to vote (which has the potential to disenfranchise workers), but it also threatens to disenfranchise anyone who can't stand up for that long. I don't know if the polling places will be providing chairs (unlikely) or if the Obama folks will be, outside of the required radius of course (more likely), but there need to be chairs there. Ideally, chairs with wheels so that folks in pain can be pushed. I plan to bring more than one to my polling place and then (assuming I ever get to leave) bring some to a polling place in Virginia. I hope you do the same.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Grace Hopper Talks

It's been awhile since Grace Hopper, but so far I've managed not to lose my enthusiasm. I went to two talks that have especially stayed with me. This year it wasn't the career advice talks but the keynote and technical talks that were really exciting for me. The two keynote speakers were Fran Allen and Mary Lou Jepsen. All I can say is "wow."

OLPC Ghana - One Laptop Per Child has a pilot program in Ghana right now. Suzanne Buchele, who helped to start the program when she was in Ghana on a Fulbright, was there to talk about it. Having lived in Ghana and gone to a (renowned) Ghanaian school there (Achimota) for a semester when I was in high school, it was especially exciting to see pictures and think about the many ways in which these laptops would improve the education of the students. Teachers often (even at Achimota) don't show up to class, textbooks are not plentiful, and much of the learning is done by rote instead of with understanding. When I was in school there I was put into a second year Chemistry class when I had never had a first year one (I was placed according to my math class, so a lot of other subjects were a bit out of whack). I kept asking the other students what a mole was and though they could answer every Chemistry question relating to moles, I never got a satisfying answer. The students there were some of the most dedicated, intelligent, and serious students I have ever met. They studied late into the night borrowing previous years' tests from upperclassmen for additional studying. I know that if they had had access to computers (even without the internet, even with only a few additional textbooks on the computer) they would have made great use of them. I'm sure their younger counterparts are the same.

Since the talk I've been thinking about ways I or others could help with OLPC. I'm hoping to go to Ghana for a few weeks in the Spring (mostly because I miss it) and was wondering if there was any way for me to help in that short time. There's probably not, but it made me think that study abroad programs should be recruited to help out. A school could train a large group of students in the US to set up servers, teach teachers how to use the laptops, etc. and then send them all around the world on study abroad where they could help with OLPC in their country. Currently I think that OLPC isn't very good at using and planning for the large number of volunteers they could harness. I hope this improves so that programs like this can happen.

Anita Borg Technical Leadership Award Winner - This talk was given by Elaine Weyuker who I know from AT&T Labs. I had never gotten to hear her give a talk on her research and in fact other than "software testing" as a general category, I had no idea what she did. She gave a great talk about using information from previous releases to predict where bugs in the current release would be found. It was especially interesting because of the issues with realistic modeling I was discussing earlier. Elaine's research is absolutely practical, and she and her co-authors took great pains to make sure that was so. They interviewed practitioners and actually changed their research accordingly. While this option is, of course, not always directly available for theoretical projects, it was satisfying to hear about research conducted in this way. And, as always, satisfying simply to hear a talk by a very intelligent woman in computer science.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Candidates on Women in STEM Fields

Obama and McCain have answered questions on how they would address the issue of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields if they became president. These are, of course, high-level answers which don't answer important questions about implementation and enforcement, but still give some insight into the candidates' underlying thinking (or lack thereof) on these issues.

Title IX is discussed in a few of the questions (and was previously discussed on this blog). One question asks directly how they would ensure that Title IX is enforced in academia outside of athletics. Obama gives a strong (though extremely vague) statement in favor of enforcing Title IX in STEM disciplines, pointing out that Title IX has worked wonders in athletics and has the potential to similarly impact these fields. McCain agrees that Title IX should be enforced in academic disciplines, but in his answer to this direct question veers off into a discussion of athletics which implies that he doesn't believe that women and men's sports should necessarily get equal funding since some of men's sports might cost more.

Affirmative action also comes up subtly and not so subtly. Obama supports it for women in the sciences while also encouraging programs to help low-income disadvantaged students. McCain opposes affirmative action and says that he will cut any NSF programs which give preference on the basis of sex.

For those of you who are more money focused, here's what Obama has to say about general STEM funding: "Joe Biden and I, however, are strongly committed to doubling basic research budgets over ten years at federal agencies that include the NSF, the Office of Science in the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Science and Technology." McCain has no equivalent statement.

Perhaps this is my own bias based on my preference for president, but overall Obama's answers were much more thoughtful and thorough. They addressed the issues in a measured and nuanced way, while McCain's answers sidestepped the questions. Even if there were no other issues on the table, and despite the vagueness of many of both of their answers, I'd support Obama after reading this.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

That's So Gay

GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) has announced a new ad campaign which aims to explain why "that's so gay" should not be used as an insult and discourage its use. It's a brilliant campaign whose only fault is that it didn't start years ago.

The problem is, of course, that using "that's so gay" as an insult (about, say, an ugly pair of shoes, or the annoying comment a fellow student just made in class) is also an insult to gay people since it equates "gay" with "bad." But this is a subtle point, not easily explainable in a sentence to a middle or high school student (believe me, I've tried). And it's even harder to do it without getting the inevitable rolling of the eyes accompanied by the mental blow-off. Why care about this particular insult? After all, middle schoolers are just mean, right? This is different than the usual "isn't she ugly," "wow, what a nerd" meanness because it's based in the person's fundamental identity. 90% of gay students reported being harassed in school in the past year. Over one third were physically assaulted. And one third of gay teens attempt suicide - four times the rate of their straight counterparts. Speech may be just words, but it still hurts, and it has physical repercussions as all hate speech does.

The solution presented by GLSEN is a series of (star-filled) ads that teach by example by replacing "gay" with a description of someone else. For example, "that's so '16 year old boy with a dorky mustache,'" or "that's so 'using FORTRAN when you could use Java.'" They're perfect because they get the point across without being overbearing. Plus, it's easy to remember. The closest good solution I've heard was at a workshop for teachers that I attended run by the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia. They suggested a quick response in the classroom that went something like "when you say 'that's so gay' as an insult it's hurtful to gay people. It's important that everyone feel welcome in my classroom. There are gay people in our community. When you say things like that it makes them feel unwelcome. Don't say that anymore." It was quick, straight to the point, and didn't leave room for discussion. It was certainly the best response I had ever heard. But it was also hard to remember and definitely not usable by non-teachers. The new ads are slicker and leave room for students to correct each other in an excellent snarky fashion.

Do I think that this ad campaign will suddenly remove this insult from common vocabulary? Of course not. But at least it starts by explaining why it's a problem. Education is always the first step.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

(Algorithmic Game) Theory Day at Maryland

Yesterday was Theory Day at U. Maryland (organized by Samir Khuller and Azarakhsh Malekian). I went to the first half and the talks were universally excellent. Though I disagree with Bill's enthusiasm for the idea of the theme. Or rather, I abstractly agree with him, but was not excited about this particular theme. Now if the theme had been Computational Geometry...

Aside from being amused by Mohammad Mahdian from Yahoo! Research's use of a Google search screenshot, the talks prompted me to think about models and our "reasonable" assumptions that we make to simplify the world so that we can reason about it. For example, Mohammad discussed research on sponsor search ads that appear in a column. As part of his model, he assumed that users go through these ads in order from top to bottom. This is, of course, not universally true. It may not even be usually true (he mentioned eye scan research - I'm not sure if any of it was on this topic). And yet it's certainly a reasonable assumption in order to create a workable model. At least, it's reasonable from the theoretical point of view. Are the assumptions we make reasonable from the practical point of view? And how do we determine whether they're reasonable? It was good to be reminded of these issues as I work on some models of my own.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bad at Math

A new study is out showing that the US is failing to educate and encourage girls with the highest level math abilities. The study uses the Putnam, International Math Olympiad, and US Math Olympiad as measures, so it's not comprehensive, but the make-up of the high scorers on these exams is certainly an indication of (lack of) encouragement to enter the exams which is part of what the study is concerned with. The study found few US women entrants and most were found to be immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where math is more highly valued.

I admit that my first reaction to the idea that the US doesn't value math skill highly was incredulousness. After all, men tend to dominate highly valued academic fields and men certainly dominate math. Also, when I was a middle school math teacher I received far more calls from parents worried about their child's progress than did my English or Science counterparts. Yet, I also became used to the standard response when I mentioned my profession - "I always hated middle school, and I was always bad at math." Can you imagine a reading teacher in a similar situation being told "I was always bad at reading?" Many math teachers are encouraged (or forced) to incorporate applications into their curriculum. Don't get me wrong, I see the importance of this, but can you imagine a reading teacher being told never to have the children read fiction because they won't see the relevance of learning to read? The desire for application-only math education and the belief that it's normal to be "bad at math" are both signs of the US failing to educate its citizens. That this failing impacts the math elite as well underscores the direness of the situation.

(See Herbert's column or the NY Times article for more on this study.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Science and Religion

Sadly, the impression is often given that religion and science stand opposed to each other. And many people, especially US christian fundamentalists (ahem, Sarah Palin), believe this and perpetuate this believe. But I grew up in a synagogue where this is absolutely untrue. To me, the opposition of science and religion is outdated and false. I was reminded of this again on Wednesday evening when I was home at the synagogue I grew up in listening to the Kol Nidre sermon. The rabbi was discussing understanding how all people are connected to each other and understanding our place in the world. In an effort to demonstrate the almost literal way she meant this, she pointed out that we are all made of atoms that are billions of years old.

Religion need not stand opposed to science. Science can enhance religious understanding. If we must have leadership that wears religion on its sleeve, I believe we deserve leadership that understands this. Leadership that understands that global warming is definitely happening, and is man made (Sarah Palin seemed unsure at the debate). Leadership that understands that oil is a limited resource (and that "drill, baby, drill" is therefore not a useful slogan). Leadership that is interested in funding science and understanding science and not in enforcing intelligent design beliefs. The representation of science by our government for the past eight years has been offensive and confused. Their manipulation of scientific reports by the EPA and other government agencies goes against all scientific and governmental principles. For some sense of what McCain and Obama administrations might do for the sciences, see their science agendas. The world deserves leaders that understand how old it is.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Grace Hopper Networking

Last week I was at Grace Hopper in Keystone, CO. I had an amazing time. I'll get to the cool talks I went to in a different post, this one's about what I did while not going to talks.

It turns out that all of these women in cs/theory networking and career advice conferences I've been going to actually work. I now have a group of friends assembled from the CRA-W Grad Cohort, Grace Hopper, AT&T Labs, and the Women in Theory workshop. We meet up yearly at Grace Hopper and in subsets at other events. For me, it's a regular dose of sanity. I always return from these events refreshed and more excited about my research, though there's always the sadness of having to leave such an amazing group of people.

So what is it we're doing while encouraging each other to do research, transfer grad schools instead of dropping out, spreading the word about fellowships, etc? Well, this year I spent some time hiking, sitting in a hot tub looking at a rainbow over the mountains, and of course watching the VP debates. The debate party was especially fun and included lots of yelling at the screen and asking for the inside information from our friend from Wasilla.

Now, you may be reading this wondering why it's worth sending us to somewhere so we can hang out together. Perhaps you're someone who will be convinced when I get to the post about all the technical talks I went to - maybe if I say "Fran Allen" and "Turing Award" enough you'll believe that there might even be technically competent people there. But I maintain that even if there were no talks at all (which would be sad), it would be worth it. These events are the only times when I feel fully a part of the CS community. And that's necessary for me to stay in the field - it might not be necessary for everyone, but it definitely is for me. It's important to know that there are other women out there struggling through the same or different parts of grad school. And it's important to know that they're fun people to hang out with - that going to conferences doesn't have to doom me to hanging out with (a boring subset of) men who only know and talk about CS. So instead of a mild dread collecting in my stomach, I'm excited for the talks and the people at SODA this year. And I'm more likely to be around for SODAs after that.

Friday, September 26, 2008

SoCG Paper Call

The call for papers for SoCG 2009 is out... and the deadline is December 1st (with abstracts due earlier). It's in Aarhus, Denmark, so not one to miss (as opposed to lovely College Park). Now if only I can do something with my half-baked idea in time...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

More Mis-placed Money for Education

A new $44 million educational research effort is beginning. The premise behind the new Educational Innovation Laboratory is that educational programs have not been subjected to enough rigorous testing. This, I agree with. However, given the need for large research projects on fundamental educational issues (as implied by the need for this new laboratory to begin with) the fact that they're planning to begin by studying incentive programs like paying students for good test grades is absurd. How about starting with some actual fundamental educational issues like, say, teacher pay? And if the money is only going to be used to study whether students learn better if they're given more cell phone hours when they get good grades, please just forgo the research and give the money directly to the schools - there's already plenty of research showing that will actually make a difference.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cool New Website

A friend of mine from college works for a cool new website, Unigo, which recently got some excellent press from the NYTimes Magazine. I have to admit that though I'd heard something about the site before the article, I didn't really get it until I read the article and saw the site live. It's one of those brilliant ideas that you know is truly smart because you wonder why no-one's done it until now. It's a Princeton Review or Insider's Guide type college guide book, but online. And current and past students from the colleges can submit videos, photos, and reviews. Editors (like my friend) then compile the reviews into a shorter summary, but all the original info is still around. It's the perfect use of the overwhelming-user-generated-content web.

Now I'm hoping that the next thing on their list is a branch of the site for grad school. Grad school choice is still confounding and precisely the type of hugely broad area where user-generated content is perfect. True, there's a lot of variety in a grad school program based on your area and advisor, but everyone takes the same core courses and lives with the same administration. For Maryland I'd comment that two of the best things about the department's course decisions are that our qualifying exams are wrapped into our course requirements and that many courses have large original research projects as requirements. One of the things that doesn't work as well is our proposal system which wraps together an oral exam on a reading list and an hour talk on your research project - I'd much prefer they were separated so I could focus solely on each.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gut Instinct for Math

The New York Times has relatively regular articles about mathematics education. Often they're anecdotal rants by parents against "new math," but this week's article is an interesting overview of some recent research into innate number sense. It's this number sense that they describe as allowing you to determine which grocery store line is shorter at a glance, or whether there are more blue dots or yellow dots on the screen (see the online version of the test the researchers used). Researchers determined that innate aptitude for this type of approximation correlated to stronger formal math abilities.

The article suggests that teachers should take this as a cue to incorporate more estimation and general understanding into the curriculum (though the research does not show if our inborn number sense can be improved). I strongly agree with this and tried to do a lot of estimation when I was teaching middle school math. It's very hard to teach, and very hard for some students to understand. Perhaps this begins to give some clue as to why.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Sadly, my AT&T Labs Fellowship ends at the end of this school year. It's excellent and I'd love another, so I'm on the hunt for other fellowships. I thought I'd share the list I'm compiling.

All fellowships are open to students in Computer Science PhD programs. Also, these don't include fellowships with required after-graduate school participation (unless I've missed something), but do include fellowships with required (or strongly encouraged) internships.
  • IBM Fellowship - Deadline: Open for nominations September 22, 2008 through October 31, 2008 (nomination by faculty member required). Eligibility: completed at least one year of a doctoral program. Award:tuition, fees, and stipend for one year (amount varies by country/region).

    For Women:
  • Google's Anita Borg Scholarship - Deadline: check back in October 2008. Eligibility: entering senior year of undergraduate study or be enrolled in a full-time graduate program for 2008-2009 with at least a 3.5/4.0 GPA. Award: $10,000
  • SWE Scholarships - Application information for 2009-2010 will be available in December.
  • AAUW Fellowships - Many fellowships; one is a dissertation fellowship for which eligibility is restricted to those who have "completed all course work, passed all required preliminary examinations, and received approval for their research proposal or plan by Nov. 15, 2008."

Also useful: a comprehensive but outdated list of fellowships for the sciences in general, and a non-field specific site for fellowships.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Map of the Market

While all the market fluctuation is going on seemed like a good time to point out a cool tool - the map of the market. It makes it easy to visualize the market ups and downs. Yesterday it showed that tech industries were still doing well, today it's pretty much universally bad. It's based on the treemap idea by Ben Shneiderman at Maryland.

McCain invented the BlackBerry

Now, if only McCain's (not actual) claim gets the same press as Al Gore's "invention of the internet."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Art Installation or Bomb?

When walking by the Columbia Heights Metro in Washington DC this morning I noticed this Maus-like figure looking into a trash can as police looked on. Apparently it caused metro delays as police investigated to make sure it wasn't a bomb (it wasn't). To me, it just looked like cool opinion art. Maybe a commentary on homelessness? Or, if it's a polar bear, global warming?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Good News From Africa

Roger Cohen had an op-ed in the New York Times last month about how good news from Africa is buried while bad news is, well, news. He also mentioned that Ghana, where I lived for a semester in high school and again in college, is one of the places in Africa that's experiencing somewhat of a boom. Indeed, when I was there in 1997 there were only a handful of stoplights in the capital, Accra. Later, in 2003, there were too many to count. Their government has also been undergoing positive changes. In 1997, Jerry Rawlings was president, and had been since 1981 when he seized the country in a coup. But by 2003, John Kufuor was president after Rawlings peacefully relinquished power in 2001 through democratic elections - the first such transition in the country's history. Kufuor will make history again this coming January by peacefully handing over power as well.

So it seems appropriate that now, while Kufuor is visiting president Bush to discuss good news which is buried by the horrible news of the market (to the extent that this was true even in their joint press conference), we take note of the amazing progress that has been made. For once Bush said something true when welcoming Kufuor to the US, "Your country is a model of entrepreneurship and democracy and peace on the continent of Africa."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Slippery Slope Logic

In a discussion with a friend I brought up the "slippery slope" as a partial justification for my reasoning. She smiled, somewhat triumphantly, and pointed out that the slippery slope argument is illogical. After all, we draw a line in the sand and say that anything beyond it begins a slippery slope, but why is the line in that position to begin with? We can just move the line and hold firm there. There is no philosophical justification for the possible maintenance of one abstract line and not another.

She's right, of course, yet in the non-theoretical world when this concept is applied, for example, to freedom of speech, I believe the illogical. Or perhaps there is a real-world constraint we are ignoring. I agree with the ACLU that the KKK's first amendment rights should be defended. The KKK speaks out against me and everything I believe in, yet without their right to insult me, I might not have the right to protest in return. Once one exception is made, the door is opened to others - the slippery slope. And so I illogically maintain that to prevent Palin from banning books, we must also support her right to speak at the Alaska Independence Party convention and our own right to vote against her.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Palin's far-right views

I'm like a deer in headlights when it comes to the news about Palin - there's so many options of what to write about I can't write about anything. So instead I'll say that Palin's views aren't just scary to me, they're objectively extreme. Here's a selection - judge for yourselves.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I Swear They're Related

I'm starting a new research project which looks like it will combine HMMs, Information Theory, Sensor Networks, and Image/Video Compression. (Yes, I am still in Computational Geometry.) If any of you know of good overviews of these topics, I'd love suggestions... especially suggestions that come in the form of papers instead of large books.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I'll Have To Get Back To You...

One of the tactics we mentioned to the future TAs and which every teacher (should) know is to admit when you don't know the answer to a question, promise to find out the answer and get back to them, and move on. This is the best strategy partially because if you try to talk around it, it will be painfully obvious that the true answer is "I don't know and know that I should." Politicians, however, seem to have a hard time doing this. To be fair, it's often more important for them that they look like they know everything... but it could be argued that this is even more of a reason not to try to talk around the issue (and in doing so look like an idiot). The latest example of a foot-in-the-mouth performance is by one of McCain's staffers Tucker Bounds. When talking to a CNN reporter, he blatantly avoids answering her question about what specific decisions Palin has made as commander of the Alaska national guard. Tucker can't answer and won't say he can't answer, so he ends up looking as expected in that situation. CNN airs the interview (um, clearly) which makes the McCain "don't ask me hard questions" camp whiney and they pull a later interview with Larry King. If they weren't running for president by saying they can handle the hard questions, it'd be funny. No, wait, it's still funny.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Teaching Taught

Friday was the TA orientation for our department. It turns out we only had one hour, so despite our hopes to follow the wise suggestion of an earlier commenter and have the future TAs practice teaching in-front of each other, we ran out of time. Instead we modeled interactive lecturing and group work. I think it went better than last year's though as it was only an hour it certainly wasn't complete. I later met a fourth year student who's new to our department and was previously in the math department. She mentioned that the math department has a 4 day TA orientation. So it seems the CS department cares about this about one thirtieth as much as the math department...

One of my personal goals for the hour we had was to encourage the TAs to have their students do group work. I got to get my support of group work into the mix, so I was happy about that, and it helped me to discover the extent to which I am totally reliant on and in favor of group work. In fact, while I believe many people find encouraging group work daunting, I find teaching a class in which the students are only listening to a long lecture from me daunting. Group work always provides a nice context switch for me as well as the students - I feel less like I'm "on" when I'm walking around and helping students in smaller groups or individually. Good for me, good for the students - I'm baffled that everyone doesn't teach this way.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hillary's DNC Speech

I just watched Hillary's speech at the DNC. It was excellent. And will hopefully lay to rest all the annoying talking heads who like to paint Hillary supporters as frothing crazies who will vote for McCain. It will hopefully also minimize the number of supporters in the vocal minority who keep saying that, so at least the networks will have to work harder to find the people they so clearly want to say that on air.

My favorite moments of the speech were when she asked "Were you in the campaign just for me? Or were you in it for ... [actual issues here]." Of course, some of those issues are not as well-represented by Obama (ahem, universal health care), but at this point she's not a choice and McCain is a disaster. "No Way. No How. No McCain." And the Harriet Tubman section was also lovely:

If you hear the dogs, keep going.

If you see the torches in the woods, keep going.

If they’re shouting after you, keep going.

Don’t ever stop. Keep going.

If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.

Of course, there's some doubt that Tubman actually said this, but it's still a great quote.

For the full prepared remarks see Daily Kos (scroll down).

Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Write About Plato?

I went to undergrad at Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school outside of Philadelphia. Swarthmore requires all students to take writing courses in a variety of disciplines. I wrote about contemporary Irish poetry, educational philosophy and practice, and central African history. I also wrote thousands of lines of code and many proofs - writing courses are based on the writing of the discipline.

When I got to grad school I was talking to another new student and discovered that this was not universal. He had taken about 40 computer science classes (some were 1-credit classes) to my 10. He asked me what I had been doing taking anything else - why bother learning about Plato if you know you want to go to computer science grad school? Besides my personal interest, I responded that it helped me learn to write. He shrugged this off saying something about how he would pick that up as he wrote papers.

At the time, my belief in the importance of learning to write - purposefully learning, not just blundering along in hopes of picking it up - was instinctual and ingrained. Now, after reading many poorly written papers and discovering in my own writing how hard it can be to present technical details that you have been living for months in a way that others can understand without having to live the process, my belief is founded in experience. I have read papers where even titles and opening sentences made no sense. The struggle against deadlines does not excuse this, rather it makes my case that we should learn to write before the fact. There's plenty more to learn in grad school.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

I suppose that, as a female computer science blogger, I should have realized I'd have to address the elephant in the room eventually. What elephant? The elephant from an interview with Sally Ride in 2006:

Q: Let's talk Lawrence Summers. The Harvard president recently resigned after giving a controversial speech a year ago suggesting that men might simply be predisposed to be better at math and science. Is there at least a grain of truth in what he said?

A: (Laughs). Suppose you came across a woman lying on the street with an elephant sitting on her chest. You notice she is short of breath. Shortness of breath can be a symptom of heart problems. In her case, the much more likely cause is the elephant on her chest.

For a long time, society put obstacles in the way of women who wanted to enter the sciences. That is the elephant. Until the playing field has been leveled and lingering stereotypes are gone, you can't even ask the question.

Affirmative action is used to slay the elephant, and so affirmative action is the real elephant in the room. And with that, I'm done with the elephant metaphors.

Sadly, affirmative action is one of those issues about which people tend to have strong opinions that are unlikely to change. My unlikely to change opinion is that affirmative action is fair. Note that I don't say equal. Affirmative action is not equal because it is trying to correct previous situations which were not equal. But it is fair to try to correct previous wrongs. I'm not talking about previous wrongs that were committed hundreds of years ago (though that's when these systematic wrongs started), I'm talking about the every day continuous wrongs that, through racism*, classism, and sexism, make it harder for equally talented people to be perceived that way. Greg is more likely to get an interview than Jamal, and there are lots of studies showing that this is true for other groups as well.

Now, I recognize that there are many implementations of affirmative action which are problematic. Michigan's point system, for example, was bizarre - not because it gave extra points to minority applicants, but because it determined admissions by a point system instead of by individual consideration of the applicants to begin with. Still, I don't think that some buggy implementations are a reason to assume this is impossible to do correctly.

So, to my anonymous commenter and others who think that:

I also believe (and I've seen it happen more than once) that, when one is in the job market, it helps being a woman.

I point out that this is unlikely to be statistically true (see previously linked articles). Any positive effect of being female likely only helps to balance out the negative effect of the men who say "I just don't think she'd fit in here" and the other discrimination she's had to overcome up to this point. In other words, affirmative action works to help the job market to be more fair - and yes, this means that men may not have an advantage anymore. That's the goal.

* I'm talking about the US here - I'm afraid I don't know much about these issues, especially racism, on an international scale.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Veep Watch Odds

I've been looking around trying to find some sort of site about odds on the vice presidential picks. The best I could find were this article which gives Pawlenty and Romney 2-1 odds as McCain's veeps and 2-1 odds for Bayh and Kaine for Obama's veeps and this article which gives 7-5 odds for Bayh and Kaine along with a lot of other odds for Democratic picks. Sadly, intrade doesn't give odds for veep picks anywhere I can see.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Teaching Teaching in 2 Hours or Less

I believe I may give off the impression that I have unrealistically high expectations for what a department can be or do. Despite my natural cynicism, I do have hope that departments can be highly productive spaces by handling social and interpersonal issues upfront. But I also recognize that it takes a lot of work and that we all already have a lot of work. So there are projects I'm involved in which don't measure up to my own standards. I'm here to ask for help with one of them.

Another grad student and I are helping Bill run TA orientation for our department. There is also a university-wide TA orientation which lasts one or two days. I have no idea what it's like, since I never went. The university-wide orientation is not well publicized and it's possible that my department orientation was held at the same time (that or I was moving in, I don't remember). Still, it's optional while the department orientation is mandatory so many (most) students don't go to the longer orientation. The department TA orientation is, at most, 2 hours (actually, I should find out how long it is...). In that time, we need to explain the job, the expectations, the resources, and how to teach to a group TA-ing everything from introductory CS for non-majors to upper level or graduate classes. Some will need to lead discussion sections while others will only be grading and holding office hours. I helped with TA orientation last year as well, and while I think we were entertaining and got across all the necessary information, towards the end when we were taking questions it became clear that many of the entering TAs mostly wanted basic information about how to teach. For example, we got questions like "if a student is sleeping in my class, should I wake them up?" and "should I be writing notes on the board?". The future TAs didn't seem confident in their own teaching style. I taught middle school math for a year before starting grad school, so the teaching part of TA-ing was never confusing for me (it was the fact that someone else was writing the tests my students were taking which was the strange part). Perhaps this makes me a bad choice to help with TA orientation, I don't know. But I'd like it to be better this year. I'd like each TA running a discussion section to feel confident enough to do something other than read from a piece of paper while never looking up at the students sleeping and sending emails. And I'd like that to happen in 2 hours or less. Any ideas on how to work a miracle?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Videos of Female Scientists

A quick post to give a link to Feministing which is featuring some videos by female scientists from Big Think. Just in case you needed proof that we exist...

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Odds Are Good But...

I recently found myself in the unusual situation of talking to a bunch of women who were all in female-dominated fields. They were bemoaning their inability to meet men through work, while I was amused to note that it is men in Computer Science who have the equivalent problem. Women are instead the pursued, and the men seem to have the feeling that any woman who begins dating someone outside the department is engaging in an act of betrayal. But as I thought about the broader situation, it became less and less amusing.

There is a large problem with sexual harassment within computer science departments. It's not in-your-face, and it's easy not to see it if it doesn't happen to you. Since I've been spared that horror, I've managed to ignore its presence for most of this time. My only personal inkling that something might be not-quite-right was at the department sexual harassment workshop which I naively expected to actually discuss how to avoid being harassed and committing harassment and instead discussed how not to get caught. To be fair to the department, this was actually run by the university. But while I have not had to deal with this personally, it is becoming an acknowledged issue within this field (see the CRA note, which also includes discrimination), and about time.

It is ridiculous to me that this is still a problem. There is no excuse for female grad students being pursued by other graduate students and professors who cross all bounds of propriety and don't take no for an answer. As a woman among men there are already far too many situations where I am the "other," I do not appreciate the feeling that I also have a flashing sign over my head saying "pursue me however you see fit." I believe that it is the responsibility of departments to ensure that this does not happen, that they must take an active role in prevention and protection of the women in their department. And conversely I believe that any women in unsupportive departments should feel politically protected to speak out about their department's apathy over this issue, so that future female students will avoid the department and the department will be forced to take action. Sadly the political situation protects the perpetrators and silences the victims who, as grad students in need of funding and soon to be looking for jobs, can not afford to be seen as controversial or "hysterical." It is left to the rest of us to speak.

Friday, August 8, 2008

I Love Maps

A cool map of maritime jurisdiction in the artic. It seems that without physical landmarks countries revert to Voronoi diagrams to determine national boundaries.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Teachers Have It Easy

While at the lake, I read Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers. It's an excellent examination of one of the big problems facing education in this country, and it offers realistic concrete solutions which I always appreciate from "the current system isn't working" books. And it convinced me to change my mind about an issue I was dead set against: merit pay for teachers. I still think there are lots of merit pay issues to work out, but I believe that none of these are inherent in the idea of merit pay - they're sadly the ideas that are easiest for people to jump to. My biggest pet-peeve among these ides is following "logical" progression that causes many to suggest basing teacher pay on students' standardized test scores:
  1. Teachers should be paid based on how "good" they are.
  2. We should measure teacher effectiveness by how much their students learn.
  3. We should measure student learning through standardized tests.

Thankfully, most people would now not be surprised to hear an argument against 3 following logically from 2, so I don't need to make that argument. Less common is the understanding that 2 does not follow from 1 - a good teacher may still not cause students to learn. This faulty step comes from the idea of students as vessels into which the teacher pours their knowledge (the "banking" idea of education attacked by Paulo Freire), a notion which is now outdated. Instead, current educational theory recognizes that student learning requires work on the part of the student as well as the teacher. Student learning requires an atmosphere in which the student can concentrate and be stimulated. Student learning requires a previous knowledge base for the student to build on. And there are many other variables which affect student learning and take into account the reality that a student without enough to eat is less likely to learn than one who isn't distracted by hunger and other basic needs. None of these other dimensions of the problem have anything to do with the teacher (despite the teachers who go above and beyond to pay for food for their students out of their own meager salaries, knowing that their work is ineffective otherwise). Paying teachers based on much their students learn is assuming correlation without any evidence supporting it. (See Medley's 1982 article "Teacher Effectiveness" for more on this.)

Still, despite these issues, teachers can be evaluated in class by principals or other supervisors. It will require more and sustained work on the part of these administrators, so that teachers are not condemned by one bad day. But these steps are worth it. Teachers need to be paid more. The profession needs to be viewed as such to attract the best and create the best school systems. We're capitalists - it all comes back to pay.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Sulfide Mining

After reading When the Rivers Run Dry I'm especially aware of the water supply. I expected that arriving in the north woods of Minnesota this awareness would mean an appreciation of the large supply of still unpolluted marvelously clear lake water. Instead, Minnesota is poised to allow sulfide mining into Superior National Forest (more information). Water, of course, does not obey the boundaries of the mines' land, so these mines would poison the local watershed and destroy the local wilderness and national parks (water information from a similar effort in Michigan).  The image on the left is the result of similar mining in Canada (source and more photos). Minnesota could look like that instead of as it does now (BWCA photo source and information). And if the environmental catastrophe doesn't give you pause, consider the loss to the economy (tourism is a big source of income in the north woods) and property values (see the pictures for explanation). If you have voting representation in the House, especially if you vote in Minnesota, contact them about this bill. (If you'd rather I contacted them on my own, first help me get the right to representation.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Should Science Be Title IX'd?

The NYTimes has an article on Title IX impacting the sciences today (thanks to the commenter who pointed me to it!). As is often the case with short articles on subjects I already know and think a lot about, I don't think this is a great article. Still, it raises some interesting points that I'm going to get to. But first, as evidence of my problems with the article, I present its last paragraph (emphasis mine):

Whether or not quotas are ever imposed, some of the most productive science and engineering departments in America are busy filling out new federal paperwork. The agencies that have been cutting financing for Fermilab and the Spirit rover on Mars are paying for investigations of a problem that may not even exist. How is this good for scientists of either sex?

Apparently my problems in the field, and those of thousands of other women, are figments of our hysterical female imaginations. The numerous studies showing that women must be better to have the same success as men (here's a better NYTimes article) must be flawed. Instead, the article argues, what's really going on is that women are just happier elsewhere. And it dismisses the idea that this is because of the discrimination in the field.

The basic premise is that women enjoy interacting with people in higher percentages than men, who enjoy interacting with machines in higher percentages than women. This may be true, but it should have nothing to do with women in the sciences. In fact, computer science for example, is a highly interactive field. We work with each other, test subjects, students, etc. We go to conferences. (We even comment on blogs.) Ultimately, the portrayal of computer science desperately needs to change (I believe the NSF is working on an initiative to do this... but I can't find the link right now). But really, that's not what this article was about. In fact, the author could have taken a look at the field originally heavily regulated by Title IX - sports. When Title IX first began, I'm sure people made the argument that women just weren't as interested in sports as men. And yet the participation of women in sports has increased dramatically.

So the question is, should science be regulated by Title IX? I think that, as with other regulations, this all depends on how the oversight is implemented and what the outcome means in terms of paperwork and restrictions. But trying to think about it abstractly, my answer is yes. This does not mean that I believe in quotas, which I think might cause enough resentment so that they wouldn't be worth it. Instead, I believe that something drastic needs to be done to encourage (um, force) departments to take this issue seriously. As a grad student, I should not be a major advocate for women within my department - I should be a drop in the bucket. And yet I find myself frequently explaining why the department should care if there are women admitted, retained, etc. And frequently finding ways to help those goals along. And this is not to say that my department is not responsive to these issues when I bring them up - just that it is not a priority. Doing research is the priority. As it should be. Which is why I think departments need help.

One of the frequent oversights which increases the disparity between the percentages of women and men in the field (and is common to other minority groups as well) is the extent to which the majority make qualitative decisions based on their own familiarity with people like them. I served on my department's admissions committee this past year. I believe that we ultimately did a fair job, but in the discussions about candidates there were often comments like "I just have a feeling that she wouldn't make it here." We are scientists and should know better than to make such wildly unsubstantiated claims. Yet these are comments that appear at every level. They should not be allowed to impact the decision making process, but without some sort of regulation over the closed-door decisions these comments keep women who are only as good as the men out of the sciences. Perhaps Title IX could help.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Moving While Reading Papers

I moved yesterday. The new house is probably less than a mile from the old apartment, but I still needed to pack everything and lift everything. I'm incredibly sore. And while the geometric part of me actually enjoys packing (how can I fit all these differently shaped objects into boxes in the most space efficient way?), there were some other geometric problems that I would have preferred to be looking at.

I'm currently working on three projects on three different topics with three different people. This is too many. But I'm interested in all of them and want to see them through. So I am forever juggling these projects. And I think I've figured out how to make that work for me (it involves days with no meetings and lots of time in coffee shops). But when a fourth non-work project comes up (pack! move!) it throws the whole system off. So today, while waiting for the cable guy to show up at the new place so that my CS woman roommate and I can work, I'll be reading a paper for a meeting later today and unpacking. I'm a big multi-tasker (I'm currently drinking tea and eating breakfast while writing this post), but this is a little much.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Another of the interesting topics at the women in theory workshop was the issue that women are less likely than men to negotiate (for pay raises, for work opportunities, for exactly what they want at a restaurant, for everything). Sara Laschever, one of the authors of Women Don't Ask, gave a very entertaining and convincing talk on this issue. I say convincing, because one of her main goals seemed to be to convince all of us that it's worth the momentary awkwardness in order to improve your pay and career down the line. The main idea here, of course, is that if you don't negotiate for a higher salary at the beginning of your career, then over time this small amount difference between what you settled for and what you could have negotiated will grow to a significant amount due to percent increase raises, etc. In addition, not negotiating for career opportunities will set you back in terms of experience as well. I was definitely convinced. And despite the studies that have shown that women face a social cost when negotiating (Sara's co-author, Linda Babcock, is referenced frequently), Sara argued that negotiating is still a net benefit. She also argued that everything is negotiable.

It's this last point that I've been thinking about lately. Sara suggested that women should go to the "negotiation gym." Get a "gym" buddy and trade stories of little negotiation triumphs in everyday life. For example, I could negotiate with the kids who swim in the pool I like to go to so that I could have a portion of the pool to do laps in and they would try to stay on their side while playing Marco Polo. I must admit that I'm one of the (apparently few?) women who really enjoy haggling in marketplaces (no, not in the US), so viewing "scary" negotiation like this has a certain appeal. But I also wonder, is everything really negotiable?

Consider grad school. You apply, you (hopefully) get in, and you get your offer(s). These are (sort of) negotiable, especially if you have multiple offers. But what about once you're there? You receive a semesterly/ yearly update to your offer - often you find out what it is when you go to sign it. This seems non-negotiable. But is it? (Note: this is actually a moot point for me since I'm on a wonderful fellowship, but sadly this will run out someday and anyway I'm curious.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Not Running Towards Obama

I'm one of those Hillary Clinton supporters that the media keeps reporting is threatening to vote for McCain. Now, there's not a chance that I'm going to vote for McCain because I'm intelligent enough to see that Obama supports more of my beliefs than McCain does (and in fact, I think most Hillary supporters are smart enough to do that calculation). So I think that the real question becomes if we Hillary supporters are going to do everything we can to get Obama elected, or whether we're going to just apathetically show up on election day and vote for him.

Once upon a time a long long time ago, when this election season started, I was very excited about Obama. I was more excited about Hillary, so after some consideration I decided to back her. But for me, it was a win/win and either way I expected to fully support the nominee - money, door knocking, phone banking, etc. Since then, I've moved into the Hillary camp... hoping that I could come back out easily, happily continuing to help if the vote went against my hopes. Well, he's making it hard.

Now, I don't usually like to get into discussions about abortion because I think it's one of those things that people are unlikely to change their minds about and are likely to care deeply about. But I'm staunchly pro-choice. And while Obama's pro-choice... he's been making statements which begin to chip away at that position by defining situations in which it's ok for the government to decide for women if they're allowed to get an abortion or not.

My first worry was based on comments he made which support parental consent and/or notification laws. Or rather, he says “I would oppose any legislation that does not include a bypass provision for minors who have been victims of, or have reason to fear, physical or sexual abuse." Well yes, I would oppose that too. But this implies that he would support the laws as long as these provisions were in place. Just a guess, but I imagine that if a minor is in that situation, it's likely that they won't have the adult resources to know how to go about getting a bypass to a judge. (Politico article)

Now he's moved on to limiting which women are allowed to get third trimester abortions. He says he opposes late-term abortion in cases of "mental distress." This is another common way to slowly whittle away women's rights (and my interest and advocacy for his candidacy). (AP article, original article in Relevant magazine, Obama "clarification")

It's true that all politicians make compromises. And maybe I'm holding him to a higher standard since he preaches a different kind of politics. But then, isn't it only fair to judge him by his own standards? In which case he either falls short or he actually believes in limiting abortion. Either way, while he'll have my vote, he might not have my help.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Student Only Conference Events?

Some of the comments from a previous post raise the question of why career advice panels and other non-technical topics aren't included in conferences like FOCS, STOC, and SODA. This reminded me of an issue that we discussed when planning SoCG - should we hold a separate event for students? The thought was that there would be grad students who came without advisors (or whose advisors weren't going out to eat with them for some reason, they're on the PC, etc.) and might not know other people at the conference. Or just might want to meet more people. It seemed like a good idea to me at the time, and still does, though it didn't end up happening (too much to do? not enough interest?). I think it would help with networking among students and make conferences seem more welcoming. And (despite our inaction) it seems like something that should be easy to organize - just set up a specific restaurant location and time and anyone interested can show up. What do you think?

And now, I'm off to a 50% chance of watching it thunderstorm on the Capital fireworks...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

When the Rivers Run Dry

I decided that the plane ride to the wedding this past weekend was the perfect time to start a book I've been wanting to read: When the Rivers Run Dry: Water - The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century. I haven't finished it yet, but it's already given me a lot to think about, and I highly recommend it. It discusses the sources of water, the ways in which many of these sources are being over tapped, and the consequences when that happens. As the author points out, these consequences effect the climate, agriculture, the success of civilizations, the likelihood of war. It was especially interesting to read on my way to Duluth, Minnesota - a city which sits on the edge of Lake Superior, the largest fresh water lake in the world (by surface area).

Duluth is a beautiful city built on the steep hills overlooking the lake, and the lake looks more like an ocean - it has tides, waves, and ship wrecks. But while Phoenix, Arizona is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, Duluth's population was about 105,000 in the 1960s and is now down to about 85,000. Yet Arizona's water resources can't naturally support its population (Phoenix now has a population of about 1.5 million). By classical standards, this pattern of growth is incredibly stupid. Of course, modern strategies allow water to be moved, which is why the Great Lakes states are legislating to ensure the water stays in the region. When the Rivers Run Dry discusses how Arizona is helping the Colorado river to run dry, so while Lake Superior still looks like an ocean, I'm glad the lake states are taking action.

Closer to home, I received the 2007 Drinking Water Quality Report from the DC Water and Sewer Authority today. The water here comes from the Potomac river, which I can walk to. As suspected from the smell of the water in the shower, the water is sometimes over the EPA limit for chlorine. Significantly over. After all, I can smell it. And I wonder - if the water I receive in my posh, white, NW neighborhood is this chlorinated, what's it like in neighborhoods where the residents don't have water filters in their fridges?

Still, the arsenic levels are well under EPA regulations, which is more than can be said for much of the water in India and Bangladesh where millions of people are being slowly poisoned by the water they drink.

Monday, June 30, 2008

When is the best time to have a baby?

One of the questions that's almost always asked at Work/Life Balance panels is "when is the best time to have a baby?" This is, of course, one of those questions that's impossible to answer for someone else. And usually, the panelists rightly don't touch the answer. But perhaps the askers still want to know - is it better to have kids during or after grad school?

I was at a wedding this weekend and saw a family friend who's a sociologist. We were talking about some of these issues and she mentioned that this question has actually been studied (I must admit that I find it strange to think about people studying us). So here's a link to the study: The Best Time to Have a Baby: Institutional Resources and Family Strategies Among Early Career Sociologists. It is, as the title suggests, not really studying us if us means women in computer science, but it still seems relevant. The study was done by the American Sociological Association and the short version of the summary is:
Those women who give birth or adopt during graduate school have significantly lower odds of obtaining what we have defined as early career success right out of graduate school, even if they obtain institutional resources and use them in career strategies. Their chances improve several years later if they change jobs, when other positive factors are present. Those women who have children after graduate school decrease their odds of obtaining a tenure-track position at a research or doctoral university if they did not obtain this kind of position right after the PhD. Women who continue to delay childbirth do better at obtaining success early in their careers, and, as we have seen, significantly more of them delay childbirth than do their male colleagues.

My short version answer to this question stays the same as before I read the summary (I admit - that's all I've read so far): Have kids when you're ready. That was the advice of someone at the work/life balance panel, and it seemed like good advice to me.