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.)