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.