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.