Friday, March 20, 2009

Going to Ghana

I leave for Ghana today for two and a bit weeks. While it doesn't look like I'll have much interaction with OLPC Ghana, I do think I'll get to talk to some of the folks in computer science at Ashesi University, which should be interesting. I'm excited.

Highlights of my reading list while I'm there include:

Perhaps if I brave the internet cafes I'll give some updates from the road...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It's About Time

I never really understood why the dot-com bust led to such a drastic drop in computer science enrollments. It's always seemed rather short-sighted to me to ignore the drastic increase in the use of computers in, well, everything just because dot-coms weren't going to keep being such a big thing. But I suppose I underestimate the appeal of get-rich-quick schemes. Apparently the financial crisis has made banking so unappealing, combined with the desire to actually be able to find a job, that computer science is seeing a turn-around:

For the first time in six years, enrollment in computer science programs in the United States increased last year, according to an annual report that tracks trends in the academic discipline.

Hopefully this means that computer science faculty searches won't be cut with the budget.

On the other hand, while this may eventually change diversity trends, it hasn't yet: "the fraction of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women remained steady at 11.8 percent in 2008."

(See the NY Times article.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Advisor Matchmaking

Helping out with the grad admissions process at Maryland always makes me re-examine my department. This year, the theme to that re-examination seems to be the process of finding an advisor. At Maryland, for many people this process is self-directed. You think about what area you might want to do research in, take some classes, talk to some professors, and eventually ask one to be your advisor. I think part of the reason that some students have such trouble with this is that it's similar to asking someone out on a date - complete with all the anxiety that they'll say no, already have too many other dates, not want to commit to dating you for the next five years, etc. There are of course ways to ease into the advisor-advisee relationship (ways to have the first date without committing to marriage) - taking a class, doing an independent study, talking to them about their research, etc. Perhaps these can make the proposal less daunting, though I imagine that for the extremely shy, even doing these things is terrifying.

Still, I believe that this process is definitely better than the pre-arranged marriage. While the powers-that-be might assign you an advisor that you get along with and is in the area that you declared interest in when you entered grad school, you might instead end up with an advisor with a drastically different working style or change your mind about what you want to do. Even if you meet them once or twice before the marriage commences, it still bypasses the important courtship phase. Rushing the process does a disservice to all involved.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Barbara Liskov wins Turing Award!

From the MIT announcement:

Institute Professor Barbara Liskov has won the Association for Computing Machinery's A.M. Turing Award, one of the highest honors in science and engineering, for her pioneering work in the design of computer programming languages. Liskov's achievements underpin virtually every modern computing-related convenience in people's daily lives.

Liskov, the first U.S. woman to earn a PhD in computer science, was recognized for helping make software more reliable, consistent and resistant to errors and hacking. She is only the second woman to receive the honor, which carries a $250,000 purse and is often described as the "Nobel Prize in computing."

The first woman was Fran Allen, who won in 2006. The award was first given in 1966. I find it hopeful that it seems that women are now being seriously considered.

(Via Michael and Suresh.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Fragile Peace

I was in Northern Ireland a year ago. Victoria Square had just opened in Belfast. It's an open-air mall covered by a domed glass roof. From my point of view, it was beautiful and functional. Some older men I was talking to in a pub had something different to say about it, "it's just too tempting." It was a sign of prosperity and peace that something with that much glass was built in a city so used to bombings.

Yesterday, two British soldiers were killed northwest of Belfast. It's the first deadly attack on the British since before the Good Friday peace agreement. Both sides of the coalition government have denounced the attack.

Last year, N. Ireland was experiencing great prosperity. The consequences of peace were clearly visible. And there was hope. The US primaries were happening. The men at the pub also said, "if Obama, a black man, can become president of the United States, maybe there's hope for us here."

I'm hoping they're right.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Unperceived Bias

A lot of the discussion (which I'm glad is still happening) that's been going on about double-blind reviewing has been making assumptions that we would know if there was bias (against women, unknown authors, whatever) and that part of the reason that this discussion is coming up is because these authors perceive this bias and are cranky about it. That is not my opinion. I've never perceived any bias and have no personal grievance against the process. In fact, the reviews that I've gotten have shown that the reviewers truly read and thought about my papers and took time to write thoughtful feedback. I deeply appreciate their efforts. The problem is that bias is often unperceived. I include my own biases in this, and work hard to recognize them in myself. Still, I believe that often bias is unconscious.

When I was taking an upper level math seminar in my sophomore year of college, there were two seniors in the small class who stood out clearly above the rest - one guy and one girl. When she presented her solutions to homework problems, it was as if we were hearing a guest lecturer. Every point was covered. Her presentation was organized. Her math was flawless. She was able to answer our questions precisely and in a way so that we could understand. The guy was a different story. It was clear that he didn't always do the work beforehand. Still, when he presented, after some staring into space and thinking on his feet, the correct solution would appear on the board. He explained it clearly and answered questions, sometimes finding - and fixing - flaws along the way. I realized one day, when talking to a friend about the class, that I considered him to be the more brilliant of the two, ascribing to her the "female" qualities of organization and assuming that her flawless performances were due to advance planning and not to her mathematical ability, while his successes were a sign of his brilliance. This assumption is sexist. I recognized my bias, my internalized sexism if you will, only after most of the semester had passed.

I will not believe you if you claim that you are never biased.