Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor Nominated

Today Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. She is Hispanic and female and grew up in Bronx housing projects. Unsurprisingly, much of the news focus has been on these three facts, not on her record or intellect, though the NY Times at least includes her intellect in its headline. But while Republicans have and will try to oppose her nomination based partially on their belief that since she is Hispanic and female and grew up poor she will always favor those defendants in her decisions (and rich white male court justices will favor...?). Perhaps it's better instead to base these assumptions on her substantial record on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The SCOTUSblog has overviews of these decisions (overview, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, links via Feministing), and it seems from my brief reading to be clear that she considers the case at hand and could be called a centrist because of this.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Interactive Teaching

An op-ed in the Washington Post from Monday discusses "senioritis" as a symptom of bad (read lecture-style) teaching. This is, as usual, discussed in the context of high school teaching. But it seems to me that this is something college teachers should think about as well - not because I believe it's our job to go to any length to get students to care and pay attention, but because I think interactive teaching makes the subject matter more obviously interesting, and we all deserve that (and barely anyone does it).

I'm teaching the 400-level Algorithms class at Maryland this summer. It's obvious to me how to do interesting somewhat interactive lectures on the standard algorithm subjects, it's less obvious to me how to make these lessons truly interactive non-lectures. The "math class approach" of problems and presentations is certainly one option. But I'd love to do lessons more in the true spirit of "interactiveness." Any suggestions?

(While I'm picking your collective brains, I'm also trying to decide on a good textbook that's an actually readable reference that I can also take some homework problems from. I'm currently planning on Algorithm Design by Kleinberg and Tardos. Is there another book I should be seriously considering?)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not Happy to be Right

Back during the primary season, I wrote that I was skeptical about Obama's support for a woman's right to choose what happens to her own body. I have since campaigned for him, gone to his inauguration, and generally felt pleased with our country and his office. This weekend, Obama spoke at Notre Dame about "abortion." In fact, in this quote "abortion" seems to refer only to birth control and not to abortion, since no doctors are currently ever required to perform abortions (just like they're never required to do nose jobs or become foot doctors).

In his commencement address, Mr. Obama said he supported a “sensible conscience clause,” referring to legislative actions that allow doctors or other health care providers to withhold abortion or other services that conflict with their religious beliefs. But he used the opportunity to call for more diversity of opinion and respect for differences.

These laws are used to deny access to birth control for women who don't have access to other doctors or the resources to find them. It is these women that the government should be protecting, not doctors and pharmacists.

I also have worries with regards to the wording of these clauses. Are they truly blanket clauses for any "services that conflict with their religious beliefs?" I honestly don't know. But if they are: Are Muslims allowed to deny a binge drinker the service of having their stomach pumped? Or, less life threatening, are Mormons allowed to deny a patient access to migraine medications (many of which have caffeine in them)? Where is the line? And if this only refers to birth control, why is the line there? How did this religions conviction come to be more important than all the others?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Outrage, the movie

I barely ever make it to the movies, but this past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Outrage, a movie about outing closeted gay politicians, or more specifically, those closeted gay politicians who reveal their hypocrisy by voting against gay issues. It was interesting to see now, in the midst of a month of huge advances in marriage equality. As the NY Times noted in its movie review, the movie already seems outdated in terms of its urgency. The NY assembly recently passed a same-sex marriage bill: "'We do nothing revolutionary or extraordinary today,' said Richard L. Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester County." And he's right.

Yet, of course, the movie is nowhere near outdated. After all, Florida Governor Charlie Crist recently announced his run for Senate. Crist is one of the politicians outed by Outrage. I admit that before seeing the movie I assumed that these outings were actually wishful thinking or rumors. In fact, all are highly researched newsworthy exposes with multiple independent sources confirming Crist's (and the other politicians') exploits. Plus, it being DC, there were whispers of "I know him" and "I saw him at a party I went to" throughout the movie showing. I'm convinced.

I'm also convinced that it makes sense to out these politicians, though I believe in privacy. The movie made a good case that maintaining their place in the closet encourages politicians to take extreme anti-gay positions. It's the adult version of a frequent middle school occurrence; "I just beat up that gay kid, so clearly I'm not gay myself."

If you're curious to learn more about closeted politicians or the guy (featured in the movie) who outs many of them, see his blog.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Women Bully. And?

The current most emailed article in the NYTimes online is about women bullying each other in the workplace. It's written in the tone of an expose about the shocking fact that women bully each other.

It’s probably no surprise that most of these bullies are men, as a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group, makes clear. But a good 40 percent of bullies are women. And at least the male bullies take an egalitarian approach, mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure. The women appear to prefer their own kind, choosing other women as targets more than 70 percent of the time.

Surprise! Or not. I don't find this at all shocking. Saddening, yes. Shocking, no. Nor do I think we need to hold workshops to keep women from bullying each other specifically. Yes, it'd be great to stop all bullying in the workplace. All of it, meaning the bullying by the men too. But you can't expect women trying to make it to the top in an already hostile workplace to abide by different rules than the men do. And given the backlash of affirmative action and the glass ceiling, it makes perfect sense that women bully each other more than they do men - it's the logical choice to try to take down the weakest of the group who are also seen as your direct competitors. It may not work well for you in the long run. After you eliminate all the other women, you're next (and while the men may be "mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure," are they mowing them down proportionally or actually in equal measure?). Still, in the moment, to get to that next promotion, it's a logical choice. Thinking that women should act differently to help each other out is either naive or paternalistic.

Yet I don't think that bullying is necessary. And I'm glad that in academia in computer science there seems to be a much more cooperative community that happily gives advice at conferences and the like. But perhaps the bullying exists and it's me that's naive.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I thought I'd add my two cents to the recent discussion about Kindles. Now, I've never seen a Kindle, or researched other readers, or even thought about getting one. But mostly that's because I already have an excellent solution - my XO. Plus, the money goes to an organization I believe in to help all kids have access to computers. True, the XO is marketed as a computer, and it is actually a computer (so if you're reading a paper and discover you should probably also be reading a paper they cite, you can go get it), but I find it most useful as a reader. Once you download a paper (from the web or a USB drive), you can flatten the computer. The screen is high resolution and easy to read off of even in sunlight, since you can turn off the backlight (a feature I wish all computers had). And you can rotate the screen... though I don't really know why you'd want to. Most importantly, since it's an actual computer, it doesn't have any of these strange PDF compatibility issues - it just opens the PDF.

Sadly, the folks at OLPC seem to have decided not to run the give one get one programs that give the public access to the XO during the whole year. Based on the past two years, these happen only in November and December to capitalize on the Christmas shopping season. But keep your eyes out, because in 2010 there's promise of a super cool new design and a reduction in price. Currently, the laptop costs $400 through their G1G1 program, $200 for the laptop, and $200 a tax-deductible contribution that gives a laptop to a child without access. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading in coffee shops with mine, knowing that if someone spills coffee on my computer it will probably still work.

Of course, my XO doesn't do some of the things that the Kindle does, like let you easily pay $10 for each book.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

SODA Call for Papers

In case you missed it, the SODA call for papers is up. Abstracts are due June 29th, full papers are due July 6th. Consider this your two month warning.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

... And It Continues

A local surprise: The DC council just passed a measure to recognize same-sex marriages performed in "other" states. Of course, DC is not actually a state, so Congress has 30 days to approve it. As with the recent almost-possibly-still DC Voting Rights Act, this means that Congress will have a chance to play to their pet agendas and ensure that DC residents are not given a chance at self-governance. If tea-bagging hadn't been appropriated, I'd suggest we all take our tea out to the river.

In less political news, the ALGOSENSORS 09 deadline is midnight PST today. It'll be held in conjunction with ICALP in Rhodes, Greece.