Monday, December 9, 2013

[#CSEdWeek] My favorite software

Happy Computer Science Education Week. I did my part! I debugged a memory leak with a pre-literate child sitting next to me, wanting to punch the meta-key in emacs. I can't remember if he realized we needed an extra * or I did, but all I can say is that if pointers are so simple a five year old can explain 'em, no grumbling allowed, undergrads.

Anyhow, to kick off CS Ed Week, I'd like to talk about some of my favorite programs. These are small utilities most of you have probably never heard of, but they fill me with great joy.

1. DTerm (OS X)

This, is, hands down, the piece of software I have been waiting for my whole life. It's basically a "command line anywhere" sort of program. See, for some bizarre reason, OS X doesn't allow you to, say, create a text file in the Finder here , like Windows or even some versions of Linux does. I have no idea why, but this was a gross oversight.

DTerm saves me tons of effort. Old way: Launch terminal window, cd tab-tab-tab-tab-tab (or drag from finder), touch foo.txt. New way: Dtermshortcut: touch foo.txt. Done!

2. Quicksilver (OS X)

Along those lines, Quicksilver is also super useful and has accelerated my workflow. Instead of trying to find things (which I'm terrible at), I just type command-period, type the first two letters of the application name, email address, text file, whatever, and boom - there it is. I am so used to this now I have to install it on new machines, or else I can't use them. (Sad but true).

3. F.lux (OS X, Android, iOS, Windows, Linux)

This program is very clever - it dims your monitor/screen to help simulate getting ready for sleep. For someone who ends up foolishly doing work at 11pm or 5am, and who travels through way too many time zones than is healthy, it's nice to give the 'ol hypothalamus a break.

4. Instapaper (All OSes, web-based)

This is the best piece of software ever written. It lets you save a webpage, from anywhere, for all time. (Removing all ads and annoying stuff). It's shareware, but if you give the developer $3, you can also search through your clippings. It's beautiful, well designed, and wonderful for reading lots of news/journal articles on long airplane rides.

I think that's it for now. I've been trying to be like Beki and stop using my inbox as a TODO list, but I'm still experimenting with applications for that. It's my New Year's Resolution. I'll leave you with a CSEdVideo from Obama (h/t CCC blog). Enjoy!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Little Data, Big Problem

As a computer scientist, I think about data a lot.

And as someone who is a fairly private person, I'm particularly interested in personal data. Not only my own, but everyone's. I gape at fellow customers at the store who give their phone number and zip code to the cashier without a thought. I am appalled at friends who post private information publicly - photos, geolocation data, their polical affiliation, their religion, their "likes". Everything from restaurant checkins to where they delivered their baby.

I am shocked that people purchase devices that track their physiological data 24/7, data which is automatically uploaded and shared publicly. I am stunned that people voluntarily give samples of their DNA to 23andme.

The shocking thing is when I mention something about this to someone, I receive one of three responses:
1) "I don't care, I have nothing to hide".
2) "Bah. I'm honestly not that interesting."
3) "Well, I know X is evil, but it's just so darn convenient. And anyway, all my friends use X. I can't stop using it now."

Never does someone say, "Wow, FCS, you're right - this data deluge is terrifying! And that anyone with cash can buy all our data willy nilly! Yikes! We should lobby the government to regulate the personal information brokering industry."

Never. Yet one word of the NSA spying snafu and POOF - people freaking out. But I think they're freaking out about the wrong thing.

My security friends talk about threat models. "What's the threat model?". I don't think it's the government. The government is far too monolithic, tech-unsavvy, and sequestered to pull off what we see in the Borne movies. And there's no Machine, sitting in a warehouse in Iowa continually monitoring, processing, and understanding the content of every phone call and surveillance camera feed. That's NP hard.

The threat model is - we have no clue. Right now, any person with the means can purchase a large lot of your private data. If you use a credit card, cell phone, or ATM, ever, you're toast.

When people say, "I don't care, I have nothing to hide." I want to whack them with a #firstworldproblems foam bat. It's not the #FWP people I'm worried about. It's the most vulnerable of our society: those who are abused, those who are stalked. Those who are bullied. Those who simply are not technologically savvy enough to realize they have not only hung their dirty laundry out on their closeline, but their entire existence.

I know what Scott McNealy said. But it still pains me. I think about data a lot.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Pop Quiz: How we discuss woman in STEM

As scientists, engineers, and thinkers, I know several of you are interested in the phenomenon of the subtle ways in which women in STEM are diminished by sexist language and behavior. Sticks and stones, perhaps, but even this stuff is critical to addressing if we truly want to make progress and enable a cultural shift. (See also, death by a thousand paper cuts).

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize progress relies almost entirely on the shoulders of mass media. Yesterday NPR had a story about Hollywood Health and Society, which consults with writers about how to write correct and useful story lines on healthcare and climate change*. Turns out the majority of Americans learn about science and healthcare from fictional TV- surprise!

So, writers, you have an important job to do. You need to portray scientists as they actually are. No putdowns, no pedestals, and definitely no tropes.


Ok, ready for the pop quiz?

Part 1: Read these quotes, and list all the tropes. 

1) "For Janet Yellen, Obama’s Federal Reserve nominee, quiet patience paid off"

2) "Though he says she hasn't been a superstar economist like her husband, George Akerlof, who shared the 2001 Nobel prize, and her achievements have been overshadowed by Bernanke and former Fed chair Alan Greenspan, she is a great role model for women, because throughout she has proved her intelligence, technical expertise, creativity, and her ability to cooperate with others and work hard."

Part 2: Consider the following two Wikipedia summaries**. What's different? (Hint: check the things in red). 

Pencils down!

*We need this for Computer Science. Nearly every computer whiz portrayed in television is a socially inept caucasian man and/or psychopathic underachiever woman. And speaking of which, while I'm happy Elementary attempted to discuss P ?= NP last week, though there were some problems as Lance points out. More importantly, why was the woman a professor at some podunk university I'd never heard of, and the man was a professor at Columbia? And all she did is teach. And, PS, sexy librarian trope.

**This is my next project. It is positively absurd how women are described on wikipedia in comparison to men. Not just scientists - musicians, actors, artists, writers, athletes - pretty much every profession. Women quietly cooperate and have babies! Men invent things and lead.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How do you lecture?

Computer Science Educators et al., I am curious how you lecture*:

Hacking on the fly?
Tap Dancing?

What seems to work best for you and your students?

And if you're willing to share, I'd be interested to learn the student makeup (e.g. freshman, grad students, professionals) and general topic of your course.

*By lecture, I am referring to the times in class when you employ direct instruction. I realize this is rarely The Best Way to Teach, but I think it can still serve a useful role. (...She says, right before she is replaced by a MOOC).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A boy called Sue

Kim O'Grady writes, "I understood gender discrimination once I added “Mr.” to my resume and landed a job".

The tl;dr version is: Kim was an experienced engineering/business person who was applying for jobs. Sent out dozens of resumes to top places, did not get a single interview. Sent out his resume to a bunch of lower tier places, still no interview. Finally, he realizes they are taking "Kim" to mean he is a woman. So he adds the prefix "Mr." to his resume, sends it out again, and immediately lands interviews.
My first name is Kim. Technically, it’s gender neutral, but my experience showed that most people’s default setting in the absence of any other clues is to assume Kim is a woman’s name. And nothing else on my CV identified me as male. At first I thought I was being a little paranoid, but engineering, sales and management were all male-dominated industries. So I pictured all the managers I had over the years and, forming an amalgam of them in my mind, I read through the document as I imagined they would have. It was like being hit on the head with a big sheet of unbreakable glass ceiling.
This is so sad. It reminds me of neurobiologist Ben Barres' experience, where after giving a seminar as a Ben after his transition from Barbara someone in the audience remarked, "Ben Barres's work is much better than his sister's."

The one I hear a lot in my field is, "X is a superstar" or "X is gifted", and always "X" is a man. I've never heard a woman referred to as a superstar or being gifted in her field. I've also never heard of a young woman referred to as a child prodigy.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Be your own princess charming

I recently came across this lovely series of photographs from photographer Jaime Moore in Austin. She wanted to take photos of her 5-year-old daughter, Emma, on her birthday. While looking for inspiration on the net, all she could find was how to dress one's daughter like a Disney Princess. So she took matters into her own hands -
It started me thinking about all the REAL women for my daughter to know about and look up too, REAL women who without ever meeting Emma have changed her life for the better. My daughter wasn’t born into royalty, but she was born into a country where she can now vote, become a doctor, a pilot, an astronaut, or even President if she wants and that’s what REALLY matters. I wanted her to know the value of these amazing women who had gone against everything so she can now have everything. We chose 5 women (five amazing and strong women), as it was her 5th birthday but there are thousands of unbelievable women (and girls) who have beat the odds and fought (and still fight) for their equal rights all over the world…… let’s set aside the Barbie Dolls and the Disney Princesses for just a moment, and let’s show our girls the REAL women they can be.
Here are a few of these remarkable photos:

The rest of the photos are here:

I would love to see the marketing industry, toy industry, and Hollywood follow Jaime Moore's lead. K-12 STEM outreach is great and all, but if we want to make a significant impact we need to get ImagesOfGreatness (beyond beauty) into the minds of young women on a daily basis.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Terrifying, Escalating Sexism

A lot of people in the tech community have been abuzz about the recent story of Adria Richards, and I'd like to comment on it as a woman in technology, and as an observer of some pretty scary, sickening behavior.

Adria is a developer evangelist and a woman of color who attended PyCon, a large conference for Pyton developers. Up until today, she was employed by a company called SendGrid.

Here is a timeline of what has transpired as I understand it:

1. Last Sunday, Adria was at a keynote talk at PyCon. Two men behind her who work at PlayHaven, Alex Reid and "Mr. Hank", made inappropriate jokes about forking and dongles. It is worth noting that both Alex and Hank were clearly wearing company T-Shirts, and were attending this event as Gold Level company sponsor representatives.

2. Adria tweeted about how their joke was unprofessional and posted their photograph. She blogged about the incident, and how it was not inline with PyCon's rule of proper conduct for the conference. She also contacted the PyCon organizers. [1]

3. The chair of PyCon, Jesse Noller, addressed the parties privately, and amicably resolved the issue in order to continue a peaceful conference. [2]

4. Hank is fired from PlayHaven. He posted an oddly worded apology in Hacker News, mentioning they didn't mean anything at all sexual about their jokes, how it was just her interpretation, and, by the way, getting fired "sucks" because he is a father of three. [3]

5. Adria posts a kind note to Hank on the thread, apologizing for him losing his job, and encouraging his company to reconsider their actions. [4]. Several people attack her for this apology, actually, though Hank comments that he thought the gesture was kind. [5].

6. A petition is started online to save Hank's job, entitled, "Give the mistreated employee their job back". [6]. I've grouped the comments into common sexist tropes to help make it easier to skim.
Supporting the family man: "Dude, the guy has three kids and really enjoyed his job and is getting fired over the sensitive feelings of an already biased towards men female? Right on guys."

Bashing the feminists: "So it has come to a point where feminists have to make every joke between some friends a personal attack. This woman wasn't even involved in their conversation. She didn't even understand their jokes and yet the guys have to suffer for it? It's not fair."

Lighten up it's just a joke: "You should fire every developer who has ever made a harmless joke about about "forking", "fscking", or "Big O". Because god forbid people have fun while they work."

"If they were honestly fired for making a dongle joke to themselves and some over reacting bitch felt the need to get so pissed off I don't think I want to live on this planet anymore." 
Godwin's Law (Comparisons to Nazism): "Shameful. Just shameful. I, and others in the very liberally-oriented music industry have done this same thing at conferences, meetings and corporate get-togethers for the last 35 years now. There is no harm associated with this kind or type of behaviour, other than offending the occasional feminist shill... When did we become Nazi Germany and begin to turn in our fellow citizens for crimes of "humour" or "sexism?" Give the damn guy his job back, willya - and stop being so politically correct..."

"People like Adria Richards are little more than fascists"

"Please don't support her oppression and viciousness." 
One woman is all women: "This is absolutely disgusting! Adria Richard's actions have made it difficult for women to be properly accepted in the tech industry!"
I'm going to pause here, because I think if we review the facts thus far we can agree that perhaps this situation could have gone differently. As many people in these comment threads have stated, would it not have been better for Adria to have simply addressed the commenters directly, rather than calling them out publicly on Twitter? Perhaps. But at this point the cat is out of the bag, and I think here we can see in (5) that Adria expressed sincerely that she wishes Hank had not been fired.

7. Sometime around Wednesday, Jesse Noller starts receiving threatening phone calls, which scare him and his wife. [7]. Apparently the harassers do not like the fact that he helped pioneer (and enforce) a Code of Conduct for PyCon, in order to make it more welcoming place to women and other groups underrepresented in computing. [8].

8. Adria receives death threats, rape threats, racial slurs, sexist slurs, and calls that she kill herself.  Here are several:
"Cunt of the Year" goes to early entry @adriarichards. [t1]

"I'm pretty sure that Adria Richards has set women in technology back 50 years. What a bitch." [t2]

"Did that desperate attention whore and "diversity hire" Adria Richards get the wrong guy fired?"[t3]
"@adriarichards Shut the fuck up stupid bitch and go to the kitchen" [t4] 
"@adriarichards you need to kill youself tranny what you did was wrong"[t5]

"@adriarichards you are a stupid uneducated filthy nigger who deserves to die" [t6]

"@adriarichards You are a pure cunt for what you did. I hope you get Cancer and die a slow and painful death. I will celebrate your death" [t7]

9. On Wednesday, Adria receives a photo of a, "beheaded woman, bound and stripped, with the caption 'when Im done.' Next to it was [her] home address and phone number."[9].

10. Several petitions demanding Adria be fired are posted, on and elsewhere. [10].

11. On Thursday, someone (Anonymous(?)) posts on pastebin that while they think these petitions are great, they doubt SendGrid will pay attention to them. So, instead, the threaten SendGrid: [11]
...You[r] client list has also been obtained by Anonymous. They have already begun harassing your customers. These include obnoxious phone calls, emails, denial of service attacks, online vandalism and defamation, and even real-life harassment...Anonymous has analyzed your business model, and based on your clientele and competitors, you are very vulnerable. They are very focused on this.

Your financial backers have also been targeted for the same harassment. Normally, when a venture capitalist puts money into your organization, a bond is forged through your idea or product gaining the confidence of your financial backer for future returns. This is a strong bond that is not easily broken through petty harassment. However, if any of your backers have something embarrassing or illegal to hide (sexual misconduct, tax fraud, etc), Anonymous WILL find it (they are good at doing this) and make it public.

Real life harassment is an escalation that comes into play based on how long this situation is allowed to play out. It is not affected by the effectiveness of the previous forms of harassment. Even if your customers and financial backers are dropping like flies (or the opposite, entirely unaffected), this will still happen if Anonymous still maintains an interest in this situation. Doxing is a term used to define the discovery and dissemination of all personal information, including but not limited to home address, phone numbers, credit card numbers, your medical records, what brand of toothpaste you buy, etc. If some of the more talented members of Anonymous take an interest into this, every employee of Sendgrid becomes a target, starting at the top. For your reference, this is already happening to Ms. Richards as per standard protocol.

...You do have a choice to make at this point: Do nothing, or Publicly announce that Ms. Richards will be fired. The opportunity to stop this growing mob in its tracks before it tries to tear Sendgrid apart is as simple as publicly announcing Ms. Richards' firing. Now, you also have the opportunity to be sneaky about it and just publicly announcing the firing but not actually do it. But if Anonymous ever finds out, they will bring the full fury on you and your company. To put it in perspective, not even secure government websites are safe. If you believe you can tough it out, by all means, do nothing.
12. Later on Thursday, SendGrid is victim to a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack. [12]. Adria's personal site was also attacked (though hers is protected by CloudFire). Kris Holt has a good break down of how these attacks were organized on 4chan. [13].

13. SendGrid announces on Twitter and Facebook that they have fired Adria Richards. Immediately their posts get a lot of "likes", and very vile comments against Adria are posted. [14].

And here we are.

Three things greatly trouble me about all of this:

1) Rape Culture. Death threats. Racial and Sexist name calling. None of this is ok, ever. I don't need to explain this further, do I?

2) 4chan-ers/Anon/whomever managed to easily cyberbully SendGrid into firing Adria. If I was a CEO of a small startup company with 130,000 customers and received a threat like that, I might acquiesce too. It's a credible threat. (Though, I probably would have first contacted the FBI before acting.).

3) Although he's not getting as much press, I'm also troubled by the fact that Jesse Noller is getting threats. Based on some comments I've read of his on github, it seems like his heart is in the right place with both the original Code of Conduct and its revisions.

In any case, there are a lot of factors at play in this story, and this is a complex situation, but I think it all warrants a larger discussion. I welcome your comments.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Junior Faculty Confidential

Recently I met someone who just started a faculty job fresh out of grad school, about 5 months ago. Sheepishly they said to me, "So, uh... how did you find your first year?"

Gleefully I replied, "It was terrible! But don't worry, it's terrible for everyone, then it gets really good."

The truth of the matter is this - until you have a solid group of trained PhD students, some grant money, and have taught a class more than once, the job feels incredibly stressful. All the constant demands on your time, and the constant rejection - grant rejections, paper rejections, low teaching evaluations, makes you wonder if you can possibly stand another day.

Honestly, in my first year, I wandered around muttering to myself the Peace Corps mantra, "The toughest job I'll ever love, the toughest job I'll ever love". At work I worked, and at home I watched an insane amount of mind-numbing television. I had family members ask me why I was doing this, and if it was worth all the work. Truthfully, I contemplated alternate careers. I remember saying once to my husband, "Wouldn't it be nice to be a barista? They don't need to worry about budgets, or teaching evaluations, or annual reviews. They just make coffee. I can totally do that! I practically earned a PhD in coffee during grad school!"

But then I received funding, and I was over the moon. My students blossomed into fine researchers, and began hitting home runs in their publications. I started teaching the same courses again, and my prep time became nothing.

I can't claim everything is easy, of course, but I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that anything is better than that first year, and it does indeed get better.