Linkage

Cheating: The List Of Things I Never Want To Hear Again. This is an almost definitive list of plagiarism/cheating excuses. I both love and loathe the idea of making students sign a pledge, but there’s that saying about a horse and water… (h/t Daniel Hsu)

This note on data journalism comes with a longer report about how to integrate data journalism into curricula. It strikes me that many statistics and CS departments are missing the boat here on creating valuable pedagogical material for improving data analytics in journalism. (h/t Meredith Broussard)

Speaking of which, ProPublica has launched version 2.0 of it’s Data Store!

Of course, data isn’t everything: The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People’s Problems.

DARPA just launched a podcast series, Voices from DARPA, where DARPA PMs talk about what they’re doing and what they’re interested in. The first one is on molecular synthesis. It’s more for a popular audience than a technical one, but also seems like a smart public-facing move by DARPA.

My friend Steve Severinghaus won the The Metropolitan Society of Natural Historians Photo Contest!

My friend (acquaintance?) Yvonne Lai co-authored this nice article on teaching high school math teachers and the importance of “mathematical knowledge for teaching.”

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“The needs of the many,” privilege, and power

There’s a certain set of sentiments which undergird a lot of thinking in engineering, and especially engineering about data. You want a method which has good performance “on average” over the population. The other extreme is worst-case, but there are things you can only do in the average case. By focusing on average-case gain, you get a kind of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” way of thinking about the world.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one... or the few?

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one… or the few?

Now in the abstract land of mathematical models and algorithms, this might seem like a reasonable principle — if you have to cram everything into a single population utility function you might as well then optimize that. However, this gets messier when you start implementing it in the real world (unless of course you’re an economist of a certain stripe). The needs of the many are often the needs of the more powerful or dominant groups in society. The needs of the few are perhaps those who have been historically marginalized or victimized. Extolling the benefits to the many is often taking a stand for the powerful against the weak. It’s at best deeply insensitive.

Two instances of this have appeared on the blogosphere recently. Scott Aaronson blogged recently about MIT’s decision to take down Walter Lewin’s online videos after Lewin was found to have sexually harassed students in connection with the course. Scott believes that depriving students of Lewin’s materials is a terrible outcome, even (possibly) if he were a murderer. Ignoring the real hurt and trauma felt by those who are affected by Lewin’s actions is an exercise in privilege — because he is not hurt by it, he values the “the good of the many” trumping the “good of the few.”

The whole downplaying of sexual harassment as being somehow “not serious” enough to warrant a serious response (or that the response “makes the most dramatic possible statement about a broader social issue”) in fact trivializes the whole experience of sexual violence. Indeed, by this line of argument, because the content created by Lewin is so valuable, it may be ok to keep online even “had [he] gone on a murder spree.” The subtext of this is “as opposed to merely harassed some women.” I recommend reading Priya Phadnis on this case — she comes to a very different conclusion, namely that special pedestal that we put Walter Lewin on is itself the problem. Being able to downplay the female victims’ claims is exercising the sort of privilege that members of the male professoriat (myself included) indulge in overtly, covertly, and inadvertently. If STEM has a gender problem, it’s in a large part because we do not pay attention to the ways in which our words and actions reinforce existing tropes.

The second post was by Lance Fornow on dying languages in response to an op-ed by John McWhorter on why we should care about language diversity. Lance thinks that speaking a common language is a good thing:

I understand the desire of linguists and social scientists to want to keep these languages active, but to do so may make it harder for them to take advantage of our networked society. Linguists should study languages but they shouldn’t interfere with the natural progression. Every time a language dies, the world gets more connected and that’s not a bad thing.

I guess those poor bleeding-heart social scientists don’t understand that those languages are dying for a good reason. The good of the many — everyone speaking English, the dominant language — outweighs the good of the few. This attitude again speaks from a place of privilege and power, and it reinforces a kind cultural superiority (although I am sure Lance doesn’t think of it that way). Indeed, in many parts of the world, there is and continues to be “a strong reason to learn multiple languages.” By casually (and incorrectly) dismissing the importance of linguistic diversity, such a statement reinforces a chauvinist view of the relationship between language and technology.

We start with desirable outcomes: free quality educational materials that lower the barrier to access or speaking a common language to help facilitate communication and cooperation. By choosing to focus on those outcomes and their benefits to the many, we value their well-being and delegitimize the harm done to others. If we furthermore are speaking from a position of power, our privilege reinforces stigmas, casting a value judgement on the rights, experiences, and beliefs of the few. It’s something to be careful about.

Linkage

A taste test for fish sauces.

My friend Ranjit is working on this Crash Course in Psychology. Since I’ve never taken psychology, I am learning a lot!

Apparently the solution for lax editorial standards is to scrub away the evidence. (via Kevin Chen).

Some thoughts on high performance computing vs. Map Reduce. I think about this a fair bit, since some of my colleagues work on HPC, which feels like a different beast than a lot of the problems I’ve been thinking about.

A nice behind-the-scenes on Co-Op Sauce, a staple at Chicagoland farmers’ markets.

Linkage

Being hungry sounds dangerous for your brain.

Celphalopod color and texture camouflage. Amazing. [via]

Clarence Darrow on eugenics. [via]

My friend Erik is starting a brewery and has been doing a series called Pint/Counterpint about the process of running a local brewery. Someday I will make it down to North Carolina…

More depressing news about our obsessive need for tests.

Readings

Felix Gilman, The Half-Made World – A rather stunning and harrowing fantasy/western (don’t think Jonah Hex). I didn’t like it quite as much as Cosma did, but I couldn’t put it down, so that is something.

Jane Margolis, Stuck in the Shallow End : Education, Race, and Computing – really insightful look at the race-based gap in access and enrollment in computer science classes in 3 very different LA high schools. Margolis and her discuss how the actions of teachers, counselors, and administrators create barriers and disincentives that lower black and Latino enrollment in computer sciences when they are available, and that gut computer science classes for everyone in favor of computer skills classes.

John Crowley, Love & Sleep – second book in the Aegypt cycle. I found it more self-indulgent and flatter than the first one, but maybe it’s because the characters are not new to me. The writing is, as always, beautiful, but I was less excited than I was by The Solitudes.

Ian Hacking, The Emergence of Probability – a slim book about early ideas about probability and ending at Bernoulli and Hume’s problem of induction. Hacking traces how “probable” went from meaning “approved of by experts” (as in “probable cause”) to a more aleatoric interpretation, and at the same time how problems such as computing annuities brought forth new foundational questions for philosophers and mathematicians. A key figure in this development was Leibnitz, who worked on developing inductive theories of logic. The last few pages sum it up well — the early development was spurred by changes in how people thought of opinion and on what it should be based. “Probability-and-induction” required a different change in perspective; causation had to be thought of as a problem of opinion rather than of knowledge. I found the book fascinating and pretty easy to read; nice short chapters highlighting one point after the other. Hat tip to Marisa Brandt for the recommendation.

Everyone hates NCLB

Via Kevin Drum, I read this Economist poll about the popularity of No Child Left Behind. A rather overwhelming plurality of those surveyed said that it has hurt our schools. I don’t think I’ve met a single person who likes the law, although I chalked that up to the general political leanings of my friends. Perhaps repealing it would be something that can get “bipartisan support.”

On another note, the Wikipedia article says that people pronounce NCLB as “nicklebee.” Really? I have never heard that before. (Brandy, I’m looking at you).