While I was away …

OK, okay, I know it’s been too long, but I was busy (I know, just like everyone else) — I wanted to only post commentary here when I had something to say of merit; I neglected to include the needed space and time to compose my thoughts and generate a decent post.  So, I want to go on the record on a few points from the past year (or more), so that in the future, I can either state, “Hey, I told you so,” or figure out how to remove this post (kidding).

  • Donald Trump is providing a service to the American political system and perhaps to the world — in computing we call it “extreme test cases” that often bring to the surface omissions or errors in the system .  I am not sure, but I suspect it is just inherent to the idea of “majority rules,” that it is a practical substitution of the popular that is easy to get for the optimal, which is harder to achieve.  Fortunately, the system is dynamic, so there is a chance it will react in time to avoid whatever lies ahead, or else adjust to it.
  • The whole Bill Cosby issue that (finally) surfaced show more system problems.  Not sure how to repair that one.  I suspect it will take a multipronged approach that may include empowering/encouraging/supporting women to ask for help (i.e., whatever they need), identifying such abuses earlier yet still balancing the old “innocent until proven guilty” maxim, and others I do not yet see.
  • I just saw the 30 for 30 episode about the Duke lacrosse team and the Durham, NC DA Nifong, and I must saw that false accusations scare me.  I am a big believer in fairness, so I want the bad people to stop and be punished appropriately, but I want the innocent to avoid false accusations.  It seems society swings, initially ignoring reasonable reports, then overreacting, then swinging back ….
  • I would like to be happy, or better yet, happier — my country, the USA, now ranks 13th, and Denmark is first, a country I did get to visit a dozen years ago and I can see why, even though my visit was brief.  Perhaps is correlates to its relatively low inequality, another hot button issue for me.

All for now, thanks for reading, and I will try to make more timely posts, and reflect even more before posting.  I appreciate your reflecting first before posting or commenting, but please feel invited to comment.

Note to my future kids: Bike Helmets, and why I/we made you wear them

First, the hiatus from blogging — I began posting while on sabbatical leave, time is a precious resource, and there are growing drains on it — yes, just like everyone else.

I have heard the expression, “You cannot be a parent and a friend.” I do not agree with it, but do believe that the friendship I am cultivating with my children is different than my other friendships (see here).  The difference that seems to surface all the time is maturity, decision-making, “seeing the long term.”

They will all soon have bicycles as all are teenagers.  I want them to develop independence and confidence, I want them to be able to make some choices about where to go next, especially now that it is summer.  I also want my wife/their mom to decrease her time in the “shuttle van” (more on that another time).

I need the kids to wear bike helmets. Always.  The rewards are not worth the risk. Some evidence/links here:

And I did try to find opposing views:

  • Why it makes sense to bike without a helmet, by Howie Chong
    • a thoughtful piece where the author seems to think the side effects (e.g., cars go closer to riders with helmets, riders feel safer, may ride risker; helmets dissuade riders) do shift the trade-offs in the other direction — I just still believe the severity of the risk overwhelms these effects
  • TEDxCopenhagen – Mikael Colville-Andersen – Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet
    • I was surprised, the talk seemed to be more about the perception of bicycling as unsafe, and that helmets fed into this perception.  There may be some merit to the idea that the thought of wearing a helmet is interpreted as bikes are not completely safe, but I think most people get that already, the helmet just puts this observation “in your face.”  Cars are not completely safe either, but they are safer with seat belts and airbags, and other technologies are under development to improve safety, helping those cars to differentiate from others that are less safe — I am OK with my kids differentiating themselves from other riders as “safer.”
  • Brain surgeon: There’s no point wearing bicycle helmets,  Chris Matyszczyk, CNET, June 2014 — A few basic points made here:
    • helmets induce car drivers to drive closer to the cyclist
    • helmets by law reduces bikes purchased, a goal of the auto industry
    • helmets give riders a false sense of safety, encouraging riskier behavior — this one is interesting, and reminiscent of a similar observation about improved football helmets correlating to more head injuries
      My thoughts:
      I cannot control the drivers, and do not care about the auto industry goals, and I think I can mitigate the possible false sense of safety for my kids (plus, road rash and other injuries are plenty of incentive to ride as safely as possible) — and it’s still worth the trade-off
  • Sarah Wilson: quotes some medical people, esp. anaesthetist Dr Paul Martin, who wears a helmet for sport cycling but otherwise does not.  I am motivated by the actions of those with insider/special knowledge (i.e., actions speak louder than words), so this one was more compelling than I expected.
    • I still hold that adding a helmet has little downside (some are silly IMHO), and while the chances of a severe accident are low, the intensity of such an accident is extreme.

What makes this more difficult is that all of the kids friends do not wear helmets, it appears, in our current neighborhood.  In my previous neighborhood (i.e., a college campus), virtually everyone with kids did (but the college students did not while riding on the campus).

So I think I need to make a clear rule for now, and allow more nuance as the children mature and make their own decisions.  I may need to edit this post over time, but for now I am trying to accept that I need to provide some guidance.

Universal Design by Degrees

It’s been a while, busy back in the classroom, experimenting with varying degrees of flipping the classroom, “think-pair-share“, POGIL — I feel confident that the new ways of getting people to learn, to construct knowledge, have the potential for success, but it is by degrees.  When an in-class activity works, you can almost hear the students learn as they “argue” about concepts, premises, assumptions and guesses.  And it is still difficult to not answer, to redirect student questions and clarifications requests back to other students, but they are adjusting to it as well.

Regarding research, I am very excited to be pivoting into a new world of accessibility (which I am slowly moving away from and into the term “universal design,” more on that later).   Five of the last six thesis projects where I serve as supervisor fall under the areas of accessibility and assistive computing tools, also to varying degrees of success.  And I am working with a group on developing a mobile app for the parent on the go, especially those who have children with with special (translation: vast) needs.

I wanted to share a video I saw where a cable company is offering accessible services (full disclosure, it is my cable provider, but I have no choice; that’s another topic!).  In this project, they construct a movie as experienced by a lovely girl who is also blind (and thus open to her own interpretation).  It is publicity, I realize, and quite effective.  But I am hoping that providing such accessible services becomes more than the norm, but rather a feature in the goal of universal design.  The difference (as I have recently learned) is the shift from accommodation (which is an attempt to “duct tape” existing services and tools for people with disabilities, special circumstances) to design for all from the start.  I did have this thought years ago, and like a good professor proposed and offered a course on “Software Development for Accessibility” where accommodation was considered from the start of the project.  I did find the term universal design, and at that time that term appeared to apply to the interface only.  I am now working to get people to think inclusively, about the largest domain of users — just like we try to get programmers to think about the largest domain of input (i.e., weakest precondition).

But universal design is hard, as the size and diversity in the universe is vast, so we proceed to increase UD one step, one idea, one innovation, one mistake at a time ….

#Gamergate as a response to re-engineering: BPC as a conspiracy to change computing

Thanks, Mark, for the fine summary. Violence, even the threat of, is never the answer, and change is difficult, especially where culture and belief are involved. But I agree the goal of BPC is worth the investment.

Computing Education Blog

If you don’t know what #Gamergate is, count yourself fortunate.  It gets discussed a lot in the circles I hang out in, especially in computational media. I’ve learned words like doxxing and how it can lead to people leaving their home because of death threats, and how conceal-and-carry laws in Utah can cause a feminism theorist to cancel a talk because of threats of a “massacre.”

The article below (and the comments in response) gave me new insight into the supporters of Gamergate.  The violent and immature behavior makes it hard to see what (I think) is a kind of free speech argument. Gamergate supporters want their culture just the way it is, thank you very much. Even if that culture lacks positive female role models and may overflow with misogyny, it’s their culture.  They see feminists, academics, and journalists as a “conspiracy” to engineer social change (see the quote below). Even the original…

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Barbie, Remixed: I (really!) can be a computer engineer.

There has been some controversy about a recent book, by Mattel?, involving computer engineer Barbie — here’s a remixed version with more positive messages, enjoy and Thanks — jd

Casey Fiesler

I am a PhD student in a computing department, so I guess it’s not surprising that my social media feeds have been full of outrage over Barbie’s “computer engineering” skills. The blog post that originally went viral appears to be sporadically down due to heavy traffic, but The Daily Dot also has a good summary of the problematic book titled Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. The problematic part is that, as far as I can tell, the steps for becoming a computer engineer if you’re Barbie are:

  1. Design a videogame.
  2. Get a boy to code it for you.
  3. Accidentally infect your computer with a virus.
  4. Get a boy to fix it for you.
  5. Take all the credit for these things yourself.

And the problem isn’t even that Barbie isn’t a “real” computer scientist because she isn’t coding. (I am one of those mostly-non-coding computer scientists myself, though now…

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“Ms. Information”

If you do not understand or appreciate the scientific method, I suggest starting with Cosmos, an accessible overview of some cool ideas about our universe based on science (and some great graphics and visualizations).  I think I get it, having a background in computer science, which also lets me play in math, modeling, statistics, and engineering, each to some degree.

But my main interest these days is education, and most recently I have appreciated (and tried to leverage positively) the power of emotion in learning, and even in memory.  It makes sense — most of the deep ideas or clearest old memories I have were associated with an experience that triggered an emotion.  With new ideas, it is often the feeling of shock/awe when an assumption is shown false that corresponds (and thus new learning occurs).  I am sure my brother clearly remembers well the night he knocked all of my dad’s teeth out — they were false, no harm save my brother’s emotional state at that time.

This observation also warns us to be careful of emotions, as they can impact judgement.  And here’s the recent example, Ms. Jenny McCarthy and her mission regarding vaccines and autism.  For all her good intentions (and the road to hell is paved with a few I have heard), the results have been disastrous.  Most disturbingly, this situation propagates because of the damage done to the beliefs of so many who go with their gut and trust a spokesperson with no clinical background over an enormous amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, including the retraction of the original linking study.  Sadly, many people will suffer (e.g., measles outbreaks) even if they did vaccinate.

Richard Feynman, one of my heroes, proposed the citizen scientist, that people should have enough background to use critical thinking to evaluate evidence, and to sift through the firehose of information now available and separate wheat from chaff.

But there exists another negative consequence to “Ms. Information”‘s actions over the years — the amount of effort from qualified scientists and advocates to convince people to let go of their previous belief. That energy might be better used to understand real issues and push our knowledge frontier forward.

Yes, this is all similar to climate change denying, but that will not emerge for some time, so we’re cool — right?

I hope Ms. McCarthy retains this new learning.  Perhaps she might consider getting out of the way, or pointing to actual experts.

Confusing, conflating, …

I have introduced the term “conflate” to my family recently with my understanding that it means combining two separate ideas and mistaking the result with one of the originals (perhaps both).  A quick look up finds that the usage of conflate is either “combine and make a new thing,” or “confuse.”  Sounds like I was (recursively) conflating the definition of conflate with confuse.

But I feel confident about the idea of mistaking one thing for another similar, perhaps related thing, with adverse consequences.  Here is the most recent one that caught my attention, and it involves the Boy Scouts of America.  It appears that a very capable scoutmaster has been relieved from his duties.  Not by the church where these activities are conducted, they know him personally and stand by his performance.  No, it is the BSA itself because they have a policy/compromise of permitting scouts who are gay, but of not supporting scoutmasters/adults who are gay.  Seems a classic “conflating” of gay and inappropriate behavior towards children, often captured by the term “pedophile.”  Gay and pedophile, or the behavior attributed to the term “pedophile,” are often conflated.

I am looking for the right analogy … it is like saying “red is a separate idea from car.”  Red is a color, car is a mode of transportation. This separateness holds even though there exist red cars.  Red and car are both examples of separate ways of thinking about the world.

And that is the case with gay and “pedophile,” each is an example of separate ways of thinking about the world.

I thought the confusion comes from the observation that, just like there are red cars, there are pedophiles who are also gay.  However, it is not that simple. Gay is a sexual orientation.  In the DSM V, pedophila is defined as a sexual orientation as well.  Seriously — so are gay and pedophile two examples of the same idea?  Maybe, or at least according to my reading of the most recent DSM.  

At the same time, the DSM V distinguishes pedophilia from pedophilic disorder, which is “a compulsion and is used in reference to individuals who act on their sexuality.”  Oh, there it is — people are confusing gay (a sexual orientation) with pedophila (a different sexual orientation), and then extending the “confusion chain” to include pediphilic disorder, an action with the same word from the one before in the title, but can be applied to the action if performed by people of any sexual orientation. This is very problematic, it seems that even though the DSM V is cited by Wikipedia, pedophilic disorder is simply a term equivalent to pedophilia.

Wow, a little research, and some learning for me.  I have not confirmed this conclusion with any expert, but it does make the case that the BSA is conflating being something with acting someway.  My kids have many people in their lives, and I know a few identify as gay; their actions are kind and supportive to kids.  I do not care about their sexual orientation save  the extreme of pedophilia even though it is also not a choice, but sounds more like an affliction in need of support and treatment (as well as a sexual orientation).

What the BSA should eliminate from their ranks are people with pedophillic disorder, as well as pedophiles to be safe.  Yes, this is a tough distinction to make, but really important for the kids and for the adults involved.

In the meantime, good role models are losing opportunities, and kids are losing chances to interact with these good people; in fact, by definition it decreases the diversity of the experiences for the kids.

Women and (my) religion

I suppose we should start with full disclosure — I identify as Roman Catholic, 16 years of Catholic schools, and all my kids have followed the rituals for a Catholic upbringing.

These parts of my identity do not imply that I agree with everything that is deemed true or an accepted belief in Church teachings and materials.  I am more interested in the positives I see in the Church.  For example, I like that the Church promotes such ideals as humility, service and love. But mostly, it is the result of where and to whom I was born, how I was raised and who I met along the way.  I think most of my friends are Christian, but not all, and some are “areligious,” which has many arguments that make sense.

OK, here we go — but many of the accepted practices and rules of the Roman Catholic Church just do not make sense to me.  I do not wish to provoke, but to document my ideas, and hopefully start or join a discussion about these ideas as the impact can be great.

In future posts we can explore some of these issues, but I need to start with women and the Church.  Of all the issues, this one is most frustrating to me because it is so obvious a problem, and should be so easy to address.  I cannot believe I have to state that “women are people too.”

The main reason I still hear for this injustice is that Jesus choose all men as his apostles.  Really? He also did not use air planes or microphones like the current leaders of the Church, all men.  Plain and simple, this is misogyny, and I disagree vigorously.

I advocate for diversity in my work, so it makes me sad that I also need to do so here.  I also would expect that women in the clergy would fix other issues, such as the horrible impacts of pedophilia.  I am not even considering the practical reasons for equality, such as the insanity of eliminating over half the population for consideration at a time when the clergy is shrinking in numbers.

I hope this situation changes, but I suspect not in my life time.  The current Pope has embraced many refreshing approaches, but not this one.  I have heard the “separate but equal” approach used in other contexts like civil rights for blacks, civil unions for gays — but it is not equal to the disenfranchised.

Thanks for letting me vent, now back to removing the big splinter from my own eye.

The argument for a free society …

There are many people on the planet trying hard to improve things; the question is often, for whom?

Recently, a very wealthy, and thus, very loud voice arose “to fight to restore a free society.”  I really worked hard to relax, open my mind and read through the prose.  I was actually impressed at the writing; concise, pointed, very motivating.  In a nutshell, my takeaway was that “the fundamental concepts of dignity, respect, equality before the law and personal freedom” — the principles of a free society — enable people to succeed, to improve their lot in life.  The author cites well respected people (e.g., Thomas Jefferson), and that his company provides employment for so many Americans (directly and indirectly).  As far as I can tell, this is all true.

Well, taken on its own, and IMHO, this is well-intentioned argument for more laissez-faire approaches, minimizing government intervention (interruption?) to encourage people to make their own lives as good as they can be.  But I went to college and studied such things as the Tragedy of the Commons to see that there is a need for some centralized/common authority to maintain shared resources (think an operating system in a computer, managing resources shared among programs and users).  And yes, laissez-faire implies some property protection, but I suspect this would still be too much.

Furthermore, we often do not see the impacts of our good intentions.  The author’s company involves energy, and very important and very profitable industry.  However, there are consequences to the environment that are often minimized, even in the face of overwhelming information.  Sure, the author cites the many awards that his company has earned, and I do sincerely hope these awards continue and that his company improves.  But not all companies do, and many ignore or actively argue against the existing science of climate change at the peril of the entire population.  I do not have the time or resources to find all the evidence, perhaps the author can take some of the money used for lobbying and political action for appropriate due diligence.

So, I also hope for all people to succeed, and get a fair chance.  I am just not persuaded by this particular argument that government is always the cause, and free enterprise is the answer (e.g., don’t get me started on the big bailouts!).  Actually, I just saw an interesting piece about a minimum income supported by both left and right — go figure!

Getting the news …

I find that I spend my time overwhelmed with information, and have been looking to filter signal from noise — you?

The high road includes things like PBS NewsHour, NPR, BBC World, Al Jazerra America, NYTimes, Washington Post, LA Times (I’ll miss a few I’m sure), and  avoiding/minimizing CNN, MSNBC, Fox, broadcast news, even local news (OK, I admit I watch Fox sometimes just to get the jokes on the Colbert Report).  I try to stay on the high road as much as I can, since it appears from one study at Fairleigh Dickinson University that the source matters to some degree.

For more in depth, I like Frontline, and more recently Vice.  I was suspect of the latter, expecting sensationalized stories of the obscure given it is on HBO, but the first two episodes from this year had surprisingly good coverage of important stories that are off the radar.

However, I think we really need some place for prioritizing, what’s the most important thing to watch — yes, yes, I realize this is relative to who, where and when, but perhaps we can include some type of guidance.  And, yes, this is often implied in the source of the news, or the comments, but I know I would appreciate (and support) honest assessment from the source itself.  Problem is, where’s the revenue?

Also, in the short term I admit I use TDS, Colbert and even Real Time to help with analysis and prioritizing — sad but true.