Monday, December 31, 2007

India 2007

December 2007 took us to India again. We hadn't expected to return quite so soon, but one of our closest friends was getting married in Bangalore. The wedding ended up postponed, but we grabbed the opportunity for some new adventures anyway. We spent much of the time in the south-western state of Kerala, prompted in part by an invitation to visit a grad school friend of mine (Venkatesh) who uses Shriram's textbooks. Venkatesh organized a 2-day symposium on computer science education at his university, the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Kerala, in Trivandrum. We joined 3 other CS professors in talking about initiatives for developing post-graduate technology education. We also traveled a bit through Kerala just as tourists.

Here we come a Kerala-ing

Kerala has a nontrivial Syrian Christian population, so Christmas has a genuine presence there. My image of Indian Christmas from last year's trip was of skinny gas station attendants in skinnier red santa suits. Kerala broadens the costuming, with a rich array of santa masks available from roadside shops. The first one I saw featured a rough, round ruddy-face with stubble beard, more of an irish fisherman look (the fisherman analogy makes sense for Kerala, but the irish escaped me). Another featured a long triangular beard more than twice the length of the red hat. A third was a simple paper affair that reminded me of old Burger King crowns. I only ever saw the third being worn (by small kids at a park), but suspect these get saved for parties. Our first night, we walked past a private home outside which a small group was singing loudly to energetic drumming; looked to me like caroling of a form, given the santa-costumed ringleader, three others wearing lamps on their heads, and the vague resemblance to the rhythms and tonal patterns of christmas tunes. Whenever sound stands out as noise in India, something unusual must be going on; they were having a jolly time at the least.

Lacking evergreens, Christmas decorations consist mostly of large paper stars strung up everywhere. Churches will hang dozens of them cascading down from rooftops to entry arches, each enclosing a lightbulb. The color schemes are flamboyantly indian: kaleidoscopes of pinks, oranges, purples and greens. One fancy hotel made a bouquet of small stars of silver and gold foil to suggest plant life; otherwise, trees just aren't part of the holiday iconography (despite Kerala being overrun by tropical trees). The endless arrays of stars and masks at stall after stall along the roads gave the holidays a cozy, personal feel in contrast to the mall-scale commercial assault that has become Christmas in the US. That commercial-scale feel re-emerged in Bangalore and Mumbai, where large stores and malls promoted the holiday spirit. The day we left, the local Bangalore paper reported that Christmas-period retail sales had surpassed those of Diwali for the first time. What better evidence of the rise of India's middle class than the firm rooting of a shopping season.


Our first stop in Kerala was Munnar, a tea-plantation town in the high mountains of Kerala. The plantations are spectacular: driving a couple hours from Cochin along the usual Indian dusty and cracked roads, the plantations suddenly cover the landscape in vivid green bushes. With the spaces between the bushes, the hills look like rough green stone walls cemented with black grouting. The visual textures, both within and between the dense bushes, are fantastic. The air is also fairly clean, making the Munnar plantations a lovely place to walk for an afternoon. Wandering the plantation paths, I was reminded of another December in which we visited the Swiss mountain town of Murren. There, we also walked mountain paths, stared at mountains and breathed deeply (albeit in snow). Initially, I made the connection through the similarity of letters and vowel patterns between "Murren" and "Munnar", but the place still kept saying "Switzerland" to me for some reason. Then Shriram figured it out: our hotel in Munnar had the same interior design as a small hotel we really like in Zurich (the Adler): winding staircase with murals on the landings, a small bench suggesting a garden on the ground floor landing, detail railings, similar carved ceilings, even the same yellow paint around the elevator. No fondue restaurant, but enough to cause mild disorientation everytime we used the main staircase. Anyone have another 6-letter mountain town starting with "M" to recommend?

Monsoon Showers

Much of Kerala is inhabited tropical rainforest. My first real rainforest experience had been last year in Australia, where people and the rainforest more or less keep their respective places. In true indian style, rainforest life looks confrontational: people installed housing and spice farms in hacked-out clearings and the rainforest looks ready to swallow the result: palms tower over small concrete structures, bending over the clearings with anticipation of a sci-fi movie monster who has just spotted lunch. Rain is a key economic player here, typified by the annual monsoon which make the region so fertile (I heartily recommend Frater's "Chasing the Monsoon" for an overview). Everyone and everything is just used to getting very, very wet at times.

Which I presume explains some of the showering facilities we encountered at our hotels. An upper-average arrangement features an overhead showerhead in a corner of the bathroom near a floor drain: no curtain or separator between the bathing floor area and the rest of the bathroom floor. One quickly learns how shower curtains free us from thinking about water dispersal. One homestay (aka bed-and-breakfast) had a more challenging arrangement: a showerhead mounted on the wall directly between the toilet and the bathroom door and no floor drain (just a small drain hole at the side wall base behind the toilet). Using the showerhead coated the entire bathroom with water, with no obvious way (such as a squeegie) to clear it up for subsequent toilet use. One day, I tried just bathing over the small sink to contain the mess, only to find Shriram happy to reproduce the rain effect when I was done. I have to wonder whether living with the monsoon changes one's attitude towards standing water everywhere; perhaps such bathrooms are a form of daily monsoon-prayer ritual. Being used to fully enclosed shower spaces in the west, I used to think that the 3/4 stalls common in European hotels posed water-containment challenges. When we finally got to a hotel with such a shower arrangement, I rejoiced in the reduced-stress bathing experience.

Plane dosa

This trip featured four flights on domestic airlines. On the advice of friends, we tried both Jet Airways and Kingfisher; I now understand the disdain that travelers on good Asian airlines have for US airline services. Bottled drinks served to all before takeoff, menu cards and towelettes distributed before takeoff, the daily newspaper tucked into each seatpocket, and a personal entertainment system (on demand music and movies), even on short flights. And then there's the food: good south indian sambar, idly, uppma, and fresh fruit as a standard meal option (rather than a hard-to-get special meal). No bread-and-slice-of-cheese/meat-snack-if-lucky experience here. One early evening flight was delayed almost two hours, and when we asked where we might find dinner (having planned to eat on the plane), we were directed to the airport restaurant where buffet would be served free of charge to passengers on our delayed flight (and we still got the planned dinner on the delayed flight). And this was regular economy class. To be fair, Continental fed us very well on both of our Mumbai-Newark flights (we were in business class after all--thank you frequent-flier miles!), with a mix of Indian and American options (entrees all Indian for the vegetarians, of course). Even in business class though, bits of the american food came tired and prepackaged: the huge ken's salad dressing, the dead and skinny bagel (which we ate assuming that to be our full breakfast, rather than the pre-omelette round). The multicuisine statements from air travel couldn't have been clearer: americans take less pride in food. I still haven't figured out how Contintental's indian food flying out of India was poorer quality than what we got flying out of the states (which was pretty good) though. And both ways, it was the heavier north indian cuisine, rather than the light south indian fare we got on the domestic flights. Pride in food is something to take away from India. Taking the food would have been even better, but one can't get much sambar through security in 3oz bottles.

Life Cochin'

Traveling for me is less about seeing other places and more about seeing myself: places become vivid when they resonate with or challenge my self-definition. I can take or leave travel in places that let me remain detached. I reacted strongly to India last year because the onslaught of sounds, smells, pollution and general sea of humanity demanded a response. I felt more alive in India last year than I had in a long time, and I was eager to feel that again. A burnt-out shell of a post-sabbatical, post-semester professor boarded the flight to Mumbai, and I realized somewhere over Europe that I needed to figure out who I was again. Recalling the food, the clothes, and the rhythms of Bangalore helped remind me who I felt I had been a year earlier. I began to relax. The proverb on the Times of India masthead that greeted me in Mumbai read "Tension is what you think you should be. Relaxation is what you are". A cold-water centering from the newspaper gods boded well.

A couple of days later, I had started to reassemble myself and was thinking of buying some Indian clothes to externalize my rediscovered self-image. We were in Cochin, staying in the Fort area where the historical buildings were. We headed for a Kathakali dance performance at which it hit me: the room was full of western tourists, most wearing Indian clothes. In that instant, I lost myself again. The very idea of indian clothes suddenly felt like a branding: a tourist who comes to vacation cheaply, experiment with local culture, stay in a gentrified area and sip small doses of local arts before ordering bottled water. In a place that asked me to assert my western-tourist role, I couldn't be comfortable trying to be myself; instead, I started a two-day internal apology for being a foreigner. I saw myself as nothing more than an impact on the local economy: positive in bringing in trade and money, negative in the resource impact tourism is having on Fort Cochin's infrastructure. The idea of buying anything there became replusive: I'd be taken for a price ride because that's what westerner tourists were for, after all. In a place where many westerners would feel more comfortable (since the hotels and restaurants anticipated western needs), I was suffocating.

The choking was self-imposed (the pollution wasn't bad there, for a change) and I knew it. It shouldn't matter how others saw what felt like my own self-expression. The other westerners there could have also been expressing feelings of being at home in India. We could have been a swath of soul-mates who happened to land up there at the same time. The onslaught of auto-rickshaw drivers always offering rides and shop owners calling out invitations to look was too much for me though; I simply didn't know how to behave as a foreigner-trying-to-ignore-that-I'm-a-tourist. In hindsight, it was a bit like Julie Andrews in "Victor/Victoria" (a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman). It left me with deep unresolved questions about what makes one a foreigner: is it about how comfortable we are in a place, whether we speak the language, follow the customs, appreciate the nuances, or share ancestry? And what's wrong with being a foreigner anyway? Why this need for a "non-foreigner" merit badge? Won't any traveler be a foreigner in many places? I've never been troubled being (or feeling like) a foreigner when traveling in Europe; it didn't bother me in Japan. I still don't know why it bothered me so deeply in India. I know it has nothing to do with being married to an Indian. This one is all about me, and I suspect it's fairly fundamental.

Sense Preserve Us

The weather wins in areas as wet at Kerala. Structures look worn; paint jobs need frequent refreshing. Keeping up surface appearances is a losing battle that the locals have learned not to fight. The focus on surface appearance extends beyond weather-soaked buildings though. In Cochin, we visited Mattancherry Palace, which features a room painted in murals of the epic Ramayana. The murals are faded and broken in many parts, but enough detail remains to warrant a close look. Signs throughout the museum warn against taking photographs, and this seemed somewhat enforced: a staffer demanded the camera of a woman who took a picture of her son on a staircase. We'd have liked an image of the murals though and asked about postcards or prints. Not available; commerce doesn't explain the ban. So why can't we take pictures? Because the flash would damage the artifacts. Okay, that was the other expected answer, except ... all of the windows in the room were open and flooding the murals in light. When Shriram asked about that he was told that the murals were the property of the government, not public property, so special permission (which was hard to get, of course) was required to take pictures. Such a contrast from the home, where the murals would be behind glass in very low light conditions and professional photographs available to take home.

I don't yet understand the Indian mindset regarding preservation: obviously, it isn't a priority, but what other instinct inhibits it? A degree of preservation occurs naturally at temples and shrines that require barefoot visits, which suggests stronger preservation of architecture as opposed to artifacts. Even the idea of collecting items for display seems more an ideal imported from the British, however, an observation I noted (and Shriram confirmed) as we walked through a zoo in Trivandrum. Care for old things would seem inconsistent with the endless rubble piles around the streets of India. The crumble of buildings reminds me a bit of Rome, where piles of column fragments near sidewalks isn't uncommon. Yet there is something neat about the Roman piles (not my original thought when visiting Rome, mind you), perhaps because they aren't interlaced with random trash. Perhaps our western obsession with preservation stems from attachment to things, both materially and as a vehicle for understanding culture, whereas cultures richer in stories and gods use other preservation media. Certainly, the Ramayana is not going to be lost as those murals fade. But India of all places has made me appreciate the descriptive limitations of words alone, even those augmented with sound. I wonder if living amongst such sensory richness all the time makes one immune to its diversity; I'd expect one at least takes it for granted. Or perhaps such sensory richness surrounds me here in the US in ways I've learned not to perceive on a daily basis.

Service Return

Books (fiction and non) prepared me not to expect too much by way of "service" in India: queues exist to be stood in, forms to be completed, and counters to divide the person with a particular job from those without it. I went understanding that I should be satisfied when something got done, unsurprised if it did not. No problem. India's increasing interaction with the western economy, however, would seem to require a new breed of service-oriented personnel, and we saw signs of that awareness last year. Young hotel and restaurant staff are clearly being trained for better responsiveness: every request met with a bright, forceful and immediate "yes, sir!". Our electronic key cards have stopped working; "yes, sir!". I can't find the switch to turn off the lights; "yes, sir!". Waiter, there's a metal shard in my dinner; "yes, sir!". Not a single one of these (real, I might add) exchanges went past our initial remark. Not even a "what should I do about it" (which seemed obvious in at least the first two cases). Best we could do was to initiate another volley with a followup request, which too gracefully bounced off the smiling surface of the staffer in question. We did gradually learn to be very direct, rather than expect staff to infer the actual question from our statement of the problem. We had not actually asked for anything, so we got more than perhaps we should have expected; we got an acknowledgment.

In the context of broken key cards, it was all rather funny. In the context of corporate competitiveness, it's cause for concern from India's perspective. For a society that loves to question authority, people seem reluctant to question for information (I've read about Indians' general tendency to make up an answer rather than admit to not knowing something). We saw similar signs among some of the students we met on the trip: reluctance to engage and ask probing questions. I suspect these traits will limit innovativeness and competitiveness in the Indian high tech sector, perhaps sooner rather than later as demand for workers exceeds supply. As a computing professor in the US, we hear a lot about outsourcing and dropping enrollments. It was interesting to see the problem in more detail from the other side, to see what challenges the Indian system is facing with regards to human infrastructure (including serious faculty shortages). I talked to several people about WPI's project curriculum and how it helps students develop some of these skills. Thanks to Venkatesh and his colleagues for the open discussions that deepened my perspective on this issue.

Indo-Japanese signage

Signs with safety warnings are popular throughout India. Bangalore intersections feature the rhythmic "a little care makes accident rare", or the more direct "save head, wear helmet" (more people _carry_ helmets than wear them on their heads). I find these amusing not only for their cadence, but because they actually give justifications rather than just instructions. So much of my experience of Indian culture is someone proclaiming what someone else should do without giving rationale, so these signs are refreshing. Perhaps my favorite sign from this trip though was one I saw all over Trivandrum: "Future spells Linux. Let's Migrate!!!". I was suddenly reminded of Japanese tshirts that bear bizarre, often off-color, phrases in English. The sign stands out as odd precisely because south Indians generally have very good English skills, better than the average Japanese. Future _spells_ linux? I couldn't quite make it make sense, which made it a prime candidate for a tshirt. In general, Japan and India don't have much in common aside from a shared love of things that beep. In particular, the contrast between Japanese and Indian temples is striking. Both have temples around random turns, but Japanese temples inspire stillness while Indian ones just seem more frenetic. In fact, public parks are the only quiet places in Indian cities, set off from the streets by stone walls that magically block out noise and fumes. They are welcome places to migrate in the late afternoon.

Wave goodbye

We finished the trip with an 8-hour layover in Mumbai enroute for home. Plans to meet one of Shriram's friends feel through (the friend flew to and from Bangalore around the same times we flew to and from Mumbai), but his friend sent his driver to take us around for the afternoon, so I got a quick tour of Mumbai. Mumbai is unrelenting: flying over it presents patches of roofs that stretch entire blocks, with little to no space for light to reach the interior homes. Population takes on a whole new meaning when viewed from Mumbai. We drove and drove, and saw the same shop fronts over and over, the same surges of people conducting business, selling fume-kissed vegetables, or scraping together a living along the sidewalks. The numbers of people are staggering, then it hits that this is just one slice through the city; there are hundreds of other slices. There are thousands of boys playing cricket, everywhere boys playing cricket, with dozens of games commanding the same fields but at different angles. It's mayhem. It's Mumbai.

Towards the end of the drive, we came across a seawall where hundreds of folks had lined up to watch the sunset. A sudden rush of people shrieking and running across the street, camera phones in hand. One of the bigger Indian movie stars was waving to crowds from his balcony. He went inside, and they all rushed back in a human ripetide that returned as fast as it had come inland. Waves are the only metaphor I can conjure for Mumbai, massive flows of seas of people,many of whom get pulled under the current. Last year, I felt that India had finally given me a context to undertake a liberal arts education; a living laboratory where economics, urban studies, and sociology would have made more sense than they did coming from suburban New York. Mumbai brought that again to the fore. This country still has a lot to teach me, a lot to get inside my head and through my soul. It's fabulously alive, yet mentally exhausting. The books and thoughts we brought back will simply have to tide me over to our next visit.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

All in my head

Blustery weather yesterday after a hectic week propelled me to do something I haven't done in years: read a book start to finish in a single day. I picked up Louann Brizendine's "The Female Brain" some weeks ago, intending to save it for travel reading. My fried brain was drawn to the subject yesterday, however, rewarding me with an eye-opening, unsettling, and thought-provoking afternoon.

Brizendine is a neuropsychiastrist with expertise and clinical practice on interactions between hormones and mood. The book explains the interaction between hormones and brain operation in women, with contrasting references to these interactions in men. Chapters cover the various stages of women's hormonal transitions, from birth, childhood, puberty, early adulthood, parenting, middle adulthood, and menopause. Each chapter explains the hormones and hormonal cycles that are most active within each of theses phases; these are related to brain functionality and how this predisposes women to pay attention to different issues at different phases of life and periods within the hormonal cycle. It's engaging and informative, with extensive citations and reference notes.

Brizendine wants women to understand how hormones influence brain function so they can anticipate and plan behavior accordingly. Knowing that we are hormonally predisposed to being more attuned to the needs of others in the first two weeks of our cycles, for example, may help women evaluate requests to take on additional tasks during this time (is this how I get talked into more committee work?). Understanding how hormone phases reduce our pleasure or anger responses may help us maintain stronger relationships, especially when the contrast to men's hormone and brain functions is clear.

The book was eye-opening because I didn't know about the hormonal phases over a lifetime, or much about how particular hormones predisposed me to certain responses. Looking back over my life for the last several weeks, the info presented in this book could explain a lot. And that's precisely what I found unsettling about it: it was too easy to agree with the findings she reports, too easy to wave a flag of womenhood and proclaim that "my hormones made me do it, and differently than he would have" (for appropriate values of he). Brizendine is well-aware of this potential and emphasizes the complementing role of nurture and our ability to choose how to react to biologically-motivated impulses. Any fault of overeager application of this book would be my fault, not hers.

But on some level, I do want to believe that the findings of these studies are valid. How wonderful to narrow the range of my influence in how I react as I defend my differences from the plethora of males around me. Responsibility is great, in moderation. And it's nice to have a readable reference that my reactions both are and are not "all in my head". I want to jump for relief having read this, yet bounce instead from the (appropriate) brakes of my scientific training. I also wanted a home-hormone test kit, so I could try mapping the results against my own moods and responses over time.

My most thought-provoking moment came in the section on puberty, discussing how girls in this stage become intensely focused on social bonding in contrast to boys who retreat. Against the imagery of girls obsessed with social connection and position, computing and science don't stand a chance as currently presented. If we truly want more women in these fields, we have to question something, whether it's how we expose pre-college students to these subjects or how we get students to stop selecting away from certain topics too early in life. I wonder whether those of us who did make it to college majors in these areas had different hormonal ratios than our female peers. Timing may be more problematic than we, or at least I, thought in thinking about how to make these fields more inviting to young women.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Montravels in Montreal

We're in Montreal for a long weekend. Montreal is a lovely mix of
European and North American city life, full of cafes, ethnic
restaurants, mixed languages, and wanderlust-inspiring parks. Okay,
more European than North American (though we could get the American League Baseball Championships on tv to see how the Red Sox/Indians series wound up). We get up here every few years and
always have a great time. However, there is one aspect of Montreal
which gets me every time: French (the language).

I'm generally adept at languages. Tourist-level language comes
quickly and easily, and I tend to remember basic phrases for a long
time. French, however, has a bizarre opposite effect. I can't recall
basic French phrases. Even worse, when someone speaks French to me, I
lose the ability to speak at all, even in English! This happens all
the time: some addresses me in French and my mind goes totally blank.
Waitstaff will say something (to clarify my badly slaughtered attempt
to order) and I'll just stare at them trying to figure out how to talk
again. Shriram has seen this often enough to believe me, and we are
slowly learning that letting him order for us both spares much family

From a scientific perspective, I find this fascinating though.
Experience has led me to believe that I have a default "stammering"
language: when in a foreign language situation, my brain defaults to
the current "stammering" language. For a long time, that language was
Chinsese (which I majored in as an undergrad). That's been replaced
by German due to my many conferences there over the years. How is it
then that one language (and only that one language so far) causes me
to lose language ability entirely? Surely there's an interesting
explanation for this -- pointers to any relevant theories?

Fortunately, the language of cycling is nonverbal, so I've been able
to get around quite handily on two wheels this weekend. Montreal is
often hailed as a great city for bicycling. Last time we were here,
we brought our bikes and rode the Lacine canal route, which runs along
the St. Lawrence River. Or so we hear. The day we did the ride was
so foggy that we never saw the water, even though we rode alongside
it, over it, and around it for several hours. Still, the biking
infrastructure seemed good enough that we brought the bikes again for
this trip. We spent yesterday on and around Mt Royal, the main
vantage point over the city.

Today, I ventured along the lines marked as some sort of bicycle route
on the tourist map. Biking lanes here are fairly sophisticated. The
biking lanes run between the sidewalk and parking on the side of the
road, sometimes separated from the cars by short concrete walls.
Biking routes are well-marked, and clear marking indicate when biking
lanes will cross one another. I usually don't like city riding, but
the lanes here are quite enjoyable.

A short spin in the bike lanes highlights, however, that cars and
bikes follow two different road protocols. Cars behave as cars
usually do: traffic lights, signaled turns, and the usual degree of
city aggression. Cyclists, in contrast, follow Indian road culture
(as I described in my earlier Indian travelogue): traffic lights are
suggestions at best, and plowing through perpendicular-moving traffic
is par for the course. Even as a pedestrian, I've felt more at risk
from the cyclists than from the taxi drivers (which I'd heard warnings
about on local cycling pages). The craziest cyclists are invariably
riding helmetless (as are most cyclists here). Casual observation
suggests that helmet wearers are much more likely to be men than
women, and spandex seems reserved for touring cyclists rather than
weekday riders. Quite a change from home, where most cyclists are
exercising rather than commuting and seem aware that they are
violating car-based road protocols, rather than asserting a vehicular

Vegetarian visitors should check out Cafe Lola Rosa, on Milton street
near McGill. We had two delightful meals at this little veggie cafe
on this trip, as well as a fine Tibetian meal at Shambala on
St. Denis. Montreal is very veggie friendly, though with less
elegance than veggie restaurants in France. Dishes here are both
North-American- and French-inspired, but generally fairly light yet
filling. Attempts to locate fine croissant on this trip didn't work
out too well, but that gives a goal for the next time we make it up
this way.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mental accounting

While paying a stack of bills this morning, I noticed a new online payment option for one of our annual bills. With all the sabbatical travel we did last year, online bill pay and tracking was a lifesaver: I put monthly reminders into my calendar to login and pay our credit cards, billed the utilities directly, and didn't worry at all about missing payments while on the road. I had the checkbook in hand to pay today's annual bill the old-fashioned way, but decided to check out the ebilling option.

To my surprise, I paid the bill the old-fashioned way anyway. Signing up for ebilling meant another account and another password, and I have spent far too much time this week trying to remember various usernames and passwords for rarely-accessed sites. The website design rendered poorly on firefox, so the instructions were hard to read. Worst of all, the signup page stated that once you signed up for ebilling, you would no longer receive paper statements. You could get paper statements again at any time by calling customer service, who would then unenroll you from electronic bill paying. In other words, it appears that you can only pay your bill online if you agree to stop receiving paper statements.

The loss of a paper bill was the final straw for me. For annual bills, a piece of paper on my desk to remind me to make a payment is essential. Monthly bills are routine enough that my mental cycle checks in if I haven't issued a payment recently, but annual bills are hopeless. The volume of email I get mandates the use of email filters, and I sometimes ignore the non-essential filters for days or weeks at a stretch. At core, I simply don't trust my personal information management setup--ie, the combination of my calendar and email--to remind me about critical issues that only happen once a year. Out of sight, out of mind feels like a very real danger where annual bills are concerned. Something is clearly not working quite right when we choose not to use tools that supposedly save time and memory out of a fear that we might not remind ourselves to use them.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Where Rhode signs used to be

Ask a Rhode Islander for directions, and the response will likely include the phrase "where X used to be". In my 7 years living here, I've been told to make turns at landmarks like "where Joe's barber shop used to be" and "where the little place with the really good fried clams used to be". One day, Shriram and I came across a sign on a major street reading "former bus stop" and figured it was there to help people who had been given directions by locals (especially as there was no indication of the current bus stop location).

This weekend, I was reading on the front porch when a trio of women on bicycles pulled up and asked

"Excuse me, can you tell me where the John Howland school used to be?"

Our condo sits on the former site of the school. They were trying to find an old house of personal interest and the school was one landmark they recalled from visiting the area years ago. It was the first time I'd heard anyone turn the phrase back around to be what one sought. But it struck me, if you can get directions to where the place used to be, what difference does it make whether you ever actually knew the original place? All you need is one Rhode Islander to give directions, and another to resolve the level of indirection. Computer science exploits indirection all the time, so surely I can make good use of this. Besides, who knows what interesting place now sits where the place with the really good fried clams used to be ...

Saturday, September 29, 2007

What I've Meant by Mentoring

One day in grad school (early 1990s), several of us were talking about the lack of women on the dept faculty. When a male student asked why this was important, one woman remarked that she "wanted someone who looks like me" as a mentor. I pondered that remark for years, not concurring with it but lacking a compelling alternative. Mid-postdoc, I wanted a mentor who talked like me: someone for whom gadgets weren't the ultimate conversation topic and who might admit to frustrations or challenges as a researcher and person. Now as faculty, I seek "someone who relates like me", in relationships with research, colleagues, and career overall.

I blogged earlier about professional friendships, which fall largely under the "talk like me" view. Here, I'm after something more substantial. I've learned that the environment of research matters as much (if not more) to me than the topic of research. I'd gladly choose a research problem based on the people I would get to work with on it, rather than first picking the problem. I'm not sure how to structure a career around this metric though; the search for compatible research colleagues is time and energy consuming for all involved, certainly more so than just picking a problem. As a mentoree, I'm still looking for role models on structuring a career this way.

Reflecting on my role as a mentor (to both students and junior faculty), I think of the standard advice we give to young researchers: "find something you are truly passionate about and work on that". Gosh knows I've said it to others. And after 15 years of trying, I can honestly say that this advice simply hasn't worked for me, because my passion flies within groups working together on problems, not from the problems in and of themselves. I've almost talked myself out of computer science many times on the grounds that lacking passion for any particular problem must mean I'm in the wrong career. And then I turn back because I get short-term consumed by a modeling or programming problem and realize that I do love this work. I just need a different model for structuring those fragments of work into a satisfying long-term career.

Where does this leave me as a mentor, though? Do I pass along the "get passionate about a problem" advice, since it clearly works for many in the self-selected group who become researchers? What advice would I give if I _didn't_ say that? Perhaps mentoring isn't about "giving advice", but about being a sounding board, sharing experiences and asking questions as someone tries to form their own career path. The mentor in me likes that view: it frees me from the responsibility of having the answers. But as a mentoree, I want someone who can give advice, who does have "the answers" and is willing to share them.

I remind myself that the questions I wanted answers to as a student and new professor are different from the ones I'm facing now, and I can suggest views into those earlier questions. Maybe someone who "looked like me" was all I really wanted earlier in my career. But there's this ever-nagging sense that I could make someone else's career path easier if only I could guide them now on the issues that will confront them later, even though I know they may not even see those issues yet. And if they do, I'm just not the right mentor for them. Mentoring is about a fit between people, not an exam for the mentor. Remind me of that next time my mentoree asks a question for which I fail to have an answer.

[Side note: I'm thinking about these questions a lot in the context of reading Christina Robb's recent book "This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology", an account of the relational psychology work by Carol Gilligan, Jean Baker Miller, Judith Lewis Herman, and others, from the late 70s onward. Opens a lot of questions about relationships between people and between people and their work, both of which bear on questions concerning mentoring.]

[This post written for the on mentoring.]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Disorganization Lesson 1: know your to-do list

Last weekend, I had an incredibly productive burst of disorganization (so much so that it took a week to get organized enough to post about it). Quite simply, I ignored my two courses and played with a new research idea all weekend. It was simultaneously invigorating and frustrating. Frustrating in that even after two days, I couldn't point to any "solved" piece of the puzzle (the "cross it off the list" mentality), but invigorating because the repeated failures to tie up the loose ends illustrated the subtleties that will make this project interesting and worth doing. I couldn't have asked for a better outcome from a "get disorganized" moment.

This weekend, in contrast, has been solidly organized. The difference lay in the to-do list. While my "get disorganized" crusade is about not being a slave to the list, abolishing the list isn't the right approach. Last weekend, all the list items were about getting ahead for the following week (so I'd have more unstructured creative time). This weekend, the list items reflect hard deadlines for stuff due on Monday. My victory from last week was deciding to grab the creative time at the moment, rather than to work off the list so I could (hopefully) avail of the moment later. That seems a learnable behavior.

In the end, it's about prioritizing unstructured time relative to hard deadlines. If my todo list is about tracking and making priorities, perhaps the unstructured activity should go on the list, especially since I sometimes struggle to "remember" to make that unstructured time. But part of the point of the list is to be able to scratch things off, so that doesn't work so well for an ongoing effort. I do know that ditching the list entirely isn't the answer (as noted in a comment on my original post on this effort). It's about keeping the list in perspective while getting on with the things that are too big to warrant being written down.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Getting unorganized

Every new academic year brings a "new year's resolution" from many faculty: the intent to get "more organized". Even highly prolific colleagues have been quoted as wishing they were more organized, and one of the career mentoring programs I've been to had a nice session centered around the topic. Blogs and books abound to the extent that you could guarantee you got nothing done just by trying to read them all. Who wouldn't benefit from being more organized in our fast-paced world?

Me, for one. I am resolved to get unorganized this year.

Sabbatical felt very productive, but I always sensed that it was for reasons beyond having more time and fewer distractions from not teaching. Now that I am back in the throes of (two) classes and barely afloat, I'm realizing that my being organized is a problem. I have an insanely good memory for to-do lists (including the shopping list, household errand list, course prep list, and the list of lists). Every evening, I write down the tasks that have to get done the next day; every morning, I spent lots of time "getting things done" before realizing that several weren't even on the paper lists. By the list measure, I'm quite productive.

Unfortunately, the victim here is the spontaneous creativity that fosters research. When an idea pops into my head and needs a little cultivating through thought or code experiments, my organized mind immediately relegates it to a position on a carefully prioritized list. By the time I get to it, the snuffed ember that remains doesn't have enough traction to go anywhere. I'd be better off if I could ditch organization and chase the sparks without my internal task management system always reminding me of those blasted lists. In other words, I have to get unorganized.

Clearly, the trick is to find the right balance between organization and disorganization: some organization is essential to run an effective course or career. Most of the writing out there is aimed at those with too little organization though. I haven't yet found a blog aimed at those of us with too much. There are lots of little related pieces of advice: the standard 80/20 rule veteran faculty give to newbies (students rarely notice that last 20% of effort that takes you at least 80% of the time), articles on improving creativity, living a meaningful life, etc. These dance around the real issue: if you are very organized, you have to work hard at overriding that if you want to let yourself do the work that needs less structure. What are the best practices for introducing more chaos into your life? Yes, I know, that's another list ...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Scientific Value

I recently finished reading Peter Kramer's Against Depression. Kramer is the psychiatrist who wrote Listening to Prozac some years ago. In talks on the Prozac book, he frequently got questions about the tension between treating depression and the suppression of artistic temperament ("what if we gave van Gogh Prozac", for example). Against Depression is his discussion of society's view of depression juxtaposed against the reality of what doctors understand of the disease, or in his terms, "what it is" versus "what it is to us".

That phrasing of the contrast grabbed me. The descriptions of modern understanding of depression were fascinating and unnerving (covering issues such as the way depression alters the brain, how we become more susceptible to it after each episode, and how the disease is really about the loss of resiliency). It is his bigger question, however, about the tension between the scientific reality and our perception of the problem, that I keep thinking about. We see this all the time with scientifically-valid evidence: people don't believe or even absorb something just because it is true. Kramer attempts to explain why this is dangerous in the case of depression.

It reminded me of a science education video I saw several years back: middle school children did science lessons on light and the inability to see in completely dark places. One by one, children who had done well on these lessons were put into a completely dark room and asked whether they could see anything. They persisted in believing that their eyes would adjust soon, thus enabling them to see. Experience (of being in fairly dark places) overrode the facts (of being in a completely dark place). The video was demonstrating how educators have to elicit the experiences or prior beliefs that contradict new knowledge in order to help students absorb new knowledge.

Kramer's case seems both easier and harder to make. Easier because he can explain the realities of depression in terms of vivid human stories to which readers can relate; the human stories give a hook on which the reader can hang the new knowledge. Harder, though, because our society has a lot invested (emotionally) in romanticizing depression. Kramer works hard to distinguish medical depression (which has corresponding brain pathology) from variations in temperament. Lay people often miss the distinction, which in turn reinforces existing misconceptions about the disease.

Heading into the academic year, the book gives a good reminder of the role of existing beliefs in learning and the importance of casting ideas in ways that grab people's attention. Even if you aren't an educator, there's a lot to learn from this engaging and well-written book. It's a good reminder that we should ask ourselves what beliefs we hang on to, what value we ascribe to them, and how that value might contradict more compelling evidence.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Blogging, on Balance

I had intended this post for the last Scientiae Carnival (topic: balance), but got tied up in work for a computer science curriculum workshop I ran at the end of July and never finished the post. That delay is, however, related to what I had planned to write about balance.

I began blogging this spring in response to perceived lack of balance in my professional career. Lack-of-balance is easier to recognize than balance, because it manifests as something concrete that captures our attention. I noticed I wasn't devoting enough energy to observing my surroundings for how computing really fits into society (something I wanted to do more of as a result of sabbatical). Blogging was meant to force me into finding observations to write about, on the oft-proposed strategy of announcing intentions to motivate action. That strategy hasn't worked nearly as well for the blog as it has in other areas of my life. Do I not actually want balance, or is something else afoot?

The term "balance" raises a visual metaphor of a scale with equal weights on all sides. Taken too far, "balance" in the context of my original desire to generate more observations misses the nature of research: it can take years to develop the results underlying a single idea. Several weeks is a minimum (once you include evaluation, which may include implementation). Aiming to post once or twice a week means that I'll be generating far more observations than I'll ever act on. Which in itself is fine, given the percentage of ideas that end up being worth pursuing.
Even given that, though, the question remains of where you want your attention to go. Yes, I want to be better at making observations that lead to interesting projects. But as someone who prefers to only juggle 2-3 big efforts at a time, I also need long stretches of downtime to work through observations. Observations in spurts followed by a weed-out phase is better-suited to my style of thinking.

The visual metaphor of balance still feels broken, though. Balance requires a reference weight. When I say "life-work balance", I don't (personally) mean that my life and work should take equal portions of my time. I simply mean that I should feel satisfied with the proportions. The "reference weight", such as it is, contains my available time or energy. The pieces of my life must balance out to that reference, but the devil is in the proportions. The scale metaphor is misleading. Far better is the one I heard on a mailing list some years ago about life being a large jar into which you must place your biggest items first, letting the little things fit in as they may.

For me, blogging is a small-to-medium item to fit into the jar. I still like how it forces me to articulate ideas, how it encourages me to make observations that I'd be willing to put my name on without having carried them through to research results. I'll continue to blog occasionally, when mood and ideas strike. But I don't expect to try to keep this up on a twice-weekly basis as I initially thought. Other items are just more important, especially with classes starting again in 10 days. I do want to make sure that "observing" stays sufficiently visible in my jar that I don't lose sight of it completely. But on balance, balance need not be balanced for my life or career to feel in proportion.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Peeking and Pottering

This morning, I gave into temptation and searched for a summary of how
the Harry Potter series ends (no spoilers here). I haven't followed
the books, though I have seen the movies. I didn't feel temptation to
read the last book, but I still wanted to know what happened to the
characters. Funnily enough, having read a paragraph-length summary of
the ending, I now feel tempted to get the book and watch how the
characters' unfold to get there.

This is pretty reflective of my overall work style, come to think of
it. I enjoy figuring things out, but mostly when I have a good mental
picture of where that process will get me. When I first starting
learning to use computers, I hated being told "just play with it". I
couldn't feel productive with so little structure. I hugely
appreciate the value and education of exploration in an undefined
space (I loathe asking for directions given how much of a map I figure
out from being a little lost). I need some semblemce of a target
(recognizable, if underspecified) to organize that exploration though.
Programming and engineering work this way, so my career is a good fit.

But back to the end of Harry Potter. I found a Slate article that
associated "read the end [of a book, in this case HP] first" with a
desire for instant gratification, then reported on a study linking
personality traits to instant gratification. The Slate author admits
the parallel between the study and end-of-HP-readers is a little off,
but for me at least, the parallel doesn't work at all. I don't look
at the end for gratification, but for organization. By knowing where
the story is going, I can watch for the hints and signs along the way
and follow how the structure of the story unfolds (without having to
read the book twice). I explore the characters differently once I
know where they will end up, and I enjoy the studying personality
cause-and-effect, as reading this way provides.

That raises a question, then, of whether I read the ends of all books
first. Rarely. I only do this when I know the characters before I
start reading. Reading for me is a search process: looking for the
structure and choices that get from point A to point B. If I know
point A (through advance knowledge of characters), I want to know B so
I can search the characters personalities from both ends. If I know
nothing at point A, I'm happy to let the writing construct the space,
as long as I expect that construction to be interesting. Knowing the
end can convince me that the construction might be worth reading. I
feel no remorse over having e-peeked at how HP ends, especially given
that my interest in the story overall is piqued as a result.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Outsourcing begins at home

CRA, the main advocacy group for Computer Science research, recently cited a report on how companies decide where to locate R&D efforts. This is a hot topic in CS circles as perceptions of international outsourcing are at least partly responsible for the dramatic drop in student enrollments in recent years. [Note to students and parents: the perception is overhyped: more IT-related jobs are available now in the US than at the height of the boom according to a taskforce on the subject]. According to the summary, costs are not the main factor behind where to locate R&D efforts. Other economic factors, such as local growth potential and university infrastructure, are also key. If you prefer Richard Florida's view of a "spiky" world to Thomas Friedman's "flat" one, this summary will not surprise you.

This weekend's NYTimes ran an article about public schools' efforts to achieve racial diversity through socio-economic diversity (subscr reqd). While the article mostly discusses how districts have struggled to make this work in practice, it also cites successes in Raleigh, North Carolina, where performance on state reading tests has improved dramatically within traditionally poor-performing racial groups following socio-economic school assignments. The results are attributed to getting more disadvantaged students into schools with stronger cultures of achievement.

It's a fairly similar goal to outsourcing in many respects: establish a stronger innovation culture in countries with developing economies. This strengthens the local economy while creating new markets (and product ideas) for the company doing the outsourcing. The opening of R&D labs in China, India, and other Asian countries by western firms follows this vision. Yet doing this on the international scale induces much hand-wringing in contrast to the praise it induces done within our own borders. Success on both fronts could creates competition for jobs at home, but we fear the international competition more, partly because revenues leave our borders. Perhaps deep down we also believe international groups will make progress faster than our own disadvantaged groups. The CRA-cited report describes different metrics used to gauge outsourcing to developed versus developing economies. Where do our own disadvantaged communities fall in that spectrum?

Of course, investing at home or abroad isn't an either-or decision. The juxtaposition of these articles just reminded me that we talk a fair bit about international economic development, without nearly as much focus on how to foster domestic talent. It seems to say a lot for our problems here at home.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Fragments of Health Policy

Tuesday's New York Times ran an article (subscription req'd) on people who are denied access to health-related info (for themselves or family members) due to medical personnel not knowing how to interpret HIPAA regulations. HIPAA is one of the key pieces of US legislation governing privacy of medical information. Medical personnel apparently deny access in many cases that HIPAA would allow because the boundaries of the law are either unclear or unknown to the personnel.

Given the liability involved, denying access is an obvious default. Denying access beyond the intent of the policy becomes problematic, however, when it prevents people from getting information they need in order to get something legitimate done. The balance between protection and availability is hard to get right. When the people charged with enforcing the policy are unclear on its scope, the balance skews towards protection and more legitimate tasks are prevented. HIPAA permits but does not require a wide range of requests for information, so many err on the side of caution and choose not to disclose (sometimes for other reasons but using HIPAA as an excuse). Disclosure policies are left to individual health providers.

In addition to the original article, the Times also published an interview with the deputy director for information privacy for the US Dept of Health and Human Services. The interviewer asked why disclosure is left to providers, rather than included as part of the original policy. The answer was that the department was charged with developing privacy policy, not disclosure policy. The intent was for providers to develop disclosure policies, as long as they didn't violate HIPAA regulations.

The real problem here then, is not one of people not understanding HIPAA, but one of people not understanding that HIPAA is a _component_ of health information policy, but not the entire policy. Language standards for writing access-control policies, such as XACML, have evolved to support policies that handle some issues but not others. If one were to encode HIPAA in XACML, most of the disclosure cases would produce a decision called "not applicable", instead of one called "deny". This would enable the hospital to write its own policy for the disclosure cases. The hospital's overall policy would be a combination (technically, composition) of the HIPAA and local policies. Either sub-policy could issue a decision on a request for information, using the "not applicable" answer to say "this is outside my scope, let the other policy decide".

In short, HIPAA is a fantastic example of why policies need to have three possible decisions (permit, deny, not applicable) rather than just two (permit, deny). Practioners are defaulting what should be not applicables to denies and skewing the intent of the policies. Fixing this requires making people aware that HIPAA governs only a fragment of information access issues and having them learn the local policies as well as the federal one. With only a couple of policies, this isn't hard, but it is subtle: one policy is rarely enough. The trap is that, since it looks like a complete policy, is gets overapplied. The policy language has to be subtle enough to distinguish "required" from "permitted" from "disallowed". The language is there, but its subtlety, and hence information access, is seemingly lost on many people.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Physical Abstraction Layer

Yesterday morning I was stuck on a research problem, so I went out for a run. Athletes often remark about how participating in sport taught them important lessons about time management and perseverance in other aspects of their lives. After pushing myself through a temptation to reduce the run to a walk, I ditched thinking about the research problem and turned to the question of athletic perseverance: why is it easier to push myself to keep running than to keep pushing myself through a research problem?

I believe it comes down to a simple abstraction. Running offers three basic levels of movement: walking, shuffling/light jogging, and running. Once I'm walking, I've stopped doing what I'm really trying to do. Once I'm shuffling, I've stopped respecting the time I allocated to getting some exercise. In short, there's an obvious metric for whether or not I'm (a) running and (b) doing a decent job at it.

Research, in contrast, offers more of a continuum of effort. There are some very concrete states (e.g. writing a paper, preparing a talk), but the creative portions of research are much more open ended. I can look like I'm working without really having my attention on my work. There's also a catch-22 to monitoring my attention to research: once I'm checking that I'm focused on a problem, I'm no longer focused solely on the problem! It's fairly easy to fake research effort and convince myself that I am really working when I'm not really there. Running doesn't let me get away with that.

So what does running teach me about perseverance in research? It doesn't teach me _how_ to persevere, or even how to recognize that I'm off-track. It does remind me that one can push through temptations to stop. It's attitude-conditioning. This isn't always a good thing though: I've been guilty of spending many a truly unproductive hour sitting at my desk trying to force work that my mind simply wasn't up to at that point. Research has taught me that giving up and walking away is often extremely valuable, especially since my mind keeps working subconsciously (which is why running helps with research in the first place).

Which brings me back to my original question: what does sport teach us about perseverance in creative fields? I concluded that it actually doesn't teach me much. Running works for me because my creative brain works better when "distracted" by a simple run. I'm glad that running has such clean states, because I want a simple metric for "good enough" when I'm trying to restore rhythm to my day. It doesn't scale to the sorts of perseverance needed in the continuum of creative work. There, it's far too easy to fool yourself.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Breaking down the thought process of computer science

Last month, Language Log had a post on how people learn to think like their professions. The article was written by a linguist, reporting on recent books by a doctor and a lawyer. According to the article, doctors and lawyers learn to think like their professions by comparing information obtained from patients/clients against the treatments and case law that they studied in school (I haven't read either book yet). From a computer science perspective, the description resembles searching a mental database for facts that match the situation at hand. The significant challenge here is presumably in figuring out which queries to pose against that mental database, as the queries reflect which components of a situation are likely to be relevant, which need to be explored in tandem, which need to be generalized, etc. Having a good mental database is obviously also important, but the query construction process seems more reflective of how professionals think.

How does this compare to thinking like a computer scientist? As with most disciplines, we draw on experience and compare situations to figure out how to solve problems. Query formation remains a significant component of how we think as professionals: a computer scientist needs to know what questions to ask about performance, security, reliability, usability, and a host of other system-related -ilities. But our mental database construction problem seems more substantial as well because of the volatile, unregulated, and still mysterious nature of computational systems.

Both law and medicine build heavily on precedence and legal bounds on practice; this shapes the space in which they search for problem solutions. Computing lacks the legal regulation of medicine and law (recall Parnas' oft-cited call to replace disclaimers with warranties in software). Many doctors and lawyers deal mostly with cases that fit existing precedents (the challenge becomes which ones to apply, but the diseases or situations themselves don't change as fast as computing technologies). Law seems to deal with fewer interacting agents than medical or computing problems; medicine seems to have a richer set of diagnostics for exploring how treatments behaves than we often have for computing systems. Living organisms also seem more fault-tolerant, on the whole, than computing systems, which are still very brittle. On the flip side, computing systems lack the complexity of the human brain or body, but I suspect more average computing professionals have to confront our limits of complexity on a daily basis than do the average doctors (who can refer patients to specialists for complex cases).

When we train students to be computer scientists, we really need to train them in the science of how discrete (as opposed to continuous) systems break. They need to think about how someone might attack the system, circumvent it, or use it for harm. They need to think about how to keep the system maintainable in light of new features and new technologies. Our mental databases really need as many facts about which decisions lead to what problems as well as which lead to what solutions. This is somewhat true of medicine, but I again suspect that average programmers deal with this more often than average doctors (beyond drug interactions, which are fairly well documented).

Not many computing programs really take the study of breakage seriously. We spend a lot of time focusing on systems that do work, that are correct, that perform well, etc. These are all necessary and valuable. But when your goal is to make something break, you ask yourself different questions than when your goal is to make it work: there's a continuum from "working" to "broken" and the missing questions lie in the middle. How many students really learn to stress-test their code, to inject faults and study code behavior, to put their work in the hands of novice users, to attack others' systems so they can think about how someone might attack their own? We have the luxury of working in a science of the artificial in which we can try to break something without compromising an organism's health. How could we best exploit that opportunity within the time constraints of a university education?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What Not to Bear

True confessions time. I've gotten oddly addicted to What Not to Wear (American version), a tv makeover show in which the victim of the week (usually female) has her wardrobe mocked and thrown away before getting fashion rules and being sent off to buy a new wardrobe, hair style and makeup routine (financed by the sponsors). I'd have expected to hate a show like this -- too much focus on consumerism, appearances, and body image. Like many tech/science people, I place higher value on internal than external qualities. Yet I keep watching this show. Why?

Time and time again, the victim emerges from the week sporting a whole new level of confidence and more positive self-image (including body image). The external transformation produces some nontrivial internal transformation. The internal transformation gets me every time, probably because as a professor I'm always on the lookout for ways to help students gain confidence and develop their potential (no fear to my students: we're not about to add fashion interventions to intro programming). I'm always on the lookout for ways to achieve these same ends in myself.

Tenure and sabbatical were a big surprise on this front. When I got tenure, I didn't feel relief. The call hit about as hard as one from the mechanic saying the car was ready for pickup (glad to have it done, call my husband to pass along the news). I tried replaying the call in my head several times to see if I'd get excited or relieved. No go. Instead, I fell under an overwhelming sense of responsibility: I had been given lifetime job security, and now it was time to actually live up to it.

Enter sabbatical: a year to figure out how to live up to the incredible job benefit that is tenure. A year ago, I headed off into that year firmly resolved to come back with an exciting new research program focused on some important problem, complete with vision statement and corresponding web page. And I've largely gotten there, minus the web page.

But something deeper comes back with me: an enhanced respect for myself and more importantly, my time. Being given a year of control over my time made me realize how much of it I give away to issues I don't care about, to activities that don't work towards personal goals, to other people who are happy to waste it on my behalf. I return resolved to fight for time, both my own and others (the latter in speaking out against things we do that waste collective faculty time). Behind the unfinished web page lies a researcher who doesn't want to waste time on problems that don't matter, a professor who wants to squeeze more learning out of every assignment, a committee member who wants to make meetings worth their while (especially as I'm on bigger service tasks post-tenure). And someone happy to idle away a bit of time writing a blog.

Like the show participants, I return renewed, revised, and with a stronger sense of self. I don't yet have the papers, grants, and talks that dress an academic career, but I have my fashion guidelines through my newly identified research area. The sabbatical year has been a fabulous experience, and I look forward to seeing how the next year plays out. Tune in for updates!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ride to Time Bad a Never

On a visit to Williamsburg, Virginia last weekend, I got in a bike ride on the Colonial Parkway, which extends from Jamestown to Yorktown via Williamsburg. The parkway is a scenic road with a surface of stone embedded in something like concrete. Speed limit is 45 mph and the car rattles quite a bit along the surface. On a bike, it's a whole body vibrating experience better than that of riding on cobblestones, but hardly conducive to a smooth, relaxing ride.

Jiggling along the 7 miles from Williamsburg to Jamestown, I noticed that my bike bottle kept rotating leftwards in its cage on the bike frame. As a result, its imprinted slogan read out in reverse, yielding the title of this post, over and over. Contemplating this phrase provided distraction from the tooth-chattering ride.

It actually made surprisingly good sense, if read in pseudo Irish-speak. Why ride? To never have a bad time. To keep from being slow. To maintain understanding of your own pace and ability. To stay healthy. They're all pretty good reasons, and decent explanations of why I enjoy a good ride. I also ride for scenery, which the road certainly offered. I tend to ride to release tension though, which this ride induced instead. However, at a time when I could have easily seen myself chucking the ride and turning back, I instead found wisdom from my rotating water bottle that reminded me of all the fun of just being out on a bike on a summer day. Spinning around can indeed help change your perspective, especially when it happens in the opposite-than-usual direction.

Vegetarian recommendation
: Food for Thought in Williamsburg, Virginia has several interesting veggie options (some vegan). They're on Richmond Road. Probably the best veggie food we've had there outside of ethnic restaurants, and certainly the best selection. In the ethnic category, we enjoyed Emerald Thai as well.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Snail Phishing?

I got a letter on our mortgage company's letterhead requesting insurance information on our condominium building. The letter instructs us to either fax the info (policy number and period, coverage amount, etc) or to log into a website using a PIN included in the letter. Something about the letter failed my smell test when it arrived a few days ago. Last night, I looked more closely.

The company's logo looked like a bitmap image (grainy), rather than an original. The zip code on our unit is wrong (though our mailing address was fine). The url we were to visit wasn't either of the two that I know our mortgage company to use, and the state in the return address from the company matched none of our other documents from them. The letter also claimed its purpose was to ensure "prompt and accurate processing of our condominium insurance", but we hadn't asked anyone to process insurance for us. It just didn't add up.

We were able to construct explanations for most of these oddities: owners don't necessarily live at their properties, so our mailing address and unit address were probably two separate database fields, with one of them entered manually. Collecting insurance info could be outsourced to another company in another state that creates letterhead from bitmaps of its clients' real letterhead. The letter could have been poorly written. And we weren't able to construct a plausible identity attack that would want the insurance info on our whole condo building (as opposed to our unit).

So I called our mortgage company using the number from their website rather from the letter. A maddening sequence of menus later (on which I got the same options at multiple levels), I get to a customer service representative who checks the notes on my loan file and finds no mention that they've requested this info. She advises me not to comply. I ask how I should go about reporting this to their fraud department, but she says they don't have one. Curious now, Shriram called the number on the letter and went as far as the menus that asked for the loan number and all 10 digits of the social-security number (giving dummy values for each). The rest of the call sounded extremely professional.

So, we are left with suspicious practices from the company requesting the info (the full SSN request), instructions not to trust the letter from a mortgage company with no fraud division, and several small signs that our mortgage company isn't as polished as it could be. Friends who have had several mortgages reported being asked for similar info on a regular basis. We are going to return the letter with a note that the mortgage company has no record of requesting this info and advised us not to comply.

There's a real business lesson in here though about how to create the perception of security and trust. If this request is legit, the company has a lot to learn about preempting concerns about identity theft and phishing; if not, they need a fraud department. Either way, the constant hum of data threats raises the stakes on companies that may just be catching up with the infrastructural aspects of IT. These psychological questions will become only more relevant if more people develop the sensors that triggered my night of investigation.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Data literacy is the new R

Catching up on some old Economist issues, I came across an article "Of bytes and briefs" from the May 19th issue. The article was about how electronic communications have raised new questions regarding information discovery in the legal system (such as what must be turned over in a request to produce documents) . The time required to comb e-data for proper disclosure is apparently becoming onerous (read, extremely expensive). The article also cites judges' need for better education about data, so they can better rule on proper discovery practices.

Yet another example of how lack of data illiteracy becomes a societal problem. About a year ago, the "CSI effect" got a lot of press, with concerns that CSI led jurors to expect to much by way of evidence (though the jury is still out on whether CSI is the fundamental culprit). Much as I love CSI, I cringe whenever they show software packages with zooming and search capabilities beyond what is technically feasible. Privacy is of course another big issue here, with people not understanding data provenance and the power and risk of mining algorithms.

Computing has long felt like a "new R" that should join reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic as fundamental components of basic education. "Computing" is a broad term, though, and mentions of "computer literacy" raise the neck hairs of many a computer scientist given its association with being able to use office productivity software. Useful skills, but not ones meeting the usual requirement for university-level credit.

That led several to propose that 'rogramming was the appropriate "new R": as computation (rather than computers) became fundamental to so many fields (witness biology), understanding what could and could not be computed and automated grew increasingly important. I have a lot of sympathy for this view, and strongly believe that a basic education in computation is essential for anyone working in science, digital media, or other fields whose practice is touched by computers. But I'd never push my parents to learn to program (and hope my sister has finally forgiven me for convincing her to take a CS course her freshman year).

Data literacy, on the other hand, is a much better candidate. It touches everyone who uses modern societal infrastructure. It can be motivated in the concrete (via privacy) and tied to everyday human experience (ie, for CSI viewers). It's timely, as the verb "to google" comes up in casual conversation outside of tech circles. It has substance beyond the more vocational feel of how to use office software. And, unlike programming, it doesn't require hours of practice in building artifacts (which, much as I enjoy it, admittedly turns off many people).

_This_ is the required computing-related material for the masses. Universities should develop and offer it; eventually it should migrate down to pre-college. What would it take to give non-techies a basic education in data mining, privacy, data provenance, search, and information lifespan? Many of us could design a substantive course on this stuff that used programming. How to do it without that, while getting to the level of understanding that programming would enable, is a fascinating challenge.

What's the R then? 'rovenance is the best I have so far. 'rivacy is both too narrow and too broad. Taking a european twist, 'rmatics gets the gist, but lacks verbal flow. Suggestions, either for that or for other topics that should make a data literacy 'rriculum list?

A usability nightmare

A truly dreadful user-interface experience yesterday called for posting, but Shriram got to it first and included my angle so I'll just include a link to his post instead. Admittedly, I've been reading about usability a lot lately so I'm more conscious of such issues, but this application really is an affront to software design (and being used for a software engineering conference, no less!).

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Perception and Security

In the recent story about the airline passenger with a serious TB strain, the passenger got back into the US despite a border alert to detain him at entry. The border agent who processed him knew of the alert, but let him through because the agent decided he didn't look sick.

In my quest to understand human decision making about security, I've been reading a book on Human Judgment and Social Policy (by Kenneth Hammond). The book discusses two competing theories of truth: in the coherence theory, truth is based on logically consistent conclusions derived from facts; in the correspondence theory, truth is based on accuracy relative to observation (such as our expectations for weather reports). Neither theory is superior in all situations. However, the correspondence theory apparently works fairly well with perceptual observations, but not as well with abstract or conceptual observations.

The border incident seems an excellent example of the last point: the agent relied on his perceptual assessment of the suspect's health, rather than on the conceptual warning that he could be very sick. The agent expected TB to manifest itself visually. Even growing up in a time and place with no serious TB threat, I hear "TB" and imagine people with sunken faces and furious hacking coughs. That image persists despite my recent reading of Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder's engaging book about Paul Farmer's fight against disease in impoverished areas). If the agent had similar associations, he might reasonably conclude that the suspect probably wasn't sick.

Ultimately, this case shows the tension between security and convenience. When I want security, I'd expect border agents to be at least as strict as the warnings (detain additional people as they judge necessary, but adhere to all alerts). When I want convenience, I'd like to see them use their judgment and not hold up people or the processing line when they see no credible threat. In this specific case, with a particular person named, the decision should have favored security. But so many of our security policy statements are phrased much more vaguely (such as the now common airport refrain urging passengers to report suspicious people or bags to authorities). Interpretation must be allowed to navigate these cases which cannot be described precisely. I'd love to see some reporting on this case that discusses this context and tries to get at the relationship between specificity of warnings and how they get applied.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

How We Are Hungry

Just this morning, I stumbled across the scientiae carnival of women bloggers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Their current topic (the subject line) took over my thoughts like a mid-afternoon sugar craving. Sabbatical has helped me understand my deepest career hunger: to interact regularly with a small network of friends with common professional interests. I love teaching, being a professor, and working in academia. The emotional isolation wears me down though, and threatens to renew itself as I prepare to return in the fall.

This isn't meant to insult my closest friends at work. They are wonderful people who I confide in, enjoy talking to, and respect. They are also men closer to my parents' ages than to mine. I have close friendships with some women academics (in other fields) and writers of my own age that follow the interaction style I love: a seamless blend of work and non-work discussions that last for hours or days yet feel unfinished. I had one off-and-on work-based friendship as a postdoc 8 years ago, and another with a visiting researcher for a few months while I was faculty. The rarity of these relationships the last 12 years, whether with males or females, makes this my greatest hunger.

Watching my thoughts on this though, I noticed that I was answering the question "what are we hungry for", rather than "how we are hungry". How did I end up in this situation? I work in a reasonable department in a good school, my colleagues are collegial, with an above-average percentage of female faculty, and plenty of faculty near my age. I have some good friends in other departments on campus, but working in different buildings on campus, we manage to meet only once or twice a semester, never spontaneously (and we all live far enough from campus in different directions that after-hours gathering don't happen). I've met a couple of people (mostly women) at conferences with whom I expect I'd have such a friendship if we worked at the same institutions, but none of us make time to develop these long distance, given our other demands. Some days, I feel like my academic upbringing socialized me to not expect my style of friendships in professional circles, until I woke up and realized how much I missed them, and--worse still--how much I feel I stagnate intellectually by not having them. The latter is where this issue really irks.

Perhaps I shouldn't feel hungry over this at all. Perhaps I asking too much to want close professional friends with whom I can interact regularly and easily. Perhaps I am still mourning having graduated from college, where the dorms were a continuous feast of interactions academic and not. I know I'm not an academic in hopes of reliving college, but I did expect more from the promise of the academic environment as an adult.

Do others experience the disconnect between professional and other friendships? Do you feel it holds you back? Do you feel less productive having to have professional conversations in a style that doesn't come naturally to you? Suggestions on how to address it?

In the end, the question is simply how to get fed. Perhaps being involved in an online community, rather than trying to main electronic one-on-one conversations would help, simply because there's more chance of finding someone with free time to e-chat in the same day or week in a larger group. It would certainly be better than my current approach to the situation, which seems to entail too many cookies and chocolates.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Computational doping, part 2

My sister responded to my first computational doping post with a link to a NYTimes article (subscription reqd) from a couple of weeks ago about an amputee with prosthetic legs who wants to compete in Olympic track. The jury is still out on whether he will be allowed to compete, with one of the major questions being whether his prosthetics give him an unfair competitive advantage.

This got me thinking about my memory software again. My description in the first post said nothing about the intended interface between me and the software. I've generally envisioned a standard sort of interface with menus and links to click as I actively navigate this auxiliary memory. This interface would require so much active use on my part that I'd never really use the software. I want this auxiliary memory to operate without my having to direct it all the time. One such interface would be a brain prosthetic that tapped into my existing thought process and augmented my technical information management, like in the ongoing research into using brain signals to control prosthetic limbs

And now I bet the Turing award committee gets uncomfortable, even if the wearer developed the interface and the software (a fairly formidable research challenge that might well be deserving of the award in and of itself). How does a change of interface make this much difference? Using the first system still required substantial work on the part of the researcher (to initiate use of the system). The second system works subconsciously. It saves effort on the part of the user. Once the user no longer has to actively work as hard, the results feel less worthy of recognition. The work matters as as much as the result. The ends don't compensate for the means.

So perhaps the perception of work is what leads us to view some forms of advantage as unfair. Doping works passively. Training in wind tunnels requires action and dedication. Prosthetic limbs (are perceived to, at least) work without active behavior by the wearer. It's the good old work ethic again. That's an American interpretation, at least. We want work to count for something (students often plead for a higher grade based on effort). But that doesn't explain our acceptance of altitude tents for athletes (which at least require some inconvenience of loss of comfort compared to a hotel bed). There, the distinction with doping appears to be whether we violate the body for advantage. A prosthetic auxiliary brain might also violate us physically (if nerve probes had to be implanted rather than worn on the surface). I somehow suspect that even surface probes to access an artificial brain would make some people uncomfortable with rewarding the results, though.

Doping makes me uncomfortable because it might effectively demand an athlete to violate their body to be able to compete. A breakthrough in prosthetic memory research could do the same to scientists. Much excellent research still arises from human perception and inspiration, so the human scientist still has a tremendous role to play in creating results. Athletes similar have instincts of when to hang back, when to attack, and how to read a competitor. It would be interesting to see studies of these more perceptual skills in elite athletes, and how much they correlate with winning performances.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Computational doping

As a fan of road cycling, I've been following the Floyd Landis trial and recent doping revelations (mostly via velonews). The whole affair feels a bit like a witch-hunt at a wizarding convention, in that doping sounds sufficiently commom back in the late 90s that lots of riders probably could make confessions. The question remains whether they will be burned at the stake fueled by collective desire to do something about this practice now.

At the same time, getting into a new research project reawakened my envy at my husband's memory for research results. He's very good at recalling the gists of projects, who worked on them, and how they relate to other projects. He builds mental roadmaps of research areas in his head as he reads, and can recall and access those models easily. My memory is far better for birthdays and people's stories, which isn't usually as useful for professional computer science.

As this skill I desire is all about managing information, though, I should be able to imagine a software system to help me build, manage, and access a store of professional knowledge. The technical challenges to this notwithstanding, I found myself pond ring whether using such a tool would be analogous to doping in sport.

There are clearly some similarities: person uses artificial substance to enhance their ability to perform; person may get more money and more prestige as a result of better performance; person isn't competing solely on their natural talents. There are also some strong differences: sport has one winner (individual or team) whereas research competition usually has several; elite sporting is more financially lucrative than elite research; the public gets emotionally caught up in sport.

High-profile awards such as a Nobel or a Turing (the analogue for computer science) are exceptional in having single winners and non-trivial financial rewards (though not sport level). Imagine a Turing-award winner attributing success partly to a program used to help manage idea infrastructure. The awardee would probably get bonus points for having written the program, but even if someone else wrote it, I can't imagine the computing press calling to revoke the reward.

Is this because what prompts a research award is the ideas instead of the person (the person gets credit, but the idea is what captures the imagination). The same emotion arises in sport: I don't want to let the doping allegations taint Floyd's stage 17 ride in the 2006 Tour de France because it was so frigging _beautiful_. I love cycling for those moments of explosive power where the person disappears and only an instrument highly tuned to its environment, internal condition, and condition of its competitors remains. At that moment, I don't care whether the riders are aided by technology: the joy is my drug, and I just want to experience it.

But when the ride is over and the podium gone, doping takes us past the performance and focuses on the person. One standard argument against doping is that it is unfair, disadvantaging those who choose not to dope. The usual counterargument is that doping can help some riders be more competitive with those with more natural abilities. My memory-enhancing software would fall into the latter, but an already top person could use the same software to widen the gap again. Unlike drugs, my software would cause me no physical harm. In an ideal world, nobody would have to choose between winning and harming themselves, but winning often requires risk and compromise. How is sport truly different?

In the end, research and sport have different value systems, different notions of what makes a heroic performance. Both value results. In research, purity of results comes from replicability; collaboration is both welcome and expected to be visible (via attribution and citation). In individual sport, purity manifests as an unaided athlete achieving the improbable. Collaboration is rampant (top cyclists use a myriad of bike designers, clothing designers, wind tunnel simulations, etc), but expected to be invisible. Doping destroys invisibility and becomes an affront to purity. If our culture viewed scientists as heroes on par with athletes, would my software become distasteful? I suspect not, because we still view research as "hard" and athletics as inborn. If our athletes are simply trying to live up to our expectations of them, perhaps we need to ask whether it is us, not them, who are really on drugs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Rocky Mountain, Eh?

Mountains inspire, overwhelm, and center me. A train ride through the Canadian Rockies has long been on my "do before die" list. So when Shriram had to go to Banff (in the Canadian Rockies) for a conference, no question I was going along. Everyone I know who's been to Banff raves about its beauty, so I went with high expectations.

And a dose of trepidation. Banff trip planning is respite with wildlife warnings: what to do if you encounter a bear, what to do if you're attacked by a bear, what to not do if you're attacked by a bear, etc. Given my healthy respect (read "fear") of wildlife, I paid attention. The pamphlet we got on entry to the park included the obligatory section on bear survival (from which I finally learned why one should spread their legs when playing dead for a bear) and suggested that encountering a cougar would be worse (albeit rare).

For all the buildup, the wildlife scene was a bit disappointing. We did spot some wapiti (elk) wandering in Banff town the first day. There were lots of squirrels and birds. But I never did need all those bear warnings, and I was frankly quite glad of it, but the needless stress was still anti-climactic. Until our last day, when a bunch of cars pulled over along the highway alerted us to a family of grizzly bears on the other side of a high fence. Given that there are only 16 female grizzlies in the entire park, turns out this was quite an unusual event! We later saw (at longer distance, also beyond a fence) a mother and three small black bear cubs. No cougar, but that's just as well for me (though a moose sighting would have been cool).

May turns out to be an interesting time to visit Banff. The bears are recently out of hibernation and out at lower elevations looking for food. The streams are full of snow-melt runoff. The highways are clear, but snow still covers the mountains and most hiking trails and many lakes are still frozen over. This made my selection of bootcut jeans and crew socks a bit inappropriate for hiking. Just how inappropriate became clear when we found ourselves periodically sinking knee-deep in iced-over snow enroute to a glacier at the Columbia icefields. We did make it close enough to see the edge of the glacier though before deciding that the remaining snow field between us and it had the potential to be deeper than either of us city-slickers knew how to read.

Another glacier-bound hike near Lake Louise yielded similar snow sinkings, complete with helping a Chinese tourist recover his right shoe, which had stayed behind (and gotten buried) when he extracted his own foot from the snow. That hike ended when we encountered a clearing where an avalanche had clearly passed through (computer scientists are used to trees growing down, but even I know that an evergreen's roots don't really grow up into the air like that) and once again decided to respect our lack of outdoors saavy. The debris of trees, limbs, and needles strewn covered the snow like pattern on fabric. The size of the print evoked the tremendous force that caused it, in eerie contrast to the stillness of the resulting scene.

Spring is avalanche season in Banff, and while we never saw one happen, we heard several on the other sides of the peaks. It really is a crushing sound: snow bearing down on itself with a crunch equal in melody but richer in tone to our boots on the trails. I don't know that I ever really associated a sound with weight before that. If nature speaks to you though, spend some time sitting lakeside around spring mountains and listen to the avalanches through the stillness. Mountains always make me feel small, but that sound made me feel truly irrelevant.

Avalances feel powerful for the things that they bring down, but that process feels somewhat obvious in light of gravity. The idea of mountains arising from plates crushing together and jabbing towards the sky should feel more powerful, but I don't think I really got that until we stared at the Burgess Shale site in neighboring Yoho national park. The Burgess Shale is a large deposit of middle-Cambrian fossils that formed in the mud of the _ocean_ floor. It sits high up on a peak in the park, accessible only by guided hike in late summer. Staring up, realizing that the fossils up there once sank to sufficient depth to become fossils before rising up, there's a tremendous sense of the passage of time and history. It reminds me of how I felt standing on the Cardo (old Byzantine Road) in Jerusalem some years ago, looking down through a clear plate to unearthed ruins below then up at the ruins from a recently destroyed temple above. In those moments, feeling existence within geological time (or human history) is overpowering and intently, beautifully real.

Overall, as a personal experience, it was a tremendous trip. My feelings for mountains and trepidations for wildlife were reaffirmed, and I got duly put in place by geological grandeur. As a trip to the mountains, I'd be more inclined to return to the Lauterbrunen valley in Switzerland, where the mountains are much closer together and thus more enveloping. The train ride in the Canadian Rockies is lower on the life list now, but someday I would like to do the hike to the Burgess Shale. Luckily, I could get up there much faster than the the fossils, but they may have had the more interesting journey.

For vegetarians: many restaurants in Banff and Lake Louise have something basic on offer (like a veggie patty option or pasta dish). For interesting veggie food in Banff, check out Coyote deli and grill on Caribou St (couple of dishes, southwestern theme), Typhoon on Caribou St (ecletic asian), Nourish on Banff Ave (all veg), or Balkan on Banff Ave (greek). Wild Flour bakery on Bear St had good granola and breakfast goods. We really enjoyed Sunfood Cafe in Canmore (about 20k from Banff town, just outside the park gates), an all veg place with a swiss-inspired menu and a killer homemade veggie burger and french onion soup.