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.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Our Bloggies, Ourselves

This spring, I am interacting more with the non-academic online world. I started writing a blog, following and commenting on other blogs, and learning about spaces such as Second Life. Not surprisingly, these experiences have me considering online identity, though not entirely in the way I expected.

For a couple of days at the start of my blogging experience, I had two blogs: one personal and one professional. The personal had a quirky (but oh-so-me) title and would cover travelogues and other random journal-type stuff; the professional would have a theme that others might care about if I found interesting things to say. Given that I started blogging to force myself to express more ideas, the professional one was more "real". The personal was largely an escape hatch where I could cheat and still post if I lacked thoughts on the professional theme (it was also an archive for travelogues). It took about 3 days for me to write a post that could live in either blog, resulting in the current merged one.

The merge raised some expected issues about online identity, including the basic question of anonymity. In the spirit of stance taking, I blog under my real name and link the blog to my academic web page. As expected, this has lead to a bit of self-censorship while letting me play with balancing various life roles. While I know many women in academia prefer to blog anonymously, gender was never a substantial factor in my decision. It seemed an issue of safety and risk management; neither concern outweighed my goals for the experience.

Then I read a post reflecting on the (female) author's frustration with a work experience. I wanted to shout out "that's my experience to a T" and share the emotional aspects of the situation. I didn't, though, given my decision to not be anonymous in the blogsphere and a sense that the comment would say more than felt appropriate about my job. I could still comment anonymously, but that's not the point. This is one of the few times I've been conscious of being a woman online. And it arose out from frustration about a style of communicating rather a position of fear (my concern with the comment is appropriateness, not potential retribution).

Communication style is a fundamental part of identity: are we really being ourselves if we suppress it? Obviously, whether to use a particular style is not an all-or-nothing choice, but it wasn't one I expected to encounter so viscerally. At the moment, the question seems to arise from my working in a culture that prides itself on objectivity while being someone who experiences life intensely through subjective reactions. I'm no longer sure what it means to "be myself" online, but I do know it goes far beyond the initial question of how many blogs to maintain.