Coolifying Nerdiness

Coolifying Nerdiness, Exhibit A

Recently, Tania Lombrozo of NPR encouraged readers to stop trying to make nerdiness cool, and I couldn't agree more. Coolifying nerdiness emphasizes a narrow subculture of science to the effect of alienating others who would be interested in entering scientific fields themselves.

But one slight failing of her argument is that it perpetuates the idea that nerds are a specific-interest group unto themselves, rather than being a group that is as diverse as any other. My tweak to her argument: rather than proclaiming that scientists are not nerds, I would rather assert that scientists are nerds, and that nerds themselves are a diverse group.

The problem I have with this is a personal one. For me, it actually isn't about gender. It isn't about encouraging kids to "do STEM," and it isn't about advocating for political support for research. It really isn't. At the risk of sounding selfish, the whole Geek Pride movement annoys me to no end because that's not me. And that's not the people I see around me.

Not me.

I don't play video games, I don't self-identify as an "introvert," I've never attended a "Nerd Nite" in Boston, and I don't have, nor have I ever had, any interest in watching The Big Bang Theory.

That's not the kind of people that I see at events in the Computer Science department. And that's certainly not the students I see when I wander the halls, or TA a class. I see all kinds of people. The leaders of our Graduate Student Society are a hip guy with a penchant for rock climbing and, yes, a smart, empowered woman with an incredible sense of style. The other day my Numerical Computation class was led by a muscle-bound Iranian fitness geek who I might be scared of if he weren't so darned friendly.1 I've had the benefit of working with dirtbike racers, mountain climbers, runners, snowboarders, music buffs, fitness geeks, and yes, video gamers. My colleagues and peers are all kinds of people, and that rocks my world.

So I don't like it when the world fails to recognize that diversity. The characters on The Big Bang Theory are shallow and misleading. Even some of the geekiest people I've known have also been, for example, avid hikers and backpackers. And the affect of the Geek Pride movement is to cause them to self-identify with a narrow stereotype that doesn't fully describe them. People relish in calling themselves "geeks" and temporarily forget all the things that make them not geeks (in the stereotypical sense). Geek Pride doesn't really forward the cause of geeks. The Geek Pride movement shoots itself in the foot by embracing these stereotypes. Maybe it increases people's ability to relate to us, but it does not make them want to join us.

Allow someone who's a much better writer than I to prove my point:

For proof of the stereotypes that continue to shape American attitudes about science, and about women in science in particular, you need only watch an episode of the popular television show “The Big Bang Theory,” about a group of awkward but endearing male Caltech physicists and their neighbor, Penny, an attractive blonde who has moved to L.A. to make it as an actress. Although two of the scientists on the show are women, one, Bernadette, speaks in a voice so shrill it could shatter a test tube. When she was working her way toward a Ph.D. in microbiology, rather than working in a lab, as any real doctoral student would do, she waitressed with Penny.

Scientists are already cool, you don't need to make them cool! What you end up doing is watering down your own image and distracting from the things that actually make you interesting and unique. Instead you base your image on shallow attributes like the kinds of TV shows you like to watch, instead of the kinds of activities you like to participate in.

Seems everyone nowadays wants to exclaim in that self-deprecating-but-really-self-congratulatory way, "ugh, I am such a nerd!" No you're not! I know for a fact you're not! You, you're a lawyer who's really athletic! And you, you majored in Spanish and work in marketing! What drives you to call yourself a "science geek?!" Just because you follow I Fucking Love Science on Facebook? I'm so fed up with it! Serenity Now!!!

There's always more to a person than these basic tropes based on what movies and TV shows they like. And they definitely don't all dress in geeky t-shirts. It's an oversimplification that blunts the true meaning of what it is to be a scientist. It distracts from what's really going on behind the scenes at research facilities, and prevents others from understanding what it's really like to be one of us.

I'm sorry, but your Geek Pride has nothing to do with my Science Pride.

2. I hope he isn't reading this.

(See the Exercises)

From a single section of a single chapter of an actual textbook:

... it can easily be shown that the boundary of the specularity is defined by (see exercises) $1 - \epsilon = \mathbf{V} \cdot \mathbf{P}$.

Okay, fair enough.

It is easily shown (see exercises) that the normal to a parametric surface ...

Easy, my ass.

There are two obvious possibilities. We explore the consequences of these models in the exercises.

I obviously knew you were going to say that.

We explore the minimization problem in the exercises.

Are you guys bored writing this chapter?

... (you can convince yourself of this with the aid of a spoon).

Definitely bored.

The recovered surface does not depend on the choice of curve (exercises).

Okay, now you're just getting lazy.

... (it is complicated, but not difficult, to build more elaborate models).

Complicated, but not difficult... complicated... not difficult... until just now, I thought those two words were the same thing.

By the way, here's a couple of typical exercises:

2.10. Read the book Colour and Light in Nature, by Lynch and Livingstone, published by Cambridge University Press, 1995.

2.12. Make a world of black objects and another of white objects (paper, glue, and spraypaint are useful here) and observe the effects of interreflections.

Grad students love “pourovers.” No, that’s not some French Canadian word… see here. (Personally, I don’t know what’s so difficult about using a French press.)

College is still worth it. A post-secondary education is still a worthwhile investment, if we are safe in making certain assumptions. (This data is from my home country, so it might not even be applicable here in Canada.)

This concrete 'E' gets graffitied about once a week.

Nerds can tag, too.

The major sources of funding in Canada are: The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR); the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC); and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

• If you’re in medicine or biology, you’re probably funded by CIHR.
• If you’re in other sciences, you hope to have NSERC money coming your way.
• If you’re in the humanities, you look toward SSHRC.

Calhoun’s internet tickets don’t expire. If you don’t use the internet when you’re there, your ticket will still be valid the next time you visit. I used a week-old ticket today. (Calhoun’s is a 24-hour café/bakery where an endless torrent of UBC students come to study.)

Tater tot eating contest! (Huh?)

Being a(n adjunct) professor can kill you. Literally.

Blackboard is still just as crappy as it was 7 years ago. (Yes, the last time I was in school was almost 7 years ago.)

The 99 B-Line is really loud... at 1 a.m. on a Saturday on the way back to UBC, that is!

Computer science professors at UBC prefer the term “computational intelligence” to “artificial intelligence.” Because after all, when does it cease to be artificial? What is artificial? Whoa, that's deep...

The Stanford Prison Experiment is not all that remarkable. It seems like every pop psychology article I read cites the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in one way or another, as an example of the inherent brokenness of justice systems, or something like that. But now that I’ve actually been forced to read about it as part of research ethics training,1 it’s clear to me that the experiment was designed to produce draconian behavior from the get-go! We cannot safely conclude anything from this study.2

UBC campus is an ecosystem. There are skunks and raccoons and giant seagulls everywhere! And these are my coonfriends. These guys aren't the least bit phased by humans.

There are amazing free apps to manage libraries of PDF documents. Though I have far from explored the space yet, the main ones seem to be:

These are objectively awesome. I have even started to use them for note-taking in class, instead of paper. I might write a more detailed blog post about this in the future, depending on how well it works out.

It’s hard for students to ask questions in class. Some instructors get annoyed when students get lost in class and don’t ask for help. But now that I’m a student again, I can see that it’s nearly impossible to ask good questions. I’m not going to say any more about this now; I’ll write a full post on this later.

Finally, don’t feed the grad students.

A peek into the Computer Science Grad Student Bullpen.

1. Look out for this if you’re a new grad, too. You must take one of these if you are going to be involved in any kind of human or animal trials! Ask your advisor if you need it.
2. There was no clear experimental design, no independent variable, no controls: just an environment designed to produce maximum psychological effect. There is next to nothing to be learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment; at best, it is an anecdote, not an experiment. And here we have entire theories of social psychology and humanity built upon it. In fact, the only really interesting observation to be made is how out of 50 outside observers of the experiment, only a single person ever objected to what was being done. Disturbing, indeed, but not conclusive of anything in particular.

The So-Help-Me-God Edition

If you are in the fortunate position to be a lucky owner of a spiffy new Macbook, I salute you! In my humble opinion there could not be a finer breed of computer. Savor it, my friend!

However, if you are in the unfortunate position of needing to implement algorithms and plots in GNU Octave, I pity you. It is your fate to run through the gauntlet of Unix dependency hell that is getting open source software to work on a closed source operating system.

But I have good news! Hopefully, I have now exposed all the booby traps that Mountain Lion has set for you, and I've discovered the secret command-line incantations necessary to avoid them. Yes, much like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I will now deftly disarm the traps so that you may pass freely into the chamber of the Holy Grail1. Choose wisely.

1. First, install XQuartz. In the past this came installed on OS X, but as of Mountain Lion it is no longer included. So go fix that.
2. You will also need the Xcode Command Line Tools if you don't already have them. Both Homebrew and XQuartz need this to work.
3. Now you are ready to install Octave from Homebrew:2

If you don't know what Homebrew is, then do me a favor and slap yourself a couple times. Install Homebrew now; thank me later.

Wow, Neil, that was easy! That's it, huh?
NO, YOU FOOL!

1. Octave claims to have native drawing support using FLTK, but I haven't been able to get it working yet. We'll rely on gnuplot instead, which must be installed separately:
2. Now edit your Octave startup file or create a new one:

(btw, to save and exit vim, type ':wq', or to exit without saving, type ':q')
3. Now for the ultimate fix: reboot your machine! Yep, until you restart your Mac, Octave will be unable to launch XQuartz on its own, and you won't be able to plot anything.
4. Once you're back in, open the terminal, fire up Octave, and plot a sombrero(). You're all set!

1. The Holy Grail of Octave? Okay, not the greatest analogy.
2. If you're having trouble with this step, see: Octave for OS X

Evolving Higher Education

Recently, Udacity announced that it would be offering an Online Master of Science in Computer Science, in collaboration with Georgia Tech and AT&T. Just another stage in the nascent world of the Internet.

When I mentioned it, my mother asked me a question:

Does this dilute the prestige of a Master's in CS if 10,000 people do it, as they say? You do not need to take the GRE? It will cost less than \$7,000 total? So you can still work and make money and end up with a Master's from Georgia Tech! Gee!

Here was my response to her (emphasis added).

Ahem... you mean an Online Master of Science from Georgia Tech. That is to say, OMS is different from MS.

Still, degrees are like fiat currency, in that if enough people believe that they mean something, then they mean something. So OMS could come to mean the same thing as MS, in time. And that might mean that an MS becomes cheapened, or it might mean that an OMS becomes stronger, or they meet somewhere in the middle.

We should try to view this with some perspective. As I understand it, MAs and PhDs have been around since medieval times, but they were mostly a license to teach until the last 100 years or so. And they've seen a huge burst in popularity in the past few decades. I could easily imagine a world without them. Not to mention, there are already dozens of different types of Master degrees—just check out the Wikipedia page for "Master's degree." Schools are often inventing new degrees, but since you and I are outside academia we aren't aware of it most of the time. This one just happens to get a bit more publicity because of the format.

I also often forget that there are already a vast number of OMS programs. The only thing that's new here is that this is the first one in MOOC format. So you could equivalently ask, does the fact that someone can get a cheap degree from Phoenix Online or Drexel University dilute my degree from UBC? Do people believe there is any difference between these three programs?

I'd love to discuss this some more the next time we talk. It's very interesting. A professor whose blog I've been following just touched upon some of these issues. You should read that too.

I look forward to seeing how my opinions on the business of pedagogy evolve and deepen throughout the course of my MS/PhD (which is now fast approaching!). I'll certainly be writing more about this in the future.