Saturday, April 25, 2015

Girls Who Code (Newton) Visit to Harvard

My friend David Miller is looking for instructors to help out with the Newton Girls who Code club.  Here's an announcement, please connect with him if you're interested. 

They visited Harvard last week -- David gave me permission to post his description of the visit.  It seemed like a well-organized event -- thanks to the Harvard Women in Computer Science group for putting it together.


Last Friday, the Newton Girls Who Code club was welcomed by the Harvard Women in Computer Science at Harvard's Maxwell-Dworkin Laboratory. The students learned about the joint Harvard-MIT Robot Soccer team from the mechanics tech lead, Harvard junior Kate Donahue. She showed us last years fleet of robots (named after Greek and Roman gods), and described their work on preparing this years fleet (to be named after Harry Potter characters). Kate emphasized the interplay between computer vision, artificial intelligence, mechanical engineering, and distributed systems. Many of the robot parts are 3D printed -- a technology that the Newton GWC students will become more familiar with this fall as we integrate the Newton Library's 3D printer into the GWC activities.
After the robots demonstration, the students took part in a Q+A discussion with Harvard WiCS undergrads Hana Kim, Ann Hwang, and Adesola Sanusi. Our students asked great questions about our hosts' motivation and history with coding, the mechanics of being a college CS major, the role of gender in the CS community, the connections between computer science and other fields, and our hosts' vision for the future of computing. The WiCS undergrads are excellent role models and were enormously encouraging. They pronounced our students more than ready to take Harvard's most popular course, Introduction to Computer Science, and recommended they try out the free, online, EdX version today. It was an exhilarating afternoon!

Monday, April 20, 2015

My (Positive) Apple Retail Repair Experience

I switched to Apple machines several years ago, and have been very happy with them generally.

One convenience is there is an Apple store in the mall about 10 minutes from my home, so when things go wrong, I know where to go.  Thursday night a screen-related hardware glitch developed (which, to be clear, in this case was not what I would call a product defect;  let's say it was a me defect).  I ran over and they said it would probably need to be taken in for a repair.

Not being ready to hand over machine just yet, I went home to pull off some data, and then booked an appointment.  The downside to the Apple store is you really need to book an appointment online, even for (or especially for) things involving repair.  My walk-in Thursday I didn't even get up to the Genius Bar; one of the people up front just suggested what they thought was going on.  And my Apple store, at least, is painfully busy, all the time.  I got an appointment for Saturday afternoon, nothing available Friday.  I went in Friday morning before heading to work on the off chance I could get it in then;  they said the walk-in waiting time was 90 minutes to 2 hours.  I should have expected;  the walk-in waiting time always seems to be measured in hours.

That's the downside.  The positive is, when you have an appointment, they are great.  I had no wait when I went in Saturday, and in the past, if they're running behind, they've let me know if I have to wait for my appointment and estimated for how long.  They are courteous and professional.  They will let you know what they are doing as they test your machine, what needs to be done, and provide estimates for how long it will take.  Their setup really engenders trust.  I also have found their repair times reasonable and understandable.  My machine is back to me and all is well Monday afternoon.  (Thank you, Apple Store.) 

I haven't had to deal with them often over the last decade -- I'd say a reasonable number of times considering the number of Apple machines I've had and in family use.  Overall this experience is typical.  There's anxiety in going in for any sort of repair process, but they did an excellent job.

Finally, I imagine this is not useful advice to people reading this blog, but do back up your data regularly and/or automatically.  One of the first questions they always ask is whether you have a backup, and it's always a good feeling to know that if worst comes to worst you just put your state on a new machine.  Someone else at the Genius Bar while I was there had their computer put back in working order but their data was lost;  they weren't the sort of user that it was a real problem, but the occasional reminder that backups are important is always helpful.


Friday, April 03, 2015

Women in Math (and Computer Science)

Wednesday afternoon I went to a panel organized by the Harvard Undergraduate Mathematics Association for a "Gender Gap on Math Discussion".  I went both to hear what was going on (as there's still that gender gap in CS, and we're always eager to hear ways that we might do things better that might reduce that), and for moral support for some people I know who were involved.  The panel was co-organized by Meena Boppana, an undergraduate who did research with me the summer before last and is currently a star in my graduate class, and one of the panelists was Hilary Finucane, a graduate student who I advised on her senior thesis and collaborated with on multiple papers with when she was an undergraduate at Harvard.  I should note that Meena and several others had done a survey of Harvard math undergraduates which had highlighted some issues that would be a starting point for discussion.   

I could only stay for the first half or so, but it seemed very positive.  A number of faculty showed up, which was promising.  My take on the panel's take was was that they were interested in how to make improvements in the culture, and the goal was to try to start figuring out how that could happen, in part by sharing their experiences.  The discussion was both balanced and thoughtful, presented positives with negatives, but focused on how to improve things.  There's a writeup in the Crimson with more details.  The main point that came out in the first half was something I've seen and heard before:  the importance of having a community, including (but not necessarily limited to) a community of women that can offer support, guidance, and mentorship, but also just so you don't continually feel like the only woman in the room. 

And as long as we're on the subject, there's been a number of recent stories (or older stories where I've recently seen the links) on women in math and computer science.  Focusing on Harvard to start, there's a nice writeup about Harvard's Women in Computer Science group, which has helped provide that community that encourages women to take classes in and concentrate in computer science.  An article from last year discusses progress at Harvard in closing the gender gap in computer science.  There was even an article in the Harvard Political Review covering gender gap issues at Harvard.

Outside of Harvard, from sources on Google+ I've seen a blog post with an interesting slide deck from one Katie Cunningham that provides a great starting point of discussion about the culture and women in computer science.  And, finally, a link to something simultaneously sad and funny (things-male-tech-colleagues-have-actually-said-annotated) that reminds us why we have to keep trying to improve the culture. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

On the Shannon Centennial

I found in my snail mail mailbox my paper copy of the IEEE Information Theory Society Newsletter.  First, I was delighted by the news that Michelle Effros (of Cal Tech) is the new President of the IEEE Information Theory Society.   Michelle has a long history of service (as well as, it goes without saying, outstanding research) in the information theory community, and is a great selection for the job.

In her opening column, Michelle discusses the importance of letting people outside of their community know what the information theory research community is doing, especially with the Shannon Centennial (April 30, 2016 will be the 100th anniversary of his birth) coming up.  The IT Society will be spearheading outreach efforts as part of the Centennial.  As Michelle says,
Every school child learns the name of Albert Einstein;  his most famous equation has somehow entered the realm of popular culture.  Why is it that so few people know the name or have heard about the contributions of Claude Elwood Shannon?
In Computer Science, Turing is our "guiding light", and we had a very successful centenary celebration -- as well as a recent popular movie The Imitation Game -- to make Turing's life and work as well as the importance of computer science as a scientific discipline more well known and understood to the rest of the world.  But Shannon, too, is one of the guiding lights of computer science;  it is hard to imagine large parts of computer science theory and networking, for example, without the foundations laid out by Shannon in developing the theory of communications.

I have always thought that the Information Theory community and the computer science community -- particularly on the theory side -- should interact and communicate more, as there are huge overlaps in the problems being studied and still significant differences in techniques used (although there's more and more crossover in this regard).  Perhaps the Shannon Centennial will provide some grand opportunities for the two communities to come together, to promote the Shannon legacy, and as a side benefit to learn more from and about each other.