Monday, February 28, 2011

The advantage of being me

From The Advantage Of Dual-Identities (A Case Study of Nabokov), I bring you this quote:

It’s also important to note that the advantage of having a “dual-identity” – being both a novelist and a scientist, for instance – isn’t limited to Nabokov. According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity.

So as a female, half-asian all-canadian researcher, I'm clearly better at creativity than all those boring white dude researchers?

Angela Montenegro from Bones... I don't even know exactly where to begin on this. So I'm going talk about Bones for a minute. I've been watching it with my sister lately while we do other things (crochet, do mending, wander around looking for things in an mmo, eat dinner, etc.) and the other day she pointed out that she loves how the show deals with Angela, or really, how it doesn't. See, Angela Montenegro is the team's artist: she does sketches of the victims. But she doesn't stop there: she also coaxes data off broken camcorders and swallowed flash drives doing digital forensic work. She's an adept computer programmer who writes software that helps visualize and model what happened during a crime. What's cool about Bones is that it's totally taken for granted that she can be an artist and a coder. (And really, pretty much whatever else she wants to be.)

So I guess while I fundamentally agree that having multiple "identities" is a huge asset to my work and creative abilities, I sort of feel like... why are they making such a big deal about this, as if it's some hugely abnormal thing. Why can't they just accept that Angela can draw and code? Why do people insist on compartmentalizing people into single skill sets? I can drive a car and code and no one thinks that's weird, but plenty of people have commented with surprise that I can edit a magazine (yes, I used to do this) and write code. Hello, world?

The article just makes me a little uncomfortable. This worst part is the paragraph about how the US will be overrun by mixed-race folk like me with superior creative skills -- awkward racial superiority with a different spin -- but even the study methodology doesn't quite sit right with me at a first reading. But maybe the article is simply a journalistic reflection of research into of a real logical fallacy that people often employ: the assumption that one must specialize in only one skill to be the best person one can be. That's one of those things that might be true for programs, but I really haven't seen much evidence of it being true for people.

Despite my issues with the article, I think it's got a nice take-away message: it's a-ok, normal, and maybe even superior to have and use your multiple identities. And don't let incredulous folk tell you otherwise.

This was originally posted on my personal blog.

"Image Enhancing" Has Nothing to do with Photoshop

After listening to Gail's informative presentation on 'Unlocking the Clubhouse', I began thinking about the issue of image in computer science. Many disciplines have their own Hollywood representations, glamorous (though unrealistic) portrayals of their field. Archaeology and anthropology have the Indiana Jones films. The English department has The Dead Poets Society. Even physics has a photogenic ambassador thanks to Professor Brian Cox (on whom People magazine bestowed the title of "World’s Sexiest Quantum Physicist.") In fact, the only area I can think of without such a superstar is accounting... sorry, accountants.

But I digress. While some may find "image" to be a trivial matter, the importance of public perception shouldn't be so easily dismissed. A positive image of computer science is important for recruiting diverse talent to the field. There are many capable, intelligent people who may pass over CS as a career because of misconceptions about the job of computer scientists. Dilbert-esque scenarios of cubicle rows and "code monkey" work may spring to mind. I think that a key part of recruiting more women to CS involves breaking down stereotypes of the field. In that respect, I think the media can have a role in reshaping people's perception of computer scientists. One of my favourite recent examples is Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, featuring the grey-hat hacker Lisbeth Salander (pictured). Another favourite of mine is the television show Numb3rs, a crime drama that follows two dramatically different groups of people - a team of FBI agents and a group of academics - who collaborate to solve crimes using the power of applied mathematics. And as tacky and cliché as the 1995 movie Hackers seems today, to my ten year-old self it was the coolest thing ever.

Is the use of technology in such media unrealistic? For the purpose of entertainment, there's bound to be some exaggerations for dramatic effect - but that's missing the point. The point is to break down preconceptions of what "kind of person" uses computers, and what they use them for.

(Have any favourite fictional scientists of your own (female or not)? The comments section is wide open!)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Weird Al's Patterns

One day, several years ago, I was hanging out in the Math Society lounge when it came up that pretty much everyone used to watch the educational kids show Square One. (It turns out an inordinate number of people in that room also played trombone, but that's another story.) This show was my introduction to a lot of fun math concepts, including Fibonacci numbers, and it was also probably my introduction to Weird Al.

I've had this song about patterns from Square One stuck in my head many a time, starting with the first time I heard it now several decades ago... and now I'm giving this earworm to all of you as today's Wednesday fun video. No no, you don't have to thank me. ;)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Video Games as a Stealth Learning Tool

My PhD research is all about using augmented reality in games designed to teach you something.  I think educational games has had a bit of a bad rap for a while, and maybe this is for good reason.  There so seem to be memories among many students of basic skill and drill activities thinly disguised as games.

But game designers are getting better at making their players smarter.  For example, there's been a lot of cool research happening in the area, and we seem to know a lot more about how to create a compelling experience that teaches you something at the same time.  (Take a look at this article I wrote on my own blog about educational games.)

Even better, more and more research is coming out that games is actually a really effective way to learn. There's a recent article in Psych Central News that says this:
To kids, such games would remain a pleasant diversion. But to Mom and Dad, they would provide reassurance that their child is acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to excel in an increasingly competitive world.  “The concept is known as ‘stealth assessment,’” said Shute, a professor of instructional systems. “Essentially what we try to do is disguise educational content in such a way that kids aren’t even aware that they’re being assessed while they’re engrossed in game play.”
I say it's never been a better time to be in this field, and if you're in computer science or anything related, then maybe it's the right time for you to join us and study educational games in graduate school. ;)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Finally, a reason to watch game shows

Computer scientists have a reason to cheer tonight for Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence that is attempting to beat two of Jeopardy’s human champions and expand the frontiers of artificial intelligence. Last night's broadcast ended with Watson at $35,734, Brad Rutter at $10,400, and Ken Jennings at $4,800 after a fascinating game (in which Watson strangely thought Toronto was a U.S. city.)

I've been closely following Watson's progress because of the implications "he" has for computer science. I like the idea of "grand challenges," as IBM calls their ambitious projects - not only for the innovation they produce, but also because of their power to engage the public and promote interest in computer science. For those interested in learning more, has many interesting videos on the project. The videos cover the actual tech behind the system (dubbed "DeepQA" by IBM), and its implications for data management and analytics in various industries. The human element is given special attention, too - my favourite segments are the ones profiling the various teams of IBM researchers from different disciplines, and showing how each of them contributed to this ambitious project.

The videos are entertaining, fascinating - sometimes even amusing. In one of the video commentaries, one of the developers said his favorite misparse of a question was when the clue was:

"Category: Bottoms Up!:
It's made with equal amounts of champagne and orange juice."
and Watson said "What is breakfast?"

Ottawa IBM employees and Carleton students (including yours truly) will celebrate tonight with a party and screening of the final game at Oliver’s Pub. For A.I. enthusiasts, it's perhaps a more exciting broadcast than the Superbowl!

Math song for extra credit

I just love the description of this math song video:

During my Freshman year, my Algebra 3-4 teacher, Mr. Krenz, gave me extra credit if I wrote him a Math Song. So I did!

Here's the chorus, in case you need to sing along. ;)

math is my happiness
and life is a total mess without you
one plus one equals two
if you be my one, i'll be yours dude
cuz love is about adding stuff together
its math and me forever

Hm, I wonder why so many of the math/science/engineering songs I find seem to be about love?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Coldplay's "The Scientist" -- Cover by Jennifer Chung

You know, I'd heard this song a lot of times, but never really listened to the lyrics until I happened across this cover version. Given the name, I figured it'd make a different sort of Wednesday fun video.

Ever found science or mathematics in a song where you didn't expect it?

I was just guessin' at numbers and figures,
Pulling the puzzles apart.
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chemistry Professor Maria DeRosa Honoured for Research

From the Carleton University newsroom:
For the millions of people worldwide who suffer from psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia, Carleton Professor Maria DeRosa’s next research initiative provides hope for a new treatment. DeRosa is one of 10 Carleton professors who will be honoured with a Research Achievement Award from the university for her innovative research that helps find solutions to real-world problems. The other winners will be announced throughout Carleton’s Research Days celebration that runs until Feb. 11.
Read the rest here and join us in celebrating the amazing accomplishments of all Carleton women in science and engineering!

Fashion show with Google

Via the design blog Today and tomorrow, this wednesday fun video show a neat way to use Google search to put on a fashion show. Just get a projector and take advantage of those image search functions!

Fashion Show with Google from Robbin Waldemar on Vimeo.

The video is 30 second TV commercial made by Robbin Ingvarsson & Waldemar Wegelin for the campaign ‘more with Google’ in Japan.