Ada Lovelace Day: The ENIAC “Computers” (i.e., Programmers) — Kathleen McNulty, Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Synder Holber, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum (and 80 more!)

October 14, 2014

Yay! Another Ada Lovelace day!

So, this year, I will have gotten my post up in time. I also need to make good on last year’s pledge to discuss Birte’s papers. So, first thing is first: Today’s post.

Jean Jennings (left), Marlyn Wescoff (center), and Ruth Lichterman program ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania, circa 1946.

Ada Lovelace is commonly heralded as the first computer programmer so it makes a ton of sense (and I’m sure has been done to death) celebrate the first modern programmers: The ENIAC “Computers”.

There’s a great article about them on the WITI hall of fame. (I’m gonna lose a few days to that site!)

Note that the task was about a billion times harder than programming today:

They had none of the programming tools of today. Instead, the programmers had to physically program the ballistics program by using the 3000 switches and dozens of cables and digit trays to physically route the data and program pulses through the machine. Therefore, the description for the first programming job might have read: “Requires physical effort, mental creativity, innovative spirit, and a high degree of patience.”

So the article is about the first 6 (see the title) who went on to do more great things later. (Kathy Kleiman has been doing a ton of research and made a documentary I’m dying to see.) But I’m also interested in the next 80. From what I’ve read, the reason the Army recruited women was the dearth of men (a la Rosie the Riveter; indeed there seems to be an earlier documentary about them called Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII (can’t wait to see it!)).

So, the dawn of modern computing, and most of the programmers are women. What the hell happened!? Why are they even more celebrated (a la Turing! or even Rosie?).

There’s a very nice article by W. Barkley Fritz with some quotes from interviews of the original 6 and some later computers. This bit from Kay McNulty stood out for me:

The key to doing the job was a knowledge of numerical in- tegration, a topic outside the math curriculum at Chestnut Hill College. When we confessed we didn’t even know what the term meant, we were each given a copy of a very thick book by Scarborough [3] and told to read certain chapters. Reading the assigned material was not much help. It was not until we were given our own calculators and the huge sheets of paper and shown step by step how the integration was done that we began to realize what was expected of us. We then got to work.

“We then got to work.” Of course they did!

Let me add that I’m especially tickled that this is all happening in Philadelphia. How did I not know this before now?!?!

Thinking about what they did reminds me of the old cartoon about Ginger Rodgers:

Three people are looking at an advert for a Fred Astaire Film Festival and the woman says, 'Sure he was great. But don't forget that Ginger Rodgers did everything he did...backwards and in high heels.

They did everything we do today except with nothing but wires, switches, brains, and guts.

Music Monday: Different Drum

October 7, 2014

(Yes, I missed last week. How sad. And how sad that these are the only posts I’m managing at all! I have a slew of academic freedom posts in the backlog but writer’s block is kicking my butt in a very serious way.)

I heard this song on the speakers at the Barnes & Noble on Rittenhouse Square. I half recognized it (dejavuesquely), but couldn’t place it, but thanks to the wonders of smartphones I tracked it down and listened obsessively to it for a week or three.

Without question, Ronstadt’s performance is outstanding (and overall it’s a really pretty arrangement). I had no idea that it was written by Mike Nesmith (of the Monkee’s fame). Here’s Mike singing a stripped down, country version:

It’s just nowhere near awesome, much less as awesome. It’s meaner and the narrator is less sympathetic as a man (at least for me).

(The version from the Monkee’s is pretty funny, though:


Ronstadt’s version (and my obsession thereof) inspired me to write a short story around it…but it’s not done so I won’t post it yet.

Music Monday: Sex with Ducks (and other Garfunkel and Oats)

September 23, 2014

Garfunkel and Oats have a TV show! Who knew? Kate Micucci (Oats) has had some high profile extended guest slots on popular sitcoms (i.e., Scrubs and the Big Bang Theory), but I had no idea that Garfunkel and Oats were big enough for a TV show. Good for them. Thus far, it’s ok. Very G&O and maybe that’s not the best thing.

The first song of theirs I encounters is still one of their best, “Sex With Ducks” which lampoons stupid bestiality arguments against gay marriage (isn’t that quaint?). The video is fun too:

Ducks, sex with ducks
We’ll do it in the rain
Ducks, yeah, ducks
Got those wet feet on my brain
We’ll find a pond, we’ll find a puddle
Put your beak in mine and we’ll cuddle
It’s a feeling I can’t name
When sex with ducks and gay marriage
Are one and the same

The chorus exhibits much of the G&O formula, though the bridge does so better:

Gonna goose that goose
Gonna quack that swan
Gonna rubber my duckie all night long
Gonna whack that Mallard
Until its feathers plume
Gonna Huey Dewey Louie all over the room
Scrooge McDuck, gonna give it to you
Dive into your gold until you say
DuckTales, whoo hoo

“Raunchy/transgressive word play” pretty much sums it up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Except when there is. Consider “Go Kart Racing (Accidentally Masturbating)”:

This is pretty funny but more so if you haven’t just heard a bunch of roughly similar stuff. Some of their stuff is perhaps pointlessly mean? (“Pregnant women are smug”) But that’s perhaps the point?

(I had a bunch more whining about some of the songs I don’t care for, but meh! I think the main point should be is that some people will like all of them and enough people will enough some of them. Go for it!)

And let us not forget the immensely clever “Fuck You”:

Because I like you, I like you, I like you, I like you
And like can lead to like like and like like can lead to love
As sure as the stars above, I’d really like to kiss you (Riki: fuck you)

It could have be a straight up cute little dopey love song (just always insert “Kiss you” at the end of the chorus). The mismatch is funny. The frankness of the desire is funny. But in the end it really is a cute little dopey love song about the awkwardness of falling in love.

Music Monday: Fox Grapes

September 16, 2014

Ooop, with travel, the talk today, and AAAI deadline, I’m late in EST. Sigh! I could have done this on Saturday when I heard Zoe give an absolutely spectacular performance of this song. Here’s a video of a different performance. Live is always better than videos of a live performance!

This is one of her early banjo tunes and it’s most definitely a New Jersey song. My absolutely favourite line (and which completely stunned me again in her performance) is

Wild as a muskrat, round as a ball
they taste of the summer as it turns into fall

I want this taste! One of my favourite times is late August in PA because the light has exactly this taste and all the longing and joy and anticipation that comes from being on that transitional cusp.

That’s where I want to live forever.

The song portrays nostalgia about spending an enormous amount of effort so that one can be nostalgic (about the summer turning into fall recalled by jelly one has for when the winter comes). I’m a sucker for that sort of layering!

Also, the chorus is an exceedingly fun mouthful:

Bring along a bucket cause we’re all gonna go
Up on the creek where the fox grapes grow
Up on the creek where the fox grapes grow

Now, my poetry analytic years are far behind me, but “Bring along a bucket” has that lovey staggered B with the doubled G in between. It feels harder than it is and when I succeed (which I always do), I feel like I’ve done something tricky but fun. Very much like picking fox grapes to make minute amounts of jam.

Music Monday: Alleluia

September 9, 2014

Of course, the first question is “Which one!” Rest assured, this one has not been covered to death or used in far too many movies.

The cafeteria’s got everything, it’s gonna drive me mad
‘Cause it looks just like a big Hawaiian party that my mother had
It’s like the worst Elvis film I’ve ever seen
Technicolor luau all on technicolor green
There’s camping trips and donkey rides and singing round the fire
And they signed me up for surfing but they can’t get me in the choir
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia

Dar Williams at her relentless, whimsical, and logical best. Alleluia is a neat little song about what happens to a teenage punk who makes it into heaven. Of course, they find love!

But there she was this morning, getting fitted for her wings
Leather boots, magenta hair and saying nasty things
I’d say she was an Angel but it’s stupid and it’s obvious
I said you’ll hate it here ’cause we’re the only ones like us
It’s crypto-fascist mania, it’s silicon deliria
Yeah, she said, you’re right, but I like the cafeteria

I’m not sure if the narrator is intended to be male or female, but since it’s Dar voicing it, I’ve always envisioned the narrator as a woman. When I realised that the gender wasn’t specified I tried picturing them as a boy and frankly I didn’t find it nearly as fun.

The music is quick, light, staccato, very pattery for the verses and rocky choral for the choruses. Very easy to listen to.

I’m convinced that the whole song exists for (or was generated from) to let us eye roll with the narrator about angelically cheesy jokes:

The waves are perfect and the sun will always shine
But there’s got to be more to death than surfing all the time
I know the signs of self-destruction so I try to stop each new kid
Don’t be like me, forever young, forever stupid
Yeah, I found love here but I’ll bet you’ll find it there
Where they don’t always make the same joke
Gee you make a heavenly pair

A fate worse than life!

Music Monday: Pocket Fulla Quarters

September 2, 2014

We got ice cream and lemonade,
A pocket fulla quarters at Jilly’s arcade.

Since it’s Labor (US spelling! it’s a US holiday!) Day, which is the traditional end of the NJ Shore season, this weeks Zoesong is Pocket Fulla Quarters which opens her album, Coyote Wings.

I am not, alas (because I want to be!!! I want the shore season to be longer!) and whew (because I’m sure traffic is murder), not down the shore this weekend. For me, “the shore” is Ocean City, NJ, American’s Greatest Family Resort (TM).

I spent a lot of summers there. First we just went like the typical shoebie (and we did, in fact!, at least once bring lunch in a shoebox!), then we had a house, and then, alas, the hotel. So many summers spent being tormented in the hospitality industry (yes, I’ve chambermaided like crazy).

Zoe and I wrote some few awkward love letters over the first summer that I worked systematically at the hotel. I don’t think it was until after the giant 6 story structure was torn down and replaced with a more standard motel that she ever saw it. But she had heard plenty and that little bit of exposure was surely enough. (She witnessed, I believe, my classic chambermaid move of using the guest’s razor to remove the tampon she popped into the toilet and then put it back where I got it from.)

Ocean City is no longer as depicted in the song, at least not entirely. They keep the beaches built up so much that water never goes under the boardwalk anymore. This song is a pure slice of my childhood with all its ambiguity.

(The Music Monday constraint (i.e., 15-20 minutes) is brutal! I’ll have to post some more about this!)

Academic Freedom from first principles

August 29, 2014

Recently there have been two, somewhat prominent, cases where a professor received a job offer from an academic department had that offer rescinded by the administration (typically without explanation). The cases have interesting parallels and raise interesting questions about academic freedom. I’ve encountered a fair bit of confusion about how academic freedom plays into all this. In this essay, I attempt to construct a model of academic freedom and its limits (acceptable and otherwise) derived, more or less, from first principles. So I don’t rely on e.g., AAUP statements except as cross checks that I’m in the right concept space. I’ll try to apply this derived notion to the cases (Salaita and McGinn) to test it out.

Some caveats:

  1. While the S&M cases are prominent and important, they are by no means the most significant impositions on academic freedom today. For example, the treatment of adjuncts (and the reduction of tenure lines) is far more significant and destructive. I’m sort of wimping out by starting with S&M, but that’s where my head has been, so that’s where I’m starting. Sorry.
  2. I don’t particularly care for Salaita or McGinn.
  3. I’m more personally sympathetic toward Salaita than McGinn (by like a ton).
  4. My judgement is that Salaita has a very strong case for his having treated unjustly. McGinn much less so.

The Academic Mission

The standard primary (at least nominal) goal of a university is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Universities can have other goals, even other primary goals (e.g., social justice or, more problematically, profit), but if knowledge creation and sharing aren’t in there it’s hard to see how they are a university per se. A university can choose to emphasise one over the other (“teaching colleges” vs. “research universities”), but without the combination you just are something else. [Note: We need to construe knowledge broadly so that the creation of art in all its forms is covered.]

It is important not to prima facie constrain the form or sort of knowledge. It happens that scholarly knowledge is the primary form of knowledge generated by universities, but it’s not the only form, and part of the teaching aspect is to produce self-knowledge in students.

Given this mission, we immediately face two questions:

  1. What are the necessary means to achieving this mission?
  2. What are the most effective means to achieving this mission?

The banal answer is that we need a certain amount of resources. People have to eat while they teach or do research. Labs and classrooms cost money.

Another answer is that we need rigour, quality, skill, and so on. Sometimes this is called expertise, but there are some issues there (e.g., when “being a credentialed expert” substitutes for “has a specific capability”) . So, let’s just call it skill. We need skill in research and in teaching.

The distinctive answer answer to both these questions is free inquiry.1

Free Inquiry

Why does inquiry need to be free? Even in areas which might seem to be highly constrained as to method and topic (say, physics or biology), the space of possible hypotheses, techniques, and methods is too large and complex for exhaustive search.2 We need to winnow down our explorations to likely to be fruitful efforts. And we have a plethora of mechanisms to do this: teaching, funding, hiring criteria (and actual hiring), promotion criteria (and actual promotions), peer review, peer acclaim and scorn, public acclaim, prizes, and so on. The social mechanisms in place to direct research both in form (e.g., thou shalt publish in high ranking journals; thy thesis shall cite appropriate literature) and in content (e.g., see the history of cold fusion3).

Furthermore, one of the jobs of a PhD supervisor/advisor is to steer their students to projects that are likely to result in a successful PhD defence.4 A key job of peer reviewer is to ensure that certain quality, relevance, and significance standards are met.

All this suggests that inquiry is de facto highly constrained and such heavy constraints are embraced by the academic community.

However, history is littered with surprising scientific ideas and techniques. To grossly oversimplify, science works by a generate and test methodology: We generate theories and test them against reality. The problem is that we are often wrong and wrong headed. It’s not just that we make errors, but that we make errors at every level, including what’s worth investigating and what’s the right way to do it. Given the enormous forces pushing for conformity, we need something to counterbalance it. We need to make space for stabs into other parts of the investigatory space.5 If there is a lot of momentum in a certain direction, then other moves are both inherently risky (after all, we generally have good reasons for the current direction) and institutionally risky (the rest of the community is trying to keep every one on “fruitful” paths).

We need to mitigate the risk of groupthink and communal misguidedness. The way we do this is by providing some mitigation of the individual (or sub community) risk and some encouragement to go off the common paths. Some example mechanisms:

  1. Tenure and other job protections.
  2. Conscious efforts to support diverse views.
  3. An ethos of critical reflection, exploration, and devil’s advocacy.
  4. Less constrained fellowships such as MacArthur awards, etc.
  5. Opener fora such as workshops where we relax e.g., rigour standards with an eye to exploring new ideas
  6. Strong socialisation into a culture of academic freedom

It’s instructive to note that the formal mechanisms are relatively few. In the US, tenure is an important one, but it is very minimal. Tenure is just a contractual provision that you cannot be fired except for cause where cause is restricted to fairly minimal levels of competency. Classically, esp. in the humanities, if you can teach a couple of courses, you can keep your job. Thus, pursuing a failed or even bonkers line of research does not mean you’ll be fired.

This is a ridiculously minimal protection! It covers less than a third of academic staff in the US, some portion of those are merely “tenure track”. The pre-tenure track is brutal with a common bit of advice being not to rock the boat in anyway before you get tenure (!). In other words, there are all sorts of personal risk that tenure doesn’t protect against. You can get some more protection by being otherwise successful (and there, it probably should be lots of grants, at least in the sciences).

If we think more broadly than the sciences, the forms of knowledge become more diverse and the idea that we might be able to restrict the “freedom” to something like one’s academic speciality becomes untenable. We don’t know what will work at all or work for a given person.

My favourite description of this comes from Robertson Davies’ novel, Fifth Business:

Yet often, usually at about three o’clock in the afternoon when the air grew heavy, and scholars at nearby desks were dozing over their notes, I would think: Dunstan Ramsay, what on earth are you doing here, and where do you think this is leading? You are now thirty-four, without wife or child, and no better plan than your own whim; you teach boys who, very properly, regard you as a signpost on the road they are to follow, and like a signpost they pass you by without a thought; your one human responsibility is a madwoman about whom you cherish a maggoty-headed delusion; and here you are, puzzling over records of lives as strange as fairy tales, written by people with no sense of history, and yet you cannot rid yourself of the notion that you are well occupied. Why don’t you go to Harvard and get yourself a Ph.D., and try for a job in a university, and be intellectually respectable? Wake up, man! You are dreaming your life away!…

Despite these afternoon misgivings and self-reproaches I clung to my notion, ill defined though it was, that a serious study of any important body of human knowledge, or theory, or belief, if undertaken with a critical but not a cruel mind, would in the end yield some secret, some valuable permanent insight, into the nature of life and the true end of man….The only thing for me to do was to keep on keeping on, to have faith in my whim, and remember that for me, as for the saints, illumination when it came would probably come from some unexpected source.

Taking such risk needn’t (and really isn’t!) be consequence free: If you pursue unfashionable lines, you will have trouble with your career. You might lack for colleagues, endure scorn and mockery, and end up with little to show for your efforts. You might be profoundly wrong or merely unrecognised. But being wrong is the natural state of someone seriously engaged in inquiry. We are nothing if not fallible.

People are strange. We can be brilliant in one moment or area and bonkers everyone else. Linus Pauling was undoubtably one of the most significant and productive scientists in history, but he was a big ole quack about vitamin C. So, we should be careful about excluding people from community of inquirers because of, let us neutrally say, quirks, whether they are quirks in their field but especially if they are from outside their field. (“Field” is, itself, not a crisp, static notion.)

Politics is both something we study and something that affects what and how we study. It is also something that is easy to get wrong in a variety of ways.

Obviously, for all the propaganda, no university is organised around a extreme principle of academic freedom. We put lots of barriers against (what we think are) unfruitful or kooky ideas. And a good deal of this is appropriate! Remember, the goal isn’t freedom per se, but success in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. So, while people are amazingly fallible, we are also the only court available. There are conflicts between people’s academic freedom (e.g., funding is often zero sum, so if we give it to one person we necessarily deny it to others; instructor’s freedom to innovate pedagogically is restricted by the fact that students need certain conditions for effective learning; medical researchers are restricted in their experiments on both humans and animals even when less restricted mechanisms might be more effective). The name “academic freedom”, itself, suggests that we aren’t protecting people at large (though universities should make it easy to enter and benefit from support for free inquiry).

Given that we don’t have radically free inquiry, we need to be extremely cautious about the restrictions we do have and any new restrictions we introduce. A good deal of academic freedom (in the sense of intellectual risk taking and support for risk taking) comes from socialisation into a professional ethic (or, at least, the show of it). This socialisation is extremely fragile, is steadily being attacked, and in many ways is diminished in, at least, the US and the UK.6 Thus, some obvious moves:

  1. It’s not enough to give lip service to academic freedom, we must enact and defend it even when it hurts.
  2. A restriction of academic freedom should be primarily justified by an overall gain in academic freedom with the burden of proof being against an active restriction.

The second condition supports the “whole picture” standard of evaluation of hires and tenure decisions. One way we can expand freedom is allowing failures to be balanced out by other successes. Thus, if someone pursues a faltering line of research, they should be able to be promoted at least partially on the basis of their excellent teaching. Similarly, while we might determine that certain constraints on political expression in some classrooms are appropriate (intro classes are potentially more restrictive than advanced graduate seminars), we should be extremely wary about making decisions based on external political considerations or unpopular political expression.


I trust it’s obvious at this point that I can derive my favoured position: The Salaita unhiding is a gross and unjustified violation of both his and the hiring department’s academic freedom. The tweets were far from the classroom and his peers determined that his whole picture was highly favourable.7 The nominal rationale (that some students might be made to feel uncomfortable in his classes because of their political views) is strongly undermined by his prior record. The actual motivation (placating donors) is precisely the sort of thing we should resist, even though it hurts. The power of money is already tremendous in universities and not letting funders control every appointment is an extremely modest restriction on it.

What’s more, the chilling effect is obvious and powerful: Don’t express political opinions that might offend a donor unless you are 1) happy in your current position for the rest of your career and 2) extremely careful about any contractual stuff. Since among the things that offend wealthy donations is freaking climate science this pretty much exposes us all.


McGinn’s case is structurally similar: he was given an offer by a department but an administrator over-ruled it. As much as it pains me to say it, we have to start with a presumption that this is not a good thing. We have fewer details on the rationale, but deference to local academics is a powerful restraint on administrative violations of academic freedom.

That being said, there’s considerable room to critique the East Carolina hiring committee (the CHE article is behind a paywall so I requote from here):

Michael Veber, an associate professor of philosophy who led the search committee at East Carolina that chose Mr. McGinn, says he didn’t put much stock into what went on at Miami. “After reviewing the evidence, Miami never even accused him of harassment,” says Mr. Veber. “So I don’t see how anyone could justify denying him a position because of any of that.”

Nicholas Georgalis, a distinguished research professor of philosophy at East Carolina, says his department wanted to hire Mr. McGinn because of his eminence as a scholar. “His publication record is amazing, he is a rare public intellectual, and his letters of recommendation from top people in the field were extraordinary,” says Mr. Georgalis, who has been at East Carolina since 1973 and says he can’t remember administrators ever turning down a philosophy-department hire before this. “We felt this was a great opportunity.”

As for the reaction to the sex-harassment allegations Mr. McGinn faced at Miami, Mr. Georgalis says “a lot of it was hysteria, reactions based on rumor.” He adds, “I evaluated him based on his academic credentials, which are stellar.”

Here’s a case where the “whole picture” is relevant. I’ll leave it open whether a whole consideration of the McGinn record would justify his appointment (I tend to think not), but McGinn resigned his prior position for things where a teacher’s freedom is weakest: intimacy (whether benign or malign) with students. What’s more, the public record McGinn himself put forth is gives a troubling picture of his judgement. For one, he was actually accused of unprofessional conduct:

Pursuant to Section B4.9 (d)(ii) of the Faculty Manual, the University believes that Professor McGinn’s conduct is unprofessional due to the amorous relationship that developed between a senior faculty member and his student [my italics]…. The “relationship” violated the Faculty Manual’s policy on Consensual Amorous, Romantic or Sexual Relationships. Pursuant to that policy, ‘a faculty member who engages in amorous relationships with a person over whom he or she has evaluative authority without taking steps necessary to resolve the conflict, including reporting such a relationship at the earliest opportunity, may be subject to disciplinary action under the policies embodied in the Faculty Manual governing charges of unprofessional conduct.’… In this case, there is no dispute that…prior to and during the duration of the Independent Study Course and the research assistantship, Professor McGinn and Ms. X had a romantic relationship…

McGinn admits he had such an unreported amorous relationship, even though he thinks his conduct was professional. (Let us note that if everything were hunky dory about the relationship, the student wouldn’t have filed a complaint. It’s still theoretically possible, given what is public, that it was a wrongfully motivated accusation, but esp. given McGinn’s display, it doesn’t seem likely.)

At the very least, the whole Genius Project (wisely hidden on the main site) is a perfect example of where we should not take academic freedom in spite of McGinn’s protestations:

The student (hereafter NN) and I were engaged on what we called “the Genius Project”. The purpose of the genius project was to make NN into a truly original and outstanding young philosopher (one who could expect to find an attractive job later). Part of this project involved techniques for encouraging unconventional thinking, and the concept of “taboo-busting” was deemed helpful towards this end. We had developed a very open and candid style of communication, and were in contact extremely frequently. (She came to my house several times to play tennis and go paddle boarding, as well as talk about the work we were doing.)…

In this spirit I sent NN two short email messages, spaced over three months, which contained some (mild) sexual content, which was related to the seminar of mine NN had attended and which was relevant to work we were doing together. This content pertained to the hand in relation to human evolution and human life (including sexual life), and referred back to material discussed in the seminar I gave and which NN enthusiastically attended. These emails were received in the spirit in which they were intended (certainly no complaint was voiced about them), and they gave rise to some mild amusement between us over the months. They were quite banal. Many other personal and professional matters were discussed in our email correspondence, as well as our very frequent meetings; these two were exceptional and designed to achieve a specific pedagogical end. In no sense were they intended (or interpreted) as attempts to elicit anything from the recipient (except perhaps a chuckle).

To impose disciplinary action on the writer of these two emails would be a clear infringement of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I judged that these emails were in line with the project on which NN and I were (consensually) engaged, and I think they served their purpose (taboo-busting—though they described rather mundane matters). Most of the genius project took a more conventional form, but it is within this context that they should be interpreted. They were not just gratuitous snippets of risque prose, sent out of the blue. I believe that had the genius project continued it would have borne significant fruit; and indeed a colleague has remarked to me that NN’s philosophical abilities went from “good” to “superb” following the several months during which I was attempting to make her into a “genius”.

McGinn wants to have it every which way: On the one hand, he’s in a consensual, amorous relationship, but it’s part of his formal instruction! And he can’t, just can’t report it since the student didn’t want him to and he knows where to draw the line!

As asinine as his description of “the Genius project” was, he might have been able to make room for it by, for example, discussing it with his chair. Given that this is precisely an area where things can go spectacularly wrong in pretty standard ways, it is ever more important to be above board about it. Even though the university didn’t charge him with sexual harassment, from his own description and subsequent events, it looks like he at least came pretty damn close.

None of this is indicative of a careful teacher with good judgement. Indeed, it shows a person with, at best, a recklessness fed by his ego. (The ego is well documented.)

Just as a plagiarist might also produce good (and honest) work, so too might McGinn now be a reasonable instructor (contrary to the evidence of his own making). But both warrant heightened scrutiny. As far as I can tell, the East Carolina department just brushed all that away. That is something where it is possible that administrative override would be reasonable and necessary.

However, we should not give either side the benefit of the doubt here. Administrative interference should always be met with high suspicion. There are other measures they could take (like having him undergo sensitivity training; making sure he has limited student contact; requiring the committee to undergo similar training). Similarly, the committee has done a terrible job at least in their public pronouncements in a way that is likely to feed into the ongoingly hostile climate for women in philosophy.

S vs. M

The brief summary comparison:

  1. In Salaita’s case, we have an effective fire (which leaves him much worse off than before), at a point where his academic freedom should be very strongly protected, for professed reasons that are far from any normal expectation and farcically weak (with no whole picture analysis), with revealed reasons which are those which require strongest resistance and with secondary effects that are extremely chilling across the US as well as at Illinois.
  2. In McGinn’s case, we have a similar event (I’m not sure how far along it go) which doesn’t damage McGinn’s prior position directly (he having no prior job to lose), where we don’t know anything about the administration’s rationales, but for which there is at least a consideration about his fitness where his academic freedom is fairly weak and his public explanations are transparently poor and where the possible chilling effect is small or beneficial (chilling harassment is a positive good!) and there’s a possible climate benefit.

I think the cases are distinguishable. In McGinn’s case, I have problems with both the administration and the hiring committee, but, on balance, I think the hiring committee fares poorest. With Salaita, it’s not even close — the administration is deeply in the wrong.

  1. Wordpress ate a bunch of work at this point! Fooey! So this was slower in coming than I hoped. 
  2. Not even using robots! “Adam [the robot scientist] is capable of creating up to 1000 individual experiments in a day, with a typical experiment running for 4 days.” 
  3. “””Steven E. Koonin of Caltech called the Utah report a result of “the incompetence and delusion of Pons and Fleischmann,” which was met with a standing ovation. Douglas R. O. Morrison, a physicist representing CERN, was the first to call the episode an example of pathological science….A 1991 review by a cold fusion proponent had calculated “about 600 scientists” were still conducting research. After 1991, cold fusion research only continued in relative obscurity, conducted by groups that had increasing difficulty securing public funding and keeping programs open. These small but committed groups of cold fusion researchers have continued to conduct experiments using Fleischmann and Pons electrolysis set-ups in spite of the rejection by the mainstream community. The Boston Globe estimated in 2004 that there were only 100 to 200 researchers working in the field, most suffering damage to their reputation and career.””” 
  4. A department can face significant problems if they have low completion rates. For example, BBSRC has for certain studentships a (section 2.9) that a department have a 70% 4-year submission rate in order to be eligible. Manchester’s computer science has felt this and related pinches. 
  5. For those of you who like mathematical metaphors, a research community can get stuck in a local optimum
  6. In many ways, we’ve advanced! We’re more cognisant of cognitive blindnesses and things with negatively affect people like micro aggressions, stereotype threat, implicit bias, etc. 
  7. My only prior exposure to his work didn’t leave me particularly impressed. But this was only a tiny bit. 

Music Monday: Sister, Sail

August 25, 2014

In an effort to force me to write, I’m starting a Monday Music post series. I have to generate the post in 20 minutes tops and post it on Monday, preferably in the morning where I see light. I would not be surprised if most of these were about Zoe’s songs, for a plethora of reasons.

I hereby start as I mean to go on, with Sister, Sail from her album, Coyote Wings.

The sky was red at morning
Above the brooding bay
And the cannons cried a warning
But still you slipped away
To gain your lofty vessel
And fly before the gale
From peril into peril, sister, sail!

This is a pirate song about a female pirate. Some time before writing this song, Zoe and I had seen two pirate celebratory works, an experimental theatre thingy called The Pirate Project and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! Both were pretty dire, though the Pirate Project was trying to use (little known!) stories about women pirates in a feminist way. I was pretty down on pirates even putting aside the artistic failures here: I felt alienated from these lionisations of people who murdered for a living.

And so defy them all
With a bounty laid upon you
In every port of call
Oh sail
Rejoicing as we may
Through the world and all its wonder
Til the day we all go under
Through another plundered sunrise
Sister, sail! Sail another day

Sister, Sail is facially a song about a female pirate, but the song was written for and about a friend of Zoe’s on the folk scene. This friend has a lot of, as the kids say today, complicated and distressing life issues and yet lives a joyful, energetic, brash, and defiant life. Each day is not a gift, but a treasure wrested from the forces arrayed against her.  Every sunrise is stolen.

It’s a wonderful, upbeat song with some great instrumentation from the opening chords to the sonorous viola at the climatic rendition of the chorus to the jaunty fife tune at the end. The exhortation and celebration

One of my favourite bits (which, if I recall correctly, I slightly contributed to):

Leave behind a legend
A tale for all to tell
But better still to tell the tale yourself
Sister, Sail!

I love the combination of fatalism and exhorting optimism. In dire moments, defy, defy, and sail.


August 14, 2014

Paul Ford has an essay up on his lifetime politeness strategy. I got to it via Daring Fireball which said of it “Such a lovely piece.” I’m slightly acquainted with Paul and like him (and often his writing). But I found this terrible. Now I have a history of, let us say, difficulties of various sorts with politeness and etiquette (for a recent example, see a not as recent as I recalled NewApps thread).

I will say upfront that my presentation to the world is not that of consistent politeness. In fact, people react to me and I react to them in a wide variety of ways. I say mean things sometimes out of respect, sometimes out of anger, and sometimes to have fun (both with and against the target). I have lots of virtues and know them, but it’s fair to say that I may be biased against politeness. I certainly have had a “thing” about etiquette for quite some time which partially comes from people lecturing me on the virtues of etiquette while being horrible to me. So, there’s probably a chip. Whether that chip guides me to truth or delusion is not for me to say. (But it’s truth. Always truth!)

Consider the lead in:

Most people don’t notice I’m polite, which is sort of the point. I don’t look polite. I am big and droopy and need a haircut. No soul would associate me with watercress sandwiches.

I found this to be a bizarre and incoherent few sentences (and profoundly irritating). The sort-of point of…his politeness?…is not to be noticed? And the way it isn’t noticed is by his physical appearance? And what on earth does politeness have to do with watercress sandwiches? I suppose the sandwiches are meant to evoke a sort of British upper class stereotype but it’s so far off I’m not actually sure. And while appropriate dress is a way to be polite (wearing shorts and sandals to a black tie affair is almost certainly a big affront, however it was meant; contrariwise, wearing your posh togs at an informal event which makes the rest of the people feel put down is equi-rude).

my officemate turned to me and said: “I thought you were a terrible ass-kisser when we started working together.”

She paused and frowned. “But it actually helped get things done. It was a strategy.” (That is how an impolite person gives a compliment. Which I gladly accepted.)

Is politeness asskissing or vice versa? Is he being grudgingly praised for his politeness or his asskissing? Can we really generalise from the effects of one to the effects of the other?

And how polite is it to publicly identify someone as impolite, esp. to your own aggrandisement?

This makes me, at best, uneasy. I won’t say whether it’s polite but it seems cold and unkind. Consider:

And in my twenties I found that I could score points with my elders by showing up and speaking respectfully. But then, suddenly — it mattered. My ability to go to a party and speak to anyone about anything, to natter and ask questions, to turn the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker, meant that I was gathering huge amounts of information about other people.

Uhm, ugh? He’s scoring points with “elders” and gathering information about people (without sharing information).

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Again, the point seems to be manipulation and not for the sake of the relationship.

A friend and I came up with a game called Raconteur. You pair up with another Raconteur at a party and talk to everyone you can. You score points by getting people to disclose something about their lives. If you dominate the conversation, you lose a point. The two raconteurs communicate using hand signals and keep a tally on a sheet of paper or in their minds. You’d think people would notice but they are so amused by the attention that the fact you’re playing Raconteur escapes their attention.

So, he invented a game that he played at parties with the other party goers as targets. These people are then mocked as oblivious narcissists.

I do agree that not touching people, esp. their hair (esp. if you are white and they are black) is an obligation so fundamental that I’m confused that it is failed so often.

The last paragraphs are sort of nice, I guess. I like love. The kid’s schtick is cute. But given what led to all these I feel like I’m probably being manipulated. It is structurally sort of nice, as Paul “disclosed” something about himself. In several places, he speaks of his audience as either polite or potentially polite or otherwise great (“I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely”) and then these disclosures (indeed, the whole “I’m polite in a sneaky way” disclosure) puts us into the position of the Raconteur player. Unwillingly in that position, but in that position nevertheless.

Perhaps it isn’t polite to voice all this. I imagine Paul won’t read this (though I don’t mind if he does; I hope he takes it in the spirit of friendship intended) and I won’t draw his attention to my response. I do agree with some aspects of what he wrote (e.g., social space being helpful and valuable). I would not be surprised at all if my reaction is idiosyncratic and, by many measures, wrong.

I say these things because they are true, as well as to be polite.

SSTiC 2014: Mark Guzdial on CS Education 3

July 14, 2014

CS Education research

Bias: US learning scientist with mostly CS degrees

1960-1970s: LOGO
1990s?: empirical worked killed LOGO
xxxx?: MIMS? Multi-institution something studies

The two cultures and the scientific revolution (CP Snow)

Computers and the world of the future
Snow: scientists and decision making
Perlis: The computer in the university
Study of process and should be ubiquitous

Elias responds: do we really need programming

2007 Economist Business by the numbers

We’re controlled by algorithms we don’t understand

Earliest attempt, BASIC in 1964

1968-1980: Logo

1984: Pea & Kurland killed Logo (perhaps not appropriately)

1990: Palumbo meta-review; no correlation between problem solving and programming

1987: Sharon Carver Dissertation

Cog model

Some evidence that programming helps student learn science and math (Idit Harel Caperton)

Yasmin Kafai replicated

1972: Dynabooks; Personal Dynamic Media; meta-medium

Squeak 1995 to Etoys to Scratch

1986: Andrea diSessa and Hal Abelson aim to support computational literacy (blend of Smalltalk and Logo ideas; Boxer)

1984: Lewis Johnson “Proust” (semantic error checker based on Rainfall Problem)

1988: Studying the Novice Programmer

1990: Jim Spohrer’s “Marcel”

Cognitive model of a student programmer


John Anderson and Cognitive Tutors (Lisp and Pascal tutors)

Geometry tutor as well

Kafai tested in schools and it was a disaster (totally alien and conflict with other media)

Cog tutors work (for writing code; but nothing about debugging or design)

Are graphical languages better than textual

Petre and Green’s bottom line: every syntax highlights and obscures different pools of knowledge

1991 Petre and Green: Textual languages were easier to read

1993 Moher

2004 Moskal, Lurie, & Cooper starting wig Alice improved retention and performance

2009 Hundhuasen

Does algo viz help

2002 Hundhausen, Douglas, Stasko. Meta analysis

Not really

Building helps; not watching

Multiple symbol system hard on beginners

1993: Hundhausen: Observation-based is the way to go

2001: Kehoe, Stasko, and Taylor: viz students work longer

Not much CSED in 1990s

Sally Fincher Bootstrapping model

Weird problem: all papers rejected from biggest CSEd conference (more about teachers talking together)

John Pane 2002

Commonsense computing



discipline based education domains

No univocal evidence for success predictors

The computer boys take over — Nathan Ensmenger

What skills do CS teachers need?

Read and comment on code (but not write much)

Measure of PCK (Pedagogical Content Knowledge): Sadler et al

Knowing content

Knowing what students will get wrong

Few women and members of minority groups in CS: Western world phenomenon

Stuck in the Shallow End, Jane Margolis

Peak in 1983 (40%) now 12%

How do we teach everyone computing

Raymond Lister on development path for programming

Is teaching computing more like mathematics or more like science?

Inquiry based learning?


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