musings from suburbia

31 Jul 2012

I started reading Kurt Vonnegut today. Slaughterhouse Five, anyone familiar? Never read any Vonnegut before, but I bought it off this guy who sells books on a cart for a dollar or five in front of NYU Stern business school. When I bought it off him I did not notice but apparently my friend said the week before his wrists were bandaged as if they had been slashed.

What a voice this Vonnegut has. I am only on the seventh page so I do not know for sure yet but I think he writes about war. His syntax reminds me of Joseph Heller’s.

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hackNY 2012 demofest

31 Jul 2012

phew! it’s been a crazy, epic, sleepless week in the City. I can’t believe that my summer internship is over and I’m no longer living with all the hackNY fellows. I just got back to the ‘burbs yesterday and already I miss the energy. I miss working, and I miss my friends. NYC has made me a city girl through and through. And even though I know I have much left to learn, the thought of going back to school makes me feel uncomfortable. I like being a working woman. I like being part of a team, and I like getting stuff done.

Anyway, enough nostalgia: here’s a video of the hackNY 2012 Demofest if you missed it live! My work begins at around 37:00. Definitely needed more rehearsal but  I hope you enjoy!

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This past Wednesday, in the last of the amazing speaker hackNY guest lecture series, we had the lucky opportunity to listen to team of partners at Union Square Ventures, composed of many of the biggest names in venture capital on the East (and West) coast. As we progressed through the Q&A session, complemented by a spectular, shimmering view of the setting sun over the Manhattan skyline, someone brought up the inivetible (and important) concern of whether this new start-up acropolis of Manhattan would make it. That is, beyond the hype and the parties and the geek-chic hipster glasses, would this bloom-and-burst of web apps amount to any valueable ecosystem?

Someone answered, and I forget who, that it was exactly these little failures, these short-lived spurts, that lead to a strong and stable economy. He compared it to Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy (also an amazing speaker that we got the chance to listen to on Monday, and head of a company that I have had a huge crush on for years now)’s technical dogma of continuous deployment. At Etsy, engineers are required to continuously deploy– in other words, push out new code as quickly as possible– even if that code may not be perfected yet. The code is expected to be flawed and eyes and ears are kept alert to catch and patch up any holes. The argument, which at first appears counter-intuitive, is that this methodology actually leads to a more reliable product, especially for something on the scale of Etsy.

Keep reading…

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During lunch break I came upon this article by one of favorite chefs Mark Bittman, which is actually a follow up to his original article, Got Milk? You Don’t Need It. Basically, Bittman talks about how we don’t really need to drink milk or eat dairy, which can actually cause many health problems in adults, but it’s become a staple due to aggressive marketing, the Big Dairy Industry, the Government, etc. etc.

Note that I said Mark Bittman was one of my favorite chefs and not writers, because unlike his remarkably simple, clear and delicious recipes, I feel that he could execute his words with a bit more tact. Bittman is known for being a pioneer in food activism, and I am in fact a big supporter with many (if not all) of the causes he champions, which are really integral to making Americans more aware of their detrimental consumptions. I’m definitely of his no-milk stance, as I’ve never really enjoyed drinking milk either, and have found it to cause me stomach upset. (Now, ice cream, that’s a different story. Total addict!)

But it’s really hard for me to stomach (ha ha) any writing that uses personal anectodes to prove a potentially scientific point, which dairy intolerance most certainly is. Writing something as such will only lead to dozens (in this case, literally thousands!) of comments from psuedo-experts, quack doctors, crotchety old men/women who grew up with the slogan 3-a-day, etc. I’m not about to go all stubborn scientist on you, but look, as someone who studies Computer Science in an Engineering school maybe (just maybe) I’m a little bit of a hard-science snob with a capital S.

All in all, though, I’m not really too miffed, since I do like Bittman’s food, and I definitely think this blind American reverence of dairy as some kind of wholesome food of the gods can’t be so hot. And hey, if the goal was reverse-psychology, it’s definitely done it’s trick: nothing like a good dose of pseudo-science to get me all riled up and spreading the word. Such a potentially strong statement definitely deserves some thorough research.

Random nerd rant of the day:
What’s the deal with HTML and whitespace? It always bothers me to no end that the assignment operator (=) is stuck right next to the variable, like <div id=”value”>. (Why not div id = “value”?).  I’m no expert of HTML style & syntax but it seems to be the norm. (And, for good measure, a little comic that’s semi-related).

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This weekend I spent a crazy, sleepless 24 hours at Facebook NYC HQ’s inaugural hackathon.

For those not in the field, hackathons are basically really condennsed, usually 24-hour tech competitions in which a big group of programmers (and sometimes designers) get together, form teams and try to make a usable, cool project. For anyone who’s ever coded before, it’s easy to see how insane of a deadline that is, hence lots of caffeine, little sleep, and really tired eyes. For everyone else, this concept sounds basically like insane torture. I used to think that too (you can read a little about it here in this post I wrote for hackNY), but they are actually fun! Really.

Anyway, the hackathon kicked off as usual with a little self-promo blurb from Facebook, then a little brainstorming pep talk (since, ideally, you are supposed to come up with the concept during the competition, too, like Iron Chef (basically the best cooking show ever but only the original Japanese version with voice dubbing)). To lead off the ideas, the emcee posed a typical hackathon prompt: what problems in your life are there that you’d like to solve?

I never realized until yesterday, when my crazy genius/totally awesome rooomate brought it to my attention, what a problematic question that is, not only for hackathons, but with respect to Silicon Valley/web 2.0 startups in general. Most of the participants in web 2.0 startups are fairly privileged: there may be some self-made men and women, high school dropouts and the like, but the majority do tend to stem from elite private schools, because, let’s face it: when a small company needs to hire good developers fast without the luxury for deliberation, brand matters.

There’s nothing wrong with solving “first world problems”, building social networking sites, or making mobile games. I believe that all of the above are great excercises of human creativity and can lead to good, just on a different plane. However, it’s important for all these talented and hardworking developers to realize that perhaps it’s time to shift the focus away from introspection. Startups are filled with brilliant, bold employees who are out to change the world. Perhaps it’s time to look beyond the first world.

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When I was a little girl I had two main (American-as-apple-pie) agendas on my wish list: one, to be the proud owner of an American Girl doll, and two, to join the Girl Scout Brownie troup. My mother was a steadfast soldier against both fronts, no matter how much a begged and pleaded and whined, flipping the pages of the beloved catalog and circling favorite items until the staples wore off.

In retrospect, the anti-doll campaign was a pragmatic choice: the overly commercialized dolls were not only pricey, but had a tendency to lead to a sort of give-a-mouse-a-cookie effect (if i had the overpriced doll, surely I would need the overpriced little doll bed to match, and if I had the bed, certainly I would need a matching miniature quilt, and so on…), but I never did find out why she was so anti-Brownies. Maybe it was too establishment for her? Perhaps she was creeped out by religious undertones? Was it a health thing, as everyone knows Cookies are a Sometimes Food™ and selling gallons of Thin Mints would naturally lead to gallons of Thin Mint consumption (those motherf***** are addicting!)? I forgot to ask, and in any case the Girl Scouts have not been on my radar in many, many years. That is, until I saw this article in the nytimes that made me do a double take. And boy, am I glad that I never did get to wear that brown vest now.

The fact that the Boy Scouts actively discriminates against homosexuals is absurd. Scouting was popularized to be a healthy way for young boys to bond over outdoor and athletic activities that strengthened not only muscles but morals. Actively excluding a segment of the human population doesn’t seem like good ethical standards to me. For Pete’s sake, the founder might have actually been a closest queen!

Supporters have cited many “reasons” for the continued exclusion of gays, most of which you can read here (including the official statement by the Boy Scouts). One of the arguments is that sexuality has no place in the program, which is mostly catered for youngsters under twelve. In that case, why the need to discriminate, which, ironically, will be a surefire way to ensure that sex is now on the agenda?

I am fortunate to have grown up in mostly liberal environments and now reside in one of (if not the foremost) LGBT-friendly cities in the world. If I sat down and did a head count, I think I might actually have an equal number of straight and gay/lesbian/bisexual friends in my circle of closest acquaintances. I understand that not everyone is that lucky to be able to say the same, and what seems like common sense to me may be viewed as radical to others. But I am pretty sure that it is universally acknowledged that discrimination is hurtful. Even the littlest of Cub Scouts can vouch to that.

I realize that politics is complicated and that the Church provides much of the funding for the Boy Scout programs, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Last September, the military finally admitted that its “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” policy was serving no one and abolished it to cheers worldwide. Do we really need to repeat this discussion again, full of harmful stereotypes, in the ears of the children?

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Here’s another writer’s words on why online learning can never replace the physical classroom. I’m in line with his theory, although, like I stated the other day, professors and institutions leave much to be desired in improving the quality of higher education.

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Yesterday, Coursera, an online learning company founded by two Stanford scientists, announced its plans to expand and include additional major research universities. Naturally, this article  drew a slew of comments, reigning from praise to outright condemnation.

Since I am a very impatient person with a natural distaste for politics (who also believes that any newspaper article that has more than one page could be condensed and rewritten), I’m not going to attempt to make some highfalutin, well-constructed argument for or against online education. Instead, I’m just going to give my general feelings towards this debate, formed from my experience (paying thousands upon thousands of dollars) at an Ivy-League institution (institution also being one of my least favorite words in the English language).

Here’s my two cents:
I am a big fan of open-source anything (the Hacker in me) and the idea of making education more transparent and accessible is wonderful, especially if that means we can narrow the education/socio-economic gap and help dissipate the notion of academics as a privilege for the elite.

Ultimately, the discussion surrounding Coursera and online courses seems to point to a big question mark: what is the point of pouring one’s life savings into education when, theoretically, you could get “the milk for free”?

The answer in my mind is, in theory, clear: the money put into schooling is never, ever simply for the lecture notes, but more than anything, the human interactions that one makes. Having the Powerpoints of a Noble Prize-winning professor is no where near the same as going to his/her office hours or even hearing his/her voice live and being able to ask questions. Online education is great for gaining technical skills and a godsend for those short on resources, but it can never replace the value of human contact. Of course an Ivy-League education is worth the price tag: that alone, in addition to being surrounded by some of the most intelligent and motivated students in the world, is more than enough.

Yet I am not sure if I can wholeheartedly stand by the statement. My first semester at Columbia’s Engineering school was miserable– filled with huge introductory lectures taught by professors whose brilliance did not necessarily translate to teaching. The required introductory course for all first-year Engineers was both boring and disorganized and furthermore felt useless (what use was modeling gears in Auto-Cad to Chemical Engineering (my interest at the time), or Computer Science (what I do now)? ). I am fortunate to have found a field of study that I can genuinely say that I am passionate about, yet had it not been for a last minute decision to sign up for introductory Java, that may have never happened. Moreover, and more significantly, had the professor not been Adam Cannon, whose class is often considered one of Columbia’s best, I may have found Computer Science to be just as tedious and uninteresting as I did Chemistry, which I feel is both unfair and untrue about the subject.

Hopefully, the discussion about Coursera will direct attention not only to the benefits of online learning, but more urgently, the flaws of the current state of tertiary education that we pay so much for, especially in the fields of science and engineering. The small discussion seminars constituting Columbia College’s Liberal Arts “Core” are almost universally viewed by students as positive and community-building experiences. The two that I elected to take were genuinely thought-provoking and I feel have had a huge influence on my character. Why should a student who prefers science be subjected to years of lectures and problem sets? All students benefit from interactive environments. In fact, I argue that scientists are even more opinionated and vocal about their beliefs and interests. I think I’d rather be sentenced to hell in an eternal argument between a radical liberal and a Right-wing conservative than Emacs versus Vim.

To close the knowledge gap by raising the value of virtual education while lowering the quality of live teaching is a phenomenon that benefits no one. Online tools are a great innovation, and ought to be viewed as a challenge for traditional schooling to step up to its price tag, rather than a make-do substitute for the real thing.

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Mini Feminist Rant #1

16 Jul 2012

After discovering earlier this year a really simple way of avoiding the New York Time’s (very) loosely implemented firewall (which I am not going to tell you, since I am a supporter of the press and really there are quite a few dozen ways to avoid it) I’ve been following the Opinion pages on a regular basis, especially the “Room for Debate” section, which features different responses to a central question. Usually, these debates are well-rounded and bring me some faith back into the intellect of the human species. Occasionally, though, there is a really unfortunate WTF moment. Case in point, this recent discussion centered on the question “Are Modern Men Manly Enough?” Seriously, the description alone is enough to make me vomit: “Are men spending too much time at the spa and the gym in lieu of grittier, manlier pursuits? And if so, is this making them less masculine?” Really, NYT? Really?

Now, this wouldn’t have been so bad, if there had been lots of great, insightful responses debunking gender stereotypes etc. Instead, we get pieces titled “Where are the Meat and Potato Men?” and “Rediscovering the Don Draper Within“. Seriously. I’m pretty confident the latter is satire, though, thank Goodness, since I’m crossing my fingers that no one would say “I got messed up by my feminist mom in the 1970s, who taught me that gender was a social construct” with a straight face. But the Meat and Potato Men one looks to be serious, and seriously alarming. Natasha Scripture ends her piece, basically a description of personal dating preferences and how she was turned off by a date that cried to mourn the loss of Maurice Sendak by stating “I hope we don’t become so much like each other that we end up essentially morphing into one androgynous being. That would just be plain weird”. I’m a little weirded out myself.

Listen, gender, image, masculinity, and dating are all great topics that are truly worthy of discussion. But do we really need to revert to Mad Men stereotypes (as gripping of a show as that may be) to do so? And if we must, can we at least do it in an enlightened way?

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Hello, World!

15 Jul 2012

Hello, World!
Welcome to my new blog! Sitting in a cafe near Union Square & sipping on some iced coconut chai, I figure now is a good time as ever to start posting. Life is good.

Why blog?
This blog was partly inspired by my short-term mentor this summer, Cathy O’Neil, who has a brilliant and witty blog at Mathbabe.org. I have always considered myself a writer at heart (and by that I do not mean a good writer, or even a prolific one; just someone who expresses themselves best via the written word), but as a Computer Scientist in training do not find myself writing as often as I’d like to. For a few years now, I’ve maintained my food blog, Mon Petit Chou, but other topics (rants & raves, tech stuff, opinion pieces) didn’t seem to fit in quite well there.

A little bit about me:
Hello, my name is Sophie. I am a Computer Science major (and hopefully Philosophy minor) at Columbia University’s Engineering School. This summer, I am a hackNY fellows working as a Software Engineer at Intent Media. Am a bit of a feminist, love to read (although have not read as much since I started working), been dancing since I was a little girl, although not professionally/intensly. What else… foodie, cat lover, writer (of course). That’s about it.

Oh, by the way, please leave COMMENTS! They’re the best part about writing.

Now, for a little bit of nerdspeak:
For you hackers out there, this blog is indeed run on WordPress. Now, WordPress is a bit of a hacker’s nightmare: php and annoying UI’s all over the place. Since my food blog is run on WordPress, and I knew the faults, I considered creating a static blog using Jekyll (perhaps Octopress or Jekyll-Bootstrap), which are both great because it meant blogging would fit right into my work flow: simply git add, commit, and push, and voila, new post! I’d never have to leave the terminal. However, after tinkering around with it for a while, I realized that, fun as it was, it simply wasn’t practical at this time: basically, I wouldn’t be able to blog from the remote, and the conviniences of using a pre-packaged software simply outweighted the benefits in the end.

However, do not despair: in the spirit of all things hacky, even though I did sucumb to WordPress, this blog is actually hosted (for free!) on Heroku, yay! Checkout this awesome repo by mhoofman on Github (https://github.com/mhoofman/wordpress-heroku). It comes with PostgreSQL for WordPress pre-installed in order to run on Heroku’s Postgres backend, and is easy-peasy as pie to setup.

À bientôt!
Sophie

 

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