Forgive me for the brevity, typos, and lack of filter: my brain has been wrapped around and fully defeated by Online Mistake-Bound Learning Models and log base 2′s and omega bounds and other uncomprehensible things in the last 48 hours.

Anyway, here’s a nifty little article in the NYtimes reporting a study about how not only were men likely to judge female students as less competent in the scientists, but female professors as well.

Does this really come as any surprise? Pretty sure that if 50% of the world tells you that you are scientifically less suited to a certain way of thinking, which is, by the way, entirely false, it doesn’t take long for the other 50% to view these stereotypes as true. Too sleepy right now to expand on that but my mentor this summer aka Mathbabe wrote a wonderful and far more thought-out piece about the stereotype of women in math. Combine that with traditional concepts of femninity (“pushiness” is a turn-off, confidence is aggressive, to be scientific is to be cold) and you have a pretty surefire way to undermine confidence and perpetuate negative thinking.

Finally, two small anecdotes before I nap:

First, I was in a computer science program this summer with a male:female ratio of students of about 10:1 onsite, and I can tell you firsthand it is very hard to compete with the self-confidence of a 20-something white male, and ergo, very easy to be overcome by self-doubt, especially if you are timid. The entrepreneur is an especially cocky breed. Sorry, that was rude, I hope no one takes offense, and I do love you all. And I apologize for neither my apology nor my statement.

Second anecdote: I was in a study group last night with three other very intelligent, outgoing girls for aforementioned problem set, and somewhere around 2 am and the 10th proof in, the topic came to topic of female attractiveness w.r.t. men (because yes I am a normal college-age girl and not a robot). Anyway, it came as a suprise to me (or maybe not really a suprise) that it was heavily insisted upon that appearing “vunerable” was attractive. While I would probably agree that this is true, it made me slightly sad. Vunerability is of course what makes us human and lovable, but the idea that you might want to appear slightly weaker than you are in order to catch someone’s eye or heart could be potentially dangerous. Deception, of course, is not admirable; yet trying to actually be weaker is more than frightening.

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Speaking in Tongues

21 Sep 2012

The following piece is a re-post from the Columbia Daily Spectator, where I am an opinion blogger. The original may be found here.

“I thought about using a static framework like Octopress or Jekyll-Bootstrap so that I could write in vim and commit and push from the terminal, but then I realized it would be a pain to blog from the remote so I cloned this repo on GitHub to hack WordPress to run on Heroku for free using PostgreSQL“, I responded casually to my roommate this summer, a fellow hacker/scientist, when she asked me what platform I would be using to start my writing blog.

My sister, a “normal” human being used to answers like “Blogger” or “WordPress”, overhearing our exchange on Skype, laughed and said to me, “You guys are literally speaking another language. It’s like hearing robots talk or something.”

While I don’t think I’m quite on the level of R2D2 (at least not yet), I am aware of how much like gibberish it can sound when you catch me in animated discussion with another CS-er about some software or algorithm. One minute English, the next minute we hit some topic, and boom, off we go rattling off in Nerdspeak.

And although Computer Science is definitely one of the more jargon-y fields, thanks to its highly technical nature and the extreme “in-group” culture, this phenomenon is not limited to the subject.

Catch any of my friends at Columbia, be they budding lawyers, doctors, musicians, physicists, philosophers, or artists talking to a peer in the field, and soon it feels like there’s either cotton in my ears or a metal plate around my brain.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore talking nerdy. But sometimes I worry that too much jargon gets in the way of our ability to learn more and connect with interesting characters. This is especially crucial in our college years—one of the only times in which we will have the opportunity to be surrounded by so many talented, passionate people in other industries. What good is this talent if we cannot comprehend it—or worse yet, fear to ask?

Even within the same field, similar problems arise. Excessive terminology can create an aura of “exclusivity” and turn away those who might not fit the culture bill but possess ample aptitude otherwise. I know firsthand that in Computer Science, women are often deterred from becoming developers due to this sort of “insider’s club” (usually summed up as “pale and male”). In a field that values so much open-source and transparency, and that has traditionally welcomed those with interest and skill without regard to superficial traits, it seems almost sacrilegious to build such barriers.

As undergraduates, and as scholars for life, we are not quite such specialists that our learnings are incomprehensible to our peers, nor should they ever have to be. I have found that the best way for me to learn is by teaching and reiterating what I know, especially to children and to friends in drastically different studies. There’s something exhilarating and addictive about discussing a topic we love in the words we share with other aficionados, and special terms are often of course necessary for special topics.

But something special need not be secret, nor our attitudes towards “special” knowledge childish—or worse yet, elitist.

Sophie Chou is a Junior in SEAS studying Computer Science and Philosophy. When she’s not coding she likes to read Nietzsche, and contrary to popular belief, she doesn’t hate hugs, although it would be in your best interest to refrain from doing so.

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The following piece is a re-post from the Columbia Daily Spectator, where I am an opinion blogger. The original may be found here.

Today I came across an article that I found particularly resonant, especially as the second week of classes rolls to an end with nothing left of home but crumbs in the bottom of mom’s care package, and as we bid adieu to the last comforts of summer and surrender ourselves finally, familiarly, into the ebb and wave of this chaos that we call college.

The piece, titled “On Being Nothing”, details a very personal account of the author’s journey from being a cherished child in a small-town setting to a run-of-the-mill student on a big campus, a transition overwhelmed by anxiety bordering on existential.

It’s a transition that rings familiar with any college student, but especially those at Columbia, where everyone is fiercely talented, fiercely independent, and often submerged in their own ends. Not to mention that the campus plays second fiddle to the background of the biggest, busiest city in the world.

I found the writing insightful and touching, elegantly depicting the difference between school and home with phrases like “Though I made friends, I no longer had an audience.” Although, of course, many commenters felt otherwise, and this being the internet chose to say so, usually along the lines of “Oh grow up already. Get over yourself”.

But that, my dear, would be missing the point. Similarly, yesterday’s Canon questions the degree to which we should separate ourselves from home during our time at Columbia. Junior Jake Goldwasser responded by advocating to “detach ourselves from the familiar”, keeping our families close but also learning to be isolated. On the battle between the collegiate’s identity as a child and as “scholar/party-animal/athlete/rebel/addict/artist”, he states that “[i]f the struggle has a winner, it is the new you”.

It’s a truth that I find obvious, and also understated. There really is no “old” or “new” you, just you, however you choose to define yourself. And an identity built solely on the affirmation of others, whether at home or at school, is no identity at all. Most of us at Columbia are used to applause from teachers and parents and coaches, and perhaps in adolescence chose to spend many hours in solitude in order to hone these lauded skills rather than building webs of cultivating relationships and support.

At the close of “On Being Nothing” the author encourages the reader to undergo “a Copernican revolution of the self”, to ”let go of our vanity and join the swirl of activity”. It may not always be vanity (in fact often the very opposite) that causes us to seek the affirmation of others, but to constantly look up—for the reaction of one’s boss, one’s family, or one’s community—will only cause blindness from the Sun.

Sophie Chou is a Junior in SEAS studying Computer Science and Philosophy. When she’s not coding she likes to read Nietzsche, and contrary to popular belief, she doesn’t hate hugs.

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Musings on a haircut

12 Sep 2012

Recently, I got a short haircut for the first time in my life, chopping off nearly a foot and a half of hair.

This decision, like most of my most drastic ones, was made spontaneously without much reasoning. Ironically, I tend to spend hours on hours hemming and hawing over tiny nuances of the heart and mind yet act rashly and boldly on all else. One day, I woke up, and simply needed to cut it all off. I couldn’t even wait for an appointment– I made my mother hack at it with kitchen scissors. Snip, snip, snip: and months and years of long brown locks fell into the garbage.

How interesting it is that we as humans have this special ability to transform and redefine ourselves with a mere reshaping of cells already dead. A lion doesn’t wake up and think, maybe it’s time to grow out my ‘fro. There are long-haired cats and short-haired cats and they are born that way and remain for life. Usually one species has the same coverage, or, at most, one variation for the female and one for the male, and perhaps a protective camoflauge for the young. But here we go in the most human way, imposing all sorts of rules: short for men, long for women; gingers are sassy, frizzy hair unruly, blonde hair dumb, brunettes boring.

Of course, since it’s me, the implications that stand out the most are the gender ones. Last week, one of my friends and mentor showed me off her new pixie style, joking that this was her “dyke haircut”, and when I asked another about her opinion on my short hair, she replied that I was “feminine enough to pull it off”. The first thing my friends asked me when they saw me was whether or not I felt “so much freer”. The physical answer is not really– short hair sits surprisingly heavily on the back of ones neck and it’s a hassle not to be able to sweep it up into a big ballerina bun. They are, of course, mostly talking about the mental implications– and that makes ponder the true state of women’s liberation, if even in the era of iphones we still stop ourselves to fuss about a hairdo.

I feel less pretty with short hair and maybe that’s a good thing. Some dresses and shirts don’t look as cute anymore and so I’ve simply stopped decorating myself for them. I have this theory that for every inch of hair you cut off, you have to make up for it with an inch of personality and I wonder if that’s true. I guess I have still quite a few feet to grow.

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Last Thursday in unprecidented hacker news (not to be confused with Hacker News) Barack Obama, Mr. President himself, signed on social site/geeky fave Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything Session” in which he answered ten questions submitted by users. While to most of the citizens of the US this probably meant little (Reddit is notoriously niche-y and not particularly visually appealing to those unfamiliar with the structure), it was, in many ways, a big virtual step for both the Internet and American politics. We have officially entered an age in which the two can no longer exist ignorant of one another.

Aside from Al Gore inventing the internet, most politicians continue to shy away from bringing the web and its implications into the foreground of the political circus. This may be due, in part, to either fear or ignorance: after all, most statesmen are at least in the generation of my parents, and if anyone’s ever seen a text from my mom, we all know how much fun that can be.

But in an age when even Grandma’s on Facebook and, more gravely, revolutions can be fought on and sparked by the web, we can no longer afford to dismiss the internet as merely a teenager’s toy or nerd’s paradise. More and more heavily accessible and addictive web and mobile applications are turning towards social features. With nary a law to protect the rights of the virtual citizen, there’s no standard and no way to prevent our data from being abused, or at the very least, used in exceedingly creepy ways.

Last year the internet was set aflame over debates on the SOPA/PIPA Acts, and it was a scary moment of realization for those who grew up with the freedom and creativity of the free web. Yes, pirating is bad, but without a good understanding of our online rights, how can we know how much new laws will undermine expression?

The Internet remains one of the last hints of wilderness in the West. Left alone, like all true wild and beautiful places, sooner or later boots will tramp down, trees will be felled, and fences put up. We need to urge politicians to STUDY and SUPPORT the creativity and rights of the online world, but they are only so many figureheads. Without an awareness of the significance of our individual online presences, no positive change can occur.

Obama’s venture into the Reddit community was a small symbolic step in the right direction, but now we need real concrete policies to follow . As the 2014 elections come up, it’s a good time to consider not only one’s rights as a U.S. citizen, but a virtual one too.

Fun fact: I had the great opportunity of hearing founder Alexis Ohanian speak to hackNY over the summer. Really charismatic and smart guy, and an impressive activist.

Less fun fact: I actually don’t go on Reddit myself, living up to its demographics of 72% male. But that’s another story for another day.

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