This semester I have the pleasure of being involved with a pretty cool research project on Government secrecy at Columbia University.

The Declassification Engine, which bills itself as “Computational Analysis of Official Secrecy”, is a joint project between the History, Statistics, and Computer Science (specifically Natural Language Processing) departments at CU (among a slew of other things) to provide tools and better analysis of just what the government has and has not (and will and will not) be withholding from the public throughout the years.

I myself found a research position on this project by following my favorite TA in my favorite class on Natural Language Processing into his research life, which is how one often finds interesting things.

The project is still quite young and less rigidly defined, so it’s fun to be involved early.

I’ll be working on image processing and language processing, among other things I really enjoy doing.

Needless to say, I’m a huge proponent of free speech, free press, and transparency, and quite excited. Plus it never hurts to feel like a real badass hacker, ripping through hundreds of thousands of federal censored papers in the terminal.

Check out a recent interview on the Declassification on NPR!

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I pose to you today a question that I wish for you to consider, as you re-enter your classrooms and dormrooms and lecture halls (that is, if, you, like me, are a university student; else, perhaps as you send your sons and daughters and friends back to such similiar places).

What is the price of a good education?

It is true, of course, that on some level a good education has no price. For knowledge is both priceless and infinitely valuable.

But this is not how, for all intents and purposes, we are taught to think in pragmatic life, or at least not at our present state and nation; and this you must surely know, for even public schooling is not truly free, paid for students in the form of taxes and subsidies and other pecuniary means. Budget cuts, tax increases: these are the buzzwords we often hear in the political arena with respect to education. I, for one, loyal to my liberal stance, default to protest the cut of funding for schools and cheer programs to increase its quality. Yet at what point may we say, STOP? and when must we say, GO?

I am an undergraduate of Columbia University, surely among the most expensive educations in the world. The raw cost of 1 year’s tuition is $45,028.00; with financial aid and scholarship, it becomes incrementally more affordable, but even so, an enormous sum (and not all Universities provide such great financial support). Surely, at this price, my education must be nonparallel; and in some ways, this is in fact true, and I am extremely fortunate.

But if we may read the quality of education as proportional to its price, and thusly say that this is truly the highest quality of education that humanity can provide at this moment, than I reply that humanity must be in a very sorry state indeed.

In the first 2 days of courses this semester I can already count 2 classrooms that had not enough seats for students; 3 that were over-registered. In one class more than 10 students sat on the floor for the duration of the nearly 2 hour lecture below the vision of the professor; in another, students were encouraged to sit on window ledges rather than crowd the aisles on a day of 7°F wind chills.

This is one of the highest price tags for education in the world; and if at 45,028.00 dollars we cannot provide even the bare essentials for students (a place to sit and the ability to both see and hear the lesson), it frightens me to hear at what tuition hike this may be proposed feasible.

I have, of course, no definite answers, and my question of price is less about money than to suggest a point about the usage of that money and the approach that the society in which I live takes to approach the education question. It is a question that, as a student, one has a responsibility to ponder, and that I hope to explore, and I ask you to do the same.

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As I sit here working on a project in lieu of going to class for the umpteenth time, I realized with sudden clarity that perhaps the current way that Computer Science is taught in universities is not the optimal way. Large lecture halls, clunky languages– it’s a bad sign when even a die-hard “learning for learning’s sake” student skips class on a regular basis.

anyway, a few thoughts on how I would change the structure of Computer Science courses to maximize efficiency + interest and minimize pain:

STOP TEACHING JAVA.

Seriously. I have never, ever been required to interview in a specific language at any company (even the “big names”), and if the people you’re talking to are deadset on Java, you probably don’t want to work there anyway. C is a much, much better “lower” level language for really grasping the way programming works, and Python is a much, much more fun language if you want to lower the barriers to entry and get students making things right away.

MAKE GRADES ENTIRELY PROJECT BASED FOR NON-THEORETICAL CLASSES

For classes like data structures, advanced programming, OOP, etc., etc. students tend to learn a great deal more and invest much more time and interest in coding projects. These should be the heart of the course, and is what matters in “the real world”, anyway. No one’s going to give you a bonus for remembering the difference between inheritance and polymorphism: let’s face it, you’d take the 5 seconds to Google the
definitions and move on. Big projects, tight deadlines, collaboration: this is where the real learning is.

IF YOU MUST MAKE STUDENTS TAKE EXAMS, STOP ASKING LANGUAGE-SPECIFIC SYNTATICAL QUESTIONS

In my opinion, you should not administer written exams in technical classes (see above). However, if you must, for heaven’s sake, please, please do not ask us things like the difference between strcmp and strncmp. Sometimes coding by hand with pencil and paper is good practice for interviews, but the code should be judged for logic and not syntax. Exams should be theory-based. Technical evaluations should be project-based. EOM.

IF YOU MUST HAVE LECTURE COURSES, PLEASE LIMIT THE SIZE OF THE CLASS

Size matters. This one is a given. Of course small seminars are best, but it’s understandable that budget might not allow for it. Lectures for intro courses only, and please, please try to cap them: there is a huge difference in ambiance and quality of learning between a lecture of 50 and of 250. I’m talking to you, Columbia. When I’m in a room with 300 other students learning about the difference between * argv[] and ** argv I immediately want to fall asleep or eat.

THAT’S ALL I CAN THINK OF FOR NOW.

then again, it’s entirely my fault for taking up class time to write in English instead of C++.

P.S.: Shout out to everyone in AP lecture who’s on Facebook right now. Hello! Now I feel less guilty for skipping class. At least I’m “working” in the library.

P.P.S.: For the record, I do believe that Jae is a great professor and administers valid albeit perhaps too difficult exams. Personally, I enjoy tough exams (sink or swim time/everyone failed so I feel less bad for not studying). The main clincher here is a) the size of lecture (TOO BIG) and b) little grade weight on projects. Neither of these can really be blamed entirely on the professor, cough *administration* cough cough

P.P.P.S.: Yes, perhaps strcmp and strncmp + polymorphism are not the best examples, as esp. the polymorphism question is more theoretically important. But you get the gist of the idea.

P.P.P.P.S. It is probably true that if I took 10 minutes to edit my posts I would not have to use postscripts, but what’s the fun in that?

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How ironic it is that 2 weeks ago I wrote an article on How Women Can’t Have it All, when I was, in fact, on my way to breaking point.

These past 2 weeks have been hellish to say the least.

The workload at Columbia has always been tough but I never envisioned how brutal it would be taking 2 graduate level courses along with 3 other programming intensive classes. Perhaps there are some who can handle it, but I do not have the build for it…

As a disclaimer, I have never placed too much value in letter and number grades and so the stress was really purely situational and not the blame of perfectionism, etc.

On the other hand, I am am a bit of an academic “purist” and have always loved learning for learning’s sake–thus placing a great emotional investment in what I study, especially towards Computer Science and Philosophy, which are my two main interests and have become part of my identity. And so perhaps that is even more of a burden than the pursuit of numbers, as it pains my soul not to learn what interests me well.

And identity, I realize, is integral to the issue. All my life I have been involved in very artistic and expressive pursuits, and so it has always been a secret fear in the back of my head after I started seriously dedicating my studies to the hard sciences I would lose part of myself. Close-minded stereotypes and assumptions of Engineering students I discovered existed after arriving to college did not help. So I imposed concrete, tangible markers on my self– a minor in Philosophy, Writing for the Spectator– to make sure someone, something else aside from me would be putting checks on my identity and keep it from slipping away to monotony.

On the one hand, dance (ballet classes and student groups), writing (for my blog and for the Spec) and philosophy (the Ethics class which I am taking, which I adore), have been saving graces in overwhelming times.

I remember one morning waking up so exhausted and sleep deprived that I had the terrifying revelation that I could not get myself to feel anything at all. I wandered through my morning in a stupor–unable to empathize with any human being. It was incredibly disorienting. The moment I finally regained my sense of humanity was when I walked into my ethic professor’s office hours. In the sunny room, in the mahogany Philosophy Hall, we had a great conversation on normative ethics and I finally felt myself again.

But on the other side, I realize that I am stretching myself way too thin just to hold on to these societally imposed, arbitrary markers on myself. And so I have withdrawn from my position as a blogger at the Spec*, and have dropped my Philosophy minor, even though it pains me to do so. Health comes first, existence precedes identity (arguably). I can still grow as a writer on my own time, and read great works at my leisure, perhaps auditing courses as life permits.

Dimensionality comes foremost from dimensionality in thought and an open mind– which can barely be achieved when it is overworked and undernourished.

I hope to keep these things in mind, as I learn to worry less about the labels I place on myself. Quality over quantity.

Thank you friends and family for being infinitely valuable.

Take care.

* On a separate, but related note, I have learned a valuable lesson from writing for a web publication– please be insightful but always respectful whenever commenting on the Internet. Anonymity need not make assholes of us all.

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This is a little late in coming, but I really, really like this article published in the nytimes. Without going into too much detail, since I highly encourage you to read it yourself, the piece, titled “Follow a Career Passion? Let it Follow You” debunks the idea that in order to be successful, you have to start chasing after that one and only dream job, something the author, CS professor at Georgetown Cal Newport calls “the Cult of Passion”.

I see a lot of the detrimental effects of this “Cult” at Columbia. I, too, fell victim to its pressures when I was first starting out in Engineering school. I have always been a passionate learner and somewhat an academic “purist”: learning for learning’s sake, never for grades or awards. When I arrived at Columbia, for the first time in my life, I hated all of my classes. It destroyed my morale. The one course that I truly enjoyed– a writing seminar– ironically, caused me even more anxiety, since it had naught to do whatsoever with Engineering.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging young adults to pursue their dreams or find careers that inspire them. This is all very good and ideal. The old adage holds true: if you are doing something that you love, you are successful already.

However, this philosophy can be problematic because it puts unwarranted stress on career decisions, and moreover, really hurts those who have not yet “discovered” their “calling”, which I think is a BS idea anyway. Combine that with the financial and societal pressure that comes with attending an elite school, and you have a lot of Ivy-League tears. It is nearly impossible to know at age 18 or 20 what you want to do for the rest of your life and that’s okay: you can’t know and if you do, you’re probably wrong.

The issue is intensified when very smart, very passionate indivduals have not yet figured out what makes them happy or what exact field they are enthusiastic about. In these situations, and under high pressure, the urge to slap on the passions of others– perhaps a parent or a professor– or subsitute alternate motives (money, power) becomes all too tempting. For those with a high drive to succeed and perfectionist tendencies, the option to quit or reevaluate, even when unhappiness ensues, may never occur. I am, and remain, highly doubtful that a career, or moreover life, driven by any of these motives could ever be truly fulfilling or even healthy.

Newport, now a professor, argues that his love for teaching has “nothing to do with figuring out at an early age that I was meant to be a professor”, or even that there was anything special about his particular career path. The qualities that cause satisfaction in a career can be found in many areas– and most of all, they have to be earned. What matters is not the choice you make– but what you do once you have made the choice.

I could not agree more. I do not often use the word “love”, but I say it without qualms that I truly love Computer Science. It is a fascinating field of study and I am an eager evangelist. In it I see reflections of myself: the connections to Plato and Aristotle through logic and philosophy, the magic of words and drafting something beautiful that I crave in writing. Sure, there is a lot of debugging and frustration in between, but it satisfies, and most of all, challenges me to be a better thinker. None of these traits are apparent to the non-Computer Scientist or even many Computer Scientists. That’s because I took something that piqued my interests, and molded it into a passion.

I don’t know if I want to be a developer 5 years, or even 2 years (after graduation), from now. That’s because there is never only one right way or one right answer– not even in science. I don’t even know if my enthusiasm or GPA will survive this brutal semester of for and while loops. But I do know for sure that when it comes time to reeavaluate, I will try my best not to worry– because I know that where hard work and dedication go, love will follow.

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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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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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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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