A lovely ode to all those “unconventional families” out there. Really hit a familiar note for a girl who grew up in the library. Life might be easier if we all had PTA moms baking us cookies, but as my Linear Algebra textbook says, “Uniqueness implies existence, and existence implies uniqueness. (Therefore the matrix A is
invertible.)”.

[pet peeve: why in MLA format must punctuation go outside the quote? well, I don't like it.]

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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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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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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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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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