tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
A work of parody by Tim Chevalier, based on "Hackers and Painters" by Paul Graham.

The following is a work of fiction.

When I finished grad school in computer science, I decided I had just wasted eight years, and went to firefighter school to become a firefighter. A lot of people seemed surprised that someone interested in computers would also be interested in fighting fires. They seemed to think that hacking and firefighting were very different kinds of work: that hacking was an inner-directed pursuit of personal pleasure (a little like doing drugs, but slightly more socially acceptable), while firefighting involves self-sacrifice and taking risks for the benefit of others.

Both of these images are wrong. Hacking and firefighting have a lot in common. In fact, of all the different types of people I've known, hackers and firefighters are among the most alike.

What hackers and firefighters have in common is that they both like to jump into situations that most sensible people would steer clear of. Along with doctors, nurses, and traffic cops, what hackers and firefighters are trying to do, at least in part, is save other people from the consequences of their poor life decisions (without passing judgment on those decisions; or, at least, doing so quietly among friends after one gets the job done). They're not doing research per se, though if in the course of trying to mitigate disasters they discover some new technique, so much the better.

Hackers need to understand the theory of computation about as much as firefighters need to understand thermodynamics. You need to know how to calculate time and space complexity and about Turing completeness. You might also want to remember at least the concept of a state machine, in case you have to write a parser or a regular expression library. Firefighters in fact have to remember a good deal more about physics and chemistry than that.

I've found that the best sources of ideas are not the other fields that have the word "computer" in their names, but the other fields inhabited by public servants. Firefighting has been a much richer source of ideas than the theory of computation.
Read more... )
tim: "Bees may escape" (bees)
A comment on a post I can't link to (friends-only), but that basically compared certain recreational programming language conferences to church, reminded me that I stopped being an atheist right about the same time as when I started to stop worshiping CS, hackers, and hacker culture. Funny, that.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Over on geekfeminism.org, I wrote a reflection on Joseph Reagle's article "Free as in sexist?": "Open Source, Closed Minds?" I've written a few other posts on geekfeminism.org that I forgot to link to here:
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the last part in a 4-part series on impostor syndrome. (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3)

Conclusions

At this point, I know someone will ask: "what could computer science departments do differently?" Well, more involved advising and mentoring would be a great start! That is, it isn't enough for an advisor to just say "come by if there's anything you need", because if you have impostor syndrome, you may not know what you need and you certainly won't want to admit that you need help. What if departments expected advisors to be ready to support all grad students, not just the ones who look exactly like themselves? This isn't to say that every faculty member can or should try to be an expert on every identity, but knowing what they do and don't know would be a start. Any outright acknowledgment of impostor syndrome would be a great start too. At Berkeley, there was nobody who stood up and said that most of the time when people look like they know what they're doing, they don't. I'm not sure I would have believed it even if they'd said it. Oh, sure, other people might be fumbling, but not as fumbling as me. We did have a required class on teaching techniques at Berkeley, since all grad students were required to TA for at least one semester -- in my head, I called the class "Geek Support Group", but it was actually really helpful because it was one time during the day when we got to put aside the pretense that we were all rational beings made of pure logic. So maybe a required class on how to be a grad student would have been helpful (required because I suspect the very people who needed it the most would have brushed it off if it was optional.)

Encouraging socialization in a way that includes everyone would also be helpful. Of course, most departments already have social events. In my department at Berkeley, when I was there, the CS grad students' group organized a weekly reception. However, faculty members rarely attended; the professor who I saw there most frequently seemed to stay just long enough to snag some free food. I was part of the CS grad students' group at Portland State, and over time, students stopped attending our events, even when we offered free food; it's not clear why. In contrast, in my ex-partner's department at Berkeley -- mathematics -- the department had a tea/coffee hour every afternoon, which a department assistant organized (the job wasn't pushed onto students) and was very well-attended by both students and faculty. Just having social events is not a be-all and end-all, since some students won't feel comfortable in large groups and some people always get left out, but it's a start. Of course, offering free food can help, and provides an excuse to go for someone who is reluctant to socialize.

Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the third post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome (Part 1, Part 2). Check back tomorrow for the conclusion!

Self-Deportation

When a department admits students from "minority groups" but doesn't do anything to address impostor syndrome, how different is that from categorically rejecting everyone who isn't a het cis able-bodied white man from an middle- to upper-class background? This way, the administration gets to boost their diversity numbers and gets plausible deniability when those students (as it were) "self-deport". "We tried to admit women and students of color, but they just didn't like it here! They must just not be interested in science." As if interests are developed in social isolation and don't depend on a network of social support telling you -- implicitly, usually -- that you belong. It's not as if everyone who's in a minority group experiences impostor syndrome, but the experience of someone who gets treated like they belong and someone who doesn't is so different that I don't think it's too strong to say "you might as well just reject everyone". I also don't mean to say that diversity decisions always get made in bad faith, but I've had some personal experiences that make it difficult for me to believe that there is any genuine institutional commitment to diversity at the universities I've attended.

In my experience, it seems that being told you're welcome and that you belong is sort of like water if you're a fish: when you have it, you don't notice it. It's only when these things are absent that you do notice. I blamed myself for their absence, because that's what I've always been taught to do. I attributed my failure at Berkeley to my own incompetence, and it didn't occur to me until years later to think about how my environment contributed to my failure to thrive there. I got ignored. The other grad students in my group and cohort socialized with each other; I just got left out. Since I was being perceived as female at the time, I think this had something to do with the fact that I was perceived as not a peer (because I wasn't male) and not sexually available (since I was married) -- therefore, to most of my fellow students, I was useless.

Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the second post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome (Part 1). I'll be posting one installment per day.

Berkeley 2001-2003

"it's cool to discover someone
it's hard to support them
everyone is playing life
like it's some stupid sport"
-- Ani DiFranco

As for most new Ph.D students in the US, my first year at Berkeley consisted mostly of coursework, and that was what I was used to, so for the most part it went smoothly. At the end of the year, it should have been a warning sign when nobody wanted to be my advisor. One professor I talked to -- the one I'd mentioned in my statement of purpose as who I wanted to work with, and who encouraged me to come to Berkeley when I visited during prospective student day -- said "no" outright, saying he wasn't interested in what I wanted to study (functional programming languages). Another one didn't say no, but had a reputation of being someone who didn't answer email; I was hoping for someone who actually seemed interested in having a student. I ruled out two more professors who seemed close to retirement, and one more because she did scientific computing and that pushed my "I went to a liberal arts school and don't know anything" buttons too much. I ended up with an advisor who told me he was willing to advise me, but given what I was interested in doing, he wasn't going to be very involved and he would basically just be there to sign paperwork. At the time, I thought that was fine. Remember, I didn't like talking to people. I thought I would just work on my own, and that would be easy. Easier than getting up the courage to talk to somebody, anyway.

Later on, I saw it as a personal mistake to have chosen this advisor rather than looking harder for a more involved advisor, or even changing research areas. But part of why I made that decision was structural. I was socially shut out, as I'll discuss, which meant that I wasn't getting any tacit knowledge that would have helped me understand that I did need an advisor who was involved. I know this is a structural factor and not a personal issue because Barbara Lovitts talks about it in her book Leaving the Ivory Tower. That is, she discovered that a major component of grad students' success or failure is the extent to which they can use informal social networks to attain the tacit knowledge that's essential to completing almost any graduate program; faculty and staff rarely communicate this knowledge to students in any systematic way. Official lists of graduation requirements stick to course requirements and the specifications for what constitutes a dissertation -- they don't talk about the unofficial things, like having an advisor you can work with (and who has time for you) and which advisors are likely to be compatible with which kinds of people. Thus, people who find themselves misfits and outsiders in the (figurative) lunchroom in any particular department tend to get pushed out, even if they're just as able as the insiders to complete the academic requirements.

So here's where my impostor syndrome really began. Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the first post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome. I'll be posting one installment per day.

"Compare the best of their days
With the worst of your days
You won't win..." -- Morrissey

I can't remember exactly when I first encountered the term "impostor syndrome", but I know I was less than ten years old at the time, and I know where I read about it: a book called The Gifted Kid's Survival Guide. I don't think it made much of a mark on me. And knowing what it was early on didn't stop me from developing it later.

This essay is about my experiences with impostor syndrome. One of the reasons why I want to talk about these experiences is that I had them while most people in the world were seeing me as female, though I'm not female. Sometimes people tell me that my experiences are un-representative (of, I guess, anyone except me), but I think they're wrong. My experiences represent those of one person who spent 26 years moving through the world while generally being perceived to be female, albeit (often) gender-non-conforming. I say this not to lay claim to any sort of female socialization, which I didn't have; or to deny that I have male privilege (and probably had some even before I knew I was male); but because if I can say something that helps people understand what cis and trans women, as well as many trans men and genderqueer people, face in trying to find a place for themselves in male-dominated spaces (which is to say, in the world), I want that message to be understood. At the same time, I'm speaking from my position as a white trans man who doesn't have visible disabilities, was raised lower-class, and has a graduate degree and works as a software engineer. I've had it harder than some people and easier than many others, if it even makes sense to compare.

Ideally, I would like to change how historically male-dominated institutions -- specifically in this essay, computer science graduate programs -- try to integrate and welcome women as full participants. While one little blog post can't change the world, it might show a few people that the situation isn't as simple as it may look, and that has ripple effects. So I'm simply going to recount my personal history as a non-traditional learner, then undergraduate, then graduate student at Berkeley, and wherever possible try to draw connections between my experiences and larger social structures. If you remember nothing else from this essay, I hope you remember that when grad programs admit more women as students, it's not enough: to do so without extra attention to structural inequalities sets these students up for failure and actually reinforces sexism. I'll elaborate on that point in the rest of this essay.

Read more... )

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Here's a comment I wrote on a locked post by a friend discussing frustration (as a non-programmer) about being in conversations about programming where people talking about code weren't really making an effort to be understandable. I thought it was worth posting elsewhere.


I can sympathize with this because even though I've been programming for 17 years, I *still* get that "it might as well be Russian" (or Japanese in my case... I know a bit of Russian) feeling quite often when listening to people talk about code... and often, people I feel like I should be able to understand, like my immediate co-workers, or people at conferences (that are dedicated to the small, specialized area I used to focus on). I think part of it has to do with my difficulty processing speech (I can handle small talk just fine, but combine speech processing with any sort of difficult/complicated/abstract *content* and my brain falls over and dies), part of it is anxiety caused by impostor syndrome that ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy (when I can't understand something because I'm devoting too much effort to being worried that I won't understand it), and part of it is that CS and software are just so ridiculously specialized that even confident people with good communication skills just can't understand what each other are talking about if their specialties are different.

But believe it or not, I do know the feeling of alienation that comes from being in one of those conversations... and as with you, I hardly ever get it with any other conversation topic, even ones I know much less about than CS (well, maybe once in a while with physics or math, but most physics and math conversations I'm in on these days are people bullshitting and I'm well aware of that, so...)

Anyway, I'm not sure what the point of this comment is -- I don't think that my lack of confidence in my area of expertise should magically erase your lack of ease talking about an area you have no expertise in -- so I'm not sure what my conclusion is. One is that Bay Area tech culture can be really exclusive (when certain kinds of knowledge are used as a proxy for having had certain life experiences and *not* having had to deal with certain kinds of problems; I didn't have a computer when I was 5 and sometimes I feel like if I did, I'd be able to keep up with my peers). And another is that, well, often geeks just have a really hard time talking (or thinking?) about anything non-technical, and that's a flaw on their part, because part of being polite is to talk about things that won't exclude your conversational partners. I get the feeling people who sell insurance don't talk about it all night while hanging out at the pub. Why can't geeks extend others a similar courtesy? (And I think that also relates to my first point: privilege is *not* having to accommodate other people socially, and if you learned to talk about something besides code you might actually end up including people you'd prefer to exclude.)

ETA: I just came across this post on "technical entitlement", which overlaps with some of what I'm saying but says it more clearly.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

July 2014

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