Harvard, creativity, and university reform

Posted in University life at 12:59 am by ducky

Jerome Dolittle recently reported via James Fallows that he had asked thirty Harvard first-year students to redesign universities from the ground up; 29 of 30 came up with, as the author put it, “something that looked very much like Harvard, except a little farther out of town”.  He seemed to take this as evidence that Harvard students were not very creative.

This was in response to an article by Randy Pollack talking about how uncreative Chinese MBA students were: when asked to come up with a the most original idea they could for a business, e.g. a restaurant chain, five of six groups came up with the idea of — a restaurant chain!  This was given as evidence of how the Chinese educational system did not foster creativity.

Dolittle seemed to think that the Harvard students were just as uncreative as the Chinese students, but I don’t think that comparison is fair.  I think that reforming education is a much more difficult problem for first-year students than thinking of a business would be for MBA students.

In addition to the age difference and the difference in academic focus, the MBAs had probably encountered hundreds if not thousands of businesses and products in their day-to-day life.  I would bet that the majority of the Harvard freshman had intimate knowledge of exactly one university.  It’s difficult to consider how you can change something if you don’t have an idea of the number of degrees of freedom you have.

Even faculty have difficulty being creative about reforming universities.  Recently there was a New York Times opinion piece End the University as we know it that got quite a bit of buzz in my circles, despite its recommendations being, in my opinion, not very creative:

  1. Restructure the curriculum to be more interdisciplinary.
  2. Abolish permanent departments, replacing them with problem-focused temporary departments (e.g. Water).
  3. Collaborate more across institutions.
  4. Allow dissertations in forms other than things that look like scholarly books.
  5. Give graduate students real-world skills.
  6. Abolish tenure.

Three recommendations (#1,# 3, and #5) are goals that institutions already aspire to.  They might not do it well, but they sure talk about it a lot.

I think people haven’t done #6 because it would lead to either a rise in cost or a decline in quality (or both), not because it wasn’t an obvious thing to try.

Aside from the increased administrative overhead and lack of departmental reputations that #2 would cause, project-based learning has been tried before to some extent.  (Hampshire College is highly individual-project based; Colorado College students take one compressed course at a time.)  One could also easily argue that each graduate student is supposed to create their “department of one”.  (When I got my first MS, I took classes in library science and intellectual property law because that’s what made sense for my area of interest.)

For #4, I believe that it already is possible to do a non-book thesis, particularly in the performing arts.   One friend’s “dissertation” was a symphony.  Another friend made a movie for her anthropology thesis.  While I have a copy of my thesis printed on dead trees, the important version of the thesis is the PDF available on-line.

Even though Taylor’s ideas are not that novel, they got buzz.  I think that means that it is really hard for most people to come up with ideas on how to reform university education.

In contrast to the inexperience of the Harvard freshmen, I have been downright promiscuous with universities.  (I have eight transcripts now, for examplet.) This familiarity helped me identify — fourteen years ago — some core functions of a university institution that I thought could be disaggregated: unidirectional information transfer, interactive learning experiences, caring/paying attention, and certification. I also showed how these pieces could be rearranged by private enterprise and social media. (In later blog posts, I showed how this disaggregation/disintermediation is already happening.)

Now, it is possible that it is a coincidence that I have both unusual intimacy with universities and was able to come up with creative insights about reform.  I suppose it’s also possible that I’m just amazingly brilliant. I don’t think so.  I think that if you see lots of X, then it becomes easier to think creatively about things you could do with X.

It might be that the Harvard students were in fact just as uncreative as the Chinese MBAs.   However, I don’t think Dolittle proved that.


UBC programming team takes 34th in the world!

Posted in Canadian life, Hacking, University life at 11:47 am by ducky

The UBC programming team took 34th place at the 2009 International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) World Finals in Stockholm!  W00t!!

This marks the sixth year in a row that UBC has gone to the World Finals, despite being entirely undergraduates and entirely without World Finals experience.  (We have information on past teams, but don’t know the seniority of the 2004 team.)

Congratulations, team!


I'm against UBC joining the NCAA

Posted in Canadian life, Married life, University life at 3:31 pm by ducky

UBC is considering joining the NCAA’s Division II.

As someone who has attended as many US universities as Sarah Palin, let me say that I feel that joining the NCAA Division II would be dangerous. I can’t say that it would be unequivocally a bad idea, but it is likely to be a bad idea. (If it were Division I, I would have no reservations in saying that it would be a bad idea.)

At Division I universities, “revenue sports” — i.e. ones that people hope can bring in more money directly or indirectly (football, basketball, and sometimes baseball) — corrupt in many obvious and non-obvious ways. It might be that Division II doesn’t have revenue sports, so maybe it wouldn’t have the same problems that revenue sports bring.

While revenue sports do not always result in all of these things, these things tend to happen:

  • Weakening of admissions standards. While academic standards for athletes have gotten slightly stricter, they are still pretty weak. While there are many athletes who are fine scholars, there are also numerous cases where admissions and grading standards have been bent into pretzels to accommodate star athletes in revenue sports.
    • I saw this hurt minority students, especially those of African descent. People I respected admitted that when they saw a black face on campus, they assumed that it was an athlete, and hence less academically qualified. (Note that these were not people who harboured animosity towards blacks. They were upset at their own reaction.)
  • Bad behaviour excused. Universities tend to have their own police department. (UBC has sort of a hybrid.) Those departments get pressured to not press charges against star athletes. There is a history of really frightful behaviour on the part of athletes in revenue sports being overlooked.
  • Abuse of the athletes. Star athletes in revenue sports get surrounded by sycophants and encouraged to engage in extremely hazardous behaviours either explicitly or implicitly — playing while hurt, taking performance-enhancing drugs, etc. Almost none of them will get pro careers. The fraction is so close to zero that it is stupid… and they get completely ignored the minute their college career is over. (Go see Hoop Dreams to understand the mechanism.)
  • Overbuilding. Bear with me. When a revenue sport does really well, alumni donations go up. In particular, really rich alumni start to give big hunks of money to construct buildings. (I grew up in the hometown of the University of Illinois. For about fifteen years, the team was crummy, and there were essentially no buildings built on campus. In my fourth year, the football team did extremely well. In the next ten years, the building square footage doubled.) Nobody ever gives huge chunks of money to the maintenance fund, so what happens is that the maintenance and salary gets stretched. Tuition tends to go up as well.
  • Tribalism. Revenue sports can create a highly competitive “us-against-them” mentality that is bad news for anyone who ends up on the “them” side. This is very un-Canadian.
    • Ten years after I graduated, I was put on a work project with a University of Michigan alum (the University of Illinios’ main athletic rival at the time). Much to my surprise and dismay, I had a very strong, visceral, irrational dislike of him because he was from Michigan. (I got over it; he was totally wonderful to work with.)
    • Murray Sperber, a Canadian-born professor at the University of Indiana, received death threats because he dared to voice the opinion that the basketball coach’s was so bad that he should be fired.
    • My fourth year at the University of Illinois, the backup quarterback threw three interceptions in an important game. A friend who lived near him said that for weeks, cars would drive slowly past his house. This seems threatening and uncalled for to me.
  • Expensive tickets. If a team is consistently successful, the tickets become desirable, so the price goes up. Students cannot compete with alumni: they just don’t have as much money. The university might set aside a block of cheap tickets for the students, but at least at the University of Illinois, they were crummy seats.

One argument people make in favor of joining Division II is that it might help keep the top Canadian athletes from going to the US. I say let them go. The percentage of athletes at a university is very small; the number of “top athletes” will be even smaller. I do not thinkk it is appropriate to change the culture of a university on the hopes of attracting five people per year? Five people who are good at something other than the university’s core mission? I would much rather that UBC work on attracting the top scholars instead of the top athletes.

I believe that revenue sports are a dangerous, corrupting, un-Canadian institution.


Welcome to Canada, please stay

Posted in Canadian life, Random thoughts, University life at 4:29 pm by ducky

Canada made a change yesterday to the International Student Post-Graduation Work Permit. From about two years ago to yesterday, there was a program in place where if you

  • graduated from a Canadian college or university
  • had a job offer
  • applied for a permit

then you could get a work permit for a year at the company you had the offer from. The company would not have to go through a process of proving that there were no Canadians who could do the job. (If you and said company parted ways, you could change the permit.)

One catch of the program was that while you were not working, you couldn’t leave the country without forfeiting the right to that permit. You were legally allowed to be in the country and look for work. (You just couldn’t leave.)

For many people, not being able to leave might not be a hardship, but I have lots of family two hours south of UBC. If something happened to my mother, I would need to leave Canada. So I figured I had to have a job before I graduated, and looking for work while trying to finish my thesis was a pain.

Now, the requirement for a job offer has been dropped, and the period has been extended. I have get the right to live and work in Canada for three years or as long as my program of study was, whichever is smaller. (This probably means two years.) Not only that, it is a totally open work permit. I can work for anyone, and I can even not work for an employer (i.e. I could consult if I can’t find a Real Job).

This relieves the stress of looking for a job enormously!


funny statistics?

Posted in Canadian life, Random thoughts, University life at 11:30 pm by ducky

Last night, my beloved husband and I went to see Zarqa Nawaz (the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie) speak at our local gorgeous performing arts hall.

Her talk was wonderful and funny and thought-provoking — I’m really glad I went.

One of the points that she made was that when a Muslim does something bad, there are cries about how this is just one more example of how Islam as a religion is repressive/bad/evil/ugly/whatever, but nobody tars Christianity or white culture if someone white does something bad. One thing that she mentioned was that the leading cause of death of pregnant women in the US was homicide, but that nobody talks about how US culture is brutal to women

I was shocked by the statistic. But thinking about that this morning, I started to wonder about how meaningful that statistic was. What else are pregnant women going to die of?

  • If a woman is pregnant, she’s not going to be old, so she is much less likely to die from diseases of old age. Pregnant women probably don’t die of heart disease very often.
  • If a young woman has some nasty illness, she’s probably not going to be pregnant. Either her body won’t have the resources to get pregnant, or she’ll have the baby and take steps to not get pregnant again, or the illness (or medications) will cause her to lose the baby.
  • Pregnant women usually don’t put themselves in dangerous situations. Women generally don’t hang out in war zones, mine coal, drive trucks, or enter motorcycle races once they find out they are pregnant. (And before they find out they are pregnant, they might also get missed by the statistics.)

While yes, it is bad that homicide is the leading cause of pregnant women in the US, I’d like to see how it compares to US women of childbearing age who are not pregnant, to US men of the same age, and the same numbers for different countries.

I did a little digging, and found some stats at the Violence Policy Center (VPC) and some stats at the US Bureau of Justice (BOJ):

  • Black women were more than three times as likely to be murdered than white women.
  • Women were more than 11 times as likely to be murdered by a man they knew than by a stranger (VPC).
  • When the woman knew her murderer, 60% of the time, it was an intimate or ex-intimate according to VPC.  However, according to the Bureau of Justice, about a third of women were killed by their intimates.  (Maybe the difference is due to different classification of “intimates”.  VPC includes ex-intimates.)
  • Only about three percent of male victims are killed by their intimates (BOJ).
  • In 90% of the cases where the race of both victim and murderer were know, the woman was killed by men of a different race!!! (BOJ)
  • The number of women killed by their intimates in the US was pretty stable for 20 years, and then started falling in 1993.  It’s at its lowest point ever right now. (BOJ)
  • The number of men killed by their intimates in the US has been falling steadily and dramatically for the past 30 years. (BOJ)



Posted in Canadian life, Too Much Information, University life at 7:09 pm by ducky

On the day before US Thanksgiving, I was at my lab late, waiting for my beloved husband to get done with an opera chorus rehearsal. For reasons that don’t matter, I didn’t go home for dinner. Instead, I prepared some yummy cup-of-soup for dinner, adding boiling water from the electric kettle in our lab. I immediately grabbed the cup in my right hand to take back to my desk… and slopped boiling-hot soup on my hand. It landed in the little triangle of skin between the thumb and index finger, where there is a little depression — and saw no good reason to leave. This hurt, so my body acted quickly to throw the water off of the web of skin.

Unfortunately, that meant that soup jumped out of the cup onto the floor, onto my shirt, onto the desk, onto the back of my hand, and even one little splatter onto my forehead. YOWCH!

I quickly grabbed my waterbottle and poured it over the back of my hand (watering one of the office plants in the process). It hurt, but not so much that I thought I couldn’t clean up some of the mess before going 50m to the closest washroom to run more cold water over my hand. So it was a minute or two before I ran more cold water over the burn.

It hurt, but it didn’t hurt that badly. I had never scalded myself before, but I certainly had burned myself before, and it wasn’t painful in that same league. So I ate what was left of the cup of soup and went back to debugging.

After a while, the scald started to hurt. It hurt more and more as time went on. This was really, really strange. I wondered if scalds were somehow different from “regular” burns. It was hurting enough that I was having trouble focusing on my work. “How long would it keep getting worse?” I wondered.

What really made me nervous was that I was supposed to jump in a car and go down to the US in a few hours. I have travellers’ insurance so that I can get medical treatment in the US if needed, but it would probably be a big logistical hassle. Finally, I decided to go to the emergency room a few blocks away. I felt kind of foolish for doing so, but I had never had the experience of a burn’s pain getting worse and worse as time goes on.

As soon as I got outside, my hand started feeling better. This made sense, given the cold and moist air on my bare skin. At the emergency room, they saw me quickly, told me I was fine, and sent me home. I felt relieved but somewhat foolish, but it had been really strange for the pain to increase.

I went back to the lab and commenced working again. I started typing and mousing and typing and mousing again. With my hands. Especially my right hand. And what do you think happened? The pain started increasing again in my right hand!

I felt really, really stupid at that point. It was hurting more and more because I was stretching the scalded area. Duh.


Seeking professional Java programmers!

Posted in Hacking, University life at 10:54 am by ducky

Help improve software tools by participating in a user study!

I am looking for Java/Eclipse programmers to participate in a study on how developers navigate through code. If you are interested in participating, or know someone who might be, please contact me at duckys at cs.ubc.ca . (Do not use my ducky at webfoot address.)

I have assembled some tools that I think can make navigating through code easier, and want to see how actual developers navigate with and without those tools. I need pairs of professional developers who who have programed regularly in the Java using an Eclipse-based integrated development environment (like Rational Application Developer for WebSphere or JBuilder) for at least the past six months. You need to be over 19 and proficient in English.

If you have a buddy that you could team with, fantastic! If you are solo, not to worry – I can find someone for you to pair with. People in the Vancouver, BC area are easiest for me to work with, but I can travel to Vancouver Island or Washington State if that’s what it takes.

Participating in this study will take approximately 3 hours of your time. It involves meeting me and one other participant at a mutually-agreeable location to perform four coding tasks on a hw/sw system that I will provide.

You and the other participant will pair-program for four coding tasks: two with a pretty “normal” Eclipse and one with enhanced navigation tools. Both versions of Eclipse will log your interactions; I’ll also do screen capture, and record the conversations you have with your partner. Afterwards, I’ll ask you to fill out a brief questionnaire, and briefly interview you about your experience.

We might also offer you the option of continuing to use the tool in your normal day-today work. If you choose to do so, we’d appreciate getting feedback from you afterwards.

In exchange, I can offer a $20 Amazon.ca gift certificate (w00t!). If you’re interested, I’d also be delighted to tell you what I’ve learned about programmer productivity.

I am conducting this study as a part of my MS Thesis, supervised by Dr. Gail Murphy. This study is being funded by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
I hope to hear from you!

Kaitlin Duck Sherwood


Mylyn podcast

Posted in Technology trends, University life at 4:17 pm by ducky

Hey! That’s Mik!

I bumped into a screencast of Mik Kersten talking about Mylyn, which is a really cool tool that he developed under my supervisor’s direction, and which he and my supervisor are now productizing. 🙂 Go Mik!


Comparative water use in BC and US

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 6:33 pm by ducky

One of the The neatest thing about living at Green College is the neat people I get to talk to all the time. One of them, Alice Cohen, gave a talk at Green recently about her research area: water. Specifically, she’s looking at the difference in water usage management between the US San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands. These islands have the same geography and the same climate, but different legal systems depending upon which side of the US/Canadian border they fall on. This makes them an ideal study case.

With a few exceptions, drinking water in Canada falls under provincial jurisdiction. The federal guidelines only apply when drinking water is a federal responsibility (in transboundary waters, on First Nations territory, in national parks, and were it affects coastal and inland fisheries). Although some provinces have taken on the Canadian federal guidelines, most provinces use their own standards. Provinces can elect to ignore parts of the federal standard if they so choose. This makes sense sometimes. For example, Prince Edward Island basically only has groundwater, so it might not make sense to spend money testing for things that are only present in surface water.

In the US, all public drinking water supplies must conform to the federally-determined Environmental Protection Agency standards. Generally speaking, then, the Washington State official standards are higher than the British Columbia standards. (There are some exceptions. Some BC municipalities, like Vancouver and Victoria, have adopted the federal Guidelines.)

Washington and BC also have a different approach towards supply. On the US side, you have to prove that there is adequate water before you are allowed to build a house. On the Canadian side, you do not.

Alice spent last summer interviewing residents of both islands on how groundwater management worked in practice on either side of the border. She found, to her surprise, that there ended up being very little difference “on the ground” in water management from one side of the border to the other, despite very different regulations.

She found that on the Canadian side, there were more extra-legal forces that kept water use down. On one island community, for example, the residents were metered and each resident’s use was posted in a public place. This form of “peer pressure” seemed to actually work. (Note that it is many hours journey to get from the islands to “civilization”. It is thus much more important to be on good terms with your neighbors out there than in a big metropolitan area. If you need a cup of flour or a gallon of gas, you can’t just run down to the corner store.)

Meanwhile, on the US side of the border, she found that people sometimes did things without permits in order to bypass restrictions. This is one example of the way that people actually interacted with water was very similar on both sides of the border.


Upgrading from Firefox 1.5.x to Firefox 2.0.x on Ubuntu

Posted in Consumer advice, University life at 1:10 pm by ducky

I got a warning from the IT group that there was a vulnerability in Firefox 1.5.x, and that I should upgrade to 2.0.x. Fine.

I went to download via Synaptic (apt-get with a GUI). It didn’t have Firefox 2.0.x.

I downloaded the tarball from http://getfirefox.com and unzipped it. No obvious installation script. There was a readme.txt, which said:

For information about installing, running and configuring Firefox including a list of known issues and troubleshooting information, refer to: http://getfirefox.com/releases/

That URL redirected to the same page that http://getfirefox.com redirected me to. There was a link for Releases on that page. Unfortunately, all it said about installation was this:

Please note that installing Firefox 2 will overwrite your existing installation of Firefox. You won’t lose any of your bookmarks or browsing history, but some of your extensions and other add-ons might not work until updates for them are made available.

Swell. So I asked the Web, and found pages like this, which were slightly more helpful, but which seemed geared to installing and not upgrading.

It turns out that Firefox is in a self-contained directory. All I needed to do was to figure out where the old directory was and replace it.

% which firefox
% ls -l /usr/bin/firefox
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root 22 2006-09-25 20:19 /usr/bin/firefox -> ../lib/firefox/firefox

Aha. Sure enough, all I had to do was move /usr/lib/firefox to /usr/lib/firefox1.5, and move my new firefox dir to /usr/lib:

% sudo mv /usr/lib/firefox /usr/lib/firefox1.5
% sudo mv ~/downloads/ff2/firefox /usr/lib/

While I understand that it is a free product, and while I am very pleased with many aspects of Firefox, and while I understand that Linux is a niche market, their end-user documentation leaves a little to be desired.

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