2016 reading log

Just over a year ago I decided it was time to overcome my post-having-a-baby reading slump, so I joined a Goodreads challenge to read 12 books this year. I just finished #12.

They were:

  1. Saving Capitalism (Robert Reich)

  2. In the Unlikely Event (Judy Bloom)

  3. MaddAddam (Margaret Atwood)

  4. The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood - yes, I read these in the wrong order)

  5. Loving Day (Mat Johnson)

  6. Someone Knows My Name (Lawrence Hill)

  7. The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood)

  8. The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters)

  9. Data and Goliath (Bruce Schneier)

  10. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)

  11. Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

  12. Trigger Warning (Neil Gaiman)

Many of these books will stay with me for a long time, but I think the best of the bunch was Someone Knows My Name.


I also spent the afternoon deleting my Flickr/Yahoo, LinkedIn, Reddit, Meetup, AIM, Skype, Nextdoor, Pinterest and Pandora accounts, and many more I can't remember. A++ would spend afternoon cleaning up online presence again.

I also changed a bunch of crappy passwords. Folks, I had the same Amazon password for 17 years, and it was just one word forwards and backwards. Don't be like MJ. Use good passwords!

Goodbye, us!

We threw ourselves a goodbye party today. In the afternoon, lots of our friends with kids came with their kids. In the evening, more friends without kids came and things got less shrieky in a hurry.

Reminding ourselves how many cool people we know in Pittsburgh might not have been the best idea for our moving angst, but it was nonetheless fun to spend the day hanging out with cool people.

And reminds me to make the same resolution for Kirkland that I made for Pittsburgh but didn't totally succeed at: if people are awesome and I want to interact with them, I should try to interact with them instead of hanging back and wishing I was cool enough to interact with them.

Doha made socializing easy because you knew the expats had nothing better to do than hang out with you. So I wasn't shy about saying "Let's get dinner tonight" or "Can I sit at your table" or "Can you give me a ride home and hang out," because I wasn't scared they'd say "No, I have better plans." It takes a lot more bravery for me to request people's time and attention in the real world, because I am always convinced that people must have better things to do with their time. And then it's time to say goodbye, and I realize how many opportunities were unrealized because I was too scared of rejection.


Speech to the school board

I spoke at this evening's school board meeting in favor of the proposed policy to support trans students.

I am sort of painfully aware that trans folks' voices should be the decisive ones here, not voices of the medical establishment. But since you can't yield your time to other people and I can only speak as myself, I decided this was worth saying.


I'm speaking in support of the proposed policy on transgender students. I'm speaking today as someone trained as a clinical social worker who spent a year as a therapist in the LGBT community, but first and foremost as the mother of a Colfax student who told me out of the blue at age four that she's a "girlboy" and whose gender identity is still up in the air today.

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that the rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality among our LGBT youth, particularly transgender youth, are abysmal, with gay and lesbian youth 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers,1 and trans youth more than 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than their cis peers.

Surveys suggest that 45% of transgender Americans age 18-24 have attempted suicide.2

There is nothing inevitable about this statistic. Clinicians did once wonder whether being transgender actually causes depression -- you could imagine that some degree of self-hatred could be an intrinsic characteristic of gender dysphoria -- but we know now that it is not. Depression isn't caused by being transgender, but by the discrimination, stigmatization and rejection that many trans individuals experience on a daily basis, from their families, from society, and yes, from our schools. A landmark study published in Pediatrics earlier this year3 found that transgender children whose parents accepted them and who were allowed to transition socially had no increase in depression compared to their cisgender peers.

What that means is that eliminating that 45% suicide attempt rate is in our power, as teachers and educators. All trans children need from us is to support a social transition: to respect their new name and pronouns, to let them choose the clothes that they prefer, to let them use the bathroom they feel comfortable and safe using. It's such a small thing they need from us. And it will absolutely, without question, save lives.

I recognize that the idea of a trans person in a public restroom is alarming to a lot of people who haven't thought about it much before, and who are unaware that we have all been sharing public restrooms with trans people our whole lives. But those fears are simply not grounded in reality: trans folks are infinitely more likely to be the victims of sexual violence in restrooms than the perpetrators. They do not pose a risk to their cisgender peers. But our failure to accept them is absolutely a risk to their health and to their lives.

The draft policy on transgender students is an enormous step for our district in treating our trans students with the respect and decency they deserve and creating an atmosphere where they can thrive. Thank you for supporting them.

1 Kaan, Olsen et al. (2011). “Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9—12.” CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6007a1.htm.
2 Haas, Rodgers & Herman (2014). “Suicide Attempts Among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/AFSP-Williams-Suicide-Report-Final.pdf
3 Olson, Durwood, DeMeules & McLaughlin (2016). “Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities,” http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/02/24/peds.2015-3223

Lack of research support for early elementary homework

I am cross-posting this from Facebook so I can get feedback from education-y people who hang out here instead of there:

I forgot who asked me to share research about elementary school homework, but here is a very readable starting point from Slate. This is a controversial question in education research, and the Slate piece skews toward reading homework naysayers, but I think it's moderately even-handed.

This is the NEA's official statement, which cites Cooper's metastudy as evidence: "At the elementary school level, homework can help students develop study skills and habits and can keep families informed about their child's learning. At the secondary school level, student homework is associated with greater academic achievement."

Soooo, reading slightly between the lines, student homework is not really associated with greater academic achievement in elementary school. (Actually, Cooper found very mild effects from 4th grade up.) The "can help students develop study skills," as far as I can tell, is pure handwaving: i.e., we know it doesn't help them academically, but hey, maybe it's helping them non-academically. I am unaware of studies that actually examine whether homework DOES help six-year-olds develop study skills. (And I have doubts about what that even means.)

This is why Falk, the totally research-/best-practices-based school here in Pittsburgh, has no homework till 3rd grade. The NEA is more conservative, using Cooper's research to suggest a max of 10 minutes per night per grade, starting in first grade (i.e., 10 minutes/day in first grade, 20 minutes/day in second grade). But on the younger end of the spectrum that really is, as the Slate article says, "an act of faith" -- it is not based on actual research that first grade homework does anything at all. The NEA does NOT recommend homework for kindergarteners.

I have not questioned Z's teacher/school administration about her homework, because there's not a ton of it and she genuinely enjoys it. But I am very cognizant of all the kids out there who hate their homework, and who start to hate schoolwork as a result. I think we tend to say -- about a lot of things, including assigning homework -- "Well, we might as well, because it might help." Instead we should actually be considering the costs and risks of requiring something that DOESN'T help. Requiring people to do something of very questionable benefit (from removing shoes at the airport to undergoing annual pap smears) has a real cost, both in terms of opportunity costs and in terms of false negatives and simply in terms of lost goodwill. When the world is full of little kids (is it sexist of me to say: often squirmy little boys) who hate homework and quite likely get no benefit from it, assigning it isn't a neutral "well, might as well"; it may well be actively BAD.

Thoughts from education experts? Because I am definitely not one.


I then posted this link as a comment, as a slightly more pro-homework-leaning starting place.

Yield to Pedestrians!

(cross-posted from Nextdoor.)

You know when you're driving down the street and you see a pedestrian standing at a corner waiting to cross?

If you keep driving, instead of stopping to let that pedestrian cross, YOU ARE BREAKING THE LAW. It doesn't matter if it's a zebra crossing, a regular crossing, or even no marked crossing at all. Any time a pedestrian is crossing at an intersection, YOU HAVE TO YIELD TO THEM (unless they have an actual red light).

It's Title 75, 3542(a), if you don't believe me.

Every morning I feel like my daughter and I are taking our lives into our hands when we cross Shady Ave. to get to her school. Drivers whiz by at full speed, many not even noticing that we're standing there. I usually have to walk into the intersection and stare down a driver to get them to stop, and even then it takes half a dozen cars before someone does. And that's at a zebra crossing!

Yielding to a pedestrian literally takes 15 seconds of your day. And I promise it's a lot more rewarding than running over a five-year-old. So please, be a little more attentive when you're driving around our neighborhoods.

Charney has a bone to pick with you...

When I was in junior high, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Not in an "I wanna be Indiana Jones" way, but in a "Stay up late at night reading textbooks on how to do Carbon-14 testing" way. I visited HSU's diminutive natural history museum every week, in the half-hour between Scottish Country Dancing and my violin lesson, to look at the plaster casts of early human skulls.

For Christmas one year, my parents contacted the anthropologist in Colorado who made those casts, a Dr. Michael Charney, and bought a Homo erectus skull for me. Clearly thrilled that a 12-year-old girl would ask for a Homo erectus skull for Christmas, Charney sent both the requested skull and a Neanderthal skull as well, with a note to me saying "Do accept this as my gift to a budding scholar, whether in the sciences (biological, physical etc) or any other intellectual discipline." (He also wrote a longer note to my mother about his concern that science was losing out because so few women -- the smarter sex, in his opinion -- went on to graduate school.)

This began a several-year correspondence, all starting "My dear Tillinghast," inexpertly typewritten on stationery that read "Charney has a bone to pick with you." He answered my questions about human evolution, sent me handouts from his forensic anthropology classes about how to reconstruct faces from skulls using clay, bragged about the brilliance of his daughter, gave me gory details about murder cases he was aiding in, even filled me in on departmental gossip. His letters were always hilarious. When I told him that looking at all these beautiful skulls was making modern human skulls look quite ugly, with no brow ridges to speak of, he wrote back, "Were Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Venus, Marilyn Monroe ugly? Are you ugly? If you tell me that that is so I will send back to you the engagement ring you did not give me." I might note here that he was about 83 at the time. He sent me a Homo habilis as another gift, and I bought an Australopithicus africanus.

Charney died in 1998, but I still have all his letters and class notes, and of course the four skulls. I've always felt like I let him down a little by not going into the sciences, though he encouraged me to follow my curiosity in whatever direction it led. As I recall, his beloved daughter (about whom he frequently wrote) also studied international relations, so he can't have been too let down. I sort of wish he were around now, so I could tell him I'm finally going into one of the male-dominated fields whose lack of female contributions worried him.

This morning, Zoe wanted to eat breakfast with the Homo erectus -- it's her favorite because it's the only one with a lower jaw, so she can talk to it. She started asking questions about the skull, and I showed her some video clips of reconstructed Homo erectus, noting some of the differences between them and us. The reconstructions are all done by computer these days, of course -- no more tables instructing how many millimeters of clay to build up on to the gnathion to reconstruct a mandible. But I think Charney'd be happy that the next generation of "dear Tillinghast" was asking curious questions about our human ancestors. I have to admit I got a bit weepy-eyed at the thought.


Polling my friends again: Pittsburgh vs. Seattle

Thank you everybody for your career advice! Due in large part to the advice I received, I've decided to slow down a little, get some real-world coding experience under my belt, and try to make sure I'm not jumping prematurely from "Hey, algo class is fun!" to "I should totally get a graduate degree in this."

So I figured I'd solicit suggestions again about another topic we've been mulling over around for the better part of a year: should we move to Seattle?

There are a lot of appealing things about Seattle -- chiefly proximity to family -- but at the same time we've been so happy in Pittsburgh that I'm rather apprehensive about rerolling the dice. Since I have a lot of LJ friends who've spent time in both cities, I figured I should poll you guys!

Here's the pros-and-cons list I wrote after we visited there last fall. I'm interested in how accurate it seems to other people, what other things would be on YOUR pros/cons list, and generally how you feel about the two cities.

(It's probably relevant to note that we've been looking principally at Wallingford and Green Lake, with the idea that Justin would work in Fremont. There's also a Google office in Kirkland, but a cursory glance at Kirkland made us feel like it was a bit soulless and Silicon-Valley-like. Our ideal would be to live somewhere that was (like Squirrel Hill) in easy walking distance of a good shopping district/library/etc. and a very short, non-car-based commute to work, BUT also close to a good (dog-walking) park and in a quiet enough neighborhood that Zoe could play outside. And streets paved with gold, of course. If people have suggestions on what Seattle areas might be worth looking at, I'm all ears. So far I've been really disappointed by the urban parks compared to Frick.)

Benefits of Pittsburgh Benefits of Seattle
Squirrel Hill's walkability makes it much easier for my parents to visit. We'd be quite close to Justin's parents, and we could potentially get a house with a mother-in-law unit for my parents.
Justin has a job he really enjoys. There'd be a wider range of projects for Justin to work on.
Better location if I want to do grad school. Better location (probably) if I want to get a programming job.
Lots of friends -- old CMU friends, my "mom friends," occasional visits from R. and A. We have some great friends in Seattle, but not close to where we're likely to live. Perhaps very occasional visits from D.
Living walking distance to both awesome shopping district & a kick-ass park, and easy commuting distance from work, is very important to our quality of life, and would be difficult to reproduce in Seattle. Fewer parks in the city, but easy (?) access to good hiking/camping on weekends. And ocean!
Sorta convenient to England. Lots of road trip options. Bigger airport, more flights, more convenient for Asia. (Thailand, I shall return!)
Not gloomy, even when cloudy; lower latitude. Much less snow & cold; evergreens.
We rarely have to deal with traffic. More bike-friendly, maybe??
I love the preschool Zoe's in, and we live two blocks from a decent elementary school. Seattle's schools may be better than Pittsburgh's overall? I'm not sure how to measure this.
World-class museums & libraries, at which Zoe & I spend a great deal of time. Plus KENNYWOOD! (Seattle doesn't have an amusement park?!?) Presumably more stuff going on, although I know less about what it is.

CS friends: please give me career advice!

Wow, it's been so long since I've LJed, I had to hunt around for the "post" link!

So anyway, I'd really appreciate some input from my CS-y friends. You may or may not know that I've been using the opportunity of Zoe starting part-time preschool to effect a significant career change. I've had regrets for a long time about going into the social sciences, and figured this was a good chance to explore other options. After taking a bunch of MOOCs, I've decided that I really like programming and would like to become a programmer of some type. (No, I don't have much more of a career goal than that at this point.)

The question is, what's the best way to do that? The MOOCs I've been taking have been much higher calibre than I imagined possible, but I'm not entirely convinced I can MOOC my way to a new career. Here are the options I've come up with.
  • Try to learn everything from MOOCs. It's certainly controversial to suggest that a MOOC education could replace a university education, but Coursera and Udacity do have classes in pretty much everything in the CS curriculum. (See below for what classes I've already taken/plan to take.)
    Pros: Cheap, flexible, and I know the classes are high-quality. (And hey, if jcreed is enjoying his edX class right now, I can be sure there are good classes at every level, not just introductory ones.)
    Cons: I can't prove I've learned anything. How hard will it be to get a decent job with no degree? (Coursera may eventually have some sort of certification process, which may or may not be helpful.) Also, even if I can replicate the coursework, Coursera doesn't give me access to internships, which I think is an important part of CS curricula.

  • Try to get a master's from a school that teaches CS to people with non-CS backgrounds. Some universities (e.g., Mills College) have programs intended for career-changers, and some (e.g., Pitt) provisionally admit non-CS people contingent on their completing the classes they haven't already.
    Pros: Good compromise option: more "legit" than MOOC learning, with presumably more internship and job prospects -- but easier to get into than top-tier universities.
    Cons: It would be distressing to abandon amazing, free MOOCs in favor of paid classes that aren't top-notch. I took mediocre CS classes as an undergrad, and I don't want to do that again.

  • Try to get a master's from a top-notch school. CMU, Stanford and Illinois (bonus: online!) have master's programs that are at least in theory open to people without a bachelor's in CS.
    Pros: Get to learn cool stuff in depth from smart people. This is definitely the most appealing option if it's plausible.
    Cons: Persuading a good school to let me in based on MOOC accomplishments may be even harder than convincing a good employer to hire me based on MOOC accomplishments! Also, freaking expensive (but may pay for itself if it enables a better career).

    And, if I'm working toward a grad school that requires some CS background, I have two sub-options:

    • Aggressive plan: If I need to take around eight more classes before I'd be ready for master's level classes (see below), I could easily do that by fall 2014. However, that would mean spending all my available time on classes, with no time for side projects. Also, I'm uncertain of my ability to convince an admissions committee that I'm worth admitting by this Christmas.

    • Leisurely plan: I could take more time and plan to apply in fall 2015, which would give me more time to work on open-source or other projects and be able to submit a portfolio instead of just a few grades. That's a lot less stressful to contemplate, but it also means not getting a real job till I'm freaking 39.

It may seem like it doesn't matter which of the above I'm aiming toward, since I should take the same next steps either way (learn C, take systems, take integral calc). However, it does affect the timing. If I go with the aggressive schedule, I have about six weeks to learn C and convince Kesden to let me take Systems this summer so that I can get a CMU grade before application season. If I go with the leisurely schedule, I'd probably take Coursera's Systems Class, which is $7500 cheaper but won't give CMU anything to evaluate me with. But which path is better depends on things I can't know, like whether grades or a portfolio are a better way to woo an admissions committee.

So, I would appreciate any thoughts my friends might have on what path you'd choose if you were me, or if nothing else what questions you'd be asking yourself to figure out what you should do. There may be other obvious options I'm not considering, too (like a master's in something other than straight CS?), so let me know if any of those come to mind.

If you want to read more about where I am so far before forming an opinion, the below catalogs the classes I've taken so far and the ones I think I still need to take.

Relevant classes so far:Still need to take (open for revision):
Actual classes
* Intro to CS, in C++ (forever ago)
* Data Structures, in C++ (forever ago)
* Prob and Stats, crappy non-calc-based edition
* Logic and Proofs (hi Doug!)
* Differential Calculus
MOOC (no real evidence of grade)
* MIT's Intro to Programming
* UW's Programming Languages
* Princeton's Algo class (Sedgewick!) (in progress)
* a systems class
* a theory class
* something like OS
* integral calc (planned for this summer)
* another semester or two of calc?
* linear algebra
* calc-based prob & stats
* a bunch of applications classes

(Awkward but probably necessary background: I got A's in all the classes listed above, except I'm on track for a high B in algo. And I'm pretty sure I can rock the GREs; my scores have expired, but I have previously gotten 800 quant/800 analytical and 790 quant/6 analytical. So I think my grad school applications would look very thin on background, but what IS there should look promising.)