Wikipedia Kids

As a kid I used to spend hours in front of the laboratory computer Wikipedia page hopping while I waited for my parents to finish working. My favorite page was an entry on mermaids. I was accosted by words like “etymology” and “mythology,” names and references to the esoteric and arcane. Obviously I had no ideas what any of these words meant and so I set out clicking each highlighted blue word I came across that felt unfamiliar. Though seemingly unrelated the larger conceptual ideas that prefaced an otherwise unitary concept like “mermaids” actually found a foundation of knowledge that extended across the differentiating disciplines. This method of self teaching and self exploration is the Platonic ideal of pedagogical models. Moreover, the sustainability of the unbroken internal links ensure that a complementary source can always be found: creativity is nurtured, veracity is guaranteed.

The other day I was watching a fascinating documentary on Netflix called Lo and Behold” narrated by the hilariously idiosyncratic filmmaker, Werner Herzog when I came across Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project.

In his own words, Nelson describes Xanadu as “an entire form of literature where links do not break as versions change; where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; where it is possible to see the origins of every quotation; and in which there is a valid copyright system – a literary, legal and business arrangement – for frictionless, non-negotiated quotation at any time and in any amount.”

As with many things, this is best rendered through a visual representation:

And even more compelling in my opinion through an interactive sample prototype:

For me, there is an exciting and promising field encompassing the intersections of technological innovation and educational development that could take advantage of this particular type of information display.

Unfortunately, much of the learning software I have seen in classrooms is merely a computerized iteration of the traditional classroom. Whereas I believe that technology offers a uniquely personalized learning experience, it has thus far not been adopted as such.

Although the Xanadu project ultimately lost out to the scalable hierarchy of link breaking domains, I still think it presents a brilliant alternative way of pursuing knowledge.

While my more math and CS inclined friends tell me that Xanadu is no more than a humanity major’s pipe dream I still believe that a visual information projecting and tracing format similar to Xanadu could revolutionize the way in which we seek and verify information.

Why won’t programmers wear shoes?

Why won’t programmers wear shoes?

I’ve noticed this trend throughout Where Wizards Stay Up Late as well as in my real life observations of computer science majors. There is a peculiar mythology of the iconoclastic genius and his odd but tolerable behaviors.

Crowther insisted on only wearing sneakers. Einstein purportedly never wore socks.

My father, whom I consider to be a genius merely tolerates the bare minimum in grooming and will only ever replace tattered wardrobe staples if my mom and I demand it of him.

While I don’t think that it is coincidence that genius and eccentricity often align, I do find it notable that this particularly archetypal genius is almost exclusively masculine.

There are several reasons I have been thinking about as to why this might be true.

First, women in STEM historically have been barred from collaborative intellectual spaces with men both institutionally and culturally. As such, there are simply fewer notable female scientist who are known much less admired to the extent that their personal quirks are included in the mythology of their academic work.

Furthermore, the association between poor grooming and purported genius is premised on the notion that the pursuit of knowledge is allowed to eclipse the performance of vanity. The belief that “Real Programmers don’t wear neckties” is just one manifestation of this principle.

The crux of this notion is societally enforced as inherently masculine. Insofar as women are expected to look a certain way in the workplace to maintain “professionalism” there is no room for a woman’s bare feet to be admired as indication of their intellectual vigor. Recent studies have found that women must carefully gauge their physical presentation through makeup simply to convey (not actually demonstrate) competence.

There appears to be a uniquely pervasive bro-ishness throughout programmer culture that is continually reinforced by the individual egos and attitudes of those who hold such opinions and it more widely enforced through a paradigm that both implicitly and explicitly delegitimizes women’s work. However, this was not necessarily true throughout history. Vikram Chandra’s book Geek Sublime explains that the masculinization of the computer industry was a systematized effort that just so happened to end up prioritizing men who preferred not to be bothered with proper grooming (or shoes).

While the role of women in early programming is often ignored or overlooked it was precisely this tidbit of historical precedence that encouraged me to take this class in the first place. In 1967 Cosmo Magazine advertised programming jobs to women by comparing writing code to the familiar domestic trope of planning a dinner. In its earliest conception the majority of coding was done by women. Much like the graduate students who were given the task of writing software, women were tasked with computational coding because their labor was cheaper. However, unlike the grad students whose work would eventually be acknowledged as groundbreaking by even the uninitiated public, the work of these women has been forgotten.

As programming became more relevant and respected, the process for entry became more elite and masculine. Despite this, women like Jean Sammet, who developed FORMAC and played an influential role in the creation of COBOL, continued to participate and contribute to a field where women were systematically underrepresented.

I often think about how culture function to limit participation or encourage inclusion. I believe we are at the forefront of creating cultural and paradigmatic shifts that prioritize parity and value an egalitarian meritocracy. I like to think that years from now, women will be given credit for and remembered by their eccentric brilliance and their invaluable contribution regardless of whether they wear makeup or shoes or not.

Printers and Penguins

I would like to start by talking about printers. The other day I stood in the library printing paper copies of all the readings for each of my four classes plus one back-up class. As I watched the printer spit paper out at me for a solid two minutes I was reminded when I was as a child and after learning about the basics of carbon pollution earnestly believed that for each minute I held a refrigerator door open, a penguin would die and it would be my fault. Since coming to Harvard, I have learned that the effect is not quite as causative as I used to believe, I still felt guilty that my academic success would come at the expensive of robbing tree homes from woodland critters. Of course I could simply forgot the printing altogether. The modern academic institution makes it incredibly easy for students to access all necessary documents online. Market demand and technological innovation has rapidly democratized the availability of personal computers. The prevalence of personal computers has further pushed demand for internet infrastructure throughout the University. That I can use my MacBook whilst sitting in the middle of the yard is a rather unique feature of the focus and commitment to wireless accessibility. Despite the given that personal computers and network access are already changing the physical infrastructure of the university landscape, I believe that the cultural paradigmatic shift to a technology centered Academy has been too slow and implicit to allow adequate assessment and evaluation. I find this particularly interesting in the context of information access, academic and scholarly articles. Specifically, my position at a University institution gives me access to JSTOR and other pay-walled routes of information that would have been really nice to have prior to coming here. Either way, I think that the at some critical Point Harvard, and the Academy broadly will have to consider what what information will remain exclusive to the realm of the university educated. The books behind the velvet will always remain as such so long as the upper echelons of academics choose to keep it that way. With internet lectures, online libraries, and the vast global network of intellectual interconnected activity, I am left wondering what is it exactly about attending University in a physical sense will have on my development as a human.

But back to printers. I am afraid of killing penguins and I wish I wasn’t killing so many penguins but I also hate reading on computer. Aesthetically, it is impossible for back-lit blue screens to replace the tactile satisfaction of feeling smooth ink glide on soft paper. Libraries are happy, sacred places and the smell of old books will forever instill a hypnotizing charm in the hearts of bookworms. Harvard has some of the most beautiful, rare, precious books in the world. Maybe my privilege in attending this school is being able to feel the history of great intellectual giants in the weight of books in my hand and afterwards turning to my MacBook to tell the world what I have learned.