My Blog Posts, in Reverse Chronological Order

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Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing: The Last Summer

Jul 3, 2013

The summer of 2013 will mark the final time that the Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing is offered. I received the news from the program coordinator, who announced it on the Summer Academy alumni Facebook group page. My reaction to the news was a mixture of appreciation and distress, but also one of realization. Alas, all things must come to an end.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing (the “Summer Academy”) is a nine-week residential program at The University of Washington (UW) at Seattle’s campus. About ten to thirteen deaf or hard of hearing students nationwide are offered spots in the program based on a written application, their transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Some of the benefits of the program include

  1. Taking an undergraduate-level computer science course at UW, as well as an animation class specifically created for the summer program.
  2. Meeting deaf professionals in the workforce via field trips or having them as guest speakers on campus.
  3. Fostering relationships among other talented deaf and hard of hearing students in computing.
  4. Gaining the experience of living independently and away from home for a summer (mostly applies to pre-college students).

All in all, it’s an extremely impressive offering, and it’s free for students since it’s fully funded by a variety of organizations, such as the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I bet that most students — if not all — end up with many positive experiences. I know I did. (I was a 2011 Summer Academy alumni.)

So why’s it going to end? There are two primary reasons.

  1. The man who started the program and got its funding, Professor Richard Ladner, is retiring and becoming Professor Emeritus. He’s had a 42-year career as a faculty member at UW.
  2. Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) was supposed to “claim” the Summer Academy so that it would continue on RIT’s campus, but somehow that arrangement did not work. I don’t know the details about why this happened.

Professor Ladner and the program coordinator did not reapply for funding, and thus the Summer Academy will no longer continue. About 90 students in all will have been served in the Summer Academy’s seven years of existence. As of this writing, the 2013 session is well underway, but the era will come to an end on August 24, 2013.










New Closed-Captioning Glasses

Jun 28, 2013

Soon after my junior year at Williams College, I went to see a movie with some friends at a local Regal Cinema theater.

Yes, a real movie at a real theater.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to one, because I have to first check that I’m interested in the movie and that — more importantly — the theater provides captions.

But on that day, I had the fortune of trying out these closed-captioning glasses. Instead of having the captions appear on the screen with the movies, they are essentially projected holographically by the glasses. Thus, moving the glasses (e.g. by rotating one’s head) will cause the captions to shift. Apparently, this is all new technology that’s been finalized in 2012 or 2013. Even though I’ve only used them once, I can already see some of the benefits and drawbacks to this device.

Pros

First of all, these captioning glasses clearly work. It can take a couple of minutes to get used to it, though, since the captions won’t be in the same spot all the time unless one has abnormal neck-stabilizing ability.

But the even bigger benefit is that caption services can be provided for all movies at supported Regal theaters. Now, we won’t have to deal with hearing people ranting about annoying captions clogging up the screen. Instead, they’ll be complaining about the quality of their seats or other picayune matters.

Cons

While I didn’t really have any issues with stabilizing the captions, I can see why some would feel uncomfortable with a non-stable reading location. I also remember that there was a slight issue with the color of the text. I believe the text is some yellow-green color (I’m colorblind, so this is my best guess) and it can sometimes blend in with the screening.

Finally, since I wear prescription glasses, I had to take some extra time to adjust the captioning glasses so they could fit outside of the ones I wear daily. People with especially large or bulky prescription glasses may have a more difficult time wearing a second pair of glasses.

Conclusion

This is yet another example as to how today’s world has become unquestionably more accessible to deaf people than in previous eras. It’s also what I would consider a deaf-friendly tactic. Now, the next step would be to accomplish the harder task of having these glasses for everyday use. That means if I’m wearing them, the captions should display what someone is saying to me in real time. (Actually, this is theoretically impossible, but we need to aim high, right?)










The Deaf Academics Mailing List

Jun 23, 2013

Last January, I joined the Deaf Academics mailing list (a “listserv”), which is co-owned by Dr. Teresa Burke and Dr. Christian Vogler. As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Vogler is one of three deaf computer science Ph.Ds today, and he invited me to join the list after we met (via Skype) in January.

It’s been about six months, so I’ve had the chance to read some of the many adventures, discussions, and opinions of other deaf and hard of hearing professionals. It’s a highly active listserv. I would estimate that there’s been about 800 emails sent since the time I joined, so I’ve only had the time to read a fraction of them. Most of the emails are sent by a handful of people who are really dedicated to the list and often write several messages daily. With many emails seemingly written as if they were carefully composed 400-word blog entries, the average quality of emails is significantly higher than those in other mailing lists, such as the Access STEM one shown in the screenshot.

As a result, some of the discussions have been quite interesting and eye-opening to me. Given that many of the active listserv users are social scientists and/or writers, the themes prevalent in the mailing list primarily revolve around deaf culture, deaf education, deaf history, and stories about people’s experiences, lives, and current occupations.

Here’s a sample of the discussion in this listserv. As you can see, the scope of these topics can be quite deep and theoretical.

  1. Deaf/blind-deaf/blind marriages and deaf/blind marrying other, non-deaf and non-blind people. A deaf and blind man asked why deaf/blind-deaf/blind marriage rates were so low despite today’s technology that increasingly allows for long-distance contact. He talked about his own community of deaf people and noticed that many married “outsiders” (i.e. hearing people). He made a parallel to marriages among Asians and Caucasian, and furthered the discussion by considering partnerships among the LGBT community.

  2. The use of webpages to make one’s academic presence known. Since a lot of information is exchanged through conversation, whether it be at a conference or during an informal lunch, deaf people can lose out on those benefits, which perhaps means we need stronger web presences with links to all of our work to better allow other scientists to work with us.

  3. A debate over whether the old “Deaf and Dumb” phrase should be eradicated or recycled into something positive. In the past, the “dumb” part meant that a deaf person was mute, but a person on the listserv claimed that when oral deaf people — those who speak and generally do not sign — became more prominent, they viewed the “dumb” part as meaning stupid. (The ensuing conversation in the listserv became a bit rough, so one of the co-owners had to intervene to warn against further asperity.)

  4. The history of deaf studies and deaf education. An older deaf woman commented that most of the scholars studying and describing deaf education were hearing and Caucasian. She felt that there was too much of a disconnection between the scholars and the people in the deaf community and argued that, as a result, deaf studies is filled with unproven and possibly facetious theorems. Her initial message also spawned a discussion about the failings of current deaf education.

  5. Last, but not least … captioning in airline movies! A middle-aged dead woman said she had been on a United Airlines flight and couldn’t understand the movies because there was no closed captioning. Does this sound like a familiar story? Others responded immediately to the original email, with some saying that it was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the succeeding people correcting them by pointing out that airlines are under the Air Carrier Access Act. This discussion prompted me to post my (as of today) only message to the listserv, linking my blog entry and sharing my experience with airline movies. I was then pleasantly surprised to see that a deaf man who I met a few years ago was actually a subscriber to the list and had seen my message, so he became yet another person who has seen my growing blog.

I have to say that I was surprised that a mailing list like this existed and was active. It’s actually been around since 2002, so I wonder why I didn’t know about it earlier. But now that I have joined and blogged about it, hopefully this leads to another aspiring deaf academic to join the list. In the meantime, I’ve already started thinking about possible blog entries that expand some of the themes I explored in the mailing list.










Is Subway Healthy?

Jun 22, 2013

Updated 12/24/13, see the end for details.

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I get irritated when I see recent studies such as this one cause a rash of “Subway is just as bad as McDonald’s” announcements.

Now, to be fair, most of these news releases make it clear that it’s not strictly what the restaurants serve that matters; it’s what people actually order there. Unfortunately, it seems like people aren’t eating the healthy items. The study I linked to involved almost a hundred adolescents who ate meals at both Subway and McDonald’s on separate days. The researchers took the receipts of their meal purchases and calculated that the participants purchased an average of 1,038 calories at McDonald’s versus 955 at Subway. They concluded that despite Subway’s healthy vibe, meals there are just as likely to contribute to overeating as compared to meals from McDonald’s.

This study is somewhat relative to me since it’s no secret that I am a Subway addict. At home, there are multiple Subways within a 15-minute drive. At Williams College, there’s a subway within a thirty second walk from my dorm. And at Greensboro, where I’m spending the summer, I’ve already found two Subways close to my work area.

In contrast, I don’t eat at McDonald’s anymore. The last time I remember even getting a meal there was …

… actually, I’m honestly not sure. My bess guess is during eighth or ninth grade. So it’s been a while since I’ve had a full meal there, so the study may be a bit biased in the sense that if its participants were willing to eat at McDonald’s, it’s not likely that they would order the healthy items at Subway.

But just to be sure that I’m at least avoiding the worst of Subway’s stuff, I decided to analyze my most recent meal there. I ordered a 12-inch nine-grain honey oat sandwich with oven roasted chicken, cheddar cheese, lettuce, onions, and spinach.

According to Subway’s nutrition information, my meal had the following calorie counts (note that I need to double everything, since they only list the 6” size):

  • 12” Honey Oat Bread: 520 Calories, 6.0 g of fat, 600 mg of sodium, 10.0 g of dietary fiber, 18.0 g of sugar, and 18.0 g of protein.
  • Oven roasted chicken: 640 Calories, 3.0 g of fat, 1220 mg of sodium, 10.0 g of dietary fiber, 16.0 g of sugar, and 46.0 g of protein.
  • Cheddar cheese: 120 Calories, 10.0 g of fat, 180 mg of sodium, 0.0 g of dietary fiber, 0.0 g of sugar, and 8.0 g of protein
  • Lettuce: Insignificant counts for everything.
  • Onions: Insignificant counts for everything
  • Spinach: Insignificant counts for everything (except Vitamin A).

That turns out to be a total of approximately 1,280 Calories, 19.0 g of fat, 2,000 mg of sodium, 20.0 g of dietary fiber, 34.0 g of sugar, and 72.0 g of protein. Note that on rare occasions (about 10 percent of the time), I’ll order sides and a drink, so for now I’ll just ignore those (and should make myself never order them in the future). Yes, the amount of calories is surprising to me, and it’s significantly higher than those reported in the study. But in my defense, I’d argue that this meal is leaner as a whole than most meals people order from Subway.

According to this article, which is based on the same study, Subway meals had on average 42.0 g of fat, 2,149 mg of sodium, and 36.0 g of sugar. So despite the higher calorie count as a whole, I’m actually getting less sodium, less sugar, and less than half the amount of fat on average, all while getting some fiber and protein as an added benefit. In addition, I always have to tell the Subway workers to add more lettuce and spinach to my sandwich and to never add dressing. Actually, one of the articles has the interesting idea of asking for half the amount of meat they normally add and replacing the “empty space” with vegetables. If I had done that today, that would have pushed the meal’s Calorie count below the 1,000 Calorie threshold.

Finally, while I did order chicken this time around, the most common protein for me to add to the sandwich is turkey, which will pack in 800 fewer Calories (though, admittedly, with 340 mg more sodium). I only order chicken or turkey from Subway, and not the buffalo chicken kind.

While the meal may be a bit Calorie-excessive, I’m not terrified since I aim to eat about 3,000 Calories a day. It’s at least giving me almost as much protein as I need a day, plus a considerable amount of fiber, which when considered with my fiber-loaded breakfast cereal means I’m getting a healthy amount daily.

I do conclude, though, that it’s not best for me or anyone else to eat at Subway every day. I don’t, of course. Once a week is a nice upper bound for me, and on days that I do eat meals from Subway, I make sure to balance it with eating extra fruit and whole wheat products.

To those of you who regularly eat at Subway, try analyzing one of your meals these days and see what you discover.

Update 12/24/13: The text above is the original entry, which I have kept unchanged for historical purposes. What’s rather amusing in retrospect is that about a week after this was first published, I had my last Subway meal. I have officially quit eating Subway foods.

I realize that my analysis in the original post was more of a McDonalds versus Subway thing, but really, I should be focusing on the question of: should I eat Subway food at all? I’ve concluded, due to the way they cook/store their meats and because of my newfound concern over grains, that Subway is simply not going to be part of my diet for the rest of my life, unless they fundamentally alter the way they make sandwiches.










Project Euler Doesn’t Want us Publishing Solutions

Jun 15, 2013

After a semester-long sabbatical, I’m back to Project Euler in my never-ending quest to answer all of their (at the moment) 432 questions. Just recently, I solved my 82nd problem (XOR decryption) but noticed that Project Euler has added a new message to the bottom of the page one receives after successfully completing a question. (Click the image below to enlarge.)

euler

With the growth of Project Euler, it’s no surprise that there have been some people who, for whatever reason, take pleasure in taking answers distributed from online websites and plugging them in just to increase their solutions count.

Still, I wish this message wasn’t necessary. If one really wants to have an “aha!” moment, he or she should simply avoid websites or blogs that publish solutions and restrict web access to neutral sites such as Wikipedia. I have discussed Project Euler questions on this blog in the past (see this and this), and I would like to continue doing so in the future, since some of them are intellectually stimulating. Perhaps I should add a huge message at the start of each such post warning “unsuspecting” visitors?










First Thoughts on the Contego R900 FM System

Jun 8, 2013

contego

I’m almost done with my first week at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s algorithms and combinatorics REU, and I’ve also had my first experience with the Contego R900 FM system.

For some reason, I’m particularly prone to worrying about technical difficulties, so I’m happy to report that the Contego R900 certainly works. It’s been particularly useful this past week given that my research advisor is relatively soft-spoken and has a high-pitched accent. As part of the REU schedule, she gave — in the span of two days — a total of seven research talks, each of which was about 45 minutes long. Fortunately, the FM system made it so that strictly understanding what she was saying was generally not the limiting factor in how much material I could comprehend from the presentations.

As you can see in the picture I posted above, the Contego R900 system includes headphones and an inductive T-Coil loop. Until the time of this writing, I actually thought that the loop was just a lanyard, so I used headphones to connect to the receiver. In general, I don’t like headphones, because to me they aren’t aesthetically pleasing and it’s hard to align them with hearing aids to allow maximum benefit. They can also cause some feedback, that classic “ringing” noise that every hearing-aid user knows. The man at Greensboro who provided me with the materials actually said that most people who use this system don’t even wear it with hearing aids. Later that day, I ran a quick test with a YouTube video on my laptop and using the FM system (which I placed on the laptop) without hearing aids. I had to churn up the receiver’s volume to its maximum level in order to obtain a reasonable level of hearing, so using the system without hearing aids was not an option for me.

I ended up putting the headphones just above the top of my hearing aids. Fortunately, they remained in place and caused no ringing.

Nonetheless, I’m going to switch to using the T-Coil loop in the future. I again ran some tests using my laptop, and it’s pretty weird how it works. The loop is made so that a person essentially has to be wearing it as if it were a lanyard in order to benefit from increased transmission.

I’m looking forward to using the Contego R900 in the remaining seven weeks of the REU. Later in the summer, I’ll probably write up a long comparison between the Contego R900 and the Phonak Smartlink FM systems.










Sublime Text

May 31, 2013

sublime

All right, let’s give this a shot.

This summer, I’ll be experimenting with the Sublime Text text editor. I remember being impressed by its visual appeal after seeing a classmate use it — so why not try it for myself? The above image demonstrates Sublime Text with my implementation of the k-means clustering algorithm, written using the Python programming language. To switch programming languages, all one has to do is click on the bottom right corner (where it says “Python” in the above image) and there will be about thirty options for languages, including C++ and Java but also some lesser known ones such as Erlang and Lua. This way, we get the indentation and coloring to look good. Better colors = better programming.

What about emacs, though? Possibly the biggest difference between Sublime Text and emacs, which for the past year was my editor of choice, is that Sublime Text generally requires fewer “special commands” to program and thus has a shorter learning curve. Emacs also seems to encourage the programmer to have his or her hands on the keyboard at the same spot all the time, since the manual recommends not using the arrow keys but using Ctrl+N, Ctrl+P, and other command to move the cursor over. This is because our hands won’t leave their natural position, unlike in the case when we use arrow keys.

I don’t think I’m at the point in my career where I need to really worry about this. If it’s really necessary for some situation, ideally I’ll know it in advance and can spend the months (years?) prior to it prepping by using emacs nonstop.

Now, if Sublime Text starts requiring us to pay for continued use, then I’m likely gone. Hopefully that won’t happen.










A Summer Without Sign Language Interpreters

May 27, 2013

uncg

When I know I’m participating in some structured activity or event (e.g. an internship), I typically try to get sign language interpreters.

This summer, though, I’ll be doing something different. As I mentioned before, I am going to be a research intern at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s REU in algorithms and combinatorics. In the linked entry, I actually said that I was trying to negotiate the use of ASL interpreting services.

I’m starting to think that this may not be the best idea for this particular setting, and I’ll have the summer to experiment with my new plan. The problem is one that’s been easily identified, both by me and by others. To put it simply, sign language offers comparatively little benefit to me when used in scientific and technical settings as compared to an English seminar.

Essentially, there must exist some technical/interpreting-benefit curve, where the two factors are inversely correlated. At the very technical end, such as a mathematics research talk given to people who are assumed to already know the topic in some detail, interpreting benefits are negligible. At the low end of the technical spectrum include English seminars, political talks, historical news, etc. I’m happy to have interpreters for those events.

I observed the high-end of the technical curve at the Bard College REU last summer. Even with the help of interpreters, I had enormous difficulty following any of the technical talks that were not in my area of focus (machine learning). And when I did understand concepts, it wasn’t due to the interpreters — it was because I focused intently on the speaker and whatever presentation accessories he or she had in hand.

This was clearly a factor in my decision not to have interpreting services at Greensboro. Another factor was my positive experience in my machine learning tutorial last semester. As part of the tutorial class format, I had weekly one-hour meetings with the professor and another student. Given that there were only three of us, and that we would be discussing highly technical concepts, it made sense for me to decline services, especially given that I had enough hearing to make it through those meetings. I sometimes used my FM system from Williams College, but it wasn’t necessary. An FM system, though, might be more useful for a research talk than a tutorial meeting.

So this summer, I asked and obtained permission to use Greensboro’s FM system, the Contego R900. This way, I’ll be entirely focused on the speaker, which I’m sure will do wonders for my comprehension. Adding in the fact that the groups at Greensboro will be researching in topics more correlated to each other than the Bard groups means that I am optimistic about what this summer has in store.










Your Personal Knowledge Book

May 23, 2013

I’ve just completed my sixth semester at Williams College, and I feel an urge to try and store the material I’ve learned from my computer science and math courses. I want to do this primarily because (a) I know I’ll be incorporating concepts from previous courses into my future research, and (b) I want to minimize the amount of class material I forget.

Yes, I know as well as anyone that this won’t prevent me from forgetting most of what I learn. But I’m trying to find ways to avoid this as much as possible. Professor Calvin Newport suggests keeping a knowledge vault for this purpose. I’m doing something slightly different than what he recommends.

I’m going to try writing a personal book where each chapter corresponds to one of my college classes. (I may later generalize this so that some chapters pertain to other topics, such as nifty Unix tricks.) Part of the current table of contents is shown below.

pk1

You can see that I basically have the table of contents, and almost nothing else. I’ve only been able to fill in one chapter in depth — the graph theory one, which isn’t shown in the contents in the previous image since I put the math courses after the computer science courses. You can also see that LaTeX essentially includes “hyperlinks” in the final PDF output, so if I click on a chapter, I immediate arrive at the corresponding page.

As an interesting side note, I included a nice picture of the Hoffman-Singleton graph in that graph theory chapter.

pk2

In case you’re wondering, I included this because one of my notorious graph theory midterm questions concerned the upper bound on vertex count in relation to degree and diameter. I was supposed to find two examples of Moore graphs aside from the complete graphs and odd cycles. The Petersen graph was easy enough to obtain, but expecting us to obtain the Hoffman-Singleton graph was just absurd. Fortunately, the professor fully expected no student to answer this question perfectly, which is exactly what happened.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how my personal book progresses. I usually fail to keep long-term projects running, but I’ll try. After all, if I can maintain a blog for almost two years running, then my knowledge book has potential. Feel free to comment if you have your own ways of constructing a knowledge vault.










What’s it Like Being an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant?

Apr 26, 2013

I have been a teaching assistant (TA) at Williams College for the past four semesters, and will likely continue TA duties during my entire senior year, for a full six semesters of TA experience. (May update: I will be the theory of computation TA during the fall 2013 semester.) I therefore believe I can offer a reasonable explanation for what a TA does at a primarily undergraduate institution, especially if one is working in STEM fields.

First, a TA’s primary duty will be grading problem sets. The questions will range from straightforward computation to proof-oriented to programming. Grade them according to whatever scale or rigor the professor desires.

A second common duty will be to actually help students. These take the form of office hours (“TA Sessions”), but can also involve some lab supervision. In my opinion, this is a much more pleasant aspect of being a TA. Ideally, one will act like a professor and provide guidance to the student. It is crucial, though, not to give away big ideas or answers, though I understand if some students may want to check their results for some computation-heavy questions.

I do not believe it is standard for a TA to be grading exams, because those tend to be worth a much larger percentage of a course grade and there can be more peer pressure that could adversely affect one’s judgement. Furthermore, in undergraduate institutions, the professor has to do some grading, right?

For me, being deaf so far has not seemed to hinder my TA performance. TA sessions are rarely crowded, so it’s easy to get some one-on-one interaction with students. When it does get crowded, I tell everyone to calm down.

Anyway, I thought I would give three tips on how to be a good TA from the perspective of a person who has been on both ends of the student-TA interaction:

  1. Don’t give away answers to complicated proofs right away. If a student doesn’t know where to start, offer initial guidance. If a student’s almost done, look and point out the weaknesses. Do not tell students to ask classmates for answers. (Incredibly, I had a TA tell me that before!)

  2. If there are complicated problems that are hard to grasp, review them (and any solutions, if possible) before the TA sessions.

  3. Do not read right from the solutions manual during TA sessions unless absolutely necessary. It makes students believe that TA sessions are a pure question-and-answer session.

And here are three extra tips for the aspiring TA who wants to maximize his or her experience:

  1. Aim to TA courses where a high proportion of students type their homework, preferably in LaTeX. I’ve had enough trouble reading bad handwriting these past few years.

  2. Aim to TA courses where at least two hours (but not much more than that) of TA sessions are required.

  3. Aim to TA the upper-level courses, where students tend to be more serious about their subject. As a side note, they may be less likely to ask “What’s the answer?” and similar dumb questions.










An Inside View of RIT’s Accommodation Policy and its Limitations

Apr 13, 2013

During my senior year of high school, I was debating between two choices for college: Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Williams. This comparison is unusual in a variety of ways and reflects my unique background and approach to the college admissions game. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem like most people were making this comparison. As someone who has talked to many other Williams students, most of the other schools they considered were among the elite liberal arts colleges (LACs) such as Amherst and Swarthmore, or they were renowned research institutions such as MIT and Cornell. From what I can tell, I might have been the only student in my Williams College graduating class to have seriously considered RIT. A few years ago, I discussed my situation with another Williams student, who promptly told me: “an obvious decision, right?” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The catch is that while Williams can claim to have benefits such as a significantly larger endowment and better college rankings, one of RIT’s advertised advantages is its accommodation policies that have been specifically catered to its large deaf and hard of hearing student population. Here are some of the interesting facts about RIT taken from their website (emphasis mine):

The RIT student body consists of approximately 15,000 undergraduate and 2,900 graduate students. Enrolled students represent all 50 states and more than 100 countries. RIT is an internationally recognized leader in preparing deaf and hard-of-hearing students for successful careers in professional and technical fields. The university provides unparalleled access and support services for the more than 1,300 deaf and hard-of-hearing students who live, study, and work with hearing students on the RIT campus.

The same page lists additional benefits for deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) students, such as paying reduced tuition. In addition, RIT is also cognizant of how deaf students may not be able to or may not want to use a traditional phone. When they provide a phone number for prospective students to call and ask questions, there is an alternative videophone number to call. A videophone is similar to Skype, except it is often used to call a regular phone number and allows a sign language interpreter to act as an intermediate messenger in relaying the hearing person’s voice over to the deaf person’s eye, and in some cases, relaying the deaf person’s signing to the hearing person’s ears.

Hence why I was forced to make a unique decision. On the one hand, I had a spot at a college that was ranked number one not just for small colleges, but for all American universities for two consecutive years (2010 and 2011) in the Forbes college rankings. On top of that, Williams had a renowned mathematics program, which was my intended major at the time of applying (I did not consider the computer science major seriously until my second year). But on the other hand, I knew that because they had no experience with deaf students, that I would have to continually advocate for myself and explain what was necessary to allow me to succeed. That presumably would not be a problem at a place like RIT which as mentioned earlier has over a thousand such students and has a whole staff of sign language interpreters employed by the college. The social aspect was also a positive for RIT; I can communicate with other students in sign language if necessary and have an easier time engaging in group discussions as compared to a situation with hearing students. I had to consider how much my family would pay. A Williams education costs significantly more than an RIT education (even with my needs-based financial aid), and I also received the best available scholarship for an RIT student, which would have reduced tuition to just a few thousand dollars a year. How, then, did I decide to attend Williams College? And after a few years of being able to reconsider my situation, can I say I pleased with my decision? Are there other things I’ve learned from RIT that affected my stance? I’ll investigate most of these questions in future blog entries.

Today, I want to focus on what I’ve learned from RIT and its accommodations over the past few years. Notice my wording earlier about RIT’s advantages. I mentioned that these are advertised advantages. But what is advertised may sometimes gloss over the truth, and I hope to shed light on this issue. As a disclaimer, please don’t view this article as an attack on RIT, even though it may seem like that occasionally. I still have an enormous amount of respect for RIT providing this much assistance to DHH students. I just want to emphasize that RIT, like any university, is not a “Utopia.” There are flaws in their accommodation policies system that I would like to point out. Many of them can be fixed.

But since I am not a student there, how much information can I know about RIT? And is it fair to emphasize my view of RIT, which is no doubt different from those of many other DHH students? I’ll present my case here and you can be the judge. First, I have visited the RIT campus many times, most notably during the summer before my senior year of high school. I participated in a weeklong residential program for prospective DHH students. Furthermore, I have also gleaned insight from other RIT students. Outside of Williams, I probably know more students at RIT than any other college. I have had the fortune of being able to interact with many DHH RIT students in my life, such as those hailing from my high school or the Summer Academy. Finally, my brother is a student there. Like me, he’s also deaf, and we have similar academic interests. Both of us are computer science majors and will be working at REUs this summer. But his experience at RIT thus far has revealed some inadequacies in their access services. I now focus on two of them in particular.

One of the defining points of RIT is its accommodation policies. On paper, if a deaf student requests interpreting services for a class, he or she should get it. What’s not entirely clear is whether a deaf student can have these services for classes that have multiple sections. During his first quarter at RIT, my brother wanted to enroll in a psychology elective course. As is the case in many universities, psychology is a popular subject, and the introductory course has multiple sections. Unfortunately, only one of the four or so sections offered that quarter had ASL (American Sign Language) support. The session with ASL services was in a poor time slot; it met just once per week from 6:00 to 10:00 PM. Furthermore, my brother had to take a required computer programming course the following morning

Now, you could argue that my brother had to live with this schedule. But if a hearing student wanted to maximize his or her study productivity and flexibility, it makes sense that such a student would sign up for a psychology course in a better time. DHH students are therefore denied the ability to have schedule flexibility. What RIT really tries to do is save money by packing as many DHH students in one section as possible. When my family tried to resolve this issue by emailing my brother’s academic advisor and the disability services department, we got no response. (The academic advisor, by the way, has to help about 700 students and can only offer generic high-level advice, which isn’t my idea of a helpful advisor.) After a week of negotiation and getting dangerously close to the start of the quarter, my brother was finally able to get services for a better class time after we emailed the Provost of the College with a lengthy written request. Discussions with other deaf RIT students — such as my brother’s roommate — confirmed these sentiments that RIT can “hurt” their schedule by forcing them to take classes at possibly undesirable time frames. I fortunately do not have this problem at Williams College, because the policy there is that I pick my courses, and the accommodations are then built in for me, not the other way around.

A second issue is that RIT’s classes can sometimes violate their own principles. During the spring 2013 quarter, my brother enrolled in an elective course about Viking history. Unfortunately, the class violated RIT’s accommodation policies. About half (literally) of the Viking history class time was devoted to watching movies that had no closed captioning. (This, by the way, seems ridiculous to me — why waste half of valuable lecture time watching movies?) This is despite how RIT has a rule stating that videos shown in class need to be captioned. When grading is weighted so heavily on participation and understanding movies, how is that class not able to escape such a basic requirement for deaf students? As every deaf student should know, sign language interpreters and other popular accommodations such as CART are no substitute for captioning. So I am certainly a little confused about this situation.

Even worse, when my brother wanted to drop the course, he couldn’t because the drop period (one week from the start of school) had passed.  The course was taught in one four-hour session each week, and my brother learned in the second class that uncaptioned movies would be routine for half the class time.  My brother’s only option was to withdraw from the course, but he would have received a “W” on his transcript, which would indicate to future employers that he was struggling in class due to his academic deficiencies. (Hint: he wasn’t.) He then had to do a lot of additional work to convince RIT to drop the class and avoid receiving an unjust “W” on his transcript.  After another long and time-consuming effort, he was finally allowed to drop the course.

The previous two scenarios indicate the difficulty my family experienced in trying to protect my brother’s academic needs and rights. I don’t believe it should take a full family struggle to achieve two basic academic rights. My parents know the intricacies of both RIT’s policies and the American legal system and are willing to use this knowledge to achieve basic rights. What about the many other students who do not have this advantage and do not know they can petition to earn them? I suppose the message I want to send to prospective DHH students to RIT is that, while for the most part you’ll have what you need, you will still be at a disadvantage as compared to other hearing students and will continue to have to work extra hard to obtain privileges that hearing students might take for granted.

On a final note, another unfortunate incidence has popped up relating to RIT’s accommodations policies that I didn’t know of until the final draft of this post. I’m going to keep it confidential until I know more information, but it might be something I’ll investigate later.










ESPN’s 30-for-30: Benji and No Crossover

Mar 27, 2013

I’m taking one elective course this semester, called Race(ing) Sports: The Black Athlete. It’s cross-listed as part of the Africana Studies, English, and Sociology departments, so for me it’s an interesting departure from the computer science, mathematics, and statistics courses that dominate my schedule. And as part of two additional projects for this course, I’m watching a variety of films about black athletes in basketball and football.

To make things clear, I’m not necessarily forced to watch these films. My assignments pertain to analyzing media, which doesn’t have to include movies or videos. But I just recently joined Netflix, and was pleasantly surprised to see movies there that fit my academic agenda and were completely captioned. (In related news, it looks like Netflix and the National Association for the Deaf have resolved their captioning dispute.)

Earlier today, I watched two films and enjoyed them both. If you’re a fan of the National Basketball Association, consider taking a look at these. Both are part of the excellent ESPN 30-for-30 film series.

1. Benji

Honestly, I never knew who Ben Wilson was before I found out about this film. Ben, who was from Chicago, never played college or professional basketball, but his legacy still clouds the city and youth basketball as a whole. First playing varsity basketball as a sophomore, Ben amazed spectators by gracefully blending excellent speed, agility, strength, and shooting ability. By the next year, he and his team were state champions.

At the start of his senior year in the fall of 1984, the 6’7” Ben was ranked the number one high school basketball prospect in the country1. Ben had a bright future ahead of him and likely would have earned millions playing professionally, had he not been shot and killed at the start of the season. Ben and his girlfriend were involved in a dispute with two teenagers, and one of them fired a piston twice at Ben. His gut-wrenching, heartbreaking story exposes the continuing dangers of gang violence in Chicago. And as a result, Ben will always be remembered for what he could have been.

2. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

Every serious NBA fan knows about Allen Iverson. The 2000-2001 NBA season MVP, a four-time scoring champion, and an eleven-time All-Star, Iverson captivated fans in Philadelphia for his incredible scoring ability, his dogged effort, and his lightning quickness. Iverson also stood a mere 6 feet tall and weighed 165 pounds in his prime, making him the shortest and lightest basketball player to ever win the MVP award.

But there was a time in his life when many were not sure if Iverson would ever get the chance to play college basketball, let alone be an NBA superstar. In February 1993, Iverson and his friends were involved in a significant brawl at a bowling alley, where he allegedly struck a chair at a woman, among other things. What makes the brawl notable is that it was a racial; the white and black crowds fought against each other. Iverson and three other friends — all blacks — were the only people charged from the brawl. This film chronicles Iverson’s experience and incorporates the perspectives of other people in the black community, many of whom viewed Iverson as their hero.

  1.  To add credibility, the man who provided this ranking also played an integral role in starting the Nike-Jordan sponsorship despite Jordan being a then-unproven professional player. He claimed that Ben was among the best players he had ever seen, and would have played in the NBA. 










The UNC at Greensboro’s CS/Math REU

Mar 15, 2013

This summer, I am going to participate in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro algorithmic combinatorics on words REU. The research there pertains to algorithms and theory of computation, so I’m diverging from machine learning (at least for a short while). This will be my second REU experience, and I hope to make the most of my eight weeks there. Now, the task is to contact their administrators — starting today — so that I can set up my accommodation services (sign language interpreters). I don’t know of a way to do this other than to just keep emailing them about suggestions, so that’s what I’ll be doing.

I haven’t done a whole lot of writing this past month, and it’s going to be even more difficult with the general GREs coming up in less than a week. But I’ll probably do more writing after that.










Why Grades Are More Important for Deaf Students

Feb 20, 2013

grades

I have long wondered how much effort students should expend to achieving high grades. Dr. Philip Guo has a nice article about this that I found to be accurate and straightforward. Those applying to medical school and competitive law or graduate school positions need high grades. On the other end of the scale, students inheriting a family fortune need not worry about graduating with honors. As expected, the amount of effort and dedication a student spends on getting good grades is dependent on a variety of circumstances. Students should also understand that putting too much focus on doing well academically might mean they neglect other important aspects of preparing for the workforce.

One other thing I would like to add on is that the importance of grades also matters when considering a person’s skills in intermingling, networking, and socializing. Intuitively, the reasoning seems obvious: people who are the best networkers and orators can reach out to a broader audience and can translate those skills into benefits while on the job. If a student was not among the top half of his class in college, but absolutely dominated the work he did in a summer internship by taking advantage of his extroverted personality and social understanding, then he will be the one getting a full-time job offer after college.

This does not bode well for deaf students. Many people in the workforce will, unfortunately, have a natural tendency to worry about a potential deaf employee. This may be worse in jobs that require tremendous communication among workers. And very often, deaf people will have a harder time making up for that difference with social ability.

That is why I argue that deaf students should spend lots of effort towards their grades.

The claim that high grades matter can be supported by arguments that simultaneously show the benefits of attending a prestigious undergraduate institution, which Dr. Guo has also written about on his website. The biggest one is that they help recent college graduates get started. Here’s what Dr. Guo says:

Carrying a name-brand diploma gives you the largest boost in credibility right when you graduate, the proverbial “helping to get your foot into the door.” […] As you progress in your career and move onto successive jobs, then carrying a name-brand college diploma matters less: Intermediate and senior job candidates are evaluated mainly based on their prior work experience, so if you’ve done a great job and received positive recommendations, then that could more than make up for your lack of a name-brand diploma.

You can say similar things about GPA. It matters more to a 25-year-old candidate for his first software engineering job, but it matters less when interviewing for upper-level management positions. As a current example — literally, since the linked article was posted up seven hours before this blog entry — a math professor at my college was just named Southwestern University’s 15th president. Do you think Southwestern’s evaluation committee placed a heavy emphasis on his GPA? Not a chance, even though he did graduate summa cum laude from Connecticut College. (But wait … that might have gotten him in graduate school in the first place!) The selection committee probably highlighted his experience as a renowned innovator of mathematical education, as evident by his well-earned Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching.

Likewise, a high GPA can help make up for an employer’s initial negative impression of a deaf job applicant. (Notice that I’m not implying that people do this. I can only speak for my own experience and those of other deaf people I know. And this doesn’t imply that all employers do this, nor does this vitiate their recruitment process.)

Once people can successfully get started in a job, it’s up to them to live up to expectations.










Why Computer Science is a Good Major for Deaf Students

Feb 6, 2013

cs_quarks

Many people have asked why I am drawn to computer science. I thought that instead of trying to come up with an answer extempore each time, I would put this in writing to provide a better quality explanation. I will place a special emphasis on how computer science can particularly benefit deaf people. (As well as those who are hard-of-hearing.) This post will probably be one of the few that I’ll regularly come back to revise in the future.

What is Computer Science?

Before delving deeper, we need to understand the definition of computer science. Before coming to college, I held the naive assumption that computer programming == computer science. But that’s far from the truth, even though many aspects of computer science involve programming. In the context of computer science, I view programming as a mechanism for expressing something that I have learned or have rigorously analyzed and derived. To modify a phrase my math professor once wrote, m**ost programs in computer science courses are mostly trivial. This means if you understand what you’re supposed to be doing, the programming itself isn’t all that challenging. There might be some syntax issues or compiler errors that you’ll have to deal with, but for the most part, those should be straightforward to correct. Analyze error messages and read documentation to find the fix, or ask on StackOverflow. The difficulty, as mentioned before, is understanding what you need to do conceptually before performing the application.

That being said, let’s take a look at what a computer science major entails. I focus chiefly on the computer science major and not related majors, such as computer engineering or electrical engineering. A typical undergraduate course load in computer science will take on some of the following classes:

  1. Programming 1 (Introduction to syntax, control structures, etc.)
  2. Programming 2 (Data Structures)
  3. Algorithms
  4. Architecture
  5. Artificial Intelligence
  6. Compiler Design
  7. Concurrent, Parallel, or Distributed Systems
  8. Graphics
  9. Networks
  10. Operating Systems
  11. Programming Languages (Not to be confused with introductory programming)
  12. Software Development and Engineering
  13. Theory of Computation
  14. Several math and statistics classes
  15. Advanced versions of any of the previous classes, as in a graduate-level class

I asseverate that, in general, students take the two programming classes first, followed by algorithms and architecture in some order, and then as many of the other classes that fit their interests or are required. (In my school, programming languages and theory are required.) Architecture and algorithm courses are both crucial for a complete computer science education. Architecture focus on how computers function at the lowest level, discussing issues ranging from hardware to digital logic, while algorithms takes a more mathematical perspective and involves analyzing the efficiency of solutions to problems.

The programming classes tend to form the introductory courses of a computer science major because it is essential that students are acclimated to programming for the upper-level classes. Consequently, the primary objective for those beginning classes is to form a working program. For upper-level courses, creating a program is no longer the main bottleneck; they are simply necessary to carry out, express, prove, or support an experiment or project.

So hopefully I gave a nice introduction for those who aren’t familiar with computer science. With that in mind, we can focus on its benefits, with a bent towards the needs of deaf students. We’ll first talk about benefits within a collegiate or university setting, and then for post-college life.

Group Work & Easier Communication

In my opinion, it is much harder for deaf students to socialize among hearing students. There are a variety of reasons for this, the most notable of which is the barrier between speech and hearing. I believe that a good major for a deaf person will incorporate a significant social aspect to it. And that’s one of the ways computer science can help.

Many computer science courses allow students to collaborate together in groups on homework assignments or projects. I know of many classes, some of which I have taken, that required group work. This is already a boon, but it gets magnified upon realizing that computer science group works tends to be group programming, so most of the work is in text, which should not a barrier for deaf people. A strong group for a lengthy computer science project will utilize extensive code documentation and a journal of the group’s progress, all of which pose no more difficulty for a deaf person to follow and comprehend as compared to a hearing person. In the case of when no interpreters are around and a deaf person can’t communicate, the group can use their computers to quickly write down any necessary instructions or objectives.

No Seminars!

A seminar is a class composed of small students who discuss on a certain topic, with the expectation that students will actively participate. They are predominant in the humanities where class discussion and participation play vital roles in helping a student better understand the course material.

But they are also disadvantageous to deaf students, and it’s fairly easy to see why. With class discussion, students can quickly take turns talking, and very often those who manage to raise their hands first will get the chance to participate. If a topic is particularly popular or heated, a deaf student may find it very difficult to participate as he or she will have to wait until understanding what the fellow students have said, and that gets delayed by the natural lag of sign language interpreters and CART as compared to normal hearing. Also, one of the more embarrassing things that can happen in seminars is if one makes a compelling and passionate argument, only to find that a student had previously provided those insights to the class. Of course, if that happens, a deaf student can explain that the misunderstanding came from the urge to quickly participate in the seminar format. But why be in a class that can offer that kind of risk?

It’s no coincidence that I enjoy lectures far more than seminars. But the good news for computer science majors? You (hopefully) won’t have seminars. My college has no seminars in computer science, and I’m sure many other schools are similar in that regard. It’s a different story if you’re one of the small fraction of students entering a Ph.D program and sign up to take a research seminar, but how many students do that?

Growing Support Groups

Recently, there’s been a pleasant surge in the number of groups, mailing lists, organizations, and other entities designed to help support deaf students in STEM fields. I can personally vouch for the Summer Academy as a strong example of this. Briefly, the program was founded in 2007 by Richard Ladner and allows about ten deaf and hard-of-hearing students to attend a nine-week, residential program at the University of Washington in Seattle where they take one computer science class, one special animation class, have talks, and participate in field trips. The program is free for students.

Not surprisingly, diamonds like these don’t come around very often. The Summer Academy concludes with a community premiere, where students present their work and outline their post-graduate plans in front of an audience of about 100. Just by observing the audience, I could tell that many were middle-aged deaf residents of Seattle who were pleasantly surprised with what the program had to offer. A common theme in their sign language conversations was: “This kind of program never existed when I was younger!

This network of support is assuredly a product of how today’s world has become unquestionably more accessible year by year. Sign language interpreters began to regularly populate schools with deaf students in the late 1900s, with more arising when The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Then again, it still took until 2007 and a well-known professor before the program got funding.

Aside from the previously mentioned Summer Academy, another possible resource for deaf computer science students is DO-IT (also related to the University of Wshington). I’m on their mailing list, and I regularly receive emails about technical internships where employers are targeting students with disabilities.

Ability to Easily Conduct, Perform, or Verify Tedious Tasks

This is one of the benefits that can apply to anyone, not just a deaf person, but I will include it here as it can potentially be extremely useful. As a computer science major, you are required to know how to program. Even if you never have to program outside the class, having the ability to do so can help you in a variety of circumstances. You might, for instance, have a probability class that assigns questions such as “how many ways can we form a group of blue and red marbles if…,” and a simple Python program can verify your answer. At work, you might be casually wondering to yourself: if we can get about X new customers a day while keeping the same prices and retaining all previous customers, how much will we benefit? Again, just fire up a script on your terminal or text editor and do this. Obviously, this would mostly apply towards casual thoughts, but I find that having that kind of intuition helps me better understand the scope of a topic.

It is true that this previous advice is more useful as a reason to why you should take one computer programming class, rather than major in computer science. But inevitably, the more computer science classes you take, the more programming becomes an inveterate activity, and therefore, these “casual” programs are easier to write and can be applied to a wider variety of circumstances.

Being Computer-Literate in a Technological World

From the printing press to the scientific method to today, data and technology have been expanding exponentially. Thus, it is crucial that people understand what is out there and how it works. As an example, deaf people should be aware of the latest advances in cochlear implant and hearing aid technology. Just recently, a hearing aid was now upgraded to be completely waterproof. And by “just recently,” notice that the linked blog post is dated as January 21, 2013.

I claim that part of the responsibility as a computer science major is keeping up with the news on any latest advances in their field. Furthermore, especially if you understand electronics, you might be able to better understand the detailed description of a device, how it works, and its usefulness compared to other competing goods, all excellent qualities for the prescient buyer. And of course, you get to explain this to all your friends!

Strong Accessibility at Work

One of the biggest concerns deaf students may have is job accessibility. Sure, we can bank on the Americans with Disabilities Act to help us in a pinch. But why not avoid this trouble in the first place, and aim for companies that clearly have no issues in hiring qualified deaf employees? The good news is that there are  plenty of these in the computer science industry, such as Microsoft. A deaf employee there personally told me this: Microsoft is one of the most accessible companies out there. You can ask for an accommodation and you will get it. Also, as I said earlier, I am regularly informed of internship opportunities for deaf students in computing, so there are places reaching out. Perhaps computer science firms, a relatively new phenomenon in today’s world, are up to date on all the latest laws related to accessibility. For this, I commend them.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully this was an explanation that elucidates most of the reason why I decided to major in computer science. It’s not the entire reason, but then I would be going on and on about how theory is so scintillating, and that doesn’t quite help to spread the word about computer science. Part of my aim in this blog, for instance, was to explore connections between computer science and deafness. I hope this was a small step.