My Blog Posts, in Reverse Chronological Order

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Graduate School Visit #1: The University of Texas at Austin

Feb 22, 2014


I  recently finished up a three-day stay in Austin, TX, in order to attend UT Austin’s computer science visit days (“GradFest”) for admitted Ph.D. students. This was my first of what will be four school visits.

UT Austin’s GradFest committee assigns each visiting student to a current graduate student who acts as a host and provides housing and transportation in Austin. They must have been paying attention carefully to my RSVP form because the committee chair sent me an email saying that another student at UT Austin had specifically requested me because he knew sign language and lived with someone who also knew sign language. That was nice!

I arrived in Austin at around noon on the first day of GradFest and went to my host’s house via the airport’s shuttle service. I might have been one of the first prospective students to arrive, since we didn’t have much to do until the school-sponsored dinner began at 7. My host briefly showed me around campus, took me out to lunch, and dropped me off at a coffee shop, where I had a meeting set up with a deaf linguistics Ph.D. student at UT Austin. I didn’t have any coffee of course (always hated that stuff), but we had a nice conversation about what life was like in Austin. My sign language must not have been too rusty, as she didn’t have any problems understanding me. She told me that accommodations at UT Austin are great, and that she’s generally had little trouble obtaining what she needed. I also learned that there was a decent academic deaf community in Austin.

Following that, my host took me to his cubicle and provided me with a computer since he knew I was super-busy with work. (I didn’t actually get any done.) By the way, UT Austin’s computer science department is housed in a brand-new building called The Bill & Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex and Dell Computer Science Hall, pictured below.


For anyone who’s worried about collaboration among different subfields of computer science, you definitely won’t have that concern with UT Austin. Previously, different computer science departments were scattered around several buildings. Now, they’re all together in one, making interaction among different areas much easier. Each of the floors is mostly the same, with lounges, computer science labs, offices, and so on. All faculty members have their own offices, with the rest being shared or assigned to postdocs. Ph.D. students are given cubicles in the area corresponding to their computer science subfield, so it’s very easy to talk to other graduate students. Cubicles are also located near the real offices, which I imagine is great for having quick chats and updates with professors.

I stayed in the cubicle area until evening, and then met with other prospective students and their hosts. We went out to dinner at some blazingly loud restaurant. If my host didn’t know sign language, I probably wouldn’t have said anything at all that night!

The second day of GradFest was the most important one. All the students got together in the computer science building to eat breakfast, do paperwork, and obtain schedules. I also met two sign language interpreters hired by UT Austin, who would follow me throughout most of the day.

Prospective students attended our choice of three faculty panels and as many lab “open houses” as we wanted. I attended the Artificial Intelligence, Theory, and the Data Mining and Machine Learning panels and took part in the Mechanized Reasoning and Analysis lab.

Perhaps most importantly, I also had four individual meetings with faculty members, which allowed me to gauge their interest in new students, their advising style, what they look for in new students, and other aspects. (Prospective students write on their RSVP their choices for faculty to meet.) One professor told me that one of the reasons why a new building was needed was because there are plans to increase the computer science faculty from 44 to 60. Certainly this could be reflected in UT Austin’s recent hiring spree, as there are four new faculty coming in this fall and the department is still hiring.

While I was at those faculty meetings, I was well aware that professors might gloss over the truth when talking to prospective students. Fortunately, just before dinner, we had a “Bull Session” with current graduate students which as one described, “is a place without any people in position of authority.” The graduate students were brutally honest when answering the many questions from the visitors. For instance, in a response to the question of when one shouldn’t attend UT Austin, one grad student said that if someone gets in “top four” schools (Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Stanford), that person should pick one of those over UT Austin, which is currently ranked #8. Surprisingly, there was no talk/gossip of specific faculty members, e.g., “Professor X is really bad and should be avoided at all costs.”

After the very helpful Bull Session, we went out to dinner with the students to a pizza place. The food was great, but I did have to break the rules of my grain-limited diet (the same went for my time at the airports). Oh well.

The third day of GradFest was much more relaxed. I ate brunch and went on a campus tour. After the tour, I took the shuttle back to the airport and flew back to the northeast.

Overall, GradFest was an enjoyable experience and a welcome break from my typical schedule. My other three scheduled visits are in the middle of March, so stay tuned for additional posts about visit days.

Williams College: The Final Chapter

Feb 14, 2014

It is hard to believe that I am already in my eighth and final semester as a Williams College student. I have learned so much over the past few years, including what I want to do after Williams and possibly even after graduate school.

Speaking of graduate school, I’ve heard back from most of the institutions to which I applied. So far, five have offered me admission. Thus, I’ll definitely have some tough decision-making to do over the next two months, and final choices for graduate school have to be made on April 15. I’m going to be traveling to at least four of the “student visit-days” at those schools to assist me in making my final decision, and I’ll probably post some details about the events on this blog. My first trip will be to The University of Texas at Austin, as their computer science department is hosting visit days next weekend. By the way, schools will generally pay up to $500 for airfare and provide you with free lodging, either in a hotel or with graduate students, so it’s a great deal.

In the meantime, I’m also doing some more research and taking some classes. Here are the lecture courses I’m taking:

  1. Distributed Systems. This is a computer science course that teaches the design and implementation of systems that involve multiple, connected computers, hence the name “distributed.” I will also learn about networking and operating systems, which are two areas that I don’t know much about, so I am definitely going to learn a ton from this course. (Just now, I can finally discern the differences between a process and a thread.)
  2. Tiling Theory. This is a mathematics course dealing with the theory behind tilings, which are essentially patterns formed by some simply connected pieces that we can fit together to fill up a plane without gaps and without tiles overlapping. In my opinion, it has a lot of similarities to graph theory in that it’s a course that heavily depends on visualization, proof by pictures, and clever doodling.

That’s it! Just two courses. Of course, I do have a thesis. I’m badly behind on it, so I’ll have to focus super-hard on it during the rest of February, March, and the beginning of April. I’m also taking an independent study course in Operations Research, where I’ll be part of a team of roughly ten students who will review and utilize concepts relating to — in addition to operations research — advanced linear algebra, linear programming, sabermetrics, and so on.

This schedule seems easier than usual with the small number of lecture courses, but even after two weeks I can already tell that I’ll be overwhelmed as usual, especially when taking into account my heavy traveling this semester. (I expect to miss more classes this semester alone than I have during the past seven semesters combined!) Furthermore, I am going to be repeating as a Teaching Assistant for the Algorithm Design & Analysis course. In the second half of this semester, I am also thinking about signing up for a computer science course on Coursera.

Anyway, it’s time for me to stop blogging and get back to work.

Deaf People on an Island, Revisited

Jan 24, 2014


This discussion will be a continuation of my last post, What if 300 Deaf People were Isolated on an Island? I will focus on the usage of American Sign Language versus English in the hypothetical scenario that a group of deaf people migrate to an island and are allowed to form their own small country.

The Scenario

To be specific, here is what I have in mind.

  1. In January 2014, 300 deaf people from America decide to migrate to a island that has enough resources and infrastructure to maintain a small population of people. Therefore, the island’s inhabitants do not need to rely on trade with other communities or countries, so this remains a secluded area throughout the lifetimes of those 300 people.
  2. All these deaf people know ASL and some, but not all, have the ability to speak English reasonably well. They can all read English, but because most do not have excellent hearing ability, ASL is the dominant language for communication among the population. (Assume that only a few can afford quality hearing aids, not an unreasonable expectation nowadays.)
  3. Years pass by. People do not leave the island, nor do outsiders come in, as travel is heavily restricted. The deaf people marry among themselves, form generations of families, and eventually the island becomes quite populous, with millions of inhabitants.

The main question I want to consider pertains to the use of ASL versus English. In other words …

In the long run, which language will become the “official, spoken language” of this island?

There are two candidates: ASL or English. By “spoken language,” I’m referring to what people will use to communicate with each other. Yes, English will be the language used for writing, but I’m more interested in conversations. We could take the “easy way” out and say that both are official, but let’s assume that the United Nations or some futuristic, worldwide diplomacy venue mandates exactly one spoken language registered for each country. I suspect that, eventually, English will reign supreme in this regard.

Though the island originally starts with a population that consists exclusively of deaf people, the next generation will not share that characteristic. In fact, the majority of the children born to parents among the 300 starting inhabitants will probably be hearing. Deafness is very uncommon among newborn babies, and even if both parents are deaf, their children are still likely to have normal hearing.

This trend continues generation after generation, so in the long run, the island’s population will approach a proportion of deaf people similar to the one that exists in today’s world.

So what happens? The island becomes a “hearing world,” where the official language is spoken English. There are sure to be some people who know ASL, of course, because there will still be deaf people around. But English becomes the conventional, spoken language because hearing people will constitute the majority of the population, and they will be the ones taking up management positions, political offices, and so on.

But I still have a nagging suspicion that I’m missing something. I wonder …

Would there be any circumstance in which ASL could actually be the official spoken language in the long run?

There are obvious challenges. First, we’re talking about a language that the vast majority of the population won’t need to use. Hearing people may even view it as an inconvenience when communicating with each other; why put the effort in moving hands when you can expend less while talking and still achieve the same objectives? Second, is it possible to have an official spoken language that can’t really be used for written documents?

The island scenario does have one major aspect that doesn’t totally kill the idea of ASL being the spoken language: it starts with 300 deaf people. If ASL were to be the spoken language of this island or future country, then I suspect it will all rest on the influence of those 300 people. They will certainly teach their children ASL, regardless of them being hearing or deaf. Thus, the second generation will use ASL.

The question is whether the all-hearing families with parents from that second generation will stress the importance of ASL to their hearing children. Even if they do, I worry that the use of ASL would gradually weaken from generation to generation among hearing families. In order for such a concept to be passed down and not whither away, it would probably need to take on as much importance as a religion or a true, cultural activity.

So there is an outside chance that ASL could be the spoken language. Still, I suspect we would need additional strong assumptions for that situation to occur. The one that most easily supports ASL being the spoken language would be if the incidence of deafness among babies skyrockets.

Anyway, that is one scenario. What are other similar ones that come in mind? I encourage you to think about the various possibilities and their resulting, long-run equilibrium states. Try tweaking some of the assumptions and see what you get.

Side Note: 100 Blog Entires on Seita’s Place

Somehow, I made it to 100 posts on Seita’s Place. (This is post #100.) So in honor of this “special event,” let’s look at some additional statistics about my blog.

According to my WordPress Dashboard, I now get roughly 25 views a day (from about 15 to 20 visitors), which is up from the 0 to 5 views/visitors that I was getting when the blog first began. Excellent! Seita’s Place’s best day was on Monday, December 30, 2013, when it got 98 views from 19 visitors. All time, there are 9,052 views and 133 comments. There are currently 34 followers.

My blog entry that has the most comments is, by far, ASL Guidelines with 13 comments, though a lot of the comments on Seita’s Place consist of “pingbacks,” which occur when entries link to other entries, which can inflate the comment count. There are four entries that have five comments, and an additional four that have four comments.

How do the blog posts rate in terms of popularity? That’s pretty easy to gauge, as WordPress keeps track of views for each entry. Here’s an image showing the top of the chart:


And the bottom:


So the most popular post is by far Ten Things Python Programmers Should Know, with 404 views. The least popular is On the Hardness of Nintendo Games, with a measly two views.

I can also tell that there are three primary ways that people manage to find Seita’s Place. (1) They search my name, (2) they find the link to it in my Facebook profile, and (3) they search about Theory of Computation or Python.

Finally, where are my viewers coming from? Since February 2012, it seems like the majority are (by far) from the United States. The next country on the list is India, followed by the United Kingdom.


What if 300 Deaf People were Isolated on an Island?

Jan 18, 2014

John Lee Clark, a deaf writer and an active participant in the Deaf Academics mailing list, has a blog on his website. While Mr. Clark doesn’t appear to update it frequently, his blog entries are well-written. I particularly found his Cochlear Implants: A Thought Experiment blog post interesting.

Here is his “thought experiment:”

Let’s suppose three hundred deaf people, all wearing cochlear implants, are gathered and moved to an island. None of them knows ASL and all of them have excellent speech. There are no hearing people there. What will happen?

Mr. Clark’s main argument is that because there are no hearing people to provide feedback on the deaf population’s speech skills, the 300 people will experience erosion in their ability to talk. In response to that, they will develop a sign language.

There are some obvious logistical issues with this experiment. This would never happen in the first place, and even if it did, it is unclear how quickly speech erosion would occur, if it did at all.

As one reads more into Mr. Clark’s entry, it becomes apparent that he views cochlear implants with disdain:

Another thing that it reveals is that the cochlear implant is not FOR deaf people. If it is for deaf people, they would be able to, or even want to, use the implants on their own and for their own reasons. But the cochlear implant is for, and promotes the interests of, hearing people. It was invented by a hearing man and the risky experiments and sometimes fatal operations were legalized by hearing people. The demand for it is driven by hearing parents. It financially benefits hearing teachers, hearing doctors, hearing speech therapists, and hearing businesses in the industry. It is only at the bottom of the industry that we find the token deaf person.

It is known that cochlear implants are a controversial topic in the Deaf community, which is well-summarized by the Wikipedia entry on cochlear implants. There was even an entire documentary about this issue: Sound of Fury. Mr. Clark also brings up some of the common arguments against cochlear implants in the rest of his blog post.

I think I should write more about cochlear implants in my blog. This entry is apparently the first that uses the “cochlear implant” tag. Stay tuned for future posts….

Better Hearing Through Bluetooth

Jan 17, 2014

Better Hearing Through Bluetooth is a recently published New York Times article that, unsurprisingly, I found interesting. The main idea is that people who have some slight hearing loss can use personal sound amplifier products (PSAPs) as an alternative to hearing aids. PSAPs are wearable electronic devices designed to amplify sound for people with “normal” hearing. Interestingly enough, they are not meant to substitute hearing aids for people with substantial hearing loss. The When Hearing Aids Won’t Do article makes that statement clear and uses an example of a hunter who might wear PSAPs to hear better in the forest. Personally, I doubt the benefit of that since amplification doesn’t necessarily correspond to increased clarity and may introduce unwanted side effects such as distracting static, but maybe some hunters can correct me.

Unlike hearing aids, PSAPs are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means customers don’t need to consult with a physician, audiologist, or a hearing aid manufacturer, a major benefit if you want to avoid those intermediaries for time, personal, or other reasons. (A quick look at the comments in the New York Times indicates that audiologists aren’t quite popular.) Consequently, PSAPs are substantially cheaper than hearing aids. A decent PSAP seems like it can be bought at $300, while a hearing aid might cost around $3,000.

Another aspect of PSAPs is that they are user-programmable. Customers can download an app to their phone or computer and fiddle around with the device to their heart’s content. In contrast, a hearing-aid wearer typically needs an audiologist to do the programming. The user-programmable feature can be a good thing or a bad thing, and the benefit largely rests on two factors: (1) how much the user knows about the PSAP and is comfortable with technology, and (2) the quality of the actual program. It should be no surprise that, due to the lack of regulation, PSAPs vary considerably. Patients should be aware of the pitfalls and be circumspect in purchasing them.

A second possible risk with PSAPs is that people who have serious hearing loss may make the unwise decision of buying them over of hearing aids. Given how hearing aids have a bad reputation for their price, PSAP manufacturers have probably marketed PSAPs as low-cost hearing aid alternatives.

Perhaps PSAPs will soon become the norm for older people who are losing their hearing. I will keep up-to-date on news relating to PSAPs, though I will never wear them.

A Fake Sign Language Interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial

Jan 10, 2014


Last month, Nelson Mandela passed away. Mr. Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule, was one of the most beloved people in his country. Thus, there was no doubt that his memorial would be well-attended by not only people from South Africa, but also some of the world’s most prominent leaders such as President Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, according to this article, a fraudulent sign language interpreter was hired to “interpret” for the deaf. This person, a 34 year old man named Thamsanqa Jantjie, apparently performed meaningless symbols and gestures on stage. And, as the image for this blog post indicates, he somehow had the privilege of being inches away from President Obama and other leaders who spoke at that podium. (Side notes: what’s up with how close he is to the podium? Whenever I’ve had a podium-interpreter situation, the interpreters have typically been a healthy distance away from the speaker. And also, usually for something like this, you would want two interpreters…)

I took a look at the video from the linked New York Times article. While I don’t know the South African sign language, the gestures Mr. Jantjie performed certainly didn’t seem like a sign language: too many rhythmic activities, lack of facial or lip movement, too many calculated pauses, and so on.  I can certainly believe the experts’ judgement that this is a fake.

Bruno Druchen, the national director of DeafSA (a Johannesburg advocacy organization for the deaf), had this to say about the debacle:

This ‘fake interpreter’ has made a mockery of South African sign language and has disgraced the South African sign language-interpreting profession. […] The deaf community is in outrage.

Mr. Jantjie also failed to even perform the correct sign for Mr. Mandela. That doesn’t bode well … I mean, if there was any one sign to know, wouldn’t it be the one for Mr. Mandela?

But wait, there’s more! Check out this article, where Mr. Jantjie admits that he was hallucinating during the talks (“angels falling from the sky” kind of stuff). We also learn that he’s receiving treatment for schizophrenia. In addition, the company that supplied Mr. Jantjie — at a bargain rate — disappeared. Somehow, up until now, they had been getting away with providing substandard sign language interpreting services.

There is also news that Mr. Jantjie has a criminal history. This article mentioned that he was part of a group that murdered two men in 2003, yet somehow didn’t go trial because he was deemed mentally unfit. He also is accused of a plethora of other offenses dating back to 1994.

Murdering two men? Mentally unfit? A schizophrenic person?

That doesn’t sound like the kind of person I’d like to see up there. Hiring someone like him to be an interpreter for the memorial of possibly the most important person in South African history? I’m glad that I can trust my own interpreters here at Williams College.

Quickly Learn emacs and vim

Dec 30, 2013


Programming as part of a large project, such as building a new C++ compiler from scratch, is vastly different compared to a smaller task, like writing a script to answer a random Project Euler question. Large projects typically involve too many files interacting with each other to work on a single program in isolation (for instance, it can be confusing to know what methods to refer to from another program in a file), so using an advanced integrated development environment (IDE) like Eclipse is probably the norm. For smaller tasks, two of the most commonly used text editors by programmers are emacs and vim.

One of the biggest problems that people new to these editors face is having to memorize a bunch of obscure commands. Emacs commands often involve holding the control or escape/meta key while pressing some other letter on the keyboard. With vim, users have to press escape repeatedly to go into “insert” (i.e., one can type things in) versus “normal” (i.e., one can move the cursor around, perform fancy deletions, etc.) mode.

Once one becomes used to the commands, though, emacs and vim allow very fast typesetting. If you watch an emacs or vim master type in their preferred text editor, you will be amazed at how quickly he or she can perform fancy alignment of text, advanced finding/replacing involving regular expressions, and other tasks that would otherwise have taken excruciatingly long using “traditional methods.” (Unfortunately, these people are hard to find….)

So what’s the quickest way to get started with these editors to the point where someone can write a small program? In my opinion, the best way is to go through their tutorials. Open up your command line interface (e.g., the Terminal on Macs) or your method of opening these editors.

  1. For emacs, type in “emacs” and then perform control-h (hold the control key while pressing “h”) and press “t.” In emacs terminology, C-h t.
  2. For vim, type in “vimtutor” from the command line.

This method of learning is excellent since you get a copy of the tutorial and can go through steps and exercises to test out the commands while navigating or modifying the file. I think the vim tutorial is better because it’s more structured but again, both of them do the job. They emphasize, for instance, that once a programmer gets used to the commands to move the cursors, using them will be faster than resorting to the arrow keys since one doesn’t have to move hands off of the keyboard:

  1. From emacs: There are several ways you can do this. You can use the arrow keys, but it’s more efficient to keep your hands in the standard position and use the commands C-p, C-b, C-f, and C-n.
  2. From vim: The cursor keys should also work. But using hjkl you will be able to move around much faster, once you get used to it. Really!

I have to confess that I didn’t learn emacs by using their tutorial. I just went by a list of common commands given to me by my professor and picked things up by experience and intense Googling. As a result, I experienced a lot of pain early on in my computer science career that could have been avoided by just reading the tutorial. (The control-g command to quit something was a HUGE help to me once I read about it in the emacs tutorial.) And judging by the emacs questions that other Williams College computer science students have asked me, I can tell that not everyone reads the tutorial.

So read the tutorials before seriously using these text editors.

Of course, one should decide at an early step of his or her programming career: emacs or vim? This is certainly a non-trivial task. They both do basically the same thing, and with the variety of extensions and customizations possible, I’m not sure there’s anything they can’t do that any other text editor can do, to be honest. If I had to give a general rule, I’d just go with choosing the one that felt best to you in the tutorials, or the one that’s most common among your colleagues, professors, or other peers.

And besides, it’s difficult to say which one of these editors is better than the other. It really depends on who you ask. I don’t have a good answer to this so I’ll opt-out and provide a lame one: the one that’s better is the one that you can use best.

Personally, I started my programming career using the emacs text editor because that was the preference of my Computer Organization professor, so I didn’t see the need to deviate. Within the past year, I substantially increased my emacs usage to the point where I was using it almost everyday for most typing tasks, including LaTeX, and my pinky finger didn’t like the constant reliance of the control key. So I’m giving vim a shot.

It’s still useful to know the emacs commands, because they often work in other places. For instance, when I type in blog entries here, I can use a subset of emacs commands while typing in my entry in the built-in editor for WordPress, which was surprising to me when I first found out. Instead of deleting a line by using the mouse or Mac trackpad, I can use the ctrl-k emacs command to do that. And many IDEs will have support for emacs or vim commands, so one can get the best of both worlds. I know that Eclipse has this, but I was personally disappointed that certain emacs commands didn’t work.

To wrap up this post, I suggest that knowing one of emacs or vim well is important for (computer science) graduate school since programming is a huge part of research today, so the faster things get done, the better. Moreover, university professors tend to take on more of a “leader” role rather than someone who “gets things done” (I’m not trying to disparage professors here). In other words, they tell the graduate students what to do in research projects and the students will write the necessary programs.

Voice Recognition on Google Chrome

Dec 25, 2013


About a month ago, Google Chrome released voice search and voice action. The main idea is that we can literally just talk to the computer while browsing Google, and it will respond with (ideally) what you wanted. This feature isn’t limited to just browsing Google, though. It’s also possible to tell Google to start an email, or to find information about people in your contacts list.

To use it, open Google, click on the microphone and wait until Google prompts you to say something. But if one has to click on a microphone, it wouldn’t make sense to use voice recognition because we can type almost as fast as we can talk. (It seems like this feature is built for mobile users, where typing is typically a lot slower.) So there is now a Google Voice Search Hotword extension, so one can avoid typing at all by saying “OK Google.” For details, refer to their article about the extension. As one can see, it’s still in beta (at the time of this blog post), so this is all recent technology. In fact, Google suggested that they released this feature so that people cooking for Thanksgiving didn’t have to wash their hands in order to use Google.

The voice extension sounds nice at first, but there’s always the unfortunate caveat in voice recognition: it’s not good enough due to a variety of reasons, such as multiple words sounding the same, uncommon words, inconsistent or unclear speech, and so on. In fact, for users of Gmail, I sure hope that this voice recognition won’t immediately send emails created out of voice recognition without user confirmation, since there’s too much that could go wrong with that feature.

But maybe I’m just naturally pessimistic about the success of voice recognition, especially after trying to search my own name on Google and getting “Daniel C Town.” I know that no voice recognition software has any chance of recognizing my last name. What I wonder is if this Google feature will be able to remember my browsing history after I say my name and, in the future, use that data to correctly identify it via voice recognition?

Still, voice recognition is certainly an important aspect of applied artificial intelligence and machine learning, so I look forward to seeing this subfield progress.

To recap:

  1. Can be useful under limited circumstances (dirty hands, quick browsing, etc.)
  2. Will probably be far more popular on mobile devices
  3. Hindered by the natural limitations of voice recognition
  4. Potentially a privacy concern
  5. Definitely opens up additional areas for future work/research

Grad School Applications, Stage 3: The Online Applications

Nov 30, 2013

It seems like every prospective graduate student is using the Thanksgiving break to catch up on applications. That’s definitely been my situation; I’ve delayed things far too long (which is quite unlike me), but hopefully I have made up for it these past few days by submitting several fellowships/scholarships and creating final drafts of my statement of purpose essays. With ten schools and a variety of fellowships/scholarships to apply to, I can’t afford to leave everything to the last week before the schools’  deadlines, especially when that also happens to correspond to my final exam week!

To budget my time, I first submitted all the fellowships and scholarships that had deadlines earlier than that of any of my ten graduate schools. Then, I went to work on creating draft after draft of one school’s statement of purpose essay. Fortunately, most universities have similar essay questions, so I can just modify a paragraph at the end that is school-specific.

Once I had done sufficient work for one essay, I put that aside and then did all the “administrative” tasks by filling in the easy stuff of the online applications. This includes writing information about recommenders, writing your address and contact information, and so on.

Some thoughts as I was doing these:

  1. I did them in bulk fashion (i.e., one right after another) and did everything except upload the statement of purpose essays. I felt like that was the most efficient way to do things. Now, when I head back to school, I only have to worry about the essays.
  2. Most applications were part of a university-wide graduate school application form, so I frequently read information that was not relevant to computer scientists but would be relevant to other subject areas. This makes it a little harder on the applicant (since we have to fill in more information than is probably necessary) but it’s easier on the school (only one application website/form needed for the entire graduate school) so I can understand why schools like that.
  3. Some places want me to paste my essay into a “text box,” while others want uploaded PDF documents. I vastly prefer the latter, since there is some LaTeX stuff that I’ve included in my statement of purpose to make it look better, but maybe schools don’t want faculty to be influenced by the aesthetics of the text.
  4. Some schools weren’t specific about whether they wanted me to upload an unofficial transcript or a scanned official transcript. (One school even had contradictory information in two places of their application.) In fact, for two schools, I didn’t realize this until I had actually reached the point in the application where they asked me to upload scans. Fortunately, the registrar emailed me a PDF scan of my official transcript and that solved everything. The lesson is that it’s best to just get an official scan to not leave anything to chance.

The Problem with Seminars

Nov 10, 2013


I like the concept of seminar courses. These are typically small classes that feature active discussion and debate each session. At Williams, these courses — where enrollment is limited to 19 students to comply with U.S. News & World Report standards for “small class sizes” — make up a substantial portion of the humanities curriculum. While there are certainly many wonderful things I can say about seminars, one of my personal gripes is that they pose additional burdens to deaf students.

Here’s the problem: if students are interested and motivated by the course material, they’ll be active participants. That means class discussion will be moving at a quick pace from one person to another as people raise their hands immediately after others finish talking.

But as a deaf person who cannot really understand what my classmates say until I get the feedback from a sign language interpreter, there’s an added delay until I can get the same information. Inevitably, once I can understand what my classmates have said, another one immediately jumps into the discussion by saying something similar to: “building off of [his/her] previous point, I think that […]”.

The end result is that I’ve often felt lost in some of these discussions. Many times, I’ve wanted to say something, only to see someone else claim credit for that concept by being quicker than me at raising his or her hand. It’s not a problem that’s easily solved. There’s always going to be some sort of delay with sign language, CART, and other accommodations, but it can pose difficulty to deaf students. Since seminars tend to incorporate class participation as a large fraction of students’ grades, that factor can be a deterrent to deaf people for taking these courses.

As I think about seminar courses, I’m reminded of a particularly painful high school AP US History class. The class was divided into groups of three, and we had to debate over a topic that I’ve long since forgotten. (Each group had to defend a unique perspective.) But the main thing that I remember was that the teacher required each student to make three substantial comments in the debate in order for him or her to receive full credit.

The debate ended up being chaotic, with students shouting out their comments all over the place, often interrupting each other without restrain. (My teacher actually had to stop the class once, so we could relax and start fresh.) Predictably, I was completely lost among the commotion and didn’t see any way I could participate without sounding awkward. Eventually, towards the end of the debate, I finally made my sole comment of the day. And that was only because one of my group members (out of sympathy?) actually told me what to say! He mentioned his thoughts to me, raised his hand and then let me talk once the focus was on our group. In other words, I was just echoing his idea.

Fortunately, my teacher recognized the challenges I faced and didn’t penalize me for failing to participate in that embarrassing debate.

So how should a deaf person approach seminars? I’m not interested in asking professors to lower their grading standards (I’d be offended otherwise), though it might be wise to mention to them the delay in reception due to ASL or other accommodations, just so they’re aware. Another thing one could ask is that the professor slow down the pace of discussion. That is, if one student finishes talking, ask the professor to wait a few extra seconds before picking the next person to talk.

With respect to how class discussion proceeds, my best advice is that one should aim to be the first to comment on a class topic. That means when the professor reviews something based on homework readings and then says: “Any thoughts on this?” to the class, that’s the best time for someone like me to participate.

This situation typically happens at the start of class, so there isn’t a need to make your contribution to the class debate relate to previous comments (a huge plus!). Furthermore, professors often articulate better than students, making it easier for me to rely more on my own hearing. Finally, while this might be entirely anecdotal evidence, I’ve observed that professors are often more willing to wait a longer time when they open up a discussion than when they’re in the middle of one.

Grad School Applications, Stage 2: Preparing Information for Reference Writers

Oct 7, 2013

Back in July, I published a post proclaiming the start of my fall 2013 graduate school applications process.

Now that it’s the start of October, I can safely say that I’m at a new stage: the point where I need to provide information to all my reference writers about my applications. Don’t neglect this non-trivial step! Letters of recommendations are probably the third most important aspect of one’s application after one’s research experience and grades (in that order), and they become extremely useful in picking out the best of the best.

Here’s what I included in my “packet” of information to my recommenders:

  1. A copy of my updated curriculum vitae. This should be something everyone does.

  2. A document that clearly outlines all of the programs to which I’m applying, as well as any other fellowships and/or scholarships. For me, this is ten Ph.D. programs, four fellowships, and three outside scholarships, and my document ended up being six pages. This includes a LaTeX-generated table of contents and a separate page devoted to an Introduction. For each application, I also included a web link, just in case my reference writers wanted some extra information. Finally, for each school, I also indicated the labs and professors that caught my interest.

I think the last point is something that — sadly — often gets glossed over when sending information to recommenders. It’s not just enough to say that one wants to study at a school; one also should have a general idea of the different research groups at an institution and which ones suit himself or herself the best.

One thing that I had hoped to include in the packet was an updated statement of purpose. Unfortunately, I haven’t found the time to get a sensible essay ready, so that’s the next thing on my agenda to send to my recommenders.

It was a relief to finally send information to my three recommenders, so now I can focus on getting my actual essays and applications. No, I’m not as far as I hoped to be in the plan I posted in July, but I’m getting there. I still have a couple of weeks before the first deadlines arrive…

How to Accommodate Technical Colloquium Talks?

Sep 27, 2013

In my last blog entry, I talked about giving a math colloquium talk. In this one, I’ll talk about attending a talk. This academic year, I have sat in three computer science talks and four other math talks.

And so far, I’ve been somewhat disappointed.

My accommodation for these talks is to use the SmartLink+ FM system owned by Williams College. During each talk, I arrive about five to ten minutes early to meet the speaker and hand over the device so that he or she can wear it. (It’s designed like a lanyard.) However, even with this as an aid, I feel like I don’t get much benefit out of these talks. I think I run into two problems: (1) getting distracted by the speaker wearing the FM system, and (2) getting distracted by the static.

Problem (1) is a mental issue. Sometimes I feel like a burden to the speaker when asking him or her to wear a device that, while not clunky or huge, is still noticeable, can swing around as he or she is moving, and isn’t designed for pure comfort. I also wonder what the other audience members think of the device. Is it distracting to them as well? Do they know that the FM is for me? When I have these thoughts, I also ponder alternative scenarios for accommodations.

Problem (2) is a technical issue. It’s well known that FM systems are great at amplifying sound, and I’m happy to benefit from that. The amplification, though, seems to result in a lot of static as an unfortunate side effect. When a speaker wears the FM system, it can rub against a shirt as he or she moves, and I hear a lot of rustling and static when that happens. In fact, at one point last spring in a machine learning tutorial meeting, I had to completely turn off my right hearing aid since the static had become unbearable. Complicating matters here is that the hearing aids I use that have the FM receivers (i.e. what I need to connect to the system) are not the same as my best pair of hearing aids, which are better at discriminating sound. Do I want to lose out on intensity to retain clarity and precision?

So these two things together seem to hinder my ability to benefit from colloquium talks. In fact, my lackluster experience during today’s computer science colloquium talk inspired me to write this entry. As I allude in the title, I’m thinking about how to accommodate a technical talk for a deaf person.

Here are some hypothetical scenarios I have in mind:

  1. Use the Smartlink+ FM System (i.e. maintain what I’m doing). Advantages: continuity, don’t have to make petitions or write more letters. Disadvantages: covered earlier in this entry.
  2. Use an alternative FM System (e.g., the Contego R900). Advantages: possibly experience less static but retain amplification. Disadvantages: would have to get used to an entirely new system.
  3. Use ASL interpreting services (as I do in my courses). Advantages: familiarity/continuity. Disadvantages: difficult to interpret technical talks.
  4. Use a captioning service (e.g., CART). Advantages: can read word-for-word on a screen. Disadvantages: would take several weeks to get set up, and would probably run into technical difficulties.
  5. Use a combination of the above accommodations. Advantages: can combine the benefits together. Disadvantages: costly, would experience diminishing returns for each addition.
  6. Use no accommodations. Advantages: easiest for me, allowing me to show up at the same time as other students. Disadvantages: will have the least amount of hearing assistance.

As one can see, there’s no substitute to having normal hearing. Different forms of accommodations have their pluses and minuses, and it’s up to the individual and his or her institution to come up with a reasonable plan. I’m still not entirely sure what’s best for me, but hopefully I can come up with some firm decision soon.

My Williams College Mathematics Colloquium Talk

Sep 17, 2013

Williams College requires that all senior math majors give an acceptable 30-minute colloquium talk on the topic of their choice. Virtually all seniors who give their talk “pass” as long as their topic is relatively new, interesting, and isn’t nontrivial. The senior majors have to attend 20 of these student talks, not including their own, so the typical audience consists of other students as well as most of the faculty.

Back in May, I volunteered to give my colloquium talk early, and I was fortunate that the colloquium chair assigned me to be in the first student slot. (It’s always nice to set the trend!) For my colloquium, which I just delivered today, I chose to talk about probabilistic graphical models (PGMs). It wasn’t a difficult decision for me to pick this topic. This past summer, as part of my “moral duty” as a machine learning student, I skimmed a wide variety of recent articles published by the highly prestigious International Conference in Machine Learning. Many of the articles I read incorporated PGMs, and there was one article in particular that struck my eye: using PGMs in crowd-sourcing to grade a test without knowing the answers.

That got me a little interested in PGMs, so I read a little more and learned that these are often considered part of the intersection between computer science and statistics. Effectively, these are graphs that describe their own probability distributions (incorporating statistics) by representing nodes as random variables. By exploiting graph theoretic algorithms (incorporating computer science), it’s possible to efficiently model a scenario that might otherwise be too intractable to analyze directly, e.g. in medical analysis when we’re dealing with thousands of random variables. Needless to say, I figured I should explore PGMs in depth, both for my computer science senior thesis and for my colloquium.

Thus, my colloquium talk first gave an introduction to PGMs, and then described the application in crowd-sourcing as described in the paper I linked to earlier. If you’re interested in learning more about these, feel free to check out the slides I used for my talk. You can view them here. (Side note: for something as important as this, always have at least one backup of your slides … try using Dropbox.) Have fun with PGMs!

Clarifications to Mor Harchol-Balter’s Ph.D. Advice

Sep 1, 2013

Professor Mor Harchol-Balter (hereafter, Professor H-B), a faculty member in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, has written a well-cited report about applying to Ph.D. programs. While I agree with almost everything she writes, I figure it’s worth clarifying or modifying a few portions of the report; I’ve listed seven of my suggested clarifications/modifications in this post.

As a disclaimer, I obviously have never been part of a graduate admissions committee before, while Professor H-B presumably takes part in this every winter. What I write in this post is simply my own opinion based on my countless hours of reading about graduate school.

Clarification/Modification #1: Funding the Ph.D.

Professor H-B writes:

Important note 2: There are many companies and government organizations which offer Graduate Fellowships for Ph.D. students. If you are lucky enough to get one of these, they will cover your full way through graduate school, and you will never have to worry about whether your advisor has funding or not. Details about graduate fellowships will be discussed in Section 4.

From what I’ve read, most fellowships (e.g. the NSF) last for at most three years. Thus, it seems like the typical scenario for a fellowship recipient is that he or she uses the money for some number of years, then after it expires, he or she must find some other source of funding. It is extremely rare for students to complete Ph.D.s within three years; the few examples of fast Ph.D.s that I know of (e.g. Frank Morgan) were in the field of mathematics, where it can be enough to discover a convoluted proof to a question.

Clarification/Modification #2: “Top” Ph.D. Programs

Professor H-B writes:

Since my view is that of the top-ranked CS programs, my description below will follow the perspective of those schools. By a top-ranked program, I’m typically talking about a Ph.D. program ranked in the top 10 or so.


As I’ve said earlier, to get into a top graduate school you need prior research experience. This is not necessarily true for schools below the top 10, or maybe even the top 5.

Her article is written and directed at students who aspire to study at the top programs. I personally would extend the "top" part (in both blockquotes above) to be perhaps "top 25-ish" or so, because I’m pretty sure the schools ranked ~10 to ~25 value research experience to a comparable extent as do the very top schools. Also, there are some subfields of computer science that lower ranked schools might specialize in, which may not be reflected in their overall ranking. One example might be The University of Pennsylvania (currently ranked #17 overall) and their stellar programming languages group.

Clarification/Modification #3: Computer Science GRE

Professor H-B writes:

The subject exam – If applying to a CS Ph.D. program, you should probably take your subject exam in CS, Math, or Engineering. Check with the school you’re applying to.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a computer science GRE subject test now. Her article was written in 2011, while the CS exam was terminated in 2013, so she’ll almost certainly remove this part during her next update.

Clarification/Modification #4: Getting Research Experience

Professor H-B writes:

As an undergraduate, you can apply for a summer internship at a research lab or another school. I did this. Type “summer internships for undergraduates” into Google and you’ll be amazed how many opportunities there are.

I personally would be more specific and provide the link to this page, which has a listing of most (if not all) current NSF-sponsored computer science REUs. Alternatively, you can try searching within your school if you’re at a research university.

Clarification/Modification #5: Asking for Recommendations

Professor H-B writes:

Asking for a letter of recommendation won’t be a problem if you have been doing research with this person, but that won’t be possible in every case. Here’s a guideline which will maximize the contents of your letter. This works on the theory that professors have very little time and little memory (both of which are good assumptions):

She then recommends preparing a packet of materials for the professor, including materials such as a statement of purpose, a photo of you, etc. Most of the advice is straightforward and is what one should definitely do (e.g. the statement of purpose). If, however, a recommender needs a photo of a student to write an effective recommendation, then it’s likely that he or she doesn’t know the student well enough to write a solid letter anyway.

Clarification/Modification #6: Why to Apply for Fellowships

Professor H-B writes:

Even before you decide which schools you want to apply to, you should pick out which outside fellowships you are eligible for and apply to all of these. I myself applied to 5 outside fellowships. Many outside fellowships require a U.S. citizenship, so not everyone is eligible. There are at least 4 reasons to apply for a fellowship:

Her four reasons are (1) prestige, (2) funds graduate school, (3) makes a more appealing applicant, and (4) to avoid being a fool. Her argument for (3) is based on schools accepting you after you receive a fellowship. By that time, however, it’s usually April or May, and this doesn’t give you enough time to visit (or even think about) the school. My point here is that Ph.D. programs typically tell students if they are accepted in February, and students have an April 15 deadline to select their school. Suppose a student applied to school X and doesn’t hear back, which typically means a rejection. But on April 10, he receives a prestigious fellowship, and school X accepts him on April 11 upon figuring out the news. But that leaves just a handful of days for the student to consider the offer, and doesn’t allow a visit, etc. Quickly accepting an offer from them could be a risky decision.

It’s worth mentioning that Professor Philip Guo also has written advice on why to apply to fellowships. His additional reasons include (1) practicing writing, and (2) your research advisor will make you apply anyway.

Clarification/Modification #7: Ranking of the Department

Professor H-B writes:

Consider the overall ranking of department. This is important only because it determines the average quality of your peers (the other graduate students). Your peers are the people who will teach you the most in graduate school.

While I definitely agree with this (and others do, see e.g. Jeff Erickson’s post), and am also pretty sure that Professor H-B wasn’t being too serious in this writing, I can’t believe that the ranking of a department is only important due to the quality of the students. For instance, the average professor at a top school will have more grant money and productive research projects than the average professor at a mid-tier school. For instance, I remember reading a blog post by a former Ph.D. student at Berkeley who recalled that his advisor had a “seemingly endless supply of money.”

Is There a Useful Compendium of Advice for Deaf Students?

Aug 25, 2013

As I was just getting the urge to start writing more about machine learning and theory of computation, I had this nagging thought:

Is there a useful compendium of advice for deaf students that discusses how to navigate through their undergraduate, and potentially graduate, experiences?

Here’s why I’m curious. I read advice aimed at computer science Ph.D. students all the time. One only has to browse websites of computer science professors and Ph.D. students who have blogs to find short advice articles such as how to manage your advisor. Also, guidance obviously isn’t limited to blogs. Computer science professors Michael Ernst (Washington) and Tao Xie (Illinois) have compiled quite a bunch of writings by themselves or others that may be of interest to computer science Ph.D. students.

So is there something similar for deaf students? By that, I’m referring mostly to American college and graduate students. Wouldn’t that be a great resource for younger students, so that they might read and understand how older students have survived (or failed) the journey?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much advice out there, but there’s a chance I’m wrong. One of the problems when trying to search this is that if you type in “Advice for Deaf Students” in a search engine, most of the pages that show up are actually aimed at teachers, and provide tips and suggestions for working with and accommodating such students.

Keep in mind that I’m trying to look for sources similar to the ones that Professor Ernst or Professor Xie have on their homepages. Short essays by the random deaf person here and there are fine, but has anyone actually done a search for this and compiled a list together? If not, then I would be interested in starting one. I know I can’t do it all myself, since I start too many projects each year that I fail to finish, and general-purpose advice should rarely be written by just one person. It would be interesting to see if this idea could become a reality.