Measuring the Unmeasurable

March 31st, 2008, 11:00 pm PDT by Greg

Today, I’m going to expound on two examples I have come across recently of researchers trying to measure properties that are very difficult to measure, and politically charged.

At SIGCSE, I saw a paper on sex and gender in CS presented, which was thoughtfully titled Cultural Representations of Gender Among U.S. Computer Science Undergraduates: Statistical and Data Mining Results. The results depend on running a bunch of (CS and non-CS) students through the Bem Sex Role Inventory and looking through the results for patterns.

The Bem inventory involves looking at a bunch of adjectives (“analytical”, “warm”, “adaptable”, …), and deciding how much that describes you. Each of the adjectives has a gender that it describes (“masculine” or “feminine”), and you get a score at the end. Of course, there’s a huge cultural bias involved in this score, but gender (as opposed to sex) is a social construct anyway, so off we go.

The results he found were very interesting, but not what I want to get into here. At the end of the author’s presentation, there was much consternation over the use of the Bem Inventory. One woman in the audience in particular had the view that he should have not done the study at all, rather than use this measure that offended her sensibilities.

Of course, the Bem Inventory isn’t perfect: it’s trying to measure an idea that’s moving target, that is not uniform across any significant population, and that is very specific to the U.S. But, it clearly measures something, and not something that there is (apparently) no better way to measure.

I ran across my second example when looking up the authors of the truly excellent book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters. One of them has recently published an article
on the relationship between IQ and health. [Those with a decent University library can probably find the whole article online: Kanazawa, British Journal of Health Psychology, Volume 11, Number 4, November 2006, pp. 623-642(20).]

The article does confound the terms “general intelligence” and “IQ”. I think it’s pretty hard to argue that the thing we measure and call “IQ” is the platonic ideal measure of “intelligence”. That being said, it’s clear that IQ is a measure of something. It turns out that the “something” that IQ measures is strongly correlated with life expectancy (stronger than income inequality or economic development).

As a result, the author was accused of promoting eugenics. Now, maybe I didn’t read the paper carefully enough, but I didn’t see the “kill the dumb ones” part. The author didn’t even actually measure anything himself: the whole paper is a meta-analysis of other studies of IQ and health. All he did was grind out some stats.

Anyway, both of these studies have the same underlying issue: they rely on the measurement of something that isn’t possible to measure very well. In addition, the thing being “measured” is something that has a bunch of emotion attached to it. I don’t think the solution here it to just not study this stuff. Let’s just all recognize that correlation with the thing we’re trying to measure will do in a pinch.

Cheating Cheaters

March 28th, 2008, 11:38 am PDT by Greg

I was on another University Board of Student Discipline case yesterday. (I was on the Board, not bringing a case forward.) I mentioned a UBSD case previously where I was on the board, and the case resulted in a big and complicated penalty.

The penalty in this case (that we recommended to the President) was a new one for me, simpler, and fairly rare for SFU: permanent expulsion from the University.

The case ended up being even more severe than I thought when I got there. The core issue was impersonation during a midterm and final exam. The student (the real student) had a previous academic dishonesty case, and there were some other aggravating factors after the case began. Altogether, it ended up as a really serious case.

Something I did learn is that impersonating someone in a final exam, or benefiting from it is a criminal code violation:

Every one who falsely, with intent to gain advantage for himself or some other person, personates a candidate at a competitive or qualifying examination held under the authority of law or in connection with a university, college or school or who knowingly avails himself of the results of such personation is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

The University likely won’t recommend charges in this case, but it’s good to know it’s an option. Note that it’s the criminal code (police, handcuffs, and jail), not the civil code (fines and lawsuits).

CMPT 470

March 25th, 2008, 7:21 pm PDT by Greg

As many of you know, I’m teaching CMPT 470 downtown in the summer. Since I’m on sabbatical from fall 2008 to summer 2009, if you want to take CMPT 470 from me any time soon, this is your chance.

The School had already committed to offering 470 downtown in the summer semester. Rather than offer a tiny section downtown and a regular section in Burnaby, we decided to do the course downtown only. Lectures are 3 hours on Wednesday nights.

That will kinda leave me with 6 day weekends. Things don’t really work that way, but it will mean Kat and I can do a little not-too-far travelling during the summer.

Democratic Primary: please die

March 24th, 2008, 11:44 pm PDT by Greg

I have been following the US Democratic Primary. I do this partially because I’m affected by the outcome, as the winner will have a non-trivial effect on my life as a Canadian, and partially because it’s more-or-less as interesting as American Idol as reality TV goes.

Frankly, I’m starting to get a little tired of it. It’s starting to take on the character of a crappy romantic comedy where you know it’s going to end with the girl getting the guy, but you still have to sit through 45 minutes of charming misunderstandings before you can go home. Let me explain…

Fact #1: Obama is going to win the pledged delegate count: Slate does a good job of explaining why. Clinton has only won one state with the 64% she would have to get in all of the remaining contests to come out on top. Even wackiness with Florida and Michigan wouldn’t get Clinton into the lead.

Fact #2: The superdelegates won’t overturn the pledged delegates. Many prominent democrats are against it, it would cause a crazy civil war in the party, and my guess is that it would cost them the general election.

So, Obama’s going to win the Democratic nomination. Congratulations. Why do I still have to read about the whole thing in every other Digg headline? I know the media has a vested interest in keeping things going, but come on.

Given that the protracted contest is supposed to be bad for eventual nominee, why aren’t the superdelegates putting me out of my misery? All they have to do is give a quick speech about how they’re going to honour the will of the electorate and support Obama. They get to be on the winning side and “save” the party. Somebody with a few stones could also suggest that it was time for Clinton to call it a race too.

Bill Richardson just did exactly that and it will probably get him a cabinet seat. If a few high profile superdelegates came out on Obama’s side, it would pretty much seal the deal. Any idea why others aren’t following suit?

I have a job for the next two years!

March 24th, 2008, 1:52 pm PDT by Kat

It took a few tries (2 to NIH, 1 to CIHR, 1 to UNC, 1 to AAWS and 2 to NSERC) but I finally got a post-doc fellowship! YAY!!!!! So it looks as though I’m going to be able to work in Vancouver for the next two years starting this summer.

When do tickets for 2010 hockey and curling go on sale?

SFU Chat Server

March 22nd, 2008, 7:16 pm PDT by Greg

Here’s a tidbit about SFU’s network infrastructure that I bet will be news to most of you: SFU has an instant messaging server.

Just fire up your favourite open source, multi-protocol IM client: Pidgin for Linux or Windows or Adium for OSX. Create an account with these settings:

  • Protocol: XMPP/Jabber/Google Talk (whatever your client calls it)
  • Host/server/domain:
  • User/screen name: your regular SFU userid (possibly with “”)
  • Password: your regular SFU password
  • Port: 5223
  • Encryption: SSL/TLS. “Force old SSL” in Pidgin. (No, I don’t know why it matters.)

I don’t know for sure that students can use this, but it’s worth a shot.

Maybe this is a good excuse to finally do some kind of “student questions by IM” thing in my classes. What was always stopping me was not wanting to pollute my regular IM accounts with non-fun things. A separate account would let me turn it on when working and off the rest of the time.

I’m still not really sure what IM with my students buys me though. Slight coolness, in exchange for even more hasty, poorly thought out questions than email. I sense fail.

Enrolment Management and Retention

March 19th, 2008, 10:43 pm PDT by Greg

According to Google, “enrolment management” is a fairly Canadian term, and it’s one that comes up a lot in my life. The general problem is keeping the right number of bums in seats in our program (or faculty or University). In recent history, that has meant trying to increase the numbers.

As far as I’m concerned, there are four main parts of EM:

  1. Outreach: Going out into the world (often to schools) and getting people interested in the discipline. There’s no direct EM outcome to outreach, but it’s an important long-term thing. I’m a big believer in CS Unplugged for CS outreach.
  2. Recruitment: Convincing people that you have a good program, and getting them to apply. Recruitment is the part of EM that usually gets all the attention.
  3. Conversion: Converting the applications into actual students. This includes convincing the applicants to accept your offer, and making sure that acceptances actually show up in September. Conversion is often forgotten or lumped into recruitment.
  4. Retention: Once the students get it the door, making sure we keep them around until they graduate.

Retention is probably the most controversial of the group, because of the fear that it will take the most blunt form possible: “Stop failing the dumb kids.”

Maybe I have been sheltered, but I have never heard anybody push in that direction. Most retention activities focus on improving learning skills (like AEP) or other aspects of the student experience.

It turns out that something like 2/3 of the students that disappear are in good academic standing (i.e. not the dumb kids). My experience is that even among students in poor academic shape, the problem is often not straight-up dumbness, but poor study skills, lack of focus, or other factors that don’t necessarily mean we don’t want them around.

Basically, I’m convinced that we can actually do something about retention, as long as it’s done from the bottom up in the School, not top-down by the administration.

While at SIGCSE, my favourite session was probably the retention session: all of the papers were interesting and actually presented quantitative results. The most relevant to me was the paper from Georgia Tech. We suck compared to them.

I’m spending tomorrow downtown at a Student Success (aka retention) workshop. Hopefully it leaves us with some good ideas that we can actually implement around SFU.

Potato Salad recipe

March 17th, 2008, 10:27 pm PDT by Greg

I never had much of a taste for “salads” when I was growing up. The whole macaroni salad, potato salad, coleslaw thing usually seemed like a bunch of food I didn’t really like, slathered in mayonnaise. But I did like potatoes and they were everywhere: it was the starch staple in my family, and it’s still inconceivable that my mother would make an evening meal without potatoes.

At some point last year, I decided that I might actually like potato salad. I don’t really know why, but I formed an idea in my head of what potato salad should taste like. I just had to find it, but after a long search, I came up empty. Still mostly too much mayonnaise, too creamy, more relish than potato flavour, not enough mustard bite.

So, I set about creating the potato salad I wanted. No nasty relish, a mustard taste that isn’t shy, and it should all still taste like potatoes at the end:

  • 2 lb red potatoes
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 3 4 tbsp grainy mustard
  • 3 tbsp chopped parsely
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped fine
  • 1 stick celery, chopped fine
  • chipotle Tabasco
  • salt and pepper
  1. Boil the potatoes (skin-on) until they are cooked. Don’t overcook, or they will fall apart.
  2. Let the potatoes cool and chop them into half inch cubes, removing whatever skin comes off easily.
  3. Combine all of the ingredients and stir. Add Tabasco and salt and pepper to taste.

If this is made a day ahead, the mustard flavour fades, and I find myself adding more. I suspect the acid in the mustard neutralizes, but I’m just making that up.

SIGCSE keynote: Marissa Mayer

March 14th, 2008, 10:48 am PDT by Greg

This morning’s keynote talk at SIGCSE was by Marissa Mayer who is the Google VP of Search Products & User Experience. As she was giving a really good talk, I looked her up in Wikipedia.

Apparently, she was born in 1975. Fuck. That’s the same year I was born.

She did some user studies for Google during her MSc and went to work there when she was done. She did more user studies there, and worked on the original Google web server. She’s also a much better speaker than I am.

So, while I’ve been pissing around teaching a bunch of punk kids computing science, this chicky* has been getting rich by being brilliant. Seriously brilliant: she knows her shit, and it’s very clear from listening to her.

Sigh. Is there an English word that combines the concepts of “crush” and “envy”? I have that.

(*) chicky (chĭkē) n. A woman who is probably often underestimated by misogynists because she is young and attractive, shortly before they find themselves in her wake wondering what happened to their testicles.


March 12th, 2008, 11:14 pm PDT by Greg

I spent my day hanging around Portland. It’s a nice city: one of the few places I’ve been recently and thought “yeah, I could see living here.” Kat assures me that I’ll think the same thing about San Francisco, which is a good reason to go there some time.

The city is quite walkable, so I wandered around a bunch. There’s also a light-rail transit system that’s free in the city centre: it’s basically like the Skytrain, but not in the sky. So, a “train”.

Kerry was right about taking the time to go to Powell’s Books. I wasn’t inspired to buy anything, but mostly because I wasn’t in a buying mood. It’s a very cool bookstore, with new and used books mixed together on the shelves.

It’s back to work tomorrow.

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