The good, the bad, and the ugly for my birthday

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

As a kid, I was always salty that my birthday fell so close to (and occasionally on) Thanksgiving that most of my friends and classmates would forget about it. Of course, it's amusing now to reflect on the fact that my nine-year-old self's biggest worry was whether her nine-year-old friends would remember her birthday, rather than whether my beloved country will regress into authoritarianism. But I digress.

First, the good: I was delighted to start my day with gingerbread pancakes (with bananas!) and a Paper.li edition in my inbox that featured an article on two female computer engineering pioneers who were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper...was a major figure in the development of fundamental computing systems. She worked on some of the earliest computers ever made, like the Mark I, programming and performing research alongside the likes of Howard Aiken and John von Neumann. She aided in the construction of UNIVAC and created the first working compiler.

If she had retired then, in 1952, she would already be considered a critical part of the development of the modern computer. But she continued her work, under public and private auspices, leading to the creation of many of what could be considered the first modern programming languages (you see the COBOL book in her hand above) and helping the Navy standardize and modernize its computing infrastructure. She’s even credited with popularizing, if not inventing, the modern definition of “debugging” after a moth was found in Harvard’s Mark II computer.
...
Margaret Hamilton...was tapped to work with the Apollo program, creating the mission’s onboard flight systems.

Apollo 11 ran her software, and at a critical moment during the lunar landing demonstrated its reliability — and also the importance of good documentation — when it activated alarms related to receiving more input than it could handle. The astronauts and mission control recognized that these errors in particular were something a computer could handle, though — the program prioritized critical systems, as it was designed to do, instead of shutting down or delaying calculations, and the landing was accomplished successfully.

“Because software was a mystery, a black box, upper management gave us total freedom and trust. We had to find a way and we did,” she told NASA for a retrospective. “Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world; there was no choice but to be pioneers; no time to be beginners.”

Hamilton has continued working on software engineering — she coined the term, by the way — in the private sector ever since.
Alas, the bad: While I have been relatively impressed with Vox's data reporting over the last few months, I was disappointed to see this piece today, which suggested a causative element in the correlation between opioid use and Trump-voting with the unfortunate subheading declaring, "Another potential explanation for Trump’s surprising win." Methinks Vox needs to start reading XKCD.


As for the ugly, one of my colleagues from APHA's Human Rights Forum highlighted an article on this registry of left-wing academics:
A new website is asking students and others to “expose and document” professors who “discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

The site, called Professor Watchlist, is not without precedent -- predecessors include the now-defunct NoIndoctrination.org, which logged accounts of alleged bias in the classroom. There's also David Horowitz's 2006 book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. But such efforts arguably have new meaning in an era of talk about registering certain social groups and concerns about free speech.
...
In a write-up of the project, Kirk said, “It’s no secret that some of America’s college professors are totally out of line” and that he often hears stories about “professors who attack and target conservatives, promote liberal propaganda and use their position of power to advance liberal agendas in their classroom. Turning Point USA is saying enough is enough. It’s time we expose these professors.”
"Expose" them for what, exactly - expressing their views? On a more mischievous note, perhaps it will enable me to find additional inspiration to start seriously looking for Ph.D. programs, so I can eventually make it into that registry. Happy birthday, indeed.

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