It’s Hate, Not Heritage

I moved to South Carolina, about 3 years ago, to attend grad school at Clemson University. I was born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon, in Toledo, Ohio. I was, by all relevant standards, a Yankee in Dixieland.

And, as a Yankee with no personal experience living in the South, I grew up with the impression that all the South had to offer was a love of guns, the Confederate flag, and nostalgic longing for the days of slavery and plantation money (and, to be fair, awesome weather).

After living in the South, I realized that’s not totally true. The Southeast is awash in surprisingly hip culture, and it forced this Yankee to change his tune.

Asheville is home to some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, with natural ingredients grown locally. Greenville is home to some amazing local musicians and artists, and hosts frequent art shows and festivals (including a take on Burning Man). Atlanta is home to some unrivaled nightlife, and the largest public aquarium in the western hemisphere (which makes a great date, just FYI). And one trip to New Orleans will make you want to buy up a patch of swamp and start hunting nutra.

Which is why I don’t understand the Southern notion that removing statues of Robert E. Lee, or renaming roads named after slavers, is an assault on Southern heritage. What about the parts of Southern culture and history that are not intimately tied to racism?

It blows my mind, that a region of our country that can take credit for the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, and Harper Lee (to name a tiny fraction), is adamant about holding onto the memory of residents who played a role in creating one of the darkest periods of US history.

Honestly, it has made me change my tune, again.

Not only are the heritage-not-hate-ers reinforcing everything I thought as a young Yankee, they are doing a huge disservice to the South.

Queerphobia is Justified

There is a meme that floats across my newsfeed, from time to time, that reads “It shouldn’t be called ‘queerphobia.’ You’re not afraid. You’re an asshole.”

But, listen, they *are* afraid of queer people.

And they should be.

Our queerness is a threat to their power.

Our queerness exists outside their gender, their sexuality, their masculinity and their femininity. Our queerness exists outside their boxes, their labels, and their divisions.

Why wouldn’t that scare the beneficiaries of systems of power and oppression?

If gender isn’t static and prescribed, how will men rationalize maintaining control over women’s minds and bodies? If same sex couples are permitted to exist, how will men convince women that childrearing, cooking, and cleaning are exclusively women’s responsibilities?

If gender and sexuality are fluid and malleable, why isn’t race? If race is nonbinary, how will Whites know who to provide material wealth, education, and opportunities? How will the justice system decide who to incarcerate for nonviolent crimes? How will police know who can be murdered at routine traffic stops?

Our queerness calls into question the reality of their divisions, simply by existing outside them.

Our queerness — our ability to exist as man, woman, male, female, trans, gender fluid, bisexual, pansexual, gay, lesbian, both, neither, and all; and to see that these identities are not mutually exclusive — shakes the very foundations of the binary thinking necessary to maintain their divisions of oppressor and oppressed.

Our queerness is powerful, and it’s dismantling the assumptions upon which their privilege is built.

And they should be scared.

Braindumping on Rejection

I’m on a PhD life advice roll. So, here we go.

Handling rejection is quite possibly the most horrible part of life in academia, whether as a grad student or a faculty member (I assume :D).

But, actually, is it?

I realized recently, that it’s really one of the most awesome parts of academia, even though it doesn’t always seem that way, when it happens.

I’ll explain why . . . with an anecdote!

I wrote a paper about a year ago, that was something I put my heart and soul into (and a notable amount of personal finances, but I digress). I submitted it — rejected.

I then tried to turn this same paper into my MS thesis. I presented it — edits requested.

It hurts, it really does, to have something that you worked hard on, that you feel proud of, and that you’ve spent a significant amount of time on, potentially at the expense of other things in your life.

And, oh, it did hurt. But, I realized I was thinking about the whole process of peer review the wrong way.

When we, or at least I, get rejected, the go-to response is often a feeling of worthlessness, frustration, or maybe even anger. But, you know what? In reality, rejection means some of the smartest people on the planet, with the most expertise in the exact area of my research, took the time to read my work and criticize the living $#!^ out of me. That might not sound like a privilege, but it is.

We have the privilege of playing in the big leagues, especially in when we swing for the fence. And sometimes, aiming for the fence means we miss. But, it also means that we have a whole panel of the most esteemed and qualified “coaches” (the program committee) telling us why we missed.

Submitting a publication, and ultimately getting a PhD, are not “gatekeeper” experiences. When we submit a publication, or we pursue a PhD, we basically get to sit in an astronomy class, taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, and ask if our ideas make sense. Even if they don’t, you receive feedback from two preeminent thinkers in the field — which is usually more like five preeminent thinkers, on a program committee. And with their feedback, you get to ask them, even if only briefly, to participate in your research, and improve it.

Similarly, getting a PhD is not about having three papers published as quickly as possible, stapling them, and riding into the sunset. It’s about improvement, and becoming the best researcher you can become, which involves a lot of struggle, criticism, and rejection. (At least, so far, it has for me. If not for you, share your secret. :D)

Back to my anecdote: I’m glad my paper was rejected. I’m glad I was asked to edit it. What it is now is much better than what it was, or what it could have been, without the feedback of the program committee and my thesis committee. And who I am now, as a researcher, is much better than who I was, or who I could have been, without the feedback of these same people. For instance, I now know WAY more about statistics, mainly because my anger drove me to dig deeper, and prove my reviewers wrong (which I did not: they’re experts, after all).

So, the next time you get rejected — which you will, and so will I — don’t be tempted to put down the bat. Accept that even negative feedback is an honor, take the steps to improve your swing, and walk back up to the plate. (Thanks, Jacob Sorber, for the baseball analogy.)

Braindumping on Literature Reviews

I’ve had a few questions about lit reviews in the past few days, and mostly I find myself repeating the same advice. As I’m currently (rather, I’m almost always) in the ongoing process of literature reviewing, I wanted to write a brief overview of how I personally go about systematic literature reviews, with some tips, to hopefully help anyone who is now, or will be, conducting a lit review. I want to note, most importantly, that this is how I do it. It’s not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way (though, I’m biased to think it is :D). The best advice is to find what works for you.

The direct answer for where to start, is that the most important place to look is prior years’ proceedings of the venue you plan to publish to.

OK, that’s the 5 second answer. But, I want to make sure we’re all aware of the lit review resources available to us, as computing researchers. Google Scholar is AWESOME, and hopefully we’re all familiar with it. But, if you haven’t checked out the ACM digital library, you should. It’s here:

The ACM digital library improves on Scholar in a few ways. One, it’s centered on ACM publications, meaning the results returned for your search terms are more likely to be applicable to our research — which is likely going to be an ACM publication. Two, it is easier to find the papers that are related within the venue where you’ll be publishing, meaning you’re less likely to leave a paper uncited that is well-known to (and potentially even written by) your reviewers. Put bluntly, there is no way to ever be sure you’ve cited every piece of related work, from every possible venue, big or small — it’s just too vast. But, the ACM DL will give you an excellent way of forming a good foundtion, and also being reasonably sure you touched on all the related work from the most relevant venues.

So, once I’ve collected papers that are clearly related, my next stop is the papers cited by my related papers (confusing sentence). What I mean is, if paper A is related to my work, what papers did A cite? Are those papers related? You can then branch continuously from this point, and collect more related work from those citations, too. If paper A cites B, C, and D, and B and C seem relevant, then I can check B and C’s citations for more related work. This is especially useful for identifying canonical papers (aka “must cites”). If A, B, and C, all cite the same paper E, it’s probably safe to assume E may be relevant, too.

Once I’ve searched the ACM DL, then I generally turn to Scholar. Scholar is useful, but if you’re working in an area that is even remotely interdisciplinary, it can return a high volume of papers from other disciplines, which may be less relevant than ACM publications. Moreover, it’s often difficult to determine the credibility of the venues of the papers returned in Scholar, whereas we have a general conception of the prestige/rigor of ACM venues. But, nevertheless, Scholar is a necessary stop on the literature review train. Choo choo.

The next stop, for me, is Scimago Journal Rankings, here:

The SJR lets you browse journals by area, and ranks them for you (which is not to imply the most relevant are the best ranked). Regardless of ranking, SJR gives an itemized list of computing-related journals. The titles are pretty informative, so it should be trivial to determine which journals are most likely to contain citeable papers. Warning: reviewing journals can be exhausting. Elsevier, a publisher of a huge number of journals, has a searchable database here:

It’s not quite as useful as some of the other search tools, but it’s better than nothing. There have been times, though, that searching the database was not useful. In which case, my recommendation is to find the most relevant journals, and review the articles within them, for at least this year and a few past years (5-10). Nobody expects you to cite a journal article from 1975, unless it’s a fundamental building block of all related work — in which case you should turn it up from your other review strategies.

Also, I’ve had recommended to me, that if you should find yourself working in an unusual area, with very limited related work, you can include your search metrics, and number of returned results as evidence of this limitation. Eg. “Our search on the ACM Digital Library for ‘Communist Cat Brain-Computer Interfaces’ returned no results. We cite this lack of related work as a potential limitation of our study.” HOWEVER, this is an extreme edge case, and has never happened to me. So, don’t mistake this for a recommendation, so much as a bit of knowledge I acquired in a systematic lit review class that I’m passing on, in case you are in this strange scenario. Note: if you find yourself researching communist cats using brain-computer interfaces, you may need to reconsider your project, anyway.

So, to summarize, the places I look for related work are, in order of importance (for me):
1. Past years’ proceedings of the target venue
2. ACM Digital Library
3. Google Scholar
4. Related journals in the past few years (5-10 years)
5. Papers cited by papers in 1-4

Happy hunting!

Welfare Isn’t “Nice”

Depending on where your political views fall on the spectrum, you might describe my politics as being somewhere between “liberal” and “just shy of Karl Marx”. But, I was raised in an affluent, predominantly white, Midwestern community, and there was no shortage of conservative politics. So much so, that I once identified as a Libertarian *shudders*.

Having been exposed to an array of political ideologies, I find that there really isn’t all that much light between the American Right and Left. (Or, there didn’t used to be. I’m talking 2008 America, when neither presidential candidate was a raving lunatic. Moving on.)

That being said, it has been my experience that, for many people, the almighty, immovable, I-cannot-see-your-side, dividing line is Welfare — a lovely, amorphous word used to encompass the whole of government assistance programs.

And guess what. I hate Welfare, too. And, I hate the way we liberals talk about it.

I’m sure somewhere along the line, you’ve heard an appeal to morality, regarding government aid programs. The trouble with lines like “We can’t allow the poor to just starve,” is that the easy response is, “Yes, we can.”

And it’s true. We could just let the poor starve, wipe our hands of our complicity, and move forward as a vastly smaller country. Problem solved.

Now, to clarify, I hold totally-unheard-of anti-starvation views. But, I also believe that government aid programs are not just “nice,” they are economically sound.

If you have Facebook, you’ve probably seen an article or two about millennials destroying big box stores, or chain restaurants, or the American economy in general. If you don’t have Facebook, then greetings time traveler from 1990. Sorry about the country. Rather, economists recognize that the consumption habits of millennials have the power to shape the economy dramatically.

Now, there are about 83.1 million millennials in America. By comparison, 52.2 million Americans participated in government assistance programs in 2012.

Look me in the eye, and tell me that a fraction of millennials eating avocado toast is killing retail, but removing the income used to purchase necessities from 52.2 million people is a good idea. Any capitalist who knows anything about anything can tell you that removing 52.2 million consumers from the economy is not good for business.

Which is why I don’t understand liberals who continue to market government aid programs as a kindness to the poor, rather than speaking the language of Republicans, and describing it as a means for keeping a capitalistic economy afloat.

Long story short (too late): Job insecurity helps keep wages low, which is a big win for the beneficiaries of capitalism. (Don’t believe me? Ask Alan Greenspan.) But, job insecurity, and consequential unemployment, removes consumers from the economy, altogether. Enter government aid, to bridge the divide, and prop up the capitalist house of cards.

So, the Right can admit that government aid is a necessity in our economy, or recognize the inability of unregulated capitalism to employ the number of consumers it needs to stay alive.

But, more importantly, it’s time for the Left to start talking about social welfare programs in these economic terms. Because, they are far less easily dismissed, and really, Welfare isn’t intended as a kindness.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Be Bigots

The other day, I had a friend ask me why the social issues that I am most vocal about are racism and sexism. It’s a valid question to ask a white man. These systems of power don’t directly oppress me — in fact, they work in my benefit.

I told him: It’s because I’m a white man.

You heard me.

When we stand in front of a woman, we know we should be careful about acting sexist. When we stand in front of a person of color, we know we should be careful about acting racist. But, when we stand in front of a white man, there is a chance that our casual sexism and racism may be appreciated, and even reciprocated.

That is to say, I am vocal about racism and sexism, because I am invited to participate in their perpetuation.

That invitation is really a privilege in itself — not because an invitation can be declined, while being oppressed cannot — and not because perpetuating systems of oppression is far preferable to experiencing them. But, rather, because as white people, and as men, we have the privilege of being invited directly into the belly of the beast — directly into conversations of white people about racism, and of men about sexism.

And we need to get better at participating in them.

A friend, who is of color, recently told me that he once had a white friend warn him, before visiting her home, that her grandmother “might say something racist.” Many of us, in dominant groups, have been in this person’s shoes. Many of us have someone in our lives, whose bigotry we apologize for.

In these situations, we may have a moment of embarrassment as we apologize on behalf of our grandmother — or on behalf of white people as a whole, who, in general, just need to do better.

Then, we excuse ourselves, because we would never say what grandma says.

But, whose job is it to tell grandma that racism is not OK? Whose job is it to reject the casual objectification of women? Should we really be apologizing for others’ bigotry? Or, that we have allowed others to believe that we will tolerate it?

We whites have the privilege of being invited into exclusively white spaces, where conversations of casual racism are safe. We men have the privilege of being invited into exclusively masculine spaces, where conversations of casual sexism are safe.

We with power have the privilege of being invited into conversations of oppression, and we have the privilege of using conversation to dismantle it, piece by piece. We don’t have to protest. We don’t have to fight for whites, or men, to listen to us. We are invited to sit at the table of bigotry, and we can easily leave that table empty, by saying that those who sit there choose to sit alone.

We are invited into the locker room, and given a say about what talk is acceptable there. When we are silent about bigotry, we allow it to be welcome in our locker room, even if we did not bring it in ourselves. We determine bigotry’s safety in our segregated spaces — if it exists in our locker room, it is because we allowed it to be there.

As members of a dominant group, we have the power to decide whether bigotry has a safe home in our white-white, and male-male, spaces. And, we have the obligation to say that it does not.

We have the obligation of being most vocal about issues that are not our own — and we have the most power to change them — because we are invited to determine their existence.