Books to Read if You Liked “The Social Dilemma” (and want to learn more)

I’m glad to see The Social Dilemma spreading information about the information, economy, and designed outrage wrapped up in social media – but it’s also just a brief overview of a complex course of study. In this list, I pulled together books about the potential dystopia of technology (mainly ones I’ve read for classes) for anyone who might want to dip their feet in a little deeper:

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle \ Indiebound \ Bookshop

My personal favorite. Grounded in media studies and sociology, presents more of a reframing than elimination approach.

Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier \ Indiebound \ Bookshop

More deeply about the data and it’s interpretations than about societal impact, and touches on ad auctions (the key to how the economics operates) too!

Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci \ Indiebound \ Bookshop

About the good and bad of how social media has changed political movements and protest.

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil \ Indiebound \ Bookshop

How ‘black box’ “algorithms” detriment our society when used to make big decisions. Author was featured in the film.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff \ Indiebound \ Bookshop

Introduces the term surveillance capitalism and how it affects our media and economies. Author was featured in the film.

American Kingpin by Nick Bilton \ Indiebound \ Bookshop

A narrative non-fiction story that I think uniquely highlights how tech leaders move towards money making, and how fringe ideologies spread online.

A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence by Kartik Hosanagar \ Indiebound \ Bookshop

I’ve only read excerpts from this, but it seems to do a good job of breaking down how these “algorithmic” systems work and how they can affect us beyond social media.

The “Ideal” Gender Ratio in Tech

I was recently asked, “What is the ideal ratio of men to women in the computing workforce?” while discussing issues of equity and education in computer science. (As my own addition, it should be remembered that non-binary people also exist in computing) The short answer is: my goals are to address access to computing education and activities, so there is no ideal ratio. The rest of this post is meant to address the long answer.

The idea that there might be an ideal ratio of men to women in the computing workforce is one that I think is directly correlated with the idea that men make up the majority of software engineers because they are truly the best at the job. The conclusion is then, if a company happens to hire a certain “Ideal Ratio,” they must be lowering their standards and hiring those with less aptitude. I think that you can only truly believe this if you truly believe that women are not as smart as men. [1]

Briefly ignoring the heavy gender bias factor, I’d like you to think about this instead: how did you get into computing? Are your parents software engineers, so you always knew about the job? Did you take a computer science class in high school, or participate in a computing after school activity or camp? [2] Did you first take a computer science class early in college and decide it was what you wanted to do?

Now imagine that your parents are not software engineers, or that you had never met a software engineer before your 20s. Imagine that your high school didn’t have a programming class (3 in 4 high schools in the US don’t! [alt source]) or after school club, or your parents couldn’t afford or didn’t enroll you in a computer science camp. Imagine your advisor led you away from your first college CS class, that no one showed you what computer science was like. If you’re a software engineer, you’re probably good at coding. You probably did well in your CS classes. If no one had shown you computing, would you have ever tried it?

I do not know of any standard primary or secondary school curriculum that currently [3] exposes every single student to computing. Even for those schools that offer computing as an elective within their curriculum, we know that there are factors that keep women away from advanced science courses. Students are, generally, required to take other subjects: math, English, history, biological sciences. The subjects may have their own issues, but I believe it would be difficult to say that students have never tried them.

As college majors have seemingly moved away from “what you study for X amount of years” towards “what you do in your [first] career,” it makes sense that students choosing majors would be, in some ways, choosing their ideal career path. [4] Even in those schools where students do not choose a major prior to admission, I can anecdotally tell you that those with undeclared majors have some fragment of an idea of what they’d like to study. If a student never gets the opportunity to try out computer science, I believe it is safe to say it is unlikely [5] that they will choose to study it.  When a student doesn’t choose to study computer science, they don’t end up in a large part of what is the current software engineering pipeline.

For those women who choose to study computing or who graduate with computing degrees, (in 2010, so a large part of the current workforce, 17.6% of computer science degrees were awarded to women) there is then the problem that a tech workforce already made up of men tends not to be very friendly to women and that departments may fail to retain women in computing majors. I think you can extrapolate what might happen from there. [6]

I can’t give you a numerical ratio for the perfect gender balance within the computing workforce, because the perfect gender ratio in computing is whatever ratio there might be if every person was given equal access to computing.

Continue reading “The “Ideal” Gender Ratio in Tech”

I won a research award!

Around two decades of quarantine-time ago, back in April, I blogged about my very first research ‘presentation’ taking place at a digital symposium. In the month after that symposium, I released the visualization of my project (to surprising public acclaim), finished my finals, and graduated. Then, a few days after the date of my ‘graduation,’ I received an email telling me I had won Outstanding in the Science & Mathematics Poster session – essentially top prize in my category of 400-or-so poster presentations! (link to the award winners)

I think this is where I’m supposed to say that I’m ‘shocked,’ or that I ‘can’t believe I won,’ or something else suitably humble. I am definitely thrilled and a little surprised that I received an award for my first-ever presentation of research. But I cannot entirely say that I didn’t present without an eye towards the awards. I am a rather results-driven person, and the result of a possible award is what drove me to spend ~30 hours drafting, recording, and editing a video; and a fair amount of additional time responding to judge comments and convincing my friends colleagues they should also be checking out and commenting on my research. Luckily, doing all of that was very fun for me.

This might be slightly old news, (it happened in May and I’m writing about it in July) but it’s good news, and I think we all need a little bit of good news to put out into the world. Here’s hoping I can bring this award-winning-research energy into my first semester of grad school!

My Post-Finals Reading Plans

This last week has been a bit of a slog, working almost entirely on finishing up the last few things for my classes. Even though it has felt like my undergraduate career was over since we were told not to return from spring break, today was our last official day of classes, and finals start Friday.

I honestly have no love for the two classes I’ll be taking finals in, so I’m especially looking forward to the books I’ve been saving to tackle once I’m finished.

The Charisma Machine by Morgan G. Ames \ Goodreads \ Indiebound

This was a much buzzed about read early this year among the computing education researchers I follow, so I indulged myself by ordering it. The book follows the ‘One Laptop per Child’ project – which sought to improve education in the Global South through technology – chronicling its creation, ideology, and failure. Oddly enough, I remember interacting with one of these distinctive green-shelled laptops when I was younger: I believe a relative had it. I’m primarily interested in learning about the design process used in the project, and hopefully picking up some pitfalls to avoid as I start my own research career.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova \ Goodreads \ Indiebound

One of my reading goals for the year was to dive into more non-fiction that does not directly relate to my own fields of study. I stuck with this… briefly in January, reading Doing Good Better as a pre-assignment for my time at the Impact Labs Fellowship. I often find non-fiction unrelated to my projects difficult to stick to, as in the end I much prefer fictional stories or the immediately actionable knowledge I’ve picked up from my many tech-related reads. I’ve been recommended Maria Konnikova as an easily accessible non-fiction writer, and the con-artists topic matter of The Confidence Game appeals to me as a throw-back to my White Collar and Heist Society obsessive days and criminal-viewpoint book binges.

Little While Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes \ Goodreads \ Indiebound

Really soapy, mystery-related dramas have been pulling me in lately. One of the first things I read upon getting home was the Charlotte Holmes series, for the thrilling twists, teenage drama, and mystery; and I recently binge-watched the last few seasons of The Fosters. (the sequel TV series – Good Trouble – is still better, but it was entertaining) I’ve long had a few Barnes books on my TBR: namely The Fixer, and I thought this debutante-themed mystery might be a good place to start.

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson \ Goodreads \ Indiebound

Despite everything, its still the start of summer, and when I think of summer books the top of my list is always Morgan Matson. It has been far too long since I read The Unexpected Everything as an advanced copy back in high school (!), so I decided to order up a used copy of the hardcover. (which seems to be out of print, and which has one of my absolutely favorite book covers) Definitely a good book to pick up if you’re looking for a beach read that does not feature beaches, but instead boasts dog-walking and complex familial relationships.

Presenting at a Digital Research Symposium

This past Thursday I had planned to present a research poster for the first time – at the University of Illinois’ Undergraduate Research Symposium. Then the pandemic happened, and, well, I suppose it’s lucky that I had yet to design my poster.

In lieu of my inaugural in-person research presentation, the poster session was organized into a forum, with presenters recording short videos of themselves talking about their work. While I’m disappointed not to be able to speak directly to the symposium attendees, it was fun to dust off my video editing skills and put them to good use.

The research I am ‘presenting’ (currently, as the symposium started on Monday the 27th and stretches through this Friday) is my senior thesis: Visualizing Curriculum Commonalities and Prerequisite Chains Through Metro Maps. It is a project that began as an idea to artistically illustrate the course paths of majors in Illinois’ College of Engineering, and which turned into a saga of scraping poorly formatted websites for data, searching out graph drawing papers, reading almost the entirety of a dissertation from 2008, and implementing my own metro map drawing algorithm.

Unexpectedly, I have still found presenting digitally and asynchronously to be rewarding. I have been able to have Illinois students and faculty from across departments view my work, have had intelligent discussion through answering thoughtful questions about my design choices for the map and how I thought the visualization might impact students as they create their class plans. I’ve also been able to receive an evaluation of the comprehensibility of the (admittedly rather technical) project to academics in non-technical fields, and my friends were able to support me by logging on and leaving encouraging forum comments.

My advisor and I plan to release an interactive visualization of the map, my thesis’ true final product, in the next few weeks. In that time, I’m hoping to put the feedback I’ve received to work making the web-based version of the project the best it can be.

Hello Again!

Hi, I’m Tamara.

A long time ago, in 2014, I had a book blog under the name ‘Tamaraniac.’ I wrote book reviews, and created recommendation lists of young adult novels, and took a lot of book pictures in my then twinkle-lighted bedroom. I worked for two independent bookstores (the lovely Red Balloon Bookshop and Subtext Books) writing shelf reviews, helping with order lists, working special events, and getting to meet many great authors.

Then, I went off to college at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I decided to study Computer Science. I still read as much as I could during breaks, and I still took pictures of those books for my instagram, but I essentially stopped writing book reviews. I took down my blog and replaced it with a professional site. I spent less time on social media, and I lost touch with the book world.

Next fall, I’ll be beginning my PhD in Computer Science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I’ll be doing research in computing education: a field that seeks to understand topics such as how people learn computing, why they learn computing, and how we can help them learn and understand computing better.

In short: my interests have changed and broadened. While I still love reading, (I’ll soon be living a 5-minute walk from Ann Arbor’s independent bookstore!) I also want to talk about what is happening in my field and research, about the art projects I’ve picked up during the pandemic, and probably about plenty of other things in the future. On this (new) blog, I plan to chronicle my life as a graduate student, my research, and my thoughts about what is going on in the world of Computer Science; as well as write about the books I’m reading and things I’m creating.