Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Tips for Online Interviews

It's that time of the year when my students are looking for summer and full-time jobs. It is becoming more popular now for companies to conduct live-coding online interviews (whether this is a good idea or not is fodder for a completely different discussion). Anyway, having now heard some horror stories, here is my facebooked collection of tips.

  1. Invest in a really high quality headset so that you don't find yourself in interviews where you cannot hear clearly.
  2. Tim Harris adds: "And practice using it, e.g., flipping mute on/off while speaking, being sure of how to control which input is active, etc."
  3. Jeff Honig adds: "And so we don't hear the pounding on the keyboard through the computer microphone during the coding section of the interview." Jeff goes on to explain that not all interviewers are obsessed with live coding, "For our group we want operational smarts. If we need you to do a sort we expect you to figure out the fastest method to do a sort, not write one."
  4. Peter Wayner adds: "And lighting. It helps to have a well-lighted space."

I then asked folks how students should deal with the thick-accented interviewer that makes it difficult for students to understand what is being asked.

  1. Peter Wayner says, "It's tough because some audio connections don't transmit all of the frequencies making it harder. This is why I try to get a high quality headset with two covered ears to get as much information as the channel will offer.  But accents can be very difficult."
  2. Brian Pawlowski adds: "Tough one. Some people are not self-aware about their comprehensibility and lack of visual cues (lips speaking) can make it tough. Boy. Ask for a call back or another time. Tough position for a student to be in."
  3. Sue Loverso says, "If there is a shared coding screen like coderpad or collabedit, ask if they could type the question there. If you're already at the awkward stage there's nothing to lose."
  4. Keith Smith adds, "Ask if you can use video for the interview? (FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout, etc.) As Brian says visual cues can help with understanding. Of course, then the interviewer can see that you're still wearing pajamas at 3pm."
  5. Andrew Moore adds, "Entirely agree with Keith, I tend toward video as strong preference but have them provide at least one spare number (ideally two as I’ve often found cell coverage is dreadful/unpredictable enough to need a fall back)."
Some other handy tips:
  1. Tim Harris writes, "I probably take these things to extreme but I have something like this to use as a plain background https://www.wexphotovideo.com/lastolite-15mx18m.../... — I have the kit for photography really."
  2. Ross Rheingans-Yoo writes, "A corollary: As an interviewer, I use a headset, but sometimes I get the microphone positioned badly (but don't have a great way to figure this out on my own).

    Interviewers: How do you figure out / ask your interviewee if you're coming through clearly?

    Interviewees: If your interviewer sounds distant, quiet, or muffled by a technical issue, consider mentioning it early on, before it becomes more problematic (and more awkward)."
  3. Zehra Naz writes, "I would also like to point out the importance of having an wired, ethernet connection available (including an ethernet cable). I remember the horrendous time when I was interviewing and the Wi-Fi was so bad I ended up sitting on the floor next to a roommate's laundry in their room just so I could plug into the ethernet outlet with my short cable...It's my worst interviewing memory."

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

College 101

Things you should know when taking college courses

I see a lot of Freshman and I also have kids who attended a high school that has, as part of its program, placement into college level courses, typically in Junior year, but in my kids' cases, during Sophomore year. Having watched this process for many years, it seems that there are some basics about the difference between high school and college courses, that we don't always explicitly tell students. So, here is my attempt to write some down. Feel free to send me others and I'll add them!

1. How do I find out what books I need for my classes?

This varies school to school. At Harvard, most faculty have a course web site and the required and recommended readings are there. At Harvard, MIT, Boston University and other places, you can go to the bookstore (i.e., Harvard/MIT Coop, Boston University Barnes and Noble) and look up the books that you need for any specific class. Beware, at BU and perhaps other schools, the books for different sections of a course are actually different (yes, this is the voice of experience; caused a late night emergency in our household).
Note that you can usually either buy or rent books and you can opt for new or used. Unlike in some highschool courses, the choice is entirely yours -- do what works best for you, however, if you are planning to take multiple years of a language, a nice copy of the suggested dictionary is probably a good investment.

2. How do I find out where my course meets?

Again, this varies by school. In general, any school will have something like these two examples.
At Boston University, visit the Student Link. You should see a list of all your BU classes, including the classroom and time at which your class meets. If you don't know where the building is, check out the campus map.
At Harvard, log in to my.harvard.edu. When you pull up the information for the course, it should include where the class meets.

3. What are office hours?

Office hours are time that your professor/instructor/section leader has set aside to be available to answer questions. In some courses, office hours turn into mini classes or help sections; in others, they are simply the professor/instructor sitting around waiting for somebody to come by with questions.
Getting to know your professor/instructor is a good idea. You don't want to waste his/her time, but if you have a reasonable question about the course, it's worth stopping by. Your question could be about something you don't understand, or it could be something related to the course, but not covered. Chances are that your professor/instructor thinks that the subject s/he is teaching is quite interesting and s/he will be happy to talk about the material with you. Creating a relationship with the professor/instructor will make it much easier for you to approach him/her should something unusual happen -- you have to miss a class, you don't do well on an exam and would like advice on how to prepare better, etc.
Make it a point to visit office hours at least once during a semester; it's time well spent.

4. How do I know when my Professor/Instructor has office hours and where they are held?

Typically, this information will be given out on the first day of class, often on a syllabus. If not, there are a couple of strategies to employ before emailing the professor and asking where/when his/her office hours are. Check out the syllabus, look for the professor's home page, check a faculty directory, and only when all those fail, email the professor to ask when and where office hours are. In most cases, this information should be readily available.

5. What are sections?

Sections typically accompany large lecture courses, but sometimes, you will also have sections for smaller courses as well. Even if the syllabus says that sections are optional, you should treat them as mandatory.
In humanities courses, sections are frequently interactive discussions. You are expected to have done the reading for the week and have attended lectures and the discussion section will allow you to engage in classroom discussion.
In science/math courses, sections are often directed at problem solving. Sometimes you'll get practice working on the kinds of problems you will encounter on homeworks and exams; sometimes you'll get tips on approaching a problem set. Sections should also provide an opportunity to ask questions. You will get the most out of section if you prepare: read the assignment before coming to section. If possible, work on it enough to identify things you don't understand so you can leverage section time to be most useful to you.

6. How are college classes different from High School classes?

First there are logistic differences. Many courses will give you a syllabus that includes readings, assignments, and due dates. You are expected to use that to figure out what you have to do; the professor/instructor may never say anything about these things explicitly. Many courses will have a course web site -- you should check it regularly to see if there are new things of which you should be aware. If the course has online discussion groups, you may need to explicitly sign up for them -- be sure to do so.
Next, there are philosophical differences. There is an assumption implicit in every college course that you are responsible for learning what you need to learn. The professor/instructor's job is to facilitate your learning, but at the end of the day, you are responsible both for knowing what you need to learn and then learning it.
What exactly does this mean? It means that when reading is assigned, you are responsible for having done the reading, regardless of whether the material is covered in class. Beyond simply having read it, you are responsible for understanding it and figuring out how it relates to other things you've read and things that are covered in class.
Material accumulates remarkably rapidly, and you might not notice how much you have been expected to learn without having been explicitly told to so. It is frequently helpful to step back each week and examine what has been covered in each course. Ask yourself, "If I wanted to test someone to see if s/he understood the material, how would I do it?" or "How could I demonstrate that I really understand this material?" If you understand the material well, you will be able to answer those questions. If you cannot, then you probably could use some review. If you do the review each and every week, you will save yourself cramming for exams or finding yourself stymied by the next paper or problem set. Also, being proactive on this front provides good fodder for stopping by office hours, appearing diligent and prepared, rather than flustered and last minute (as happens if you try cramming).
There is a second, deeper aspect here as well. You are expected to be able to go beyond what is explicitly taught. This manifests differently in humanities and STEM courses. In humanities courses, it means that you can synthesize material from different areas to address issues that have not come up in the readings, discussions, or lectures. Ideally, your high school classes prepared you well to do this, but be aware that it's expected of you -- don't be surprised.
In STEM fields, this most frequently manifests as presenting problems that are unlike any you've seen before, but can be addressed using the techniques that have been taught. That is, you should find few exams are merely "plug and chug" -- you should find that you have to figure out what techniques you've learned that can be applied in a new situation. If you can get copies of exams from previous years, they should provide some insight into what this might look like.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Into Africa: Table Mountain

It's day T-1 (i.e., the day before we leave Africa) and the big item on the itinerary is to climb Table Mountain. We left the hotel early, and drove up to the cable car base station, where we took a short walk to the beginning of our trail. We already gained a fair bit of altitude, just driving up to the base.

We will be hiking the Platteklip Gorge trail. According to some, "The Platteklip Gorge route is the most direct route, although it's also arguably the most challenging one." It is something like one kilometer of vertical and three kilometers of distance -- in other words, it's steep!

As we hike up the trail, the city shrinks and the top of the mountain draws (deceptively) closer.

The views grow increasingly breathtaking

We finally all make it to the top for views, photos, and lunch (hauled up in the cable car).

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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Into Africa: Robben Island

It is our last day in Capetown and therefore our last day in South Africa. We load the bus in the morning, enjoy one last breakfast at the Cape Heritage Hotel. and head out for one of the highlights of the trip: Robben Island. Although it has a long, rich history, Robben Island is best known as the location of the prison in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 (the majority of his time in prison) years.

You get to Robben Island via a Ferry departing from the Robben Island Museum at the Waterfront.

As the ferry approaches the island, I am overwhelmed by the realization that I am now ready to visit one of the concentration camps in Germany -- it's something about confronting the reality and history of the struggle in South Africa that makes me finally ready to confront the reality and history of my own past. But that trip must wait for now.

Most of us had, unconsciously, assumed that Robben Island would be similar to Alcatraz, so we were all a bit surprised to arrive at a rather pretty little island. We get off the ferry facing the message of our tour: "Freedom Cannot be Manacled," and we board busses for a tour of the island.

Among other things, we see the Robert Sobukwe house, where Sobukwe (an ANC Youth League leader and founder of the Pan-African Congress) was held in isolation, disallowed from speaking to anyone for four years (he was there longer than the four years; the four years was the time of total isolation).

Next up is the limestone quarry where Mandela and others worked for 13 years.

As we drive around I am struck again by the contradictions: the beauty of the island and its surroundings in contrast to the brutality of what took place here.

Finally, we come to the place for which we've been waiting: the maximum security prison, home to many of the political prisoners who together gave up hundreds of years of freedom to bring democracy to South Africa. Our tour guide is himself a former political prisoner (1984-1991) and most of us are awed by his capacity to forgive and look forward.

He asks about everyone on the tour and his eyes light up when he learns that our middle school group from America has spent time in Kliptown -- close to his home of Rockville, also in Soweto, quite close to Kliptown.

He speaks clearly and passionately, making the struggle come alive, answering all questions from, "Why were you imprisoned?" to "Are you satisfied with where we are today?"

He explains that reconciliation is a process that takes time.
The tour wraps up with a discussion in the courtyard where Mandela planted his garden, practiced his shadow boxing, and played tennis for most of the 18 years on the island.

We then a walk down the long, silent hallway past the cell that was his home for 18 years.

And while there was shopping and travel that happened, this seems like the right place to end my blogging of the trip.

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Into Africa: Soweto

After a good night's sleep, we hopped on our trusty bus and headed to the township of Soweto, where we would be shown around by Tulani, one of the founders of the Kliptown Youth Program.

Tulani grew up in Kliptown and is one several impressive men we met on this trip who have made it their mission to give back to the community and provide the children of the townships and poor communities opportunities. Thando, one of his co-founders of KYP is another such man as is Tumi, who we'll meet during the Safari portion of this trip.

Soweto is a township of approximately 2.5 million people, almost entirely black (more than 98% according to Wikipedia). While I was prepared for the economic disparity between white and black South Africa, I was not prepared for the disparity within the townships, but Soweto is like any other large city -- it has areas of enormous wealth and then across a major road you'll find areas of extreme poverty, where the fortunate have government constructed small homes and the less fortunate have tiny homes of corrugated metal.

We began our tour at the Chris Hana medical center, the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere, providing service to 1.5 million people. As so many people commute to the area, across the street is a large collection of taxi stands, merchants, street vendors, etc. It's most definitely a happening place.

Then we headed to Walter Sisulu Square, in the heart of Kliptown, site of the adoption of the Freedom Charter. The charter, adopted in 1955 at the Congress of Kliptown, laid out ten essential freedoms, each of which is represented in the square by a tall pillar, with a statue on top and the freedom engraved on the side. The charter also served as the foundation for the Constitution of South Africa.

 I really liked the pillar arrangement quite a bit, so I'm going to walk through the ten pillars here. (You can zoom in on the pillars to read the engraving.)

The People Shall Govern All National Groups Shall Have Equal Rights The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth
The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It All Shall be Equal before the Law All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights
There Shall be Work and Security The Doors of Learning and of Culture Shall be Opened There Shall be Houses, Security, and Comfort
There Shall be Peace and Friendship

In addition to the pillars, there is a conical structure in the square that is a monument to the freedom charter itself. And then a collection of silhouette people, representing all the people of South Africa.

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Into Africa: Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden

It is our first day in South Africa, and we are all a bit punchy, tired, jet-lagged, and extremely excited! The decision for a relatively short outdoor adventure with the potential for a bit of a hike was the perfect way to get us started.

I have to admit it -- I was a bit surprised to see that there was a suggested reading list for this trip. But, I wanted to be a good doobee, so I read the short Mandela book recommended for the students and then dove into the rather long, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela's autobiography. I am so glad I did! It let me put many things into historical context and more fully appreciate everything we saw. For example, when we landed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, I knew who Oliver Tambo was. And when we visited the Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden, I knew who he was too.

The botanical gardens was our first real introduction to South Africa and it reminded many of us of southern California in its fauna. The highlight for our crew was a beautiful waterfall and the hiking trail that led to the top of it.

Some spotted the black eagles that had been advertised, but I missed them. I had to settle for guinea fowl!

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Into Africa: The Kliptown Youth Program


Our trip leader, Pete Johannsen, is on the board of the Kliptown Youth Program, whose motto is, "From Poverty to Opportunity," which seems perfectly appropriate. Started by a group of young men who grew up in Kliptown, KYP provides tutoring, arts classes, and a sense of community, for some of the youth of Kliptown.

Note: The terms below are the terms that were used during Apartheid and are still used today when describing the past and present.

Let's back up a bit. Under Apartheid, people were removed from their homes and relocated to ethnic townships -- Africans (Bantu) in one, Indians in another, Coloureds (mixed race) in a third. The townships were supposed to be separate, but equal, but in practice were most definitely separate and unequal. Soweto is a large, predominantly (98%+) black township, officially part of Johannesburg, but nearly an hour outside of the city center. Today it is a thriving city, composed of many different neighborhoods. Some are extraordinarily wealthy, while others are devastatingly impoverished. Kliptown is among the most impoverished -- unemployment is at nearly 80%.

KYP helps children succeed in school -- somewhere between 80 and 90% of the KYP students who take their "matrics", the exams that let you graduate high school, pass. Several go on to university. The alumni remain engaged in the program.

As we enter the KYP facility, we are given the most amazing welcome -- children and staff line the walkway and sing enthusiastically as we arrive.

Everyone on our trip had been given paired with a "penpal" from KYP -- mine was Xoli (pronounced Ko-li, with a distinctive Xhosa click that I can pretty much replicate, but it took work), who manages the IT services at KYP. Xoli wasn't around on Monday, so I didn't get a chance to meet him until Wednesday.

Most of the students and staff at KYP speak at least three languages and sometimes four or more. Everyone speaks English. I believe some also speak Afrikaan. The default language of the area is isiZulu. There are also a fair number of folks whose native language is isiXhosa (pronounced click/Cl-oh-za). As South Africa has eleven official languages, I'm willing to bet there are instances of every language in the community. Everyone easily transitions between the different languages -- it is humbling to experience.

Our introduction took place in one of the classrooms, where a few of the students introduced themselves to us, told us how old they were, what they were studying and what jobs they were planning on doing when they graduated. Then, we were treated to a performance of the gumboot dancers -- absolutely amazing! The leader of this program is one of the KYP founders, Thando -- a gifted singer, dancer, and actor with more energy, passion, and enthusiasm than any four middle school students, is clearly an inspiration to all who know him!


We met up with our penpals on Wednesday at the Apartheid museum and then together, we all headed back to KYP.
Xoli is 26 and is himself a graduate of KYP. He grew up in Kliptown and for awhile had an apartment outside of Kliptown and was working in finance. However, in his words, at some point he had to choose between money and happiness, and he chose happiness, moved back to Kliptown, and joined the staff of KYP. He has also started a record label and wants to run a restaurant.

 In addition to teaching basic computer literacy and programming to the kids of KYP, he offers computer literacy courses for the adults of Kliptown. If any Microsoft folks are reading this and have access -- they are running Office 2007 at KYP -- I'm sure they would love donations of more recent software! (Although, we should probably make sure that their hardware infrastructure is capable of running newer versions -- they have a computer room with a bunch of PCs, a large collection of XO's, and a new set of 20 chromebooks.)

There were two major activities that afternoon -- an art project and home visits. The art project, led by Meadowbrook teachers Caroline Kurman, Roseanne Beard, and Kerstin Johnson, was an identity project, designed to give the students a chance to get to know each other better in a non-threatening manner. The basic idea is that each of several colors represent different aspects of what helps us create our identity: family, friends, education, interests, gender, culture, and the things we "have". The students were all provided with lots of colored paper, scissors, and glue and asked to create a picture that showed who they were.

It was fascinating to see the pictures emerge -- as I walked around the room the pictures told stories of each student. I'm enclosing some sample pictures and then the "quilt" created by all the images. I encourage you to look carefully at the ensemble of pictures and see if you can guess which colors corresponded to which of the themes mentioned above. (I've put the color key at the bottom of the page.
After the art project, the KYP students who lived nearby took their penpals (and the penpals of other who lived further away) to their homes. I accompanied two groups of students whose KYP students lived close to each other. I'm struggling to find the right words to capture this experience. Suffice it to say that all of us were deeply moved by how little space it takes to make a structure a home. Upon reflection later, practically everyone commented on the importance of positivity over material possession; we all took inspiration from our new friends' attitude and strength.

We spent much of Thursday with our penpals outside of KYP, so that's reported on elsewhere. I'll wrap up with our last day at KYP.


In preparation for the trip, each Meadowbrook student in grades K-5 had selected their favorite book and then purchased a new copy to send with us. Each of those books had a book plate identifying the student who had selected the book. In addition, families donated piles of other books, and yours truly brought a pile of programming books -- HTML, CSS, Javascript, Python, etc. Three of the books I ordered had not arrived when I left, so I'll probably be shipping more books off -- if you have books you think might be appropriate, let me know!

For the book project, Ms. Kurman had photographed each student holding his/her favorite book and turned it into a short video. We took groups of kids to see the video and then let them select a book and wander off to the library to read with our students.

Then it was time for the beginning of the end -- Friday afternoons are arts and sports time -- a bunch of Meadowbrook and KYP students played netball, other students were in dance classes and/or drumming classes. Then everyone gathered around for some group singing,

and this led to an exit, to mirror our entrance -- everyone lined the walkway and sang and clapped and danced as we all walked out with our penpals. Then something truly remarkable happened (and Pete said he'd never seen this happen before): the entire KYP community followed us out to our bus, singing the entire way.

The hugs and tears and waves and high fives and joyous singing are undoubtedly the strongest memory I have of this trip. I don't think there was a dry eye on the bus as we drove away.

Color key

  • Black: Family
  • Purple: Friends
  • Blue: Education
  • Yellow: Culture
  • Green: Interests
  • Red: Gender
  • Orange: Stuff
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