Non-deerlike Characteristics

Something a bit more light-hearted, today. I guess the moral here for high school students trying to decide where to go to college, is that there is a lot of variety out there. Any kind of college environment you want to experience, you can.

The following is an email sent to all students at my sister's college, Simon's Rock.
Dear All,

It is currently bow hunting season in Massachusetts. Shotgun season begins on the 30th of this month. The campus is private property and hunting is not permitted on our campus. We are, however, surrounded by a few properties that allow hunting. On occasion, hunters have been seen in the woods on or near our campus. If you do see anyone hunting (don't worry, you will recognize them immediately) please let someone know so we can ask them to leave. Additionally, as you make your way through the woods over the next month, I ask that you follow official Massachusetts State Government recommendations by "actively displaying non-deerlike characteristics." I will leave this up to your interpretation, and perhaps endless entertainment, but I will suggest wearing bright colors and singing loudly - neither of which are considered deerlike.

Director of Security


Responses to Teach For America pre-interview readings

I applied to Teach For America last week and I made it to the phone interview phase, which will be Monday for me. Before the interview, there are a couple of short articles you're supposed to read. To help organize my thoughts, I will discuss them a little here. Comments welcome, of course.

The first article is all about the Achievement Gap, which basically means the fact that students in certain groups (namely, those from low-income families, African-American, and Hispanic students) tend to perform worse than others, according to several different measures of performance. It cites lots of statistics to demonstrate the problem, and then tackles the questions of why the gap exists, and what we can do about it.

There are many reasons given but the one most relevant to a TFA applicant is of course the quality of teaching. According to the article,
[S]tudents in high-poverty, high-minority schools have less access to highly qualified teachers than do students in low-poverty, low-minority schools. Secondary students in high-poverty schools are twice as likely as those in low-poverty schools to have a teacher who is not certified in the subject he or she teaches. Students in high-poverty, high-minority schools are also more likely to be taught by an inexperienced teacher. Furthermore, teachers in high-poverty schools reported less favorable working conditions than teachers in wealthier schools. Teachers from high-poverty schools were more likely to report that student disrespect and lack of parent involvement were problems.
Makes sense to me. I was very fortunate to attend a nontraditional private school up through 6th grade and then the Manhattan Beach school district after that, both of which encouraged lots of parent involvement, as well as parental financial support. Of course it made a huge noticeable difference to the students, by providing for great art and music programs, relatively happy teachers, etc. Plus parent involvement goes a very long way toward getting students to be engaged with their classes and homework.

I also really like the point about teachers having a credential in the subject they teach. I can't imagine teaching, say, English or History, at any grade level. I suppose I would be capable of doing it if necessary, with the right kind of support. But why would you put me in that position? I don't have much of a passion for history or literature, so I would make an uninspired lesson plan, and then follow it mechanically with far less enthusiasm than someone who majored in that subject, or at least something closely related to it. If a student asked a question that was outside the planned curriculum, I would encourage their curiosity, but I would probably be very little help in answering it myself. It would be very hard for me to show the students the connection between the current lesson and future lessons or careers. (And effective learning is all about students drawing connections between things. That's one of the many things that Carl Wieman talked about when he came to USC -- something else I've been meaning to blog about.) I think people often forget how perceptive students can be. You can bet they know the difference between a historian (or mathematician, or scientist, or musician, or whatever) sharing their love for their chosen field, and someone who is "just" a teacher, plodding through the same old three-ring binder full of lecture notes, year after year.

Okay, you say, you're passionate about Physics. You're really interested in the cutting edge research and string theory and all that. But is it really possible to be that passionate about boring, first semester Newtonian mechanics? Absolutely. I think it's awesome how a few simple equations can describe all kinds of different phenomena in the real world. If you don't buy that, then at the very least, you can remember how interesting it was when you learned it for the first time, and be excited that you have the chance to pique the interest of a whole room full of new students. This is more or less what I said in my TFA application: The achievement gap is depressing, yes. But what disappoints me more (maybe just because I have more first-hand experience with it) is that things I find so intriguing (such as Physics) are so immensely boring for a lot of people. When I tell people I'm a Physics major, they always say things like "Oh God, I hated Physics. I was terrible at it!" This makes me incredibly disappointed, not because the person has "failed" in some way--many of these people are very successful in some other field--but because Physics is really cool and it saddens me to think that people are unable to see how cool it is. I think getting people interested is probably half the battle in getting them to achieve at a higher level. If you truly care about what you're learning, it's easy to be motivated enough to excel at it.

The other article is called Assessment Through the Student's Eyes, and it's all about how assessment affects students' emotions and self-confidence, which of course affects their performance. If they do well on tests and homework, they are pleased and encouraged and tend to keep doing well. If not, they just think "I don't get it" and become less and less motivated, so their scores stay low.

Okay, so what do we do about it? The article is mostly about what it calls "assessment for learning" as opposed to "assessment to verify learning." The assessment methods should be developed by both the students and the teacher, rather than just the teacher. They should be descriptive and contain clear indications about what the student can do to improve. If you're too lazy to read the whole article, I would recommend you skip down to the "scenarios." They show how you can keep students motivated (without just giving everyone an A), and they seem like great examples to follow. I've had a couple of great experiences that follow this philosophy pretty closely.

The private school I went to (then called Via Pacifica, now called Del Sol) didn't have grades, in either sense of the word: No A's, B's, or C's, and also no first grade, second grade, etc. Instead, students were divided into four groups (called "pods" for whatever reason) called the "explorers," "discoverers," "investigators," and "voyagers." People unfamiliar with the school would always ask me, "Well... how do you know if you did well, if you don't have grades?" It seemed like a strange question at the time, because we actually got more feedback than in many public-school classrooms. On writing assignments, we would sit down and go through them, paragraph by paragraph, explaining things that were unclear and figuring out how we could have written them more clearly in the first place. In math, we would identify any mistakes and confusing concepts, and continue to work on them until everything was clear. In fact, the math classes seemed to mimic the article's second scenario pretty closely. Last time you got, say, an 87% on a math test, did you look through it and find all your mistakes, so that you could take it again and do better? Probably not, because there is no incentive to do so in most classes.

The other experience I'm reminded of is last year in Quantum Mechanics with Dr. Richard Thompson. We had homework and tests just like any other Physics class, but after an assignment was returned, we were expected to go back and correct all the mistakes on them. It may sound a little draconian ("Do it again, and don't come back until it's perfect!") but it meant that we would really understand everything in one chapter before diving into the next one. Of course, mistakes ranged from simple sign errors to bigger conceptual misunderstandings, but in each case, we would find the mistake, with the professor's help if necessary, fix it, and then write out the rest of the problem. Once you got used to it, it was a very satisfying system, in which you knew that you really understood everything you'd learned, even though you may have messed it up on an assignment or in the high-pressure environment of an exam.

These two experiences reinforce what the article said: Assessment can and should be used, not just to evaluate the performance of students and teachers but to provide useful feedback to the students that will help them understand what to do as they move forward, and motivate them to do it.

Again, comments are welcome. Wish me luck on the interview!


How To Win Civil Rights

From this CNN interview yesterday between Anderson Cooper and Cleve Jones:
You know, any one thing you do isn't going to get you where you want to go. A march won't do it; electing a friendly legislator won't do it; writing a check won't do it; signing a petition won't do it; clicking a mouse won't do it; picketing won't do it; getting arrested in civil disobedience won't do it. But if you do all of those things, over and over, relentlessly, with determination, that's how we win.
You also have to love Anderson Cooper's description of Barney Frank as "highest ranking gay member of Congress."


Don't look back, don't look forward. Look at where you are.

Yesterday was my last first gameday ever. The last time that I will ever, as a student and as a member of the Trojan Marching Band, experience the thrill of that very first day of USC football. There are more gamedays to come of course, but only a handful of them, and there is nothing like the first game: No substitute for seeing the Coliseum full of cardinal and gold, for the first time since a November or December game that seemed like years ago.

There are going to be a lot of "last" moments this year, and I know that at certain times, it's going to be tough not to get a little disappointed. From my very first band camp, I could already tell how important the band was going to be, and I knew the years would fly past me way too fast. I was right.

I was going to write a whole post about not taking things for granted, because if you do they will be gone before you know it. And I do think that every single day, you should think about all the great things in your life, and how lucky you are to have them. I was going to list all the things that I'm grateful for, from big things like being admitted to USC, to small things like the amusing little running jokes we have in the band, and everything in between.

But I'm beginning to think that won't be an issue for me this year. I'm beginning not to worry that I will take anything for granted. The greater risk for me, I think, is that I will go too far in the opposite direction. That I will spend too much time thinking about how quickly it's all slipping away from me; picturing what it will be like when I march my last step on the field; anticipating how that last finals week in May will feel; picturing commencement and realizing that I may be seeing some people for the last time.

So my goal is to strike the right balance. For every great moment that happens this year, I will mentally detach myself, just for an instant, to realize how lucky I am to be part of it. And then I will try to let the instant pass, clear my mind, and simply live in that moment. It's all about finding the right balance between reflecting on events, and simply living through them.

Fight on, Trojans.


My email to the National Organization for Marriage.

I will let you know when I get a response. Should you become inspired to write your own email to NOM, the address is contact@nationformarriage.org

On Tue, Aug 11, 2009 at 6:47 PM, Tyler Breisacher wrote:
Hi there!

I've been reading the material on your website, and I'm particularly interested in the "talking points" page on your website. I'm a Californian and I was very involved in the gay marriage battle in this state last year. It's great to see the best arguments against gay marriage summed up in one place. Of course, this issue is far from settled, and is still being debated all over this state and country, so I want to continue to be as informed as possible in the event that the issue comes up when talking with my friends and family. In particular, I have a question about this point:

“Religious groups like Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army may lose their tax exemptions, or be denied the use of parks and other public facilities, unless they endorse gay marriage."

Of course it's usually hard to prove or disprove statements about what "may" happen so normally I would accept this as a very real possibility. But as Californians we have the unique perspective of a state that had gay marriage for a few months last summer, before we restored the traditional definition of marriage. I think pro-gay activists might jump on this point: "No one will lose their tax exempt status. Gay marriage was legal last year, and no one lost their tax exempt status, did they?" I wouldn't know how to respond to this. Do you have any news stories about churches losing their tax exempt status over this issue, either in California or elsewhere? I seem to remember a case from New Jersey but my understanding is that it was a fairly complicated situation, so it would be nice to see all the facts of that case laid out somewhere.

Whenever I'm discussing this kind of thing with my friends I like to be armed with as much information as possible, so if you could point me to more information on how gay marriage has negatively affected churches I would greatly appreciate it.

Thank you!



TDD with Infinitest

As I posted last time, I'm writing a game in Java called Flood It, copied from inspired by the game of the same name by Lab Pixies. I encourage you to play it and if you find any bugs, or would like to request enhancements, add an issue in the issue tracker. In fact, if you do play it, you'll probably understand this post better.
One of the most important classes in the game is called Grid: It represents the big grid of squares and also keeps track of which ones are in the upper-left group. Because it's so important, I decided to write some unit tests for it, because that's supposed to be the best way to write great code and all that. I'm also using a great little tool called Infinitest which continuously runs your tests for you in the background, all the time. What happened just now is, I think, a great example of why everyone says unit testing is so important.

The constructor for Grid takes a width, a height, and a number of colors. It picks some colors and then populates the grid with a random assortment of squares. So far, so good. But I'm trying to implement an undo/redo feature so I think I'm probably going to need to override clone(). In this case, the constructor will fill the grid with a bunch of incorrect squares, only to have the clone() method overwrite all that data. I decided not to worry about it. Here was my original clone() method:

protected Grid clone() {
Grid clone = new Grid(this.getWidth(), this.getHeight(), this.colors.size());
clone.colors = this.colors;
for (int x=0; x<getWidth(); x++) {
for (int y=0; y<getHeight(); y++) {
clone.data[x][y] = this.data[x][y].clone();
return clone;
The update() method just checks for any squares that may have suddenly become part of the upper left group because the player changed the color of the group, and adds them to the set. Can you see the bug yet? There are actually two bugs, very closely related. I might have caught both of them eventually by playing the game itself, but this method isn't called anywhere in the actual game yet so that might not be until a few days from now. Luckily, I thought to write a unit test:

private void testClone(Grid orig) {
Grid clone = orig.clone();


assertEquals(orig.getWidth(), clone.getWidth());
assertEquals(orig.getHeight(), clone.getHeight());
assertEquals(orig.getColors().size(), clone.getColors().size());
assertEquals(orig.getNumInUpperLeftGroup(), clone.getNumInUpperLeftGroup());

for (Color color : orig.getColors()) {

for (int x=0; x<orig.getWidth(); x++) {
for (int y=0; y<orig.getHeight(); y++) {
Square origSquare = orig.get(x,y);
Square cloneSquare = clone.get(x,y);
assertNotSame(origSquare, cloneSquare);

Actually, it was the comparison of the toString() outputs that led me to the first bug. Then I decided to add the getNumInUpperLeftGroup() method and use it in the unit test, which led me to the second bug. Which is why you shouldn't put information in toString() that's not accessible somewhere else. But anyway. The first bug was that clone.update() was not adding anything to the upper left group. I knew this because the toString() showed squares in the upper left group as capital letters and others in lowercase. In the clone, it was all lowercase. What was wrong with the clone's update() method? Nothing, actually. For a Grid constructed normally, the last thing in the constructor is upperLeftGroup.add(get(0, 0)); and then update(); My new grid needed that first square to "seed" the update method. So I added clone.upperLeftGroup.add(clone.get(0,0)); to the bottom of the clone() method, before the update, and ran the test again. This time the toString() outputs matched perfectly, but the test still failed.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to find the second bug. And by that I mean I'm tired of typing so I'll post it later. But suffice it to say that without this unit test having caught the second bug, I might have had some very strange behavior that only showed up in a very particular case. It might have gone uncaught for weeks and when I did find it, it would have driven me crazy and taken me quite a long time to figure out.

This is why everyone says unit testing is so important. I think I get it now.


New project: Flood It

Through a stroke of luck, I managed to gain possession of an iPhone for a few days, and I downloaded a game I really liked called Flood It. Knowing I'd only have the iPhone for a few days, and not knowing whether any implementations of the game existed online anywhere, I decided to try and make my own, and try to learn a little about Swing and GUI programming as I go.

If you have Java, download it and play it and let me know what you think. Hopefully I will continue working on it at least a little every day so try it out and if you have any suggestions or bug reports, put them in the issue tracker (I don't know if you need a Google account or what).



Windmills do not work that way!

Not everyone is a scientist, but there is a certain amount of science that everyone should know. If I were going to start a new blog where I explain scientific topics in laymen's terms, with the goal of improving the general public's scientific literacy, I would call the blog "Windmills do not work that way." Maybe I will do that someday. Like I'll maybe update this blog more often some day.

The line comes from the episode of Futurama I'm watching right now.



A group called the Sunlight Foundation is trying really hard to take the Good Idea That Everyone Agrees On, that the activity in government should be open and visible to everyone, and turn it into a Cool Website You Can Actually Visit.

It's called OpenCongress.org and it's as Web-2.0-y as you could possibly want. You can leave comments and discuss bills. There's a Facebook app. You can track things. Etc., etc.

Check it out!



As you may know, today is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are often seen as the beginning of the gay rights movement. I was going to try to do a little reading on the history of the movement, and talk about how far we've come and how much further we have yet to go. But my friend Kyle basically did all that already, so instead, I encourage everyone to read his excellent post.


Real-life Version Control

I had an idea today, about Version Control. Since probably half the readers of this blog don't know what that is, maybe this quote from the Subversion Book will help:
Subversion is a free/open source version control system. That is, Subversion manages files and directories, and the changes made to them, over time. This allows you to recover older versions of your data or examine the history of how your data changed. In this regard, many people think of a version control system as a sort of "time machine."
Subversion, and all the other version control systems out there, were generally designed by programmers, and they tend to also be used by programmers. This is because they tend to include tools that are good for writing code, like "diff," and that programmers are the kind of people that like to find technological solutions to problems.

Other people may have their own methods for version control, usually with pretty bad big-O complexity. Which is computer-science-speak for "wastes hard drive space, and runs slowly." Have you ever seen something like this on your computer?

project052909 - 2.xls
project053009 fixed.xls
project053009 final.xls
project053009 with changes.xls
project053109 with changes 2.xls
project060109 - new.xls
project060209 really final.xls
project060209 FINAL VERSION.xls

... you get the idea. You don't want to lose track of old versions, because every time you delete
or change something, you know that you might later change your mind and want to revert back to that point. Well that's the whole point of version control, except that it's automated so you don't have to keep changing filenames. Plus it's done in a very clever way so that if you have 25 versions of a 400MB file, it probably won't take 10GB of file space to do it. If you like, you can have multiple people accessing the same repository, which means no more emailing the same file back and forth with minor changes. Even more exciting: You don't need anything fancy like a system administrator or knowledge of how to use Linux.

Anyway, the idea that I had today was "What if other types of engineers could use version control? What if we could version-control real-life things?" So I had an idea for a cute little video that could be used to demonstrate the functionality of version control systems. As far as I know, no one has yet created such a video. And by that I mean I looked on youtube for a few seconds and didn't find anything. Here goes:

A girl opens a drawer and gets out a blank piece of paper. A little blue question mark appears, hovering over the corner of the paper. She gets a pencil and starts drawing a picture of a tortoise. After a little while, it looks like a cute little tortoise, not bad for a first draft. She looks at the front of her desk and sees a little machine with several big friendly buttons on the front. She presses one that looks like a green arrow. Suddenly,
something pokes out of the top of the machine, and a laser shoots down and scans her new drawing. The laser mechanism retracts back into the device. The girl looks down and sees the the blue question mark has been replaced by a green circle.

The girl now cheerfully grabs a bunch of permanent markers from a cup on her desk, and begins to color in her drawing. As soon as she starts drawing, the green circle floating above the corner of the drawing turns red. She keeps going until the tortoise is looking rather adorable, and pushes the green button again. The device laser-scans her drawing, the circle turns green again, and she walks away, satisfied with her new drawing.

Cut to her friend's house. Her friend sits down at his desk, with no paper or drawing of any kind. But he does have the device. He presses a gold button on his machine, and suddenly an exact copy of the girl's drawing appears on his desk, with the green circle hovering above it. He grabs an orange marker and a black marker and starts drawing a tiger, standing behind the tortoise. The circle turns red. The tiger is, of course, ferocious. But it is also very badly drawn. Not seeming to mind, the boy hits the green button proudly. His drawing is laser-scanned and the hovering circle turns green.

The girl now comes back to her desk, and the drawing still looks like it did when she left. She hits a button on the version control device and it instantly changes to include the tiger. She picks up a black marker and adds an outline to the tiger to make him look less sloppy.

Etc. Eventually there would be a part where something goes terribly wrong, and they use version control to undo the changes. Anyway, that's my idea...


Just ignore them.

This is a lesson that people really need to learn. Just ignore them. Sometimes when something annoys you, talking about it, complaining about it, gossiping about it makes you feel better. And that's great for little things like how ugly your friend's new car is or whatever. But for things like this latest scandal on the gay blogs (this kind of gay blog, not this kind) there is only one right answer. Actually, there's two. One of them is "Just ignore them" and the other is related to that.

Okay, so the issue itself is this. A couple of talk radio hosts at some radio station went on an extended anti-transgender tirade a few days ago, saying all these terrible things about transgender kids, explicitly advocating violence toward them, etc. And as I'm reading all this, there are a variety of reactions. The one I've seen the most is "Click here to send a message to the two radio douchebags and ask them to apologize." Well, lots of people did that, and guess what? They refused. Anyone shocked?

Radio people are just people. If you walked past someone on the street, standing on a soapbox, going on and on to all who would listen about how transgender people are subhuman, what would you do? You would not listen. If everyone did that, the guy would disappear. Well okay, not really. But in the case of these radio guys, they really would. It turns out Jeff Atwood recently wrote a post about the same thing. It's a programming blog but the point is the same. People who rely on media to be heard, whether it's the internet, the radio, or whatever, will disappear if people stop listening to them. What those people need is not money, it's attention. Take that away, and they're no one.

My friend Heather was asking last night, is the internet still there if no one is there to use it? Well, in a sense, no, it's not. A blog that no one reads is a lot like a blog that doesn't exist. (Now you're thinking about posting some clever sarcastic comment involving some form the word "irony." But you're reading this, so shut up.) And a radio host that no one listens to is likely to be fired. So rather than contact the idiots and ask them to apologize, how about we contact the station, and let them know that this kind of shit is just not okay. At all. Ever. (In fact GLAAD succeeded in getting some advertisers to stop advertising on the station. For once I think GLAAD is doing the right thing and all the other orgs are wrong...)

Anyway, if you don't like something that a perfect stranger is doing, ignore them. If everyone did that, the world would be a better place overnight.


Internship: Week 1

So I'm about a week into my internship this summer, and I'm already up and running in a real way. I don't have any dramatic, sweeping observations just yet, but here's a few quick ones.
  • I know everyone's heard of KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid. But sometimes you try a little too hard. I had to write a test which would create a new feed. All feeds must have a unique name, so how do you come up with a unique name -- one that you know hasn't been used before? My solution: Search the database for the name "testFeed1" -- if it's already been created, look for "testFeed2." If that's already been used, ... etc. until you find one that hasn't been used yet. Can you guess yet what answer my supervisor told me to use? The answer is: testFeedyyyyMMdd_hhmmss, where yyyy is the four-digit year, MM is the two-digit month, etc. So yeah. KISS.
  • Java can be a little wordy but I'm starting to really like it. If you have Eclipse, it's great, because you rarely have to type any full words. Also dot-ctrl-space is my best friend. "I know this object can do what I want, and the method for doing it is probably starts with 'get' -- how will I find out what it is?" Also the Javadoc tool is great. There's a few annoyances, and some Python features I really miss having, but overall, good times.
  • I might be able to do some kind of research project in the fall that would be a continuation of what I'm doing this summer. More details to come.
  • Software people love silly jokes. You can tell that in every conversation or meeting, they're always waiting for an opening--anything that they can make a joke about. And when it comes, they will pounce on it. Of course you have to make the joke in the exact tone of voice that you would use when you're not making a joke at all.
  • Ping pong Table tennis is a big deal at this company. Seriously.


The Gay Agenda

Jaan Williams, who was a huge part of the No on 8 campaign, recently posted what you might call The Gay Agenda (or actually the GLBT agenda) on Twitter. Rather than retweet it (since it's several tweets long) I thought I would re-post it here. So here it is.
Marriage equality is great; it's just not the be all end all of our rights. We still need employment protections, hate crimes protections. We need to repeal adoption bans, work for second parent adoptions. We need anti-bullying laws, we need protection from discrimination in accommodations and housing, we need healthcare reform and educated providers. We need immigration rights (w/other CIR), a repeal of DADT, repeal of DOMA. We need a repeal of the APA's definition of gender identity. We need reform in the way identity documents are used, created and maintained. We need to stop no-match letters coming from social security. We need better education and prevention on same sex/queer partner abuse. We need awareness and education for EMS staff about trans people. We need more AIDS prevention/living w/AIDS programs in general and in communities of color. We need broader recognition of all family structures. I could go on and that is the point. I care passionately about the right to marry. I spent 6 months working on the No on 8 campaign. We can just not believe for 1 minute, regardless of what happens on Tuesday, that marriage is our only fight and that it is only in California.


Plans for summer

Just wanted to take a second and lay out some plans for the summer before I start my internship on Tuesday. Whether I actually stick to all of these, well, we'll see.
  • Get feedback. In my last two internships I didn't ask for feedback very often. I guess that's probably more typical for the real world, but what I'm used to is school where every single assignment has a grade associated with it, so you know exactly what you did right, what you did wrong, and how to improve for the next assignment. So this time, I want to try to check in with someone as often as possible, to get some feedback. This is my only internship-related plan so far. I'll probably add more once I get there.
  • Read some books. Like a lot of people, I don't read enough. I mean, I read a lot of blogs and websites and stuff, but that doesn't really count. So I'm going to try to read some actual books this summer. Probably starting with the one Andy gave me that I never got through.
  • Continue the conversation. A few weeks ago, I tried to start a conversation with the handful of people I know who voted yes on prop 8. It went well, but I didn't have enough time to devote to the conversation. Regardless of the decision this Tuesday, I want to continue to talk to them, understand their reservations about same-sex marriage, and debunk any misunderstandings they have about the situation.
  • Do some coding. Of course I'll probably be doing a bunch of coding at my internship, but if I have time, I'd like to do some little project of my own as well. I don't know what it would be... just something fun. Maybe learn a new obscure language.
  • Fun stuff. Besides hanging out with band people at orientation gigs, I'll probably try to spend some time at the beach, in West Hollywood, and of course Catalina and Lake Tahoe. This is my last summer before graduation so it has to be fun!


How to Repeal "Don't Ask Don't Tell"

I've been reading the new study that just came out from the Palm Center at UCSB, entitled How to Repeal "Don't Ask Don't Tell".

What many people probably believe, and what I believed until recently, is that since DADT was created by Congress, it would take an act of Congress to eliminate it. Such an act already exists, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, first introduced in 2005, although I think the Let the Gays Serve Their Country If They Want To, For God's Sake. Don't You Know We're At War Right Now?! Act might be a more appropriate name. In any case, as the study points out, many people in Congress don't want to do anything without consulting with military leaders first. Military leaders don't necessarily want to do anything either. Obama wants to do something but knows that it might be unpopular with many people. Basically, everyone is waiting for someone else to act.

But what I didn't realize until just now, is that Obama can effectively stop this ridiculous policy immediately if he wants to. He can tell the military to stop investigating whether people are gay. (In the recent case of Lt. Dan Choi, there wasn't much of an "investigation" -- he came out willingly on national television). This might be somewhat unpopular because it could come across as circumventing the laws that Congress has created, instead of getting them repealed via the appropriate channels.

But there is something else he can do, even for Lt. Choi, and the thousands of other soldiers who are already known to the military to be gay. According to a law passed after the Vietnam War, "the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States." (pg. 11 of the study) Typically, this is used to force people to stay on duty after their normal term of service ends. (The "stop loss" policy.) In this case, it would be used to keep someone in the military who actually wants to serve. This doesn't provide a long-term solution, but maybe after a few months of gays serving openly, if the sky doesn't fall and the world doesn't end, Congress will understand that this is the right thing to do.

Hm, wasn't I thinking almost this exact thought, a few months ago? Oh, right. "Now that gay couples actually have gotten married in this very state," I said, "surely people will see that these marriages had no effect on them, and will live and let live." Ugh.

Personally, I think it would be better if the change comes from Congress, but it's clear that the president needs to act quickly and assertively, either to get the Congress to step up, or to simply make it happen directly. Otherwise, we'll be stuck with this same dangerous, stupid, offensive policy for years and years. He needs to just be the guy that goes, "Okay. This is what we're doing."

Lt. Choi's new organization, Knights Out is asking everyone to call the White House today and "flood the switchboards" to ask the President to repeal this law. They offer a sample script but if you can just speak honestly about your opinion of this policy, I think that would send a stronger message. If you've read this far, I'd say you're probably well-informed enough to do that. 202-456-1111. Please call and express your support for ending this ban. This is not a "gay issue," this is a "let's treat everyone equally" issue.

I'll finish up this post with a quick quote I found in the study, and to keep this blog from getting too serious, a video from The Onion.

“Equal and just treatment of all personnel exerts direct and favorable influence on morale, discipline, and command authority. Since these key factors contribute to mission effectiveness, efforts to ensure equal treatment are directly related to the primary mission.”
(Department of the Army. (1973). Improving race relations in the Army: Handbook for leaders. Washington, DC (Pamphlet Number 600-16), page 2.

'Gays Too Precious To Risk In Combat,' Says General


Teach For America

A recruiter from Teach For America emailed me and a few other students, saying that she was "reaching out to us based on our achievement at USC and our roles as SI Leaders." The recruitment director for the program wants to come and talk to us on campus next week. Woo! Anyway, I started reading a little bit more about it, and it turns out there's this whole collection of blogs from current TFA corps members. After reading several of their posts, here's what I've learned:
  1. Teaching is hard.
  2. No really. Teaching is very, very hard.
  3. Occasionally, teaching is extremely rewarding.
  4. See numbers 1 and 2.
I still think I want to learn more about the program and probably apply for it. And maybe even be a teacher permanently. Maybe.


USC Ally Discussion: Pro-Gay Marriage and Anti-Homophobia Intervention Strategies

I went to this event today. Here's the full description:

Ally Discussion: Pro-Gay Marriage and Anti-Homophobia Intervention Strategies
Featuring Jade Agua, Assistant Director for Asian Pacific American Student Services and Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean for Religious Life
12- 1 pm
WPH 403
On the day the California Supreme court begins to hear arguments about Propostion 8, USC Allies will learn intervention strategies on how to combat homophobia and also advocate for marriage equality. Some topics to be discussed how to use religion in favor of gay marriage and how to start these conversations with our friends and family.
Basically we just talked about the different anti-gay arguments that tend to come up a lot, particularly those that were used during the prop 8 campaign, and the best ways to combat them. I took some notes along the way, so I just wanted to post some scattered thoughts and good quotes.
  • The first thing Jim talked about was how his own homophobia was cured over the course of about 20 minutes, as a result of a close friend coming out to him. It's important to represent ourselves and the gay community as real people so that people can't think of us as "those people up in the Castro"--we're just people like everyone else. Later on, someone mentioned that people associate homosexual couples with sex. They see gay families as an environment where innocent children are surrounded by sex all the time. Seems to me, the solution is probably to make gays seem like ordinary people.
  • When he was growing up, gay rights was a nonissue, in the sense that it wasn't something people thought about or talked about at all. Sometime soon, it will be a nonissue, in that nearly everyone will just agree that same-sex marriage is okay.
  • He believes that the people and the churches will lead this movement. (Obviously not all churches, but some of the more "progressive" ones.) Then the law will follow. This goes against the feeling I had recently, "There's no point in us fighting much more right now. It's the court's move at this point." That was largely an excuse I made to myself anyway, because I was sick of doing campaign work.
  • Jim moved on to talking about the Bible. The type of same-sex relationships we're talking about (committed, monogamous) are never mentioned in the Bible. Jesus himself didn't mention homosexuality at all. He does, however, have something to say about divorce. In any case, progressive Christians are not required to believe everything the Bible says.
  • Jim and Jade did a little role-play, Jade playing a yes-on-8 voter who is uncomfortable going against the Catholic Church. Jim reminds her that even the Catholic church admits that you must listen to your conscience--the voice of God within you--when it is in conflict with the Church.
  • He also emphasizes religious freedom. No one wants there to be an official religion of the state. One of the students in attendance (who was half of an adorable gay couple) points out that this argument must be approached very carefully, because the yes voters want their children to be "free from having the beliefs of others forced upon them." A great point about that: Teaching kids about something is not the same as teaching them that it is good or they should do it.
  • There are a lot of sins in Leviticus that no one would ever seriously suggest we legislate against. I didn't catch the title, but there's a book about someone who tried to follow Leviticus literally for one year. Supposed to be very funny.
  • More on the Bible: St. Paul condemns homosexual relationships. But he also condemns heterosexual relationships, advises everyone not to have sex at all, unless absolutely necessary. He's also completely opposed to marriage and family life. (If I understood correctly, reproduction isn't necessary because the second coming of Jesus is only a few years away.)
  • The slippery slope argument: If we let gays get married, how do we know this won't open the door to pedophilia, incest, etc. The key is to point out that we're talking about consenting adults. Children and animals are not in that category. Also, remind people that those are completely separate, unrelated issues.
  • Jade: "The traditional family is a myth. Somebody made it up in the 50's and they've been promoting it on TV ever since."
  • This is important: According to some study, people don't vote for rational reasons. Their votes are usually based on emotional reasons. This of course goes back to the common complaint that the no on 8 campaign should have used actual images of gay couples. But with that in mind, what are the appeals to emotion that we can make? The suicide rate among GLBT kids is still relatively high. Not that we can change that overnight, but the way the government/society treats them might have something to do with it.
  • http://www.soulforce.org/ is a resource for gay Christians. Jim described it as "PFLAG for evangelicals"
  • Rick Warren is slowly beginning to change his stance. He's removed all the anti-gay language from his website and invited Melissa Etheridge to speak at his church. This was news to me!
  • I think the most annoying argument I hear is that prop 8 is the "will of the people." Democracy is not the same as majority rule. There's a reason we have courts and a Constitution.
  • Jade recommends talking to the yes voters you know, and who may be persuadable, not worrying about the far "right wing" people.
If you have friends who voted yes, and you probably do, talk to them. It's not easy, but it's necessary. No matter what happens 90 days from now, we should continue to fight, and dispell the myths from the campaign that many people still believe.



I'm beginning to think that Python being really easy to use is not a wholly positive feature. In a language where refactoring your code takes a long time, you're more likely to stop and think before you write something, like you're supposed to do. That's all for now.

Sierpinski Triangle

I've been playing around with Scheme (a dialect of Lisp (a weird language that I can't really describe)) by watching these videos and kind of just playing around. Today, I got a working Sierpinski triangle program. It's not particularly elegant, but it could be worse.

What's the best way to auto-convert spaces to non-breaking spaces?

; Draw a sierpinski triangle

; Get all six coords of vertices of equilateral triangle
; with tip at (x1, y1) and side length 'side'
(define (triangle x1 y1 side)
(let ((x2 (- x1 (/ side 2)))
(x3 (+ x1 (/ side 2)))
(y2 (- y1 (/ (* (sqrt 3) side) 2)))
(y3 (- y1 (/ (* (sqrt 3) side) 2))))
(list x1 y1 x2 y2 x3 y3)))

(define (draw-triangle g x1 y1 side)
(let ((tri (triangle x1 y1 side)))
(graphics-draw-line g (first tri)
(second tri)
(third tri)
(fourth tri))
(graphics-draw-line g (first tri)
(second tri)
(fifth tri)
(sixth tri))
(graphics-draw-line g (third tri)
(fourth tri)
(fifth tri)
(sixth tri))))

; Level-zero Sierpinski triangle is just a triangle
; Level-n triangle is three copies of level (n-1) triangle
(define (sier g n x1 y1 side)
(if (= n 0)
(draw-triangle g x1 y1 side)
(let ((tri (triangle x1 y1 (/ side 2))))
(sier g (- n 1) (first tri) (second tri) (/ side 2))
(sier g (- n 1) (third tri) (fourth tri) (/ side 2))
(sier g (- n 1) (fifth tri) (sixth tri) (/ side 2)))))

(define (new-sier g n x1 y1 side)
(graphics-clear g)
(sier g n x1 y1 side))

(define g (make-graphics-device 'win32 1000 1000))

;Call it like this:
(define side 2)
(new-sier g 6 0 (/ (* side (sqrt 3)) 4) side)


Note to Obama

I realize that Obama himself is unlikely to actually read this, but I'm submitting it on the change.gov website and I'd like to think that maybe some intern or assistant somewhere might read it and, you know, take a note. Hopefully it does some small part to counteract all the letters they're getting from the "EQCA Action Center."

I worked very hard during the summer and fall of last year for a political campaign--something I had never done before because no person or issue had motivated me. And no, sorry, it was not the Obama/Biden campaign. While I was quite happy to see you win the election, my efforts focused on trying to defeat California's Proposition 8. I appreciated both Obama's and Biden's opposition to that proposition, and I am very disappointed that it passed, not just for the thousands of devoted same-sex couples statewide, but because I might like to get married myself one day.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Equality California, asking me to write to Obama and his team, and express my intense outrage at his decision to allow Rick Warren, a vocal opponent of gay rights, to speak at the Inauguration. However, this is one of those times when I had to disagree with EQCA's views. In this case, I believe you have shown more maturity than many of the gay-rights leaders in this country. Rather than label our opponents as hateful, ignorant bigots, you have clearly expressed your disagreement with them on certain issues, but then shown them that you respect their views and do not think they are bad people just because they have such beliefs.

I see the passage of Prop 8 as a huge step backward for my state, and it angers and saddens me to know that people like Rick Warren are largely responsible for it. Nonetheless, I hope my voice will stand out as part of a minority within the LGBT community -- as someone who understands and supports the decision to allow him to speak.

It would be wonderful to have a president who agreed with me on everything. Instead, I have one who has committed to look at both sides of every issue. Realistically, that's probably the best I can hope for, which is why I look forward to hearing Rick Warren's comments on the 20th, and to the next four years.