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Am I racist?

22 Mar

The first answer to the title question is yes, of course I have benefited from institutional structures designed to benefit people who live in certain areas (aka people who can get loans/aren’t pushed into or away from those neighborhoods)- I got a decent education at public schools, I could walk safely to school, I even got a free bus (thanks Minnesota!) for my gifted math program which was primarily white/Asian, I’ve never interacted with a police officer or any authority figure because my race etc. etc. etc.  I’ve also, you know, not had the luxury of having people of my ethnic background reflected in almost any of the media I consumed as a kid/teenager/even adult (I happened to be the right age for the Yellow Ranger to be Vietnamese though!), and get to read articles like this all the time.

Tangent: I know it’s a trope that Asian-Americans hate being asked “where are you really from?” but either a) that hasn’t happened to me much or, more likely, b) I don’t personally feel other-ed by the question and I like telling people I’m from Minnesota and my parents were from Vietnam, because the conversation generally leads to me raving about Minnesota and/or Vietnam (I am sometimes a forceful conversationalist) or bemoaning the pity that many white people don’t get to have that strong ancestry connection (I am subtle).  That said I did go to a 45% Asian high school and we all knew everyone’s ethnic backgrounds; I can definitely imagine being more sensitive about this issue if I hadn’t had that experience of it not being weird to be not-white (like, if I’d stayed in MN for high school).

Anyways, this post is inspired by an experience I had the other night with my spouse, when we went to a Duke alumni event to watch the Duke-South Carolina game, and I commented that one player looked like a kid to me.  I’m going to refer to these 18-20 year olds as “kids/children” throughout the post for reasons that will become clear, though they are adults.


“Kid” in question, Grayson Allen from the Duke website

Spouse agreed that this 21-year-old player has a very young looking face.  As the game went on, I unhappily noticed that I kept thinking the white players on the team look like kids to me, while the black players do not.  On the way home I asked spouse if he thought I’m being racist, and his immediate reaction was to recoil (people really hate being called racist!) and defend me against myself, and we went through the Duke roster and decided that all the players photos (except Sean Obi) look pretty young when they have their big goofy smiles on (Sean Obi doesn’t show teeth in his picture, which immediately cuts down on potential goofiness).  Then I told spouse about the 2014 study (I thought everyone knew about this) which showed that white male police officers and white female undergraduates overestimate the ages of black boys and view them as less innocent; here’s an excerpt from The Atlantic summary on the study:

The general population respondents overestimated the boys’ ages in felony situations by 4.53 years, meaning that “boys would be misperceived as legal adults at roughly the age of 13 and a half.” The police had a slightly wider spread: 4.59 years. The college students were also less likely to judge black boys innocent in the presented scenarios once they were 10 years of age of older. At every age level after 10, black boys were considered less innocent than either white or unspecified children.

Of course this played out the next year with the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and so this study and that murder were on my mind as I was watching the basketball game and afterwards.  I think the study also says that police underestimate white boys’ ages by about a year, which echoed again in the stupid 32-year old man Ryan Lochte shenanigan at the Olympics:

Let’s give these kids a break. They made a mistake. It’s part of life. Life goes on.

Anyways, after some discussion (I’m still convinced that I’ve internalized some of the ‘black boys look older’ crap), we decided there were a bunch of factors at play in my assessment of the kids looking like kids or adults: 1) facial hair (the one white guy with facial hair doesn’t look like a kid to me; many of the black teammates have facial hair), 2) # of active players (more black than white), 3) some people just look the same for twenty years, starting when they’re 20, 4) it’s hard to look at a 7 foot tall person and think of them as a kid, 5) I don’t know what young black men look like.  So 1-4 are pretty self-explanatory, and for 5 I met two black kids before I was 14 (I think they were both adopted), knew a handful in high school, and did a crap job having diverse friends in college (I still do a crap job of this in my segregated city) and graduate school (I’ve met literally three black male grad students in math in my seven years of grad school; I know more black women thanks to EDGE, many of whom were featured in Mathematically Gifted and Black).

An irony of this whole incident is that we were watching with a bunch of class of 2016 black women who DEFINITELY looked like kids to me.  So when I first told spouse about my concern re: racism and over-estimating black ages, he incredulously thought I was referring to those young women (it’s taking some effort for me not to write “girls” here; thanks advisor!).

So what’s my conclusion?  As usual, I will leave you unsatisfied and say I don’t have one- the issue is nuanced; I don’t make good sound bites; I’m a little racist and I’m working on it (you probably are too and you should also work on it).

Oh!  I almost forgot that I wanted to tell you that I’m 39 weeks pregnant today!  Here’s a picture of me:

It’s been awhile since a math post… so maybe when I’m nursing my newborn I’ll try to write a post about my thesis (oooh exciting!)  See you then!

On eponyms

7 Mar

I recently listened to two episodes of a podcast which were entirely dedicated to eponyms.  That first episode of the Allusionist was cute and fun, referring to how British people call pens “Bics” or “Biros”, while this second episode is a bit darker and has to do with medical terminology.  For instance, by this point “Downs syndrome” has entered popular culture and so even as the medical community starts calling it Trisomy 21 (fun fact my first prenatal test with this pregnancy came back with a high risk of Trisomy 21 so I took a second genetic test which cleared me), it’s unclear if it’ll ever change in our minds.  But why should medical conditions be named after generally egotistical men who “discovered” them?  I think it’s ridiculous that Braxton-Hicks contractions are named after this English dude who “discovered” them in 1872, while women have been having false or practice contractions LITERALLY FOREVER.

This comes up a fair bit in math, as we like to name things after people but then later change the name to make more sense OR vice versa.  For instance, “Outer Space” is actually written as CV_n(X) which stands for Culler-Vogtmann space even though everyone says “outer space” aloud.  Funnily in that article I just linked Vogtmann writes it as \mathcal{O}_n but I haven’t seen anyone else write it that way.  Another funny one is right angled Artin groups, which were originally called “graph groups” but now everyone says “raags”.  Incidentally this is a great introduction to RAAGS (sometimes written raAgs).

Some spaces don’t have any alternative names and should.  The one I’m thinking of now is Teichmüller space– every day dozens of mathematicians and physicists refer to this space and the accompanying theory, which feels like we’re honoring Teichmüller.  This is not a person whom I particularly want to honor every day, but like the Downs syndrome problem I doubt we’ll be able to change the name to “complex structure space” or “marked surfaces space”.  I didn’t know any of this stuff about Teichmuller until reading a wonderful interview of Autumn Kent by Evelyn Lamb.  Here’s a pull quote; most of it is Autumn and the Note is by Evelyn.

There is a dangerous amount of tolerance of intolerable people in academia based on the principle that we are all dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and beauty and that a person’s academic work makes them a person worthy of mutual respect. This principle is wrong.

Bers famously quoted Plutarch in defense of his admiration for Teichmueller’s work: “It does not of necessity follow that, if the work delights you with its grace, the one who wrought it is worthy of your esteem.” This is of course true, but Teichmueller was still a piece of sh*t and if he were alive today I would not be his friend on Facebook. [Note: Oswald Teichmueller (1913-1943) was a German mathematician and literally a card-carrying Nazi. As a student, he organized a boycott of Edmund Landau, a Jewish math professor at the University of Göttingen. He was killed fighting for the Third Reich in World War II.] I would not invite him to an academic conference. The pursuit of knowledge and beauty is admirable, but it should not be undertaken at the expense of the bodies and souls of marginalized people. If my work would result in violence I would abandon it.

There are a LOT of goodies in that interview and I highly, highly recommend it.  In fact I wrote this entire post just to share this interview with you, but I snuck it in via eponyms (and also I’ve been having a lot of practice contractions lately and wanted you to know.  Due date is March 29!)

Some people I admire

1 Mar

When I was applying to the magnet program of my public high school, I had to write an essay on “My Hero.”  I’ve never been much of a hero-worshiper, so I wrote about myself (yes, I have always been this awesome and modest).  In retrospect maybe this means I didn’t have too many role models as one of two Vietnamese kids in my school, and a math nerd to boot, but of course at the time I took it as a source of pride that I only looked up to myself (and secretly my parents, but the 13-year-old who writes an essay about looking up to their parents is a far more mature one than I was).  I have always found it difficult to admire/like people that I don’t know in person, because you never know if you’ll get the feeling that someone likes to kick puppies in their spare time until you have a face-to-face conversation with them.  So Melinda Gates, for instance, will not be appearing in this blog post.

I admire all of these people, and I want you to know about them too because they are all going places or are already places.  This is a very incomplete list in no particular order, and also I count all of these people as personal friends.  This post was inspired by Mathematically Gifted and Black.

Moon Duchin– Moon has been all over the news lately because of this awesome gerrymandering workshop she’s co-organizing this summer at Tufts, to prepare mathematicians to be expert witnesses in legal cases (they’re working with lawyers).  Here’s the interview and article from Chronicles of Higher Ed [Note: yes, it’s standard in Chronicles of Higher Ed to refer to profs by Ms./Mr./Mrs. and yes, many of us skimmed several random articles to check that].  It’s so big, there’s a meta-article about it on Snopes with “geometric group theory” in the title!  So Moon Duchin is a name you should know.  She’s also extremely dedicated to mentorship-she was part of the team that started the Directed Reading Program at UChicago, which now exists in at least a dozen schools, she’s extremely approachable to Tufts students, and she goes above and beyond with research clusters, minicourses + conversations, and still manages to do lots of cool research.  I’m a big fan.  Fun fact: when I cut my hair short I didn’t know how to style it, so I texted Moon for help (she was helpful).


I didn’t want to post a pic of a friend without permission so I’m posting a pic of myself.

Piper Harron– Piper blew up the math world two years ago with her thesis, a testament to her journey through mathademia and astute observations of her own experiences.  We first started talking when I posted an emo post about that thesis, and I’ve been reading her powerful words since then, especially through the election.  Here’s her blog.  Piper’s honesty, directness, and way of wielding words like a sword to cut straight to your heart and the heart of the matter at hand all make for a nigh-poetic reading experience, but the matter at hand (often math culture, American culture, oppression) is so heavy and concrete that we are brought to earth, crashing hard.  See, I do not wield words like a sword, and Piper would’ve written that sentence way better than me.  Fun story: at IAS last year Moon and I ran a discussion on intersecting identities and I TOTALLY crashed and burned trying to explain intersectionality with a raft metaphor (I am not going to try to explain it here), and Piper rescued me.

Here’s a video (and transcript if you don’t like watching videos) with pizza as a metaphor for intersectional feminism:

My Khanh Ngo: MK is a classmate of mine from Yale, and while I’ve been spending the seven years since we graduated on this Ph.D. and making babies, she’s been tirelessly fighting for social justice through immigration law and reform.  She also introduced me to takoyaki so she obviously makes this list.  My Khanh has also been in the news lately as one of the writers of the ACLU Darweesh vs. Trump case, and she just published a piece on Feministing about another project she’s involved with, the Immigrant Bail Fund.  Just in case you aren’t sure about where to donate to benefit your LOCAL COMMUNITY (or national), she’s sent out a link to a google doc with a great list. Here’s a preview of her TV debut on Frontline:

Ivuoma (Ivy) Onyeador: Ivy was the year below me at Yale and a Bouchet Fellow, which like the Mellon fellowship supports undergrads who want to join academia.  They definitely got their money’s worth with Ivy- she’s heading back to Yale as a postdoc in the fall after defending her social psychology thesis this spring!  Ivy is also a social media maven (the link for her name above is to her Facebook profile) AND she co-hosts one of my favorite podcasts, The Get.  One thing I love about this podcast is that Ivy and Rhiana are often calling each other in and accepting that getting to equality/social justice is a journey.  For instance, they apologize on the podcast about inadvertently being trans-exclusive or heteronormative.  They’re still miles ahead of me on the journey to wokeness (maybe I’m behind on the terms now, based on this article from LAST YEAR in the NYT by Amanda Hess who can join my Melinda Gates list).

Ellen Junn: Ellen is the president of California State University, Stanislaus (aka Stanislaus State), which is AWESOME and well-deserved.  We first met in 2006 when she was my alum interviewer for Princeton.  During the interview she told me that she always takes the students who get in out for lunch to talk about Princeton and their plans for undergrad.  I did not go to Princeton, but I emailed her anyway and she took me to lunch anyway, and has been doing so for over ten years.  She also went to University of Michigan for undergrad, which is where my best friend Denise Ding went, so she’s also mentored Denise through our journeys.  Back then she was a professor in psychology at Cal State Fullerton, then she moved to Fresno as associate provost, then to San Jose, Dominguez Hills, and finally Stanislaus as she climbed the ladder.  Throughout all of it, she’s shown dedication to mentorship, community, and students, and I can personally attest to that- she even called me in 2012 when I was freaking out about grad school to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of academia.

Brittani Nichols: B is another social-media maven (here’s her twitter, instagram, youtube of her webseries, and two podcasts and also her imdb page).  We met senior year of college and became friends pretty quickly.  I’m very enthusiastic about all the people featured in this list but I can unambigiously say that B is the coolest person I know (though my cousin, a producer of Dear White People, comes close).  I’ve watched B over the past seven years endlessly working to make it in an industry that doesn’t exactly love black lesbians.  I admire her gung-ho-ness, sharp and quick-witted sense of humor (she is a writer first, as seen by her articles on Autostraddle), and extremely strong sense of self which we all felt in college and still feel now.  She’s definitely an up and comer- I didn’t even know until going to her IMDB page that she was on Transparent!  And her film Suicide Kale has won a bevy of awards.  Once she turned down a Thanksgiving invitation from me to go to a famous person’s house, and she told me that it was for her career and she would’ve rather had my Vietnamese-American turducken instead.

Evelyn Lamb: Last but certainly not least is my fairy blogmother and friend who is a  freelance mathematical journalist.  She’s published on so many websites at this point it’s hard to keep track, but each month you can get an update from her (I do!) via email list.  I think we met via twitter, where she’s often promoting young mathematicians like me, and keeping us all up to date on math news.  Then we met in person at a math conference, and a few times since then.  I’m a big fan.  You should read Evelyn’s work if you haven’t already.  I’m tired now so she gets the worst blurb of all, but I’ve written about her before so hopefully that makes up for it.

Phew!  Eight months pregnant with a horrible cold and I still very slowly wrote a blog post!  Huzzah!  Back to bed (I am surrounded by tissues and pedialyte right now) for me.  Hope you enjoyed this list!

Last minute Valentine’s Day idea: chocolate covered strawberries

14 Feb

You can buy chocolate covered strawberries from the store for about $3 a piece, or you could make your own POUND of chocolate covered strawberries for around $8 (strawberries were on sale at my store this week).  And it takes about 10 minutes.  So… I feel like it’s clear which of the two you should do.

Start with a bag or bar of good chocolate chips (I have Ghiradelli ones here).  Also, use good strawberries- we had a two pound box from Costco but those weren’t as yummy as the one pounder from the regular store (though they were prettier and larger).  I followed the instructions on the bag for how to melt chocolate in the microwave.  I actually prefer this to the double boiler stovetop method because you won’t accidentally get any water in them, which would cause the chocolate to seize up.

Dump a bunch of chopped up chocolate or chips into a bowl, and microwave at 50% power for a minute and a half.  While that’s going, wash your strawberries and dry them.


If your partner doesn’t do something for you for Valentine’s Day, it might be the last straw-berry confection you make for them. 

When the chocolate comes out it won’t be melted yet, just melting.  Stir it vigorously for a minute or so, then pop it back in the microwave at 50% power for another 30 seconds.  Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat.  Once the chocolate pops out, stir, stir, stir until it’s perfectly smooth (really, try to get all the lumps out).


Ironic how the more your stir, the less stir-dy the chocolate becomes.

Then take your beautiful dry strawberries and dip them in the smooth chocolate, twirling when you pull them out so you don’t get the chocolate tail.


I wonder if the writer of Trees liked chocolate covered strawberries.  It’d be SERRE-en-DIP-itous.

Alternatively you can hold them upside down if the twirling isn’t your speed, and they’ll absorb their tails.


If you gave a talk in a dark room but finagled a flashlight onto your chalk-holder, would the talk be CHALK-LIT?

So far we’ve spent 2 minutes total microwaving, 1 minute or so stirring, and 2-3 minutes dipping.


Alternate photo for this caption: infinite line of strawberries with a single endpoint.  Array of strawberries.

You might be happy with them like this and be done!  I like the look of the drizzled white chocolate, so I broke up half a bar of white chocolate and microwaved it for a minute at 50% power, stirred, and microwaved again for another 30 seconds.


Fork-ast for today: loooove is in the air

Use a fork for this part!  Then drizzle the white chocolate over the strawberries (the chocolate coating sets very quickly).


Along with drizzles of white chocolate.  And, where I am currently sitting, drizzles of rain.

You can go pretty crazy on the drizzling and they’ll still end up looking awesome.


If Jackson Pollack did this, would he make chocolate covered fish?  Gross!

.Let the berries sit while you clean your two bowls and spoon and fork.  Ten minutes!  Ta-da!  They look even fancier if you put them on a plate.


Chocolate covered strawberries

One pound strawberries (actually I ate a few so there’s less than a pound here)

Half a bar of white chocolate

A bar of dark/bittersweet/milk/your choice chocolate or 1.5 c of chocolate chips

  1. Break up the chocolate bar into small pieces into a microwave safe bowl, then microwave for 1.5 minutes at 50% power.  Wash and dry strawberries.
  2. Stir chocolate vigorously until the bowl no longer feels warm.  Microwave for 30 more seconds at 50% power.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
  3. Stir chocolate vigorously until smooth.  If it’s still chunky, microwave for another 30 seconds and do it again.
  4. Dip strawberries into chocolate and twirl as you pull them out.  Lay on the baking sheet.
  5. Do steps 1-3 again but for the white chocolate, and use a fork.
  6. Use the fork to drizzle white chocolate over the strawberries.

CALL TO ACTION + I am so tired and it’s only been a week

31 Jan

I have several very cool Facebook friends and before my woe-is-me post below I thought I’d let you know about some things that they are doing.

First, you may have heard that the ACLU filed a complaint re: Trump’s executive order banning people from certain countries.  On page 18 of that complaint you’ll see my friend My Khanh’s name (so proud of her!) as one of the law interns in the suit.  Here’s what she has to say:

Thank you so much everyone for the outpouring of support. Please, in addition to donating to ACLU, PLEASE remember to support local community-based organizations and those providing direct services like the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) which has been providing heroic efforts on the ground scene at JFK to stop deportations, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which has been tirelessly responding to calls for help from here and abroad, the National Immigrant Law Center, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, IRIS, Make the Road…there are SO many organizations fighting the good fight out there. And it involves so much more than typing behind a computer and filing a few papers in court (although that does seem to work sometimes too!).

Next, if you’re a mathematician or know mathematicians, you might be able to help my friend, math writer extraordinaire Evelyn Lamb help us:

Mathematicians: if you or a mathematician you know are affected by the executive order on immigration and want to talk to me about it in my role as a writer, feel free to email: rootsofunityblog at gmail. I may be writing about it and would be happy to hear your story, whether you would be willing to be named in the piece or not. This post is public. Please share, either here or over email, with people who might be interested.

Speaking of math, the American Mathematical Society put out a statement condemning the EO yesterday.  But there’s more that mathematicians can do, and another friend and professor at Tufts, Moon Duchin has this 5-day gerrymandering summer school working with lawyers:

Worried about gerrymandering? This August I’ll be running a summer school to train mathematicians as expert witnesses for redistricting cases. We’re bringing together legal experts, GIS experts, and more. If there’s enough demand, we’ll run regional trainings around the country. Please spread the word… Geometry of Redistricting Summer School

Probably/hopefully many of you my readers have already been trying to call your representatives about various issues.  As a die-hard liberal I’ve been using Daily Action for what to say each day.  Also, my representatives (Ted Cruz, John Cornyn, Roger Williams) are SUPER HARD to get in touch with (voicemails always full!  Hang-ups because all staffers are already busy!) but email is not a good way to contact your rep. Inspired by a tweet from Jordan Ellenberg:

I’m trying to do an in-between and writing a page a day and faxing it in to their offices.  I can’t tell you how desperate/triumphant/sad/happy I felt when I got this:

success  I felt like maybe, possibly, someone in our government is having a harder time ignoring me.

Finally, for a morale boost, here’s my friend Piper Harron telling us to adapt to the new normal:

i’ve seen people say that the point of the ban was chaos. either to distract us from something shadier trump is doing now, or to fatigue (or over-stress) us against acting when trump does something shadier later. fine. but what am i supposed to do with that? am i supposed to not protest and freak out when trump is messing with people’s lives? am i supposed to not talk about it? i don’t understand. what is the advice attached to these warnings?

we were so worried about trump being normalized, but maybe our resistance needs to be. maybe we need to accept this new normal. trump is going to keep attacking us. and we have to keep responding, but we have to be in it for the long haul. we cannot allow ourselves to get fatigued. maybe that means finding a way to make the necessary calls, to make the necessary donations, to go to protests, not because we are angry or scared or fired up and ready to go, but because that is who we are now.

and maybe most of us should stop trying to figure trump out. for me personally, all i get out of worrying about where we’re headed is stress and inefficiency. i’m not in a position to get ahead of trump, and i’m not fleeing the country because of speculation. as someone who dabbles with anxiety, i can tell you that there is no benefit to living with alarm bells blaring and no mechanism for turning them off. so, time for a manual override. a recalibration. trump is not normal, but his attacks on our rights and ideals will be the norm for as long as he is president.

in other words, keep calm and defend freedom with all your might.

Do you remember when Black Lives Matter was nascent, and police killings of unarmed black people were dominating our national conversation?  I remember running into this video: then, and realizing that I could not relate/empathize with it but I could sympathize/feel compassion for the audience (black Americans).  And that burden of feeling unvalued by society and feeling that everyone who looks like you is unvalued by society seemed so obvious and so heavy that it takes a tremendous amount of psychological energy to just exist in such a society.

So now we’re a week into the Trump presidency, and Tết was Saturday, which is the New Year for Vietnamese culture and the time that you pay your debts (before New Year’s) and clean your house and prepare for a fresh start with new hope for the new year.  Those two events are very, very at odds with each other and I am not prepared for what a psychological burden it is to have my (ethnic) culture mismatch chronologically with my (national) culture.

Also, I am more prone to anxiety when pregnant so I’ve been having nightmares about being separated from my toddler and about losing one of my kids on a boat (my mom’s family are all boat people) and about my daughter being born in March with some life-threatening condition and not being able to afford her medicine as she grows up, and the usual anxiety-nightmare of running from some evil to find and save my family but I can’t.  Here’s a story in the LA Times about Vietnamese refugees in 1975, when the U.S. did the right thing despite lack of popular support:

A Gallup poll in May 1975 showed that only 36% of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. Many feared job losses and increased public welfare. Even then-Gov. Jerry Brown sounded alarms about the toll the Vietnamese refugees would take on the state.

And on a sad dark note and what spawned this whole anxiety trip, my cousin posted this on instagram (I do not know the original source):


The picture on the right looks just like my son when he’s sleeping.

I went to a talk on Sunday and the professor said that the day we don’t allow brave, hopeful people to pack up their things and try a life somewhere new is the day we betray her:

This Dorothea Lange print of Florence Owens Thompson was from the Great Depression; she’s 32 and has just sold the tires off her car to try to get some more food for her seven kids.  Hope is gone.  She’s seeking refuge.  But where is it?

Six principles of nonviolence (Happy MLK Jr. Day)

17 Jan

A day late but here we go anyway!  Last weekend I went to volunteer training for the Women’s March On Austin scheduled for this Saturday.  I was planning on blogging about biology today, but talking about what we went over in training seems more timely.  The Austin march is one of 616 sister marches around the world planned to coincide with the one in Washington, D.C. (so there might be one near you!)  Here’s an excerpt from the mission statement of the women’s march on Washington, emphasis added:

In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.

I was really impressed and inspired by the event coordinators- the person who trained us in nonviolent protest has been involved with protests and activism since she was 8 (Austin native) and read this excerpt aloud, stressing the end: that we need to support all marginalized groups to move forward, instead of looking only at cis, heterosexual white women (a.k.a. “white feminism”– that was a link to an article by an academic; this is a link to a HuffPo video explaining the term).

Next we went through practical things about how to march safely (link arms, use a buddy, if something happens decide as a group to stay and sit down, linked or go away very quickly, report anything suspicious to block marshalls), volunteer jobs (I’m at the check-in table!), and then the six principles of nonviolent protest.  She was careful to say that these have been used for a long time by not just MLK, Jr. (examples: suffragists, Gandhi) but he happened to write them down in a way that’s very nice for teaching activism to new people.  So here they are (in bold), plus some thoughts

  1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.  Often not fighting back requires bravery.  You can be nonviolent and still be aggressive, just not physically aggressive.
  2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The goal here is to make a community, to win over the people who are against you.  A good way to not do it: tell people “you’re wrong!”  A good way to start to do it: listen.  Also, make eye contact.  Be a human and show people that you are a human and you recognize their humanity as well.
  3. Attack forces of evil, not people doing evil.  This was when our presenter reiterated that this is not an Anti-Trump march, but a pro-women, pro-LGBTQ, pro-immigrant, pro-marginalized people march.  “Trump is a symptom, not the disease.  We want to defeat the disease.”
  4. Accept suffering without retaliation.  This is basically, don’t fight back.  When people see you suffering an injustice, you’ve communicated to them that this matters, and hopefully they extrapolate that you matter.
  5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.  Another way that people put this is to avoid internal violence as well as external violence.  Come at this with love and hope for reconciliation in your heart instead of hatred and hope for retribution.  Keep up morale in a positive manner, not a negative manner.
  6. The universe is on the side of justice.  Believe this.  A volunteer said that this was the easiest principle to keep up, and another said #2 is the hardest- she wants to snap back instead of listen.

I got a little teary at the end of the nonviolence training, when we practiced chanting “HEAR OUR VOICE.”  I’m not a big crowds person so being in the middle of a room of such positive energy and solidarity really affected me.

Here’s a video of a training that happened later that day (not for volunteers), which starts with 20 minutes of Q&A and then an hour of Simone going through these principles etc.  She’s really good:

So if you’re in or near one of the cities with a sister march, consider heading over there this weekend and checking it out!  Ours will have some awesome speakers and music after (Wendy Davis!  Lizzie Velasquez!  More!) and should be really cool.  I am also not actually planning on marching the 1.5 miles in 80 degree heat with 22,000 other people (definitely a recipe for very pregnant me fainting), but I’ll be there beforehand so if you’re around come say hi!



And now for something completely different-cognitive neuroscience!

10 Jan

I sometimes trawl for short math papers to read, and occasionally I even blog about them (see: curve complex I and II), though generally my math blog posts arise from interesting talks I’ve seen (see: most of the rest of my math posts).  Recently a friend sent me a job listing that would require a Ph.D. in biology or similar, but the real job requirement is an ability to read biology papers.  The only related category on arxiv is “quantitative biology,” so I thought I’d try to bring up a short paper and read it and blog about it to see how I do.  Any cognitive neuroscientists who might read this, let me know if my reading is correct!

This post is based on the paper “Deep driven fMRI decoding of visual categories” by Michele Svanera, Sergio Benini, Gal Raz, Talma Hendler, Rainer Goebel, and Giancarlo Valente.  First, here’s my schematic of the paper:


We’ll read this schematic from top to bottom, left to right.

  1. On top is the experiment: they had a lot of people watch 5-10 minute movies.  The left white arrow indicates that the people were in fMRI machines (I know a fMRI machine does not look like an EEG but that’s the picture you get) and so they have a bunch of data sitting around from that.  The right white arrow indicates that they used a computer algorithm (“math!”) to extract information directly from the movies [this is the fc7 data].  So far they haven’t contributed anything new to the literature; just used existing techniques to come up with raw data.
  2. The orange diagonal arrows are when things get interesting.  The fMRI data and fc7 data comes in giant matrices, and they use another math algorithm to come up with a set of “decoding” matrices.  Not pictured in schematic: they test these matrices using some of the data.
  3. The goal is indicated by the green arrows: to use the brain data and these matrices they came up with to reconstruct what people are seeing and classify these things (aka are subjects seeing people’s faces on the screen, or entire human figures?)

Now for a few details on each of the steps.

0. The motivation behind the paper seems to be to link the brain imaging community (those who work the fMRI, EEG, etc. data) with the deep neural network community (computer people) to answer questions that involve both.  The main question they have is: how do people associate low-level information like colors, shapes, etc. with semantic concepts like car, person, etc.?  Here’s the picture:


Eyes see a vague shape + different colors [low-level information]; brain tells us whether it’s a person or a tree with the sun behind it [semantic concepts]

There’s a lot of work in both communities on answering this question, and this paper uses work from both sides to form a decoder model: with an input of fMRI data, the model spits out predictions about what the subjects are seeing.  Specifically, the model is supposed to tell if subjects were looking at human faces or full human figures.  This is hard!  Those are pretty similar categories.

  1. The data: they grabbed a bunch of existing data from other experiments, where scientists took 5-10 minute clips from five different movies (side note I would never want to be in these studies because one of the clips was from The Ring 2) and showed them to subjects (ranging from 27 to 74 participants in each movie) and recorded all the fMRI data, which creates a huge three-dimensional datasetevery 3 seconds.  Then they threw the movie frames into a computer algorithm (called the faster R-CNN method) which detects objects in the video frames (with varying confidence levels) and spits out a 4096-dimensional vector for each frame.  They averaged these vectors over 15 frames so that the two datasets could match up (the movies were shown at 5 frames per second so this makes sense).  These vectors form the fc7 data.
  2. The math: they use an algorithm called Canonical Correlation Analysis (CCA) to spit out two orthogonal matrices and which are highly correlated (hence the middle C).  Looks like linear algebra with some linear projection!  The schematic is fMRI \cdot A = U \\ fc7 \cdot B = V.  To do this, they took a subset (about 75%) of the fMRI data and the corresponding fc7 data and plugged it into the math.  The goal of this step (the training step) is actually to get the helper matrices and B.  To make sure these matrices are a-OK, they used the remaining fMRI data to reconstruct the fc7 data within a reasonable margin of error fMRI \cdot A = U \rightarrow V \cdot B^{-1} = fc7.  Remember U and V are highly (in fact maximally) correlated so that middle arrow actually makes sense in this step (the testing step).
  3. The result: For one movie, they did the training math step using different subsets of data (they did it 300 times) to make sure those helper matrices and are the best possible ones.  Then to show that this whole paper does what they want it to do, they do the testing step using the other movies.  [The whole point of a decoding method is to predict what people are seeing].  They then try to classify whether subjects see faces or bodies using their method (the fancy fc7 method) and another method (some linear thing) and show that their method is way better at this discriminating task than the other method.  Fun caveat that they had to think about: it takes people a little while to react to stimuli, so they had to toss in time-shifts for the fMRI data, and also throw in another regulatory parameter to normalize the data.

Conclusion: their method works on this preliminary result (faces versus bodies)!  They want to expand to other movies and other semantic concepts in the future.

General keywords: machine learning, fMRI, linear algebra.  Also CCA, faster R-CCN, fc7 but those are keywords for specialists.

My conclusion: this was cool and fun!  I like reading new things and learning.  I hope you do too!

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