Silent Privilege and Bias

Philip Guo has an excellent article on today about his experience as an Asian American software engineer.

    Even though I didn’t grow up in a tech-savvy household and couldn’t code my way out of a paper bag, I had one big thing going for me: I looked like I was good at programming.

I admit I’ve had predisposed biases about people before getting to know them. It’s human nature, it’s the way our brains work. The world is a complicated place and our brains need a way to quickly categorize what we experience or else we would be overwhelmed.

As a hiring manager, it’s a part of my brain that I try to shut off when I’m assessing someone’s technical skills–but it’s tough. I’ve even played games in the past where I covered up the person’s name before I reviewed the resume to see if that altered my impression of them. But over the years I’ve encountered enough individuals that violate any kind of stereotypes I had that it’s unwound most of them.

People always talk about race bias and gender bias, but something that surprised me when I first encountered it (in myself and others) was experience or education bias.

Tess Rinearson in this article talks about the “technically entitled,” the programmers that boast about how they’ve been programming since they were 6. You would think that someone who has been coding for that many years would be amazing, right? In my experience that’s not always the case. I’ve had candidates tell me on the phone they’ve been doing C++ since they were in middle school but when you dig into it they can’t answer simple questions about the language. Me personally, I started coding at a very young age but I know quite a few people that didn’t start until they were in college and they are way better software engineers than I am. If you assume there’s a correlation between experience and ability you could run into trouble.

What’s especially surprised me talking with and interviewing folks from different colleges and universities around the country is its dangerous to assume there is a correlation between education (school and/or GPA) and programming capability. You would think Stanford has an amazing computer science program, being in the heart of silicon valley. Anyone with a Stanford CS degree must be amazing, right? Well… I’ve interviewed Stanford grads that could not explain some of the most basic concepts about how an operating system works. But I’ve also interviewed Stanford grads that during the interview taught me new things about how operating systems work. So you can’t infer anything about ability from education either.

Race, gender, experience, education.. what inferences can you make about people then? None, really.

GMO food

The New York Times has a great article on the fight over banning GMO crops on the big island in Hawaii. It covers the science, the pseudoscience and the hysteria over what GMO food supplies might do to people and the environment.

This prompted me to revisit a blog post I wrote in 2007 on cloned cattle: FDA says cloned livestock is safe to eat. I had written:

    What happens when 10%, 20% or maybe even 50% of our beef comes from the same DNA “mother cow”, or possibly a small genetically similar group of cows? It seems like then it would just be a matter of time until a virus or bacteria strain crops up that has adapted to exploit some weakness of that cow, and then it spreads like wildfire throughout our cattle. But what if that virus was undetectable some how, and turned out to be the next Mad Cow Disease?

Reading that again I sound a little hysterical. To clarify, by “just a matter of time” I was thinking a span of decades or centuries. But I do still have the same concern and I haven’t heard anyone address it yet (at least not in any media sources I follow). If we dramatically decrease the genetic diversity of a crop (animal or plant) could that introduce a single point-of-failure on our food supply?

I’m not convinced there is a health risk with GMO food to a single consumer or group of consumers… but is there a risk to the industry producing that crop?

To illustrate, I will actually get a little hysterical: Imagine 50 years from now Golden Rice is a huge success and its being grown everywhere. It now makes up 99% of the world’s rice production. (The other 1% is non-GMO organic sold only at Whole Foods and other stores that only 1%’ers can afford to shop at ;). So basically all of the world’s rice is now genetically very similar. Now imagine there is a random mutation in a pathogen that effects rice (like RGSV — Rice Grassy Stunt Virus), and this mutation effects Golden Rice particularly bad. Because there is so little genetic diversity the virus could probably rip through the world’s rice fields faster than we could control it. This would be an economic and human disaster.

This is probably a far-fetched scenario, but it is my one concern with GMO crop production.

VirtualBox DKMS with custom kernel

I have a custom kernel on my linux machine (that I apparently did not install correctly) so when I went to use VirtualBox I got an error about DKMS not being ready. The docs say I needed to update my “virtualbox-ose-dkms” package to the latest version but when I did that it failed to install, saying the module could not be built.

Running the reconfigure command manually gave me this error:

$ sudo dpkg-reconfigure virtualbox-dkms
Deleting module version: 4.1.12
completely from the DKMS tree.
Loading new virtualbox-4.1.12 DKMS files...
Building only for 3.2.37-32corexeon
Module build for the currently running kernel was skipped since the
kernel source for this kernel does not seem to be installed.
* Stopping VirtualBox kernel modules [ OK ]
* Starting VirtualBox kernel modules
* No suitable module for running kernel found [fail]
invoke-rc.d: initscript virtualbox, action "restart" failed.

What you’ll find online if you search for this error is its missing the linux-headers-`uname -r` package. I had it installed, but it still wasn’t finding it.

The issue turned out to be my /lib/modules/3.2.37-32corexeon directory was linking to the original location where I had compiled the kernel, but I had since moved those files. I updated this symlink and then it worked:

-> /usr/src/linux-headers-3.2.37-32corexeon/

Thanks *nix notes!

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