AlterConf

AlterConf is a traveling conference that promotes inclusivity and equity for marginalized people in tech. The speakers present on many topics, all centered on a common theme: gender, sexual orientation, skin color, and even your job title, can result in discriminatory practices and microagressessions. To survive in tech, it’s expected that you conform to the culture created by cisgender, straight, white men.

  • I heard from the engineer responsible for introducing the salary spreadsheet that exposed Google’s inequitable pay practices.
  • I heard from janitorial staff—abused, ignored, and taken advantage of—asking to be treated fairly and for the opportunity to make a living wage.
  • I also heard from the engineer who fought to incorporate non-binary gender options in Pinterest’s signup form.

Attend your local AlterConf, donate, or even sign up to be a speaker if you have a story to share. It’s time to bring diversity to tech, but it must be done right—no one should be ignored, or invalidated. Invite diversity to the party, but don’t forget to welcome it with a hug and some delicious boba tea.

The Poly Archives: Coblentz calls on Cairo contact

This article was originally published in The Polytechnic.

Mohamed ElBaradei likes cheeseburgers—according to The Wall Street Journal, that is, which recently interviewed RPI’s own Chief of Staff and Associate Vice President for Policy and Planning Laban Coblentz about his work and personal relationship with ElBaradei. Coblentz worked with ElBaradei at the International Atomic Energy Agency prior to coming to RPI. His communications with ElBaradei had continued over the years and led him to influence ElBaradei’s push for the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt.

Beginning in August 2000, Coblentz worked as a speechwriter and advisor to ElBaradei at IAEA; he had previously held the position of senior advisor to President Shirley Ann Jackson at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. While working for ElBaradei, he traveled to countries such as Iraq and Iran and attended weapons inspections. Coblentz stated that the inspections were “helpful for communications work” because they allowed him a first-hand look at the process.

In 2005, ElBaradei and IAEA won a Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way” according to Nobelprize.org. After winning the peace prize, ElBaradei was frequently asked to speak on various topics, such as religion and “common values,” that led to Coblentz, his speechwriter, helping research such topics in depth.

Coblentz mentioned that ElBaradei “never sought the spotlight,” but his influence and experience with foreign leaders and political pressure prepared him to take on a leadership role in Cairo. In the past 14 months, ElBaradei learned how to use Twitter and Facebook to post updates about the conflict in Egypt.

Around the time that ElBaradei received the Peace Prize, Coblentz felt that ElBaradei should dictate his memoirs. Notes and news clippings were then collected for The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, which will be released in April.

Coblentz stated that the goal was to write a book about policy “that people will read.” Coblentz helped ElBaradei dig for details, asking questions like, “What was the room like? Was he sitting? Was there food?” to bring a more “human effect” to the story.

Coblentz spent many nights helping write ElBaradei’s memoirs with the aid of an editor from Metropolitan Books, whose work Coblentz admires.

However, once the protests in Egypt started, they were forced to put the book on hold as ElBaradei left for Cairo. Despite an abundance of technical difficulties—the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt, a cell phone lost during the protests—ElBaradei managed to keep in touch with Coblentz, even communicating by fax.

Coblentz eventually suggested to ElBaradei that he write an Op-Ed article; however, ElBaradei declined because he felt overwhelmed by the chaos from the protests. ElBaradei eventually decided to write the article and it was published in The New York Times shortly after Mubarak stated in his speech on February 10 that he would not step down as president. The article, which Coblentz said he helped craft, tells about ElBaradei’s experience growing up in Cairo’s repressive regime and the “dramatic change” he experienced coming to the United States. ElBaradei also describes in his article his hopes for Egypt: that they will replace their current repressive constitution with a new “provisional Constitution” and instate a “three-person presidential council and transitional government of national unity” with one member representing the military.

“It’s been tough. I’ve had one eye on Rensselaer and one eye on Cairo,” Coblentz told The Business Review. While he and ElBaradei wait to discover the fate of Egypt’s government, they have been editing the final revisions of ElBaradei’s memoirs.

The Poly Archives: RPI security team simulates cyberwarfare

The Rensselaer Computer Security Interest Group competed in the International Capture the Flag competition last Friday, December 3. Connecting remotely to the organizers’ servers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, RPISEC engaged in a nine-hour simulation of cyberwarfare.

The iCTF event is organized annually by Giovanni Vigna, a professor of computer science at UCSB and co-director of UCSB’s Security Lab. Each year, Vigna themes the competition around a topical issue in the security industry; this year, Vigna explored the idea of disrupting a foreign government’s infrastructure through state-sponsored cyber attacks.

Enter Litya, a nation lead by a notorious dictator that has become known for an abundance of illegal activities—fraud, scams, malware, and other illegitimate dealings—that it uses to bolster its economy. After some of Litya’s secret plans are leaked to the LityaLeaks website, other nations—represented by RPISEC and other participating teams—work to compromise Litya’s plans and bring down the Lityan government.

Throughout the competition, RPISEC completed various challenges ranging from hacker trivia to sophisticated reverse engineering and data forensics. Solving these challenges earned the team cash, which is used to bribe Lityan system administrators into letting down the nation’s cyberdefense mechanisms. Once in, RPISEC had a limited amount of time to stealthily attack the software orchestrating Litya’s infrastructure.

One target, according to participant Wilson Wong ’13, involved gaining access to, aiming, and launching a “missile” (read: NERF gun) using a launch code that changed every 20 minutes.

Pulling off a successful service attack would earn the team a “flag,” a password which could be turned in for points. By the end of the competition, RPISEC had scored 300 points, tying for 32nd place among 72 teams from 16 countries. Among the 26 teams from the U.S., RPISEC placed 12th. The winning team was the Plaid Parliament of Pwning from Carnegie Mellon University.

“We didn’t do as well as we would have liked, focusing too much on solving challenges for cash instead of attacking Litya’s infrastructure, but the competition was well designed and a lot of fun,” said Ryan Govostes ’11, vice president and co-founder of RPISEC. “I’m especially glad that we had a number of first-year students and sophomores, who I hope will continue competing after the current officers have graduated.”

Jeremy Pope ’13 joined RPISEC last fall and participated with the team at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University’s Cyber Security Awareness Week in October, where RPISEC placed 3rd of 10 finalist teams in the capture the flag event. Pope mentioned that his favorite part of this year’s iCTF was “learn[ing] a few things about avoiding detection … and messing with Perl programs” in one of the challenges.

Mukkai Krishnamoorthy of RPI’s Department of Computer Science visited the team during the competition and participated with RPISEC on two of the tasks. “Both of them [were] quite challenging,” stated Krishnamoorthy. “I was shown the solution of one of the challenge problems [about] steganography, [and] while I knew the theory, [John McMaster ’11] was able to decode the challenge using clever tricks. The whole solution strategy [was] refreshing and the cooperative aspect of solving [the] problems was stimulating.”

RPISEC will compete in Russian Capture The Flag Extended on December 18.

The Poly Archives: Keelay

Keelay PawThis sticky note has Keelay’s paw print. My sister gave it to me after he passed away. And below is an ed-op article I wrote for the school newspaper at RPI.


My cat was put to sleep on Friday. I got a text message from my dad after I took my GRE the day before: “Keelay has kidney failure.”

Last week was not that great to begin with. It seemed like exams and assignments were piling on every second, making me want to do nothing but implode. I was happy for about five minutes after the GRE—then I checked my text messages.

Keelay was a healthy, happy cat and only 10 years old. The vet said he possibly found a pool of spilled anti-freeze (we didn’t live that far from a local gas station). He wasn’t doing great, and the vet suggested we don’t wait out the weekend.

My boyfriend had driven me to the test center, but had to leave because of class and wouldn’t be back for a good hour and a half. So, I ended up crying alone in the girls’ bathroom until my boyfriend came to drive me home.

My younger sister had left school early and spent the day with Keelay, crying in her bedroom. Walking up the stairs to her room was painful, and when I walked in and saw Keelay, I lost it; he was thin, upset, and suffering—his movements were slow and he very gently drank his water. I kissed him and cried with my sister.

The past few days have been really hard. Scheduling all my homework/exam extensions for Monday wasn’t one of my brightest ideas. It was hard to focus and having a picture of Keelay on my phone probably didn’t help. I spent a lot of time talking to my boyfriend about my cat and how wonderfully quirky Keelay was.

Keelay was an orange tabby. He was big, and a major attention hog. We first met him at the vet’s office while we were taking our other cat, Gabby, for a check-up. I sat down on a bench, leaned back, and squished him as he curled up on the seat behind me. We fell in love with him and brought him home that day. Keelay and Gabby didn’t get along very well, but it was a love-hate relationship. Gabby was the princess; Keelay was the man of the house.

He had been an indoor cat most of his life, but always tried to find a way to sneak outside. But, when my family moved to my grandparents’ house, we let him go outdoors. There was a big field, a wooded area, and less traffic. He went out, had some fun, and always came back. But, my grandparents’ house is not that far from where we used to live, near that gas station. So one day, Keelay went to our old house, came back…

I have been thinking about him a lot over the past few days. He was good-natured, persistent, somewhat smelly, and had those quirky cat habits that we all love: chasing his tail, drinking out of the toilet, and sleeping in the sink. I remember when I was growing up, both Gabby and Keelay slept with me on the top bunk quite a bit (especially when the dog started sleeping on my sister’s bed underneath). I think about the way he woke me up in the morning, forcefully and ceaselessly nuzzling my arm with his nose and giving me kisses.

Keelay came home last week, and instead of making him feel better, we take him to the vet and put him down. Sometimes I wonder. Did he know he was going to die? That’s a rhetorical question, I don’t expect an answer. However, when I received the text message from my dad, I definitely wasn’t thinking that it would be my last chance to see him. I wasn’t ready for the news and sometimes I still feel like he’s at home, playing with Gabby, wandering around in the garden, waiting on the porch to be let in. And then I remember.

“No amount of time can erase the memory of a good cat, and no amount of masking tape can ever totally remove his fur from your couch.”

Leo Dworken

The Poly Archives: New math mentor program develops

A mentoring program for undergraduate mathematics students has been started this fall through a collaborative effort between the Department of Mathematics, Residence Life, the Advising & Learning Assistance Center, the Office of the Student Experience, and the Office of the First-Year Experience. SE and FYE have been overseeing the mentoring aspects of the program, making sure that mentors are equipped with knowledge of the various resources available for freshmen on campus, while ALAC and the mathematics department are ensuring that the mentors supply proper academic support to the students. Professor Bruce Piper of the Department of Mathematics is overseeing the program.

The program has so far resulted in a change in the structure of Calculus I. The class now has separate quiz blocks with mentors reviewing calculus and pre-calculus topics, while incorporating subject review and important mentoring topics, such as time management, productive study habits, and goal setting.

The idea for the program surfaced around October of last year, when Piper and Assistant Vice President for Student Experience Lisa Trahan were discussing the possibility of a mentoring program for students in Calculus I and how such a program could work with the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students initiative. Trahan stated that the mentor program would “increase the touch points” of CLASS by creating a support system on an academic and personal level for freshman students. The program was announced by President Shirley Ann Jackson at the Town Hall meeting last March and planning officially started that month.

Trahan stated that the main idea behind the math mentoring program was to provide freshman students with “extra support around an academic topic, and help students build a stronger foundation,” as well as provide information about basic mentoring concepts. Trahan also feels that the program is a great experience for the mentors, especially to those who have an interest in teaching in the future.

When a call for applications to the math mentor program was announced last spring, around 40 students applied. The application process included an interview, including questions about being in a role model position, and an examination of their presentation abilities when explaining a math problem to an audience. Thirty students were selected and 26 accepted to become mentors.

This year, the mentor program is being tested out in MATH 1960, a mandatory quiz block registered for by students taking Calculus I this year. Mentors were placed in some of the sections where they cover various mentoring topics in addition to reviewing the same content as the other sections. Each mentor is assigned two sections with approximately eight students per section.

“I really like being a math mentor. I enjoy teaching calculus and I get a sense of value out of helping the first-year students learn calculus and adjust to RPI,” mentioned Alicia Deromedi ’12.

Piper stated that there have also been positive reports about the program coming from students, however, they haven’t yet sent any formal surveys. Once feedback is obtained, more information on the program’s continuation will be available.

The Poly Archives: Zaki wins award for data mining research

You can think of the world around us in terms of massive quantities of data—endless connections in social network graphs, biological networks, economic systems, and so on. “All the data is sort of interconnected in some way. The data is in different forms, [but] if you have data that is all linked together, virtually because these links may not physically exist, the question is can you then discover interesting patterns?”

This is the research area of Professor of Computer Science Mohammed Zaki, who has been selected to be one of the 2010 Hewlett Packard Labs Innovation Research awardees for his project titled “Mining and Querying Massive and Complex Graph Data.”

His research is focused on studying more efficient algorithms to carry out search queries in these large and complex datasets. His research impacts many scientific domains that rely on or can benefit from improved information management techniques.

With large amounts of data and complex network connections, data mining allows people to perform vague queries in order to search for interesting associations in the data. This would be different from a regular keyword search, where you know what you are looking for.

“Data mining is much more advanced in the sense that I actually do not know what I’m looking for. I just say, this is my dataset, find something interesting.”

Because of this characteristic, data mining can help scientists formulate hypotheses based on patterns and relationships discovered in data. One of the areas Zaki has applied his research to is bioinformatics. “I’d talk to a biology professor and say, ‘Look, I found this thing, does it make sense to you? Can you do some follow-up experiments to verify that?’”

Zaki first came to RPI in 1998 and over the past 10 years has worked with his lab studying high-performance data mining and indexing (storage) for large complex datasets. Their research involves looking at existing datasets and studying how to store data for fast information recovery, and create efficient algorithms for searching and extracting information using queries.

Zaki’s lab has also released software, The Data Mining Template Library, which is available on his website. He hopes to eventually add features to the software, incorporating more advanced data mining methods.

“We’re constantly looking for better ways of doing things, better ways of discovering these relationships, and trying to link the different types of information,” said Zaki.

The HP Labs Innovation Research Award gives a one-year cash award to researchers “based on their alignment with the chosen research topic and expected impact of the proposed research,” according to the HP Labs website, to help cover research expenses. The funding can be renewed up to three years at HP’s discretion.

Once Zaki begins his research with HP, Zaki’s lab will exclusively corporate data supplied by HP to conduct their research. “Within HP there’s a lot of information about how corporate basically works and it tends to be very scattered,” stated Zaki. “The goal of this graph mining would be to actually help them discover certain interesting patterns and relationships within their corporate knowledge network.” Zaki will be meeting with a business unit in HP next month in order to discuss the next step of their research.

For more information, visit http://www.hpl.hp.com/open_innovation/irp/ or Zaki’s webpage at http://www.cs.rpi.edu/~zaki/index.php/.

The Poly Archives: Invasive Asian clams in Lake George

This article was originally published in The Polytechnic.

An invasive clam species was discovered to be inhabiting nearby Lake George on August 19. Efforts are underway to gauge the extent of the infestation and eventually eradicate the Asian clam (Corbicula fluminea) from Lake George in order to prevent threatening the native clam species (Elliptio complanata) and spoiling the water supply.

RPI graduate student Jeremy Farrell, of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, was the first to discover the infestation. Farrell obtained his undergraduate degree in ecology from Union College and is currently a Ph.D. student in Rensselaer’s Department of Biology. He started working at Darrin Fresh Water Institute as an intern in 2003.

The U.S. Geological Survey states that if the Asian clam makes its way to electrical or nuclear power plants, some potential hazards include clogging of pipes, drains, and other equipment, as well as reducing energy production efficiency. The process of managing the population of Asian clams has proven to be costly.

According to Executive Director of FUND for Lake George Peter Bauer, “In Lake Tahoe, they’re spending 1.4 million dollars this year to try and manage the clam. The rapid [population growth] generates extensive excrement that facilitates more algae. This cycle leads to decreased water quality.”

So far, investigations are underway to determine how much the Asian clams have spread. Methods such as SCUBA diver surveys have been used to learn the extent of the invasion. Previously, researchers were unsure as to whether the infestation levels were too high to completely remove the Asian clam from Lake George; however, recent investigations indicate that it is possible to completely eliminate the invasive clam from the lake.

According to Bauer, “Staff scientists at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute have conducted fieldwork on the lake bottom to ascertain the extent of the infested area … Based on what we’ve found, we’re planning to eradicate, not simply to manage.”

The method that will be used to remove the clams has still not been decided, however, possible approaches include benthic barrier, suction harvesting, or a combination of both. The decision will be announced in a couple of weeks.

The Darrin Fresh Water Institute originally estimated that the Asian clam infestation spanned approximately 2.5 acres, however, additional fieldwork has shown that the area is larger. Director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute and professor of Biology Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer explained, “We are collecting core sediment samples—which would have clams in them if present—from 60 locations to further define the acres that are infested. We will have this work completed by the end of this week.”

Nierzwicki-Bauer also stated that an updated estimation of the extent of the infestation will be ready by the end of the week after the core sediment samples have been analyzed.

In the past, Lake George has seen infestations from other freshwater species such as Eurasian watermilfoil, zebra mussels, Curlyleaf Pondweed, and Brittle Naiad. These species are still present in Lake George, however, are closely managed or are in the process of being eradicated from the area.

“All invasives require an active annual in-lake survey by divers trained to identify and remove these plants,” Bauer said. Efforts are also being made to contact other lake associations to alert them to the possibility of boaters spreading the infestation.

The Poly Archives: Campus Habitat

This article was originally published in The Polytechnic.

Over the past few months, Campus Habitat has worked with the Rensselaer Union to address alleged New York State Law violations found in their lease by Student Legal Services. They’ve recently made more revisions to the lease and are awaiting feedback.

Executive Vice President of Operations Rob Martin stated that “[Campus Habitat] took initiative and approached RPI to look over [the] lease” asking for feedback.

A fax from Student Legal Services Martin, Shudt, Wallace, DiLorenzo & Johnson was received on January 21 by Director of Community Relations Erin Crotty which outlined the violations. Since then, there has been at least one more revision; after changes were made, the lease was much improved, but problems were reported as still present. Campus Habitat is waiting for the results of the latest evaluation.

Student Legal Services explained that they reviewed the lease with various members of the RPI community and felt the lease did not sufficiently protect the tenant and suggested that students not sign “unless drastic changes [had] been made.”

R. Martin stated that many of the comments referred to vague terminology, which was used because the lease was a national lease that was supposed to satisfy the laws of multiple states.

One of the main concerns mentioned in the fax had to do with Paragraph 20 “Default/Landlord’s Remedies.” The lease had originally stated that the tenant, by signing the lease, waived their right of due process if evicted from the premises and allowed the landlord to trespass, remove the tenant, and remove the tenant’s personal property from the premises. R. Martin clarified that the original intent of that paragraph was to ensure that Campus Habitat could reclaim properties and find a new lessee if a tenant, with or without notice, leaves for a prolonged period of time, and make sure the original tenant isn’t held responsible for rent payments due during that period.

Other violations that were addressed included charging the students for utility fees accrued from common areas (Public Service Law section 52) and asking tenants to waiver their right to be notified of a default in rent payments (three days notice is required by law before the eviction process can begin).

“We want to show the university that we are very serious about having this type of relationship with residents in Troy. One that gives the residents tools and us tools to have a great relationship throughout the term of the lease.”

It was also mentioned that Assistant Vice President for Administration Paul Martin requested that Campus Habitat have all current tenants re-sign the new lease once it has been finalized. P. Martin agreed to help Campus Habitat contact all residents regarding re-signing.

R. Martin and Crotty have been having monthly meetings and will be having their next one on May 1.

Follow-up article originally published May 5, 2010

Director of Community Relations Erin Crotty ’92 has been working to ensure quality community relationships by meeting with local landlords to address concerns of community members. A large part of her effort has involved working with student-housing organization Campus Habitat, who Crotty said has shown “incremental improvements” over the past few months.

Six months ago, after Crotty received complaints around the neighborhood regarding unruly tenants, she invited Executive Vice President of Operations Rob Martin to her monthly meetings with local landlords and other community members such as members of the Office of Student Life, and the Department of Public Safety. Various topics are discussed at these meetings, one of which is Campus Habitat’s lease revisions.

Campus Habitat announced that they anticipated having a new lease for the upcoming academic year and sought RPI’s input. Crotty obtained a copy of the lease and it was reviewed by the Student Legal Services and other external counsel. Campus Habitat stated that they wanted to improve their relationship with RPI and the community and create a lease which wouldn’t raise any concerns by outside attorneys. Assistant Vice President for Administration Paul Martin plans on making sure that once the new lease is complete, Campus Habitat reaches out to students and has current tenants sign the new version of the lease.

Despite optimistic expectations from Crotty, some members of the student body feel that Campus Habitat has been resistant to working with the Rensselaer Union, insisting that they retain certain allegedly illegal parts of their lease. Two examples mentioned were retaining the right to fee students for noise violations without due process, and the ability to relocate the tenant at will. It was mentioned that Charlie Emala ’10 will be giving a copy of the recently revised lease to a non-Union lawyer to perform another review. Other concerns regarding Campus Habitat has been that employees have not been respecting the Institute sign policy, which states that non-RPI-affiliated groups are only allowed to post in the Union after receiving a Union stamp of approval.

Andrew Armenia ’08, member of the Senate’s Finance, Facilities, and Advancement Committee, attended Crotty’s Monday meeting and felt that, “Mr. Martin’s attitude toward their feedback was quite negative at [Monday’s] meeting. Mr. Martin seemed to indicate that Campus Habitat’s intent was to exercise as much control over tenants within the boundaries of state laws.”

Other than the recent lease revisions, Campus Habitat has made other changes related to recent requests brought to Crotty and the Rensselaer Union. Changes include having removed many of the banners from their properties around the Troy area, and working to remove references to RPI in their advertisements. In addition to the work with Campus Habitat, Crotty has largely been working to improve the quality of living in RPI’s surrounding areas by getting involved in improving garbage removal, snow removal, and lighting. Community leaders are working to reestablish the “neighborhood association” which will potentially include a neighborhood watch.

Crotty stated that with the advent of the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students initiative, Vice President for Student Life Eddie Ade Knowles has been working to appoint an off-campus dean who will be the contact for off-campus students who might be having issues with their off-campus living arrangements. Until this appointment, Crotty has agreed to act as a conduit, so students can have their opinions heard.

“I’m not your voice. I’m a voice, and I’d like input,” Crotty stated.

Crotty’s monthly meetings are the first Monday of each month at the Troy Office of Government and Community Relations, at 2021 Peoples Avenue, and students are encouraged to attend. Students can contact Crotty at crotte@rpi.edu.