The Science of Students Swapping Sections

The Problem

This semester, I am responsible for leading discussion sections for an undergraduate cognitive neuroscience course. These sections consist of ~30-40 students at a time, and are in addition to two weekly faculty lectures attended by the entire class. Smaller groups give students a chance to interact with the course material more directly than is possible during the lectures, which are given to an audience of well over 100 people.

As a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI), one of my other responsibilities is coordinating with students who want or need to change which of the six discussion sections they attend (3 on Tuesday, 3 on Thursday). Requests to change section are often due to time conflicts with other classes. As instructors, we don’t care which students end up in each section, just that the class numbers are balanced and do not exceed the pre-set class size.

While we initially asked the students to work out swaps amongst themselves, it quickly became apparent that this would fail to resolve most of the conflicts. In a perfect world, every student seeking to switch out of one section and into another would be matched with another student seeking so make the opposite switch, resulting in everyone getting their desired discussion section. In this course, that kind of bi-directional swap was only possible for one pair of students, leaving 8 people stuck in discussion sections that don’t work for them.

The table below contains all requested discussion section changes. The only possible pairwise swap is between students H and I.

Being a nice guy, I started thinking about the swap requests for the remaining students to see if I could figure out a multi-person swap solution. After a few minutes, I realized that this was actually quite an interesting problem, and one that I’m sure others have tried to solve before. So I went online and did some research.

Continue reading The Science of Students Swapping Sections

Crossing into the US on your way to (or from) OHBM 2017? Know your rights.

I seem to be developing a habit of only writing blog posts related to conferences I travel to. It’s not that I don’t have other things I want to write about; I’ve got a whole list of ideas. It’s more that it can feel hard to justify time spent writing for enjoyment when I have so many other things that need to get done. On the other hand, it’s good to be in the habit of writing at least a little bit every day… but I digress.

Less than a week after taking office in January, President Trump (ugh, I want to vomit just typing that) signed his infamous (and immoral, and illegal) “Muslim ban”. Although implementation of the ban is largely on hold for now thanks to the courts (and the tireless work of lawyers and activists), that hasn’t stopped border agents from making life difficult for people trying to enter the country.

As an organization which rightfully values diversity and inclusivity, OHBM quickly denounced the ban, and the council voted unanimously to remove US cities from consideration as hosts for the 2020 annual meeting.

Although the meeting is in Canada this year, I suspect some non-trivial number of international attendees will end up transiting through the US on their way to or from Vancouver. Even those of us who are US citizens or permanent residents are now subject to increased scrutiny at the border, especially when it comes to digital privacy.

In light of these facts, I’ve gathered together a few resources on what your rights are when attempting to enter the United States:

Stay strong, my friends, and I hope to see you in Vancouver.

I Brain NY – Part 2: Eat, Drink, and See

Welcome to Part 2 of my NYC guide for attendees of the 2016 Cognitive Neuroscience Society annual meeting. Part 1 introduced the guide and covered subways, busses, taxis, and getting to/from the airports. Part 2 is going to focus heavily on food, with some additional advice about sightseeing thrown in at the end.

Please note that this post is a work in progress and will grow a bit over the next day or so as I add more restaurants (particularly more pizza, more bakeries, bagels, and more asian cuisine) and the attractions, so check back on Sunday for an even bigger list.

Coffee

To say there is a lot of fantastic coffee in New York would be an understatement, so I’m going to focus here on places that are within easy walking distance of the conference hotel:

  • Little Collins (Lexington Ave between 55th and 56th) – Superb Melbourne-style coffee. Go here to try a real Flat White.
  • Ninth Street Espresso (56th between Park Ave and Lexington Ave) – Cash only. Their roast is a bit bolder than what is used around the corner at Little Collins. Tasty baked goods.
  • Simon Sips (6th Ave between 46th and 47th) – Tricky to find, but hidden in the lobby of a soulless office building is some seriously good coffee.

Lunch and Dinner

With almost 10,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone, there is no excuse not to eat well in NYC. Amazing food can be had on any budget and in every neighborhood. With so many options, it’s tempting to utter that fateful phrase “We’ll find something.”, but trust me when I say that this is generally not a good plan. Yes, there are indeed a huge number of eating establishments, but most of them aren’t very good, or at least nowhere near as good as the place down the block. Your best bet is to search Yelp for what you’re looking for and use the ratings and reviews as your guide.

First up is a list of my favorite (relatively) affordable lunch spots in Midtown, all of which are walkable from the conference hotel.

  • Omar’s Mediterranean Cuisine (55th between Lexington Ave and 3rd Ave, Midtown East) – This place pretty much always has a line out the door (don’t worry, it moves quickly), and for good reason. The shawarma plate is fantastic and almost certainly more than you can eat in a single sitting.
  • Land of Plenty (58th between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave, Midtown East) – The best Sichuan (Chinese) food in the city is found far out in Brooklyn and Queens, but Land of Plenty is a totally respectable and delicious option for those seeking something seriously spicy at an affordable price.
  • Chola (58th between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave, Midtown East) – Does one of the best (if not the best) Indian lunch buffets I’ve found in the city.
  • The Kati Roll Company (53rd between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave, Midtown East) – A kati roll is essentially an Indian burrito, and is just as tasty as you imagine it would be.
  • Rafiqi’s (multiple carts in Midtown) – My favorite of the seemingly countless “street meat” shawarma carts, lamb over rice from Rafiqi’s made up a significant portion of my food intake when I lived in NYC. Cheap, quick, and delicious.

If you’re willing to pay a bit more, wait a little longer, or venture away from Midtown, the following is a selection of what I consider to be some of the best restaurants in the city.

  • Shake Shack (Madison Square Park, Flatiron) – My favorite burger anywhere (in the under $10 category). While Shake Shack has expanded and opened locations in many cities around the world, there is nothing like lining up on a nice day in Madison Square Park and eating at the original.
  • Katz’s Delicatessen (Houston and Ludlow, Lower East Side) – The quintessential New York Jewish Deli, established in 1888 and still going strong. Arguably the best pastrami in the world (tip at the counter when you order to get the best cuts). Open 24 hours on Saturday, a whole (huge) sandwich is pricey but worth every penny, and can easily be two meals. If you only have time to visit one classic NYC eatery, make it Katz’s.
  • Hide Chan Ramen (52nd between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave) – Less famous than Ippudo but (in my opinion) much tastier. Amazing rich, salty tonkotsu broth with a generous serving of moist, fatty char siu pork and multiple noodle options. Nice ambiance too.
  • Grand Sichuan House (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn) – My favorite Sichuan restaurant in the city. It’s a long train ride from Midtown, but everything I’ve ever ordered there has been superbly spicy and flavorful.
  • Mile End Delicatessen (Bond Street, NoHo) – Another deli, this one Montreal-style. The original location is around the corner from our old apartment in Brooklyn, but their NoHo store is bigger and more centrally located. Delicious smoked meat, which you can get in a sandwich but is even better as part of the indulgent Smoked Meat Poutine.

Pizza

Yes, pizza gets its own section. The first pizzeria in the United States was opened in New York in 1905, and ever since NYC has been a center of the pizza universe. Even if you’re not interested in going out of your way for pizza, do at least pick up a slice at one of the ubiquitous dollar slice joints that dot the city. It may not blow your mind, but a cheap New York slice will still be better than 90% of the pizza in California.

  • Di Fara Pizza (Avenue J, Midwood Brooklyn) – Widely considered to be the best pizza in the city and a serious contender for the title of best on earth. If you’re not a serious pizza snob it’s probably not worth the schlep and expense, but if you are it will change your life. If you do decide to go, I recommend this handy guide.
  • Lucali (Henry Street, Carroll Gardens Brooklyn) – If you’re seeking fantastic New York pizza but aren’t quite ready to commit to making the trek to Di Fara, Lucali is a great option. Located in one of my very favorite neighborhoods, you’re still going to have to wait in line but there is at least a lot of other stuff to see and do nearby.
  • L&B Spumoni Gardens (86th Street, Gravesend Brooklyn) – Specializing in Sicilian-style square “grandma” pies, Spumoni Gardens is a slice of the quickly disappearing “real” authentic Brooklyn.
  • Luzzo’s (1st Ave between 12th and 13th, East Village) – My favorite pizza in Manhattan, and I’m told their non-pizza options are equally delicious.

Bagels

Yes, bagels also get their own section. If you’ve never had a New York bagel, you’ve never had a bagel. I do not think this is a particularly controversial statement, at least for those who have experience what I consider to be one of life’s great joys.

My very favorite bagel was from the original H&H on the Upper West Side, which served up hot, fresh bagels 24 hours a day. These bagels were so good that I (and more than a few other people I know) often stopped here for quick dozen on the way to the airport in hopes of transporting some of the magic to the great bagel wasteland that is the rest of the United States. Unfortunately, the owners weren’t always so honest with their finances, and H&H ceased operations in 2011, much to the dismay of bagel lovers across the globe (including President Obama). While the world will never quite be the same, there are still many fantastic bagels in the city, three of which are listed below. Be ready for long lines at these places, but trust that it will be worth it.

Important: Regardless of where you go to get a bagel, the most important thing is that it is fresh and warm. This is absolutely critical, as the deliciousness of a bagel falls off approximately exponentially as it loses heat. If in doubt, ask the people behind the counter what’s still hot.

  • Absolute Bagels (108th and Broadway, Upper West Side) – Many consider this to be the best bagel in the city. I’m inclined to agree.
  • Ess-a-Bagel (3rd Ave between 50th and 51st, Midtown East) – Conveniently located within walking distance of the conference hotel, this was my go-to bagel after H&H closed.
  • H&H Midtown Bagels East (2nd Ave between 80th and 81st, Upper East Side) – Don’t let the name fool you; this place hasn’t been associated with the original since the 1970’s when it was bought from the original owners. That said, the bagels are solid, and more importantly, they’re open 24 hours a day.
  • As with pizza, the bagel you get from any random hole in the wall here is likely going to be better than pretty much anything you can get outside the city, so don’t feel like you absolutely have to go somewhere special. Just make sure it’s hot.

Baked Goods and Desserts

  • Bouchon Bakery & Cafe (Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle) – Opened by chef Thomas Keller (who currently holds no less than seven Michelin stars), Bouchon offers baked goodies that are as beautiful as they are delicious. My personal favorite is the Nutter Butter cookie, but if you get just one thing, make it their signature TKO (Thomas Keller Oreo). There is also a location in Rockefeller Center, but it is nowhere near as nice as the one at Columbus Circle.
  • Momofuku Milk Bar (56th between 5th and 6th, Midtown) – Whereas Bouchon works to have the feel of an elegant French bistro, Milk Bar is unashamedly American, and that’s not a bad thing. Founder and chef Christina Tosi has come up with some truly original creations such as Cereal Milk (milk that tastes just like what’s left in the bottom of a cereal bowl when you’re done with breakfast) and Crack Pie (sugary, buttery, and incredibly rich; a home-made version of this is how I won the dessert competition at our lab’s annual holiday party). Multiple locations in the city, the Midtown store is just a few blocks from the conference hotel.
 (Special thanks to Arielle Tambini– D’Esposito lab resident dessert expert– for her help with the bagels and bakeries sections)

I Brain NY – Part 1: Getting Around

There are three things in life that I love orders of magnitude more than everything else. My wife Theresa, my science, and New York City. As such, I was thrilled when I heard that this year’s Cognitive Neuroscience Society annual meeting would be held in Midtown Manhattan, just blocks away from my old lab.

When you’re passionate about something, you want to share it with others, so I thought I’d take some time and write a quick guide to the city for those attending the meeting. Countless books and articles have been written which provide much of the same information, so I’ve tried to distill things down to the essential information and include stuff that might not be found elsewhere. This has been a lot of fun to write, and I hope people find it useful. I’m also more than happy to answer specific questions about the city or make recommendations, just post a comment here or ping me on Twitter @danjlurie.

I’ve decided to break the guide down into two parts. The first, focusing on transportation and sightseeing, is below. The second (to be posted this weekend) will be dedicated to the amazing food and drink the city has to offer as well as advice about what to see and do when you’re not at the conference.

Continue reading I Brain NY – Part 1: Getting Around

Cal should be a safe place for everybody.

Below is the text of an email I sent to University of California President Janet Napolitano and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, in response to the complete and utter failure of the University to respond appropriately to repeated incidents of sexual assault and harassment by Astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy.

Dear President Napolitano and Chancellor Dirks,

On most days, being a member of the UC Berkeley community is one of the things I am most proud of. 

Not today. 

I am writing to express in the strongest possible terms my shock and disgust at how the University has failed to properly address repeated claims of sexual harassment and assault by Astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy. As I am sure you are well aware, despite acknowledging the veracity of these claims, the University took no meaningful disciplinary action. Not only is Marcy not being held responsible for his actions, but the pathetic response by the University sends a message to others who would act in a similar way that they can do so and expect to get away with it. 

Beyond the failure of the University to take appropriate action, the behavior of Astronomy Department interim Chair Gibor Basry has been completely unacceptable. In an email to faculty that has been widely shared online, Basry suggested that things are “hardest for [Marcy] in this moment” and asked that they offer him “understanding and support.” When the Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion feels that a man found guilty of repeated and inexcusable sexual harassment and assault is more deserving of sympathy and support than the countless women whose lives and careers he has irreparablly damaged, it is no wonder that there is little faith from the community that proper action will be taken to address these serious and wide-spread issues. 

The failure of the University to respond appropriately to this incident has already done serious damage to Cal’s reputation. This is particularly apparent on social media, where many scientists and academics at other institutions have have said that they are no longer comfortable encouraging their students to apply to Berkeley, with some going so far as to say that they will actively discourage it. The sentiment of these posts is echoed by an increasing number of prospective graduate students who say they have decided not to apply to Berkeley after seeing the recent news, and others who report that they had already been steered away from Berkeley by concerned mentors. 

I hope it does not come as news to you that Marcy’s behavior is not at all uncommon in science and academia, and that the only way it can be stopped is by strong, meaningful action from institutions. Where there is a strong imbalance of power, such as between a professor and students, speaking up about inappropriate or even illegal behavior can often in a very real way mean having to choose between your safety and your career. Far too many women have already left science because of people like Marcy. 

The University of California Diversity Statement reads:

Because the core mission of the University of California is to serve the interests of the State of California, it must seek to achieve diversity among its student bodies and among its employees. The State of California has a compelling interest in making sure that people from all backgrounds perceive that access to the University is possible for talented students, staff, and faculty from all groups. The knowledge that the University of California is open to qualified students from all groups, and thus serves all parts of the community equitably, helps sustain the social fabric of the State.

Right now, these words ring hollow. 

I hope you’ll take the time to consider the power of your position, and recognize that you have the opportunity now to help enact meaningful change to dismantle a toxic legacy that continues to be exclusionary to fully half of the population the University is supposed to serve.

Respectfully,
Daniel Lurie
Graduate Student
Department of Psychology
University of California, Berkeley

The Decline of Frontiers?

Frontiers InDorothy Bishop has a good blog post discussing her lack of faith in the quality of Frontiers journals. I’ve heard other people express similar views recently, and I’m starting to share their concerns. While there are certainly still solid articles published in Frontiers journals, there are often an equal number of studies whose scientific rigor is questionable (and sometimes even obviously lacking). I am a big fan of Open Access publishing, especially journals such as PLOS ONE which emphasize quality science over subjective novelty. Unfortunately, Frontiers seems to have gone wrong somewhere when it comes to striking a balance between inclusiveness and quality control. Bishop suggests this may be due to financial incentives to publish articles that would otherwise be rejected, and I wonder if it may also be due in part to the “Community-run” journal model of Frontiers which essentially creates multiple independently-run journals under the Frontiers name, potentially each with their own particular standards and policies depending on who the editors are. Hopefully the leadership and Frontiers will start to recognize these issues and act quickly to resolve them, because it would be a shame to see such a big supporter of open science be relegated to the scientific dust bin.