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What’s the best laptop screen size for poor eyesight?

Chris wants to know if a Windows laptop with a 17in screen would be easier for his ‘pensioner eyes’

For home use, would a 17in Full HD laptop screen be better or worse than a 13in or 14in model? Will the clarity and crispness be better for my pensioner eyes? Chris

According to my pensioner eyes, clarity and crispness are less important than size. And in one of life’s little ironies, increasing the resolution of a screen, to make things look crisper, leads directly to a decrease in size.

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New Book Out!

Happy spring!

Yesterday was the official publication date of Essential Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science, co-authored with my former CS20 teaching assistant Rachel Zax, now at Google. It's meant to be a quick trip through all the mathematical subjects students need to do computer science but wouldn't get in their calculus and linear algebra courses. The publisher, Princeton University Press, has done a great job holding the price down. They have made it available in electronic form at an even lower price than the print edition.

This project started when I designed CS20 almost ten years ago (see "Reinventing the Classroom" for the genesis of that course). I needed an affordable text that covered a variety of topics not usually packaged together. There wasn't one (remember, I said "affordable"). I made do with a variety of online materials, mostly designed for a more mathematically sophisticated audience. Rachel, who had worked with me on the course when I taught it for the first time in the spring of 2012, suggested we should write a book. Here's the end result, only seven years in the making!

The cover art illustrates a famous theorem treated early in the book. The English language statement of the theorem is that in any group of six people, there are either 3 who all know each other or 3 who are mutually unknown to each other. (Take your pick as to which of red and blue represents knowing and which represents not knowing.) It's a nice example of how to translate that into math-speak and then prove that it's always true--pretty typical of the material in the book!

The acknowledgements thank (by name) everyone who was a teaching assistant while I was teaching the course; a terrific group, mostly of Harvard math and CS undergrads. They really made it fun to teach this material, and I hope that comes through in the book!


Harvard's educational role

Several clear-headed pieces have appeared about the student demands that Professor Ronald Sullivan resign from—or be removed from—his position as faculty dean of Winthrop House because of his service as counsel to Harvey Weinstein. I bloggedearlier about Professor Randall Kennedy’s commentaryin the Chronicle of Higher Education. (This link should work for readers with Harvard Library privileges.) In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer for the magazine, has an equally thoughtful piece called “In defense of Harvey Weinstein’s Harvard lawyer.” He cites the student petition, which states that Sullivan’s “defense of such a figure induces a great amount of fear and hurt in victims of the crimes that Weinstein is accused of,” and then discusses John Adams defending the British soldiers, which Kevin Cullen used as a basis for his satirical column, but puts a less comic spin on it by quoting Adams himself on the price he paid:
In the Evening I expressed to Mrs. Adams all my Apprehensions: That excellent Lady, who has always encouraged me, burst into a flood of Tears, but said she was very sensible of all the Danger to her and to our Children as well as to me, but she thought I had done as I ought, she was very willing to share in all that was to come and place her trust in Providence.
The pattern has been repeated throughout U.S. history. “Defense attorneys for Communists made many feel angry and unsafe,” Friedersdorf writes, recalling the McCarthy era, and then moving to the present, “Defense attorneys for al-Qaeda terrorists made many feel angry and unsafe.”

So people always get upset at lawyers who defend unpopular clients, and societies that value civil liberties and individual rights have to teach every new generation why lawyers should not be identified with their clients nor subjected to any guilt by association. Ever. 52 Harvard Law School professors make the point in a letter in the Boston Globe. President Drew Findling of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers made the point very bluntly in a powerful statement (in the NACDL Twitter feed):

NACDL notes with chagrin the tenor of the student protests against Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. related to his representation of Harvey Weinstein. There are few constitutionally-ordained roles in our democracy. One such role is that of the criminal defense lawyer. Indeed, the Sixth Amendment specifically provides that 'In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel[.]' There are no exceptions, ever, and no lawyer should ever be criticized or condemned for taking on any criminal case. Ever. This is a fundamental tenet of this nation. To the extent that there may or may not be other issues on the Harvard campus that bear on Professor Sullivan's role at Harvard, those issues should be addressed by the Harvard community without compromising or denigrating the right to counsel.

Writing for Bloomberg,Professor Steven Carter of Yale Law School makes similar arguments.

Judging the morality of lawyers by the morality of their clients carries echoes of the McCarthy Era, when Red-baiters would smear lawyers who represented Communists. The organized bar, rather than protect its members, joined in the condemnation. The result was predictable: Rather than take on unpopular clients, lawyers cowered in what U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas decried as a “black silence of fear.” …

More worrisome still is Harvard’s ominous promise to look into the “atmosphere” at Winthrop House. It suggests that the university believes that a faculty member’s choice of clients is a matter of administrative significance. And let’s not pretend to be naive: Nowadays, being investigated by campus authorities is tantamount to being convicted by them.

We’re a far cry from the days of Abbot Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard who developed the “house” system. Yes, Lowell had his many warts, but he did some good things. Here’s one of them: A century ago, during the runup to World War I, a Harvard professor was accused of supporting Germany. Editorialists wanted his head. Lowell’s response has justifiably gone down in history: “If a university or college censors what its professors may say, if it restrains them from uttering something that it does not approve, it thereby assumes responsibility for that which it permits them to say.”

The same reasoning, it seems to me, should apply to the selection of a client. Harvard could certainly adopt a rule holding that no faculty shall engage in outside legal work. Absent that, however, once the school decides to punish a professor for choosing the wrong client, it implicitly endorses the clients of others who are not punished.

If that’s the business Harvard wants to be in, then in all fairness the administration might as well come out and publish a list, right now, today, of acceptable and unacceptable clients. We might as well get a good clear look at the future.

Perhaps students are not making the error of conflating the client with his attorney. Perhaps they are passing judgment on their dean simply for the discomfort he causes them by the choices he makes in his private life. That explanation, while troubling, has the merit of consistency with Harvard’s view that students’ own off-campus associations (choosing to join a women’s club, for example) are its business—that having any “wrong” relationship may justify the College in passing judgment against you. 

It is hard to know where such an extended reach would end, and for that reason I suspect any such basis for complaint is either not well thought through or a pretext for something else.

Whatever the underlying logic, the College, by instituting a review of the “climate” Sullivan is alleged to have created by his choice of clients, is honoring that confusion rather than trying to correct it. It is a chilling idea that a dean might be removed for creating a “climate” simply by associating, even professionally, with other people. It would be awfully hard to proscribe associations in order to avoid the risk that they might engender negative feelings in the House. A friend asked me: Could a faculty dean acknowledge having voted for Donald Trump without creating the sort of climate that would legitimize similar student feelings of unsafety? If so, Harvard would need to create a list of acceptable political positions, so both faculty and students could be warned in advance what they were allowed to think and say in the Houses.

It would be good, as they institute a review of the “climate” in Winthrop House, for the Harvard leaders to articulate the climate-creating role of the faculty dean. One is led to infer from the complaint and the response that faculty deans are expected to create a climate in which no one ever feels uncomfortable. I don’t know how else to interpret Harvard taking seriously the claim that Sullivan’s professional representation of Weinstein, who has as far as I know never set foot on Harvard property, makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In an excellent interviewin the New Yorker,Sullivan claims he is the first subject of such a climate review, but is contradicted by a Harvard spokesperson, who notes there was a climate review of another Houseon the basis of discomfort felt by LGBTQ students. It’s an interesting example, because that complaint seems to have been that the House was insufficiently “welcoming” to gay students. But there are religiously conservative students who have expressed discomfort about co-ed bathrooms and about the possibility they might have to live in a House headed by a same-sex couple. Their discomfort was rightly handled without a climate review threatening the removal of the dean. Why is the College taking so seriously the discomfort of the complainants against Sullivan? 

Discomfort is part of life in a diverse community. That does not mean that it is OK for anyone to beunsafe, but a feelingof unsafety cannot be used as club to get rid of people or to make political points. And no one at Harvard has a right to safety from ideas they don’t like, for example, the idea that good lawyers defend terrible clients.

Medical School professor and former dean Jeffrey Flier argues thatin failing to support Sullivan, Harvard’s leaders are not doing their full job.

What about the University’s response? Apart from Kennedy’s powerful piece and a few isolated tweets, there has been no official, institutional response from Harvard in support of Sullivan, although some other faculty have spoken up in his defense, many of them quoted in a recent piece about the brouhaha in the Atlantic. Sources tell me that a large number of HLS faculty penned a strong confidential letter defending Sullivan and sent it to University leaders, but so far it hasn’t received a reply. Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana met with Sullivan, after which he told the Crimson: “I take seriously the concerns that have been raised from members of the College community regarding the impact of Professor Sullivan’s choice to serve as counsel for Harvey Weinstein on the House community that he is responsible for leading as a faculty dean.” Khurana “communicated that that the College believes that more work must be done to uphold our commitment to the well-being of our students”— hardly a ringing endorsement of Professor Sullivan. He later announced a “climate survey” to assess the state of the Winthrop House community, an approach that, at a moment like this, seems to empower those seeking Sullivan’s removal.

What about Harvard’s other leaders? So far, they have said nothing. It is likely that back room discussions are dominated by institutional defensiveness, concerns about legal and communications matters, and barely concealed fear, given the explosive nature of such issues at other campuses. Title IX controversies are a constant concern, at Harvard and elsewhere, and Harvard has made serious mistakes in the past. The University now employs a large and increasingly complex organization to deal with claims of unwelcome environment, harassment and assault, as well as issues of “diversity and belonging,” a newly articulated goal now permeating the University. While diversity, belonging and sexual assault are unquestionably important issues, they are tangential to this situation, which concerns a respected faculty member whose supposed transgression is participating in the legal representation of an unpopular defendant. Perhaps the administration should strike a better balance between addressing student concerns and supporting a distinguished faculty member whose advisory role is being inappropriately questioned.

Even better, the administration could educate students about navigating the difficult transition to adulthood, which involves developing compartmentalized working relationships with people from whom we cannot easily step away. The world can be complicated, and the different roles we all play can interact in ways that require nuance and compromise. One of the things we don’t expect of high schoolers but do hope for from college graduates is to understand how to put up with imperfection in one place in the pursuit of larger ideals. If you discover that your landlord has a sexual assault conviction on his record, you cannot easily stop paying him rent money, or stop asking him to get rid of your cockroaches. If the father of your children disagrees with your politics, you can’t easily replace him with another. If your boss’s boss is abusive to his family, you can’t easily give up a good job and find one with better people all the way up the management chain, or demand that the company do something about matters in which you are involved only very peripherally. And if you don’t like some of the clients your lawyer has defended, you don’t go looking for one who defends only good people.

Of course, some of these analogies are imperfect. Everything Sullivan has done is honorable—just as John Adams said that his defense of the British soldiers was “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.” These hypotheticals are simply examples of the kinds of uncomfortable situations they will encounter in their daily lives once they leave Harvard. We all face such situations regularly. It is possible in each case to get the discomfiting individual out of our lives—we can move out of the apartment, or quit the job, or get a divorce. But the cost is in each case high—and the new situation is likely to be no better than the old, and to be deficient in some other way. So what we generally do, in order to live productive lives rather than constantly seeking to avoid discomfort or expecting others to protect us from upsetting conditions, is to find proportional responses to our grievances so that we can focus our energy on the pursuit of our important objectives. That is not compromising our ideals; it’s pursuing them maturely.

So there is an important lesson Harvard should be teaching students about the civics of legal representation. But that is not all: it should also be helping them learn to live with the ambiguities of the world. The capacity to do that is one of the things we hope distinguish an 18-year-old high school graduate from a 22-year-old Harvard graduate, but Harvard can’t effect that change in students simply by sheltering them and waiting for four years to elapse. I made some suggestions earlier on (A teachable moment) on the educational opportunity here. It is not too late.

Queen Elizabeth's Instagram post

Queen Elizabeth made a lot of news yesterday with her first Instagram post. It was a letter from Charles Babbage to Prince Albert, Elizabeth's great-great-grandfather and the husband of Queen Victoria. Babbage was the first person to design a programmable computer, but he could never get it fully functional, in part because it was purely mechanical and it was extremely difficult, before mass production, to machine parts to the necessary tolerances for a contraption of the scale he envisioned. Babbage's name is associated today with that of his apprentice Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, arguably the first computer programmer.

Babbage's story has much fascinating detail, some of which the letter brings to life. Babbage was a distinguished mathematician, the holder of Isaac Newton's chair at Cambridge. His work was funded by the British government, and he kept running out of money and needing more, until finally he was cut off completely and the project died. Here is a transcription of the letter, done with the aid of a CS191 student:
Sir,
In presuming to place in your hands the accompanying volume I am actuated by a feeling beyond the mere desire of expressing my dutiful respect.
When you did me the honor of exercising the Difference Engine Your Royal Highness proved that you not only understood generally the nature of the mechanism, but also its important bearing upon human knowledge.
Having myself abstained from my publication on the subject solely because I wished to apply my whole effort to the completion of the invention, it has been my good fortune to find in a distinguished Italian Philosopher an excellent interpreter of the mathematical part of the subject,  and also a Translator and Commentator whose comprehensive views have done full justice to the original.
The control of the Analytical Engine over all the great Astronomical questions on which the the safety of the Navy so much depends can scarcely fail to impart to the subject an interest in the mind of Her Majesty: that interest may perhaps be still further increased when the Queen is made acquainted with the fact that the Author of that admirable commentary is an English Peeress the daughter of the late Lord Byron.
                I am   Sir
            With the most profound Respect
            Your Royal Highness'
            Most Obedient Humble Servant
                C. Babbage
Dorset [unreadable suffix]
    Manchester Square
    15 September 1843
 There is no explicit ask in the letter, but how many aspects are present here of a modern progress report to a funding agency?

  • "Your decision to fund my research shows how smart you are."
  • "It's coming along. I'm doing everything I can to finish it."
  • "I found someone to write the documentation, though I had to go abroad to do it."
  • "Remember, this work is essential to the national defense."
  • "Please be sure your female boss knows that I hired a woman to work on it too."

Some things never change.

“Professor Sullivan Deserves Our Respect”

Guest post by David McCallum

[Like the anonymous op-ed in the pervious post, this piece was submitted to and rejected by the Crimson, and has since been make public. It is worth noting that Professor Randall Kennedy's op-ed, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and is the subject of my post "A teachable moment," was also submitted to and rejected by the Crimson.]

------------------

I spent 29 years in prison for a murder I didn’t commit. I was a teenager when I was put away, not much younger than many of you in college at Harvard. I was exonerated because of the work of Professor Ron Sullivan.

I am not a lawyer. I spent half of my teenage years, all of my 20’s and 30’s, and half of my 40’s in prison, so I missed that time to make a career and many other milestones of adult life I hope students in college can look forward to. I missed decades of my mother’s home-cooked food, taking care of my older sister through her deteriorating health, my friend’s marriages and childbirths and funerals, and the freedom to take a walk outside. But I do know a thing or two about the justice system. I know because I lived it. So please hear me out.

When I was 16 years old, I was questioned for a crime I didn’t commit. I was scared, confused, intimidated, and alone. I knew I was playing handball with my sister and her friends in a park near my home during the entire time this murder took place.

There was no one in the room with me, and I was questioned without a lawyer. The police said if I confessed I could go home. So I gave them their false confession. But when I asked if I could go home, I was put behind bars instead.

Things moved fast in the name of “justice”. It’s still crazy to me how few protections there were against injustice. Sure, I was asked if I wanted a lawyer. After I had already ‘confessed’. Sure, the police let my mother come see me. After I had already ‘confessed’. The system was swift in convicting me. I screamed that I didn’t do it, testified during my trial that I didn’t do it, and had lawyers appeal my conviction until all my appeals were exhausted - but it didn’t matter, because everyone with any power over my freedom at the time thought they knew the truth. It was too late.

So to prison I went. And I spent most of my life there. It wasn’t until Hurricane Carter drew attention to my case that my story started to become high profile. People started paying attention, and Professor Sullivan found me. He was helping the Brooklyn DA’s office at the time with conviction review, and I hand-wrote him a letter asking him for his help. I told him what I had been saying all along: that I was innocent. He listened.

Professor Sullivan personally pored over my file, found every hole in the prosecution’s version of events, saw that there was no valid evidence whatsoever, and he pushed the DA for my release. Professor Sullivan was never my defense attorney and he wasn’t the prosecutor either. He was a good lawyer seeking truth and justice, no matter which side of the courtroom he had to stand on to get it for me.

It takes a celebrity bringing attention to a case or to an issue, like Hurricane Carter did for me, for the holes in the criminal justice system to be exposed. When good lawyers take unpopular stands and defend people assumed to be guilty, like what I read that Professor Sullivan is doing for Harvey Weinstein, people pay attention to how the system works and take the time to dissect what’s wrong with it while he’s doing the same thing from the inside. That’s why when some lawyers called me about this resistance Professor Sullivan is experiencing for his Weinstein representation, I knew I had to respond. The image of Professor Sullivan in that courtroom when I was exonerated is seared in my memory, and I take it as a personal offense that anyone might challenge his capability to achieve justice.

Attention brings scrutiny, and scrutiny brings change. But press isn’t enough. Good lawyers are needed on both sides in order to use this attention to highlight every single problem in the system and to push for change from the inside. We can’t fix a system until we know exactly what parts are broken. When I first saw Professor Sullivan’s TED talk, I was moved to tears for that reason. He gets it, and he’s doing everything he can to identify and fix what’s broken.

I think we can also all agree that if I had someone like Professor Sullivan with me when I was on trial 35 years ago, my life would have been very different.

Innocent people deserve good lawyers from the minute they enter the system. In America, people are innocent until proven guilty. So, everyone deserves good lawyers from the start. If you believe otherwise, you would be supporting the same system that made me lose 29 years of my life to prison. A vigilante system where innocence is determined by public opinion and not evidence. I am a product of the dangers of that environment. Professor Sullivan is pulling us away from it, and I am following him as he creates the criminal justice system this country needs. I hope you will, too.

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