Author: Omar Shehata

Self-control redefines addiction “safety net”

I remember watching the movie Flight, a film about a pilot battling alcohol addiction, with my friends a few years ago. The pilot would promise to change and get his life together, only to relapse as he took out one last stash of booze he had kept hidden. This happened repeatedly throughout the movie, so much so that my friends started mocking the predictability of the plot. They were laughing, but I was not. It pained me to see the pilot go through that, because this was exactly the kind of frustration that is all too familiar to anyone who has ever been addicted to anything. You commit to breaking free and start to feel the shackles of your desire slipping off, until you taste the bitterness of relapse again and again.

This is exactly the same kind of frustration that violinist Gabi Holzwarth describes in her article “The Constant Hero’s Journey” in the Huffington Post. She had recently given a TED Talk about her recovery from food addiction. She stood in front of thousands retelling her story of fighting her inner demons and winning. Her success story inspired so many with their own addiction problems to press on and keep trying, hoping that one day they too would live free of their addictions. However, despite having reached a point where she felt empowered to help others, she relapsed soon after her talk. Her views on addiction shifted. She no longer thought there was a safety net for those in recovery for long enough.

“I do not believe that the end feels like a safety net. I do not believe that there is an end,” Holzwarth said in her article. The idea that addicts are forever bound to their desires sounds like a very grim view. One might even call it nothing more than an excuse for failure, but I believe Holzwarth’s view could not be closer to the truth. In fact, believing that a safety net exists at some point can only be detrimental. Someone struggling with addiction will let his or her guard down at a vulnerable time, which can lead to relapse. Addictions become a part of you, no matter how deeply tucked away they might be. They are still present and can be awoken at any time.

If anything, this gives me hope. Once you come to terms with this reality and realize that addiction will always going to be a part of you, you learn to deal with it. You learn to avoid triggers or risky activity when you’re not in your strongest of times. It’s a constant struggle you learn to live with, with its own ups and downs. You never stop being an addict, you just fight it every day. In a strange way, I see the same pattern in the road to achieving success.

Overcoming addiction and achieving success both feel like a feasible goal. We often think we can overcome an addiction and live free of those desires. We see the same principle in Nobel Laureate John Nash’s life as portrayed in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Nash suffers from schizophrenia for much of his life. He is never cured; he just learns to live with his schizophrenia. Nash becomes more aware of his condition as it invades and disrupts his family life, but must choose to resist the hallucinations. In this way, Nash is technically “free” from his disease, but only because he chooses to resist it.

What we do every day is what defines us. I would argue that it is true that you can be free of an addiction, but only insofar as you can resist it every day of your life. You’re only as free as you are today, and you’re only as strong as you are today.

This fleeting nature might seem depressing, but it gives me hope, knowing that I can shape myself into whatever I want, and all I need is to do it today.

Omar Shehata ’18 is from Alexandria, Egypt. He majors in computer science.


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Storyteller shares Japanese tradition, tunes and tales

Christiansen Hall of Music is home to many of St. Olaf’s greatest performances. There is no doubt that the constant flow of voices, emotions and harmony could warm even the coldest of hearts. On Nov. 21, however, an audience in Christiansen was pulled back to an ancient time. An orator, dressed in traditional Japanese attire, filled Fosnes Hall with her mystical voice. She sang of tales only heard eons ago, strumming on an instrument that had long been lost to history. She was guest performer Yoko Hiraoka and she was playing the biwa.

The Japanese Storytelling concert was organized by the Asian Studies and Environmental Studies departments. This unusual collaboration was funded by a Luce Initiative on Asia and the Environment LIASE grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, which is led by grant director, Professor of Asian Studies and Reference Librarian Kris MacPherson.

What Asian scholars have in common with the environmentalists is a love and appreciation for nature. The concept of God, known as “Kami” in Japanese, involves a realization that holiness exists not in separate entities but in nature. Kami are the spirits worshipped in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, which exist as or within all elements of nature.

In his introduction, Assistant Professor of Japanese and Asian Studies William Bridges talked about how the “cultural, philosophical and aesthetic dimensions form a crucial part of the search for solutions to urgent environmental problems” quoting from Stanford University’s Environmental Humanities Project and explained that the environmental humanities – like music about the environment – can shape the way we go about solving our issues with the environment.

The instrument Hiraoka played, known as the biwa, is a kind of lute with four strings. It was imported to Japan long ago, along with Buddhism, and is the chosen instrument of Benten, Buddhist goddess of music, eloquence, poetry and education. Biwa performances are usually accompanied by stories of great warriors and triumphs. Hiraoka usually performs “The Tale of Heike,” a traditional warrior story, but this time she chose to perform “The Tale of Genji,” which is sometimes referred to as the world’s first novel in recorded history.

Kneeling in front of the crowd with the biwa on her lap and a pick used to strum on the strings, Hiraoka masterfully played as she retold the ancient stories, switching from speaking to deep and emotional singing. She sang in classical Japanese, and audience members received a handout with the translations of the songs.

“The aesthetic of biwa music came across as haunting, vastly different from what I usually hear in traditional classic music,” said Erik Taketomo ’15. “I can’t really describe the sound of the biwa. It’s like a rusty echo. The strange music of the instrument combined with her emotional wailing I found very cool.”

The biwa certainly sounds like no other instrument. Hiraoka said that its unique texture was what originally drew her to it

“I was fascinated by the sound of the instrument,” said Hiraoka. “It was so mesmerizing and mysterious. It was totally magical to me!”

Hiraoka explained how she saw her music the same way a painter would see his art:

“What you see in a painting is never the object, but the artist’s relationship to that object through the way he chooses to depict it,” Hiraoka said.

She says she does not try to alter her performance to suit her audience’s tastes, but instead her responsibility is to communicate what’s out there.

“They may really like it, or they may not,” said Hiraoka. “Everyone is affected differently. Humans are very . . . interesting creatures,” she said.

Hiraoka also explained the history of the biwa and its significance in Japanese culture in a short lecture. Students were fascinated by the rich tradition.

“The aspect of how music became a way for the laypeople to understand Buddhism by way of minstrel monks, which slowly transformed into ballads about court life, was something that struck me as interesting,” Hikari Sugisaki ’17 said.

The final moments of the concert were the most stirring, as Hiraoka recited the last two lines of The Tale of Genji. She delivered them somberly, leaving behind an eerie silence. When translated, they say: “This tale will be passed down to prosperity. This tale will be passed down to prosperity.” It was the only line that was repeated twice.

It’s amazing to think that these exact words were written thousands of years ago, predicting with such chilling confidence that this tale will survive. And here they are, countless generations later, in the most modern of times, recounted in their exact form, in the very traditional way they were meant to be heard, spoken in the same ancient Japanese. The words of the ancient poet – as far away through time and space as they were written – echoed in the Christiansen Hall of Music before the final round of applause erupted.


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Coders excel in national competition

On Saturday, Nov. 8, thousands of students across the world took part in Code Day, an intense 24-hour event where teams create apps, develop games or launch ventures overnight. The experience is meant to encourage more people to learn programming and show just how big of an impact one can make with these skills.

Past participants in Code Day have gone on to create venture capital-funded startups, get hundreds of thousands of downloads in app stores and more. 14 students from the St. Olaf Computer Club, otherwise known as the Association for Computing Machinery ACM, drove up to PowerObjects, a software company in Minneapolis and the regional host for this year’s Code Day.

The PowerObjects office was full of high school and college students alike, setting up their workspaces and warming up for the 24-hour programming marathon. Code Day kicked off officially at noon with participants coming up to pitch ideas and assemble teams. There was a vibrant energy in the room as everyone excitedly got started building their projects with no time to spare. There were participants from all skill levels, ranging from absolute beginners to seasoned experts.

“It was quite inspiring [to be surrounded by all those experienced people and] to see everyone helping each other out,” Nadia El Mouldi ’18 said.

St. Olaf students split into two teams. One team’s idea was to build a “Caf Buddy” app for mobile phones. Jacob Forster ’16, a computer science, math and physics triple major, came up with the idea one day while having dinner at Stav Hall.

“I wanted to make something that people would be able to use so that if they didn’t want to, they wouldn’t have to eat alone in the Caf,” Forster said. “The idea was that if you wanted to get a meal and you can’t find someone to go with you, the Caf Buddy app would randomly match you up with someone going at the same time.” He said he feels that every St. Olaf student could benefit from this app.

“I think we often get into our friend groups and sort of cling to them like there are no other options out there,” Forster said. “I wanted to make an app that would make it easy for people to branch out of their current friend group and meet new people.” Forster had been considering this idea for a while, but had never had the opportunity to implement it. That’s exactly what Code Day is for: providing a space where young programmers can make their ideas and dreams a reality.

Making an app overnight is far from easy,but the participants felt that the experience was certainly worth the effort.

“The best thing for me was getting to work with the rest of the ACM team members for a whole 24 hours straight,” Forster said. “You would be surprised how much you can learn about people when you are thrown in a situation where you all have to work together and constantly help each other to make things work.”

The other team from St. Olaf was largely made up of first-year students who saw the event as a learning experience.

“I wanted to meet people who shared the same interest, and I wanted, as a beginner, to know how these kinds of events worked,” El Mouldi ’18 said. Justin Pacholec ’18 had similar expectations.

“I went to Code Day to learn how to create something out of nothing but an idea,” Pacholec said. “My favorite part was learning how to code in HTML. Only one person out of six on our team had ever coded in HTML before, so that was great learning experience for all of us.”

Their idea was building a Web app that helped users write poetry. Dubbed “Stanza: Elegant Expression Made Easy,” the app is a simple but useful creation. As writers build their poems, the app shows a list of words that rhyme with the previous sentence, and the list changes dynamically and automatically as the poem grows. What started out as a small Web experiment made purely for learning turned into a fun app that made it easy to write poetry and made the words flow intuitively, so much so that the group ended up winning “Best App.”

The app’s simple nature allowed the students to finish early and they spent the remaining time polishing it and adding features. The judges cited its elegant design as one of the reasons that it won first place.

“We’d love to see this more fleshed out, maybe even adding different rhyming modes, or a haiku mode,” said judge and CEO and Founder of PowerObjects Dean Jones.

The Caf Buddy app received honorable mention.

“I personally found it very interesting,” Jones said. “I’m definitely excited to see where you can go with this. I can imagine a future system to match people up based on certain likes.”

Forster and his team have no plans of stopping. They currently have a working prototype and are hoping to expand and release it.

“I envision and hope that it becomes an app that is used commonly here in order to branch out and just meet new people and experience new viewpoints here at Olaf,” Forster said. “I can imagine freshmen using the app to meet new people or current seniors, fully entrenched in their friend group, using it to have a great dinner at the Caf with someone who they may have never met before or always wanted to meet.” Forster said he believes that the app could really make an impact.

“Unless you are in a lot of activities or sports, it is often not easy to meet new people here at Olaf because we are all so busy. So the one thing we have in common is that we all eat,” he said. “Of course, you never know if the person you eat with could become the person you end up eating with for the rest of your life.”


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Women in gaming prompts diversity debate

It is no secret that women are misrepresented in gaming culture. Video games have always been regarded as a “guy thing.” The adoption of the term “Gamer Girl” makes it seem as if gamers are male by default and a woman playing games is an anomaly. Anita Sarkeesian, a Canadian blogger and critic, has been speaking out against that stereotype for the past few years. Her nonprofit organization Feminist Frequency tries to bring light to some of the injustices women face in the gaming industry and criticizes tropes in video games, primarily through educational Youtube videos. Sarkeesian makes some controversial claims in her videos that many have criticized. However, one thing we can all agree on is that the onslaught of hatred and death threats she has received make her seem more like a war criminal than a humble critic of the medium.

Sarkeesian’s arguments mainly revolve around the idea that most video games are created with a male demographic in mind, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women to appeal to their audience. She cites examples of women playing the role of a weak damsel in distress that always needs a male hero to save her. In many of these games, the females are always either the damsel or a peripheral, over-sexualized and shallow character designed solely to appeal to the male fantasy.

The problem with Sarkeesian’s arguments is that they ignore the larger issue of diversity in the video game industry. Women aren’t the only ones targeted in this way – a huge portion of titles that make it to the top of the retail market appeal to this very narrow spectrum of gamers. Publishers say that targeting your specific audience makes sense, but it’s a classic case of the chicken the and egg. More girls aren’t playing games because publishers assume they don’t and exclude them from their campaigns. This has been a self-fulfilling prophecy for a very long time, but the fact is that right now women represent 45 percent of active gamers in the U.S. according to a study published by the Entertainment Software Association ESA.

However, there has been a huge boom in “indie titles” in the past few years. Those are video games produced independently from big publishers, usually in teams ranging from two to 10 developers as opposed to the hundreds at the top-tier studios.

Indie games are known for their creativity, diversity and inclusiveness. As creators are free from the shackles of big budget investments, no topic is too taboo to express through the medium. This is the new wave that we see coursing through the gaming community, replacing ideas of elitism that have seen many an online forum thread debating who is and who is not a “real gamer.” Sometimes it can get so extreme, as with cases like Anita Sarkeesian, who has seen not just online death threats but was forced to move due to phone calls to her and her family filled with threats and harassment.

A more recent case was Carolyn Petit’s review of the acclaimed Grand Theft Auto Five game. Almost every review about this game was touting it as a brilliant masterpiece. Petit praised the game but expressed her concern over its misogynistic sequences and its portrayal of women. She was immediately harassed, and irate gamers launched a petition to get her fired from GameStop as a video game reviewer. All of this happened despite her giving the game a rating of nine out of 10.

The good news is that the gaming community is waking up and taking a stand. These controversial cases have succeeded in putting a face to the issue that we can relate to and talk about. People are also starting to realize that these masculine stereotypes are hurting men as much as women by perpetuating this image of overly macho men that is impossible to live up to.

The future looks promising as more and more people embrace diversity in the gaming community. A new initiative called “Girls Make Games” is not only encouraging more women and girls to get involved in the game development scene, but is also making headlines with the summer camps, events and workshops they regularly hold. A group of young girls have already launched an award-winning adventure game through this program, and this can only encourage more to join. Whether or not you agree with Sarkeesian, she deserves to be treated as a human being, and the way to protect her rights and many like her is through celebrating diversity in gaming culture.

Omar Shehata ’18 is from Alexandria, Egypt. He majors in computer science.


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Campus tech gets Big Data boost

A new grant will allow researchers at St. Olaf to move data around at “Big Data” speeds.

The digital revolution has swept the globe and brought with it the Age of Information, where data is more valuable than gold. The $327,640 grant from the National Science Foundation will go to updating St. Olaf’s cyber infrastructure. This will allow St. Olaf to remain at the cutting edge of Big Data research.

Big Data capabilities have helped companies like Facebook and Google become technology giants. This allows them to accrue tremendous amounts of data about their users. Google Analytics, a popular tool used by Web masters to track views on their websites, not only records how many people logged onto the website, but also their location, age, gender and even their interests.

The amazing thing is that Google knows these facts about Internet users, even though they are never explicitly mentioned. It’s all purely based on what users do on the Web, what users search for, how much time they spend on Web sites and what they click on. Imagine keeping track of all this information, all the time, for every single user on the Internet.

That is what the term “Big Data” refers to. It is data so large that it exceeds the ability for humans to understand, analyze or transfer using traditional computing and storage methods.

St. Olaf Professor of Statistics Julie Legler and Director of Information Systems Craig Rice are in charge of putting this grant to good use.

“St. Olaf students will be getting incredible experience in Big Data analysis,” Legler said. “There are not a lot of liberal arts schools with this data capacity.”

The upgrades from this grant will increase data transfer speeds tenfold. Transfer speed is very important because working with immense databases requires specialized hardware and powerful machines to process the data. This enables researchers to transfer this data from their personal computers to the powerful cluster computers for analysis and read back the results, a process that would otherwise take days.

Students are already working on projects that will benefit from this powerful new upgrade. A joint Medical Economics project led by faculty members Ashley Hodgson and Jessica Musselman, with help from students in the computer science department, aims to comb through millions of patients’ data to find patterns of occurrences of diseases and their respective treatments.

The hospital and patient data had to be transferred on many CDs and shipped across the country to get to St Olaf.

“In this case, it was transferred like that because of the confidentiality terms of the data, but in the future, if we wanted access to a large data set like that, we could just beam it over with this new network,” said Richard Brown, a professor of computer science. “Once we get on this new network, we’ll be connected to every other institution and university using the same network. We could have a joint research project with Macalester or beam data over from Stanford and do our tests.”

The newly-installed “Infiniband” wires in the computer clusters allow data transfer speeds that reach four times the tenfold increase with this new network a 40 times increase over the traditional network on campus, but only within the cluster.

“This means that a computer in our cluster can access a file on another computer faster than it can access a file on its own hard drive,” said Professor Brown.

Brown added that it is very affirming to know that students are learning to work with the very same technologies and techniques that the biggest companies use to handle billions of data points.

“[The students] used a framework called Hadoop to analyze the [hospital] data. That’s the very same framework Facebook uses to manage its billion users on the petabyte scale,” Brown said.

Brown has seen firsthand the enormous impact these Big Data techniques can have on research. When Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade was researching the effects of a certain species of plants on the nitrogen cycle in the environment, it took a lot of time and effort to create a suitable model for his system. Due to its extremely complex nature, however, the computations he could carry out on the system were very limited.

“He was only able to run maybe a dozen or so simulations. He gave it to [the computer science department], and we ran a few million,” Brown said. This resulted in new findings that would not have been possible without the work of the computer science department.

Big Data techniques are employed even in the humanities. When Doug Casson, Associate Professor of Political Science, was studying the works of philosopher John Locke and how much of his writings were pulled from the Bible, he sought assistance from the computer science department to comb through all of Locke’s works and match them against the Bible.

“We realized that once we had the base program working, it was very easy to apply Big Data techniques to it to have it match any body of work to every other known work in our library’s database,” Brown said.

It is exciting to see what other benefits will emerge from this new data transfer upgrade, as more and more fields and departments make use of Computer Science to solve their problems and make innovative breakthroughs.


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