Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Publication Venues in Computer Science

In academic Computer Science, there are basically three publication venues that "count": peer-reviewed conferences, peer-reviewed journals, and peer-reviewed workshops/symposia. There are of course many other perfectly credible ways to publish one's work (e.g., technical reports, books), but these are the top three.

Unlike in most scientific fields, including our closest cousins Engineering and Mathematics, journals are not the de facto place to publish papers. I can't speak for all subfields of CS, but basically everyone I know only publishes in journals because they feel they have to (e.g., multi-disciplinary tenure and promotion committees that expect journal publications, research rankings organizations that still don't seem to 'get' conferences, etc.). Some subfields this is not the case, such as in interdisciplinary fields like Bioinformatics and CS Education, but for most major areas of CS, conferences are where the action is.

For these fields, the top conferences have extremely low acceptance rates, many less than 17%. The program committees are comprised of the top scholars in the field. And in some fields, anyone who is anyone attends these conferences, so managing to get a paper accepted is a pretty big deal that gets a researcher much visibility.

Some journals have similarly rigorous standards of review and are known for their quality, for example the IEEE Transactions and ACM Transactions family of journals are highly regarded. There are occasionally other journals that are good, but the vast majority are either decidedly mediocre or utter rubbish. We don't really have any comparable C/N/S type journals.

Workshops and symposia generally have a much higher acceptance rate than conferences and journals, but they are still peer-reviewed and are often archival (e.g., ACM Digital Library, IEEE Xplore). They have quite a few advantages. First, they are usually co-located with a conference, which means you can often go to both on your University's dime. Second, they present a fantastic opportunity to float half-baked ideas and get one-on-one feedback from your peers. And third, oftentimes workshops are the only place you can meet other scientists interested in the same area of specialized research as you, which nearly always leads to good things.

But the most useful thing about conferences and workshops over journals is that you have the opportunity to tell potentially hundreds of people about your work. These are all people who learn your name and face and start to match it to a research area. This is invaluable, because it leads to professional relationships that will see you through your career - jobs, funding, tenure/promotion letters, etc.

Journals don't really get your name and face out there as well, unless some news outlet picks up on your article. People do read journals, but I suspect most readers associate papers more strongly with an institution than a name, particularly if it's a new name on the research scene.

So I think it's nice to have a diverse portfolio when it comes to publishing. It's good to have a mixture of papers in the top conferences with low acceptance rates, in journals that are well-respected, and in workshops that are useful to the researcher.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"You only got in because you are a [woman, person of color, person with disabilities]"

I recently stumbled across a fantastic blog called "What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy". Philosophy probably has more underrepresentation than CS does, or maybe we're tied, I'm not sure. In any case, this blog is set up in such a way that women in Philosophy submit anecdotes which get posted anonymously.

Today I read this post, and the lines at the end really struck a chord:
"As one of the only female graduate students, I was very involved in a recent job search in which the only fly outs were women. After the final job talk I was stopped in the hall and asked by a group of male faculty members what my thoughts on the candidates were. I said that I thought they all seemed equally qualified, but that candidate X was particularly friendly, approachable, and outgoing while also setting an excellent example of professionalism for the female grad studens. One senior male faculty member interrupted me midsentence with: 'Well they’re all women, so what more do you want?' This was the same faculty member who told me in my first year that I had only been accepted to the PhD program because they 'went out of their way to accept more women' that year. None of the other faculty members reproached him, they all just wandered away into their offices."
Two things about this are problematic. First, someone from a majority group telling someone from a minority group that the only reason they achieved (or can achieve) something was because they are a minority. Statements like this are extraordinarily hurtful because in addition to implying the minority person is not capable of quality, competitive work, it also says very clearly: I do not accept you, and you are not a part of my club.


But double ouch is this: the other faculty members did nothing. This makes me sadder than I can say. Are these faculty members so risk and conflict-averse that they don't stand up to such malarky? When my cousin-in-law made racist jokes at a New Year's Eve party last year, I immediately splashed water in her face. It's like when the cat scratches the couch and you spray them with the water bottle. Conditioning 101.

For the menfolk and other majority folks out there who want to help:  if you truly want to make your workplace hospitable for women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc, you have to help socialize the people who didn't get the memo. Pick those fights - take some risks to help out someone else. This is what it takes to help change things.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Wikileaks Drama Continues

In recent news of this drama-riffic story, hackers have been attacking any organization or individual who has been deemed "unsupportive" of Wikileaks. This includes Swedish prosecutors, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, and the Swiss Postal system. Largely these attacks have been ineffectual and meaningless, or, as one writer put it, "More like a cybermob than cyberwarfare".

As for the 1337 hackers, I have to say I'm not really following the call to arms. Because the scorecard as I see it is:
  • Someone stole raw data that was not theirs to steal. (Which, as the NY Times put it, "The Pentagon Papers this is not.")
  • These data were leaked it to Julian Assange.
  • Instead of caring about, well, anything, Assange acts like a megalomaniac drama queen pretending to be a journalist. So he dumps this raw data out on to the Internet. He encrypts some of it. Some of it he doesn't.
  • The guvvies try to get their data back, but, well, we know how that worked out
  • Assange carries on the drama by saying, "boy-o-boy, watch out guvvies, touch me and I release the key to my insurance file!!111!!" 
  • And all the bozos on Slashdot and Digg and elsewhere keep up their battle cry of this ludicrous Save Assange! Hack the Planet! Swiper No Swiping! 
This whole thing is like a teenage romance novel, except without the vampires to keep me entertained.

Frankly, I wish the black hats would actually come together to do some useful vigilanteism, like, say, help prevent child trafficking, or use computing tools to help find missing children. Assange just isn't worth it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Digging to America

Under an avalanche of deadlines, travel, and other sundries I have been finding refuge in lightweight fiction. Last weekend at the library I borrowed Digging to America by Anne Tyler, which has at times had me rolling on the floor laughing. Other times it is less lightweight than I would have liked, but halfway through the book I'll still recommend it*.

Several passages in this novel have reminded me of anecdotes told by online friends Pika and GMP. There is one character, Maryam, has lived in the US for a very long time but due to her Iranian accent people still always ask her where she's from. For example, Maryam is at a party:
First he talked to Sami, on his other side... then it was Maryam's turn: How long had she been in this country? and did she like it?
Maryam hated being asked such questions, partly because she had answered them so many times before but also because she preferred to imagine (unreasonable though it was) that maybe she didn't always, instantly, come across as a foreigner. "Where are you from?" someone might just ask when she was priding herself on having navigated some particularly intricate and illogical piece of English. She longed to say, "From Baltimore. Why?" but lacked the nerve. Now she spoke so courteously that Lou could have no inkling how she felt. "I've been here thirty-nine years," she said, and "Yes, of course I love it." 
My favorite thing about this book is that the writer is extremely subtle and clever in how she brings up American cultural unawareness. There is one character, Bitsy, who tries so hard to get others to be "culturally sensitive" to her adopted daughter Jin-Ho that she is inadvertently over-the-top culturally insensitive to her Iranian friends. I find this character almost too embarrassing to read at times, but then I realize that's the entire point.

I find the "mommy wars" in this book exceptionally comical and well-penned, because all I can think is how I know people exactly like those characterized. Bitsy is often judgmental (and/or jealous) of her friend Ziba's parenting; her daughter Susan is a peer to Jin-Ho and was adopted on the same day.
A while ago, Sami and Ziba had gone away for the weekend and left Susan with Maryam. Bitsy was amazed when she heard about it. During her own brief absences - never longer than a couple hours, and only for unavoidable reasons such as doctor appointments - she used a person from Sitters Central, a woman certified in infant CPR. Anyhow, her mother was too frail to babysit and her in-laws had made it plain taht they had their own busy lives. But under no circumstances would she have considered leaving Jin-Ho overnight. She would have been frantic with worry! Children were so fragile. She realized that now. When you thought of all that could happen, the electrical sockets and the Venetian-blind cords and the salmonella chicken and the toxic furniture polish and the windpipe-sized morsels of food and the uncapped medicine bottles and the lethal two inches of bathtub water, it seemed miraculous that any child at all made it through to adulthood.
Finally, for you academic types, I'll leave you a quote in the style of FSP:
Her family visited constantly. They showed up every weekend with platters of eggplant and jars of homemade yogurt. They hugged Sami to their chest and inquired after his studies. In Mr. Hakimi's opinion, European history was not the best choice of fields. "You propose to do what with this? To teach," he said. "You will become a professor, teaching students who'll become professors in turn and teach other students who will become professors also. It reminds me of those insects who only live a few days, only for the purpose of reproducing their species. 

(*) Though if this book turns into an awful ball of mush, I will rescind this remark. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Kudos to the American Mathematical Association

Hats off to the American Mathematical Association for creating a poster entitled, "Women Doing Mathematics". It highlights the accomplishments of nine women and has a personal quote from each about their interest in Math.

Print it out and put it up in your department, the library, the mall, your kid's school, etc. This is a great poster to have in circulation. If I was a young woman considering a career in STEM a poster like this would have far more reach than Computer Engineer Barbie.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Leaky Cauldron

I've been grimly amused reading about the latest wleaks webhosting drama over the past few days because of the astounding lack of understanding of how distributed systems work displayed by both the media and lawmakers. Perhaps this is our fault as technologists, maybe we're not explaining things clearly enough.

I've decided to draw some pictures on virtual cocktail napkins to help.

This is (mostly) how servers and data flow on the internet used to work:
One server, lots of nodes connect. Server distributing bad stuff? Shut it down, problem solved:

But in today's world of peer-to-peer file sharing, we actually see a model that looks more like this:

Not so happy about that file being shared? Well, you can try to stop it...

...but, well, good luck with that.

The cat is out of the bag, that file ain't never coming back. It's time to move on, folks.

I think it's hard for people to conceptualize decentralized networks. But it's really important to think about things this way, because this is what the internet is today. That first model is long, long gone.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Not sure if this qualifies as CS "cheerleading"...

...but I thought this video was cute. It's from "Melissa T", as well as a few other students from Waterloo's Computer Science department:

I love the lyric:
"Boys askin' me for my number,
I'm telling them binary,
They say that they don't get it,
They're not in CS like me!"
There was only one line in the song that seemed strange to me: "my professors are just too smart, I just don't get them, I'll switch to arts!",  but I'm guessing (hoping) this was a case of needing to fit the meter and being unable to come up with anything else. Or maybe it's some Waterloo inside joke.

Link from the lovely Comp Sci Woman.