Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Hackmas (not really)

While most technologists were busy yesterday drinking eggnog and trying out their new gadgets, others were busy hacking Stratfor, an intelligence news organization.  All the news outlets reported it was 'Anonymous', but now people are saying it was (apparently) Sabu from LulzSec.

(Frankly, I can't blame the news outlets for the error - I can't keep up with the drama of who's who any more. It's like a soap opera, really.)

Anyway, whomever it was, they hack into Stratfor, steal a bunch of credit card numbers of people who subscribe to the company's intelligence briefings, then a) post them on the internet and b) use the credit cards to make donations to charitable organizations.

I'm not really sure what the point of this is. Any of these donations will be returned, and all the credit card numbers will be canceled. Really this will just cost the credit card companies lots of money, which will just result in the average Joe/Joann having to pay higher fees. Exactly what people need in this economy.

I wish these hackers would do something useful with their time. Solve some problems on Teach math and computer science to children. Help local governments have more up to date computer systems in order to help empower communities.

Anything, really. This is just a sad waste of tech brains.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thank you, thank you

One of the best things you can do as a student or employee is write someone a thank you note after they've done something helpful for you.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a hand written note from a student thanking me for a reference letter I wrote for them. This was immediately followed by a thoughtful note from an editor thanking me for a review.

These two things made my day.

Kudos, student and editor!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NRC Computer Science Rankings Reprise

There's an article in CACM this month by Computer Scientists Andrew Bernat and Eric Grimson, Doctoral Program Rankings for U.S. Computing Programs: The National Research Council Strikes Out. It talks about the ways in which NRC rankings are broken for CS (we have heard this before), but it details ways in which it could be fixed, which we hadn't heard before, and I like.

Two suggestions I thought were good:
  • "Explore making the rankings subdiscipline-dependent. It is clear that different departments have different strengths. Thus, enabling a finer-grained assessment would allow a department with strength in a sub-field, but perhaps not the same across-the-board strength, to gain appropriate visibility. This may be particularly valuable for students deciding where to apply."
  • "Use data mining to generate scholarly productivity data to replace commercially collected citation data that is incomplete and expensive."
The first is a nice idea; for example, you might be interested in a top ranked department, but it turns out 19/20 faculty focus on Theory and you actually want to do Systems. Or there might be some school with three top faculty exactly in your subspecialty, but you don't see them because they're 93rd in the rankings. 

The second is nice as well; I think with Google Scholar Citations data available this turns out to be a trivially easy problem to solve. 

Maybe CRA can do their own rankings; they collect a lot of their own data anyway, and it avoids needing to rely on the NRC. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

New adventures in publishing metrics

In case you haven't heard, Google Scholar Citations recently opened its doors, allowing academics to set up Google Scholar profiles, track their citations, h-index and i10-index, and see pretty graphs.

At first I thought: Yay! Especially since, for Computer Science, this was right on the heels of Cite Scholar's beta release, which is all about highlighting the fact that in CS we're all about the top tier conferences and journals don't matter much for us.

Then I thought: Boo! Now it's easier for the bean counters to count beans. Also, I sense there's this "who's searched for me" button coming, which creeps me out. This is actually why I don't ever click on pages.

After a few weeks of reflection I am still on the fence. While I can't speak for other fields, in CS number of citations doesn't necessarily mean anything about quality or impact of work. I can think of several lackluster papers that have hundreds of citations, whereas others are incredible and barely hardly any. Also, sometimes an insane number of citations simply means you forced encouraged people to cite you by releasing some software or data.

On the other hand, I find these new graphs seem to ignite my "MUST WRITE MORE" instinct, just as the darling tune my new washing machine plays encourages me to do more laundry.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Computer Science Education Week

I forgot to mention this before, but this week is Computer Science Education Week. The website has some pretty great resources for helping encourage you, your students, your kids, etc for getting started in CS, including links to Alice and Scratch (fun starter languages I've always loved), Computational Fairy Tales (which I'd never seen before but really love now!), Computer Science Unplugged (from our friends over at NCWIT), and a wealth of other things.

I really like their Which Computer Scientist Are You page, because it contains women and people of color.  You can guess who I'd pick...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Unsolicited Advice, While Pregnant or Professor

When I was pregnant, a ton of random people used to come up to me at the grocery store, movie theater, walmart - everywhere - giving me unsolicited advice. It was like I was wearing a sign. A few times it was a birth horror story of someone they knew, sometimes it was asking me if I was having twins, and once it was a waitress telling me to not drink decaf coffee because it would give my unborn child pink eye. (I wish I were joking).

All of my friends seem to have experienced this bizarre phenomenon as well, so I guess there must be some sort of Protect The Children collective group thing going on.

In any case, I find this strange phenomenon happening again as a new professor. I get unsolicited advice early and often from others. It's often pre-packaged tidbits, like, "Teaching is like a gas - it consumes all space available". Sometimes it's strange things, like the more senior assistant professor who put a hand on my arm, looks me in the eye and says, "It gets better." (like I was grieving the death of a loved one).

I know this is all well intentioned, but sometimes when I get unsolicited professorial advice I desperately want to say back, "YES. I AM HAVING TWINS.", just to see the look on their face.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

NSF Fastlane: Party like it's 1999

I know the government is a monolith.

I know the government does not have any in-house software developers anymore to write and maintain software.

I know these are Troubled Economic Times.

But, still, what's up with Fastlane? This system is a dinosaur snail. I've had simple figureless PDFs take a century to distill.

NSF, if you fund me, in addition to doing amazing research I'll stick a few of my a-ma-zing undergrads on revamping Fastlane. Actually, I'll make it a class project and stick a gazillion undergrads on it. Give us a semester, that puppy will zip.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Science literacy fail

Image description: Google News headline "Study warns of  chemicals in canned foods"
Oh noes! There are chemicals in our food!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Good luck avoiding chemicals tomorrow as you feast, breathe, and digest. :-)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Signal Boost: Stand With Science

Junior PI Scientist-Mom-Wife wrote to ask me to signal boost Stand With Science, and I am more than happy to oblige. I'm actually going to repost her words here, to tell you about this effort.
Next week the Congress Joint Select 'super' Committee on Deficit Reduction will decide where to make the next big cuts. If they do not agree or find a plan to reduce spending, sweeping cuts will be put into effect that will likely affect everyone in science and academia.

A group of MIT students have started a letter urging Congress not to cut science funding and they are amassing signatures. They include an amazing video that describes the importance of science, engineering and technology to our daily lives and to American jobs. It's a positive message, and really accessible to the public.

There are now about 7000 signatories on this letter, including Nobel Prize winners and numerous well known scientists (you can view signatories Bob Horvitz #6854, Philip Sharp #6866, Bob Weinberg #6846, Susan Lindquist #6727, Doug Melton #6994, Ray MacDonald#3652, Gary Ruvkun #3712, Didier Stainier #4064, Richard Hynes, Luisa Iruela-Arispe #5087, Andrew Ewald #6899, etc...) and the number keeps growing.

The video and petition have clearly gone viral, which is great. The main message is that the future of science is at stake.

This video and letter have been covered by the NY Times, Science (AAAS) and many other news organizations and blogs. We need faculty and respected scientists to help further this worthy request to Congress.

If you have time, please view the MIT student video and consider signing the letter.
Here's the video:

Readers, please sign this letter. Bloggers, please blog about this. Make some noise. The last thing we want to do in this economy is cut STEM research funding - let's send a strong message to Congress.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Seeing Color, Seeing Smart

A reader recently sent this article to me, describing the recent firestorm surrounding CNN's new documentary "The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley" in its "Black in America" series. Although the documentary has not yet been released, a variety of soundbites from it have made their way into the limelight, which is causing the controversy.

Generally I really dislike when people take soundbites out of context. I'm sure Mike Arrington's remark that started all this ("I don’t know a single black entrepreneur.") had more context surrounding it. However, something struck me in his blog rebuttal to the world. (From NYT article):
On Oct. 28, Mr. Arrington took to his blog to accuse CNN of ambushing him. He asserted that he said he knew no black entrepreneurs because he doesn’t “categorize people as black or white or gay or straight in my head.” 
He wrote, “They’re just smart or not smart.”
The problem is, how he thin slices "smart" is almost certainly based on someone's appearance, accent, vocabulary, phrasings, and body language. And in technology, those in Silicon Valley who are not in the "White, American Male" category almost certainly have to work harder to earn a "smart" label.

I could cite compelling scientific evidence to support my claim (pick up just about any issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the Harvard race project, or even just Google Scholar for "seeing race"), but for the purpose of brevity I will (just once) argue by anecdote: I am often told, "but you don't look like a Computer Scientist!". Why? Because the image burned in our brains of a smart computer scientist is: young, white, American male. Used to be a man with dark greasy hair and glasses, now it is a blunt, sneaky, snappy Jesse Eisenburg type man. But, still man, still white, still American.

"Seeing Smart" still means seeing color, seeing gender, seeing ethnicity. It just means you might cut someone a break if they can manage to work past those initial, societal-given barriers of What a Smart Person Looks Like.

This will eventually change, but Hollywood needs to step up and quit playing to tropes. Quit casting people of color and women as tokens/BBFs while the young white men do all the science and inventing. *This* is where kids get their role models from. This is where society gets its ideas of what Smart looks like.

Huh. I think I have the start of a STEM education grant here...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

If politicians had to undergo an NSF review process...

Lately I've been hearing a lot of local election ads on the radio and television, and I find it fascinating how it's often acceptable for politicians to be exceptionally vague and hand-wavy in their rhetoric.

"Our town lost a lot of jobs last year. If you elect me, I will create more jobs! Vote for Bob Smith."

(How will you create more jobs? What is your methodology? Which sector will you create jobs in? Will you do the job creation, or will it be your staff? Where's your 4-year project plan?)

I think it's only fair. Given how harsh many of these politicians are on science funding, it should be reasonable to turn the tables.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Don't Stop B-cell-ievin'

On the topic of "teaching as performance", this video making the rounds is by Richard Bungiro, Immunology lecturer at Brown. He calls this "immunolo-glee", "Don't Stop B-cell-ievin'".

Kudos to Richard -- it takes guts to sing in front of students, and I think anything to make science lectures exciting is a great idea. (You know, give them some pep -tides*)

Here's the clip:

(*) Sorry, couldn't resist.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Even your mom can write this blog post

For those of you who subscribe to IEEE Spectrum email alerts, you may have seen today's snafu where there was an oopsie headline for one of their articles - "With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program."

The article and headline were quickly revised post-publication, though I noticed in google's cache that the original article contained the following quote, "'Now, even my mom can program,' Banzi says."

The editor of the journal, who is a female engineer, was Not Amused, nor were the dozens of commenters on the article. I'm glad they fixed it.

But I think this journalistic error raises a larger societal issue when discussing ability and technology. We seem to more quickly ascribe technological inability to female elders, and technological ability to male youths.

For example, I tend to hear, "Even my grandma could use it." far more often than, "Even my grandpa could use it". And I recently saw a comic in a magazine where mother calls technical support and says, "Normally my toddler son would help me fix the computer, but he's in time out." Why wasn't that a female toddler in the cartoon?  Why in movies is the clever geek / scientist who saves the day always a man?

I really would like the media to make greater strides in not playing to tropes, because it tends to reinforce these tired ideas that women are unable to be technologically savvy.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Advice for new professors

A summary of advice I have for new professors.*

1) Delegate

Graduate students were invented for a reason. Delegate everything. Data analysis. Literature reviews. Writing. Teaching prep. If you don't have any graduate students, find some undergrads. A task you might find mundane can actually be "research experience". 

One of my colleagues laments that their students often mess things up, causing even more work than just doing it themselves. For some things this may be true, but thus far I've been pleasantly surprised with what happens when I challenge my students. Even if they don't do a perfect job they are still doing useful work for both of us.

For CS-type folks -- get someone else to manage your machines. I know it's tempting to spend hours and hours tweaking your linux box to play fur elise backwards every other Tuesday at 2:22pm and building That Perfect Windows Manager config file and whatever other fun hacky things you do, but try to resist the urge. Shell scripts won't get you tenure (damnit). 

2) Ask

I read Boice's advice for new faculty, and he implied "quick starters" ask everyone for help on everything - research, teaching, grant writing, etc. This is helpful to remember. Spending three hours trying to find an arcane policy statement on NSF's website isn't worth the time when a quick email to your university's research support office will suffice. 

3) Network

Don't forget to water your social networks, both in your department, at your university, in your town, and in your professional community. This is something you shouldn't delegate or put off. 

Of course you don't want to spend all of your time networking; I think Boice suggests about 2-5 hours a week. YMMV.

4) Dry Clean

Best. Thing. Ever. Absolutely worth every penny. To just wake up in the morning, go to your closet, have cleaned and pressed professional clothes ready to go is just about the best thing since fur elise.

(*)  To be honest I just had one piece of advice ("Dry cleaning FTW!"), but I thought I'd throw the other ones in too while I was here. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ada Lovelace Day 2011

I just realized I nearly missed Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) which is today. (I'm bad with dates, so thanks to Beki for reminding me.)

The person I'd like to honor for ALD is my best friend, who I'll call Sarah. Sarah is actually the person who got me into computers when we were kids. She was always tinkering with electronics in her basement, taking her computer apart, and writing programs. She took all the advanced level science and math classes our school offered, and got top grades. And she was also "cool" - into underground bands, fashion, etc. I tried my best to copy her, though I must admit I got a C in Physics and still don't know how the hell eyelash curlers work.

Sarah was my first female technical role model, and I'm happy to say we're still close friends, and both still working in technology. If this blog wasn't pseudo-anonymous I would brag about what she's currently doing. Suffice to say it is *fabulous*!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Scary Professors

When I first started graduate school, I was sometimes scared to talk to my advisor. It wasn't anything in particular about him, it was the role he was in. In pretty much every job I've ever had I've always felt a little weird around my "boss". It's just not someone I tend to feel chummy around. Maybe it's just how I was raised, I don't know.

But toward the middle / end of my PhD, our relationship shifted to being more peer -like instead of student/teacher -like, and I felt much more comfortable with him.

It's been very interesting shifting to the other side of the desk. I met with a graduate student recently, and during our meeting I noticed their hands were shaking. I tried everything I could to put them at ease, but no matter what I tried they still seemed terrified.

Now, it's true I'm mean and uber-scary looking (like Miss Viola Swamp), but I wonder if there's anything I can do to make students feel less scared when they come visit. Maybe I need a gigantic stuffed animal in my office. ("Hug me if you're scared!").

Heck, some days I need one of those...

Monday, September 19, 2011

How to make your journal editor happy

And in today's Hints from Heloise...

If you want to make your journal editor / reviewers happy when submitting a revision for review, use colorful highlighting annotations in your PDF document to show what's new. This makes skimming a 48 page manuscript so much more pleasant, and as an editor I am far more likely to click, "Hoo-rah, accept!" than I otherwise would.

Recently I read one manuscript where the authors put their new text in yellow and their revised text in blue. Just this simple gesture made it so easy for me to check if they'd made the required changes.

You'd like to think your reviewers are not this easily manipulated, but I can tell you at least one of them is. :)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dear Software Designers Near And Far

Dear Software Designers Near And Far:


Because frankly I can't figure out a damn thing on any of your new fancy, textless toolbars. Yes I know the magnifying glass icon means zoom. I know the printer-looking icon means print (if I can see it). I know "X" means "close". But that's it. I should not have to go through 18 menus to say "turn text labels on". I should not have to hover over every single picture to figure out what they mean. Just tell me, with words. 

Many people cannot read, and I respect that you want to make these interfaces accessible to them. But please make them accessible to me too.


(*) Since I actually do care about any readers who use screen reading software, these labels are meant to say: "Please, please, please put labels on buttons."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kudos, ACM!

Kudos to ACM for featuring two prominent Female Computer Scientists on in this month's Communications of the ACM (CACM) -- Jeannette Wing and Barbara Liskov (via Valerie Barr). I especially enjoyed reading Valerie's article about Barbara's keynote at Grace Hopper. Barbara is the second woman to win the Turing Award, which is basically the Nobel Prize for Computer Science. I liked this:
"Liskov talked about her technical work that ultimately led to the Turing Award. Much of her work was motivated by an interest in program methodology and the questions of how programs should be designed and how programs should be structured. So, after receiving the Turing Award, she went back and reread the old literature, discovering anew that there is great material in old papers and that her students were unaware of it. So, she is now pointing people to these papers and encouraging people to read them. 
For example, three key papers she cited are:
  • Edsger Dijkstra, "Go To Considered Harmful," Communications of the ACM, Vol. 11, No. 3, March 1968, pp. 147–148.
  • Niklaus Wirth, "Program Development by Stepwise Refinement," Communications of the ACM, Vol. 14, No. 4, April 1971, pp. 221–227.
  • David Parnas, "Information Distribution Aspects of Design Methodology," IFIP Congress, 1971."
I recently had a similar "everything new is old again" epiphany. I was looking up a paper that everyone cited and realized it was far too recent. So I went down the citation rabbit hole and found the original paper, written over 30 years ago. And, wow, great ideas - but they completely got lost in the whisper-citation-down-the-lane effect.

Anyway, good stuff, check it out if you have the chance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Postage linkage

I'm unfortunately too busy to post something oh-ridge-a-nal today, so instead I will highlight three posts from fellow Computer Scientist bloggers that I really enjoyed.

1) The Five Stages of Conference Paper Writing, by Amy Dalal over at This is What a Computer Scientist Looks Like.

I laughed my head off at this post. It's so true, every word of it.

2) Programming != Computer Science by Matt Welsh over at Volatile and Decentralized.

This is really apt as well. There's such a big difference between how you envision projects in industry vs. in academia. This is one reason why it's really nice for students (both undergrad and grad) to do summer internships in industry. It really helps bring perspective and changes how you think about software development.

3) Hello Android by John Reghr over at Embedded in Academia.

I just want to say that giving an A to any student who legitimately makes $100 on a mobile app developed for class is a brilliant idea. If I ever teach a class that involves mobile app development, I'll have to steal that one!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9/11's (and Google's) effect on technology

Marketplace had a great piece today on Alessandro Acquisti's work on his Face Matching Algorithms of Dooooom. As in, he takes a photo of the NPR interviewer with his iPhone, and it immediately pulls up everything about the guy.

From a technological perspective it's all fascinating, but from a privacy perspective it's downright terrifying. This is all reflects a lack of citizen and governmental understanding of data. You share some information with your grocery store, get a frequent shopper card, you don't realize how this data is being brokered, merged, sold, to countless numbers of people. Furthermore, a photo you post with some friends at a party, even if you don't tag it-- all you need is one identifiable photo (Driver's license registry?), and BOOM, there it is.

Add this to fraudulent SSL certificates running amok, and I really feel like we're up a creek.

This is a great time to become a security researcher. Grad students, forget all those other CS topics - do security. Or systems. Or both! There are plenty of important problems that need solving ASAP.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My view on "safe" research

What's that old proverb that everyone used to forward around in the 90s?
Work like you don't need the money; dance like no one is watching; sing like no one is listening; love like you've never been hurt; and live life every day as if it were your last.
I basically view my research program this way now. I met with a senior colleague recently who started to dispense the "play it safe until you're tenured" advice, then stopped themselves midstream and said, "Actually, if you play it safe you probably won't get tenure."

I think the game is all about finding exciting problems to work on and having the motivation to work on them (and getting students excited about working on them). It's also about aligning yourself to what people want to fund. We certainly seem to be in an era of applied research being popular - which is great for most computer scientists, though I do feel bad for my colleagues in theoretical fields.

Still, I think it's possible to be well-aligned with the desires of funding agencies and administrators while also pursuing dangerous ideas. It's all about spin.

Monday, September 5, 2011

All in a day's work

Today I received my first "Yo Professor!" email of the semester*, had a student sitting in my office providing an unsolicited out-of-the-blue trashing of some colleagues, and, during the meeting, had a student who I've never seen before just walk in to my office asking to borrow a stapler.**

Last week another female STEM professor and I were walking down the street and a car of young men drove past and started honking and shouting. And another almost-student posted very bizarre ethnic and racial slurs online.

I think we need R. Lee Ermey to give the opening speech at orientation, whoever is doing it now is clearly too much of a softie.

Apparently it's not just me having fun encounters with students this week! Must be all the crazy weather.

(*) Actually, at least he called me Professor instead of Mrs., or, worse, Mr. (That gender confusion happened last week, actually. "I'd really like to talk to Dr. FCS about his research program.")

(**) Ok, so it's Labor Day, so maybe the main office was closed. But it seems to me he could have knocked. And left when he saw another student was in my office. And, apologized and/or left when I growled and scowled. @Piggie(Oh, Ermeyyyyyyyyyy).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Professor Doctor FCS, Ph.D.*

Yikes, I haven't posted here in ages. Nor have I read anyone else's blogs. (Sorry!)

I alluded to having news in previous blog entries, so here it is - I finished my PhD and landed an academic job. All of this was relatively drama-free, however it has made life incredibly busy**.

I have no idea how people pre-tenure manage to write blogs, read blogs, get grant $, teach, advise, and publish a metric ton of stuff. These days I'm barely able to manage dinner. Or a dentist. And I think my kid has forgotten my name.

But I'll give it a shot. I think we still have a long way to go into the academy where scientific women at the PhD level are not seen as strange and unusual specimens. I've already had a few female students make very positive comments to me about being a role model, and I get a kick out of helping people, so there it is.

So I'll keep this blog going a bit longer and see where it goes.

Thanks for reading, and more soon.

(*) This is tongue-in-cheek. All newbies always have something to prove, and tack on the titles to the point of hilarity.

(**) Like really, really busy. You know how as a graduate student you're always thinking, "Why does my professor write such terse emails? Why do they take so long to respond? Do they hate my guts?" No. We don't hate your guts, we just have 400 emails just like yours.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Persistence vs. Publish Pressure (PPP)*

An anonymous commenter on a previous post asks, "How do you balance persistence and pressure to publish?".

The big question I have is - who is pressuring you to publish?

If it is yourself, then the way I view all publications/research is: 1) What is the big idea I want to do, and 2) How do I best tell the world about it?

Sometimes, if it's a big idea with lots of pieces, you publish as you go. This is another reason why it's good to diversify your publication venue. So, when you're just sketching ideas out, workshop. Maybe you have some preliminary results, low-tier conference. Maybe your research is rocking the house, top-tier conference / journal.

Some people say, "Bah, least publishable units, growl." But it's not about that necessarily. It's about telling a story, building on previous work, figuring out where you're going. Instead of waiting three years and squashing everything into one paper, you keep the ball rolling.

Sometimes you Don't Publish. And that's ok too. For example, in the middle of my PhD I spent about 6 months doing exactly nothing. Nada. I realized I was spinning to far out into the wrong direction. It was time to retool and rethink my plans.

Now, if someone else is pressuring you to publish, that's a whole other ball of wax. I think in that case it's a question of what relationship they have to you (dean, chair, advisor, colleague, student), and whether their request for you to publish makes sense. Are they pressuring you because they think your work is amazing and ready for the world to see? Are they pressuring you because they think you publishing now will help your career later? Is it to help their career? It helps to explore motives here.

If you need time to persist on a research thread, drop the self pressure to publish and find your center. If you have someone breathing down your neck to publish tell them to lay off for awhile while you get your groove back. The last thing you want to do is publish junk science just because you're being pressured to publish for the sake of publishing.

* For the geeks out there. (See also: this shirt.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reviewer armchair psychology

Did I mention July is the month for reviews this summer? I must have reviewed 25 this month (one for every hot, humid day!)

After I review papers, if I have time I enjoy doing armchair psychology on my fellow reviewers. Some conferences / journals let you see the reviews others have submitted, and some even allow you to change your score based on what you read. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it's interesting.

When there are 3-4 reviewers for a paper, the scores tend to regress to the mean. So on a 1-5 scale, the average score will be 3. There are also often repeats - so if I give it a '4', it's likely some one else will give it a 4 too. Really bad papers tend to have scores that cluster around 2, and really good papers cluster around 4.

So I'm always intrigued when I see the following:
Reviewer 1:  4
Reviewer 2:  5
Reviewer 3:  3
Reviewer 4:  1
As an nascent author, when you get a set of reviews back like the first one you tend to think, "Reviewer 4 is a jerk who Didn't Get It."

As a more seasoned author, you tend to think, "Oh no, what is my Fatal Flaw? (Reviewer 4 is a jerk who Didn't Get It.)"

And as a seasoned reviewer, you tend to think, "Who is Reviewer 4 and what is their beef?"

Occasionally Reviewer 4 has a valid point, and the other three reviewers really did miss something major. But more often than not Reviewer 4 is angry at the authors for taking too many liberties in their paper. Or for not citing Their Brilliant Work. Or it's the "Someone is WRONG on the internet" phenomenon.

In any case, when I'm an editor or paper chair I can ignore the outlier and life goes on. But when I'm a fellow reviewer I feel more vested in the outcome, particularly when I 'm Reviewer 2. I hate to see the possibility of good science getting squished because some reviewer was being thick, especially when it's someone else's science.

So sometimes, if a conference or journal offers a discussion period for reviewers, I occasionally have to confront Reviewer 4 head on, less they somehow manage to convince Reviewers 1 and 3 to change their scores.

Anyway, this is some of what goes on behind the scenes behind your favorite publication venue. As an author, try not to let the outliers get under your skin. If your other reviews are good, be persistent and try again somewhere else. There's an awful lot of randomness in this process.

Friday, July 15, 2011

How to get your paper accepted: Orshee

In today's installment of how to get your paper accepted, we shall discuss gender inclusive language.

Back in my days of blissful ignorance, I didn't notice gender use in language very much. "John Doe" and "He" were pretty much par for the course.

At some point, I was reading an article and it was positively littered with "him or her" "he or she" "his or hers", and I wanted to pull my hair (short or long) out. While I appreciated the sentiment it was completely distracting from the prose.

I once was given a Parenting 101 book, and it alternated between male and female examples per section (i.e., every few pages). I liked this approach a lot better, because it made for much easier reading while still being gender inclusive.

Gender exclusive language has no place in scientific writing, unless the author is describing a single case study (i.e., "When Patient M. first came to the hospital, he..."), a gendered-exclusive event (i.e., The Society for Women Engineers summer camp for fourth grade girls), or is somehow written in the third person from the perspective of one of the authors.

It's very easy to use anonymous, gender-neutral subjects in sentences to give examples of people. For example, "the student", "the user", "the agent", "the engineer", "the scientist", etc.

It takes practice to write in active voice while remaining gender neutral; sometimes the writing can get a bit bogged down when you start. Sometimes writing they or them can feel awkward. But like any sort of writing, practice makes perfect. After awhile it becomes second nature.

Unlike those days of blissful ignorance, as a reviewer I am now very distracted and occasionally annoyed by both gender exclusive language (of either gender), as well as by too many Orshees. In some particularly egregious cases of the former I have politely reminded the authors to be more sensitive to their use of language. I know it is often a result of English being a second language.

Google, however, really should know better. Check out this error message I just got in Chrome (emphasis mine):
In this case, the certificate has not been verified by a third party that your computer trusts. Anyone can create a certificate claiming to be whatever website they choose, which is why it must be verified by a trusted third party. Without that verification, the identity information in the certificate is meaningless. It is therefore not possible to verify that you are communicating with  XXX.YYY.ZZZ, instead of an attacker who generated his own certificate claiming to be XXX.YYY.ZZZ. You should not proceed past this point.
If I was a man I might be offended. I'm sure there are plenty of female hackers out there. (Heck, even that attack is poorly named - "man in the middle". I guess it's catchier than "person in the middle", but still).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How to get your paper accepted: Our results are very awesome!

In today's installment of how to get your paper accepted, I'd very, very much like to discuss intensifiers. And exclamations! So I will.

Scientific writing is first and foremost about clear, careful communication. You can have the most amazing results in the world, but if you can't clearly walk your reader through your science, you're going to run into problems. Furthermore, I said "careful" because in scientific writing it is also important to be humble, and not take your conclusions too far.*

By using intensifiers, which are adverbs that elevate the word following it, you not only run the risk of over-generalizing, but you also risk angering your reviewers/readers. It is highly unlikely most authors can make claims like: "Our work makes a very important contribution", "We present really groundbreaking work on embedded rubber ducks", or "This work is extremely revolutionary".

Exclamations, too, rarely have place in scientific prose. Sometimes if you are trying to write something that catches the reader's attention, exclamations may be appropriate. For example, if you were writing a technical article on cellular phone use in rural India and wished to point out some fact about how people are more likely to have phones than shoes, say, that might make sense.

An editorial or book review is a fine place to use qualifiers, and possibly also exclamations. These are publication venues that expect authors to state opinions and generalizations, as well as to catch a reader's attention.

But for your standard journal or conference article, keep the intensifiers (and exclamations!) at home. 

* This is important for many reasons, not least of which is making a generalization or prediction about the future that is entirely wrong and/or taken out of context, and having to relive it for decades. See also, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How to get your paper accepted: Short paragraphs

July seems to be the month for reviews, so I thought I'd organize some of my observations on scientific writing into bite-sized advice posts.

1) If you want to get your paper accepted, please, for the love of all things, use short paragraphs.

I was reviewing a two-column ACM format paper recently, and a few paragraphs took up the entire left-side column and half of the right-side column. My eyes went blurry by the end, and frankly it negatively biased me against the authors.

If authors are concerned about space, they should either use less words or make their diagrams smaller. I'd much rather see smaller diagrams and more readable text than huge diagrams and squished prose.

Also - putting hundreds of lines of code into a paper is rarely necessary. (And XML is never necessary*). Use small chunks. Just the important idea behind the awesome algorithm. If the code paragraphs are taking up more than half a page, please consider an alternate presentation style. (See Justin Zobel for nice presentation ideas).

(*) <meta>I'm sure there's a good xkcd comic out there for this sentiment, though my Google fu is weak today.</meta>

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Having what it takes

There is only one trait you need in order to be a computer scientist: persistence. And I mean dogged persistence. Like you spend 10 hours on a problem persistent.

This is actually a learning exercise. After some time, you start to discern patterns in how things tend to break, and you see them in multiple places. Even as operating systems, programming languages, and applications change, you see these patterns of how to fix broken things, because you have experience under your belt.

The truth is, if you have no patience for such things, or if you want to quit after an hour of working on something, chances are you won't last long in this field.

I can tell you, though, that persistence pays off. After awhile, the mystery of machines begins to go away, you begin to see patterns, and your frustration dissipates.  And best of all, when you do have that breakthrough and fix the damned thing, you feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.

It feels like this is difficult to communicate to "kids today". I think it's hard for them to see the point of the struggle, when there are so many other fields that don't require nearly so much frustration. (A friend once described it as constantly banging your head against the wall and then feeling really good when you stop doing it, which perhaps is apt.)

Often people ask me why I became a computer scientist, and I always reply honestly - it never occurred to me to do anything else. (And I'm as stubborn as a mule, which helps. :-))

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Burn after reading

I received an unencrypted email yesterday which had in the title "CONFIDENTIAL AND PRIVATE". It also had instructions that if I were to print out its PDF attachment, I must shred it immediately after reading it.

Clearly we Computer Scientists are doing a bad job with public outreach here. So, hey, chance to educate.

Email is hardly ever secure. I say 'hardly ever' because it is possible to encrypt email, and it is also possible to send email on secure, closed networks, free from the pull of the internet sea.

But most of the average email your average person is sending is being sent in the clear, unencrypted. This is a lot like walking down the street holding a big sign with the contents of your email. Which is recorded by a camera. And a lot of people can watch the video at any point in the future. Also, the video is archived in a library 4ever*.

The metaphor of a paper postal letter may have made sense about 15-20 years ago, but it's no longer valid. A letter sent by physical mail is much harder for lots and lots of people to read, unless someone tampers with the mail, makes a photocopy, etc. It also had ephemerality - you really could burn it after reading.

I pretty much operate under the assumption that any determined person can read my email and all unencrypted files on my computer. I also assume any emails I send could end up being forwarded to others, printed out, or posted on some blog somewhere.  Err on the side of caution, and all.

(*) Ok, except a library is a bad metaphor because it's not necessarily easy for people to find this video. (aka. "security through obscurity"). Nor is it necessarily around for ever, but it could be.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Land War in Asia (aka, CS undergraduate education)

Today on Scientopia I get involved in a land war in Asia.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Achoo !

I feel strange not blogging much, like I didn't brush my teeth or something.

Life has been incredibly busy, though all for good reasons which I'll discuss here soon.

I think we need a panel not on work-life balance, but on blog-life balance. After housework, the blog is the first thing to go.

Anyway, it seems my first blog-a-versary is on Sunday, which is neat. I've enjoyed meeting so many of you online and interacting with you, reading your blogs, and learning from you. It's fun when people in meatspace mention some of your blogs at work, and I have to silently giggle under my thin veil of pseudo-anonymity.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Secure your networks, this time with feeling!

I know I've said that my research area is not security, but you'd think I was lying with all my recent posts on these topics.

The IMF has now been hacked. (Apparently by a foreign government). I read this in the NY Times article -
Because the fund has been at the center of economic bailout programs for Portugal, Greece and Ireland — and possesses sensitive data on other countries that may be on the brink of crisis — its database contains potentially market-moving information. It also includes communications with national leaders as they negotiate, often behind the scenes, on the terms of international bailouts. Those agreements are, in the words of one fund official, “political dynamite in many countries.” It was unclear what information the attackers were able to access.
- and had two immediate thoughts:

1) How could it be unclear what information the attackers were able to access? Don't they have logs? And if the logs were vaporized, don't they have clever digital forensics experts who can figure out what happened?  This is the IMF for pete's sake.

2) All the data stored in these databases was encrypted with strong encryption, right? Oh, and all the traffic from client computers to the database was encrypted, right? And they keep a tight access control list, right? Right?

If you follow good practice to begin with, you don't have to worry quite as much when you're hacked. But so few organizations do, which is really depressing.

I used to bemoan the lack of good practice to friends who do work in this field, and they would chuckle and said, "Look, FCS, if you want to protect your data, write it on a slip of paper, burn the paper, dig a hole 10 feet deep, and put the ashes in the hole. Or better yet, don't write it down in the first place."


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why I'm glad Computer Scientists invented the internet -

- and not politicians. (No offense, Al).

Apparently after Sarah Palin's recent gaffe claiming a revisionist American history regarding Paul Revere's ride (and then doubling down about it), inspired a group of her supporters to rewrite the Revere wikipedia page to support her statements. As it happens, an interview with Sarah Palin does not exactly constitute a valid source, so Wikipedia said, "uh, no," and that was that.

Not that Wikipedia was exactly a bastion of valid historical data to begin with (and people are easily fooled by citation-looking-things), but this was a pretty weird thing for Palin-fans to do in my not particularly humble opinion. (Twitter is much better for spreading misinformation, doncha know?)

Anyway - Pedantic Wikipedia editors: 1, Wignuts: 0.


Image description: Paul Revere holds his head in his hand
whilst holding a teapot.

Credit: From Charles Johnson, from Boing Boing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

2010 ACM Awards - A Glance at Gender

I've posted today in Scientopia about a glance at gender for the 2010 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Awards. The ACM is our major professional organization in Computer Science.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Female Computer Scientists FTW

In other security news this week, Google is claiming China orchestrated some major attacks against gmail users. No shock, but what I found interesting is that they were discovered by blogger and fellow female computer scientist Mila Parkour.

Kudos, Mila!

And this just in - apparently Sony! Soni! Soné! has been hacked again. With script kiddie SQL injection attacks. The PC World article says, "Sony seems to ignore compliance requirements and basic security best practices".

For shame, Soné, for shame. You should totally hire Mila to fix you up. After China I suspect a gaming network will be child's play.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What's the deal with workshops?

One of my students recently asked me about workshops: what are they, how are they different from conferences, and is it a worth attending them?

When it comes to workshops there is huge variation across and within CS subfields, but I'll try to answer generally.


One might define workshops as conferences on a smaller scale. They usually last anywhere from half a day to several days. They are usually single-track (i.e., only one thing is happening at a time).


Workshops are typically co-located with another event, such as a conference or the anniversary of Alan Turing's 33rd birthday. Sometimes they stand alone. Sometimes they are co-located with a bunch of other workshops. 


Workshops are usually more interactive than conferences in that they tend to foster longer and more in-depth periods of discussion. Sometimes this means discussion so intellectually stimulating you lose track of time, sometimes this means it's 6:30pm and you're starving and angry at the organizers for not telling Dr. Loquacious it's dinner time.

Also, workshops are usually less formal and more relaxed than conferences.

Acceptance Rate

It is usually easier to get a paper into a workshop than a major CS conference, but this is not always true. I was talking to a friend in a subfield that has a "workshop" which is the top venue in his field - it has an acceptance rate of less than 17%. 

If it's a workshop in a very niche area, like Green Non-Embedded Ducks, chances are your paper will be accepted so long as you can sneeze some words in the general theme area.

Social Events

Sometimes workshops have pre- or post- workshop meals and/or social activities associated with them. These events are generally informal, and in my observation usually organized at the last minute. "Hey, anyone wanna get some food?"

When you plan your travel to workshops, try to leave some time free a few hours after the workshop (or the night before). Social events are great networking opportunities, just like at conferences.

People: Organizers / Program Committee (PC)

I usually only go to workshops that are either: organized by people I've heard of, have people I've heard on on the PC, or are co-located with a conference I wanted to attend anyway. If none of these things are true, then I usually have to have a long think about whether it's worth attending. Sometimes if I'm foraying into a new discipline and the workshop isn't too far away or too expensive, I'll take the chance.

People: Attendees

It's generally a mix. Some workshops I've gone to it's nearly all graduate students. Others it's nearly all mid to senior academics. It really varies. Workshops that are organized by people from industry or government tend to draw a different crowd as well.

Proceedings / Outcomes

The best workshops combine fantastic workshop-y goodness and publish your paper in the ACM Digital Library or IEEExplore. Or, the organizers have actually applied for and received approval for a journal special issue.

This is not always the case, though. Sometimes your paper doesn't actually go anywhere, sometimes organizers promise ACM or IEEE or special issue journal publications and it never happens. Sometimes they just grab your paper and plunk it up on a website.

Other outcomes include websites and wikis (usually promised, though some organizers follow through), as well as a poster that is presented at the main conference. In my experience this poster is a strange thing, and seems to happen at the end of a 13 hour day when you're still hungry and Dr. Loquacious is still whinging, except this time while holding PostIt notes and markers.

Why should you go?

- Workshops are a great place to meet people pre-conference if they happen before the conference begins. This is especially true if you're attending a conference where you don't know anyone. The further you get in your career the more rare this will be, but in your first few years of conference-going, workshops are very helpful.

- Sometimes super-huge people attend workshops, and you get the chance to rub elbows with them all day long. I once got to spend a day with my idol this way.

- From an academic perspective, workshops are a great place to float half-baked ideas.

- Finally, because the acceptance rate is usually higher at workshops co-located with conferences, it's a great excuse to go. Fantastic back-up plan.

Why should you not go?

- From a paper publication standpoint, sometimes workshops are more trouble than they're worth. If they haven't planned for proper proceedings (e.g., ACM Digital Library/IEEExplore / Springer LNCS), your paper might not "count" as much from a career perspective as it would if it were properly published. On the other hand, for really early work this can be a boon because you can get feedback on your work, improve it, and then publish it in something good later.

- Some workshops promise a journal special issue or book but this doesn't actually ever come to fruition. You can usually tell based on the track record of the organizers. I know some organizers who are super on top of such things and really do pull together journal special issues, books, etc., and I know others that always promise but never deliver. So view this as a nice bonus, but don't bank on it.

- It's hard to predict what kind of experience you'll have at a workshop compared to a well-established conference. Some organizers are great and some are awful. (Academic skillz does not necessarily translate into good workshop organizing skillz).

Bottom Line

In my experience, if you have the funding and time to attend, and you think you'll enjoy yourself and learn something, it's worth attending workshops - especially ones co-located with top conferences. You'll usually learn something, and if you don't learn something you'll at least meet interesting people. Some of my Research BFFs I met at wokshops, and we're still working together to this day.

Monday, May 30, 2011

And so it begins*

Remember I blogged a few months ago about RSA getting hacked? We are now seeing the first major repercussions of this - Lockheed Martin's attack last week is assumed to be due to this.

According to AP, "Lockheed Martin said in a statement that it detected the May 21 attack 'almost immediately' and took countermeasures. As a result, 'our systems remain secure; no customer, program or employee personal data has been compromised.'"

Color me unconvinced.

To be honest, I'm really shocked RSA didn't do a massive recall of all its fobs after it was attacked. It was negligent not to.

(*) There's your B5 reference, Scott!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Letting papers go

Awhile back, a colleague and I wrote a paper and submitted it to a journal. The first round of reviews came back, and one reviewer told us our work was fatally flawed.

We went through a few rounds of back-and-forth with the editor, all the while repeating that Reviewer #7* was mistaken because of such-and-such reason.

Recently my colleague and I were examining our resubmission. My colleague drew a picture to clarify something, and I stopped dead in my tracks. "Holy crap, Colleague. Reviewer #7 is right! Our entire paper is irrevocably flawed."

We went though the data, checked a few things, and sure enough - fatal flaw. I'm not sure how I missed it the first time, I guess because I was not the first author and busy doing other things when we first submitted it.

So - 30 page paper goes in the trash. Clunk!

Now you might say, "But wait! Why can't you just fix that broken part? Write a big disclaimer within a limitations section?"

I can't fix it because it's wrong. The entire concept of the paper is flawed. Even with a disclaimer it would be disingenuous to publish this at all.

So I let it go. I'm not too sad, though. We actually re-designed how we'd do things to avoid this flaw in the future, and I am sure our next paper will be super fantastic when we write it. And in any case, there are always more great ideas out there.

(*) Not the Reviewer's actual number. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why movie-playing software has a "repeat" button

Short shameful confession: I had more fun than I can possibly tell you when I drew that last comic. Not only is it fun to create comics visually, but Comic Life makes these adorable sound effects when you resize images, delete them, increase the font sizes, etc.

My readers who are software designers - you seriously need to make more programs have cute sound effects. Can you imagine how much more joyful it would for people when they made a database entry it said, "YEAH!" every time they hit 'commit', or "Vooooooop!" when they resized a column in Excel? Help a girl out, put the FUN back in functional!

Anywho, on to today's post topic, which occurred to me in the wee hours of the morning.

For the longest time, I couldn't understand why movie playing software had a "repeat" button. These days I barely have the attention span or time to sit through one movie, let alone the same movie several times. I thought, well, maybe it's for those always-on televisions in places like hospital waiting areas and electronics stores. The people that work there, forced to watch this same horrible movie repeatedly, are not going to want to get up every time the credits roll. Especially if it's playing on forty TVs.

But, still, that can't possibly explain the design decision for a repeat button.

No, it had to be something else...

Image Description: Top panel, alarm clock says 4:12. Next panel, bright-eyed kid says,
"Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy!". Next panel, bleary-eyed mother. Next panel,
kid says, "Wakey WAKEY, Mommy!". Last panel, an iPad showing "Finding Nemo", with a
magic wand pointing to the repeat control with the words "Magic!"

I remember the first time I saw the magic. It was winter, and my son was at a party with a dozen small children. They were indoors and literally bouncing off the walls. After about an hour, another parent said, "How about a movie?" and all the hyper kids screamed, "YEAH!". He put the movie in. Snap - just like that - immediate silence. Stillness. They were transfixed for hours.

With great power comes great responsibility, speaking of comics. But ParentWars be damned, bright-eyed children at 5am qualifies as the fairest use of television ever conceived.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why is Watson a 'he'?

So there was an article recently about how Watson was moving beyond jeopardy and going into medicine.

Throughout the article, Watson is referred to with male pronouns. Personally, I always refer to computers as, 'it'. To do otherwise is just feels strange to me. It would be like giving my lettuce gender. "My, he's very crispy tonight."

What I found even more strange about the article was how Watson was going to beat "his competitor", another diagnosis engine called Isabel. This machine is referred to with female pronouns, "...but Watson's trainers don't seem to see her as a threat; they say he's already faster and understands more medical terms."

Uh huh.

I've decided from this day forward all my future computers will be named "Pat". That'll learn 'em.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What it feels like to be me

Today on Scientopia I write about what it feels like to be me.

(As an aside, I must admit I feel very uncomfortable labeling a post in this manner. There's something very teenage diary about it. But it seemed the most appropriate. If I titled it, "What it feels like to be a female computer scientist", it would be as though I were representing all female computer scientists... which would be extremely ironic considering the post's content!)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Tryst by Typo

One of my email accounts is spelled in a very similar way to another person's, so sometimes I get their mail. We share a name. (Let's say it's "Ada").  

A few weeks ago, I got a letter that looked something like this:
Hey Dr. Ada,   
I know its prolly not appropriate to be writing this, but I cant wait to see u nekkid, covered in chocolate. 
Happy Easter,
My first thought was, "OMG! Did I have a student named Sam? What the heck?!?" Then I realized I was not the intended recipient and ignored it.

I got another email about a week later asking why I hadn't replied to the first one.  

Yesterday I received one about coordinating a morning "meeting", and that although we'd said 9:30, Sam would be ok with starting at 8 to "get things moving". Then today he sent an email describing some rather graphic details of what transpired. (These details are left as an exercise to the reader.)

I can't tell you how amused I am by all this. I keep debating how I might reply to Sam, or how I can contact the other Dr. Ada. I wonder if she's a PhD or an MD, and I wonder if Sam is her student. Then I wonder if he is her student and they are having a tryst, how on earth does she tolerate his egregious grammar and spelling errors?

In any case, I'm glad they're not using .edu addresses to conduct their rendezvous, as I'm pretty sure that's discoverable.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

She said, he read (and he read, and he read..)

Several times in the recent past I have written an email to a single person asking them a question. They replied to my question, but in their reply they carbon copied (cc'd) several other people. In one instance the cc'd person was relevant. In another instance the cc'd people were most definitely not relevant, and I was surprised to find the responder write, "We discussed your question and decided..."

I understand people are trying to be helpful, but this is getting a bit ridiculous.

When I telephone someone, there is usually a social contract that the telephone call is just between the two of us unless otherwise specified.  Somehow this has been lost in email. (Maybe it was never there in the first place?)

Several lawyer friends have told me they don't conduct any business or send anything remotely important over email - they do everything in person or over the phone. "It's not discoverable", they say.

Despite having the typical Computer Scientist's dislike of telephone conversations, I am now beginning to appreciate their value.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Taking a risk for someone else

I read this article last night, and it brought tears to my eyes. It's about James Zwerg, a white college student who was part of a group of non-violent civil rights activists (the Freedom Riders) who rode an integrated bus though the deep south in 1961. They did this to prove a point - travel facilities on the interstates in the South were just as segregated and racist as they ever were despite the Supreme Court's rulings, and it was time for the government to act.

They endured incredible violence and emotional tumult, the latter not only from aggressive people they encountered during their travels, but also from their families.

Stanley Nelson made a documentary about the Freedom Riders which you can watch on your local PBS station or on DVD. (It first aired May 16th). Many clips from the flip are online as well.

I find myself struck by two thoughts. First, what an incredibly brave thing these students did. They risked their lives and endured a tremendous amount of grief to get the government to actually do something.

Second, I wonder why now, 50 years later, so many people are so risk-averse when it comes to standing up to people who make racist/sexist/ableist remarks. Compared to what The Freedom Riders did, confronting someone on this stuff is nothing.

I hope this film, and other associated events of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, gives people the courage to act.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hey, where did all the women go?

Today on Scientopia I discuss a recent article about women leaving science, which delighted me not only because it included fellow FCS and blogger Amy Dalal, but also in its clear statement that the major reason women leave the profession is because of workplace culture, not babies.

Friday, May 13, 2011

This post brought to you by the letter Z

I find it really funny how the recent trend in food marketing has made its way into engineering schools.

It used to be, "Grilled Cheese.... $2.99". Now you see things things like "Grilled Panini with New York Artisan Cheddar....$3.99". I can't blame the restaurateurs - there's plenty of research to back up this new labeling trend.

But I find it entertaining to see this branding happening more frequently at engineering schools. It used to be "State University School of Engineering", now it's, "The Piggy M. and Kermit T. Frog School of Engineering and Applied Sciences", followed in tiny letters, almost as an after thought - "At State University".

I'm most amused by the insane amount of words on the business cards of people with endowed professorships and prestigious society memberships who work in a named schools of engineering in differently named buildings. Their cards look like this:
Dr. Abby Cadabby
The Monster Cookie Company Professor of Computing
Muppet Academy of Engineering Fellow
The Kermit T. and Piggy M. Frog School of Engineering and Applied Science
The Bert and Ernie Building
101 Sesame Street
I suppose I should only be amused in a sad sort of way, because what I suspect all of these named things mean is that public support for universities and research is so dismal that people have to take money from any source they can.

Nonetheless, when I see things like this I usually think something silly like, "... and french fries and a side salad, please."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Discrimination in an inverted hierarchy

Today at Scientopia I discuss the issue of inverted discrimination in the workplace, for example, when a student acts racist/sexist/ableist against a professor, or a department head discriminates against a CEO.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kudos, Randall!

Another winner in XKCD yesterday. Sending kudos and <3 to Randall.

Image Description: Captioning is available here

Monday, May 9, 2011

Trump's racist remarks continue

First it was "that black guy can't possibly be a US citizen." Now it's "that black guy can't possibly have good academic credentials." Just listen to this:
Image description: 
Text that reads, "Blog 
against racism (it helps)"
Standing on a tarmac Wednesday in New Hampshire, Trump said "word is he (Obama) wasn't a very good student." 

"I'd like to know how does he get into Harvard, how does he get into Columbia if he isn't a very good student," Trump said.
Trump, we have an intelligent, black, American president who kicks ass. I'm very sorry if this offends your delicate sensibilities, but time to face reality: He's Black and Brilliant. These two things do co-occur!

Kudos to Bob Scheiffer for this comment:
"That's just code for saying he got into law school because he's black," Schieffer said on the CBS Evening News Wednesday. "This is an ugly strain of racism that's running through this whole thing."
Indeed there is! Finally, someone with the guts to call Trump on this baloney. Few other media figures seem willing.

I really liked Etan Thomas' article on this topic. In fact, a lot of what he described sounds similar to what many women in technology experience in higher education. We must have cheated on our exams. A man must have helped us on that programming assignment. We only got that job/fellowship/grant because we're a woman.

Totally. My ovaries know C++, actually.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Birthers, Racism, and The Media

Here I was thinking, how I can I best write about what I think about the birthers? And then Tony Auth drew a fabulous editorial cartoon. Well done, Tony.

Image Descrption: Four panels. Upper left "He wasn't, you know, born in America."
Upper right, "He's not, you know, A Christian." Bottom left, "He's you know, a Muslim
or a Kenyan.". Bottom right, "He's well, you know..." [silhouette of Obama,
visual implication is: '']
Also on the topic of birthers and latent racism, The New Black Woman posted a critique of how the media just played into Trump's hands, let him and other birthers spew all sorts of racist and xenophobic garbage unchecked, etc,:
"...many of the traditional news outlets and journalists refused to examine the racial factor behind the birther issue. Big Media refused to dig deeper into the underlying racist feelings that when a black man or woman obtains higher power or authority, there's something astray about that person's ascent to power. It failed to ponder why so many people feel that whenever a black man or woman achieves great success, their rise to fame or fortune must be the result of either a law or being broken or skewed in their favor at the expense of a white person.

But, I can't blame Big Media for failing to delve into any analytical reporting or investigating. Reporting on the racial, xenophobia aspect of the birther issue would require the media to confront the system of white supremacy and privilege set up to benefit many of the reporters working for Big Media. It would require them to dig deeper than the shallow reporting they are so accustomed to (due to advertising demands, a short attention span and hollow reasoning by their audience) and examine the subconscious racism laying dormant in a majority of our society. It would require making their audience and their bosses uncomfortable reading and editing stories about race as they would see quotes or segments reminiscent of their underlying racist feelings."
I sincerely hope the media outlets take this as a challenge to make themselves uncomfortable and truly confront latent racism. The day they finally realize that their power is more than just selling toothpaste and viagra, and they can have a major hand in changing people's negative attitudes toward other races, cultures, and abilities. It doesn't have to be after school specials, just even the topics they choose to discuss and the way in which they discuss them. They could do so much better with not all that much effort.

Of course, then there's always the inevitable, "Oh noes! Our art will suffer by having to care about how we use language!" argument. You think I'm joking. If you watch the actual noose gaffe video, while fumbling Mitt Romney quips, 'You have to be careful what you say these days!' Aw. Not like the good old days where you could make noose jokes without a problem. Poor guy, he already has a lot on his plate, I shouldn't pick on him.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Business travel for newbies

A new graduate student recently attended their first conference, and was a bit confused as to what "counted" when filling out their expense report. So I thought I'd make a post about this topic in case anyone else was new to this. 

Every institution is different, but I'm generally of the opinion that from the minute your leave your house to the minute you get back you are on the clock, and everything "counts". (Assuming you're not also taking personal travel during the business trip, but that's an entirely different post). 

There are some things that will almost always be reimbursed - taxis, busses, trains, airplanes, rental cars, hotels, conference registration. Some things are usually reimbursed - internet usage, business-related telephone calls, meals. Some things are usually not reimbursed - purchasing toiletries, souvenirs, entertainment, etc.

Sometimes something you think might not be reimbursed is, like room service or dry cleaning, and sometimes something you think will be reimbursed won't (e.g., upgrading from a $45/day car rental to a $46/day car rental of a larger size. I really wish I was joking on this one.)

Some US-based institutions grant employees "per diem" for non-lodging related expenses. This is a fixed sum based on location, and is meant to include food and "incidentals". It is given as a lump sum to the employee, pro-rated for the entire trip. If you're able to eat cheaply, you often end up making money on your business trips instead of just breaking even, which is pretty nice.

Other institutions want you to save all of your receipts, and itemize every expense. If you go out to dinner at a conference with 34 people it can get a bit tricky, some people get around this by asking for separate checks or getting multiple copies of the big check circling what they had. One colleague takes photographs with their phone to save time, which I think is pretty clever.

In any case, it's always worth saving all receipts and trying for reimbursement. There's no reason to be shy, or sweat over an expense you're not sure is reimbursable. Usually the worse that will happen is you'll be told "no". 

Oh, one more thing. When you're on business travel, don't feel like you are required to share a room, stay in a roach-infested motel, or sleep on someone's couch. By the same token, don't stay at the Westin when there's a perfectly decent modestly priced place across the street. Be reasonable, and the people paying for your trip hopefully will be too.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sony! Soni! Soné!

I am very disappointed in you.

You get hacked, have 77 million credit and debit card numbers stolen but wait one week before telling your customers. And now you face a class action lawsuit, a senator demanding answers, and possibly lots of "angry mums". (Watch out for those angry mums! Like Bob! Or is he a daisy?)

And, given your track record on security (i.e., installing rootkits on customer's machines), you're not really in a good place right now.

The right thing to have done would have been come clean initially. Be honest with your customers from the start - "We stored information we shouldn't have, we didn't encrypt your data, and it's all been stolen. Call your bank and change your debit and credit card numbers."

Other companies, please take note. Only store the data you need to. Tighten your existing controls.  Do not think yourself invulnerable, or something's gonna getcha, little Walter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


MIT has produced a science video game for kids that looks to be both a lot of fun and educational. It's for kids aged 10-14.
Image Descrption: A screen shot from the Vanished game.
Credit: MIT

Here's an excerpt from an article about the game:
The game’s conceptual origins lie in discussions researchers in the Comparative Media Studies group have had with Smithsonian officials, dating back about four years. The creation of “Vanished” took place after the MIT researchers won a grant to develop the game from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009.
The NSF has an interest in projects such as “Vanished” due in part to the agency’s findings, over many years of research surveys, that much of the public’s science knowledge comes from outside the classroom. The grant for developing the game came from the NSF’s program in “Informal Science Education,” which seeks new ways to interest students in science.
The MIT researchers hope that participating in “Vanished” will help break down myths among students, and help them realize that in asking questions and hunting for information, they are performing tasks central to science.  
“Scientists aren’t a priesthood of people with secret knowledge,” Osterweil says. “They don’t walk around with it all in their heads. They do research to find it out.”
Here's a link to the game. Enjoy! It's only available for two months (and started about 2 weeks ago), so be sure to play between now and the end of May. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Finding Your Way In (Computer) Science

Today in The Difference Engine I write about self-esteem, inspired by some recent conversations with young FCSes.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Strengths and Weaknesses

When you review a paper for a conference or journal, many of the reviewing forms request that the reviewer outline the paper's strengths and weaknesses.

Recently, I read a review that went something like this:
"Weaknesses:  Several of the main findings presented in this paper are merely confirmation of previous work."
I wish this was one of those publication venues where you can review the reviewers, because I would have written back:
"Weaknesses: Reviewer 2 has gotten so thristy for novelty they have forgotten one of the hallmarks of science: replicability."
It's not just Computer Science that is plagued by this problem, certainly it's cropped up elsewhere. But our discipline does have a tradition of getting a little too obsessed with the novelty of an idea that they forget the value of reproducing previous findings.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why scientists make great parents

Image Description: For Better or For Worse Comic from April 17, 2011. Michael's dad tells him to go to bed. Michael says it's not fair, because every kid in town gets to stay up later than he does. His dad says, "Really? Well I don't want to be unreasonable. You take a survey of every kid in town your age, and we'll base your bedtime on their average." Michael looks befuddled and says he'll go to bed. He then says to his bear, "We're in trouble, Teddy - they're getting smarter."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Conference, I thee wed

Recently I was joining a professional organization outside my discipline. I went to the website to register, and was asked:
Description: CAT-5 wedding rings, 
Source: engadget
- My birthday
- My marital status
- The name of my spouse
- My anniversary date
And this isn't some skeezy society that is secretly marketing its members, this is a valid, bone fide organization!

I wonder if they will send me free coupons to their journal on my birthday, and a special society mug on my anniversary. That'd be great. IEEE and ACM definitely need to get in on this action.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Conference Edition

I recently gave a talk, and afterward someone doing very similar work, "Sue", came up afterward and we started chatting. We had very complimentary research interests, so went to dinner together to keep chatting.

Sue and I are in very different disciplines, but we both attend conferences regularly, so we ended up swapping stories.

Some of these conference attendance stories were funny (e.g., the general chair getting trashed and loudly singing German drinking songs at the banquet), and some were embarrassing (e.g., the young scientist asks the senior scientist, 'What are your thoughts on Embedded Rubber Ducks?' and the senior scientist says, 'Young man, I INVENTED Rubber Ducks!"), but overall they were greatly entertaining. Like campfire story-telling for academics.

Though as any good campfire event goes, we reached the inevitable point in such a conference story-swapping conversation -- horror stories. These are the kind of stories that, at the time, make you want to jump off a cliff, but years later you can (sort of) laugh about with colleagues. Sue told me a few that I wish I could write about here but I was sworn to secrecy.

Anyway, I thought I'd ask the peanut gallery out there - what are your conference stories? Any funny ones? Scary ones? Would love to hear.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Equal Pay Day

Today on Scientopia I write about Equal Pay Day.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Jean Bartik

This week at Scientopia, I write about computing pioneer Jean Bartik, who sadly passed away last week.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Agent's Smith Registry

I have just discovered the joy that is This one is probably my favorite so far:

Image Description*: Panel 1: Neo says, "So you just keep duplicating
your program over and over? Aren't you afraid of registry errors?"
Panel 2: Agent Smith says, "Mr. Anderson...Do you honestly think that I would allow
there to be any errors in my system's regist.."
Panel 3: Hugo Weaving in drag with an outlandish orange and yellow costume.
Panel 4: Agent Smith (I think?) with white light coming out of his eyes.

While we're talking about The Matrix, I just stumbled across this video of a recreation of a scene from the film in Lego. I somehow missed it the first time around when it came out in 2009, so in case you did too here it is:

You can also watch the side-by-side with the original film. It's amazing. 

* From now on I'm going to try to make my captions more accessible to readers who are blind and/or visually impaired. Please call me on it if I forget!