Monday, February 28, 2011

Oh noes, it's women CEOs!

Today at Scientopia I discuss the latest debate raging across the pond - hiring quotas to ensure there are more women CEOs of companies.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sorry, but don't apologize

One of the bits of advice floating around for scientists is, "Don't apologize for your work". Usually this advice is dispensed within the context of giving a presentation - don't start a presentation with, "Sorry", don't apologize for unreadable graphs, etc.

But I think this advice should be extended to all professional scientific communication. If you hurt someone's feelings or spill their coffee, absolutely you should apologize. Of course you should speak considerately and professionally to all people. But when it comes to communicating science don't apologize for yourself. Don't degrade your expertise, don't qualify your statements.1

You can qualify presentations of information, for example, "This work is preliminary" or "This was just a first step to exploring this problem area." But that is very different from saying, "I realize I am only a masters student" or "Sorry, I am a n00b here" or "I know my undergraduate degree is in French literature, but..."

Be bold! Yes, you will probably need to wave the white flag sometimes. But don't start out with your flag waving. Start out strong.

1 Unless you work in a country where apologizing is the norm for professional communication, in which case, I'm sorry for this post. ;-)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Prescient spam

I work in area X. I recently wrote a paper on area X_1, and submitted it to a conference. It was rejected. So I revised it and resubmitted it to a more topic-relevant conference, and it is currently under review. There is absolutely nothing in the public sphere indicating that I have done work in field X_1 that I am aware of.

Today I got a spammy email from one of those shady journals that spams anyone who ever published something in IEEE Xplore or the ACM Digital Library, saying:
Dear Dr. FCS,      // Not a bad start, calling me "Dr." instead of "Ms." (or "Mr.")
Our Journal of X has a special issue coming up on X_1. Given your expertise in this area we would like to invite you to submit something. 
Editor in Chief of Shady Journal
Mostly I am fascinated that they somehow know I am working in area X_1. Looking at the editorial board of the shady journal and the PC of the two conferences this paper has been seen by, I see no obvious overlap.

The funny thing is, this journal never spams me on areas of X_2, X_3, or X_4 (none of which I work in, but they publish in), so this is fairly deliberate spam.

So how did they know about my new professional foray? Clearly this is evidence that they are psychic. Or one of my reviewers blabbed. I'd say it's a 50/50 probability of either.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Those who trade security for coffee deserve neither

A recent article reports results from a survey which shows, among other things, that companies are spending more money on coffee for their employees than securing their "web applications", whatever that means. (In this day and age, is there any application that doesn't have at least some network-facing capability?)

In any case, being an advocate of both strong coffee and strong encryption, I can understand the dilemma. You need to caffeinate your sysadmins so they can keep up their daily grind of writing Javascript, while still allowing them to esperesso themselves that, actually, not beaning standards compliant is going to cause a latte problems.

(Coffee pun hat tip)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gallaudet University plans to cut Computer Science

Read this, and tell me if anything looks unusual to you:
Be it resolved that the Board of Trustees, recognizing the need to strategically reallocate resources, approves the recommendation of the university administration to close the following major degree programs:

• Ed.S. Change Leadership in Education
• M.S. Administration
• Ph.D. Special Education Administration
• M.A. Deaf Studies: Deaf History
• M.S. Leisure Services Administration
• B.S. Computer Information Systems
• B.A. Chemistry: Chemical Technology
• B.A./B.S. Computer Science
• B.A. French
• B.A. International Government
• B.A. Theatre Arts: Educational Drama
Two of these things are not like the others. I've made them red. (Not because I'm angry, I just like the color.)

I can understanding cutting French and Leisure Services Administration - I doubt there are a lot of jobs in these fields.  Same also for International Government and Theater Arts, though I suspect both of those fields could stand to have a higher representation of people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. I don't know anything about the fields of Education, Administration, or Deaf Studies so I can't comment on those. As for the Chemical Technology major, given its stated purpose is to prepare students to be laboratory technicians and given the rumors of large numbers of people with Chemistry PhDs scrambling to get lab tech jobs, I'm not entirely surprised to see the major cut.

But CS and CIS? Why?

Why on earth would a university cut CS programs in this economy? If anything, those are the majors most likely to yield jobs for undergraduates. An undergraduate degree in Computer Science is a golden ticket for a job from now until 2018. Here's what the Computing Community Consortium has to say about this (boldface and italics are theirs):
Looking at all science and engineering occupations — “Computer and mathematical,” “Architecture and engineering,” and “Life, physical, and social science” — computer science occupations are projected to be responsible for nearly 60% of all job growth between now and 2018. The next largest contributor — all fields of Engineering combined — is projected to contribute 13.4% of total growth. All of the life sciences combined: 5.6%. All of the physical sciences combined: 3.1%. In other words, among all occupations in all fields of science and engineering, computer science occupations are projected to account for nearly 60% of all job growth between now and 2018.
So, I am puzzled by Gallaudet's decision. And troubled.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Check yo self

FSP's post today on getting blogged about reminded me of something I meant to write about awhile ago. And that is - ways to actively monitor how others talk about you publicly.

I highly suggest setting up several Google Alerts. This is a great service that emails you whenever someone mentions your name on a site Google indexes*. You can set this up for general search results, as well as for blogs, twitter, and news articles.

You also can set up citation alerts in Google scholar, which will tell you if someone has cited you generally, or you can set one up for individual papers if you're so inclined.

For these alerts, I have quite a few variations of my name, for example:
(Ada A. Lovelace) OR (A. Lovelace) OR (Lovelace, A.) OR (Lovelace AND Analytic Engines) 

I've found these alerts invaluable, because over the years I have given several talks where my privacy requests were violated. This happened along the lines of:
"Can we have a copy of your slides?"
"Pretty Please? It's for those poor undergraduate students who couldn't attend your talk today."
"Pleeeeease? We promise not to put it on the internet."

Because I'm a pushover when it comes to pleas about wee undergraduate students, I acquiesced, and sure enough two weeks later, surprise! There are my slides.

But these alerts have also relayed good news, for example, I've learned of news articles about my research I didn't know existed, learned of entirely unexpected paper citations, and, I also discovered a really juicy paper basically trashing one of the subfields I work in. (Not trashing me specifically, just saying something factual about my publication frequency).

So, these alerts are worth setting up. Unless you're the academic equivalent of Lindsay Lohan, in which case I do not recommend this service.

(*) If you're a Bing person, sorry - there are no Bing alerts at present. Their site offers RSS subscriptions, though I imagine there is a fair bit of overlap with Google scholar. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Top Secret Rosies

A special "rose" for you for Valentine's Day - I've just posted at Scientopia about the incredible new documentary "Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dear Randall

You are, truly, the reason why Computer Scientists* make fantastic comic writers. Thanks for making me laugh today.


(*) I guess technically you're a physicist, but really, what's a few bits and atoms between friends?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Role of CS Postdocs

The Computing Research Association (CRA), the major professional organization for Computer Science in the US, has a new white paper on the role of postdocs in CS Research. It's excellent, very thorough, and has several interesting graphs. (Including who's hired in what areas over the past few years.) The white paper is up for people to leave comments if they are so inclined, until March 15th.

I haven't had time to read the report in depth, but a few things jumped out at me as interesting:
  • 42% of all CS PhD graduates are hired into industry immediately after completing their PhDs. (I affectionately refer to this as the Google Slurp). However, there is a large category of "other", which sadly includes the unemployed. So maybe that old statistic that less than 1% of PhDs in Computer Science are unemployed is no longer true, eh? 

  • Here's the graph of who got hired in what. Everybody is going downhill, but it looks like Architecture and Theory people are hurting the most in hiring. Which correlates with my anecdotal information. 

(Why aren't Security, CS Education, or Ubicomp listed as fields? I would not consider any of them to be subfields of any of these really. They are their own fields).

  • This table is really interesting. Compared to other fields those of us in CS/Math hardly postdoc at all:

Anyway, interesting stuff - check it out and leave comments if you have them. CRA is a well-run organization, if you comment I strongly suspect your opinions will be taken into account - not just for future white paper drafts, but also for recommendations they make to Congress and various funding agencies. (I know CRA and NSF in particular are usually fairly kissy kissy. CI Fellows anyone?)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Punch Beating

Recently, two different people have told me they were all excited about a revolutionary new idea, went to the literature to read about it, and found someone had already invented it.

I said: "Great!"

They said: "Great?"

I say "great!" for several reasons:

1) You clearly had a great idea if somebody else already came up with it.
2) You are capable of lots and lots of great ideas and will have more
2.1) People who only have one great idea usually have very dull careers following their accolade.
3) At least you didn't spend five years building something you were hoping to patent only to find out it exists and is currently being sold in three countries.

In my area of research, I am always delighted to learn somebody has studied one of my ideas, particularly if they've done a satisfactory job of exploring it, because it means I can spend time more working on other ideas.

Anyway, I'm sure there is some good research-zen koan for this one. Maybe... hold each idea in your hand like a grain of sand, cling too tightly and someone else will patent it.

Monday, February 7, 2011


The folks over at Scientopia have kindly invited me to join their blogging community. I have accepted, and created a new blog called The Difference Engine.

I've decided to keep this blog going, because as much as the Blogger UI drives me nuts I actually kind of like it. And I like that I can metaphorically and literally paint the walls purple here without troubling anyone.

So over there I will post occasionally (weekly I hope), probably more about Computer Science than I do here, but perhaps about other things as well. We'll see how it goes.

As for how this affects you? Not in the slightest. When I post over there I'll post a pointer here, so if you don't want to add another RSS subscription you don't have to. (But if you do want to, here is a link).

Friday, February 4, 2011


John Regehr of Embedded in Academia has a great post about Cryptocontributions in writing:
Even when interesting and unexpected results make it into a paper (as opposed to being dismissed outright either by the PI or by a student doing the work) the discussion of them is often buried deep in some subsection of the the paper. When this happens — and the interesting development is not even mentioned in the abstract or conclusion — I call it a “cryptocontribution.” Sometimes these hidden gems are the most interesting parts of what are otherwise pretty predictable pieces of work. When authors are too focused on getting the thing submitted, it’s really easy to shove interesting findings under the rug. Certainly I’ve done it, though I try hard not to.
I like that in his post, there is a little bit of a cryptocontribution, and that is - by being so conference deadline-driven, Computer Science is, as a Science, still a bit immature. If I have time I'll write more about this topic next week, because it's an idea I've been pondering for awhile.

PS - A note to John and other bloggers who run WordPress type-things - I seem to be unable to leave IP-anonymous comments on your blogs via Tor. I try, and try, and try, and am thwarted. So I've given up! But do know I'd love to comment if I could. Maybe this summer if I have some free time I'll write a Tor browser plugin that works with WordPress.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

John Nash's Thesis

You know those games where you pick the street you grew up on and add on your cousin's middle name and your first pet's name and then you have the name for a band?

This post isn't actually about that. (Though I do think "John Nash's Thesis" would be a great name for a band). This post is about those myths and legends you hear as a nascent researcher. Probably the first of these I ever heard was: "John Nash's dissertation was only four pages long."

This really is one of those legends that seems to have suffered a whisper-down-the-lane effect. Wikipedia claims it weighs in at 28 pages, on Princeton's website it is 32. Some forum contributor on claims it was only 23 pages long.

In any case, it was short, sweet, and revolutionary.

I really respect that. I've slogged through CS dissertations that were approaching 250 pages in length. By the middle you start pulling your hair out and wishing they had the brevity of John Nash.

My dissertation will not be 23 pages long. Why, the table of contents alone is pushing 30! (Just kidding!) (mostly).