Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Funding funnies

Image from Pacific Northwest National Lab
We are trying to train our young son to ask for things politely. However, recently he's learned to demand things in typical toddler diva fashion, i.e., "I want X!"

My husband, also an academic, started a game to train him out of this. Whenever our son said something like, "I want cheese!" my husband would reply, "I want funding!" or "I want a million dollars!" Just this week the boy started getting the hint, so as soon as he heard "I want a million dollars!" he would immediately reply with, "Can I please have some cheese?"

Recently they were playing pretend with some food, and my husband said something like, "I want juice" and without missing a beat my son shouted, "I want funding!"

Friday, July 23, 2010

The google gossip trade

Photo by Sklathill
The NYT has a fantastic article in this weekend's magazine on something I have been stamping my feet about for years. It is about how the permanence of our digital lives (a lack of ephemerality) is significantly affecting our physical day-to-day lives, often in adverse ways.  (I unfortunately don't have the time to summarize the article - please go read it, it's very well written.)

Our world has not only become a panopticon, but it is a permanent, indexed, fully searchable one. This is not merely your employer seeing a photo of you being goofy at a party, this is a permanent record of your daily existence of which you increasingly have absolutely no control over.

The right to anonymity and ephemerality of action is something we take for granted when acting in the physical world. The problem is that the digital world does not in any way reflect these assumptions. Not only is everything you do online often fully archived and linkable to you, but with the advent of social media everything other people post about you is too.

There are a ton of papers in the literature about how online activities we believe to be anonymous are not at all. Seemingly innocuous and anonymous net activity can reveal one's search queries, social security number, phone number, sexual orientation, political views, travel plans, oh, and, one's real identity when they thought they were anonymous. I think I meet a new researcher mining Twitter for gold just about every other day. The fact is, computer scientists are clever folks, and coming up with these kinds of algorithms is quite easy.  And they're the good guys/gals.

Being a private person, I find these papers terrifying. But when I talk to many people about it, they say, "I don't care. I have nothing to hide." This is a selfish and, frankly, privileged attitude to have. For people living in countries with authoritarian governments, anonymity is often the only path to freedom. Imagine the Underground Railroad or hidden Jews during the Holocaust being successful with 24/7 video surveillance, with automatic face tagging being posted to live feeds on Facebook. Or more recently, imagine someone using these techniques to out Iranian green party members. They'd be killed. And I don't think the counter-argument holds; I doubt such a permanent panopticon will suddenly engender good behavior.

One of the best things about our freedom as human beings is that other people quickly forget our stupid, embarrassing moments. People don't always know who we are everywhere we go. We can take many risks freely. But, increasingly, neither our technology nor our legislation is supporting us in this. And that, in my opinion, is very dangerous indeed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Disconnected connectedness

NPR had a nice interview yesterday with the author of Hamlet's BlackBerry, William Powers. In the interview, Powers talks about how several information upgrades in recent history (Roman cities and papyrus, the printing press, and now the internet), and how, always, society struggles to cope.

Photo by YlvaS
Academics are of course no exception to feeling overloaded. I am presently at a conference, and yesterday chatted with a friend. She said she struggles with staying present in life. Even while we were outside walking in a beautifully wooded area, she said she is always thinking of the next project, the next paper, etc.

This seems like a terribly stressful way to live.

Powers discusses ways in which his family has "offline time" on weekends, where they spend the entire time with each other instead of computing. Most people I know also seem to have developed certain rules for managing their technology. Like, "I don't use instant messenger at work", "I only check email after 6pm.", etc. This is certainly how I manage things, but perhaps due to occupational hazard I am more used to technology than most, and thus it's easier for me to ignore it.

The trick, I think, is to manage things in such a way that you can attend to the important things (i.e., your co-author needs your feedback by tomorrow), and disregard the unimportant things (i.e., the latest old spice guy video). Sadly all this technology is designed to trick our sensation-seeking brains into thinking every piece of information we receive is equally important, and sets it off into fire-fighting mode every time it dings/flashes/buzzes.

Speaking of which, back to meatspace...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Don't drunk dial the program chair

Part of being able to weather the storms of science is to recognize that generally the peer-review process is a meritocracy, but -
- The world is an unfair place
- Bad things happen to good people and vice-versa
Photo by jaycoxfilm

Sometimes you will have reviewers who miss the point. Sometimes people in positions of power over some aspect of your career (PCs, editors, funding bodies) will make large-scale decisions for their organization which leave you holding the short end of the stick. Sometimes people won't hire you.

In the end, it's entirely up to you to decide how to move forward. Lick your wounds before trying again, vent to friends, go for a jog. Whatever your coping strategy, though, sending an angry, reactionary, uninvited email to the committee is unlikely to help your case, and in general just reflects poorly on you.

That isn't to say one shouldn't make a fuss when warranted. For clear cut cases of racism, sexism, cronyism,  etc., such a response may be perfectly appropriate. But in general, if it's just a rejected paper, in the long run it's probably best to just move on and try again somewhere else.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The elephant in the room

Both GMP and Pika have posts about being frequently barraged about "where they're from" due to having accents not frequently heard in the places they live. Both posts discuss how to deflect conversations when the questioners seem to lose all sense of social graces and just start acting dumb.

Image by movimente
As a native English speaker I fortunately haven't encountered this problem, and the only other foreign language I speak people are far too nice and socially conscious to ask such questions. However, I think the "where are you from?" question belongs to a larger issue, and that is the case of being Other.

When you are Other, due to nationality, gender, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, disability status, parental status, marital status, sexual orientation, (and countless other things), some people find themselves unable to restrain themselves and feel like they must point out that you are Other.

I find this usually happens in one of two ways - either someone is over-the-top direct in their comment, or they attempt to be indirect and bury themselves in the ground faster than you can say "shovel".

An example of the direct case. I am sitting with a large group of male computer scientists. Someone makes a comment about the lack of women in technology, and the sea of male faces turn to me expecting an Insightful Comment about the topic. I don't always have a good answer, and may feel a bit uncomfortable being asked to represent all women, but I generally don't mind because usually these commenters have good intentions.

The indirect case is what drives me nuts. This is when you can tell the person is feeling extremely uncomfortable about The Others, but isn't really aware that they're uncomfortable, and just starts talking talking talking, oblivious to the hole they are digging and the sea of uncomfortable faces around them.

For example, I was once at a conference that happened to have a fair number of women in attendance. Not the majority, or even half, but certainly more than at most CS conferences. At one break I was chatting with a female friend, and this older, caucasian man joins the conversation. He says, "Wow! There are a lot of women here. I'll tell you, I sure feel like a minority at this conference."

Recently I was at a large gathering of engineers. The gender mix was ok (though I'm not sure how many women were engineers and how many were spouses), but the racial mix was pretty abysmal. I saw a few people of east asian decent, and two people of african descent, but that was it.

Early at the gathering I found myself in a group chatting with three caucasian men: Emeritus professor (EP), career postdoc (CP), and my friend. EP asks my friend where he's from. My friend tells him he's from Southern State. EP starts talking about how he visited a city in an adjacent Southern State, and starts talking about how he rode the subway there. Then he says, "It was amazing. I got on the subway, and I was the only white man there. Everyone was black. I felt so uncomfortable."

And he keeps talking. And talking. And talking. And keeps looking over at me to make some kind of comment. Then CP attempts to help(?) this conversation by slightly changing the topic to once while traveling being lost in a bad neighborhood where people were shooting up heroin. Then EP starts to talk about his other travels, and says that his son married "a girl" from a southeast asian country, and how when he visits her family there ("who are lovely, by the way"), he is often the only white person.

At this point I want to punch the guy, but more importantly I don't want the Others at this party to overhear EP running his mouth. They deal with this crap every single day, perhaps are even already dealing with this at this party. So I loudly interrupt his diatribe.


He happily switches to talking about lasers, and all is right in the world again.

So in short, my approach to dealing with clueless people who seem to be unable to control their mouths is to change the topic, bluntly and directly if need be, back to science, the weather, sports, movies; whatever neutral topic I can think of. If they are so clueless that they don't understand my deflection and continue to make rude remarks about  Otherness, I keep trying to change the topic. If they still don't get it and it's someone I need to interact with frequently, sometimes I'll pull them aside and say, "Please stop talking about X. It's unprofessional and makes me feel like an Other."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lab Leadership

Matt Welsh has a nice post today, "the subtle art of managing a research group". I liked this quote a lot:
"..the book on motivating people gets into the various ways of getting your "employees" (a.k.a. students) to be productive, and talks all about the pros and cons of the carrot versus the stick. Synopsis: If you can get inside the head of an unmotivated student and figure out what they want, you can motivate them to do anything."
Image by Dunechaser
This is definitely my preferred management style, in both academia and industry. For my students, I try to figure out what it is that they really enjoy doing and really want to do, and try to support them in doing it.

Perhaps my most important epiphany, though, has been the realization that different people need to be managed differently. I think a good manager is able to adapt to the needs of their employee/student. And, also, realizing the way you would like to be managed yourself is not necessarily the way everyone else would like to be managed.

For example, my preferred management style (as both a manager/advisor and employee/student) is hands-off-but-available. I absolutely abhor being micro-managed, and equally abhor micro-managing others. However, there have been several occasions where I had to micro-manage someone. There was just no other way - they were incapable of self-directing. (While I think industry tolerates such people, I suspect they would utterly flop in academia).

I love how Matt writes about his advisor using Jedi mind tricks to subtly nudge his students to do things. My advisor does this too, and it's just incredible. I'm very direct - when I'm reviewing someone's work, I simply say, "I think you should do X, Y, and Z." Whereas my advisor can beautifully phrase things in such a way that you never realize until long afterward that you've been nudged.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Who are I?

Image by xrrr
I'm far too much of a blogger newbie to do the "who are you, dear readers?" meme, since I think there are only about four of you who read this :-), so instead I'll do a reverse one, FAQ-style.

Who are you exactly?

I'm trying this pseudo-anonymity thing. I think it's probably ludicrous, because there are just so few academic female computer scientists I'm sure I'll be outed one day by some clever, bored black hatter, but hey, worth a shot.

What is your background?

I worked in industry for quite awhile, and was really enjoying it, but I felt like career-wise I had two choices in front of me: either become a manager or become a super-code-monkey. To do the former, I felt like I had to start building sentences that contained the words "synergistic leverage goals", and no matter how many fancy titles they give you I just didn't see being a code-monkey a sustainable career.

Code Monkey? Don't you mean "software engineer"?

Oh, right, sorry. Would you prefer Software Simian?

So why academia?

I wanted a career-path change. I decided if I got a PhD and became a professor, I could research whatever I wanted and (sort of) be my own boss. Most importantly, I wouldn't ever have to use the word synergy if I didn't want to.

Why do you blog?

After reading this book, I decided to get a TT job I'd need lots of (good) publications. So I spent a lot of my time early on focusing on that. Then I started talking to people who said, "Ha ha, big deal. Everyone has lots of publications. You'll also need a network of Turing Award winners to get you a job in this market."And so on. So I realized there's a lot of these little things no one tells you but you absolutely need to know to make it. I figured I'd share those things with the masses in case they were useful to others, and hope that they'll share some back.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Just a guy from New Hampshire

I was flipping through the June issue of the IEEE Women in Engineering magazine, and came across an interview with Dean Kamen. Kamen is a really fantastic (albeit eccentric) inventor, responsible for: the first stair climbing wheelchair, the segway, the first insulin pump, and other neat things. The article was focused on his recent novel inventions for extremely efficient power generators and water purifiers to be given to people in developing countries. I absolutely loved this quote:
Image by James Young Art
He has been called an idealist, an optimist, and occasionally even na├»ve for his big ideas about fixing the world’s problems. Kamen says he sometimes even wonders himself. 'I think, well, if with all their resources the United Nations and everyone can’t do it, I must really be nuts trying to do it myself—I’m just some guy from New Hampshire.'"
The article goes on to discuss his efforts in STEM outreach and education. I liked this quote too:
"'You get what you celebrate' is a common catchphrase of Kamen’s. He has noticed a crisis in United States culture: young kids are growing up excited about being football stars and actors, not engineers or scientists. Despite the one-in-a-million chance of succeeding in show business or professional sports, our society encourages kids to prioritize these dreams over other options. Celebrating Britney Spears and Shaquille O’Neal over our inventors, scientists, and engineers skews too many kids away from careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, resulting in a nationwide shortage of engineers and scientists and a drop in our global standing in technology development. The solution, obviously, is to change our culture."
Indeed! (Though I'm not sure I buy the shortage part. IEEE has a bit of a bias here.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Conference networking

Probably the most frequent academic job advice I hear dispensed is that networking is absolutely critical to getting hired/tenured/promoted. (Probably a close second to having lots of good publications/grants). I think there's a lot of truth to this advice, and certainly networking is good for other areas of intellectual and social life.

However, I've heard people lament that it's very difficult to know how to network at conferences. I too found this difficult at first, so I began reading a lot of books on the topic, observing successful shmoozers at conferences, and really just practicing every chance I can. So I'll share a few tricks I've learned in case they're useful to others.

There are three things to consider when networking at conferences:
  1. Who to talk to
  2. What to talk about
  3. How to join an existing group of people (maybe containing someone identified in #1)
Prof-like Substance has a post about strategizing on whom one might want to talk to. I think it depends a lot on the venue and what your aims are. Before I go to a conference, I look over the program and try to guess who might be attending and potentially worth talking to. I also read the talk titles and see which ones overlap with my research. One recent conference I attended had an entire session devoted my current research area, so I made sure to chat with everyone presenting in that session. I also discovered one of the researchers is at a university somewhat close to mine, so I made sure to spend extra time talking to them to feel out future collaborations.

I always make sure to talk to peers and friends to recharge. Even when the senior academics are nice people, as a junior academic it's can still be daunting to approach them cold.

As for what to talk about in general, that's a bit trickier, and perhaps deserves its own post. If I am talking to a senior researcher then I'll often ask specific questions about the field, like, "I heard about this new journal. Is it worth publishing in?" Sometimes I just chat with people about conference-related things, like their thoughts on the plenary speaker that day, the food, travel war stories, etc.

How to pick a group of people to join is the easiest, surprisingly. I learned a great analysis trick recently which I'll try to recreate with my mad clip art skillz.

Imagine you're at a coffee break and you don't know anyone. You see this distribution of people:

Clip art from Clip Art Heaven

When I saw a similar graphic, I was asked: which is the easiest group to join? Which is the hardest? What's amazing is once I learned about these people configuration patterns, I started spotting them all over the place.

Usually, (B) is the easiest to approach, because she's just standing alone holding a pie. (C) is also alone, but she is busy trying to review a journal paper and each a sandwich before the break is over. Just looking at postures, (C) is giving off a "don't bother me" vibe, and (B) looks like she wouldn't mind chatting with someone.

The next easiest group to join is (D). The two people are talking to each other, but they are holding very open postures. Their bodies are turned half toward one another and half outward. This is one of the best groups to join, because they are open to others. Contrast them to the two people in (A), who are so intently chatting they are nose to nose. This is not a pair to disturb unless you have a really good reason to do so. Similarly, (E) looks very closed as well, but it might be possible to join.

Last is group (F), which is the hardest to join. These four people are all turned inward toward each other, and look to be fairly close knit. If you don't know anyone in this group, it's probably good to not try to break in right now.