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: '...black']
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.