Monday, October 30, 2006

Happy Halloween, from the Turing Pumpkin.

A splendiferous carving, here. (via BB)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Saturday, October 21, 2006

There, but for the grace of god, ...

This week's issue of the NYT Magazine has a long story on a case of scientific fraud from the University of Vermont, where a prominent researcher was sentenced to a year and a day in jail (as well as being banned from ever getting public funding) for falsifying results in dietary studies.

It seems unnecessary, (and too easy) to blame the researcher involved; the story is damning enough. What struck me though, reading though the description of how events transpired, was how banal, how mundane the fraud was, and how utterly common the driving forces were; the usual toxic mix of a desire for fame, the pressure to get money, how universities encourage people to bring in grants.
Steven Heymsfield, an obesity researcher at Merck Pharmaceuticals in New Jersey, [...] added that Poehlman’s success owed more to his business sense and charisma than to his aptitude as a scientist.

“In effect, he was a successful entrepreneur and not a brilliant thinker with revolutionary ideas,” Heymsfield wrote me via e-mail. “But deans love people who bring in money and recognition to universities, so there is Eric.”


Friday, October 13, 2006

Computer scientists sit in a cube and program all day...

Science+Professor+Woman=Me has an interesting experience talking to a bunch of freshmen about science (emphasis mine): I gave a guest lecture to a group of freshmen who all said they were not interested in science. It turns out that they had no idea what science really involves. I listed a bunch of scientific questions and asked if these were things they wanted to know. Yes! They did. So we talked about these for a while, and then they thought of more questions, and it was a very fun. We also talked about how research is done - how you come up with the questions,how you go about answering, discovering, testing. The students said they hadn't known that these were the kinds of things that scientists did. They imagined that we just worked in our labs making chemicals or looking at data on computer monitors all day. I doubt if any of them were inspired to become scientists, but I felt pretty good about changing their perceptions of science and scientists.
I wonder what would happen if we did this for CS.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Deadlines, manic behaviour and happiness

Much as I rant about the idiosyncratic "conference as primary publication venue" nature of computer science, there's no denying the pleasures of working down to the wire to meet a deadline. The adrenaline rush, the highs (and the post-deadline lows), and the feeling that my mind is working at 200 mph... aaah. It's like a drug habit I can't shake (which is why, inspite of vowing after each deadline never to do it again, I ... do it again. Classic addict behaviour).

It turns out that all I'm really doing is maximizing happiness. Who'da thunk it ?
When people are made to think quickly, they report feeling happier as a result. They also say they are more energetic, more creative, more powerful, and more self-assured. In short, they reported a whole set of experiences associated with being "manic."
And if your paper, written with the sweat of your fevered brow, fueled by zillions of cups of coffee, delivered by divine inspiration from the Book to your mind, gets rejected ? Just think quickly:
...the effect of thought speed was just as powerful as the effect of the content of the thoughts. In other words, the speed of people's cognitive processing was just as important as what they processed in determining their mood. Even thinking sad thoughts at a fast pace made people relatively happy.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

"We're making it less random to make it feel more random."

Maybe we should use the iPod to explain all concepts in theoretical computer science:
Steven Levy really liked Steely Dan, but so too, it seemed, did his iPod. Like a lot of people, he began to wonder about its shuffle - was the random function really random or a result of dirty tricks, blunders... or even telepathy?
Read more about it at the Guardian (HT: The Mathematics Weblog)


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On Models For Research

In a review of Lee Smolin's new book, 'The Trouble With Physics', Sean Carroll writes:
Faculty positions and grant money are scarce commodities, and universities and funding agencies are naturally risk-averse. Under the current system, a typical researcher might spend five years in graduate school, three to six as a postdoc, and another six or seven as an assistant professor before getting tenure – with an expectation that they will write several competent papers in every one of those years. Nobody should be surprised that, apart from a few singular geniuses, the people who survive this gauntlet are more likely to be those who show technical competence within a dominant paradigm, rather than those who will take risks and pursue their idiosyncratic visions.
It's worth pointing out here that there are many different models for being a successful researcher. And when I say successful, all I mean is that you contribute interesting results to the community and your work is appreciated. Indeed, finding out what model works for you is an important part of developing your identity as a researcher.

We develop our sense of what the 'ideal' researcher looks like from people around us: the advisor, the mentor, the researcher whose papers we pore over. Invariably, some will influence us more than others, and we'll start adopting, unconsciously almost, some of their style and taste for problems and lines of attack. All of this is good, and natural. But it's important to remember that like you form your own identity as a person by drawing on influences and modifying them, you must do the same as a researcher.

It's worth pointing out because I don't know how deeply we think about models of research, and what style of work makes us happier (problem solver ? theory builder ? voluminous production ? multiple collaborations ? sitting in a room and contemplating? ). Once you find your "comfort zone", you'll be a lot more content with your work, and in all likelihood you'll produce quality work.


Flying while brown, part II

I used to call it, 'Travelling while Asian', but let's face it: it's the brown skin that counts.

Here's the latest, from Boing Boing:

A 32-year-old man speaking Tamil and some English about a sporting rivalry was questioned at Sea-Tac Airport and missed his flight Saturday because at least one person thought he was suspicious.


The man was speaking Tamil, a language largely used in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore, on his cell phone at the departure gate and on the aircraft. An off-duty airline employee heard the conversation and informed the flight crew.

All those years I spent fending off attempts to teach me Tamil by my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great-aunts and great-uncles and second cousins twice removed are now finally worth it ! I am safe !!

I wonder what will happen if I speak Hindi....


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