Thursday, April 03, 2014

Postdocs in Copenhagen

I apologize for the short notice, but my occasional co-author Rasmus Pagh is looking for postdocs for a big data project he recently had funded, with an application deadline on April 14th. 

For more information, you can see this page, which starts with:

The Scalable Similarity Search (SSS) project led by Professor Rasmus Pagh is seeking 3 post-docs with a strong background in algorithms theory, combinatorics, or statistics. The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC), runs in the years 2014-19, and will include a total of 3 PhD and 3 post-doc positions. The aim of the project is to improve theory and practice of algorithms for high-dimensional similarity search on big data, and to extend similarity search algorithms to work in settings where data is distributed (using a communication complexity perspective) or uncertain (using a statistical perspective). A post-doc position may include a long-term visit to a project partner (at Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, or Tsinghua) if all parties find the visit beneficial.

Or you can see this nice video Rasmus recently put together.   

And yes, I'm self-interested in this matter, in that as someone who works with Rasmus, the potential "long-term visit" to Harvard described above would involve me if it worked out.  Also, Copenhagen is a wonderful place. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hashing Summer School in Copenhagen

Of the many, many interesting things happening in Copenhagen this summer (SEA, SWAT, ICALP) we'd like to add one more:  a Hashing Summer School at the University of Copenhagen.  Here's the web site.  This was the brainchild of Mikkel Thorup, who knows a thing or two or three about hashing, and is co-organized by me and Rasmus Pagh.  We've got a great set of speakers, and we expect a mix of lectures, problem-solving exercises, a poster session, and other such fun and learning.  The registration deadline is May 15th;  check the web site for details.  If you're coming out to Copenhagen for other activities, or just want a good reason to visit the beautiful city, take a look.  I hope to see you there.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Leslie Lamport wins Turing Awards

In another sign that these Turing Award committees really know what they're doing, Leslie Lamport has won the Turing Award.  There's a very nice writeup including the history of his work up on an official Microsoft blog post.

While I know there are arguably many people deserving of a Turing Award, Leslie Lamport is an amazingly obvious and absolutely fantastic choice.  His body of work is truly inspiring, and as the above links show, his work has had a huge effect on us all.   

Monday, March 17, 2014

ICERM (Brown) Workshop on Stochastic Graph Models

I'll be commuting throughout the week to the ICERM Workshop on Stochastic Graph Models.  ICERM is the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics, a new-ish place associated with and walking distance from Brown University, and Eli Upfal (among others) is making sure that it's closely connected with Brown Computer Science as well as other mathematical disciplines.  The building is very nice and new, with a great view of Providence.  It's also very close to the freeway.  (Driving to the ICERM building is not much more time than driving to MSR New England from my house, even though it's more than three times the miles...)

We've already had great talks today by several great people (Leslie Goldberg, Artur Czumaj, Susanne Albers, Flavio Chierichetti, and Gopal Pandurangan), and there's a fantastic schedule for the rest of the week.  If you're in the neighborhood you should come on by.  Leslie's talks on evolutionary dynamics on graphs and Flavio's on trace complexity of network reconstruction were both very close to long-time interests of mine, though it feels like it's been a while since I worked on such "pure" (and very pleasant) random process problems.  I can feel the talks drawing me in...

By the way, has anyone figured out the complexity of the 2048 game yet?  Assuming that the game uses some stochastic model at each step, I wonder what you can say about the probability of getting to 2048 under some model of play.  That's a stochastic model in need of analysis. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Those who Hire vs.

If you haven't yet, I encourage you to read the Inside Higher Ed article about a department that, when a candidate they had made an offer to attempted to negotiate the terms of that offer, then rescinded that offer.

Let me be clear up front:  I'm on the side that finds the department's behavior reprehensible and inexcusable.  (As is often the case, I should acknowledge that I have only the limited information available.)  I admit I view this in the larger picture of the current state of employer-employee relations, where I think the scale has tilted too far in favor of the employer side.  Others have noted that there seems to be a prevailing attitude that current employers, by and large, feel employees should be grateful that they're having the opportunity to work for them, regardless of conditions.  For a recent example article expressing this, you can read this New York Times article on "My Life as a Retail Worker".  While tech workers may think they're in a happy state where employers need them so much that they have to treat them well -- something that, generally speaking, clearly has some truth to it -- I worry on the tech side that has made people complacent.  The ongoing story about how Google and Apple (as well as other tech companies) had a secret agreement not to recruit each other's employees demonstrates that, even in tech, the utility of workers and their employers may not always naturally align.  

Was the candidate in question asking for too much?  I think the candidate was negotiating;  she makes clear that she was not expecting to get everything asked for, but wanted to see what was possible.  The department chair (or whoever was in charge) should have explained what was possible from their standpoint, and set a deadline for the candidate to decide.  To rescind the job offer smacks of discriminatory practices -- not (necessarily) discriminating against women (an issue that has been raised in this context, since maternity leave was part of the request) -- but discriminating against employees that might think to advocate for themselves.  Many employers seem to call employees that advocate for themselves "troublemakers";  is that how we're to interpret the mindset behind the decision here?  That's disturbing -- as a general trend in academic life and specifically with this university's behavior.  I'd like to think people who self-advocate are desirable for tenure-track positions, not the opposite. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Passing of the Professor

Sadly, "The Professor", Russell Johnson, has passed away

I enjoyed Gilligan's Island as a kid.  I can't help but think that his portrayal deeply affected people's perception of scientists, subconsciously or consciously, for better or worse, for a generation. 

Some related links.
Improbable research
TV Tropes (the Professor).

Feel free to add more in comments.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Andreessen Tweets

My brother pointed me to this article on a great exchange of tweets about the origins of Netscape. 

The two highlights, for me at least.  First, Andreessen expressed a philosophy that I believe in, but I don't think most university IP departments do:  in computer tech, the best strategy is for the university to let professors/students/other employees run with their entrpreneurial plans rather than attempt to maximize the university's short-term or nominal value extracted.  He tweeted about how the University of Illinois lost out on the browser/Netscape process, and tweets:

History of Stanford suggests best approach extreme laissez faire-optimize for long-term philanthropy vs short-term gain.
Many billions of dollars of gifts from grateful alumni far outweigh commercial licensing or patent arrangements in long run. 
I agree with the sentiment.  An issue is that this approach may not be best for some situations -- drug development at universities, perhaps (I don't know how that works, but I've heard it's "different" from an IP standpoint) -- although maybe even there a more hands-off approach from overzealous university lawyers would be best in the long run.  (Maybe I'm too optimistic -- after all, I suggested Harvard should be tuition-free and could still come out ahead.)

The other more amusing highlight is Andreessen notes that the Mosiac project applied for more NSF funding and was rejected, which pushed them to start a company.  Which, he suggests, was probably the right decision for the NSF.  Looking at the outcomes, there's a good argument.  Something for me to keep in mind the next time a rejection comes -- even Marc Andreessen had proposals rejected by the NSF, and he ended up doing OK. 

Monday, January 06, 2014

Boston Magazine Piece on Aaron Swartz

If you haven't seen it, there's a well-written piece on Bob Swartz, father of Aaron Swartz, in Boston Magazine, covering MITs reaction to Aaron Swartz's case.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The PhD - Tenure - Jobs Argument, Already Started for 2014

'Tis the season when graduate applications are being decided as well as the job interview process starting again, and just in time for the new year, your regularly scheduled inflammatory article entitled, "Can't Get Tenure? Then Get a Real Job" up at Bloomberg.  The point of the article seems to be that the tenure model follows the age-old "tournament model" of employment, with a very few plum positions at the top, and lots of people scrambling for them -- and, along the way, essentially turning themselves into free labor for existing tenured professors, as well as (in most cases) unemployable dried out husks by their early 30's -- and that's bad.  The only solution suggested seems to be to cut Ph.D. production, and there are no incentives to make that happen.  (I can only encourage you to avoid reading the comments, where somehow this becomes a political issue, with "liberals" being to blame for... seemingly everything, I guess, but this in particular.)

I'm always happy to admit that computer science seems to be a special case;  industry takes many of our PhDs.  However, without trying to dissect the article -- which is field agnostic -- I think it's healthy for computer science to regularly look at itself, and determine whether it's doing the right things.  Here's my take on what those are, at the individual (faculty) level:

1)  Be honest with undergraduates.  If you're a professor talking to an undergrad thinking about grad school, you should point out that you're the success story, not the average story.  Point them to the Taulbee survey or other figures.  Have them work out the math on potential opportunity costs.  Whether you're positive or negative on them going to graduate school is up to you, of course, but either way you should be giving clear, factual information as well as advice.
2)  Be honest with your graduate students.  If they aren't performing, let them know they need to get better (or move on).  (It's painful, but better for them in the long run.)  Be sure the latest "time-to-academic-job" timeline is on their radar -- how many years of postdocs is becoming the norm?  Make sure they know what skills they need to work on besides research skills -- speaking, writing, organizing, managing.
3)  Controversial(?):  encourage breadth for your students.  It seems to me that since I was a student there's much more pressure to go deep -- to show in your PhD that you are the expert on your research area, even if that research area becomes narrow.  The message seem to be don't waste time on classes, projects, or learning that fall outside your clear research path.  I'm torn in advising the other direction, because I think the way the academic field is progressing, that can be a promising short-term approach if the goal is to get a tenure-track position.  But I don't think it's good for developing a long-term career, and I don't think it's the right approach for the significant number of students who end up doing something else.  [I'm aware I'm very biased on this issue.]  

At the field level, I think there are big questions, and I'm not sure how they get answered.

1)  Are we encouraging too much depth over breadth in our training?  (See 3 above.)  Is this what we want?
2)  Are we OK with what seems to be a lengthening pipeline, with postdocs becoming more common (in some areas, but not all, standard) on the academic career path?
3)  Do we have any sense of goals for how many graduate students go on to careers in industry, entrepreneurship, teaching (e.g., teaching university positions as opposed to research university positions), etc.?  If so, do we want to do more to help prepare students for these types of work, which may not mirror exactly what we as professors do?  How do we measure success for our graduate students, and how do we tell if we're doing a good job preparing students overall?

Plenty to think about for the new year.