Linkage

Posting a hodgepodge of links after a rather wonderful time hiking and camping, solving puzzles, and the semester starting all together too soon for my taste.

[Trigger warning] More details on Walter Lewin’s actions.

The unbearable maleness of Wikipedia.

Hanna Wallach’s talk at the NIPS Workshop on fairness.

Reframing Science’s Diversity Challenge by trying to move beyond the pipeline metaphor.

An essay by Daniel Solove on privacy (I’d recommend reading his books too but this is shorter). He takes on the “nothing to hide” argument against privacy.

I don’t like IPAs that much, but this lawsuit about lettering seems like a big deal for the craft beer movement.

I’ve always been a little skeptical of Humans of New York, but never was sure why. I think this critique has something to it. Not sure I fully agree but it does capture some of my discomfort.

Judith Butler gave a nice interview where she talks a bit about why “All Lives Matter,” while true, is not an appropriate rhetorical strategy: “If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, ‘all lives matter,’ then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.’ That said, it is true that all lives matter (we can then debate about when life begins or ends). But to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it.”

A nice essay on morality and progress with respect to Silicon Valley. Techno-utopianism running amok leads to bad results: “Silicon Valley’s amorality problem arises from the implicit and explicit narrative of progress companies use for marketing and that people use to find meaning in their work. By accepting this narrative of progress uncritically, imagining that technological change equals historic human betterment, many in Silicon Valley excuse themselves from moral reflection.”

Annals of bad academic software: letters of recommendation

‘Tis the season for recommendation letters, and I again find myself thwarted by terrible UX and decisions made by people who manage application systems.

  • Why do I need to rank the candidate in 8 (or more!) different categories vs. people at my institution? Top 5% in terms of “self-motivation” or top 10%? What if they were an REU student not from my school? What if I have no point of comparison? What makes you think that people are either (a) going to make numbers up or (b) put top scores on everything because that is easier? Moreover why make it mandatory to answer these stupid questions to submit my letter?
  • One system made me cut and paste my letter as text into a text box, then proceeded to strip out all the line/paragraph breaks. ‘Tis a web-app designed by an idiot, full of incompetent input-handling, and hopefully at least signifying to the committee that they should admit the student.
  • Presumably the applicant filled out my contact information already, so why am I being asked to fill it out again?

It’s enough to make me send all letters by post — it would save time, I think.

“The needs of the many,” privilege, and power

There’s a certain set of sentiments which undergird a lot of thinking in engineering, and especially engineering about data. You want a method which has good performance “on average” over the population. The other extreme is worst-case, but there are things you can only do in the average case. By focusing on average-case gain, you get a kind of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” way of thinking about the world.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one... or the few?

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one… or the few?

Now in the abstract land of mathematical models and algorithms, this might seem like a reasonable principle — if you have to cram everything into a single population utility function you might as well then optimize that. However, this gets messier when you start implementing it in the real world (unless of course you’re an economist of a certain stripe). The needs of the many are often the needs of the more powerful or dominant groups in society. The needs of the few are perhaps those who have been historically marginalized or victimized. Extolling the benefits to the many is often taking a stand for the powerful against the weak. It’s at best deeply insensitive.

Two instances of this have appeared on the blogosphere recently. Scott Aaronson blogged recently about MIT’s decision to take down Walter Lewin’s online videos after Lewin was found to have sexually harassed students in connection with the course. Scott believes that depriving students of Lewin’s materials is a terrible outcome, even (possibly) if he were a murderer. Ignoring the real hurt and trauma felt by those who are affected by Lewin’s actions is an exercise in privilege — because he is not hurt by it, he values the “the good of the many” trumping the “good of the few.”

The whole downplaying of sexual harassment as being somehow “not serious” enough to warrant a serious response (or that the response “makes the most dramatic possible statement about a broader social issue”) in fact trivializes the whole experience of sexual violence. Indeed, by this line of argument, because the content created by Lewin is so valuable, it may be ok to keep online even “had [he] gone on a murder spree.” The subtext of this is “as opposed to merely harassed some women.” I recommend reading Priya Phadnis on this case — she comes to a very different conclusion, namely that special pedestal that we put Walter Lewin on is itself the problem. Being able to downplay the female victims’ claims is exercising the sort of privilege that members of the male professoriat (myself included) indulge in overtly, covertly, and inadvertently. If STEM has a gender problem, it’s in a large part because we do not pay attention to the ways in which our words and actions reinforce existing tropes.

The second post was by Lance Fornow on dying languages in response to an op-ed by John McWhorter on why we should care about language diversity. Lance thinks that speaking a common language is a good thing:

I understand the desire of linguists and social scientists to want to keep these languages active, but to do so may make it harder for them to take advantage of our networked society. Linguists should study languages but they shouldn’t interfere with the natural progression. Every time a language dies, the world gets more connected and that’s not a bad thing.

I guess those poor bleeding-heart social scientists don’t understand that those languages are dying for a good reason. The good of the many — everyone speaking English, the dominant language — outweighs the good of the few. This attitude again speaks from a place of privilege and power, and it reinforces a kind cultural superiority (although I am sure Lance doesn’t think of it that way). Indeed, in many parts of the world, there is and continues to be “a strong reason to learn multiple languages.” By casually (and incorrectly) dismissing the importance of linguistic diversity, such a statement reinforces a chauvinist view of the relationship between language and technology.

We start with desirable outcomes: free quality educational materials that lower the barrier to access or speaking a common language to help facilitate communication and cooperation. By choosing to focus on those outcomes and their benefits to the many, we value their well-being and delegitimize the harm done to others. If we furthermore are speaking from a position of power, our privilege reinforces stigmas, casting a value judgement on the rights, experiences, and beliefs of the few. It’s something to be careful about.

Paper writing as a POMDP

During a research conversation this week I came to the realization that we really should model the paper writing as a partially observed Markov decision problem (POMDP). The writer has an action space of writing SIMPLE or FANCY statements. A SIMPLE statement follows very clearly from the previous statement and so should be easy to follow. A FANCY statement is a bit more challenging but might sound more impressive the reviewer. The reviewer has several states: BORED, IMPRESSED, and CONFUSED. Based on the input being SIMPLE or FANCY, the reviewer changes state according to a Markov chain with this state space.

The writer suffers a cost (or gains a reward, depending on how we want to model it) based on the current action and reviewer state. For example, issuing a FANCY statement when the reviewer is CONFUSED might suffer a higher cost than a FANCY statement when IMPRESSED. The goal is to minimize the discounted cost. This makes sense since reviewers become more fatigued over time, so extracting reward earlier in the paper is better.

Now, conventional wisdom might suggest that clarity is best, so a pure-SIMPLE policy should be a dominant strategy for this problem. However, depending on the cost and transition structure, I am not sure this is true.

And now, back to paper writing for me…

PaperCept, EDAS, and so on: why can’t we have nice things?

Why oh why can’t we have nice web-based software for academic things?

For conferences I’ve used PaperCept, EDAS (of course), Microsoft’s CMT, and EasyChair. I haven’t used HotCRP, but knowing Eddie it’s probably significantly better than the others.

I can’t think of a single time I’ve used PaperCept and had it work the way I expect. My first encounter was for Allerton, where it apparently would not allow quotation marks in the title of papers (an undocumented restriction!). But then again, why has nobody heard of sanitizing inputs? The IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control also uses PaperCept, and the paper review has a character restriction on it (something like 5000 or so). Given that a thorough review could easily pass twice that length, I’m shocked at this arbitrary restriction.

On the topic of journal software, the Information Theory Society semi-recently transitioned from Pareja to Manuscript Central. I have heard that Pareja, a home-grown solution, was lovable in its own way, but was also a bit of a terror to use as an Associate Editor. Manuscript Central’s editorial interface is like looking at the dashboard of a modern aircraft, however — perhaps efficient to the expert, but the interaction designers I know would blanche (or worse) to see it.

This semi-rant is due to an email I got about IEEE Collabratec (yeah, brah!):

IEEE is excited to announce the pilot rollout of a new suite of online tools where technology professionals can network, collaborate, and create – all in one central hub. We would like to invite you to be a pilot user for this new tool titled IEEE Collabratec™ (Formerly known as PPCT – Professional Productivity and Collaboration Tool). Please use the tool and tell us what you think, before we officially launch to authors, researchers, IEEE members and technology professionals like yourself around the globe.

What exactly is IEEE Collabratec?
IEEE Collabratec will offer technology professionals robust networking, collaborating, and authoring tools, while IEEE members will also receive access to exclusive features. IEEE Collabratec participants will be able to:

* Connect with technology professionals by location, technical interests, or career pursuits;
* Access research and collaborative authoring tools; and
* Establish a professional identity to showcase key accomplishments.

Parsing the miasma of buzzwords, my intuition is that this is supposed to be some sort of combination of LinkedIn, ResearchGate, and… Google Drive? Why does the IEEE think it has the expertise to pull off integration at this scale? Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of smart people in the IEEE, but this probably should be done by professionals, and not non-profit professional societies. How much money is this going to cost? The whole thing reminds me of Illinois politics — a lucrative contract given to a wealthy campaign contributor after the election, with enough marketing veneer to avoid raising a stink. Except this is the IEEE, not Richard [JM] Daley (or Rahm Emmanuel for that matter).

As far as I can tell, the software that we have to interact with regularly as academics has never been subjected to scrutiny by any user-interface designer. From online graduate school/faculty application forms (don’t get me started on the letter of rec interface), conference review systems, journal editing systems, and on, we are given a terrible dilemma: pay exorbitant amounts of money to some third party, or use “home grown” solutions developed by our colleagues. For the former, there is precious little competition and they have no financial incentive to improve the interface. For the latter, we are at the whims of the home code-gardener. Do they care about user experience? Is that their expertise? Do they have time to both make it functional and be a pleasure to use? Sadly, the answer is usually no, with perhaps a few exceptions.

I shake my fist at the screen.