Postdocs at UC have unionized

By now it’s officially official, but postdoc employees across the UC system unionized and got a contract with the university. Here are a few of the good things that came out:

  • experience-based minimum salary steps according to the NIH/NRSA pay scale – these are minimum pay guidelines, so PIs who feel generous can of course pay more. Why are minimum pay requirements important? Many postdocs are here for 5 years. With durations like that, the position is not “training,” it’s a job. And therefore we should treat it like a job. Prior to this contract, many postdocs were receiving well below the minimum that NIH recommends, even though they were funded by NIH grants. In addition, you cannot be a postdoc for more than 5 years — after that you should be hired as a staff scientist. Some PIs oppose this, because postdocs are “cheaper” than staff scientists.
  • health insurance – the UC administration wanted to slash benefits in a way that would ultimately end up cutting compensation.
  • workplace safety – suppose the lab you work in is unsafe, but if you report any violations your PI may fire you. Does that seem fair?

There are a lot of other things in there, especially with regards to time off, parental leave, and so on. There is a pernicious attitude in the sciences that if you have kids while a grad student/postdoc/pre-tenure faculty you are “not serious about your career.” If you have 6 years of grad school and then 5 years of postdoc and then start a tenure-track job, and wait to have kids until after tenure, you might be 38 or 40. Breaking this attitude is hard, but it’s really starts with establishing basic expectations and treating employees like people.

And that is why this contract is important. I think of it as a restructuring of the playing field — without rules from the University as a whole, PIs are incentivized to pay postdocs as little as possible and work them as hard as possible, trading on the reputation of their lab and the University to make the deal more palatable. This is not to say most PIs do this, but certainly some do. With this contract there is a minimum set of rules by which PIs have to play, rules which are in fact in accordance with recommendations by funding agencies.

In talking about this with faculty from different places, I’ve heard diverse perspectives on why this is a difficult thing for them to accept, the fears they have about being demonized or not being able to have the flexibility they feel is so important to being able to run the kind of research program that they desire. These are important concerns, and ones which can and should be explored as this new contract is implemented. However, I have heard no good proposals from them about how to address the real issues faced by postdoctoral employees, whereas this contract does just that.

EVT/WOTE ’10 : Panel on India’s Electronic Voting Machine

I’m attending the…

Panel on Indian Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs)
Moderator: Joseph Lorenzo Hall, University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University
Panelists: P.V. Indiresan, Former Director, IIT-Madras; G.V.L Narasimha Rao, Citizens for Verifiability, Transparency, and Accountability in Elections, VeTA; Alok Shukla, Election Commission of India; J. Alex Halderman, University of Michigan

The first speaker was G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, who is also a blogger on the topic of elections. He is a staunch opponent of Electonic Voting Machines (EVMs). He gave a summary of voting in India — until 1996, all voting was with paper ballots and hand counting. In 1998 there were some EVMs introduced in urban areas, and then in 2004 it moved entirely to EVMs. Vote confirmation was given by a beep, and there were several complaints of machine failure. His claim is that exit polling was accurate prior to 2004 and then after the introduction of EVMs, the exit polls diverged widely from the actual results. In these elections I believe the BJP got a drubbing from Congress (Rao probably got suspicious since he appears to be a BJP political analyst).

Next up was Alok Shukla, the Deputy Election Commissioner of India. He gave an overview of the EVMs in use in India. He gave a review of how India decided to move to EVMs (the Parliament ended up approving the use of EVMs). He claimed that a paper trail was not the solution (mostly due to infeasibility/cost/remoteness of polling locations, etc), and said solutions lie in better transparency and administrative oversight. His main answer to claims that the EVMs have been hacked is that the attacks are infeasible and detectable by election officials. Finally, he said essentially “different systems for different people” (or different strokes for different folks?).

The third speaker was J. Alex Halderman, who is one of the people who attacked the Indian EVM. He described how he got hold of an EVM and showed details on the insides. The first problem is that the devices can be duplicated (or fake ones could be substituted). Another issue is that verifying the code in the EVM is not possible (so they can be tampered with at the time of manufacture). Finally, the reported counts are stored in two EEPROMS which can be swapped out. There are two attacks (at least) that they performed. The first is to hack the display so that false counts are displayed on the LED. A bluetooth radio lets a mobile user select who should win. The second is to clip on a device to reprogram the EEPROMS. Full details will appear at CCS. Halderman’s last bit of news was that one of their co-authors in India, Hari K. Prasad, has been summoned by the police as a result of a criminal complaint that he stole the EVM, which seems like an attempt by the government of India to silence their critics. He called upon Shukla to drop the suit, who was rather upset by this public accusation.

The last panelist was P.V. Indiresan, who is on the advisory committee to the government. He discussed some new security features in EVMs, such as signatures to prevent tampering with the cable between the ballot unit (where people push buttons) and the control unit (which counts the ballots). He claimed that most of the attacks proposed so far are farfetched. Much of his latter complaints were to the effect that to break the EVM is a criminal act (which is a claim of security through obscurity). He ended with a plea to ask researchers to stop (!) hacking the EVMs because they “are working.”

To sum up : the Indian government says the system works and that there is no actual evidence of tampering (with the exception of Prasad, who apparently received stolen goods). Halderman says the attacks show that the system as a whole are not secure, and Rao says that the results are suspicious.

Shukla responded to critics that the Election Commission of India is willing to listen to critics and said that the only kind of attack that is of interest is one on a sealed machine. He reiterated the statement that Prasad was in receipt of stolen government property and needs to be questioned.

The Q&A was quite contentious. I might have more to say about it later… but wow.

EVT/WOTE ’10 : the keynote

I am at EVT/WOTE (Electronic Voting Technology Workshop/Workshop on Trustworthy Elections) today and tomorrow, and will try to blog about it a bit. The keynote today was given by Donetta Davidson, who runs the Election Assisstance Commission. She gave an overview of the EAC’s activities and priorities. The Q&A has focused a bit on how voting research is underfunded and that CS researchers want the EAC to lobby for more research funding. I guess some things don’t change much.

A proof that P is not equal to NP?

Today we had the last day of the information theory summer school and Rudiger Urbanke gave a lecture on LDPC codes, random graphs, polar codes and other ways to approach Shannon Capacity.

After it was over, I received a few emails about a potential proof that P is not equal to NP from Vinay Deolalikar.

A quick look at the proof seems (to my ignorant eyes) like a serious, well-written attempt, and some people who know more seem to agree.

Surprisingly, Replica symmetry breaking, random graphs (and how they are locally tree-like) and inference on graphical models (things we discussed in the school) seem to be central in the arguments.

Let’s hope the proof is correct!