Mystery Hunt participation trends over time

I finally snagged a few minutes to crunch some numbers from this year’s Mystery Hunt and add them into the data we have from the past few years. Firstly, the chart everyone likes to see, the hunt duration:
Hunt length
The spike from the epic 2013 Hunt is a bit aberrant, but overall it took less time to find the coin this year as opposed to the 2008-2009 Hunts.

The next graph is the total number of hunters, which has been generally increasing over time:
Total number of hunters
This is somewhat alarming, since running a hunt for 2000 hunters is a significantly different challenge than running one for 1000 hunters. A number of caveats are in order. Many of these numbers are estimates, and this does not disaggregate remote from on-site solvers. Because each organizing team gathers statistics differently, the thing we can infer from this is that the Hunt has been growing over time.

Finally, the most interesting chart (at least to me): the distribution of team sizes:
Team sizes over time
This year we had a record-breaking 62 teams register (actually more, but some dropped out — I’m looking at you, Fangorn Foureast). The growth in this chart is not because we have more mega-teams (100+ people) — there are only 3 of those, after all. The biggest change in the last 3 years is the total number of teams in the under-50 (or under-40, really) category. We have a large number of moderate-sized teams who need enough space for their HQs that they can’t do it out of their dorm rooms. This growth in the number of smaller teams is part of why adopting a design philosophy like Erin’s is important.

I’ll have to dig through the raw numbers from this year’s hunt to get more specifics about the split of this year’s hunters. As Erin pointed out, with the increase in “smaller” teams, the question is who is on these teams — mostly students? A post for another time, I imagine.

Some tips for new research-oriented grad students

I’ve been at a lot of different institutions over the last few years, and I think that there are number of things that new graduate students in can do on their own to get them the mindset and skills to do research more effectively. An advisor is not even needed! This advice is of course oriented towards more technical/theory types in engineering, but some of it is general. Note: I say research-oriented because there are many MS programs where students don’t really care too much about research. On the one hand, this is still good advice for them, but on the other hand, they are not trying to find a PhD advisor.

  • Go to lots of seminars. This was some great advice I got from Anant Sahai when I was starting grad school. As soon as you get to grad school, sign up for all of the seminar mailing lists in your department and outside your department that you think may be interesting to you. For me it was statistics, networking/communications/DSP, one of the math seminars, and some of the CS seminars. Go to the talk, take notes, and try to understand what the problem is, why it’s important, and what tools they use to solve it. Without the right classes you may not understand the technical aspects of the talk, but you will learn about different areas of active research, how to present research (or how not to, sometimes), and new tools and terminology that may not be covered in coursework. You may see a paper referenced that you would want to look at later. Faculty will see that you’re interested in research and trying to learn something outside of class. Go to talks outside your area to learn some new things. Go to broad-audience colloquium talks to understand trends and developments across other areas of engineering outside of your interests.
  • Read papers regularly. This is hard. You’re not going to understand the papers. But much like learning a foreign language, you have to read and then make notes of things that you don’t understand and want to look up later. At first, read the abstract, introduction, model, and main results, or as much as you can handle. It will be confusing, but you will get a sense of what research is being done, what kinds of questions people ask, and so on. Bookmark the things that sound interesting so you can come back to it later. Set aside a little time every few days to do this. It’s like exercise — you have to practice regularly. Read broadly so you can get a sense of how different problems/models/questions relate to each other.
  • Learn LaTeX if you don’t know it already. There is nothing worse than trying to write your first paper and trying to learn LaTeX at the same time. You can practice by trying to write up a homework solution or two in LaTeX. In general, being familiar with the tools used in research before you actually “need” them is a great idea.
  • Learn to program. I’m still a mediocre programmer, but I’m trying to get better. Most entering grad students in ECE don’t know MATLAB beyond the level of doing homework assignments. You don’t have to become a code ninja, but learning to write and document code that others can read, and that you can debug easily, will save a lot of headaches down the road.
  • Make a website for yourself. You want to be top hit when someone searches your name and institution. It doesn’t have to have a ton of information on it, but it makes a difference. I’ve seen job candidates who somehow don’t have a homepage with information about their publications and papers. In this day and age, the first thing people are going to do after meeting you at a conference is Google you.
  • In general, entering graduate school can be quite daunting, and many students fall into the trap of just taking a bunch of classes in search of “what’s interesting.” The dirty secret is that most first-year graduate courses don’t have a lot of active research topics in them (maybe this is a problem). If you’re interested in doing research, you need to practice by expanding your horizons through going to talks and reading papers, building technical skills like programming and writing LaTeX effectively, and professionalizing by making a website to communicate your interests and research.

Linkage

I occasionally enjoy Thai cooking, so I appreciated some of the comments made by Andy Ricker.

I recently learned about India’s Clean Currency Policy which went into effect this year. I still have some money (in an unpacked box, probably) from my trip this last fall, and I wonder if any of it will be still usable when I go to SPCOM 2014 this year. That sounded a bit crazy to me though, further investigation indicates that an internal circular leaked and it sounds like a more sensible multi-year plan to phase in more robust banknotes. My large-ish pile of Rs. 1 coins remains useless, however.

An Astounding Result — some may have seen this before, but it’s getting some press now. It’s part of the Numberphile series. Terry Tao (as usual) has a pretty definitive post on it.

Avi Wigderson is giving a talk at Rutgers tomorrow, so I thought about this nice lecture of his on Randomness (and pseudorandomness).

There’s been a lot of blogging about the MIT Mystery Hunt (if I wasn’t so hosed starting up here at Rutgers I’d probably blog about it earlier) but if you want the story and philosophy behind this year’s Hunt, look no further than the writeup of Erin Rhode, who was the Director of the whole shebang.

Last year I did a lot of flying, and as a result had many encounters with the TSA. This insider account should be interesting to anyone who flies regularly.

A proposal for restructuring tenure

An Op-Ed from the NY Times (warning: paywall) suggests creating research and teaching tenure tracks and hire people for one or the other. This is an interesting proposal, and while the author Adam Grant marshals empirical evidence showing that the two skills are largely uncorrelated, as well as research on designing incentives, it seems that the social and economic barriers to implementing such a scheme are quite high.

Firstly, the economic. Grant-funded research faculty bring in big bucks (sometimes more modest bucks for pen-and-paper types) to the university. They overheads (55% at Rutgers, I think) on those grants help keep the university afloat, especially at places which don’t have huge endowments. Research in technology areas can also generate patents, startups, and other vehicles that bring money to the university coffers. This is an incentive for the university to push the research agenda first. Grant funding may be drying up, but it’s still a big money maker.

On the social barriers, it’s simply true in the US that as a society we don’t value teaching very highly. Sure, we complain about the quality of education and its price and so on, but the taxpayers and politicians are not willing to put their money where their mouth is. We see this in the low pay for K-12 teachers and the rise of the $5k-per-class adjunct at the university level. If a university finds that it’s doing well on research but poorly on teaching, the solution-on-the-cheap is to hire more adjuncts.

Of course, the proposal also represents a change, and institutionalized professionals hate change. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a good idea to have more tenure-track teaching positions. However, forcing a choice — research or teaching — is a terrible idea. I do like research, but part of the reason I want to be at a university is to engage with students through the classroom. I may not be the best teacher now, but I want to get better. A better, and more feasible, short-term solution would be to create more opportunities and support for teacher development within the university. This would strengthen the correlation between research and teaching success.

Telecommunications acronyms

When I first got to campus, I arrived a bit earlier than most of the staff and I didn’t have the key to my office. So I went to the Rutgers Math Library to hunker down and read a bit. It was winter break and so the place was empty. The furniture in there is pretty retro — it kind of reminded me of the Urbana Free Library as a kid. While browsing the stacks, I came across this:

Book spine: Computer and Telecommunications Acronyms

A book I saw at the Rutgers Math Library

One of the most… annoying things about wireless communications is the proliferation of acronyms. The one most people haven’t heard of is UE for “User Equipment.” That is, the cellphone or mobile or tablet. The one that everyone has heard of is LTE, for “Long Term Evolution,” an acronym with nearly zero informational content (H(\mathsf{LTE}) \approx 0 for those in the information theory crowd). How “LTE” passed muster with the marketing folks is mysterious to me. Perhaps being more or less meaningless was a plus in their book.

In any case, go to any tutorial on actual wireless technologies (like the LTE tutorial I went to), and it quickly devolves into a soup of acronyms from which few travelers return unscathed. They may be great if you already know what they mean, but it’s a disaster for trying to teach people.

Climate Confidential and new journalism

There’s a lot of talk about how the journalism industry is suffering and soon we’re going to be piled under an avalanche of Buzzfeed lists, reblogs of reblogs, doges.

My friend Celeste LeCompte and her friends have started a new venture called Climate Confidential — they are a collective of journalists and writers who will focus on environmental issues. They’re running a crowdfunding campaign on Beacon, a writer-focused site, to get started. I heartily encourage you lurking blog readers out there to support them.

Non-tenure track faculty at Rutgers get a contract

At Rutgers the faculty are unionized. Recently, the union reached a tentative agreement with the University regarding non-tenure track (NTT) faculty. The full text of the agreement is available now.

In the sciences and engineering, especially at research-focused universities, one often thinks of adjunct faculty as industry folks who come in and teach a class a semester or year. This stands in stark contrast to most departments in the humanities, where adjunct positions are (often) a way to dramatically underpay PhDs by paying them a mere $5k per course without benefits or even office space, sometimes. In the Boston area, the SEIU estimate is that “67 percent of the teaching faculty are not on the tenure track”. I don’t know how they estimated that number, and obviously the SEIU is a bit biased, but the number is certainly large.

Given the way the whole tenure system is going, any steps to provide more stability to adjunct contracts should be welcome. I think the short-term goal is to create more full-time instructional positions with benefits but without tenure. This agreement does something to address that. From an email I received:

Non-grant-funded NTT faculty who are successfully reappointed after six years of full-time service will have appointments of at least two years’ duration thereafter. Departments and decanal units will be required to develop, promulgate and post on their web sites clear criteria for appointment, reappointment, and promotion, and will also be required to provide all non-tenure track faculty with regular performance review and feedback.

Essentially, adjunct contracts were a bit of no-rules scenario before, and this is definitely a better situation.

The other big thing in the contract is to make the job titles more in line with other institutions. There are now 5 classes of non-tenure track faculty: Teaching, Professional Practice, Librarian, Clinical and Research. The first three are new. I’m not sure how the NTT body as a whole feels about this, and in a sense this approach is a capitulation to the trend of having fewer tenure-track faculty, but I think it’s much better than what we have now.