Linkage

This NSF report from the Office of the Inspector General has some really horrendous examples of data fabrication, plagiarism, and other misconduct by PIs and graduate fellowship (GRFP) recipients. It’s true that bad behavior taints the whole program: how good is the GRFP selection process if students like this get awards?

This article on Bhagat Singh Thind is fascinating. We need a modern Ghadar Party here. But this is so bizarre: “[o]ut of necessity and ingenuity, Thind, along with several dozen South Asians during the interwar decades reinvented themselves as itinerant spiritual teachers and metaphysical lecturers who would travel from city to city, giving lectures and holding private classes.”

A photo gallery by Lotfi Zadeh: some of these are really beautiful portraits. Also the variety! I remember not really understanding portraiture when I was younger but I think I “get it” a bit more now. Or at least why it’s interesting. There’s even a photo of Claude Shannon… from the email:

Prof. Lotfi Zadeh, who passed away in 2017, was an avid photographer who grew up in a multicultural environment, surrounded himself with a cosmopolitan crowd, and always kept his mind open to new ideas. In the 1960s and 70s, he enjoyed capturing the people around him in a series of black and white portraits. His burgeoning career gave him access to a number of artists, academics, and dignitaries who, along with his colleagues, friends, and family, proved a great source of inspiration for him.

THE SQUIRCLE IS SO FASCINATING!

I helped organize a workshop at IPAM on privacy and genomics. Videos (raw) are up now.

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Some thoughts on paper awards at conferences

We (really Mohsen and Zahra) had a paper nominated for a student paper award at CAMSAP last year, but since both student authors are from Iran, their single-entry student visas prevented them from going to the conference. The award terms require that the student author present the work (in a poster session) and the conference organizers were kind enough to allow Mohsen to present his poster via Skype. It’s hardly an ideal communication channel, given how loud poster sessions are. Although the award went to a different paper, the experience brought up two questions that are not new but don’t get a lot of discussion.

How should paper awards deal with visa issues? This is not an issue specific to students from Iran, although the US State Department’s visa issuance for Iranian students is stupidly restrictive. Students from Iran are essentially precluded from attending any non-US conference unless they want to roll the dice again and wait for another visa at home. Other countries may also deny visas to students for various reasons. Requiring students to be present at the conference is discriminatory, since the award should be based on the work. Disqualifying a student for an award because of bullshit political/bureaucratic nonsense that is totally out of their control just reinforces that bullshit.

Why are best papers judged by their presentation? I have never been a judge for a paper award and I am sure that judges try to be as fair as they can. However, the award is for the paper and not its performance. I agree that scholarly communication through oral presentation is a valuable skill, but if the award is going to be determined by who gives the best show at the conference, they should retitle these to “best student paper and presentation award” or something like that. Maybe it should instead be based on video presentations to allow remote participation. If you are going to call it a paper award, then it should based on the written work.

I don’t want this to seem like a case of sour grapes. Not all student paper awards work this way, but it seems to be the trend in IEEE-ish venues. The visa issue has hurt a lot of researchers I know; they miss out on opportunities to get their name/face known, chances to meet and network with people, and the experience of being exposed to a ton of ideas in a short amount of time. Back when I had time to do conference blogging, it was a way for me to process the wide array of new things that I saw. For newer researchers (i.e. students) this is really important. Making paper awards based on presentations hits these students doubly: they can neither attend the conference nor receive recognition for their work.

NSF Report Markdown file

I experienced a horrible “network dropping causes web forms to clear” experience when filing an NSF report a few years back, so I switched to filling things in via the NSF’s Word template. However, the extraneous formatting in that made the cut-and-paste into the webworm tedious. So this time around I created a Markdown (.md) template with all of the questions you need to answer. This makes it easier to edit and lightly format your report text offline (e.g. on a plane) for much faster cut-and-paste later.

Rutgers has a mobile device privacy violation strategy

Rutgers decided to switch everyone over to an Office 365 system for email. All “official Rutgers business” has to be conducted through our new email accounts. If you try to sync mail to your phone, you are prompted to install a Microsoft app which will manage your account. According to the Rutgers Mobile Device Management Policy we “will be prompted by a notice that states administrators will be allowed to make a number of changes to your device but the University will not utilize those features as they are beyond policy.”

I Am Not A Lawyer, but it seems a little bad to sign a contract with someone who says “oh don’t worry about those clauses, we will never use them.” So what are we agreeing to let IT admins do?

What IT cannot see:

  • Call and web history
  • Location
  • Email and text messages
  • Contacts
  • Passwords
  • Calendar
  • Camera roll

What IT can see:

  • Model
  • Serial number
  • Operating system
  • App names
  • Owner
  • Device name

So apparently what apps you have is something that your boss should know about. I suppose you can construct a reason for that, but I don’t really know why it’s anyone’s business. I can see it as being rather dangerous — who are they sharing this information with? Also, Rutgers wants to:

  • Reset your device back to manufacturer’s default settings if the device is lost or stolen.
  • Require you to have a password or PIN on the device.
  • Require you to accept terms and conditions.

Hmmm, abstract “terms and conditions.” Ok then… the features they say are out of scope (for now) are:

  • Remove all installed company-related data and business apps. Your personal data and settings aren’t removed.
  • Enable or disable the camera on your device to prevent you from taking pictures of sensitive company data.
  • Enable or disable web browsing on your device.
  • Enable or disable backup to iCloud.
  • Enable or disable document sync to iCloud.
  • Enable or disable Photo Stream to iCloud.
  • Enable or disable data roaming on your device. If data roaming is allowed, you might incur roaming charges.
  • Enable or disable voice roaming on your device. If voice roaming is allowed, you might incur roaming charges.
  • Enable or disable automatic file synchronization while in roaming mode on your device. If automatic file synchronization is allowed, you might incur roaming charges.

Seems like a lot for the dubious value of checking my work email on my phone. I guess I have some startup funds that need spending. Perhaps I can get a “just for work” device that Rutgers can snoop on as much as they like.

Quantifying the professoriate

Faculty at Rutgers are unionized, and currently the union is trying to fight the university administration over their (secretive) use of Academic Analytics to rate the “scholarly productivity” of faculty and departments. For example, last year they produced a ranking of Rutgers departments (pdf). It’s so great to be reduced to a single number!

As the statistical adage goes, garbage in, garbage out, and it’s entirely unclear what AA is using to produce these numbers (although one could guess). It’s a proprietary system and the university refuses to give access to the “confidential innards” — perhaps they don’t want others to see how the sausage is made. If we take just one likely feature, impact factor, we can already see the poverty of single-index measures of productivity. Impact factor can vary widely across indexing systems: Scopus, Web of Knowledge, and Google all produce different numbers because they index different databases. At some point I went though and lumped together papers in my Google profile if they were the same result (e.g. a journal version of a conference paper) but then I was told that this is a bad idea, not because it would lower my impact factor (which it would), but because manipulating an index is bad form. If the index sucks, it’s the index-maker’s fault.

I wonder how many other universities are going through this process. Within one department the levels of “productivity” vary widely, and across disciplines the problem is only harder. The job faced by administrators is tough — how do they know where things can improve? But relying on opaque analytics is at best “statist-ism” and at worst reading entrails.

Personal versus work email

Rutgers is moving to a new email system based on Microsoft Office 365 and we’re required to conduct all University business through that emai address. This is all happening after a brief stint with Google Apps, around which I have built a lot of my work processes, so who knows how this will shake out. Our faculty union is concerned because Rutgers is exerting more corporate-like control over the email — they reserve the right to delete our emails without notification, and it’s unclear if they also reserve the right to read them. Time to adopt stronger encryption, methinks. In the light of email monitoring at the University of Wisconsin I imagine New Jersey may be headed down the same path.

All of this got me thinking about how I have tried over the last few years to keep separate work and personal emails, but that this is a bit of a new thing. Many people got their first “real” email address from college, and I sent all of my personal email from my MIT account. After college I developed an inconsisten approach to email: I used my forwarded my to my grad school account, used it as my login for Manuscript Central and reviewing sites, and even used it as my contact email for publications, since it was ostensibly “permanent.” However, in the last year I finally switched over and forwarded my college address to my personal address — as a student my email was personal, not professional, and I shouldn’t use that “identity” as my academic identity.

Every once in a while we get a story about inappropriate emails being sent from work addresses and I wonder if some of that comes from this blurry line between work and personal email addresses. How has that division evolved over time?

Bob Gallager on Shannon’s tips for research

One of the classes I enjoyed the most in undergrad was Bob Gallager’s digital communications class, 6.450. I was reminded of what an engaging lecturer he was yesterday when I attended the Bell Labs Shannon Celebration yesterday. Unfortunately, it being the last week of the semester, I could not attend today’s more technical talks. Gallager gave a nice concise summary of what he learned from Shannon about how to do good theory work:

  1. Simplify the problem
  2. Relate it to other problems
  3. Restate the problem in as many ways as possible
  4. Break the problem into pieces
  5. Avoid getting locked into thinking ruts
  6. Generalize

As he said, “it’s a process of doing research… each one [step] gives you a little insight.” It’s tempting, as a theorist, to claim that at the end of this process you’ve solved the “fundamental” problem, but Gallager admonished us to remember that the first step is to simplify, often dramatically. As Alfred North Whitehead said, we should “seek simplicity and distrust it.”