Friday, October 9, 2009

Point - Counterppoint

My last entry focused on the differences between UW and USC that favored the former. This post will list some things I miss about USC, though I'll try to keep the list short as to remain happy at my new job.
  • The classrooms (maybe just some) have bells. Even my high school didn't have bells. It's a weird feeling, though perhaps it is part of the reason things start and end on time.
  • No one at UW seems to know that colleges compete against one another in football. (Given the circumstances, that might be welcomed this year.)
  • There is no UW bus. Possibly because there is a public transportation system, but still, no free UW bus to go around campus, housing, etc.
  • People work regular (and standard) working hours. Folks get to work at 8:30 and leave at 5. I have 9:30 AM meetings. Last time I had a 9:30 meeting at USC had to do with getting in line for the 5PM USC / Ohio State game at the Coliseum (OK, fine, that was at 6 AM).
  • Anyone may ask the state of Washington for all my email sent to and from my work address and the state has to produce it. This feels very weird.
  • USC had vast programs to expand the horizons of a student beyond what he or she works on every day. For example, the Voices and Visions programs organized countless theater trips, USC sports (not Football) had free admission for students, countless organizations organized Dodgers / Angels / Lakers / Clippers / Kings / Galaxy trips, etc. I have yet to discover anything like that at UW.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Subtle differences between USC and UW

I started a new job as a postdoc at the University of Washington. I've been here for a week now and have noticed a few subtle differences between UW and USC (at least some of which may be due to the small sample size of my observation). I am particularly focusing on the differences that favor UW in this post, so if you are affiliated with USC, don't get upset. Just remember that I am wearing four layers today, at least one of which is waterproof, and am using the warmest blanket I own at night. And it's only the start of October.
  • Talks:
    • The talks I have attended at UW have been of better quality than those at USC.
    • Faculty attend talks. Numerous faculty.
    • Students attend talks.
    • Talks and meetings start and end when they are supposed to end. I cannot remember the last time I attended a 60-minute meeting for less than 90 minutes at USC.

  • Atmosphere:
    • Where at USC stands a statue of Tommy Trojan, at UW stands a larger-than-life statue of George Washington.
    • Faculty have no problem wearing t-shirts. I don't remember seeing that at USC.
    • I've seen students knit at talks. Also, wearing StarTrek costumes to work doesn't seem to be out of the question.
    • Faculty and staff email other faculty and staff (as in the entire faculty and staff lists) daily with things like "My student got a job," or "Good talk coming up tomorrow," or "Good talk in 20 minutes," or "Good talk starting now," or "Does anyone know of a good plumber in the area?"
    • The campus-alert emails say things like "Male suspects asked the victims for pizza and when refused became agitated," instead of "Shooting on campus." (I kid you not! Pizza! The email's subject was "attempted robbery.")
  • Support:
    • There is ample technical support. If you email them with a problem, they come over and fix it. They set up equipment. They have extra mice, keyboards, speakers, etc. in case yours break.
    • There is ample administrative support. They are fast. They are friendly. They are not nearly as overworked (because there are many of them) at UW as they are at USC, making them both more helpful and happier!
    • Every first-year students gets a department laptop or desktop when s/he arives.
    • There is ample access to printers (b/w, color, duplex, transparency, large-format), fax machines, copy machines, etc.
    • There are supplies easily available to set up your office, mail things, etc.
    • There is free coffee, tea, and microwave and fridge access available to all grad students, staff, and faculty.
    • There are no personalized keys. Faculty keys open all offices (including all other faculty). Student keys open all student offices but not faculty offices.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tom Mitchell's research

Today, I attended Tom Mitchell's talk. This was perhaps the best research I have seen in 6-7 years. If you have a moment, I encourage you to take a look at his paper summarizing this work.

In short, they found that when a person thinks about some noun, some parts of that person's brain get increased blood flow. It turns out that:
1. The parts of YOUR brain that increase blood flow are so similar to the parts of MY brain that increase blood flow, that I can build a machine learner to learn what brain states map to what nouns based on YOUR brain and then be able to predict what nouns I am thinking about based on pictures of MY brain.
2. By looking at what verbs are most commonly used (on the Internet) in combination with a set of nouns, taking proportional linear combinations of brain pictures for certain nouns allows correct predictions of brain pictures for other nouns.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Push vs. Pull advising

Over the years, I've had several academic advisors and mentors. I've noticed that one of the dimension among which such advisors can be classified is what I call the push vs. pull dimension that measures the method by which they collect information about their advisees. In the extremes, a push advisor waits for a student to come to him or her with a report of progress or a problem, and only then evaluates the information and advises, while a pull advisor checks with the student on a regular basis (e.g., at a weekly one-on-one meeting), collects information, and advises.

My observation, that I put up for debate here, is that the majority of academic advisors are primarily pull advisors who employ push mechanisms when it seems appropriate. I claim that a better advisor is, instead, one who is primarily a push advisor, employing pull mechanisms when appropriate.

It is unlikely that any one advisor is completely push (e.g., if a student, for months, doesn't produce any results, questions, or thoughts, the advisor is sure to inquire what's going on) or completely pull (at times, e.g., around deadlines, weekly, or even daily updates are insufficient, and the advisor needs to know right away when the student finishes a task). However, in my experience, the majority of academic advisors are primarily pull advisors, trying to guide progress via holding weekly individual meetings with each student.

Push and pull mechanisms are not new to engineers and thus we know some of their advantages and disadvantages. In particular, pull mechanisms are inefficient when the frequency of updates is erratic. If a student sometimes finishes tasks daily but has to wait up to a week to discuss the progress with the advisor before making future progress, much time is wasted. On the other hand, frequent push updates can render the advisor unable to multitask and, among other tasks, advise multiple students. The main flaw with pull advising is that it affects the student's schedule and planning practices: as many students are are deadline-driven creatures, if faced with weekly meetings, each tasks tends to occupy one week, regardless of its difficulty. A task's completion time should be independent of the pull schedule, and the student should be able to seek advice when it is necessary, not when the clock strikes seven [days]. Thus, an advisor should be a push advisor, switching to pulling only when (1) pushing is so frequent that it interferes with progress or (2) pushing is so infrequent that it indicates the misuse of the student's resources.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The misuse of blogs

As I write my first entry in this blog I wonder how it is that I have gotten to having a blog. I have, and have been vocal about, several major objections to the existence of blogs. For the most part, they all stem from the categorical misuse of blogs by other entities; for example, newspapers and other news sources citing random things said by random people in blogs as evidence, giving them a weight disproportionate to what they are. Typically, a blog entry is just someone's thoughts and opinions, and not hard evidence. (Note that thoughts and opinions are evidence of something, just typically not of what those thoughts and opinions claim.)

The idea that blogs are collections of thoughts and opinions brings me to my next point, and an argument that blogs are misused. While we all have many thoughts and many opinions, I would be surprised if even the most influential people had more than, say, a couple thoughts and opinions per week that were worth sharing with others. Those who keep a "daily newsletter" or write in their blogs more frequently than weekly simply shift the responsibility of weeding out the important nuggets of information onto the readers.

Thus, I vow to average no more than one post per week in this blog, and, significantly more importantly, to try to distill what I say to information that others may actually find interesting and helpful.

Having said all that, the purpose of this blog is to describe the experience of a young researcher (currently a postdoc in computer science at USC) as he goes through his quest to become an impactful and successful academic. As such, I will post on issues related to academia, research, computer science and mathematics, and general university policies. Knowing myself, a few entries on the Red Sox, and perhaps ultimate frisbee, will sneak into this blog as well.