academics, as seen from vegreville. it can be cold here. and it is flat.
What the hell have I been doing this (academic) year?
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Friday, March 31, 2006
I don't like this idea
It seems that it is going to be more expensive for foreign students to go to university in the US: http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/001319.php
I don't like this plan. Why make it harder for talented foreign students to enter the US? What is the empirical evidence-how many stay and contribute to the US economy? .
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Thursday, March 30, 2006
I downloaded a new blog editor: Quman, and am going to see how well it works.
The first real day of spring here; a glorious day. The students were content, they laughed at my jokes in class, and they seem to be understanding the material. What more can I ask for?
I even enjoying reading working papers today, and I am learning a new technique that may be useful in future research.
I have the urge to purchase some new office supplies or a new office gadget. But soon. Real soon.
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Tuesday, March 28, 2006
I wrote about being first or second: here.
I should clarify what I meant. When you are in a race, its better to be first (ie, I bet that the first person who walked on the moon got most of the glory, etc.). But I meant that sometimes one paper has an idea and it does not catch on. The second paper that has that idea might use it in a slightly different way, but it's the second paper that seems to get the cites. Sometimes the papers are years apart.
There is an obvious statistical problem with this---I remember such cases because the second paper shows up in print in a good journal, meaning that the work passed some sort of hurdle. Many other 'second papers' probably never make it to a top journal anyway.
I am still puzzled, though.
Monday, March 27, 2006
Is it better to be first or second
with the new idea, model, or technique? I used to think first, but now I am convinced that second might be best. Consider the first MP3 players (Rio?, IRiver?) vs. Apple. I also see it in academic research. Some literatures in my field began with one paper, but it is the second paper that gets the cites--formally in writing and informally in seminars, discussions, and so on. Why does it work that way? There surely are some interesting statistical issues to be dealt with in thinking about the issue.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
I paid for the big beer and airport food today. *ouch*
It's always funny when I talk to my relatives who don't travel for work, since business travel seems so glamorous to them. I simply have no credibility when I tell them that the hotel in X is pretty much like the hotel in Y, and that most of the time, all I see is the room, the conference room, the hotel bar, and bad late night TV. And why the heck do I always stay up late? I never, ever learn.
Saturday, March 25, 2006
Random memories and thoughts
*the faint smell of vomit coming from the airplane seat and/or air blowers.
*the very noisy kids running around airports (although mainly cute).
*the deer in the headlights look everyone had when the gate agents could not tell us what was going on.
*relearning that good idea + good technical execution does not mean a good paper, unless the author can explain it clearly. And realizing that some people will never figure that out, but instead spend time complaining about how unfair it all is, because d*mn it, they have good ideas. Why can't the d*mn referees understand them?
*realizing how interested I am in research, still.
*How much noise there is in academics.
*How much of it all is about getting into the right club, so that people will take you seriously. But I notice that most people do find a club---if they have good ideas+good execution+good explanations. Or at least at a similar level to the other people in their club. There are lots of clubs too.
*How much people use appearance to judge. And some people are as sholes about it, too.
*How much interesting research is being done, but also how much is uninteresting to me. But the joy of it all is that many people have different tastes than me.
*Why do I only eat crap food at airports. And enjoy it.
Friday, March 24, 2006
How I love thee. You make travel much more pleasant and calling home so much cheaper. I am going to get a bluetooth headset soon. Then I can move around the hotel room while I talk.
I think I will tell this to the PhD students I deal with:
from signal vs. noise: Dissatisfaction / Please yourself:
I believe that stuff should be easier than it is, and it pisses me off that most people are so content with the state of the art, because it means they're not helping make it better. -Steve YeggeThere is a nice graphic in the original post, too. In the end, research should be about doing something you are happy with. My easiest to publish papers often ended up being the ones I liked best anyway. And not because they moved through the process easily, but instead because they had more creativity and thought in them. They are the ones I can still go back and reread, too.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
I had a long delayed flight, and so got to observe people in the airport. Most people are just tense, but this time I saw something new for me. While waiting, a businessman type goes to the counter and asks to be put on standby for our flight. By the time we leave, we were only about 15 minutes away from his original flight time. He still got on. After checking with the counter at least once every 5 minutes.
The flight attendant was like the high school teacher from hell---bossy and pretty exasperated with us all. We heard the no cell phone announcement at least 5 or 6 times, each time angrier sounding.
I happened to be sitting beside the business man. He was playing some sort of game on his fancy blackberry phone. He listened to each announcement, and then went back to playing the cell game. While we were taxiing up to the runway. The flight attendant finally came by and told him to turn the phone off. He actually said 'Yes.' But moved the phone to his belt clip so fast that she did not see that it was off. She asked. It was still on.
As soon as she left. back to the game.
When we got close to the ground, he turned the cell back on and started playing. Again 5 or 6 angry sounding no cell announcements.
I am not a stickler for rules, but I was getting a bit agitated about all this. If there is a safety concern, I don't really want to get into an accident because some guy loves his cell phone Breakout.
On the other I hand, my wife showed me an article that airlines are starting to sell airtime for cell phones on the flights; perhaps the safety issue is a myth.
What is it about the airport
that brings out the worst in people. I was unpacking my laptop to enter into the security line at the airport today and a distinguished looking older gentleman just barged in front of my, slowly my progress. It was annoying, sure. But my anger level rose way too high---I was chanting 'as shole, as shole, etc' under my breath. No I am away from the situation, I cannot quite figure out why I was so damn upset.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
One of the hardest things I have in teaching
is grading. Not deciding on the quality of the work. Nor even assigning a grade to the work. But rather, dealing with students who just don't understand the material, past a certain level. I see a lot of heterogeneity in ability to learn what I teach. A lot is background. A lot is desire. But some is native ability in the topic. I just cannot seem to push all the students past a certain level. Some, even most, yes. But not all. And it bothers me--I could do better reaching those students. What to do? How can I improve?
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
the only person who does 'just in time' course preparation? When it works, it's like a well-oiled machine. When it doesn't, I am in panic mode. Each year, I promise to myself that I will do more stuff in the off-peak times. But when the time comes, I work on other stuff, instead. You would think I'd learn. But no. Not me. I must like this. I damn myself to hell each year.
Monday, March 20, 2006
Perhaps we should follow this advice recruiting next year...
Plus we have a seminar, too. But I wonder if trying this might be a good idea, with modifications for the academic environment...
From Guy Kawasaki The Art of Recruiting, Part II:
I received an email from Craig James that contained superb insights into the art of recruiting. With Craig's permission, I provide it below. As the chief technology officer of eMolecules, Craig is responsible for the design and development of the www.chmoogle.com chemistry search engine. Craig worked with chemistry, chemists and chemical databases his entire career, including management of a low-cost (<$50K) mass spectrometer project while at HP Scientific Instruments (now Agilent) and as director of core engineering for Accelrys. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This is an example of a blog post so that I can remember something. In this case, recruiting strategies. I don't have much intelligent to add to the article.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Academic Coach writes about jargonized writing.
Simpler is better. But jargon---if used correctly---simplifies the writing. In my field, certain phrases and words have specific technical meanings, so that using them saves the writer from having to re-explain some idea or computation that everyone you are writing for already knows. I would even argue that the scope of the jargon defines the audience.
That being said, a lot of writers use jargon not to simplify, but instead use fancy words to make an idea seem more sophisticated. It may also indicate that I am not in the target audience for the writing. In that case, I will just ignore the writing and the ideas contained in it. That's the cost of the jargon; since the article should be meant to persuade someone, the jargon has reduced the size of the audience.
Perhaps the test might be: explain it in five sentences for your grandmother. If jargon shortens it and simplifies the writing and a first or second year PhD student can follow what you write, then use the jargon. If such a student doesn't get what you are saying, cut the jargon.
Thinking about it that way, being penalized for doing popular writing perhaps indicates something about the technical level of the material---and that is what tenure committees and outside letter writers are worried about. Popularizing an existing idea is not generating new knowledge. But I thought scholarship was generating new knowledge. Explaining existing knowledge is a valuable activity, but that is different than research.
*Last paragraph my be full of cr*p---I am not sure here.*
(Also written so I could try to do a trackback.)
Saturday, March 18, 2006
random gibberish today
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Starting a new research project
is like starting a new relationship. For me, I start questioning if I should pursue this. Once I have decided to do it, the idea is the greatest thing in the world. For a few days, I am walking on clouds. Then, the first fight---the first place you make a tough decision on the paper. And then the project meets your friends and family; you give a seminar on it. Finally, the submission to a conference, and even the referee report. Good news: marriage. Bad news may lead to a divorce, eventually.
(badly strained metaphor today.)
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
One of the fun parts of writing papers
is working with co-authors.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Sometimes, you just need to start the project
Starting a paper is like taking a jump into the unknown. Sometimes you just need to get going. Perhaps that tells me that I am a bad planner. But for me, it's the discovery part that's fun about research-and why I like the research part of my job.
via www.swissmiss.typepad.com: entrepreneurial proverbs:
Momentum builds on itself -- just start. Do whatever you can. Draw a user interface. Write a spec. Make something, anything, that people can see and touch and try. A prototype is worth ten thousand words. One you start moving, you will find that people start to carry you along.
Monday, March 13, 2006
What kind of student was I?
I took the idea from Playing school, irreverently (link to come)
I cannot remember much, except being uncoordinated with scissors. And messy with writing.
Good at math, messy, and often bored. A voracious reader.
Lazy, bored, and with terrible social skills. I was the go-to guy if you wanted to tease somebody, as a result, I looked at the floor at lot. Great at math, and still reading like a madman. I would read anything, anytime.
My first experience with a large school--I kept to myself. By this time, I had realized that the actual learning was easy, and I was bored academically. I still did well at math, but got interested in history, and some social sciences. I went to a free high-school, and was easily intimidated by all the other 'smart' and loud students. I probably talked seriously to anyone else less then about 20 times in high school. I spend a large part of my freshman year at the public library reading novels--skipping school to do so.
For the first time, the material was difficult, and I did not adjust well the first few years. I loosened up socially, but still tended to look at the floor a lot. I choose a major based on 'getting a job,' not on intellectual interest. In my senior year, I took courses in what I was interested in and suddenly school 'clicked.' I carried around a hard-sided brief case--I can only imagine how nerdy I looked.
At first, I was completely intimidated by all the other students. But I outworked them, and found out how much enjoy the ideas in my field. Most of what I was learning seemed to be intuitive and fascinating; I found 'flow.' I also met other people with similar intellectual histories, and it was exhilarating. For me, grad school was a lot of fun, even when I was broke. It was the first time that I really felt like a star student. Now I realize that I should have spent less time on the fun stuff and more time on learning how to write. But gosh it was fun to learn, and everything fit together so nicely.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
I have forgotten how informative, exhilarating, boring, frustrating, and depressing grading can be. The temptation to write snarky comments is overwhelming once you have been grading for 6 hours straight. But then I take a deep breath and remember what it was like taking exams when I was a student. I put the snarky pen down.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
When I first started out, I would present very early---even incomplete---papers in seminars. Now I think that for me, doing so is a mistake. Presenting the paper too early is helpful for the work. But even though academics is a small field, people still only observe your work a few times. So early observations are quite informative. And what do people infer from seeing not quite complete papers at a workshop? How permanent is the effect on your reputation?
It is part of me understanding yet again that IQ is necessary for success, but not enough. You need all the details to be good, too.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
found this on digg
I guess I should not be surprised that there is software to help you ferret out cheaters. The article amazes me. The italics are mine.
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA | Thursday March 9, 2006
Mount Saint Vincent University has turned off Turnitin.com.<snip>
"It’s an absolute win for us, and I’m thrilled that our senate is willing to recognize the issues that students have raised," student union president Chantal Brushett, one of four student members of the university’s senate, said Tuesday in an interview.<snip>
Turnitin.com is an Internet-based subscription service that professors and others use to root out whether students’ papers contain material copped from other sources without giving proper credit. It maintains a database of millions of essays and compares submitted papers not only against those but also against websites and other published works.<snip>
The Dal student union plans to ask administrators to allow students to opt out of the service. President Ezra Edelstein said his members share some of the concerns of Mount students and are also troubled about privacy and copyright issues.The privacy and intellectual ownership issue is important. I don't, however, follow the argument that using the software assumes guilt. If someone is not plagiarizing, then absent privacy and intellectual ownership issues, why would they care?
I also wonder the effect this might have on the school's reputation. I honestly don't know.
I bet that Ms. Brushett has never taught a class of 120 students who write papers. And 15% of students cheat. Wow. Just wow.
From signal vs. noise (again)
Art statements, Pitchfork, and fancypants analysis:
A nice piece about over intellectualizing art. Here is my favorite quote in the piece:
It reminds me of a quote I once read on a bathroom wall: "Academics take simple ideas and make them complicated. Artists take complicated ideas and make them simple." If you can come up with a truly elucidating explanation of art, then, by all means, go for it. Otherwise, shut up. Actually, that's pretty true for any writing. If you're not making things clearer, stop typing.I always feel slightly sheepish when a good student finally understands what I teach. They always say: 'This stuff seems so simple.' I think that's because the good ideas simplify complicated things. Not vice versa. Also true for good research; it makes complicated problems simple. And opens the doors to solving new problems.
Good academics simplify. But why do we have such a bad reputation?
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
As a graduate student and early in my career I was obsessed with the number of publications (A, please). But now I notice that numbers is much less important than quality or impact. Some people write few papers, but each one has big impact. That's what you really need.
Everyone in my field agrees on the top 5% of papers, and probably the bottom 25%. But it's anyone's guess for the rest. So quality is a tricky and often an unmeasurable thing. You can always measure them on being well-written and with good analysis. But hearing the phrase 'that's a good problem' about your paper is a good sign in my field.
I have heard many times: 'X writes too many papers,' usually said of someone with lots of publications in good journals, but no big impact ones. And everyone thinks that they know a good paper when they see one. Funny though that we can disagree about which ones are the good ones.
I'll just keep plugging away.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Unknown Professor writes about faculty meetings, with some good rules:
Financial Rounds: Surviving Faculty Meetings
Here are my favorites:
Rule #1:Thou shalt keep thy mouth shut until tenured.I would add one more:
The first few meetings you go to, pay attention to who talks and the reactions that they receive. Watch people's body language as discussions happen. You can learn a lot about people's power by seeing the reactions they get in faculty meetings. Mainly you learn who is taken seriously and who isn't. It is always surprising to me the inverse relationship between talking and being taken seriously. After a few meetings, you might be able to predict what different people will say, and when.
You might want to correlate what was said at the meetings with the actual outcomes, too.
Monday, March 06, 2006
Microsoft word and answer keys.
I use word to type up answer keys quickly. Every year I swear I will stop. Putting centered equations into the middle of nested numbered lists defeats me year after year. I finally remember how to do it it cleanly, and promptly forget it for 6 months, until I have to do it again. I would not make up new questions each year, but the fraternities/sororities keep all the old ones on file...
Struggle on V. If only I used a secretary to type this stuff. But it seems so wasteful to figure it out, handwrite it, and then get someone else to type it, relative to just typing it up as a I solve it.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
Manuscripts as software applications.
Substitute 'software' with 'paper' and 'user' with 'referee' in the article below.
From signal vs noise: Every time you add something you take something away:
What’s the most ignored paradox in software development? Every time you add something you take something away.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
I found this out today (I won't reveal my answers to the quiz, either)
take the WHAT BAD BOOK ARE YOU test.
and go to mewing.net. not as good as reading a good book, but way better than a bad one.
I was always under the impression that Atlas Shrugged was an important book. I haven't read it, but the quiz has made me curious. Perhaps it is my spring break reading.
I am thinking even more about tenure. One pro-tenure argument that I believe is the argument that tenured people are more inclined to be open to new, challenging ideas from new people because tenure reduces the cost of letting the new ideas in.
The flip side is that I wonder how tenure effects the college's ability to retrain faculty in new techniques. In my field, there have been important intellectual revolutions over the last 20-30 years. Some faculty did not necessarily have the technical skills or incentives to learn those techniques. But they were tenured---so some schools fell behind in having people who could teach the new techniques to students, even as the new techniques become important That is a cost of the tenure system, no?
Maybe it is an argument about who should be tenured, too.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
My biggest failing
is over-committing, then failing to do something I promised because I cannot do it all , feeling guilty (as well I should), and then falling deeper into a hole. Say no more often. I cannot repeat that enough to myself. But. I. still. do. it.
UPDATE: after posting this, I found AWOL (from Inside Higher Ed). I will follow the advice.
All that leads me to thinking about tenure. I read Dean Dad (too tired to link, sorry) argue that we don't need tenure, but instead rolling long term contracts. Seems sensible. I do notice, however, that many academics stay motivated long after they are tenured. In fact, tenure seems irrelevant to many. But not all, and that's the rub.
There are other, perhaps weak levers you can use, like bad teaching loads, lack of raises, not getting your voice heard, etc. Of course all those things isolate further someone who cannot be fired, and I guess worsen things. One answer might be to be even tougher for tenure, with ex-poste reviews with a bite. But that's like rolling long term contracts with a higher entry hurdle.
I am also puzzled about the mismatch between the number of PhDs and where PhDs are needed. The market is saying that we have too many type XXX academics per job and so they are treated badly. Seems like the solution is to reduce the supply. But the supply is partly set by existing academics, who are entrenched. Is that the problem? On the other hand, how many people with PhD's in fields with no jobs are surprised that there are no jobs. And if so, why? Overconfidence bias?