Saturday, February 18, 2006

Richard Cohen is an ignoramus

Summary: Richard Cohen has an opinion piece (linked from the title above) in which he bloviates (I always wanted to use that word) that Gabriela Ocampo, a 12th grader who dropped out of high school because of algebra, shouldn't have had to take algebra. Because, of course, who needs algebra? At least, they don't if they want to be Cohen's maid, I imagine is what he's thinking, since there's no way in hell you could get a college degree in any well-paying field without it. And, since, as Mr. Cohen says, "Writing is the highest form of reasoning," the title of this post can be considered equivalent to a rigorous proof.

Read much more about this at Pharyngula, The Questionable Authority, and SCSU Scholars.

Update: Here's the LA Times article that Cohen likely used as his source material. It does a pretty good job of refuting him itself. Maybe Cohen has trouble reading for meaning, too.

Just for fun

Personally, I would have chosen the Enterprise D crew, but who am I to argue with the wisdom of a web poll?

You scored as Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix). You can change the world around you. You have a strong will and a high technical aptitude. Is it possible you are the one? Now if only Agent Smith would quit beating up your friends.

Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix)


Moya (Farscape)


Babylon 5 (Babylon 5)


Enterprise D (Star Trek)


Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)


Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)


SG-1 (Stargate)


Serenity (Firefly)


Deep Space Nine (Star Trek)


Galactica (Battlestar: Galactica)


FBI's X-Files Division (The X-Files)


Bebop (Cowboy Bebop)


Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in? (pics)
created with

Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles'

Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles'
Originally uploaded by stiber.
Now that I got all excited about spring coming, we're experiencing record low temperatures that seem likely to kill some plants. We'll see if floating row covers can save the fava beans. Luckily, the fruit trees' flower buds have not opened yet, so hopefully we can still get some fruit. The clematis pictured here is winter-flowering, and would look good growing on an arbor or a pergola, as its small blooms hang downward.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Ranking journals

The link above to The Scientific Activitist is to a discussion about journal rankings. The idea behind ranking journals is to assess the impact of a researcher's work. This is done by association, by assessing journals' impact. Presumably, publication in a highly ranked journal (one that has a great impact) means that the researcher's work has greater impact, because the journal editors are selecting for that. Right now, the most common metric used is the ISI impact factor, which is the average number of times that an article published in a journal is cited by other articles.

So, now people are looking at other systems. One possibility is to use something like Google's Page Rank system, in which a journal's rank would be determined not only by numbers of citations but also by the number of times that the citing articles are themselves cited. So, a journal is more highly rated if its articles are cited by other highly cited articles. There seems to be a certain circularity to this that makes me skeptical. Another proposal is to use the product of the ISI impact factor and the Page Rank, the justification for this being that it more closely reproduces the general qualitative ideas that researchers have regarding which journals are "best".

I want to know the following: Why are people pulling these metrics out of their asses in the first place? Clearly, none of these metrics have a deep theoretical basis behind them. Instead, they are relatively arbitrary choices that seem to produce numerical results that match certain a priori biases. It may just be me, but this doesn't seem to be a good way to analyze data for decisionmaking purposes. Shouldn't we figure out what we want to do with this data (what decision we want to make) and then develop an approach that has some fundamental justification? This approach to journal ranking seems to be the kind of method used by someone who is looking for numbers to support their biases, rather than numbers that actually convey useful information. At least the ISI impact factor has the following good points:

  1. It is easy to understand exactly what it is saying (the average number of times an article in the journal is cited).
  2. It is not too good, and so it is taken with a grain of salt -- it is less likely to be misused.
The last thing we need is some opaque, poorly-justified, complex formula that is open to blanket application as an "objective measure" of research quality. And, yes, I'm biased, as I tend to publish in journals that have relatively low impact because their target audiences are specialized and small.

Topics: , .

Chicken or egg?

The New York Times article linked from the title is about outsourcing -- not of customer service or programming, but of R&D. It seems, sensibly enough, that companies want to have a worldwide talent pool from which to hire. They also want to build relationships with the institutions that produce the talent, and that means opening up R&D facilities worldwide. That doesn't stop companies from worrying about the US situation:

The American executives who are planning to send work abroad express concern about what they regard as an incipient erosion of scientific prowess in this country, pointing to the lagging math and science proficiency of American high school students and the reluctance of some college graduates to pursue careers in science and engineering.
So, let's see: executives are concerned about students' reluctance to pursue S&E careers, so they outsource jobs overseas. That should help, right?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Garden photo of the week

Bud break
Originally uploaded by stiber.
It's amazing what a week of sunshine can do for you. We even went to the Garden Show yesterday, despite the fact that I'm about 50% decided that these are wastes of money (paying to get in to buy stuff). But, once in five years...

After being away for a year, there's a lot of cleanup to do. I've been clearing weeds from a gravel path a foot at a time. I've also been looking at the garden with new eyes (and with more mature plants), seeing all of the understory and pathside locations that still await new acquisitions. And I was worrying that my plant-buying days were over.

Monday, February 06, 2006

All summer in a day

Unopened crocus
Originally uploaded by stiber.
A second day of sun today; it's hard to describe how it feels, after a winter of grey clouds and drizzle mixed with greyer clouds and steady rain. It's almost like Bradbury's short story, "All summer in a day," hence the title of this entry. Except this is a sign of better things to come.

The crayfish and the computer

My older daughter is going through the anxiety of playing piano in front of audiences for the first time. This reminded me of when I got nervous having to make presentations. It's really been a while since this situation made me nervous. I'd like to think that practice and experience has led to self-confidence, but it may just be that I've been so sleep deprived since having kids that I just can't get excited by anything anymore. To me, a technical presentation is a very simple beast: say hello, explain why your work is interesting (at least, to you), describe what you did in enough detail that the audience will understand your results, present the results, and say what it means and what the next steps are (a colleague of mine has referred to this last part as "pissing all over your territory"). But, the other day I needed to put together a talk for undergraduates in our program, and that's a presentation of a whole different kind.

What could I do? My research involves neuroscience, scientific computing, nonlinear dynamics, and neural networks, with a dash of visualization thrown in. Of these, only scientific computing and neural networks are covered to any extent in our undergraduate curriculum, and those only by occasionally-offered elective courses. So I could make no assumptions about student background in the area. It occurred to me that undergraduates might not even recognize what I do as computer science (even many faculty might have that problem). Rather than consider this a problem, I decided it was a solution: I would explain how my work was computer science, or at least why it was interesting to computer scientists.

I would try to open their eyes to the career possibilities in the computing profession that lie beyond the bounds of the "usual suspects". In my mind, this is one of the messages we as educators need to emphasize: our profession pervades almost all aspects of modern life, and there are opportunities for rewarding careers in many places that would be considered "non-traditional," combining CS knowledge with knowledge in some other area (such as biology). The talk abstract was written before I had this approach completely figured out, but captures at least some of the CS interest in the field:

Five years past the end of the "Decade of the Brain", our ability to gather information about nervous systems is truly amazing. We can now conduct experiments that generate petabytes of data imaging a human brain as a person thinks. We can record from molecule-sized ion channels in nerve cell membranes. We can modify the genetic code of test animals to custom design their nervous systems for experimental purposes. And yet, for all of our advances in methods and knowledge about the brain, basic aspects of nervous system function still lay beyond our understanding.

In this talk, Prof. Michael Stiber will discuss nervous systems "in the small"; single neurons and networks of a relatively few cells. While incredibly simple compared to a human brain, these small systems are the building blocks of all neural computation. He will discuss the immense diversity of behaviors that these small systems exhibit; behaviors which could imply computational capabilities far in excess of that which we usually credit them. These capabilities include switching between linear and nonlinear operating modes, dynamically changing operating characteristics over time scales ranging from milliseconds to years, altering molecular or physical structure based on information encoded in the genome, responding to centrally broadcast commands, and even error correction. If the simplest components of nervous systems have such complex capabilities, what does this say for the computational power of the human brain?

Topics: , , .

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Why not just hand out diplomas like driver's licenses?

Here's a winning proposal from the Arizona legislature (Arizona SB 1331):

Each university under the jurisdiction of the Arizona board of regents and each community college under the jurisdiction of a community college district shall adopt procedures by which students who object to any course, coursework, learning material or activity on the basis that it is personally offensive shall be provided without financial or academic penalty an alternative course, alternative coursework, alternative learning materials or alternative activity. Objection to a course, coursework, learning material or activity on the basis that it is personally offensive includes objections that the course, coursework, learning material or activity conflicts with the student's beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.
I don't even know where to begin critiquing this. Come to think of it, it's problems are so numerous and evident, I image a dozen have already flashed through your mind. This is the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights" taken to its extreme: the separation of college education from any underlying value or meaning.

Update: See The Volokh Conspiracy, Crooked Timber, and Leiter Reports for additional commentary.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

And the pony you rode in on

I always find it interesting when students ask me, "What's going to be on the midterm/final?" The answer, of course, is, "Everything that has been covered in class or is in the textbook." What could be the cause of students thinking that I might go over material (other than as an aside) that I didn't mean to be important enough to test on? Well, now I'm reminded why. Thanks to Ernie's 3D Pancakes, I was referred to the Knight-Ridder article linked from the title above. Remember, just because someone promises you a pony doesn't mean you'll get one.

Retaining rights to your own work

From jill/txt, the title above links to an addendum you can attach to the copyright agreement for a conference or journal paper. Use it to retain your rights to place it on the internet or otherwise distribute your article for non-commercial use, and to request an electronic copy of the final paper. I would guess that most of us in academia neglect to follow the letter of copyright agreements in any case, freely distributing electronic copies of preprint versions to whomever requests and placing them on our academic web sites. Everyone winks at this. Is it better to keep doing it the current way or come out of the closet and use an addendum like this?

Groundhog Day

A bare root persimmon tree arrived this week in the mail, and that means that spring will come. Eventually. Right now, due to almost unrelenting rain over the last couple months, the ground is like a sopping wet sponge, so no working of soil (or even walking on soil) is possible. The persimmon will get planted in a bucket temporarily, and any other plants I collect over the next few weeks will likewise have to wait for planting. Meanwhile, there are still many things that need to be done that don't involve digging, like pruning fruit trees, fixing things, and, of course, my favorite thing: pulling weeds from gravel paths (landscaping fabric only stops weeds from growing below; it doesn't stop new seeds from sprouting on top).

On the bright side, the daffodils are coming up nicely, so I'll have some more garden photos shortly.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A contrary view: why CS should be difficult

Being one myself, I like contrary people, and that's what attracted me to the blog post The Perils of JavaSchools by Joel Spolsky. I've previously posted that making making CS a dreary, unpleasant experience results in many intelligent students avoiding the field. Joel argues that making CS easier allows unqualified people into the profession, instead of weeding them out (and that this is what has happened as schools standardize on Java). So, which result do we want, are these really in opposition to each other, and which represents the current state of affairs in CS education?

First, the specifics of Joel's argument. He argues that understanding pointers and recursion are central to computer science. Actually, he argues for most of his article that they are diagnostic of people who have the right wiring in their brains to become great programmers. (At the end, he implies they're central.) Weed out courses weed out people who won't be great programmers, and they do this by requiring students to learn about pointers (think both at the solution/language level and the machine level, managing memory on their own) and recursion. Wholesale switching by CS departments to managed languages removes this filter, thus allowing substandard/lazy undergrads through. As a result, he can no longer rely on many CS departments to produce uniformly great students.

It's really quite a well-written article, but that doesn't mean that I agree with it. First of all, there's the low-level issue of covering these two topics. Let's set aside any skepticism we might have that some of the CS departments Joel mentioned have really adopted Java to such an extent that students can graduate without having to work well in other languages (if they do, they're doing a disservice to their students independent of Joel's complaints). Pointers are important. Properly taught, I don't see that they require especially great intelligence or insight to understand or use. More on the distinction between innate difficulty in subject matter and difficulty as a side effect of teaching style later. Joel is right: if a department is 100% Java, then students are missing an important concept. Let's move on to the issue of recursion. Students can learn recursion as readily in Java as in C or C++. I suspect Joel's real point is that a pure functional language, like pure LISP (which practically nobody has ever written real code in since the advent of progn constructs and the like) forces you to write exclusively using recursion -- recursion becomes central to the course, rather than just one topic among many. As a result, a failure to really understand recursion means a failure in the course, rather than just a somewhat lower grade. So, I'll give part credit to Joel on this one: while students can learn recursion in Java, it is difficult to justify massive use of recursion in such a class, and thus it does not serve as a strong filter for weeding students out.

But do we need to weed students out? Judging from his descriptions of his college days, I'd guess that Joel got his degree at least as long ago as me. I would argue that the computing profession has changed greatly since then: it has become much broader. Computers are pervasive, which means that people need computer skills in most fields these days. OK, most of them don't need a CS degree. But, there are many areas where having someone with a CS degree would be helpful. and in most of those areas, what's important is breadth of knowledge (outside of CS) and specialized knowledge (specific algorithms or approaches for the particular area). I would argue that the need for computer professionals of this level far outstrips the number of highly-motivated students who will learn CS regardless of how it's taught. And that means we need to think about how we teach, and teach so students will learn what's important. Our goal as educators should not be to merely act as a filter so only those students in the top 1% of innate aptitude will get degrees.

In other words, we don't want to weed out students based solely on their ability to self-teach pointers or recursive thinking. If any weeding is to be done, students should do it based on their assessment, after learning some CS, that this is not the career for them, or it should be done for those students who are not able or willing to perform satisfactorily in CS courses (i.e., in the situation where the admissions procedure, being imperfect, did not accurately predict student success). Frankly, this latter need can be accomplished as well by courses such as calculus. The weeding that Joel is writing about is really not for innate aptitude, but rather for obsessive motivation that drives students into fields without regard to their apparent dreariness. How many gifted people are we missing from our profession simply because they saw no reason to put up with a "no compromise" CS1 class? Not because they are lazy, but because other majors, just as difficult, were actually interesting, inviting, or pleasant? I was a CS/EE undergrad, and those of my fellow students who were doing the same thing all agreed that EE was harder than CS (though CS was more work) -- so there are other fields as difficult if not more so.

Anyway, Joel may need to only hire the cream of the crop in his business, and yes, his task is now harder, as he can no longer choose based solely on school. But that old way was really no better than looking for keywords in resumes anyway.

Topics: , .