Some conversations I’ve been having over the past year led me to a deeper exploration of the issue of conferences vs. journals in Computer Science. The debate, so far, seems to be missing a few critical observations regarding scientific journals and our own ACM, and therefore it is somewhat incomplete. This essay lays out my thoughts on it.
Warning: No one except academics cares about this!
Some time ago, 2 of my PhD students were facing the prospect of going away to do their research elsewhere for a few months. In both cases, and for different reasons, it made a lot of sense for them to go. But we needed to stay in touch, and I needed to keep tabs on what they were doing. These days, with tools like Skype and Google docs, collaborating over the Internet is really easy. However, neither Skype nor Google docs are designed for supporting the specific kinds of interactions that go on between advisor and student, and within small academic units (aka “Labs”). First, we need to run them both independently. Second, and more importantly, we can’t really share a PDF or powerpoint document in the way that we do when we are working face to face going through a paper or a presentation — pointing, highlighting, using words like “here”, “this paragraph”, “this picture”, “go to next page”, etc. So I built my own virtual lab.
Recently, a number of women in Tech have come out publicly describing horribly close encounters with misogyny and outright aggression on the Internet. I’m not talking about subtle attitudes of discrimination that don’t hurt immediately but that hurt women’s careers in the long run – those are real discriminators, I’m afraid, and I’ll write about them some other time. This post is about explicit hostility and intimidation of the kind we have seen happening with Kathy Sierra, and more recently with Sarah Parmenter.
I recently watched a TED talk with a fun topic: why is ‘x’ used as the unknown variable in Algebra and beyond? If you haven’t seen it, this 4-min talk is above. The thesis is this: x is used, because the Spanish, who were the first to translate the great scientific and engineering knowledge coming from the Arab world, don’t have in their language the ‘sh’ sound that dominated the original Arabic word, ‘something‘. Hence, by convention, they used the sound ‘k’ as in the Greek letter chi (χ) (pronounced ‘kah-i’ in English); later translations of these works to Latin mapped that to the Latin letter x, because the symbols look the same. The speaker is engaging and confidant, the talk is short and sweet, it’s a great story to tell over a dinner party. Except for one detail: it’s full of historical inaccuracies.
For the past 4 years or so, in my spare time, I have been working with a small start-up company, Encitra, whose goal is to help cities and real estate developers make sustainable urban plans come to life in the minds and hearts of stakeholders and the general public. We go at it with virtual reality. Not just computer animation movies; we develop complete multi-user interactive virtual environments that are built and re-built over time by multiple people, and that simulate urban areas — both structural and dynamic aspects — as faithfully as possible. Recently, we accomplished an important milestone: we were able to simulate an area of 3km x 1.5km of the city of Uppsala, Sweden. This includes the actual terrain, the major landmarks of the city, several hundred assorted buildings, as well as traffic and pedestrians. It’s all live and accessible on the Internet, although not on the Web browser. This post explains the technology behind it. For the most part, it’s all based on open source software!
Is there still research to be done in Programming Languages? This essay touches both on the topic of programming languages and on the nature of research work. I am mostly concerned in analyzing this question in the context of Academia, i.e. within the expectations of academic programs and research funding agencies that support research work in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). This is not the only possible perspective, but it is the one I am taking here.
I am being asked to write a recommendation letter for someone who has been working with me for 3 years and who I think sucks. What should I do? Should I simply decline to do it? Or should I say what I honestly think about that person and his work? — because he deserves it!
Imagine this. You have a brilliant idea for how to reverse the effects of aging in female infertility, a wonderful combination of drugs that you have been developing in your lab with your graduate students, and that will open the possibility of motherhood to hundreds of thousands of women who waited just too long to conceive. You have done your Math, your Chemistry, you have developed the model explaining why your idea works. You have tested it in mice. You have tested it in pigs. You got 90% success. You have very little doubt that it works in humans too. If only you could test it… Now imagine that this is 1925, there are no Institutional Review Boards, no Ethics committees to go through, no clinical protocols. In order to test your ideas, you simply need to recruit women who routinely come to your medical office lamenting that they would like to have children but they are too old to conceive. You wholeheartedly believe in your cure and dream with the Nobel prize. Those women desperation is a powerful context for testing your ideas; they want it, they will gladly try anything!