Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Hackmas (not really)

While most technologists were busy yesterday drinking eggnog and trying out their new gadgets, others were busy hacking Stratfor, an intelligence news organization.  All the news outlets reported it was 'Anonymous', but now people are saying it was (apparently) Sabu from LulzSec.

(Frankly, I can't blame the news outlets for the error - I can't keep up with the drama of who's who any more. It's like a soap opera, really.)

Anyway, whomever it was, they hack into Stratfor, steal a bunch of credit card numbers of people who subscribe to the company's intelligence briefings, then a) post them on the internet and b) use the credit cards to make donations to charitable organizations.

I'm not really sure what the point of this is. Any of these donations will be returned, and all the credit card numbers will be canceled. Really this will just cost the credit card companies lots of money, which will just result in the average Joe/Joann having to pay higher fees. Exactly what people need in this economy.

I wish these hackers would do something useful with their time. Solve some problems on Teach math and computer science to children. Help local governments have more up to date computer systems in order to help empower communities.

Anything, really. This is just a sad waste of tech brains.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thank you, thank you

One of the best things you can do as a student or employee is write someone a thank you note after they've done something helpful for you.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a hand written note from a student thanking me for a reference letter I wrote for them. This was immediately followed by a thoughtful note from an editor thanking me for a review.

These two things made my day.

Kudos, student and editor!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NRC Computer Science Rankings Reprise

There's an article in CACM this month by Computer Scientists Andrew Bernat and Eric Grimson, Doctoral Program Rankings for U.S. Computing Programs: The National Research Council Strikes Out. It talks about the ways in which NRC rankings are broken for CS (we have heard this before), but it details ways in which it could be fixed, which we hadn't heard before, and I like.

Two suggestions I thought were good:
  • "Explore making the rankings subdiscipline-dependent. It is clear that different departments have different strengths. Thus, enabling a finer-grained assessment would allow a department with strength in a sub-field, but perhaps not the same across-the-board strength, to gain appropriate visibility. This may be particularly valuable for students deciding where to apply."
  • "Use data mining to generate scholarly productivity data to replace commercially collected citation data that is incomplete and expensive."
The first is a nice idea; for example, you might be interested in a top ranked department, but it turns out 19/20 faculty focus on Theory and you actually want to do Systems. Or there might be some school with three top faculty exactly in your subspecialty, but you don't see them because they're 93rd in the rankings. 

The second is nice as well; I think with Google Scholar Citations data available this turns out to be a trivially easy problem to solve. 

Maybe CRA can do their own rankings; they collect a lot of their own data anyway, and it avoids needing to rely on the NRC. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

New adventures in publishing metrics

In case you haven't heard, Google Scholar Citations recently opened its doors, allowing academics to set up Google Scholar profiles, track their citations, h-index and i10-index, and see pretty graphs.

At first I thought: Yay! Especially since, for Computer Science, this was right on the heels of Cite Scholar's beta release, which is all about highlighting the fact that in CS we're all about the top tier conferences and journals don't matter much for us.

Then I thought: Boo! Now it's easier for the bean counters to count beans. Also, I sense there's this "who's searched for me" button coming, which creeps me out. This is actually why I don't ever click on pages.

After a few weeks of reflection I am still on the fence. While I can't speak for other fields, in CS number of citations doesn't necessarily mean anything about quality or impact of work. I can think of several lackluster papers that have hundreds of citations, whereas others are incredible and barely hardly any. Also, sometimes an insane number of citations simply means you forced encouraged people to cite you by releasing some software or data.

On the other hand, I find these new graphs seem to ignite my "MUST WRITE MORE" instinct, just as the darling tune my new washing machine plays encourages me to do more laundry.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Computer Science Education Week

I forgot to mention this before, but this week is Computer Science Education Week. The website has some pretty great resources for helping encourage you, your students, your kids, etc for getting started in CS, including links to Alice and Scratch (fun starter languages I've always loved), Computational Fairy Tales (which I'd never seen before but really love now!), Computer Science Unplugged (from our friends over at NCWIT), and a wealth of other things.

I really like their Which Computer Scientist Are You page, because it contains women and people of color.  You can guess who I'd pick...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Unsolicited Advice, While Pregnant or Professor

When I was pregnant, a ton of random people used to come up to me at the grocery store, movie theater, walmart - everywhere - giving me unsolicited advice. It was like I was wearing a sign. A few times it was a birth horror story of someone they knew, sometimes it was asking me if I was having twins, and once it was a waitress telling me to not drink decaf coffee because it would give my unborn child pink eye. (I wish I were joking).

All of my friends seem to have experienced this bizarre phenomenon as well, so I guess there must be some sort of Protect The Children collective group thing going on.

In any case, I find this strange phenomenon happening again as a new professor. I get unsolicited advice early and often from others. It's often pre-packaged tidbits, like, "Teaching is like a gas - it consumes all space available". Sometimes it's strange things, like the more senior assistant professor who put a hand on my arm, looks me in the eye and says, "It gets better." (like I was grieving the death of a loved one).

I know this is all well intentioned, but sometimes when I get unsolicited professorial advice I desperately want to say back, "YES. I AM HAVING TWINS.", just to see the look on their face.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

NSF Fastlane: Party like it's 1999

I know the government is a monolith.

I know the government does not have any in-house software developers anymore to write and maintain software.

I know these are Troubled Economic Times.

But, still, what's up with Fastlane? This system is a dinosaur snail. I've had simple figureless PDFs take a century to distill.

NSF, if you fund me, in addition to doing amazing research I'll stick a few of my a-ma-zing undergrads on revamping Fastlane. Actually, I'll make it a class project and stick a gazillion undergrads on it. Give us a semester, that puppy will zip.