Insight

I recently discovered two new flaws in the paper publication system in computer science research.

1. Reviewers are God. The reviewers play God when they determine a paper's fate. But, some reviewers are less capable than others and make mistakes. Some reviewers are biased towards one trend of solution over another, and often project their bias. Most importantly, busy academics get their review done by their graduate students, many of whom may have a substandard expertise. The bottom line is, the reviews are often completely beside the point. Good conferences have 3/4 reviewers, but often one strong negative review (a veto) is more instrumental in rejecting a paper.

The problem is that paper writers have no way to defend their work. Luckily, some people have already acknowledged the flaw and have been trying to change things. Last year, my friend Shamsi submitted a paper to CHI (the most important HCI conference) only to get her paper rejected. Luckily, CHI had a rebuttal mechanism, where the author can appeal to the committee. She did that and got her paper accepted. Other conferences do not employ that because people think that it is too much work. CHI would be a good counter-example. It is a very big ACM conference (perhaps among the top 5 most attended conferences of ACM) and yet they can do it. The statistics suggest that only a few authors actually rebut (but those who rebut have a good reason for doing so). So, the organizers of other conferences should think about it.

2. Out of sight, out of mind. Researchers collaborate, but often fail to pay tributes to the collaborators. My wife Farhana did her undergraduate thesis on admission controller of MPLS networks in Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Today she found out that her adviser published a paper on her work, a paper that she helped writing before coming to the US, but "forgot" to include her name in the author list.

Foul plays like this happen in academia all the time. There is no place where a victim can petition and claim due credits. Perhaps  you would not want to include your name in a paper with other authors who chose not to mention your name in the first place. But in a competitive academic environment, where publication count is vital, you soon get past the disdain and want your fair share.

Note. For other flaws in the paper publication system, read
Parnas, D. L. 2007. Stop the numbers game. Commun. ACM 50, 11 (Nov. 2007), 19-21. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1297797.1297815

Critical Judgment

The first thing you learn in a Ph.D. program is to look into everything critically. Today, I came across a quote on critical judgment that indicates how one might start looking at things critically.

We had a sudden feeling of permission: we felt it was OK to look critically at the world, to ask serious questions ... what to do with our lives.   
          [Slightly modified for the dramatic effect]


Note. The quote is made by John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

Note2. John was reflecting about the impact of an Albert Hoffman and his invention over his life and the lives of others in the 60s.

Note3. Albert Hoffman died on April 29, 2008 at the age of 102.

Note4. He accidentally invented LSD-25 (Lysergic Acid DiEthylAmide) in 1938.

Note5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7374846.stm

Inversion of Control

Blogs are rubbish. They iconify the first sign of degeneration of society. Here are two reasons,

a) Tainted information. Blogs are personal points of view. But who wants to know about my view? And who can trust that my views are sane?

People, with their blogs, have a medium to disseminate all sorts of garbage.  Have the readers ever thought why they are reading a view of a person, whom they never knew before and know even little now (see second reason)? This phenomenon is best described by George in the Seinfeld TV series. To a question as to why do people see all the crappy shows on TV, his answer is witty and sharp (very unlike George), "Because it's on TV". Are people reading all the garbage just because they are there on the Internet?   

Seriously, how frequently can an above average human being think about something interesting and innovative? Say one innovative thought a month. Then all the blogs produced in between are roughly bogus, they are just to keep the blogger visible.

This democratization of information is sickening because it is undermining scholarly activity. Stephen Colbert coined a term 'Wikiality', the reality created by editors of Wikipedia. At any point of time, a Wikipedia article may be garbage, full of bias of the jerk who edited it.

b) Fake portrayal. The second consequence of the democratization of information is more serious. Blogs enable people to paint their own reality. People cannot but fake in their blogs because the information is public and the bloggers reputation is at stake. If everything written in the blogs were real, we would have seen a horde of good guys around us, because all of us paint ourselves as sensitive, compassionate, godly human beings. In reality, aren't we all just hypocrites?

Finally, here's my point. Blogs could be and should be used differently. The social forum brings new opportunities of innovation, but not through over-productive/self-advertising impulses of human beings exemplified by their blogs. Blogs should be like discussion pools, where people can join an ongoing debate (hence the inversion of control). Conversational approach has always been preferred over a monotonous monologue as a more effective way of creating knowledge. Why are we suddenly denying this?

Note. A new paradigm of social engineering based on conversational approach ?? May be.

Note2. Let me give an example. Suppose there is a debating forum where people are talking about crisis in the US economy. People can bring in their comments/viewpoints. The centralized discussion forum will have more eyeballs, satisfying the ego of the commentators. But people will also have to revise their comments, because they can make a fool of themselves.  This does not contradict democratization of information, it only cleans the garbage. On the other hand, it will be easier for readers to get concrete information because the information in the forum is debated and tested. Finally, the information should be presented like a wiki, but not like Wikipedia, which hides history. Because every viewpoint is equally important, each should be represented as is.

Glimpse of Hope

Bangladesh is a poor country that comes into limelight for all the wrong reasons. But today, at the ACM ICPC world finals, the team from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology ranked 31st. Another Bangladeshi team from East West University got honorable mention.

http://icpc.baylor.edu/icpc/Finals/v2/default.asp?page=results

Bangladeshi team did better than all the teams from the subcontinent, which include teams from India (different IITs) and Pakistan. Also it ranked the same with CMU and Caltech and did better than many heavyweight US universities (including UIUC, Cornell, GATech, UT Austin, UW Madison and Brown).

The team was facing difficulties not long ago to raise money to come to Canada for the competition. In the end, the problem got resolved. Like I said, we come in the news for all the wrong reasons. But as long as we continue producing these brilliant souls, we will hope to overcome our difficulties.

Note. 6,700 teams from 1,821 universities in 83 countries took part in the preliminary round. 100 teams advanced to the World Finals.

And the oscar goes to ...

For the best movie awards in Oscar, the producer and the director share the prize. The camera crew have their separate categories.

UIUC technology entrepreneur center (TEC) organized a video contest as part of their celebration of the first annual innovation week (Feb 19-29, 2008).
http://www.tec.uiuc.edu/iweek/tournament.php

Nick won an award for the following video.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moBRQ2E5QE0

I was the cameraman in the last sequence. It feels good to be part of an award.

Failure of the simplicity argument

As young Ralphians, we always advocate the simplicity argument to remove all chaos. Like the other day, when we were taking this picture, Ralph made a simple resolution, "All the tall people in the back". Little did he know, that he will find himself alone in the back, while we were involved in a complex struggle to find space in the front row.



Note. The UIUC CS department got a big grant in parallel computing. Now they are creating a web page strutting their stuff, and they need pictures of all the faculties related with parallel computing along with their students. Last friday was the picture taking day. But the weather played a trick on thursday canceling the photo op. We all were dressed up, and decided not to miss it by any means.

Note2. Here is a table.

Category            Specimen             Average Height         Verdict
======           ======             ==========        =====
Vietnamese           Binh                         5' 4"              Above Average
   Male   
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
US White Male        Jeff                          5' 10.6"         Below Average 
(Born btw
 1980-83)
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
US White Male     Maurice                     5' 10.1"         Below Average
(Age 20~39)
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Indian Male         Munawar                     5' 5"            Above Average
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Malaysian          Nicholas                     5' 6"             Above Average
    Male
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
US Male               Ralph                        5' 9.2"           Above Average    
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 
Note3. Photo courtesy Farhana and Maurice.

Note4. A fascinating study I came across.
J. Komlos and B. Lauderdale. "Underperformance in Affluence: the Remarkable relative decline in American Heights in the second half of the 20th-Century". Discussion paper 2006-33. November, 2006

 

I want to be free

News Flash.

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German holidaymakers will be able to indulge their love of naturism by taking to the skies nude on special flights being launched this year, a travel company said today.

"In the former East Germany, naturist holidays were a much-loved way of spending the best weeks of the year," said the founder of OssiUrlaub.de, Enrico Hess. "We want to make that freedom possible above the clouds too."

The flights are aimed specifically at former East Germans, nicknamed "Ossis" in German, who feel nostalgic for the naturism that was authorized and extremely popular under communist rule.

The first nude flights will be a day-trip on July 5 between Erfurt in southeast Germany and the Baltic Sea island of Usedom, which is fringed by white sand beaches. Tickets cost E499 ($A838) and there are just 50 seats on board the jet.

"All the passengers will fly naked, but they are only allowed to undress once they are in the plane. But then they will be able to enjoy the hour-long flight in the way God intended," Hess said.

The pilot and the flight attendants will however keep their clothes on.

================================================================================================

Note. Link
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/01/29/1201369085633.html

Selim Al Din

I live in a cultural neighborhood. One of the father figures of the group theater federation in bangladesh lives a block away from my house. The most prolific actor of Bangla film (both Bangladesh and West Bengal) is our next door neighbor. Also living within a block are two of the most famous actresses of Bangla theater. I am used to seeing famous actors and actresses of TV, film and theater in the neighborhood all the time.

When I was 10, Dhaka theater (the most famous theater group in Bangladesh) started having rehearsal in the neighborhood. It was a very exciting time for us; we could see a lot of stellar figures from the TV. All of us became autograph hunters. On one day, while we were busy in collecting autographs, one actress pointed us to a rather non-actor like fellow and asked as to take his autograph. At that young age, we were very frank; we were not taught the art of polite rejection. I replied to the actress, "Why should I take his autograph? I have never seen him on TV." That person was Selim Al Din.



Note. Selim Al Din died on Monday in Dhaka. He was the best Bangla playwright of this time. His famous plays are Muntasir Fantasy (Bangla; English translation: The fantasy of Muntasi) (1976), Kirtonkhola (Bangla; English translation: The incidents at Kirtonkhola) (1980), Keramat Mangal (Bangla; English translation: The life of Keramat Mangal) (1984), Chaka (Bangla; English translation: Wheel) (1990), Joiboti Konnar Mon (Bangla; English translation: The inner secrets of a young lady) (1991) etc.

X-Wing Starfighters

Let us brainstorm the requirements of a high risk car racing game (like Need for Speed).

  • First of all the road should be very narrow. It would have two lanes but vehicles from opposite direction use the same road. In fact, when there are two cars on the road side by side, both of them will have a portion that is outside the concrete built road.
  • Vehicles are running at high speed.
  • Make sure that there are many slow moving vehicles on the road. These slow moving vehicles are human driven (e.g. cycles) and are small compared to the cars on the road. Sometimes when two cars are crossing each other on the road, there is also an additional small vehicle on one side, making the narrow road very congested.
  • The vehicles run at night. The highway has no light; the only illumination comes from the cars. The small vehicles may not have any light. For more difficulty, add thick fog.
  • The vehicles that are running in one direction overtake. Since there is no high speed lane, they use the lane for the vehicles coming from the opposite direction. At that moment another vehicle might come from the opposite direction; then the two cars in the overtaking scenario will have to adjust quickly and come back to their lane. The road has a lot of bends and the traffic rate is very high. Still, a driver has to overtake.
It would be very difficult to complete a task in such a path without a collision. Now, imagine that it is not a game; it is a description of a real highway (in fact most of the highways) in Bangladesh. It is unimaginable how the drivers manage to drive through the course without any accidents. These drivers are no less skilled than a champion X-Wing starfighter.

Note. Maurice once told me that he will never forget a bus ride he took in India. It was unreal according to him. Although I am a native, I probably have lived in the US long enough to have the same feeling.

Note2. X-wings are fictional starfighters from the original Star Wars trilogy.