Friday, 14 February 2014

A Suggestion for Scotland

This will be a big year for the United Kingdom. In September, Scotland will hold a referendum to decide whether to remain in the UK or to become an independent country. For several years, support for independence has remained steady at around 33%, but some polls have shown that support for independence may be increasing. For my American friends, I personally think that this op-ed is a good primer.

As a foreigner, I cannot vote in the referendum, and rightly so. But I would like to humbly propose a third option for Scotland, just as a suggestion. A middle ground between the risks of complete independence, and the current reality of being yoked to Westminster.

I suggest that come September, Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom and join the United States as the 51st state.

This would be welcomed all throughout the US, I guarantee it. Americans love Scotland. We really, really love Scotland, even if we can’t find it on a map. There are more people of Scottish ancestry in America than there are in Scotland. We have Scottish festivals all over the country, with kilts, bagpipes, Highland dance — the whole works, except only for haggis (which is actually illegal to import) and Irn Bru (that stuff’s minging). My point is, Americans really, really like Scotland. Maybe the EU would dither about accepting an independent Scotland, but the US would accept Scotland in a New York minute.

Polls show that Scots are concerned about their economic future. Joining the US would be great for Scotland’s economy. By joining into a single trading area with the United States, it would be easier for American tourists to come to Scotland, and for Scottish haggis to come to the US (I love that stuff). Also, you need to consider the film industry. We spent $70 million making a movie about the last time Scotland won independence. Don’t think we won’t do it again. We put a Scot into outer space. Heck, we even made up a Scottish smurf! The fact is, over the past 50 years, Hollywood has done more for Scotland than London has. Join with us, and we can do more, together.

Now, some might argue that my suggestion is impractical. After all, Scotland is a long way from the US. (Americans: you might need a map for this part.)  But with modern telecommunications, there’s no reason this should be an issue. In fact, Washington, DC, is actually 1000 miles closer to Edinburgh than it is to Honolulu.

I can understand that some Scots might be concerned about this proposal. After all, Washington DC has been pretty dysfunctional lately. Some might ask: Are these really the people you want to join your political future with? First, it’s important to point out that the US Congress makes up only 0.000017% of the population. Most Americans are more sensible. Second, and most important, this is why we need your help. It’s true that there are a lot of perfectly nice people in the US whose political views are batshit crazy. But it’s also true that the country is deeply divided. The crazy people are really only about 49.8% of the population. Even though Scotland’s population is small, in a politically polarised country, it’s enough to tip the balance. Think about it: The US State of Scotland would probably receive 9 electoral votes. The US presidential election of 2000 was decided by only 5. Just think about the good that Scotland could have done for the entire world.

Clearly, this is one of the most difficult and important political issues in Scotland’s history. Honest people of good intentions will come to different opinions. But I hope that I’ve convinced you that this third option is one that’s worthy of serious consideration.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Ubiquitous capture and the ideas file

Ubiquitous capture is a great term from Getting Things Done. Like the best ideas from GTD, it is simple, obvious in retrospect, but changes everything. Ubiquitous capture means: When you think of something, you should write it down, right away, in some place where you will check it later.

This is especially good for keeping track of ideas for new research projects. I tend to find ideas for new projects while I'm walking to work, when I'm sitting in a talk, or when I'm working intensely for a paper deadline. Hardly ever can I work on them right away, but I know that I will need them later. So, whenever I have an idea for a new project, I stop whatever I'm doing and write in down in my ideas list. If I have to stop in the street or pause a one-on-one meeting to pull out my phone, well, a benefit of being an academic is that you get to be eccentric.

I keep my ideas list in Evernote, but it doesn't matter what you use, as long as all your ideas are on one list.

Later, usually many months later, a student will ask me for suggestions for an undergraduate, master's, or PhD project. I go back to my ideas list and look. I also tag each idea "ug", "msc", or "phd", if I think it would work well for one of those degrees.

I also look back through the list periodically to pull out ones that are especially exciting. Every idea is exciting when you first have it; the ones that are still exciting a week later are the ones to keep.

Of course I use a similar system for blog ideas.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Academic ranks in the US and UK

The US and the UK both have a series of ranks for academics, but the names of the job titles are somewhat different.

American universities hire "professors" to do teaching and research. In your first job, you get the title of "assistant professor," which indicates that you are an independent scholar expected to teach undergraduate and graduate courses and lead an independent research program. After a few years, if you are doing well, you can be promoted to "associate professor." (Second prize is you're fired.) Later on, if you are sufficiently eminent, you can finally be promoted to "Professor" (informally referred to as "full professor"). Students don't usually understand academic ranks, as they have better things to do than to learn these games, and so will generically refer to the "professor" of their course. Professors are addressed with a special title before their name, for example, Prof. Smith.

British universities, on the other hand, hire "academic staff" to do teaching and research. In your first job, you get the title of "lecturer", which indicates that you are an independent scholar expected to teach undergraduate and postgraduate courses and lead an independent research programme. After a few years, if you are doing well, you can be promoted to "Reader". Later on, if you are sufficiently eminent, you can finally be promoted to "Professor". You'll have to ask someone else to explain what a "Senior Lecturer" is. Students don't usually understand academic ranks, as they have better things to do than to learn these games, and so will generically refer to the "lecturer" of their course. Academics are addressed with a special title before their name, but this varies according to rank. Lecturers and readers are formally referred to as Dr Smith. Only upon receiving the highest rank of professor are they referred to as Prof Smith.

I have to say that I have a soft spot for the British titles. The American job titles don't make much sense, as assistant professors aren't really anyone's assistants, and associate professors are not required to associate with all that many people. Especially in computer science. The British titles are better overall, except for the fact that "Reader" is a bit silly. Really, now, you ought to have read about your subject *before* you lecture in it, shouldn't you?

Of course this is all just silly plumage. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that titles are symbols. What does it symbolize in the US that lecturing is the main mode of instruction in the University, but "lecturer" is typically a title reserved for lower-status, teaching-only staff? What does it symbolize in the UK that academic staff of a higher rank go so far as to have a different form of address?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Kitten

Imagine that, by some puckish magic, overnight you gained all the strength and skill of a professional acrobat. Yesterday, you'd trip walking down the street; today, you can skip across a tightrope. All your friends are bewildered at your transformation. You're bewildered, too, most of all because you no longer know your body, how fast you can run, how much you can lift, how high you can jump.

This is what it is to be a kitten. Every day our kitten performs all kinds of preposterous stunts---leaping over the other cat in mid stride, using a wooden drying rack as a jungle gym---simply because she doesn't know that she can't.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Proposal Writing and the "Fuck Yeah" Factor

I have almost recovered from submitting a grant proposal last week. When I was revising it, I realized that there's actually an easy way to tell how good one of your proposals is.

Nobody's going to believe your sales pitch unless you do. So, when you finish reading the introduction, do you get excited? Do you feel like pumping your fist and shouting "fuck yeah!" If so, then your proposal has the "fuck yeah" factor.

It's possible to get a proposal funded without the "fuck yeah" factor, e.g., maybe the competition is weak for that particular call, or maybe for once you draw a set of sympathetic reviewers. But why risk it?

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

And can you teach me how to talk real slow?

A switch flipped in my head at the beginning of my lectures last spring. At that point I had lectured something like 5 full university courses and maybe something like 50 research seminars. I was an experienced speaker.

But I was fast.

You'llnoticethisifyouaskmeaboutsomethingresearchrelatedthatI'llstarttogetexcitedandtalkfaster. In my personal life, I'm much more laid back, but at work, I talk fast. It is what it is, I suppose, but it's not the best attribute for an effective lecturer.

And then last term something happened. I walked into class and started speaking twice as slow as I ordinarily did. I liked it. I felt that I still had the amount of energy that I should have, just... slower. I don't know what I did, so I couldn't tell you how to do it if you wanted to, but now I can turn on the slow mode whenever I want.

Actually, I just thought of a theory about what I might have been doing. In every sentence when you're speaking, there are few key words that you emphasize. When you get to those---and you should try to anticipate those words before you say them---exaggerate your emphasis and focus on slowing those words down. Then the other words in the sentence, and the length of your pauses, will follow. That might be how I learned to switch, maybe. Let me know if you try this and it works for you.

Another nice thing about speaking slower is that it gives me more time to plan my sentences. This reduces the number of times that I get halfway through the sentence, think of a better way to say the sentence, and start the whole thing over from the beginning---a bad habit of mine.

It's nice to know that you always have more to learn. This change sure messed up my lecture plans for that term---everything took longer than I expected---but overall a positive change, I think.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Future Work

It seems customary for computer science research papers to list directions for future work at the end. This custom is immensely strange. If your idea for future work is really good, the last thing you want to do is tell everyone about it. Literally the last thing: right after you've done the research and written it up! On other hand, if the idea for future work is bad, why do you want other people to see it?

My belief is that the "future work" discussions are not in fact lists of future work. In fact, it is perhaps safest if beginning students ignore these sections altogether. But they do serve a purpose, or rather, one of several:

1 Delimit the scope of current work. You have to stop somewhere, so listing an obvious idea for future work is a way of saying, "Yes, we know that this is an obvious extension, but we didn't have time for it, and its not as interesting as the stuff we did do." These are the research ideas that you want to stay far away from; if they were that interesting, the authors would have written that paper instead.

2 Stake an early claim. You've written a good, coherent paper, but there's another idea that's an obvious but still exciting follow on from what you did. It's a bad idea to put too much in one paper, so you mention the follow on to acknowledge that it's obvious, in case somebody else gets to the follow on first.

As an aside, if someone else does the follow on, don't feel bad. They'll be citing your paper prominently, which is very good both for your career, but more important intellectually: the point of you doing the work was for other people to use it. 

3 Convince readers that the work is useful. If you've built machinery (whether code or a proof technique) that you want other people to use, you might give some potential directions to encourage people to build on your work.