Doctoring Philosophy

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Inhospitable conditions, uninterested students, pompous lecturers.

Future grad students? You bet!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

-- Partner in Crime

If you're working (or "working") towards a Ph.D., especially in engineering, you're most likely going to attend a conference at some point in time- ostensibly to present your research to a community of peers working in related areas, or more realistically, because the conference organizers decided to shift the venue from dreary Portland to "If I pop a Zanex and get hammered silly, this could get interesting" San Antonio. Besides the research on display; actually, despite the research on display, conferences are particulary fascinating because of the complex social heirarchy at play. Here's our initial effort at
classifying the pecking order:

1) The Entrenched Dons: These are the people who started the field twenty years back but have long since stopped doing active research, and attend to fulfill their desperate craving for attention and adulation. They are usually found sitting in the back benches during the presentations, smiling smugly when the presenter mentions a theorem or
lemma or method or heuristic named after them.

2) The Flavors of the Month: Their last paper created mass hysteria and generated a string of citations. Having decided that they are now too good to actually sitting through the talks, they are usually found in the corridors holding forth while a smattering of junior faculty and senior graduate students nod sagely at their pearls of wisdom.

3) The New Kids on the Block: The tenure track assistant professors, their spirits buoyed by recently received young faculty career awards, are usually found executing Brownian Motion as they flit from one Entrenched Don to another, occasionally stopping by to coo appreciatively at the ramblings of a Flavor of The Month.

4) The Euro-Brigade: They've just flown in from Munich/Delft/Lausanne/Catalunya. Easily identified by their hideous fashion sense (the men seem to have a seventies flower children hangover and the women, inexplicably, think it's cool to look like Goth chicks) and proclivity to greet their stunned peers from across the Atlantic with double-cheeked air kisses. They quickly retire to the hotel bar and watch soccer.

5) The Wannabees: They sold their souls after their doctorates to work in industrial research; now attend conferences to prove to people that they are still doing independent research, and are not, as is popularly believed, vestigial employees of companies that hire want to be able to tell their shareholders that nuclear powered motorbikes are in the pipeline. Appear apologetic for having 'sold out' to the 'Man'.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

There are those days of Zen when you wake up at seven in the morning, greet the kindling dawn and decide that you will get a lot done today; and then promptly settle down to read some obscure paper on topology that you will never use till someone calls you for lunch.

Except that, today, I went in to listen to a talk about control and feedback channels and Markov Decision Processes. Not that the talk was not very rigorous or thorough, mind you. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. The speaker dealt with a simple, yet general model, and then proceeded to analyze it with remarkable clarity and perception. He made the right rough-big-picture comments, the right number of “lets sweep that under the carpet” statements with regard to knotty issues involving compactness and Polishness of certain spaces and, in an effortless attempt to please the front-rowers (all profs) with his flashy erudition in theory, rolled off connections to theorems and lemmas in obscure areas of stochastic processes.

If you paid attention to the first bits of this post, you will see how clearheaded and yet devoid of motivation , I was in the morning. Naturally, I had to interrupt the speaker at Slide 3 and request a clarification. It went swimmingly. There were approving nods and smiles of great insight from the wise men in the front row, even an appreciative chuckle from the speaker. Things, as they tend to do, increased in entropy from then on.

I missed a few of the notational stuff in Slide 12 and by Slide 20 or so, I was thoroughly lost left with the tenuous hope that at some point, the speaker would reclaim all the math with one insightful comment and get me back on track for the proof again.

While I sat glassy eyed, looking at my advisor furrow his brow (he does that when he feels like he has lost track of the talk as well, but is trying hard to logically guess at what techniques might be used to prove the result), I began to wonder about the point of it all.

Everyone knows the 10% rule -- that only about 10% of the papers that one publishes has any true academic merit, a further 10% of that subset has even practical merit and a further 10% of those practically significant papers will ever see the light of the day in the form of some niggling little feature added to a little standard to speed up your internet by about 20%. That means that you can then illegally download the entire JRR Tolkien Trilogy (in four parts) in about 16.67% less time. The universal (yes I know it is meaningless) insignificance of this rests with each of us, even as we write NSF proposals claiming how another $300k over 2 years will present to the world a completely new paradigm for network performance, or electronic security or seamless connectivity. Naturally, the more vaunted the claim, the less effort the investigators make in even trying to reach their goals since any arguments defending the failure of such projects will undoubtedly be persuasive.

I imagine that there are people that save kids in Africa, rescue the economies of post-communist kleptocracies and swap kidneys across the continental North America. Don’t these seemingly brilliant men (and the few women) of science ever want to do something that significant? Or in the words of Bower’s boys, create impact?

So why, as I am sure you are asking yourself, astute reader, would anyone do this for 20 years and make a career out of it? I grappled with these weighty issues, even as the speaker was changing measures, defining measures on top of measures and cost functions on the space of such measures, and came up with nothing. Then the speaker made one of those nice intuitive statements, linking his result to something I picked up in a graduate seminar last Spring and I got back into the groove – and followed him all the way to the QED of his proof.

I had survided the talk without sliding off the chair in analysis-induced haze. Once the proof (and subsequent corollaries) made sense, to an extent, my nihilistic sentiments towards the world were over. I reminded myself smugly yet again that I do this just because it is fun. It is intelligent, competitive and aesthetically pleasing to a few. Much like Jackson Pollock, I suppose. Probably the other guys in the room thought the same about it.

So there. It is not that I like being economically unproductive. It’s just that I have the soul of an artist. I suppose I could do worse. Like moving mounds of pennies from one place to another in Kansas City, Kansas. Or better, since that seems to pay quite well.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Of Mice and Men

- by Partner In Crime

Intrigued by the National Science Foundations's recent predeliction to literally throw money at all and sundry computational biologists who ventured their way, I decided to take a class on the subject and find out what the hulabaloo was all about. Since the class was being offered by the Laboratory of Computer Science inthe Department of Computer Science at the School of Computer Science, I had hoped itwould be a bunch of computer scientists learning about the birds and the bees (someof them no doubt for the first time),but, as fate would have it, it was quite theopposite.

Prior experience had taught me to be a tad suspicious of a biologist's grasp ofmathemetatics- in this case however my fears were entirely unfounded. It turns outthat over the years, biologists have come up with a wonderfully concise and elegant theory to explain all things mathematical- it's called Hand-Waving. And it's notwithout it's nuances- a Leap of Faith, for example, cannot be confused with a Proof by Smugness, which in turn is very different from Wishing it Weren't So. Furthermore, an invocation of the theory isn't really effective unless you actuallyshake your hands vigorously in the air while using it. The next time you see a biologist convulsing wildly, you know that she (the use of the feminine pronoun hereis not only P.C., but also, in this case, more probable) isn't really gettin jiggy wid it, but is instead skilfully navigating the choppy waters of mathematical rigour. I wait, with bated breath, for the day when a biologist will excitedly proclaim "And if we wave our hands a bit, P=NP!...."

Friday, September 01, 2006

We want one too

(via the Computational Complexity blog)

Stephen Colbert unerringly calculates that since there are 4 Fields Medalists awarded, there is a 1/4 chance of him winning. Yes Stephen, we think so too. Watch the video as he proves how a rabbit is not topologically the same as a sphere since a rabbit has holes (presumably for reproductive purposes).

More video: Colbert shows that a doughnut is in fact decomposable into a sphere -- thereby bolstering his claim for the Medal.

Now we want one too.

Monday, August 28, 2006


For library fines. Was I keeping valuable research and rare books of great import from the teeming masses of researchers on campus?

No. Apparently, they think I owe them a DVD called Slacker that is presumed lost. The lack of information at the library is designed to stagger the most pessimistic of the library's members. Somebody gonna get hurt.... or I will. Financially.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Let�s Interact

I was chatting the other day with my partner in Crime in many things academic and blogstatic is, who, for simplicity of notation, we will simply call PartnerInCrime. We got to talking about the fantastic pseudo-science (and ultimately where all your taxpayer money goes to die, via the NSF) that is Human Computer Interaction.

PartnerInCrime: Incidentally have you ever been to an HCI (Human Computer Interaction) )research talk before?
PhilosophyDoctor: you mean like a "Miracles in Flash Demo"? otherwise known as "we worship the FALSE Gods in Media Labs"?
PartnerInCrime: LOL was so mind numbingly SKETCHY and everyone was incredibly impressed. all the HCI people atleast
PhilosophyDoctor: Flash'll do that to you each time, and awesome ergonomic font
PartnerInCrime: and this man is going to win a best thesis award from Cashcow Moneybags U CS, its ridiculous
PhilosophyDoctor: goes to show what Cashcow Moneybags U CS stands for. And they make an ENTIRE school for it
PhilosophyDoctor: true.. like it is not good enough to simply let them be a department. They should make an entire school around HCI now.
PhilosophyDoctor: haha
PartnerInCrime: well they are also a dept...the CS dept within the CS school where do these people get off
PhilosophyDoctor: its so... Russian doll
[much mirth]
PhilosophyDoctor: apparently, whoever funds them goes "gee whiz...graaaphics"
PartnerInCrime: anyways the aforementioned person is touring the stud CS schools for fac. positions
PartnerInCrime: I believe he is also coming to StateSchool, so if you get the opportunity go sneer at his "work"
PhilosophyDoctor: lol...that would be awesome i could send representatives in my absence. So what IS his thesis?
PartnerInCrime: All he does is place sensors in a room and then uses Statistics to find out which correlate highly with how busy the occupants are
PhilosophyDoctor [Having read the abstracts of a couple of papers]: hahaha... he has something called a Wizard of Oz approach
PartnerInCrime: I know....its "Top down" instead of "bottom up"
PhilosophyDoctor: i guess the appropriate response to him at State U would be... Judy, you ain't in Kansas no more.
PartnerInCrime: LOL.... hahahahaha.... ROTFL