Saturday, June 30, 2007

Mothers by Convention

The Economist's article on Europe's population, June 16th 2007, has a table (page 30) labeled “Family variety”. The subtitle is “% of mothers who have completed their families by number of children”, and the table is as follows:


Friday, June 29, 2007

A New Fixation

Wherein our correspondent chronicles his very first experience with a fixed-gear bicycle, for the benefit of others who may follow this enlightening route.

There are no new puns left to make about fixies. None.

So I was riding around the criterium course at last weekend's Cox Cycling Classic in Providence, wondering why I wasn't racing, when a nitwit decided to pull over from the middle of the road all the way to the kerb—right in front of me, without looking over his shoulder—to greet his friends. Naturally I went down, hard. Because of the way the universe works, not only did he not crash, he didn't even notice what he'd done. It was left to his friends to come over to help. No road-rash, but it did remind me of why I don't race.

Friends are admittedly important—perhaps the most important thing in the world. But more important even than my front derailleur? Not only is it busted, but so (I shudder to even think about the cost this will involve) possibly is the front derailleur hanger, which in turn is part of the rear assembly of the bike: everything's just more complicated on a Bike Friday.

Anyway, since I'm feeling in particularly good riding form right now, I was fairly upset after dropping off the bike at my LBS, the Hub. As I was leaving the store, though, I realized I was...surrounded by bikes! So I asked Jesse whether he'd rent me one. Knowing I've been eyeing fixies for a while, he loaned me a brand new KBS. It was so pristine I was afraid to take it (how many falls does it take to learn to ride a fixie?), but with a twinkle in his eye he said, “Consider it a test ride”. Dangerous words.

Getting started was a bit terrifying, and my first day I doubt I exceeded 6-8mph. I was getting passed with abandon by people wearing cotton t-shirts riding flat-bar hybrids with zany pedalling styles—nothing against any of that, bless their souls, but it did make me, in lycra and gear, feel rather ridiculous. The second day I was well over 10mph. And I've learned a bit about the fixie experience.

My main concern was about needing to stay conscious of always pedaling (this is a fixed-gear, not just a single-speed). It turns out I needn't have worried. The momentum of the rear wheel is such that there is no real danger of stopping cold because you forgot to pedal. I went into turns and other configurations where I normally wouldn't be pedaling, and the momentum gave my leg the little kick it needed to remember to stay in motion; indeed, it would have taken effort to not stay moving.

The truly hard thing, I've learned, is stopping. There's a funny motion to it. Say your left foot is at 12 o'clock. You need to use your right foot to initiate braking. So as your right foot moves up to 12 o'clock, you keep adding resistance. So far so good.

Suppose, however, you don't come to a stop. Now your right foot goes over the which point gravity pulls it down, and you have to make a conscious effort to (disregarding all your hard-earned, pedal-in-circles muscle-memory) push down on your left foot...but only until it peaks at 12 o'clock, and so on. As a result of not stopping by the time the countervailing foot had reached 12 o'clock, I would end up going through another pedal circulation, and another, and another.

I realized that I just needed to push down harder, but then I began to feel a rather strange sensation. Never having experienced it before I began to ease off, which of course led me back to the almost-but-never-quite-stopping cycle. A few minutes later I finally figured it out. That sensation was a muscle that I had never exercised, indeed even experienced, before, being called into duty. Marveling at the human body and letting the muscle do its job did the trick: I am now stopping (from low velocities of about 10-12mph) very nearly on command. (Though just as I came to believe this a squirrel ran half-way across my lane and planted itself there, losing me a few hundred heart-beats that I will never recover.)

So, yes, I'm hooked. It's an absolutely wonderful experience, and I can see it doing wonders for my cycling. A single-speed would simply not be the same; after all, I grew up riding nothing but (very few bicycles in India had gears; those that did were deemed “racing” models—usually synonymous with drop-bars—and my folks weren't about to get me one of those). I've parked the KHS for now because it doesn't have a front brake, and my interest is in improving my pedal-stroke, not in acquiring additional bones. Also, it's an ultra-cool, retro-design, all-black hipster model, and I am definitely not worthy of it. I'd proclaim that a fixie is definitely in my future, except I'm afraid the cost of one may be sunk into Bike Friday repairs this summer, pushing the fixie into the more distant future.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Giant Sucking Sound of Hot Air

Populists are romanticized at a distance, startling from nearby, and dangerous when contemporaries.

US Senators Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are working on a bill to overhaul the H1-B visa status to “give priority to American workers”. Now I admit I'm a biased party here, seeing as I'm a foreigner stealing a job from the hundreds of Americans who apply to the Brown computer science department for faculty positions every year.

Having stipulated to my bias, let's go on. Durbin says, “Some companies are so brazen, they say ‘no Americans need apply’ in their job advertisements”. I was rather surprised to read this; surely this is a direct violation of the law! Intrigued by who was posting such ads I scoured the Internet for a while, but these rascally companies have made sure Google cannot find them (a curious way to advertise, for sure, but maybe these ads are only visible outside the US—oh, those wily foreigners!). What I find is article upon article talking about the phenomenon, instead of the phenomenon itself.

Durbin is not done. His ire rising, he lambasts these people who would reduce the American programmer to a hewer of wood and drawer of water:

foreign workers come to this country for a few years of training, then return home “to populate businesses competing with the United States.”

Free clue for the dummy: that's because many of them are forced back home by your own policies. This man is making national policy? I hope some of his constituents are reading this.

Fairness and Balance: The Programmer's Guild offers a counterpoint to my views.

Aside: The banner image on their site as of this writing contains the obligatory code Lisp. Okay, so maybe they're not such a bad lot after all.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

How Not to Conduct a Survey

The New York Times asks me this morning,

Sorry for the interuption.
Hello! You have been chosen to participate in an important survey from Dynamic Logic, a respected 3rd party research company. This is for RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY. We are not selling anything. Your answers are grouped anonymously.

I answer affirmatively. I get:

Thank you for your interest. You cannot take this survey because you do not enable cookies.

Curiously, I don't block cookies from that site. But it does make you wonder why they couldn't have designed the survey software to not need a cookie in the first place. Perhaps this was just their way of saying “Our site doesn't work with Firefox”? (If so, hurrah for Firefox.)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Word Equivalences

Here's a strange word equivalence proposal. I typed “scutwork” into my browser's search box, and Google responded with:

Did you mean: diynetwork

Friday, June 08, 2007

Mismanaged, Again

Another day, another conference paper manager. For another conference we're using something called OpenConf. It's going to be another long one.

First, when I log in to view my list of assigned papers, I get a category called “Papers to Advocate”. The output below this is:

We have encountered a problem: Unable to retrieve papers for advocating

SELECT paperadvocate.paperid, paperadvocate.adv_recommendation, paperreviewer.reviewerid, format, title, avg(recommendation) as paperavg FROM paperadvocate, paper left join paperreviewer on paperadvocate.paperid=paperreviewer.paperid WHERE paperadvocate.advocateid='2' AND paperadvocate.paperid=paper.paperid GROUP BY paperid

Can someone really have failed to test this on the empty input? Startling as that seems, it appears possible, even likely.

After an exchange with the program chairs, I went to view the list of all papers to bid on a few. The papers are listed by title, with no additional information, but that's a perfectly good start. You would expect clicking on a title would give you the title and abstract, and by control-clicking you could open it in a new tab for reading in leisure. Instead, this silly program has no notion of such things; the only other datum it has is the entire paper itself, which slowly loads in a PDF viewer (and consequently makes it difficult to switch between different papers in different tabs).

So my very first two encounters with this system have been painful. Do program chairs not test these things before selecting them? Or do they not realize how bad these interfaces are? Or do they not care?

Addendum: It turns out the conference manager can't show you the other reviews for a paper, either. Not that it has a setting for showing or hiding the other reviews and the PC chairs have turned it off; no, it simply can't show this information at all. No comment necessary.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Modest Proposal: Paying to Play at Conferences

I am on a program committee that is struggling with an explosion of submissions. There are way more than we expected (or, perhaps, can reasonably handle), and what really blows is that we apparently don't have the money to pay for quality conference paper management services.

In general, conferences have all sorts of problems with paper submissions. Every good conference is familiar with receiving a certain volume—sometimes a disturbingly high volume—of papers that are either too weak or too far off topic. These authors could easily save the program committee members (and themselves) a great deal of effort by just perusing past volumes, which would rapidly help them realize their work does not fit; but there is currently no disincentive in submitting (even the same paper to multiple venues). It's a sorry story all round.

I therefore have a fairly obvious modest proposal: charge each paper a submission fee of USD 10.

Here are various considerations:

Apparent disadvantage: It hurts those who can't afford that sum. However, this amount is absolutely nothing in the face of the other conference costs. Even if you lived around the corner from the venue, and the conference had a one-day registration fee, the cheapest you could do would be a minimum of about USD 250, making the submission fee a 4% overhead. But compared to the more realistic cost of a conference, it adds an overhead of about 0.66%, i.e., nothing.

Advantage: Conferences can use this money to pay for professional services for the submission, review and response phases. (The cynic will say, “But they won't!” But they'll have a harder time justifying why not.)

Advantage: Processing the submissions costs the program committee and administrative staff time and effort, so it seems reasonable to ask the authors to pay for it. (This is no different from college applications, etc.) Right now, they pay only if they get the (presumed) glory of an acceptance; but there is no (direct) cost in trying without success.

Advantage: It reduces the number of irrelevant, off-topic submissions.

Advantage: Some authors create havoc by submitting the same paper multiple times, etc. They'd be a bit more careful if they had to enter a credit card number each time.

Observation: This system appears to not have perverse disincentives. If, for instance, your friendly neighborhood oracle told you you have a 100% chance of acceptance, you undertake no risk at all in paying to submit. Thus, it hurts the best papers the least.

Mitigation of Disadvantages: You could waive the submission cost to select authors to encourage them to apply, just as we do application costs for other activities. Of course, choosing whose costs to waive can get controversial, and even counter-productive. One elegant solution would be to waive it for people whose papers were previously chosen for award nominations and the like, because these are precisely the people whom you want to have submit again (and they're a small enough group that they don't cost you much).

Concern: It may be more difficult to implement this using, say, credit-cards from some parts of the developing world. There are some alternatives we could consider in these cases.

I expect the first response most people will email me will be, “But then we won't have any submissions left!” Anyone so inclined is hereby expected to also explain why that's a problem. (-:

Software Engineers Who Don't Value Software

Software engineering researchers can be bozos.

Software engineers love to sit around tables and complain about how nobody values their work. It's true, too: people will happily pay for physically tangible resources but always expect software to be cheap or free, even if it's much more complex and difficult to engineer than the physical object. So you would think that a software engineering conference, of all things, would appreciate the value of software and be willing to spend a little money to save a lot of time and effort down the road.

As you can guess by the very existence of this entry, you would be spitting-in-your-soup wrong. They've saved themselves a pocketful of change by using the free version of CyberChair (not a great conference manager even in its commercial version, but that's a story for another day), but in the process they've bought the program committee a right-royal headache.

Let's take the bidding interface. I would love to show you some screen-shots, but I can't do it without violating the confidentiality of the authors (or my own bids). This makes me sad, because words cannot do justice to how bad this program is. (I tried to include a redacted version of the HTML here, but Blogger will not accept a frameset tag, more's the pity. But in the process of generating this I had a look at the page source. Not only do many of the tags not nest, there are even closing tags with no corresponding opening tag. Wonderful Perl code, circa 1997.)

The idea is that you bid on all the submitted papers to indicate whether or not you'd like to review them. The bidding interface consists of two frames (yes, frames, in 2007). The left frame is some indifferent text, while the right frame is a long vertical list of all the papers, consisting of a paper number and a drop-down where you select your preference. That's right, paper number: like you know or care.

In the left frame you can select the list of all paper titles, with or without abstracts. So now you have two lists of 419 entries two different frames. Guess who is responsible for keeping them in synch while scrolling through each one independently?

Let's say you've made a dozen bids. You'd hate to lose them because you accidentally killed your browser or something like that. But is there a way of saving bids? No, not unless you scroll down another 407 entries to find a save button (which is cleverly disguised under the name Update Bids, which has exactly the wrong meaning). And if you do save, you'll have to scroll your way all the way back up. (I later found that there's another copy of this button at the very top, which still leaves open a Texas-sized wasteland for the middle 395 papers.)

By the way, be sure to click on the correct button. For reasons that beggar comprehension, the system also offers a Reset button which, presumably, restores the defaults—not, I think, because there is any good reason for it (there absolutely is not), but solely because HTML offers a way of doing this. This is brain-dead user-interface design. And it's about to get worse.

For each paper you can enter a bid, which is an indication of how much you'd like to review it. There's a special category for papers with which you have a conflict-of-interest (a standard term-of-art in this area). Concretely, the bidding categories are that you'd love to review it (A), that you're willing to do so (B), that you'd rather not do so (C), or that you're conflicted with the paper (D). Now which letter would you think goes with Conflict?

As you're looking down the list of all papers (left frame), you might notice that there are two little columns labeled A and C. These are the counts of how many people have already bid A or C on that paper. Let me explain why this is about the stupidest information to provide. You want people to bid bidding independently of each other; you don't want someone to look at a paper and think, “Hmm, I could go either way on this; oh look, we've had ten people bid C and nobody bid A, which suggests nobody really wants to read this paper...I'd be crazy to get stuck with it, so I'll go with C”. I can't imagine a system better designed to make life maximally hard for a program chair.

Anyway, after well over two hours of this last night, I submitted my bids (my hand poised shakily over Update Bids, fearful of what would happen when I clicked). I then sent mail to Kathi, who is also on the committee, warning her to look for any other interface than the list-of-all-papers I'd just been through.

Happily, there is another interface: you can select just an area at a time and view all the papers in that area. Kathi happily marched off to use that, little knowing her life would be worse than mine.

First, the list of papers in an area only changes your view in the left frame. The right frame is still the list of all papers. So if you pick an area and its papers are paper numbers 11, 17, 89, 103, and so forth, guess how you enter your bids for those papers?

Second, you can't choose a single bid for all the papers in an area. That means it's not enough that you don't want to read a single paper on the Semantic Web; you have to find every paper in the category and manually decline (C) each of them. (Hmm; perhaps an Ontology would be able to help with that.)

Third, curiously, the list of papers does not include the A and C columns. In other words, they didn't reuse code! The good software engineering practices just keep on coming.

Finally, many papers fall under multiple categories. But if you bid on paper 11 under one category, it still shows up in sorted numeric order in all its other categories, without even indicating that you've already bid on it. (In other words, you would definitely see far more than 419 papers by the time you're done.)

This is bloody-minded software development in the extreme, a process of mindless, thoughtless, soulless application of algorithm to data structure. It is difficult to imagine that a living, breathing combination of human sinew, blood and fiber could have created an interface so awful.

The real moral, though, lest we lose sight of it, is the waste of it all. There are 34 regular program committee members, 16 people on the “Expert-Review Panel” (including Kathi and me), and two program chairs. Suppose each of us wastes just two hours of our time because of bad software design (seeing as I believe I've alredy wasted one hour, the odds of this are fairly high). Some of these people are fancy consultants, so on average say our time is worth USD 100/hour. That's a collective USD 10,400 just in terms of wasted billable time (never mind the frustration, the lost goodwill, etc). That's far more than the cost of a better conference management package. What does that tell you about what the committee thinks of our time? I can't wait to meet one of these people and hear them complain at the conference about the popular unwillingness to pay for quality software.

Maybe I should send them a bill. Maybe we should all send them bills, so they would come to their senses.

Gourmet Dinners? Oh, Fiddlesticks!

The routinely ridiculous New York Times has an article today, Dinner at the Foodies': Purslane and Anxiety, about performance anxiety that hosts feel when inviting guests over to dinner. It has the predictable New Yorkers making the predictable dash about the island (and beyond!) to keep from falling behind in the wars of culinary one-upmanship. It contains the following precious line from a history professor:

There is a specific cachet that only a fiddlehead fern can convey.

It is therefore with the greatest glee that I report that last night, we had a foodie friend over for dinner and the casual meal we tossed together at the last minute consisted primarily of...fiddlehead.

I feel so superior right now.