Posts Tagged ‘Ideas’

Auctioning Algorithms : for those who design algorithms!

In Education, Research and Development on April 20, 2017 at 4:56 PM

The Algorithm Auction was the world’s first auction of algorithms in 2015. This auction was meant, like most other auctions, to celebrate something. In this case, it was the algorithms (in the form of code) that can be considered artsy. Organized by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and Artsy, the auction brought together vintage items like hand written and signed code of the original Hello World C program by Brian Kernighan, a very compact Perl code (6 lines and named qrpff) that could decrypt content on a DRM protected video disc etc. The qrpff code fetched 2500 US$.

I had only heard about auctions of cellular spectrum, houses, historical artifacts and vintage collection items. The auction of algorithms was the idea of a company by the name Ruse Laboratories which it seems has ceased to exist. I could not find any good reference or website. Nevertheless, I think that this was a wonderful idea. Looking for art in science and technology is very interesting. I had organized a thematic issue around this subject in the Nov-Dec. 2016 issue of IEEE Potentials.  This auction goes to prove that a curious mind can come up with really novel ideas and open up doors for others. My friends who design algorithms have something more to cheer about!

Email Etiquette- So much for it!

In Education on June 6, 2016 at 11:32 PM

One can find hundreds of posts, articles etc. on email etiquette, especially for those looking for jobs. How to address a person, what to write in the body of the email, how to close an email etc. A lot of this advice assumes that  those who need it are individuals looking for  grant, scholarship, admission or jobs.

The problem with all this advice is that it is very one-sided. Very few posts would mention email communication from the other side: a professor, a hiring manager, a fund administrator etc. Many of these posts perhaps assume that these people do not need to be aware of any etiquette or that they can get away with anything since there are in a position of authority to accept or reject. They assume that most people need help because they are “seeking something”. So seekers need to be advised while those who, let’s just say “disburse” need no advice! This is really one-sided thinking and half-thought approach to understanding email etiquette.

Those who “disburse” are also equally in need. However, very little focus is given to this subject, perhaps because the thought is clouded by the idea of authority. One example of this is the countless email I keep receiving from a few companies asking me to help them find a recruit by telling my friends! On  the other hand, if you have ever tried communicating with the HR department of such companies as a prospective candidate, you would know that it is not all good on that side as well! Of course, I have the freedom to opt out of receiving such emails but that does not take away the hilarity and the irony evident in such hiring practices!

I do receive a lot of emails from students wanting to intern in my research group and often I find that they have done no research on my background or interests. I mostly do not reply to such emails because they show a lack of sincerity. Sometimes, I do reply advising the candidate on how to approach someone. A company, on the other hand, can be regarded as mostly faceless. So, I do not reply to them even when I know someone in that company. It is unfortunate that the dictum “easy to preach and hard to practice” is so common.

Many people and organizations do not seem to understand that communication is a two-way thing, that engagement with clients, prospective employees etc. requires effort and well thought mails, flyers, emails etc. Acting like a king who announces his desire and expects the peasantry to oblige passively is marvelously not a good management practice.

Bias in Peer Review of Research

In Education, Intellectual Property, Research and Development on June 30, 2015 at 6:38 PM

Reviewing research papers for conferences and journals is a part of my job. When I review journal papers, I get to see the comments of other reviewers when the review is complete and comments are sent out to the authors. In the last few months, I have seen review comments which were obviously influenced by the author’s affiliations and past work. I am not saying that the author had any role to play in it because I know it is not possible in those journals. To me, those reviewers sounded as if  they were fans of the authors. Sometimes they adopted a condescending  approach but their comments never reflected the depth of academic rigor. They were more like “Yeah, I know it is a difficult problem. But you guys are well known. So, let me just say yes to your work without concerning myself too much with all that you have stated”. Mind you that mostly it is the decision of the majority that actually counts in a review process. So, if you are reviewer who reviews papers based only on its content, quality, novelty and such other parameters, without caring for author affiliations etc., you might be surprised with such biased reviews. This is one way in which an undeserving paper  gets published successfully. I think that is one reason why most conferences (at least in my field) insist on a blind-review process. The author names and affiliations are not available to reviewers during the review process. This is an example where peer review fails. There are a number of studies and commentaries on the strengths and the weaknesses of peer review which I won’t go into in this post. You can read some sample examples here and here.

The kind of bias that I just mentioned is akin to the culture of fan following in entertainment industry or in sports. You are a fan of someone, you will always support him/her. I have not yet figured out why journals have not adopted a blind review process. I guess if they do, they can reduce the effect of such biased reviews. I am interested in knowing about the review process in your fields and your experiences as a writer, reviewer editor etc. Please feel free to comment.

Presentation as a Sales Pitch?

In Education, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on March 25, 2015 at 5:19 PM

It is not uncommon to hear these days: “make your presentation to sell your ideas”, “a presentation is a sales pitch” etc. What was earlier confined mostly to marketing and sales departments is now making its way to other places as well, including academia. Imagine going to attend a talk titled “Truth and Lies About XX” and after spending some time there one realizes that the presentation has no relation to the title at all! The catchy title was just meant to attract people but it lacked substance. Over the past few years, I have come across quite a number of such presentations where the title and the content are very unrelated. The sad part is that most of these presenters walk away with impunity without any member of the audience ever making a remark with respect to the gap between the title and the content. I find this practice not only misleading but also unethical. Most of the time, people come to attend a presentation with a certain notion of it based on its synopsis, speaker’s bio-data  and the title. The title plays a very crucial role in creating excitement. However, I don’t think that it should go so far as to end up unrelated to the content.

I agree with the view that one needs to polish and shape one’s presentation to help the audience follow it; that one needs to choose words and phrases carefully to highlight the main points, one’s contributions etc. However, I don’t agree with a blatant disregard for the audience’s intellect that becomes visible when such titles are chosen. The presenters may say that it was unintentional and that they were only concerned with making it more fancy. However, the fact  that it was unintentional itself says that the presenters did not think deep enough about their target audience.

When people , who are not sales professionals, like engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers etc. try to become like them, they often forget that there are both good and bad salesmen. That is why they teach sales and marketing in business schools. If it were just a matter of catchy title and pompous claims, business schools would not need to teach the subject. In their effort to sell their ideas, the presenters also forget that the audience has its own mind. In most cases, it won’t simply buy whatever is presented to it no matter how charismatic or fancy the salesman is. Of course, if a presenter knows that a certain audience has a bias, he can use all the tricks to impress the people. In general, I don’t think it is a good idea to keep emphasizing the “sales pitch” version of non-sales related presentations. Instead, what should be emphasized more is to connect truthfully with the audience.

When Economic Forces Influence Universities

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on January 31, 2015 at 9:28 PM

That universities are being increasingly subjected to economic forces is no longer a surprising news. Many articles have been written about the utility of research done at universities, transforming them into products, restricting funding to research in areas of less economic importance etc. I won’t discuss these in this post as this subject is vast. However, I will highlight one important development that I learned about only recently. I was talking to a professor and we discussed faculty appointments, research areas at his university etc. It came to me as a surprise that most students in his department were opting for courses that led to jobs in companies in a few prominent industries in the region. As a result, the university and the department were increasingly more interested in hiring faculty who had experience in those subjects. This was not always the case with those students. Five to ten years ago, the student population was not skewed this way. As a result, the department had faculty in almost all areas of study/research. Now that the student population had become so skewed, a number of faculty members have very reduced teaching load. In effect, these faculty members are now becoming “surplus faculty”. Needless to say that their areas of research and scholarship are only remotely related or unrelated to areas in which students are getting placed. Consequently, there is little hiring of faculty members in these areas and it may also have an impact on the number of faculty members who get tenure. Is this good for education and research? What should a university do in such a case? I would say that such an effect of economic forces is not good for education and research. However, in a world that increasingly wants to relate every human activity to some sort of economic force, it can be difficult to make a convincing case for hiring/retaining scholars in those disciplines. As far as what a university should do is concerned, it is not an easy question to answer. It requires administration with vision, foresight and strength to deal with such a scenario. Whatever be the case, it seems that the concept of a university is undergoing evolution and there is a need to choose a path that is least damaging to all/most stakeholders.

Chasing Numbers

In Education, Engineering Principles, Mathematics, Research and Development on September 28, 2014 at 8:35 PM

In his book The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and MisruleNicholas Eberstadt says, “Although he may not always recognize his bondage, modern man lives under a tyranny of numbers.” Other writers have also commented on how and why numbers alone cannot make us happy and how numbers can be both enlightening as well as confusing if not presented with the right kind of background information. This is very true with research literature, specially those pertaining to engineering and science disciplines where measurement plays a very important role in conveying one’s ideas to convince someone of their importance. I see this everyday when I read research papers. Sometimes I even see numbers and graphs which seemingly do not have any major relation to the central idea of the paper. Such numbers, graphs and tables are byproducts of primary measurement but are probably included with the hope that more numbers, graphs etc. make the papers not only look good but also appear convincing. Given the very short amount of time that most reviewers spend on a paper, it is only sometimes that one finds reviewers commenting on the unnecessary usage of such secondary artifacts. However, a cursory glance does make the paper look good and does give the impression that the authors have spent time analyzing their results (though this may not be the case).

When I see such papers I am reminded of Eberstadt’s statement. It makes me wonder if engineering and science people read papers and books from the field of social science or history or say English literature. Research is conducted even in these disciplines and data is also collected and analysed where needed. However, the force of the argument generally comes from rigorous analysis and reasoning. It is not always driven by the logic that since this paper achieves number X compared to number Y (where say Y is less than X), the proposed methodology is better than the one related to number Y. I have read Diffusion of Innovation by Everett M. Rogers and I have found it to be immensely enlightening. It not only uses numbers but also the force of reasoning. This is so strong that you begin to see what the author is trying to say. I wonder how, say a computer engineering scientist would review a sociology research paper.

Have you ever tried reviewing a paper or a book outside of your major discipline and trying to understand its logical progression?

Frustrated with Passwords?

In Embedded Systems, Engineering Principles, Industrial Consortia on January 30, 2014 at 11:21 PM

There is a huge amount of research literature on security, privacy, hacking etc. associated with computer networks of all kinds. Almost all of these networks work on the principle of authenticating users before granting access.  Similarly, all internet based services like your email account, online banking account , Facebook etc. authenticate users before granting access. You need a user id and a password to access all these services. When you use multiple services, you need to create multiple user ids as well as passwords. The problem is that you need to be able to recall these when the need arises. So either you memorize them or write them down somewhere or store in the cloud. This indeed becomes frustrating when you try to use really strong passwords for your accounts. Can there be a better solution that using passwords? Can the sign-in process be simplified? People are making efforts in this direction. There is a an online petition against passwords movement that seeks to educate both users as well as companies to simplify the sign-in process to access services. There are industrial efforts also in this direction. The Fast Identity Online Alliance (FIDO) is also working in the same direction. However, this is not the end of this issue.  Solutions like using device authentication for online authentication restricts the ease of access with respect to devices. For instance, currently you can login to your Gmail account from any computer. However, if a solution ties this login to your personal laptop, you will not be able login through any other device. It remains to be seen how this story unfolds. Will there be really a solution or will users have to live with a compromise between security and privacy concerns on one end and ease of access on the other?

The Curious Case of Algorithms

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Mathematics on October 31, 2013 at 2:40 PM

I finished reading “The Golden Ticket: P, NP and The Search for The Impossible” some time back. It is a very nice book that introduces one to complexity theory. Essentially, it describes, without too much of Mathematics, what kinds of problems can be solved and what other kinds will take forever to solve. However, if these – the forever to solve ones– were to get solved one day, what would be the impact. P  refers to the problems that can be solved quickly using computers to get the best solution. On the other hand NP refers to problems whose best solution cannot be found quickly using computers. I have deliberately simplified things for your understanding. This field is vastly complex!

The word “quickly” is used here with reference to a time span which is acceptable to the seeker of the solution. It could be a few seconds, or a few weeks.  Going by the nature of humans, any solution (best or otherwise) that might be delivered in months or years will probably be unacceptable. The search of any solution is accomplished using algorithms. It is these algorithms that can either give us a solution “quickly” or might take ages to finish their task. It is believed that if we could find algorithms that could solve any problem in the class of NP problemswe could solve many challenges facing us. These problems can be found in varied fields like biology, cancer research, mathematics, computer science, economics etc. However, some of the modern day systems which we feel very secure and safe about will lose these strengths if an NP problem is solved. This is because they rely on the fact that NP problems are extremely hard to solve quickly. For instance, your secure online bank transaction won’t be secure anymore. The public-key cryptography, on which it relies, would be broken by then.

Another technologically interesting aspect of algorithms is their ability to provide information based on someone’s taste in color, clothes, books, music etc. In fact, it is this type of algorithms which is used by eBay, Amazon etc. to recommend to users items for purchase. They track their actions: which items they click on, which items they buy etc. to create an “algorithmic profile” of users. While all this sounds interesting and potentially time saving for someone who knows what to buy, this also has a negative side effect. As a regular user of such platforms, you end up getting information that is tailored to your existing taste. Therefore, you cannot easily get information that is not relevant to your taste. Effectively, your ability to explore ( if you are also someone who likes to explore) becomes limited. Of course there are ways to overcome this, simplest of them being not to sign in when performing a search!! You can argue that many prefer automatic sign-ins to save time and the need to remember passwords. True, but then you have to decide whether you want to work/live like a frog in a well or like a whale exploring an ocean! 🙂

Technology Innovation and Unemployment

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Research and Development on September 30, 2013 at 12:48 AM

Automation has increased productivity in many areas. If you look at the assembly line or shop floor of a car manufacturer, you will see automation in its full might. Though you will still find a certain number of workers, their number is far less compared to pre-automation days. You may have also come across call center staff who deal with queries related to insurance, bank related tasks etc. Most of these queries are routine in nature and it is the same kind of information that the staff has to provide to the callers. There is recent news that companies like IPsoft are providing artificial intelligence based virtual call center staff to handle such queries. This is expected to reduce the number of people required in BPOs and call centers. 

An aprocryphal tale is about a conversation between Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther. The former was the head of Ford Motor Company while the latter controlled its union. When Ford asked Reuther how he would make robots pay union dues, Reuther asked in return if Ford could make his robots buy cars. Ford got the point that any increase in productivity has to be met with an increase in the number of consumers. Ford raised the salary of his staff so that they could afford to buy cars. 

Do you think that an increasing rate of technological innovation can lead to rise in unemployment? If you believe in this, you probably believe in Luddite Fallacy. I would rather suggest to be open to debates on this issue. This issue is far from resolved and new insights keep coming now and then. Two opposing views on this issue can be found here and here published in The Economist and Forbes respectively.

Given the fact that many engineers work on systems which are meant to increase productivity, provide better services, it is only relevant to have a look at an aspect of economics and social change that they are seldom concerned with. It is not so much about questioning what they do rather it is more about understanding the mysterious ways in which the world moves!

Automation & Your Skills

In Design Methodologies, Education on August 12, 2013 at 12:24 AM

During my undergraduate studies, when I first went to a workshop of carpentry, sheet-metal etc. where they teach you how to work with wood and metal and how to make different shapes and objects with them, I did not understand why an Electronics & Communication engineering major was supposed to learn those things. I am sure that there are many who will question that way and this debate will probably never end.  Probably, the best learning outcome of such an exercise is the improvement in our abilities to focus, concentrate, be precise and measure accurately. Also, it helps develop a sense for working with limited resources. After all the quantity of wood or metal that each student is given can be limited and one has to ensure that one gets the work done with that limited quantity. Perhaps such learning exercises should be promoted by also focusing on these learning outcomes.

In today’s world of complex manufacturing, computer aided design tools and computer aided manufacturing have taken over such manual tasks. Once can define and draw any shape using sophisticated design tools and have it carved out by a computer aided manufacturing machine. While these computer aided tools came into existence to deal with complex shapes as well as with the increasing scale of manufacturing, they do not let you have the experience of working with your own hands. So it is quite possible that someone adept at using these computer tools, will fail to bend a sheet of metal at a perfect 90 degrees. So what can be a not so promising consequence of this? Excessive reliance on automation even for simple tasks may lead to a loss of such basic skills. At the same time you run the risk of being unproductive when such computer tools shut down for some reason even if the work does not really require them. Automation is intended to reduce time and manage complexity and scale of operations. It is not supposed to replace acquiring skills by hand where possible.

Another example would be tools like Maple and Mathematica. These are extremely powerful tools to solve mathematical problems. Would you stop learning how to solve a differential equation or how to calculate the area of a triangle by pen and paper method because these tools can do it for you? I guess your answer would be “no” because if your answer is “yes”, you risk a future where people would have forgotten all such knowledge and lost such skills which would instead be built into computer/software systems. A breakdown of such systems would leave you with no option to get back on track!

P.S. The idea for this post came after reading Are We Losing the Secrets of the Masters? This article also mentions about old books which described in detail design of magnets and electromagnets, making neon signs, silver printing, building a forge, blacksmithing etc. Some of these books can now be found here, here and here.  A PDF version of a 1896 book titled “Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements” digitized by Google can be found here and associated websites on animation of engines are this and this.