Archive for the ‘Academic life’ Category

Kids under pressure

May 20, 2016

And how Ramanujan, the Mathematician can be their guardian angel:

… I see all these kids under tremendous pressure — rarely pressure that they understand the origin of. So many of these super-talented kids are just going through the motions, and aren’t passionate about their studies at all, and that’s terrible. I was like that too. I’d given up on ever trying to live up to my parents’ expectations, but somehow because I’ve had Ramanujan as a guardian angel, things have worked out well for me. It makes you a better teacher when you just tell people how hard it was for you.

A nice interview!

Start-ups and universities

April 18, 2016

A must-read piece from Paul Graham:

What can CMU do to help Pittsburgh become a startup hub? Be an even better research university. CMU is one of the best universities in the world, but imagine what things would be like if it were the very best, and everyone knew it. There are a lot of ambitious people who must go to the best place, wherever it is—if it’s in Siberia. If CMU were it, they would all come here. There would be kids in Kazakhstan dreaming of one day living in Pittsburgh.

Being that kind of talent magnet is the most important contribution universities can make toward making their city a startup hub. In fact it is practically the only contribution they can make.

But wait, shouldn’t universities be setting up programs with words like “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” in their names? No, they should not. These kind of things almost always turn out to be disappointments. They’re pursuing the wrong targets. The way to get innovation is not to aim for innovation but to aim for something more specific, like better batteries or better 3D printing. And the way to learn about entrepreneurship is to do it, which you can’t in school.

I know it may disappoint some administrators to hear that the best thing a university can do to encourage startups is to be a great university. It’s like telling people who want to lose weight that the way to do it is to eat less.

But if you want to know where startups come from, look at the empirical evidence. Look at the histories of the most successful startups, and you’ll find they grow organically out of a couple of founders building something that starts as an interesting side project. Universities are great at bringing together founders, but beyond that the best thing they can do is get out of the way. For example, by not claiming ownership of “intellectual property” that students and faculty develop, and by having liberal rules about deferred admission and leaves of absence.

A very interesting piece, throughout and a must-read.


On giving talks

April 8, 2016

Specifically, mathematics talks; but there are interesting things for other technical speakers too!

To or Not-to: Co-author

February 12, 2016

A very nice piece from Geoffrey Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Yes, I know that many lab directors in the physical and biological sciences add their name to the byline of every paper, even those to which that have contributed nothing but lab space and a grant number. That doesn’t mean it’s right.

Next time when I am teaching the communication course in our Institute, I will make this piece a must-read for the students.

Andrew Gelman on Seth Roberts

April 30, 2014

An excellent piece.

HowTo: Review

January 10, 2014

A nice link (pdf) through orgtheory on reviewing.

Academic process and innovation

July 13, 2013

Matt Welsh has some ideas on academic process slowing innovation. I have not thought about some of the issues that Matt is talking about: however, it is not clear to me that innovations that should (could and does) happen in the industry should also happen in academics. Secondly, there is an overhead associated with making something get accepted in the academic community; the purpose of that overhead is to make sure that truly new (not wifi masquerading as balloon kind of innovation, to use one of Matt’s example) is only picked. Having said that, I do agree with Matt that this overhead is not serving the purpose it is supposed to serve; and the reason for that is

The main reason is competition for scarce resources. Put simply, there are too many academics, and not enough funding and not enough paper-slots in good conference venues. Much has been said about the sad state of public funding for science research. Too many academics competing for the same pool of money means longer processes for proposal reviews and more time re-submitting proposals when they get rejected.

And, I like some of the remedies suggested too:

We still need to publish research, though, which is important for driving innovation. But we should shift to an open, online publication model — like arXiv — where everything is “accepted” and papers are reviewed and scored informally after the fact. Work can get published much more rapidly and good work won’t be stuck in the endless resubmission cycle. Scientists can stop wasting so much time and energy on program committees and conference organization. (We should still have one big conference every year so people still get to meet and drink and bounce ideas around.)  This model is also much more amenable to publications from industry, who currently have little incentive to run the conference submission gauntlet, unless publishing papers is part of their job description. And academics can still use citation counts or “paper ratings” as the measure by which hiring and promotion decisions are made.

However, my reasoning for arriving at this remedy is slightly different. I find that the academic overhead is not paying in terms of picking the best; if anything, it has made the academics form groups and rig the review and funding processes — because resources are indeed scarce. A more open publication and a much more open sharing of resources (codes, experimental tricks, designs and so on) will fuel the academic market forces to bet only on the truly innovative ideas which can be translated in the industrial setting into products and technologies at a much faster pace!

Reflections on receiving tenure

May 5, 2013

“So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”

Feynman as quoted here.

Here is Scott Aaronson at Schtetl optimized on his receiving tenure:

In seven years of teaching and blogging, I’ve learned something about my own psychology.  Namely, if I meet anyone—an undergrad, an anonymous blog commenter, anyone—who claims that the P vs. NP problem is beside the point, since it’s perfectly plausible that P=NP but the algorithm takes n10000 time—or that, while quantum mechanics works fine for small systems, there’s not the slightest reason to expect it to scale up to larger ones—or that the limits of computation are plainly no more relevant to fundamental physics than the fact that cucumbers are green—trying to reason with that person will always, till the end of my life, feel like the most pressing task in the world to me.  And it will make no difference whether I’m an unknown postdoc and the other person is Emperor of the Galaxy, or vice versa.

Why?  Because, I confess, a large part of me worries: what if this other person is right?  What if I really do have to jettison everything I thought I knew about physics, computation, and pretty much everything else since I was a teenager, toss all my results into the garbage can (or at least the “amusing recreations can”), and start over from kindergarten?  But then, as I fret about that possibility, counterarguments well up in my mind.  Like someone pinching himself to make sure he’s awake, I remember all the reasons why I was led to think what I think in the first place.  And I want the other person to go through that experience with me—the experience, if you like, of feeling the foundations of the universe smashed to pieces and then rebuilt, the infinite hierarchy of complexity classes collapsing and then springing back into place, decades’ worth of books set ablaze and then rewritten on blank pages.  I want to say: at least come stand here with me—in this place that I spent twenty years of late nights, false starts, and discarded preconceptions getting to—and tell me if you still don’t see what I see.

That’s how I am; I doubt I can change it any more than I can change my blood type.  So I feel profoundly grateful to have been born into a world where I can make a comfortable living just by being this strange, thin-skinned creature that I am—a world where there are countless others who do see what I see, indeed see it a thousand times more clearly in many cases, but who still appreciate what little I can do to explore this corner or that, or to describe the view to others.  I’d say I’m grateful to “fate,” but really I’m grateful to my friends and family, my students and teachers, my colleagues at MIT and around the world, and the readers of Shtetl-Optimized—yes, even John Sidles.  “Fate” either doesn’t exist or doesn’t need my gratitude if it does.

Take a look!

Some communication tips

April 28, 2013

There are two interesting posts from Kerin at Savage Minds. One is about signposting (for and against). The other is about becoming an expert in an area in a short time. Kerim has several interesting tips and pointers. There is one that I usually give my seminar students which is missing in Kerim’s list — I am not even sure that it is relevant for what he is talking about. In any case, for what it is worth, here it is. Find a paper  — any paper, in the topic in which you are interested in. Backtrack and front-track references: that is go through all the references in the paper as well as go through all references in the papers that refer to this paper. And keep back and front-tracking from those papers. Within three steps or so, one finds that there are a few papers that everybody refers to in the field. Those are the classics in the field which the seminar student should read first. And then, there are some which are widely referred to. Those are the ones which the student should read next and so on. This method is the easiest one to identify important papers in any area.

Approaches: to equations and doing science

April 22, 2013

Here is a post (via John Baez’s Google+ share) that describes the three approaches to equations: what the post calls theoretical and formula based can also be called as  analysis and seeking analytical solution respectively. There are, in a similar manner, three approaches to doing science itself: theoretical, experimental and computational. The best approach, be it equations or science, is, of course, to combine all the three (in proportions according to taste).