Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Year's Affirmations

As the New Year beckons, I figured it was time for a post on affirmations, which I remember being interested in when reading about it one of Scott Adams' (of Dilbert) books (though I don't think he called them that). If you haven't heard of affirmations, it's basically the power of positive thinking. There are various forms; one is, take a list of goals you want to accomplish, write them down or repeat them to yourself every day, and you'll find they start happening.

Now, while I don't actually believe that positive thinking alone will allow me to prove P = NP (or the other way) in the coming year -- or, for that matter, win me a lottery! -- I do believe that the act of thinking clearly about the goals you want to achieve, and keeping them firmly in your mind, increases the probability that you will actually accomplish these goals. I personally find that when I set myself goals over multiple time scales -- a task list for the day, for the month, and for the year -- I'm surprisingly much better about getting things done. When I get distracted from setting goals, less happens. The conscious effort of writing tasks down and reminding myself of them makes them easier to accomplish.

So I encourage all my readers to take some time around the New Year and set some tangible, if difficult, work-related goals for the coming year. Maybe it's time to learn a new area or work with that person you've always wanted to work with. Or there's that result you know is just out of reach -- but you should keep reaching for it. Post them somewhere, remind yourself of them, and work to make them come true. I'd bet more do than you'd first think.

Whatever your goals are, best of luck with them, and for the New Year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

INFOCOM Miniconference

A number of commenters on my last post have mentioned the INFOCOM Miniconference. I hadn't actually known about the miniconference -- although I found out more details about it soon after the comments, as my second INFOCOM submission, rejected from the conference, was accepted to the miniconference. (I did have a paper in INFOCOM 2008, but my student Adam Kirsch went to the conference to deliver the paper, and I can't recall ever hearing anything about the miniconference format. Someone should have blogged about it before. :) )

100 additional papers -- a bit over 7% of the original submissions -- were apparently accepted to the miniconference, covering most of that "top 20-30%" range. The main difference appears to be the labelling (INFOCOM miniconference, not INFOCOM) and that the paper will be limited to 5 pages in the proceedings.

While I'm happy the paper got in, I must admit, I don't understand the reasoning behind the INFOCOM Miniconference, and I hope some readers in the know will explain and elaborate. If the purpose is to have a 2-tier conference, it seems an odd structure -- why not just accept 25-30% of the papers? (A few hundred pages in the proceedings wouldn't seem to matter much since it's on a CD?)

I wonder if theory conferences like STOC, FOCS, or SODA should adopt some sort of 2-tier structure in order to accept more papers. Certainly most people who have papers rejected from these conferences (myself included) believe they should have gotten in, and some fraction of them are probably right. On the other hand, such a structure would seem to lessen the prestige associated with these conferences. Any opinions?

Monday, December 22, 2008

INFOCOM paper, network coding

A paper I co-authored on network coding -- Network Coding Meets TCP (arxiv version) -- was accepted to INFOCOM. Full credit for the success goes to the graduate student Jay Kumar Sundararajan who led the project (and is graduating and looking for jobs this year...) Our goal (as the title suggests) is to make a TCP-compatible network coding congestion control scheme, and our approach uses an interesting variation on acknowledgments Jay Kumar had utilized previously; instead of acknowledging packets, you acknowledge "degrees of freedom" (or, encoded packets that will eventually decode to message packets).

The INFOCOM mail said 282 papers were accepted from 1435 submissions (post-withdrawals). A quick check shows that INFOCOM has been below a 20% acceptance rate regularly in recent years, and even assuming a completely unverified estimate that 10-25% of the submissions are things that really shouldn't have been submitted in the first place, in my opinion that's still a pretty low acceptance rate for what's supposed to be the big, open-tent networking conference of the year. (In the 1990s, the acceptance rate was more commonly around 30%.) I'm sure there were a lot of good papers that got rejected this time around.

Most networking conferences have acceptance rates around 20%. Is this a good thing? Conference competitiveness has been blogged about before, but there doesn't seem to be much of a high-level discussion about the issue -- I recently saw Ken Birman and Fred Schneier wrote an article about it for Communications of the ACM. Any ideas out there?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What Else Should Grad Students Be Learning?

Apropos of application season...

Graduate school is a long stretch of time -- 5 years (or more) for most people. There are few clear goals during that time, although the obvious one is to learn how to do good research, with the hope of getting a tenure-track faculty job. With this somewhat singular -- and difficult -- goal, it's easy to fall into the extreme of focusing only on your research to the exclusion of most everything else, or to waste a lot of time not really working. Both of these things may be OK for various individuals. (As some will undoubtedly respond, if you're doing great research, it can excuse a lack of many other skills. And many people don't mind spending an extra year at graduate school with a more relaxed lifestyle than life after graduate school.) But with the new year approaching, I thought it worthwhile to suggest some of the additional skills one should try to develop in graduate school over those stretches where you need to break from research -- skills which, unfortunately and understandably, are often given short shrift by the university. (Please add to the list in comments.)

1) Time management: How much are you working each day? (And how much time do you waste reading -- or worse yet, writing -- blogs?) Even if you don't set yourself to a regular 9-5 or 10-6 schedule, it's a good time to learn to manage your working and non-working patterns. My suspicion is that people who manage a regular work schedule graduate on average a semester or year earlier.
2) Writing/speaking: If ideas are our business, idea presentation is a big contributor to the bottom line. And if you want a faculty position, the ability to give a good talk to a general audience goes a long way. If your institution doesn't have a program for improving writing and speaking, start your own (like a student seminar series, no faculty invited).
3) Leadership: Find a way to lead a research project -- maybe advising/mentoring some undergraduates. Or organize a club or student group to make your department a better place to be. Eventually, the ability to organize people to follow your goals will make you more productive.
4) Entrepreneurship: Have you looked at the economy? And professor's salaries? Graduate school is where you're supposed to learn to be creative, and to develop specialized skills. It's quite reasonable to spend some of those creative efforts or utilize those specialized skills on money-making endeavors. While it's not for everyone, for some the tangible reward of money helps unleash creativity; for others, you may learn the satisfying lesson that your intellectual achievements bring you higher rewards than a big paycheck could (a lesson worth learning early on).
5) The skill to learn additional skills: If you're a theorist, learn to program a little. If you're a systems person, learn some probability or other theory. Maybe set aside a few days to learn time-saving Latex tricks, or some other piece of useful software. There are plenty of skills that will make you a better researcher/teacher/writer in the future.

Monday, December 15, 2008

NSDI Program Committee , Part II

Some lessons from a 1-day PC meeting (nothing really new, but I thought I'd write it down):

1) Face-to-face PC meetings involve far too much sitting. Especially if you fly in and out on the same day. (I know there's a time tradeoff in scheduling an "exercise break", but seriously...)
2) Conferences with 20% acceptance rates are, by their nature, a bit depressing -- it's hard to reject so many papers, some of which simply MUST be pretty good.
3) It's easier to argue how a paper is flawed than to argue about how it's making an important contribution.
4) Taking reviewer expertise into account is important, and one outlier can cause problems; sometimes papers live on longer than they should if one reviewer gives too high a score, and sometimes papers are put way lower in the ordered list than they should be because one reviewer gives too low a score. (Of course, one expert reviewer can also bring an otherwise ignored paper back to life.)
5) There are more interesting papers than paper slots.
6) There's generally plenty of down time, when papers you didn't read are being discussed; bring something to work on quietly (but pay attention to what's going on).
7) You really do learn a lot reading 20-30 papers for a conference PC.
8) As you go down the paper list by score rank, eventually (and sooner than you think) you hit a paper that you start to question -- are these scores too high? And as you go up the list from the bottom, you'll hit a paper where you question -- are these scores too low? The rules of randomness tell us that some papers will get comparatively mis-scored in the first round of reviews, so it is good to stop and talk about the papers (and not just take the first X).
9) Hot trends come and go.
10) A steady supply of drinks (mostly caffeinated) and a good lunch can help the PC move happily along.

Thanks to the PC chairs and other members -- I had a good time. But now I'm very tired...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

NSDI Program Committee , Part I

I'm spending tomorrow at the NSDI (Networked Systems Design and Implementation) Program Committee meeting. It's been a few years since I've been on the PC for a networking conference, but I've found it so far to be a lot of fun.

First, it's very "civilized" -- I had only 20 papers to read the first round, and then had 5 more for the second round. (The first round was designed to get each paper 3 reviews; the second round was for paper missing reviews, or where the scores suggested another review would be helpful.) That's not too much, compared to most theory conferences.

Second, there are a good number of "algorithmically" oriented papers for me to read. Overall, networking has become a lot more theoretical, which is good. It still seems to me, though, for a network-oriented conference, you have to be careful not to go overboard with the theory. They want results -- backed by theory, preferably -- but at the end of the day, it's the results that matter. As usual when serving on a PC, seeing how it works gives insight into how to frame my own papers.

Third, one thing that's impressed me is how long and detailed the reviews are for this conference. I tend to write shorter reviews, covering what I think the high order points are. (And one thing that has been interesting -- there's generally a lot of agreement on these high order points.) But most reviewers go into a lot more detail -- the average review is at least a good page plus of text. Very different than what I usually find in theory conferences -- although I know there's a push to improve that.

I'm not sure why the culture of networking conferences has led to more detailed reviews. Fewer papers per PC member probably helps; maybe because few papers go on to journal papers (but that's equally true in theory, I think). But it's a marked and interesting change.

Anyhow, now I'm looking forward to SIGCOMM... except that I'll need to be ready to write longer reviews.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Summer internships?

The bad economy already has people thinking about jobs -- it is, I am sure, going to be a challenging year (years?) for people graduating.

I was wondering if there would also be an effect on summer internship programs. Summer interns are often a different budget line item, but it's hard to believe that the Microsoft/Google/Yahoo/everywhere else programs, for both undergraduates and graduates, won't be curtailed in this environment.

I haven't heard anything about summer internships yet, and though it's a bit early, late December/early January is usually when I start get reminders from people to have good students apply for the summer. Can anyone comment (anonymously if needed) if they have any actual information?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Online Advertising and How People Cheat

Ben Edelman (who actually does some theory when he's not doing law and business) gave a great talk today at the Harvard Center for Research on Computation and Society lunch lecture series. It was about Web advertising scams -- how people cheat pay per impression, pay per click, and even pay per conversion schemes, for big bucks. The talk was based on this book chapter (here available as a working paper). (If he gives me a link to the slides, I'll update the post with it.)

One of the scams he gave for pay per conversion schemes is related to this blog. I often encourage people to buy my book on randomized algorithms -- to remind you all, the Amazon link is here. Now, when I put on that Amazon link, I've embedded a link that includes my Amazon Associates information, so if you buy the book, I get a small cut. Very small.** In fact, if you buy anything else after clicking that link, I get a cut -- I actually think this link alone puts a cookie on your system, so if you happen to buy on anything on Amazon for the next week or so, I get a cut. I think I got about $100 in store credit from Amazon last year, from people buying the book off my home page or buying things after hitting an Amazon link on the blog.

So again, I'll encourage you to click that link. (Heck, really, while you're there, just buy the book!)

For me naturally the gain of doing this is small, but apparently, scammers have found a way to make big money off this sort of thing. They have sneaky ways of getting these cookies onto your system -- not just for Amazon, but for other vendors also, multiple vendors at a time -- so if you click one of their links, and then buy things on the Web, they get a cut for "recommending" the purchase to you, even though they've really done nothing of the sort. When you think about it, a 5% cut from the purchases of a million Amazon customers can really add up...

If Ben Edelman happens to be coming to present at a venue near you, I highly recommend you go. And that's not false advertising.

**Actually, not so small. I get almost as much from Amazon as I do from the publisher if you buy the book through the link. Of course, I don't get much from the publisher either.