Sunday, July 28, 2013

In Sickness...

One of the more amusing conversations at the social part of the Microsoft faculty summit (initiated by the humorous commentary of Kevin Leyton-Brown) started with the idea that our support staff all have some number of sick days available to them, but faculty don't, because, I imagine, we're not supposed to get sick.  And certainly I (and I'm sure many faculty) can remember days where in less-than-perfect health we dragged ourselves in because it was our day to lecture.

Of course the truth is somewhat more complicated.  We don't have sick days, but generally professors have more flexible schedules.  We can generally schedule a doctor's appointment (or, sometimes more importantly, appointments for our children) during the week and leave work without having to check in or out.  I'm not sure I'd trade my flexibility for a number of sick days.  What we generally don't have, however, are plans for dealing with illness.  It's assumed that we'll be there when we're required.

After some number of years, this seems OK.  For my regular undergraduate class, I have complete lecture notes.  With a small amount of advance notice, I can have a grad student (or another faculty member) fill in for me, certainly for a lecture or if needed two.  My undergraduates classes are recorded;  in a real pinch, I could cancel class entirely, and get the video of the lecture from a previous class put online.  And sometimes, if the class is moving all right, it's OK just to cancel a class.  For my graduate class, there's more flexibility.  In the worst case, I could usually have a graduate student go in to lead a discussion on the reading or just talk about their own latest interesting work.  Other meetings or work just get pushed back or re-scheduled as needed, which I suppose is the same thing that happens with other professions.

Does anyone have other useful tips for faculty new or old for managing work while coping with temporary but non-trivial illnesses?

The conversation came back to me as I was sick most of this last week, and could not come in for several days.  This is summer, and I'm on sabbatical, so it was not as terrible as it would have been during the year.  But many of these issues arose.  Tuesday was a graduate student's defense that I was supposed to be at (and of course was hard to schedule);  I dragged myself in to work for it.  I believe that, if I hadn't been able to drive in, Harvard rules would have allowed me to "attend" by Skype or some other video service.  But that's obviously not the desired plan, and I admit I felt obliged to be there, having committed to going, despite feeling ill.  By Wednesday I was at the doctor's and getting antibiotics, and any meetings were either cancelled or moved to Skype/Google hangouts.  Electronic meetings while laying in bed are, for better or worse, now possible when sick.  An undergraduate doing summer research with me had set up a lunch with a group of students for me to talk to, and I had to cancel that, guiltily.

In the end the lack of sick days doesn't bother me.  Getting sick does, though.  I can't recommend it.  I feel fortunate I don't get sick that often -- maybe something about our line of work prevent us from getting sick frequently.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Recent Random Musings

1)  Last week a key came off my daughter's Apple Macbook keyboard.  One of my keys on my machine had also come loose -- the "E" would pop out several times a day (and just pop back in when pushed, but still, it was getting annoying).  I made an appointment at the local Apple store, came in, and they replaced the keys.  (I'm sure both machines are no longer under warranty.)   For my daughter's machine, she (in her increasingly independent pre-teen way) had actually tried to glue the key back on (which I did not know until the Apple employee pointed it out to me), which is precisely what they tell you not to do, and he spent a few minutes scraping and peeling the glue out to get the new key to fit.

No moral here, but just very nice above-and-beyond customer service from my local Apple store, so I wanted to commend them.  And remind people not to try to glue their keys back into the keyboard, although I expect most blog readers here don't need that reminder.

2)  In a fit of weakness, I said yes to something, and now I'm on the Science Board for the Santa Fe Institute.  I don't expect to advertise everything that comes up with them on this blog, but they do have a "short course" (link) on complex networks coming up in September in Austin.  I thought it worth mentioning because it seems to have a strong lineup of speakers.  Readers of this blog will most likely know of Aaron Clauset and Cris Moore, who are on the speaker list.  I also note Lauren Ancel Meyers as well -- I knew her from one of those summer programs when we were younger, and she's now the Director of the Division of Statistics and Scientific Computation and Professor of Integrative Biology as the University of Texas at Austin, known for (among other work) her work on modelling the spread of infectious diseases and implications for policies to prevent the spread of such diseases.  Anyhow, it seems like a good program.  (Note:  the course apparently costs money to attend.)

3)  The Microsoft faculty summit has a virtual version to see sessions or talks you want to see. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

MS Faculty Summit Day Two

Day Two of the summit started with a keynote shared between Peter Lee and Jeannette Wing, who now seem to be sharing heading up Microsoft research.  (Rick Rashid is stepping down from his Chief Research Officer role;  there was a nice tribute to him, with Ed Lazowska providing a very nice homage to his development of Microsoft Research over the past couple of decades.)  I'd say their talk was a bit "rah-rah" for Microsoft, but it was also quite "rah-rah" for basic research generally and its role in developing computer science, so I wouldn't want to complain.  (With their positive, enlightened view on research and the compelling way that they can describe and present it, perhaps those two should instead be heading up some of the large government programs in charge of sponsoring research.  Oh, wait...)  In particular, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Jeannette specifically called out (with several slides) the recent theory work on "interlacing families" by Adam Marcus, Dan Spielman, and Nikhil Srivastava (see links here, or discussion here from Nikhil Srivastava).  Nikhil works for MSR India, so this was an example of MSR-univeristy basic research collaboration.  (Of course, Dan was Nikhil's advisor at Yale, so one might hope for a bit more exotic an example, but still, it's a nice example of basic research MSR supports.)    

The afternoon had a demo session -- a room full of demos from various MSR groups.  There was good one on networking that I liked (can't find a pointer, if someone sends I'll update), but most seemed focused on visualization and human-computer interfaces.  A few with Kinect, and a pretty interesting one that was based on touch-screen-type technology but was focused on your feet.  (Sensors would be embedded in the floor.  It could tell who was who by what shoes they wore;  it could detect motions like tapping, kicking, even just weight shifts.)  With a screen embedded in the floor you could play "virtual soccer".  A further prelude to our eventual holodecks. 

The "spam" session was the most entertaining.  Saikat Guha of MSR presented their work on tracking ad-click bots and related ad fraud.  Part of the work was focused on determining how much fraud there was and where.  Using that, they can do things about it.  They found a particular type of malware that shadows a user, and when the user does a search but doesn't click on an ad, the malware wakes up and clicks on an ad, at most once per day.  The behavior then looks like a real user, so it's hard to catch;  on the other hand, clicking an ad once per day is itself a noticeable behavior...

But the most entertaining talk of all was, unsurprisingly, Stefan Savage, who was talking about the "economics of cybercrime" -- how they figure out the "money chain" of the companies sending the spam e-mail selling drugs and illegal software, how they think about the weak points in the "money chain" (it's the banks), and how they've worked to give this information to law enforcement so that law enforcement is better equipped to take down spammers engaged in illegal activity.  Needless to say, Microsoft is interested and involved -- they don't like pirated copies of their software being sold. 

Thanks to Microsoft for inviting me.

Red-eyes are a killer.  (They weren't 25 years ago.  I wonder what happened.) 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

MS Faculty Summit Day One

Day one of the faculty summit was a great deal of fun.  Primarily, I found I enjoyed catching up with people -- I saw a number of past/current collaborators, as well as many people who I enjoy talking to but don't get to see often enough.  The summit is well attended -- several hundreds of people -- so there's plenty of people to see.

The morning keynote session included a large chunk of time with Bill Gates.  He talked briefly and took a large number of questions.  In his remarks, he spoke about the bright future he saw for software, particularly the potential in making large advances in big science problems.  We're able to do so much more now, we can be much more ambitious about what we can do.  Then he spoke about the areas the Bill Gates Foundation is focused on.  Education -- the Bill Gates Foundation funds the Khan Academy and several MOOC projects.  He sees MOOCs as a way of increasing personalization in education.  He talked about fighting disease, and in particular disease spread modeling.  He also talked about genetic modification of crops to improve disease resistance, drought resistance, and nutritional value, and finally digital microfinance tools.  There weren't any particularly controversial thoughts or questions;  the most memorable to me involved a question about the patent/copyright/IP system, which Bill Gates tried to strongly defend.

Our morning session on verification for cloud computing systems went well.  (All the sessions seemed to start a bit late, so we were a bit pressed for time.)  Bryan Parno and Michael Walfish gave excellent presentations, and I thought our talks fit nicely together in terms of giving a pretty complete picture of goings-on in the area.  The after-lunch session on the economics of computing was very good -- Dan Huttenlocher talked about the theory of badging (giving a model for how badges on things like StackExchange can motivate people to different behaviors, in both theory and practice), Muthu talked about a new advertising market he was interested in, and Eva Tardos talked about composable and efficient mechanisms (and the class of smooth mechanisms).  I thought both sessions were slightly underattended, though -- the bulk of the attendees seemed to be focused on machine learning and related work.  That must be where the "action" is these days.  

The evening offered a boat cruise -- and a heat wave throughout the US translates into beautiful sunny weather and quite comfortable temperatures for a boat cruise in Seattle.  The trip included great views of Mount Ranier, bridges rising to scoot out of our way, and apparently we boated by (one of?) Bill Gates's houses, although I missed that.  Lots of fun conversations (although punctuated by important issues -- how universities handle parental leave, how to handle cheating in classes, growth and hiring) and catching up on various goings-on.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sleeping in Seattle

Unless I'm asked not to, I'll try to live-blog a bit over the next few days from the Microsoft Faculty Summit.  It's my first time to this event.  I understand Bill Gates will give some sort of keynote tomorrow morning, and there are plenty of other interesting speakers, so I expect there will be stuff worth writing about.

I'll be going to present our work Justin Thaler's work (with others) on verification for cloud computing, on a panel covering recent verification work with Michael Walfish and Bryan Parno.  (Monday morning!  Please come by!)   I had suggested they'd be better off having Justin present rather than me, but something was muttered about a faculty summit being for "faculty", so I agreed to go.  I feel like Justin's work deserves the attention.  

I've managed to plan appropriately and have various theses and proposals to read and review on the long plane flight.  Indeed, I probably would have said no to these requests if I hadn't had a plane flight scheduled.  I don't write very well on flights, but reading is manageable (and even desirable, so I don't start mentally going "Are we there yet?" every few minutes, like my kids do verbally).  So I'll have something to do besides watching TV or a movie for six hours.  I do expect I'll be trying to say "no" to such requests more this year, so the flight gives me a chance to feel virtuous for hopefully at least a semester. 

If you're there, and you see me, please feel free to say hi.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Links regarding David Petraeus's offer from CUNY to teach a course for $200,000.  (Or, maybe, now $150,000.  Who knows.)

Gawker has a lot of info
A letter from a New York Assembyman to CUNY
Money has some nice info
Even the Chronicle of Higher Education weighs in.

Here's an interesting question for discussion and debate.  CUNY apparently is offering that this is OK because it won't be paid for by taxpayer money, but by gift money from a donor.  It seems like this approach -- getting gift money specifically for a celebrity lecturer -- has high risk for unseemly outcomes.  On the other hand, where exactly is the line? 

[A local example:  Harvard has a fairly new well-loved class on Science and Cooking, where celebrity chefs come in and give lectures, and I'm sure SEAS has gone out to raise money especially for innovative teaching such as this, if not for this class directly.  On the other hand, we don't pay the chefs 6-figure salaries.  In fact, I'm not even sure we pay them (or perhaps we pay a nominal honorarium) -- the chefs, from what I hear, are excited to come teach students.  So it's not the same sort of thing, but it perhaps gives ideas that the lines could get blurry here fairly quickly.]