Sunday, November 29, 2009

Conference fraud actually happens

Some time ago, I wrote about the possibility of fraud in academic publishing. We all get spam promoting new academic conferences, but this spam seems to enjoy a presumption of legitimacy. As I argued, this presumption could be exploited.

It appears I was right to be wary. The Scientist has uncovered two recent cases of fraudulent conferences.

The first case unfolded largely as I thought: a general invitation went out for the "1st International Cardiology Conference" in Shanghai; invitees were directed to a legit-looking web page (since removed), and registration fees were charged. Not only was the conference bogus, but registrants' credit card numbers were used for further fraudulent charges, totaling $2000 in one case.

The second case is more reminiscent of the traditional Nigerian scam: a prominent researcher was invited to appear at the "Seventh Annual International Global combine Conference on Global Economy and Human Welfare", with free airfare and accommodation; the invitee had only to provide certain personal information. The recipient of this message was wary enough to check with the supposed sponsoring organizations and venue, none of whom had ever heard of the conference.

I guess I'll be sticking with the usual IEEE conferences for the time being.

[via BoingBoing; h/t @adhamilton.]

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

He was the learner, but now he is the master.

My first master's student just successfully defended his thesis. Congratulations, Nariman!

Running with memes

Let's go with this.

The answers are: yes, more than lawyers but less than doctors, sometimes, no, depends on when you ask, better than baristas but worse than doctors and lawyers, mostly, I sure am, I sure am, and I hope I'm not.

In a computer science and engineering department, this is the kind of question that can start riots.

Are they indeed? (Sadly, if you follow this search it takes you to pages of lame "computers are like women/men" jokes).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Time-travelling censorship

I read this a while ago and kind of laughed. But then this happened. I mean, really? A piece of baguette dropped perfectly in the wrong place? Somewhere, Douglas Adams is smiling.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The future of tenure

Picking up where Anand left off a couple of weeks ago, the current issue of Academic Matters features a three-way debate on the future of tenure: Michiel Horn argues in favor of tenure, while Michael Bliss and Mark Kingwell argue against. Kingwell's article is, verbatim, the one from Inside Higher Ed.

Bliss's article comes across as a rant, while Kingwell continues his tendency of writing articles that are more attention-grabbing than well-thought-out.

However, I'm struck by Horn's argument: abolition of tenure could lead to the worst of both worlds (worst, at least from the tenure critics' point of view): hard-to-fire professors who are never required to demonstrate their productivity. Horn puts tenure in historical context, showing that it emerged in the 1960s as a financial perk, and a codification of the long-established practice of respecting the academic freedom of professors. Without tenure, the system could well revert to the historical norm of automatic contract renewals -- but this time without the need for pre-tenured faculty members to demonstrate high achievement.

A university without tenure might resemble the public school system, where it is rare for teachers to be dismissed for poor performance. I suspect this is not what Bliss and Kingwell have in mind.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nanonet 2009: Video

I presented a paper at Nanonet 2009 in lovely Luzern. I wrote about the paper earlier.

Here's a video of my conference presentation (playlist):

Paper at Nanonet 2009

My paper at Nanonet 2009:

A. W. Eckford, “Timing information rates for active transport molecular communication,” in Proc. 4th International ICST Conference on Nano-Networks, Luzern, Switzerland, pp. 24-28, 2009.

PDF of the paper is here.

The paper is a first stab at molecular communication in a microfluidic system, like a lab-on-chip. This is one environment in which molecular communication would be commercially feasible: it turns out to be very hard to integrate electronics on these devices, so as much as possible needs to be done in liquid and chemistry. In the paper, I only look at timing information, and compute some achievable information rates. Plenty more work to follow.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Who can stop old RMC? (again)

My glorious alma mater strikes again. Former Royal Military College physics professor Willard S. Boyle wins a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics, for his work on charge-coupled devices. (He did his Nobel work at Bell Labs.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Canada enters 21st century

Ever since Rogers bought Fido five years ago, anybody wanting a GSM phone -- which is to say, anybody wanting a phone that would actually work in other countries -- was stuck with a single choice. That's about to change.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The right to remain silent

We've been warned about living our electronic lives online, as what we say can be used against us later. However, here's the first example I've heard where an adverse faculty hiring decision may have been based, in part, on the candidate's blog.

This week, Mihai Pătraşcu -- a theoretical computer scientist at AT&T Labs -- wrote a blog post in which he discussed his recent academic job search. I can't comment on his work, being well outside my expertise; but many people in his field (like Mitzenmacher, where I found the link) clearly think of him as talented. Pătraşcu's post is (in part) about his interview at UCSD -- they gave him an offer, but only after their first choice turned them down. On the basis of being ranked second, Pătraşcu declined the offer.

Pătraşcu mentions that, on the whole, his job search went less well than he expected: he didn't get interviews at many of the "top places" he applied. But down in the comments, we read:
I was on a hiring committee in one of these schools that decided not to interview you. Although I hesitated to post this comment, I think what I have to say will be helpful to your career. The reason we decided against further considering your case was because of your reputation as a very difficult, arrogant, and opinionated person. We even read your blog and found many posts that confirmed this reputation.

Of course, this anonymous commenter could be anybody. But the tone of Pătraşcu's post is certainly abrasive, so it is quite plausible that a hiring committee would have looked at similar posts and decided not to interview him.

I'm ambivalent about this. On the one hand, if his blog is representative, this guy wouldn't be fun to have as a colleague. On the other hand, I'm worried about the chilling effect -- it would be too bad if young researchers stopped blogging for fear of damaging their careers.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On the escalator

I have regular meetings in the Bahen center at U of T, which is where most of their communications people are located. However, the math department is located on the 6th floor, and if I'm early for a meeting, I usually hang out in their library.

On one recent visit to the math library, the Fibonacci Quarterly caught my eye. The lead-off article was on escalator numbers. Unfortunately I can't find an online version of the article, but another article by the same author (Grundman) is here.

A note on notation: in the text, take a[i] to mean a with subscript i. An escalator sequence a[1], a[2], ... has the property that, for all n,

(Eq. 1)

The escalator numbers A[i] are the partial sums (or products) of the escalator sequence:

Escalator sequences are defined by their starting element a[1], which cannot be equal to 1. It is easy to show that

(Eq. 2)


(Eq. 3)

The escalator number relation (Eq. 1) reminds me a lot of the arithmetic-geometric mean inequality (AGMI): for positive numbers x[1], x[2], ...,

From (Eq. 2) and (Eq. 3), we see that if A[i-1] > 1, then a[i] > 1 and A[i] > 1. Since A[1] = a[1], we can use an inductive argument to show that if a[1] > 1, then a[j] > 1 for all j, and therefore a[j] is positive for all j. Thus, if a[1] > 1, the AGMI can be applied to the escalator sequence.

After playing around a bit, I got the following (hopefully nontrivial) result. Using the AGMI, if a[1] > 1, we can show that

(Eq. 4)

This is shown as follows. First, we have

where the middle inequality is the AGMI. The rest follows from algebraic manipulation.

The bound in (Eq. 4) is surprisingly tight for large n when a[1] is reasonable. For instance, if a[1]=2, then A[100] = 106.4308..., while the bound gives 104.7616... .

Three questions. First, is this result already known? Second, is the bound asymptotically tight for large n? Third, can we get an upper bound?

The engineer in me can't help trying to think about applications for escalator numbers, but I haven't thought of anything yet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Globe points a finger

First Simpson, now Wente: the Globe and Mail thinks it knows what's wrong with Canada's universities. The answer? Research! Oh, and also: overpaid professors.

So did you know that university research is holding Canada back? Simpson (emphasis added):
If big universities spent half as much time and sustained effort trying to improve undergraduate teaching as they do searching for more research money, they, the students and the country might be better off.

Or that sixty-hour weeks pounding out papers are just one big fat vacation? Wente (again, emphasis added):
But the full professors ... have a very pleasant life. They can make $125,000 a year, with a good pension and six months off each year to do as they please.

But economic data suggests that private industry is not ready to take over for my lazy six-months-off ass. According to Parliament's Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology (link):
business R&D intensity (expenditure as a percentage of GDP) in Canada is lower than the OECD average, and that the business sector both funds and performs a lower percentage of total national R&D than does the business sector in other OECD countries.

What's more, Simpson knows this. Concerning the collapse of Nortel, he wrote in favor of government intervention:
Even in decline, Nortel continued to spend $1.8-billion a year on research, in a country starved for private-sector research.

So that's right, Mr. Simpson and Ms. Wente. In a country starved for private sector research, let's pretend that the really important thing is use universities as an extension of high school, whose job is largely to churn out B.A. and B.Sc. grads. Not at all to advance the economy into the 21st century with new ideas and new technologies, no sir! By the way, where are all those grads -- in a "better off" Canada -- going to work?

And the complaints about professors' pay -- both Simpson's and Wente's -- are just ridiculous. Even on their face, they are just out-of-context numbers. But in my own situation, according to this, the median salary for a PhD in electrical engineering with 1-4 years of experience is $88,647 (US) -- considerably more than I'm making. And anecdotally, my friends in industry seem to be making 10-20% more than me. So I would suggest that I'm a bargain.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Toronto versus New York

Toronto: Bike thief followed by earnest good Samaritan, who snaps an iPhone picture. Theft reported to police; to help find witnesses, photo posted to the internet.

New York: Bike thief gets ass beat by enraged bike owner and friends. Ass beaters, proud of themselves, record the beating; video posted to the internet.

(Tip of the hat to commenter tapesonthefloor at Torontoist.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Trace Tricks

The trace of a square matrix is the sum of the elements on the main diagonal. That is, for an n by n square matrix A, the trace of A is

This might not seem too exciting at first. However, the trace operator has a neat quasi-commutative property: for matrices U and V, so long as the internal dimensions work out, it is true that

The proof isn't too hard so I'll skip it. If we had a third matrix W (again assuming the internal dimensions work out), since matrix multiplication is associative, it is also true that

It's not truly commutative, since you can only do cyclic shifts of the arguments. So, e.g., tr(UVW) is not equal to tr(WVU) in general.

What can you do with this? For one thing, note that the trace of a scalar a is itself: tr(a) = a. So if you have a matrix multiplication that results in a scalar, you can use trace to rearrange the arguments.

For instance, let U be a 1 by n row vector, and let V be an n by n matrix. If U' is the transpose of U, then UVU' is a scalar. This kind of expression comes up pretty often in jointly Gaussian distributions.

Now say U is a zero-mean vector with covariance matrix E[U'U], and I want to know E[UVU']. Using the trace trick, I can express this expectation in terms of E[U'U]: first, we can write

and since expectation distributes over the trace sum, we have

As a result, if you know the covariance E[U'U], there's no need to recalculate any expectations.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Business donuts are strictly ornamental

Last time I was down at U of T, their career center had a book posted in its window, entitled Don't take the last donut: New rules of business etiquette.

Let's take the title advice seriously: as a matter of business etiquette, don't take the last donut. Why? Obviously, because it's impolite to deprive someone else of the option to have a donut.

Now assume that everyone is polite, and suppose there are two donuts left. What if you take the second-to-last donut? It's impolite for anyone else to take the last donut, so since everyone is polite (by assumption), your action deprives everyone else of a donut. Thus, it must be as impolite to take the second-to-last donut as it is to take the last one. We can make a similar case for the third-to-last and fourth-to-last donut.

Indeed, by the same argument, we can construct an inductive case: assuming it is impolite to take the nth-to-last donut (for any n >= 1), and there are (n+1) donuts available, then it must be equally impolite to take the (n+1)th-to-last donut, because nobody can (politely) take a subsequent donut.

Thus, by induction, for any integer n > 0, it is impolite to take the nth-to-last donut. Thus, business donuts are strictly ornamental and it is impolite to ever eat them. QED.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

PLoS One: Publish in good journals, reject more papers

A neat article in PLoS One about peer review: it turns out that your rejection rate as a reviewer is related more to where you publish than your experience as a researcher. And if you publish in higher-quality journals, you're likely to reject more papers.

There are lots of ways to analyze and criticize this result, but here's my take. If you generally publish in higher quality journals, you will be doing most of your reviewing for higher-quality journals, which are more selective.

As I mentioned, the authors didn't find a relationship between experience and rejection rate, but I thought this figure was interesting: early researchers are clustered around the same "rejection intensity", while later ones tend to be spread out between much more stringent and much easier.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Shameless self promotion: Transactions on Info Theory Edition

My recent paper in the Transactions:

A. W. Eckford, “Ordering finite-state Markov channels by mutual information,” IEEE Trans. Inform. Theory, vol. 55, no. 7, pp. 3081-3086, Jul. 2009. [PDF]

In a Markov channel, the channel parameter is selected by the state of a hidden Markov chain -- the most famous example is the Gilbert-Elliott channel, in which a channel use might see a "good" state with low crossover probability, or a "bad" state with high crossover probability.

In Gaussian noise, channels are ordered with respect to SNR -- we know that a channel with smaller SNR has smaller capacity. In this paper, I'm trying to find a similar ordering for Markov channels: the "degraded family" of a "parent" channel, where all channels in the family have smaller capacity than the parent.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Nortel in liquidation

Here's what astonishes me. The federal government would drop 7 billion dollars to prop up a badly run company that has done its best to make itself obsolete. This same government then barely lifts a finger as foreign interests acquire the key assets of another badly run company that is at the forefront of the next generation of wireless networks.

Since the bidders were most likely interested in Nortel's patent portfolio, all those high-tech R&D jobs are either going or gone. This, and not the troubles in the auto sector, is the story that will have lasting ramifications for the Canadian economy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hot topics in info theory

I'm trying to figure out what's hot and what's not in information theory. So, for a laugh, I put together all the session titles from ISITs 2005-2009, and searched them for keywords.

In the following, I'm giving counts of the number of times a keyword appears in the list of sessions. The numbers of sessions at each conference were slightly different (from a low of 126 in 2005 to a high of 152 in 2006), but I don't bother to normalize since the range is small. Some findings:

MIMO is out, wireless is in:

Number of sessions with the given keyword:

Year | 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
MIMO | 5 14 7 6 0
wireless | 3 5 5 4 14

Relay is on the downswing, cooperation is picking up the slack:

Number of sessions with the given keyword:

Year | 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
relay | 4 2 9 8 5
cooperation* | 1 3 3 4 4

* includes "cooperative"

Turbo vs. LDPC -- LDPC is resurgent:

Number of sessions with the given keyword:

Year | 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
turbo | 3 0 1 1 1
LDPC | 11 16 6 6 11

Source vs. channel -- sources are on the decline:

Number of sessions with the given keyword:

Year | 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
source | 6 15 11 9 6
entropy | 1 3 1 1 0
channel | 12 19 25 16 22
capacity | 7 7 13 11 9

I've posted the session lists here if you want to do your own grepping: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Talk at ISIT 2009: We have video

Through the magic of YouTube, here's my talk at ISIT 2009 (this is a playlist):

I linked to the paper here.

I'm going to try to record more of my talks and upload them to YouTube.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dating myself

The BBC made some poor kid cart around a vintage Walkman instead of his usual iPod, and describe his experiences. If you, like me, remember the Walkman, the entire article is an exercise in making yourself feel old.

Some choice quotes:

It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape.

I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.

there were a number of buttons protruding from the top and sides of this device to provide functions such as "rewinding" and "fast-forwarding" (remember those?)

I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down "rewind" and releasing it randomly

it is clearly evident that the music sounds significantly different than when played on an MP3 player, mainly because of the hissy backtrack and odd warbly noises on the Walkman

it's not all a one-way street when you line up a Walkman against an iPod. The Walkman actually has two headphone sockets, labelled A and B, meaning the little music that I have, I can share with friends.

[BBC via Slashdot]

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Paper at ISIT 2009

UPDATE: PDF of the paper is here.

My paper at ISIT 2009 in Seoul:

Diversity Analysis of Irregular Fractional Cooperation
Andrew W. Eckford, Josephine P. K. Chu, and Raviraj S. Adve
Tuesday, June 30, 9:50-11:10, room 102, last talk in the session.

Here, we extend fractional cooperation to the irregular case, where each node can select a different fraction of source bits for relaying.

I will be presenting the paper. See you in Seoul!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On spam and academic trust

Anyone who publishes regularly, or even semi-regularly, will receive a steady flow of spam advertising new conferences and journals. The advertised publications vary widely in quality, and although some conferences are more academically reputable than others (with the frequently-spammed WMSCI notoriously on the low end), there is generally the presumption that the conferences themselves are legitimately organized. That is, whatever the expected quality of papers, one expects that the conference organizers are legitimately organizing an actual conference, and that payment of the registration fee will entitle the registrant to attend this conference, and report the conference publication on his/her CV.

This presumption of legitimacy (if not quality) is similarly true of spam advertising journals, special issues, calls for book chapters, and so on; however, it could easily be exploited. Especially since "getting a publication" motivates some academics to publish in lesser-known venues, particularly those who work in environments where promotion is due to quantity rather than quality of publications.

This came up recently, as I received an academic spam (similar to this one) offering to publish my five-year-old Ph.D. thesis as a book. Initially I found the offer interesting (whatever the quality of the publisher, it might make the thesis available to a wide audience via online bookstores), but in an unpleasant surprise, I discovered that the legitimacy of this offer is questionable. For one thing, they distressingly ask for your bank information, for the purposes of sending you "royalties" (fat chance, my thesis would probably sell less than 10 copies in total).

In spite of the controversy, there's enough room to believe that this publisher is probably legitimate, although I won't be taking up the offer. Nonetheless, it's not hard to imagine the following scam: harvest academic e-mail addresses, which are normally published along with papers; set up a bogus conference complete with fancy web page; spam-advertise the conference to the e-mail addresses harvested; accept everything; and once the authors register, take the money and run. Given the outrageously high registration fees for conferences these days (approaching a thousand dollars), this would be a remarkably lucrative scam if even a few people fell for it.

It's enough to make me cast a wary eye on my inbox full of new conference announcements.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Paper at ICC 2009

UPDATE: PDF of the paper is here.

My paper at ICC 2009 in Dresden:

Optimization for Fractional Cooperation in Multiple-Source Multiple-Relay Systems
J. P. K. Chu, A. W. Eckford, and R. S. Adve
Monday, June 15, 10:50-12:20, Konferenz 3, third talk in the session.

I'll post the paper later this week. This work is from Josephine's thesis, where we build on our earlier work on fractional cooperation (PDFs: [1], [2]), looking now at optimization of the fractions.

I won't be in Dresden -- Ravi will be presenting the paper.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha: Useless

More seriously, though, it does seem pretty useless. Most searches bring up a laundry list of disconnected facts, and the "evaluation" features (e.g., perform simple calculations) are already present in Google.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who can stop old RMC?

Last week, the Canadian Space Agency released its short list of 16 astronaut candidates. Two of these 16 will be named to Canada's astronaut corps in May.

Great news for my glorious alma mater: six of the 16 short-listers are ex-cadets.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nortel is bankrupt

Nortel has completed its stunning fall. Eight and a half years ago, it was Canada's most valuable company and an international technology juggernaut; today, it is a hulk to be most likely sold for parts.

Nortel's boom years coincided with my first few years in grad school. They made it well known that they were on top: student recruiting events were well-funded, profs were getting Nortel money for research, and everyone (save those destined for academia) expected to be working there one day. I still have a Nortel mug on my desk from those happy days when they couldn't give away enough free stuff.

But now. Say you had bought one share of Nortel stock on the TSE at its peak on July 26, 2000, which (following a reverse split) would have been worth $1,231. Even if you had sold that stock a year ago, on January 14, 2008 -- when times were still relatively good and long before the fall's economic crisis -- you would have recovered $12.89 -- about a penny on the dollar. (If you had sold that same share yesterday, it would have got you $0.39.)

By comparison, the legal minimum price in Ontario for 24 bottles of beer is $25.60, and the amount you would receive for returning the empties is $2.40 -- a better investment over peak-to-year-ago-Nortel by roughly a factor of nine.

Friday, January 2, 2009

All five Zune users are furious.

On New Year's Eve, every 30 gig Microsoft Zune in the world crashed simultaneously. The reason? The firmware couldn't handle a year longer than 365 days, and 2008 was the first leap year since Zune's release.

The proposed fix: Drain the battery, recharge, and don't turn it on until New Year's Day.