Wednesday, October 26, 2011

UPDATED: Talk at Case: Models and Capacities of Molecular Communication

Updated Oct 26, 2011: Here's the video of the talk (this is a playlist). Try HD (720p) and fullscreen, which makes it easier to read the slides.

Original post from October 13 follows.

I'm continuing my 2011 "lecture tour" with a visit to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. My host is Prof. Peter Thomas, and he would be able to give you further details.

"Models and Capacities of Molecular Communication"
Friday, October 14, 11:30 AM

Abstract: What are the fundamental limits of diffusion-mediated molecular communication? This question, which has only recently attracted attention from information theorists, turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Not only is the communication medium unfamiliar to communication engineers; but the mathematical details of the communication environment are complicated. In this talk, we discuss mathematical models for molecular communication, which are both information-theoretically useful and physically meaningful; we discuss the difficulties of dealing exactly with these models; and we present some simplified scenarios in which capacity can be evaluated.  Finally, we discuss the engineering and biological significance of these results.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fixing undergraduate education

Here's Jeffrey Simpson's column this past Friday -- his latest in a series (1, 2) taking universities to task over undergraduate education. (The Globe seems to be on a tear lately about our "unsustainable" universities.)

I seem to live in a different world than Simpson's hard-luck undergrads: in my program, classes are small and are (almost) all taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty. The small classes probably come from the newness of our program -- we're expecting to ramp up enrollments over the next decade. But the use of full-time faculty in teaching is more or less universal at Canadian engineering schools. Why is that? It's partly because engineers with PhDs can get lucrative jobs, so perma-adjuncting is not very attractive. But it's also because you need a license to teach engineering in Canada -- licenses are tough to get, and until very recently you couldn't get one if teaching was your only work experience.

So here's something the provincial government could do, which would cost very little up front: require teachers at public universities to be licensed, much as public school teachers are. As a condition of the license, the province could require a course or two on teaching at the postsecondary level (something very few professors have ever received -- right now it's a learn-on-the-job kind of situation). The province could also distinguish between "adjunct" licenses and "tenure-track" licenses, and require at least some minimum fraction of education hours be given by tenure-track license holders.

This kind of solution strikes me as much easier to implement than trying to strong-arm universities into opening up collective agreements with faculty, as Simpson seems to want. It wouldn't do much about class sizes, but that is more of a monetary issue.

Of course, I disagree fundamentally with Simpson's view of the university -- particularly his disregard for research and graduate education -- but that's a topic for a different post.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Stimulus, Response: The G&M on Universities in Canada

On Tuesday, the Globe and Mail called out Canadian universities for their poor undergraduate teaching, calling current practices "unacceptable" and "unsustainable".

Here's one of many twitter discussions it triggered, letters to the editor (scroll to "Connecting the Dots"), and blog-length responses by Melonie Fullick, OCUFA, and Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.

There's lots of good stuff to read there, and I only have this to add: the Globe editorial frames the problem in terms of tension between research and teaching, and disregards any role for the modern university beyond the training of undergraduates. This is consistent with positions expressed by their senior columnists, Jeffrey Simpson and, more outrageously, Margaret Wente (seriously, go read Wente's column if you haven't already).

The "tension" between teaching and research is about as real and helpful as the War on the Car. Strong research programs help faculty keep their teaching dynamic, current, and topical; besides which, graduate-level teaching (like supervision of a Ph.D.) is research, and is totallly ignored by the Globe. So let's please put to bed this corrosive idea that research is some kind of luxury, or an optional activity that can be cut without consequences. (Again, where have we heard this kind of simplistic thinking before?)

[h/t @qui_oui for the links]