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2015 March 15

Bruni opinion column on college admissions

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:58
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In How to Survive the College Admissions Madness, Frank Bruni writes consoling advice for parents and high school seniors wrapped up in college admissions and set on going to elite colleges. Although the obsession with elite-or-nothing is more a New York thing than the American universal he treats it as, it is common enough to be worth an opinion column, and he does as nice job of providing a couple of stories that counter the obsession. (No data though—his column is strictly anecdotal, with 5 anecdotes.)

He recognizes that he is really talking to a small segment of the population:

I’m describing the psychology of a minority of American families; a majority are focused on making sure that their kids simply attend a decent college—any decent college—and on finding a way to help them pay for it. Tuition has skyrocketed, forcing many students to think not in terms of dream schools but in terms of those that won’t leave them saddled with debt.

But the core of the advice he gives is applicable to anyone going to college, not just to those seeking elite admission:

… the admissions game is too flawed to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student’s college experience—the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed—matters more than the name of the institution attended. In fact students at institutions with less hallowed names sometimes demand more of those places and of themselves. Freed from a focus on the packaging of their education, they get to the meat of it.

In any case, there’s only so much living and learning that take place inside a lecture hall, a science lab or a dormitory. Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.

The elites have some resources to offer that colleges with lesser financial endowments find difficult to match, but any good enough college can provide opportunities to those who look for them.  For some students, being one of the best at a slightly “lesser” institution may result in more opportunities, more faculty attention, and more learning than being just above average in an elite school.  (And, vice versa, of course—moving from being the best in high school to run-of-the-mill at an elite college can also be an important wake-up call.)

Currently, the American college landscape is very broad, offering a lot of different choices with different prices and different strengths.  Unfortunately, many of our state legislatures and governors have decided that only one model should be allowed—the fully private, job-training institution—and are doing everything they can to kill off the public colleges and universities that have been the backbone of US post-secondary education since the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890.

The colleges established by the land grant acts were intended as practical places, not primarily social polish for the rich (as most private colleges were then, and most of the elites are now).  The purpose of these public colleges was

without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.[7 U.S.C. § 304, as quoted in Wikipedia]

Although agriculture is no longer as large an employer as it was in the 19th century, research in agriculture at the land-grant universities is still driving a major part of the US economy, and engineering (quaintly referred to as “the mechanic arts”) is still a major employer and a primary route for upward social mobility in the US.  The land-grant colleges were explicitly not intended as bastions for the rich to defend their privilege (as our legislators want to make them, by raising tuition to stratospheric levels), but for “liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”—colleges for working-class people.

I think that it would benefit the US for legislatures to once again invest in the “education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” and for parents and students to look seriously at the state-supported colleges, before the madness of privatization wipes them out.

(Disclaimer: I teach at one campus of the University of California, and my son attends another—neither of them land-grant colleges, but both imperiled by the austerity politics of the California legislature, who see their legacy in building prisons and making sure the rich don’t pay taxes, not in providing education for the working class.)

2015 March 14

History of electronics via Google ngrams

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:16
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I was playing with Google ngrams today (checking to see the whether some variant spellings were ever mainstream) and came up with a history of electronics in one graph:

A short history of electronics in a few key words. At first, power is what mattered, and voltmeters and ammeters ruled. In the 40s, time-varying signals mattered, and oscilloscopes started getting attention. Time-varying signals ruled until digital electronics took over with the introduction of the microprocessor. Now all these low-level views are losing space to consumer-level gadgets like mobile phones.

I could have picked different words, but because Google ngrams provides no way to switch to a log scale for the y-axis (the only sensible way to show growth or decay of word usage), it is not feasible to put a common word like “computer” on the same graph as a rare word like “multimeter”. Google, as always, provides an almost-reasonable product, then never takes the trouble to finish it to allow the user to do things right. Oh, well, it’s free, and that’s the business model Google is relying on: ads on free (almost usable) stuff. The two things they do well are search and selling ads.

Plagiarism detected

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:33
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It has recently come to my attention that an article in Nature Biotechnology: doi:10.1038/nbt.2950 “Decoding long nanopore sequencing reads of natural DNA” plagiarizes from my blog, specifically Supplementary Material page 6 from Segmenting noisy signals from nanopores.  Now, I don’t mind their using my work—I would not have published it in such a public form as posting to my blog if I were trying to keep it secret—but standard scholarly practice requires that sources be cited.  Claiming someone else’s work as one’s own is the academic sin.

I don’t know which of the 13 authors of the Nature Biotechnology authors is the plagiarist, but I hold the head of the lab (Jens Gundlach) responsible for the plagiarism, since it seems clear that he did not bother to check that his students and co-workers were citing others’ work appropriately.  It is the job of the head of a lab to create a culture of proper citation—failure to do so is indication of not doing one’s job as a scholar or as a professor.

I’m undecided about what to do about this plagiarism.  The obvious thing to do would be to complain to the editors, but I have no idea whether that will do any good.  The last time I had a serious plagiarism case like this was when I was in logic minimization, and parts of a paper of mine that had been rejected from the main (almost sole) journal in the field later appeared in a conference article with the editor who had rejected the paper as one of the co-authors.  In that case, complaints to the journal were useless (they just sent the complaints to the editor who had plagiarized from me—thereby ensuring that I would never get any papers published in the field).  I ended up leaving the field in disgust (as several other researchers had done—the field has been pretty stagnant since all new ideas were blocked by the powerful editor) and moving into bioinformatics instead, where rivalries were decided more on the quality of one’s solutions than on publication blocking and theft.

This case is different, though, because the plagiarist is not the editor of the journal, and so the editors may have some leverage to apply to the authors, in order to maintain the credibility of the journal.

The fix I’m looking for is pretty simple one: an apology from Jens Gundlach for not catching and correcting the plagiarism, and adding a citation to my blog to the published article. If they can’t bring themselves to cite me, they could at least cite another source (like Detection of Abrupt Changes: Theory and Application by Michèle Basseville and Igor V. Nikiforov, whom I cited as my inspiration, though Basseville and Nikiforov don’t describe the recursive algorithm I developed).

To complicate matters slightly, I’ve recently submitted a paper to PeerJ based on the same body of work (though including the improved parameterization developed in some of my later blog posts, and including some empirical evidence that the new algorithm works substantially better than filtered-derivative algorithms).  I would not want someone finding Gundlach’s group’s paper and think I had plagiarized from them, rather than them from me.

I ask my readers—how diligently should I pursue this plagiarism case?  Has anyone had any experience with Nature Biotechnology on such matters? Do they care about plagiarism? Or do they make life hell for anyone who brings up the subject?

Disturbing info about student privacy

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:58
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In Raped on Campus? Don’t Trust Your College to Do the Right Thing, former law professor Katie Rose Guest Pryal discusses the recent University of Oregon incident, in which UofO lawyers legally accessed a student’s rape trauma therapy records when she sued them for mishandling a charge of rape against their basketball players.  Pryal wrote

My advice is simple.

Students: Don’t go to your college counseling center to seek therapy. Go to an off-site counseling center. If, God forbid, you’ve been sexually assaulted, try to find a rape-crisis center. It will have wonderful people to talk to, free of charge. (I know from personal experience.) You simply do not have adequate privacy protections if you go to a college-provided counselor. Sorry. (Or, in the University of Oregon’s case, sorry not sorry.)

Instructors: Don’t advise your students to seek counseling in the on-campus counseling center. There is no way that, in good conscience, I can ever give that advice again. If you have a student in crisis, help that student find support off campus.

The problem with my advice, of course, is one of money—serious money, in some instances. Many student-health plans will not pay for students to see a counselor who is not at the institution’s own counseling center.

The problem is that student medical records are not properly covered by HIPAA (which protects most medical records) but by FERPA (which protects education records).  As Pryal says, “compared with HIPAA, FERPA is about as protective as cheesecloth.”

While rape and sexual assault are not huge problems on our campus (thanks, I think, to a lack of frats and Division I sports), they are not unknown either. Although I’ve never had to provide any recommendations to victims individually, I have passed on the group advice that the Title IX officer on campus has recommended, which has never mentioned this huge FERPA-based loophole. Should I now include mention of the problem that therapy records at the student health center are basically unprotected, even if the therapists think that they are?

Pryal’s bottom line is one I agree with:

So my final piece of advice is directed to the U.S. Education Department: Fix this devastating privacy loophole.

Of course, I don’t know if the problem is in the regulations, which the Education Department could fix, or in the law, which would require Congress to act.  Given that we now have a Republican Congress, I don’t expect any improvement in laws protecting rape victims—if anything, I’d expect the current Congress to want to assert more institutional control over women’s bodies and less right to privacy (except for the privacy of rich donors to political campaigns, of course—our congress critters are always willing to bend over backwards for those who come with money in hand).

2015 March 1

Second weight-loss progress report

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:04
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In 2015 New Year’s resolution , I said that I want to lose 10–15 pounds by June 2015 (I’ve now set a specific target: 160 lbs). In Weight-loss progress report, I provided a one-month update. Now it’s time for the two-month update.

The month of February has been much like January—I continue eating any amount of food for lunch, but only raw fruits and vegetables, and my evening is not restricted by type of food, but I’m trying to control how much I eat at dinner.  My exercise levels are also unchanged, averaging 4.84 miles/day of bicycling this month—insignificantly higher than the 4.76 miles/day of January.

    I'm currently on track to hit my target weight around April 13 (at 1.02 lbs/week) or May 5 (at 0.74 lbs/week).

I’m currently on track to hit my target weight around April 13 (at 1.02 lbs/week) or May 5 (at 0.74 lbs/week).

I am at the lowest weight I’ve been since I bought the scale in 2011 and started recording my weight.  Although I was losing 1.24 lbs/week in January, my weight loss has slowed considerably, and I only have been losing 0.74 lbs/week in February.  Over both months, the weight loss is still about 1 lb/week, and the slowdown was expected, but I’m wondering whether I need to be a bit more diligent on weekends, to avoid further slowdown.

The diet has been both easier and harder than I expected.  Limiting myself to raw fruits and vegetables for lunch was fairly easy—the hardest thing there is remembering to prepare and pack a lunch every day.  Stopping eating in the evening before I feel full has been harder.  I had expected the reverse (that I’d feel very hungry at work and hit the vending machine, and that eating just enough for dinner would be fairly easy).


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