Wednesday, March 20, 2013

This whole "alternative careers" thing isn't worth the fuzz

I don't get it when people say that "alternative careers" in academia are not supported enough. How so? Virtually all academic training is about the alternative career!

That is the main career path, the one followed by ~90% of grad students and postdocs, the one that involves leaving academia at some point, that is not paid enough attention to. Even though most people who are working in academia this very moment will eventually leave academia, they don't receive enough training to prepare them for this step. This is bad.

Conversely, the "alternative path", taken by only 5-10% of people, which eventually leads to a tenure track position in a research university, is surprisingly well covered. All these postdocs, publications, conferences... All for one small alternative path. Isn't it strange?

So stop complaining about "alternative careers", and better concentrate on the "mainstream career": the one that leads out. At least pay some attention to it. Think of it. It's much more realistic.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Google decided to close the Google Reader service

Wow, bad news. Just half a year passed since I started reading Neuroscience-related blogs on a regular basis, and now Google takes from me the way to read them. I almost can not believe it. Google Reader seemed to be such a great, sane alternative to all these attention-snatching noisy services like Facebook and Twitter... Slow, careful, thoughtful environment. And now it is there no more. What a shame!

Here's a nice discussion about the whole affair. And, well, I don't yet know what to do. Maybe I'll find another RSS aggregator (maybe this one, or this. Or maybe this.). But just in case, let me list here some key blogs I read. Just as a reserve copy (even though this blog platform is also owned by Google... oh screw it!)

(cups his hands around the mouth and shouts) - Google, if you hear me, don't be evil!

Anyway. Here's the list.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Wheel of Time book series: the dynamics of sequel ratings

I am reading The Wheel of Time series. I've just finished volume 3, and by now I am somewhat tired, but not quite tired yet to quit. Still I am kind of unsure and undecided about whether I should go further or not. Or maybe take a break. Or maybe skip a volume or two.

To answer this question I downloaded book ratings from GoodReads, and visualized them. So for those of you who care, let me share the results =)

Most books are rated by quite a few people (about 30 thousands at least), so in terms of the spread these values should be quite tolerable. The biggest methodological problem with these numbers is that the further into the series, the more faithful and fantasy-oriented the readers in the pool would become, and it should certainly introduce a bias. I prefer to ignore this bias however, as I have no idea about its direction! More faithful readers may score the books slightly higher (because they are faithful, and so like them!), but at the same time they are also humans, and so they should gradually get tired, and thus score the books lower compared to the first volume. Also faithful readers may have higher standards for the books of this kind, as presumably they read dozens of them; unlike those who only "tried" the series... So, I don't know how to correct for this bias. Let it be.

Another thing we could look at in the GoodReads data is the "Readers retention score": share of people who managed to read book #i+1 after finishing the book #i. There's a pretty stable decline in reader numbers through the series, with the first book scored by 96 thousand people, and the twelve-st scored "only" by 38 thousands. At the same time, surprisingly, if you calculate the retaining index, it doesn't change that much across the series, except for a huge outlier at the book #11: the last one R. Jordan managed to write before he succumbed to cancer. I don't yet know whether the book is really that good, or whether it is just extremely intriguing, or maybe fresh, or maybe people paid attention to this whole real-life story around the fantasy world, with one author dying, but leaving extensive notes to his colleagues to finish the series... It may be. But it means that at least this book should probably be read, even if I decide to skip a few in the middle.

I can not use this index to measure books #13 and 14, unfortunately, as book #14 is the last one (i+1 doesn't exist), while book #13 was published too recently, and so has a relatively low number of readers. I guess, it also means that this plot has an even stronger positive bias just because of unequal exposure of books to time, so to say. It does probably also have a positive bias due to the "self-selection of faithful readers" described previously... Still it is funny that the "retention values" don't correlate with the rating at all (r = -0.2; p = 0.5). It's kind of weird.

Anyway, for me personally this data probably means that I'll try the fourth book. But if it doesn't quite work, I'll skip straight to book #11.

A postdoc song?

I have stumbled upon a song that neatly summarizes my experiences as a postdoc. It may not be 100% true, but it covers most of the phenomena! It is actually surprising that the title of the song doesn't even mention postdochood. At the same time, it may be a conscious omission. Just to make the hints more obvious =)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

In support of Gmail (and against Microsoft)

I hate Microsoft's "Scroogled" campaign so much that I will even post about it.

So, they claim that Google reads your mail (mainly to provide you with contextual ads, they admit), and it is a breach of your privacy, and so (surprise!) you should switch to Outlook. All heavily stylized, on a red background, with almost-blinking exclamation marks, and so on.

So, let me elaborate why Microsoft is wrong, and Gmail is actually good:

  1. Spam filters. The best way to stop the spam (and the only effective way available at the moment) is to use the collective intelligence, the web2.0 approach, so to say. That is, to provide individual users with a "report spam" button, and to filter messages that have overcome a certain threshold of reports. But you know what? The implementation of this algorithm actually requires the software to scan through your letters. And you do want it, because you don't want spam.
  2. Non-context-driven advertisement is bad; which means that context-driven ads are at least not as bad, or maybe even good. Now, this is a strong belief of mine; one with which many people would not probably agree immediately, but consider the following. Ads (general ads, like those on TV) create information noise around you. In a sense they aren't much different from spam: they just load you with unnecessary information you didn't request; they take your time, your thoughts, your life. They try to trick you into doing things you don't need, or want. Also from purely financial point of view, if a product is heavily advertised , it means that marketing expenses constitute a substantial part of its price. So by buying products that are advertised you are essentially paying somebody to have your TV-shows interrupted. You are paying somebody to have your internet-magazines and web-sites cluttered with useless ads you don't read anyway (or at least try not to read). You provide positive reinforcement to them! The only rational response to advertisement actually is not to buy the brands that are advertised, as you want to pay for the product, not for the noise about it directed at you. There's only one thing that is good about ads: that they can potentially expose you to something you do actually need, but are simply not aware of. Now, if you think of it, contextual ads is the only realistic way to minimize the bad components, while increasing the good. That's the only way to make ads informative and useful, and maybe even interesting, while reducing the total amount of noise in the system. For you personally, mind it.
That's two good points in favor of Google. Now two bad points against Microsoft:
  1. Microsoft's "Scroogle" campaign is inspired (visually and in spirit) by hysterical conspiracy movements, such as, say, anti-vaccination movement, or tea-party style propaganda. And as such, it actually promotes this style of thinking. Making the world a slightly worse place to live.
  2. It pushes the privacy-related discourse into wrong direction. Now, this is again somewhat controversial, but I think it is fair to say that privacy as we knew it for decades, is dead. We leave so many traces in the world (mainly digital, but not only), we are so interconnected, and the computational power and information access available to each of us are so great that given enough time and will anybody can learn anything they need about any other person. I think the "Vanish" project is one of the best illustration of it, but not the only one of course. Anyway, the sooner we start re-thinking the concept of privacy; the sooner we realize that we just can not hope to hide from the world around us anymore, the better the outcome will be. Privacy is at decline, and just hiding information about us can not solve our problems anymore. It may give us a false sense of protection, but it would only increase the risks, as it would make the stakes higher. We need to think of other mechanisms to protect our lives from bad will and bad luck. But the first step towards the solution is to accept the problem. Not to pretend you can deny it by switching from one IT leviathan to another.