Tag Archives: phd

Not That Kind of Writer

There’s this nice geeky T-shirt that says: “not that kind of doctor.” It’s designed for PhD holders, who arguably are the only people really entitled to be called doctors, but that usually aren’t (I’ve only been referred to as Dr. Marcelo once, actually), and in general don’t care about the title (except perhaps when booking a flight, in which case it can help getting a class upgrade — though it might cause disappointment if somebody gets sick in the airplane).

Similarly, there could be a T-shirt with the phrase “not that kind of writer,” meant to people that, while not being writers of fiction or non-fiction, do write for a living. And I argue they have an impact in our modern world that at least matches the importance of the writers of that kind.

I’m talking of computer scientists, applied mathematicians, software developers, and other professionals who write code.

Code is a funny kind of literary piece. It can be easily identified, regardless of the subject, due to the large use of indentation and different colors. Besides, writers of code prefer fonts whose characters have a constant width (otherwise indentation would be kind of useless).

Many paragraphs start with the words for, if, and while. These constructions are very important in telling the story the writer intends to be lived by the characters it’s aimed for: data. It seems boring, but data can refer to a wide range of interesting things: the color of a particular pixel on your computer screen, the balance of your bank account, the last book you ordered online.

A good writer of code, just like a good writer of that kind, is very concerned with syntax, semantics, and aesthetics in general. In the words of Francis Sullivan, “great algorithms are the poetry of computation.”

Indeed. Consider, for instance, the Fourier Transform story. It’s a story about how certain kinds of data, like audio, get decomposed in their frequencies. Until 1965, the length of the story increased too rapidly with respect to the size of the data. That year, James Cooley and John Tukey (by the time doctors, not of that kind) wrote a masterpiece poem, the Fast Fourier Transform, which makes that story much less tedious for their characters.

Writers not of that kind are often weird, socially awkward folks. Not of the kind that would impress regular writers, “liberal arts” people. But they are essential these days. If it were’t for them, there would be no space exploration, no mp3, no Angry Birds… And writers of that kind would still be using pens and typewriters (out of necessity, not just because vintage things are cool).

The Struggle for Life in Planet Science

(Appeared in Washington Square News.)

Face detection, which consists of finding the approximate center points of faces in a digital image, is one of the most notable problems in Computer Vision, a field of research that deals with image understanding. Considerable progress was obtained in the first decade of the present century, and, these days, algorithms for it are widely available in photo-related devices and software applications.

Let us suppose that you find yourself interested in getting informed about the state-of-the-art in face detection. After a quick look on the non-surprisingly-existing Wikipedia article for it (whose text lacks in objectivity and credibility), you might decide to ask some help from Google Scholar or Microsoft Academic Search. The first will get you over 2.8 million results. The second, about 3,800 publications. Now, in order for you not to panic at those numbers and immediately lose interest, you should probably believe that there are better ways of narrowing your search.

Incidentally, there are. You can restrict your search on Google Scholar for results that were published only this year: 45,700. “Keep calm and carry on”, the popular internet meme reminds you. Try excluding patents and citations. 39,600 results. Sigh. Let us see what Microsoft Academic Search has to offer: a list of 598 conferences and 231 journals. “Not so bad”, you think, “they can be sorted by quality, or some other criterium.” You search for “top conferences in computer vision” on Google and get as first result the Microsoft Academic Search link for a list of conferences topped by CVPR (Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition). There are 78 listed publications related with face detection in this conference since 2012. If this doesn’t look scary to you, consider that a publication has in general more than 6 pages and do the math.

The flooding of academic articles is not a problem per se. Except in rare counterexamples suitable for philosophical discussions, in what concerns knowledge, the more, the better. The issue is on quality, of course. Is it too easy to publish, then? Not really. Everyone who ever tried to publish something, even in non-mainstream venues, know that reviewers are not the most kind of people. In fact, gratuitously hostile reviews are not uncommon. Yet, the best scientific works in any topic are obscured by sketches of ideas with only potential usefulness, tedious variations of methods that outperform previous versions by half percent or so, and other findings of dubious significance. If even low quality works pass the thin review filter, the pressure they exert should be very high.

“Pressure” is, perhaps, the key word. In its Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus argues that, due to the pressure of population growth, policies designed to help the poor are destined to fail. The population in case now is that of PhDs. Just to mention two numbers, in the United States about 20,000 PhDs were produced in 2009; and, considering the subset of biological sciences, by 2006 only 15% were in tenure positions six years after graduating*. Most of them end up as postdocs, until they publish enough to get into tenure track, or go to Industry, to steal jobs at which undergrads would do just fine.

History has told us that Malthus’ essay was critical for Darwin’s insight on its theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. According to the later, individuals are doomed to compete with each other for the limited existing food. In times where Evolution by Natural Selection is perhaps the most established of the scientific theories, the fact that life in the scientific world is subject to a Darwinian struggle for survival is, to say the least, disturbing.

* Source: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/full/472276a.html