Older blog entries for mako (starting at number 302)

Advice for Prospective Doctoral Students

There is tons of advice on the Internet (e.g., on the academic blogs I read) for prospective doctoral students. I am very happy with my own graduate school choices but I feel that I basically got lucky. Few people are saying the two things I really wish someone had told me before I made the decision to get a PhD:

  • Most people getting doctorates would probably be better off doing something else.
  • Evaluating potentially programs can basically done by looking at and talking with a program's recent graduates.

Most People Getting Doctorates Probably Shouldn't

In most fields, the only thing you need a PhD for is to become a professor -- and even this requirement can be flexible. You can have almost any job in any company or non-profit without a PhD. You can teach without a PhD. You can write books without a PhD. You can do research and work in thinktanks without a PhD. You don't even always need a PhD to grant PhDs to other people: two of my advisors at the Media Lab supervised PhD work but did not have doctorates themselves! Becoming a tenured professor is more difficult without a doctorate, but it is not impossible. There are grants and jobs outside of universities that require doctorates, but not nearly as many as most people applying for PhDs programs think.

Getting a doctorate can even hurt: If you want to work in a company or non-profit, you are usually better off with 4-6 years of experience doing the kind of work you want to do than with the doctorate and the less relevant experience of getting one. Starting salaries for people with doctorates are often higher than for people with masters degrees. But salaries for people with masters degrees and 5 years of experience are even higher -- and that's before you take into account the opportunity costs of working for relatively low graduate student wages for half a decade.

PhD take an enormous amount of time and, in most programs, you spend a huge amount of this time doing academic busy work, teaching, applying for grants or fellowships, and writing academic papers that very people read. These are skills you'll need to be a successful professor. They are useful skills for other jobs too, but not as useful as the experience of actually doing those other jobs for the time it takes to get the degree.

Evaluating Graduate Programs

If you are still convinced you need a doctorate, or any graduate degree for that matter, you will need to pick a program. Plenty of people will offer advice on how to pick the right program and trying to balance all the complicated and contradictory advice can be difficult. Although I love my program and advisors, I've known many less happy students. Toward that end, there are two pieces of meta-advice that I wish everybody was told before they applied:

  1. Find recent graduates of the program you are considering, and the faculty advisor(s) you are planning on working with, and look at where they are now. Are these ex-students doing the kind of work that you want to do? Are they at great programs at great universities?

    Chances are good that a PhD program and its faculty will prepare future students to be like, and do work like, the students they have trained in the past. Programs that consistently make good placements are preparing their students well, supporting them, making sure they have the resources necessary to do good work, and helping their students when they are on the job market. A program whose students do poorly, or just end doing work that isn't like the kind you want to do, will probably fail you too.

  2. If recent graduates seem to be generally successful and doing the kind of work you want to do, find one who looks most like the kind of academic you want to become and talk to them about their experience. Chances are, your faculty advisors will overlap with theirs and your experience will be similar. Ex-students can tell you the strengths of weaknesses of the program you are considering and what to watch out for. If they had a horrible experience, there's a decent chance you will too, and they will tell you so.

Doing these two things means you don't have to worry about trying to think of all the axes on which you want to evaluate a program or pour through admissions material which is only tangentially connected to the reality you'll live for a long time. What matters most is the outcomes, of course, because you're be living the rest of your life for a lot longer than you'll be in the PhD program.

Syndicated 2012-02-18 01:18:33 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Quasi-Private Resources

Public Resource republishes many court documents. Although these documents are all part of the public record and PR will not take them down because someone finds their publication uncomfortable, PR will evaluate and honor some requests to remove documents from search engine results. Public Resources does so using a robots.txt file or "robot exclusion protocol" which websites use to, among other things, tell search engine's web crawling "robots" which pages they do not want to be indexed and included in search results. Originally, the files were mostly used to keep robots from abusing server resources by walking through infinite lists of automatically generated pages or to block search engines from including user-contributed content that might include spam.

The result for Public Resource, however, is that PR is now publishing, in the form of its robots.txt, a list of all of the cases that people have successfully requested to be made less visible!

In Public Resource's case, this is is the result of a careful decision; PR makes the arrangement clear in on their website. The robots.txt home page also explains the situation saying, "the /robots.txt file is a publicly available file. Anyone can see what sections of your server you don't want robots to use,", and "don't try to use /robots.txt to hide information."

That said, I've looked at a bunch of robots.txt files on websites I have visited recently and, sadly, I've found many sites that use robots.txt as a form of weak security. This is very dangerous.

Some poorly designed robots simply ignore the robots.txt file. But one can also imagine an evil search engine that uses a web-crawler that does the opposite of what it's told and only indexes these "hidden" pages. This evil crawler might look for particular keywords or use existing search engine data to check for incoming links in order to construct a list of pages whose existence is only made public through a file meant to keep people away.

Check your own robots.txt and ask yourself what it might reveal. By advertising the existence and locations of your secrets, the act of "hiding" might make your data even less private.

Syndicated 2012-02-13 10:41:18 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Internet Immortality

Kim Jong-Il is gone. That said, he continues to live on, looking at things, on the popular blog Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things which continues to be updated with new content from the archives.

It is now joined by Kim Jong-Un Looking At Things. I think I agree with João Rocha, creator of the original, that the younger Kim seems to be missing some hard-to-pin-down quality that made the original work well.

Syndicated 2012-01-20 16:31:33 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Mystery Hunt

I've mentioned before that I compete every year in the MIT Mystery Hunt -- an enormous, multi-day, round-the-clock puzzle competition held in January at MIT each year.

Last year, my team Codex won the hunt. The reward (punishment?) for winning is the responsibility to write the 100+ puzzles, (and meta-puzzles, and meta-meta-puzzles, and theme, and events) and to put on the whole event the following year.

So over the last year, I've worked with a huge group of folks to put together this year's hunt which had a theme loosely based on The Producers. My own role was small compared to many of my teammates: I contributed to some puzzle writing and to a bunch of "test-solving" of candidate puzzles to make sure they were solvable, not too easy, fun, and well constructed. During the hunt, I visited competing teams, verified answer submissions, and took advantage of my jet-lag from my return from Japan on the day of the hunt to work the night shift distributing items to teams.

To get an idea of what the hunt is like, you can check out a puzzle I wrote for this years hunt. The solution is linked from the corner of that page.

Syndicated 2012-01-16 02:27:37 from Benjamin Mako Hill

The Influence of the Ecstasy of Influence

/copyrighteous/images/andy-warhol-mickey.jpg

Back in 2007, Harpers Magazine published The Ecstasy of Influence: a beautiful article by Jonathan Lethem on reuse in art and literature. Like Lewis Hyde in The Gift (quite like Hyde, as readers discover) Lethem blurs the line between plagiarism, remix, and influence and points to his subject at the center of artistic production. Lethem's gimmick, which most readers only discover at the end, is that the article is constructed entirely out of "reused" (i.e., plagiarized) quotations and paraphrases.

A couple months ago, I suggested to my friend Andrés Monroy-Hernández a very similar project: a literature review on academic work on remixing and remixing communities constructed entirely of text lifted from existing research.

After some searching around, Andrés pointed out that Lethem had essentially beaten us to the punch and linked me to his article. Only after I visited the link did I remember that I had read Lethem's article when it was published and loved the idea then. Over time, I'd forgotten I read ever it.

Without knowing it, I had read, loved, forgotten, and then -- influenced, if unconsciously -- copied and reproduced the idea myself in slightly modified form.

And I suppose that was the point.

Syndicated 2011-12-19 02:30:59 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Wide Scream

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/de/Aspect-ratio-4x3.svg https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Aspect-ratio-16x9.svg

It seems that nearly all computer monitors have now switched from a 4:3 aspect ratio popular several years ago to a "wide screen" 16:10 and now mostly to an even wider 16:9.

But screen sizes are usually measured by their diagonal length and those sizes have not changed. For example, before I had my Thinkpad X201, I had a X60 and a X35. They are similar laptops in the same product line with 12.1" screens. But 12.1" describes the size along the diagonal and the aspect ratio switched from 4:3 to 16:10 between the X60 and the X201. As the screen stretched out but maintained the same diagonal length, the area shrunk: from 453 square centimeters to 425.

But screens are not only getting smaller, they are also getting less useful. The switch to wider aspect ratios is done so that people can watch wide screen movies while using a larger proportion of their screens. Of course, the vast majority of people's time on their laptops is not spent watching wide screen movies but in programs like browsers, word processors, and editors. Because most of our writing systems lay out documents from top to bottom, the tools we most frequently use to display (and then scroll through) the things we read primarily use vertical screen space -- the dimension that is shrinking.

If you have a desktop monitor, you might rotate the whole thing 90 degrees and "solve" the problem. If you're on a laptop though (as I usually am) this is clearly not an option.

I am not the first person to be annoyed by this trend. In fact, many recent desktop UI changes are designed to work around this issue. In the free software world, both Unity and GNOME 3 have made efforts to hide, merge, or otherwise get ride of title bars, menu bars, and panels that take up dwindling vertical space. I use Awesome which I've mostly set up to do two side-by-side terminals with very little in the way of menu bars.

/copyrighteous/images/awesome_screenshot_2011-small.png

Applications are the worst offenders and the solutions for those things that won't run in a terminal (or people that don't want to live there) are still lacking. I have been using Firefox's Tree Style Tab extension to move tabs to the side and hand-customized toolbars that squeeze everything I need (i.e., back, forward, stop, refresh, and URL bar) onto a single menu bar.

/copyrighteous/images/iceweasel_menu_eg_screenshot_2011-small.png

But the situation still drives me crazy. I'd love to hear what others are doing.

Syndicated 2011-12-07 22:40:01 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Winter Travels in Seattle and Japan

/copyrighteous/images/space_needle_christmas-small.jpg /copyrighteous/images/sapporo_winter-small.jpg

Mika and I will be traveling this winter in the Seattle area and in Japan. The current plan is to be in Seattle December 19 through 28 and then in Japan from December 28 through January 12. After that, we will fly back to Boston for the MIT Mystery Hunt where, as punishment for winning last year, our team is running this year's hunt.

We will be in Tokyo for New Years and then traveling around Japan for much of the rest of the time. We hope to visit Hokkaido and Aomori and to travel there from Tokyo along Japan's Western coast through Kanazawa and Niigata.

We're still figuring out where we will visit and what we will do in both places. If you are interested in meeting up for dinner or drinks in either place (or in organizing a talk or meeting), please get in touch and let's try to figure something out.

Syndicated 2011-12-05 22:00:59 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Bootstrapping

AndroidZoom, along with just about every other third-party interface to the Android Market out there, provides 2D barcodes which aim to make it easy to install Android applications that you find online on a phone. Maybe this would be a nice feature for F-Droid?

Unfortunately, I found this feature when I was trying to help a friend install the (free software) ZXing Barcode Scanner because they wanted to read a 2D barcode.

Syndicated 2011-11-30 00:28:24 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Voice Message of Peace

The Community Wellness team at MIT has a program on stress reduction, mindfulness, and relaxation. Among their services is a guided three-minute relaxation exercise recording (available at extension 3-2256 or 617-253-CALM). It's a very relaxing message.

At the end of the recording, there's a revealing error where a standard voicemail robo-voice say "no messages are waiting" before you system hangs up on you. Turns out, the MIT wellness folks implemented this using the normal MIT voicemail system.

This gave me a thought: What if my voicemail greeting included a guided relaxation message as part of its greeting so that anyone who left a message had the chance to relax a little bit first? Would messages left for me be more positive after a window of serenity? Would people ask less of me? Would my callers feel more relaxed and happier during the rest of their day?

I just recorded a short version of the MIT message as my voicemail greeting. I suppose I will find out.

Syndicated 2011-11-28 02:33:03 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Iron Blogger

I want to blog frequently but usually don't seem to find the time for it. I'm not above tying myself to the mast if it means blogging more.

Iron Blogger is a blogging and drinking club based on this premise. The rules are pretty simple:

  • Blog at least once a week.
  • If you fail to do so, pay $5 into a common pool.
  • When the pool is big enough, the group uses it to pay for drinks and snacks at a meet-up for all the participants.

Nelson Elhage ran the original Iron Blogger for about a year before the effort ran out of steam. I've started a new instance with a couple people from the previous group and a bunch of folks from Berkman, MIT, and beyond.

If you live in Boston and want to join, there are still a couple of spots available. I'm going to cap the current group, at least temporarily, at about 30 people because I think that's the maximum we'll fit into a local pub. Look over the site and send me an email if you're interested.

If you don't live in Boston but want to organize your own Iron Blogger, you can use the software in Nelson's git repository (or my branch) to automate nearly the whole process of tracking posts, generating reports, and updating the ledger of debts.

Syndicated 2011-11-21 04:12:17 from Benjamin Mako Hill

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