Taken to School

Here is a fine piece of investigative journalism about a very wide spread scam that is plaguing academia. Definitely worth a watch.

I have a friend in Minsk…

Unlike the usual university plagiarism policy which is typically something bland copied from another university, the University of Bergen has explained the problem, and consequences, of plagiarism with Hollywood-level production values.

(Be sure to click on “CC” for the English subtitles.)
I came across the video from the blog of Andrew Gelman, who has long chronicled plagiarism and other forms of scientific misconduct. From his post, I also learned about my new favorite plagiarism story.

NRC (not really correct?) Graduate School Rankings

The NRC graduate school ranks are due out tomorrow, September 29. For those who don’t know, the last NRC ranking was in 1995 and the latest is much delayed (I.e. the “data” such as it is is already out of date.) Departments have been given access to the data for a week now but have been under embargo. As a blogger it is a moral imperative to search the inter tubes for leaks of this data. Surprisingly there has been little leaked, but today I’m proud to say that my own UW, while not technically breaking the embargo (okay maybe they have :)) has some info out about their forthcoming rankings. Now I’m probably definitely biased but I can pretty safely say that the UW CS ranking is off by a bit:

The NRC assessment of UW Computer Science & Engineering is based on clearly erroneous data. The assessment is meaningless, and in no way representative of the accomplishments of UW CSE. Errors in the data affect (at least) UW CSE, many other computer science programs nationally, and many programs in other fields at the University of Washington.
During the week of September 19th, NRC provided pre-release access to its long-delayed “Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States,” scheduled for public release during the week of September 26th.
We, along with colleagues in other computer science programs nationally and colleagues in programs in other fields at the University of Washington, quickly discovered significant flaws of three types in NRC’s data:

  • Instances in which the data reported by NRC is demonstrably incorrect, sometimes by very substantial margins.
  • Instances in which the accuracy of the data cannot easily be checked, but it does not pass even a rudimentary sanity check.
  • Instances in which institutions interpreted NRC’s data reporting guidelines differently, yielding major inconsistencies.

Here are three specific examples affecting UW CSE:

  • Due to difficulty in interpreting NRC’s instructions, NRC was provided with an incorrect faculty list for our program – essentially, a list that included anyone who had served as a member of a Ph.D. committee. In 2006 (the reporting year), UW CSE had roughly 40 faculty members by any reasonable definition. In the NRC study, our “total faculty” size is listed as 91 and our “allocated faculty size” (roughly, full time equivalent) as 62.5. A large number of these “additional faculty” were industrial colleagues – whose “academic records” (including grants, publications, and awards) were quantitatively evaluated by NRC as if these individuals were full members of our faculty. Since faculty size is the denominator in many measures computed by NRC, you can imagine the result – clearly erroneous.
  • NRC reports UW CSE with 0% of graduate students “having academic plans” for 2001-05 (the reporting period for this measure). In fact, 40% of our graduating Ph.D. students took full-time faculty positions during this period. We are one of the top programs nationally in producing faculty members for major departments; in recent years our graduates have taken faculty positions at Berkeley, CMU, MIT, Princeton, Cornell, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Penn, Waterloo, Toronto, WashU, UCSD, Northwestern, UCLA, UBC, Maryland, Georgia Tech, UMass-Amherst, and many other outstanding programs. NRC obtained this number from an outside data provider; it’s clearly erroneous.
  • NRC reports UW CSE as having 0.09 “awards per allocated faculty member.” The erroneous faculty count is not sufficient to explain this, given that our faculty includes 14 ACM Fellows, 10 IEEE Fellows, 3 AAAI Fellows, 14 Sloan Research Fellowship recipients, a MacArthur Award winner, two NAE members, 27 NSF CAREER Award winners, etc. We don’t know where NRC obtained this data, but it’s clearly erroneous.
    The University of Washington reported these issues to NRC when the pre-release data was made available, and asked NRC to make corrections prior to public release. NRC declined to do so. We and others have detected and reported many other anomalies and inaccuracies in the data during the pre-release week.

The widespread availability of the badly flawed pre-release data within the academic community, and NRC’s apparent resolve to move forward with the public release of this badly flawed data, have caused us and others to take action – hence this statement. Garbage In, Garbage Out – this assessment is based on clearly erroneous data. For our program – and surely for many others – the results are meaningless.

Feynman Lectures Online – Thanks Bill!

Microsoft Research’s Project Tuva website is up. Project Tuva is a collection of seven searchable Feynman lectures aimed at a popular audience (with extras coming online in the future.) The rights to these lectures were obtained by Bill Gates after he was entranced by them over twenty years ago. Well worth watching, especially if you’re about to give a popular science talk (I’ve always been fascinated by how Feynman uses his hands in describing physics.)
Even more interesting, in my egocentric universe, are the comments by Mr. Gates himself about Feynman:

Someone who can make science interesting is magical. And the person who did that better than anyone was Richard Feynman. He took the mystery of science, the importance of science, the strangeness of science and made it fun, and interesting, and approachable.

He makes physics fun. Some people will laugh at that phrase, but I’m not kidding when I say it.

Compare and contrast to a certain undergraduate at Caltech in a 1996 interview on CNN:

But for students of physics, Feynman is remembered most for his amazing lectures. Part actor, part storyteller, part physicist, Richard Feynman the lecturer first stood at a podium at Cal Tech [sic] in 1950. Until his death from cancer in 1988, he inspired legions of students.
Mention his name to physics students at Cal Tech [sic] today and watch their eyes light up: “One of the reasons it was easier to become a physicist was because he was so exciting and he wasn’t the typical, you know, nerd who doesn’t say anything,” said Cal Tech [sic] senior Dave Bacon.

One of the other students interviewed (and the smartest physicist in my class) attempted to get in a great double entendre involving Feynman’s “little red book” into his interview, but alas either CNN caught onto him, or they just didn’t like the quote.

Like Space Camp, But Quantized

A friend sent me a link to QuantumCamp:

Have you ever wondered how the microscopic Universe works? QuantumCamp is a one week journey through this strange but beautiful world – seeing nothing less than how every atom in our universe is working!
We begin with Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements. We move from Albert Einstein’s idea of quantization and end up seeing the hydrogen spectrum while contemplating the ideas of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.
We witness the explosive beauty and inner order of the elements which begs for deeper investigation. We dive in and immerse ourselves in a world where quantum logic guides us to an understanding of the quantum nature of the universe.
Students entering grades 7th – 12th can enroll. These activities are designed for students who plan to choose a career in science and those who have an insatiable desire to find their connection in this Universe.

A cool idea, I think. Okay, I’ll admit it. When I was a wee lad, I attended “computer camp.” Did “computer camp” change my life? Probably not. But I got to see a Mac fry, and they let me program in Pascal which was kind of cool. And who knows, maybe QuantumCamp will be a legendary source of programmers for our future quantum computers?

Math Gains, But World Still Scheduled to End

In this era of the impending apocalypse, what the hell is a report about United States students actually showing gains in mathematics doing in the New York Times? Dude, media, get on message and send us some more doom and gloom! I especially need more gloom here in Seattle where the sun rises at 7:47 a.m. and sets at 4:18 p.m.
Update: Ah, science results are flat, so it’s the end of the world as we know it, according to The Washington Post. Thank’s WaPo for restoring pessimism into my world.

Information Age Transcripts

Not just grades but:

  • Grade distribution for the class. At a minimum: class average, standard deviation, median. Even better: a breakdown by grade.
  • Scores of students in the class on standardized exit exams. For example I’d like to see how students who took the class scored on physics GREs.
  • Surveys of the students perception of the difficulty of the class. Comparison of this ranking for same students across other classes.

Today, when information storage is cheap, why is it that we have a grading standard consisting of a few lousy letters (less for some schools..you know who I’m talking about!) Should we shoot for a standardized more information content grading standard? Or is the current system fine for the purpose it serves (which varies widely among the users of the grades)?

DonorChoose Challenge: Pseudo Physicists Unite!

DonorChoose, an organization which matches teachers requests for funds with donors, is running their annual blogger challenge. Already Cosmic Variance is trying to harness their vast resources of physicists, The Optimizer is appealing to the base nerd in everyone, He of Uncertain Principles is offering up his dog’s services for donations (does the dog know?), and the moral Mathematician is offering solutions to math homework problems (err I mean blog posts on a chosen topic.) But I think you shouldn’t fall in this trap and support those blogs….
Because, of course instead you should support my “Pseudo Physicists Unite!” DonorsChoose challenge!

Okay so why should you choose my projects to donate to over all the others out there in the great vacuum of the blogosphere? Reasons: my favorite things to give!
Continue reading “DonorChoose Challenge: Pseudo Physicists Unite!”