November 2007
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Random Ruminations

My thoughts are as entropic as the leaves falling off the trees this season (just about as colored too).

  1. Graduate School Applications
  2. <rant>I really dislike forms; actually I frothingly detest them. I don’t know why, but I have always hated pushing paper. Writing down all that information about myself, just so that it can populate some fields in somebody’s (probably insecure and unorganized) database. It’s disgusting. I already know my name, rank, and serial number; repeating it 100 times won’t change that.</rant>

    Seriously though, I don’t really get graduate applications. I understand that all Universities receive more applicants than they have positions, so they are forced to make selection. But basing that decision on something as scant as a couple pages authored by the idealistic applicant corroborated with a half-page letter from three people chosen because they 1. like/friends with the applicant, 2. applicant believes they will give good testimony, and 3. that this will sway the minds of the decision committee; just seems like an injustice. I don’t think that there’s enough information that can be crammed into that paper that would justify a mutual commitment of 6-8 years and several hundred thousand dollars on equipment, time, education, etc.

    I really believe that having a screening process closer to that of major businesses would be more effective. I should be able to submit a brief resume and slowly work my way through phone and personal interviews. I don’t mind having to provide contacts that would need to give their opinion about my qualifications, nor do I think they would mind being contacted about such. I feel that due to the extended nature of this approach, it would result in much greater knowledge on the part of both parties. Graduate schools have a much clearer idea of what subject focus each student has/needs and the student would have a clearer idea of what was expected of them at that department. Even those facing rejection would benefit, as they’d stand a better chance of picking up on a few things that they would otherwise be missing should they try again.

    I know that this is far too much work and time to expect an ordinary faculty member given the current demands of research, papers, and grant proposals (and would be a waste given their pay scale); but this work could be farmed out to those seeking tenure, assistant profs, post-docs, or current grad students. Optionally, I can see universities outsourcing this effort (but I ultimately think that’d be a disservice to everyone involved). It could also be set up so that the lower ranking candidates get shuffled into a curriculum more suited to their demeanor, as I hear Germany does with its trade schools. (Pushing the non-academic into a theory class just doesn’t work out that well, it doesn’t play to the hands-on talent of the individual)

    Ultimately, even if this interview-centric approach was taken up, I’d still rant about the foibles its implementation, yet I’d probably be better off. Ideally, I would wish for a system that removes all the subjective assessment that goes into hiring/recruitment decisions; but I don’t think that’s viable in the real world. I’d also like the current system to be much more flexible; classes should be more interchangeable among universities, so that moving from one school to another is no more difficult than moving to another group within the same company. Erdös really takes the cake on mobility.

  3. Side Project
  4. For a long time now I’ve been wanting to make a self-serving altruistic contribution to the Free Software movement, and the world at large, by writing code that others would find useful. I’ve landed on 3 such ideas, but am currently having a tough time choosing. Inspired by the pet-project rule at Google, I’m going to devote every other friday to one of these activities regardless of approval by existing management. (That’s right: I’m going rogue!)

    • Pdf Editor
    • Several times at work I have found myself in need of a pdf editor. I know that pdf is supposed to be a finalized, published document; yet when you don’t have access to the original, it’s nice to be able to edit the copy you do have. I hear that the format is pretty ghastly for an editor to deal with though. Personally, it’s also a low-priority need, so I probably won’t do this. Still, I know that the community could really use one, and it would make a killer addition to KDE.

    • Kapers
    • I recently discovered that I’ve collected enough academic articles that I’m in need of an actual organizational system if I’m ever going to remember what I’ve been reading. Over in the land of Apple this is a solved problem, and everyone can have their own Personal Library of Science. Well, since I can’t reasonably kicks the habit of reading peer reviewed articles (esp. considering my career change back into academia), I should probably help out fellow researchers by coding up a clone for KDE. This has the fringe benefit of helping out a community which I believe provides the hidden force on which the world turns. This seems to be closest to my abilities as a programmer right now.

    • Stock Market AI
    • This one has been thought of before, but that doesn’t make it any less appealing. It’s a great opportunity to learn from a wide diversity of subjects: Statistics, Mathematical Finance, Pattern Recognition, Machine Learning, AI, software architecture, etc…and there’s certainly no shortage of data to work with. If I actually succeed (and some have) then I can pour that money into other things. I’d personally love to guarantee funding for several important scientific endeavors: Immortality (yes, I share the vision propounded by Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil) or Nuclear Fusion (it’s only been 20 years away for the last 40 years) or general AI (We’re close already). I’ll probably hold off on this one, saving it for a side-project when I’m in graduate school.

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