Glencora Borradaile

         Assistant Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

December 18, 2014

The negative impacts of random conference decisions

The NIPS experiment is making waves.  If you are unaware, for the last NIPS conference, the PC was broken into two independent halves A and B.  A random selection of the submissions were assigned to both committees.  The result: 57% of the papers that were accepted by committee A were rejected by committee B (and vice versa).

This is terrible for many reasons.  Some reasons that I have heard are the careerist issues (our jobs and promotion depend on accepted papers at top conferences) and the negative impacts on the Rate of Progression of Science.  I’d like to discuss two more reasons:

The random rejection model makes needless work

If the average number of times a paper is submitted to a conference before it is accepted is 2-3, then we as a community are doing 2-3 times more work when it comes to writing & publishing: formatting papers to the will of the conference, reviewing papers, serving on PCs, reassuring students, consoling ourselves over beer. Should we be spending our limited time & resources on this? I do understand that papers can improve between different submissions, but with higher quality, constructive reviews, resubmitting once would be much less a burden. And perhaps if people felt like the system wasn’t so random, we wouldn’t try rolling the dice so early and often.  And perhaps we would have time to do a more thorough job as reviewers.

The random rejection model likely negatively impacts underrepresented groups more

“Just resubmit your papers.”  I worry that this non-solution disproportionately and negatively impacts those in
underrepresented groups. It is known that those in underrepresented groups tend to suffer from more impostor syndrome; and it is known that those suffering from impostor syndrome tend to take rejections on face value (our work isn’t good enough) whereas those in dominant groups tend to blame the rejectors (they don’t know good work when they see it). We also (should) know that small things can have big effects.  One freshly minted professor emailed me:

I have personally experienced this during graduate school and I’m sure I and my students will experience this in future. A second or third year student puts in about one year worth of work with the hope that he/she will have his/her first top-tier (FOCS or ICML) conference paper soon. The rejections and bad reviews can essentially kill the confidence of that student. To some extent, this can also happen to the junior faculty.

One colleague worried about students dropping out of science altogether as a result of this.  On a personal note, I have definitely changed my publishing behavior to favor journals where, although the time lag can be great, comes with a discussion between author and reviewer via the editor. I have only had one ‘bad’ experience with trying to get something published in a journal. I would say that I’ve had a ‘bad’ experience with at least half of my conference submissions.  I have taken to rolling the dice once, if at all.

Add this together with our lack of double-blind reviews in TCS, we may be doubly hitting underrepresented populations, whose work is more likely to be dismissed by a dominant-group reviewer.

We should fix our conference system.  Or just trash it altogether.  I’d like to point out that the latter option would be better for the planet.

June 10, 2014

Wonderful instructor for hire

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 10:26 pm

Theresa Migler-VonDollen, my recent Ph.D. graduate, is looking for a position for one year. She is set to join Maryknoll in summer 2015 to serve as an educator in low-to-middle-income countries, when her 11-month-old son is old enough to be more manageable in an uncertain setting. For the next year, she is looking for a teaching position, preferably at a university. She can capably teach most all undergraduate mathematics courses, lower-level CS courses and upper-level theory CS courses and has over 8 years of teaching experience at the university level. And I can tell you, it shows. Theresa is a wonderful educator and we would be keeping her here at OSU in a heartbeat if she weren’t looking for a change for this next “free” year.

Since teaching positions are not universally advertised, I thought I would announce her availability here to reach the tens of people who read this. If your department is in need of an excellent instructor or you know somewhere that is, please let me know or email Theresa directly.  I unabashedly recommend Theresa to you.

May 29, 2014

Presenting Dr. Theresa Migler-VonDollen

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 6:50 pm

photo1Yesterday, Wednesday May 28, my first Ph.D. student defended her thesis:  Theresa Migler-VonDollen.  Although you can’t tell from the picture, attendance at this was the highest any of us had seen — 15 to 20 graduate students were lined up along the wall of the seminar room.  It’s a testament to how loved Theresa has been — ever helpful, being the unofficial math and algorithms tutor for all the graduate students in the department — and almost always with a big smile on her face.

Theresa’s dissertation is on observations of the hierarchy of density of real networks, such as (but not limited to) social networks.  The hierarchy came out of an early proof of correctness of finding a lexicographically minimum orientation of undirected graphs (finding an orientation of the graph that minimizes the indegree sequence lexicographically).  You can read a sampling of her work in our first manuscript on this where we show that the density hierarchy is very similar in shape to the degree distribution, but that this property isn’t observed in existing random graph models.  We additionally present methods to generate random graphs having density hierarchies similar to real networks.  I will link to her thesis when it is finalized where this is covered in much more depth.

Theresa is looking forward to a future of teaching in institutes at higher education in countries of low-to-middle income.  She’s an excellent teacher — far better than myself (though that may not be saying much) — and her future students will be lucky to learn from her.

Even though Theresa is delightful on an average day, I don’t think I’ve seen a smile as big as the one when she finished.  Congratulations Dr. Migler-VonDollen!


April 1, 2014

Source for open-source textbooks for computer science?

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 7:56 pm

My soon-to-defend Ph.D. student, Theresa Migler, pointed me to the Open Textbook Initiative by AIM, with the question as to whether a similar resource exists or is in development for computer science.  I am now forwarding that question to you.

The Open Textbook Initiative looks awesome.  It is more than just a collection of textbooks that are available freely.  The textbooks are vetted against a set of reasonable criteria, including (but not limited to):

  • able to serve as the primary text in a mainstream mathematics course at the undergraduate level in U.S. colleges and universities
  • have exercises
  • be class-tested and have been used (and be in current use) by faculty other than the author

I think this is a great direction to go in.  Peer-reviewed and peer-tested classroom resources, available freely to all.  These are exactly the types of resources I limit myself to for my courses (although, it isn’t a limit of quality).  Currently I use:

All of these, I think, meet the OTI criteria.  Do we have a similar group that vets open textbooks in CS?


The ball-coverage property and a great journal turnaround time

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 7:37 pm

Erin Wolf Chambers and I had a paper accepted yesterday to the journal Discrete & Computational Geometry, a journal I now highly recommend.  This entry is a story about that paper as well as the journal.

In a keynote talk at CanaDAM 2011, Stéphan Thomassé referred to the following theorem of Chepoi, Estellon and Vaxès:

Any planar graph of diameter at most 2R has a subset of O(1) vertices such that every vertex in the graph is within distance R of that subset.

We’ll call this coverage of the graph by O(1) balls of radius R the “ball-coverage property”.  The proof is quite deep in that it calls on the fractional-Helly property of the set system of radius-R balls.  In his talk, Thomassé states that the constant is not computed in the paper, but was done so by a student.  I don’t remember the exact number, but it was around 800.

Surely that can’t be the right number.  I worked for a while on coming up with a different, more direct proof that would result in a better number.  Something reasonable.  Like 5.  Or 7.  The best known lower bound is 4.

I haven’t been successful.  Erin and I, in our first successful collaboration which involved an allergic reaction to St. Louis (actually to a hand cream, not St. Louis), generalized the result to bounded genus graphs.  That is this paper.  We thought we had it generalized to clique sums of surface embedded graphs … we can handle apices, but vortices and clique sums proved … tricky.  As they seem to be.  But I would suggest that minor-excluded graph families have the ball-coverage property.

We had this result written up in the summer and debated where to send it.  SoCG was out as Erin is on the PC this year.  Rather than wait for a spring submission, we decided to go straight for a journal.  We submitted to DCG on October 22, 2013.  We were asked for what turned out to be minor revisions on March 12, 2014 and resubmitted on March 19.  The final acceptance came in on March 31, 2013.  Just over 5 months from first submission to acceptance.

That is comparable to the roughly 3 months for conferences, with the added benefit that you can actually have a back-and-forth as needed with the reviewers through the editor.  No rejections based on misunderstandings.  No rejections based on “we only have X spots”.  No rolling the dice.  And no travel to yet another far away conference.

If only more journals were like this.  If only conferences were more about giving a place for people to meet (regionally as well as internationally) and less about picking the X top papers without a truly full review even though it is treated like a fully published result … well … that would be great.

March 28, 2014

The difference between a hole and a handle

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 10:12 pm

I have learnt topology in a very haphazard fashion. So sometimes when I observe something for the first time, my mind is blown. Topology is beautiful. Today’s lesson was in the difference between a hole and a handle.


So here’s the example, on the left are two examples of non-separating cycles on an orientable surface of genus 2.  If we cut along them we get two surfaces that are topologically equivalent (right).  To get back to the original surface, we can fill in the holes with disks (red), identify the two disks and then delete the disk.  Call the two disks A and B.  Since the surface on the right is orientable, when the disks are glued into the holes, there are two distinct sides of the disk, the inside and outside.  There are three ways to glue these disks together:
(i) inside of A to inside of B
(ii) outside of A to outside of B
(iii) outside of A to inside of B or inside of A to outside of B
The top example is (i) and the bottom is (ii).  (iii) results in a non-orientable surface.  Even though (i) and (ii) result in the same topological surface, the cycles used are fundamentally different because we have used a geometric idea of inside and outside.  If I were living in the interior of this surface, the holes would look like handles and vice versa.  [mind blowing sounds]  In other words, given an orientable surface and a defined inside and outside a handle is a cycle that you can contract in the inside of the surface, and a hole is a cycle that you can contract in the outside of the surface.

February 10, 2014

Search for new Head of Department of Mathematics at OSU

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 3:49 pm

via Dean Pantula:

The College of Science of Oregon State University invites applications for the position of Head of the Department of Mathematics, beginning in the Fall of 2014. This is an open search for an outstanding scholar with demonstrated excellence in research, appropriate research grant funding, excellence in teaching, and a strong commitment to educational programs at the undergraduate and graduate level. The successful candidate will have a Ph.D. in Mathematics or a closely related discipline; an established record of scholarship commensurate with the appointment at the rank of full professor with tenure; a commitment to promoting and enhancing diversity; demonstrated abilities in teaching; a commitment to mentoring junior faculty; and demonstrated potential for successful academic leadership to enhance the Department’s excellent research and educational programs, as shown by her or his record of service to the Department, University, and profession. All areas of expertise in mathematics will be considered. Some experience with management responsibilities or administrative roles where strong interpersonal skills were necessary is preferred. The appointment will carry a salary rate commensurate with the duties and responsibilities. Applicants should submit a cover letter which includes a vision statement for the department, curriculum vitae, statements of administrative and teaching philosophies, a research statement, and contact information for five professional references; one of these should address teaching ability. Application materials must show a demonstrable commitment to promoting and enhancing diversity. Oregon State University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer and is committed to enhancing diversity. Additional information about the Department is available at Candidates should apply online at, job# 0011757. For full consideration apply by March 1, 2014. Please email all inquiries to the search committee chair, Dr. Julia Jones at OSU is an AA/EOE and has a policy of being responsive to dual-career needs.

January 17, 2014

Conversations with graduate students

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 12:04 am
Tags: , ,

A male graduate student told me he started taking a yoga class only to find that there was only one other man and the remaining 29 were women.  He said he didn’t feel like he belonged and so he dropped the class.

A female graduate student at SODA told me she didn’t see a single talk by a woman and she didn’t feel like she belonged.

(There were talks by women, but with 3-4 sessions, and none of the keynotes by women, well, they can be easy to miss.)

January 13, 2014

Bringing current events into the technical classroom

I spent last summer thinking about how to bring something related to the climate crisis into my fall undergraduate algorithms class.  In this class, I have converged on having 4-5 projects covering iterative, divide and conquer, dynamic programming, linear programming and heuristics.  These projects each have a practical component where an algorithm is implemented.  Linear programming seemed to be the tool that I could use to “solve” some problem in climate change.  It wasn’t until I stumbled upon this article by Robert Vanderbei suggesting an upper-level class project wherein students fit a curve to daily temperature recordings.  The suggested curve is the superposition of

  • a sinusoidal curve with a period of one year to model the change in seasons,
  • a sinusoidal curve with a period of 10.7 years to model the solar cycle, and
  • a linear term representing any drift in mean daily temperatures.

I adapted the suggested project to my class and had them fit such a curve, using GLPK, to 60 years of daily temperature recordings for Corvallis.


I provided the students with the data and offered bonus credit for students who repeated the project for another location (downloading data from NOAA).  The students found the project challenging but seemed to appreciate the tangibility of the project, so I think I will likewise adapt other projects. The students could then interpret the coefficient of the linear term as the amount of warming in average daily temperatures.

A few interesting things came up.  For example, apparently two different versions of GLPK find two different “optimal” solutions to the same LP — with different values.  For more details, please see the project description.

Next year, I think I will have them choose their own location by default as I think it is a useful experience to clean data …

December 19, 2013

School pride in taking a stance on climate change

I can’t help but share my pride in my fellow faculty for taking a strong stance on climate change.  Our university is a leader in climate change research and is now moving toward being a similar leader in climate change policy.  Our faculty senate recently voted to call upon our Foundation (which manages our endowment) to

  1. immediately cease all new investment in any of the top 200 fossil fuel companies;
  2. use its expertise to ensure that within five years none of its assets include holdings in such companies; and
  3. release quarterly updates to the public detailing progress made toward complete divestment.

Of course this is still just the first step and we have to follow through with action from the Foundation.  Although their bottom line is maximum earnings, they have a new process for hearing such requests — a hopeful sign in my mind.

Compare this to the recent decision by (my unfortunate alma mater) Brown’s president to defend their continued investment in the 15 largest coal companies, using (weak) arguments similar to those used to counter divestment from South Africa during the apartheid regime (“We all agree racism is horrible, but this isn’t the right way to oppose it!”). This seems to be the story for climate change.  We all agree it is something to be avoided (or, sadly, simply ‘mitigated’), but we really aren’t doing anything about it.  There’s a lot of talk and little action.

Thankfully, I can be proud of the Brown students who are not giving up.

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