Archive for October, 2006

the high cost of academic journals

Publishers of academic journals have a sweet deal going. The content is written by researchers. The publisher hires a few academics to edit the journal. The editors then identify reviewers in the academic community. The reviewers cull the wheat from the chaff and make suggestions to help turn the later into the former. For the papers that are finally selected, the researchers/authors sign over the copyright to the publisher, so they now own the intellectual property. The publisher solicits ads and then prints the whole thing. Once printed, the publisher sells the journal to everyone involved and their schools.

The cost to buy a journal is extremely high. For an individual, it could be $15 – $20 per issue. For a university, the cost can be several thousand dollars a year per journal. As a researcher, it’s important to have access to the key journals in your field. It’s also important to publish in these key journals. Because of this dependence on peer reviewed journals, academics often feel locked into this cycle and have to pressure their university to buy the journals. Publishers are the middle-men raking in the money.

For a long time, this situation has been getting worse. However, the Internet may be finally bringing things to a head. If the physical costs of publishing go to zero, then it’s hard to justify the middle men. This question of what is it that the publishers add that’s worth the prices they charge seems to be what caused the entire editorial board of the mathematics journal Topology to announce their resignation effective the end of the year.

Hopefully their resignation will result in either the recognition by the publisher that they can’t keep raising their rates; or the broader recognition by the academic community that the services of the publishers is not worth their costs and that with the Internet, we no longer need the publishers. If that doesn’t happen, then universities are going to have to start making hard choices about which journals they’ll subscribe to and which they won’t.

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and we have a winner

K’s mom suggested “Sierra” as a name for the new dog.  That works for both of us, so Sierra it is.

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YAD – yet another dog

We’ve been needing to get another dog as a friend for Darwin.  Today we drove out to Wake Forrest to meet a rescue dog that needed a home.  She and Darwin hit it off and so we’ve brought her home with us.  Her name is currently Holloway, but she doesn’t know it and we don’t really care for it.  We need to come up with something different.  We thought about “Goodall,” but it doesn’t really roll of the tongue.  I’m sure we’ll come up with something, but we’re open to suggestions if anyone has any.
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Release the squirrels!

I haven’t posted pictures of the squirrels in quite a while. Here are some from mid-September when they got big enough to move out of the aquarium and into a wire cage…

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Two or three weeks ago, we put them in the outside cage. Today we opened up the release door, we’ll see if they’re there in the morning.

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Women faculty at Harvard

The Chronicle of Higher Education today notes a report from Harvard regarding the number of women being offered tenure track faculty positions and the number accepting.  In 2005-2006, women were offered 39% of the tenure track faculty positions.  Unfortunately, only 20% of those accepting positions were female.  This compares to 2004-2005 when 40% of those accepting tenure track faculty positions were female.

There are two conclusions you can draw from this:

  1. The sky is falling, women are no longer accepting faculty positions at one of the most prestigious insitutions of higher education in the country world.  We need to examine the factors involved and take immediate action; or
  2. Recognize that the sample size is likely to be exceedingly small and therefore the percentages don’t mean much unless there is a much longer term trend.  A simple t-test would tell you how likely it is that these two percentages (20% and 40%) are drawn from the same pool.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t tell us the sample size or the standard deviation.

I tend to expect that it’s the second, but confirmation will require more data.  In either case, I think that the lesson we should draw from this is that it is time for a televison show that’s a cross between the movie Real Genius and 80s sitcom Bosom Buddies.  Kip/Buffy Wilson and Henry/Hildegard Desmond could go back for their PhDs in engineering, only to find that geeky white guys are over represented in the faculty of their field.  They could then cross dress in order to land tenure track positions at Harvard.  They would work to earn the respect of their peers while being under paid, looked down upon, and hit on by male grad students and other faculty.

Hrm, on second thought, maybe we should just encourage more women to pursue degrees in science and engineering by making the environment less hostile.

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Biometrics – fingerprint scanners

I recently had a small argument with a vendor selling biometric fingerprint scanners tied to your credit card number.  He said that they were the greatest and most secure thing ever; I said that there weren’t any standards and that the security of the devices was questionable.

I wish I had seen this earlier.

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and speaking of population statistics

last week saw the 300 millionth American. I happened to be online about that time and saw the U.S. census office’s population clock hit 3×10^8:


I don’t have too much to say about hitting 300 million people.  It seems like something of a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, population growth helps increase the level productivity in the economy.  On the other hand, it already seems like we’ve got too many people, particularly at the U.S. level of per capita consumption.

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170 too many

Statistically speaking, there are apparently 171 people with my name:
Logo There are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

That sounds like 170 too many to me. On the other hand, K statistically doesn’t seem to exist. Once again demonstrating the problem with statistics:
Logo There are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

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Things that make you go blind

No, not that – Programming.

I need to do some statistical work to test a theory.  The best approach in order to compare my results is to do the work in R.  But it looks like I’ll need to extend a package.  I download the package from CRAN (the Comprehensive R Archive Network), unpack it and start trying to figure out how it all works.  Unfortunately, it is written in Fortran, C and R.  Untangling it will take forever.

Maybe I’m better off just trying to extend it within R itself – which is of course how the original package writer got into this mess in the first place.  🙁

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Thinking about security and usability

IT security (and for that matter, other security concerns too) are often seen as conflicting with usability. There is something to that. If you take any given technology and turn up the level of security it provides, you will almost always decrease the usability of the system.

Consider passwords. If people are allowed to choose their own passwords, they will typically choose something very usable for them. They’ll pick their dog’s name, their wife’s name, their userid, etc. These passwords don’t provide much security. To compensate, we often turn up the security knob and require “stronger” passwords, e.g., minimum of six characters with no dictionary words and multiple “character classes.”

security-usability.pngAdjusting the password strength knob is reasonable to an extent. I’ve recently heard security officers consider requiring fifteen character passwords with multiple character classes. Such a password is unusable. Any system that requires that level of security should not be protected by user chosen passwords and possibly not by passwords at all. To maintain usability, while increasing security, you have to use a new technology.

Consider the graph to the right (click for a larger view). The graph illustrates this principle. The blue line represents a given security technology. As you increase the security, you decrease the usability. In such a security-usability graph, we really want to be in the upper right corner of the graph. But our blue line can’t get us there. When we make the passwords more complicated (secure), they become less usable. To get further up in the graph, we need to change the technology and shift the security curve to the right (the green line). For example, we might allow weaker passwords but require two factor authentication with a smart card.

Unfortunately, many proposed security technologies might even shift the graph to the left (the red line). These technologies provide less security for the same degree of usability.  Think of the prohibition on liquids while flying.  This provides no increase in security, while greatly decreasing the usability (or at least the enjoyability) of flying

security-usability2.pngIf we’re lucky, our security curves don’t look like the graph above and instead look more like the one to the left (click for a larger view). The advantage to a curve like this one is that there’s a fairly natural optimal point. We can increase the security while barely affecting the usability – at least up to a point.

I don’t know what the security curves for most technologies look like. But security technologists need to consider this and determine both the level of security and the level of usability needed in a given system. If you can’t achieve both, then you might need to think about a different approach or a different security technology. Trying to achieve a desired level of security without considering usability will result in the users ignoring or bypassing security in the future.

Just some thoughts.

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