Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gender and Swag

Each year when the Grace Hopper Conference happens, there is the inevitable discussion about the swag (the freebies in registration packets) given out. I have to confess that the first year I heard that companies gave out nail polish and "girlie" things, I was totally offended, but that was before I attended Grace Hopper. After attending, my whole attitude changed. Engaging in this year's debate made me stop and think a bit more about the phenomenon.

The high order message is that if you have not been to Grace Hopper, talked with the attendees, and experienced the event, you cannot even begin to comprehend it, so commenting on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of some of the details is risky.

This year, those not in attendance found it "offensive" that some of the swag included nail polish, a sewing kit, and a whistle. What I found interesting about these three particular selections is that those discussing them felt that they were sending a message that "you should look pretty," "sewing is for girls," and "if you don't carry a whistle, you'll be raped." I found these comments fascinating, because in at least two of the cases, my reaction was totally different. A whistle? Great -- I just had to buy half-dozen of those, because my son and I use them to referee soccer. And a sewing kit? Excellent -- I always scoop those from hotels so that I can fix a button or have a safety pin when necessary. Neither of these felt "girlie" to me -- they are items used by both genders in my household. Nail polish? Not my thing, but if it were clear, it would be way high on my list of handy things around the house.

I started thinking about some of the other swag I'd gotten at Grace Hopper in the past: I still use my NetApp manicure set (it lives in my office and I've had both men and women borrow the nail clipper), NetApp lip gloss -- a bit shiny for my taste, but still useful in dry climates. Girlie? Not really. A large nail file -- don't recall who gave those out, but it got used by everyone in our house. A collection of highlighters, tape measures, small toolkits, etc -- one from NSA, one from ACM. Love them all.

But let's imagine for a moment that I did think some of these items were targeting me as a woman, how would I feel? I thought about this long and hard and I realized that it's actually a feature not a bug. The thought process goes like this.

If you are purchasing swag for Grace Hopper, you know something about your attendees -- they are women. Why not put things in the bag that you think they might like? You needn't limit yourselves only to things that have to do with technology. After all, the most common conference giveaway is a T-shirt. Last I checked, that had nothing to do with technology, it was clothing. People asked, "What message are these companies sending?" I think the message they are sending is, "We know you are women and we're happy to put our name/logo on items that might appeal to you, because we value you."

Let's contrast that with the message sent when you give me a men's T-shirt. To me it says, "Hey -- here's a piece of clothing that isn't going to fit you well, but you are such a minority that it isn't worth my time to get a woman's shirt." Yeah, it really feels that way. When we ran Sleepycat and bought polo shirts, from day one we asked people to request a size and gendered shirt. Guess what -- not a single woman ever requested a men's shirt. Not ever. Our little company of 25 could afford both the time and cost (which was 0) of ordering both men's and women's shirts, but fortune 500 companies can't?

I still recall a conversation with a company, who I will politely not name. It went something like this:

  • University relations person: Can you help us recruit women? We get so few women applying for engineering positions.
  • Me: Is that a men's polo shirt you're wearing? (Said person was female and wearing a university relations polo shirt.)
  • URP: Yes.
  • Me: What kind of message do you think that sends? I think it says that your company has so little respect for its female employees that you make them wear men's clothing as a uniform. I think that sends a message that most women don't find attractive.
  • URP: Well, there are so few of us that it would cost more to order both men's and women's shirts. [Note: I don't know about all vendors, but when I order logo wear from Land's End, they do not charge me based on the gender of the shirts, they charge me based on the total number of shirts.]
  • Me: Are you really telling me that can't afford to buy women's shirts?
  • URP: Silence.

To the best of my knowledge, said company still makes its women in University Relations wear men's polo shirts.

I can hear you, "Is this really what we should be worried about? Women can and do wear men's T-shirts all the time." Yes, we do. But why? Because historically, T-shirts were men's clothing and it took decades for manufacturers to realize that your standard men's T-shirt is about as flattering to a woman as a burlap bag. Yes, I do like baggy T-shirts to sleep in and to wear to the gym, but these are probably not the most effective locations to give visibility of the T-shirt's message to the rest of the world (I work out alone in my basement 99% of the time). But if I were getting dressed to attend a function, even if it were casual, I would not wear a baggy men's T-shirt. I might, in fact, wear a women's T-shirt.

Then I got thinking more about that nail polish. OK, I don't wear nail polish (those of you who've seen my nails will immediately understand why). But wait, I am one of those women who already feels comfortable in this field. Maybe part of being a women in CS is that you don't (or can't) like nail polish or want to wear it. Maybe, the idea here is that we need to tell women that even if you do like nail polish, this field is for you. Yes! That's the part that everyone seems to miss -- outreach is designed to help those who see our field and think it isn't for them reconsider. So when companies put their names and logos on products that appeal to the women who are not present in our community, maybe, just maybe, it should be viewed as an invitation to those women. "C'mon. We're not so bad. You really can be the person you want to be and still feel comfortable in this field."

It reminds me a lot of clothing. I frequently wear dresses and skirts (yes, you may all gasp now). This is actually a conscious decision on my part. It's not that I like dresses all that much (although I've grown fond of them over time) -- it's my little message to young women out there. It's supposed to say, "Yes, you can be a girl and an engineer! You don't have to look like and dress like the guys." Now, it's certainly OK to dress casually, but that message already comes across loud and clear. The other message does not. So, that's where I come in. I have no idea if it matters or not, but I do recall a young woman telling me that a male colleague at her first job after school told her that, "She dressed too nice." (She was a tech consultant who liked to wear skirts.) If she'd never seen me wearing a dress/skirt, would she have spoken with me about it? I don't know, but I told her that as long as she was dressed professionally, her colleague was way out of line -- looking nice and/or caring about your appearance is not a crime.

So, no, I do not find it offensive that when companies put things in a bag for women at an event for women that they select items they think might appeal to some women, who we don't frequently find in our community. Nor does it offend me that one of the most popular social events at Grace Hopper is a dance party. And guess what -- a lot of people attend. Attendees describe it as one of the best parts of the conference or one of the things they most look forward to. I'm going to guess that the typical conference attendee from the conferences I attend would have a very different reaction to a dance party.

Let's try another thought experiment. What would a typical attendee at OSDI (or your favorite systems conference) think if a company handed out skirts instead of T-shirts? I'm guessing most people would think it ridiculous. And if you think it's ridiculous, but T-shirts are OK, then you're saying it's OK to give out swag specifically designed for one gender, but not OK to give out swag specifically designed for the other. And you might rationalize it and say, "Yeah, but skirts are appropriate for so few attendees ..." And then you'd be sending the message that those very attendees don't matter.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land: An Engineer at the B-School

I am an engineer. I like problem solving; I like to build things. I can also read financial statements and understand terms such as ROI (return on investment), EBITDA (earning before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization), and break-even analysis. So, when offered a chance to co-teach at Harvard Business School, I leapt at the opportunity.

I was nervous at first. After all, I'd heard all about "the case-based method" and knew that HBS offered its new faculty courses on how to teach this way. I figured it involved many secret handshakes, implicit knowledge and many other mysteries that we in engineering had never seen. Alas, just a few weeks into the semester, I no longer feel like a stranger in a strange land -- there is much at the B-school that is familiar, but also much that is different, and perhaps, worthy of importing into SEAS.

Let's start with the similarities. It turns out that teaching via the case-based method is really quite similar to teaching a paper-based graduate seminar. The students are expected to read the cases (papers) before class, and class is an interactive discussion about the subtleties of the case (paper). In my classes, the story is frequently in the graphs and tables, known as the experimental results. In cases, the story is in the financial statements and market research. Is the company making a profit? (Does the suggested technique improve performance?) Where do they make their money? (Which part of the design is responsible for the improvement?) How well does the business align with existing forces? (How practical is the proposed solution?) And as we see on the engineering side of the river, there are frequently no right answers. Smart people can hold different opinions and interpretations. But, in both places, the intellectual content and the quality of the discussion relies on deep, technical analysis.

Conclusion? Intellectually, there are more commonalities than differences between my two current homes.

Culturally, however, there are differences. Now, before I start, let me disclose that I am doing a very bad thing here: I am generalizing from a single data point, that of the class of my esteemed colleague Regina Herzlinger. However, one of the case writers, who had been at the school for four years, assured me that these features were universal. Now that we've had full disclosure, let's move on to those differences.

The first thing you notice entering a classroom at the B-school are the laminated name cards. Each person has one and the tables are constructed so that you can easily display your name tag. This means that the faculty learn their students' names and the students know each other too. Our class attracts students from many other Harvard schools (the Kennedy School of Government, the Medical School, The School of Public Health, etc). Once everyone has a name tag, boundaries disappear, and the group becomes an entity of its own. The students own their nametags and bring them to each class. If someone forgets one, you'll often see them creating a makeshift one. I confess that I noticed this at a few events I attended at HBS several years ago, and I've been doing it in my classes ever since. However, since it's not part of the culture, I end up owning the nametags and bringing them each day. And after a few weeks in a small course, I typically know everyone and nametag usage drops off. But, what would it be like if we totally changed the culture in engineering and everyone did this and students had nametags for all their classes? Could we change the culture in the entire college????

The next thing you might notice at the business school is that at the beginning of each lecture, the professor will introduce guests. Guests might be friends accompanying students (which means that the students have checked with the professor and told him/her that they are bringing someone to class), executives from the companies being discussed in the day's cases, and the case writer (the research analyst who wrote the case). When guests are introduced, there is applause. It's a lovely way to make the guests feel part of the group as opposed to uncomfortable outsiders.

Then class begins. If you look around the room, you will be hard-pressed to see a laptop. Instead, you see people's faces. The students are paying attention to the discussion. No one is reading email, cruising facebook, or even checking their smart phones. What a difference from your typical college or engineering course (or faculty meeting -- I wonder what those are like here). When the professor solicits input, while there may be initial silence, within five or ten minutes, half the class are raising hands to offer their perspectives on the case. Cold-calling is OK, but is often unnecessary. Sometimes students give answers that aren't quite right, but you'd never know it. There is little direct attack although there are polite suggestions of alternatives. It's also both comforting and disconcerting to see someone else use the same tactics I use when discussing research papers. "Do you agree with him/her?" "Is there anything else you noticed?" However, there is significantly less "pulling of teeth" to get people to engage, and even though there are about 75 students in the class, it seems like all of them participate in meaningful ways. It's quite impressive.

I am also pleasantly surprised to see how often conversations around ethics come up. One of the ways that we evaluate ventures in this class is through a framework that includes the phrase, "Do good, do well." The message, oft repeated, is that only businesses that are genuinely doing good for the world are viable. A business that makes money, but doesn't actually deliver on the public good front is voted off the island.

In a similar vein, current events are sometimes part of the class. In one case, the day after we discussed it, the former CEO of the company was indicted for allegedly receiving kickbacks. This led to a discussion about ethics and came back to details in the case that hadn't quite made sense. The message? Pay attention to details. Do your due diligence. Don't enter into arrangements if something doesn't seem quite right. In other words, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The last thing I'll comment on may be pecuiliar to this course -- after all, we're not talking about innovation in general, we're talking about innovating in health care. It's possible that healthcare attracts a different type of person. I've met with many students in the class, usually to discuss the business plans they are developing for this course. They are a sincere, passionate bunch, who are looking for a way to make a difference; not a way to make a buck, but a way to make the world a better place. Their backgrounds are as varied as their business plans, but each one has done something interesting since graduating from college and is determined to do something both interesting and good.

The business school is a quite wonderful place; I'm grateful to feel less like a stranger there now.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

One Woman's Culinary Adventures

Ever since my son became gluten and casein insensitive three and a half years ago, I've pretty much cooked without gluten and dairy (except for the periodic bread-baking for my daughter -- if you'd like a lovely sourdough starter, holler!). On top of that, I love belonging to a CSA (community supported agriculture) and I take it as a personal challenge to use all the lovely produce I get each week from lindentree farm. If I can't, I feel that I've somehow failed. So you can think of each week as a series of iron chef episodes featuring a different vegetable.

Over the years, I've learned to use up weekly bunches of kale, even kohlrabi (I'll get to those in a later blog entry), and a wide variety of common and uncommon greens, but I've never really come to terms with parsley. Nearly every place you look, the way to consume lots of parsley is to make tabouli, but that requires bulgur wheat and that's a non-starter in a gluten-free household. Last year I tried gremolata, but truth be told, I was the only one willing to try it and I didn't really care for it very much. In a pinch, you can clean and freeze parsley and use it thoughout the year. However, as an indication of how much parsley we eat over the course of a year, I've still got frozen parsley from last summer.

So, this year, I set out to make a parsley-full salad -- something resembling tabouli, but edible by everyone in my household. I call this gluten-free tabouli (the recipes I found online for this vary in their ingredients, from cauliflower to soy granules to gluten-free textured vegetable protein, none of which really appealed to me).


  • 1/2 cup millet
  • 1/2 cup quinoa
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 2 large tomatos
  • as much chopped parsley as you'd like
  • 3-4 scallions or some chopped onion (or as much as you'd like)

Cook the grains in the water and OJ (rinse grains first then add liquid, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer 20 minutes). Chop the parsley, onions and tomatos. Mix everything together and add salt and pepper to taste. I'm sure that tabouli bigots everywhere will stick their noses up at this, but I think it's pretty good and it uses up a fair bit of parsley.

Stay tuned for an upcoming edition when I write about 101 ways to use up a prolific summer squash garden.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Confessions of a Soccer Groupie

With the Women's Olympic Soccer competition over, I figured it was time to offer my own tribute to US Women's Soccer.

I'm Margo Seltzer and I am a US Women's National Team Soccer Groupie.

What do I mean by groupie? I mean I recorded every single US Olympic game (as well as many of those played by the likes of France, Canada, Brazil, and Japan). I listened to semi-final, consolation, and final Olympic matches on my phone while commuting to work, snuck peeks at the game during group meetings and had games playing on my workstation while I cranked out python. I spent ten days last summer training around Europe with my son and goalie friend watching the Women's World Cup. I've traveled to California, Cleveland, Connecticut, and Foxborough to watch the US women play. I've been a Boston Breakers season ticket holder since WPS started and stopped. I've raised two kids to love the US Women's National Soccer team. I've watched the final of the 1999 Women's World Cup more time than practically any other human being on the planet (except my son). I've bid on Project Pink raffles and own a large collection of bright pink Boston Breaker jerseys. I have autographed shirts and soccer balls. (And an amazing pair of goalie gloves ...)

How did that happen? I never watched sports as a kid. I never played sports as a kid (something about growing up in the 60's in a Jewish family for whom sports was never really important or interesting). I didn't even play a real soccer game until I was 24 (1985).

It happened in 1999. By then I'd been playing soccer and had fallen in love with the sport as a player. (Thanks to my coach while I was in grad school -- he taught me to love the game.) Since the US Women were going to be playing close to home, I bought tickets and dragged my husband to Foxborough to see the USA play North Korea.

That's where it happened.

When the US players took to the field, I suddenly got spectator sports in a way I never had before. These were people like me. These were people doing the same kinds of things I did on a soccer field, but they did them professionally -- in the skill and quality sense, not the economic one. And I fell in love. I fell in love with the team, with their play, with their work ethic, and what they represented. To this day, I cannot sit in a stadium and watch the US Women take the field without becoming teary-eyed. It's just that magical.

It doesn't hurt that they win, either. But winning isn't everything -- when they lose, they lose with class. And win or lose, they make you believe that anything is possible - a 122nd minute goal in the quarter final against Brazil, a 123rd minute goal in the semi final against Canada. An Olimpico to tie the game; a crashing header in the 8th minute to set the tone for a final. And public appearances, autographs, encouragement, and the advice, "Dare to Dream."

So, on the eve of the 2012 Olympic final, what's my next wish?

  • I wish Abby will continue playing through the 2015 World Cup (and once she does that, why not the 2016 Olympics as well?).
  • I wish Christine Rampone would wow the world by competing in Rio in 2015! (I wished the same of Kristine Lilly.)
  • I wish the newly forming women's professional league well -- I want to see these women play regularly; I want to meet the world's stars; I want my kids to know that Boston has not only the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics, but the Breakers as well.
  • I want television, radio, and other media to recognize and respect women's professional sports.
  • I want my daughter to grow up in a world where professional women's sports is a foregone conclusion.

Evidence of Groupie Status

Friday, March 23, 2012

How I fell in love with the Turkers

I've been aware of Mechanical Turk for some time, probably since I volunteered to scan images in the amazing search for Jim Gray, but only recently did I have occasion to use it. I am working on a project that begins with the classification task, "Does this web page contain medical information?" Producing a classifier requires having a corpus that is already tagged. As I saw it, there were two options: I could bribe my students, friends, and co-workers with food, or I could try my hand at Mechanical Turk. Heck, what a great excuse to learn some new technology.

I decided that I'd drive my data pipeline in Python (it seemed another good thing for me to learn, and after all, sabbaticals really are about learning stuff). With my student, Elaine Angelino, as my Python tutor and some web surfing, I had a nice collection of tools (I'd like to thank Mitch Garnaat for boto and Jen Harvey for turkpipe).

For those of you unfamiliar with Mechanical Turk, there are two kinds of users: Requesters (those of us who have stuff we want done) and Workers (people who want to do stuff). I would primarily be a Requester and would be relying on Workers to classify my web pages. The unit of work that Workers do are called HITS, Human Intelligence Tasks. Requesters indicate how much they are willing to pay for each HIT and what kinds of qualifications they want their Workers to have. Requesters select HITS for which they are qualified.

My Mechanical Turk dabbling began with a few small data sets that I'd labeled myself. After having my IRB tell me that my use of the Turkers did not constitute research on people (which I knew, but I had to ask anyway), I nervously sent off my first job. I was amazed. At a whopping five cents per HIT, my 300 HITS were completed in about 10-15 minutes. And the accuracy was pretty good. I submitted each page three times and compared the best 2 of 3 classifications by the Turkers to my own hand labeling. Our agreement was roughly 80% and the points of disagreement were pretty consistent.

I submitted my second batch of HITS and not only did I get immediate turn around, but it turned out that one of my pages wasn't rendering correctly (it was clobbering Amazon's Mechanical Turk's header, so the workers could not accept the HIT, so they couldn't work on it). All three Turkers to whom it had been assigned sent me a note. Each note was polite and explained what was happening. Had they not told me, all I would have known is that some of my HITS hadn't been completed, and perhaps I would have been smart enough to log in as a worker and check them out (but perhaps not). I was really impressed -- these people who were doing some tasks for a nickel a shot all took the time to tell me there was a problem. I was truly grateful (and told them so). Some even replied to my thank you to let me know they'd be happy to test out other HITS.

I'm still tweaking my HITS a bit, but I am overwhelmingly happy with my Turkers. In less time than it took me to write this blog they already processed the HITS that didn't work before (there were about 15 of them). I may just have to figure out other research tasks for which Turkers can be helpful.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Margo's Tips on Writing a Thesis

I advise students on writing theses. Sometimes these are my own students; sometimes they are students at Harvard working with other faculty; sometimes they are students who needed an external committee member. I figured that if I wrote down my philosophy about theses, then such students would know what they are getting into before they ask me. And maybe, others will find this useful as well.

I believe that it was my former student, Keith Smith, who first introduced me to the idea that every paper (and therefore every thesis) is a story. Before you write anything down, you'd better make sure you know what the story line is. The story line will help you pick your chapters, write your introduction, keep you focused, and potentially entertain you. Some students have a hard time thinking of their very serious research as a story. Somehow it feels demeaning to them. Well, I make it worse. I suggest they actually think about it in fairy tale terms -- that's right, start with, "Once upon a time," and end with "happily ever after." It may not be a morality tale, but ideally it will be a technical tale. So, the first thing I might ask a student inviting me to be on their committee, "What story are you telling?" Be prepared to answer that question.

In addition to being a story, a thesis is a piece of writing. As a piece of writing, it should be technically correct. That means that you apply the basic rules of grammar, you run spell check, you strive to make the writing as elegant as the research. This seems obvious, but you'd be amazed how many students think of writing as some secondary process. The best theses are those that allow me to focus and think about the ideas (and story line), rather than the fact that every sentence makes me want to pull out my red pen.

There are things that tie together these first two items. Avoid being redundant and saying the same thing more than once (yes, that was intentional). I know that you are trying to simply staple N papers together and call it a thesis, but as a reader, I don't need to read about the same piece of related work five times. I also don't need to be told twelve times that your system is the most wonderful piece of technology ever created. Think story line. Most things will fit nicely in your story line once; figure out where that one place is.

Now let's get to the nitty gritty. Introductions are frequently the most difficult things for people to write. If you follow the advice here, you will wonder why you ever thought the introduction was difficult to write. The sole purpose of the introduction is to get your reader from a standing start to the part of your introduction that reads, "The contributions of this thesis are..." What is a standing start? I tell my students to write for "a smart computer scientist." This means you can assume that terms such as algorithm, main memory, processor, file system, tree, linked list, database, etc are fair game. However, you should not assume that terms such as inode, B+*link-Tree, the semantics of Haskell, direct storage, a pass-through FUSE file system, etc. are widely understood. It's often useful to pick out a specific individual to whom you are writing. If you are a theory person or a formal languages type, just pin a picture of me up on your computer; that will keep you honest. If you are one of my students, pin up a picture of any of my esteemed colleagues in theory: Salil Vadhan, Michael Rabin, Leslie Valiant, Harry Lewis (I leave out Michael Mitzenmacher, because he dabbles in so many different fields, he may very well be a systems person in disguise). These people are all wicked smart, but probably haven't spent the past decade deep in the bowels of the Linux vnode layer (and yes, vnode is another term I'd recommend avoiding in the introduction).

So, you have a very smart reader and you want to give them just enough background and motivation so that when you drop your contributions statement on them, they think, "Wow, that's cool." instead of, "Why should I care?" or "What on earth does that mean?" or, "Does that even matter?"

True confessions here: I never read the paragraph in most papers that says, "In Section 2, we motivate our study. In section 3, we provide background on existing approaches to our problem. Section 4 presents our approach in detail. Section 5 evaluates our approach and shows you how wonderful it is. Section 6 is the conclusion and it concludes our paper." However, in the thesis, you get to tell your story in short form. The chapter by chapter outline is actually the five-minute synopsis of your thesis. It tells the reader just how you are now going to walk them through your research so that they now understand not only what contributions you made, but how you made them, why you made them that way, and what interesting things you discovered along the way. You have the space -- each chapter gets its own paragraph. Do not cut and paste a paragraph from the introduction of the paper that you already published on the work in chapter N. Weave a description of the work presented in chapter N into your story line.

If you've done this well, you've done your reader an enormous service. If someone were holding your reader's child hostage, willing only to let the child go after the reader summarizes your thesis, the reader of a good introduction is in good shape. S/he can explain what you're doing, why you're doing it, what the big results are, and how you are going to convince the world of these things. There, now wasn't that easy?

So, let's wrap up the introductory chapter: It takes your reader from a standing start to a description of your contributions and then walks the reader through the chapter level outline of your thesis describing how it is that the chapters weave together to demonstrate the contributions that you are claiming.

Next, let's talk about related work. Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of the related work section is not to show that you've read a lot of papers. Instead, I like to think of the related work section as a work of art in which you construct a landscape that has a couple of blank white parts in it, and your research perfectly fills those blank spots. A good related work section walks the reader down a garden path such that at the end of it, the reader is left thinking, "Wow -- how could this problem have remained open so long?" or "It seems that this work is so obviously the right thing to be working on. Why am I not working on it?"

OK, so that's the goal, how do you accomplish it? In most theses, the related work section will break down into a few general areas. Figure out what those areas are. I tend to think both visually and hierarchically, which almost always results in my trying to cast my students' dissertations in terms of some multi-dimensional space. (Yeah, that's how my own thesis worked out, so perhaps it's the only thing I know?) If you can cast your work into some space that lets you place related work at particular points in the space and shows how there are regions in the space that are unexplored, and your work just happens to fall into those regions, then you're all set. If you can't do this, then you need to figure out how to place your work in context. What is the body of work out of which your work grew? What work inspired you? To which work should you be comparing your algorithm, approach, implementation? Once you've answered those questions you should know which work you want to discuss and ideally how to organize it. Then, when discussing the work, don't forget the related part. That is, rather than just say, "Peter, Paul, and Mary show that sorting is best done in linear time." explain how that fact relates to your own work. "While Peter, Paul, and Mary pioneered linear time sorting, we go one step beyond their work and show that in these special cases, sub-linear time is easy to obtain." You want to avoid a reader thinking, "Why did you tell me this?" Your prose needs to make it completely clear why the reader is wading through a discussion of work other than what is in your thesis.

You still may be struggling with related work, because you can't decide if it belongs early in your thesis or closer to the end. The reason you are having this struggle is because there are actually two kinds of related work. There is work that gives the reader sufficient background to understand what you're doing. If you're writing a file system thesis, then perhaps you need to explain to your reader what a vnode layer is or what an inode is. I like to think of this sort of related work as background. Then there is the second kind of related work, which I already discussed -- context setting. If you have a significant amount of background to discuss, then I'm a big fan of having a background chapter towards the beginning of the thesis and a related work section towards the end. The reason I like the context-placing related work at the end is that when you're making subtle (or even not-so-subtle) comparisons between your work and existing work, it's easier for the reader to understand it once s/he knows what you are actually doing.

It's a bit challenging to give detailed advice on the meaty chapters of the thesis, since those will vary tremendously from area to area, so I'll try to focus on a few of the things on which I always seem to comment and that seem to apply to a broad range of dissertations.

If your thesis includes algorithmic descriptions, then you're stuck deciding how to express those. Some people use pseudo code; others use real languages. The problem with pseudo code is that it's not precise; the problem with a real language is that the reader may be unfamiliar with the language's syntax. For example, I ended up reading a thesis that had many code samples in Haskell, a language that I really can't read. So, I asked the student to include a short tutorial. There is no single right answer, but you want your thesis to be approachable for as broad a range of reader as possible -- keep that in mind.

Similarly, if you need to present proofs, you need to use a syntax all your readers will understand. Don't assume that everyone reads every proof syntax the same way; define it. This is perhaps one way in which your thesis is quite different from a paper you submit to a conference that has a significant common vocabulary.

Another way your thesis differs from previous publications is that you have the luxury of space. This means that you should expound on some of the "why" questions that you may not have been able to do in shorter papers. Why is your architecture as it is? What else did you consider? Why did you choose what you did? (A lot of this needs to appear at least briefly in a good paper as well, but you get a lot more space in your thesis to explain these things.)

Similarly, there are no page limits, so you needn't cram all your figures into single column format. Make the diagrams, tables, and graphs nice and big so you can annotate them for easier comprehension, and so that your aging readers don't have to squint too much.

When you present performance results, make sure you explain why the results are what they are. In general, I like presenting performance results according to the following formula, "We ran this experiment and expected to see something, because of some reason. Figure X shows the actual results. As expected, on one part of the graph we observe the results we expected, but surprisingly we see that somewhere else the results are quite different. We ran additional experiments to help us understand these anomalous results and discovered something really interesting." Your most interesting results are often those where your experiment produced unexpected results.

Before wrapping up, let's talk about conclusions. Your final chapter needs to wrap up your thesis, come back to the original statement of contributions and now explain them in a bit more detail, since your reader now has both the context as well as an understanding of how you did something. This is where you can talk about the longterm implications or your results, which will lead gracefully into future work. You needn't only talk about work you could do, but how your thesis suggests work in other areas. I like to recommend that my students read thesis conclusions to look for good research projects. Make yours one I want my students to read.

I'll conclude by stating what should be obvious. Make sure you read your thesis through beginning to end to make sure that you introduce items before you discuss them, that you don't say the same thing four times, that the story line flows. Ideally, when you do that you'll be happy with the result. If you're not, perhaps you want to fix it before handing it over to those evaluating it!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Flex Spending Account Hell

It seems that my Facebook posting about FSA (Flex Spending Accounts) garnered sufficient attention to warrant a blog post (and let's face it, I haven't blogged in quite some time).

For some background, just what is an FSA? (Wikipedia has, not surprisingly, a fine definition and discussion.) Briefly: an FSA is a way that you put pretax dollars away to cover medical expenses that you incur during the year that are not covered by your medical insurance. (I can assume you have medical insurance, because I live in MA and that's just the way we do things here.) There are also flex spending accounts for dependent care as well, but we'll defer that to another day too. The bottom line is that Medical FSAs are a way to reduce your tax burden for money that you're spending on medical care.

Now, they are also a bit of a game too, because you have to decide at the beginning of the year how much you want to tuck away, and (this is my favorite part) if you don't use the money you tuck away, YOU LOSE IT. You can't carry it over, you can't pay taxes on it and get it back, it is just gone. So this is a bit of a lottery where you are betting just how healthy/sick you're going to be for the year. I'd be very curious what algorithms people use to determine how much to put in their medical FSAs. It seems to me that dependent care (at least for kids) is a lot more predictable and makes a lot more sense, but predicting medical expenses would seem to require some form of voodoo from where I sit. Given that I have one child prone to mysterious medical maladies, our out of pocket expenses can vary dramatically from one year to the next -- in a healthy year, we have roughly 8 copays for the year (one physical and one eye exam for each of four people). In a bad year, we can have a hundred copays with multiple appointments each week to deal with the medical condition du jour. OK, perhaps a hundred is a little high, but we have had years with weekly appointments for one or more kids for the better part of a year.

Anyway, as much as the lottery aspect of the game bugs me, it's the increasingly onerous reporting process that really got me this year. I like to think that I'm relatively well-organized. Each time a reimburseable expense comes in, I toss the documentation in a folder marked "FSA" and then once or twice a year I go through the documentation, enter the numbers, dates, people, description into a spreadsheet and submit a claim. Normally, I get a check a few weeks later and everyone is happy.

This year was different. First glitch was that about midway through the year, I found our family eligible for a second FSA account around the time we had an expensive medical device prescribed that was not covered by insurance. Before socking away a ton of money in an FSA, I actually called the FSA company to verify that we could reimburse ourselves for the device and they gave me a clear yes and told me exactly what I needed to include in the claim (a letter of medical necessity). Between that device and a pair of glasses for me, I'd eaten the entire year's worth of FSA contributions on this account. I thought, "Great -- this claim should be really quite simple!" So, in December, I filed my claim with exactly two expenses: the device and my glasses. After four weeks I heard nothing, so I tried to call them (This in itself was a total nightmare. Because I had no ID number, they kept routing me to various places and it took something like six phone calls with a variety of automated systems from hell to get me to a human being who could actually do something). Finally I reached someone who said that the claim was held up because they wanted 1. to know if I had insurance coverage for eye glasses (No) and 2. proof that the medical device was not covered by insurance. Now, it might have been nice if they had told me there had been a problem processing the claim, but they told me exactly nothing, prior to my calling them.

I explained that I had no coverage for eye glasses and they said, "OK, we'll just put this right through." Then we had a discussion about the medical device. They wanted proof that it wasn't covered by insurance. This is a relatively new device and all the practitioners who prescribe it very clearly tell you, "Insurance does not cover it." But alas, the only thing this FSA will accept is for me to submit a claim to my insurance company and then forward them the denial record. OK, this will be a fun discussion with my insurance company.

I explain the problem to my insurance company and they seem happy to comply (I don't think they often get requests to deny a claim), but let's step back a minute -- this is *my* money in that FSA account. I have proof that I've paid for the device. I have a letter of medical necessity. No insurance provider in the land covers it and now we're going to waste my time, my insurance company's time reviewing and denying the claim and the FSA's company's time reviewing the claim and the denial. I understand that we have a serious unemployment problem in this country, but is the solution really to create busy work for as many people as possible? (I attest that I have no need for busy work!)

But wait, it gets better. I bother the original provider for the information I need to submit the claim and submit the claim. Fast forward two weeks later: I get a check for the medical device, but not the glasses!!!!! (Note that I have still not gotten the denial letter from my insurance company and have therefore not provided the FSA company the documentation they requested, but somehow they processed the claim.) OK, this is going to be good. I call the FSA company again (this time I get through to the right place quickly because I have a claim number). I shut my mouth up about the medical device and ask about the glasses. It seems that the receipt from Costco showing the date, the amount, etc., is not sufficient evidence that I actually paid for the glasses. They would like to see a copy of my bank statement showing the debit that paid for these glasses. Right -- Costco makes it a good business practice to give glasses away without charging people for them.

So, I faxed the bank statement off to them (where the debit included a charge for my son's glasses and contacts which I was not claiming, because I have already exceeded my account). I have yet to hear back, but I can hardly wait! OK, fast forward -- it's now approximately three weeks later and I've heard nothing. I try to call again. This time, even with claim number and reference number I end up in a series of phone calls and transfers all slightly different that get me to India once and Maryland Medicare twice. At this point I am getting so frustrated that my son in the other room is starting to worry about my sanity (as well he should) and whether I was about to get on a plain, fly to texas and take someone out. I was really not a happy camper. Finally, after shouting at phone hell claiming to have absolutely no information that they wanted (since giving them correct information resulted in my getting forward to health insurance provider issues in India) I spoke with a human being -- a calm reasonable human being named Ashley. They have no record of my having faxed the bank statement (of course!). So, she gives me a number that is in theory her direct fax line and I refax it; she agrees to call me back within 24 hours. Anyone want to put money on how this gets resolved??? (Note that I have by now wasted for more time than the stupid $125, but I still refuse to let it go, since it's just wrong, wrong, wrong that they will not give me my money.)

In case you think that's the end of FSA hell for 2011, wait, there's more! Remember, this was all about the mid-year discovery of the second FSA. What about my main FSA? Certainly there should be no problem there, because I've been dealing with this company for about 19 years and have this down to a science, right? Hah! You are so trusting. Would I be blogging if that were the case?

So, in 2008 we discovered that one of my kids has food sensitivities -- bad ones. It turns out that you can reimburse yourself for special food purchased in such situations (who knew). So, with the same FSA, I've been carefully collecting grocery receipts, annotating them, and submitting for reimbursement. (Yes, I can tell you precisely how much I've spent on gluten-free, casein-free products in the last three years.) I repeated the drill this year. This year I get a denial letter indicating that they want to see the prescription for over the counter medication!? OK, I did not submit $1500 worth of claims for OTC medication, so I have to assume this is the GF/CF food. Once again I get on the phone. Sure enough, they'd like to see a prescription for the food. I point out that they have been reimbursing me for the past three years and that they have in their hands, the original letter from his gastroenterologist, documenting his condition and the need for a GF/CF diet. They want a new letter. OK, he doesn't see the gastro guy any more since when he's on a GF/CF diet he's healthy and doesn't need a doctor. You might think that this is a good thing and that scheduling needless appointments with specialists might be considered a bad thing. But wait -- his annual physical carefully reports his food sensitivities -- is that sufficient? No, even though the physical documents that he has sensitivities, it does not explicitly state that he must be on a gluten-free casein-free diet. Once again, let's think about what's going on here -- we have a persistent, documented medical condition. We've got a letter from the specialist explaining that the treatment for the condition is to avoid the irritants (duh), and now we're going to make work again for some doctor or set of doctors to produce another letter explaining that a person with gluten and casein sensitivities must not eat gluten and casein. I can hardly wait to have the conversation with our pediatrician explaining that we need this letter. Actually, she was most accommodating and I even have my letter for 2012 in my hot little hands. Let's see if the FAS pays me back now!

So what's the big picture? We have medical costs skyrocketing out of control and we have enormous beauracracies in place making it as difficult as humanly possible to actually get things done. Who's shocked?