Academic Cry Baby and the Wall

Yesterday I got several emails from various people at charge at the university stating that they are concerned about the people who are directly affected by the US ban on people from muslim-majority countries to enter US. And what I got from the context was that by “directly affected” they meant business. It is great to live and work in a community that they care about you. One of the emails asked to write up all the ways that we are affected by this law so that they can have a collective report on all the issues and act accordingly when needed.

I told them about a couple of conferences that I am invited to go to in April and in July, and a couple other workshops and conferences that I was planning to participate in, since I was going to be in US any ways. I told them that now I cannot attend these conferences, and can’t give talks there. What I didn’t tell them was that I don’t even know how I am supposed to proceed with this situation. Shall I just email the organizers and tell them that I can’t make it because of these laws, so that they have enough time to replace me? Or shall I still apply for the visa, pay the $160 fee, spend half a work-day for interview, book the hotel and flights, and all the other paperwork, and then hope that in a month or two the problem will be solved? And if it didn’t, then I can email the organizers and hope that they understand my situation? Shall I even consider other conferences in the future? What about the special session at JMM that we were going to organize next year?

I told them about all the jobs that I have applied to in the US and that now even if I get them, I won’t be able to go and work. What I haven’t told them is that I’m now worried that they won’t even consider my application since it will be a 100% waste of their time and resources. What I can’t even get straight in my head is that shall I apply for more jobs in the US, prepare cover letters, read their websites, contact people there, and hope that I get an interview and by the time that I am flying in for the interview miracles happen and they terminate the bans? Or shall I just spend the time and work on my possible less desirable options here, because I know I can stay here if I get the job?

I even told them about my long term concerns that people who are graduating from here or finishing their postdocs won’t be placed in any positions in US, and that means that 10 years from now none of these people will be in any of the US schools. That could affect the university’s ranking, the networks that could be built but won’t exist any more, and the collaborations that are going to be ruined. What I couldn’t tell them is that I moved to US eight years ago knowing that I won’t go back to my country for a long time. So I built connections, I found support groups, friends, and colleagues who stood by me as I went through troubles, and who celebrated with me as I stepped up the stairs of success. People who filled the empty places of my family and friends from back home. These are the people who offered me their home to stay in, their time to spend with me, positions that I could apply for, their basement to hide in if ever FBI is on my foot, research topics to work on together, jobs at their business if I couldn’t find other jobs, and much much more. Even though some of them are jokes, it makes a whole lot of difference to know someone is out there who you can rely on, someone that you can simply spend a night on their couch if you need it, even if that “if” is so far away. It is calming, it’s heart-warming. What I couldn’t talk about is this sense of being supported that I don’t feel that it exists any more, even when many of them call and text me to tell me that they love me, they think of me, and they are sorry for what is happening. The intentions sure exist, but the connections are lost. And no matter what happens to these laws, the stress that it has caused is going to remain. I wish I could tell about these effects to someone!

Of course, compared to the concerns of my friends in US these are just a bunch of nonsense. But they are as real as it can get.

PS1: I need to mention that as an Iranian who lived in US under the Student status, I only had a single-entry visa to US and the risks of getting another one, if I exited the country, was so high that I and many others refrained from exiting US for the entire time that we were students, and even after that. That meant, I never went back home,  missed several conferences that I was invited to attend and give a talk, some very important for my career, and I didn’t even consider participating in many other conferences and workshops. This means, the only difference that the new president has made is that he made the “high chance” to become “certain”. I was called a “potentially terrorist” when I first interviewed for my US student visa (I was 22 back then and I could take things as jokes), and I’ve always been discriminated against because of my country of origin, whether it is at an embassy for a visa interview, that I had to provide lots more documents and wait for undetermined amount of time until they make decisions, or it was applying for a scholarship or a job that they didn’t like Iranians for “security” reasons, or just because they thought I won’t be able to get a visa or permit to work/study there.

PS2: Here is an Statement of Inclusiveness signed by several academics, and it is already adopted by some conferences.

Feedback – part I

Without much ado here is a book that is changing my life:

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And why is it changing my life? Well, the book was introduced to me in a workshop about how to make sense of student comments in regular end-of-semester evaluation forms. So, I started reading the book. The premise of the book is that there are various reasons to get triggered when one receives comments and there are different types of feedback and expecting one type and receiving another type causes some troubles. Then it goes into several examples, and many many details of it and ways to prevent some of them, solve some of them, and avoid some others. I particularly like the book because of its scientific approach to writing, but at the same time being very conversational, and my most favourite part is their examples. They provide tons of examples, many case studies, and several extreme examples.

BUT…

It is changing my life because as I keep reading it, I realize that most of communications and relations in one’s life fall into the same categories that the book describes, and one can follow the same strategies to make the whole experience of communicating with others (at any level and of any sort) much much better. To give you an idea of the big picture of the book, let me mention some of the main things:

One of the things that the book mentions is that when you receive a feedback three things can be triggered:

  1. Truth:
    • It is when you feel like the feedback is not representing the truth. For example, “I couldn’t be rude at that party, because I wasn’t at that party. And my name is not Mike!” This is of course one of their extreme examples that makes the whole thing make a lot of sense and I love it. In a more realistic way, I could get a comment from a student that I don’t have a sense of time! While I go to class 5 minutes early and prepare my slides and the notes, and start right at 10 O’clock to lecture. What the student is saying is not the truth. Well, at least not according to my definition. They go and discuss it in much detail that what happens when we feel the comment about us is not the truth and how we can resolve this. Some of the later chapters of the book are on the different aspects of this trigger.
  2. Relationship:
    • It happens when you expect some other type of point of view. For example, a student can tell that “he wasn’t organized.” and you feel like “after all that work that I put into preparing this class and the schedule that I followed to the minute, and extra problems with solutions that I posted online, you tell me this?”. Or in a different way, you might get a comment that “He knows math but he doesn’t know how to teach it!” And you’ll be like “Who the hell are you to judge my teaching?!” There are a lot to be learnt from the feedback when this gets triggered and the book spends a good amount on this topic.
  3. Identity:
    • It is when you feel like you don’t know who you are, e.g. “Maybe I am a bad teacher after all”, or “What am I doing with my life teaching these courses?” And there are many other things that can be done in this case too.

The book goes on to identify three types of feedback:

  1. Praise:
    • “Good job”, “Awesome teacher”, “Worst instructor ever” etc are examples of praise. It doesn’t have much information in it. It simply says the feedback giver is happy or not with the performance. We all need that at times and some times we receive that feedback.
  2. Coaching:
    • “Give us more time during the class to work on problems”, “provide more examples”, “he talks too fast (i.e. don’t talk too fast)” etc are examples of coaching. They have lots of information in them and usually these what make you grow.
      • If I’m looking for praise and receive coaching instead, I’ll be maaaaaaaaaaaaad! “I’m spending lots of time preparing for this course, don’t tell me I need to use a larger size font on the worksheets!”.
      • If I’m looking for coaching and receive praise instead, I’ll be alright but frustrated as I don’t know where to go next. “OK, the exam I designed was a good exam and covered all the material, but how can I make it more related to practice problems students are doing? how do I make sure that it’s not too much for 2 hours? How would I ask a reasonable question about that topic that I didn’t ask about it?”.
  3. Evaluation:
    • Your salary gets raised, a student sings up for your next class after they had a course with you before, you get fired, your spouse wants a divorce, you get accepted to graduate school. These are examples of evaluation.
      • If I’m looking for praise and I receive evaluation instead, I’ll feel a little lost. “OK, my contract got extended, but am I doing well enough? Are you happy with me?”.
      • If I’m looking for evaluation and I get praised instead, I’ll feel they’re hiding something. “Yeah, I know I’m doing a good job, will you sign my contract for next year or not, though?”.
      • If I’m looking for coaching and receive evaluation instead, it’s just unsettling. “My application for this job got rejected, but you haven’t told me what are the strong and weak points on my portfolio, how do I improve it so that I get the job next year, what are the things that you were looking for ans was lacking in my application?”.
      • If I’m looking for evaluation and I get coaching instead, I won’t care! “Are you gonna hire me or not? I don’t care that I should have gone to that conference!”

Then the book goes into every detail of every aspect of these topics and provides many many beautiful examples, and comes up with strategies to figure out what situation we are in and how to respond to each situation when facing them. I don’t necessarily agree with all of their strategies, and I think on several cases I can do the exact opposite of what they suggest and have a better outcome, but the book is extremely helpful in identifying these situations and classifying them.

If you gave it a try, let me know what you think about it, the whole book, or any of the single details. I’d love to discuss the topics to learn more.

Don’t take IELTS

I recently took an IELTS exam at the University of Calgary branch. During the test dates several issues bothered me. The issues concerned the physical situation of the test room, unclear instructions during the test, and discriminatory behaviour of the examiners, which I will discuss thoroughly below.

There were a total of four examiners at the registration desk which one of them seemed to be the lead examiner, and was also the person who ran the speaking test with me on the following day. The rest of the group helped him to administer the test. One hour prior to the start of the exam we were seater in the test room, and we were told that we cannot leave the room for any reason until when the reading part of the test starts. The room temperature was low while almost all test takers were in summer clothes, and all the examiners had some sort of warm jacket or suit on or with them.

Once three of the test takers asked to leave to go to washroom the lead examiner started showing irritation followed by facial expressions which then turned into a verbal statement towards all test takers with a humiliating tone. The statement was something along the line that “I trust that you are all ‘adults’ and this probably because you are stressed about the exam that you feel like you need to use the washroom.” And then he said if we absolutely need to use the washroom we can do so before the test starts. He however had mentioned that if everyone shows up, we would start the exam before the actual start time (9:00am), hinting that he just wanted to get it done as soon as possible. Eventually, he tried to put a pressure on everyone by saying that if we go to washroom before the start of the test, then ‘everyone’ has to wait for us to return before we start it. The comment seemed only concern himself rather than any of the test takers. After he was done with his statement I mentioned that it is probably because the room is very cold that everyone wants to go to washroom. Then he said in a mocking voice: “Oh, does ‘that’ make you want to go to washroom?”

Furthermore, the lead examiner tried to use the shape of his mouth and lips to make it more clear for us to understand what he is saying, but unfortunately, and probably because a lack of training, his expressions didn’t align well with the words he intended to pronounce, making it even harder to understand him, and to some extent looking strange. This was accompanied by his very fast speed of speaking, which clearly was not easy to grasp for several test takers in the room, leaving them uninstructed about several parts of the test.

There was also an unclear part about the reading section. A text was given and some of the questions asked which paragraph contained certain information. There were obviously more than one paragraph which contained the given topic, but it was not clear if we are to list all of the paragraphs or just the most important one. For example, a question asked that which paragraph contains physical information about a corpse. There were two paragraphs mentioning there was a wound on his back, and a paragraph giving information about his height and weight etc. Upon asking for clarification, I received no answer.

Finally, my name wasn’t completely printed on the slip of the paper on the table (it was missing the letter D at the end) and I was instructed to let the examiners know at the end of the exam. Upon doing this the main examiner asked me to wait on the side, and he eventually got back to me when he answered everyone else’s questions and was done giving other instructions to his team. He then asked me for my passport and looked at several pages of my passport including the pages that had visas on them, asking me various questions on the information on my passport, even though they had checked my passport before the start of the test and also several times during the test. While he saw my confusion about the situation which felt like an interrogation, he made a comment about my beard in the picture of my passport which I found very inappropriate and discriminating.

These circumstance are not something that I look forward to, when I sign up for a ‘standardised’ test and pay $300 for it. It certainly does not reflect the standards they have mentioned in their “Examiner recruitment and training” section of their agenda. I am deeply concerned that this discriminating behaviour and the military-like atmosphere that seems to have become a norm among the team of the IELTS examiners at University of Calgary branch could potentially affect my score, specially if they are being graded by the same group of examiners. I definitely discourage everyone from taking the test at the mentioned branch, and since it shows the lack of supervision from the company, to avoid taking the IELTS test altogether, and seek alternative solutions such as TOEFL and Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB).

In my letter to them, I have listed three expectations: First, I expect an official apology from both the company and the the examiners, separately, and in hard copy. Second, I understand that only ‘selected’ speaking and writing performances are second-marked. Hence, I expect for my exam to be graded by a completely independent group of people, in order to ensure the fairness of the test. Ideally the graders will be from a different location in Canada or USA. Third, I expect a follow up containing a review of the behaviour of the examiners and physical situation of the test room.

My terrible experience during the IELTS test happened at a building on University of Calgary’s main campus. It seems like the whole process is being operated under some faculty of the university. It is very unfortunate that University of Calgary is involved in such degrading activities. This certainly is not aligned with the advertised goals of the Eyes High program at UofC. On the other hand, as an academic, this makes me wonder if we shall rethink our criteria about accepting test results from IELTS as a ‘standard’ test if the tests are being so poorly designed and conducted. I hope the quality of events happening at the University of Calgary’s campuses are of enough importance to the administration to take the necessary actions.

Randomized algorithms in the kitchen

Officially, I first learned about randomized algorithms and derandomizing them in a course called Randomness in Computations, offered by John Hitchcock at University of Wyoming. It wasn’t until then that I realized my old friend Hossein Rahmani had taught me a very cool application of this back in the day when we lived in the dorm in Tehran, without any of us having any idea what we are doing.

Here is a little bit of background: In Iran we have this dish made out of Sausage, potatoes, and eggs. Basically, you cut sausages into rings, cube the potatoes, and fry them, then add the eggs. There are tons of variations of it and it’s all quick and easy, hence a good choice for dorm food!

The problem is in frying the ringed sausages. Heat up a big pan and put some oil in it, after the oil is hot add the sausage rings. While they start getting brown it’s time to flip them so that the other side also becomes brown! In order to do so, I normally start flipping them one by one, so that I can make sure that nothing is left unflipped. But the problem is at the point you start flipping them in one side of the pan, the ones on the other side of the pan start burning, and that’s not cool. Of course, you don’t want to also loose time by taking the pan off the stove and flipping them all. So here is a solution: Randomize your algorithm!

I mean, take a big spatchula, dig in, and flip everything you can at random. After a few tries you’ve flipped about half of the rings quickly. Now the ones which are not flipped look lighter in colour. It’s time to derandomize your algorithm now: flip the not-flipped-ones one by one.

Of course the derandomization part is not really a derandomization technique, but certainly can be seen as a combination of randomized and deterministic algorithms. Thanks Hossein and John for making my life so much better.

Celebrating the joy of mathing with Arnold

I don’t think anyone who’s learned anything can deny the fact that they have learned from their errors. Well, they might not know this quite clearly but they would eventually agree that it is the case. Mathematics is even more so that during learning a proof of a theorem for example, it’s not the logical reasoning that pushes you forward, but it’s checking that nothing can go wrong is the moving force; that you check that: OK, this thing could go wrong, but ahha, this little argument is telling me that it won’t. And then this other big thing could end in a shithole, but oh there’re these 5 pages that are paving the way around that so we won’t fall into it… etc.

Vladimir Arnold puts away formality and proofs, he just picks some objects and starts playing with them, something that is righteously called experimental mathematics (also the name of one of his books). And that’s what I like about him. I’ve learned to be a little like this from my PhD advisor Bryan Shader. If I had a big question, he would say: OK, let’s look at a 2×2 example… If i had some classic question he would say: Oh let’s see if it’s true… And we would start experimenting. It’s a lot of fun, it’s how math is done. It’s where the ideas come from. Writing the proofs and being neat is not usually that much of fun.

I ordered a couple of Arnold’s books at JMM and I received them yesterday. I’ll be reading them in the next few days. Some of his books and books about him can be found on AMS’s bookstore: link.2016-02-07 01.46.10

Teamerican

A long while is passed since the last time that I let the tea completely brew before I pour it and start drinking it while it is still close to 100°C. I did it today again. I was thinking about almost seven years ago that I was busy, that I was stressed, that I didn’t know what’s happening, that I had decided to let go, and I did. Then one summer day that I was flying to Cyprus for an interview in the US embassy I missed my flight, the flight that I had rescheduled to an earlier day so that I won’t be late. I missed it and I lost all the confidence that I had gathered in myself, for the interview, for the travels, for the move, for life. Things worked out well eventually. They had to. Missing that flight ended in me finding a good friend, Farhang, that unfortunately I haven’t seen him since then, but later on he told me that first when he saw me and heard my story of missing my flight, he thought that I’m just a wealthy guy who doesn’t have much to do in his life and just giving it a try for the heck of it, and didn’t care enough to be on time for the flight.

Today, I’m sitting here and sipping on my cup of tea that I had enough time to let it brew to a perfection. I can do this because I missed my appointment for a US visa interview again. This morning I got up and my phone reminded me that I had an interview a couple of hours ago. So, I decided to make a good tea, and enjoy drinking it. I guess if I tell the story of today to Farhang, he’ll probably tell me to take some rest. That’s what I’m doing.

On mental health?

I’ve received an email a few days ago to review a paper:

[…]
We have received the following manuscript to be considered for publication in Mathematics (http://www.mdpi.com/journal/mathematics/) and kindly invite you to provide a review to evaluate its suitability for publication.
[…]
If you accept this invitation we would appreciate receiving your comments within two weeks [stress is by me]. Please let us know if you will need more time.
[…]

Since I didn’t know the journal, didn’t have access to the paper till I accepted the review, and didn’t think that I could do the work in two weeks, I rejected the invitation, and they had asked if I am rejecting the invitation to recommend someone else to review the paper.

2 weeks is not enough time for me to review a paper, and I am not aware of anyone who I know that would do this in two weeks to recommend.

Their response:

[…]
If you have declined review invitation just because of matter of time, we would like to grant you an extension. If you are still interested in reviewing this manuscript, please let me know.
[…]

And mine:

[…]
Thanks for the extension. There are a couple of things that I need to mention. I do not feel that being under the impression that I am granted an “extension” for a job that I haven’t agreed on its original due date would be very healthy for me. Moreover, I tend to not to do service work for journals that charge authors.
[…]