Wednesday, February 22, 2012

BBC Don't Make Me Evil: We need fragment level access to online spoken audio content

Today, I uploaded something to YouTube I strictly speaking probably should not have. It was a section from a BBC podcast Outriders containing an interview with Heather Marsh about connecting and protecting people by creating social networks from the bottom up rather than from the top down, so that the power and control remains with the individual and not with with an overarching central authority.

In particular, she discusses working with Tribler the open source peer-to-peer client at TU Delft. At 4 minutes and 28 seconds into the interview she states, "It's what we always wanted, it's what the Internet always was supposed to be and we're at the point now where there is no excuse not to have it."

C'mon BBC, there's no way that I am not going to take that sound byte and spread it through my social network. I just don't have that kind of will power. But are you allowing me to do this?

No. The podcast is one monolithic .mp3 file. The times at which the individual interviews (there are three on three different subjects) begin are not given. There is simply no easy fragment level access possible.

And here's where my self control breaks down. I excerpt the interview from the mp3 and upload the thing to YouTube. Twinged by guilt, I generate myself a neat deep link. (As I mentioned in my previous post that touched on deep links as used by YouTube, a deep link is a link that let you jump in to a particular point in an audio file.)

Voila, here is my link for the "there's no excuse not to have Tribler" sound byte:

(except my conscious got the better of me and I deleted it)

Most people I know are so much more likely to click on a deep link then to struggle with the podcast download at:

Of course with the download it's still Tweetable:

TU Delft P2P client Tribler as heard on BBC Radio 5 "It's what we always wanted" Listen in at 4'28''

Twitter's link shortening would get that down to 140 characters. But then I have to trust my followers are willing to devote about 10 times more attention to digesting my Tweet, then to other Tweets containing links to streams not downloads.

Not only can I not easily link to my sound byte, I also have no way of finding this reference to Tribler unless I already know this is there, occurring in the middle of an interview. There is no indication of the names of the interviewees and give only very limited information on the topic.

And to aid findability, of course, I turn on the YouTube automatic captioning and see what kind of text transcript the speech recognition will generate.

It's just a click on the little cc icon on the bottom and the transcripts are displayed. You can use the player bar to move quickly through the video and the changing transcript sort of gives you an idea of what the different parts of the interview about. You won't be blown away by the quality of the transcripts, "Tribler" for example is not correctly recognized. Nonetheless you can use them to figure out where to stop, and how to navigate to listen to particular questions.

In short, this workaround instantiates the principle of the intelligent multimedia player. Ask me about the Internet as it always was supposed to be and I would say that there should be no audio content, no interesting sound bytes, buried away without the possibility to find them and to share them easily. We need the fragment level access, the deep links, the player that tells us what is where when we're listening.

Can we get you to do this for us BBC? You might notice that my YouTube solution here is quite ugly and and strictly speaking probably not at all what you have in mind for me to be doing with this content.

But let me assume that the mp3 is online in order to be listened to and shared. Let's continue our search to find new ways to make this possible.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I am not my website: Warning! Something's not right here.

The server hosting the MediaEval website was compromised 16 February and infected with malware in the form of lines added into the .html code of several of the pages.

Google Safe Browsing Diagnostics caught the problem and MediaEval community members saw the warning in their browsers and started writing me immediately.

I fixed it quite quickly. However, at the moment, Chrome (above), Firefox and Safari and probably also other browsers are presenting this error screen. The malware is gone, but people are still being for-all-practical-purposes prevented from visiting the MediaEval site.

The warning links to a safe browsing diagnostics page that states, "Of the 3 pages we tested on the site over the past 90 days, 2 page(s) resulted in malicious software being downloaded without user consent." But that's pretty deep to have to dig to understand that the danger has been taken care of. The implication is that it's going to take us 90 days of a clean record to get back in the good graces of Google Safe Browsing Diagnostics.

At the bottom, the diagnostics page tells me that as the website owner I can request a review of the site using Google Webmaster Tools. It's nice to find a helping hand extended in a tough situation.

However,what happened next echoed the text of the warning: Something's really not right here. I have been quite concerned about Google's new privacy policy and my interaction with the Webmaster Tools further deepened that concern today.

Google Webmaster Tools wanted me to verify that I was the owner of the website, and, of course, it does this using my Google login. Now, that site is linked at the hip to this blog.

I suppose that was obvious anyway, for anyone reading the content. And people ask me why I care about some association that is deep in a Google server somewhere. It's a slippery slope, yeah sure. Let me articulate why I am not comfortable with this latest slide downwards.

I put a lot of thought into the fact that MediaEval is a community-driven initiative for which I act as the "glue person". Glue person means doing the infrastructure (which amounts to keeping a bunch of plates all spinning at the same time like they do in the circus) and co-ordinating the process by which we make tough decisions (in cases in which such are necessary). My MediaEval activities need to be understood clearly by everyone who cares to scrutinize them as being separate from what is written in this blog---which is my own personal view and does not claim to be anything like a community wide consensus.

The separation of my personal and my public role in MediaEval was previously naturally represented by the fact that on the Internet the default existence for websites are separate entities. These entities were perhaps associated with a webmaster, but that were not linked with a single author/owner person who has a personal history and a private life (as represented by my Google account). Now, I suppose I could set up a separate account to be MediaEval---but these means signing in and out if I want to go from one to the other and that is simply not practical given the amount of work I need to do.

The way that co-operative initiatives like MediaEval grow is that they can be set free from a single person or personality and can take on a life of their own. It's idealistic, I realize, but we do strive for a sort of grassroots democratic process in the benchmark. In order to come anywhere close to this ideal, we need technology whose default mode of operation allows leading members of the community to draw themselves away from the spotlight to stand at the sidelines and give the community room to speak for itself.

Today, I made a quick decision under the pressure of protecting the channel of communication with the MediaEval community. I tied my personal self yet more closely to the site of the benchmarking initiative, when another part of my brain is telling me that for growth and sustainability of the community the trend must go in the other direction.

When I am tired and desperately need a solution, I am in no place to insist on the principle that I am not my website.

I tell myself, that maybe the close technical connection will now remind me to be even more careful in making the conceptual distinction between the two hats I wear: research and community coordinator.

In the meantime, I sit back and take my mind off the issue by enjoying some YouTube---recently a category "Middle Ages" has appeared on my recommendation page. Hey, Google, it's not that kind of mediaeval that I care about! Watches those videos is a welcome form of distraction: especially because it underlines that point that putting all that data in one place isn't really necessarily going to get anyone closer to where they want to be. Let's just hope that the consequences remain innocuous and merely amusing.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The PhD: Reflections of a mentor

This weekend, I have been reflecting on the mystical status of the PhD. I don't recall there ever being a moment when one of the people who mentored my own PhD process made an explicitly formulated and crystal clear declaration of what they believed that a PhD to be. Somehow their opinion remained obscured, the PhD appeared an arcane, untouchable concept and it seemed almost as if its true nature needed to be kept secret. Possibly, avoiding such declarations is grounded in a certain age-old mentoring wisdom. Since "It's different for everyone", it might be better not to set up specific expectations for a given PhD candidate. Or possibly, avoiding such declarations is a natural reaction to the rapid rate at which the PhD is changing. In fact, by necessity the concept of "The PhD" must develop radically in order to remain relevant---a topic generating a high volume of discussion, e.g., a special issue in Nature last year devoted to the future of the PhD. In the end, defining "The PhD" seems to open more questions that it answers.

However, I have been the daily mentor for PhD students for a number of years now and I have reached a point where I feel the need to take a snapshot of my perspective on PhD mentoring and set it down in linear form. Actually, it's not really any sort of a secret, so why not put it on my blog? In this post, I aim to describe what for me is the essence of a PhD and what I perceive to be the role of the PhD mentor. My definition of a PhD is:

A PhD is an independent contribution to the knowledge of humanity.

With independent, I mean that the key conceptual content of the PhD is original and arises from the PhD candidate's own insight. Note that the definition does not specify the magnitude of this contribution, or even a particular way in which the contribution must be measured. These aspects vary from field to field.

Given this variation, how is it possible to know that one has a PhD? In my view, someone has a PhD when:

A PhD candidate has earned their PhD when their supervisor declares that they are satisfied and when the candidate has successfully defended their contribution before a committee.

Working in the Netherlands is interesting, because the "completion criteria" are extremely salient. The PhD supervisor is a professor at the university who has something called ius promovendi, or the right to graduate PhD students. The system is set up to keep the the number of people with this right small and exclusive (the rest of us are merely mentors). The PhD defense is a public ceremony: the PhD candidate wears a tuxedo and the committee is dressed in academic regalia. Women usually don't wear the tuxedo---but choose an equally imposing alternative. The defense itself follows a special form, which includes a particular moment at which the doctorate is granted to the candidate. All in all, the tradition and the spectacle are awe inspiring. What is highlighted is the importance of this single moment, when the academic community represented by the committee tests the candidate and convenes in seclusion and makes the determination that s/he has fulfilled the requirements. It's the only moment when we see the candidate in a tuxedo during the whole PhD process. It's worth reflecting on the fact that it is indeed the sine qua non of the PhD---it is the only moment that occurs by necessity.

Beyond these points, the PhD process in a lot of hard work and keen insight on the part of the candidate and a lot of interaction with colleagues and mentors. In the Netherlands, the PhD is "officially" not a PhD at all, but a doctoraat. Both PhD and doctoraat are variations on a "research doctorate". I try to be sensitive to cultural differences between my Anglophone conceptions of the PhD and what is common here---but mostly these have turned out to be superficial (e.g., the mandatory tuxedos).

If the PhD candidate is the one doing the thinking and the heavy scientific lifting, what, one wonders, is exactly the role of the mentor? This role is, of course, going to vary widely from person to person, but it's worth trying to capture those aspects that remain invariant. Here is a list of the points that, in my mind, a mentor is responsible for:
  1. Making sure that the candidate has the skills and tools necessary to be a successful researcher. The candidate should be completely comfortable with carrying out the steps of the scientific method. Usually, people are well versed in the scientific method when they start their PhDs. What often needs a bit of help is recognizing the worthwhile examples and not so worthwhile examples of the scientific method. One learns this discrimination through practice and (again) a lot of thinking about it.
  2. Making sure the candidate has a viable topic. A PhD topic will stays with someone for the rest of their life. The mentor needs to the very best of their ability to guide the PhD candidate into growth areas and away from research dead-ends.
  3. Reminding the candidate to converge. It's only one little word in the definition above, but it is important to note that a PhD is an independent contribution and not many independent contributions. Good PhD students will generate ideas during their PhD, which will feed the rest of their scientific careers. The mentor should offer gentle reminders that the PhD thesis is finite in length and does not need to address every vista that arises in the course of investigation.
  4. Guiding the PhD candidate to acculturating into the research community. The process involves discussing the particular topics and methodologies used by a particular community (in our case, these communities are defined by specific conferences and journals) and also facilitating introductions of the candidate to other members of the community. The mentor should keep in mind that acculturation is bi-directional, i.e., that PhD candidates are also destined to change the communities that they join.
  5. Giving the PhD candidate space to fail. A certain number of failure experiences during the PhD-process ensures that we are actually testing the boundaries of the scientific field and pushing into uncharted territory. The space should be so large and generous, so that there is a non-vanishing possibility that the PhD candidate fails at the entire PhD. The number of "total failure" cases should be kept minimal and mentors should be vigilant to spot high risk cases early on in the process. However, it is critical to maintain room for failure in order to encourage the risk taking necessary to ensure that PhD research produces progress in the state of the art.
  6. Supporting the PhD student in understanding where they would like to go with their career after the PhD and how to get there. This point is difficult due to the unpredictable nature of the economy and, well, of the future in general. However, discussion of "life beyond defense" is helpful to achieving convergence (mentioned under point 3) and also to avoiding a letdown after defense, which has been likened to postpartum depression.
Equally important perhaps, is what the mentor doesn't do:

The mentor does not formulate the statement of the candidate's "independent contribution" for the candidate. The candidate comes up with the statement of the independent contribution. The mentor helps to formulate the research questions addressed by the candidate in the natural course of 1.-5. above. However, there is a moment in time when the candidate articulates the key contribution and the mentor says, "Hey, yeah, that's it."

There may be an actual audible click heard at this moment---colleagues like to report having actually heard it. On the other hand, some PhD candidates come up with a new formulation of their independent contribution every week and the process involves more of a sorting and winnowing rather than of a flash of enlightenment. All the same, the independent contribution is originated and owned by the candidate.

At first, making an independent contribution might sound a bit scarey to PhD candidates, since it's actually impossible to know in advance if of oneself if one will make a contribution before one actually knows what the contribution is. The two must necessarily occur in exactly the same moment: there are no guarantees.

However, when I dig a little deeper I find that most people that come to me for mentoring are there because they have a strong intuition about themselves that they have this contribution to make, that it's somewhere there inside of them and that they are looking for a way to realize it.

They also more or less consciously know that the formulation of the contribution is the fun part. In the end, a scientist or an engineer needs a PhD the way a Formula 1 racer needs a driver's license. It's a necessary part of what we do, but it's far, far away from being the actual essence of the scientific endeavor.

What I'd really would like the PhD students I mentor to understand is this: The way it works is that you wake up one morning and realize that in your own mind you are already through it, and have accomplished it with poise and flare. You see that really all of those people who you thought were being so critical are just standing there helping you along and itching to see you show your stuff on international race tracks around the world. There's a huge party of course, but then you are on to other things and don't really think about having passed your driver's test.

But it's the Netherlands, and you don't need a car. So let me spend a few words on bicycles. The PhD process is also a bit like riding a bicycle: when you first learn to balance yourself, you sort of have the feeling that it will fall over at any minute. But very quickly you are riding ahead and it just works and you are fully focused on where you are going and don't think about falling. And then you arrive and you yourself know that you have got there.

The interesting point about using the bicycle comparison is this: The whole nature of what a bicycle is would be altered if someone invented one you could ride and be 100% guaranteed never to fall. I certainly don't think any of the people I know here in the Netherlands would ride a bike like that. Riding a bike is about getting where you need to be.

So the PhD candidate is riding a bicycle towards a goal and the contribution of the mentor is...

...well, the candidate shouldn't even really be noticing that the mentor is making a contribution. Rather, the candidate should be wondering why the mentor doesn't have time to read all the related work papers that s/he is leaving on their desk and why the mentor sort of nods dumbly when s/he has bring them up to speed by explaining to them exactly why these papers contribute to the formulation of the research question or provide support for the experimental methods or results for the particular building block of the theses currently being worked on. Aaaargh! Points 1.-6. above, great, yeah, but what is the mentor actually doing?

Right. That right there is the PhD. In the end, there will be a certain healthy degree of ambiguity of whether the candidates achievement occurred because of the mentor or despite the mentor.

OK. That last part had a definitely mystical ring to it. And the fact that I myself have arrived as such a statement, makes it clearer to me why none of my own mentors ever explicitly formulated and crystal clear declaration of what a PhD is. They probably did, but I didn't recognize at the time that an essential part of the clarity lies in its very ambiguity.

I never pushed any of them either on this point---never asked for a definition. So then am I pushing myself now?

Actually, I think that in part it has to do with the tuxedos. In the Netherlands, that "Hey, yeah, that's it." moment on the part of the mentor is accompanied by a flash of this mental image of the candidate standing at the podium wearing a tuxedo and performing fabulously during the defense. Since my scientific training comes from outside of the Netherlands, my own natural inclination if you ask me to support someone towards wearing a tuxedo is teaching them how to waltz---which is with a large probability irrelevant. The irrelevance of my personal associations with tuxedos to "The PhD" triggered me to start thinking about what is relevant and to set down my perspective in linear form---quite probably, in the end, opening more questions than I have answered.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Core Participants in MediaEval Tasks

This week, I have been answering email from people who have proposed tasks for the MediaEval 2012 multimedia benchmark or have been contacted about becoming a core participant for a task. The emails have been asking for clarification on what exactly a MediaEval task core participant is. Instead of writing the same email back to everyone, I am putting my answer in this blog post.

The only official definition of a core participant is "A participating team that agrees, before the official beginning of MediaEval task sign up, to cross the finish line for a given task come hell or high water". I am actively looking for a paraphrase of this definition, but for the moment, please be tolerant of the use of an idiomatic phrase (and one containing the word "hell" at that.)

How can a core participant team be sure in February that they will complete a task in late summer? Usually, a core participant will be able to reliably predict that they will cross the finish line on a task because have successfully completed similar tasks in the past. In most cases, they will have a specific person or persons on their team who is working on the task as an integral part of their research project.

If you don't think that you can commit to being a core participant, that is absolutely fine. You can sign up for the task with the normal sign up procedure and participate as a general participant. General participants must make a genuine effort to complete the task and we also expect them to attend the MediaEval workshop if at all humanly possible. General participants also have a much longer window in which to consider task participation before deciding to sign up. Regular sign up won't close until the end of April 2012.

Within MediaEval, fine-grained decisions are left as much as possible to the organizers of the individual tasks. The consequences are that, other than the "come hell of high water" definition, it is left up to the task organizers to interpret exactly what a core participant is. For this reason, the detailed discussion of the matter appears on my blog and not on the MediaEval website.

In order to understand what a core participant might do in any given task, here is the story of the history of "core participants" in MediaEval tasks.

We introduced the notion of core participants after the MediaEval 2010 workshop. At the workshop, we had noticed that (not surprisingly) tasks for which there were a lot of results to compare gave us more interesting insight. We wanted to have a way of ensuring that a minimal number of teams would complete any given task, but we didn't want to use a inelegant, alienating solution, such as cancelling tasks which don't receive a minimum number of successful run submissions. For this reason, a task is required to produce evidence that it will have a minimum number of results to compare at the workshop before being officially accepted as a MediaEval task. This evidence takes the form of collecting a list of core participants.

While the season is running, the task organizers might ask the core participants to help out with the task. For example, last year core participants helped debug the evaluation script. Another example is supporting newcomers. Sometimes new participants in MediaEval need help in understanding some details of the instructions. In this case, a task organizer might ask an experienced core participant to communicate with a newbie. Newbies are often students that have just started their MSc or PhD programs and have a lot to think about at once---we don't want them getting stuck on easily answered questions. It might also save them time if they can communicate with someone in a language that they can type more quickly then English. That someone could be a core participant.

There is a clear line between a task organizer and a core participant. A core participant does not have any official responsibility other than finishing the task. Core participants help the task organizers only if they feel inspired to---it's not required. We also assume that core participants are removed enough from the data set creation process that it is impossible for them to have a relative advantage on any given task over a general participant. For this reason, their scores can be included in the official ranking of scores for a task presented at the MediaEval workshop---task organizers are highly encouraged to carry out their own tasks, but their scores are officially excluded in the ranking presented at the workshop.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Google's new privacy policy will further squelch my social life, and possibly also kill Christmas

So yesterday I saw some screen flash up again from Google concerning the new privacy policy. But I was intent on logging into Gmail to chat my Groundhog Day greetings out to my little social world that I clicked on 'Got it' without really a second glance at all of that carefully crafted text that they had written on the page. Hmm. Looks pretty lean for a privacy policy, but I have a bad feeling. I don't think I'll like this.

And I don't. Just as sure as the groundhog saw his shadow yesterday and we received a generous blanket of snow today. I believe there's another six weeks (well, five weeks and six days) of winter coming.

And there's a serious chilly weather coming on in my social life. Google is going to mix up my Gmail, which is a chaotic mixture of shopping and friends, with my YouTube account, which I use to post video for work. The result is sure to be some weird distorted echo of myself that's neither productive nor fun.

I mean, as kids we do the thing of taking a range of food items out of the refrigerator and putting them in the blender. It starts out a strawberry milkshake, but then you get the idea to add a some capers and a spoonful of peanut butter and then some powdered sugar and a zap of lemon juice. It's fun to mix stuff up but the result is usually pretty gross and the main life lesson we learn with this experiment is that there truly is a reason why we generally like to eat our food in separate dishes and don't mash everything together in the middle of the plate.

Now I have to worry about chats from my friends contaminating the little YouTube garden I have been cultivating on the topic of multimedia information retrieval. Am I going to be looking at my YouTube page with colleagues at work and have to wondering if they will see recommendations for videos of things that I have been chatting about? Is my video recommendation list about to be infected by groundhogs? Other rodents?

Today someone wrote me an email mentioning a Wizards/Raptors game. I have no idea what sport this is: and YouTube's going to be mixing it up with the videos I actually want to see? Am I going to write back and say "Please, include no Wizards or Raptors in your messages to me"? Oh dear, that's really going to go down well with my friends.

For me, it's a cold chill without the mitigating effect of a truly cute and relevant rodent or the promise of a mere six weeks duration.

This year, I will be definitely worrying about accidentally doing a Google search in the presence of one of my family members and having my Christmas shopping list lifted from my email and plunked down in the ads or the personalization of my search results. What happened to surprising people with a unexpected holiday gift? Who would have thought that Google turns out to be the Grinch who Stole Christmas? Do I seriously have to hesitate before spontaneously turning my laptop screen so that someone else can seen my browser and I can help them find something on the Internet?

The New York Times tells us that the EU is pressing Google to delay the new privacy policy until the implications can be better understood. I am not the only one, apparently, with the bad feeling. It looks lean, but its not at all a reassuring lean.

Social media is about the joy of the spur of the moment chat -- and what I have right now is a bad taste in my mouth. My natural human urge to share spontaneous Groundhog greetings prompted me initially to click right through the page of information on the new privacy policy without reading it in detail. That was not a responsible click. That bad taste is not only the oncoming strawberry, caper, peanut butter milkshake, but also the yet further erosion of my ability to trust my social intuitions of what topics to raise when with whom. Google seems to want to help make that decision for me.

It looks like I'll be pulling the adjective 'insidious' off the shelf, dusting it off and using it more often.

Just look at this blog post: it's rodents, raptors, strawberries, videos and snow. Any algorithm that's trying to make me a content recommendation on the basis of this text is going to come up with 'quirky', nothing more. Mix all my personal stuff together, Google, and you get...well, useless mud: It is useless, strawberry flavored mud with perhaps a hint of groundhog. You don't need this stuff Google. Think of something else and don't send you privacy policy off in completely the wrong direction.