Thursday, April 14, 2011

My very first robot

We've just gotten a Roomba. For those of you who don't know, this is one of those vacuum-cleaner robots. It has some obvious advantages (and disadvantages) as compared to just using a normal vacuum. First, I can turn it on and then go back to my sickbed while it cleans the floors. Push a button on the top and it vacuums the whole room. It is low enough to get under and behind the couches and beds, picking up huge amounts of dust and hair in the process. It is fun to watch when one has a fever.
On the downside, the thing is an idiot. In theory it has various "robot behaviors" that help it to efficiently clean the whole room, but in practice it seems to pretty much bounce around the room at random, occasionally following a wall successfully. I should specify that the version we have (440) is probably not as good at navigating as the latest versions (610). It does eventually find its way to most corners of the room, although it took about 45 minutes of bouncing around to have covered our living room fairly well, even after I put up the chairs, trash-can, etc. It doesn't see, and doesn't seem to make a map of where it has and hasn't gone, so it will repeatedly miss clumps of dust sitting in the middle of the floor. Some of these it never got. It has a very small dirt compartment, so after one room it was completely full, although I admit most of that dirt came from under couches where I don't usually get.
On a single charge it did our living room, hallway, office and most of our bedroom, although it needed to be emptied after each room. I left it doing the bedroom while I took a shower. Half way through the shower it started making a rather pathetic beeping. It was under the middle of the bed and had picked up so much lint and hair that its brushes and wheels could not longer turn. I pulled it out with a broom and had to take the thing half apart to clean all the hair wrapped around everything. Oh the plus side, it hasn't looked so clean under our bed in months I suppose with regular Roomba-ing the dust won't accumulate to the point that it becomes a navigational hazard.

With time these things and their competitors will become more advanced and less clueless. In movies and books we always go straight to humanoid sentient robots, without the intermediate step of a self-propelled vacuum cleaner taking two minutes to find its way out from under the desk. This is like the Precambrian ancestor of R2D2.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I have called a lot of references for post-doctoral candidates over the last weeks. I always go into it wanting the reference to tell me how wonderful the candidate is. You would think the alternative would be for the reference to reluctantly express some concerns about the candidate’s appropriateness for the position, or something such. But I’ve now a few times had the experience of a third answer I didn’t really expect.

This answer is effectively, “Not qualified to answer.” The reference can’t really answer my questions, either because he didn’t work so closely with the applicant, or because she worked with him several years ago, before a great deal of professional development.

I can sympathize with the situation these references are in. Imagine that a student you like but don’t know extremely well asks you to be a reference for a job application. It can be hard to say, “Well, I don’t know you so well, isn’t there anyone else you can ask?” So you agree and then kind of hope not to wind up on the phone with some guy in Germany asking for insight into the applicant. Then I call. Doh!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Despair not!

My prediction for hiring success has improved significantly over the past few days, for reasons both rational and irrational.

Rationally, I’ve started to receive more good applications, if not fewer spamly ones. I suspect that this is because the people who are preparing position-specific applications are taking their time to do it, as our deadline is not until April 30th. Also, it being spring, many graduate students are just finishing their thesis defenses and looking for positions.

Irrationally, I have been speaking to people’s references, and the references are of course enthusiastic about the applicants. I knew this was going to be so. I am well aware that the applicants wouldn’t have listed these references if they were going to say terrible things about them, and that the references feel a sense of obligation to say good things, but hearing great things about an applicant from a basically rational and honest colleague inevitably improves my view somewhat. It makes the applicant seem more like a person, and less like a CV. I don’t have any basic predilection to like CVs, but I like most people.