October 28, 2004

US student loan company outsources?

This article reminds me of what happened to me last night. I was calling the company that holds my student loans to find out how much I still owed and when the payments needed to start -- the company will remain unnamed, but they're the biggest company that supplies loans to students of higher education.

Now, wouldn't you expect that a company that handles so many US students and deals with US higher education and is under the scrutiny of the US government have a staff entirely of US residents? Alas, they still are under the constraints of the economy and look to cut costs wherever possible.

I have to say that I suspect their customer service center (call center) is situated offshore in India. I have no direct proof, purely anecdotal, but it's highly suspect -- the contact person had an accent and there was a noticeable delay between my answers and the response. I have a few concerns about this: 1) as the attendant is tapping away at the computer, is s/he accessing this information halfway across the world and if so, does this mean ALL my personal information is stored or accessible outside of the US? This is highly likely; 2) how secure are the communications, then, if they're being sent around the world? If the phone conversation is being conveyed via VoIP over the internet, is the voice communication secure?

I realize that being such a large company, they must have taken into consideration all these aspects. But short of announcing that they put in certain safeguards, how are we really supposed to know for sure? What laws are in place to ensure that such communications and data dissemination is secure, especially if it's being sent out of the country?

Posted by johnvu at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

October 27, 2004

International grad students (in US)

The New York Times > Education > On Education: Grad School's International Glow Is Dimmed by Security Concerns

By now, three classes later, Berkeley has seen its enrollment of graduate students from abroad drop by one-third. A national survey by the Council of Graduate Schools determined that admissions of international students at 125 universities fell by an average of 18 percent in the last year alone. Both the Berkeley and national studies found that the students most affected were not only those from Islamic countries, but from China, as well as such American allies as India, South Korea and Israel.

Although the article showcases a number of anecdotal situations, it is easy to believe that enrollment of graduate programs by foreign students have dropped due to national security concerns. Can you imagine losing your chance to finish your PhD from Berkeley just because you had to visit your family in China and could not return because of visa delays?

At a conference that I attended a few months ago, one of the speakers, a reknowned scientist in his field, did not attend because of visa problems. I suspect that this is now common in international conferences. Nonetheless, not being able to attend a conference is a minor problem compared to being dropped from a doctoral program completely. Problems like these will undoubtedly affect a number of US industries, leading to shortages of staff supplying the intellectual investment needed for companies to survive.

Posted by johnvu at 01:12 PM | Comments (0)

Financial woes common in grad students


The Higher Education Affordability and Equity Act, sponsored by Rep. Phil English, R-Penn., will help make it easier for graduate students to pay for their education.

Students all around the country, both undergraduate and graduate, are encouraged by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and other coalitions, to participate today in a "National Day of Action," where students are asked to log on to the Internet and lobby for the bill via electronic letters to their legislators.
Currently, graduate student stipends are fully taxable. However, if this bill goes into effect, it will expand tax exemption to cover graduate student stipends, Widge said.

"(It's) plain silly. (The) government pays out money but yanks part of it back. From a policy standpoint it just doesn't make sense," Widge said.

In addition to expanding tax exemption for students, the bill would also make it easier for students to pay back their student loans after graduation.

Now, after handling the stipends, what can we do about the rising student fees and health insurance?

Posted by johnvu at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)

October 14, 2004

More Google Desktop goodies

Xpdf: Download. If google didn't implement it, there's always a kludge. As I mentioned in my previous post, I had wished Google Desktop indexed the content of my pdf files, instead of indexing just the file name. Since Google Desktop doesn't do it automatically, you could always convert the pdf to text and have the text file in the same directory as the pdf file -- of course, it'll be named with the same basename as the pdf so that you'll know which pdf was a query hit.

The tool that I use to convert pdf to text is a commandline tool, pdftotext.exe found in the package bundle xpdf for win32 (link located above). I've written a very simple batch file to convert all the pdf's in a directory to text (and skip over the ones that already are converted):

@echo off
for %%a in (*.pdf) do if not exist %%a.txt pdftotext %%a %%a.txt

I haven't figured out how to strip the file extension to have the file named *.txt instead of *.pdf.txt, but that's just a minor annoyance and doesn't detract from the usefulness of this conversion. Normally I'd ask that you send me a comment on how to get it done, but I've turned off comments on my blog indefinitely -- I just didn't have the time to delete all the comment spam. Eventually, I may develop mysql query scripts to delete comment spam, but I digress.

If you deal with a lot of pdf's and you want to have their content indexed by Google Desktop, this is definitely a quick workaround until Google implements it into their own tool (if it's on their to-do list, I haven't looked). And once the tool is implemented, you could always delete the text files later.

Posted by johnvu at 11:20 PM | Comments (0)

Index all those scientific papers of yours

O'Reilly Network: Google Your Desktop. It's finally here. What I've been waiting for google to do for such a long time: index my files for me so that I could find my papers faster. Read the excellent review by Rael Dornfest in the link above.

I no longer will rely on the Windows' search program to find my files. In our line of business, we have to be able to refer to papers quickly and easily during the writing process. I've made it a point long ago that I was going to save every paper that I read (or was going to read) as the original pdf locally on my hard drive. But alas, I quickly amassed a cache of papers that I had difficulty organizing. I tried a few things such as different directories for each journal or organizing by year, but both methods proved lacking. Recently, I just threw all the papers in one directory called "My Papers" and had them sit there indefinitely until I figured something out to deal with them. But alas, google has provided me with a great tool. If I use Google Desktop in conjunction with PubMed/Medline, I could easily find out if a paper I discovered through Medline is already in my hard drive.

My only wish is that google continues to improve its search tool to include every aspect that it has for web searches. Most importantly, google needs to index not just the names of the pdf files, but the content within the pdf file, just like it does for pdf files found on the web. A quick click on "View as text" could give me a preliminary confirmation on whether the file was what I wanted. I realize that it works for the web search because google caches those converted pdf files, but the disk space investment needed by my computer to cache my pdf files is something I'm willing to give up to help me in my line of work.

I'm going to do a lot more testing of Google Desktop. I wonder if it'll index network directories? What if I mounted my Linux home directory via samba and mapped it to a drive letter, I wonder if google desktop will crawl through it. Anyhow, it would also be nice if google released, say, a *nix daemon that would crawl through the /home directory (or any dir that I told it to), so that I could search my linux desktop. It should be fairly straightforward for them to port it to linux and have it run as a service like CUPS does for printing. I.e. I could access Google Desktop via my linux browser (mozilla or firefox) pointing to I hope this is on their agenda.

Posted by johnvu at 11:51 AM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2004

Book business changed by Google print

Publisher Reactions To Google Print; What About Authors?. I know it's old news by now, but I wanted to throw out some predictions on how Google print will change the publishing industry. I predict that the dynamic between author and publisher will most definitely change for the betterment of the author and the detriment of small publishers. The big publishers will not see a decrease in business, but some of the smaller publishers may. Only the small publishers that concentrate on niche products will stay in business. With the advent of new printers able to print books on demand, what's to stop an author (especially a well-known author unfettered by contracts) from starting a small publishing company and sending the book into Google themselves for archiving?

Since we're on the topic of publishers and the entire book content online for perusal, imagine if textbook publishers allowed indexing of their books! University students would never have to buy a textbook again, they would just need internet access. Nevermind having the need to print, save, or copy the material -- the most frugal among us would just learn to read it onscreen. And imagine the reduction in expenses if school districts with a tight budget were able to access this material using donated or used computers with donated internet access. I realize that this does not remedy the need for good teachers, but teachers would worry less about where they could find material -- the less frivolous activities with which we burden our teachers, the more time they have to actually teach.

Posted by johnvu at 11:33 PM | Comments (0)

Different social norms

BBC NEWS | World | Asia-Pacific | Nine die in Japan 'suicide pacts'. After reading this article, I immediately thought of the current Ig Nobel winners and the study tying country music to suicides. I then thought about a recent discussion with a Chinese American colleague. She just had a recent trip to China and told me about her worries both as a pedestrian in the big cities and as a mother with her son traveling with her. I realize that this is purely anecdotal, but it speaks of the wider social perceptions.

Can you imagine living in a society where each human life has a tangible dollar value? She tells me that as a pedestrian in China, you worry about getting in an accident with a moving vehicle. The worry is not only because of the crazy traffic whizzing by you on streets where trucks, bicycles, and scooters share everything (even on what you'd think of as highways), but you worry about the drivers after they've hit you. She tells me that drivers have a twisted belief: if they get into accidents with bicyclists or pedestrians, they will attempt to kill you by running over you twice or more, after having hit you by accident to ensure that you're dead. The reasoning? Well, it is more costly to support you as an invalid or handicapped person throughout the rest of your life than to have you killed outright so that they can just pay a "flat fee." You see, in China, and in many other parts of the world (I can vouch for Vietnam), if a person gets into an accident, an acceptable route of action would be to negotiate how much money can be exchanged to avoid further litigation -- and this is perfectly acceptable legally.

How does this tie in with the increase in the suicide rate in Japan? I wanted to point out that the value of life is perceived differently in different societies. I personally think that because China and Japan have so many people in any given urban area, people get numb -- a face is just another face. Perhaps some Japanese, pushed by societal pressures to the brink of emotional stability, feel that their lost life is just another life among the millions and millions of people already living -- one less mouth to feed, or one less burden on society.

Perhaps these actions are a result of a species (humans) living in overcrowded conditions. If so, what does this tell us? Maybe I'll try to live a healthy life by avoiding the cities and living a good portion of my life in solitude -- with my broadband internet connection, a TV with satellite, and all other amenities included (running water, electricity, etc.).

Posted by johnvu at 10:47 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2004

What's wrong with this picture?

MSNBC - Opinion: The Life He Left Behind. I've tried to be as apolitical as possible in this blog when it came to national politics (not politics in science), but in this case, I cannot be quiet. What's wrong with this picture: both of Ronald Reagan's children are vocal against the current Republican President? As a scientist, I firmly believe that the shortest answer is the right answer and certainly it means that Bush is doing something wrong.

In reply to the Bush administration saying that stem cell research gives "false hope" to those suffering from neurological diseases or other diseases, Patty Davis, Reagan's daughter says this in the article linked above: I speak for many others when I say that none of us believe a cure is just around the corner. We believe it's around a very wide bend, which we can't get around because your husband has put up a barrier to further research. And as far as false hope, there is no such thing. There is only hope or the absence of hope--nothing else. Patty Davis is replying to Laura Bush's speech.

Those of you who supported Reagan during the '80s, you must read what Patty says here. Those of you who are scientists and are going to vote, you must analyze the costs and benefits of having Bush win a second term. It's true that Bush has increased NIH funding, but at what cost? Dozens of scientists have signed a petition accusing the Bush administration of gross negligence and ignoring sound science when it came to the environment and a number of other issues. In light of the stem cell issue, scientists must look to the future and establish the technology now so that the US takes the lead.

For years, other countries have experienced a known phenomenon of "brain drain" where the professionals of that country leave to establish careers here in the US. Bush's actions will undoubtedly lead to the "brain drain" of professionals in stem cell research. Moreover, the economic benefit of new technologies developed in this field will be forever lost. The loss leading to Bush's error is immeasurable. Imagine if there was a moratorium on gene sequencing during the Clinton administration? Or if there was a halt to DARPA research during the early years of the internet because there was a "false hope" of easing communication via email? There is no sense to Bush's logic, we have to be sure he loses again, this time for good.

Posted by johnvu at 05:00 PM | Comments (0)

October 10, 2004

Comcast's bad customer service

washingtonpost.com: Comcast's Perks to Montgomery Leaders Criticized. It turns out that you do have a place to turn to if Comcast has not been living up to its promises. If you have a complaint to file and you live in Montgomery County, Maryland, I urge you to do so. The number of complaints logged can be used as proof to local government officials that Comcast's customer service is lacking.

The link to the Washington Post article above is very informative. I suspect that the local government dealings that Comcast pursues is not a unique situation of Montgomery County, but nationwide. I am not surprised that they spend so much to retain favorable status within local governments. I only hope that over time, with the advent of broadband over wireless or over power lines, that Comcast realizes the value of good customer service and a competitive price to service ratio. Unfortunately, a competitive price is not currently a concern for Comcast here in Montgomery County.

Posted by johnvu at 10:21 PM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2004

Short on time? Still want to watch TV?

Google Search: torrentbot. It's amazing how people around the world innovate to save the rest of us some time (and money). Case in point: the ability to watch our TV shows, where, when, and how we want it. Join bittorrent technology with IRC, Jabber, and a smattering of RSS, and you get torrentbot.

However, what if you don't want to go the bittorrent way? What if you still like the old-fashioned, pipe-it-through-my-cable way? Well, you'll have to pay, right? Pay the cable company and then pay TiVo, or ReplayTV, right? Actually, no. I hope I got your interest. What I'm about to tell you has been around for years, but I just learned about it. PC users, especially here in the US, have been in the dark about this for quite a while, but the hardware to do it finally has been made easily available. Heck you can buy it from buy.com!

Sorry for the tease, now on to the story. You can watch your shows for free via satellite. Wait, I know what you're thinking, but this is completely legit. Only problem is, you might have to know how to speak another language. Satellite systems orbiting the earth are constantly sending back TV transmissions that you can legally pick up and watch (search google for the term "free to air"). You just need the hardware to do it -- least of which is the dish and a receiver. But if you already have a PC, all you will need is the dish, purchased from your local consumer electronics shop, and a card to pop into your PC.

From what I've read, the software to watch TV is packaged with the PCI card and it's packed with features such as timeshifting and timed recording. If you're so inclined to do, get few third party software programs and you can have yourself a TiVo-like unit without the costs.

There are definitely major downsides to doing this all yourself: time and patience. You also have to know how and where to point your dish to the right satellite. Fortunately, there's a website for you to locate satellites: LyngSat. There are also pluses of going this route. One is cost (one-time cost). Considering that I pay $400/yr for cable, the cost is recouped after a year. The other plus is the format in which the show is saved. The digital transmission stream (TS) is not much different than that stored on a DVD (MPEG2). The possibilities are endless with what you can do with that MPEG2 file -- that is, with what is covered under fair use, of course.

For my purposes (PBS kids' shows like Sesame Street for my son), this is the perfect setup. After all, PBS does stand for Public Broadcasting System (i.e. meant for the public free and clear), I'm just updating my hardware from rabbit ears to the 21st century of digital satellite reception. There are a number of satellites serving countries all around the world, all available for you to watch. I hope to teach my son a foreign language one day and this will be a major teaching aid.

Posted by johnvu at 05:08 PM | Comments (0)

October 04, 2004

Grand Challenges

On this day of great achievements -- Scaled Composites winning the X Prize set forth to energize public commercial space flight -- let's put in perspective how challenges such as this can initiate interest and science in areas where man will benefit most.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk delivered by a reknowned scientist, Richard Klausner. The subject of his presentation was the Global Health Initiative, proposed and developed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) -- yes, THE Bill Gates, none other.

Purportedly, Bill was inspired by David Hilbert [Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia], the famous mathematician, known for his list of 23 mathematical problems/challenges having the greatest impact on modern civilization, once solved -- some have yet to be solved. With Hilbert's model in mind, Bill and his board of scientific advisors, sought to develop a list of "Grand Public Health Challenges" that when solved, will have the highest impact in advancing global health.

Most, if not all, of the descriptive slides of his talk can be re-assembled from the data and information provided by the official website. As a member of his audience, I have to admit that one theme of his talk rang true and persists with me even now and I suspect will linger on with me for the rest of my life: he commented twice (once in the beginning and once when closing) that the "fate of a person in this world is largely predicted by the person's geographic location of birth." How many of you reading my article now are reading it in the comfort of your home, your office, your work, your school, or your wireless cafe? I am not denying that my place in life is not due to the hard work that I've already invested, but I have to admit that had I been born elsewhere, the opportunities would not have been available, even with hard work.

What Rick Klausner was so poignantly attempting to convey, was that because of poor health (due to poor health care, etc.) in many parts of the world, people living in those areas have been relegated to one fate: death, without the chance of a productive life. This "problem" is a problem that the Grand Challenges in Global Health wishes to address and solve so that the vast majority of people in this world have a chance, at least, for a productive, fruitful, and most of all happy life.

Now with all the MS bashing that you may get from me in my past blogs, you may wonder why I'm touting and lauding these attempts made by Bill (and Melinda) Gates via the BMGF. At least with the money he's made with his software, he's using it for the betterment of mankind. By presenting problems, such as current public health problems, as "grand challenges" with a purse behind them, philanthropists (i.e. Bill Gates) have begun to realize that action will always follow monetary gain. Money talks, there's no doubt about that. If you're bewildered by my out-of-character praise of Bill Gates, consider this twisted thought: if Bill's philanthropy leads to the betterment of mankind and increases the standard of living for those in poor countries, Bill hopes that the increase in health and productivity of these people will lead to increase usage of computers and software purchases -- software sold by none other than Microsoft. So it's a win-win situation for Bill. He looks like the unassuming rich philanthropist who wants to help the world "just because," gets a few tax breaks by doing it, and in the end will still monetarily benefit from it. Oh the irony! :)

Posted by johnvu at 11:10 PM | Comments (0)