Sunday, February 28, 2010

Quirks of automated job search

In my job search I've run across not just one, but two big companies that use the same resume-parsing application. The existence of such applications is new to me -- they weren't there when I was looking for a job 9 years ago. This piece of software parses your resume after you upload it to the company's website, extracts relevant information from it, and converts it into its own format. For example, it will recognize your address, phone number, and email address, and put them in appropriate fields. It will also recognize Summary Of Qualifications, Objective, and perhaps some other sections, and put those paragaphs in appropriate boxes.

Further than that, things get tricky. It tries to recognize names of companies you've worked for, and does it with only a varying degree of success. The name of my pre-previous company, i2 Technologies, has the power to throw the parser off. It may be the lowercase i that trips it, but both times it parsed it as "Technologies". Fortunately, the system lets you correct this stuff manually.

And boy, is there lots of tedious manual correcting to be done. The parser doesn't handle bullet points very well -- it lumps them all in a big single-paragraph mess. Cleaning it up once is tedious enough; doing it twice, even more so. Doing it on a netbook, which has little vertical screen space, is even worse. Doing it on a netbook on a web page where the editing window, embedded between an immovable header and footer, is about an inch high... that's just UGH.

If I had known that these parsers were used by more than one company, I would have copy/pasted and saved the formatted text in a file. But, as Murphy's law would have it, I might not come across another company that uses it. :-)

Friday, February 19, 2010

How Web 2.0 services empowered the bookworm in me

For the last couple of years, as an organizer of the Science And Religion In Fiction book club at the Center For Inquiry Austin, I've been continuously faced with a nontrivial task of finding books that match the focus of the club. We discuss books that have promiment science or religion themes in them. They aren't all that easy to find, and it's been getting more difficult as the club is nearing its 4th year of existence. All the low-hanging fruit, such as Mary Doria Russell's "Sparrow", Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", or Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, has been picked. We read mostly fantasy and science fiction, but some mainstream fiction too. Most genre fiction, however, wouldn't qualify for our club's reading list. 98% of science fiction employs science only as "furniture" (e.g. cool gadgets), but we want to read books where science and/or religion is the central theme. It's non-trivial to find them even if you spend hours searching Google or Amazon. I could not think of a right keyword combination to show me just this kind of novels. A simple query like "novels about science" or "fiction about science", would merely return tens of thousands of science fiction titles.

I concluded that my best source for replenishing the list of candidate books for the book club were book reviews. Unfortunately, there is a metric gazillion of book review sites around. You can't limit yourself to just one site, even as distinguished as New York Times book review, because you don't know where you might find one crucial insight that would tell you a particular book would be a good fit for our club. Different reviews focus on different aspects of the book, and they might overlook what's important to us. Then again, a random customer's comment might unintentionally point out a characteristic of the story that makes it a good fit for us.

But there are thousands of book reviews generated every day, and I don't have time to read even a small part of that. So I've been doing it haphazardly, discovering useful reviews by serendipity rather than purposeful search. And then I forget their URLs, and don't know how to get back to them. I tend to remember about them a year or two later, long after they expired from my browser's history. "Oh, haven't I seen a mention of a novel about Einstein? Or a string theorist? What was its title and author?"

This rumination was prompted by a discovery that I had, in fact, saved on my computer an entire New York Times article about a "recent" spat of science-themed novels. It was recent as of 2003, long before the CFI book club was even a glimmer in anybody's eye. I saved it with a vague intention of "reading some of this stuff some day", and then forgot about it. Buried in the hundreds of thousands of other documents on my hard drive, this file was essentially unfindable.

That's why we need lifelogging, I say! But short of complete lifelogging, this particular problem can easily be solved with simple Web 2.0 tools. These days I save such articles, along with all science-themed book reviews I come across, to my bookmarks, and tag it with proper tags. now I have no problem finding them again.

So when people wonder who needs all those millions of online services, I raise my (figurative) hand., in particular, has been serving as an extension of my brain the way even Google can't.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Book review: Chris Beckett "The Holy Machine"

For our October 2009 meeting, Center For Inquiry Austin book club read "The Holy Machine" by Chris Beckett, a novel that fit perfectly the science and religion in fiction theme of our club. Unfortunately, instead of our usual attendance of 4-5, we had only 2 people, one of which was me. So instead of a usual discussion writeup, I'm posting my own review. (The other guy mostly agreed with my opinion. :-))

"The Holy Machine" portrays a world completely dominated by religious fundamentalism, except for one secular state, Illyria, the only country still pursuing science and technology. Having the best-equipped military in the world allows Illyria to coexist in uneasy peace with militant fundamentalist states. But trouble is brewing within this secular paradise. Having witnessed violent religious uprisings that caused mass murders of scientists and rational-minded people in other countries, Illyria won't tolerate any religion within its borders. Even peaceful expressions of religion are persecuted. It also limits immigration from the outside world, since immigrants bring their faith with them. It grudgingly tolerates low numbers of guest workers, though, because somebody needs to perform menial jobs. Even so, it manufactures trainable androids with the eventual goal of replacing imported labor.

Yet none of this goes smoothly. Immigrants demand a right to peacefully practice their religions, and a growing number of native Illyrians support them, as they become dissilusioned by the lack of freedom of speech in their country. Meanwhile, robot training goes awry. As robots learn to better interact with humans, they quickly go insane. Their designers propose to counteract this with the only way they know how: by wiping robots' brains clean every 6 months, reinstalling the original program. This, however, means that any learning will be lost, making it impossible for robots to ever become ubiquitous, skilled, undemanding servants.

In other words, the premise of the book is a metaphor, though a highly exaggerated one, for the current state of the world. Aging populations in the developed world necessitate import of guest workers for low-skilled labor, and those workers usually come from poor and highly religious countries, bringing religious intolerance with them. Much has been said about threats to democracy posed by the influx of Islamic fundamentalism into Europe. I liked that "The Holy Machine" addresses several hotly debated issues of today, among which I count the unexpected consequences of artificial intelligence. Combine these issues, and you have a kind of novel most people in our club would like to read.

The plot revolves around a shy, socially inhibited 20-year-old named George Simling. To escape his sheltered, lonely life, he gets involved with a robot-prostitute named Lucy, and starts teaching her to become human. He falls in love with her, abducts her and skips the country. As they roam from one small town to another, their lives become increasingly endangered, since androids are considered abominations in religious fundamentalist countries. George tries to pass Lucy off as human, which, paradoxically, becomes harder the closer she comes to developing human-like intelligence and emotions. It suffices to say that of many things that happen to George and Lucy, few are good.

What I liked about this coming-of-age story is that it does not offer any fluffy, heart-warming, predictable lessons. George gets disillusioned in his idealism. Religious people, of who he imagined himself a champion, turn out to be close-minded and terrifying in their dogmatic beliefs; Lucy the sex robot whose stunning beauty, desire to please him all the time, and lack of human complexities caused him to fall in love with her, turns out to be less than ideal companion in the real world. As she can't relate to his shock and inner turmoil, he ends up feeling emotionally alone. He does not handle it well, and ends up in very bad circumstances.

Some of this book's science-fictional plot treads, such as Lucy the robot's first slow, faltering steps towards consciousness, are more convincing than others. A certain transformation at the end that resulted in the birth of the Holy Machine did not seem credible. Maybe because we, as readers, did not get to witness it at the same level of detail as Lucy's awakening, it appeared to be tacked on at the end in a Deus Ex Machina fashion (no pun intended).

Lucy's coming into consciousness is the most engaging plot thread in the book. Her sex-robot programming was directing her behavior in ways that were both comically inappropriate and very creepy, especially as they put the couple in danger. This particular mixture of comedy, horror and suspense kept me turning the pages.

The ending was anticlimactic. It's not clear what happened to Illyria, except that it got into even worse trouble than it already was; it's not clear whether The Holy Machine changed the world even in a minor way. Basically, at the end of the book things are worse than they were, but nothing is really resolved, at least not on a global scale. For George, the main character, his horrifying adventures resulted in hard-earned maturity, so in that sense the book delivers.