Friday, April 29, 2011

Waiting for the bus

Today when I arrived at the bus stop there were two people waiting already. The man presented the woman as his wife and insisted in having her walk a bit to show me, by her gait, that she was handicapped. I thought there was something also slightly off about the man, but the exchange was surprisingly deep.

"- What kind of work do you do?
- I teach.
- Oh, you're a teacher! Good for you! [Hug, while I uncomfortably wonder what an appropriate reaction would be]... how many students do you teach?
- About 100.
- And how many fail?
- Oh, maybe 2 or 3.
- Why do they fail, those 2 or 3?
- I don't know.
- Maybe they're not interested?
- Maybe.
- And how long do students stay?
- 4 years.
- They stay 4 years, and then they're off? And they all do good except 2 or 3?
- That's right.
- And then you teach another 100 students? Every year it's like that? They leave and do good, but you stay behind?
- Yes."

That man, who seemed to have something slightly wrong with him, managed in 5 minutes and in spite of my terse answers to raise some of the more difficult questions related to teaching: why do some students fail? How do we deal with being "stuck" at the college level while students mature and move on to the next phase of their lives?

Later on the bus, as I was working, I vaguely heard him talking loudly, but didn't really pay attention. Suddenly the bus stopped, and the driver, apparently struggling to contain his anger, shouted: "All right, enough already. Get off the bus!" A very unpleasant, tense discussion followed, with us as silent bystanders. One man intervened to express support for the driver, because "I've got to get to work", he said. The driver threatened to call the cops. The man answered that he had paid his fare and had a right to be there. The driver replied: "Well, I'll talk to them, and who do you think they're going to believe, you or me?" The woman got off, in her shuffling gait, saying: "I'm getting off. I don't want to get arrested." The man finally got off as well, and we resumed our ride. One woman started chatting pleasantly with the driver. Another one said: "That's the kind of things that happen in the 9am bus. The population is much more diverse than in earlier buses". Several people laughed. I felt bad for the stranded couple, thought the whole incident had been poorly handled, the man should have been allowed to stay on the bus, and wished I had done something. Speaking up had seemed pointless at the moment. A very unpleasant incident! (And that made me late for my meeting, too).

Friday, April 8, 2011

Voting theory in medieval times

"Blanquerna" is a 13th century Catalan novel by Ramon Lull. The protagonist Natana renounces her possessions and enters a nunnery. When it is time to choose a new Abbess, Natana has a suggestion: she tells the twenty sisters that they should first select electors, who would compare candidates with each other according to four conditions, namely:
- which of them best loves and knows God,
- which of them best loves and knows the virtues,
- which of them knows and hates most strongly the vices, and
- which is the most suitable person.
The electors should compare the candidates two by two, and, for each pair, determine which they judge to be better. In the case of 9 candidates, 36 compartments will be produced in which the votes for each candidate will appear. The candidate to be elected should be "the one with the most votes in the most compartments."

The phrase is somewhat ambiguous, but another work by the same author, "Artifitium electionis personarum" (which was discovered in 2001) is more explicit: first create a matrix for pairwise comparisons of candidates. Then, "each elector shall respond and choose the one that seems best to him. One mark shall be made against the letter representing the person who has received more votes. This mark is made against that letter wherever it appears in various places [in the vote matrix]."

Of course, one has to worry about ties. Indeed, "one of the sisters asked her: "If it turns out that some candidates have as many votes as each other in the compartment, what procedure does the art recommend?" Natana replied: "The art recommends that these two or three be judged according to art alone. It should be found out which of these best meet the four aforementioned conditions, for she will be the one who is worthy to be elected.""

(Gathered from reading "Voting in the Medieval Papacy and Religious Orders", by Iain McLean and Haidee Lorrey)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Martin Luther King on Networks

Yesterday was the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. What did King have to say about theoretical computer science?

All I'm saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

What do David Easley and Jon Kleinberg respond to that?

Over the past decade there has been a growing public fascination with the complex "connectedness" of modern society. This connectedness is found in many incarnations: in the rapid growth of the Internet and the Web, in the ease with which global communication now takes place, and in the ability of news and information as well as epidemics and financial crises to spread around the world with surprising speed and intensity. These are phenomena that involve networks, incentives, and the aggregate behavior of groups of people; they are based on the links that connect us and the ways in which each of our decisions can have subtle consequences for the outcomes of everyone else.

Update: Another related quote, from Pope Benedict XVI: “We should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fukushima update

The news of the weekend: "Radiation below legal limits found in farm, sea products near Fukushima". When one makes news of the fact that the radiation is within legal limits, the situation is dire.

Water, fire hoses, sandbags, shredded newspapers: the efforts of the best nuclear engineers are surprisingly amateurish. What happened to robots and modern sophistication? Is our modern technology yet so far from being useful in a non-lab environment? I should have known, after seeing our little robot dogs awkwardly playing soccer in the CS department at the wee hours of the morning, but somehow I was deluded into thinking that technology had better answers than the dismal response that we are now witnessing. Getting robots to work in an averse environment is still largely in the domain of research, I guess.

Meanwhile I found a list of Theory researchers in Japan. It dates from 2008, but might still be useful. One is from Fukushima University. I wonder if he'd be interested in visiting some host laboratory for a while, or some students of his. I can't do it, but maybe someone else will.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Oh, the joys of traveling

I just flew back to the US. On this trip I got a direct flight, to avoid problems.

When I got to Heathrow airport, I followed the signs to Step 1: a machine that asked me to put my passport under the scanner, left me waiting a while, then instructed me to go to Step 2: the bag drop area.

At the bag drop area, the woman who was checking my bag said I had not checked in in Step 1. I said I had, but she repeated that I had not checked in, cut short my explanations, asked for my address and routine information, and then, as she gave me my boarding pass, said once again: "Why did you tell me you checked in? You did not check in!"

I was slow to catch on and realize that she believed, not that there had been a malfunction, but that I was lying. After leaving the counter, as I thought about that unhappy exchange and wondered why she had repeated her complaint *after* checking me in, it occured to me to look at my boarding pass: my seat assignment had been changed, and I now had a middle seat on the last row of the flight! Clearly she had punished me for lying by giving me the worst seat possible.

Why do I have such bad luck when flying? The frequency of my bad experiences suggests that I may have an attitude problem. The airline and airport staff hold passengers in their power and are free to control their travel in whichever way pleases them. I lack the instinct to apologize profusely when an incident happens such as a malfunctioning scanner. I tend to consider that it's their problem, not mine -- and that shows in my indifferent, carefree responses. Obviously, I need to be punished so as to correct that arrogant attitude. Wise passengers know to adapt to the situation, show their constant worry that they may accidentally have done something wrong, and display appropriately submissive humility. But I am a slow learner.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Women in math and theoretical computer science

This week at the Newton institute, I had few technical discussions in the hallways since the subject of the workshop (discrete harmonic analysis) was really outside my sphere of competence.

So we talked about, mostly, the same things that always come up: food; job openings; who got a new job where, got married, had kids, got divorced, or died; comparative quality of life as an academic across various countries; teaching conditions at various universities; Java versus Scheme; quality versus quantity in publications; theoretical versus applied research; mathematics versus theoretical computer science; beauty; why we do what we do; the meaning of life; and the lack of women in science.

It's amazing that I have had discussions about women in science at pretty much every conference for more than 20 years, have even been to a couple of events that were dedicated to women issues, and yet, I have absolutely nothing to say about it. I can make an effort and repeat what I have heard, and maybe spew out a few half-forgotten, half-made-up statistics, but I have never had a single thought of my own on the subject.

I see that there are very few women in academia.
I hear that the masculine gender predominates in language.
I listen with sympathy or indignation, as the case may be, to stories of sexism and discrimination.
But I am unable to abstract the problems, hypothesize the reasons, propose possible solutions, and design a mechanism to implement them and to evaluate their effectiveness.

Could it be that I am just not interested?

Mood and Math

The participants in this workshop are of two different moods, reflected by the choices of Mathematical vocabulary and topics.

One large group is fascinated by expansion, dictators, and how use one's influence to manipulate people. Their outlook is aggressive.

But in a second group, there is also a discrete current of pessimism, focused on diminishment, contraction, decay, and uselessness: there is just not enough time to do anything, they say.

New guidelines for the FOCS program committee

I am a member of the FOCS program committee this year, and today we received guidelines for our upcoming work. There are several noteworthy changes.

In particular, this year the program committee will produce, not merely a list of accepted papers, but a total ordering of accepted papers. This will greatly serve the field by giving each conference participant a quick way to choose which talks to attend, in areas outside their specialty. It will also give much more accurate information to put in people's vita. For this year, it is experimental only, but if it becomes mainstream, they will now be able to say, not merely: "I had 5 papers accepted at STOC/FOCS in the past four years", but can add: "... and the average rank of my accepted papers was 34.7". This will give researchers a powerful incentive to strive for quality work, by rewarding them for putting in the extra effort, in write up style and in generality of result, so as to make the difference between a borderline paper and a clear accept.

Moreover, the program committee is also requested to produce a ranking of the top 25 rejected submissions; however that ranking will only be sent to the authors confidentially; some may choose to keep it quiet, but others might be able to boast that "in the past four years, not only did I have 2 papers accepted at STOC/FOCS, but I also had 4 papers that almost made it, including the FOCS'11 best rejected paper." In particular, this may help PhD students in their job search, by showing their productivity. It eliminates the inherent unfairness of the 0-1 law coming from the accept-reject cutoff, and creates a relaxed version of "acceptance". As we know, fractional relaxations are much better behaved than integer problems.

I must say that I am a little bit surprised that such a significant change was not discussed at the business meeting beforehand. However, the guidelines made it clear that this is experimental only, and the attendees will be able to assess it at the next business meeting. In the worst case, I suppose that the program committee could decide to amend the guidelines and give a partial ordering only. If, on the other hand, this innovation is well received, since the information is also on file for the last several years, IEEE may also apply this change retroactively.

I am glad that our flagship conferences are always evolving and striving for improvements!