Sunday, August 13, 2017

What is unusual about this MIT grad student in Applied Math?

(Thanks to Rachel Folowoshele for bringing this to my attention)

John Urschel is a grad student in applied math at MIT. His webpage is here.

Some students go straight from ugrad to grad (I did that.)

Others take a job of some sort and then after a few years go to grad school.

That's what John did;  however, his prior job was unusual among applied math grad students







He was in the NFL as a professional football player! See here for more about the career change, though I'll say that the brain-problems that NFL players have (being hit on the head is not a good for your brain) was a major factor for doing this NOW rather than LATER.

How unusual is this? Looking around the web I found lists of smart football players, and lists of football players with advanced degrees (these lists were NOT identical but there was some overlap) but the only other NFL player with a PhD in Math/CS/Applied math was

Frank Ryan- see his wikipedia page here. He got his Phd WHILE playing football. He was a PhD student at Rice.

I suspect that a professional athlete getting a PhD in Math or CS or Applied Math or Physics or... probably most things, is rare.  Why is this? NOT because these people are dumber or anything of the sort, but because its HARD to do two things well, especially now that both math and football have gotten more complex. Its the same reason we don't have many Presidents with PhD's (Wilson was the only one) or Presidents who know math (see my post on presidents who knew math: here) or Pope's who are scientists (there was one around 1000 AD, see here).

If you know of any professional athlete who has a PhD in some science or math, please leave a comment on such.

(ADDED LATER- a commenter pointed out Angela Merkel who has a PhD in Physical Chemistry,
is chancellor of Germany, and there is a musical about her, see here.)

(ADDED LATER- some of the comments were for Olympic Athletes and hence not professional and another comment pointed this out. So I clarify: Olympic is fine too, I really meant serious athlete.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Wearable Tech and Attention

Remember the Bluetooth craze where it seemed half of all people walked around with a headset in their ear. Now you rarely do.

Remember Google Glass. That didn't last long.

I remember having a conversation with someone and all of sudden they would say something nonsensical and you'd realize they are on the phone talking to someone else. Just by wearing a Bluetooth headset you felt that they cared more about a potential caller than the conversation they were currently having with you.

Google glass gave an even worse impression. Were they listening to you or checking their Twitter feed? [Aside: I now use "they" as a singular genderless pronoun without even thinking about it. I guess an old dog can learn new tricks.]

When you get bored and pull out your phone to check emails or put on headphones to listen to music or a podcast, you give a signal that you don't want to be disturbed even if that isn't your intent. Wearing a Bluetooth headset or Google glasses gave that impression all the time, which is why the technology didn't stick.

What about smart watches? You can certainly tell if someone has an Apple watch. But if they don't look at it you don't feel ignored. Some people think they can check their watch without the other person noticing. They do. I've been guilty of this myself.

What happens when are brains are directly connected to the Internet? You'll never know if anyone is actually listening to you in person. Of course, at that point will there even be a good reason to get out of bed in the morning?

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Should we care if a job candidate does not know the social and ethical implications of their work (Second Blog Post inspired by Rogaway's Moral Character Paper)

Phillip Rogaway's article on the

The Moral character of Cryptographic Work (see here)

brings up so many issues that it could be the topics for at least 5 blog posts. I've already done one here, and today I'll do another. As I said in the first post I urge you to read it even if you disagree with it, in fact, especially if you disagree with it. (Possible Paradox- you have to read it to determine if you disagree with it.)

Today's issue:

Should a department take into account if someone understand the social and ethical issues with their work?

1) I'll start with something less controversial. I've sometimes asked a job candidate `why do you work on X?' Bad answers:

        Because my adviser told me to.

        Because I could make progress on it.

        Because it was fun to work on.

People should always know WHY they are working on what they are working on. What was the motivation of the original researchers is one thing they should know, even if the current motivation is different. If its a new problem then why is it worth studying?

2) In private email to Dr. Rogaway he states that he just wants this to be ONE of the many issues having to do with job hiring (alas, it usually is not even ONE). As such, the thoughts below may not be quite right since they assume a bigger role. But if you want to make something a criteria, even a small one, we should think of the implications.

3) In private email to Dr. Rogaway I speculated that we need to care more about this issue when interviewing someone in security then in (say) Ramsey theory. He reminded me of work done in pure graph theory funded by the DOD, that is about how to best disable a network (perhaps a social network talking too much about why the Iraq war is a terrible idea). Point taken- this is not just an issue in Security.

4) What if someone is working on security, funded by the DOD, and is fully aware that the government wants to use her work to illegally wiretap people and is quite okay with that. To hold that against her seems like holding someone's politics against them which I assume all readers of this blog would find very unfair.. OR is it okay to hire her since she HAS thought through the issues. The fact that you disagree with her conclusion should be irrelevant.

5) What if she says that the DOD, once they have the tech, will only wiretap bad people? (see here)

6) Lets say that someone is working on cute crypto with pictures of Alice and Bob (perhaps Alice is Wonderland and Bob the Builder). Its good technical work and is well funded. It has NO social or ethical  implications because it has NO practical value, and she knows it. Should this be held against her? More so than other branches of theory?

7) People can be aware of the social and ethical issues and not care.

8) The real dilemma: A really great job candidate in security who is brilliant. The work is top notch but has serious negative implications. The job candidate is clueless about that. But they can bring in
grant money! Prestige! Grad Students! I don't have an answer here but its hard to know how much to weigh social and ethical awareness versus getting a bump in the US News and World Report Rankings!

        What does your dept do? What are your thoughts on this issue?



Thursday, August 03, 2017

What Makes a Great Definition

Too often we see bad definitions, a convoluted mess carefully crafted to make a theorem true. A student asked me though what makes for a great definition in theoretical computer science. The right definition can start a research area, where a bad definition can take research down the wrong path.

Some goals of a definition:
  • A great definition should capture some phenomenon, like computation (Turing machines), efficient computation (P), efficient quantum computation (BQP). Cryptography has produced some of the best (and worst) definitions to capture security concerns.
  • A great definition should be simple. Defining computability by a Turing machine--good. Definition computability by by the 1334 page ISO/IEC 14882:2011 C++ standard--not so good.
  • A great definition should be robust. Small changes in the definition should have little, or better, no change in what fulfills the definition. That is what makes the P v NP problem so nice since both P and NP are robust to various different models of computing. Talking about the problems solvable by a 27-state Turing machine--not robust at all.
  • A great definition should be logically consistent. Defining a set as any definable collection doesn't work.
  • A great definition should be easy to apply. It should be easy to check that something fulfills the definition, ideally in a simply constructive way.
A great definition drives theorems not the other way around.

Sometimes you discover that a definition does not properly capture a phenomenon--then you should either change or discard your definition, or change your understanding of the phenomenon.

Let's go through an interesting example. In 1984, Goldwasser, Micali and Rackoff defined $k$-bits of knowledge interactive proof systems. Did they have good definitions?
  • The definition of interactive proof systems hits all the right points above and created a new area of complexity that we still study today. 
  • Their notion of zero-(bits of) knowledge interactive proofs hits nearly the right points. Running one zero-knowledge protocol followed by another using the GMR definition might not keep zero-knowledge but there is an easy fix for that. Zero-knowledge proof systems would end up transforming cryptography. 
  • Their notion of k-bit knowledge didn't work at all. Not really robust and a protocol that output the factors of a number half the time leaked only 1-bit of knowledge by the GMR definition. They smartly dropped the k-bit definition in the journal version.
Two great definitions trump one bad one and GMR rightly received, along with Babai-Moran who gave an alternative equivalent definition of interactive proofs, the first Godel Prize.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Harvard punishes some social organizations. Why?

Over at  the blog Bits and Pieces my adviser Harry Lewis (is he still my adviser 32 years after I got my PhD? Yes) has written many posts about Harvard's decision to ban people who belong to same-sex organizations from being approved for Rhodes Fellowships and other things. He is against it. Not just that, he gives history, context, etc. While originally intended to stop some excesses of some male clubs, the ban  also punishes all-female clubs. But that's not the only reason the punishment is idiotic..

I could not possibly describe and argue against the policy as well as Harry Lewis can, (e.g., he never used the word idiotic) so I was going to write a post briefly describing the situation and then pointing to all of his posts.

AH- but then Michael Mitzenmacher did that in his blog My Biased Coin (Hmmm- I think its his biased coin).

I could not possibly give a short description and point to Harry Lewis's posts as well as MM did.

SO I point to MM's post and give some brief comments.

MM's post is here. Warning- MM's post  points to 16 Harry Lewis's posts. That is a lot to read but well worth it.

My two cents (that would be a good blog name!):

1) After MM's post HL posted again about the issue, this time pointing to several more  articles on the issue and commenting on them. HL's post is Here. That is even more to read but well worth it.
(UPDATE- After I posted this HL posted another post on this topic on his blog: here)

2) While I have seen many arguments against the policy I have not seen a single argument for the policy. I don't mean that I have seen arguments and they were not good, I really have not seen any arguments good or bad.

3) I would much rather have the debate be:

What are some clubs doing that is bad? If so then is there some policy that makes sense?

rather than

What business is it of Harvard what off-campus clubs a student belongs to?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Peter Wegner (1932-2017)

Peter Wegner passed away yesterday morning at the age of 84. As a child he escaped Stalinist Russia and Nazi-occupied Austria the latter via the Kindertransport to England. Wegner would go on to be an important computer scientist at Brown working on CS research and education.

With Dina Goldin, Peter Wegner developed a notion of interactive computation  and used it to argue for the incompleteness of the Church-Turing thesis. While I didn't agree with this interpretation, I appreciated Wegner's efforts to understanding the basic nature of computing. Peter Wegner later organized an ACM Ubiquity Symposium What is Computation? where he sought many view on the question, including my own.

Peter Wegner said "In computer science we work with possibilities and hope we’ll someday be able to solve them." Here's to all things possible.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Lessons from Norway

For the last two weeks, the wife and I took a vacation to beautiful Norway to see the fjords and the North Cape, effectively the northernmost point in Europe. It was a visit though to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger that inspired this post.

The discovery of oil in the waters off Norway in 1969 completely changed the Norwegian economy, changing the way of life from a difficult agriculture and fishing society to a more comfortable oil-based economy. The museum had a surprisingly good introductory movie "Oil Kid" describes the challenging relationship of a man with his father who drew a comfortable life as an oil worker. Oil may have made Norway complacent as it lags behind its Scandinavian neighbors in non-oil based technological innovation.

The Norwegian government declared that the oil belonged to the people and created a fund that now totals nearly a trillion US dollars, over $150,000 per Norwegian citizen. Nevertheless as the price of oil remains low, Norway risks challenges as a country reliant on its production.

Norway now aims to be energy-neutral in the near future with extensive hydropower and wind mills. Norway has the highest percentage of electric cars of any country. The tiny town of Eidfjord, population about 1000, has a Tesla charging station. Odd to see this from a major oil exporter.

As computer scientists we have "struck oil," also leading a revolutionary change to our economy with its winners and losers. In fifty years will we look back and regret what we have wrought? 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

What are the top Computer science programs for women?

What are the top Computer Science Programs for Women?

How would one even answer the question?

Some people did a study based on National Center for Education Statistics and Payscale. The results are here.

1) While I believe the top X school listed are pretty good for women in computing I don't believe that (say) the Yth school is better than the (Y+1)th school for some values of X and all values of Y.

2) I appreciate that they put in the work for this.

3) Overall good news and bad news:

The number of female professionals in computer science has fallen by 35% since 1990

The number of women  finishing a comp sci degree has increased by 75% in the last five years.

4) Why do we care? If there are many talented people in group X who are being discouraged from going into field Y, but society needs more people in field Y then YES we should do something about that. Also, if a certain group of people is shut out then a group-think might occur.

5) What to do? Organizations like Girls who code are good. The younger they start the bettter.

6) Is there a social stigma for women to go into computer science? I think the answer is yes. How can we break that stigma? Realize that the notion of a female lawyer or doctor at one time had a stigma but I don't think it does anymore. What did they do right? What are we doing wrong?

7) Personal note:

I have mentored 58 High School Students. 56 were male, 2 were female.

I have mentored 45 ugrad students. 33 were male, 12 were female.

I have supervised 17 Masters students. 15 were male, 2 were female

I have supervised 7 PhD students, 6 were male, 1 was female.

The HS students stats are the most startling (at least to me). I don't have much control on this one as HS students seek me out and they happen to mostly be male. Reading that over it sounds weak on my part.