Tuesday, December 30, 2003

End of Year Thoughts

We had another solid year for theoretical computer science and computational complexity with many exciting results such as the polynomial algorithm for perfect graphs developed in a series of papers by Chudnovsky, Cornuéjols, Liu, Seymour and Vuškovic. We also saw a number of strong papers in derandomization, extractor construction, dimension reduction and many other areas of complexity.

In 2003 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the births of Alonzo Church, Andrey Kolmogorov, John von Neumann and Frank Ramsey, mathematicians who work played a big role in complexity. Next up, Kurt Gödel in 2006.

Trends to watch for in 2004:

  • How will the reorganization of CISE and the end of the ITR affect NSF funding for theoretical computer science?
  • Will a hopefully improving economy push universities to increase their resources in computer science?
  • What trends will we see in recruiting this year? More and more Ph.D.'s seem to prefer postdoc positions though the number of these positions continue to decrease, especially in industry.
  • How will the choice of the US president in 2004 affect the future of scientific research in America? A critical question, but not one that a journalist will ask in any debate.
Happy new year to all! May we prove P≠NP in 2004.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

John von Neumann

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of John von Neumann, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. Let me discuss two aspects of his work, one big, one small, that have greatly affected computational complexity.

The von Neumann min-max theorem showed that every finite zero-sum two-person game has optimal mixed strategies. More formally, let A be the payoff matrix of a game, then

maxx miny xTAy = miny maxx xTAy
where x and y are probability vectors.

Andrew Yao used the min-max theorem to prove what we now call the Yao Principle: The worst case expected runtime of a randomized algorithm for any input equals best case running time of a deterministic algorithm for a worst-case distribution of inputs. The Yao principle has proven invaluable for proving upper and lower bounds for deterministic and probabilistic algorithms.

How can you get a fair coin by flipping a coin of unknown bias? You use the von Neumann coin-flipping trick: Flip the biased coin twice. If you get heads then tails output HEADS. If you get tails then heads output TAILS. Otherwise repeat. This procedure will output HEADS or TAILS with equal probability and if the bias is not too close to zero or one the expected number of repetitions is relatively small.

The von Neumann coin flipping trick is the first in a long line of research in complexity extracting random bits from weak random sources.

John von Neumann passed away February 8, 1957 in Washington, DC.

Friday, December 26, 2003

That's My State

Nothing like this Chicago Tribune story to ruin your holidays. Apparently the Illinois Board of Higher Education has launched a study of faculty productivity looking at what kind of research projects faculty undertake to how much time they spend in the classroom. According to board chairman James Kaplan "there's got to be a tangible, measurable benefit for the people of the state of Illinois for a professor doing research." Nothing good can come from this.

The University of Chicago is a private school unaffected by this study, but I would hate to see my friends at the various U. Illinois campuses to have to take unpaid leave to go to conferences.

Update 12/29: Daniel Drezner dissects this article. Also, I talked with a University of Illinois-Chicago professor who worries less about this study than budget cuts in the University of Illinois system due to the continual fiscal crisis in the state.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Scientific Superstars

On Saturday I visited the Einstein Exhibit at Chicago's Field Museum. Some manuscripts and letters and a nice exhibit explaining why time must vary if the speed of light remains a constant made this an interesting but not a must-see exhibit. The biggest surprise for me came from seeing how Einstein's fame happened overnight instead of the more gradual fame I would have expected. In 1919 a solar eclipse showed that light from stars do bend from gravitational forces. Einstein's fame grew immediately and his name became synonymous with genius.

This superstardom for a scientist doesn't seem to happen today. When Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's last theorem he did get some deserved attention but he never became a true household name. When you realize Wiles has hit the upper limit of fame a mathematician can receive (ruling out people like Ted Kaczynski and John Nash) one can see the Einstein effect of science may never return.

On the other hand, University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno headlines the social page of the Chicago Tribune at the "Party With Giants." Perhaps scientists can still achieve more than fifteen minutes of fame after all.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Does NP=UP?

Time for another of my favorite open problems.

Does NP=UP imply the polynomial-time hierarchy collapses?

UP is the class of languages accepted by nondeterministic polynomial-time Turing machines that have at most one accepting computation for all inputs.

This problem has loose connections to Valiant-Vazirani but Hemaspaandra, Naik, Ogiwara and Selman have the most closely related result. Consider the following proposition.

(*) There is a set A in NP such that for all satisfiable formula φ there is a unique satisfying assignment a of φ such that (φ,a) is in A.

Hemaspaandra et. al. show that (*) implies the polynomial-time hierarchy collapses to the second level.

For all we know, (*) and NP=UP are incomparable. If (*) holds for some A in P then NP=UP by just guessing a. We don't know whether NP=UP implies (*) since the accepting computations of a UP machine accepting SAT need not reveal a satisfying assignment of a formula.

There exist an oracle relative to which UP=NP≠co-NP. A relativized world with UP=NP and Σ2p≠Π2p remains open.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Does PowerPoint Make You Dumb?

Yesterday the New York Times Magazine had its annual "The Year in Ideas" issue. Ideas Futures Markets in Everything and Proving You're Human I had discussed in earlier posts here and here. Instead let us discuss whether PowerPoint Makes You Dumb?

As an avid PowerPoint enthusiast, I found the Times discussion quite misleading. The NASA scientists followed the advice of Tufte, filling the slides full of information that made them impossible to follow. One should not try to give complex ideas in a presentation; rather give an overview of these ideas and leave the messy details to technical articles. PowerPoint makes it easy to give overview talks and hard to give talks full of ugly details, crammed slides and detailed formulas, almost always leading to better talks.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Ordering Authors

Every scientific field has their own rules for the order of authors in a paper. In theoretical computer science, tradition dictates that we list the authors alphabetically by last name. I don't agree with this tradition; rarely do all the co-authors of a paper play an equal role. The decision whether to add someone as a co-author, and thus an equal, often becomes difficult.

But breaking with tradition can have its own problems. I have three papers that break the alphabetical rule though two were in biology which has its own rules. In the other back in 1990, Carsten Lund, a graduate student at the time, made the key step in developing an interactive proof system for the permanent. For that we made him first author in the Lund-Fortnow-Karloff-Nisan paper. In retrospect I regret this decision. It only added confusion to those who cited the paper. Also did Lund not play as important a role in other papers where we kept alphabetical order? Breaking with tradition, even with the best of intentions, can often cause more harm than good.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Seven Naughty Words

Want an easy rule to greatly improve your writing? Just avoid the following words, particularly in the abstract and introduction of your papers.

am is are was were be been

Avoiding these seven forms of "to be" will force you to write in the active tense instead of the passive making your sentences less boring. For example, instead of "It is known that all functions can be computed securely in the information theoretic setting" use "We can compute all functions securely in the information theoretic setting."

Taking this rule to the extreme can lead to some very convoluted sentences but, I promise, forcing yourself to think actively about every statement you write will make a great difference in your prose. In almost all cases the right answer is "not to be."

Monday, December 08, 2003

Two Uses of Randomness

Over the last 15 years, two very active research areas seem at odds. Derandomization results have shown us that we can often remove randomness from computation but interactive proof systems and PCPs exhibit incredible power from randomness. There is no contradiction here, just two very different ways we use randomness in complexity: for searching and for hiding.

Typically we think of randomness for searching, for example finding disagreements with Fermat's little theorem to show a number is composite or taking random walks on graphs to show they are connected. Derandomization results have given us reasons to believe we can replace the randomness in these computations with pseudorandom number generators.

Randomness can also play the role of hiding, since no one can predict future coin tosses. In interactive proofs we make the jump from NP to PSPACE because of randomness. For PCPs with O(log n) queries the jump goes from P to NP and with poly queries from NP to NEXP, in the later case classes which are provable different. In all these cases the prover cannot cheat because it cannot predict coin tosses not yet made by the verifier. A verifier using a pseudorandom generator will fail here, since the prover could then predict the verifier's actions.

AM protocols have the verifier flip coins first so no hiding going on, rather searching for a statement Merlin can prove and we expect some derandomization for AM. The result that MA is in AM says that sometimes we can replace hiding randomness with searching randomness.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

A Regular Problem Solved

Paz Carmi, Yinnon Haviv and Enav Weinreb from Ben-Gurion University have solved the regular language problem I posted last month.

The problem came from Janos Simon based on a homework question in Kozen's book. Let L(A)={x|x^m is in A for some m}. The homework question asked to show that L(A) is regular if A is regular. The question Janos asks was how many states do we need for a DFA for L(A) if A has n states. Carmi, Haviv and Weinreb show that an exponential number of states are required.

Not only did they solve the problem but also sent me this nice write-up of the proof. I believe this is the first time someone has directly solved a problem I've given on this weblog. I owe each of them a beer (or non-alcoholic beverage of their choice).

Update 12/9: I received the following today from Markus Holzer.

It seems that I have missed your posting about the problem last month. The problem you have stated was already solved in June by Jeff Shallit and co-authors. They have given a lower bound on the DFA accepting root, by considering the (largest) syntactic monoid induced by two generators. The latter problem on syntactic monoid size is of its own interest and I was working on that for a while, therefore I know the result of Shallit et al on the root descriptional complexity. Maybe you also owe the beers to Shallit et al.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

The Elsevier Dilemma

The Cornell University Library has announced it will drop a substantial number of their Elsevier subscriptions, part of a general problem Cornell and other libraries are facing with higher costs and different pricing models from commercial academic publishers.

I have wanted to write a post on this topic for a while but I find it difficult to truly understand the problems or the potential solutions. Elsevier does a nice job with their portal and their publishing, but because of consolidation and cheap distribution via the internet, they have changed their pricing model in ways that make it difficult for many libraries to afford all of the journals that they need.

This poses some moral questions: Should we avoid submitting our papers to Elsevier journals? Is it wrong for me to serve on the editorial board of the Elsevier-published Information and Computation? I just don't know.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

The NSF and SIGACT News

First an update on NSF program solicitations: The Formal and Mathematical Foundations cluster has posted its solicitation which includes computational complexity. The deadline is March 4. The program announcement for the Emerging Models and Technologies for Computation Cluster, which includes quantum and biological computing, is still under development. Also the ITR solicitation has also been posted, with some major changes from previous years.

Donald Knuth's tribute to Robert Floyd highlights the December SIGACT News. Also reviews of a bunch of crypto books, a column on sublinear-time algorithms and the complexity theory column on "Post's Lattice with Applications to Complexity Theory."

In my mailbox yesterday was not one but five copies of SIGACT News shrink-wrapped together. Once I unwrapped them and looked at the labels, only the outer one belonged to me. There were two for other professors in my department, one for our library and one for the library of Loyola University Chicago, which is on the other side of the city. I'm not sure if it was a mistake or some attempt by the ACM to reduce mailing costs, but I hope this is a one-time occurrence.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Show Us Your Papers

I hope you all got your Complexity submissions in on time last week. Now let the rest of the world see your work. Make them into technical reports, put them on your home page, submit them to ECCC and/or CoRR (neither of which conflicts with submitting to Complexity). People won't judge you, okay maybe they will, but no one gets famous by keeping their work a secret.

And since I know you'll ask: I didn't have any Complexity submissions this year. It happens.