Monday, May 01, 2017

A Celebration of Computer Science at Harvard in Honor of Harry Lewis's 70th Bday

My adviser Harry Lewis turned 70 recently. I blogged about how things have changed since I got my Phd in this post. I now post on

A celebration of Computer Science at Harvard in Honor of Harry Lewis's 70th Birthday

(for video of all talks in order see: here)

The title was accurate: most of the speakers (1) were Harvard ugrads, (2) went on to do great things, and (3) Harry Lewis had inspired them. The talks were mostly non-technical and fun!
went on to do great things. Margo Seltzer, a prof at Harvard now (who I TAed many years ago in Aut Theory) orgnaized the event, though she gave lots of credit to her helpers.

0) Marty Chavez was one of Harry Lewis's teaching assistants for a CS programming course and recalled Harry's harsh (but fair) grading polices on code which he later saw the wisdom of.

1) Marty Chavez never thought he would use that HALT is undecidable (I think I might have been his TA for that course). But he found himself telling an egghead of economists who wanted to VERIFY all code to avoid future crashes that... Can't be done. Actually, while that is true, attempts to verify some of it might be a good idea.

2) James Gwertzman noted that:

in 1991 10% of all ugrads at Harvard  had email, and there was no web

in 1995 100%of all ugrads at Harvard had email, and there was web (though primitive).

He then pointed out that a company can do very well by using LOTS of packages that are already out there to use. He named #slack, salesforce, trello, jeaking, mailchip, greenhouse, phabricator, pingdom (just deals with pings- really!), datadog, strips, statuspage, zendeski.

The future will be serverless and codeless.

4) Guy Steele gave the most technical talk and it was, as the kids say, awesome (do adults still say `as the kids say' ?) Here is a version of the talk:

A Logial Concern

Its about how papers at POPL and some other conference have been informally using a language to specify protocols and by now its all bent out of shape. There is also some nice history of math embedded in the talk of which I'll say one thing: one way to group terms together is by placing a bar over them. The most common use of this now is the squareroot sign which didn't always have that bar over the quantity.

Guy's talk even had some slides about his notebooks from Harvard, from a course Harry taughtback in 1974 (the first course Harry taught at Harvard). Part of the course was on the sequent calculus which relates to Guys work and the current paper. Guy's notebook had both material relevent to the current paper and doodles of things like a picture of a Church next to Church's thesis.

The paper was very labor intensive since you can't just use a search program to search for some of the notations he was talking about. For example overbar and underbar. So he had to go through ALL of the POPL proceedings (and a few others) by hand. In 2017. Will that ever be easier?

He also had a two quotes about proofs:

Its not enough to prove something. You must seduce people into believing it

One man's truth is another man's cold broccoli 

I leave it to you to figure out who these quotes are credited to (different people).

5) Stuart Shieber's talk was WWHD (What Would Harry Do).


Promote Character over knowledge (see Harry's book Excellence without a soul- How a great university forgot education)

Pursue the right over the popular

A late talk by Rebecca Nessin told of some things Harry did as Dean that were RIGHT but NOT POPULAR:

The housing at Harvard used to be you chose the house (dorm complex) you lived in. When I was there Dunster was KNOWN to be the Math-house, and others had other reputations that were somewhat accurate. Harry made housing RANDOMIZED (did he use a hardness result to derive a pseudo random generation?) His goal was to increase diversity- people should get to know other kinds of people that are not like themselves.

He made polices do curb underage drinking.

He raised standards for when students get WARNINGS about their performance in classes.

These were all unpopular BUT the right thing to do.

6) There was a panel discussion on teaching.  I'll save this for a later blog post since my random thoughts on this may make this post longer than it should be. I WILL say it was excellent.

7) Rebecca Nessin is the head online course development at Harvard. The courses are  (1) open enrollment  (2) No faculty- all are borrowed from the usual faculty, (3) some courses are online.  She developed a course where the students ARE avatars. Helps with shy students. And text based conversation allows students to get out coherent complete thoughts (CONTRAST- I find myself saying to my students questions ``that was a random sequence of math words'')

That was the first part of her talk.

THEN she began talking about her journey through Harvard and Harry's place in it. Unlike her fellow students she did not what she wanted to do. She took random courses (ancient greek! Multivar calc!) After graduating she still did not know what she wanted to do so she went to... Harvard Law School. While there she took a CS course (what!  You can do that?) and soon after had Aut Theory with Harry. Her PhD was with Stuart Shieber with Harry on the committee and lots of Grammars in it.

Then she told a great story: There was a discussion of raising the min age that someone can get an ugrad  degree at the Harvard extension school. Harry asked who this would affect. The answer was

A small number. Students who can't go to a residential full time school for some reason. This includes competitive athletes, performance artists, deployed military personal, youthful entrepreneurs,  and people with disabilities.

to  which Harry replied:

These are the oddballs. Are we trying to say there is no room for oddballs at Harvard?

Rebecca ended her talk by pointing out that with her crooked path to where she is now she is an oddball and
that all of the oddballs should celebrate that they will also have a place at at Harry Lewis's Harvard.

8) Cliff Young declared Moore's Law Dead (some disagree- see here) - and the solution is to go back to special purpose machines- which, contrary to popular belief, Do NOT just do one thing and
ARE programmable, He also talked about Amdahl's law which is about the limits of parallelism and about how  parallelism research seems to fight the same battle over and over again (RISC vs CISC,

9) Danielle Feinberg from Pixar had the following quote about animation:

Long hair is an unsolved problem

But they did solve it (for the movie The Incredibles). She also pointed out that they can sometimes spend lots of time and energy and creativity on a scene that will take 3 second, or on something just in the background.

Much like Rebecca, Danielle also appreciated Harrys appreciating for oddballs.

10) Harry Lewis- He spoke some about his career but also about CS in general.

 His career and where his now is sort-of an accident. He was originally going to get his PhD in Systems but Theorists got out faster.

 Computer Science has changed a lot in the last X years- but the change he remarked on the most is that it CS is at

The twilight of the Amateur Era

I'll let you debate what that means.

11) Later at the reception Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg send their recorded greetings, though only Mark Z's is on the you tube video- towards the end. Its short so rather than summarize it- I urge to to view it yourself.

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