Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Guest Blog on the Pandemic's affect on disability students

I asked my Grad Ramsey Theory class to email me about whatever thoughts they have on the pandemic that they want to share with the world, with the intend of making some of them into a blog post. I thought there would be several short thoughts for one post. And I may still do that post. But I got a FANTASTIC long answer from one Emily Mae Kaplitz. Normally I would ask to shorten or edit a guest post, but I didn't do that here since that might make it less authentic.

Here is Emily Kaplitz's email (with her enthusiastic permission)


Ok so this might be super ranty, (It definitely is.) but I think it is super important to bring up in a blog post written by an academic that will be probably read by other academics. 

The students that are being most affected by this pandemic with online learning are disability students. As a disability student, we carefully cultivate the way that we learn best based off of years of trial and error. This is harder than anything else, we have to face in our lifetime. Most of the time disability students are left on the back burner and that statement is so much more prevalent right now. My friends brother is autistic. He is struggling so much right now because he is at home. Disability students learn what environment works best for them and at home is usually not the best place. We have to split our lives into different boxes that each have different tools to help us get our brains to focus and work well when we need them too. Disability students will rely on everything being planned out, so that they can succeed. Teachers and professors cannot understand the stress and strain that having to work at home puts on the student. Every time I go to another school, it is a struggle to figure out what new thing I need to add into the mix and what old thing I need to throw away. It's exhausting, but when I go from one school to another I at least know that the basics are the same. I sit in a classroom, the professors lecturer, and then I do work at home that is assigned to me. Changing to online changes that dynamic so much. A professor cannot see when a student is visibly struggling with a topic because we'll all behind computers. A neurotypical person might ask, "well why don't you just ask a question? Why don't you just let the professor know that you don't understand". Let me answer that simply. If all your life you've been silenced because of something that you cannot control, is your first reaction to speak out or to stay silent. It is so hard for disability students to ask a question after we've been labeled the dumb kid. Every time we ask a question, we always have the thought of: is this going to make me sound stupid. We've worked so hard to eliminate that word from our vocabulary and from others who will throw that word back at us. Disability students are being left in the hands of their parents and teachers/professors who do not understand us and our needs even if they try to or want to. It is so hard for us to explain what our normal is because we don't live your normal and therefore don't know the difference. Many disability students have their confidence slashed the moment they enter a classroom and realize that they are not like the other kids. Even more so because they don't understand why they aren't. Disability students are one of the most hard-working individuals when we have a cheerleader to cheer us on because it's hard. It's harder than anything anyone has to do. Because no one listens to you when you are stupid and no one cares for you if you're not easy to care for unless they are given a specific reason to. Fighting a losing battle every day is awful. Now imagine all of your weapons that you have carefully crafted over the years have been taken away and you are left defenseless. While we have things like ADS that are supposed to help support us, it's not enough. Just like putting a Band-Aid on an open infected wound will not be enough. Now more than ever we need to learn from this as academics. We need to learn that helping disability students does not only help disability students. It helps all students because all students learn differently. All students if given the chance can excel at any field that we put them in. We just have to figure out the best way to get that student to shine. That is one of the reasons why I am a PhD student right now. I saw in the tutoring center at my undergrad how many students came to me with so much frustration about something they are doing in class. Both students with disabilities and without. These students are constantly apologizing because they don't understand something. In one session by just changing the way that we talk about a subject the student was able to get it in less time than the professor taught it. I've had students come to me after an exam and tell me that the only reason they got the grade that they did was because in their head was my voice coaching them on a subject. We are not teaching optimally. We are teaching the way that it has been done for years and years and years and that is not the best way to teach. It might be the best way to teach the strongest links but really the link that matters the most is the weakest link that will snap under pressure because you can't pull a tractor with a broken link. Disability students think differently. Imagine how many impossible problems we can solve when we have people that think differently. But that's just my two cents as a disability student who is struggling and sees other disability students struggling every day. And really just wants to help all students succeed.

I blame any misspellings, grammar errors, and run on sentences on my speech to text and text to speech. This was a long email and if we were on tumblr, I would post a potato at the end. Since we aren't, I will leave this email with this. Thank you for taking the time to read this rant. Even if you don't include this in your blog post, I believe one person reading this has made the difference.


Emily Mae Kaplitz

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Summer Virtual Conference Season

Both STOC and Complexity have announced they will go virtual for the summer. ICALP moved from Beijing to Saarbrücken to online. I expect every major summer conference and workshop will be cancelled, postponed or virtualized.

Most CS conferences serve as publication venues and can't be cancelled or postponed. So how do we virtualize a conference? The ACM has an evolving virtual conferences best practices guide. Putting the talks and poster sessions online is not trivial, but relatively straightforward. Personally I go to conferences mostly not for the talks but for the interactions with other participants--the receptions, meal time and just hanging in the hallways. The ACM document describes some approaches like Dagstuhl-style randomized virtual dinner tables. The IEEE VR conference tried virtual reality through Mozilla hubs. None of these can truly replicate the on-site experience.

Let me mention two other meetings the Game Theory Congress held every four years due to be held in Budapest and the CRA Snowbird Conference, a meeting of CS department chairs and computing leadership, held every other summer in Utah. Both meetings are not archival publications venues though have several talks and panels. But the main purpose of both is mostly to bring people together, game theorists and CS leaders. I hope they postpone rather than virtualize these meetings. Rather get together a year late than pretend to get together now.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Theoretical Computer Science for the Future

Guest post by the TCS4F initiative (Antoine Amarilli, Thomas Colcombet, Hugo Férée, Thomas Schwentick) 

TCS4F is an initiative by theoretical computer scientists who are concerned about that other major crisis of our time: climate change. We anticipate that the climate crisis will be a major challenge of the decades to come, that it will require major changes at all levels of society to mitigate the harm that it will cause, and that researchers in theoretical computer science, like all other actors, must be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Our initiative is to propose a manifesto to commit to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions: following IPCC goals, the objective is to reduce by at least 50% before 2030 relative to pre-2020 levels. The manifesto is more than a simple expression of concern, because it is a pledge with concrete objectives. However, it does not prescribe specific measures, as we believe this discussion is not settled yet and the right steps to take can vary depending on everyone's practices. 

The manifesto can be signed by individual researchers (like you, dear reader!), by research groups, and by organizers of conferences and workshops. Currently, over 50 researchers have signed it. The goal of TCS4F is also to start organizing a community of concerned researchers, across theoretical computer science, to think about the issue of climate change and how to adjust what we do, in particular our travel habits. 

We need your help to make this initiative a success and help theoretical CS lead the way towards a sustainable, carbon-neutral future:
  • If you agree with our concerns and are ready to commit to reducing your carbon footprint, consider signing the manifesto. Signing is open to all researchers in theoretical CS in the broadest possible sense.
  • Advertise your support of the manifesto (e.g., by putting one of our badges on your webpage). Talk in your research teams and departments about the manifesto, and see if you can gather support for signing the manifesto collectively as a research group.
  • If you are involved in conferences and workshops, start a discussion about the carbon footprint of the event, and whether the event could commit to the manifesto's goal. Indeed, now that conferences across the globe are moving online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a good time to discuss how conferences could evolve towards more sustainable models.
  • Spread the word about the issue of climate change and the TCS4F initiative, and encourage discussion of this important challenge in our communities. 
As theoretical researchers, we are not used to discussing uncomfortable non-scientific questions like the effects of our activities on the world. However, we believe that the magnitude of the climate crisis obliges us to act now as a community. We are confident that great changes can be achieved if we do not limit our creativity to our specific research areas and also use it to re-think our way to do research.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

John Conway Dies of Coronvirus

John Conway passed away on April 11, 2020 of the Coronovirus. He is the first person I knew (for some definition of `know') who has died of it. I suspect this is true of many readers of this blog.
(Fellow bloggers Scott Aaronson and Terry Tao have already posted about John Conway,
here and here. I suspect there will be others and when they do I will add it here.
ADDED LATER: nice xkcd here

John Conway is a great example of how the line between recreational math and serious math is .... non-existent? not important? Take our pick.


1) Conway invented Surreal Numbers. These can be used to express infinitely big and infinitely small numbers. One can even make sense of things like square root of infinity.  Conway's book is called On Numbers and Games (see here and here) Two free sources: here and here.

Note that Conway defined surreals in terms of games. Are they fun games? Probably not, but they are games!

2)  Conway's Game of Life (you really do need to use his name, note the contrast between The game of life here and Conway's Game of Life here

The game is simple (and this one IS fun). You begin with some set of dots placed at lattice points, and a set of rules to tell how they live, die, or reproduce.  The rules are always the same. Different initial patterns form all kinds of patterns.  Sounds fun! Is it easy to tell, given pattern P1 and P2 whether, starting with P1 you can get to P2. No. Its undecidable.

So this simple fun game leads to very complicated patterns.

And nice to have an undecidable problem that does not mention Turing Machines. (I will tell the students it is undecidable this semester, though I won't be proving it.)

3)  Berlekamp, Conway, and Guy wrote Winning Ways for your Mathematical Plays  See here and here

This is the ultimate book on NIM games.

4) The above is probably what the readers of this blog are familiar with; however, according to his Wikipedia page (see here) he worked in Combinatorial Game Theory, Geometry, Geometric Topology, Group Theory, Number Theory, Algebra, Analysis, Algorithmics and Theoretical Physics.

He will be missed.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Let's Hear It for the Cloud

Since March 19th I have worked out of home. I've had virtual meetings, sometimes seven or eight a day, on Zoom, Bluejeans, Google Hangouts, Google Meet, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and Microsoft Teams. I take notes on my iPad using Penultimate which syncs with Evernote. I store my files in Dropbox and collaborate in Google Drive. I communicate by Google Chat, Gmail, Facebook messenger and a dozen other platforms. I continue to tweet and occasionally post in this blog. 

A billion of my closest friends around the world are also working out of home and using the same and similar tools. Yet outside of some pretty minor issues, all of these services continue to work and work well. Little of this would have been possible fifteen years ago. 

As Amazon scaled up their web operations to handle their growing business in the early 2000's they realized they could sell computing services. AWS, Amazon Web Services, started in 2006. Microsoft Azure, Google and others followed. These sites powered smartphones and their apps that push heavy processing to the cloud, small startups who don't need to run their own servers, and companies like Zoom when they need to scale up quickly and scale down like Expedia when they don't need as much use. Amazon and Microsoft makes most of their profit on cloud services. Amazon can't get me toilet paper but they can make sure Blackboard continues to work when all of our classes move online. 

Just for fun I like to occasionally look over the large collection of Amazon Cloud Products. Transcribe an audio recording and translate to Portuguese, not a problem. 

The cloud can't allow all of us to work from home. We have many who still go to work including front-line health care workers putting their lives on the line. Many have lost their jobs. Then of course there are those sick with the virus, many of whom will never recover. We can't forget about the reason we stay indoors.

But every now and then it's good to look back and see how a technology has changed our world in a very short time. If we had this virus in the 90's we'd still be having to go to work, or simply stop teaching and other activities all together.

And how will our universities and other work spaces look like in the future now that we find we can work reasonably well from home and even better technologies develop? Only time will tell.