My monitor setup

In the not-distant future there will be a single monitor that gets you the best of both worlds. For the contemporaneous, I maintain that the above is the best monitor setup available to us in 2020. I use the tiny E-ink monitor as much as possible, including now, for my blitz matches on chess.com, and of course for writing and sometimes reviewing papers. But as I mentioned earlier unfortunately for certain bureaucratic tasks that not all of us can skip altogether you just need a bigger monitor with color. So I push a button on the hdmi switch, and the image blasts open on the 30-inch screen, m’illumino d’immenso, and suddenly the mouse feels like the interface from Minority Reports.

Previous vs. concurrent/independent work

Should Paper X cite Paper Y as previous or concurrent/independent work? This is sometimes tricky: maybe Paper Y circulated privately before Paper X, maybe the authors of Paper X knew about Paper Y maybe not — nobody can know for sure. One can say that the authors of Paper Y should have posted Paper Y online earlier to prevent this issue, but that is not standard practice and might lead to other problems, including Paper Y never getting published!

I propose the following guiding principle:

“If a different accept/reject outcome would have forced paper X to cite paper Y as previous work, then paper X should cite paper Y as previous work.”

The reasons behind my principle seem to me especially valid in the fast-moving theoretical computer science community, where papers are typically sent to conferences and thus seen by the entire program committee plus around 3 external referees, who are typically experts — only to be rejected. Moreover, the progress is extremely fast, with the next conference cycle making obsolete a number of papers in just the previous cycle.

We don’t need no education

Around us, educational systems whose primary emphasis is on social rather than intellectual skills are simply disintegrating. Unequipped for content delivery, teachers spray parents with a mixture of links and credentials whose collection is a complete waste of everybody’s time. Suggestion: What about assigning homework and let teachers provide feedback?

To all the school-age kids stuck at home doing some fun coding, this immortal song is for you.

1348, 1665, 2020

Besides unimaginable suffering and horror, the Black Death of the 1340’s also brought increased wages and better living standards. It came back, among other times, in 1665. Then like now, universities closed and students went home. Among them was Newton, who spent his time alone in the countryside thus:

In the beginning of the year 1665 I found the method of approximating series and the rule for reducing any dignity [power] of any binomial into such a series. The same year in May I found the method of tangents of Gregory and Slusius, and in November had the direct method of fluxions and the next year [1666] in January had the theory of colours and in May following I had entrance into the inverse method of fluxions. And the same year I began to think of gravity extending to the orb of the moon … All this was in the two plague years of 1665 and 1666, for in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded Mathematics and Philosophy more than at any time since.

Today’s Coronavirus pandemic is probably the first in history that’s been fought with telecommunication. People are advised to work remotely, and many universities are switching to online courses. Besides the suffering and horror, it is also an opportunity to realize that many things can be done remotely just as well if not better, change our lifestyle, and stop polluting the environment.

Conferences in an Era of Expensive Carbon

At least there’s that: I live in a world where some people care about it and publish their viewpoint in the latest CACM. Read it on your next flight. Some interesting things that won’t shock anyone:

There’s a nice picture with different environmental costs based on the location of the conference. It also shows that people like to go to nearby conferences, one of the reasons why “The impulse to ignore the issue is entirely understandable.” For more perspective see some of our earlier posts for example here and here.

The viewpoint also reports on a recent switch from in-person to online program committees for flagship conferences (POPL and ICFP), following a recent trend. For starters we continue to suggest that STOC and FOCS do the same, because the nature of decisions does not justify the cost. The latter post also includes hard numbers on the added value of a physical meeting (with respect to accept/reject decisions — of course one can value at infinity meeting in person luminaries in your field, but that can be done in other ways and should not be tied to PC meetings).

Working remotely will be the most significant transformation since agriculture

Its impact on civilization will be exactly opposite. Rather than concentrating population, it will disperse it. Commuting and the traffic crisis will disappear. So will the housing crisis. You will have a large lot of land with a robot-ready house built new with safe, eco-friendly material and free of hazardous substance. You will live away from volcanoes, fault lines, tornadoes, wild fires and other hazards. You’ll be able to move to a location with ideal climate, which for historical reasons are now under-populated. This will dramatically reduce housing costs, especially heating, and solve or greatly mitigate the pollution problem. Huge amounts of space will be cleared up and given back to nature, or used for housing.

Doctors will visit patients remotely. This will enable patients to be followed up more regularly and consistently throughout their lives regardless of where they are. Doctors will have more time to give meaningful advice rather than having the patient wait 1 year for the appointment and then spend 1 hour to get to the doctor for a 10-minute visit of which 8 are spent looking at the screen and filling reports. Robo-tools will take measurements and send them to the doctor. If a complicated procedure is required, the expert will connect with the patient and the doctor remotely first, and then the patient will schedule a trip for the procedure.

You’ll take gym classes remotely via a remote gym. The instructor will give you personalized advice and follow your progress anywhere, anytime. Demanding facilities like swimming pools will be next to your house.

Courts of law, and the entire judicial system will be taken off-line.

People will vote from home, elections will be more frequent and granular. Constituents choosing not to vote will (maybe) have to specifically abstain. This will finally realize the democratic ideal where the government represents the will of the people.

Constituents will be able to participate to discussions, instead of having to travel 1 hour for a 5-minute in-person discussion. The level of engagement will be measured by the level of engagement as opposed to travel distance.

Wireless won’t be used on a large scale, since its noxious effects will be undeniable. Instead we will have network cables densely spread out over the earth — one of the few duties of the government will be to maintain these cables for the free, democratic, public use.

Banking will be done remotely, and physical money will disappear.

We will have immersive work-stations with wall-to-wall, solar-powered e-ink screens, holographic images, and audio indistinguishable from reality. You will be able to attend meetings while exercising, like walking or biking on a machine or outside. This will boost your health, lowering health care costs for all.

People with special needs will have the same opportunities and duties as everyone else and will be fully integrated.

All learning will be done remotely. The instructor will be able to provide better, more personalized teaching, and connect with each student face-to-face. Testing will be done remotely, each student monitored via cameras. Critical examinations will be administered in special-purpose facilities which are next to your house (similar in spirit to say the way GRE is administered, but much more large scale and flexible, including for example synchronized examination).

You will have farms next to your house, growing organic food that you can eat fresh. Epidemics will be much rarer and more easily controlled, as population will be less concentrated and will travel less.

Fantasy? Actually, many of these things are already happening!

The will of the framers

What a great title for a legal thriller. And for a history buff like me — something I never thought I would become and that must be a side effect of having learnt absolutely zero history in school — how arousing it is to hear what John Adams said in 1776, and details of the Great Debate, and the rhetoric! It is apt that I am following the discussion on an analog radio, my habit of the last 10 years or so, another thing I never thought I would do but that I actually find quite relaxing now. It takes my mind off my own worry, and it soothes my eyes. I recommend it at small doses to avoid sudden onset of nausea. It is also apt that I follow it from my house, built two centuries ago though not as long ago as reported online, as I recently discovered sifting historical records. It comes to my mind that I now know what it means to renovate an old house. This is not something that I can recommend, but it is an experience that has had a profound and lasting impact on me. I am aware of mortise locks, three-tab shingles, the terminological jungle of drywall et similia, caulking, baseboards, the difference between granite and quartz, between 4-inch and no backsplash, pvc, fixtures, the evolution of toilets and countless other things that I can’t list but that suddenly spring up in my mind when entering any house, including most recent additions such as the electrical system.

Once, while waiting for yet another late sub-contractor I wrote:

The revenge of the housekeepers

For centuries they slept in niches inside their masters’ houses, cooked meals in crammed kitchens, hand-washed laundry bent in basements. Now they are gone, but the houses still stand. Their niches are our offices where we can’t fit a table. We spend most of our family time in the crammed kitchen, the other rooms unused since nobody has the energy to shuttle the food, or clean. And faltering to hoist the laundry load from the basement we bump the head.