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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  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.
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).
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!
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.
Moshe Vardi’s latest insight in the Communications of the ACM (whose title we adopt for this post) agrees with our previous post “Because of pollution, conferences should be virtual.” Vardi calls for “sweeping policy change […] requiring that authors of accepted papers that must fly to participate in a conference may opt out from in-person involvement and contribute instead by video.” Vardi gives some indication of the environmental impact of the travel-based system, and further suspects that in-person conference participation is “much less valuable than we would like to believe.”
These issues are closely related to the decades-old discussion of journals vs. conferences. Several older posts on this blog were devoted to that. Lance Fortnow, back in 2009, wrote that it’s Time for computer science to grow up. The full text of this article is premium content, but you can read a pre-publication version here. Basically, he argues in favor of a journal-based publication system.
Apparently in response, judging from the title, Boaz Barak wrote a piece titled Computer science should stay young. I can’t quickly find a link to the whole thing, but his bottom line is online “I disagree with the conclusion that we should transition to a classical journal-based model similar to that of other fields. I believe conferences offer a number of unique advantages that have helped make computer science dynamic and successful, and can continue to do so in the future.”
I disagree that conferences are young. They belong to the BI (before internet) era, and so look rather anchored in the past to me. Historically, I also suppose in-person discussion predates writing, though this is irrelevant. What is young is the health impact of pollution (Fortnow and Barak’s pieces don’t touch on health issues). (By health impact I include climate change, but I prefer not to use that term for various reasons.)
And what is young and cool is arxiv overlay journals, TCS+ talks, videoconferences, ECCC, etc.
Instead, we impose on our community most inconvenient transoceanic flights. To end I’ll quote from Oded Goldreich’s my choices:
Phoenix in June: […] One must be out of their mind to hold a conference under such weather conditions. I guess humans can endure such weather conditions and even worse ones, but why choose to do so? Why call upon people from all over the world to travel to one of the least comfortable locations (per the timing)?
Historically, progressive people have been understandably quite skeptical of big business, including developers. (I hesitated before using the word “progressive” because the meaning is obscure, and there are several related words, like “liberal” and so on. But the meaning on this post should be clear.)
Recently, something shocking happened. Self-declared progressive people in Newton have come to believe that the way to solve the world’s problems is to slash regulations, rewrite zoning documents, chop down forests, and give a free hand to developers (not residents in Newton) to build whatever they want, no questions asked. (Wait, we are putting solar panels on the new roofs!)
As a consequence, there is now a heated battle in Newton, ward for ward, to try to protect our city against this well-funded and politically well-connected assault.
And we are not even discussing if we should build a mega complex as opposed to creating new green spaces and protected bike lanes, or improving public transportation, or finally having a gym and a swimming pool — all things that would improve our health and the quality of life. The discussion is just how big the mega complex should be.
I have prepared this talk which is a little unusual and is in part historical and speculative. You can view the slides here. I am scheduled to give it in about three hours at Boston University. And because it’s just another day in the greater Boston area, while I’ll be talking my ex office-mate Vitaly Feldman will be speaking at Harvard University. His talk looks quite interesting and attempts to explain why overfitting is actually necessary for good learning. As for mine, well you’ll have to come and see or take a peek at the slides.