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.

Publish and perish

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)?

Newton MA votes on November 5: Residents vs. developers

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.

This website describes the issues and tells you who to vote for.

This one too (endorsements have strong overlap with above but are not identical).

Sample ballots are here.


Talk: Why do lower bounds stop “just before” proving major results?

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.

Those who sold their town to the marijuana industry now worry about vaping

Below is a statement from the same administration which rigged elections to sell their town to the marijuana industry.  The latter spent more than $300,000 to win the rigged election, see expense report, a figure that does not include money spent on attorneys to lobby the administration.  In less than a month Newton residents will have their chance to hold the administration accountable.
A multi-state outbreak of severe pulmonary disease associated with e-cigarette and marijuana vaping devices has struck.  […] Some contained nicotine and others contained marijuana or related substances.
Newton Health and Human Services strongly urges residents to consider not using any e-cigarette or vaping products at this time.

E-ink monitor: the best money I have ever spent on electronics

We briefly interrupt the on-flight entertainment for an update on e-ink monitors (see previous posts here and here).  I am happy to report that during the summer my e-ink monitor worked extremely well.  Writing as I am doing now with the sun shining through my window is fantastic.  My entire summer production — including this survey on non-abelian combinatorics — was written exclusively on the e-ink monitor. I don’t think I ever felt so good about a piece of electronics since relentless market pressure forced me to abandon Amiga.

Because of pollution, conferences should be virtual

Perhaps conferences made sense fifty years ago. We did not have internet, and the pollution was not as bad. Today, we can have effective virtual meetings, while the pollution has reached a level of crisis, see this moving talk by Greta_Thunberg. Moving to a system of virtual conferences is I believe a duty of every scientist. Doing so will cut the significant air travel emissions that come from shipping scientists across the world. To attend a climate summit in the USofA, Greta will sail across the Atlantic ocean on a zero emission boat.

We can keep everything the way it is, but simply give the talks online. This change doesn’t involve anybody higher up in the political ladder. It only involves us, the program chairs, the steering committees.

While we wait for that, we can begin by virtualizing the physical STOC/FOCS PC meetings, whose added value over a virtual meeting, if any, does not justify the cost; and by holding conferences where the center of mass is, instead of exotic places where one can combine the trip with a vacation at the expense of tax payers’ money and everybody’s health. And that is also why I put a bid to hold the 2021 Conference on Computational Complexity in Boston.

NSF panels, making decisions worth millions, routinely have virtual panelists (I was the last few times). So why do we insist on shipping scientists across the globe multiple times a year to give 15-minute talks which to most people are less useful than spending 20 minutes reading the paper on the arxiv?