From the Simons institute

Last year I had a great sabbatical at Harvard university, and this semester, thanks to the flexibility of the NEU administration, I am at the Simons institute in Berkeley for their program on fine-grained algorithms and complexity. The institute is amazing, and there is an avalanche of interesting talks which is overwhelming, even by Boston standards.

As with all great things, one can wonder if the institute could be made even better. Here are two small thoughts about this. The first is about housing. I think it would be nice to have a block of houses managed by the institute. And I think I would think so even if my experience with finding housing hadn’t been what it has been. The starting point is that I could not find anything that suited me. Whatever the reason for this, it was definitely *not* because of lack of support from the institute. At some point a good listing did come out, and I immediately grabbed it, but after a long exchange the landlord changed their mind. By that time it was very late in the game, and it was harder to find anything. Since I was about to spend more time looking for an apartment than actually living there, I decided to go all-out and pay a rent that is ridiculous even for someone who rented in New York city. Naturally, I ended up in a terrible place. For one thing, I happen to disagree with the landlord’s calculation that a human being needs less than 100 square feet to survive. Shame on me for not inquiring about the size of the unit. So, even if the market looked completely hopeless, I had to get back into it. Here again the institute’s staff was extremely supportive, and in a reversal of fortune they spotted an ad for a place which turned out to be fantastic.

The second is equipment. I was given a nice corner office, substantial financial support, a bike, a keyboard/mouse set, and a monitor, but not a computer. Admittedly, this is not a great loss, because setting up a new machine is almost as much hassle as bringing your own. This brings me to a point which has nothing to do with the institute, but which I’ll make here. What I would like are machines where you just need to push a button to have your exact workbench appear. This would be great even if it took a little installation time, as long as everything was automated, because you could just push that button ahead of time. Of course we do have Chromebooks, rollApp, Remote Desktop, et cetera, but none of this comes close to having your own settings. Indeed, today’s solution to the problem amounts to travelling with your own laptop — something which brings to my mind the expression “downfall of mankind.”

I am reminded of a Java project that I did during my undergraduate at La Sapienza. We had to program an application at home, and then show it to the professors in the department. My group was perhaps the only one which did not drag their own desktop computer to run the application. So much for Java. We were quite proud of showing up with just a floppy disk, until our application did in a few minutes something that had never done in days of intense domestic beta-testing.

Going back to the talks that we had, Zuckerman gave a talk about his impressive 2-source extractor with Eshan Chattopadhyay. One component of their construction is an extractor for n-bit sources where n-n0.99 bits are polylog(n)-wise independent, and the other n0.99 are an arbitrary function of the former, which answers a question raised in a paper of mine. Alexander Kulikov spoke about his better-than-3n lower bound for the circuit complexity of an explicit function, with Magnus Gausdal Find, Alexander Golovnev, and Edward Hirsch. Their strongest lower bounds are for computing extractors for degree-2 GF(2) polynomials, an object that is not currently available. And I talked about the Local Reductions developed with Jahanjou and Miles.

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2 thoughts on “From the Simons institute

  1. I think a block of houses in Berkeley costs about half the Institute’s endowment. (And the significant upshot of traveling with your laptop is that you are not confined to your office.)

    1. Thanks for your comment James.

      I am not an expert in real estate (more on this later on this blog) but I don’t see your point. The current system is that visitors rent units for short periods of time. An alternative is that the Institute rents those same units for longer periods of time, at a lower price, and sublets them to the visitors. The visitor can pay somewhere between the two prices, so that the institute makes a little money, and the visitor makes a little money. Most important of all, the visitors save time and stress. Of course, the institute has to manage those units somehow. This is a significant cost, but what is the saving on the other end?

      The Institute could start with a small number of high-quality places which would always get rented. The visitors who can’t get those would be in the same position as current visitors. Another alternative is to actually buy units and pay them off slowly by renting them to visitors. This could also eventually generate significant income for the institute.

      Regarding the laptop, I didn’t say that the institute must give you a desktop. If the visitor wants a machine to go work in a coffee shop, this could be given to them. (But even if you did have a desktop in your office, at least you’d have the option of not bringing your machine.)

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