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).