The story of stuff, and installing Linux on a 32-bit computer from 15 years ago

If you haven’t seen it, now is the time to drop everything you are doing and watch The story of stuff. Computer scientists like myself will latch onto the scene where the old computer which looks like a washing machine is thrashed because a tiny component doesn’t fit anymore. In this spirit, I am happy to announce that after substantial challenges I was able to install Linux on a 32-bit laptop from about 15 years ago. First I tried Ubuntu, but I was saddened to learn that they dropped support for 32-bit platforms. Luckily, Debian still supports it for a number of years, and I went for it. The incidents I had during the installation include missing non-free firmware for the wifi which I had to fetch and stick in random places in the USB stick, and an inexplicable failure of the base installation which can be fixed by mounting the USB stick during it.

When you say these things, you get the familiar shrug which means “In the same time you spent doing this I can write a grant proposal and make enough money to buy two new machines.” While this is true, it does not mean it is the right thing to do. We should strive to prolong the life of computers and their components indefinitely, instead of taking pride in showing off the latest gadget purchase. I am writing this post from an Ubuntu system installed on a 2008 desktop.

Uncharacteristically, I see a bright future in this domain. We can store drivers for every hardware configuration ever assembled, and create easy-to-use installation packages. Moreover, all of this can be automated, while we still are at the stage where human intervention is required. And one thing that gives me a lot of hope and continues to impress me is the amazing network of people that are willing to help each other to get computers to work, especially when they run free software. You can have the most technical question and quickly get — for free — the most caring and expert advice, say by posting on stackexachange.

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.

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!

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)?

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?

Statement of concern regarding Marijuana in Massachusetts

You can read it here. If you don’t want to click, some key takeaways are:

  • We disagree with how marijuana policy is being shaped in the Commonwealth.
  • The science is clear; marijuana, specifically the psychoactive chemical THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), has the potential to do significant harm to public health.
  • Diversion of high THC products (≥10%), vapes and edibles, to MA youth is a growing concern.
  • When public health is not prioritized in the regulation of addictive substances, the public and our young people are put at risk.

You can also find in the statement a list of negative effects of THC.  This is all signed by a dozen+ doctors. The various marijuana players with zero medical knowledge will probably dismiss the experts’ opinion with, at best, a shrug. Instead, they are looking into opening marijuana cafes. And the first marijuana retail store will open in Newton this Saturday.

If you want to get even more worked up about marijuana reading my previous post might help.

Finally, on June 5^th there will be a luncheon event at the JFK Library titled: Marijuana: Addiction, Mental Health and Policy – Advances in Research…What have we learned in the past 5 years?

E-ink on the move

Today I was overjoyed to notice that the MBTA is installing e-ink signs. I didn’t know about this when I wrote in the previous post that the market for e-ink monitors will be huge.

I was actually about to report more on my experience, and by another standard coincidence today a reader asks:

Some time have passed, is your evaluation the same? Did you come across any unexpected difficulties?

Well, I wrote a paper entirely in e-ink. But I regret to admit that towards the end of the semester I got really busy with the usual end-of-Spring matters at the university, and I switched back to my back-lit 30-inch Dell monitor.  I had to interact with a number of computer systems where I could not easily change font size (the story of my life), and where color tended to matter, and I felt that the new monitor was slowing me down.  I haven’t switched back to the e-ink monitor yet, partly because I am still recovering from the burst.

However I look forward to using the e-ink monitor more during this summer, especially outdoors.  Here the fact that it’s usb powered will be essential.  In the MBTA project they use solar power which I think is really cool and makes me think of bringing my monitor to the secluded off-the-grid cabin in Maine I don’t have.