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)?



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.

 

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?

Environmental obstacles

Former EPA chief’s resignation confession-of-faith letter according to Breitbart (a website I didn’t know but that I started consulting semi-regularly):

Mr. President,

It has been an honor to serve you in the Cabinet as Administrator of the EPA. Truly your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your administration. Your current steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results for the American people both with regard to improved environmental obstacles and historical regulatory reform is a fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the American people in helping to achieve those ends. That is why it is hard for me to advise you I am stepping down as administrator of the EPA as of July 6. It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role, first because I count it as a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also because of the transformative work that is occurring; however, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us. My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as president today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me in to your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.

Elsewhere

Mr. President,

It has been an honor to serve you in the Cabinet as Administrator of the EPA. Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your Administration. Your courage, steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results for the American people, both with regard to improved environmental outcomes as well as historical regulatory reform, is in fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the American people in helping achieve those ends.

That is why it is hard for me to advise you I am stepping down as Administrator of the EPA effective as of July 6. It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring. However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.

My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.

The letter also makes me think that I should have added “to worship God” to this list.

The EPA chief is approved by Congress. So if you care about your health get ready for November.  If you’ll be traveling start looking into absentee voting for your state.

NEWTON MUST NOT BECOME THE HUB OF MARIJUANA

If you are a resident of Newton, MA, sign this petition.

In 2016 Massachusetts voters voted to legalize Marijuana. Except they didn’t know what they were voting for! In Colorado and Washington, the question of legalization and commercialization were completely separate. The marijuana industry apparently learned from that and rigged the Massachusetts ballot question so that a voter legalizing marijuana would also be mandating communities to open marijuana stores. For Newton, MA, this means at least 8 stores. When voters were recently polled, it became clear that the vast majority did not know that this was at stake, and that the majority of them in fact does not want to open marijuana stores in their communities. For example, when I voted I didn’t know that this was at stake. Read the official Massachusetts document to inform voters, see especially the summary on pages 12-13. There is no hint that a community would be mandated by state law to open marijuana stores unless it goes through an additional legislative crusade. Instead it says that communities can choose. I think I even read the summary back then.

Now to avoid opening stores in Newton, MA, we need a new ballot question. The City Council could have put this question on the ballot easily, but a few days ago decided that it won’t by a vote of 13 to 8. You can find the list of names of councilors and how they voted here.

Note that the council was not deciding whether or not to open stores, it was just deciding whether or not we should have a question about this on the ballot.

Instead now we are stuck doing things the hard way. To put this question on the ballot, we need to collect 6000 signatures, or 9000 if the city is completely uncooperative, a possibility which now unfortunately cannot be dismissed.

However we must do it, for the alternative is too awful. Most of the surrounding towns (Wellesley, Weston, Needham, Dedham, etc.) have already opted out. So if Newton opens stores, it basically becomes the hub for west suburban marijuana users, at least some of whom would drive under the influence of marijuana (conveniently undetectable). Proposed store locations include sites on the way to elementary schools, and there is an amusing proposal to open a marijuana store in a prime Newton Center Location, after Peet’s Coffee moves out (they lost the bid for renewal of the lease). The owners of the space admit that people have asked them for a small grocery store instead, but they think that a marijuana store would bring more traffic and business to Newton Center. I told them to open a gym instead. That too would bring traffic and business, but in addition it would have other benefits that cannabis does not have.

What is the job of the EPA?

  1. To dismantle environmental regulations in exchange for gifts.
  2. To channel taxpayers’ money towards a luxurious and extravagant lifestyle for its administrator.
  3. To repudiate its own mission.
  4. All of the above.
  5. To protect human health and the environment.

Child Care at STOC 2018

The organizers asked me to advertise this and I sympathize:

We are pleased to announce that we will provide pooled, subsidized child care at STOC 2018. The cost will be $40 per day per child for regular conference attendees, and $20 per day per child for students.
For more detailed information, including how to register for STOC 2018 childcare, see http://acm-stoc.org/stoc2018/childcare.html

Ilias Diakonikolas and David Kempe (local arrangements chairs)