Monday, July 4, 2011

Social set theory

Tim Bray:
Math math math: I’d rather not join the parade of people shouting for one new feature or another, because it seems to me that G+ as it stands hits a decent 80/20 point. Having said that, Circles are, mathematically speaking, sets, and I think set arithmetic would come in real handy: “Post this to the intersection of my Photogeeks circle and my Vancouver circle”. I can think of lots of other amusing permutations. The reason I bring this up is because I smile, envisioning a future in which math teachers use social-network constructs to explain Set Theory.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why we publish

These Thoughts, my dear Friend, are many of them crude and hasty, and if I were merely ambitious of acquiring some Reputation in Philosophy, I ought to keep them by me, ’till corrected and improved by Time and farther Experience. But since even short Hints, and imperfect Experiments in any new Branch of Science, being communicated, have oftentimes a good Effect, in exciting the attention of the Ingenious to the Subject, and so becoming the Occasion of more exact disquisitions (as I before observed) and more compleat Discoveries, you are at Liberty to communicate this Paper to whom you please; it being of more Importance that Knowledge should increase, than that your Friend should be thought an accurate Philosopher.

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, September 1753, quoted by Lewis Hyde in Common as Air.

Irony note: I wasn't allowed to copy-and-paste this quotation in Google eBooks from either Hyde's book or from the out-of-copyright The Works of Benjamin Franklin. No better support for Hyde's theses. Ended up finding copiable text on Eric Raymond's site.

Update: Thanks to Lewis Hyde's gracious hint below, I've now replaced the "modernized" text I had found on the Web by the text from the Franklin papers.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Slow blogging: NIPS

As NIPS program co-chairs, Peter Bartlett and I have just been deluged with 1394 paper submissions to steer through reviewing with 52 area chairs and over 600 first-line reviewers. I doubt that I'll have much time for much blogging in the next 3 months. A few quick links:

  • Peter Norvig wrote a very interesting essay on Chomsky vs statistical learning that has triggered a lot of commentary. I have thought about and written some on these issues, which Peter graciously notes, but I feel that there's something more to say, about contingency in language, which I hope to be able to at least blog about some time.
  • Stu Shieber keeps writing excellent stuff on open-access publication. Matt Blaze also wrote a great post that had some reverberations. And Wired Magazine had an interesting article on the topic. As NIPS PC co-chair, I'm more aware than ever that our pre-digital scientific communication systems are unsustainable. It's like watching a wet snow avalanche, which seems slow compared with the more photographed slab avalanches, but moves unstoppably and churns everything in its path.

May skiing

Between work and the actual skiing, I've not had time to post updates. In early May, I participated in the inaugural ASI/The Backcountry Spring Sierra road trip. The Backcountry's Mike Schwartz drove and provided great advice and help on and off the mountain, ASI guide Logan Talbott got us safely to beautiful summits and delicious corn skiing. Coincidentally, I had skied with two of the other clients, Jennifer and Justin, on a trip to Sol Mountain a few years ago. The whole group got along well, and made for a remarkably friction-free trip in sometimes cramped and improvised conditions. Here are some pictures by Logan and by me. I'll do it again!

Two weeks ago, Johannes, Jim stayed Friday night at a Kirkwood condo (the place was closed, spooky like a set for a scary movie), and went for a Saturday tour around Carson Pass. We had misplaced our Snowpark permits, so we parked at the unregulated Red Lake trailhead and skinned from there to Round Top. It's a longer route than the Carson Pass one, but it allowed us to discover some nice terrain behind Elephant Back. The day started blustery, overcast, with sprinkles and snow flurries, but cleared toward the afternoon. The timing worked fairly well, we got back without having to deal with the wet glop that is the main return hazard in spring days.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Animation and the philosophy of mind

The best passage I read in a while:

Everything that you see, when you view a Pixar movie, is what an empiricist philosopher of the eighteenth century would call an impression. It was born and cradled in the mind of a computer, and there it lived and grew.

Anthony Lane, The Fun Factory: Life at Pixar, New Yorker, May 16, 2011.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Technology Has Social Consequences

Technology Has Social Consequences | May 2011 | Communications of the ACM: The loss in quality of conference reviewing is just one result of the move to virtual PC meetings. Another outcome is the loss of socialization that took place in PC meetings. It is this lost socialization that contributed to a senior researcher being ignorant of one of the most basic rules of scholarly reviewing.

I quoted the paragraph in Moshe's article that best summarizes his main point. The article is worth reading in full. However, I disagree with both its alleged empirical claims and its main argument. Moshe claims that reviewing quality is down in CS conferences, and reviewers are less aware of good scholarly conduct. However, he provides no empirical evidence for these claims except for one anecdote and some vague impressions, which I could easily counter with old tales of reviewing incompetence and malice. He then proceeds to argue that those failings are the result of less face-to-face interaction among reviewers. Again, he provides no empirical evidence for the claim, and he does not consider alternative explanations. In particular, he does not consider the fact that many areas of CS have grown rapidly. For example, I just did a simple calculation to arrive at an estimate that computational linguistics as a field has grown at an average 6%/year over the last 28 years, making the field five times as big now as when I presented my first ACL paper. This growth forced conferences to adopt more complex structures, with areas, multiple tiers, electronic submission and review discussion, simply to scale up to the much larger population. We can argue about the specifics of reviewing mechanisms, but the old unitary program committee was already collapsing under the strain around 15 years ago for the first-tier conferences I have been involved in.

But there's an even bigger potential problem that Moshe does not discuss. As the field has matured, it takes longer and it is harder for someone to become a good reviewer because there's just more to know. Meanwhile, the number of people coming into the field continues to grow and the number of papers submitted grows in proportion. The result is then that the ratio of submissions to qualified reviewers increases. Less qualified reviewers are enrolled, or qualified reviewers are overloaded. Either way, review quality goes down. For all we know, it is this, and not Web-based program committees, that is the root cause of all the complaining about bad reviewing in the last few years.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sugarbowl to Squaw

Drove up to Sugarbowl yesterday (Saturday) to join three other ASI clients for a one-day ski traverse from Sugarbowl to Squaw guided by Logan Talbott. It's just under 8 miles as the crow flies but more like 12 miles given the terrain (once again forgot to set MyTracks on my phone to record the actual track, so this is based on what Logan said). We left the top of Sugarbowl's Lincoln lift at 9:06am and arrived at the Squaw parking lot at 3:59pm, a pretty good pace that included a beautiful lunch break at the top of Tinker Knob (photo). The forecast had been for cloudy skies with 30% chance of showers, but it was dry and fairly warm the whole day. Ski conditions ranged from good corn to very sticky mank, with the good surprise being the drop into Squaw, which had much better snow than we expected for mid-afternoon because of the cooling from the breeze and high clouds. Cold lager at the Cham was a perfect way to finish the day.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


Fleeting: When I moved here I was told by one of those wise local types that I would never ski first tracks at Chamonix. Seemed like a reasonable prophecy. I don't live in Chamonix, I live an hour and a half away. Skiing in Chamonix is expensive and you pretty much have to invest in a lift ticket to access anything of interest. Add to that French toll roads, European gas prices, family responsibilities, and a general aversion to competitive crowds and the wise local saw no argument from me. He still wouldn't. That doesn't mean I wouldn't try, either.

It's the same for me with most backcountry lines around Tahoe. But it doesn't mean that one can't find surprisingly empty terrain. Read the whole thing.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales:
Goldilocks' discovery of Newton's method for approximation required surprisingly few changes.

How does he get so well that Haruki Murakami-like unsettling border between overactive, exhausted mathematical wondering and dream incoherence?

Why does Murakami come to mind so readily? The awful news from his homeland showing that he's been right all along about the deep channels between nightmare and reality? Fairy tales can turn to dread so easily, orderly worlds undone by the interdependencies that sustained them for centuries.

Days like this, the central limit theorem feels like a bad joke.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

ACM/IEEE copyright policy

ACM/IEEE copyright policy: Matt Blaze is annoyed at the ACM and IEEE copyright policy. So am I. In an update to his post he reports:

A prominent member of the ACM asserted to me that copyright assignment and putting papers behind the ACM's centralized 'digital library' paywall is the best way to ensure their long-term 'integrity'. That's certainly a novel theory; most computer scientists would say that wide replication, not centralization, is the best way to ensure availability, and that a centrally-controlled repository is more subject to tampering and other mischief than a decentralized and replicated one.

This is deeply ironic, because ACM bestowed both a Best Paper award and an ACM Student Research award on Petros Maniatis, Mema Roussopoulos, TJ Giuli, David S.H. Rosenthal, Mary Baker, and Yanto Muliadi, 'Preserving Peer Replicas By Rate-Limited Sampled Voting', 19th ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (SOSP) , Bolton Landing, NY, October, 2003. for demonstrating that the 'prominent member' is wrong and Matt is right.

Even just thinking of the economics alone, and not of the systems issues, which preservation method would you rather trust? The prominent member's, which depends on the ACM's ability to extract rents from the scientific community into the indefinite future? Or a proliferation of copies in many repositories all over the world funded in diverse ways?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Slow blogging

Twitter and Buzz have dampened some of the urge. Between work and a great skiing season (first weekend not skiing or traveling to-from skiing since late December), there hasn't been much free time.

Shaking Down Science

Shaking Down Science: Why do IEEE and ACM act against the interests of scholars? [...] Some time in January, the IEEE apparently quietly revised its copyright policy to explicitly forbid us authors from sharing the 'final' versions of our papers on the web, now reserving that privilege to themselves [...] To be fair to IEEE, the ACM's official policy is at least as bad. Not all technical societies
are like this; for example, Usenix, on whose board I serve, manages to thrive despite making all its publications available online for free, no paywall access required.

All publications of the Association for Computational Linguistics, most recently its journal Computational Linguistics have become open access. Most of the main venues for machine learning, NIPS, ICML, and JMLR, are also open access. None of this happened by accident, it required leadership, organizational effort and sustained participation by many members of those communities. All of these venues are thriving, with steady growth in submissions and accepted papers. We need to build on the open-access success of Usenix, ACL, and other venues in computing to push for open access at ACM and IEEE.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sol Mountain 2011

My best Sol Mountain backcountry ski trip of four in the last five years. Excellent powder skiing every day; more stable avalanche conditions than in previous visits; lodge, food, and guiding fine-tuned to excellence; great companions; and more fitness to enjoy it all. Already planning my 2012 return.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Gear review

  • G3 Tonic skis: A delight on anything but ice. On powder, the best skis I've ever skied: very well balanced, they flex evenly and give back a controlled pop out of the turn, and they allow me to go faster with confidence.
  • G3 Alpinist skins: The good: light weight; the best tip attachment of any skins I've owned. The bad: mediocre glue, already losing stickiness after only 12 days of use; fiddly tail attachment.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

First two ebooks

My first ebooks, purchased through the Google ebookstore, read on a Samsung Galaxy Tab as I traveled for the holidays:

The Tab is just the right size to hold on one hand, the screen is bright but not tiring for my eyes, and the battery lasts for a whole day of reading. And the Tab also does all those useful Android things, which is especially convenient on WiFi-equipped planes (US Airways, please, please, put GoGo on the rest of your Airbus fleet). The Google Books app is simple and functional.

What's missing is a means of sharing books with family, as we do all the time with paper books.