Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sandel on Colbert

Taking a class from Michael Sandel was one of the highlights of my college experience.  (You can sit on the lectures online, here.)  Here's his latest appearance on Colbert from yesterday. (And a link to his new book...)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Collaborative Atmosphere

I was excited to hear that "my student"* Justin Thaler, working with Salil Vadhan and his student Jon Ullman, had a paper accepted to ICALP (Faster Algorithms for Privately Releasing Marginals).  It's a great example of something that's been going very nicely here at Harvard:  students (+advisors) crossing boundaries and collaborating together on problems. 

I know it's a common refrain that people don't realize that computer science research is, generally speaking, a highly collaborative enterprise, but it's certainly worth repeating.  Most projects aren't done by one person coding or mathematically proving alone, but working as part of a team.  Graduate students should know that and embrace it.  There are huge advantages of this approach.  The natural one to point out is the great synergies in developing and working through ideas from multiple people with different skill sets and points of view.  You also learn about new things that can turn out to be useful to you in unpredictable ways by working on projects outside your standard box.  But perhaps less often mentioned is that working with others is generally just much more fun, and I think it's easier to produce good and great research when you're having fun doing it.

I feel like that's stating the obvious, but thinking back to my time in graduate school, maybe it's not.  Collaboration in the theory group certainly wasn't frowned upon, but it wasn't entirely actively promoted, either.  Micah Adler and John Byers worked very successfully together on several papers early in their graduate student careers, and I remember working on some problems with multiple friendly older students.  But I also recall, while not what I would call a competitive atmosphere, the sense that you really had to prove yourself "on your own", especially in putting together a thesis, leading to at least some cases where "credit" became a issue to some people.  The theory group was pretty social, so overall the joys of working together probably won out overall.  To me today feels like a non-trivial delta from that (here at Harvard at least, but more widely as well), though perhaps to the students aiming to graduate and get jobs it doesn't feel that way -- I can imagine, depending on the setting, that the pressure to do something great on your own is still primary. 

Maybe the most encouraging thing I can try to say, which really clicked solidly in my head this recruiting season, is that one thing I look for in a candidate is whether they can work well with other people -- not just their advisor.  I think that's important, both for the candidate's future success and for CS at Harvard.  I don't think there's a formula I have in mind to weight "individual success" vs. "group success", but I'd be more skeptical of a candidate that didn't have signs of both.  Further, I recognize that the talent of the individual can shine through on group projects -- while the ability of a candidate to work within groups can't really shine through on individual projects.

*Increasingly a misnomer, as Justin's well beyond being "my student" in any meaningful sense at this point, but it's still the most convenient reference.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Thanks, Yale Daily News!

Harvard's CS50 class is nicely lauded -- by a column in the Yale Daily News

First, the Harvard-centric stuff:
The good news is that there’s an easy first step that Yale computer science could take to start addressing this issue. It pains me to say it, but we could learn a thing or two from a certain institution in Cambridge. One thing that Harvard has absolutely gotten right is its introductory CS50 class that teaches students of all majors the practical scripting and Web programming skills they need to apply tech to their other interests. My sister — who chose Harvard over Yale partially because of classes like CS50 — started the semester knowing almost nothing about programming and finished with a job offer from a tech startup. She might not even end up being a computer science major, but the class gave her a solid set of skills that she’s already putting to work.
But there's also a nice part in the beginning:
Code is the lingua franca of the 21st century. Whether it’s putting together a website for an advocacy campaign, writing a script to analyze some economic data or creating an app to help kids learn math, programming fluency has become a required skill for anyone looking to have an impact on the world.
I phrase it a bit differently, but try to give the same message when I explain what the Harvard CS department's goals are.  We think Harvard students are future leaders;  code is the "lingua franca" of the century;  surely, we want our leaders to understand the basics of coding.  

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Things Worth Reading

A blog post describing the disturbing official version of the facts in the UC-Davis pepper spray incident.  This should be a link to the actual report.    

A post by an undergraduate discussing the importance of math/algorithms in computer science in a creative writing sort of way.  But the most interesting things are the comments, which seem split between those agreeing that such conceptual skills are important, and others who seem to say the real skills are in running the business and hiring the people with these skills.  

At Freedom to Tinker, Andrew Appel discusses ACM/IEEE copyright policies and what to do about them here, here, and here (with more to come). 

Lots of other people besides me are "uncomfortable" with the new gmail interaface.  Here's one site for people to moan and complain;  I've seen others. 

Living with New Interfaces

After weeks of asking Google mail to revert to the old look, I find I no longer have that option.  Similarly, I'm being forced to write this post using the new blogger interface. 

I suppose I'll be open-minded and try them, since Google is not giving me a choice.  I realize I'm not the only one to complain about that by any means.  Perhaps I'll quickly adjust, and after a few days I'll agree with Google that the new systems are better.

But perhaps not.  I think software builders fail to recognize the level at which people grow accustomed to their tools.  Changing the interface is forcing me to change the way I've worked for multiple years.  If I don't like having to make that change, it's a fine opportunity for me to change the product I use.  As long as I'm being forced to learn something new to get done familiar tasks, maybe it's time I learn something really new. 

Google's done the math and decided this is best for them.  They've figured that most of us will adjust to and even like the changes after a short period of time.  We'll see.  But if anyone's decided this is a good time to jump ship or thinks they have better options, let us all know in the comments.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

In the News this Week...

Our large data sets work on MIC is discussed in Nature Biotechnology.  (Funnily, none of the us authors of the paper knew this was coming out.  One of us heard from a colleague that it was there.)  I'm unused to this format where other people discuss your work openly and without your explicit participation.  It's a different culture.  I've heard people call for this style for various online publishing systems -- allowing comments and discussions to follow papers -- and I can see how new social norms might have to be established in various scientific subdisciplines to handle this type of scientific discourse.       

Also, our Groupon-Yelp work is mentioned in Huffington Post.  And, perhaps more importantly, ycombinator.  According to Blogger's stats the ycombinator link sent many many thousands of page views over to Giorgos's post here from two weeks ago, which is a large multiple over the usual traffic.

Late entry:  the great growth of Harvard CS is lauded in this Crimson article from today.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Congratulations to Radhika Nagpal

I'm very, very happy to report that Radhika Nagpal has been offered tenure at Harvard.

Radhika works in several areas, including biologically inspired multi-agent systems, which covers such areas as modular and swarm robotics;  and computational models for biological systems, such as collective behavior and multicellular morphogenesis.  (That's a mouthful.)

If you want to see her work in action, you have to go to her lab's Youtube channel.  Check out robots laying sandbags, or demonstrations of the very very tiny Kilobots acting in concert.  Or check out cell division in a larval fruit fly.  She also the faculty lead on the Harvard side for the Harvard-MIT robot soccer team.  Here's an older but still cool news article on the team

We're all excited by the excellent news.  Congratulations Radhika!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Talk at Hearst Mining....

Giorgos is on a west coast tour this week. Today he's speaking at the Berkeley EconCS seminar on our work on Groupon and Yelp.  12:30, 410 Hearst Mining.  Info here.  If you're around, go to the talk and tell him I sent you.