Sunday, September 16, 2012

Student Bragging....

Always worth bragging about my students...

Justin Thaler's paper "Cache-Oblivious Dictionaries and Multimaps with Negligible Failure Probability" (with me, Michael Goodrich, Dan Hirschberg) was accepted to TAPAS 2000 (now called MedAlg 2012 (link to the new site), after a conference renaming).  So he's won an all-expense paid trip (well, paid for by my grants) to Israel.  He'll be amortizing the trip by giving a few other talks while he's there, so look out for him in December.

Recently graduated Zhenming Liu had his paper with Sharon Goldberg on "The diffusion of networking technologies" accepted to SODA 2013.  It's a very interesting variation on diffusion by social spreading phenomenon, asking what happens when the issue determining whether you adopt a new technology is not how many of your neighbors are using it, but how many users you can reach (in your connected component) are using it.

And Giorgos Zervas (postdoc) has his paper "An Economic Analysis of User-Privacy Options in Ad-Supported Services" (with me and Joan Feigenbaum) accepted to WINE 2012.  We were looking at when ad-supported services could be economically motivated to offer stronger privacy options (e.g., no targeted ads) that earn them less per user, either because it would encourage more users to join or because of competition.

Sadly, the only recent rejection is my own SODA submission -- which was rightly sent back to me, but that's the subject of another post.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

By the Numbers

Pretty much matching my predictions....

My graduate course has 50 enrolled right now, fairly close to 50-50 between undergrads and grads.

Salil's introductory complexity course currently has 129 -- far and away the biggest the class has been in my memory.

And our "flagship" introductory course, CS 50, grew yet again, to 746 students.  That would, for the first time (and slightly ahead of my schedule), make us larger than the introductory Economics course, EC 10.  (The 746 includes graduate students and even some people from the business school, so it might be a "win" on a technicality, but we'll count it as a full win.)  

Back to work now -- class to prep!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Happiness Is...

NSF saying yes to your grant... (Isn't that one of the lyrics?)

Once again, thanks to the NSF, I get to remain in business* for the next 3-4 years or so.  (Arguably, a large chunk of the thanks also goes to my colleagues Michael Goodrich and Roberto Tamassia, who allowed me to ride on their long coattails this time.  The grant is CNS-1228598, Privacy Preserving Distributed Storage and Computation -- might as well start putting it in all my documents now!)  

This makes up a bit for my sadness a few months ago, when NSF rejected the other grant proposal I sent in this year.**  Given NSF odds these days, I'm more than excited to go 1 for 2 for the year.  Especially since I've run into the following scenario previously:  I'm at the point where I have about a year plus before my grants will disappear;  I send in proposals and they don't get funded, so I'm a little concerned.  So far when that's happened I send in proposal again the next year, before the money runs out, and the NSF funds something and I'm fine again.  This time through the cycle, I'm not going through that, "Gee, something really better get funded, or..." panic scenario that previously has run through my head.

The other grant rejection, though, still stings.  It was written with a colleague with whom I've written many, many successful papers, one of which has won a major award, another of which has seen some major media attention.  In fact we've written several proposals together... none of which has been funded.  There are undoubtedly reasons for this -- our joint work tends to be interdisciplinary and very speculative, and our proposals are often written about things we dream of working on rather than a more grounded, "Here's exactly what we'll do" level that I find is needed to get at least my proposals funded.

And this summarizes my love-hate relationship with the NSF -- which, admittedly, has a lot, lot more love than hate.  The NSF has always come through for me -- they've funded me steadily since I started as faculty.  On the other hand, they're very much a black box to me -- I still don't have a great idea of what will "work" for them and what won't, so I have to keep sending stuff in and coping with rejection.

Which reminds me -- time to think about what, if any, grants will go in this year.  Medium deadline is soon (Oct 9), but the small deadlines are a ways off (Dec)...

* The research business, that is.
** I also was part of a group that submitted a DARPA proposal, which didn't get funded, but that didn't really cause me sadness, as I've come to expect not getting money from DARPA.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.

First day of lecture for CS 222, Algorithms at the End of the Wire.  They stuck me in a classroom that holds 20 comfortably, and 25 or so can be done.  I'm pretty sure well over 50 showed up.  We're still going through increases in the CS student population, and there's a shortage of CS classes this fall due to various leaves and such, so I'm expecting a larger class than usual.  When I first taught the course in 1999 it had something like 45 people;  it may be bigger this time.

Salil Vadhan had it better/worse (depending on how you look at these things).  He's teaching the intro theory class (complexity classes, Turing machines, etc.), and the room was well over-full.  Last year's class size was about 70;  I imagine he'll end up with between 100 and 150 this year, and the upper end of that range wouldn't surprise me.

It's exciting to see CS growing like this again.  I like seeing the large classes, all the student interest.  The more the merrier.  I'm eagerly awaiting the final enrollment numbers for CS this year.  Still, the nagging worry in the back of my head: anyone know when the next CS bust is going to take place?

Sunday, September 02, 2012


There's an interesting new article on the Gov 1310 case* on the Crimson yesterday, titled Students Accused  in Cheating Scandal Frustrated by Uncertain Process.  Well, of course the students are frustrated, but I think it's somewhat unfair to call the process "uncertain", so I'd like to go through this a bit and consider the complaints.

Before getting to specifics, some generalities.  These complaints are not new to this case;  the issue of the "uncertainty" of the Ad Board comes up all the time.  While I try to be sympathetic to the complaint, this is just a fact of life.  While I dislike resorting to the natural framework that the Ad Board is like a legal proceedings, because in some ways it very much is not, it is in some ways.  Evidence must be gathered and weighed.  This takes time, and there are participants' schedule to juggle (students as well as administrators), so there is uncertainty in when decisions will be reached.  There are rules providing for outcomes depending on what decision is reached, so in some sense the possible outcomes are known, but of course one does not know what the decision will be ahead of time.  As someone who has spent some time involved in legal proceedings (fortunately, as an expert witness, not as a defendant), I am aware that "uncertainties" in timing and outcome are an essentially unavoidable part of the process.  It is arguably the price for having a body do its best to carefully and fairly reach a judgment on what has occurred and how the rules apply in the circumstances.

So now let's look at specific points of the Crimson article.

First, it is reported the Secretary of the Ad Board had told a student they could expect to receive a verdict by November.  I understand that's a long time, but that appears to be the outcome of having so many cases to deal with.  In a standard setting, I believe the Ad Board tries to resolve such cases in a small number of weeks (often 1-3), depending on how many students are involved.  Here, there's a bottleneck.
"The student said he feels the Administrative Board process has left him unable to make plans for the new semester that begins on Tuesday as he waits to hear whether he will be forced to withdraw from Harvard."
While I understand, that sucks, how exactly could the process change?  

Well, there is actually a suggestion in there -- the Ad Board doesn't (and didn't) meet over the summer, but there's the suggestion that the administrators should have been "called back" to work on the Gov 1310 case during the summer.  I'm not sure if the Ad Board considered that, or if it would have been feasible.  Were I currently serving on the Ad Board, for example, Harvard would have trouble "calling me back" at various points over the summer, when I'm traveling.  These administrators have other obligations and duties;  Ad Board is not their full time role.  But perhaps this is a valid point of criticism.

Another thing they could do is try to put more bodies on the problem now.  Again, I'm not sure how feasible that is;  it wouldn't fit in with how cases are normally run (eventually, the Ad Board as a body has to meet and vote on cases), and I can see all sorts of potential problems bringing in other administrators or faculty members not familiar with the Ad Board process to try to deal with this specific case.   So again, while this is perhaps a valid criticism, realistically, the students have to understand that all this takes time, given the large number of cases, and particularly since a goal is to have the right outcomes, which means careful study of each individual's situation by multiple people.  

Another uncertainty complaint comes from a recent graduate who received notice that they are being investigated, who apparently is not clear on what punishments might be forthcoming.   
“It’s unfair to leave that uncertainty, given that we’re starting lives,” said the alumnus, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he said he feared repercussions from Harvard for discussing the case. “It’d be a huge financial and emotional hardship…. If my degree was threatened, I would not take that lightly.”
It's an interesting question whether a degree can/should be taken away for cheating after the degree has been granted.  I admit, I would have to ask the administrators if this is possible, but my understanding is that while temporarily rescinding a degree is rare it is a possible punishment.  (Essentially, the student would have not been in "good standing" at the time of graduation, which means they couldn't have received their diploma.)  But I'm not clear what the alumnus is complaining about.  If the issue is whether they are uncertain as to whether it's possible their degree would be rescinded (until such time as they are back in good standing -- this would not keep them from their degree permanently, if I understand properly), a call to their Ad Board representative should clear that up.  If the issue is that they are upset that the outcome is uncertain, again, the Ad Board has to gather evidence, discuss, and reach its conclusion, and I'm sure they're working hard to do so as quickly as possible.

One other interesting complaint is that a student thought Harvard should not have made the Gov 1030 case public;  it makes it difficult for students who voluntarily or involuntarily withdraw to keep their involvement confidential (for example, to potential employers).  I think this is somewhat unrealistic.  With so many people involved, this was going to reach the public's ears eventually, whether Harvard made the announcement or not.  And employers generally seek information regarding reasons when a student leaves campus for a prolonged period;  students must face that they may have to discuss the issue when looking for jobs or in other cases where their record might be examined.  

I imagine I may be appearing unsympathetic to the students;  this is not the case.  Particularly in this case, I'm sure there are many students who will be completely absolved, and they will have gone through significant stress along the way.  Unfortunately, these things happen -- while students might not yet realize it, most people at some point have similar unpleasant run-ins with various bureaucracies.  Blaming the Ad Board for uncertainties that appear inherent to the process, while completely understandable given the stress and emotions involved, seems misplaced.        

* I've been trying to avoid referring to it as a "cheating scandal" since, as far as I can tell, nobody at this point has been required to withdraw for academic misconduct.  Hence for now it's the Gov 1030 case.