Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Visiting Cambridge

I spent Monday and Tuesday visiting Cambridge (the old one; the University is having its 800th year celebration this year). Despite my standard aversion to travel, I couldn't possibly refuse; I was invited to give a Kuwait lecture by one of my early mentors, Frank Kelly. I was fortunate enough to take his course on stochastic models the year I spent in Cambridge after Harvard. (It was very interesting on this trip hearing Frank's thoughts about the similarities between computer network traffic problems and road network traffic problems -- besides doing among many other things some of the important early work on economic models related to Explicit Congestion Notification for TCP, Frank served three years as Chief Scientific Adviser to the United Kingdom's Department for Transport.)

Let me gush a bit about Cambridge for a minute. Cambridge is sufficiently small that even though I've rarely been through since that year, it was very familiar as soon as I stepped off the train. Besides indulging in nostalgia, like walking through my "alma mater" Churchill College (the ugliest college of Cambridge!), I did my share of sightseeing, including viewing the new grasshopper clock and a walk along the Backs. I also got to see a bit of Frank's new life as the Master of Christ's college. This included a special look at the recently refurbished undergraduate quarters of Charles Darwin (part of the celebration of Darwin's 200th birthday), as well as a peek through the semi-hidden windows in the Master's quarters into the chapel and college dining room. And for the first time I experienced Cambridge's Centre for Mathematical Sciences, a beautiful and functional setting for mathematics, bringing people from a range of different areas to the same cluster of buildings. (It's located about 3 minutes from Churchill -- why couldn't they have had this when I was here? Back then, Churchill was out in the far outskirts of the Cambridge community; according to Frank, most of the new construction is moving out of the town center, expanding the University so that in a few decades time, Churchill might actually be in the "center" of Cambridge.) I encourage interested math/CS students (who can get one of the fellowships for Cambridge) take the Part III Tripos, which provides a solid mathematical background for any future research career.

For my talks, I tried to present surveys for a wide audience, so Monday's Kuwait lecture was on Bloom filters and applications, and Tuesday's talk covered my survey of results for deletion channels. A highlight at the talks was seeing another of my role models, David MacKay. Well known for his popular textbook on information theory, David has finally finished his new book on energy, entitled Sustainable Energy - without the hot air (and gave me a copy to read for the flight home). It's a popular science book giving a scientist's calculations on what the real numbers are for the potential future of sustainable energy. I've previously mentioned the draft on this blog; I'll present a more detailed review of the final work some time in the future, but if you're at all interested in a scientific take on the subject, you should buy it, and you can even check it out first by downloading it via the book's home page.


Anonymous said...

Oops! Being in the CS department at Cambridge, I didn't see the talk listed (as it was hosted by the Math department) until your blog post. My fault, I know, but perhaps in the future you should do some self-advertising on your blog before the talk as well?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Arjun -- Perhaps I'm just paranoid, but I've always felt making an open announcement (like on my blog) of "Hey, I'm going to be here..." seems unsafe. I generally don't want the world to know when I'm going to be out of town. (Yes, I know that information is in some sense available, but only indirectly.) So I post about things after I return.

Usually when I give a talk at a CS department I ask them to announce it to other departments that may be interested; I didn't think to do it the other way around this time, as I didn't realize I should, but I'll remember next time. Some MSR Cambridge people showed up, though...

By the way, the next "CS person" giving a Kuwait lecture (to the Maths Department) is Jon Kleinberg. Maybe it's worth getting on the mailing list for their talks... :)

Unknown said...

In fact a good smattering of the students there on Monday were CS, many of us from the systems group, so rest assured that news of your talk did make it as far as some parts of the computer laboratory!

We much enjoyed the bloom filter talk. Thanks!