Last week I defended and filed my Ph.D. dissertation. Rather than letting the acknowledgments page languish in a library somewhere, I thought I would post a nicely-hyperlinked version here. There are probably many people that I missed (I have already thought of a few after the document went in for binding), but here’s to those I didn’t:

This all started in the summer of 2003. A freshly-minted Harvard College graduate without any better plans, I replied to a forwarded email from a new Harvard Computer Science Professor who was looking for research assistants. That was Matt Welsh. Matt saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself, and stuck with me through the years, through my stubbornness, intransigence, bad habits, and willful disobedience. Along the way I’ve thought about leaving for law school, or get-rich-quick schemes like Facebook, but I’m glad I’m going to keep building and studying real systems, since that’s been more and more fun as we’ve continued working together. I know I’ll think about Matt a lot as I start my own group, and I can only hope to do as well as he has.

Margo Seltzer deserves credit for helping me discover the thing that I’m perhaps starting to get good at. Taking Operating Systems from her in 2001 is the highlight of my college experience, turning me in the direction I continue to travel. She, Matt, and Michael Mitzenmacher all provided valuable commentary on this dissertation, and improved it.

Building volcano monitoring sensor networks requires people who know something about volcanos, and this project really came about because we met two great ones: Jonathan Lees and Jeff Johnson. They offered us a huge amount of support in the field, patiently answered many questions, and really embraced the technology we offered. I am extremely thankful for them, as well as the wonderful staff at the IGEPN in Ecuador, and the Ecuadoreans we’ve had the chance to work with — Mario Ruiz and Omar Marcillo.

I have had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with Harvard undergraduates over the past seven years, through my affiliations with CS161 and Eliot House. I am thankful for all of my former students, especially those that came to work with us: Pat Swieskowski and Stephen Dawson-Haggerty. And without the community at Eliot House I probably never would have completed this degree. I thank Lino Pertile and Mike Canfield for giving me a chance to be a tutor, and all my former Eliot students and friends for their love and support. Floreat Domus de Eliot!

None of the projects described in these pages was done alone, and I have been blessed with fun, intelligent, and forgiving colleagues at Harvard. Thaddeus Fulford-Jones designed our volcano sensor board, experienced the joy of sharing an office with me and has become a good friend. Konrad Lorincz joined our deployment team in 2005 and did a huge portion of our volcano monitoring system. Jason Waterman has been a joy to work with and contributed greatly to the IDEA project. Rohan Murty tolerated my many attempts to annoy him before I discovered what a special person he is. Mark Hempstead has always been willing to offer an electrical engineer’s biased take on things. Bor-rong Chen and Geoff Mainland have been supportive of my work, offering a great deal of constructive criticism. Lex Stein was always available to offer advice, most of it helpful, the rest amusing. People like Joanne Bourgeois, Gioia Sweetland, Tristen Hubbard, Susan Wieczorek, James MacArthur, Lars Kellogg-Stedman and William Walker make it a pleasure to work at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Additionally, I thank all of the members of the SYRAH and Welsh groups not mentioned by name, travelers on the Maxwell-Dworkin Spaceship, and the interns in MSR 112/3001 that kept me sane in the summer of 2007.

I couldn’t ask for better parents. They started me on this journey of discovery years and years ago, and look how far we’ve come! My mother also provided helpful feedback on the amount of time that my Ph.D. was taking, and I think she’ll be pleased that I’m receiving a degree… at last. My brother Jonathan and sister Amy will no doubt be receiving their own doctorates very soon, and I look forward to celebrating with them when they do.

My wife Suzanna is my favorite person and the reason I get up joyfully in the morning. I can’t wait to see what life holds for us, together: all the days, all the ways.

And to Chuchu — WOOF!

The Morality of Compensation

Sunday night I spent a few hours feeding my continued fascination with the financial crisis, finally getting around to reading things like Matt Taibbi’s piece on Goldman Sachs in Rolling Stone, as well as Michael Lewis’s piece on AIG in Vanity Fair, a trail that finally sent me to Matt Taibbi’s blog at which is, itself, full of other posts hacking away at Goldman Sachs (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). It’s all enough to make one quite shrill.

Given that I’ve spent the last 11 years of my life at Harvard watching as many of my classmates, then later students[1. Luckily not too many of those.], then even later students, advisees and friends from Eliot House head out the door to places like GS, I think that I’m most sensitive to the “best and brightest” argument that — thank God — people like Matt Taibbi do an excellent job of refuting. I knew a lot of very smart people in college, and have met many more at Harvard since, and after graduating while many are doing very well for themselves most are doing something that has a shred of social utility to it. Which, in my mind, distinguishes them from many highly-paid bankers.

However, the question that always nags in the back of my mind when thinking about the financial crisis and certainly compensation at the firms whose greed pushed us to the edge of the abyss is how can they think that they deserve that much money? You graduated college several years ago, you’re pushing money from pile A to pile B, and somehow you’re worth 10, 100 or even 1000 times as much in salaried compensation as a tenured faculty member at one of the world’s top universities[2. Forgive my example. I'm becoming intimately familiar with faculty salaries during the initial stages of my job search.]? Or 50, 500 or 5000 times as much as a schoolteacher/firefighter/<insert low paying, high social utility job here>? It just doesn’t make any sense. At least not to me. After all, I knew a lot of these people. They seemed like decent, normal Harvard students while they resided in Cambridge. Yet somehow they got to Wall Street and became gods among men, worthy or however many zeros they could squeeze out of the financial system.

The usual argument offered as an answer is some variation on “the market set my salary, so I must have earned it, and I must deserve it.” To me this seems like an interesting dodge, and perhaps akin morally to the “I’m not a racist” defense we see coming out the mouths of people who are supporting — or at least not actively resisting — systems that are themselves structurally racist, and systems from which these people have benefited greatly. This connection occurred to me after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest piece in the New Yorker. In the article — which I’ll admit I found a bit thin, if convincing — Gladwell summarizes recent criticism of Atticus Finch, the lead character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird which casts Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson in a different, less-flattering light. Discussing Jim Folsom, Governor of Alabama from 1947 to 1951, who Malcolm likens to Atticus Finch in the piece, he writes:

Folsom was the same way. He knew the frailties of his fellow-Alabamians when it came to race. But he could not grasp that those frailties were more than personal—that racism had a structural dimension. After he was elected governor a second time, in 1955, Folsom organized the first inaugural ball for blacks in Alabama’s history. That’s a very nice gesture. Yet it doesn’t undermine segregation to give Negroes their own party. It makes it more palatable.

I think that you can make a similar argument about compensation, that there are powerful structural elements within our society that are responsible for the fact that an oil speculator receives a 100 million dollar bonus (while producing no tangible benefit to society), while many Americans are struggling through an economic downturn and watching their wages stagnate and expenses rise.

It seems to me that, like racism, the growing wealth gap in this country is at heart a moral issue that will require some form of moral calculus to truly address. You can’t really end racism without the class that is benefiting from it being willing — usually by being shamed — to put down the privileges that result. And you probably won’t really effectively end the compensation gap, as well as the idea that expensively-educated college graduates deserve to be making fortunes on Wall Street without contributing anything to society, without some of those same people standing up and saying: “I’m really not worth this much. I don’t deserve these millions of dollars. My job isn’t that important. I don’t make a product, and I don’t provide a service. I want to make a good living, like everyone else, but I don’t deserve the yachts, the multi-million dollar homes, the fancy vacations, a car and a driver. Maybe nobody does, but definitely not me. It’s just not fair.” My guess is, as is my (poor) understanding of the dynamics of racial change in American, the fire will have to start down below, but there will have be be kindling on top.

Returning to Harvard, in my darker moments I wonder if we as an institution aren’t more responsible for what is happening than we realize. We have attempted to teach “moral reasoning”, but our graduates seem to find ways to reason, morally, that they are so much better than the people that surround them and should be given permission to extract massive amounts of wealth even if that transfer is predicated on the suffering and sacrifice of others. So maybe we have failed to really teach our students moral reasoning. And if we have failed, I fear we have produced too many students that are like Matt Taibbi’s Goldman Sachs in minature: “great vampire squids wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming their blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

IJ Notes

Up to page 508/endnote 208 or so. Just a few quick notes.

  1. My blog is (currently) the top Google page if you search anticonfluentialism. It’s nice to be up there at the top of at least one one word (or pseudo-word) search.
  2. I keep starring things in Google Reader to come back to at the various other IJ blogs I’m reading. Like this post at which talks about expectation creation and fulfillment in video games. Maybe I starred this because I instinctively flag almost anything and everything negative about video games which I think are ridiculous wastes of time that rival any other time-wasting activity (TV, blogging, staring vacantly into space, etc.). Or this post over at Infinite Detox where the author discusses our habit of over-personalizing our entertainment options[1. Actually I think that Wallace was a bit ahead of the curve when discussing the progression and disintegration of mass media, but that's a subject for a future, non-list-based Infinite Jest post.] and lists a number of “modest proposals for Infinite Jest-inspired solutions for life in our present-day techno-dystopia”. Good stuff, and worth a read.
  3. Finally, as a further progress report, I am still very much enjoying the book, although my specific references to it on this blog have perhaps diminished. I installed the kind-of neat Facebook Infinite Summer application, which is motivating me to read more regularly and in smaller chunks so that I can update my page counter every day. Whee!

When “less is more…”

“…and almost nothing is the best.” While Garrison Keillor was describing organists in this clip from a wonderful edition of A Prairie Home Companion (February 3, 2001)[1. Since I'm still probably 15 years too young to listen to PHC — so 23 years too young in 2001 — let me explain myself. I used to have a Sunday routine that involved attending Memorial Church, followed by brunch at Lowell House and then racing up to my room to catch the 2PM rebroadcast of PHC on our local Boston-area NPR affiliate. This routine, which I entered into during my junior year of college, lasted at least a few weeks if I recall correctly. PHC is a beautiful show but part of me feels comfortable waiting until I get older to listen to it regularly.], the idea of making the best from less is applicable outside of church music.

Indeed, Suzanna and I spent a good part of last night talking about the strange idea of a profession best suited to someone who does not enjoy one of its principal components. Of course that seems strange. Usually our ideal candidates for any job are those who are both capable and excited about doing it! Where would we want to make an exception to this usual standard?

The job we were discussing is any one, particularly at the academy, where a component of the job description involves disciplining students. During the summer we’ve been employed as co-Assistant Deans of the Harvard Summer School. While there are non-disciplinary components of the job — holding study breaks; managing a staff of proctors, Harvard undergraduates who handle most of the student interaction; coordinating move-in and move-out — a portion of it involves ensuring that students have safe and productive summers and handling students that might behave in ways that would threaten these goals. We have a set of rules and expectations in place which we attempt to communicate clearly to students, but of course there are those that violate them, either negligently or willfully, and need to receive some sort of censure for their actions.

Here’s the thing though: both my wife and I positively hate handing out punishments. Don’t get me wrong: we are definitely capable of doing so. But in our former and future role as Resident Tutors at Eliot House we have occasionally played Rock-Paper-Scissors to decide who was going to go and quiet a loud or unregistered party, with the loser headed out the door. Neither of us is particularly withdrawing, so shyness isn’t an issue. If I wanted to put it in the best light I would say that we are hurt when our students disappoint us, given that normally find many of them to be upstanding, honest, etc., all of the qualities that we all seem all to willing to surrender when caught in a tough spot.

Far from interfering with our duties as tutors, a distaste for punishment tends to force us to try and reduce the degree to which discipline is needed. I usually tell my students when I meet them for our first “rules and expectations” meeting in the fall: “You know that there are corners you can back me into where I have no choice but to fight my way out by becoming authoritarian not-nice disciplinary man. But I don’t want to be that person, and you don’t want me to be either, so let’s find a way to avoid finding ourselves in those straights.” And I find that this has, so far, proved strangely effective. And when deterrence doesn’t work, my evident distaste at having to “go all tutor on them” sometimes proves as a future deterrent after students cross the line the first time. I’m pretty sure that the most traumatic thing about having me break up your party is how embarrassed I’m going to be, as I hold open the door and your guests file out into the night. In addition, I believe that not wanting to discipline students encourages authority figures to work in others way to try and create positive environments, since those are less likely to produce disciplinary problems.

Given how unpleasant discipline seems to me, I was sort of surprised to find that some of our colleagues this summer really seem to relish it[2. You'd think that they'd all be working for the CIA by now. OK, bad joke.]. To make things stranger, discipline at the Summer School is really pretty small potatoes in terms of what sort of measures are taken. Usually it’s just students (usually high-school age students) doing dumb and dangerous things that typically don’t really produce many victims. So when we kick out the idiot who got caught with booze in one of the dorms nobody feels “good” about it — I mean, it’s not like we’re locking up Tony Soprano here, guys.

After observing our discipline-happy colleagues we’ve observed that enjoying the process of meting out discipline seems to produce a set of problems:

  • Your colleagues, assuming they are decent people, will find the pleasure you take in the displeasure of others strange and distasteful.
  • When you enjoy the “big stick”, you’re probably more likely to reach for it when it’s not needed, or when something else would work better.
  • Worse still, when you really enjoy the “big stick” you even start to maybe steer kids in that direction:
    • You enforce rules designed to protect the community even when a particular instance of behavior violating them doesn’t meet that standard.
    • You extrapolate wildly from the smallest of infractions. “Hey, we caught them leaving the dorm after hours, but they were probably on their way to do drugs or kill someone!” “The student wasn’t just smoking in their room, they were willfully trying to burn down the dorm and kill everyone inside!”
    • When you do catch a student, you try and push them into lying when they’re already in trouble[3. To me this seems to border on entrapment.]. The lying, if they do it, you take extremely personally, meaning that you can escalate the whole situation, declare the student a “pathological liar” and reach for the “big stick”. (This can also work nicely with the extrapolation strategy. Once you have a “lying liar” on your hands, then they must be lying about everything! “I asked the student if they had ever done stolen a car, and they said no, but because they’re a pathological lying liar and can’t be trusted they probably mean that they’re out driving around town in one right now.”)
  • Lastly, you become extremely insensitive to any changes that might actually occur in the student after they are caught. Call it crocodile tears, call it an attempt to get out of the punishment, call it feeling sorry for themselves, whatever. Just don’t ever identify it as an authentic process of reckoning with their behavior that might prevent future rule-breaking, because this might prevent you from pulling out the “big stick”. The enjoyment of discipline and the desire to empathize and recognize change in others don’t seem particularly compatible.

Given these issues, it seems clear that the best way to hire a person to oversee discipline is to find someone who doesn’t like it. Of course, this produces the problem that if the person actually ends up having to do too much disciplining they are either going to hate their job or learn to enjoy it, at which point we’re back to our problem. It seems like a reasonable solution is to ensure that jobs that have an inherent disciplinary component — whether they be teaching, tutoring, Deaning, etc. — contain a heavy dose of more constructive aspects. This would seem to both help reduce the impact of disciplining that is necessary on the totality of the job while at the same time hopefully providing tools so that the holders can further reduce the amount of discipline they have to do.

All of this said, Suzanna and I were proud to come to our bi-weekly disciplinary meetings with little to nothing to say each week. At first we thought that certain colleagues were just jealous, but now we know that at least some of them felt sorry for us for missing all of the “fun”. Those people need help. Seriously.

Annals of Bad Headline Writing

Headline: New Poll: Bring Down Debt, Don’t Spend More.

Key Graf:

Fifty-six percent of respondents said that they were not willing to pay more in taxes in order to reduce the deficit, and nearly as many said they were not willing for the government to provide fewer services in areas such as health care, education and defense spending.

Look, there’s a way to bring down the debt without spending more, it’s called spending less. But people don’t want that either. So this is the fundamental tension here, completely missing from the headline.

How about: New Poll: Bring Down Debt, Don’t Spend Less.

Is Medicine More Family-Friendly than Academia?

This article — which I picked up off of a friend’s feed — would make you think so. It reports on a study comparing a set of “elite white-collar fields” with respect to “which jobs offer the best chance at balancing work and family life”, and while it spends most of its time dissing finance and consulting as being family-unfriendly, it includes this summary of the study’s findings:

One set of statistics neatly summarizes the findings. After surveying Harvard College alumni 15 years after graduation, Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz estimated the average financial penalty for someone who had taken a year and a half off and then returned to work. In medicine, that person earned 16 percent less than a similar doctor who had not taken time off. Among people with no graduate degree, the gap was 25 percent. For both lawyers and Ph.D.’s, it was about 29 percent.

Now, while these statistics are certainly interesting, there’s a serious problem with their analysis: while you might be able to argue that most (not all) students that obtain a M.D. become doctors, that most (not all) students that obtain a J.D. become lawyers, this is definitely not true of Ph.D.’s. At least a significant percentage of students earning Ph.D.’s leave academia. I found various references online, with this article the most germane to my own chosen field.

The above graph shows that at its peak my field was sending roughly 60% of people into academia. This is probably higher than many other fields, and has fallen sharply since then to less than a majority in 2004-2005. While the graph is missing a few years, I’m guessing that the downward trend has continued.

Even just arguing from first principles it’s clear that academia cannot absorb most of its newly-minted Ph.D.’s. This is due to the nature of research advising which is, in it’s own way, a two-level pyramid scheme. Assume an academic serves, conservatively, at the median, 20 years as a professor. Now assume, again conservatively, that they graduate on average one student per year. Now clearly, assuming no growth in the number of tenured positions, this means that by the time they retire the professor in question has trained 20 replacements for one position. Clearly this is unsustainable.

Obviously my analysis is simplistic and leaves out two significant ways of absorbing Ph.D.’s into academia: growth in the number of tenured (or otherwise) positions, and positions at teaching or liberal arts colleges that do not grant Ph.D.’s and hence where faculty do not supervise graduate students. I have always been curious about finding a more well-done analysis of the changing career paths of (particularly Computer Science) Ph.D.’s, but at least the CW around these parts and the people I talk to is that as the growth in CS slows the number of available academic positions will fall, competition will become more fierce, post-doctoral work will become more critical to obtaining employment as a tenure-track research academic. My feeling is that other fields — chemistry, biology, many of the humanities — are already farther down this curve, but our progression down this path should probably auger large-scale changes in the way we teach graduate students, as the paucity of academic positions erodes the apprentice-like nature of graduate school further and further.

Returning to my critique of the NYTimes article, I guess my main point was that it’s unclear whether tracking Ph.D.’s really amounts to a verdict on academia, given that so many are likely to have to go and do other things (industry, probably) post-graduation. I was interested to read a discussion of the many freedoms and structural advantages of a career in medicine, but I would love to see a more accurate comparison with the equivalent benefits the actual academic profession.

Sensys’09 Program

As Matt has announced, the Sensys 2009 preliminary program has been released. I’m proud to say that it includes a contribution from our group on Mercury, a wearable sensor network for high-fidelity motion analysis. This is largely Konrad’s work (in fact, his thesis work), but I was peripherally involved and the Mercury download manager architecture borrows heavily from Lance. It’s a solid engineering effort and I’m pleased that it was accepted &mdash particularly as its good exposure for both Konrad and Bor-rong, both of whom are graduating next month.

I am disappointed, however, that our Draft paper didn’t make the cut. I blogged recently about the paper submission and my feelings about it pre-decision. After the decision came down I think I went through the usual post-rejection phases: anger, depression, careful consideration[1. Facilitated by reviews.], acceptance, imagination, reinvigoration. While the reviews weren’t quite as helpful as I would have liked, Jason and I are up and spinning together an NSDI’10 submission and are exploring some exciting new directions for the work. Given that this is the last piece of real research I imagine I’m going to get a chance to do before pulling together my thesis this winter and then (hopefully) interviewing next spring, I plan on enjoying one more trip out. As Suzanna put it, despite the inevitable feelings of failure that accompany a paper rejection, I had wanted to write an NSDI’10 paper, and that would have actually been quite hard had I had to spend August tightening up a Sensys’09 submission. That said, I would have loved to be able to get up at a fall conference and give a talk, particularly with the job market looming, but I guess I’ll have to hope people remember best talk award at Sensys’08.

Personal mutterings aside, this post was supposed to be a preliminary look at the Sensys’09 program, particularly in light of the comments Matt has made about the process on his blog. At first glance, most of the papers seem to break down into some well-defined categories[2. Note that I'm breaking these down by their titles, which can be misleading.]:

  • No MAC Papers (!): perhaps this is a function of Matt and Jie as program chairs, or maybe the community is finally just really tired of the (IMO) largely useless proliferation of MAC protocols, almost all of which were never compared against other research MAC protocols or ever canonicized in the standard TinyOS distribution. I remember during a question Matt asked at either Sensys’08 or Sensys’06 he argued that really what we needed was a MAC sMACdown, i.e. a paper that would actually compare a number of contributed MAC protocols using a consistent set of experiments, methodologies and benchmarks. Don’t see that paper, but it seems like the MAC sMACdown just ended up taking a slightly different form this year. No complaints here.
  • Multiple Link/Routing Protocol Papers: maybe these are what replaces MAC protocol papers for the next few years. Just based on the titles I see “ADB: An Efficient Multihop Broadcast Protocol based on Asynchronous Duty-Cycling in Wireless Sensor Networks”, “Collection Tree Protocol”, “M&M: Multilevel Markov Model for Wireless Link Simulation in Sensor Networks”, “Explicit and precise rate control for wireless sensor networks” and “Bursty Traffic over Bursty Links”; “The Case For A Network Protocol Isolation Layer” may be making an architectural contribution or may fall into this category. So it seems like we have at least one dedicated routing session, with a number of papers focusing on link-level dynamics and/or simulation.
  • Time Synchronization: several years after the FTSP and Firefly Sensys papers — which I mention here due to my familiarity, not due to any seminality — another batch of papers addressing time synchronization are here. “Optimal Clock Synchronization in Networks”, “Low-power clock synchronization using electromagnetic energy radiating from AC power lines”, and “A Tale of Two Synchronizing Clocks” look like they compromise a dedicated time synchronization session.
  • Applications: Sensys has a strong history of application papers, and this year is no exception, with “Canopy Closure Estimates with GreenOrbs: Long-Term Large-Scale Sensing in the Forest”, “DCNet: A High-Fidelity Data Center Sensing Network”, “Suelo: Human-assisted Sensing for Exploratory Soil Monitoring Studies”, “Mercury: A Wearable Sensor Network Platform for High-Fidelity Motion Analysis”, “Experiences with A High-Fidelity Wireless Building Energy Auditing Network” and “VTrack: Accurate, Energy-Aware Traffic Delay Estimation Using Mobile Phones” all seeming to present application case studies or present experiences deploying real systems. I probably have a more mixed view of application papers than my CV would suggest. Some I find extremely interesting and edifying. Others seem to have impressed reviewers with a complete, well-engineering system, but really don’t contribute many or any new ideas. That said, based on the titles alone I see a number of projects represented here that I’ve known about and am excited to hear and read more about.
  • Programming/Debugging: this category includes “FIND: Faulty Node Detection for Wireless Sensor Networks”, “TOSThreads: Safe and Non-Invasive Preemption in TinyOS”, “Darjeeling, A Feature-Rich VM for the Resource Poor”, “Macrodebugging: Providing Abstract Views of System State”, and “Evaluating A BASIC Approach To Sensor Network Node Programming”.

Interesting that only one paper — “Achieving Range-Free Localization Beyond Connectivity” — out of the 21 accepted escapes this categorization. I haven’t tried a similar title-based categorization for other preliminary programs at other conferences, but part of me wonders if this is a function of the topically-based decision making process that Matt seems to imply went on at the PC meeting. I don’t have enough experience with program committees to know whether or not this is standard operating procedure, but I wonder how you combat the danger of category-driven selection, namely that you don’t get the strongest 21 papers but rather the strongest three routing protocol papers, the strongest three programming/debugging papers, the strongest six application case studies, and so on. The other danger of early categorization is that papers that span multiple areas or don’t fit cleanly into boxes end up being left out.

Specifically, I’m disappointed this year to see a program bereft of architectural approaches to reducing power consumption. I’m willing to presume that some of the programming papers may address this more directly, but one of the more exciting things (for me) about the past few years of Sensys was the emergence of papers like Levels (Sensys’07), Eon (Sensys’07), Pixie (Sensys’08) and of course Lance[3. This list is obviously too tilted towards our own work at Harvard, and plenty of other good papers in this area exist.] which took large-scale, top-down approaches to controlling network-wide power consumption. (Or were getting there, slowly.) I’m hoping that as I learn more about the papers that were accepted a broader focus on energy will emerge from papers where it is not evident in the title, but as of now I’m disappointed that this area seems poorly represented.

Trafficing in Distraction

I’ve been following with great interest the driven to distraction series of articles over at the New Yorke Times. Personally I’m pleased to see them getting prominent placement on the paper’s web site, since this seems like a serious issue.

Not driving a great deal myself, I typically avoid using my BlackBerry on the rare occasion that I get a ZipCar to do some shopping or run an errand. Since I drive rarely — which means both that I enjoy it more but also am aware that I’m less practiced than many other drivers — I find it less of a hassle to focus on the road while doing so.

I have spent several stints out in the Seattle area working at either Microsoft or Microsoft Research. Both times I lived in Capitol Hill, a nice neighborhood on what Seattle natives call “the west side.” Commuting to “the east side” — where the Microsoft campus is located — is a nightmare, with a 15-minute trip sans traffic ballooning to several hours. The situation is largely the result of a paucity of bridges crossing Lake Washington, the long, narrow, deep lake that divides the east and west sides. In particular, the Evergreen Point floating bridge most convenient for getting to Microsoft collapses an eight-lane freeway into four, with no breakdown lane. Accidents on the bridge snarl traffic for hours.

Personally, I hate traffic. Hate it hate it hate it. This is partially, I’ll admit, a function of never having to get used to it, but I hope I never will. That said, an important point that I haven’t seen made[1. To be fair, I haven't perused the article comment threads yet.] about the prevalence of mobile device use in traffic is that a lot of people spend a lot of time on the road moving very, very slowly. Is texting while driving safe? I don’t believe so. But it’s probably safer when you’re stuck on the 520 bridge, creeping across the lake at 2 mph. It’s possible that people are spending more time in traffic these days, but it would be interesting to look at the amount of time they spend in various speed zones, since behavior that might be safe in bumper-to-bumper traffic might not be safe in heavy, yet swiftly-moving traffic.

Considering this for a bit I started to wonder if we’ll ever have audio interfaces that make conversations a bit more like email, i.e. more asynchronous. I can imagine that, when sitting at a stop-light or in a traffic jam, my car allowing me to participate in (potentially multiple) conversations and delivering delayed snippets of earlier dialogue to me now that it has determined that it is safe for me to hear them. Once my speed rises, conversations are muted and any responses by my conversants are cached for later delivery. Obviously this plays havoc on dialogue and flow between individuals, but maybe we adapt and develop new conversational modalities as the technology changes?

Or we could all keep texting and talking while driving and killing each other. Count me out. I’m walking or taking the metro[2. Assuming we can finally get our shit together and prevent subway operators from themselves texting and talking. How hard can this be? As a friend of mine put it yesterday on Facebook: c'mon guys, we're trying to have a civilization here.].

Facebook’s Walls

I’ll admit, I’m a bit OCD about contact information. For some time I’ve been using Google Sync to synchronize my Google contacts with my Blackberry[1. To illustrate my desperation about/interest in this sort of thing, before Google Sync I paid money for a service called GooSync which essentially did the same thing. I actually even got suckered into plunking down more pounds (British company I guess) for a lifetime subscription about a month before Google Sync was released. I guess I need to read more Google blogs.]. Recently I started a new campaign to reformat all of the phone numbers in my address book to use dot-delimiting[2. I.E., 123.456.7890 instead of the annoyingly-punctuation-full (123) 456-7890 or the sort-of simple-minded 123-456-7890. I mean, the dots just don't get in the way of the numbers, which are the significant pieces of information, whereas the parentheses split the information top-to-bottom and the dashes sit there right at eye-level just hanging out. Is anyone else with me here?], which given that I have ~1000[3. Albeit, some 200 of which are Harvard Summer School students which will get dropped at summer's end. These contacts were also properly entered the first time.] contacts is a fairly slow and torturous process. Doing some of the things that I do — such as resident tutoring — having contact information at my fingertips is really important.

Now, I’ll also admit that my obsession is not typical. My wife’s address book and email contact information is completely unsorted, unsynchronized and — even more frustrating to one with my affliction — even uses first names only! Blasphemy! As additional evidence of my lack-of-normality, a straw poll conducted during a meeting of CS261, Professor Margo Seltzer’s graduate-level course on computer operating systems, revealed that most people did not in fact back up the contact information in their phone in any way. That said, called out as abnormal, I am hoping that this is the direction that our increasingly-connected world is moving in, so one day I will be called prescient and not just anal-retentive.

Given the importance, to me at least, of contact information and more significantly contact information integration I’m increasingly frustrated by’s irritating restrictions on moving contact details in and out of their pages. For those interesting, more after the jump.
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Community Service

On the train back from HotOS’09 Prabal Dutta and I entered into a discussion about “service to the community.” Of all the people I’ve met in the wireless sensor network community Prabal is one of the more interesting and thoughtful. I’ve always enjoyed discussing research and other things with him, and this was one of those conversations that stuck in my mind.

I think that we entered into this topic when I remarked that the research homepage of someone I had Googled listed serving on program committees under the heading “Service.” Growing up as a Boy Scout[1. Topping out as an Eagle Scout, in fact.], and having to accrue the service chits to apply to a selective east coast college, defining service on a program committee as “service” seemed a bit of a stretch to me. This is something that seems fairly clearly in the best interest of faculty members[2. And yes, by this definition some of the "service" on my college application wasn't really service either.] involved, and I’m guessing is also properly incentivized by tenure committees when the time comes.

So if program committee participation isn’t service to the community, what is? And if researchers don’t do it, is it important?

My definition of service to the (research) community would be activities or actions performed that both a) benefit other researchers directly and b) are not directly compensated or undertaken with no clear expectation of eventual reward. Of the top of my head, I can come up with a few[3. Not as many as I would like to be able to bring to mind quickly...] examples in the WSN community:

  • FTSP @ Vanderbilt: After the original FTSP Sensys’04 paper, the researchers at ISIS along with (I believe) others came through in a big way by closing the loop. FTSP is now part of the standard TinyOS 2.x distribution, and receives all of the testing attention and hardening one would expect of something canonicized in this way.
    Did the FTSP team have to do this? No, of course not. They had already had their paper published! Usually the next step is to drop the code on the floor, or dump it into contrib where you don’t need to support it and nobody can complain about it. But they took the time to close the loop, which I applaud them for.
  • The Sensor Network Museum @ ETH: I first got wind of this a few years ago when I received (and completed) the deployment survey that Jan Beutel had distributed. The museum seems to have links to a great deal of relevant WSN material, and while I’m not sure who’s maintaining it they’re definitely doing a great service for the community[4. At some point though, I am hoping that Jan uses the survey results I sent him for something useful...].
  • MoteLab @ Harvard: I can’t finish this list, unfortunately a bit short, without tooting my own horn as well as the horns of my advisor and a lot of other people at Harvard[5. In no particular order: Bor-rong Chen, Konrad Lorincz, Geoff Mainland, Pat Swieskowski, Glenn Holloway and all the EECS support staff deserve mention. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.] and elsewhere[6. Kyle Jamieson (now at University College London) and Brett Hull, both at MIT CSAIL at the time, did a significant re-factoring of one of the uglier pieces of MoteLab code I had written.]. MoteLab is a wireless sensor network testbed that currently supports over 500 researchers from around the globe[7. A few days ago I got a very nice email from Muhammad Hamad Alizai in the Distributed Systems Group at RWTH Aachen University (which I had never heard of). Their Sensys'09 paper used MoteLab extensively and he was writing to say thanks.].

I’m sure there are many additional examples — and I hope a few people will enlighten me through comments or email — but in general these sort of contributions seem a bit problematic. Speaking for myself, my own work on MoteLab started before I began the Ph.D. program, during the year I worked as a research assistant for Matt. This meant I had fewer ambitions in terms of paper submissions, and less of a research agenda (to the degree that any first- or second-year student typically has much of a coherent research agenda).

As time has passed I’ve had to moderate periodic urges to improve the MoteLab codebase against the realities against which those efforts will be measured. We had our one MoteLab paper in the SPOTS track of IPSN’05. It’s extremely unlikely we’d be able to publish anything else on MoteLab. And yet, improving the testbed — either increasing the stability, improving job scheduling and workflow, or creating a more interesting heterogeneous environment — would greatly benefit a lot of other researchers who make use of it. Just not me so much.

A great part of me hates to have to make that calculation, but those are the realities. The optimist in me wants to believe that these sort of contributions and community spirit are measured and weighed on the academic job market I’ll be venturing into next year. The cynic is less sure. My conversation with Prabal? Ammunition for the latter. When I asked him whether, during his job interview process, anyone had ever asked him “Tell me about a contribution you have made to the community that I wouldn’t know about from examining your CV, something that has benefited a great deal of other researchers and facilitated their work?” his answer: no.