CRA Snowbird
July 30, 2012, 6:53 pm
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Last week, I attended the CRA Snowbird conference for the first time. This conference is held every 2 years and is attended by chairs and
associate chairs from departments in the U.S. and Canada, faculty
member on boards of organizations like CRA, representatives from
industry and funding organizations, and several big name researchers.

The conference was much more interesting that I expected.  Below are my notes from the conference which are (as always) sketchy, biased and incomplete.

Online Education

1) John Hennessy – President of Stanford University (and former CS professor)

  • Until the invention of the printing press, doubling rate for universities was about every 100 years
  • Major university cost was the library
  • After printing press, university cost decreased dramatically -> huge increase in access to education -> dramatic societal impact
  • Currently, major university cost is faculty salaries.  Research faculty are very expensive (faculty salaries track dentist salaries)
  •  [You can see where this is going…]
  • Claim: Advent of online education -> decrease in number of faculty in U.S. -> number of research universities in the U.S. has peaked.

This talk generated a *huge* amount of controversy. Hennessy (purposefully?) ignored any actual research benefits from research faculty.

2) Salman Khan (of Khan academy) and Peter Norvig (Google fellow and online ML course instructor)

  • – Online education has the potential to dramatically improve learning
  • – Only need to read 1 paper on education [Bloom ’84] (Bloom’s 2-sigmas paper), which I [Jared] will now sum up in one sentence: “Private tutoring improves student performance by two standard deviations over lecture-based instruction”
  • If can “automate” effects of private tutoring, through interactive educational technology, will dramatically improve student performance.
  • Example: Students who answer a question incorrectly in Stanford online class can be clustered, and pointed to information that can help them improve answer
  • Norvig: motivation is extremely crucial in online classes. His primary focus is keeping students motivated and in contact with small groups of other students to create social dependencies
  • Khan: want to avoid too much polish – polished lectures can be boring and inauthentic.
  • Physically attending a university will always be a better experience when done right. Universities need to ensure it’s “done right” so that physical attendance offers something more than what can be obtained online.
  • Online education will likely replace or at least supplement traditional textbooks


Farnam Jahanian (Assistant Director of NSF for CISE)

  • NSF funding for computer science has been increasing by ~6% per year for the last 5 years. (yes, really)
  • Contrasts with increases of ~3% per year for most other disciplines
  • Big effort to maintain these increases. Helps immensely if the CS community actively publicizes research successes – go do this.
  • Feels that CS will be better shielded than most disciplines from political vagaries and educational tsunamis

Big Networks

Jeffrey Dean (Google Fellow and co-inventor of MapReduce)

  • “Make a reliable whole out of unreliable parts” “Make a low latency whole out of variable latency parts”. Discussed clever trick ensuring low latency on a massive server farm
  • Described several applications of neural nets distributed over 1 Million CPUs. Neural nets are robust and inherently distributed so work on massive networks. Massive neural nets give huge improvements in accuracy for 1) speech recognition (“improvement is equivalent to 20 years of research in the field”) and 2) image recognition (double accuracy compared to state of the art)

Big Data

Shwetak Patel (UW): Created device you plug into an electrical
outlet that tracks energy usage of all devices in your house. How?
Every type of appliance generates a unique EM signature. His device
uses this noisy signal to track each device’s energy usage with
surprising accuracy. Amazingly, can do the same thing for water
(using special sensor faucet) and gas with appropriate devices. This
was really cool!

Daphne Kohller (Stanford): Machine-learning using clinical data to
detect: 1) infant health with much higher accuracy than Apgar and
other more invasive tests – her analysis considers only time signal
data for infant respiration; 2) aggressiveness of breast cancer. In
both cases, results from the ML approach are vastly more accurate than results from traditional medical tests (e.g. Apgar). Her recent focus is applying ML to online education data to automatically determine what is the appropriate information to present to students in order to help them fix common mistakes.

Smart Sand
July 24, 2012, 9:51 pm
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So this is where the distributed computing community can interact with the interesting new world of “3D printing”

“Imagine that you have a big box of sand in which you bury a tiny model of a footstool. A few seconds later, you reach into the box and pull out a full-size footstool: The sand has assembled itself into a large-scale replica of the model.

That may sound like a scene from a Harry Potter novel, but it’s the vision animating a research project at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory (DRL) at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. At the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May — the world’s premier robotics conference — DRL researchers will present a paper describing algorithms that could enable such “smart sand.” They also describe experiments in which they tested the algorithms on somewhat larger particles — cubes about 10 millimeters to an edge, with rudimentary microprocessors inside and very unusual magnets on four of their sides….

Algorithmically, the main challenge in developing smart sand is that the individual grains would have very few computational resources. “How do you develop efficient algorithms that do not waste any information at the level of communication and at the level of storage?” asks Daniela Rus, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT and a co-author on the new paper, together with her student Kyle Gilpin. If every grain could simply store a digital map of the object to be assembled, “then I can come up with an algorithm in a very easy way,” Rus says. “But we would like to solve the problem without that requirement, because that requirement is simply unrealistic when you’re talking about modules at this scale.” Furthermore, Rus says, from one run to the next, the grains in the heap will be jumbled together in a completely different way. “We’d like to not have to know ahead of time what our block looks like,” Rus says.”

3D Printing Art
July 16, 2012, 6:10 pm
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Craig Kaplan was a PhD student in graphics at U.W. with me, and is now a professor at the University of Waterloo.  He has done some beautiful work on tilings and Islamic star patterns in both 2D, and more recently on 3D surfaces.  Combining his research with 3D printing increases the coolness factor exponentially, as you can see in the picture below (of an object he designed at Shapeways).  He’s also created these beautiful rocket espresso cups.

Printed in WS&F.