Monday, September 30, 2013

Toddler Break

Some days, I just feel fried.  Today's a good example, on the tail end of four solid days of meeting and conference, which consumed the entirety of my weekend.  Oh, it was good stuff, and I have no regrets about going there, except that I didn't get my time off and will not get any more until Friday, when my folks fly in to visit us.

I like my time off and need my time off, and the best of it comes in toddler time.  I'm just a sucker for the enthusiasm and vigor with which Harriet engages and plays with me.  Some time in the past few weeks, I have naturally stopped calling her "baby"---with the onset of walking, we are clearly in toddler territory, emphasized even more so by her enthusiastic adoption of "Yeah!" and "No!"  My day ends sharply at 4pm every day (at least when I'm in town), when I go and I pick her up from day care.  When we get home, I keep meaning to go try to meet up with the neighbors who have little kids, but instead I just end up hanging out in the living room with Harriet, sitting on the floor while she jumps on me or puts things in my pocket or runs and snuggles and puts things in stacks or baskets.

Little humans are so damned endearing, once you get used to them: they are a microcosm of our grown up world, played fast and open in kaleidoscopic intensity.  Frowning in concentration, then laughing her evil laugh, angry and bitter cries when she can't get something she's put in my pocket back out of it, crafty smiles and sidelong glances to see if I'll let her get way with her ambitions.

That period of grace in the early evening, between when Harriet and I arrive home and when I start to make dinner or Ananya returns or whatever else can break our bubble, is my toddler break, and it's something I dearly look forward to.

Monday, September 23, 2013

O'Hare Again

I'm on another layover in O'Hare again, that great hub of air travel in the backlands of Chicago. Named for Butch O'Hare, the first Navy ace in World War II.  I've learned to curse it less these days, when once upon a time I always feared and loathed my stop-overs here.  But now that I am stopping here so often, I'm coming to find it comfortable, familiar, reliable in its jam-packed halls of madness, and the corridor of international flags that leads you through the main American Airlines terminal.

This is my 14th connection through O'Hare this year, and I expect to be making 9 more of them before the year is finished (maybe more, but I hope not).  That's... that's actually a lot more than I'd realized, before a grep for "ORD" through my travel records found such surprising numbers.  Apparently, even before leaving Boston for Iowa, a surprisingly large number of my trips went through O'Hare, and once you get Iowa in the mix, well, that's two stops in O'Hare for pretty much every trip.

The one truly damning thing about O'Hare for the traveling scientist, at least in the American terminals, is its lack of power and wireless.  I think there is a similar principle operating here as I have noticed in the case of hotels.  With hotels, the pricier per night, the more likely that the internet access will not be free, and the more likely that the connections will be terrible.  Cheap hotels often have excellent, excellent internet.  For airports, the bigger and more business-traveller-filled, the more likely they are to have no easily accessible power plugs and no free wireless.  Little regional airports pretty much always have nice seats with good and free connections.

And so I pay.  But not directly for the wireless.  I pay for a membership in the lounge, which means I get free decent wireless, and a quiet and calm place to sit and work or read or think.  It's worth it, but I feel ashamed.  Which is senseless, really.  If I'm traveling often, it makes sense, economically, to make those hours on a layover good and productive and not draining.  And yet, somehow I feel like I'm betraying my class.  Becoming one of Them, whoever that might be.

As I look back on where I came from, I know that Jake the child would barely recognize some parts of me in the man that I have become.  Would find it strange and alien, distasteful, impure.  I have a really devilish pride, you know, that makes me walk away from sensible things for a long time sometimes.  For years, as a grad student, I resisted any thought of getting an air conditioner.  I had never lived with air conditioning growing up (in the countryside, on the coast of Maine, where the air was so much cooler anyway), and I decided, in my stupid head somehow, that air conditioning was a sign of weakness, of over-consumption, of All That Was Wrong With America.  I even turned down a free air conditioner that my parents gave me as a gift, made them take it back to the store in my pride and self-righteous choice of bodily mortification.  We lived on the top floor of a 3-story apartment at the time, and there was a flat piece of black tar roof right outside the bedroom window, so on a really hot day the room just baked like a pizza oven.  I would lie there and sweat, my head aching, trying to focus on whatever I was trying to do.  But I was winning... winning against everyone else in the world, because I could judge them weaker and less than me, since I could live without an air conditioner.

You know, dear reader, I really hope you're laughing at me right now.  I hope you're finding that pride as stupid and shameful as I do now, looking back at it.  Trying to understand, where does it come from?  Where do I get this impulse, this need to go and do things as purely as possible?  I don't even realize I'm doing it sometimes, only in retrospect, as I'm analyzing the shame that comes when I finally come and let myself succumb to pragmatism.  Like having an airline lounge membership.  Like taking a taxi to the airport, when I used to take the T.  I can scoff at my resistance to air conditioning at the same time as I feel queasy about my airline lounge membership, and really, what's the difference?

Where is the boundary between pride and pride, dear reader?  If I bought myself a membership before I started stopping in O'Hare... an apparently startling number of times... then it would be a pride of aspiration, of conspicuous consumption, of indulgence in status and luxury.  If I avoided buying a membership now that I'm stopping here so often, then it would be a pride of avoidance, setting myself above the people who do have one through self-denial and asceticism.  I think that my wife, ever one for pragmatism, would find my dilemma odd and disheartening.  Honestly, I don't know where it comes from, myself, except that it is always with me, this improper degree of social consciousness that so frequently leaves me on the horns of a dilemma, where either path it problematic.

Perhaps, as I continue to learn and grow and mature, I'll finally just manage to let go a little.
I just wish I had a better measuring stick, so I could always compute where the boundaries are...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Dear readers, I am happy to announce an excellent thing. That excellent thing is WebProto, and it's a way that all of you, even those without a similar scientific background, can get a chance to play with the artifacts of my program of research.

Go on, click that link.  Or better yet, try this one that is all loaded up with a bunch of pretty demos.

Ain't it cool?

The WebProto effort was kicked off by my colleague Kyle Usbeck, who first realized that the new HTML5 and WebGL extensions in browsers had gotten powerful and sophisticated enough that it was reasonable to think about running a complex network simulator with 3D graphics and lots of virtual machines just as part of a web-page.  No weird plug-ins, no special-purpose software, just a modern web browser and a decently fast machine.  Then there was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears as we worked together to figure out how to make JavaScript do our bidding, and another batch when the way we first built the system was too slow and we needed to port the whole virtual machine into JavaScript.

The point of the WebProto project is to make aggregate programming techniques, like we and a number of our colleagues have been developing, readily accessible to anyone who is interested. There have been a lot of really exciting advances over the past few years, in techniques that make it easier to program networks, by letting you write programs for the whole network at once.  Then the system figures out how that translates into the interactions that the individual devices need to have with one another.  This is all well and good, but in order to use any of these techniques, you always had to figure out how to install and configure a touchy piece of research software, usually with some gnarly dependencies.  Ours (MIT Proto) is unfortunately no exception.  And using it had some serious user interface issues for anybody who's not a fan of the Unix command line. So the barrier to entry has just been too high for most people to bother with it.

Enter WebProto.  WebProto's three big goals are:

  1. Make cutting edge aggregate programming (via our Proto language) accessible to anybody with a browser.
  2. Bring aggregate programming, test configuration, and network simulation together in one easy interface. 
  3. Make it easy for anybody using WebProto to share their programs and simulations.

I think we've succeeded... at least enough to get a good start on things.  We're hoping this will be a good educational tool too, for people teaching classes on distributed algorithms or self-organization or complex systems.  Heck, we've already got a tutorial of our own that has embedded examples and problem sets!  And it's all free and open software, so anybody who improves things can contribute back to the community.

And you know why else I'm feeling that glow of pride right now?  Because today was Demo Day at SASO, and WebProto received an award for being the best demo of the conference.

So come on down, dear reader, and help yourself to our wonderful toys...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Hey folks, it's time for my favorite conference of the year!  That's SASO, or as its more properly known: the IEEE International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems.  SASO is probably the conference which is most home to me as a scientific research community, and I've attended it every year since it began, in 2007.  Now in its seventh year, the conference is going strong: it's not a big conference, but that's by design: it's very cross-disciplinary, and has only a single track in order to ensure that people aren't closing off into their own little sub-communities.  That does have the side effect of keeping it relatively small, but I find a lot of value here.

The main conference started today, but the affiliated workshops and tutorials began already yesterday.  I started off my day yesterday in the workshop on socio-technical systems, where I was invited to give a talk about my recent results on very fast approximate consensus, which I had published at this year's Spatial Computing Workshop.  The link between approximate consensus and social interactions is pretty clear: whenever a group needs to make a decision, it needs to come to an approximate consensus.  My own work has been motivated more by the technological side, but there is a lot of overlap and my talk, The Importance of Asymmetry for Rapidly Reaching Consensus, appeared to be quite interesting to the attendees.

I found quite a bit of interest to listen to as well, and something that Jeremy Pitt said in his talk has been bouncing around in my mind ever since.  Jeremy, talking about social capital, decried the commodification of social relationships, FaceBook's business model being an excellent bad example: "friends are people you can count on, not people that you can count."  Turning towards a more positive definition of social capital, the foundation of the definition is "trustworthiness."

And here's the observation that has been racketing around in my head ever since: if social capital is based on trustworthiness, then any attempt to engineer social capital is guaranteed to undermine itself.  Look at it this way: if you do something that I find beneficial, generous, or reliable, I will trust you more.  If I know that you only did it in order to win my trust, then I have no reason to trust you, because I know you're trying to manipulate me.

This poses a real paradox.  Building trust is vital, and so understanding how to build trust is useful, but the more precisely you understand how to build trust, the less trustworthy you may be!  It makes me think of the problem of ethical placebo.  The placebo effect is a remarkable mind-body interaction in medicine: when you give a person a non-functional treatment, like a sugar pill or a salt-water injection, it can provide real medical benefit, like reduction of pain.  The theater of the treatment is the treatment.  If you know that a treatment isn't real, however, then the placebo effect doesn't work.  Now, it used to be acceptable to give patients a placebo without telling them, but that's not considered ethical any more, and for good reason.  Lying to patients for their own good is not too far away from clear horrors like involuntary sterilization of the disabled, stealing babies because the mother is unmarried, and faking treatment to study how bad a disease is.  So you can't lie to a patient, but telling them the truth destroys the efficacy of the treatment.

The problem of engineering with social capital seems similar: somehow the engineering needs to understand and manage social capital without turning it into the type of cold and calculating process that sucks all the human value out of the relationships.  I don't have any good answer, except that somehow, we need to keep the technical systems out of the relationships as much as possible: let them facilitate, let them help track information and help rendezvous, but don't attempt to monetize those relations... but can we avoid it?  The conversation went on, and we talked of it over dinner as well, broadening to the questions of privacy and the balance of trust between people and governments and corporations, and the way that software intermediates it all.

Friday, September 06, 2013

A Business Trip Back Home

I'm back in Boston again, for the first time since moving to Iowa.  I'm at home right now, for a certain definition of home, in our old apartment in Somerville.  It's like I never left, in some ways, back in the bedroom where I first arrived just over five years ago, where I lived by myself all alone for the very first time in my life.  I moved into this apartment in Somerville just as I was starting at BBN, at the same time as my relationship at the time was breaking up and as our old commune-style apartment where I'd lived through most of grad school was dissolving and people were going their separate ways.  My first night alone in this apartment was remarkably frightening to me.  When I was a kid, my brother and I tried to sleep in the lean-to a few hundred yards away from the lake camp where we always went on family vacation, and we had to come back in the middle of the night since we kept imagining bears into every snapping twig and sighing tree.  My first night alone in this apartment, I kept hearing burglars and home invaders in every creak of the old house and every autonomic twitch of an appliance.  But truly, I had never before lived alone.

It was here that I lived when I met my now-wife, here that we returned for shelter during the memorable snow-storm that accompanied our first date.  Many times, this house has been transformed, as I settled in, as we learned to live with one another, as we tried to superpose two well-equipped bachelor households into one tiny space, as we rearranged the rooms and the furniture again and again seeking the balance, utility, and mental space that we are only now finding in Iowa.  It's rearranging again now, as our landlord renovates the downstairs: right now, there is simply no kitchen, nothing at all but walls and floorboards, and the living room is filled with all the appliances and furniture that used to go there.  I pass through a seal of plastic sheeting when I go upstairs, to where the bedrooms at least remain untouched, and sleep backwards on the bed from how we usually do, in this temporary half-nest that is home and not-home and new and old all at once.

Soon, I will go to the office, and I will move all my possessions there from the window office that I am giving up to an interior office more suitable for an occasional visitor.  Another mark of my status changing, my presence here in Boston diluting as it concentrates in Iowa.  Can't live in two places at once, you know.  And truly, it's a simple fact of presence and location.  Working in Iowa is good, and I like the University and the faculty I'm getting to know there, but I am definitely becoming less in touch with my old co-workers in Boston.  The closest collaborators, no problem, but in just two hours in the office yesterday, I had good and unexpected hallway discussions with three different colleagues who I hadn't even spoken to since I left for Iowa.

Relocation is challenging and good and hard and necessary.  I like my new life, I miss my old life, I can never go back and can never stay still in stasis.  Last night, I had dinner with an old, old friend, and we talked about growth and struggle and the demons we fight and are at least aware that we are trying to overcome.  It's interesting and strange and lovely that as a well-privileged adult, I have choices to make, and my life is never at all near where I'd expected to be five years in the past, and that has been true for at least the past 20 years: a major turn in aims and expectations at least once every five years.  My apartment is in (renovative) ruins, and it is home, and so as well is my house in Iowa, and I'm happy where I am, doing what I'm doing, and also can't wait to return home to the home in my other state.

Yours in a satisfied and joyful confusion, dear reader, and the bittersweet tang of a life not lived in stasis.