Level Up!

Today was my first day as a software engineer at Apple in Cupertino. It means that in all likelihood I will only post stuff about my cat on this blog from now on, and that it feels a bit like I am 5 and this is Christmas Day. Last year has been a heck of a ride: I graduated, got married, moved to the US, started a postdoc in Dawn Song’s group, became a father, worked on a few papers with amazing people, interviewed with Google Zurich and finally accepted Apple’s offer. As usual, there is a quote by Douglas Adams that describes this phenomenon inconspicuously well:

Life… is like a grapefruit. It’s orange and squishy, and has a few pips in it, and some folks have half a one for breakfast.


The Worst Journey in the World

This is the story of the 1910-1913 British expedition to the South Pole. The setting is so epic that is seems to be almost fictional. Sadly, this is a true story.

You don’t expect Antarctica to be a particularly comfortable place, but the book does a very good job at recounting the life (and death) of the expedition in excruciating details. Their boat almost sank on their way to Antarctica as they passed the Roaring Forties. They hoped that ponies could be used to lay out dépôts, but the poor beasts had the greatest pains to adapt to the cold and had to be finished with pickaxes and fed to the dogs. Their two pre-WWI motor sledges just did not work. They were to travel more than 3000 km by foot, dragging sledges with their food and fuel supplies behind them, over a period of 5 months. They had to thaw their way into their sleeping bags at night, and to cut their boots open to give them extra room for the frostbite-induced blisters. There was the constant threat of crevasses, week-long blizzards, scurvy and snow-blindness.

Yet, they were experienced, organized, fit and cheerful. Reminiscent of a huge but flat Himalayan ascent (although the Pole actually lies 2800m above sea level), they built a shelter for the winter and laid out dépôts with supplies for the return of the polar party. After a year of preparation, the polar journey was finally ready. They crossed the immensity of the Ross Ice Shelf (roughly the size of France). They ascended the 160 km long Beardmore glacier, and reached the Polar Plateau. They were ready for the final push to the Pole into uncharted territory. All was looking good.

January 4. A last note from a hopeful position. I think it’s going to be all right. We have a fine party going forward and arrangements are all going well.

— entry in the journal of Captain Scott before the final “ascent”

When they reached the Pole after months of such hardships, it was only to find a tent sporting a Norwegian flag and a note by Amundsen, whose expedition was the first to reach the Pole. Just a month earlier.

On the return journey, problems started to arise. The cold was more intense than expected at this time of year, making the sledges harder to pull on ice crystals. Hunger was persistent, as the rations proved to be insufficient (the summit rations were roughly 4900 calories a day, but with no vitamins intake). Frostbite was creeping its way on hands and feet. One man collapsed, and never woke up. Another could not go any further and suggested that they should leave him behind in his sleeping bag. Ultimately, he said “I am just going outside and may be some time”. He walked out into the blizzard never to be seen again. The three remaining explorers fought until the end, but ran out of fuel and food and died 11 miles from a dépôt with plenty. What follows are the last entries in the Captain’s journal.

Monday, March 19. Lunch. We camped with difficulties last night and were dreadfully cold till after our supper of cold pemmican and biscuit and a half pannikin of cocoa cooked over the spirit. Then, contrary to expectations, we got warm and slept well. To-day we started in the usual dragging manner. Sledge dreadfully heavy. We are 15.5 miles from the dépôt and ought to get there in three days. What progress ! We have two days’ food but barely a day’s fuel. All our feet are getting bad — Wilson’s best, my right foot worse, the left all right. There is no chance to nurse one’s feet till we can get hot food into us. Amputation is the least I can hope for now, but will the trouble spread ? That is the serious question. The weather doesn’t give us a chance — the wind from N. to N.W. and -40 degrees. temp. to-day.
Wednesday, March 21. Got within 11 miles of dépôt Monday night ; had to lay up all yesterday in severe blizzard. To-day forlorn hope, Wilson and Bowers going to dépôt for fuel.
22 and 23. Blizzard bad as ever — Wilson and Bowers unable to start — to-morrow last chance — no fuel and only one or two of food left — must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural — we shall march for the dépôt with or without our effects and die in our tracks.
Thursday, March 29. Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our dépôt 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.


Do you really have to throw up to be a researcher?

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.

— Dante Alighieri

I recently listened to a talk about somebody’s experience as a computer science researcher. The argument was that research is ultra-competitive, because you fight against people that are smarter than you and work harder than you (think nights and weekends) for very few available positions. Therefore, you have to consider yourself as a professional athlete, i.e. choosing a lifestyle that serves your only purpose in life: succeeding. Also, professional athletes throw up when they train really hard but then they train even harder. So much for elegance.

Needless to say, this vision of life is disgusting from every point of view. Ok, in academic research the hours are long and the pay is low, but what about the joys one could find in science? There was nothing about the beauty of a proof, the elegance of a piece of code or the fun of technology. Apparently there is nothing more to life than getting a better position, and to me this is about as un-inspirational as it gets.

Obfuscation Patterns in Academic Papers

These techniques seem to work, since I stumble quite frequently upon them in papers accepted at important venues:

  • misleading claim — come up with your own definition of a widely accepted term, preferably in a way inconsistent with the intuition and the general understanding of the term. Then claim spectacular results that happen to be true only with respect to your definition.
  • marketing pitch — use data irrelevant to the scientific discussion. Bonus: cite a dubious, hard-to-verify source with a non-existent methodology. Ex: “Problem X costs more than Y gazillion $$$ per year (hence our work is of epic importance)”.
  • over-sophistication —  use overly sophisticated terms for techniques or ideas that would otherwise be simple to understand (especially if it makes them look better). Ex: “heuristics” [1] sounds a lot better than “hack”.
  • no limitations — there are no limitations to your work, only things that are either out-of-scope or left for future work.
  • outsourcing problems — outsource large portions of the hard problems in your area by “leveraging” (see over-sophistication) existing work from a different domain with a complex literature, just to make sure that nobody can grasp all the dependencies of your paper.
  • biased evaluation — perform experimental evaluation designed to make others look bad. Even better if the evaluation is not reproducible, because you fail to disclose your source code, detailed algorithm or input set.

[1] heuristics (noun — hyu’-ris-tik): algorithm that does not work.

Headin’ Out Californee Way

Well, I have not been very active on this blog lately. Since my last post I got married, defended my PhD (in front of a superlatively awesome committee, really) and left the snowy plains of Lorraine for California, among other things. I started my new job as a research staff member in Dawn Song‘s group in Berkeley, so I will probably keep complaining about malware, vulnerabilities, the price of housing and pretty much everything else on this blog.

Also, I might actually start training to become a cage fighter and learn emacs — not sure which one is less painful.