Friday, October 2, 2009

Follow-up

My previous blog post generated a record number of comments (74 as I write this). Of course, this is not necessarily something to write home about, but I am proud that we might have passed the threshold of 5 intelligent comments to a post.

I pulled away from it due to some travel (which was a good idea anyway), so let me get back with some follow-up observations.

1. Michael Mitzenmacher discussed the post, and the comments there are quite interesting (or depressing, depending on your point of view). I have always said that TCS is headed for bad trouble given how we educate the current generation of students. We will end up with a batch of researchers who have never heard of 90% of the problems at the intersection of TCS and the rest of CS, who successfully turn our discipline into philosophy while day dreaming about turning it into pure mathematics.

As you may see among the comments, there are people who have actually never heard of those problems, yet are fully confident in their comprehensive understanding. When faced with commentators who actually like the problems, there are only two logical conclusions open to them: these guys are either insane, or Mihai himself (two possibilities that are not mutually exclusive, of course).

Now, one cannot take conclusions based on blog discussions too seriously. But I will volunteer anecdotal evidence from a talk at Weizmann: when I asked who knew what a "Voronoi diagram" was, a few sporadic hands came up. (Go try this at home!) The problem: Weizmann is an excellent school, educating many of our future colleagues.


2. Some people asked whether I would have gone to UCSD, had they made me an offer first. This is impossible to tell. I was certainly considering it wholeheartedly, but I didn't even have the answers from all places at the time, so I cannot know how my opinion would have evolved.

Many commentators seem to have missed that the post was about psychology, not logic. I did not explain how (1) UCSD made an offer to Costis implied (2) I rejected UCSD; I explained my perception of (1). Indeed, you are missing some facts that contributed to "(1) implies (2)," at least some of which are not appropriate for blogs --- even by my unorthodox standard.


3. Another thing that I did not comment on (except inside some people's minds) was the work of Costis. If you want to hear his work being put down, you really don't need me; tune in to the appropriate non-blog channels and I can guarantee you won't be disappointed. (This is to be expected for any person who achieved some degree of notoriety at early age, and perhaps got more hype than he had bargained for.)

In fact, my opinion is quite the opposite: I find Costis to be a very deep thinker, both technically and meta-technically. We repeatedly went for beers and I can report no significant disagreements were found, in spite of liberal comments during said encounters :). For example, due to my algorithmic sensibilities, it is quite clear that I consider the complexity of computing Nash to be very important (it is a concrete, central, and structurally-interesting algorithmic question).


4. Many negative comments were knee-jerk reactions, fully reflecting people's frustrations and insecurities. In the US culture, it would be customary to apologize for insulting people's sensibilities (I never figured out whether such apologies are interpreted as sincere, or they are merely correct protocol). Of course, things are rather different in my own culture, and it has never been my priority to tread lightly. So let me offer the typical Romanian advice in such circumstances: "Don't worry; life may be hard, but it passes quickly."


5. Some more commentators found it hard to accept my comments given "my position" (whatever they interpreted my position to be). The most constructive of them told me to look at Hamming's well-known speech so that I may learn "how it is possible to get the considerable benefits of egotism without needlessly pissing people off."

I find this particularly funny, since I once learned the position of a great information theorist, a contemporary of Hamming. It was roughly "Eh, Hamming... He's just arrogant, he never had any really good results."

This reminds me of something that a friend told me a long time ago: "the most crucial ingredient in the greatest paintings is the light bulb in the room; even the work the best painters is quite dull in a dark room."

If you find that your point of view doesn't allow you to see what is being said, perhaps you can try another one temporarily.


5. Finally, let me respond to somebody who seems to write politely and in good faith:
I was on a hiring committee in one of these schools that decided not to interview you. Although I hesitated to post this comment, I think what I have to say will be helpful to your career.
Thank you for the comment; I appreciate the difficulty in writing on such a topic.
The reason we decided against further considering your case was because of your reputation as a very difficult, arrogant, and opinionated person. We even read your blog and found many posts that confirmed this reputation.
I am aware that suggestions of this form were made. Of course, I may point out the significant pitfalls in searching for evidence (in a blog, of all places) for something that you are already biased to believe. I may also point out that the places that actually know me (the labs were I did internships) both made me offers, and a notable fraction of the universities where I interviewed were also interested in hiring me. So the suggestions may be a bit exaggerated, or perhaps there is a high variance in how people perceive me. If for some reason your university finds itself interested in my case, I would consider a conversation at a conference or an invitation for a talk as more reliable courses of action.
At least in our university, a post like this one significantly hurts your chances of getting a job. We don't want to hire a person who writes a blog post insulting their departmental colleagues every time they're not nominated for a fellowship or an award. "I can't believe my department decided to nominate X for a Sloan Fellowship when my research is so much deeper than X's."
If your department has no faculty engaging in the common activity of "bitching and moaning," I am not sure whether I should envy you for your luck, or worry about the hyper-formal environment that you may have in place. It is safe to say that I am not good at keeping rank formation; but it is also fair to say that I choose the battles where I pull out of the formation very selectively.
You're smart, but there are *many* (equally) smart (or smarter) people who are also publicly nice.
It is my hope that I will prove you wrong on this statement.

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

In the comments, you stated several times that your own work was -significantly- better than Vinod's or Costis' (you said that you understood that there was some randomness in offers and awards among comparable works, but that you were offended that your own work would even be considered in the same rough equivalence class).

You don't think this is a bit of a put down? Or is your own work so good that nobody (even faculty at MIT!) should be offended by the statement that their work is significantly worse than yours?

Anonymous said...

Having taken a look at all of the comments on the previous post, I think people are really jealous of you. I guess that is what success tastes like.

What you did (with the last post) is of course not socially acceptable, but I like your direct style and I think the world would be a better place if everyone just said what they mean.

With regards to the "anonymous" poster who says he was a board which decided not to interview you, I have mixed feelings about his authenticity. I'm not convinced a jury would make such a reasoning. Anyway, judging people (just) by their blog (and reputation) is very stupid. The least you do in such a case is interview them...

I do not work in the same research area as you do, so this is not an expert opinion, but for what it's worth I feel that your research is deeper and more solid than your two "competitors". Do you think the advisors' names was important in the two decisions?

Finally, or those who doubt Mihai's talent in teaching, you are just plain wrong. I have had one course (i.e. ~1-2h) given by Mihai and I was impressed by how clear and concise his explanations were. He made it really easy to understand stuff which looks really complicated when you read about it.

Anonymous said...

Mihai,

Stand your ground, you don't have to go back and apologize. Your honesty is refreshing. You are solving fundamental problems, obviously this is more important than inventing new targets that no one has considered before, proclaiming them important, and then solving them. Those of us that aren't jealous of you look up to you.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mihai,

This is such a lovely post, and just in time. To tell you the truth, I was kind of waiting for such a post. I am really very glad with your response, its very logical and in part helps understand your previous post.

Also, there is one thing that I really want to understand and haven't found a satisfying answer to. Of course, you don't have to explain it but I won't know if you'd like to answer it unless I ask, right?

Ok so here is what I haven't yet understood, and it is your response to UCSD. Of course, you said you wanted to be funny, but to me (although it was funny), it came across as "you did not like being judged second by UCSD and hence you sort of got back at them". Like, "who are you to judge me second, I am not so keen in joining your university either!".

This is actually the thing I did not like in your post. I am hoping you'd care to explain, of course you don't have to. Let me add that I am not trying to judge whether the response was "right" or "wrong" (for all I know, I might have reacted the same way if I were even half as good as you), I am just trying to know what were you thinking. Hope you'll care to explain.

(I wanted to make this post with my real name, but for some reason I want to remain anonymous. I don't why...)

Anonymous said...

Anon1: I don't think Mihai ever publicly said that his research was significantly better than Costis (he said that only wrt Vinod).

Given that, indeed its unclear to me why he was offended at UCSD. Is it just because they were not able to make two offer as originally planned? Or was it because they made the first offer to Costis?

Anonymous said...

Mihai you are a very very brave guy. I respect you for this.
However I just think that sometimes you should be a little polite. I mean, I am TAing a class and if some stupid student asks from me a really stupid question then I donot abuse him, but answer his question in a kind way.
It is not bad to be arrogant, but it is very very good to be polite.
Sorry for the anonymous post.
Your fan,
qwerty

Anonymous said...

Mihai, it is not bad to be ambitious. Be ambitious and be ready to change the world. And believe in yourself. This is what Hamming was saying.

But there is no need to bring others down while doing so. Just try to surpass other people's achievements.

If you believe that you have surpassed them but you still feel the need to bring them down, because others cannot see that you are better, well just try harder!

It is not the first time that you write bad things for other, accomplished scientists. In an earlier post, you hinted that Knuth was not good enough. Now you "praise" (?) Costis but you also write "if you want to hear his work being put down, you really don't need me; tune in to the appropriate non-blog channels and I can guarantee you won't be disappointed." For Vinod you did it in your earlier post. It may be the first thought in your mind, but not the wisest thing to say, or even a correct thing to say.

This is the environment that you want to live in? A place where there is a constant need to undermine each other?

Only small people attribute the other people's successes to luck/politics and their own to their abilities. Do not be one of them.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mihai,
You gave the best job talk I've seen in my time at the University of Texas at Austin. I wish the faculty would have offered you a job, but they can't seem to agree on much other than the fact that the department's stature is sinking rapidly. Can you offer any advice on how to save UT?

Anonymous said...

I love your last sentence. Really inspiring.

Mihai said...

With regards to the "anonymous" poster who says he was a board which decided not to interview you, I have mixed feelings about his authenticity.

I think the comment is genuine. I have friends on these committees, and many of them told me about opinions of this sort. So yes, these committees do read blogs :)

Ok so here is what I haven't yet understood, and it is your response to UCSD. It came across as "you did not like being judged second by UCSD and hence you sort of got back at them".

As I said, there are details that I cannot describe on a blog. Ask me over a beer some time.

Now you "praise" (?) Costis but you also write [...]

Are you telling a scientist that relating some empirical observation is not polite? :)

Only small people attribute the other people's successes to luck/politics and their own to their abilities. Do not be one of them.

While you may be happy to believe that, any cursory reading of a book on the history of science may paint a more nuanced picture.

Can you offer any advice on how to save UT?

I am flattered that you may ask me... My experience at steering departments is quite limited :)

Seriously, the hard part is often above the TCS level. If you have the ability to hire 3 top theorists in 3 consecutive years, you will certainly end up with one of the strongest departments around (especially since you build a lot of excitement over your department). But university politics makes this phenomenally hard.

With more limited resources, I would guess the best strategy is aggressive student recruiting. There are many students that do not get into MIT or Berkeley for the wrong reasons. If UT applies some non-standard filter and gets a few brilliant students that are falling through the cracks, it will also be wildly successful.

Anonymous said...

when I asked who knew what a "Voronoi diagram" was, a few sporadic hands came up. (Go try this at home!) The problem: Weizmann is an excellent school, educating many of our future colleagues.


The definition of a Voronoi diagram and its basic properties are all rather trivial. There is no real added advantage of knowing them before-hand since any grad student or researcher can understand its definition in less than two minutes. Details about complexity and algorithms for computing it might take a little longer, but a mathematically sophisticated person can more-or-less understand everything there is about them in CS literature in a day perhaps.

Compare that to say notions from real analysis or probability theory or even combinatorial theory -- all of which would take more than a year to understand at the level needed for them to be useful in research. eg. the notion of Hardy-Littlewood maximal functions (found in the beginning of grad level real analysis textbooks).

There aren't really anything in "core TCS" that needs to be taught at the graduate level. If one has sufficient
mathematical maturity these stuff are all rather trivial. If one does not have the maturity, then they look ad hoc and impossible to master. Thus, it is much better if one opts towards attaining mathematical maturity first before one starts working in TCS.

Mihai said...

The definition of a Voronoi diagram and its basic properties are all rather trivial.

The definition of the Reimann hypothesis can be grasped in less than a day. Now go solve it!

If you have a free weekend during this process, can use use Saturday to learn about an important problem in TCS and Sunday to solve it?

In my experience, mathematicians are uniquely ineffective at solving TCS problems, except problems that are created by other math-leaning people and have limited meaning in TCS.

Anonymous said...

Please solve this problem http://maven.smith.edu/~orourke/TOPP/P63.html#Problem.63 for us--unworthy TCS folks.

D. Eppstein said...

The definition of a Voronoi diagram and its basic properties are all rather trivial. There is no real added advantage of knowing them before-hand

The definition is simple, but the important results concerning it (such as, e.g., the fact that it has worst-case complexity O(n^ceiling(d/2)) for any Euclidean space of fixed dimension d, or that it can be constructed in time O(n log n), or that it together with point location data structures can be used to provide an optimal solution to the planar post office problem) are not so trivial.

More to the point, though, if you don't already know about Voronoi diagrams, you won't know that they're the perfect tool you need to solve your own pet problem, and no amount of looking-up skills will save you.

Anonymous said...

The definition of the Reimann hypothesis can be grasped in less than a day. Now go solve it!


This is a completely misleading analogy. The ramifications as well as the difficulties of the Riemann hypothesis is too varied to merit a comparison. Having listened to innumerable talks in which TCS speakers talk interminably about things like duality between Voronoi diagrams and Delaunay triangulations (or some such fact deserving a mention but not much more), I must say that TCS people are really fond of extolling trivialities at the expense of the real stuff. And there are real difficult problems in that area -- understanding the level sets of line arrangements, for instance, but there are many others.

n my experience, mathematicians are uniquely ineffective at solving TCS problems, except problems that are created by other math-leaning people and have limited meaning in TCS.


Of course, you can define your version of TCS and its important problems to anything you want. Unfortunately, the really important problems that makes TCS important (i.e. around P vs NP) are by and large unsolved -- and it seems to me that only people who have the desire to make progress on these problems are mostly in math. Might be this has to do with the funding as well as tenure structure in TCS which discourages taking such risks. Might as well dabble with game theory than think about P vs NP. On this last point I think you will probably agree with me.

Mihai said...

Unfortunately, the really important problems that makes TCS important (i.e. around P vs NP) are by and large unsolved

I will agree to the "mostly unsolved" part, but not all the important problems are around P vs NP. (If you know as little about Computer Science as you profess, perhaps you should leave this to the people in the field.)

Might as well dabble with game theory than think about P vs NP. On this last point I think you will probably agree with me.

Of course, our community wastes a lot of time, which something I've always said.

But there is also a significant fraction that is not doing trivialities. Perhaps you went to the wrong talks.

And if indeed most of the stuff here were trivialities, I would invite you to do a bit of non-trivial stuff, get tenure in CS, and then pursue any problem you care about.

V said...

Mihai, I support you. You are a brave guy.
I just have one question for you, and it is upto you to answer.
"Do you think that a department should hire a TCS person over lets say AI person or hardcore systems person"?
What is think is that even though TCS guys are >>>>> smarter than systems people, departments hire them because they bring money.
So, I think (and I am sure) that even though you were better or as good as Costis, his research area had more funding than that of yours.

V said...

Sorry for so many mistakes in the previous post. I typed it in a hurry :)

Mihai said...

I would not really want to be in a department without systems people. (I have no opinion about AI, since I know close to zero about the field, but I'm sure they're also useful :)

I normally have a great time with the system folks, and they have many problems that I like. It's only due to unfortunate lack of time that I never did any serious systems work.

Sure, their work may be less "mathematically deep," but they solve very nice problems. My main goal is to solve problem that seem interesting; it doesn't really matter whether the solution is "mathematically brilliant"or not :)

rgrig said...

You gave the best job talk I've seen in my time at the University of Texas at Austin.

I saw a (non-public) recording of such a talk and I enjoyed it. So, please, try to record and put online at least some of the talks you will give :)

rgrig said...

The ramifications as well as the difficulties of the Riemann hypothesis is too varied to merit a comparison.

That's a difference in taste in my opinion. To see how sharply others disagree with your position you might want to take a look at opinion 57. Telling others that their field is "trivial" is not a particularly constructive observation. It's perhaps better to try to understand each other.

But then again, that would make this blog less fun, for some wicked definition of fun. :)

David said...

As a simple side note:

Of course, our community wastes a lot of time, which something I've always said.

Most communities waste a ton of time [and money], but their participation rate is high. So, no one person can be blamed for it.

The TCS community [to my outside eyes] is pretty small, so you can call people [out|frauds] by name.

Anonymous said...

Telling others that their field is "trivial" is not a particularly constructive observation.


I did not say that TCS is "trivial" -- but rather that the field has not attained sufficient depth to have serious grad courses in. This does not mean that there are no interesting or very difficult problems originating in TCS.

The amount of literature and research directions developed towards solving say the Riemann hypothesis is stupendous. Just the books written on the subject will probbaly fill several shelves -- not to mention the time to digest even a tiny fraction of it. In contrast, the amount of literarure in TCS is rather small. This is not unusual for a young discipline. For instance, combinatorics was in such as state a few decades ago before people such as Lovasz, Stanley etc. helped to provide structure to the subject by writing influential books. These books now serve as textbooks for grad courses in the subject. Might be in a few decades from TCS will also evolve into such a mature discipline. But it is not there yet for sure.

rgrig said...

rgrig: Telling others that their field is "trivial" is not a particularly constructive observation.

AC: I did not say that TCS is "trivial" -- but rather that the field has not attained sufficient depth to have serious grad courses in.

Right. That sounds a lot more constructive. Thanks for clarifying.

Mihai said...

but rather that the field has not attained sufficient depth to have serious grad courses in.

I disagree. If I want to give a good overview of the main upper and lower bounds in data structures (which is probably less than 1/4 of the whole TCS), it will easily take me 2 semester courses. This is just about giving a flavor of the main topics (but probably not getting to the state of the art in many, but giving pointers to current stuff).

I won't comment on the attempts to prove Riemann, since I'm not too familiar with the area. But since you bring up combinatorics, I think most people would say the TCS surpassed it a while back, both in depth and breadth.

Anonymous said...

But since you bring up combinatorics, I think most people would say the TCS surpassed it a while back, both in depth and breadth.


This is simply not true. There is far more people working in combinatorics than the whole of TCS (I would venture to guess more that 10 times larger). Moreover, combinatorics is at the heart of many other areas such as algebraic geometry (Schubert calculus), representation theory (Schur functions, theory of symmetric functions),
statistical physics (dimers, tilings of Eulidean spaces), mathematical physics (Konsevitch's combinatorial formula for counting rational curves), discrete geometry (arrangements, Coxeter groups),
Lie groups (theory of buildings) and not to exclude the little part of combinatorics that TCS people are fond of, namely Erdos style extremal combinatorics. I would guess that even this last part is probably bigger and deeper than most of TCS.

Very few people outside a tiny community inside TCS are interested in upper and lower bounds for data structure -- however arcane and difficult it might be. In fact, I would think 90% of TCS people shudder at the phrase "data structure". However, somewhat deep knowledge of combinatorics is essential for a large group of researchers in math (including TCS), physics, statistics, and even biology (phylogenetic trees).

Anonymous said...

In fact, I would think 90% of TCS people shudder at the phrase "data structure".

You've been hanging around the wrong crowd. Go through the list of theoreticians at, say, MIT and many of them have published plenty and even written books about data structures.

Anonymous said...

Your Machiavellian scheme stands exposed:

you wanted to make UCSD theory look so bad that no one would accept their offers for another 10 years and they would be forced to make you an offer when you are ready to move to a university.

Elementary my dear Watson!!

Anonymous said...

a quote by Muhammad Ali: "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up."

BC said...

a quote by Muhammad Ali: "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up."

Is that Costis or Vinod? ;)

Anonymous said...

Mihai,your posting was very candid. Unlike many others who bitch in private and put on a civilized face in public, you are not a hypocrite. As far as arrogance is concerned, 95% of TCS folks are **arrogant**. May be 94% of them temper their arrogance in self interest. But in the core they are and will remain arrogant. There are 100's of stories of grad students discontinuing PhD due to the arrogance and inhuman behavior of their advisers! Ask your MIT professors who among them was responsible for RinaP's exit from the PhD program. It is a shame that the same guys consider not suitable for a faculty position.

Anonymous said...

"Ask your MIT professors who among them was responsible for RinaP's exit from the PhD program."

Let's see ... Judging by RinaP's coauthors, was it David Karger?

johnny said...

ping

am said...

"But since you bring up combinatorics, I think most people would say the TCS surpassed it a while back, both in depth and breadth."

I have seen no one else who exhibit their ignorance so blatantly. Kudos, Mihai. Great entertainment.

Anonymous said...

A simple Google Scholar search of your name and Costis' tells us pretty clearly whose work had more impact so far. Sure, citations are not the only criteria, but are a pretty important one.