Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 is Finally Ending

2016 was, to say the least, a tumultuous year, marked by numerous conflicts across the world, the British exit from the E.U., an exhausting U.S. political campaign culminating in the election of The Donald, a sharp ascent of Putin's menacing role in the world, and too many other things to even list.  I mention this to note that I haven't missed any of these events, or their importance, but I'll skip most of these in this year's summary in lieu of some more personal, or at least scientific, happenings.  (I do occasionally tweet some political opinions, and if you want to see those, you should follow me there.)

So, in no particular order, here are some things I do want to note as 2016 comes to a close.
  • It's reassuring to remember that while it may not feel like it, the world continues to become a better place as a whole.  If you don't believe me, take a look at the data.  And even if you do believe me, read this book by Steven Pinker.
  • I have been developing my amateur interest in architectural photography.  Below is a recent photo of mine of UIC's University Hall, looming over its surroundings.  While not particularly pleasing to look at, I think it captures "socialist utopian" ideology of the brutalist architecture on display all over campus.
    University Hall, photo by me
  • It has been 25 years since Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) was developed.  Given the recent political happenings, I'd say it's a pretty good time to start using it for sensitive emails.  I installed Mailvelope, and here is my public key; its fingerprint is AC5E DCA0 76A1 F55A 4819 94A9 2FAC ADDD C766 7CB9.
  • Reports of the Russian government influencing our election highlight once again the importance of good security practices, which are horribly lacking throughout most of our companies and the government.  Until we fix this, we will continue to be at the mercy of foreign adversaries, hackers, and (mis)fortune.
    photo from glitch news
  • This year, I graduated my first Ph.D. student, Jeremy Kun.  Jeremy finished in 5 years, though he only started working with me at the end of his second year.  Before graduating, he had the option to do a postdoc in academia, work at Google, or join a startup, and he decided to go the startup route and is now at 21 Inc.  He wrote an interesting blog post about his journey through grad school that I recommend everyone considering math or cs theory grad school to read. (Full disclosure, I think he makes UIC MCS seem a rather nice place, which I agree with, but it's also in my interest to promote it as such to prospective students.)  I also expect to graduate some more students in 2017.
    Jeremy Kun defending his thesis
  • The Man Who Knew Infinity, a movie about Ramanujan, was released in the U.S. this year.  Even though the movie got some biographical details wrong, and even though I found some parts a bit annoying, the mathematical parts were quite accurate.  In particular, I think this movie, more than any other that I've seen, does a pretty decent job of showing to a general audience what it that mathematicians do all day.
  • Two years ago I predicted that a computer program will be able to beat the best human Go players by the year 2020.  AlphaGo reached this milestone this year, and while this technically met my prediction, the speed at which it arrived hasn't helped allay my fears of A.I. posing an existential risk to humanity.  Those of you who haven't given this issue much thought should watch Sam Harris's TED talk on this topic.  Also, I recommend watching Westworld, which I liked both as a show and for some of the nontrivial philosophy that it presents on this topic.
    computers become better than humans at one more thing, image from quartz
  • This year Elon Musk declared that the odds are a billion to 1 that we are living in a simulation. The argument goes like this: eventually we will become advanced enough to simulate worlds ourselves, and the simulated beings won't know they're being simulated (and perhaps eventually make their own simulations), and the number of simulated worlds will vastly outnumber real ones.  My prior doesn't allow for such odds, and I think there are quite a few hidden and probably false assumptions in his argument, but if he's right, it would reveal that we're fundamentally mathematical beings, and that would at the very least make Max Tegmark happy.

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