Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 in Review

The best thing about establishing a tradition of blogging at the end of the year is that it compels me to write down some thoughts.  So, here they are, in no particular order:
  • My very talented student Ben Fish graduated this year and is now doing a postdoc at the newly established Microsoft Research Montréal.  In his dissertation, he developed interesting new algorithms for modern data analysis, and I eagerly await the impactful work he'll continue to produce.
  • I am on sabbatical at Northwestern until Fall of 2019.  I'll be teaching a graduate class this Winter quarter and probably another one in Spring.  I've realized I'm probably happiest while teaching one course, so that's the situation I've arranged for myself.  I'm also of course excited to be in a new environment and to interact with Northwestern's fantastic group of faculty and students.
Mudd library: home of Northwestern CS and where I'll be most of next year. (Photo by me.)
  • There has been recent activity connecting logic to machine learning.  A nice paper by my colleagues at UIC relates concepts in model theory and concepts in computational learning theory.  Another interesting paper gives a machine learning problem that's independent of ZFC; I've written a Nature News and Views piece about it, which should appear sometime soon (update on 1/18/19: my paper is here).  In general, I am excited to see where these directions lead.
  • I really enjoy attending the ALT conference because unlike some of the huge machine learning conferences, it is a relatively small and intimate gathering, where it's possible to get to know fellow attendees and actually have time to discuss ideas.  In addition to chairing the local planning as ALT arrives in Chicago for 2019, I've also been leading an effort to build a legal structure around the organization of ALT.  And this November, AALT, the Association for Algorithmic Learning Theory, became incorporated as a nonprofit.  It's been a lot of work, and I'm not yet done, but it's also been very rewarding to help ensure the future of a conference I've become very fond of.  I'm also excited to see ALT improve year after year, while it continues cover a broad array of topics within learning theory.
ALT 2019 will be in Chicago.  (Photo by Allen McGregor.)
  • I continue to worry about illiberal values gaining ground in higher education, where more and more dogmas cannot even be questioned. This trend is increasingly affecting the sciences and even applied mathematics.  The best defense that I see is for what I really hope is the majority of us who do value a diversity of ideas to speak out, and the more who do, the less risky it will be.  Outside higher education, there are also many reasons to worry, but one bright spot is the fairly new Quillette magazine, which has been fearlessly publishing thoughtful articles on controversial topics, including ones concerning academia.
  • In my last year's post, I advocated for conferences to make changes to address problems around the harassment of attendees, and I'm glad to see instances of sexual harassment being taken seriously.  But, I was skeptical of the proposal to rename NIPS.  Nonetheless, after what most everyone would agree was a flawed process, NIPS ended up changing its name branding to what seems to many to be something remarkably awkward.  Time may tell whether this decision was wise.
  • My department is hiring for its MCS group, and theoretical computer science, which has grown substantially at UIC in the last few years, is a priority area.  If you're interested in joining us, consider applying (preferably by 1/14)!
    UIC's math department in winter. (Photo by me.)
To a happy and productive 2019!

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