Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Look Back on 2019 and on the Decade

Today not only ends the year but also (putting debates aside) the decade.  Before I reflect on this last year, I wanted to also take a look back at this last decade.

I began the previous decade (the 00's) as still a teenager, soon to graduate from high school and ready to set out for college, and I ended it by getting married and with receiving my Ph.D.  That amounted to a lot of personal, academic, and professional change and growth.

This decade (the 10's), I also feel I have a lot to be thankful for and frankly proud of.  In the last ten years, my wife and I had (and have been raising) two wonderful kids; we moved to Atlanta then to Chicago (where we bought a house); I completed two postdoctoral positions (one at Yahoo! Research NY and one at ARC at Georgia Tech); I got a tenure-track faculty job at UIC (and then tenure) and took my first sabbatical (at Northwestern); I obtained some interesting (at least to me!) results with fantastic collaborators and in the process (co-)authored about 30 papers; I mentored 6 amazing Ph.D. students and postdocs; and I incorporated the non-profit AALT and remain very active with it.

It feels strangely self-congratulatory, but I think it's good to reflect on one's life and achievements on occasion, and the end of a decade is not a bad time.  In sum, I consider myself quite fortunate, and I look forward to the adventures and opportunities the next decade will bring!

A photo I took of downtown Chicago, the city I've come to call home this last decade.

Now, on to some 2019 highlights, where I cannot seem but help to delve into some of the latest controversies:
  • A group of us at UIC were awarded an NSF TRIPODS grant to start an Institute on the Foundations of Data Science.  UIC even put out a press release.  (In this coming decade, I expect it will take up quite a bit of my time as its director.)  Our first activity will be an open house on January 17th -- all are welcome to attend, and you can register for the open house here.  Later, UIC, with the involvement of the new institute will host the Midwest Machine Learning Symposium (MMLS) in 2020.  
  • My student Mano Vikash Janardhanan defended a very nice dissertation this year on graph learning, which was the topic of my own Ph.D.  Mano is now doing well as an applied research scientist at Lifion by ADP.  I should also note that my former student Benjamin Fish is currently on the research job market -- he is great and you should hire him if you can.
  • UC Davis Mathematics Department Chair and Professor Abigail Thompson wrote "A word from..." in Notices of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) criticizing the use of diversity statements.  (She later wrote a very nice op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.)  Her message compared how the University of California system evaluates diversity statements to political litmus tests during the Red Scare.  I agree with the concern that diversity statements will mainly serve to filter out conservative applicants and will further discourage diversity of thought, which should be among the central concerns for universities.  I was and remain concerned at the attacks against her, and I was proud to be among the many to sign onto a letter ("letter to the editor," p. 9) in her support.

    Signatories of a different letter ("the math community values a commitment to diversity," p.2) criticized the Notices for publishing her piece -- I found that letter troubling, not only because of its assumptive claim of speaking for "the math community," but also for its apparent position that opposition to diversity statements contradicts AMS's policy supporting diversity.  Not only does Thompson support diversity, but even if she didn't, disagreeing with any given policy does not mean violating that policy per se.  Policies can recommend courses of action or express commitment to certain goals, but policies should not forbid people to disagree with them.  If the AMS does not wish to become a laughingstock (or a Church), it should refrain from declaring infallibility on any of its positions. (If it were against any policy to oppose it, we would not be able to revoke any current policy in the future.  Surely, that's not a reasonable position.)
  • The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) apparently signed on to a letter opposing a proposed policy of making all federally funded research publicly accessible.  This is not an issue I am deeply informed on, but my initial take is that there is no reason for federally funded research not to be open to the public (unless national security or clearance issues are involved).  When we have arXiv, journals simply do not seem to provide enough value to warrant limiting access (consider e.g. "overlay journals").  This seems to be an issue of a professional society protecting its interests (the ACM limits access to some of its publications) over those of its members.
  • I've discovered the Goodreads site and app, which lets me keep track of my reading, rate books, and set reading goals.  I can't recommend it enough.  It's one of the only apps that reminds and motivates me to spend my time well (on reading) instead of wasting it online.  I recommend you try it too, especially if you have reading goals or resolutions for the upcoming year.
  • As many of you know, in 2018 there was a move to rename the Neural Information Processing Systems conference. After much debate and a confusing process, the conference was not renamed, but its acronym was changed from NIPS to NeurIPS going forward. Controversy around this renamingacronyming reignited when Scott Aaronson, on his blog, posted an email by Steven Pinker politely expressing his view that the renaming was a bad idea. I do not want to get into the latest debate, but I want to point out that subsequently, on a widely read twitter thread, Pinker was accused of "sexist behavior" for writing the email, and he and Aaronson were accused of "shutting down marginalized voices" just for stating or publishing an opinion.  Baselessly accusing Pinker of sexism is a bullying tactic that's meant to scare him and others less famous than he is into keeping quiet (which is ironically one of the accusations falsely leveled against him).  Regardless of the side we take in these debates, we should roundly reject the use of such tactics in arguments in the academic community.
  • I am the PC chair of ISAIM 2020, which begins on June 6th of 2020 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We accepted some very nice papers, and we will have several exciting invited talks.  I have been attending this biennial conference since 2014, and it will be the first conference I attend this year.
  • Related to my areas of research, my department is hiring a very well-funded postdoc in data science and a tenure-track faculty member in mathematical computer science. It is not too late to apply for either position, so please consider us! We have a strong theory group that’s continuing to grow.

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