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As of today, I am again an employee of the University of California, this time as senior scientist at the Simons Institute, as well as professor of EECS.

As anybody who has spent time there can confirm, the administrative staff of the Simons Institute is exceptionally good and proactive. Not only they take care of the things you ask them, but they take care of the things that you did not know you should have asked them. In fact at Berkeley the quality of the administration tracks pretty well the level at which it is taking place. At the level of departments and of smaller units, everything usually works pretty well, and then things get worse as you go up.

Which brings me to the office of the Chancellor, which runs U.C. Berkeley, and from which I received my official job offer. As you can see, that office cannot even get right, on its own letterhead, the name of the university that it runs:

Also, my address was spelled wrong, and the letter offered me the wrong position. I can’t believe they managed to put on the correct postage stamp. I was then instructed by the EECS department chair to respond by saying “I accept your offer of [correct terms],” which sounded passive-aggressive, but that’s what I did.

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The great earthquake of 1906 struck San Francisco on April 18, around 5 in the morning. While the earthquake already caused a lot of damage, it was the subsequent fire that ravaged the city: the earthquake had broken the water pipes, and so it was impossible to fight the fire because the hydrants were not working. Except for the hydrant at Church and 20th, which saved my house and a good part of the mission. The hydrant is painted golden, and once a year, on the anniversary of the earthquake, the fire department repaints it and leaves a token of appreciation. (They actually do it at 5 in the morning.)

By the way, there are two faults that can cause earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area. One is (our stretch of) the San Andreas fault, which runs close to the ocean, and which caused the 1906 quake and the 1989 one, and which may not be an imminent risk given the energy released in 1989. The other is the Hayward fault, which runs near Berkeley. The Hayward fault had big earthquakes in 1315, 1470, 1630, 1725, and 1868, that is about every 100-140 years, with the last one being 146 years ago…

tiananmen

25 years ago on April 15, Hu Yaobang died. The day before his funeral, about 100,000 people marched to Tiananmen square, an event that led to the occupation of the square, and which culminated in what in mainland China used to be referred to as the “June 4 events,” and now as the “I don’t know what you are talking about” events.

Also, something happened, according to tradition, 1981 years ago.

The Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at Berkeley has started operations a couple of months ago, it has been off to a great start. This semester there is a program on applications of real analysis to computer science, in which I am involved, and one on “big data,” whose workshops have been having such high attendance that they had to be organized offsite.

The institute itself is housed in a beautiful circular three-story building, half of whose second floor is an open space with sofas, whiteboards, tall ceilings, big windows, and exposed pipes on the ceiling, for an added loft-like look. If it had a ball pit, a foosball table, and free sushi it would look like the offices of a startup.

Next year, there will be programs on spectral graph theory, on applications of algebraic geometry, and on information theory.

Junior people (senior graduate students, postdocs, and junior assistant professors who have received their PhD no longer than six years ago) can participate in the program of the institute as “fellows.” Information on the fellowships is at simons.berkeley.edu/fellows2014; the deadline to apply is December 15.

The theoretical computer science traveling circus returns to the San Francisco Bay Area: FOCS 2013 will be in Berkeley in about 3 weeks. The early registration deadline is this Friday, October 4.

The week before FOCS, the Simons Institute will have a workshop on parallel and distributed algorithms for learning and optimization, as part of its program on big data.

The conference will be held in the same hotel in which FOCS 2006 was held, in the Berkeley marina. It is not a bad idea to rent a car, which will make it easier to go to downtown Berkeley and to San Francisco for dinner. You will get to drive on the new and improved Eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which is totally safe, even if the bolts are defective and will need to be replaced, or so we are being told.

There is plenty to do around San Francisco, and this list of links maintained by the Simons institute is very helpful. A couple of suggestions specific to the weekend of the 26th: open studios will run in the Mission/Castro/Noe Valley area, and there are good coffee, food and drink options in the area after seeing the art. On Friday evening, the De Young museum is open until 9pm, and it has a full bar and live music in the lobby; downstairs there is a temporary exhibition of Bulgari jewels. The De Young was designed by Herzog and de Meuron, who designed the Tate Modern in London and the National Stadium in Beijing; it is one of the few beautiful modern buildings in San Francisco. On the 27th, there is a pre-Halloween costume 5k run in Golden Gate park. Also on the 27th, James Franco will be at the Castro theater to talk about his new book and about how awesome he is.

[Leaving the best for last, here is Ashwin Nayak’s post. Unlike the other posts in this series, Ashwin does not just talk about events, but he also gives us a view of his inner life at several critical times. What can I say to introduce such a beautiful essay? I got this: congratulations Ashwin! — L.T.]

(Some names have been changed to protect privacy. Some events have been presented out of chronological order, to maintain continuity in the narrative. The unnamed friends in Waterloo are Kimia, Andrew, Anna-Marie, and Carl. I would like to thank them, Joe, Luca, and especially Harry for their feedback on a draft of this blog post. Harry offered meticulous comments, setting aside a myriad commitments. Most of all, I would like to thank my sisters and my parents for graciously agreeing to being included in this story.

For those not in theoretical computer science, FOCS is one of the flagship conferences on this subject. Luca is a professor of computer science at Stanford University, and Irit at Weizmann Institute of Science.

A prelude: I was born into a middle-class family from the South-West coast of India. I am the youngest of three siblings, and grew up in cities all over the country. My father served as an officer in the Indian army, and my mother taught in middle school until she switched to maintaining the household full-time. I went to IIT Kanpur for my undergraduate studies when I was 17. At 21, I moved half-way across the world to Berkeley, CA, for graduate studies. In 2002, after a few years of post-doctoral work in the US, I moved to Waterloo, ON, to take up a university faculty position.)

We were walking through art galleries in San Francisco when Luca brought up the Turing centenary events that were taking place around the world. None of the events celebrating his work referred to Turing’s homosexuality. Luca wondered whether the celebrations would be complete without revisiting this aspect of his life. As a response, he was thinking of having a series of guest blog posts by contemporary gay and lesbian computer scientists about their experiences as gay professionals. How would they compare with those in Turing’s times?

I wonder how much of my attention was on the art in the next few galleries. Would I write a post? What would I write? For me, sexuality is so deeply personal a matter that I’ve talked about it only with a handful of people. Why would I write about it publicly? Something Luca had said stuck in my mind: “The post could even be anonymous. That would be a statement in itself.” It took me back to my first relationship: I dated Mark for over three years and no one other than his friends knew. Times when I was on the verge of telling a friend about my relationships flashed by. I remembered the time I discussed with my immediate family why I would not get married (at least not the way they imagined). Times when students recognized me at events for gays and lesbians resurfaced, as did conversations with friends and colleagues grappling with openness. I would write a post, I told Luca.

That night, I got little sleep. Memories that I thought had slipped into oblivion loomed large. Read the rest of this entry »

It is late Spring in 2000, and I am to have lunch in New York with Ran Canetti and Ronitt Rubinfeld. Ronitt is already there, and Ran arrives a bit late and asks what we are talking about. “I told Ronitt that I am gay” I say. “Oh…” says Ran “Congratulations!

Read the rest of this entry »

Faculty and students at UC Davis, and in a lot of other places, are outraged at the campus police who pepper-sprayed a group of students who were peacefully sitting down.

In their official response, the campus police said that the police officer in question felt “encircled and threatened” by the students, which reminds me of a classic South Park episode.

The context at UC Davis was that Chancellor Katehi had allowed “Occupy UC Davis” students to camp overnight on campus (which is ordinarily forbidden) for one night, but then sent them a message the following day that they were to disband, and she sent the police to enforce the decision. At Berkeley, Chancellor Birgeneau had similarly sent the police to disband an occupation, resulting in beat poets.

I can’t understand the rationale for these decisions. I don’t say “I don’t understand” as a passive-aggressive way of meaning “I disagree;” I genuinely don’t get what is going on. Chancellors are smart people, former professors, who are politically savvy and who care very much about students, or at least care very much about their relationship with the students. What could be so wrong with some students camping on campus that makes it, on balance, a rational decision to disband those camps with violence? Is it the Regents who are strongly against occupations? Is there a worry that an occupation would be unpopular with state officials, at a time when the California state budget has again a multi-billion shortfall that will require further budget cuts?

Edited to add: Another interesting question is why the police uses violence against peaceful protesters. After all, high-ranking police officials are themselves smart and politically savvy people, and such strategies are bad PR but also bad policing. Next time the campus police is called to diffuse a tense situation on campus, their presence will actually add to the tension. This interesting article by Alexis Madrigal (thanks to Sanjay Hukku for directing me to it) traces a change of police strategies to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

On Thursday, May 5th, David Karger will come to Stanford to give the second Motwani Lecture in theoretical computer science. As for the inaugural lecture there will be a reception in the Gates building and then the lecture will be at 4:15pm, this time in the Allen building. Recall that parking is free after 4pm.

Then you can go wild with Cinco de Mayo parties in San Francisco, recover from the hangover on Friday, and then head to Berkeley where, during the weekend, there will be the second conference on computation as a lens for the sciences. The speakers will include freshly Turing-awarded Leslie Valient. The event promises to be even better than the famously successful first conference in 2002.

FCRC will bring STOC and the Complexity Conference to San Jose on June 4-11. San Jose is the third largest city in California. Which are the top two?

During the next academic year, there will be a special year on Theory of Computing at Stanford, sponsored by the Computer Science department. There will be workshops, long- and short-term visitors and other stuff going on, about which more later.

The first confirmed event will be a workshop on going beyond worst-case analysis, organized by Tim Roughgarden. Confirmed plenary speakers are Avrim Blum, Bernard Chazelle, Uri Feige, Richard Karp, Michael Mitzenmacher, Dan Spielman, and Shang-Hua Teng.

The workshop will be on September 19-21.

Last week, at BATS, a colleague from a research lab was asking me what exactly is going on with the budget of the University of California. The conversation went like this:

“How much does the state contribute to the UC Budget?”

“About a third”

“And how much has the state contribution decreased this year”

“About 20%”

“So that’s about 6% of the total budget. How come they need to cut salaries by 8% and increase tuition by 32% in order to recover from a 6% budget cut?”

How come, indeed? Over the weekend I have tried to make sense of this question, but unfortunately it is very difficult to make sense of the UC budget, not to mention that the numbers in the 2008-09 budget document from the office of the president are quite different from the number in the 2008-09 audit.

Here is, however, what I have understood so far:
Read the rest of this entry »

On Thursday, the Regents of the University of California met at UCLA and voted to increase student fees (tuition) by about 32%. There will be a 15% increase this Spring, and another 15% increase in Fall 2010.

Friday, while the theoreticians where at the Bay Area Theory Symposium, was a day of protest on campus, which showed the best and the worst of Berkeley.

Protesters went around campus buildings pulling fire alarms (bad), resulting in my colleague David Tse teaching probability and combinatorics outside in the rain (very good — or as one of the youtube commenters put it, “epic WIN”):

A group of about 40 students tried to occupy some rooms of Wheeler hall, the English department building, and up to 2,000 students showed up outside the building on a cold (by California standards) and rainy day (very good).

A few days of occupation at Wheeler would have probably received ample news coverage and would have publicized the fundamental fact of the present situation: that the University of California, and U.C. Berkeley in particular, will lose its character of public university if the funding crisis persists, and that the budget cuts are not free money for the tax-payers; they will have real negative consequences of hundreds of thousands of middle-class families.

Yet, the administration (very bad) instead of supporting the students sent the campus police first, and then police in riot gear from the Berkeley police department and the Alameda county’s Sheriff’s force (and possibly Oakland police, whose presence is disputed) to arrest the would-be occupiers and beat up the crowd outside Wheeler.

It’s anybody’s guess what the Chancellor might have been thinking.

a

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