Blog Author: Eleanor Rieffel

What made you (continue to) want to write a book?


Many people have asked me why I decided to write a book. A better questions is: “When you realized that writing the book was going to be orders of magnitude harder and take much longer than you thought it would, what made you decide to continue writing the book?”

My co-author, Wolfgang Polak, and I recently received a book review of the sort that is the dream of every author. A dream review is, of course, positive. But more importantly, it praises the aspects of the book that were most important to the author – the reasons the author kept going after other books on the subject came out and the author had a more reasonable (but still too optimistic) estimate of the vast amount of  effort it would take to finish it. (The review appeared in Computing Reviews, but is behind a paywall. Excerpts appear on the book’s Amazon and MIT press web pages.)

In our case,  one of the things that kept us going Continue Reading

A Gentle Introduction

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Quantum Computing: A Gentle Introduction by Eleanor Rieffel and Wolfgang PolakOur book, Quantum Computing: A Gentle Introduction, has been out for a little over a month. So far, it has received as much attention from weaving blogs as science blogs, due to the card-woven bands on the cover.

MIT press takes pride in their cover designs, but warns authors that  “schedules rarely allow for individual consultation between designers and authors.” They do, however, ask authors to fill out a detailed questionnaire that includes questions asking for the authors’ thoughts with respect to a cover. It was the third question “What would you like the viewer to think or feel when they see the cover?” that prompted me to think that a fabric with abstract, colorful designs would suggest a “gentle” introduction to an abstract and colorful subject. Continue Reading

Want to help make computer science history?

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Scott Aaronson has been asked by MIT to put together a list of the top 150 events in computer science history as part of the celebration of MIT’s 150th anniversary. You can vote on the potential entries here (you will need to register by providing a login name, password, and e-mail address). For more information about the project, see this blog post which includes an early version of the list, and a more recent blog post of his on the subject.

I’ve mentioned some of Scott’s work before, in a post about classical computer science results inspired by quantum information processing, and in a post on an overview of  quantum computing for technology managers I wrote a couple of years ago. His results don’t make it into the top 150 computer science results of all time, but are good candidates for a list of the top 150 results of the last decade.

A magical way to learn computer science

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Former FXPAL intern Jeremy Kubica’s Computational Fairy Tales is a fresh new entry into the blogosphere that introduces a unusual way to learn computer science: read a series of charming fairy tales. Each post contains a few sentences of introduction to a computer science concept followed by a fairy tale illustrating that concept.

I particularly enjoyed Loops and Making Horseshoes which illustrates Continue Reading

Benoît Mandelbrot, 1924-2010

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I am saddened to hear that Benoît Mandelbrot has passed away. His The Fractal Geometry of Nature excited and intrigued me when I was in high school, though I admit that while I, like many others, examined all the pictures, I read only scattered parts of the text. The talk of his I attended as an undergraduate was the first technical talk by a famous mathematician that I understood, essentially, in full.  The popularity of fractals was due to the gorgeous pictures,  and was aided by the simplicity of some of the underlying mathematics, which made it accessible to so many, and to the connection of fractals to so many phenomena. That fractals appeared at all scales in nature, from galaxies, to coastlines, to trees, I knew from looking at his book, but their tie to economics was new to me. He struck me as arrogant, but in an endearing way since his pride in his contributions stemmed from his intense love of the work and his absolute conviction of its importance. He clearly enjoyed his maverick status as someone who worked in a different way than most mathematicians, and on non-standard mathematics. Although he taught us to look for self-similar patterns throughout the universe, we won’t find the like of him any time soon.

A User’s Special Touch


Yesterday Volker Roth came back for a visit and to give us a preview of the talk he will give next week at UIST 2010 on his work with Philipp Schmidt and Benjamin Güldenring on The IR Ring: Authenticating users’ touches on a multi-touch display. The work supports multiple users interacting with the same screen at the same time with different access and control permissions. For example, you may want to show me a document on a multi-touch display, but that does not mean you want me to be able to delete that document. Similarly, I may want to show you a particular e-mail I received, without giving you the ability to access my other e-mail messages, or to send one in my name. Roth et al. implemented hardware and software add-ons for a multi-touch display that restrict certain actions to the user wearing the IR ring emitting the appropriate signal. Users wearing different rings have different access and control privileges. In this way, only you can delete your document, and only I can access my other e-mail messages.

Roth and his coauthors frame their work as preventing “pranksters and miscreants” from carrying out “their schemes of fraud and malice.” To me, the work is most compelling as a means to avoid mistakes and to frustrate human curiosity. Continue Reading

Nudging the world toward better pictures and video

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An excellent article on FXPAL’s NudgeCam application recently appeared in MIT’s Technology Review. NudgeCam encapsulates standard video capture heuristics, such as how to frame a face and good brightness characteristics, in order to provide guidance to users as they are taking video, using image analysis techniques such as face recognition,  as to how to adjust the camera to improve the video capture.

For its size, FXPAL has surprising breadth and variety of expertise. The NudgeCam work resulted from a collaboration between Scott Carter, whose expertise is in mobile and ubiquitous computing,  and John Doherty, our multimedia specialist, who knows all the standard video capture heuristics and many more. John Adcock brought image analysis techniques to the team, and 2009 FXPAL summer intern Stacy Branham contributed her human-computer interaction expertise.

A different application, also developed at FXPAL, supports rephotography in an industrial setting. Rephotography is the art of taking a photograph from the same location and angle as a previous photograph. Continue Reading

Overflow overflow?


Ten days ago,  a theoretical computer science community Q&A site went beta and seems to be generating a fair amount of activity. I’m a big fan of MathOverflow, and am delighted to see a similar site springing up for a different field.

Thirty-nine days ago,  a new mathematics site went beta, which initially puzzled me since the mathematics community already has the highly successful MathOverflow site. The difference appears to be that MathOverflow is specifically for research mathematics whereas the new site aims to be broader, allowing more elementary questions.

Overall, I think a proliferation of such sites is great, but it is also confusing. It isn’t always clear when a question is research level or not. There are questions tagged algebra or topology on the CS theory site that are pure mathematics questions. There’s a question tagged  graph theory that had been posted previously to MathOverflow. I am delighted to see that both and quantum computing already are populated with a few questions, but similar questions in these areas received good answers on MathOverflow. It would be a shame if the proliferation of sites lead to less interaction between fields rather than more. I’ll be curious to see how the usage patterns play out over time.

When to stop searching?

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Frequently, particularly when searching for work related to possibly novel research ideas I or others at FXPAL have had, it is not easy to determine when to stop searching. This dilemma comes up any time anyone is searching for something we are not sure exists.  After doing N searches, and finding nothing, how certain can we be that it isn’t there?

An unusual example of an existence search came up as I was doing background research for my review of N. David Mermin’s book Quantum Computer Science that was recently published in ACM SIGACT News. As part of the review, I wanted to give a sense for the extent that Mermin’s thoughts and writings have influenced scholarly and popular thought on quantum mechanics. I thought I remembered that he was the originator of the “Shut up and calculate” interpretation of quantum mechanics, but I wanted to fact check before putting it in my review. Would this search be a hard or easy one?
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On non-anonymous reviewing

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Some journals ask reviewers not to reveal themselves. A review process in which the reviewers are anonymous, unless they choose not to be, makes sense. But why shouldn’t reviewers be free to reveal themselves if they wish?

Twice, I have received non-anonymous reviews. In both cases, receiving the non-anonymous review was a thrill. Both reviewers were researchers I highly respected, and their positive opinion of my work meant a lot to me. In one case, the reviewer asked the journal editors to forward a signed review. In the other case, the reviewer sent me e-mail directly with the review attached. That review, while positive, had many excellent suggestions for revisions. Receiving the review more than a month prior to receiving the packet of reviews from the journal enabled us to get a head start on revising the paper, which was the reviewer’s stated reason for sending it to us directly.

I do not know why some journals prohibit reviewers from revealing their identities. Continue Reading