June 30, 2003

Carnegie Mellon University

Posted in General at 9:34 pm by Ian

Getting through security at the airport was pretty painless, and everyone was clearly dedicated to moving things along. One piont, though, worries me: When looking at my ticket and ID to get on the actual plane, the person said “Thank you Mr. Iran.” Not sounding like the country, but like it would sould if you unnecessarily infused my name with an R. Plus, she said “Mister,” and that’s my first name! Clearly no one’s getting through there without authorization, or at least an ID that looks like one of the names on it might appear somewhere on the ticket. All someone needs to do is get a fake ID in the name of “United Air.” “Thanks for flying, Mr. United” is what they’d say as you cruised through the security checkpoint.

While walking through the airport terminal to pick up Adrian’s luggage (none of us had planned to check it, but he was forced to because he make the mistake of taking along a nail file) And you want to joke about it too. I do, anyway, and it’s so hard to sit there and see such blatantly illogical idiocies and not point them out. But I restrain myself. Mostly because I don’t want to be questioned in an intimate manner by large humorless airport officials.

Anyway, while walking through, I noticed a sign directing us to see a display of “Yesterday’s Airport of Tomorrow.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t on our way, so I didn’t get to see. But it’s really too bad; I would have loved to see the sleek private jets, the helpful robot servants, the plasticly saccharine architecture that would certainly have characterized an artist’s depiction, from the 60’s, of what the airport of the “future” would hold. It would have to be a bit depressing, though, to see the crumbling and faded dreams of progress, especially as we passed by the ever-growing security checkpoint. They envisioned rounded corners. We got armed guards.

When we got to the hotel, it turned out that instead of having to share rooms, we each got our own room at the hotel. For four days. Oh yeah.

During the conference, we heard speakers on some really interesting topics. The group that put on the conference is the ALADDIN group at Carnegie Mellon (pronounced Carnegie, not Carnegie, as I had thought), which stands for ALgorithmic ADaptation, Dissemination and INtegration. So, already, you know there were going to be some pretty painful acronyms involved here. The first one is CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of a Turing test, it comes from an idea about artificial intelligence proposed by Alan Turing, who said that attempts at artificial intelligence would have succeeded when a machine is indistinguishable from a human through a text-only interface. The idea of CAPTCHA, and you’ve seen this if you’ve signed up for a free email account in the past year or so, is to come up with a test that humans can pass, that computers cannot, and that can be automatically generated by a computer. Currently, the common choice is to choose a random word, or string of letters, and use some process to tweak and distort them or add noise. A human can still read the twisty pictures, but computer image recognition has real trouble with it. The cool part of this is that, if people who make email bots do figure out how to beat it, then the technology for Optical Character Recognition will have gotten better. There are other ideas for making a CAPTCHA, and we spent most of the lunch the first day talking about the possibilities, and how we could beat the current system.

We heard another talk about privacy and anonymity in public data, which was really interesting. It turns out that publicly released data is often not as anonymous as people would like you to believe. A shocking 87% of the population of this country is uniquely identifiable by only three data, which are commonly included in “anonymous” data: gender, date of birth, and zip code. There’s a class at CMU about how to use perfectly legal public information to find and corrolate all kinds of private information about people. The other part of the class is how to truly anonymize data, but retain the usefulness of it to government, industry, or whoever was getting the data before.

We also heard this awesome lecture about, well, about computer dating, and the surprising mathematical conclusion that traditional dating favors men. It was really cool, and I will totally show it to you if you want sometime, but it’s pretty complicated to do without graphs and stuff.

On Thursday night, there was a party at the house of Lenore and Manuel Blum, some faculty at SCS who were involved with the conference this week. They have a beautiful brick house within walking distance from the campus, and on this little cobblestone road that you’d miss even if you knew it was coming. The party was quite nice. I met Danny Sleator, who is this really huge name in algorithms (He came up with Splay Trees). I spent most of the time talking to this cute CMU undergrad Lindsey. Near the end of the party, Steven Rudich, the man who gave the lecture on dating, put on a magic show. It was pretty cool. He does close up magic, card tricks and hiding marbles and other things. Some of the time I could see a slip every once in a while, some of the tricks I could figure out how it could be done, but didn’t figure out how I didn’t notice it, and some I have no idea how it would be done, or what happened. The really amazing thing is that Rudich is almost blind. He dealt with it pretty well, and memorized where people were standing, but the first time I was introduced to him there were multiple people around the circle, and when people shifted, he had to reconfigure his mental map.

Saturday afternoon we were free to do whatever, because the conference ended at noon. I spent some time with Lindsey, who I met at the Blum’s party. We went to the park to the south of campus, to the botanical gardens they had there. There was a butterfly exhibit there, with hundreds and hundreds of butterfiles and flowering plants in a small area. It was really neat to be in there, and the butterflies were very tame. Even when we were close and moving, they didn’t seem to startle. I wonder if they just figure out that we aren’t a threat, or if they just don’t have many natural predators in the wild. We got to see them in different stages of hatching from the chrysalises (chrysala?). The monarch butterflies have the most amazing cases. There is a little gilded rim around the top that looks like it was carefully stamped in with a little spiked roller or something. It’s like a dotted line of gold leaf forming a crown.

After that, I met up with Adrian and Ed and Erica, who happened to be in Pittsburgh for the summer doing research, and we went out to dinner and a movie. I cannot tell you how liberating it is to be on an expense account. All our food and travel was taken care of. So we went out to dinner and we saw Finding Nemo, which was great. We had taken a cab there (because there are no movie theaters near CMU), but after dinner, we couldn’t get a cab back. They were all “busy.” So, the waitress told us that there was a bus stop just around the corner, and a bus that got back to CMU. So, we wandered out to the bus stop, and there had the unfortunate experience of meeting the World’s Most Annoying Human™ This guy would just not shut up, and the most inane crap too. It took me about three minutes of all of us being mesmerized with his inability to catch my really obvious hints that I didn’t care for the jokes he was telling (during which he interrupted me to start another ::sigh::) until I grabbed Erica, said “Hey, Erica,” as we turned, “pretend like you’re talking to me.” Thus, we escaped, leaving Adrian and Ed to his torments. They later said that after we had gone, they could hardly just turn around and leave, with him (continuing, certainly) talking to their backs. I told them that that’s exactly what I would have done.

So that, in a nutshell, was my trip to Carnegie Mellon. I’m sure I’ve forgotten stuff, but I’m tired of writing.



  1. Lisa said,

    The commentator on NPR said that the Carnegie corporation, founded by Andrew Carnegie, funded the program. Hmm… the italic feature apparently doesn’t work, Ian. Or the bold. ctrl+I gives me favorites, and the other shortcuts send me unwanted places also. Anyway: the first was Carnegie and the second was Carnegie. Now, I have no problem with thinking I have mispronounced Andrew’s last name all my life, but apparently I haven’t. Which leads to the obvious question of: What? Why did they switch pronunciations on us? Are they uppity or what? And I didn’t know that the university was pronounced in the non-Andrew way also. I am mystified, and a bit disgruntled.

    Edited by Ian

  2. Ian said,

    So, in order to do italics or bolding or whatever, you have to use html coding. <b>bold stuff here</b>. Similarly, use i for italic. I fixed your comment… this time

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