Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Steve Munro Misses the (Swan?) Boat

Some Toronto-specific stuff now. There are days when I wonder whether Steve Munro is this city's most overrated blogger, today for example: here he is arguing that the Toronto Board of Trade was full of it by saying Toronto’s commute times are the worst in the world.

Go read Munro's post and see if you can piece together his rambling argument. The best I could do: the Board of Trade study is wrong because it used a metric, namely average commute time, which under-emphasized proper urban development. But development is important, and development goes hand in hand with transit, so the government should invest in transit.

It's important to bear in mind that the report was hugely in favor of transit investment, stating unequivocally:

... congestion threatens Toronto’s viability over the long-term and serves as an argument for increased investment in public transit and policies that encourage Torontonians to leave their cars behind.

So Munro is spectacularly missing the point on two fronts. The first is the current political context: the provincial government just postponed (and maybe killed) Transit City, of which Munro is a staunch promoter. The Board of Trade report, coming on the heels of this announcement, is an obvious political win for Transit City advocates. Other commentators are picking up on the obvious ways to shame the province, and keep the issue in the public eye. Not Munro, though - he’d rather quibble about metrics, and take a far more convoluted route to argue about transit funding.

The second is that Munro completely misunderstands the report, by failing to see the value of time. The economic impact of commuting is most acutely felt in the time spent commuting, not in the distance or speed, since a long commute is both time and effort diverted from other (potentially money-making) tasks. If you’re going to argue that the province should invest in transit, surely the return on the investment should be largely economic, especially since an economic boost will return to the province’s coffers in the form of tax revenues.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Talk at UIUC: "Writing on Tiny Paper"

I'll be giving a seminar next Monday, April 5, at UIUC. Thanks to Todd for the invite. Here are the title and abstract:

Writing on tiny paper: Towards information-theoretic analysis of molecular communication

In molecular communication, messages are transmitted as a pattern of molecules propagating from a transmitter to a receiver. This form of communication is useful where electromagnetic communication is impractical, such as in a lab-on-chip device. In this talk, we review current approaches to molecular communication. We also present some of our own results on modelling and analyzing these channels from an information-theoretic perspective, looking at molecular channels both as timing channels and as mass-transport channels.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Interview on TalentEgg

At the beginning of the term, TalentEgg contacted me for an interview on my use of social media in the classroom. They posted the interview to their YouTube channel a few weeks ago, but I just noticed it today:

(I wish she told me to comb my hair ...)

Friday, March 12, 2010


Yesterday, I was informed that my application for tenure has been approved by the university president. I'll be an Associate Professor effective July 1.

Once again, Futurama shows us how to enjoy tenure properly:
Mayor: "Dr. Wernstrom, can you save my city?"
Wernstrom: "Of course, but it'll cost you. First I'll need tenure."
Mayor: "Done."
Wernstrom: "And a big research grant."
Mayor: "You got it!"
Wernstrom: "Also, access to a lab and five graduate least three of them Chinese."
Mayor: "Did...all right, done. What's your plan?"
Wernstrom: "What plan? I'm set for life. Au revoir, suckers!"
Leela: "That rat! Do something!"
Mayor: "I wish I could, but he's got tenure."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Student rates

Recently, Mitzenmacher had a nice post about conference budgeting. One interesting tidbit: this year's registration fee for STOC will be around US$500, and he asks, "At what point do registration fees become a noticeable concern?" Many commenters agreed that $500 was outrageous; meanwhile, in the IT community, last year's ISIT registration would have set you back a cool US$850.

However, concerning student registration rates, Mitzenmacher also asks the following question: "... every student who attends is actually a loss, that has to be covered from elsewhere. Is this the right way to go?"

At first, it seems like the answer should be: yes, of course; helping students is good. But thinking back to my graduate student days, I never paid for conference registration out of my own pocket -- it was always covered by my supervisor. Thus, the primary beneficiary of a student rate is a professor with many graduate students attending the conference -- who, as a result of his/her large group, is already well funded!

In fact, if student rates are offered at a loss, that loss is made up by professors (like me) with limited funding, who can only afford to send themselves and maybe their one student. So are student rates actually regressive?

Monday, March 1, 2010

You learn something new every day

Did you know that (x!)^(1/x) approaches x/e + (const) for sufficiently large x? Wolfram Alpha says so.

Now I'm looking for a proof. Suggestions would be welcome.

UPDATE: Wrong! Alpha was right, I misinterpreted the result. Looks more like x/e + O(log x).