Would renewables still be a good idea if fossil fuels didn’t have negative environmental consequences?

Given the push toward renewable energy that is happening these days, it’s natural for folks to start to demonize fossil fuels like coal, gas, etc.  I think this is a shame.  Cheap energy is a really great thing — and fossil fuels are really good at providing this. I’ve posted before about how important energy usage is for the health and advancement of humankind.  So, we have to be careful that a push toward renewable energy sources does not come at the expense of the health and welfare of the population — where cheap fossil fuels can save lives, we should use them without guilt!  It’s disappointing when folks like Bill Gates take flack for decisions like this

But, at the same time, there are also clear reasons to prefer renewable energy to fossil fuels in the long run.  Typically, people jump to environmental concerns as the hammer to motivate this.  Environmental issues are certainly one strong motivating factor, but for this post, I want to try to make the argument a different way.

In particular, even if we completely ignore all the points about pollution and environmental side-effects (which, of course, we shouldn’t do as a society), I think the value of energy usage for society makes a clear argument for investing in the development of renewables and, eventually, converting as much as possible to renewable energy.

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A call for postdoc applications

It’s that time again — our Center for the Mathematics of Informaion (CMI) call for postdoc applications is now up.

As I wrote last year at this same time, one of the things I really enjoy about Caltech is the fact that we always have lots of amazing postdocs floating around…  This year, that is especially true. Siddharth Barman and Enrique Mallada are around RSRG for one more year, and we have a whole cast of new postdocs just getting settled in: Quentin Berthet, Dvijotham Krishnamurthy, Georgios Piliouras, and Piyush Srivastava.

This year, we’re looking pretty broadly for postdocs again.  The CMI program considers postdocs in all areas of applied math, CS, and EE — basically, it just looks for strong people doing interesting, theoretically-oriented work. And, it’s important to say that it’s not just Katrina, Mani, Steven, and myself who will be looking at applicants to these programs.  Faculty all across CS, EE, Economics, CDS, and Applied Math will be looking for strong applications.  That said, we (Katrina, Mani, Steven, and I) do have a few specific areas in which we’re looking for folks.  We are hoping to find strong candidates in CS/Econ, Energy, Privacy, and Data Markets.  We’d love to find 2-3 people just across these areas…

A great thing about the CMI program is that the postdocs that are selected are not tied to any one faculty member or project.  They can come in and define their own agendas, and work with whomever they’d like.  This flexibility has led to really exciting results, and a high rate of placing postdocs in top faculty positions.   Especially in the CS/Econ area, this flexibility is really unique.  There are lots of Economists here at Caltech that work very closely with postdocs in the CS/Econ area, including Federico Echenique, Matt Elliott, John Ledyard, and Leeat Yariv (among others).  It’s really rare to have a group of such strong economists that put up with us CS folk on a daily basis…

The CMS PhD program

Back in January I wrote an excited post announcing our new Computing and Mathematical Sciences (CMS) PhD program.  Unfortunately, the approval did not happen in time for students to apply to it last year, but everything is up and running now, so we’re looking forward to seeing the first round of applicants this winter! (Though, we actually had 6 students who applied to other options last year switch into CMS for this fall — so the first class of CMS students is on-campus already!)

To prime the pump, I’m hoping that all the readers of this blog can spread the word about our exciting (& unique) new degree.  I know it’s what I wish I could’ve done when I was a grad student…  Please feel free to point prospective students to this post or to simply have them send me email.

Why did we start a new degree program?

We are in the midst of an unprecedented convergence of ideas & tools across disciplines.  This is happening among both traditionally “close” areas in the information sciences such as electrical engineering, computer science, and applied math as well as between the information sciences and seemingly disparate fields such as economics, biology, statistics, physics, and operations research.

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A report from “The mathematics of planet earth”

The mathematics of planet earth is a joint initiative from a consortium of mathematical sciences organizations around the world (organized nominally by DIMACS) that has the goal of showcasing how mathematics can be useful in tackling our world’s problems.  It started last year as a year-long focus, but has now expanded and will continue for the coming years as well.   I’ve been to a few events organized under this program, but the reason for this post is to highlight the recent workshop on “Data-aware energy use” organized at UCSD a week or so ago.

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A tale of two metrics: competitive ratio and regret

Throughout our work on data center workload management over the past few years, one common theme that emerged was that of online convex optimization. Whether we were looking at load shifting, dynamic right-sizing, geographical load balancing, or data center demand response, we consistently ended up with an online convex optimization problem that we needed to solve. So, I wanted to do a short post here highlighting something particularly surprising (at least to us) that we uncovered last year.

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Caltech CMS is hiring

I’m happy to announce that Caltech will be continuing its growth in Computing & Mathematical Sciences (CMS) this year.   The ad is now officially up. Please spread the word!

The search will be considering strong applications from anywhere within Applied Math and Computer Science, since Caltech likes to hire based on impressive and high-impact work, rather than a preconceived notion of what area is interesting at the moment. Quoting from the ad: “Research areas of particular interest include applied mathematics, computational science, as well as computing.”  You can’t get much broader than that!  (I personally really hope to see some strong candidates in statistics, networked/distributed systems, and security/privacy, so if you’re from any of those areas and are on the fence about applying — please do!)

Also, for those EE folks out there, don’t let the fact that your degree isn’t in CS or Applied Math deter you from applying.  Caltech has a very fuzzy interpretation of the boundaries between disciplines — many folks have joint appointments between CMS and EE, and many CMS faculty advise EE students (and vice versa).