Fall is here: Welcome new RSRGers

While other universities have been back in session for a while now, we’re just getting started here at Caltech.  Today begins our orientation week, so we have lots of new grads and postdocs showing up these days!

So, I wanted to use this post to give an official welcome to the new RSRG students (John Pang, Rachel Cummings, and Linqi Guo) and the new CMI postdocs (Quentin Berthet, Georgios Piliouras, Krishnamurthy Dvijotham, and Piyush Srivastava).  Welcome all!

And, we’re especially excited that we have three new faculty joining this fall: Yisong Yue, Thomas Vidick, and Victoria Kostina.  Yisong and Thomas are finally joining us after deferring for postdocs, while Victoria is fresh off of last year’s job market.  Being such a small place, we’re not used to having so many new faces join at once, so it’s quite exciting:  welcome Yisong, Thomas, and Victoria!

…and for those readers who are going on to the job market this year.  Don’t worry, we’ll be searching for new faculty again in the coming year too!

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The Community Seismic Network: Citizen Science and the Cloud

We almost missed the chance to highlight that the cover story of the July, 2014 issue of the Communications of the ACM (CACM) is a paper by a Caltech group on the Community Seismic Network (CSN). This note is about CSN as an example of system in a growing, important nexus: citizen science, inexpensive sensors, and cloud computing.

CSN uses inexpensive MEMS accelerometers or accelerometers in phones to detect shaking from earthquakes. The CSN project builds accelerometer “boxes” that contain an accelerometer, a Sheevaplug, and cables. A citizen scientist merely affixes the small box to the floor with double-sided sticky tape, and connects cables from the box to power and to a router. Installation takes minutes.

Analytics in the Sheevaplug or some other computer connected to the accelerometer analyzes the raw data streaming in from the sensor. This analytics engine detects local anomalous acceleration. Local anomalies could be due to somebody banging on a door, or a big dog jumping off the couch (frequent occurrence in my house), or due to an earthquake. The plug computer or phone sends messages to the cloud when it detects a local anomaly. An accelerometer may measure at 200 samples per second, but messages get sent to the cloud at rates that range from one per minute, to one every 20 minutes. The local anomaly message includes the sensor id, location (because phones move), and magnitude.

There are four critical differences between community networks and traditional seismic networks:

  •  Community sensor fidelity is much poorer than that of expensive instruments.
  •  The quality of deployment of community sensors by ordinary citizens is much more varied than that of sensors deployed by professional organizations.
  • Community sensors can be deployed more densely than expensive sensors. Think about the relative density of phones versus seismometers in earthquake-prone regions of the world such as Peru, India, China, Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia.
  • Community sensors are deployed where communities are located, and these locations may not be the most valuable for scientists.

Research questions investigated by the Caltech CSN team include: Are community sensor networks useful? Does the lower-fidelity, varied installation practices, and relatively random deployment result in networks that don’t provide value to the community and don’t provide value to science? Can community networks add value to other networks operated by government agencies and companies? Can inexpensive cloud computing services be used to fuse data from hundreds of sensors to detect earthquakes within seconds?

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Graduation time

In between trips, I had the pleasure of being back at Caltech for Commencement to congratulate the three RSRGers whom we’re sending off into the world this year. So, congratulations again, Subhonmesh Bose, Matthew Faulkner, and Zhenhua Liu! As is typical in our group, all three of them have at least 2 co-advisers, with Bose clocking-in a record four!

It’s always sad to say goodbye to students, but in these cases, it’s a little easier because we know we’ll be seeing them frequently.

Bose and Zhenhua will be staying in academia, doing postdocs before starting their faculty jobs. Zhenhua will be doing a postdoc at Berkeley before joining the faculty of Stony Brook, which has become a powerhouse in performance modeling & energy now with the recent additions of Xue Liu, Ansul Ghandi, and Zhenhua. Bose will be doing a postdoc at Cornell before starting his faculty position, but he has not yet decided where that will be. Matt is taking a different route, but we’ll be seeing him frequently too, I’m sure, since he is doing a startup making use of ideas from his thesis.

RSRG does a triathlon

Our group has a history of doing athletic events during our outings over the years — hikes and even half-marathons.  But, this past weekend, we tried something a little more involved — a triathlon!  Besides me, only one person in the group had done a triathlon before (most hadn’t even done open water swimming before), but amazingly, we got six folks to do the race, and then three to put together a relay team to boot. Then, the rest of the group came along to cheer the triathletes along and have a nice picnic afterwards.  Quite a fun group event!

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Leslie Lamport: The Ideal RSRG Scientist

Remember that this blog is coming from the Rigorous Systems Research Group (RSRG, aka “resurge”) at Caltech.  The group has a fairly unique perspective on systems research, so you might wonder:

If you were to pick the RSRG “ideal person,” whom would you pick?

My ideal is Leslie Lamport, the Turing Award winner this year. Here’s why.

Leslie is among the most logically-rigorous computer scientists in the history of computer science, and he has done as much for developing the discipline of scientific, theory-based, rigorous computer systems implementation as any person. The combination of logical rigor and practical systems makes Leslie stand head-and-shoulders above everybody as the RSRG ideal.

Everything we do at RSRG deals with concurrency: communication networks, power systems, economics and information technology, cloud computing, distributed systems, control systems, and real-time analytic systems. The theoretical foundations of concurrent systems have two parts: (1) a logic that enables systems to be designed and analyzed rigorously, and (2) a collection of fundamental algorithms that lie at the heart of almost all concurrent systems. Several great computer scientists have built the foundations for the first part, and several have developed the foundations for the second. But only two or three in the history of computer science have done both, and Leslie is one of them.

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Spring conference deadline season

We’ve had a busy period of conference deadlines in RSRG over the last few months…between ACM EC (Algorithmic Game Theory),  IEEE CDC (Control), and IFIP Performance (Sigmetrics’ European sister conference), it’s been a challenging period to try to get everything ready for submission.  But, the students have been working really hard, and we’re almost through it!

We have another week before the Performance deadline, so we’re still cramming to get the last few things written up.  But, as I’m working on those papers, it got me thinking about the fact that Performance really flies under the radar in the US.  For some reason, people don’t know it the way they know Sigmetrics, even though the two are closely tied.  So, I figured I’d give it a little advertisement here, since it’s a really nice venue for people that do work on the boundary of systems/networks and theory.  It’s also the place where I gave my first conference talk… in a beautiful marble-floored conference hall overlooking vineyards outside of Rome!

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RSRG in the wild

After a long hiatus without a proper group outing — this weekend, we got (almost) the whole group together and headed out to Santa Monica for a hike.  Bose picked a nice ~8 mile route for us up to Parker Mesa and back,which gave us some nice views of the coast as well as the nearby mountains.   It’s always fun to get together outside of the office…especially when we can take advantage of the beautiful January weather here in southern California!

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