Sunday, December 7, 2008

My Favorite Cafes

I recently embarked on a coffee-related project. The end product of the project is not completely defined, but it involves visiting cafes all over the world, studying the variations in coffee customs and preparations, and, of course, spreading the word about macchiatones world-wide.

As a first step, I've created a web site that lists my favorite cafes. These are cafes I visited recently, so the list is still short, but I'm hoping to expand it over time. There are multiple criteria for being included in the list, including having good coffee (duh!), having a charming atmosphere and possibly a good location. Basically, it needs to be a place worth spending time at. I'm happy to hear suggestions for additional cafes and I'll find a way to share those with the world.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Mumbai Attacks

Pandu wrote a nice post on the Mumbai attacks with a very personal account. Pandu grew up in precisely the area where the attacks took place and knows quite a few people who were affected in various ways.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Week in Macchiatone-Land

Oriana and I just came back from a trip to northern Italy where we visited Padova, Trento, Venice and Verona. I'm, of course, not qualified as a writer to appropriately describe the Italian experience, so I'll stick to what I know. Some pictures can be found here.

The reason we went to Italy was to visit the University of Trento, where I was recently asked to serve on the advisory committee of the computer science department. It's quite an impressive place! In about 7 years they built a Ph.D. program from scratch and it now has about 200 students. They've also hired quite a few excellent young faculty. They are able to attract students from all over the world (the courses are in English) and it's a very dynamic place. They also have quite a bit of interaction with local industry. If you're looking for a place to do a Ph.D. (and have great coffee in the meantime), this is a great place.

Which brings me to the second topic. Northern Italy is the mecca for my favorite drink, the macchiatone. Whereas in other places in the world I typically need to explain the concept and get a bad approximation of the real thing, in northern Italy you can walk into any cafe and get a great macchiatone. We even visited the original Caffe Del Doge in Venice (and I'm still recovering from the 5.50 euros for that macchiatone). Later I found out that if you drink your coffee standing, then in most places it will cost a mere 90 euro cents! The official explanation I got for this phenomenon is that in Italy coffee represents a short, intense emotion. This trip has given me quite a bit of material for my coffee project (but I'll explain that elsewhere).

Finally, social networks are really cool when you travel. I was able to collect good recommendations on what to do and where to eat through Facebook (thanks, Andrea!). I enjoyed the comments I got on my status messages and uploaded photos during the trip.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Tour of South Tel-Aviv

I recently came back from a trip to Israel to visit my parents. One of the highlights of the trip was the tour that my dad gave me of south Tel-Aviv. For many years, the south part of Tel-Aviv was not considered a great area by any stretch of the imagination, but in the last decade or so it has been significantly beautified and is now one of the more chic parts of the city. You can see all the pictures here.

My dad grew up in that part of town, so it was a great treat to follow him for 4 hours as he was pointing out the various landmarks, and moving about with the familiarity that only a teenager has with his neighborhood (albeit over 60 years later).

The tour started around the corner from the apartment his family rented when they first immigrated from Greece to Tel-Aviv. We then went to what used to be the Alliance School, where my dad went to elementary and middle school, across the yard from the girl's school. In later years, the two schools became meeting points for young activists of the rival underground movements in the pre-state days (the Haganah and the Etzel). Now it is the Suzan Dalal theatre.

We then walked through the Neve Tzedek neighborhood with its charming houses and some Bauhaus-style architecture. We got onto Rotchield Avenue, where the rich people used to live (it's not that much cheaper today either). One of the houses there was where Ben Gurion declared Israeli independence in 1948.

We walked through Herzl St. where my grandfather owned a little store, the big Sephardic synagogue where my two aunts and uncle married and paid a quick visit to my dad's highschool. Finally, we got to the very happening Sheinkin St with its cafes and shops. There we looked for a high-school friend of my dad who had a pharmacy there for 50 years, but apparently retired recently (and by chatting with another pharmacist my dad found out things about his friend that he never knew).

We then sat in a cafe for a bit, and that's where I juxtaposed the present with the past. We got the waitress to take a picture of us with my blackberry and then I showed my dad how I'm instantly sharing it with 200 of my best friends on Facebook. Finally, we walked through the Levinsky Market and spent a bunch of money in a deli before heading home for friday lunch.

A few days later I found myself spending a few hours in Prague. Here are some pictures. Clearly, this was just a teaser and I need to go back.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Claremont Report on Database Research

Once every 5 years, a small group of database researchers, practitioners and opinionated professionals get together to assess the state of field. The report written after the workshop represents the consensus on new research areas and describes some of the discussions that took place. The goal of the report is to foster more discussion in the field, so please go ahead and discuss!

You can find the report here.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

OpenII: Open Source Information Integration Suite

Last week I hosted the OpenII kickoff workshop at Google. We had representatives from several companies: IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo, MITRE, Google, one guy who was supposed to represent Oracle but decided to be a professor again, and a couple of professors.

The goal of OpenII, as the name implies, is to create an open-source set of tools for information integration. The tool set will include, among others, wrappers for common data sources, tools for creating matches and mappings between disparate schemas, a tool for searching a collection of schemas, and run-time tools for processing queries over heterogeneous data sets.

The main goal of the effort is to foster innovation in the field of information integration and create tools that are usable for a wide range of applications.

In research, we often innovate on a specific aspect of information integration, but then spend much our time building (and rebuilding) other components that we need in order to validate our contributions. Having a set of open-source tools will enable us to focus on our innovations and perform more meaningful comparisons between our methods.

On the applications side, information integration comes in many flavors, and therefore it is hard for commercial products to serve all the needs. Our goal is to create tools that can be applied in a variety of architectural contexts (e.g., materializing all the data in one repository vs. leaving the data in the sources and accessing it only at query time). In addition, many of the tools (e.g., schema matchers or dedup engines) often need to be extended for the particular domain in hand to fully leverage domain knowledge. Open source tools allow application developers to do exactly that.

You'll be hearing more about this project as we make progress. If you would like to contribute to it, please contact me!

Brain Rules and Computer Science Education

I just finished reading Brain Rules by John Medina. The last page of the book inspired this post, but let me first tell you what the book is about.

The book examines different aspects of our brain and derives from them some principles and suggestions on how to improve better behaviors. None of these suggested behaviors are surprising at all, but Medina (very entertainingly) explains why they are good for us given the brain's structure and describes some research that validates these claims. For example, chapter 1 tells you that doing aerobic exercise actually improves your mental capacities. Another chapter talks about the need for sleep and another on why stress is bad. Two chapters talk about memory (short term and long term), explaining why repetition of new knowledge can greatly improve its recall. Another chapter explains (finally!) that men and women are different (women are apparently much more complex than men, in case you need another shocker), and another stresses that we never stop learning in life (or at least, we have the capacity to).

At the end of every chapter, Medina asks how we can apply these nuggets of knowledge to develop new methods for education. In the last chapter, he explains why the unique aspect of medical schools make for well-trained doctors as well as curious researchers. The point is that in medical school students are learning the theory of medicine at the same time they are practicing it (in increasing doses as they advance in the program). Hence, they are able to apply their knowledge immediately and, after observing patients, ask novel questions that lead to new research and discoveries. Medina suggests that the same principle can be possibly applied in other disciplines.

I think Computer Science education can really benefit from such a model. I obviously don't have all the details worked out here, but imagine that every Computer Science department (or set of departments) had a software company on the side. As students go through the program, they start getting tasks from that company to build software for it, participate in designs, see how product decisions affect engineering processes, and even see some company politics at work. These companies will be real (they'll need to pay for these services) -- they'll generate real software for real customers.

I even have an initial idea of what these companies can do. Given that these companies are likely to have challenges competing in the market, they need to address a niche of customers who are willing to put up with lousy service, mediocre products and delays in software release cycles. I.e., customers who have nowhere else to go!

These customers are called scientists. Scientists are always complaining that they don't have the right software tools to do their science. Real companies typically don't find scientists to be an appealing set of customers because, well, they don't really want to pay up and they often have very specialized needs. There are huge challenges in creating good software tools for scientists, and university-affiliated companies could be an excellent place to develop this software, while preparing the next generation of computer scientists for the real world.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

FOO Camp 2008

I spent the weekend at FOO Camp 2008, an annual event organized by publisher O'Reilly Media (hence the name, Friends Of O'Reilly). The event brought 275 movers and shakers of the tech industry and related industries, and was an incredible experience. It was as if someone injected into my brain the latest and greatest ideas and thoughts with one joyful syringe, accompanied with a few good glasses of wine. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch captures the spirit of FOO Camp in his blog post (and you can even see me standing and looking busy behind Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, in one of his photos).

The conference begins with no set agenda. They put up an empty board with the different time slots and locations of sessions, and as the participants arrive, they fill up the board with sessions. There are about 10 sessions going on in parallel at any given time, most of them looking quite fascinating.

To give you a rough idea, within the span of a few hours, I attended sessions on:

-- aggregating meta-data on the web organized by Esther Dyson (i.e., all the data we create as we use services on the web),
-- the future (or lack thereof) of journalism (organized by several NY Times and SeattlePI reporters),
-- "open education" (tools, policies and politics of),
-- crowd-sourcing vs. curation (i.e., how to balance all the inputs one gets from the bloggers of the world with careful aggregation and analysis of information),
-- how computers can help humanities (e.g., analyzing the Bible, helping archaeologists), organized by Martin Wattenberg, the creator of Many Eyes,
-- educational tools for virtual worlds, and
-- a very well attended session on small things one can do to become happier in life.

There was also a session on "big data", organized by Roger Magoulas, the director of research at O'Reilly. The point I took away from that session is that owners of big data sets are now more confused than ever. They face a much wider array of architectural choices for data management systems than they ever did. These include map-reduce based systems, column stores, real-time warehouses, streaming systems, and various systems built on top of MySQL. Each of these architectures has its advantages and limitations, but it's becoming increasingly harder for application builders to understand the tradeoffs (and it's not like marketing departments are getting rewarded for making the choices clearer). It's no longer the world where you buy your favorite relational database system and you're done (and stuck). I think this situation presents some interesting research challenges for the database community (it's also interesting how some of these architectures get little attention in the community).

The idea of designing the conference program on the spot is very appealing, and I'd like to propose we do a little bit of it in traditional scientific conferences. (There is a concept of birds-of-feather session, but that's usually a grab bag of ideas). We should allot time slots in our conferences where sessions can be organized as the participants come to the conference and stimulate discussions there. That's a much better way of getting up to speed on hot topics and people's current thinking, which is what conferences should be for!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Karina helps the earthquake relief effort in Sichuan Province

My (almost 7 y/o) daughter, Karina, was a star at a fund-raising event for the victims of the Sichuan Province earthquake. I'll give a bit of background, and then I'll let the quotes from the press speak for themselves. This event was originally supposed to be a victory party for the newly elected president of Taiwan, and hence highly star-studded.

A few hours before the event (a crowd of 5000+), Karina got a call asking if she would come on stage for a few minutes during the fund-raiser. Nobody told her what was expected of her, but she was happy to participate. She got on stage and was asked a few questions, at the end of which she offered the emcee to share a poem with the crowd. The poem recital apparently moved the crowd greatly and opened up their check books. Her impromptu performance was covered in the Chinese press following the event.

For the readers who do not know Chinese (e.g., me), here are a few snippets from the articles (kindly provided by Oriana). Also note that most of the Chinese press uses her Chinese name -- CunZhong, but I assure you she could have done it perfect Hebrew too.

Notable quotes from the Sing Tao site: (1) "This first-grader was born and raised in the US. Her mother is a Chinese from Beijing, her father Jewish. Standing in the center of the stage, wearing her hairs twisted high into two traditional buns and holding her piggybank, little CunZhong delivered an original poem, entitled "Home", in impeccable native Mandarin Chinese." (2) "Thunderous applause followed her performance." (3) Karina told the reporter: "Television images of the earthquake victims really scared and worried me. I memorized this poem after reading it three times. I want to share it with all the children in the disaster zone, so that they will not be afraid!"

This site carries the original news release with a photo. This site also contains several photos from the concert, including one where the audience responded to the emcee's tribute to "the mom of this courageous little girl." The notable quote from the site is: "Li CunZhong's outstanding and emotion-filled performance deeply touched the hearts of the entire audience, and brought the outpouring of donations to a crescendo."

And finally, here's the YouTube video with the post-interview with, titled "Karina, the six and a half year old who touched many hearts with her live recitation of the poem". If you're Chinese, the management requests that you go here to see the video and read more background.

The Macchiatone

Do you often feel like your cappuccino has too much milk? And then the macchiato is a bit too dainty? A conundrum I'm sure many people face on a daily basis.

This morning I went for my usual sunday coffee at Cafe Del Doge in Palo Alto, and I had the chutzpah to point out that their cappuccinos have too much milk. After a short discussion, the barista pointed out to me that I should try the macchiatone. It's basically a cappuccino, but with less milk. I've been making macchiatones for several years now and I didn't know it!

Something tells me that the Starbucks barista course does not cover this material, but feel free to spread the word (note: a macchiatone is NOT a dry cappuccino; very different concepts!)

The Remote Agent

I just returned from the 5-year Database Self-assessment workshop (will post something about this soon), where some of the discussion naturally focused on identifying high-impact ambitious projects for the community.

When I returned, I found Pandu's blog post, describing the Remote Agent Project at NASA that he was involved in about 10 years ago. Now that was a very inspiring project that received a lot of attention in the AI community at the time (including a Best Paper Award in AAAI 1997), and really demonstrates the amazing things that can happen when an incredible group of people get inspired.

I wonder if the database community can come up with something as inspiring.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Israel at 60!

Last year I blogged about Israel's Memorial Day. This year I'll focus on the second (and happier) part of this two-day national event -- Independence Day, that immediately follows Memorial Day. And quite a day it is this time -- Israel is celebrating its 60th birthday!

I will not go into all of Israel's achievements in its first 60 years, but you can find a few listed here. Instead, I picked up the phone (ok, Skype) and had a chat with a member of Israel's founding generation/team -- my dad. Here are a few of his comments.

First, I wanted to know what he felt on the day that Ben Gurion declared independence?

Turns out he only heard about it two days later. He was in the middle of a battle in Jerusalem, and two days after the declaration, he was injured by a bullet and was taken to a medic for treatment. The woman in charge of the medic (who later became Israel's first lady) came by and told them it had happened. Not a big surprise -- they were actually expecting it to happen sooner or later.

Second, I wanted to know what they were thinking those days.

Not much. They wanted to stay alive and make it through another day. Not surprising -- they were constantly being shot at. Interestingly, they believed that once the war is over, the conflict will be done and there will be peace. They certainly did not anticipate having to fight wars 60 years later.

Then I asked my dad whether he's happy with the result 60 years later.

There were two parts to his response. He claimed that he and his cohort did not imagine Israel would have so many achievements and grow to be the strong country that it is. Their expectations were exceeded by far. On the other hand, he claims his 1948 cohort were a bunch of 20 year/old idealists. They thought their idealism would pervade all walks of life in the country they created. But today there is too much "business/politics as usual" in the country. All aspects of human nature are represented, and perhaps that's inevitable.

Finally, I turned to my mom and asked her what was she thinking when she emigrated from the US to a 7 year-old state (she emigrated after marrying my dad in 1955). She answered, and I quote: "I've never met anyone so passionate about his country (like my dad). It was a great adventure to come here. So what if they didn't have toilet paper".

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hair-Care Records

There has been much talk recently about electronic health-care records. Imagine that whenever you go to a health-care provider, your health-care record is available to them, thereby enabling them to give you better care. There is a lot of controversy about the implementation and the privacy concerns and policies surrounding such records, but ultimately this will happen.

I'd like to propose a simpler and much less controversial idea. Last time I went to get a haircut, I realized my hair dresser had no idea about my hair history. She didn't know when I had it cut last, how short and what style I asked for then, and whether I liked the result or not. And being a busy guy, I couldn't recall all the details myself either.

So why not create electronic hair-care records? Every time you go for a haircut, you get before and after pictures, with a time stamp, and a few comments attached from the hair dresser. Now you can take this record with you wherever you like and next time you come in the discussion can focus on more important issues.

There are more benefits. You can highlight a particularly good haircut and always ask the provider to mimic that. If your hair is especially challenging (in a good way), you can auction your haircut to a hair dresser who wants to boost their resume. If you're anywhere in the world, say, Patagonia, and you feel the urge for a haircut, simply whip up your record and no words are needed. After all, hair is a universal language.

Technologically, building these records is simple. We just need someone with the right entrepreneurial spirit.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Crawling the Deep Web

Our work on crawling the Deep Web has received some attention over the last few days. It started with a post on Google's Webmaster blog. Judging by the number of in-links to the blog (see the bottom the page) and the several news articles that picked it up, there were quite a few reactions on the blogosphere and beyond.

Matt Cutts, Google's main interface to web masters gives a nice explanation of why this work is useful to site owners. Anand Rajaraman details some of the history behind the technology that led to this work.

In summary, a nice example of research on data management having impact on the Web.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Bar-coding in Costa Rica

I spent last weekend in the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG) in Costa Rica with a few of my colleagues. We were hosted by Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs (his wife), an incredibly inspiring pair of biologists. Among many other awards, Dan is also a recipient of the Kyoto Prize in 1987. For the past 30 years, Dan and Winnie have spent half of every year in Costa Rica, creating the ACG, while spending the other half professing at the University of Pennsylvania. I'll have to skip the details of how we got there, but do ask me in person when you see me (and if you need to juggle my memory, use the phrase "party in the sky").

You can find the pictures from the trip here.

So you're probably wondering what was a guy like me, with questionable credentials in Biology, is doing in such a biologically intense area?

Imagine that every living species and plant had a barcode, just like products in a supermarket. Furthermore, imagine that you had a device, the size of a cell phone, such that when you found a specimen in the forest, you can put the specimen into the device and it would tell you all the known information about it. In addition to being a useful device to take on hikes, such a device can have major impact on agriculture and controlling the spread of disease.

The International Bar-Code of Life Project (iBol) is trying to do exactly that, based on genomic techniques. Specifically, it turns out that with over 98% accuracy, the CO1 gene uniquely determines the species. In contrast, the traditional approach to determining species is based on morphological features. By sequencing the CO1, Janzen and many others have been able to uncover several mysteries, showing that species that look very similar are actually different, and vice versa. Janzen runs the biggest specimen collection operation (Costa Rica happens to have a huge number of different species, hence Janzen's conservation goal). Currently he sends them to the University of Guelph in Canada for sequencing (in a lab run by Paul Hebert who was also there), but they envision that in a decade, we'll be able to build the small device.

We spent the weekend in numerous and intense discussions on Biology, walking through the forest seeing it first hand, and actually participating in the process of collecting specimens and preparing them to be sent for sequencing.

In the discussions we tried to understand the challenges involved in this project (including arguments by its critics). It actually turns out that determining species can often be very subjective, for two reasons. First, the determination typically needs to be done with only partial information about the set of specimens available and unless you can find other evidence, morphology is typically the deciding factor. Second, and somewhat more surprising to me, not all biologists completely agree on what the concept of species even means. The most accepted definition is based on the ability to mate and create viable offsprings, but there are other opinions as well (e.g., it's the morphology stupid). In fact, when it's not even clear (to me, at least) that classification into species is as important as it's traditionally been considered, since many of the questions we're asking about animals or plants depend on other genetic and environmental traits.

And yes, there are huge data management challenges here. Many scientists are collecting data and each putting it into their own format. They would like to share their data but also maintain control of their own. They'd like to publish the data on the web and make it accessible to the masses. They need to manage uncertainty and provenance. Ironically, one of the closest systems I know that is considering some of these issues is Orchestra, built by Zack Ives at the... University of Pennsylvania (i.e., a few buildings away from Janzen's office).

Then there was the flight back, but I can't talk about that either. Overall, an incredible experience! Many thanks to Dan and Winnie (and their crew) for hosting us and sharing their incredible knowledge and passion!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Two Books by Geraldine Brooks

I just finished reading two books by Geraldine Brooks and highly recommend them. Both books are fiction inspired by true historical events. In both cases, Brooks manages to vividly recreate the periods in which the plot is taking place and bring them back to life. The research that goes into her books is really impressive.

The first book is Year of Wonders. It is based on the story of the little village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England in 1666. That was the year plague swept through the village devastating it. The story tells of how the plague entered the village and its effects on its inhabitants through the story of Anna Frith, a housemade at the village's rectory.

The second book, People of the Book, was published just this year. It is based on the story of the Haggadah of Sarajevo. The Haggadah is the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and is read on the eve of Passover (with a lot of food and a minimum of 4 glasses of wine weaved in). The history of this Haggadah goes back to 15th century Spain and has an amazing story of survival through Venice, Vienna and Sarajevo (at least). One of the most interesting aspects of its story is that the acts (often of heroism) to save the Haggadah were typically carried out by non-Jews -- Muslims or Christians, who appreciated the value of the book. The book portrays vividly several periods in history some of which had Christians, Muslims and Jews were living in peace together (Spain, before the inquisition). It's really a great read (regardless of one's religion). And yes, there was even a Halevy involved in this book's history!

Monday, January 28, 2008

A "Web Moment"

I'm sure each and every one of you has had at least one "web moment", where the power of the web simply jumped out at you. It may have been after a web-search yielded an amazing result, or realizing that you're driving to a dinner meeting at http://... using directions you got from online maps, and checking traffic conditions on the web from your car. (I do realize, however, that there is an entire generation out there who has no idea what the heck I'm talking about, and equates the pre-web world roughly with the 19th century).

I (or rather, my dad) had such a moment yesterday, when he found a document on the web, signed by his father in 1956, that he had no idea existed.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, collected a database of people who were killed in the holocaust. They asked anyone who knew holocaust victims to report their details and contribute them to this database. I found the web site for searching that database (thanks to Yair Kurzion), and told my dad about it.

His task was not easy. Searching for a Levy in database of Jews is like searching for Smith in a phone book of a big American city, and even restricting the search with the first name and the city of origin did not help a lot. But magically, he pulled up the first result and found a document signed by my grandfather (who passed away 40 years ago). My grandfather had reported the death of his brother and sister, who were both deported from Thessaloniki, Greece to the gas chambers in Poland in 1942, along with the vast majority of the vibrant Jewish community of that city. Fortunately, my grandfather, who was a Zionist at heart, left Thessaloniki in 1933 for Tel-Aviv to later be part of the creation of the State of Israel.