Faculty candidate talks in Cornell InfoSci

Last and this academic year, Cornell Information Science Department has been trying to find a faculty candidate for a tenured-tracked position in Policy subfield. In general, Policy is not my interest, and I was rather lukewarm about going to the talks and participating in the discussions. Recently, I became more active in going to these talks and joining the discussions as I became interested in learning the hiring process in an academic institute. Currently, two candidates have been invited: Katie Shilton and Laura DeNardis. It was very interesting to attend these two talks as I always appreciate good female presenters. I also learned a lot about interviewing techniques from them even though their topics have nothing to do with what I do. Interestingly, they were strong in different ways. Laura had numerous books that she’s written, variety of research contacts. Katie had an admirable presentation skill. I especially learned a lot from her question answering skills. While I do not remember details of Katie’s talk other than the general topic and some snippets of my personal interest, I took notes on Laura’s talk, which made me reflect about her research topics and candidate talks in general.

The title of Laura’s talk was “Arrangement of technical architecture is an arrangement of political influence and power”. Laura started her talk by giving us a general picture of what “Internet Governance” (Protocols, Critical Internet Resources, Communication Rights, Intellectual Property Rights, Internet Security & Infrastructure management) is. I really appreciated how she started her talk. She gave the audience a very nice reference frame to understand the rest of her talk. This made me realize that in my current presentation deck (for my will-it-happen? interview), I do not have any slide that gives an overview of my field (HCI) or subfield (devices and interaction techniques) to the general audience.

Then she narrowed down to the first topic, protocols, and gave out three protocol examples: ODF, IPv6, MAC addresses. While talking about these examples, issues such as open source licenses, commercial versus non-commercial standards, socio-economic constraints to participation (thx Karin), was raised. She spent a lot of her time talking about IPv6 versus IPv4. She argued that it is a moral imperative for US to quickly upgrade to IPv6 to maintain dominance in global internet market. It was very evident that she knew her topic and her field very well. Comparatively, I still strive to show such confidence in giving out talks and I struggle.

It is always debatable whether an academic should also pursue popularity. This is the question that I raised for the rest of the day. Laura’s main example, political power play in transition between IPv4 and IPv6, is not as hot these days as Katie’s main topic, personal privacy in designing sensor networks. P raised a question that made me think about this issue even longer. When Laura talked about MAC addresses invading privacy issues, he asked why we should care about MAC addresses when our cell phone is more intrusive. In my personal opinion, privacy implications of MAC addresses and that of sensors (e.g., GPS) are orthogonal topics. Hence, when this question was raised, I personally felt that the popularity of the topic (IPv6 vs Sensors in a mobile phone) was more in question than anything else. This was actually a sad realization because my research topic is also considered a fading star. Market size of the digital pens has shrunk so much thanks to Apple and Steve Jobs. When people from industry ask me questions, they ask “We do not have any plan to support styluses, if so, how do you plan to make your research useful to us?”.

Lastly, attending these policy topic talks are really new experiences for me because I find it very difficult to internalize the basic premises of these work. I am a strong believer in “regulations make things slow”. The entire time Katie was advocating how we should impose security concerns to the designers, I sincerely wanted to ask, “Did you observe any scenarios where the security concerns limited how much cellular network applications can innovate?”. Thankfully I didn’t really have to raise these “I don’t believe your research” questions because someone else always did. It was a sincerely fruitful experience to see how the speakers respond to these questions. Some candidates become very defensive and try to convince the opponent, which usually does more harm to the speaker than anything else. Some candidates politically avoid the touchy topic and beat around the bushes and show that “maybe you and I can agree that we disagree?”. From the observations, the former seemed to make the speaker more satisfied. The latter seemed to make the rest of the crowd happier.

“Capturing the moment”talk by Michael Cohen

Cornell Computer Science department has a weekly colloquium series every Thursday. I look forward to attending these talks as colloquium series held at Information Science department is not as technical. I found myself dozing several times after 15 minutes into the talks.

Two weeks ago, microsoft researcher Michael Cohen came to Cornell to give out a talk on his recent research. As my initial field of interest in my graduate study was computer graphics, I’ve been reading SIGGRAPH proceedings earlier on in my graduate program. While reading those proceedings,  Michael Cohen’s work caught my interest as a lot of his work is computational photography which I have been greatly interested in.

Computational photography is a field that has the most thin boundary between computer graphics and computer vision. The goal of this field is to computationally produce an image that doesn’t exist among captured images. Instead of describing this topic in totally technical terms, just as how I described it, Michael Cohen summarized it philosophically in his talk’s title; “capturing the moment”.

Photograph is an objective visual representation of a point in time and space. Comparatively, moment is a visual representation of the subjective reality at some specific time and place. Photograph is not good at capturing this subjective moment. For example, when taking a group shot, it is very difficult to take a single shot where everybody has their eyes opened. Because photography is imperfect, computational photography proposes several solution to perfect images for capturing the moment that the photographer wants to take.

Using Groupshot, software that is based on Cohen’s 2004 SIGGRAPH publication (Interactive Digital Photomontage), users can stitch together part of photos that people like. By taking pieces of people smiling from different photos and switching them together, users can create a group shot that everyone is satisfied with.

A moment that a person wants to record might be difficult to capture not only because of the human factors but also due to limitations of camera sensors. One example is taking a night shot. When flash is on, the camera sensors capture the image at the grain level that your eyes see but not with the right color. When flash is not on, camera captures an image with the color tone that your eyes see but not with the contrast. Cohen’s solution to this problem is to use joint bilateral filter to take the color information from ‘no-flash’ image and the detail from ‘flash’ image and combine them. When I originally saw this paper from SIGGRAPH 2005 proceeding, I thought that it was a brilliant idea. When I heard him describing it again during the colloquium, I still thought that it was a brilliant idea~!

His more recent work extends what I just described in high depth range images, giga pixel images, videos, google street view images and many more. I can probably write another whole page summarizing his work that I have been following. Maybe if I run out of contents to talk about as part of this attempt to write 365 posts, I might consider writing more. Today, I think I met my requirements for my resolution. ^_^

When the talk was over, one of the audience asked him a very interesting question.
“Given all your techniques in computational photography, can you prove that a photo is real?” My guess is that he might have been involved in crime investigation relating photo forgery. Michael Cohen answered, “That is a very good question. The answer to that question is that using current computer graphics techniques, we can tell if an image has been altered. However, we cannot prove that an image is authentic.”