Life and CS theory in the age of Coronavirus

Harvard University, as well most other places that I know of will be moving to remote lectures. I just gave the last in-person lecture in my cryptography course. I would appreciate technical suggestions on the best format for teaching remotely. At the moment I plan to use Zoom and log-in from both my laptop (for the video) and from my iPad pro (for the interactive whiteboard).

The one silver lining is that more lectures will be available online. In particular, if you’re teaching algorithms, you might find Eric Vigoda’s videos helpful. (If you know of more sources, please let us know.)

I was hoping that reducing meetings and activities will be good for research, but currently find it hard to concentrate on anything except this train-wreck of a situation. The financial times has a chart that summarizes the progress of the disease in several countries:

The number of confirmed cases grows by about 33% each day. This growth in confirmed cases is partially due to increased testing as cases increase – there is some evidence that the doubling time of the disease (time between n infected people to 2n infected) is about 6 days (rather than the 2.4 days that this figure suggest). However, a doubling time of 6 days still means that the number of cases grows 10-fold in a month, and so if there are 10K actual cases in the U.S., today, there would be 100K by mid April and 1M by mid May.

Strong quarantine regimes, contact tracing, and drastically reducing activity and increasing “social distance” can very significantly reduce the base of this exponent. Reducing the base of the exponent is more than simply “delaying the inevitable”. The mortality statistics mask the fact that this can be a very serious illness even for the people who don’t die of it – about 5% of the cases need intensive care (see this Economist article). Spreading the infections over time will enable the healthcare system to handle the increased caseload, which will completely overwhelm it otherwise.

Such steps are clearly much easier to achieve before the number of cases is too large to be manageable, but despite having “advance warning” from other countries, this lesson does not seem at the moment to have sunk in, at least here in the U.S. At the moment no such initiatives are taken at the federal level, the states are doing more but still not enough, and it’s up to private companies and institutions to come up with their own policies. As faculty and citizens there is not much we can do about it except support such decisions even when they are unpopular, and just try to make the remote experience as good as possible for us, our colleagues, and our students.

2 thoughts on “Life and CS theory in the age of Coronavirus

  1. I taught a graduate combinatorics class last semester on Graph Theory and Additive Combinatorics (complete lecture notes and problem sets: http://yufeizhao.com/gtac/).

    MIT OCW kindly video recorded my lectures. Unfortunately I cannot post the links to the videos publicly at this time, since MIT OCW still needs additional time to finalize the videos for formatting and compliance. I have been told that it is okay for me to share the videos privately. Please email me (yufeiz@mit.edu) if you’d like a link to the videos, with caveat for all who access it to please not share widely.

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