Infocom 2009 : general thoughts and assorted topics

This was my first time going to Infocom, and I had a good time, despite being a bit out of my element. The crowd is a mix of electrical engineers and computer scientists, of theorists, experimentalists, and industry researchers. Although I often would go to a talk thinking I knew what it would be about, I often found that it was rather different than what I expected. At first this was a little alienating, but in the end I found it refreshing to be introduced to a host of new ideas and problems. Unfortunately, the lack of familiarity may translate into some misunderstandings in these posts; as usual, clarifying comments are welcome!

Below are the papers I couldn’t categorize into other areas.

Dynamic Power Allocation Under Arbitrary Varying Channels – An Online Approach
Niv Buchbinder (Technion University, IL); Liane Lewin-Eytan (Technion, IL); Ishai Menache (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US); Joseph (Seffi) Naor (Technion, IL); Ariel Orda (Technion, IL)
The model is that of an online power allocation problem wherein the gain of a fading channel h_t varies over time in an unpredictable manner. At each time we can choose a power P_t for the transmitter based on the past values h_1, h_2, \ldots, h_{t-1} and we will get a reward U(h_t, P_t) = \log(1 + h_t P_t). Subject to a total power constraint, what is the optimal allocation policy, in terms of competitive optimality vs. an algorithm that knew h_t in advance? They show lower bounds for any algorithm of O( \log H_{\max}/H_{\min}) for the competitive ratio and an achievable strategy by quantizing the possible fading values and executing an online allocations strategy for the discrete problem. Of course I went to this talk because it claimed to be about arbitrarily varying channels, but what was a little unconvincing to me was the abstraction — you have to choose not only a transmit power, but also a coding rate, so it’s unclear that in reality you will get \log(1 + h_t P_t) utility each time. There may be a way to justify this kind of modeling using some rateless code constructions, which seems like an interesting problem to think about. UPDATE: I looked at the paper and saw that they are considering a block fading channel so you get that utility for a block of channel uses, and that the channel gain for the given slot is revealed to the transmitter, so you don’t need to be fancy with the underlying communication scheme.

Lightweight Coloring and Desynchronization for Networks
Arik Motskin (Stanford University, US); Tim Roughgarden (Stanford University, US); Primoz Skraba (Stanford University, US); Leonidas Guibas (Stanford University, US)
This paper was on duty-cyling nodes in a sensor network to preserve power and avoid interference. In particular, we would like to color the n nodes of the network so that no two neighbors are awake at the same time (thereby improving coverage efficiency and lowering interference to a centralized receiver). This can be mapped to problem of allocating intervals on a circle of circumference T (the cycle time) such that two neighbors in the graph do not get overlapping intervals. Nodes with low degree should get longer intervals. The constraint in this assignment problem is that the solution must be decentralized and require minimal internal state and external inputs. They show an algorithm which uses one bit of local state to use O(d_{\max}) colors in O(\log n) time, and an algorithm with one bit of local state and one bit of external side information to color the graph with d_{\max} + 1 colors in d_{\max} \log n rounds.

Using Three States for Binary Consensus on Complete Graphs
Etienne Perron (EPFL, Switzerland); Dinkar Vasudevan (EPFL, Switzerland); Milan Vojnovic (Microsoft Research, UK)
This paper looked at a binary consensus problem that was seemed on the face of it quite different from the consensus algorithms that I work on. They consider a complete graph where every node has a an initial value that is either 0 or 1. The goal is to compute the majority vote in all the nodes in a distributed manner while requiring only a small state in each of the nodes. This is related to a standard voter model, in which nodes sample their neighbor and switch their vote if it is different. If we have 3 states, (0, e, 1), where e is “undecided” then we can make a rule where a node samples its neighbor and moves one step in direction reported by the neighbor. Different variants of the algorithm are also analyzed, and the error rate analysis seemed a bit hairy, involving ODEs and so on. What I was wondering at the end is the relationship of this algorithm to standard gossip with one bit quantization of messages.

prove as you go or scaffold first?

I had an interesting conversation two weeks ago about the working process for doing theory work in CS and EE. We discussed two extremes of working styles. In one, you meticulously prove small statements, type them up as you go along, getting the epsilons and deltas right and not working on the next step until the current step is totally set. I call this “prove as you go.” The other is that you sketch out some proofs to convince yourself that they are probably true (in some form) and then try to chase down the implications until you have the big result. When some deadline rolls around, you then build up the proofs for real. This could be thought of as “scaffolding first.” Fundamentally, these are internal modes of working, but because of the pressure to publish in CS and EE they end up influencing how people view theory work.

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paper a day : The Byzantine Generals Problem

It’s more like “paper when I feel like it,” but whatever. This is a classic systems paper on decentralized agreement. Because the result is pretty general, I think there is something that could be done to connect it to information-theoretic studies of multi-way communication or maybe key agreement. That’s a bit hand-waving though.

The Byzantine Generals Problem
Leslie Lamport, Robert Shostak, and Marshall Pease
ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems
Vol. 4 No. 3, July 1982, pp. 382–401.

The basic problem is pretty simple. There are n total generals, some of whom may be disloyal. A commanding general must send an order to n-1 lieutenant generals such that (a) all loyal lieutenants follow the same order and (b) if the commander is loyal then all loyal lieutenants follow the order sent by the commander. The paper looks a oral messages, which are unsigned messages such that a disloyal general can send any possible message, as well as signed messages. I’ll just talk about the former. A protocol for solving this problem is an algorithm for each general to execute, at the end of which all generals make a decision based on the information they have received.

The first result is that satisfying both conditions is impossible with m traitors unless n > 3m. This is easiest to see in the case of three generals, where you can go through all the cases. To extend it to general n the insight is that if n = 3m then m disloyal generals can collude to force indecision at m other generals. It’s kind of like having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. If they are equally strong you will not be able to make the right choice. This result can be extended to show that approximate agreement (in a certain sense) is also impossible.

On the more side, for n > 3m there is a spreading/flooding algorithm that satisfies the conditions. The commander sends a message, and then each lieutenant general acts as the commander in a smaller instance of the algorithm to send the command to the remaining generals. This rebroadcasting protocol, while wasteful, guarantees that the loyal generals will all do the same thing. This algorithm can be extended to the case where the communication structure is a graph with certain “nice” structural properties.

To me, the interesting part really is the converse, since it says something about symmetrizing the distribution. The same phenomenon occurs in the arbitrarily varying channel, where the capacity is zero if a jammer can simulate a valid codeword. In this analogy, the encoder is one group of m generals, the decoder another group of m, and the jammer is a coalition of m disloyal generals.

There’s also a nice bit where they lay the smack down: “This argument may appear convincing, but we strongly advise the reader to be very suspicious of such nonrigorous reasoning. Although this result is indeed correct, we have seen equally plausible “proofs” of invalid results. We know of no area in computer science or mathematics in which informal reasoning is more likely to lead to errors than in the study of this type of algorithm.”