Spring cleaning notes
22 Mar 2022It’s been almost a year since the last set of technical notes and I’ve been piling up topics to blog about. I’ll try to empty the list through a series of spring cleaning blog posts.
The power of two choices
The “power of two choices” is a neat idea and a surprizing theorem, with (really) useful applications. What follows is based on this survey.
Consider the following simple scenario: $n$ balls are placed into $n$ bins, following some rule.

First rule: place it in the least loaded bin of all. At the end you get one ball per bin, but you have to check the load of the bins at every step.

Second rule: do it at random. There is no checking involved, but the maximum load at the end is around $\log n$, with high probability.
How to interpolate between these two, to have little load checking and sublogarithmic maximum load? The good idea for a third rule is: take two bins at random, and place the ball in the least loaded bin.
The checking is limited: there are only two bin to check. What about the maximum load at the end? One can prove that it is $O(\log \log n)$ with high probability, which is small for every (?) practical context.
The work around this idea has been awarded the Paris Kanellakis Award, that honors theoretical works having significant impact in practice. (The authors are Yossi Azar, Andrei Broder, Anna Karlin, Michael Mitzenmacher, and Eli Upfal). The laudatio for the award cites hashing and load balancing as applications, and more specifically “iGoogle’s web index, Akamai’s overlay routing network, and highly reliable distributed data storage systems used by Microsoft and Dropbox”.
As for the proofs, they are quite nontrivial because of the conditioning between the different random events. The survey mentioned above explains the different techniques and ideas.
Scaffolding
Scaffolding is a graph problem (or set of problems) stemming from bioinformatics. It has been in my thingstoblogabout list since it was mentioned in the talk Graphs in phylogenomics, a few applications by Celine Scornavacca
The context of the problem is the reconstruction of a biology sequence, such as DNA. In the first stage of DNA reconstruction, we might be given some very small pieces of DNA, and it might might not be too hard to assemble them into larger chunks. But then we have to do scaffolding: given a large set of mediumlength strings, we have to put them together, and it is not clear from the strings themselves how to do that.
We have to use external knowledge. For example, for two strings $A$ and $B$ of our input, we know that $A$ contains a substring $A’$, that is often found not too far from substring $B’$ of string $B$, with some padding $C$ in between. We want to get the most plausible combination of strings with respect to this knowledge.
In the talk mentioned above, the algorithmic problem was to build the longest (or heaviest) path alternating between strings of our input, and weighted strings of padding.
In this paper, the knowledge is of the form: the distance between this string and that string should be in some interval [min, max]. One can then ask whether it is possible to find a single string, that joins together all the strings of the input, and satisfies all the constraints. It is proved in the paper that this second problem is NPcomplete, by a pretty direct reduction to the bandwidth problem.
The bandwidth problem consists, given a graph and an integer $K$, to find a vertex ordering $\sigma$ such that for every edge $(u,v)$, $\sigma(u)\sigma(v)\leq K$.
(Note that “bandwidth” is maybe not the best name, given that the important parameter is more similar to a stretch of the edges than to the natural notion of bandwidth that would be the number of edges stacked one on top of another. But the two notions are intuitively related.)
Independent set of rectangles
The maximum independent set of rectangles problem is following: given a set of axisaligned rectangles, find the largest set of rectangles that do not intersect.
The key question on this problem is: Does there exist a polynomialtime constantapproximation algorithm?
I’ve worked on this problem in 2013, and we gave a positive answer in a special case. Last year, I was amazed to discover on the arxiv a paper by Joseph B. Mitchell solving the general problem (FOCS 2021). The only sad thing was that the approximation constant was large. But later the constant was brought down to 3 by Waldo Gálvez, Arindam Khan, Mathieu Mari, Tobias Mömke, Madhusudhan Reddy Pittu, and Andreas Wiese (SODA 2022). Great!
Review/submission balance
At the end of 2021, I wanted to measure my balance between reviews and submissions. There are several difficulties. First, one should count fractions of submissions, since a paper submitted with eight authors should weight less than a solo paper. Also a journal paper takes more energy to review than a conference paper, and there might be several revisions.
At the end, I couldn’t find a precise and meaningful way to measure the balance, but as my conference/journal ratio is similar for submissions and reviews, and as the number of authors of my paper is usually three, that is, approximately the number of reviewers of a paper, it is relevant to just count in the simplest way possible.
In 2021, I both submitted and reviewed more than the previous years, and both counts are around 12, so quite balanced.
Iceberg orientation
Finishing with a bit of fun. One often pictures an iceberg as a kind of tower of ice, with only the roof being above sea level, like on the picture below.
Actually, this type of orientation is unstable, and a stable orientation would look more like this.
This was reminded by Megan ThompsonMunson in this twitter thread, and then Joshua Tauberer made this webpage, where you can draw an iceberg shape and see how it would stabilize.