Andrew Odlyzko Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Andrew Odlyzko Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Andrew.. I understand you worked three summers at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, very early in your professional
home life. What kind of work did you do there?
interviews index I attended Caltech for undergraduate
work, where there was the opportunity to
work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during
the summer. The math group there was
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assembled from very talented people, some
of whom did not function well in a traditional
academic setting, but who often were
RSS for interviews brilliant at addressing specific problems. Odlyzko's Bio
The students in the math group at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory were able to get first hand experience in
Paul's bio and projects techniques on the edge of mathematics and computer science. This
Paul's email experience was very useful to my Ph.D. thesis work in number
theory. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory influenced my choices in
graduate school and beyond.
comments policy Paul DiPerna:
You received your PhD in Mathematics from MIT in 1975. Can you
describe what that graduate school experience was like for you?
At first, I was attracted to combinatorics and the group assembled
there by the late Professor Gian-Carlo Rota. In a thoroughly charming
incident, Rota offered the students a bounty of one dollar for each
mistake they found in a manuscript that he was finishing rapidly to
meet a deadline. Over a few days time I reported to Rota that I had
found sixty mistakes. Rota paid me (a tidy sum for those days) and,
more important, invited me to join him as co-author of the paper.
In time, I became more attracted to number theory and did a thesis
on bounds for discriminants of number fields under the direction of
Professor Harold Stark. I was able to adapt some of the techniques of
linear programming, learned at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to
achieve my results. I concentrated my research in number theory, and
in 1986, I had the honor to be an invited speaker at the International
Congress of Mathematicians at Berkeley.
Do you think demands are any different for graduate students
The main difference I see is that there has been huge progress
over the last three decades, so that there is much more to mastered
before launching on independent research.
Can you describe further about what you think needs to be
mastered in graduate school before going off into independent
Obviously, a huge amount of technical material has to be
mastered. But even more important, graduate school is where
researchers get socialized, in the sense of learning how their fields
function. Just what is the reward structure? How does one function in
a challenging area? How does one cooperate with others?
Whether we like it or not,
"graduate research is becoming increasing a
school is where team activity, with increased
researchers emphasis on interdisciplinary work.
get socialized" And, in a world where so much can
be outsourced, it is the jobs with
substantial human components (such as interactions with customers)
that are least likely to be sent overseas.
You served for a long time at AT&T Bell Labs, from 1975 - 2001.
What were some of your favorite projects over that time? What was
the culture like?
Yes, I conducted research at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey,
and then at AT&T Labs, mostly in Florham Park, New Jersey, for quite
a long term. Bell Labs was set up in the 1920s to do research that
could benefit the communications industry. It was owned, in a
complex relationship, by AT&T and Western Electric. When I went to
Bell Labs in 1975, it had a mathematical sciences research center
with 70-80 Ph.D.s. I joined the department in this center led by the
famous mathematician Ron Graham. While I expected to stay there
for two or three years, the appointment worked so well that I remained
for twenty-six! I eventually headed one of the departments in the
center. Under the pressure of emerging technology and government
policy, Bell Labs and AT&T Labs went through a series of breakups,
and I decided to go to the University of Minnesota in 2001
Can you describe your past work on the size and growth rate of the
Internet? (see paper) What got you interested in that research
I have been collecting information about the size and growth rate of
the Internet, primarily about traffic (as measured in bytes transmitted)
and capacity, since late 1997.
The original motivation for this study came from my work on
Internet pricing. In early 1997, I proposed Paris Metro Pricing. It is a
very simple scheme that would at low cost, and without violating the
principles of what is today called Net Neutrality, provide differentiated
levels of services on the Internet. (This is QoS, the still-controversial
and still-sought Holy Grail of the telecommunications industry as well
as of many networking researchers.) But some comments I received
from people running networks led me to question the basic
assumptions that I had made, assumption that were universally held in
the industry, and that I had absorbed from the literature and people
around me, assumptions that held that data networks were chronically
congested, and so on.
I quickly found that in order to get an understanding of where the
Internet was going, and what technologies and services were likely to
thrive, I needed to have a grasp on some of the basic properties of the
physical Internet, such as its size and growth rate. Since nobody
seemed to have any good data, I proceeded to collect this information
myself, largely in collaboration with a colleague at AT&T Labs -
Research, Kerry Coffman. And we did make many discoveries that
were controversial at that time, but have been shown to be correct
since. Internet traffic was doubling only about once a year, not every
100 days (and so the roughly $100 billion in investment in new long
haul fiber networks was destined to vaporize, and duly did), data
networks have light utilization (so almost all QoS technologies are
irrelevant, and have duly been gathering dust), and so on.
I have been continuing these studies ever since, because they are
key to understanding just what is happening. For example, in spite of
all the hoopla about rapidly rising Internet traffic, growth rates appear
to have slowed down to the 50-70 per cent per year range. At that
level, they only barely compensate for improvements in technology,
and so the industry should be striving to induce its customers to use
more capacity, for example, and should give up on many of the
systems they are developing.
Why did your recent co-authored article for IEEE, titled "Metcalfe's
Law is Wrong", generate so much controversy?
Why so much controversy?
Most likely because we punctured this very comforting myth that
had grown up over the last couple of decades. For techies as well as
business people, having a simple quantitative measure, such as that
provided by Metcalfe's Law, which promised rapid payoffs once a
start-up reached a critical size, was a great motivator. It helped to
justify much of what they saw happening on the Internet, especially the
meteoric rise of companies like eBay and Google, and suggested that
they could reasonably hope to achieve similar success. Having such
a myth destroyed, and a much more conservative measure
introduced, dampens the spirit of enterprise.
Was your article "Content is Not King" a building block of sorts that
led to your refutation of Metcalfe's Law? To this day, that 2001 article
continues to be one of the most widely read on First Monday
The observation that led to the "Content is Not King" article came at
the end of 1999, when I was working on the manuscript "The history of
communications and its implications for the Internet" (which was
released for public distribution by AT&T in June 2000). As I was
collecting a variety a statistics about communications technologies
over the centuries, it suddenly dawned on me that the same pattern
had recurred over and over again, namely that decision makers were
pre-occupied with content (meaning material prepared by
professionals for wide distribution), while what people cared the most
about, and were willing to spend far more for, was connectivity,
namely simple business or social exchanges. This observation
became a prominent part of "The history of communications ..." and
was then published separately in First Monday in February 2001 as
"Content is Not King."
That connectivity is king, and not content, continues to be a
contrarian view. Yet it predicted correctly that the over $100 billion that
European telecom operators spent on 3G spectrum was going to be
wasted, and that much of the investment in telecom technologies and
services was and continues to be misdirected.
But it is hard to dislodge a deeply entrenched dogma!
"Content is Not King" did not contribute directly to the refutation of
Metcalfe's Law. But it did reinforce a generally skeptical outlook on all
"accepted wisdom." If something as deeply embedded in general
thinking and decision making as the "content is king" thesis was false,
what other assumptions might be wrong?
"Content is Not King" is very much in line with the Chris Anderson's
"Long Tail" theory, as it says that the wide mass of small connectivity
instances has more value than the few prominent pieces of content,
where so much attention is devoted.
Back in March, your Digital Technology Center (DTC) hosted an
open house to connect industry and academia to discuss the
challenges and possibilities of "data mining".. Has there been
progress in building partnerships?
The data mining open house was very successful, with close to
200 attendees. We are now building on the contacts we made there
and on other occasions, and expect to announce some substantial
data mining activities soon. There is tremendous interest in this topic,
both at our university, and in industry, as everyone is facing a flood of
data, and searching for methods to cope with it.
If we can provide here a trailer for your upcoming projects and
research, what can we look forward to in the next couple years?
I have not published much recently, largely because I have been
doing research that will lead to a series of books. The first one, which
hopefully will get done in the next year, will be a comparison of the
Internet bubble to the British Railway Mania of the 1840s, the greatest
technology mania of all history. There are a number of amazingly
close analogies, but also some interesting contrasts, which suggest
how future technomanias might arise and develop.
For a sense of just how close some of the analogies are, please
read the satirical short story, "The Glenmutchkin Railway," published
in 1845 at the height of the Railway Mania. A copy is on my home
page, and you can also find it elsewhere on the Web. The similarities
to the dot-com promotions are striking.
November 23, 2006
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