As a first-generation American who is married to a card-carrying Native American, I celebrate Thanksgiving the traditional way: a day of gluttony followed by yummy leftovers. But, trite as it may be, I do like to take the time to reflect on the countless things for which I am thankful. A wonderful family, of course, but also the great fortune to live in an age where some of the subjects that I find most intellectually stimulating have become highly relevant to our practical daily lives.
Consider information retrieval. Perhaps I’m dating myself, but an undergraduate computer science major, I hardly imagined that information retrieval would have much significance outside of academia. Sure, there were commercial IR systems being built in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that web search brought IR to the mainstream. Today, it’s hard to imagine studying computer science without learning about IR. Sure, my career makes me a tad biased, but it is undeniable that information retrieval is one of the defining problems of our generation.
And then there are social networks. When I studied graph drawing in the 1990s, the canonical example of a social network was “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon“. Sure, many of my peers would talk about their Erdős numbers (they were more discreet about their placement in the Tarjan graph), but the study of social networks was surely an academic pursuit. Who would imagine that, barely a decade later, a movie entitled The Social Network would be a blockbuster movie grossing $175M? Leaving aside Hollywood, social networks have become a significant part of our daily lives. Not only do Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn account for a large fraction of our time online, but they also affect our offline personal and professional lives.
From childhood, I’ve been interested in mathematics, computer science, and psychology. Living in an age of information retrieval and social networks means that I can apply these interests in my daily work. Today I give thanks for being born at the right place and right time, blessed with a lifetime of interesting and practical problems to solve. Happy Thanksgiving to all, and enjoy the leftovers!