Monday, October 24, 2005

FOCS Business Meeting

Notes from the FOCS 2005 business meeting, reported by Rocco Servedio.

  • Yuengling, Sam Adams, Aspen Edge (low-carb).

  • Local arrangements: There were 144 non-student registrants and 141 students for a total of 285 registered attendees. Thanks to Avrim Blum and Anupam Gupta for a job well done on local arrangements. An interesting fact: doing local arrangements ourselves saves about $100/person on registration fees.

  • PC report: There were 268 submissions. 7 papers were retracted (an all-time high?); two of these were because of bugs found by the PC and five were initiated by the authors. Authors are encouraged to submit correct papers. There are 62 papers in the proceedings; 3 pairs of papers were merged (these papers got extra space in the proceedings). Distribution of authors (multiple papers means you get counted multiple times): 121 from U.S.A., 23 from Israel. 6 from Canada. 3 from Denmark, Italy, 2 from Germany, India, Czech, Hungary, 1 from Poland, Netherlands, Japan. Average # of authors per paper is 2.64 (or 2.48 depending on how you count merged papers). There were 7 single-author papers.

  • The two papers that were selected for Best Paper awards are "The Unique Games Conjecture, Integrality Gap for Cut Problems and Embeddability of Negative Type Metrics into \ell_1" by Subhash Khot and Nisheeth Vishnoi, and "Correcting Errors Beyond the Guruswami-Sudan Radius in Polynomial Time" by Farzad Parvaresh and Alexander Vardy.

  • Two papers shared the Machtey Award for the best paper authored solely by students. These were "On the Complexity of Real Functions" by Mark Braverman and "On the Complexity of Two-Player Win-Lose Games" by Tim Abbott, Daniel Kane, and Paul Valiant.

  • As all readers of this weblog know, the next CCC (Computational Complexity Conference) will be held in Prague from July 16-20, 2006. The submission deadline is December 4.

  • LICS 2006 will held in Seattle in August 2006 as part of the Federated Logic Conference.

  • FOCS 2006 will be held in Berkeley; Sanjeev Arora will be PC chair.

  • Following an entertaining "Star Wars" themed bid, it was decided that FOCS 2007 will be held in Providence.

  • STOC 2006 will be held May 20-23, 2006 in Seattle. The submission deadline is November 3 (so stop reading this weblog and get back to work).

  • SPAA 2006 will be held July 30-August 2, 2006 in Cambridge, MA.

  • There was a panel discussion on "Exciting the public about (theoretical) computer science." The panelists were Bernard Chazelle, Dick Lipton, Ivars Peterson (writes about math and computer science for Science News), Sara Robinson (freelance writer in math and CS), Steven Rudich, and Eva Tardos; Avrim Blum moderated the discussion. A few fragmentary snapshots from the discussion:

      Chazelle: Computing has never been more important, and never been more misunderstood. We are not doing as good a job of getting our work into the public eye as other fields such as physics. If the broader scientific community comes to use algorithms as a conceptual framework for the problems they are dealing with, we will have done well.

      Lipton: We have lots of really profound and interesting intellectual challenges; one way to excite the public is to talk to them about these fundamental questions.

      Rudich: How do we take what are doing and translate it into problems that people can relate to and care about? We have a million forms of encoding and should be able to do this; everyone can relate to the problem of trying to pack items into a suitcase of limited size.

      Tardos: Whatever you do, it is probably possible to explain it to the public. There is an awful lot of stuff we do that is really not that hard to explain. A straw poll of the audience showed that very few people in our community have ever published in Science or Nature; it would be good if this could change.

      Peterson: Publicity takes effort. The American Chemistry Council is spending twenty million dollars on advertising to sell the importance of research in chemistry. Astronomy often gets the front page of The New York Times; this is because of carefully orchestrated arrangements behind the scenes. The ACM, SIAM, IEEE do no publicity that I (Peterson) am aware of as a journalist. To get into the media: publish in Science and Nature. Lay language summaries and images are provided to the media a week in advance of each issue. There is always a Nature story in the newspaper on Thursday and a Science story on Friday. For newspaper coverage, one writer or a very small group can make a difference.

      Robinson: Even all the approaches suggested above will have only a limited effect. Two reasons for this: (1) Theoretical computer science is hard to understand for the lay public and for reporters (and, as one audience member shouted out, for us). It is easier to write about global warming or why the coyotes are multiplying. (2) There is a perception among science editors that TCS is not what people want to read about: they want stories about health, things that cost a lot of taxpayer dollars, etc. Perhaps we should explore new models such as a dedicated math/science news agency?

      (anonymous science writer audience member): "People like dinosaurs, asteroids, and things coming out of the ground...very little of what you guys have is concrete."

  • Finally, Dick Karp gave a report on behalf of the SIGACT committee on funding for theoretical computer science. The main goal of the committee is to improve stature and support of TCS within NSF. Based on a sample of 90 TCS investigators receiving funding between 2000 and 2004, 23% of funding came from TCS Foundations of Theoretical Computer Science and 55% came from ITR grants (now terminating). The average number of grants/year received per investigator was 2.4, and the median grant size per investigator per year was $70K. The 2005 TCS budget is about $6M. Some concrete items on the agenda for the future are to make a well-documented case that TCS is underfunded and to move TCS up a level in the CCF hierarchy.

    1. Distribution of authors (multiple papers means you get counted multiple times): 121 from U.S.A., 23 from Israel. 6 from Canada. 3 from Denmark, Italy, 2 from Germany, India, Czech, Hungary, 1 from Poland, Netherlands, Japan.

      This seems unusually US-centric. Are statistics from previous meetings available to compare? I am wondering if so few Europeans were included because of the increased hassle of traveling to the US these days, because European theoretical CS has drifted away from the topics represented at STOC/FOCS, because their local conferences have become more attractive...?

    2. The skew is at least partly due to the fact that the many Europeans (and Israelis and Indians) working in the US are counted here as US authors.

    3. Congratulations to Khot, Vishnoi, Vardy and Parvarez. If I am not wrong, Khot is sharing the award third time consecutively!
      Who is the Knuth Prize winner?

    4. People love crypto. Focussing to make crypto even more popular could be a way to get more attention from the public. Then, focuss could be shifted to other areas of theory that are not so "popular" to the average person. For example, start with whatever is new at the time in crypto, and explain why this will affect a person's life. Each of these articles should also briefly explain the correlation between this particular subject and other areas of theory, including fundamental basic concepts, and tons of examples that the lay reader can relate to. Eventually (in quite a few years, most probably), articles that have nothing to do with crypto could be written in areas that have been exposed to the public. I think this would work as long as there are many examples to get the reader interested.

    5. Re "many Europeans (and Israelis and Indians) working in the US are counted here as US authors" � sure. By European, I meant education and affiliation, not ethnicity.

      There are very few FOCS authors at European institutions, this year at least, especially relative to some other algorithms conferences I frequent (comp geom, graph drawing) which seem to be at least half European even when located in the US, and I wondered if anyone had any ideas why.

    6. "The average number of grants/year received per investigator was 2.4.."
      Does this mean that the average number of active grants for a PI with funding is 2.4? This is a bit hard to believe.
      Given that the average grant was 70K/year, that means the average person with funding has >150K per year. That is a lot of money, particularly given the number of regular research contributers that have 0K/year of funding.

    7. I completely agree with Al's comment. I think the TCS community should first focus on heavily promiting a handful of subjects that the public at large *already* finds interesting including crypto, learning theory, game theory and quantum computing. Of course there are others, but these come to mind for the following reasons.

      Crypto due to its history and its connection to political, military and diplomatic intrigue.

      Machine learning due to its connection to artificial intelligence.

      Game theory because since "A beutiful mind", everyone seems interested in it.

      Quantum computing due to its connection to physics.

      I'm sure that through these fields, one could easily introduce other TCS fields and ideas.

      I think we also need TCS members that are willing to speculate about the *philosophical* implications of our results. Hate it or love it, when physicists speculate about the multi-verse or living in 11 dimensions, they attract the public's interest.

    8. Since Joan and I ran the numbers, I'll comment on the funding.

      We chose 100 names in theoretical computer science. Obviously, this already introduces a bias; there are undoubtedly lots of people, including people who don't get funding, not on the list; the list of 100 was names off the top of our heads, which are likely to tend to top people in the field.

      Of these 100 people, 90 had NSF grants in the 2000-2005 period. (We only considered grant numbered 00- or higher.) These 90 people had 216 grants over the period. This is where the 2.4 grants/PI figure must have come from, but you have to be a little careful. Each grant might cover more than 1 PI; and each grant might not last a 5 year period. But roughly speaking, of those people that were funded, over this period they averaged more than 2 grant per PI.

      The "average" person with funding having 150K per yer sounds about right to me. After overhead, that's lucky to cover 2 students, 2 months summer salary, and some travel. Many people have more than 2 students (although probably not more than 2 funded by the NSF). Again, the actual number is probably somewhat less than this. And there are definitely some outliers getting more money-- these must be the people that can still fund post-docs on NSF money. :)


    9. Hi,

      My 2cents: each one of us can (and should) do something: submit appropriate results to science or nature, write a popular expository article, talk to high school students, arrange a wide-audience lecture in your
      campus, design a new course, write a book, volunteer for NSF positions, have a weblog...

      don't leave it to a few activists to do everything

      I believe (and it seems that bigger experts also agree) we have barely scratched the surface of understanding computation, and we're already getting so many new insights on age-old notions such as creativity, proofs, interaction, prediction,...

      In some sense, it's our duty to share what we already know with the rest of the world. It's also up to us to ensure that we and our students will have the people and resources needed to carry on this mission.


    10. Yes. We can also lobby Congress, stage a rally, make promotional videos, infomercials, stand on street corners and hand out some of our papers to passers-by, compose TCS-related rap music to enagage more teenagers, etc, etc, etc.

    11. Yes. We can also lobby Congress, stage a rally, make promotional videos, infomercials, stand on street corners and hand out some of our papers to passers-by, compose TCS-related rap music to enagage more teenagers, etc, etc, etc.

      I love the rap music idea. (It's an in-thing for Harvard profs...)

      But seriously, why the sarcasm? Boaz suggested basic ways to expose our field and our work to a broader audience -- for long-term good, without explicitly aiming for money sources -- so why is that a bad thing? Suresh over at geomblog mentioned this line from G. H. Hardy's apology:

      There is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

      I guess I had been hoping that we didn't really have that attitude in TCS, especially since I consider it a part of my job to write surveys, books, and articles for a general audience. I suppose I'll just start wearing a big sign saying "second-rate mind".

    12. I think the anonymous sarcastic post is unfortunate. So is Hardy's attitude reflected in his quote. It does not really represent the present day opinions of mathematicians. Several public figures in mathematics, and AMS in particular, actively work to enable the public and the funding agencies appreciate the long-term importance and intellectual depth of mathematics. As much as I respect Hardy as an eminent mathemtician, I don't think we should take his personal opinions as exemplary of mathematicians. He obviously lived in a different time and culture, perhaps isolated even then.

    13. We even have examples of TCS-themed rap, although none so far from Harvard professors. (Even former Harvard professors moved to Princeton.) Don't know whether it engages teenagers, though.

      As for Hardy, I prefer Rule 6 from Gian-Carlo Rota's Ten Rules for the Survival of a Mathematics Department. The rule is simply "WRITE EXPOSITORY PAPERS." The reasoning behind it is worth a look, but too long to repost here.

      Finally, I noticed that one of the NSF PR pieces is actually about list decoding:

    14. Hardy was a snob who set back mathematics by being one of the founders of the ill-begotten concept of "pure mathematics".

      Ironically God took personal revenge on G.H. by making his beloved number theory one of the most applied areas of mathematics in the late XX century.

    15. I think the distinction between pure and applied number theory is not whether it gets applied or not. The distinction is more causal as to if the quest for solving the problem comes out of the real world or just out of an inquistive and beautiful mind! In that way Hardy would still have been satisfied with the currest status of research in Number Theory.

    16. I think the distinction between pure and applied number theory is not whether it gets applied or not... In that way Hardy would still have been satisfied with the currest status of research in Number Theory.

      I don't think so. In his "Mathematician's Apology" he is explicitly states that he is proud that number theory has no applications.

    17. TCS can join in the "intelligent design" controversy (and thus create some press for itself) by showing the power of randomness.

    18. Besides Science and Nature, it might be useful if computer scientists contribute to shaping school curricula. I am not sure what the situation is in the US, but in India whatever CS is taught in schools tends to be heavily focussed on Windows tools and perhaps a few database ideas. I dont think these children are going to grow up to like CS for what we would like to think of as being the "right reasons".

    19. I'm not sure if anyone will even notice this post or how I even came to be writing it, but to the critics of the anonymous sarcastic poster: lighten the hell up will ya. The guy/girl who wrote it was obviously kidding around. Perhaps TCS will get more publicity by not so goddamn serious.

      Peace out; and remember TCS doesn't stand for Theoretical Computer Science - oh no - it stands for: The Cool Society!