Sunday, October 21, 2007

FOCS III

More from Nicole Immorlica from FOCS.

The first day of FOCS is over. The highlight of the afternoon was the talk by Nancy Lynch, winner of the Knuth Prize. She began with, as one attendee put it, a nostalgic synopsis of FOCS/STOC from her first Denver 1972 conference in a cheap hotel across from a dirty movie theater on through the splintering of theory and distributed computing in the 80s. She then launched into a very accessible description of her famous paper on the impossibility of distributed consensus. The talk ended with an overview of current and future work in the field.

I think everyone in the audience was pretty satisfied with her outlined research agenda involving models of distributed computing on mobile networks until the air traffic controller example. She primed us by suggesting that her research could replace traffic lights with virtual traffic lights, which made me tense up slightly. Then she suggested we could even replace human air traffic controllers with virtual ones. While we all understand the benefits (e.g., you can have controllers over the ocean, machines don't get tired, etc.), I think we all had a sort of collective gasp. I guess at the end of the day, I just want to know there's a human behind it all, attentive and directly in charge.

One more thing I think is worth mentioning – this is the first Knuth prize (out of 8) awarded to a woman. This same year was the first year (out of 41) that a woman, Fran Allen, won the Turing award. This trend is both alarming (it took 41 years?) and encouraging (ample research and personal experience demonstrates the significance of female role models for professional women). Congratulations and my sincere gratitude to you both for paving the way.

21 comments:

  1. I was fortunate enough not to land an academic job and recently joined a wall st. firm. I can tell you that academia is pathetic in terms of diversity compared to what you see in corporates. I was really stunned to notice the difference and am thankful for every day that I am not in a university. I feel much more accepted here than I ever did in 12 years of higher education in four different countries.

    While you're at it, how many black people are attending FOCS?

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  2. Anon#1, if you are so happy not be in academia, why are you trolling on this blog?

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  3. Anon #2: Reading this blog makes me even happier not to be in academia.

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  4. On a more positive note...

    There are many other qualified women in theory that could win this award (and others).

    Having initiated Lynch's nomination to the Knuth prize, let me tell you:
    It's like the lottery---you have to buy the tickets...
    In order for someone to win the award, she (or he) has to be nominated. It takes a bit of work, but it's easier than it seems, and anyone can be a nominator.

    It makes a difference, and it's a great way to show your appreciation for someone.

    Congratulations, Nancy!

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  5. Anon 1 is a sour grape.

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  6. Anon 1 is a sour grape.

    That s/he is, which does not mean all s/he said is wrong.

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  7. "She began with, as one attendee put it, a nostalgic synopsis of FOCS/STOC from her first Denver 1972 conference in a cheap hotel across from a dirty movie theater on through the splintering of theory and distributed computing in the 80s."

    And now we are staying at ritzy hotels and charging $520 registration fees (STOC 08). What happened? Is it that the community has aged and has more money? These prices are a daunting barrier to submitting papers.

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  8. In support of anon #1, if you look at the picture posted on this blog from the talk, there are very few women, if any, pictured. That's sad especially since we're celebrating this year's Knuth and Turing prize winners. Also, there aren't many black people or other minorities in the picture either. I think anon #1 may be a case of sour grapes, but a lack of diversity is very painful when you are one of the minorities.

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  9. I tell students that TCS is a great community for nurturing women researchers, better than many others (in CS and outside CS in say, math, even bio?). We still need to do a lot more.

    About minority groups, we are yet to begin.

    ps: The other day someone described me to a group of employees as the "only black man in the organization who actually braids his hair". :)

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  10. Also, there aren't many [..] other minorities in the picture either.

    About minority groups, we are yet to begin.

    Huh? The picture is chockfull of Indians and Chinese. Last I've checked, those are considered minorities on this side of the pacific ocean.

    Blacks are indeed underrepresented. Ironically locally we have no shortage of West indies black students, yet for one reason or another african-americans do not seem so well represented.

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  11. sex and the city fan5:38 PM, October 23, 2007

    I can't help but wonder, do people in hollywood stop to wonder about the paucity of indians and chinese in their community?

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  12. I am one of the minorities and it surely has its disadvantages being underrepresented in an event. But i don't think its any more than the advantages. Why do people always want to see a nice distribution of people everywhere?

    To anon 1: You go around hockey blogs bitching about how there are no black hockey players?

    Certain groups of people are underrepresented in FOCS not because FOCS is racist, but because those people generally choose not to study any topic within the scope of FOCS.

    Of course maybe i am being defensive and completely misinterpreting your question. Do you mean FOCS is so uncool that no black person would even attend it?

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  13. Master of the obvious reply to Anon #10: If a photo is full of Chinese and Indians scientist, they are clearly not a minority, nor are they considered a minority in the TCS community at all regardless of their status as minorities in the US populace at large. In contrast, for example, African Americans are minorities in the TCS community and the US populace.

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  14. If a photo is full of Chinese and Indians scientist, they are clearly not a minority,


    In other words, "there are no minorities in the picture" is a tautology, since the moment they appear in the picture, they cease to be minorities.

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  15. While you're at it, how many black people are attending FOCS?

    >= 1.

    I think it's an issue of exposure, at the grade school level. If when growing up no one around you mentions that algorithms and rigorous math exist (I don't just mean at school, but extracurricularly too), it's not probable that you'll think to specialize in theoretical computer science when you enter college. Furthermore, TCS is somewhat late in the university curriculum, so by the time you discover its existence it may be too late. In short, I think it would help to spread the TCS gospel to gradeschoolers, and not just in areas with a large Black population -- I think TCS has poor exposure all across America. Why isn't a TCS course a part of the standard US high school curriculum?

    Also, I don't think it's an accident that the corporate world has more diversity. Again, it's just a matter of exposure: who doesn't know what a company is?

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  16. Also, I don't think it's an accident that the corporate world has more diversity. Again, it's just a matter of exposure: who doesn't know what a company is?


    It's also because of the attitude of corporates to diversity. You won't hear anyone say "it's not because we're racist, it's because of society".

    They say that if the employees are not a cross section of society that is a problem to be addressed and if gay employees are not out it's a problem because this means that they are not in an environment that encourages them to be themselves and an employee who wastes energy on being somebody else is not fulfilling his or her full potential.

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  17. Hi, all,

    I really enjoyed getting to attend FOCS and giving this talk! Thanks to everyone involved.

    Nicole: I don't really think we will replace human air-traffic controllers with algorithms. But the FAA is talking about moving to free flight instead of air lanes across the ocean. There are no human ATCs in the middle of the ocean. So what will happen? We need some kind of algorithm!

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  18. To Anon. #12: I think Anon. #1's point was misunderstood. I don't think s/he meant that TCS is racist, but that while the TCS community pats itself on the back for the great strides its made with regards to "diversity", it is really only considering gender diversity.

    I am one of the minorities and it surely has its disadvantages being underrepresented in an event. But i don't think its any more than the advantages.

    I am also "one of these minorities" (I guess that makes at least two of us...) and I strongly disagree. But maybe this has to do with how and where we grew up.

    To Anon. #15: I agree and I also do not think it is the CS community's "fault" for its lack of diversity. The causes are varied and complex and have nothing to do with the community. Most people in CS just go about their business trying to write papers and get tenure without much consideration to race and gender. But the CS community (as every community) is in a position where it could help if it wanted to. Whether it is interested in doing so -- as it seems to be in the case of women -- remains to be seen.

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  19. I actually have the opposite feeling - that the TCS community is very bad in terms of gender diversity but is not at fault in terms of other minorities such as African Americans.

    The reason I think so is that there are extremely few women in TCS compared to overall graduate student population, even in the sciences.

    In contrast, while there are some minorities that are almost unrepresented in TCS, they are also quite unrepresented in science and math grad school in general. So, while it is a problem, it seems to be one way beyond what such a small community can fix. (Although individual members can try to be part of the solution.) It might also be related to socio-economic considerations - if you are the first person in your family to go to college and accumulated debt to do so, you might lean towards going into a more practical field with more lucrative and less risky job prospects than graduate school in any theoretical field.

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  20. To Anon. #19:

    The reason I think so is that there are extremely few women in TCS compared to overall graduate student population, even in the sciences.

    I agree and disagree. At the undergrad level it seems to me there are as many women in CS as in Math, Physics, and most engineering disciplines (not that there are that many to begin with), with the exception of Biology and Biomedical Eng. But I would agree with you at the graduate level (though I think things are slowly changing). Of course this is anecdotal so it means nothing without data, and I'm willing to believe that the trends I've seen are not true in general.

    In contrast, while there are some minorities that are almost unrepresented in TCS, they are also quite unrepresented in science and math grad school in general.

    Here I strongly disagree. There are many more minorities in math, physics, elec. eng., mech. eng., chem eng., etc... Again, this is not the CS community's doing, and the reasons you enumerate make sense to me. But I think Commenter #15 (Jelani) also had it right and that outreach plays a role.

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  21. A non-PC PC?

    I don't know how many of the women in the current FOCS/STOC communities know about the 1989 "all-women" STOC PC.

    Well, Christos Papadimitriou was appointed as PC chair and decided it would be a great idea to highlight the strength of the women in the TCS research community by appointing such a committee. Initially, some spoil-sports expressed doubt that we would be able to cover all the research areas this way.

    The PC members were Fan Chung, Cynthia Dwork, Faith Ellen Fich, Shafi Goldwasser, Debby Joseph, Maria Klawe, myself, Vijaya Ramachandran, Eva Tardos, and Frances Yao. A pretty strong committee, I would say!

    Actually, Avi Wigderson was also on the committee, in addition to Christos. But the rest of us appointed them as "honorary women" for the duration of the PC meeting.

    This turned out be the most intense PC I ever served on. So many of the members had read so many of the papers so carefully. And had very strong opinions. There were even tears in one of two of the paper discussions! But no one doubted that the committee did an excellent job of selecting a great program.

    Probably this sort of thing would be too politically incorrect to do nowadays. It was kind of fun then, though.

    Nancy

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