Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ICS I: snapshots (guest post)

(Guest Post by Rahul Santhanam)

Title: ICS I : Snapshots

1. Local Arrangements: Kudos to the organizing committee for going far beyond the call of duty and arranging for the coldest Beijing winter in 40 years. By deterring sightseeing, this ensured healthy attendance at talks and more opportunities for informal interactions among the participants.

2. Los Amigos: The surprising chilliness of the weather outside was balanced by an equally surprising warmth indoors. High and low mixed with each other, strangers did not scruple to say hello. Key gambits from FOCS and STOC such as the unrecognition (looking right through someone you've met many times before) and the Arctic Smile (the frozen mask whose meaning is - "There's nothing I'd like more than not to speak to you") seemed absent. Not that these gambits are signs of hostility - rather, in our community, they seem the result of social awkwardness together with a consciousness of the limited time available at conferences for attending talks, meeting friends and proving theorems. ICS was friendlier in part because it was more relaxed, but also because it assembled a new "social configuration", with fewer established cliques and hierarchies.

3. Law of the Excluded Middle: There were a lot of distinguished attendees at the conference - people who've had seminal ideas and founded entire fields, but also a significant younger crowd of grad students, postdocs and post-postdocs. The "middle level" of people at the post-tenure, pre-professor stage were rather sparsely represented, though. Maybe this will change when the conference becomes more established... I do hope it's not an indication of a philosophical difference between generations about what constitutes valuable research.

4. The Dilettante Has Qualms: Which of us haven't seen (or for that matter, haven't been) a conference dilettante - someone who makes sure to attend their own talk and maybe two or three others chosen at random by flipping through the conference proceedings, and spends the rest of their time productively in shopping and sightseeing? It is not possible to completely eliminate the dilettante, but it is possible to discourage him, to give him qualms. The speakers at ICS did a fine job of this by motivating the talks so well - no longer was it acceptable to stay away by claiming you knew nothing about topic X and hence were likely to get anything from a talk on the topic. The fact that a talk was on a completely different topic was almost an incentive to attend. Of course, you did run the risk of having to give up your prejudices about those strange other subfields of theory - "trendy" or "incestuous" or "esoteric", as the case might be.

5. What is New?: So what was new about ICS as a conference ? The face-mask dance! Edible conference food! Re-imbursed conference costs! True, and true, and true, but the question was more about the basic structuring of the conference with regard to talks and sessions. Early on in the process, it seemed there was an initiative to have several panel discussions to supplement the talks. Eventually, we had just one panel discussion, and the talks were pretty conventional, but this is understandable in the first edition of a conference, when the conference is still trying to find its footing. What I would like in ICS talks in the future is more audience participation. You can't agree or disagree with the proof of the parallel repetition theorem - it's just there. With so-called conceptual talks, on the other hand, the speaker usually needs to make a case, with regard to the validity of a new model or the importance of a new perspective. This is best done in a dialogical framework, as in economics talks, where questions and disagreements are plainly voiced. This does make it harder to fit talks into fixed time slots, so maybe it's worth looking at more flexible scheduling...



6. The Hare and the Tortoise: My favourite talks at the conference were Srikanth Srinivasan's (on work with V. Arvind about a connection between circuit complexity and the remote point problem) and Ariel Gabizon's (on work with Avinatan Hassidim about derandomization of streaming algorithms and communication complexity protocols on product distributions). Both talks were excellent, but while Srikanth's was more of a standard-issue talk that was exceptionally clear, Ariel's was distinguished by a stylistic tic. In the middle of each slide, he would pause almost theatrically for a few seconds, as if to allow the audience to absorb what he had just said. Ironically, while the talk would have been memorable even otherwise because it was well-structured, this novel (to me) feature of the talk will make it unforgettable. I'm so used to theorists viewing time as a constraint and making the most of every second they have available; Ariel's tactic of having time make its presence felt in a positive rather than negative way seems liberating.

I was told just before my second talk that the time slot had been cut down from 30 minutes to 25 minutes, and when I expressed my worries to my session chair Mike Saks about how I'd adjust, he advised me to speak 6/5th as fast, referencing an old story about a Narendra Karmarkar talk. Maybe it's time now to start preparing 15 minute talks for 25 minute slots and to speak 5/3rd as slowly. I remember reading once during Obama's election campaign that the power of his speaking style owed a lot to the measured way he spoke - speaking slowly is a sign of confidence, and what is said becomes, ahem, more momentous. Come to think of it, we already do have a speaker in our community - Ran Raz (perhaps not coincidentally, Ariel's PhD advisor) - whose talks illustrate perfectly the virtues of simplicity, clarity and not being rushed.

23 comments:

  1. The complexity landscape is going crazy in the past year or so!

    Venkat -> CMU
    Madhu -> Microsoft
    Boaz -> Microsoft
    Omer -> Microsoft
    Luca -> Stanford

    Where should a budding complexity theorist go to grad school?

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  2. Microsoft, clearly.

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  3. "Los Amigos" was too funny!

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  4. what is "post-tenure, pre-professor" exactly?

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  5. Chris -> Georgia Tech
    Anup -> Washington
    Yuri -> TTI

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  6. Anon #1 - Not Berkeley. The University of California system is beginning to collapse, and that's reflected in faculty moves (Luca to Stanford, CMU outbid them for Venkat, etc.).

    Berkeley has traditionally enjoyed the highest yield rate of the top 4 schools. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the year they crack.

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  7. Which Chris is going to Georgia Tech?

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  8. Which Chris is going to Georgia Tech?

    Peikert

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  9. It would have been good if you could have covered some technical part of the conference, rather than emphasizing on the arrangements etc..I am more interested to know about the papers and how would you compare their contents with traditional FOCS/STOC/SODA ?

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  10. Hello All,

    I am a UC Berkeley graduate student of Luca’s that attended (and presented) at the ICS conference. The ICS conference was a big success and a lot of fun. I thank the organizers, and other participants and presenters for making it so. With regards to comparing the papers to STOC/FOCS/SODA, I think that ICS had a different objective (probably different PC members had slightly different objectives) for the papers admitted. A surprising number of the papers would be very strong STOC/FOCS submissions. Others probably would not have been accepted to STOC/FOCS, but I don’t think this makes them less valuable, just different. Many of the papers presented a new idea, area, or direction, and showed some initial results as a proof of concept of fruitfulness of the idea/area/direction, thus providing an invitation to a new line of research. In such papers, sometimes the “initial” results were rather preliminary and other times more robust. But I think that all the talks I saw did a good job illustrating that the idea/area/directly they sought to promote was compelling. As other bloggers have commented, these types of papers make for engaging talks.

    While Luca’s departure from Berkeley is sad (especially for me), Berkeley is still a great place to be for theoretical computer science and complexity theory in particular. A glance through Umesh Vazirani’s past students is one possible way to start convincing yourself. Currently, we also have a very strong cast of students that I am honored to share a hallway with (in addition to the strong list of professors). The professors have been very good at shielding the students from the effects of the financial crisis, which I personally have not felt at all (other than the big exception of Luca’s departure).

    With regards to Anon #6, disagree strongly with your conclusion that UC Berkeley is no longer the place to be for budding complexity theorists (though I will say there are other additional places to be for complexity, which is great). Additionally, I think the information you used to arrive at this conclusion may be out of date. In particular, UC Berkeley’s past yield is probably best characterized as sporadic. We have 1 fourth year, because only one person (of 7, I think) accepted that year (was that the year Berkeley cracked?) I guess not, because we have 12 second years (11 admitted, 10 accepted, one differed, two moved into theory from other areas).

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  11. Should we scientist not care about human rights issues in china ?

    if anything then we are doing the wrong thing in attending any conferences in china. We should set an example.
    We are all hypocrites to accept invitations from the conferences given that everything has been subsidized by a human rights unfriendly regime.

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  12. Do you really think the US (that has Guantanamo and has killed/maimed > 1 million in Iraq and Afganistan) is not also violating human rights?

    Where should we have CS conferences? In Antartica?

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  13. what? and encourage the sealers and whalers?

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  14. WHERE SHOULD WE HAVE TCS CONFERENCES9:54 PM, January 13, 2010

    for mainland anon:

    I would argue that we Americans have not been the best example (lately) of Human Rights ourselves, the best example is actually not IRAQ as this is too plain and clear to see.... it is our inability to stop cooperating with regimes like China's. If we really wanted to put an end to the human rights violations, we should employ the same strategy that we employ against north korea. But why don't we do this ? MONEY talks.

    These conferences were hosted by the Chinese government, and i am at a loss for words when I see people neglecting this fact and just accepting first class tickets to Beijing, and 5 star accommodation. Are you guys blind ? This is being so hypocritical on all participants of this conference.

    WHERE SHOULD WE HAVE TCS CONFERENCES? That's not easy to answer. A country that is known not to be a human rights violator.

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  15. What about Israel!!!

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  16. To anon 8:54

    Employing logic, one can determine that it is a worse violation of human rights to kill other people than to communicate with another regime. So if you want to say that we should not participate in a conference sponsored by chinese government, why should we participate in a US conference, where most people are paying their conference fees with NSF grants?

    Please use your head.

    ps. Is there any evidence that by ignoring the North Koreans, and punishing all the innocent North Korean people, we are actually bringing about an end to their regime, rather than just bringing greater hardship to the people?

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  17. To Last Anon:

    I guess if anyone should use his brain, then it's u (assuming you have one). According to anon 8:54, we should also not attend U.S. conferences, maybe thus the name "where should we have tcs conferences" ????

    Apropro logic, you seem to fail to understand the logic behind your sponsorship.

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  18. Calm down children.

    And why don't you have conferences in Australia if you are worried about human rights abuses, there is relatively little there.

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  19. Should we scientist not care about human rights issues in china ?


    No, not necessarily. There are more important things than what you call "human rights" (e.g., existence, survival, etc.).


    We should set an example.

    Actually, no. We should not be anything. Every scientist, when it comes to politics, is just as any other person. Some support China, some don't, and most just don't care; and all these attitudes are legitimate.


    We are all hypocrites to accept invitations from the conferences given that everything has been subsidized by a human rights unfriendly regime.

    No. Most ICS' attendants are not human right activists, and so there is no hypocrisy here.

    Good day.

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  20. Venkat -> CMU
    Madhu -> Microsoft
    Boaz -> Microsoft
    Omer -> Microsoft
    Luca -> Stanford
    Chris -> Georgia Tech
    Anup -> Washington
    Yuri -> TTI


    Would you please specify the surnames:
    Who is Yuri? Who is Venkat? Who is Anup? and who is Chris?

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  21. Venkat Guruswami -> CMU
    Madhu Sudan -> Microsoft
    Boaz Barak -> Microsoft
    Omer Reingold -> Microsoft
    Luca Trevisan -> Stanford
    Chris Peikert -> Georgia Tech
    Anup Rao -> Washington
    Yury Makarychev (I think) -> TTI

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  22. I don't see why people are arguing about not going to a conference hosted by chinese government. All I see is an opportunity to spread science and educate people more about it. "Perhaps" this will only help the cause.

    Also, as scientists we should not go into how such an opportunity is created. As a human being, we should be. But that is considering the issue at a different dimension which is independent of your profession (scientists, doctors, artists, nobodies etc). And whatever steps you take for that, should be taken against everyone and not just China, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

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  23. With regards to comment 11, this is nice to hear as exactly the same thought crossed my mind the first time I was invited to a ITCS event. I was actually thinking of emailing back a refusal to come under these grounds. But the the thought occured to me, can I really be sure that the same argument could not be made against an event supported by *my* government. And second, what is the logic here? That the Chinese government should only be allowed to spend money on bad things, but if they want to support science we won't let them?

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