Friday, April 09, 2010

What Makes a Lecture "Distiguished"?

In January I gave a Distinguished Lecture in the CS Department at the University of Alberta. In early March I gave essentially the same lecture at Penn State in their regular CSE colloquium. What's the difference?

One is audience. At my Alberta lecture I got a large turnout from the broad CS department. In regular colloquiums I usually just get the CS Theory types and people I know, though at Penn State I happen to know faculty ranging from pure logicians to experimental economists.

I'm more likely to accept an invite as a distinguished lecturer. I don't usually travel to give a regular seminar talk unless I'm using it as an excuse to visit specific people and I didn't really know anyone at Alberta well save for one former NEC colleague. 

Perhaps the biggest difference is attitude. As a distinguished lecturer, people want to talk to me, my schedule is booked solid shuffling from office to office much like an interview trip. People want to hear what I have to say because I was "distinguished". I have no shortage of opinions and I always like an audience willing to hear them.


  1. When Guy Steele gave an early talk about Java at MIT in the mid-1990s, the place was packed. Randall Munroe got the same reception a few years ago. When Donald Knuth gave a series of lectures at MIT in 1999, I drove or flew 800 miles eight times to hear the great and wonderful man. When RMS gave a talk in Moscow in 1993, people came thousands of miles to hear him. I would travel thousands of miles to hear Grigory Perelman, even if I understood few details of his work. If it makes you feel better, I traveled to Penn State to hear your talk recently, and that's how I found your blog.

  2. I think any lecture by Lance Fortnow is a distinguished lecture ;)

  3. Does getting tenure lead to a large ego, or is a large ego required to manage to get tenure?

  4. do you really mean "distigished" ? or is that supposed to be "distinguished" ?

    please explain why so many spelling mistakes occur.

  5. A lecture is distinguished if there is a polynomial-time randomized algorithm that can tell it apart from a random lecture with probability greater than 2/3.