Thursday, October 28, 2010

Do conference build community? (joint post)

(Joint Post by Daniel Apon and Bill Gasarch. Does doing joint posts build community?)

In GASARCH's post on Will there be a 50th CCC He mentioned that conferences help to build community. One of the comments challenged that. Daniel Apon is very new to the community and William GASARCH is very old to the community, so we decided to do a joint post on the topic: Do Conferences Help Build the Community?
  1. The talks do not build community. The coffee hours and meals should. Do they?
  2. Having people with similar interests all in the same place should build community. Does it?
  3. Does size matter? CCC is only about 100 people so they can all sort-of know each other. MATHFEST has over 1000 so I never saw the same person twice.
  4. I've heard the complaint that older established professors do not bother to talk to younger people in the field. This is bogus in its generality: it varies tremendously from person to person. Also, if an older professor ignores you it might not be that he thinks he is better than you, it could just be that he has no social skills. (YES- there are academic computer scientists who have no social skills!) (I used `he' instead of `he or she' since I have never heard this said about a female established professor.)
  5. Is it worth the money the individual spends going to the conference to build the community? Are there other more cost-efficient ways to build community? I do not know; however, I just want to know, for now, is the current system helping to build community albeit inefficiently.
  6. Bill Gasarch a long time ago and Daniel Apon recently have had very positive conference experiences in terms of getting into the community (see below). We DO NOT claim these experience are typical. We do not know. But we urge you to share your stories, positive and negative. so that we can get a sense of it. Please be brief, to the point, and not nasty.
    1. Bill Gasarch: I went to a workshop on complexity in 1984 (There was no CCC then) where I met Stuart Kurtz and Ron Book, both of whom were friendly to me. My advisor Harry Lewis introduced me to Alan Selman at STOC (probably 1985). Steve Homer (who I had worked with) introduced me to other people at CCC, including Juris Hartmanis. I met long-time collaborator Richard Beigel at the 1986 CCC. All very positive for getting me into the community.
    2. Daniel Apon: My first conference was STOC 2010, and I bumped into Bill during a coffee break between talks. We had previously been in email contact since he was in charge of handling the travel awards for STOC that year, so it made for an easier ice-breaker. He introduced me to Lance and others. Later, when I went to the Barriers II workshop, I met Aaron Sterling (who is regular participant with myself on the TCS StackExchange site), and we had dinner together one night. I also had the pleasure of meeting a number of other people between the two trips and talking some. Here's a non-exhaustive list (just the first few who come to mind): Eric Allender, Dana Moshkovitz, Scott Aaronson, Andy Drucker, Paul Beame, Anup Rao, and Russell Impagliazzo. My impression of everyone were that they were friendly, open, fun (and smart!) people. It was definitely a positive experience getting the chance to interact with those that I did.


  1. I also went to STOC 2010 and didn't feel like professors were interested in talking with me at all.

  2. What exactly do you mean by "community"? Your anecdotes seem a lot more about how you were introduced to people than any actual sense of your thoughts on the topic.

  3. Good point!

    What I really mean is are the conferences
    a good way for people to meet people so that we all tend to know each other.

    Community may be the wrong word.


  4. My experience is that the theory professors are more interested in talking to people they already know.

    I did make a lot of connections to other students though whenever I went to STOC/FOCS - that was nice.

    I have found the machine learning professors more open to talking with students and "outsiders". (Those are the only two communities I have experience with - I don't know what its like in databases/networking/OS etc)

  5. I have had good experiences as a grad student at theory conferences (and as a non-grad student too!) Probably many of these were because someone introduced me to other researchers. However, I want to share a story from STOC 2003.

    I had just finished my first year as a theory grad student and even then, Madhu Sudan was a hero of mine. Madhu was at STOC to give a talk and all the while I "plotted" to go and introduce myself. Finally, I did spot Madhu alone and went and introduced myself. Madhu was super nice and we did some chit chat (where I was at that time (at Austin) etc.) All the while I was furiously trying to think of a technical question so as not to "waste" Madhu's time. I did manage to blurt out a somewhat inane question about his talk (it was on list decoding of some product type codes for a random noise model). Madhu was *very* gracious and very politely answered my question with utmost seriousness. After answering my question, he very politely said he had to talk to Luca and then went off.

    I've had many other conversations with Madhu since then but the first one definitely sticks out for me.

  6. yes theory people don't want to talk to you unless you become one of "them". for that, you need to publish a few stoc/focs. before that they think you are not worth talking to. all other communities are much more approachable, which is probably why they have a greater impact to CS.

  7. In my mind, conferences contribute significantly to a feeling of community. Getting together with a group of people that are interested in what I'm interested, and hearing new ideas and new directions are of utmost importance. Everybody is talking about the "socializing" and that is very important (I very much enjoy catching up with people at conferences), but its not the main issue of community as I see it.

  8. I guess we should all try the 'Grigori Perelman' approach...
    It seemed to have worked just fine, imagine how happy this guy is without know that in fact there is a community at all!?!?!?!?
    We need more Grigoris e less Gs and Ls!

  9. I was at the recent FOCS 2010. While I found it more easy to socialize with graduates, because they were closer to my age and we had more in common to talk about.

    However, I did approach a couple of professors and they didn't shun me, however I found it difficult to talk to them.

    I also didn't want to spend their time, since I didn't have any research to share with them.