Monday, November 08, 2010

The FOCS Experience

You can now watch videos of the recent FOCS talks online. Glencora, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the conference, has her favorites. If you watch any, check out the talk of Dan Spielman for no reason other than to see how a talk should be given.

I don't have other recommendations for I go to very few talks at STOC and FOCS. Why should I when the talks are online? 

I expect most of you, whether or not you attended the meeting, will watch few to none of the videos. If you do it will be on in the background while you check email or are busy with other things. You would feel guilty spending a day just watching videos. If you went to the conference you might feel guilty not going to the talks. Though some people spend the time during the talks checking email or being busy with other things.

The transportation revolution before I was born makes it possible for everyone to meet up in multiple conference every year. The communication revolution since I was born has brought us to the point where there is no more reason to go. We can replicate the activities of a conference from our desktops, a point Bill brought up last week. Many of you go just because you are supposed to give a talk, but you could just record the talk back home.

Going to a conference is an excuse to attend the conference, a justification for missing meetings and office hours and getting others to cover your classes. We pay many dollars for hotel, registration, airfare not because it allows us to attend the conference but because it doesn't allow us not to. 


  1. Lance, it still makes sense to go to conferences to meet people in person and talk with them. There is something that the technology will never (I know, I know, every time a scientist has used "never" it turned out to be wrong) deliver, and that is "being there"! (In Heidegger's words Dasein.) You can't get the feeling without being there.

    Sitting in your living room and playing a first person shooter game or watching US airplanes and missiles flatten Iraqi cities on CNN or watching The Hurt Locker in a IMAX theater are different from being a soldier on the field facing the threat of death every second.

  2. I keep getting the error message: "could not locate the talk, please choose another talk"

  3. are you saying that conferences are a scam to let professors finance vacation time on their department's dime?

  4. When can we expect a post on Ryan's paper?

  5. Last Anonymous: CS departments aren't paying for this. You might be thinking of humanities depts.

    Lance, I don't agree with your perspective on conferences at all. You didn't go to talks and you "talked almost entirely to people [you] already knew." If you aren't interested in learning about new research or in meeting new people, then what really is the point? Our community would quickly become sclerotic if everybody followed your example. I think nearly everyone would be better advised to do the exact opposite: catch up with research in areas outside your radar and meet many new people.

  6. Putting the talks online fulfils another very important purpose that you did not mention. Some people, which unfortunately includes myself at the moment, are too ill to attend conferences and workshops, or have a disability that prevents them from traveling. Others are healthy enough to attend, but lack adequate funding, e.g. researchers from developing countries, or have commitments that prevent them from attending, e.g. new mothers or those caring for a sick relative.

    I can assure you that such people do watch talks online, probably a lot more than you do (at least I watch a lot of them), since it is pretty much the only way to keep up-to-date on the latest research in a sensible way.

    For this audience alone, I think it is important to push for online videos to be posted for every important conference, workshop or seminar series. Even better would be live streaming, which would give the online audience an opportunity to interact, e.g. by asking questions to the speaker. It is now extremely cheap to live-stream, so there is no real excuse for not doing it.

    Online video is far more important to this audience than it is to the average researcher who is embroiled in the daily life of academia. I am not surprised that the average researcher does not watch many videos. After all, if they had the opportunity to go to the conference and chose not to, or did go to the conference and preferred to hang out in the halls, then they have already made their feelings about the talks apparent and there is little reason for their opinion to change after the fact.

    Academia is supposed to be an inclusive environment, so it is important that opinion on these sort of things is not determined exclusively by groups that currently dominate the profession. If you want a strategy to increase the number of ((insert name of currently underrepresented group here)) in academia then providing online access to all important research resources should be part of it.

  7. Here are four things (other than my official duties) that keep me attending conferences. They are not in order of importance:

    1. Being forced to put the research side first for a concentrated period of time.

    2. The energy (or otherwise) from the in-person experience that is not replicated online even with the quality of the current videos. This is kind of like seeing a movie with a crowd in the theater versus at home.

    3. The hallway conversations catching up with friends and others, and getting the pulse of the field.

    4. Learning something significant in an off-hand or planned conversation that completely changes what I want to work on or how I will approach a problem (either because the approach I had been using had already been tried, was doomed to failure, or because another approach seemed much more promising).

    On a pure cost basis, this last point alone has easily justified all the conferences I have attended over the years when you compare the cost of attending conferences with the cost of a wasted month on summer salary or a wasted grad student academic term.

  8. 1) I AGREE with Matt and want to extend it:
    for people who can't go for whatever reason (disability, financial, family obligations, location, others) its important to have the talks on line.

    2) I think Lance UNDERVALUES the talks.
    I goto about half of the talks. Its important to get a sense of what people are working on, what NON-important problems have been solved (the important ones you will hear about anyway).
    If I understand WHAT is being worked on and WHAT they did then I am happy I went. Some of it inspires research
    (or in my case projects for HS and
    ugrad students) but even just KNOWING stuff is of value.

  9. I strongly agree with the comments of Matt Leifer.

  10. I got an email about my comment
    (why didn't he post? Oh well)
    asking how many of the FOCS videos
    I really will watch.

    I consider that a CHALLENGE.
    Jan is winter Break.
    I will post on Feb 1 (or close to it)
    how many I watched by then.

    Its a good question- abstractly I want
    to watch them, but actions are louder than WORDS, even when the WORDS are

  11. I'll add another "agree" to Matt's post, and expand it to another group: amateurs. A lot of the internet has been about empowering the amateur, letting anybody publish a video, a blog, whatever. This applies to research as well. I got a BS in CS, enjoyed theory but went into industry. Between Arxiv, blogs like this, and conference videos I can keep somewhat abreast of topics that interest me. I may or may not eventually contribute something original, but without free/cheap academic internet content it'd be even less likely.

  12. FOCS 2010 was my first theory conference attended. I had to travel around 30 hours by plane to get there and spent nearly 1300 dollars on tickets alone.

    Being only an undergraduate, I had to do a lot of reading to understand even the basics of every paper. Every talk was a challenge of grasping this new idea.

    Maybe you have been to too many conferences and you grew tired of them. However, as a toddler researcher I can tell you that those 4 days were very exciting for me. There are few things I'd rather do those 4 days.

    I got to know young people with the same interests as me and even talk to some distinguished researchers. Plus, I got the feel of how the community interacts, something that is going to be helpful to me in the next years.

    I agree with Lance that the new way of learning research is more efficient than the old ones. But there's more than efficiency in the real world.

    Just wanted to share with you how a young researcher feels like.

  13. I can't resist not adding this:

    I was planning to go to FOCS for several months, but due to some other travel that came up around the same time I decided not to go to FOCS. Since I had it in my calendar, my days were free (except for days when I teach) and I took my first vacation day in 10 months.

  14. Anon #5: The departments foot part of the bill one way or another. It might be "paid" by the people who have to cover the classes or by the students who lose office hours or by colleagues having to do more at a meeting that isn't attended. Also, if the actual money isn't at all from the department, it is probably coming from a grant that is being used to finance the vacation.

  15. "We pay many dollars for hotel, registration, airfare not because it allows us to attend the conference but because it doesn't allow us not to."

    What does this mean??????

  16. Lance's link to the FOCS webcast of Ketan Mulmuley's GCT tutorial dovetailed with Dick Lipton's on-line discussion of Ryan Williams (very) recent preprint Non-uniform ACC circuit lower bounds in a way that was mutually illuminating (to me at least).

    What's really nice is the dovetailing of face-to-face intimacy and professional discipline that is associated to traditional meetings and preprints, hybridizing with the openness, speed, and multidisciplinary span that is associated to the web's "agora of ideas".

    Thus, it seems (to me) that traditional meetings and the web agora each are stronger as the other prospers.

  17. To Matt Leifer and others: There's a list of recommended videos at I just added a link to Glencora Borradille's blog post. Please feel free to add links to theory videos you found useful/entertaining/etc.

  18. Another constituency that likes actually attending the conference: isolated theoreticians like me. I came for FOCS (a) because it was close by (las vegas) and (b) because I always get juiced up and energized by talking to people, listening to talks and generally being within a hothouse of research discussions. If you're at a top theory place, this environment is already present, and maybe conferences don't have that much marginal benefit, but if you're not, then it's an immense boost. I always return home fired up with at least 5-6 new questions to think about, or new ideas for old problems that I'm stuck on.

  19. I have to agree with Suresh's thoughts. Though I haven't been involved for that long yet (and so some of this is naturally mixed with the feeling of "everything" being new), I definitely can relate with the sense of coming home with a new perspective on problems I'm working on.

    Plus, it really can be a breath of fresh air to be immersed in a crowd of theoryfolk for a few days. In a few (but important) ways, you can identify with the people you find at conferences where you wouldn't with others at home.

  20. I personally prefer watching videos on attending the talks physically. The advantage is enormous. One can understand much more, and with his\her own pace, and can of course save it for later times.
    There is no real comparison.

    On the other hand, what I find most helpful is actually reading a paper. And by that I mean a full version of a paper.

    Out of five possible research interactions, this is what I think is the order of importance and contribution to ones research:

    1. Reading a paper (full version. I rarely read conference versions).

    2. Talking personally with someone about research.

    3. Watching an on-line video of a talk.

    4. Reading a technical blog, or discussion on the web.

    5. Attending a talk.

    Of course, this varies with personal taste.