Saturday, December 12, 2020

Quarterly Th. Wksp `at' Northwestern, and thoughts inspired by it

 On the Northwestern CS Theory Group there is a set of Quarterly Theory Workshops. There is one coming up on Dec 17-18, 2020, called the Junior Theorists Workshop. Take a look and possibly go to it! Because it is virtual you do not need to plan that much ahead- though they do want you to register. 

1) I notice broadly two kinds of meetings:

Based on WHO will be there, e.g., JUNIOR theorists

Based on TOPIC: e.g., there was a meeting on ALGORITHMIC FAIRNESS.

2) These types of meetings (NY Theory day is another) are, I believe, intended to be for people that are local (more on that later). But because the meeting will be on zoom, geography is no longer an impediment for either the attendees or the speakers. 

3) Before covid there was some talk of  `Gee, flying off to STOC, FOCS, other conferences is bad for the environment, what to do about that?'. With that in mind, here is a history which might not be true but makes a point:

In an earlier era FOCS/STOC were attended by mostly Americans and ICALP was attended by mostly Europeans.  I do not think there was any policy of discrimination on admissions, but it was more like Americans just did not submit to ICALP as much, nor Europeans  to FOCS/STOC. But over time when these conferences got to be considered prestigious people would routinely submit to either one depending on timing. If your paper was done in time for Conf X deadline, that's where you submit. If it does not get in then  you edit it some, perhaps add some new results, and submit to Conf Y. 

So one solution to the air-travel-global-Warming   problem of conferences is go back to a time (which may not have ever existed) where it was just understood that you go to LOCAL conferences. Math does this, but it helps that their regional conferences are not  prestigious. But even they don't quite get it right: the joint AMS-MAA meeting alternates coasts. One year when it was in California they invited me to be a guest speaker (on the Muffin Problem). The following year it was in Baltimore. Note that I live in Maryland, so perhaps they should have waited a year. 

How to encourage people to submit locally. I DO NOT want to have a rule or a diff standard for those who don't. As such... I have no idea. 

4)  Are virtual conferences a good idea? This is a hot topic now so I won't dwell on it, just to say that there is still something about being there IN PERSON, meeting people, serendipity that makes live confs better.

However, to have it at the same time be virtual and recorded will be VERY HELPFL to those who can't afford to go for whatever reason. 

And of course there is the whole issue of if we should have prestigious conferences, which I won't get into now. Or later. That's more Lance's issue (he thinks no). 


  1. Recording a virtual conference to share freely is surely a great benefit to people who wouldn't be able to go. But this year I've been noticing a downside for those who would have gone: if I'm not devoting my full day to an event like a conference, then it's hard to dedicate the time to actually consume the recordings.

    This leads to a sort of paradox, where the high availability of the session recordings dramatically reduces the urgency to watch them, and it may be weeks or months before I actually do. It also means that, for a conference where there are several parallel tracks, instead of having one day of session records available, maybe it's 4 or 5. Theoretically it feels like a benefit, but in practice it feels more like a burden.

  2. You mainly looked from an occidental viewpoint.
    What about people in India, Singapore, China or Australia?
    Note that out of 100 top theory (algorithms) institutions in CS Ranking, around 50 are from North America, 25 are from Europe, 25 are from Asia (including Israel).

    TCS has started/blossomed in Asian universities quite late, but now they are catching with the world. FSTTCS or ISAAC is nowhere comparable in reputation with ICALP or STOC/FOCS. Will the community give same importance? Will the papers get same visibility?

  3. Thanks for the shout out Bill! About five years ago (wow, time flies) we replace four weekly theory seminar with a quarterly workshop series. The reformat has been great, both better for the audience and the speakers. This is our third year with the junior theorists workshop and it is one of our favorites!!

    I also can't resist commenting on virtual conferences. Virtual conferences can be fantastic, but it really depends a lot on the organization and formatting.

    After half a year we've figured out how to do them very well. But it make take a while longer for everyone to catch on.

  4. I will admit, that I truly enjoy going to conferences - meeting colleagues, starting new discussions and collaborations etc. I have been attending talks all year by zoom, and my retention of those talks is really low. But the same is true of plays I saw on Broadway vs watching a movie on the flight. Sometimes when I fly back from India I watch 4 movies on the trip, but cannot even name all 4 after I land. I still recall seeing Cats in NYC in Dec 1986 and all the plays I saw after that as well - usually once every two years. I agree that for people who cannot travel, virtual conference allow them an opportunity to engage with the community and that is super important as well.