Sunday, January 10, 2021

The ACM History Committee call for proposals looks wrong

 In November I (and prob everyone in the ACM) got an email that was a call for proposal from the ACM History committee. Here is a pointer to it. 

One of the passages in it just seems wrong to me:

This fellowship program is designed to support research and/or curatorial projects related to ACM's professional and educational activities and/or to ACM's rich institutional history including its organization, SIG activities, and conferences. 

I will give  examples of history projects that are interesting but do not fit the description. I challenge you to give me a history project that is interesting that does fit the bill. 

1) Compare and contrast how NP-completeness developed in America and in the USSR. For the USSR side it would be an expansion of  Trakhtenbrot's article here. OH, no good, Leonid Levin was not a member of the ACM.

2) Measure how various CS fields have changed by looking at the topics on the CALL FOR PAPERS for a conference. This would be a MASSIVE expansion of my blog post on how CCC call for papers, changed , see here. OH, I could only do ACM conferences. STOC but not FOCS. Okay, it makes perfect sense to study only ACM conference. Oh wait. IT MAKES NO SENSE WHATSOEVER.

3) When did mathematicians begin looking at P vs NP seriously? (e.g.,  In  The Handbook of Mathematical Logic from 1977 only one article mentions P vs NP: Michael Rabin's article on Decidable theories mentioned that even decidable theories may take a long time to decide and noted the importance of the P vs NP problem). How did MATH and CS  interact early on and now? This would need  one to look at math journals. How many of those are ACM? I would guess very few. 

4) When did engineers begin looking at P vs NP seriously, or even notice it? Same issue as the last item. 

5) Looking at how Programming lang design has changed one would have to only look at conference and journals that were ACM. And for those that were ACM but then dropped ACM you might only be able to use them up to the cutoff year. 

6) Which academic studies eventually lead to practical products people can use? This is a really broad topic so one could narrow it down to just academic studies that appeared in ACM journals or conferences. Is that a good way to narrow the focus? Spoiler alert: NO.

7) I recently filled out a survey about the future of theory and if it is insular (the topic of another post surely). Most of the questions were about ``STOC-FOCS'' The people who did the survey clearly do not care that one is ACM and one is IEEE. Does anyone? I ask non-rhetorically. 

Despite the capitol letters, I am not so much mad as puzzled. So I ask non-rhetorically: 

Q1) Did the ACM really mean for people to do history in a way where you can only use ACM materials? 

Q2) If no then please rewrite the Call for Proposals. 

Q3) If yes then give examples of studies that would be interesting. 

I am not asking to be snarky, I really want to know. And I note that interesting is subjective. 

(ADDED LATER- two historians who have worked with this kind of history left comments that indicate the grant is FINE with non-ACM stuff, so Q1 above seems to have the answer NO. Given that they should rewrite the call for proposal next time they do this. ALSO- the historians left pointers to VERY INTERESTING papers they wrote.) 


  1. We've indeed been very interested in investigating the first project for quite a while. Thus, if anybody wants to seriously investigate the first topic, then we'd be happy to help on the USSR side: we're in Novosibirsk, where Lyapunov and Trakhtenbrot were working, and have access to many sources.

    Best wishes,
    René van Bevern and Viktoriia Slugina,
    Novosibirsk State University, Institute of Mathematics, and Institute of History of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences

  2. Why's it puzzling for the ACM History Committee limit to ACM History?

  3. What is puzzling to me is that I cannot imagine anything interesting coming out of it. I want to be proven wrong by having someone post an interesting project that only involves ACM conferences or Journals, OR tell me that the call-for-proposals is incorrect.

    bill g.

  4. I don't see that the quoted passage excludes the projects you suggested: if there's a course called "European History" at some school, it doesn't mean there can't be any mention of any events outside Europe, just that the events included will all relate to Europe.

  5. ``related to ACM professional and educational and/or ACMs rich institutional history''

    This sounds to me like it has to be ACM related. If that is not what they meant they should leave ACM out of the description entirely.

    1. I agree it seems the topics have to be related to the ACM, but I don't think that means there can't be mention of anything non-ACM. In a course on European history, I wouldn't be surprised to see a question like "Compare and contrast how democracy developed in America and in Europe" even though America isn't in Europe. Similarly, I wouldn't be surprised to see the ACM agree to fund "Compare and contrast how NP-completeness developed in America and in the USSR" even though Levin wasn't a member of the ACM.

    2. Oops, ok, this seems to have been cleared up with Tomas Petricek's comment and your reply.

  6. The ACM history committee's purpose "is to foster preservation and interpretation of the history of the ACM and its role in the development of computing". So this call is consistent with the purpose.

    The IEEE computer society history committee has a broader mission "to preserve and document the history of computing, with particular attention to the history of the IEEE Computer Society." In particular, the IEEE publishes the Annals of the History of Computing, which is about computing, not the IEEE in particular. It has articles by Hartmanis and Trakhtenbrot that address some of your questions above.

    Why the ACM does not have a committee or SIG devoted to the history of computing in general is a valid question.

  7. There are some very good historians who have deservedly received the grant (during the past decade).

    The irony is that I applied for this grant two or three times (some ten years ago) but was always turned down -- presumably because I had too much of a comp. science profile. I finally got comp. sc. funding to travel to the USA, came back to Europe and wrote my article, and am now advertising it:

    1. First off you are being modest to no mention your brilliant interviews with Knuth

      which I reviewed here:

      Secondly- IF the ACM grant for history is used to support work like yours and other great historians, that is all to the good. I note that your paper DID mention the ACM but only to point out that they sponsor the Turning Award, as a sign of Turings place in the popular imagination.
      a) they should be more clear that this is NOT a history of THE ACMS CONTRIBUTIONS!
      b) I am misreading the call-for-proposal (some other commenter thought that).

      CONGRADS on your article! I've read the abstract and look forward to reading the rest. I may make it a topic of a blog post later.

  8. I was awarded the grant two years ago (I think) and I used the funding to do the intiail work on this project: (not yet published, but I have some plans for that...).

    Is the project "related" to ACM activities? Yeah, a fair number of things it talks about were, for example, published in ACM conferences. But I was quite clear in my application for the funding that this project goes beyond ACM activities and it was not a problem.

    1. Great!
      I am happy to know that the proposal CAN support interesting research. I won't be submitting (I am not a historian) but the projects I proposed seem like they would NOT be rejected for not being ACMish.