Sunday, October 23, 2011

ITCS: where is the innovation?

I am debating whether to attend ITCS 2012. It's a chance to socialize with the research community. The big plus is that it's in my backyard. I wouldn't need to fly there. I wouldn't have to miss classes. I wouldn't even need to stay at a hotel.

How is it different from STOC/FOCS/SODA? With "innovative" in the title, I am looking for bold, daring, novel features in every aspect of the conference. The classic format has its value, but frankly, it can feel a bit staid. This "innovations" conference may be an opportunity to open the windows and let in some fresh air. This can happen, not only in the research, but also in the organization.

Innovation in the schedule. Is the format going to be the usual sequence of 20-minute talks with no questions and an audience that is for the most part not fully engaged? Will I learn anything there, or will it simply be the usual - primarily a chance to catch up with my friends and colleagues? Microsoft Research, that is helping organize, has the technical power to try out some technical innovations. They could impress us.
- What if they gathered the slides in advance and put them online so that we can look at the slides before attending a talk to help us decide whether we want to attend?
- What if people could attend the talks remotely? What if they had a mirror site in Seattle or Tsinghua, where there would be a secondary meeting gathering the locals?
- What if the audience could vote for the most interesting talks, and at the end of each day we would have the "best talk of the day" prize with a little gold star for the winner, like in kindergarden?
- What if people could, during the talk, send anonymous remarks such as "You just lost me there" in real time, so that the speaker may adjust his talk to his audience?
- What if each speaker gave two short talks, the first summarizing his contributions and the other one (maybe the next day) answering questions, with an interval in between for people to send in their questions? If there were no questions, then the second talk would simply be cancelled.
- What if the talk was given, not by the author, but by one of the program committee members, and the author was only there to contribute the slides and help answer questions?
- What if the contributions were paired up (as happens in economics), each of the two authors gave a 5-minute summary of their paper, and then they would argue about their results for the next half hour, with the help of the moderator and of the audience to steer the discussion in interesting directions with good questions?
There are so many possible innovations. Since this conference, unlike STOC or FOCS, is unencumbered by the constraints of tradition, why not try one innovation, and if it doesn't work, try another one next year? How else are we going to get away from the rut of mind-numbing sequences of technical talks? I wish this conference was less ponderous and took itself less seriously, was more willing to take risks even on the organizational side. I don't really care which innovation is chosen, as long as they do attempt to do something different.

Innovation in the local organization. Is it going to be another of those expensive events, an unmemorable, overpriced banquet at some high-end hotel? Instead, how about something completely different? For example, in this time of economic recession, how about paying $25 for each participant and taking them for dinner at a local soup kitchen (list here)? I bet almost no one among the participants has ever eaten at a soup kitchen, so it could be an interesting experience and would also subsidize the local social services.

The problem is the decisional structure. Who is going to take this kind of decisions? For any proposed innovation, any committee is sure to shoot it down, and the only consensual decision would be the status quo. So, I don't know how change can happen other than in tiny increments. Being bold may be impossible.


  1. What a nice post (should I say "innovative"), Claire! Very thought-provoking.

  2. Claire,

    Certainly an interesting take.

    When ICS started two years ago, I remember asking the people who were organizing it if they had talked with people about the various Hot conferences. (HotNets, HotOS, etc.) It sounded like they wanted to set up a HotTheory conference. I don't think the organizers ever looked in that direction. I'm not saying I know that that would be a positive, innovative approach; however, other communities have gone through this experience of feeling the need to set up an "innovative"-style workshop/conference, and it's not clear as a community that we had studied what they had done to make such an approach successful.

  3. From the call for papers, it seems that the main innovation is supposed to lie in what kind of papers they select ("innovative" as opposed to "merely technical").

  4. Innovations in Theoretical Conference Science...

  5. All problems in the organization of the TCS research come from wrong axioms. Axiom 1: publish your (half-cocked) paper in conference proceedings, not in a journal. Axiom 2: try only "prestigious" conferences. Axiom 3: never try to prepare a journal version.

    But even within these axioms, it is strange that so many people are not happy with the Innovations conference. Strange because this only helps to behave according to these axioms: it is prestigious, and adds one more chance to be accepted.

    Unfortunately, all this "axiomatic theory" is just silly ... So, I prefer journals.

  6. Anonymous 1:51: you're putting forward the standard cynical view of how the field works, and your "prefer journals" solution is the standard counterpoint. You know that your cynical view is exaggerated. You surely know also that the journal solution is not ideal and has its own problems. How about a third way? Any ideas?

  7. @Claire Mathieu: I wouldn't use the word "cynical" to describe the TCS reality. The problem is: we have no third way. You are right: journals is not THE solution. Selection committees count mainly ONLY conference publications. So, we have NO "third way" you are seeking for. Because our brains are damaged. Why we publish? To tell others what we found? No, no - this was many years ago. Forgive this. So, we publish to get a job. (What a shame!) But if this is so, why the Innovations in TCS is so bad? On your "How about a third way?": there is one. Just be fair. Regardless of what streams (conferences, journals) have "to say":. Just stay fair in your mind. The "third way" could be free journals, or the like.

  8. Excellent post, excellent suggestions. The standard conference format, as it stands today, explores only a small fraction of possible solutions to the "creative scientific meeting" problem. I especially like the idea of instant feedback for the speaker (slide full of formulas - screen full of "whoa, got stuck on line 2" comments :))

  9. While not anonymous, there are conferences (less academic, more techie) that have experimented with using twitter as a side-stream for comments about the talks. From what I've heard, this gets terribly distracting after a while. But nevertheles, the technology does exist to augment a talk with a side-feed in real-time.

  10. Also, on the 'preview' mode for speakers: SIGGRAPH has a session where each talk gets a 1-minute preview. it's pretty intense, but it's enough for speakers to flash a few pretty pictures (theorems?) up for the audience. Of course with the size of the conference there, this is a necessity.

  11. CCCG this year had one minute preview sessions. They were fairly popular.

  12. The main issue for me is not the format of the conferences or talks (which could use some innovations for sure) but rather the overload of ideas that one needs to or wants to keep up with. This is also the reason for the proliferation of conferences. I would like to take the optimistic view that there is simply too much good stuff going on. Mechanisms to consolidate, unify, clarify and explain entire sets of papers/fields would be helpful. Recent efforts to produce more surveys (such as the Fnt-TCS series of NOW publishers) are helpful but maybe we need larger incentives. Also, innovations in keeping those surveys and articles up to date and collaborative are valuable.

  13. Anonymous 4:05: it would be nice if I could write a blog post "How to get an academic job". Unfortunately I have little clue how to navigate today's challenging environment.

  14. Chandra: imagine I taught a graduate seminar on FOCS papers. Over the entire semester, at the rate of two times 1.5 hours each week, I would be able to spend 25 minutes on each paper. In other words, an entire semester on all aspects of TCS is compacted into three days of talks during FOCS.

    I agree that there is an overload.

  15. Beautiful post. I specially liked the soup kitchen part. Would help keeping people not so self-absorbed.


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