One of the last tasks I have as STOC chair is trying to organize the schedule, which involves the unpleasant subtasks of trying to group the talks into coherent sessions, and then figuring out what sessions go when, including what sessions will "compete" since we'll have two parallel sessions running. These tasks are frustrating since in some cases it's hard to find coherent subtasks, there are annoying constraints that arise (4-paper sessions should only run against other 4-paper sessions so there aren't holes; in general, an "algorithmic session" should run opposite a "complexity" session?) and decisions that people surely won't be happy with (nobody likes being opposite a "trendy" session or a "name" author, and nobody likes being placed in the last session of the day). And, of course, there aren't any tools for this (that I know of).
Last night, after already putting hours into this, it hit me -- slots should just be assigned randomly. Obviously this idea partly stems from my own frustration -- why am I spending time on a problem with no well-defined solution (and that I'll only hear complaints about afterward)? It has the advantage of making any "decisions" that people might find disagreeable an act of chance, instead of an act by me.
But I also thought of a good reason to do it this way. Categorizing and grouping talks in this way exacerbates the subdividing and splintering of theory into subgroups that know little to nothing about what everyone else is doing. Not working in property testing? Great, there's a whole session you can skip. Not so interested in computational geometry? Now you can sleep in for the morning session.
If FOCS/STOC are supposed to be flagship theory conferences each year, and they're the conferences where all these subgroups come together, maybe this session grouping is actually detrimental. Random mixing of papers could encourage people to stay in the room and see something new. As long as you're down there for the talk you wanted to see, you might stick around and see that next talk that would have been in a session you never would have gone to.
Yes, I know the price might be a few more times where two papers with a potential shared audience run at the same time. (Maybe we can still use that session information; find a random schedule that doesn't put two papers in the same nominal session at the same time.) But it seems like the payoff could outweigh this consideration.
Not that I'd really do this. I don't know of any conference that has. Although there is still time before I have to turn in the schedule. What would all of you think?
(PS -- yes, I know about the approach of having each talk given twice randomly, to help avoid conflicts -- nice in theory, not do-able in practice. :) )