Monday, June 21, 2010

Colocating Conferences -- What Will It Take?

In the ongoing future of STOC debate, one possibility that seems to have significant support is that we should do more colocation of conferences.  (See Suresh's latest post, for instance.)  That is, rather than expanding STOC itself, it is thought that the best way to make STOC more of an event that theorists will want to attend is to set up a "pan-TCS" conference, that has several related conferences or workshops the same week at the same location.  Arguably this would allow STOC to continue essentially the way it is -- which many people seem to want -- while leading to higher attendance and community building.

Given the success of the STOC/CCC/EC mix this year in Cambridge, it's hard to argue against this idea.  So I won't.  Heck, I think it's a fine idea.  The one thing that people seem to be ignoring (or perhaps just forgetting), however, is that this will require some non-trivial organization to make this work well consistently over time.  And I'm left wondering how this sort of organization will come about.  (Honestly, it's not quite clear to me how things all managed to work out this year!)  

Right now, separate conferences organize themselves.  Heck, even getting conferences following each other, like FOCS/SODA coming up, to organize their deadlines so people can send their rejects on to the next conference appears to be a strain.  (Anyone else think that the 1 week between when we're supposed to hear back from FOCS -- hopefully with actual reviews, but maybe not -- and the SODA deadline -- which includes the 4th of July weekend -- is maybe not enough to make worthwhile improvements and changes?)  Now let's think about what has to be done to make this sort of colocation work:

1)  Arranging conference hotels, and meeting space, in roughly the same place at the same time.  (On another post somewhere, some anonymous people complained that STOC and CCC/EC were not conveniently located -- they were miles apart, and you'd have to switch hotels to go to both easily.  Perish the thought!  Add "adjusing people's attitudes" to the general list of what has to get done to make this work...)
2)  Synching up schedules, including submission deadlines (will one conference in the set be able to take another's rejects for submissions and still have a workable timeline? ), and where possible avoiding scheduling important plenary/invited talks at the same time (sometimes this might not happen, as with this year's EC tutorials overlapping the STOC conference -- see above about "adjusting people's attitudes"...).   
3)  Managing these relationships and corresponding decisions years -- possibly multiple years -- in advance;  some conferences have different ideas about how often they will be run internationally, whether they should be connecting just to theory or other areas (e.g., EC is also connected to AI), etc.  So conferences will be joining and exiting this system regularly, requiring further high-level organization and significantly more advanced planning that we currently have.

I should be clear that I don't think any of these organizational issues can't be overcome.  It's just that they'll require, naturally, some organization.  Which translates into more time (at least up front -- maybe less time years down the line) spent by people in our community to put these sorts of things together, and/or more costs (as, like with FCRC, the organizational aspects are left to other organizations -- that charge for it).  So for all of you eager for this style of change -- as opposed to, for example, simply increasing the number of accepted papers -- I eagerly (very, very eagerly) await to hear your voices chime in when volunteers are sought in the future to help make this sort of thing happen.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

ISIT Day 2 (2010)

First, finishing up day 1, the banquet was, as expected, a fairly nondescript affair involving chicken of some sort, which I happily got to spend with a group of people from EPFL (Lausanne), including Reudiger Urbanke.  The big news announced was Shlomo Shamai won the 2011 Shannon Prize, which (as I understand it) is the rough equivalent of the Turing Award for Information Theory.

ISIT, I think, is more like the sort of large conference that Lance Fortnow was trying to push for in his thoughts on re-formatting STOC (as we discussed here and here). I talked a bit with one of the staff who manages the conference (when it's in the US, every other year).  This year's attendance was around 750, with over 300 students.  He said that was down from previous years, by roughly 10% or so -- 820's was the usual number.  His thought was that it was the economy;  I opined Austin wasn't the easiest place to get to, especially for people abroad.  (Previous years had been in Chicago and Seattle.)  At the banquet, they said there was something just under 1000 submissions with about 550 accepted.  So they accept over 50% of the papers, but there's still a filter.  I'll leave it as a comparison point with STOC -- which has a tougher bar for acceptance, and much less attendance.  (And also loses out on several other activities -- see their meeting schedule here.  There's a lot of events for students, meetings of various boards, etc. as well as the standard tutorials and plenary speakers.)      

The highlight of day 2 for me was going out for Texas barbeque for lunch -- a postdoc I had met at dinner took pity on me when I said I had gone out to a nondescript place by the hotel the day before and been disappointed, and volunteered to take me to an excellent barbeque place she had found earlier in the week.  (She was from France, so I accepted her food judgment.)  Great food, and we discussed what we liked and didn't like about the conference.

There seemed to be 50+ people in my session when I gave my talk, somewhat surprising given it was the next-to-last session and I'm sure several people had already left the conference.  Yashodhan Kanoria gave a great talk after me with some really nice new insights into the deletion channel (paper is on his web page) -- it seems like significant progress in our understanding, as he and his advisor Andrea Montanari seem to have developed insights into what the right "random codebook" looks like, at least for small deletion probabilities.  It make me think there's some real chance for significant progress on the deletion channel going forward.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fly-By Conferences (ISIT edition)

I'm writing this from ISIT (Int'l Symposium on Inf. Theory) in Austin.  In fact, I'm sitting in on the session on for "Coding for Memories", a topic I did some work on last year and could see returning to (if I could figure out a problem I thought was sufficiently fun theoretically and sufficiently close to practice).  I'm at the conference to give the talk on "Tight Asymptotic Bounds for the Deletion Channel with Small Deletion Probabilities" (work with Adam Kalai and Madhu Sudan;  here's my web page version which might not be entirely up to date) tomorrow.  This is one of those massive 8-parallel session conferences.  For the record, I count about 50 people in the room, and my guess is this is one of the less popular sessions.  I'm finding the talks interesting, though I'd admit that perhaps they're for a specialized audience.  The pros-and-cons of the multi-session large conference.  

I just got in a few hours ago, and I'm afraid this conference is a "fly-by" for me -- in and out as quickly as possible.  (Sadly, from Boston to Austin, there doesn't seem to be a convenient direct flight these days, so even a fly-by is a 2-day affair.)  Too much recent conferencing-- Bertinoro/STOC/EC -- meant I was eager to minimize this trip.  I'm the first talk in my Friday early afternoon session, and in order to get a flight out to Boston Friday, I have to leave before my session finishes!*  I feel a little bad about that, but I'd feel worse about not being home until late afternoon Saturday.

I'll enjoy my time here -- plenty of talks look interesting**, plenty of people to say hi to, and plenty of other work I can get done while at a hotel or in an airplane.  But it does make me wish perhaps there was another way.  Giving a talk by video?  Conferences in an electronic avatar space?  I know classes that are recorded and put online generally get smaller attendance, as students don't come to class as often knowing they can catch a stream of the lecture later -- would our way of doing conferences change significantly if people could "go" to conferences electronically without actually traveling to them?  (The experience of STOC/EC, where I went home at the end of the day, was vastly different for me than other conferences where I'm there all day.  There are pros and cons, but in general, I'm at a stage where I like going home.  I'm sure that will change as my kids grow up and tell me they'd rather I stay away.)

Until such conference changes occur, though, I'll continue to be timing my flights carefully. 

* Thanks to ITA software, I also found I could leave later, fly west to LA, and then take the red-eye to get to Boston Saturday morning in plenty of time for breakfast.  I almost did this -- more frequent flier miles! -- but the ticket was a couple hundred dollars more.  And my wife reminded me I'm not exactly at my best after a red-eye.

** For the CS crowd, Zhou/Bruck had a paper on extracting independent uniform random bits from a Markov chain efficiently -- a TR version seems to be here.  This is an old problem -- Manuel Blum, for instance, had a paper on it.  In fact, my first lecture in my algorithms/data structure class is on the simpler, earlier-studied problem on how to get unbiased bits from biased bits, as I described in this post a while back.   

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Area Dean" : What's That Mean

In a few weeks, I "officially" take on my new job as "Area Dean" (read, "Chair") of CS.  What will in entail?

Formally, there appear to be a number of responsibilities, most of which involve being the "interface" between the rest of the CS faculty and the rest of the administration.  These include:

1)  Managing our class schedule, and keeping an overall eye on our curriculum -- where we're aiming for continual improvement.
2)  Overseeing promotions, mentoring, etc. for our tenure-track faculty.
3)  Helping manage searches for tenure-track faculty, and managing the process for various non-ladder positions.
4)  Overseeing certain budget items.
5)  Representing CS (and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) at other university committees where needed.
6)  Helping deal with space management, for visitors and others.
7)  Various other bureaucratic stuff.

Naturally, I have my own biased view.  Obviously there's lots of basic paperwork and other background management stuff that goes with the job.  That will get done, and I should have plenty of assistance for those aspects of the job.  But in terms of priorities, the way I see it, my job should be focusing on the following:

1)  Helping our junior faculty be as prepared as they can be as they go through promotion stages -- especially the tenure stage.  And managing the processes so they goes smoothly through the bureaucracy.
2)  Pushing as much as possible for hiring, in Computer Science and, as appropriate, closely related fields (like Applied Math).

These are far and away my top two priorities, and they're obvious ones, in terms of long-term improvement of CS at Harvard.  Do right by the junior faculty we hire, and hire more.  I've long argued that we have a great, but small, department.  Our path to becoming better, in my mind, is to grow, and I believe this growth is best achieved by hiring, and tenuring, more great faculty.

As a further priority, my personal take going in is that the next priority is to make Computer Science at Harvard more visible, both internally on campus, and externally to the world.  I think we've got a great base to build on here:  our intro programming course is now one of the biggest classes at Harvard, we've got various initiatives going with other areas of the university, the Deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Radcliffe come from CS, we've just hosted EC/CCC (and helped largely with STOC), we're figuring out how to expand our already significant efforts in distance education, and so on.  Still, with our size, visibility is always a battle -- we can continue to improve on it.

Of course, these goals might change depending on the feedback of the faculty, who I'm sure will tell me what they're thinking.  (Actually, I plan to go ask them.  :) )  And for those who think I'm forgetting something important, I'm sure undergraduate and graduate education will also play a big role -- I just view those as shared faculty responsibilities, and not specific priority items for the chair.  Hopefully, I'll just help our activities in these areas move along.  Though again, I might be told otherwise by my peers.  We'll see soon enough.

Cherry Murray appointed to oil spill panel

Dean of Harvard's SEAS, Cherry Murray, is to be appointed to President Obama's oil spill panel.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Crimson Article on SEAS

This article from the Crimson on the state of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences from a couple of weeks ago serves as a good primer for me on some of the many things I'll be dealing with as Area Dean.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hectic Week, Finally Over!

Co-located conferences make for a hectic week!  Again, my thanks to the Microsoft local arrangement team (especially Paul Oka) for setting up STOC, which I thought went very well.  (The space worked out very nice -- even with about 75 more registrants than we were expecting!)  Big thanks also to Salil Vadhan and the other local organizers of CCC -- I wandered through their setup multiple times on the way to my office and it looked great -- and to David Parkes, Yiling Chen, and Jennifer Wortman Vaughan for the local organization of EC -- I really like that 52 Oxford lower level as a conference space, especially the red couches and the quiet-back-entrance lecture room.  

I maintain that Cambridge/Boston is a great place to hold co-located conferences like this, and we should try to do the same thing again (perhaps with a different conference mix) in just a few years.  We have lots of researchers in the area, lots of students (to attend and help set things up), and lots of universities that can help host in terms of lecture space.  And a very viable airport to travel to.  If you look at the list above, though, I do think Harvard really did much more than its fair share this time.  Maybe next time around one of our smaller, less-resourced, less visible neighbors, like MIT, can step up to the plate.  

Friday, June 11, 2010

STOC/FOCS Opinion : Guest Post by Boaz Barak

Boaz Barak asked to give a guest post on the recent STOC/FOCS issue and the question of accepting more papers. So I hand the floor over to Boaz:

Do we really need more papers in STOC/FOCS?

Continuing the discussion in the STOC business meeting, I wanted to offer a somewhat opposing opinion to Lance's and Michael's view that the number of accepted papers should be significantly increased. (Since STOC and FOCS are at the moment fairly indistinguishable, the discussion below applies to both.)

In my opinion, the primary objective of a "flagship" conference such as STOC/FOCS is to highlight to researchers recent results of high quality and/or interest outside their area. We get updates on our own subfield through specialized conferences, and so the flagship conference is meant to keep the TCS community informed about progress in the entire field, and enable the transfer of ideas, techniques, problems and people across sub-fields.

An important secondary objective is to serve as a meeting place for the community, giving people in different geographic areas a chance to talk and collaborate. Why is this a secondary goal for STOC/FOCS? Because (1) opportunities to meet and collaborate can be achieved in workshops, without the tremendous effort of the refereeing process, and (2) at the moment our community has no alternative conference (or journal: I don't want to enter that debate) that performs the primary objective nearly as well as STOC/FOCS. (As an aside, people in the business meeting raised the possibility of an ICM-style meeting in TCS which sounds like a good idea to me.)

Traditionally conferences were also the primary way to make papers physically available quickly, but that has now been largely supplanted by online archives such as eccc/arxiv/eprint, and so the primary objective of refereed conferences today is indeed filtering and highlighting. But this is a very important role: without STOC/FOCS I would have only heard of papers outside my area if they were by local people, had some "buzz", or the title caught my eye- while the conference review process has its problems, it is certainly less superficial than that.

The fact that Theoretical Computer Science has grown in size and scope only makes this selection role of a flagship conference more important. Since there was no accompanying growth in our free time or attention span, I think the relevant metric is not the acceptance rate but the absolute number of papers accepted. Indeed, already STOC/FOCS together accept about 150 papers per year which is too much for anyone to follow, especially given that we need to follow specialized conferences as well.

Nevertheless, I think STOC/FOCS have on the whole been very successful, and a look at the STOC 2010  program will show some very exciting results in a variety of areas, many of which I would not have heard of otherwise. Throughout the years there were several examples of ideas and techniques transferred across areas, and rapid progress and development of other areas, that were greatly facilitated by STOC/FOCS. Program committees have always made and will always make mistakes, but the current form is still much better than having nothing at all. (E.g., I am not so naive to think my non crypto colleagues are so interested in cryptography so that even without STOC/FOCS they would go through CRYPTO/Eurocrypt/TCC proceedings to learn of the cool theory papers...)

I ignored above one more "objective" of a conference, which is to rank people in the context of hiring/promotion. The pitfalls of publication counting are well known, and here is not the place to repeat them. In any case we should not be trying to optimize our conferences for that purpose. Needless to say, accepting more papers to STOC/FOCS will not create more positions in theoretical computer science.

Are STOC/FOCS perfect? No - they could be improved in several ways. First, while the diversity of areas is perhaps unmatched by any other conference, STOC/FOCS could use better coverage in some areas (e.g., efficient cryptographic constructions, exact algorithms and hardness, and many others). Some great theory work was rejected, even multiple times, from STOC/FOCS, and some great work was never submitted. In that respect I liked a lot Dan Spielman's suggestion in the business meeting to find a way to include in STOC/FOCS great recent theory papers from other conferences. The idea of a poster session is also interesting. All talks should be videotaped and put online, so that even people who cannot make the conference (whether it's due to geography, family, or funding) can follow it. (Again, our goal should be not to maximize registration income but to maximize impact.) Personally I prefer single session rather than parallel sessions, and perhaps slightly longer talks as well, even if it means accepting a bit less papers. A pet peeve is double column papers, and page limits should be rethought now that paper proceedings seem to be on the way to extinction.

As a final note, why do I oppose adding just 10 more papers to the program? I agree this will not make much of a difference, though I think this is a change in the wrong direction. I also doubt there is any way to evaluate the effects of such a minor change. The fact that this STOC had 100 more registrants than last one demonstrates that other factors such as attractive location, strong invited talks/tutorials, and co-located conferences and workshops make much more of a difference in attendance. Perhaps SIGACT can also use some of its $800K surplus for travel support even for non student participants, and in particular people from overseas.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Branding Your Research (and Yourself)

In honor of being at EC, a post on branding.

In theory, your research will be judged and appreciated based on its intrinsic quality, and your scientific reputation will follow accordingly.

In practice, unsurprisingly, branding helps, both you and your research.  I certainly wouldn't claim to be an expert, or even particularly good, at branding, although I'd acknowledge I've benefited from it throughout my career.  So you should take this as a starting point, rather than a final word on the subject (and comments are very, very welcome).

By branding I mean any of the sorts of things that might be considered marketing.  Perhaps one of the most basic methods of branding involves something as simple as choosing project names.  Well-chosen project names are a simple way to get people to remember your work -- when we hear PageRank, Chord, smoothed analysis, or XORS in the Air, for example, it resonates;  they've become lasting brand names.  Picking good names is hard, though -- it's easy to go overboard, or come up with something that just sounds ugly.  (I should note that networking people, perhaps because they build specific systems, seem much better at and more aware of this kind of branding than theory people in my experience.)  I'm not sure if cool-sounding project names can help you get research funding (Robobees!), but my guess is it doesn't hurt. 

Another basic approach is to become associated with a certain type of research -- especially, if possible, if you've started a chain of research, although you can certainly become well-associated with a line of work you didn't initiate.  Often this is a certain subarea -- "they do online algorithms", "they do network coding" -- or can be a certain technique "they're expert in their use of martingales."  Perhaps best, early in your career, is to be associated with something fairly specific -- "they work on cuckoo hashing."  This is why, as a graduate student, you're very strongly encouraged to find a thesis topic where you can write multiple closely thematically related papers --  it helps you to get known for something, which is an important benefit in a competitive job market.  One can argue whether it's really a good thing that people's work is reduced, at times, to such a shorthand, but when dealing with dozens of potential candidates, having a natural and memorable label is truly helpful.

Indeed, the other major time in academia that branding seems important is when you come up for tenure.  I was explicitly asked what I was "known for" when I came up for tenure.  (Hint:  if what you're known for is just your PhD work, that's usually not a good sign.)  It makes sense, when your case is being prepared for a broader audience outside your immediate field, that your work be summarized in your tenure case -- preferably into key "brand names", easily describable by key words and phrases (power of two choices, low-density parity-check codes, Bloom filters, etc.) --  that will match the summaries that come in from the external letters.  This follows the principle (that I try to emphasize to my students) of making it easy on the people who are grading you.  If the letters match your case description, that's good positive reinforcement.    

Of course, another aspect of branding is standard self-promotion -- giving talks, for instance.  Or writing a blog -- shameless, but effective, self-promotion.  (I definitely noticed I was invited to give more talks after starting the blog.)  Writing a blog is certainly not for everyone, but you should find other ways of promoting yourself and your work.

One perhaps underestimated and lesser-utilized but powerful branding method is to write a survey -- or, if you're up for it, a longer treatise, or even a book.  I've written several surveys, and besides being useful for myself, I've been amazed how many people seem to read (and even cite) the things.  It's possibly been my most powerful consciously used branding tool (outside the blog).  I'm already thinking now of the next survey I want to write.     

An eventual goal, of course, is to obtain many brands that are associated with you -- different research topics, in potentially different areas.  This is helpful because of the obvious reason: if you're known in multiple contexts, you'll get more chances for any specific individual to know you.  Of course this takes time.  As a graduate student, it seems to make more sense to work on developing a single, strong self-brand rather than many.  (That's not to say that you just work on one thing -- some breadth is generally appreciated and looked for at hiring time -- but there's usually a clear focus on one line of research.)  Once you become a faculty member, you can start developing more brands.  If you have many students, this may happen naturally -- each student will (or at least should) be trying to develop their own brand, which you may be associated with as an advisor.  In some sense, your students can be a brand extension, although hopefully they can also become their own independent brand.  

I've been fortunate, I think, to have over time apparently developed multiple brands in multiple areas.  It's fun for me that when I visit someplace to give a talk, the theory/networking/information theory people all seem interested in talking with me.  One thing that's clear is that people see your brand from the context of their own work, which is worth keeping in mind.   Sometime after I wrote my survey on power laws (and another associated paper on power laws), Barabasi (of various book fame --  Bursts and Linked) invited me to come give a talk to his group.  He nicely introduced me as being most famous for my work on power laws -- something that was, I imagine, certainly true from his perspective.  People will generally know at most one or maybe two of your brands, and that's fine.

So what are the downsides of branding yourself and your work?  You do run the risk of getting pigeonholed, like a child star, known for a small bit of your larger body of work.  I'm still widely known as the "balls-and-bins" guy.  Worse yet, you may start to believe yourself that you're tied to the area you're known for, and become afraid of trying something else.  Becoming "the expert" in an area means you'll get asked to review many of the papers in that area.  After all, all the papers cite you, and that's what the editors see.  And, of course, branding is a time-consuming activity, that takes patience and energy.  Still, for most people, a little conscious attention to research branding efforts can probably go a long way.  

I'm not sure how far this analogy can go.  Can you develop brand loyalty for your research?  I think so -- there are certainly researchers I try to follow regularly.  Can you re-position brands?  Parallel algorithms are new and exciting again, right?  Are there any "iconic" brands in research?

I'm sure some of you think spending a whole post on branding is somewhat silly.  For the theorists, let me point you here.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

EC Day 1

EC is an interesting mix of theory/AI/economics and many other things as well (data mining, social computing, user interfaces....)  Definitely a bit of a hodgepodge, but interesting in its variety.  If you don't look at the titles/abstracts ahead of time, you never quite know what the next talk will bring.  (Maybe I should be looking at the titles and abstracts ahead of time...)

Some quick highlights

Giorgos Zervas gave the talk on our Swoopo paper

Rahul Sami gave an interesting talk based on the idea of dealing with external incentives in mechanism design settings.

Ramesh Johari gave a talk about a simple model meant to abstract the competing effects of network effects and congestion. 

Sven Seuken talked about market design and analysis of a P2P backup system.

I'm sure there were other interesting things, but I was in and out of sessions at times.

Monday, June 07, 2010

STOC 2010, and Some Business Meeting Notes

STOC 2010 appears to be running quite smoothly.  I've been popping in and out -- the problem with being a local is that I actually have to go home at reasonable times (and stop by the office quickly).  While nominally (thanks to Lance) I was appointed Conference Chair, my role, happily, was minimal.  Great thanks to the efforts of the Microsoft Local Arrangements Team -- particularly Paul Oka -- and also Yael Kalai, Adam Kalai, hosts Jennifer Chayes and Christian Borgs, and anyone else I'm forgetting.  (Personally, I'm now all for a Microsoft team managing local arrangements every few years... all in favor?)

Thanks to everyone who has offered condolences for my new position, and special thanks to those who said they'd hope my scientific career might revive a few years hence. 

A quick word on the business meeting.  I wasn't actually there, but I understand Lance briefly discussed "The Future of STOC."  Let me briefly give my take, as I understand there might have been some confusion.

1)  Several of us on the SIGACT executive committee have been concerned that STOC seems to be at best stable (and perhaps slightly deteriorating) in terms of attendance the last several years, even as our field is ostensibly growing.  Perhaps, we think, STOC/FOCS are not adequately fulfilling their roles as the central, flagship events of the theory community.  (Needless to say, given this year's attendance, perhaps things are brighter than we think.)
2)  So we think about it.  For example, some of you might recall my wacky Double One, Half the Other post from November. 
3)  Lance comes up with an even more drastic proposal, and tries to get some feedback on it from targeted members of the community.  I believe he tried to explain this proposal at the business meeting.  To be clear, the feedback before the meeting was largely very negative;  although many people think things could be structurally improved, there's a lot of different opinions as to what form that should take.  This proposal was never meant to be on the table at the business meeting.
4)  The one thing that DID seem to have reasonably widespread support is that we could accept more papers.  We still have some room if we made it a full 3-day schedule.  STOC acceptance rates have dropped from generally well over 30% in the 1990's and early 00's (some years it was over 40%!) to 25-30% the last few years.  While upping the number of papers is, admittedly, a small delta, and not likely to change some potentially larger systematic issues with the conference, it seems like a good idea -- it should get some more people to come, and perhaps will allow a bit more leeway in terms of what is accepted.  Moreover, if people liked the change, then perhaps we could think of further changes (a 3.5 or 4-day conference?  triple sessions like SODA?  your idea here?) that could further open up the conference.  

So the SIGACT EC came up with the proposal that we advise next year's chair that, as long as the paper quality warrants it, there's no reason to aim for about 75-80 papers (the apparent "target" of the last many years) and we would be happy if they might aim for 85-90 papers.

Again, I wasn't at the business meeting, but I heard even this modest proposal did not receive enthusiastic support.  I'm starting to get the feeling there's a non-trivial minority that thinks the conference is going just fine, and are in principle against any change.  I can certainly understand trepidation at radical change, but I can't see any reason not to try this modest experiment, which seems to have little to no downside and some reasonable possible upside.

So feel free to explain YOUR opinions in the comments.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Conference Attendance : How to Keep it Strong?

In honor of the STOC business meeting coming up shortly:

STOC, CCC, and EC are all apparently poised to have very strong attendance this year -- from what I understand, greatly improving over previous years.  Why?

I suggest two obvious reasons:

1)  Location:  Cambridge is clearly a great location, with plenty of major universities and research labs nearby, and a major airport readily accessible.
2)  Co-location:  From what I can tell, having all these conferences in the same place in the same week is helping boost attendance for all of them.

Can we take something away from this for future years (please!)?  Having conferences in easily accessible, researcher-rich cities is a good idea.  ("Geographic equality" is overrated.)  A reasonable amount of co-location (arguably less than a typical FCRC), appropriately managed, is quite desirable.  Let's test out these principles over the next several years as we try to arrange our conferences...

Announcement: Matt Welsh Tenured

I'm very, very pleased to announce that Matt Welsh's Harvard tenure case has been successful.  

There's a number of wonderful things I could say about Matt and his work, but I'll limit myself to two highlights.  Matt is well known to be a leader in the field of sensor networks/distributed systems, but his work particularly stands out for his ability to look at how these technologies might be used outside of computer science.  In particular, he's worked on sensors for medical care (the CodeBlue project and the Mercury project) and for "big science" (monitoring volcanoes and monitoring weather/pollution).  At Harvard, because CS is smaller than at some of competing institutions, we want professors who are not only leaders in their area, but who can also take advantage of Harvard's breadth and other strengths, with an eye toward showing the world just what CS can do.  Matt is an excellent example of the type of scientist we're looking for.

Outside of his science, Matt is a great colleague.  When I think of a word to describe Matt, "leader" comes right to mind.  When Matt sees something he wants to improve in our program or how we run things, he studies it, presents his opinions, garners support, and finds a way to make the change happen -- often taking on much of the required work himself.  He has both incredible energy, and the ability to persuade people to follow where he wants them to go, two qualities I associate with leadership.  Because of this, I know his presence will benefit CS at Harvard in countless ways in years to come.

Congrats to Matt!  (Now go read his blog...)

Saturday, June 05, 2010

SIGCOMM Travel Grants

I was asked by the SIGCOMM program chairs to remind everyone that there are travel grants available, especially for students, postdocs, and junior faculty.  Since the conference is far away this year (India), they've tried to get a lot of travel support.  They've extended the deadline to 11:59 pm PDT on June 12, 2010.

Information can be found here.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Will Google Buy ITA?

As long-time readers of the blog know, I am a fan of ITA software, the company with the fare-finding technology and search engine that powers Orbitz and several other airline web sites.  Indeed, for my recent trip to Bertinoro ITA saved my grants several hundred dollars -- they found a pair of flights involving two separate, currently non-partnered airlines at a price that couldn't be duplicated on several other sites I tried.  (The flights should, I hope, even meet NSF's unwieldy international flight rules.)

For at least six weeks, there has been buzz that Google was looking at buying ITA, for the tune of roughly 1 billion dollars.     But not much has been heard of late, with possible reasons being described in this recent post at tnooz.  Indeed, I ran into an ITA person I know "on the street" a while back and asked when I could officially congratulate them, and was politely brushed off.  

It's not clear to me if Google/ITA would be a match made in heaven or not, but I admit I'm eagerly awaiting to hear the news (one way or another).  I would place ITA in the category of companies that show that cool things that can come out of smart algorithms and data structures (see this old writeup), so I wish them success.  I think reaching the billion dollar selling point would certainly be one reasonable measure of success.

Don't be surprised to see more of this story in the news in the future.   

Thursday, June 03, 2010

What Work to Give Up?

I'm not yet sure how many hours a week being a Chair (oops, "Area Dean") will chew up, but I think it's safe to say it will be a non-trivial number.  I'm generally a fairly busy person, and while I imagine I'll have to (somewhat happily!) cut down on my bad TV-watching habit, I'll also be cutting back on some of my other work responsibilities.  Obviously, as much as possible, I'd like "research time" not to be part of those cutbacks.  (I've heard that's a problem with this job in general.)  As Matt's blog post on secret lives of professors calls attention to, professors are just naturally overloaded;  it's good to stop and think once in a while about what you can happily and safely do less of.

So, what could you give up to get yourself back a few hours a week?

For me, the blog is (sadly) one of those things.  Here's some other things on my list:

1)  Giving up an editor position:  I'm going to step down as an editor of SICOMP.  I've found I really don't enjoy being an editor -- the only thing worse than reviewing a paper yourself is having to cajole someone into agreeing to review a paper and then, after getting reminded yourself by the automatic system how long it has been since the paper was submitted, having to go back and cajole the reviewers into actually finishing the review.  I'm happy to give it up.  On the other hand, it won't save me so much time;  I dislike the job so much I already avoid spending time on it now...

2)  Fewer PC committees:  I'm generally a bit too friendly about agreeing to serve on PCs.   I counted and it looks like I've done about 35 over the last 10 years.  Some have been small and some have been big, but that seems, from what I can tell, to be more than average.  (What's the "average"?  Is it different for networking people than for theory people?) 

I don't want to give up on doing PCs completely.  I find they're fun and interesting.  But I think I'll cut it to 1 or 2 a year while on the job.  Strangely, I'm most likely to say no to "small" conferences (like FUN, or ANALCO, say).  They take less time, but I find they're less fun and interesting to do. 

There's one thing that would definitely get me to a PC.  I chaired STOC last year, and think it could be fun to instead (co)-chair a networking conference.  Hint, hint, hint, powers-that-be...

3)  Less reviewing.  I seem to get asked to review papers a lot.  (In part, I suppose, because I'm "well-branded".  If it says "Bloom filter" on the title, and I didn't write it, odds are it's being sent to me.  To a lesser extent, that's also true for "cuckoo hashing", "deletion codes", and things related to the power of two choices.  I aslo get lots of things related to various flavors of LDPC codes and power laws.  Like other bloggers I hope to do a post on "branding" in the future, but this is one of the downsides.)

I've gotten much better about saying no to reviewing since tenure, and even moreso since our third child was born.  But I'm sure I can do better about saying no.  (And I'm sure I'm still doing more than average.)

4)  Less "other university work".   I'm on one or two university committees that don't take much time but aren't really important.  Good time to drop those.

Looking at all these things, it's clear I'm aiming at reducing other service activities, which happily makes sense.  Since serving as Area Dean is really a service activity (for Harvard), other service activities are the first to cut in its place.  As much as possible, I don't want my home life, research, teaching, advising, and consulting time to suffer. 

Bertinoro Day 3

Since I left, Andrew McGregor tool over and has posted a summary of day 3 on his polylogblog, which is also now added (at the top!) on the bloglist at the right.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Bertinoro, Day 2

Bertinoro is a really beautiful city.  I just felt like saying that.

Today's talks:  Geppino Pucci talked about Bluetooth networks, modeled as a variation of random geometric networks (points randomly distributed in the plane, connections to points within some radius, with Bluetooth you only connect to a bounded-size random subset of your neighbors) -- talk based on the ESA 2009 paper I believe.  Rasmus Pagh talked about data mining (here's one of his papers on the subject), Graham Cormode talked about streaming verification of massive computations covering several of his recent papers on the theme (including this one), Andrew McGregor talked further about stream computations and "detecting dubious data structures" -- starting with how do you check in small space from the transcript of operations that your priority queue performs correctly given that is starts and ends empty (paper here), Tamas Sarlos talked about sparse random projection (paper will be at STOC next week), and Gagan Aggarwal talked about weighted online bipartite matching (generalizing the well-known KVV algorithm for online bipartite matching).

Sadly, the rest of the talks will have to go unblogged (by me at least) -- I'm leaving the workshop unreasonably early in order to get a few days of home time before STOC/EC/ISIT.  See you all there...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Personal News : "New Job"

Since it's more or less been publicly announced at this point, I may as well announce it here:  starting July 1, I'll be the new Area Dean for Computer Science at Harvard.  Very roughly speaking, academics from schools that use a standard vocabulary (unlike Harvard) can translate that to "Chair" if they like.  I'll be filling the shoes of Greg Morrisett, who has been doing a fantastic job.  Indeed, from my standpoint the worst part of taking the job now is that Greg has done such a great job he'll be a hard act to follow.  (But he's served his time, and will be enjoying a sabbatical!)

The new role isn't really a surprise.  At Harvard, we more-or-less take turns in this position, and I knew my turn was probably coming next.  The standard is a 3-year stint and that's what I'm expecting.  We have a faculty with tremendous leadership depth so I'm not worried about getting stuck with the job.  Indeed, one of the great things about our faculty is that we have so many people that can do the job well, and at the same time we have nobody who really wants the job.  (An old academic saying, apparently, is to beware anyone who actually wants to be chair.)

I'll undoubtedly self-indulge and write a few more posts about my thoughts on the job before actually beginning it.  But one thing that's clear is that how I spend my time will change -- at least, that's the impression I get by the happy jig Greg breaks into these days whenever he sees me -- so it's a good time to reflect on that.  And one of the first things that was clear to me is that I'll be shutting down mybiasedcoin, probably sometime in August.  Just to be clear, there was no pressure by anyone at Harvard to do so -- indeed, Greg encouraged me to keep it going -- but I think it's time.

The reason is a combination of things.  The biggest is that the blog takes time, of course, and I expect to have less time available.  I also admit to being a bit burned out after doing it now for 3 years.  (It's been that long?)  Finally, I worry that the job will involve all sorts of things I shouldn't write about, but might want to, which could be frustrating -- and, potentially, disastrous.  (Nobody has called me out on this, but in the blog I write basically nothing about my consulting work -- even though I might like to -- because in most cases that would be inappropriate.  I figure the same will happen with parts of the new job.)

There are conferences (STOC, EC, ISIT) to blog about in the immediate future, some papers in the pipeline I hope to have a chance to discuss, and probably some issues in the back of my head that I'd like to blog about before stopping.  That's a couple months more of posts. 

I don't feel too bad about stopping -- there are plenty of other CS blogs out there, other voices to be heard.  If I feel the need, I'll guest post somewhere when I have an opinion.

Which, obviously, I often do...