Sunday, February 02, 2020

Current CS 124 Stats

This is as much personal recording for me (and perhaps of interest to Harvard people who read the blog).  But also putting the numbers here for others to know for comparison.

I'm teaching the undergraduate algorithms and data structures class, CS 124, for the first time in a few years, so let's look at the initial enrollment numbers.  Harvard has its strange and wonderful shopping period, so I'm just getting the numbers now after the first week.  (Feel free to comment with comparative stats from your own institution!)

Current numbers are a bit over 280 students, about 20 more than last year, about 60 more than the last time I taught it.  Seems like the course has been growing about 20 people a year for the last few years.  This number may go up or down a few (most likely down), but is probably close to where the class will end up.  I keep thinking we've hit "peak 124", but it keep going upwards.  Part of this seems to be because a few more grad students (especially various master's students) are taking it.  Something like 1/7 of the undergraduates take this course now, which to me always seems amazing.  When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, CS courses were just not this big.  My first year teaching at Harvard, CS 124 was about 90 students, and that was huge.  I do realize, of course, that many places have even larger CS classes;  I'm not meaning to complain.

Surprising to me, about 1/4 of the course is first-years.  This is more than I remember from my previous years teaching it;  it's a hard course that requires both math and programming background, so first-years usually wait.  On the other hand, the first-years taking it are self-selecting, and in past years the first-year grade average is notably higher than the class average.

About 40% sophomores, not surprisingly the largest group.  Then a mix of juniors, seniors, and grad students from various programs.

The course is also offered through the Extension School;  here numbers change a lot.  Right now it's about 45, but that will most likely drop further.

If I've counted right, it's my 18th time teaching the class.  I'm pretty sure I'll get to 20.  I suppose it's possible I'll get to 30 or more, but it's likely someone else will take it over at some point.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

ITCS 2020, Reflections

I've spent Sunday/Monday at ITCS, or Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science, where I am giving a talk on this paper on Scheduling with Prediction and the Price of Misprediction (LIPIcs page) (which is one of several recent works on Algorithms with Predictions (powerpoint slides)).

I'm told it's 10 years since ITCS started as a conference, and I was one of the skeptics that really did not think it was a good idea 10 years ago.  So as I'm sitting in the sessions, what do I think now?  What are the pros and cons of ITCS?

On the negative side, ITCS is not very big.  It is just over 100 people registered, so it's like a big workshop/small conference size.  (And considering that it's usually held in central places with lots of students, those numbers are buffered by locals.)  Somehow, it's scheduled the 2nd week of January, right after SODA, which seems problematic, and certainly (if it's kept that way) may keep it from getting any larger.  The number of "senior people" around at any one time seemed generally small, a problem for things like "Graduating Bits" (see below).  As ITCS, at least 10 years ago, was supposed to build up to another "premier" TCS conference, focused on "innovative" work, the attendance seems a bit disappointing.

On the neutral side, the conference is single-session, and to make that work, talks this year are limited to 12 minutes.  Your mileage may vary on whether you think this is good or bad;  it seems to work.  (My take:  I slightly prefer parallel sessions, because it means there's more times where there's something I want to see, and that's more important than the times where there are two talks at the same time I want to see.  And 12 minutes is certainly workable but maybe a few minutes short.  But again, that's just my opinion.)  This year (and possibly going forward), some papers were accepted without a full talk -- instead they have a 3-minute talk and a poster in a poster session.  Again, it's not clear to me if this is good or bad (though more paper acceptances makes me lean to the good side), but it seemed to work fine and people were happy with it.  (Such papers are considered full publications and treated the same in the proceedings.)

On the positive side, the conference seems well run.  It's held in a university building, so no expensive hotel costs;  instead they're generous with food and keep registration costs reasonably low.  They use LIPIcs, which provides a good system and approach for publishing papers at low cost.  (Note, I was until recently part of the LIPIcs editorial board, so I'm biased there.)  They seem to be covering their expenses from what I understand.  The business meeting was blessedly short.  They're recording all the talks.  They're doing interesting things like "Graduating Bits" for people who are job-looking (where people graduating or coming out of a postdoc give short talks about their work).

In terms of content, it seems really good.  I've seen several good talks and interesting papers.  While I'm not sure how to quantify whether ITCS work is more "innovative" than the work at other major TCS conferences, I do actually think they are noticeably more open at ITCS than other conferences about accepting papers based on the paper's underlying idea rather than on "technical mastery".

My thoughts 10 years ago were that ITCS was not a great outcome for the community, and that instead the community should push for:

1)  Aiming to do better about opening up the criteria for paper acceptance, including weighing innovation/practical relevance in reviewing papers at FOCS/STOC/SODA.
2)  Increasing the number of papers accepted to these conferences, as too many good papers were being rejected.

Viewed under this lens, ITCS could, I think, be viewed as a success.  The theory community seems unwilling to expand conferences by accepting more papers.  (I note that while the STOC theory-fest has changed and expanded STOC, it hasn't really seemed to increase attendance, and while the number of accepted papers has increased slightly, it hasn't kept pace with the growth in the field.)  ITCS provides another venue for high-quality theory papers, thereby increasing the number of such papers published each year within the theory community, and I think it is generally viewed as a high-quality conference.  And, as I mentioned, ITCS seems at least somewhat more flexible in its criteria for what is an acceptable paper.  ITCS has, I think, in these regards been a benefit for the theory community.

However, despite the success of ITCS, I think it's a band-aid on structural issues in the theory community.  While these issues are complex and many-sided, just comparing with the growth and excitement in the AI community is a little depressing.  Indeed, what I see is AI absorbing significant parts of the theory community;  lots of theory papers now end up at NeurIPS, AAAI, ICML, or AISTATS, because the theory community doesn't seem to have room for them, or doesn't judge them as sufficiently significant.  I view this as a problem for the theory community, the result of the problems I saw 10 years ago for which I didn't think ITCS was the right response.  (Though perhaps it was/is not really viewed as a problem by others;  all of CS, including theory, seems to continue growing;  theory just seems to me to be growing less than it could or should.)

To conclude, my thanks and congratulations to those many people that have organized and maintained ITCS over the years;  I appreciate your work, as I think the whole community does. 

By the way, I thought it never snowed in Seattle, so I'm confused; what is all the cold white stuff outside?