Sunday, January 08, 2012

ITCS, Day 1

I spent much of today at ITCS (Innovations in Computer Science) 2012, over at MIT.  Justin gave an excellent talk on our work (with Graham Cormode) on Practical Verified Computation with Streaming Interactive Proofs.

Overall, the talks seemed quite good -- the first session started with another great talk, by best student award winner paper Andrew Drucker, about High Confidence Predictions under Adversarial Uncertainty.  The bulk of the talk covered this aspect of his work from his abstract:
Letting N_t denote the number of 1s among the first t bits of x, we say that x is "eps-weakly sparse" if lim inf (N_t/t) <= eps. Our main result is a randomized algorithm that, given any eps-weakly sparse sequence x, predicts a 0 of x with success probability as close as desired to 1 - \eps. Thus we can perform this task with essentially the same success probability as under the much stronger assumption that each bit of x takes the value 1 independently with probability eps.
That's a neat result.  The rest of the session was very good as well. 

Also the location, food, etc. all worked well.  

Now for the bad news.  Attendance at ITCS is much lower than expected.  Last I had heard, pre-registration was below 100.  For a conference that is in a major theory city, that claims to (from the call for papers):
seeks to promote research that carries a strong conceptual message (e.g., introducing a new concept or model, opening a new line of inquiry within traditional or cross-interdisciplinary areas, or introducing new techniques or new applications of known techniques).
I find this outcome very disappointing.

There seemed to be a reasonable number of locals from Harvard and MIT, but not from schools further out but within striking distance.  The recent math meeting in Boston perhaps let a few people stay over to attend -- I'm not sure how many did, but it didn't seem like many.  And there was a particularly noticeable lack of more senior people.   

I have expressed my reservations on this conference previously (see here, here, and here).  Specifically, I'd much rather see FOCS and/or STOC expand into a larger conference, where more of the theory community attends, than have yet another conference.  Moreover, some of the nice innovative things they're doing at ITCS this year --  having a "graduating bits" session for finishing PhDs and postdocs going on the job market and having a "community building" activity at dinner -- would, I think, be much more effective at a larger theory conference.  I understand such activities are effective in other communities that have a large annual meeting (like ISIT, for example). 

I also think ITCS got off on the wrong foot being placed in China for the first two years.  I understand that was an interesting opportunity, and lots of theory people got paid trips to China.  But I think an outcome is people have a mindset that this is a conference where you go only if you have a paper or you are a local.  I believe the hope was that having it at MIT would encourage a larger participation from the theory community, and I think from that standpoint the conference was not successful.  (Perhaps it's larger than it was in China, and I'm sure some people will disagree with me, but I don't view a 100-person conference in the Boston area meant for the general theory community as a success.)

I think it's a big question of where ITCS goes from here, and I think it's a question the larger community (not just the people attending this year) need to be involved in.  The quality of the work reinforces in my mind that the papers should go somewhere, preferably in my mind to a larger FOCS, STOC, or SODA;  or, possibly, to a larger and better attended ITCS.  Or perhaps people are happy with the current model, and my concerns are unwarranted.  Let me know.   


Anonymous said...

Another reason could be timing of the conference. Some of the students might still be on holiday.

Anonymous said...

What number did you expect?
It seems to me that more than a 100 people is a sizable number. Compare eg with random-approx, although obviously this is NOT your base line for comparison.

But did you really expect it to be the size of stoc and focs? Was it supposed to dominate them? I don't think so.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #1: Agreed, this did not seem to be a great time choice -- right before SODA, right at the start of the year. How much difference is that making? Where else could the conference go in the crowded conference calendar?

Anon #2: I don't have the numbers available. Don't FOCS/STOC in "bad years" get 250 attendees, and in "good years" (like when they're held in Cambridge) get 300+? Back when I was a kid, SPAA regularly got about 100 people.

So yes, I expected more. (And I am not the only one, but that is a story for another time.) But regardless of my personal expectations, do you think the conference can -- or should -- continue with that level of attendance? This ties in with the whole larger question of why we have conferences anyway. But is there a clear point to sending a paper to ITCS if the attendance is that small, when FOCS/STOC/SODA are available?

Timing said...

. For a conference that is in a major theory city [...] there seemed to be a reasonable number of locals from Harvard and MIT, but not from schools further out but within striking distance.

That seems to describe pretty much nearly every theory conference I've attended in Boston. The locals just don't show up in the numbers one would expect.

I agree that the ideal scenario would be for STOC and FOCS to expand, but experience shows that those conferences have ossified beyond repair. They are ok at what they do but will never evolve beyond that.

So we must continue with ITCS. Perhaps they should collocate with ISAAC.

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason preregistration might be low (by 30) is the mess up with promising free registration to participants in Graduating Bits and then taking that away after the early registration deadline passed.

Adam Smith said...

I can explain exactly why I didn't attend: ITCS overlaps with the first week of classes at Penn State. I would guess this is true for lots of schools. I don't know why folks from, say, BU or Northeastern didn't attend, but classes would certainly constrain professors' (and students') availability.

Leo Reyzin said...

Adam, FWIW: lots of people from BU (about 10) are here, though as at every conference, not everyone is at every session.

Anonymous said...

The second week of January is too close to SODA and also not most convenient because of teaching. Why two competing conferences within a week? The numbers are not surprising, and I would think 100 participants is a good number for ITCS. The first conferences had lower numbers. And yes, it's a pity more people from Harvard and MIT showed up.

I would prefer to have the conference in the summer, when the weather in Boston is better.

Anonymous said...

Funny, as a prof I thought the timing (over break) was good because I usually can't get away during semesters when I teach.

Part of the problem is conference overload. I try to attend the major conferences in my research area; if I'm going to attend a general theory conference it will be STOC or FOCS, not ITCS or anything else. There only so much time I can travel...

AC said...

I (regretfully) did not attend because it would mean missing classes during the beginning of the term. I don't like doing that; I don't think my students would appreciate it.

Anon #9: *Some* profs have a break right now, but not all do.