Tag Archives: conference

A skulk of FOCS talks

The FOCS talks are now available online!  I waited until now to report on FOCS for this very reason.  I am not about to compete with Suresh or Lance for live blogging conferences.  I’m not sure where they find the time amidst talks and meetings in hallways to do so.  (I have to say, whenever I can’t make it to a conference, I very much appreciate such posts.)  I did manage to find the time to circle a few listings in my wonderfully compact one-page program as a reminder that I liked these talks and to point my students to them.  Of course, now I’ve forgotten why I liked them, but I can almost certainly guarantee that I was kept engaged throughout the talk and learnt something – a vote of confidence if I ever heard it!

In no particularly order (unfortunately it is not possible to link directly to the talk, so you’ll have to go and find them in the list):

  • The geometry of scheduling presented by Nikhil Bansal.
    Coauthored with Kirk Pruhs. I added the ever-so-wonderful note to my program: ‘neat not tight geometry problem’.
  • Fast approximation algorithms for cut-based graph problems presented by Alexander Madry
    I probably enjoyed the fact that Alex did not stand at the podium but walked around, indicating things on the slide (novel!).  Unfortunately the camera does not move from the podium.  Ghost speaker!
  • Approximating maximum weight matching in near-linear time presented by Seth Pettie
    Coauthored with his student, Ran Duan.  I’ve always enjoyed and always learned something from Seth’s talks.  I wonder if we could have a rating system for speakers with little stars in the program so that you can attend talks well outside your comfort zone if you know the speaker will be good?
  • A separator theorem in minor-closed classes presented by Ken-ichi Kawarabayashi.
    Coauthored with Bruce Reed. This talk had an amazingly thorough introduction that perhaps those new to H-minor-free graphs might appreciate
  • Logspace versions of the theorems of Bodlaender and Courcells by Michael Eberfield.
    Coauthored with Andreas Jakoby and Till Tantau.  I love the example tree decomposition and his slides more generally.  I keep meaning to ask him for his slides to get that tree decomposition figure …
  • A nonlinear lower bound for planar epsilon-nets by Noga Alon.
    Some of the best humour at the conference.
  • And of course Dan Spielman’s Nevanlinna-Prize talk Laplacian Gems. I have heard that his prize talk at ICM was amazing too, but I haven’t watched it yet.

So there’s three hours of fun theory listening for you.  I think they would pair well with a fine bottle of Oregon Gewurztraminer.

Lessons on writing conference reviews

I’m on the SODA 2011 program committee and finding it, as everything this last year (grant writing, NSF panelling, grad student advising), a condensed learning experience.

Our reviews are almost due which means that this newbie has been through all but a a few of my stack. I asked for subreviews for roughly half my stack and [drum roll] incredibly, despite the procrastinating reputation of computer scientists, my wonderful subreviewers returned all their reviews in to me on time (and several were early).1

The most valuable aspect of these subreviews was not time-saving or expert-opinion-injecting (although that was greatly appreciated), but the stack of example reviews. Sure I’ve seen my share of reviews. But they were all reviews of my papers which has a certain bias. And sure, I’ve seen several reviews of other papers, but they were all reviews written by me. So, after reading this stack of reviews, I can only conclude that I have been a crappy conference subreviewer.

The review should obviously impart an opinion on the paper. But the ideal conference subreview should give enough details of the result to save the program committee member from having to read the paper (or at least, the entire paper). I’m pretty sure I’ve missed this idea writing subreviews in the past; I could cop this up to having never been taught how to write a review but I think it is more a failure of my ability to empathize with the program committee. I imagine I modelled my reviews on reviews of my own papers – in cases where such details were provided, I probably thought “This is boring. I know the results of my own paper, why is the reviewer telling me this?” – when they weren’t, I thought “why was my paper rejected?”2. Embarrassing that it took so long for me to understand this process: subreviews are targeted (mostly) at the program committee member and (direct) reviews are terse because of the large paper load and the ability of a committee member to make an opinion without taking the time to write out a thorough review.

I think a nice addition to conference reviews would be the equivalent of the grant panel summary. Perhaps not so important for accepted papers, but for rejected papers it would be useful for authors to receive high-level constructive criticism (submit to conference X, fix these issues and it should get into conference Y, etc.) Of course, I don’t want to increase the work load of a program committee. At least not this year.

1 One review was a day late but, after all, I could not process all the subreviews in one day, so I would hardly notice or mind.
2 Funny, I don’t have a problem when a paper is accepted!

SODA 2012 to be in Kyoto, Japan

I missed the business meeting to have dinner with a non-SODA-attending friend and so missed the voting over the location of SODA 2012 which was apparently a close tie.

I’m a little dismayed at SODA being outside of North America.  As a graduate student I would have probably been excited in my responsibility-free state.  But now I’m thinking “How much is this going to cost? How can I afford to miss what will probably end up being a full week of teaching?  I’m going to go all that way to just go to the conference and not be able to travel? How are our grossly underfunded faculty and grad students going to afford to go?  Would I justify going if I don’t have a paper?”

SODA is my favourite conference.  And there’s no other conference like it in North America.  Going without it for a year would result in some withdrawal.

SODA 20 minute talks

Many people have been blogging on the technical content at SODA, but I won’t. Given that David has already hinted that I only value the first 10 minutes of most talks, clearly I’m not in the position to expound on the more than the definition of problems and all but the highest level of analysis.

I’ve been thinking about what I like about conferences. Of course I appreciate meeting wih friends and colleagues – working on new and old problems. I do enjoy the talks too. But for me, the 20 talk is problematic. I can only imagine two possible uses of 20 minutes: an advertisement to go read the paper, to educate people of the definition of the problem/topic/solution statement, or to actually go into technical details.

For topics that are directly in my area, 20 minutes are too short to delve into any technical details for which I would have questions. Nor do I need an advertisement. I am probably already aware of the paper (thanks archiv and its users) and perhaps already read the paper.

For topics not in my area 20 minutes is probably too long for an advertisment and too short for me to absorb definitions in order to appreciate any technical content.

That said, I miss theory seminars. I am the only traditional TCS person at OSU and am too far from theory strongholds to attend a theory seminar. I would love to get that content from a conference. The plenary talks provide a little of that, but they are not usually on recent results of a technical nature (nor would I want that to change).

What I propose is having two types of talks – short 10-15 minute “advertisements” and long 45-60 minute seminar style talks. The committee could choose the best results to give longer slots to. Perhaps (and probably controversially) longer slots could be biased towards better speakers.

INFORMS on the Smart Grid

I hadn’t heard of the “smart grid” until I arrived in Oregon.  Our department is pushing for a sustainability research collaboration initiative, SENERGI, and so it wasn’t long before I heard our former director, Terri Fiez, talking about the smart grid.  Now, at INFORMS in San Diego, I’m listening to a keynote on the smart grid by Richard O’Neill, the Chief Economic Advisor to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

For the unenlightened, the smart grid is the idea of changing the price structure of electricity as well as the appliances that use electricity to manage congestion.  As we move toward more electricity use (i.e. from gas-powered cars, to electricity-powered cars) and electricity generated from renewable and time-constrained resources, congestion could cause more frequent brown-outs than we’ve seen.  Some concrete examples of “smart” include:

  • Appliances equipped to decide when it is best to run: refrigerators that turn off and on to minimize draw on the grid during high-demand hours, dishwashers that wait for low demand hours to run.
  • Batteries equipped to charge by use time: if you arrive home from work in your car (which I’ve been told is possible, but have yet to experience), and plug your electric powered car in along with everyone else who works 9-5, but you don’t need your car again until 6 AM, then the battery will decide to not charge until the middle of the night, perhaps according to some neighbourhood schedule.
  • Batteries used as storage devices on the grid: if you don’t use your car during the week because you do walk or bike or bus to work (congratulations), then the grid could use the battery as a storage device on the grid, charging during low-demand hours and discharging during high-demand.  (Of course, if you don’t need a car during the week, consider not owning a car.  Renting a car almost every weekend is often cheaper than owning a car.)

Of course, for such a system to work, there are significant engineering (after all, even my dishwasher’s simple “delay-start” timer doesn’t work), design and optimization challenges.  The market will become much more complex – will every appliance be considered a player on the market?  Sheesh!  Currently for the (much simpler, I imagine) pricing problems, the cost functions are linearized, which apparently isn’t a great approximation – essentially treating AC current as DC current.  In a system that is worth $10^12/year, a 1% savings is huge news.

I worry though … what if my laptop tells me I can’t write an email at 2AM because I woke up in the middle of the night wracked with algorithmic thoughts because my battery has been discharged so my neighbour can run their washing machine.