Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Shonan Meeting (Part 0): On Workshops

Coming up with new ideas requires concentration and immersion. When you spend enough unbroken time thinking about a problem, you start forming connections between thoughts, and eventually you get a giant "connected component" that's an actual idea.

Distractions, even technical ones, kill this process. And this is why even at a focused theory conference, I don't reach that level of "flow". While I'm bombarded from all directions by interesting theory, there's a lot of context switching. Look, a new TSP result ! origami and folding - fun ! Who'd have thought of analyzing Jenga ! did  someone really prove that superlinear epsilon net lower bound ?

This is why focused workshops are so effective. You get bombarded with information for sure, but each piece reinforces aspects of the overall theme if it's done well. Slowly, over the course of the event, a bigger picture starts emerging, connections start being made, and you can feel the buzz of new ideas.

And this is why the trend of 'conferencizing' workshops, that Moshe Vardi lamented recently, is so pernicious. it's another example of perverse incentives ("conferences count more than workshops for academic review, and so let's redefine a workshop as a conference"). A good workshop (with submitted papers or otherwise) provides focus and intensity, and good things come of it. A workshop that's really just a miniconference doesn't have either the intense intimacy of a true workshop or the quality of a larger symposium.

All of this is a very roundabout way of congratulating Muthu, Graham Cormode and Ke Yi (ed: Can we just declare that Muthu has reached exalted one-word status, like Madonna and Adele ? I can't imagine anyone in the theory community hearing the name 'Muthu' and not knowing who that is) for putting on a fantastic workshop on Large-Scale Distributed Computing at the Shonan Village Center (the Japanese Dagstuhl, if you will). There was reinforcement, intensity, the buzz of new ideas, and table tennis ! There was also the abomination of  fish-flavored cheese sticks, of which nothing more will be said.

In what follows, I'll have a series of posts from the event itself, with a personal overview of the evolution of the area, highlights from the talks, and a wrap up. Stay tuned...

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