Tuesday, May 19, 2015

ITA, or a conference I really enjoy.

Continuing my thoughts on the STOC 2017 reboot, I went back to Boaz's original question:

What would make you more likely to go to STOC?

And thought I'd answer it by mentioning an event that I really enjoy attending. I didn't post it as a comment because it's a little out of scope for the blog post itself: it doesn't make concrete recommendations so much as relay anecdotal evidence. 

The Information Theory and Applications workshop is a workshop: it doesn't have printed proceedings, and it encourages people to present work that has been published (or is under review) elsewhere. Keep that caveat in mind: the structure here might not work for a peer-reviewed venue like STOC. 

Having said that, the ITA is a wonderful event to go to. 
  • It's in San Diego every year in February - what's not to like about that
  • It runs for 5 days, so is quite long. But the topics covered change over the course of the 5 days: the early days are heavy on information theory and signal processing, and the algorithms/ml/stats shows up later in the week. 
  • There are multiple parallel sessions: usually 5. And lots of talks (no posters)
  • There are lots of fun activities. There's an irreverent streak running through the entire event, starting with the countdown clock to the invitations, the comedy show where professional comedians come and make fun of us :), various other goofy events interspersed with the workshop, and tee-shirts and mugs with your name and picture on them. 
The talks are very relaxed, probably precisely because there isn't a sense of "I must prove my worth because my paper got accepted here". Talk quality varies as always, but the average quality is surprisingly high, possibly also because it's by invitation. 

But the attendance is very high. I think the last time I attended there were well over 600 people, drawn from stats, math, CS, and EE. This had the classic feel of a 'destination workshop' that STOC wants to emulate. People came to share their work and listen to others, and there was lots of space for downtime discussions. 

My assertion is that the decoupling of presentation from publication (i.e the classical workshop nature of ITA), makes for more fun talks, because people aren't trying to prove a theorem from the paper and feel the freedom to be more expansive in their talks (maybe covering related results, or giving some larger perspective). 

Obviously this would be hard to do at STOC. But I think the suggestions involving posters are one way of getting to this: namely, that you get a pat on the back for producing quality research via a CV bullet ("published at STOC") and an opportunity to share your work (the poster). But giving a talk is a privilege (you're occupying people's time for slice of a day), not a right, and that has to be earned. 

I also think that a commenter (John) makes a good point when they ask "Who's the audience?". I'm at a point where I don't really enjoy 20 minutes of a dry technical talk and I prefer talks with intuition and connections (partly because I can fill in details myself, and partly because I know I'll read the details later if I really care). I don't know if my view is shared by everyone, especially grad students who have the stamina and the inclination to sit through hours of very technical presentations. 

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