Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blogs, research, being social

Richard Lipton has a new blog. Noam Nisan has a new blog.

Does TCS have too many blogs for its own sake? No doubt about that. My Google Reader list of blogs has long ago been downgraded from STOC/FOCS status ("should be aware of") to SODA status ("occasionally you can see interesting things").

This partially explains why I haven't been writing much. What should I write on? Maybe I should describe results in my area. But I never learned anything about graph drawing from David Eppstein; for me graphs are means, not ends. 

I never learned any cryptography from Luca. The really basic problems in cryptography are basic complexity questions -- I already know them, and have no clue how to attack them. The cryptographic side of crypto... well, they can deal with it themselves. I'm only interested enough to hear about it when it's done. [NB: Luca's rare posts about Italian research are cool though -- I use them to argue that research in Romania sucks not because we are emerging from 50 years of comunism, but because we descend from Rome. How many researchers from those countries who never worked in the US can you name?]

I now understand why online courseware can never replace physical courses: in a physical course, the professor has to waste quite a few hours of his day preparing and teaching. For the student, this sacrifice should (in principle) mean that the stuff is important enough. What would be an equivalent online mechanism that could extract an equivalent sacrifice? Maybe I should pledge $10 to a charity for each person that reads one of my technical blog posts carefully.

On the other hand, maybe I should write non-technical blog posts trying to influence the community. But I never became convinced that I should include experiments1 in my papers. And neither did "the community:" if you ever read comments on Michael's somewhat puritan blog, you have undoubtedly noticed that he mostly gets comments from people who agree with him, and is usually ignored by theory die-hards.
1 If you really must know, I find that algorithm engineering is a craft in itself (which I have been lucky enough to practice in my non-TCS life).  Asking for experiments is like saying you are only interested in papers that completely close a problem.
The obvious issue is the one of sacrifice that I mention above. If you want to convince me of something, let's grab a beer and I'll listen. Proselytizing on the web is too cheap.

Well, then, maybe I should not care too much about content, and should write general observations about life, the universe, and everything (a la Lance, Scott). The main problem is that we already know the answer

For as long as I can remember, I have been trying to understand society through mathematics, computer science, economics, mechanism design, etc. If you have a țuică with me, you run a risk of hearing my theories of what the continuum hypothesis really means, what undecidability really means, why the world is the way it is, what the role of research is, how to change this or that aspect of society, and so on. But I do have enough drinks with my friends, and I am left with zero motivation to blog about such things. Online mental exercises are wasted on me.

Which brings me to my next point... The social aspect of research was already bad enough. I grew up going to computer contests, where you were either good enough to win, or not good enough (for instance, in my first year of high school, I missed qualifying for the IOI by 2 points out of 900, which I found fair enough, if somewhat random). Ideally, research positions should also be handed out by a 5-year contest for solving hard problems, not by who can draw the biggest target around his arrow.

The social aspects of the research world may inescapable. But on blogs, hype travels much faster, and waves grow into tsunamis. Noam talks about the impact of blogs on highlighting results. For all our talk about theoretical depth, our work is already too shallow, if you ask me. I'd hate it if research turned into a Facebook contest for popularity. (NB: This discussion is unrelated to Mark Braverman's recent result, which did get quite a few blog posts.)

Maybe it's time to think about some problems.


Anonymous said...

I would be quite interested if you posted on technical topics and would read those posts carefully.

Anonymous said...

Does TCS have too many conferences for its own sake? No doubt. There are certainly too many for me to go to or follow the contents of even a small fraction of all of them.

But, on the other hand, if we had the same number of researchers and far fewer conferences (say, just STOC and FOCS), the acceptance rate at those conferences would necessarily be much lower (which I think causes greater trendiness and less depth), and researchers' careers and whole areas of research would suffer for the inability to get any attention. So, having too many conferences may be bad for one's ability to comprehend the totality of the field, but it's an essential part of a healthy research community.

Do FOCS and STOC have too many submissions? No doubt. And it causes us all this work and anguish to try to sort out the acceptances and the rejects. But imagine what they would be like if they were the kind of conference that accepted all submissions.

Similarly, I think that having so many theoretical CS blogs that one can't follow them all (and we haven't reached that point yet) is not a problem, but a sign of a healthy community.

As for learning new subjects from blogs: I think it would be much more effective to sign up to teach a class on the subject you'd like to learn, or to try to write a research paper in that area. Im certainly not trying to teach graph drawing with my blog. Though I do hope to at least convey to some people some of my own excitement for that subject, among the others I also write about.

Mihai said...

David, I agree about the need to more than 2 conferences. I even advocate accepting more papers at STOC/FOCS to take some pressure off the system and reduce trendiness.

dot said...

"The social aspects of the research world may inescapable." -> "The social aspects of the research world may be inescapable."

Luca Aceto said...

TCS researchers from your country whose work I have read at some point and who have not worked in the US - at least to the best of knowledge - are Gabriel Ciobanu, Razvan Diaconescu, Gheorghe Paun and Gheorghe Stefanescu.

I'll leave a list of Italians to others.


Luca said...

"But apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Anonymous said...

Well, maybe you cannot learn a lot from them, as you already have learned a lot about these topics :) But from an undergraduate level, I find them an invaluable source of information.

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