Friday, June 26, 2009

The Conceptual Wars

Scott Aaronson, in his regular post-FOCS-notification column, has indicated me as a leader of the Technicians Resistance Army of TCS (a leader, at least, in irășcibility).

As Anup points out, our guerrilla force shall strive to remain concealed in the shadows of the dark STOC/FOCS committee rooms. But, as an exposed member, I must accept my destiny as a preacher of our movement during the coming conceptual wars.

My basic plan is to sing the ideas of theoretical computer science from the rooftops 1. I want to convince you that we have a destiny grander than communicating with quantum aliens. I want to remind you of the beauty of the algorithm. I want to tell you mystical prophecies about the depth our field will achieve when it will show, e.g., that max flow needs superlinear time. And, yes, I want to reprehend you for behaving like a bitter fringe mathematician instead of accepting the place of TCS as the New Maths... Or for having such low self-esteem that you will gladly wipe the floors of the Economics department for some attention. And, against all odds, I want to convince you that solving hard problems is more rewarding than inventing easy new ones.


Just, please, hold off the war for a few weeks. For now, I am the chair of the Scientific Committee of the CEOI (Central European Olympiad in Informatics). These kids have prepared for years to get here, and we owe them some exciting problems (which will certainly find their way to the blog later).

1 This cool quotation comes, I believe, from Scott's job application. I learned of it in a bar from a friend who was on the job market at the same time as Scott. My friend added "I don't have this [...] in me."


Anonymous said...

Mihai, are you sure you _want_ TCS to be the new math? I understand math has a lot of prestige, but funding in math is extremely extremely low. Also math has the highest dropout rate from grad school. It is not clear to me that the TCS community should be going that way, even for the sake of the prestige.

Mihai said...

Mihai, are you sure you _want_ TCS to be the new math?

No, not in any of the aspects you mention. I have a pretty low opinion of current mathematics, in part because of the way they treat their young, and in part because of the bubble they live in.

Anonymous said...

Mihai, could you be a bit more specific as to what you think is wrong with current mathematics and makes you have a low opinion about it.

Anonymous said...

Mihai, if you find time, it would be great if you could post the list of hard open problem in computer science (I remember seeing an older post of you doing that but something more along the lines of open problems project).

Also I think everyone will benefit if the papers are written well (technical or otherwise). I have seen some of the most horrible pieces of writing making it into the top conferences.

Anonymous said...

Also math has the highest dropout rate from grad school.

The data at shows the attrition rate for different fields. The rate for CS Ph.D. programs is substantially higher than in mathematics (by about 25%). This is probably not too meaningful - one plausible theory is that people leave CS programs because of high-paying job opportunities. However, the theory that math has the highest dropout rate is not true. In fact, among the 24 fields compared in this data set, CS and EE have the two highest attrition rates. (Math is third, followed closely by biology, political science, and foreign languages and literature.)

funding in math is extremely extremely low

Is this based on actual data? I have no idea how you would compare the fields meaningfully. (For example, presumably you'd have to normalize by how many research active faculty there are, and it's not clear how to do that.) My impression is that TCS faculty complain much more about difficulty in getting funding than math faculty do. That's probably largely because of the way departments are set up and how much funding they expect, rather than just availability of funding, but it suggests that the comparison is subtle.