Because of pollution, conferences should be virtual

Perhaps conferences made sense fifty years ago. We did not have internet, and the pollution was not as bad. Today, we can have effective virtual meetings, while the pollution has reached a level of crisis, see this moving talk by Greta_Thunberg. Moving to a system of virtual conferences is I believe a duty of every scientist. Doing so will cut the significant air travel emissions that come from shipping scientists across the world. To attend a climate summit in the USofA, Greta will sail across the Atlantic ocean on a zero emission boat.

We can keep everything the way it is, but simply give the talks online. This change doesn’t involve anybody higher up in the political ladder. It only involves us, the program chairs, the steering committees.

While we wait for that, we can begin by virtualizing the physical STOC/FOCS PC meetings, whose added value over a virtual meeting, if any, does not justify the cost; and by holding conferences where the center of mass is, instead of exotic places where one can combine the trip with a vacation at the expense of tax payers’ money and everybody’s health. And that is also why I put a bid to hold the 2021 Conference on Computational Complexity in Boston.

NSF panels, making decisions worth millions, routinely have virtual panelists (I was the last few times). So why do we insist on shipping scientists across the globe multiple times a year to give 15-minute talks which to most people are less useful than spending 20 minutes reading the paper on the arxiv?

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Environmental obstacles

Former EPA chief’s resignation confession-of-faith letter according to Breitbart (a website I didn’t know but that I started consulting semi-regularly):

Mr. President,

It has been an honor to serve you in the Cabinet as Administrator of the EPA. Truly your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your administration. Your current steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results for the American people both with regard to improved environmental obstacles and historical regulatory reform is a fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the American people in helping to achieve those ends. That is why it is hard for me to advise you I am stepping down as administrator of the EPA as of July 6. It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role, first because I count it as a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also because of the transformative work that is occurring; however, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us. My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as president today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me in to your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.

Elsewhere

Mr. President,

It has been an honor to serve you in the Cabinet as Administrator of the EPA. Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your Administration. Your courage, steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results for the American people, both with regard to improved environmental outcomes as well as historical regulatory reform, is in fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the American people in helping achieve those ends.

That is why it is hard for me to advise you I am stepping down as Administrator of the EPA effective as of July 6. It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring. However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.

My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.

The letter also makes me think that I should have added “to worship God” to this list.

The EPA chief is approved by Congress. So if you care about your health get ready for November.  If you’ll be traveling start looking into absentee voting for your state.

NEWTON MUST NOT BECOME THE HUB OF MARIJUANA

If you are a resident of Newton, MA, sign this petition.

In 2016 Massachusetts voters voted to legalize Marijuana. Except they didn’t know what they were voting for! In Colorado and Washington, the question of legalization and commercialization were completely separate. The marijuana industry apparently learned from that and rigged the Massachusetts ballot question so that a voter legalizing marijuana would also be mandating communities to open marijuana stores. For Newton, MA, this means at least 8 stores. When voters were recently polled, it became clear that the vast majority did not know that this was at stake, and that the majority of them in fact does not want to open marijuana stores in their communities. For example, when I voted I didn’t know that this was at stake. Read the official Massachusetts document to inform voters, see especially the summary on pages 12-13. There is no hint that a community would be mandated by state law to open marijuana stores unless it goes through an additional legislative crusade. Instead it says that communities can choose. I think I even read the summary back then.

Now to avoid opening stores in Newton, MA, we need a new ballot question. The City Council could have put this question on the ballot easily, but a few days ago decided that it won’t by a vote of 13 to 8. You can find the list of names of councilors and how they voted here.

Note that the council was not deciding whether or not to open stores, it was just deciding whether or not we should have a question about this on the ballot.

Instead now we are stuck doing things the hard way. To put this question on the ballot, we need to collect 6000 signatures, or 9000 if the city is completely uncooperative, a possibility which now unfortunately cannot be dismissed.

However we must do it, for the alternative is too awful. Most of the surrounding towns (Wellesley, Weston, Needham, Dedham, etc.) have already opted out. So if Newton opens stores, it basically becomes the hub for west suburban marijuana users, at least some of whom would drive under the influence of marijuana (conveniently undetectable). Proposed store locations include sites on the way to elementary schools, and there is an amusing proposal to open a marijuana store in a prime Newton Center Location, after Peet’s Coffee moves out (they lost the bid for renewal of the lease). The owners of the space admit that people have asked them for a small grocery store instead, but they think that a marijuana store would bring more traffic and business to Newton Center. I told them to open a gym instead. That too would bring traffic and business, but in addition it would have other benefits that cannabis does not have.

What is the job of the EPA?

  1. To dismantle environmental regulations in exchange for gifts.
  2. To channel taxpayers’ money towards a luxurious and extravagant lifestyle for its administrator.
  3. To repudiate its own mission.
  4. All of the above.
  5. To protect human health and the environment.

Child Care at STOC 2018

The organizers asked me to advertise this and I sympathize:

We are pleased to announce that we will provide pooled, subsidized child care at STOC 2018. The cost will be $40 per day per child for regular conference attendees, and $20 per day per child for students.
For more detailed information, including how to register for STOC 2018 childcare, see http://acm-stoc.org/stoc2018/childcare.html

Ilias Diakonikolas and David Kempe (local arrangements chairs)

Et al.

The et al. citation style favors scholars whose last name comes early in the dictionary. For example, other things equal, a last name like Aaron would circulate a lot more than Zuck. This problem is compounded by the existence of highly-cited papers which deviate from alphabetical ordering of authors. They carry the message: order matters, and some of you can’t use this trick, vae victis!

My suggestion is to avoid et al. and instead spell out every name (as in Aaron and Zuck) or every initial (as in AZ). It isn’t perfect, but improvements like randomly permuting the order still aren’t easy to implement. The suggestion actually cannot be implemented in journals like computational complexity which punish the authors into using an idiosyncratic style which has et al. But it doesn’t matter too much; nobody reads papers in those formats anyway, as we discussed several times.

ECCC as a zero-formatting “publisher” for CCC proceedings?

Background: After going solo, the CCC conference is using LIPIcs as a “publisher” for the papers accepted to the conference. This involves a non-trivial amount of formatting (to put the papers in their format) and also some monetary costs.

I would like to use the opportunity that CCC is going solo to move to a model where the “publishing” involves *zero* effort from authors. This could be a selling point for the conference, and maybe set an example for others.

Specifically, in the vein of previous posts, I propose that authors of accepted papers simply send the .pdf of their paper in whatever format they like. The CCC people take care of placing a stamp “CCC 20xx camera-ready” and putting the paper on the ECCC. Papers with indecent formatting are treated exactly as papers with indecent introductions.

Disclaimer: although I am on the reviewing board of ECCC I had no discussions with the ECCC people about this.

The main benefits of ECCC are:

– Submission is painless: just send the .pdf! Again, authors can write their paper in whatever format they like.

– Indexed by DBLP

– It’s run by “us”, it’s about computational complexity and in fact “Under the auspices of the Computational Complexity Foundation (CCF)”

– It has an ISSN number (1433-8092). I am told this is important for some institutions, though I don’t know if some insist on ISBN over ISSN. If they do, perhaps there’s a way to get that too?

– They do various nice things already, like archiving papers in CD’s etc. In fact, going back to the ISBN issue, couldn’t we simply assign an ISBN to the reports from each year?

– It has no cost (given that ECCC already exists).

Another option is to use arxiv or an arxiv overlay. This would also be better than using LIPIcs, I think, but it does not enjoy many of the benefits above.

Paper X, on the ArXiv, keeps getting rejected

Paper X, on the ArXiv, keeps getting rejected. Years later, Paper Y comes up and makes progress on X, or does something closely related to X. Y may or may not cite X. Y gets published. Now X cannot get published because the referees do not see what the contribution of X is, given that Y has been published and that in light of Y X is not new.

The solution in my opinion, following a series of earlier posts the last one of which is this, is to move the emphasis away from publication towards ArXiv appearance. Citations should refer to the first available version, often the ArXiv one. Journals/conferences can still exist in this new paradigm: their main important job would be to assign badges to ArXiv papers.

Obviously, this plan does not work for the entities behind current journals/conferences. So they enforce the status quo, and in the most degrading way: by forcing authors to fish out, maintain, and format useless references.

csrankings


csrankings
provides an objective ranking of CS departments. It is the revamped version of a previous system which I followed also because it did not include NEU. The new one does. But there are reasons slightly more subtle than the fact that NEU ranks 9 in “theory” — or 11 if you remove “logic and verification”, in both cases beating institutions which are way above NEU in other rankings — why I think having this information around is very valuable. Unobjective rankings tend to be sticky and not reflect recent decay or growth. And if one still wants to ignore data at least now one knows exactly what data is being ignored.

One dimension where I would like the system to be more flexible is in the choice of venues to include in the count. For example, I think journals should be added. Among the conferences, CCC should be included, as the leading conference specialized in computational complexity. I think the user should be allowed to select any weighted subset of journals and conferences.

Write. ArXiv. Repeat.

As discussed in earlier posts, I believe that two simple and effective ways to improve the publication process are to require that only papers available on the arxiv can be be submitted for publication and to eliminate all formatting requirements. (Throughout this blog I use the arxiv for concreteness only; several other repositories should work just as well.) In this post I want to consider a broader, radical publishing reform, and discuss several related issues.

Here’s how I would like the publication process to be:

As an author, you write your paper. When you are done, you post it on the arxiv. Period. You now move to your next paper.

Forget reverse-engineering the chronology of progress: there would now exist a unique citation for your paper: its arxix entry. Forget bibtex and its BeaST. And also forget trying to pick the best venue. Forget “are they going to invite me for the special issue? In fact, is there even going to be a special issue?” Forget the conference vs. journal debate. Forget a lengthy camera-ready production process whose goal is to put your paper in an electronic format that is only read by library computers.

Papers would be ranked by a system of badges. For starters, the badges will correspond to the current entities. So we have the STOC badge, the JACM badge, etc. We also have some badges like ECCC, which are assigned to papers that satisfy minimal requirements, such as not making sweeping unsupported claims. Badges cannot be removed but can be added. This last aspect makes the new system more flexible. Today, it is a bit funny to find out that a seminal paper appeared in an obscure venue, but it is hard to update that paper’s status. With the new system one could just add another badge.

Q: Which papers are the committees supposed to evaluate?

A: Committees will need to monitor papers like many people already do. Note that for the year 2014 the ECCC repository lists 184 reports, for the year 2013 191. These are fairly small numbers, comparable to the number of submissions to a top conference.

Q: What if a paper does not get noticed? What mechanism would there be for giving it additional chances?

A: The current default mechanism is that the author resubmits the paper, to signal that venue’s committee that they should give the paper an n+1 chance. The same can be done with the new system, for example by posting an arxiv revision with the comment “no changes from previous version”. In both systems, what prevents authors from flooding committees with resubmissions is the reputation loss, so I expect this aspect to work in roughly the same way. A more rare current mechanism is that the paper gets invited or is selected for an award. This would work in the same way in the new system.

Q: What about the cycle of getting feedback from the reviewers and revising the paper accordingly?

A: In the spirit of “only papers available on the arxiv can be be submitted for publication”, I would like the public to have access to the same information that is given to authors and referees. So I would like this cycle to take place in a public forum. If there is a serious issue with an arxiv paper, I would like to see a comment pointing this out right away, instead of having to wait for authors and referees to converge on a new version to release to the public. I also believe that the feedback/revision cycle is less prominent in theoretical fields than it is elsewhere. In other fields, it is common to receive feedback of the type: “Result X is interesting but not enough. Please run experiment Y. If you get outcome Z then we’ll talk.” With theoretical papers you hardly get a request for obtaining better results. If there is any feedback it is mostly about presentation, references, and correctness. Also, especially with conferences, it is not uncommon to get inessential feedback.

As a first step towards implementation, one could keep the publication venues as they are, but replace the cumbersome submission process with an email containing a link to the arxiv record. The production of a camera-ready version and copyright transfers are eliminated. Conferences going solo have a great opportunity to implement this first step. Alas, the Computational Complexity Conference did not quite go for it; think about it next time you get an email about an overfull hbox. Once this step is taken, one can ask if even the submission email is required.

NSF now requires its grantees to make their peer-reviewed research papers freely available within 12 months of publication in a journal. This move by NSF is the answer, at least in part, to this petition, which I signed. (Incidentally, my inability to advertise this petition through the available channels is one of the factors that eventually led me to start my own blog.) However, I don’t find this change very significant. For one thing, 12 months after the publication time is a very long time for research.