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TheoryFest 2017: Organizers’ take (guest post)

July 24, 2017

(Guest post by Sanjeev Arora on behalf of the TheoryFest 2017 organizing committee)

Having entered into the organization of TheoryFest 2017 with some trepidation, we organizers were very relieved to see feedback such as  “Best. STOC. Ever”. This post shares with you the feedback we got from attendees, and our plans for the next couple of years.

Important: Next year’s Theory Fest will be June 25-29, 2018 in downtown LA. See you there!

 

Some Impressions from the event

Location, location, location. Smack in the middle of lovely Montreal, in the midst of an ongoing street festival/party, and within walking distance to the waterfront and good restaurants. I wouldn’t complain if the conference were held here every year!

No catered lunches. This greatly reduced registration fees, and (together with the weak Canadian dollar) allowed us to be more generous with food and drink during breaks (including an open bar on three nights!).  It also encouraged attendees to explore Montreal a bit more.

Every STOC paper also presented at poster session: a hit. Billed as the most controversial aspect of the TheoryFest, this ended up (based upon in-person and online feedback) as the most positive change. Respondents said they expected to hate poster sessions and ended up loving them. Having experienced the energy of poster sessions at non-theory conferences, I am not surprised. (We head the complaint that the poster room was a bit noisy, and will address it.)

Energy level. A day filled with different kinds of events seems to help keep up people’s energy levels. Attendance at the talks was high; I saw hardly any people loitering about in the public areas during talks. Possibly, it helped that  STOC talks were in three parallel sessions; 50% more choice of topics at any given moment.

Highest attendance among STOC/FOCS held abroad. 377 attendees, which is quite high for the past decade.

Junior-senior lunches. Via a google doc page, 3 junior researchers (grads/postdocs) got to sign up to go to lunch with a senior researcher.  These lunches got rave reviews, though not enough people participated due to the short notice. Next time we’ll be better organized.

 

Statistics from online survey

117 attendees have responded thus far to our online survey. Their average satisfaction with TheoryFest was 4.5/5 .

Large majorities (>75%) found the amount of time devoted to various sub-components “about right.”

In terms of quality, the poster session was the biggest hit, followed by the plenary long talks. STOC paper talks had somewhat weaker ratings. Here’s a more detailed feedback.

Tfest

Our responses to the most important feedback.

 Given the general support for the changes introduced this year, next year’s event will see no more drastic changes; merely tweaks to improve the overall experience.

Some feedback we received include:

“Stoc talks need to be longer.” “Short stoc talks worked well; could shorten even more.”

The alternatives we see are:

  • Longer 22 min talks in 4 parallel sessions instead of 3.
  • Shorter 12 min talks in 2 parallel sessions (with poster sessions being the place to hear more details).

Both options have significant minority support but appear to lack majority support, which was the reason behind our split-the-baby decision of 17 min talks in 3 parallel sessions. We welcome further discussion. (The PC Chair Valerie King commented to me that she’d expected to dislike 17 min talks but ended up preferring this format.)
“The middle three days were a bit tiring; stretching from 9am to 10:30pm.”

We realize this and don’t see a good alternative. We hew to the philosophy that a big-tent theory conference should offer a large buffet of content, and attendees are free to decide how much to partake. One major problem with the old setup of STOC was an artificial cap on content —and arguably the day was nevertheless long and monotonous. Nobody complained about monotony this time.

 

“Some short plenary talks weren’t geared to a STOC audience.”

We’ll address  this by assigning each outside speaker a “theory envoy” who will give them feedback on their slides and talk plan. But clearly,  the problem will never go away 100%.

 

Overall, we welcome your feedback! If you didn’t fill out your Theory Fest survey thus far, please do so asap before we close it out, and feel free to also post your feedback as comments to this post.

ITCS 2018 (guest post by Anna Karlin)

July 5, 2017

The ITCS 2018 Call For Papers is now available!  

ITCS is a conference that stands apart from all others. For a decade now, it has been celebrating the vibrancy and unity of our field of Theoretical Computer Science. See this blog post for a detailed discussion of what makes ITCS so cool and the brief description of ITCS’17 at the end of this post.

ITCS seeks to promote research that carries a strong conceptual message  (e.g., introducing a new concept, model or understanding, opening a new line of inquiry within traditional or interdisciplinary areas, introducing new mathematical techniques and methodologies, or new applications of known techniques). ITCS welcomes both conceptual and technical contributions whose contents will advance and inspire the greater theory community.

This year, ITCS will be held at MIT in Cambridge, MA from January 11-14, 2018.

The submission deadline is September 8, 2017, with notification of decisions by October 30, 2017.

Authors should strive to make their papers accessible not only to experts in their subarea, but also to the theory community at large. The committee will place a premium on writing that conveys clearly and in the simplest possible way what the paper is accomplishing.

Ten-page versions of accepted papers will be published in an electronic proceedings of the conference. However, the alternative of publishing a one page abstract with a link to a full PDF will also be available (to accommodate subsequent publication in journals that would not consider results that have been published in preliminary form in a conference proceedings).

You can find all the details in the official Call For Papers.

 

On last year’s ITCS (by the PC Chair Christos Papadimitriou)

This past ITCS (2017) was by all accounts the most successful ever.  We had 170+ submissions and 61 papers, including 5 “invited papers”, and 90+ registrants, all new records.  There was a voluntary poster session for authors to get a chance to go through more detail, and the famous Graduating Bits event, where the younger ones get their 5 minutes to show off their accomplishment and personality.

The spirit of the conference was invigorating, heartwarming, and great fun.  I believe none of the twelve sessions had fewer than 70 attendees — no parallelism, of course — while the now famous last session was among the best attended and went one hour overtime due to the excitement of discussion (compare with the last large conference that you attended).

TheoryFest + wutorial updates

June 23, 2017

Tomorrow is the last day of TheoryFest. My sense is that it was very successful in the most important metric that it was a great event for the people that attended it.  However, we will know more about this once we send out a questionnaire to attendees next week. (Please respond when you get it!)

Many people helped in making TheoryFest happen (my own role was quite limited: chairing the short invited paper committee), but two people that I think are worth singling out are the general chairs Hamed Hatami and Pierre McKenzie. Doing local arrangements often means a lot of work dealing with hotels, food, registrations, etc., without much recognition, but they really did an amazing job.

I might attempt later some longer expositions of some of the talks, but in the meantime, see Suresh’s and Dick’s posts. Luca writes about the awards. The best student paper awardee, Pasin Manurangsi, gave a wonderful talk about his almost tight hardness of approximation result for the classical densest-k-subgraph problem.  He managed to explain clearly what the result is, what are the limits of what we can hope for, and convey the main ideas of the proof, all in a 20 minute talk. The proof itself is beautiful: the reduction (from 3SAT) is simple and natural, but the analysis is quite subtle, combining clever new ideas with classical results in combinatorics.

Tomorrow is the workshop day which I am also looking forward to. Tselil Schramm said that we should probably have called our SOS workshop a “wutorial” since, while we will cover some “hot off the presses” results,  we are planning to mostly make the talks an accessible introduction to the field. In particular, Pablo Parrilo’s talk will be a broad overview of the sum of squares algorithm’s history, applications, and connections to other areas. (See my previous post for description of all the talks.) That said, there are some other great workshops in parallel to ours. That is probably one of the biggest problems with TheoryFest – too much great content and too little time..

TheoryFest begins

June 19, 2017

I arrived to Montreal tonight and already marked the talks I want to attend on the STOC mobile app. I am looking forward to a great program.

I am already seeing several times that I would like to attend two or three of the talks that occur in parallel. One day where this would definitely be the case is during the workshops.

All of them seem very interesting. Eli mentioned the workshop on PCP’s. It’s amazing to see how the probabilistically checkable proofs, that at the time I was a student seemed like the quintessential hard and abstract area of theory, is now the foundations for startup companies.

The workshop on “user friendly” methods from continuous optimization could also be very useful. One of the drawbacks to a method being so useful is that because many communities use it, the same concepts can be described in very different ways and terminologies.  Recently some significant advances were made by bridging together ideas from optimization and TCS, and this workshop is organized by some of the experts who did that, and can help the rest of us understand these different viewpoints.

The workshop on mechanism design has a packed schedule of many of the experts in this area including sessions about the tradeoffs of simplicity (which is often crucial for mechanism) and connections to learning. Speaking of learning , the workshop on machine learning  has a full day of talks on what is now one of the most active areas of interaction with theory. In fact, learning research is so active that it has direct interactions with several of the areas (such as continuous optimization, mechanism design, and sum of squares) that are in the concurrent workshops… but we TCS people know that bounded resources often necessitate tradeoffs.

I am involved in organizing (with  Pablo Parrilo and Tselil Schramm) one of the workshops – on the sum of squares algorithm . This workshop will consist of tutorial style talks, that assume only general TCS background, but will talk also about very recent works.

Pablo (who is one of the inventors of the SOS algorithm) will talk about some of its applications outside TCS and then about how the symmetry reduction technique, which is important in practical applications, turns out to be also crucial for proving combinatorial inequalities on graphs using flag algebras.

Tselil will talk about spectral algorithms inspired by SOS, and how these can be used to give new algorithms, and sometimes even quite efficient ones, that avoid using general SDP solvers.

Sam Hopkins will talk on obtaining SOS lower and upper bounds using a computational Bayesian perspective in the context of planted problems such as planted clique, community detection, etc.., and how low degree statistics play a crucial role.

Finally, I will talk about whether SOS could be an “optimal algorithm” and what’s the relation to Khot’s Unique Games Conjecture.  If you want to know what this means, or are one of the people who cringe at the notion of an “optimal algorithm” and want to upbraid me in person, this  talk will be for you.

The 1st Symposium on Simplicity in Algorithms (guest post)

June 17, 2017

[Guest post from Seth Pettie and the SOSA steering committee. –Boaz]

Attendees of the SODA’17 business meeting may recall our proposal for an algorithms conference dedicated to simplicity and elegance. We appreciate all the encouragement that we received from the community.

Thanks to the support from SIAM, the First Symposium on Simplicity in Algorithms (SOSA) will happen, and will be co-located with SODA’18, with a submission deadline of mid-to-late August (TBA). Raimund Seidel is the first PC Chair and is now assembling an impressive PC.

We’d like to encourage algorithms researchers to think about potential submissions.

SOSA is dedicated to advancing algorithms research by promoting simplicity and elegance in the design and analysis of algorithms.  The benefits of simplicity are manifold. Simpler algorithms improve our understanding of hard problems; they are more likely to be implemented and trusted by practitioners; they are more easily taught and are more likely to be included in algorithms textbooks; they attract a broader set of researchers to tackle difficult algorithmic problems.

Simplicity is prized in our community. We love to learn and teach algorithms that are “from The Book.”

However, simplicity frequently goes unrewarded. Often there is no appropriate venue to publish an alternative solution to a problem, especially if the new solution has a slightly worse running time. It’s almost a cliche to hear: “What a pretty result.” “Yep. We won’t be able to publish it.”

There are many reasons that a result could qualify as simple. For example, a submission might

• introduce a new simpler algorithm,

• present a simpler analysis of an existing algorithm, or

• offer insights that generally simplify our understanding of important algorithmic problems.

We hope that you’ll share your simple and elegant results by submitting them to the 1st SOSA.  Short and sweet papers are especially encouraged.

Your algorithms may already appear in “The Book,” but we’d also like to see them in SOSA.

The SOSA Steeting committee,

M. Bender, D. Karger, T. Kopelowitz, S. Pettie, R. Tarjan, and M. Thorup

Bitcoin and Theoretical Computer Science (guest post by Eli Ben-Sasson)

June 15, 2017

[This is a guest post by Eli Ben-Sasson, mentioning only some of the fascinating TCS connections to crypto-currencies. If you’re interested in more then you should check out the TheoryFest talks that Eli mentions. –Boaz]

What is Bitcoin? Why should TCS care?

Eli Ben-Sasson

In Crypto We Trust

You probably heard of Bitcoin, the crypto-currency invented in 2008 by an unidentified person (or persons) under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. When I started working on this blog post, Bitcoin’s market cap was around 30B USD. Now, a month later, it exceeds 40B USD. Although its long-term price stability is debatable, it has already spawned hundreds of similar crypto-currencies and a flourishing startup econony. It is also the method of payment preferred by certain ransomewares.

I got involved with crypto-currencies when I attended the Bitcoin Conference in San Jose in May 2013, to talk about how implemented cryptographic proof systems, like PCPs and ZK, could benefit Bitcoin. This led to my involvement in Zerocash (academic paper), and ZCash (its implementation as a crypto-currency); but that’s a topic for a different blog post. That conference was, by far, the most electrifying I have ever attended. The atmosphere was manic and there were lines of people waiting to get autographs from Bitcoin core developers (!). The excitement wasn’t just because Bitcoin’s price recently soared (though that certainly helped) but because people sincerely felt that they were “writing History”.

Time will tell if Bitcoin is a disruptive technology or just a modern Tulip Mania. But Bitcoin did already achieve something quite amazing. It showed for the first time (to the best of my knowledge) that cryptographic protocols over a decentralized network can practically replace functions that, so we thought, can only be managed by a Central Trusted Party (CTP). In the case of Bitcoin, this function is Fiat Money (explained below). Bitcoin’s moto, “In Crypto We Trust”, says it all. I admit that this revelation, that Money can be created “out of thin air” in this manner, and that people all over the world will attach economic value to it, has surprised me even more than the success of Wikipedia. Like Wikipedia, I never would have guessed it to be possible.

Fiat Money: Way back, Money was associated with physical resources whose amount is limited by Nature, like seashells or gold. Money still takes this form, of physical limited resources, in closed micro-societies like prisons (cigarettes) and elementary schools (bubble gum wrappers, in mine). Fiat means in Latin “it shall be”; Fiat Money is a resource made limited by decision and, prior to Bitcoin, this decision laid in the hands of CTPs like Central Banks, whose Monetary Policy determines how much money is minted (or removed from circulation) and who gets it.

Bitcoin’s protocol has set in stone an ingeniously simple monetary policy that incentivizes participants to reach consensus regarding Bitcoin’s decentralized payment-ledger, called the blockchain. If you haven’t heard yet about mining and blockchain, you should spend a few minutes and watch one of these excellent introductory videos [1, 2], or read one of these short explanations [1, 2].
My brief redux of it appears at the end of this post.

Bitcoin and theoretical computer science

The connections between Bitcion and TCS and old and strong. Bitcoin’s reliance on moderately hard functions goes back to the fundamental TCS work of Dwork and Naor on combatting spam-mail. The consensus mechanism that Bitcoin uses addresses in a novel way the Byzantine agreement problem, a cornerstone of distributed computation dating back to the 1980 work of Pease, Shostak and Lamport, and understanding the exact nature of this solution is a matter of ongoing research [cf. 1, 2, 3].

As a theoretician who happens to talk to Bitcoin (and other crypto-currency) developers, I am constantly impressed by how deeply they care about our research, and how passionate they are about learning it. This is a gratifying experience that I have not had in prior areas of theory that I have worked in. I believe this feeling is shared by other theoreticians working in this space.

But most importantly for theoreticians, Bitcoin’s core innovation, the creation of economic value from protocols and algorithms, makes you wonder. Human societies have used various ways to reach consensus and govern pooled resources. Fiat Money is just one case, and things like Law, Politics and Government loom behind. Could some other concoction of crypto and economic incentives lead to the practice of new forms of Governance?

You can hear more next week at the Theory Fest in Montreal:
+ Monday, June 19: Aviv Zohar will give a tutorial on Decentralized Cryptocurrencies

 

Appendix – Bitcoin’s mining protocol

The ideal functionality that Bitcoin attempts to simulate is that of an append-only ledger, or sequence, of transactions (like “Alice pays Bob 10 coins”) that are individually valid (Alice has 10 coins in her disposal before paying Bob). The real-world model in which Bitcoin tries to simulate this is a decentralized and dynamically evolving network of nodes, or miners; each miner is assumed to be anonymous, rational, and selfish. Bitcoin suggests a simple protocol that ensures that a sufficient majority of honest nodes agrees on a valid prefix of the transaction ledger, and furthermore is incentivized to accept new transactions. Transactions fees suffice to incentivize miners to add new transactions to the ledger. Reaching consensus is the tricky part. Bitcoin’s protocol incentivizes miners to reach consensus by paying a reward of C new coins to the first miner that manages to extend the blockchain by a new valid block. The miner reward is part of that block, and this is how new money is printed. All miners record (their view of) the whole blockchain, and will reject a block if it contains even a single invalid transaction; this incentivizes miners to report only valid blocks (recall the miner’s reward is part of her reported block).

The reward is a hefty sum (at time of writing, more than 35,000$), so miners compete to win it. The winner is the first miner that solves a moderately hard problem (MHP) P(B,b) that is specified by the blockchain state B and the new block b that the miner is attempting to append to B. While the problem is moderately hard to solve, verifying correct solutions for P(B,b) is easy. Satoshi’s protocol says that miners should always attempt to extend the longest valid blockchain. If Alice announces her solution first, most likely (up to network delays) most honest miners will accept the solution, and consequently will try to extend the new, longer, blockchain B’=B||b. As long as a majority of mining computation power is honest, an attacker has low probability of success in rewriting the blockchain history because the “honest history” will grow longer much faster than his “dishonest” version of it. Thus, the much needed stability property is achieved in Bitcoin.

“TCS: The Next Decade” Panel at STOC 2017

June 14, 2017

(Guest post by Anna Karlin)

As you know there will be a panel on “Theoretical Computer Science: The Next Decade” on Wednesday morning at STOC 2017.
The panelists are Andy Yao, Russell Impagliazzo, Cynthia Dwork, Dan Spielman, Tim Roughgarden and Ankur Moitra.
As moderator, I’d love to hear any specific questions/topics you’d like to hear the panelists pontificate about.

Send any thoughts along these lines to Anna Karlin (karlin at cs dot washington dot edu).

Any questions/suggestions that we don’t use will be posted to this blog after the panel takes place.

Thanks!