Monday, July 4, 2011

Social set theory

Tim Bray:
Math math math: I’d rather not join the parade of people shouting for one new feature or another, because it seems to me that G+ as it stands hits a decent 80/20 point. Having said that, Circles are, mathematically speaking, sets, and I think set arithmetic would come in real handy: “Post this to the intersection of my Photogeeks circle and my Vancouver circle”. I can think of lots of other amusing permutations. The reason I bring this up is because I smile, envisioning a future in which math teachers use social-network constructs to explain Set Theory.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why we publish

These Thoughts, my dear Friend, are many of them crude and hasty, and if I were merely ambitious of acquiring some Reputation in Philosophy, I ought to keep them by me, ’till corrected and improved by Time and farther Experience. But since even short Hints, and imperfect Experiments in any new Branch of Science, being communicated, have oftentimes a good Effect, in exciting the attention of the Ingenious to the Subject, and so becoming the Occasion of more exact disquisitions (as I before observed) and more compleat Discoveries, you are at Liberty to communicate this Paper to whom you please; it being of more Importance that Knowledge should increase, than that your Friend should be thought an accurate Philosopher.

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, September 1753, quoted by Lewis Hyde in Common as Air.

Irony note: I wasn't allowed to copy-and-paste this quotation in Google eBooks from either Hyde's book or from the out-of-copyright The Works of Benjamin Franklin. No better support for Hyde's theses. Ended up finding copiable text on Eric Raymond's site.

Update: Thanks to Lewis Hyde's gracious hint below, I've now replaced the "modernized" text I had found on the Web by the text from the Franklin papers.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Slow blogging: NIPS

As NIPS program co-chairs, Peter Bartlett and I have just been deluged with 1394 paper submissions to steer through reviewing with 52 area chairs and over 600 first-line reviewers. I doubt that I'll have much time for much blogging in the next 3 months. A few quick links:

  • Peter Norvig wrote a very interesting essay on Chomsky vs statistical learning that has triggered a lot of commentary. I have thought about and written some on these issues, which Peter graciously notes, but I feel that there's something more to say, about contingency in language, which I hope to be able to at least blog about some time.
  • Stu Shieber keeps writing excellent stuff on open-access publication. Matt Blaze also wrote a great post that had some reverberations. And Wired Magazine had an interesting article on the topic. As NIPS PC co-chair, I'm more aware than ever that our pre-digital scientific communication systems are unsustainable. It's like watching a wet snow avalanche, which seems slow compared with the more photographed slab avalanches, but moves unstoppably and churns everything in its path.

May skiing

Between work and the actual skiing, I've not had time to post updates. In early May, I participated in the inaugural ASI/The Backcountry Spring Sierra road trip. The Backcountry's Mike Schwartz drove and provided great advice and help on and off the mountain, ASI guide Logan Talbott got us safely to beautiful summits and delicious corn skiing. Coincidentally, I had skied with two of the other clients, Jennifer and Justin, on a trip to Sol Mountain a few years ago. The whole group got along well, and made for a remarkably friction-free trip in sometimes cramped and improvised conditions. Here are some pictures by Logan and by me. I'll do it again!

Two weeks ago, Johannes, Jim stayed Friday night at a Kirkwood condo (the place was closed, spooky like a set for a scary movie), and went for a Saturday tour around Carson Pass. We had misplaced our Snowpark permits, so we parked at the unregulated Red Lake trailhead and skinned from there to Round Top. It's a longer route than the Carson Pass one, but it allowed us to discover some nice terrain behind Elephant Back. The day started blustery, overcast, with sprinkles and snow flurries, but cleared toward the afternoon. The timing worked fairly well, we got back without having to deal with the wet glop that is the main return hazard in spring days.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Animation and the philosophy of mind

The best passage I read in a while:

Everything that you see, when you view a Pixar movie, is what an empiricist philosopher of the eighteenth century would call an impression. It was born and cradled in the mind of a computer, and there it lived and grew.

Anthony Lane, The Fun Factory: Life at Pixar, New Yorker, May 16, 2011.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Technology Has Social Consequences

Technology Has Social Consequences | May 2011 | Communications of the ACM: The loss in quality of conference reviewing is just one result of the move to virtual PC meetings. Another outcome is the loss of socialization that took place in PC meetings. It is this lost socialization that contributed to a senior researcher being ignorant of one of the most basic rules of scholarly reviewing.

I quoted the paragraph in Moshe's article that best summarizes his main point. The article is worth reading in full. However, I disagree with both its alleged empirical claims and its main argument. Moshe claims that reviewing quality is down in CS conferences, and reviewers are less aware of good scholarly conduct. However, he provides no empirical evidence for these claims except for one anecdote and some vague impressions, which I could easily counter with old tales of reviewing incompetence and malice. He then proceeds to argue that those failings are the result of less face-to-face interaction among reviewers. Again, he provides no empirical evidence for the claim, and he does not consider alternative explanations. In particular, he does not consider the fact that many areas of CS have grown rapidly. For example, I just did a simple calculation to arrive at an estimate that computational linguistics as a field has grown at an average 6%/year over the last 28 years, making the field five times as big now as when I presented my first ACL paper. This growth forced conferences to adopt more complex structures, with areas, multiple tiers, electronic submission and review discussion, simply to scale up to the much larger population. We can argue about the specifics of reviewing mechanisms, but the old unitary program committee was already collapsing under the strain around 15 years ago for the first-tier conferences I have been involved in.

But there's an even bigger potential problem that Moshe does not discuss. As the field has matured, it takes longer and it is harder for someone to become a good reviewer because there's just more to know. Meanwhile, the number of people coming into the field continues to grow and the number of papers submitted grows in proportion. The result is then that the ratio of submissions to qualified reviewers increases. Less qualified reviewers are enrolled, or qualified reviewers are overloaded. Either way, review quality goes down. For all we know, it is this, and not Web-based program committees, that is the root cause of all the complaining about bad reviewing in the last few years.