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Why are there so many theory bloggers? - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Why are there so many theory bloggers? [Jun. 9th, 2009|09:35 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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Theory seems to have by far the most bloggers of any subfield of Computer Science; I'm sure I'm not the only one wondering if this is more than coincidence. Here are a few possible reasons:

Theory is cohesive. Most pairs of theorists find each other's work somewhat interesting. At the same time, the field is unlike most of Computer Science, with its emphasis on proof and disregard of experiment. I doubt that this level of cohesion can be found elsewhere in CS: "systems" is too vague and broad, while most other areas — AI, data mining, information retrieval, semantic web, databases, logic, formal methods, programming languages, compilers, architecture and graphics — fall on a massive spectrum.

Missing from that list are crypto, security and privacy. Cryptographers, in my experience, are generally horrified by the prospect of saying anything publicly that isn't heavily peer-reviewed, so that's out. Security and privacy are highly interdisciplinary, so that's not a cohesive subfield either.

In a small way, my blog aggregator may have contributed to the cohesiveness of theory bloggers by fostering a sense of community.

Theory doesn't get press. Except for the occasional journalist making an amusingly feeble attempt to explain P =? NP to the lay public in the context of the Clay Math Institute prize, theory stays out of the press because it doesn't generate pageviews.

In most other fields, important papers have a non-zero probability of getting written about (in the case of graphics papers announcing new techniques, it is virtually guaranteed since they are accompanied by jaw-dropping animations.) Consequently, theorists need a way of spreading the word about papers that are important/interesting. Word of mouth and best paper awards only go so far in the 21st century.

Theory is hard. Don't get me wrong — I'm sure research in other fields is just as hard to perform, but in my opinion, theory papers are particularly hard to read, especially for newcomers, simply because of the high degree of abstraction. This gives theory authors a strong incentive to explain and motivate their papers in more readily understood terms, and blogging is a great way to do that.

All that said, a big part of it is probably pure chance. Specifically, Lance Fortnow's pioneering blog may have convinced many theorists, by setting an example, to shed the belief that blogging is a frivolous, vulgar activity indulged in solely by the unwashed masses, far too undignified for solemn researchers such as themselves :-)
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Comments:
From: ext_94919
2009-06-09 11:11 pm (UTC)
I think we're pretty unwashed too :). there are a fair number of machine learning blogs as well btw. But most theory folks are still a little cautious about blogging, if you see the number of questions I get about it at conferences.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-06-09 11:25 pm (UTC)
oh, interesting. do you have a list of machine learning blogs? maybe i can set up another aggregator.

re: cautiousness, i agree, i'm only saying that there may be more people acclimated to blogging in TCS than other fields.
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From: ext_94919
2009-06-09 11:53 pm (UTC)
The last one is a NLP/ML mix.

http://feeds2.feedburner.com/DataMining
http://mark.reid.name/iem/atom.xml
http://hunch.net/wp-rss2.php
http://radfordneal.wordpress.com/feed/
http://nlpers.blogspot.com/rss.xml

as for inspiration, I know that I've inspired at least a few to start :)
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-06-10 05:07 am (UTC)
i'll take a look, thanks!
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[User Picture]From: flipzagging
2009-06-10 03:58 am (UTC)
They also have things to say. Don't neglect the supply side of the equation. A researcher's whole life revolves around generating new things to think about.

Comp sci research is also a field with no recognized economic benefit, so they aren't as tight-lipped as biotech researchers. There is a payoff to being notorious, if only in personal amusement.

Also, most of their time they are playing around with half-finished thoughts. Ideal for blogging.

I like Conal Elliott's blog, although I understand about 50% on a good day.

http://conal.net/blog/
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-06-10 05:13 am (UTC)
"A researcher's whole life revolves around generating new things to think about."

while that is certainly true, i'm trying to determine what differentiates theoretical CS from the rest of CS. they all have things to say.

"Comp sci research is also a field with no recognized economic benefit"

whoa! i'm pretty sure i can name a half dozen successful companies that came out of CS research off the top of my head, starting with google.

"they aren't as tight-lipped as biotech researchers"

that is probably true.

"I like Conal Elliott's blog, although I understand about 50% on a good day."

thanks for the link, looks interesting. i understand decidedly less than half, but i'll try and keep at it.
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[User Picture]From: flipzagging
2009-06-10 07:22 am (UTC)
whoa! i'm pretty sure i can name a half dozen successful companies that came out of CS research off the top of my head, starting with google.

Maybe I wasn't thinking very clearly there. But compare the number of private industry biotech researchers with the number of private industry theoretical comp sci researchers.

Also, it seems to me that Google isn't about comp sci theory per se. It's an implementation of a novel algorithm (although there was a lot of precedent), but is that really an advance in theory?

There's one thing about theoretical comp sci that is unique. Everybody now knows that only widely disseminated or open source implementations have a prayer of making a larger impact. Maybe once upon a time companies would be like "BEHOLD!!! THE RELATIONAL DATABASE!!! PAY UP, BITCHES!" but that could never happen today.
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