Thursday, August 25, 2016

sigcomm 2016 - so long & thanks for all the fishy behaviour

Sigcomm 2016 for me

As general chair, I felt I'd have to attend Sigcomm in Brazil, even though I 
had a co-chair who is local, in fact not least to give moral support for him.

However, for me, August involves my family holiday typically, and this year was no different.
So we'd booked a large villa in southwest france for 2 weeks for up to 20 people, so that the extended family (from
UK, Ireland, North America & Kenya and anyone else who wanted to drop in on their travels) could all be there.

So one week in, I had to head for the conference, taking a couple of the family with to get 1 to Berlin, 1 back to
london, (another couple were heading the other way from London to France at the same time...

Montpelier->Floreanopolis took about 30 hours (with a very good flight from LATAM for 830$ connecting in Sao Paolo
with only a 3 hour connection). I met a couple of people on the last 1 hour flight who had come from Beijing (one
poster & one paper author), who's journey was also about 30 hours, plus a couple of Europeans who had a journey of
about 15 hours - like mine would have been had I not been on annual vacation.

So while the conference, as a social event, and a technical piece of my day job, is really excellent (much
gratitude to the superb Brazilian hosts!), I missed a whole week of seeing my extended family, including some of them who 
I only see then, but won't til next year now.

So it is disappointing that a number of people who had papers to present (note, I didn't), did not attend. On papers
with an average of 5+ authors, they couldn't find one person to travel and present. The excuse was the Zika
outbreak. There is more Zika in some US locations than in the conference location, but hey, who expects everyone to
be rational. It seems also that many of these authors were connected with papers with Microsoft authors. Microsoft
were not a sponsor of the conference either (they have been in the past), despite having an author on 20% of papers
in the conference, and making a thing of this on social media. It seems that the conference has value as a place to 
get visibility for work of the company or student interns at the company, but not enough to have a presence (not 
even a recruiting desk at an event where there are around 200 junior researchers in networking, one assumes many 
of who are looking for interesting paces of employment next).

So for the first time we've allowed some remote presentations
at SIGCOMM - we had one live one in at the NetPL on day 1 because a 
speaker was held up by a plane failure and so managed to Skype in, 
but we had two on day 2 in the main conference paper sessions, which were
planned. Authors unable to attend ahead of time, sent in a canned video of 
their talk, then we skyped them in after for Q&A

The biggest problem with this is non-technical - its to do with the loss of community 
building opportunities based in hallway conversations triggered by the talk or other 
things th speaker/authors may have done that are of interest to attendees - this loss
is small for a small number of remote presentations, and in the case the remote
presenter is a student, probably worse for them than for conference physical attendees.
The loss is larger for the conference if the remote speaker is an experienced person
who might act as a mentor or offer useful feedback on other presentations,
live, in the other Q&A, or in hallways etc, if only they could have attended.
one simple example - the authors of the 2nd paper on the 1st main paper session day
differential provenance could interwork with authors of a paper on "light in the middle of the
tunnel" in hottmiddlebox on friday.

There's no advatnage to the primary author giving the remote presentation (rather than either anyone
else, or anyone else coming to present it in person) because no-one at the conference gets to
meet them anyhow, so they don't enhance theoir career any more than writing a Tech Report or putting a paper on 
ArXiv with a video.

There was some care taken (at extra cost to the conference organising committees) to get
decent videos and have them present (and esp. attention to audio both for speaker and for 
Q&A with the remote virtual attendee).

However, 3 semi-technical problems became obvious in the first 2 talks
1/ the speaker is canned - they can't adapt to audience attention, they can't re-pace
based on level of engagement, they can't change their presentation to account for other people's talks
or reference another talk where there's common ideas or differences - the speaker can't interact with the slides,
even pointing at axes to explain scales, or interesting features of a curve/anomalies, outliers etc....
2/ there's no obvious way in this model, to ask a speaker to "go back to slide 5" in the Q&A
3/ having a human figure in the projection who is larger than life (as would appear on stage) is an elementary
HCI fail.

On the 2nd&3rd day of the main conference we had quite a few more remote presentations. While they continued to be
well prepared, and the illusion of having the speaker in the room continued to be maintained by having a Skype
capability for Q&A at the end of each canned talk, the number was really stretching the credulity and patience of
many of us that out of 30+ distinct authors across that set of papers, 0 could get here. This continued on to
trying to have a handover meeting where the only people from 2017 able to be physically here on the lunchtime of
the last day of the main conference were people who were involved in the 2016 conference anyhow.

The event was no more difficult to get to than many past conferences, nor are there more real (rather than
perceived) risks about the location than many past locations.
[In fact, I attended last year in london to go to the handover meeting to learn the tasks required of us, so I
mssed vacation then too]

A lot of people went out of their way to make this a successful event, despite the lack of full engagement by many
people who obviously assume Sigcomm is worth submitting papers to for their career or their employers visibility,
but don't buy into the community idea. That's sadly shortsighted of them. They will be perceived as places less
interesting to go work for compared to those places that had a presence. Sad, because it has been incredible fun here and the local community showed up massively supportive, in huge numbers, and got a huge amount out of things. More loss for those who didn't make it here from north of the equator.

For those of us who took time out from valuable family life, took a lot of care about re-locating the conference to
deal with the public health issues with the original venue, it is doubly disappointing that there are people in our
profession who don't share our view of what the nature of the event should be. It is very unlikely that I shall 
bother attending again, or consider being on the PC if asked. I dont care to work for people who don't care.

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