Why do we restrict the length on publications?

I recently saw a suggestion from Bo-Yin Yang on eliminating the references as counting toward a page limit on publications from IACR conferences. That strikes me as a great idea, and consistent with what other societies are doing.

On the other hand, it caused me to wonder why we have limits at all. This is related to an earlier comment I made on a friend who found an error in a number theory paper that is over a hundred pages. Science is getting more and more complicated, and sometimes it takes a lot of space to explain your arguments. The only reason why we cling to page limits seem outdated to me:

  • the reviewing load on referees. If a paper is too long, then it takes too much effort to read the paper, and referees/members of program committees are already too overloaded.
  • the limits imposed by publishing on paper. These are a holdover from the days when everything was published on paper, but these days nobody goes to a library and journals have no such artificial limits remaining.

I would argue that neither of these is a good reason to restrict the length of papers. I sympathize with reviewers who are having to put in enormous amounts of effort to review papers, but let’s be realistic – most papers don’t really get read closely enough by program committees to certify their accuracy. That’s something that should be reserved for public literature.

In order to further my argument, consider the lengths of papers being submitted to eprint.iacr.org: It turns out that of the 1754 papers submitted in 2022, 661 have more than 30 pages (37%). 223 of them (12.7%) have at least 50 pages. One of them is 173 pages! This illustrates the limitation we are placing on authors to come in under 30 pages. It runs the risk of excluding the most interesting papers, and it runs the risk of publishing incomplete papers.

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Experimenting with the fediverse

I continue to experiment with using the fediverse, but I haven’t hit on one that I like. The discoverability of content in mastodon is – well – miserable. The lack of federated search strikes me as a case of the head being lodged where the sun doesn’t shine. I expect that will sort itself out with time, but at the moment posting there feels like shouting into a void. At least it isn’t shouting into the cesspool now owned by Elmo Musk.

I’ve recently revived this blog, and started publishing stuff from there to the fediverse. Since this is on a site that I own, I am free to ignore comments that come back to the site. I don’t feel a need to control comments, but I also don’t feel an obligation to publish spam and nonsense alongside my own thoughts. I like the fact that my blog can be found with search, and can be read by people who don’t have an account someplace. Let the conversation take place wherever people want to have it – in private to me via email, in public on twatter, mastodon, or whatever.

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On peer review in academic publications

A friend of mine recently reviewed a number theory paper that is over 100 pages long. He found a critical error on page 52 that may invalidate the main result of the paper.

This raises the question of what the hell is reasonable to expect from a peer review system. It’s a herculean effort to produce a research paper in number theory that is over 100 pages long. It’s also a herculean effort to do a referee’s report on such a paper. The author may have spent years on producing the result – why would a referee spend this much time when it does essentially nothing to advance the career of the referee? Such observations are not unusual these days – Steven Galbraith brought it up in an interview with Ben Green, and much has been written in recent years about the changing nature of peer review.

Some people rely upon peer review to confirm that a result is accurate. That’s pure folly considering how complicated some published results have become. It’s even more doubtful for data-driven machine learning research, which often isn’t even repeatable. I think at best we can count on the peer review process to convey a sense of plausibility to the results, but ultimately it is the responsibility of scientists to study the result and examine it from every point of view, in careful and deliberate pursuit of knowledge.

Some people rely on peer review to tell them what is important to read. There is far too much research being produced these days for a researcher to read and understand everything, and our reliance upon screening tools have proven to be very important for having a productive research career. Unfortunately this has a potential downside as well, since it may steer a research community toward the “safe” side of science.

The recent proposal for IACR to start a new open-access journal got stuck on this issue (among others). Some people are completely reliant upon the reputation of their publishing venue to bolster their research reputation. They see it as a threat to their reputation if their research is published alongside “less interesting” research, and they need to maintain this selectivity to prove to their peers that they are among the best researchers. I suspect that the underlying problem here is that a lot of research has very narrow appeal, and people are grasping at whatever they can to claim relevance for their work. OK maybe that is too harsh, but it’s a lingering doubt of mine.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a world of competitiveness. We compete for jobs; we compete for awards, and we compete for attention. For any person is driven in their career, they may be encouraged to use whatever means possible to eke out an advantage in a very competitive landscape of academic research.

Personally I look forward to a more open discussion of research. We used to need peer review to limit the number of papers because publishing on paper is expensive. In a world where all research is downloadable and hosted for almost zero cost on the world wide web, peer review has instead been propped up as a mechanism for selectivity and filtering. Personally I think scientists should be more open to new ideas, and less dependent on what conventional wisdom tells them to read. Do your own homework.

One thing that I think could improve the peer review process is to publish more than a boolean to say that “this is acceptable research”. We should be asking reviewers to rate papers for their scientific contribution, their plausibility of correctness, their novelty, their honesty in citing previous work, etc. There is a good collection of recommendations on this for the Eurocrypt 2022 program committee. The change I might make is that instead of focusing on which papers to include, we focus on only eliminating the really bad papers, and publishing scores for the factors that we typically rank things on. This is in conflict with the tradition of computer science where a publication is essentially the same as a conference talk, because we don’t have enough speaking slots to accommodate all of the research being produced. I still think we need to adapt.

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I’ve been reading a bit about ActivityPub and fiddling around with implementing some things. In doing so I’ve discovered that the standard was unfinished. There is a client-to-server part that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and a lot of the pieces are poorly defined. As an example, there are “activities” called Note and Article that are almost indistinguishable. The definition suggests that the difference is between a single paragraph and multiple paragraphs, but in reality people use “Note” with muliple paragraphs because “Article” is handled differently by some common platforms like mastodon. I think the standard has promise, but the way it’s going it will be badly fragmented.

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An attempt at getting back to blogging

Once social networks took off, the concept of blogging seemed less compelling. Now that the birdsite has descended into hell, I figured I’d investigate ActivityPub as an alternative. There are many ways to try this, including directly using mastodon or some other platform, installing the ActivityPub plugin for wordpress, or just writing my own activitypub server in python. I’m not sure which one will stick in the long run – they are all very fragile ecosystems.

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Another proposition 13?

I was amused to hear from my daughter that King county in Seattle is experiencing large increases in property taxes – in much the same way that California was experiencing rapidly rising property taxes during the 1970, which led to proposition 13 being passed. According to the legislative analyst, property tax rates in California prior to Proposition 13 were 2.67%, and Proposition 13 rolled those back to 1% of the cash value at the time of purchase. Perhaps more importantly, it limited the yearly increases to at most 2% per year, which over the long term, causes a large imbalance between the taxes paid by new owners and the taxes paid by long-term owners.

Property tax is unlike income tax, because it is more of a tax on wealth rather than income. On the other hand, when property values are increasing rapidly but property taxes are not, it results in a lower tax on capital gains from property (presumably some of those taxes are collected later from capital gains taxes when property is sold). Some people will rail against Proposition 13 for a variety of reasons – including the imbalance that it imposes, but also the impact it had on schools after the 1970s. My memory of the subject was that it was imposed as a way to reign in local authorities who could raise tax rates arbitrarily and give special breaks to insiders by rigging assessments. Now that property taxes are rising rapidly in King County, we might expect a similar backlash – perhaps another Proposition 13 style of revolt. Washington state is a peculiar case because it’s one of those states that has no income tax. This puts incredible pressure on the state to collect taxes from other sources (e.g., property tax and sales tax). The same is true in Texas, which has high property taxes but no income tax. By contrast, California has the highest state income tax rates.

The discussion about proposition 13 in California has been wrapped up in the perceived shortage of housing in the bay area, and the rising cost of housing. One reason is because proposition 13 provides an incentive not to move, because once you have lived in a house long enough, your taxes are going to be lower than what you would pay in a newly acquired property. There is evidence for this, though it’s not clear how much this effects the perceived housing shortage. People who retire and move into smaller housing might put increased pressure on entry-level housing, while freeing up larger family homes.

Another effect can be traced to another reason why Proposition 13 was passed – as cities like San Jose expanded rapidly in the 1970s, property taxes were also being raised to fund growth of the city. Since proposition 13, impact fees have replaced missing property tax revenue, which cause the cost of new housing to rise as the cost of growth for the city is born more heavily by new residents.

Proposition 13 has resulted in local government being restricted in how much tax they can collect from residential housing. As a result local government have an incentive to focus on commercial development rather than more housing development. I suspect this is a bigger impact than the lack of mobility in the housing market. It is showing up in the dual measures B and C that are on the ballot in San Jose, all over the development of this piece of land:

San Jose is already on the road to producing much more housing than it has in the past, but there is doubt that it will be enough to meet demand. One thing seems clear – California will be a much less desirable place for me to live in the future. Our infrastructure is already incredibly strained, and things like High Speed Rail will do almost nothing to solve our transportation problems as the population grows. The state is only nibbling at solutions to the problem, and I suspect that it will take much tighter restrictions on single occupancy vehicles in order to solve the problem.

There are two amendments to proposition 13 that are moving forward on the California initiative process. One of those would remove Proposition 13 protection for commercial property, and one is designed to increase mobility among seniors. Evidently only one of them is polling well enough to move forward. Total repeal of proposition 13 is still essentially unthinkable in California politics. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar thing happen in Washington.

I’ve always found tax policy a fascinating but very complicated subject. I started to become more aware of it when my marginal income tax rate topped 50% for the last decade or so. Ultimately taxes are collected to provide collective social welfare through the funding of a government. Some conservatives argue that government should not be involved in redistribution of resources, but there are some programs (e.g., national defense) that can only be funded through collective taxes. In the extreme, some conservative elements in the US appear to think that the poor should just die when they get sick. Most of the time I don’t resent the taxes that I pay, but there are limits to that tolerance. Most of the California budget is spent on education and health care, which seem like good investments in the health of a society. I’m less confident about how the federal government spends their revenue.

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An analysis of why Trump was elected

Summary of a long post: politics to follow. Move on if it isn’t your thing.

In trying to understand how the USA arrived at the shitshow that Donald Trump and the Republican Party represent, I’ve started reading alternative news sources like

Fox News to compare with my usual rational source of the New York Times. I call it “Know thy enemy”,  and I hope it will help me understand why so many people could vote against their own self interest for such an obvious moron. Part of the reason was the widespread hatred of Hillary – some of whom were clear sexists, but some also just didn’t believe she represented their interests. That still doesn’t explain why the Republican party holds both houses of Congress, and this should be our focus in the lead up to the 2018 election.

I have serious concerns that the Democratic party is headed down it’s own rat hole in pursuit of a progressive agenda that doesn’t have as much support as my fervent friends seem to believe. I previously gave the example of immigration, which I think mostly comes down to the difference between “illegal immigration” and “legal immigration”. Newt Gingrich thinks it is something that can allow Republicans to win, and we should beware of this. The Democratic party seems to have a blind spot on that issue – but also on other issues.

I recently came across two interesting articles on this. First, the New York Times opinion piece pointing out the wide gender disparity between support for the parties. Trump won among males, while Hillary won among females – by pretty wide margins. Moreover, this gap extends to the parties themselves, and there is some evidence that the gap is widening. A 2017 Pew study suggested that men prefer smaller government with fewer services, while women prefer the opposite. Another study found that men favor going to war to resolve disputes more than women do. This is actually my biggest objection to US foreign policy, and has been since the Vietnam war.

There are several ways to act upon this information. One way is to “double down on women”, the same way that Hillary tried to double down on the black vote. Another way is to try and understand what motivates men to favor Trump, and address some of their concerns. We would never win over all the racists and nazis, but elections are usually won by putting together coalitions who feel that their needs are better represented. In that light, it’s also interesting to read the transcript of a podcast from the Cato Institute, where they try to break down Trump voters into five different groups. I know that some of my friends will recoil in horror from the Cato Institute, since it was largely funded by the Koch brothers and represents the purest form of libertarianism. Just try to read the report and see if it offers any useful insight to understand the motivation. The poll might be flawed, but I found a lot of insight from it.

The first group of Trump voters was called the American preservationists (20%), and one issue that they are concerned about is immigration. I think we could win over some of them if we face the issue of legal vs illegal immigration, because they are largely working class and are being hoodwinked by the Republicans. They are the biggest group to think about.

The second group is the free marketers (25%). They just want small government, and this is the classical conversative/liberal divide on which I think the Democratic party has little to offer except possibly by controlling defense spending (e.g., the Afghanistan war that is leading nowhere).

The third group is the anti-elites (19%). I understand these the least, but they dislike it when people talk down to them. They probably hated Hillary’s connection to Goldman Sachs, and think Trump is a self-made man so he gets a bye.

The fourth group is the staunch conservatives (31%) – both social and economic. It’s possible that we might win some over by showing that Republicans are the ones who keep mushrooming the debt, but it’s a stretch.

The fifth group is disengaged (5%). They aren’t that motivated or informed, but if they vote, they vote on gut reaction to the candidates. The best way to appeal to them is probably to look less threatening. They share something in common with unmotivated democrats who lose interest in the candidate or the causes that the party is advancing. Every time I hear appeals to “people of color”, I wonder how white American preservationists would think about it. The Democratic party needs to lose the focus on identity and focus on real issues. Those issues might statistically matter more for people of color, but by identifying it as their issue, we exclude others who might care about the issues. It’s not about gender, race, age, or even class.

In the end I think it comes down to having a clear message on immigration and economic issues. We should stop wringing our hands on sexism and racism and religious bigotry – those people are unlikely to be swayed to the Democratic party, but they don’t really define why the Republicans are winning. The voting public is much more nuanced. Let’s grow the party rather than defining it narrowly.

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Time until Linux desktop failure measured in minutes

It took less than an hour of usage.

The error was in bluetooth, which is not surprising I guess.

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The year of the Linux desktop (not)

There is an old joke in computer science that “This is the year of the Linux desktop.” It’s a joke because every year people say that, and every year there is a colossal fail in delivering a usable desktop. This is July 2018, about 15 years after I first heard this is the year of the Linux Desktop by default. I just installed Ubuntu on a Thinkpad X1 Carbon, and this is the welcome screen when you boot it up.

There are several things wrong with this:

  1. The splash screen is underlying the icons on the left. Clearly a horse designed by a committee of bumbling idiots.
  2. The UI is still the widely despised Unity desktop. If I had wanted a Mac, I would have overpaid for a Mac and gotten the real thing.
  3. The installation procedure is a voyage to hell. It took me about 6 tries to get a workable install.

The bottom line is that I still prefer it to Windows 10, which just feels like a mess. Now I will hear from my nerd friends saying that “But debian is the thing”, or “You should have installed Fedora”, but they all have warts. The only thing that saves the ass of Linux is that you can customize it to whatever you want – if you have enough patience. When I worked at Google we had relatively stable and usable installations of Linux, but that’s because the corporation supported a team of people to build and maintain them. Once I get Linux to stop looking like the ugly stepsister I’m sure it will be fine.

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Democrats may have found a new way to lose

When the Hillary Clinton email story broke, I predicted at the time that it would lead to her downfall. In the end I think it was a variety of factors, but that was the one that she couldn’t bring herself to shake. Now I think the democratic party has found the issue that may result in losing the congressional elections, and it’s illegal immigration.

A lot of it has to do with language. When immigrant advocates rejected the term “illegal immigration” and tried to replace it with the phrase “undocumented”, I could already smell trouble. I accept the argument that we shouldn’t call people illegal, but the fact of the matter is that crossing the border without legal authorization is a crime, and that act is illegal. You could argue that it’s not a serious crime, and you could argue that they are only pursuing the last resort because the legal way is infeasible. You could also argue that the US is too restrictive on the number of immigrants allowed into the country, or that it’s discriminatory. Those are discussions that we should have. Gallup has been running a poll for many years that shows strong support for legal immigration, and the number of people who support it has been growing under the Trump administration. Another study from the Pew center shows that there is a growing political divide over legal immigration. On the other hand, there is almost no evidence that the majority is in support of illegal immigration.

The recent separation of children from people who crossed the border illegally is of course gut-wrenching, but the old policy of releasing people into the US pending a hearing wasn’t working very well. Politifact wrote a story saying that 60-75% of them show up for their hearing, with perhaps a higher percentage for those seeking asylum. That’s red meat to the people who want to clamp down on illegal immigration. There are about 300-400 thousand people each year who enter the country illegally and stay. That doesn’t sound like a huge number to me, although it’s maybe 3-4% of the total population now. I find it annoying that so many who slip through while others queue up for legal immigration and end up being denied.  There are currently over 600 thousand people from India – in the categories with college degrees – waiting for green cards to be approved.

Much of the discussion now is over people from central America with asylum applications, which are a different category from people who want to simply improve their lives. It still raises the question of what constitutes grounds for asylum – does gang violence count even if the applicant was not a direct victim? Does domestic abuse count? Under the current administration the number of refugee admissions has been cut dramatically, and the grounds have been dramatically narrowed. This sounds unacceptable to me. On the other hand, crossing the border illegally places them on weak moral foundation for an asylum claim.

There are numerous arguments in favor of immigration, based on humanitarian grounds and based on economic grounds. When fashioning an immigration policy, it should seek to balance all of the different arguments. While the US is a large country that can absorb many immigrants, it’s not clear how many should be allowed to enter, and it’s not clear how they should be chosen. in 2017, 1.13 million people were granted permanent residence status, and legal first-generation immigrants now make up 14% of the US population. The USA has a higher percentage of immigrants than Russia, Italy, France, and the UK, but lower than Canada’s (which is apparently 22%). The USA has the largest number of immigrants of any country in the world – are we arguing that it should be more? What’s the argument in favor of this? I’ve never been a fan of the US thinking we can unilaterally solve all the problems of the rest of the world. That’s the kind of thinking that got us into the Vietnam war.

I hope that the democratic party doesn’t get distracted and try to defend illegal immigration, because that is a losing cause. There is strong support for continued immigration, and it’s a reasonable discussion to have about how much. Once we set those limits, let’s at least adhere to the rule of law, or else the swing states will swing against the democratic party. There goes the supreme court when Ginsburg retires. There goes health care. There goes freedom of religion. There goes the tax system. There goes any semblance of a safety net in the US. There goes our economy. Let’s just implement an immigration system with compassion and fairness, but keep our eye on the ball. Open borders is a losing cause.

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