Ryan Doenges

POPL 2021 experience report

Our paper on Petr4 was accepted at POPL in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.1 We also wrote it during the pandemic. So I can’t say I was surprised that the conference was virtual. I was surprised, however, by how enjoyable it has been in spite of everything (strictly virtual interactions, COVID-19 stress and grief, bizarre Clowdr issues, et cetera). So let me collect some of my thoughts here.

The mechanics of Q&A were confusing to everyone and it took a few rounds before authors and attendees understood how to follow the choreography. As our Q&A was in the very first session, we ended up being guinea pigs for the process and failed to use our breakout room properly. Santiago and I only managed to coax one question out of the audience (from Phil Wadler, no less). So I was disappointed–but what can you do. I thought I acquitted myself well in my response and the Clowdr system moved on to the next lightning talk automatically.

I found these automatic transitions from room to room within the conference platform frustrating. If I’m having a nice conversation, I’d rather have a human being ask me to wrap it up than have the computer teleport me into oblivion. A lifetime of avoiding pop-ups and alerts, I think, has trained me to ignore “30 seconds remaining” messages and the like, which meant I just ended up getting cut off most of the time. These computer-imposed changes of scenery arose in Q&A but also in the so-called Shuffle Rooms, which put you in a random group for 5-10 minutes before rotating you to a new group. I think few people were using these, so when I did try it out I ended up rotated back to the same group of 3 people over and over.

I enjoyed the social events. I’m a party person, which I suppose the normal (normative?) computer scientist is not. But I’m also quite comfortable online and found myself more comfortable “walking up to strangers” in video call rooms than I recall being at real-life conferences. But this could simply be a function of time–I’ve gone to enough PL events that I can usually count on already knowing someone in whatever conversation, so it’s not like old times when I was literally scared of most professors and senior graduate students and preferred to spend time with the small group of people I already knew. In any case I was happy to meet new people. (If you’re in the same boat I once was, I invite you to track me down in the Rooms view on Clowdr tomorrow and say hello.)

For some reason, there seemed to be less discussion of research than I remember from in-person conferences.2 I would attribute this to the difficulty of going off with 1 or 2 people and having an in-depth discussion. Talk breakouts were good for this, but they seemed to be used once as a continuation of Q&A and then vacated. Additionally, I sometimes skipped breakouts in order to keep up with the next talk’s Q&A. Tomorrow I’m going to see if I can drag some people into the Petr4 breakout. I’m thinking following the 1st session but before the CALM keynote–let me know via email (me@ryandoeng.es) or twitter (@hackedy) if you’re interested.

Generally I enjoyed seeing old (and new) friends, even if it was in a video chat. If I may paraphrase something Ron Garcia said at cocktail hour, I am in this field for the people.

  1. For the world outside East Asia, where things had already gone back to normal… 

  2. I confess I’m a conversational menace who would rather probe people’s embarrassing quarantine hobbies, demand they lift their cats up to the webcam, etc., than ask about their research. Please, forgive me.