From August 28 to September 7 I participated in the following three meetings:
- The 6th EuroComb, in Budapest. This conference happens every 2nd year. There were 5 days, 4 parallel sessions, and discrete mathematics of every flavour, especially graphs, randomness, geometry, set systems, and algorithms.
- Gyula Katona’s 70th birthday conference, also in Budapest at the Renyi institute.
- The 19th European Symposium on Algorithms, in Saarbrucken. This was 3 days, with 2 parallel sessions plus more for satellite conferences, and the algorithmic topics included approximation algorithms, parameterized complexity, strings, geometry, graphs, SAT, and practical experimental work.
- (Saarbrucken continued with two more days of the ALGO meta-conference, including ATMOS, WAOA, IPEC, and AlgoSensors. I usually attend WAOA, but this year after seeing about 80 talks in 10 days, I left for home.)
Here is a little bit of info about the conference. EuroComb has a small level of refereeing, allowing people to present anything, including results already published elsewhere. It was a very social conference, and this reminded me of other rarer-than-annual conferences like ISMP and CANADAM. You get to meet many people, and they generally present their best recent results, which I liked. There were a lot of people of PhD/PostDoc age but also a lot of professors, and there were participants from all over the world. (It was even a nice chance for me to make a few new acquaintances from Canadian universities.) I talked about a paper in the realm of discrete geometry that used computational methods, joint with Filip Morić.
One major plenary was given by Nets Hawk Kats. He and Larry Guth recently solved* Erdős’ distinct distances problem: show that for any n points in the plane, the number of distinct distances among these points is at least Ω(n/√log n). The * is because they only got Ω(n/log n), still it improves polynomially on all previous bounds. I have heard some discussion of the result and its proof, overall it is elegant, although the talk was not well-prepared.
In more algorithmic news, Dan Král won a major award and his plenary talk was mostly about his work on fast algorithms for variants of small-treewidth problems, extending Courcelle’s work on FOL/MSOL languages expressing very general problems that can be solved in such families. David Conlon also won the same award, and his talk was about better understanding of the tower and “wowzer” functions arising in proofs of the Szémeredi Regularity Lemma and relatives (e.g., the Graph Removal Lemma). I learned that while the tower function is T(k) = 2^(2^…^(2^2)…) where k 2′s appear, the wowzer function is W(k) = T(T(…T(2)…)) where there are k T’s.
Several interesting open problems arose at EuroComb, and here is one of them. The rainbow colouring number of a graph is the minimum number of colours one needs to apply to the edges, so that all pairs of vertices are connected by a rainbow path (no repeated colours). Is there a constant-factor approximation for the rainbow connection number? The concept was defined only a few years ago but there have been an explosive number of papers on the topic.
Another highlight: Ken-ichi Kawarabayashi put his cat on one of his slides.
There is a strong tradition of birthday conferences for researchers in Budapest and apparently Gyula Katona was even one of the forces behind this tradition; his friends had a lot of very nice things to say and presents to give him. For example, he received an Indian decoration usually reserved for elephants. He is perhaps most famous for the Kruskal-Katona theorem and indeed, the majority of talks were about extremal problems in hypergraphs. My former EPFL colleague Dömötör Pálvölgyi gave a very entertaining talk about determining max/min elements with a lie: it takes about n*87/32 queries and this crazy number is tight. From another talk by Alex Sidorenko I learned a nice trick which gave me some intuition about “virtual valuations” in algorithmic game theory, which I have posted on my blog.
This is my 4th year in a row attending ESA, and it is one of my favourite conferences because many talks are about work that can be explained to a general algorithmic audience. This year, for the first time, they have given each person a USB key with electronic proceedings, which are truly awesome; not simply a .pdf dump, but a fantastic browser-navigable html/pdf hybrid.
The best paper went to Nikhil Bansal and Joel Spencer for work on a deterministic version of Spencer’s “6 Standard Deviations Suffice” work on discrepancy. This is the 2nd year in a row the best paper went to an approximation-algorithms paper, which may not be so much of a surprise given that it’s also the 2nd year in a row it went to a paper co-authored by Nikhil.
The business meeting was unusual, despite (unlike some previous years) the absence of beer. There was one serious proposal for ESA 2013, in Sophia-Antipolis, France, and one half-joking proposal in Muscat, Oman. The presenter of the latter moved there last week and basically just wanted to ensure there was some “choice” for the voters (he admitted as much and also had no price estimates). The constituency picked France over Oman by a 33-22 vote but I would not say it was a close call as everyone could see how everyone voted and some people seemed to vote just to make the vote closer. I’m not sure if it was a useful exercise since it made the business meeting non-trivially longer. It is hard to find people willing to host conferences and I am glad the final result was the one I preferred. Vive là France!
From a technical perspective, I really liked a few talks in different areas:
- a result about MAX-SAT (out of 5 total in ALGO!) by Roth, Azar, and Gamzu since it showed naturally a matroid arising out of nowhere,
- a constructive algorithm for “ray shooting depth” by Ray (who gave the talk and avoided making the obvious joke), Mustafa, and Shabbir, which is a plane geometry problem which previously had only a non-constructive topological proof,
- the best student paper which was by Gawrychowski on text searching in compressed files,
- a paper by Verschae and Wiese about scheduling unrelated machines, giving an elegant integrality gap construction and a simpler version of an existing algorithmic result from FOCS 2009,
- nice approximation results in a model of graph vehicle routing by Schupbach and Zenklusen,
- a talk by Justin Ward (joint w/ Feldman, Naor, Schwartz) explaining/improving many local search algorithms… for me it finally made clear what’s special about claw-free graphs.