Saturday, January 26, 2008

..and exhale.

Deadlines are necessary. They're unavoidable. They are even beneficial - I would not get half as much done if I wasn't occasionally pinned in a corner like a rabid rat by a looming deadline. The feeling of beating a deadline, of handing in the work finished and on time, is wonderful. But the actual bit when you struggle to make recalcitrant hardware and software behave as intended as the clock creeps towards the end is, well, not so much.

This deadline was for a conference to be held in Osaka this summer, and I managed to submit the paper on time. Actually, I lie. I was late, very late - but then, so was most everybody else. What happened was a deadline extension. The actual deadline was two weeks ago, a deadline that got extended to yesterday evening. And since I knew the deadline would most likely be extended I wasn't even close to finished with my submission for the original deadline - the system was still not working and the paper was little more than a vague outline. The original deadline came and went with me not even trying to meet it.

So how did I know there'd be an extension? Did I perhaps know one of the organizers, or did I send an army of tiny robotic cockroaches to spy on my behalf? Not at all. Every scientific conference has a deadline extension. It used to be that conferences had a deadline and if you missed it, well good luck next year. But then, in extrardinary circumstances - you couldn't get you submission typed out on time perhaps, or the postal service fell down on the job - you could ask for a few extra days. But gradually, as more and more people asked for extra time, conferences began granting extra time to everyone so that some people would not have that extra edge.

And now, of course, every conference does it. They have no choice; most people just never submit anything for the original deadline, knowing that there'll be an extension anyway. Not granting an extension would be tantamount to canceling the conference. This it is bad for everybody. You used to know exactly when your paper was due. Now the deadline is in some fuzzy time period of between a week to a month after the posted time, and you won't find out exactly when until just before the original deadline. And it's bad for the organizers that have to plan around a "real" deadline as well as a later one (you need to line up reviewers and make sure they're available for instance).

But nobody can really do anything about it. It's a very neat game-theoretic trap: no conference can skip the extension because people know all other conferences grant them so they'd be severely hurt. And since they grant extensions, so, in turn, must everybody else. Instead, some conferences have begun granting second extensions; there's still people with legitimate reasons to be late, after all, and not giving them a bit of extra time would be churlish. Expect to see a second extension become standard within he next ten-fifteen years. Of course, the time needed to process submissions is much less than it used to be so no real harm done I guess. I look forward to the day when you can show up on the opening day of a conference, paper in hand, and have it reviewed by on-site reviewers, revised and accepted as a poster before the day ends.

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