Highlights of my Lisbon Visit for ACM CIKM ’07

(This piece lists various facets of my trip to Lisbon to present my paper at ACM CIKM from November 6-9, 2007.)

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I am back at NITK Surathkal, after one of the most memorable weeks of my life. I’m glad that I got the opportunity at a highly appropriate juncture — at a time when I am about to enter the graduate study, the most crucial phase in my academic life.

The Lisbon visit was truly amazing, to say the least. The amount of computer science that I learnt in those three days could probably be more than that in one whole semester spent at the college. My professor at Otago had predicted this long back and it turned out to be true. I attended presentations/talks from people at Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft Research. Further, I met some professors and a number of graduate students from elite universities and got insights on what it takes to get there.

I jot down some interesting experiences to share with you:

  • My poster presentation went great! Many showed keen interest to understand my compression algorithm and gave a patient ear for the same. Some were impressed, while others had some reservations to be cleared about the feasibility of the technique. But they were unanimous to acknowledge two facts: (a) that I, an Indian student, had collaborated with a professor in New Zealand which resulted in this publication, (b) that the design/layout of the poster was superb. Kudos to people at Otago University who made the poster, and shipped it to Bangalore!
  • The head of Yahoo! Research, Dr. Prabhakar Raghavan’s talk was the one I loved the most. He spoke on how search engines display advertisements on the right side of the search page, relevant to the search query. He mentioned a case in which Nissan had offered a huge amount for the string “Tundra,” its rival automobile. I later asked him why Yahoo didn’t find this tactic unethical. His reply: “Internet is a medium where ethics can hardly be defined. What’s for me may not be for you, and vice versa!”
  • A Ph.D. student from Carnegie Mellon, who I shared a room with, gave me a picture of the kind of research that happens there. We had long conversations on topics ranging from Information Retrieval to my choice of MS/PhD. He encouraged me to dream big and experience the satisfaction of research life. Meanwhile, his arrival in Lisbon was delayed by a day due to the cancellation of his flight. His check-in baggage wasn’t with him too. What was shocking was that the airline announced no compensation for the great inconvenience it had caused.
  • I was disappointed that there were only two from India, of which I was one. And the other guy was from IBM Research, Bangalore. I fail to understand why the Indian universities don’t focus enough on research, so critical to technological progress of our country. I should mention here that Chinese universities had more than 8 representatives.
  • Lisbon is a wonderful city, very similar to the New Zealand cities that I’ve seen. People at the hotel knew English, thankfully. In a bus, a lady who I spoke to said, “English no speak.” Helpful that those people are, she took out a city map from her purse and gave it to me. I must admit that a vegetarian like me would find the going tough. At the elaborate conference lunch, all I had on my plate were some raw vegetable pieces and green leaves! To make matters worse, when I requested for a Veg meal on the Lufthansa Lisbon-Frankfurt, the airhostess says, “Sorry Sir. We only have the ‘normal’ one!” May be that she thinks being Veg is abnormal, and I had to go without a breakfast. I wish I could see more of Lisbon city. Three days, in the middle of the conference, was just too short.
  • After traveling for more than a day, I landed at the Mumbai airport. The crowd at the airport made it immediately obvious that I was back in India — not anymore in a thinly populated country. A lady bumped her trolley on me, and left even before I could hear her ‘sorry.’ I had technically touched 4 countries in a matter of two days – Portugal, Switzerland (Zurich airport), Germany (Frankfurt airport) and India, of course.

I conclude with a special “Thank You” to my professor at Otago Dr. Andrew Trotman who pitched for my attendance at the conference from day one. I am grateful to all those who played a proactive role in making my trip happen. NITK Surathkal and Otago University also chipped in to cover some of my expenses. The visit is sure to remain in my memory for a long time to come!

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