2008-10-11

CACM: no longer sucking

Communications of the ACM used to be great. When I went to university, I spent nights reading back-issues, and can honestly claim to have read every single issue. In the early days, even the letter pages were great: people were arguing about how to correctly implement semaphores and whether gotos were harmful. And in the main body of the magazine, others would be showing off their new "quick sort" algorithm, introducing a new time-sharing system called "Unix" or a new distributed packet switching system called, of all things, "Ethernet".

And then, somewhere in the 1990s, it turned to shit. All management and business and "IT" and government projects and sociology and just random, well, shit. So although I became a member of the ACM when I left university (mainly so I could get the SIGPLAN proceedings without finding a university library, and so I could avoid being one of those creepy old obviously-not-a-student guys who hangs around university libraries), for most of the past decade, I've "read" CACM in the distance between my letter box and the kitchen bin.

I still read the SIGPLAN conference proceedings, though, because I'm interested in that stuff, it's peer-reviewed (so even when it's crap, it's at least coherent crap written by people with CS degrees), and it gives me an idea of what research is being done in that sub-sub-sub-field.

CACM, though, wasn't even fit to wipe your arse on. (Glossy paper, you see.)

The past few issues, though, have picked up substantially. I didn't comment on the first one, because even a gobshite like Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell might make a good film once in their lives. But we're on the fourth non-shite issue of CACM in four months, and that's better than they managed throughout the entire 1990s. Hell, you'd have to go back to the 1970s for that kind of quality.

Sure, it's not perfect, but it's a huge leap forward. The "news" is now reminiscent of New Scientist, rather than just being a random collection of six-month-old Slashdot stories. The random articles have managed to be mostly decent overviews of mostly sufficiently technical stuff. And the "research highlights" section, well, that's the lesson they learned from Nature/Science, and it's done beautifully. They get someone who knows the subject write a one-page layman's introduction to a paper, followed by the actual paper, that you probably won't fully understand unless it's a field you know. So last month had Mark Moir (senior staff engineer at Sun) introduce/review a paper on using transactional memory in operating systems, followed by the paper; then Hagit Attiya (professor of CS at the Technion) introducing a distributed algorithm for computing the k-th smallest element, followed by the paper.

Other recent-issue articles have included Adam Leventhal's "Flash Storage Memory" on using flash as another level in the storage hierarchy (rather than a straight disk "replacement"), Mark Oskin's "The Revolution Inside the Box", reviewing the last decade of computer architecture research (not all multi-core, but, yeah, plenty of that). Plenty of papers on transactional memory (which it's been pretty hard to avoid lately anyway, but it's nice to have someone picking out just the good bits). And if human interest stories are more your thing, there's been the heartwarming two-part serial about Don Knuth and his massive organ.

This, the new CACM, is a thing of beauty. This is something you'd actually pay money for. (Which is nice, because I've been paying money for it for just over a decade now.)

What's not good? Well, there's some sloppiness; multiple (different) expansions of the acronym XML in the same issue, for example. (And seriously, if it's as mainstream as XML, does expanding the acronym help anyone? If they didn't already know what it meant, the expansion isn't going to clue them in. Typing "XML" into their favorite search engine will, and if they're incapable of doing that themselves, they're a lost cause.) Not all of the articles are of a high-enough quality, with hints of the bad old 1990s "business wank" CACM. There was some article last month from Michael Cusumano (a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management) that was both irrelevant and factually incorrect; I gave up before coming to his point, assuming he had one.

Back on the bright side, the 2008-10 issue contains the paper "Scene Completion Using Millions of Photographs" by Hays and Efros that's exactly what I want: something interesting, accessible, and well outside my usual sphere; something I wouldn't have come across on my own.

Hopefully the future contains more of the new stuff and ever less of the old stuff.

If you're serious about CS, and interested in having some vague idea of what kinds of things people are looking at in our increasingly wide and diverse field, I can actually recommend CACM for the first time since the 1970s. I finish an issue feeling like I've learned something, rather than feeling like I'm an idiot for paying for some sociologist or MBA to gibber on about stuff that's not true, not falsifiable, or not pertinent.

The only downside to CACM being worth reading again is that it's yet another demand on my copious free time.