October 27, 2003

Terascale Two

Peter Sells chairing the breakfast discussionThis is a quick summary of the second (and last) day of the "Terascale Linguistics Initiative" workshop, composed in the airport waiting to fly home. We met for an hour and a half over breakfast, took a tour of the Monterey Aquarium (the jellyfish were my favorites), checked out of our hotel rooms and talked over lunch, then had some smaller break-out discussions and a final plenary summation, ending about 4:30.

An easy day, compared the 12-hour marathons that I'm used to at DARPA workshops, but alas this was only the first phase for me. I'm writing from the Monterey airport, where my flight to San Francisco is due to leave more than two hours late, delayed by cascading effects from the fires throughout southern California. If the flight isn't delayed further, I'll have a few minutes in SFO to make it to the other end of the airport for the red-eye that will get me to Philly at 6:00 a.m., in time to get take a shower and give a Linguistics 001 midterm exam. And that's the optimistic scenario :-).

We took some group pictures at the aquarium, but the guide seems not to have actually pressed the button on my camera, because the only new picture on it is the one above, which I took earlier, showing Peter Sells leading this morning's discussion over breakfast.

Ok, so what about TSL?

Well, over the course of the day, the group generated a lot of interesting raw materials for the process of defining and proposing the initiative, and at the end of the day, it was decided who would take various next steps. According to the plan, there will be a "town meeting" to discuss the idea at the Boston LSA on January 8, and then not too long after that, some people will draft a "prospectus" for the initiative and present it to NSF. After some arm-twisting, I agree to be one of these people. When I figure out what this means, I'll explain it further :-).

The more immediate task is to prepare for the town meeting. The format, as I understand it, will be five (?) short (10-minute) presentations, and then an open discussion. So one key issue is figuring out exactly what will be in those prepared presentations. There were some decisions made about who will talk about what, but I wasn't taking notes at that point. I'll post the details when I recover them.

Another, even more pressing need is to publicize the January 8 session. Since people are already making their travel plans, and 1/8 is the day before the main LSA meeting, it's especially important to get the word out quickly. In fact, I feel that it would have been a good idea to have made the announcement back in July or so, when the the NSF workshop proposal was funded.
[Update 10/31/2003: Peter Sells has pointed out to me that it wasn't possible to publicize the LSA session until the LSA Program Committee accepted the proposal, which didn't happen until 9/30/2003.]
Today, it was agreed that Peter would ask the LSA secretariat to put something on the meeting web site right away, and he will also announce the session on the LINGUIST list within a few days. The TSL web site will also come to into public existence at Stanford ASAP, though I don't know the timetable.

The discussions today did not arrive at anything like a concrete and specific idea of what TSL is, though many ideas were raised and discussed. These included both very specific suggestions for new kinds of data -- e.g. "eye-tracking data from both parties in a dialogue" among many other ideas -- and also general research questions that might be answered by new kinds or quantities or data, new methods of analysis, etc. In principle it's appropriate to leave things in this state, since various kinds of community discussion are still in the future.

However, it seems to me that it wouldn't hurt to have a straw man proposal -- or maybe a whole straw family of alternative short, clear descriptions of what TSL might be. I'm sure that LINGUIST list will not just be a passive channel for announcing the session at the LSA, but also an interactive medium for a lively discussion of the issues. And I imagine that there will be discussions in other places as well, including weblogs and other email lists as well as linguists' offices, labs, backyards and favorite bars. With luck, by January there'll be some good clear targets to fire at.

[Update: I made the connection in SFO, with whole minutes to spare, and I'm posting this from home the next morning. After the shower, but before the exam.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 27, 2003 06:59 AM