Last year I wrote a blog post on being wrong. I also wrote a blog post about being wrong three years ago. It’s not fun to admit being wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary. I have to admit to being wrong again.

To place this admission in context I need to start with Mordell’s finite basis theorem, which has been on my mind this past week. The theorem, proved in 1922, states the rational points on an elliptic curve defined over the rational numbers form a finitely generated abelian group. There is quite a bit of math jargon in this statement that makes it seem somewhat esoteric, but it’s actually a beautiful, fundamental, and accessible result at the crossroads of number theory and algebraic geometry.

First, the phrase *elliptic curve* is just a fancy name for a polynomial equation of the form *y² = x³ + ax + b* (subject to some technical conditions). “Defined over the rationals” just means that *a *and *b* are rational numbers. For example *a=-36, b=0 *or *a=0, b=-26 *would each produce an elliptic curve. A “rational point on the curve” refers to a solution to the equation whose coordinates are rational numbers. For example, if we’re looking at the case where *a=0* and *b=-26 *then the elliptic curve is *y² = x³ – 26* and one rational solution would be the point (35,-207). This solution also happens to be an integer solution; try to find some others! Elliptic curves are pretty and one can easily explore them in WolframAlpha. For example, the curve *y² = x³ – 36x *looks like this:

WolframAlpha does more than just provide a picture. It finds integer solutions to the equation. In this case just typing the equation for the elliptic curve into the WolframAlpha box produces:

One of the cool things about elliptic curves is that the points on them form the structure of an *abelian* *group*. That is to say, there is a way to “add” points on the curves. I’m not going to go through how this works here but there is a very good introduction to this connection between elliptic curves and groups in an exposition by Tanuj Nayak, an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University.

Interestingly, even just the rational points on an elliptic curve form a group, and Mordell’s theorem says that for an elliptic curve defined over the rational numbers this group is *finitely generated*. That means that for such an elliptic curve one can describe *all *rational points on the curve as finite combinations of some finite set of points. In other words, we (humankind) has been interested in studying Diophantine equations since the time of Diophantus (3rd century). Trying to solve arbitrary polynomial equations is very difficult, so we restrict our attention to easier problems (elliptic curves). Working with integers is difficult, so we relax that requirement a bit and work with rational numbers. And here is a theorem that gives us hope, namely the hope that we can find *all *solutions to such problems because at least the description of the solutions can be finite.

The idea of looking for all solutions to a problem, and not just one solution, is fundamental to mathematics. I recently had the pleasure of attending a lesson for 1st and 2nd graders by Oleg Gleizer, an exceptional mathematician who takes time not only to teach children mathematics, but to develop *mathematics (*not arithmetic!) curriculum that is accessible to them. The first thing Oleg asks young children is what they see when looking at this picture:

Children are quick to find *the* answer and reply either “rabbit” or “duck”. But the lesson they learn is that the answer to his question is that there is no single answer! Saying “rabbit” or “duck” is not a complete answer. In mathematics we seek *all* solutions to a problem. From this point of view, WolframAlpha’s “integer solutions” section is not satisfactory (it omits *x=6, y=0*), but while in principle one might worry that one would have to search forever, Mordell’s finite basis theorem provides some peace of mind for an important class of questions in number theory. It also guides mathematicians: if interested in a specific elliptic curve, think about how to find the (finite) generators for the associated group. Now the proof of Mordell’s theorem, or its natural generalization, the Mordell-Weil theorem, is not simple and requires some knowledge of algebraic geometry, but the statement of Mordell’s theorem and its meaning can be explained to kids via simple examples.

I don’t recall exactly when I learned Mordell’s theorem but I think it was while preparing for my qualifying exam in graduate school, when I studied Silverman’s book on elliptic curves for the cryptography section on my qualifying exam- yes, this math is even related to some very powerful schemes for cryptography! But I do remember when a few years later a (mathematician) friend mentioned to me “the coolest paper ever”, a paper related to generalizations of Mordell’s theorem, the very theorem that I had studied for my exam. The paper was by two mathematicians, Steven Zucker and David Cox, and it was titled Intersection Number of Sections of Elliptic Surfaces. The paper described an algorithm for determining whether some sections form a basis for the Mordell-Weil group for certain elliptic surfaces. The content was not why my friend thought this paper was cool, and in fact I don’t think he ever read it. The excitement was because of the juxtaposition of author names. Apparently David Cox had realized that if he could coauthor a paper with his colleague Steven Zucker, they could publish a theorem, which when named after the authors, would produce a misogynistic and homophobic slur. Cox sought out Zucker for this purpose, and their mission was a “success”. Another mathematician, Charles Schwartz, wrote a paper in which he built on this “joke”. From his paper:

So now, in the mathematics literature, in an interesting part of number theory, you have the Cox-Zucker machine. Many mathematicians think this is hilarious. I thought this was hilarious. In fact, when I was younger I frequently boasted about this “joke”, and how cool mathematicians are for coming up with clever stuff like this.

I was wrong.

I first started to wonder about the Zucker and Cox stunt when a friend pointed out to me, after I had used the term C-S to demean someone, that I had just spouted a misogynistic and homophobic slur. I started to notice the use of the C-S phrase all around me and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. I stopped using it. I stopped thinking that the Zucker-Cox stunt was funny (while noticing the irony that the sexual innuendo they constructed was much more cited than their math), and I started to think about the implications of this sort of thing for my profession. How would one explain the Zucker-Cox result to kids? How would undergraduates write a term paper about it without sexual innuendo distracting from the math? How would one discuss the result, the actual math, with colleagues? What kind of environment emerges when misogynistic and homophobic language is not only tolerated in a field, but is a source of pride by the men who dominate it?

These questions have been on my mind this past week as I’ve considered the result of the NIPS conference naming deliberation. This conference was named in 1987 by founders who, as far as I understand, did not consider the sexual connotations (they dismissed the fact that the abbreviation is a racial slur since they considered it all but extinct). Regardless of original intentions **I write this post to lend my voice to those who are insisting that the conference change its name**. I do so for many reasons. I hear from many of my colleagues that they are deeply offended by the name. That is already reason enough. I do so because the phrase NIPS has been weaponized and is being used to demean and degrade women at one of the main annual machine learning conferences. I don’t make this claim lightly. Consider, for example, TITS 2017 (the (un)official sister event to NIPS). I’ve thought about this specific aggression a lot because in mathematics there is a mathematician by the name of Tits who has many important objects named after him (e.g. Tits buildings). So I have worked through the thought experiment of trying to understand why I think it’s wrong to name a conference NIPS but I’m fine talking about the mathematician Tits. I remember when I first learned of Tits buildings I was taken aback for a moment. But I learned to understand the name Tits as French and I pronounce it as such in my mind and with my voice when I use it. There is no problem there, nor is there a problem with many names that clash across cultures and languages. TITS 2017 is something completely different. It is a deliberate use of NIPS and TITS in a way that can and will make many women uncomfortable. As for NIPS itself perhaps there is *a* “solution” to interpreting the name that doesn’t involve a racial slur or sexual innuendo (Neural Information Processing Systems). Maybe some people see a rabbit. But others see a duck. All the “solutions” matter. The fact is many women are uncomfortable because instead of being respected as scientists, their bodies and looks have become a subtext for the science that is being discussed. This is a longstanding problem at NIPS (see e.g., Lenna). Furthermore, it’s not only women who are uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with the NIPS name for the reasons I gave above, and I know many other men are as well. I’m not at ease at conferences where racial slurs and sexual innuendo are featured prominently, and if there are men who are (cf. NIPS poll data) then they should be ignored.

I think this is an extremely important issue not only for computer science, but for all of science. It’s about much more than a name of some conference. This is about recognizing centuries of discriminatory and exclusionary practices against women and minorities, and about eliminating such practices when they occur now rather than encouraging them. The NIPS conference must change their name. **#protestNIPS**

## 11 comments

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November 5, 2018 at 1:46 pm

conrad seitzI agree. We must try to understand that there is more than one solution to many problems. How many problems only have one solution? Does that depend on how you define the problem? Do irrational numbers count?

November 6, 2018 at 3:35 am

anonYou really need to stop making such a big deal of these “I was wrong” posts. You may see it is as humbling, but it comes across as very self-aggrandizing. “Look at me! I’ve only been wrong 3 times in my life! And I’m so humble, I can publicly admit it!”. You’ve been wrong far more than 3 times, and have been called out on it too, but are far too stubborn to admit your more egregious errors. If you truly wanted to write a post to “lend your voice to those who are insisting that the conference change its name”, you could do so without the whole “I was wrong” fanfare. Consider: a post that referenced the NIPS name change in the title, and in which your story about Zucker and Cox was introduced as a supporting point.

November 6, 2018 at 5:29 am

Lior PachterDear anon,

When you previously criticized me on my blog I wrote you a long reply (https://liorpachter.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/estimating-number-of-transcripts-from-rna-seq-measurements-and-why-i-believe-in-paywall/#comment-11155). I concluded it by saying that “I’d love to discuss more but unfortunately, without knowing your name I cannot engage in more substantive discussion with you on these issues.”

In fact your name is not even necessary. All I would need to have a legitimate exchange with you is an email address that doesn’t bounce. Yet you have not supplied even that. This minimal requirement is one that I have stipulated for anonymous posters to have their comments approved on my blog (see https://liorpachter.wordpress.com/about/). I don’t enforce this requirement but your feedback has convinced me that perhaps I should.

Thanks,

Lior

November 6, 2018 at 10:37 pm

RogerYou lost me when you said Cox-Zucker, or C-S, was a misogynistic and homophobic slur. Crude and degrading, maybe, but misogynistic? What does it have to do with women?

And NIPS? I guess you are saying NIPS could be an abbreviation for nipples. Men have nipples too. Women use them to feed babies. What is so offensive?

November 7, 2018 at 5:48 am

Lior PachterLet X be something that a set of people Y do, and that people who are not in Y don’t do. If someone says to Z “You are doing X!” as a way to suggest that they are bad or despicable then by implication they are saying that people in Y, by virtue of the fact that they too do X, are bad or despicable. Thus, they have uttered a slur against people in Y.

November 8, 2018 at 10:23 am

meister4Many thanks, Lior, for the pointer to the Zuckerberg-Cox work, I didn’t know that gem. On the NIPS name business I disagree with you and our colleague Anima. I have no stake in the matter, nor would I protest a name change, but I think the whole commotion does damage to the greater cause.

Gratuitous personal anecdote: As a graduate student I got to go to the first NIPS meeting, and knew the organizers as teachers at Caltech. I recall no tongue-in-cheek ribbing about the conference name, even though, thinking back to my younger self, I would have been receptive to the allusion.

Obviously the urban dictionary has expanded since 1987, and I realize that today there are rude jokes and stupid T-shirts in circulation. They should be given all the attention they deserve – none. Ignorant and rude people exist in every community, even at the highest levels of government, and they are only encouraged if one draws attention to every turd they drop into public discourse. Nothing good can come from taking offense at the anonymous drivel at the bottom of Reddit threads.

I recognize of course that there are real structural problems affecting women in computer science (my daughter is one) and they deserve serious attention and action. Some people will say “every little bit helps the cause, even changing an acronym”. Following the late David McKay I would say instead that every little bit hurts (https://www.withouthotair.com/c19/page_114.shtml). Each of us has only so much energy for making the world a better place (although you and Anima are devoting more than average). And if we spend that energy on debating an acronym then it’s not available for something substantive. Worse, people may feel good about having done something, and stop paying attention to real problems.

Finally, from a political standpoint, it seems counterproductive to make enemies of the people you want to work with. As far as I can tell the NIPS conference leadership is on board with the need for systemic change. They’re not wearing the offensive T-shirts. Why not collaborate on something substantial?

November 11, 2018 at 6:37 am

BLWThe very fact that we have to spend so much energy just to change a simple acronym is an indicator that it’s not trivial.

There are indeed structural and cultural problems affected women in ML/AI/CS. One of them is so frequently having the things we say trivialized and being told that we are “doing it wrong”, destroying political goodwill, distracting from real science, or not focusing on substantive things.

I note that you aren’t providing any counter-arguments to the acronym being poor, embarrassing, and abusable. Just that talking about it takes too much energy. Fine. Let’s change it to one of any number of non-problematic alternatives and stop talking about it.

November 8, 2018 at 11:07 am

meister4Sorry, misspelled Zucker.

November 9, 2018 at 9:31 am

RogerWhat about SQuInT, the Southwest Quantum Information and Technology workshop? There is probably somebody somewhere who thinks that acronym is funny and/or offensive.

November 9, 2018 at 12:47 pm

Lior PachterThis is not a case of “somebody somewhere” thinks that an acronym is offensive. The majority of women attendees, according to the conference’s own poll, want a name change (https://nips.cc/public/NameChange).

As for other conferences- sure, some have had offensive names and have changed them. E.g., the International Society of Infant Studies changed its name (https://infantstudies.org/). This is what it used to look like: https://mesacam.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/infant-development1.pdf

November 10, 2018 at 1:41 pm

anon2I wish scientists stopped trying to come up with “funny” acronyms. Even when they are not offensive to someone, they are just stupid. The same goes for article titles. Less (invariably bad) jokes and more professionalism.