SIG IR 2006 is going on in Seattle at this moment. CJ van Rijsbergen just received the Salton Award, given every three years to the brightests stars in the Information Retrieval firmament. In case any of us needed to be reminded that that firmament has rather broader horizons than it once did, this year's SIG IR meeting is the largest ever, and t-shirts and logos of the Amazoogles are everywhere in evidence. A conference of 700 + hardly even qualifies as a special interest group any longer.
Rijsbergen spoke in his acceptance speech of the phases and character of his career, and people and activities that have shaped it. More than once he mentioned how much he had been inspired by his students, and in particular, his early graduate students who helped him shape his mentoring skills at a time when they were still rudimentary.
He also raised the question of whether theory is necessary, and indeed, whether there can be a theory in a "science of the artificial" such as Information Retrieval. His answer will be of no surprise to anyone familiar with his work. Rijsbergen is a top-down theoretician, one who is responsible for a major part of the theoretical underpinnings of IR. The continued relevance of his classic text on the subject, decades after their first publication, is certainly evidence of his impact in this respect.
Rijsbergen's talk evinced a belief that there is much left to elucidate in the theory of clustering, and, if I understand him correctly, much left to be learned by practitioners from the theory that already exists. I certainly had a strong sense of the greybeard speaking to... perhaps gently admonishing... the 20-somethings in logoed t-shirts: "Hey... we've done some of this before... might be useful for you to understand it better." All in all, an inspiring talk about the importance of understanding beyond simply what works.
Image: The opening dinner for the conference was hosted at the Boeing Future of Flight showcase facility, near to the Everett manufacuring plant at Paine Field, whence this picture taken from the Highway.