I just attended a conference for the first time, albeit virtually. What motivated me was to see a talk related to my MSc dissertation on committing AEAD. Unfortunately, I regret paying and will likely not be attending, at least virtually, in future years.

The good

Every talk I attended live and watched on YouTube was understandable and engaging. They were good summaries of the topic at hand, the slides were legible, and the presenters did a solid job. It was also interesting hearing how Paul Kocher, one of the winners of the Levchin Prize, studied biology and intended to be a vet, which gives people like me with no maths background hope.

There are still a few talks I intend to watch over the next few days. Some of these are very likely understandable by someone of my level and others not so much, but I think the ratio of expertise required was balanced. There also weren’t too many invited talks, and some of the lightning talks were entertaining, like Nadim Kobeissi giving out free copies of his puzzle game called Dr. Kobushi’s Labyrinthine Laboratory. Rosenpass was another cool project that got mentioned.

The bad

Firstly, I didn’t realise the slides and videos of each presentation were going to be freely available without delay. The website did have a vague note on the Program page (different from the current note after the conference), but I assumed things would be private access via login, at least initially, because there was the option to pay to attend virtually. What reinforced this was that the linked YouTube channel under RWC General hasn’t had any uploads in 3 years.

It turned out the slides were uploaded to the conference site on the day or a day before the talks, although one or two lack slides entirely. Then the recordings were uploaded to the TheIACR YouTube channel the day after and can be found easily via the RWC 2023 playlist.

As much as I appreciate free resources, this makes little sense when there’s an option to pay to attend virtually. Instead, I think people attending should have early access, meaning a delay after the conference before the resources are shared publicly. Otherwise, a major incentive for paying is gone.

The ugly

My biggest complaint is that I asked two questions in the chat and neither was read out, whereas in-person questions were being answered. This was not limited to me either; I saw someone else’s question skipped over and have been told it happened in other talks I didn’t attend live.

Being able to ask questions live seems like the only reason to pay if everything is published for free, and yet the in-person audience was clearly given priority. For the sake of fairness, it should be back and forth between in person and online. This means if time for questions runs out then both parties get equally screwed over.

And that brings me to a related problem. Most of the talks I saw ran over their allotted time, which meant no questions or only a few in-person questions and not getting to online ones. Furthermore, some talks were quite surface level and clearly could’ve gone into greater detail if more time was available. This is solvable by making talks longer and accommodating for talks running over time. Instead of 3 days, perhaps the conference could be 4 or 5. I’m guessing the idea is to limit people’s required days off work, but 20-30 minutes is simply not generous enough for most topics.

A fistful of dollars

In sum, based on this experience, just keep your fistful of dollars. You may as well wait until afterwards to watch the talks on YouTube, scroll through the slides, and email questions to the presenters for free. There’s obviously no guarantee you’ll get a reply, but there’s no guarantee your question will be answered live either.