Crypto Doesn't Have to Be Serious. Just Ask This Comedian Who Organized a Conference About Failure in the Industry.
Allison Bishop, general chair of this year's International Crypto Conference, is a computer scientist and comedian who knows humor can make a real impact.
The annual International Crypto Conference, run by the International Association for Cryptologic Research, was first held in 1981. Ever since, its devoted attendees have come to expect certain things: It will take place on the University of California, Santa Barbara campus; there will be a beach barbecue; people will stay in the dorms and forget to bring towels; and, on Sunday night, there will be chocolate-covered strawberries.
If you're wondering how a crypto conference could have been around for the past 40-plus years, you're not alone. Allison Bishop, this year's general chair, says that some people who have contacted her about sponsorships are baffled when she tells them how old the conference is. But "crypto" does not exclusively refer to "cryptocurrency." It's also shorthand for cryptology, or cryptography, which is the practice and study of techniques for secure communication in the presence of adversarial behavior.
Essentially, cryptology is about taking control of communication, Bishop explains: for example, being able to use a credit card online without someone else stealing it. Bishop's an expert in the field, and her various related endeavors, which include teaching part-time at CUNY, leading a financial startup and doing stand-up comedy, might leave you wondering just how she has time for it all ("I balance them badly, at the moment," she laughs).
"I've been on a trajectory of trying to go from the more theoretical to the more practical."
Bishop didn't always intend to have a career based in crypto. In fact, as an undergraduate at Princeton University, she considered creative writing for a time. But after taking three death-related writing courses along with a number theory class her first semester, the latter seemed "very cheerful in comparison," and Bishop ultimately switched her focus to mathematics.
Bishop went on to get her masters in mathematics at the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. After that, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research New England and joined the faculty of Columbia University in 2013, but, as an academic, she felt she lacked the resources to solve real problems in data science and cybersecurity.
"I've been on a trajectory of trying to go from the more theoretical to the more practical," Bishop explains, "and not because I don't love theory — I love the systematic and rigorous way of problem-solving that theoreticians have — but I want to be working on problems that impact people.
"And I got pretty frustrated with asking mathematicians, 'Okay, but what are the applications of this?' And I'd get answers like, 'Oh, well it's super important for sixth-dimensional geometry,'" she continues. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, I mean to people.'"
So Bishop leaped to industry, considering herself a "partially reformed academic." Today, she is the president and co-founder of Proof Trading, a startup launching an institutional broker-dealer for U.S. equities. Although Bishop acknowledges the connection between the startup's work and her cryptography background, she stresses that, once again, it has nothing to do with cryptocurrency.
"I get asked that a lot," Bishop laughs. "It's pretty regular vanilla finance in some sense. We design trading algorithms for institutional clients like hedge funds. We're designing how to take their big orders and chop them into little pieces so you can put them into the market a little bit at a time and not move the price by a large amount.
"All of our competitors are very secretive about their algorithms," Bishop continues, "and there's kind of a parallel to cryptography — if somebody's very secretive about how they're doing encryption, it's a bad sign. If someone's like, 'I have a cool new way of encrypting data and I can't tell you how it works,' then it's probably broken. Public scrutiny is how we get good algorithms, so we wanted to take that philosophy into finance."
"Humor is such a powerful tool for cutting through ego and defensiveness."
Bishop's interested in how crypto can solve real-world problems, but she also sees the humor in it all too — which makes great material for her stand-up comedy routines. That's right, Bishop is also a comedian; she regularly performs at The Symposium, an academic stand-up show hosted at Caveat. Bishop got started with comedy after attending LA open mics with her brother Pat Bishop, a comedian who is the co-creator of Comedy Central's show Corporate and co-writer and co-producer on the upcoming Hulu series The Fool.
"I would see stand-up comics be very blah," Bishop says, "and that's what made me think, Oh, I could do this. It's not that hard. If you're a fan of comedy and you only go to shows of really good people that you've heard of, like Eddie Izzard or Jim Gaffigan, then you think, That's so hard, I could never do that. But if you go to open mics, you're like, Oh, most people are bad, it's fine."
So Bishop gave stand-up a shot herself in 2015, then got into writing comedy sketches. She even staged musical parody numbers at crypto conferences. For Bishop, comedy is yet another way to make a real impact with her work.
"The most important thing that scientists are tackling is impact," Bishop explains. "How do we engage people? How do we empower them to reason through science? Humor is such a powerful tool for cutting through ego and defensiveness and so many other things that are a barrier to scientific growth and thinking."
Cutting through ego in science can be difficult. In her early graduate school days, Bishop recalls reading research papers that all seemed to prove what their authors had set out to prove, and she wondered, Why doesn't that happen to me? It's because many people don't actually solve the problems they want to solve, Bishop explains: They make another discovery along the way and write their papers as if that were the intent all along.
But Bishop sees the value in failure — so much so that it prompted her to launch CFAIL, the Conference for Failed Approaches and Insightful Losses in cryptology. ("A little bit of a dig at CSAIL, which is the cryptography group at MIT," Bishop laughs).
"We have an annual event where we publish papers that talk through the insightful failures of people along the way," Bishop says. "I introduced comedy events into that process because it sort of felt like the way we get people in the mood to talk about and embrace failure. You're not going to have a very serious talk with somebody like a senior researcher admitting something that went wrong. You're going to need an atmosphere of being in on the joke of it."
"I'm excited about giving people this experience back — about reclaiming it."
This year's International Crypto Conference will run from August 13-18.
Bishop says she's looking forward to the conference's hybrid format, as having a virtual option, initially offered out of necessity at the height of the pandemic, continues to expand access. But Bishop is also eager to return to the conference in person, and to all of the traditions that go along with it.
"I'm excited about giving people this experience back — about reclaiming it," Bishop says.
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