Post ALGO post: Etiquettes and etiquette
This is part 3 in a series of 3 posts on ALGO 2009, largely repeating the organiser’s report from the business meeting. This is the least serious part.
One of the small details that I tried to micro-manage are name tags. For some reason, name tags at many conferences display the attendee’s name in very small letters, and leave most of the tag’s area either white, or taken up by the logo of the conference or venue. (Professional name tag designers typically optimise something else than ease of identification of the attendee. That’s their job, and they are good at it. But it’s not the job I want done.) ALGO had nice, legible name tags, and we also tried to double-check various diacritics.
One the other hand, the batch-driven production from a spreadsheet to the final tag messed up some affiliations, for reasons that remained a mystery. Incidentally, I don’t really understand the value of displaying the affiliation on the tag anyway, they seem to serve mostly as an ice-breaker for conversations. (Maybe we should put people’s hobbies on the tags instead.) From that perspective, a wrong affiliation works at least as well.
Closely related to the layout of the name tag are the mechanics of the badge holder. After obsessing over this for many years I have concluded that the pin–clip combo is the way to go, so that’s what we got. We even told people to not clip the badge to their trousers. It was perfect, nothing could go wrong, everything was prepared for the one conference where you wouldn’t have to squint or use x-ray vision to read the name of whats-his-name-I-think-we-met-at-ICALP-last-year.
Alas, it was not enough. A seemingly unrelated decision destroyed all my careful planning: We decided to hand out multi-ride ticket to the Copenhagen subway system, attached to ITU-branded key bands. (This was to prevent the tickets from being accidentally lost in the pile of written material we handed out to attendees.)
Driven by their desire to remain anonymous, and a perverse predilection for craftsmanship, many enterprising attendees carefully removed the ticket from the key band, and attached their name tag instead, thereby constructing the mothership of all that is evil about name badges: they dangled at belly button height, typically obscured behind tables or under jackets, and they swivelled around their single, ill-constructed joint, displaying the badge’s empty back side more often than the laws of probability theory predict.
Next time I’ll tatoo the name on people’s forehead.
The etiquette about open laptops during talks is very much unclear in the CS community. We politely asked people to avoid accessing the internet during sessions, and if so, to do it from the back row so as to annoy the speaker and the rest of the audience as little as possible. Several attendees told me they were happy about this decision; the auditoriums were certainly relatively free of open laptops. I remain uncertain about how to handle this – I can get a lot of work done while half-way listening to a talk, and the alternative is to stay out of the lecture room…
One thing I decided against, for fear of committing a social mistake, was to send instructions to the speakers about how we would have liked the talks at ALGO. Namely, more accessible.
Talk quality at our conferences is generally high: clear, readable, well-presented, entertaining. However, most of the speakers vastly overestimate the audience’s level of familiarity with the subject. This makes it very difficult to attend a presentation to learn something, in particular about a field in which you aren’t an expert already.
One of the problems is that talks are grouped into thematically related sessions. This seems to imply that everybody in the room is already an expert about “latest derandomisation tricks in quantum I/O kernelisation,” so why bother explaining the basics again? An earlier rumination of Michael Mitzenmacher about the STOC 2009 schedule already touched on the bold idea of mixing sessions at random. (But this may introduce more problems than it solves.)
The smaller events at ALGO, such as WAOA and IWPEC, are technically highly specialised workshops in the first place, pitched at an expert audience. So how do we turn this around? It would be great if ALGO attendees could “stay for IWPEC” to finally find out what “this FTP-stuff” is all about – but the atmosphere has the exact opposite effect. Similarly, I talked to a WAOA attendee who was frustrated about the O-part being largely incomprehensible. (The attendee was there for the A-part.) How do we solve this? Clearly, not every IWPEC talk can define treewidth again, but my ambition with ALGO was to reduce balkanisation, not contribute to it.
Many of the “too difficult” talks are given by students. There are a number of reasons for this – students assume that everybody knows what they do (I did), students need to demonstrate that they’re smart and did a difficult thing, some students lack the broad overview to be able to place their subfield into a broader ensemble, previous talks have been given only at departmental seminars, where everybody else is equally interested in derandomising quantum I/O kernelisation, etc. Maybe for this target audience, a “Here’s what we’d like your talk to be”-letter could have done a lot of good.