Friday, April 24, 2009

Lost in Time

Semi-regular readers may have noticed that I saved up a lot of conference-related issues to discuss in the last couple of weeks. During the conference, I wasn’t so much in the mood for it, but once I had time to reflect, I realized there were a number of things I wanted to talk about. I suppose this means that I would not be good at live-blogging an event, as I seem to need some distance and musing-time for certain topics (but not for others).

Today I am thinking about how some conferences now provide very little printed material in terms of schedules and abstracts. Most conference-related materials are online and also on a CD or memory stick, and only a barebones schedule is printed (if that).

That is all fine with me. I never liked carrying around a big heavy book during a conference. Several times I took notes in the margins of a program, only to throw the program in the recycle bin before extracting my notes.

When conferences provide e-materials rather than voluminous printed materials, there are many benefits, both to individuals and to the environment, and the disadvantages are few.

Even so, I recently encountered a disadvantage that I had not previously considered. Or, I should say that I encountered a colleague who had encountered a disadvantage, but once he told me his tale of woe, I realized that I had to be similarly alert to this serious hazard.

Before the conference, this colleague had looked up the program online, used the personal scheduler option to create his own list of presentations to attend, printed it out, arrived at the conference, went to the first talk on his schedule.. and the person scheduled to speak was not speaking in that room at that time. In fact, the session he found himself in was completely different from what was on his schedule.

He went to the next talk on his schedule – same problem. And then he realized:

He had printed out a schedule from 2007.

It’s great that conferences leave their programs up long after the conference is over, but perhaps they should disable the personal scheduler option, or make sure the date is listed prominently in each session name. This would be a kindness to absent-minded professors.

Or perhaps there could be special warnings that flash on the screen, much like the text on some coffee cups, warning you that your coffee might be really hot. Maybe something like this:

Warning: The conference you are about to schedule took place in 2007.

Even that might not be enough for some, but it would save a few mishaps.


Abs said...

That's one thing good about the CSC conferences (Canadian society for chemistry).

They have a separate domain name for each year's event - this year it's Last year, it was

This way users would have to be on the wrong website to accidentally get the incorrect abstracts/schedules.

geomom said...

Conferences are so huge these days...and I can totally see myself printing out the wrong schedule :-0

John Vidale said...

Turning off the scheduler is a good suggestion. Probably the conference is using homegrown software to schedule. My favorite meeting, the AGU behemoth, finally got so many complaints about their cumbersome scheduler last year that they're planning to switch to commercial this year.

However, it is almost incomprehensible that he didn't recognize the talks were one or two years dated. Special sessions change, people move, results are debunked, enough to be plain from scanning the whole schedule.

Also, catchy titles and keynote talks should look familiar. I'm guessing he did not attend in 2007.

Kevin said...

My favorite conference went (nearly) paperless a few years ago. I found that I read only about 1/4 as many papers as I used to. I used to read papers during talks that turned out to be more boring than I expected, now I can't (my laptop batteries don't last that long).

I also used to write a lot of marginal comments on the papers I did read---now I can't.

The loss of the paper proceedings has made the conference less valuable to me.
They have started making the paper proceedings available (at a rather high price), but few people are buying them, so I guess I'm still in a minority in preferring paper to plastic for conference proceedings.

(The conference proceedings are also available free on the web, so the CD-ROM is a particularly useless sourvenir.)

Anonymous said...


now i am going to cybersquat on all the domains up to!!!

haphazard said...

Isn't it just a bit much to ask that there should be a pop up with some kind of attention-grabbing warning when you make obvious mistakes?
(I personally dread the day when my iPod tells me: "You have put your shoes on before you put your pants on.")

And btw, regarding not having printed copys of papers to read: If they are awailable on digital media and you want printed copys -Print them.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I agree that I rather like paper. I can't always find my electronic notes. But the conference proceedings still have important notes on them.

Hot tip for conferences - take a multi-outlet power strip with you and sit in the back, where they have electricity. You will have lots of friends :)

If the conferences go digital, then they need to have electricity all over the place. And the programs still need to be on paper.

Female Science Professor said...

haphazard - It would indeed be a bit much had I been serious.

Anonymous said...

Reading some of the other comments, I realized I have another conference issue and I'd like to hear your take on things:
These days, it seems as if a big part of the audience has their laptops with them. While some may be taking notes, the majority is reading e-mail, reading other things or writing something else. I have actually brought my laptop during a session once - intending to take notes and I was embarrassed by the looks I got as I was typing during a talk. Enough to never do it again - since it is something that also distracts me when others do it. What is your take on this: should laptops be banned during talks? Should people be reminded that if they want to use them for something else than taking notes they could have stayed out of the session, in their room or anywhere but typing next to me and distracting me?

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, that's funny. Never done that. Would imply that these meetings have the same speakers in the same sessions year after year though, doesn't it? Doesn't that say something about the Scientific Establishment in that field?

I was sure you were going to say they changed the schedule around completely between the time it was posted and when it actually happened, and this person couldn't figure out how to make use of the wasted time because the online schedule didn't match reality. That's happened to me more than a few times.

John Vidale said...

Laptop etiquette is a topic now unavoidable, in conferences, lectures and during meetings. Perhaps it is best considered in terms of rule enforceable and unenforceable.

1. People need laptops to take notes in the modern day. That often includes referencing web-mounted class notes.
2. Once the laptop is open, it is hard to resist glancing at the email inbox, checking titles of mail, reading mail, and responding.
3. Why not browse the news when the going is slow?

Like the discussion for cameras a few days ago, I think we should use the available technology, going out of our way only to enhance capabilities. Not making rules putting blinders on people to make them watch the action in the front of the room.

The rules should only be to minimize the disturbance to other people nearby. Lecturers should earn the attention of the crowd, not rule by outlawing alternatives.

Isabel said...

"the session, in their room or anywhere but typing next to me and distracting me?"

I despise this also....and any person in front and to the side surfing around a lot (or watching video) creates an extremely annoying visual distraction.

And maybe it's just me, but it seems awfully rude to attend a talk or lecture and be OBVIOUSLY - yes, it's obvious to all - engaged otherwise because you are very obviously bored.

My advice: if it's a short talk - you made the commitment, be polite and pay attention, and if it's a long talk leave discretely and go check your email in an appropriate location.

Anonymous said...

I think they should at least distribute a printed conference program schedule, for those of us who (a) don't like to take our laptops around, (b) like to look at something when you're trapped in a really bad/boring talk, and (c) aren't organized enough to know way in advance which talks to attend.

What's the cost to the conference (or to Earth) of three pieces of paper per attendee? Z-E-R-O.

Isabel said...

I don't think there is any way laptops can not be distracting to other people. Maybe not everyone, but I suspect to a very sizable minority. And they are unnecessary, not to mention misused 95% of the time.

I agree that a last minute, bare-bones schedule is a great idea, and great for taking notes on, as is a notebook. A pencil is useful, and I always have a few things on hand to read, or I take the opportunity to quiet my mind when things get slow, or there are technical difficulties...

kt said...

A note from someone who did use a laptop to take religiously detailed notes of 16 hour-long talks at a recent week-long conference: I nearly got carpal-tunnel, but it can be done! Just really be taking notes all the time, with the knowledge that you'll share them with others, and you'll have time to check your email only twice. Others will look at you with respect because they will see you taking notes and you will be able to share them later. This system works if you actually do it.

(I did have a seat near an electrical outlet much of the time.)