Blogging: You're Doing it Wrong! (Part 1)

The title is firmly tongue-in-cheek (which does not impair my typing nearly as much as chewing gum does); the theme at ScienceOnline 2011 was quite the opposite of that, except … well, I’ll get to that. Eventually.

This was a very different kind of conference than I am used to attending. Despite costing about 1/4 to 1/3 of what I am used to seeing as a registration fee, there was an awesome amount of stuff in the swag bag we got at check-in, including a couple of books, and that doesn’t include the other book we got at the mixer on Friday night, which was held in a bar that had been rented out for the evening, with free drinks (at least for beer and wine). Not in the exhibition hall with a ticket for one free drink. The books at the giveaway were all wrapped in brown paper to mask their identity (though the authors were not, and several did short readings from their books), but I scored Mathematical Methods for Optical Physics and Engineering after after a skull in the stars pointed out that, as a textbook, it was the biggest book there. It retails at more than half of the registration fee. So, score. And then then there was more swag at the conference, too; some were items that couldn’t be put in a swag bag, like t-shirts (so you could pick your size). Even the ID badges were better than I’d seen. Big, and with a 2-D scan code of your URL on it.

Dinner on Friday was novel, too. You signed up for a slot at one of several restaurants, which nicely solves the dinner diffusion problem, and each group had one or two of the authors present. I sorted on food type rather than author, and ended up at the Italian place. The waiter had an unorthodox approach; after I ordered my entrée he told me that everyone else had ordered a salad as well. Wow! Using peer pressure to move salad. I think we all had a pretty good time, up until we had to pay. We split the check, and did so according to who drank and who didn’t so we make the nondrinkers subsidize the drinkers, but despite the gratuity being included we still came up short. “Everyone pay $x” should work, but we had to get seven people to kick in an extra buck and even then, we were a nickel short. Not exactly dine-and-dash, and I hope that it’s not worth extradition so I hope its safe for me to admit it.

The varied backgrounds made things very interesting as well. Lots of biologists, writers, others in the publishing business, librarians (who all seemed to know the librarian at the Naval Observatory and her predecessor, and agree that they are both awesome) and Brian Malow, a science comedian who wanted some tips on physics to improve the accuracy of his jokes, and also traded some comedic information once I mentioned that I draw the occasional science cartoon.

Then there was the gender breakdown. I hesitate to expand on this, lest I stick my foot in my mouth, but I’ll be blunt: there aren’t many women attending the conferences I usually go to. And I had previously not been in any conference discussions that included being told that her conference nickname (to be worn on a t-shirt) could be “The Other Penis Lady.” Believe it or not, that had never happened to me before.

The “talks” themselves were not the traditional presentations of talking for 90% of the allotted time and then taking a question or two at the end. Generally the panel gave short presentations and then solicited input and discussion from the audience and in most cases spent less than half of the time on their prepared talks. One went a little over, but the presenter was basically begging for more audience input, and only one filled up as much as 75% of the time showing slides. It underscored the feeling of “nobody is really an expert at this” and that everybody could make a contribution.

Technology was a new experience, too. For all of the cutting-edge technology that gets discussed at an atomic clock talk, nobody live blogs, tweets or streams video of it. At this conference there was the background clacking of keyboards and most of it seemed to be on twitter (is that technically live blogging or is it just real-time tweeting?) I was having trouble enough taking a few notes and still listen to what was being discussed, because I’m way out of practice at that sort of thing.

I’ll have more of substance soon (I hope). Depends on how much time I can embezzle in the next few days.

Part II