January 28, 2009

ScienceOnline'09--The Conference

Is it remotely necessary to state at this point that I am no liveblogger?

If the day and a half before the conference was for running around and meeting people I'd only talked to online, the conference itself was all about cramming my head full of ideas it will take me the next year (or more) to fully unpack.

Well, actually, it started with meeting more people. We had breakfast with Jean-Claude Bradley, whom I hadn't met even online and who probably thinks I'm the dullest conversationalist in the world. This is only true when I'm working on a mere four hours of sleep, due, in this case, to a combination of overstimulation and husbandly snoring. I was more concerned with getting coffee in me than anything else, I'm afraid.

I did, however, manage to catch Glendon Mellow on his way out of the restaurant long enough to say, "Hi," and promise to talk later. From that point until the start of my session, I remember only a very few things: scandalizing the shuttle driver, who disapproved of the bare legs below my skirt ("That's how you get a cold, young lady."); packing very snuggly into the shuttle; finding more coffee but not being willing to wait for the espresso; Anton starting the conference with a toot on some kind of plastic instrument; discovering that I'm too short for a podium, which I fully expected; discovering that the podium had no place for my coffee, which I didn't expect at all.

Then it was time for Science Fiction on Science Blogs. I'll write more about this later, because I think where we ended up deserves its own post. I wasn't surprised to hear people talking about being afraid to be considered "lightweight" for talking about SF, but the idea that developed about using SF as a signifier of shared geekiness was kind of cool.

Plenty of others who attended have also written about the session. Ryan Somma has a good overview, and Chris Clouser has another. Henry Gee was somewhat disappointed, although he's not very specific about what he was looking for out of the session. Glendon captured the two most original thoughts to come out of the session. John Dupuis and Acmegirl both noted that certain items must be discussed any time the subject comes up.

One thing I noted at the session that I will repeat here: it's obvious that many scientists are fans of science fiction. What should also be obvious is that many SF writers are fans of science. If you're a scientist who wants to have some impact on the science in SF, Google your favorite (living) writers. These days, many to most of them have blogs. Start participating in the comments, and tell the writer that s/he has fans who are scientists. Then just see how quickly you get used as a resource when the writer is working on something in your field.

Oh, yeah, and I'm hugely flattered that a certain blogger who claims to have ADHD sat through the entire session.

I skipped out on the next set of sessions to decompress from mine. Yes, it went fine, but that never stops me from being a stress monkey. I made sure that Lou met the two people on the top of his list, PalMD and Bob O'Hara, which I did by turning around at the end of the coffee line and saying, "See those two people about six feet away? Yeah, that's them." Then I hung out with him and Bob. Eva Amsen joined us, and we talked some more about the SF session and her work as a science fiction fact checker.

Everybody else tried to get online to blog about what they were doing. We were a bit much for Sigma Xi's wireless, and it kept kicking people off. I was perfectly happy to have left my laptop at the hotel. I just kicked back and drank my coffee. Well, I probably mocked something in there too, but that's reflexive.

Then it was off to Rhetoric of Science: Print vs. Web. There was some good stuff about the role of editors and about not abandoning things like the methods and results sections of scientific papers that are structured to communicate the greatest amount of information between scientists in the shortest possible space (yes, that was Bora with the conservative position). Still, the use of language as a gatekeeping mechanism, both to keep science from nonscientists and to determine who gets to be a scientist, was prominent.

Lunch exposed the greatest weakness of the Sigma Xi center--the lack of conversational-sized social spaces. There are much larger spaces, but those tend to also be traffic paths. I grabbed a chair back in the conference room I'd just come out of and ended up having lunch with Lou and Pal. We chatted a bit about pseudonymity and coming out, and I noted with amusement that one can tell when a blogger has set up shop under a new pseudonym to talk about something different. No blogger starts from scratch knowing how to do some of these things.

Done with food, I wandered around a bit. I ran into Glendon again, and we chatted about how strange it felt to have everyone talking about pseudonymity when the point of an artist being online is self-promotion. We also talked about making money from free content without advertising. People are doing it, but it's hard to get a handle on how many--and on how many a market can handle.

I apologized for being distracted, explaining that I was still expecting to see Betül but wasn't quite sure that we'd recognize each other. I'd been watching for her all morning in the milling crowds without luck. I had, however, noticed someone badge-sniff me and disdain to recognize my presence, which was totally worth seeing.

Anton called us all to attention again to give a very secular thanks for our lunch. I was going to catch up with Greg to find out how the life transitions and gender in science sessions had gone (the sessions I thought I could be pretty sure would be covered on blogs galore), but he and Acmegirl were deep in a discussion of the same, so I just sat back and listened. Not too surprisingly, someone had taken the discussion as an opportunity to talk about what he'd do if he found out "his" students/employees/prized possessions were blogging under pseudonyms. I don't remember what I'd originally intended to attend after lunch, but this discussion was too interesting to walk away from.

There wasn't much contention in the race and science panel, but it did start out by covering what felt like some very basic ground. It got more interesting after a bit, when people focused less on the need to treat the subject seriously, which I felt everyone understood, and focused more on what worked. I thought the two most interesting points came from the moderators. Acmegirl noted that while mentors are good, people shouldn't expect to have all their needs met by one mentor. Multiple mentors can offer perspectives on all your complex issues. Danielle Lee talked about working with kids who were in trouble and pointed out that science offer them a chance to succeed without having to fit in with all the other kids. Science as subversive activity--love it.

Then it was time for the art and science session, moderated by Glendon. Now, Glendon had been on an art-as-parasitical-on-science kick for a couple of months, probably feeling a little bit of impostor syndrome at being a non-scientist moderating sessions at a science conference (I know I was). He was disabused of the idea quite quickly. The more interesting ideas to come out of this session for me were that scientists make artistic choices frequently in determining how to represent data and that they frequently borrow the symbolism used in art to convey their points. Glendon is still collecting examples of art that has inspired science, so if you have one for him, let him know.

Coming out of this session, I heard my name called. I shouldn't have worried. Betül is Betül, and there is no mistaking her for anyone else. Nor would it have been possible to miss her. She and Karen Ventii had driven up together and gotten to the conference a bit late. I have no idea what Betül and I actually said to each other. It was just cool to finally meet. I did catch up with what Karen's been up to since she quit blogging. No plans to resume any time soon, unfortunately.

The last session I attended for the day was on social networks for scientists. No, I'm not likely ever to use one, but I do have an interest in what facilitates the formation and maintenance of communities. The session ended up being largely about what not to do to create a social network, namely just try to get people to show up and hope they'll connect with each other. Specialized social networks that do work (Flickr for photographers, Ravelry for knitters) are organized around content. The Nature Network seems to be the closest comparable site for scientists, but it's hampered by some very clunky technology that was not meant to do what it's been doing.

Then the sessions were over for the day. Back at the hotel, I got to check out some very cool photos from Ben's shoot for the day before it was time for the big dinner. I finally got a chance to introduce myself to Abel Pharmboy on our way in. After that, though, well, there weren't many spots at the big tables left, so I felt a little unsocial as Ben, Greg, Lou and I grabbed a table together. It's ironic, of course, because the conference was the first time I'd met Lou, but it's not as though we don't know each other.

Luckily, the buffet line wandered right past our table. We chatted with Tom Levenson about a Darwin project he was working on. We talked a little more with Betül and Karen. I took forever to flag down a server to ask for water instead of sweet tea. I ran into Scicurious getting seconds (and feel a little better about her not starving any time soon). Our food got cold as she told me about a project that she wants to take on and that I can't wait to see. (Somewhere during the weekend, she also told me the secret of getting DrugMonkey to buy your drinks, although I don't think it'll work for me.)

Four hours of sleep caught up with me somewhere in the middle of dinner, and I pumpkined shortly thereafter, whereupon I discovered the fatal flaw of a confernce like SO09. My brain would not shut off. Between that and the hard drive noise that I thought was Ben's photos uploading to the server at home, I only added another five hours of sleep to my total for the weekend.

The morning brought the unwelcome news that the noisy hard drive was not Ben's, but mine, which should have been idle all night. Getting the machine to shut down was a pain. Getting it to restart took two tries. Then I shut it back down, packed, loaded the car and went to breakfast.

Yes, the conference did serve fruit and pastries and muffins, but it was nice to start the day with a slow, sit-down meal. Breakfast discussion on Sunday was of natural and man-made climate change, with Jean-Claude and Greg again and joined by James Hrynyshyn. Then back to Sigma Xi.

Ben had come along that day, since he didn't have a shoot and because I thought he'd be helpful to Glendon in his blog images session. I didn't feel there were any sessions at 9 that I really needed to attend, so I showed Ben the conference center.

We were out there for about 10 minutes when someone came out of the impact factor session. She needed a break (already) and more coffee and looked to be on the verge of tears. "I want to support open access, but if I don't publish in a journal with an impact factor of X, I won't have a job. My advisor won't get tenure. What am I supposed to do?"

That was the statement that really crystalized the conference for me. So many of the conclusions in so many of the sessions were really, "This needs to be changed/recognized as irrelevant/valued more," but they weren't being uttered by people who were in a position to change the policies we were all talking about. How many people at the conference were on search committees or tenure committees? How many review for journals?

The attendees at this conference were, on average, young and early in their careers. At least three-quarters of them were younger than I am. They're not in a position to make most of the changes we discussed. They will be in a few years, but should the changes wait that long? If not, how does everyone get the buy-in of the people who are able to make the changes? Do people need to start dragging their older peers, their PIs and department chairs and deans to ScienceOnline? And how do they balance the need to make changes with the preservation of their own careers? I don't have any answers.

It was in a considerably more thoughtful mood that I ducked into what was left of Pal's Blogging 101 session. Oh, the joy of trying to run a live demo on intermittent wireless. Still, he is every bit as entertaining in person as on the blog and PalCast, and the session finally provided some incentive for me to fix a gaping hole in my sidebar.

Acmegirl stopped me after the session to ask my advice on a blogging project a friend of hers wants to start. She was actually the second person to seek me out for advice at the conference. It was very weird. Cool, but weird. Extra cool because they were both such interesting projects that I'm tickled to get to play even a tiny part in them.

Then it was on to "Hey, you can't say that!" This session was about blogging coming into conflict with employers. There were some very interesting stories to come out of this, but I did feel that we spent too much time treating blogging as something totally new, rather than another form of public speech. There are precedents for how public speech can and cannot affect your employment (without a contract to specify otherwise). Running some of this down is one of the things I added to my to do list after the conference. You'll see it here when I put the information together.

The final session I attended was on blogging networks. I can't sum this session up any better than Eva did, so I won't even try.

Then it was all over but for lunch and travel. Mmm, baklava. I chatted some more with Glendon and Blake. Funny how the artists and the writers end up converging. Betül and Karen stopped by on their way out, and Betül gave me a nazar, so I now have my own "superstition hanging from a chain." At this point, I completely lost track of whom I said "Hi" and "Good-bye" to.

Having tons of time left before our flight, we grabbed Greg and headed over to Red Hat so Ben could have his picture taken out front. Yes, we're geeks.

This time in the airport, it was Greg and I geeking about blogging while Ben followed along politely. We compared notes on the sessions we'd both been to and filled each other in on the ones we'd seen separately. We also chatted about the things we each wanted to follow up on from the various sessions.

We parted ways before security, since Greg ended up on a different flight than we did coming back. I'd warned him coming out that Ben and I were a pain to go through security with, since Ben traveled with photo gear and a bunch of electronics. Ironically, I was the only one who got held up in security. My boarding pass got the random code printed on it that meant I got patted down and some poor, overworked TSA guard got to swab down two laptops, one backpack, one purse, my shoes, and my coat. She didn't look happy. Adding to the irony was the fact that no one blinked at Ben's bag o' stuff, so he had to wait for me.

The flight back was uneventful. I finished my first readthrough on my friend's beta draft of his novel and made some notes on my dying hard drive about the conference. The train ride from the airport was much more interesting, as a group of young women held an earnest discussion of what types of tattoos and piercings were "okay" and what kind made a girl a skank. "They do that in Dallas." "Yeah, but Minneapolis is no Dallas." Hee. I wish I could have recorded it.

Then, finally, we were back home. The conference was over, except for digesting all the ideas to come out of it--and appeasing the cats after our absence.

I'm so going again next year.


Glendon Mellow said...

It was so great to meet you, and to meet Ben.

I think your style of unconferencing was one of my favorites. Just great discussion. I still think it's amazing how long it took before anyone (Was it PalMD?) said posting about SF on a science blog was perceived as a credibility issue. It was like being in a self-help group at that moment.

Of course the English teacher in the room was correct; there is a shared culture of SF jokes.

Fascinating stuff.

The "imposter" feeling waxed and waned for me. Largely it went away after I stopped analyzing the first session I did. (Which I think I stopped analyzing yesterday.)

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, Stephanie! I bet you could get DM to buy you drinks if you teared up when he mentioned your latest book! Book, thesis, it's a roughly similar amount of hair-pulling and insanity.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, Glendon. It was cool to meet you too. I was really impressed at how many people I felt as though I was seeing again because they were just like the people they are online, you being one of them (and intrigued by the ones who were a bit different).

I got very lucky with my session. There were a bunch of people who needed to present all the background on their topics, but no one goes to an SF panel who isn't into SF, so I got to sit back and let other people talk.

I think the way to deal with the impostor syndrome is to get there earlier. After you've met enough people who read your blog (who knew?) and like it, it's hard to feel that you're in the wrong place.

Sci, I'm not sure I could pull that off. I mean, I could cry on demand, but I'd have a hard time not laughing as he handed me the drink. (And one of these days, I'll tell you how much fun I had writing the one book I've finished.)

Betül said...

It was great to meeting you, Stephanie *again*. I am afraid I will keep saying this for a year, until the next time I see you :) I wish we had more time and we could chat more.

But I am sure you will make to next year safe, after all you are protected now. Thanks to the nazar :) I thought you would find it interesting.

Lou FCD said...

I'm really glad we could finally meet, Steph.

The conference (my first ever!) was a blast, if a bit overwhelming. ...so much going on, pulling at my attention...

Thanks for pointing out the folks I knew, and for making me feel at home. I had a serious dose of impostor syndrome, and I wasn't even presenting!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Betul, the nazar was way cool, and if you make it for more of the conference next year, we'll definitely make more time to talk (and see about that raki).

Lou, no need for impostor syndrome. For goodness' sake, this was professional development for you. That, and one of the things I will always treasure from the conference is the look on people's faces when they realized who you were. That was priceless.