My LonCon Schedule

Since lots of other people are posting their Worldcon progrm(me) schedules, I might as well share mine, too. Frankly, I find it a little baffling:

Thursday 18:00 – 19:00, London Suite 5 (ExCeL)
Kay Kenyon, Chad Orzel

Saturday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 9 (ExCeL)

‘Banksian’ has become a commonplace descriptor in SF reviews, but what do we mean by it? What are the characteristics we associate with Iain M Banks’ work? How far has his influence travelled? Who is writing Banksian SF today?

Chad Orzel (M), Michael Cobley, Jaine Fenn, Paul Kincaid, Ruth O’Reilly

We need to talk about TED
Saturday 15:00 – 16:30, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL)

TED talks began as a way to communicate “ideas worth spreading”, and have since spread to encompass a wide range of TED conferences across the globe. How well does TED do at communicating their ideas to a generalist audience? Are we missing out on interesting science that can’t fit into a slick 18-minute presentation?
Chad Orzel (M), Sarah Dillon, Vanessa Harden, Andrea Phillips, Nickolas Falkner

This is baffling to me not because of the items that are on the schedule– I listed Banks as an author I’d be happy to talk about, and I mentioned the TED@NYC thing in my bio, so those are both logical choices. What’s baffling to me is what’s not on this, namely anything to do with physics. This despite specifically mentioning physics as my area of expertise, offering to do something relating to my non-fiction science books, and expressing surprise at the lack of science-y items on the draft schedule they sent me a couple of weeks ago (which included these two panels, plus one other that I was apparently dropped from; I got a form-letter reply saying they were reviewing all the comments they received, and nothing more).

I don’t mind doing either of these panels– I suspect they’ll be fun, in fact. But it also seems like a bit of a waste for me to not be doing anything relating to my actual areas of expertise. I hope this is because their planned science track is chock full of people way more famous than me doing awesome stuff, and not because they’re just not that interested in physics-y stuff. Although, if it’s the latter, I suppose that will give me time to go hang out at the British Beer Festival instead…

What I’m Doing This August: Nordita Workshop for Science Writers

I’ve been setting up schedules with my summer research students lately, and the main constraint we’re facing with that is that I’m going to spend most of August in Europe. Part of this is pure vacation– Kate and I are going to the UK for a couple of weeks. Part of it is the World Science Fiction Convention in London, in the middle of that trip, where both Kate and I expect to be on programming (though there aren’t any set items this far out). And the last bit has just been officially announced: I’m speaking at the Nordita Workshop for Science Writers organized by Sabine Hossenfelder from Backreaction and George Musser. The description:

Quantum physics is a notoriously challenging subject even for the experts. The goal of this workshop is to give science writers the opportunity to take a step back and gain a broader perspective on this field. At the same time, we want to give researchers in the field the possibility to interact with science writers and share experiences about the pitfalls of science communication.

Some of the topics that will be covered at this workshop are: Quantum computing, quantum optics and novel tests of the foundations of quantum mechanics, topologial insulators, tests of emergent quantum mechanics, analog gravity, the gauge-gravity duality and its applications in condensed-matter physics, and searching for new physics in atomic, molecular and optical physics.

I’m extremely flattered to be included with folks like Ray Laflamme and Seth Lloyd, who have forgotten more about deep issues of quantum physics than I was ever able to explain to Emmy. I’m also looking forward to getting to visit an entirely new part of Europe.

The workshop is accepting applications through July 14, so if this sounds cool to you, fill out their application, and maybe I’ll see you in Stockholm…

(This also means I’ll be at loose ends in the UK for a couple of days, between Kate’s heading home and my leaving for Stockholm, so if you’re someone who books speakers, etc. in the London-ish area and would like a talk in late August, drop me a line.)

Uncertain Dots, Episode 11

We took a week off last week because Rhett was away on a Secret Mission, but we’re back and better than ever this week. More uncertain! More dotty! Or something!

Topics for this week include oblique references to Rhett’s mission, some discussion of the Geocentric Janeway debacle, good and bad places to have a conference, why you shouldn’t eat conference center food, why more physicists aren’t on Twitter, and blogger gatherings.

Here’s a link to the Stealth Creationists and Illinois Nazis story I alluded to. It’s from 2007, after the blogging dinosaurs but before the blogging armored sloths.

Miscellaneous Science Online Stuff

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the What does Science Online Want to Be? post was received– I kind of expected that to cause more anger than it did. It did prompt a lot of discussion, most of it during the dinner hour in Chateau Steelypips, so it was really hard for me to keep up. Given the volume of stuff and my inability to respond promptly, I thought I’d try to round up a few things here:

1) Kelly Hills’s post on cons vs. conferences is very good. This is something I said myself after Science Online this past year– it felt very much like a SF convention. In ways both good and bad, though when I said that I was thinking more about panel-running pathologies than harassment issues. Anyway, the post does a good job of laying out the distinction, and some of the things I meant when I said I thought the organization and the meeting needed to be a little more professional.

2) Mark Powell’s post on being harassed by another man is a brave admission and useful cautionary tale: you may think you’d do something to stop it, but then again, you might not be able to.

3) There was a bit of surprised discussion on Twitter and Facebook over the suggestion that Science Online the meeting was not seen as entirely welcoming by everyone. And I have to agree that once I was there, the atmosphere was very friendly, despite the fact that I knew relatively few people going in.

However, the “once I was there” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. Most of the unwelcoming stuff comes before you get there, starting with the registration process, where small numbers of tickets were doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, becoming available at a very specific time and selling out within minutes. This is a great method if you’re running a rock concert and trying to generate buzz, but it’s a terrible, terrible way to run a professional meeting. It’s very unwelcoming to people who have family or work responsibilities that make it difficult for them to block out time to be at the computer right at the magic moment when the tickets go on sale. This was further compounded last year by the fact that the registration system was very badly put together, and only seemed to work for people using certain types of mobile devices.

The root of this problem is the strict cap on the size of the meeting, which is what limited the number of tickets. Except people who were set to moderate program items got automatic invites, and those mostly went to a particular group of “insiders,” people with high status in the community. This is also a problem, and many people on Twitter and Facebook spoke about feeling excluded in this way– having a particular set of people granted automatic access while others scrabble for the few remaining spots creates a bad impression. Getting into that core community presents some barriers of its own, as vividly demonstrated last night– people with young kids or clock-punching jobs may not be able to participate in the social media conversation at the right times and in the right ways to get “inside” status.

In discussion on Twitter I saw Karyn Traphagen (managing director of Science Online) say that this year they’re implementing limits on the number of items a given participant can be on, which will at least spread those automatic invitations around a little more widely. Though that may actually make the scramble for the other tickets somewhat worse; tough to say.

4) That last is, of course, a major problem for the organization, in that a lot of people speak very passionately about the importance of the “intimate” feel of the meeting. Opening it up more widely would run the risk of diluting that, and to a lot of people that would ruin the “specialness” of the meeting.

I’d say there are two ways to go with this. One is to regretfully acknowledge that the specialness doesn’t scale, and allow the meeting to become as large as it naturally wants to be. There are some things you can do to try to create a feeling of a smaller meeting-within-a-meeting– topical interest groups and forums, smaller group sessions and the like– but this is, obviously, a limited approach, and necessarily involves a bit of fragmentation. I’d argue that that’s already happening to some degree– I don’t think I got anywhere near the Deep Sea News people, for example, despite their having an infamous party– and accepting it would just be acknowledging reality.

The other option is, if the intimacy is essential, to own it. Be the TED of science blogging, an exclusive experience for only the few lucky enough to get to go. Fill the whole meeting by lottery, and put the program together after you know who’s coming. Yeah, that means a given year might be missing some of the “rock stars,” but there are enough really bright people in the community to get a good program by random selection. This isn’t entirely consistent with the status as a professional event, but it would be a good deal more equitable than the current arrangement.

5) A number of people also seem to have taken my comments about the party atmosphere as some sort of puritanical objection to drinking. These people clearly have not met me, especially not at the 2013 meeting. I have no problem with drinking per se, and would be one of the people hanging out in the bar regardless.

The question is what kind of tone is being set, as an organization. If Science Online is going to function as a serious professional meeting, then it probably needs to step back a bit from the “great big party” image. Because while the social leveling effect of alcohol is appealing to many people, there are also a lot of people for whom that’s a big turn-off.

This doesn’t need to be a drastic change, either. I’m not saying to ban boozing completely– that would make no sense, given my personal fondness for beer– just to de-emphasize it a bit. Scale back the drinks at the official social events, arrange some informal social space that isn’t a deafeningly loud lobby bar, and drop the alcohol references from the promotional materials. Take a more professional tone in presenting the meeting all the way around.

Again, this doesn’t mean becoming a bunch of teetotalers– there’s plenty of social drinking at the physics conferences I go to, and I’ve had a great time going to pool halls in the small hours of the morning with folks at DAMOP. But there’s also a clear sense in and around the meeting that this is a professional environment, and people are generally on good behavior. That wasn’t really the feel at Science Online, which was fine for me, as I didn’t have anything riding on anything that happened there. I could afford to treat it as just a party. A younger writer looking to make career-boosting connections, though, might see the whole thing differently, and if this is going to be a space where careers get shaped, that’s maybe not the best way to do business.

6) Finally, I’ve seen occasional indignant comments about how the calls for changes to the management are unjust attacks on Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen, who have been involved in the running of the meeting from the start. To a point, I agree that it’s unfortunate that their hard work has been tainted by association with Bora’s harassing activities.

But the sad fact is that this has cast a lot of what they’ve done into doubt– Janet Stemwedel’s post about the doubts this has triggered is a powerful demonstration, and there’s more in the ripples of doubt hashtag. Bora has been deeply involved in setting the program, and now there are numerous women wondering if he was selecting and promoting them for less than honorable reasons, while others who were denied spots are wondering the same from the other side. That’s an incredibly toxic situation.

There really does probably need to be some change in the way the program is put together. That’s going to be awkward, because the selection was apparently nearly done when this whole thing broke, and given what’s gone down, they probably ought to go back to the beginning and start over. But that’s a hard thing to ask at this stage.

In the future, it would probably be good to spread the programming responsibility around a little more widely, so it’s not so strongly identified with a small group of individuals. The program for APS meetings is set by rotating committees of scientists from within the various divisions, who sort abstracts between talks and posters, set up sessions, and so on. That’s overkill here– even if you opened Science Online more widely, the number of program items isn’t going to approach DAMOP, let alone a March Meeting– but some borrowing wouldn’t be a bad idea. Form a program committee of five to seven people, and rotate most of them regularly. If you think that Zuiker and Traphagen are essential to maintaining the tone of the meeting, which is arguable, then make them permanent members, but bring in other people as well, and mix those people up from year to year. That spreads responsibility around, and reduces the chance that any one person can poison the whole atmosphere.

I’ve also seen claims that this can’t be done because it would be impossible to find people who weren’t associated with Bora in some way. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a steaming pile of horseshit. There are plenty of people around who would be sufficiently independent of him to not be tainted by his legacy– a handful of folks have been blogging since before he came on the scene (myself included, but don’t take this as volunteering); other people have long histories in science communication and journalism that owe nothing to Bora (Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs, etc.); other people have reason to be unhappy/ skeptical of Bora’s influence (any of the women who were denied spots as mentioned above, or people like Kelly Hills who had some public disagreements with Bora); still others have enough personal integrity to be fine despite having been good friends with him (I’d put Janet Stemwedel in this category, for example). You can find people to take up those roles right now, and as time goes on, this will become much less of a problem.

Or, again, you could go full bore with the community thing. Put the program together by letting people vote on items to include. This would require a bit of tracking by subject, so as to ensure that it’s not dominated by a couple of hot topics, but that’s a logistical problem that can be solved. And that would leave no question of inappropriate influence in the program selection process.

So, that’s the roundup of stuff I’ve been thinking about that doesn’t fit on Twitter. And now, it’s time to doze off in front of my Giants making another pathetic attempt to play football.

What Does Science Online Want to Be?

The ongoing mess over Bora Zivkovic’s harassment of women writers in connection with his editorial role at Scientific American and Science Online has moved into the “What is to be done now?” phase. The most prominent and linkable of these are from Maryn McKenna and Kelly Hills, though I’ve also seen the edges of more ephemeral discussions on Twitter. Much of this has focused on formal organizational changes, stripping Bora of power and titles and banning him from the conference. These are entirely appropriate, though partly moot given that he’s resigned from both Scientific American and Science Online– a formal ban is the only remaining step.

At the same time, there’s a sort of cultural issue at the heart of this that is one of the things that bugs me about this story. There are some discussions about making operational changes in these areas, too– safe spaces, quiet areas, alcohol-free zones– but I think they’re kind of dancing around a bigger issue. Some of this ended up on Twitter Friday night in discussion with Razib Khan, but I don’t think it was all that widely read; having said anything at all, though, I might as well get a more complete version done.

The core issue, I think, is this: Science Online has been trying to split the difference between functioning as a kind of professional society for science communicators and a party of a bunch of like-minded friends. This acts to confuse issues of relative power and status within the community in ways that make what we’ve seen in the last week more likely. I am not saying that this excuses or condones the hundredth part of what Bora did– there should have been absolutely no question that he was wrong in every way, particularly in those utterly appalling email exchanges. But I think that the balancing act Science Online is trying to maintain contributes to an atmosphere that makes it easier for lots of people to look past what should have been obvious warning signs, as Martin Robbins noted Friday just before the shit really hit the fan. And I think that there needs to be some more global consideration of just what Science Online both specifically as a conference and more generally as an online community is and should be.

To explain what I mean, I need to go back to the early days of ScienceBlogs, after the dinosaurs but before the giant armored sloths. When ScienceBlogs was first set up in 2006, there was a back-channel forum for private discussions among bloggers, and while much of this was professional, as inevitably occurs when you give people a space to exchange messages, a lot of the forum traffic was social.

Bora wasn’t one of the original fourteen bloggers, but he was in the first big wave of additions, and quickly became a significant presence in the network (which was, in turn, part of getting him to the prominence he had). I recall him as a regular participant in the forum discussions, though I recall very little of the content, which mostly seemed inconsequential (I was up for tenure review at around that time, so my primary contribution to the forums was occasionally getting in nasty arguments and pissing people off, because I was a giant ball of stress). There was never anything grossly inappropriate in the forums, but the general atmosphere was pretty loose, with a lot of jokes about alcohol, occasional sex references, and other mild adult content. I recall occasionally thinking that people were oversharing (not a widely held opinion, just a personal reaction), but I hasten to add that I have no specific memory of Bora saying anything out of line. (Mostly what I remember was a bunch of us nagging him to actually work on writing his Ph.D. thesis; I don’t recall if he ever did finish that, or if the PLoS thing came along and he left ABD.)

Even if people did talk about sex, or flirt with each other, though, there’s nothing wrong with that, because it was a consensual group of like-minded adults who were all in the same position. We were all just people who ran blogs, hanging out with other people who ran blogs. Nobody needed to be there, and nobody there had any significant power over anybody else who was there (other than the ScienceBlogs staff, but they quite sensibly stayed out of most of the forum stuff). In that context, it’s not unreasonable to discuss sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, provided that nobody objects.

The origin of Science Online was somewhat similar. It started out as a small gathering of bloggers who happened to be based in North Carolina, and again, my initial impression was that it was basically a party thrown by and for a bunch of people who ran blogs and wanted to hang out with other people who ran blogs. A very informal atmosphere would be totally appropriate.

In the intervening years, though, roles changed. Science Online moved from being a small get-together for people with blogs to a moderately large conference (around 500 attendees) that’s an important part of the professional life of the people who work in science communication via the Internet. And Bora moved from being just a guy with a blog to a community manager for PLoS and then to the blog editor at Scientific American, a person with the power to make decisions about who got to join the network or even guest blog there. And he was also one of the founding officers of Science Online, another position carrying significant prestige within the community.

Those changes in scale and role change the rules, dramatically. Once you’ve got a significant power imbalance, lots of conversation topics become off-limits, because people who are uncomfortable may no longer be in a position to walk away or demand to talk about something else. If someone with power starts talking about inappropriate subjects, people without power feel significant pressure to just sit there and take it. And the wrenching stories told this past week show just how damaging that can be.

So, what’s the problem I’m talking about? The problem is that Science Online has made a concerted effort to obscure those power relationships. They make a big deal– well past the point of eye-rolling for me– about how they don’t put affiliations on nametags because everyone is equal in the big happy Science Online family, and so on. And they promote a party atmosphere– the informational emails last year talked up the bar area and the liquor service available at the big evening wing-ding, and things like the disastrous DrunkScience experiment were if not officially promoted, widely known and discussed. There’s also a lot of somewhat juvenile running jokes about duck penises and that sort of thing that are certainly not to all tastes.

In other words, they try hard to maintain a feeling that the meeting is just a bunch of people who run blogs (and podcasts, and videos, and other online media projects) hanging out with other people who run blogs (etc.). And this carries over a bit into the broader community interaction outside the meeting. While they make efforts to be broadly inclusive, there’s very definitely a core group of people on blogs and Twitter whose conversation and interaction has a disproportionate influence on the shape of things. And again, a lot of banter about drinking and weird animal reproduction and so on.

The organizers have chosen to foster this free=wheeling atmosphere with the best of intentions, and in some ways it makes for a better experience– I had a great time at last year’s Science Online, and if things work out, would happily go again (but then for me it’s strictly a party, as I don’t really have anything to pitch to anybody who goes there). But while it’s fun in some ways, it also contributes to problems by letting people deceive themselves into thinking that some things are appropriate when they’re really not.

Again, this is not an attempt to excuse or condone Bora’s actions. Those emails are utterly without justification, and would be stunningly inappropriate even if there were no power imbalance involved. But that carefully maintained just-a-bunch-of-bloggers-hanging-out atmosphere makes it just a tiny bit easier to pull off the mental self-deception required– because I’m fairly certain that Bora wasn’t calculatedly and deliberately torturing young women writers. He had almost certainly convinced himself that there wasn’t anything wrong with what he was doing, and part of that process had to involve working around that power dynamic. The most obvious path to that is “we’re all just bloggers hanging out,” in which case it’s perfectly okay to engage in a little flirting sex talk.

The obscuring of power differences also acts to produce the effect Martin Robbins noted (repeat link to save scrolling back up), where everybody else managed to overlook inappropriate behavior. As Robbins says, the whole random hugging thing from a couple of conferences ago seems way out of line. Particularly now, in hindsight, but even at the time to people who weren’t a regular part of the community. To people who were, well, it’s easy to write off as part of “we’re all just bloggers hanging out,” in which case it can be cute, and funny, and charming, and not disturbing. Again, I’m not trying to excuse Bora’s behavior or shift the blame to people who “really should’ve said something”– his actions are his reponsibility, and inexcusable. But again, the general atmosphere makes the self-deception needed for everyone else to overlook problems just a tiny bit easier.

So, as I said, I think there’s a global issue here that probably needs to be addressed a little more directly than it is. Quiet spaces and alcohol-free rooms are good, but this is ultimately a question about what the Science Online meeting really is, and what the community wants it to be. My own inclination would be to say that since blogging has been professionalized in a way that reproduces not only the advantages but also the pathologies of traditional journalism, it probably to move toward much more of a professional society model. That means more explicit acknowledgment of power and status hierarchies, and a bit more of a professional atmosphere in general, including things like formalizing the idea submission and panel selection process, and reforming the farcical invite/lottery registration system. And this carries over into the online stuff outside the meeting as well– when there’s a sense that being part of a particular group on Twitter makes a major difference in how seriously your ideas are taken for an influential conference, that in itself is a problematic power dynamic that can make people feel they have to endure jokes and banter that make them uncomfortable.

That doesn’t mean a complete abandonment of the party-with-your-friends model– believe me, I do plenty of drinking with friends at professional physics conferences– but a bit of official distancing from that would be a good thing. De-emphasize the boozing in the official materials, maybe go to limited drinks or even cash bar at the official events. Make hanging out in the bar more clearly an individual choice, not a quasi-official part of the meeting. Think about whether the cap on attendees is really necessary– strictly limiting attendees to keep the event “intimate” but giving guaranteed invites to particular individuals contributes to both the party atmosphere and the sense of a secret cliquish power structure. And so on– if this is a serious conference, and participation has the (perceived) power to shape careers, it needs to become a professional event, not just a party among friends. And if it’s a professional event, that makes the lines just a little more clear regarding what is and is not appropriate.

That won’t stop harassment– there’s plenty of that at professional meetings, as well– but it would demand a tiny bit more mental work on the part of the harasser, and a tiny bit less work on the part of the people trying to spot and report inappropriate behavior. And every little bit helps.

But I’m a very small and peripheral part of the community. I hesitated a bit about whether to even post this, since I’m so peripheral, but I already shot my mouth off on Twitter, and forced my own hand. I waffled more when I saw that some of these issues have already been brought up by Kelly Hills on Twitter, but eventually decided that it was important to add what little support I can to her argument.

This ultimately isn’t my decision to make, and whatever comes of this will have relatively little impact on my decision about whether to attend future meetings (I’m pretty much outside of all the relevant power hierarchies, anyway). But I think it’s a discussion that ought to be had.


On Monday afternoon, I walked into the TED offices in lower Manhattan just as Zak Ebrahim was starting his practice talk, a powerful story about being raised by a father who subscribed to an extreme form of Islam and eventually assassinated a rabbi and took part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And I said “What the hell am I doing here?” My science-is-awesome shtick seemed pretty weak tea compared to that.

I managed to get past that pretty quickly, without anyone noticing, but the first hour or so I was there was another Impostor Syndrome: Activate! moment. It was a pretty amazing group of people, many of whom have done way more than I have to make the world a better place. And the first few speakers to run through their talks were extremely good and polished.

After that, though, things got better. The next couple of people were visibly nervous, and the TED folks did a great job of providing calm encouragement to keep everyone grounded. My one remaining major concern was the time limit– they emphasized over and over the need to come in at or under the six-minute limit, and a lot of my practice talks (using the text I posted yesterday) were just over that. I dropped a couple of phrases here and there, though, and came in comfortably under time. And the feedback I got was basically “Right, so you’ve got the content down. Try to, you know, make eye contact with the audience, and that kind of thing.” Which was an enormous ego boost.

The TED people were awesome, on the whole. I managed to get over the worst of my nerves before I had to get up and do my practice talk, but a few others were really nervous, and the staff were incredibly supportive and encouraging. The pointers they gave people on how to fix problems with presentations were excellent advice, and they caught little details of the presentations that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me– a slight jumpiness in an embedded video, or a spot where there ought to be a blank slide to avoid a jarring transition. They were really committed to helping everyone do their best possible presentation.

After the rehearsal, I went out for beers with some friends from Williams, who happen to be musicians. They asked where the TED thing was happening, and I said “Some place down by NYU. Joe’s Pub?” They got really excited: “Joe’s Pub! That place is awesome!”

It is, indeed, a pretty neat space, a sort of multi-tiered nightclub with a small stage at the front and a bunch of tables. It’s all very close together, which made navigating pretty difficult, especially during the early stages of the run-through Tuesday afternoon when they were still sorting out what went where. This was also the stage where I realized that this was, fundamentally, a theater production, and thus, as the Shakespeare in Love line goes, it always looks like it’s about to fall apart. The sound checks featured a bunch of glitches and errors, none of which made it into the main show. And even though people were still scrambling around moving chairs and tables ten minutes before the doors were due to open, the show went off on time.

The speaker prep talks all emphasized that it would be a warm and enthusiastic crowd, and it certainly was that. I don’t think I’ve ever given a talk before to an audience that would whoop and stomp their feet– at physics meetings, you tend to get a polite golf clap followed by an aggressive question. This wasn’t that– everyone got a great round of applause at the end.

The talks covered an amazing range of stuff, as you can see from the official TED recap of the evening. There were about three talks that I really didn’t hear at all, two because I was backstage getting fitted with the headset microphone and fretting about my talk, and the third because I had just finished and was trying to locate my jacket, which had my wallet and keys in the pocket…

As is often the case, I was incredibly nervous about two minutes before the talk started, but once I got on stage, that passed really quickly. There was one split-second where I lost track of my place, but I suspect Kate was the only other one who would’ve noticed it. It was an odd point, not somewhere I expected to get stuck, and I half thought “I can’t believe I’m screwing this up here” before I got the next line.

It was, indeed, a great crowd– people laughed at the places they were supposed to laugh (even the joke that didn’t go over at all in the practice talk), and made appreciative noises when I did the final reveal on the crossword puzzle graphic. I gave the talk about as well as I was going to give it, though despite all the talk about timing, I don’t actually know how much of my six minutes I used– the last time I glanced at the clock I had about 20 seconds remaining heading into the final paragraph, so I’m pretty sure I was under by a few. At the rehearsal, though, I had flubbed the timing on the reveal a little, so I was so focused on making sure I got that that I didn’t catch the time. And then everyone was applauding, so I didn’t care about anything else.

I was near the end of the first session of talks. During the break a few people came up to me and told me how much they had enjoyed the talk, which was awesome. I got a couple of business cards that might prove useful in the future, too. The second session kicked off with CDZA, who were amazing by the way, and seemed a little stronger than the first. That could either be a sensible decision on the part of the producers to back-load the program for what was, after all, a rather long show, or just the massive endorphin release of being done with my talk. Also, good beer on the TED tab. Which was used to toast other massively relieved speakers– it really was a huge kick.

They passed out speaker lists that doubled as rating cards– everybody’s listing included five outlines of stars next to a headshot, and the audience was regularly reminded to fill in stars to rate the speakers, add any written comments about the talks, and drop the lists in a box on the way out. They say that they will collect all the ratings and read any comments added; I’m not sure how much of a role it plays in determining what happens next, or if they pass that on to the speakers in any way. Or if I want to hear that, to be honest, being regularly subjected to rating on a five-point scale in the form of student course evaluations. I snagged a speaker guide as a souvenir, but I always turn into the Chris Klein character from Election when given the chance to vote for myself, so I passed on the opportunity to rate other speakers.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience. The talks were really cool, the other speakers were all really interesting people, the TED staff and the audience were terrific. It’s an impressive organization– the backstage control center looked like a Star Trek set, and they really put together a great show.

My mantra going into this was “Playing with house money.” I honestly did not expect that the one-minute video I shot with my webcam was going to be accepted, so just getting to go to New York to speak was an unexpected honor, and having the talk go smoothly was incredibly awesome. Anything at all beyond that is gravy.

(Really, just the one-minute application video has already been a great benefit– I sent it to my editor for the book-in-progress, who said it’s been a huge help in explaining the book in-house.)

They have promised that professional photos of the event will be available next week, and if nothing else, I have the above cell phone shot (which Roman Baca was nice enough to take for me) of myself on a TED stage. (Which I quickly made my social media profile shot for the next week or so, because come on, wouldn’t you?) We’re supposed to get video copies of our talks within the next few weeks, and some unspecified number of talks will be highlighted on the TED web site. Last year’s talent search talks all went up on a sub-site in a slightly less polished form; I hope they’ll do the same this year with talks that don’t make the front page, but don’t really know. Whenever I have video that I can share, though, you can be sure that it will get posted here.

And that’s the story of my big TED@NYC adventure.

On Public Speaking Across Disciplines

We had a faculty meeting yesterday, at which one colleague suggested that in addition to our “Writing Across the Curriculum” requirement, we should have a “Speaking Across the Curriculum” requirement to teach students oral presentation skills. This provoked a bit of tittering about the possible acronym, but it’s not an obviously awful idea. The basic problem is the same as with the WAC requirement: there isn’t actually all that much that really crosses the curriculum. Presentation standards and styles are dramatically different between disciplines, whether you’re talking about oral or written presentation.

The biggest differences are pretty obvious: on the arts and literature side of campus, professional academics have traditionally presented by reading pre-written papers. Scientists, on the other hand, do a very odd quasi-improvised thing using visual aids. Back when I started grad school, there used to be a very clear division between scientific fields regarding what sort of visual aids you used– physicists used overhead transparencies, biologists used 35mm slides– but these days it’s almost all PowerPoint or the functional equivalent thereof (Keynote, Prezi, PDF, etc.). There’s a little bit of a shift going on with these– I see more colleagues on the arts and letters side of things constructing their talks in a way that makes use of projected images, though not always very gracefully– but it’s still a pretty strict division.

And that style division makes a huge difference in how you prepare for and deliver a talk. If you’re presenting a pre-written paper, you will speak in a very different manner, because written langauge is very different than spoken language, as pointed out by John McWhorter:

Written papers almost always have a more complicated and formal style, and you can tell when somebody is reading from a text that originates as a written document. Academics aren’t the only ones who do this– politicians are also famous for reading pre-written text verbatim, and even the best practitioners of the form sound very different when giving a formal address than when genuinely speaking off-the-cuff. Bill Clinton is about as good as it gets, and ad-libs a lot of his speeches around a pre-written text. That mostly comes from having the ability to speak off-the-cuff in a fairly formal style, though, with a little bit of folksy colloquialism thrown into written material.

This is on my mind, of course, because I’m giving a six-minute talk next Tuesday for TED@NYC, and preparing for that is turning out to be a different sort of experience than I’ve had in a while. For one thing, the last time I gave a formal talk shorter than half an hour was, I think, 1998. My last year in grad school, the only conference talks I did were invited presentations and my thesis defense, and since then it’s either been posters or invited talks at the 30-minutes-plus-questions length, or hour-long seminars. Six minutes is not a lot of time, and requires a greater degree of rehearsal than I’ve had to do in about fifteen years.

The other thing that brought this to mind in the wake of yesterday’s suggestion was that the TED folks did a speaker prep thing on Monday via the web, and some of the advice they had ran directly counter to advice I’ve gotten elsewhere. They specifically advise against “Presenter Mode” for talk slides, for example, and will not display notes on a monitor, which is one of the key elements of the Becoming the Messenger workshps Chris Mooney and company do for scientists. (Link to a news story about a past workshop, because all the NSF pages about the program have been shut down…) They say it tends to lead to too much reading off the monitors and breaking of eye contact with the audience.

Another suggestion I found surprising is evident in the McWhorter clip above: they suggested that t’s better to stand still than to move around. And McWhorter has obviously taken that to heart, because he doesn’t shift at all from the waist down. I find it kind of creepy, actually, but then I’m trained in a speaking culture that views motion as dynamic– I’ve heard lots of young scientists advised to move around more.

(To some degree, this might be making a virtue of necessity, as the TED@NYC stage set appears to provide a clear space about the size of my bathroom… you can’t do a whole lot of moving around there.)

The last thing that struck me as odd was regarding the time limit– they strongly recommended shooting for a talk that’s shorter than the limit in run-throughs, saying that when people err on the timing, they almost always go long. That’s exactly the opposite of what I learned in grad school, and tell students prepping short talks– when I was a young student preparing ten-minute talks, if the run-through came in at twelve minutes, we figured that was fine, because being nervous would make you speed up at the actual event. This is a risky rule of thumb, in some ways– it fails badly when you become experienced enough to stop getting nervous about speaking– but it’s also been pretty effective.

Then again, this might be an effect that flips sign when the time limit drops below some threshold. When I just read the prepared text for my talk, it comes in 10-15 seconds under the limit, but when I do it from memory, it tends to come in a hair over, because the timing is so tight. When I flub a line, it adds time, and there’s little or no room for dropping material on the fly.

Anyway, I’ve been devoting a block of time every afternoon to running through my talk in front of a webcam in my home office, which is profoundly weird, and not just because I can see on the video how much I fidget when trying to speak in a confined area. I hadn’t appreciated just how much I really need an audience to feed off. I’ve tried to deliver the talk to the dog, but she gets sick of it after a few passes, and wanders off to look out the window. Maybe if I held a piece of bacon while speaking, but that might give me an inflated sense of my own charisma…

(The real trick here is going to be rehearsing enough to smooth out the rough edges and fix the text in my mind without overdoing it to the point where I’m sick of the topic…)

So, there are huge differences between the kinds of things you do when speaking to different types of audiences, in the same way that there are huge differences between the way you write for arts-and-letters academic journals and the way you write for science journals. To the point where a lot of the detailed training you might give students in one sort of class might be counterproductive in a different sort of class.

Of course, there are common elements to everything: look directly at the audience, not at your text; try to smile or at least look enthusiastic; don’t speak in a monotone; practice, practice, practice. But those are kind of the equivalent of “A sentence needs to have a subject, object, and verb” or “A paragraph is a short collection of sentences dealing with a single main idea” in written work– that is, items so basic that it’s hard to imagine college faculty agreeing to spend time formally teaching them. Which, of course, is where our “Writing Across the Curriculum” program tends to fall down, but that’s a rant for another time. I have to practice talking into a webcam.

TED@NYC: Impostor Syndrome, Activate!

As I alluded to a while back, I’ve been accepted to speak at TED@NYC, which serves as a “talent search” for TED– the top talks from the event a week from Monday in The City will get a spot talking at the 2014 TED conference in Vancouver. I’ve got six minutes to wow them with a story about quantum physics and crossword puzzles.

I submitted my original application in response to a blog post back in July, more or less as a lark. I didn’t notice at that time that the image they had with that post was a talk at a previous talent search event by John McWhorter— I only spotted that this week, when I went back to the post to check something. If I had noticed, I probably would’ve been a little intimidated– it really wouldn’t’ve occurred to me that somebody as well known as McWhorter would need to go through a talent search to get to TED. I was thinking that this would be mostly bloggers and small-time authors and stuff, not people who are already regular tv commentators…

I’ve been plugging away on a talk– for the record, six minutes is really short, especially since the last time I gave a talk shorter than half an hour was in 1998– and have something I’m fairly happy with. The speaker lineup for a week from Monday was released on Wednesday, and my initial reaction was relief– I didn’t immediately recognize any of the names. Then I read the bios, and… yeah.

It’s a deliberately eclectic mix of people from all sorts of different areas– musicians, inventors, academics, politicians. And all of them sound really impressive. On the bright side, only one of the other speakers won a MacArthur “genius grant.” So, you know, piece of cake.

So, there was a rough period there yesterday afternoon when I was thinking “Holy shit, I am so out of my league…” Because, really, I’m a blogger and mid-list-y pop-science author best known for talking to my dog. Reading down that list of descriptions was incredibly intimidating, and that’s while I was pointedly not following any of the links.

After a little bit, it sort of tipped over into a sense of the absurdity of the whole thing. I mean, how do you compare my shtick about scientific thinking to a spice therapist? Or these guys doing an awesome YouTube history of the guitar solo? (A link that passed through my social media feeds around the time I was thinking “Well, I’ve never heard of CDZA, at least…”). The range of stuff is just too big to sensibly place myself within it.

But then, I managed to pull it together. Because, you know, I’ve got two books out, and the reviews of those have generally been good, including the paper of record. One of them has sold a staggering number of copies in the UK, and been translated into a dozen or more languages. I suppose that technically makes me an internationally best-selling author.

And unless they’re grossly distorting things, they picked people for this on the basis of applications and one-minute videos, cutting hundreds of submissions down to 28 speakers. While it’s a little scary to be up against professional tv commentators and people who have held political office, somebody at TED liked my video enough to put me in that company. And they’ve seen a draft of my talk and didn’t say “You know what, we take it back…”

So it’s not really that I’m out of my league, it’s that I need to re-evaluate my league. This is an intimidating list, but that just means I need to raise my game. And having sent in the original application with no particular expectation of anything, I’m playing with house money (to mix a metaphor a little…). I’m going to go, give it my best shot, and whatever happens, happens. If nothing else, I now have a polished short bit that can be incorporated into a longer presentation when I start giving talks to promote the book-in-progress.

This is, by the way, more or less the same process I’ve gone through every time I’ve gone into something new. Every time I’ve accepted an invitation to do something very different from what I’ve done before– giving different sorts of invited talks, doing tv appearances, giving public lectures, agreeing to write a book, giving a graduation speech– I’ve had a moment where I hung up the phone and said “Wait, what the hell did I just agree to do?” A bunch of these have involved a repeat when I saw the list of the other speakers– “Let’s see, a former government minister, the director of a major institute, the founder of a billion-dollar company, and me, a guy who talks to his dog. Yeah, that totally makes sense. I’ll be over there, curled in a ball whimpering.”

So far at least, it’s always passed. Sometimes it takes a couple of days. But I’ve got enough of an ego that I can usually manage to convince myself that I can do whatever crazy thing it is that I’ve agreed to do. If nothing else, I can usually bluff for long enough to start believing that even if I am a total fraud, I’m a very convincing total fraud.

I can easily see how this could become utterly paralyzing, though. A couple accidents of timing for the rougher bits of my grad school career could’ve sent me in a very different direction. As it was, my impostor syndrome moments were all separated by enough time that I’d gotten over one before the next came along. But I have a lot of sympathy for people who struggle with the feeling, in a “There but for the grace of God…” sort of way.

Now, if you need me, I’ll be over there curled in a ball whimpering practicing my talk…

Gender Gap Update

The JCC day care is closed today for one of the fall cluster of Jewish holidays, which means I’m spending the morning with The Pip before Kate comes home to take the afternoon shift so I can teach my class. Thus, this is more of a tab clearance sort of exercise than a thoughtful examination of the underlying issues. But having spent a bunch of time in the recent past on gender gaps of various sorts, these are some recent links that struck me as interesting enough to pass along.

— Via Crooked Timber, Anca Gheaus offers cheers for being the “token” woman at academic conferences. This is mostly in the form of a list of reasons other than merit why particular speakers get invited to present, a list which the Timberites expand. The idea here is to allay concerns on the part of women who might be invited to speak that they will be looked down on, which otherwise might lead them to decline invitations. It’s a reminder that getting invited someplace is contingent on all sorts of odd factors.

I can confirm this from personal experience, by the way. I’ve given a lot of talks at a lot of different places, and most of those invitations have come through some weird connection– people who happen to read my blog being on the speaker committee, somebody reading a write-up I did of one of their experiments and filing my name away as a future possibility, etc. I got offered an invited talk at DAMOP a couple of years ago because I was the one who passed on a suggestion from somebody else (who, it should be noted, had made the suggestion with an explicit “I couldn’t give this talk, but somebody should…”). So the point that there’s more to these decisions than pure meritocracy is a good and useful one.

— In a very similar vein, a post from TEDxCanberra including a video about the problems they have trying to get women to speak. As in a past discussion of this, they note that women are much more likely to decline invitations, which makes it harder to achieve any kind of reasonable gender balance. I thought it was particularly interesting that in the video, June Cohen said that contrary to conventional wisdom, she gets about as many men as women refusing invitations because of family obligations (and, in fact, that’s the reason I decided to deal with this particular set of open browser tabs on a morning when I’m home with the Little Dude…). She attributes the difference to a combination of a more hands-on management style and a lack of confidence in the material– she says women regularly decline on the grounds that they’re not ready in one way or another, but men never do. Which probably ties this back to the point above.

— On an only tangentially related note, somebody on Twitter posted a link to this forthcoming paper in Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research. The text isn’t up there yet, just the abstract, but you can find the full paper on the arxiv. This is a kind of meta-study of lots of published research on gender gaps in introductory physics test scores, and the abstract gives you the basic idea (as it should):

We review the literature on the gender gap on concept inventories in physics. Across studies of the most commonly used mechanics concept inventories, the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) and Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), men’s average pretest scores are always higher than women’s, and in most cases men’s posttest scores are higher as well. The weighted average gender difference on these tests is 13% for pretest scores, 12% for posttest scores, and 6% for normalized gain. This difference is much smaller than the average difference in normalized gain between traditional lecture and interactive engagement (25%), but it is large enough that it could impact the results of studies comparing the effectiveness of different teaching methods. There is sometimes a gender gap on commonly used electromagnetism concept inventories, the Brief Electromagnetism Assessment (BEMA) and Conceptual Survey of Electromagnetism (CSEM), but it is usually much smaller and sometimes is zero or favors women. The weighted average gender difference on these tests is 3.7% for pretest scores, 8.5% for posttest scores, and 6% for normalized gain. There are far fewer studies of the gender gap on electromagnetism concept inventories and much more variation in the existing studies. Based on our analysis of 26 published articles comparing the impact of 30 factors that could potentially influence the gender gap, no single factor is sufficient to explain the gap. Several high-profile studies that have claimed to account for or reduce the gender gap have failed to be replicated in subsequent studies, suggesting that isolated claims of explanations of the gender gap should be interpreted with caution. For example, claims that the gender gap could be eliminated through interactive engagement teaching methods or through a “values affirmation writing exercise” were not supported by subsequent studies. Suggestions that the gender gap might be reduced by changing the wording of “male-oriented” questions or refraining from asking demographic questions before administering the test are not supported by the evidence. Other factors, such as gender differences in background preparation, scores on different kinds of assessment, and splits between how students respond to test questions when answering for themselves or for a “scientist” do contribute to a difference between male and female responses, but the size of these differences is smaller than the size of the overall gender gap, suggesting that the gender gap is most likely due to the combination of many small factors rather than any one factor that can easily be modified.

I occasionally think about trying to start up some sort of PER research, and to this point I’ve always stalled out, for two reasons: one is that this is a highly developed community with its own jargon and methods that I would have to learn basically from scratch, and I have too many other things going on to devote the necessary time. Not to mention that some of the more education-school-ish jargon makes me twitch.

The other problem, though, is related to this paper: particularly given where I work, I don’t have any confidence in my ability to generate meaningful results. Even our largest enrollment courses barely break 100 students in a term, and the most I’ve ever taught in a term is 36. It would take forever to generate any kind of meaningful statistics to evaluate a change in teaching methods. And while it’s possible to do some more intensive interview-type assessments in smaller groups, it’s next to impossible to lift that from plural anecdotes to useful data. As this kind of review shows– lots of results that look really interesting in small studies don’t hold up in other work. I’m not sure there’d be much value in me adding to the world’s stock of small anecdotal reports with no statistical power.

So, you know, that’s where things stand. And the cartoon I put on to distract The Pip while I finished this up is nearly done, so he and I are going to do… something. Go to the library, maybe.

More Kids and Conferences

The kids and conferences issue, discussed here a while ago has continued to spark discussion, with a Tenure She Wrote piece on how to increase gender diversity among conference speakers and a Physics Focus blog post on a mother who wound up taking her toddler to a meeting. There are some good points in both, though the Tenure She Wrote poster seems to be in a field whose conferences run on a different model than that used for most meetings I go to.

The Physics Focus post was particularly interesting to me, though, because I spent last weekend as the portable conference day-care while Kate went to Readercon. She’s on their safety committee, and thus was obliged to be there, but our usual kid-watching options all fell through. We have friends in the Boston area, though, so I offered to come along and take the kids out with other people while she did con stuff. We had a nice trip to Crane Beach with a friend from Williams and his two kids on Saturday, and then a visit to the Museum of Science on Sunday with a friend from Usenet and his two kids (where the “featured image” photo of The Pip with a Triceratops skeleton was taken).

While this worked, it was definitely a sub-optimal arrangement for everyone. This was mostly the fault of the Boston Marriott Burlington who interpreted Kate’s request for two adjoining rooms on a low floor to be compatible with two rooms across the hall and three doors down from each other on the top floor. This meant that, rather than being able to put the kids to sleep in one room where they could be minded by one of us in an adjoining room, we were both tethered to a hotel room during night-time hours, me in one room with SteelyKid and Kate with The Pip in the other. The whole thing was thoroughly exhausting.

Now, this is by no means a perfect parallel to the problematic situations described in those blog posts– going to Readercon is by no means professionally essential for either of us, and we have the resources (both financial (getting a second hotel room) and social (friends in the area)) to swing bringing the kids along. But in the unlikely event that hearing it from me will carry more weight than the links above, I will happily confirm that this sort of situation kind of sucks. If you think that concerns about child care don’t or shouldn’t represent a real impediment to attending conferences, you’re not just wrong, you’re spectacularly wrong.

(Of course, the options for actually doing anything about this are kind of limited– on-site child-care is expensive and often unsatisfactory (as demonstrated by many of the comment-thread discussions of this); subsidizing child-care back at the home of the traveling parent is probably not all that much cheaper, and brings with it another host of problems; and paying for somebody to accompany the traveling parent to the meeting is way more expensive. The most feasible thing would be to allow some sort of at-home child-care subsidy from grants or institutional travel funds, but those are not that widely available. And while greater social acceptance and sensitivity toward child and family issues is in some sense the “right” solution to this, it’s a slow, uphill fight.)

(As far as the kids go, SteelyKid was thrilled to be staying at a hotel– new places! people! ice machines! swimming pools!– and both kids were very happy with our excursions, hitting it off great with our friends’ kids. Given better logistics at the hotel, I would be open to doing it again next year, especially since The Pip will presumably be a little easier to manage by then (our plans were tightly constrained by his dietary restrictions and need for a mid-day nap, both of which will probably ease up over time). It’s not a trivial sacrifice, though, and would be much harder in a different or changing location.)