Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Paranoia and Computer Science in Orlando

I'm sitting at the hotel cantina, enjoying a beer with my new friend from Iceland. We are searching the internet, using our laptops to try to uncover the truth about the strange suspicions we share about the computer science event we are attending.

There is something odd about this conference.

I showed up Monday morning bright and early to check in for the conference right on time. I arrived to find nothing set up, and a sole conference organizer surrounded by unopened boxes. He told me "it was hot" so he "didn't feel like unpacking the registration materials." Come back later, he said.

It was on my way out of the room that I noticed the conference sign was written in magic marker. Like a lemonade stand.

To kill time I ate a continental breakfast in the hotel diner. Everything was stale. Usually continental breakfasts - especially at conferences - are complimentary; this one cost $4.70.

I was more concerned whether or not there was salmonella on the week-old boiled eggs.

I came back and registered for the conference. If you didn't have a receipt, they gave you a bank account number where you could transfer $ to attend the first day; when you find your receipt, they promised to refund your extra payment. But it was abundantly clear that it was very important that they get payment, and they wouldn't complain if someone wanted to pay twice.

Luckily I had my receipt, and a transcript of an email with Prof. J E which documented that I would be presenting a paper for my colleague. I was never to meet the mysterious JE, but I did get in to the conference with no trouble.

This is my first conference so I didn't know what to expect, but I was sure that I could expect a printed copy of the proceedings - that is, a printed schedule and a book containing all of the papers submitted to the conference. I got no such item. They gave us a CD, with the conference proceedings on it. Ok, this is the 21st century, I can dig this. Paper is dead. Long live digital media! Yet... it seems somehow an insult to hand us a mere CD when we were promised a book. Like they couldn't be bothered to print it out for us. What about a schedule? - they didn't even print that. It is a pain to pull out your laptop every time you want to know what's happening next, and I wanted to circle the talks I wanted to attend. You can't (easily) do this with a PDF.

The conference organizer (J E) did not show up; there was no explanation.

At least the rest of the proceedings began innocently enough. We had a guest speech called Forty Years in the Software Trenches. I love hearing stories about the early days of computing, and this guy's been around since the days of punch cards.

After the speech, BP, the assistant organizer, popped in to say that it was break time, and that there would be free breakfast food during the break times. (I'd just paid for breakfast. D'Oh!) I asked him if we could get our money back if the hotel erroneously charged us - he said, "Next time, if you're not so hungry, you can just wait until break time!"

I took break; what the heck, might as well snack again, since it's free. I loaded my plate with some petrified cinnamon buns and the archeological remains of a danish. "That'll be $4.70" I thought it was free! "No, not this - that. Only that side. The conference organizers only paid for what's on that side." D'Oh!

What was on "that side" of the buffet was: ice water, burnt cookies, and stale tortilla chips. Breakfast of champions, yes?

I considered coffee, but I'd made some in my room this morning. Good thing. A.B., from Tunisia, approached the coffee percolator. A hotel staff physically blocked her, dashing to place his body between her the percolator just as she reached for the spigot. "Can't have that," he said. WTF? "The conference organizers didn't want to pay for you guys to have coffee. So you can't have any. You can only have the ice water or the coke." (A fellow attendee later informed me that even the coke was cut with a great deal of water to make it go farther.)

AB and I sat at the same table and during the break discussed our disappointment in some aspects of the way the conference had been organized. BP, who you will remember was the assistant organizer, asked if he could join our discussion. I felt a little sheepish - had he heard us? - but AB took the opportunity to confront him (tactfully). "No coffee allowed at the coffee break? I never heard of such a thing!" she said. BP said, "No you see, different people have different tastes, yes? And you can't please everyone. So really, we can only give water." Amil said, "Yes, but no coffee? I've been to conferences in many countries, and this is the first I've seen that." BP said, "Yes but you see... in other countries, they are more hospitable. They are not so hospitable in America. So you see we cannot provide coffee."

Huh? That doesn't even make sense.

This wasn't getting anywhere, so I asked him my question: "You know, I was disappointed to not receive any printed proceedings, or a schedule." BP had a justification for everything: "Yes but you see this is better, because this way you can print out just what you want. You can go on the CD, you see, and click click click and get right to the paper you want to see."

Thanks. I know how a document on a CD works.

AB said to him, "Wait, he's got a point! Some of us don't even have our laptops here. How are we supposed to review the papers before the talks? It's not like you provided a PC available for us to use to at least view the CD." BP went on the offensive now: "Well I went to a conference in India and there they told us to bring our own laptops and I am not responsible if you didn't bring your own laptop. So you see it is really your own fault that you don't have your laptop with you." Amil countered, "But the rules for this conference don't say to bring your own computer!" BP had his story and stuck to it: "It is your fault!" he declared, "And as for us providing you a computer to view it on, that is not our fault either, ha ha, it's not like we can force the hotel to provide you with a PC."

Huh? Strange logic, these Indians have.

The content of the presentations varied widely in both quality and topic. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the selection criteria for papers.

There is a common scam involving books of poetry, in which gullible young writers are led to believe that their poetry is so good that a publisher wants to include it in their next book. Anyone will be accepted; as long as they buy a copy of the book. The book is expensive.

The basic concept appears over and over - short story contests, the who's who of students, etc. Might someone do that with a conference? Might someone have done that with this research conference? I haven't a bloody clue.

But I do know this: if they had, they would have made $400 - $800 off every person here.

Honestly this conference is not really a scam. It would be better to say that: it borders on scandalous. Hopefully the conference organizers learn to do better next time, and I know all of us attendees have learned an important lesson about being selective where we publish.
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