Monday, June 10, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the "...Meh" of Scientific Conferences

The Good

#1 - New Friends/Old Friends
I've always met at least one great person at every conference I've gone to, and since I met them at a conference there's a good chance I'll see them at a later conference. It's fun to have friends and acquaintances from around the globe. It's even more fun to catch up with them.

#2 - Arguments
I love it when, after an oral presentation, you see someone rush up to the microphone. It usually means an argument is about to break out. Science isn't . . . well I guess the colloquial way to finish that phrase would be "Science isn't a science". We don't know everything and we don't [mean to] pretend that we do. When two competing theories meet at a scientific conference it's not only good for the field - it's downright entertaining to watch.

#3 - Inside Jokes
For many conferences, you see the same people every year. This usually leads to a few inside jokes that continue year to year. I'd give an example, but by definition you wouldn't find it funny. Things like trying to guess who will comment after a particular session: "Watch Dr. X, he always complains that theory Y is incomplete". Suffice it to say that you see many of the same people every year and jokes tend to accumulate. 

#4 - Feeling inadequate
Yes, you read that right. One of the best things about scientific conferences is feeling inadequate. In some ways, that the reason we get together - to make each other feel like we're not doing enough. At every conference I've been to there has always been one moment when I thought to myself:
"Man, I really don't belong here. These people are doing such awesome science. I really need to kick my own work up a notch"
And that's exactly what I do. It can be painful and embarrassing, but it's a process that results in serious growth. I love it.

#5 - Free stuff
I'll admit it. I like free stuff. Especially T-shirts. I don't know why, but give me a free t-shirt and it will probably become my favorite t-shirt. I still have an Agilent t-shirt from two years ago that I wear at least once a week.

The Bad

#1 - Hotels
There is nothing worse than sleeping in a hotel; even if it's a great hotel (and I rarely luck out in that department). The last time I remember enjoying my stay in a hotel was in high school on a choir trip to New York. Since then a hotel is just a way to not be homeless while on the road. Even a great bed never feels as comfortable as the bed waiting for me at home and the shower never works like it's supposed to (in other words like my shower at home works). What's worse is my own procrastination habits mean I'm usually staying in a run down motel or rushing last minute to find someone to share a room with me.

There is a sweet spot for hotels, though. A cheap hotel feels gross and makes for a horrible week while a fancy hotel will charge you $28.99 for a bacon and egg breakfast. The key is to get a hotel that is nice enough to be comfortable but cheap enough to give you free breakfast (and also be walking distance to the convention center). If you get a spot in that magical hotel feel free to move this item to the "good" list. 

#2 - Airports
I really hate airports. My main problem is I always overestimate how long it will take me to get to the airport and through security. This usually means I'm left waiting for at least two hours at the terminal. I know it's better than missing my flight, but it's not as nice as the extra hour or two I could have stayed in bed (if I have an early flight).

#3 - Crowds of people
I'm not a people person. By that I mean I don't like being in big groups. Anything more than 5 people and I start to wish I wasn't there - it's not a true panic attack; I can control my emotions just fine. I just wish I wasn't there. So, when I'm surrounded by thousands of people I get annoyed by very small annoyances. That's one reason why I love small conferences so much.

Bonus Joke: Related to the idea of misanthropy, I heard this gem of a joke while watching Scooby-Doo with my son:
". . . but he couldn't have committed the crime, he was at a misanthrope's conference at the time!"
I love it when children's shows have jokes that no child could ever understand.

The Meh

#1 - Planes
My sons find the idea of daddy leaving on an airplane amazing. They ask me to show them pictures of the plane I'll be flying on and want me to bring back pictures. For me, though, they've lost their excitement. Every time I get on a plane I'm reminded of Louis CK's comments about flying: Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.

Seriously. The fact that I can get on a plane and be across the country before my family can even miss me is amazing. And yet . . . 

I do enjoy takeoff. I think it's fun. It's like a baby roller coaster ride . . . except after the roller coaster is over you sit there in your seat for four hours. I also can never decide if I want the person next to me to talk or not. When they do I can't wait for them to shut up. When they don't my inner monologue accuses them of being unfriendly.