Sunday, August 30, 2009

Conference Tidbits

A few memories of last week's conference.

The old boys get snarky

At the end of one particular presentation, the audience was clearly not impressed. After three or four critical questions, one rather elderly member stood up and pointed out: "You should check the proceedings of previous conferences... *pause* ...from fifty years ago. You might find your solution detailed therein." It was funny enough to hear someone told that their work was already done half a century ago, but the "therein" thrown in at the end cracked me up for some reason...

Excuse me, we're meeting here

There's a lunch break every day for a hour and a half. We helpers use that time to set up presentations on the laptops for every afternoon session. I came into one room to find that a group of men had hijacked the laptop and were getting ready to start a meeting. I politely said that there was an afternoon session in an hour, and I needed to prepare for it. I was curtly informed that "we're having a meeting here, members only." I asked if they would be done quickly, and they assured me they would not run over. Take a quick guess how that played out. I had to go get the professor who organized the conference, who efficiently evicted the all-important meeting. Humph. Don't stand in the way of a helper with a USB key, buckos...

Tomato, tomato

Having an international conference with representatives from all manner of countries provides a plethora of opportunities for language issues. The chairman of one of my sessions introduced "Dr. X, from 'Mitt' [like an oven mit]. As you know, Mitt has produced excellent research in area Y." I was trying to find out where in the world Mitt might be. I finally realized the good Dr. was from M.I.T., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ah.

Impromptu engineering on the tour bus

Every weekday there were tours provided, with charter buses for transportation. On Monday near the end of the day, it began to thunderstorm. The bus parked as close as it could to the walkway, but because of the intense summer storm there was a fast moving torrent of water covering the road between the bus and the walkway. One of the student volunteers jumped on the tour bus microphone and announced "Just a little flash flooding here, folks, but hold on a moment and we will take care of things." Then while two student volunteers ran to get ponchos for the conference guests (getting themselves soaked in the process), two other volunteers quickly built a bridge to dry land by repurposing a few loading dock ramps. Talk about dedication!

What is this newfangled idea

I attended the keynote speech in my area of expertise, because I was curious and wanted to learn whatever I could. But it turns out that I already knew everything that was in the presentation. I am not sure if a) this means I truly am an expert in my field, or b) the seventy-year-old presenter was not quite on the cutting edge anymore. I tend to think it's a little of both. I've learned a lot, and the presenter was just trying to cover the broad strokes. But I was a bit amused when the presenter referenced a technique that has been around about fifteen years now, and proudly noted that he had learned about that technique "just last week."


As luck would have it, I was on tour bus duty on Thursday. The tour was scheduled to go the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, and then to Fanueil Hall Marketplace. This also happened to coordinate with precisely the day that the late Kennedy's body was to be displayed at said museum, and that the 70-limo calvacade was to pass by the marketplace. And you say my job is to keep track of 85 people? Ha!

In the end, it all turned out fine. Our tour group was the last one through the museum (at 10am) before they closed everything down in preparation for the arrival of Kennedy at 4pm. We did lose people in the marketplace, but we had told people they could walk home if the chose (and gave out maps). So we just assumed anybody not on the bus was walking, and called it a day!

The city was indeed a madhouse that day, with TV crews and security everywhere. But one of the ladies actually got interviewed by a TV news station - they wanted to hear an international visitor's views on the whole thing. How cool!

Visiting "Dignitary," eh?

On Thursday the hotel was informed that everyone on a certain floor of the hotel was going to have to move, for a "visiting dignitary" for the Kennedy funeral. This displaced a number of conference guests, so we had to deal with that. We also noticed that sharp, well-dressed men were stationed at every crucial spot in the hotel. Secret Service, we guessed. In fact, there was even a Secret Service guy posing as the loading dock head attendant. He was just a bit more whip-smart than a minimum wage job worker should be, you know? And there was that pin...

We all tried to guess who the dignitary was, and the betting favorite was Vice President Biden. But actually on Friday, we saw President Obama exiting the hotel. He stayed at our hotel during his visit!


There are many more stories from the week, but I think that gives a snapshot. All around, an excellent experience! The last night, all the volunteers were invited to the farewell dinner on the 50th floor of a building in very swank conditions. As I stood in my black dress and turquoise heels, sipping my champagne while looking out over the downtown skyline, Fenway park and the Charles river, it occured to me that life is good.

Cheers, my friends, to the life of a graduate student.

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