Thursday, June 17, 2010

Conference Notes

This academic conference I have been attending was not really worth the trip.  Some of the philosophy talks were good, but mainly it was stuff I already knew or stuff that was completely pointless.

One especially bad talk was devoted entirely to things that Roosevelt had done to his political opponents in the New Deal era.  It had no intellectual content at all; it was simply an hour-long ad homeneim attack.  It did nothing to advance our understanding or appreciation of liberty; it was just a shrill, lowbrow attempt at partisan point-scoring, a weak attempt to discredit progressive thought by associating it with something unpleasant.  It was especially bad when you consider that many of the conference guests had come from other countries and had no reason at all to care about this episode in American history.

I always get a bad feeling when people who agree with my political positions start to act like this.  It discredits the position, and it discredits me.  I get more upset at this than at similar things from the other side.  I know this is not logical, but I expect 'them' to be shrill and irrational, and I expect people who share my ideas to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior.  Good thinkers care about ideas and rational discourse, and should not stoop to partisan hackery.

My association with this organization started when the department chair handed me a brochure and encouraged me to apply for their fellowships.  I won $2000 in cash and have been invited to two free conferences, but I am starting to think that all of it, even taking the money, was a mistake.  I will not be going to their conferences in the future.  My time would be better spent on other things, and I do not want or need any support from them.

Now, some random, and more lighthearted, memoirs from my time here:

There was a fire alarm during one of the lectures.  Within seconds of the alarm going off, I had packed up my stuff and was heading out of the building.  I could have been faster, but I spent about a second making sure that it was actually the fire alarm going off.  I did not feel any desire to leave that lecture, nor did I actually believe that there was a fire.  I was just making sure to get out, because that is what one should do during a fire alarm.  The second person out of the building took about twice as long as I did to get out the door.  Others took several minutes more.

Since I was sitting in the front row, everyone saw me leave.  Two people came to talk to me while we were waiting outside.  One said "You have really good survival instincts."  The other said "You sure set a good example for the rest of us."  It was an interesting example of how people can make such different assumptions about the same behavior, and both be wrong.  I was not thinking of either survival or example-setting; I was just following the rules as I understood them.

I also noticed, during this fire alarm, that several dozen people started smoking immediately after coming outside.  It was like a pavlovian reflex: leave building, start smoking.  Their bodies could not have been actually desiring nicotine on any schedule, because under the normal course of events they would have sat through the lecture without smoking.

They served drinks and snacks during breaks, but the desks were tilted so that everything would slide off them.  I quickly figured out how to eliminate the angle by putting my conference binder on the desk, and started sharing this knowledge.

During one of the breaks, I would go outside to a grassy area to stretch and get fresh air.  The doors would have locked behind me, but I stopped them from closing by pitting small twigs on the ground in the doorframe.  Stopping doors from closing by putting things in them is such a common tactic that I think nothing of it, and people do it all the time in every American college I have been to.  But one Indian attendee looked at me and said "Oh, that is clever."  This is a good example of cultural knowledge that we take for granted.  You will never see this tip in a book, it only spreads by seeing other people do it.

After a break, the presenter called out an audence member.  I forget what the professor said exactly, but we all turned and saw that the student had decided not to mess with cups and pouring; he had simply grabbed a half-full carafe of orange juice and taken it in with him.  I commented to my neighbor that this was a perfect demonstration of chutzpah.

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