Gub doo gia bee?

« previous post | next post »

The reason I've been in Bulgaria this week is to present three tutorial lectures on linguistics at (of all things) a conference on computability. It has been an excellent experience, thanks to the tireless efforts of Alexandra, the chief organizer. Academic conference organizing is a horrible job. Unpaid work that involves being responsible for hundreds of people's lives and dozens of unforeseen circumstances and uncontrollable variables. In the case of this conference, a central problem turned out to be that the spectacular high-ceilinged oval room that is the main conference hall has acoustics ideal for an unamplified concert of vocal music (what I wouldn't give to hear Renée Fleming in this room), but is totally unsuited to delivering amplified human speech on technical topics.

The first speaker, late in the afternoon of the opening day after some welcoming, soon discovered this. "Can you hear me?", he said tentatively into the microphones. "GUB-gub DOO-doo GIA-gia BEE-bee!" boomed the amplification system terrifyingly into the echoing space. The frightened audience (many of them Bulgarian, German, Danish, or Japanese) thought carefully about what GUBgubDOOdooGIAgiaBEEbee might conceivably mean, and decided that the safest thing was to look alert and receptive but not to say anything or move in any way. (Moving would in any case have been misleading: the Bulgarians shake their heads from side to side for "Yes" and kind of nod for "No", except for those who have learned otherwise during stays in other countries.) The speaker took this silence for assent, and assumed that everyone in the giant chamber could hear what he was saying. He was wrong.

His next task was to try and switch from his title screen to project his first substantive slide, and two new problems came up. The first was that the lectern had been positioned right beside the large screen, and from his shallow angle (the screen was at 90 degrees to our line of sight but about 3 degrees to his) it was impossible to for him to see what was back-projected onto it. He had no idea whether anything up there had changed or not.

And the other problem was that, impelled by some irresistible psychological imperative (I saw this later with several other speakers), he instinctively pointed the remote projection controller at the screen, desperately trying to get it to respond. But the computer he should have been pointing the remote at was ten or fifteen yards away on a table in a totally different direction. It was just too counterintuitive to turn 180 degrees away from the screen, so his back was toward it, in order to change the screen image. We humans are simple mammals, and we imagine that what we are focusing on is where the action is. So his clicking away with the remote was not being detected by the computer, and even if it had been detected, he would have had no idea whether anything had happened to the screen as a result.

Somehow he struggled on. Solutions were improvised. The audiovisual guys moved a monitor with a secondary display so that he could see it, and after a lot of fruitless waving and clicking he began to learn to point in the direction of the controlling computer. (After a few minutes a woman on the organizing team who had arrived late and didn't appreciate the speaker's slide-viewing problem ran up to the front and swung the secondary monitor round to a position where the audience could see it. The audiovisual guy had to wrestle with her to stop this. For a moment it looked like there was going to be a fight.)

After some minutes, as the lecturer warmed to his theme, a new unforeseen danger loomed. It was early evening, and suddenly the setting sun broke from the clouds and beamed in from the west through the huge stained-glass windows, which had no blinds (they had never had blinds in more than a hundred years). Its rays beamed directly onto the giant screen, and suddenly the slides projected there were no longer visible to anyone. The conference organizers had checked everything during the working day, and it had been fine, but this was about 6 p.m., and they had not taken into account the movement of the sun.

The speaker battled on against the audiovisual difficulties and the malign solar orb and (don't get me wrong about this) did a creditable job. This was a very interesting lecture. But it reminded me that conference plenaries, whether you're organizing or performing, really are work.

Outside later there was an excellent welcome reception, with huge quantities of finger foods and much Bulgarian wine. But I spotted the next danger straight away. "There's your next problem," I pointed out sympathetically to Alexandra, who I thought needed some help with trouble-spotting. I directed her gaze to a very confident-looking black pigeon that had just taken up a strategic position on a stone plinth over the food area. Before she could finish saying "Oh, no!", it made its move, and came down gracefully to settle on its dirty feet right in the middle of a huge platter of cheese. Many irritated arms moved to scare it away, but it was far too tame for to that. It looked impassively up at the arm-waving guests, and showed no fear at all.

Such are the disasters conference organizers have to be prepared for. Though they can never really be prepared. I speak as one who knows. I once organized a conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Santa Cruz, late in June 1996. It never, ever rains in late June in Santa Cruz. Trust me, never. In fact drought conditions often prevail by then. Accordingly, I made so bold as to book a surf band to play outdoors after the banquet — a band led by a graduate student named Chris Kennedy (now a well-known semanticist, tenured professor and department chair at the University of Chicago). The banquet went well enough; announcements were made, awards were awarded, the presidential after-dinner speech was given, and I then threw open the doors of the banquet hall to reveal my masterstroke, my big surprise, the outdoor surf music concert (Santa Cruz is colloquially known as Surf City). And out in the courtyard as I threw the doors open, preparing to play "Wipeout" as promised, was Chris Kennedy with his electric guitar round his neck, standing there in the steadily falling rain. You just cannot control things as a conference organizer. (I will always admire those guys in the band: the show went on, and they just played their surf instrumentals in the rain. Hey, surfers are used to getting cold and wet.)

Here in Bulgaria, a day before the conference opened, not just one but two important participants had sent their apologies, one because of illness and the other, a plenary speaker, because of crucially important late-developing administrative business in her home country. Amazingly, Alexandra and her committee members managed to replace the plenary speaker in the few remaining hours that they had.

Acoustics, screen visibility, sun movements, tame pigeons, rain, speaker no-shows… It is all stress and responsibility and no power or pay, and few thanks. Yet here (and again, don't let me give any false impressions about this), almost everything has come together anyway, and things are going really well. The pigeon was eventually persuaded to leave that cheese plate and went elsewhere for its dinner; the attendees have had a couple of days to learn to cope with the reverberating echoes of the main hall; well-placed secondary screens are compensating for the occasional invisibility of the big one. When it came time, I delivered my own lectures as best I could into the huge echoing oval void, doing my best to enun-ci-ate with crys-tal clar-i-ty, and verifying what slide I was showing by keeping my eye on a distant secondary monitor.

And today I heard a fantastic paper today by Ian Pratt-Hartmann of the University of Manchester, presenting results on the computational complexity of syllogistic inferences in various restricted fragments of English. Truly intriguing and original.

While I was listening to that paper, Alexandra was elsewhere: she was forwarding me an email about a half-hour change in the timing of my flight back to Edinburgh this weekend. She had booked my flights, because I'm an invited speaker; she is in control of everything, except for a very few things like the movements of the sun and tame pigeons etc. It has all worked out, thanks to her and her colleagues. God bless academic conference organizers everywhere.

[Comments are closed because someone forgot to organize the business of pressing the button to open them. Never mind.]

Comments are closed.