When I was a young grad student, first dipping my toes into the chest-thumping battleground of academic conferences, there were two almost entirely disjoint, competing research communities who acknowledged each others’ existence only to dismiss them as “irrelevant.” When it was time to publish, you had to decide, and it was clear to me even then that casting your lot with one versus the other sent you down a road you could never retrace.
My advisor Richard and I were both outsiders, with no prior connections to either. So how to decide?
Richard asked me one simple question: “Where are the conferences?” (It turns out that advisors are not for actually giving advice, but for asking questions that let you figure that advice out for yourself).
Back in the late 1980’s we had to chip http requests out of stone tablets, and web pages were delivered by pteranodon. But I managed to track down the respective conference calendars and laid them out side by side.
One of the communities was to have their upcoming winter conference in Chicago. There would be a summer workshop in DC, and a subsequent conference (also in mid-summer swelter) in Atlanta. The other community had its winter conference in Snowbird, with summer conferences and workshops in San Diego and Santa Cruz, respectively.
There was, of course, no question at that point. The NIPS conference, now in its 30th year, has branched out to non ski/surf locations, like Barcelona and Montreal, but you get the idea: you can tell a lot about a technical community by their choice of venues. Which is a very roundabout way of explaining why I was lolling by the sea in La Jolla this week.
Diligent Roadtrip readers will remember that I’ve got this new, um, hobby of writing software for the US Antarctic Program. The code is coming along nicely, but it turns out that rewriting the ship’s data acquisition system (DAS) is only the tip of the iceberg. You see, there are dozens of research vessels out there, most hobbling along with their own homebrew DAS and not enough time/money/manpower to do anything about it. Word got out that there was a “Google guy” building a new system from the ground up, and suddenly everyone’s looking our way, saying “Hey, um, how long before you’ve got it ready? And um, any chance we might be able to use it, too?”
It’s an exciting opportunity. I mean, most of us (the ships, I mean) are funded by the NSF, so making the system open source and available to everyone seems like a win all around: a common infrastructure and a larger community of developers would not only save everybody money, it would make for better, more stable code. So from our perspective, heck yeah!
There are, of course, hoops and authorizations to jump through. And, of course, we still have to write the damned thing. But we’re working on it, and this past week Valerie and I stood up in front of the entire Research Vessel Technology conference to show them what we were up to and give a live demo.
Apropos the introduction to this rambling post, it should go without saying that the RVTEC folks know how to set up a conference. The stroll from hotel to conference room was along the beach in La Jolla Shores, and we took our breaks looking out over the ocean in the shade of palm trees.
Yeah, the RVTEC gang (hurrah for Alice, Annette and UNOLS!) knows how to set up a conference. There were backbone sessions on the state of the art, and plenty of time and places to huddle with like-minded folks who shared similar obsessions, whether they were advances in non-kinking high-tensile coax cables or synchronization of sensor timestamps.
And the field trips. Yeah. We got to tour the R/V Sally Ride, the newest ship in the UNOLS fleet, commissioned less than a week ago and decked out with crazy, futuristic gear. And we got to climb around the R/P Flip, the craziest thing on water. It deploys by rotating 90 degrees so that its bow points straight up and the bulk of the 350-foot research vessel is submerged straight down. I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like inside other than that everything’s on gimbals (please don’t ask me about the toilets) and the passageways and ladders would give M.C. Escher nightmares (see a video of the Flip, uh, “flipping” here).