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The Neophyte's Guide to Technical Symposia

by Steven Maas, Nonlinear Technologies, Inc.

So, you haven't been to a technical symposium yet? You don't know what goes on, or how to behave? Never fear; just study this handy guide to technical symposia, and you can develop the necessary "attitude" in the privacy of your own cubicle. Then, when you finally attend the symposium of your choice, you'll look like you've been doing it all your life.


Every society in human history sooner or later divides into arisotcrats and peasants. The job of the arisotcrats is (1) to convince themselves that they're something special, and (2) to persecute the peasants. The job of the peasants is to rise up in rebellion and behead as many of the aristocrats as they can. This is called democracy. Occasionally, however, a society is unable, for various reasons, to create the critical mass of aristocrats necessary for a revolution, and instead succeeds in creating only a few beings who view themselves as socially, morally or (in our case) intellectually superior. None of these characters are quite worth a good revolution, but something still must be done with them. What? The usual solution is to force them to suffer in public. The more elaborately and ostentatiously this is done, the better. In technological societies this group of pseudoaristocrats is, of course, technologists, and the vehicle for their public humiliation is the technical symposium. In a technical symposium, an organization called a technical program committee painstakingly selects group of technologists and places them before a large audience, where they proceed to make fools of themselves. If they are unable, others are given the opportunity. Then the modern-day peasants in the audience are allowed to throw intellectual rotton vegetables (in the form of questions) at the aristocrats in the stocks. To complete their humiliation, a summary of their foolishness is published in a large book called a symposium digest.

Strangely enough, many technologists seem to enjoy this bizzarre experience so much that the number of technical symposia is actually increasing. Not satisfied with being humiliated at someone else's symposium, all good technologists (especially the academic ones, who are most easily humiliated) want their own symposia, where they can be the stars of the show. Pitiful, isn't it?

Reasons for Going To a Symposium

There are lots of good reasons for going to a symposium: maintaining technical currency, renewing contacts with distant colleagues, and lots of free beer. None of these will get you to a symposium, however, because they don't address the interests of the people who have the power to keep you home. So, here are the reasons you will have to use:

Reasons to give your boss:

  • The benighted morons on the technical committee actually accepted my paper. It probably would be more of an embarrassment to the company if I stayed home than if I showed up and presented it.
  • It won't cost much. Air Burundi has cut its fares again!
  • It's great publicity for the company (as long as I can keep from making a fool of myself).
  • I'll make you a coauthor.

Reasons to give your wife (OK, or husband or "significant other"):

  • I get a week on the exotic shores of Zamboni, in a good hotel, at the company's expense...
  • ...and I'll take you with me.

How to Find The Right Symposium To Attend

Look for a symposium that you can talk the boss into sending you to (see below). A good place to start is this list of seminars and symposia. Above all, make sure it's in a part of the world you want to visit. Throwing intellectual garbage at presenters gets old fast; you're gonna need a nice, warm beach and a chilled margarita before the week's out.

How to Get to a Symposium

The most sure-fire way to get to a symposium is to write a paper, submit it to the symposium's technical committee, and get it accepted. Then your boss has to send you, especially if you've had the foresight to include him as a coauthor and he was able to get his boss to send him. Many people will tell you that it's unethical to include a coauthor who has contributed nothing to the paper, and of course they're right. Still, it can be a lot of fun: the morning of the paper, call the boss at his hotel room and tell him you're sick. Now, he has to present the paper, and he doesn't know diddlysquat about it! He then has to stand up in front of an audience of 600 experts and make a fool of himself. (After all, he's the aristocrat, right?) Meanwhile, you sneak into the back of the auditorium and laugh your socks off at his pitiable efforts. Finally, after the session is over, go up front and say hi to him. When he shows astonishment at your good health, say, "Oh, it was just jet lag. An aspirin and a leisurely breakfast fixed me up just fine."

What to Do at a Symposium

With all that free beer, you need to ask?

How to Present a Symposium Paper

Eventually, you'll discover that the only reliable way to get to a symposium is to submit a paper. Now that your paper has been accepted, what do you do? Obviously, assemble your viewgraphs or slides and put together a nice, slick show. But that isn't enough. You need to know what to say. So, here's your...

Guide to Saying the Right Thing at Your First Symposium Paper

Don't Say... Do Say...

I didn't measure the noise figure because I was afraid that it might be pretty bad.

I plan to use the amplifier in an application where noise figure is not critical.

We don't worry about measurement accuracy because the test instruments take care of that.

1. To increase the clarity of the graphs, error bars have been omitted.

2. A full error analysis will be presented in our journal paper, which we hope to publish next year.

The results are inconclusive because we ran out of money. Further investigations were outside the scope of this research.
How the hell do you work this laser pointer? Mr. Chairman, I believe this device is defective.
Uh, where are the controls for the slide projector? Will the projectionist please show the next slide.
We figured out how to add one plus one the hard way. We have developed a new methodology for describing the combinatorial dynamics of elementary mathematical structures.
I know that the theory is pretty trivial, but it's the best we could do. The analysis has been simplified because there aren't enough letters in the Greek alphabet for a full treatment.
Toward the end of the research project, we finally figured out what the hell we were doing. False starts and blind alleys are to be expected in any high-tech research effort. However, we eventually prevailed.
Great slides, huh? I used PowerPoint!

1. Technical symposium: [Just don't make this idiotic remark!]

2. Business symposium: Great slides, huh? I used PowerPoint! [Smile broadly and wait for the applause.]

[In response to a question:] What do you mean by a stability circle? Stability, of course, is important in many systems, and we plan to investigate this as part of the next phase of the research.

How to Handle Questions

After you present your paper, the peasants in the audience will have an opportunity for revenge: questions. The people who ask questions at a symposium usually have the IQ of a truckload of gravel, and dealing with them is about as much fun as a bladder infection. Educating these people is like trying to teach a hippopotamus to pole vault. However, the way you handle their questions affects your professional reputation, so you're in deep trouble now, dude.

Generally, you will be asked only one type of question: stupid. To deal with these, adopt a tolerant, patronizing expression--the same kind you'd use with a three-year-old child--and give an answer that is completely incomprehensible and has nothing whatsoever to do with the question. This will shut up the guy who asks the question and intimidate everyone else.

What Else Happens at a Symposium?

Lots of things, but the most interesting ones don't occur at the symposium. They occur at the social events that go with the symposium. Maybe we should just leave it at that.


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