Happiness and Lecture Questions

I just attended a lecture about happiness comparing Australia and India at the Australia India Institute [1]. The lecture was interesting but the “questions” were so bad that it makes a good case for entirely banning questions from public lectures. Based on this and other lectures I’ve attended I’ve written a document about how to recognise worthless questions and cut them off early [2].

As you might expect from a lecture on happiness there were plenty of stupid comments from the audience about depression, as if happiness is merely the absence of depression.

Then they got onto stupidity about suicide. One “question” claimed that Australia has a high suicide rate, Wikipedia however places Australia 49th out of 110 countries, that means Australia is slightly above the median for suicide rates per country. Given some of the dubious statistics in the list (for example the countries claiming to have no suicides and the low numbers reported by some countries with extreme religious policies) I don’t think we can be sure that Australia would be above the median if we had better statistics. Another “question” claimed that Sweden had the highest suicide rate in Europe, while Greenland, Belgium, Finland, Austria, France, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and most of Eastern Europe are higher on the list.

But the bigger problem in regard to discussing suicide is that the suicide rate isn’t about happiness. When someone kills themself because they have a terminal illness that doesn’t mean that they were unhappy for the majority of their life and doesn’t mean that they were any unhappier than the terminally ill people who don’t do that. Some countries have a culture that is more positive towards suicide which would increase the incidence, Japan for example. While people who kill themselves in Japan are probably quite unhappy at the time I don’t think that there is any reason to believe that they are more unhappy than people in other countries who only keep living because suicide is considered to be wrong.

It seems to me that the best strategy when giving or MCing a lecture about a potentially contentious topic is to plan ahead for what not to discuss. For a lecture about happiness it would make sense to rule out all discussion of suicide, anti-depressants, and related issues as they aren’t relevant to the discussion and can’t be handled in an appropriate manner in question time.

Phone Based Lectures

Early this month at a LUV meeting I gave a talk with only my mobile phone to store notes. I used Google Keep to write the notes as it’s one of the easiest ways of writing a note on a PC and quickly transferring it to a phone – if I keep doing this I will find some suitable free software for this task. Owncloud seems promising [1], but at the moment I’m more concerned with people issues than software.

Over the years I’ve experimented with different ways of presenting lectures. I’m now working with the theory that presenting the same data twice (by speaking and text on a projector) distracts the audience and decreases learning.

Editing and Viewing Notes

Google Keep is adequate for maintaining notes, it’s based on notes that are a list of items (like a shopping list) which is fine for lecture notes. It probably has lots of other functionality but I don’t care much about that. Keep is really fast at updating notes, I can commit a change on my laptop and have it visible on my phone in a few seconds over 3G.

Most of the lectures that I’ve given have involved notes on a laptop. My first laptop was a Thinkpad 385XD with a 12.1″ display and all my subsequent laptops have had a bigger screen. When a laptop with a 12″ or larger screen is on a lectern I can see the notes at a glance without having to lean forward when 15 or fewer lines of text are displayed on the screen. 15 lines of text is about the maximum that can be displayed on a slide for the audience to read and with the width of a computer display or projector is enough for a reasonable quantity of text.

When I run Keep on my Galaxy Note 2 it displays about 20 rather short lines of text in a “portrait” orientation (5 points for a lecture) and 11 slightly longer lines in a “landscape” orientation (4 points). In both cases the amount of text displayed on a screen is less than that with a laptop while the font is a lot smaller. My aim is to use free software for everything, so when I replace Keep with Owncloud (or something similar) I will probably have some options for changing the font size. But that means having less than 5 points displayed on screen at a time and thus a change in the way I present my talks (I generally change the order of points based on how well the audience seem to get the concepts so seeing multiple points on screen at the same time is a benefit).

The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 has a 5.5″ display which is one of the largest displays available in a phone. The Sony Xperia X Ultra is one of the few larger phones with a 6.44″ display – that’s a large phone but still not nearly large enough to have more than a few points on screen with a font readable by someone with average vision while it rests on a lectern.

The most obvious solution to the problem of text size is to use a tablet. Modern 10″ tablets have resolutions ranging from 1920*1080 to 2560*1600 and should be more readable than the Thinkpad I used in 1998 which had a 12″ 800*600 display. Another possibility that I’m considering is using an old phone, a Samsung Galaxy S weighs 118 to 155 grams and is easier to hold up than a Galaxy Note 2 which weighs 180g. While 60g doesn’t seem like much difference if I’m going to hold a phone in front of me for most of an hour the smaller and lighter phone will be easier and maybe less distracting for the audience.

Distributing URLs

When I give a talk I often want to share the addresses of relevant web sites with the audience. When I give a talk with the traditional style lecture notes I just put the URLs on the final page (sometimes using tinyurl.com) for people to copy during question time. When I use a phone I have to find another way.

I did a test with QR code recognition and found that a code that takes up most of the width of the screen of my Galaxy Note 2 can be recognised by a Galaxy S at a distance of 50cm. If I ran the same software on a 10″ tablet then it would probably be readable at a distance of a meter, if I had the QR code take up the entire screen on a tablet it might be readable at 1.5m away, so it doesn’t seem plausible to hold up a tablet and allow even the first few rows of the audience to decode a QR code. Even if newer phones have better photographic capabilities than the Galaxy S that I had available for testing there are still lots of people using old phones who I want to support. I think that if QR codes are to be used they have to be usable by at least the first three rows of the audience for a small audience of maybe 50 people as that would allow everyone who’s interested to quickly get in range and scan the code at the end.

Chris Samuel has a photo (taken at the same meeting) showing how a QR code from a phone could be distributed to a room [2]. But that won’t work for all rooms.

One option is to just have the QR code on my phone and allow audience members to scan it after the lecture. As most members of the audience won’t want the URLs it should be possible for the interested people to queue up to scan the QR code(s).

Another possibility I’m considering is to use a temporary post on my documents blog (which isn’t syndicated) for URLs. The WordPress client for Android works reasonably well so I could edit the URL list at any time. That would work reasonably well for talks that have lots of URLs – which is quite rare for me.

A final option is to use Twitter, at the end of a talk I could just tweet the URLs with suitable descriptions. A good portion of the Tweets that I have written is URLs for web sites that I find interesting so this isn’t a change. This is probably the easiest option, but with the usual caveat of using a proprietary service as an interim measure until I get a free software alternative working.

Any suggestions?

Please comment if you have any ideas about ways of addressing these issues.

Also please let me know if anyone is working on a distributed Twitter replacement. Please note that anything which doesn’t support followers on multiple servers and re-tweets and tweeting to users on other servers isn’t useful in this regard.

Length of Conference Questions

After LCA last year I wrote about “speaking stacks” and conference questions [1]. In that post I did some rough calculations on the amount of conference time taken by questions and determined that anyone who asks one question per day at a conference such as LCA (with about 600 delegates) is going to be asking more than 1/600 of all questions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone shouldn’t ask more than one question in a day, but they should carefully consider whether their questions are adding value to other delegates.

Another issue that I’ve noticed is the length of questions which seems to be a separate problem and it seems that we should consider keynote speeches separately as they involve all delegates. The regular conference lectures involve 4 to 6 streams running in parallel which means that in aggregate more questions can be asked.

LCA has one keynote for each day including the mini-conf days, so that’s 5 keynote speeches in total. If each keynote has 20 minutes of question time (and most keynote speeches probably have less) then there’s 100 minutes of question time for the entire conference. For a genuine question (IE not a statement) that is non-trivial (anything that has a yes/no answer probably isn’t interesting to the whole audience) the answer is probably going to be about three times as long as the question. Given some overheads for applause etc that means that the amount of time spent asking questions would be something less than 20 minutes at keynote speeches over the entire conference.

If every delegate asked one keynote-speech question in the entire conference then that 20 minutes of questions would allow each delegate to spend 2 seconds asking a question. If 10% of delegates each asked one question and no-one asked a second question then each question could take an average of 20 seconds. Given the acoustic issues of asking a question from the back of the hall it seems unlikely to get a speaking rate of much more than a word a second, so 20 seconds of speaking would be in the range of 25 words (one tweet) to 50 words (if you speak at the typical speed of audio books according to Wikipedia). I think that audio-book speed isn’t going to work well so a question asked at a keynote speech should probably be of a length that would fit on twitter.

So if a question wouldn’t fit on twitter then maybe a blog post or a discussion after the lecture would be a more suitable option.

Before Asking a Question

I think that before asking a question at a keynote speech people should consider whether that question would fit on twitter. They should also consider whether it is strictly a question and whether it will be of interest to other delegates.

If your question is significantly longer than something that would fit on twitter then the next thing to consider is whether you are more important than other delegates. Because when someone asks more or longer questions than other people it will be interpreted as an implicit “I am more important than you” statement by many other delegates.

Some Disclaimers

Firstly I’m not making any suggestions here for people who run conferences. I’m making suggestions for delegates who are considering how they should act.

The next disclaimer is that the educational benefit of the conference has the priority. If you have a question that really helps other delegates learn something which takes a little longer to ask then that’s OK.

Finally I apply the same criteria to my own decisions. There were several questions I considered asking at the keynote this morning, but I decided that none of them met the criteria of being short enough and generally interesting enough. There is one issue I will discuss with the speaker privately and I’ll probably write at least one blog post related to the lecture.

Speaking Stacks

Brianna Laugher wrote a blog post about the speaking stack used in the free software activism BoF at LCA 2013 [1].

Occupy Wall St uses what they call a progressive speaking stack – this means that white men step back in the queue and people from marginalised groups step forward [2].

During the free software activism BoF the speaking queue that was used was that people who hadn’t already spoken had priority over those who had spoken before. This was a really good idea and could be used a lot more in LCA and other conferences. It is fairly common that a small number of delegates take up the vast majority of question time.

I suggest that all white men watch the questions and observe how many are asked by white men and how many are asked by everyone else. Also note the way that questions are asked, who shouts a question, who wins when two delegates ask at the same time, and who waits until the end of the talk.

The Reasons for a Speaking Stack

In Occupy Wall St there is a real benefit in giving priority to members of minority groups. The political needs of white men are generally reasonably well publicised due to disparities in media coverage. As the aim of the occupy movement is not to replace one group of white men with another there is an obvious need to get opinions from members of minority groups.

Bugs in software generally affect members of all groups equally (with the exception of bugs related to accessibility features). But even so I think it is important to encourage diversity among people who ask questions. When someone is in the audience sees that no-one who is in their minority group is asking questions they will get the impression that they are just watching someone else’s conference. We should aim to have a conference for everyone.

How to Implement it

When taking questions for one of my talks I generally try to give priority to people who find it difficult to be heard. But doing that requires some concentration and I often don’t have any to spare when giving a demanding technical talk. I think that this needs to be managed by the moderator/MC/microphone holder. Someone who doesn’t need to think much about the content of the talk can concentrate on choosing the best people to ask questions.

Also a significant issue is questions that are called out during a talk. Some speakers insist that questions are only asked at the end of their talk. But I prefer some degree of interaction with the audience so my talks often end up being more about having a conversation with the audience than reading from a script. The difficulty with an interactive talk is that it strongly favors those who are prepared to shout a question over those who wait their turn. I think I’ll try to make a strict policy of having people raise their hand to ask a question in future to address this issue, but I will need assistance from someone who’s not concentrating on the technical issues.

For a conference I think it would make sense for the people who hold the microphones to keep a mental list of who’s asked questions. If someone asks their share of questions on the first day of the conference then they would deserve a lower priority for questions on later days. This would also encourage delegates to consider whether their question is really worth asking during the lecture or whether they should save their question quota and talk to the speaker afterwards.

Also we could ask delegates to exercise restraint. One suggestion I heard was that people should set themselves a quota of 3 questions per conference or 1 per day. In a conference with ~600 delegates and ~33 sessions per day if everyone asked a question each day that would be about 18 questions per session – more than is typical. So it seems that anyone who asks a single question per day is still likely to be asking more than 1/600 of all questions.


There are occasions when multiple questions and comments make sense. One example is where a member of the audience has significant expertise in the topic in question. Another is when a speaker completes significantly before the end of their allotted time and some questions from the MC or an experienced member of the audience can help them spend all their time educating the audience.

But I think there needs to be a compelling reason that has a clear benefit for the audience.

General Benefits

How many of the repeat questions are useful to the audience? It seems to me that there is a correlation between multiple questions and questions that are more about the person asking than about clarifying issues that are likely to matter to the audience.

Would such limits improve the quality of the discussion even for people who don’t care about diversity?

Also I have asked a disproportionate number of questions in the past. I am reducing the number of questions that I ask although I think I asked more than 3 at this conference.

Globalisation and Phone Calls

I just watched an interesting TED talk by Pankaj Ghemawat (of which the most important points are summarised in a TED blog post) about the world not being as globalised as people expect [1]. One point is that only 2% of traditional voice phone calling minutes (and ~6% when you include VOIP) are for international calls which is less than most people expect.

After reading that it occurred to me that most of the “included value” in my mobile phone contract goes unused, I pay for extra data transfer and it includes voice calling credit that I don’t use. So out of $450 of included calls I typically use much less than $50. $400 of calls to even the most expensive countries is about 100 minutes of talking. So the logical thing to do is to find people in other countries to call.

If you are involved in the FOSS community and would like to speak to me then send me an email with your phone number, time zone, and a range of times that are convenient. I won’t make any promises about calling you soon (I could use up my monthly credit on a single call), but I will call you eventually.

I will also send email to some people I know by email and suggest a chat. Some years ago I did this with people who were involved in SE Linux development and it seemed to help the development of the SE Linux community.

Also if anyone in Australia wants to speak to me then that’s OK too. While Pankaj’s talk inspired me to call people I’m not dedicated to calling other countries.

Web Video, Global Innovation, and Free Software

Web Video and Global Innovation

Chris Anderson (the curator of TED) gave an insightful TED talk about Web Video and Global Innovation [1]. Probably most people who have used the Internet seriously have an intuitive knowledge of the basic points of this talk, Chris had the insight to package it together in a clear manner.

He describes how the printing press decreased the importance of verbal communication skills and services such as Youtube have caused a resurgence in the popularity and importance of speeches. He has some interesting theories on how this can be leveraged to improve education and society.

Lectures for Developers vs Users

Now how can we use these principles to advance the development of Free Software?

It seems to me that a good lecture about Free Software achieve will achieve some of the following goals:

  1. Promoting projects to new developers.
  2. Teaching developers some new aspects of software development related to the system.
  3. Promoting projects to new users.
  4. Teaching users (and prospective users) how to use the software.

The talks aimed at developers need to be given by technical experts, but talks aimed at users don’t need to be given by experts on the technology – and someone who has less knowledge of the software but better public speaking skills could probably do a better job when speaking to users. Would it do some good to encourage people to join Free Software projects for the purpose of teaching users? It seems that there are already some people doing such work, but there seems little evidence of people being actively recruited for such work – which is a stark contrast to the effort that is sometimes put in to recruiting developers.

One problem in regard to separating the user-training and developer-training parts of Free Software advocacy and education is that most conferences seem to appeal to developers and the more Geeky users. Talks for such conferences tend to be given by developers but the audience is a mix of developers and users. Would it be better to have streams in conferences for developers and users with different requirements for getting a talk accepted for each stream?

Publishing Videos

It has become a standard feature of Free Software related conferences to release videos of all the talks so anyone anywhere in the world can watch them, but it seems that this isn’t used as much as we would like. The incidence of Free Software developers citing TED talks in blog posts appears to exceed the incidence of them citing lectures by their peers, while TED talks are world leading in terms of presentation quality the talks by peers are more relevant to the typical Free Software developer who blogs. This seems to be an indication that there is a problem in getting the videos of talks to the audience.

Would it help this to make it a standard feature to allow comments (and comments that are rated by other readers) on every video? Would having a central repository (or multiple repositories) of links to Free Software related talks help?

Would it help to have a service such as Youtube or Blip.tv used as a separate repository for such talks? Instead of having each conference just use it’s own servers if multiple conferences uploaded talks to Youtube (or one of it’s competitors) then users could search for relevant talks (including conference content and videos made by individuals not associated with conferences). What about “video replies”?

What if after each conference there was an RSS feed of links to videos that had one video featured per day in a similar manner to the way TED dribbles the talks out. If you publish 40 videos of 45 minute lectures in one week you can be sure that almost no-one will watch them all and very few people will watch even half of them. But if you had an RSS feed that gave a summary of one talk per day for 6 weeks then maybe many people would watch half of them.

Defining Success

Chris cites as an example of the success of online video the competition by amateur dancers to create videos of their work and the way that this was used in selecting dancers for The LXD (Legion of eXtraordinary Dancers) [2]. I think that we need a similar culture in our community. Apart from people who give lectures at conferences and some of the larger user group meetings there are very few people giving public video talks related to Free Software. There is also a great lack of instructional videos.

This is something that anyone could start doing at home, the basic video mixing that you need can be done with ffmpeg (it’s not very good for that purpose, but for short videos it’s probably adequate) and Istanbul is good for making videos of X sessions. If we had hundreds of Free Software users making videos of what they were doing then I’m sure that the quality would increase rapidly. I expect that some people who made such videos would find themselves invited to speak at major conferences – even if they hadn’t previously considered themself capable of doing so (the major conferences can be a bit intimidating).

How do we Start?

Publishing videos requires some significant bandwidth, a cheap VPS has a bandwidth quota of 200GB per month, if short videos are used with an average size of 30MB (which seems about typical for Youtube videos) then that allows more than 6000 video views per month – which is OK but as my blog averages about 2000 visits per day (according to Webalizer) it seems that 6000 views per month isn’t enough for any serious vlogging. Not to mention the fact that videos in higher resolution or a sudden spike in popularity can drive the usage a lot higher.

It seems that a site like Youtube or blip.tv is necessary, which one is best?

There are lots of things that can be changed along the way, but a hosting service is difficult to change when people link to it.


I don’t claim to have many answers to these questions. I’m planning to start vlogging soon so I will probably learn along the way.

I would appreciate any suggestions. Also if anyone has a long suggestion then a blog post will be best (I’ll link to any posts that reference this one). If anyone has a long suggestion that is worthy of a blog post but they don’t have a blog then I would be happy to post it on my blog.

Pre-Meeting Lightning Talks

This evening I arrived at the LUV [1] meeting half an hour before it started. I was one of about a dozen people sitting in the room waiting, some of us had laptops and were reading email but others just sat quietly – the venue is sometimes open as much as an hour before the event starts and in bad weather some people arrive early because it’s more comfortable than anywhere else that they might hang out.

So I went to the front and suggested that instead of just doing nothing we get some short talks about random Linux things to fill the time. This seems to be a good opportunity for people to practice their public speaking skills, share things that interest them with a small and friendly audience, and keep everyone else entertained.

With some prompting a few members of the audience got up and spoke about Linux things that they were doing or had recently read about. They were all interesting and I learned a few things. I considered giving a talk myself (my plan B was to just speak for 15 minutes about random Linux stuff I’m doing) but decided that it would be best if I just encouraged other people to give talks.

I have suggested to the committee that we plan to do this in future and maybe have a mention of it on the web site to encourage people who are interested in such things (either speaking or listening) to attend early enough.

I think that this concept has been demonstrated to work and should also work well in most other user group meetings of a suitable size. At LUV we typically have about 60 people attend the main meeting and maybe a dozen arrive really early so people who would be nervous about speaking to an audience of 60 may feel more comfortable. For a significantly larger group (where you have maybe 300 people attend the main meeting and 60 arrive early) the dynamic would be quite different, instead of having more nervous people give talks you might find that a membership of 300 gives a significant number of people who have enough confidence to give an impromptu short lecture to an audience of 60.

As an aside the Connected Community Hackerspace [2] is having a meeting tonight to decide what to do about an office in a central Melbourne area. One of the many things that a Hackerspace can be used for is a meeting venue for lightning talks etc.

Creating a Micro Conference

The TEDxVolcano

The TED conference franchise has been extended to TEDxVolcano [1], this is a small conference that features people who are stranded by the Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano in Iceland. As usual TED is an inspiration to us all, so there is obvious potential for other conferences to be organised in similar situations – there’s no reason why a free software conference can’t be organised in Europe right now!

What You Need to run a Conference

If a conference will have limited attendance (EG due to a volcano preventing anyone from flying to the area) then filming everything is very important. I’ve seen adverts for digital cameras that support “Full HD” resolution (1920*1080) for as little as $AU400. $AU600 will get you a “digital camcorder” that does Full HD which will offer some benefits for recording long movies (such as the ability to store the video on an external hard drive). If I was stuck in a foreign hotel with not much to do then I would be prepared to buy a digital camera or camcorder for the purpose of running such a conference (my current digital camera is 5.1MP and only has 3* optical zoom, it’s a nice camera but I could do with something better. A tripod can cost up to $100, but I recently bought myself a 15cm tall tripod for $10 – that would do at a pinch. Once you have high quality video you can easily upload it to something like Blip.TV. Of course you get a better result if you do some post-production work to merge images of the slides for the lecture into the video, but that is a lot of work and probably requires a camera that outputs uncompressed video for best results.

The next issue is getting a venue. Different hotels cater for different parts of the market, some cater to tourists, some to business travel, some to conferences. If you want a venue at short notice you may be able to get a good deal if you find a hotel that is adversely affected, for example I’m sure that there are some quite empty conference hotels in Europe right now – but the tourist hotels are probably reasonably busy (why not do some tourism if you are stuck). I expect that hotels really don’t want to have empty conference rooms and are prepared to offer good deals for bookings at short notice. Of course you would want to try to ensure that hotel rooms aren’t too expensive in that hotel as some delegates will want to stay in the hotel which hosts the conference.

The minimal staffing for a micro conference is probably two people, one for taking payment, directing people, etc, and the other to film the lectures and moderate panel discussions. Rumor has it that attending without paying is a problem at conferences, for conferences that are planned in advance corporations will try and send multiple employees on the one ticket and have them share a name-tag – one issue with this is that there is a fixed quantity of food supplied and if extra people appear then everyone who paid gets less, another is that people who pay really hate to see freeloaders. The best reference I’ve found for people not paying at conferences is Jon Oxer’s description of how Leslie Cachia of Letac Drafting Services brazenly stole a book from him [2].

Name-tags are needed for any meeting with more than about 15 people. I’m not sure how to get proper name-tags (ones that pin on to clothing and have printed names – maybe the bigger hotels can add this to the conference package). But a roll of sticky labels from an office supply store is pretty cheap.

Costs in Wellington

Along with a few other people I considered running a small security conference immediately before or after LCA 2010, that ended up not happening but I will consider doing it in future. When considering that the general plan was to get a hotel to provide a meeting room for 10-30 people (we had no real idea of the demand).

When investigating the possibilities for running a conference in Wellington I discovered that the hotel fees for a conference room can either be based on paying a fixed fee for the room plus additional expenses for each item or you can pay a fixed rate per person. It seemed that there was the potential to save a small amount of money by paying the fixed fees and avoiding some payments for things like tea/coffee service. But the amount that could be saved would be small and it would incur extra effort in managing it – saving $5 per person is a good thing if you have 600 delegates, but if you have 30 then it’s probably a waste of time. So it seemed best to go for one of the packages, you tell the hotel what time you want the lunch and snack breaks and how you want the tables arranged and they just do everything. The cost for this seemed to be in the range of $nz35 to $nz55 per delegate per day. There is some flexibility in room arrangement, so a room that seats 12 people in the “board-room” layout (tables in a rectangle facing the center) would fit 25 in the “classroom” layout (tables all facing the front) or 50 in the “theater” layout (chairs facing the front with no tables). So the hotel could accommodate changes in the size at relatively short notice (whatever their notice period for buying the food).

The cost for a catered conference dinner seemed to be about $nz45 per diner. In many cases it would be possible to get a meal that is either cheaper, better, or both by going somewhere else, but that wastes time and effort. So that gave an overall conference cost of about $nz135 for a two day conference with a dinner at the end of the first day. Given that the cheapest budget rate from Wotif.com for a 3 star hotel in Wellington is currently $nz85 per night it seems that $nz135 for a two day conference including dinner is pretty cheap as the minimum accommodation cost would be $nz170. Also note that the hotels which I considered for hosting the conference had rates for their hotel rooms that were significantly greater than $nz85 per night.

The hotels all offer other services such as catered “cocktail parties”, these would be good things for any company that wants to sponsor the conference.

Different cities can have vastly different prices for hotels. But I expect that the way conference rooms are booked and managed is similar world-wide and the ratio of conference costs to hotel booking fees to also be similar. Most of the hotels that cater to conferences seem to be owned by multi-national corporations.

It would probably make sense to charge delegates an extra $10 or $15 above the cost of running the conference to cover unexpected expenses. Of course it’s difficult to balance wanting to charge a low rate to attract more people with wanting to avoid the risk of a financial loss.


The hard part is getting speakers. If you can get speakers and panel participants who can fill the time slots and have interesting things to say then all the other parts of organising a micro conference should be relatively easy.

When the cost is less than $150 per delegate then a syndicate of a few people can easily agree to split the loss if the number of delegates turns out to be smaller than expected, a potential loss of $2000 shared among a few people shouldn’t be a huge problem. Also if the conference is booked at short notice (EG because of a volcano) then the hotel shouldn’t require any deposit for anything other than the food which is specially ordered (IE not the tea, coffee, etc) – that limits the potential loss to something well under $100 per delegate who doesn’t attend.

Anyone who has enough dedication to a topic to consider running a conference should be prepared to risk a small financial loss. But based on my past observations of the generosity of conference delegates I’m sure that if at the conference closing the organiser said “unfortunately this conference cost more than the money you paid me, could you please put something in this hat on the way out” then the response would be quite positive.

Note that I am strictly considering non-profit conferences. If you want to make money by running a conference then most things are different.

Respecting the Audience

Currently there is an ongoing debate about a joke that was made during a lecture about free software. I have previously written about why I think it’s inappropriate with regard to children in the audience [1]. For those who are interested in following this mess Matthew Garrett has written an interesting follow-up post with some useful links and a lively comment section [2].

I think that to some extent this is a symptom of a larger problem. That of speakers who take their audience for granted and don’t show them adequate respect. This is an easy trap to fall into, after giving many lectures which are well received it’s easy to become too egotistical and think of an audience as your right – rather than as a privilege that is earned by doing good technical work and explaining it in a clear and respectful manner.

Making jokes for a multi-national audience is difficult at the best of times, often jokes that work well in one culture will fall flat with an audience from a different cultural background. If you give a lecture that contains jokes then some of them won’t work, usually they merely fail by not getting any laughs but sometimes they cause offense. If you tell a joke in a lecture and no-one laughs then it’s probably a good idea to not follow up with any further jokes on that topic, if your speaking skills are not sufficient to allow you to make such a change to your talk in response to audience reaction then it’s best not to plan for a series of jokes. Regardless of the topic of the jokes it’s not a good situation if the majority of the audience is not amused.

Art is also subjectively interpreted in ways that vary according to the local culture and the definition of porn is even more subjective. In my post about appropriate talks about porn [3] the only situation I could imagine where showing a picture related to porn during a lecture about computer science was in regard to Lena and the history of computer graphics (the famous picture of Lena is cropped so that it is not pornographic), and that post did not receive a comment with any other suggestion. We could have a debate about where exactly the line should be drawn. But there are some situations where a line has been clearly crossed, such as a presentation about flash development which included a frontal view of a woman wearing semi-transparent underpants [4].

If you are going to give a lecture about art then there are valid reasons for showing pictures which may be considered to be porn by some people (I can’t imagine a lecture about Greek or Roman statues not having some serious nudity). But if the topic of your lecture is computer science then anything which significantly distracts the audience from that is a failure – even if it’s not offensive.

Presenting material that you find entertaining but which doesn’t interest the audience is self-indulgent. A small amount of self-indulgence will be accepted by the audience, but it needs to be short and forgettable.

If you respect the audience you have to respect feedback. For example if your wife or girlfriend thinks that your talk is great but women in the audience are offended then you need to take note of the feedback. If your presentation is designed to appeal to your friends and relatives then again you are making it all about you not about the audience.

Also when giving a public lecture you have to keep in mind the fact that even if you are famous in some field the majority of the audience won’t know much about you. The majority of the audience are not friends who have some background knowledge which helps them interpret your actions, and they aren’t people who have seen your previous lectures. Your lecture has to stand alone. Any defense of a talk which is badly received which involves a phrase such as “if you knew him better” or “if you had seen his other talks” is a weak defense. In almost all cases the audience should be expected to have no prior knowledge of the speaker.

Sex and Lectures about Computers

I previously wrote about the appropriate references to porn in lectures about Computer Science [1]. It seemed that by providing a short list of all the appropriate ways that porn could be mentioned in a lecture some people might get the idea that the infinite variety of other potential ways that porn could be mentioned are mostly wrong.

In a separate response to the same incident Matt Bottrell wrote a list of the reasons why he thinks that porn is inappropriate for a conference [2]. One of Matt’s weaker points in that post was “As a parent, I would be outraged if my teenage child attended such a conference to be subjected to pornographic images“. I considered writing a post in response to that pointing out that I believe that the social pressures on teenagers to perform various sex acts appears to be a much greater problem than the risk of occasionally seeing porn. But apart from rumors I heard at one conference regarding a distasteful incident at a party I couldn’t tie that issue to a free software conference, and I was not well enough connected into the gossip network to determine the facts of the party in question.

The free software community seems much more enlightened than the proprietary software community. The conference environment sets higher standards, I believe that the general reaction to the incidents of porn demonstrates the character of the community. But surely no-one would give a lecture at a conference and advocate “relieving people of their virginity“. If such a thing was to happen then surely it would come from someone who is little known and who lacks experience in giving public lectures.

But it turns out that my expectations were not correct, Richard Stallman (RMS) seriously offended many people by such antics [3]. It’s even more disappointing that people who admire him can’t admit to the fact that he stuffed up. I personally have great admiration for all the good work that RMS has done over the course of decades. But I have to say that he’s gone too far this time.

Matthew Garrett suggests either not inviting RMS to give a keynote speech or giving an apology to the audience beforehand [4]. I don’t think it’s a viable option to give an apology for allowing someone to speak at a conference, so I take Matthew’s post as a call to stop inviting RMS to speak at conferences.

Update: Matthew has updated his post to explain that he meant that RMS should give an apology before he is offered any future invitations – not that the conference organisers should apologise to the audience for any offense that he might cause. But as it seems extremely unlikely that RMS will ever back down I don’t think this makes a difference in the end.

I think that this is a very strong measure to take, refraining from inviting someone so influential who has contributed so much is unheard of. But one thing we know about RMS is that he is particularly stubborn. The positive side of this is that he has done a huge amount of work over 30+ years that has benefited many people. The negative side of his obstinacy is that it seems extremely unlikely that he will apologise or agree to amend his behavior. So it seems that there is no reasonable option other than to refrain from inviting him.

A major benefit that a keynote speaker provides to a conference is prestige. It seems to me that many people now regard RMS as a negative reference for the value of a conference. So even conference organisers who don’t think that RMS did anything wrong will probably be less likely to invite him.

I don’t think that I will ever attend another lecture by RMS.

PS If we are going to mention teenagers in regard to such issues, it would be best to mention the age – there is a huge difference between a 13yo and a 19yo, both socially and legally.