Why I don’t like conferences, a parody

December 3rd, 2014

I just read Why I don’t like hackathons and had to disagree. Not because the ideas are necessarily wrong, only that they apply generically to any focused effort in a short time frame. The same critique could be made of academic conferences. As an exercise, I replaced ‘hackathons’ with ‘conferences’ and made some slight tweaks to change the hackathon specific language. It holds up surprisingly well in this new context, especially the “time commitment” argument .

Why I don’t like conferences, by Matthew Butler

I seem to have had this discussion a few times lately, so I’m going to save myself the trouble of repeating it and just write down all the problems I have with conferences. (Yes, I know lots of people have previously posted about what they don’t like about conferences; I’ve linked some of them at the bottom of this post, if you want some other opinions too.)

They’re too much commitment

Me: I’m kind of interested in your thing. How can I get involved?
Them: We have a conference coming up. You should come!

Here’s how that sounds to me:

Me: I’d like to get a little more physically active.
Them: You should come run a marathon on the weekend!

Conferences are intense and exhausting, and they’re meant to be. They’re usually a whole weekend of focused work, often with insufficient sleep, and too much encouragement to use masses of caffeine to stay awake for 48 hours.

Sorry, but I’m not going to do that for my projects, let alone yours.

They exclude people with lives and responsibilities

This follows naturally from the marathon nature. A conference usually takes up a whole weekend, often starting Friday night and going through until Sunday evening. Sometimes you’re expected or encouraged to stay on-site overnight, or sometimes the norm is to go home to sleep, but either way it chews up multiple consecutive days.

I have other things going on in my life: errands to run, friends to see, a veggie garden to keep watered, and other community events and commitments to schedule around. Attending a weekend-long event means massively rearranging my life. And I don’t have kids or other people to care for; if I did, it would be pretty much impossible.

That exclusion is not evenly distributed

I see fathers of kids at conferences pretty often, perhaps because their wives are looking after the kids. I see mothers far less often. Domestic and career responsibilities are unevenly distributed, which means women are more likely to be too busy to attend conferences than men are.

Until I did some research for this post, I’d never yet seen a conference with childcare or which provides information or assistance for parents; not even the women-only conference held recently in a city near me. (After some research, I now have heard of one)

Sure, most younger women don’t yet have childcare responsibilities, but that just points out another unequal exclusion: the older you are, the more responsibilities you are likely to have, and the less energy you have for all-night Red Bull fuelled writing sessions. Unsurprisingly, conference participants are generally on the young side.

It’s well documented that diverse teams have more creative ideas. So why exclude entire categories of people by holding an event that is hard for them to participate in?

They’re unhealthy

I’ve been to a few of these events, and I’ve never yet felt like I didn’t come out of it less healthy than I went in. Speaking for myself, I like daylight, moving around, eating lots of veggies, and drinking lots of water. I work at a standing desk part of the day (looking out the window at trees and birds), take lots of breaks to clear my mind and move my body, and usually make lunch with homebaked bread and something from my garden. I also like getting a good night’s sleep.

I’m not saying that everyone can or should do what I do. It’s entirely up to you to do what makes your body feel good, or to balance feeling good with other priorities. But I know that for me, when I attend a conference, if I spend two long days in poor lighting and poor ventilation, sitting hunched over my laptop at a meeting table in an uncomfortable chair, eating pretty average catering food or pizza (almost always especially mediocre because I go for the vegetarian option), I feel like crap.

Now, sometimes I’m prepared to feel like crap for a weekend for a good cause. But it has to be a pretty convincing cause.

Competition, meh.

One thing that doesn’t convince me: competition. For so many conferences, the end-game is to have a paper accepted to put on a CV. I really, really don’t care. In fact it puts me off, and makes me less likely to attend.

To start with, I know how to do a cost-benefit analysis. The last conference in my area, I think there were very few papers accepted for the number of attendees. Most attendees actually got zero papers accepted. I might be up for tenure, but not desperate enough to consider that a good use of two whole days of my time.

Surprise: extrinsic motivation isn’t all that motivating!

Quite apart from that, though, I’m not motivated by competition. Tell me you’re going to judge whose paper is the “best” and I get crippled by stereotype threat, instantly flashing back to being the last picked for the team in gym class. And I’m a scholar with 20 years’ experience under my belt, who’s worked with dozens of theories, and is comfortable with everything from Microsoft Word to Endnote. Imagine if I was new and less sure of my abilities?

You can tell me all you like about how collaborative the atmosphere of your event is, but if you are only accepting select papers you just sound hypocritical. If you want me to believe the event is collaborative, don’t make it a competition.

Why can’t I work on an existing paper?

Every conference I’ve been to has required that you come up with a new paper to present. At some conferences, I’ve seen people complain that people are cheating if they come with anything written by other people.

I spend most of my time working on projects that I think are important and worthwhile. My head is full of them, I know my way around my ideas and scholarship, and I have endless ideas for improvements and new chapters I want to work on.

Now you want me to show up at your event, put aside all the investment and focus I’ve built up for my project, and work on some new ideas for the weekend.

They’re just ideas

The result is that people have quick papers that are cute and flashy, but have little depth like a book. Meh.

And then they’re gone.

People say that conference pr are just for presenting papers, and that great things can later emerge from them. However, conference papers seldom survive beyond the weekend. Sure, I see conference organisers trying to take steps to ensure that projects have longevity but does this actually work?

I reviewed a handful of papers, including many accepted into conferences, from the last conference I was at and found not a single one with a edit since the conference five months ago.

Here’s why: conferences intentionally select for people who work intensely for that conference, then award them with presentations. Therefore, none of those things happen.

So what are conferences good for?

They can be a pretty good PR exercise.

They can raise awareness of new theory or among scholars and give them a space to experiment with them.

They can be stimulate your creativity, if your creativity happens to be stimulated by short deadlines and so on.

They can be a feel-good networking experience for the (overwhelmingly academic, young, female) participants.

Here’s what I want instead

Ongoing projects that are maintained and used over several years.

A welcoming environment for people of all skill and confidence levels, with opportunity for mentorship, learning, and working at your own pace.

A schedule that makes it possible to participate without having to make heroic efforts to juggle your other responsibilities.

I’d love to hear whether anyone else has experience running recurring, collaborative, low-commitment academic writing events. If you’re doing something like that, please get in touch and tell me about it!


Transcription Test

May 18th, 2012

Time Capsule

August 30th, 2011

From: Xxxxxx Xxxxxx [xxxxxxx@xxxxx.net]
Sent: Monday, April 26, 1999 10:01 PM
To: Matt Butler
Subject: just to say hey!

We didn’t get to talk much at Xxxxxx’s party, and I’ve been
very busy and not had alot of time to send much mail, so here it goes.
Congratulations on going to grad school. Your mom wasn’t sure
what your degree is in, so let me know. I don’t think I would have the
patience to go to grad school. I’ve met too many people with multiple
degrees in studio art and they seem to be more obsessed with letting
people know their academic background than actually using their degrees!
But these are the same people who would rather tell me what the artist
was doing or feeling when they did the painting, instead of just
enjoying the way it looks. Xxxxx is a little (no – alot) like this.
She is the art historian of the family. Xxxx can’t stand her analysis
of everything. Oh well, I’m sure you will do fine and have a great
time! Good Luck.

My family’s brutal legacy

July 11th, 2011

The story of my Fathers (but not Mothers) is one of conquest, brutal theft of land, and genocide. It all started 30,000 years ago when my paternal ancestors were some of the first Cro-Magnon people to emerge out of Central Asia into what is now Europe. We cohabited the land for many centuries with the Neanderthal but greed and corruption got the best of us. Over the course of several millennia we competitively replaced the Neanderthal in their native land and began the systematic colonization of modern Europe, killing off an entire species of proto-humans in the process.

My people made the Pyrenees Mountains their home for untold generations after that. Current-day Southern France, Northern Spain, Andorra, and parts of Northern Portugal are what we called home for thousands of generations. Much later, during the Roman Empire, some of my family can be triangulated to the coasts of the Catalan-Balearic Sea in western Spain. We were no doubt conscripted to conquer land.

Another branch, which lived a bit further north in Southern France, were some of the first families to invade Ireland in the 12th century A.D., again, fueled by a lust for conquest and domination. Theobald Walter, who accompanied Prince John (the bad guy in the Robin Hood stories) into Ireland in 1185, was named Butler of Ireland. Theobald changed his surname to Butler to mark his service to the crown. This is the origin of my current family name and Kilkenny Castle in Southern Ireland became the seat of the Butler family for 500 years. To some it represents the spoils of war – to others, the domination of an indigenous population.

A group of Butlers moved from Ireland to the New World in the 17th century, becoming farmers and trappers – and no doubt slave owners – in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky before heading north, up the Big River, into Illinois near Carthage. Since the early 1800’s, the Butlers have lived on or around the Mississippi River. This is where I grew up: as the grandson of two Railroad men on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. I hope our brutal legacy has come to a close at last.

In fact, one very small branch of our paternal family tree now ends with me, my brother, and one male cousin. Unless we produce sons, that twig of the tree ends with us. So far, I think we’ve decided to let that happen.

Use of the word “queer”

June 30th, 2011

I totally forgot I wrote this for a project by ACE = Art Culture Experiments back in 2008 and just stumbled across it on Google. It was prompted by a controversial use of the word ‘queer’ and various artists and writers were asked to contribute a blurb about it. Unsurprisingly, mine ended up being overly technical.

“What are your thoughts on Queer?”

Matt Butler wrote:

“A naming collision is a circumstance where two or more identifiers in a given namespace or a given scope cannot be unambiguously resolved, and such unambiguous resolution is a requirement of the underlying system.”

It seems to me that the identifier becomes ambiguous when used outside of either heteronormative or LGBT communities. Depending on the community, it can be used positively or negatively. It’s probably most confusing when used by people who don’t strongly identify with either community and are unsure of how their use of the word will be perceived. My feeling is that the only way to reduce ambiguity is to always default to a positive connotation that represents pride, acceptance and love. Further use of in this way, particularly in public contexts where a naming collision is likely, will help to clearly define the word for confused individuals. It is clear that the pejorative use of has been deprecated and should be avoided.

The 9-11 story I wrote as a woman for Jane Magazine (defunct)

May 4th, 2011

July 2006

There was a time, before 9/11, when you could leave and enter this country on nothing but a driver’s license and a smile. Back in ’00, I backpacked and smiled my way down to the Southern-most part of Mexico to find the legendary beach of Zipolite. Maybe I watched The Beach one too many times or maybe I was looking for the perfect anti-Acapulco with Leonardo, but after several bus rides, cab rides, hitchhikes and hikes, I found the beach.

I heard about Zipolite from a friend of a friend and decided I needed to visit this Shangri-La, no-law, clothing-optional paradise. Forget Cabo San Lucas and it’s two-week, drunk, spring-break crowd, I was looking for a real change in my reality — and I found it. Most of Zipolite’s inhabitants hailed from South America, Germany, Sweden, Mexico, or somewhere else. This was a place to live for a while. The nudity was certainly awkward at first but after a few days of living on the beach, it became a part of life. Living on the beach meant renting a hammock for two dollars per night or a cabana for six. After a few nights of bonfires, music, tuna pizza, and dangerous riptides, we all became close, if only temporary friends. That’s when I met John.

John was an American, though he seemed like he belonged to Mexico. Most of his days were spent surfing the murderous waves at the beach, drinking juice and Mezcal, and fighting with his girlfriend. A lot of people have died at Zipolite, but John told me how to beat the tide. It was all a myth, he said. “Everyone is scared”. I never went in over my head, but I knew that if I got sucked out to sea all I had to do was swim parallel to shore. Sometimes I wished I could get swept down the coast to the little Shambala commune built into the cliff. I heard from John that it was built in the 60’s, and rarely used today.

I walked the two miles down the beach and up the hand-carved staircase to the abandoned temple. The dwellings were all uninhabited and the prayer area was empty. I became scared on top of the cliff overlooking the Pacific, so I snapped one single shot on my five dollar 3-D camera I picked up at Osco a month before. The abstract blue sea photo is the only photographic proof I have of Zipolite to this day. Later that week, I ran into John again. I never grew tired of watching him peel foil from the lid of the small plastic juice bottles that he could buy for a peso. He would take a quick drink then would top off the container with his Mezcal. Mezcal is a hallucinogenic drink, like absinthe. Get drunk enough and you’ll start seeing things. But that day John was more intersested in scissors. Scissors are a versatile tool. Betther than a knife, he claimed. You could cut in so many different ways with a pair of scissors. He hadn’t seen any scissors for about three years so I gave him mine. It was nearing the end of my trip and I hadn’t even considered my scissors until now. Live on the beach for a month, and you don’t need to sew. Live on the beach for a year, and it’s a way to keep your clothes together. I gave John the utensil and considered it even for the surf lessons and lore.

A couple of years later I heard from some friends that John got deported. Supposedly he landed back into America in New York harbor on the morning of September 11, 2001.

“Everyone is scared” I reminded myself.

Intoxicated in Public

April 7th, 2011

If you’ve spent any length of time in our fair city you’ve probably noticed we have a healthy and vibrant drinking culture.  The cool kids here like to go out and have their PBRs or high-quality craft beers or Jagerbombs or whatever.  Along with the celebrating (who-knows-what) comes the inevitable and dreaded Public Intoxication arrest – a misdemeanor so varied in its applicability some are left to wonder what it actually means.  To the knowledgeable, public intox means you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  To the less informed it automatically means you were blacked out face-down in the middle of Linn St.  It’s a very wide range but let’s look at the law.

According to Iowa Code section 123.46

You can be arrested if you are drunk or pretending to be drunk in a public place.  What is drunk (or pretend drunk) and what is public you ask?  Drunk means your reason or mental ability has been affected, judgement impaired, emotions visibly excited, or you’ve lost control of bodily actions.  Public place means streets, parking lots, steps of apartment buildings, dorms, bars, and event centers.  So that means you can technically be arrested if you’re emotionally excited in a bar.  Woo hoo.  Bring on the fun. Hope you hate music.

You also probably know you have some rights if you’re ever caught with a buzz on someplace besides locked in your bedroom with the shades pulled.  See, there’s a thing called the 5th Amendment.  This means you can’t be forced to be a witness against yourself.  It roughly translates into “DON’T TALK TO THE COPS.”  If they ask you if you’ve been drinking you don’t have to answer.  You also get to refuse a breath test.  You may instead request an independent chemical test.  Oh, and the cop can’t order you into public either if you’re not already.

Now that that’s clear, let’s move on to how the police will lie to you and trick you into invalidating one of those rights.  Of course your mileage may vary depending on your skin color.

The police (in their unending interest to protect and serve us) have developed a series of tactics to trick the citizenry into getting arrested.  If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who’s been at the ass end of one of these bogus public intox charges.  It happens more than you think and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it except hopelessly whine to the Council or Police Citizen’s Review Board.

There’s no way to prove this conspiracy theory except share stories of dumb Public Intox arrests.  

Intermedia Writing Systems: A Literary Startup

March 2nd, 2011
1. Executive Summary
David Shields, in his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, boldy declares fiction and other forms of traditional literature to be moribund.  Our nebulous and highly diffused modern culture is rendering these forms into something unrecognizable to the previous generation.  Writers and artists are taking larger chunks of culture as raw material, blurring the line between truth and lie – fiction and non-fiction – book and everything else.

As an official UNESCO City of Literature, Iowa City is like the Silicon Valley of literature.  Nicknamed “Pulitzer Town”, it is an engine of creation, with some of the smartest writers in the world travelling here to fund and develop their lit “startup”.  The analogy extends further with the renown Writer’s Workshop serving as the Y Combinator or the Sequoia Capital of writerly ventures.  Experience and critical mass make Iowa City the perfect place to begin a new literary startup.

However, if Shields is to be believed, Iowa City’s reputation is threatened.  The town’s lit cred is based almost entirely off of the traditional model.  The Great American Novel, the proud memoir, the meticulous poem, and the other forms one can only imagine are banged out on an old typewriter with cigarette dangling from artist’s mouth make up the town’s literary history.  What happens to this venerable tradition when it is swallowed by the rolling mechanization of the future?  How will the quiet and scholarly writer of literature respond to the insatiable appetite for reality as Shields predicts?  Will Iowa City become to the City of Literature what Detroit became to the Motor City?

2. Studio History
Intermedia Writing Systems (IWS) was founded in 2008 by Matthew Butler as a studio focused on developing electronic art and literature.  The first major project was working with with Aaron Sachs, doctoral student in Communications and Media Theory, on a digital translation of his creative research paper.  They presented Box Full A of Angels at the National Communication Association’s annual conference in 2008.  A Box Full of Angels was an interactive narrative space disguised as a computer operating system.  Users could navigate the interface to discover and piece together the fictional research of other scholars piecing together fictional research.  Each generation of scholar would compile their research into a box to be discovered by a new scholar, unraveling another layer of fiction/research.  Ultimately the user could unlock the religious connotations of the overarching narrative to reveal a real-time chat session with media theorists Marshall McLuhan and Walter Benjamin, answering the user’s questions from beyond the grave.  Version 2 of A Box Full of Angels was selected for inclusion in the 2009 FILE Electronic Language Festival in São Paulo, Brazil.

Further IWS projects have investigated the authenticity of authorship through specialized writing algorithms, namely the Open Wound application developed by Butler.  Open Wound analyzes existing writing then outputs a stylized text using the words and parts-of-speech in the original.  In 2010 IWS published the hardcover book Gravitation at the Jet Realm.

IWS has also produced mobile applications, particularly Anemoi in 2010.  In Greek mythology, the Anemoi were wind gods who were each ascribed a cardinal direction, from which their respective winds came, and were each associated with various seasons and weather conditions. They were often personified as winged men and, according to the Greek poet Hesiod, were the children of Astraeus and the goddess of the dawn Eos.  This web application attempted to bridge the gap between data and poetry. It queried NOAA for current wind directions based on an airport of the user’s choosing then returned the results as the appropriate wind god of Greek mythology.

3. Vision Statement
We will increase the value of our studio and our national portfolio of diversified projects by exceeding expectations and achieving artistic leadership and operating excellence in every segment of our studio.

Union (not the bar)

February 25th, 2011

There’s been a lot of talk lately about labor unions, spurred on of course by the events in Wisconsin and other states.  As a worker who takes on jobs both with and without union representation, I thought I’d chime in briefly with my thoughts on the matter.  Currently my time is split at about 75% union work and 25% non-union work.

I’ve been a member of a labor union since 1999 when I joined COGS UE Local 896 and then later AFSCME as part of my employment at the Iowa City Public Library.  In ’99 I was pretty ignorant about why I needed to join COGS or what my dues were even paying for, but I was interested and willing to give it a shot.  During the semester I began graduate school, the union was locked in a fairly heated battle with the University over delays in TA paychecks.  Some of the teaching and research assistants were going months without pay and the union was rightfully upset by it.  I saw first-hand then how useful the union was for me and the power of collective bargaining.  The union stood up for its members and were able to get the problem solved.  I was sold on their effectiveness.

As a member of AFSCME, I’m not as active in the union as I’d like to be but am still a proud member that believes very strongly in collective bargaining and making sure all workers are represented fairly and compensated equitably.  I’m completely convinced that the only way workers at Wal-Mart, for example, would be able to increase their benefits is to organize and unionize.  There is currently no possible way for the “lowly employee” to demand just action from Wal-Mart management without being a member of a collective.

As I mentioned, 25% of my time is also spent running a very small consulting business.  As sole-proprietor, I’m free to charge what I like for my work, directly pay taxes on the revenue that comes in, and watch as my tiny business succeeds or fails based on my own efforts and skill.  It’s fun and frustrating.  I do it less for the money and more for the chance at working on interesting projects, but it’s still a legit company with a tax ID from the federal government and all the joys and headaches that brings.

My feeling is that a lot of people who hate unions own a business or work in a private company and have plans to move up.  They see a better world where everyone competes based on merit and skill and that’s how we bring out the best work and product.  This is a narrow view of the world.   It might work for the person that is developing his small 25% time business like mine, but this dog-eat-dog mentality just doesn’t translate to some fields and types of work.

Having worked both union and non-union I wanted to dispel some common myths that I’ve run across about labor unions.  Please comment if you have something to add or if I’m making a glaring error.

Myth: Unions protect bad workers

Many anti-unionists like to claim that unions make things more inefficient by protecting bad workers.  I haven’t seen this to be the case.  There is obviously protectionism going on with a unionized group of workers… that’s kinda the point.  But in my experience, working in a union environment means everything is spelled out in detail and you know exactly what you can and can’t get away with.  I think this is what gets misunderstood.  In a non-union job you can be fired for pretty much anything.  Boss doesn’t like you, you’re gone.  This isn’t fair and it’s what unions protect against.  The question is who decides who is a “bad worker” or not?  Being in a union simply means you get to sit down at the table with your boss and an arbitrator to decide.  If this is protecting bad workers then you don’t understand what it’s like to work in a low-paid or entry level job and not have much power over your own labor.  Try it and see if maybe you want a union on your side.

Myth: Unions cost more money

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.  It’s my opinion that people’s wages and benefits are not simply another line on the accounting ledger.  It’s a special category of expense that needs to be treated with respect.  Unions do not exist in order to drain money away from tax payers and capitalists.  Unions exist to make sure their workers receive a just and dignified wage.  This is not a bad thing.

Myth: Unions force workers to join

Maybe some do, I don’t know every union.  But my rather large union and the one embroiled in the Wisconsin controversy at the moment didn’t require me to join at all.  I was asked politely by the union rep if I’d like to join and I was given all the time I needed to decide.  There are people that I work with that have declined and they are never pressured.

There’s probably more that I could address but I’ll stop here.

Iowa City: We always do what YOU want to do

February 11th, 2011

There’s an article in this month’s Little Village Magazine in which three friends and LV contributors talk about their love affair with Iowa City.  I envy these guys because they all seem like down-to-earth dudes who know how to manage their relationship with Iowa City in a sane, adult way.  They don’t ask too much and are always willing to give back to the relationship.  It’s easy to see that when they get Iowa City pregnant they’re always there for moral support, to rub tired feet, give awesome back rubs, and go to all the lamaze classes.  They are the type of kind, patient boyfriend or husband any town would want.  Their babies grow up to be those well-behaved attractive kids that everyone loves.

My artistic relationship with Iowa City is more like a typical marriage going on 15 years.  Sure, we love each other but the spark just isn’t there anymore.  We don’t fight but we aren’t exactly consumed by passion either.  Our children are C students who got busted drinking behind the high school last April.  There’s a thought that maybe we’re just staying together for the kids and life might be more exciting if we cheat.  Chicago was totally hitting on me last weekend and it made me feel sexy for the first time in years.

How did we get here, Iowa City?  Our love affair was so steamy when we were working on that MFA together.  Can we ever get that back?

I blame myself.  I haven’t put in the work that you deserve.  I’m there to help out if you ask a couple of times but I don’t initiate enough of the housework.   You wanted me to help organize some amazing artists’ warehouse space a few months ago and instead I sat around playing Fallout 3.  Not cool, and I’m sorry.

To be fair though, you never want to do anything new it seems.  Whenever I suggest a new project you just fall back to the same stuff we’ve been doing since the 90’s.  I know where to go to find singers, poets, crafters, and gardeners but I can never seem to find hackers, video artists, media designers, and developers.  Am I too digital for you?

I’m sure we’ll get through this like we always do.  Baths is playing at Gabe’s in a couple of weeks.  There’s 3-D porn at the Bijou tonight.  And hey, Jimmy Wales is coming to town, so that’s cool.  We can make it work if we stick together.  If you promise not to roll your eyes when I start talking about computers I promise not to nod off when you start playing folk music.