Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Miami: Road WOD 4 and a strange conversation

Today's Road WOD:

Deadlift 3-3-3-3-3

135-145-145-135-135

I think - still not sure the weight of the bar. This is assuming a 45# bar. I had to go a bit lighter than I wanted because I couldn't drop the bar (no bumper plates).

then

5 rounds for time of:

10 dumbbell squat cleans 20# dumbbells
10 burpees
10 dumbbell swings 20#

My time: 14:46. Those dumbbell squat cleans are harder than they look! And the women in the Affiliate Cup competition at the games did them heavier, with 25# dumbbells. I copied the form standards I saw for the games, touching them to the ground in between each one and going into a full squat.

My shoulders, especially traps, are wrecked today. I'm guessing that's from the clean and jerks yesterday. Could that mean I was actually shrugging? One can only hope.

I had an admirer for my deadlifts. He helped me change the plates, and when I pulled 145, he said "that's heavy" very quietly. He was a hotel employee, getting in his workout before his shift started. Very nice guy, and I always enjoy being admired.

A Strange Conversation

Yesterday I gave my talk for the conference. It went pretty well, had some very good reactions and conversations, but I had the opposite of an admirer interact with me immediately after the talk. It was such a strange experience! I'll try to reconstruct our conversation as best I can. Of course he didn't have his name tag on, so I have no idea who he was or where he was from. So I'll just call him Newman. "Newman!" He had the same condescending demeanor but smiled a lot less. I'll have some technical stuff embedded in this account, but don't worry if you don't understand it, you'll still get the gist of what happened.

Newman approaches me, already showing some aggressive body language.

Newman: I don't understand how productions are added in your model.

Note that there are no pleasantries or introductions. Okay, he just wants to get to business. No problem! That's what I'm here for.


Me: Oh, it's not a production system model.

Newman: Well, what is it, a neural network?

Note that this is what my talk was about. I realize that he did not get it. At all. I just let him keep guessing and saying no (he wouldn't listen to me try to explain) until he says something that isn't totally wrong and then I nod vigorously. He scowls, then veers to a new topic, with no transition or resolution of that topic. This isn't all that unusual when chatting at a conference - the pace of conversation can be fast - so I go with it, still being pleasant.

Newman: Well, you know you contradicted yourself when you said you avoided "black box" theories because it is a black box if you don't have productions or rules coded in.

I'm a little surprised at how aggressively he states this - the more diplomatic way to state this would have been to say something like "are you concerned that there still may be a black box issue here?" or something like that. But that's okay, some people just aren't that good at diplomacy. No reason we can't have a good lively discussion - it's a fun topic to get into, and I love big picture and philosophical discussions about modeling.

Me: Oh! Well, this raises a really interesting issue. There are some inherent modeling trade-offs between ones that build in expertise and ones that use more opaque machine learning type mechanisms...

I start launching into an enthusiastic discussion of modeling trade-offs, complete with a little UNSL (Universal Nerd Sign Language, my term). I mark off a continuum in the air and start referring to points on that continuum. Use of UNSL is usually an omen of a good scientific discussion getting underway. But I don't get very far before he interrupts me again.

Newman: Well, you know there's a model that does both, ACT-R.

I am quite familiar with ACT-R, several collaborators and colleagues use it and I also attended a week-long intensive class on it. And I've read a couple books on it, and dozens of papers. I attended a conference where more than half the talks were about ACT-R. I've dedicated a fair amount of time to thinking about the contrasts between the modeling approach I use and ACT-R and have participated in some direct comparisons. And I have no problem with it - it's just a different approach than the one I use with interesting differences in strengths and weaknesses. Okay, you get the picture.

Me: Well ACT-R is great, but it is expensive - he looks aghast at me because it's free software, but I continue - in terms of development time - he looks slightly less horrified at my clarification, but more angry.

Newman: No, that's not true. There's ACT SIMPLE, which is easy.

I am familiar with this version, but his statement is naive at best. I decide not to get into it, and just to make a broader point.

Me: Well, regardless of the interface, there is still expertise to build in, and that takes time.

Newman scowls more deeply and rolls his eyes. He looks furious, like he's ready to take a swing at me. Now he switches tactics, from condescending but at least substantive discussion to just taking a cheap shot.

Newman: You were looking for a word when you described "literal" neural models. (I wasn't.) Epiphenomenal. That's what it's called you know. Have you even heard of that word?

Me: ...

I'm stunned into silence by his rudeness. Sure, I've heard the word, but for my points, it wasn't really the appropriate term. Terminology smackdowns at an interdisciplinary conference are just beside the point - we all use different words for the same things, you just have to roll with it. I tried to avoid jargon in my talk because I knew I'd have a diverse audience from many different disciplines. But I don't have a chance to say this, because while I am trying to gather my thoughts - and my composure - he's ready with another low blow.

Newman: Maybe you haven't read the literature.

This is an unbelievable insult. I've never heard someone say something like this to someone else at a conference. That's like saying, what, did you get your Ph.D. from an unaccredited mail-order program in Antarctica? It's like asking your kid's English teacher if she knows how to read. It's bizarre. But at least it jolts me into speaking again.

Me: Well, I'm a neuroscientist, of course I have read the literature.

But I say this in a matter-of-fact way, not defensively. I'm not upset, I'm just thoroughly confused. Honestly, I can't figure out what just happened. Did he really just say that? Is he continuing to glare at me? Did I speak ill of his dying grandmother? Did I shove him in the elevator? Trip him on the sidewalk?

I'm not sure if he's satisfied with himself or frustrated that he wasn't able to bring me to tears or engage me in a shouting match, which was quite possibly his intention. But without further comment, he turns on his heel and walks away from me, darting out of the room.

Okay, so what's my take on all this? Bottom line, I think he was one of those insecure people who gets off on telling off someone they see as inferior. Also, he did not seem to possess any social skills or graces.

I don't use highly technical language in my talks because I find that plain language helps my ideas to reach more people. It works too - I'm able to engage in discussion with people from a wide variety of backgrounds when I keep the points simple and the language conversational rather than formal. I'm very comfortable giving talks this way. But a lot of people hide behind formality and obscurity, especially at a conference where they're afraid of being laid open to criticism. Me, I'd rather get down to the issues and engage people.

My guess is that my conversational manner in my talk, along with my youthful appearance, made him think I was unsophisticated as a researcher, someone he could go after. When he questioned me, I was excited to engage in discussion. I think he was disappointed that he wasn't upsetting me and making me feel ashamed of being so dumb, so he moved on to Plan B, just saying nasty things. When I didn't react to that, he gave up in disgust.

The happy take-home message is that a few years ago, this would have completely upset me. But yesterday I just shrugged, thought "what an asshole," and moved on to talk to someone else. Who was much nicer! I'm glad that I finally have enough confidence in my knowledge and abilities as a researcher, and feel comfortable enough in a conference setting, that I can roll with stuff like this. Still, I wish I could get that guy in the gym and really humiliate him. Oh, that would be fun.

1 comment:

rosanne said...

That was an awesome story! Getting him in the gym would be hilarious! Good Work Doc!