Sunday, July 29, 2012

Solar Redux

Some time ago I read the novel, Solar, by Ian McEwan, which chronicles the shenanigans of the anti-hero, Michael Beard, a fictional Nobel Prize Laureate and all-around despicable character (although I was strangely sympathetic to his predicaments).  I wrote a comment on another blog about this novel.  If you read the post and the related comments, you'll see that there was a lot of arguing by people who had not read the novel. The discussion devolved into a back-and-forth about a description in the novel of an encounter between Beard and a feminist and his ultimate downfall by committing a blunder very reminiscent of the Larry Summers incident.

Anyway, I just came across an interview with McEwan in which he talks to Matt Ridley of The Gardian about the inspiration for the character of Beard.  I've always suspected that this character was patterned after a real scientist and Nobel Prize winner and pondered who it might be.  Apparently, I was right, although it seems that it was not a single person but a group of scientists who inspired this character.  In this interview, McEwan reveals some details about his encounter with the real people who inspired him, but understandably was not as forthcoming with specific names.

At the beginning of the interview, Ridley remarks that the novel's lead character, Beard, is corrupt and, among other indiscretions, steals an idea from someone else and predictably asks McEwan if he thinks science is corrupt.  McEwan's response is, no, that he does not believe this and then proceeds to describe a climate change conference he was invited to, one which had organized a group of 35 Nobel Laureates to speak. 

McEwan characterizes these scientists as "big beasts of the scientific jungle", "all men", "super alpha males", "men of a certain age" (meaning that they were past their prime).  McEwan was invited to give a speech, as a sort of an "after dinner mint", as he wittily describes his experience.  He colorfully describes the scene as being analogous to a watering hole in comes an elephant or rhinoceros or some other majestic animal...the huge who had control of big institutions and budgets, but who had not done any significant research since their twenties. He was then struck with the idea of writing about a character who was like this...a scientist who was "living in his own shadow".  Great idea and one I think worked well in this novel.

McEwan goes on to say that he could not help but think about these men (the non-fictional ones) and the later climate change summit he attended in Copenhagen. He characterized this as an international gathering of supposedly rational minds in collision with what are clearly enormous egos.  He attributes the failures of this summit, at least in part, to the ego-driven behavior of such alpha male types.  While at this summit, McEwan received the proofs of his novel and decided to add a scene in which Michael Beard is invited to speak at Copenhagen because the character would love to speak in front of such a gathering of international power players.

The author suggests that climate change poses a unique challenge for which humans must bring all their intelligence and creativity to bear, but fail because of other aspects of their nature.  This dichotomy is encapsulated in the novel. I think this is an important point to understand about the novel and the need to create a character like Beard, as opposed to a hero(ine) of science.  The latter would not only have made for a very boring novel, it would not have allowed the exploration of how the egos of these alpha males roaming the jungle of science are impacting society and society's ability to deal with major problems.

Image Credit: NASA

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Compelling Distractions

In the previous post, I began describing a recent experience in which I was faced with a distraction during a plenary talk.  While I was talking, another speaker was on the floor at my feet going through his own presentation (clearly visible to me on his large-screen monitor that had been set up and connected to his own computer).  I found it extremely difficult to stay focused on my own talk because of this bizarre distraction (along with various other minor distractions).  I was in a quandary as to what to do, if anything.

As I mentioned, this distraction was not obvious to the audience because their view of this fellow was blocked by the cloth-covered tables at the front of the room.  As far as they knew, everything was going smoothly.  After my initial statement, I briefly blanked out on what I wanted to say next.  My mind was whirling as to what this guy was doing, why the moderator (who could see I was distracted by the activity at my feet) was not interceding, and why this was happening to me.  I wondered whether I should just stop speaking and stand there waiting or if I should proceed and try to ignore this guy.  All these thoughts flashed through my brain in a second or two. 

I ultimately decided to ignore him and proceed with my best I could.  I figured that if I continued having difficulties, I could always stop and tell the moderator that I could not continue until the distraction was stopped.  I'm not sure if this was the best choice, but it's what I did.

I've given many presentations at conferences when people were wandering in and out of the room, or talking, or clinking glassware.  Although annoying, I've learned to ignore all but the most distracting activities.  If you are going to be giving conference presentations, you will have to learn to deal with such distractions.  I generally find that I can ignore most of these routine distractions.  This recent experience has to go to the top of my list of distraction challenges, however.

As I said, I could have stopped talking and refused to continue until the moderator removed the offender.  This, however, would have caused an interruption that most of the audience would not understand.  I think my main motivation for not stopping and complaining, though, was how this would look to colleagues and especially to all the younger attendees:  a senior, respected scientist whining about less-than-perfect conditions during a presentation.  Especially when previous presenters had gamely dealt with various other logistical glitches during their presentations.

Once I made up my mind to proceed and got into my talk, I found it easier to ignore this guy's bizarre behavior.  I focused my view on a section of the audience so that my line of sight did not directly include the distraction, only occasionally glancing in that direction.  I also spent a bit more time than I normally would have looking at my slides on the projector screen, which helped me focus more on my talk and block out the distracting images at my feet.  It also helped to focus on particular (friendly) faces in the audience (which is a good practice anyway if you are nervous).

As it turned out, this was one of my best presentations.  Literally dozens of people told me afterwards how much they enjoyed it.  It seemed to particularly strike a chord with students.  No one noticed anything unusual, and several people commented on how calm and professional my delivery was (a surprise to me because I felt quite flustered).  I questioned a close colleague as to whether he noticed anything unusual during my talk.  He was completely baffled and amazed when I described what was going on at my feet during the talk.  He said that he had no clue anything like that was happening.

In the end, I was happy that I did not interrupt my talk to deal with this distraction and that I was able to give a good talk in spite of it.  I'm not necessarily recommending that a speaker keep quiet when something is wrong.  There are limits to what a speaker should have to bear.  However, my choice to ignore rather than react turned out to be the right one for this particular instance.

In general, it's always a good idea to have some experience in ignoring distractions because in many instances there is nothing that one can do to avoid them. So when faced with a particularly bizarre distraction, as I was, you will not be totally discombobulated.  Interestingly, I am reading a book that discusses two basic modes of thinking (involuntary and voluntary): Thinking, Fast and Slow.  The author, Daniel Kahneman, explains that your attention can be moved away "from an unwanted focus, primarily by focusing intently on another target".  Which is exactly what I did during my presentation.  It's a useful strategy to keep in mind when something unexpected, offensive, and/or distracting interferes with an important task (giving a presentation, taking an exam).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

How To Handle (Or Not) Distractions During Presentations

In a recent post, I mentioned that I was preparing an upcoming presentation.  I've now given that presentation and have a few observations to share.  The talk was an invited plenary at an international conference... a relatively small gathering of specialists in the field but one that was attended by many colleagues, students, post-doctoral researchers, and early-career scientists.  I was to speak for about fifty minutes, with ten minutes for questions.

In cases where I've been invited to give a presentation and especially if my expenses are being covered by the hosts, I feel obligated to put some effort into developing and delivering my talk.  Consequently, I prepared my presentation carefully and tried to strike a balance between showing some interesting data for those familiar with the specific topic and providing background for those less familiar.  My timing was planned so that I did not go over my allotted time.  I also included some "inspiring" words of encouragement/challenge to students and early-career attendees.  In other words, I took pains to prepare as much as possible to ensure I met the expectations of my hosts and the attendees for a plenary talk.

However, there are things that no amount of planning can foresee or avoid.  Such was the case here, which I will use to discuss possible options when things go wrong.

Before I get to the main problem, I'll mention a minor, but potentially disastrous problem that arose.  My plenary was scheduled for the second day of the meeting at 9 am.  I conscientiously provided my presentation for upload the afternoon before and checked through it to ensure the slides were all there and viewable.  I should mention here that the conference was held in a foreign (to me) location and at a venue somewhat remote from my hotel; getting to and from the meeting location was somewhat problematic and required some effort.  The morning of the talk, I arranged for a taxi to ensure I arrived on time and not drenched in sweat.  So far, so good.  The conference hall was filling up with the attendees (many of whom were coming to me to tell me how much they were looking forward to hearing me speak).

Then, about fifteen minutes before my talk, the IT person who helped me load my presentation the day before comes to me and says, "Do you have another copy of your presentation with you; we switched computers and no longer have the one we used yesterday?"  Fortunately, I had thought to again bring my flash drive, containing a copy of my presentation, with me that day.  If I had not, there never would have been time for me to return to my hotel and then travel back to the meeting venue before the scheduled start of my talk.  We quickly loaded my presentation, and I thought that this was my one glitch successfully overcome.

Not so fast.  Now we come to the real glitch and the conundrum I want to talk about.

As I was sitting there gathering my thoughts and waiting for the session to begin, another attendee comes bustling in with a bunch of gear.  He proceeds to set up a computer and large-screen monitor on the table in the front of the room, partially blocking the audience's view of the projector screen.  He also begins unplugging the computer with my presentation on it and connecting his computer with the onscreen projector.  As I watch, it becomes clear that he is one of the later presenters....someone just giving a short contributed talk...but who has some special thing he's doing that requires his own computer.  He is oblivious to the fact, however, that he's interfering with talks that come before his.

Finally, someone asks him to move his monitor so that it is not blocking the view and to disconnect his computer so that we can proceed with the plenary.  That should have been the end of it, but it wasn't.

The session chair proceeded to introduce me, and I walked to the front of the room.  I should mention here that there have been issues with the clip-on microphone so that everyone was forced to use a hand-held microphone.  This means that to speak, I will have one hand occupied with holding a bulky mic and also must be cognizant of the fact that as I turn my head to look at the screen or the audience, my voice will drop out unless I keep the mic perfectly positioned in front of my mouth.  The other unfortunate development was that I was coming down with a sore throat and cold and was afraid my voice would not last for an hour.  All of these distractions were beginning to weigh on me as the time for my talk approached.  But they were nothing compared to the main distraction.

As I turned to face the audience, I noticed that the fellow I mentioned before was on the floor at my feet fooling around with his computer, which was still connected to the large-screen monitor.  The audience could not see him or his monitor because he and his gear were on the floor in front of a row of tables (the room was arranged with chairs and long tables with tablecloths reaching to the floor).  I was basically the only person who could see him.  He was literally at my feet--within one or two feet of my position.

I began by thanking my hosts and started with my opening statement about what I would be presenting, when this guy begins gyrating around on the floor, scrolling through his slides, which are blaringly obvious (to me) on his large-screen monitor.  He is not sitting still, quietly looking at his computer screen.  Instead, he's agitatedly shifting from sitting to kneeling to lying on the floor.  Graphs, text, and various images are flashing on his monitor screen.  

I faltered, having completely lost my train of thought, at the sight of the images flashing at my feet.  As much as I try to ignore this distraction, I can't.  What should I do?  What did I do?  In the next post, I'll describe what I did and whether I would do anything differently if I had a second chance.