Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

Planning the Wolfram Technology Conference

I think last year’s Wolfram Technology Conference went pretty well. Lots of interesting talks, and I even got to wear fangs and a tie in preparation for Halloween.

I did have a couple of misgivings. The days started early and went late, and in some instances I thought certain simultaneous talks in parallel tracks should have been separated. A colleague of mine felt similarly. We both voiced our concerns to the SPTB (Scheduling Powers That Be).

Bad idea—now we’re dragged in for scheduling this year’s Technology Conference. (Some Midwesterners might say “drug in.” But I’m from somewhere else.)

As the conference takes place October 11-13, this means there has to be some serious scheduling work afoot right now.

Some of us leave things right up until we can’t. Others think ahead. Beginning of December, my colleague’s wife catches pregnant (how suspiciously coincidental). Come this September, well, let’s just say there are Labor Days and there are Labor Days. Exit colleague: stage left.

Those of us remaining on the scheduling crew have reviewed dozens of user-submitted abstracts, most of which are quite fascinating and promise to make for excellent talks. We’ve also solicited talks from in-house staff—covering the gamut of graphics, user interface programming, all aspects of symbolic and numeric computation, interfaces to other programs, debugging and more than I can keep in my head at one time.

The goals were to ease up slightly on the longevity of some days, try to keep to only three tracks when possible, fit in everyone with solid talk proposals and keep from scheduling talks at the same time that would clearly have common appeal. On top of that we needed to be cognizant of certain workshops, and put relevant talks before them rather than after.

Early on it became clear that we’d need to keep down the length of talks in order to make the schedule less than brutal. While this is sometimes unfortunate, most often it causes the focus to be on the most essential points, thus riveting the audience for the full duration.

The rules of thumb were fairly simple:

(i) All external speakers get half-hour sessions
(ii) All in-house speakers get half-hour, unless…
    (a) their topic involves brand new functionality that requires more time to explain (e.g., Mathematica 6 graphics), or
    (b) involves very important core functionality that cannot be overstressed (e.g., numerical computation), or
    (c) the speaker simply outranks me in the Wolfram food chain

In one case where someone wanted too many slots, I threatened to have two at the same time (though I was nice, and offered adjoining rooms).

With all this in mind we solicited and received talks from Wolfram personnel. We got plenty. A bounty of riches. A bevvy of heavies. A shower of stars, with a stellar sense of eloquence. A … where was I? Oh, yes. Talks. Good ones. We have them in abundance.

The next part is where I really earned my keep. We sat down to place them in time slots. Actually, we did no such thing; we couldn’t, because the big daily schedule boards were propped on the chairs.

So we stood around deciding where to place each of the talks. This took a couple of hour-long sessions.

My main role? Vetoing suggested placements that put talks with too much common appeal opposite one another. I’m vociferous (read: “pugnacious”), so I can handle this gig.

In a few weeks we’ll learn whether this notion of allowing a code programmer to do conference programming was A Bad Idea. Regardless, I am quite confident that the quality of talks will cover up any weaknesses that were due to my humble participation in scheduling the conference.

For those of you planning to attend, enjoy the talks and events–and don’t anticipate having much free time while they take place.