Monday, May 23, 2011

You want to attend this conference? Become an optimization expert!

Imagine a conference so big, so sprawling, that navigating it requires you to draw multiple decision trees and redraw them on the fly as needed. Why? The conference is spread out across a convention center the size of four city blocks, several neighborhood hotels, as well as some hotels a few miles away. Just walking from one room in the conference center to another takes 5 minutes; a walk to a neighborhood hotel takes 10 minutes, and to a faraway one, as much as half an hour.

And when you get to your destination, you discover that the organizers picked too small a room for the panel, and there's a line to get in the door*. You can only get in if someone leaves, and no one is going to leave because they are as interested in the panel as you. The speakers don't use a microphone, so you can't hear a single word from outside the door.

Imagine all this, and -- that's right! -- you'll get SXSW.

People wait to take an escalator down from the 4th floor of Austin Convention Center

To get an idea of just how many people were at SXSWi, consider that this amorphous line is just the people waiting to take an escalator down from the 4th floor of Austin Convention Center (and some getting off the escalator in the opposite direction). More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Congratulations, you have walked 10 minutes for nothing. It's time to pull out your handy decision tree. Say node A represents your preferred panel. It is linked to nodes B, C, etc., that designate the next most interesting panels to go to in case panel A is full. Each node is assigned a weight according to its desirability. The edges that connect the panel-nodes in turn should be weighted according to walking times required to get from building X to building Y. And if you want to make the problem more realistic, you could make those weights depend on pedicab availability, or your willingness to pay for a pedicab, as well as a probability that the free sponsored shuttle will be waiting outside the hotel at that moment. Then voila! Solve the optimization problem, and you know where to go next!

Is there an app for that? I don't know, I still don't have a smartphone. (That alone should disqualify me from SXSW attendance, I suppose.) I know SXSW has an official app, but I doubt it solves optimization problems. If it doesn't, should I spawn yet another clone to write such an app (joining the league of all my clones in parallel universes that are writing other applications I've dreamed up, while I'm toiling at my job)? Then, and perhaps only then, I would have a real reason to come here again. After all, as everybody says, the real purpose of going to SXSW Interactive is to schmooze with other entrepreneurs and wannabes. Panels be damned.

Cloaking geeky topics in cutesy terms

Maybe panels should be damned. Most panels were for internet marketers, since that's what most SXSWi attendees are, and marketing is not that interesting to me. Software developer panels were dominated by mobile development, a perennial hot topic; unfortunately, I haven't done any mobile development and I don't know if I'll ever get a chance to do it where I could get paid for it. There was a good presentation on the basics of semantic web -- a loose set of methodologies that let us mark up the meaning of the text, instead of just its structure, in an HTML-like way. This allows computers extract meaning from texts they "read". The panel would have been even better if it hadn't tried to hard to achieve mainstream appeal by drawing parallels between semantic web and dating. But even renaming Linked Data Principles "The Bro Code", and urging people to "get your data a date" (i.e. link it to other data on the web) did not attract more than 10 people into the room. What the presenters did right, though, was to illustrate the notion of a semantic triple as something we routinely create in our daily lives when we fill out forms. This, and not sketchy dating analogies, would make the concept of semantic web more interesting to people.

A patient information form illustrates a semantic triple A patient information form illustrates a semantic triple. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.
A triple: the person filling out the form is the subject, field labels are predicates, what you put in the blanks are objects An subject-predicate-object triple: the person filling out the form is the subject, field labels are predicates, what you put in the blanks are objects. Thus by filling out a patient information form you are creating triples such as {Joe Schmoe, Home Address, 1000 Main Street} or {Joe Schmoe, Date of Birth, 1/1/1900}.

General interest panels on emerging technology, such as gesture interfaces, or "internet of things" weren't all that worthwhile to me because I read a lot on those topics, and the presentations didn't add anything to my knowledge. The curse of being ed-yoo-ma-cated.

So after a while I lost motivation to pick the best panels and brave the crowds to get to them. Instead I spent big chunks of time just milling around the convention center, parties, and satellite events, not going anywhere, and cursing myself for wasting the time I'm paying for with my own precious future time, that is to say, those volunteer hours I'm obligated to put in. Speaking of which...

Volunteering shows its dark side

After I had an easy time volunteering at SXSW in 2011, I expected something similar this year. Yet volunteering showed its sharp claws this time. As before, I spent most of my time at Film Venue. Most Film Venue volunteers perform a vague function of "line management", which is to say, they stand around and see that the audience lines up in an orderly fashion: one line for SXSW film badge holders, another for film pass holders, and yet another for those with individual tickets. Most movies don't get a lot of audience, so there isn't much standing around to be done. However, on my first day the theater manager told us to take our positions an hour and a half before the movie started. We were supposed to stand at attention the whole time. Needless to say, standing on your feet while 6 months pregnant isn't a picnic. It's also excruciatingly boring. I would rather have spent that time moving furniture (well, lightweight furniture) than standing still. So I went to the theater manager and told her I couldn't do this while pregnant. She said she didn't realize my condition (what, did she think I carried a basketball under my shirt?), and told me to go home for the day. The next day the management agreed to transfer me to another theater where I got a desk job. For the rest of my volunteering week, I sat at a desk and answered customers' questions. That was much better.

All in all, I should try coming here one day as a wannabe turn-your-side-project-into-a-startup entrepreneur. I heard those people get the most out of SXSWi. Until then... I don't know.


* That was the case with "Agile Self-Development" panel. Having been introduced to agile software development concepts at my recent job, I was curious how this would apply to self-development. Should I hold daily scrum meetings among multiple facets of my personality?

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