29 July 2020

Animal Behavior Society virtual meeting, Day 1

A mix of old and new. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) was the first scientific society I joined and the first scientific conference I attended. So I feel it’s appropriate that ABS is the first online conference I will be attending. And I’ve decided to do daily blog posts rather than tweet things, because I think it will be easier to create a coherent post from my desktop than it would be in a conference hall.

The first thing I want to talk about is also a mix of old and new. The virtual conference home page is new, because this is the first time they have done it, but the graphics?

Animal Behaviour Society virtual meeting landing page, with big "lobby" cartoon taking up most space

A very literal cartoon of a convention center. Not terribly high resolution. It kind of takes me back to 1990s Microsoft efforts like Microsoft Bob:

Microsoft Bob screenshot

It was a time when computers were becoming more common in homes, graphics were getting more sophisticated, and nobody was quite sure how people were going to interact with computers, so they interpreted everything as literally as possible.. Your calendar is shown as a calendar on a wall. Your desktop is a space on a cartoon desk.

I kind of thought we had moved past that. Most user interfaces are either more abstract and less literal (your decktop in Windows no longer has to be shown on top of a desk), or the interface is more graphically sophisticated (think of a 3-D video game environment; maybe Legend of Zelda).

Now, I suppose that for a first online conference, maybe that step back to a more literal convention center cartoon interface will help people. I don’t think it will be the sort of format you see for future conferences, though. We’ll see.

What else does the interface do? Well, there is a bookmarking function for talks you want to see. That’s good. But when you go get a list of your bookmarks, it doesn’t show when the events are. You have to click each entry individually, which defeats the purpose of bookmarking.

The times are all given in Eastern. There is a dropdown menu to change the time zone, but it doesn’t apply to all times. It will change a session time, but not the listed “Office hours,” which is confusing.

The format is that there are pre-recorded talks, live Q&A sessions, and “office hours.” You have to be really on the ball to watch the talks you’re interested in before the Q&A session starts! Hopefully, this is mainly a problem for the start of the meeting, and people can “get ahead” of the presentations before Q&A as the week goes on.

The live Q&A sessions are a little tricky, because all speakers for a session are there at once, each gets a tiny sliver of time, and questions are being taken using the chat function. So when a new speaker is on to take questions, there’s “dead air” when people start typing questions.

However, there is an asyncronous “ask a question” feature – a little like a bulletin board – which works very well. You can leave a question for the presenter, who gets an email with a notification, and then you get notified with a reply. So far, I have had 100% responses to my questions this way.

One nice thing I noticed was that recorded talks allow joint presentations. Just have people record their section, and edit together. Awesome. Nice way of showing teamwork and allowing multiple people to shine.

The system automatically logs you out after inactivity, and its not a very long delay before you’re kicked out.

But enough about the interface! What cool science did I see?

I saw some awesome talks updating me on a science story I have been following for some time: the evolution of Hawai’ian cricket populations that have lost the ability to sing. Some of those populations are evolving a new song, which is such a cool story of evolution in action.

Also saw some interesting talks related mostly to crustacean fighting.

To be honest, I didn’t see as many talks yesterday as I hoped, because yesterday turned out to be a much, much more interesting day that I expected, and I had stuff pulling me away from the computer.

That’s the biggest problem I’m finding: going to a meeting physically forces you to think about just that. An online meeting puts you in competition with the laundry, taking out the garbage, picking up mail, washing dishes, and all the innumerable little things that pull you away from the computer for a few minutes here and there.

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