I just did my second pilgrimage to an SVP meeting. While my first attendance in L.A. was basically right next door to me (I live in the county north of L.A.) this one required a little bit more travel prep. Luckily I had saved up enough money from my last job doing data entry at a museum to get my expedia ticket and hotel room done for a reasonable amount and I got the discount rate for the preregistration ticket on the last day of that offer so those savings helped. Of course finances is a constant theme for why people do or do not go to this and other events and the #paleo-economy is a topic I do intend to discuss in the future. Fortunately the next two SVP meetings are in North America (Salt Lake City, Utah & Alberta, Canada) so, especially since I just got a solid job, I aim to make both of those.
First of all Texas. This was actually my first time in Texas and was very impressed by the hospitality and niceness of the people of Dallas. Being a leftist Californian I was a little weary of Texas culture but I have to say I was proven wrong by the all around awesomeness of the people and workers of Dallas. They by and large were much nicer and more real than most Californians. Plus BBQ. I tried to keep my gluttony and bone chomping down to a minimum but I did have several feeding bouts at Sonny's in downtown Dallas. It was an epic bonesaw feast.... when in Rome. I also was very impressed with DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) that got me from the airport to downtown and from my hotel room at The Marriot to Hyatt convention center very quickly. At first I was a little stressed that I did not get a room at the Hyatt but in retrospect it worked out splendidly as it was usually only a 15 minute commute via DART and it forced me to get out and see more of Dallas. I talked to several people who stayed at the Hyatt and got the impression that they dumped a lot of money into over-priced hotel food and alcohol and did not get out on the city too much. Also by staying at the Marriot I was a block away from the free Aurora light/art installation public event that Dallas put on. The whole arts district was transformed into cool light shows, art installation, psychedielic animations screened onto the sides of a large building. The whole presentation was an interesting contrast because you felt like you should be at some drug-addled rave or burning man show but it was very much a family event. Plus a cathedral sized Catholic church was outfitted with ambient lights and misty smoke pots to create a chilling and surreal effect when you walked in... and people were still performing mass in the church. It was like some weird Fellini film. Also SVP collaborated with the Perot museum to provide free shuttles and catering to the museum on the first night. I have to say the museum was well done, very engaging, and had an interesting architecture too. I commented to several attendees about the museums namesake Ross Perot (the oil magnate and one time presidential hopefull) and they did not know who I was talking about. Made me feel kind of dated lol!! Let's just say ol' Perot was an outsider 3rd party candidate before it became cool to do so. So, yeah if you were wondering why the museum went so in depth into the science of hyrdocarbon exploitation...
Onto the meeting itself.
One of the highlights of course for any of these types of meeting is getting to rub-shoulders with the noted luminaries so to speak of the field. This event was certainly packed with them. Now at my last meeting I got to chat with James Kirkland, Thomas Holtz, Phil Currie, James Farlow, Julius Csotony, Darren Naish, Jack Horner and several others for this meeting I got to chat with many of these same people but also for this event with; Robert Bakker - who I will admit I did get a wee bit star struck over which I don't usually do anymore; Larry Witmer (pestered him about vulture, allosaur, and phorusrhauchid feeding mechanism); and even Paul Sereno (you could guess what I talked to him about)... they all were very nice and personable. Others who I got to meet, some of whom even came up to me recognizing my name which was a little humbling included Anthony Martin and Andrew Farke. Also it was great to meet facebook friends such as Brian Engh and Stevie Moore in real, face to face circumstances.
The whole mood was very polite and convivial which I have to admit I kind of like that but also don't like it. I like it because at my heart (despite occasional explosions) I myself am pretty mellow and relaxed and really don't like seeing people getting bullied, threatened or intimidated. What I don't like about it is that this ethic - which basically all attendees had to agree upon by going and which was constantly plastered all over the event - becomes a form of tone policing. Tone policing, in my view, is bad for science because it creates a situation where how you say something - potentially with anger, aggression, rage, spite, venom, or just too much passion - becomes more important than what you say. Potentially an emotionally delivered argument - even a correct one - can be shot down because it is delivered in the wrong tone. This is my issue with what I see as a creeping group think that science and scientific debate always has to be delivered in such a nice, formal, polite manner. Let me be careful with this because I can see how what I am saying can be misconstrued. I am not suggesting that openly hostile, mean, personal, vitriolic attacks are the way to go. We, myself included, should always aim to be polite and convivial but lettuce b realz not all people are like that and not all cultures are like that. What I fear is that certain peoples, groups, individuals will be shut out from discussion because they do not play by majority rules. A review of some of the top brass in any fields includes some - how should I put it - real assholes. Sometime assholes do some really brilliant, top shelf stuff. I don't know what the answer to this is. Certainly the majority rule in public events - keep it polite please - has a strong argument. But my critique is more of a warning in general. We should always be on guard from overly tone policing people in science. In science what you say should always trump how you say it.
For the talks I don't want to get into real specifics because I am still confused over the whole press embargo and what can or can't be said ( its a load of phooey if you ask me). What I do want to give are some very broad stroke trends or themes I noted and which should garner interest. As opposed to my last SVP where I made a mad dash from lecture hall to lecture hall in an attempt to get some of everything, this time I really just hung out for the archosaur talks ( and some shark, marine reptile stuff too). I do have to say that the sauropod talks might just have slightly edged out the ornithopod talks and that theropods were third in the dino sweepstakes imo. This might have a bit to do with the fact that the last couple of years have seen some truly stunning theropod reveals at SVP (Spino, Deinocheirus) so the bar was a little high. A running theme in several of the talks was that ontogenetic change is a dangerous pitfall in evaluating characters in cladistic analysis. Heterochrony also provides a challenging aspect towards cladistic analysis. the most succinct example I recall is the talk on the dwarf island sauropod Europasaurus by Schmitt A., Knoll F., & Tschopp E. (I don't know who actually gave the talk but probably Schmitt). The interesting thing here is that neural anatomy - the brain - was highly brachiosaurian but the body itself was signaling more basal - closer to something like Camarasaurus. Because it was dwarfed paedomorphic processes gave it more of a basal macronarian gestalt - very cool!! These and other examples of the pitfalls of cladistics also, at least in my mind, suggest that cladistics is every bit as contentious and prone to pitfalls as what I like to concentrate on - lifestyle & ecological reconstruction. I think that there is a general opinion that of the two - cladistics & lifestyle interpretation - that cladistics is the more rigorous, methodological, "hard science" venture but life-style reconstruction is the softer science more prone to baseless speculation, faults of bias, assumptions etc etc. However several of the talks I attended suggested that the dichotomy between the two might not be so sharp. Another theme, especially of the sauropod talks was freaking cute baby/ en ovo stuff (would make a good t-shirt or SVP artwork logo). I was joking with Stevie Moore that I wanted to ask several of the presenters of such topics after their talk who would win in a fight a baby titanosaur or a baby diplodocid as a little poke at carnivora forums/battle royale culture...
Speaking of the question section after the speeches - I think that they should just get rid of the option. Either get rid of the option for questions or give the speeches a five minute intermission for more questions also a chance for people to move between talks. The thing is that more often than not there was no time for questions etc etc. Additionally if you are not among the one or two people that have the luck of getting called on for a question it becomes challenging sometimes to keep track of where the talker goes to if you want to pin him/her down for more detailed discussion. Plus you end up feeling like a stalker... Here is what I suggest. Get rid of the whole question format. Give speakers the full 15 minutes for the talk. Require that speakers - at the end of the speaking session that they are a part of - convene in some predetermined room, or even the same room, to take questions after the symposium (this would allow the speaker & attendee to see the whole syposium). This could be 1/2 to 1 hour where they are mandated to be present to solicit questions from the attendees. This is less time than the poster presenters are required to be adjacent to their poster and I do not think it draconian to hold the speakers to the same standards of making themselves available to questions that the poster presenters have to abide by. Going back to the timing of the talks I also think it useful to have a bit of a buffer time between talks to give people a chance to move from different rooms. I know that it is accepted that people will be moving about but I can only imagine as a talker it be disconcerting seeing people moving in and out during your talk and as an attendee I can't help but feel rude. I hope I don't come off like SVP do a horrible job planning these things - they don't -and it must be a mountain of work to coordinate. At the same time any organization can always look for ways to improve and providing more of a forum for open questions and discussion opportunities can only be a good thing.
I don't have anything that immediately comes to mind to discuss regarding the posters... there was a lot of them, they covered a lot of topics, and the poster presenters were very good and gladly answered questions. Especially impressed by all the poster presenters from Europe, South America, and Asia - did not notice a lot from Africa/Australia. That's a big trip and kudos to you from investing to come to all the way!!
One aspect that I really did enjoy regarding the talks was the way several of the talks really built into and embellished the whole symposium creating a nice little forward momentum. But speaking of momentum I wish there was a mid-afternoon coffee break...
Anyways that was my broad stroke analysis. I hope I don't come off too critical - after all if I didn't like it why would I keep going? - but any venture can find ways to improve.