Today it rained in Santiago, Chile. And it turned cold. There were hawkers selling umbrellas at the entrance and exit of the metro stations that I use on the way to the office. They were shouting paraguas and doing a brisk business selling to drenched commuters. In Vancouver this would hardly qualify as rain, but here after many, long dry days, this is rain to be celebrated and enjoyed with a new paraguas.
This evening, we ventured out into the rain and walked along the wet pavements to a place selling American food. You know the type: buffalo wings, steak, french fries, and good beer. With a smattering of vegetables. We talked mining conferences. And I disagreed with the conventional wisdom. Here is what I think about the ideal conference.
Location: The venue should be a place of great beauty. In the mountains or by the sea; in a green valley or vibrant city; luxury hotels and modern facilities. It should be in a place that is easy to get to: one short flight and no long waits for connections in dull airports; close to the airport; no long rides in armed convoys as some had to do to get to the recent paste conference. I am told that some who went from the Jan Smuts airport to Sun City had to go in secure vehicles with armed guards to comply with company policy. That is not a conference venue to repeat or one that I want to go to. And when you get there, you should not be plagued by the description one delegate gave me: a mix of Disneyland and Las Vegas.
Duration: No more than two days. Old people might like four days so that they may linger and languish in luxury. But who under the age of sixty wants to spend four days trying to keep awake and alert listening to egotistical presentations? I am over 65 and I do not want to. Two fast days is enough for me. Long enough to meet with old friends, have a drink, a good supper, and hear a few select speeches. And then get the hell out and go home to my bike, opera DVDs, and a simple bowl of cereal.
Talks: I want to hear carefully selected keynote talks by the experts and leaders in the field. I care not for the recent PhD and their recitation of their obscure research. I want violent, argumentative, rousing, or controversial opinions. I do not want another dull recitation of yet another buttress of sand built to stabilize a failing tailings embankment. Conferences should be entertainment, not an opportunity for marketing by obscure product makers. I do not want five simultaneous sessions. There is always overlap and I have to make hard decisions about which session to attend and I always end up regretting the missed talks. The conference organizers should, in my opinion, weed out the rubbish, the repetitive, the overlapping, and give us one session at a time of selected, relevant, skilled presentations.
Proceedings: Fat volumes of shiny paper are all very well. But it is the contents that count. I grimace when I read so many conference proceedings. The English is poor, the subjects illogically presented. How dare they charge me thousands of dollar and then dump this crap, these badly-written, unedit papers in my lap? That amounts to fraud. I won’t go to that conference again! The conference organizers should and have a duty, I submit, to vet the papers, peer review them, and then have them professionally edited before they put them in volumes to lug back to the office. Anything else is laziness, commercial exploitation, and as I have said, fraud. Just recently I read the proceedings of a conference and the paper by a famous professor was so bad that I can only believe he did not edit it, but relied on the unskilled students to write it and get it out in time to get a free ride to the conference. That is shameful.
Fact is that conferences are now part of the entertainment industry. They are no longer an opportunity for scholarly exchange and deep deliberation by experts. Thus we deserve good, high quality entertainment at any conference we go to. Those conference organizers who fail to entertain with quality will go the way of K-Mart; down the drain of repetition, poor quality, dirty & dangerous places, dull products, and surly salespeople. Go look at Target if you want to see how a successful conference should look.