Category Archives: conferences

unconference in Leipzig! no bathroom breaks!

Südfriedhof von Leipzig [HDR]

Many (most?) regular readers of this blog have probably been to at least one academic conference. Some of you even have the misfortune of attending conferences regularly. And a still-smaller fraction of you scholarly deviants might conceivably even enjoy the freakish experience. You know, that whole thing where you get to roam around the streets of some fancy city for a few days seeing old friends, learning about exciting new scientific findings, and completely ignoring the manuscripts and reviews piling up on your desk in your absence. It’s a loathsome, soul-scorching experience. Unfortunately it’s part of the job description for most scientists, so we shoulder the burden without complaining too loudly to the government agencies that force us to go to these things.

This post, thankfully, isn’t about a conference. In fact, it’s about the opposite of a conference, which is… an UNCONFERENCE. An unconference is a social event type of thing that strips away all of the unpleasant features of a regular conference–you know, the fancy dinners, free drinks, and stimulating conversation–and replaces them with a much more authentic academic experience. An authentic experience in which you spend the bulk of your time situated in a 10′ x 10′ room (3 m x 3 m for non-Imperialists) with 10 – 12 other academics, and no one’s allowed to leave the room, eat anything, or take bathroom breaks until someone in the room comes up with a brilliant discovery and wins a Nobel prize. This lasts for 3 days (plus however long it takes for the Nobel to be awarded), and you pay $1200 for the privilege ($1160 if you’re a post-doc or graduate student). Believe me when I tell you that it’s a life-changing experience.

Okay, I exaggerate a bit. Most of those things aren’t true. Here’s one explanation of what an unconference actually is:

An unconference is a participant-driven meeting. The term “unconference” has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as high fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization. For example, in 2006, CNNMoney applied the term to diverse events including Foo Camp, BarCamp, Bloggercon, and Mashup Camp.

So basically, my description was accurate up until the part where I said there were no bathroom breaks.

Anyway, I’m going somewhere with this, I promise. Specifically, I’m going to Leipzig, Germany! In September! And you should come too!

The happy occasion is Brainhack 2012, an unconference organized by the creative minds over at the Neuro Bureau–coordinators of such fine projects as the Brain Art Competition at OHBM (2012 incarnation going on in Beijing right now!) and the admittedly less memorable CNS 2007 Surplus Brain Yard Sale (guess what–turns out selling human brains out of the back of an unmarked van violates all kinds of New York City ordinances!).

Okay, as you can probably tell, I don’t quite have this event promotion thing down yet. So in the interest of ensuring that more than 3 people actually attend this thing, I’ll just shut up now and paste the official description from the Brainhack website:

The Neuro Bureau is proud to announce the 2012 Brainhack, to be held from September 1-4 at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany.

Brainhack 2012 is a unique workshop with the goals of fostering interdisciplinary collaboration and open neuroscience. The structure builds from the concepts of an unconference and a hackathon: The term “unconference” refers to the fact that most of the content will be dynamically created by the participants — a hackathon is an event where participants collaborate intensively on science-related projects.

Participants from all disciplines related to neuroimaging are welcome. Ideal participants span in range from graduate students to professors across any disciplines willing to contribute (e.g., mathematics, computer science, engineering, neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, medicine, art, etc…). The primary requirement is a desire to work in close collaborations with researchers outside of your specialization in order to address neuroscience questions that are beyond the expertise of a single discipline.

In all seriousness though, I think this will be a blast, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m contributing the full Neurosynth dataset as one of the resources participants will have access to (more on that in a later post), and I’m excited to see what we collectively come up with. I bet it’ll be at least three times as awesome as the Surplus Brain Yard Sale–though maybe not quite as lucrative.

 

 

p.s. I’ll probably also be in Amsterdam, Paris, and Geneva in late August/early September; if you live in one of these fine places and want to show me around, drop me an email. I’ll buy you lunch! Well, except in Geneva. If you live in Geneva, I won’t buy you lunch, because I can’t afford lunch in Geneva. You’ll buy yourself a nice Swiss lunch made of clockwork and gold, and then maybe I’ll buy you a toothpick.

in which I apologize for my laziness, but not really

I got back from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting last week. I was planning to write a post-CNS wrap-up thing like I did last year and the year before that, but I seem to have misplaced the energy that’s supposed to fuel such an exercise. So instead I’ll just say I had a great time and leave it at that. What happens in Chicago stays in Chicago, etc. etc.

Also, I really appreciate all the people who came up to me at CNS and said nice things about this blog–it’s nice to know that someone actually reads this (puzzling, mind you, because I’m not sure why anyone reads this, but nice nonetheless). A couple of people encouraged me to blog more often, so I’m making an effort to do that, though the most likely outcome will be miserable failure. Either that or I’ll just start pasting random YouTube videos in this space. Like this one:

p.s. on re-reading that, it kind of make it sound like I was swarmed by adoring fans at CNS. To clarify: “all the people” means, like, four people, and the “nice things” were really more like lukewarm “oh yeah, your blog’s not totally awful” sentiments.

p.p.s. I’ve noticed that a lot of my shorter posts take the form of “I was going to write about X, but I’m not actually going to write about X.” I think this is because I’m very lazy but still want partial credit for having good intentions. Which is kind of ridiculous.

CNS 2011: a first-person shorthand account in the manner of Rocky Steps

Friday, April 1

4 pm. Arrive at SFO International on bumpy flight from Denver.

4:45 pm. Approach well-dressed man downtown and open mouth to ask for directions to Hyatt Regency San Francisco. “Sorry,” says well-dressed man, “No change to give.” Back off slowly, swinging bags, beard, and poster tube wildly, mumbling “I’m not a panhandler, I’m a neuroscientist.” Realize that difference between the two may be smaller than initially suspected.

6:30 pm. Hear loud knocking on hotel room door. Open door to find roommate. Say hello to roommate. Realize roommate is extremely drunk from East Coast flight. Offer roommate bag of coffee and orange tic-tacs. Roommate is confused, asks, “are you drunk?” Ignore roommate’s question. “You’re drunk, aren’t you.” Deny roommate’s unsubstantiated accusations. “When you write about this on your blog, you better not try to make it look like I’m the drunk one,” roommate says. Resolve to ignore roommate’s crazy talk for next 4 days.

6:45 pm. Attempt to open window of 10th floor hotel room in order to procure fresh air for face. Window refuses to open. Commence nudging of, screaming at, and bargaining with window. Window still refuses to open. Roommate points out sticker saying window does not open. Ignore sticker, continue berating window. Window still refuses to open, but now has low self-esteem.

8 pm. Have romantic candlelight dinner at expensive french restaurant with roommate. Make jokes all evening about ideal location (San Francisco) for start of new intimate relationship. Suspect roommate is uncomfortable, but persist in faux wooing. Roommate finally turns tables by offering to put out. Experience heightened level of discomfort, but still finish all of steak tartare and order creme brulee. Dessert appetite is immune to off-color humor!

11 pm – 1 am. Grand tour of seedy SF bars with roommate and old grad school friend. New nightlife low: denied entrance to seedy dance club because shoes insufficiently classy. Stupid Teva sandals.

Saturday, April 2

9:30 am. Wake up late. Contemplate running downstairs to check out ongoing special symposium for famous person who does important research. Decide against. Contemplate visiting hotel gym to work off creme brulee from last night. Decide against. Contemplate reading conference program in bed and circling interesting posters to attend. Decide against. Contemplate going back to sleep. Consult with self, make unanimous decision in favor.

1 pm. Have extended lunch meeting with collaborators at Ferry Building to discuss incipient top-secret research project involving diesel generator, overstock beanie babies, and apple core. Already giving away too much!

3:30 pm. Return to hotel. Discover hotel is now swarming with name badges attached to vaguely familiar faces. Hug vaguely familiar faces. Hugs are met with startled cries. Realize that vaguely familiar faces are actually completely unfamiliar faces. Wrong conference: Young Republicans, not Cognitive Neuroscientists. Make beeline for elevator bank, pursued by angry middle-aged men dressed in American flags.

5 pm. Poster session A! The sights! The sounds! The lone free drink at the reception! The wonders of yellow 8-point text on black 6′ x 4′ background! Too hard to pick a favorite thing, not even going to try. Okay, fine: free schwag at the exhibitor stands.

5 pm – 7 pm. Chat with old friends. Have good time catching up. Only non-fictionalized bullet point of entire piece.

8 pm. Dinner at belly dancing restaurant in lower Haight. Great conversation, good food, mediocre dancing. Towards end of night, insist on demonstrating own prowess in fine art of torso shaking; climb on table and gyrate body wildly, alternately singing Oompa-Loompa song and yelling “get in my belly!” at other restaurant patrons. Nobody tips.

12:30 am. Take the last train to Clarksville. Take last N train back to Hyatt Regency hotel.

Sunday, April 3

7 am. Wake up with amazing lack of hangover. Celebrate amazing lack of hangover by running repeated victory laps around 10th floor of Hyatt Regency, Rocky Steps style. Quickly realize initial estimate of hangover absence off by order of magnitude. Revise estimate; collapse in puddle on hotel room floor. Refuse to move until first morning session.

8:15 am. Wander the eight Caltech aisles of morning poster session in search of breakfast. Fascinating stuff, but this early in morning, only value signals of interest are smell and sight of coffee, muffins, and bagels.

10 am. Terrific symposium includes excellent talks about emotion, brain-body communication, and motivation, but favorite moment is still when friend arrives carrying bucket of aspirin.

1 pm. Bump into old grad school friend outside; decide to grab lunch on pier behind Ferry Building. Discuss anterograde amnesia and dating habits of mutual friends. Chicken and tofu cake is delicious. Sun is out, temperature is mild; perfect day to not attend poster sessions.

1:15 – 2 pm. Attend poster session.

2 pm – 5 pm. Presenting poster in 3 hours! Have full-blown panic attack in hotel room. Not about poster, about General Hospital. Why won’t Lulu take Dante’s advice and call support group number for alcoholics’ families?!?! Alcohol is Luke’s problem, Lulu! Call that number!

5 pm. Present world’s most amazing poster to three people. Launch into well-rehearsed speech about importance of work and great glory of sophisticated technical methodology before realizing two out of three people are mistakenly there for coffee and cake, and third person mistook presenter for someone famous. Pause to allow audience to mumble excuses and run to coffee bar. When coast is clear, resume glaring at anyone who dares to traverse poster aisle. Believe strongly in marking one’s territory.

8 pm. Lab dinner at House of Nanking. Food is excellent, despite unreasonably low tablespace-to-floorspace ratio. Conversation revolves around fainting goats, ‘relaxation’ in Thailand, and, occasionally, science.

10 pm. Karaoke at The Mint. Compare performance of CNS attendees with control group of regulars; establish presence of robust negative correlation between years of education and singing ability. Completely wreck voice performing whitest rendition ever of Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina”. Crowd jeers. No, wait, crowd gyrates. In wholesome scientific manner. Crowd is composed entirely of people with low self-monitoring skills; what luck! DJ grimaces through entire song and most of previous and subsequent songs.

2 am. Take cab back to hotel with graduate students and Memory Professor. Memory Professor is drunk; manages to nearly fall out of cab while cab in motion. In-cab conversation revolves around merits of dynamic programming languages. No consensus reached, but civility maintained. Arrival at hotel: all cab inhabitants below professorial rank immediately slip out of cab and head for elevators, leaving Memory Professor to settle bill. In elevator, Graduate Student A suggests that attempt to push Memory Professor out of moving cab was bad idea in view of Graduate Student A’s impending post-doc with Memory Professor. Acknowledge probable wisdom of Graduate Student A’s observation while simultaneously resolving to not adjust own degenerate behavior in the slightest.

2:15 am. Drink at least 24 ounces of water before attaining horizontal position. Fall asleep humming bars of Elliott Smith’s Angeles. Wrong city, but close enough.

Monday, April 4

8 am. Wake up hangover free again! For real this time. No Rocky Steps dance. Shower and brush teeth. Delicately stroke roommate’s cheek (he’ll never know) before heading downstairs for poster session.

8:30 am. Bagels, muffin, coffee. Not necessarily in that order.

9 am – 12 pm. Skip sessions, spend morning in hotel room working. While trying to write next section of grant proposal, experience strange sensation of time looping back on itself, like a snake eating its own tail, but also eating grant proposal at same time. Awake from unexpected nap with ‘Innovation’ section in mouth.

12:30 pm. Skip lunch; for some reason, not very hungry.

1 pm. Visit poster with screaming purple title saying “COME HERE FOR FREE CHOCOLATE.” Am impressed with poster title and poster, but disappointed by free chocolate selection: Dove eggs and purple Hershey’s kisses–worst chocolate in the world! Resolve to show annoyance by disrupting presenter’s attempts to maintain conversation with audience. Quickly knocked out by chocolate eggs thrown by presenter.

5 pm. Wake up in hotel room with headache and no recollection of day’s events. Virus or hangover? Unclear. For some reason, hair smells like chocolate.

7:30 pm. Dinner at Ferry Building with Brain Camp friends. Have now visited Ferry Building at least one hundred times in seventy-two hours. Am now compulsively visiting Ferry Building every fifteen minutes just to feel normal.

9:30 pm. Party at Americano Restaurant & Bar for Young Investigator Award winner. Award comes with $500 and strict instructions to be spent on drinks for total strangers. Strange tradition, but noone complains.

11 pm. Bar is crowded with neuroscientists having great time at Young Investigator’s expense.

11:15 pm. Drink budget runs out.

11:17 pm. Neuroscientists mysteriously vanish.

1 am. Stroll through San Francisco streets in search of drink. Three false alarms, but finally arrive at open pub 10 minutes before last call. Have extended debate with friend over whether hotel room can be called ‘home’. Am decidedly in No camp; ‘home’ is for long-standing attachments, not 4-day hotel hobo runs.

2 am. Walk home.

Tuesday, April 5

9:05 am. Show up 5 minutes late for bagels and muffins. All gone! Experience Apocalypse Now moment on inside, but manage not to show it–except for lone tear. Drown sorrows in Tazo Wild Sweet Orange tea. Tea completely fails to live up to name; experience second, smaller, Apocalypse Now moment. Roommate walks over and asks if everything okay, then gently strokes cheek and brushes away lone tear (he knew!!!).

9:10 – 1 pm. Intermittently visit poster and symposium halls. Not sure why. Must be force of habit learning system.

1:30 pm. Lunch with friends at Thai restaurant near Golden Gate Park. Fill belly up with coconut, noodles, and crab. About to get on table to express gratitude with belly dance, but notice that friends have suddenly disappeared.

2 – 5 pm. Roam around Golden Gate Park and Haight-Ashbury. Stop at Whole Foods for friend to use bathroom. Get chased out of Whole Foods for using bathroom without permission. Very exciting; first time feeling alive on entire trip! Continue down Haight. Discuss socks, ice cream addiction (no such thing), and funding situation in Europe. Turns out it sucks there too.

5:15 pm. Take BART to airport with lab members. Watch San Francisco recede behind train. Sink into slightly melancholic state, but recognize change of scenery is for the best: constitution couldn’t handle more Rocky Steps mornings.

7:55 pm. Suddenly rediscover pronouns as airplane peels away from gate.

8 pm PST – 11:20 MST. The flight’s almost completely empty; I get to stretch out across the entire emergency exit aisle. The sun goes down as we cross the Sierra Nevada; the last of the ice in my cup melts into water somewhere between Provo and Grand Junction. As we start our descent into Denver, the lights come out in force, and I find myself preemptively bored at the thought of the long shuttle ride home. For a moment, I wish I was back in my room at the Hyatt at 8 am–about to run Rocky Steps around the hotel, or head down to the poster hall to find someone to chat with over a bagel and coffee. For some reason, I still feel like I didn’t get quite enough time to hang out with all the people I wanted to see, despite barely sleeping in 4 days. But then sanity returns, and the thought quickly passes.

links and slides from the CNS symposium

After the CNS symposium on building a cumulative cognitive neuroscience, several people I talked to said it was a pity there wasn’t an online repository where all the sites that the speakers discussed could be accessed. I should have thought of that ahead of time, because even if we made one now, no one would ever find it. So, belatedly, the best I can do is put together a list here, where I’m pretty sure no one’s ever going to read it.

Anyway, this is mostly from memory, so I may be forgetting some of the things people talked about, but here’s what I can remember:

Let me know if there’s anything I’m leaving out.

On a related note, several people at the conference asked me for my slides, but I promptly forgot who they were, so here they are.

UPDATED: Russ Poldrack’s slides are now also on the web here.

CNS wrap-up

I’m back from CNS in Montreal (actually, I’m not quite back; I’m in Ottawa for a few days–but close enough). Some thoughts about the experience, in no particular order, and with very little sense:

  • A huge number of registered attendees (basically, everyone from Europe who didn’t leave for Montreal early) couldn’t make it to the meeting because of that evil, evil Icelandic volcano. As a result, large swaths of posterboard were left blank–or would have been left blank, if not for the clever “Holy Smokes! So-and-so can’t be here…” notes taped to them. So that was really too bad; aside from the fact that the Europeans missed out on the meeting, which kind of sucks, there was a fair amount of chaos during the slide and symposium sessions as speakers were randomly shuffled around. I guess it’s a testament to the organizers that the conference went off relatively smoothly despite the loss of a large chunk of the attendance.
  • The symposium I chaired went well, as far as I can tell. Which is to say, no one streaked naked through the hall, no one went grossly over time, the audience hall was full, and the three talks I got to watch from the audience were all great. I think my talk went well too, but it’s harder to say. In theory, you should be able to tell how these things go based on the ratio of positive to negative feedback you get. But since people generally won’t tell you if they thought your talk sucked, you’re usually stuck trying to determine whether people are giving you well-I-didn’t-really-like-it-but-I-don’t-want-you-to-feel-bad compliments, or I-really-liked-it-and-I’m-not-even-lying-to-your-face compliments. In any case, good or bad reception, I think the topic is a really important one, and I’m glad the symposium was well attended.
  • I love Montreal. As far as I’m concerned they could have CNS in Montreal every year and I wouldn’t complain. Well, maybe I’d complain a little. But only about unimportant things like the interior decoration of the hotel lobby.
  • Speaking of which, I liked the Hilton Bonaventure and all, but the place did remind me a lot of a 70s porn set. All it’s missing are some giant ferns in the lobby and a table lined with cocaine next to the elevators. (You can probably tell that my knowledge of 70s porn is based entirely on watching two-thirds of Boogie Nights once). Also, what the hell is on floors 2 through 12 of Place Bonaventure? And how can a hotel have nearly 400 rooms, all on the same (13th) floor!?
  • That Vietnamese place we had lunch at on Tuesday, which apparently just opened up, isn’t going to last long. When someone asks you for “brown rice”, they don’t mean “white rice with some red food dye stirred in”.
  • Apparently, Mike X. Cohen is not only the most productive man in cognitive neuroscience, but also a master of the neuroimaging haiku (admittedly, a niche specialty).
  • Sushi and baklava at a conference reception? Yes please!
  • The MDRS party on Monday night was a lot of fun, though the downstairs room at the bar was double-booked. I’m sure the 20-odd people at salsa dancing night were a bit surprised, and probably not entirely appreciative, when 100 or so drunken neuroscientists collectively stumbled downstairs for a free drink, hung out for fifteen minutes, then disappeared upstairs again. Other than that–and the $8 beers–a good time was had.
  • Turns out that assortment of vegetables that Afghans call an Afghan salad is exactly what Turks call a Turkish salad and Israelis call an Israeli salad. I guess I’m not surprised that everyone in that part of the world uses the same four or five ingredients in their salad, but let’s not all rush to take credit for what is basically some cucumber, tomato, and parsley in a bowl. That aside, dinner was awesome. And I wish there were more cities full of restaurants that let you bring your own wine.

  • The talks and posters were great this year. ALL OF THEM. If I had to pick favorites, I guess I really liked the symposium on perceptual decision-making, and several of the posters in the reward/motivation session on Sunday or Monday afternoon. But really, ALL OF THEM WERE GREAT. So let’s all give ourselves giant gold medals with pictures of brains on them. And then… let’s melt down those medals, sell the gold, and buy some scanners with the money.

green chile muffins and brains in a truck: weekend in albuquerque

I spent the better part of last week in Albuquerque for the Mind Research Network fMRI course. It’s a really well-organized 3-day course, and while it’s geared toward people without much background in fMRI, I found a lot of the lectures really helpful. It’s hard impossible to get everything right when you run an fMRI study; the magnet is very fickle and doesn’t like to do what you ask it to–and that assumes you’re asking it to do the right thing, which is also not so common. So I find I learn something interesting from almost every fMRI talk I attend, even when it’s stuff I thought I already knew.

Of course, since I know very little, there’s also almost always stuff that’s completely new to me. In this case, it was a series of lectures on independent components analysis (ICA) of fMRI data, focusing on Vince Calhoun‘s group’s implementation of ICA in the GIFT toolbox. It’s a beautifully implemented set of tools that offer a really powerful alternative to standard univariate analysis, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be using it regularly from now on. So the ICA lectures alone were worth the price of admission. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my post-doc mentor, Tor Wager, is one of the organizers of the MRN course, and I wasn’t paying the $700 tab out of pocket. But I’m not getting any kickbacks to say nice things about the course, I promise.)

Between the lectures and the green chile corn muffins, I didn’t get to see much of Albuquerque (except from the air, where the urban sprawl makes the city seem much larger than its actual population of 800k people would suggest), so I’ll reserve judgment for another time. But the MRN itself is a pretty spectacular facility. Aside from a 3T Siemens Trio magnet, they also have a 1.5T mobile scanner built into a truck. It’s mostly used to scan inmates in the New Mexico prison system (you’ll probably be surprised to learn that they don’t let hardened criminals out of jail to participate in scientific experiments–so the scanner has to go to jail instead). We got a brief tour of the mobile scanner and it was pretty awesome. Which is to say, it beats the pants off my Honda.

There are also some parts of the course I don’t remember so well. Here’s a (blurry) summary of those parts, courtesy of Alex Shackman:

Scott, Tor, and me in Albuquerque

BlurryScott, BlurryTor, and BlurryTal: The Boulder branch of the lab, Albuquerque 2010 edition

building a cumulative science of human brain function at CNS

Earlier today, I received an email saying that a symposium I submitted for the next CNS meeting was accepted for inclusion in the program. I’m pretty excited about this; I think the topic of the symposium is a really important one, and this will be a great venue to discuss some of the relevant issues. The symposium is titled “Toward a cumulative science of human brain function”, which is a pretty good description of its contents. Actually, I stole borrowed that title from one of the other speakers (Tor Wager); originally, the symposium was going to be called something like “Cognitive Neuroscience would Suck Less if we all Pooled our Findings Together Instead of Each Doing our own Thing.” In hindsight, I think title theft was the right course of action.  Anyway, with the exception of my own talk, which is assured of being perfectly mediocre, the line-up is really stellar; the other speakers are David Van Essen, Tor Wager (my current post-doc advisor), and Russ Poldrack, all of whom do absolutely fantastic research, and give great talks to boot. Here’s the symposium abstract:

This symposium is designed to promote development of a cumulative science of human brain function that advances knowledge through formal synthesis of the rapidly growing functional neuroimaging literature. The first speaker (Tal Yarkoni) will motivate the need for a cumulative approach by highlighting several limitations of individual studies that can only be overcome by synthesizing the results of multiple studies. The second speaker (David Van Essen) will discuss the basic tools required in order to support formal synthesis of multiple studies, focusing particular attention on SumsDB, a massive database of functional neuroimaging data that can support sophisticated search and visualization queries. The third and fourth speakers will discuss two different approaches to combining and filtering results from multiple studies. Tor Wager will review state-of-the-art approaches to meta-analysis of fMRI data, providing empirical examples of the power of meta-analysis to both validate and disconfirm widely held views of brain organization. Russell Poldrack will discuss a novel taxonomic approach that uses collaboratively annotated meta-data to develop formal ontologies of brain function. Collectively, these four complementary talks will familiarize the audience with (a) the importance of adopting cumulative approaches to functional neuroimaging data; (b) currently available tools for accessing and retrieving information from multiple studies; and (c) state-of-the-art techniques for synthesizing the results of different functional neuroimaging studies into an integrated whole.

Anyway, I think it’ll be a really interesting set of talks, so if you’re at CNS next year, and find yourself hanging around at the convention center for half a day (though why you’d want to do that is beyond me, given that the conference is in MONTREAL), please check it out!