Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wanted: A Taped Alarm Clock

I spent the weekend at a libertarian conference (libertopia). A common problem at such events is keeping to the schedule. A speaker goes overtime, the next speaker, having started late ends late, and the schedule gradually fades away. This one did better than most—I think there was only one day when talks ended up starting noticeably later than they should.

I have observed a similar problem at academic workshops, where a speaker is supposed to have a limited amount of time to present his paper, with the remaining time for questions and discussions. It is a particularly serious problem at Chicago style workshops, where the theory is that everyone in the audience has read the paper so the speaker does not have to read it to them; his fifteen or twenty minutes are supposed to be spent talking about his paper. The more often speakers end up breaking the rules and using most of the time to present the paper the less likely those attending are to bother reading it in advance. The fewer read it in advance, the greater the incentive for the speaker to spend the time presenting it instead of discussing it.

I have a techno-social solution. It consists of an alarm clock that can have multiple settings, and will ring at each for a fixed length of time, say five seconds. At the start of the conference day, it is set to ring when each speaker is supposed to be finished. Once it has been set, the mechanism for changing the setting is ceremonially (but temporarily) disabled, perhaps by putting a strip of tape over the relevant button, and the alarm clock is put next to the podium. Now schedule drift can happen only by an explicit decision to change the rules, not by a gradual erosion.

11 Comments:

At 11:50 AM, October 19, 2010, Blogger Wayne Conrad said...

Perhaps Miss Sweetie Poo is available?

 
At 11:58 AM, October 19, 2010, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

This is why the ancient Athenians used the clepsydra to time speeches in their trials. Obviously the problem has been around for a long time. (I've also read about an Athenian courtesan nicknamed "The Clepsydra" because she had one at her bedside. Apparently the economic value of time was not an invention of industrial capitalism!)

 
At 3:31 PM, October 19, 2010, Blogger Eric Goldman said...

David, at our conferences, we aggressively police speaker time limits to prevent overruns. We aren't perfect, but we find communicating our expectations upfront, combined with good time feedback to speakers while they are speaking, works pretty well. Eric.

 
At 4:11 PM, October 19, 2010, Anonymous Ricardo Cruz said...

Sounds like a school bell. ;-)

 
At 10:09 PM, October 19, 2010, Anonymous Chris said...

The computer science conferences I go to stay on time pretty well, too. The person in charge of each session is expected to be ruthless about timing.

Sounds like libertarian conference chairs are too laissez-faire.

 
At 10:18 PM, October 19, 2010, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

Chris: Heh. A while back, I was the moderator on an sf convention panel about the likely American political trends of the coming decade. I was a constitutionalist libertarian; one of the other panelists was an anarchocapitalist; the other two were a bog standard liberal and, if I recall correctly, a conservative with libertarian sympathies. I started out by announcing that the panel was about what we expected would happen, and why, and that any attempt to discuss what people wanted to have happen, or to debate partisan loyalties, would be ruthlessly suppressed. I only had to do it once, when the liberal got tempted into arguing with a contentious audience member; fortunately they accepted my calling them to order. And at the end the anarchocapitalist thanked me. . . .

 
At 9:57 AM, October 20, 2010, Blogger neil craig said...

Putting a stopwatch, or modern version, face up on the podium would also help remind speakers, whenever they look at their notes, that they are in danger of running over,

 
At 2:02 PM, October 20, 2010, Blogger Jonathan said...

Hm, I start imagining the use of the chess clock for accelerated debates...

 
At 5:09 PM, October 20, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

^May degenerate into soundbites like seen on TV, glossing over nuance and subtleties?

 
At 1:38 PM, October 21, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huge clock for the all, including the speaker, to see.

 
At 7:42 PM, October 24, 2010, Blogger Kevin marks said...

There are examples of highly successful time-limited conference models:
Ignite allows 20 slides that auto-advance at 15 second intervals, for a 5-minute talk time.
Pecha Kucha is 20 slides at 20 seconds each.
There is also 'speed geeking', where you have n tables with demonstrations (or posters if you're an academic), divide the audience into n groups, and have 5 minutes at each for a total elapsed time of 5n minutes

 

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