Banff: Science noms

May 14, 2011 • 5:19 am

The food at scientific meetings is usually dreadful, and I often escape to some good nearby restaurant.  That’s not necessary at these meetings, for the comestibles are good and laid on in quantity.  There’s everything a vegetarian or meatitarian could want, all served buffet style.  For lunch yesterday I had roast leg of lamb with real mashed potatoes and vegetables. I could have had fish or pasta, or all of the above.

There is an ample salad bar—three of them, actually, each with a different array of greens and toppings:

And everyone’s favorite: the dessert bar.  Pecan pie, chocolate cake, cheesecake, ice cream, lemon bars, custard— all you can eat. (Note: the Brits say “all you care to eat” when touting buffets. That’s a telling cultural difference that bespeaks American gluttony and British reserve.)

With such largesse it’s hard to be abstemious, or keep to a diet.

I’ll have a window seat, please, so I can watch the Rockies as I dine:

I ‘ll have more to say on the science stuff later; today’s the big all-day speciation symposium (I speak last, at 4 p.m.).

One thing that distinguishes science from humanities talks is that we’re all expected to speak without notes.  That gives the talks a livelier and more extemporaneous air than talks in the humanities and social sciences, which are often read from a manuscript.  For the life of me I don’t understand why academics do that.  Reading from a piece of paper is boring, there is no engagement with the audience, and all too often written prose doesn’t translate well to the spoken word.  Let us have no more reading of papers in academia!

57 thoughts on “Banff: Science noms

  1. Wow, pecan pie way up north. Good for them.

    And indeed, I was astonished when I once went to a talk at the History dept and it was read, only to learn that that was the norm. BoRRRinggg!

  2. I have never been to a humanities talk, but I presume that if they are reading from a manuscript they do not use colourful presentations (which conveniently have bullet points to remind scientists what to say…)

  3. It all depends on how you read. There are ways of reading that can be as captivating as extemperaneous talks. And some extemperaneous talks can be poorly delivered and rambly. Both ways of presenting can be wonderful: the trick on reading is doing it with rhythm, tone, and audience in mind: reading with instead of to, or worse yet, reading as if to oneself. The problem is lots of presenters in humanities conferences I’ve been at don’t seem to know how to read well

  4. I’m an assistant for a Biology professor and help her with her micro classes, mostly handling the lab portion. But at the end of each semester, it gets more enjoyable.

    The professor assigns a project. She has the students choose a microbe (one not on a list she hands out of the too common ones) and prepare a discussion about it. The students then form small groups and pick a place in town to meet up. Instead of class, one group meets (but all are invited) and has a discussion. We meet at bars, restaurants, the cafeteria, Starbucks… The students are graded on how well they can discuss the microbe, not so much on how much they learned. It’s not replacing any exams, so it’s meant to be an easy, fun A that teaches them what it’s like to be an academic scientist at a meeting and give them confidence in being an educated individual.

    The irritating part is, even though they were specifically instructed not to, students will write an APA style report and just read it, word for word, after giving us a copy. It’s so hard to get them to DISCUSS. We even interrupt them and say they’re hurting their grade more by reading then by missing some “valuable” information. They shrug, giggle, and continue reading.

    1. Public speaking is most people’s worst nightmare, right up there with fearing being killed and eaten.

      Scientists, particularly, are likely to be reserved, introspective, thoughtful introverts, for whom public speaking might be especially torturous. Not always, of course: witness our host, who is observably outside the bell curve in this regard.

      For scientists who work in the academic arena, I suspect there is a qualitative and quantitative difference between giving a lecture to undergraduates, and presenting a paper to one’s peers. Reading papers instead of speaking extemporaneously about their content is a way to mitigate the terror of public speaking.

      1. I dunno…a bunch of academics who get paid to lecture all day long to disinterested post-adolescents shouldn’t have any trouble at all telling a bunch of their colleagues about the exciting new stuff they’ve been working on.

        And how could you make it through an academic career in the humanities without at least taking on a minor bit part here or there in a play or two?

        If you know you’re writing a paper to present at a symposium, it shouldn’t be too hard to write it as if it’s a script or a speech and have a little fun delivering it as such.

        Besides, I thought all these people went into the humanities because they have the next Great American Novel / Play / Epic Poem / Whatever trapped inside them? You’d think they’d leap at the chance to let it leak out a bit.



        1. Maybe they shouldn’t have any trouble. But they do. As I said, speaking to a group that you consider subordinate to you is a different matter than speaking to a group you consider your peers.

          The best public speaker I know said he threw up before every speech. Every time. I don’t see how or why academics (exclusive of those in the dramatic arts, perhaps) should be exempt from the clawing fear of public speaking that is more or less universal.

          1. I, a very shy and introverted person who was absolutely terrified of public speaking before grad school, personally find it much easier to talk extemporaneously to a large audience of my colleagues about my research than to lecture to a medium-sized class of undergrads about fundamental topics. I often finish a lecture feeling like I bored everyone to tears, while I usually finish a scientific talk feeling pretty good about my work.

            I tend not to think of undergrads as “subordinate” to me either. That strikes me as an odd attitude; do others feel that way?

  5. Welcome to Alberta Jerry! Enjoy the view. We who live here (Calgary) take those awesome mountains for granted. We do love ’em though.

    We would love to have you speak to our CFI group if it ever possible.


  6. (Note: the Brits say “all you care to eat” when touting buffets. That’s a telling cultural difference that bespeaks American gluttony and British reserve.)

    Oh dear that did make me laugh. “All I can eat? Oh, I can eat a lot! Watch!”

    But really – pecan pie and lemon bars. I would embarrass myself.

    1. My problem when presented with buffet style dessert bars is that I feel I have to try everything. In the spirit of scientific inquiry of course.

      1. Oh, that is the best rationalization I’ve heard yet. Definitely going to use that from now on when presented with a panoply of noms!

      2. I generally ignore the desserts and fill up on carivore stuff. I let the spousal unit tell me what the best dessert is, then I have a little of that.

    2. Actually, no we (Brits) don’t: we say, “all you can eat,” too.

      I’ve never heard or seen what Jerry suggested in 50 years in the UK.


      1. I’ve seen the “all you care to eat” sign at least three times: in St. Andrews, London, and, I believe, Oxford. I haven’t ever seen an “all you can eat” sign there, but perhaps I was not attentive (though I ALWAYS pay attention to such venues).

        1. Hmm… perhaps you frequent a better class of restaurants than I.

          But I expect it’s faux sophistication on their managements’ part!

        2. I see that the Walt Disney World Resort Hotel, FL, does an All-You-Care-To-Eat Breakfast buffet for $3.99.

          Good ol’ Floridian reserve, presumably…



          1. Floridian sounds strange, like some curious sun-worhiping sect. Oh, they are…! I think people from Florida should be Floridans or, better still, Florid.

    3. “But really – pecan pie and lemon bars”

      If it doesn’t have chocolate, it isn’t dessert. Those above might as well be vegetables.

      1. And if it isn’t dark chocolate, it isn’t chocolate.

        High-quality dark chocolate, that is.

        Honestly, I don’t know how Hershey’s and Nestlé get away with it. There has to be some kind of truth-in-advertising issue there.

        1. I’ve never said no to a peanut M&M in my life. Also, very dark chocolate is too much like food. Unless it’s in dessert.

          Ben, you may have all my pecan pie and lemon bars if you give me all your brownies.

          1. Well…the presence of other foodstuffs can be a mitigating factor, but as far as pure chocolate…

            Too dark is no good, you’re right. 70-75 percent cacao is my ideal.

          2. All? HA! Nice try.

            My favorite eating chocolate is Scharffen Berger 70%.

            Their 99% is some pretty amazing stuff, though — so long as you don’t mistrake it for a candy.

            It’s a lot like coffee. There are some wonderful coffee-based drinks with cream and / or sugar and / or spices and / or liquors and / or what-not. Personally, I’m rather fond of Turkish coffee. But a demitasse of pure, unadulterated espresso is an experience all unto itself — and the Sharffen Berger 99% is much the same.



    4. Pecan pie? NONSENSE. Lemon bars? PFFFT. If there’s one thing we Brits do well, it’s (what we call) pudding, which can be loosely defined as “anything with custard on.”

      I’m talking about apple and bramble pie, rhubarb crumble, spotted dick (really), dead baby (a gruesome but entertaining name for a rolled suet pudding filled with jam), trifle, sticky toffee pudding, gooseberry fool, summer pudding, treacle sponge…

      If you can stand up within an hour of eating a portion of any of these, something has gone badly wrong.

  7. BTW…. did you have a chance to clomp around in a pair of those boots you fancy? You are deep in “boot country”, eh?

    1. He might even find a new pair as a souvenir. I seem to remember a strong cowboy/rodeo presence in Calgary, and I’m sure he’s flying in/out of there.

      1. Howdy and Yee-Haw! The Calgary Stampede, a 10 day street party and huge Rodeo events. The city pretty much shuts down the oil rigs to host company outdoor breakfast and/or BBQ’s with live bands and wild dancin’. C’boy boots galore.

        Many good boot affictionados about.

  8. I attended a talk by a former doctor and blogger at Science Based Medicine and it was just a long script. She rarely looked up, droned on in a monotone as sentence after sentence blurred together off the page. The material was interesting and she could write very well but what an incredible let down.

    Sounds like this problem isn’t restricted to the humanities.

  9. “talks in the humanities and social sciences, which are often read from a manuscript. For the life of me I don’t understand why academics do that.”

    Maybe unfamiliarity with the material?

        1. Bison burgers. And Elk burgers too from Bon Ton Meat Market in Stadium Shopping Centre. So yummy!

      1. Mussels! There’s a place near the Vancouver convention center (The Mill, or something like that) that has the absolute best mussels I’ve had ever — and that includes Bertha’s in Baltimore.

        Salmon!!! Pacific Northwest again.

        BACON!!!!!!!! Including but not limited to the “Canadian” kind.

        Molson. Available everywhere.

        Of course, when in Quebec, you have to have poutine. I’m not a fan, but lots of people love it.

  10. I find it hard to conceive of a science talk on new research might be given without notes of any kind. How is one to make certain all the points are covered in a coherent manner? I can understand how someone who lectures on the same subject every day, or week, might be able to do this, but not the everyday working man or woman.

    On the other hand, I agree that it is lazy to simply read a publication as written. I actually had a grad school prof who did this and I dreaded each day. Whenever I was making a presentation of a published paper I would rewrite it in more conversational tones and have it at the lectern for referral. Of course, I was not a daily lecturer, and had recurring nightmares of going completely blank in front of my audience.

    1. I know it gets a bad rap, but this is what PowerPoint was developed to do.

      Provide the speaker notes — highlights that he/she could speak FROM. Sadly, most presenters just read the slide.

      I used to conduct presentation skills training sessions, and my number one piece of advice is this: no matter how much you’ve prepared, no matter how much you think you’ve created a bullet-proof presentation, you are guaranteed to stumble unless you practice aloud the words you want to say. Merely thinking about it does not work.

  11. It depends on how good your prepared text is … and how good you are at presenting it as prepared.

    For about 15 minutes, I was the speechwriter for the CEO of a major pharma company (since swallowed at least thrice over and is now part of the Pfizer megapharmalopolis). I was expected to have a hunting story and some folksy humor, because that’s what this guy liked. And he always got high marks for his “non” prepared remarks, even though they were highly scripted.

    On the other hand, some years back I was often forced to sit through presentations by the chief medical officer of a different pharma company (which shall remain nameless but rhymes with rabbit) who was practically guaranteed to put you dead asleep even as he presented ground-breaking data on scintillating new treatments. The man’s likeness is seen aside the definition of “monotone”. And he practically whispered to boot. A very good scientist; an appallingly bad presenter.

  12. Did you try Butter Tarts and Nanaimo bars?

    It’s not really a Canadian dessert menu if they don’t have those.


  13. I don’t particularly enjoy speaking in front of people and I used to *hate* and genuinely fear it when I was younger.

    I found the hard way that the key to overcoming this fear was really simple: you just have to know what you’re talking about.

    If I’m nervous about my topic, I’m nervous about the talk. If I’m confident about it, I actually enjoy talking about it. The talk becomes a lot more interactive. I can react to the audience’s expressions. If they look confused, I can spontaneously come up with a new example. If they look bored, I can skip parts of the talk.

    Best of all, if I know what I’m talking about, I don’t need slides. I don’t have an ideological objection to powerpoint, but it’s all too easy for slides to become a crutch which limits your movement around the topic.

  14. > Note: the Brits say “all you care to
    > eat” when touting buffets.

    Do we? I’ve never once encountered this expression. We say “all you can eat” too.

  15. You MUST keep your eyes on the Rockies, you turn away for a second and BAM! they’re dating your daughter, driving way too fast and smoking weed with her in your garage.
    Haha I say to a dead thread.

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