San Diego 2016

There must be something about Southwest Airlines flight attendants. The flight attendant this time spent fifteen minutes trying to fasten a seat belt by throwing one side of it into the air and catching it with the other side while the boy in my row insisted that the giant florida gator I had and he hadn’t seen on YouTube was no more than three feet tall. While the boy listed the various types of rock that would likely be found in the Nevada mountains over which we were flying and his mother showed him card tricks, the flight attendants asked us to place our money and jewelry into garbage bags they were carrying through the aisles.IMG_20160618_093322922.jpg

For a brief week, The San Diego Sheraton Hotel and Marina was full of the most famous Natural language processing scientists of this day and age. Luckily, I was there, too. Among the presenters were a man wearing hair purple on the bottom and turquoise on top to match the coat he was wearing, which was textured with a photograph of a pile of pickles. Evidently, even the pickle suit man was interested in looking professional, though, as before he stood to present, he removed his coat and simply wore a hawaiian shirt.
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Our first invited talk suggested we were aiming too low if we did not think NLP could be used to cure cancer. The next one discussed the importance of verifying evaluations, which led to a man standing up and speaking out in defense of science that doesn’t follow the scientific method. A swedish woman behind me shook her head and scratched in her notebook whenever he opened his mouth. Later we were in an uber going to San Diego’s Little Italy in a restaurant designed to look like an indoor recreation of an Italian street corner, complete with balconies and a street lamp next to a staircase. We were joined by a her roommate, a man from Belgium, and a friend from my old lab who was also attending NAACL. The roommate became increasingly pleased with the Disney-like music and the sparkling wine that we had gotten by the bottle for half off, and began gushing about how wonderful it was that we had asked no questions whatsoever about each other’s work and how we hadn’t even bothered to learn each others names, and how it spoke volumes about our compatibility as people. I never saw them again.

IMG_20160615_182431639.jpgFor my first lunch at the conference, I jumped in with a group as they headed out. The Americans in charge had decreed that we would be going to Subway. I was heavily prioritizing networking, and so I restrained myself from protest. The Americans got in a car and told us they didn’t have space for two Germans, a Dutchman, and a Sam. Fortunately, as Americans are wont to do, they were hopping in a car to travel about a mile. My half of the group decided to walk. One of the Germans put the location into his phone and we were off. As we walked, the sidewalk became narrower until it was about a foot wide, and we could only walk single file and lean away whenever an 18 wheeler truck brushed past us. Eventually, we reached a complicated multiple-way intersection surrounded by highways and landscaped urban vegetation, and the German’s phone announced we had reached Subway. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, we found that we had somehow made our way back to the airport, where there was no Subway, but there were plenty of options for wealthy, undiscriminating travelers. No one said it outright, but I’m sure many of us were surprised to find ourselves wishing we were at Subway.

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Later I had more luck. I ate “The Triple Threat”. One woman came to me while I was eating and asked how she could get a sandwich like that. She wanted me to help her choose between the pork, bacon, and ham, like she could not believe that you got to have all three at once. At a later event, I told some people about the flight attendant who said that he was from New Hampshire and learn to speak with a southern accent when recovering from an injury with the help of a Mississippi speech therapist. I admitted I wasn’t sure how true it was, but they were convinced. Their argument was that the story would not have been so specific if it were not true. “You can’t make that up,” they asserted. I casually informed them that including specific details is an important strategy when telling a fiction. As an example, I even went so far as to admit that I had forgotten what New England country he said he was from, and had simply made up New Hampshire out of whole cloth. I think that took me out of their implicitly trustworthy stranger category and placed me directly into “pathological liar.” After that, everything I said was treated with a sideways glance.

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On my last outing with a Massachusetts ex-professor, a Finn, and a Brit, a man came up to me and asked me to listen to him and rate his statements from zero to 100. The first thing he said was that everyone has an invisible colored light that shines around them known as an aura. I rated that a 20, and he asked me to save my ratings until the end. Then he told me that I worked on computers. Fair enough. Then he said the Finn and I were best friends who loved movies. We also liked smoking hash. He asked if he was right, and I told him I wouldn’t tell him, but he should keep talking. He told me I didn’t get along with my father, and that between my older sister and me, I was beaten more as a child. This continued for a while until I was doubled over with laughter and could barely get out “no, no, I won’t tell you,” between my wracking guffaws. The man predicted that my best buddy Finn and me were both so emotionally damaged that instead of drinking alcohol like a normal person, we got completely baked every night. Then he walked away. I started to tell the Finn about how hilarious this guy was when he showed up again behind me and shouted once more, “Was I right!?”
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In an effort to attract people to her poster, one woman described her work as bringing us one step closer to making Lisa Simpson’s grammar correcting robot “Linguo” a reality. Another woman impressed everyone by rapping her research presentation. I don’t know what research it was she was trying to present. A Stanford professor casually told us that he was suspicious of results in a paper coming out of Google DeepMind, and he took a day and wrote a simple deep learning method that blew them out of the water. In the room next door, four Quiz Bowl champions narrowly held out against a single graduate student’s question answering tool. Soon after, a group of scientists debated whether we should allow machine learning to continue to consume computational linguistics. I decided it would be rude to inform them that resistance is futile.IMG_20160616_163147413_TOP.jpg

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