Posted by: Jeremy Fox | June 28, 2012

Evolution 2012: presenters will literally be treated like children (UPDATEDx5 –no, they won’t be))

FINAL UPDATE: The snark in this post is out of line, and for that I apologize to Howard Rundle and the other Evolution 2012 organizers. It was and remains true that I’m personally skeptical of the need for the chimes, based on my own experience over many years at an even larger meeting (the ESA). But as previous updates and Howard’s comment indicate, the organizers have good reasons for wanting to try the chimes. It was wrong of me to write a snarky post based on my own gut reaction to the idea without first checking in with the organizers.

As noted by Howard, myself, and others in the comments, it’s impossible to structure a large meeting in a way that will please everyone, so the only thing you can do is try to please as many people as possible. Which is exactly what the organizers are trying to do with the chimes. The chimes are an experiment, and the organizers deserve credit for carefully considering their options and deciding to give this experiment a go.

Evolution 2012 is going to be a great meeting, chimes or not, and it’s a massive amount of work to organize. Like all the attendees, I’m very grateful to Howard and his fellow organizers for putting this meeting together. And I appreciate him taking a bit of his very scarce time to stop by and clarify the reasoning behind the chimes.

In many elementary schools, a bell sounds throughout the building to indicate the end of one class, and a few minutes later another bell sounds to indicate the start of the next class. This practice is so common it’s given rise to popular slang, such as “saved by the bell“.

I have just received an email indicating that the Evolution 2012 meeting is going to work the same way (emphasis added):

You are scheduled to give a talk at the upcoming 1st Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Ottawa. The purpose of this message is to provide some additional information about timing. All talks in the general concurrent sessions are 14 min MAXIMUM, INCLUDING QUESTIONS. A building-wide chime system will be in place to help keep all concurrent sessions on time and in synch, and to allow 1 min  movement time for attendees to switch rooms between talks (as well as time for the next speaker to get set up ). Using the building PA system, a brief start chime will be broadcast every 15 min on the hour (i.e. at xx:00, xx:15,  xx:30, xx:45), and then a 2nd slightly different ending chime at 14 min., 29 min, 44 min. and 59 min. past the hour. For example, if your talk is at 9:00 am, then it will begin with a start chime at 9:00 am and finish with an end chime at 9:14 am. 1 min later a start chime will indicate the beginning of the next talk (9:15 am). There will be a digital  clock in each room, situated so as to be visible to both the speaker and  the volunteer chair of each session, and it will be synchronized with the chimes.

It is unclear if attendees will also require hall passes to go to the bathroom.

I’m not looking forward to having my thoughts and conversations interrupted by chimes broadcast throughout the building every 15 minutes. Even if the chimes can only be heard in the seminar rooms (which I doubt), they’ll still be incredibly annoying. And no, I don’t think it will be worth it to avoid parallel sessions drifting 30-60 seconds out of sync with one another.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, the email also says that there will be a digital clock in each room, synchronized to the chimes and visible to both the presenter and presider. So the chimes are in addition to and not a substitute for clocks!

UPDATE#2: By the way, not all talks are 15 minutes–symposium talks and presidential and award addresses are longer. So those talks are going to have chimes sounding while the talks are going on! Correction: I am informed by the meeting organizers that the chimes will not sound in rooms hosting longer talks, with the exception of a small number of longer talks being held in one particular room that is also hosting shorter talks.

Hopefully, if enough people complain early enough, they’ll shut the chimes off. Peeps: start complaining on Twitter right now (#evol2012)!

UPDATE#3: And if you say “Well, we’ll get used to it”, my responses are (i) speak for yourself! and (ii) why the frick should we have to get used to it? If someone says to you, “I’m going to cause you discomfort twice every 15 minutes for no reason,” your response should not be “Ok, go ahead, I’ll get used to it.” (Plus, are you seriously claiming you’re going to get used to chimes going off during the longer talks?)

UPDATE#4: I have corresponded with some of the meeting organizers, who were gracious enough to reply very quickly to the concerns raised in this post. They said that the chimes are a response to complaints about parallel sessions getting out of sync in past years, they will be very short (2-3 seconds) and will serve only to indicate the time (as opposed to drowning out speakers), and now that the decision’s been made to use them it would cost $4000 to turn them off. (They also suggest that the chimes will be expected and therefore less bothersome than cell phones going off, but the relevance of this fact is unclear to me. You can’t justify deciding to disturb people by pointing out that other things disturb people even more).

So the organizers clearly had their reasons, and I certainly understand that it’s now too costly for them to change their minds. And I’m very glad to hear that longer talks (mostly) won’t be interrupted. I remain unconvinced that the cure is better than the disease here, but we’ll see–perhaps I and commenter Jeremy Yoder are in a minority on this. The reaction of attendees should reveal whether most folks prefer chimes to sessions drifting slightly out of sync.


  1. It’s especially ridiculous because, in all the Evolution meetings I’ve been to, I’ve never seen overtime in a single session spill into other sessions. Generally, session chairs have been perfectly good at, e.g., timing presenters on an iPhone and giving the appropriate cues.

    • The email even notes that they’ll also have digital clocks in the rooms visible to both the presenter and presider. Which makes it even less clear why they need the chimes. Maybe it’s just an intermediate step to doing away with presiders altogether. Maybe next year they’ll have a clock, chimes–and a podium wired to automatically electrocute any presenter who runs long.

  2. On the bright side, Ottawa now has beer bike:

    • Cool.

      More broadly, I should make clear (and will do so in future posts) that there are *lots* of bright sides to this meeting! My negative reaction to one particular aspect of the meeting shouldn’t be read as broader criticism of the organizers, who I know and who have worked harder than I probably ever have or ever will to make this happen.

  3. I won’t be at the meeting, but I’m totally for this system. I’ve been frustrated too many times by individual presentations and sessions overrunning, which is the fault of presenters and chairpeople not respecting the timings (and, therefore, not respecting the other speakers or their audience)*.

    In these ‘super-meetings’, that can be spread out over tens of parallel sessions, this sort of militaristic precision can avoid lots of frustration and griping.

    *This reminds me a bit of another (twitter related) comment I read here, or elsewhere, about speakers respecting their audience by being sufficiently interesting for their audience, which I disagreed with.

    • My own experience has mostly been with the far larger ESA meeting, which has never used such a system and has never seemed to need one. But clearly your experience has given you a different point of view! We’ll be finding out whose experience is more typical of that of the meeting attendees. I suppose it could be yours, since only a minority of attendees will, like me, be regular ESA attendees who don’t consider Evolution 2012 an especially big meeting.

      Could be worse.The organizers noted that the European evolution meetings once signaled the end of talks with loud music that literally drowned out the speakers. I do agree that the chimes are better than that!

  4. Sessions out of sync is way worse than these chimes. I tried it in Tübingen last year, and I hated it the first morning, but loved it the rest of the time. As others have observed, it is highly annoying to have to be late to a talk at another session, and annoying when people barge in 1-2 minutes into a talk.

    • Fair enough. But don’t people come in 1-2 minutes late whether the talks are on time or not? That’s certainly my experience at ESA. It happens because rooms are spread out, and it takes more than a couple of minutes to walk between them.

  5. Count me as obviously biased as I’m organizing this whole thing, but we designed the chimes to be unobtrusive (actually about 1 s, not 2-3 s). We can shut them off in the non-function rooms (although some have asked for them not to be so that the end of breaks are clearly indicated). Feedback from ESEB, which employed a much more aggressive music system that prevented you from speaking, was mixed. This is a compromise and an experiment. BTW – I have definitely seen talks go much more than 30-60 s out of synch many times. Think of these as our attempt to mirror the flashing of the lights to signal the end of intermission at the theatre. Are we treating our opera-attending colleagues as school children by doing this?

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Howard, and apologies for the snark, which in retrospect wasn’t deserved. That’s my bad. I should have corresponded with you before writing the post, not after.

      As you note, and as I indicated in the updates, clearly there are reasons to try this. It seems like folks’ initial reaction to this idea reflects their previous experience. My initial reaction reflects my own long experience attending a significantly bigger meeting–the ESA–at which chimes aren’t used but sessions stay reasonably in sync (even though ESA, like Evolution 2012, uses volunteer presiders). But as you say, folks who didn’t like the very aggressive ESEB system (of which I wasn’t aware) will probably find the chimes unobtrusive by comparison. Folks who have, unlike me and other ESA attendees I’ve spoken to, had bad experiences with parallel sessions going out of sync likely will welcome the chimes. And folks who mostly attend smaller meetings and so see Evolution 2012 as a “big” meeting that needs to run differently than a small meeting will probably see the chimes as necessary.

      As the small sample of comments so far indicate, there are folks who feel like I do, and folks who feel very differently. As you say, it’s an experiment which will tell future organizers what’s the best way to go in future. As with many aspects of the meeting, I’m sure there’s no pleasing everyone, so all you can do is try to please as many people as possible. I’m very much looking forward to what I’m sure will be a great meeting, and am planning to do at least one preview post saying as much in the next couple of days.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: