Have conferences become a giant racket?

What has happened to a bunch of nerds getting together in a big room, eating some sandwiches and talking about ideas?

Why are people so willing to pay big money to meet other people in their respective fields at conferences, when they just could have done what I have referred to in the paragraph above?

We now have a conference ‘industry’.  Take Ted talks for example.  Come to our conference!  Our speakers have all the big ideas!  These people will save the world!  The conference industry is booming!

Seems to me there is a lot of talk-ie and not enough do-ie.

Take this conference for example, which is only 5 years young:

International Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference

Fancy website!  There is money for that and the nice conference, yet, there is little to no money for research in this field.

If you happen to be one of the lucky folks to have a steady job in industry, government or academia, someone may foot the bill for you to go – $470 for members and $550 for non-members, but only if you register early.  Of course that doesn’t include travel and hotel costs.

But wait!  If you can’t get your costs covered, for the low low cost of $150, you can still pay the organizers AND work for nothing at the conference.  This is referred to as ‘volunteering’ on the conference website.  So there is always that.

Sorry to pick on you, International Fire Behavior and Fuel Conference, but you are following the modern conference ‘industry’ trend.  You folks could instead spend your time figuring out how the dollars would be better spent actually funding climate research, or figuring out a way to actually use the internet to communicate at your conference (the internet — what’s that?) so as to minimize the carbon footprint of the large number of people travelling to your conference.

I’ll leave it to my readers to answer the rhetorical question that serves as the title of this article.


The $550 conference meal — if you register early (Sandwich by whologwhy)


How the United States ranks within the OECD Better Life Index

For a country with so much wealth, it seems counterintuitive that the United States ranks more or less in the middle of the road in comparison to other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries on most of the “topics” of the OECD’s Better Life Index.  These topics are: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance.

The United States ranks highest on the income scale and of course it has the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world (not including the European Union), so this is not much of a surprise.  What we also know though is that if income inequality was considered as a main topic, the rankings would likely appear to be very different.  Although the OECD considers social inequality as part of its indicators which is likely related to income inequality, perhaps the OECD should consider give income inequality greater weight in determining its future rankings.

The USA also ranks very highly on housing.  Sure, a middle class American can probably afford a 3 bedroom bungalow, well, with dual incomes, depending on the location.  The OECD topic of housing is evaluated in terms of having satisfactory living conditions (i.e. rooms per person, facilities) and also in terms of affordability.  This topic, however, doesn’t capture the fact that the housing market became so volatile during the Great Recession that people lost their homes and livelihoods.  This topic also really doesn’t capture the conditions for those living in subsidized housing in urban areas of the USA, for example, or the fact that if one is born poor, one is probably going to stay poor, especially if from the southern USA; but I digress.  I realize that the Better Life Index is a snapshot tool used to compare countries.  It’s just that we have to think about it critically.

In terms of the rest of the topics — jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance, the USA ranks more or less in the interquartile range or so of all OECD countries; sometimes better and sometimes worse, depending on the topic.  Does this seem surprising?  Perhaps for wealthy Americans who on an individual basis would rank themselves highly in the above OECD topics, it is surprising.

OECD Better Life Index – Income — from

Furniture-makin’ update

I had a lesson in biscuit joinery yesterday.  I also learned that “biscuiteuse” is the French word for this.  The francophones make it sound so much nicer (typical).   I think we biscuit-holed the hell out of the wood, but we can know for sure the table will never fall apart assuming I glue everything properly.

I hafta go get more biscuits and then glue the boards together.

I like biscuits with my tea.

I like biscuits with my tea.

First Attempt at Making Furniture – Part Deux (that’s 2)

The wood is here! The wood is here!

Here is a picture of the barn board in the back of my car for my furniture project. The local reclaimed wood guy found me some maple! It is plastic wrapped. He did a nice job of planing/jointing it.  It is really smooth, but with lots of cool wormholes and distress marks.  I like the duality of the modern smooth, yet distressed rustic look (I’m so fancy with my description I should write for an interior design magazine).

Anyway the wood guy also gave me a quick rundown on how to biscuit join the pieces, so I’ll steal my old man’s biscuit joiner and start gluing the stuff together. I think it will be cool when it’s done and I’ll have saved lots of cash.

Time to order the hairpin legs!


Wood I like to make my own furniture? Yes! I wood!

First Attempt at Making Furniture – Part 1

So I had this big idea that I should try to make some living room furniture.  I read somewhere that a coffee table is a good project to start with if new to woodworking.  Instead, I’ve decided, why not make the whole set?  Coffee table, side tables and console table.

I went to visit the local reclaimed wood furniture guy a few days ago since I will make hairpin leg tables with wooden tops (I hope).  Luckily I have immediate family members who will be able to explain to me what I should be doing, and will provide tools and a workshop.

After getting in trouble with the reclaimed wood guy for not telling him exactly what I wanted, dimension -wise (as I told him, how the hell was I supposed to know exactly what I need if I don’t know the wood widths ahead of time?), followed by a lot of hand-waving and an explanation that a console table is not for DVD players and TVs, but for decoration purposes, I am hopefully going to be the recipient of some random dried hardwood pieces a few weeks.  He will plane and square off the wood, and dry it as necessary.  I told him the pieces should be of the same hardwood type because it’s got to be for a set.  Upon initial inspection he thought chestnut might be the random wood I’ll get but we shall see.  If so, I’m a lucky brat.  I am a bit afraid as he is working from measurements I wrote on a ripped off piece of paper that I gave him, but I think given he does flooring he might have it sorted out.

My plan was to go for stainless hairpin legs from  Still have to order those babies, but the wood has to be worked well before I can even think about sticking legs on.

See final project examples here:

Retro Menagerie – Coffee Table

Scissors and Thread – Coffee Table

Inequality For All

A documentary I watched recently is entitled “Inequality For All“.  It was narrated by Robert Reich, now Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.  The film discusses the subject of income inequality.  I recommend you see it, and check out the many books on the subject.  Income inequality is a defining problem, if not the defining problem, of my generation. Barack Obama says so and he is correct, but he is not going to solve this one alone.

I also recently watched the “Wolf of Wall Street”, which got me thinking.  Many people have criticized “Wolf” for promoting or condoning Jordan Belfort’s (the protagonist’s) behavior.  On the contrary, the movie was satirical, and in summary, we get to laugh at Jordan’s pathetic life as it falls apart, and, enjoy considering him a gigantic a$$hole in the process (I use dollar signs purposely here).  However, should we blame the likes of the Jordan Belfort types, or the US government for deregulating markets so much that we eventually suffered the Great Recession?

Corporate profits have increased exponentially while employee salaries have more or less remained flat over time, or may actually be decreasing.  So the income differential between the 1% and 99% is actually accelerating.  One reason we’re staying afloat, according to Robert Reich and others I’m sure, is because women have entered and remained in the workforce, artificially keeping families afloat (eg, in the 1950s, one man could support a middle class family of four).

In effect, the disappearance of the middle class as we know it will actually lead to stalling of economic growth – since the 99% (as we’re so lovingly called) will no longer be able to spend dollars and stimulate the economy.  My thinking is that countries like China and India, since they have shown a great deal of economic growth in the past 10 or so years, may have helped keep the world economy afloat for awhile (economies running on cheap energy).  But if the middle class disappears all over the place, there won’t be any more dollars injected into the economy and whammo!  The capitalist system as we know it implodes.  Maybe it won’t happen yet, but once we run out of cheap oil, oh boy, watch out!

It’s why we’re screwed…eventually!

Stuff to check out:

The Economist — Inequality: Growing Apart

Robert Reich’s Site