This was originally posted on the Voices of CAA Blog, which got fatally dismembered in a CMS upgrade.

In my last post, AR2007 Thoughts – The Good, I discussed the things I liked about the conference. Now I’ll reveal my cranky side. “Reveal” probably isn’t the right word though, since it’s not exactly hidden.

The Bad

The bad part of the conference was basically the “official” stuff. The conference could be better organized in a number of ways. Logistically, it needs some serious help, and the presentation sessions were mostly unsatisfying.

I’m going to continually contrast this to the many programming conferences I’ve attended, which have excellent coordination and logistics. The majority of the programming conferences I’ve attended are organized entirely by volunteers, so my standards are not unreasonably high. I’ll also point out that at AR2007 I mostly attended the more practically focused (in theory) “how-to” type sessions.

To be blunt, most of the speakers weren’t very good. I don’t think it’s worthwhile to blast individuals, but there were some recurring problems. The most common problem was with content. Many speakers lacked a focus, and basically rambled on about personal experiences, without connecting that experience back to any sort of practical knowledge that listeners could use. They spoke about the “what” without the “how”. This is obviously a problem for a “how-to”! I think this problem was probably exacerbated by the weird way speakers are selected and scheduled, which I’ll talk about later.

And how about some visual aids, folks? Most speakers had no slides (aka PowerPoint) and no handouts. I hate handouts, since they’re a waste of paper, but they’re better than nothing. To those who did have slides, please do not read the slides to the audience! This is almost worse than no slides at all. (If you saw me in your talk and for some reason you want to hear my specific take on your presentation, you can email me. I’m full of opinions ;).

I will pick on one person by name, however, and that’s Alex Hershaft. Alex is the founder of FARM, which hosts the conference, and I think he’s in charge of scheduling. Alex scheduled himself to participate in a whopping thirteen sessions out of about eighty-something in total (a little more than an eighth). Holy egomania, Batman! I’m excluding the opening and closing remarks from my count, since that’s where you’d typically expect to find the conference organizer(s) speaking.

Alex has worked in animal rights for over thirty years, which is really cool, and I’m sure he’s learned many things. But don’t we have other people who know about these topics? Shouldn’t we be trying to cultivate speaking and presentation skills? Given that scheduling was so tight that most people were given 10 minute speaking slots, couldn’t he have given those slots to others?

I think I’m a pretty good speaker, and I know about lots of things, but when CAA does a conference I promise not to schedule myself in an eighth of the sessions!

Let’s get to the scheduling and speaker selection problems. First of all, there’s no call for speakers on the conference website. I don’t think FARM’s intention is to exclude newcomers, but it sure gives the impression that there’s an “in group” and “the rest of us”.

I submitted two talk proposals with titles and outlines. Both of these talks were on technical topics (wikis, email, online donations, etc). I picked these topics because that’s where my expertise lies, being a programmer by profession and geek by choice.

The first thing I heard back was that I had been accepted to speak, but there was no indication of which talks had been accepted. Then, about a month before the conference, I got an email telling me I was assigned to two sessions, “Publishing on the Internet” and “Running a Local Group”. Why was I assigned to “Running a Local Group”? I have no idea. Gil Schwartz, CAA’s Volunteer Coordinator, submitted a talk on this same topic and was rejected, even though this is his area of expertise. I found the whole experience disrespectful and discouraging, as if speakers were merely interchangeable cogs in the conference machine.

By contrast, for a technical conference, I submit a talk with a title and description, and it’s accepted as-is, or not accepted at all. On occasion, the organizers may ask me to tweak the content to avoid overlap with other speakers, or to choose a clearer title, but this is not done without discussing it with me. I also get more than a month’s notice, giving me ample time to prepare and do my best.

At the AR conference, the session titles are extremely generic, like “Publishing on the Internet”. Speakers are not identified individually by talk, they don’t get to “advertise” their talks with their chosen titles, and they may not even be assigned to their choice of topic! To make it worse, they’re assigned with a group of other people they don’t know and left to coordinate specific topics, times, and speaking order by themselves.

This discourages a sense of ownership, and I think it contributed to the poor quality of many presentations. When people are given both power and responsibility together, they will rise to the occassion and give it their best effort. When you take this away, it’s easy to be discouraged.

This sort of scheduling also doesn’t serve attendees very well. They don’t know what individual speakers will talk about, they can’t easily hop between sessions, and they can’t “follow” their favorite speakers with any granularity. By contrast, check out the schedule from YAPC::NA 2007, the last tech conference I attended.

At YAPC, the schedule details every single talk for every single speaker. It’s easy to leave a session early if you’re bored. Take a look at Tuesday starting at 10:30 AM. If you attend the session in the Houston Room and don’t like it, you know that there will be a number of other sessions beginning at 10:55.

The ridiculously small amount of time allocated to most speakers at AR2007 is also problematic. Ten to twelve minutes isn’t enough to do more than scratch the surface of most topics. At tech conferences, a short session is twenty minutes, and longer ones may be fifty minutes or two hours.

The conference quality would be better with fewer speakers who spoke longer. Sure, there’d still be bad presentations, but the good ones would go longer, and with a post-conference survey, the organizers could make sure to get the good speakers back next year.

Another irritation was the how hard it was to self-organize informal sessions. People planning to attend the conference had no mechanism to connect with each other before or during the conference, other than word-of-mouth. At tech conferences, we always have a wiki and a mailing list for the conference. People use them to plan get-togethers for early arrivals, birds of a feather sessions (BOFs) during the conference, dinner outings, game playing (Go, anyone?), and so on.

We also make sure to leave plenty of space for self-organized sessions at tech conferences. The presentation part of the day ends around 4:30 or 5:00. There may be a social event in the evening (bowling, dinner, etc), but we always leave a few hours of down time before that, and we make it easy to schedule BOFs, social events, and outings.

I would’ve loved to have met up with VegGuide.Org users and shown them the alpha version of VegGuide 3.0, talked about what they like and dislike about the guide, and just meet people. I think there was some sort of mechanism for doing this through the conference organizers, but that’s yet another barrier to entry. I shouldn’t have to ask anyone, particularly the people who are going to be the busiest at the conference! To make this even harder, there were sessions scheduled every evening from 7:15 to 9:30, which meant that the only free times for self-organizing were over lunch, or after 9:30, when we were all exhausted and just wanted to chill.

Given that the best part of every conference is always hanging out with people, it’s really important to make this as easy as possible. No matter how good the sessions are, the hallway track is more fun, and a good conference puts a lot of effort into facilitating spontaneous organization.

Anyway, that’s enough complaining. There was a good side to the conference as well, and I would still go back, mostly to meet people. I also just enjoyed being around a lot of people enthused about animal rights activism. Ultimately the conference was energizing for me, reminding me how important this movement is, and how far we have to go.

This was originally posted on the Voices of CAA Blog, which got fatally dismembered in a CMS upgrade.

I got back from AR2007 late last night, and I’m brimming with thoughts on the conference, animal rights, and activism. I’ll be writing more on this over the next couple days, but I’ll start with my thoughts on the conference.

The Good

The best thing about the conference was meeting people (the “hallway track”). It was really cool to connect a face with all the names. I had some good conversations with Eric Prescott of An Animal Friendly Life. It was also great to meet Erica Meier from Compassion Over Killing and Nathan Runkle of Mercy for Animals. I also met the inimitable Cass Danger, who has become a top VegGuide.Org contributor in an amazingly short time, and is also doing lots of activist work of her own.

I also enjoyed meeting future star of the silver screen Rick Corbett and his sister Rain. I really hope Rick becomes very famous. He’s a good speaker, and will be a strong voice for animals. He’s also a nice guy, and in the future I can say “I knew him when …”. Rita Anderson, a self-described “61 year-old grandmother”, really embodied the voice of reason. I enjoyed Saurabh Dalal’s talk and its emphasize on taking a systematic approach to planning and evaluating our work. Howard Lyman blew me away with his speaking skills. He’s really a master, and I hope I learned a little from watching him.

I went leafleting twice while I was there with Jon Camp, Jenna Calabrese, and Stuart Solomon, as well as folks from CAA. It was really cool to hang out with some of the top leafleters from Vegan Outreach. It was also fun to do some outreach, since I’ve gravitated into fundraising and admin work over the years here at CAA.

There was a man I talked to very briefly whose name I don’t remember, but I was excited to meet him because he is a police officer from British Columbia. It’s easy to think of law enforcement as our enemies, but we’re trying to build a movement, and that means we want everyone involved. Our cause is one of compassion, and treating anyone as an implacable enemy to be fought is a losing tactic.

I spent a lot of the conference following Unny Nambudiripad around. Unny is another CAA founder and board member, and is also the friendliest person on earth. He’s great at introducing himself to new people, and by following him I got to meet many more people than I could’ve done by myself. I also had a lot of good conversations about activism with him at the conference.

I wish I had gone to more of the “rap sessions”, but unfortunately I didn’t realize that these were group discussions as opposed to presentations. The two I attended were both worthwhile, and more interesting than many of the presentation sessions I attended.

The first rap session I attended was a discussion of what tactics are acceptable for our cause. In our movement, that inevitably means a debate on whether or not so-called “direct action” (lab break-ins, freeing animals, arson, property destruction) are acceptable.

Let me be clear that CAA’s core value of Nonviolence rules out this sort of activity. This sort of direct action is extremely counter-productive, but that’s a topic for its own blog post.

I don’t believe that debating will change the minds of people committed to doing these sorts of actions, but I realized that this debate is valuable for those who are still undecided, or those who simply support these actions by default. If I can convince a few people to embrace core values like ours, I consider that a success.

Another highlight of the conference was the Vegan Toastmasters sessions. I enjoy the whole performance aspect of public speaking, and I loved the “table topics”, where the table topics master asks a question and you give a 1-2 minute response. I loved the challenge of that format, and winning the table topics contest was a nice bonus.

I was happy with how my own presentation on wikis went, though the 12 minutes that I had really wasn’t sufficient for this topic. I wanted to do a quick demo, to make the abstract concepts I covered concrete. But again, I’ll cover this problem in my next post on what I didn’t like about the conference, AR2007 Thoughts – The Bad.

This was originally posted on the Voices of CAA Blog, which got fatally dismembered in a CMS upgrade.

I’m at AR2007 here in sunny, smoggy LA, and last night was the opening plenary. I had a lot of thoughts during this session, which at a little over two hours, was way too long for me to focus. I guess I’m a child of video games when it comes to my attention span.

Thought number one was that there seem to be a lot of people emotionally moved by just about everything related to animals. Nearly every mention of some type of cruelty was accompanied by mutters, hisses, and expressions of sadness or outrage.

Now, it’s not that I think cruelty to animals is a good thing, but honestly, almost none of this stuff moves me. I can’t help thinking “yeah, so what?” Yes, hunting deer is cruel, but what do you want me to do about it? That may sound funny coming from an activist, but cruelty in the world is nearly limitless, both for animals and humans.

The question, then, is how can you have an impact? Well, I can tell you how not to have an impact, and that’s to respond to every injustice.  Spread yourself too thin, over-commit, and drain yourself emotionally. This is the path to burnout, and worse, it’s not even going to help much.

So back to my title, “Focus!” That’s what I wanted to tell everyone who responded to every outrage with fresh indignation. Focus your passion, and spend it wisely, because it’s not an infinite resource. Pick a single focused cause, continually evaluate your strategies and tactics, and keep at it until you’ve achieved something.

That’s what we’ve done at CAA. We focus on factory farming, and we do it through education and outreach. But I don’t want to just toot our own horn, so I’ll also mention Circus Reform Yes!. They’re a local group working on the task of banning wild animal circuses in Minneapolis. Now that’s focused. They picked one issue (circuses), picked one location (Minneapolis), and one tactic (legislation), and they’ve worked at it for years, persistently and patiently.

Back when I had my first job out of grad school, I remember going to some sort of training where they talked about Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Now, it’s a cheesy title, and I don’t know if I got anything out of it for work, but one thing stuck with me as an activist.

This was the concept of “circle of concern” and “circle of influence”. The basic idea is that the set of things we’re concerned with is always much larger than the set of things over which we have influence. If we try to have an impact in our entire circle of concern, we will over-extend ourselves and fail. If instead, we take stock and figure out what thing we can influence, we can be successful.

So focus!