Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Paperless Problems

While listening to an academic talk at a conference, I like to read the corresponding paper being presented.  I follow along by taking notes right in the paper proceedings and marking things that will be of interest to me later.  Then on the flight home, I leisurely browse through the proceedings, looking at my notes.

Apparently, I am also one of only a few people to do this because conferences, almost uniformly, have been getting rid of paper proceedings.  Instead, we get the proceedings on CD or USB stick, or the proceedings are put online, and we are (in theory) supposed to follow along on our laptops or to print the papers interesting to us in advance of the talks.

Unfortunately, this never really worked for me.  My laptop 1) doesn't have enough battery life to last the entire conference* 2) does not allow me to take notes on the paper 3) is too distracting to be used effectively.  These problems are solvable in theory, but it seems in theory only. I could (and sometimes do) fight for the occasional outlet. Technically, there's software that will let me write on pdfs, but it never works properly, and I'm no good at "writing" with my mouse. And I could try to not get distracted on my laptop, but it's a losing battle.  

For all our technical sophistication, we can't yet beat the simplicity of paper.  It's easy to write on and even has great battery life and resolution! But the solution of printing interesting papers in advance is no good because I don't know which papers are interesting to me until I actually go to the talk -- I think of talks as advertisements for papers.  If a talk is good, I'll read the paper afterwards.  If a talk is boring, I probably won't, unless I need to directly for research.

So, desperate for a solution, I got a Kindle so that I could load the papers in advance and read them during the conference.  The latest Kindle even advertised the ability to mark up pdf documents.  However, I quickly discovered that this was no solution at all.  The Kindle interface is so awful, that I managed to do none of these things. The only thing one can realistically do with a Kindle is read novels, preloaded in Amazon's format.  Actually the Kindle did improve my conference travel experience in that I no longer have to lug around books to read for fun.  Unfortunately, my original problem remains.

Now, I do realize that printing costs money, uses paper, and produces big proceedings that are no fun to lug around.  For big conferences like NIPS, I agree that printing all the papers would probably be too much.  And I'm confident that technology will be good enough in a couple years that this will no longer be a problem, making this inconvenience only temporary.  Perhaps going paperless is even the right solution at this time, though I tend to think we abandoned paper too early.

But I don't understand what everyone does in the meantime.  I've never seen anyone follow a paper on a laptop screen, nor have I ever witnessed anyone actually printing papers in advance of talks.  So what should I do?  Should I get an iPad -- will it solve any of my problems?  Is there something everyone is doing that I'm missing?  I don't want to have to bring up the old paper/electronic proceedings debate at the next business meeting!**

* My new laptop's battery might just last long enough, but the other issues remain with using a laptop.
** Okay, I'm bluffing.


  1. abstract booklets help with deciding which talks to go to. that is a trend that goes hand in hand with electronic proceedings.

  2. That helps a little, but the titles themselves are usually sufficient for me to figue out which talks to go to. My problem isn't in deciding which talks to attend, but in that I want to follow the talk along by reading the paper and taking notes on it. I guess few people like to do this...

  3. 1. I usually can barely keep up with both the slides and the speaker. The only way I can understand you using the paper during the talk involves missing parts of the talk. That may actually be a better way to do it, but, as you say, probably not a lot of people use that method.

    2. Maybe conferences should allow one to purchase printed proceedings at conference registration. This may actually not be efficient, as it probably would get paid by grant funding that wouldn't otherwise be used (by the researcher). However, it would make sure that printed copies only get made for those who value them a little.

    3. I just take notes in a notebook. Of course, I'm sure you've considered/done that :-)

  4. I'm a big fan of the Microsoft math mode in Word 2010 (and OneNote and Outlook and even Excel). I'm getting good enough to capture a lot of the equations in a talk in real time. One can also annotate a PDF file using Acrobat Professional (but, alas, without a math mode, so you must write in latexish).

  5. @Tom, this is promising -- I hadn't realized that MS Word 2010 can inline equations. From what I remember, previous versions of Word only had equation editor, which I feel is too clunky to be useful.