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Talking to people at conferences

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I’m currently at the Halmstad Summer School on Testing, where I know literally nobody. This means that I’m having to exercise one of my most useful and hardest won conference skills: Going up to new people and talking to them.

I can’t claim any special ability at doing this. If anything, I’m bad at it. But I started out terrible at it, so I thought I’d offer some advice for other people who are terrible at it and want to become less terrible (which, based on observational evidence at conferences and talking to friends, is a lot of us).

The big thing to know is that it’s not complicated (which is not the same as saying it’s easy). The following procedure works for me basically 100% of the time:

  1. Go up to somebody who isn’t currently talking to someone and doesn’t look like they’re busy.
  2. Say “Hi, I’m David” (you may wish to substitute your own name here if it is not also David).
  3. Make conference appropriate small talk.
  4. Part ways at a suitable juncture (e.g. beginning of next talk), and if you enjoyed each other’s company you can naturally say hi again later, and if not you won’t.

If you’re like me, that probably sounds impossible, but it’s actually surprisingly doable once you manage to suppress the associated feeling of mortal dread.

The thing that helped me the most was understanding what caused me stress (going up to groups where I didn’t know anyone) and just not doing that, which is why it’s about finding single people to go up and talk to. I generally don’t approach groups unless I already know some of the people in the group.

The second thing that helps is understanding that this behaviour is appropriate, socially acceptable, and often outright welcome.

You are at an event where a large part of the purpose is to meet people. Therefore introducing yourself to strangers is a thing that is part of the event and does not need an excuse. Also, the people around you are probably also struggling to do the same. By picking someone else who is also not talking to people, there’s a good chance you’ve found someone who is struggling the same way you are and have done them a massive favour by removing that struggle.

Is it sometimes a bit awkward? Yeah. Is it the perfect approach? No. But it works reliably, I am able to do it, and it does not rely on flawless execution to go smoothly. It is very unlikely to go terribly, and it will probably go well.

It’s still anxiety inducing, but for me the knowledge that this is acceptable behaviour and nothing bad is going to happen is enough to take it from terrifying to merely intimidating, at which point it’s fairly feasible to just force myself to do it.

Specific tips:

Picking who to talk to is tricky, but the nice thing about this just being a brief introductory conversation is that you don’t have to do it well. I don’t have a particularly good algorithm, but vaguely use the following guidelines:

  • People you’ve met in passing but not really properly talked to are an easy place to start.
  • If I see a speaker or someone I vaguely know something about, I’ll tend to default to them (as someone who regularly speaks at conferences, I can confirm speakers are just as socially awkward about doing this as the rest of us and will appreciate you talking to them).
  • I often preferentially try to talk to women or other people who are in a minority for the conference (obviously at some conferences women won’t be a minority, but I work in tech where sadly they usually are). This advice works better if you are yourself in a minority at the conference, but I figure that if people are feeling isolated it’s still better to have someone to talk to who isn’t going to be a jerk (which I’m told I’m mostly not), and they’re at least as likely (probably more) to be interesting people to talk to as anyone else.
  • Other than that, I just pick a random person nearby.

Once you’ve picked a person and introduced yourself, it’s time for the dread small talk. Fortunately, although small talk in general is hard, conference small talk is much easier. There are two reasons for this:

  • When you ask “What do you do?” the chances are good that it’s something relevant to the conference, and thus you have common ground to talk about.
  • You can always talk about the talks at the conference – which they have enjoyed, if there are any they are particularly looking forward to, etc.

The parting ways aspect is important largely to avoid the problem of finding one person to talk to and then latching on to them. It’s doubly important for me because of a moderate amount of insecurity about seeming to do that even when I’m probably not. Fortunately conferences come with a natural rhythm, so it’s fairly easy to do.

Another reason why it helps is that it keeps the entire interaction fairly low cost – you’re not committing to a new best friend for the entire conference, you’re just meeting someone new and having a brief chat with them.

So that’s how I introduce myself to new people. After that, I try to “pay it forward” in a couple of ways:

  • I try to introduce people I’ve talked to to each other. e.g. if I’m talking to someone and someone I’ve previously interacted with wanders past I say hi to them and ask “Have you two met?”
  • If I’m in a group (or even just talking to one other person) and see someone awkwardly standing around, I try to bring them into it (a “Hi, I’m David. Come join us” is usually sufficient).

Other people are also struggling with this, and helping them out is a good deed, which is the main way I do it, but conveniently it’s also a good way to meet people. It’s much easier to meet someone by bringing them into a group than it is to approach them on your own, and by forming a group you’ll tend to get other people members of the group know agglomerating on. Even if you don’t talk to them now, talking to them later becomes easier.

 

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Irenes
57 days ago
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*sigh* Good advice. Scary, but good.
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I Was Taken From My Family and Jailed For 57 Days Because I Am Poor

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No one should be arrested for being too poor to pay traffic tickets. I was, and I’m suing so it can’t happen to anyone else.

“I don’t care if you have one, two, three, four, five, six, or seven kids.”

This is what the judge told me when I tried to explain that I was a single mom with seven kids. I could not afford to pay $100 a month toward traffic tickets. The judge threatened me with jail. I was scared.

This all started when I got two traffic tickets in March last year in Lexington County, South Carolina. I did something wrong. I drove without a tag light and on a suspended license. I wanted to go to court and make it right. But when I got there, the judge treated me like I was nothing. She sentenced me to pay more than $2400 for both tickets — more than the law allowed, my attorneys told me. I did not have the money to pay that day, so the judge decided that I had to pay $100 each month.

I knew I could not afford that. So, I explained that I could pay $50 each month. The judge wasn’t hearing it. She said, “I want my money on the twelfth.” She made clear that if I missed one payment, she would have a warrant out for my arrest.

I did everything I could to pay my traffic fines. I made five payments in a row. But then I started missing payments when I could not pay the court and support my family at the same time.

In the fall of 2016, one of my sons had to get jaw surgery. While I took care of him in the hospital for a week, I could not work. Also, my employer at the time was paying me with checks that kept bouncing, which meant I wasn’t getting paid when I should have been.

After looking for weeks, I finally found a better job. I planned to use my first pay check to get back on track to paying my fine. I was just waiting for that first check.

Then, on a Saturday morning in February, officers came to my home at around 7 a.m. My 13-year-old son came into my bedroom and told me, “The sheriff is out there.” I went to the front door and saw sheriff’s department deputies through the peephole.

I didn’t want to open the door. My kids were there. But I let the deputies in. An officer informed me that there was a warrant for my arrest. I got dressed and sent my 13-year-old to take the trash out. I didn’t want him to see me in handcuffs and taken to jail.

At the jail, officers gave me a copy of the warrant used to arrest me. It said that I needed to pay $1907.63 — the entire amount I still owed in traffic fines and fees — or serve 90 days in jail.

There was no way that I could pay. I did not want my children to go without food, electricity, and rent. And I had not yet gotten my first paycheck at my new job.

For 57 days, I was locked away in jail, away from my family. I cried every day. I prayed that my kids and grandkids would be okay. I could not be with my family when my cousin died. I could not be with them on my son’s 17th birthday or on my granddaughter’s first birthday. I lost my new job and the chance to get a promotion and a raise. I spent my 40th birthday in jail.

But even worse was the fear I had every day that my 13-year-old son would be taken away from me by the Department of Social Services. It made me feel sick to think that I could lose him while I was in jail because I could not afford to pay traffic fines.

Luckily my older children took on responsibility to make sure that the youngest was in good care. I am so grateful I did not lose him.

Since I was released on that 57th day in jail, I have been with my family. They are the light of my life. But I lost so much while I was in jail. I have been struggling to find a job, and I have even more bills because I couldn’t work in jail. It’s been hard.

I did everything I could to pay my fines, and I was still locked up because I was poor. I don’t think being poor should be a reason to be sent to jail, to be taken from your family. So I decided to bring a lawsuit against Lexington County and the people responsible so that no one else will be forced to spend weeks away from their family because they cannot afford to pay traffic tickets.

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Technicalleigh
81 days ago
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Debtors' prisons still exist.
SF Bay area, CA (formerly ATL)
Irenes
76 days ago
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'Clock boy' discrimination case thrown out by Texas judge

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The judge rules that the evidence was "factually deficient" to prove racial or religious discrimination.
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Technicalleigh
93 days ago
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Utter bullshit.
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Irenes
93 days ago
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"This Isn't Science": We Have No Idea How Much Pain Inmates Feel During Execution

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Just weeks after Arkansas attempted to execute eight men in 11 days, lethal injection in back in the news. On Tuesday, Georgia is scheduled to execute J.W. Ledford for a 1992 murder. Texas was slated to put Tilon Carter to death on Tuesday as well, but he received a stay last week after the state's court of criminal appeals decided to hear his claims that the jury was misled.

Georgia will use a controversial one-drug protocol—a heavy dose of pentobarbital, an anesthetic that critics say can fail to render inmates fully unconscious. On Monday, Ledford requested that Georgia execute him by firing squad, instead. He argues that a pain medication he takes has altered his brain chemistry so much that the pentobarbital may not work properly, leading to excruciating pain. (Texas was planning to use pentobarbital to kill Carter, as well.)

Americans generally accept the claim that lethal injection is a humane and painless way to kill convicted murderers. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans believe that lethal injection is the "most humane" form of capital punishment. According to a 2015 YouGov poll, just 18 percent of respondents described lethal injection as "cruel and unusual punishment," which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. But, despite its widespread use, there is virtually no scientific data to suggest that lethal injection is humane. There's been very little research done on the effects of lethal injections on humans at all—but the science that is available suggest that inmates may actually experience immense pain before dying.

On a recent episode of our Inquiring Minds podcast, Kishore Hari interviews Teresa Zimmers, an associate professor of surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine. Zimmers, who has spent years researching lethal injection, is sharply critical to the ways in which states kill the condemned.

"What we have here is masquerade," says Zimmers. "Something that pretends to be science and pretends to be medicine but isn't."

Prior to 1972, when the Supreme Court halted executions nationwide, states used a variety methods to put inmates to death, including gas chambers and the electric chair. After the court ruled in 1976 that the death penalty did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, an Oklahoma state legislator called the state's medical examiner, Jay Chapman, and asked him if he could come up with a new and humane way to execute prisoners. Chapman has said that he initially thought he wasn't qualified for the task, but he nonetheless proposed using fatal doses of pharmaceuticals that are typically used to put patients.

Chapman came up with a three-drug protocol: Sodium thiopental, an anesthetic to put the inmate to sleep; pancuronium bromide, which causes paralysis; and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Other states soon adopted this protocol, but there was never much scientific evidence showing it was truly humane.

"It's not at all clear that the protocol works as advertised," explains Zimmers.

In 2007, Zimmers was part of a team that analyzed execution records from California and North Carolina and found that lethal injection might actually lead to painful chemical asphyxiation. Zimmers' team suggested that the thiopental dosages being uses might not be high enough to induce sleep and that potassium chloride might not reliably stop the heart. The potential result: a paralyzed inmate who remains aware while dying from the inability to breathe. Zimmers' paper concluded:

[O]ur findings suggest that current lethal injection protocols may not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended, indicating a failure of design and implementation. If thiopental and potassium chloride fail to cause anesthesia and cardiac arrest, potentially aware inmates could die through pancuronium-induced asphyxiation. Thus the conventional view of lethal injection leading to an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable.

Beginning around 2009, European pharmaceutical companies began refusing to sell their drugs to American states that intended to use them to put inmates to death. The shortages led to a rush to find different lethal injection methods, such as replacing the sodium thiopental with a drug called midazolam or using a single fatal dose of an anesthetic.

And just like with the original cocktail, these new lethal injection techniques have been developed with little scientific rigor. "There's been a very active substitution of drugs into this protocol with, of course, no corresponding investigation," says Zimmers.

When Oklahoma used the one-drug protocol of pentobarbital in the execution of Michael Wilson in January 2014, the inmate's last words were, "I feel my whole body burning." A few months later, the state tried to put Clayton Lockett to death using a three-drug protocol that included the anesthetic midazolam. Lockett mumbled and writhed on the gurney, before dying of a massive heart attack about 40 minutes after the procedure began. Oklahoma's executions are now on hold.

Despite the controversy surrounding midazolam, last month Arkansas rushed to execute eight men in 11 days when its supply of the drug was set to expire. After a series of legal setbacks for the state, only four were put to death. The last man to die, Kenneth Williams, reportedly convulsed, jerked, lurched, and coughed for 10 to 20 seconds after prison officials administered midazolam.

Often, the debate over capital punishment centers around the morality of government-sponsored killing or the potential for an innocent person to be executed. But Zimmers suspects that for many people, support for the death penalty relies on the notion that states are using compassionate, scientifically validated method to kill inmates. That notion, Zimmers argues, is simply wrong.

"They should understand that this isn't science," she says. "This is a pretense of science."

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

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Technicalleigh
97 days ago
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No more executions. More killing solves nothing, it only creates more victims.
SF Bay area, CA (formerly ATL)
Irenes
97 days ago
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New Hampshire Disenfranchised This 94-Year-Old, Legally Blind Woman Because of Her Signature. Now We’re Suing.

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The state’s “signature match” test disenfranchises hundreds of voters each year, many of whom have disabilities.

In New Hampshire, hundreds of voters are disenfranchised each election due to a statute which requires all absentee voters to undergo a “signature match” requirement — essentially a handwriting test. One of these voters is Mary Saucedo. At 94 years old, Mary first voted for president in 1944. Last year, New Hampshire refused to count her vote, so we filed a lawsuit today challenging the statute which left Mary and hundreds of others without their most fundamental right.

Mary, who is legally blind due to advanced macular degeneration, qualifies to vote absentee in New Hampshire, an option which is only available to voters if they are unable to go to their polling place on Election Day due to a disability, religious observance, or a trip out of town. She often requires the help of her husband Gus, an 86-year-old military veteran, to cast her ballot. To Mary, voting means having a say as to who is in charge. It’s a lesson she credits her father for teaching. “He taught me as a child during the Depression that everyone who is eligible should vote,” she recalls. “It was our duty because voting is what makes our country independent.”

Married for 51 years, Mary and Gus approach voting like a team. In 2016, Gus helped Mary complete her application for a mail-in absentee ballot as well as assisted her in filling out and signing the ballot and ballot envelope when it came time to vote. Once the ballot was put into the mailbox addressed to the Manchester clerk’s office, the Saucedos did not give it another thought: They assumed Mary’s vote would count.

A few months after the election’s results were in, both Mary and Gus were surprised when the phone rang and on the other end was the ACLU of New Hampshire. They wanted to let Mary know that her vote in the 2016 presidential election had been thrown out. For the first time, the Saucedos learned that New Hampshire has a “signature match” statute that requires local election moderators to compare voters’ signature on their application for an absentee ballot to the signature on the envelope of the ballot itself. If a moderator believes that the signatures do not match, they must reject the ballot outright.

This practice is problematic on several grounds:

  • Voters aren’t notified of the signature match requirement, meaning they are not aware of the penalties for having penmanship that fluctuates between the documents.
     
  • More importantly, the statute doesn’t consider voters who are not able to produce two identical signatures, many of whom like Mary have a disability. This violates the Americans with Disabilities Act which guarantees the rights of citizens with disabilities to full and equal access to voting.
     
  • Finally, election moderators — individuals without handwriting analysis expertise — are not required to notify voters whose ballots are rejected. This means that Mary and others are not even given an opportunity to correct the problem or appeal the decision and save their vote in time. In fact, Mary may have never found out that her vote was rejected had it not been for the ACLU of New Hampshire.

What’s clear is that even one disenfranchised vote — let alone hundreds — is too many. Mary Saucedo did everything right and her vote should not have been rejected, especially because of a disability. New Hampshire must amend its practices so that they do not violate Mary’s and other Granite Staters’ fundamental right to vote.

 

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Irenes
101 days ago
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Technicalleigh
102 days ago
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SF Bay area, CA (formerly ATL)
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Analysis | 35 of 37 economists said Trump was wrong. The other two misread the question.

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President Trump's administration says his tax cut will pay for itself. It turns out it's really hard to find an economist who agrees. The University of…
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acdha
104 days ago
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Make The Onion Satire Again. Please!
Washington, DC
Irenes
103 days ago
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satadru
104 days ago
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Sigh.
New York, NY
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