First, the fun stuff ... I'm in a rail car! The conference is in Chattanooga, and I'm staying at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn. I couldn't resist the chance to stay here ... and sleep in an old sleeper car, refurbished as a quite livable hotel room. It's a little more long and narrow than a typical room, of course ... but that gives it considerable charm. I can't get wireless access in the railcar (gee, they didn't design old sleeper cars with WIFi in mind?), but at least they have a wired jack. I took a bunch of pictures, which I'll post sometime.
Of course, I haven't had much time to spend in the room, given that I'm here on business and all. But it's still been very, very cool.
I actually was fairly busy at the conference this year doing things. I volunteered to chair a session, which at this conference basically just means that you keep an eye on the clock and keep things moving from speaker to speaker. It's easy duty, but it helps the conference out. And, I presented a poster, based on that paper I keep trying to find a place to get published. "Present" is a little optimistic. Basically, you put the poster up and stand next to it and see if anyone want to talk to you about it. Which a couple of people did, but that was about it. So ... not exactly the most self-affirming activities, but that's life in show business.
Speaking of show business ... the third thing that I did was to appear on a panel at the conference, entitled "It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time." This is rapidly becoming a marvelous tradition at SIGCSE. Most of the time, at academic conferences, you hear papers from people who had great ideas, implemented them, and had marvelous success. This is the panel for people who have great ideas and implement them, only to have them crash and burn horribly. It's very cathartic for all who attend ... and along the way, we all learn a little something from the misery of others.
I had an experience like that this past summer in one of my classes. (No, I'm not talking about that other incident.) I had a great idea for an exam question ... only to end up having my students be smarter than I was. (I've uploaded all the details, for those of you with enough CS background to understand it.) And so, I volunteered to present my experience at the panel. I'd been joking with people that if I can't get a paper into the conference for being brilliant, maybe I can get something into the conference for being stupid.
And ... I was a hit. The empathetic laughter throughout the crowd was infectious and hearty and wonderfully affirming. All the jokes worked. And my storytelling appeared to have worked exactly right. Afterward, for days, people came up to me and told me how much they appreciated it. I'm still amazed by the reaction. (You know, I might actually have a future in public speaking ... which still amazes me.)
Then we got to today's luncheon speaker: Gregory Abowd from Georgia Tech. Abowd is doing some absolutely fascinating work on using computing technology in a ubiquitous manner to improve people's lives. It's astounding work.
Which actually made me feel a bit sad. See, I looked at his biography, and he got all his degrees 3-4 years before I did. But his work is just amazing, outstanding work, that is clearly making the world a better place. He's already not only a full professor, but a distinguished full professor, while I'm still an associate professor, wondering if I'll ever make the big leagues.
And this isn't the first time this has happened. One of my friends in undergraduate and graduate school was Avi Rubin. He's gone on to have an absolutely outstanding career ... he's authored textbooks, gotten lots of papers published, leads an NSF center, stuff like that. He's one of the guys that the media calls when they need a quote about his research area (security, particularly in voting systems). I'm thrilled by the work he's done, and proud to know him. But I'm a little jealous when I see that my vita isn't nearly as distinguished as his.
And then, in the midst of all my self-absorbed pity, God graciously whacks me upside the head.
While having lunch in the Memphis airport on the way here, I read an old newsletter with an article that talked about the spiritual disciplines of faculty members. In particular, this quote jumped out:
I'd always thought about this passage in terms of the use of gifts inside the church ... you know, don't worry if your spiritual gifts aren't as spectacular as those of your neighbor, since we need all of them. But I never thought about applying them to academia. Which is silly, now that I think about it; after all, God created the academy, too, so why shouldn't the same rules apply?
So, I haven't been given the same gifts of academic brilliance that some of my colleagues, near and far, have been given. So what? God hasn't called me to be Gregory Abowd, or Avi Rubin, or anyone else. God has called me to be ... well, me. If I am using my abilities, talents, gifts, and whatever as God directs, I have no reason to hang my head. I'm called to be faithful to my calling, not someone elses.
Because when I use my talents, the body benefits. And that's where I return to the conference to tell one more story. At the end of Abowd's talk, during the Q&A session, somehow the conversation drifted into talking about the difference between how things appear in theory, and how they actually emerge when put to practice. And he used as an example ... my story from the "It Seemed Like A Good Idea" panel, which he said he really enjoyed and helped provoke some useful thoughts for him. (He liked my story? Little old me?)
Because I was faithful to use my gifts, others, who I admire, received a benefit (a blessing, perhaps?). We are really all part of one body, after all.
And in response, all I can say is ... to God be the glory. After all, it's His gifts that made it possible.
(Now, I'd better get packed. Having DST start in the middle of a business trip means I've got to be doubly sure to make my plane on time ...)