My Week at a Machine Learning Conference – Part 2, Barcelona – Day 1

As we concluded the first part of this trip, I had left Iceland for Spain to attend NIPS (Neural Information Processing Systems) 2016.

I arrived in Barcelona at about 8:30 PM the night before the conference began. I noticed a few people on the plane who had a vague “going to a computer conference” vibe to them. One guy I was sure was going was wearing a jacket with a huge Google Brain logo. I knew, from the incredibly cheap hotel I’d booked, that December is the off-season when it comes to visiting Spain, so it made sense that a decent amount of people travelling to Barcelona would be for the conference.

As I was checking into the hotel, a guy with a thick accent was checking in with another clerk. I noticed that he showed them a Russian passport, and I immediately assumed he was probably also in town for the conference. We both wound up on the elevator together, and I said “You here for NIPS?”

As the words came out of my mouth, I realized what a terrible idea it was to use that wording. Luckily, he said that he was, and we had a short chat before I got to my floor. I still get a slight chill when I think about how badly things could have turned out, but I know in my heart that if I had to do it all again, I’d still word it that way, because I’m foolish.

In my opinion, NIPS is an unbelievably bad choice of name for a conference, but thankfully, the attendees are some of the most polite people you can imagine. There were thousands of people at the conference; I saw reports saying between 6000 and 8000.  There were lots of academic researchers, professors, students, etc. There were also lots of people from tech companies, but every one that I spoke to had quite solid academic backgrounds, and a significant number of them seemed to be fairly new to the actual tech world. I think the only time I heard anyone make anything close to an off-color comment the whole week was in one of the areas where sponsors set up booths. Some company was having a draw for a free drone, and to enter you had to let them scan a QR code on the NIPS conference pass that attendees were required to wear at all times. While I was waiting to get mine scanned, a guy ahead of me said, quite gleefully “GO AHEAD, SCAN MY NIPS!” It was so out of place for the general tone of the event, and I immediately looked at the lady who was scanning the passes, and she seemed to be having a genuine laugh at it. The guy said “I’ve been waiting to say that all week” much quieter, almost apologetically, sort of giving the impression that he was a normal guy who gave himself a quota of 1 “nips” jokes for the week.


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