Invitations and Disinvitations

Decision Procedures

I regularly get invitations to speak at various events. This seems to be from a combination of factors: I often have something interesting to say to even nontechnical audiences; my name is somewhat familiar to a (small) segment of the computing community; and unlike many computer people, I don’t talk to my shoes and say “like” and “um” as every other word. Depending on the event and audience, I suppose I am a better choice than a politician (lots fewer lies) or a Turing Award winner (lots fewer theorems). It’s been years since I’ve been booed off the stage, I almost always remember to wear pants, and although I can’t immediately think of any venue where I’ve been invited back, at least there are no outstanding warrants …that I know about. Thus, I’m probably a safe bet as a speaker.

Sometimes there are too many such invitations coming in. I don’t want to say “no” to too many, because of something someone notable once told me, as a parable, in confidence (his identify, that is):

There’s the old story of the village idiot. Whenever people would come to town, they’d be told stories about the guy. They were encouraged to prove it to themselves. The were told to offer him a nickel and a dime (this was many, many years ago, when those were really worth something). The idiot would consider, then pick the nickel because it was bigger.

So, one day, a passing stranger heard this story while at the diner. His next stop after the diner was already planned to be at the general store where the village idiot sat outside during the day. The visitor did as had been suggested, and offered the kid a nickel in one hand, and a dime in the other. The kid looked at one, then the other, then said “That one’s bigger!” and pocketed the nickel. The stranger, being a kindly sort, asked the kid “Do you know the little one is worth twice the big one?”

The village idiot looked around to make sure no one else was in earshot, then in a whisper said “How long do you think people would continue to offer me money if I started taking the dimes?”

So, this person — a notable leader in the field — said, if I said “no” too often, people would stop asking. (Yes, in retrospect, the parable doesn’t quite have the same meaning, but I got the point as I think we were at a bar at the time so lots of things made sense.) And on the chance someone actually might pay attention to what I have to say (there must be at least one every few years), I try not to say “no” all the time.

When I am inclined to say yes, I try to prioritize my choices, and thus don’t say “yes” to all of the invitations I receive. For instance, I don’t want to miss special family events. I don’t want to miss classes I’m teaching and important university events. I try to give priority to CERIAS partners, charitable non-profits, and some government agencies. I expect most commercial entities to come up with a speaker’s fee if they are making money off the event where I am asked to appear, and a large fee bumps up my interest (hey — I’m a professor at a state university with a kid in college). And I give a bump in priority for requests from old friends and past students (who are often old friends now).

This whole decision procedure gets more complex when I am asked far in advance to speak, because I may say yes to one thing and then something else will pop up that I really want to do that overlaps or abuts what I already have scheduled. I don’t back out of things unless it is really critical — I try in all things to keep my word. The result is that sometimes — especially in the autumn — I find myself doing too much travel, and it is very tiring. I need to refine my system so I say “no” a little more often.

Autumn Invitations

This year, I got invited to speak at a bunch of conferences and special events, many of which I added to my schedule — the ISSA International Conference, a special educational event at the USNA, a tech conference at Northrop-Grumman, and more. I was also asked by old friends/students to speak at two different conferences held in Asia. After considerable thought, I said yes to both, especially as both were willing to cover roundtrip expenses in business class. Plus, both seemed to be high-profile, multi-national events. However, each would require a very long trip, with associated jet lag, and each would be for only two days at the destination. On balance, I decided I would do them.

As conference #1 approached, I made all my arrangements. It was a major conference, with government and technical people from several continents — not really a tech conference at all. No agenda for this year was online, but when I saw the list of example speakers from prior years, I really felt honored to have been asked to speak.

Then, a few weeks before I was scheduled to depart, I found the agenda finally on-line and discovered that my “talk” was actually a panel appearance. I’d get to talk for 10 minutes then sit and maybe have a few questions asked of me. 23 hours one-way transit for that. Ouch. However, I had agreed to go, and I wasn’t going to go back on my word.

It turns out that there had been a language problem and things weren’t quite so bleak. My hosts had also arranged an extended visit with a leading tech firm for the day before the conference. I was treated to several 1st-rate meals, an offer of guided sight-seeing, and some souvenir shopping. The panel was short but there were other meetings, and in the end the whole experience turned out to be okay, although still very wearing because of the travel, time changes, and the like. Oh, and the frequent flier mileage put me well over Platinum status for the next year. So, it wasn’t a complete disaster, although had I known when asked, I might well have said “no.”

Whew! I sure dodged a bullet there! But who could possibly be inconsiderate enough to invite someone to travel 20+ hours one-way simply to speak for 10-15 minutes? Ha ha, I had a good laugh that I even thought that to be the case.

Meanwhile, conference #2 was shaping up. I already had the plane ticket (they purchased it). I had roughed out a talk that I suspected would be of great interest — about malware and its rise; companies in their region had some recent, high-profile losses to malware. Also, the conference would be in mid-November, 25 years plus a few days after the Internet Worm, so the timing would be great, too.

Then, about 2 weeks ago, I got email that they wanted my Powerpoint slides in advance, and “reminding” me that — wait for it — I would have about 15 minutes to speak. What the ???? I replied that (a) no one had told me it was only 15 minutes, (b) the talk I had prepared would not fit in 15 minutes so I needed some guidance as to what they wanted instead, and (c) I don’t use Powerpoint.   

I also indicated to a colleague who was involved with the event that I was seriously weighing whether to go — having just been through that experience with Conference #1, and finding long trips unduly wearing (I’m not as young as I used to be, but who is?). He replied that “everyone” was really looking forward to seeing me, and it had been heavily advertised that I would be there. But no one else replied to my (a, b, c).


Tonight, what I got from that same colleague is that I was being disinvited from the conference because I had not responded and they had to print the program. Huh? Responded to .. what? Send slides I told them I don’t use for a talk I couldn’t give? I now have a nagging suspicion that the only reason I had been invited in the first place was to add some “marquee” value to the advertising — not the first time that kind of thing has happened. It really can’t have been to hear what I had to say on any topic, other than maybe “The hotel is nice” or “Gee, it sure is sunny here.” Anything more technical and deep would require non-trivial time to present.

Lucky for me, they paid for the ticket, so I don’t have to do anything to back all this out, and I’m not on the hook financially. I think I’ll use those now-free days to catch up on some reading and paperwork at home rather than at 35,000 ft.

So as of today, I have a new decision rule when being asked to speak: if it is for an event I wouldn’t attend on my own, and it takes me longer than 4 hours to get there, I’m not agreeing to only appear as part of a panel unless it is really, really a special occasion. My life is too complicated already. And really — look at my blog posts. Do you really think I am able to speak for only 15 minutes on a topic? 🙂

Another kind of attack on science

A few months ago, I wrote about some of my concerns with anti-science behaviors and beliefs. I received several responses I did not approve for posting, from people who displayed the same ignorant biases I wrote about. I received only a few items in support. That may be a reflection of my readership, or it could be further evidence of the problem.

In the months since then we have had a number of things pop up that have reinforced my concerns. One example was the amendment  introduced by Senator Coburn to the Federal budget that curtailed some of the funding for the NSF in social sciences. Another is the recent indication that Representative Smith is trying to change the fundamental mechanisms of funding for NSF to exclude science he (or his political cronies) don’t understand or don’t like. Many other bloggers have written about the attacks on science, such as this one in Slate.

There is now news of a much more insidious attack, and one that represents both the increasing cultural hostility towards inquisitiveness and extreme paranoia about “terrorism.” See this article and this article for an overview of the details. In summary, a young woman tried an ad hoc chemistry experiment, based on something she viewed online. An older version of this would have been putting baking soda into vinegar; this version was some toilet cleanser and aluminum foil. It basically popped the container it was in. Some school administrator saw this and called the police. She was charged with felonies similar to what one might use against a terrorist, and expelled from school — all for something that most of us have done as children.

There is a petition open at on this issue. I have signed it. I encourage you to consider also signing.

However, I went a step further and sent email to three of the decision makers in the process: the school principal (Ronald Pritchard), the school superintendent (John Stewart), and the Polk County Sheriff (Grady Judd). My letter is enclosed. You might wish to send your own letters. Or not.

[Update: the email address for Grady Judd does not appear to work any more.]

My letter:

From: Eugene H. Spafford <>
Date: May 2, 2013
Subject: What a terrible message you are sending….

Gentlemen, I am a senior faculty member at Purdue University. I hold patents and international awards for my research. I have been an advisor to the President of the US and testified before Congress.

As a child I was interested in science, particularly in chemistry. I conducted ad hoc experiments in my yard, and via my school. Those activities encouraged me to ask “why” and investigate further, leading to a career of science-based activities.

What you have shown, with your blind application of law and regulations to Mr. Kiera Wilmot, is not only a significant lack of common sense, but a lack of appreciation for curiosity and initiative. This was not a case of someone with a handgun shooting up the school, or creating an explosive device out of a pressure cooker. It was a young girl trying (perhaps unwisely) an experiment she found online. This is barely different from experimenting with combining baking soda and vinegar in a pill bottle — something you yourself may have done as children.

Ms. Wilmot’s curiosity suggests potential for a future in a STEM discipline — and our country (and the world) need more experts in these fields. Ms. Wilmot, as a minority female, is especially rare among my colleagues in the sciences. Your actions not only may quash her interests, but serve as a severe inhibitor of curiosity by any other young people in your area. Rather than being educators and promoting your community, you are serving to stamp out curiosity, ambition, and learning.

Your proper course of action would have been to explain to Ms.Wilmot the dangers of trying such experiments without permission (and presumably, without safety considerations, such as goggles), and then used the incident as a teaching opportunity for her and her peers. Not only would you have deflected other such ad hoc activities, but you would have been directly addressing your mission of education…if indeed that is the mission you see for Polk schools.

Simply stated, you have overreacted in the extreme and made yourselves the butt of pointed comments around the world. You have also hurt that young woman and her future, and initiated a ripple of damage to your community. Shame on you.

You still have an opportunity to make things right: rescind the expulsion order, drop all legal charges, and make an effort to encourage Ms. Wilmot’s interest in science, rather than to punish her for curiosity.

Eugene H. Spafford, Ph.D., Sc.D
Professor and Executive Director
Fellow of the AAAS, ACM, IEEE, ISC^2, ISSA

Disclaimer: Purdue University is listed for identification purposes only. My opinions do not necessarily represent any official or public position of the university or any of its personnel other than myself.

%d bloggers like this: