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Amsterdam, SocialCom 2012.

Amsterdam, SocialCom

A friend (@pfdevilliers) submitted a paper to this year’s SocialCom conference in Amsterdam. It was accepted, so I decided to tag along thanks to the funds provided by my lab: the MIH Media Lab. The area of research is relevant to my cross-section: social sciences and computer science. I was eager to see the calibre of research and to see Amsterdam!

I’ve always been a fan of Netherlands. Liberal attitudes, beautiful country, good looking people, cycling everywhere, stable economy, understandable language (I’m Afrikaans, which stemmed from Dutch) and cheese. It was on the top of my countries and places to visit. I was very excited to find out I can visit a relevant conference and see Amsterdam!

Our flight went straight from CPT to Schiphol, and through the night (11 hours). No changes in timezones as well. I could luckily fit in some sleep. We arrived on the Thursday morning and made our way to Amsterdam Central Station. Met a French girl (currently living in Shanghai) on the way there who had to catch a flight that was delayed due to the WW2 bomb they found on Schiphol the previous day. Considering my French surname, and lack of knowledge of heritage, I asked her where to visit. Luckily she was from the south of France (where I suspect my surname originated) and gave me great places to go and see!

Now. The first thing you notice when in Amsterdam are the buildings and bikes.

Lots and lots of bikes! It still is strange to see so many people ride bikes. Not your more fit, active people. Everyone. Including normal (in the Dutch people’s case, hot) people.

PF and I found the hotel, which was situated awesomely. Just around the corner from Leidseplein, and by luck our hotel room looked onto the Prinsengracht hotel. After long days of seeing the city, it was great to just sit and see the people move about on the banks of the canal.

During the few days before the conference we saw a lot. To be honest, it felt like a week went past (for just 3 days). Van Gogh Museum, Heineken Experience, House of Bols, Red Light District, Maritime Museum, Museum Plein, Dam Square, Leidseplein, Canal rides, Zaandam (15min outside AMS), Flower Market. At the Heineken Experience, we bumped into an American girl from Florida and got talking. She was in Amsterdam with a French guy. Great people! That night we all ventured through Amsterdam together.

This was all in the 3 days before the conference.

Conference

I was really looking forward to the conference. I was hoping to find some research relevant to my thesis. This was my first academic conference and I was also curious what it was like, because I’m presenting a paper in Madrid in October. Also: meeting new and super smart people!

The monday started early! We decided to attend a workshop on using social media for human computation. It was fascinating (as expected): especially the paper by Christophe Harris. Using mechanical turk they found how likely people are to be ethically swayed when answering homework/exam questions through it. Coffee breaks were usually spent sitting on the canal, drinking (rooibos!) tea and meeting/talking to people.

It was interesting to meet a guy who is currently doing post-doc research at Harvard with data from Mxit. If you don’t know, Mxit, is based in Stellenbosch (my town) and is Africa’s premier social platform! Had to punt our tech ecosystem a bit. ;).

The rest of the day was filled with interesting talks! The night we met up with a friend (@richoakley), who was coincidentally the same time in Amsterdam for another conference. A fellow conference attendee bumped into us sitting by the canal and joined us. A great guy, Fredrik, from Sweden, starting his Phd. We shared stories about South Africa and the internet landscape. Great fun.

Tuesday was another full day of talks. The keynote was absolutely fascinating! By Todorov, he spoke about how people perceive faces. An example research looked at what personality traits result in facial features. By modeling a person’s face with computer generated noise, they made people choose between two alternatives based on a metric such as trustworthiness. Adding the noise together gave a surprisingly accurate representation of what would be considered a trustworthy face! On Tuesday, I also found relevant research to my thesis presented by (@nhodas).

The poster session was fascinating. People could more thoroughly explain some of their research even though I wasn’t entirely knowledgeable of some of the domains. Tuesday night was fantastic: the banquet. Great food, and an even more perfect table. Our table had to be basically kicked out of the hall, because we were still engaged in discussion by the end. As is the case with a bunch of computer scientists, there were debates about Apple vs Android, etc. We all agreed on one thing though! vi/vim is the best editor! Haha.

The first talk of Wednesday was @pfdevilliers’ talk. He articulated well for so early. The rest of the day was once again filled with talks. The most memorable was a paper of the day was on studying the collaborations of jazz musicians over time and finding ways to visualize it with graphs! The final part of the afternoon was spent in the security and privacy workshop. Fredrik whom we met was presenting as well as other South Africans from NMMU whom we’ve had the privilege to meet.

Sadly, after that, the conference had to come to an end! :(

Final days and some thoughts.

After the conference ended on Wednesday afternoon, PF and I did what we could do to ease the sorrow of the end of a great conference: drink beer. While sitting in Leidseplein, we saw groups of musicians walking past us. We decided to investigate and found a local bar just around the corner. My 2nd passion being music, I had to go check it out. Luckily it was free entry and happy hour! We stocked up on more beer and checked the bands. It was awesome! The people looked about 20, jamming blues improv jams on stage. During the improv they would call other members from the audience to switch instruments (bass and drums were switched) and they just continued jamming. My only explanation for this awesomeness is that they are all studying music and know each other. Seriously. Whaaat.

The final day in Amsterdam was spent looking for souvenirs and walking through Vondelpark.

All in all. I really really enjoyed the whole experience and I must thank the MIH Media Lab for making it possible (on that note: the lab is hiring new students for 2013). It left way too much thoughts in my head that I still have to process. I enjoy so much about the city. Bikes, liberal attitudes, beautiful people, beautiful city, understandable language, etc. The local band night sealed the deal. I can. For free, in a random bar see amazing talent such as that. And not even mentioning the other amazing artists that pass through the city on their European tours. The tech scene is growing as well! As for the language, I could easily read it all. I found myself accidentally reading the dutch side of menus before I realized what I was doing! If people speak it, and it isn’t crowded (like the time in the local band night bar), I can understand 65%. I suspect it won’t take long to learn the differences in Afrikaans vs Dutch, and learn the accent.

The whole experience left me wondering again what I want to do with my life after I finish with my masters next year. I’ve never considered doing a PHD, but there are sooo many fascinating questions that need to be answered. It didn’t help with the fact the papers being presented were so interesting, or the fact that Fredrik offered to help us find Phd positions at his university. I would say my desire to do a PHD has gone from 0% to 20%. I think for my own sanity, I hope it doesn’t increase. ;).

If there is a place I’d want to live and experience more, Amsterdam would definitely be at the top. And that’s an option that’s sitting in the back of my mind now for after my masters. There is a visa program for highly educated people to live in the Netherlands for a year, and try to find a job that pays a certain amount. But that assumes, I want to get into a job. My main desire still is to save money and straight after masters take a 3-4 month break and try hard as possible to get a startup going. And currently Cape Town/Stellenbosch is the best place for it (personally). I know a lot of people in the scene and I can ask for support and advice from all of them. Plus it is less expensive than going to Silicon Valley or Amsterdam (or Berlin).

Luckily (unluckily?) I still have a year about to decide what to do. Next up, I’m presenting my paper (on online social networking APIs) in Madrid in October at the IADIS www/internet conference. Looking forward to seeing the city and meeting new people! I feel really grateful for these opportunities!