SIGGRAPH 2016 | A wide-eyed account

Brooks Mershon
10 min readOct 18, 2016

Snippets from my writeup of my experience attending SIGGRPAH 2016 as a student volunteer:

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Special Interest Group on computer GRAPHics (and Interactive Techniques). The following is based on the experience of a 22 year old Student Volunteer (SV) attending the 43rd SIGGRAPH Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques for the first time. The conference was held in the Anaheim Convention Center from the 24th through the 26th of one particularly hot week in July. Following graduation and the beginning of an exciting new job working on the CAD program SketchUp, this SV booked a ticket from Boulder to Anaheim, checked in with an Airbnb host, and joined a band of other accepted SVs from across the country and overseas who had all been tasked with ensuring that SIGGRAPH 2016 runs smoothly (and having fun in the process).

The gang.

This is my little story about how I heard of SIGGRAPH, why I applied to be a student volunteer, how I got there, what it was like, and what I learned. This story spirals out a bit further from a faithful log of the events: it furrows down veins covering an attendee’s undergraduate experience and mindset both before and during the event. SV stands for Student Volunteer; it is during this new graduate’s transition from university to industry that SIGGRAPH took place. In fact, SIGGRAPH is a kind of celebration of this milestone, at least for the author, and attending the event confers certain special privileges and unique experiences that apply to these newly minted or soon-to-be graduates from schools like Ringling, RISD, Carleton, SCAD, Carnegie Mellon, UNC, SAIC, Dartmouth, Texas A&M, NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences (Netherlands), and The University of Edinburgh. A lot of schools, a lot of shared experiences. Several of the students, like me, had just graduated and were working at places like Apple, MPC, and Dreamworks. Many SVs were returning for another year of volunteering and the vast majority were here in large part for the job opportunities. This my story, but I would not have minded reading such an account from another student when I was in my senior year of college, trying to evaluate all of the information and opportunities demanding my attention.

We were easy to spot should we try to run away.

This is not a list of dos and don’ts, but rather a description of what I managed to take in while I was an attendee, which was certainly affected by my role, my housing accommodations, and the current stage of my education and career. I have tried to just throw down on the page a blow-by-blow of events with some attention to the thoughts I had as they happened. Some of the thoughts were deep, and others were along the lines of this was totally awesome or that kind of sucked, so I did another thing instead.

What follows has allowed me to reflect on why this young whippersnapper went to an academic conference on computer graphics during the summer after graduating from Duke. Perhaps what I ate and where we drank and whom I talked to is not that important. Perhaps my account is a little self-indulgent. This was certainly worthwhile for me to write and you are welcome to skip around or stop reading now. This is for me as much as it is for you, the person from whose perspective you will be reading about what went on at SIGGRAPH 2016.

During your last semester of college, you enroll in a course that will be taught by a student whose name you recognize: during the Fall of the previous year, a graduate student named Chris Tralie delivered a guest lecture to you and about a dozen other students enrolled in an introductory course in computational topology. That survey of topology taken during your junior year was the first of several positive academic experiences that occurred during the second half of your undergraduate career.

Not knowing very much at all about the field of topology and certainly lacking the mathematical background to cope with a pure presentation of the subject matter, you nonetheless found yourself relatively comfortable in a course designed to sweep much of the mechanics under the rug. The big ideas were left out in the open to impress, inspire, and possibly encourage subsequent and deeper study. In fact, most of these big ideas were communicated at the chalkboard as diagrams. You found them intuitive and beautiful. In a way, the reason you are going to attend SIGGRAPH 2016 is that you took MATH 412 with Paul Bendich during the Fall of 2015. That course introduced you to both ideas and people from whom you would learn a lot about, well, learning. That course led to instructors who become friends, to glowing letters of recommendation, to an internship at the Washington Post, and to your ticket to SIGGRAPH. That course eventually led a job after college. MATH 412 changed your attitude about math, learning, and communication.

In this topology course, you had the chance to do math for the first time at a chalkboard alongside a teacher with a gift for explication. You talked during office hours and drew diagrams in order to play fast and loose with new abstractions as you began stepping away from learning math the rote way towards engaging unfamiliar territory with whatever machinery you needed to build up your intuitions. For you, diagrams had a tremendous attraction. Diagrams consisting of lines, dashes, points, and commutative relations with arrows and spatial cues seemed less tedious than symbolic manipulation as you had previously encountered it in the form of algebraic relations and proofs with which you had little experience or foothold. In a way, diagrams come into play as a powerful tool for those who lack other possibly more powerful tools. Bendich was still feeding you some abstract stuff, but the way he presented the mechanics and the narratives that accompanied the math made the material not only palatable, but also enjoyable. A light bulb went off. You hear a chime.

Vietoris-Rips Complex: An interactive pedagogical tool built for MATH 412.

In MATH 412, you had the opportunity to experience new models of teaching. This wasn’t because the material in MATH 412 was so special, but rather because the instructor was just that good at bridging the gap between his own mental models and the tools that a student may or may not have to work with. That’s really what teaching is all about, after all: bridging that gap with whatever tools you have available. Bendich knew when things did not click for the student, and he knew detours that other professors did not often try, alternative explanations which could bring the confused out of the dark. You have said to others about your experiences in MATH 412 that Bendich is a new breed of teacher — the nouveau-instructor. He was and that number would come to sound higher than you would have expected. His excellence in teaching has only been matched by individuals who were 28 and 27 years old at the time they were your instructors. You cherish the lunches you have had with him a year after that course was over.

A bit of math anxiety seems to drop away behind you during your junior year. It’s still there, but you have more positive associations with math than you did before taking MATH 412. You wrote code to visualize ideas and derived tremendous satisfaction from seeing that work. If that’s what math is, or what it can be, you think you ought to forge ahead, even after you graduate, in your pursuance of math. Maybe math is design, or design can be math. You’ve never been bad at math, but you’ve also never found it particularly pleasing or easy. To your friends, you have explained math as as an area in which you could never quite dance, where all things on the other side of standardized testing you felt came more naturally. You can’t help being drawn towards math you can show to others after you receive praise for your final project. As it turns out, the whole enterprise of working on math you can show to others is something in which Chris Tralie has invested a great deal of time. That is what initially draws you to his work and piques your interest when you hear he will teach a course.

Equidecomposability: Final project for Chris Tralie’s course.

There are countless positive memories you have from his class in which you felt you truly learned something through experience that cannot be read out of a textbook. One morning found you struggling to debug a recursive ray-tracing algorithm that you were implementing. You had chosen to dive head first into an ambitious project the had set up for the class, striving to achieve one of the first milestones as soon as possible because you knew subsequent tasks would only be harder and more prone to set backs. In the back of your mind you were always concerned that you might suddenly let him down, that something would suddenly become too difficult and you would not be up to snuff. Chris was so pleased at your efforts to make a dent in his project that he held office hours remotely in the middle of a snow storm, working with you over Google Hangouts as you were cooped up in a library to debug your code. Early on you established that you would give your all in his projects and work closely with him to provide feedback and often times help relieve his work load by your very catching of problems with an assignment before an entire class was confused and against a deadline.

While you are among the stronger students in the class, it is not your programming ability that Chris respects in you or your mathematical aptitude, but rather your ability to work hard and honestly in return for his hard work and effort put into producing a fantastic learning experience. Chris has made it clear early on that he respects hard work and detests what he calls “genius worship.” You are in the mix as he says, and so long as you keep eagerly doing everything you can to improve and learn in his course, you are doing things right in his mind. You have enough ability to do the work and have an attitude about learning that meshes well with his own. You respect his willingness to balance being a full-time graduate student with never failing to deliver a well-prepared lecture and projects which sometimes take 10 to 20 hours for him to design and produce boilerplate code for. While you are just another one of his students, and you are sure to respect this arrangement, you are also close during office hours, talking through more than just the material you are learning and hiccups related to a recent assignment. You talk about work habits, about his good and bad experiences in academia, about working with team members, about organizing your time, about dealing with anxiety, about relationships, about what it means to balance studying math with living your own life. Chris is your senior, but he is still only 27 years old.

You wake up early to take the bus from Boulder to Denver International Airport. During the flight, you finish reading How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. You find the second-person conceit refreshing and decide you might as well give that a try when you write about your experiences at SIGGRAPH. You secretly wonder how many people at the airport or on your plane whole-heartedly believe or, like you, at least want to believe the conspiracy theories surrounding Denver International Airport. You hear one lady seated near you in terminal make a reference to this and you smile. There is something up with DIA. You’ve seen the strange artwork and read about the Masonic symbols. You’re happy your home airport is this interesting, because you hope to fly out of it a few times this year.

Arriving at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, you are struck by the awful heat wave they are currently experiencing and your excitement for your Anaheim trip falters as you head through Friday midday traffic in the back seat of your Uber driver’s cluttered Scion xB. After 30 minutes of motoring, you retrieve a key from the lockbox at the big empty house where your Airbnb host lives. It’s Friday. On Saturday you must report for a day of SV orientation before SIGGRAPH kicks off the following day. You make it out on foot through the seedy strip of South Beach Boulevard to grab a few groceries. You feel fairly close to experiencing heat stroke for the first time as you jog to the nearest CVS to stash a week’s worth of snacks in your kitchen. You’ll be commuting 15 minutes each day from your host’s home to the convention center. Meals will occasionally often consist of restaurants and daily over-priced bento boxes for breakfast (and lunch) from a Hilton Starbucks next to the convention center.

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