A few weeks ago, I attended the Spring 2016 BVLC retreat, which was a three-day event (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday) held in Sonoma, CA, in the Wine Country. There was a similar event last year, but I did not attend that one. BVLC stands for “Berkeley Vision and Learning Center,” but the organization recently re-branded itself as BAIR (“Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research”). I’m a student member of the group. Check out the new BAIR website.

This post is split in two parts. The first will be a recap of my experience at the BVLC retreat. The second will explain why the BVLC retreat was nearly a disaster.

The BVLC Retreat

I took the BVLC-sponsored bus ride from Berkeley to Sonoma with other students, postdocs, and (a few) faculty. After going through typical sign-in procedures and checking into our rooms, the first major event was the bike ride (though I think only two of the faculty actually rode with us, and both are new assistant professors).

We were divided into three groups and, led by a few experienced bikers, rode across a park and a few roads to reach the lunch destination at the Bartholomew Park Winery. I was a tiny bit nervous about embarrassing myself since I hadn’t biked for a few years, but everything went well and I enjoyed the ride. I observed that other bikers were able to maintain conversations while biking; it’s hard for me to do that since I don’t want to lose focus on the bike path, so I didn’t do much talking along the way. Once we were at the winery, a humorous host instructed us on the finer points of wine-tasting and provided us with six different wines to drink. Among other things, I learned that to drink wine correctly, you need to spin/twirl your glass. Then we had a surprisingly-delicious lunch outside. I sat next to two other students I knew, and while it was tough at times to understand their voices, they were willing to repeat when needed.

After that, we biked over to an ice cream place near the hotel. I ventured into new territory by trying a bowl of cappuccino and almonds ice cream. (Why does that combination exist? I don’t know.) I tried that only because I really like almonds and cappuccinos.

Once we finished the bike ride, we (faculty included, of course) gathered in a ballroom at 4:30PM so that Angie Abbatecola and Trevor Darrell could provide some opening remarks. Fortunately, there were two sign-language interpreters, so I sat in the front left corner of the room. Sadly, most of the other students sat in the back of the ballroom, so I was surrounded by faculty and industry sponsors. (Members from companies sponsoring BVLC were invited to the retreat, such as employees of Facebook and – more surprisingly – a few guys from Yahoo! Japan.) After the opening remarks, we had brief 15-minute faculty talks about their group’s ongoing research. There was some interesting stuff here. In particular, I liked the robotics research from Ken Goldberg and Pieter Abbeel. The former’s research can be succinctly described as “cloud robotics”; the latter’s research can probably be called “deep reinforcement learning.”

Following that, we had a poster session with roughly 25 posters. I did not interact with students much, preferring to instead read the posters carefully. Halfway through the 1-1.5 hour poster session, I had memorized the high-level concepts of all the posters, and I described all of them to Ken Goldberg when he asked me to prove that I knew them.

In the evening, we had a large group dinner at the hotel. Everyone was invited: students, postdocs, faculty, and industry sponsors. I had salmon with spinach and mushrooms, and it was a good meal despite my general distaste for mushrooms.

The dinner bears some further discussion. Large group dinners have historically been some of the most difficult events for me to go through because, without any outside assistance, I cannot follow conversations at my table and feel depressed afterwards. But this time, I was smart enough to request sign language interpreting services not only for the talks, but for the dinner, so the same two guys were there. And it’s a good thing they were there; I spent half of my dinner talking to one person, a sponsor from Samsung, who seemed fascinated by my deafness. He asked me the obligatory “can I lip read?” question, and later asked how I could speak so well since he thought my speech was better than his. (Even though I’ve gone through this subject countless times, I don’t mind the attention.) Then we had some more substantive discussion on technology issues such as automatic speech recognition.

But despite how he was sitting right next to me, I had a hard time understanding his voice and looked at the interpreters more than I looked at him.

Incidentally, the dinners were “structured” in the sense that Angie and Trevor wanted (a) people to sit next to new people and (b) for all tables to discuss a common topic. Each of the attendees had name tags with a small colored dot, and we were supposed to sit next to people with different colors. (Side note: I hope next year’s event will actually write the color names rather than have a tiny dot, since we color blind people cannot tell what color we have.) But it didn’t really matter since so many students (and even faculty!) broke the rule; I saw members from the same research group sitting next to each other. Oh well.

The topic for tonight’s dinner was the impact and ethics of AI on jobs. This is an important topic because in the future, AI may rapidly displace jobs in the same way that the assembly line and industrialism replaced unskilled labor. In addition, as anyone who has read science fiction will know, there is a fear that AI can eventually become “unstoppable” and sprawl out of human control. Clearly, we have to reassure people that this will not happen. The discussion at my table was interesting, with most of it centered on how technological displacement has been happening all the time, and this is just “the next step.” In addition, my table (and others!) even mentioned that Bernie Sanders was the only “AI-friendly” presidential candidate. I do not agree with that statement for a variety for reasons, but it wasn’t surprising to see many people support that since academics tend to be liberal.

The dinner went far beyond scheduled, and I finally decided to call it a night after the interpreters stayed 30 minutes past the assigned time. (They were really nice to stay, and I was the one who had to convince them to finish up!)

I got very little sleep that night – it took me three hours to fall asleep – but I didn’t want to miss out on the 7:00AM morning hike. I woke up on time, ate some stale breakfast (no coffee, though) and boarded the bus for the hike. The hike was through Jack London State Park. We split up into a “moderate” group and an “intermediate” group; the guides said the intermediate group would have to go on a somewhat hilly route. Unfortunately for the guides, far more people wanted to be on the “intermediate” hike, so we had to split up further. (I was obviously part of the intermediate group, since I didn’t want to give the impression that I was in poor physical shape.)

The hike itself was much easier than “intermediate,” but that was fine with me. It was nice to be outdoors and to forget about academics. I didn’t talk much, but it would have been hard to have a consistent conversation with someone while avoiding the animal droppings on the trail, since I have to look at the person to understand them well.

Upon arriving back to the hotel, we had another set of five faculty talks and a poster session. For this one, I brought an old poster describing a project from last fall, but it sadly didn’t seem to be that popular among the attendees. Following the poster session, we had all (or most) of the industry sponsors give brief talks about their company, but some were just advertising their job openings. I thought the most interesting presentation came from Facebook’s employees, who described an app that helps the blind “see” through photos. Notice the date of that article!

After the sponsor talks, we had three “breakout” sessions where we gathered in smaller groups to discuss a more specific subset of AI. There were three sessions: (1) natural language & vision, (2) deep reinforcement learning, and (3) CAFFE. I sat in the natural language & vision session, and we talked about the usual object recognition issues, but there was also some interesting stuff about automatic image captioning. I’m aware that there’s research going on in that area (especially in Trevor Darrell’s group) but I haven’t read any of the papers in detail.

Then, we had one of the more unusual events in the afternoon: a wine-blending competition!

The rules were simple. Each group was given the same set of four red wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Franc, and … something else I can’t remember. We had to choose a blend of the four wines to form a new wine, with the constraint that we could not have more than 50 percent of the blend come from one of the wines. Each group would nominate their “best” wine, which our hosts would then shuffle in private and distribute into glasses for three groups of four (since we had twelve groups total). Then, each group nominated a wine-taster, who would match up with three others in the first round (with their three wines) to taste all four wines and rank them from best (1) to worst (4). This meant that every wine taster was guaranteed that his/her group’s wine would appear in his/her group of four, so groups had to make wines that both were really good, but ideally would also be easily detected by their group’s wine-taster, so he or she could rank it as (1).

My group nominated Alexei (Alyosha) Efros as our wine-taster, and we won the first round! In our group of four, Alexei correctly picked our wine first, and the three other wine-tasters from the three competing teams each picked our wine as (2), so our total was 1+2+2+2 = 7 points. It’s hard to get better than that! We advanced to the second (and final) round along with the two other winners from their first round groups, and a fourth “wild-card” team which had the best score of any of the non-first place teams.

Sadly, our victory was not to be. Alexei picked our wine last, so that added four awful points to our score. In fact, the three other wine-tasters really liked our wine, so much that we came in second place, I think with nine points (4+2+2+1). Yeah, I should have volunteered to wine taste.

One of the more amusing aspects of the competition was coming up with our team names, and seeing everyone’s reaction when our host read them aloud. Many of the names (predictably) had some form of “deep” in them – my team name was “Deep Drink,” courtesy of Anca Dragan. Our host was immediately suspicious, and thought there had to be some deeper meaning of the word “deep.”

We then had our second dinner, but this time it was at a golf course, and it was preceded by a one-hour reception. As my interpreters would not show up until after the reception, I knew it would be difficult for me socially, so I asked a few students I knew to stay with me. Though those students were foreigners, I could understand them since I led us away from the crowd. The subject of the night? American politics! Obviously, I was the one who initiated the conversation. The funny thing about this was that an international student told me I was the first American to talk to him about politics despite how he has been at Berkeley for three years.

The dinner after the reception was surprisingly similar to last night’s dinner. We split up into similar-sized tables, I ate fish again, I had two sign language interpreters there, and rules were broken: in my table, five people who knew each other well sat next to each other, and we didn’t talk about the “designated topic” for the night, which was about working in academia versus industry. Once again, both interpreters were very nice and stayed past their assigned time (9:00PM) without me asking them.

The Tuesday morning was more of the same – breakfast, followed by faculty talks, followed by a poster session, then some closing statements, then lunch. A lot of people who drove here went away Tuesday morning before the closing events. During lunch, I did not have interpreters, but it was only for one meal and I can manage (like how I’ve been “managing it” my whole life). I sat next to a man from Yahoo! Japan, and with him being Japanese, it was tough to understand him, but we got some basic conversation going.

Then, at last, I boarded the bus back to Berkeley.

What are my thoughts on the retreat? It went much better than I expected, but this is in part because I have such low expectations that it doesn’t take much to make me happy. (I wasn’t happy all the time, though.)

I think the key for my positive experience was the two dinners. I told this to one of the students who had attended the retreat, and he told me his experience was the opposite: he did not enjoy the dinners, because he could only consistently understand the people who were sitting next to him. And yes, he is hearing, and a few other people I spoke to also confirmed that the noise was an issue for them.

In contrast, I had six pairs of ears that night. The weakest two – but still better than nothing – belonged to me. The other four belonged to the two other interpreters, one of whom sat across from me and thus was able to follow conversations at the opposite end of the table. For one of the few times in my life, I was actually better off during a crowded dinner setting compared to hearing people. I felt ridiculously happy being with my sign language interpreters and could forget about my past frustrations with these dinner experiences.

And yet … the sign language interpreters almost never made it there.

What Almost Happened

On February 22, Angie Abbatecola sent a joint email to members of BVLC asking them to sign up for the retreat. I looked at the agenda and was excited. I did an informal cost-benefit analysis and thought that, particularly because I didn’t attend last year, I better go this time. I RSVP-ed and sent an email to Angie and to Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program (DSP) to inquire about accommodations.

DSP’s initial response was that they were unable to pay for interpreting services since it was not directly related to my coursework, but they would investigate their options and contact me later. I was puzzled at this assertion, because I had gotten services before for research-oriented events, and this (even though it is a social event) definitely qualifies as a research event. I immediately followed-up with an email reply saying that this was for a research group and that I wanted to go primarily because I needed to be more involved with the research community and reduce my isolation. I also asked if BVLC would have to pay for the services.

I didn’t get a response.

A week went by, and I sent two more emails asking for an update and/or clarification. For one of the emails, I was told that DSP was still searching for interpreters. Fine, I assumed. There’s plenty of time.

But then another week went by without an update. I sent an email asking for an update, and got no response.

Then Spring Break (March 21 - 25) arrived. I had sent a sixth email (counting from the original email replying to Angie) just before the break started, but I then realized that the staff would probably not work over the break. Uh oh.

The day I returned from Spring Break, which was a week before the retreat would start, I decided I could not wait any longer and marched over to DSP’s offices in person, demanding to know why they had not been able to arrange the interpreting services after four weeks. The staff member there apologized for the delay, and said that it was because the agency DSP uses, Partners In Communication, does not arrange for interpreters to venture beyond San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose. Sonoma is roughly an hour and a half’s drive north of Berkeley.

Fortunately, DSP just found another agency that they could use to arrange for interpreting services. I gave them another copy of the retreat agenda, and highlighted the specific sections for which I was requesting accommodations. I didn’t request services for everything, of course, since it didn’t make sense for some of the events (e.g., the bike ride). In addition, since this was happening on short notice, I figured if I requested fewer hours, the likelihood of the requests being fulfilled was greater.

The following Tuesday, DSP formally submitted the request. But at this time, I was really worried that we would not be able to find any interpreters. I discussed this with my parents and they were enraged that Berkeley’s DSP hadn’t moved fast enough despite me giving them more than a month’s notification. They also questioned the claim that the company DSP negotiates with was not willing to arrange for interpreters to drive an hour and a half north, due to my experience at Williams with interpreters traveling long distances. We discussed my options. One of them was that I could search for an agency and pay for interpreters, and have DSP or BVLC/BAIR reimburse me later.

Needless to say, this concern over interpreting services wasn’t helping me in my ability to focus on research and homework. As it turned out, the third CS 267 homework was due around this time.

On the evening of Thursday, March 31, my frustration and stress had crossed a line. With still no word on any interpreters getting hired, I sent a joint email to Berkeley’s DSP and a few other people (Angie, some faculty), with some rather harsh words, but with the goal of trying to explain why I was feeling stressed. Here are some segments of the email:

I wanted to bring up something that’s been causing me a lot of stress lately. The Berkeley Vision and Learning Center (BVLC, though now known as BAIR) retreat is coming up soon, on April 3, 4, and

  1. Unfortunately, as of right now, I still have not received any confirmation that I will have any sign language interpreting accommodations for that event. If the agency who provides the interpreting services is unable to assign anyone tomorrow, then I am not sure if they will be able to assign anyone at all, since their staff may not work on Saturdays. Angie, the contact person for BVLC, sent an email on February 22 announcing the date of the BVLC retreat. A few days later, on February 27, I sent a joint email to Angie and to [Berkeley’s DSP] outlining my general request for interpreting services for the event.

Then, after outlining my frequent reminders, I explained why I was getting stressed:

What I’m trying to explain in this email is partly that not knowing whether I have accommodations is going to affect how I feel during this event. For instance, if I know that I won’t have accommodations, then I have to carefully plan out every detailed minute and ask a variety of people to stick with me during certain events so that they can explain what people are talking about. The worst part, judging from the agenda, will probably be the dinners. I am unable to follow conversation during noisy dinner settings, so I usually end up taking turns watching one person for a minute, then switching my gaze towards another person, then I repeat the cycle.

The best case scenario is that tomorrow, all the requests are fulfilled. Still, this means I have to constantly think and worry about what will happen for this event and need to refresh my email constantly. This comes at the cost of getting real work done, and I also don’t think that most graduate students have to worry about this stuff. I have been suffering from soaring isolation and stress levels since I arrived in Berkeley, and while it’s gotten better this semester, I just don’t want (in the worst case) this event to revert them back to their fall 2015 levels.

This email was the spark that led to action. I finally saw some evidence that we were moving forward to getting interpreters. Angie and the DSP staff began a lengthy email exchange with each other to search for, arrange for, and pay for interpreters. I was copied to those emails, which was an enormous sense of relief.

My best guess, judging from these emails, is that the new company DSP found (shortly after Spring Break) was unable to provide interpreters, so we had to search for a third agency. We finally found one that was willing to hire on short notice, and filed in a request on Friday, April 1. Unfortunately, since this was so close to the retreat (and remember, many people don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays), the agency charged more for a late-day notice. Fortunately, Angie was willing to arrange the extra payment because she wanted me to enjoy my experience. Incidentally, BVLC was the organization that had to make the payment.

Even though we filed in a request and BVLC was willing to pay, there was no guarantee for interpreter availability. Surprisingly, on Saturday, I received a notice saying that the agency had found a few interpreters for some of the events. By the time I arrived in Sonoma on Sunday morning, half of the hours I requested had been arranged. Excellent! But that still left the other half unassigned …

Also on Sunday, I discovered a bewildering fact. When I entered the ballroom at 4:30PM for the opening remarks, I recognized one of the two interpreters, because he was a “substitute for the substitute” for me in CS 287 during last semester’s infamous “interpreter substitution” phenomenon.

I was curious about how this new agency was able to arrange for him to come to Sonoma. I assumed he lived somewhere near here, or at least equidistant between Sonoma and Berkeley. I asked him where he lived.

His response? Berkeley.

I couldn’t believe it. After all this time, from Berkeley’s DSP not being able to get their usual company to arrange for someone to drive north an hour and a half to Sonoma, what we finally settled on … was an interpreter who lived in Berkeley! Yes, I’m serious! Indeed, he confirmed to me that he had to drive all the way for the job. Wow.

In the end, things worked out in the nick of time, and all of the unfilled hours were filled by Sunday evening (the Sunday events were booked first, but most of Monday was unassigned when I arrived to the retreat on Sunday). I got lucky – one of the interpreters for a Monday morning event was originally scheduled to interpret somewhere else, but his assignment got canceled, so he was available.

In fact, I had interpreting services for all the hours I requested and for a few times that I didn’t request! I think this was due to two reasons. One was that there may have been some miscommunication and that Angle or DSP accidentally filed in more hours than I requested. But the second was a true surprise: the interpreters I had (as mentioned earlier) were kind enough to stay beyond their assigned hours. All the interpreters for the two dinners stayed after 9:00PM, and one Monday afternoon interpreter stayed with me for the wine-blending competition, despite how I hadn’t requested services for that. (I was going to, but since it was short notice, I thought the event was lower on my priority list.) I thanked all the interpreters who stayed beyond their hours, and I wish I could thank them again right now.

What is the lesson I learned from this? Requesting accommodations takes time, and some prodding. I lied in that blog post I wrote last month. I didn’t write it because of Teresa Burke’s essay. I wrote it during the midst of this interpreting request (note the date of the post: March 23) and I only found out about Teresa’s lengthier blog post after I remembered reading one of her older emails. Requesting accommodations takes time in part because there is lots of bureaucracy involved. There are rules that get in the way, from company policies to dealing with DSP versus BVLC payment.

But probably the worst part about these episodes is the impact on how I feel. I constantly, constantly feel like I inconvenience people. I think about that all the time, and arranging for the retreat made these feelings worse. BVLC had to pay extra money for the interpreters because of our last-minute request. The company that arranged the interpreters sent us an email describing their pricing, and the charges took a noticeable hike for a request on three days’ notification.

I didn’t compute the final cost, but my rough estimate is that BVLC had to spend a few thousand dollars for this event (perhaps one thousand for a “normal” request, and an extra thousand for the late notification). Do you think I want to be responsible for all that money shelled out? Angie reassured me that it wasn’t my fault, because I sent in the request far in advance and DSP should have acted earlier, which helped to mitigate some of my concerns.

It’s not just the money that’s involved. There are my usual concerns over whether other people get annoyed or distracted in the presence of interpreters. I’m not exactly at the top of the field, and I don’t know what I would do if a famous professor demanded that the interpreters be removed.

My concerns extend to other events in the future. As a worrisome example, what happens if I attend an academic conference? It was hard enough to get accommodations for an event located in Sonoma, CA, which is an hour and a half drive from Berkeley, CA. Imagine what would happen if I requested an interpreter for a conference in China? There can’t be too many (American/English) interpreters in China, and international flights aren’t cheap.

I’m very, very anxious and concerned about having to plan this out.

Hopefully this explains why I thought the retreat was a “Disaster Averted” moment for me. It was shaping to be awful, but somehow, someway, things ended up better than expected. Moreover, I even finished that CS 267 homework in time. Whew. But why do I need to go these experiences?

My hope is that, one of these days, I’ll be able to enjoy going to gatherings and similar events without having to constantly worry about accommodations, payment, inconveniencing people, and socialization.