Friday, January 07, 2005


1-5-04 to the present: Dork Tags

So what is this “Double A-L-S annual meeting?

My travelogue has finally caught up to today, Friday January 7. It's hight time that I explain what this AALS Annual Meeting is, the final destination of my California swing. AALS, as I describe it to my friends, is a sci-fi-con for law professors. It’s a four day conference that is widely acknowledged to be a schmooze fest and opportunity to reconnect with law school friends around the country.

I arrive on Wednesday, and on registration, I’m given a 160-page pamphlet chock full of schedule information for dozens of substantive panel discussions on a dazzling array of legal topics. Cynics might say that this is just a thick veneer of substance to cover a four day romp in which law professors to relive their student days by enacting a simulation of cutting classes. We might find our friend sitting in the back row and in the first ten minutes of a ninety-minute panel say, “Hey, let’s slip out for coffee.” Then we don’t even show up for the next panel, and instead explore the delights of cities like San Francisco, Chicago or New Orleans.

To be sure, the panel discussions hold more than their fair share of bloviating, but then I imagine that most professional conferences have more than their fair share as well. There are enough insightful things said by smart people to make enough of the panels worthwhile, and the conversations you have when sneaking off with your friends inevitably wind around to shop talk, so that it’s a stimulating 3-4 days even while playing substantial amounts of hookey.

Some of the panels do go on too long, and it’s at once amusing and tiresome when they reach the Q & A session -- usually the last 15-30 minutes of a 90 minute panel. The audience, you see, is filled with law professors who are as smart as the panelists, and as needful to show that. Dying to get their two-cents in, they “ask” the panelists “questions” which, oddly, sound like mini-lectures. It’s Jeopardy in reverse: “please put your question in the form of an answer.” A typical “question” will begin, “my question has three parts,” or else will be a couple of minutes of declarative statements followed by, “Here’s my question.”

The dress ranges from suits to very casual, getting progressively more casual as the conference wears on and a sort of collective “familiarity breeds contempt” sets in. I find that what makes you look important is not the suits, but the “dork tags.” I refer to the conference badges, neatly printed with name and law school affiliation, that you wear so that the conference staff will let you inside the various meeting rooms and so that your law school colleauges who have forgotten your name can stare at your chest while shaking hands and say, “Why, hello, um — Oscar.”

Although the term “dork tag” has not made its way into the OED, I am reliably informed by a professional in a health-care-related field that the term broadly applies to any ID badge that must be worn on the person in an enclosed (secure or hemi-demi-semi-secure) environment. Thus the term describes how you feel about yourself when you inadvertently wear your ID badge out onto the street and realize you’ve been spotted by a civilian, as in:
"Hey, you forgot to take off your dork tag."
Conference dork tags have gone through something of an evolution. I suppose the very first conference (as opposed to workplace) dork tag would not have been a tag at all, but a hat – a shriner’s fez, for instance.

The low-budget-party adhesive tag, more dorklike if it bears the inscription “Hello, my name is:,” represents the first of the modern conference dork tags.

The main technological advance over the adhesive tag is, of course, the plastic card holder, with name card slipped in. Not only does it provide for more durable dork tagging – allowing repeated use over a multi-day conference – but it can also be fixed more securely to the person than can an adhesive label.

The first generation of plastic dork tags was the safety pin tag. Unfortunately, the safety pin used to fix the tag had to be of a medium or large bore that would leave holes in clothing, particularly finer weave fabrics.

But engineering dorks, using that same ingenuity that brought us the pocket protector, came up with the necklace style dork tag (click here and scroll to the bottom of the page), which can be worn safely and comfortably over the clothing.

This represents the current state of the art, beyond which we've seen only incremental advances in how the dork tag is attached to the necklace. For example, here.

At AALS, we have a substantial three-quarter inch mesh-fabric lanyard, bearing the logo of a corporate sponsor, that could probably withstand 200 pounds of tension. The lanyard has a ring at the end, onto which a spring-action tension clip on the back of the dork tag itself can be latched. In other words, it would take a pretty hard yank to pull off someone’s dork tag, and I doubt whether any law professor has that kind of arm strength.

The AALS lanyard-style dork-tag makes a great children’s gift. I slipped a picture of my 9-year old niece into the plastic sheath and gave it to her, telling her it was her spy ID. She wore it around for hours. Because of the great tensile strength of the lanyard, this dork tag would probably also be useful on a camping trip, except for the fact that you’d have to wear it outside the conference,where you'd need to put up with repeatedly being told, “hey, you forgot to take off your dork tag.”

I really like your blog.

Too bad I really hate life.
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