Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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The beginning of the week was marked by a little group building exercise for our department. We went to Katlenburg, a close by village, with all the PhD students as well as three postdocs and a professor and had everyone talk about his or her work there. I went into this with mixed feelings. On the one hand, spending too long in a confined spaces with mathematicians only makes me dizzy as it is bound to be a geeky affair – mathematicians are generally not known for their social skills, for a reason. On the other hand, because of that tendency to have a ‘lack of communication’ such an excursion was definitely necessary to get an idea of what everybody is doing and who might be worth talking to.

The talks

We had a whole day full of talks. About fifteen quarter hour talks. While this may not be a lot of net talking time, it was quite exhausting as you had a change of subject very frequently. Everybody was asked to quickly introduce his or her area of interest in a way intelligible to a ‘general’ mathematical audience. Mostly that worked fine.

Giving such a short general talk required surprisingly much preparation. Both for not getting into technical details too much and for meeting the time limit as running over would have (and in some cases did) disturbed the schedule which had been carefully crafted around the non-negotiable meal times. To make things worse, there were no blackboards.

That won’t sound like a big deal to most as many people limit themselves to Powerpoint and similar crap these days. But, really, in maths, the blackboard is still the tool of the trade. Not only does it offer a lot of space, flexibility and resolution, it also slows talks down and naturally prevents people from rushing through too badly. (The only drawback of blackboards may be that you can’t easily face the audience, but, again, having the communication skills of mathematicians in mind, that probably doesn’t make too much of a difference.)

But anyway, blackboards were out, just an overhead projector was available. Some people chose to use it just like they would use a blackboard – writing on the transparency as they spoke. That helped the speed. But I didn’t like it too much. I don’t think having to write on the slippery transparencies helps people’s handwriting. And there’s also the problem with the speaker standing in the light beam.

I prepared some transparencies beforehand. Of course that cost some extra time to plan, and make, but at least looked reasonably nice. I wrote those by hand, though, as I thought that getting the diagrams and layout I hand in mind into the computer wasn’t worth the time it costs. A few people did the same, with two even having typed-up slides. One of them must have used a really fancy TeX class for his as they oozed of Powerpoint-itis – drop shadows, a lot of decoration and ‘header’ and ‘footer’ stuff on each slide. I’m still not convinced this actually improved slides.

Afterwards someone suggested we should have filmed the talks as to give feedback on presentation style to everyone. That would have been a good idea. I would’ve been curious to see the results. Indeed, I found the prospect of having to talk with such transparencies a bit scary. When using the blackboard, you can easily talk for 90 minutes and not worry a lot as you’ll simply be busy all the time. But with transparencies you have to figure out where to stand, how to stand, how to move. You’ll be aware that everybody is actually looking at you and have to try and make eye-contact with people to keep their attention. At the same time you’ll have to make sure the slides are in sync with what you’re telling and perhaps point out the important places of the slide. Just as you’ll be trying to write in straight lines, you’ll also want to make sure that you don’t embarrass yourself by putting slides up hectically, in the wrong order or at an angle. Not so easy if you’re not used to it.

You’ll also have to remember even hard to not put your hands into your pockets while talking – bad style and a favourite of mathematicians in general and myself in particular. With no chalk around to keep you from doing this, that’s hard. And as I got into the flow of talking after a minute, I of course forgot to check on myself (asking people afterwards revealed that I only did the pocket thing for a very short time, luckily… as the people I asked were mathematicians, I assume they weren’t just trying to be nice).

The location

The whole excursion reminded me of a primary school class trip. The place we went to was really close by (ten people even went there by bike). It was in a really boring rural town – the main feature of which seemed to be a crossing of two roads which reeked of dead pigs and had signs pointing to two McDonald’s in other villages. The place we stayed at was youth hostel like, along with all the feats like obscure hot drinks which were called tea or coffee depending on the time of the day, cold meat which could drive you into veggie-dom, fixed meal times and having to wash (fun! industrial dishwasher) and dry the dishes afterwards. I haven’t been in such a place for ages. And I don’t regret that.

Apart from the rooms we stayed in, which were all right, we got one big common room for our talks and spending the evenings in. At night we first went to the supermarket (which thankfully was open until eight, so we could still get there after the six o’clock dinner) to get some drinks and then played games. There were some ‘maths games’, i.e. usual games which will invariably appeal to mathematicians and geeks of other flavours alike. People become very competitive about matching patterns and suchlike. I don’t like those. I want to enjoy playing games, not be a smartass. But there were others as well. Like ‘Taboo’ which I find very amusing (although I played the first game with a team who didn’t get any of the media/telly related references and with one member who simply didn’t read the ‘forbidden’ words at first…)


Die Zeit compare work in Europe with work in the U.S. The conclusion seems to be that Europeans like holidays and their spare time while Americans like to work. Most of the greater economic growth across the pond is due to people working more (and the number of people increasing). They also have a bit about the various numbers involved, which is where things start being confusing: Asking people whether they have work can have vastly different meanings across the globe, which makes those numbers hard to compare.

October 8, 2004, 0:26

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