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There’s currently an interesting series of talks running at our department. And as maths talks go, they are usually presented on the blackboard with the speaker get his hands dusty. And while there is a trend for speakers coming prepared with some digital slides (usually some TeX / PDF concoction), those frequently don’t improve the talks. Rather, they manage to suck all the potential vividness out of the talks as on the one hand you’ll see the points people want to make before they make them and on the other hand, the speaker won’t take you through difficult arguments step-by-step where you can see him struggle executing them on the blackboard, but they’ll just magically appear thanks to the slideware.

So I was a bit sceptical when I saw the speaker stand there with his computer today. But it was encouraging to hear him indicate right at the beginning that he is aware of the problems of slideware talks but he had seen one which didn’t make him fall asleep last year, so he wanted to try that as well (for his first talk, not for the following ones where the real work is done). Nice joke. And also indicating that he had thought about the potential pitfalls of this approach.

The slides ended up being relatively simple with just a few words and possibly formulas each. Sometimes containing a shrunk version of a key aspect of the previous slide in some corner for better reference. Not graphically perfect but getting the job done and with numerous interesting ideas.

That said, seeing the slideshow made me realise that as soon as people have something non-trivial to say, those techniques of pretty photos and nothingness aren’t worth much (and while I’ll salivate over such slides for sure, how exactly do they improve an argument in a way that the speaker couldn’t?) just don’t cut it. Probably the difference between people who sell and people who make an argument.

It was also the first maths presentation I saw being done in Keynote. I suppose that contributed to making the slides a bit more lively as it opened the way to doing things that TEX can’t do while still being open to displaying (what looked to me like) properly TEXed formulas and diagrams — thanks to its good PDF integration I suppose.

But as the speaker pointed out: this was just an overview talk without the technical details. Once the details come, there’ll be quality blackboard time again. Possibly because the mostly static digital presentation doesn’t cut it for them.

Finally I also wondered about graphics. Unless you are doing the ‘pretty photos and nothingness’ thing as mentioned above where the actual graphic you have doesn’t matter too much and some stock photo seller is bound to have something appropriate, graphics are hard and extremely time consuming when wanted in a digital presentation. Say you want to draw a picture of a torus with a closed loop in it. You can draw that on a blackboard in ten seconds without a problem. Sure the torus will not be perfect, but it will do the job just fine. Now compare that to the digital situation: In the digital situation having a graphic where lines don’t match up precisely and smoothly will immediately look broken next to all the perfectly rendered text. Of course you’ll also need your torus to be nice and symmetric. Now think which tools and amount of experience with computer drawing tools you’ll need to achieve those results… and whether your average mathematician has the expertise or budget to get those good graphics.

October 25, 2006, 1:38

Tagged as uni.

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