Peter Krautzberger on the web

After the common room, how about the seminar room?

The most impressive community on the (specifically mathematical) intertubes is MathOverflow. Not only because François is one of the moderators and Joel is the #1 power user or because it has introduced many mathematicians to the unexplored possibilities of using the web for mathematics. No, despite it’s many positive influences on mathematics (and despite some negative aspects), MathOverflow’s true strength lies in the fact that its users and moderators have paved the way for a series of similar sites on other topics, both at stackexchange (partly in beta) but also independently – a feat that cannot be overestimated in its long term impact on the way we and other scientists do research on- or off-line.

The 24/7, online, all encompassing common room

The way I understand it (and I’m sure François or somebody else will correct me) MathOverflow had a simple question at heart: can we move the departmental common room to the web, create one great common room open to all mathematicians? The goal is to facilitate the same kind of professional exchanges: asking colleagues for references, insights and general advice in our everyday work as mathematicians, researchers, educators – after all, our toughest problems are often somebody else’s easy exercises.

An interesting project

Last week, I saw an announcement at Low Dimensional Topology that Dror Bar-Natan will host an interesting experiment next term. It’s a great idea: take a paper in progress, turn it into a class, add a seminar for the background and combine everything with video recordings.

Last week I also happened to be in Boston where the Joint Mathematics Meetings were held. Even though I was there by chance, there was plenty of time and opportunity to meet people who were attending (such as François and Felix) which gave me an impression of this (for better or worse) enormous conference. This combination made me think whether it isn’t time to take another step in taking our scientific community online. After the common room, let’s move the seminar room online, making our seminars available to everyone interested!

Video killed the radio star

Here at Michigan, I’ve been recording all seminar talks last term (most already available online) so as to allow students who could not attend to still catch up as much as possible. Since I’ve been doing such recordings on and off for a number of years now, it’s become rather easy, giving me ample opportunity to experiment further and broadcast live.

As a highlight I once managed to broadcast Hugh Woodin’s Ziwet lectures in 2010 (with extremely poor audio), but I also used the experience to connect people to the seminar. As usual, this gets easier with time thanks to the advances in technology.

Broadcasting a seminar in 5 minutes

One of the obvious candidates is Skype which, by now, everybody should’ve used at least once for a collaboration. I’ve used it once or twice for broadcasting a seminar, but Skype turned out to be too limited – at most one person can be connected unless you use Windows and pay extra; besides the video quality isn’t good enough for reading a blackboard (unless, of course, you pay extra for HD services).

So I turned to services such as It works fine (I used it successfully for the Ziwet lectures). But I always needed a high-quality camcorder to get good results and the whole thing lacks the interactivity of a seminar.

Then a few months ago, Google started its new social network and released an extension of its video chat (horribly called “hangouts”) that offers video conferencing with up to 10 people for free.

After playing around with it for a while, I got my hands on a $40 HD-webcam (even though there’s no HD in g+, the webcam has a much better quality, in particular the audio). Lo and behold, it works reasonably well. Well enough anyway that I felt secure enough to broadcast it all the way to Japan a couple of weeks ago when Sam was in town and Andrew Brooke-Taylor could enjoy his talk (even though it was 6am in Kobe).

Google seems to continue to experiment with their tool, too, and now there’s a beta version you can select upon starting a hangout (“with extras”). This new version adds google docs integration as well as screen sharing. You can write notes collaboratively (even some basic math via their decent equation tool that will accept \alpha etc) and offers a whiteboard. But the screensharing adds a more general way of sharing notes, slides, papers etc (and did I mention a chat and generally the efficient way of switching between speakers? I guess I sound like a fanboy at this point anyway…)

More importantly, the beta hangout can be made public for viewing so that even though only 10 people can participate actively and many more can view it. It’s really quite amazing.

To settheorytalks and beyond!

Before Booles’ Rings, Sam and I had started settheorytalks just after the Young Set Theory Workshop in Bonn last year. By now we have a reasonable amount of regulars that post their announcements efficiently via email with little technical burden on them.

It would be wonderful to extend this idea. The natural candidates are, of course, the departments. If only all departments would offer some kind of syndication that we could aggregate, I’m sure we could set up a decent tool in virtually no time.

Once a decent aggregator is in place, the key would be to get people to take a leap and broadcast their seminars.

So my question to you: would you consider trying this?


  • saf, 2012/01/12 Personally, I don’t think I will find the time to watch seminar videos, but I would really love to have access to some lecture notes. More specifically, let me propose the following (rather modest) extensions of the beautiful STT (settheorytalks) project : 1) Every announcement of a seminar talk at STT will be followed by a comment with any available talk materials (slides, notes, videos..) 2) The (full) name of the involved speaker in an announcement would be added as a tag. 3) Every set theory meeting/special-session/etc would be (a) announced at STT (in an appropriate category), and (b) the post will be updated at one point to contain all available slides from the talks given at that session. Otherwise, a year after a session, we may end up with a dead website such as in the case of the recent Logic Colloquium in Paris:
    • Peter, 2012/01/12 Saf, I do understand the feeling that it’s not worth your while to watch seminar talks. My gut reaction however is: because most talks suck. Maybe recordings tend to become stale (or disappear). But so do papers. Then again, maybe it will help somebody somewhere (at a small college with no seminar culture) to find a recording much later; it could definitely help a hiring committee to get an actual impression of a candidate, even a series of impressions of a researcher growing as teacher, communicator, collaborator (yes yes, I know, committees are busy evaluating impact factors these days, there’s not time for such nonsense…). But that is not my main point here anyway. My point is that you don’t ever have to watch a recorded video — you can be at the seminar, anywhere in the world, live, asking questions, interacting, discussing. Then again, we might just have different preferences. I get very little out of written lecture notes, I get a lot of out of direct discussions and interaction. In that sense, I’m arguing for a more diverse form of mathematical communication. However, I also find conferences to be overrated. The quality of talks is usually abysmal, no matter which level (there was a wonderful suggestion at My Biased Coin for “invited non-speaker” — great idea, says it all really). The reason for the lack of quality seems to be that talks are just presentations, born from a time where you just had to get your results out there instead of communicating them, a time where communication was expensive and time at conferences was a precious resource, for you could not otherwise interact with people in person. A time, where a 20, 15, 10 minutes time slot seemed reasonable (My CS Prof wrote about a CS conference with a session for 5min talks by grad students and postdocs on the market…). What if there was simply a permanent “conference” in terms of weekly video broadcasts? Oh wait… What I’m trying to say is that just as in publishing, the restrictions for “conferencing” are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. With a little effort on both sides, you could join any talk (or any other form of meeting) in the world — a webcam and a good internet connection, that’s it. I’m not saying that conferences are going away. I think they should change considerably, I hope they become more like barcamps, unconferences etc — like good seminar meetings really. Finally, I really like your suggestions for settheorytalks — I would love to have that kind of information there and I admit that I haven’t been good at posting updates about Michigan. But from my experience, it has already been difficult to get people to post (which is done by adding an email address to the usual announcement mail). So, as much as I agree with you that this would be great, this “modest” extension is asking a lot from a lot of people. I’m not sure Sam and I can convince on our own 😉
      • Ben Webster, 2012/01/13 I can verify that we’ve used a couple of online talk videos in our hiring process. It is indeed helpful to just be able to call up video of the person speaking.
        • Peter, 2012/01/15 Ben, great to hear that first hand!
      • saf, 2012/01/14 Personally, if I would like to learn of recent results, I would prefer to read the slides of a talk, rather than watching a video (or online attending) the talk in which the same slides were delivered. Of course, this does not apply to blackboard talks, or to talks delivered by exceptionally good speakers. Anyway, different people have different preferences, and as professor Webster confirmed, there are also other values for online talk videos. Thus, let us work in parallel: I’ll work on extending STT, and you’ll explore the most recent video possibilities.
        • Peter, 2012/01/15 Ah! Another misunderstanding. I only ever think of real seminar meetings, i.e., chalkboard talks with actual conversation — not aseptic presentations or reading-my-lecture-notes-out-loud lectures; seminar in the original sense. In my experience almost all mathematicians are bad speakers for almost all audiences — and we definitely do not receive any training. But I have yet to meet a mathematician who isn’t good at answering questions they know the answers to. I’m also not just talking about recent results. Or rather, not recent results of the speaker. I think we’re underestimating the waste in mathematics; people read papers all the time, but share their insights into new results only in extremely small circles if at all. Recording those (in any which way) would help very much — and deserves more recognition. But otherwise — yes! Let’s work in parallel. I think more notes, immediately online, would be a blessing. And wordpress makes it very easy to put notes online after all…
          • Micheal Pawliuk, 2012/01/15

            “In my experience almost all mathematicians are bad speakers for almost all audiences — and we definitely do not receive any training. But I have yet to meet a mathematician who isn’t good at answering questions they know the answers to.”

            +1. I think that often the speaker’s goal is to produce an air-tight proof of result X. For the most part this seems doomed from the start. The speaker lays down 10 or so new definitions then proves some technical lemmas then glues them together. This seems utterly impossible to follow. There is just too much information and intuition missing. Speakers often forget that they have been thinking about a concept for more than the 30 minutes that the audience has. That being said, I’m attending seminars as a graduate student so maybe I am not the target audience. :)

          • Peter, 2012/01/16 I think you’re spot on. But there’s always two sides. I have experimented with something I picked up from Eric Mazur’s peer instruction method: sending my material to the seminar ahead of time. I had hoped to have a conversation rather than a presentation. But people didn’t find the time to read anything, so it didn’t really work. In general, I think we need to get to a level where seminars are about exchanges. Somebody once wrote that in the near future, the smartest person in room will be the room, i.e., the collective. At the same time there won’t be a “most knowledgeable person” either since encyclopedic knowledge is most easily outsourced (as it is already today for a lot of content thanks to wikipedia). Instead, the gain will be in connecting the intelligence of people in a different way. This appeals to me, if only for its democratic nature.
          • saf, 2012/01/18 Sam has just added me as an STT contributor. I’ve already added tag names for speakers, and resurrected the “conference” category:
  • Micheal Pawliuk, 2012/01/15 Great post Peter! I’ve been thinking about these types of collaboration issues lately. Here are two articles to think about: Why individuals will be the ones to make big mathematical discoveries. An argument against Gower’s “Polymath” project. Why collaboration is good and how graduate students can become more collaborative.
    • Peter, 2012/01/16 Thanks for the links. I can’t follow Nathanson’s arguments against Polymath. On the one hand, it seems likely that we’ll see a surge of problems that require a distributed approach — just like other scientific areas. On the other, we haven’t even tried to study what does and what doesn’t work with respect to massive collaborations. The criticism sounds a lot like arguing that the first mechanical computers couldn’t really calculate faster than humans or that early chess programs couldn’t beat amateurs. We’re only at the beginning.