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?