Thursday, January 12, 2012

jet lag does not make for good talks.

well, by finland time it is now friday.  i may have failed to meet my new year's resolution last week, but the spirit of it is still strong.  oddly enough, i also have something to say.

(to be fair, i jotted this down last weekend in a cafe, but some thoughts are new-ish and worth sharing.)

on thursday afternoon (last week) i gave a talk.  it wasn't the worst one i've given and i didn't go over my time limit, which is good.  if i've learned anything, though ..

.. never, ever underestimate the afflictions that jet lag can bring.  i'm starting to think that sleep medications and/or vitamin and mineral supplements may be worth the trouble.
earlier that morning i woke up at 3:30, despite feeling very tired at midnight.  i couldn't go back to sleep, so i did what seemed like a good idea at the time ..

.. and went running outside for a few miles.

in retrospect, of course, it wasn't a good idea.  at that point the fluffy, fine snow became weak ice and an unescapable slush; the way was slippery, dark, and uneasy at times.
as the speaker before me settled into the final slides of a proof sketch, i remember my pulse starting to quicken a little.  though i've given a version of the talk before, i didn't feel wholly prepared.  every other time was a 2-hour version on the chalkboard, at a pace that i could set myself.

the trouble with slides is that, in some sense, your fate is sealed.

the presentation is pre-meditated by the very choice of medium.  unlike a chalkboard, you can't suddenly follow a natural flow; there's little (if any) room left for improvisation [1].

imagine asking the audience to wait a moment while you recompile your LaTeX! (-:

perhaps the best analogy is that of a stage production, in that you have to remember how the slides go.  in other words, you have to remember your lines.

the jet lag, however, caused me so much drowsiness that i couldn't summon a panic, so i wasn't (visibly) nervous [2].  on the other hand, i unintentionally acquired too much material to discuss ..

.. yes, i mean "acquired."

that probably warrants an explanation, which is below.
i was also so drowsy that i couldn't remember the exact order and content of my slides, despite having prepared them a few nights before and revised them after my very-early-morning run.

the very last slide was somewhat technical and required a few subtle details.  i became paranoid about forgetting the right ones ..

.. so during the talk, i started a painful descent into an information overload: at every slide, i'd follow the narrative and then give a series of additional details ..

.. sometimes examples and at other times, remarks about the proof ..

.. because, or so i reasoned:
if i give all the details, then i can't possibly miss the crucial ones!

to be fair, i was tired and jet-lagged and had no business giving a talk.
now that i think about it, it's a wonder that i actually ended on time .. rather, there's a very clear but unsavory reason:

upon reaching the final, technical slide, i realised that there wasn't enough time left to discuss it properly.  so i cut my losses, clicked through it, and gave a verbal summary instead ..

.. all the while pointing at various terms of an estimate that were probably nonsensical to everyone but me.

so the problem was that half of the audience knew the background, could have arrived 10 minutes late into the talk, and not missed anything.  i must have bored them terribly.

as for the other half, i couldn't really tell; i've always found it hard to read faces, especially for looks of comprehension.

epilogue. a friend who was in the audience later told me that the classroom was full when i gave my talk.  some people were standing in the back, in fact. this only made me feel uneasy about the whole thing. \-:

discussing these thoughts later,

on the plus side, a colleague who gave a later talk was spared the pain of giving too many definitions, because i had already covered them. (-:

[1] one can very easily argue the opposite, of course.  some of my colleagues have pointed out that it can be equally hard to remember the whole talk in its entirety, even with written notes as an aid.  good, polished slides are therefore like a guarantee that something polished gets delivered to the audience.

[2] sometimes i think that years of running 5K races and 800m dashes in high school track-&-field has normalised the onset of adrenaline, for me.

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