Bad Talk Bingo: Brainstorming


    Next week I am off to IAS for the conference on Algebro-Geometric Derived Categories and their Applications.  I am starting to get worried about it, since the list of talk titles is up and only a few of them appear to be welcoming to non-experts in their respective fields.  Also, when registering, there was no option under ‘Occupation’ for ‘Grad Student’, which struck me as a subtle hint that I wasn’t welcome.  Perhaps just being at IAS will compel speakers to turn the difficulty up to eleven.

    In any event, I am preparing for there to be a fair share of bad talks.  This, and other recent experiences with bad talks has given me the following idea of something to do: Bad Talk Bingo.  The idea is to create a 5×5 grid of events and signs that a talk is going badly, so that I can check off which ones happen and try to get 5 in a row.  My plan is that if I ever succeed in getting 5 in a row, I am allowed to pretend to get a phone call and rush hurriedly from the talk.

    However, to do this, I need at least 25 possible signs that a talk is going badly.  Ideally, I want many more, so that I can write a program to randomly generate a 5×5 grid, to make the game fun and exciting each time.  This is where you, the reader come in!  I want more ideas, and I’m sure everyone with any experience in math has seen their share of doomed talks.

    Below is the list so far of possible topics, separated into Keepers, Not Bad, and Would Like Better ideas.  Also, when a word or phrase appears in quotation marks, it means the speaker uses that word or phrase.


  • Poor English speaker
  • “quantum”
  • Slides
  • “Ricci”
  • Trouble with laptop
  • Went over allotted time
  • Ignored a reasonable complaint
  • Name dropping
  • Gratuitous use of indices
  • Screwed up a computation

Not Bad:

  • Important theorem has hidden assumptions
  • Erased the last thing written
  • “trivial”
  • “string”
  • Wrote out unnecessary technical details
  • Didn’t write down important theorem
  • Speaker was late
  • Referenced a ‘folklore result’ that is ‘known to experts’
  • Topic was TBA
  • Inaudible
  • Talked facing the blackboard
  • Construction that wasn’t functorial

Would Like Better:

  • Annoying noises with chalk
  • Wrote out long list of collaborators
  • Wrote subjects of math and drew arrows between them
  • Hand gestures instead of explanation
  • Various hygiene concerns
  • “categorify”

If possible, I’d like five general categories of topic, so that each column could have a theme.  These might be ‘Buzzwords’, ‘Apathy’, ‘Intentional Obfuscation’, ‘Technical Shortcomings’, etc.  I want more than 25 good ones, so that I can randomly pick from them to make many sheets.  Also, this is all in good fun, so please try to stay away from pointed criticisms of specific people and things the speaker might not have any control over (like speech impediments). 

33 Responses to “Bad Talk Bingo: Brainstorming”

  1. Charles Says:

    Based on the conference last semester, I’d say you should stick “Refers to talk from previous conference, assuming everyone had been there” on the list…a couple of people did that.

  2. hmoraldo Says:

    May I ask, why is “quantum” on the list? Isn’t quantum mechanics a serious subject anymore?

  3. Greg Muller Says:

    The word ‘quantum’ is on there because of how many objects in math have ‘quantum’ versions, and how often those versions arise in bad talks. Quantum versions of things have a tendency to be a generalization in a random-seeming and convoluted way, which arise very naturally when converting a classical mechanics notion into a quantum mechanical one. However, such motivations don’t usually appear in talks on these things, and the result is a talk on a random-seeming and convoluted construction, that all too often features no external applications.

    This isn’t to knock the math behind alot of these constructions; the small amount of quantum versions of things I know are very interesting. The knock is on talks which presume that either you know why quantum things are interesting, or that quantum things are just inherently better.

  4. hmoraldo Says:

    Thanks a lot for your interesting reply.

  5. Peter Luthy Says:

    Two absolute keepers:
    slides with way too much crap on them

    slide-changing speed definitely set at 11.

  6. Aaron Bergman Says:

    Hey. I like those talk titles.

    See you there.

  7. Charlie C Says:

    “As you will recall …”

  8. Greg Muller Says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I am overall very excited about the conference. Its just that I can’t help but flinch when I see titles like “Motivic Donaldson-Thomas invariants for Calabi-Yau categories” and “Quantization of cluster varieties and the quantum dilogarithm”. Sure, those talks might be very good, but it seems more likely that they will assume a wide breadth of knowledge I lack.

    My bigger concern really is that I’m excited to have an opportunity to learn more about derived algebraic geometry, homological mirror symmetry, and geometric langlands; and I am worried that each respective talk will assume that I have more than a passing understanding of each of those areas.

  9. Todd Trimble Says:

    I’m with hmoraldo: it seems a little wrong to make individual words like “quantum”, “categorify”, “string”, “Ricci” your shibboleths. If for example someone wants to refer to quantum su_2, for example, what else could they do? Perhaps you meant “gratuitous use of the following buzzwords” or something, but then it seems like an exercise in distraction, calculating the gratuitousness factor whenever those particular buzzers go off, instead of just listening to the talk.

    Okay, I know what you mean. Most talks are bad for one reason or another, and I guess most of us look for ways to amuse ourselves when we can no longer follow what’s going on. And, your post does point out some good signifiers of bad talks. But do you actually plan on going through with this? Walking out on a talk after a bingo is scored? It would indeed all be in fun if this were just a joke between you and a few buddies, but now that you’ve publicized it, somehow the game takes on a slightly different tinge (the question is: suppose the future butt of the joke already knew about this post and has seen your picture — would that possibility make a difference to you?).

    By the way: it interested me that you included “gratuitous use of indices”. For a while, Samuel Eilenberg had made it his crusade to eliminate indices (“if you do it right, you won’t need them”). There’s a story told by Peter Freyd that Eilenberg once stopped Donald Spencer cold, during a colloquium talk he was giving, and complained that Spencer didn’t need all these indices on the blackboard. The story goes [in my possibly garbled retelling] that Eilenberg then got the always genial and good-humored Spencer to eliminate them one by one, until they reached the final theorem, which then read “A = A”.

  10. A.J. Tolland Says:

    I’d add “didn’t define the objects under consideration”

  11. Greg Muller Says:

    I’m not trying to say that saying ‘quantum’ makes a talk bad. I’m saying that the presence of these words happens to correlated with bad talks, for reasons one could speculate on (see above). This list isn’t meant to be a ‘How To Give a Bad Talk’ guide; if anything, its something like a math version of “You Might Be A Redneck If…”. Only this time, its “You Might Be In A Bad Talk If…”

    Would I actually leave a talk if I won Bingo? Eh, probably not… To leave a talk, I would have to feel like the speaker is disrespecting me with the quality and choices of his talk, to the point that I would not mind coming across as rude. Only a handful of examples of talks that bad come to mind.

    Still, I think even with a good list, the chances of actually winning bingo are small even in the worst of talks. The plan was to pretend that I might actually leave if I won, just to entertain myself if I really had nothing better to do or think about. And now that’s been ruined.

  12. Katherine Says:

    title/abstract/talk incomprehensible to non-specialists. Where non-specialist = anyone not in the research group giving the talk.

    topic of actual talk substantially different from title/abstract

    gratuitous use of sound/animation/video

    speaker inaudible/shouts/speaks in monotone

    speaker talks to floor/screen/own notes

    speaker seen sleeping/heard snoring in audience while waiting his turn

    speaker’s own cellphone rings/is answered during talk

    number of slides equals/exceeds/is a multiple of number of minutes

    uses phrase “known to experts” or “known result” more than once/five times/ten times. (Doesn’t count if citation provided.)

    cites own work more than once/five times/ten times

    cites other work at same conference, without providing time or paper number

    I’m not actually a mathematician, but some of these are universal.

  13. Dr. X. Says:

    I would add:

    – use of the expression “on the nose”.
    – use of the word “twiddles” instead of “tilde”.

    They’re not really signs of a bad talk, in fact a lot of good speakers seem to use them, but my God do they annoy me.

  14. Michi Says:

    Dr. X: what would you like us to use instead of on the nose? I’m asking because for my own current field of study, it ends up being one of the best expressions to point out the subtlety of what’s going on – things don’t associate on the nose, but they associate up to homotopy, and we control those homotopies precisely.

    And I would thouroughly treasure a less annoying turn of phrase if you have one.

  15. Dr. X. Says:

    Well I understand what you mean Michi and yes, I do know that category theorists use it a lot and I just think that sometimes they use it too much. Like sometimes you meet people who have got into the habit of using “on the nose” as a synonym for “equal”, even if there is no possible ambiguity, if you see what I mean.

    Perhaps it would be a good research project for me to look for an alternative!

    Anyway, I hope at least we can agree about “twiddles”. It sounds like a word out of a book for four-year-olds: “Twiddles and Mopsy go to the zoo” or something like that. And there is a perfectly good word for that symbol already, so why invent one?

  16. John Armstrong Says:

    Dr. X: We don’t use it to mean “equal”. We mean that a certain natural isomorphism is actually an identity. And if you don’t understand why that’s such a big deal, you don’t understand the point.

    “On the nose” is a term of art for higher category theory, just like “set” or “linear”.

  17. Dr. X. Says:

    John: I’m sure neither of you ever misuses it, but I think there are some people who do. And anyway, I reserve the right not to like the term, just as someone might not like the words “set” or “linear”. I went to a career skills course once and they used the word “segue” all the time and that annoyed me, too. Well, category theory conferences are a bit like that.

  18. David Speyer Says:

    Greg, I am sorry to say I won’t be at your conference. Otherwise, I would make sure to include a “folklore result”, an important theorem with hidden assumptions, a non-functorial construction, a diagram with subjects of math connected by arrows and either the word “categorify” or “derived”. I see how to tweak one of my talks to get all of these in. And I even think it is a good talk!

  19. Greg Muller Says:

    A noble effort, David, but I’d still have to get a lucky draw on the bingo board to win. Maybe if you could run long talking about how you were talking with Witten about how this trivially generalizes to the quantum case…

  20. Nate Berkowitz Says:

    In my field pretty much everyone uses power point. “Chalk Talks” are spoken of with the awe and respect usually reserved for venerable dead arts, like mouth pipetting.

    Here are some things that I have seen:
    Graphs that were clearly not reviewed after import – like for example, the axes are not exactly straight and get broken up by pixelation.

    Obvious bitterness over being scooped – rare, but impressive

    Reference to far fetched real world application – usually in the introduction. Maybe math people aren’t into this. I have seen a lot of talks by people who are just about to cure cancer.

    speaker admits to not totally understanding a slide – for example, it was provided by a contributer using a technique not familiar to the speaker.

    “raison d’etre”

    “non-trivial” – I hear this way more than “trivial”

    in jokes/pointing at dude in front row and referencing something only 2 people get

    introduction gives away best part of talk

    “for reasons that are not completely understood…”

  21. Graham Says:

    If you decide not to build your own, you should use Plutor’s one-page JavaScript-powered HTML Bingo. I’ve already used it to cook one up for bad commutative algebra talks.

  22. Tom Leinster Says:

    Why do we spend so much time sitting in talks that we’re getting nothing out of?

    1. Because it’s socially dangerous to skip talks. The speaker might notice and take offence. Other people might notice and tease you for slacking, or decide that you’re lazy and rude.

    2. Because even if you’re bold enough to skip some talks, it’s hard to predict which ones will be worthwhile. Once you’re in a talk, you’re in: walking out takes much more nerve than not going at all. But we all know the feeling: 30 seconds into a talk, and you *know* you’re not going to get anything out of it.

    3. Because many talks are badly presented. Think of three random people in your subject, and I bet you can think of ways that each of them could improve their presentation. But would you ever tell them? Probably not, unless they’re your friend or they’re still a student (and even then it’s hard). Many mathematicians go through their whole life giving lousy talks, because everyone’s too polite to tell them what they’re doing wrong.

    4. Because many of us are bad at listening to bad talks. Some people have a natural talent for understanding what even appalling speakers are trying to say. If you don’t naturally have that talent and you’re a self-improving sort of person, you can work at it. But much more often, we just give up.

  23. Todd Trimble Says:

    “… I bet you can think of ways that each of them could improve their presentation. But would you ever tell them? Probably not…”

    This reminds me of a Saunders Mac Lane story. In the Reality Blogging thread over at the Secret Blogging Seminar, I said something about the uninhibited behavior of Mac Lane; here’s an example.

    This was at a big category theory conference held in Halifax in 1995. Mac Lane was well into his eighties at the time, and normally could be seen dozing off at some point during each of the talks. For one talk, however, I noticed he stayed awake all the way through, and thought something was up. Sure enough, when the floor was opened for questions or comments, Saunders stood up and launched into a detailed criticism of the presentation of the talk. The speaker, who was then a graduate student finishing up his thesis (on which he was speaking), tried to say a few words in his defense, but Saunders silenced him with a booming, “Young man, it would be better if you didn’t say anything at all. Your talk was awful.” I don’t think another word was said, and the audience filed out in silence and embarrassment.

    The poor guy was crushed, obviously (and his adviser livid), and yet I feel sure that Saunders meant no malice — I think he honestly meant to be helpful (and a day or two later he was seen talking privately at greater length with the student; I think the student felt better as a result). I even think something similar happened to Mac Lane when he was younger, and Mac Lane felt that such frankness was necessary and salutary on occasion. (And in Saunders’ opinion, that was not the worst talk — I know this because Saunders took someone else aside at the same conference and told him, “Yours was the worst talk of the conference.” Wow!)

  24. Greg Muller Says:

    Yeah, there are always going to be a handful of people who are the self-appointed talk police. Those who will speak their mind about bad talks and make a point to steer the speaker in a good direction. I usually am thankful for these guys, since they on-average improve talks and can give invaluable advice.

    Of course, theres an inherent downside to this approach, in that either A) a talk will be beyond saving, or B) they will vastly misgauge how bad a talk is going, and flip out on a relatively innocent speaker. I’ve seen both these things happen a handful of times, and it makes it harder to speak up yourself, knowing that you might be making a mistake like that.

  25. Melanie Says:

    More talk dangers for you!

    –Use of green font in powerpoint (impossible to read)

    –Black plot on black background (The file for the plot likely had a transparent background; then a dark background was chosen for the overall talk.)

    –Slides made from photocopied pages of an article

    –Missing quantifiers in a theorem (Does there exist some x such that it holds for all y? Or does each y have a corresponding x?)

    –Missing hypothesis in theorems

    –No distinction between assumptions and conclusions

  26. Richard Says:

    “The poor guy was crushed, obviously (and his adviser livid), and yet I feel sure that Saunders meant no malice — I think he honestly meant to be helpful (and a day or two later he was seen talking privately at greater length with the student; I think the student felt better as a result). I even think something similar happened to Mac Lane when he was younger, and Mac Lane felt that such frankness was necessary and salutary on occasion.”

    Let’s call this like it is. That’s not merely frank helpfulness. That’s cruel abuse, more on the order of the “mean old farmer”. I’ve never experienced this sort of thing myself, but I’ve heard of other cases of this sort of over the top intimidation in academia. This story just reinforces my theory that these abusive professors are like that because they themselves were intentionally humiliated by overly demanding parents or teachers. This is analogous to child abuse: abusers beget abusers.

    The only intimidation that I ever experienced was mild in comparison. During a one-on-one oral analysis exam, the guy looked straight at me, blew cigar smoke in my face, and said “This is your bread and butter kid!” Afterwards he gave me an A.

  27. Todd Trimble Says:

    I actually got to know Mac Lane pretty well, and I feel very confident in asserting that he wasn’t at all mean by nature. But, he did have a strong authoritarian streak, and would typically become angry when crossed.

    So, as I see it, what happened was Mac Lane started his criticism sticking to the facts, and he had some good points; what I would take issue with was the very public nature of it all. It was when the student tried to argue back that Mac Lane came back with the quote I gave — that was uttered with emotion, with the tone of a very stern parent who will brook no dissent.

    For the sake of his memory, I’m sorry that my account invites such second-hand judgment calls like “abuser” — the situation was always more complex in his case. One thing I’ve left out is Mac Lane’s great warmth and humanity, which were obvious when you got to know him. I don’t mind saying that I even came to love him as if he were my grandfather, even though I was aware of his faults. No, I’m sorry, I really have to disagree with “abuser” (or even with a conclusion that he himself was “abused”) — I’ve known people who were unquestionably in that category, and in my considered opinion he wasn’t one of them.

  28. Janet Says:


    Placeholders left in presentation (slides who’s tops say “Clever Title Here”, etc.

    Anecdote only the presenter laughs at

  29. Carnival of Mathematics 29 « Quomodocumque Says:

    […] At the Everything Seminar, a great idea for how to make it through a bad seminar talk: Bad Talk Bingo. […]

  30. Allen Knutson Says:

    Why do we spend so much time sitting in talks that we’re getting nothing out of?

    Because it’s a reasonable place to get work done?

    The only times I’ve really regretted going to a talk were when I was at a conference with a coauthor, and we lost an hour of collaboration through such a choice.
    But to be honest, I’ve much more often regretted my coauthor’s attending such a talk. Somehow I’ve never felt the same level of social responsibility to attend that most people seem to.

    Bad Talk Bingo: you left out the obvious “stands in front of what’s just been written”. One of the worst talks I ever saw (by a great mathematician and friend) featured very little written, finally a disgusting formula nobody wanted to see, which was blocked from the audience, then instantly erased, or rather half-erased. Your bingo card would have been full in the first five minutes.

  31. Greg Muller Says:

    ‘Stands in front of what’s just been written’ reminds me a bit of my real analysis class my first year. The professor had an unfortunate habit of writting with his right hand and erasing with his left hand, while standing in front of what he had written. No math accidentally escaped to the audience.

  32. Stefan Says:

    At PhDcomics they did a variant applicable to most science talks:

  33. Clarence Kum Says:

    Had some laugh ^^^ Nice work!

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