What the hell did I just watch?

Every Wednesday my department has an hour long seminar with an invited speaker. I feel like I should preface this post with an explanation that our speakers are generally very good. Sometimes I’m personally bored out of my mind, but that’s because we’re a diverse department and occasionally things will be completely out of my field and realm of comprehension. But every once in a while we get someone particularly wacky or nonsensical that leaves the whole audience baffled.

Today was one of those days.

The only thing keeping me sane was livetweeting the madness and texting other students suffering with me, which I will reproduce here for your pleasure.

Jen: “I have no clue what is happening during this seminar”

Jen: “Speaker: “huh, you can’t see that for shit. Oh well.” I have no idea what is happening right now”

He then went on a three minute tangent about how one of his lab techs was a brilliant physicist who went into hedge funds instead because it paid ten times as much money as research.

Jen: “I’ve been in this seminar for 20 minutes and I still don’t know what it’s about”

At this point my friend pointed out that the speaker was holding about 20 feel of microphone wire bundled up in a mess, even though the mic was clipped to the collar of his shirt. And it got progressively disheveled as the talk went on. I could not look away.

Jen: “Started listening again when he said “straight as the pope.” I do not know context. I do not know if there was context”

The line on the graph was not very straight. The same friend texted me saying he heard me laugh at that from across the room.

Jen: “WTF is this? This slide is a crime against humanity”

Jen: “This diagram looks like it was sketched on a napkin and scanned ahahahhaha”

Jen: “Oh god, he’s going over the time and there hasn’t even been Q&A yet”

The fact that an established professor spoke for 75 minutes and none of us came out knowing the topic of his talk says a lot. I’m not sure what, though. That when you get established you stop giving a fuck? That eccentric scientists tend to be successful? That the fact that I just spend four pages of my NSF proposal saying how wonderful I am at communicating science to my peers and the general public was a complete waste of time? Or maybe that we now have to write four pages about our communication skills exactly because there are people like this that are eventually going to retire, and we want someone who can give a coherent talk to replace them?

My brain, it hurts.


  1. John Morales says


    Jen, I cannot see your second (uglyslide) or third (napkinslide) images.

    This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it.

    <Error><Code>AccessDenied</Code><Message>Request has expired</Message><RequestId>3B43B8738BFE750F</RequestId><Expires>2011-10-13T03:47:09Z</Expires><HostId>GQ/bvswyjxZcrgb9PLCkX52WBruKbKAVCx1TZINIMx5v2N0ZYHUAMrkZTXGVOAMl</HostId><ServerTime>2011-10-13T04:20:17Z</ServerTime></Error>

  2. Peter says

    “…talked for forty-five minutes and nobody understood a word that he said, but we had fun filling out the forms and playing with the pencils on the bench there, and I filled out the massacre with the four part harmony, and wrote it down there, just like it was, and everything was fine and I put down the pencil, and I turned over the piece of paper, and there, there on the other side, in the middle of the other side, away from everything else on the other side, in parentheses, capital letters, quotated, read the following words:

    ‘Kid, haven’t you got something better to be doing with your time?’”

    I know I would. Ouch. Of course, they always schedule these things in rooms it’s next to impossible to sneak out of unnoticed.

  3. skeptiverse says


    after spending most of my day in a meeting doing pretty much the same thing i empathise with what you went through. Though, i have to say at least the guy chairing the meeting i was in didn’t freehand the prictures of his apparatus (scientist, meet digital camera). I am not sure how any scientist in the modern world can slide through with communication skills that bad, how do they get funding?

  4. Grammar Merchant says

    Reminds me of a great many times as a teacher when I’ve had to listen to Education Doctorates circumlocute about how self-reported student results among groups of 30-40 students indicated that we needed to “innovate” our education system. Sometimes, the academic system fails us. Horribly.

  5. Izzy says

    I seem to recall something about an experiment where an actor playing an “expert” gives a presentation that is carefully rehearsed sciencey sounding nonsense, and then later determining via surveys how many people caught on. Were you a lab rat, perhaps?

  6. Alt+3 says

    Ugh. This is why I stopped talking to people. Too few people know how to clearly and coherently present the point of whatever it is they’re talking about.

  7. Peter says

    Going on memory, so I might be wrong. It seems like in the study (if I’m thinking of the same one, mentioned somewhere around FTB not too long ago) while the content was pure bull, the presentation of it was very polished, and the actor was very slick and confident.

    Maybe this was testing the contrapositive to that theory.

    Probably just gruesomely bad communication skills though. I’ve seen far, far, worse, and it was perpetrated by the instructor of a speech and communication class. Awful monotone rambling lecturing over the kind of animated, radioactive hued, sound afflicted and randomly clip art* assaulted slide atrocities that win contests. I’m lucky to be alive, it was a condensed class that only met twice a week for five weeks, but met for three hours straight. At times the urge to self lobotomize was strong.

    Still, I wish I could have somehow managed to get hold of the files for one or two of those slideshows though. It would hardly have been fair, but I probably could have swept some of those contests…

    *Actually, usually not even clip art. Frequently they were bizarre gif’s he’d found in the bad old days of GeoCities, with at best a tenuous and convoluted connection to the subject. The sort of bizarre mental linkage that some psychological diagnostic tests look for.

  8. ANuRa says

    Wow, caffee still needs to take action. In the last photo you post, I was only able to see two very quickly drawn dudes with streched legs and going-up hair chatting in the botton of a pool full with water… Then I read the text and had to meditate for a while about my neural performance first thing in the morning.

    Ok, second caffee of this morning, here I come…

  9. Robert says

    In my department (maths) we have the informal rule that during a general 45 min seminar, the first 15 minutes should be understandable to a general maths audience, the second 15 minutes understandable to people in the speakers field, and the last 15 minutes to his collaborators.

    My first impression during these talks is that ‘general audience’ is defined as ‘professors in other fields’ and certainly not starting PhD students. Even so, it often happens that the only person who understands the talk is the guy who invited the speaker.

    So the situation you describe is very recognizable. Sometimes I think the only reason people come to our seminars is because of the free beer and snacks afterwards.

    That said, as I saw more of these seminars (I’m near the end of my PhD now), I do start to notice that I’m becoming more adept at understanding bits and pieces of the talks, perhaps soon I might be able to follow the full first 15 minutes!

  10. Rorie says

    It was the Fox Effect. The “expert” was played by Michael Fox, an actor who had played doctors in a few films. He gave a talk which consisted mostly of waffle, after a brief introduction to the topic on the previous day.

    It was mentioned on Pharyngula a few weeks back.

  11. stewart says

    I used to make the coffee and buy the doughnuts for our department seminars. Robert, where and when are your seminars? I’ll be there, I’ve put in my time.

  12. says

    I also feel really bad for the speaker. Maybe for some people public speaking is easy, but for a lot of us who have something worthwhile to say, public speaking is *really hard*, and *absolutely terrifying*, and we try *really hard at it*. I’ve been known to spend months preparing for a talk. To think of giving a talk, and thinking it went really well, only to find out afterward it had all gone horribly wrong (or perhaps worse, not find out)…

    Btw, I’ve also sat through a harrowing number of talks I didn’t understand, and I reckon sitting through a talk you don’t understand is one of the basic survival skills for a grad student. (Twitter seems like it would make this all the more difficult.)

  13. Nate Adams says

    I remember those seminars back when I was in school. We got through them by playing Seminar Bingo (TM). Here’s what you do. Spend a little time upfront figuring out who the lecturer is and what kind of research they do. Then, create a bunch of bingo cards using all the buzzwords from that field and from other papers, etc they’ve published. Then, as they’re talking you play bingo. If you win, you announce it by asking the presenter a question with the word “Bingo” in it. For example, “So, if I understand what you’re saying, you simply perform a heating and cooling cycle with DNA Polymerase and BINGO! you’ve got more DNA?”

    It’s simple, and fun for the kids. Plus the lecturer thinks you’re actually paying attention to the talk.

  14. RealityBasedSteve says

    I do like the “Happy Happy Happy!” at the lower corner of the first slide.


  15. Predator Handshake says

    At least those pictures make it look like he talked about words that weren’t on the slides. At our journal club this week I had to sit through 45 minutes of slides being read straight off the projector, complete with the laser pointer indicating the word currently being read. To make matters worse, the presenter really didn’t know what he was talking about. Worst of all, he’s from my lab and is presenting some of my data at a conference today.

  16. jacobfromlost says

    “when I’ve had to listen to Education Doctorates circumlocute about how self-reported student results among groups of 30-40 students indicated that we needed to “innovate” our education system”

    I’ve been there. Many times. It’s as if the mentioning of the magic word “research” means if we do what the “research” says, then the students will be magically more educated. Somehow no one seems to realize that context is everything–were all the factors in the “research” the same as those in MY classroom right now? And could that explain why doing what the “research” says isn’t working? (And does this “research” conflict with other “research”? And is it possible the “researchers” were biased, pushed certain results, etc? Research in education often reminds me of using “test audiences” to determine if a movie is any good.)

    I once had an instructional coach (a PE teacher) tell me (an high school English teacher) not to teach vocabulary because “those kids won’t remember it anyway”. I explained that they do remember them, that I test them on all the words at the end of the semester, and that periodic reviews of the words (KEY words taken directly from our texts, and often SAT words) reinforced them. She looked at me like I had spiders crawling out of my ears, told me to “teach literacy”, and that the kids would get the “jist of it” (our reading assignments) without learning the words.

    That’s when I looked at her as if she had spiders for brains. (I finally left that school, and the English scores dropped 20% the very next year…which just happened to correspond to the number of students I had. Maybe they’re implementing her advice now?)

  17. tepafish says

    This is a bit random in this point in the comments, but I just wanted to say that the NSF pre-dissertation grant is pretty random. I wouldn’t use the results of it to evaluate yourself in any way. Some awesome people get, some awesome people don’t. Some totally random people get it. In all my years of graduate school, I’ve never been able to pin down a set of criteria that it consistently uses, or not, to select recipients.

    Good luck!

  18. J.M. Pierce says

    Maybe you were being “punked”! Some of the keynote speakers I’ve heard when attending medical seminars were the absolute worst. The most organized group of speakers I think I’ve ever heard were at the SSA gathering at Cal Lutheran back in March…

  19. BinJabreel says

    Oh, crap, it felt like every time I wandered into the soft fringes of my field (Psychology) I ran into those professors who just wrote out, word for word, what they were going to say onto Powerpoint slides.

    The worst one actually printed the damn things and handed them out to the room. I promptly checked out and worked on a paper for another class, safe in the knowledge that there would be zero information presented that I didn’t already have in my hand.

  20. says

    It wasn’t a matter of not understanding due to the complexity of the research (which also happens frequently, though less frequently as time passes). It was just completely nonsensical. None of the professors had a clue what was going on.

  21. JM says

    Sounds like meetings I’ve had to sit through about institutional goals and values. Like we don’t know what we need to do. Sheesh!

  22. says

    That talk seems really strange. I also feel the same way though sitting here in an EMBO conference never having had a biology class in my life.

  23. Regina_Astrum says

    1. That chart was clearly made in MSpaint. Seriously it looks like it was actually more work than using Exel.
    2. All three slides look like a mad scientist commentary on nuerobiology in a kids cartoon. The one where the bad guy explains how his new process alters brain chemistry to make people obey him and bark like dogs. Except it’s pheromones so I’m not really sure what is happening. Oh well, throw enough science babble at it and it will sounds smart.

    How did this person reach any level of official recognition with this level of terrible presentation? I couldn’t even get away with slides that unprofessional in an undergrad applied sciences class.

  24. J. J. Ramsey says

    I think lectures like the one you were talking about are why the Chicken Chicken Chicken “talk” was made. The speaker might as well have said “chicken” over and over again for all the good it made.

  25. says

    What I learn about our enemy:-He is ancient/old and is very experienced at doing his job: that is, harming us. Hes serious about it hurting us is not some cartoon thing.-Hes powerful and effective at his task (I had a hard time using the phrase good at what he does because Satan is un-good. But there might be a better word than effective, too. The translator on the blog I posted used the word cunning).-He hates us, and no power on earth is as powerful as Satan.

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