Long time since I (or any of us) last posted, but it would be good to get back into it again.
The winter months, especially June and July, are usually cold and rainy in Perth and this year is no exception. So, like migratory birds heading for the sun, most of us head to the northern hemisphere for their summer conference season.
So I’m currently writing this from a student cafe at the University of Lisbon where a conference+workshop to celebrate Peter Cameron’s birthday is on its final day. But more of this particular conference later.
Last week, I was back in Waterloo for SiGMa 2017, which is the continuation of the biennial conference started by Bert Gerards. One interesting feature of this conference was that rather than have parallel sessions, some speakers were chosen (or volunteered) to give “announcements” which turned out to be 10-minute talks. I’ve been involved in a few events recently that featured short or very-short talks and in each case I was pleasantly surprised by the overall effectiveness. So I volunteered to give one of these announcements on some recent work with Irene on hamilton cycles in cubic graphs. Once again, I found that it was plenty of time to get across the gist of what, why and how we were investigating this topic. Similarly, in the other announcements I found that by the end of the 10 minutes, I was pretty clear about whether I wanted to hear more about the topic, or look up the speaker’s papers on it, or to talk to them in the generous lunch break. Of course, this was helped by the fact that the conference was so focussed that there was no need to define things like “graph”, “hamilton cycle”, “cubic” and so on. One downside of these talks is that it takes me far longer to prepare an effective 10-minute presentation than a 25-minute presentation. Firstly, I had to examine every sentence to make sure it was comprehensible to the expected audience, and secondly I used even more pictures of graphs etc than usual. While TiKz is spectacularly good, even its most ardent supporters do not pretend that it is easy-to-use. I guess this is the analogue of the famous quote attributed to Pascal “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte”, roughly translated as “I made this one longer because I didn’t have time to make it shorter” and then re-attributed to various other people, especially Mark Twain.
Waterloo was looking very good, with shiny new buildings popping up everywhere and is obviously thriving. We were in the very nice new Quantum-Nano-Buzzword Centre (actually, only two of those three words are really in the name). I’m beginning to believe that one indication of whether a university administration understands academic needs is the extent to which the buildings are built or made “collaboration friendly”. A few years ago, I wrote about the Isaac Newton Centre in Cambridge which has glorious blackboards and chalk on almost every vertical surface, including the elevator and the urinals in the male toilets. But the QNC goes one step further – the walls are writable surfaces for unhampered work and collaboration. Have dry-erase pen, will do research!
Of course, our own university is not quite so good. We have been out of our offices for 7 months while they messed up the renovations of the Maths building, making incredible blunders that would easily have been avoided had they bothered to consult with us in any way (“don’t you think the second desk needs access to a power point too?”). While I was in Waterloo we were told that the move back to Maths would be on Wednesday and that anyone away from UWA on that day should give instructions about what/how they wanted moved. I gave simple instructions: “under no circumstances move anything from my office as I need to access my computer from overseas in order to do my work at these conferences and it would be a major inconvenience if it were turned off“. Then I get email from John, showing me a photo of my computer, unplugged and turned off, back in the Maths building! As far as our university is concerned, academic time has zero marginal cost and therefore has no value. That I was sitting in Portugal for several hours trying numerous ways to connect to my desktop was a matter of total indifference to them. Even if someone had taken 30 seconds to email me and explain what had happened, then I need not have kept trying to connect. But sending the email would have a marginal cost of 30 seconds, while my two hours wasted time has a marginal value of zero, so the decision is justified by simple economics.