Friday, July 17, 2009

Desktop Philosophy

When you give a presentation using our own laptop computer, in some cases you can set up in advance and have your zippy title slide on the screen as the audience wanders in and gets settled and stares randomly at whatever you put in front of them. In other cases, however, you have to set up while everyone stares at you and whatever shows up on the screen as you get started. This is common when you set up to teach a class and can't get into the lecture room until just before the class starts.

Unless you have the presentation open and ready to go as soon as the computer connects to the projector (beamer), the audience is likely to have a few moments to gaze at your desktop and any files that may be on it.

This gives everyone a chance to admire your desktop and to determine if you're the kind of person who has 573 files scattered randomly about your desktop.

It also gives the audience a chance to look at your folder and filenames. The audience might consist of students in a class, people in a department that invited you to give a talk, colleagues and members of your research group, your department chair, and so on. You may or may not want some of these people to see your desktop.

For example, it would probably be a bad idea to have certain folders and files stored on the desktop, e.g. (for me) FSP blog drafts; Bob's ref letters-positive; Bob's ref letters-negative; Hate Letters to Dog Owners; petition_to_fire_the_Dean.doc; bomb-plans.doc; or a file that shows you are doing an (anonymous) review of a manuscript or proposal authored by someone in your audience.

A few years ago while waiting for a student to fire up his laptop to give a talk before his oral preliminary exam, we (the committee) members gazed idly at his desktop when it was projected on the screen. He had a boring background and a few scattered files. Before he was able to click on oral-prelim-talk.ppt, I saw a file titled WhyWomenLive.

I was curious about this, but did not think it appropriate to ask as a question at an oral preliminary exam. After the exam, however, once the student had passed in an emphatic and non-traumatic way and we were chatting as he put his laptop away, I asked him about this file.

He seemed a bit horrified that I might think he had a sexist or otherwise offensive file on his desktop, and he hastened to tell me that the full title was Why Women Live Longer Than Men, and that it was very funny. So we looked at it, and it is in fact very entertaining (you can search on the phrase and find images and videos if you haven't seen these and are curious). In my research group, we still refer to this episode from time to time and laugh about it.

Back in 2006 in an FSP poll, I asked readers what was on their desktop. My hypothesis was that women would be less likely than men to have photos of their kids as their background, but the results came out about the same for men and women (6%) . Most people seem to have a nature scene background, but there were no obvious trends.

I did not ask about desktop files/folders: i.e., whether people take care to keep certain ones off their desktop and whether anyone has had an embarrassing experience with projected desktops. I don't think a poll would be as interesting as hearing stories about such incidents and about Desktop Philosophies.

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am a soon to be FS Phd and my advisor (another FSP) trained me to inspect my desktop, login icons, etc. before talks for anything that might be embarrassing or misconstrued by others. That was some very excellent advice I think.

earthquake said...

An variation is when people put their desktop on the screen with their email folder open and collecting new mail. Then the titles and senders of whatever mail came in since they last checked is displayed for the audience, sometimes with a clear beep to announce their arrival, perhaps from a member of the audience.

I try not to mirror displays, partly to avoid these pitfalls. Despite my careful attention to such possibilities, no unintentional entertainment has shown up recently.

Anonymous said...

I saw a talk by a successful, 20-something Carnegie Mellon professor with pronounced self-esteem issues who dressed like he was going clubbing (i.e., lots of hair gel to make it look like he just got out of bed and a $200 wrinkled shirt that didn't *quite* cover his abs when he repeatedly lifted his arms above his head during the talk) and had files conspicuously planted on his desktop with names like dancing_with_lori_and_heather.mpg and kissing_jamie.jpg.

I thought his transparent showcasing of sexual prowess was more hilarious than offensive. And it did cause me to speculate about entertaining ways that I could mess with the minds of my audience through calculated placement of filenames; i.e., fields_medal_acceptance_speech.txt.

Anonymous said...

The most surprising example I've seen of someone's desktop during a talk was a full-screen background picture of the presenter and his new baby. In the bath. Naked.

This was a little unexpected - luckily there were a lot of bubbles...

Krazy Kitty said...

Once a friend was giving a mostly informal tutorial about some software and forgot to turn off his gmail notifier. We had a good laugh when a preview of a promotional email from a liquor store popped up... and he confided later that he was rather glad of the incident, for it reminded him to turn the notifier off, and minutes later he was receiving an email from his girlfriend with "Hey, sexy little thing" as a subject line.

I am personally paranoid about such possibilities and make sure nothing else than my presentation is on the computer when I start it. Usually, I open it in full screen before I even connect the computer. And I try not to keep any document on the Desktop at all, both for the uncluttered look and for privacy reasons.

The h bar said...

It could be worse. Once I went to a Professor's office to hand in a programming exercise (he had given me an appointment but had clearly forgotten about it). When he went to his computer to run my code in it and the screen saver vanished, the screened appeared to be covered with porn pictures. Not only should you be careful with what you have on your desktop prior to a presentation, but also with what kind of things you display in your computer within office hours.

Anonymous said...

I always disable the internet when I have to give a talk, as I have an instant messenger program on my computer and I'm always afraid my BFF will send me a msg during the talk, "Hey, hope your talk went well and that *ssh*le Prof. Smith didn't try to tell you about his "data" that no one believes..." So far, so good. A message did pop up once while I was showing some data to Advisor in his office, but I closed it in a millisecond and we both pretended it didn't happen...

Mrs. CH said...

This reminds me of a talk that a female grad student in our department gave.

She is known to be rather...um...spacey, shall we say? Incredibly unorganized, switches topics in mid-sentence when talking, etc..

So, when she hooked up her computer to the projector, everyone saw her "filing system" - every single file was on her desktop!!

What was even worse was that another student was to put their presentation on her computer so they could use it. She just told them to put it on the desktop - to which they answered "where?!". There was a chuckle from the whole audience.

I felt bad for the girl, but at the same time - wow. Not such a good impression to give.

Angry Professor said...

I had to borrow a laptop from a grad student last year for a talk at a major conference. I didn't think anything of it; he had the title page up when we needed to start and aside from some technical glitches with the beamer all went well.

Until the end, when he unhooked his laptop so the next speaker could begin. He closed my presentation to reveal his background: a very scantily clad supermodel in a suggestive pose. I was horrified; my audience was horrified. I still have nightmares about it, and I'm seriously considering never going back to that particular conference again.

Kim said...

When I create files, I put them straight into folders (in part so I'll be able to find them next time I need them). I've got a Mac that downloads pdfs straight to my laptop, though, so at any time I'm also likely to have unfiled pdfs of articles that I intend to read, kmz files I've grabbed for google Earth class prep, internal college reports that shouldn't be seen in public, and the schedule for swim lessons at the community pool.

I make a point of shoving everything into a folder that says "desktop files" before doing anything public with my computer. (And I usually use internal campus servers to transfer presentation files for class, which avoids showing students everything on my USB stick.)

Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson said...

I don't really use my desktop at all much. It has random crap on it, a lot of tax- and airticket PDFs. Also, I almost always have so many windows open that the desktop isn't visible on any of my virtual screens.

However, I recently gave a talk in which I was reminded that shutting down the wireless might be a worthwhile idea. I had gone through all the slides I wanted to talk about, and was busy expounding on a side track using the white board when the audience break out laughing.

Turns out my wife wanted to talk to me about something or other, and her IM chat comments were showing up in little alert windows on the screen. Everyone could read it except for me.

It was harmless enough, and turned into a good opportunity to crack a few extra jokes: I pulled up the chat window and asked her to give a wave to the audience...

scicurious said...

I was taught as a young grad student to inspect your desktop VERY carefully for folder names and file names before hooking it up. Also, though there is normally a cute pic of Mr. S and Scicat on my desktop, that will NEVER be in evidence when I present. The stupid stuff you need to do to look "serious".

Anonymous said...

Next time I give a dept seminar, I'm going to remove all the real files from my desktop and replace them with empty folders entitled "Award acceptance speech" and "Job negotiations from more prestigious university." Or, if I were really daring, "ultrasounds of my quints!"

Anonymous said...

I know a grad student who during her lab presentation her computer clock reminder to replace her birth control came up on screen.. eek!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I use a plain gray background on my desktop.

another junior FSP said...

I have a mac. When I am teaching, I have a link to the folder containing all of my class lectures in my main navigation window.

I'm not quite organized enough to keep all files off my desktop. However, I do have a folder labeled "Old desktops"; inside this folder is "Desktop Stuff May09", "Desktop Stuff June09", etc. Before I give a public lecture, I drag all the assorted files into the appropriately dated folder so I can find them again if needed, but they aren't in public view.

I also quit out of all other programs (or at least minimize them) and turn off network before class. When giving a real talk, I reboot my computer beforehand so virtual memory is reset and Powerpoint is the only open application. It helps to avoid any powerpoint errors.

Cloud said...

Hmmm. 5 years as a consultant cured me of any tendency to leave random files scattered around my laptop desktop. I have a folder called "Files" and just drag everything in there before I take my laptop traveling. As a consultant, there were potential contract issues if one customer saw files created for another customer, so we were specifically trained to have a clean desktop.

Interestingly, I've also kept my habit of not typing the "to" line of an email until the rest of the email is written and proofed. I even do this for personal emails. It is funny how firmly some habits are ingrained.

My desktop background is always a picture from our travels, with no people in it. I do, however, have 6 (!) physical photos of my daughter on my desk, a wedding photo, and 3 photos of my husband, 2 of them with my daughter. I've not noticed any change in how seriously my colleagues take me. But I also don't think I would have had such a display early in my career. Of course, I had neither husband nor daughter then.

Eugenie said...

So far no serious bloopers for me. I'm pretty anal when it comes to desktop clutter- the only file I have on there is the harddrive icon... which is conveniently named "Skankintosh". Someone borrowed my computer during a conference to display their powerpoint. ooops!

Mostly, I end up causing myself bodily harm during presentations. So far the best one was when I walked right into a wall on the way back to my seat....

yolio said...

One of my grad school professors had a picasso painting for his desktop. I don't remember details, but it was fairly abstract and apparently included a nude woman. It couldn't have been too obvious, because I saw his desktop everyday and never noticed it. Anyway, he got an anonymous sexual harassment claim for it. It was kind of sad, because the guy was foreign and was having some trouble navigating the culture. I think it would have been better if someone had said something to him directly, or at least via another faculty member. Going straight to the title ix office created a tense situation, he wasn't sure which of a small group of grad students had made the report and it left relations very strained.

Since then, I have considered my desktop to be a public space: only put things on there that you don't mind being seen by everyone. I take a minimalist approach and try to keep it empty.

prof J said...

I once had an awkward moment in a class when a calendar reminder popped up with an appointment I'd rather not have publicly displayed. I have since created a separate login account that I only use for presentations. It is easy to login to a another account as I rush off to give a talk or class, and I never have to worry about inappropriate content.

Math Guy said...

My desktop has two folders on it, titled "Web Downloads" and "July09". Everything else is hidden away.

This is an excellent tactic to keep me from getting distracted by other things when I want to start work on my computer.

ChemProf said...

I have set up a separate user on my Mac titled Presentations with a really clear desktop, since I do a lot of filing in the open. I try to go to that user desktop whenever I am using my laptop in class.

I love Anonymous 8:33 am's idea!

a physicist said...

I have no inappropriate files or folders because I don't use my laptop except when I travel; all my work stuff is on a different computer which I log in to remotely if needed. But, I do have a cute picture of my child on my desktop. When I'm getting ready to give a talk, I purposely leave this image up for quite a while before switching to my talk. (I'll usually switch 2-3 minutes before I'm scheduled to start talking.) I have no other motivation other than that I think my kid is cute!

PhD Mom said...

Not so much about my desktop, but rather my screen saver. My screen saver is linked to my personal photo files, and once during a talk the questions went on for some time. The screen saver came on and began showing some intimate post-childbirth photos of me nursing. It was very embarrassing.

The History Enthusiast said...

At my uni we have a function called "black screen" that sets the display to a...black screen, while you can still see everything on your display. I use this until the PP is up and ready to go so students don't see my email or whatever else is open.

I've never seen anything embarrassing on mine or someone else's, but it is good to be careful.

Now that I have a Mac, though, my desktop is literally empty. I usually have a cool nature picture up, so I may not use the black screen function all that often when school starts back up in the fall.

drama said...

When a post-doc was trying to show something on the web during a seminar, his auto-complete suggested a whole page of porn related addresses. Yikes ... Clear your browser history, just in case ...

Anonymous said...

My most recently graduated student started up his laptop after everyone had arrived to the defense presentation. The only things on his desktop were his slides and a sequence of folders with titles

"Compromising photos of X, Compromising photos of Y, Compromising photos of Z and Compromising photos of External Examiner".

The first three all indicated there were hundreds of files inside and the last one had zero files.

This was funny rather than painful because this was the last student you would expect a joke like this from.

Kevin said...

I've always had Firefox send downloads to a separate directory, which is the only directory on my desktop. My background picture is a neutral picture of my son (I think I have the one of him at Arecibo observatory on my laptop, and of him with face paint of a eukaryotic cell on my desktop). My physical desktop is messy enough---I see no reason for clutter on my computer desktop as well.

I never have the risk of IM or other alerts appearing, since I don't use them on my computers.

I do have to remind grad students about the need to keep their laptops looking professional for when they give presentations.

Anonymous said...

I have a pretty clean laptop desktop (cannot say the same about my office desktop), but just in case keep a user account that I use for seminars and teaching (or any other public presentation). This user account has just a few files, no screen saver, and does not turn off the monitor or hard disk due to inactivity.Also there's no visible skype, no messenger, no itunes...

I was in a Gordon conference not too long ago when a well-known prof. who was giving a talk got a skype call in the middle of the presentation. Because he didn't answer, two minutes later a skype chat window appeared in his screen with a personal message. After that, I'm always sure to turn off the wireless connection unless I absolutely need it during the presentation.

Digger said...

I don't have a laptop (yet?), so it isn't much of an issue for me (except what's on my USB drive, but it is all work stuff anyhow)... but when my students give presentations in class, they often log into their email to grab files. When I ask if they want to darken the screen so we can't all see their inbox, they are flustered, to a one.

I really need to add it to the official list of "tips for presentations." Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

I had a professor who, after giving a lecture in PowerPoint, closed her presentation before disconnecting the projector.

Underneath the slides was her browser, pointed at one of the students' Facebook profiles. The student (who was in the room) was less than amused - but hey, at least we couldn't complain about lacking personal attention in that class!

Space Prof said...

There is an easy remedy to all of this: don't connect to the projector until you have opened your presentation and are ready to show the world your screen.

Diane said...

I once had to fill in last-minute and give a lecture for a running-late professor in front of 150 undergrads. Just before I left for class, I was whining to my husband via IM about having to do it, and I neglected to close the window before taking the laptop to the lecture hall. Needless to say, while I waited for the gigantic Powerpoint file to open, the undergrads got to read my whininess on the giant screen. Note to self: plug video cable in LAST. Oops.

The History Enthusiast said...

Space Prof: I don't know about other universities, but at mine you have to hook up the computer before you turn on the projector. If you don't the screen won't display at all.

Doctor Pion said...

My favorite is a guy whose desktop image is a screen grab of an earlier desktop cluttered with working files for a computer project.

That means actual file icons were laid on top of and amongst bogus ones. No one else could find anything on it.

Kate said...

My former boss was moderating a session at a conference and when the tech guy switched to each of the presenters' in the session before the session started, one of the speakers computers had porn showing up! He was terribly embarrassed. No one knows what happened... but I've had an experience that might suggest it wasn't necessarily his fault.

I was going to a job interview, and so I changed my desktop picture to a generic nature scence. I didn't want a picture of my kid to be front and center (none of their business that I have a kid).

I opened the Mac earlier in the day of the interview and opened my presentation. Then put it to sleep. Once I hooked it up in the room and turned it on with the projector plugged in, I was shocked to see that behind the open presentation you could see a sliver of the backdrop - and it was NOT the new picture, but rather the old picture. My baby wasn't visible, so that was okay, but only because I already had powerpoint open (though not in full screen.) (p.s. I got the job)

It was very strange. After I unplugged the projector, it was back to the nature scene the next time I re-started it.

This happened to me one other time in lab meeting.

I have NO IDEA why this would have happened. Any ideas, anyone?

John V said...

for Kate,

At one of my job talks (which I didn't get, even from their third offer), the overheads I had left in someone's office for the morning had rearranged themselves into a new order. My Swiss interviewers were not so impressed with the on-the-fly reshuffling.

Perhaps your computer was unattended for a while? Probably not, but sometimes people can get competitive in the interview process.

Anonymous said...

I never understood why people want to put pictures of their kids as their desktop wallpaper. Dont you already see your kids at home? or have pictures of them on your desk or on your phone? Don't the files and icons on your desktop obscure the picture anyway? personally i like my desktop to be completely plain - just the solid blue color, no patterns, no pictures. If there are patterns or pictures then along with any files or icons on your desktop it looks so cluttered and messy.

Anonymous said...

Once I needed to borrow my boyfriend's laptop for a presentation- mine had died and so his was the obvious option. There were problems connecting his computer to the internet and I needed some pictures, so I kept working on the presentation on my desktop and transferred the file last minute. I went through my presentation, no problem, and another girl was to give her presentation from another file on the drive. The talk went well, but then she closed powerpoint while taking questions.

On the screen, one of the folders appeared to say "FUCK BUTT...". My guy had downloaded an album from a band, the fuck buttons. I hadn't noticed it in my haste to transfer the file and hook up the computer. Right smack in the middle of the screen, a foot high, for about 5 minutes. I was mortified.

And still am.

But I have learned my lesson.