Matthias Nehlsen

Software, Data, and Stuff

Talk Transcripts: Rich Hickey, David Nolen & more

TL;DR: I wanted to study the content of some talks in written form but there were no transcripts available. However, I believe that the valuable and relevant content of these talks should be accessible to everyone, including those for whom 'sit back and listen' might not be the most viable option. To make that a reality, I had transcripts made. So far, I have compiled five talks by Rich Hickey, one talk by David Nolen and another talk by Guy Steele. The transcripts are available on GitHub.


For my previous article, I listened to Rich Hickey's talk about Transducers a few times and each time I discovered something new, which made me wonder about my perception. After thinking about it for a little while, I noticed a pattern.

My retention rate when reading thoroughly (that is, with a marker and a pen on real paper) is MUCH higher than when listening to a talk. Listening to a talk repeatedly is like skimming a text repeatedly, it just does not yield the same result as reading thoroughly. My theory is that talks are pretty much always too fast or too slow at any given point in time. Something is either all new with background information mentioned that I would want to read about first or I already know what is being talked about. The danger for me lies in the latter. My mind tends to wander off, particularly when watching the recording of a talk, and my thoughts tend to be so engaging that I miss crucial information in the talk.

There's really not a lot the presenter can do about that. Listening to a talk is valuable in its own right as it conveys emotion and can be quite entertaining and enlightening. I just feel it is not ideal when a lot of crucial information is only made available through a talk.

But there's one thing that would help me immensely: a transcript of the talk. With that, I’d watch the talk once and then mark the sections in the transcript I want to read up upon, probably with a good old marker. That way, it should be next to impossible to miss something. In my case at least, my marker hardly ever misses anything, and whenever my thoughts go elsewhere, it is very easy to mark where I stopped in the document and go back there later.

But transcripts of the talks I was interested in just weren't available. Which makes me wonder what you do when you're a software engineer AND deaf. In the Transducers talk in particular, there was plenty of information that I hadn't come across anywhere else. I don't think we as a community should exclude people just because of their inability to hear. In other words, in think these transcripts should really be available.

Now, I like solutions rather than problems so I hired freelancers to transcribe some talks for me. I then did the proofreading and put the transcripts on GitHub. From a financial standpoint, I thought that I'd do an experiment: I was prepared to spend up as much for transcripts as I typically spend on a conference. With seven talks already transcribed, I still spent 50% less than I would have been willing to spend. Moreover, because I proofread the transcripts, I have already learned more than what I’d say I learn at the average conference. So for me this is a huge win already, and it would make me happy if the outcome of this project benefitted others too.

Cheers, Matthias

© 2022 Matthias Nehlsen