## Archive for the ‘university’ Category

### Bum diss

December 4, 2013

If I wasn’t lazy, I would put up a sign like this at a university noticeboard:

(phone number)

— and then, when people called, first ask them questions: What do you think this service is? Why did you call? Weren’t you a bit apprehensive? Then I would give them a digest of the previous callers’ answers.

Since I doubt the psychology dept would sponsor me, it would be one of those pay-to-play numbers.

“Dissertations” is clear, but what does “bum” sound like in this context? The rear end? An economically disadvantaged person?

And how come the dissertations come “from your bum”? That would imply the anal interpretation, but is it a colloquial ass-pull, “out of thin air”, or a literal investigation of an actual rectal outpouring? Is this an advert for the homeopathy Ph.D. program, or the one in human physiology?

Is it your dissertation that gets done, or that of an unscrupulous human biology major, who just hands you a coffee ticket and kicks you out? “I got a dissertation from your bum. Get going!”

But wait, “your bum” could be an affectionate term for your spouse, usually a male one. “I fixed the car while my bum husband just watched TV.” But if the advert is aimed at university students, is it then some clever trick — this one clever trick to graduate in under 30 days! — to enlist your spouse in your thesis work? (“Step one: Tie his TV rights to a daily page quota. He writes it, you write it; but unless it gets written by somebody, no TV!”)

But what if “your bum” is literally the exact bum-behind you sit on? Surely there are no dissertations in there. You couldn’t convince people, even desperate thesis-writers, that there would be useful text in there, could you? (“Where do you think all the stuff you learn goes? For 99 money units per hour, we rent this camera onna stick! Careful with the flash, it gets hot.”)

Or is this a cheating device, with “dissertations” being hype-speak for “pre-inserted exam answers”?

*

Doesn’t “bum” sound like one of those words that twee people have for their grandparents? Papaw. Nana. Bum.

“Okay kids, we’re visiting Bum today!”

“I don’t wanna, Bum smells funny.”

*

Ahh, I could write a whole book on how and when unusual object insertions into different bodily orifices are/aren’t funny; what I couldn’t make up, I would investigate through some really exceptional surveys.

“Chapter Seven. The Navel. There is really only one story here; it concerns a naive boy unsure of how and where women get pregnant.”

“Chapter Fifteen. The Right Nostril. We begin with the fingers and toes: there are twenty possibilities for single-digit insertions per person, and—”

“Chapter Twenty-Three. The Bum and the Mineral Kingdom.”

“Chapter Fifty. Suggestions for M.Sc. and Ph.D. Projects.”

*

Also, projects: “Experiments in Humor and Self-Injury Part One: Narrative Experiments”.

I wouldn’t do part two, “Practical Experiments”. That’s better left to Johnny Knoxville.

*

(“Dissertations from your bum” is a line from a Paul and Storm song called “Oh, No“. It’s one of those lines that just stick in my mind, much like “his groin’s got a date with the guillotine” and “The Mother Superior of Kicking Posterior“.)

### Ritual dialogues of mathematicians having coffee

December 3, 2013

(To be read in a dull monotone by a set of two people for the amusement of the complement.)

*

I could go for a cup more.

You could always go for a cup more.

Better then that I do not start at all; for by induction I would never stop.

Nonsense, for there is a boundary condition in the worldwide availability of coffee beans.

But are not coffee beans, with respect to time, a renewable resource beyond the rapidity I can consume them, even in a liquid concentrate?

Ah, I see you are right; you should not even have had the first cup.

Indeed. And I shall not have another.

*

Was that good?

That was better than yesterday.

But was it good?

It was the best I’ve ever had.

But was it good?

That I’d rather not say.

Rats.

*

In this cup, coffee frozen to brown snow. In this cup, a boil under the lid. Let us call the temperatures zero and one hundred.

From cup to cup you pour this, back and forth, portion and portion.

So the temperatures change, but do they converge?

They do; I have proven this.

Where do they converge? We may assume the cups to be identical, and containing an identical amount of coffee.

At fifty do they converge.

Let me sketch this. You graduate student over there, stop eating the chalk and give me one. Scribble scribble. Oh, yes, right, they converge. Hooray.

It is proven, then?

It is proven, with reasonable assumptions on “pouring”, “back and forth”, and “portion”, for all measurable cups of finite Lebesgue measure in any fixed dimension. Results for Hausdorff cups of non-integer dimension to be investigated next.

Yes. I will get more coffee.

Coffee is life.

No.

Correction: Lack of coffee implies lack of life, by the Erdös definition of life; “life: doing mathematics”. This is the standard definition of life.

Correction accepted.

Correction acceptance accepted.

*

Topologically speaking…

Never speak topologically when I’m here!

I speak topologically; you vanish.

I do.

Topologically speaking, this coffee cup is the same as this donut.

How so? I only know function theory.

Both could, assuming they are malleable, be deformed to the other.

But your coffee cup isn’t malleable!

Not at this temperature, no. But that is hardly the point.

What would you do with a ceramic donut anyway?

Interdisciplinary research.

How?

I would give it to my son.

I am puzzled.

So I would solve the longstanding open problem in theology, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone instead?”

But what of the donut-matter coffee cup?

That I would eat.

How would you drink coffee, then?

Oh.

See, your plan fails like the commutativity of addition and the square root operation, and you resemble a mathematics student in such a person’s first year by claiming the negation of this statement!

Ha ha. I am amused.

Yes you are!

I am amused by your wit. Ha ha.

### Chalk

November 20, 2013

There are many courses which future teachers and university lecturers could profit from — not just by being paid to arrange the courses, but also by attending them and learning useful new things.

For example:

Chalk: an introduction

The Essence of Chalk

1. a materials introduction
2. sidebar: chalk, cement and sulfuric acid: a lesson in inoptimal storage methods
3. chalk, temperature and humidity
4. chalk under pressure
5. the flashpoint
6. sidebar: the great Ghananese chalk combustion disaster of 1989
7. exercise: experiments in friction and traction

Chalk as a writing and drawing tool

1. legibility: which colors to use?
2. legibility sidebar: diff’rent colors of blackboards
3. fonts, scripts and chalk writing
4. sidebar: blackboard bold and blackboard fraktur
5. the room size and your font size
6. sidebar: multi-panel blackboards: a hazard or a menace?
7. exercise: drawing big giant circles

The Chalkstick

1. the ideal of width and length
2. your hand and the ideal
3. when the chalk breaks
4. sidebar: gloves?
5. throwin’ chalk: you and the attentive class
6. exercise: chalk-tossing circle

The blackboard as a presentation space

1. points, lines and paragraphs
2. the consistency of sectioning and numeration
3. backreferences and planning your erasures

Health effects

1. skin whitening: temporary or permanent?
2. “whitelung” and your health care coverage
3. sidebar: do not wear a breathing mask, it will demoralize the students!
4. chalk: is it edible?
5. exercise: is it tasty?

Erasers

1. how do they work: smearing or picking up chalk?
2. wipe once, twice or n times? diminishing returns vs. neatness
3. sidebar: who wipes what: the standard, British and continental classroom wiping etiquettes
4. dry or wet erasers?
5. sidebar: the semiwet
6. the optimum of wetness and the runny letters syndrome
7. the super soaker alternative
8. the “rasta dandruff” alternative
9. sidebar: reconstituting the chalkstick
10. sidebar (time allowing): whiteboards: the Satan in our midst

1. chalk for intermediate users
2. chalk masterclass
3. chalk dusts and bellows: the art of dramatic entrances and exits
4. white antiquity: an introduction to blackboard archiving, with an emphasis on authentication
5. chalk and the outdoors teacher
6. always wear black clothes: or, chalk usage on the fly

Based on this sketch, I could stretch this to a full-semester course; if I now just found someone to pay me, I would.

### Things are happening

September 1, 2013

Life is a sequence of things happening. Lately, things have happened.

16th of August, I had my thesis defense, and passed. I was unaccountably euphoric and carefree all day, don’t remember most of it, and don’t think I screwed up anything too badly. I still haven’t got my mind around this all; I will blog about it later. (The faculty council of headbosses meets in late September; then I get my official papers. As for the doctoral hat and sword, no need for either expensive beast before the official mass doctoration (promootio) in about a year. What kind of a sick joke is it to offer postdocs these almost-never-used shiny official regalia for one thousand euros a pop, anyway?)

21st of August, this blog turned six years old. That’s towards the end of early childhood, the age for “learning through observing, experimenting and communicating with others”, and close to the beginning of middle childhood, where children/blogs “make new friends and gain new skills, which will enable them to become more independent and enhance their individuality”.

So, yay. Look forward to that.

Now it’s a Sunday; on Tuesday I’ll start teaching a course in real analysis — mathematics, not some macho branch of psychiatry. “I’ll talk to you while the couch is dropped from a plane into a volcano! Full of sharks! REAL ANALYSIS FOR REAL PROBLEMS!”

Lecturing meaning lectures and exercises: it’s our traditional way to feed postdocs until they get a real academic source of money, or until the Outer Despair takes them.

I’ll also start writing applications — “Hey, fund a foreign excursion for me! This e-mail proves professor Doomsnarl of Antarctica Totally Real University knows me!” — “Hey, grant me money and I’ll give the world gradients!” —- “Please see the attached picture of a cat. If you don’t give me money, and if I had a cat like that, that cat would starve!” — the usual stuff, with an extra dollop of a sly voice echoing from above, saying, “This is a grant which you won’t get, but the Elder Gods of F’kul’tee would like to see more of our people applying for it. Plus you can abbreviate that thing for the Outer Mongolia Camel Sweepstakes application.”

To get my mind out of all this, I went and got the ingredients for lasagna/lasagne, and made it. It was good; wouldn’t go as far as to say delicious, but good. Edible, and then some.

Then, while in the last stages of preparation, being very careful to not mess up the lasagnx, focusing all my care and attention on it — you see where this is going, don’t you? I then bumped my laptop and it fell from knee-height to the floor and bam the screen broke and only shows a less exciting relative of the NBC rainbow symbol. I spent the next five minutes stalking around, gesticulating at walls, saying “No! Aghhh!” in frustrated disbelief.

There are many kinds of failures; the failure due to brain failure is the most Internet-familiar. Then there are failures due to rolling one: something unlikely happens, and it happens to happen to you. And then there’s this: simple stupid clumsiness that leaves you shouting at the universe that you want a redo, you’re not as clumsy as this.

Since the universe has not seen it fit to offer me a load/restore prompt (“What? I didn’t save after the thesis defense? Aghhh!”), I’ll be visiting the computer shop tomorrow. Hopefully my store-insurance is still on; if not, I’ll have them dig out the hard drive and buy a now laptop; if it’s on, I’ll have them buy a new laptop, for me.

Luckily, I was ready for this: the hard drive had been hiccupping in a worrying way for a while, giving an oddly fluctuating number of bad sectors, stealing all my attention as the potential source of the laptop’s destruction — so even if there’s more breakage than just the screen, I’m backed up up to yesterday for really important data, and to a week ago for incidental fluff. Here “really important” means mostly photos and my scribblings, things that cannot be recovered/bought/summoned from elsewhere/The Elsewhere. (Random note: If there was a fantasy novel with a bit of a Germanic flavor to the names and the setting, wouldn’t you totally buy “the Elsevier” as the dark demonic origin-realm of the Big Bad?)

(Related: I haven’t been eager to buy a new computer (that is, a laptop; haven’t had a desktop for years), since the smashed one’s hard drive is 1 TB, and there apparently is no current laptop-compatible hard drive which would be bigger. Right now all the data I have, music and movies and all, is somewhere around 1.75 TB.)

Not to be robbed of my computer time, I dug up the previous laptop, which I had dusted off and installed Lubuntu on about half a year ago. I booted it up, glad for my foresight and intelligence—

And it asked for a password, and I said “Rats!” because I had no memory of what that was.

Since, for some reason, resetting the password was ridiculously easy — for the “boot to recovery mode and mount the hard drive as readable-writeable” values of easy — that didn’t stop me for long.

What stopped me was that the thing kept accepting the new password, flashing the screen black, and then throwing me back to the password prompt. (Different from it just saying “wrong password!”) Like they say at Elsevier, nicht gut.

So then I logged in as a guest, watched some Youtube, ate some lasagnx, and then felt compelled to visit a third working computer to see if the jinx would continue. Thus now I am here at the university, where this computer hasn’t broken yet.

Wait for it…

No, hasn’t broken yet.

Ah well; these lasagnx/computer things totally did get my mind out of university bebotherment for a few hours. So win some; lose some.

### Math and visa

June 6, 2013

What math is

Mathematics is not a science. It’s not a natural science: it does not study nature. It’s not a human science: it doesn’t study humans.

Mathematics is an art. It’s not a human art; it’s not useful for elucidating human feelings and passions. It’s a natural art: it is very, very useful for elucidating nature’s laws and actions.

(Well, this does not seem immediately fallacious on a cursory one-eyed glance, so it’s up to my usual self-review standards of my own personal philosophies…)

*

Visa

So I’m going to China to a mathematics conference for next week; this meant getting a visa. I filled up the papers, sent them in, and waited. A week later the departmental secretary brought me my passport back; I sat down to wait for the other papers.

A week passed. I grew anxious.

I went to the secretary and asked, “Hey, where’s my visa at?”

She said, “Da fuq, graduate student? It’s in da passport.”

I said, “Wait, what’s a visa look like anyhow?”

She said, “Oh em gee, graduate student” — I might be using false tones and idioms here.

I went, looked inside the passport; hidden on a random page halfway through it there was an official-looking sticker which, apparently, is what a visa looks like.

So now I know that.

### Future events in the life of a graduate student

May 27, 2013

Future events, since the events of the past few weeks have been all about the future. I now know I’ll defend my dissertation in the middle of August; I know the opponent, and he’s a person I’ve made laugh a few times when we last met, so all should be good.

If all is not good, I’ll arrange for someone in the audience to make a diversion during which I’ll hide behind the projector screen. Then I’ll wait for everybody to leave, and try defending again next year. (What? That’s not how they do this at your university? What kind of silly people are you?)

Also — since the defence is only in August — a foul plan was hatched to get me something to do in the meanwhile; and so after this week and next week I’ll climb into a plane and spend a week in China, in a mathematics conference.

As a result, I haven’t had time to worry about the thesis for a few weeks.

I’ve been so busy doing practical arrangements I haven’t even had time to worry about the trip itself. Like the probability of not having a common language with anybody, like the red-faced policeman waving a headless chicken at me two weeks from now. (Sorry; I have a very bizarre and pessimistic imagination.) I share my office with a Chinese graduate student; when I told him about my trip he shrugged and said he speaks a different Chinese language than the people I’m going to meet; so, nobody can help you, goodbye.

Getting to China means three different flights, the middle one of which is nine or ten hours. Fortunately I’m very zen about flying: I watch a lot of Air Crash Investigations and Seconds from Disaster, so if a familiar scenario occurs and the plane corkscrews downwards, breathing masks dropping out of the ceiling, I’ll shout “This is just like what I saw on tee vee!” — and so distract everyone from their impending doom, which is the best thing to do in those circumstances.

Or, if someone screams the worn words “We’re all going to die!”, I suppose I’ll have to turn, point and yell: “Actually, you’re going to stay alive!” — life is much too precious to be ended accepting stupid platitudes.

Seriously, I’ve decided a long time ago that if I die in a horrible accident, I’m going to do that bellowing a joke much more horrible than the accident could ever be. My aim is that at least one of the people present should think, “God, I’d just die if I said that” — which, in my case, would be the case.

I’ve bought power adapters already, and started thinking about washing my hands constantly, am going to exchange money just as soon as I suss out what to; am currently fighting a little voice that says this is the perfect excuse to buy a tiny laptop or a second tablet. I’m preparing for all kinds of diseases — do you know they actually give you your cholera inoculation in a bottle and say, “Hey, drink that on your own”? So now I have a bottle of cholera in my fridge and a glass I don’t know I can ever drink from again — and am waiting for a visa, insert a few paragraphs of generic praise for the glorious People’s Republic of China here in case they find this, and am cursing how going to a mathematics conference, which should be all about ivory-tower symbol-crunching, is such a damned practical business.

Why can’t I just be locked into an white bubble and carted from university to university without all this… practical stuff?

### The evolution of a solution

March 25, 2013

As a TA, I sometimes TA for a course whose coursework has no ready solutions. Then the following happens.

*

Iteration 0: No solution. These problems are impossible. The lecturer is a sadist. These are his research problems.

Iteration 1: Death is the only solution.

Iteration 2: Hey, if we know “A” this problem is easily solved. Hooray!

Iteration 3: Oh, “A” follows from this problem. Dang.

Iteration 4: If we assume “B” is known, this is both easy and elegant!

Iteration 5: If we assume “B”, we’re assuming something not known or proven on this course!

Iteration 6: It’s one page if I hand-wave the hard part!

Iteration 7: It’s three pages and no hand-waving!

Iteration 8: It’s three pages, no hand-waving, and assuming $1 < 0$ holds!

Iteration 9: Hang on a minute, this is not a problem about “X”. That’s why no “X”-literature had a peep of it.

Iteration 10: This is about “Y”! And it’s an easy “Y”-problem!

Iteration 11: Three lines, easy peasy… aw crap, that inequality’s not strict.

Iteration 12: Three lines, plus eleven special cases, can this really be— (phone rings)

Iteration 13: “Misprint, Mr. Lecturer? The one in Problem 3, right? Right right. What? I meant the inequality… oh, that’s a different misprint?”

Iteration 14: It’s not an “Y”-problem. It’s an “X”-problem, and the zero was clever misdirection for infinity.

Iteration 15: I have… a solution? A skeleton anyway; let’s throw some meat on this pony!

Iteration 16: It’s a elephant. I can’t give this solution to the little ones. First thing, my wrist would break at the blackboard.

Iteration 17: I could use transparencies… Wait, no, I’d better try simplifying this. Get some jumping jacks, elephant solution!

Iteration 18: Right, I don’t need the special case where $r>1$ and $r<-1$; silly me.

Iteration 19, the homework meeting: “Mmh, yeah. You can prove it that way too.” (crushes paper, cries a silent tear, moves to the next problem)

*

Iteration 19 can be averted by having a handout. (“Yeah, I guess you could use the obvious, elegant solution Mr. Poopypants put on the blackboard. If on the other hand you want a solution with pizazz and loxodromic Möbius transformations… well, one out of two ain’t too bad… here’s a handout… Aw, come on people, don’t you have saunas to set fire to or something?”)

### The mathematical life, part aleph

March 11, 2013

A harmonic function, for the purposes of this discussion, is a function $f$ for which $\Delta f = 0$. A superharmonic function is one for which $\Delta f \leq 0$, and a subharmonic one one for which $\Delta f \geq 0$. Consequently, a function is harmonic if and only if it is both superharmonic and subharmonic.

Thus, a superharmonic function is (generally speaking) not harmonic.

When I explained this to the teaching-of-mathematics studying fellow the next desk over, his comment was: “Are you telling me that Superman isn’t even a man?”

(To which I should have said, “He’s from Krypton, isn’t he? I don’t even know if we should call him a he! What the hell, he might have tentacles or nothing at all down there — wait, let me check, there must be fan fiction about this. Let me google for ‘superman duck penis’.”)

To which I answered, “Ja, but if ve take der Super-Man und der Sub-Man, they together make a Man!”

*

A question, from the same discussion: As is well known, a topologist is a person who doesn’t know the difference between a donut and a coffee cup. This being so because in the topological sense they’re the same thing: if they were made of clay, you could morph one into the other without destroying or introducing any holes. (A donut has one, in the middle; a coffee cup has one, in the handle.)

The question now rises, how many holes should a donut have to be topologically equivalent to a human being?

Probably more than one, as the digestive pathway, mouth to fartmaker, is not the only one. But this quickly becomes a quest into the insides of the human being; it is not clear to me if even the male and the female of the species are topologically equivalent. (Either “Physiological gender as a topological concept” or “The topological equivalence of the sexes: Towards a mathematical feminism”, forthcoming once I get the funding.)

Research into this is on hiatus because the damn biologists, who surely have the requisite expertise, are far away across the frozen waste in a different building.

### My daily life: communication and solutions

September 27, 2012

A day at the math department. Midday. I go to the toilet to drop excrement and read Twitter. That done, I reach into the toilet paper conch.

It’s empty.

Well, reaching deep within I can feel the cardboard tube, but that’s no good for wiping.

For I moment I just sit there, dull surprise on my face.

Then I read some more Twitter and FMyLife, resisting a slight urge to comment on one of those about my position.

Then, when there are no particular sounds of footsteps from the corridor, I crack the cubicle door open and reach into the antechamber, the likewise closet-sized pre-toilet with a handwashing basin and a single male-peeing bowl. (I realize my terminology is weird; but you rarely read or talk about toilets.) There on the wall, two paces away, next to the corridor/toilet door, is a dispenser for hand towels.

Paper hand towels. And not the sandpapery kind either, but the nice ones. (If it had been the sandpaper towels, I might have resorted to some real commando methods.)

I calculate — one human being, two hands; one needed for ripping out a stack of towels, one needed for keeping the door closed, one needed to keep my underpants awkwardly halfway up, covering the worm and the dumplings.

Left for towels, right for pants; mercifully nobody picks these four seconds for a time to come in.

I wipe, the toilet eats the towels without too much burping; and as I stand up I really notice something I had glanced at coming in: a wadded, unused paper towel, like the last of a bunch held by a sweaty hand, in the nook between the seat and the wall.

Apparently, it seems, I was not the first to resort to these methods.

And as I walk out, a physics assistant rushes past me, into the toilet. For a split second I try to find a polite way to tell him ERMAHGERD THERE’S NO TOILET PAPER; but a split second isn’t enough.

Besides, it’s a problem with a proven solution; and as a mathematician, I’m happy with that.

### My textbook expenses

September 19, 2012

For a M.Sc. in mathematics
(rather, a B.Sc./M.Sc. equivalent combo)

1. about 30 euros (I think) for an optional textbook on basic analysis (Thomas’ Calculus, Finney-Weir-Giordano, 10th ed); lecturer-organized mass buy.
2. maybe 100–200 euros over five years for officially xeroxed lecture notes; including a math major and physics and IT minors.

*

For a Ph.D. in mathematics
(assuming nothing surprising pops up)

1. about 20 euros for one relevant actual-real-math book.

*

So yes, when I hear what kind of monstrous rip-offs the textbook expenses of other fields can be, I am boggled and furious. I’d say “required” and “expensive” are a particularly unfortunate combination; but of course the combination is not a result of fortune. (A cause of a fortune? I wonder if the bigger American-style universities publish their own obligatory textbooks, or if the publishers extend some kind of considerations to them. Heck, a lone lecturer could print  his/hers at Lulu for 50 dollars a book, and sell them for 100 — mad profit! 50 bucks per student, and you could use last year’s notes! Bwa ha ha—)

(Wait, I slipped into the “amoral space-lizard” mode there for a bit. Let me center my energies and be “forward-looking mathematician” again.)

When I become a big and important mathematician, I shall conspire with a publisher to print a flimsy textbook that shall be obligatory for my courses, and expensive, and we shall share the obscene profits. Then my students shall rebel and crucify me against the blackboard; and I shall live in the memories of mathematicians as a martyr to teaching, forever.

*

“Hey, holes in the blackboard. Guess it’s really true we don’t have money.”

“Shut your piehole, first-year. They’re holy.”

“Holes usually are.”

“No, you twit. Holy as in holy moly, if the maintenance papered them over the head would have a stroke.”

“Feet usually don’t—”

“The head of the department. You know, tall, thin, white, bald… like a piece of chalk wrapped in a sweater.”

“I know, I’ve seen her.”

“Have you heard her?”

“Does she speak?”

“Only math.”

“But really, what are these holes about?”

“Teaching went wrong here.”

“What, someone in physics used TNT and their thumb to demonstrate acceleration?”

“I have no idea what you just said, first-year.”

“Oh right, forgot you have no minors, just a big-huge math major. Sorry; that was real world stuff.”

“Ah, the special case. Nevermind then. This was where a lecturer got feedback. These holes are where the nails went.”

“What now?”

“We’ve stopped asking for feedback since. Also, see this sign.”

“What, ‘Absolutely no hammers in the hall’?”

“Yes, none. Hammertime is in the past.”