Archive for September, 2012

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.

The wordless concepts of the bicyclers

September 19, 2012

So I have a bicycle, and Finland has weather. Since talking while bicycling seems to attract street lights, I have realized I have biking-related concepts for which I don’t have words. Such as:

  • The sense in the air when you get out of a market, shopping bag in hand, and notice the air’s gotten mightily darker all of a sudden… and ooh, in-rolling clouds! (It’s not the word for this, but the phrase for this is, “This is gonna suck.”)
  • The special fatalism of trying to outrace the incoming rain.
  • The warm glow when you actually do.
  • The feeling of uncertainty when it starts to drizzle and you try to decide whether to stop (to open an umbrella / zip up the coat / etc.) or not (less time in the incipient rain).
  • The oracular certainty over today’s weather caused by realizing you forgot all your rain gear home.
  • The belief that carrying an umbrella around is a powerful amulet against rainclouds.
  • The feeling of accomplishment and terror when you wheel round a wet corner with one hand holding an open umbrella.
  • The places that get wet when cycling wearing a raincoat.
  • The gust of wind that tells you you fucked up, the rain’s here and it’s going to lick you.
  • The sort of head-tilting squint you do, trying to see through a window whether it’s raining outside.
  • Looking out to see if there are ripples in the puddles. Used to see if it’s raining outside; the most common solution to the previous.
  • The furious swipe of your paw as you gesture a motorist to go on first, because you love being in the rain.
  • The trepidation you feel approaching a blind intersection where every direction seems to be made for hurtling from.
  • A place where something nasty happened with the bike, and your tendency to tense each time you pass it.
  • The belief that if you brake too hard, the brakes will break and then whoopsie.
  • The uncertainty over whether your tires are flat or you’re just tired.
  • The oddly upbeat feeling when something breaks that hasn’t ever broken before. (Usually with respect to the bicycle and not the bicycler.)
  • The Bicycle of Theseus. The culmination of the previous.

I could have taken the method of Adams and Lloyd and appropriated place names for these concepts; but I am lazy. Here are three place names that I found a meaning for, though.

  • Shrewsbury. The mythical origin-place of the people who yell bicycling advice after you. Usually “You’re not allowed to drive here! Go play tag with a truck!” — the latter part is sort of implied.
  • Dawley. The mythical origin-place of the pedestrians who don’t understand their normal walking speed isn’t a fair bicycling velocity. Only a major dawley thinks those bicyclists are rude for trying to pass him and his cute little dog. (Also, him walking at the left edge, his dog at the right, the leash taut between? One wonders if such a morville is really trying to kill people.)
  • Wolverhampton. The higher plane of existence onto which you ascend when, bicycling in morning quiet, with no people, no cars, you see a squirrel. Or a bunny rabbit. Or wolves! (A wolf-related wolverhampton can make you into a wulfrunian pretty quickly.)

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.”

A peek inside the head

September 12, 2012

So, um, have I seen any movies lately that I could rave about, ranting optional… no, not really. I saw Purge, based on the Finland-famous book of the same name by Sofi Oksanen; it was like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, except with more misogyny and less happiness. A good movie, but a brutal one.

Anything interesting in the news… naah.

Anything to share from this memoir I’m writing… no, I don’t think “this is how I wipe my ass” is for sharing; it goes to a time capsule with the rest of it, and won’t the people of 3012 be happy to know how that crevasse was cleaned.

Um, maybe a sci-fi story, “In the Future, This Is the Last Man With An Ass” — no, not snappy enough — “Heinie’s Last Trumpeting” — no, no — “Mr. Robot-Man and the Horrors of Biological Waste Management” — no, this is outright gross —

Coffee — yes, must drink coffee — wait, could I blog about coffee?

“Coffee is a foul liquid of perception, a melange of water and darker, less wholesome elements, usually sweetened with sugar, since sugar is difficult to use for any other purpose, and isn’t this a meaningful sentence—”

No, no.


“‘The eyes of Ibad!’ the student cried.

Indeed, the old man’s eyes were uniform coffee-brown, the monotony broken only by the red of broken blood vessels.

“‘Indeed!’ the old man cried, ‘For I am the one they call the Muad’Dib, the kangaroo mouse, microdipodops megacephalus, endemic to California and especially this campus, the lecturer whose lectures were foretold, being the same lectures as every year — and I shall not accept your excuses. You should not have excuses. Excuses are the grade-killer. Excuses are the little death that brings one more year into your plan. I will face your excuses, and I will wade through them and swim over them. And when the excuses are gone, I will see you—‘

“‘Aieee!’ the student cried—”


Maybe not.

What has happened at the university recently?

Um, Lecturer #13 informed me it’s the second week of lectures and he’s, uh, I suppose I need to use Internet-speak to translate colloquial Finnish because I can’t think of a suitable colloquial English expression… it’s the second week of lectures and this is already a week when not a single fuck is given.

Squirrel away for later use a bit of dialogue, made up right now:

“I do not give a fuck.”

“Do you receive any?”

(fistfight ensues)

Here “ensues” (starts to happen) should not be confused with “enmarysues” (starts to look like the author likes a character way too much) or “en sues” (a pose of the fabled courtial art of law-fu).

Hm, what else am I doing? Well, spinning two writing projects. Firstly, taking looks of horror at a high fantasy thing I wrote when fifteen, and which I now, fifteen years later, have decided to rewrite on Hollywood strengths of rewrite and adapt; and secondly, now and then, throwing bits into a gamebook (not a Choose Your Own Adventure thing, because laws), bits like this.


You confess you’ve never heard of either band.

“They’re good. Well, the [First band] anyway. If you like [obscure and slightly ludicrous criteria] that is. And, um, are a major military history nut. Or, er, a generic nut.”

“Generic nut?”

“You know, eats steak with toothpaste. Has a coat made of underwear. Never blinks. Has a freezer full of dead animals. Generic nut, you know.”

“Many of those expected in the audience?”

“Most of it.”

You probably shouldn’t go to this concert, with your recently-acquired crippling fear of freezers and all; but since you don’t have anything better to do, you look up to the skies and hope someone would do the deciding for you.

If you go to the concert, turn to page xxx.

If you don’t, turn to page yyy.

If, overcome by a strange compulsion, you make your underwear into a hat and go dancing down the street, turn to page zzz.


Perhaps too meta.

Speaking of which, so is this post — am I really trying to make a blog post about trying to make a blog post?

Oh, wait —


This is a blog post about trying to make a blog post about trying to make a blog post. The first thing to note is this is not a representation of the author’s typical creative process, but rather a comedical device to get content out of not nothing, but out of very slim pickings. Throwing a few scattershot thoughts and almost-jokes together does not make a blog post, except in the most technical sense — but drop them into a pudding-y cement of meta-commentary, and they seem almost clever! Not that this—


Huh, almost got stuck in double-meta there, expositing about expositing about writing. And in a few sentences more, I would have started commenting about the stupidity of such double-meta commentary, and then there would have been no return from the Tower of Meta-Dickery.

Writes down: “Possible blog name? ‘Tower of Meta-Dickery'”

Makes low burbling noises. Writes, “Possible fan fic? ‘Harry Potter and the Tower of Meta-Dickery'”


“What”, Harry cried, “I’m not in a book!”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Yes you are. At least three histories of V War One, one unauthorized biography, and a series of children’s books.”

“A series of what?” Harry said, looking not at all well.

In the meanwhile, Ron had found the unauthorized biography and was fuming in a corner, muttering about being left out of most of the nice adventures and all of the satanic Gryffindor orgies.

Hermione waved her wand, and a set of seven books, some of them quite thick, flew in Harry’s direction, took a loop round his head, and settled down to the table.

“Harry Potter and the Order…” he read. “I’m sure I’ve never done anything this much!

“How does the last book end?” Hermione asked.

“Huh? Why?”

“I mean”, she stammered, “do you, uh, do you want to see how it, uh, ends for you?”

“Please, Hermione”, he sighed, “these are just books. They’re not true.”

“What, not true?” Ron exclaimed, slamming the unauthorized biography shut and blushing furiously.

“Of course they are true”, Hermione explained, with slightly glassy eyes and a fixed smile, “Books need to be true or else what is the point of books. Harry, Ron, this is the most wonderful place in magical Britain: if you bring a book here, it becomes true!” She glanced at the unauthorized biography and added: “Within reason.”

“So no orgies?” Ron asked.

“Orgies?” Harry cried, whipping out his wand. “Get behind me Hermione, I’ll take care of—”

“No”, Hermione said with great patience and a curious expression, “you’re thinking of Harpies, Harry.”

“I’m not”, Ron muttered. “They’d peck your p— uh, nevermind.”

Harry blinked a few times and lowered his wand. “Wait. Hermione, are you saying that if I die at the end of this book, I die in real life?”

She nodded; Harry looked at the last book as if it was a snake, on fire, with a gun in its mouth.

“Which is my plan”, Hermione said, pulling a single sheet of paper from an inner pocket of her robes. “Here’s a new ending.”

“Let me see”, Ron said, leaning over.

“THE LAST CHAPTER”, the paper read. “Suddenly Voldemort explodes into a fountain of candy, and all the Death Eaters lose their magical powers, and Draco Malfoy too. The house elves are freed, and Hermione” — she covered the last line and sat down, drawing the last book to her.

“What’s that last bit?” Ron asked, hopefully.

“Oh, nothing”, Hermione said. “Precisio incendio!” The book flew open and its pages started to crumble to ash, then to nothing, one by one. “Give me a quill. I’ll write this to the empty pages at the end…”

“What”, Harry said, snatching the paper from Hermione. “‘And Hermione gets fifteen N.E.W.T.’s.’? Hermione, there aren’t enough subjects for you to get—”

“Oh bugger”, Ron muttered.


Well, yes. Meta-dickery.

And now, the shape of TA communication:


One more thing (I’m not sure how much [Lecturer-Man] has told you) — in addition to the normal exercises, this course also has “extra” problems. They don’t give you any extra points, or any points at all; they’re not something you’re required to do, and they don’t add anything that would be required for the exam; they mostly exist to give people with too much free time something to do. (Mathematics has this kind of people.)

These voluntary extra problems come from [Perfectly and Innocent’s] book [Basic Tome of Easy Math] (3rd ed); if you want to do them, I think you can find the book at the library; since the library is a complex place, ask the library people for help if necessary. The first extras were #19, #20 and #21 from p. 13, and #20 from p. 23.

Fun fact: No mathematician can use the word “complex” in a non-mathematical sense without feeling like a pun.

Also, thinking about it, I now realize the technical term for “library people” is “librarians”.

The Fall makes no sense at all

September 6, 2012

(Spoilers for the new Total Recall. Also amateur physics and politics.)

So I saw the Total Recall remake today. It was pretty, a riot of worldbuilding; all round good fun, despite a marked lack of Schwarzenegger. (I would be really happy if Arnold went on a spree and remade all his movies. That would be fun. Stupid, but fun.)

But. There was a graffiti in the film, “The Fall Makes Slaves Of Us All”. The Fall? Nothing theological, but a transport tube between imperial post-apocalyptic Britain/Western Europe and colonial post-apocalyptic Australia.

The tube went through the core of the Earth.

Like, straight through all of Earth.

It was kind of difficult to suspend my disbelief for that. Worse still, the Fall was used to move factory workers from Australia to England. One way in the morning… the other way in the evening.

That’s some commute. The diameter of Earth is some 13 000 kilometers. Let us suppose the Fall is a bullet train moving at 1000 km/h — the trip would take 13 hours, which is silly. The Fall must be a lot quicker. Suppose two hours: that’d be 6500 km/h, or Mach 5 in sea level conditions. Don’t suppose what happens if you reach out and touch the wall; it won’t be pretty.

And, holy hell, I don’t even want to think about air and that tube. It’s a pit to the center of the Earth from both sides: it tends to fill with air unless you put pumps and seals in it. The air tends to compress itself (I suppose), creating a tremendously thick barrier to movement and life at the bottom, unless you have seals and pumps constantly in operation. You have a vessel passing through at least twice each day, very probably more often, causing pressure, friction, wear and tear, shaking tremendously when it is at the bottom, at the worst and the most probable place for things to go wrong… The Fall seems like a catastrophe just waiting to happen.

And what a catastrophe! Suppose there are flaps and pumps to prevent the hole from filling with air. Drop a flaming, immense hunk of steel into the Australian end of it… and you’ll create an air avalanche big enough to fill a hole a hundred meters wide and 13 000 kilometers deep. You’ll suck half of Canberra (or whatever) into the hole, and suffocate the rest.

Or suppose the tube is full of air. Drop the same plumb-bob into it. Suppose it falls, falls, gathers momentum, rips through failsafes, pushes air ahead of it… and creates a tsunami of air for the English end. Which is in the middle of a densely-populated city. Kaboom, air just killed you.

And this tube of disaster, a single tube by all appearances… through the core of the Earth… is used for factory worker commutes.

(And policed by the TSA, of course. Who do get shot up; I suppose this was cathartic for the American viewers. “You are too inquisitive, porno scanner people! Bullet fun time!”)

The setting is post-apocalyptic, so I’m willing to suppose the Fall was made, er, pre-Apocalyptic-Fall, and thus is a project of much greater dignity and purpose than its current use. This has to be so: if the post-apocalyptic folks had the ability to build the Fall, I think they would have the ability to rise above their post-apocalyptic condition, too.

Towards the end of the movie, the Fall serves as a way to foil the Bad Guy: he marches all his synthetic goons into it, and it goes kablooey.

Now. It is very possible the Fall was not a work of forgotten science, but a work of such resources as the apocalyptic folks no longer possess. What applies to the initial construction probably applies to its walls and the vehicle as well: it is possible that our hero made the Fall unusable for a long time. Given the political climate, that may have been a good thing; but it’s also possible he doomed all humankind, too. Suppose the Fall was used for more than commutes and extension of power. Suppose it’s not an accident it connects the two places that survived the apocalypse. Suppose it transported factory products, specialized parts, tools that are very necessary in this deadly world after the end.

We know that at least the military factories are safely in England, and the workers in Australia… do you suppose our English dictator might have taken industry-building steps to make a rebellion and a seizure of the Fall a really bad idea for the Australian side?

And as for England, what do they know? Their heroic leader had just moved to crush the terrorist rebels, when a final act of terror kills him, destroys the Fall, and causes the death of hundreds of servicemen and the destruction of masses of military property, leaving the society open to all kinds of chaos. Thousands of tourists are stranded in the hands of the barbaric Australians. The Fall had a capacity of at least 50 000: so there are at the very least 50 000 Australians stranded in England, with nothing except the clothes on their backs: no housing, no food, nothing but resentment and anger, gladly reciprocated. All it takes is one Aussie saying “Good riddance with the Cohaagen koala-fucker, ey, mates?” with the wrong people hearing, and the riots start…

(You need a passport for the Fall. The passport says whether you’re from “the Colony”, Australia. If you can’t provide an English passport, you’re an unhoused worker and a potential subversive, and we have camps for you…)

If the potentially rebellious underclass Australians were drafted for weapons factories in England, they had to be drafted for every other kind of work as well. Some factories didn’t have their workers in; some had only a single shift. Numberless factories hiccup or grind to a halt even if the workers don’t get interned or washed away by riots, causing shortages, hoarding, labor draft, martial law, riots… and the people will cry out for a strong leader to restore order, and to end those murderous Australian bastards.

Look out, Carl Hauser, the missiles are coming the long way round!

Three random bits

September 4, 2012

I once made up the faux-Spanish “en spagaat” for what happens when you’re getting out of a shower and on a slippery floor — the feet go their separate directions, the center of mass descends, and then groin pain. Here the faux formation leans on a split (the gymnastics move) being called a spagaatti in Finnish, and being a general colloquial term for any gymnastic move you pull when the floor hates you. (“Veditk√∂ spagaatin/spagaatit?” is the usual question when you tell how you walked on this slippery ice or wet floor: “Did you pull a split/splits?”)

Now, I put it into Google Translate just for larks and told it to detect a language, and it told me “en spagaat” is “and splits!” in Dutch.


I hate the word “comprehensive”. It’s one of those words that book titles always misuse, much like “definitive” and “complete”.

A Complete Book of… I don’t even. (Literalism like mine is stupid… well, not exactly stupid as such, but ill-advised… no, wait, that’s not the exactly best word…)

A Comprehensive Guide to… I don’t think so.

McBoob’s book is the definitive opus on the grooming of cats… do you mean “supplying a final settlement”, which in our continued absence of cyborg cats is outright impossible? Or “of recognized authority”? Or did you settle for “clearly defined”, given that authority hasn’t been doled out yet?

Yup, it seems “clearly defined” is what applies in most instances.

McBoob’s book is a clearly defined opus on the grooming of cats: it has a front cover and a back cover, and all the pages are in between.


Greta Christina’s looking for a secular alternative to the phrase “preaching to the choir”: spaking the good word to the “wrong” audience, or anyway the audience that least needs to hear it.

I don’t have anything to contribute — when I come up with expressions, they tend to cause irritation and itching with prolonged use — but that got me thinking.

Even as a religious turn of phrase, there’s something wrong with “preaching to the choir”. As I understand it, the choir is this cluster of people off to one side of the chapel, certainly not in the same direction from the preacher as the audience, the ordinary church-goers, are. If the preacher’s preaching to the choir, the real audience gets a side profile of him, and ends up listening like children when some other captive audience is addressed.

Preaching to the choir… am I having the wrong floorplan here, or does that make as much sense as “telling your husband the kid’s ordinances”, or “reading the news to the weatherman”?

Ha, that’s a good one.

“It’s no use, Bob. You’re reading the news to the weatherman. Let it be.”

“But such news! Such a weatherman!”