Archive for the ‘university’ Category

Life update, summer 2014: Relocations!

June 16, 2014

So: the new Cosmos is watched, and so is this year’s season of Game of Thrones. Time to use my free time to blog. To start with, a situation update: What have I been doing lately?

Well, last fall I got my Ph.D.; that fall and this spring I did teaching while writing an application after application for post-doc money. (What mad cretin decided that to do pure mathematics you had to answer so many convoluted practical questions — and not even convoluted in the easy sense that f(x) is as \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(t)g(x-t)\,dt !)

Then, after eight or so applications and some days of very dark thoughts, the ninth worked!

Thus, with funding from their end, this August I will be locating myself from Littlecity, Finland, to Bigcity, Poland. I’ll be there for at least one year.

I don’t know if I’m more relieved or terrified.

Still, Poland: I don’t know the language or the manners; but I’ve been there once before, 2008-ish, when I was a fresh graduate student and got to go to my very first mathematical conference. The conference was nice — mostly indecipherable, but nice. And all Polish mathematicians that I’ve met have been nice, friendly people; I have met no other Poles. (But poles generally are nice; for example, 1/z at z=0 is a very pleasant and well-behaved pole.)

Now right now I’m in the middle of packing — I don’t have the finances to pay the rent here in the city during the summer months when everything stops, so I’ve rented a heated box for all my books and stuff — more books than stuff — for a year, and next week I’ll go and spend the summer in infantile fashion by delighting my parents by my presence.

Mostly by moving my bulk between them and the window. “Is it cooler now mom, now that you’s de-lighted?”


PS: Aren’t research and teaching mirrors of each other, in a caricaturish sense? In research you use the same method on a new thing each time. In teaching, you expound on the same thing each time, but each time with different, audience-adapted methods.

Several very exceptional college admissions essays

May 13, 2014

One of the things American universities have and Finnish ones don’t are, apparently, admissions essays. Horrible self-congratulatory pieces you write to show the university that you are… uh, good in PR?

I’ve obviously never needed to write one (see: flippant attitude in the previous paragraph), and that is a good thing: I can’t even write “transition to manhood” or “positive impact” without biting at the inside of my face.

But — since the Internet is made for unsolicited advice — here are a couple of tries. Feel free to use them, and report on results.


Dear Admissions Board of the (name here) University,

Why am I writing an essay for a board? If it’s for cutting onions or something this essay won’t be good for it; it’ll get all cut up and everything. That’s why you use a board in the first place.




Dear Admissions Board of (universityname),

I have a lot of experience with boards. I have a skate board and a hover board and a board for playing chess on.

I look forward to either standing on you or playing with you, depending on what you want.

expectantly yours,

(firstname lastname)


Dear University Admissions Board,

You certainly are dear. In fact I don’t think I can afford you.

I don’t even know if I want to. I mean, will a Master’s degree get me a job, or is it just a paper?

Do I want to hang around with the sort of rich folks who can afford you? I don’t think they’re a good example for someone wanting to be a decent person.

What if being a douche is contagious? I don’t have the means to be such a douche as the rich kids.

I don’t know why I’m writing this.

Maybe because you’re the admissions board, and I needed to get this off my chest.

yours in confusion,

(names here)


Dear Board,

“Essay” is a strange word. I looked it up online, and it originally was a verb meaning something like “testing the quality of”. (I’m pretty sure a big printed dictionary would have the same origin.)

It’s funny that you use this piece of fiction for it. Do you realize I could make up all kinds of meaningful, touching encounters and honest life lessons and tough overcome circumstances, and you would never know? Not unless I was dumb enough to plagiarize 127 Hours or something. You have my CV I think, but you don’t get certificates for looking into the sunset with your father.

What are you testing for, then? My ability to lie smoothly, to choose the kind of lies that both appeal to you, dear Board, and are so glib no accident or checker can disprove them? Rest easy; I’m not going to claim myself a 9/11 orphan; I gather that would not be a good bluff.

In fact, how do you even know it’s me writing this? Maybe my dad hired an ex-Nixon speechwriter to polish his spawn’s lettery turds? Maybe I just sign my name to the bottom of this paper and that was my whole input into it; it’s not like you can check for that either, if I’m at least passably competent. If my essay’s implausibly good, hey, admit me, I’m a genius! (If it’s not good enough, I’ve probably brokered a money-back deal, or the next essay for free.)

Then there’s the chance that this essay might “work”, too, if you are as annoyed by the essay system as I am; if this catches you at the end of an irritating day, and you’re feeling like rewarding a young one for… chutzpah, I guess. I would say arrogance, but that doesn’t sound as good. Except that as I’ve made this too explicit, you’re not going to do that; I’ve been too clever. Unless I’ve been so clever that I know you’re cursing this essay-writer’s dickishness and unwillingness to play by the rules, and swearing this kind of meta-trickery will never work…

…or will it?

I wish to be yours,

N. N.


Dear Admissions Board of the Grand Poobah University of Misneforhiork

Admit it: You want me.



Dear Admissions,

I am a bear.

I literally am a bear.

I literally am the animal, bear. A grizzly bear.

As a result of a mix-up at our local Bureau of Birth Certificates and Pet Permits, I am an American citizen, nineteen years of age, and twelve hundred pounds of carnivorous grizzly bear. My extensive entertainment industry CV is attached.

You could be the first university in the nation to award a degree to a bear. You would be in every news outlet there is!

Or you could be the first instance of the headline, “Denied college applicant devours admissions board, sinks knife-sized incisors into head’s head [VIDEO+PICS]”.

The ball is in your court. Its resemblance to a bite-severed human head is entirely coincidental.

I have received some help from my caretaker, Mr. Wroth Tucker, for the writing of this letter.


“Mr. Clawmaster”


Dear Admissions Office,

The publicity materials of your university refer to it as a “place for life, not just for studies”.


Just not for studies.


Da Da Da


University Admissions Heads,

You are feeling very sleepy. Very sleepy.

You will not do anything contrary to your basic moral core, but you feel kindlily predisposed towards this application. You remain aware, and you can change your mind at any time. You are merely entertaining a fantasy of falling deeper and deeper into a suggestive state.

Admit this applicant.

Tick that box.

Admit this applicant.

Tick that box.

Admit this applicant.

You are slowly rising. You feel refreshed and happy. So very, very happy. As you read this paragraph, you come fully awake, put this letter aside, and remember nothing of it. You are satisfied with your work and feel no desire to check the list of those accepted, not today, not ever. You are happy, and content with your sex life.



Name Q. Surname


To: The admissions office

Title: Essay (applicant number 123 456)


My father was a great man. He was almost seven feet tall, and wide too. We went fishing together, hunting together, on truck joyrides through the town together, horn blaring, laughing, transmitting his manhood and my phase transformation from a mewling boy to a man with the angry squeals of the car’s audio equipment.

Maybe we were too loud; but we were alive, and isn’t that what life is all about? Maybe we were distracted, but I tell you she was to blame, walking in the middle of the street like that. And there was nothing to be done later, except to learn the harsh lessons of life and improve ourselves thereby.

The one lesson I was privileged to learn from my father was this: you can’t fix dead. You can fix an arm, you can fix a dog, you can fix a bathtube full of money to come; but you can’t fix dead.

Due to my father’s unjust incarceration, I come from impoverished circumstances. I urgently need to move town before the sheriff starts wondering where I get my paychecks from.


Name P. Namename

PS. I am great with chemistry, but unfortunately not the sort you get a certificate for. I’m attaching my dad’s rap sheet, pages 4–5, “Narcotics: Dealing and Manufacture”, but I am not admitting anything. That’s your job.


Deer Admissions Office,

Wait, shit, I meant to write “dear” but I have a problem with emotions.

Dear Admissions Office, you sweet little thing,

You see what I mean? I know the form of address that will result in a proper essay, but it is peculiar — that’s why I start with this sort of an introduction. Otherwise I look peculiar. Do not think I like this sort of business. No. I hate it.

It makes me angry.





i am sorry.

I’ll stop now.


Names Morenames


Dear Admissions,

You know how your university is run by a shadowy cabal of powerful donors and rich, influential former students? People you do not want to annoy, or you will face their terrible, disproportionate and indiscriminate vengeance?

It would be grossly unethical of me to mention any of my familial relations at this point, so I won’t.

(I took a different surname and have been living kind of incognito lately, because the stress of a solid-gold life and all that. Do not try to track my lineage, or the vengeance will be endless and harsh.)

(No, really, don’t look. I am of a rich and powerful ilk! Deny me at your own risk! I would say this if I was trying to influence you unethically, which I am not, and this essay is a privileged and private communication, plus the police? Also paid for, in perfectly legal aboveboard donations.)

(Do not deny me, if you value your continued non-crushing ‘neath the iron boot of the superrich! I heard that in a movie once.)

I am looking forward to your letter of acceptance.


N. N.


Dear Admissions Office,

What is life? What do we live for? Money or fame? Maybe the pleasures of flesh, or those of the mind? Maybe piety, the service of something greater than ourselves?


We live to live.

Life is its own purpose. Life defends itself to defend itself. Life lives to live. There is nothing else.

Is life, to use a metaphor, just a bowl of cherries? Maybe, but those cherries have their stems, which as a university profiled for its excellence in the STEM fields you surely know. Cherries are red, too, red like the lips of your mother, sleeping in the moonlight.

The Moon is lit by reflected sunlight. This too is a solid STEM fact, and one expressed by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan. Your mother in the moonlight is a marriage of biology and cosmology. Is your mother then a polygamist? Do I cast aspersions on your ancestry? What of it, if these be facts?

You cannot sue the Moon, but Neil Armstrong jaywalked on the Moon. He moonwalked on the Moon. Maybe Michael Jackson was a Neil Armstrong… walking on the Earth.


John Q. Philosophical


Dear Admissions Office,

Go Sun Bears!

I hear Sun Bears (GO BEARS!) are the best team in their sport. I am a great fan of sport! And I am a much bigger fan of Sun Bears (Go! Go! Go!) and it would not be exaggeration to say I am their biggest fan. I am 7 ft tall and weight 400 pounds.

I think college sports are important, because supporting them shows your dedication to slavishly adoring whatever symbols your college leadership offers you. Why if the Sun Bears (Go! Go!) were replaced by a fetid hole in the ground, I would still buy season tickets, scarves, hats, college shirts and other apparels in maximum amounts to show my support for the hole in the ground (Go Hole! Go Hole Go!) and, by this proxy, for the university administration and brand management.

Go Sun Bears!


N. N.


Dear Admissions Board,

I have attached an ancient tome of prophecies, passed down in my family for centuries. I refer you to p. 55, “Around 2012–5, a Descendant will come to the place of learning”. I trust you see the similarity between the demonic seal of Ba’al’solomon illustrated next to the text, and your university logo.

I have come, as prophesied.

I refer you next to the bottom of the page, viz., “And for those who bar the Descendant’s way, I foresee an endless fire among the minions of the Beast”.

For the sake of your immortal souls, admit me.


Bla Q. Bla

PS. Since the seal is (admittedly) a bit abstract, I’ve sent similar applications to Harvard, Yale, and New Mexico School of Dentistry. I am pretty sure eternal damnation will not fall on those who deny me where I was not meant to go, but I’m not quite sure yet, I’m considering my options.


Related: My personal statements, which I’ve also never needed to use for anything; and as an actually competent and not-only-humoristic example of this sort of a thing, Overqualified by Joey Comeau.

Other useful courses

January 28, 2014

Continuing on the theme of Chalk : an introduction, here are some hypothetical useful courses that nobody organizes for M.Sc. students in mathematics.

  • The Greek alphabet: how to tell \xi and \varsigma apart on the blackboard
  • How to pronounce foreign names: the language l’Hospital
  • How to read upside-down text: the art of checking your student’s answers in a hurry
  • How to use the copier: How duplexes get done, and why you need to be VERY careful with transparencies
  • The Laptop and the Data Projector: One Thousand Years of Anger and Sorrow
  • Seven exercises in following a flood of information transparency after transparency and slide after slide and oh god why’s she wiping that text away nooo I didn’t write it down yet—
  • One exercise in trying to listen while you’re making notes too; it’s like those sleep tapes in that it doesn’t work
  • What is the sound of an unasked question? The nine types of silence in the classroom
  • If every student seems stupid, it’s probably you that is
  • Practical examples for everything, A — Acad
  • Acupressure by chalk
  • How much caffeine is too much caffeine? (This is a trick question)
  • Acupuncture by chalk: an introduction to the Omerta of the classroom

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.



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.


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.


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?


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.


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
  4. exercise: timing your output

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?


  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

Review of the advanced courses

  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…)



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?”)