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

A possible podcast

January 5, 2014

Was listening to a podcast, and hit the most annoying part: “Like every other weekly program, [podcast name here] takes time and money to produce.”

It’s true, it’s a worthy plea and my anger at it is a scummy thing, so I channeled my anger into petty disagreement.

If I wasn’t lazy, I would disprove that statement.

With trivial one-time time, and without any money, it should be possible to create an app, applet or browser add-on that took random online audio sources, cut out pieces of them according to some simple algorithm, and pasted and layered them together into a puzzling or amusing weekly five-minute collage of noise. This would be a weekly podcast i.e. seeded by the week, and same to all listeners of it — creating a sub-reddit for it would be free, and the listeners could find meaning or amusing passages together.

It would not take (after the small initial effort) time or money to produce that podcast. It would have listeners, too: you would listen to five minutes of surprises, wouldn’t you?

Also, have I mentioned lately that “contrarian” is one of my lesser character flaws?

New Year’s Night: Mathematics is impossible!

January 5, 2014

So, the first night of the year, one thirty AM. Me and my brother are at our parents’ place, watching TV. (Apparent cause: Hey, home together, let’s spend every possible moment together. Real cause: Brother sent me to buy snacks; I panicked and overperformed and now there’s a shopping bag full of salty stuff and we’re scattering come morning.)

We’re getting ready to fight over what to watch (Me: Hobbit extras! He: America’s Funniest Home Videos reskinned for Finland!), when I see mathematics on the random channel open and say “Hey! Holy MS Word equation editor, Batman!”

(My brother’s not Batman; he’s a physicist. But we had watched the 1966 Adam West Batman film a few days ago before that, and it had been one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.)

But this show: it is one of those nighttime live call-in shows: it shows a puzzle or a question, and if you call in and answer it correctly, you win a small sum of money. (Well, if you call in you’re fed into a series of multiple choice questions, and if you answer them correctly, and are the quickest of the round — one round’s a minute or two of callers, maybe? then you get on air and are allowed to guess.)

DSC_0146(Click for bigger.)

(Translation: “Laske kaikki mahdolliset luvut yhteen!” is “Add up all the numbers you can!” — more literally but less fluently “Count all the possible numbers together!”)

(“Nopeita kierroksia” isn’t “Thus I suffer for my sins” but “Quick rounds!”)

Me and my brother watched, with increasing puzzlement, hatred and incredulity, this program for an hour and a half, while smarter members of the family slept.

There were dozens and dozens of callers, most of them not audibly inebriated, and equally many different answers, all of them wrong. The spread was in thousands. The MC or people-goader — a nice, a little awkward young guy doing his first night of this, at the lowest end of the TV-personality totem pole — grew more and more anxious with every “No! Sorry, that wasn’t the right answer…” until his turn ended and he was replaced by an equally shocked, though more experienced, woman.

By now you think this is an illustration of the stupidity of the sort of people who watch TV on a fine New Year’s night; but no. Me and my brother both have Ph.D.’s, though admittedly only mine is in mathematics; his is in the soft and almost humanistically unrigorous subject of physics. We came up with a dozen ways to interpret the problem to explain why the right answer hadn’t been called in yet; but eventually someone always called in with our most likely guesses, and proved them wrong.

(We didn’t call, because then we would have been rubes, not amateur ethnologists.)

For example: The equation’s not that difficult. But it’s been called already, so that’s not it.

Hang on a minute, that 14 is really badly aligned. Is it a trick, a 1^4? Do the people behind this show know what exponentiation is?

Hey, wait, that 5+5. That’s not a plus sign, that’s division! You need to get really close to a passably big screen to notice that…

Hey, wait, the problem is “Count all the possible numbers together!” Not “solve the equation for question mark” — oh, how our education misleads us.

Oh, so it is addition. Disregard the multiplication, the minus signs, all that. (I hold forth for a few minutes on “The numbers in 5-7 are 5 and 7, not 5 and -7, unless you remember, as one does, that subtraction is defined as the addition of the sum-reciprocal number of the second operand,* in which case that’s 5 plus -7, but what kind of mathematical knowledge can we assume of this program and its audience — you tell me, you have the degree in a soft science, physicist.”)

(* = This could be accurate.)

Wait, “all possible numbers”? Does that mean… all natural numbers? All real numbers, all complex numbers, and… fuck, that’s a lot. And that’s either undefined or zero.

No, you physicist, I’m not going to call in with “undefined or zero”, I’m sure that’s not how they mean it. It’s not my fault mathematics makes you read things like a paranoia patient. And we call that rigor, thank you very much.

Oh, those numbers on the left-hand side of the screen, one to ten. Oh you clever bastards.

Hang on a minute. The sevens on the first and last row look different. Maybe the first one isn’t a number… look, it’s the same as those definitely-not-numbers squiggles around the equation!

Look at that 10. That’s not the same 1 as in the 19 on the next row… more fake numbers! Subtract ten! And that 5 on the last row is just a squiggle!

Wait, does this mean the numbers in the “Hyvää uutta vuotta!” (“Good New Year!”) rectangle, or does it include the phone number too? The reward money number? The 18 in the K-18 age limit? (Is that minus eighteen?) Nobody’s called in with a number over seventy million, but the spread is astonishing — here’s a partial record of about an hour — I’ve inserted comments where our best guesses were shot down:







































177 (fuck)






160 (double fuck)



Please note the -2030 and the 1543. That’s worse spread than with first-year non-math-majors on Introduction to Small Integers!

The second MC, the woman, eventually grew really desperate with the hints: add up the numbers, add them up, listen to what I’m saying, don’t solve the equation, add up the numbers, all the numbers, all the numbers, all the numbers, in this rectangle to the left of me, oh God, how can we be doing the third hour of this, usually this isn’t more than an hour — that didn’t help us, or the callers.


And that scroll at the very bottom of the screen? I hope it was a general rules-scroller, because it advised one to consider “all Arabic, Roman or written-out numbers while solving the problem”.

Oh, the reward? Began at 200 before we started watching; eventually crept up to 750 euros when we stopped (3 AM), and to 950 by 4 AM when the show stopped. (Parents have a provider that offers TV with a two-week recall.)

The next morning I checked the scheduled early-morning continuation of the show, but it had been replaced with an SMS forum — you text them, and a slow scroll of the received texts shows on the screen — there were, as usually there are, racists and xenophobes and some that were both actually, but no answers.

The good people of eurojahti.com, I hope you are happy with destroying my faith in mathematics and the Finnish people just two hours into 2014.

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.


November 9, 2013

Went and saw Gravity. A great movie, exciting adventure, visuals so pretty I might go see it again just to gawp at it; pleasantly on the realistic end of the Hollywood realism spectrum.


There are basically two characters in this movie: the three-days-to-retirement Experienced Astronaut and the science-ballast Mission Specialist.

Now, the Experienced Astronaut is cool in all situations. This EA reacts to everything with dispassionate reason and expertise, makes all the right decisions, is willing to die to save the lives of others, and doesn’t even get winded. A perfect NASA advertisement, this astronaut: imperturbable, jocular and professional.

(The EA even does this: one guy admits making a mistake, and the EA says nah, not your fault, would have happened anyway. Which, to me, always seems to imply that if you don’t blame yourself you’re arrogant and then it was your fault. Arrgh.)

The Mission Specialist, on the other hand, spends half the movie gasping, squealing in terror, curling into a fetal ball, giving up, colliding into things, and generally acting the part of the emotional rookie that just barely keeps alive. This MS has science smarts, allegedly, but they’re useless: the flight simulator flunking, heavy-breathing, arms-flailing MS is dead unless the rugged, practical EA is there to tell the MS what to do.

And if the EA should die so the MS might live, why, the MS’s subconscious will use a hallucination of the EA to give the MS advice. Because the MS just needs the guidance of a strong, unemotional hand.

Also, the MS character is written to have a dead child in the backstory. The EA has an ex-wife and lots of stories; a life busily lived. The MS has this dead child and that’s all that defines the MS.

Well, that and the sense that the MS is fleeing personal demons into space; it would be better for the MS to just go back down and abandon these lofty pursuits which are much better suited to rugged practical unemotional people like the EA.

The voice of the EA is an amusing anecdote or a wise command. The voice of the MS is a panicky mantra or a wail of despair. We stick close to the MS to see all of the fear and anxiety. We keep a respectful distance to the EA, who has everything under control.


Consider these two roles, the Experienced Astronaut and the Mission Specialist. Then ask yourself, what the fuck were the makers of this movie thinking when they made the EA a man, and the MS a woman? Didn’t it strike their minds that this might be one of those, what were those, one of those stereotype things?

I understand that in the past both would have been men; but even then, I think they couldn’t have made the MS-not-Ms. such a sack of emotions. Not manly enough, you see. And a man obviously couldn’t have had a backstory that was all about children. Maybe a girlfriend; that would have been okay.

And let me note that the last third of the movie, where Ryan Stone became competent, was the best third. The first was Ryan Stone hyperventilating, and the middle third was Ryan Stone floating inside the ISS, alternately presenting her tits and her ass at the camera.

Here’s an idea: go see Gravity and imagine the genders of the two main characters are switched. Assess the probability of that movie being made, and despair.

I liked Gravity, I will probably go and see it again, and this was one of those things that get stuck in your head when you’re watching a movie, but oh what I wouldn’t give to change the roles of the two actors, or even to make both of them women.

Youtube annoyances

November 7, 2013

Grr. I hate Youtube people who end their videos with exhortations of “like and subscribe”.

Firstly. If I subscribe, then every time after this you are exhorting me to do something I already did. That’s like every teenager’s nightmare of Mom.

Nobody wants that, teenager or no.

Secondly. If I liked the video well enough, in a non-button-smashing sense, then I presumably will push the like button. If I do not think to do this, it is probably because I did not like the video enough: it did not create in me the need to register my enjoyance. That the maker of the video is telling me to like it, in either sense of the word, is annoying and arrogant. “I’m sure you liked the video, peon! Now push the button, your Master commands you! (whiplash)!”

(Obviously these words are said because if you annoy enough people into voting for you, Youtube success will result: fame, riches, a better commentariat. (Well, two out of three ain’t bad.) But that doesn’t mean I have to like the begging for votes, or accept something just because it makes fame more probable.)

The same is true of subscribing. You don’t get to say if I will. “Don’t forget to subscribe!” isn’t a gentle phrase. It doesn’t mean “Subscribe if and only if you want to see more like this!” — it means “I’m sure you want to see more like this, you will-less gawping-animal! Press the subscription button or you’ll feel the lash! (whiplash)!” — it is an implication that of course I like the video, I just might be too febrile and feeble-minded to remember to subscribe to further messages from the benevolent celestial brilliance of divine origin which is the vlogger.

Thirdly, if you produce videos which are four or five minutes each, then for the love of all that has holes in it, do not spend even ten seconds repeating that mantra above which is neither amusing nor interesting. Don’t insert content which is below even ads into your own videos. Don’t make the watcher go, here comes this empty part again. Think of the watcher that has newly come to you, and is watching video after video, cringing every time that formula repeats.

Related: If you have this four-minute vlog, don’t spend the first thirty seconds in a hokey introduction whose only content is to repeat the video’s title. We’ve all read the title; you can’t spin a mystery out of it. Assume the watcher read the title, and get straight to business.

If the title is “How to carve a pumpkin into a Halloween hat!”, then don’t start with “Hi! So okay guys, I’m pretty sure you’ve been out and about, and have noticed that that special day is approaching — yes, giggity, I refer to Halloween! Day of Ghosts! Boo! (etc. etc.) But if you have this, that and the other, do you have the hat? (etc. etc.) How about a pumpkin hat? Gosh, I think you never guessed this was going to be about that!”


Another, different annoyance: I have a tablet and a smartphone, so I use the Youtube app on them. (Because their browsers, while generally the shit, are as regards Youtube, shit.) This means there’s no Adblock on my non-laptop Youtube experience.

Which means that every four or five videos I suddenly flick up the Android menu, mash a finger on the mute button, look intently at a wall for five seconds, and then smoosh the “Skip ad” button as soon as it appears.

Because, by the gods dark and terrible, and the whole Stygian anti-glibness league, I will not be advertised at if I don’t want to be. And I don’t want to see the plastic people and the lies of implication that ads are full of.

It’s even worse that the Youtube ads are Finnish ads — I’m in Finland, so obviously — so I’m told to buy douches and anal cream and toddler-resistant dress shoes and whatever it is that your generic wealthy advertisers want to sell you; mostly things that (a) I don’t want, (b) I don’t need, and/or (c) I don’t feel like preferring one brand over another for.

Or then I’m shown trailers for movies I don’t want to watch: Fast and Furious Meet the Fockers.

I’ve had my tablet for over a year; it’s probably safe to say I’ve watched thousands of Youtube videos on it.

I haven’t watched a single goddamn ad it has served at me. Mute, look away, wait, skip. Not one. No more than a second or two of each, at most.

Why yes, some people have good reasons to feel good. I just have reasons like this… but they make me feel good!

Small bits

November 3, 2013

Some days you wake up, grab a book, read the next sentence, and then just lay back and think: “The fuck is this. Maybe I should just sleep some more.”

Today, this sentence, courtesy of Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps (not a book about shoes), p. 177:

So Ruth Millikan (for instance) is right that given the nature of design constraints, it is unlikely in the extreme that there could be different ways of skinning the cat that left two radically different, globally indeterminate, tied-for-first-place interpretations.

The problem here is, Dennett does this philosophy thing with copious, often seemingly flippant real-life examples, and here he’s talking about skinning cats.

No, Daniel. No.

No reference to that in the previous sentences, none in the following ones, and I (in my freshly woken state) just think: Man, why did you have to make that an example? That’s horrible. Leave imaginary cats alone. (“Wait, it’s a figure of speech too… I hope that’s what this is…”)

* * *

There is (I have accidentally learned) a job search website called snagajob.com — it is meant as “snag-a-job”, but is stylised like that, as one word, on the site itself.

If you’ve read the appendices to the Lord of the Rings, you’re laughing right now.

First, “Snaga” is the name of an orc in the said book.

Second, the appendices give a translation for the said name.

In the Black Speech, “Snaga” means “slave”.

Snaga job.

Eeh eeh eeh.

Mythbusters: Games of Thrones special

October 28, 2013

So, since Mythbusters has done a Breaking Bad episode and a Walking Dead episode, it should be obvious what they are going to do next.

A Game of Thrones episode.

Testing, for example:

  • Can you really cleave a horse in two? (Kari: “Retch!”)
  • How high a wall can you make out of ice? And can you climb it? (Adam: “Fortunately, I have just the costume for the occasion!”)
  • If someone insults you in a language they think you don’t know, can you keep a straight face or will they notice? (Tory: “Why do we have to test this? I want to do the wall of ice!”)
  • Someone at the boards said that, allegedly, you can make a chicken into a dragon for thirty seconds by inserting gasoline-filled eggs into its cloaca, and also there’s this Youtube video. (Jamie: “Really.” Adam: “Fortunately, Jamie has this chicken cloaca rig from his advertising days—“)

Featuring, as a special guest, Peter Dinklage, to test if shortness is an advantage in medieval combat! And Carice van Houten, for a childbirth-related myth!