Tuesday, April 22, 2014

another brick in the wall.

the more I teach liberal arts students, the more convinced I am that my own history is .. slightly out of the ordinary.

simply put.. mathematicians, let alone academic scholars, are a significant minority of the population .. even when one restricts to the college-attending sub-population of the western world only. we aren't ordinary in the sense that we are probabilistically rare. [1]

i guess that's just one way of saying (read: justifying) that i'm weird and i shouldn't be surprised that my students and i don't understand one another.

today i taught two lectures and it felt like i was instructing two confused yet brick-made walls.

it's a very isolating, unnerving experience. maybe i take too much pride in delivering clear, motivating lectures .. where "clear" means clear to me, but apparently not to anyone else.

i'm not being fair, though. it's not equal footing between them and i, because i'm the one setting the agenda and I know what's coming next; to them, though, i'm speaking a foreign language and during class, it's all they can do to copy what's on the blackboard.

isn't it fair, though, that after most of the semester, that they keep up with me?

put otherwise, if i'm going to interact with a brick wall, why should i leave my office to do so? why should I talk about things i know well when i can explore this i don't know but that i want to?

what's the damned point?!?

[1] the more i think about it, the more irrationally obsessive of a student i must have been. i remember studying with friends for exams by quizzing each other, asking each other how to prove this or that statement on the spot. i remember checking out maths books from the library, reading what seemed fascinating at the time. i remember being incredibly upset that, after two years and then graduating, i couldn't solve one particular open problem that my mentor suggested to me. (as far as I know, though, even now nobody's solved it either.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

i've been feeling unproductive lately; may as well make it certain.

i don't regret traveling and writing through spring break. it was a pleasure to see colleagues that are soon becoming old friends, in a city becoming more familiar and pleasantly so. this isn't too say that i could live there .. odds are that I'd bend back to my hard-to-get-a-hold-of, anti-social self.

put more simply, it's better that those colleagues of mine know me as a guest, not a neighbor.

those things said, Easter is coming and the university will be closed for chose to a week.

there are so many things to do .. but i'm getting out of practice and growing soft. i get tired more readily.

so i think i'm going to take a vacation, go up north for a day out two and go hiking as i fancied once. maybe i'll watch the latest superhero movie at the cinema. maybe I'll finally meet friends for lunch as i promised, long ago.

more likely, though, i'll spend two days on a research bender, writing up a quick-&-dirty draft of a note.. /-:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

an unhappy compromise.

i think it accurate to say that I spent the whole day trying not to think too hard about one problem.

in retrospect, i should either have worked as hard as I could have, made some small progress .. even a wrong turn would have been one more lesson in which way not go turn again ..

.. or not worked at all on it;

i guess I never learn.

Monday, April 07, 2014

the body wanders, followed by the mind.

my memory of Spain it's behind fainter and fainter.

being my Nth trip there (with N > 2) i've stopped picking up souvenirs .. so the only memento i have from the trip is a LaTeX draft in dire need of revision.

i haven't started counting the days until the end of the semester, but i'm getting there. the thing about having had a week off from teaching is that it skews my expectations: lately i've tried (unsuccessfully) to convince myself that a weekend is two days long and plenty of time to accomplish something small.

[ to be cont'd ]

Saturday, March 22, 2014


So in a few days I have to return to real life.. that means finally grading these exams, prepping another exam for another class, getting back to a scholarly journal, to colleagues in my department about a potential project and journal club, and so on.

Why do I feel alone in my endeavors? Why do I think I'm so ineffective and inefficient?

I feel refreshed.. but the sort of relief that will quickly deplete itself in a week's time and stress. My one track mind is a disadvantage in this modern society, where one had to stick to a multi-tasking schedule of barely controlled confusion..

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On what to prep.

In my previous travels to attend conferences or visit colleagues,I used to bring printouts of preprints (most of them by others, not me) as well as a few books and a laptop.

Experience has shown me, however, that most of this stuff is never used.

These days I bring a netbook, the preprints stay in PDF form [1], and there's room for both my running shoes and climbing shoes.

[1] .. and the books are digital, too.. though legal copies are harder to come by.

Push and pull.

So I lost a debate with my co-authors, but it doesn't bother me. I guess it shows that we work well together and that I can trust them to tell me when I'm wrong about something.

The important thing about maths is that one remains with what is correct. Often it means that one has to be wrong on occasion, and to realise why. More and more it seems important to me to fail, if only to be aware of how far I am pushing what I knew and what I really understand.

It also seems that the way American universities are structured doesn't allow for this. Sometimes I wonder how new mathematicians come out off the woodwork, and if this explains why it takes so long to get the hang of research... that is, if one ever gets the hang of it.

I like Europe. I didn't realise the extent to which I missed it, how the universities work.

Of course life is always more appealing as a guest.. but being in Spain reminds me of those years in Finland when I was a semi permanent resident and slowly becoming a local. I wonder often enough if I should have stayed and tried for a permanent position.. maybe teach a course or two, co-advise a student, convince my sponsoring department that I might be a good guy to keep around.

Odd. I'd be scared to death of advising a Ph.d. student here in the States, but in Finland it would be more doable.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On the bright side..

My recent posts have been rather bleak, haven't they? I guess I'm still not fully used to professorial life; sometimes I wonder if it will ever feel normal.

That said, it's Spring Break and I'm away for the week, visiting my co-authors in sunny Spain.

I feel life my old self again. Ideas are coming out: a few good ones, lots of bad ones too. There's a good chance we'll finish off the guts of one manuscript.. and now I'm thinking about how to start another one.

So maybe I was wrong before; sometimes I can get my act together, finish what I started.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How it never ends.. but how it starts.

I'm supposed to go to the airport in two days, in order to cross the ocean and to keep a promise to a few colleagues. (Being that I don't keep many of those, it's rather crucial that I do so when it counts.)

Still, I'm easily exhausted. If I could say that I am exhausted right now then I would.. but the fact is that I'm not.

I know that I can still work, still have enough energy to keep the collaboration going if I budget enough effort per day of the visit.

I liken it to surviving on 5 1/2 hours of sleep per night: after a while it feels normal but you could swear that you used to be faster and sharper and maybe you're just "getting old" ..

I also know that once I come back, then I'll spend a few days feeling exhausted and bitter at having to readjust to my old routine.. to the extent that I'll probably swear that I'll never travel mid-semester ever again.

I don't feel the same anymore. It used to be easy, even natural, to be excited about getting up in the mornings and wanting to do maths right away.

Yesterday I met with colleagues in the department and we talked about PDEs.. rather, they did and I was trying to decipher what the underlying mechanisms were.

I am and will always be an analyst; these guys really think in terms of physical principles and what the equations are supposed to mean. I suspect that we'll keep a truce and the compromise of that truce will be geometry.

Anyway, my point is that the whole time I was absolutely ambivalent: I simultaneously thought (a) this is pretty damned cool and (b) fvck: I have.. aw, fvckity fvck! [1] .. that many incomplete projects right now and I'm supposed to learn.. no, have learned.. these disparate things; how can I juggle this one too?

The fact of the matter is that I don't know how long I can keep this up. It feels like a Ponzi scheme on which I can't possibly follow through. I don't know why people put up with it, with me.

Whether or not I am exhausted, I feel exhausted. So let this be a lesson to you young researchers: even if your intentions are good, never promise more than you can deliver.

[1] at last count, i have $5 + 3(\frac{1}{4})$ collaborations and $3$ solo projects; a $\frac{1}{4}$ of a project means that there is a decent lemma or two, but no real theorems yet. As for the topics, they vary from geometric measure theory and PDEs to fractals, sub-Riemannian geometry, and minimal-like surfaces .. to even Banach space differentiability! On top of these, i suspect that one collaborator is trying to convince me that dynamics is interesting.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


If I could do anything right now then I'd..

taken from tours4fun

..first take a week off to go hiking, maybe rock climbing. Maybe Zion, where I'd carry a rope and harness, my own water and in doing so, suffer the weight of existence.

I'd do nothing but cross sand and boulders, shoot photos, and make campfires and sit in front of them, starting into the randomness of their flames and sparks.

I'd hunt the hidden moon by day, feel stones at my feet, be guided by the wind at my back and the mountains that frame the land-scape. I'd imagine myself made blind by an oppressive sun, finding a path of least resistance, some kind of order amidst the entropy that is desert.

Then dried by desert heat, seeking life and creation .. I'd spend a month doing nothing but writing.

There are too many manuscripts to revise, ideas to shape ..good ideas to initially obscure and when the shortcomings are clear, to revise into clear, intuitive shape.

In leaving Finland there were too many things left incomplete, plenty of angry impatient collaborators.. or at least, should be angry and lack any more patience.

I would become strange for a while, shaped by self-imposed solitude, transforming into something less than human.. if only to create maths that I hope will transcend my mortality.

if i could .. [sighs]