Wednesday, September 28, 2011

bombast (or: i really need to finish this grant)

i wrote this earlier in the morning, more because i wanted to get it out of my thoughts and move to more realistic matters.

as you can see, the wording is a bit .. grandiose.
"The path of research is not meant simply as one of self-discovery, but one where hard-won insights are shared with others, in hopes that the body of knowledge is further extended and refined.
in that sense we researchers seek a kind of diffuse immortality -- not through selfish means, but collective ones."
for those curious: i was originally thinking of a first sentence of a paragraph, regarding "visibility" and how to disseminate forthcoming research results.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


when i learned two years ago that NSF grant applications require 15-page research plans, i could swear that my heart stopped beating for a minute. that probably didn't happen, of course ..

.. but what did happen was that my thoughts turned to desperation and fear.

15 pages of ideas, no proofs;
how the hell could anyone do that?

thinking about it now, i feel silly .. because i now think the opposite: 15 pages is short. somehow, these days i always have to cut it down.

that said, the academy of finland asks for a 12-page limit.


to be fair, "no proofs" isn't quite right. ideas of proofs are necessary to the exposition, if only for two reasons:

(1) they help explain what's going on;
(2) they indicate that you do know what you're doing, that you know how to get your projects going.

then there's a lot of 'why's:

why am i studying this problem?
why is it important or natural or relevant?
why is it hard? ..

and tying back to a previous theme,

why me? that is, what do i know that fits the problem and the subject, that affords me a better chance of success than average?

these are all hard problems, but not the technical kind that mathematicians tackle on their usual working days. in fact, it's almost opposite to how we tend to act and work.

speaking for myself, i chose an academic path precisely because the thought of "selling myself" for a job seemed unnecessary. that made the last year of my ph.d. and of my (first) postdoc to be especially traumatic ones.

well, i've changed my mind a little. grοmov has said once that you can't be a mathematician and live in the world at the same time, and maybe that's true ..

.. but i'm not grοmov. i see now the necessity, despite my love for the field and for my work, to live in the world, deal with its faults .. join the rat race.

this was actually supposed to be an optimistic post, and i still intend it to be. i think i'm getting a hang of this part of the job .. not to say that i'm good at it [1] but that things make more sense.

tonight i looked at a printout of this application and i realised what i want to say. it will take time to really refine the message and it still won't be easy to say it exactly right ..

.. but, after struggling for a week, i think i see why i've been doing what i've been doing, how it all fits together.

[1] come on. if i were actually good at this, don't you think i'd have gotten a grant by now?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

#1000: lots to say, lots to do, little time to write.

it's been a while between posts, hasn't it? you'd think that by moving to a new country, i'd have more things to say and complain about ..

.. and there are. i've plenty of complaints about grant-writing, paper-writing, how the maths is going, and even how it feels to be illiterate in a post-industrial western society ..

.. and then, there's always the weather. seriously.

rather, perhaps i mean climate. everyone's been warning me about november, which is the time when the darkness comes. (at this latitude, there are far fewer hours of daylight in winter, so when it's still warm enough NOT to snow, everything looks dark and bleak .. so they say, anyway.)

that said, these very sources of complaints (except the weather) are tasks, and time-consuming ones at that. no one post ever takes too long, but for academics and non-academics alike, you know the drill:

it seems like any time you take away from a project is precious, even if you accomplish nothing in that hour. murphy's law applies, and odds are: in that very hour, you would have obtained the break-through you've been waiting for ..

.. and so i hedge my bets, suffer the usual lack of productivity, but still feel glad that i might be accomplishing something.

9 days before the application deadline;
perhaps you hear from me before then.

oddly enough, this is my 1000th post since the start of this blog. amazing: i've had that many things to bemoan, over these last few years ..! (-:

Monday, September 12, 2011

you can leave the states, but you can't leave the grant applications ..

it was the first day at the department at aaltο, when i suddenly felt very busy and that there were many things to do -- each of which would take a long time to do. for one thing, there were (and still are) manuscripts to finish and submit.

on the other hand, having left the united states, i've been spared the usual frustration of applying for an NSF grant ..
you can't believe how happy i am, not to have to do this until i return to the U.S. of A.

some of you have told me before that writing a grant is a good thing: if anything, it gives one focus and makes clear one's future research goals .. even if you didn't know beforehand what those goals were. (in short, it's a trek of self-discovery.)

i'll agree to that, in the same way that i believe that adversity tempers us and makes us more effective, well-rounded people. that doesn't mean that those adversities are in any way enjoyable!

so as a compromise, once the NSF decides to fund me,
then i'll stop complaining about it.

until then .. (-:
several days ago, however, i was told that applications for postdoctoral positions at the acadεmy of fιnland are due at the end of september ..

.. wait: isn't september this month?

to be fair, the academy accepts applications from non-finns and they have funded non-finns and even non-europeans. this is a fine thing: i imagine, for most nations, that this would be an excuse to practise nationalism.

but .. [sighs] .. it's just the timing. i really wanted a huge chunk of uninterrupted time to finish writing these metric "geometry" papers, and then switch gears to learn new topics and see what i can do in them.

instead, my september will be its usual rush. this next preprint must be finished quickly, preferably before september, if only to be used as "evidence" that my research plan (to be written) shows enough promise that i can do more ..

.. and then there is the actual application to write ..

oh well: it's still a year off from teaching, so who am i to complain?

Friday, September 09, 2011

a clean, well-lighted place.

i think the receptionists have developed a dislike to me.

an apartment in helsinki is harder to find than i expected, especially around september, as the city experiences a rush of students looking for housing. (also, rental prices are high and not very forgiving.)

so at the moment i'm staying at a long-term hotel for university guests. there's a free breakfast included and it's a pretty good spread ..

.. but before you jump to conclusions,

no, i'm not devouring all of their food,
though i am eating more bread than i really should ..

.. on the other hand, i'm drinking a lot of their coffee.
at the very least, they must think it odd that i linger over breakfast for hours with this little notepad and pen.

so yes, i'm treating them like a free cafe:

it's clean and there are windows facing the street,
it's quiet and they haven't bothered me yet,
it's a time of day when i do my best thinking ..

.. and a pot of coffee is sitting right there, from 7 to 10am.
they have had mathematicians stay with them, right?

on a related (technical) note, a project i'm working on has become noticeably more interesting. first of all, the main theorem remains true.

as for a side theorem, an inspection of the proof shows that it only checks a special case. unfortunately, i can no longer give a full characterization of these things called measur&alpha,ble dιfferentiable structures (that is, on dοubling metric measured spaces) .. but only a partial one.

as for why it's interesting: if anyone can prove it, then it will have to be very subtle. put another way, if your proof is too strong, then you could accidentally 'prove' that "every dοubling metric measured space supports a pοincare inequality," which is clearly false.

* .. and yes, i stole the title from an ernest hemingway story .. *

Saturday, September 03, 2011

the storm before the calm.

today's my third day in helsinki as a visiting postdoc, but there's quite a bit left to do before i'm officially in the finnish system, both the government and the university.

namely, i'm still missing;
  • a finnish social security number (so that i can open a bank account),
  • a bank account (so that i can be paid by the university),
  • a (more permanent) place to live (so that i can work and therefore be paid [1]),
  • also: a university computer account.
it's a non-trivial thing to obtain an apartment, at least this time of year:
apparently helsinki suffers from the fall rush of new college students, just like many cities around the world.

the system for apartment rentals is also different from what i've seen in the states, too: it's not uncommon that one submits an application for renting a particular apartment, attends a viewing day with all the other applicants, and the landlord(s) then choose a tenant.
that said, i never realised how convenient the process is, in the states. usually it's just an issue of what you can afford.

with all of these things in mind, i can't help but feel hyper-transient in an already transient situation (as mine's a 1-year position). honestly it's hard to concentrate on anything, much less maths.

today's the first day in a week that i could sit down and work on something!
as for what i'm working on ..

i think i'm going to set aside this recent argument (regarding a conjecture of cheegεr). maybe by spending some time apart from it, i can later see more clearly which ideas are crucial and what really makes the proof work.

besides, there are other papers to edit. it's been a while since i submitted a preprint, and one of them is almost ready ..

on the bright side, this looks to be a fine workplace for me.
i rarely say this, but i have a good feeling about this.

between aalto and helsinki uni, there are plenty of postdocs and visitors, which makes for a lively crowd. i have friends and cordial colleagues here, some of which i met in previous times and places. mathematically, many of us speak the same language!

also, my post-doctoral mentor is really cool and his group's research interests sound like fun. i think i'll learn a lot about nonlinear parabοlic ΡDE from them -- who knows? maybe even contribute something myself ..

.. so as long as i can survive the winter here, i think i'm set. (-:

[1] admittedly, i might have the direction of causality wrong, there .. \-: