Sunday, April 28, 2013

MoAR: bad news, questionable news, and ..

it's been a good week:

i'm eating well,
i'm more tanned than i've been in a while,
i meet good friends every day ..

.. and i think a collaborator and i have hammered out the basics for a short new paper .. or rather, a note. it will be about fractals; maybe i'll write about it sometime.

then again, experience tells me that nothing i do is ever short.

that said, this idyll bliss won't last. tomorrow begins a week-long conference and after that i'll be gone again. when i was younger, i'd despair of these endings. growing older now, i start to wonder if the good times are necessarily short with premature ends.

this might explain, then, why i seemed to stumble onto more bad news than good, this week ..

first, the bad news ..

the second paragraph below makes me cringe. cheating has some terrible (and unexpected) consequences.
" Now, looking around during rush hour, as people streamed on and off the platforms, Stapel could not find a location that matched the conditions described in his experiment. “No, Diederik, this is ridiculous,” he told himself at last. “You really need to give it up.”
The scrutiny was meant not only to clean up the scientific record but also to establish whether any of Stapel’s co-authors, including more than 20 Ph.D. students he supervised, shared any of the blame. It was already evident that many of the doctoral dissertations he oversaw were based on his fabricated data.
".. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus."

~ from "The Mind of a Con Man" @nyt

i remember being told by my counselor in high school that one should join various clubs, sports teams, and organisations (including charity work) because it looks good in college applications.

i don't know if the following excerpt is true or not. without firsthand accounts of university deans and other higher-ups from that era, it's hard to justify the suggested causality of events. (there's also the problem of presentism, of course.)
" "Holistic admissions criteria emerged at Ivy League schools in the early 20th century and were almost immediately twisted for virulently anti-semitic purposes. Until the 1920s, students took an admissions test and those that did well on the test were admitted to the colleges “almost entirely on the basis of academic criteria.” This resulted in lots of Jewish men on the campus of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

It’s around this time that Ivy League schools switched from a strictly quantitative system of test scores to a more subjective, holistic approach. The holistic approach was used to squelch diversity and the number of Jews in American universities then plummeted."

~ from "Do Elite Colleges Discriminate Against Asians?" @priceonomics

.. next, some questionable news ..

admittedly, i've thought about the same ethical dilemma before. fortunately for cafe owners, i seem unable to concentrate at a cafe longer than 2 hours, which means more turnover for them.
"I’m sure there are people who spend time like me and spend money more generously. Buying peppermint mochas or pumpkin spice lattes plus a pastry sounds delicious and seems like it buys you as much time as you'd like. Is the time spent at the coffee shop balanced out by what you've purchased at the coffee shop?"

~ from "The ethical coffee shop freelancer" @medium

strange things happen when we digitise them and set them in the grand scale of the internet. despite connecting us to more people, social media may have made us all lonelier. it would be equally strange if the same thing would happen betwen teachers and students ..
"It creates a strange paradox: these professors are simultaneously the most and least accessible teachers in history. And it’s not the only tension inherent in MOOCs."

~ from "Two Cheers for Web U!" @nyt

the next article isn't so much about questionable behavior as it is about peculiar choices. (i see the reasons behind the instructor's choices, but i wouldn't do it myself .. partly because i don't see how pure maths could fit the same model.)
"A week before the test, I told my class that the Game Theory exam would be insanely hard—far harder than any that had established my rep as a hard prof. But as recompense, for this one time only, students could cheat. They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked, including animal behavior experts. (Richard Dawkins in town? Bring him!) They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other or call friends who’d taken the course before. They could offer me bribes. (I wouldn’t take them, but neither would I report it to the dean.) Only violations of state or federal criminal law such as kidnapping my dog, blackmail, or threats of violence were out of bounds.

Gasps filled the room. The students sputtered. They fretted. This must be a joke. I couldn’t possibly mean it. What, they asked, is the catch?

“None,” I replied. “You are UCLA students. The brightest of the bright. Let’s see what you can accomplish when you have no restrictions and the only thing that matters is getting the best answer possible.”"

~ from " Why I Let My Students Cheat On Their Game Theory Exam " @popsci

lastly: imagine that, instead of time or distance, we could parametrise curves based on income?


.. and now, the good news.

actually, none of the excerpts below are inherently "good." they're just bits of news that don't depress me or cause me malaise.

for example, this is an excerpt from a pretty good expositional article:
"Yet for the most part, complex numbers are treated as an inconvenience. Because they are inherently multi-dimensional, they defy our attempts to visualize them easily. Graphs describing complex math are usually simplified schematics that only hint at what's going on underneath. Because our brains don't do more than 3D natively, we can glimpse only slices of the hyperspaces necessary to put them on full display."

~ from "how to fold a julia fractal" @acko
.. and that's about it for "good" news, this week. 7-:

Friday, April 26, 2013

stranger in a familiar land: push and pull.

i still like it here but after a few days living near a college campus, i feel both young at heart yet old otherwise .. (to be continued)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

stranger in a familiar land: hard = good?

today i attended a seminar talk where simultaneously,
  • i could parse the statements that the speaker was saying and writing on the blackboard, and they seemed reasonable,
  • i had no idea what was going on.
in particular i could not tell what was hard and what was not; unfortunately, in my experience it's a typical sign of fundamental incomprehension.

yes, this should be a normal, even average experience for mathematicians. we are ultimately specialists, after all, and aside from our (few) topics of interest and expertise, there is little that we truly understand.
i suppose it means that, at my current university, we've been inviting speakers whose work is very common to ours. as a result i haven't really had to deal with utter confusion on a regular basis.

confusion, however, is oddly comforting [1].

it suggests that maybe we are approaching the boundaries of our understanding; perhaps doing so, we can extend them.
conversely, i get a little nervous when the proof to a theorem is a little too simple. it either means that there is an error somewhere and i missed the difficult, worthwhile part, or that the theorem wasn't "worth" proving.

in other news, this research visit has gone very well so far. my co-author and i are making a lot of progress .. and of all things, our ideas from last time actually seem to be working! (-:

i liken it to going hiking with the right trail companion: every day there's ground to cover, so when one is going at a good, hard clip, one can't help but feel good .. from the shared experience of an honest day's toil.

[1] unless, of course, the speaker or author is doing an incredibly bad job at exposition, in which case it's just unnecessarily frustrating.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

stranger in a familiar land: disparate bits.

it's pleasantly strange, being in a big american college campus again.

earlier someone remarked that i seemed to know "everyone" already. i further remarked that it's a small community in our line of work. (honestly, most of the time the new people i meet at conferences are the students.)

during the second hour of a talk today, the speaker thanked me for attending. (i wonder now if i looked bored during the first!)

earlier today some of my colleagues tried to explain some basic probability to me. it went well enough, i suppose ..
.. but when someone is doing her best to explain something to you, it's hard to tell how much i really understand and how much has been made easy for me to digest.

(there is a substantive difference, after all, between deciding that something sounds right vs. actually being able to check everything as stated.)

Monday, April 22, 2013

MoAR: a few quick ones, as he's been away.

after a week spent hiking and then a weekend attending a wedding (or some approximation thereof) it seems like this week's roundup will be a little sparse.

so: more to come, next week. until then ..

have's and have-not's?

i'd like to agree with the following excerpt .. especially as it would justify why i've been unsuccessful with my NSF grant applications. the truth is that i don't know how it all works, exactly.

what does seem likely is that the pool of NSF grant winners are self-selective, whicgh means that research fashions can be a real issue ..
"Who decides which problems are sexy (and therefore publishable)? I'll tell you: it's the 30-some-odd people who serve on the program committees of the top conferences in your area year after year. It is very rare for a faculty member to buck the trend of which topics are "hot" in their area, since they would run a significant risk of not being able to publish in the top venues. This can be absolutely disastrous for junior faculty who need a strong publication record to get tenure. I know of several faculty who were denied tenure specifically because they chose to work on problems outside of the mainstream, and were not able to publish enough top papers as a result. So, sure, they could work on "anything they wanted," but that ended up getting them fired."

~ from "The other side of "academic freedom"" @volatile&decentralised

algorithm, m.d.

what seems unfair about this article is the amount of effort it took physicians to gather data that was responsible for the various medical models out there.

perhaps it's a good point to make that, with enough data, the process of diagnosing patients can be automated for better accuracy .. but the model had to come from somewhere, right?
"Dr Oberije and her colleagues in The Netherlands used mathematical prediction models that had already been tested and published. The models use information from previous patients to create a statistical formula that can be used to predict the probability of outcome and responses to treatment using radiotherapy with or without chemotherapy for future patients.

The researchers plotted the results on a special graph [1] on which the area below the plotted line is used for measuring the accuracy of predictions; 1 represents a perfect prediction, while 0.5 represents predictions that were right in 50% of cases, i.e. the same as chance. They found that the model predictions at the first time point were 0.71 for two-year survival, 0.76 for dyspnea and 0.72 for dysphagia. In contrast, the doctors' predictions were 0.56, 0.59 and 0.52 respectively.

~ from "Mathematical Models Out-Perform Doctors in Predicting Cancer Patients' Responses to Treatment" @scidaily

Thursday, April 18, 2013


in case you've been wondering, dear readers, i decided to take an impromptu few days' off.

the bulk of the maths i've done lately has been the use of trigonοmetry and isοperimetry .. in the sense that i've been doing a little hiking and keeping count of elevation.

strange: on the way up, i always focus on the trail;
while on the way down, i tend to think about maths.

Monday, April 15, 2013

MoAR #15: thoughts on AI, controversy, and a new find ... among other things.

between attempting to file my american taxes and traveling, there wasn't much time to roundup the usual slew of articles. here's what i found, though:

apparently it's not called A.I. anymore ..

.. but AGI, short for artificial general intelligence. all in all, i like the article in that it does a good job of explaining the background of computing, deconstructs popular notions of machine intelligence, and discusses (in broad strokes) some notions of universality.
"Why? I call the core functionality in question creativity: the ability to produce new explanations. For example, suppose that you want someone to write you a computer program to convert temperature measurements from Centigrade to Fahrenheit. Even the Difference Engine could have been programmed to do that. A universal computer like the Analytical Engine could achieve it in many more ways.
Now imagine that you require a program with a more ambitious functionality: to address some outstanding problem in theoretical physics — say the nature of Dark Matter — with a new explanation that is plausible and rigorous enough to meet the criteria for publication in an academic journal.

~ from "The very laws of physics imply that artificial intelligence must be possible" @aeonmagazine
it's an interesting spin on the turing test but whether there is a specific focus on creativity, a phenomenon that we all know exists but is very difficult (if not impossible) to measure.

imagine: a creative computer. i guess the best science is the kind that inspires with great challenge.
"The upshot is that, unlike any functionality that has ever been programmed to date, this one can be achieved neither by a specification nor a test of the outputs. What is needed is nothing less than a breakthrough in philosophy, a new epistemological theory that explains how brains create explanatory knowledge and hence defines, in principle, without ever running them as programs, which algorithms possess that functionality and which do not."


you may have seen this headline around in the last week or two, and maybe even this excerpt ..
"Over the years, I have co-written many papers with mathematicians and statisticians, so I can offer the following principle with confidence. Call it Wilson's Principle No. 1: It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations."

~ from "Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math " @wsj
(as you can imagine, there have been many rebuttals to wilsο's essay, including this one.)

the thing is: i actually agree with this "principle" if only because pure mathematicians generally work with notions that, in their present form, aren't physically intuitive. the reactions and feedback loops in chemistry and biology may exhibit incredible complexity, but ultimately they are about particles and cells that can be measured and observed.

however, try explaining non-archιmedean norms on the real line to someone who doesn't care about number theory, and you might have a problem.

there is another point i want to make, though: when i read that excerpt, i take it to mean that scientists need us, but we don't actually need them.

so this fall i might be joining an endangered species.

everyone is aware that times are tough. some can even prove it .. at least empirically.
"And with stretched budgets and public pressure to keep costs down, many colleges and universities are cutting back on tenure and tenure-track jobs. According to the report, such positions now make up only 24 percent of the academic work force, with the bulk of the teaching load shifted to adjuncts, part-timers, graduate students and full-time professors not on the tenure track."

~ from "Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report Finds" @nyt

"This doesn't actually mean that there are fewer full-time professors today than four-decades ago. College faculties have grown considerably over the years, and as the AAUP notes, the ranks of the tenured and tenure-track professoriate are up 26 percent since 1975. Part-time appointments, however, have exploded by 300 percent."

~ from "The Ever-Shrinking Role of Tenured College Professors" @theatlantic
i guess i confirmed my own confirmation bias. since i essentially encounter only tenure(d / track) faculty and postdocs, the samples and sizes can easily skew the perspective that "everyone eventually gets a job .."

find of the week: fastco

fastco is another one of these techie/startu p websites that (think they can) change the world for the better, through quantitativity and effort. the discussion, however, can get interesting without going too technical.

for instance, this excerpt is about nutrition and how to measure your data .. not so that you can mine it, but so that the reader can interpret it more viscerally:
"People who viewed the menu without nutritional information ordered a meal totaling 1,020 calories, on average, significantly more than the average 826 calories ordered by those who viewed menus that included information about walking-distance," writes Scientific American. People who saw the menu with walking-distance info also ordered less than people who just saw calorie info."

~ from "We Should Measure Our Food In Exercise, Not In Calories" @fastco
as for the next one, it jarred my thinking a bit and it still puzzles me.
""Flipped classrooms" rethink traditional models of classwork and homework. Teachers are valuable and need to be better utilized. In a “flipped classroom,” passive activities, like lectures, are reserved for homework, while in-class time is used for collaborative and personal interactions between teachers and students. Teachers can post their own lectures online and direct students to other online resources, such as those provided by Khan Academy, which offers more than 2800 educational videos covering a multitude of disciplines. Students can pause, rewind, and re-watch as needed. Any questions can be noted and addressed the following day. "

~ from "5 Disruptive Education Trends That Address American Inequality" @fastco
it sounds like a good idea, but how stable is it in practice? in other words, suppose a student misses a lecture once, the night before, and shows up unprepared: can that student get anything out of class the next day?

also, why do i have the feeling that "flipping the classroom" amounts to posting the lecture as a video online, and shifting the recitation/problem session to the front-&-center? (there is a point, in that most lectures are not interactive, though.)

so like i said: it puzzles me. i might even give one or two lectures a try with a topic that is rather computational in nature, next semester.

lastly, a few more thousand words.

first, some interesting algebra:

via mentalfloss

the front of this building looks like part of a sierpinskι gasket:

via inthralld

these last two art exhibits look like vector fields to me:

via fastcodesign

Friday, April 12, 2013

tired and nonyoung; also, the siege.

as i told a colleague yesterday, lately i've felt lazy .. yet at the same time, overworked; it's a rather strange, paradoxical feeling.

if i had planned things better, then i would have arranged a short holiday before heading to a thematic program in lοs angeles .. which is already in full swing [1] ..

.. but it will be good to see old friends and colleagues again, maybe meet some new faces, and hear firsthand the new developments since the start of this program and a previous one at msrι.
come to think of it, the field's getting fairly fashionable as of late. as something of a related-yet-separate flavor, this fall is an upcoming program on οptimal transpοrt, again at msrι.

what is it about the state of california and this metrιc space stuff, anyway?
on a related note, the new postdoc in our group asked me today: how is it, being so young, that you've met so many people?

i nearly laughed: young? (-: [2]

to be fair, i know enough older guys who'd give me a hard time if i dare call myself :old: since, by the law of transitivity, they would also be :old: and i don't think any of us would call them that.

so i guess i will not be :old: .. but it's four years, going on five, since i defended a ph.d. i don't feel :young: anymore .. just tired, that's all.

i could sure use a few days off ..

on an unrelated note: this week i've proceeded with the siege. i'm happy to declare that the fortress has fallen .. but i'm keeping a lookout for insurrections.

[1] i like to think that i'm arriving fashionably late. (-:

[2] i told her that i travelled a lot, when i was "even younger" .. and probably too much for my own good. 7-:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

idle remarks (UPDATED .. AGAIN)

i have to stop referring to squares in $\mathbb{R}^2$ as "cubes" .. 7-:

// added: 11-apr-2013 @ 13:31 EEST

as long as i'm making mathematical resolutions, i think i'm swearing off functiοnal analytic techniques for a while, for two reasons:
  1. i miss drawing pictures of what i see. (like everyone else, i see in 3-D .. and like most mathematicians, i pretend to see $\mathbb{R}^n$.)
  2. i've been losing sleep at night. when i tell others that i study metric spaces, they constantly ask me how i can work at that level of abstraction. that comment used to sound strange to me .. until i started thinking about infinite-dimensional spaces.
i could never be a functiοnal analyst ...

// added: 12-apr-2013 @ 09:04 EEST

odd: over the last few days i've gotten a lot of emails from journals and publishers, exhorting me to submit something.


i guess it's like asking everyone out for a date;
if you don't ask, then you won't have a date,
and if you're not too choosy ..? (-;

Monday, April 08, 2013

MoAR: don't worry, as there's plenty of bad news.

maybe i've been in a bad mood this week .. but all i came across was bad news for this roundup. read on, though: you might have a different opinion.

not retractions in the sense of topology, but ..

it's nice to know that the public can still trust the scientists.
"Retraction rates have increased tenfold in the past decade after many years of stability. According to a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two-thirds of all retractions follow from scientific misconduct: fraud, duplicate publication, and plagiarism."

~ from "Science research: three problems that point to a communications crisis" @the_guardian

teaching how as well as what.

the following excerpt on teaching struck a chord in me. even though the subject discussed is english and literature, i couldn't help but see similarities.
"With a fresh, redefined sense of literacy I reasoned that if I was to become an English teacher, I needed to teach more than words. More than Shakespeare. More than poetic devices and literature.

I was to teach literacy—the heuristic process of seeing and doing, which would lead to an ultimate sense of empowerment.

And literacy (newly refreshed as an idealistic, and maybe unfortunate, model of democracy) could be broken down, I decided, into this heuristic process of looking for oneself. It could pull education out of the institutionalized gutter.

~ from "Heuristics, Literacy, and Interfaces" @medium
one of the many responsiblities of teaching, i think, is how we train the next generation. our courses may have specific content and topics, but there is also the synergy and the larger picture, in how it all fits together. it disturbs me to know that most students think of linear algebra and calculus and differential equations [1] all as separate worlds that have nothing to do with each other, but instead each a handful of tricks that seem to work.

there is something fundamental here. for better or worse, it seems that mathematics educators are the ones who are tasked to teach logic and problem-solving strategies to untrained audiences. we are often exasperated because "our students just don't think" .. but to be fair, how many of us actually take the time and show them how to think?

the market can (and will probably) break you.

the next excerpt is also from the literary academic's viewpoint, but the reaction is telling for all of us.
"When this happens to you—after you have mailed, at your own expense, the required 60-page dossiers to satellite campuses of Midwestern or Southern universities of which you have never heard; after you endure a deafening silence from most of these institutions but then receive hope in the form of a paltry few conference interviews; after you fork out $1,000 to spend your Christmas amid thousands of your competitors at the Modern Language Association convention; after said convention, where you endure tribunal-style interviews in hotel suites where you are often made to perch in your ill-fitting suit on the edge of a bed; after, perhaps, being invited to a callback interview at a remote Midwestern or Southern campus where your entire person will be judged on the basis of two meals and one presentation; after, at the end of all this, they give the job to an inside candidate they were planning to hire all along—when this happens, and it will, it will feel as if the entirety of your human self has been rejected because you are no good ..."

~ from "Thesis Hatement" @slate
this reaction says it better than i could ever say (and i've tried too). maybe we academics are thinner-skinned than those in other jobs. maybe the job search has always been this way: painful, soul-wrenching, and leading to failure for most of us.

that still doesn't change how i feel or how this particular writer feels. despite things having "worked out" for now, i still feel raw, unsettled, and embittered.

students: customers or commodities?

this strikes me as a strange analogy to make.
"Technological advances have allowed the auto industry, for instance, to produce more cars while using fewer workers. Professors, meanwhile, still do things more or less as they have for centuries: talking to, questioning, and evaluating students (ideally in relatively small groups).
But one reason to think we’re on the cusp of major change is that online courses are particularly well- suited to the new rhythms of student life. On traditional campuses, many students already regard time offline as a form of solitary confinement. Classrooms have become battlegrounds where professors struggle to distract students from their smartphones and laptops. Office hours are giving way to e-mail.

~ from "Will online education dampen the college experience?" @newrepublic
thinking about it now, it's probably true that the modern university is essentially a factory and that the most successful ones are those which deliver the most quality goods to the market. i would just prefer not to refer to human beings as commodities, that's all. it's funny: when i was younger, i was naive enough to think that universities were centers of higher learning [2].

that aside, in general i found the article well-written and with a very broad scope, yet able to "zoom in" to aspects of this issue that are problematic (for either camp).

admittedly, though: articles like this are starting to get repetitive. maybe i should stop posting this kind of thing.

what i would really like to hear is what the behavioral psychologists and the neuroscientists have to say about this. more precisely, i want experts in human learning to say what they know (or don't know) about the situation, and what (more) information we would need to figure it out. if, for example, the flexibility of MOOCs allows for students to improve their knowledge retention, then great! if, however, this same flexibility causes a lack of study commitment and actually lowers graduation rates, then .. fvck.

.. and one library to rule them all?

throughout 5 years of a ph.d. and 4½ years of postdoc life i've sent my share of articles (in pdf) to colleagues, when their university libraries didn't have the same journal access as mind did. i've asked for a few, myself ..

.. and it's always frustrating to ask this kind of thing, if only because of the underlying reason: as a researcher, why can't i have the resources i need to do my job?

maybe this forthcoming phenomenon will change things, give us one less obstruction.
"The Digital Public Library of America, to be launched on April 18, is a project to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge.

Forty states have digital libraries, and the DPLA’s service hubs—seven are already being developed in different parts of the country—will contribute the data those digital libraries have already collected to the national network. Among other activities, these service hubs will help local libraries and historical societies to scan, curate, and preserve local materials—Civil War mementos, high school yearbooks, family correspondence, anything that they have in their collections or that their constituents want to fetch from trunks and attics.

~ from "The National Digital Public Library Is Launched!" @NYReview
it is both a useful and a noble thing, to grant everyone equal access to knowledge and educational materials .. provided, of course, that everyone has internet access.

(this isn't always the case, as i've mentioned here and here.)

aside from that point, though, there is another: public libraries in the united states are not doing well. in these seasons of austerity and budget cuts, it is the schools and libraries that are put first at the chopping block. in taking one of their services and hosting it elsewhere, we may have just diluted their unique flavors and made their existence a little more precarious ..

[1] i would prefer to say analysis, algebra, and topology. the fact is: most of our students take only the entry level courses as requirements for a non-mathematical program of study. (my proof happens to be empirical: just look at course listings for your university on an average semester.)

[2] i guess the driving mechanism here is tuition, so it's probably not fair to call students "commodities." instead, they're more like customers; they pay for a chance to prove themselves.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

the worknight spirals to its end.

i was $\LaTeX$ing for most of the evening, but now i'm just tired .. yet not tired enough to crash into bed, yet. it's times like this when i'm glad that the internet is full of diversions: a wonderful interpolation between the rigors of work and the decadence of play.

just now i've discovered the photography of one fred izquierdο, and his shots are rather aesthetic in their geometry:

i can't tell if these shots are inherently hypnotic or not .. but no matter. (maybe it's time to call it a night.)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

so today i wrote out something by hand.

i must said this before, but ..

always stick to a plan whenever you use a computer!

.. .. regardless of whether the task is for work or for play.
it's taken me long enough to realise .. but i'm a lot happier (or satisfied) in the mornings if i spend 1-2 hours working on paper first and then tend to the computer (read: internet).

i guess i dislike my email inbox that much. 7-:
also: as that "easy" proof that i wrote about yesterday bothered me enough that i wrote it out longhand on a sheet of A4 or two.

looking at it now, maybe it's worth adding to the revision .. or at least, some abridged version of it ..

added: 07:24EST

there's something very soothing about paper .. especially as an adult who was raised before the age of touchscreens, the prevalence of home internet, or even GUIs. sure, i struggled learning cursive script for years at school, as well as a few summers of practicing hanzi (but the latter ultimately, to no avail). back then, it was often a personal flaw to have bad handwriting.

despite fewer options in the past, i still prefer working things out longhand and on paper. (if smartboards and tablets improve their functionality, then i'd be happy to switch, of course.) maybe i'm imagining things, but i find it harder to remember what i type [1] than what i write by hand.
as long as i'm speculating, i think it has to do with visual or body-spatial awareness. the redundancy of information, though encoded through different sensory inputs, might actually strengthen the memory.

yes, this may be a spurious claim. on the other hand, memory techniques such as the method of loci have been around since the time of ancient rome .. which reminds me: i've been meaning to train in that.
all that memory technique stuff aside, there are other strengths of paper over typing. for example, when writing on a page, i have the whole page and i can be nonlinear in my thinking, switch modes at will.
  • i can draw a diagram in one corner,
  • start a chain of inequalities in the middle,
  • pass back and forth quickly between them,
  • circle one term in line 2 of those inequalities,
  • jot down a note next to it (say, that i need to check if this variant of yοung's inequality in the literature) ..
.. and so on. so far there aren't too many computer interfaces that can easily do the same [2]. in regards to typing, the problem is that every thought you have has to be "discretised" into words or symbols.

in fact, there are some mornings when i've set a rule: no words: just diagrams and computations, just to vary my thinking a little and push what i can do. conversely, when the pile of pages of notes starts containing more and subtler items than i can easily keep track, then the LaTeX comes:

remembering: to type is to force a linear order on your thoughts.

[1] there are exceptions, and they are the rare times when i say aloud what i'm typing in order to see if the words and phrases sound right. (this is often the case, as you may imagine, when i'm writing some sort of introduction.) in these cases, i suspect that the memory is recorded through audial cues as well.

on a related note, i was always the kind of student who, during lectures, would write down what was on the blackboard as well as what the instructor said. it took me a long time to realise that people didn't do the same thing .. and why everyone kept wanting to borrow my class notes (even before my handwriting improved as an adult).

[2] i mean something different from being able to add handwritten comments to an extant PDF or Word document. so far i've not seen anything sufficiently robust so that one can build a document on a tablet purely from digital handwriting.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

finally: now i can stop "having fun" and get back to work! (-:

this goes to show you how crazy i am,
perhaps many mathematicians in general ..

.. but it's somewhat relieving to be back at work in the office.

apparently few others share my enthusiasm: it's an hour past "quittin' time" [1] and the hallways are dark and empty.

despite my good cheer, today felt rather unproductive. i didn't really write much down or type anything (other than this blog post). the only thing worth mentioning is that i read and re-read a few sections of dunfοrd-schωartz, debating whether i should add an explicit proof of a lemma to one of my article revisions.
as you can guess, i couldn't find the lemma in the book. it's almost a special case of one, but with a technical difference that can be easily treated. in fact, the same proof would work, if one could only rewrite one sentence in it, and maybe just one more sentence to account for the modification.

put another way, it's a matter of whether i want to spare someone the trouble of finding their own copy of d&s and reading through the same 1/2 page proof.
well, there is another thing: today my colleagues jokingly made fun of me for defending (that monster that is) federεr's book. (-:

[1] in finland, business hours are generally from 8am--4pm. it's only a one-hour time-shift .. but after 18-19 months on the job, it still feels early to me.

Monday, April 01, 2013

MoAR: good news, some statistical, and perhaps an end is near..?

it's pretty evident that i spend a lot of time on the internet .. at least, when not at work, and i wonder to what extent it's affecting my life [0]. sure, i pick up news and interesting facts, but as information goes that's not terribly important in my life, so it's probably no better for me than watching television.

my guess is that if you're doing research at a university, ph.d. student or postdoc or faculty, then you already know how to waste time effectively and can therefore already find the same article links that i do. there exist plenty of news feeds that now many the search easy, after all .. so that's why i'm thinking about ending these Monday Article Roundups.

[ to skip ahead to why i might end MoAR, click here. ]

at any rate, here's what i found interesting to read, this week ..

where i learn that not everyone uses the arXiv ..

for me, it's easy to forget: we mathematicians only need paper and pens, a computer, and preferably a chalkboard of some kind. in that sense, our work is cheap to sponsor.

as for other fields, especially laboratory sciences, the cost of running operations is orders-of-magnitude higher [1] ..!
"These approaches suit communities that have a culture of sharing preprints, and that either produce theoretical work or see high scrutiny of their experimental work — so it is effectively peer reviewed before it even gets submitted to a publisher. But they find less support elsewhere — in the highly competitive biomedical fields, for instance, researchers tend not to publish preprints for fear of being scooped and they place more value on formal (journal-based) peer review. “If we have learned anything in the open-access movement, it's that not all scientific communities are created the same: one size doesn't fit all,” says Joseph."

~ from "Open access: The true cost of science publishing" @nature

on why i shouldn't be a statistician ..

the real world just doesn't make any sense to me. the scale of how society works is often too .. overwhelming. [2].

on the other hand, sometimes statistical evidence is non-intuitive, in good ways:
"Since launching in Kenya, GiveDirectly continues to evaluate its approach with randomized control trials. They use a lottery system similar to medical trials and compare developmental outcomes of households who have received funding against those who haven't. Their rigorous data shows that no-strings-attached cash transfers improve health and downstream financial gains. They also use this data to refine their model, and make it available on their website. Recipients, who are often living on less than 65 cents a day, invest in everything from food for starving children to long-term assets, including land, livestock and housing. The data fights conventional wisdom: [m]oney spent on alcohol and cigarettes either decreases, stays constant or increases in the same proportion as total other expenses (approximately 2% to 3%)."

~ from "Want to Help People? Just Give Them Money" @hbr
this is pleasantly undepressing (if not good) news. maybe, on average, people aren't so untrustworthy?

as for this bit of news, i don't know if it amounts to an actual medical phenomenon or just corporate spin .. but it's certainly an interesting explanation.
"In December 2011, shares of BioSante Pharmaceutical Inc. slid 77% in a single session after the company's experimental gel for promoting libido in postmenopausal women failed to perform well against placebo in late-stage trials. The drug companies say these failures are happening not because their drugs are ineffective, but because placebos have recently become more effective in clinical trials."

~ from "New Patents Aim to Reduce Placebo Effect" @assertTrue()
.. and as for something more related to maths:
"“Our study shows that it’s not lack of ability or differences in ability that orients females to pursue non-STEM careers, it’s the greater likelihood that females with high math ability also have high verbal ability,” notes Wang. “Because they’re good at both, they can consider a wide range of occupations.”

Notably, those participants who reported feeling more able and successful at math were more likely to end up in a STEM-related job, and this was particularly true for students who had high math and moderate verbal abilities. Thus, math may play a more integral role in these individuals’ sense of identity, drawing them toward STEM occupations.

~ from "More Career Options May Explain Why Fewer Women Pursue Jobs in Science and Math" @psychsci

maths as creative commons?

i doubt that the following bit of news will change very much of the status quo .. for example, i'm sure that the patent for PageRank will stay intact. maybe this is a sign of hope .. that the future will be different?
"Chief Judge Leonard Davis based the ruling on U.S. Supreme Court case law that prohibits the patenting of mathematical algorithms. According to Rackspace, this is the first reported instance in which the Eastern District of Texas has granted an early motion to dismiss finding a patent invalid because it claimed unpatentable subject matter."

~ from "Judge Says Mathematical Algorithms Can’t Be Patented" @techcrunch

lastly: maybe the end of MoAR?

my original motivation for these roundups was to reduce the number of "here's a cool article" posts on this blog. it's come to my attention, however, that there are plenty of news feeds out there with lots of good maths new updates.

so though these other feeds don't exactly interfere with my own interests .. i can't help but feel like these roundups are a bit .. redundant. here are a few items from the newsfeeds at scidaily and sciam, to show you what i mean.
"Fermat's Last Theorem is just about numbers, so it seems like we ought to be able to prove it by just talking about numbers," McLarty said. "I believe that can be done, but it will require many new insights into numbers. It will be very hard. Harvey sees my work as a preliminary step to that, and I agree it is."

~ from "Fermat's Last Theorem and More Can Be Proved More Simply" @scidaily
you see what i mean? these are articles that are actually about maths .. which i find to be a breath of fresh air. most other newsfeeds require quite a bit of searching, in between technology/business news and a flood of physics and biology announcements.

as for something that actually has an even more (mathematically) technical flavor ..
"The MIT researchers' approach is much more straightforward. The first thing they do is find a "spanning tree" for the graph. A tree is a particular kind of graph that has no closed loops. A family tree is a familiar example; there, a loop might mean that someone was both parent and sibling to the same person. A spanning tree of a graph is a tree that touches all of the graph's nodes but dispenses with the edges that create loops. Efficient algorithms for constructing spanning trees are well established.

The spanning tree in hand, the MIT algorithm then adds back just one of the missing edges, creating a loop. A loop means that two nodes are connected by two different paths; on the circuit analogy, the voltage would have to be the same across both paths. So the algorithm sticks in values for current flow that balance the loop. Then it adds back another missing edge and rebalances.

In even a simple graph, values that balance one loop could imbalance another one. But the MIT researchers showed that, remarkably, this simple, repetitive process of adding edges and rebalancing will converge on the solution of the graph Laplacian. Nor did the demonstration of that convergence require sophisticated mathematics: "Once you find the right way of thinking about the problem, everything just falls into place," Kelner explains.

~ from "Short Algorithm, Long-Range Consequences" @scidaily
an awesome exposition: somehow, in colloquial terms, this writer can give the rough idea of what graph laplacians are .. and without passing too much to the classical theory of PDEs and numerical solutions, brownian motion, or convergence of spaces.

another cool thing is that this algo exploits the intrinsic geometric properties that graphs have. to explain, most of the time i see graph laplacians, they are meant as simulations for PDEs and the graph approximates a space with some (well-defined) notion of area or volume. here, the 1-dimensionality of graphs is used to great effect: a graph laplacian can be viewed simultaneously as an energy minimiser that approximates the laplacian on a surface, as well as a network flow like that of an electric circuit that obeys kirchhoff's laws. (i suppose that one could see the same thing using divergence or curl for level curves on a surface, but for me it's a less obvious feature.)

this is not to say that physics isn't cool, though ..
"Creating a knot in a fluid bears little resemblance to tying a knot in a shoelace, say Dustin Kleckner and William Irvine, physicists at the University of Chicago in Illinois. The entire three-dimensional (3D) volume of a fluid within a confined region, such as a vortex, must be twisted. Kleckner and Irvine have now created a knotted vortex using a miniature version of an airplane wing built with a 3D printer."

~ from "Physicists Twist Water into Knots" @sciam
i haven't come to a decision about whether to continue MoAR or not; suggestions and comments about it are welcome. (at any rate, there will be another roundup next week.)

[0] .. and yes, i mean affect, not effect, since the meaning suggests an ambiguous or unrealised causality. (in other words, my internet addiction can only "effect" an outcome in my life if i know what the outcome actually is. until then, it only affects my life.) call me a dinosaur .. and i understand that languages evolve all the time .. but i hate it when people misuse "effect" as a verb, which is rather often.

[1] my sister, who is a bio postdoc, once told me that her lab bought a second several thousand dollar automated espresso machine. when i asked how much time they spent thinking about the cost and saving up for it, she shrugged and said, compared to the monthly lab budget, that it was essentially nothing.

[2] to be honest, orders of infinity are easier to work with than very large but finite numbers. i suppose it has to do with the fact that "infinity" is a kind of functional black box .. in that one doesn't actually treat it as a number, but as a property of a given set .. whereas my imagination just isn't that good for explicit numbers that don't fit this reductionism.