Wednesday, May 29, 2013

a pleasant surprise.

very strange:
this morning i wrote to a journal, in as polite terms as possible, about my article submission from october 2011 and why i had received no response since then.

(yes, i know: i should have written sooner.)

they replied right away, this afternoon.

apparently they sent a reply last august, indicating that it was accepted, and have been waiting for me to submit the final version under their specific formatting guidelines!

after running a few searches with all the keywords that i could find, there was no trace of that email.

oh well, it doesn't matter. it's good news .. and i finally have some closure in that part of my life.

you see, it was the only paper i was able to cut out from my ph.d. (as of now) and before that journal, it was stuck for another 18 months ..

.. in a journal that i will not name,
but to where i will never submit anything ever again.
maybe i will change my mind,
but it will be more likely that i leave mathematics,
before i'll place any trust in that journal.

pardon my vulgarity, but fvck them!
hell, i don't know if i'd even referee an article for them.

.. but it's done;
it took .. ye gods .. four years, but up to formatting it is done.

at least the referee has decided that the techniques i used, which aren't terribly standard, are reasonable. it's reassuring, because so far i haven't had much luck getting my work in this area published.

i can move on now, and build on that work. it's not an end, though, but a beginning.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

counting the years.

so the offer letter came in the mail today. among other matters, it read:
Type of appointment: Tenure Track, probationary period prior to tenure ends August 31, 2020.
wow: 2020?

i can barely fathom that far ahead in the future. in my mind, i'm still a little boy and we're supposed to have flying cars by now.

on a more serious note, i still have trouble believing it. six years: i've never had such a length of time committed to any one stage of my adult life before:

it's going on 2 years for this postdoc,
the last 3 were for another postdoc,
the last 5 i spent completing a ph.d.,
the last 4 were my undergraduate years ..

ye gods: i've spent more than a third of my life on college campuses!

Monday, May 27, 2013

MoAR: surprises, mostly non-mathematical.

so yes: this week's round-up is late. i blame it all on yesterday's airport transit and today's busy routine in hosting a(nother) visitor.

anyway, most of these aren't really maths related at all ..


well, i suppose that it's a form of internet addiction .. but really?
"I don't think it's very healthy" is the confession of Pavel Lepin, a 35-year-old in the Latvian city of Jelgava who has earned certificates in "about 30" MOOCs, some from Coursera, some from Udacity, and some from edX. "My friends and co-workers are already making fun of me for being a Coursera addict."

Mr. Seiter agrees that it as possible to learn as much online as in a traditional course, but that to do so usually requires doing optional readings, which most MOOCers skip.

~ from "What Professors Can Learn From 'Hard Core' MOOC Students" @the_chronicle
.. and now, from the physicists:
"Physicists have long known that quantum mechanics allows for a subtle connection between quantum particles called entanglement, in which measuring one particle can instantly set the otherwise uncertain condition, or "state," of another particle—even if it's light years away. Now, experimenters in Israel have shown that they can entangle two photons that don't even exist at the same time. "

~ from "Physicists Create Quantum Link Between Photons That Don't Exist at the Same Time" @sciencenow

measuring intelligence .. somehow?

to some degree, the mechanism seems right .. but does it account for cultural differences?
"This surprisingly simple exercise measures the brain's unconscious ability to filter out visual movement. The study shows that individuals whose brains are better at automatically suppressing background motion perform better on standard measures of intelligence."

~ from "Motion Quotient "
.. and as for more "depressing" news ..
"This paper proposes to analyse the relationships between depression and high intellectual potential through a multidisciplinary and original approach. Based on their respective experience in psychology and child psychiatry, the authors will focus their analysis on creative potential .. This case study sheds light on the paradoxical role of depression in the overinvestment in intellectual and creative spheres as well as on the impact of traumatic events on high intellectual potential."

~ from "Relationships between Depression and High Intellectual Potential" @hindawi:drt

lastly, a breakthrough.

i would call this an amazing feat of mathematical "engineering" .. which is its own kind of genius. still, i wonder how many mathematicians are slightly disappointed at the lack of new tools that this solution provides.
"As details of his work have emerged, it has become clear that Zhang achieved his result not via a radically new approach to the problem, but by applying existing methods with great perseverance. “The big experts in the field had already tried to make this approach work,” Granville said. “He’s not a known expert, but he succeeded where all the experts had failed.” "

~ from "Unheralded Mathematician Bridges the Prime Gap" @simonsfoundation

Sunday, May 26, 2013

away, again.

it's been quiet on my end. i took the week off and headed to france to go bouldering with friends [1]. i feel tired .. not necessarily in a good way, not in a bad way either, but just tired .. and certainly not from maths.

honestly, it felt like a bad time for a holiday .. especially as the last one wasn't too long ago. though it was fun, it didn't feel like an earned holiday.

at times it was hard to shut my brain off:
every morning i tried to wake earlier than everyone else and think about a problem or two over a cup of coffee, occasionally jotting down a few computations in a notepad that i brought.
come to think of it: with few exceptions,
i've been doing this every day since i moved to finland.

this routine worked for the first few days. after a while, though, the climbing became serious and everyone started getting up early for more time on the rocks.

there was also the matter of a research visitor next week .. one whom i actually invited this time but whom i've never met in person. during the last few days i was often preoccupied with how the visit would go. (as you may recall, hosting isn't one of my strong points.)
lately i feel like i've not been accomplishing much and that my recent endeavors haven't been very deep [2] .. and both without good reason. maybe it's just the flight i took home this morning, but paradoxically i'm tired yet feel like working.

there's the standard cliché that i need a vacation from my vacation. that's not what i want, though: not exactly, anyway. it would be nice to get away, go somewhere with only an empty notebook and pens, and just work without interruptions .. work and not come back until i had something complete.

i get the feeling, though, that paradoxically and simultaneously, i'd miss being at the office. it just goes to show you that, for some people, perfection doesn't really exist in life; at most, one gets a sufficiently nice balance of a "uncertainty principle" towards their quality of life.

[1] interestingly enough, one of the main pioneers of bouldering as a sport was actually a mathematician named john gill. according to the wiki, apparently he studied cοmplex dynamιcs!

[2] part of me suspects that those weeks spent at IΡAM have warped my usual research expectations. it's easy to forget that maths isn't about getting ideas .. but following through and shaping them into rigor.

Monday, May 20, 2013

MoAR #20: how to get into college, how you shouldn't get into college, and a little physics.

keeping it simple.

this is probably just my confirmation bias at work. my teaching experience, however, suggests that there's not a big difference between students who have taken Advanced Placement (or AP) courses and exams and students who have not.
"Actually, it’s the College Board that has “pulled the wool over people’s eyes.” About AP, to be sure. But also about the SAT and PSAT, and Accuplacer, the placement test used by more than 60 percent of community colleges. They’re all mostly worthless, more hype than reality.

A 2004 study by Geiser and Santelices found that “the best predictor of both first- and second-year college grades” is unweighted high school grade point average, and a high school grade point average “weighted with a full bonus point for AP…is invariably the worst predictor of college performance.”

~ from "What Is the Value of AP Courses and Tests?"
perhaps it's fair to say that what really counts are how effective teachers are at their jobs and how hard-working students are with their courses.

complaints & mixed signals.

sometimes one cannot help but get confused at the news. for one thing, some people are outraged that not enough of the middle class is heading to university ..
"And here's the key bit: Many colleges, he argues, appear to be playing an "elaborate shell game," relying on federal grants to cover the costs of needy students while using their own resources to furnish aid to richer undergrads.

"With their relentless pursuit of prestige and revenue," Burd writes, "the nation's public and private four-year colleges and universities are in danger of shutting down what has long been a pathway to the middle class for low-income and working-class students."

~ from "??" @??
.. and then other people are arguing the opposite, specifically that there might be too many scientists.
"Taken individually, of course, these programmes are all very cuddly and wonderful. They are keenly pursued by governments around the world — particularly in countries that fret about their economic competitiveness, such as the United Kingdom and the United States.

But taken together, these schemes — which allocate perhaps $600 to each child passing through the US education system — constitute bad public policy. Government promotion of science careers ultimately damages science and engineering, by inflating supply and depressing demand for scientists and engineers in the employment market.

~ from "Driving students into science is a fool’s errand" @nature
lastly, there are even some billionaires who will tell you to skip college and become a plumber (which, actually, might make some economic sense).

it's a confusing message, isn't it? the main problem is that these aren't actually issues of education but issues of employment, and it happens that the two are irrevocably intertwined. (i blame this on the corporate managers that started the trend of favoring graduates from prestigious universities over others.)

essentially, a call to arms.
"Academic journals developed in the 1660s as an efficient way for the new academies to spread their findings. The first started when Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society, published the society’s articles at his own expense. At the time, the market for scientific articles was small and publishing a major expense. Scientists gave away the articles for free because the publisher provided a great value in spreading the findings at very little profit. When the journals market became more formal, almost all publishers were nonprofits, often associated with research institutions. Up until the mid 20th century, profits were low and private publishers rare.
As physicist turned science writer Michael Nielsen notes, this system facilitated “a scientific culture which to this day rewards the sharing of discoveries with jobs and prestige for the discoverer… It has changed surprisingly little in the last 300 years.”

~ from "Why is Science Behind a Paywall?" @priceonomics
"At the risk of stating the obvious, we in the academic community create the ideas in our papers. We write the papers. We typeset the papers. We review the papers. We proofread the papers.1 We accept or reject the papers. We electronically archive and distribute the papers. If commercial publishers once played an essential role in this process, today their role is mostly to own the copyrights and to collect money from the universities."

~ from "Review of The Access Principle by John Willinsky " @scottaaronson

lastly, a dose of physics and interactive data!

first, here's an excerpt from an interview with freeman dyson, a well-known physicist [1]
"I was extremely lucky because I came through the British education system during the war when everything was screwed up. The whole system depended on written examinations and we did not have enough ships to import paper. So there was no paper and no exams. Also there was a high shortage of teachers since all the young people were away fighting the war. As a result, I was in class only seven hours a week. A wonderful time to get an education. We had maximum freedom, and the kids learned more from one another than we would have learned from teachers. "

~ from "Interviews: Freeman Dyson Answers Your Questions" @slashdot
next, susskind is willing to teach you physics:
"Fat advanced textbooks are not suitable to people who have no teacher to ask questions of, and the popular literature does not go deeply enough to satisfy these curious people. So I started a series of courses on modern physics at Stanford University where I am a professor of physics. The courses are specifically aimed at people who know, or once knew, a bit of algebra and calculus, but are more or less beginners."

~ from "the theoretical minimum"
lastly, this is a visual/geographical representation of abstract social networking (that is, through phone calls and sms messages):

[1] embarrassingly enough, every time i hear the name dyson, i think of miles dyson, the inventor of skynet. (i always imagine it pronounced in an austrian accent, too.) (-:

Friday, May 17, 2013

in maths, you still have to interact with people.

initial post: evening of 12 may 2013 (during a colleague's weekend visit)

i really don't know how to be a host. i don't know if it's an issue of age or of personality. all i know is that dealing with people just doesn't come naturally to me.

added: today, after a meeting with another colleague.

some things don't change with age: i still don't feel like i know what i'm doing in this business. if there's any difference from then and now, it's because i've simply become more comfortable with not knowing. [1]

constantly i feel unprepared before entering into research meetings, only to slide quickly into a comfortable pace when the discussion really gets going. [2]

it didn't used to be this way;
to be fair, i have more meetings now than i used to have ..

.. but i'm still not as prepared as i'd like to be. meetings are a kind of synchronisation, i suppose: the key is to find an area of common expertise that is mutually interesting.

on a related note, today's meeting went pretty well. ( apparently i still remember what a sοbolev space is.)

[1] that statement isn't entirely fair. more precisely, i've learned plenty of facts and proven a few lemmas in the last few years, but i still don't know the things that i want to know about many subjects. i should also point out .. like anyone else who stays long enough in this business .. that my interests are changing. four years ago i was concentrating on elliptιc ρde, and in the last year or two i've been focusing on gmτ instead. the last month, though, has felt schizophrenic: i've swayed from fracτals to tangeηt measυres and even to harmοnic mappings of the plane.

at any rate, nobody seems to believe me when i say that "i don't know what i'm doing." it even makes me wonder if my younger, ph.d. student self would understand.

[2] there's one more aspect to keep in mind: i live in finland, but the working language is english. so when i'm discussing maths with colleagues, they might not be thinking in their native language. i've been wondering to what extent that gives me a cognitive speedup (read: an unfair "advantage").

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

in medias res: a setback, of the cruel-lest kind (UPDATED)

argh! i can't believe it!
in the last few mornings i've been working on this one corollary that i thought would be easy .. but no. of all the obstructions, it has to do with a multiplicative constant!

come on!
when do those ever matter?!?


now i guess i have to compute tangeηt measυres, which are a pain ..!
oh well. at least (for the moment) i'm working on a Euclidean space. 7-:

added: 16 may 2013 @10:33 eest

on second thought .. now that i realised this problem is noticeably harder, it's become that much more interesting.

it also conveniently furthers my agenda to explore gmt more deeply and so doing, improve my skills in the subject. one day i hope to call myself a geοmetric measυre theοrist. as of now, though, i consider myself a mere gmt groupie!

on an unrelated note: apart from a few hours in the morning .. usually 2, in fact .. it's been rather difficult to concentrate on research. i blame the weather, which is finally turning nice here. it makes me want to shake my fist at a(n albeit) beautiful, blue sky!

Monday, May 13, 2013

MoAR: a variety, this week.

this week's roundup is a little more substantial than in previous weeks .. but not by any extra effort on my part. i looked through the same channels and there was that much more to share, than usual ..


1. teaching computers like humans.

the human brain apparently has 86 billion neurons, which is a fairly complex computing system. so if it takes us years to learn how to walk, speak, and understand the baηach-alaοglu theorem, then maybe we should allow computers the same educational license.
"With Deep Learning, Ng says, you just give the system a lot of data “so it can discover by itself what some of the concepts in the world are.” Last year, one of his algorithms taught itself to recognize cats after scanning millions of images on the internet. The algorithm didn’t know the word “cat” — Ng had to supply that — but over time, it learned to identify the furry creatures we know as cats, all on its own."

~ from "The Man Behind the Google Brain: Andrew Ng and the Quest for the New AI" @wired

2. contrary evidence, of a few kinds.

in an earlier post i alluded to some statistics about the relative success of asian-american students, as measured by test scores. one may inquire as to what factors lead to these differences .. but apparently, it might not be tiger parenting after all.
"An associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, Kim had been following more than 300 Asian-American families for a decade when the book came out. In March, she published her results; they will no doubt surprise Chua and her admirers. Children of parents whom Kim classified as “tiger” had lower academic achievement and attainment—and greater psychological maladjustment—and family alienation, than the kids of parents characterized as “supportive” or "easygoing.”"

~ from "Poor Little Tiger Cub" @slate
that said, this looks like a comparative study within a statistical population of asian-american families. what i'd like to know is whether kids in the u.s. with tiger parents always underperform against their peers with easy-going parents regardless of ethnicity.

in other news, apparently we live on a strange planet:
"We are now beginning to understand that nature seems to overwhelmingly prefer [planetary] systems that have multiple planets with orbits of less than 100 days," says Steve Vogt, astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "This is quite unlike our own solar system, where there is nothing with an orbit inside that of Mercury. So our solar system is, in some sense, a bit of a freak and not the most typical kind of system that Nature cooks up."

~ from "Our Very Normal Solar System Isn't Normal Anymore" @krulwich-wonders (npr)

3. messages of progress and hope.

for some people (like me) the difficulty with listening to the advice of others is that it seems painfully abstract until it becomes relevant to you .. by which time it's too late to follow the given advice.

for example, even if i were to travel back in time, meet my younger self in his first year of ph.d., somehow convince him that i'm his future self, and give him the best advice that i could, then it still wouldn't be clear to he-that-was-once-me would actually listen to me (that is, the me that i am now).

then again, i could just be a nutcase. so if you're still in your grad school years, then this webpage might be worth a read:
"While you're writing or building, you might feel like your idea sucks and want to stop it early. Unless you're totally convinced after some more thought that your idea is unworkable or totally impractical, keep going. That feeling of discomfort you have might turn out to be your core research problem, and you'll feel better once you finish a draft and identify the unsolved work ahead of you. Even if you're not convinced your idea is great, you should continue. When you present the introduction to your advisor, they might think of something completely different and more exciting. Your crappy first draft will end up being a wonderful first seed for the idea you'll actually start working on!"

~ from "The N=1 guide to grad school"
as for the next article, it's a more serious take on popular science writing than, say, the up goer 5 editor from a while back. who knows? it might even survive the usual lifespan of a single news cycle.
"Your challenge is to write as though explaining your work to an intelligent, capable relative who is totally naïve to your field and its importance. That means more than avoiding jargon; it also means providing some context upfront so readers can appreciate why particular findings might matter."

~ from "Science, Meet The People" @13.7 (npr)

4. trolling, mathematically.

my guess is that the following quote was taken out of context, or that the quoted party was writing an email that wasn't re-read for clarity.
"O’Neil, however, holds Mοlchizuki accountable, saying that his refusal to cooperate places an unfair burden on his colleagues. “You don’t get to say you’ve proved something if you haven’t explained it,” she says. “A proof is a social construct. If the community doesn’t understand it, you haven’t done your job.”"

~ from "The Paradox of the Proof" @projectwordsworth
as far as i've read, Mοlchizuki did not actually submit these articles for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. they were posted on his website, a web-crawler happened to index them into a search engine, and the right search happened to bring the work to the attention of experts.

the practice is non-standard, yes, but non-binding. yes, he claims he has a proof, but he's not forcing others to acknowledge that his proof is correct or even to read it .. so the comment of this being an "unfair burden on his colleagues" sounds ridiculous to me. by that reckoning, i am being an unfair burden because my papers on analysis are not written in an expository way for algebraists to understand immediately.

if the quoted party feels so strongly about having a readable, easily verifiable proof, then (s)he should either work on the same problem to find a better proof .. or quit complaining about papers that (s)he probably wouldn't have read anyway.

that aside, project wordsworth strikes me as an interesting social experiment; they're worth a few mouse clicks.

5. about online education, mercifully put into sound (text?) bites.

in case you're sick of reading about these thing, i'll keep it short.
"Offering MOOCs through edX is hardly free. There are options available to institutions that want to build their own courses on the edX platform at no charge, but for partners who want help developing their courses, edX charges a base rate of $\$$250,000 per course, then $\$$50,000 for each additional time that course is offered; edX also takes a cut of any revenue the course generates."

~ from "Why Some Colleges Are Saying No to MOOC Deals, at Least for Now" @chronicle.

"In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience," the letter's authors write, "we believe that having a scholar teach and engage with his or her own students is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students."

~ from "Why Professors at San Jose State Won't Use a Harvard Professor's MOOC" @chronicle

"Online learning startup Coursera on Wednesday announced a partnership with Chegg, a student hub for various educational tools and materials, as well as five publishers to offer students free textbooks during their courses."

~ from "Coursera leaps another online learning hurdle" @tnw

"This sounds good and I'm sure it works with some of the students, but I don't believe it would work on a large scale. One reason is that students discount the future so heavily that I don't believe that students will choose to read a textbook instead of going to work or an extracurricular activity. I think students would choose to enjoy the immediate benefits when the costs come later. "

~ from "Sir Ken Robinson on Education" @mikeroe (via a.isakov)

Thursday, May 09, 2013

memories of a familiar land: epilogue .. and self-criticism.

my mind is used to the slow-ness again, that slow pace which is conducive to long, drawn out contemplation. ΙΡΛM was great, but frenetic. apart from the mornings (as i've pointed out before) i rarely had any real time to think deeply on any one idea.
i hesitate to generalise and moralise about the nature of research and collaboration, primarily because i can talk with authority only about my own habits and inclinations. even then that is suspect, as i'm no psychologist.

(most likely this rant is highly specific to the degenerate ways in which my mind works.)
at any rate, this is what i remember:

in the busy-busy pace of IPΛM life, one encounters one's peers more often, they more often than usual have questions, and one is more prone to answering them quickly. there's an advantage in this, of course, because one generates more ideas and obtains more flashes of insight and connections between initially separate topics.

on the other hand, i felt that most of these kinds of ideas are of less quality. i found it very hard to "build" anything .. at least in the there-&-then.
it could also be the nature of my work;

most of my best work in the last few years (based solely on my personal bias, that is) comes from rather intricate constructions that rely equally on geometry and on functional analysis.

put more plainly, i like taking weak limits, blowing spaces up, and building crazy functions that obey speed limits.
again, i hope none of you misconstrue my meaning. i'm only talking about my personal tastes. in retrospect it was wise for IPΛM not to fund me for the entire program, because had i participated for 3 months straight, what would probably have happened was:
  • i'd show up to the institute only 1/2 the days of the week,
  • of those appearances, they would largely be for seminars and other short events, leaving little time for discussions,
  • i'd probably hide out for a week after each workshop, just to get my head straightened out again,
  • of all the meetings during the entire program, only a handful would probably be highly professionally relevant ..
.. and, related to the last point, there's no reason why one cannot stack the situation so that these meetings occur in a short span of time ..

so .. why not just a short visit? (-:

this kind of program is meant for quicker, more gregarious minds than mine .. namely, those that work best in communities and most easily create by talking with others. as for myself, i build more than i talk .. and i'm glad that the institute didn't choose the wrong person.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

in medias res: $\LaTeX \neq \text{math}$

the tricky thing about $\LaTeX$ (and about using computers in general) is that one can easily be deluded into believing that one is doing actual "work."

it's probably due the fact that we can compile our code and get the results right away. the typesetting, moreover, is prettier than i could ever write by hand: instantaneous gratification!

be warned, though: don't ever mistake this for real work.

i think it a warning sign to think and $\LaTeX$ at the same time. in an ideal situation, all the details are written up by hand and the computer is used merely to convert the information into a digital and more easily accessible format.
it's not that multi-tasking is inherently error-prone ..

.. though there have been enough studies to show that, statistically, this is the case ..

.. but by switching from one to the other, you easily get distracted. you can easily lose the big picture. perhaps you can still keep track of what you are doing, but it's noticeably harder to keep track of whether the changes you make are actually relevant to the task at hand.

i'll just change this, which means i have to go back and change that .. and now that i think about it, why did i introduce this definition? i'll just change it to ..

if you only knew the number of times that i meant to type up half a second, but only got to a single lemma ..!
i constantly have to remind myself: a computer is just a tool; it cannot actually think. it is we who do the thinking and the planning, it is we who are responsible for our time, and how much we spend on various tasks.

typesetting is easy, especially after a bit of practice, but don't ever mistake it for real math.

Monday, May 06, 2013

MoAR: when it goes wrong, in a few perspectives.

so i'm currently 10 hours jet-lagged after a week-long research workshop.

during the few free evenings i had, though, i did run into a few interesting articles. though the subject matter varies considerably among them, i couldn't help but identify a general theme:

not everything is as apparent as it seems;
if things go wrong, often they do so unexpectedly.


i've told my colleagues before:

sometimes i like washing dishes, because i know that afterwards, they will be clean;
i like cooking dinner because i know that i will definitely have dinner ready in a 1/2 hour.

in contrast, there are plenty of days when i think about maths and nothing comes out.

come to think of it, most days are "unproductive" [1] in that sense .. which is why the following advice resonates with me.
"Burnout is caused when you repeatedly make large amounts of sacrifice and or effort into high-risk problems that fail…You effectively condition your brain to associate work with failure… The best way to prevent burnout is to follow up a serious failure with doing small things that you know are going to work."

~ from "The Antidote to Burnout is Progress" @tomtunguz (via d.ribeiro)

beauty (but not truth) in simplicity.

as i've said before: those people who consistently claim that "mathematics should be beautiful" probably don't give enough details in their proofs.
"For all of the appearances of the golden ratio, there many be even more erroneous sightings of it. The spiral of the nautilus’ shell is often said to fit precisely within a golden rectangle regardless of its size. But that is untrue. Each nautilus shell does maintain the same proportions throughout the animal’s life (that is, it’s a logarithmic spiral), but that proportion is generally not the golden ratio. Many have also claimed that the golden ratio is found in the proportions of various parts of the human body, the shape of the Gutenberg Bible, the Mona Lisa, and the Parthenon. None of these assertions have stood up to skeptical scrutiny, yet these myths stick with us. The mathematician Keith Devlin once gave a talk about the golden ratio, discussing numerous misunderstandings and debunking them, but when a radio station re-broadcast a portion of his lecture, it crucially omitted the fact that the examples were all false."

~ from "Math as Myth" @nautilus

when it goes wrong: being accepted.

the following is an excerpt from an academic in the humanities, and it gives a long, hard look into socially institutionalised disenfranchisement. in doing so, the author gives plenty of good insights into academia in general:
"My frenetic periods are praised—I take on more than I should, produce fast; my thinking feels sharp, precise. I overproduce, keep multiple drafts waiting, multiple projects at the edge of completion, hoping that their incompleteness will be enough to nudge me out of the near-catatonia of the depressive periods.

We are trained to hang in, hang on, hang together. This, after all, is the lesson of graduate training. “It will get better,” we assure students who struggle to learn. We are so definite. Were we more honest, we would say, “it might get better,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” or, simply, “we don’t know.” Instead, we say, “there are no guarantees, but.” And that “but,” that barely uttered, barely hearable “but” carries so much weight. Everyone wants to hear the “but.” Everyone invested in the academy is always hearing the “but.” We are a community organized around “but.” Lauren Berlant calls this “cruel optimism.”

~ from "On Quitting" @thenewinquiry
thinking about it, maybe i've always been unconsciously comfortable in mathematics because of how open it is for everyone. if it weren't for the support groups of friends and peers, i don't think i could have come as far as i have now. i have been mentored by men and women, worked with white americans and immigrants and international visitors, and kept close contacts with older and younger generations ..

.. which suggests, yes, that i am getting older .. but not old, yet!

vicious circles in student learning.

as an educator, sometimes i wonder how much we can do for our students, in contrast to what they will have to do for themselves in order to learn. the following excerpt and article came up from my social media circles last week; if you've not read it yet, then i suggest it.
"My failure began as most do: gradually, quietly. I took dutiful notes from my classmates’ lectures, but felt only a hazy half-comprehension. While I could parrot back key phrases, I felt a sense of vagueness, a slight disconnect – I knew I was missing things, but didn’t know quite what, and I clung to the idle hope that one good jolt might shake all the pieces into place.

But I didn’t seek out that jolt. In fact, I never asked for help. (Too scared of looking stupid.) Instead, I just let it all slide by, watching without grasping, feeling those flickers of understanding begin to ebb, until I no longer wondered whether I was lost. Now I knew I was lost.

~ from "What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math" @slate (as reposted from
in fact, the experience of the author reminds me of when i took my second course in analysis as an undergraduate. by rights, i should have failed after the midterm exam. then again, so would have half the class; in the end i did all right, but i remember being absolutely confused at the notion of unifοrm cοnvergence for a very long time, as well as missing the point of a caυchy sequeηce.

when there are too many dots, it's hard to connect them.

in the wake of the boston bombings, i'd like to avoid any political stances .. and at the risk of being an apologist, this opinion piece does shed some light into the quantitative nature of prediction.
" We have no idea how many potential "dots" the FBI, CIA, NSA and other agencies collect, but it's easily in the millions. It's easy to work backwards through the data and see all the obvious warning signs. But before a terrorist attack, when there are millions of dots -- some important but the vast majority unimportant -- uncovering plots is a lot harder.

Rather than thinking of intelligence as a simple connect-the-dots picture, think of it as a million unnumbered pictures superimposed on top of each other. Or a random-dot stereogram. Is it a sailboat, a puppy, two guys with pressure-cooker bombs or just an unintelligible mess of dots? You try to figure it out.

It's not a matter of not enough data, either.

Piling more data onto the mix makes it harder, not easier. The best way to think of it is a needle-in-a-haystack problem; the last thing you want to do is increase the amount of hay you have to search through.

~ from "Why FBI and CIA didn't connect the dots" @cnn

[1] i used to think that i was a highly unproductive person and that i wasn't cut out for mathematics, in light of how many days of this kind would happen. these days i take a happier perspective and decide that such days have their value: sometimes it's equally important to know what doesn't work as what actually does.

stranger in a familiar land: prodigal.

[initially written yesterday, during a U.K. layover]

much of me wants to return to the desert again for a few more days of wandering, to enjoy the solitary hardship of the quiet heat.

.. enjoy the hardship ..

yes, it's a strange way to put it. for a runner training for a race, though, it might make sense if only because of the eventual end in sight. the same would go for a finn who enjoys a particularly torrid sauna, where the heat is sufficiently intense to be felt in the nose.

over this trip i feel like i've been talking a LOT and to many people about mathematics. i may have overspoken at times. on some days i spouted out some rather random ideas that materialised at moments that seemed instantaneous in origin .. and therefore potentially too good to be true. they felt like sparks; sudden and risky. being amongst peers who shared the same mathematical language, it was easy to do this.

i think i see why many mathematicians favor collaboration these days. there is something addicting about being able to connect to someone else this way, to be understood.

[added, later today]

.. and as a last word about collaboration, it is like inviting a partner along for safety.

just as in rock-climbing, a second pair of eyes leads to greater scrutiny in care. it also affords breaks, so that one can lead the way when the other is tired or overwraught. one suggests an idea, the other checks, and the roles can be reversed.

on the other hand, if someone is watching my back, then sometimes i forget to be responsible and take unnecessary risks. (i've taken a few bad falls in my time, but nothing crippling.)

at any rate, i'm back in finland. it's time to be responsible again. during workshops and research visits, often one does a lot of talking, which is valuable ..

.. but only as one of many components of research work. it's time to do some writing.

Friday, May 03, 2013

stranger in a familiar land: more disparate bits.

i've not posted much this week, and i credit this to a good but tiring workshop. it's easy to forget that conference days are always longer than initially measured: besides the talks, there are lunches and dinners and discussions over coffee and .. other beverages, sometimes late into the evening.

it's come more prominently to my attention that i'm a high-functioning introvert, as are many mathematicians. subsequently i've been waking as early as conveniently possible, if only to "recharge" with the morning quiet before the happy frenzy of the workshop begins anew.

at any rate, due to the lack of energy i have had only these small thoughts in the last few days to share ..

chairs at IΡAM are really comfortable, both in the lecture room and in the lobby. (as it happens, there seems to be only one main lecture room; i suppose the architecture is meant to host small groups with common interests.)

i either don't understand measures or i don't understand derivatives. it's a troublesome thing not to understand what exactly it is that one doesn't understand.

(Short) proofs in talks are great, as long as they are optimised for clarity and exposition. seeing a good one, i feel like the speaker is inviting me into a personal world of curiosity and focus.

one talk made it to slide #19 .. of seventeen! (-:

i'm developing this habit of whispering to my neighboring audience member during talks.

most of the time it's a question or remark immediately relevant to the subject of the talk, so i don't feel so guilty about it. despite this, the practice of loud talking during talks is like loud talking during a film at a cinema, so i suppose one should apply one's own good sense about it.

you know what would really be cool? conference wikis. it seems to me that the point of a conference is to bring together people with a few common interests and see connections between topics.

there's already a practice of posting $\LaTeX$-Beamer PDFs (even videos) of talks and lectures online. the thing is, standard wiki markup is just as easy as $\LaTeX$ markup, if not easier, so there's no heavy obstruction to tag/link talk slides of speakers together into a search-able network. (despite the horrendous number of slides listed in the corners of screens, often these are pauses within a fixed slide. as a result, the amount of text in 30 slides = 60 minutes isn't that much code to convert, i think.)

this would be especially helpful for the participating grad students, right? it is they who could make the most effective use of these connections-made-visible!

in other news, i'm gathering allies for the siege. i feel pretty good about the proof now, that it is correct and clear, does what it's supposed to do, and doesn't do more than it's meant to do.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

stranger in a familiar land: interlude (a remark).

as i've said to others, losing a theorem (i.e. realising a proof is incorrect and un-fixable) is like raising a basil plant for a while and then having it die on my watch.

it's not a big deal;
the longer it's been in my care, though, the worse i feel.