Monday, June 17, 2013

MoAR: a bit about politick, other bits too (*slightly updated*)

i'm starting to think that these roundups are a little .. artificial; maybe 'unfulfilling' is a better word. honestly, most of these posts have nothing to do with maths and are hardly instructive.

also, sometimes it's a struggle to find enough interesting articles to share, every week. other times there are too many to choose, and to list them all would contribute little more than social media websites like /. or reddit .. and less effectively, at that.

i used to post articles that were interesting to me upon finding them, and sometimes added commentary of some depth. maybe i'll switch back to that, especially as two of the shared links below are already in that format. (if you have a constructively critical opinion on the matter, then let me know in the comments.)

at any rate, this is what i found this week:

well, it's not the fields medal ..

.. but i suppose it's nice to get recognition for your work, even if it's from your local congressperson!
"The congressman concluded by congratulating Philip T. Grεssman and Robert M. Straιn of Penn State’s Department of Mathematics for solving the equation. Another odd thing about McNerneγ’s speech on the House floor? The “new advancement in mathematics” is about three years old."

~ from Math invades the U.S. House @rawstory

a rebuttal: what's wrong with boring?

the following excerpt sounds inspiring ..
I’m not talking about the kind of travel that neatly fills those allotted twelve days of annual vacation. No, that kind of travel is frenzied, restricting the majority of life to an unnatural cycle of constant want of more. I’m talking about the kind of rugged, unplanned long-term travel where you give up owning most things, leave behind a stable home, learn to live simply on a budget, and really see the world for months on end. The kind of travel that was possible after graduation, when you strapped on your backpack and jumped into the unknown world, flowing carefree wherever the wind blew.

~ from "Why you should quit your job and travel now @ medium:
.. but i have a different opinion.

i've been telling my colleagues that i am looking forward to a boring summer;
this means, in particular, no unnecessary traveling for work [1].

boring is an under-rated word. it belies qualities like safe and predictable, of course, which are qualities much maligned in this modern age that favors innovation and novelty.

my opinion is different, if only because it is personal. i already strive for plenty of innovation in my work. i don't need anymore creeping into the rest of my life. every day of research is a cumulative attempt of seeking new explanations of phenomena that i just don't understand.

to give you an idea of my time frame:
every few months, i make a small discovery or two ..
.. but nothing that really clears everything up.

i've been thinking about the same fundamental problems for about .. 5-6, maybe 7 years, and i still don't have a full answer. i wish i did [2].
to put it bluntly, i spend most of my time confused at ideas.
there's no easy way out of this, either.

my field of expertise is so tiny (read: insignificant) that probably only a dozen or two people in this world are probably familiar with the same ideas. plus, they don't always reply to their emails. the down-side is that, on average, there's nobody else around that can explain things to me, which means that i have to "think my way out" by myself and grope in the proverbial dark, alone.

so though i'm not exactly a creature of habit, i do appreciate the familiarity in my daily life. traveling for work is just that much more unfamiliarity: on top of being confused at infinite-dimensional Banach spaces, the last things i want are to remember where my hotel or hostel is, what the words for coffee and lunch are in the native language, and so on.

i'm no apologist for why life is boring. if you want to live a life of adventure and innovation, then go ahead: i'll just stick to my lonely, esoteric, academic journey, thank you very much, and enjoy predictably fine espresso, at the pleasant cafes on the street corners that i know relatively well.

the stuff nightmares are made of.

i remember a few fellow ph.d. students from china and other chinese students during my first postdoc. as the summer went on, everyone else left to see their families and take vacations. they, on the other hand, might take a road trip through the u.s. or just stay around.

when i asked them why they didn't go back and visit their families, they said that there might be visa problems, coming back: they might have to wait a few months before their paperwork was in order .. or in rare cases, they wouldn't be let back at all.

i never knew how likely the latter possibility would happen .. but it's a painful thing to hear that problems can come from the u.s. side:
"Οmar F. Zaιdan, a Jordanian citizen, was denied re-entry to the US on the eve of his PhD defense at Johns Hopkins University. It has been over a year and a half, and he has not yet been allowed to return."

~ from a publicly-available letter

quantifying the liberal arts?

admittedly, i would have thought that a lack of comfort with ambiguity would actually make for better thinking, because one would be more motivated to look for the right answer.

on the other hand, if it's a problem worth solving, then it's probably hard enough that you will spend days, weeks .. even years .. working out out, which is a lot of time suffering in uncertainty.

there's also the contribution offered by creativity too, i suppose;
new ideas rarely come from overly rigid thinking.
"Afterwards, each participant filled out a survey measuring their emotional need for certainty and stability. They expressed their agreement or disagreement with such statements as “I don’t like situations that are uncertain” and “I dislike questions that can be answered in many different ways.”
Those who read a short story had significantly lower scores on that test than those who read an essay. Specifically, they expressed less need for order and more comfort with ambiguity. This effect was particularly pronounced among those who reported being frequent readers of either fiction or non-fiction."

~ from Study: Reading novels makes us better thinkers @salon

utility vs. fairness, sort of.

i was reading this article and right away i sided with this passage (contrary to the author's position):
"You always talk about the value of hard work.
But what about somebody in a coal mine — wouldn’t
you say he works as hard as you? Why should you
get paid so much more than that guy?"

~ from "Are coders worth it?" @aeonmagazine
somehow reading this article outraged me in a way that i cannot explain, which suggests that my reaction is purely emotional. conceptually it makes sense to me that, in a market economy, value and utility don't necessarily go hand in hand. however, i cannot help but feel a certain way about what looks fair:

i'm not one to talk, though:

i'm a university researcher whose work isn't readily applicable to society for the foreseeable future (i.e. useless). if i had to measure my utility to the economy, in the here and now, then the main contribution would actually come from my teaching instead of my research.

a lot of times i remind myself of a kind of hippocratic oath, that at least i'm not doing too much harm. i'm not directly making rich people richer, nor contributing to the further inequity suffered by disenfranchised minorities.

one could argue that i am causing harm in terms of opportunity cost: the fact that the nation of finland is paying me to work on 'useless stuff' means that less funding goes to biologists who might cure cancer, sociologists who could study how to eradicate poverty, or engineers who could find new ways to harness renewable energy or clean up the environment [1]. since i took the money, that does put a little bit of responsibility upon me to do my job well .. even if other jobs could produce more immediate societal benefit.

another passage from the article now becomes relevant:
"I do most of that work with a tool called Ruby on Rails. Ruby on Rails does for web developers what a toilet-installing robot would do for plumbers. (Web development is more like plumbing than any of us, perched in front of two slick monitors, would care to admit.) It makes tasks that used to take months take hours. And the important thing to understand is that I am merely a user of this thing. I didn’t make it. I just read the instruction manual. In fact, I’m especially coveted in the job market because I read the instruction manual particularly carefully. Because I’m assiduous and patient with instruction manuals in general. But that’s all there is to it."
the phrase "i just read the instruction manual" is especially poignant to me.

sometimes i feel the same way: if you read the same research articles and textbooks that i read, thought about the same problems for just as long as i have, then you'd probably have reached the same conclusions (and subsequently, the same modest success).

to a certain extent, RTFM really is key in life. if i've learned anything as an academic researcher, it's that we read preciously few articles carefully (if at all). the key, i suppose, is to choose those few very carefully, and do a good job on reading those selected few.

[1] i should emphasize the "for work" part of that stipulation. probably i'll take a week or two off, here and there. already some friends and i are planning a camping trip sometime in july.

[2] on the other hand, part of me wonders what would happen if i were able to solve those problems, all at once. i wouldn't know exactly what to work on next. i think i'd actually become slightly depressed at losing a long-standing adversary, to be honest.

[3] when it comes to environmentalism, i have to admit that my reasons are particularly self-serving. you see, i like to hike the outdoors (despite my dislike of travel) and human-wrought desolation just pisses me off. i don't care if most humans on this world will not get the chances that i do to explore this world. i still want mine.

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