Friday, November 30, 2007

10th Anniversary of Cornell's Famous Pumpkin Prank

I wrote a blog entry about pranks recently and I neglected to mention that October 2007 marked the 10th anniversary of the great pumpkin prank at Cornell (my grad school alma mater).

Somehow, a group of students got a HUGE pumpkin on the top of Cornell's McGraw Tower spire (where the chimes get played), which is an extremely tall building. The thing probably wouldn't have stayed up very long, but the weather got really cold, which caused the pumpkin to freeze and stay on the tower. The pumpkin then stayed on top of the tower until the weather warmed up in the spring. It fell down one or two days before my visit as a prospective graduate student (evidently in a blooper during an attempt to take it down). Sigh... I just missed seeing that wonderful sight in person.

The pumpkin continued to decay over the years and "The last extant piece of the gourd sat beside a brain display in the Department of Psychology." (That sentence just amuses the Hell out of me.)

Anyway, given my association with Caltech pranks, I feel remiss in not having previously told this story on my blog and only my recent Cornell alumni newsletter reminded me of this awesome prank. It's still not known who the perpetrators were and I believe that how they did it might not be known either. (There was an article in The Cornell Daily Sun late in my graduate-school career that -- without identifying the perps -- claimed to state how the pumpkin was hoisted atop the tower, but my understanding is that a nontrivial number of people were disputing the purported methodology.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Unintentionally awesome

In fact, it's not just unintentionally awesome but also uninentionally "awesome."

Today, I decided to wear a Manhunt II t-shirt that I got as one of my free chotchkes at PAX in August. The part that I love so much is that one of my students pointed out that this game is banned in the UK.

I'm such a maverick. :)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Encouragement for Oxford pranksters

My friend Danny (who I've known since I was 4) was visiting me from Friday until this morning, so between hanging out (in both London and Oxford) and trying desperately to get some work done, I haven't had a chance to do as much blogging during the past week. (I'll eventually be posting pictures from the past week, including one of me in my new role as Achilles.)

So, in order to cover the gap (so to speak), I am going to dig into the archives and tell the Oxford folks a bit about my sordid past. In the process, I hope to encourage some local shenanigans. (I apologize in advance to the others in my audience who have heard all this before.)

Let me start with something that will be new for everybody -- namely, what made me think of this? Well, I heard about a local drunken prank that I think is hilarious but for which the students seem to be have a fine heading in their direction. Namely, a rosemary bush was "borrowed" from a local restaurant (which I won't name) and, after much deliberation, planted in a toilet in a women's restroom so that it could grow big and strong. That's funny enough, but apparently our CCTV cameras (the ones that seem to be used predominantly for spying on students... actually, I ought to blog about that at some point; I'm finding a couple of things to be a bit Big Brotherish for my tastes, but I'll save that one for later) caught most of this on tape, so one can apparently see a fairly long discussion with deliberations. My reservations about the methodology of obtaining the videos aside, I hereby request that the Somerville porters post that video on YouTube or -- at the very least -- give me a chance to see it because I really want to take a look at it!

(Oh the other thing I found out is that I already have a rep among the Somerville students for dressing very differently from the others on High Table. Of course, only a small subset of them know that I have a charming personality as well.) But anyway, everybody seems to already know who I am even though I've only been here 7 weeks and change. I'm already making my mark! (Perhaps Oxford has met its match? As one of my friends said, it has been around 800 years but it hasn't got a chance to survive me.)

OK, so back to the archives...

Most of my Oxford peeps may not know this, but I coauthored a book about Caltech pranks and other shenanigans. For several months after its May 2007 debut, it was the number 1 selling item in Caltech's bookstore. It currently appears to be #3 among books.

I have been involved in a few pranks of my own. For example, I was the author and architect of this fake Caltech press release (it can be really useful to know people in your university's PR department!). I have a copy of the book with me if anybody is interested in seeing it, though as some might say, "Buy my book!" :)

So, I hope that you Oxford folks reading this blog entry will take this as a challenge and find something creative to do.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Irony of Netwiki

Along with one of my collaborators (Peter Mucha of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), I help run netwiki, a site dedicated to social networks. The site has both private and public sections. The private section contains group data and discussions and has worked beautifully. The public section, on the other hand, has struggled to get some sort of critical mass to become a useful place for the networks community. Even with the presence of blockers, the spam problem has become increasingly huge and it finally got to the point where server space at UNC was becoming an issue and we had to disable the ability for the public to make changes on the site. This has been temporarily disabled for a couple of days until we incorporate one of those tools where a human has to type in some word to distinguish it from spam.

OK, so we just changed things so the public can't make changes on our networks wiki. The story doesn't end there, as I got the following e-mail from Peter earlier today:

After nearly 18 months in relative obscurity, NetWiki made the INSNA mailing this morning... There have been over 600 page views since this email went out, and of course no public editing capability! (INSNA is the International Network for Social Network Analysis.)

The relevant portion of the e-mail that was sent out to their mailing list (which goes to a rather large number of people and which I am going to join, now that I think about it) reads as follows:

Found a new network analysis site today, courtesty of Wikipedia's "Social Network" article:

Netwiki, run out of Chapel Hill, by what appear to be mathematicians:

I'm the one who added the link to our page on the wikipedia entry for exactly this purpose. It took a while, but I'm glad we're finally getting an influx of people via that mechanism.

And, yes, we are indeed mathematicians. (I simply love the phrasing, "by what appear to be mathematicians.")

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Modern toiletry

Courtesy The California Tech, here are some pictures of some very stylistic toilets.

Note: The pun in this entry's title is intentional.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another limerick competition from Annals of Improbable Research

For the second month in a row, the Annals of Improbable Research limerick contest pertains to a paper within one of my fields. Last time, it was dynamical systems and this time it's applied dynamical systems (and, in particular, granular media). Moreover, I even know one of the paper's authors. (Last time, I had once met the person who was mentioned in the title of the article but didn't know if the author of the article per se.)

Anyway, here is the article being used for this month's contest:

"Maximum Angle of Stability of a Wet Granular Pile," Sarah Nowak,
Azadeh Samadani, and Arshad Kudrolli, Nature Physics, vol. 1,
August 15, 2005, pp. 50-2.

(Thanks to Charles Oppenheim for bringing this to our attention.)
The authors explain:

"Anyone who has built a sandcastle recognizes that the addition
of liquid to granular materials increases their stability.
However, measurements of this increased stability often conflict
with theory and with each other.... Using the frictionless model
and performing stability analysis within the pile, we reproduce
the dependence of the stability angle on system size, particle
size, and surface tension observed in our experiments."

RULES: Please make sure your rhymes actually do, and that your
poem is in classic, trips-off-the-tongue limerick form.

PRIZE: The winning poet will receive a (if we manage to send it
to the correct address) a free, possibly sandy issue of the
Annals of Improbable Research. Send entries (one entry per
entrant) to:

c/o [marca AT]

For the second month in a row, I hope I have time to sit down and compose a limerick. Last time, I unsurprisingly didn't end up having time and I suspect the same will be true this month. I'm especially eager to submit a limerick this month because it will give me a chance to make fun of self-organized criticality (which is an easy target), or as Predrag Cvitanovic calls it, "self-organized triviality."

But just in case I don't have time to write a limerick, here are some physics haikus that I wrote a few years ago for an APS contest. One of my haikus was deemed a winner -- ironically, it was the only one of the haikus that was serious rather than snarky! -- and it earned me a free physics t-shirt.

One of my haikus was, in fact, devoted to self-organized criticality:

The world's a sandpile.
Self-organized, trivial...
But it gives tenure.

As I have been known to say to any statistical physicist who will listen, "The world is not a sandpile." (Granted, I do some statistical physics research too, but there are times when I very much agree with Steve Strogatz's comment during an invited talk in which he compared them to piranhas.)

And the good news about doing this blog entry is that it turns out all my links to my creative writing on the Oxford server were dead because I had forgotten to copy the files over when I set up the web page. Thankfully, that problem is now fixed.

Former member of Queen earns doctoral degree in astrophysics

I just found out about the following via the Annals of Improbable Research newsletter.

Brian May, the lead guitarist of the band Queen, apparently really is the champion. As you can read here, he just earned a doctorate in astrophysics last month. Awesome!

One of his publications is "An Investigation of the Motion of Zodiacal Dust Particles (Part I)" from 1973. Clearly, this was the primary inspiration for the song "Another One Bites the Dust."

Wikipedia versus Conservapedia

Lemming just pointed me to the following boingboing article comparing a recent compilation of the top 10 most viewed pages in Wikipedia and Conservapedia.

I guess Mark Foley is recruiting again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

RIP Gene Golub (1932-2007)

Gene Golub, a pioneer in numerical analysis, died on Friday, November 16th. When I took matrix computations (which I highly recommend students to take), I used the book he wrote with Charlie Van Loan. Some people have set up a memorial page here.

Alternative theory of climate change

Here's another one courtesy of The California Tech.

Have you seen this? It's reminiscent of what physicist Alan Sokal did 11 years ago, but this one is even more awesome because it made the people denying the earth's environmental problems look even more stupid than they usually do. (And if you take a look at the fake equations in the paper, you can see how just laughable their claims of having to do "digging" to unearth the hoax are.

The title of the fake article is "Carbon dioxide production by benthic bacteria: the death of manmade global warming theory?" You can find its text here, though apparently the nice sawtooth graphics from the "article" aren't going to be easy to find at this point. I love the "equations" they use in the article!

Anyway, I approve!

It's much better than pretending to be a barrel!

Courtesy The California Tech, people in Japan are apparently trying to hide from prospective attackers by pretending to be vending machines. (The second link includes a picture.) You can find a video of this urban camouflage in action here.

Wow. I never thought the world would have sunk to such depths.

Word summary

You won't find any compound adjectives in this place, but you will find various posts about flaneur:

Word announcement

My contribution




Are there any posts I missed among the other flaneurs? (Oh yeah, and somebody else needs to come up with this week's word!)

Monday, November 19, 2007


Today we "desummoned" some students (i.e., we were going to interview them and now we're not) who didn't do well on the Oxford mathematics entrance exam and weren't compelling enough to still bring in for their interview. Unsurprising, some of the conversations today reminded me a bit of the Rotation meetings at Caltech (though without any "Champ stamps"). Also, I feel a bit bad at needing to make a decision that somebody just isn't cut out for Oxford, although it is part of my job to make that decision. When we have interviews and need to make additional judgements then, I suspect it will feel even more like Rotation.

It also occurs to me that I wish I could desummon demons the way I can apparently desummon students.

In other news, I have almost completely opened my stuff meant for my flat but my unopened boxes intended for my office (though with some things, like my Go set, that I plan to move to my apartment also hiding in those containers) are still sitting in my apartment waiting to be opened. I am supposed to get help tomorrow moving them to my office and then I can start putting my books in their proper places on my shelves. Unsurprisingly, the only really light box that came from my office had Summer Fun Cthulhu in it. (I hunted that box down because I've decided that Cthulhu needs to live in my apartment with me from now on.)

I'm still not sure whether my blow-up doll of the Screamer should go at home or at the office. I'm thinking it will make a fine decoration for the OCIAM lounge. Let me know if you have any opinions.

I also figured out just what adaptors and voltage converters (and other miscellaneous equipment) I should need to be able to resume my attempt to conquer Zelda: Twilight Princess. In the long term, I want to get a new tv, but for now I am going for the kluged solution.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Name of the day

Baseball player Francisco Cordero's agent is named "Bean Stringfellow". That is simply awesome. I am guessing that "Bean" is a nickname, but I don't know. I'm certain thinking about vegetables as a result of this name (although I am not exactly about to go eat any).

Friday, November 16, 2007

An exceptionally silly theory of everything?

GFreak e-mailed me to alert me to this article offering a potential candidate for a theory of everything. I was expecting it to be an amusing piece of psychoceramics (i.e., crackpottery), but several experts seem to think that there is some interesting stuff there. Of course, that doesn't mean one will actually get a theory of everything out of it. However, this does appear to be a legitimate piece of scientific work. I know some of the math involved and could try to understand some of the paper if I tried to think about it (I'm exhausted at the moment and don't really want to bother right now), but basically contented myself to admiring the pretty pictures and extremely admirable command of latex. The citation list is a bit strange, with almost nothing coming from published sources. (Lots of arxiv papers were cited, and perhaps some of them have actually appeared in publications.)

Because the paper looked like legitimate science, I googled this guy and he is certainly receiving a lot of press about this. It will be extremely interesting to see how this plays out.

The guy who wrote this paper doesn't have a fixed affiliation (but has an excellent educational pedigree, so I imagine this is by choice), so I am naturally having images of Perlman (who was actually well-known, so there are some differences here).

Here is the website for the guy (Garrett Lisi) who wrote the paper. Here is an article from FOX News, although that organization is hardly reputable. Here is an article from The Telegraph.

Update: I actually meant to use the word "simple" in the title instead of "silly" but my word substitution amuses me, so I'm leaving the title as is.

I have stuff

I have stuff now. It's in my apartment, and it's very heavy. (Some of it will need to go to my office to take its proper place there.) Major props go out to several members of Oxford's complex systems group, who helped me move it up to my flat. Then we all went to a pub.

Now that my stuff is here, I can finally renew my efforts to pass the 5th dungeon in Zelda: Twilight Princess. (Yes, I actually made it as far as the 5th dungeon.) Of course, I'm going to check and make sure my stuff can handle appropriate voltages first and I don't particularly feel like unpacking things today. (I will probably unpack my desk chair just because it's much more comfortable than the best chair I have here.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Random walker rankings back in the news

The random walker U.S. college football rankings I helped develop are back in the news. (Actually, the author of the piece, Ivars Peterson, has written about our ranking system before, as you can see by scrolling down the page and looking at the references.)

This is actually nothing compared to past instances of media sluttage. The football ranking system alone has been picked up by such glorious venues like Nature Science Update, The Washington Post, CNN Headline News, and (most important) ESPN: The Magazine. You can find links to many of those articles using the link I provided.

In other media news, the AMS Mathematical Moment based on one of my expository articles has now been translated into Polish. It was already available in English, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Bonds indicted for perjury

Breaking news: Barry Bonds indicted for perjury and obstruction.

Cue the Dragnet theme...

An alternative take on a scene from Bull Durham

Since my visit to Durham, I've had lollygagging on my mind.

So this week's word of choice (taken from's 'word of the day' on the day that I checked was quite convenient.

Consider, for example, the slightly modified version of the following scene (well, a portion thereof) from Bull Durham:

The Durham Bulls sit and stand quietly.

You guys lollygag the ball around
the infield, ya lollygag you're-
way to first, ya lollygag in an'
outta the dugout. You know what
that makes ya

Well, it doesn't exactly have the same ring to it as "lollygaggers", but anyway this is my contribution for this week's word. Also, you need to insert one of the coaches quietly saying "Flaneurs" right before the skipper says it loudly.

By the way, here is the entire screenplay.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This week's word

I almost forgot about this. I promised I'd pick a word for our little game this week. Following Zifnab's example, I looked up's word of the day because I didn't want to just arbitrarily pick one of my favorite words. In fact, today's (that is, Wednesday's) word of the day is fantastic, so let's use that one. The word is flaneur, and I actually already know what I want to blog about for that word. But I'm really tired, so I'm going to do it after I get some sleep!

'Ticket to Ride' LARP

As I've discussed on my blog before, LARPing is pretty big in the UK. Well, last night I had the chance to try out a really awesome new LARP on my way home from Durham. This particular LARP is based on the board game Ticket to Ride. In fact, I was having so much fun playing this LARP that I decided to stay up very late playing it! (Well, it was almost all night except for some serendipity.)

The opportunity to join this game came rather unexpectedly. The train that I needed to use to go one stop to Darlington was 21 minutes late, which caused me to miss my connection to King's Cross, and the next available train from Darlington to King's Cross would cause me to miss my train from Paddington to Oxford (note that I was going to need to take the Tube from King's Cross to Paddington). Yesterday, a guy at Oxford said I absolutely could not go on an earlier train even though I was at the station early enough to do it, so I didn't try doing that this time (even though I was rather early). Every single train up until mine was on time, but then I drew the card of epic fail and that was it.

I talked to various people at the station and the strategy I was given was to go from Darlington to the Birmingham New Street station and then take the Bornmouth train to Oxford. (This would then reverse my itinerary from yesterday except for the brief foray into Darlington, which much to my chagrin didn't seem to have "DEI" written anywhere.)

The train ride from Darlington to Birmingham was about 3.5 hours, and I somehow managed to accomplish the whole thing without a banjo on my knee.

I got some food while I was there (one place was still open) although there weren't any garbage cans in the public part of the station "for security reasons." (They also arbitrarily didn't allow people to use one of the seating areas, and don't allow people to use any of the power sockets in the station, though I snuck a bit of recharging and sitting in before I was told to leave that area.)

I figured I was going to have to wait for 6 hours for the first morning train to get my ass over to Oxford. Then I would have to go through my arduous Thursday (3 tutorial sessions, 1 lecture, an extra 20 minute meeting with a student scheduled for tomorrow, and 1 seminar, which I was likely going to end up skipping) without having had any sleep. Ouch! On the bright side, I was going to get some work done --- I had pretty much finished my letters of recommendation for a former SURF student while waiting at the Durham station, so I was going to finish those (but not upload them to appropriate web sites) and finishing refereeing a paper. I also have a book with me, so I was going to read a bunch of that as well.

However, the guy who kicked me out of the special area suggested I go to customer service in case they could do something. Getting kicked out ended up being a blessing in disguise, because apparently the company actually takes their responsibility to get me home quite seriously. (Imagine that! But of course this is rather different from my experiences in the US...) Basically, they hire cabbies to take people home in such occasions, so as I write this, I am in the customer service area waiting for their hired can to take me home to Oxford. While missing the connection (and the associated connection missings based on which trains were subsequently available) was annoying, I'm very pleased with their method of addressing the situation. And it wasn't like I had to convince anybody to do this. (OK, technically I'm still waiting, but it seems like this is going to work out and I am actually going to get some sleep tonight.)

It turns out that the cab driver was an epic failure as well, as at some point he went 20 miles in the wrong direction and had to backtrack and I ended up needing to walk the last half mile home. Hence, I am finishing this blog entry at 3:30 am instead of an hour and change ago. (By the way, Cornmarket street is really creepy at 3am.)

For what it's worth, none of my mad graph theory skillz were helpful for this LARP.

Anyway, goodnight!

Monday, November 12, 2007

What happens in Durham stays in Durham

No, I am not referring to the one in North Carolina, so I won't be able to visit the people I know in that state.

I'll be visiting University of Durham tomorrow and Wednesday and will be giving a talk in their atomic and molecular physics seminar series. (I'll be speaking about some of my work on Bose-Einstein condensates.)

For what it's worth, however, one of the people taking me to dinner tomorrow evening is a current graduate student at Durham who was an undergrad at Duke (i.e., in the other Durham).

I haven't revised my slides since the last time I gave a BEC talk, but I'm hoping to find a way to get the word "lollygagging" in it somewhere. (Hmmmm... I guess none of the UK people reading this are going to recognize this allusion.)

Update: It turns out that the graduate student I mentioned above first encountered my name a few years ago because of a preprint I wrote back in the day giving an introduction to LaTeX for people using LaTeX for the first time. (This preprint, which you can find here, has actually gotten a fair bit of circulation over the years. I wonder if more people have read that paper than any of my other papers? I've been meaning to update that article for several years because I know a lot more about LaTeX than I did back then, but it's very far down on the list as far as my scientific endeavors are concerned. Maybe I'll try to find an interested student to do that at some point just because while the article is already very useful, it would be nice to make it even more useful.)

On the way to Durham, I switched lines in a station in Birmingham --- does anybody remember if the train line that goes through Birmingham, AL also hits Durham, NC? I passed through a station in York. It's sometimes easy to forget that there was an old York. :) (Even though I have a dessert that hails from Yorkshire when I eat prime rib at Lawry's...)

Saturday, November 10, 2007


OK, it's time to belatedly review a few movies.

There are a number of flicks that by now have come out in the US but haven't yet made it to the UK (Darjeeling Limited, anyone?). I am eagerly anticipating being able to watch those. Then when I visit home in December, I'll watch some more movies that won't be out in the UK for a while. :) (And I'll watch more Buffy and Angel Yeah! And I'll see my Caltech friends! Lots of good stuff awaits!)

Here are the movies I have seen so far since I moved to Oxford:

Superbad: It was ok and had its moments, but I wasn't very impressed. Knocked Up was considerably better. (However, the name "McLovin" did partly inspire my Vampire character's name, which is "Billy McLatte".)

Control: This is a very good movie, although it's not exactly a happy film. It is a biographical movie about the life and death of Ian Curtis, the singer from Joy Division, which became New Order after Curtis's death. Other band members portrayed in the film (such as Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook) are also very familiar names. Anyway, this film is highly recommend! (I particularly recommend it to my fellow devotees of new wave and synth pop.)

Death at a Funeral: This movie is a so-called "British comedy". The only problem is that it isn't actually very funny. It definitely had it's moments -- which thankfully became more frequent as the movie progressed -- and the guy some of us like to call "Wash" did a particularly fantastic job in the movie. (The guy who played the defense attorney in Find Me Guilty also did a good job.) Overall, however, the movie was a disappointment.

Winter doldrums

I've been feeling kind of homesick and depressed today, and I think some combination of the winter weather deal and (predominantly) my not eating much all day triggered it. (I had a very minimal lunch because the stuff at Somerville didn't look particularly edible and I went to do some work after that rather than go and get food elsewhere.)

I went to a friend's housewarming party this evening and had fun, but after I was there for about 4.5 hours, I left because I really felt I needed to be on my own at that moment (and I also decided I should probably get some dinner so that I didn't screw myself up for tomorrow too). I didn't know very many people there, which in my depressed mood eventually started reminding me that I missed my Caltech peeps and made me feel anti-social. Anyway, I ended up getting far enough out of my comfort zone once the party got too big --- I was doing reasonably well before too many people arrived --- and decided that was enough for the day.

Of course, I'm very pleased that somebody thought enough of me to invite me in the first place, but my shy nature still often gets the best of me. (When we have our receptions in the SCR on guest nights, I tend to go sit somewhere and sip juice [before dinner] or eat some chocolate [after dinner] and wait for somebody to come up to me to talk --- in some respects, it's kind of reminiscent of how I always was during a certain thing I like to call Rotation. Things are a bit different when the younger people hang out together on Monday nights (the tone of the discussions are definitely different as a result of this) and because I know some more of the Somerville people now, it's usually also reasonable on the Tuesday guest nights (where more of the older people are also around) though my shyness still comes very much into play with the somewhat more formal setting.)

In other news, my stuff got through customs yesterday, so I should finally get all my things next week. (I am currently involved in e-mail discussions to try to figure out exactly when it will be delivered. The movers proposed Tuesday, but I am leaving early that day for my conference in Durham, so we'll see what can work.)

Among other things, this means that I will shortly be able to have a games night at my place. I've gathered a reasonable number of people I want to invite, so that should be fun. Also, because I'll be in my home base, that should help a lot with my comfort level. (I will also have a separate games and ice cream night for my mentees.)

OK, that's about it. I'm going to go blog about movies and then read a fantasy novel a bit.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Random Walker Ranking for NCAA Division I-A Football

Hey, guess what paper finally came out yesterday? That's right, I just received a .pdf reprint of the original random walker rankings paper that my collaborators (Peter Mucha, Thomas Callaghan, and I) first submitted to American Mathematical Monthly in November 2003.

For those of you who don't know the gory details behind getting this paper published, that is not a typo. It took 4 fucking years! Moreover, the paper was never even rejected so it's not like it bounced from one journal to another. The Monthly was the only journal to which we ever submitted this. We first had to revise the paper after getting referee reports 6 months after submission (which is much longer than most journals where I submit stuff). Then we spent a good period of time over the next year addressing the extensive comments (which required a lot of new analytical and numerical work), and then once we resubmitted the paper, we didn't hear anything for 6-8 months only to find out that the referee who wanted that stuff done in the first place was completely AWOL. (The other referee was already extremely pleased with the whole endeavor, and the referee who complained insisted on certain things that were technically in direct contradiction to some of the stuff on the Monthly's masthead in terms of what article formats and content were acceptable.) Then a new referee had to be found (and then that guy had comments too) although by that point (mid 2005) the paper was guaranteed to be accepted once we addressed the points of the third referee (some of which were a request to make certain aspects of the paper more like the version we had submitted in the first place). The paper then got officially accepted in early 2006 (I think in February) although the Monthly does an extensive mark-up of papers, so we exchanged some iterations to deal with small changes that indicated various degrees of fastidiousness on the part of the editor. Then the paper got put in a queue for when it would be finally published. It didn't make it out in 2006 because of the journal's huge backlog and then when a new editor took the reigns of that journal in 2007, he found additional points that he wanted us to tweak even after the so-called "final" version had been approved by the previous editor. We dealt with those in 2007, did the usual deal with page proofs, and waited a bit more for the journal's backlog to run its course a bit so that our paper could finally be officially in print. Then we got our .pdf file of the reprint yesterday, so this paper is finally out.

I should also mention that leaving aside the considerable extra effort that the journal required of us, the final paper was improved considerably as a result of all those shenanigans. It was often quite painful and frustrating (and I still maintain that the journal didn't handle our paper appropriately), but as good as the original version of the paper was (you can find that on the arxiv by looking at the paper's posting history), the final version is considerably better. And now that the pain from this tribulation has faded away, I am not as bitter towards the Monthly as I used to be and I am even considering eventually submitting another paper to it (though I hope that my collaborators will talk me out of it the next time I make that suggestion, because a 4 year gap is just absurd even if the chosen journal truly is the optimal one for this paper, which I believed when I first suggested we submit to the Monthly and which I still believe now).

Now, I have discussed this work on this blog in a good amount of detail before. So, I will defer to the paper to which I linked above, the expository paper my collaborators and I wrote for the Notices of the AMS, and (of course) the project's home page.

So, with this long, ranty preamble out of the way, I hereby dedicate to the editors and referees of the Monthly (which, in my opinion, seems to be somewhat of an inbred journal in terms of who the referees are and how blindly the editors seem to trust them) this partial list of some of the events that have transpired in the 4 years since my coauthors and I originally submitted this paper for publication in November 2003:

1. The three authors of this paper have undergone a total of four institution changes. (Thomas Callaghan started out as a junior in college and is now in his third year in the applied math doctoral program at Stanford. Peter Mucha was an assistant professor at Georgia Tech and is now an associated professor at UNC Chapel Hill. I was a postdoc at Georgia Tech, and then a postdoc at Caltech, and now a faculty member at Oxford.)

2. Peter and I both have much more than twice as many publications as we did in November 2003. In fact, I have more than 3 times as many publications as I did back then and Peter may have that as well.

3. Peter has twice as many children as he did then and his older child is over twice as old as he was in November 2003. (We need to stop using those pictures of him when we include this topic in seminars that we give. He's probably already embarrassed by the fact that all of our colleagues have seen this particular picture from his infancy at all these conferences.)

4. Thomas was part of the first batch of 5 undergraduate students I advised or co-advised on a serious project. I have now advised/co-advised close to 30 undergraduates.

5. At least one of my undergraduate research advisees is now married, and many of them are now in Ph.D. programs. (If you'll excuse a little bit of bragging, this includes 1 person at Harvard, 3 at Stanford, and 1 at Cornell.)

6. Most of the college freshman from fall 2003 have now graduated.

7. When we submitted this article, Facebook hadn't yet launched. (It launched on February 4th, 2004.)

8. Since we submitted the article, the Chicago White Sox won their first World Series in more than 80 years.

9. So did the Boston Red Sox. And then the Red Sox won a second World Series three years later. (During this year's postseason, I knew this paper was coming out imminently and I was actively rooting for the paper to come out after the World Series just so this comment would be even better.)

10. Since we submitted this article, the Caltech men's basketball team won its first game in over 10 years.

11. The Caltech women's basketball team won its first two games ever.

12. The video game systems that have come out since we submitted our paper include (at least) the Wii, XBOX 360, PS 3, and two versions of the Nintendo DS. (But Duke Nukem Forever still hasn't come out, and I was supposed to be a secret character in that game! OK, that was a private joke between me and one of my friends who was working on that game back in the day and I don't know if that would really have seen the light of day. But still...)

13. My first book was published. (I started it in May 2003, so I can't say I started it after we submitted this paper.) I also served as the mathematical consultant for a movie.

14. I started blogging (in October 2005).

15. Back when we first submitted this paper, George W. Bush was President of the United States. Oh fuck, he still is.

16. Division I-A isn't even called "Division I-A" anymore. It's now called "FBS" and "Division I-AA" is now called "FCS". (Just to screw with us more, "Division II" and "Division III" have retained their old names.) Hence, the terminology in our article's title is technically now incorrect. (This change occurred after we were done with the page proofs.)

I think there was more that I wanted to mention. Maybe I'll add some other amusing things to the comments if I think of them.

Today's word is "myrmidon"

So, there's this word thing that a bunch of us are doing following Zifnab's excellent suggestion.

Today's word is myrmidon. You can find the definition here.

OK, so what to I have to say about it:

First, let's try the short and sweet version: THIS IS THESSALIA!

The second thing I'd like to say is that I am currently very actively recruiting myrmidons to do research with me as doctoral students. (Actually, that's not completely accurate, but it amuses me to write it. I certainly want loyal students, but I do want them to question me and not just take me at my word.) Bring on the dancing minions!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Master of the House (of Lords)

I was part of the Oxford contingent that had dinner at the House of Lords tonight. The dinner, which was much bigger than I thought (about 70 people attended) was hosted by Baroness Margaret Jay.

There was a small Caltech contingent at my table (which was indubitably uncoincidental); it consisted of me, a fellow Somerville faculty member (who was a postdoc at Tech), and a faculty member in chemistry who is married to a Somervillian.

Aside from that, perhaps I should just say, "What happens in the House of Lords stays in the House of Lords." Of course, based on the title of this blog entry, perhaps you already knew that?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Headline: Jose Canseco taught teammates how to cheat

Here's one from the 'duh' files: Apparently, Jose Canseco taught his teammates how to cheat. (The link to the academic paper is in a blog entry to which Rob Neyer's blog linked today.)

The economists who wrote this paper "found that a player’s performance increased significantly after he played with Canseco and found that no other baseball player produced a similar effect."

These guys might just have an Ig Nobel prize in their future...

Let's party like it's 1999...

Somerville College recently agreed on a 999-year lease of a property. This will expire when Oxford turns 1999. (For those across the pond, this year is the city's 1000th anniversary. This goes right with our previous conversations about length contraction and time dilation in the UK versus the US...) And when the lease expires, we're going to party like it's 1999!

Monday, November 05, 2007

This one's for the kids.

Lemming posted a link about stuffed internal organs. That is so awesome!

Or, if you prefer, you could buy your kids stuffed microbes.

Anyway, you have lots of choices this holiday season! (I'm just here to help.)

Guy Fawkes Night

Today was my first Guy Fawkes night. We had a fireworks display in the Somerville College quad, so I was closer to the fireworks display than I believe I have ever been. It was actually pretty spectacular.

Sadly, we didn't burn an effigy. We can't have a bonfire in the quad, so the effigy-burning will have to wait for another year... I want to burn an effigy. :)

By the way, it's worth remarking that the Brits seem to play fast and lose with some holidays (like this one). Namely, there were various fireworks displays on different days during the past week. For example, I was in London on Saturday and I saw fireworks at various points while I was taking the train back to Oxford.

I also had one of my patented awesome/"awesome" moments this evening. I was asked by one of my British colleagues if we had anything like this in the U.S. I mentioned that we had July 4th, which is Independence day [pause] --- "when we declared our independence from you guys."

A Firefighter's Theorem

Barry Cipra e-mailed me to pass along this article, which is pretty neat! (It also has a human interest story behind it.) It just appeared online in The New Yorker and should appear in the print copy next week.

(For those who recognize the name, I know Barry Cipra from mathematics conferences. He is also a Caltech alum; he was a member of Ricketts House.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

"Current predictions unreliable"

You've got to love brutal honesty.

I was walking home just now and passed by a bus stop (several of them, actually, but I only care about one of them). Instead of listing an estimated time for when the next bus would arrive, the digital announcement board simply said, "Current predictions unreliable."

I'm amused.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Things that I am

I have several affiliations during my life, so let's see what labels some of these things have given me.

Hawthorne School: At some level, this makes me a "Viking". However, I don't think the school had a nickname when I was there, so on most levels I am not one. Naturally, I was often referred to back then simply as "nerd".

Beverly Hills High School: This makes me a "Norman".

Caltech: I am a "Techer" by virtue of being a student there and a "Lloydie" by virtue of being a member of Lloyd House. As a Caltech student, I am also a "Beaver". I was "Lord of Kaos" (UCC of Kaos alley) during two terms of my senior year, so while it was mostly my minions ("Ready, normal people?!?") who were called "Kaons", one could also add that label here at some level. Let's not worry about positions I held (such as "Tech Editor"), as that's a different kind of label. As a postdoc at Tech, I was the mascot for the women's table tennis team. There has to be a label associated with that, right?

Cornell: I am a "Cornellian" by virtue of being a student at Cornell. Also, being a member of the Center for Applied Mathematics (CAM) makes me a "CAMster". (Yes, that's really the label that was used. I don't know if it's still in use, but this particular label is "awesome" and may well have mecifully fallen into disuse as a result.)

Georgia Tech: Because of Georgia Tech's mascot, I am a "Yellowjacket" (which I believe is not technically a hornet but is close enough to explain certain... um... 'experiences' I've had with hornets in recent years).

MSRI: I don't think I had any labels there, but I figured I should point out that the facetious pronciation of MSRI is "misery".

Oxford: I am an "Oxonian" by virtue of being affiliated with the University and a "Somervillian" by virtue of being a member of Somerville College. I don't know of any labels I get from being in OCIAM. Perhaps we should come up with one? Does anybody have any suggestions?

Professionally: On the scientific end, I am a "mathematician", "applied mathematician", "physicist", "dynamicist", "complexity scientist", and (as Frank Moon once annoyingly called people who study nonlinear dynamics) "chaotian". In terms of my job, I am a "University Lecturer" (our name for 'assistant professor'), "Tutor" (or "Tutorial Fellow"), "teacher", "mentor", "advisor", "researcher", and "scientist". In more literary areas, I am a "journalist" (from my days with The California Tech, "writer" (I have published a non-scientific book, after all), "satirist", "expositor", and "blogger".

Personally: Hmmm... I don't really think we should really get into that here. :) I'm sure the peanut gallery will have contributions to make.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Baseball Award Predictions

It didn't take long for baseball's "Hot Stove League" (referring to the rumors and wheeling-and-dealing of the offseason) to make major headlines.

Here are my predictions for who will win the major awards in Major League Baseball as well as my opinion of who should win. You can check out baseball stats here.

Let's start with the National League.

Manager of the Year: Clint Hurdle of the Rockies will win and should win.

Rookie of the Year: Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies will win, but Ryan Braun should win (by a nose). In truth, I wouldn't be unhappy with either result. Braun gets serious demerits for defense and he didn't start the year in the Majors, but his overwhelming offensive numbers are enough to make up for this in my mind.

Cy Young: This award begins and ends with Jake Peavy. Nobody else is even close. Honorable mentions go out to Brandon Webb, John Smoltz, and Brad Penny.

MVP: Jimmy Rollins will win the award, but I don't think he should. (Note that if teammate Chase Utley hadn't gotten injured, then he likely would have been the best man for the award. In my mind, he was definitely the best choice at the time he got injured.) I would vote for David Wright with Matt Holliday taking second place on my list. (Holliday has an outside shot of winning.) Honorable mentions go to Holliday, Prince Fielder, Chase Utley (even with the injury), and Chipper Jones (who also gets knocked a bit from missing time with injuries), Albert Pujols (in his so-called "off year"), Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, and Rollins. (I think Rollins would barely make my top 10, by the way. He had a fantastic year, but lots of people had better ones.)

Here are my thoughts on the American League:

Manager of the Year: Joe Torre (for both who it will be and who it should be). Seriously. And he wouldn't be the first Manager of the Year who was with a different team the next year. I believe the last time it happened was with Joe Girardi (!) of the Marlins, who was fired both unofficially and officially. (He and his bosses didn't get along at along.) I would have considered picking the Mariners manager, but they had more than one skipper this year.

Rookie of the Year: Dustin Pedroia will and should win. Honorable mentions go to Brian Bannister and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Cy Young: C.C. Sabathia should win, but I suspect that Josh Beckett will win. (I can't ignore the 40 extra innings that Sabathia pitched...) Honorable mentions go to Beckett, John Lackey, Fausto Carmona, and Dan Haren, and Johan Santana. Erik Bedard was having a great year before his season ended with an injury. Also, take a look what Santana did in his so-called "off year." Most pitchers would kill for a season like that (personally, I would kill for a Nobel Peace Prize), and his record was basically the product of bad run support and lots of games against Sabathia and Carmona (and being somewhat less dominant than usual, though still extremely good).

MVP: Alex Rodriguez. Duh. He will and should win. It won't be quite unanimous, though, as I expect Maggio Ordonez to pick up a couple of first place votes. Honorable mentions go out to Ordonez, Vladimir Guerrero, Carlos Pena, David Ortiz (in his so-called "off year" ... do people even realize there are more things going on offensively than the sheer number of home runs?), and Jorge Posada.

Also, I'd like to make a quick point about defensive stats. Advances in examining defense have progressed to the point where one can analyze defense much more intelligently than one could before. You can find some simple defensive statistics here. You can see, for example, that Derek Jeter had the worst range among all American League shortstops this year. He also had the worst zone rating among AL shortstops by a huge margin. (The differential between Jeter and the second worst shortstop with that metric was about the same between that second worst shortstop and the middle of the pack. With range factor, one only goes about 1/3 of the way of the pack, but Jeter also lags way behind even the second to last person here.) And yet, Jeter keeps winning gold gloves for basically two reasons: (1) He gets a lot of publicity because of his offense and (2) he gets a lot of publicity because he's a Yankee (and has a lot of idiots like announcer Michael Kay blindly espousing his virtues). I would probably give this Glove Glove to Juan Uribe, but Orlando Cabrera would also be a good choice. But not Derek Jeter, who is basically an immobile brick wall masquerading as a shortstop. (Don't get me wrong. Jeter is a fantastic offensive player who plays hard and will deservedly get a spot in the Hall of Fame. But he's a shitty defensive shortstop, and it's absurd that he's getting Gold Gloves.)

The Calculus of Religion

I mean this literally. Take a look at this notice that one of my friends (Arcane Gazebo) found on the windshield of his car yesterday.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Joe Torre is now the Dodger manager.

Well, here's a big surprise: Joe Torre is the new Dodger manager.

This wasn't exactly a well-kept secret...

I think Torre is an excellent choice as skipper and while I think there were good reasons to let Grady Little go (no, he wasn't technically fired, but he was seriously pushed out the door and he was going to be fired if he didn't resign), especially the fact that he completely lost his clubhouse, the manner in which this was handled lacked class. Frankly, I would like my team to handle things in a more appropriate manner. They should have leveled with Grady Little (just like they should have leveled with former broadcaster Ross Porter -- no relation).

Circumstances notwithstanding, I am extremely pleased to have Joe Torre as our new manager.


All of a sudden, I can't access my blog's web page from my laptop in Somerville because somehow my page is now of some type that the built-in page blocker doesn't let me access.

I have no idea why that's happening, but hopefully I'll be able to figure out how to change that soon.

I'd like to actually be able to respond to some comments.