Thursday, October 29, 2009

My First Night in Belgium

As usual, with my travels comes adventures.

Once my lecture was over, I went to my apartment, packed up my computer and picked up my stuff, and walked over to Oxford's train station. I left on the 2:01 pm train to Paddington and then I hopped over via the Tube to King's Cross/St. Pancras. I got there rather early and actually made it just in time for the train 1.5 hours before the one I was on. (I wasn't sure if I could quite get there fast enough for that one, so I bought tickets for the 5:30 pm train.) I had a pretty decent spicy apple crepe while at St. Pancras and I also had a sandwich in case I wouldn't have a chance to eat tonight, which indeed turns out to be the case.

I took Eurostar to Brussel-Midi (this was my first Eurostar trip) and then switched to a local train to Louvain, which I made by one minute. I arrived in Louvain a bit after 10pm local time, got off the train, and tried to find signs to find taxis... except that it turned out that there were no taxis. Fuck. Why was I not warned about this by my hosts? It never even occurred to me that this might not be the case... Now I was going to have to navigate myself there. I asked for directions from the workers at a nearby video store (their English wasn't good) and they said they knew the hotel but it was really hard to actually give directions for it because of all of the twists and turns. I was able to get them to point out where I was on the map and roughly where the hotel was, and I also asked them to point out north to me because I always get disoriented and lose that after I travel. (Who says that direction sense is a skill that every D & D character should automatically have? Hogwash!) They recommended that I take a couple of specific turns and then ask people there.

So I walked a bit in the generally right direction, which even included a couple of street names that I found on the map, and there were lots of young people walking around (I was in the university area). The thing is that most of them were in various stages of drunkenness and were being loud/boisterous, which is one of the things that I very specifically don't like (in spades!) in people when it comes to going up to a stranger. Hence, I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of asking any of these people for directions. I went past a bunch of bars with blaring loud music, and I was also uncomfortable going into those for directions for similar reasons.

I kept going in what I thought was the general direction (and it turns out that I was actually doing decently well), but then I felt lost and decided to find another place to ask for directions. I doubled back a bit in a direction I thought was wrong but would get me to another part of the university area, and I found a drug and liquor store. The person behind the desk was not helpful at all---he claimed to have never heard of the hotel---and completely brushed me off. (Thanks a lot, dickhead!) A young woman named Elizabeth who was there was very eager to help, though her English was very bad. However, she said she knew where it was and walked me very close to it so that I could go the rest of the way on my own. (I technically know where she works and I vaguely remember seeing the place during my walk. Tomorrow is her last day there, so I am tempted to drop by and say 'thanks'. I'm not sure if I will do that.) Anyway, mad props definitely go out to Elizabeth! She apparently expected a kiss on the cheek when it was time to depart---is that the culture in Belgium? (I have no idea), so I did that and we went our separate ways. OK, so strictly speaking, I kissed a girl on my first night in this country, but it didn't actually mean anything other than thanks + goodbye. Also, I did it quite awkwardly because I don't know how to do it (it was more like bumping of face against cheek), but anyway it seemed expected of me and because of her I actually got to the hotel within an hour of the start of my walk instead of wandering for who know how long. So I wasn't about to be rude. (And, by the way, she didn't steal anything from me, and I did purposely carry my own luggage despite Elizabeth's offer.)

Then I saw the hotel sign (and it opened up my mind). I walked an apparently alternative route on the hotel grounds, as I descended a hill and got some of my luggage, my shoes, and the bottom of my pants slightly wet in the process. A hotel worker compelled me to walk around instead of letting me enter via a side door, and I definitely understand his wanting to do that in case I was not actually a new guest as I claimed. So I did that, checked in, followed some hallways with some eerily familiar and yet very cool art (that I liked a lot, which is quite rare for me when it comes to famous artwork!) until I reached my room. Then it occurred to me that the art was by Rene Magritte---well, duh, given where I am!---and I have always loved his stuff! A very cool, unexpected bonus! This should have occurred to me beforehand!

I went to the hotel bar to hopefully see about food. Sadly, the bar was no longer serving food (only drinks), so I took a handful of peanuts and headed back to my room to go online. And here I am.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What happens in Louvain stays in Louvain

Tomorrow I am going to take my first trip to Belgium. I'll be visiting the networks group in Louvain. The plan is to give a talk and ideally to also formulate a new project with the locals.

Belgium will be my third and likely last new country of 2009. The other two were Spain and Poland. I have invitations to visit Singapore (from a scientist) and Germany (one from a friend and one from a scientist), but I have not made official arrangements to visit either yet. I'm sure that some currently unknown opportunities will also open up for 2010.

By the way: Damn! I like waffles!

Blast from the Past

I was doing some googling while the math department's e-mail server is down, and I found this old edition of "The California Tech". I need to get to a meeting with a student, so I haven't been able to check thoroughly if I can find a more interesting issue from the archives. I'll try later.

Update: Here is the directory of scanned issues in the archive for The California Tech. Awesome! (By the way, on page 7 of this issue is the 'strangle this cat' advertisement that tried to attract attention and get people to work for The Tech. The latter wasn't very successful, but we did attract some attention, and this led to a chain of events---including some stuff in future issues of The Tech that pissed off the Pasadena Humane Society and ultimately culminated in the special issue of The Rivet with an animal-oriented theme. Then the school year ended and everything blew over. Ah, memories.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Visualization of Communities in Networks

The paper version of our winning entry in the 2009 Gallery of Nonlinear Images was published today. You can also check out the poster version.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lecturing Pitfalls

Sometimes, one should use this term more literally than at other times.

You can also check out the rest of my photoblog.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Repeal Power Laws!

You don't believe me? Just take a look at this sign from the G20 summit in Pittsburgh that Aaron Clauset shows in a blog entry.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Trouble Brewing in Chavez Ravine

A pretty good sign that a marriage isn't healthy is when the husband fires his wife from her job. (Dodger owner Frank McCourt recently separated from his wife and has now fired her. Her attorney has issued a statement that this battle will be fought in the courtroom. This might be an interesting offseason for the Dodgers...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Congratulations to Dolores Pendell on her Retirement

In this spot today, I'd like to highlight Dolores Pendell, who has just retired after 32 years of being the main support staff in Cornell's Center for Applied Mathematics (CAM). Dolores held the place together (and even had to put up with me for 4 years in my grad student days) and is now moving on to richly-deserved free time and other adventures. Because of Dolores, CAM was always a well-oiled machine. I have been in places with excellent support staff as well as ones with poor support staff, and the difference between the two (as felt by the academics) is absolutely huge. I think a lot of scientists don't realize this, but we're not exactly the ones who keep this stuff running and we really depend on other people behind the scenes making our lives easier so that we can do research, teach, etc. Having good people there makes all the difference in the world.

So, congratulations and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

iPhone App: The 2nd Guesser

The 2nd Guesser iPhone app allows one to play along with the situation in a baseball game. Simple but cool.

(Tip of the cap to Rob Neyer.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

88 Lines About 44 Mathematicians

The song below, called "88 Lines About 44 Mathematicians", is a parody of "88 Lines About 44 Women" by The Nails. I have been meaning to write this parody for several years. I surprisingly have had a bit of a lag in my work today, so I have spent a few hours finally writing this up. I am sure it can be improved in places (perhaps substantially in some cases), so I would appreciate any suggestions regarding individuals lines. I will eventually submit it for publication as a short lighthearted piece, though I haven't yet decided where I should send it. Right now, I am thinking of an MAA venue so that teachers can students can see it, though I think I will need to censor one of the lines if I send it there.

Note: Obviously, I have selected a small subset of mathematicians from the ones I could have chosen. These selections reflect a combination of importance, personal taste and favoritism, and convenience. These 44 mathematicians are in no way meant to reflect the "top" 44 possibilities or anything of the sort, so please don't interpret it that way. I only picked mathematicians listed among the biographies in this catalog. My choices also tended to have a modern twist, and some of the biases in those choices certainly reflect my own mathematical interests.

Anyway, here are the lyrics:

88 Lines About 44 Mathematicians

by Mason A. Porter, Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford

(inspired by "88 Lines About 44 Women" by The Nails)

Carl Gauss the child prodigy
gained fame for counting and results aplenty.
Bourbaki was a different type,
he was one who represented many.
Zeeman likes singularities,
he put on a catastrophic show.
Smale proved nontrivial theorems
on the sands of Rio.

Dodgson had a different name,
he designed a wonderland.
Fermat liked to play with numbers,
a bigger margin or smaller hand?
Knuth had this special way
of turning math into a paper.
Mark Kac was into spectral theory,
hearing drum shapes were his caper.

Einstein was an archetype,
1905 was his miracle year.
Landau's books are very famous,
Most "new" results are already in here. :)
Isaac Newton invented calculus,
Future work has been derivative.
Gottfried Liebniz was also around,
he too had calculus to give.

Coxeter insisted he was not a ship,
he preferred geometry.
Chern also liked that stuff,
he even brought us MSRI.
Edward Lorenz gave us butterflies
and helped to dawn the age of chaos.
Poincare also saw that path,
sans computers he started that craze!

Fourier transformed periodic functions,
oscillations gave him his kicks.
Gibbs was a phenomenon,
a father of statistical mechanics.
Bessel functioned as an astronomer,
though he was a mathematician too.
Fredholm gave an alternative,
how many solutions are there for you?

Emmy Noether was a pioneer,
she did a lot with symmetry.
George Birkhoff studied many topics,
e.g., he liked ergodicity.
Mary Cartwright spanned pure and applied,
she helped pioneer systems dynamical.
Serge Lang was quite prolific,
he wouldn't suffer shit at all.

Uh-uh. Not Serge Lang.

Hilbert tried to make things simple,
by enumerating 23 problems.
Cauchy however was quite complex,
studying elasticity and integrals.
von Neumann fathered computation,
though that isn't close to all he did.
Turing was into algorithms,
into culture his machine has slid.

Stokes liked math and physics,
he produced fluid equations bona fide.
Godel wasn't quite complete,
a major feat, I must confide.
Moebius wrought a geometric strip,
we no longer need orientation.
Ito's interesting obsession
was stochastic differential equations.

The Bernoulli family was ubiquitous
in myriad parts of mathematics.
Bromwich was much less famous,
but his contour surely did the trick.
Ramanujan was a legend,
his math notebook is rather full.
Riemann started several trends
with his hypothesis and integral.
Martin Kruskal was solitary,
waves and asymptotics were his thing.
G. H. Hardy was much more pure,
'useless' math made his heart sing.
Richard Courant went the other way,
with an Institute and mathematical physics.
John Nash studied games and fixed points,
his story and Nobel pleased the critics.
Hawking has become a rock star,
he has really gone quite far.
Archimedes spiraled in
but despite orders was done in.
Erdos loved only mathematics,
graphs and numbers make for enticing trysts.
Euler hardly ever missed,
I chose him to end this list.

Eighty-eight lines about forty-four mathematicians.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Oxford's History of Science Museum has a temporary steampunk exhibit that just started on Monday and is running until sometime in February.

Friday, October 16, 2009

First Beverly Hills High School graduate to win Nobel Prize

I didn't realize this until I just saw this in the new issue of Beverly Hills Weekly, but Elinor Ostrom, one of the two new Nobel Laureates in economics (and the first woman ever to win this particular Nobel) was graduated from my High School in 1951. She thus becomes the first person from Beverly High ever to win a Nobel, and presumably my high school will place her in its hall of fame soon. (This seems like it's a pretty severe oversight that this hasn't happened already.)

I have to admit a very small bit of mixed feelings because I was kind of hoping (though obviously without thinking it would actually happen) that I might eventually become the first Beverly alum to do that. Ah well. Not that I'm ambitious or anything...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A-Ha Breaks Up

A-Ha, one of my favorite bands, is breaking up after 25 years together. Their new album, Foot of the Mountain is really awesome. I was debating whether to go to their concert in London on November 4th and I was strongly leaning against it because I have to teach the next day, but now I think I might try to find a way to make it work. We'll see if this is feasible.

Let me also mention that contrary to considerable popular belief, A-Ha is not a one-hit wonder.

(Tip of the cap to Tim Elling.)

Headline: Andrew Wiles is moving to Oxford

According to a new press release on the Mathematical Institute's website, we have poached Andrew Wiles from Princeton. (Wiles is the mathematician who proved Fermat's Last Theorem.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

RIP Captain Lou Albano (1933-2009)

Wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano has died. He also had a bunch of acting credits, including the role of Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! It turns out that he was also in a few Cyndi Lauper videos, which I did not previously know. Here is his wikipedia entry.

(Tip of the cap to Sharam Shokrian.)

Some Snippets of Snarkiness from my Doctoral Dissertation

I was telling some people on Saturday about one of the many snarky things I did in my doctoral dissertation. I was just looking at my copy of my dissertation and reminiscing about the many snarky things I did with that document.

For example, the version I kept and the version I left in the Center for Applied Mathematics has the title "Quantum Chaos in Vibrating Billiard Systems: Version 2". (The 'Version 2' part isn't in the title in the official copies, but I placed it there after I was asked for Version 2.0 instead of 1.1 after I showed 1.0 to my thesis committee. I had to rewrite the whole thing from scratch in about 5 weeks---I made it by one day---and I was feeling extremely bitter.)

My Biographical Sketch in the thesis started off with the following quote from Scott Adams: "Nothing defines humans better than their willingness to do irrational things in the pursuit of phenomenally unlikely payoffs. This is the principle behind lotteries, dating, and religion." Of course, I wrote that thinking that science and perhaps even trying to get a Ph.D. also belonged there. I write this blog entry now with the knowledge that things have paid off for me quite well scientifically. I had forgotten that I used that quote, and I certainly didn't think I'd be where I am now when I wrote it. I had some other quotes at the top of that section as well, but I'll ignore them. Then I had a bunch of other stuff in the biographical sketch (some series, some not so serious), which I ended with the following words: "Mason has promised to continue his misadventures and remain someone who is distinctive and easily-remembered (even if not always fondly so). Meanwhile, he plans to go outside and frolic." I think I have mostly kept this promise, at least when it comes to the first sentence.

Then came my Dedication: "To my friends, who have always been able to figure out when to boot me in the head. Honorable mention goes to the Los Angeles Dodgers." This too remains rather accurate, though I think my precise phrasing would be slightly different now.

I have a couple of other quotes at the beginning of the Acknowledgements section (one serious and one snarky). I wrote a rather long section because that's the main thing that people looking at my dissertation will actually read. :) I was occasionally quite snarky, but I was sometimes serious as well and I mentioned many of my best friends by name. I separately mentioned friends and other people who helped me with various thesis-related things along the way.

Perhaps my favorite line comes from the one-sentence paragraph with which I ended my Acknowledgements. (This is the one I was conveying on Saturday.) I had looked at several dissertations while I was writing mine up and many of them thanked god. One of them had particularly irked me because it spent 1 sentence thanking wife and kids and then two pages thanking god. I was thus inspired (also with more than a little inspiration from the fact that Michael Berry would often write at the end of his papers that no money from military organizations contributed to the research) to end my Acknowledgements as follows: This dissertation was completed without assistance or inspiration from any deities, as no such beings exist.

Then of course we got to less interesting stuff like my table of contents, list of figures, and scientific chapters.

In the copy I left for Cornell's Center for Applied Mathematics, I left an additional easter egg that I wrote in handwriting. It basically said that I didn't mind how the thesis was used as long as it wasn't used for toilet paper. Unfortunately, I don't remember the exact phrasing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

Today's quote comes from broadcaster Joe Simpson: "Jim Tracy is close to arguing for the cycle."

Simpson made this comment as Rockies manager Jim Tracy was jogging out to argue with the third base umpire. Earlier in the game, he had jogged out to both first base and second base to argue.

Anticipating the National League Championship Series

Given that Charlie Manuel is seemingly going to actually use Brad Lidge to try to close games, I think I now have to root for the Phillies to beat the Rockies.  (My other reason is that it would be really cool to see Pedro pitch against the Dodgers.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Angels Sweep Red Sox in American League Division Series

The Angels just completed a come-from-behind 7-6 victory over the Red Sox to seal their sweep of their American League Division Series. They will face either the Yankees or the Twins (unfortunately, it will probably be the Yankees) in the American League Championship Series.

You know what would be really awesome? A Dodgers-Angels Freeway World Series!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dodgers Sweep Cardinals in National League Division Series

The Dodgers just beat the Cardinals 5-1 today to complete a sweep of the Cardinals in their National League Division Series! Hell yes!

The National League Championship Series in next. Bring on Team X, where X \in {Rockies,Phillies}! Go Dodgers!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Things not to do when stealing something expensive

1. Leave your contact information with a job application that you submitted to the people from whom you stole stuff. D'oh!

Barrack Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize

By now, Gentle Reader, you've obviously already seen the news that Barrack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. In the speculative article that I read before the announcement, his name was never even mentioned as a viable possibility.

My main reaction is that I think that it way too early to properly judge his accomplishments. Don't we need to let things percolate to see what actually transpires in practice? I am much more used to prizes in other topics where it is typical that many decades pass before the awarding of such a prize. I can understand the argument and arguably even the need for a much faster percolation time for the Peace Prize---perhaps it will provide appropriate encouragement for the intended good things to transpire---but this still seems really early to me. I'm not suggesting his work thus far won't eventually merit the Peace Prize (and most of you probably know that I am pro-Obama), but it seems to me that we're getting way ahead of ourselves here. It makes it feel to me like the choice was made in part as a result of getting a lot of press time, and the Peace Prize (as well as other prizes, of course) should be more than a popularity contest. Admittedly, I have my cynical hat on for this comment.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Connected: A new book about social networks

Given the media play it's received, I should mention my collaborator James Fowler's new popular book about social networks. The book, which James coauthored with Nicholas Christakis, is called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. The book should be an interesting read (I previously glanced through small parts of it in draft form), but I really think they should lose the term "network man". It's too corny.

(Tip of the cap to James for passing along this particular article.)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 Fail

Last night I watched the one-game playoff between the Twins and Tigers to determine the American League Central champion. I'm pleased to report that the Twins won 6-5 in 12 innings. (I went to bed during the 9th inning and fell asleep immediately, though I was planning on listeniing while lying in bed.) The Yankees intelligently chose to start the series today rather than tomorrow, so they have even more of an advantage in the AL Division Series than they already did from being the better team.

Unfortunately, had an epic fail. Their playoff coverage has a nice feature where one can change the camera angle. I don't remember seeing this feature during the regular season. The problem is that I was unable to figure out how to just get the telecast (though I was able to get the audio from it without a problem), which last night was on TBS, so I was forced to change camera angles manually during the game. I used the 4-panel feature, which successfully gave me smooth streaming video of 4 different things (I hadn't actually tried that before... it's quite sweet!) to get 4 camera angles at once. But I felt like I was in command central where somebody would then choose which angle to give TV viewers at a given point. I also didn't get the nice markers on the screen indicating statistics, number of outs, etc. I hope I can just get a complete broadcast today, as I'd rather use just one screen and not have to watch 4 different angles that are somewhat phase-shifted. Not that I'll be awake for the Dodger game anyway... It is slated to start at 2:37 am.

By the way, please excuse the typos in this entry. I tried to catch them, but I am running a long, slow process on Matlab on this computer and everything else seems to have slowed to a crawl. (This is my office computer, so I can't comment on the limits of my laptop at this juncture.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

RIP I.M. Gelfand (1913-2009)

I.M. Gelfand died yesterday. He was one of the preeminent mathematicians of the 20th century. He made contributions in numerous subjects, including representation theory, generalized functions, partial differential equations, and theoretical biology.

Bolzano-Weierstrass Rap

I was looking at the website of mathematician Dave Richeson (after browsing through one of his papers), and I decided to take a look on his blog. In a recent entry, he links to an "awesome" rap performance of the entire proof of the Bolzano-Weierstrass theorem by mathematician Steve Sawin. This is wrong on so many levels. (Tomorrow we have our dinner with the new Somerville frosh, so we could use this to scare away the new math majors...)

Headline: University of Florida has a "Zombie Attack" Plan

As this article in the Miami Herald reports, the University of Florida has formulated a "Zombie Attack" Plan (which you can read here). The article is pretty boring, but the preparedness plan itself is pretty damn funny.

(Tip of the cap to Ravi Montenegro.)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Count's Song: Censored Version

Here is a funny YouTube video of The Count from Sesame Street with bleeps added in appropriate spots. I approve!

(Tip of the cap to Anna Iwaniec Hickerson.)

Friday, October 02, 2009

2009 Ig Nobel Prizes

Here are the 2009 Ig Nobel Prizes.

(Tip of the cap to Justin.)

Open-Source Mathematics

Today I saw the 2009 Charles Simonyi Annual Lecture in the communication of science in the Oxford Playhouse. It was given by Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers (apparently the first mathematician to ever give this lecture in its short history). The title of his talk was "Open Source Mathematics", and we were greeted by a friendly Beamer presentation. (I don't actually use Beamer for my talks, but I was pretty amused to see that format in the Oxford Playhouse as opposed to the types of venues where one would more typically see that format used.)

Gowers was discussing his Polymath1 open-source mathematics project, which was an attempt to bring theorem-proving outside of the realm of the single mathematician and into a more public domain. Although most of the active participants in this project (they were quite successful, though how widespread such success can be remains to be seen) ended up being professional mathematicians with highly-developed expertise in relevant areas, the whole thing was done in a public arena---namely, Gowers' blog---there were lots of people who were not mathematicians who were following the whole thing and making comments (and occasionally giving suggestions, though apparently not ones that actually helped solve the problem). Interestingly, this project also provides a public record of this type of problem-solving process, which could prove to be a great teaching resource.

In closing, I have two basic comments:

(1) I am very interested in seeing how such efforts develop in the future. (For example, take a look at the polymath blog that has now developed.)

(2) I enthusiastically applaud Gowers and company for this very successful effort!

Emergency Exit Fail

10/02/09: Emergency Exit Fail

This is one of the emergency exits on the second floor of Dartington House. It has been in this state at least since the first day that I started living in Oxford. (Actually, it used to be in much worse shape than this. Until recently, there was a bunch of 'do not pass' tape over the door.)

I wonder if I should submit this picture to the Fail Blog? Thoughts?