Wednesday, October 17, 2012

TI-89 interpretation

The TI-89 interprets "xy" as a single variable, not the product of x and y. In the end, this was a good thing to discover: I had feared for a couple of hours that I had either broken mathematics or, more likely, my own modest cerebrum.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Portland fog

Together with a welcome temperature drop for most of the day. Regrettably, the sun did return in the afternoon. I love this city, especially in the winter.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Eco and the animist

Anthropologists know that objectivity can be badly shaken by many factors. Last year I was in the land of the Dogon and asked a little boy if he was Muslim. He answered me in French, saying, "No, I'm an animist." Now, believe me, an animist doesn't describe himself as such unless he has a diploma from the École des Hautes Études in Paris. That boy was talking about his culture as it had been defined by anthropologists.
Umberto Eco, Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism (Orlando: Harcourt, 2007), p. 238-239.

Monday, September 24, 2012

First day of school

Today I began my second year of mathematics at Portland State University.

Appropriately, during my trek to class I was greeted by what I presume was Pyrrharctia isabella, the Banded Woolly Bear, which is also known as the First-Day-of-School Caterpillar. 
Pyrrharctia isabella is especially noteworthy for students of mathematics, as its bristle configuration provided Alte Selberg with key inspiration in the formulation of his zeta function conjecture.*

*Note: some facts described in this blog entry may be completely false.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why mathematics is awesome

'196,883. That's the smallest-dimensional space in which you can represent this object. The Monster is like some great symmetrical snowflake that you can see only when you get to 196,883-dimensional space.'
Du Sautoy, Marcus. Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature. New York, NY: Harper, 2008. p. 26.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Reposted quote of the day

"I remain convinced that American conservative thought is now not a philosophy but, rather, a book of spells, a series of conjuring words that have meaning only to the initiates." - Charles Pierce, commenting on the vacuousness of S.E. Cupp

From The Daily Doubter.

Two comments: (1) The word "conservative" in "American conservative thought" should be in scare quotes. (2) The video linked in the first link is incredibly painful to watch, precisely because it makes Pierce's point so effectively.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The end of Rome

Between the classes I am taking and the classes I am teaching, I have not had very much time to keep up with the many podcasts to which I have subscribed. Thus, it is not until two months after the fact that I discover that Michael Duncan's fantastic History of Rome podcast has come to an end. It is not that Duncan has given up; on the contrary, with his 179th episode he finally brought his listeners all the way through the story he began five years ago. 

The podcast practically defines what the term "labor of love" means. If you are even faintly interested in Roman history, I encourage you to check out the podcast: it will give you years of listening pleasure.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Quotes of the day

I was slightly surprised by the source. I'm not sure why—probably some stereotype I imbibed about what the "Left" is supposed to look like.
I think people should be extremely skeptical when intellectual life constructs structures which aren't transparent—because the fact of the matter is that in most areas of life, we just don't understand anything very much. There are some areas, like say, quantum physics, where they're not faking. But most of the time it's just fakery, I think: anything that's at all understood can probably be described pretty simply. And when words like "dialectics" come along, or "hermeneutics," and all this kind of stuff that's supposed to be very profound, like Goering, "I reach for my revolver."
There are parts of philosophy which I think I understand, and it's most of classical philosophy. And there are things that I don't understand, because they don't make any sense—and that's okay too, these are hard questions. I mean, it's not necessarily a criticism to say that something doesn't make sense: there are subjects that it's hard to talk sensibly about. But if I read, say, Russell, or analytic philosophy, or Wittgenstein and so on, I think I can come to understand what they are saying, and I can see why I think it's wrong, as I often do. But when I read, you know, Derrida, or Lacan, or Althusser, or any of these—I just don't understand it. It's like words passing in front of my eyes: I can't follow the arguments, I don't see the arguments, anything that looks like a description of a fact looks wrong to me. So maybe I'm missing a gene or something, it's possible. But my honest opinion is, I think it's all a fraud.

 —Noam Chomsky. (Chomsky, Noam, Peter R. Mitchell, and John Schoeffel. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. New York: New Press, 2002. First quote: Kindle Loc. 5406-10. Second quote: Kindle Loc. 5433-39)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Portland State: achievement unlocked

Yesterday, with back-to-back finals in Calculus III and IV, I finished my most excellent first year as a math postbac at Portland State University. It is so good to be in school again.

With this first year under my belt, I am now ready to start taking what my advisor calls "real" math classes—the ones in which you do proofs rather than calculations. Although everything has been tremendous fun so far, and I have learned tons, I think I will welcome the shift in focus. One regret that I had about this most recent quarter was that we covered so much diverse material so quickly that I often ended up having to memorize algorithms without understanding their basis as thoroughly as I would have liked. I do want to know the algorithms, but I also want to know why they work at as foundational a level as possible.

Of course, it may turn out that I have absolutely no aptitude for this new kind of material, but nothing is lost in the attempt. The worst that can happen is that I learn what my own limits are.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A confession and cautionary tale

On my most recent excursion to Powell's City of Books—a store so densely packed with books that it threatens to turn into a neutron star—I chanced across Raghavan Iyer's 660 Curries. This number immediately struck me as altogether too many curries, and I am ashamed to say that I inwardly laughed at the book. But if my studies in science, philosophy, and math have taught me anything, it is that even our strongest intuitions often turn out to be false. And sure enough, on more careful reflection, I realized that in fact I had no good reason to believe that 660 curries was not after all a perfectly good number of curries, or even far too few curries. Thus were exposed, with humiliating finality, all of my fashionable, sophisticated pretensions about curries.

Monday, April 9, 2012

I would like to blame the calculus

Last week, I walked all the way to the university before realizing that I was wearing my jacket inside out. I would like to think this is further evidence of my progress toward becoming a mathematician, but it probably just means that I am an idiot.

One of my friends remarked that Einstein would be proud of me, but I think Einstein would have pushed me down a flight of stairs. It's as the old saying goes: "Don't turn your back on Einstein, or he'll push you down a flight of stairs."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Parsimony and xkcd

Sometimes the most parsimonious explanation is that during half of my waking hours I myself am in fact the author of xkcd, but that I am so tripped out on acid that I realize neither this nor the the fact that I have ever taken acid.*

* A fact which is not true. Not that you care.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bad haiku of the night

internet teaching . . .
manifold system problems
cause unhappiness

I don't like that = you are discriminating against me

Now the LSE is acting just as cluelessly as the UCL. Do either of these student unions have any idea what actual discrimination looks like? The UCL apparently even believes that posting a cartoon of Muhammad with a pint automatically qualifies as racist. Sure: what other motivation could an atheist group have for promoting a critique of a religion, or defending the freedom to make such critiques, other than racism? Does the UCL have any clue how much it trivializes actual racism with this move?

Here's Jesus and Mo's own take:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Quotes of the day

From Thomas Frank's Pity the Billionaire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012):
One reason the bogeyman of the Invasive Regulator can still mobilize the troops, I think, is that small businesses actually experience the regulatory presence, such as it is, far more acutely than do their big-business colleagues. When we talk about the age of deregulation or the era of "neoliberalism," we are referring to the gradual rollback of certain banking rules, the rise of a certain school of economic thought, and the privatizing of certain government functions. These are important developments in the grand, historical sense, but to a struggling small-business owner they might seem completely irrelevant. It's hard to convince a man sweating over a fifty-page income-tax return that the state has gone away or that markets are now in charge. (p. 101)
Small business is the face of the Right today because its pugnacious, anti-big-business message catches the bitter national mood; what the Right actually does is deliver the same favors to the same people as always.

Which is to say that behind the mask stands the hated megacorporation itself, making all its usual demands for lower taxes, sedated regulators, and free-trade deals with countries where labor unions are unknown. (p. 107) 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Huntsman will drop out of the Presidential race

Jon Huntsman, the one Republican candidate who respects science across the board and appears not to be a pandering, demagogic hypocrite, is dropping out of the Presidential race. That's a real shame. Even more of  a shame is the fact that he seems to have dropped out because he used up all of his money on NH. I realize there is scarcely any point to my saying this—everyone claims to agree, but no one lets it dictate how they vote—but a candidate's financial resources should have nothing to do with his or her ability to make a strong bid for office.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wonderful life

No, not the Stephen Jay Gould book, though that's cool, too. 

I'm working on more content for my Applied Ethics courses at Arizona State University, but had to take a quick break to express how excited I am. The first substantive unit of my ASU classes starts tomorrow, I also begin my second quarter as a student at Portland State tomorrow (with the first class at 8:15 in the morning, which means I will get to see a lot of Portland fog!), and then my Introduction to Philosophy courses at Scottsdale Community College launch on Saturday. Such tremendous fun! 

It's too bad the rest of the world is such an abyss of despair.

Incidentally, here's some amateur video I shot of Portland State yesterday, so you get to share in my joy and pride in my little campus:

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Remember the lives you can save

Hume's Ghost reminds us that if we haven't yet taken the Life You Can Save pledge, the start of a new year is a good time to do so. I make my own contributions at tax time: in the meantime, I am using Charity Navigator and GiveWell to do my research. Please don't give blindly—food is critical, but only as a stop-gap and crisis-response measure. Long term reduction of suffering also requires medicine, development, education, security, and family planning: a good mixture may do more good over the long run than exclusive focus on emergency relief.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy 2012

I would like to wish a most excellent new year to the motley band of ne'er-do-wells that for some strange reason still follows this blog. Here's hoping that each of you will find effective shelter from the imminent Mayan Apocalypse.