Category Archives: Story

Having no internet for four half weeks isn’t necessarily all bad

I moved to the UK to begin a postdoc with John Cremona at the University of Warwick. And for the last four weeks, I have had no internet at my home. This wasn’t by choice — it’s due to the reluctance of my local gigantitelecom to press a button that says “begin internet service.” I could write more about that, but that’s not the purpose of this note.

The purpose of this note is to describe the large effects of having no internet at my home for the last four weeks. I’m at my home about half the time, leading to the title.

I don't talk about it, but I do know *exactly* where I can get other's wifi in my place. Sadly, no linksys.

 

I have become accustomed to having the internet at all times. I now see that many various habits of mine involved the internet. In the mornings and evenings, I would check HackerNews, longform, and reddit for interesting reads. Invariably there are more interesting seeming things than I would read, and my Checkout bookmarks list is a hundreds-of-items long growing list of maybe interesting stuff. In the middle times throughout the day, I would checkout a few of these bookmarks.

All in all, I would spend an enormous amount of time reading random interesting tidbits, even though much of this time was spread out in the “in-betweens” in my day.

 

I still remember modem sounds. This is a defining aspect of my generation. My postdoc advisor was telling me about the difference between 100 and 300 baud teletypes. Things change, you know?

 

When I didn’t have internet at my home, I had to fill all those “in-between” moments, as well as my waking and sleeping moments, with something else. Faced with the necessity of doing something, I filled most of these moments with reading books. Made out of paper. (The same sort of books whose sales are rising compared to ebooks, contrary to most predictions a few years ago).

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed reading a book in large chunks, in very few sittings. I usually have an ebook on my phone that I read during commutes, and perhaps most of my idle reading over the last several years has been in 20 page increments. The key phrase here is “idle reading”. I now set aside time to “actively read”, in perhaps 100 page increments. Reading enables a “flow state” very similar to the sensation I get when mathing continuously, or programming continuously, for a long period of time. I not only read more, but I enjoy what I’m reading more.

As a youth, I would read all the time. Fun fact: at one time, I’d read almost every book in the Star Wars expanded universe. There were over a hundred, and they were all canon (before Disney paved over the universe to make room). I learned to love reading by reading science fiction, and the first novel I remember reading was a copy of Andre Norton’s “The Beastmaster” (… which is great. A part telepath part Navajo soldier moves to another planet. Then it’s a space western. What’s not to love?).

I have also been known to open hackernews, think there's nothing interesting on the front page, close the tab, and then go immediately to hackernews to see if there's something interesting. There isn't. This reminds me of opening the fridge, hoping for tastier food to have appeared since I last didn't put anything in there.

 

My primary source of books is the library at the University of Warwick. Whether through differences in continental taste or simply a case of different focus, the University Library doesn’t have many books in its fiction collection that I’ve been intending to read. I realize now that most of the nonfiction I read originates on the internet, while much of the fiction I read comes from books. Now, encouraged by a lack of alternatives, I picked up many more and varied nonfiction books than I would otherwise have.

As an unexpected side effect, I found that I would also carefully download some of the articles I identified as “interesting” a bit before I headed home from the office. Without internet, I read far more of my checkout bookmarks than I did with internet. Weird. Correspondingly, I found that I would spend a bit more time cutting down the false-positive rate — I used to bookmark almost anything that I thought might be interesting, but which I wasn’t going to read right then. Now I culled the wheat from the chaff, as harvesting wheat takes time. (Perhaps this is something I should do more often. I recognize that there are services or newsletters that promise to identify great materials, but somehow none of them have worked better to my tastes than hackernews or longform. But these both have questionable signal to noise.).

The result is that I’ve goofed off reading probably about the same amount of time, but in fewer topics and at greater depth in each. It’s easy to jump from 10 page article to 10 page article online; when the medium is books, things come in larger chunks.

I feel more productive reading a book, even though I don’t actually attribute much to the difference. There may be something to the act of reading contiguously and continuously for long periods of time, though. This correlated with an overall increase my “chunking” of tasks across continuous blocks of time, instead of loosely multitasking. I think this is for the better.

I now have internet at my flat. Some habits will slide back, but there are other new habits that I will keep. I’ll keep my bedroom computer-free. In the evening, this means I read books before I sleep. In the morning, this means I must leave and go to the other room before I waste any time on online whatevers. Both of these are good. And I’ll try to continue to chunk time.

To end, I’ll note what I read in the last month, along with a few notes about each.

Fiction

From best to worse.

  • The best fiction I read was The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu. I’d heard lots about this book. It’s Chinese scifi, and much of the story takes place against the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution… which I know embarassingly little about. The moral and philosophical underpinnings of this book are interesting and atypical (to me). At its core are various groups of people who have lost faith in aspects of science, or humanity, or both. I was unprepared for the many (hundreds?) of pages of philosophizing in the book, but I understood why it was there. This aspect reminded me of the last half of Anathem by Stephenson (perhaps the best book I’ve read in the last few years), which also had many (also hundreds?) of pages of philosophizing. I love this book, I recommend it. And I note that I read it in four sittings. There are two more books completing a trilogy, and I will read them once I can get my hands on them. [No library within 50 miles of me has them. I did buy the first one, though. Perhaps I’ll buy the other two.]
  • The second best was The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin. This is some classic fantasy, and is pretty mindbending. I think the feel of many books of Ursula Le Guin is very similar — there are many interesting ideas throughout the book, but the book deliberately loses coherence as the flow and fury of the plot reaches a climax. I like The Lathe of Heaven more than The Wizard of Earthsea and about the same as The Left Hand of Darkness, also by Le Guin. I read this book in three sittings.
  • I read three of the Witcher books, by Andzej Sapkowski. Namely, The Sword of Destiny, Blood of Elves, and Time of Concempt. These are fun, not particularly deep reads. There is a taste of moral ambiguity that I like as it’s different from what I normally find. On the other hand, Sapkowski often uses humor or ambiguity in place of a meaningful, coherent plot. The Sword of Destiny is a collection of short tales, and I think his short tales are better than his novels — entirely because one doesn’t need or expect coherence from short stories.

I’m currently reading Confusion by Neal Stephenson, book two of the Baroque trilogy. Right now, I am exactly 1 page in.

Nonfiction

I rank these from those I most enjoyed to those I least enjoyed.

  • How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony, by Duffin. This was told to me as an introduction to music theory [in fact, I noted this from a comment thread on hackernews somewhere], but really it is a treatise on the history of tuning and temparaments. It turns out that modern equal termperament suffers from many flaws that aren’t commonly taught. When I got back to the office after reading this book, I spent a good amount of time on youtube listening to songs in mean tone tuning and just intonation. There is a difference! I read this book in 2 sittings — it’s short, pretty simple, and generally nice. However there are several long passages that are simply better to skip. Nonetheless I learned a lot.
  • A Random Walk down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel. I didn’t know too much about investing before reading this book. I wouldn’t actually say that I know too much after reading it either, but the book is about investing. I was warned that reading this book would make me think that the only way to really invest is to purchase index funds. And indeed, that is the overwhelming (and explicit) takeawar from the book. But I found the book surprisingly readable, and read it very quickly. I find that some of the analysis is biased towards long-term investing even as a basis of comparison.
  • Guesstimation, by Weinstein. Ok, perhaps it is not fair to say that one “reads” this book. It consists of many Fermi-style questions (how many golf balls does it take to fill up a football stadium type questions), followed by their analysis. So I read a question and then sit down and do my own analysis. And then I compare it against Weinstein’s. I was stunned at how often the analyses were tremendously similar and got essentially the same order of magnitude at the end. [But not always, that’s for sure. There are also lots of things that I estimate very, very poorly]. There’s a small subgenre of “popular mathematics for the reader who is willing to take out a pencil and paper” (which can’t have a big readership, but which I thoroughly enjoy), and this is a good book within that subgenre. I’m currently working through its sequel.
  • Natures Numbers, by Ian Stewart. This is a pop math book. Ian Stewart is an emeritus professor at my university, so it seemed appropriate to read something of his. This is a surprisingly fast read (I read it in a single sitting). Stewart is known for writing approachable popular math accounts, and this fits.
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. This is metascience. I read the first half of this book/essay very quickly, and I struggled through its second half. This came highly recommended to me, but I found the signal to noise ratio to be pretty low. It might be that I wasn’t very willing to navigate the careful treading around equivocation throughout. However, I think many of the ideas are good. I don’t know if someone has written a 30 page summary, but I think this may be possible — and a good alternative to the book/essay itself.

I’m now reading Grit, by Angela Duckworth. Another side effect of reading more is that I find myself reading one fiction, one non-fiction, and one “simple” book at the same time.


Written while on a bus without internet to Heathrow, minus the pictures (which were added at Heathrow).

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How fat would we have to get to balance carbon emissions?

Let’s consider a ridiculous solution to a real problem. We’re unearthing tons of carbon, burning it, and releasing it into the atmosphere.

Disclaimer: There are several greenhouse gasses, and lots of other things that we’re throwing wantonly into the environment. Considering them makes things incredibly complicated incredibly quickly, so I blithely ignore them in this note.

Such rapid changes have side effects, many of which lead to bad things. That’s why nearly 150 countries ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.1 Even if we assume that all these countries will accomplish what they agreed to (which might be challenging for the US),2

most nations and advocacy groups are focusing on increasing efficiency and reducing emissions. These are good goals! But what about all the carbon that is already in the atmosphere?3

You know what else is a problem? Obesity! How are we to solve all of these problems?

Looking at this (very unscientific) graph,4 we see that the red isn’t keeping up! Maybe we aren’t using the valuable resource of our own bodies enough! Fat has carbon in it — often over 20% by weight. What if we took advantage of our propensity to become propense? How fat would we need to get to balance last year’s carbon emissions?

That’s what we investigate here.

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Happy Birthday to The Science Guy

On 10 July 1917, Donald Herbert Kemske (later known as Donald Jeffry Herbert) was born in Waconia, Minnesota. Back when university educations were a bit more about education and a bit less about establishing vocation, Donald studied general science and English at La Crosse State Normal College (which is now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse). But Donald liked drama, and he became an actor. When World War II broke out, Donald joined the US Air Force, flying over 50 missions as a bomber pilot.

After the war, Donald began to act in children’s programs at a radio station in Chicago. Perhaps it was because of his love of children’s education, perhaps it was the sudden visibility of the power of science, as evidenced by the nuclear bomb, or perhaps something else – but Donald had an idea for a tv show based around general science experiments. And so Watch Mr. Wizard was born on 3 March 1951 on NBC. (When I think about it, I’m surprised at how early this was in the life of television programming). Each week, a young boy or a girl would join Mr. Wizard (played by Donald) on a live tv show, where they would be shown interesting and easily-reproducible science experiments.

Watch Mr. Wizard was the first such tv program, and one might argue that its effects are still felt today. A total of 547 episodes of Watch Mr. Wizard aired. By 1956, over 5000 local Mr. Wizard science clubs had been started around the country; by 1965, when the show was cancelled by NBC, there were more than 50000. In fact, my parents have told me of Mr. Wizard and his fascinating programs. Such was the love and reach of Mr. Wizard that on the first Late Night Show with David Letterman, the guests were Bill Murray, Steve Fessler, and Mr. Wizard. He’s also mentioned in the song Walkin’ On the Sun by Smash Mouth. Were it possible for me to credit the many scientists that certainly owe their

I mention this because the legacy of Mr. Wizard was passed down. Don Herbert passed away on June 12, 2007. In an obituary published a few days later, Bill Nye writes that “Herbert’s techniques and performances helped create the United States’ first generation of homegrown rocket scientists just in time to respond to Sputnik. He sent us to the moon. He changed the world.” Reading the obituary, you cannot help but think that Bill Nye was also inspired to start his show by Mr. Wizard.

In fact, 20 years ago today, on 10 September 1993, the first episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy aired on PBS. It’s much more likely that readers of this blog have heard of Bill Nye; even though production of the show halted in 1998, PBS still airs reruns, and it’s commonly used in schools (did you know it won an incredible 19 Emmys?). I, for one, loved Bill Nye the Science Guy, and I still follow him to this day. I think it is impossible to narrow down the source of my initial interest in science, but I can certainly say that Bill Nye furthered my interest in science and experiments. He made science seem cool and powerful. To be clear, I know science is still cool and powerful, but I’m not so sure that’s the popular opinion. (As an aside: I also think math would really benefit from having our own Bill Nye).

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Twenty Mathematicians, Two Hard Problems, One Week, IdeaLab2013

July has been an exciting and busy month for me. I taught number theory 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 3 weeks to (mostly) devoted and motivated high school students in the Summer@Brown program. In the middle, I moved to Massachusetts. Immediately after the Summer@Brown program ended, I was given the opportunity to return to ICERM to participate in an experimental program called an IdeaLab.

IdeaLab invited 20 early career mathematicians to come together for a week and to generate ideas on two very different problems: Tipping Points in Climate Systems and Efficient Fully Homomorphic Encryption. Although I plan on writing a bit more about each of these problems and the IdeaLab process in action (at least from my point of view), I should say something about what these are.

Models of Earth’s climate are used all the time, to give daily weather reports, to predict and warn about hurricanes, to attempt to understand the effects of anthropogenic sources of carbon on long-term climate. As we know from uncertainty about weather reports, these models aren’t perfect. In particular, they don’t currently predict sudden, abrupt changes called ‘Tippling points.’ But are tipping points possible? There have been warm periods following ice-ages in the past, so it seems that there might be tipping points that aren’t modelled in the system. Understanding these form the basis for the idea behind the Tipping Points in Climate Systems project. This project also forms another link in Mathematics of Planet Earth.

On the other hand, homomorphic encryption is a topic in modern cryptography. To encrypt a message is to make it hard or impossible for others to read it unless they have a ‘key.’ You might think that you wouldn’t want someone holding onto an encrypted data to be able to do anything with the data, and in most modern encryption algorithms this is the case. But what if we were able to give Google an encrypted dataset and ask them to perform a search on it? Is it possible to have a secure encryption that would allow Google to do some sort of search algorithm and give us the results, but without Google ever understanding the data itself? It may seem far-fetched, but this is exactly the idea behind the Efficient Fully Homomorphic Encryption group. Surprisingly enough, it is possible. But known methods are obnoxiously slow and infeasible. This is why the group was after ‘efficient’ encryption.

So 20 early career mathematicians from all sorts of areas of mathematics gathered to think about these two questions. For the rest of this post, I’d like to talk about the structure and my thoughts on the IdeaLab process. In later posts, I’ll talk about each of the two major topics and what sorts of ideas came out of the process.

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Dancing ones PhD

In my dealings with the internet this week, I am reminded of a quote by William Arthur Ward, the professional inspirator:

We can throw stones, complain about them, stumble on them, climb over them, or build with them.

In particular, I have been notified by two different math-related things. Firstly, most importantly and more interestingly, my friend Diana Davis created a video entry for the “Dance your PhD” contest. It’s about Cutting Sequences on the Double Pentagon, and you can (and should) look at it on vimeo. It may even be the first math dance-your-PhD entry! You might even notice that I’m in the video, and am even waving madly (I had thought it surreptitious at the time) around 3:35.

That’s the positive one, the “Building with the Internet,” a creative use of the now-common-commodity. After the fold is the travesty.

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Ghostwritten Word

I’ve just learned of the concept of ghostwriting, and I’m stunned.

A friend and fellow grad student of mine cannot believe that I’ve made it this far without imagining it to be possible. I asked around, and I realized that I was one of the few who wasn’t familiar with ghostwriting.

Before I go on, I should specify exactly what I mean. By ‘ghostwriting,’ I don’t mean situations where the President or another statesman gives a speech that they didn’t write themselves, but that was instead written by a ghostwriter. That makes a lot of sense to me. I refer to the cases where a student goes to a person or service, gives them their assignment, and pays for it to be completed. And by assignment, I don’t just mean 20 optimization problems in one variable calculus. I mean things like 20 page term papers on the parallels between the Meichi Revolution and American Occupation in Japan, or 50 page theses, or (so it’s claimed by some) doctoral dissertations.

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Reading Math

First, a recent gem from MathStackExchange:

Task: Calculate $latex \displaystyle \sum_{i = 1}^{69} \sqrt{ \left( 1 + \frac{1}{i^2} + \frac{1}{(i+1)^2} \right) }$ as quickly as you can with pencil and paper only.

Yes, this is just another cute problem that turns out to have a very pleasant solution. Here’s how this one goes. (If you’re interested – try it out. There’s really only a few ways to proceed at first – so give it a whirl and any idea that has any promise will probably be the only idea with promise).

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Giving Journals

Firstly, I wanted to note that keeping a frequently-updated blog is hard. It has its own set of challenges that need to be overcome. Bit by bit.

But today, I talk about a sort of funny experience. Suppose for a moment that you had acquired a set of low-level math journals throughout the undergrad days, journals like the College Mathematics Journal, Mathematics Magazine, etc. Presuming that you didn’t want to keep them in graduate school (I don’t – they’re heavy and I have online access), what would you do with them?

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Daily Math in Zagreb

So I’m in Zagreb now, and naturally this means that I’ve not updated this blog in a while. But this is not to say that I haven’t been doing math! In fact, I’ve been doing lots, even little things to impress the girl. ‘Math to i-impress the g-girl?’ you might stutter, a little insalubriously. Yes! Math to impress the girl!

She is working on finishing her last undergrad thesis right now, which is what brings us to Croatia (she works, I play – the basis for a strong relationship, I think… but I’m on my way to becoming a mathematician, which isn’t really so different to play). After a few ‘average’ days of thesis writing, she has one above and beyond successful day. This is good, because she is very happy on successful days and gets dissatisfied if she has a bad writing day. So what does a knowledgeable and thoughtful mathematician do? It’s time for a mathematical interlude –

Gambling and Regression to the Mean

There is a very well-known fallacy known as the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is best explained through examples. This is the part of our intuition that sees a Roulette table spin red 10 times in a row and thinks, ‘I bet it will spin black now, to ‘catch up.’ ‘ Or someone tosses heads 10 times in a row, and we might start to bet that it’s more likely than before to toss tails now. Of course, this is fallacious thinking – neither roulette nor coins has any memory. They don’t ‘remember’ that they’re on some sort of streak, and they have the same odds from one toss to another (which we assume to be even – conceivably the coin is double-sided, or the Roulette wheel is flat and needs air, or something).

The facts that flipping a coin always has about even odds and that the odds of Roulette being equally against the gambler are what allow casinos to expect to make money. It also distinguishes them from games with ‘memory,’ such as blackjack (I happen to think that Bringing Down the House is a fun read). But that’s another story.

But the related concept of ‘Regression to the Mean’ holds more truth – this says that the means of various sets of outcomes should eventually approximate the expected mean (perhaps called the ‘actual mean’ – flipping a coin should have about half heads and half tails, for instance). So if someone flips a coin 20 times and gets heads all 20 times, we would expect them to get fewer than 20 heads in the next 20 throws, Note, I didn’t say that tails are more likely than heads!

Back to the Girl

So how does this relate? I anticipated that the next day of writing would not be as good as the previous, and that she might accordingly be a bit disappointed with herself for it. And, the next day – she was! But alas, I came prepared with sour cherry juice (if you’ve never had it, you’re missing out), and we picked up some strawberries. Every day is better if it includes sour cherry juice and strawberries.

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