Ghosts of Forums Past

This is the second in a miniseries of posts on internet fora, and Math.SE and StackOverflow in particular. In the previous entry in the miniseries, I described some of the common major problems facing community cohesion. I claimed that when communities get large, they tend to fracture and the ratio of meaningful communication to noise plummets. To combat this tendency, communities use some mixture of core moderation, peer moderation, membership requirements, or creating subcommunities/splitting off in to other communities.

In this chapter I focus more on Math.SE and StackOverflow. Math.SE is now experiencing growing pains and looking for solutions. But many users of Math.SE have little involvement in the rest of the StackExchange network and are mostly unaware of the fact that StackOverflow has already encountered and passed many of the same trials and tribulations (with varying degrees of success).

Thinking more broadly, many communities have faced these same challenges. Viewed from the point of view from the last chapter, it may appear that there are only a handful of tools a community might use to try to retain group cohesion. Yet it is possible to craft clever mixtures of these tools synergistically. The major reason the StackExchange model has succeeded where other fora have stalled (or failed outright) is through its innovations on the implementation of communition cohesion strategies while still allowing essentially anyone to visit the site.

Imaginary Internet Points

Slashdot1 popularized the idea of associating imaginary internet points to different users. It was called karma. You got karma if other users rated your comments or submissions well, and lost karma if they rated your posts as poor. But perhaps most importantly, each user can set a threshold for minimum scores of content to see. Thus if people have reasonable thresholds and you post crap, then most people won’t even see it after it’s scored badly.

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Challenges facing community cohesion (and Math.StackExchange in particular)

In about a month, Math.StackExchange will turn 8. Way back when I was an undergrad, I joined the site. This was 7 years ago, during the site’s first year.

Now with some perspective as a frequent contributor/user/moderator of various online newsgroups and fora, I want to take a moment to examine the current state of Math.SE.

To a certain extent, this is inspired by Joel Spolsky’s series of posts on StackOverflow (which he is currently writing and sending out). But this is also inspired by recent discussion on Meta.Math.SE. As I began to collect my thoughts to make a coherent reply, I realized that I have a lot of thoughts, and a lot to say.

So this is chapter one of a miniseries of writings on internet fora, and Math.SE and StackOverflow in particular.

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Posted in Programming, SE | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Paper Announcement: A Shifted Sum for the Congruent Number Problem

Tom Hulse, Chan Ieong Kuan, Alex Walker, and I have just uploaded a new paper to the arXiv titled A Shifted Sum for the Congruent Number Problem. In this charming, short paper, we investigate a particular sum of terms which are products of square-indicator functions and show that its asymptotics are deeply connected to congruent numbers. This note serves to describe and provide additional context for these results. (This note is also available as a pdf).

Congruent Numbers

We consider some triangles. There are many right triangles, such as the triangle with sides $(3, 4, 5)$ or the triangle with sides $(1, 1, \sqrt{2})$. We call a right triangle rational when all its side lengths are rational numbers. For illustration, $(3, 4, 5)$ is rational, while $(1, 1, \sqrt{2})$ is not. $\DeclareMathOperator{\sqfree}{sqfree}$

There is mythology surrounding rational right triangles. According to legend, the ancient Greeks, led both philosophcally and mathematically by Pythagoras (who was the first person to call himself a philosopher and essentially the first to begin to distill and codify mathematics), believed all numbers and quantities were ratios of integers (rational). When a disciple of Pythagoras named Hippasus found that the side lengths of the right triangle $(1, 1, \sqrt{2})$ were not rational multiples of each other, the other followers of Pythagoras killed him by casting him overboard while at sea for having produced an element which contradicted the gods. (It with some irony that we now attribute this as a simple consequence of the Pythagorean Theorem).

This mythology is uncertain, but what is certain is that even the ancient Greeks were interested in studying rational right triangles, and they began to investigate what we now call the Congruent Number Problem. By the year 972 the CNP appears in Arabic manuscripts in (essentially) its modern formulation. The Congruent Number Problem (CNP) may be the oldest unresolved math problem.

We call a positive rational number $t$ congruent if there is a rational right triangle with area $t$. The triangle $(3,4,5)$ shows that $6 = 3 \cdot 4 / 2$ is congruent. The CNP is to describe all congruent numbers. Alternately, the CNP asks whether there is an algorithm to show definitively whether or not $t$ is a congruent number for any $t$.

We can reduce the problem to a statement about integers. If the rational number $t = p/q$ is the area of a triangle with legs $a$ and $b$, then the triangle $aq$ and $bq$ has area $tq^2 = pq$. It follows that to every rational number there is an associated squarefree integer for which either both are congruent or neither are congruent. Further, if $t$ is congruent, then $ty^2$ and $t/y^2$ are congruent for any integer $y$.

We may also restrict to integer-sided triangles if we allow ourselves to look for those triangles with squarefree area $t$. That is, if $t$ is the area of a triangle with rational sides $a/A$ and $b/B$, then $tA^2 B^2$ is the area of the triangle with integer sides $aB$ and $bA$.

It is in this form that we consider the CNP today.

Congruent Number Problem

Given a squarefree integer $t$, does there exist a triangle with integer side lengths such that the squarefree part of the area of the triangle is $t$?

We will write this description a lot, so for a triangle $T$ we introduce the notation
\begin{equation}
\sqfree(T) = \text{The squarefree part of the area of } T.
\end{equation}
For example, the area of the triangle $T = (6, 8, 10)$ is $24 = 6 \cdot 2^2$, and so $\sqfree(T) = 6$. We should expect this, as $T$ is exactly a doubled-in-size $(3,4,5)$ triangle, which also corresponds to the congruent number $6$. Note that this allows us to only consider primitive right triangles.

Main Result

Let $\tau(n)$ denote the square-indicator function. That is, $\tau(n)$ is $1$ if $n$ is a square, and is $0$ otherwise. Then the main result of the paper is that the sum
\begin{equation}
S_t(X) := \sum_{m = 1}^X \sum_{n = 1}^X \tau(m-n)\tau(m)\tau(nt)\tau(m+n)
\end{equation}
is related to congruent numbers through the asymptotic
\begin{equation}
S_t(X) = C_t \sqrt X + O_t\Big( \log^{r/2} X\Big),
\end{equation}
where
\begin{equation}
C_t = \sum_{h_i \in \mathcal{H}(t)} \frac{1}{h_i}.
\end{equation}
Each $h_i$ is a hypotenuse of a primitive integer right triangle $T$ with $\sqfree(T) = t$. Each hypotnesue will occur in a pair of similar triangles $(a,b, h_i)$ and $(b, a, h_i)$; $\mathcal{H}(t)$ is the family of these triangles, choosing only one triangle from each similar pair. The exponent $r$ in the error term is the rank of the elliptic curve
\begin{equation}
E_t(\mathbb{Q}): y^2 = x^3 – t^2 x.
\end{equation}

What this says is that $S_t(X)$ will have a main term if and only if $t$ is a congruent number, so that computing $S_t(X)$ for sufficiently large $X$ will show whether $t$ is congruent. (In fact, it’s easy to show that $S_t(X) \neq 0$ if and only if $t$ is congruent, so the added value here is the nature of the asymptotic).

We should be careful to note that this does not solve the CNP, since the error term depends in an inexplicit way on the desired number $t$. What this really means is that we do not have a good way of recognizing when the first nonzero term should occur in the double sum. We can only guarantee that for any $t$, understanding $S_t(X)$ for sufficiently large $X$ will allow one to understand whether $t$ is congruent or not.

Intuition and Methodology

There are four primary components to this result:

  1. There is a bijection between primitive integer right triangles $T$ with
    $\sqfree(T) = t$ and arithmetic progressions of squares $m^2 – tn^2, m^2,
    m^2 + tn^2$ (where each term is itself a square).
  2. There is a bijection between primitive integer right triangles $T$ with
    $\sqfree(T) = t$ and points on the elliptic curve $E_t(\mathbb{Q}): y^2 = x^3
    – t x$ with $y \neq 0 $.
  3. If the triangle $T$ corresponds to a point $P$ on the curve $E_t$, then
    the size of the hypotenuse of $T$ can be bounded below by $H(P)$, the
    (naive) height of the point on the elliptic curve.
  4. Néron (and perhaps Mordell, but I’m not quite fluent in the initial
    history of the theory of elliptic curves) proved strong (upper) bounds on
    the number of points on an elliptic curve up to a given height. (In fact,
    they proved asymptotics which are much stronger than we use).

In this paper, we use $(1)$ to relate triangles $T$ to the sum $S_t(X)$ and we use $(2)$ to relate these triangles to points on the elliptic curve. Tracking the exact nature of the hypotenuses through these bijections allows us to relate the sum to certain points on elliptic curves. In order to facilitate the tracking of these hypotenuses, we phrase these bijections in slightly different ways than have appeared in the literature. By $(3)$ and $(4)$, we can bound the number and size of the hypotenuses which appear in terms of numbers of points on the elliptic curve up to a certain height. Intuitively this is why the higher the rank of the elliptic curve (corresponding roughly to the existence of many more points on the curve), the worse the error term in our asymptotic.

I would further conjecture that the error term in our asymptotic is essentially best-possible, even though we have thrown away some information in our proof.

Additional Context

We are not the first to note either the bijection between triangles $T$ and arithmetic progressions of squares or between triangles $T$ and points on a particular elliptic curve. The first is surely an ancient observation, but I don’t know who first considered the relation to elliptic curves. But it’s certain that this was a fundamental aspect in Tunnell’s famous work A Classical Diophantine Problem and Modular Forms of Weight 3/2 from 1983, where he used the properties of the elliptic curve $E_t$ to relate the CNP to the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture.

One statement following from the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture (BSD) is that if an elliptic curve $E$ has rank $r$, then the $L$-function $L(s, E)$ has a zero of order $r$ at $1$. The relation between lots of points on the curve and the existence of a zero is intuitive from the approximate relation that
\begin{equation}
L(1, E) \approx \lim_{X} \prod_{p \leq X} \frac{p}{\#E(\mathbb{F}_p)},
\end{equation}
so if $E$ has lots and lots of points then we should expect the multiplicands to be very small.

On the other hand, the elliptic curve $E_t: y^2 = x^3 – t^2 x$ has the interesting property that any point with $y \neq 0$ generates a free group of points on the curve. From the bijections alluded to above, a primitive right integer triangle $T$ with $\sqfree(T) = t$ corresponds to a point on $E_t$ with $y \neq 0$, and thus guarantees that there are lots of points on the curve. Tunnell showed that what I described as “lots of points” is actually enough points that $L(1, E)$ must be zero (assuming the relation between the rank of the curve and the value of $L(1, E)$ from BSD).

Tunnell proved that if BSD is true, then $L(1, E) = 0$ if and only if $n$ is a congruent number.

Yet for any elliptic curve we know how to compute $L(1, E)$ to guaranteed accuracy (for instance by using Dokchitser’s algorithm). Thus a corollary of Tunnell’s theorem is that BSD implies that there is an algorithm which can be used to determine definitively whether or not any particular integer $t$ is congruent.

This is the state of the art on the congruent number problem. Unfortunately, BSD (or even the somewhat weaker between BSD and mere nonzero rank of elliptic curves as is necessary for Tunnell’s result for the CNP) is quite far from being proven.

In this context, the main result of this paper is not as effective at actually determining whether a number is congruent or not. But it does have the benefit of not relying on any unknown conjecture.

And there is some potential follow-up questions. The sum $S_t(X)$ appears as an integral transform of the multiple Dirichlet series
\begin{equation}
\sum_{m,n} \frac{\tau(m-n)\tau(m)\tau(nt)\tau(m+n)}{m^s n^w}
\approx
\sum_{m,n} \frac{r_1(m-n)r_1(m)r_1(nt)r_1(m+n)}{m^s n^w},
\end{equation}
where $r_1(n)$ is $1$ if $n = 0$ or $2$ if $n$ is a positive square, and $0$ otherwise. Then $r_1(n)$ appears as the Fourier coefficients of the half-integral weight standard theta function
\begin{equation}
\theta(z)
= \sum_{n \in \mathbb{Z}} e^{2 \pi i n^2 z}
= \sum_{n \geq 0} r_1(n) e^{2 \pi i n z},
\end{equation}
and $S_t(X)$ is a shifted convolution sum coming from some products of modular forms related to $\theta(z)$.

It may be possible to gain further understanding of the behavior of $S_t(X)$ (and therefore the congruent number problem) by studying the shifted convolution as coming from theta functions.

I would guess that there is a deep relation to Tunnell’s analysis in his 1983 paper, as in some sense he constructs appropriate products of three theta functions and uses them centrally in his proof. But I do not understand this relationship well enough yet to know whether it is possible to deepen our understanding of the CNP, BSD, or Tunnell’s proof. That is something to explore in the future.

Posted in Expository, Math.NT, Mathematics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cracking Codes with Python: A Book Review

How do you begin to learn a technical subject?

My first experience in “programming” was following a semi-tutorial on how to patch the Starcraft exe in order to make it understand replays from previous versions. I was about 10, and I cobbled together my understanding from internet mailing lists and chatrooms. The documentation was awful and the original description was flawed, and to make it worse, I didn’t know anything about any sort of programming yet. But I trawled these lists and chatroom logs and made it work, and learned a few things. Each time Starcraft was updated, the old replay system broke completely and it was necessary to make some changes, and I got pretty good at figuring out what changes were necessary and how to perform these patches.

On the other hand, my first formal experience in programming was taking a course at Georgia Tech many years later, in which a typical activity would revolve around an exciting topic like concatenating two strings or understanding object polymorphism. These were dry topics presented to us dryly, but I knew that I wanted to understand what was going on and so I suffered the straight-faced-ness of the class and used the course as an opportunity to build some technical depth.

Now I recognize that these two approaches cover most first experiences learning a technical subject: a motivated survey versus monographic study. At the heart of the distinction is a decision to view and alight on many topics (but not delving deeply in most) or to spend as much time as is necessary to understand completely each topic (and hence to not touch too many different topics). Each has their place, but each draws a very different crowd.

The book Cracking Codes with Python: An Introduction to Building and Breaking Ciphers by Al Sweigart1 is very much a motivated flight through various topics in programming and cryptography, and not at all a deep technical study of any individual topic. A more accurate (though admittedly less beckoning) title might be An Introduction to Programming Concepts Through Building and Breaking Ciphers in Python. The main goal is to promote programmatical thinking by exploring basic ciphers, and the medium happens to be python.

But ciphers are cool. And breaking them is cool. And if you think you might want to learn something about programming and you might want to learn something about ciphers, then this is a great book to read.

Sweigart has a knack for writing approachable descriptions of what’s going on without delving into too many details. In fact, in some sense Sweigart has already written this book before: his other books Automate the Boring Stuff with Python and Invent your own Computer Games with Python are similarly survey material using python as the medium, though with different motivating topics.

Each chapter of this book is centered around exploring a different aspect of a cipher, and introduces additional programming topics to do so. For example, one chapter introduces the classic Caesar cipher, as well as the “if”, “else”, and “elif” conditionals (and a few other python functions). Another chapter introduces brute-force breaking the Caesar cipher (as well as string formatting in python).

In each chapter, Sweigart begins by giving a high-level overview of the topics in that chapter, followed by python code which accomplishes the goal of the chapter, followed by a detailed description of what each block of code accomplishes. Readers get to see fully written code that does nontrivial things very quickly, but on the other hand the onus of code generation is entirely on the book and readers may have trouble adapting the concepts to other programming tasks. (But remember, this is more survey, less technical description). Further, Sweigart uses a number of good practices in his code that implicitly encourages good programming behaviors: modules are written with many well-named functions and well-named variables, and sufficiently modularly that earlier modules are imported and reused later.

But this book is not without faults. As with any survey material, one can always disagree on what topics are or are not included. The book covers five classical ciphers (Caesar, transposition, substitution, Vigenere, and affine) and one modern cipher (textbook-RSA), as well as the write-backwards cipher (to introduce python concepts) and the one-time-pad (presented oddly as a Vigenere cipher whose key is the same length as the message). For some unknown reason, Sweigart chooses to refer to RSA almost everywhere as “the public key cipher”, which I find both misleading (there are other public key ciphers) and giving insufficient attribution (the cipher is implemented in chapter 24, but “RSA” appears only once as a footnote in that chapter. Hopefully the reader was paying lots of attention, as otherwise it would be rather hard to find out more about it).

Further, the choice of python topics (and their order) is sometimes odd. In truth, this book is almost language agnostic and one could very easily adapt the presentation to any other scripting language, such as C.

In summary, this book is an excellent resource for the complete beginner who wants to learn something about programming and wants to learn something about ciphers. After reading this book, the reader will be a mid-beginner student of python (knee-deep is apt) and well-versed in classical ciphers. Should the reader feel inspired to learn more python, then he or she would probably feel comfortable diving into a tutorial or reference for their area of interest (like Full Stack Python if interested in web dev, or Python for Data Analysis if interested in data science). Or he or she might dive into a more complete monograph like Dive into Python or the monolithic Learn Python. Many fundamental topics (such as classes and objects, list comprehensions, data structures or algorithms) are not covered, and so “advanced” python resources would not be appropriate.

Further, should the reader feel inspired to learn more about cryptography, then I recommend that he or she consider Cryptanalysis by Gaines, which is a fun book aimed at diving deeper into classical pre-computer ciphers, or the slightly heavier but still fun resource would “Codebreakers” by Kahn. For much further cryptography, it’s necessary to develop a bit of mathematical maturity, which is its own hurdle.

This book is not appropriate for everyone. An experienced python programmer could read this book in an hour, skipping the various descriptions of how python works along the way. An experienced programmer who doesn’t know python could similarly read this book in a lazy afternoon. Both would probably do better reading either a more advanced overview of either cryptography or python, based on what originally drew them to the book.

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Notes from a talk at Tufts, Automorphic Forms Workshop

On 19 March I gave a talk at the 32nd Automorphic Forms Workshop, which ishosted by Tufts this year. The content of the talk concerned counting points on hyperboloids, and inparticular counting points on the three dimensional hyperboloid

$$\begin{equation}
X^2 + Y^2 = Z^2 + h
\end{equation}$$

for any fixed integer $h$. But thematically, I wanted to give another concrete example of using modularforms to compute some sort of arithmetic data, and to mention how the perhapsapparently unrelated topic of spectral theory appears even in such an arithmeticapplication.

Somehow, starting from counting points on $X^2 + Y^2 = Z^2 + h$ (which appearssimple enough on its own that I could probably put this in front of anelementary number theory class and they would feel comfortable experimentingaway on the topic), one gets to very scary-looking expressions like

$$\begin{equation}
\sum_{t_j}
\langle P_h^k, \mu_j \rangle
\langle \theta^2 \overline{\theta} y^{3/4}, \mu_j \rangle +
\sum_{\mathfrak{a}}\int_{(1/2)}
\langle P_h^k, E_h^k(\cdot, u) \rangle
\langle \theta^2 \overline{\theta} y^{3/4}, E_h^k(\cdot, u) \rangle du,
\end{equation}$$

which is full of lots of non-obvious symbols and is generically intimidating.

Part of the theme of this talk is to give a very direct idea of how one gets tothe very complicated spectral expansion from the original lattice-countingproblem. Stated differently, perhaps part of the theme is to describe a simple-lookingnail and a scary-looking hammer, and show that the hammer actually works quitewell in this case.

The slides for this talk are available here.

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Hosting a Flask App on WebFaction on a Non-root Domain

Since I came to Warwick, I’ve been working extensively on the LMFDB, which uses python, sage, flask, and mongodb at its core. Thus I’ve become very familiar with flask. Writing a simple flask application is very quick and easy. So I thought it would be a good idea to figure out how to deploy a flask app on the server which runs this website, which is currently at WebFaction.

In short, it was not too hard, and now the app is set up for use. (It’s not a public tool, so I won’t link to it).

But there were a few things that I had to think figure out which I would quickly forget. Following the variety of information I found online, the only nontrivial aspect was configuring the site to run on a non-root domain (like davidlowryduda.com/subdomain instead of at davidlowryduda.com). I’m writing this so as to not need to figure this out when I write and hoost more flask apps. (Which I’ll almost certainly do, as it’s so straightforward).

There are some uninteresting things one must do on WebFaction.

  1. Log into your account.
  2. Add a new application of type mod_wsgi (and the desired version of python, which is hopefully 3.6+).
  3. Add this application to the desired website and subdomain in the WebFaction control panel.

After this, WebFaction will set up a skeleton “Hello World” mod_wsgi application with many reasonable server setting defaults. The remainder of the setup is done on the server itself.

In ~/webapps/application_name there will now appear


apache2/    # Apache config files and bin
htdocs/     # Default location where Apache looks for the app

We won’t change that structure. In htdocs1 there is a file index.py, which is where apache expects to find a python wsgi application called application. We will place the flask app along this structure and point to it in htdocs/index.py.

Usually I will use a virtualenv here. So in ~/webapps/application_name, I will run something like virtualenv flask_app_venv and virtualenv activate (or actually out of habit I frequently source the flask_app_venv/bin/activate file). Then pip install flask and whatever other python modules are necessary for the application to run. We will configure the server to use this virtual environment to run the app in a moment.

Copy the flask app, so that the resulting structure looks something like

~/webapps/application_name:

- apache2/
- htdocs/
- flask_app_venv/
- flask_app/    # My flask app
  - config.py
  - libs/
  - main/
    - static/
    - templates/
    - __init__.py
    - views.py
    - models.my

I find it conceptually easiest if I have flask_app/main/__init__.py to directly contain the flask app to reference it by name in htdocs/index.py. It can be made elsewhere (for instance, perhaps in a file like flask_app/main/app.py, which appears to be a common structure), but I assume that it is at least imported in __init__.py.

For example, __init__.py might look something like

# application_name/flask_app/main/__init__.py

# ... other import statements from project if necessary
from flask import Flask

app = Flask(__name__)
app.config.from_object('config')

# Importing the views for the rest of our site
# We do this here to avoid circular imports
# Note that I call it "main" where many call it "app"
from main import views

if __name__ == '__main__':
    app.run()

The Flask constructor returns exactly the sort of wsgi application that apache expects. With this structure, we can edit the htdocs/index.py file to look like

# application_name/htdocs/index.py

import sys

# append flask project files
sys.path.append('/home/username/webapps/application_name/my_flask_app/')

# launching our app
from main import app as application

Now the server knows the correct wsgi_application to serve.

We must configure it to use our python virtual environment (and we’ll add a few additional convenience pieces). We edit /apache2/conf/httpd.conf as follows. Near the top of the file, certain modules are loaded. Add in the alias module, so that the modules look something like


#... other modules
LoadModule wsgi_module       modules/mod_wsgi.so
LoadModule alias_module      modules/mod_alias.so  # <-- added

This allows us to alias the root of the site. Since all site functionality is routed through htdocs/index.py, we want to think of the root / as beginning with /htdocs/index.py. At the end of the file


Alias / /home/username/webapps/application_name/htdocs/index.py/

We now set the virtual environment to be used properly. There will be a set of lines containing names like WSGIDaemonProcess and WSGIProcessGroup. We edit these to refer to the correct python. WebFaction will have configured WSGIDaemonProcess to point to a local version of python by setting the python-path. Remove that, making that line look like


WSGIDaemonProcess application_name processes=2 threads=12

(or similar). We set the python path below, adding the line


WSGIPythonHome /home/username/webapps/application_name/flask_app_venv

I believe that this could also actually be done by setting puthon-path in WSGIDaemonProcess, but I find this more aesthetically pleasing.

We must also modify the “ section. Edit it to look like


<Directory /home/username/webapps/application_name/htdocs>
  AddHandler wsgi-script .py
  RewriteEngine On            # <-- added
  RewriteBase /               # <-- added
  WSGIScriptReloading On      # <-- added
<Directory>

It may very well be that I don't use the RewriteEngine at all, but if I do then this is where it's done. Script reloading is a nice convenience, especially while reloading and changing the app.

I note that it may be convenient to add an additional alias for static file hosting,


Alias /static/ /home/your_username/webapps/application_name/app/main/static/

though I have not used this so far. (I get the same functionality through controlling the flask views appropriately).

The rest of this file has been setup by WebFaction for us upon creating the wsgi application.

If the application is on a non-root domain...

If the application is to be run on a non-root domain, such as davidlowryduda.com/subdomain, then there is currently a problem. In flask, when using url getters like url_for, urls will be returned as though there is no subdomain. And thus all urls will be incorrect. It is necessary to alter provided urls in some way.

The way that worked for me was to insert a tiny bit of middleware in the wsgi_application. Alter htdocs/index.py to read

#application_name/htdocs/index.py

import sys

# append flask project files
sys.path.append('/home/username/webapps/application_name/my_flask_app/')

# subdomain url rerouting middleware
from webfaction_middleware import Middleware

from main import app

# set app through middleware
application = Middleware(app)

Now of course we need to write this middleware.

In application_name/flask_app, I create a file called webfaction_middleware.py, which reads

# application_name/flask_app/webfaction_middleware.py

class Middleware(object):  # python2 aware
  def __init__(self, app):
    self.app = app

  def __call__(self, environ, start_response):
    app_url = '/subdomain'
    if app_url != '/':
      environ['SCRIPT_NAME'] = app_url
    return self.app(environ, start_response)

I now have a template file in which I keep app_url = '/' so that I can forget this and not worry, but that is where the subdomain url is prepended. Note that the leading slash is necessary. When I first tried using this, I omitted the leading slash. The application worked sometimes, and horribly failed in some other places. Some urls were correcty constructed, but most were not. I didn't try to figure out which ones were doomed to fail --- but it took me an embarassingly long time to realize that prepending a slash solved all problems.

The magical-names of environ and start_response are because the flask app is a wsgi_application, and this is the api of wsgi_applications generically.

Now it's ready

Restart the apache server (/apache2/bin/restart) and go. Note that when incrementally making changes above, some changes can take a few minutes to fully propogate. It's only doing it the first time which takes some thought.

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Segregation, Gerrymandering, and Schelling’s Model

[This note is more about modeling some of the mathematics behind political events than politics themselves. And there are pretty pictures.]

Gerrymandering has become a recurring topic in the news. The Supreme Court of the US, as well as more state courts and supreme courts, is hearing multiple cases on partisan gerrymandering (all beginning with a case in Wisconsin).

Intuitively, it is clear that gerrymandering is bad. It allows politicians to choose their voters, instead of the other way around. And it allows the majority party to quash minority voices.

But how can one identify a gerrymandered map? To quote Justice Kennedy in his Concurrence the 2004 Supreme Court case Vieth v. Jubelirer:

When presented with a claim of injury from partisan gerrymandering, courts confront two obstacles. First is the lack of comprehensive and neutral principles for drawing electoral boundaries. No substantive definition of fairness in districting seems to command general assent. Second is the absence of rules to limit and confine judicial intervention. With uncertain limits, intervening courts–even when proceeding with best intentions–would risk assuming political, not legal, responsibility for a process that often produces ill will and distrust.

Later, he adds to the first obstacle, saying:

The object of districting is to establish “fair and effective representation for all citizens.” Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 565—568 (1964). At first it might seem that courts could determine, by the exercise of their own judgment, whether political classifications are related to this object or instead burden representational rights. The lack, however, of any agreed upon model of fair and effective representation makes this analysis difficult to pursue.

From Justice Kennedy’s Concurrence emerges a theme — a “workable standard” of identifying gerrymandering would open up the possibility of limiting partisan gerrymandering through the courts. Indeed, at the core of the Wisconsin gerrymandering case is a proposed “workable standard”, based around the efficiency gap.

 

Thomas Schelling and Segregation

In 1971, American economist Thomas Schelling (who later won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005) published Dynamic Models of Segregation (Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 1971, Vol 1, pp 143–186). He sought to understand why racial segregation in the United States seems so difficult to combat.

He introduced a simple model of segregation suggesting that even if each individual person doesn’t mind living with others of a different race, they might still choose to segregate themselves through mild preferences. As each individual makes these choices, overall segregation increases.

I write this post because I wondered what happens if we adapt Schelling’s model to instead model a state and its district voting map. In place of racial segregation, I consider political segregation. Supposing the district voting map does not change, I wondered how the efficiency gap will change over time as people further segregate themselves.

It seemed intuitive to me that political segregation (where people who had the same political beliefs stayed largely together and separated from those with different political beliefs) might correspond to more egregious cases of gerrymandering. But to my surprise, I was (mostly) wrong.

Let’s set up and see the model.

Continue reading

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The Hawaiian Missile Crisis

I read an article from Doug Criss on CNN yesterday with the title “Hawaii’s governor couldn’t correct the false missile alert sooner because he forgot his Twitter password.”1 It turns out that Governor Ige knew within two minutes that the alert was a false alarm, but (in the words of the article) “he couldn’t hop on Twitter and tell everybody — because he didn’t know his password.”

There are a couple of different ways to take this story. The most common response I have seen is to blame the employee who accidentally triggered the alarm, and to forgive the Governor his error because who could have guessed that something like this would happen? The second most common response I see is a certain shock that the key mouthpiece of the Governor in this situation is apparently Twitter.

There is some merit to both of these lines of thought. Considering them in turn: it is pretty unfortunate that some employee triggered a state of hysteria by pressing an incorrect button (or something to that effect). We always hope that people with great responsibilities act with extreme caution (like thermonuclear war).

How about a nice game of global thermonuclear war?

So certainly some blame should be placed on the employee.

As for Twitter, I wonder whether or not a sarcasm filter has been watered down between the Governor’s initial remarks and my reading it in Doug’s article for CNN. It seems likely to me that this comment is meant more as commentary on the status of Twitter as the President’s preferred 2 medium of communicating with the People. It certainly seems unlikely to me that the Governor would both frequently use Twitter for important public messages and forget his Twitter credentials. Perhaps this is code for “I couldn’t get in touch with the person who manages my Twitter account” (because that person was hiding in a bunker?), but that’s not actually important. Continue reading

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Slides from a talk at the Joint Math Meetings 2018

I’m in San Diego, and it’s charming here. (It’s certainly much nicer outside than the feet of snow in Boston. I’ve apparently brought some British rain with me, though).

Today I give a talk on counting lattice points on one-sheeted hyperboloids. These are the shapes described by
$$ X_1^2 + \cdots + X_{d-1}^2 = X_d^2 + h,$$
where $h > 0$ is a positive integer. The question is: how many lattice points $x$ are on such a hyperboloid with $| x |^2 \leq R$; or equivalently, how many lattice points are on such a hyperboloid and contained within a ball of radius $\sqrt R$ centered at the origin?

I describe my general approach of transforming this into a question about the behavior of modular forms, and then using spectral techniques from the theory of modular forms to understand this behavior. This becomes a question of understanding the shifted convolution Dirichlet series
$$ \sum_{n \geq 0} \frac{r_{d-1}(n+h)r_1(n)}{(2n + h)^s}.$$
Ultimately this comes from the modular form $\theta^{d-1}(z) \overline{\theta(z)}$, where
$$ \theta(z) = \sum_{m \in \mathbb{Z}} e^{2 \pi i m^2 z}.$$

Here are the slides for this talk. Note that this talk is based on chapter 5 of my thesis, and (hopefully) soon a preprint of this chapter ready for submission will appear on the arXiv.

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We begin bombing Korea in five minutes: Parallels to Reagan in 1984

On a day when President and Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump tweets belligerent messages aimed at North Korea, I ask: “Have we seen anything like this ever before?” In fact, we have. Let’s review a tale from Reagan.

August 11, 1984: President Reagan is preparing for his weekly NPR radio address. The opening line of his address was to be

My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that today I signed legislation that will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they’ve too long been denied — the freedom to meet in public high schools during nonschool hours, just as other student groups are allowed to do.1

During the sound check, President Reagan joked

My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

This was met with mild chuckles from the audio technicians, and it wasn’t broadcast intentionally. But it was leaked, and reached the Russians shortly thereafter.

They were not amused.

The Soviet army was placed on alert once they heard what Reagan joked during the sound check. They dropped their alert later, presumably when the bombing didn’t begin. Over the next week, this gaffe drew a lot of attention. Here is NBC Tom Brokaw addressing “the joke heard round the world”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article containing some of the Soviet responses five days later, on 16 August 1984.2 Similar articles ran in most major US newspapers that week, including the New York Times (which apparently retyped or OCR’d these statements, and these are now available on their site).

The major Russian papers Pravda and Izvestia, as well as the Soviet News Agency TASS, all decried the President’s remarks. Of particular note are two paragraphs from TASS. The first is reminiscent of many responses on Twitter today,

Tass is authorized to state that the Soviet Union deplores the U.S. President’s invective, unprecedentedly hostile toward the U.S.S.R. and dangerous to the cause of peace.

The second is a bit chilling, especially with modern context,

This conduct is incompatible with the high responsibility borne by leaders of states, particularly nuclear powers, for the destinies of their own peoples and for the destinies of mankind.

In 1984, an accidental microphone gaffe on behalf of the President led to public outcry both foreign and domestic; Soviet news outlets jumped on the opportunity to include additional propaganda3. It is easy to confuse some of Donald Trump’s deliberate actions today with others’ mistakes. I hope that he knows what he is doing.

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