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Archive for the ‘math’ Category

Funny true story

I’ve heard several good stories at the math workshop I am attending currently but this one takes the cake.

Famous old mathematician asks a certain female international grad student in his depaterment how she likes it there.

FIGS: Oh it’s great. Except for the cocks.

FOM: Cocks?

FIGS: Yes cocks! There are too many cocks in my bedroom.

FOM is too flabbergasted to say anything.

It turned out that FIGS meant “cockroach”. Apparently she had been under the impression any English word could be abbreviated by taking its first few alphabets.

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The moment it clicks

One of the most beautiful aspects of doing math is the flash of insight that lets you out of a mental block.

This may appear surprising to those not in the field but the fact is that research mathematicians fumble around looking for the light switch in a dark room for much of their waking hours. Things usually don’t work out. Being stuck on a problem is the default state.

That’s what makes those moments precious. Suddenly, you see it. A germ of an idea appears in your head, something clicks and you realize — this will work.

My roommate has a wonderful book on photography whose title is the subject of this post. The book has amazing photographs but I also find the title excellent. It is all about the moment, in art and in math.

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Still up at 2 am

If ┬áthere’s one thing about my academic life I hate with honest fury, it is the act of grading large stacks of homework. Painful, tedious work that kills you from deep inside every time.

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Seventeen postdoc apps sent off, (around) thirty more to go. Thankfully, the whole process is free and (mostly) automatic. I love Mathjobs.

I hope to come out of hibernation some time next week.

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Andrew Sullivan is effusive in his praise of Five Thirty Eight, the polling aggregation and analysis website created by Nate Silver:

The only state their model got wrong was Indiana, where they expected a narrow Obama loss. He won the state by a hair. Nate Silver owned this election on the polling front: one young guy with a background in baseball stats beat out the mainstream media in a couple of months. And he beat out the old web: I mean if you consider the total joke of Drudge’s recent coverage and compare it with Silver’s, you realize that the web is a brutal competitive medium where only the best survive – and they are only as good as their last few posts.

If you want to know why newspapers are dying: that’s why. They’re just not as good as the web at its best. This election proved that beyond any doubt. For the record, I think the WSJ and the WaPo and the NYT and the Anchorage Daily News rocked in this election. Most of the rest of the old media: not so much.

I completely agree. Five Thirty Eight revolutionized the polling analysis business and was far and away my favourite haunt during the elections.

There’s something else that I am happy about. Nate’s detailed posts were full of conditional probabilities, Bayesian analysis and related tools; yet, they were presented in a layman’s language. Modern probability is one of the core ingredients of rational thought. In its concise and practical demonstration of the power of numbers, Five Thirty Eight, I suspect, has taught a lot of people the basics of probability and the importance of cool, rational thought.

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Apologies to the reader for the small number of posts here this week. I was at the University of Oklahoma for a math visit from Tuesday to Friday.

It was a fruitful visit. I gave a couple of talks and discussed a lot of number theory. In many ways the whole thing, especially the math discussion, was reminiscent of my Olympiad days when we would think about math problems all the time, sometimes in groups, sometimes individually and explain our bright ideas to each other with a particular kind of passion that few people ever experience. The trouble with research is that everything is so specialized that it is hard to find people to talk to who really understand your stuff. So the last few days were almost from another planet — waking up at 8 AM, going over to Starbucks to meet the other two, and mathiness for the rest of the day. And did I mention that I was put up in a luxury suite and everything I ate or drank (including every cup of coffee) during my stay was paid for by them?

I am back now, so blogging should resume. Cannot promise a flood of posts though. Math has a way of reminding you of its superior status from time to time.

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Frenchmen and math

Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them, they translate it into their own language, and forthwith it means something entirely different.

Goethe

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