Thursday, April 28, 2011

The axiom of choice is provably mentioned in this post.

I have filled a research notebook full of notes and conjectures and half-thunk thoughts, and I am moving on to a new and vestal-white notebook, into which I shall spew the next few months' outpourings of my mind as it haplessly thrashes across the Fields of Higher Learning.* Before I discard this old, ratty notebook, I am flipping through it to glean any actual knowledge that I obtained and put down therein. (The conjectures are far more plentiful and thus less valuable, in accordance with the principles of economics as well as the judgment of learned mathematicians.)

Thus I present you with various quotes, as overheard by me in seminars and research meetings, from January through April 2011.

"You can picture the lizard crawling up onto the beach, fighting the forces of physics every step of the way." SM 1/19

"The thing about water is... it does tend to drip off your roof more than liquid methane. We're not on Titan." SM 1/19

"Does everyone know what an interactive proof is?" W.
"Do you want me to convince you?" J. 2/8

"What can a superenvelope do that n regular envelopes can't do?" M.
"You're about to find out!" W. 2/8

"As anyone who's ever had a child or been a child knows, ..." JT 2/15

"Unfortunately, that's how science works, too!" GT 2/15 on diminishing returns (of abstracted knowledge learning)

"The most beautiful thing I have found in studying mathematics is Truth. With a capital 't'." PO 2/17

"I'm not really sure what kind of audience you are... but if you were a mathematician, which I think some of you are, ..." PO 2/17

"There's a process in mathematics, it's called 'diagonalization,' and it looks almost magical." PO 2/17

"Small numbers are discovered, and big numbers are invented." PO 2/17

"The world of math is more real than the natural world b/c it has an objectivity. ... What color is an electron?" PO 2/17

"This VINDICATES mathematical institutions and departments." PO 2/17

(apologetically) "This is classical quantum physicist humor." P. 3/22

"And if we can cover it with that many balls, what happens?" S. 4/4

"What I learned from you: you have to always look at bit complexity, because algebraic complexity lies!" EK 4/8

"Yes, I know the general problem is hard, but I solve these everyday! -- and you ask, 'why can't you factor integers with this?' -- there are too many variables." EK 4/8

"We actually had to discuss -- to be scholarly -- to cite the 1649 paper!" EK
"To be scholarly, you're supposed to have actually read the paper." C. 4/8

"We thought we had the most complicated determinant algorithm, but they beat us by 20 pages!" EK 4/8

"In computer science, the level of hot air has to be zero. In other subjects, you don't have to be correct. Including mathematics." HF 3/15 (in pleasing contrast to PO 2/17)

"I don't know if counting from 1 bans me from giving a talk here." HF 3/15

"The axiom of choice is provably irrelevant to this talk." HF 3/15

"It's the most contrived thing ever done. 45 years of complete contriving, every day. And when it's done, it should seem completely natural." HF 3/15

This post's theme word is coprolalia, "an uncontrollable or excessive use of obscene language." I have never witnessed coprolalia in an academic seminar... yet.

*Pardon my sentence, which is to blame on a profusion of caffeine in my blood and Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle in my brain.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter egg hunt

In partial repayment of many years of delightful Easter egg hunts in childhood, A. and I arranged a hunt of sorts for D. How many eggs can you see?
Instead of chocolate eggs and candy, we decorated tiny boxes of cereal with eggs made out of colored paper.
As is traditional, the "eggs" are hidden in plain sight, although not always easily reachable.
Some cleverness was exercised in the placement of the eggs. Much fun was had by all.

As is also traditional, some eggs were found long after the hunt had concluded, although I think we escaped the tradition of finding last year's eggs during this year's hunt. Since the last time I participated in an Easter egg hunt in this house was more than a decade ago, to find a forgotten egg now would be quite surprising.

This post's theme word is schwarmerei, "extravagant enthusiasm" or "excessive sentimentality." The foolish egg hunt was an exuberant schwarmerei.

Happy Easter!

Real rabbits don't have ovipositors, although the Easter bunny, with his proclivities for walking like a human, chocolate, and hiding candy for children, has enough weird habits that maybe his species does have ovipositors.

This post's theme word: gravid, "in an advanced stage of pregnancy," although I've also seen it used to mean "in an egg-laying phase" when applied to insects. As in, "The gravid rabbit-like alien extended its slimy ovipositor into the helpless victim's abdominal cavity."
This post written like James Joyce.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Niagara Falls, from the bridge

I drove past Niagara Falls.
As you see, the water was falling quite freely. That is all.

This post's theme phrase is Hobson's choice, "an apparently free choice that offers no real alternative." Consider whether to cross at Lewiston, Niagara Falls, or Fort Erie -- in any case, this Hobson's choice leads from Canada into the USA.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sampling chocolates

A. very kindly arranged this plate of tiny dark chocolates for me. They ranged from 66-80% cacao. Can you predict which one I preferred?
Yes, that's right: the green one. In my defense, it was one of the darker flavors, and had no trace of sweetness or coffee. (Neither did my tea, also pictured above.)

This post's theme word is adaerate, "to convert from payments in kind to payments in coin." Do not dare to adaerate my chocolate appeasement.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Confident daughters

So do I. Perhaps I'll try to make them tactful as well.

This post's theme word is asperity, "harshness or roughness."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

2011 Hugo nominees

Nominees for the excellent Hugo awards have been announced. Another great crop of books.

Best Novel:
  • Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
  • Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
  • Feed by Mira Grant
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Best Novella:
  • “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky
  • The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  • “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand
  • “The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • “Troika” by Alastair Reynolds
Best Novelette:
  • “Eight Miles” by Sean McMullen
  • “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen M. Steele
  • “The Jaguar House, in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard
  • “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly
  • “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone
Best Short Story:
  • “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn
  • “For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • “Ponies” by Kij Johnson
  • “The Things” by Peter Watts

This post's theme word is argosy, "a large ship, or a fleet of ships, especially one carrying valuable cargo" or "a rich source or supply". The Hugo nominee list is an argosy for [certain] genre readers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gleimous, gloppy goo

The engineers in the basement have set up a giant pit of goo. This is the type of viscous slime which is liquid when allowed to flow freely, but becomes firm when compressed. A handful of this glop is a 3rd-grade fun activity; a ridiculous vat is a university engineering project. Plus they colored it blue.

The engineers are taking turns running across it. With many small, quick steps, it is possible to cross as if on a solid. However, those who step too heavily or linger too long begin to sink, and this stuff is sticky and reluctant to release its gooey grasp on their shoes. The whole floor is lightly tinted blue with the footsteps of the failed goo-walkers.

[Update: photos and video now added below.]

The tub of goo.

Translation: chemical engineers in their final year of undergrad are responsible for this exhibit, made this sign, and are not very good at manual kerning.

One student runs across the puddle.

Another student runs across the puddle.

This post's theme word is gleimous, "full of phlegm." He marveled at the vast expanse of gleimous gunk.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Gloom is delightful

The card game "Gloom," of course. In the spirit (and illustration style) of Edward Gorey, the game progresses as a series of events (some unfortunate, some rather happy) unfold upon the in-game characters. Each player is responsible for the members of a family, and attempts to make their own characters as sad as possible before meeting an untimely (and often hilarious) death, while simultaneously making other players' characters happy.

I just picked up the "Unfortunate Expeditions" expansion. (Who could resist the illustration of tentacly horror?) In perusing the deck of additional cards, I noticed that the new deaths are:
  • went down with the ship,
  • cashed in his last chip,
  • was shredded by a shark,
  • disappeared in the dark,
  • was sautéed by savages,
  • was crushed by cabbages, and
  • was interred in style.
Notice anything? Why yes, the deaths do occur in rhyming couplets! ... mostly. The anomaly is "was interred in style," which actually is a rather nice death and makes the character happier by 10 units.

I wondered, did the deaths of the original game occur in rhymed pairs? For our mutual edification, I have taken an exhaustive survey, and I find that some of them do:
  • was devoured by weasels / was overcome by the measles,
  • choked on a bone / died cold and alone,
  • drank too much rye / fell from on high / was baked into a pie / was choked on a tie,
  • ran out of air / died of despair / was slain by an heir
... and so on. However, some are only half-rhymes at best, or singletons:
  • was torn limb from limb / was consumed from within,
  • was burnt by a mob / drowned in a bog,
  • grew old without grace,
  • was galled by gangrene
... the last two of these have no partner in rhyming proximity.

The existence of these sets -- pairs, trios, and the rye/high/pie/tie quartet -- means that next time I play, there will be a new rule. If you can kill members of the same family with rhyming deaths, you will gain additional "sadness" units (i.e., negative happy units). I'm thinking of maybe also giving "sadness" points for applying rhyming events to a character, with super bonus sadness units for applying events which rhyme with the character's name.

Now, who wants to play?

This post's theme word is grue, "to shudder." He gave up the ghost with a grue.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Obstructive engineers

It is the end of the semester for undergraduates. Do you know what that means? Big project time! The engineers who share the building with us theorists are all very busy building robots. In the hallways.
It is a terrible fire obstruction. Also, it makes it difficult to access our offices. There are students, robots, and power tools in piles everywhere, including blocking our doors. Look at this doorway (the inlet in the wall on the right of this photo). I'm not joking about the power tools: there are students machining metal and welding, plugged into hallway outlets. Even after they have left, the hallway is a tripping hazard.
It must be that their professor -- who assigned these projects and did not provide enough lab space to construct them -- knows that they are working in the hallways. And implicitly condones it. We disadvantaged grad students resent this inconsiderate arrangement.

This post's theme word is feculent, "full of filth or waste matter." The corridor was feculent with undergraduates.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Tale of a sad baby balrog

In my daily wanderings across the internet, I happened upon this illustration. It tells, rather eloquently for all its wordlessness, the unfortunate tale of a balrog.Unsatisfied with the melancholy of this visual epigram, I wrote a verbose and upbeat story telling of how, eventually, the balrog's fortunes turned for the better.

How baby balrog made his first real friend

After many years (for balrogs have long adolescences, dear reader) of accidentally scorching the knights who come, the balrog remains confused: why don't they stay and play? Of course, he doesn't think in English because he's had no formal schooling, but standard web browsers can't render the balrog font so I'm translating for you.

And then one year, a clever young blacksmith's daughter, in cahoots with a gorgeous elf prince who has fallen in love with her, forges herself a set of enchanted fireproof armor. It's not metal, but actually a very strong clay, a rather good insulator and terrible at transmitting heat. It covers absolutely every part of her body, with tiny articulated lobster-style joints all over the knuckles. The interlocking plates allow her a pretty full range of movement, despite its hefty weight. It also includes a cloth face-mask worn under the helmet which prevents the inhalation of soot or flaming air.

Emboldened by the elf-prince's few tests (juggling flaming torches open-handed, etc.), the young blacksmith's daughter sets out to rid her land of the terrible balrog-baby, who has (from her point of view) been destroying the population of 20-something men for her entire lifetime, as well as scorching the countryside, eating livestock, etc. So this bold and brash young lady packs up a backpack of your basic survival-and-monster-killing supplies and sets out from her father's house (against his wishes. Then again, he has always been pretty disappointed in her, since she is his only child and showed more interest in using the forge to bake pottery than to melt metal).

She travels many weeks, walking over increasingly less verdant and more sooty landscapes, until she reaches the ominously looming mouth of a cave whose inside is black as the dead of night on a night when the moon is not only new, but also pretty scared and behind some thick clouds. (It's really black is all I'm saying.) Undeterred, she lights a torch and heads in.

She wanders around the cave for a few days, because the cave system in this mountain is extensive (as it usually is in balrog nests -- see Les Whitestone's "On the Habits and Habitats of Ignis Collis (the common Balrog)", Oxford University Press, 1856). Eventually, rounding a corner one day on her way back to a little stream she found and has been using for water, she comes upon the balrog. He's really sad and all, playing with his collection of swords and axes. Then he notices her torch (dim though it is in the light glowing from his own molten body) and, delighted, leaps to his feet. Of course, from her point of view, it seems like she stumbled into the lair of a monster gloating over his kills who is now coming from her. She readies her weapons. The balrog, a tiny sword still in-hand, rushes over! and bangs on her sword. Pretty lightly, for a balrog, especially since he's just a baby and all.

Adrenaline pumps in her ears. The sword is bashed free of her hand and shatters into shards of metal on the cave floor. Baby balrogs do not know their own strength. Luckily for her, the blacksmith's daughter is nimble even in her heavy armor, and dances out of the way. The balrog, delighted in the "game," flares up in a giant pillar of flame, which is a basic balrog biological response to emotions of delight (or anger -- or really most emotions of any type, again see Whitestone's definitive volume). This blinds everyone in the cave, including the balrog, who as a baby hasn't yet got full control over his flaring-type abilities and went a little overboard in his delight, having been left alone for a pretty long time (since he has to wait for a whole new generation of men to grow up and decide to come challenge him for what they imagine to be his vast horde of treasure).

And when the balrog's retinas recover from the overabundance of light radiating from his very skin, he is astonished to see that his "playmate" hasn't changed to a pile of cinders like all the other playmates, but is actually still three-dimensional and moving around!

The young lady, who recovered from the flash more quickly because of the ocular shielding provided by her armor and facemask, has of course run over to the stream and grabbed her nearby bucket. She is now running back at the balrog with a bucketful of ice-cold cave water. She hurls it at him from as close as she dares to get, which is not really that close since she's worried he'll flare up again.

The water, shunted out of its bucket, arcs through the air quite prettily in the dim glow from the balrog. (Sort of like the water sculpture movies viewable here: .)

For a moment, everything moves in slow motion.

Then the water, which remember is pretty frigid and shocking to warm-blooded creatures like humans, hits the balrog's foot. Balrogs aren't warm-blooded, they're hot-blooded or even plasma-blooded, and so it is even more shocking to this poor baby balrog. He screams, a deep, long, low balrog roar that shakes the cave and knocks the girl over as she is trying to back away.

The balrog falls down and cries balrog tears, which are pretty fearsome for all that they are pitiful, since they are molten rock and everything. The girl, confused about how the monster hasn't attacked her, realizes she's actually dealt it a blow and thinks about maybe getting some more water in that bucket. But the balrog is now lying on the floor of the cavern, gently (for a balrog) crying to itself and cradling its foot.

A moment of insight. She recognizes this behavior: this is the same way her wolfhound -- or whatever other farm animal she has raised from infancy in her earthy and utilitarian childhood -- behaves when it has a thorn in its paw.

And so instead of ruthlessly continuing to attack the baby balrog, she walks right up (because his fire is quite dimmed by his pain and her armor is pretty awesome) and starts talking to the balrog, trying to comfort it and stuff.

And this tale has gone on quite long enough, oh patient readers. Not unlike a fractal, the story remains as amusing at any scale, with more and finer details beckoning to the writer from the depths of individual moments, gestures, or thoughts of the characters laid in our scene. I must resist the pull of such details, or our story will never advance beyond the next moment, as I write halfway there, then half again halfway there, then.... To cut it short, then, circumventing mathematical issues of infinite reasoning:

She sings it songs and the balrog figures out that she is speaking a language and, with the help of her suit, she is able to nurse the balrog back to health and help it to stand and walk again. During its invalid period, the balrog manages to pick up enough English to express itself, and she teaches it about how humans are flammable and must be dealt with gently, and they become fast friends.

Later in her life, the blacksmith's daughter, with help from her father, would craft the balrog a new, prosthetic, metal pinky toe, and weld it into place. Huzzah!

And, much later in its thousand-year life, when the balrog has matured and picked up a job in the publishing industry (clay and stone tablets being the preferred mode of recording text in this historical fantasy world), he writes in his autobiography about that fateful day. About the bold blacksmith's daughter whose courage and sympathy changed his life forever, he reflects, "That day I may have lost my pinky toe, but I gained an incredible friend, teacher, companion, and guide."

So they all lived happily ever after, including all the members of the village where this took place, who, with their alliances with the elves and the balrog, would go on to (quite peacefully) conquer their neighbors (everyone just forfeited the battles once they saw what they were up against) and spread their non-species-ist culture of acceptance, education, and the value of blacksmithery throughout the land.

(orchestral music swells inspirationally. roll credits)

This post's theme word is dolmen, "a prehistoric megalithic tomb typically having two large upright stones and a capstone." The much-beloved balrog was laid to rest in a dolmen.

The Tudors

I started watching The Tudors yesterday, and got through the first few episodes. It was interesting (with many many fancy costumes, if your inclinations tend that direction), but it made me wish I remembered more history. It's been a decade since I studied this period, and so I felt frustrated with the twists and turns of the TV show because they should not be surprises... it's history! I should know what's going to happen! (Although Wikipedia notes that "events in the series differ from events as they actually happened in history.")

I think I'll watch more of the show, but I'd also like to grab some books on the history of this period so that I don't feel so ignorant as I watch. Do you have any recommendations?

This post's theme word is ogham, "ancient Irish alphabet." I tried to brush up on my British history, and found I needed a primer in ogham.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Foppish bicycle

This bicycle was parked matter-of-factly on the sidewalk.
The leather seat and matching saddlebags, fanny-pack, and pencil-case (what are the appropriate terms for these bicycle accoutrements?) all make this the bicycle equivalent of a flashy sportscar. It begs to be stolen, and brags of its owner's affluence.

This post's theme word is passiuncle, "an insignificant or trivial passion." The pretentious bicycle signified his passiuncle.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Slow-cooked pulled pork

I pass my days amongst men who love eating meat. One of them owns a crock pot that was getting little use, so he lent it to us. In return, we invited him to share our inaugural meal: pulled pork.
It was delicious.

This post's theme word is esurient, "hungry" or "greedy." What an esurience-inducing photograph.