Thursday, May 25, 2017

Proper system revision documentation

Dear readers,

If you can read this, then an incredibly unlikely sequence of steps has succeeded. Huzzah!

There is currently some sort of eldritch alignment of planets whose main influence is to rewrite critical boot sectors of all my hard drives. (Perhaps concomitant with finishing a semester?) Alas! Time to reformat and reinstall, in every operating system known to man. If one more computer fails, I'll be reduced to publishing tweets via carrier pigeon. This blog post may have been written via telegraph STOP

This means I get to start a new "installation notes: what I did" file. And so I am revisiting my past logs, little missives from my past self, to make sure I set up all the bells and whistles just right. (Keyboard shortcuts are the main way I interact with these light-boxes I relentlessly stare into.) Usually these logs are curt and useful, but sometimes they range into quite colorful and narrative tales, for example (details and lengthy intro expurgated to prevent your eyes from bleeding):
After fiddling with [hardware], I find that [software flag] is again disabled. Augh. The following commands did not work to re-enable it: 
sudo [heinous and expurgated set of commands]
This time, banging around wildly on [list of unusual keyboard keys] and crying openly into my hands worked.
... it's important that every log includes instructions for how to replicate the steps that ultimately led to a successful setup. Apparently at the time I felt that the strange wizardry that made my keyboard commands work included crying, and included the notes necessary to replicate it.

Don't worry, I have extensive notes on which "fiddling with [hardware]" caused this weird thing, and I am very carefully not reproducing that. Also, according to the logs, I have not solved any computer problem by weeping since 2012. My streak continues!

Writing to you from the edge of known OS support forums,
 --- Lila

P.S. While writing this post I jinxed my wifi card and it refused several times to maintain a connection. Go figure. I also managed to get exactly the perfect alt-tab behavior, so it's a wash.

This post's theme word is lazaretto (noun), "a medical facility for people with infectious diseases", or "a building or ship used for quarantine", or "on a ship, a space between decks used as storage." I fear my brain is the lazaretto between different computer systems.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Living life publicly

From Gaby Dunn's podcast, "Bad With Money", episode "Get Rich or Die Vlogging" @ 19 minutes:
Youtubers are allowed to have struggled --- in the past tense --- because overcoming makes us brave and relatable. But we can't be struggling now, because then we're labeled whiners.
This observation resonates strongly on any number of dimensions. The incredible skewed, biased versions of ourselves we're encouraged --- by explicit and implicit social pressures --- to present on social media. The way that public behavior is policed and monitored, especially in any minority group (bonus points for each category you don't fit: white, male, cisgendered, straight, wealthy, speaking unaccented English, able-bodied, no mental health issues, ...).

The idea of having to maintain a sort of "purity" of one's personal brand is insane.

There are arenas of life, even outside the weird social-media William-Gibson-esque semidystopian future which we all inhabit, where this bizarre packaging and marketing of oneself is promoted, standard, ideal. I am thinking particularly of applying for jobs,  where there is enormous pressure to present oneself in an idealized version, having overcome struggles but not now being engaged in any particular struggle.

I'm so glad I am employed. The amount of psychological pressure this lifted is still astonishing.

This post's theme word is pungle (verb tr.), "to make a payment; to shell out." If you want my labor, you'd better pungle and pungle hard. I know my worth.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Flashbacks" and nightmares

The balance of the universe is restored, as today a student informed me that they were having "flashbacks" to my course last semester. The word "nightmare" was used more than once.

Me: "Well, I hope you used your experience to warn future students away from my class!"

Student (chuckling): "No, I told them all to take it! It was really good."

I'm not sure if it's Stockholm syndrome, sheer sadism, or a third option, but I'm glad to see that my veneer of frighteningly demanding professorhood has been restored. (See a few weeks ago, when a student called me "benevolent".)

(On a more serious note, I am now awash in guilt and concern over the negative impact that my job has on student mental health.)

This post's theme word vituperate, "to use harsh or abusive language." In manner and outward appearance mild and approachable, she nevertheless invoked the same fear as if relentlessly vituperating her students.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Update from the educational front lines:

A student called me "benevolent" --- to my face.

Context does not excuse this breach of the "I am an implacable monolith demanding only and exactly the highest degree of intellectual rigor from you" façade. Perhaps I will have to reconsider my open-door-and-visible bowl-of-candy office policy.

This post's theme word is honeyfuggle, "to deceive or swindle, especially by flattery." Attempts to honeyfuggle your professors are charmingly inept and ineffective.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Problems with self-reference and recursion (Aronson's sequence)

The most delicious, frolicksomely frustrating things to think about are the problems which reference themselves. Recursion is such a twisted mind-trap. Having just exposed my class to the joys of the halting problem (animated video explanation), and using it to show that all sorts of other problems cannot be solved --- one of the duties of professorhood is teaching students how to solve problems, but the peculiarities of my work are that I teach students which problems they can't solve --- I was delighted to read a snippet about Aronson's sequence:
‘T’ is the first, fourth, eleventh, sixteenth, twenty-fourth, twenty-ninth, thirty-third …
Here's the introduction on Futility Closet.

Here is Aronson's sequence on the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (one of my favorite sites!).

I want to know how the sentence ends, but of course the sentence can't end as long as I'm stuck thinking about the way I expect it to end. I'm sure that some sufficiently proficient linguist-mathematician team could come up with a satisfactory, and finite, end to the sentence. I'd buy that book!

This post's theme word is pabulum (noun), "bland intellectual fare: insipid or simplistic ideas, entertainment, writing, etc." Using the word "fare" makes me think of other food analogies. The collection of results stemming from Gödel's (In)Completeness Theorems are savory intellectual nuggets, with not a morsel of pabulum.

Monday, February 27, 2017

When you are sick, your comfort food is

I've almost completely lost my voice, but that of course should stand as no impediment to the dissemination of knowledge, which is my primary goal. So I got miked and gave my lecture in a husky "late night radio DJ" voice.

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

When you are sick, your comfort food is:

Soup, in increasing order of specificity:
  • soup
  • noodle soup
  • ramen
  • chicken noodle soup
  • chicken noodle soup heavy on the noodles
  • chicken noodle soup and ginger ale

Other starches or sugary foods:
  • bread
  • crackers
  • triangle toast
  • cinnamon sugar toast + apple cinnamon tea
  • cookie dough
  • jello
  • Skittles

  • ginger
  • beef rice pudding
  • congee
  • water with lemon juice and pulp
  • water
  • tofu
The most extreme outlier is "hot toddies" --- someone's family has adopted the same "use alcohol to burn out the germs" approach that I've heard bandied around by half-joking grandparents.

This post's theme word is leechdom (noun), "a remedy or medicine." What a wondrous panoply of leechdoms!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Your favorite childhood memory, in one sentence:

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

Your favorite childhood memory, in one sentence:

Certain students obeyed the structure of the question, replying with a complete sentence:
  • 4 kids make a mess in a muddy backyard.
  • Carrier has arrived.
  • Summer Camp is awesome!
  • That's personal!
  • I ate a banana
  • I was bad at softball
  • A TV gave me a concussion
  • oh god why are there so many ferrets
Others only left sentence fragments, abandoned noun or verb phrases left dangling, their tenuous wisps reaching back into memory:

  • climbing trees
  • soccer games
  • breaking my femur
  • summer with grandparents
  • going on field trips
  • playing
  • figuring out how to use a water fountain
  • vacation in Thailand
  • infantile amnesia
  • video games
  • [illustration of a ghost chasing pacman eating dots]
  • corner
  • go karting
  • spending time with family
  • playing with dogs
  • scoring winning soccer goal
  • going to beach
  • carefree summers

My cold, robotic, grown-up professor grinch heart is warmed by these snippets of lives happily remembered. I'm curious about why "breaking my femur" would be one's favorite childhood memory, but I suppose context counts for quite a bit in comparing memories...

This post's theme word is defervescence, "the abatement of a fever." I vividly remember being sick in childhood, but the gradual defervescence left no distinct impression.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Your ideal pet is a ________.

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

Your ideal pet is a ____________.

  • a clabul fish (<-- a="" fish="" globul="" handwriting:="" li="" maybe="">
  • a bagumon
  • The Monkey King, Wu Kong
  • lynx
  • beagle
  • Tyrannosaurus Rex
  • Shadowmere
  • a fat cat
  • excitable dog
  • plant
  • the bird-like reptiles from Avatar
  • dragon
  • fox
  • AI
  • pug(s)
  • doge
  • fat Scottish fold
  • parrot
  • cat
  • dog
  • Samoyed
  • tutrle
  • gooden doodle
  • jerboa
  • Time lord
  • computer
  • O
  • corgies
  • fat dog named Bubba
These ranged from the general to the very specific. I'm delighted that there were animals listed that I had to look up (see links above); I'm always looking for more knowledge to absorb! (If you can figure out what a "glorbul fish" is, let me know.)

This post's theme word is secretory (adjective), "relating to the release of a substance from a cell, gland, or an organ." My secret pet was soon discovered due to its particular secretory properties.

Friday, February 17, 2017

What is the title of your autobiography?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the title of your autobiography?

I've expurgated names below to protect the innocent. As a side effect, this protects the rest, too.

Some people went with an extremely literal title:
  • A Book about ME
  • "Don't Read This Book"
  • I
  • [student's own name]'s Autobiography by [student's own name]
  • "Book"
  • A Book about [student's own initials]
  • The Life + Times
  • [student's own name]: A Life
  • "I Should Write an Autobiography -- Selected musings of [student's own name]"
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of [student's own name]
I'm a bit worried about that last one --- does that student for some reason expect to live a particularly "brief" life? Yikes.

Others made obscure references (?) that I hope would be thematically highlighted and tied together in the text of the autobiography:
  • "Thoughts About Everything"
  • "The Little Engine that Could"
  • My Life by Bill Clinton (<-- amp="" art="" cover="" have="" li="" might="" misleading="" publisher="" the="" trouble="" with="">
  • "Sir"
  • "Eh,"
  • Content Free
  • "No"
  • Untitled
  • I don't know
  • 1337
  • "ε"
Others chose something self-deprecating:

  • "Fashionably Late and/or Asleep"
  • A look at where it went wrong
  • The Science of Laughing at Yourself

My favorite was easily "A look at where it went wrong", not only because it's a good hook --- I'm interested! I want to read that book! --- but also because either this student already thinks it's gone wrong, or this student anticipates that it will all go wrong sometime, for sure, and so that's a reliable autobiography title. Plus it's already funny. The title, at least, is going right!

This post's theme word is proem, "an introduction, preface, or preamble." My autobiography consists of a series of proems --- I just haven't gotten to the significant stuff yet!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What is the longest amount of time you have gone without using the internet?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the longest amount of time you have hove without using the internet?

Sorted by size, the answers ranged:

  • 0 secs
  • just now
  • dunno, let me google it
  • seconds
  • does time exist outside the internet?
  • at least a minute
  • the time it takes to use the bathroom
  • 5 days (not including before)
  • 1 week
  • 2 weeks
  • not sure; 2 weeks since starting
  • 5 weeks (not including the before time)
  • 1 year
  • age 0-4
  • age 0-5
  • 6 years
  • 6.5 years
  • 7 years
  • 8 years
  • 9 years
  • not long enough

This seems a fairly bimodal distribution, and it just tells me who took the question literally (and thus had to include all their pre-widespread-internet existence) and who took it to mean time since they first used the internet. I suspect that in a few years, this bimodality will shrink, as today's middle-schoolers could easily have been using internet-enabled devices in their preliterate days. Maybe even preverbal.

This post's theme word is apheresis, "the loss of one or more sounds or letters from the beginning of a word." A common example is the change in pronunciation of knife from (k-nyf) to (nyf) or the formation of till from until. Another meaning of apheresis is "a method in which blood is drawn from a donor, one or more blood components (such as plasma, platelets, or white blood cells) are removed, and the rest is returned to the donor by transfusion." I wonder if the written archivability of the internet means that written apheresis has slowed, or if the prevalence and ease-of-transmission of abbreviations will speed apheresis of letters in written words.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

What is the name of your (future) rock band?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the name of your (future) rock band?

Students were all over the place with this.

  • Name Pending
  • Axaxaxau Mlö
  • Hello hello
  • Archangels
  • Wonder Wall (we would only do covers of Wonder Wall)
  • DM & the B's
  • Sam
  • The Rock Belt
  • Merry-Go-Round
  • The 3 [student's own name]s
  • Frank
  • Goofy Gookers
  • Leb
  • LOL
  • F2 and the Dlis
  • Select of Feed
  • The Rolling Stones
  • 101 Dominant
  • [student's own name]'s band
Some students chose to go more mathy with their band names:

  • P=NP
  • Automata
  • Nonregular
  • Current
  • The Klein V Group
I like the idea that you'd have to include a pronunciation guide if your band was named just the symbol ∅ (pronounced: "empty set"), which would in turn increase the math literacy of band-introducers everywhere.

By far my favorite --- and quite nerdy --- potential band name was "The Dewey Decibels." I don't know if they play particularly loud music, or music in a very thoroughly specified order, but I want to see their set list. Their album tracks would be titled things like "019" and would be strictly ordered by topic.

(Later in the day, a student not enrolled in the class submitted "Hooks and Mantels" as a potential band name, which I also think is very catchy.)

This post's theme word is disaffect, "to alienate the support or loyalty of someone." The disaffected fans of band "Disaffected Fans" have a lot of trouble disambiguating their messageboards from the still-enthusiastic fans of Disaffected Fans.

Friday, February 3, 2017

What's the scariest thing you have ever done?

I take attendance --- even in my own absence --- by having the students answer a question.

What's the scariest thing you have ever done?

Swarthmore students apparently often encounter danger outdoors:

  • almost fell off the side of mountain while hiking
  • climb a mountain at night
  • walked home from my town in the dark
  • run for my life from a crazy dog through a snowy forest in Maine
  • run through a forest during severe thunderstorm
  • bridge jumping in Ecuador
  • skydive?
  • saw a shark
  • almost fell off a waterfall
  • almost got lost in a forest
  • cage dive with great white sharks

Some people accurately experience fear at physical illness:

  • been so dehydrated I had intense stomach pains and thought I was dying
  • get sick before seminar
Some people accurately experience abstract fear at political situations:
  • voted in the 2016 election
  • live in the US during the Trump presidency
Unsurprisingly for an upper-level, abstract course in mathematics and computer science, there were several who expressed introvert fears:

  • socializing
  • life
  • socializing
  • talked

Other "scariest" experiences were mixed or inexplicable:

  • been in a plane that had to emergency land and so dumped all its gas out the window
  • play League of Legends
  • I slept
  • crossing an intersection while it's covered in ice in front of a truck
  • ate wings with ghost pepper sauce
  • played against Martin
  • taken this class

This question didn't lend itself to joking answers, but one nevertheless made me laugh out loud: an answer that referred to a message from the homework-insta-marking algorithm: "1 attempt remaining."

This post's theme word is exungulate, "to pare nails, claws, etc." Beware the Jabberwock, my son, for he is freshly back from the manicurist and, though exungulated, as slashing and catching as ever!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What inanimate object would you wish to eliminate from existence?

I take attendance by having students answer a question.

What inanimate object would you wish to eliminate from existence?

Some students used their wish for the betterment of all:

  • fossil fuels
  • plastic in the ocean
  • greenhouse gases
Others clearly hold personal grudges, whose explanations and origin stories I can only hypothesize:
  • mushrooms
  • sporks
  • red onion
  • fire moose
  • sandals
  • toe shoes
  • socks
  • aglet
  • ties
  • styrofoam
  • rocks
  • my hallmates' alarm clocks
  • stickshift cars
  • SSBM
"SSBM", based on a 10-second internet search, is either surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, or Super Smash Brothers Melee. Either way, it's destructive.

Some had very specific college-student-related ideas, ranging from "that makes sense" to "that seems actively hurtful towards me, your professor, I'm standing in this room right now trying to teach you":
  • problem sets
  • math
  • final exams
  • pens
  • this pen
  • sign-in sheets
  • this question
  • Swarthmore College
My favorite was the dull, "nothing", because it supports the hypothesis that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

This post's theme word is aglet --- a new word for me! --- which is the term to refer to the metal or plastic tube at the end of the shoelace that stops it from fraying. In a world without aglets, we bungee-cord our shoes on each morning and saunter about, oblivious to the alternate realities we have narrowly avoided.

Friday, January 27, 2017

If you had one (1) omnipotent wish, what would you do with it?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

If you had one (1) omnipotent wish, what would you do with it?

The recursive answer was very popular, of course.
  • more wishes
  • some more (>1)
  • ability to have infinite omnipotent wishes
  • more wishes!
  • more wishes
  • get more omnipotent wishes
  • have an infinite number of omnipotent wishes
... though I'm slightly disappointed that, in a course where we have discussed how different infinities are not the same, a student failed to specify which kind of infinity of wishes. I guess to some extent it doesn't matter, since as long as you have one more, you can wish for another kind of infinity more. Too bad we won't get to do any transfinite algebra in this class.

A variant of "more wishes" was:
  • omnipotence for myself
... which is nice, because if you truly are omnipotent, then I suppose you can later perform any wish you come up with. But still, it shows either a lot of future planning or a lack of imagination. A further variant was:
  • omnipotence (for myself); failing that, mind control
... which I appreciate for providing a fallback wish, just in case I do actually have the power to grant wishes, but get to pass them through an approval/veto process first.

Many wishes were to violate the state of reality:
  • ability to teleport
  • be able to travel between any place in 1 min
  • control time
  • be on vacation all the time
  • more sleep
  • be lucky all the time
  • be able to fly
  • allow effective space travel
  • travel trillions of years into the future for a  [unreadable] moment
  • I would blow up the sun!
(That last one is... worrisome.)

Students definitely skew studious with their wishes:
  • omniscience
  • ask for infinite intelligence
  • CS!
I appreciated those whose wishes were simple, constrained, or benefitted others:
  • a plate of really good BBQ ribs
  • a big sunny field filled with ponies
  • win for my team
I have no idea what to do with the possible, but maybe not in this reality at this moment, wish for:
  • true love

The winning wish is one that is impractical, feasible, does not violate basic physical laws of reality, and is charmingly petty:
  • really good at melee

I'll grant that just... as... soon... as... my omnipotent powers manifest.

This post's theme word is canaille (n), "the common people; the masses; riffraff." Don't mix your wishes in with those of the canaille --- buy upscale wishes here!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What was the name of your childhood imaginary friend?

I take attendance by having students answer a question.

What was the name(s) of your childhood imaginary friend(s)? (And what species?)

A lot of people wrote, "None", indicating either some very subtle pointer reference, or that this was not an interesting question.

Most imaginary friends were human; names included

  • Johnson
  • Fred
  • some odd gibberish I don't remember
  • Jim
  • Lun
  • Wa
  • Bob?
The only unusual ones were "Husky the Husky" (believably childish-sounding), Alex the Timelord, and Bob the turtle. Also bloo the "blue", which is no species of which I am aware.

This post's theme word is camarilla, (noun), "a group of confidential scheming advisers." I had an entire camarilla of imaginary friends, but their identities shall be obscured to protect the innocent.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What your favorite number?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question, although that policy has come under [my] scrutiny and it will change a bit this semester. (I'm using clickers in-class so I already know who is there, approximately.)

What is your favorite number?

One student said i; everyone else picked an integer with < 5 digits. I'm not sure much valuable or amusing information can be gleaned from this, although I do have follow-up questions. If the question had been framed differently, it might have solicited this information in addition.

Favorite numbers that I think are explicable (or at least Google-able):

  • 0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 4
  • 7
  • 10
  • 13
  • 42
  • 69
  • 1995
  • 2996
  • 3301

Numbers that require additional justification:

  • 29 (primality? permanent age of all famous people?)
  • 32 (age? factorization? course number?)
  • 37 (age? primality? course number? looks cool?)
  • 816 (area code?)
  • 20 (total # of toes? current age?)
  • 71 (film title? pointy when written? year of something?)
  • 77 (smallest possible integer requiring 5 syllables in English, apparently?)

This turned out not to be as interesting as "what is the largest number you have counted to out loud?" Question framing is so important.

This post's theme word is skint, "having no money; broke; poor". The question was imagination-skint.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

What is the best present you ever received?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the best present you ever received?

Many mentioned objects:
  • a dog
  • a puppy [ed. note: age specificity appreciated!]
  • a tablet
  • an iPad
  • a Mac
  • GameCube
  • blanket
  • socks
  • ramen
  • a physics book
  • all the white chocolate chips
  • red button-down onesie
  • scarf
  • nice headphones
Some mentioned trips:
  • a trip to Canada
  • a surprise visit
  • tickets to Barcelona vs Bayern Munich
  • tickets to go see Hamilton
Or other ephemera:
  • education
  • time with good friends
  • school
  • I forgot
  • taking CS46 [ed. note: early brown-nosing appreciated]
  • love 💙
  • family

But the sweetest by far were the ones who said the best present they ever received was "life." Awwwww.

This post's theme word is lief (adv.), "willingly; gladly; readily" or (adj.), "dear, beloved" or "willing." I would just as lief receive a onesie as a scarf.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation is a lovely modern building --- designed to conserve a certain claustrophobia from an older building --- housing an enormous collection of Renoir paintings, iron door hinges, and a smattering of other artworks, farm implements, and historical furniture.

Wandering through it is overwhelming. There is such a profusion of art, so closely mounted and tiling the walls, that viewing and appreciating each piece individually would take much longer than is feasible without dying of dehydration. (Or being shuffled out of the museum at closing time, which has happened to me.)

It is just possible to be struck with certain artworks, in the time available. Photos are not permitted, but I can perhaps source and link to some of my favorites. (Yes, of course I took notes.)

The watercolors of Demuth's "Bicycle Acrobats" suggest a kind of airy defiance of gravity. I thought this was very impressive technically, since I associate watercolors with clouds, ponds, indistinct flora --- and this piece has motion, with definite lines and boundaries.
Demuth's Bicycle Acrobats
I reliably found that art I admired from a distance turned out to be by Glackens. His lines, his colors, his ocean scenes; I'm not sure what did it exactly, but I liked a lot of art which (upon reference to the tiny labels or the art-key-pamphlet) turned out to be Glackens'.
Glackens "Woman Walking"
Glackens "Beach at Dieppe"
Glackens "The Bathing Hour, Chester, Nova Scotia"
I think maybe it's his palette of blue oil paints. They're very appealing.

I also quite enjoyed Klee's work, which was less representational but still imbued with a colorful fun.
Klee's "Village Among Rocks (Ort in Felsen)"
And finally, reprising my visual enjoyment of blue, and boats, and water, we have Signac.
Signac's "La Rochelle"
(Signac and Seurat are both excellent. I liked all the pointillism on display as it foreshadows --- in my ongoing mental narrative --- the rise of pixels, while contrasting sharply the number of man-hours required to produce the work.)

I was also quite intrigued by a number of the iron implements (tongs/scissors/andirons/rakes/shovels/hinges/hinges/hinges/hinges) adorning the walls, but no particular one stood out and you really should visit them in person for the full door-hinge experience. No terse cultural correspondent can possibly summarize such an event.

This post's theme word is hendiadys (n), "a figure of speech in which two words joined by a conjunction are used to convey a single idea instead of using a word and its modifier. For example, "pleasant and warm" instead of "pleasantly warm"." The suitable hendiadys for the Barnes Foundation is that it is interesting and full.