Ten thousand reputation

If you read my recent post about TeX, you will know that I am a more than casual contributor to tex.stackexchange.com and have a possibly-obsessive interest in that typesetting language, largely from a programming perspective.  In the last month alone I have gained 3,000 reputation on that site—about 100 per day, in what has for the last week or so been an intentional drive to hit 10,000 total.  Today I have reached that goal.  This gives me the status of a moderator (at least, in privileges if not title). Continue reading

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Puzzles modulo math

I am not impressed with the math puzzle in the Times today.  (Background: the “Wordplay” blog that the Times hosts to discuss crossword puzzles occasionally does “Numberplay” instead; that is, math puzzles.)  Here’s the statement:

Player 1 writes a sequence of eight positive integers. Player 2 then writes a + or – sign in each of the seven spaces between the integers. If the final numeric result is odd, player 1 wins. If even, player 2 wins. Who should win this game?

What if Player 2 can use a × sign?

I thought about this for all of thirty seconds and realized that it has no depth.  If you know what modular arithmetic is you can answer it; if you don’t, you will be stuck with a boring case-by-case analysis and presumably doomed to argue with math skeptics in the comments section for the rest of the week.

The thirty-second solution: mod 2, player 1 is just choosing a sequence of 0’s and 1’s, and player 2 is doing nothing at all (without multiplication) since + and – are the same.  So player 1 has only to choose an odd number of 1’s (that is, odd numbers), and therefore wins.  If multiplication is allowed, then player 2 can multiply everything if there is at least one even number, and add everything if all the numbers are odd, and therefore wins.

On the other hand, the linked puzzle (the “Five Pirates Puzzle”) from earlier used to be a favorite of mine.  Of course, I heard it as the “Hundred Pirates Puzzle”, and the answer gets very strange once you have more than 100 pirates.

Posted in Math, Puzzles | Leave a comment

The last WWI veteran is dead

I’ve been waiting for this for a while: the last WWI veteran just died.  She was apparently a waitress with the Royal Air Force (the last combat veteran died last May; he was also British.  Since the US didn’t even enter the war until the end, statistically speaking, you can’t expect its veterans to have been among the last surviving).

Why have I been waiting?  Because I have long been of the opinion that WWI is completely remote from the present time and largely forgotten.  It has almost no cultural memes: high school students forget about Archduke Ferdinand, dogfighters were last seen in Peanuts (whose author died years ago), “shell shocked” is un-PC and therefore banned in favor of PTSD, and I’m looking forward to the creative misinterpretations that will be surrounding “entrenched” now that no one knows what a trench was.  There is still “no-man’s land”, I guess.  And the Maginot line (or is that just the Times crossword puzzle?).

More seriously: every now and then I would hear something about one of the last few survivors of WWI.  They would be trotted out as a sort of reassurance that we are in touch with our heritage (or something like that) or have not forgotten the sacrifices of our ancestors.  Well, they’re dead now, we’re out of touch, and we’ve forgotten.

I doubt very much that anyone has any idea what the world was like then, what kind of psychology must have been common in order for the war to have come about and been carried out as it was.  How people lived, and what changed later.

For that matter, no one can imagine what it was like after the war; I believe that everything before the 50s is purely incomprehensible to people today.  I can only wonder what that waitress, Florence Green, was thinking when she said in the article, “It seems like such a long time ago now”.

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TeX is a terrible programming language

Recently, on the TeX Q&A site, there was a question about whether learning TeX is helpful for learning other programming languages.  You (gentle reader) may not know that I am a serious TeXpert: it is by far the language with which I am most proficient.  I think this gives me the right to say that TeX is a terrible programming language.  (This is a blatant attempt to drum up a few more votes on that answer, not that it really needs them.  Who knew that, on a site devoted to TeX aficionados, so many people would agree?)

On a related subject, the votes on my answers are now beginning to conform to Zipf’s law, at least in the two highest.  I don’t know if I can write an answer worth 80 votes, though.

Posted in Computers, Programming, TeX | Leave a comment

A stinging comeback

I must be in the mood to comment on politics this week!  Just now I found in the Times that Turkey is furious with France for criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide, an atrocity so indisputably documented that even Wikipedia writes (in the lede!) that it was the “systematic destruction of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire”.  Turkey has a long history of denying this, of course, since it is almost a century old now and still unacknowledged.  So this news is to be expected.  The official response speaks in Turkey’s defense:

Turkey contends that Armenians were not the victims of systematic killings and argues that no more than 500,000 Armenians died, noting that many Turks also perished during those years of war.

I myself have (almost literally) a graduate-level degree in splitting verbal hairs, not only from doing math but also from reading Robert Jordan.  Thus I can say with confidence that Turkey has declared that:

  • They (or rather the Ottoman Empire of which they were the principal part) killed Armenians, though not necessarily systematically.
  • They killed half a million Armenians (as compared to the recognized total of two to three times that many).

It should also perhaps be noted that the Armenian population would, if allowed, have been part of the Ottoman army, but in fact, all the deaths were civilians.  Thus even the number of 500,000 that Turkey considers to be acceptably low is atrocious, even if the Ottomans themselves did not kill these people and instead “merely” allowed them to die somehow as a result of warfare.

Not what I would call a stinging comeback.

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A politics post?

Seriously, I can’t believe I actually want to write a politics post.  I’m not even registered to vote in California, because I don’t know how long I’ll be here and there’s no Democratic primary anyway this year.  But I keep reading about the other party in the news and…well, the problem is that it’s “the other party” that’s in the news.  It’s strange that I haven’t heard any recent complaining about our choiceless two-party system, because the structure of the Republican primary contest has some relevance for the question in a way that it did not before this year.  And so I’ve been thinking about what the actual effect of unlimited campaign spending is on our politics.

Continue reading

Posted in News, Politics | 2 Comments

The personal touch

I am now in the midst of applying for postdocs…again.  It is embarrassing to think that this is actually the third year in a row I’ve done this, and while I think it was probably a good thing that I didn’t get anything the first time (as my thesis was nowhere near ready back then, despite what I thought) I was, mildly put, really frustrated this spring when nothing came up a second time.

I blamed the economy, of course, and so did Dennis.  I also blamed Dennis, since I felt he should have done something to promote my applications.  Not everyone agrees on the role of the advisor in this kind of professional development, though, and so I had room to blame myself as well.  I felt regret for not attending conferences where people might hear about me, and for not publishing more or having a more ambitious research program so that I could get an NSF fellowship (future rant: NSF).  I also felt angry at myself for turning down the only offer I did get, to work with Ivan Fesenko at Nottingham, because I didn’t want to make the change in direction (physically or mathematically) that it would require.  However, I reserve the right to maintain some kind of preferences in my job search, and I did not actually apply to Nottingham because I did not apply to any location outside the US (except one place in Australia, at Dennis’ urging).  I wish to remain here, and if that is insufficient devotion to my career, then I will also pay the price (currently, the price seems to be about $40,000 for the year).

However, none of these things is really the reason I didn’t get a job.  The reason is that my application strategy was doomed to failure because I did not write to people.  It sounds silly: I already submitted an application.  An application that says Harvard on it, no less.  I’m sure they’ll at least look at it, so why write?  Well, Greta wrote to people, mostly people she’d never met, and got spectacular results.  Igor Pak says with absolute assurance that this is a necessary step just for you to make it onto individual faculty’s personal short lists so that your application will even be read carefully.

And so this year, I’m writing to people.  Not just a few people, and not just at places like Harvard (to which I am not applying because it’s pointless).  I think I’ve written more letters than the total number of applications I submitted my first time.  About a third of them get some kind of response, and maybe half a dozen have been very nice responses.  Today I received this (I’m not saying from where):

Thank you for bringing your application to my attention. Our department would be very lucky to have you here. Our system is (now) based on recommendations by individual faculty for people who are actually close to said faculty member(s).  Therefore, my advice is to contact X and Y

The author is not actually really in my field, but I thought he would be interested in some of my current projects.  I did write to X, by the way (not Y).  But see what he said: our system is based on recommendations by individual faculty: if I hadn’t written, my application would probably just have been thrown out!  I can’t imagine how many other schools I wasted my opportunity with in previous years by not doing this.

Let me say that again: this is not a networking exercise, it’s not to “grease the wheels” or “get to the interview”.  It’s part of the application: you can’t get a job without writing someone you’re going to work with.  You don’t have to know them (I don’t know this guy, and I don’t know X either), and everyone knows that they’re going to be getting lots of these secondary application emails from lots of unknown graduate students.  It’s not rude, or pushy, or even exceptional.  It’s just not mentioned in the job ad.

I suppose that lots of people would read this and say “of course!”.  My father for one has been preaching that I shouldn’t just “throw my application over the wall”.  Anyone who’s gotten a job already knows this.  But you know who does not know this?  Graduate students who got into their programs on the basis of sealed recommendation letters and fixed transcripts covered in A’s, combined with some form of secret negotiations between your sponsor and their chair.  I literally didn’t have to do anything to get into grad school other than hit up a few people who liked me to write letters to that effect.  I did not go to “work with” anyone in particular, and although I was paid from Dennis’ grant, my stipend was assured and I’m pretty sure that if he didn’t have one I’d have gotten money from somewhere else without having to struggle for it.  This is a situation that, I think, is unique in top-tier mathematics programs; certainly people in the sciences join a specific lab for a specific reason.

Entitlement much, perhaps?  I’m not saying I should have been given the same easy treatment for job applications, though I certainly thought so two years ago.  I don’t even know what I’m angry at.  I’m just angry, and on this blog, that’s enough.

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