Monday, March 31, 2008

Why Run?

It's hard to say, really. I was thinking about it a little today (on my run in the rain). I wondered if maybe it was providing some balance... some physical stress to accompany the psychological stress induced by lack of research, or real sense of purpose. Sure, I want to get a Ph.D., but to what end? To go teach? I've wondered aloud before about the point of teaching. This is a fairly cynical viewpoint, coming after several tedious hours of tutoring and weeks of no progress in research. But I realized some other point about running. It's the sense of accomplishment.

Consider, if you will, my day today, which for the sake of argument I'll claim to be vaguely typical. Let's say I spent about 2 hours reading rss feeds and things, 2 hours in class, 4 hours tutoring (only scheduled for 3, damn guys), more than an hour walking to/from class/tutoring, 1.5-2 hours on "research", and about half an hour running. These are my "accomplishments" for the day. Of them, the running is somehow the only one that I actually feel accomplished anything. In any given day I can stare at my research for several hours, and not come up with anything, which is what seems to happen most times I actually sit down to do so. The tutoring... I get paid for, but I don't know how much of an impact it has on the mathematical development of the students most of the time. And it takes away from my valuable research time/energy. Classes... well, they have their moments, and my rss feeds I enjoy reading, but I generally don't feel like I've accomplished much (even if I 'catch up' on my starred items).

But with running, every day basically is an accomplishment, or seems to have an obvious correlation to an upcoming goal. Like today, I ran 4 miles in 25 minutes, plenty less time than any of the activities above. But today was one of my best paces, and comes after a 16 mile (1:50), and 10 mile (1:06) day. So distance and time-wise, I realize the accomplishment. Even on less of a running accomplishment day, I can feel like I did something, and I know that'll it'll help me with some other running goal or upcoming event. While I'm feeling good about having accomplished something, here at the end of the month I thought I'd see how much running I did in the past month. I covered about 170 miles in something like 24 or 25 hours. In all, that's probably the most productive 24 hours I had in the past month.

What's my point? Looking at my other posts, you won't be surprised to find that I don't have one. I seem to think that when I started this post I had something more to say. I guess tiredness crept up on me. And then I posted this and realized I should have included some links to some comics: 1, 2.

I guess I can suggest for beginning runners (which I still consider myself, I've only been at it 2 years or so) to keep a log of your runs, with distances and times. I use mapmyrun, only because I've not quite written my own version of it yet (more on that sometime). And have an event you are training for. It doesn't matter how far or how fast you are running, there is always somebody else out there who will beat you (Ok, strictly I know this isn't true. But in practical application...). Just set personal goals, and go out there and have fun. And heck, if you can beat the guy next to you, or just pass somebody on one of your training runs, that's nice too.

Driver's Ed

If you are driving down a road, even if it doesn't have much of a shoulder, and there is a runner on your side of the road (they should be coming at you), you don't need to pull all the way over into the other lane. In fact, I personally find it insulting when people do that when I'm running. I have no interest in getting hit by you, I promise. I guess it's not entirely the same as crossing the road to walk on the opposite sidewalk if somebody of a different race is coming toward you on the sidewalk, but there's some analogy there. Anyway, you don't need to pull all the way over. For most cars and most roads, you should be fine to just put your left set of wheels on, or just a little left of, the yellow line.

The same thing goes for passing cyclists (of course, they should be going the same direction as you). They don't want to get hit by you, but you don't need to get all the way into the other lane to make sure that doesn't happen. Your left set of wheels a little over the yellow line should be plenty.

Of course, if you've got a bigger truck, or a trailer or something, you'll need to move over a little more. I probably wouldn't be insulted if you did move all the way over. If you are big enough, you're generating lots of draft, so moving over more helps that not be as big a deal.

Also, don't honk!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

LaTeX on the XO

I'm writing from my XO again, for no particularly good reason. Maybe if I use it enough I'll get better at typing on it.

I thought I'd try installing LaTeX on my XO today. I don't know that I'll use it much, at least until I relearn how to type. But anyway. It was entirely easy to install...

su -
yum install lyx
yum install xpdf

from the terminal. Probably installing lyx (the editor) is more than strictly necessary (since I don't really like my editor taking over my TeX), but it seems to get all the proper packages installed as dependencies. For instance, yum install tetex wasn't quite enough to do LaTeX (though I didn't try it, I expect I could have done plain TeX). I forgot to df before I started, but my drive is now 50% used, so I think installing the packages above was about 150M.

Mostly to see if I could, I then TeXed up a picture I found in the common room at school recently. To give you some indication, it was titled "Greek Mathematician with Fish". I hope, now that I have TeXed it, to find the original creator and get permission to post it online. Until then...

Friday, March 28, 2008

Opera on the XO

Seems worth it. You get tabbed browsing, for one. And keyboard shortuts. The install is easy, and fairly quick. Of course, now that I'm back here, different things seem to be broken on blogger. I guess that's ok. since, like I said, I don't plan on posting much here from my XO. Reader ang gmail work fine.

Ok, sorry about the picture. I wanted to try it. I'll try harder next time, or so.

Opera shrinks everything way down, so I can see a lot more of the screen than with XO's Browse activity. Of course, that makes the text smaller... But there are nice and handy zoom buttons.

I did chek out the zoom features for the pdf reader, which were the standard zoom features. The touchpad seems somewhat strangley set up for when you use the (cool) screen rotation feature. So if you want to read something sideways you press the rotate button, and turn your XO sideways, and the 'up' and 'down' have some seemingly strange definitions in terms of the touchpad. I guess in reader mode you are supposed to fold the screen down flat, covering the touchpad in the process. And then the 'game controls' are going to take a little getting used to. One of the 'down' buttons takes you to the very end of your document. Nice for jumping quickly to references in a pdf, I suppose. But probably not as handy as a simple page down. And the button that seems to page down seeed to be pagng down too far, so I'd then have to sroll back up.

Anyway, these are just my impressions from the first few hours. I like new toys :)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

XO Day 1

Well, it's been an exciting day here (overall). For the first while I couldn't connect to my home network, for some reason. I couldn't even enter a password. The password prompt would show up, but would never let me say 'Ok'. But it's working now. In fact I'm typing this entry from my XO. This is likely the last time I will do so, as the keyboard (well the whole computer) is tiny. If I squeeze my fingers together, I can get them to fit as they should on the home row. But ok, kids have small hands. Another little annoyance currently is that the text input form in the 'Browse' activity doesn't show where the cursor is. Strange. I haven't tried the writing program to see if the cursor position is visible there, but I expect that it is since the cursor shows up elsewhere (like the address bar).

Ok, so it's tiny. But I'm pleased. Installing new activities from the OLPC wiki is a matter of point-and-click. Taking pictures and video is easy to, and editing pictures. I installed the most fun looking game on the activity list: freedoom (yep, doom. You can debate it's inclusion on a kids laptop, but I'm the only kid on this laptop). And it runs great. Gmail and reader work just like on any other place I have used them. My first go at watching a flash video from youtube didn't succeed, but I didn't really care. Perhaps I'll try again sometime.

I plugged in a usb thumb drive and its contents popped right up in the journal viewer. Copying them to the local drive was no issue, just drag and drop. The pdfs that I copied looked great (a little small, but I think I can zoom more). For some reason with such a small screen I don't expect much in the way of resolution, but the XO screen is surprisingly nice (well, surprising if you haven't been reading for months about how great it is).

So anyway, those are my first brief impressions. I'm a little sad that my hands are bit too big for the keyboard, but that's ok. It's really a cute little machine, the XO. With no moving parts it is beautifully quiet. If you were wondering, the 1GB drive is only about 1/3 occupied by whatever comes pre-installed. I took a picture with my hands over the keyboard, but I'm having a hard time getting it included here through blogger. Ah well.


I got mine today! Hang in there, anybody waiting for your laptop.

More to come...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Exciting Times

While I may sometimes forget it, and get lost in day to day trivia, this seems to me an exciting time to be alive. Of course, I wonder if that is something people always think. Throughout much of recent history, has there generally been some segment of (basically average?) people who thought they were living in exciting times?

So why now? Well, the primary reason I think now is exciting is because of the technical advances. I love computers and playing with them and seeing what they can do, and dreaming about what they will soon do (and what mine, in particular, will do. Lots of the things I want already exist). I eagerly anticipate more (at least slightly more) ubiquitous (wearable) computing. I'm looking forward to having a pair of glasses in which I can see a 'computer screen', and be able to easily interact with while I walk around.

At a slightly more reserved (less fun) level, I just finished reading 'Geekonomics' (which I encourage you to read), and I enjoyed it. It presents interesting historical case studies, and I also learned a little about economics and our legal system. The subtitle is 'The Real Cost of Insecure Software', and the book provides convincing evidence that change is eminent in the software engineering field. The code we depend on is largely dangerous, with all of its security holes, and something needs to happen soon to address this issue (says the book). The net result will be higher quality software all around (again, says the book), and I like the sounds of that. So that, too, is exciting.

This summer CERN gets ready to make black holes in France and Switzerland, and that's exciting. I've seen claims (today's reminder came from a link off digg) about them creating things with temperature comparable to that of the Sun. So perhaps all of this future tech I anticipate... the world won't be around for. But that, too, is somehow exciting - being around for the end of the world, that's gotta be worth something.

And in just over 20 years (depending on who you ask), 'The Singularity' will... well... we don't know. That's the point.

Exciting times indeed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Doing it Wrong

I am currently employed as a graduate student in mathematics. What's more is that I was awarded this semester off from teaching, so I am supposedly getting paid purely to do math research (well, I also go to 4 classes and occasional seminars). Of course, that's not like a typical 9-5 job or whatever. I find that I can put in about 3-4 solid hours in a given day, but past that I wear out or get frustrated or so. I think this would be fine, if I actually did 3-4 hours every day, or even 5-6 days a week. I'm lucky, even this semester with no teaching commitment, to do 3 days of 3-4 hours.

One of my mistakes was to sign up as a tutor at a drop-in tutoring center on campus. Sure, I get another thing to add to my distinctly unimpressive CV/resume, and the extra cash is nice. But it works out to an average of, I'd say, at least 12 hours a week, 9 of which are paid. Granted, if I rode my bike there and back, instead of walking, it'd be closer to the 9-10 it should be. I've started noticing, though, that my walks to the office and back, or to tutoring and back, are nice and relaxing (what I need relaxing from... who knows?). Part of 'How to be Idle', I guess. Anyway, this tutoring thing is, in terms of making mistakes, a replica of the one I made last semester in teaching racquetball. Sure it was fun and I got paid, but as a time commitment, it felt like I was doing the wrong thing... cheating the math department or so.

If that were my only sin, I kinda hope the math department would forgive me. But it's downhill from there. I'm signed up for a marathon again next month, so I've been training for that (and various shorter runs). While kinda pushing the limits of acceptable diversions from work, I can almost justify this, because physical exercise is important, right? Of course, 30 minutes 3-5 times a week would be 'enough' exercise, right? I do that time in a single run sometimes, and feel like I should be doing so more frequently.

So tutoring and exercise, maybe I'm not horribly far off track? Maybe the math department shouldn't feel bad about employing me? Let's now add to this my netflix habit (down to 1 at a time, and has been for a while), and my growing feed reader habit. I'm now just under 100 feeds (thanks a lot 'Discover' link in google reader. I feel like I have to semi-regularly check that, to get rid of the list there), with what looks to be about 300+ stories per day. Sure I don't read all of them, just skim lots of headings. But I probably star between 20 and 50 in a given day to come back to. And reading those brings about links to other things to read. And mentions of books that I keep adding to my reading list. And saving longer articles for when (if) I ever get my XO (which I hope to use as an ebook reader, I think).

Now I feel bad about not doing enough math. Even reading more graduate level math, just a little every day, not directly related to my research would be a step in a positive direction. I also feel like I should be running more. And every week (for the past couple anyway), I realize I haven't written anything on this blog in a week, and feel like I should (though I'm not sure why). It'd be even better if this blog had some sort of redeemable theme. I should also be looking at making calc notes for a calc 2 class, since I expect I'll get to teach that in my time here (or later, if I ever get out of here). My cats would probably appreciate more time playing with them.

And then there are those pesky pet projects I want to be working on. An updated, web-based dr mario clone for testing artificial players. A math jokes database (which I decided would be my project for the year, and I have occasionally done little bits for). Work on my google maps pedometer/running log project. A math database.


Thursday, March 13, 2008


My last post about bubbles got my mind wandering, so instead of doing something worthwhile, I thought I'd press on here.

In my previous post I mentioned the little tech bubble I live in online. In any bubble, there is some notion of common knowledge. I am, for some reason, attracted to the idea not necessarily of finding the common knowledge of other bubbles, but even just what other bubbles there are.

Take, for example, running. Everybody knows that runnings is something some people do (even if its not really understood why they would want to). I expect most people know about marathons as well. But I wonder how many people know about ultramarathons - runs of 50 or 100 miles or more? And it isn't just one or two people in the world that do this, but some slightly larger bubble. They have organized events and all. I didn't know about this until just a few years ago.

Sometimes I think I wish I didn't know about the knowledge of other bubbles. For example, I have a friend who is into 'Kate Spade' and 'Vera Bradley' handbags. I wish I could truthfully admit that I didn't know what those names are at all. But since interacting with this other bubble, I have acquired that knowledge. I'm not better off for it. Of course, lots of the time, interacting with other bubbles is more rewarding. I think it is a good mindset to want to explore other bubbles, to expand your horizons.

So what other bubbles are there, specifically what niche bubbles? How do I find them? How big qualifies as a niche bubble?

I must be getting tired.

It occurs to me that perhaps I should use twitter (finally, a use) for posts like this. The low character count limit would help stop my rambling and babbling.

Bed time.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Web Portals

I seem to recall hearing a lot about 'web portals' a while back. Everybody wanted to be your 'start page' so they could have more 'eyeballs' (and thus more ad revenue, or whatever). I never found any of them to be where I wanted to start online. My start page is always about:blank. Anyway, it seems that I don't hear so much about this any more, though I'm not sure why.

Even not so recently, I knew that, essentially, google was my web portal. When I hopped online, I had some goal in mind, and knew that google could get me there. Recently, google's reader has become at least as important in my online experience. If I don't have some specific information I want to look up, the only page I think to visit is reader (and gmail I guess). Instead of going out to the web, rss and atom feeds have let me bring the web to me (Chris's comment, if I recall). When I've run out of new feeds, I'm at a loss of what to do, or where to go. There's lots of good stuff online, but if it isn't in a link from some feed, or so, I won't notice it. Perhaps that's ok. It is quite easy to suffer from information overload online, and there is plenty that I'm supposed to be doing.

Anybody else have similar online habits? Or am I doing it wrong? Fail? I guess part of my question is: what exactly is 'surfing the web'? Stubling around random webpages with a browser extension (= productivity killer)? Or just following links from pages that I visited with a specific goal in mind?

It seems like my style of surfing the web, by browsing my feeds, is, at least vaguely, dangerous. In a book I read recently (I think it was 'Ambient Findability' though it could have been 'Convergence Culture', both of which I enjoyed), the author pointed out the idea of the online experience being a great big echo chamber. I only see the part of the web I agree with, basically. Unless I specifically go searching for something contrary to my views (political or religious, e.g.) I am not likely to really test my ideas and assumptions. I won't grow, intellectually, but will instead just reinforce whatever ideas I already have, because they are all I read about.

What I feel like I notice even more is just the sense of being in a bubble. In my little bubble, everybody is keen on 'Web 2.0' (if not the name), the semantic web, open standards and APIs, tech, tech, tech. Everybody has heard of the same things as me (essentially). Things like OLPC, Linux, Twitter, Twine, etc. My guess is I would have culture shock just going next door to talk to my neighbors, whose bubble is likely vastly different (if online at all).

So what? I live in my little niche, you live in yours, right? Live and let live?

Have a point in mind when you start a blog post, even if you have no readers.

Why Teach Math?

Sometimes I sit in my classes, and wonder what I am getting out of the class that I couldn't get out of a book. One of my professors recently commented that faculty for math graduate students are really just guides. They have sat down, with all of the background knowledge they have about whatever subjects and possibly a few books to use as guidelines, and prepare for us a path through the theory. Perhaps sitting down at the start of the semester they think up a few key ideas or theorems they think we should know about some area, and then sit down to find a nice path between them all. Which I appreciate. Entering a new subject, I have no idea which of the multitude of books and resources are the 'best'. Which ones present the material in a manner that will give me insight and understanding? Surely, most of the definitions and results will be the same in any two books on the same topic. And I find it easy to forget that there's more to life than knowing definitions and theorems. Being able to look them up is easy (though a nice online database has potential to make it easier...), once you know basically what you want. But just staring at a list of new definitions and theorems isn't entirely helpful in itself. So the professors pick them out, and guide me through them. Which is awesome. With the understanding I get, I should be able to go back to those books and, even if I haven't picked out the 'best', be able to get much more out of it.

So that's nice. What about the math I teach? The stage I'm at now, I get to teach calculus. Should we focus on definitions and theorems for students who largely won't go into pure math? Should we just focus on computation and applications? How much should we let students have computers do the algebra and number crunching? What is the point of teaching the topic, if most students will forget it all after the semester and not use it again? Even for those that will re-use the information, I wonder if teaching the first 6 chapters of Stewart's Calculus book in a given semester is the best use of time. Shouldn't the student's be able to look up definitions and theorems and examples on their own, just like I can? If they can, what parts should I actually be teaching? And if they can't, how do I teach students how to learn math - how to process the information in a section of a textbook and be able to work similar problems, and moreover identify and understand the key ideas? In my setting, the courses are coordinated among several sections, with common exams. If I don't want my students to fail exams, I have to teach them all the facts they need, so how much of the time can I use teaching learning, versus teaching facts?

These problems get worse as technology enters the classroom. Students will literally have all of the definitions and results at their fingertips. A library of examples will be keystrokes away. And most of the examples we get them to do, they're exactly the sorts of things we made computers to do. Now I know that we want students to understand what's going on well enough that they can do some sanity check on whatever answers the computers return, and even be able to properly format a problem for a computer to be able to do it (a problem that I expect will decrease as computers become more intelligent).

Just recently I found this post on the BBC by Bill Thompson (whose posts I regularly enjoy) which discusses the changing face of teaching, focusing on the impact of technology. There he states that
... knowing facts provides a framework for understanding, a source of insight into problems and a way of boundary-checking solutions.

This bit about 'providing a framework for understanding' feels, somehow, like a lot of the answer I was looking for. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, and we want out students to have a similar footing. By showing students the information that is there, and guiding them through it, we help show them our viewpoint, hopefully from somewhere near those great shoulders.

So anyway, what is my point? Where am I going with this? Well, as I want to be a math professor, it seems important to think about just what I teach my students, and with what goals in mind. I remain in a state of uncertainty about the best way to do this. Balancing definitions and results with examples, and mixing technology in, is certainly a great challenge. But it is one I look forward to working on. One of these days I'd like to start having answers to all the questions I post here.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


A while ago I decided I wanted to sit down and learn where the countries were. That is, given the name of a country, be able to pick it out on a map. I found the site, and worked through lots of the quizzes, many times, and felt like I had developed the proficiency I desired. Since then, I haven't played much, and would probably do fairly poorly on the quizzes again. Today I found another fun online geography quiz, at travelpod.

Anybody know any other fun ones?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Fandom and ARGs

I like to consider myself a fan of several things. The two I want to mention now are: (1) The Matrix, (2) Nine Inch Nails. Part of the reason I've been thinking about these things is that I relatively recently read 'Convergence Culture' by Henry Jenkins, which I encourage you to check out.

Ok, so I know The Matrix isn't really news. But when the first came out in 1999, I saw it many times in theatres, and have watched it many more times since. Same goes for all the other releases (well, I guess I missed the animatrix in theatres). Anyway, they're all good stuff, both as plain old entertainment as well as thought provoking works (I wish I had an ample vocabulary). What I'm trying to say is that I mostly think I'm a bigger fan than most. However, I never read the associated comic books, nor played the video games. So am I just fooling myself? Or was the scope of the project, its many facets, too large for even a supposedly loyal fan? Of course, that's a stupid thing to wonder. The people in charge were artists, using a new form (a combination of forms) to display their work. Who am I to wish they hadn't done as much? I sincerely hope that many people out there engrossed themselves more fully in the world of the matrix than I did. I hope the artist's full work was appreciated. Perhaps I'm just more a fan of being stubborn and lazy than I am of the movies (well, the whole artwork). I could have, after all, played the video games (and now that I know about them, I'd like to check out the comics) and read more of the things online... etc. etc. etc. When I think about it, I wonder what, if the matrix couldn't, would get me to play a video game to more fully engross myself in a story, or piece or art. I haven't really come up with anything, though I have been wondering about this game spore for a while. I mostly only like little video games, dr. mario, for example.

Onto item 2. I've mentioned several times my draw to nine inch nails. I own most of their 'halo's, including many of the singles. However, when their Alternate Reality Game (ARG) came out for year zero, I didn't do much about it. I remember spending a day or two looking at what was around, about messages on t-shirts and messages in Morse code in songs. I visited many of the links, reading supposed files about 'The Presence', and 'Opal'... And then I lost interest. I couldn't tell how I was supposed to participate. I don't have any real skills at all, so I don't expect I could have helped find hidden messages or anything. Plus, I'm kinda lazy (I just started reading a book 'How to be Idle', by a Hodgkinson, so perhaps you'll hear more about this in the near future), and not particularly creative (though I'm realizing that I like to create - through origami, programming, even this blog nobody reads (over-inflated self worth strikes again)). So, again, what happened? Am I not a fan enough to keep up with and immerse myself in these things? Or did this one particular game end earlier than expected? I looked at things again recently, and something said it was supposed to be an 18 month time frame for the game. So is there more to come in the next couple of months? We've got til... September/October I think. Perhaps this ghosts release is part of it all. I hope so, but my initial impression is that it is just Trent wanting to make some music (which I am, of course, happy to listen to). I'd be happy to be wrong, perhaps there are messages floating around in all of these new tracks. I should go look...

So anyway, what's the deal? Am I just too damn lazy to be allowed to consider myself a fan? Too old school and set in my ways to play with these relatively new avenues of entertainment? I mean, I don't care at all for text messages (or phones in general), and don't quite see the point of 'micro-blogging' or 'lifestreaming' sorts of sites. So am I not really keeping pace with technology these days, despite what I'd like to think? It is my impression that these ARG things are a relatively new form of media (again, see 'Convergence Culture'). In that case, perhaps whatever recipe for them hasn't quite been worked out yet? Maybe they won't even pan out as a trend? I mean, my understanding of them goes like this: a group of people sit down and try to create a puzzle for, essentially, everybody to solve. Of course, not everybody will hear about it, or care, or participate. But my point is that the intended audience is much larger than the group creating the puzzle. So... that group better be _quite_ impressive at puzzle-making in order to be able to entertain a significantly larger audience. I'm not saying it can't be done. But maybe, assuming it is a newish sort of venture, the puzzle creators could still use some more practice? Of course, I recognize that as a hugely arrogant thing to say, and must refer you back to the Matrix paragraph, about the creators being artists, who should be encouraged to make what they want.

News from wired today about a possible new ARG starting with some relation to McDonald's and the coming summer Olympics. Perhaps this'll be a big turning point for the medium? I mean, everybody has heard of both McDonald's and the Olympics, while a drastically fewer number have heard of Mr. Reznor.

New NIN!

Ok, so I know I'm two days behind. I saw the news Sunday evening. When I went to to download/buy/check it out, the site was very slow. I was able to read what was up, but couldn't connect to the store to make a purchase. Monday morning I woke up and was able to connect to the store, and put in my order (note: the \$10 cd has a \$7 S&H). Ordering a cd, you also get one free download (of the whole album, not just the 9 tracks released freely to anybody), so I tried that. After not too long my download stopped, as I guess the store got overwhelmed again. When I tried to reconnect, it said I couldn't use the same download link, because it was a single download. Saddened, I emailed the support, and waited (vaguely patiently) all day without hearing anything. Even this morning, no response. So I went back to my old download link, and tried again. Success!

So I'm listening to the album now. I'm only on my second go, and I'm not very good at opinions. I've liked all the nine inch nails albums I've ever heard, and I can't expect this'll be any different. The only problem I notice for now is that I'm mostly a sing-a-long kinda guy (despite any lack of talent, or tone), which is difficult with an instrumental album. I try anyway :) The tracks do seem quieter than some other instrumental-only tracks from previous albums, but again, I need a few more listens to say anything (which I'll probably spare you anyway).

If you are looking for music, I, of course, recommend you check it out. Also, the puscifer album is entirely enjoyable, and streams for free on their page.