July 25, 2007

While I wait for my brain strings to settle after a long summer shuttling about I make a quick core dump before it’s all gone.

I spent two weeks in Benasque, Spain for the workshop P-adic analysis, Periods and Physics . We ended up being a very small group of participants, unfortunate in a way but the result was a very charming workshop. And what a place! Benasque is in a valley in the Spanish Pyrenees not far from the border with France, a small mountain town where you walk everywhere, surrounded by amazing mountains full of unbelievably beautiful hikes. String theorist have been coming here every two years for quite a while. We should have some more math workshops in Benasque!

I’m becoming somewhat obsessed with technology and how it’s changing our daily life in ways we hardly have time to think about, let alone understand. I grew up in Argentina at a time when phones were a luxury; apartments had them or not. Here I was in Benasque sitting under a tree facing a soccer field and some towering green mountains, talking to my brother in Argentina on Skype through a wireless connection to my laptop; it was right about 3pm, before the Benasque kids came out of their siesta to play and my brother had to take his kids to school.

Since writing the post on communicating mathematics today I became more and more convinced that we, the mathematics community, are not exploiting the available technology as much as we could.

Talking about this in Benasque my friend Maria mentioned Moodle a open source management system for courses. It is now installed at UT and I will give it a try for my graduate class this Fall. It looks really well done, with lots of customizing possible: forums, chats, blogs, quizzes, you name it.

I plan to use its “workshop” assignment module, which allows students to grade anonymously a number of other students homework. My goal is to give students the chance to read and assess somebody else’s mathematics and write a report about it. It is after all what we working mathematicians spend quite a bit of our time doing. Hopefully the anonymous feature will also give them a flavor of the referee system for publishing papers (without unleashing too much of the nasty sadism that this can involve). I am all in favor of assigned work for graduate classes in any case. To paraphrase a rock fashion designer: “If your pants don’t hurt it ain’t rock and roll”.

Of course technology can be a mirage too. In a memorable story John Tate was once asked how he dealt with papers when he was a graduate student, an era without photocopying machines. John, without missing a bit, answered: “We read the papers”.

On the other hand, as Philip Candelas remarked, it is likely that at the time one could be on top of pretty much everything being published in a given topic.

I’ve been looking around for some open source software to manage conferences, seminars, lectures, etc. Found some things but they’re not quite it yet. Any recommendations?

Finally, a shameless plug. My book “Experimental Number Theory” has finally appeared, published by Oxford University Press. It contains many computer scripts for the wonderful Number Theory package PARI-GP on hopefully interesting mathematics. It was a lot of fun to write and I learned a great deal in the process. In particular, I encountered my currently favorite elementary math problem (due to D. Knuth): A certain baseball player has a batting average of .334. At least how many times did he bat? (No, is not 3.)

The solution goes back to an algorithm of Gosper included in Hakmem , the remarkable Hacker’s memorandum of the early 70’s.

Of course, you can also check my book…