What I miss

November 16, 2014

Like a teenager keeping a journal I note in shame that my last post here is from 2012. Since then I have moved to Trieste, Italy, taking a job at the ICTP: Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics.

Horculas en el migo. And so it is.

Looking back, it is clear that growing up in Buenos Aires shaped my view of the world, what to expect from the day to day of life. And this happens in really unexpected ways: the shape of buildings, the layout of streets and cities, the birds and the trees (it is frustrating to try to explain the peculiarities of the hornero, the little bird of the endless pampas building its mud house on top of alambrados, to someone and not being able to convey all the memories it brings or why it matters).

Coming to Italy is a bit like going back. So much of the culture feels like home, from the language to the hand gestures to the food. But perhaps the most significant connection for me is: la passeggiata.

People actually go out to walk for the sake of it, for the pleasure of strolling about with their friends, their family, not just to walk the dog, to shop or to exercise. People in normal clothes, pushing a pram, or grandma in a wheel chair, kids chasing each other around, couples holding hands. And they do so in the open air, perhaps taking in the rays of a beautiful sunny Sunday, in public spaces, sidewalks, no commerce involved.

Buona Domenica!

Taxi rides

June 1, 2011

I am not sure if it is an Austin phenomenon or not but I have had a few interesting taxi rides back and forth to the airport over the years.

I’ll leave aside the late night taxi ride where the driver, a young woman, told a few off-color jokes (“you are not a prude man, are you?”); including one that I am pretty sure was popular when I was in primary school. (Let’s just say that it involved traveling by camel in the desert.)

More curious was the guy with the fourth dimension. It started innocently enough: “what’s your business?” or something like that. When I said I taught math (often a risky move) he went off about the fourth dimension and extra-terrestrial beings living among us. He actually showed me a pile of issues of a magazine called “The Fourth Dimension”. I also recall something about a meeting of extra-terrestrials in Washington DC the following month. And this was just a few minutes into the ride.

I then made a really reckless move. I mentioned that in fact, I was currently working with some physicists (this was at the time of my collaboration with Ph. Candelas and X. de la Ossa) and that in string theory the thinking was that the universe was actually ten dimensional.

The response was a chilly silence. I distinctively recall thinking: the driver must be saying to himself “Now, there is a nut in this taxi … and it is not me”.

Back and short

January 8, 2009

I’ve lived in the US now for over 22 years. I have encountered two dollar bills exactly three times (I kept them all). The first time was around Harvard Square as change in a store. It was so strange.

I’ve seen a few dollar coins too.  Usually all of them at once unfortunately. At least 15 years ago, if you bought a NJ transit train ticket in a machine at the station and paid with a 20 dollar bill the change came clanking down in a stream of dollar coins. They are heavy.

And just the other day reading a post at the The Oil Drum encountered the word copacetic for the first time in my life, according to World Wide Words a uniquely American slang word meaning “fine, excellent, going just right”. (Not much use for it these days.)

On my way back from Vancouver once the US customs officer that checked my passport, after finding out I was a mathematician, told me: [thinking pause] “I hope things add up for you”.

I hope the post does.

Teaching Technology

September 1, 2007

I started teaching this semester using moodle. I am pretty happy with it. I think there is a lot of potential to make teaching more productive. In the process I got really interested in the whole issue of technology and teaching. Last week there was an article in the Washington post on the issue describing how education technology is becoming a fast-growing business. At the very end it mentions Moodle as a free (open source) alternative to Blackboard and how UCLA has decided to switch to using it. I find this a significant move; UCLA is not exactly a small college, we are talking about a pretty big operation. I look forward to seeing how things go.

A quick search uncovered this interview with Ruth Sabean, the assistant vice provost for educational technology at UCLA, where she discusses the decision. It is interesting and so is the posted discussion with readers at the end. In particular, I was led to this insightful post at e-Learning, a blog by Michael Feldstein from Oracle, who claims that “The monolithic closed source LMS [Learning Management Operating System] is dead meat.”

Incidentally, UT uses Blackboard, which according to the Washington Post article “was founded in 1997 by a few 20-somethings who quit comfortable jobs to start the company. The dot-com boom swept up Blackboard, and it weathered the subsequent bust before going public. Last year, it had sales of $180 million.”

Dead meat or not the question for me is: are we really improving the way we teach? or are we just using new tools to make the usual easier? We all know that writing a paper in TeX (and who doesn’t?) does nothing to its content, neither does giving a powerpoint talk.

On a related topic what I would really like to see is a web environment for collaboration in Mathematics. There are a number of systems out there that could be adapted for this purpose but I have yet to find one I am really satisfied with. Sakai looked promising but it doesn’t seem quite ready for what I have in mind yet.

I’d love to have something like this: a browser based interface (so that one could login from anywhere, whatever the operating system is) that allows one to up/down-load files, keeps an easy-to-use history of the files as they evolve, create webpages, link to documents, etc. It should have a broad array of communication tools: voice, video, whiteboard, chat, forums, etc. For mathematics the chat should have an automatic TeX formatting filter that would allow people to type formulas in TeX while talking via Skype, say. Finally, a powerful and smart search feature (within the system as well as the archive, numdam, JSTOR, GDZ, etc.) including, if they so allow it, other people discussions.

It seems to me that if technology is going to take us to a higher level of doing research it will only do so by increasing the opportunities for the random associations that fuel it. Powerful and smart searching is crucial for this. Am I the only one annoyed by, say, the searching capabilities of mathscinet? Unless you know an author’s name exactly chances are you’ll never find the paper you’re looking for.

As an example, the following funny thing happened to me recently. I was looking for material on a few integrals that have value a rational multiple of pi squared, which Coxeter talks about in the preface to his book “Twelve geometrical essays”. These arose from some volume calculations and are in one of his earliest papers. I quickly found the paper by Wagner, Peter, “Solution to a problem posed by H. S. M. Coxeter”, C. R. Math. Rep. Acad. Sci. Canada 18 (1996), no. 6, 273–277 (related to a different integral actually). The review in Mathscinet has the phrase: ” The method seems to be due to Tortellini in Crelle’s Journal 34 and is explained in Dirichlet’s Bestimmte Integrale.”

I was intrigued both by the alluded method and the name of its author, Tortellini. I had never heard of a mathematician of that name (of any era). A search in mathscinet with the author’s name gave nothing. At least the reviewer, H. W. Guggenheimer, had included the reference to Crelle’s Journal volume 34. A search in GDZ (not that straightforward either actually, I searched for Crelle in title, then clicked on the Journal’s actual name “Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik”) yielded the table of contents of volume 34 showing a paper by Barnaba Tortolini! Talk about a Freudian slip.

Actually, who was Barnaba Tortolini?

I find myself spending a lot of time searching for something (on the web, my hard disk or my office), which I know I have found before… (For example, I had to reconstruct the above Tortellini/Tortolini story all over again.) I could, of course, be more organized but wouldn’t it be great to have your computer help you out?

Dancing Numbers

June 15, 2007

I can’t resist one last post before I go off into the webless wilderness of the Atlantic coast. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this blogging idea but I was more than taken aback by how fast the blog’s existence seems to have spread. It’s exciting.

Over the years I’ve read articles about Twyla Tharp, the american dancer and coreographer. Somehow, I always found great affinity to her ideas. A few months ago, in a New York Times article, she described how she sometimes went for days without dealing with numbers (hid all the clocks in her house, for example) to give the intuitive side of her brain more prominence. Despite being a number theorist, I found the thought strangely appealing rather than heretic.

This morning at the Harvard Coop I found she just wrote a book “The creative habit” (published by Simon and Schuster) that I hadn’t seen before. I just had to buy it. Here’s a representative bit:

“I will keep stressing the point about creativity being augmented by routine and habit. Get used to it. In these pages a philosopical tug of war will periodically rear its head. It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dyonisian act of inspiration, a kiss of God on you brow that allows you to give the world the Magic Flute, or (b) hard work.

If it isn’t obvious already, I come down on the side of hard work. That’s why this book is called ‘The Creative Habit’. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell.”

Other ideas in the book remind me of L. Pasteur’s quote: “Chance favors the prepared mind”. To students I have often compared doing mathematics to fishing. You mostly sit around waiting for ideas to bite but when a big one does you better be ready.

Then a strange thing happened. I was sitting on the lawn of Harvard Yard reading the book when a guy comes over to ask me if he could borrow it. He wanted to get a picture sitting on the lawn of Harvard Yard reading a book. “Isn’t that what people do at Harvard?”, he said. When he finished posing for the photo and was ready to leave he asked me “And who the hell is Twyla Tharp?”

Communicating mathematics today

June 10, 2007

A few thoughts about how we can use current technology to communicate mathematics. Disclaimer: I have no vested interest in any of the sites or products I mention and I am sure there are plenty of alternatives. Neither can I guarantee their success, naturally. They just happen to be things I know and have used myself. I’d be quite interested in hearing what other people are using.

A good place to start is Skype. It is a great internet phone system which works quite well. It’s free from computer to computer (for now anyway) and fairly cheap from computer to land-line. A useful feature for collaborations with more than two people is the possibility to make conference calls. There are Windows, Mac and Linux versions of Skype.

What I haven’t found a good way to do yet is to also be able to write mathematics for others to read while on Skype. I haven’t tried the beta version of Skype with camera. During the AIM workshop I heard that some people use iChat successfully. I also heard of some version of tablet PC’s used for this purpose.

— I did a little searching since writing the above paragraph and found something that could be quite useful. It’s skrbl (read it aloud). You create a whiteboard where several people can write or draw on. It doesn’t require any downloads; it works directly on the assigned webpage. It worked for me on Firefox when I tried it. The mouse is a bit cumbersome to use to write formulas but perhaps one should use instead some kind of pointer device. It looks like this in combination with Skype could be a good setup for collaborating in mathematics.

For talks I have occasionally used a digital voice recorder, something like this: Olympus WS-100 . They are pretty inexpensive and work well. It’s easy to record and download the sound file directly to computer afterwards. A colleague of mine listens to talks while driving some times.

I understand that a consortium of 5 UK universities will start this year a program of teaching graduate courses to students in all of them through the web. I’m quite interested to see how this goes. I’ve also seen joint seminars (UBC and SF in Vancouver) done with video conferencing. Investing in this kind of technology seems to be a pretty good idea to me.

Finally, for all my classes I no longer use the blackboard. Instead, I write in regular white paper with a thick black marker. This gets projected by a Document Camera to a screen for the audience to read. (You can find one description of the camera here .) After class I scan the notes and put them on the web. For this I use Igal, a series of perl scripts to organize fotos on a webpage. You can find some examples in my website.

I find the fact that I keep a record of exactly what I said in class (including asides, tangents, answers to questions, etc.) very useful. The students typically do too and, no, it does not seem to translate into them feeling less inclined to come to class.

Here it is

June 10, 2007

As was suggested at the end of the recent AIM workshop Arithmetic harmonic analysis on character and quiver varieties I am starting this blog as a way to continue the discussions and interactions that took place there.

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