Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The One-to-Many Problem

I've been thinking about a class of related phenomena recently: those where a one-to-many relationship leads to inappropriate feelings or behaviors. I'll give a few examples.

Often, some shared cultural item (The Chronicles of Narnia, Amsterdam, Ernest Hemingway, chopsticks, etc.) comes up, and I feel as though I have a special relationship to it. I want to impress upon others my special relationship, to tell them the stories about myself and the item. And then I realize how extremely common it is for someone to have specific personal memories of reading a popular book series or using or watching others use chopsticks or whatever. Just because I visited Holland in the mid-90s doesn't really mean I have a special relationship with the country.

Professors commonly get a lot of annoying emails from their students. If you think about it, a student generally has at most five or six professors at a time, while a professor may have anywhere from 20 to several hundred students. Three or four emails per semester to each professor is easily manageable to the student, and overwhelming for professors. Students also feel that their own experiences are more unique than professors find them to be.

There are a few well-known blog authors whose blogs I have read for years. (John Scalzi and Andrew Sullivan, for instance.) I feel like I know these bloggers, have a sense of their personalities and experiences, etc. If I saw one of them, it would be easy for me to assume some kind of mutual familiarity that does not exist at all; they don't know me from Adam. I think people often have this feeling about celebrities.

Of course, it is always tempting to regard one's own experiences and situations as unique and special anyway, given that one's world revolves around oneself. But I do think these one-to-many situations, where something is more unique for you than you are for it, are especially prone to provoking such feelings. Perhaps this is why people like to have known indie bands before they became popular; it makes their special relationship to the band more plausible because it existed when the many wasn't so multitudinous.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grad Apps In

As of today, I have done every single thing for my graduate school applications. One of my recommenders has submitted all of his letters, and the other two have shown signs of working on theirs, so everything seems to be well in hand.

I'm glad to be done with the process. I have applied to the following schools (in no particular order):
  • Colorado State University
  • New Mexico State University
  • Texas A&M
  • University of North Texas
  • University of Florida
  • University of Tennessee
  • University of Kentucky
  • University of Pittsburgh
I think I have a decent chance at some of these schools, but we'll see. If I don't get in this year, I will take some more classes (perhaps a graduate-level one in the fall, though I could also use a couple more undergrad classes to improve my background), take the GRE mathematics subject exam, and apply again next year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fake English

I really enjoy listening to people do "fake English" - I mean things like improv comedians in foreign countries doing gobbledegook that is supposed to represent someone speaking English. This guy did a whole song, and to me, the "English" is really so convincing that it's almost frustrating that I can't understand it. It's actually a pretty good song too, of a particular, easily recognizable American genre. I've seen this a few times, anyway, but ran across it again today, so here it is:

Friday, December 18, 2009

Netflix to Blockbuster

I've had a Netflix subscription for several years now, but I've never gotten as much out of it as I could. It's very hard for me to mail movies away, since I can't get anything right away. And then when I do want a movie, I can't have it right now. I probably watch 4 or 6 movies a year from Netflix, which is ridiculous considering that I could buy a couple of DVDs every month for what I pay them.

Lately we rent a lot at Blockbuster. (By "a lot" I mean once or twice a month.) That's very convenient and nice, except that I never take the movies back, so I end up owning them. They are only $10 or $12 each, so it's not that expensive, but...still.

So, I have cancelled Netflix (and I give them major props for letting you do this on the website; so many services make you call them) and opened an account with Blockbuster online. What I got, for $12/month, is 1 DVD at a time by mail, and up to 5 in-store exchanges per month. This means that for less than the cost of one rental (when you figure in the high probability that I will never return the movie), we can just go to Blockbuster any time and switch out our movie. Or we can get one by mail if we want one that isn't available locally.

I'm pretty happy with this decision.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


For weeks, two of my coworkers (let's call 'em James and Morgan) and I have been speculating over the situation with bonuses, which are typically given out in December at my company. James has been saying all along that he didn't think we'd get a bonus this year. We had been assured (since our president heard about these rumors) that a bonus with forthcoming, but James pointed out that any token amount could qualify as a "bonus" so the assurances were meaningless.

Last year, my first year here, I got quite a magnificent bonus. I was told that 1/3 of it came from the group that had recently purchased our company, and the rest was from our company. It was awesome. My offer letter says that the company typically pays bonuses of around 10%, depending on company profits and individual performance. I didn't have much hope of getting the same bonus as last year, but I was hoping for around 10%. That is still a really large bonus, in my book, despite what we may have seen last year.

Santa Claus finally came today, in the form of our president telling us our amounts. Mine was slightly less than last year, and well above any line at which I would have felt disappointed. I am pretty thrilled with it.

I made the mistake of going to lunch with James and Morgan. James is angry - he saved the company some large amount of money this year, was told this would be remembered at bonus time, and yet he didn't get a proportionately large bonus, he didn't feel. Morgan was not dissatisfied with her amount (she also reported getting slightly less than last year, but none of us shared our amounts or percentages), but was fretful over various things she's heard. She fears that because she is sort of mousy and doesn't often work directly with the people who decided the bonus amounts, it might be easier to "screw her" by not giving her as much as she should get. She had a lot of process worries over how these amounts were decided, and was also upset because of some conflicts over other people's bonuses. (Apparently one employee was upset that another employee got a larger bonus - something she was in a position to know about - and left for the day.)

It was basically non-stop negativity from those two. The president had apparently made a comment to James that, given that she didn't have as much total bonus money as she would like, she trimmed down the bonuses to some people who are highly paid in order to boost bonuses for people who make less. He was very angry and upset over this prospect, calling it "unprofessional" and commenting, "A company that knew what they were doing would pay people their market value," and then going on for at least 5 minutes explaining how this idea that some people make a "premium" could be applied to anyone and bitching how there are no standards and so on and so forth. Morgan mostly cavilled about this, that, and the other.

Morgan also pressed me about how I felt, and though I didn't want to be self-righteous about it, I did have to make it clear that I thought the amount was very satisfying and generous, and that I have chosen not to concern myself with the sausage-making aspects of how the company is run, both in general and with regard to bonuses. (I have found that worrying or becoming annoyed at the ways of corporations only leads to madness, especially since I'm never privy to the real details of what is going on. Best to just let them run the company, assume they know what they're doing, and look out for my own interests in more productive ways.)

I did not say any of this, but I find it really unproductive and, frankly, immoral to have the attitude (in life in general) that, while what you got might be OK, someone else might be unfairly getting more. Our whole economic system invariably leads to a lot of "unfair" things that people at my company, at least, are benefitting from. I have friends who are harder working, probably smarter, and definitely more educated than I am, and who make less money than I do even though their jobs are not in any sense easier. That is not "fair." It is not supposed to be fair. Fair did not come into it at any point.

Morgan was concerned that some people might get higher bonuses because they are more liked rather than because they are better employees. On what basis is an employee liked? How do we judge "better"? Why worry about the parts you can't control? Why choose to be dissatisfied when things are, actually, really good?

I don't think either of these people has had a serious job working for another company, or they would know that all companies are fucked up, to a lesser or greater extent, and that this one is particularly great to work for, and very generous in every way. And, you know, if you don't think you're being paid your "market value," there is an easy remedy for that. (That would be the, um, job market.)

If I do go to grad school, and if my cohort is large enough that there are subgroups to it, I really need to be part of a subgroup of people who work hard and have good attitudes. Because this stuff does influence me and I don't want to be around a bunch of whiners who think life is unfair all the time.

(NB: I don't think people are wrong for complaining about legitimate grievances. If you work at Walmart and can't afford to take your child to the doctor, rail all you want - I'm with you. But if all you have are upper middle class problems, then STFU with your BS about "unfair.")

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Taking the Putnam

Yesterday morning, I went to school to participate in the Putnam Competition. This is a six-hour math exam (if you want to call it that), split into two 3-hour sections, with a lunch break in between. Each section has six questions that require college mathematics and a lot of creative thinking to solve. Each question is worth a maximum of 10 points, with partial credit given, and the median score is typically 1 or 2 points (out of 120).

I didn't really have time to go, but I didn't see how I could miss it. The competition is only for undergraduates, so this was my last chance, and I'd never done it before (nor had an opportunity to, that I was aware of, though you can take it four times overall and needn't be a senior nor a math major). I wanted to support our math department as well; I knew some people wouldn't show up, and I wanted to be able to say that, yes, we can at least field a Putnam team. (I wasn't on the actual team, which is three people from each school, in the end. But that's fine. You don't work together anyway - it's a purely individual endeavor.)

The morning session was fun. Of the six problems, one looked tractable, but I didn't get anywhere with it. I turned to another question that looked less tractable and ended up writing out an answer. (You have to write a full proof for the answer, not just solve the problem.) I am pretty sure a central assertion in my proof was wrong, though, but I haven't had a chance to check it yet. (It involved an 18x16 matrix, which I'm sure was not how the problem was meant to be solved.)

What was fun was that I was only trying to score any points at all. On a normal exam you're trying to get all of the points, or fall short as little as possible, but I was aiming to just get above 0, so it wasn't really stressful. I had three hours to work on as little as one problem.

The professor running the show bought us lunch - we all walked over to Old Chicago. It was actually pretty blissful. There were six of us students, of whom two are in my advanced calculus class, one is in my "senior seminar" next semester (but I hadn't met him yet), and the other two were unknown to me. (One I'm not so sure about - he argued on the way to lunch that irrational numbers can be accurately represented as fractions, using 22/7 - a classic approximation for pi - as an example.) We talked about the test, and other math topics, all through lunch. The professor kept quiet and just let us talk, which for all I know might have been out of peevishness at our annoying qualities, but felt gracious.

I found myself hoping that this is what grad school is like - that there are other people around and you can talk about math with them sometimes. I realize undergrad is like that for some people, but it hasn't been for me. I really enjoyed it. I also realized that I hope my graduate program does not have a competitive feel to it, because I wouldn't have enjoyed lunch nearly as much had we all been trying to one-up each other.

After lunch, we had six new problems. Several of them seemed tractable but I couldn't gain any traction for a long time. I was really tired from my week (I've been exhausted pretty much all week, and had to get up extra early for this thing), and that started to kick in, and I had had too much iced tea at lunch, so I had that nervous/sick kind of feeling, plus I kept having to pee. I finally did get an answer to one question. I now think that part of my answer was wrong, but I was really happy with the way that I approached it and the style of proof that I wrote for it. Still, I did not enjoy the afternoon session very much.

In the end, I am really glad that I went, and I'm hopeful that I might have scored 2 or 3 points on the exam. I'll post when scores come out.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Mathematics Genealogy

I was looking at The Mathematics Genealogy Project today. It's a project that kind of sounds like what it is - for (many) math professors, it lists their advisor and students, so you can trace up and down. And it's kind of astonishing.

I did a search on one of my professors, and this is what I found as I went up the chain of advisors (leaving out some initial steps for anonymity):

1. my Professor - no known students (makes sense; my school doesn't have graduate programs)
2. his advisor
3. the advisor's advisor, PhD from Indiana University, 1960.
4. Tracy Yerkes Thomas, Princeton, 1923. I knew I was getting into the past because the dissertation title was "The Geometry of Paths," which is just way too basic and short to be modern.
5. Oswald Veblen, U of Chicago, 1903.
6. E.H. Moore, Yale, 1885.
7. H.A. Newton, Yale, 1850.
8. Michel Chasles, École Polytechnique, 1814.
9. Simeon Denis Poisson, École Polytechnique, 1800.
10. Poisson had two advisors - Joseph Lagrange, and Pierre-Simon Laplace.
11. Lagrange's advisor was Euler, and Laplace's was d'Alembert.
12. Euler's advisor was Bernoulli.'s kind of amazing how few steps it takes to get from anyone to someone famous (even famous to me).

Another of my previous professors led me upward to Darboux (of Darboux sums fame, presumably) within a few clicks.

I got from one of Sally's professors to Isaac Newton! (It did take a few clicks, though.)