In 1633, Galileo was found “vehemently suspect” of heresy. His heretical opinion: holding and defending the belief that the Copernican, heliocentric model of the solar system was true in contravention to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life and forced to recant, verbally and in writing, any belief in the Copernican model. His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was banned. All because the Copernican model contradicts Biblical scripture. Well, mostly that. The conflict between Galileo and the Church was as much political as scientific or religious. Galileo had made some powerful enemies, people who also opposed Pope Urban VIII, accusing him of being too soft on heretics. So Galileo was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Nearly five centuries later, the entire affair is one of the most stark examples of the conflict between science and religion.
It was an unfortunate conflict, an unnecessary conflict. Whether science and religion are irreconciliable or incompatible is a much larger debate than I can discuss here, but in this case the conflict seems minor. Galileo was not a villain attempting to derail the Church; he was a good Catholic, earnest in his belief that the pursuit of truth through empirical study and mathematics was a form of devotion to God and appreciation for God’s handiwork. The Copernican view may have seemed threatening at the time, but only a century elapsed before the Church removed most pro-Copernican books from its list of banned texts. What happened to Galileo did not have to happen, but it did, a conjunction of personalities and politics clashing to form the zeitgeist of 17th-century Italian science and culture. It is a sad episode in history, for both science and religion, and now we try to move forward.
Or not. Watching today’s session of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology reminded me of Galileo’s trial. There was something eerily familiar about watching the committee grill Munir Sheikh, the former head of Statistics Canada who resigned over how the media represented StatsCan’s role in this matter; Ivan Fellegi, former Chief Statistican for Statistics Canada; Don McLeish, president of the Statistical Society of Canada; and many other experts. In both situations, you have an institution in power ignoring facts in the name of political and ideological expediency. While Sheikh et al. aren’t quite being forced to recant, there is a comparable intensity and pressure coming from some of the committee members (mostly from the Conservative MPs, but not completely).
It was disturbing to watch David Anderson try to force Sheikh and Fellegi to comment on the content of long-form census questions. As these two tried to make clear, Statistics Canada is not responsible for choosing the questions, only for administering the census. If the government is concerned about the privacy implications for the long-form census questions, maybe it should do something about the questions.
Sheikh, Fellegi, and the other statisticans all agreed that a voluntary census would be biased. The notable exception seemed to be David Tanny, a mathematics professor from York University, who mentioned that the mandatory census has its problems (negative bias associated with the “mandatory” part). That may be true—but it does not make the voluntary census any more accurate a priori. So that’s why the compromise favoured by many of the committee’s witnesses, including Don McLeish, makes sense: do both. Run the mandatory long-form census and a voluntary replacement, then compare the data sets to see if this alternative is viable. The statisticians are doubtful, but that’s what statistics is all about: gather and then report.
Somewhat topically, statistics are what the Conservatives need but do not have. Where are the studies that show this is the best alternative, if an alternative is truly what they desire? Where are the statistics that show Canadians are outraged over the invasion of privacy signified by the mandatory long-form census? The Privacy Commissioner doesn’t have them. Where are the statistics showing that Canadians live in constant fear of incarceration should they fail to complete the long-form census? It is one thing for the Conservatives to propose changing the census—which could be improved, most likely—but it is another thing entirely to make unilateral changes to the census, at practically the last minute prior to the 2011 census, without any research to support the changes.
The government’s arguments for these changes are ultimately inconsistent. After Sheikh’s resignation belied any implication that Statistics Canada recommended the change, the government has fallen back to its original argument: the mandatory long-form census is invasive to Canadians‘ privacy. Additionally, the threat of incarceration for failing to fill out the long-form census is unreasonable. Since there are viable alternatives to a mandatory census, we should make the long-form census voluntary to address these concerns.
As mentioned above, the claim that the census invades Canadians’ private lives is dubious. Even if it does, Canadians do not seem to be very vocal about it. Furthermore, the census provides valuable data well worth the inconvenience of telling the government how many bedrooms one has in one’s house—this is the same government, remember, that asks how much money you make and then takes a cut. But I don’t see the Conservatives abolishing income tax. Some of the alternatives to a long-form census, such as the citizen registries used in Scandinavian countries, are far more intrusive. Fellegi stressed to the committee that the census data is collected anonymously, that the danger of it somehow being identified with the individual who submitted it is insignificantly low. Hence, there is a difference between being intrusive and being dangerous when it comes to privacy concerns.
So what about the assertion that incarceration is an overreaction to non-compliance? I actually agree. I think most people would agree. As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that no one has been jailed for refusing to fill out a long-form census. Fellegi mentioned this during his testimony. Yet the Conservatives insist on creating a false dichotomy around the issue of enforcement: either, they insist, we keep the mandatory long-form census and throw people in jail, or we make the long-form census voluntary. There is, apparently, no middle ground, no alternative.
Since when have jail time or a fine (the other option) been the only punishments for breaking the law? Surely there are methods of enforcing a mandatory long-form census that are more reasonable. It’s not my job to suggest enforcement methods—and it is certainly not the job of Statistics Canada or statisticians, despite attempts by David Anderson to get Fellegi and Sheikh to do just that. No, once again, the onus is on the Conservative government to develop a solution. Too bad they neither want to admit it or address the problem. Rather than a good round of antibiotic, which a more robust form of enforcement would be, the government has just decided to amputate the infected limb.
Privacy and enforcement aside, there are good alternatives to a long-form census, right? Yes and no. Yes, alternatives exist. Other countries use some of them. Some of them have more privacy concerns, but ultimately the major issue comes to one of statistical accuracy and integrity. What works for one country may not work for another, and without proper studies on implementing a change in Canada, we cannot just appropriate a foreign model. That would be irresponsible.
Irresponsible is exactly what the Conservative government is being, and it makes me angry. As a mathematician and as a Canadian citizen, I am saddened and disturbed by the government’s disregard for the opinions of its civil servants and its experts. This is a rejection of science in favour of a political agenda—and agenda that is far from consistent, as I have demonstrated above. The census provides essential data on life in Canada and its population. It is not only a source of that data, but it is the benchmark against which other surveys—including Statistics Canada’s voluntary surveys—are measured. So many groups rely on census data: the government, notably, as well as business groups, religious groups, special interest groups … the list goes on almost ad infinitum. And here we have the Conservative government blatantly ignoring opposition, forging ahead with an ill-conceived notion that they are crusading against violations of privacy.
Yet it moves.
Hello, my name is Ben, and I am a genre snob. Or at least I was. I‘m trying to quit, but as fellow genre snobs can attest, it is not easy to surrender culturally-inculcated notions of genre and embrace a more nuanced approach. Still, I need to try. For the children!
This week I read Amanda Scott’s Tempted by a Warrior, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. Had I paid more attention when entering the giveaway, I would have noticed that the book is historical romance, not merely historical fiction, and passed. I didn’t notice, however, and I won the book. As I prepared to write my review, I discussed the book with a friend—who, as it happens, reviews paranormal, romance, and even paranormal romance1 for one of those review sites to whom publishers send books with the eager trepidation marketing people perfect after too many years in college.
I opened the conversation by quoting one of the sex scenes in the book:
Me: There is a list of words that automatically ruin sex scenes for me, and “tempestuous” is one of them.
Her: I can’t imagine why.
Me: Aside from that, this book isn’t that bad.
Her: “Turgid” tops my version of that list.
Me: Yes. And “tumescent.” Lots of T words, eh? “Throbbing” and “pulsating” don’t help either. Sometimes I can tolerate “throbbing”, but if any part of your body is “pulsating,” you should seek medical attention.
To be fair, the sex scenes aren’t actually that bad. There’s two of them, and aside from triggering my list with “tempestuous,” they are tasteful.
Oh, and this was before my friend realized which book I was reading:
Her: Are you reading that romance?
Me: Yes… . I‘m trying to parse everything now and make sure my reactions aren’t biased by the fact that this is romance. The rational part of me knows that there is nothing wrong with “romance” in general, just as there is nothing wrong with “science fiction” in general … but the irrational part of me insists this is not the case.
Me: Maybe it’s just fluff fiction I dislike, regardless of genre.
Sadly, this is wishful thinking, and I know it. Romance is the genre, for me, that belies my claim to be genre-neutral. I am sensitive to genre snobbery, because as a lover of science fiction, I dislike it when anyone shuns science fiction based on a claim that it is not “real literature.” But the moment somebody pulls out a romance, I recoil, and my prejudice rears its ugly head. I‘m worse than a genre snob: I’m a genre bigot!
And then my friend blew the discussion wide open by dropping the elephant in the room:2
Her: Remember, you have to review it as a romance.
Boom, suddenly my mind bifurcates. One Ben (we’ll call him Genre Ben) agrees with this proposition. The other Ben (we’ll call him Agnostic Ben) rejects it. A single sentence summarizes my internal conflict over how I write reviews and how I perceive books in general. It doesn’t help that I read a book about art criticism last week, so the subject is fresh in my mind.
Looking through my reviews, Genre Ben has left his fingerprints everywhere. Of thrillers, Genre Ben writes, “I don’t pretend to hold thrillers to the same standards as great works of art” (from this review). Even worse, when reviewing another romance, Genre Ben comes right out and says, “It’s unfair for me to expect this book to rise above its genre.” Right there, an implication that romance is somehow inferior. Oh, I am ashamed of you, Genre Ben.
The problems with genre are myriad. How does one define a genre? Who decides which genre—or genres, since a book can be more than one—a book inhabits: the author, the publisher, bookstores, the reader? I agree that as a naive labelling tool, genre is useful. For the purposes of criticism, however, Genre Ben makes me uncomfortable.
Agnostic Ben snickers, feeling victory is close at hand. Not so, for he does not hold the high ground. I happen to agree with Ursula K. Le Guin, who laments that she cannot review The Year of the Flood as science fiction. Le Guin respects Margaret Atwood’s desire not to be
… relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers, and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.
Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.
Le Guin’s point resonates with me, with both Genre Ben and Agnostic Ben. After all, genre influences our expectations. As Genre Ben observes in that earlier romance review, we expect westerns to have horses, outlaws, and guns; we expect science fiction to be filled with difference, whether it’s spaceships or robots. If the author insists her novel is not science fiction, then fine: it’s not science fiction, so all of this unrealistic language must be interpreted without the benefit of the science-fictional lens.
So at this point in my conversation with my friend, Agnostic Ben decides to move the marker:
Me: I only disagree in part. I agree that our conception of genre influences how we perceive a book, and that in turn affects how we write a review. Where I disagree is the premise that genre somehow alters the merits a book must have in order to judge its quality.
In other words, Agnostic Ben’s platform is that we should not condemn a book because it claims membership in a particular genre. My friend had none of it, however:
Her: It’s our job as reviewers to appraise whether or not the book meets the expectations of the genre … and to have a firm enough grasp of the intricacies and indiosyncrasies of each genre and subgenre to judge them as such.
Well said! I did not have an adequate response for this, and so I unfairly segued into an epistemological attack on the concept of genre, and a confession of my own insecurities on this entire issue.
In particular, I examined the fact that books often belong to more than one genre: the book that started this whole debate, Tempted by a Warrior, is historical romance. But is it really two genres—historical fiction and romance? Or is historical romance a subgenre of romance, much as, say, cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction? Or maybe the book is romance, and its setting is historical.
Sometimes when the debate over what constitutes science fiction comes up, I opine that science fiction itself is merely a setting rather than a genre proper. It makes sense, after a fashion. There are many different types of science-fiction stories: action-adventure, comedy, tragedy, even romance—the good old, classic genres, right? Science-fiction books belong to many different genres, sharing only the backgroup of a science-fictional setting in common.
I‘m not entirely comfortable with this argument. It does not seem to address the fundamental point both Le Guin and my friend are trying to make, the role of genre in a reader’s (or reviewer‘s) expectations and criticism. All I’ve done is relabel “genre” to “setting.”
So perhaps we cannot entirely rid ourselves of genre—it is here to stay, in one form or another. Then the question of defining genres becomes paramount. From the beginning, I have to dismiss any notion that genres can be disjoint. As “historical romance” makes clear, a disjoint definition will require so many subgenres as to make one’s head spin. Let’s go easy on ourselves and allow genres to overlap.
I will not attempt a general algorithm for categorizing a story by genre. I am an amateur at this game, and no doubt more learned people than I have tried. However, let me explore what passes for romance these days, since it is the central genre under discussion here.
Romance as a genre has undergone drift over the centuries. The Wikipedia entry for Romance (genre) refers to the traditional definition of epic or heroic narratives, tales of dazzling deeds. In the 19th century, Wikipedia explains, “the connotations of ‘romance’ moved from the fantastic and eerie … to novels centred on the episodic development of a courtship that ends in marriage.” Thus is born the the romance novel, which places its “primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an ‘emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.’” Wikipedia also notes that “the genre has attracted significant derision, skepticism, and criticism.”3
That definition comes from the Romance Writers of America, incidentally. The second clause, regarding an optimistic ending, surprised me in its specificity. It makes sense, however, because this clause differentiates romance from every other genre. People fall in love all the time—it is practically a disease—and characters in novels are no exception. The element of romance occurs in almost every story; after all, love is one of the most powerful sources of conflict. Some of my favourite books are love stories, wrapped in hilarious British absurdity. So a book just about romantic love between two people, even one whose primary focus is love, may not be a romance. Unless it has a happy ending. (I am a sucker for tragic endings, so maybe this is why romance and I part ways.)
My goal in this little exploration, in case you were wondering, was to find out why romance is its own genre when love is universal. The requirement of a happy ending is a good reason, but I‘m not sure if it is strong enough to make romance a genre in its own right. Agnostic Ben is shaking his head as I write this, but I want to deny any agenda here. I’m just investigating my own tastes, trying to discover why I avoid romance and whether I can rationalize this prejudice or banish it.
Frankly, I think more men should write romance novel reviews! Because they tend to cut directly to the problems and not gloss over what works and what doesn’t work. Whereas when women (like me) write snarky reviews, other women (hard-core romance lovers) get all bent out of shape—for whatever reason—maybe because they don’t want their novels have any mirror on reality or to be feasible/workable in real life.
While I don’t want to digress into a gender stereotype discussion, the notion that some reviewers (regardless of gender) “cut directly to the problems” instead of giving romance a free pass is an intriguing one. Because I think that was the visceral reaction Agnostic Ben had when my friend told me I had to review Tempted by a Warrior “as a romance.” Although she did not mean it that way, my first instinct was to interpret this admonishment as an instruction to be more lenient because, as Genre Ben would phrase it, “the book is just romance.”
No book is just anything though. Genre Ben and my friend might be right in that we cannot completely decouple genre from criticism—nor would be desirable, I suppose. By the same token, not all criticism stems from genre, and Agnostic Ben wants to give precedence to these genre-independent perspectives when deciding a book’s merits. Alas, it falls to poor, ordinary Ben, a mere mortal, to reconcile these positions and synthesize appropriate reviews. In the past I have often succumbed to genre snobbery; doubtlessly I will do so again, despite my vigilance. Hopefully, however, I will often succeed in going beyond—but not excluding—genre in my criticism.
Thanks to my addictive use of Goodreads, I have written a review for every book I have read since August, 2008—about 300 reviews in total. Many of them suck—more from being rushed without revision—but there are a few gems of which I am ridiculously proud. I like to take my endeavour to review the books I read seriously, and that requires serious thoughts about how I write reviews.
But I don’t want to take it, or myself, too seriously. So here’s a lolcat.
It is Saturday, but it doesn’t feel like Saturday, mostly because I’m … at school. This is the last day of the CUMC. I’m in the last talk of the day, having chosen to attend “Perfect Matchings and Shuffling.” Afterward, there is the final keynote, which Ram Murty will deliver on the Riemann hypothesis.
Yesterday I went to a talk on fractal image compression. The talk itself was not stellar, but there were some good questions on the applications of this type of lossy compression, and the speaker addressed those well.
In the afternoon Aaron, Rachael, and I took a bus—yes, a bus—down to King St. This was my first time riding public transit, and it wasn’t in my own city! Aaron wanted to visit a small record store, Orange Monkey Records, and then i checked out a used bookstore known as Old Goat Books. I bought more books than I should have, considering they need to fit in my sparse luggage—but I couldn’t resist.
The final keynote of the day was delivered by Greg Brill, of Infusion. Although titled “The Evolution of Technology,” Brill’s talk was not what I expected. He has a Masters in computer science (after coming from a liberal arts background!) but talks like a showman rather than an academic or a businessman. He discussed how mathematics—and hence, mathematicians—are essential to the development of technology, particular business products. For example, he mentioned how his company had been working with motion-sensing technology similar to Kinect, and that the main problem was not a lack of technology but a lack of the mathematics necessary to achieve what we want in that area. Brill is very keen on the idea that we are moving from an idiomatic society to an idiom-less one and is convinced that mathematicians will help make that happen.
Dinner came in banquet form, and while the food was OK, the dancing was better. That’s right: dancing. I love to dance, and I had a great deal of fun on the dance floor for about an hour or so before calling it a night. I’m not as young as I used to be.
Tonight we fly home, and tomorrow I go to my nephew’s first birthday party (no weekend recovery for me). Then it is back to math research: reading papers, re-reading papers, writing algorithms, and making tea. CUMC has been fun, but I will be glad to be home.
It is Thursday, July 8.
After the first talk this morning—on set theory, particularly ZFC—I spent time caressing the lovely wireless network by way of uploading some photos to Flickr. When attempting to geotag them, however, I ran into the slight problem, in that typing “University of Waterloo” into the Flickr map’s location finder produced no results.
So, Yahoo!, in case you are wondering why people drool over Google and its products, here is a hint: we are lazy. When I type in the name of a major university, your map should be able to find it for me. I should not have to go find a postal code on my own, enter that, and wind up in the general vicinity of the campus. (I used Google Maps to find the postal code too, which just seems wrong). It is not that I am a Google fanboy, Yahoo!—they just do it so much better.
At lunch, I did something completely out of character and chose to be adventurous, purchasing bubble tea for the first time. My less adventurous self was soon vindicated. We went to a fast food place called “The Grill” for food. I attempted to poke my straw through the seal placed over my cup—urged on by Rachael’s encouragements of, “Just do it!”—and after one mighty stab, the straw went through … and the bubble tea exploded. A plume escaped from the top, but the cup also developed a leak in the bottom somehow, and it spilt all over the table and down onto the floor. We don’t cry over spilt milk, but what about spilt bubble tea?
I also decided to be adventurous when it came to food. The menu had a “lamb burger” on it. I have had lamb before, but never in burger form, so I ordered one of those. Its taste was similar to a regular hamburger, which disappointed me.
For some reason, I was lethargic after lunch and greatly desired a nap. I blame the heat. I struggled to stay awake and pay attention to the afternoon’s talks—first one on computability theory, and then another on universal algebra. After that, we had a little break before going for dinner. Rachael and I ordered some chicken fried rice from a Chinese place, while Aaron opted for shrimp wonton soup. The price was right and the portions huge—I could not finish mine, although I came close, while Rachael ate a lot and left even more.
The morning keynote speaker was Michele Mosca, from the University of Waterloo. He talked to us about quantum computing, with a particular focus on quantum cryptography. The talk was more about mathematics than of mathematics, with only a little actual math involved. I quite enjoyed the subject. Quantum computing is a concept that sounds like science fiction, but it is real; we have quantum computers—albeit primitive ones—right now! The future is here.
It is Wednesday, July 7. The CUMC talks began today.
I went to four talks today. Rather than summarize them all—I enjoyed them all—I’ll mention some highlights. The first talk of the afternoon was both my least favourite and most favourite talk. Entitled “The Ontology of Mathematics: Do Numbers Exist?,” the presenter read from dense slides, which did not make for the most riveting experience. There was some lively discussion among the audience, however, and I enjoy talks like that.
Comparing CUMC to the Combinatorics & Optimization workshop that preceded it, I prefer the student talks of the former. The topics are so varied—there is so much choice within each time slot, that it is difficult to decide which talks to attend. The atmosphere is less intimidating, because it’s undergraduates talking to undergraduates. I almost regret not giving a talk myself—almost, for it would involve public speaking, and long gone are the days when classes made that mandatory.
There were two keynote speakers, one at lunch and one at the end of the day. First, Frank Morgan, from Williams College, gave a talk on densities and the Poincaré conjecture. As I have never studied differential geometry, most of the mathematics went over my head. The audience in general got into it, however, asked great questions, and we all tried answering the questions Morgan asked of us. In the end, I learned from the talk, which is all one can ask, right? The second talk was easier for me to understand, because it involved matrices and metric spaces. I love metric spaces! Carsten Thomassen, visiting from the Technical University of Denmark, was the speaker; he also gave two talks at the Combinatorics & Optimization workshop.
After the last keynote, Aaron, Rachael, and I walked down to the campus plaza, which has a cornucopia of restaurants. We elected to share a pizza, placed an order, and then took it back to the air-conditioned environment of another building. The Waterloo campus is beautiful, but the heat makes any sort of lengthy walk unattractive. Waterloo campus is also big—compared to Lakehead’s, at least—so every walk is lengthy.
The pizza proved a good choice, as it was tasty and filling. We walked back to the residence where Aaron and Rachael stayed, and then Rachael and I listened to Aaron’s talk, which he is presenting tomorrow afternoon (it concerns the classical Cantor set). Tomorrow I plan to attend talks on set theory, computability theory, universal algebra, and perhaps one on range-sum queries.
I’ve uploaded some photos from my trip so far. They are all accessible in this Flickr set, and new ones will be added there as well.
It is Tuesday, July 6.
Today’s four talks began with electrical networks and random walks. That is, suppose you have a graph that describes a network through which electricity flows. Starting at a vertex x, what is the probability that, when walking at random along the graph, we will arrive at a vertex s instead of a vertex t? This talk was very easy to follow (for which I am thankful), even though I don’t have any engineering or physics background with which to understand the electrical current aspects (like voltage law).
Unfortunately, the second talk involved probability. Probability is great, but I find it very difficult, so this talk was hard to follow. The third talk was about embedding locally-compact metric spaces on surfaces (it is not as scary as it sounds). Finally, the fourth talk was about matching polynomials. The speaker went rather briskly, so it was difficult to take detailed notes, but I enjoyed the subject. Before this summer, I had no idea that polynomials and graphs went so well together. Now it seems like they’re inseparable.
And that concludes the Combinatorial and Optimization workshop. There was a banquet for CUMC at the Huether Hotel, and it was not what I was expecting—very crowded, although the food was good.
Prior to the banquet, Phelim P. Boyle delivered the first keynote speech for CUMC. Boyle is a mathematician of finance, he is interested in the recent financial crisis. He discussed option pricing and the Black-Scholes equation. As with probability, finance is an area of mathematics I avoid, because of its strong dependency on number. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the talk.
I now have access to reliable wireless on campus, although such a phenomenon continues to elude me at my grandparents’ house. Never has my dependency on the Internet been so apparent.
I wrote this last night at my grandparents’ house, which has no Internet connection I can feasibly use (dial-up does not count), so I had to wait until today to post it from the University of Waterloo campus. All references to “today” refer to Monday, July 5.
This week, Rachael, Aaron, and I have travelled to Waterloo, Ontario for two math conferences. The first is the Combinatorics & Optimization Summer School, a two-day event consisting of several talks and, yes, food! The second is the Canadian Undergraduate Math Conference, which also entails much talking and eating. I was reluctant to attend at first, because I dislike travelling. However, my grandparents live in Waterloo, so this was a convenient way to visit them for a week while still getting paid. With that incentive, I managed to convince myself that these conferences would be interesting and probably even useful to my research. This was only the first day, but so far I remain convinced in those respects.
I’ve been up since 4:30 in the morning. Let me take a moment to reflect on the fact that we flew from Thunder Bay to Toronto in an hour and a half, traversing—or rather, bypassing—the largest freshwater lake in the world. And we did it in a metal behemoth that harnesses complex physics and engineering to work miracles.
Flight is awesome.
OK, science-geeky moment over: back to math.
Today there were four talks. We arrived late to the first talk, by about fifteen minutes, but it was still very interesting. It concerned the colouring of graphs on surfaces.
Following a short break, the second talk discussed the Borsuk conjecture, which asks a question about the existence of a certain partition of any set in d dimensions. This was my favourite talk of the day, for several reasons. Firstly, I learned a lot about the diameter of sets, a topic with which I was not familiar. Topology involves a lot of geometry, something for which I lack proper intuition. Yet still it interests me, probably because of its ability to formalize that geometry. I like abstraction. Secondly, the presenter told the story of how Kahn and Kalai proved the Borsuk conjecture false. They took a problem that had been open for nearly seventy years, solved it in a week, and wrote a short, about one-paragraph proof. It’s a wonderful example of how unpredictable and exciting mathematics can be: sure, sometimes math research involves long, boring days reading papers and staring at a problem on a chalkboard. Sometimes, just sometimes, it leads to the most interesting results.
After lunch, we listened to a talk about cutting cake—specifically, how to divide a cake into sections such that no one person would complain that he or she received a worse section. It was by the far the most accessible of the three talks, and the presenter had a very engaging manner. Unfortunately, my fatigue caught up with me during this talk, and I found myself nodding off during the most interesting parts. We learned a little about hypergraphs, which, as the name implies, are like regular graphs but on crack.
The last talk was on symmetric groups and their combinatoric properties. Last week, my prof showed me how we may be able to make use of the symmetric groups to solve the problem on which I‘m working this summer. The talk was more of a review of things I had already learned in group theory two years ago, which was still useful considering the gap in time.
The day began winding down as we went to a pub-like house for dinner. Then we trekked across campus to the residence where Rachael and Aaron are staying. We got lost in the process, of course, but eventually found our way thanks to a map and, moreso, a helpful student.
More to come on Tuesday’s schenanigans tonight or tomorrow morning!
Last week, I discussed how maths is hard, but I spent plenty of time solving a Rubik’s cube anyway. At this rate, you are going to get the idea that I don’t do any work at all. Nevertheless, a desire for accuracy and lulz requires me to remain truthful regarding how I spent this week in the office.
We made a piñata.
We named him Stanley the Resurrection Pig.
I don’t recall who came up with the initial idea. As with all good, crazy plots, it starts off as an innocuous hypothetical scenario: piñatas equal fun, fun equal good, we could make a piñata! This is the last week all four of us will be in the office together—Aaron, Rachael, and I are going to Waterloo next week for a conference, and Jessica is off to Ireland, returning only after Aaron and Rachael’s contracts are finished. So if ever there was a time to set aside the math papers and construct a papier-mâché animal, then savagely beat it to a pulp, this was that time.
None of us are piñata-making experts, and that was probably for the best. Rachael had some experience with papier-mâché—also for the best—so we made her foreman and gave her a silly newspaper hat to go with the title. In remarkably little time, we gathered together the hodge-podge of materials required to manufacture a piñata. We decided on a simple shape, assembled the skeletal structure from balloons, and mixed up a batch of goo to begin the work of creating Stanley.
Over three days, Stanley emerged from a series of colour balloons. He grew stubby legs, ears, and a snout. We named him Stanley because none of us knew anyone named Stanley, and it sounded like a good name for something we would beat to death. (I apologize to all those named Stanley reading this.) Jessica, in particular, was quite bloodthirsty about the whole project. By Friday, however, as we stuffed Stanley full of candy and trussed him in string, we were all savouring the anticipation of Resurrection-Pigpocalpyse.
Stanley met his demise rather quickly. We took him outside, where it was the warmest it has been all summer so far, and suspended him upon a suitable tree branch. Jessica, as the aforementioned most eager participant in this piñata-bashing, got the first swing. I had brought a thin, metal beam that had been propped up in one corner of the hallway outside our office with other thin, metal beams, but we started with a stick to maximize Stanley’s torment. After a few swings from Jessica, however, the stick broke in two. Stanley one, us zero.
So we switched to the metal beam, and Stanley’s death came swift. Jessica pretty much decapitated him with a single, fearsome blow. Aaron, Rachael, and I quickly followed, each of us contributing to his destruction in our own way, until finally he lay on the ground, battered and broken, a shell of his former self.
Stanley was no more. But in his death, he gave us one final gift: lots and lots of candy. Oh, and math riddles. But moreso candy. Really, way too much candy. We had all brought candy, and even though much of the chocolate melted from the heat, there was more than we wanted to take home with us. There is still some of it languishing in the office despite our forthcoming week-long absence.
I could talk about what I‘ve been researching this week, how my supervising prof was in town only for the two days we were dunking our hands in flour-water to make a piñata in the office. I could mention that I’ve started running programs on SHARCNET and it’s awesome. Really, all of these things pale in comparison to spending a week making, and breaking, a piñata.
This was the eighth week of my research. I’m now halfway through my summer job, and it feels like I’ve barely begun. Wow.
Farewell, Stanley the Resurrection Pig. You served but a brief, miserable existence, but you served it well. So long, and thanks for all the fish—er, candy.