Time to crawl out from under this rock

June 24, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Posted in family, life, martial arts, math, motorcycles | Leave a comment

Hi all,

Just some quick update stuff. I wanted to mark my return to the blogosphere with something deep and/or profound, but nothing’s coming to me. So it’s just non-deep and non-profound me here.

Dad and Sandy are coming to visit in 9 days. Excellent. It’s also giving me/us an excuse to get some delayed house projects off the back burner. Good stuff.

I haven’t been motorcycling much since Jenny hurt her back a while ago. The few solo rides I’ve taken have been good, but I’ll be glad to have my riding partner back in the saddle. Best not to rush the healing of these back injuries, you know.

I’m doing the REU again, and the team I’m directing is making progress. They also seem to be enjoying the work, which I’m glad about. I also finally got some comments and suggestions from my editor about the paper I submitted last year. Essentially, it’s recommended for publication after serious revision, but the editor’s notes are detailed and thorough. I’m digging in.

I haven’t gone back to TKD this summer, and my attendance last year was sporadic due to work. I need to get going with the physical activity, though. The gut does grow without it.

There it is. Nothing deep or profound. I told you.

More thoughts about Atheism, Agnosticism, and Neo-Paganism

February 28, 2009 at 10:42 am | Posted in math, religion | 4 Comments

I discovered something about Atheism today. I thought Atheists believed that there is no god, that gods do not exist. Apparently that is not the case. Several sources agree — 1, 2, 3. (These are the top results of googling “define atheism.” I was lazy. Sue me.)

It seems that Atheism is not the belief that there is no god, but simply lack of belief in a god, usually for lack of evidence. I thought that was Agnosticism, but I was wrong there, too. The root of the word “Agnosticism” is “gnosis,” meaning “knowledge.” Agnosticism is the either the state of not knowing that gods do or do not exist (weak agnosticism), or the view that the state of existence of a god or gods cannot be known (strong agnosticism). Agnosticism is about a lack of knowledge, or the lack of an ability to have knowledge, about the existence of gods. Atheism is about a lack of belief in the existence of gods. (I know some will object to the connotation of the language, “lack of belief.” I am not implying that Atheists or Agnostics are “lacking” in that interpretation.)

I have therefore come to the conclusion that I am Agnostic, but not an Atheist. I believe in the existence of God, Goddess, a Divine being or beings, life giving creative force(s) of the universe, Tao, … whatever you want to call it. But I do not claim to have knowledge that it exists. If I had knowledge of its existence, I wouldn’t need to believe in it. That’s part of the point.

It is just like in Mathematics. Everything that is known in Mathematics is proved from prior knowledge, which is founded on more basic knowledge about numbers, functions, sets, and so on, until finally you get down to the bottom, the first principles, the axioms of set theory. These cannot be proven in terms of prior knowledge, because there is nothing else that comes before them. These are non-provable statements; they are the axioms of set theory upon which all Mathematics is built. (See disclaimer (*) below.)

An axiom is a statement which is assumed to be true, it is not and cannot be proven. Why do we assume these axioms? Either because we feel we have to in order to do Mathematics, or because we believe them!

Similarly, there are assumptions I make that form the basis of how I imagine the universe to be, my cosmology, if you will, and how I interact with the universe and everything in it. One of my assumptions is the existence of something that is, for lack of a better term, divine.

(Side note: this something is not supernatural, but completely natural. After all, I see the word “nature” as essentially referring to the nature of existence, and if something exists, how can it be “supernatural,” or, “beyond nature?” The divine force(s) I believe in are part of the universe, not apart from it. They are not exempt from the rules of existence that govern the rest of us; in some sense they are the rules.

Systems of belief that a god or gods are so intimately connected with nature are generally called Pagan or, to distinguish them from pre-Christian religious practices, Neo-Pagan. So I am apparently an Agnostic Neo-Pagan. Cool.)

These things, I believe. But I do not claim to have knowledge of them. If we humans learn more about the universe that is in direct conflict with some of my beliefs, then I will review those learnings, and I will review my beliefs, and eventually I will perhaps come to some new cosmology.

So, Atheists, I’m sorry about misunderstanding and misrepresenting your views in my blog entry of a couple of weeks ago. My statements about intolerance still stand, though.

(*) Disclaimer: Don’t quite Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem at me. I know the foundations aren’t quite as clean as I described, and yet I still do Mathematics. Just like I don’t know that gods exist, yet I still can have an active and productive relationship with them. I am not so troubled the lack of a tidy rational explanation for everything that I cannot live in the world and do what I do. I believe that at some point you just have to make your choices and act as best you can without having analyzed every last detail.

Web 2.0 experiences in the classroom

January 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Posted in conference, education, internet, internet culture, local, math, technology | 3 Comments
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I just got back from TLT Day, Teaching and Learning with Technology Day 2009. I attended a great presentation by Marianne Hebert on Web 2.0 in the classroom. It was a great presentation that I was rather disappointed with.

The presentation slides are here on slideshare. (I learned about slideshare from Marianne’s talk … thanks!) See, that’s why I say it was a great presentation. I learned some new stuff that I want to look into and, via the discussion, found ways other folks are using Web 2.0 stuff. I even learned what the heck Web 2.0 means.

The reason I was rather disappointed with it is that I didn’t leave with ways to improve the classroom/course experience for my students. Sure, I know about various web stuff that’s really cool, and I could incorporate these things if I wanted to, but it’s not clear at all if using these things (like delicious, facebook, twitter, google maps, google docs, etc.) will improve my classroom/course experience. This left me conflicted, since I thought it was a good talk.

And that’s when it hit me. The talk basically said that people are on the web, our students are on the web more than we are, and here are lots of ways that we can interact with them to facilitate learning in ways with which they are comfortable. It gave lots of examples and demonstrated how many different websites are used. And it did a good job at that.

But that’s not what I need in order to improve my classroom/course experience. I’m not just going to use a piece of technology because it’s cool. (Ok, I might. But only if it’s REALLY cool.) And I’m not going to just throw more technology into my classes with the hope that the experience will be better. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to work.

What I need to do is spend some time alone and brainstorm. I need to just strip away all perceived boundaries, imagine that no impediments exist, and that I can make any classroom experience I can imagine a reality just by willing it to be. If that were the reality in which I lived, what classroom/course experience would I create? What sorts of things can I imagine?

That’s hard! I don’t know about you, but if I start doing that, part of my mind (call it the practical part) immediately starts thinking about all the problems with implementing what I just imagined. Now don’t get me wrong; I like the practical part of my mind. And I know it’s just looking at things that way with the intention of solving those problems. But it gets in the way of the creative part of my mind that imagines in the first place. And my creative part can get bummed out by a preponderance of practical concerns that I don’t know how to solve. So I need to take some time to give the creative part free reign, and imagine what I want to make happen.

Once I get an idea of what that looks like … well, then I will sit back and have a beer. A good beer, like Guinness. But after that, I will let the practical part out of its cage and say, “Make that happen!” In reality, it will probably only make a facsimile, or a lower dimensional projection, of my imagination happen, because it has to live in the real world. If it really can make my imagination happen, that’s a sign to me that I need to dream bigger.

So, my conclusion is that coming to a talk like this the way I did today is almost like putting the cart before the horse. I need to have that dream first. I need to imagine the ultimate classroom/course experience in a limitless world. Then I can come to a talk like this and when I see something useful I can say, “Hey, that can help make this little part of my ultimate experience a reality!” Then I won’t be just adding technology for its own sake. I will be filling a need, a function that I have already identified. Then whatever I add is practically assured to make a tangible improvement.

You’re indirectly responsible for this realization, Marianne, so thank you. You just may have helped me make every conference I go to more enriching. I also had good conversations with Linda, Karen, and Jenica. It was a few hours well spent IMO.

I also attended a workshop about iClicker, a classroom voting system that I will be using extensively this semester. I’ll devote a separate entry to just that.


November 13, 2008 at 6:45 pm | Posted in art, math | 4 Comments

This past Tuesday, 11/11/08, the SUNY Potsdam Math Alliance hosted its first Origami Night!  Four professors in the Math department do a non-trivial amount of origami, and they generously agreed to lend their expertise to what turned out to be a VERY well-attended event.

I made a stellated icosahedron.  Below is a picture of one, though it’s not the one I made. Here is a website that explains how to make some modular origami projects out of pieces, or modules, called Sonobes. Here is a picture of two made with pretty paper, made by Future Girl. I didn’t take a picture of mine before I gave it to my sweetie as a present.

I can’t wait to make more!

Stellated Icosahedron

Life update

October 21, 2008 at 8:58 am | Posted in conference, family, holidays, life, math | 1 Comment

Well, the semester is in full swing as you, dear reader, may have guessed by the infrequency of my entries alone.  But life doesn’t stop, that’s for sure.

Last weekend I took 10 students to the Fall 2008 MAA Seaway section meeting, a local math conference. The talks were very cool, and many students told me they had a great time. I was also the chair of the student program committee. Last meeting in the spring, there were only 2 submissions for the student talk session, so this time we decided to supplement student talks with other things, like math jeopardy and an ice cream social. We also had two faculty give an workshop for undergraduates on how to craft a math talk. Lots of good stuff for our students. Then we got 12 submissions for student talks! We had to get help to cover all of the rooms we needed to fit all of these activities! In the end, though, I think it was a success. And we have some ideas to make the arrangement of activities better next time.

Some family have been going through some pretty rough times, and there is nothing I can do about it. That’s weighing on me and making it hard to concentrate on anything. Life sucks sometimes.

This weekend we’re going to do some preparation for winter. We’re going to store the motorcycles, and put the trailer out of the garage and beside it, covered with a tarp. Then we’ll have the motorcycles winterized in one bay, and the car in the other. I should replace that broken window in the garage door, too.

Thanksgiving at our house is on, and we’re going to have folks over again. Hopefully we can avoid the plumbing disaster this time around.

Over Columbus day weekend Jenny and I visited some friends and relatives. The relatives were Martin, Uta, and Tanta Martha who were visiting from Germany. Tanta Martha knew me when I was a nipperkin. She nicknamed me “schlingel,” which loosely translates as “rascal,” a nickname that stuck to me with my Oma (Martha’s sister) all my life. This will probably be her last visit to the states, so I just had to make the trip. I made two different holiday liqueurs, whose recipes I learned from Oma, and brought them to share during this visit; they were a hit. I really improved the coffee liqueur this time. We also had a great visit with our dear friends Edz and Sacha. One of these years we’ll get them up here to chill with us in the north country.

Academic advising has begun. It’s almost hard to believe that it’s time to start thinking about next semester already. On the other hand, I’m already thinking about what I’m going to be teaching in the 2009-2010 academic year, so it shouldn’t be so hard to believe.

Time moves so fast. I should make some time to think long term about life and what I want out of it. I did that over 10 years ago when I was working as a waiter in a restaurant, and I set myself on this course, got back into school, and now I’m a mathematician and professor. But it’s about time for a long term view again. I’m not going to be switching careers or anything, but I need a better balance between work, home, family, etc. Jenny and I talked about that a bit on the car ride back from the visit with the german relatives. Putting it off to the “break” between the semesters doesn’t work. There is no better time than now.

Paper, textbook, and motorcycle updates

August 18, 2008 at 2:28 pm | Posted in life, math, motorcycles | 9 Comments

Just a couple of updates on stuff from my last entry. My paper is done, and it will likely be submitted to a journal this week! I’m very excited.

About the textbook problems: after I complained to the publisher (the email was positively scathing), our rep fixed everything to our (the textbook manager’s and mine) satisfaction. I have the new edition in the bookstore, and they took back the old ones at their expense, and all within 3 business days of my complaint. I’m upset about the price increase, but that happens with new editions all the time. Overall, I am very happy with the way the situation was handled. No hard feelings.

I got my motorcycle back with the new exhaust pipes on it. The pipes were from an ’82 Yamaha Virago 920, and I have an ’81 Yamaha Virago 750, but folks on online forums said that exhaust systems from those early year Viragos are interchangable, so I took a chance, and it paid off. They fit just fine, and it sounds great. Not too quiet, not too loud. And I picked up a windshield they couldn’t get rid of for less than half the price, and it looks great! The only problem now is I need new saddlebags, since the current ones now hit the stock pipes (which are higher than the aftermarket ones I took off). That, and I need to fix a pesky turn signal, but hopefully that’s just replacing a bracket; a quick fix. That should be done soon, but the saddlebags will have to wait … I’ve put enough money into this bike this year!

Math is Delicious!

August 13, 2008 at 11:47 am | Posted in books, comics, life, math, motorcycles, technology | 6 Comments

Check out Questionable Content, one of my favorite webcomics. It’s about a bunch of 20somethings centered around a coffee shop. I’m currently wearing this t-shirt. There are others here. Good geeky stuff.

In the meantime, I’m doing math a lot these days. The REU inspired me to get this paper that I’ve been procrasti- … er, working on, out. And for a week and a half now I’ve been incredibly productive! Talk about taking the bull by the horns and running with your nose to the wheel! It’s been great, and it looks like I’m going to meet my self-imposed deadline of getting this paper presentable, at least to a couple of colleagues to look over, and without qualifiers like, “Ignore the formatting errors in chapter three,” or, “I know the proof in the Hermitian case needs work.” This is going to be a no-qualifiers, one edit away from submission to a journal, state of done-ness.

This makes me very happy. It almost makes me not mind so much that my motorcycle’s been in the shop for a week and a half. I think I’ll call them. They said a part was on order last week, and that it’d take several days to get, so it’s not totally unexpected that it has taken this long, but I’m getting antsy.

What else is going on? Jenny’s tummy is unhappy, so neither of us got much sleep last night. My poor sweetie. 😦 She’s been doing lots of riding on her bike, though. Good for her! She’s taking it slow, practicing on the college campus after hours and on local residential roads. She’s concentrating on having excellent control, and building experience, and therefore confidence, little by little. We can’t wait til we can ride together, each on our own bike!

One and a half weeks until classes start. There was a recent issue with one of my textbooks. One company bought the textbook I was using from another company and raised the price by over 60% from the last edition. Then they had the nerve to ship us hardcover copies of the old edition, and were charging the inflated price! I sent one of the nastiest emails I’ve every sent, and it looks like it’s being taken care of at no cost to us. We’re getting the new editions, and my textbook manager won’t have to have our bookstore pay to send the old copies back. If it all works out, I’ll have no ill feelings about the publisher. I may not use this book again at this price (it’s a bit late to change at this point), but we’ll have to see.

Now I’m off to a clicker demo. “Clickers” are used for ConcepTests, classroom voting and such, and the college is evaluating several systems from various vendors. I use them regularly. I don’t recall if I’ve posted any entries about them. There’s lots of info online if you want to google “clickers,” or “conceptests.” Ta-ta!

Math research is cool.

August 1, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Posted in conference, life, math | 7 Comments

This summer of 2008, I took part in an REU, Research Experience for Undergraduates.  It’s the acronym that has stuck for a summer program where talented undergraduates work with a Mathematics professor on a research problem.  The Potsdam/Clarkson REU has been running for about 11 years now. This is my first time doing it. The professors here who are involved with it find it a good way to stay active in research in a school with such a high teaching load. (The current 24 credit per year teaching load is being reduced to 21 credits per year, with plans to further reduce it to 18. But recent changes in the state government make me wary of being too optimistic.)

I was very apprehensive going into this. Actually, I was downright nervous. Finding a tractable research problem for myself is enough of a challenge, but finding one appropriate for someone with an undergraduate background, where they could learn enough of the area to understand and make progress on the problem, seemed an incredibly daunting task. Nevertheless, people do it. There are REU programs all over the country, so surely it can be done.

I prepared for this in a few different ways. I talked with professors in the department who have done it in the past. We talked about selecting a problem, getting the students up to speed, managing the group dynamics, etc. Also, I attended an excellent workshop at the spring 2008 meeting of the MAA Seaway Section by Francis Su of Harvey Mudd college. He has been doing research with undergrads for years, and he really broke it down and made seem manageable.

My biggest obstacle seemed to be how to get the students up to speed and actually working on the problem quickly. Do it too quickly and they won’t have a good sense of the context or a deep enough understanding of the problem. This could lead to initial attempts that are overly naive, or a lack of motivation. Do it too gradually, and too much of the eight weeks is taken up by learning background before they even start the problem. This could lead to a drain on the initial excitement and enthusiasm of starting the REU, enthusiasm that should be harnessed, not squandered. After all, research is hard. There will be frustration enough.

I decided on the essentials they needed to have, and to avoid too much of me lecturing, I assigned them mini-presentations in the first week. We met for the first time on Monday, and at the end of the afternoon session, I gave each student (there were 3) the equivalent of a short chapter to read, learn, and present a 10 minute talk to the other 2 students and me. It was not a formal presentation, they would not be judged on their speaking style or anything, and if they got stuck we would help them through it. It was understood that this was new material to them and they weren’t yet expected to speak as an expert, but they should attempt to do as thorough a job as they could in the time given. This was assigned at the end of our first day, Monday, and they were to present on Wednesday morning. I would be available for questions before the presentations if they wanted or needed it.

I thought the talks went very well. No one ran screaming, and they all took their assignment seriously. So I followed it up with a more in-depth talk, about 30 minutes long, to be delivered on Friday morning. They were doing pretty well by this time, so I assigned topics that, if they understood them, would enable them to understand the main question our research was to be centered on. It worked! The talks went well; they knew from the friendly atmosphere I took the effort to create for the first talk that this wasn’t something they would be judged harshly on, and they seemed much less stressed. They did a nice job, and in the afternoon session of the first Friday, we were able to state the problem in an appropriate amount of detail. I was so happy to be able to get to that point before the first week ended.

A large part of this was due to my having high expectations of them, and communicating those expectations. Also, the talks early on got them involved in learning the background more than if they were just listening to me and reading books and papers. (All these happened too, and were essential.) I think those early talks gave them a sense of teaching each other, collaborating with each other. Whatever it was, I rested much easier after that first week was over.

The rest of it was very good. They made good progress, they got stuck, they got unstuck, they went down dead ends, … in short, they got a good idea of what math research is like. They were also successful in making conjectures, proving some of them, giving a great presentation to the other groups in the REU, and writing a nice paper about it. At this point I suspect the paper is at least worthy of being published in an undergraduate journal, perhaps more. I’ll be reading it next week with fresh eyes after having put it down for a week. One of the students is giving a talk about our results at a national conference in a session on student research this week.

I am incredibly proud of and impressed by these guys. They did a fantastic job, they worked hard and long, they were tenacious and creative, and they produced a nice paper at the end. I’m also very happy with myself that I was able to provide an environment that let them achieve what they did. What a great feeling! This is one of my most fulfilling professional moments ever. I hear that not every experience doing research with undergrads is this fulfilling, but I’m so looking forward to doing it again!


Monty Hall, again

April 8, 2008 at 7:31 am | Posted in math | 11 Comments

There’s a NY Times article about cognitive dissonance in monkeys, and the Monte Hall problem.


You have to log in to read it, but it’s free to create an account, and I don’t think I’ve gotten spam from doing it, not with the NY Times, anyway.

Happy Pi Day!

March 14, 2008 at 8:02 am | Posted in life, math | Leave a comment

It’s Pi Day, everybody! 3.14 = March 14th. Celebrate the world’s favorite irrational number by having some pie. Pizza pies are ok, too. You can even calculate their circumference if you know the diameter, just multiply by … you guessed it, pi!

Here’s a website about pi day with cool facts, quotes, and more. One of my favorite quotes is from a mathematician named Leopold Kronecker, “What good is your beautiful investigation regarding pi? Why study such problems, since irrational numbers do not exist?” Even the best of us get it wrong sometimes.

This site has a Pi Day special 12 by 12 sudoku puzzle using the first 12 digits of pi.

YouTube has some great videos, too. Here’s one.

It’s also my second wedding anniversary! And the 8th anniversary of meeting my future wife. Happy anniversary, Jenny! I love you!

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