Archive for August, 2008

Horse Pie

Posted in Uncategorized on August 31, 2008 by Philonous

Yes I’ve missed it. The irrelevant comments about people’s spelling and grammar. The thwack of keyboard upon human reason. The erroneous and fictitious anecdotes. The endless comparisons to Hitler. That’s right. It’s time to argue about something on the internet.

I’ll get started. Here is an hilarious xkcd cartoon about pretending to be a literary theorist. It’s very funny, because it points out what we all know, that literary theory is a load of bullshit and we could all just make up crap and experts in the field would be fooled. We know this because occassionally we’ve looked at essays by actual graduate students and academics in the field, and it looks like a big load of meaningless drivel. To further illustrate the point, here’s a website that generates essays about postmodernism completely indistinguishable from the real thing.

Except that while I couldn’t distinguish these essays from actual essays, isn’t it possible that academics in the field actually could. After all, it would be pretty easy to make made up maths ‘papers’ and hand them around, and see whether people on the street can tell they’re made up. All the essay writer proves is that I lack the ability to tell the difference between these made up essays and real ones. The two alternative explanations for this are clearly: 1) there isn’t one, or 2) there is, but I don’t know what it is. It seems pretty arrogant to just plump for option 1) without even considering the second.

Now my mind isn’t made up on this. Several people I know who’ve actually studied English at university have a pretty low opinion of literary theory also. And even assuming it isn’t a big pile of horse pie that hardly justifies it’s existence. After all, what’s the point of studying literature at a level nobody else can understand. At least when asked what the point in maths is, we can pretend that it’s essential for the advanceent of science. Or better still, we can point them to Hardy’s apology, which neither we nor they will ever get round to reading.


Posted in academina, culture, maths with tags , on August 31, 2008 by Philonous
Paul Baum (USA) giving a seminar

For those of you that didn’t know, I’m a grad student in mathematics these days. My two advisors are from the Russian school of mathematics, specifically Moscow State University back in the Soviet days. It seems that the culture of mathematics in Russia and the Soviet Union is/was completely different to that in the west. There is a much greater emphasis placed on examples and simplicity of exposition as well as a much smaller divide between pure and applied mathematics.

Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in seminars in Russia and in the UK. British seminars normally last for an hour and consist of a speaker talking about some part of their current research to an audience of academics who are invited at the end, if there is some time left, to pose some questions relating to the talk. Because of the time constraints, it is rather difficult to ask questions throughout the talk for fear of putting the speaker under time pressure towards the end. Perhaps as a result, there is a terrible risk at any given seminar of being completely lost before the seminar has begun. For instance, suppose the seminar begins

‘Let S be a category fibred in groupoids over a topological space X…’

If you are not familiar with one or more of these words, there is a good chance that the remainder of the seminar will be spent counting water stains on the ceiling, doodling and trying not to fall asleep.

In contrast, my impression of Russian seminars is that they have no fixed end-time. This means that foolish questions from people not completely acquainted with the specifics of the topic at hand are welcome. It seems that these seminars may last up to four or five hours, with tea and snacks served throughout. There is therefore an expectation that attending a Russian seminar, one will understand something or other by the end.

Of course this leads to difficulties when Russian and western mathematicians meet at seminars. Russian mathematicians expect to have learned something by the end while western ones are content with the possibility of being bored witless by a string of incomprehensible phrases, knowing however that it will be over in an hour.

No seminar I have attended has resulted in the following chaos, taken I think from a (sociology?) seminar in the US.  I think sitting through this would be much more excruciating, if less soporific than an hour of incomprehensible maths.

The Blue man of Beijing

Posted in China, environment, experiments, health, science with tags , on August 29, 2008 by Philonous

Le Fox and I, listening to BBC’s wonderful Radio 4 this morning were rather struck by the assertion by someone or other that China had used various technology to make sure that there woud be no rain during the Olympics. Slightly bemused, I decided to check up what this was all about.

It turns out that indeed, the authorities in charge made sure of good weather artificially using the technique known as ‘cloud seeding’. The basic idea seems to be to introduce various chemicals into clouds which contain supercooled water to form ice crystals which then cause rain. One such checmical is silver iodide (AgI) which apparently has a structure similar to ice crystals and thereby induces so called heterogeneous nucleation. For your viewing pleasure, here’s a demonstration of spontaneous freezing of supercooled (colder than freezing point) water:

It turns out that actually a great numer of countries use this technique to induce precipitation from clouds, either using aeroplanes fitted out with special tanks of silver iodide (or dry ice) or using anti-aircraft guns to fire canisters into the clouds. China spends $90 million per year on cloud seeding, citing an instance in which clouds in Tibet were seeded giving an inch of snow as a major success. Such techniques, as far as I understand are used merely to induce rain to fall from existing clouds rather than to form clouds themselves. In the week preceeding the olympics huge numbers of canons and rockets were used to fire large quantities of silver iodide into clouds abover Beijing. This had the dual consequences that heavy rainfall beforehand meant that the olympics would be rain free and that the ostensible pollution for visitors would be greatly reduced.

It’s a rather natural question to wonder about the environmental consequences of such meteorological manipulation. Looking around on the internet, it seems that high levels of silver are relatively harmless to humans. The only symptoms experienced by people with a high exposure to silver in factories is a series of respiratory problems, mostly caused by powdered form of the silver rather than any chemical reaction. One slightly bizarre symptom of long-term exposure to silver is so called argyria, a condition whereby silver is deposited in the skin of the sufferer, giving them a bluish-grey tint. This seems to mostly affect ingesters of so called colloidal silver, which was widely used as a cure-all around the world. Prolonged exposure leads to such cases as Paul Karason featured below. Indeed, although there is no particular danger to his health, his skin will remain blue for the rest of his life. Apologies for the slightly cheezy reporting style.

Rather more significantly, silver plays an important role in the potassium/sodium cycle in fish by inhibiting the action of a regulatory enzyme. Interference with this cycle causes fish to take large amounts of water into their tissues very quickly leading to cardiovascular collapse.

Though the idea of cloud seeding seems fairly cool in many respects, especially in countries where agriculture is heavily dependent on consistent and predictable rainfall, it seems that the environmental cost to aquatic life at least indicates that some tempering of the process ought to be necessary.

For some more info on the whole process check out these links:

Leningrad Cowboys

Posted in film, humour with tags on August 28, 2008 by Philonous

Reading Le Fox’s post about Aki Kaurismäki reminded me of a film of his that I’ve been meaning to see for a very very long time, Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Various clips are available on YouTube, not least of the remarkable legacy of the film, the Leningrad Cowboys. If you don’t know of them, they’re a Finnish cover band. The following video will tell you the rest. And yes, that is the Red Army Choir.

Speed Stacking

Posted in random with tags on August 27, 2008 by Philonous

For more information on so called Speed Stacking, check out the Wikipedia page for a brief history and the World Speed Stacking Association (WSSA) website to get involved in this vibrant and fast growing sport.


Posted in film, politics with tags , on August 26, 2008 by Philonous

The other day, I watched Nick Broonfield’s feature length documentary The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife. The action takes place in the South Africa of 1991, painted as a place fraught with internal divisions and the inevitable conflict that results. The story follows Nick Broomfield himself whose aim is to pin down the enigmatic and frankly terrifying leader of the AWB, a far right movement composed of white South Africans looking for a return to full blown apartheid. ‘The Leader’ as he is known, Eugène Terre’Blanche, is firebrand in his rhetoric, prolific in his poetry, steeped in racism and spurred on by tales of adversity faced by Boer generals during the war.

In fact, the impossibility of actually getting hold of the leader leads Broomfield’s attention being more drawn to the leader’s driver JP. He seems to be torn between his sensibilities as a member of the AWB and the overbearing and intimidting manner of the leader. The whole story becomes takes a turn for the sinister when it emerges that JP along with various other shady characters in the AWB could perhaps have been involved in various terorrist acts against blacks.

In the end, it’s a very interesting film which gives great insight into the political situation in South Africa at the time. Watching it however, you do end up wondering how responsible Broomfield has been in his editting for the overall image of the AWB. (There was a libel case from Jani Lane, a then prominent journalist immediately following the fim’s release.) In any case, I was left wondering in the end if the esteemed leader had been moonlighting as the frontman of a rather famous American band…

Quality Airport Hotel Dan

Posted in film, hotel with tags on August 25, 2008 by Philonous

When I arrived at my hotel in Denmark yesterday, I felt like I was in an Aki Kaurismäki film. It was ten thirthy on a Sunday night. I had not eaten anything. I sat at the bar and asked for a sandwich and a beer. There was nobody but the bartender and a group of three Danish drunk men. Later I was in my impersonal bedroom and as I was in bed, the situation reminded me of the follwing scene in the Jim Jarmush film Mystery Train: