Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Revenge of Young Sith, or Inappropriate Giggles

OK, so I had to share this. I finally got around to seeing Revenge of the Sith while I was last down in Atlanta. (Overall, an OK movie. I have to give Lucas props for managing to make it look like he always had a grand scheme in mind from the beginning, which I don't really buy.)

But people in the theater must have thought I was a little crazy at one point. (Admittedly, I waited so long I saw it for a dollar, so I probably don't care what the other patrons thought.)

OK, very minor spoiler warning on the following, in case you haven't seen the movie and would actually be surprised by the scene I'm about to describe. Like, if you've been living in a cave on Mars for the past ten years and didn't see most of this coming.

So anyway, we all know Anakin turns evil. He leads a Storm Trooper attack on the Jedi temple and kills all the Jedi there, including all the kids. In one scene, we have an unbearably cute kid come up to Anakin and says (very earnestly): "There are too many of them! What will we do?" At which point, Annakin pulls out his light saber and gets a sort of grimmace. And I start giggling. Because I'm suddenly flashing back to Young Frankenstein. Remember the monster and the little girl throwing petals down a well until they run out? Then the little girl says "What will we throw in the well now?" At which point I swear I think Peter Boyle gets the same expression that Hayden Christensen later had in the Jedi temple. I think it's really the same scene. With a light saber.

Monday, August 22, 2005

It Begins

Classes started for the semester today, and I'm exhausted. (Partly from having arranged a schedule with everything crammed into Monday-Wednesday, so I can make Atlanta trips about once a month. You make your trade-offs. I do like saying "I'm done for the week" on Wednesday night to the guy in the office next to mine, just to be annoying.) I feel pooped. (And that's as a direct object.)

I really hate the first day of intro Calculus. Not so much for the material, which is moderately interesting, but because there is so much process to cover. I have all the usual stuff: this is how the course is graded, we'll have these quizzes and those tests. (If they are short quizzes, we can call them "little quizzies", but you should avoid using similar terminology for short tests.)

I have to send them to our online course management system to retrieve documents and assignments. (We're not supposed to photocopy handouts for class anymore. Budget cuts. So yes, that means we are passing even more costs directly to the students by asking them to, in essense, do their own photocopying.) We also have to tell the students how to sign up for an extra course meeting (at a computer lab) during the first week, and how all that will work. (This includes telling them how to find the computer lab.)

Additionally, the course is the standard math class for most math and science majors, so there are many sections. A number of the sections are taught by graduate TAs, who may be first time teachers. So there has been large scale standardization, including common time exams and a separate online quiz system for the labs.

All of the above has to be communicated in less than 50 minutes to first year students who are lucky to have found the classroom today, and who also have another 4-5 classes which are probably similarly overwhelming them. Oh, and I need to start on some calculus. I can't get behind, because have you seen the schedule we have to meet?

Speaking of schedules, we had some difficulty with schedules this time because the school finally has given the students Martin Luther King day off in the spring semester. (Which in Virginia, was Lee-Jackson-King day for a while because the legislature thought it would be a good day to use the day to celebrate General Lee and the Stonewall Jackson on the same day. Think I'm joking? Guess again.) The school has been under some pressure to recognize MLK day as a holiday, and has finally given in apparently. However, to balance the semesters, they needed to excise a day in the fall from the schedule as well. (This has been sort of a mess to plan for; a day has just vanished from the semester, but only for classes which meet on that day.) I find it interesting to note that the school has decided to avoid controversy by giving us Columbus Day off this year. I can't wait to see how this goes over.

All of the above notwithstanding, I count the first day as a sucess. No needed technology blew up, no major problems have appeared in my class schedule, I have yet to find whatever awful mistake or omission I found in my course contracts, and I'm still standing. And as near as I can tell, so are my students.

Goodnight to all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Visiting Atlanta

TMWA just returned from another pilgrimage to visit his other half in Atlanta. It was good to see him, but too short. Classes start for me next week, and have already started for him, so it's the best I could do. Despite the apparent glamour, avoid the two-state relationship whenever possible.

The trip takes about six and a half hours, if you go straight through without really stopping. It can be sort of meditative sometimes, with long stretches of road filled with... I'd like to say filled with nothing, because that would be artistic and all, but I'll have to say "stuffed with cars everywhere." I wouldn't think the roads would be quite so crowded in-between the cities, but they are. (And in the middle of the day. On Tuesday for crying out loud.) It may be because there are so many trucks. Why in the world do so many things get shipped by trucks, instead of something a little more efficient, like rail? Or passenger pigeon? (You know, lots and lots of them, all tied with little strings. But then I guess we'd have a serious bird poop problem in this country, and I'm not sure that's better. Although broad, white, crispy plains have a certain flair, it could be like driving through a sticky rainstorm all the time.)

I was greatly disappointed to find that a wonderful Indian restaurant we used to visit in south Atlanta has apparently folded and been replaced with some sort of Barbecue place. It may be a chain. That's sort of heart-breaking, since the food was almost transcendent. Best Indian I've ever had, although I'm hardly a world-traveling conne connues expert type guy. (Ah. Connoisseur. Aren't the Internets wonderful?) In fact, the only trip I've had out of the country was to Spain, and I'm not aware of it being a bastion of Indian cuiss cusi food. (OK, it's cuisine. Just playing with you. You're surprised? Perhaps you didn't notice the name at the top of this page?) But I know what I like, and that was it. Now we need a new Indian place in Atlanta. I'm sure there's a good one, we just don't know what it is yet.

The meditative nature of the trip was enhanced by the fact that I went sans AC to save gas, and just left the windows down, and if you haven't noticed, it's hot out there. And humid. It's actually not too bad to me; growing up in Texas attending marching band practice through the month of August for 2-3 hours a day on an asphalt parking lot has left me with a high heat tolerance. I must leave the windows down 'though, and that means no music. (Try listening to something in your car with the windows down doing about 70. If I do, I usually forget the radio is on until I slow down or stop somewhere, at which point I get startled when I suddenly start hearing voices.) But it leaves me a lot of time to think. Not necessarily about anything, mind, but think nonetheless.

The scenery can be fairly entertaining though. Let me give you the brief tour of my trip up from Atlanta today...

We begin up 85 through the heart of Atlanta. Since I left mid-day, I didn't hit major traffic snarls, which is good. Just general traffic, which is plenty. Winding our way out and into the Georgia countryside, we find ourselves passing billboards for upcoming quaint and rustic country stores. There's one: "TOPLESS! TOPLESS!" And another which says "TOPLESS/TOPLESS" (I'm assuming there are two halves which are topless in this case, and I don't know what sort of person that refers to.) Also: "Topless Adult Toys!" (I figured this one out: A convertible is a topless adult toy. I'm sure there's a car lot on site.) Yes, we are approaching the "Cafe Risque", one of several pornogruffy stops heavily advertised on the way. These seem to appear from about North Carolina on down. (We discovered this summer that they also exist all the way down 85 in Georgia into Florida, culminating in the "X-Mart" somewhere near Orlando, which advertises itself as an Adult Discount Super-Store. I'm not sure what one of these would look like, but I'm guessing a lot of latex is involved.) And yes, in case you're wondering, the "Cafe" does in fact advertise food, which leaves us all wondering: Who eats at some place like this? ("Here's you're soup--oops! Sorry about that... Let me get that out...")

The Cafe is exit 173 on the way out of Georgia. It's almost the last stop, and it's a stop I usually make, because it's also the last Chevron available until at least North Carolina. (They are not apparently in SC.) I like Chevron for long trips, since they claim it helps clean your engine. I also like it because the major US manufacturers import it into Detroit for their federal emissions tests, so it must be fairly clean-burning. Is Chevron evil? Who knows. Odds are excellent given that it is an oil company.

Then across the border into South Carolina, where I pass Walhalla at Exit 1. (This is where Elmer Fudd goes if he dies in battle.) Exit 2 is Fair Play, where there is a giant red box of a building, maybe 5 or 6 stories tall in the middle of nowhere, with a gigantic yellow sign shouting "FIREWORKS" at the top, which is easy to read from the road. Also easy to read from the road is an only slightly smaller sign over the front entrance reading "NO SMOKING". (I swear, the letters are maybe 3 feet tall.) There's another of these buildings as you exit South Carolina on the other side, except it doesn't have the giant "no smoking" sign. Maybe the first building learned from experience at some point.

South Carolina has another smut shop, "Bedtyme Stories", which is oddly enough in Blacksburg, SC. I always find myself wondering if maybe there's is a magic portal that connects all towns of the same name, so I could just slip through to Blacksburg, VA, and be a lot closer to home. I never tried. If I do, I'll let you know how it goes. I also pass by "Dallas" at one point on my trip, and when I enter North Carolina I pass through "Cleveland County." I get around a lot on this trip. Oh and there's plenty more fireworks sites, like Shelton's ("Party down with a big bang!"), and roadside stores that sell both fireworks and peaches, which I suppose is only natural if you're a little insane. The latter is in Gaffney, SC, which features the "Peachoid", a water tower made to look like a peach. (Pictures included at the link.) I remember being a little nonplussed the first time I saw this wonder on the way down to Georgia a few years ago, and now you can all share the experience. (We saw a second, smaller peach-shaped water tower on the way down to Florida this summer, but the Gaffney one is definitely of higher quality.)

Then it's into North Carolina and through Charlotte, and we switch to I-75, at what used to be a fairly scary junction, but which is now fairly easy thanks to some construction finally finishing. (And is it just me or is everything everywhere under construction this summer? A few weeks ago I found myself being directed into a detour in the middle of another detour.)

A bit further, and we reach Lake Norman-Cornelius, which is apparently a semi-major vacation spot for people who like lakes. I like it because there is a K&W cafeteria there at a good place for a break and I like to eat some vegetables occasionally when I'm riding for a long time in the car, in the hopes that I might one day have a bowel movement after all that sitting. There is also a really great Indian place, but I tend not to be to adventuresome in meals while on the road in case I encourage aforementioned movement to come a little earlier than planned, and possibly between rest stops.

Then it's the home stretch: Into Virginia, where we're immediately climbing a massive mountain and watching the poor truckies sort of grind to a halt. There's a great view into the valley at one point, but when you're driving alone, the great view is likely to turn into a really spectacular view and brief, much-too-thrilling ride, followed by a crunch and a splat, so I don't spend too much time looking. When I reach the shot tower state park, I know I'm almost to I-81, which will finish my journey. (Did you know shot towers worked by dropping hot metal from a great height and letting it cool while it fell so that the metal formed a round and mostly-solid ball by the time it hit bottom? I didn't know that, until my partner explained what the shot tower was on one trip.)

So finally I'm home, where I can finally feel sure that yes, I unplugged the iron, and no, I didn't leave the door unlocked. And if the description seemed long, you really gotta try the trip sometime.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Disney Conversions

I am a Disney theme park true believer, and this summer I converted my partner.

I think most people who have not been to a Disney park assume it is similar to most other theme parks, and that's the disconnect. I don't particularly care for most theme parks, but Disney is in a category of its own.

My parents and I went to California when I was 11. We drove the desert southwest to reach California, visiting Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert on the way. (Also awesome sights, but not my point here.) And while in California, we spent a day at Disneyland. I think my parents were almost as excited to go to Disneyland as I was. (My mother later wrote she didn't know who was happier; me or the "two lost children who never got to go.")

The whole family loved the park. I think my mother was most surprised by how clean and beautifully maintained the whole park was, which is nothing like the usual theme park experience. (And Disneyland opened in 1955.) It was beautiful, with a loving attention to detail throughout the park.

We made another trip to California, and finally made it to Disney World in Florida when I was 14. A colleague recently remarked that she loved Epcot now, but "no child really wants to go to Epcot." I did. I think I was more sold on this park than the Magic Kingdom. Epcot had opened a little after our first Disneyland trip, and I was practically drooling. I remember seeing spreads in magazines and television specials about the new park. It sounded so incredibly cool--and it was. I pored over the official guide before we got to Florida, getting ready for the trip. We first entered Epcot in an early afternoon just after a rainstorm, while the walkways were wet but the sun was coming out again.

The first attraction I saw at Epcot was "Horizons", and it was everything I could have imagined and more. I drank in all the visions of the future, all the wild animatronics and special effects, and the giant projection screens that made me feel like our pod was "flying" across landscapes. (I still miss Horizons; I'm sad it's gone, although I understand the need for Disney to create new attractions. I really wish I could go back and see it again, 'though, and I wish I could take my partner with me. I understand the nostalgia people get for long-gone attractions at Disneyland, even if I might like what replaced them.) I loved the whole park, but my first memories stand out most.

Did I mention I'm a complete roller-coaster weenie? (I even hate small drops, like on a standard flume ride. That's the degree of weenie we're talking about here.) I think that's part of why I'm such a Disney park fan: there is so much more than thrill rides in any Disney park. When I was 16, my high school band went to a contest at AstroWorld in Houston. The trip included a day at the park. It was sort of disappointing to me, even given that I knew not to expect a Disney park. It was mostly thrill rides (which I avoided), and the theming seemed so minimal. It wasn't a bad way to spend a day with friends, but I wouldn't have paid to do it. (Of course, if you're one of those people who actually like roller-coasters and the associated "oh-my-gawd-I'm-gonna-die" sensation, I guess I can see the appeal.)

So while I've never felt much urge to go back to standard theme parks, I'm a Disney junkie. But there are those in my life, who, through no fault of their own, are as yet Unbelievers. My partner fell into this category. Although I regaled him with tales of The Mouse, he remained an inveterate skeptic.

But finally, after years of gentle nudging and not-so-subtle hinting, I got my partner bundled into my car and on the road to Orlando after my summer classes were finally over. I think he was just humoring me, actually, but after talking with other Disney fans, I finally went with the theory "If I get him there, he will have fun."

We spent part of the trip down going over descriptions of parks in the unofficial Guide (my favorite) to decide what to do, and we passed a bit of a watershed at some point: By the time we arrived, I think he was finally actively interested and not just humoring me.

We spent a day in the Animal Kingdom (new for me too, since it was built since I last visited), took one day off, then went to Epcot for a day. We took between us about 1,200 digital pictures (I'm not exaggerating), ate a ton of great food (small exaggeration), and generally had an absolute blast. We also got lost a lot; I'm apparently not quite up to navigating Orlando roads.

Current highlights and reviews:
  • Animal Kingdom is very neat, but different from most Disney parks. There's more to walk through and look at, including a lot of cool animal habitats; in this respect, maybe it's a bit like the World Showcase in Epcot.
  • The new Animal Kingdom Lodge is magnificent. It's African themed, and houses some neat African art and artifacts. It's almost like a new World Showcase pavilion. The attached restaurant (Boma) is amazing, and a lot of fun. (We stayed outside of The World to save money, but we did try the restaurant.) It was a lot of fun in that I'm a fairly adventurous eater, and there was a lot there that I'd never had, or in some cases, never heard of. Like watermelon rind salad, or a carrot-ginger soup.
  • Although I stand by my earlier statement that I am a roller-coaster weenie, I tried a few rides that I had reservations about, and had fairly postive experiences.

    • "Dinosaur" at Animal Kingdom was not bad at all, but it really fakes you out. There were many times I was afraid that I was about to experience something euphemistically described as "thrilling", but it was fine.
    • Test Track at Epcot was a little more intense, but survivable. There are some sudden accelerations and a "braking test" that was a little over the top for me. (My partner calmer than I; while I was going through his pictures later, I discovered he has some from inside the ride, including one of me which, if you look closely, reveals that I have a death-grip on the bar in front of me.)
    • Tried "Soarin'" (a sort of hang-glider simulation) for the second time (the first was in California a few years ago), and found myself actively enjoying it, to my greater surprise.
    • I sat out "Mission Space" at Epcot because I started to feel nauseous standing in line. (Since it's rumored to be Disney's most nausea inducing ride, I thought I should probably skip it.) I was probably feeling over-stimulated from just coming out of Test Track. (My partner said "Mission: Space" was fun but intense. On the other hand, he also saw an ad and wants to go on the "Tower of Terror" at Disney-MGM on our next trip. Buddy, you're on your own for that one.)
But the important point is that my partner came away completely convinced and ready to return as soon as possible. By the end of the day in Epcot, he was rushing from pavilion to pavilion in the World Showcase, desperately trying to see everything before we ran out of time. It was very cute, and it was the moment at which I was sure I had him sold. I finally have a permanent Disney buddy, and have confirmed what I've long suspected: If you can just get a doubter to Disney World, they will have fun.

New Mathematical Principles

After consultation with a colleague who was here way too late (as I was), we came up with two useful new principles of mathematics.

Axiom of Generalization: If something works for three cases, it works for every case.
The Axiom of generalization is popular with math students everywhere; if we allowed for it, we could have all sorts of interesting new results, such as the following:
"No infinite series converges to any number."
Proof: It is fairly straightforward to see that the infinite series with nth term (1/2)^n cannot converge to 0, 1/4, or 1/2, since the partial sums are strictly increasing and the second partial sum is already bigger than 1/2. Since we have exhibited three numbers to which the series could not converge, it clearly does not converge to any number. Also, I can easily construct two more series for which this is true...
The Axiom of Chance I think speaks for itself:

Axiom of Chance: If a result looks plausible, publish it. (Alternative form: Retractions are easier than proofs.)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Ending Summer

I am rapidly approaching the end of another summer. In theory, I have summers off. This means I can do other fun things, like teach summer classes, catch up on projects I didn't get to during the year because I was busy teaching, and . . . prepare for my next semester of teaching.

I taught during first summer session this year, and that gave me a chance to start prepping for teaching the same course in a large section this fall. I've been teaching a class in large sections recently, and so I was asked to take this one. (Apparently I'm now considered a large class expert. I hope this doesn't translate into last-minute large class assignments, because getting ready for a large class is a large pain.) My notes and some other materials are already made, and I have a few ideas about how I might handle homework and tests.

I also feel the need to try to publish something. I have material from my dissertation which I haven't published yet, but every time I look at it I end up feeling there's so much to do that I don't start. It would be a good idea to try to get something published 'though, since I'm job hunting again this year. My current job is sort of a place-holder. I can likely keep it for a while, but the department will happily attrit the job as soon as I'm ready to leave. On the other hand, math teaching jobs are sort of sparse these days. So I search, and go on searching.

I hate having to put myself forward and try to sell myself in the job hunt. ("Hi, you don't know me, but you should hire me and pay me lots of money because I'm really awesome. Trust me.") It's another reason why I'm not looking forward to the end of summer: job postings will start to appear again. I also stress about it because my partner is working in another state, and we are still trying to solve the problem of getting us both to the same area again. Ack, I'm starting to think I should have called this "StressBlog", but I see there is apparently already one of those.

On the upside, I had a fairly good break, including a vacation with my partner (more soon), and this week I've finally managed to get to the gym a few times. (You could tell my letters were looking especially buff and ripped today, couldn't you?) Now if only food weren't so tasty . . .

Who is the Tall Man?

Long ago and far away (in college), some of my friends developed descriptive names for each other. I didn't have one initially, but one day Bearded-Man No Hoo-Hah, in a fit of pique, dubbed me Tall Man, Wise-Ass. (I had been hassling him. It's what I do.) I liked the name, and it stuck.

Also long ago (at least it seems), but not so far away, I went to grad school, and I kept up with my friends in a series of missives I labeled "The Pilgrim's Progress", and for a while went by the nickname "the Pilgrim". (I started a bit of a trend. Several other people started similar chronicles detailing their own grad school journeys. Yes, we were a geeky lot.) Initially the letters were fairly frequent, but over time I seem to have sputtered to a stop.

Recently I found myself wasting way too much time re-reading these epistles and decided it was time to renew my efforts. And I thought to myself: "Self, I should try one of the blog thingies that are all the rage." I figured it would be a significant improvement over sending out my life saga by e-mail because, um... Technology! Interactive multimedia! Paradigmicity!

Anyway, blogger all that; here I am. (Actually, I'm just sitting in a chair right now typing. But in spirit, I'm on the web.) While I'm at it, I decided to go back to being TMWA.

And lest anyone should ask, I'm not tremendously tall and definitely not that wise. But a Wise-Ass? Well... that would be telling.

As a final note, did you know that the spell checker built into Blogger does not apparently recognize the words "blog" or "blogger"?