Sunday, November 30, 2008

My own take on Thanksgiving

Weather forecasts for this past week were for snow stretching from where I am all the way down to way my other half lives. So for the first time in a number of years, I did not get to spend Thanksgiving there. This is slightly depressing, since I now haven't seen him since August. (Long distance relationships suck.) A small upside is that I have been able to catch up on my sleep, since I didn't have to make two long drives.

But what to do about Thanksgiving? As it turns out, I made a very traditional Thanksgiving dinner for myself. At least on the surface. My menu:
  • Turkey, dressing, gravy, corn, mashed potatoes: The contents of a frozen TV turkey dinner. (I would have skipped the corn and mashed potatoes if they hadn't been included.)
  • A can of cranberry sauce: It was given me in a box of food my partner was getting rid of when he moved about four years ago, but it was still perfectly good. (How often would I otherwise eat cranberries?)
  • Salad with shiitake mushroom dressing: The salad and dressing were both in the 'fridge. The dressing was technically expired, but seemed fine.
  • Green been/mushroom casserole: The one thing I actually made, because it's one of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes. And it's not like there's anything hard about making it.
  • Relish options included sliced pickles (left over from hamburgers in late summer), a jar of peppers (from the same box that I salvaged the cranberry sauce from), and a jar of olives (found in the 'fridge; I'd forgotten it was there).
  • Pre-made apple pie I picked up from the grocery because, hey, apple pie.
  • Coke Zero. (This at least actually is pretty traditional for me.)
The whole thing left me laughing off and on during the holiday, but to be honest, there wasn't really much to give away how faked the dinner was. I now know how to fool people if I ever have to host Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cool changes with the times

I'm in the process of scanning some student solutions to post to the class website, and it just occurred to me: When I was anywhere between about 8 and 15 I thought one of the coolest things a person could possibly own would be a photocopier. I really wanted one. Now I own one. (OK, it's a combination scanner/laser printer that makes copies as a side effect.) I also have access to a really nice copier in the department for whatever I need. They are useful (I'm not sure how many days actually pass without using at least one of them for something during a semester), but I just realized it's not nearly as cool as I thought it would be.

Of course, the other thing that I thought would be the coolest thing ever would be a video camera, and that would be totally achievable too. Every once in a while I think about getting one. I still think a video camera would be cool, but now I feel like it's a kind of cool which would require me to be, you know, creative to get anything out of, and I'm not sure I have enough of that to spare anymore.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Between Hope and Despair

Tuesday morning broke as a stunning day. A rain had swept the earth clean and I walked out into a bright warm day (reminding more of spring than fall) with a fresh scent in the air, as though the world were newly wrought. The scent carried me through some unknown passage to my childhood, to my grandmother's house and neighborhood, and my eyes were seeing the houses along my block through those lenses again for some reason. The air was clean and warm, and I felt uplifted.

I walked to the polling place at the municipal building, which is only a few blocks away. I had no real wait (I think because the district is too small to really have one), and soon punched a button to elect a moderately liberal black democrat with a unusual name as the 44th president of the United States, and I knew the odds were excellent he would actually win. As I walked back, I thought to myself, "So this is what the 21st century feels like." And it felt wonderful.

I watched returns that night, and worried a little until the concession speech around 11:30, when I started to hear screams of joy from the campus a block away. I felt like joining in. It felt good. I had hope for a return from the brink. (Or perhaps more aptly, a chance to at least crawl back up to where the brink was.)

The elation lasted through late Wednesday morning. Then I read that Proposition 8 in California had passed. A majority of California citizens had decided it was appropriate to take away rights already granted to a minority, to chase down those who had been married and viciously tear apart their marriage licenses, symbolically tearing apart their families, their hopes, their very lives. I'm almost numb to most of this asinine nonsense now, and most of the other ugly and awful amendments (like in Florida and Arkansas) I'm almost used to. But in California, they took away peoples civil rights. They took away their rights and their marriages. Because of the children (except of course for the gay and lesbian ones, or the children of same), or because people want to pretend other people don't exist. Because gay people having lives is apparently just icky. And the appropriate response is to take away their civil rights and explicitly condemn them as not just second class citizens, but unreal, non-existent, and in fact, unthinkable. That hurts.

By Wednesday night I was morose. I'm still flitting between moods. I feel a thrill, a joy, every time I see or think about our new president, and the possibility of what he might accomplish, even if that's only a potentiality now. A relief that so much ugliness might end. And sometimes I think of the lives being destroyed and I feel as if I'm about to vomit, or I cry and rage. I'm not sure what to feel anymore.

New E-mail Received

Subject heading: "E-mail Server Back On-line"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Notes from a pre-Halloween trip to Erie

  • For craft stores: A large hanging Halloween decoration should not be termed a "Jumbo Dangler." There's only so much I can take.
  • I went into one store because the sign said a "Giant Halloween Blowout" was "going on now," and I'm still looking for a few things. I found a few small islands with some discounted Halloween merchandise, and approximately 47 billion aisle filled with Christmas merchandise. (I thought about getting some fake cobwebs, but decided it would probably just confuse all the real spiders that live outside my door.)
  • I'm still frustrated by the lack of Halloween clothing for men.
  • I found nice materials for my horns this year. While perusing the gory stage makeup at the party store, I saw a boy about 10 or 12 drawn to the kits for a costume. His mother immediately told him "We're not doing any of that" and dragged him off to the rest of the costumes. I always like the sort of gruesome stuff for Halloween, because that's sort of what it's about. C'mon mom; let the kid have some fun. (I just hope she's not making him dress as a fairy princess or something...)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Contest Updates

This year I managed to organize our first ever Putnam team, and even got students together for practices. Unfortunately, the students dropped like flies. Two dropped after the first practice, and two more after the second. I ended with enough students to make a team, so we were going to be officially represented--but then one more student dropped at the last minute.

I enjoyed Putnam practice sessions, which I ran a bit like a Moore method class (with me in it). I didn't look up solutions to the problems; we just tackled what we could and tried to come up with ideas. It was interesting and moderately productive. (These are hard problems.) Unfortunately, two very strong math majors chose to participate because they are involved in too many other things. In the end, our Putnam team did not score any points, but our school does appear on the list of "Schools which took the Putnam exam", which I still think is cool. I also feel pretty good that I solved a few of the problems on the exam this year myself. (Did I mention these are hard problems?) Perhaps we will do better next year.

I also got together our department's "College Bowl" team, with significant help from another faculty member. We needed four players plus an alternate, and unfortunately we only had five people come to try out, but we did have some fairly good people. I had some schemes for this year, too. It basically tests how much useless trivia students have memorized, so I obtained for our team used copies of a great popular book on memory systems (to stuff pointless facts into their heads with) and a copy each of An Incomplete Education (full of pointless College-Bowl-style trivia to start stuffing). In the end, we did very respectably in our school; we almost made it to the finals.

I also had fun this year "consulting" with the programming contest team. The programming contests frequently involve some interesting mathematics, so I've been coming to practice sessions and helping them figure out how to tackle the mathy problems. The problems are often pretty cool. Between that and the Putnam, I enjoyed doing some occasional math last year. I also like working with the programming team because it lets the students see professors "bridging the gap" between math and computer science. For some reason, we seem to have a division between the math and computer science majors in the department, which is pretty weird, because there isn't much gap I've noticed among the professors.

So what new contests will the "I-don't-like-competition" guy find himself involved in? Funny you should ask; I actually thought about trying to get together a team for a mathematical modeling contest in the spring. Of course as with the Putnam, what I'm really interested in is getting together students to do some math, not really to compete. I didn't do it this year, but I'm looking into more information about mathematical modeling for next year.

FAR, FAR away...

For about a month or so I've had a deadline coming up to turn in a notebook about how great I am and why the school should keep me on. My last school called this a Faculty Activity Report, or FAR, so I keep calling it that here too. When I wasn't tenure track faculty, I didn't feel much need to worry about them. Now I feel sort of like I have to write "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No--it's... SUPER PROFESSOR!" Able to teach hundreds of under prepared students elementary mathematics every semester while contributing heroically to the department and university, and maintaining an active research program at the same time!

On the plus side, I had a few presentations, attended some conferences, have a lot of interesting new thoughts on teaching (partly from one of the conferences), and have picked up a few new activities in the department. On the other hand, I didn't manage to get a paper published (pushed off now for a while longer) and had a fairly weak spring semester. So maybe this year is a wash.

But in any case, the notebook was turned in last week, and I took part of the weekend to go out and have fun, which I haven't felt like I had time to do much of. It was nice to take a break. Now when is the semester over? Actually, that's not enough of a break. When is summer here again? You know, so I can take another crack at those papers for next year's FAR.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Summer is over (Oh bother)

I did get to spend a little over a month all told with my other half, including about a week spent up here with me. (He hadn't been able to come up before.) That was really good on the one hand, but spending so much time together also made me remember I miss him a lot. I was pretty bummed when I had to leave.

It doesn't help that he had lots of adorable kittens living with him at the time, before they were going to go off to homes. One in particular decided I was the best bed EVER. I'd feel a couple of little paws grab my ankle and hear a "mew!", which I discovered translated to "Sit down so I can lay on you and go to sleep." That's hard to leave behind, too.

In terms of productivity, I went to a conference on Moore method teaching, tried to get back into some research, got (partially) ready for classes, and worked on some projects related to our library. (In particular, given the large temporary budget we had for books last year, I wanted to find ways to encourage students to go visit the library and take out some books. This ended with what I personally consider a rather nifty poster I made and hung in our hallway featuring cool new books we have. I plan to keep swapping out the featured books periodically.) I suppose I could probably count that I did clean the apartment pretty well, even though you can't really tell anymore...

But classes started last week, so I'm through my first week. Highlights from that first week:
  • I discovered two students in one of my classes who had taken another class which duplicates it. On being informed that no one can receive credit for both, one was surprised (it turned out her advisor had specifically selected the class for her), and the other said she already knew that but thought she just had to take this one anyway.
  • Get the impression our registration system is a little goofy? It is. One of my colleagues and I have conjectured that it does not actually enforce prerequisites at all. Her analysis class contains several students who have not taken one or the other (or both!) of two prerequisite classes. Some of these managed this by simply failing the prerequisite the previous semester, so that they registered before the system knew they failed, but others seem to have been able to slip in some other way.
  • I helped with an introduction to the computer software Mathematica for a group of students on Friday. When we arrived at the lab, it turned out that the software was installed (as we had been promised), but that the license had expired. The first twenty minutes (in a fifty minute class) were spent talking the students through the registration procedure.
  • One of my classes went more smoothly than it has before, I think because I successfully managed to cut a lot of stuff out of the class time and just leave the students to read and do it. I feel like I need to add a line to the Tao Te Ching: "I teach nothing, and nothing is left untaught." (This actually goes along really well with the Moore method conference I was at this summer, come to think of it.)
  • I seem to have become the "contest" guy in the department. I'm trying to organize participation in one national mathematics contest, seem to have volunteered to take over a college bowl team, offered to help with running a small local math contest one professor is organizing, and have signed on to consult with a computer programming contest team. All this from the guy who basically doesn't like competition. One of my favorite authors is Alfie Kohn. Go figure.
It was a busy week, but I guess not too bad. I'm sort of glad it's a long weekend (even though I normally only teach one class Monday anyway). But it seems a shame this all has to start all over again now.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Terrible realization

I realized that I now prefer short sleeved cotton shirts which button up to T-shirts in the summer because they do a better job of hiding that I'm getting fat.

On the plus side, I've found tons of really cool Hawaiian print shirts over the past year or two, which I love. I note without comment that Homer Simpson says of Hawaiian print shirts, "There's only two kind of guys who wear those shirts: gay guys and big, fat party animals."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Lessons from Cleaning

After the school year ended, I had time to do some cleaning. I uncovered evidence of a bed in the back bedroom early on, and what appears to be carpet all over my floor.

Years ago, I used to do a cleaning of everything about once a week. Now granted, at the time I had an apartment that was probably a third the size of this one, and I had motivation because my then boyfriend would be coming over on the weekend. In fact, part of the reason cleaned this time is because the partner was going to come up here in a week or so. (And he did... yea! Yes, I know; I buried the lede on this one. More later.) It gradually got to be longer and longer between thorough cleanings. I'm not sure how I got to be so bad at it.

I realize now that most of my time is spent picking up something, looking at it, and wondering "What the hell do I do with this?" I keep hoping that if I clean one room at a time, and keep moving the miscellaneous undetermined junk from room to room, the piles will get smaller. Oddly enough, it seems to work.

I've also learned that I've slipped into being a Disney fanatic. I realized an alarming amount of stuff I was picking up and looking for places to put was Disney related. Plus I was listening to an audio stream of music from the parks while I cleaned. It just started getting a little funny when I thought about it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Not scary

A neighbor's fat little beagle barks at me whenever he sees me outside. But every time he tries to bark it ends in a desperate wheeze for breath. This is not really very threatening.

Perhaps someone should advise him to try the Menacing Stare.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Regional meeting

I went to a regional mathematics meeting last weekend in Pittsburgh, which was fun. One of my colleagues got a van and brought a group of students down to the meeting. One even gave a student talk that evening. Unfortunately, the student government ran out of funds and couldn't pay for the students to stay overnight, but they still got to see some cool stuff. Including a trip with us for Indian food. I think that may have been a rather big leap for them; I've never seen people so happy to see rice and bread. I even got them to try gulab jamun, which is actually the most fantastic dessert ever created, but is described as cheese balls in honey, so I'm not surprised they were a little hesitant. (I told them afterwards, "But now you can go tell all your friends you ate cheese balls in honey.") I did hear that our lunch necessitated a side trip to Wendy's later when the group split up for a while.

I did stay the night, and I actually gave a short presentation on a little problem I started thinking about last summer. So that makes two presentations at meetings this year. I'm beginning to suspect that getting accepted to talk is not so difficult. However, I still have to do the publishing part, and that takes a little more work.

Fun story from the conference: On the first day, the organizers had a survey in which everyone put stickers on a poster to vote for various activities at regional meetings. When we finished, we wrote our name on the back of the sticker sheet and dropped it in a basket for a drawing the next day. When it came time for the drawing, someone stood up and told us, "The janitor threw out the basket this morning..."

Morning excitement

When I was down in the basement this morning, I heard something moving around in the empty boxes I have stacked by the sliding glass door. (I haven't yet come up with a reasonable way to put up a curtain or something that isn't a huge project, but boxes sort of work.) I could tap on the boxes and whatever it was would rustle around some more. (This was disconcerting, by the way.) I finally decided it was fluttering, and guessed it might be a bat, since I know bats have gotten in the apartments before.

So I closed up the door upstairs, opened the outside door, and started peeling back layers of boxes until a bird finally slid out from between a few and flew out the door as fast as it could. I have no idea how the bird got inside. It does not speak to the apartment being well-insulated.

Monday, April 07, 2008


I found out last week that we're getting an Indian restaurant in Erie. It's not open yet, but it has a web address on the sign, and it seems to be a chain which has been well-received in other places. This would be very good news.

And we finally had some good weather this weekend, particularly Sunday. I decided this Sunday must have been my Easter. (I celebrate the return of the sun, not son.) Forecasts call for getting into the 60s several times this week, so I'm happy. I'm sick to death of all the snow.

Which means I actually had some motivation to do a few things. (Not lots, but some.) This is good, since I'm going to a regional MAA meeting in Pittsburgh this coming weekend and I put in to talk. There's a good Indian restaurant near the meeting, so it will be a good trip no matter what. Maybe I'll even learn something mathematical. (Stranger things have happened.)

And I guess it's only about a month or so to the end of the semester and summer, which I'm really looking forward to.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Spending money?

We have somehow ended up with a largish budget for our library funds this year. I have guesses as to why this is so, but no one really knows what is up or has been able to answer why the budget is larger than usual. However, I strongly believe that the excess is temporary and will be gone next year, so purchasing more journals or database access (which we probably need) is not a good choice, as that would be a recurring cost.

I'm on the committee which makes requests to the library for new acquisitions. Despite the likelihood of losing some of the funding next year, I actually have requested some database access anyway, but mostly I'm requesting books. The collection for mathematics is actually not too bad; previous committee members have made some excellent selections, and while the collection is not huge by any measure, it is of good quality. (Most the the "classic" books that I thought should be in the library turned out to already be in the library when I first looked into this last year, which pleasantly surprised me.) However this leaves me with a difficulty: How do I spend the rest of this excess money? I have not gotten many responses from the department from my e-mail asking for requests, so I'm largely on my own.

If there were a large backlog of standard works that every library should have that we were missing, this would be easy to solve. If I could safely request more periodicals and databases, again I would have no problem. If lots of people in the department responded to my request for suggestions, again it would be easy. Instead I end up poring through catalogs and lists of reviews and trying to determine which are the good books that are worth getting. In some cases, I'm trying to make judgments (usually from reviews) about whether a book in a field I know almost nothing about is any good. Usually this is not too bad, since in any year a few hours of perusal can generate a list of a dozen or so books that are highly recommended. But when the budget is larger, this takes much longer to do.

Not using all of the funds would be a bad idea. It might result in the regular budget getting cut. (If the larger budget actually continues next year, I'll be ecstatic; we'll assume it's permanent and can expand our journal selection accordingly.)

All of this leaves me with the peculiar sensation of trying to meet a deadline for spending large amounts of money, which sounds easier than it is. (OK, I guess if I just wanted to spend the money and didn't care what it was on, I could make a list really quickly, but it seems pointless to me to get a bad book just because the budget it large. Instead, I have to make a few hundred really good selections.)

I never want to look at another book review again.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


After Spring Break, I had a flurry of students coming by to ask me how to get a tutor, which they had suddenly decided they needed. I had not seen any of those students in my office hours up to that point.

I'm sure it's a direct result of students going home and hearing from parents that if they're not doing well in their math class, they should get a tutor or something. Unfortunately, they would have done better if they had just kept up and come in for occasional help when they needed it. This may be related to students who will do just about anything for extra credit but who skipped most of the credit that was offered all semester.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Long Winter

It's been a long winter. I had a rather sudden return to teaching after a full winter break, and then in the second week of classes I got bronchitis. I think it's finally getting better. This is why for Spring Break I just stayed here, but didn't really get caught up on anything. Plus it dumped a lot snow on us in the first weekend of break. (Some "Spring.") The neverending massive piling of snow looks like it might finally be done for the winter, but we're still not really getting above the 40s, so I'm kind of tired of the weather. At least I feel like I can go out sometimes again.

The semi-loss of my break combined with my busy winter break means I haven't seen my partner since Thanksgiving, which is contributing to the general suckitude of the winter. I've opted not to teach any summer classes, so I'll get to see him then, and maybe get something published too. So mostly I'm just waiting for the semester to end now.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Winter Break

So why has it taken me so long to catch up here? Because it's been taking me this long to start catching up with my life again. I'm not sure I'm quite ready to start the semester, and it started five weeks ago. Why don't I feel fully caught up yet? Let me tell you about my winter break, which is mostly good, but way too busy.

Once finals and grades were done (along with all the other stuff I had to do, like visit the dentist), I set off for a week to visit my folks back in Texas, which is always good. I got back on December 28, and was leaving again on January 1 to go to San Diego for the Joint Meetings of the AMS/MAA, where I was actually accepted to present. (Don't get too excited; it was just a ten minute talk.)

I left on the first as a snow storm was blowing into Erie, and feel glad that my flight got out. I actually had the miraculous good fortune on the flight from Detroit to San Diego to be sitting in an aisle seat with no one in the middle seat. And when I arrived in San Diego at close to ten at night, it was 75 degrees. (Hallelujah!) Picked up my rental car (they gave me a Prius, which I had thought about buying this summer), found my hotel and crashed. Of course, I was in San Diego about five days early, because what's the point of flying to a conference on the other side of the country if you're not going to take some time to enjoy it?

So on the next morning I took a couple hours to drive north and visit a little known tourist attraction for a couple of days:
(Yes! Score...) I had a hotel about a ten minute walk from the parks, which was great. My hotel was beautiful (and a bargain), and it even had an Indian restaurant with a buffet for lunch.

To my delight, all of the holiday decorations, events, and attractions were still running when I got there. The decorations were magnificent, and ubiquitous. (I must admit 'though that it's slightly weird to be walking into the park on a warm sunny day in January with "Sleigh Ride" welling up around you from the hidden speakers.)
Sleeping Beauty Castle

I've always wanted to see some of the holiday attractions, like the overlay for "it's a small world" (one of my favorite rides anyway), seen below at night. (Occasionally, the whole thing would light up with projected images and play holiday themed music along with a light show. It was really cool.) It was good timing in another way, too; the ride is now shut down for about nine months of refurbishment.

Small World, Holiday Edition
I also got to see the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay at the Haunted Mansion.
Haunted Mansion Overlay(Which is amazing by the way. The Haunted Mansion was practically worth the price of admission itself.)

On my second night, I made a reservation for the Napa Rose, which is an amazing restaurant at the Grand Californian resort hotel at Disneyland. (This restaurant is even well respected by the Los Angeles food critics.) I had an extraordinary meal, which was essentially a four course chef's special, with each course paired with its own wine.
Napa Rose meal
(Yes, I take pictures of exquisite meals. One of my colleagues found this amusing later in San Diego. On the other hand, I also realized that I was willing to spend more on this meal than I was willing to spend on a hotel room for the night, so you can see that food is a high priority for me.) I should also mention after four or five glasses of wine, all the lights and decorations in the parks are even more amazing. I highly recommend seeing Disneyland decorated for the holidays at night while slightly sloshed.

So I was a little sad to come to the third day, and after a morning at the parks, headed out to go back down to San Diego for the conference. On the way down, it started to rain. When I checked in at my hotel, they sprang an extra 20 dollar per day charge for having a car, and the hotel room was not as nice as the one I'd checked out of in Anaheim (but cost more). I was an unhappy camper. Why did I leave Disneyland anyway? (It probably didn't help that my feet were hurting from this point from walking so much the last few days, and I had to do a lot of walking to get around in San Diego too.) The rain sort of interrupted touring plans a colleague and I were talking about on the day before the conference started, too.

But by the end of the week, the sun came out and San Diego was at least pretty, as this shot of the convention center attests:
San Diego Convention Center
And with the aid of a Frommers, I found more exquisite food for myself and a colleague to enjoy:
San Diego Food(Actually, I had to sneak out for the sushi on my own. So few people seem to go for this.)

Oh, and the conference? It went fine. Saw some reasonable talks (and some not so reasonable), gave my talk without any real problems, went to my colleagues talk, and ran into several people I wasn't expecting to. (Most were from grad school, but I ran into one math major from college I hadn't seen in ages.) Then I finally flew back to Erie, got home around 11 pm on Thursday night, and realized: Oh crud. Classes start Monday.

So this is why, although I had a pretty great break for the most part, I'm still a little dazed and confused and not sure I'm ready to start the semester.

I also learned an important lesson from all of this: Disneyland is more fun than a math conference.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Starting already?

It shouldn't come as a surprise, that semester is starting, but I haven't much stopped moving since the semester ended. I was here a week getting everything ready to go, then flew off to Texas for a week, then flew to San Diego, rented a car and drove up to Disneyland Resort for a couple of days (how could I be that close and miss it?), then back down to San Diego for the joint Mathematics meetings of the AMS/MAA (including giving a talk), and just got back Thursday night.

And classes start tomorrow? Yikes. I'm not ready for this.

More about the trip soon, I hope. Assuming I survive my first week.