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2015 musings

And now, at 05:20 in the morning local time, some meditations for the new year. I am now a graduate student, studying pure mathematics, 8 months away from graduation. As anyone in a similar discipline will no doubt confirm, this is not merely a job but a way of life. It must be so — at least for most of us. I want to elaborate on what this way of life has given me, and what it has taken away from me. Really, I expect this post to be like a letter to (or perhaps an argument with) my former self — the hope of course being that from it, someone out there will manage to derive some meaningful insight. But first, let me reiterate how I got here — here as in right now, that is.

Long story short: childhood spent writing code -> descent into online gaming as a result of uninspiring course material -> poor marks interpreted by teachers as inability to keep up -> sudden realization on my part that this is happening -> last-minute frantic display of sentience -> aspirations of working on quantum computers in late high school -> somewhat bleak admission prospects to nanotechnology engineering program -> miraculous admission to aforementioned program -> ironic decision to enter dramatically less competitive physics program instead -> exposure to real math -> transfer to pmath/CS -> transfer to pmath/CO. That last arrow, or at least the change it brought about, is important. There are more links in this chain, but it is already long enough.

Minimalism adequately describes the approach I have taken towards many aspects of life: living arrangements, social behaviour, food, clothing, etc. When I moved into a new house (or rather, “mansion” as it came to be known; best house ever, by the way) just over a year ago, the contents of my room (besides essentials like clothing) consisted solely of a bunch of books, a mattress, and my laptop. It remained this way until a friend offered me a desk and bed frame. I accepted because neither effort nor payment was required on my part. I do not value material possessions, and lest I be labelled a reprehensible hypocrite as I sit here typing this post on my MacBook Pro, let me suffix that with “at least relative to many others in similar circumstances”. Fast Internet access is a game changer for me; it is probably the very last material possession I would give up (after all, it certainly subsumes physical books *HOISTS ENORMOUS RUSSIAN FLAG*, although I still prefer reading the latter to staring at a computer screen; call me old-fashioned).

To mention another example, I rarely wish people happy birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, etc. nor am I offended in the slightest when my negligence to do so is reciprocated by others. There are a few reasons for this; in general these events bear little significance to me. Without even mentioning the arbitrariness of the units of measurement set forth by the Western calendar, many things people celebrate are specific to a certain religion, nation, culture, and so on. Although I do not denounce any of these provided they remain within reason (extremist sects that advise senseless mass murder and so on certainly fail this criterion), I do not particularly favour any of them either. I am Canadian because I was born here, not because I think Canada is the best country in the world. In fact, expressions of nationalism tend to irritate me, since I perceive them as egotistical. I speak English merely because of my initial conditions, not because I consider it better than other languages; conveniently, however, it seems to currently be the language of academia. However, I am not Christian; that is where the influence of initial conditions begins to wane. In fact, I am not religious at all, since no such belief system seems to me any more plausible than the others, and they tend to be pairwise incompatible. If I chose to be religious, why would I choose to be a Christian rather than, say, a Muslim or a Shintoist? Such questions seem to admit no satisfactory answer, so I rest my case.

In any case, I said I would talk about what math has given me, so let me do that now. My decision to study pure math was made with infinite confidence and zero doubt, and really, I have never once regretted it. This can be said about very few decisions I have made. The clarity with which it has made me able to reason and formulate thoughts is indispensable, and I can hardly understand how anyone (much less a scientist) gets away without it.

To my mild surprise, I recently noticed my developing ability to read and understand technical material at a faster pace, for longer periods of time. Teaching myself things seems to have become dramatically easier over the past few years; perhaps this evolved out of sheer necessity, considering my horrendous sleeping habits and often poor lecture attendance, even in graduate courses. As a result, whenever I consume any kind of media lately that is not a Springer GTM, I find myself floored by the comparatively low information density, as though someone suddenly decided to cut the frame rate of life in half.

Perhaps as another consequence, I have been developing interests in other areas, often choosing to spend time learning about more applied areas (statistics, computer science, engineering, physics, chemistry, even history) rather than bury myself in increasingly abstruse pure mathematics (cosheaves of Hilbert C*-modules, idempotent semisymmetric quasigroups, or what have you). This brings me back to my decision a year or two ago to drop my CS major. In itself it is fairly irrelevant, amounting only to the loss of some formal designation; what really is significant is that I actually stopped studying computer science (dropping a major and discarding an interest are two very different things). This was likely a mistake, which I justified by claiming things like “there are too many arbitrary details to memorize in anything other than pure math” and naively downplaying the importance of different kinds of knowledge. However, the Platonic realm was a kind of adrenaline, the likes of which I had never experienced, and in retrospect it simply “drowned out” everything else. Now I have sobered up, in a sense, and it seems that at the time I misinterpreted this as a genuine disinterest in other disciplines.

A part of me feels sad to have “wasted” these years, enrolling an unreasonable courseload every term (“Hey, look at all the cool courses offered next term! I will get killed if I enrol in all of these, but I’m going to do it anyway because I don’t want to miss out” -> essentially no free time all term, amidst constant onslaught of assignments etc.) pursuing very few interests apart from abstruse math, but another part of me says it was necessary to get to where I am now, and I should just begin this new phase with no regrets.

I do however have to admit that I consider myself a notoriously difficult person to entertain. Based on my observation, many people are content with lives that I would find insufferable: watching television, listening intently to the constant white noise of Hollywood and the lives of celebrities, social media, distracting themselves with chores, and so on. I thought that mathematical research might be my answer to the “big question”. So far, academia has not turned out to be the atmosphere I imagined (though I suppose this largely depends on location; if your friend circle, say, consists of a bunch of extremely competent mathematicians, and you all hang out together all the time and talk math, then yeah, of course you guys are going to end up doing great things — compare the similarly collaborative nature of many successful Silicon Valley startups). To be specific, it is a little dry, in the sense that it is too much sitting at your desk for hours on end, staring at some cryptic paper, and not enough learning from others. What might take me a whole afternoon to gleam from a paper can probably be very adequately explained in under an hour by a knowledgeable colleague. Perhaps this is just an artefact of my clumsiness at meeting people, but I have to say I sincerely doubt it. After thinking about prospects after graduation, I know for sure that I need to move to a big city, since that seems like my best shot at finding the massively collaborative intellectual environment I am after — precisely the “hacker culture” from which I may ironically have inadvertently ejected myself by giving up on programming a couple of years ago.

It is morning now, and I think that was essentially all I wanted to say anyway, although I could probably elaborate more on a few points.

Questions and comments welcome, and uh… ahem…

“Happy New Year”, and all that.

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An angel came down for a meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Greeting the assembled philosophers, the angel offered to answer a single question for them. Immediately the philosophers set to arguing about what they should ask. So the angel said, “Alright, you figure out what you want to ask. I’ll come back tomorrow.” And he left the philosophers to deliberate.

Some of the philosophers favored asking conjunctive questions, but others argued persuasively that the angel probably wouldn’t count this as a single question. One philosopher wanted to ask “What is the best question to ask?”, in the hope that some day another angel might make a similar offer, at which point they could then ask the best question. But this suggestion was rejected by those who feared that no such opportunity would arise and did not want to waste their only question.

Finally, the philosophers agreed on the following question: “What is the ordered pair whose first member is the best question to ask, and whose second member is the answer to that question?” Satisfied with their decision, the philosophers awaited the angel’s return the next day, whereupon they posed their question. And the angel replied: “It is the ordered pair whose first member is the question you just asked, and whose second member is the answer I am now giving.” And then he disappeared.

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Real world

Today, I went to the real world. This took over an hour. Upon arriving there, superfluous information. I am overwhelmed. Confused. I wander aimlessly for an eternity. Entering a store, I manage to locate an original, aesthetically appealing black object. However, one who belonged to the real world was quick to inform me that the object was not for me. I found this dubious. Hopf algebras. Quantum groups. Symmetric functions. Representations of semisimple Lie algebras. Weight. Unbearable weight of being. My shoulders hurt. I replaced the object. Then, I left that store. Then, I left the real world. This took over an hour. Goodbye, real world. I do not know when I shall return.

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Not moving

Never mind. I’m not moving; just not ready yet. I will no longer bother trying to move until I feel the time is absolutely correct.

I will write a post soon. Until then, here are some good Epik High songs. For a kid who grew up hating rap, their music sure does resonate with me a lot… I’m realizing more and more that all the things I thought I disliked just needed to be given a chance. I can’t even overstate how much better life becomes when you make an effort to find good qualities about everything, instead of dismissing large amounts of it. Don’t miss out. Good night.

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Bounded gaps seminar

From Stanley Xiao:

I am looking to organize a series of learning seminars on the topic of bounded gaps between primes. In particular we will focus on the paper of Yitang Zhang and the subsequent paper by the polymath project headed by Terence Tao. We will also look at the preliminary work of Bombieri, Friedlander, and Iwaniec, as well as the results of Goldston, Pintz, and Yildirim.
I would like to hold an organizational meeting on Wednesday, January 15th at 2:30 PM (time is subject to change), at MC 5046.
At the meeting we will discuss:
– How often will talks be given, and on what subject; and
– Who will contribute talks (the former will depend on the latter).
For undergraduates, they should have read some books or took some courses on analytic number theory and sieve theory before attending. I also assume that they are familiar with rudimentary material like real analysis and undergraduate algebra.
Thank you for your interest!
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is more or less how I would describe my life this term. I almost never stop doing assignments. I really need to at least write a statement of purpose so that I’m ready to apply to grad schools, but I haven’t even had the chance to give that any thought lately. Before I give my impressions of courses so far, I want to ask for your opinions. Next Winter is my last term as an undergraduate, and I’m wondering which courses I should take (of the ridiculous number that are listed on my “Plan” page). I feel mainly interested in algebraic geometry and functional analysis, and I probably have a decent enough analysis background already (for an undergrad), so I was thinking about focusing on geometry, with something like this:

  • Riemann surfaces
  • Index theorems (I will have all the prerequisites for this, except algebraic topology)
  • Commutative algebra or algebraic topology (which one?)
  • 2 CO courses: nonlinear and combinatorial designs (to finish CO major requirements)
  • Some lame non-math course (since I need 0.25 more non-math units… sigh)

(If you want to see the official course codes/titles, again, check the “Plan” page). Thoughts?

Here’s a summary of how I’m finding my courses this term. I’m also sitting in on PMATH 955, but I won’t talk about that here. I ordered them by ascending difficulty/time commitment.

PMATH 445 (Representations of Finite Groups): So far, this course has been really easy. I never thought I would use that word to describe a 4th year PMATH course. The assignments are doable in a couple of hours tops, and the material seems pretty standard. Initially I thought it was just because I had experience with representation theory from when I took Lie Groups, but it seems like almost everyone is finding the course easy going. I can’t complain since I honestly don’t think I would have the time to throw at this course if it were much more demanding. It’s my first class at 9:30am, and notes are posted online, so admittedly I haven’t been attending very regularly (things became hectic in the past week or two).

PMATH 900 (Valued Fields): This course was also easy going in the beginning. It’s a bit more technical now, but still rather palatable since all the objects involved are just fields and certain kinds of rings, and other stuff we all know and love. There’s no highly sophisticated machinery to deal with (I’ll save that for last). The first assignment was very reasonable, but not something I would want to attempt doing in a single day. Algebraic cleverness comes in short bursts for me.

PMATH 465 (Riemannian Geometry/”Diff Geo 2″): Just like representation theory, the material here is pretty tame, or maybe it just seems that way since (having been through 753, 763, 441, 365, and just about every other course) I’m used to seeing linear algebra everywhere. The concepts seem natural enough to me, although I feel kind of uncomfortable when I have to get my hands dirty and think about solutions of ODEs. I don’t really know the first thing about differential equations. Lectures aren’t hard to follow for the most part, but I just zone out when he starts grinding through horrific tensor calculations, mainly because I have to focus so much on TeXing them, which is always a pain. Assignments are long and routinely absorb my weekends, including the current one. 😦

CO 430 (Algebraic Enumeration): This is a serious course on enumeration. The operations on species are really cleverly chosen to make the generating functions behave as you’d expect, and they allow you to write down extremely concise formulas that capture some pretty nontrivial ideas. Even if I’m dealing with an equation involving 3 species, it can take me a few minutes to unwrap the definition and grok what it’s actually trying to say. Lectures aren’t the easiest to follow, and the assignments take me a while to solve and write up (he could probably make them significantly more difficult while staying within the margins of reason, though).

PMATH 822 (Operator Spaces): I don’t even know where to start. A lot of people who took Lie Groups with me last Winter would describe it as the hardest course they ever took. This course is at least 5 times more insane. In addition to the disfigured tensor products everywhere, there are now von Neumann algebras flying around and we never even defined them. The other students (who are mostly PhD students) seem way better than I am at analysis, and math in general. I’m not blaming myself for this, after all I’m just an undergrad; hopefully I will be able to reach a similar level in a couple of years. To be honest, it feels like the lectures are aimed at the PhD students in analysis, and my background in functional analysis just feels inadequate (I also have no measure theory background beyond PMATH 450). Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who generally wrote perfect assignments in Functional Analysis and meticulously checked every detail. It seems like we are also expected to have a lot of time to spend thinking about the material outside of class, which is understandable since grad students usually only take two courses. Unfortunately, I have to deal with five. I can’t even emphasize this enough; if you can’t do functional analysis upside-down blindfolded while reciting the alphabet backwards in your sleep UNDERWATER, you probably barely have a chance of grokking this material during the lecture. I started the first assignment fairly late, and proceeded to sink an enormous amount of time into it. I still didn’t completely finish. I should have known better; operator theory is notoriously subtle. I did feel like I could solve the remaining things with a couple more days, but even so, there was no room in my schedule to continue working on it past today. 😦

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