On Moving

Me, when packing: Why do I own so much stuff?

Me, setting up a new apartment flat: Why are there so many things I need to buy?

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Reinforcing IKEA drawers

I like buying furniture from IKEA, but it doesn’t always withstand heavy use. Apparently the drawers I bought (MALM) are not designed to hold as many papers as will fit inside them, and within a couple of years the base of one of the drawers started sagging.

The base of the drawer sagging

The base of the drawer sagging

Soon the base was hanging so low that it prevented the drawer from opening, and things would fall through the gap into the next drawer down.

After several trips to the hardware store and many months of procrastination, I finally have functional drawers again! I’m recording my fix here mostly so I remember all the details.

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Things you don’t want to hear from an airline

There’s a problem with your seat assignment: we have no seats.

We will put you on a flight that leaves seven hours later.

There are no seats showing on that flight either. Well, there are four, but I can’t seem to get you on them.

Are you sure you want to travel today?

Apparently the four unassigned seats are broken.

Oh wait, we can assign you one of those four seats.

No, we won’t have your special meal.

[after noticing safety video playing silently and putting on headphones] This concludes your safety demonstration.

Bong! [45 minutes after scheduled departure time, seat belt light switches off]

The PA system is not working at the back of the cabin. This would be very bad in the event of an emergency, so we will not leave until we’ve fixed it.

This is your captain speaking. The air conditioning is not working; I recommend fanning yourselves with the flight safety information cards which you’ll find in the seat pocket in front of you.

[over an hour after scheduled departure time, after pushing back from the gate] We fixed the PA system! We’re just going to check whether we have enough fuel.

[once in the air] somethingsoquietitsunintelligible [apparently the PA system was not completely fixed]

[during violent turbulence] dingding! dingding! dingding! dingding! dingding! [flight attendant sprints down aisle to reach his seat] (was there information given? don’t know, I was in the back of the cabin)

 

Still, at least we landed safely and they didn’t lose my luggage!

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My research in one sentence

Describing my research to non-mathematicians is tricky. The precise statement of my theorem usually requires a lot of background that even mathematicians in different fields may not have; much as I love explaining maths to people, it’s just not practical to expect non-mathematicians to absorb a bunch of definitions well enough to understand what I’ve done with them. Instead, I try to give people the general picture of what I’m studying.

It’s much harder to say something vague but not inaccurate than to say something precise. At the beginning of a project I haven’t yet developed my own intuition, and I don’t have a good sense of what’s essential and what’s just a minor detail. Figuring out how to explain my project concisely to non-mathematicians is part of the process of really understanding what I’m trying to do and why. (It also allows me to answer the question “So what’s your research about?” with something that will satisfy those who only asked to be polite and inspire further questions in the genuinely curious.)

After many months, I’ve come up with the following summary of my latest theorem:

These shapes we’re studying aren’t as twisty as one might have thought.

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Corporations are people, and their rights trump yours. Welcome to America

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation, is exempt from the legal requirement to cover certain contraceptives as part of its health insurance plan for employees because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from “substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion”.

Never mind that it’s unclear how a corporation can hold religious beliefs. Never mind that its alleged beliefs are based on an incorrect understanding of how the contraceptives in question actually work. Never mind that the contraceptives in question have medical uses besides birth control. Never mind that this company voluntarily provided cover for some of those contraceptives until 2012, as well as investing in companies that make them. The Supreme Court has decided that this corporation counts as a person with sincerely held religious beliefs, and allowed it to impose those beliefs on thousands of employees.

The decision is alarming in its own right, but it also sets a dangerous legal precedent. Already there are another 82 corporations hoping to drop birth control coverage from their insurance plans; the dissenting Justices note that the arguments made by the Court could apply equally to employers who claim their religious beliefs are violated by health coverage of vaccines or blood transfusions, or by anti-discrimination laws. As Justice Ruth Ginsburg points out in the dissent, “No tradition, and no prior decision under RFRA, allows a religion-based exemption when the accommodation would be harmful to others——here, the very persons the contraceptive coverage requirement was designed to protect”.

In short, not only do corporations count as “people”, but their right to free expression of religion trumps the rights of actual people.

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Rite of passage

Today I received my first unsolicited “proof” that it’s possible to square the circle. A footnote on the first page reads

An advise: If you strongly believe that (1) 3.1415926… is the value of π. (2) π is a transcendental number and (3) squaring of circle is impossible, you need not look at this work and waste your precious time.

Good advice… but curiosity got the better of me.

The author includes a few papers that he published in the IOSR journal of mathematics (a questionable publication, to put it mildly) in which he argues that π=(14-√2)/4 (≈ 3.1464466), which is of course algebraic, not transcendental, and that using this value for π it is possible to “square the circle”. He ends with some biographical information, including details and photos of family members and of sculptures that he has donated to various institutions.

To defend his assertion that π is not transcendental, he quotes a line from the chapter Quadrature of the Circle in Underwood Dudley’s Mathematical Cranks. Unfortunately, he fails to realise that the line he’s quoting is included as part of an example of the work of a crank.

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On calling out bigotry

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meal at a friend’s place. We were talking about the process of peer review for a paper; one of the other guests commented “you’re lucky it doesn’t get sent to India — you’d never hear about it again”.

The other day I was working in my office. Since this was during my official office hours, I kept the door open so my students could find me. Unfortunately this meant I could hear the loud conversation taking place between my two fellow (male) grad students in the office next door. They were looking up pictures of large women in order to fat-shame them, saying things like “There’s no excuse to be that fat. The only reason women get that size is because they’re too weak to just stop eating. If they didn’t eat at all they would be thin. They should just not eat anything.”.

What would you have done?

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