Wednesday, April 25, 2007

99 Red Balloons

This past weekend, I went to the conference in Tucson that I had anounced a while ago.

My biggest worry about the whole thing, once I had secured my passport, was getting there. This turned out to be not much of an issue. That is not to say that it wasn't. It just turns out that it was no worse than the most common triggers of the dreaded effect. There was a moment in the ascent where the plane seemed to suddenly but briefly drop in altitude, which caused some discomfort, and things were fine until the plane began to descend in Phoenix four hours later. Here, it was definitely worse than at the beginning, but still not as unbearable as I had been expecting. The worst case seemed to be on the return trip from Tucson to Phoenix. Aside from this, the whole travelling portion trip went off without a hitch. I would have preferred not to leave at 2:00 am from Kingston, but no luggage was lost, there were no problems with tickets or customs, and all flights left on time. I was warned about problems with the ears popping, or not popping. I can't remember what exactly was supposed to cause the problems that never happened. As we changed altitude, I could certainly feel that there was a pressure difference building up, but it was nowhere close to uncomfortable. On may way out of the airport, I was also lucky enough to run into a friend who was waiting for his dad at the airport. Or rather, he was lucky enough for me to run into him. It was around 8:00 pm when I met him, and his dad's flight was supposed to arrive around 5:00 pm. I talked to him for at least a half an hour before he saw his dad.

The conference was good, but much lower key than I was expecting. All but one of the talks that I went to were those in the Special Session on Graph Theory and Combinatorics. Most of them were well presented and interesting, though they were quick. I'm used to going seeing one hour talks in seminars, whereas these talks were only twenty minutes each [1]. I haven't had much luck with Power Point (or related formats) talks, especially in math, though the ones given here were mostly well done. The one talk that I did go to outside of the special session was the second of three by invited speakers. The talk was not in my research area, and went from zero to incomprehensible in 60 seconds. I left after about 10 minutes, and I wasn't the first. Apparently the first talk by an invited speaker wasn't much better. We all decided not to go to the third. I had a chance to speak with most of the people who came to the session on graph theory and combinatorics, and, based on what I overheard from Saturday night's dinner conversation, I've now met pretty much every graph theorist and combinatorialist in the western United States. Yep. All ten of them.

I wish that I could have stayed in Tucson longer. I don't know how much longer, but longer. Looking out the window of my sixth floor hotel room, I could see mountains (real mountains, not Hamilton mountains) in almost every direction. The same would be true had my room been at the front instead of the back the hotel. If I had more time, I would have like to explore at least one of these mountains. The city seemed rather large in terms of area, though most of that consisted of low density housing, commercial, etc. There were very few highrise towers. I don't know if this has to do with the fact that such things are hard to build in the desert, or if it has do with the fact that sand is not a proctected species, and so sprawl isn't an issue. Most of the houses were, I think, stucco, or something that looks like stucco, or something that looks like what I think stucco looks like. Whatever it is, they looked a lot like stereotypical Mexican houses (the ones you see in TV shows, movies, etc.), which isn't surprising, since Tucson is only 60 miles from Mexico. Besides this, there were quite a lot of red brick houses. Most houses didn't have grass lawns, but rather sandy lots dotted by various sorts of cacti, or else trees that a Canadian would only have in potted form, and kept inside, such as palm trees (I think). The downtown, where most of the few highrise towers are located, was unimpressive, and, like my hometown of Hamilton, the area near the university (of Arizona) was more impressive and looked more like what you would expect (or hope) the downtown of a city to look like. The university campus was attractive. The University of Arizona is as enthusiastic about its red brick as Queen's is of its limestone. Perhaps moreso, since, unlike Queen's, they seem to have escaped the 60's lust for cold and forboding concrete structures. This was about as much of an impression of the city as I could get without use of a car.

Some other things:

  • I finally understand the phrase "It's a dry heat." I've heard this phrase many times, but I've never actually experienced one. It was 27 C on the Sunday. I spent about an hour and a half walking around in direct sunlight, I barely broke a sweat, and never once did it feel uncomfortable. None of those things would be true on a 27 C day in Southern Ontario. Being in Toronto for no more than 10 minutes, I could already feel the higher levels of humidity.
  • Among the weirdest things that I saw in Tucson was a firefighting supply store, I suppose in case anyone wants to start up their own firefighting company. Of course, fire departments need to get their supplies from somewhere, but I wouldn't expect to find them being sold amidst shops selling hemp and incense.
  • Tucson has a brew pub. Partial answer to "How much longer could I have stayed in Tucson?": Long enough to be able to sample each of their potent potables (to borrow a phrase from Kingston's brew pub). The pub had an automatic 18% gratuity for parties of 10 or more, which we were. This was a tad grating to me. My tips almost always fall into the 15-20% range, and this would have been no exception. But when you're forced to pay a gratuity, it's not a gratuity, but rather a fee for having been waited on. I hear this is common in Europe.
Finally, to answer everyone's favourite question. I didn't bring you anything. Don't take it personally, though. I didn't even bring myself anything.

[1] I'm told by one of my colleagues at RMC that this was long for a conference talk.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thanks.... I think

"I get such eloquent responses from you when you are's hard to resist."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Quote of the Day

"The fact that in a patient the right ear is the larger, but the left eye is the larger, is readily understood by direct comparison, but would be not at all obvious in terms of the third or fifth moment about the nose." Edmond A. Murphy, Skewness and Asymmetry of Distributions.

Friday, April 13, 2007

I'm a freak...

...or a one of a kind. That sounds better. Or. Less bad.

I leave for my conference a week from today.

It will be the first time that I've ever flown. I'm a bit nervous. Not so much about the fact that I'll be flying. It's the descent. Ever since I was a kid, going down hills in a car was a cause of discomfort. I'm told by my mom that, as a kid, even going down stairs fast was too much. I'm always a bit wary of elevators (except the one in the math department here, which so slow that it's often barely faster than taking the stairs). Most amusement park rides are out. Even "the swings" (which is usually known as the Yo-yo). It's a rather simple ride. Swings go around in a circle, tilted so that the axis of rotation is not perpendicular to the ground. I went on this ride figuring, "Hey. This looks pretty simple. Doubt that it will cause the usual reaction." I was wrong. Some of the more advanced rides, involving multiple axes of rotation are likely out (even if they rotate parallel to the ground). I've subjected myself to the tilt-a-whirl a few times. But it wasn't really fun. There are other rides that I will never touch again. I've been on a rollercoaster twice. Once to see if I could handle it, and a second time to show a friend, who was the one who pushed me to see if I could handle it the first time, why I never wanted to go on one again.

It's hard to describe the feeling to someone else. It's something like how my stomach feels when I'm nervous or anxious, but not quite the same, and much more intense. Butterflies. Losing my stomach. People ask me if it's motion sickness (indeed, reports say that I was rather pale after my second rollercoaster experience). No. Not even close, aside from the reported paleness. There isn't even a hint of nausea.

Depending on the intensity my reaction varies. In a car or on an elevator, I don't think you'd notice. So far nobody has. I might take a quick, slightly voiced, breath inwards, but that's it. The worst reactions came from the roller coaster and one fair ride called the Scrambler. They both involved a lot of kicking and, hmm..., ?loud moaning?. In the case of the Scrambler, I was yelling at the ride operator to stop the ride. I got the same reaction from a ride that was similar to the Scrambler (and that I went on before my attempt at the Scrambler), but by the end it wasn't much worse than in a car. The ?loud moaning? only lasted the first two or three times around. I went on the tilt-a-whirl as many times as I did, because the reaction was at least bearable, if unpleasant. I thought that if I went on it enough times, I would desensitize myself. No such luck.

I was describing this to someone recently, who was asking about my thoughts about flying for the first time. He suspected that I was not the only one to suffer from this reaction, and that a doctor would know more and be able to recommend something. I was hoping he would be right. Earlier today, on his advice, I went to the doctor and described, in fewer words than I have used here, what I thought could be a problem with flying (or landing, to be precise). She had never heard of anything like it before. The best she could come up with was that it was something to do with anxiety. But the feeling comes whether I'm expecting the rapid descent or not.

Usually it's nice to know that you're unique. But in this case, I'd rather be like everyone else. Heck, I'd even settle for being like someone else.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Idiot Strings

Upon finding my blog (ie. being ordered by me to read it) most people ask "What are idiot strings?"

I can't blame them for not knowing. When I used idiot strings, I didn't have a name for them, and it was long after I used them that I learned that that's what they are called.

So what are they? They're the strings that are threaded through the sleeves of your winter jacket and tied to your mittens so that you don't lose them. (I'm not an expert on parenting, but I imagine it's probably best not to call them idiot strings to your kids).

It's probably a good thing that I had them. Even still, at least once per year, I would lose my mittens if I didn't have a friend around to act as virtual idiot strings. Not only that, but it seems that I could use them for a few other day-to-day items. She with whom I am in most regular contact knows that my pen frequently goes missing, sometimes for days at a time. Just this morning, I got a knock on the door informing me that my keys were still in door to my apartment, and the front office staff in the math department recognize the "I've locked myself out of the office again" look.

According to my dictionary (Canadian Oxford), "idiot string" is a Canadian term, even though few Canadians seem to actually know what they are, and before my blog became the online hit that it is (averaging 11 page loads and 7 unique visitors per day! w00t! Take that google, microsoft network, and yahoo!) googling for idiot strings brought you to a bunch of sites all of which seemed to be located in the US. Hooray for national self-misconceptions! (I think we can be pretty sure that "toque" will always be ours though.)

Meanwhile, nobody on the internet seems to know what idiot handles are. You get a prize if you can (a) give the correct definition of idiot handle and (b) find an internet site where the term is used correctly.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

What's old is "New"

The Conservative Government has been referring to itself as Canada's "New" Government in all sorts of press releases since they were elected. After a year it's getting a bit old.

Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Loyola Hearn thinks so too.

I do find it a bit amusing, though, that the Honourable Member himself is from "New"foundland and Labrador, which has had that name for, well, at least a year by now.

Hat Tip

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"I'm sorry, but you have the wrong number....

...You are looking for Randy. This is Randy's student card."

It took me about 4 years to memorize my student number. Though this past September, after enjoying the privilege of not needing to reach into my pocket for my student card for about a year, I got a phone number that (a) starts out with the same three numbers as my student number and (b) uses only one number that my student number doesn't (though the numbers are not in the same order, disregarding some nonsense about cyclic permutations. I'd say something about Hamming distance, but those who would understand what I mean are probably already thinking it.).

Now, when I give out my phone number, I'm not sure whether I'm giving them my student number or my phone number, and also it takes me quite a while to remember my student number with a significant degree of confidence before I say it out loud.

The mind ends in more ways than one.