December 3, 2010

I’m sorry for having not posted in a while – the whole exam thing really got a bit excessive. Anyway, I am now sat in Bogota’s Eldorado airport waiting for a horribly delayed flight. This may seem a little early to be returning toEngland, afterall there’s still more than three weeks of shopping days until Christmas. The point is that from Monday I will be starting a temporary lectureship in London. A corollary of this fact is that I will probably not be returning to Colombia. It’s been an enjoyable few months – Colombia is clearly a very beautiful country with many really nice people in it. Many of the students far exceeded my expectations of their mathematical abilities and the University as a whole was far better organized than I expected. I even surprised myself with how much Spanish I managed to pick up (not an impressively large amount, but a large amount by my standards – languages were always my weak point).

It is unlikely I will ever return. In terms of collaborations with other mathematicians there’s one thing that might come through and something else that’s a bit of a long shot, but I doubt either of these things will bring me back. My interests are simply too different from most of the other mathematicians here.

Would I recommend coming here to others (not as ridiculous as it might at first seem)? I suppose I would, yes. The language barrier has been incredibly frustrating and the teaching load frankly ridiculous, but the experience as a whole seems to be worth it and someone more inclined to really “throw themselves into it” could easily get a lot out of being here.

Colombia – Adios!



November 11, 2010

So it seems that it has been far too long since I last wrote anything here – sorry! 😦

So what’s happened in recent weeks?

1. The real reason for my spate of inactivity is that examinations are suddenly coming thick and fast which when you’re lecturing three different courses this is rather a drain on your time!

A particularly odd manifestation of this was a recent examiners’ meeting. One of the courses I’m lecturing, Linear Algebra I, is a prerequisite for most students of an even vaguely scientific background (and is taken by many less scientifically inclined people for gits and shiggles) so as you can imagine in a typical semester something like 1000+ students do this course. As a corollary the lecturing is split between several of us which makes setting the final exam (which is the same for everybody) somewhat difficult. Consequently an hour and a half of several of us sitting round a table arguing the relative merits of our proposed questions and compromising on which of them should finally be included. Or, more accurately, the well established academics who speak substantially better Spanish than me dictate everything whilst the more junior people like me quietly sit there and leave them to it. Strangely my proposed questions went down quite well – one was chosen for inclusion in the actual exam and a second one very nearly made it too (but in the interests of fairness to everyone, nobody was allowed more than one of their questions to be included).

2. The rainy season. The end-is-nigh rain storms have started up again. An annoying corollary of this being that the air pressure has dropped making it about as difficult to breath as it was when I first arrived. I’m sure this will pass.

3. A friend has brought to my attention the wonderful piece of software that is Expat Shield. Basically I can now fool my computer into thinking it is in the UK, so accessing things like (the non-advertising version of the) BBC news website and (the TV part of) iplayer are suddenly possible!!! Quite a revelation, I can tell you! (Yes, I know there are other ways of doing this and there have been for years, but many of them are too technical for a computational ignoramus like myself).

I’m sure there are other things, but it has been a bit of a long day!


Those who can do. Those who can’t…

October 11, 2010

…represent symmetric groups.

So, I’ve moaned before about my teaching load here (more than once in fact), but it’s not all bad.

First, a bit of a back story. In my dim and distant past I attended wonderful series of lectures delivered by the inimitable Stuart Martin on the representation theory of the symmetric group. At the time I really enjoyed it and come the examinations I even did pretty well in the subject.

When I dived into my PhD, however, I sadly drifted away from this beautiful and remarkable body of ideas.

Now, at about the time that I arrived in Colombia, one of my colleague was delivering a basic course on representation theory, you know, that one. Several of the students really enjoyed it and were asking to do a second course. The person who delivered the first one, however, was due to leave in September (remember the semester here starts at the beginning of August) meaning that if a second course was going to be delivered it would have to be given by…me.

So, there were students wanting to study some sort of second course on rep theory at exactly the time that I was trying to find something to think about/research/work on etc. Returning to those fondly remembered part III lectures seemed like an attractive ‘two birds with one stone’ idea (after all, if in trouble, getting back to basics is usually a good plan). After perusing the shelves of the library for a while, offering a reading course on the symmetric group seemed like a convenient and sensible idea.

Naturally, being a second course, it has attracted some of the better students. (As some of the indication of the quality of the students we are talking about I am teaching several these people.) Talking to them about the material has been really great fun and rewarding (and even pushed me into learning some really nice mathematics that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise).

An example: one of the brightest students here, who happens to be doing my representation theory course, actually came to my office a couple of days ago asking about one of the exercises in the book regarding Catalan numbers. These are well known basically for counting things – lots of things. The particular question in the book in was asking the student to ‘use the results of this chapter’ (could they be much more vague?) to prove that the usual formular the nth Catalan number in fact counts the number of standard taleaux of shape (n,n). The chapter in question included the hook rule. Simply writing this rule in this special case on my white board immediately gave the answer. You could hear a pin drop – everyone in the room was blown away at how beautiful and simple this solution to the problem was.

A course that is a great pleasure to teach.

Food II

October 2, 2010

So this week has been the ‘semana de trabajo individual’ (ie reading week) so most of my colleagues and almost all of the students have been absent, making for a very uneventful week. This is a perfect opportunity to write a long overdue squeal.

Consider the following foods:

-Kidney beans
-pork rind
-white rice
-fried eggs
the fruit plantain
-ground meat
-pork sausage

A slightly odd list, I’m sure you would agree. Some of these (fried eggs and sausages) would not seem out of place in full English whilst others like kidney beans and avocado are generally found in the realms of health-freakery and only occasionally further afield than that.

Surprisingly, serving them all together on an oval shaped plate makes for quite a pleasing combination – welcome to Bandeja Paisa. Whilst this is most closely associated with the Paisa region of Colombia, it is readily available all over the place – indeed the University canteen will serve it at least once most weeks. A very enjoyable dish!

Pictures! Pictures! Pictures!

September 25, 2010

Okay, I am so very very sorry for how heavily delayed this post has been – every attempt to argue with the wordpress website to upload some pictures

Well, I finally got round to buying a camera and making use of it. So, here are a few pictures of Bogota. They’re primarily of La Candelaria the area where I live and the area where the university is. Hopefully other places will be pictured in due course.

The first three show what happens at the end of the street I live on. On Sundays marquees erected by the local authorities are used by the poor to try and make a bit of money selling what few things they have to sell (none of which is worth buying). This is quite a depressing sight to see, but it’s difficult to avoid it.

The next four depict various views of Plaza Bolivar – the main central square about ten minutes walk away, where various things we’ve mentioned before happened (as well as several we haven’t). The statue in the centre is of Simon Bolivar – the man basically responsible for liberating South America from the Spanish (think Winston Churchill – that’s how people seem to basically seem to think of/revere/view the man).

The next one is a view of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez centre, a large cultural centre about 3 minutes walk away from Plaza Bolivar. Basically a big ‘space’ where Spanish language events happen with a couple of businesses such as Juan Valdez tagged onto the side and a large Spanish language book shop. A nice place to go and sit and have a coffee watching the world go by for a while.

The final picture is the view from my office window – the church on the mountain top is Cerro Monserrate which dominates the skyline around the centre.

More later! xxx


September 4, 2010

Sorry for the long silence – at least partially this is because of the subject of this post (which in turn has lead to the below being less picturesque than promised – but I am working on it).

For the less academically inclined, I’ll explain what the point of all this is. It is common for academics to give talk to one another about their recent research. The reasons for this are basically two fold: to benefit the speaker and to benefit the audience. On the one hand many heads are better than one and by telling people what their problems are, what approach they have taken to resolving it, why this approach was a good idea etc can and usually does lead to lots of questioning of the speaker in lecture theatre itself, the bar and the curry house etc afterwards. “Have you looked at the work of X?”, “Have you tried doing this?”, “Can the techniques of theory X not be applied here?” can all lead to fruitful progress on problems being made.

On the other hand attending such a talk introduces audience members to ideas they would probably not have otherwise encountered which can benefit both them and their subject.

This may sound very speculative and indeed it is – more often than not very little comes of this, but it does often do some good. A famous example is when is when von Neumann attended a lecture of Heisenberg and in doing so developed a whole new approach to quantum mechanics (I’ll hopefully find a better link for that in time). Less famously, I have certainly encountered people who have completely changed the direction of their PhD, solely because of a question asked by someone in an audience of one of their talks. The other way round, a talk I attended back in October has so far formed the basis of two preprints, a funding application and at least one speculative “please sir, can I have a job?” email.

The upshot of all this is that whilst many conferences every year provide ample opportunity to give and attend talks, you can never attend too many (afterall, you never know what might happen). Consequently universities often invite academics from elsewhere to give regular seminars/colloquia. At least that’s how it tends to work in the UK.

Such a set-up would be completely unworkable in Colombia. First, there’s the difficult of travelling from one area of the country to another A series of colloquia at a British university will typically include in a given semester speakers from all over the country, but a large area and mountains make it difficult to do the same here (yes, there are internal flights, but it’s somehow not the same). Then there’s the number of people you could actually invite – whilst the UK has tons of Universities (well, officially 115, but even this figure can easily interpreted as larger that it seems to be) Finding academics in Colombia is much more difficult (whilst the list of Universities in Colombia seems to be of a reasonable length, many of these places are microscopically small and of course not everywhere covers every subject.

The basic upshot is that the weekly department colloquium here is not quite the sort of affair I’m used to encountering (and even occasionally delivering) in British Universities. Firstly the audience is about 75 percent students, so the level of the talks is usually much lower than most research seminars are. This is because for some of the students at a certain stage of their degree attendance is actually compulsory (indeed a register gets passed around for people to sign part way through). This does have the nice upshot that the organizer usually arranges for fruit juice (and boy what fruits they have here) and nibbles (you know the sort of thing – think doughnut and you’re in the right direction). It is also the case that almost all the speakers are internal which makes the ‘networking’ aspect of seminars difficult to accomplish, but not impossible (afterall in a place like this, so many of the staff come and only a short while later disappear again).

Anyway, the point is that I was asked to deliver the colloquium last week. It is incredibly difficult to communicate mathematics in a talk at the best of times. Coupled with the fact that much of my recent work (ie what I was trying to talk about) encroaches on low dimensional complex geometry which several of the non-students that I knew were going to be in the audience are experts in, I had to be incredibly careful in what I was going to say. I think I got away with it. Yes there was the odd question from the audience that I probably didn’t answer in a very satisfactory way, but there was at least one question about a remarkable object that I had previously only had the most fleeting of encounters with that led to at a somewhat fruitful email exchange. Overall, it went pretty well!

An early start

August 17, 2010

My apologies for the recent overlong silence there was yet another public holiday here on Monday (although I was on the ball enough to know about it advance this time).

I’m sorry to drag out the point made in my last post, but we just hit what is probably the worst instance of it. Last term I had a bit of a moan about their excessive use of continuous assessment here. Since one of the courses I’m lecturing this time only has lectures at 7 in the morning there was inevitably going to be a time when I had to set an exam at this ridiculous hour too and that finally happened this morning.

With nobody to help me set the room up (you know lay out the scripts so that not too many people are sat close together – the class is unfortunately just that little bit too large for this to be trivial); write the instructions on the board and unhook the phone (yes there have been comedic incidents during lectures when the serves-no-obvious-purpose-when-the-security-desk-is-immediately-outside-anyway phone rang in the middle of a lecture and my stock phrase (perdon hablo muy no bien español) produced little more than a raucous laugh from the audience and very abrupt hanging-up on the other end of the line) etc. But of course, there will always be studious people who turn up just that little bit earlier than the rest and the room has to be ready before they arrive.

I had no idea 5:30 existed in academia, except possibly at postgraduate conferences, and even that’s only when nobody’s quite gone to bed yet, because the vodka in whoever’s room in the accommodation has been nominated the official conference party room has yet to be finished. Or at least, that’s what I hear is what sometimes happens…

Anyway, it finally happened. I needed to get into a lecture room so early I had to get security to unlock it. It’s amazing how useful the verb necesitar is – just as I now desperately necesito café.

Sorry to complain, but following events of the weekend just gone I hope to have a more upbeat and ‘picturesque’ posting for you in the near future ;).

7AM lectures

August 7, 2010

So, the first week of the semester has passed. Given that it’s still August, this in itself of course sounds absurd. It gets worse.

Last semester colleagues had told me that it was neither unknown nor uncommon for lectures to be held at 7AM. Luckily all my lectures last semester were in the afternoons, but this time around things are quite different. Every Tuesday and Thursday I have to get up at silly o’clock in the morning, just to tell a room of half asleep students (assuming they got out of bed in time to actually turn up) the dull basics of linear algebra for 80 minutes. That’s not a typo – lectures start on the hour and end at 20 minutes past the hour. By three-quarters of the way through, I really don’t think anyone, myself included, is still concentrating.

You’ve got to wonder who or what gets anything out of extra-long lectures held at this odd time of day and if the timetabling is really so crammed full that lectures can’t all be held at a more sensible time. Still, there’s only another four months until this semester’s teaching is over.

¡Hola Todos!

July 31, 2010

So I´ve been back for a few days having had a good few weeks in the UK – visiting friends, speaking to collaborators and even attending the odd conference.

Having not been back for very long there´s not exactly much to report, so I take this as a prime opportunity to post a link I´ve had “in reserve” for a while. This article on collaboration with authors in developing countries, appeared in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society a few weeks before I arrived in Colombia. Now that I´ve had a while to be on the receiving end of it I can testify for much of the article´s accuracy – I have certainly experienced difficulties in getting access to books and journals (though thankfully friends in all the right places have helped me to work around this). Not so sure I agree with his views on internet access and trends in publishing, though perhaps my University´s internet access is unusually good. The heavy teaching load too is (unfortunately) something that will be hitting me quite hard this coming term, though I suppose it will look good on my CV in the long run.

Anyway – more of the usual next time, I suppose!

Back to Blighty

June 7, 2010

So the ‘summer’ holidays are upon us (people here seem to treat this as winter, and whilst it is slightly cooler than when I first arrived it’s not substantially colder and we are still technically in the northern hemisphere here, so it’s not really fair to claim that it’s now winter). General expectations seem to be that hanging around for June and July is not the done thing, so I’m flying back to the UK tomorrow (unless I miss my flight). There are many many many good reasons to be returning.

I see very little point in continuing to write blog entries during this period, so I guess this will be my last entry until the end of July I suppose.

Since I’m not in the UK very much these days I’m naturally trying to squeeze in visits to all manner of different people and places – the next few weeks will see me visiting London at least three times, Birmingham twice and at least one trip to each of Cambridge, St Andrews and even deepest dakest Maidstone as well as occasionally being in my hometown of Leeds. Based on comments made on previous posts this blog certainly has readers as far afield as Bristol and Manchester (or is that Necastle these days?) Anyone wanting to say hello, just drop me a line!