Archive for March, 2010

The easter holiday

March 31, 2010

I don´t know how common this is among universities in this country as a whole, but here at least the terms are prohibitively long. Basically you get June and July off for the summer as well as a month or so around the Christmas/new year time. The only other breaks you get are a week off in the middle of each term (a bit like a university wide reading week I suppose).

Naturally one of these corresponds to the easter holiday. In the UK this would mean having Good Friday and the Easter Monday off. Here it is slightly different. Whilst there no teaching in the university is happening this week as a whole, the official holiday seems to be Thursday to Sunday – and in the university the official holiday for the staff begins today!

I appear to be the only person in the whole of the department, except for the cleaners. 😦

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Tropical Rain Storm

March 26, 2010

So moving to a tropical climate for the first time I was bound to find weather a bit different, especially given the recent weather in the UK (I still can´t get over that striking satellite picture from January). Strangely this has not quite been the case, but for good reasons. You see we are currently in the middle of a la Niña. Briefly, everyone has heard of the opposite, the climate pattern El Niño, because of the sort of news stories it generates like this, this, this and this. Being the opposite, la Niña tends to get much less attention in the news, so is not so well-known, particularly in more milder climes like those found in England.

I digress!

The point is that it rained here properly a few days ago for the first time since I arrived (most days we get a brief bit of rain, but what I’m now talking about was really something else). Boy did the heavens open! You could almost literally SEE the clouds getting thinner (or more accurately the distant mountains became clearer) because of how much of the clouds was now falling to Earth. We´re not talking pathetic English drizzle, we’re talking real The-End-Is-Nigh kind of weather.

Anyway, it rained recently. Well…I thought it was note worthy…even if you don’t.

St Joseph´s day

March 22, 2010

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later: I´ve accidentally come into work not realising that there´s a public holiday – the feast of St Joseph, to be exact. A little irritating, as you can imagine, but at least I have managed to get at least some work today (unlike most) and not having students around naturally makes the place somewhat quieter. Ho hum.

Linear Algebra

March 19, 2010

So, I`ve officially started teaching.

Those who know what is meant by the term “service course” can skip this paragraph, otherwise, read on. Mathematics is a ubiquitous subject. Consequently, mathematicians often find themselves lecturing to audiences consisting of people from other disciplines who need to know some mathematics for their own work: Scientists (both social and…well… “non-social”) need some statistics to analyse data, economists need calculus and probability theory for their models, engineers need to prove they can think logically etc etc etc. Often the task of providing such a course is delegated to the mathematics department. Such courses are known as service courses (lord only knows why).

The course I´m teaching is a basic linear algebra course that is attended by a VERY large number of students. So large in fact that it has to spread across several dozen lecturers, of which I am now one. This unfortunate state of affairs of course entails some heavy-duty standardisation and of course everything is pitched to the level of the lowest common denominator. We are thus forced to stick very closely to the sections of a certain book – so closely we literally have a schedule dictating what we must lecture on what date, and deviating from this standard order would be deeply unfair. It doesn´t help that, to quote one of my colleagues, “the book is crap” (I suspect this reflects the book probably being chosen so that even the weaker students can keep up).

Worse, my slightly oddly timed arrival ensures that I have to be inserted into this system half way through – I was allocated a vagary of students in January and another lecturer was assigned my class to “keep them warm” in my absence. Whilst sticking to the book is horribly constricting it has at least made this transition near effortless.

How did the first lecture go? Well, I thought I cocked it up royally. One example I worked out before hand used column operations. The students were all used to row operations. As you can imagine the entire class was as confused as hell by it and the example had to be scrapped. Thankfully there were plenty of other examples that went well and there are several other examples in the book, so this probably seems worse to me that it actually was. Overall, in fact, the class seemed alarming alert, picking up several minor mistakes and seemingly picking up on several instances of omitted “supporting waffle” that they wanted to help clarify matters. Indeed afterwards a small platoon of about a dozen of them waded in and demanded that I help them with the earlier parts of the course (they seemed to much prefer me to the person who had been assigned to cover this class, until my arrival and if what they claim is true this is born out by their marks).

So a constrictive boringley basic course in linear algebra is my first taste of lecturing. Let´s just hope the kiddies can survive me lecturing them for the next few months.

Paddy´s night in Bogota…

March 18, 2010

…was barely noticable.

A dry weekend

March 15, 2010

Picture the scene. It’s a Friday night and you fancy a ‘swift half’ before going home. You pop into a nearby respectable beverage vender and the response to the natural request of “Quisiera una cerveza por favor” is a can of Aguilla and a polite request for 2,000 Pesos. Nothing unusual or untoward there.

Then you go back to the shop and ask for a second can. The slightly worried looks on their faces results in them serving the can in a brown paper bag. A little odd, but we’ll play along. This was the last beer I was able to procure. Later that evening two bars and two branches of a supermarket all refused service. You ca imagine how confused I was at the time (and arguably still am).

It turns out that the cause of the problem was…an election. Yes. I know. DEMOCRACY GONE MAD!!!!!

It seems that the law states that during the weekend of an election, no alcohol can be sold from 6pm on the Friday until the Monday afterwards. At least I know for next time.

Small groups

March 10, 2010

A couple of recent posting by the famous combinatorialist Peter Cameron on his blog regarding collaboration in mathematics and research groups have reminded me of one fear I have of coming here, that I was going to refrain from commenting on, but now somehow seems apt.

In my last institution I was spoilt rotten by being part of a large and very active research group. ‘If you want to know about X, go speak to person Y or person Z’ was very much the order of the day. Now I’m in a department (possibly even a continent) in which, as far as I can tell, almost nobody works on similar or closely related matters to what I do. This cannot bode well for future work and collaborations.

It is true that in the age of the internet collaborative mathematics is much easier than it used to be and that the statistics bare this out, but this is not what I want to talk about here (though I hopefully will on a later date).

There are several aspects, indeed, benefits of having a sizable workforce all aiming for similar matters.

  • It is uneconomical to run a regular seminar (and indeed uncomfortable for any invited speakers) if there is only ever going to be a small audience.
  • Non-specialist colloquia are more often than not almost pointless as having no seminar at al (I still remember my former PhD supervisor, one of the most seniour professors in our department, being reduced to asking “so are there any applications of this?” in a colloquium simply because the subject of the talk was so far removed from our speciality).
  • On a similar note, study groups or simply working through something with others only becomes possible when there’s a certain critical mass of people all working together.
  • Of course it is much easier to collaborate with someone in person than someone who is little more than a name in an email. Talking to someone face to face quite often achieves much more than leaving things to (potentially misinterpretable) emails ever can.
  • Colleagues can and do provide other assistance with your work: they might look over a potential paper-to-be before you submit it somewhere, introducing you to new problems to work on, ask questions you hadn’t thought of etc etc etc.

Now I’m in a department (possibly even a continent) in which, as far as I can tell, almost nobody works on similar or closely related matters to what I do.

I’m scared.

Food I

March 7, 2010

Well, I guess any travel related writing must at some point address the culinary issue, and this is my (first?) stab at this subject.

Having been here barely a week I´ve already been exposed to a number of different foodstuffs of note and interest.

Ajiaco I used to very much be of the opinion that soup is not a substantial meal however my recent experience of ajiaco has very much changed that. admittedly my sole experience of this is from the university canteen and what I sampled is thus probably nowhere near as good as the best stuff, but even so. The accompaniments with it are filling: rice, chicken and corn, but even so the enormous helping of the soup itself, which is relatively thick and creamy is very substantial.

Fruit Just about every street corner seems to have half a dozen people milling around with huge carts of various fruit for sale. For a mere 1000 Pesos (about 30-40 pence) you can have the best mangos, watermelons or avocados you´ve ever tasted, not to mention more exotic things not easily bought in Europe such as lulo.

Huevo al Gusto I´ve always been a big fan scrambled eggs. scrambled eggs mixed with tomatoes, onions and a couple of other things (I gather it sometimes contains ham) is simply to die for. Great hangover cure too it seems. 😉

Club Colombia I was always expecting the beer to be not very good – a sort of Pilsner lager type affair, but this stuff really takes this piss. Being almost universally available, having a name that´s easy to remember and being relatively cheep, it´s the sort of thing everybody drinks – and hates. The taste is bland, its alcohol content weak and of course being fizzy is rarely a good thing in a beer.

I´ll hopfully have a few more dishes to talk about on a future date.

Stepping off the plane…

March 4, 2010

Stepping off the plane my first thoughts were:

  • Well this precisely what an airport normally looks like, surely???
  • It’s bloody warm!!! (The snow in New York combined with the fact that I knew we were due to land at 11pm, made me think it was a good idea to wear a jumper. Big mistake – it was about nineteen degrees when we landed).
  • I was half expecting to have some difficulty breathing because of the altitude (Bogotá is about eight and a half thousand feet about sea level – compare that to London’s mere 23 feet above sea level), but it actually wasn’t that difficult. It’ll probably kick in when I start walking around a bit more, I guess.
  • Spanish really is ubiquitous. Bugger.

Being driven through the town to the accommodation where I’m temporarily staying, the whole place reminded me of a cross between East Berlin and Venice. Lots of old buildings that are semiderilict and seem to be left in state of disrepair to add some sort of ‘character’ to the place, whilst simultaneously half covered in graffiti.

We’ll see how things pan out.