Archive for April, 2010

Militry Check Point

April 26, 2010

So, this weekend a friend and I took a coach to Villa de Leyva – a completely unnotable place that happens to be full of small bars, overpriced restaurants, gift/tat shops, tourists, crap museums and some breathtaking mountain views. A basically unremarkable trip overall.

What was notable was what happened on the journey there. Along the motorways en route there were several places where a soldier was stood at the side of the road. As the coach passed the soldier would give a thumbs up and an inane grin. At the time we were completely mystified about what this was about. Then we encountered one point where the soldier did not give us the thumbs up. We pulled up to the side of the road where there was rather more than just one soldier on his own. In terms of buildings the army appeared to have little more than what could be described as a small gazebo erected next to one of these road side “junk food shacks” (selling not particularly nice sausages).

A soldier came onto the bus and (en español) asked the men to get off the bus. I repeat – just the men – if you want to smuggle drugs in Colombia, make sure you get a woman to do it. We got off the bus and one at a time were given an illusory ‘patting down’ (I can think of at least half a dozen places about my person that I could have hidden almost anything and they would not have found it) followed by (what I assume) was a request to open my bag. I opened it, he peered in and moved me along. Note that nobody gave two tosses about any of the side pockets. To be fair they did have dogs, so trace quantities of anything dodgy would probably have been picked up on.

Whilst this all sounds a bit scarey, it was less scary than you would think. Soldiers, policemen, guns and dogs on basically every street corner, usually in multiples of two, often more, are quite commonplace even central Bogotá.

We went back on the bus and the otherwise uneventful journey continued. The Colombians seemed to take all this in their stride – it was a seemingly everyday occurence to them.

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Election Fever

April 20, 2010

So, as a mathematician, I could at this point drivel on about game theory or why Arrow’s theorem tells us that democracy doesn’t work. Instead I’ll point out that because of elections, as previously noted it is quite an odd time for a British person to be here. You see, not only there the general “OOOO PICK ME SIR, ME SIR, PICK MEEEE!!!! game, there´s also the ongoing Colombian presidential elections.

Under the Colombian constitution the current president cannot stand for a third term, so there’s everything to play for. Amusingly, one candidate that has actually been doing pretty well in the polls recently is an eccentric mathematician. To put you in the picture, while this guy was lord mayor of Bogotá he

– hired 20 mimes to make fun of traffic violators (traffic fatalities dropped by over 50%);
– took a shower in a TV ad campaign to promote reducing water consumption (which has remained 40% lower ever since – well how would you respond to seeing your mayor naked on TV?) and
– put in place a “Women’s Night”, on which the city’s men were asked to stay home for an evening to look after the house and the children.

Somehow seems it makes you wonder why British politicians cannot be more creative and less like bafoons.

My first exam

April 14, 2010

…almost. They seem to take the whole “continuous assessment” thing quite far here – there are several levels of it in the larger courses, like the one I am currently lecturing.

Friday last week I set a “quiz” – a twenty minute long exam that accounts for roughly 5% of the students’ final mark. In total there are three of these throughout the course. There is another level of exam they call a “partial” each of which accounts for 15% of the students’ marks. Again there are three of these. In all, the final exam only accounts for 25% of their final mark. I digress…

This quiz that I set. I repeat – I am the one who set it. In no way did I just use the exam conveniently written in Spanish that one of the postgrads helping with my course, who will be doing most of the marking of it, simply wrote. Oh no. That never happened. Absolutely not.

The reason for holding back on writing a post about this is that the aftermath is still being felt. At least two students have so far declared that they were unable to attend on the day itself and will therefore have to do the quiz separately – naturally I can’t set the same quiz, since the content of the original is already in the public domain So I’ve had to produce a separate somewhat nastier one instead. Or at least two in fact – when I arranged a time for the two of them to turn up to my office to resit, one said they hadn’t checked their emails until it was too late (they had been given well over 48 hours notice) and the other simply never turned up.

I have no idea what will happen next with the no-shower, but I cannot imagine it will pleasant…

Maffs and the internets

April 6, 2010

Sorry it´s been a while – you know what public holidays are like!

Not only has it been far too long since my last post, but it has more specifically been far too long since my last post then even vaguely mentioned mathematics. While in a previous post I bemoaned my academic isolation here, in this post I would sort of like to counter this. You see, these days we have this marvelous thing called the internet. As you can imagine, if you´re studying a subject whose main currency is abstract ideas, a medium that facilitates the large scale exchange of ideas can only be a good thing. By no leap of the imagination am I the first person to have remarked on this, but it´s still worth reiterating.

Surprisingly in a (somewhat old – almost twenty years ago) paper I found the following wonderful passage.

we remark that this research adds to an ever-increasing testimonial to the powerful influence of electronic mail on the resolution of mathematical problems; indeed only 1 of the 3 = {3\choose2} pairs of authors has ever had the pleasure of meeting and, for the duration of this work, electronic mail provided the sole source of communication. One consequence of this is that the results in many cases were duplicated (even triplicated in some instances), and this was a constant source of delight for the authors as it provided frequent and welcomed confirmation.

I myself have actually published one paper with someone who, as far as I am aware, I have never even been in the same room as. Of course the ability to collaborate with strangers from afar is by no means the only impact the internet has had on mathematics, with numerous blogs, increasingly prestigious electronic journals, general purpose question-and-answer sights, a one-stop-shop for mathematical tricks, massively collaborative mathematics, an open forum for debate, the means of watching lectures elsewhere in space and time, some fun and of course preprint databases and many many many other things I´ve probably forgotten all gradually changing the rock face where mathematics happens.

Ultimately though, when push comes to shove, the mere act of being able to communicate with mathematicians, the humble medium of email, is surely the most significant impact the internet has had on mathematics. Certainly from the viewpoint of trying to do it in circumstances where there aren´t many others around such as in developing countries like Colombia.