Monday, March 20, 2006

George Eliot on Math Education

[Daniel Deronda] applied himself vigorously to mathematics, for which he had shown an early aptitude under Mr. Fraser, and he had the delight of feeling his strength in a comparatively fresh exercise of thought. That delight, and the favourable opinion of his tutor, determined him to try for a mathematical scholarship in the Easter of his second year: he wished to gratify Sir Hugo by some achievement, and the study of the higher mathematics, having the growing fascination inherent in all thinking which demands intensity, was making him a more exclusive worker than he had been before.

But here came the old check which had been growing with his growth. He found the inward bent towards comprehension and thoroughness diverging more and more from the track marked out by the standards of examination: he felt a heightening discontent with the wearying futility and enfeebling strain of a demand for excessive retention and dexterity without any insight into the principles which form the vital connections of knowledge. (Deronda's undergraduateship occurred fifteen years ago, when the perfection of our university methods was not yet indisputable.)

Potatoes with Cayenne

All of last week I was hungry. Last Wednesday, nemzeti ünnep, I ate a large dinner of pork at Rosanna's before going home and scrambling two eggs. I consumed these along with four slices of toast. Since I was still hungry, I had two slices of toast with goose fat, and then another two slices of toast with goose fat and sausage. Then I went to sleep. The next day I had a small breakfast. I keep telling people this story even though it's not very interesting. It's just a fond memory of mine.

Still, there was an emptiness inside of me. Many people have filled their lives with religion, and I would do the same. Giovanna's apartment (formerly Laura's apartment) hosted a religious gathering last Friday. Ground beef became Jesus's flesh, ketchup his blood. We also had some potatoes:

  • potatoes, cut up in big, even chunks for boiling
  • olive oil
  • salt, pepper, cayenne

Boil the potatoes until they're almost done. When you remove them, they should be edible but seem slightly underdone. Cut them into homefry-size pieces. All of this can be done in advance.

Fry the potatoes in olive oil with lots of salt, pepper, and cayenne. Serve them with lots of ketchup.

Gordon (i.e., my father): I made these potatoes in imitation of potatoes you've made. How does this differ from what you would do? It worked pretty well.

Leeks with Bread Crumbs and Parmesan

I burnt the bottom of the leeks when I made this today. It was no problem, though: the burnt part peeled right off. Vegetables that have layers are cool.

  • leeks
  • bread crumbs
  • parmesan or similar cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil

Boil the leeks for about five minutes, or until they seem almost ready to eat. Put them in a dish, and add pepper (and possibly salt, depending on how salty the cheese is), bread crumbs, and cheese. Bake at about 400 degrees for about 10 minutes.

I made bread crumbs by toasting bread and then crumbling it. This worked, but it would have worked better if I had sliced the bread thinner when I toasted it. Use about two small slices of bread per person to get the right amount of bread crumbs.

Serge Lang vs. Bob Somerby in a BLOWOUT!

I knew Serge Lang as the man who would walk into my math classes and start asking us questions, often to the professor's dismay. (Sometimes he asked the professor questions too: "Are you using my textbook? Why not?")

Besides math, Serge Lang is famous for two things: claiming that the link between HIV and AIDS has not been established, and keeping Samuel Huntington out of the National Academy of the Sciences. Lang gave me a few hundred pages of documents about the conflict, as he did with anyone who was willing to listen to him. He claimed that Huntington's papers were "utter nonsense." His biggest objection was to a paper Huntington wrote that purported to demonstrate the link between a society's frustration and instability. One of his indices classed South Africa as a "satisfied society." Lang thought (rightly) that Huntington's effort to quantify oppression and instability didn't correspond to reality. Huntington's defenders typically turned this into a straw-man argument. They said that Serge Lang objected to any attempt to turn things like frustration and instability into numbers, and that the argument was caused by a mathematician's resentment of the "soft" sciences. (See Jared Diamond's Soft sciences are often harder than hard sciences in Discovery.) Lang didn't actually have any problem with using numbers to measure satisfaction; his objection was that Huntington's index in fact measured nothing. Lang particularly hated Fareed Zakaria, now the editor of Newsweek, who wrote a letter saying that it was "a fact" that in the sixties, there were no "major riots, strikes, or disturbances" in South Africa. Lang had a file of New York Times articles on South Africa, all contradicting Zakaria.

Serge Lang's way of talking to students about this was to invite them to his office to take his test, which would determine whether they could tell "a fact from a hole in the ground." After explaining Huntington's paper and showing you Zakaria's letter, he asked two questions: 1) Did Fareed Zakaria use the word "fact" in his letter? 2) Comment on Fareed Zakaria's letter. The correct answer to the first question was yes; the correct answer to the second was either, "It is untrue that there were no major strikes, disturbances, or riots in South Africa in the sixties," or "I am not familiar enough with the history of South Africa to judge whether Fareed Zakaria is correct or not." After you answered, Lang had you sign and date your paper, which he would store somewhere secure. (I failed, like everyone else.)

At this point, Lang would explain the problem with academia: nobody bothered to find out whether claims were true. Instead, people just did "theoretical bullshit."

Bob Somerby has a political blog that predates the word blog. He makes the same argument as Lang, but directed towards the media, saying that they ignore facts because they find it hard to figure out what's true and what's not. Some representative articles:

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The ides of March (beware)

March 15th is a national holiday in Hungary; specifically, it's nemzeti ünnep, which means national holiday. It celebrates Hungary's 1848 revolution against Austria, which they lost in 1849 when the Russians helped the Austrians out by sending troops to crush the revolt. (There is also a holiday commemorating the end of the revolution: October 6th, National Grief Day.)

We asked our topology professor when our homework would be due, since it would normally be on March 15th. He told us that he had forgotten about the holiday because like other nationalist days, it has been hijacked by Hungary's political parties. Each of them holds a rally devoted both to the holiday and to extolling themselves. He said that we should feel free to go to one of them, but that we shouldn't say "a fucking word," especially if we go to the rally of an extreme right wing party. (He also told us that it would be safer for us to say extreme right wing party than fascist.) Good topology professor, good advice.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Duck and Potatoes

Hungarian duck is really good, and only a few of them have avian flu. Duck breasts with their skin are available from the market near Blaha Lujza Tér. (Last semester I only ever saw duck breasts without their skin.) This was yesterday's dinner, with Mike, Patrick, Rosanna, and Tomoko:
  • 1 duck breast in Hungarian, or 2 in English (in Hungarian, a duck breast means both sides of one duck)
  • 1 onion
  • one clove garlic
  • about 1 and 1/4 cups red wine
  • potatoes
  • salt and pepper

Cut the potatoes into 3/8 inch slices. Cut into the duck's skin, making a crosshatch pattern, with your lines about 1/4 inch apart. Cut as deep into the fat as you can without reaching the meat. Salt and pepper both sides of the duck.

Heat up a skillet over medium-high heat. When it's hot, put the duck on skin side down. Cook for about eight minutes. As the fat renders, pour into another pan to fry potatoes in. (If you end up with too much fat, pour it somewhere else and hold on to it.)

Fry the potatoes over medium-low heat in batches, flipping them once, and taking them out when they are cooked through. Put them onto a paper towel, and put a paper towel over them. When the potatoes have all been through this, cook them in batches again, this time over high heat, letting them crisp. (This will finish after the duck, but not too much after the sauce is done.)

Flip the duck after the eight minutes have passed. Cook about five minutes, or until the duck is almost done. Move it to a warm oven, holding onto the pan.

Make sure you have a tablespoon or two of rendered duck fat in the pan you were just frying the duck in. Add the chopped onion, and after a little bit the garlic. Cook until the onions are soft. Pour in the wine, turn the heat up to high, and let it reduce, scraping off as much of the pan stickings so they get in the sauce. (If you happen to have demi-glace or other stock, add some too.) Cut up the duck into slices. When the sauce tastes like sauce and not wine, add salt and pepper as needed and put the duck back into the pan to warm it up. Serve.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Joel: not always wrong

My former roommate Joel usually turns out to be right. Five months ago when he decided to take only three math classes in BSM, I berated him for his laziness. Now, I too will be taking only three math classes. Combinatorics II will no longer be part of my life. It's excellent, but so are all my classes. Due to its similarity to Graph Theory, I think it has to be the one to go. See this post for my original list of classes.

Announcement of Summer Plans

I will be participating in NSF funded mathematical research from June 19th to August 18th in Johnson City, Tennessee, in the ETSU REU.


This is Rosanna's ground nut stew. Many substitutions are possible.

  • chicken (legs are good)
  • onions, garlic
  • ginger
  • garlic
  • sweet potatoes or butternut squash
  • tomatoes (canned is fine)
  • curry powder
  • cayenne or hot paprika
  • raisins, dates
  • (goose) fat
  • peanut butter
  • crushed peanuts

Brown the meat. In a big pot, sautee the onions, ginger, garlic, fat, and curry powder (at least 3 tbs.). Add the tomatoes and the sweet potatoes or squash. Pour in water or chicken stock to almost cover everything. Add in the raisins, dates, cayenne/paprika, and salt. Simmer till the squash is soft. Taste and adjust seasoning: you want it to taste too strong at this point. Take a few cups of liquid and mix it with a cup of peanut butter. Pour this bag in and mix, adding the crushed peanuts. Adjust seasoning, adding sugar or molasses if necessary. (Cinnamon and cloves might also be good.) Serve on rice or other starch.

Blogging Lapse

I have allowed my blogging duties to go undone. Now I must cover two weeks in the minimum amount of space. In the spirit of blogging, instead of writing about Béla Bollobás, I direct you to Patrick's blog. The only thing he failed to mention is that before we went, six of us sat at a dinner table passing a roast chicken with our hands, taking bites of it as it went around. It was a sickening display of savagery. I made polenta. I'd give the recipe, but then I would be plagiarizing Mark Bittman. I will respond to all emailed requests for it, though.