June 21st, 2008

Hi everyone,

I have been negligent in keeping up with some of you for the last month, as I have been dreaming and planning for some time of taking a long float trip, starting in Calgary, and ending somewhere far away - perhaps St. Louis or New Orleans.

I plan to put-in just beyond the Calgary Weir, in Pearce Estate Park, around 7:00 am. Sunday morning - that's tomorrow.

I don't know how long this trip will last or anything that will happen - it might last a day, or five months. I am taking a laptop, so I may be able to blog along the way, at kevinfloat.blogspot.com. I may also be taking a cat, and a bicycle.

As you can imagine, I still have a lot left to do, but I hope I can at least keep some of you informed by telephone or email as I go along.

The unhanged man

January 2nd, 2008

Well, I'm not sure why this site isn't behaving, but I'll keep trying to fix it until it decides to stay fixed. I think I will need to update the wordpress software and put some databases in that seem to have gone missing.

Today was my last day in St. Louis. Scrabble is a teacher of many things, and today I learned how a man could be unhanged. Obviously once a man has been hanged one cannot successfully unhang him, but it is quite possible for a crook to go unhanged. Karen's word. We were all unsure about it until the adjective interpretation became clear.

New year's resolutions

January 1st, 2008

Well, it's the first, that time when we look back on the year, and what we've learned, and look forward to the next, and what we're likely to keep messing up. One thing I learned in 2007 was that it is easy to make a resolution which has little reasonable chance of success. On June 1, 2007, I made two "half-year" resolutions, to be completed by the end of 2007:

• Make one million dollars.
• Have two children.

I received quite a bit of advice on how to accomplish these tasks. Most useful was Dave's suggestion toward the end of the year that if I was to make the million bucks first, it would be easy to marry a single woman with two kids. This is somewhat cheating because I assumed that the children would be my own offspring.

Unfortunately, I did not quite accomplish my goals this past year. But, learning from my mistake, and taking advantage of the fact that I have this time a full 366 days in which to accomplish my tasks, I have decided that in 2008 I should reasonably be able to accomplish the following:

• Make two million dollars.
• Have three children.

The children's names will be Milo, Otis, and Glumdalclitch. The millions will be Benjamins.

Being a Good Neighbor

August 25th, 2007

Having locked myself out of my apartment today, Iâ€™m forced to go to Myrna to let me in.

Myrna lives on the first floor. She seems to do most of the yard work around here. I seem to avoid her, and Iâ€™ve noticed whenever her name crosses my lips itâ€™s in some sort of a passing joke. Living alone for so long has made her into something of a social misfit. Often she closes her eyes completely when she talks, giving the impression sheâ€™s mentally somewhere else.

When she unlocks the door, she brings my mail to me as usual. Itâ€™s just one piece of junk mail from Charter, about the low monthly rate of their cable package. â€œThereâ€™s only two things I watch,â€ she says. She follows with a non-sequitur about how if she had married and had children, cable might be worth the money.

After Iâ€™m back in my apartment I think about what an emotional wound she must have, never having the chance to get married. Dying rejected and alone. Was the whole purpose of your life just to die, Myrna?

I start to feel guilty and sorry for her, like I should talk to her more. Help relieve her burden and heal her wound. I mean, in the bible it says pure and undefiled religion is â€œto visit orphans and widows in their distress.â€ I think about putting this verse on my refrigerator.

Then I think about how in day-to-day life the reverse of this actually happens. How this isnâ€™t the first time sheâ€™s helped me when Iâ€™ve been locked out. How, despite being 87 years old, she brought in my empty trash can and recycling container last Wednesday before I got home. Iâ€™m struck by how this wounded one cares for me.

Summer in St. Louis

August 8th, 2007

Yep, I'm headed to the "Lou" for ten days. The warm days are ending in Calgary, but mid-August is still high summer in the midwest. The extended forecast says about half of those days it will get up to 102F (39C), but all will get up to at least 93F (34C). This isn't counting humidity.

I am taking swimming trunks and the pair of shorts I own which does not contain holes in embarrassing places. Possibly some shirts, too.

Bug in thesis classfile for LaTeX regarding \@currsize and the setspace package - "Undefined control sequence"

July 26th, 2007

Okay, this is one of those posts that no one will care about except some poor dope coming in from google, who will be saved a couple hours of frustration.

I was having trouble with the thesis classfiles provided by the University of Calgary. They simply don't work as designed, and even the sample thesis will not compile correctly, mostly coming up with errors like:

! Undefined control sequence. \setstretch …ef \baselinestretch {#1}\@currsize l.34 \begin{singlespace} The undersigned certify that they have read, and rec…

The problem isn't in line 34, nor does it have anything to do with setstretch and baselinestretch. Instead, the class authors must have used a nonstandard way of setting font sizes, and as a result, \@currsize never gets set!

The right way to fix this would be to set the font sizes in the proper way, but I don't have time to figure that out. A workaround is to use

 \makeatletter \let\@currsize\normalsize \makeatother 

at the first place any of the setspace commands are used, to make sure \@currsize is actually set. For my classfiles this was at the end of ucalgthes_root.cls itself. I just put \let\@currsize\normalsize there, since "@" already acts like a letter here.

There were some other bugs here as well. You need to use thesisyear instead of year in the paper information, and even though you set thesistitle to the title of the thesis, you will need to use the title command as well.

The last bug I have found so far is that \Huge was not working. You will need to change the line in thes12.clo from

\newcommand{\Huge}{\fontsizelet\@xxvpt{30pt}\selectfont}

to

\newcommand{\Huge}{\fontsize\@xxvpt{30pt}\selectfont}

which, as I've said, is probably the wrong way to set a font size, but it will work in its roundabout way.

As a LaTeX user, I really don't like diving into the innards of the program like this. They're quite nasty.

Review: "The Wandering Stars" (part 1 of 2)

July 18th, 2007

A friend recently gave me two issues of a comic book, The Wandering Stars, saying, "it's got math in it". It does have some math in it, and it toys with some creative ideas.

I don't know much about comic books, so the purpose of this review is not to compare it to other works in that medium. If you, too, don't know much about comic books, a brief explanation will be helpful: they are series of line drawings printed on cheap paper. You hold them in your hands. The drawings incorporate text which is meant to be interpreted as spoken by the characters. If you read the series of pictures in the proper order (not always such an easy task) a story emerges.

When I saw the cover to the first issue, I was so sure the comic would be great. There are seven characters, each associated with one of the "wandering stars". These are the heavenly bodies visible to the naked eye which appear to move against the fixed background of stars; they consist of the five classical planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), the Sun, and the Moon. The seven people are all mathematicians from different eras and places. Some of them led lives that were so fascinating, and relatively unknown, I felt that honesty to their characters would require the book to be as fascinating:

Hypatia was a leader of the Platonic school, carrying the ancient Greek philosophy through the decline of the Roman empire in the early fifth century. During her life Christian institutions became quite powerful, paralleling the Roman ones and resorting to aggressive measures to cleanse the areas they controlled from the influence of other religions. Hypatia's father was a fellow of the Library of Alexandria, at that time the most important center of research and learning in the empire. During her life, a significant portion of the Library would be razed by a mob under orders of the pope of Alexandria - and so her father would in fact be the last fellow of that esteemed institution. Although she claimed both pagans and Christians among her students, the conflict wrought by the new order could not be denied. As Christian and Jewish gangs fought in the streets of Alexandria, some Christian authorities actively sought to edit and censor works - as is known from a letter to Hypatia from one of her students, a reluctant bishop.

It was after one of the altercations between Christians and Jews that Alexandrian pope Cyril ordered the removal of all Jews from the city. This order was denied by the city's secular Roman prefect Orestes. He had been installed at about the same time as Cyril and they must have fought politically for control of their city. Cyril incited a huge mob of Christians to punish Orestes and any people associated with him, including Hypatia. She was riding in a chariot when she was surrounded by them; they pulled her down, tearing her body into pieces which they burned at the city walls. Thus began the Dark Ages.

Hypatia is associated with Jupiter in the comic, due to her leadership.

Ã‰variste Galois was born in the early nineteenth century, during France's everlasting revolution. Despite his aptitude for mathematics, he twice failed entrance at the top Parisian University, the Ã‰cole Polytechnique, due to his ill-temper. The second time was perhaps more excusable, since his father, a mayor, committed suicide after some scandalous poems were forged in his name by a priest. Galois refused to answer questions during his exam, and, it is said, hurled a chalk eraser at the head of one of the examiners. He was admitted to a lesser school, but his stay there did not last long due to his growing political restlessness. During a general riot in which King Charles X fled France, the students were locked in the school for their own safety. Galois, who failed to scale the school walls during the event, published a letter attacking the school director for not letting them participate, and was promptly expelled. Not long afterward, he would stand trial for a toast "to Louis-Phillipe!" raising not just a glass, but a dagger. Interpreting this as a threat on the king's life, many present climbed out through windows to avoid trouble with police.

It was not for this event that Galois would finally be imprisoned, however. He was arrested walking the streets in his outlawed Artillery of the National Guard uniform, armed with knives, pistols, and a rifle. While serving his term, a cholera epidemic broke out and he was transfered to a hospital, where he fell in love with Stephanie-Felice du Motel, the head physician's daughter. She did not return his affection, and when he was released from the hospital he found himself challenged to a duel with one Perscheux d'Herbinville. It is said that the entire night before he spent writing letters to his friends, expounding the intricacies of his theory, and his exhaustion contributed to his loss, and death, in the fight. His mathematical accomplishments, leading to a whole field of mathematics, would not be recognized for a decade after his death.

The comic puts Galois in the place of Mars, the god of war.

Alan Turing was an English father of computer science. In his university papers, he invented the model still used today to describe a universal computer. During World War II, he was essential in the Allies' cryptography efforts. The Germans were using a device called the "Enigma Machine" to encrypt and decrypt messages. They were so sure of its security that they often sent long, detailed plans using the code. Turing was quickly able to develop a machine that could decrypt any message in a day or two - and sometimes sooner, due to the lax way operators often used the device. The ability to read nearly all German naval messages was instrumental to the Allies victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. For his work in the war, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

In 1952, a young man named Arnold Murray broke into Turing's home. During the investigation, police discovered there had been a sexual relationship between the two. Turing was convicted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 - the same clause which had led to Oscar Wilde's imprisonment, and indirectly, death. Turing faired no better. Given an option between prison and female hormone injections to reduce his libido, he took the latter. With his security clearance stripped, and his body undergoing the feminizing effects of estrogen, Turing killed himself by taking a bite of a cyanide-laced apple, apparently acting out a scene from Snow White. (A famous computer company would later use an apple, with rainbow colored stripes and a single bite out of it, as their logo.)

Turing is Mercury, who in Greek mythology is Hermes, the father of Hermaphroditus; he was an attractive man who became intersexed after a scandalous incident involving a nymph in a pool.

The others are not as interesting - but, few are as interesting as those above, whose lives and deaths so captured the spirits of their ages.

Georg Cantor was a German founder of set theory in the late nineteenth century, the theory on which all of mathematics would eventually be based. He's best known, though, for his studies of the infinite. He suffered from chronic depression, perhaps because his biography is so dull. Cantor gets the moon, probably because of the amount of time he spent in sanatoria.

Maria Agnesi was an 18th century Italian who wrote an introduction to calculus when she was younger, and defined a curve known as the "Witch of Agnesi". She grew bored of mathematics later in life, choosing to study theology and join the sisterhood. Agnesi is associated with Venus, being the "pretty one" in the comic.

Brahmagupta was a seventh century Indian mathematician. He was the first person to derive the quadratic formula, but almost nothing is known about his life. He is the Sun in the comic, though I cannot say why.

Al-Khwarizmi is the Persian mathematician blamed for the introduction of algebra in the ninth century. Almost nothing is known of his life. The comic pairs him with Saturn.

The troupe of seven mathematicians live in the "Fortress of Wandering Stars", which reminds me of the "Aftermath" - where mathematicians go when they die in the musical Fermat's Last Tango. Except in this case, rather than making snarky comments about the mathematical achievements of the living, they use superpowers to dispose of bad guys messing with the time-space continuum.

So far, so good. Historical mathematicians fighting evil with math. But could there have been some better choices for some of the characters? Before I go on with the review, I'm interested in who you, my blog readers, would assemble in a crack team of mathematicians to tell stories around. We can use mathematician in a loose sense here - Hypatia was as much a philosopher and scientist, if not more so.

(To be continued…)

3 minute Rube Goldberg

July 17th, 2007

It isn't quite the glorious half-hour that is The Way Things Go, but Nathan pointed out this three-minute Rube Goldberg masterpiece. Well, I like it. There is another contraption at the guys' website. Apparently they are trying to transform a successful undergraduate project into a career in marketing.

For sale

June 21st, 2007

A month ago I was amused by the following ad in the Calgary BuySell:

Saxifone ,brand new in box, never used, Alto brand, $600 obo I guess the seller realized they made a mistake when no one made any offers. So today they have issued a new advertisement. Saxaphone, brand new in box, nvr used, Alto brand,$600 obo.

(July 10) Update: They are starting to get desperate.

SAXAPHONE, BRAND NEW IN hard case, nvr used, Alto brand, $350.00. If you need the Td booster… June 20th, 2007 …it's probably because Dexter lives in your neighborhood. Dexter isn't the cat's real name, it's just what we call him. Here's what Dexter will do to you. He'll come up to you, meowing, rubbing against your legs, positively begging for attention. So you pet him, and he acts really happy. Starts purring, rolls over on his back, and then bites you with no warning. Dexter's bite about three months ago was what finally convinced me to pony up the paltry$40 a month for Alberta health insurance. We didn't know if he was feral, or what. I secretly wondered if he had rabies, but since I wasn't covered I decided to just wait and see what happened - rabid animals die soon after the virus becomes communicable. If the animal dies or gets obvious rabid signs soon after biting you, you have just enough time to get the shots you need in order to live. On the other hand, cat bites often result in nasty bacterial infection. Since this bite was fairly superficial and easily cleaned, I was not too worried about that.

It was after this that we learned that he apparently belongs to our neighbor, Trapper.

Trapper works up north at the rigs every other month or so.

He calls the cat "Nipper".

I was feeling particularly dejected this morning and Dexter came up, acting friendly as usual. I knew he was still evil, but I hoped petting him would help me feel better. The household hypothesis was he would not bite you if you did not pet him on his belly or while he was lying on his back.

We now know this is false. In fact, he gave me a set of four punctures in my left hand, one of which was quite deep. Cat mouths breed disease and their teeth act like hypodermic needles, injecting the bacteria directly into your tissue. So this time, covered by Alberta Health, I went up to the local walk-in clinic, was prescribed a week of Amoxicillin & Clavulin tablets, and also told I would need a tetanus booster. I had to go somewhere else for the shot, since for some reason it's free at the community health center, but not at the clinic.

This is the first time I have used any Canadian medical services and it seemed fairly straightforward. I did not need to fill out any forms, just figure out where to go and present the appropriate IDs. So far I have only paid \$9.21, which was about a quarter of the nominal drug costs. I remain paranoid that I will receive a hefty bill in the mail, since I am still not sure exactly how all of this works.

There is noticeable redness and swelling around the bite. I remain hopeful that the antibiotics will keep any potential infection in check.