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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Finally Headed Home

Over the past three days, I've spent 12 hours in the Amsterdam airport -- in between a brief trip to Warwick, England to visit a research colleague -- on my way home. A normal person would have gone into Amsterdam city, but I've had work to wrap up before I go out of commission for the next several weeks -- can't wait!

It's been a good trip. In the end, the work really came together nice. It wasn't always clear that it was going to, even up to the last days, which made for many ups and downs, and even some depressed days, missing home.

Helsinki has become just one of the nice places in the world in which I have history. Going there now is not much different than if I were to go to Bozeman, for example, and spend three weeks. I've lived in Helsinki one year and have spent nearly a month there each of the past three years. It's kind of cool to feel so comfortable in a foreign city -- especially such a nice one -- but it also means that it's no longer exotic, and so I no longer feel the excitement of foreign travel when I go there. Still, it's a privelege, and I count my blessings.

Time to board the plane. Can't wait to get back home!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Review: Where’d you go Bernadette

This is a fun, page turner novel about real stuff that was recommended to me by the owner of Shakespear and Co. Books in Missoula. It’s told from the point-of-view of the daughter Bee of Bernadette, who has disappeared. Bee has gotten a hold of correspondence and other documents related to events leading up to her mother's disappearance. So, much of the novel is a sequence of emails, hand written notes, memos, and other documents, which is an unusual format for a novel, but it works.

The main characters are Bernadette, Bee, the husband/father Elgin, who is a brilliant group leader at Microsoft, and a couple of helicopter moms from Bee’s school. On the one hand, the book is a social commentary about Seattle, and really the Norwest, and really, more broadly, the U.S. Being a Missoulian it hit close to home. At one point Bernadette describes Elgin as a Keen wearing, presidential biography reading, cycling enthusiast, all of which is true for me. Apparently, I'm not as original as I thought.

But it’s also about real family life. Bernadette had been a nationally recognized, McCarthur Genius Grant winning, rising star of architecture before following her husband to Microsoft and Seattle, and having her daughter. She gives everything to raising Bee, neglects her art, and over the course of fifteen years slowly loses touch with herself. Elgin does too, but in a different way, and things finally come to a head, hence the disappearance.

This may sound a bit heavy, it's more of a comedy of errors, and in the end it’s a story of redemption. You’ll laugh. I loved it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why Push It?

It's a good question.

After 39 years of life, after putting in 10 years hard effort at my job, I could begin to let off on the throttle with work. Life is short after all, right? But for each of us, 'making the most out of life' means something different. For me, it means pushing myself where I can. Research is something in which I can push myself as hard as I want, and it can take still more.

This trip to Helsinki has been a roller-coaster. One day I'm up, the next down. The work has been particularly challenging, and the problems hard to crack. The other night I asked Jen, 'Why do I do this?'. She said, 'Because you push it. That's what you do.' She's right, for better or for worse. Someimtes I dream of a simple life, close to home, but there's an animal in me that wants something else.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Book Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Recommend to me by Shakespeare and Co. Books:

I actually just finished this book today, on Midsummer's Eve, in Helsinki. I recently read a New Yorker story by Malcolm Gladwell about late bloomers that highlighted the author, Ben Fountain. This is his first novel, it's highly acclaimed, and he was 54 years old when it was published.

I already liked the guy, and then I read the book. It's a great novel, and it's insights about America and Americans, especially during the early Iraq War period, are keen. It reminds me quite a bit of the Frank Bascombe books by Richard Ford (which are so damn good!), in the sense that the narrator, Billy Lynn, is also the main character and is a man who sees things more deeply than those around him. But whereas Frank Bascombe is aloof, detached, wizened, and in the midst of the wreckage of bad decisions and middle-age, at 19 years old Billy has his whole life ahead of him, is inexperienced, naive, and yet is an Iraq war hero, who's seen things that almost noone else has, and whos tour of duty is not yet done. The knowledge that he may yet die after returning to Iraq permeats his thoughts throughout the book.

Lynn and his company are touring the U.S. after making themselves heros in a battle that was recorded on Fox News. They are back for two weeks as poster boys for the war, after wich they will return to fight. The everpresent conflict in the book is the disconnect between Billy's experience of the war (killing the enemy and losing friends) and of the interactions he has with the Americans that seek him out, who are largely war supporters eager to meet him, thank him, and express their support for (and opinion about) the war.

But Billy is also a charmed figure. People are attracted to him, his family loves him dearly, and good things come his way. This gives the book a lightness. It's an all around great read. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review: The Brother's K

I wrote this review a while back. The Brother's K is one of my all time favorites. Duncan lives somewhere along Lolo Creek.

Mr. Duncan is an old favorite of mine. I've read all of his handful of books, which range over an eclectic mix of topics: two novels, two or three collections containing both short fiction and non-fiction, and a book about religion/spirituality. I like them all, but his fiction has had the biggest impact on me, and in my view The Brothers K is his most durable novel, even if The River Why is, and will probably always be, his most famous.

The Brothers K follows a family, the children of which are baby boomers like Mr. Duncan. The main characters are the parents and three of the boys: Everett, Peter, and Irwin. The narrator is their brother, and they have two sisters as well. The children each go through the tumult of the 60s. Everett becomes a radical counterculture revolutionary type who flees for Canada from the Vietnam draft. Peter becomes a monkish devotee of Eastern spirituality and culture. And Irwin, the tragic figure, goes to Vietnam, trusting that God will take care of him. His tour of duty becomes a personal tragedy, which leads to the primary conflict of the novel, and which brings what had become a broken family back together again.

The other tragic figure of the novel is the father, who was a truly great baseball pitcher, but ends up a bitter blue collar factory man, who's lost his thumb to an accident, and so never got his shot at the big leagues. Nonetheless his luck improves mid-way through the novel, as Irwin's goes the other direction. His wife, the mother, with a tragic secret past, also plays a huge roll, mainly through her fundamentalist religion that she tries to force onto her children with varying levels of success and failure.

It's a great story, and is a real page turner for such a long novel. I highly recommend it.

Music: my new caffeine

Don't get me wrong, I consume as much caffeine as ever, but I've been using music more and more to get me in the work zone. It isn't always appropriate. If I really have to think hard, I need to turn it off, but in a lot of instances, it's got that same mind alterning effect. And with research, getting in the zone is the hard part. Music helps.

Here in Finland, I've been listing to a lot of J Dilla and Common. Here is a compilation of four of Common's best albums: Four Common Classics. And here's one of his cool tunes if you want to get a feel for his music: The 6th Sense. Common is thoughtful, socially conscious, and his topics are closer to my own experience than those of the gangsta rapper. He's also got such a cool jazzy style.

J Dilla, on the other hand, is a producer, DJ, beat man. His grooves are among the grooviest. Here's a couple of songs I love, both with Common rapping (So Far To Go, E=MC2) and the remainder of that album, called The Shinning, is great. Here's a compilation of J Dilla's work I put together: J Dilla Tunes.

FYI: Common is the guy that Michelle Obama invited to the White House a while back and got a bunch of flack from FOX NEWS, because of some of the lyrics in his songs.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Math Retreat

One of the last gifts my dad gave me before he passed on was to pay for me to attend a Buddhist meditation retreat. We were living in Eugene, Oregon at the time, and it was a few hours north in Washington. We meditated eight hours a day for a week. It was intense -- both physically and mentally -- but it was a great experience. I still think about it, and when I fret the loss of my meditation practice, things that happened and were said to me at that retreat come to mind.

What does this have to do with my time in Finland this year? Well, I've been thinking since I arrived over a week ago that my time here is like an intensive mathematics research retreat. I've worked basically all day every day, and have experienced the same emotional roller coaster that I did during that week in Washington all of those years ago.

People often ask me, What is math research? It's a hard question to answer, and I always do a bad job with it. It's tempting to zero in on certain problems I've worked on, but I'm beginning to take a broader view. This may lead to even worse answers to the question -- you can decide.

There are many areas of human endeavor that have stood the test of time because they are so useful to our species. Some examples are art, religion, politics, war, biology, chemistry, medicine, physics, mathematics, history, philosophy, literature, law, theatre, and sport.

Mathematics is one of those that has been around for millenia, and because it's so useful, many humans, and some of the greatest minds ever, have dedicated themselves to its progression. This is why Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen far it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

So mathematics can be thought of as a great edifice that is the culmination of thousands of years of human effort. Much like the edifices associated with the other topics in the list above, it is hard for the uninitiated (and even the initiated) to fathom.

So in that light, I view myself as little more than a minion, in a long line of minions, giving much of my work life to pushing the edifice of math forward. Like one of the men that built the great pyramids (slaves, mind you), helping to move just one giant block part of the way.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On the Road Again

Mt. Ranier & SETAC, where I wrote this blog.
Well, I'm off today for what has become my yearly sojourn to Finland for work. It's a blessing to be able to go to a different country and culture, work as hard as I can muster, wander (and hopefully run, once my collar bone is healed enough) the streets of Helsinki, interact with colleagues and friends, visit the sauna as much as possible, and live a simple, focused life for three weeks. Last year it was torture leaving the family. This year, I know that it's what I have to do, and so figure, why get all worked up about it? Why not instead focus on the positives? This makes leaving much easier.

It's a mystery how I fell into this gig of being a travelling research mathematician. I followed my interests and passions, kept moving forward in education, had pressures to provide and so got my PhD and became a professor, followed my curiousity in research, worked hard, had some luck, and eventually here I am. The basic ingredients are as follows: education, curiousity, consistent effort.

But education tops the list. It has given me my life, and I'm proud to be giving my life to it.