Saturday, September 24, 2005

Tonight Was My First Kegger
I Had A Little Too Much And Behaved Badly

By which, I mean that I started a 3-hour-long debate on religious pluralism, the existence of God, the consistency of solipsism, the limits of reason, Occam's razor, theoretical vs. practical wisdom, evolution of the human mind, and Church history. Mea culpa; it's my one vice. OK, so I have multiple vices. But excessive disputation is certainly one of them.

No, that wasn't all I did at the party (which really did have a keg of Pabst Blue Ribbon) at John's house. I did get my clock cleaned in foosball by the combined forces of Christoph and Thomas. And it was revealed that I am, in fact, a choirboy.

Oh, and I found out after the fact that some U of C math majors had been doing cocaine while studying. One of them, it was recounted, stopped only after the effects included getting a B+ in Murthy's Commutative Algebra. (My response: "WHAT?!? I was clean and sober, and I got a B MINUS!!!")

Oh well. I'm really glad, all things considered, for my comfortable bubble of naiveté.

But arguing was certainly fun.

OK, I'm gonna check my blog when I get up tomorrow and see if this entry is as appropriate as I'm telling myself it is. I'm pretty sure that I'm in my right mind.

11 AM UPDATE: I'm keeping what I wrote last night- I still think it's funny. The "A Little Too Much" was for dramatic effect only (as my being awake and coherent now might indicate).

Also, I realize it was left far too ambiguous whether this was what most would consider to be "a party". Well, when I got into the conversation, it was a dozen mathematicians and physicists standing around talking. When the debate was interrupted an hour later (by someone asking if we wanted more beer), I looked around and realized with great surprise that there were now 50 people crowding the house, getting drunk, dancing to techno, and carrying on. Did I ever mention I tend to not notice things?

And so, of course, I went right back into the discussion. Because that's just the sort of "party person" Patrick is.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Aunt Elena recently wrote a beautiful and powerful meditation on motherhood and on care of the dying. The subject is a kind of tragedy that, Deus volens, won't befall many of us, and the proper response sounds so heartbreakingly difficult as to be almost heroic. Elena's been taking a lot of unfair abuse for counseling others to do what's right. It's not easy, but she insists on a difficult truth.
The Apprentice- Karandish Watch Week 1

Last night was the premiere of Martha Stewart's Apprentice, and I watched it together with Alice and Barbara and Christoph. (David invited me to his Premiere Party in St. Louis, but of course I was here in Berkeley.)

We saw David join the creatives in Team Matchstick, and then we didn't see much of him for a while (the TV focused on the team members who were having problems) except for his quote, "Everything we've done up till now has been great, but now it's up to the kids." (The assignment was to create a children's book in one week.) I recognized his just-finished-an-all-nighter hoarse voice. Poor kid.

But, after Team Primarius won the challenge, David comported himself very well in the conference with Martha. His remarks were simply honest (at least, they reflect perfectly the bits that the cameras showed us), not calculated or vindictive. Others in the conference room weren't half as classy.

Alice and I looked at some of the competitors and agreed: "Got To Go." See in particular Jeff the control freak (who was, in fact, booted), Carrie (or was it Dawna?), Jim, and Howie (whom we later agreed "Had To Go, but Not Yet" after he proved to be a most entertaining twit).

All in all, an interesting beginning to the show. Here's to David's success!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Long-Awaited Update

Or Rather, Long-Procrastinated Update...

I. My House

Barbara, who owns the house and lives here with her tenants, is just a fascinating woman- sharp as a tack, honest and caring. I've had many a great late-night talk with her about ideas of science and faith and experience. I'm the sort of person who always needs to have Ideas on the brain, or else I start getting really self-centered about my own worries, so it's wonderful to have that opportunity for honest sharing. It's like my late-night conversations with Erik and Nick in the Shoreland.

Three of the five tenants are German, and three of the five (not the same three) are physicists of some sort, so it's an interesting house.

Christoph is a visiting grad student in physics. He and I arrived here at the same time, and quickly bonded together (a beer-sharing policy is quite effective in that regard). Christoph's strangely obsessed with Nintendo: I recently knocked on his door to see if we could grab dinner together, and he said, "Oh yeah, food. I've just been reading through 770 comments on the Nintendo Revolution controller; I guess I should eat." Of course, I'm strangely obsessed with football, so when he saw Barbara and I watching Rams vs. 49ers and ascertained who was rooting for whom, he started cheering "Oh yeah! The Rams suck, the 49ers are clearly so much better!" It wouldn't have been quite so frustrating if the 49ers hadn't somehow won the game.

Falk is a postdoctoral candidate in microbiology with a bright research future. Recently, he came in with a stack of free East Bay Express newspapers and showed off the impressive cover story on finding bacteria in termite stomachs that could produce hydrogen for fuel cells. He has a quote on Page 1 and a picture (he's the guy on the left) on Page 2. (Of course, there's a downside to even a quality free newspaper: Falk was getting ready to send the article to his parents in Germany but lamented, "I've really got to cut out some of these ads so my parents don't see them!")

I don't know Yayu quite as well. He's a postdoc in physics, who lives in the unenviable situation of being 3000 miles from his wife, a postdoc in Connecticut. So, many weekends, he's simply gone. One weekend he was home, he did clean out Christoph and me at poker ("No, really, I've never played Hold 'Em before!"), but in general I haven't seen him that much.

And Thomas, the last student to arrive (also a visiting grad student in physics), is perhaps the most socially adjusted one of us. We mostly forgive him for that. Thomas learned a bit of Bay Area geography the hard way when he tried to bike to Marin County last weekend; we saw him again at nearly midnight, following several wrong turns, two flat tires, a ferry ride and a trip back on BART.

All in all, a pretty neat house, a good place for a math nerd to hang out.

II. My Classes

After the horrific attempt to take Symplectic Geometry (I found I lacked the background to even understand the lecture; I spent the last 45 minutes sitting in the first row staring blankly at a very frantic man writing incomprehensible arcana on the blackboard), I've settled on three classes.

Banach Algebras, with Dr. Rieffel, is both my favorite and my most intense course. I spent all day today trying to grasp exactly why it was that I hadn't proved both sides of a contradiction (don't worry, kids: I figured it out, so Mathematics is safe from collapse this time) in the spectrum of these shift operators. But dang, it's cool. And Rieffel is a good, helpful lecturer, very Mr. Rogers-esque in some intangible way (other than the obvious solid-color V-neck sweater, dress shirt and khakis correlation).

Partial Differential Equations, with Dr. Zworski, is also really interesting, although too often the manipulations still seem like magic (I mean, come on: is there really such a thing as the divergence theorem? Then why didn't Chicago ever tell me about it?). Zworski occasionally brings his dog to class with him: a huge, panting silver Husky named Kopi, who doesn't really see why his master has to keep messing with that little white rock on the big board instead of going for a walk.

Algebraic Topology, with Dr. Hutchings, is my second time around with Hatcher's textbook. It's going marginally better than the first time. I think I need this course, rather than want it.

Then, I'm also trying to sit in on math seminars. The professors encourage me by saying, "Don't worry- by the time you graduate, you'll be able to understand the first 15 minutes of one of these!" But nevertheless, they are cool to behold.

III. My Love

Ah, Alice is leaving for Chicago on Thursday, and I miss her already. It won't be easy being separated for months at a time, but then, we do have the Chicago relationship statistic on our side. Anyway, this looks like an exciting Quarter for her (she made me guess how she color-coded her notebooks to correspond to her classes), especially as she's staying at the Germanys'.

It's been a great time together this summer (we're always better to each other when we're not under simultaneous academic strain); we've seen my first Giants game, had our favorite dim sum thrice, caught another modern classical concert in Santa Cruz, tested a succulent Ox-Tail Soup recipe, taught me a bit about gardening, and more.

I'll get to see her tomorrow one more time, here in Berkeley. After that, I really will have license to miss her, won't I?

IV. Idea Blogs

I wrote something on pacifism and the Just War tradition, but on further review I overturned the original call. Maybe I'll get back around to that.

Also, all summer I've been burning up inside to write about different attitudes to religious experience, but I've never finished the post on it. I really ought to.

V. Disclaimer 3

I am not a representative of Catholicism at its best. I am a Bad Catholic. And I don't mean that in any hazy philosophical sense of "yes, we all fall short somewhat", but in its most direct sense. I have great faults, I keep injuring myself and others by them, I go and confess the same things each time, but to change my nature would be an act of God that He has not yet seen fit to perform.

I'm deathly afraid of what each of you really thinks of me. I want you all to believe that I have my life together, that I'm brilliant and unselfish and wise and humble and full of integrity. But really I'm a mess, and I worry all the time about whether I'm saying the right things and whether I've remembered all I ought to do to keep my life together.

I come across- or I try to come across- as completely certain of myself and of my conclusions, but I'm not. I fear uncertainty as much as anyone of my temperament, which is to say, I fear it more than I fear suffering. My faith isn't about giving me certainty; I would be just as dogmatic about my convictions no matter what those convictions were. It's a great temptation of mine.

What the Church does do is keep me in arm's reach of the Lord who made me. I know Him, even if He does not let me know for sure all the things I want to know for sure. And I know that in the Church, in the Sacraments, I can find Him where I empty myself. My sins never satisfy me, and my theologizing never satisfies me; Christ in the Eucharist does satisfy me.

I care for you all, all the people whom I know read this blog. I'm sorry I can be so full of myself; I'm probably a better writer when I'm not.

But God is good.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


As I mentioned over on Nick's blog, the math department at Berkeley was given a stack of free tickets to a sneak preview of Proof tonight- the movie set in the University of Chicago math department, filmed on campus in 2003. I took Alice with me (a date preceded by trying some excellent appetizer recipes she's posting to the Shoreland Recipes Blog and followed by dinner in Japantown, where the preview was shown at the Kabuki Theatre).

First off, the movie is excellent. I rank it with Mad Hot Ballroom as the two best movies I've seen this year. The acting is great (Anthony Hopkins certainly absorbed the lecture Paul Sally gave him on acting like a math professor; Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal get the U of C demeanor right, although Alice thinks Jake "looks too good to be a math grad student". Grumble grumble.), but the superb part is the script, which David Auburn helped adapt from his own play. David is a U of C grad himself, and he nails the delicate mix of cleverness and awkwardness that marks the university. The movie is genuinely funny, not with one-liners but with ingenious conversations and full characters. (Sadly from an economic standpoint, this means that it's hard to find self-contained three-second clips for a preview ad; the commercials for Proof had disappointed me.) The human drama is intense and completely believable, and you would not believe the amount of suspense they draw from the scenes. Ambiguity is used to incredible effect in so many interactions, particularly when tracing the fine line between genius and madness.

OK, enough raving. Just go see it if you like mathematics (Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind were Hollywood stereotypes of mathematicians, Proof is the real deal), or if you know the University of Chicago at all, or if you just want to see a well-produced movie that avoids all the usual clichés of screenwriting.

And you had better see it if you know Ian, because he's sitting prominently two rows behind Gwyneth in Rockefeller Chapel. Alice and I "eek!"ed together when we saw him.

OK, I've got to sleep. Got to do some functional analysis tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Some New Blogs

Well, new to me, anyway.

I was very happy when Andy, the grad student at Chicago in computer science, dropped by and left the link to his blog. I know Andy and his wife Cheryl quite well from Calvert House; they're a good couple, and particularly funny to watch together. (Of course, you can't really do that via blog, but Alice will let me know when Cheryl comes up with some good ones this year.) Andy also has a speculative/philosophical blog called The Mathematical Catholic.

The oddly titled but interesting Catholic nerd blog Give Tongue is written by a pair of ladies who attend St. Margaret Mary's parish (where I've been going of late), but as yet I haven't met them.

Against the Grain is an excellent example of synthetic intellect in Catholic blogging. Er, that is, it connects current events with a great deal of links to other knowledge and worthy commentary.

And I've just discovered Noli Irritare Leones, a very ideaphoric Quaker blog not afraid of some controversy and disputation.

Finally, today I stumbled across Peeping Thomists, written by music students at St. John's University (their description of Seminar makes me pine for the days of Soc class). They made this list with the following one-sentence Iliad summary:

Achilleus: "My mother was a goddess and all I got was this lousy shield."

Happy surfing!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Scientific Method and the Inductive Principle

So, I've been more tempted of late to write about a bunch of other things, but I promised myself I'd say what I meant about the scientific method.

I think we've taken it too much for granted that there are these two 'spheres of knowledge', that Science tells us everything that happens in the physical world and that Philosophy or Theology are strictly concerned with nonphysical questions like meaning. Many people even think that "Science has proved that miracles don't happen" or something of the sort.

I think a modern problem is that the scientific method has produced so many good results that we've taken its efficacy for granted. We've ceased to really care about the philosophical assumptions that the scientific method rests on, the assumptions that determine the scope of the problems it can tackle and the results it can claim.

The most important assumption of the scientific method, as I see it, is the Principle of Induction (scientific, not mathematical)- that is, the assumption that the phenomenon you are studying is infinitely repeatable if the right conditions are in place, and that whatever happens the first N times (where N is a number assumed to be sufficiently large for the purposes of the experiment) is in fact what would happen in any trial under those same conditions.

It sounds rather innocuous, and in most circumstances it is. But what must be noted is that this is a significant assumption, and not one proven in advance. This assumption, in fact, asserts that there are no miracles, no unrepeatable violations of physical law.

Or rather, that's one of two main ways of understanding the Principle of Induction. The other is to say that it simply excludes such events from the scope of scientific study. There's nothing wrong with such an acknowledgment; it's rather like a linguist faced with a string of English characters produced by a malfunctioning computer, who then admits (the linguist, not the computer) it's not a problem for linguistics and hands it to the nearest programmer.

Either way, the notion that "science has proven that miracles don't happen" is mistaken. You can't demonstrate the fact you assumed, that's called circular argument. And you can't, in the other understanding, use the scientific method to answer a question you've defined to be outside the scope of the scientific method.

So we see that some questions of physical fact (e.g. whether Christ resurrected, whether Padre Pio bilocated) are philosophical/theological questions rather than scientific ones. Many would argue that neither could have happened, because they believe in philosophical principles that forbid such violations of physical law; but from a Catholic viewpoint (with the distinction that belief in Christ's resurrection is necessary, and that belief in the miracles of the saints is not necessary) there is nothing amiss with a God who will suspend the laws of the universe He created when it is for His glory and the good of souls.

So what should be taught to everyone, regarding the philosophy of science? Hmm. I'm not sure. I just think there's something too magical about the way it's referred to in high school classes, as if 'Science' were an infallible oracle rather than a collection of methods which picks out repeated patterns in the natural world. You know?

P.S. Am I less coherent in my musings than I was last year? Perhaps
my mind is going...

P.P.S. Is there a band called The Scientific Method? There should be.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Continuing that tradition of unmerited good things happening to me, we give you the Berkeley Math Department Edition of "Beatus Nescius"...

(1) I was assigned a first-year advisor, who turned out to be Dr. Zworski, one of the professors who really impressed me when I visited Berkeley. He's been extraordinarily helpful in giving me an initial direction, recommending classes for me (even moving his own lecture because of a conflict with another class I wanted to take).

(2) The offer I accepted from Berkeley was to teach (lead two discussion sections of a large calculus class) in return for my tuition and stipend. I do like teaching, but that teaching load has a time commitment of about 25-30 hours per week on top of my own studies. (Thus they used to give the first-year grad students all non-teaching stipends, until the state school budget got slashed.) C'est la vie, right?

Well, I went to look up my teaching assignment last week, couldn't find myself on the list, and panicked a bit. Did they lose me in the system? Am I not going to get a stipend? I asked the coordinator, who told me that I'd just been awarded a non-teaching fellowship that day. Turns out that the graduate chair of the department had an extra non-teaching fellowship (since his thesis student needed teaching experience). He gave it to me, not because I deserved it in any special way, but because in my initial conversation with him, I'd mentioned my interest in working with the analysis group (to which he belongs). Now I can take some tougher classes, catch some seminars, do an additional reading course, etc... Wow.

(3) And today, I attended the State of the Department lecture (which most graduate students skipped), where it was announced that we grad students had all been given a 25% raise for this coming year! I celebrated today by adding a CD (Chicago II) to my Amazon order (The Analysis of Partial Differential Operators I, Lars Hörmander).

II. And now, my neuroses of late... I am, after all, a mathematician, and it's not so bad when I compare myself with Nash or Erdös or that wacko who proved the Poincaré Conjecture...

(1) You know, I don't mind bugs in general. It's flying things that bother me, as I admitted last winter about a bird loose in the house. Today it was a moth that got stuck flitting about my room. I just have a sort of 'visual gag reflex' that makes me freak out when anything begins to fly toward my face. Argh.

(2) I don't know what it is about sleeping here, but suddenly I remember my dreams almost every night (which I almost never did before). And now they're all of the same sort: a wild adventure, with my very life threatened by a specific sort of antagonist, but I am unafraid in the dream (because, thus far, I've always had the power to evade death in the dream).

First, the dream where I sat at my kitchen table in St. Charles, then realized a crazy old man with a rifle was trying to shoot me from his psychedelic van parked across the street. I had a tough time explaining the situation to a cop, but it seemed to work out.

Then, I was Goliath from Gargoyles, which I watched every day in middle school. Specifically, I was clawing my way out of a booby-trapped elevator while being watched by a mad genius.

The next time, I was Indiana Jones. Oddly enough, I didn't start out as him, but as a contributor to the commentary track of The Last Crusade, talking about the symbolism of fleeing the gold-encrusted temple with just a tin cup. Then, somehow, I became Dr. Jones, dealing with an airplane full of Nazis on the African plain.

And last night, I was just a kid touring a vast amusement park. After climbing a mountain and watching an orca leap majestically from the water (and planning to tell my sister about it), I found my way to the island of the dinosaurs, where I was cornered by a Velociraptor. Then the dream's visual style abruptly changed from 'realistic' to 'anime', for no discernable reason.

So, I'm crazy, right?

III. Look what I found in my blogsurfing...

(1) I honestly laughed out loud at the Thomism Blues. Seriously, press the "play" button before you start reading. Via Disputations.

(2) I stumbled across this quote and thought that it stood on its own as a really Chestertonian line:

"People who readily embrace the Jesus whose teaching was so shocking to those who heard it in person often can't accept that what He taught might still be shocking to people today."
-Paul, commenting on From the Back Pew.

IV. Good night.