November 09, 2009


Monday, 9th November. Today, Chartjackers released their single "I've got nothing" for Children In Need, the annual British charity appeal. The four boys have embarked upon quite a formidable journey and I genuinely hope that they will succeed in what they're trying to achieve, so I thought I would spread the word by explaining the idea behind the Chartjackers Project to those who haven't heard of it.

The project was started by Charlie McDonell, Alex Day, James Hill and Jonathan Haggart (more commonly known as Charlieissocoollike, Nerimon, Jimmy0010 and johnnydurham19, their respective pseudonyms), four boys who had already attained considerable popularity on YouTube -- Charlie, for instance, is the third-most subscribed Youtuber in the UK. 10 weeks ago they decided that they would attempt to create a song and get it to no. 1 on the UK Singles Charts, and then donate the money to charity. It sounds banal at first, but the real twist was this: they weren't going to produce the single themselves, but instead it would be made almost entirely by... the Internet! The four boys would be coordinating the project and informing members of the YouTube community, through their regular video updates, how to get involved. Through collaborative effort, the Internet would "hijack the charts"! In 10 weeks! I will go through the steps by which the single was gradually constructed.

  • Lyrics: It was decided that the song should be a cheesy pop song, in the spirit of the 80s or 90s. A video was posted in which the group kindly asked Youtubers to submit, in the comment section, one line each. Only restriction: it had to be as kitsch, superficial and as cheesy as possible. In other words, a line that could fit into any stereotypical love song, devoid of deeper meaning. "Metaphors are good". The projects kicked off, and thousands of comments were posted, each offering a possible line. People were then were encouraged to have a look through the submitted lines, compile them into an actual song and send it to the ChartJackers by email, whereafter the four boys would have a look at the submissions and choose the one that they found the most suitable. The lyrics were done.

  • Melody: Another video was posted, this time asking people to make up a melody, film their performance of the song (the lyrics had been made public by this point), and post the video on YouTube. The four boys would then go through these numerous video responses, and pick the most catchy melody. Again, the theme was "80s or 90s pop song". The performing abilities of the video bloggers in question were disregarded -- all that mattered was the melody itself. A melody was chosen, and the ChartJackers now had a song. Or at least the very basis structure of a song. They now needed a band and a producer.

  • Producer: Having realised that they would not be able to record the song single-handedly, the ChartJackers sent out a message that they were looking for someone who could help them out. A budding producer got in contact with them, and told them that he was very interested in their project and would love to give them a hand.

  • Band: Again, people were asked to submit videos of themselves performing the song, except this time the melody had been agreed upon, and the focus was therefore on the performance itself. The ones that looked promising were then asked to turn up for an audition, and the boys now had to go through the most difficult task of choosing which one was the best. In the end, it came down to not just talent but also looks, since an important factor in the success of the single would be the look of the band. Two performers (Adam and Miranda) had what it took, and luckily they seemed to be able to work together easily.

  • Recording: Most of the song was produced in a closed studio without the participation of the YouTube community. However, the ChartJackers posted a new video giving people another opportunity to get involved: if one were to submit a video of themselves clapping to the rhythm and/or singing along, the sound could be included in a special clap-and-sing-along part of the track. The responses were overwhelming.

  • Music video: The music video would contain footage of Adam and Miranda singing the song in a park, but that would only be part of it. The online community was now asked to submit videos of themselves literally performing the lyrics as well as they could. For example, one could be holding a medal while the line "I've won the greatest prize" was being sung. Charlie McDonnell proceeded to edit all these clips into one big music video, which would be a visual representation of the enormous collective effort that had gone into the making of the single. The sing-and-clap-along clips were naturally included.

In the end, the ChartJackers had a song. And boy is it catchy! It's available for 79p on iTunes, since the four boys didn't have the means to produce an actual CD. The money paid for downloading it goes directly to Children In Need, but only the sales made by people in the UK will count towards the UK Singles Charts. If you'd like to hear what the song sounds like, the ChartJackers have already posted a high-quality version of the official music video on YouTube. You can find it here.

I honestly hope that they are going to make it, if not to the no. 1, then at least to the Top 40. Something like this has never been done before, and it would be amazing to show the world what today's online community is capable of if they work together.

November 02, 2009


Alexander's Alternative Definition

Genius: A person who can watch the film 'Primer' for the first time, and understand what's going on.

Watch it. It's only 1h20, and not a bad film. But you'll see what I mean.

October 30, 2009


Last Sunday was the end of our Summer-time period. We all set our watches back one hour and were thus allowed to spend 60 minutes more in bed. I completely forgot all about it, and it wasn't until 4pm (when a friend pointed it out to me) that I realised I had just won an extra hour of Sunday. My watch is now back in GMT, Greenwich Mean Time.

I used to think GMT was, by definition, the official time in the UK. It wasn't until recently that I learnt that only in Winter are the two notions equivalent, and that during the period in which Western European Summer Time is used, the official time is technically GMT+1. In other words, while the official time makes two jumps of one hour every year, GMT doesn't. So strictly speaking, if you want to meet up with someone at noon in England in the middle of July, and you want to be a pedant, you should say "11am GMT". Since I learnt this, I have met at least two people who used GMT in the wrong sense, so I take it a lot of people in fact misunderstand the notion of GMT and see it more as a way of distinguishing between time zones, than as a technical term defining a time independent of the season. Greenwich Mean Time is, to be precise, the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. That doesn't mean that the sun will always be at its hightest exactly at noon GMT every day; it means that the average position of the Sun measured at noon GMT will turn out to be the zenith -- or something like that. Hence the word "Mean".

I dug deeper into this and made some peculiar discoveries. It turns out that there exists a plethora of other time standards, the most important one being Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC (more on that abbreviation later). It is based on the international scientific definition of a second:

The second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the Caesium 133 atom.

This is a direct quote of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, the organisation in charge of international standard units, or SI-units. Don't worry if you don't understand it, neither do I. But here's the important bit: The advantage of this definition is that it is a constant, unlike other previous definitions of the second. For example, the time it takes for the Earth to complete one rotation varies slightly over time, so a definition of the second based on that, would yield a unit that wasn't constant.

To get back to our time standards: UTC uses this definition of the second and the assumption that one day lasts for 86,400 seconds (or equivalently, 24 hours, each consisting of 60 minutes, each consisting of 60 seconds), to create a precise time standard. However, it still needs a way to somehow relate to the time indicated by the position of the sun in the sky. There is no point in having a extremely precise and unambiguous time standard if it isn't linked to the relative positions of the Earth and the Sun. How do we make sure that the noon we observe here on Earth is always exactly 12:00:00 in UTC? This is where another version of Universal Time comes into play, namely UT1.

UT1 is another time standard, and hasn't got anything to do with the above definition of a second. In technical terms, it is proportional to the true rotation angle of the Earth with respect to a fixed frame of reference. What does that mean? Essentially, it means that UT1 measures how far the Earth has turned, and sets the time accordingly. To put it very crudely, it is the "actual time" on Earth. It is in that sense a "Universal Time", since it only depends on the Earth's position in space. I won't go into the details of how UT1 is worked out; suffice to know that it is of high precision, and can measure time down to the nearest millisecond (well, almost).

Now, it turns out that the UT1 time standard is slightly slower than the UTC standard. The rotation of the Earth isn't nice and constant, so the "actual time" on Earth will gradually lag behind the scientific UCT standard. This doesn't mean the rotation of the Earth is slowing down (actually it is, but that's a different matter), it just means that the definition of the second given above is a little too "slow" for this specific purpose. The solution to the problem is to regularly "adjust" UTC so that it follows UT1. What this means in practice, is that every now and again, an extra second is added to UTC, giving UT1 the time to "catch up". These seconds, appropriately named "leap seconds", happen on average every 19 months, every time the difference between UTC and UT1 becomes too great. The concept of "leap seconds" is analogous to the idea of "leap years": an extra day is added every 4 years, because a "gap" has appeared between the conventional calendar we use and the actual position of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Using this analogy, UTC corresponds to our calendar, and UT1 to the Earth's position. There has been 24 leap seconds in total between their adoption in 1972 and today.

UT1 was introduced in 1928, and when the caesium atomic clock was invented in 1955, various time standards began cropping up, resulting eventually in UTC (officially initiated in 1961) and the subsequent leap-second adjustments. However, there was an issue about the name: The English wanted it to be called CUT (Coordinated Universal Time) while the French wanted it to be called TUC (Temps Universel Coordonné). In the end a compromise was reached, and the name UTC was agreed upon.

Apparently, UTC replaced GMT in most contexts on January 1, 1972. The time used on international news channels like BBC or CNN, is in fact the Coordinated Universal Time, and most Internet application use this system as well. Makes you wonder why no-one seems to know about it.

I think from now on, I'll use the UTC acronym instead of GMT, just to confuse the hell out of everyone.

October 27, 2009

Native Counting

I've had the immense pleasure of being contacted by a fellow anosmic who happened to stumble upon my blog post on the inability to smell. She proceeded to read the rest of the blog (which is one of the greatest rewards any reader can give me) and says that she "especially like[s] [my] posts on language". So here's to you, Catriona, a post about counting in a foreign language.

Anyone who has ever properly attempted to learn a foreign language, will know that the most efficient way to learn, is to spend some time in the country in question. Learning French in a classroom with a teacher and some books is always good -- even necessary -- but the effects of spending a holiday in France are considerable, especially if you are on your own and thus forced to speak French all the time. Eventually, the language will almost "infiltrate" your brain and your sentences will no longer be direct translations of your native language, but instead they will be constructed and structured directly in French in your brain, without going through the intermediate step of English, or Danish, or whatever language you feel the most comfortable in. This may naturally take more than a week, but given enough time such a change is bound to happen. I remember waking up one morning during my first long school trip to France (the whole purpose was to expose us to the French language) and realising that my dream had been in French. It's a peculiar feeling, a mixture between pride that your language skills have allowed you to reach that stage, and shock due to the unfamiliarity of the experience.

I have spent the majority of last year in England, each of the three academic terms being 10 weeks long. 30 weeks of speaking all but English, with the only exception being my Danish conversations with my parents over Skype. All my dreams are in English, I swear in English, my brain constructs my sentences directly in English, and even my internal dialogue is in English. In fact, when talking to my parents or writing them emails, I often find myself searching for a word or a phrase in Danish that I would have no trouble expressing in English. I sometimes use my English-Danish dictionary in cases like these, effectively creating a new, unforeseen application of the book. So it would seem that my brain has somehow adapted to the environment, and is performing all tasks in a foreign language. And yet... Every time I'm playing cards with my friends, and I need to quickly evaluate the number of cards in my hand or in the deck, I find myself doing it in Danish!

I count in Danish. Be it cards, or people, or papers, it is the one function that my mind still does better in my native tongue. I am of course perfectly able to do it in English, but I can do it significantly faster if I allow myself to switch back to Danish. Consequently, I always count in my head, in order not to frighten or confuse people. From what I have heard, it is in fact quite normal. And rightly so; one would expect the brain to perform better in most tasks when using a more familiar language, so the surprise is that I would rather think in English for most other tasks (at least during term-time). The question is, what is so pecial about counting that makes it tedious in a foreign language?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that counting is something you learn at a very young age, and that you learn to do automatically. It is like walking or riding a bicycle: the process have become something so mechanic and automatic that very little brain-power is actually required to perform it. The only difference is that counting is linked to a language. When you count, a sequence of words, or sounds, will be going through your head, but the significance linked to each number will have disappeared. When you reach "twelve" in your head, you don't stop to think that about its quality as a number, its properties, or even the fact that 12+1=13. "Thirteen" is just the sound that follows naturally on from "Twelve". Only when you reach the last card in your deck, do you stop to interpret the sound "Fifty-one". This now becomes a number, with its usual properties and connotations, and you realise that you're one card short.
So the reason I still count in Danish, is because the sequence I have learnt to recite as a kid starts with "Entotrefirefem...", and changing that automatic process would be, if not impossible, then a very difficult and time-consuming task, requiring a lot of practise. All of which would be pointless in the end, since I might as well just stick to counting in Danish.

This, however, raises another question: What other tasks will also automatically be performed in one's mother tongue? The first answer that comes to mind, is reciting the alphabet, since this is essentially the same as counting, except with letters. Indeed, when looking up words in my afore-mentioned dictionary, I will silently be going through the alphabet in Danish. Also, it would seem like a logical step to assume that if counting is performed in one's native language, then so is basic mathematical operations, like addition or multiplication. Here, I will disagree. While it is true that I can only recite my 7-times table in Danish, I don't use any language when adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. If I write "6 x 7" on a paper, the symbol "42" will automatically form itself in my mind. I may then add words to it, which could theoretically be in any language. If I'm multiplying them orally, I will still see the mathematical symbols in my mind, and from there "translate" it into whatever language I am speaking. I think the reason this is so different from counting, is because in this case, the numbers are actually perceived as numbers, mathematical objects, rather than a string of letters or sounds.

I am unaware of other tasks that would be unnatural to perform in a foreign language, but I'm sure there must be others. And I dare anyone to show me how you ride a bicycle in English.

October 18, 2009

Minesweeper Tutorial

Hello, and welcome to Virgin Media. So that we can help you faster, please enter your phone number, including the area code.

We’re having trouble with our Internet at the moment. It was finally set up on Tuesday, but no later than Wednesday evening did it stop working. We had already had trouble before the setup, so I’ve spent a painful amount of time on the phone with them. Or rather, waiting for them to pick up. I made the mistake of entering a mobile phone number instead of the newly installed landline, causing me to wait for at least quarter of an hour every time I had an inquiry. So I’ve had my fair share of repetitive pop songs they play for you to “ease the pain of waiting”. As if it wasn’t bad enough.

The question is, what do you do when you have an indefinite amount of time to kill, and you only have one hand available? I think we can all agree that sitting down and staring into space while waiting, is not a good option. Some people I know would set the phone on Hands-free, put it down, and start doing something else that they were going to do anyway. I personally find that I can’t properly get started with any other the task if I have to be constantly aware of any changes to the sound coming from the phone, knowing that at any time I may have to drop everything I have in my hands, get quickly back to the phone and start talking. I need something that doesn’t require a lot of commitment, and that I can do while holding the phone close to my ear.

Which is where Minesweeper comes into play.

Quick recap for those who have forgotten what Minesweeper is, or – God forbid – have never heard of or played it. Minesweeper originally appeared on Windows 95, and has to my knowledge been on all Windows operating systems ever since (just like MS-Paint). The rules are straightforward: a certain number of mines are hidden at random on a grid; if you click on a mine the game is over; if you click on a square that’s not a mine, a number will appear on that square, telling you how many mines in total are in the 8 surrounding squares. The goal is to clear the grid of mines by locating all mines. It is possible to guess your way through a grid, but the beauty of Minesweeper is that a grid can almost always be solved through logical reasoning alone (except of course for the very first click(s)). There is no time limit, but a clock in the upper right corner keeps track of long the grid is taking you to solve, for record purposes.

The game satisfies 3 criteria that I like about a game:

  • The rules and controls are simple. The above paragraph should be enough to make anyone understand how the game works, and even without being informed of the rules one can easily deduce them by trial and error. The game is technically a one-button game, since it enough to left-click on all the non-mines to complete a grid.
  • The game itself is very complex. The number of different grids possible is mind-boggling, so the chances of getting the same grid twice is, for all intents and purposes, zero (Mathematically it isn’t, but it’s damn close). Even for experienced players, a certain amount of brain-power is required, as the positions of the mines are not always obvious from the numbers displayed on the grid. Also, the player may regularly discover new tricks and patterns to increase his/her speed, so it’s a game that can take years to fully master.
  • It’s fun and addictive. Once you get the hang of it, solving a grid provides you with both entertainment and a sense of accomplishment. It takes no more than a second to start a new game, so if you hit a mine, there’s nothing to stop you from trying again (I think this aspect is partly what made the Thopter game so popular). Likewise when you have completed a grid, it’s often tempting to start a new one because you feel you’re on a roll. Furthermore, the record times stored on the computer are taunting, daring you to prove that it is possible to complete a grid even faster.

Another positive aspect of Minesweeper is that it is playable with a single hand and can be stopped at any time, making it the ideal game for those moments spent waiting on the phone.

What I don’t understand, however, is how little credit the game has been given. It seems to me that more people are playing Solitaire than Minesweeper, for example. Everyone knows Minesweeper, but very few actually play it. You may say that this is because it is a puzzle game, and people want something less abstract and more skill/reflex based. I will give a one-word answer: Sudoku. Sudoku has had a massive success even though it is an abstract, solitary puzzle game involving numbers. It has simple rules but complex dynamics. There is absolutely no reason Minesweeper should be branded “inherently unpopular”, when a game like Sudoku can achieve mainstream popularity. All that would be needed is that people give a try. Incidentally I also think that, just like Sudoku and crosswords, Minesweeper could help prevent age-related syndromes, such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia.

So, as an introduction to the this neat little game, here’s a step-by-step breakdown of a beginner’s grid being solved. (NB: If you’re using Vista, the layout will look different. I’m using Minesweeper X, a freely downloadable version which preserves the graphics I’m used to, and which doesn’t interrupt you at the end of each game, like Vista does.)

Minesweeper - 1

People have a general tendency to start in the corners. But there’s really no point in wasting time finding and clicking on all four corners. Go for some random points in the middle and stop when you hit something good. If you hit a mine, there’s no shame in starting again.

We hit a blank space! Blank spaces are equivalent to 0’s, and when you click them the game automatically clears the surrounding squares for you. These in turn may be blank spaces, so their surroundings are also cleared, and we get a “chain reaction” as above.


It is clear that there must be a mine in the hole on the left. Also, the ‘1’ with the red circle in the first diagram has only one available space left, so its mine must be there. The same thing applies to the circled ‘1’s in the second diagram. (A red circle will signal that all the remaining surrounding squares must be mines)

Minesweeper 3

Left diagram: The ‘1’ with the green circle already has 1 mine in its surroundings, so we can safely click where the arrow is pointing. Likewise, the ‘2’ at the bottom already has 2 mines, so the two remaining squares in its surroundings are also “safe”. (A green circle will signal that all the remaining surrounding squares are safe)

Right diagram: The bottom-green-circle-1 already has a mine at it left, so we can click on the square to its right. We get a blank space and several new numbers appear. The top-green-circle-1 also has a mine, so the three squares on its right side are all safe. We now have a ‘1’ (red circle) with only 1 space left for a mine, so we can mark that one. Finally, we also see that there must be a mine in the top left corner.

Minesweeper 4

Left diagram: The red-circle-3 has three spaces left, so those must be the locations of its mines. The green-circle-1 already touches a mine, so the square to its right is safe.

Right diagram: The bottom-green-circle-1 already touches a mine, so we can click the square above it. We get another ‘1’, so we do the same thing.

Minesweeper 5

Left diagram: The red-circle-2 allows us to place a second mine above it. Thanks to this, the green-circle-2 now has 2 mines, so we find another safe square.

Right diagram: The green-circle 2 cannot have any more mines in its surroundings, so we click above it… And voila! Grid completed!

Go ahead, try one for yourself. Don’t worry if it takes you a lot of time in the beginning, you will find that you quickly improve. If you are frustrated by Windows Vista's strange sking and its constant interruptions when you just want to start a new game, I recommend downloading Minesweeper X. For the ones too lazy to do any work by themselves, click here for a video of me completing a grid on Intermediate.

October 07, 2009

Introverts, Unite!

Our wireless Internet connection still hasn't been set up in our house, and won't be ready before the 12th October. So I'm forced to write my blog posts from the library, using either my own laptop (and let it run on batteries) or one of the university terminals (which I am doing now). At the moment, the library is rather busy so I have people sitting all around me, including a very talkative group at the table right behind me. They are probably very nice people, and it's a non-quiet zone where people are allowed and encouraged to chat, but their incessant talking, as well as the other discussions going on in here, is slightly unnerving. I'm one of those people who find it very hard to concentrate when other things are going on around me, moving around and making sounds, and who would much rather work alone, in silence. This leads nicely into what I want to talk about this time, because these characteristics are typical of a certain group of individuals. Introverts.

Now, let's first agree on the vocabulary here. By introvert, I do not mean some eremit who spends his days in a dark room coding computer programs or planning world domination. Likewise, by extrovert, I do not mean someone who spends all of his/her time partying and socialising. With these two words, rather, I mean to split the population into two categories, so that any person can be said to be either one or the other, depending on how their brain works. An introvert, then, is essentially someone whose energy gets drained during social gatherings and large groups of people, and who needs some time on their own to recuperate. An extrovert, then, is the opposite: someone who feels a need to be with other people in order to relax and "re-energise". Usually, introverts tend to be distracted by background noise while extroverts feel more comfortable working with some kind of external stimulus -- like music -- although this is more an indicator than an actual identifier I suspect.

Some people will argue that some (if not all) people have an introverted side as well as an extroverted side, and thus cannot be classified as either. I don't believe that. There may be introverts who have been taught to act like extroverts or who force themselves to do so, and extroverts who are naturally shy (shyness and introversion being two seperate things), but the difference between the two above definitions is so fundamental that one cannot, in my opinion, be simultaneously one and the other. If you met me in real life, you would -- hopefully -- see a completely smiling, open, affable and completely normal person, but that does not change the fact that I am, by nature, an introvert.

My question is: Why should I have to hide this? Why is introversion generally perceived as a bad thing? Everywhere, especially in the job market, there seems to be a focus on skills such as team work, communication and multitasking, skills that are typical to extroverts. If you don't value these, you may well be seen as a bad element in a work group, regardless of your actual efficiency. On Friday nights, I am expected to be in town or at a friend's house or patying or socialising in one way or another (anywhere but home), but I don't take much pleasure in this so I why should I? I don't mind spending time with friends, but why does it have to be socially unacceptable to decline an invitation if I've had a long week and need to spendsome time on my own more than anything else? I'm not trying to be rude, offensive or antisocial, I just regularly require a few hours on my own, time to gather my thoughts, daydream, and be myself, before I'm ready for another dosis of social interactions. In short, all I have is another notion of what it means to "chill", so how come this natural orientation known as introversion, has acquired so many negative connotations like antisocial behaviour, shyness, misanthropy and lack of self-confidence?

The answer to these question has to do with the fact that the vast majority of people are extroverts (75-90% from what I've read), and so extrovert behaviour has become the norm. This leads to introversion being misunderstood and misinterpreted as a personality defect or a sign of hostility. In the same way that I cannot grasp how anyone can get "energised" by a massive party, extroverts fail to understand that we simply enjoy solitude more than social events. Also, it is again this majority that has lead the extrovert skills mentioned earlier (team work, multitasking etc.) to become more wanted qualities in a employee. But while it is true that an introvert may lack the qualities needed to work efficiently in a group, he or she will have other advantages which unfortunately seem to be neglected a lot of working environments. The ability to concentrate and work for a long time on a single task, for example, is common to most introverts, and ought to get more credit in any environment, be it school, university or work. And since when is it a bad thing to be able to complete something on your own?

I did a little research on the Net before writing this, to see if anyone else had been thinking about the same thing. And sure enough, I found an nice article titled "The Tyranny of the Extroverts", which discusses the topic of these "essential" skills further.
Even more ineresting was another article by a certain Jonathan Rauch, who started a whole Introversion vs. Extroversion debate with his innocent piece of writing. If you can't be bothered to read this blog post, then what I'll ask of you is, please, READ THIS. This is good stuff.
Finally, there's a lovely blog held by some Lee Ann Lambert, called Living Introverted. It covers a lot of questions extroverts might have about introverts.

For those at Warwick University: I'm trying to start up a new society, that would go by the name Warwick Introverts. Its aim is essentially to unite introverts and possibly do something about the bad reputation that introversion has received. However, I need 30 signatures, so if you would consider joining such a Society, please contact me and help me get this ball rolling. Also, introvert and extrovert, Warwick student or not, feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear about your agreements or disagreements. Thank you. 

September 28, 2009

The Photoelectric Effect

Alexander's Alternative Definition

The Photo-Electric Effect

For those who like Physics. The reason this post is so ultra-short is because I don't have Internet in my new house yet so I have taken my laptop to the library but there is no power socket so I'm running on battery and I'm running low but I'll be back with more around the 2nd October okay thanks bye.

September 23, 2009

Choosing 2nd Year Modules

Inspired by this post, I decided to talk about the different modules I plan to take this year. If you're not a maths person, you can take pleasure in knowing that you will never have to know about this stuff. Also, it's a good way to get an idea of how many different areas Mathematics cover. It's not just one big 'Maths' module.

First, the compulsory ones (Core modules):

Second Year Essay: I have a friend who studies Politics (at Warwick). She always has at least two essays she's working on. We Maths students, on the contrary, only have yearly essays, which is of course totally sweet. And as if that weren't enough, we also get to choose the topic! I haven't decided on that one yet, though I'm wavering between Mathematics-of-Card-Shuffling and Something-To-Do-With-Chaos-Theory. The maths behind the Rubik's Cube could also be fun to have a look at, but I wonder if my tutor would accept that.

Differentiation: You'd think that by the end of our first year Maths course we would at least have covered differentiation. But oh no, it has only just started. From what I've gathered, it's about differentiating several functions of several variables. A generalised notion of a derivative, basically.

Vector Analysis: I've heard it's a bit like Geometry and Motion, with paths and trajectories and areas and surfaces and volumes and change of coordinates and all that.

Analysis III: I know what this is all about: formally defining integrals. Judge all you want, but I actually liked Analysis I and II. Learn and understand definitions of intuitive notions ("increasing", "tending to a limit", "continuous" ...), and rigorously work from there to prove complex theorems that often seems dead obvious when you think about them, that's what I like. Also the overall direction was very clear. I think I'll like this.

Algebra I: Also known as Advanced Linear Algebra. I wasn't too keen on Linear Algebra last year; it went from being mind-numbingly boring to over-your-head difficult. But I've made peace with eigenvalues and eigenvectors over the summer, so I think it'll be all right in the end. It'd better be; it's compulsory.

Algebra II: This is basically Group Theory, as far as I know. We touched a bit of Group Theory in college, and since then it has had a few cameo appearances in lectures. I don't understand what all the fuss is about, the definition of a Group seems rather straightforward to me, albeit a bit pointless. I hear Group Theory is a crucial concept in Mathematics, though.

Now we get to the optional ones, of which I still have to take a certain amount:

Metric Spaces: There's something magical about this. I've read ahead on this topic, and every time I read something new, I get this tingling feeling of delight in my stomach. There's just something neat about visualising metric spaces in your head. Maybe it's because I know that this is what leads to Topology, that it gets me so excited. Metric Spaces, please don't disappoint me.
This isn't strictly speaking a compulsory module, but one must take either that or...

Partial Differential Equations. And I've chosen both. PDEs don't appeal to me in the same way Metric Spaces do, but I've been told it's a useful tool to have. Although I know exactly what the module is about -- it's differential equations, but using partial derivatives instead of normal ones (duh) -- I have no idea of the difficulty, the concepts, the scope or whether I'm going to like it or not. We shall see.

Geometry: I want to do Geometry. Proper, formal geometry. Yes.

Mathematics of Random Events: The title sounds tantalising, but I guess the content is what matters. From what I can tell from the description on the Maths Department's website, this is something of a mixture between Analysis and Probability. While I adored Analysis, I abhorred Probability, so this is going to be an interesting one. But come on, "This module aims to provide an introduction to the mathematical ideas and language underlying the notion of randomness, which permeates through much of modern mathematics, as well as statistics and probability theory." I mean, who can resist that?

Stochastic Processes: Another module linked to probabilities. As much as I dislike probability, it is an important area in the mathematical world, and I know I can't try to work my way around it. So I might as well meet it face on, with my head high and a positive attitude. Besides, we did a bit of stochastics in college, and that wasn;t too bad. Also, I like the idea behind random walks, and that's one of the topics that will be covered, I believe.

Mathematical Economics A: Last year I did Introduction to Quantitative Economics, which was essentially Economics from a mathematical point of view. The one aspect I really enjoyed about the module was Game Theory. Game Theory is, in a nutshell, a mathematical study of what happens when two people play a game but they don't know what move the other person is going to do. Rock-paper-scissors style. Now, Mathematical Economics A is all about Game Theory, and nothing else it would seem. And I think it's fun.

Mathematical Methods for Physicists II: I'm no physicist, but this module was recommended to me by an older student, because it provides a nice introduction to something called Fourier Analysis. I have no clue what that is, but it comes up in later years and is a big thing. It should also be noted that while the word 'Physicists' is in the title of the module and while the exercises will probably be Physics-oriented, the actual content of the module is (apparently) purely mathematical. Which is a good thing.

Quantum Mechanics and its Applications: Last year I did Quantum Phenomena which was okay, if not a bit dull. Quantum Mechanics should provide a more mathematical and abstract presentation of Quantum Physics, which is just the way I want it. I am, however, taking this module tentatively, because I've been told it's a heavy load and it might not be so fun in the long run. But I want to give it a chance.

C programming: For the uninitiated, 'C' is the name of a programming language. I really like programming, although I would still qualify myself as a beginner. It's a kind of hobby for me, except I ought to spend more time doing it if I want it to become a serious pastime. Last year's module about Java programming was a good introduction to Object-Oriented Programming, but according to my friend and local Computer Scientist, Sarah, C is a much better language for programming games, a skill I would love to develop and perfect. After all, why else would you want to program?

Finally, there's Russian for Scientists. I definitely won't be doing this for credit, but I'm considering doing it for fun anyway, because I love languages and because I have a Russian-speaking friend. Plus, being able to say that you know a bit of Russian sounds awesome. Doing it for no credit also means I can easily drop it if it becomes too much of a burden.

All that brings me to a total of 173 CATS. The minimum is 120, maximum 180, and recommended maximum 150, the most sensible thing to do for me is to drop one or several of these modules as soon as I know which ones displease me the most.

Little side note explanation here: non-UK people often get confused when I talk about CATS, the Credit Accumulation Transfer Scheme, since they are used to ECTS, the European Credit Transfer System. ECTS is part of the Bologna process to make educational systems in Europe more comparable, which is why most European countries now use ECTS -- except England. The systems can still be compared, though, as 1 ECTS point = 2 CATS points. The irony is that "ECTS" is an English abbreviation.

September 18, 2009

I Love Life

I have in my room a poster, with the title "I ♥ LIFE". Upon it is a picture of a sunset, along with 50 pieces of advice. I thought I'd share them with you.

We are all born to die. What is important is what we do in between.
The following advice should make your life enjoyable, as well as for those around you.

1. Say "Hello" to people. It's amazing what a "Hello" from you can do for individuals.
2. Say "Please" and "Thank you", even when you don't have to. Instead of saying something crude like "Get out of here and don't come back", you should say, "Please get out of here and don't come back. Thank you." Notice the difference? Sure you do.
3. To live a life in fear is cowardly. Learn to face your fears head on.
4. Look after your teeth - even though they can be replaced.
5. Look after your eyes - they can't be replaced.
6. Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do or what you want out of life when in your twenties. The most interesting people I know still don't know what they want to do with their lives - and they're in their forties!
7. Don't worry about the future. You cannot plan or change what's coming.
8. Be on good terms with as many people as possible.
9. Make your point quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
10. Avoid loud and aggressive people.
11. Avoid people with a negative outlook or opinion.
12. Don't expect anyone else to support you. You may have an inheritance or a wealthy spouse. But one day either could run out on you.
13. Don't compare yourself with others, you may become bitter or vain; there will always be greater or lesser people than yourself.
14. Decide for yourself what's important for you in your life.
15. Keep interested in your chosen career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing forunes of time.
16. Exercise caution in your business affairs; the world is full of con men, get rich quick schemes, deceit and fraud.
17. Be yourself. Let your personality shine through.
18. Accept that other people will always appear to have more luck than you in health, jons, love, wealth, friends and life in general. However it's all half chances. So don't feel bad or aggrieved. Be happy with your lot; it's your life and no-one else's.
19. Enjoy your achievements and look forward to your plans.
20. Don't waste time, it's a precious commodity. Life is short, enjoy it to the full; it's not a dress rehearsal.
21. Hang on to your dreams, whatever they may be. Ignore the doubters; they're just jealous because they don't have any.
22. Don't work too hard for your employers; they only care about what you can do for them.
23. There's more to life than a job. When it gets you down, get a new or better one, even if it's at a lower salary. Money isn't everything.
24. Don't vote for the same politician twice; make them work for a change. Voting for them only encourages arrogance.
25. You can't buy happiness or love, so don't even try. Some things in life are free.
26. To be loved and wanted is one of life's greatest feelings. Return the favour in equal measure.
27. Do not fake affection, be honest and truthful about your feelings.
28. If you love and care about someone, tell them before it's too late. It's the things you don't say you regret the most.
29. In a loving relationship, do not count the years, count the moments.
30. Keep all your love letters. Read them when you are down and feeling unloved.
31. Get to know your parents. You'll miss them when they've gone for good. Do it before it's too late.
32. Be nice to your siblings. They are your best link to your past and your future.
33. You're not going to get much out of life, if you only ever do what's safe.
34. A person who dies rich, dies in disgrace. Donate money to worthy causes, you'll feel better for it.
35. Make the best possible effort in everything you do in your life, while you can. Be part of life and participate in it.
36.  Enjoy your freedom; you'll appreciate it more if it's taken away from you.
37. Pass on your wisdom, and learn from others.
38. Cherish every moment with your children, they are only young once in their life.
39. Do not criticise your children too much, as they could be bitter towads you afterwards. Praise them more than you criticise.
40. If you don't have anything good to say about someone, don't say anything at all.
41. Practise the Teflon technique, where others' negativity slides off you. Everybody suffers insults and put-downs.
42. Fear of failure is no excuse for not trying. There are only two failures in life: not trying and giving up. Nothing comes to those who will not try.
43. Quit moaning. Put your energy in to doing something positive about the problem instead.
44. Learn to cancel and continue. When actors make a mistake they instantly have to put it behind them and give their all to the next part. So when things go wrong, just try again. Don't fear future mistakes or hang onto past ones.
45. When you're angry with someone, do nothing until you've cooled down - or you'll say something you'll regret.
46. Try to be calm, you'll have a better chance of being heard. If you shout, the person you're telling off will hear your anger - rather than the point you're trying to make.
47.  Dance or sing on a regular basis. By yourself, with your spouse or in a group, but just do it. Either will make you feel good.
48. Every year make 5 promises. Try to keep at least one of them.
49. Exercise on a regular basis. It's good for your body as well as your mind, so exercise by running, playing sports or in the gym.
50. Never trust a skinny cook.

September 16, 2009

Minor Frustrations #1

I have started making a list (I love lists) of all the little things people do, that I personally find irritating. I'm not talking about the big issues that some people dedicate their lives to changing, I just want to address some the minor frustrations that don't really cause me any serious problems, but which would nevertheless be cool to get rid of. I guess the most exact description I'm looking for is: things that make me frown at people. Not visibly, but just silently in my head.

So here goes the first one. If you have read the blog so far, you may have an idea of what is coming.

I mentally frown at people who... consistently use bad grammar, spelling or pronunciation when writing or speaking. Non-native speakers are excused, and the occasional mistake by native speakers is also easily overlooked, but chronically ignoring the inner workings of a language, is in my opinion not OK.

I'll point out some of the baddies:

- "Definately". The word is actuallt spelt "definitely", but it seems that only a minority knows this. Maybe people confuse it with the spelling of "fortunately", however the two words have completely different roots: "Fortune" -> "Fortunate" -> "Fortunately"; "Finite" -> "Definite" -> "Definitely". Writing "defiantly" is even more wrong, especially since this means something else. Please have a look at this awesome site.

- "Must of". It may sound right, but the proper expression is "must have". "He must of gone" is nonsensical.

- "Aks". Some people pronounce "ask" this way. I know it's a dialect thing, but to me it is still a blatant disregard for the actual spelling of the word. If the word is "A-S-K", you pronounce the "S" before the "K". No?

- "I didn't used to". The expression "I used to" is so automatic that people forget how the past tense works. It should be "didn't use to", without the "d", just like you say "I didn't like it" rather than "I didn't liked it". A few days ago, I winced when I saw for the first time the alternative "I usen't to". Also, I'm reminded of Ali G, who says in one of his clips (as a joke of course): "[This officer] is here to show us that drugs isn't something you should do, but something you should don't!"

Pronunciation of "ask"

And don't even get me started about "Your" and "You're"...

If you happen to agree with what I've said so far, you should have a look at this page, a collection of common mistakes in English. I use it myself as a reference sometimes, when in doubt.

Disclaimer: As a consequence of Muphry's Law, I am bound to make some typos and some grammatical mistakes in this post. I apologise in advance for those.

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