Sunday, May 1, 2011

Colorful Bike Rack

A few steps from Saul's Deli there is a metallic bike rack which I pass every time I walk to and from campus.  One day I noticed that it was covered in yarn, like a sock over a foot:

Where did this come from? When was it put there? Recently I noticed half of the yarn is gone:

On the yarn I found a label with a URL:

From the label I learned that the anonymous artist, named Streetcolor, is maintaining a blog where she (that's my guess -- would a guy do this?) documents all of her creations, called yarn bombs. Scroll down that blog to the entry for March 14th to find her writing about the yarnbomb I saw.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Berkeley Protest

This was the last week of classes, and everywhere on campus you could see people on the grass enjoying the lovely spring weather:


Actually, those photos are not from this week.  They were taken in the first week of classes, back in January! Year-round good weather is one of the burdens that Californians must endure.

On Wednesday afternoon I walked past 25 or so students lying down or sitting on the grass. There was one indication that this group was not there to get a suntan: protest signs were lying on the grass nearby. I found out later that these students, who included 12 hunger strikers, were protesting  the proposed merger of three academic departments: Ethnic Studies, Gender and Women's Studies, and African American Studies. I am not sure what the combined department would be called: EGA studies?

An hour later I walked past the students again.  They were still lying on the grass, with more people standing behind them, as a retired ethnic studies professor read a speech to them:

Unfortunately for the protesters, they did not attract a large crowd, as you can see from a wider view:

The reason for merging the departments is due to very severe budget cuts that UC Berkeley faces from the state of California. The Daily Cal, which started reporting on the budgetary impact on social science departments in early March, had a couple of articles about the protests this week. An editorial yesterday in the newspaper concluded that this student protest was a failure, with goals that are neither realistic nor representative of the student body.

Was the protest realistic? A letter written in mid-March by students majoring in the three departments rejected every proposed cut in their departments in its entirety, as if there is no budget crisis at all. In the letter they wrote "Please note that we are not writing this letter to demand special treatment," but demanding that every proposed cut be completely reversed seems like special treatment. I found that letter and the administration's reply on a common blog page that people from the three departments created in response to the suggestion that they merge. It is ironic that the departments would criticize their merger through a joint website.

Was the protest representative of the student body? Certainly by attendance it was not.  Either few students care deeply about this or the students who do care did a poor job of promoting their protest. It's not for a lack of potential supporters. According to the Berkeley online catalog there are around 90 undergraduate degrees available at Berkeley and almost a quarter of them are in different kinds of "studies":

African American Studies
American Studies
Asian Studies
Asian American Studies
Celtic Studies
Chicano Studies
Conservation and Resource Studies
Dance and Performance Studies
Development Studies
Dutch Studies
Ethnic Studies
Gender and Women's Studies
Italian Studies
Latin American Studies
Legal Studies
Media Studies
Middle Eastern Studies
Native American Studies
Near Eastern Studies
Peace and Conflict Studies
Religious Studies
South and Southeast Asian Studies
Theater and Performance Studies

Admittedly students concentrating in Dutch Studies might not immediately see a kinship with classmates in Ethnic Studies, Gender and Women's Studies, or African American Studies, but I think we can all pick a few of the "studies" majors which would sense a close bond.

In what I've read about the proposed merger (which is not the first time something like this has been proposed for "studies" majors at Berkeley), I haven't seen any strong arguments about why the merger is bad from a scholarly point of view. Berkeley has had successful department mergers before. In the 1980s there were around twenty separate departments in different aspects of biology, and this diffusion of resources was starting to hurt the reputation of biology compared to other top schools. According to
a case study, in 1981 "some of the buildings that housed biological laboratories were so dilapidated that they harbored insects and small mammals who were not employed by the University, and who were not part of its research activities." After about a decade of work, Berkeley merged its biology faculty into 3 departments (integrative biology, molecular and cellular biology, and plane and microbial biology). That experience has been written up in some interviews.

On the website College Confidential I found comments by Berkeley students which indicated that, whether deserved or not, the "studies" majors do have a reputation problem. Here are two of the comments (click on the images to read them, unless you have good eyesight):

Students at UC Santa Cruz are now asking for an Ethnic Studies major there.  What do you think the chances are of that happening anytime soon?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Holy S-t

Berkeley's math department has an annual lecture series called the Serge Lang lecture, which is aimed at undergraduates and honors Lang, who visited Berkeley every summer for all of the last years of his life and regularly gave talks at Berkeley to undergraduates. The Serge Lang lecture for this year was given yesterday, by Andrew Granville, on the topic of patterns in primes.

After Granville's talk there was a dinner for the speaker and undergraduates, held in Evans Hall. A few non-undergraduates attended the dinner, including me. Here is the view from my seat:

Although we were eating with real silverware, our plates and cups were made out of plants.  I was very surprised to read the cup manufacturer's URL on the cups, which you can see at the bottom of the cup in the next photo (click on it for a better view):

When I first saw this, I thought "What the f-k?" The math department has been using these cups for a while, but the staff hadn't noticed the awkward URL before. It is not a joke. You can find out the reason for the name f-k by looking at the website here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


In Evans Hall yesterday I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that will be funny for anyone who knows  calculus.  Here is the front:

And here is the back (click on it for a better view):

Make sure to think about XXL as a shirt size, not as Roman numerals.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Awesome Show

Last week some posters went up around the math department in Berkeley announcing a talent show for undergraduate and graduate math students called the Awesome Show:

The show took place earlier today. Although the sign above says the show was scheduled to last from 6 to 8 PM, it lasted until around 10 PM.

The first act was a student, Kenny, who announced that he would recite the first 130 digits of pi. He wrote them on the board first so we could check his accuracy as he recited the digits (while he faced us, not the board) and he did it without making a mistake. I didn't take a picture of Kenny, but you can see the pi digits in the photo below, which is taken from a Mozart performance by Sarah and Elena:

Someone pointed out after Kenny was done that  really had memorized the first 131 digits since he left out the initial 3 in front of the decimal point. There was an offer for anyone else to come forward after Kenny and do better, but nobody accepted the challenge.

After the pi recitation, there was a guitar rendition of a Bo Burnham song (no photo) and the Mozart performance seen above. Then we heard trombones and tubas from Mike and the Eigentones:

After their first song, Mike (on the right) asked Anton to come forward and do some juggling while they played:

In the second juggling photo above, Anton is doing a juggling routine called "Factory" (click on the photo for a better view), which Sarah said she could probably watch all day long. It's a pretty funny routine, at least if you know the person doing it. You can watch a video of "Factory" here (that is not a Wikipedia link, so I'm not sure it will be up forever).

Next up in the Awesome Show were feats of physical strength and endurance.  Christian, one of the postdocs in the department, offered to arm wrestle anyone. Several students came forward to challenge Christian, including two students from his class and he competed against them first. Here is his first win (the host and founder of the Awesome Show, Pablo, is the one standing on the left):

The second win for Christian happened just as quickly (no photo). 

Christian next competed against graduate students.  Aaron put up a substantial effort, but Christian still won:

The final person to challenge Christian was Mike. Pablo had the brilliant idea, before the real match, of having them arm wrestle left-handed (both are righties). Pablo checked they were ready

and then the match started, which Mike won:

How would the right-handed match turn out? The suspense was, well, awesome. Mike won again:

Mike received a (presumably very firm) handshake of congratulations from Christian

and returned to his seat amidst wild applause from the other graduate students:

The next event was push-ups. To begin, three people took part: Mattias, Pablo, and Christian:

Pablo was frustrated after he finished because it turned out that nobody was counting how many push-ups he did. I think Christian won among this group with 40--45 push-ups. Then Critch and Aaron tried to beat Christian's count:

Critch got up to 45 push-ups and Aaron got up to 60. It was then time for a pizza break:

The second half of the Awesome Show began with the Eating Awesome Things (E.A.T.) events. The first one was Ryan attempting to each a 6 pound burrito in less than an hour:

In the above photo, Ryan is standing on the left. Notice how enormous the burrito is in Pablo's hands (click on the photo)! Ryan sat down on the side of the room to start eating the burrito

while other events continued in the main stage area, such as Kenneth's stand-up comedy routine

and Dongmiao's belly dancing.

 Let's check in again with Ryan to see how the burrito is going:

On the main stage there was a new E.A.T. event: the Saltine cracker challenge. Who could eat the most Saltines in a minute? The reason it is hard to eat many of them (even three) in a minute is that your mouth becomes dry very quickly. To generate lots of saliva, a few of the contestants (Hannah, Pablo, and Ian) first each ate a Habanero chili pepper:

There were seven Saltine-eating contestants: Pablo, Hannah, Ian, Sarah, Damien, Aaron, and Adam:

I don't recall who won, although Aaron ate 10 Saltines in 1:07.  Next up in the E.A.T. program was the cinnamon challenge: could anyone eat a tablespoon of cinnamon? Hannah, Georg, and Critch volunteered:

In the second photo (click on it), notice the completely different facial expressions on Hannah (calm) and Critch (pained). Critch said later that his puckered face wasn't a sign of pain but was his body's involuntary reaction to having a tablespoon of cinnamon sludge in his mouth. Eventually Critch spit out the cinnamon.

Here is a video of the cinnamon eating challenge. At the 28 second mark you'll hear me tell Critch something related to his duties as my grad teaching assistant (in case he got sick from eating so much cinnamon at once). A little before the 1 minute mark you'll see Critch's incredulous reaction when he finds out that nobody was actually timing how long they were eating.


The next event featured me telling true funny mathematician stories and also math jokes. Here's a video of that performance.


Let's check in again with Ryan to see his progress on the burrito:

It looks like he is almost done, but this also means Ryan has more than 5 pounds of burrito inside him. Will he make it all the way?

Next there was a fashion show, where several students wore outfits that had been designed by Robyn (a fashion major before becoming a math major):

The tensor product signs on the blackboard there are left over from one of my stories.

Ed came up next to play a song by his favorite band in the universe (whose name I don't recall):

Let's see again how Ryan is doing, since his one hour to eat the 6 pound burrito is almost up:

Wow, he is nearly finished! The last few bites will be the hardest. There was only one minute left, so Ryan stuck the rest of the burrito in his mouth:

Ryan was thus able to get the whole burrito into his body in one hour, and then he stood up to show off his physique to the crowd:

However, Ryan still needed to get the last part of the burrito from his mouth into his stomach and in this he did not succeed:

Ryan did not actually vomit, but he did spit out some of the burrito into the garbage pail. The audience gave him a hearty applause:

And then Ryan took a well-earned trip to the bathroom:

Two more musical acts followed: some keyboard playing by Ming

and a duet by Kenneth and Alice:

Anton took the stage next to show us a lot of his juggling moves:

He apologized initially because earlier in the day he had hurt his jugular, which is of course the most important part of the body for a juggler. (Does that joke work in any language other than English?) Here is a video of Anton's routine, in two parts:


In order for Anton to show off his juggling skills with more than four balls, we had to go outside since the ceiling in the room was too low to juggle many balls at the same time. Anton was already touching the ceiling with his juggling balls when using four of them. It was dark outside, so we walked over to a lamppost near the library.  Here Anton juggled up to six balls (count them!):

Someone said that juggling with so many balls made them look like a blur, and Anton said "It's a blur on my end too!" He added that when you get up to the skill of juggling 5 balls, it's hard to tell the difference between a trick and a mistake.

Anton next showed us some juggling club routines with Trevor.

The final part of the Awesome Show was really unexpected and fascinating: the Doe Traverse. What is that? The first part of the name is easy to explain: the building Anton and Trevor are standing in front of above is Berkeley's library, called the Doe Memorial Library. So that is where the "Doe" part comes from. The "Traverse" part of the name refers to climbing along the walls of the library in a corner section of the library -- including the part behind Anton and Trevor above -- with your feet staying on a small ledge just inches off the ground.

There is one more rule about the Doe Traverse, which accounts for a lot of its difficulty: you are not allowed to use your hands to grab any parts of the wall horizontally (like a hand on a table). Your hands can only grab the wall vertically (like a hand against a corner of a wall).  It's perhaps best explained by watching the following You Tube clip, where the person breaks the rules at the 1:34 mark by placing his hands on a window ledge and later falls off at the 2:00 mark.


The usual term for rock climbing which doesn't involve climbing very high is "bouldering", so doing the same thing on buildings is called "buildering".  The Doe Traverse is the first example I've ever seen of buildering.

To make sure we could appreciate how hard this was, several of us tried the Doe Traverse and had problems right at the start:

A few more people tried:

The reason this is so hard is that if your center of mass is just slightly incorrect you fall off.

Finally Critch and Damien were going to show us how to do almost the whole Doe Traverse, and they wore special costumes for this special event: Batman and Jesus.

Notice the skull and crossbones Jesus is wearing (click on the photo). Batman and Jesus then played rock-paper-scissors to decide who would go first.

Remember: these are math graduate students.

Here some people are following Critch after he gave a few tips:

Further along the Doe Traverse, Aaron demonstrates how to move around corners with correct hand motions:

From the You Tube clip above, you have seen the difficult final step. Critch/Batman showed everyone how to stand correctly in the corner right before this step:

To see what a proper pose after the corner might look like, Critch held up Jesus against the wall:

Jesus is pretty tall here, and you can see his hands don't reach the edge of the wall. There is really nothing for the hands to hold along this part of the wall, which is why essentially everyone falls off at this point on the traverse. We'll end this review of the Awesome Show by seeing how close Vlad comes to getting past this point, only to (literally) fall short of the goal.

I was taking photos with a cell phone instead of a digital camera by the end, so as a result when Vlad falls his image looks more like a painting than a photograph: in the last photo, where did Vlad's legs go and what is happening to his left arm?