Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Once I was tired, ending a long trip, seated on the airplane about to leave for home, veering towards passing out, when the Pilot comes out, says he has puzzles of us, and if we solved them, we would get gifts.

  • What is the distance from SF to Seattle in Nautical miles? His hint was: area code of Missouri.  I guessed the distance was like 1000km or roughly 700 regular miles and since a nautical mile was larger than regular mile, guessed the answer to be like 600 or 610 (in tel area code, I know enough about npa-nxx numbering to guess that the second digit was probably 0/1). He said close enough. 
  • At what height will the flight from SF to Seattle operate if its route is  North with a little bit to the west? I know that flights to west operate at even heights plus 500 (once to east operate at odd plus 500),  and most flights operate above 30k ft, so I guessed 32500.  His answer was close enough. 
  • What is the flight time from SF to Seattle? His hint was: Baccardi minus 13. I knew there was a Baccardi 151 and so guessed 1 hr 40 min since it had to be more than 1 hr but less than 2. His answer was close enough. 
What did we get us gifts, I dont recall, but the whole exercise cheered me up. It is one pleasure to solve precise mathematical problems, yet another to guess like above, reality in mind. 

Thursday, August 04, 2016

On Being a Professor

Being a professor has many components.
  • Teaching. People think teaching x hrs a week should be easy. It normally takes 3x hrs to prepare, 2x hours to coordinate with the TAs, 2x hours of office hours, and so on. While exams take x hrs, 3 students can't take the exam due to many personal constraints, and each of them will take a different makeup exam at different times. Every one of the 100's of students in the class will meet with you some time or the other and needs to be understood on an individual basis. 
  • Funds. Every x applications might secure you one. Each application might require one to work with y other parties. Each of the xy collaborations might need preliminary results before applying for funds. You have to constantly look ahead, making plans for space, students, travel, equipment, summer salary, whatever, at very minute levels of money.
  • Research: This involves taking ones' mind to the brink, finding new ideas, theorems, or doing experiments, brink of mental exhaustion. Then one has to write to convince an adversarial referee to acknowledge the achievement and accept the paper for publication. Throughout all, one is constantly combating self-doubt, mental highs and lows. 
  • PhD Students: They come to you with self-confidence of having done well in their undergrad program, many lose their focus and confidence when confronted with the uncertainty of doing research, and you have to help them rebuild it. And when they learn to stand up, you have to stand down, and when they graduate and sprint to jobs, family life and beyond, you have to sit back. Each student takes x years of attention from you.
  • Job Environment:  You make x per year, knowing others make 2x or 3x in the industry, and get annual increase of x while others in industry make 10x. Your colleagues are for life, like a family, pros and cons inclusive.
What does it all mean? Being a professor is like doing a startup company, by oneself. You struggle for survival, do many things beyond your expertise that you never even trained for,  work hours beyond pay, effort doesnt matter only the outcomes, and like a CEO, no matter what angst one faces, a Professor talks about the excitement of research results and the quest for the unknown. And like any startup founder, the professor chose to do this. The professor is nevertheless convinced he will change the world, and is driven by the excitement of research, teaching and watching young people grow.

ps: The above is I am sure observations that many in academia have made, these are not my unique observations.
pps: People asked me if I had a message with this post: when you see your academic colleague, treat them with non-judgemental empathy. 

Arbitrary Thoughts

People ask me:

What of  Dating? And I say: If you are offered a mint or tic tac by your date, dont refuse it.

What of  Love? And I say: Massage the other like they would like to be massaged, not like what you like.

What of  SF? And I say: In SF, the conversations go like this.
A: I am visiting from Paris.
B (from SF): You must like the weather here, and you must be happy not to be in Paris."
(You can substitute any city for Paris.)