Minneapolis

I was planning to finally get down to write one of those really controversial ideas I always plan to get around to writing. The title was supposed to be something like “The pros of discrimination by demographic.” But Its been a rainy day in Minneapolis, and I’m feeling more contempletive than confrontational. So stories of Minneapolis it is.

I’m here for a weekend conference, in the form of joint AMS meetings, which basically means a bunch of unrelated series of lectures in the same building. Officially, i’m here for the session on chip-firing in graphs, which is what my research is in. Unofficially, I do not understand algebraic geometry, and as roughly three-quarters of the talks are about the algebraic geometry of chip firing in terms of divisors on manifolds (or about tropical geometry, which is even worse), I find some other lecture to go to. A lot of them are great – the best ones are just twenty minutes of describing one simple idea, like stack sorting (what is the minimum number of passes through a stack it takes to sort a list) or graph centrality (trying to come up with good ways to measure how central a vertex is in a graph).

But on the other hand, I hate conferences. Even at their best, they’re depressing. You fly somewhere to meet a bunch of people you’ve sorta met before and try to socialize with them in a weird semi-formal environment between talks while drinking terrible conference coffee. You try explaining your research to them, or having them explain theirs to you, despite the fact that you’re probably in completely different fields and don’t really have any idea what the other person’s saying. Then you mumble an excuse and go get a coffee refill, from coffee dispensers that somehow always have exactly enough coffee to fill one cup, if you’re willing to wait two to five minutes for them to trickle a full cup’s worth of coffee in. And then there are the talks. I won’t get into conference talks, because then I really start ranting.

Going to conferences always makes me feel guilty. I get travel funding through some well-meaning body or other, and it seems like such a waste. They gave that money because they were hoping I’d use it to advance the state of human knowledge. Instead, I’m listening to a bunch of talks I don’t understand and feeling generally miserable (not that it would really be any better if I was having fun hanging out).

I did meet a friend from my summer program there. It started off slightly awkward, the way it does when you hanging out with someone you’re used to interact with as part of a group, but a few minutes in it got pretty comfortable. It was a huge relief, after having to fake friendliness the whole conference, meeting someone I actually felt friendly towards. Actually, it’s more than just the conference – I secretly suspect most of my social contacts are people I only talk to because human interaction is supposed to be good for me. It’s such a relief to find people with whom this doesn’t feel like forcing myself to eat beets.

Minneapolis was cold this weekend. It wasn’t supposed to be – the forecast said twenty degrees – but it got around freezing on Saturday afternoon. This is actually a pretty great example of baysian statistics: No matter what the forecast says, “Minneapolis is cold” remains a useful heuristic, since the prior temperature distribution for Minneapolis is lower than it would be for, say, New York.

Navigating Minneapolis was challenging interesting: My phone stopped working a week ago, so I had to navigate by memory and hastily-penned maps on the backs of receits, as my forefathers once did. Fortunately I did not have to spend fourty years in Minneapolis. Fortunately, I say, because the closest mount Nevo is in Utah, meaning I would have to cross the entire midwest on foot. I have a hard enough time doing it by plane; it’s all giant green or yellow squares, and looks like a windows 95 screensaver. I may have to get a new phone, but I interviewed with company X last week, and I’m waiting to see if they offer me a job before I decide if I should get one of their phones or one of their competitors’. (Yes, apparently I really am that childish and petty. But then, I wouldn’t want to buy an expensive phone only to find out the next day that the company that made it didn’t want to hire me).

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