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Time Passes

29. January, 2012

And life changes. I'm now well into my PhD, which is exciting — I get to do maths all day! It's hard to get up at more-or-less normal times all week, but I'm doing OK at that. For the first year there's a lot of background to get to grips with before you can forge out into new territory. It's harder to motivate oneself to read a book than to do try and prove things, but it's got to be done.

The actual research also gets tantalisingly close, such that it's an effort to ensure one properly learns the material. It's all too easy to jump in before you're ready only to have to retreat again...

Our Maths department at Bristol is impressively sociable; we go to the pub and for a meal each Friday, and go to lunch together every so often as well. Mathematical company can be surprisingly good — it'd be easy to assume that the mathematicians would be as dry as the subject can be, but so far so good.

In November I bought a new computer, which is pretty fun. Unfortunately, it's experienced a whole bunch of problems. This is fairly unusual for me; most of the time computer builds go fairly smoothly. This time one stick of RAM was completely bust, which seemed to result in the OS installation being corrupt, requiring a reinstall. After this I still got new corruption, and after a long time realised that the hard drive was probably dodgy as well. So far a firmware update seems to have fixed the latter problem. Ockham's razor led me astray in assuming everything came from the faulty RAM!

It gets worse though! I sent the RAM back to Scan early in January and it hasn't arrived, so it seems to have been lost in the post. To add insult to injury, my headset broke the other day, which was quite sad; I only dropped it from the desk to the floor. (This is pretty obviously a design fault in the Logitech G35s since numerous other people have had them break in the same way. A very small rod connects the cans to the headband.) Hopefully the third attempt at gluing it will be successful, although I suspect the joint, being quite wide and now composed entirely of glue, will be quite brittle and therefore break before long. I wonder whether a return will be accepted with it covered in glue...


27. July, 2011

One short holiday removed me from Bristol for a few weeks, but now I'm back and more masterful than ever before! That's right, graduation happened and I'm now a fully-fledged Master in Science! feelsgoodman. In the process I earned an award for the best undergraduate project, which likewise feels pretty good (and is probably some kind of justification/reward for having one's supervisor scare one by saying that the paper might actually be too hard and that it would be no dishonour to go and do something easier) Presumably on account of this the department wants to put me forward for the SET awards (some UK award, basically for projects by undergraduates in science, engineering and technology degrees.) This required writing a synopsis of the project, which ended up being a more drawn-out affair than I expected. I knew it wouldn't be easy to describe the most abstract part of mathematics to a judging panel who are of unknown backgrounds — but presumably not all of whom will know anything about set theory and logic. In the end, though, there was some agonising over how (and indeed, whether) to phrase a sketch argument. Still, the shot at an apparently prestigious award and the accompanying finalists' dinner is surely worth it.

Elsewhere in mathematical goings on I've been graciously awarded money to go to a conference in Chicago (with the authors of the paper which formed the real meat of my project, no less) in September. This is even before term starts for my PhD, but this of little concern. Apparently the workshop will be part mathematical, part philosophical, and at least the philosophical side should be penetrable. It'll be my first time in America, too; a weekend of mathematics, philosophy and a new country can only be fun, I hope.

Before that lies a fuzzy region labelled "GERMANY" on my calendar. At some point I will work out what precisely when I'll be where, but so far it remains uncharacteristically unplanned. It'll be my first time travelling to another country alone, although I have people to meet me on the other side. Some time in the intervening weeks I really ought to exercise my German, for I fear otherwise I'll be left, at least for the first few days, a bit bereft. The trip will be exciting for other reasons though; I'll be meeting in person for the first time a few friends that I've known online for a long time. One in particular for about five years!

Since I've arrived back in Bristol we've had our first house-wide cleaning operation, a success which was suitably followed up with a roast dinner. Hopefully we can prevent a return of the horrors of the previous house by sticking to some kind of cleaning schedule. We've also been attempting to make the most of our spacious new quarters by forcing people to sit in them and be entertained. At any rate, we said we were entertaining them and we're sticking to that story.

Until my departure for foreign lands, though I have to somehow keep myself entertained, a challenge compounded by the summer absence of many University friends. If only their parents provided them with PCs capable of playing games for their stays at home!


26. May, 2011

So the University year is drawing to close, and I have only one thing left to do. It's quite weird to think that an entire chapter of my life is ending, but sitting right in the middle of it, nothing really seems to be changing, not yet anyway.

When I was younger I used to wonder whether, when I was older, there would be any points where my life would change drastically, and tried to imagine possible times. Starting my first full-time job was the only one I can remember; the recurring problem was that I would get to the point I'd imagined and be unable to recall what I had imagined it would be like, and so not be able to compare. I'm not even sure what I imagined starting work would be like, but (if you call a PhD work...) I can't imagine it will be that much of a jarring transition. And if you don't call a PhD work, then it will be even less of a change to go from there to post-doctoral work or whatever.

Anyway, we shall see whether I do just float gently through the waters of academia, starting in a few months.

In the news recently has been a somewhat mystifying frenzy over Ken Clarke's comments regarding rape. I can't decide whether I am actually in the minority of opinion on this topic, or whether the media is just overburdening the poor horse drawing this bandwagon. Certainly, Ken dropped a few clangers, but to suggest that admitting degrees of seriousness for serious crime makes the crime seem less serious is fairly bizarre. The example Clarke gave was a good one although apparently it's not necessarily rape under UK law, but nonetheless it's not too hard to dream up an example of rape that is, while still well on the serious side of the scale of serious to non-serious, is nonetheless lower than some other example.

Before I continue, perhaps it would be prudent for me to stress that I consider rape a serious crime for which the responsibility always lies with the offender. (although statutory rape, if it turns out to exist, perhaps does not fall into this category. In the eyes of the law, no consent would have been given, but in reality it's a little more complex at least) Further I should probably just apologise in advance in case anyone reading this gets offended or angry. Nonetheless, this is what I think and I'm going to write it down.

Most things I've read have people arguing that admitting this amounts to saying that rape is not serious, which is such a blatant non-truth it's difficult to understand why anyone would say it. No-one supposes that because murder is pretty bad, you can't have even worse murder.

A more interesting contention is that allowing degrees of seriousness, while not actually implying that the umbrella category is overall less serious, might cause people to nonetheless thing that way. This is more of a possibility, but in practical terms I think it is pretty much never worth trying to second guess the public in this way. If, it turns out, it is worth making the distinction — and by all accounts though, it seems the case that a judge will hand out more or less severe penalties to what are being described as more or "less" serious rapes — then it should be done, and it is up to the government or some public body to ensure that this does not do anything to increase crime, decrease the reporting or conviction of crime, and so on. (Perhaps it would be worth getting Orwellian to satisfy people on this subject - we could have serious and doubleserious rapes... hopefully this will be taken as a statement about the camp of dissatisfied people, not about rape.)

At the risk of further enraging people with controversial opinions about a sensitive topic, I find it similarly odd that people are so loath to allow even a proportion of blame with victims, as if we live in a world where blame is assigned to one and only one person for every event. This came to the fore recently with the police officer who told a bunch of students not to dress sluttily (perhaps not his precise words) in order to help prevent rape. Now, it's pretty much a given that you can't make such statements without being explicit about what you're not saying. For example, if you're going to say that, you should make it clear you're not saying that rape is "the fault" of the victim.

But it is still a simple question of fact as to whether wearing revealing clothing increases ones chance of being raped, and if it does then it is arguably prudent to avoid it. Similar but less controversial advice is to avoid getting so drunk that you pass out, and to guard your drink. If one doesn't follow this advice, the chance of becoming the victim of rape is increased and so, in some sense, the victim acquires some measure of responsibility. The fact that the question is never "how much" but rather "whether" is confusing, because if you knowingly act so as to increase the probability of something happening, it seems to follow immediately you take on some proportional amount of responsibility. The fact that the ultimate responsibility can lie with someone else is not in question; only the balance of proportion is.

Of course, in the particular case of the police officer, I don't think the somewhat philosophical question above even enters into it. Advice is advice and should be judged on its practicality, not on its perceived implications. It would not be advisable for a white person (to purposefully choose an uncommon example) to walk through some parts of Zimbabwe, or into some bars in India, where whites are generally seen as signs of colonial oppression and might suffer violence simply for being there. The response we see here would be like rejecting this advice as being racist; it is not racist, it is acknowledging that racists exist and are willing to hurt people, and if you want to stay out of harms way you can and should take steps to avoid it. Acknowledging that rapes happen and advising on methods of avoiding it can coexist with other strategies for preventing rape (for example, locking up rapists) and does not in any way reduce the responsibility of the offender.