MAA review of Coffee, Love and Matrix algebra

CoffeeLoveAlgebraGary Ernest Davis
Publisher:  Republic of Mathematics
Publication Date: 2014
Number of Pages: 389
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780692262306
Reviewed by David A. Huckaby, buy cialis on 11/12/2014
David A. Huckaby is an associate professor of mathematics at Angelo State University.

Coffee, Love, and Matrix Algebra is a delightful work of fiction that chronicles the events of roughly a year in the life of the mathematics department at a university in Rhode Island. Can there be entertainment value in a book whose principal characters are math professors? Believe it or not, this is a page turner: The reader becomes emotionally invested in the ten to fifteen central characters and humor abounds throughout.

Many of the familiar features of academia are present. Faculty spar with administrators and faculty spar with faculty. In this particular department, there are essentially two groups: an energetic society of junior faculty engaged in exciting research, mostly in applied mathematics and/or statistics, and a smaller collection of senior faculty who no longer are — or never were — doing research. Members of the latter group for the most part stand in the way of the various initiatives that the younger faculty propose and strive to realize. Which group will exert more influence?

The main character is the very self-absorbed Jeffrey Albacete, whose fame in mathematics circles is due entirely to his very popular textbook Matrix Algebra, now in its 9th edition. Jeffrey is content, knowing that he is regarded internationally as an expert in matrix algebra. In Jeffrey’s opinion, the International Linear Algebra Society puts too much emphasis on linear algebra. The breakaway International Matrix Algebra Society, of which Jeffrey is a founding member and past president, puts the emphasis in the right place — on matrix algebra — and holds his textbookMatrix Algebra in high esteem. This is academic math humor done right.

Jeffrey enjoys sitting in his office and looking over all of the editions of his influential textbook. He also enjoys drinking coffee. Part of his routine is to walk to the campus gym, spend a few very leisurely minutes on the exercise bike, and then head over to the Daily Grind, a campus coffee shop. While he waits in line to order coffee, he counts the number of customers ahead of him in the queue and estimates the number of bricks on the wall. He muses about how humans start with counting and then progress to advanced topics like matrix algebra, of which he is an acknowledged expert. (Readers who share Jeffrey’s counting compulsion might want to count how many blueberry muffins he consumes over the course of the story.)

Fortunately, most of the abundant humor in the book derives neither from mathematical compulsions nor from the perceived strangeness of mathematicians. Most of the characters would be at home in any intellectual line of work, and much of the book’s humor in founded in the characters’ humanity, especially in their relationships with each other. Numerous ironic comments and observations, ranging from explicit to subtle, focus on characters’ foibles and interactions; the best of these remarks are worthy of Austen or Trollope. So one need not be a math professor to enjoy the book, although it is undoubtedly helpful. Granted, plenty of the mirth derives from the absurdities of academia, and the story delights those of us on “the inside” because it paints such an accurate picture of our work lives. Thankfully, however, perhaps even this academic humor can find an audience beyond the ivory tower: When situations arise that might be opaque to “outsiders,” the author routinely devotes a paragraph to spelling things out.

The characters who receive the most favorable treatment in the book — including those outside the university — are young, bright, driven, and for the most part technologically proficient. Their home is scientific computation, broadly defined, as they work to both advance and disseminate knowledge. One character who does not dwell in this realm is Alex the dog, who like Snoopy doesn’t talk but has powers beyond those of the typical canine. Another non-human character is perhaps the author’s favorite: Wolfram Research’s Computable Document Format. It is lauded throughout, even to the point that on more than one occasion someone conjectures that MathWorks must be sweating bullets.

Most of the main characters have good intentions as they strive to excel at their jobs and positively influence those around them. The characters frequently offer each other (and us) a healthy dose of simple wisdom, such as to view the vagaries of life not as problems but as opportunities. Over the course of the story, the optimistic and energetic characters do exert an influence on the pessimistic and moribund, but exactly how I will leave to the reader to discover. This is an enjoyable read and highly recommended.


The 50 greatest campus novels ever written

mccarthyWow! How great would it be to end up on this list of the 50 greatest campus novels ever written?

I’ve read a number of these campus novels, but by no means all.

My aim is to read them all, but there’s a snag in that plan. I tried to read Jane Smiley’s “Moo“, but couldn’t (yet) find the fortitude to plow through her long, convoluted sentence construction. Maybe sometime next year I will try again.

Anyhoo … “Coffee, Love and Matrix Algebra” is definitely a campus novel and I’d be proud to have it placed on a list one day with these other campus novels.

Here’s the link to the list of “The 50 Greatest Campus Novels Ever Written

Stephen King speaks about how he gets inspired

A chapter a day for 80 days – how I learned to love Stephen King

A couple of July 4s ago I sat down to write a story about certain tensions in academia.

I had developed an itch, an annoyance , a bug, that wouldn’t let go. The only relief was to write about it, to put the problem down on paper and let characters grow and address the problem.

McCall_Smith2Being a fan of Alexander McCall Smith‘s fiction – particularly the 44 Scotland Street series and, to a lesser extent, the Sunday Philosophy Club series, I decided to do what I thought McCall Smith had done and broadcast my chapter publicly each day.

McCall Smith wrote for a newspaper, and I for the Web. Little did I know, until much later, that he wrote a bunch of chapters first, so that the pressure would be less on a daily basis.

I, foolishly, promised a chapter each and every day, and so it was that at 5:30- 6:00 each morning, for 80 days in a row, without fail, I wrote a chapter of about 1200 -1400 words, and posted it on the web for one and all to read.

xI quickly garnered a small hard-core of Ideal Readers. They included Alexander Bogomolny, Adam Glesser, Sigal Gottlieb,  Sue van Hattum, and Nalini Joshi (shown below):


Feedback from these Ideal Readers was very valuable in keeping me going. It was also distracting, because at least one of them (whom I will not name) and my wife Linda, would make their own creative suggestion as to where the plot should go next. The problem is – I had no plot. There never was a plot, and there never was a structure.

Stephen_King3My writing method was, and is, to follow a suggestion of Stephen King.

I have never been a fan of Stephen King’s fiction. However, his book “On Writing” is, for me, THE classic book on how to write.

One of the things I recall King saying is that a book idea starts from a tension, a problem, something that needs to be resolved.

Characters enter the tale and engage with the problem. Their personalities, and their “plot” unfold as they engage, and I rely on my memory of people and situations I have known. I loved getting the characters into trouble and then seeing how they could work their way out.

In that sense, what happens in the book – the unfolding story – is as much a mystery to the author as to the readers. At least that’s how it was for me.

So, I transferred the chapters to PressBooks, paid my $100 to them, and downloaded my book in PDF and MOBI formats, the latter for Kindle.  The Press Books formatting and styling was gorgeous (IMO),

I took a cover photograph with my iphone at the Coffee Depot in Warren, Rhode island, and designed the cover in Gimp, following Create Space’s template.

I had to drop a couple of chapters because the book originally came to over 400 pages, and the spine and page margins need to be re-set: easy enough if I were using LaTeX, but somewhat less obvious – to me anyway – in Press Books.

CreateSpace, Kindle Direct, and Amazon have been great – not only for book production, pricing, design, and marketing, but also with a lot of other useful advice.  I joined Goodreads and am now a Goodreads author.  It feels great!

Next steps? Satisfy my Ideal Readers and produce a sequel, or, as my colleague Sigal Gottlieb rightly says: not a sequel, just a continuation of the ongoing story – just like life.

I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing … and saluté Stephen King, maestro.


What’s in your blueberry muffin?

blueberryHere’s a hint: it’s probably not blueberries.

Jeffrey Albacete, Professor of Mathematics, would be very upset to hear this news, addicted as he was to a blueberry muffin with his morning coffee.

Jeffrey imagines the delicious muffin he eats each morning contains healthy inviting blueberries. And why shouldn’t he? He can see the blueberries in the muffin, and he can taste the blueberry flavor as he bites into the little purple pieces scattered through the muffin.

But Jeffrey is mistaken. The blueberry muffin he is eating contains little to no blueberries. That is because he bought it at his campus coffee shop, the Daily Grind. If he had baked his own blueberry muffins, putting in whole ripe blueberries, it would be a different story. But Jeffrey was a little too lazy to do that and preferred, instead, to order coffee and blueberry muffins from the coffee shop, where he sat and enjoyed his morning repast in peace.

So, if Jeffrey’s blueberry muffins don’t contain blueberries, what do they contain?

Here, folks, is the ugly truth:

This is a disgusting and sad state of affairs. Even though Professor Jeffrey Albacete is too lazy to bake his own blueberry muffins – and not being married has no wife to bake them for him – he still should not have to suffer such processed rubbish.

“Perhaps,” he thought to himself, “I could interest some of my colleagues in baking fresh blueberry muffins. Kathy might be interested … and perhaps Deborah?” With a smile on his face he contemplated fresh home-made blueberry muffins with his coffee tomorrow morning.


Strong theorems from excellent coffee


Paul Erdos

It’s well-known, but probably not true, that the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös said a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.

As Peter Cameron points out on his “Coffee into Theorems” post, it was probably another Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi who actually said this.

Coffee is important to the academic enterprise, especially for mathematicians. As Cameron writes:

In happy and productive mathematics departments, there is usually a ritual of gathering in a common space mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon. General conversation serves a social function; mathematical discussion spreads ideas and encourages collaboration; and grumbles about aspects of academic life reinforce collegiality and also let department heads and administrators know what we are thinking.

 If a college, school or university department does not budget for coffee then it is left to individuals to supply coffee, if not for others, then at least for themselves. Such arrangements are likely to lead to coffee machines and coffee supplied in individual sealed sachets. Such coffee is not usually of the highest quality.

As yet another Hungarian mathematician, Paul Turán, is supposed to have said: “Weak coffee is suitable only for lemmas”

If Paul Turán and Erdös/Rényi are right, then strong theorems, with considerable impact, will only result from outstanding coffee. One of the world’s most outstanding coffees, at least in price, is kopi luwak, which is made from coffee beans excreted by civet cats.


Civet eating coffee beans

The civets eat coffee beans , which then ferment in the civet’s digestive tract:

The civet’s proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Passing through a civet’s intestines the beans are then defecated with other fecal matter and collected.  (Kopi Luwak: wikipedia)

The civet poop, from which kopi luwak is made

The civet poop, from which kopi luwak is made

So a forward looking mathematics department will find a way to invest in supplies of kopi luwak, which retails for about US $700 per kilogram, if they want to stimulate the production of strong theorems, according to the Erdös/Rényi/Turán  hypothesis.

Click on the image to browse or buy at Amazon

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Read about the importance of quality coffee for mathematician’s daily work in “Coffee, Love and Matrix Algebra”

Making money from college textbooks

College textbooks, like many other book genres, have their bestsellers, middle of the road sellers, and those that make little to no money – as seminal as they may be. A textbook in an area such as linear algebra, that is published and promoted by a well-known publisher, and that is used in colleges and universities both in the U.S. and worldwide, can make the author, or authors, a decent amount of money – often at least as much as their annual salary as college teachers. University journalism professor Brant Houston is quoted as saying: “For the most part, no one is going to become a millionaire off of textbooks” That may be true in the field of journalism texts. However, mathematician James Stewart has done extraordinarily well from writing a series of mathematics texts that are prescribed texts for many college and high school courses. How well has Stewart done? The following quote from the Wikipedia article on Stewart gives some indication:

In the early 2000s a house designed by Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe was constructed for Dr. Stewart in the Rosedale neighborhood of Toronto at a cost of $24 million. Stewart paid an additional $5.4 million for the original home in Rosedale, which was torn down to make room for his new home.  Called “Integral House” (a reference to its curved walls), the house includes a concert hall that seats 150. Dr. Stewart has said, “My books and my house are my twin legacies. If I hadn’t commissioned the house I’m not sure what I would have spent the money on.”

James Stewart in "The House that Math Built"

James Stewart in “The House that Math Built.” Click to see the story & more pictures

Taken seriously, and approached in a proper business sense, textbook writing can – as James Stewart demonstrates – be a highly profitable enterprise. There’s more to being very successful in textbook writing than writing an excellent, text that is valuable to students, and especially to instructors, and finding a publisher who can, and will, market the book aggressively to college and high school teachers: Building a brand is important, and treating the enterprise as a business is important.

Click on the image to buy at Amazon

Click on the image to view at Amazon

Read how Jeffrey Albacete extends his successful “Matrix Algebra” text, now into its 9th edition, by working with a colleague and a student to produce a new high-tech version of his book; in “Coffee, Love and Matrix Algebra”

Sexist, racist discrimination in academia – the case of Lulu Sun

Dr. Lulu Sun is a Full Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where she began working as an Assistant Professor in 1994 and was promoted to Associate Professor, with tenure, in 1997.

In 2003, Dr. Sun applied for promotion to Full Professor. There were six  stages she had to go through to gain this promotion. The first two she passed with flying colors. These were: the assessment of her tenured colleagues, and the assessment of her Department Chair.

It was a the next step of the process that she encountered difficulties, and what turned out to be lies and both sex discrimination and racial discrimination. That next step was the assessment of the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Michael Steinman.

To quote from the report of  Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed:

“Steinman … allegedly told Sun that it would be an “embarrassment” to send her dossier to the provost for review in 2003, and patted her on the back, saying, “It’s okay, Lulu.” Steinman denied that claim during the commission’s investigation, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed through a spokesperson at St. Peter’s University, where he is currently interim provost. But Waxman said that email exchanges and faculty testimony suggested that such exchanges had occurred.
The hearing officer also determined that Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack, who has since retired, had “rubber-stamped” negative recommendations from the dean and Louis Esposito, the provost at the time, even though she was aware of irregularities in Sun’s review.”

Steinman was a controversial character at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He was recalled as Dean as a result of faculty complaints, and was known to use foul language in conversation with academic colleagues.

Dr. Sun’s persistence, in the face of serious opposition from Dean Steinman, then Provost Lou Esposito, Dean William Hogan and – critically – from Chancellor Jean McCormack, lead to a 2011 decision to award her promotion to Full Professor, and pay both damages and compensation.

The University appealed this decision. However in 2014 the original finding and order was upheld.

Originally – in 2011 – Chancellor McCormack was ordered to do anti-discrimination training. You can imagine the acute embarrassment, not to mention white-hot anger and fury, from a Chancellor who was not used to being questioned or challenged. She left the University, as did Steinman and Dean William Hogan.

McCormack and Steinman

Ironically, a new administration- Dean Jen Riley, Provost Mohammad Karim, and Chancellor Divina Grossman now face the anti-discrimination training that the previous administration was ordered to undertake.

Let’s hope the University learned a lesson – certainly it suffered a heavy financial hit – and that it treats its faculty and students with openness, honesty, and transparency.

Congratulations to Lulu Sun for overcoming very difficult obstacles, and for persisting with logic, accuracy, honesty and courage in her 10 year fight for justice.

— Emily Rooney – NPR, Boston – interviews Lulu Sun, 2011 —

The latest – good – news from this saga of discrimination is that The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, under a new senior administration, is to pay Lulu Sun $1.2 million.

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For more stories based around intrigue, ambition and deceit in academia, read “Coffee, Love and Matrix Algebra”