Trying to be a mathematician

The title of this blog has changed recently, as previous visitors might notice. I have been trying to decide on a direction for some time, and wanted it to be something close to the thing most important to me, namely mathematics. More than that, I want it to be about my mathematics. Not just technical exposition, although there will be some of that as well, but about my struggle to try to become a good mathematician, whatever that means.

The blog will therefore be of a somewhat mixed nature. Some of the posts will be more personal, and may not always be of interest to someone interested in something mathematical. But I suspect there are quite a few people out there in similar positions to mine, and may benefit from knowing that the struggle is a shared one. This is not limited to mathematicians, but to scientists and academics in general. Especially, this may help some of those new to the business to at least avoid some of the mistakes I have made…

In addition, there will be purely mathematical entries. I have discovered (at a late stage, it must be said) that to understand something I have to write about it. I think I have avoided doing so more because writing mathematical documents is not easy. Yet one cannot be said to understand a topic to a reasonable degree unless one can convey it in writing. Lecturing is also good, but one usually doesn’t have the leisure to lecture on everything you want to understand, and it does not leave a permanent record to consult at a later stage. Writing a blog on the subject is a good compromise, since one has to make the material presentable to an audience, who could (at best) offer insight and correction and (at worst) savage your lack of understanding.

I make no claims of originality here. Much of what I write will have been stated by others. For instance, Terry Tao has a blog post from years ago that pretty much gives the exact advice of the previous paragraph. He has a great page of career advice at https://terrytao.wordpress.com/career-advice/, which should be read. All I can offer here is offer my own take on things.

This all sound quite serious, which will hopefully not be the dominant tone of this blog. One piece of advice for budding mathematicians would be not to take yourself too seriously. I have to keep reminding myself of this. Mathematics should be fun, and if it is not, find yourself another job. I tend to fall into a deep depression and blame myself endlessly when a solution I have been working on for months turns out to have a trivial counterexample. The answer is to get away from the problem, take a walk in a park, and realise that you are not a failure as a human being because of this. Sure, not every minute of mathematics will be pleasant, but if you can’t periodically remind yourself that you are doing this because you like it, you will suffer under a great psychological burden.

Thus, if I post something which seems silly, realise that this is just me reminding myself to lighten the hell up.

 

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The Laws of Meetings

  1. They who schedule many meetings have obscenely little of value to do. They who enjoy meetings have nothing of value to do.
  2. When you feel you have to schedule a meeting, you have already failed. Go into it with this knowledge, and atone.
  3. If you schedule a meeting to accomplish anything that could have been done with free project software or otherwise accomplished online, you have failed doubly.
  4. Capacity for productive work falls exponentially during a meeting, but only increases logarithmically afterwards.
  5. If you have called the meeting and speak more than all others attending combined, it is not a meeting.
  6. It is okay to go to a meeting just for the snacks.

Spora Ransomware

Unfortunately, someone close to me got hit by Spora Ransomware a few days ago. This is quite a nasty piece of work, and if they’re telling the truth about their RSA encryption, not easily decrypted. We even considered paying the ransom at some point, but couldn’t even get on the website. Every time we tried to connect we got a “Server not found” message. Perhaps they’ve already taken the money and ran? There is a happy ending to this story though, which we’ll get to in a little bit.

First though, let’s discuss how to avoid this kind of thing happening in the future:

  1. Do not use Windows. For anything. I only have a Windows partition for gaming, but with more and more games available on Linux, this is starting to look like a flimsy excuse. I hardly get to play anything these days, anyway…
  2. Do not open suspicious email attachments. This one can be slightly tricky, because the email may look like someone you know has sent it. However, if you do not recognise the file extension, and you think it might be a legitimate communication, ask them to re-send it in a more acceptable format. (They will probably reply that they never sent that email.) And if the attachment asks you to install something in order to view it (e.g. a new font), never, ever, ever, ever comply!
  3. Have everything backed up. This one will save you after nearly any kind of attack. Preferably have some kind of cloud storage and automatic back up set. I do like to have many backups, so I occasionally back up all my documents and photos on an external hard drive as well. Things that are easily available online don’t really need this treatment, unless you have a really slow connection. This will mean that even if your entire system is fried, you can just install a new open-source OS and continue working. If you don’t want to pay for storage (you should, it’s worth it), you can get some free space at various providers. The most that I’ve seen is Mega, which gives you a cool 50GB for free.

Of course, in this case the above advice had not been followed in time. We were looking at the possibility of lost work, family photos that were archived nowhere else and a serious amount of financial documentation. After some trial and error, we managed to get nearly everything back by following the following steps, and without paying the ransom!

  1. Clean the computer. There are quite a few ways to do this. I used Malwarebytes and HitmanPro (look it up; I’m not going to link everything in this blog).
  2. Remove the startup file. Even after removing the malware, Firefox still opened on startup with the ransom note. Turns out there is a file which the software didn’t remove. Use msconfig to get to the start up applications and untick the box.
  3. Recover your files. You probably won’t be able to decrypt the files, but the ransomware fortunately did not encrypt all of your files, just the ones it could see. There are still many older versions of your files that hang around in your hard drive, that don’t show up in Windows Explorer. I found a rather nifty little program called Shadow Explorer to find and restore the files (Windows does have an option that let’s you do this for each file, but it is sucky). By using Shadow Explorer, we were able to recover all important documents, and only lost a page or two of work from the most recent document.

One other thing I did before starting to play with recovery was to make a full backup of the hard drive, after the bugs had been removed. That way, I knew that if I screwed things up even more and I could get hold of the authors, I still had the option of paying the ransom. But you don’t really want to do this, since you don’t want to encourage this kind of behaviour, and you also have no guarantee that they’ll give you the key!