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Spring break report

April 5, 2008, 9:53 am

My busier-than-usual Spring Break is all but over with. Here’s a brief update.

The ICMC went off much better than it looked like it was going to. This was my first of a three-year stint as Student Activities Director for the Indiana section of the MAA, and while my predecessor was really great an answering my questions about how to organize the ICMC, he could only answer the questions I could think of, and the un-thought-of questions were starting to pile up at an exponential pace the week before the contest. But with the generous help of Mike Axtell, who — sadly — is leaving the Indiana section for a new position in Minnesota, all the logistics went off just fine and we had no major incidents. Kudos to the Purdue, Rose-Hulman, and Taylor teams who finished first, second, and third respectively.

That was last weekend. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I had a very nice time at Benedictine University near Chicago as the guest speaker to the Math Club and to Manu Kaur‘s topics course in cryptology. I gave a talk to the Math Club on cryptology in general — 50 minutes to cover the whole subject! — and despite some technical difficulties, the talk went reasonably well. There were close to 75-80 people in the audience! Then, the next day, I gave a talk on the Digital Signature Algorithm to the crypto class. In between, I got the rare opportunity to talk shop with Prof. Kaur on cryptography, and I also got a very nice tour of nearby Naperville, which is really quite lovely. (Not what I expected for Chicagoland suburbia.)

Benedictine has a fine department, and I was especially impressed by their students. To have close to 80 students show up in the middle of the day for a Math Club ta,lk at a school of under 3,000 students, is really amazing, and I got some very good questions after the talk. Following the digital signatures talk, one student asked me a really insightful question about Blowfish and SSL encryption; not only was this an undergrad asking the question, he was an undergrad chemistry major. And everywhere you looked, students were working on things — the science labs in particular seemed to be full every moment I was there.

St. Procopius AbbeySpecial treat for me: I got to spend the night in the extraordinary St. Procopius Abbey amongst the Benedictine monks. I’ve been reading Thomas Merton and the like for a long time, and the monastic life has been a guiding force in my Christian experience ever since I became a Christian, but until this week I had never actually gotten to experience monastic life firsthand. The abbey itself is breathtaking, with its Edward Dart-designed architecture combining soaring vertical spaces with hidden rooms for prayer and meditation, with a common thread of simplicity and silence throughout. I’m considering making a longer retreat there sometime soon. Something about the kindness, simplicity, and warmth of the abbey and the monks who live there follows one home from a place like this, and I could certainly use more of that.

So I’m wrapping up break doing the stay-at-home dad thing, having stayed with the girls for the last couple of days and spending the weekend doing the same before getting back to work on Monday. Ironically, this semester I made the conscious choice at the beginning not to emphasize scholarship so much but focus almost all my energies on teaching, but I ended up with one of the busiest semesters I’ve had scholarship-wise in a long time, mostly stuff that I have done or wrapped up this week! Now to finish off those pesky last five weeks of the semester.

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