Friday, August 21, 2009

Remembering Princeton -- Part 1

Yes, I know this blog needed a revival. And yes, I know it has been ... a while. But hey, point is, I'm back, and how. And I am far from losing my former brilliance; it grows better with age.

So, today we will talk about Princeton. Rather, I will talk, and you will listen quietly. This might turn out to be a long post, I don't know at this stage -- but I'll write as I go along. Freestyle, so to speak.

Princeton is, first and foremost, not just a place for geeks. While it is a known fact that Princeton math beats the crap out of pretty much any other math department in the world (I mean, come on, look at our department), that doesn't mean that our dinner table conversation consists of the Axiom of Choice. Well, not more than once or twice, that is. We do have lives. We fall in love just like everyone else. We talk about girls more than postulates (occasionally). We hang out at New York and watch Broadway shows at ridiculously subsidized rates; trust me, they are ridiculously subsidized. We are talking about $125 tickets being sold for $25, even free for the first person to come. We don't wear tweed coats to class. Most of us don't even know what a tweed coat is, and we make fun of Harris for his long trench coat -- too 19th century in our opinion. We wear t-shirts like everyone else; Lewis even wore an orange bubble-shaped raincoat to class one day. We talked about that one for weeks.

And yet, the mathiness is evident. Princeton was the first place I've ever seen where a bathroom wall graffiti consisted not of lewd, immature comments but of hastily-scribbled small, insignificant lemmas pertaining to Fermat's Last Theorem that never made it out of the bathroom.

Princeton was something of an enigma. I learned some of the best mathematics I have ever learned, much of it from my classes, but most of it from my ridiculously amazing classmates. My peer group taught me topics like group theory, and a number of ideas from modular arithmetic, elliptic functions and algebraic number theory (thanks Erick!). I learned what the fudge the term "U_40" meant, and why it had 17 elements, and 3 generators. I learned how to find uniqueness of certain solutions by searching for the elusive partial differential equation and equating the local solution to the global one for a second degree PDE. I learned how the weak solutions of a differential equation formed a Hilbert Space. In class, I learned how insanely difficult matrices really are (so much for Class 11 matrices, South Point), and why we always get 4 when adding 2 and 2. I learned the fundamentals of mathematics, the basis behind continuity, the idea of linearity, and the structure of integration and differentiation. I learned why vector spaces are super-awesome, why inner product spaces are even more so, and why all these spaces resembled R^n or C^n in structure.

I learned a whole lot more from my teachers and my friends. I learned that saying "But it's obvious" might elicit a reaction of "Fuck you". That was sort of funny. My favorite teacher, Max Lieblich, was holding this study session with our MAT 215 class, and going over a particularly hard proof. At one point, he told us the next step and said "But how do we get to that step from this?" And I started with "But it's obvious that a and b are --", when Max suddenly interrupted me and said "My friend. Never. Ever. Say it's obvious. Because you know, one day, someone might turn around, look straight at you, and say, 'Hey fuck you, man'." That shut me up for the moment, but several minutes later, Max asked another question. I answered "Because p and q are in the same equivalence class." Max said "And why is that?" and I said "Well, it's kind of obvious, because --" and Max said "Hey fuck you, man." That was the funniest thing I've ever heard from a teacher.

Fine Hall, the Princeton math department building, is an ugly 14-storey tower that rises straight up and dwarves all buildings for miles. It is supposed to be by far the ugliest building on campus -- Princeton is known for its extraordinarily pretty campus with its imitation gothic architecture and fields and lakes and fountains. But math majors like to say how, true to the philosophy of the subject it houses, Fine Hall is the only building on campus from where you get to see the beauty of the rest of the campus in its entirety.

So much for math majors and metaphors.

Anyway, the top floor of Fine Hall is this huge circular lounge with comfortable sofas and glass tables with impeccable furniture all scattered elegantly. It's just the sort of place you expect rich and famous British people to hang out in, and is rather appropriately called the "Professors' Lounge". This Lounge is, technically speaking, out of bounds to the students. But we, being -- errr -- us, found a way to get in any time we wanted. And so we came up with a brilliant idea.

A group of math majors, including myself, decided to get together once every two weeks or so, and fix a really hard problem that we would each try to solve. These are, well, HARD problems we are talking about. Make no mistake, they take pretty long to solve. A week, maybe, or even a month. And we agreed that whoever would get the solution first would communicate that to the rest of the group in a beautiful way: he would go to Fine Hall in the middle of the night, sneak in to the Lounge, and turn the lights on at midnight. So every night, we would look at Fine Hall before going to sleep (it is, in fact, visible from everywhere on campus) and check the top floor. Most of the time, the lights would be off, just like everywhere else. But if the lights were on, that would mean that the problem had been solved.

This elicited two reactions, really. One was a slight sense of indignation that some lucky bastard had found the right solution before I had. But the second, more overwhelming one, was triumph; the problem, then, had a solution. And it had not defeated us. The two times I went up to Fine Hall to "light the lamp", as we called it, had been moments of indescribable triumph. I had turned on the lights and sat in the Lounge for a long time, looking out at the gathering darkness of the Princeton campus.

My Princeton was the Princeton of my third night on campus, when I didn't know where anything was. I stomped downstairs at 1 a.m. in search of the drinking fountain, and wandered into the Forbes College Lounge, with its two comfortable fireplaces and scattered sofas and piano. And there I found a group of sophomore math majors (a year older than me) huddled around the fireplace, playing a game. They invited me to join them, and I agreed -- and it turned out that the game they were playing was called "Exploding Cows". Yes, I kid you not. Exploding Cows. Each player had a set of cows, and the object of the game was to explode all the other players' cows before your own ones exploded. There, in the middle of the gathering of Princeton math majors playing the most ridiculous game ever, I found my Princeton.

My Princeton was Forbes College at night, when we went down to the pool table to play pool (we started out being very bad at it, but grew better and better) or foosball. Later, some of our group took to video games, and we could hear the music of SuperSmash Bros. as we played pool. But pool was a constant companion; I met some of my best friends over the pool table. We each have our unique style -- Hamza is the silent pro who fails to deliver in the most important games, Sreedev is the pro who is consistently good, I am the unpredictable player who plays either brilliantly or amazingly badly, Dan is the hotheaded player who gets lucky all the time, Efrem is sort of like Hamza, except slightly worse, Marcus is the man with a vendetta against the table itself, Brian's the intense hawk surveying the table for minutes before taking a shot, Juan's the complete noob who misses by three feet, and Michael is the knight of yore, who holds the cue stick like a lance and jousts with the balls (if you know what I mean). I heard one of the best lines I have ever heard in my life beside the pool table, when Dan and Hamza were teammates, and it was Hamza's turn to shoot. Sreedev and I, the opponents, had almost won, and it was up to Hamza to deliver, and he was looking at the 6-ball intently, wondering the best way to hit it. Dan, in his animal excitement, screamed at him at that point, "Hamza, just HIT it, come on, it's easy! You don't even need the stick!" I don't remember if Hamza ever found out the secret of hitting a pool ball without using the cue stick.

Then there were the Mafia games. We used to play four-hours Mafia games late into the night, starting out with 24 or so people. Dan would generally be God, and the games would turn intense. Efrem was the best Mafia player. But that's why he would be the first one eliminated, because the townspeople would think he was the Mafia, and the Mafia would try to get rid of him early. I learned fast and got good, and I remember my continuous arguments with Efrem and Sreedev. And there was the intense game where it came down to Hamza's word against Sreedev's at the end, and Juan made the wrong choice. And the complete mess of a game, where Brian (who wasn't any special character) died immediately after clearing my name -- I have no idea why, because I was the Mafia and Brian was against me. But that was a complete game, Dan, Efrem and I were the Mafia, and we eliminated every single one of the others before they got even one of us.

Assassins, of course, was something that my other post described. Right now, I have managed to kill that last guy, Crisitan Rastapopoulos or whatever -- sneaked up on him when he was in the shower room, and ... errr ... reenacted the Psycho scene (more or less). There are now two players left in the game, myself and someone else, and whoever gets the other first wins.

My Princeton was the trips to New York, where we saw operas and Broadway shows. In my first year, I saw three operas -- Don Giovanni, The Damnation of Faust, and Eugene Onegin. I went, moreover, to four Broadway shows, Mary Poppins, Wicked, The Lion King, and Avenue Q. Next year, I'll go to The Phantom of the Opera -- something of a dream.

Those trips were always the best experiences ever. We would get on the buses, grab seats next to friends, and set off. We had scores of packets of chips, cookies, Milano biscuits, fruits, cold drinks, and water for the journey -- which took something like an hour and a half max. Then in New York, we always got around 45 minutes to explore Broadway before the start of the show. In the last few shows, I paid a quick visit to Starbucks, and walked around Broadway with a cappuccino and a chocolate brownie for half an hour before taking my seat in whichever theater I was supposed to be in. And the shows! The shows themselves were a delight, to make the grossest understatement I have ever made in my life. The Lion King and Wicked, especially, were the best plays I have ever seen. Anyway, before I make enemies among you, I will stop going on about the Broadways shows.

The pranks! My roommate Brian and I were partners in crime for most of these pranks -- and the victim in most cases was Dan (sorry Danny boy, nothing personal). In the first three months, there was the ridiculous Cake Prank. I work in the dining hall, so I saved a HUGE chocolate cake for Brian and myself. We put it in the fridge, and promptly -- with the arrogance of youth -- forgot all about it. Three weeks later, I opened the fridge to put a Twix bar inside and voila! There was the chocolate cake in all its glory, smelling vaguely of old detergent. Brian looked at me and I looked at Brian. Both, I may add, with some degree of reproach.

"Take it out gingerly!" said I.

"That's what she said," said Brian.

After that, there was no question of idling around. I took out the cake very carefully, trying to ignore the smell, and looked at Brian again suggestively. He understood at once. "Dan," we said simultaneously, with a sense of finality.

Juan and Hamza had to be taken in our confidence, of course. Juan managed to find an old cardboard box (that had once held a microwave), and Hamza found a nice, clean tablecloth (funny what you find if you scout the halls of Princeton at 4 in the morning). We arranged the box neatly in front of Dan's room (outside, in the hall), put the tablecloth over it, and put the cake neatly on top of it all. I found a rose from the dining hall, so I added that to the general paraphernalia as well. Finally, I wrote a note in beautiful handwriting that proclaimed:

For Dan. From his secret admirer.

After setting everything up neatly outside Dan's door (it was close to 5 by then), we decided we'd had enough of the forbidding snores coming from inside, and it was time he woke up to his secret admirer. At the time, there was some talk of Hamza posing as the secret admirer in a silk gown, but we gave up on that idea, mainly due to Hamza's strange reluctance.

So we knocked loudly and fled to our rooms. We kept watch, of course, carefully and unobtrusively, as Dan opened the door blearily, looked right, looked left, yawned, and closed the door. Ten seconds later, he opened the door again, this time much more awake, and looked down. Then he immediately took the whole box (cake included) and went inside his room, much to our general amusement. Two seconds later he stormed out of his room (without cake) and came straight to our door and walked in. Brian and I put on innocent looks of surprise and mild indignation. Dan cornered me and said, "Was it you?"

I said, "Dude, I'm studying vector spaces here, what are you talking about?" I have found from general experience that the mention of vector spaces always has an effect on history majors.

For half an hour after that, I faced Dan's interrogation (Dan, being Dan, took lessons from history and subjected me to something akin to the Inquisition), but my Mafia skills paid off, and he was eventually convinced that it couldn't have been my idea, but was Hamza's entirely.

The other major prank that we played was on roommates Sreedev and Juan. They'd gone out for lunch or something, and left their door unlocked. Brian and I, like true friends, walked right in without announcing ourselves, found the room empty, and promptly switched everything; Sreedev's stuff was exchanged with Juan's stuff -- EVERYTHING. Books, desks, laptops, beds, chairs, tables, laundry, even bathroom supplies. After 15 minutes of hard work (but a job well done), we went back to our room (which is right opposite), panting slightly with the effort. Five minutes later, we heard footsteps coming back through the hallway outside, a door opening and closing, and then a guttural roar from Sreedev and an anguished bellow from Juan. We helped them clean up, of course.

The last major prank we played was on Hamza and Michael. They'd gone out the same way as Sreedev and Juan. Brian, Juan and I went into the room, made a mess of everything, put red handprints on the wall, and suggestive-looking stains everywhere else, and finally stuck a menacing looking roll of kitchen towels on the ceiling that proclaimed (in very intimidating handwriting -- mine):

"Chuck Norris was here."

I should stop writing more at this point -- this is already a very, very long post, and I don't want to go overboard. But I will write more about my first year at Princeton later. Remind me, especially, to write about how Harris came up with "Koko doesn't care, Koko's a lesbian", and how he used to mutter to himself about himself: "The Jewb does not care. The Jewb will not be shouted at." Remind me to tell you about watching the first 25 minutes of a movie called Executive Koala, and giving up on watching a koala in a business suit intimidate all of modern Japan only when his boss, a giant red-eyed rabbit in --that's right -- a business suit, made an appearance. Remind me to tell you about Javaria and her indignant shout of "Arre bhai!" shattering the dead silence of the Forbes dining hall. Remind me, most of all, to tell you about Alex Leaf and his fetish with oscilloscopes.

But all that comes later. In some other post, some other time.

And I'll write more very soon. Promise.