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Monday, August 29, 2011

My Borges Workshop and the Definition of Quilombo

Borges. Math. It's connected. Just trust me.
Last Thursday was an important day for me: I was a participant in an interdisciplinary workshop on Borges and the Infinite. Let me give you the down low.

So, shortly after I had arrived in Argentina I had mentioned to some of my co-professors of English that I liked Borges and had done research on the connections between Borges' writings and mathematics. They seemed really interested in the topic, and the next thing I know I'm having a meeting with the dean on how we can implement this as some sort of co-curricular event. I told her how much I value interdisciplinarity and the ability to analyze something from different academic perspectives, and I explained that, since I went to a liberal arts unviersity, I had no problem studying math and Spanish concurrently. The dean, Gisela, mentioned that she wanted to establish more communication between the departments here at UNRC, and I said "sign me up" (but in Spanish, of course). Well, she put me in contact with one of the secretaries of institutional relations, and we began to develop the project. This was around May, mind you. We decided that it could be neat to do a mini workshop with a series of talks from professors of different disciplines. We decided on "Borges y lo infinito" (Borges and the infinite) as a theme, and then we set the date: August 25th. Originally, this event was going to be 5 hours long, with each presenter talking for approximately 40 minutes and then allowing for questions. Fortunately, this was later cut down to 2.5 hours.

After that, we kind of let things mellow over the break.

Once break was finished, I designed a flyer and started meeting with professors. At the time, only the Philosophy/math professor (Eduardo Dib) was selected as a co-presenter, so he and I talked a little bit about what we wanted to present. Eduardo was going to talk about the sense of anxiety that comes with preoccupying onself with the infinite, as well as El Libro de Arena. I told him that we were due to have access to technology, so he could make a PowerPoint or whatever he liked, but he opted for a straight up presentation. Originally the event was going to be held on campus, but they decided (with a few weeks to spare, mind you) to move it downtown so that more members of the community could come; I thought that was a great idea. Well, now the rapid-fire changes start coming, and things start to get messier.

For starters, I finally got a list of people who were willing to present: it was a list of 6 people. With around two weeks left until the conference, I could only get in touch with two of the presenters: Eduardo and Toni Lloveras. I met with Toni and we talked about her background (French), and she mentioned that she wanted to talk about Borges and Escher, as well as some other famous works of art that have similar themes as Borges' writing. Great. No problem. Well, I get no responses from the other presenters for a few days, so I start working on my presentation: a detailed PowerPoint with lots of pictures to help the audience (which has little math experience) understand transfinite numbers, mathematical recursion, and Russell's paradox. Finally, I get a call from another presenter: a lawyer and philosophy professor named Justo (a great name for a lawyer, if you ask me). We met after work one day for a drink and, though he assured me he really didn't want to participate, he would do it anyway. Great. At this point, I would take whatever I could get. He said he'd make up something about the philosophical trends in the time period when  Borges was writing, so I was happy with that.

Now we're getting down to the wire. Just around one week before the conference, I still don't have the "final" version of the flyer I sent in to be edited and updated by the visual communications department, I still don't have the correct location for the event (because, though I was under the impression it had been moved to the Salón Blanco in the courthouse, it later moved two more times before settling...around 5 days before the event), and I have yet to hear from two of my supposed speakers. Oh, and Wednesday I nearly had a panic attack due to other events that were going on in my life (thanks, Dad). Anyway...that weekend I needed a break, so thank God I was going to Corrientes and Resistencia with Jen.

Well, wouldn't you know it, that Friday when I'm in Resistencia and away from all my technology, I get the "final" version of my flyer to promote the event. Fortunately, I used Hannah's computer (which was a Mac...and I'm not good with macs) to change my profile pic and forward the image to some of the English professors and presenters. Well, I get back on Tuesday, late, and I still have no news from my two other presenters. I sent them a last ditch email to see what was up, and then I finally met with them on Wednesday; they had a completely different idea of what the workshop was going to be, had nothing prepared and, despite the fact that it was their university email, informed me that they didn't check those emails. that point, honestly, that was a minor thing in comparison to the other things I was dealing with. Needless to say, I had to remove them from the final speakers list.

Well, Wednesday night I put the polishing touches on my PowerPoint, practiced my presentation, and got ready to go. I had asked everyone to be at the new building (the Salón del Concejo Deliberante) an hour early so that we could organize and rehearse a little bit.

Thursday, I get to the location an hour early, and everything collapses under me. For starters, only one of the presenters is there; that's not really a big deal. Then, we walk into the room where the event is only to find out that they thought the event was scheduled for 4:00 PM (since I'm pretty confident they actually got around to officially reserving it that morning) rather than 7, so they thought they we had cancelled. However, when I explained that the schedule must have gotten mixed up, he said there was no problem if we went ahead and did the event. Thank goodness. At about this point, I realize another, crucial, detail was messed up: there was no screen, no computer, and technology other than a microphone. I asked, just for fun at this point really, if there happened to be technological access for things like PowerPoint, and the man informed me that there was not. They had a screen, but it was already on loan. So let me recap this. For three months I was under the impression that I would be able to present a PowerPoint, so I designed my presentation with that in mind. The same was true of Toni, I later found out, but let's focus on the moment. Now I'm there with 45 minutes until the event, essentially with nothing (not even notes). This is when I start pacing back and forth and getting nervous. Fortunately, I only lived a few blocks away, so, in a last-ditch effort to save my presentation, I ran home, uploaded my PowerPoint to Dropbox so that I could have a public link to give the audience, and copied my notes in outline form onto my flash drive. Then, I waited at the photocopy place to have it printed off, and after that I ran back to the event.

Now the secretary guy and his techie buddy are there and, when I explain that nothing is how it is supposed to be, they say...well, can you make it work? Yes, obviously...I'm a resourceful cat. But I don't have to like it. Besides, there's really no excuse for not having that organized when you have literally months to get it done, be it on Latin American time or not. Needless to say, I wasn't really in the mood to talk with either of them. Fortunately, they brought in a dry erase board. They didn't have a marker, of course, but I  just happened to have one on me, so three cheers for one of us being prepared.

Now guests are starting to arrive, and I think they could tell that I'm a little extra nervous. If everything would have gone smoothly, I probably wouldn't have been nervous at all, but at this particular time I was having to calm myself down inside (you know, talking to yourself and saying supportive things like "You can do this").
Well, it gets to 7:00 (the time the event officially starts), and another presenter finally shows up. Still no sign of the final presenter, who was actually first in the order. Well, we wait for 15 minutes, which throws everything off, and she finally shows up; she had been waiting in the Salón Blanco (one of the previous places the event was going to be held). After I explained to her that we had no PowerPoint, she told me that her presentation, which relied mostly on images, needed technology, and that she just couldn't present. Of course by this point I'm thinking in my head 'listen, lady, if I can do it you damn well can,' but I was supportive and told her to talk to the secretary who was helping organize it. Eventually, she decided to describe the pictures she'd be talking about. Though it wasn't ideal, it worked out since most of them were fairly well-known (I think).

Our expert panel of presenters
So, a few minutes late, the presentation got started. Once we smoothed out all of the not-so-insignificant humps, things went relatively smoothly. I served as the emcee (I guess you could call me that) and introduced the different speakers. The first half was more literature and philosophy based, and then we had a small section for questions. After that, we came to the second part, which is where Eduardo and I started adding more math to the equation (see what I did there?). Then I gave my presentation and, though I was a little nervous and I think it came across in my voice at first, it went surprisingly well. Besides, I noticed that I was speaking in very rapid Spanish and I seemed to be expressing myself fairly well (at least that's what other people have told me). Soon enough, it was done.
Me talking about mathematical recursion

And that's that. Though the steps leading up to my Fulbright project were a veritable quilombo (a lunfardo word meaning something between "diasaster" and "shitstorm"), everything seemed to work out in the end. That's one thing that I'm learning in being here: things don't usually go how you plan for them to, or maybe even how you would like them to, but they get done either way.

Besides, afterwards Eduardo and I went out for asado....and that fixes everything.

Eduardo talking about Cantor's diagonalization method
to show that the reals and rationals do not have the same cardinality

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