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Happy Yellow Pigs’ Day! July 17, 2009

Posted by Jacob Hurwitz in Uncategorized.
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For the first time in four weeks, I wish I weren’t at RSI right now. I should clarify, that’s not saying anything bad about RSI. Despite a big deadline looming over our heads, I’m still having the time of my life here. No, the reason I say that I’d rather not be here is that there’s somewhere even more awesome than RSI. Because about two hours west of Boston, in Amherst, Massachusetts, a large group of mathematicians is gathering to celebrate yellow pigs and the number seventeen.

Yes, you heard me right. Yellow pigs. To those in the loop, July 17 is Yellow Pigs’ Day (place the apostrophe where you wish). I don’t quite know the origin of this holiday, but I’ve heard that it has something to do with David Kelly, Mike Spivak, Princeton University, and a bar. All I know is that I celebrated my first YP Day last summer when I was a student at Kelly’s summer math program, the Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics (HCSSiM), and I am now a firm believer in the facts that all pigs are yellow and that seventeen is by far the best number.

HCSSiM is quite unlike any other summer math program out there. Before I get into the reasons behind this, let me offer a piece of evidence: every year, dozens of alumni flock to Hampshire College for the annual YP Day celebration. Barring maybe the RSI Christmas party, I cannot think of any other summer program with an alumni event this big. Why do so many people return? I think at first it’s to see your friends again, but that doesn’t explain why some alumni from decades ago keep coming back.

Ultimately, it’s because YP Day, like all of HCSSiM, is simply tremendously fun. (Either that or Kelly and the staff do a great job brainwashing us while we’re there. I can’t quite tell which.) Where else can you make human graphs, play uber-set, hold cheese quasis, meet purgos of cool people, learn advanced math, and invent your own mathematical terminology—every single day for six weeks? (“Purgo” was our name for mathematical groups, in case you were wondering.)

Last summer, classes at HCSSiM ranged from “polytopes” to “generating function-ology” to “POWER sets” to “TEPOWEGIJOKOGOOAWBANETCOAT” (which, by the way, only I can remember how to spell). Maybe I shouldn’t call these classes, though. When I think of a class, I think of lectures and busy work. HCSSiM does have a daily lecture (named the Prime Time Theorem because it’s at 17:00), but the other seven hours a day of “class” is very non-traditional.

In the mornings, the staff members find ways to cleverly present a problem, and then they sit back and watch as students run up to the board and try to collaboratively figure stuff out. I still laugh when Fermat’s Little Theorem comes up in math team because I now know it as the Fireworks Litmus Test. One of the junior staff members, Max, told us about his city’s fireworks, and over the course of the next few hours, we discovered and proved our FLT. (We also determined that it’s responsible for the gaps in Max’s mustache.)

In the evenings, we have problem sets where we’re encouraged to work in groups. Sometimes we’re given unsolved problems, but when they’re mixed in with solvable problems, you end up working on them all without realizing it! I think I “solved” a few, but my solutions were classified as (crack, whak, chlak) on the (proof/crack, truth/whak, chalk/chlak) scale. I also wrote about 90% of my proofs using mathematical induction which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best idea.

By far the best day of HCSSiM is, of course, today—Yellow Pigs’ Day! On July 17, you finally learn why 17 is the best number. I can’t give that away to you, but I can show you some lists of cool properties. There’s also the annual student-alumni Ultimate game and an abundance of yellow pig t-shirts. You see, HCSSiMers spend the week before YP Day designing and creating their own t-shirts full of 17s, yellow pigs, and other inside jokes.

We usually buy the shirts to be a little too large because you still want to fit into your YP shirt when you visit decades from now! As I stare down at my shirt, which of course I’m wearing today, I notice that the yellow paint is starting to crack and fade. Sad as it is, it’s a testament to how many times I’ve worn this shirt this year: the 17th of every month, math competitions, programming competitions, and anywhere else I thought I might run into other alumni of HCSSiM

In fact, I started going to a few new math competitions this year just so I could see HCSSiM friends. My school didn’t want to send a team to PUMaC, so I went with a team from HCSSiM. Blair did send a team to HMMT for the first time this past year, and I met up with lots of my HCSSiM friends from the northeast as well as two of the senior staff members. At ARML, too, we all wore our yellow pig shirts so we could easily find each other.

My huge network of HCSSiM friends, both from my year and alumni from previous years whom I’ve met, is perhaps the most lasting effect HCSSiM has had on me. There was a huge math conference in Washington, D.C., near where I live, in January of this year. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I went to the conference, heard some exciting talks, and met even more HCSSiM alumni.

The day before the conference began, a friend from New York called me, told me he was on his way down, and asked if he could stay at my house for a few nights. Sure, why not? I think it’s really great to know that, if I ever need to travel somewhere last-minute, I have friends all of the country with whom I can stay, too.

It’s getting late, and I really should return to my RSI work now. I need to finish this paper tonight so I can go meet, yup, HCSSiM friends in Boston tomorrow. I just want to add one final thought: I heard about HCSSiM from a friend who went, and I think that’s how most people hear about it. But what if you don’t have any friends who went? How might you hear about HCSSiM?

When we were forming this blog, I decided that one of its goals should be to inform students about the many opportunities out there in mathematics because most students don’t have the same connections that many of us do. I’m writing about HCSSiM today because it’s Yellow Pigs’ Day, but in the coming months, look for posts on other (decidedly less awesome) summer math programs and math competitions.

Anyways, I don’t know the age distribution of our blog readership, and I’m pretty sure that it’s currently comprised entirely of people too old to apply to HCSSiM, but just in case I’m wrong: you should apply. To quote the e-mail signature of the program’s administrative assistant:

Applying is fast, free, fun, obligationless, and doable on line even while other options are being explored. Not applying unnecessarily closes doors, means not seeing the Interesting Test, and may cause drowsiness and boredom.

So apply to HCSSiM! It’s Interesting.


1. Qiaochu Yuan - July 17, 2009

That’s pretty much exactly what people say about MathCamp, so I’d like to hear from someone who went to both 😛

Jacob Hurwitz - July 18, 2009

I don’t know of anyone who went to both, but I do know some people who’ve been to MathCamp. Over the course of the year, you’ll have a chance to hear from some of them.

Tim Reynolds - July 18, 2009

From my year, Carl Bahn went to both (HCSSiM ’07 then mathcamp ’08-’09) though I haven’t heard his comparison.

Happy belated YP Day!

Natalie - July 19, 2009

Nathan is at Mathcamp this year, though I don’t know whether he likes it more or less than HCSSiM.

2. lumixedia - July 18, 2009

I went to Mathcamp a long time ago and will probably post about it eventually. I’ve forgotten a lot over three years and won’t be the ideal Mathcamp representative, but on the other hand you’ll be able to see what I still remember after three years, which may be revealing, I don’t know.

3. Anissa - July 18, 2009

Nice post, Jacob! Also, Max went to MathCamp and from what he said the few times he talked about it, he liked HCSSiM (a lot) more [hence, he came back to teach us]!

4. Leon - July 19, 2009

I’m at Mathcamp this year, actually, and I think Carl said something along the lines of, “Mathcamp is the camp most like HCSSiM that I can think of”, or something like that. He said it was different in that all classes at HCSSiM are basically Moore Method (prove everything yourself as opposed to lectures then homework), and that the culture gets reinvented every year because there’re so few alums returning.

Nathan… I can’t spell his last name; he went last year, and he said that, looking back, if he had had a choice between going to Mathcamp and HCSSiM, then he would’ve chosen HCSSiM again (AKA, he didn’t regret going to HCSSiM and not Mathcamp). Take that as you will, I guess (I’m personally very, very pleased I chose Mathcamp).

Happy belated Yellow-Pigs Day!

5. Jacob Hurwitz - July 19, 2009

Thanks for the tips, guys. Maybe when our blog readership reaches kids young enough to apply for these programs (hint, hint, tell your younger siblings and their friends to start reading — and hope that the representation theory posts don’t scare them away), we can invite Nathan or Carl to write about their experiences.

I don’t think it’s really fair to call one better than the other, but it is possible to talk about which camp/program is better for which types of students. This could help people in deciding which of the two is best for them.

6. Akhil Mathew - July 19, 2009

Well, at this point, we’re getting a lot of people from Facebook, so I think we should have plenty of high school students already.

One of the somewhat unusual features of this blog will be the eclectic mix of IMO/USAMO-type problem-solving and the research/theory. Most of the blathosphere tends to be divided into the research and the contest math halves.

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