Mask-wearing as vegetarianism

We might find out that COVID-19 infection carries with it a parcel of unwanted downstream effects. Say, a modestly increased risk of heart attack, of stroke, of early dementia. And maybe that those risks go up with repeated infection. It’s in no way certain any of this is the case. I’m not even sure it’s likely! But the probability seems high enough that it’s worth thinking about what the consequences of that would be.

My instinct is that the practice of wearing masks in crowded indoor settings would end up looking like the practice of vegetarianism does now. In other words, it would be something which:

  • clearly has individual health benefits although the magnitude is arguable;
  • clearly has public-good benefits although the magnitude is arguable;
  • most people don’t do;
  • some people feel they ought to do but don’t, or don’t fully;
  • changes over time from seeming “weird” to being well within the range of normal things people do, though there remain aggrieved antis who can’t shut up about how irrational and self-righteous the practitioners are;
  • is politically impossible to imagine being imposed by government

Would I be one of the people who kept up mask-wearing in crowded public places? I mean, I’ve been doing it so far, though certainly not with 100% adherence.

I do still eat meat, even though the environmental case for vegetarianism is clear-cut, and there’s a reasonably compelling argument that eating meat is bad for my own health. But giving up meat forever would be a lot harder on me than wearing a mask to the grocery store forever.

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New York trip

Back from an east coast swing with the kids. We took the train up from my parents’ place in Philadelphia Friday morning, came back Saturday night; in that time we went to five museums (Natural History, Met, NYPL, MoMA, International Center of Photography) — ate belly lox at Zabar’s, pastrami at Katz’s, dumplings in Chinatown, Georgian food (Tbilisi not Atlanta) on the Upper West Side, and Junior’s cheesecake for breakfast — and saw three old friends. Oh and CJ took a college tour. My iPhone’s step counter registered 30,000 steps the first day (my all-time record!) and 20,000 the second day. We’re getting good at doing things fast!

I don’t doubt New York has been changed by the pandemic but the changes aren’t visible when you’re just walking around as a tourist on the street. Everything’s crowded and aive.

I was worried we’d have conflict about how much time to spend in art museums but both kids like the Canonical Moderns Of Painting right now so it worked out well. AB was very into Fernand Leger and was aggrieved they didn’t have any Leger postcards at the giftshop but I explained to her that it’s much cooler to be into the artists who aren’t the ones that get postcards at the giftshop. She thinks Jackson Pollock is a fraud and don’t even get her started on Barnett Newman.

My favorite old painting at the Met, the one I always go visit first, isn’t on view anymore. But my other favorite — a little on brand for me, I know — is in the gallery as always. Also saw a bunch of Max Beckmann I wasn’t familiar with, and at MoMA, this Alice Neel painting which looked kind of like Beckmann:

I took the kids to McNally Jackson and to the flagship North American MUJI (where I bought a new yak sweater, there is just no sweater like a MUJI yak sweater.) CJ went in the NBA store and complained they didn’t have enough Bucks gear. We went in a fancy stationery store where the very cute little desk clock we saw turned out to cost $172. We walked through the new Essex Market in the Lower East Side which is like Reading Terminal Market if everything were brand new. Michelle Shih took us to Economy Candy, which has been there forever and which I’d never heard of. I bought a Bar None, a candy bar I remember really liking in the 90s and which I haven’t seen in years. Turns out it was discontinued in 1997 but has been resuscitated by a company whose entire business is bringing back candy bars people fondly remember. There was a huge traffic snarl caused by someone blocking the box so my kids got to see an actual New York guy lean halfway out of his car and yell “YO!” (Then he yelled some other words.) We were so full from the pastrami that we couldn’t eat all the pickles. I brought them all the way home to Madison and just ate them. I ❤️ NY.

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Driving lessons

CJ passed the written part of the driving exam on Friday and started driving with me this weekend. He’s a natural, I think. Or maybe the human-machine interface of an automobile is by now so fully perfected that everyone’s a natural? But you’d think that would be true of a bicycle, too, a vehicle he was not, I can tell you, a natural at operating.

Anyway: he really doesn’t find it hard. After maybe four hours in the car he can already navigate the small streets of our neighborhood without doing anything that makes my knuckles or bladder clench. As for me, I’m reflecting on how hard it is to explain how to do something you yourself know very deeply how to do, and have known very deeply how to do for a long time. There’s a lesson here for math teaching.

The skill that seems most challenging is turning. I wouldn’t have expected this. To execute a turn not too broadly and not too sharply, leaving you parallel to the curb at the same time you’re exactly where you want to be in the lane, seems not to be as intuitive as everything else. Maybe there’s still room for improvement in the human-machine interface!

Anyway, it’s fun. It’s always fun to watch your kids get better at things.

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Robin Laid a Gun Redux

A while back I blogged about the variation of “Jingle Bells” my daughter brought home, in which “Batman Smells” is followed by the strange line “Robin Laid a Gun.” I just noticed that YouTuber Tom Scott has posted a video with a definitive account of the popularity and geographic/demographic variation of many, many versions of “Jingle Bells, Batman smells,” including “Robin laid a gun”:

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There’s only one thing that I know how to do well

Last week I moderated (virtually) a discussion at Stanford between my poetry friend Stephanie Burt and my category theory friend Emily Riehl, on the topic of “identity” — specifically the question of how, in lyric poetry and in mathematics, one addresses the complex topic of what we do when we identify; whether this means “identifying with” a character in a song or poem or story, or identifying two objects which are not equal but which, in Poincare’s phrase, we “call by the same name.”

What I realized after the fact is that, as in so many other matters, the most succinct formulation is in a They Might Be Giants lyric:

There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
I’ve often been told that you only can do what you know how to do well
And that’s be you,
Be what you’re like,
Be like yourself

Surely this points to three different notions that appeared in the discussion:

  • “be you” — to say that you are you is to assert equality
  • “be what you’re like” — that is, have exactly the properties that you have and no others — an assertion of indiscernibility
  • “be like yourself” — this is the assertion of relation (here denoted a “likeness”) between two entities that licenses us, following Poincare, in calling them by the same name — that is, an assertion of equivalence

Here’s YouTube of the discussion:

And here’s YouTube of the They Might Be Giants song, “Whistling in the Dark.” I remember seeing them play this in the fall of 1989, at the Paradise Rock Club, before the album came out, a song nobody had heard. A revelation!

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Why won’t anyone teach her math?

Lots of discussion in my feeds about this Daily Princetonian piece, “Why won’t anyone teach me math?” by first-year student Abigail Rabieh. She just took Math 202, an intro to linear algebra, and the experience was so lousy she’s done with Princeton math for good. That’s bad!

So what was wrong with Rabieh’s class?

“Though I passed MAT 202 class just fine, my experience in it was miserable. The way the course was run did not at all set up students to succeed — or even learn math. For example, though we were provided with practice problems to prepare for our exams, we were never given solutions. My class consistently begged my professor for these, yet all he could say was that not providing them was departmental policy, and it was out of his control.

This begs the question: what interest does a department have in making it impossible to study? Study materials are given so that students can learn the course material and prepare adequately for the exam. Solution sets are part of this: to properly learn, one needs to be able to identify their mistakes and understand why they are wrong. This struggle was reflected in our exam averages, which were, respectively, in the 50s, the 60s, and the 30s.

I am far from the only person who felt this way about my class. MAT 202 has an abysmal rating of 2.71 on princetoncourses.com during the spring 2020-2021 semester. The evaluations on the Office of the Registrar’s website are no better. Students described the course as “disheartening” and said they “lost a lot of respect for the Math department after taking this course.” The advice that came up again and again in many reviews was: “Don’t take this class unless you have to.”

A lot of math teachers instinctively reacted to this with defensiveness, and I was one of them. After all, what’s so bad here? You hand out practice problems for an exam because you want students to do the problems, not because you want them to read the solutions; the mechanism is that the student works all the problems they can and then asks in office hours or review session about the problems they couldn’t do. I don’t think it’s bad to include solutions, but I would never say that not doing so makes it “impossible to study.” Student evals, well — the literature on their unreliability is so vast and I’m so lazy that I’ll only just vaguely gesture at it. And of course, most people taking Math 202 are not taking it for intellectual broadening, as Rabieh admirably was; they are taking it because somebody told them they had to. That makes the evaluations impossible to compare with those for a course people take on purpose. And as for those exam scores, well — a median in the 30s is too low, that would mean I’d made the exam much too hard. A median in the 60s, on the other hand, seems fine to me, an indication that I’d written a test with real challenges but which people could mostly do.

But you know what? Our students, especially our first year students, don’t know that unless we tell them! A student who got into Princeton, or for that matter a student who got into UW-Madison, has probably never gotten a 60/100 on a test in their entire life. No wonder it’s demoralizing!

What we have here, as they say, is a failure to communicate. Rabieh came away feeling like her teacher didn’t care whether she learned linear algebra. I’m sure that’s not the case. But I think we often don’t explicitly demonstrate that care in our classrooms. It makes a difference! We are asking the students to care about our stuff and if we want them to respond, we have to show them that we care about their stuff. What do I mean by that, explicitly? I mean that if we think the median score on an exam is going to be in the 60s, we should tell students in advance that we expect that and talk about our reasons for writing the exam that way! I mean that we should ask for student input on how the course is going before the semester is over — three weeks in, send out a survey asking for suggestions, and then talk to the class about the feedback you got, showing them you want their input while you can still make use of it. It means that if you teach a crappy lecture one day — it happens! — be open about that the next time and talk about how you intend to present a better one next time. And I feel like these are mostly “things I already do,” which could just be self-flattery on my part, so let me add this: it might be that showing students we care could mean making nice prepared slides like the professors in all their non-math classes do, instead of just showing up and writing on the blackboard. (Doing this would be a huge change for me and it exhausts me to think about it — but would it be the right thing to do?)

We don’t really talk about this stuff when we talk about teaching. We mostly talk about content and logistics; in what order should we present the material, how much should we cover, how many quizzes should we give, what should our grading policy be, should we hand out solution sets for practice problems? That’s how we think about what good teaching is, and that’s how our students think about what good teaching is, and that’s why that’s the language Rabieh reached for in her article when she wanted to explain why she had such a bad time. But I don’t think it’s actually the problem.

I’ll bet her teacher did care. Most of us do. But it often doesn’t show; let’s say it out loud! And strive for a classroom where we’re working as partners towards a goal, not just trying to get to the end without feeling like we’ve failed.

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Rereads

This year’s reading theme is going to be rereads. In previous years, I’ve chosen themes expressly to get me to expand my reading and encounter new kinds of books. But my planned theme last year (long books) was such a failure that I decided I owe myself an easy one; I’m going to try to mostly read books I’ve already read, and that I know mean something to me. Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold, as they taught me in Girl Scouts.

This started with Stephen King’s The Running Man, which I was induced to re-read by Tom Scocca’s piece about the movie in his new publication, Indignity. I haven’t seen the movie, but based on what Tom wrote, the book is more political, or maybe just differently political. King wrote it in 1971 and it’s very much an early-’70s dystopia, a lot like Ursula LeGuin’s 1975 “The New Atlantis” (that link is to the full story, go read it, it’s amazing!) It’s not really a dystopia where the good guys beat the bad guys, it’s just kind of a world where everybody’s tired and nobody’s very good. The government is bad, the rich people are bad, the poor people are bad, the unions are bad, the only choices are to be bad or very beaten-down and tired. In LeGuin’s universe there is also the option to play violin and do math even though it won’t really change anything, while in King’s universe there is also the option to kill people and blow shit up even though it won’t really change anything.

The Running Man is one of “The Bachmann Books,” novels King published under the pen name Richard Bachmann to avoid saturating the ’80s paperback market with King product. I have them all in a bound volume, so I read another one, Rage; you can’t buy this anymore because it’s basically “What if school shooters…. had a point and were actually doing everyone a favor?” and you can’t really go around saying that now. What I never knew about this book is that King wrote it when he was actually in high school. I had always taken it to be King inhabiting the mind of a teen who wants to shoot up the school, the same way he inhabits Cujo, but no, I guess it was just … him. And it’s kind of remarkable how much the grown man’s prose style is already present in the high-school junior’s novel.

Though Rage also has a lot of borrowed vibe from The Catcher in the Rye, which I also reread, because CJ was reading it for school, just as I did in 10th grade. Loved it then, love it now. CJ’s take (and that of a lot of people now) is “I didn’t like Holden,” which, fair enough. But for me, so what? I like books, not people in books. Catcher in the Rye (I really didn’t know the “The” was in the title; it’s better without, isn’t it?) is thought of as a kid’s book now but, unlike S King, Salinger was not a kid when he wrote this, and reading it as an adult you can really see that. In fact, reading it as a parent gave it new meanings for me, since a parent is obviously what Holden is trying to learn how to be, all he really wants to be — to his little sister, to a random kid who needs her skates tied, whoever. The instinct to care, unmoored and flying around loose.

I thought Barrel Fever was the funniest thing I’d ever read when it came out in the early 90s but now I don’t get it.

Then again, I thought Janet Malcolm was the deepest thing I’d ever read when I started reading her around the same time, and I still basically think so? In the Freud Archives, the book I started with, isn’t as perfect as I’d remembered — there are sentences that feel dashed-off, like “the friendship of Jeffrey Masson and Eissler took off like a rocket,” followed closely by “the sixty-six-year-old analyst and the thirty-three-year-old candidate immediately hit it off.” But for most of this she’s already found her high style. As always, there is a perfect opening:

In the mid-seventies, a young man named Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson began to appear at psychoanalytic congresses and to draw a certain perplexed attention to himself.

Perplexed! So wonderfully exact, and so perfectly disorienting as it suddenly wrenches the point of view into contact with an emotion that comes from who knows where, much like the emotions one unexpectedly (indeed in a sense inappropriately) encounters on the analyst’s couch. Oh yeah, I learned reading this that Janet Malcolm is also where I learned to insert little parenthetical clauses like that. This book is full of them.

The long uninterrupted passages of monologue from Masson in here — amazing. They must be from tapes. But surely not exact transcripts — they’re too good! No one pins himself to the board that precisely when speaking impromptu.

I also reread my cousin Marilyn Sachs‘s book Matt’s Mitt, which she gave me as a present when I was five years old. It made me cry again.

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Tailgating

I was driving home from picking up sushi the other night, and another car was tailgating me. I was really annoyed. I was on a curvy road, it was icy out, and I was going the speed limit, 25 – and this guy was riding my bumper, with those new really bright halogen headlights shining right into my rear-view mirror. I was not going to speed up to satisfy him, and anyway I was just going a couple more blocks. But when I turned onto my block, the tailgater turned with me, and when I pulled into my driveway, he parked next to my house. Now I was kind of freaked out. Was the guy going to get out of his car and scream at me for slowing him down? He did get out of his car. No chance of avoiding a conversation. He came up to me and asked where a certain address on my street was. He was a DoorDash delivery guy. Tailgating me because his ability to make enough money to live on depends on getting a certain number of deliveries done per hour, and that means that it’s an economic necessity for him to drive too fast on icy roads.

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To A Crackpot

I still have a lot of text files from when I was in college and even high school, sequentially copied from floppy to floppy to hard drive to hard drive over the decades. I used to write poems and they were not good and neither is this one, but to my surprise it had some lines in it that I remembered but did not remember that I wrote myself. What was I doing with the line breaks though? I am pretty sure this would have been written in my junior year of college, maybe spring of 1992. Around this same time I submitted a short story to a magazine and the editor wrote back to me saying “free-floating anxiety cannot be what drives a narrative,” but I disagreed, obviously.

To a Crackpot

He eschews the shoulders
of giants. He chooses instead
the company of thin men, coffee-stained,
stooped with knowledge. They huddle
on the sidewalk, nodding, like crows
or rabbis. He speaks:
the world is hollow and we live
on the inside. (Murmurs of assent.) There
is a hole at the top where the water runs in. The sun
is smaller than my hand, and the stars
are smaller than the sun.

A woman walks by, drawing
his eye. She has no idea. Beneath their feet,
out in the dark, secret engines. The Earth turns like milk.

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The year of not reading long books

  • 30 Dec 2021:  Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir.
  • 5 Dec 2021: The Green Futures of Tycho, by William Sleator.
  • 30 Nov 2021:  The Cup of Fury, by Upton Sinclair.
  • 28 Nov 2021: Horse Walks Into A Bar, by David Grossman (Jessica Cohen, trans.)
  • 5 Nov 2021: All Of The Marvels, by Douglas Wolk.
  • 13 Oct 2021: Great Days, by Donald Barthelme.
  • 30 Sep 2021:  Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney.
  • 18 Sep 2021:  Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch.
  • 10 Sep 2021:  Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker.
  • 26 Aug 2021:  The Hairdresser of Harare, by Tendai Huchu.
  • 7 Aug 2021:  Max Beckmann at the St. Louis Art Museum:  The Paintings, by Lynette Roth.
  • 2 Aug 2021:  To Live, by Yu Hua. (Michael Berry, trans.)
  • 1 Aug 2021:  Blackman’s Burden, by Mack Reynolds.
  • 29 Jul 2021:  Highly Irregular, by Arika Okrent.
  • 21 Jul 2021: Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King.
  • 12 Jul 2021:  Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin.
  • 7 Jul 2021:  Daisy Miller, by Henry James.
  • 29 Jun 2021:  Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler.
  • 6 Jun 2021:  Walkman, by Michael Robbins.
  • 4 Jun 2021:  Darryl, by Jackie Ess.
  • 25 May 2021:  Likes, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
  • 18 May 2021:  Subdivision, by J. Robert Lennon.
  • 20 Apr 2021:  Big Trouble, by J. Anthony Lukas (not finished yet, will I finish it?)
  • 15 Apr 2021:  No More Parades, by Ford Madox Ford (not finished yet, will I finish it? (Finished Sep 2021)
  • 26 Mar 2021:  Some Do Not…, by Ford Madox Ford.
  • 12 Jan 2021:  Metropolitan Life, by Fran Lebowitz.

My plan was that 2021 was going to be the year of reading long books. Why not? When the year started, there was no vaccine and I was teaching on the screen and so I was at home a lot of the time. Perfect time to really sink into a long book. I had gotten through and really valued some long ones in recent years — Bleak House, Vanity Fair, 1Q84, Hermione Lee’s Wharton biography — so why not Ford Madox Ford’s four-book Parade’s End, which I have wanted to read ever since I read and fell for The Good Soldier (aka the next book you have to read if you think Gatsby is the perfect novel and want “something else like that” but don’t think there could be something else like that — there is and this is it.)

But I didn’t read Parade’s End in 2021. I’ve read most of it! Two of the novels and half of the third. I will probably finish it. But — too high-modernist, too stream-of-consciousness, too hard under the circumstances. I have read a lot of it but I have never really been in it. It has made an impression but I could tell you only fragments about what happened in it. So my plan to read this, and The Man Without Qualities, and USA by Dos Passos, fell away. Sorry, early 20th century high modernism. And sorry too to Kevin Young’s Bunk and the 800-page history of Maryland and The Rest Is Noise and all the other I’ll-get-to-this bricks that didn’t even get taken off the shelf, as I’d imagined they might.

I read what I usually read. Stuff that caught my eye on the shelf. New books by people I know. Paperbacks small enough to fit in the pocket of my cargo shorts, for long walks — in 2021, we tried to spend a lot of time outside. (The small ones were: Blackman’s Burden and Great Days.)

I found I didn’t really read for pleasure this year. There were a lot of these books that I liked and admired; I don’t think there was one that gave me the sensation of “the thing I feel most like doing right now is reading this book.” But I’m not sure when a book (or a TV show, or movie) last made me feel that way, so it may be a mode of reading I’m done with! Anyway, books I liked: Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels — he read every Marvel comic ever written and wrote about what we found there. Nobody is better than Douglas at digging insight out of pieces of culture other people may see as low, or simple, or disposable. I’ve known that since I started listening to the mixtapes he was making in 1987. Of course one cannot help feeling that I enjoy reading Douglas reading those comics more than I would actually enjoy reading the comics. Darryl, by Jackie Ess, a perversely funny book about money that very cleverly disguises itself as a perversely funny book about sex.

Subdivision and Sleeping Beauties are an interesting matched set. Both involve dreamworlds. Lennon’s book is clearly marked as “literary fiction,” and rightly, but has the virtues of a great horror novel — authentic scariness, disorientation. Sleeping Beauties — well, you know I love Stephen King, and that I think he invented the virtues of a great modern horror novel, and I will keep reading these the same way I kept buying R.E.M. albums in the 21st century, but they are now kind of about themselves, gesturing at the virtues instead of really inhabiting them. The things people like to scold “literary fiction” for — shapeless plot & preoccupation with the married lives of middle-aged people — are here, and the presence of bizarrely-powered superbeings, gun battles, and rent flesh can’t change that.

The Green Futures of Tycho was as disturbing as I remembered. I loved it as a kid, but do I want my kids to read it? I think so? I wonder if there is fiction marketed as YA now which presents such a bleak picture of human nature. My sense is they make this stuff sunnier now. Here’s the first line of Sleator’s memoir, Oddballs:

When my sister Vicky and I were teenagers we talked a lot about hating
people. Hating came easily to us. We would be walking down the street,
notice a perfect stranger, and be suddenly struck by how much we hated
that person. And at the dinner table we would go on and on about all
the popular kids we hated at high school. Our father, who has a very logical
mind, sometimes cautioned us about this. “Don’t waste your hate,” he would
say. “Save it up for important things, like your family, or the President.”
We responded by quoting the famous line from Medea: “Loathing is endless.
Hate is a bottomless cup; I pour and pour.”

Yu Hua’s To Live was simple and incredibly moving. The Cup of Fury, Upton Sinclair’s gossipy memoir about how all the writers he knew, himself excepted, drank too much, was strangely entertaining. I think I liked Daisy Miller but I can’t remember a thing about it now. Horse Walks Into a Bar was annoying, built on a single conceit (entire novel as stand-up routine) that got old after, well, less than an entire novel. Beautiful World, Where Are You I already blogged about.

What should I read next year?

Update: Wait, I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi this year! I somehow didn’t put it on the list. It actually might have been the book that came closest to pleasure reading for me. Strangely, it was shortlisted for a Hugo this year; I say strangely because it doesn’t read at all to me like SF or fantasy, but rather as fiction that has taken some of the good things from SF without at all feeling like a creature of that genre. Maybe anything with fantastic elements is Hugo-nominable, but in practice, I’ll bet most people don’t see it that way. (Then again: The Good Place won a Hugo!)

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