Monthly Archives: July 2008

Ted Widerski

I just learned that Ted Widerski died last month. Ted was a long-time math teacher, in Madison and elsewhere in Wisconsin, and the programming director for the city’s gifted and talented program. He was 56.

I didn’t know Ted very well. I met him last year, when I spoke at the Middle School Math Fest he organized in Madison. I expected to lecture to a dozen or so overachieving and dutiful students — instead, I found the CUNA cafeteria packed with close to a hundred pre-teens, still fizzy and enthusiastic after a full morning of math activities led by an equally energetic cadre of teachers and high school students from Madison East. And Ted, fizzier if possible than the pre-teens themselves, at the center of it all. Very few people have the drive and know-how even to put together an event like this, let alone to make it such a success. Madison was lucky to have somebody like Ted helping young students find joy in math; from the Cap Times article linked above, it sounds like the students who learned from Ted in the classroom were pretty lucky too.

We talk a good game, in the higher-ed business, about getting kids in secondary school excited about mathematics. But it’s not easy for us to do, because we’re not in secondary schools. You need to have people in the school district who have a real feeling for math beyond the test, and who can convey that feeling to kids who don’t yet know how to articulate what they’re interested in. I think a lot of grown-ups in math can think of teachers of this kind we were fortunate enough to encounter in our youth. For me, and for a lot of other kids in Maryland, it was Eric Walstein. I think there’s a lot of kids, and former kids, from Madison, who’d say it was Ted Widerski.

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But Eugene — YOU’RE not Asian…

A recent New York Times poll contained the startling result that, when asked what proportion of the U.S. population is black, 8% of white respondents and 17% of black respondents chose “more than 50%.”

Full poll here (.pdf file) The relevant question is #80.

Question: are there really this many people who think that the United States is more than half black? Or are there this many people who don’t know how much makes 50%?

According to this account of polls in 1990 and 1998, 24% of Jews and 58% of non-Jews think Jews make up more than 10% of the U.S. population. (It’s actually under 3%.) This one, I’d guess, really is a matter of people finding 10% hard to distinguish from 3%, and not some kind of general tendency to oversemitize one’s surroundings.

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Show report: Takka Takka at the Frequency

Takka Takka makes hushed, spare indie rock with a lot of open spaces. Or so I thought until I saw them last night at Madison’s brand-new downtown venue, The Frequency. Now they are loud. And have two guitarists playing a lot of notes at once instead of one guitarist playing hardly any notes. And frontman Gabe Levine clutches the mike and howls and emotes and smashes a tambourine on the floor at the end of the set.

And it was great! The encore — announced as a Britney Spears cover but presumably not one — was especially strong: the whole song plays as a big slow drony uplift, a la Spacemen 3, but all the detail work was complicated and proggy instead of straightforward and druggy.

Grammar, from Chicago, opened. You know what’s a good look for a band? The look where no two people look like they’re in the same band. Grammar played energetic, not entirely tight, pop with big five-part harmonies that worked most of the time.

The Frequency is small — really small — and despite being small, wasn’t full. Maybe fifteen people were there to see Takka Takka, of whom five were Grammar. A very good place to get very close to a band you want to see. Strangely, if you order “cheese fries” there you get a white pizza. Apparently that’s what “cheese fries” means in the proprietors’ home town of Stevens Point, WI.

Takka Takka home page

Grammar myspace page

The Frequency

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Kopi Luwak

I was sitting out on the terrace with some graduate students when the subject turned, as it will, to kopi luwak, a very rare and expensive kind of coffee from Indonesia. The reason it’s rare and expensive is that the beans are extracted from the feces of a certain tree-going marsupial, which eats the beans, cooks them up a bit in its gut, and eventually delivers them to the harvesters down below. The digestive enzymes of the animal, it is said (by those who charge $250/lb for kopi luwak) impart a marvelous and unsynthesizable flavor to the coffee that results.

I’m in the middle of writing a joint paper that’s been in the works for some time. And when I heard this story my first thought was that mathematical collaboration, when it’s working right, is a lot like kopi luwak. One person supplies an idea. Another one chews it up. And when it comes out the other end, it has a flavor that neither coffee plant nor marsupial could have produced alone.

So next time any of you mentions a piece of mathematics to me, I hope you’ll remember that I’m mentally picturing how nice it’ll look once I excrete it.

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Countless thousands of destroyed lives — it’s what’s for breakfast

Is it weird I was stopped in my tracks by the Cultural Revolution yogurt on display at Whole Foods? Yeah, I get it, yogurt, “culture,” but really — is that gag so funny that it’s worth hitching your brand to a decade-long frenzy of politically-inspired beatings, internal exiles, and killings, from which China is still recovering? It’s hard to imagine going to Whole Foods and finding Ethnic Cleansing shampoo. Or “Final Solution: the last contact lens cleaner you’ll ever need.”

Maybe I’m extra-sensitive because I just finished college roommate (and former WashPost Beijing bureau chief) Phil Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow. It’s the perfect book to read while you ingest facefuls of Olympic agitprop about new, free, sunny China. Among other things, Phil reports on the Party’s attempts to suppress the memory of the Cultural Revolution, razing the victims’ cemeteries and blanking the whole period out of newspapers and schoolbooks. If only they’d thought of selling yogurt with it instead!

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The Grasshopper King, wordled

Via Crooked Timber I learned about Wordle, the application that takes any chunk of text and produces a beautiful graphic representation of the most common words therein, sized according to their frequency. So here’s The Grasshopper King:

I especially like the tiny “asked” inside the “d” of “said.” I think that’s just good luck; it would be impressive if Wordle knew enough to make up little figures of this kind.

I wonder if most prose fiction would come out looking pretty much alike, apart from the names of characters? The predominance of “said” must be pretty universal.


Dokaka, “Smells like teen spirit”

Feeling a little blah? Just don’t have that get up and go today? Say, I think I know your problem: you haven’t seen the video of mad Japanese beatbox genius Dokaka performing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a busy street corner using only looped tracks of his own voice:

Now isn’t that better?

Thanks to Douglas for alerting me to the existence of this.

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In which Richard Feynman annoys me less than previously

My dislike of Feynman’s memoirs prompted the longest and best series of comments this blog has ever seen — many of which were spirited endorsements of Feynman’s books. Here’s Austin:

But it was (for me) a founding text for a kind of nerd intellectual ethos that got expounded in the stories – don’t be afraid to ask apparently stupid questions; reason up from first principles; don’t be afraid to look ridiculous; question accepted solutions; look for basic truths in every day phenomena; explore the world with your intellect; thinking = play.

and Pete:

I really do profoundly agree with his main point, that just because someone tells you that something is true or right doesn’t make it so: you should cultivate an ability to work things out for yourself.

Feynman really does try to teach these lessons, as I recall, and they’re good ones. For me they were drowned out by some kind of personality clash between Feynman’s character and mine. Austin and Pete were luckier.

(And there’s more good stuff in the comments too. Anyone who has more to say on the topic of “Who was a bigger jerk, Feynman or Weil?” is encouraged to continue beneath the present post.)

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In which John Tierney annoys me: women in science edition

John Tierney writes in yesterday’s New York Times — correctly, I think — that science departments don’t need federally mandated quotas, a la Title IX, in order to improve the situation of women in science.

So what’s so annoying? Stuff like this:

The members of Congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title Nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed. Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women’s interest in some fields isn’t the same as men’s.

Are these really the only two choices? Couldn’t we — without “Title Nining” away our autonomy — push our profession to be as open and as attractive to all mathematically talented people as we can? Is it possible that an effort of that kind could drastically increase the number of women who enjoy successful careers in research mathematics? Of course — because that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for years, and a drastic increase is exactly what happened. Not that you’d know it from Tierney’s article. There, any disparity between men and women is understood by all reasonable people to be the result of immutable personality differences. In which case our choice is: freedom, or an assault on human nature by the full coercive power of the state?


On his blog, Tierney writes

Why, now that women students are approaching a 3-to-2 majority on campus and predominate in so many disciplines (including many science departments), is Washington singling out a few male-dominated departments in engineering and physical sciences? The answer from advocates of this policy is that science must be “Titled Nined” for women to get “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” to borrow the title of the 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences on women in science. The answer from their critics — call them the Anti-Title-Niners — is that this bias exists largely in the imagination of well-organized activists, and that women on average just aren’t as interested as men are in these disciplines.

I just want to draw your attention to a rhetorical trick in that last sentence. Have you ever noticed that when you want to forbid people from thinking critically about what you’re saying, you can stick in a “just” and make your assertion seem like an eternal fact about the universe? Read the last sentence again without the “just.” Sounds different, doesn’t it? I learned this trick from listening to a lot of sports talk radio in my car, where you routinely encounter arguments of the form “Brett Favre is one of the five best players in the history of the National Football League. He just is.” If women report being less interested in going into mathematics, you might ask: why is that? But if they just are less interested, well, what is there to say?

If you want to see some different views about women in science (which do not, I guarantee, suggest that evil men are conspiring to hold the sisters down, that unequal representation is proof of discrimination, or that math departments should be federally bludgeoned into numerical parity) have a look at Amanda Schaffer’s six-part series in Slate or the work of Virginia Valian.

And now I will make fun of Tierney’s “about my blog” blurb. He writes:

With your help, he’s using TierneyLab to check out new research and rethink conventional wisdom about science and society. The Lab’s work is guided by two founding principles:

  • 1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • 2. But that’s a good working theory.

Cute! But let us not forget the idea “girls don’t care for math, and left to their own devices they wouldn’t be interested in boring boy stuff like scientific careers” does appeal to a lot of people, and it kind of is the conventional wisdom. Dare I say Tierney just isn’t taking a particularly bold or contrarian stance on this issue?

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Baseball Reference Play Index free this week!

I wanted to mention that one of the most remarkable baseball utilities on the web, the Baseball Reference Play Index, is offering a free trial until July 19 in honor of the All-Star Break. Want to know how many times in the last fifty years a player has hit at least 50 doubles and at most 5 home runs? This question was inspired by Brian Roberts’ 2004 season: it turns out that besides Roberts, only Mark Grudzielanek (1997) and Wade Boggs (1989) have pulled this off. Want to know about Orioles who’ve been hit by pitches in 2008? Here’s a complete report, from which you can learn that O’s batters were hit 11 times when we were winning, and only 5 times when we were behind. So far in 2008, 29 batters have been hit by pitches with the bases loaded. Rather, it’s happened 29 times to 24 different batters; Carlos Quentin has been hit with the bases loaded three times already this season. (Finding the all-time record for most bases-loaded HBP in a season seems beyond PI’s power; at least, I couldn’t figure out how to do it.) On May 23 of this year, Gavin Floyd of the White Sox hit two straight Angel batters in the fifth with two outs and the bases loaded, in a game LA would eventually win 3-1. You want to see a manager with confidence in his starter? Floyd stayed in to face Vladimir Guererro with the bases loaded, got him to ground out, and ended up pitching the complete game.

In other baseball news, Daniel Cabrera started another interleague game, came up three times, and struck out three more times; The Record That Will Never Be Broken is now 14 strikeouts in 14 at-bats. His perfect record is marred only by a sacrifice hit he collected in 2006. Is there anybody who’s struck out in every single plate appearance? Again, PI gets the job done: the record is held jointly by Kane Davis and Justin Duscherer, each of whom is a lifetime 6-whiffs-for-6.

Here’s the list of batters with at least 25 plate appearances against Cabrera, sorted by OPS.  Just another chance to say, “Jeter stinks.”

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