Pandemic blog 3: usefulness, rules

One wants to feel useful. Of course, to an extent we are being useful by staying at home and not coming close to anyone outside the family. It’s incremental but somehow all this shared solitude generates a community spirit. We’re all in this, alone, together!

Of course when math is what you do you wish math were more useful, not in the true-but-abstract way we talk about math being useful, but useful today, in the face of what faces us. My colleagues Maria Chikina and Wes Pegden wrote up a model suggesting that we might do better to isolate younger people less than we are but older people much, much more. (Though whenever I leave the house I see older people are visibly out and about. Maybe it’s not up to “us.” Also, I am not really very much younger than older people anymore.) I was talking with Lior Silberman and Rachel Ward about pooling samples to mitigate what seems to be a shortage of COVID tests. Except nobody seems to really agree on whether there’s a shortage of tests or a shortage of administrative wherewithal to deploy the tests. Or maybe it’s swabs. There may not be enough swabs. And some people think we’re past the point in the United States where testing is useful, and maybe everybody should just treat themselves as if they’re infected. Anyway, they say you can test negative when you’re already infected but the viral load hasn’t built up enough for your sputum to set off the RNA detector.

Some rules everyone agrees on. If you must go outside, is to keep six feet of distance between you and anyone else. (Someone on Twitter asked whether they could still have sex, and got the answer: “If you can do it from six feet away, great!”) Wash hands for twenty full seconds, interlace the fingers to get the in-betweens, dig nails of one hand under the nails of the other to get any virus lurking under there. (Other sources recommend twisting the nails against the opposite palm in a circular motion for the same effect.) Some people are getting takeout, other people consider that risky. They say the virus can live 24 hours on cardboard, a few days on plastic and metal. Our neighborhood bookstore is closed for browsing but Joanne the proprietor is taking special orders. Two of AB’s came in so we stopped by to pick them up. I seemed more concerned about staying six feet from her than she was about staying six feet from me. I felt like a hero for having a no-touch credit card. She said the hard part was not really understanding when it was going to end. On the way home a guy with a stroller crossed the street so as not to pass us on the sidewalk.

The May conference in Germany on arithmetic statistics I was organizing for the Simons Foundation was postponed to an unnamed later date. Our moduli spaces conference here in Madison, which my student Soumya Sankar put a ton of work into, planned for next week, was cancelled too, of course. Just eight days ago we thought we were deciding whether or not to cancel it.

It’s so small in the big picture but I find myself moved by the small things I’m used to that are cancelled. United has shut down the direct flights from Madison to San Francisco and Los Angeles. I have to doubt they’ll come back soon, in the austere travel environment to come. The Isthmus, our alternative paper that’s been in press for 44 years, is shutting down. Maybe it would have gone out of business anyway. Most of those papers have.

Games played with kids: Mastermind 1. Monopoly 1. Big Boggle 4. Set 4. I am planning for Scrabble tomorrow.

I wrote to a friend on Monday, “I think we are going to be, like, playing 30 mins of Scrabble and then sniping at each other and I’ll relent and let AB watch Worst Cooks on the iPad. And I’ll look at Twitter and fume at all the academic parents who are like “it was so good for the kids and I to finally get the chance to act out Socrates’s dialogues, thanks coronavirus!!” So with that in mind I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I actually did a lot of math with AB today. Things I had been meaning to sit down and work through with her but didn’t find time when I didn’t have hours of time I needed to somehow fill. There are moments, lots of moments, where she rears back from instruction but today, for whatever reason, she was into it, and we just kept going. Area of isosceles triangles via Pythagorean theorem, then Heron’s formula — she liked very much the idea that they don’t teach it in regular geometry class. (They don’t, do they?) She is pleased with the word “semiperimeter.” In the context of areas, some approximation of square roots by decimals. Positive and negative exponents. And finally the Euclidean algorithm. In school they’re reducing fractions to simplest form and this was satisfyingly magical, to show how you can learn what to divide by without dividing.

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3 thoughts on “Pandemic blog 3: usefulness, rules

  1. Adam Sheffer says:

    I think that there is a non-math way to help more. From what I understand, while doctors in many countries have serious isolation suits, doctors in the US are not even given masks in many places. They are literally sewing their own masks (and getting infected). This leads to projects like https://www.providence.org/lp/100m-masks?fbclid=IwAR3QxbjzuBKCZvOYaUkXsqYTLaMRoAH_uBbao3d1ZAYPvobTtlnXvKL5dR8

  2. Randy HEaton says:

    I have a question. There seems to be several reports that the US could have 1-2mm deaths and the CA governor just suggested that 25mm Californians would be infected. They are obviously assuming some exponential growth, but the growth here in WA and in other regions seems much more like exponential for 2-3 days and then linear with the slope slowing going down and eventually going negative. The cruise ship had ~30% infection rate, why would experts predict CA to have a 54% infection rate and therefore shut a lot of the state down?

    Do you believe these numbers or have any alternative sources you are aware of that explain the growth rates they are assuming? Thanks.

  3. davidfb777 says:

    Re: “Someone on Twitter asked whether they could still have sex”, apparently the Germans came up with something: https://twitter.com/triantuan/status/1237328574585147393/photo/1

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