Author Archives: JSE

Pandemic blog 34: teaching on the screen

A small proportion of UW-Madison courses were being given in person, until last week, that is, but not mine. I’m teaching two graduate courses, introduction to algebra (which I’ve taught several times before) and introduction to algebraic number theory, which I’ve taught before but not for quite a few years. And I’m teaching them sitting in my chair at home. So I thought I’d write down a bit about what that’s like, since depending on who you ask, we’ll never do it again (in which case it’s good to record the memory) or this is the way we’ll all teach in the future (in which case it’s good to record my first impression.)

First of all, it’s tiring. Just as tiring as teaching in the classroom, even though I don’t have to leave my chair. This surprised me! But, introspecting, I think I actually draw energy from the state of being in a room with people, talking at the board, walking around, interacting. I usually leave class feeling less tired than when I walked in.

On the screen, no. I teach lectures at 10 and 11 and at noon when both are done I’m wiped out.

My rig, settled on after other setups kept glitching out: Notability open on iPad, I write notes as if on blackboard with the Apple Pencil, iPad connected by physical cable to laptop, screensharing to a window on the laptop which window I am sharing in Microsoft Teams to the class while the laptop camera and mic capture my face and voice.

What I have not done:

  • Gotten a pro-quality microphone
  • Set up a curated “lecture space” from which to broadcast
  • Recorded lecture videos in advance so I can use the lecture hour for discussion
  • Used breakout rooms in Teams to let the students discuss among themselves

All of these seem like good ideas.

So far (but I am still in the part of both courses where the material isn’t too hard) the students and I seem to find this… OK. My handwriting is somewhat worse on the tablet than it is on the blackboard and it’s not great on the blackboard. The only student who has told me they prefer online is one who reports being too shy to speak in class, sometimes too shy even to attend, and who feels more able to participate by typing in the chat window with the camera turned off. That makes sense!

I have it easy — these courses have only thirty students each, so the logistical work of handling student questions, homework, etc. isn’t overwhelming. Teaching big undergraduate courses presents its own problems. What happens with calculus quizzes? In the spring it was reported that cheating was universal (there are lots of websites that will compute integrals for you in another window!) So we now have a system called Honorlock which inhabits the student’s browser, watches IP traffic for visits to cheating sites, and commandeers the student’s webcam (!) to check whether their eye motions indicate cheating (!!) This sounds awful and frankly kind of creepy and not worth it. And the students, unsurprisingly, hate it. But then how does assessment work? The obvious answer is to give exams which are open book and which measure something more contentful about the material than can be tested by a usual quiz. I can think of two problems:

  • Fluency with the basic manipulations (of both algebra and calculus) is actually one of the skills the class is meant to impart: yes, there are things a computer can do it’s good to be able to do mentally. (I don’t think I place a complicated trig substitution in this category, but knowing that the integral of x^n is on order x^{n+1}, yes.
  • Tests that measured understanding would be different from and a lot harder than what students are used to! And this is a crappy time to be an undergraduate. I don’t think it’s a great idea for their calculus course to become, without warning, much more difficult than the one they signed up for.
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Pandemic blog 33: Smart Restart

I thought it was gonna work.

Really! I thought we could sort-of-open college again and not cause a big outbreak. Most of our students live here year-round. By all accounts, there have been fraternity parties all summer. We had a spike of cases in the campus area when bars opened back up at the end of June, which subsided when the county put back those restrictions (though never back down to the levels we’d seen in March, April, and May.) At the end of July I wrote “statewide, cases are growing and growing, and the situation is much worse in the South. I would fight back if you said this was a predictable consequence; nothing about this disease is predictable with any confidence. It could have worked.”

And maybe it could have; but it didn’t. As soon as school started last Wednesday, the percentage of student tests coming back positive, started growing, about 20% higher every day. On Saturday, nine Greek houses were quarantined. A week into school, with about 8% of tests positive, the University halted in-person classes and completely quarantined two first-year dormitories with two hours notice. Food is being brought in three times a day. Hope you like your roommate.

A lot of people, unlike me, saw this coming.

Maybe we can beat this back. Who knows? We did in July. But this outbreak is bigger.

Public schools in Madison are fully online right now. With a summer to prepare it’s working better than it did last spring. But it’s not great, and I would guess that for poor kids it’s a lot worse than “not great.” Private schools are allowed to be open in grades K-2, and a court decision that came down today has, at least for now, allowed them to open to all grades. More outbreaks? To be a broken record, who knows? The argument for opening K-2 sounds pretty good to me; while it’s not definite, most people seem to think younger children are less likely to spread and contract the disease, and that age range is where having kids at home limits parents most. Schools in Georgia have been open, and there have been lots of school outbreaks, and those schools get closed for a while and then reopen, but it doesn’t seem to have created big wave of cases statewide.

This article is good. Beating COVID isn’t all-or-nothing, but people seem to see it that way. If the bar’s open, that means it’s safe, and you can drink with whoever you want, as close as you want. No! Nothing is safe, if you mean safe safe. But also nothing is a guarantee of disaster. If everybody would do 50% of what they felt like doing, we could beat it. Or maybe 75%, who knows. But it feels like if we don’t insist on 0%, people will understand us to mean that 100% is OK. I don’t have any good ideas about how to fix this.

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Pandemic blog 32: writing

Taylor Swift surprised everyone by releasing a surprise new album, which she wrote and recorded entirely during the quarantine. My favorite song on it is the poignant “Invisible String”

which has an agreeable Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe, see e.g.

(The one thing about “Invisible String” is that people seem to universally read it as a song about how great it is to finally have found true love, but people, if you say

And isn’t it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Invisible string
Tying you to me?

you are (following Hemingway at the end of The Sun Also Rises) saying it would be lovely to think there was some kind of karmic force-bond tying you and your loved one together, but that, despite what’s pretty, there isn’t, and you fly apart.)

Anyway, I too, like my fellow writer Taylor Swift, have been working surprisingly fast during this period of enforced at-homeness. Even with the kids here all the time, not going anywhere is somehow good writing practice. And this book I’m writing, the one that’s coming out next spring, is now almost done. I’m somewhat tetchy about saying too much before the book really exist, but it’s called Shape, there is a lot of different stuff in it, and I hope you’ll like it.

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Pandemic blog 31: farmers’ market

First trip back to the Westside Community Market, which in ordinary times is an every Saturday morning trip for me. It feels like a model for people just sitting down and figuring out how to arrange for people to do the things they want to do in a way that minimizes transmission. We don’t have to eliminate every chance for someone to get COVID. If we cut transmissions to a third of what it would otherwise be, that doesn’t mean a third as many people get COVID — it means the pandemic dies out instead of exploding. Safe is impossible, safer is important!

They’ve reorganized everything so that the stalls are farther apart. Everybody’s wearing masks, both vendors and customers. There are several very visible hand-washing stations. Most of the vendors now take credit cards through Square, and at least one asked me to pay with Venmo. It’s easy for people to keep their distance (though the vendors told me it was more crowded earlier in the morning.)

And of course it’s summer, the fields are doing what the fields do, the Flyte Farm blueberries, best in Wisconsin, are ready — I bought five pounds, and four containers of Murphy Farms cottage cheese. All you need is those two things for the perfect Wisconsin summer meal.

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Pandemic blog 30: opening day

I have been generally feeling: it is OK to start relaxing restrictions on in-person contact, because there seems some decent chance that barring the most infectiogenic scenarios might be enough to keep outbreaks small and manageable. And that still might be true, in some contexts; in Dane County, we had a big spike of cases when the bars re-opened, and when the bars shut down again, the case spike went away, and hasn’t come back, though people are certainly out and about. But statewide, cases are growing and growing, and the situation is much worse in the South. I would fight back if you said this was a predictable consequence; nothing about this disease is predictable with any confidence. It could have worked. But I wouldn’t fight you if you said it was an expectable consequence, the consequence you thought most likely.

Similarly, if you rigorously jettison everyone with a demonstrated ability to play baseball from your team, and sign a collection of promising young players but keep them off the roster in order to avoid starting their service time, and then put that team on the field against major league competition, you might find that the nobodies and never-weres and used-to-bes find it within themselves to go on a scrappy “Why not?” run of success; or you might, as an expectable consequence, give up eight doubles and get beat 13-2.

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Pandemic blog 29: Neowise, custard

Comets are supposed to presage plague so I guess this one, Neowise, must have taken a wrong turn and showed up four months late? Anyway, AB and I saw it — bright enough that you don’t have to find a remote hillock with a northward view over lightless fields, you can just head over to Hoyt Park and look out over the city lights. With naked eye you can just barely see the comet, mostly in your peripheral vision; through binoculars, the tail is quite clear. AB was over the moon about it. She has seen a comet and a total eclipse in her first ten years of life; not bad!

This is my third comet, I think. Hale-Bopp, very visible, late 90s, everybody saw it. And the 1986 Halley’s, which was disappointingly dim; I don’t think I ever saw it with my eyes, but we were visiting my grandmother in Tucson and the UA observatory was letting people come in and look at Halley’s comet through their telescope, so I did that. But in the end seeing it through a big fixed scope at the observatory isn’t that different from seeing a picture of it.

After four months, I decided it was OK for me to eat purchased food again. Since then I have done it three times, and all three times it was Michael’s Frozen Custard. Eating only home-cooked food and Michael’s Frozen Custard is like the pescatarianism of quarantine. I had an idea in my mind that the second I ate a bite of restaurant food, all the weight I’d lost during the abstention would instantly reappear, like in the Simpsons episode where Barney stops drinking Duff beer but then has one. It didn’t happen. I might need more custard.

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Pandemic blog 28: Smart Restart

What’s going to happen to school in the fall? Madison schools are talking about having two days on, three days off, with half the kids going on Monday and Tuesday and half on Thursday and Friday.

I think if we open anything it has to be schools. And it seems pretty clear we are not not opening anything. If there’s no school, how are people with young kids supposed to work?

There’s decent evidence that young kids are less likely to get infected with COVID, less likely to spread it, and drastically less likely to become seriously ill from it — so I don’t think it’s crazy to hope that you can bring kids together in school without taking too much of a hit to public health.

What about college? UW-Madison is proposing a “Smart Restart” plan in which students come back to dorms, on-campus instruction starts in a limited fashion (big classes online, small classes taught in big rooms with students sitting far apart.) A lot of my colleagues are really unhappy with the fact that we’re proposing to bring students back to campus at all. I’m cautiously for it. I am not going to get into the details because more detail-oriented people than me have thought about them a lot, and I’m just sitting here blogging on Independence Morning.

But three non-details:

  1. Given the high case numbers among college students in Madison now, just from normal college student socializing, it’s not clear to me that asking them to come to class is going to make a notable difference in how much COVID spread the student population generates.
  2. Any plan that says “Protect the most vulnerable populations, like old people, but let young healthy people do what they want” that doesn’t include “vulnerable people who can’t safely do their jobs because their workplaces are full of young, healthy, teeming-with-COVID people get paid to stay home” is not a plan. We can’t make 65-year-old teachers teach in person and we can’t make diabetic teachers teach in person and we can’t make teachers with elderly relatives in the household teach in person.
  3. Any plan for re-opening schools has to have pretty clear guidelines for what triggers a reverse of course. We cannot figure out what’s safe, or “safe enough,” by pure thought; at some point we have to try things. But a re-opening plan that doesn’t include a re-closing plan is also not a plan.

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Pandemic blog 27: Impossible Stroganoff

We are down to once every three weeks at Trader Joe’s (I fill two whole carts with stuff, it’s an undertaking) which we supplement with other kinds of food purchases in between. I’m unhappy with the conditions industrial meatpackers are putting their workers in, so I’m picking up meat curbside at Conscious Carnivore, our local meat-from-nearby-farms-you’re-supposed-to-feel-vaguely-OK-about supplier. We get shipments from Imperfect Foods, which I’m a little concerned is some kind of hedge-fund-backed grocery store destruction scheme but helps fill in the gaps. And the really exciting food news is that Impossible Foods, the substitute meat company I learned about from my old math team buddy Mike Eisen, is now delivering!

This stuff is by far the most realistic fake ground beef in existence. We served Impossible cheeseburgers at CJ’s bar mitzvah and a member of the ritual committee was so convinced he was ready to pull the fire alarm and evacuate the shul for de-trayfing. Since I don’t cook milk and meat together in the house, there are a lot of dishes that just don’t happen at home. And one of them — which I’ve been waiting years to make — is my favorite dish from childhood, “hamburger stroganoff.”

This dish comes from Peg Bracken’s protofeminist masterpiece, the I Hate To Cook Book. Is that book forgotten by younger cooks? It’s decidedly out of style. Maybe it was even out of style then; my mom, I always felt, made hamburger stroganoff grudgingly. It involves canned soup. But it is one of the most delicious things imaginable and readers, the Impossible version is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Here’s Peg Bracken’s obituary, which leads with the famous lines from this famous recipe:

Start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the noodle water. Brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.

And here’s the recipe itself. If you’re vegetarianizing this, you can just use cream of mushroom soup for the cream of chicken and replace the bouillon with some salt (or veggie stock, if that’s your bag.)

8 ounces Noodles, uncooked
1 cube Beef Bouillon
1 clove Garlic,minced
1/3 cup Onion, chopped
2 tablespoons Cooking oil
1 pound Ground Beef
2 tablespoons Flour
2 teaspoons Salt
1/2 teaspoon Paprika
6 ounces Mushrooms
1 can Cream of Chicken Soup, undiluted
1 cup Sour Cream
1 handful Parsley, chopped

Start cooking those noodles, first dropping a boullion cube into the noodle water.
Brown the garlic, onion, and crumbled beef in the oil.
Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.
Then add the soup and simmer it–in other words, cook on low flame under boiling point–ten minutes.
Now stir in the sour cream–keeping the heat low, so it won’t curdle–and let it all heat through.
To serve it, pile the noodles on a platter, pile the Stroganoff mix on top of the noodles, and sprinkle chopped parsley around with a lavish hand.

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Pandemic blog 26: writing

I was supposed to turn in a manuscript for my new (general-audience book) last week. It’s not finished. But I’ve written a lot of it during the pandemic. Of course it is very hard to be “productive” in the usual way, with the kids here all day. But being in the house all day is somehow the right setup for book-writing, maybe because it so clearly separates life now from my usual life where I am neither staying in the house nor writing a book.

I think the pages I’m putting out are good. As usual, the process of writing is causing me to learn new things faster than I can put them in the book and indeed there is now too much material to actually go in the book, but that means, at any rate, I can be selective and pick just the best.

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Pandemic blog 25: version

I’ve always thought of myself as an extravert, but am I? I read lots of articles about the almost unendurable pain of being cut off from physical contact with friends, relatives, and just random people out in the world. I’m lucky — I don’t experience that as pain. Partly, I guess, it’s because I haven’t really been contactless. I go for walks, I talk at a distance to friends I see; or I work on the porch and I talk to people I know who come by.

There are individual differences. I took CJ to the middle school to pick up the contents of his locker; it was the first time in two and a half months he’d been 100 feet from our house. He really doesn’t need variety. Me, I take my walks, and I go for bike rides with AB. I could really do things this way for a long time, forever if I had to.

I don’t have to. The restrictions on gatherings and business are starting to lift now; cases aren’t really declining, are maybe even going up a little, but there seems to be some sense that with testing protocols in place we can afford to experiment with a gradual, carefully monitored relaxation of restrictions.

It’s aggregates that matter. Not everybody has to be perfectly sealed off, which is good, because not everybody can be. But the easier it is for you to not see people, the less you should see people. From each according to, etc.

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