Author Archives: JSE

Compactness as groupwork

Compactness is one of the hardest things in the undergrad curriculum to teach, I find. It’s very hard for students to grasp that the issue is not “is there a finite collection of open sets that covers K” but rather “for every collection of open sets that covers K, some finite subcollection covers K.” This year I came up with a new metaphor. I asked the students to think about how, when a professor assigns a group project, there’s always a very small subgroup of the students who does all the work. That’s sort of how compactness works! Yes, the professor assigned infinitely many open sets to the project, but actually most of them are not really contributing. And it doesn’t matter if some small set of students could do the project; what matters is that some small group among the students assigned to the project is going to end up doing it! And this seems to happen — my students nodded in agreement — no matter how the professor forms the group.

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The Greatest Astro/Phillie

The time is here. The lesser contenders have been dispatched (it seemed like it was gonna be the Mets’ year, didn’t it?) and we have our World Series matchup; the seemingly unstoppable Astros, who just keep pennanting and pennanting and are so far without a loss this postseason, and the scrappy Phillies, third in the NL East this year but hot at the right time.

And that brings us to our annual question: who was the greatest ever Astro/Phillie? Our methodology, as usual — pull up the top 200 career WARs for each team on Stathead (the best subscription on the Internet, if you like this kind of thing) and find the player who maximizes (WAR with Astros) times (WAR with Phillies.)

This year it’s not even close: Roy Oswalt, the Astros’ career leader in WAR from a pitcher. I’d forgotten that after most of a career in Houston, he went to Philadelphia halfway through 2010 and was terrific, helping the Phils get to the NLCS. He pitched just a year and a half in Philadelphia but that, combined with his record in Houston, is enough to give him the title by a long ways.

But if you really dislike the imbalance here, you can instead rank players by min(WAR with Astros, WAR with Phillies) and get a different greatest Astro/Phillie: Turk Farrell, who started and ended his career a Phillie with six years of Houston in between, usually good, never great. He was an all-star once as a Phillie and four times as an Astro, though two of those times were in 1962. Why were there two All-Star Games in 1962? No idea. Mysteries of baseball.

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Sky Carp

The former Beloit Snappers, the high-A farm team of the Miami Marlins, are now the Beloit Sky Carp, and they play in a brand new park, ABC Supply Stadium, naming rights courtesy of Diane Hendrick’s massive Beloit-based roofing supply company. Why Sky Carp? Apparently it is a slang term for a goose. Not in my circles. I assumed the strange name was to provide a kind of uniformity among the Marlins’ farm teams, which are all named after sea creatures of some kind. But, as CJ points out, a snapper is a fish too!

I really like minor league ball, even though on the night we saw the Sky Carp edge the West Michigan Whitecaps, there weren’t really any big-time prospects on the field. Maybe the biggest was Trei Cruz, named Trei because he’s the son of Jose Cruz Jr. who was the son of Jose Cruz Sr. (Should the oldest Cruz have been a Hall of Famer? I’m not sure, but he should have gotten more than 0.4% of the vote and an early exit on his first ballot.) The youngest Cruz made two extremely nifty, almost to the point of showoffy, plays at short and drew a walk in a tough spot. I think there was an attempted steal of home in this game but I was getting a bison-elk dog and I only saw the end of the play.

A fun and cheap night out. Beloit is only an hour’s drive from Madison, and the stadium is a short walk to the historic downtown. Cities like Beloit work hard to give people reasons to travel there and the Sky Carp are a pretty good reason.

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Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t understand why anyone would play tennis

Deeply weird article by Malcolm Gladwell about his plan to save high school sports, which he sees as breaking down under the pressure of premature specialization and elitism.

To the extent that we cater to the 90th percentile, we make a sport psychologically forbidding to the 50th percentile. I mean, if your high school has four tennis players who have been honing their topspin forehands and kick-serves for 10 years, why would someone who grew up playing with their siblings on public courts on the weekends want to try out for the team?

Well, CJ plays high school tennis. He plays junior varsity. He didn’t have to try out. There are elite players on his team, including the fourth-best player in Wisconsin. So why does he play?

Hold that thought. Gladwell makes a similar point about the sport he himself competes in, cross country.

If you were a mediocre runner, would you go out for the Corning cross country team? I doubt it. You couldn’t keep up in practice. And you wouldn’t matter. Corning sent eight runners to the state championships, and its eighth-place finisher, a young man named Ryan, was over 2 minutes slower than its best runner. Was anyone even watching when Ryan crossed the line? A sport that focuses its reward structure entirely on the top five finishers limits attention to those top five finishers. By the time Ryan came across the line, the championship was already decided.

But by this point in the article, Gladwell has already explained why you’d go out for the cross country team!

I won’t belabor the obvious about cross country. It is insanely fun. Races take place during the glory days of fall. The courses are typically in beautiful parts of the country. Cross country meets don’t feel like sporting events; they feel like outdoor festivals—except everyone is fit, as opposed to high. Everyone should be so lucky as to run cross country.

But for Gladwell, this is somehow not enough. You have to matter. But why? Mattering is overrated. Kids play sports because sports, as Gladwell says, are fun to play. CJ’s games don’t matter to whether his high school wins the state championship. But they matter to him! The coaches make an effort to match players against kids from the opposing team with roughly similar skill and that leads to good games, games you care about while you’re playing them.

Gladwell proposes a weird Rawlsian scheme where your cross country team’s performance is heavily dependent on how well your slowest runners do. OK, you could do that, and then it would all come down to Ryan. But is that what Ryan wants? I don’t think CJ wishes the varsity team’s fortunes depended on whether he could land the jump serve he’s just starting to learn. That sounds incredibly stressful. I think it’s fine not to matter, and if we teach kids there’s no point in playing unless you’re part of the final score, we’re teaching them something kind of bad about sports.

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Phillies 3, Brewers 2

I think this amazing game in May 2018 — “the Aguilar Game” as it’s known — might be the last time we saw a Brewers win? We saw them get shut out by the Padres on Friday, we saw them lose 1-0 to the Rangers in August 2019, we saw them lose 9-6 to the Cardinals in March of that year, and we saw them lose 4-3 to the Dodgers in the 2018 NLCS. We’re bad luck!

CJ is about to go to sleepaway camp and I’m already starting to miss him and am feeling very indulgent so when he came to me Tuesday afternoon and said why don’t we get in the car and go see another Brewers game? it was a yes. And we still had credit from the game we bought tickets for in April 2020, that, as you can imagine, never happened. We’d been told it was good for any game in 2020 or 2021, but we didn’t make it back to the ballpark, and I assumed the money was just gone, fair’s fair — but no! The credit still existed. A nice gesture by the Brewers to the fans.

It sure looked like we were going to see a win this time. Nice game — as many fans on a Tuesday night as there’d been the previous Friday. Beautiful cool night but the roof was closed for predicted showers that never happened. A triple for each team, some slick defense manufactured runs, and the Brewers went into the 9th with a 2-1 lead and unstoppable supercloser Josh Hader coming in to face the bottom of the Philadelphia order. Hader was riding a streak of 40 consecutive scoreless appearances, tied for the most ever in major-league history.

Did I mention we’re bad luck?

Two home runs by terrible, terrible Philadelphia hitters, each one a no-doubter, more than 400 feet. Streak over, lead gone. We go to the bottom of the 9th, and now we see Philadelphia’s closer, none other than longtime Brewer Corey Knebel. And he is terrible. Can’t hit the strike zone. Maybe there’s one more twist left. He walks Andrew McCutcheon and then Hunter Renfroe smashes what looks like the game-winner to dead center but it dies at the track, and then crowd favorite Rowdy Tellez hits another one just as hard but gets a little under it and it’s also to the deepest part of the field, and then there’s two outs — but Knebel still can’t throw a strike, walks Victor Caratini and then Jace Peterson on a heroic at bat where he keeps on fouling it straight back, waiting for his pitch (this is your callback to the Aguilar Game) before finally getting ball four. Lorenzo Cain comes in to run for the catcher Caratini, so you have speed at second and third with the bases loaded.

But Craig Counsell’s bench is empty. Kolten Wong left early with a leg injury so he already had to put in Keston Hiura and Peterson’s batting for him. All that’s left is the guy who’s been batting ninth the whole game, lifetime .239 hitter Pablo Reyes, and hey, sometimes you just have to hand the guy the bat and hope for the best. And Reyes looks at three called strikes, on the last one making a sad little gesture at a swing.

Maybe next time.

Update: I was wrong about the last Milwaukee win we attended; we saw the Brewers win game 162 in 2018, an 11-0 laugher against the Tigers. But our in-person losing streak still stands at 5.

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емкость is great (or: what I learned at the Writing Scientists Workshop)

This semester I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time: I ran a writers’ workshop, modeled after the many many fiction workshops I attended in college and at the Writing Seminars. But this one wasn’t about crafting a short story that exquisitely limned the emotional landscape of people almost exactly like me and my friends; it was for early-career scientists, and it was aimed at writing the 1000-word general-audience science article, the kind of thing I’ve mostly been writing since I gave up prose fiction a couple of decades ago.

And it worked! Not thanks to me so much as to the committed, insightful, extremely-willing-to-think-hard-about-craft group of eight students I had working with me, on Zoom, from around the US and in a couple of cases elsewhere.

Why did I want to do this? Because over the years a lot of young scientists have asked me how they can get into science writing and how they can combine it with a career in research. And the answer is not so much “here’s an editor you can contact” or “here’s what goes in a pitch letter,” it’s “learn to write a very specific kind of 1,000 word chunk of prose.” And that’s what we worked on.

I will probably do this again. It was really fun. And my real hope is that, just as Math Circles went from being a thing a few devoted Russian expats did in Cambridge and Oakland to something that every self-respecting math department runs, there will be Writing Scientists Workshops that don’t involve me at all, where groups of grad students and postdocs get together and read each others’ work seriously and reflectively and train themselves to be outward-facing scientists.

With that in mind, I wrote a pretty thorough account of how I ran the workshop, what we did, what things might usefully be changed, and what we spent our time talking about, here:

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I got a lot of useful feedback from the participants, but maybe my favorite was the student who sent back a bullet-point list of all the advice about writing I’d given, filtered through her paraphrase. She’s a Russophone, and one of the bullet points was “емкость is great.” What is емкость? I’ve been asking all my Russian friends. It seems to mean something like “putting a lot of meaning into a few words.” That is, indeed, what the WSW is going for, and it is, indeed, great.

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Padres 7, Brewers 0

A cool cloudy night in June, school out, CJ itching to get more parentally supervised driving time — he needs 50 hours with me in the car before he can get his license — meant it was time, after a two-year pandemic hiatus, to return to what on our last visit was Miller Park, and is now American Family Field — so many syllables, so awkwardly arranged. It was Brewers-Padres; here’s the box score. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a Padres game, but I was motivated to, because Manny Machado plays there now. Machado is the villain of the National League now, universally-except-in-San-Diego seen as a dirty player and a braggart. He was treated to resounding boos by the Brewers fans every time he came to the plate. But I still like him. One of my very first tweets was directed at him. He’s probably the best Oriole of our era, even though he’s not an Oriole anymore. I got us seats along the third base line, something I never ordinarily do, just so I could be closer to Machado when the Brewers were at bat.

Machado wasn’t the story of the game; that was Joe Musgrove, the Padres starter, who took a no-hitter into the eighth. I’ve never seen a no-hitter in person, and I can’t lie, after Musgove got through six I was starting to root for him. But it turns out watching a no-hitter isn’t that different from watching any other game! At least this one wasn’t. An inning where nobody gets a hit is pretty normal; this was just watching a lot of those in a row. Musgrove wasn’t dominant; he walked some guys, went deep in counts. Saved by his defense on a couple of line drives. It really just felt like a game where nobody on the Brewers happened to get a hit, until finally Kolten Wong did happen to.

On the Padre side, Machado hit a home run, just like he did the last time I saw him play. The boos crested to a new level. What I really wanted, though, was to see him play third. He was one of the greatest defenders at third I ever saw, going deep into the hole to stop a sharp grounder and making impossible turnaround throws. The stats say he’s no longer the third baseman he was in Baltimore, and no matter how much he mashes the ball — and this year he is mashing it to a very fine paste indeed — I think that’s a real loss. He wasn’t really tested in this game. The one play at third he made was completely routine, but, well, he made it pretty somehow.

The boos didn’t seem to faze him. He was a cheerful presence on the field, chatting with the third-base ump, throwing his arm chummily around a Brewer baserunner who made it to third. Real baseball.

Lots of Padre fans at AmFam. I didn’t know the Padres had out-of-town fans! Yelich by far the most popular Brewers jersey nowadays. A lot of Hader, too. Braun almost completely gone. Oldest non-Yount jerseys I saw: Corey Hart and Yovanni Gallardo. American Miller Family FieldPark is, as always, a great place to watch a game, unheraldedly one of the best parks in the league. It was good to be back.

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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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