Author Archives: JSE

Los Angeles, November 2019

Actually, I arrived on October 31, but who can resist a gratuitous Blade Runner reference?

I was in town for the always-interesting meeting of the IPAM science board. Keep an eye on their schedule; there are great workshops coming up!

There was chaos and anger at LAX when I landed, because the airport just this week moved Lyft/Uber/taxi pickups offsite. For reasons I don’t fully understand, this has led to long waits for rideshare cars. For reasons I understand even less, people are waiting an hour for their Lyft to show up when the regular taxi stand is right there, and you can — I did — just hop in a cab with no wait and go. (Yes, a VC-subsidized Lyft is cheaper than a cab, if it’s not surge time. But the bus is cheaper still, and once you’re not saving time with the Lyft, what’s the point?)

So I got in my cab and went to the beach, and watched the sunset over the ocean. Clear view of a really nice Moon-Jupiter conjunction and Venus still visible down at the horizon. Last time I went to Dockweiler Beach I was all alone, but this time there were several groups of people in Halloween costumes around bonfires. That was probably the most Blade Runner thing about this trip and it wasn’t even November 2019 yet!

I have a first cousin in LA, and good luck for me — my first cousin’s first baby was born my first morning in town! So on Saturday after the meeting I got to go see my first cousin once removed on his second day alive. I haven’t seen a one-day-old baby in a really long time! And it’s true what they say; I both remember my own kids being that age and I don’t. It’s more like I remember remembering it. I thought I was going to have a lot of advice but mostly all I had to say to them was that they are going to be amazing parents, because they are.

The hospital was in East Hollywood, a neighborhood I don’t know at all. Walking around afterwards, I saw a sign for an art-food festival in a park, so I walked up the hill into the park, where there wasn’t really an art-food festival, but there was a great Frank Lloyd Wright mansion I’d never heard of, Hollyhock House:

As with most FLW houses, there’s a lot more to it than you can see in the picture. A lot of it is just the pleasurable three-dimensional superimposition of rectangular parallelipipeds, and that doesn’t project well onto the plane.

There were a lot of folks sitting on blankets on the hillside, even though there was no art-food festival, because it turns out Barnsdall Park is where you and your 20-something moderately hipster friends go to watch the sunset in LA (unless it’s Halloween, in which case I guess you dress up and build a bonfire on Dockweiler Beach.) Sunset:

Then I ate some Filipino food, since Filipino restaurants sadly don’t exist in Madison right now, and went back to my hotel and read MathJobs files.

My Lyft driver on the way back was a 27-year-old guy from Florida who’s working on an album. That’s no surprise; my Lyft driver yesterday was also working on an album. Your Lyft driver in LA, unless they are a comic, is always working on an album. (My Lyft driver yesterday was also a comic.) This ride was a little deeper, though. This guy was a first-generation college student who went to school out-of-state on a soccer scholarship, majored in biology, and thought about getting a Ph.D. but was too stressed out about the GRE. He said whenever he started studying for the math part he was troubled by deep questions about foundations. Pi, he asked me: what is it? How can anyone really know it goes on forever? For that matter, what about two? Why is there such a thing as two? He also wanted to be a perfusionist but sat in on an open-heart surgery and decided it wasn’t for him, not in the long term. He started asking himself: is biology what I really want to do? So he’s driving a Lyft and working on his album. He also told me about how he doubts he’ll be able to make a long-term relationship work because he doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (he said: “out of wedlock”) and how he had dabbled in Hasidic Judiasm and how he was surprised I was Jewish because I didn’t look it (“no offense.”) Anyway, it just made me think about how normal and maybe universal his existential doubts and worries are for a 27-year-old dude; but for an upper-middle-class 27-year-old dude from an elite educational background, those existential doubts and worries would be something to process while you continued climbing on up that staircase to a stable professional career. That would just be a given. For this guy, the world said “You’re not sure you want that? Fine, don’t have it.”

Now I’m in LAX about to go get on the flight home to Madison, the direct flight we so gloriously now have. The last time I was in this LAX breakfast place, there was a big tumult around somebody else eating there and I realized it must be a celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him at all, and it turned out it was Gene Simmons. In LA people know what Gene Simmons looks like without the Kiss makeup! I do not. For all I know he could be in here right now. Are you here, Gene Simmons?

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Teaching-track positions at Washington University: a testimonial

My Ph.D. student Silas Johnson is teaching at Washington University in St. Louis. This is a kind of job that’s getting more and more popular; teaching-focused, non-tenurable but also not on a limited term. I’m pretty interested in the nuts and bolts of how these jobs work, so I asked Silas to explain it to me. Take it away, Silas! The rest of this post comes from him.

Washington University in St. Louis is hiring two new Lecturers this year: one in math, and one in statistics. These are long-term teaching-track positions, meaning they’re intended to be permanent but do not come with the possibility of tenure. I’m currently a Lecturer here, and I enjoy it a lot. I get to teach a lot of interesting courses; so far, my 3-3 load has usually included two sections of calculus and one upper-division course, with the latter including everything from probability to number theory. I also support the department’s broader undergraduate teaching mission. For example, since arriving, I’ve worked on a project to streamline the course requirements for our math major, tried out new ideas for calculus recitations, and conducted teaching interviews for postdoctoral candidates. Most importantly, my colleagues have been wonderfully supportive as I adjust to the university, try out new teaching methods and techniques in my courses, and work on departmental projects.

These teaching-track faculty positions seem to be increasingly popular, though the nature and details of such positions vary from department to department. While non-tenured, my position is on a parallel promotion ladder from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Teaching Professor. This structure is fairly typical, though the titles vary (Assistant/Associate/Full Professor of Instruction is also common). In our case, the promotions also come with increased guarantees of job security.

Teaching-focused positions are sometimes stereotyped as a lesser option, perhaps even a backup plan for those who can’t find a research postdoc or tenure-track job. I disagree; I see this as a good path for mathematicians who, like me, have a genuine interest in teaching and want to make it the focus of their careers. Our department and college are clear about the value they place on teaching-track faculty, too; we vote in department meetings, serve on important committees, and are treated as equals in just about every way. (The only thing we can’t do is vote on tenure-track hiring and promotion.)

Overall, I really like it here. I’m happy with my decision to pursue a teaching career, and I’m glad there are other mathematicians out there who are interested in doing the same. I would encourage such people to apply for our position and others like it. If you’re a grad student, by the way, there are teaching-focused postdoc positions too!

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Morally problematic, even questionable

Today’s New York Times contains the phrase

is itself a morally problematic, even questionable, act.

Are there no editors anymore? What work is “even questionable” doing? Is it possible to imagine an act that was morally problematic but not morally questionable? And even if it is, is that thin distinction really what the writer of this piece about an HBO miniseries is going for? Or did they just think “is itself a morally problematic act” didn’t have enough heft, stuff another couple of non-nutritive words in there, admire the sentence’s new bulk, move on?

Boo, I say, boo.

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The greatest Astro/National

Jose Altuve has done what Jose Altuve does and so it’s World Series time again, the Astros back for the second time in three years, the Nationals there for their first time in infinity years, so we return to our annual exercise: who was the greatest Astro/National? (Last year: the greatest Red Sox / Dodger.) By which, just to have a good pool of players to work from, we mean Astro/National/Expo? This time the answer’s uncontroversial: it’s Rusty Staub. I think of Staub as a Met, because that’s what he was when I was a kid, and that’s who he played the most seasons for, but Staub came up with Houston and spent three years of his prime (and, much later, 38 games of his non-prime) in Montreal. I never knew this guy was so good! In 1969 he had a .426 on-base percentage and hit 29 home runs, a lot back then, and got one measly MVP vote.

Anyway, Staub put together 17.4 WAR in his three seasons in Montreal and 13.1 more in 6 years with the Astros. Good satisfyingly balanced answer this year.

If you restrict to players who played for the Nationals, not their Quebecois predecessors, the pickings are a lot slimmer. Looks like Justin Maxwell and Mark Melancon are the best bets. I guess I give the edge to Maxwell just because he played multiple seasons for each team.

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The quarter-circle game

Start at a lattice point inside the quarter-circle x^2 + y^2 < 10^6 in the positive quadrant. You and your opponent take turns: the allowable moves are to go up, right, or both at once (i.e. add (0,1), add (1,0), or add (1,1).) First person to leave the quarter-circle wins. What does it look like if you color a starting point black for “first-player loss” and yellow for “first-player win”? It looks like this:

I like the weird zones of apparent order here. Of course you can do this for any planar domain, any finite set of moves, etc. Are games like this analyzable at all?

I guess you could go a little further and compute the nimber or Grundy value associated to each starting position. You get:

What to make of this?

Here’s some hacky code, it’s simple.


M = 1000
def Crossed(a,b):
    return (a**2 + b**2 >= M*M)

def Mex(L):
    return min([i for i in range(5) if not (i in L)])


L = np.zeros((M+2,M+2))
for a in reversed(range(M+2)):
    for b in reversed(range(M+2)):
        if Crossed(a,b):
            L[a,b] = 0
        else:
            L[a,b] = Mex([L[a+1,b],L[a,b+1],L[a+1,b+1]])

plt.imshow(L,interpolation='none',origin='lower')
plt.show()

One natural question: what proportion of positions inside the quarter-circle are first-player wins? Heuristically: if you imagine the value of positions as Bernoulli variables with parameter p, the value at my current position is 0 if and only if all three of the moves available to me have value 1. So you might expect (1-p) = p^3. This has a root at about 0.68. It does look to me like the proportion of winning positions is converging, but it seems to be converging to something closer to 0.71. Why?

By the way, the game is still interesting (but I’ll bet more directly analyzable) even if the only moves are “go up one” and “go right one”! Here’s the plot of winning and losing values in that case:

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Watermelon, chevre, piment d’espelette

I spent a little time this summer visiting Institut Henri Poincare for their program on rational points, but this post is not about the math I did there, but about a salad I ate there. Not there at IHP, but at the terrific neighborhood bistro around the corner from where I was staying. I liked it so much I went there three times and I got this salad three times. I have been trying to recreate it at home. It’s good! Not Paris bistro good. But really good. Here is how I make it so I don’t forget.

  • Seedless watermelon cut in cubical or oblong chunks, as sweet as possible
  • Good chevre (not feta, chevre) ripped up into modest pieces
  • Some kind of not-too-bitter greens (I’ve been using arugula, they used some kind of micro watercressy kind of deal) Not a ton; this is a watermelon salad with some greens in it for color and accent, not a green salad.
  • Roasted pine nuts (I am thinking this could also be good with roasted pepitas but have not tried it)
  • Juice of a lime
  • Olive oil, the best you have
  • Piment d’espelette

I had never heard of piment d’espelette! It’s from the Basque part of France and is roughly in the paprika family but it’s different. I went to a spice store before I left Paris and bought a jar to bring home. So now I have something I thought my kitchen would never be able to boast: a spice Penzey’s doesn’t sell.

Anyway, the recipe is: put all that stuff in a bowl and mix it up. Or ideally put everything except the chevre in and mix it up and then strew the chevre on the top. Festive!

Of course the concept of watermelon and goat cheese as a summer salad is standard; but this is a lot better than any version of this I’ve had before.

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We are a long way from such sentiments

All of us living at a certain time on this planet together, and together experiencing all its earthly joys and sorrows, seeing the same sky, loving and hating what are, after all, the same things, each and every one of us condemned to suffer the same sentence, the same disappearance off the face of the earth, should really nurture the greatest tenderness towards each other, a feeling of the most heart-rending closeness, and should be literally screaming with terror and pain whenever we are parted by a fate which at any moment is fully capable of transforming every one of our separations, even if only meant to last ten minutes, into an eternal one. But, as you know, for most of the time, we are a long way from such sentiments, and often take leave of even those closest to us in the most thoughtless manner imaginable.

Ivan Bunin, “Long Ago,” 1921 (Sophie Lund, trans.)
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A lot of affluent liberals

Binyamin Appelbaum wrote an article in the New York Times about my native county, Montgomery County, Maryland, and this is what he tweeted about it:

A lot of affluent liberals in Montgomery County, outside Washington, D.C., fiercely opposed a plan to build a little more affordable housing. “Affordable is not what people move here for,” one of them told me.

The plan in question was approved unanimously by the County Council, all nine of whom were Democrats, but, as Appelbaum reported, not everyone in progressive Montgomery County was happy about it. He quoted several residents making remarks that made them look like, well, uptight snobs:

Ellen Paul, 59, said in-law suites were bad enough: “It’s changing suburbia to allow two homes on each lot. You’ll have strangers walking by your house all the time now.”

“That’s where the backyard trailers are going to go,” said Dale Barnhard, one of the more than 1,500 people who signed a petition opposing the “dramatic” change in rules.

or worse:

One county resident, Katherine C. Gugulis, wrote a protest letter in The Washington Post that concluded, “Just because others flee crime-ridden and poverty-stricken areas doesn’t mean Montgomery County has to be turned into a slum to accommodate them.”

I was interested in these affluent liberals and wanted to learn about them. A few minutes of Googling later, here’s what I found out. Katherine Gangulis is a Republican appointed official. Ellen Paul, according to her public LinkedIn profile, is a former staff assistant to a Republican member of the House of Representatives, and her most recent listed activity was public relations for a Republican candidate for Montgomery County Board of Education in 2014. Dale Barnhard doesn’t have any political career, as far as I know, but he wrote a letter to the Washington Post last year complaining about their biased coverage of Donald Trump. Hessie Harris, who worries aloud in Appelbaum’s piece about “flophouses” and literally utters the words “There goes the neighborhood,” is listed by the FEC as contributing thousands of dollars a year to Americans for Legal Immigration; that’s a PAC which describes its mission as “our fight AGAINST the costly and deadly illegal immigration & illegal immigrant invasion of America.”

These people aren’t liberals!

I don’t doubt there are liberals in Montgomery County who oppose relaxation of zoning. (I grew up there, and I live in Madison, WI: liberal NIMBYism is not a foreign idea to me.) But why weren’t any of those people in Appelbaum’s article? Why run a piece featuring a bunch of conservatives protesting a decision by an all-Democratic county council and bill it as a portrait of progressivism failing to live up to its ideals?

Here’s my theory. I don’t think Appelbaum purposely gathered quotes from Montgomery County’s small but nonzero Republican population for his piece. I think he had a story already in mind, a story of rich liberals who profess a commitment to affordable housing but really have a lot of contempt for the kind of person who lives there, and who would certainly under no circumstances stand for such people residing in Potomac or the nice parts of Bethesda, you know, the Whitman part. Those people might say their opposition to density had to do with something other than snobbery. But their words would show how they truly felt about the poorly-to-mediocrely-heeled.

And he got the quotes he wanted, the quotes that supported this story. Good, salty quotes. But the people who said those things weren’t self-styled progressives. They were Republicans.

Maybe there’s a reason for that!

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Snappy comeback

AB has curly hair, really curly hair, and strangers comment on it all the time. My stance on this is to tell her “it’s not really polite for people to randomly comment on your appearance, but it’s not impolite enough for you to be impolite back — just say thanks and move on.” Is that the right stance?

Anyway, though, today someone at the farmer’s market said “I would die to have hair like yours” and AB said, in a non-combative, sunny way, “How would that help you if you were dead?” and I was super proud.

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Orioles optimism update

My Orioles optimism from the end of April hasn’t held up too well. When I wrote that, the team was 10-18. Since then, they’ve won 16 more games, and lost — it kind of hurts to type this — 43.

Why so bad? The team ERA has dropped almost half a run since I wrote that post, from 6.15 to 5.75. Their RS and RA for June were about the same as they were for May, but they went 6-20 instead of 8-19.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but — maybe the Orioles aren’t really that bad? Their Pythagorean record is 28-59, which is terrible, but not even worst in MLB right now. (That honor belongs to the Tigers.) John Means continues to be great and Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy have now been pretty consistently turning in utterly acceptable starts.

The thing about baseball is, things happen suddenly. On Tuesday, September 5, 2017, less than two years ago, Manny Machado hit a 2-run homer in the bottom of the 9th to give the Orioles a 7-6 win against the Yankees. The Orioles were 71-68.

The next game after that, they lost 9-1. And then went 4-18 the rest of the way. They haven’t had a full month since then with a record better than .360. The Orioles became terrible in an instant. I don’t see why it can’t go the other way.

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