Author Archives: JSE

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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Robin Laid a Gun Redux

A while back I blogged about the variation of “Jingle Bells” my daughter brought home, in which “Batman Smells” is followed by the strange line “Robin Laid a Gun.” I just noticed that YouTuber Tom Scott has posted a video with a definitive account of the popularity and geographic/demographic variation of many, many versions of “Jingle Bells, Batman smells,” including “Robin laid a gun”:

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There’s only one thing that I know how to do well

Last week I moderated (virtually) a discussion at Stanford between my poetry friend Stephanie Burt and my category theory friend Emily Riehl, on the topic of “identity” — specifically the question of how, in lyric poetry and in mathematics, one addresses the complex topic of what we do when we identify; whether this means “identifying with” a character in a song or poem or story, or identifying two objects which are not equal but which, in Poincare’s phrase, we “call by the same name.”

What I realized after the fact is that, as in so many other matters, the most succinct formulation is in a They Might Be Giants lyric:

There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
I’ve often been told that you only can do what you know how to do well
And that’s be you,
Be what you’re like,
Be like yourself

Surely this points to three different notions that appeared in the discussion:

  • “be you” — to say that you are you is to assert equality
  • “be what you’re like” — that is, have exactly the properties that you have and no others — an assertion of indiscernibility
  • “be like yourself” — this is the assertion of relation (here denoted a “likeness”) between two entities that licenses us, following Poincare, in calling them by the same name — that is, an assertion of equivalence

Here’s YouTube of the discussion:

And here’s YouTube of the They Might Be Giants song, “Whistling in the Dark.” I remember seeing them play this in the fall of 1989, at the Paradise Rock Club, before the album came out, a song nobody had heard. A revelation!

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Why won’t anyone teach her math?

Lots of discussion in my feeds about this Daily Princetonian piece, “Why won’t anyone teach me math?” by first-year student Abigail Rabieh. She just took Math 202, an intro to linear algebra, and the experience was so lousy she’s done with Princeton math for good. That’s bad!

So what was wrong with Rabieh’s class?

“Though I passed MAT 202 class just fine, my experience in it was miserable. The way the course was run did not at all set up students to succeed — or even learn math. For example, though we were provided with practice problems to prepare for our exams, we were never given solutions. My class consistently begged my professor for these, yet all he could say was that not providing them was departmental policy, and it was out of his control.

This begs the question: what interest does a department have in making it impossible to study? Study materials are given so that students can learn the course material and prepare adequately for the exam. Solution sets are part of this: to properly learn, one needs to be able to identify their mistakes and understand why they are wrong. This struggle was reflected in our exam averages, which were, respectively, in the 50s, the 60s, and the 30s.

I am far from the only person who felt this way about my class. MAT 202 has an abysmal rating of 2.71 on princetoncourses.com during the spring 2020-2021 semester. The evaluations on the Office of the Registrar’s website are no better. Students described the course as “disheartening” and said they “lost a lot of respect for the Math department after taking this course.” The advice that came up again and again in many reviews was: “Don’t take this class unless you have to.”

A lot of math teachers instinctively reacted to this with defensiveness, and I was one of them. After all, what’s so bad here? You hand out practice problems for an exam because you want students to do the problems, not because you want them to read the solutions; the mechanism is that the student works all the problems they can and then asks in office hours or review session about the problems they couldn’t do. I don’t think it’s bad to include solutions, but I would never say that not doing so makes it “impossible to study.” Student evals, well — the literature on their unreliability is so vast and I’m so lazy that I’ll only just vaguely gesture at it. And of course, most people taking Math 202 are not taking it for intellectual broadening, as Rabieh admirably was; they are taking it because somebody told them they had to. That makes the evaluations impossible to compare with those for a course people take on purpose. And as for those exam scores, well — a median in the 30s is too low, that would mean I’d made the exam much too hard. A median in the 60s, on the other hand, seems fine to me, an indication that I’d written a test with real challenges but which people could mostly do.

But you know what? Our students, especially our first year students, don’t know that unless we tell them! A student who got into Princeton, or for that matter a student who got into UW-Madison, has probably never gotten a 60/100 on a test in their entire life. No wonder it’s demoralizing!

What we have here, as they say, is a failure to communicate. Rabieh came away feeling like her teacher didn’t care whether she learned linear algebra. I’m sure that’s not the case. But I think we often don’t explicitly demonstrate that care in our classrooms. It makes a difference! We are asking the students to care about our stuff and if we want them to respond, we have to show them that we care about their stuff. What do I mean by that, explicitly? I mean that if we think the median score on an exam is going to be in the 60s, we should tell students in advance that we expect that and talk about our reasons for writing the exam that way! I mean that we should ask for student input on how the course is going before the semester is over — three weeks in, send out a survey asking for suggestions, and then talk to the class about the feedback you got, showing them you want their input while you can still make use of it. It means that if you teach a crappy lecture one day — it happens! — be open about that the next time and talk about how you intend to present a better one next time. And I feel like these are mostly “things I already do,” which could just be self-flattery on my part, so let me add this: it might be that showing students we care could mean making nice prepared slides like the professors in all their non-math classes do, instead of just showing up and writing on the blackboard. (Doing this would be a huge change for me and it exhausts me to think about it — but would it be the right thing to do?)

We don’t really talk about this stuff when we talk about teaching. We mostly talk about content and logistics; in what order should we present the material, how much should we cover, how many quizzes should we give, what should our grading policy be, should we hand out solution sets for practice problems? That’s how we think about what good teaching is, and that’s how our students think about what good teaching is, and that’s why that’s the language Rabieh reached for in her article when she wanted to explain why she had such a bad time. But I don’t think it’s actually the problem.

I’ll bet her teacher did care. Most of us do. But it often doesn’t show; let’s say it out loud! And strive for a classroom where we’re working as partners towards a goal, not just trying to get to the end without feeling like we’ve failed.

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Rereads

This year’s reading theme is going to be rereads. In previous years, I’ve chosen themes expressly to get me to expand my reading and encounter new kinds of books. But my planned theme last year (long books) was such a failure that I decided I owe myself an easy one; I’m going to try to mostly read books I’ve already read, and that I know mean something to me. Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold, as they taught me in Girl Scouts.

This started with Stephen King’s The Running Man, which I was induced to re-read by Tom Scocca’s piece about the movie in his new publication, Indignity. I haven’t seen the movie, but based on what Tom wrote, the book is more political, or maybe just differently political. King wrote it in 1971 and it’s very much an early-’70s dystopia, a lot like Ursula LeGuin’s 1975 “The New Atlantis” (that link is to the full story, go read it, it’s amazing!) It’s not really a dystopia where the good guys beat the bad guys, it’s just kind of a world where everybody’s tired and nobody’s very good. The government is bad, the rich people are bad, the poor people are bad, the unions are bad, the only choices are to be bad or very beaten-down and tired. In LeGuin’s universe there is also the option to play violin and do math even though it won’t really change anything, while in King’s universe there is also the option to kill people and blow shit up even though it won’t really change anything.

The Running Man is one of “The Bachmann Books,” novels King published under the pen name Richard Bachmann to avoid saturating the ’80s paperback market with King product. I have them all in a bound volume, so I read another one, Rage; you can’t buy this anymore because it’s basically “What if school shooters…. had a point and were actually doing everyone a favor?” and you can’t really go around saying that now. What I never knew about this book is that King wrote it when he was actually in high school. I had always taken it to be King inhabiting the mind of a teen who wants to shoot up the school, the same way he inhabits Cujo, but no, I guess it was just … him. And it’s kind of remarkable how much the grown man’s prose style is already present in the high-school junior’s novel.

Though Rage also has a lot of borrowed vibe from The Catcher in the Rye, which I also reread, because CJ was reading it for school, just as I did in 10th grade. Loved it then, love it now. CJ’s take (and that of a lot of people now) is “I didn’t like Holden,” which, fair enough. But for me, so what? I like books, not people in books. Catcher in the Rye (I really didn’t know the “The” was in the title; it’s better without, isn’t it?) is thought of as a kid’s book now but, unlike S King, Salinger was not a kid when he wrote this, and reading it as an adult you can really see that. In fact, reading it as a parent gave it new meanings for me, since a parent is obviously what Holden is trying to learn how to be, all he really wants to be — to his little sister, to a random kid who needs her skates tied, whoever. The instinct to care, unmoored and flying around loose.

I thought Barrel Fever was the funniest thing I’d ever read when it came out in the early 90s but now I don’t get it.

Then again, I thought Janet Malcolm was the deepest thing I’d ever read when I started reading her around the same time, and I still basically think so? In the Freud Archives, the book I started with, isn’t as perfect as I’d remembered — there are sentences that feel dashed-off, like “the friendship of Jeffrey Masson and Eissler took off like a rocket,” followed closely by “the sixty-six-year-old analyst and the thirty-three-year-old candidate immediately hit it off.” But for most of this she’s already found her high style. As always, there is a perfect opening:

In the mid-seventies, a young man named Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson began to appear at psychoanalytic congresses and to draw a certain perplexed attention to himself.

Perplexed! So wonderfully exact, and so perfectly disorienting as it suddenly wrenches the point of view into contact with an emotion that comes from who knows where, much like the emotions one unexpectedly (indeed in a sense inappropriately) encounters on the analyst’s couch. Oh yeah, I learned reading this that Janet Malcolm is also where I learned to insert little parenthetical clauses like that. This book is full of them.

The long uninterrupted passages of monologue from Masson in here — amazing. They must be from tapes. But surely not exact transcripts — they’re too good! No one pins himself to the board that precisely when speaking impromptu.

I also reread my cousin Marilyn Sachs‘s book Matt’s Mitt, which she gave me as a present when I was five years old. It made me cry again.

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