Author Archives: JSE

Pandemic blog 41: dream

I’m in New York City. An app on my phone shows me when anyone in my contact list comes nearby, and I see that my friend Mark Poirier is just a block away — I haven’t seen him in years, what a treat! So I go meet up with him. We’re hungry so we go to an underground food court to get doner kebab. But suddenly I realize, I’m not wearing a mask, nobody‘s wearing a mask, what am I doing inside in a crowded place unmasked? Fortunately I have one with me, so I put it on; but a woman in a block-print T-shirt first glares at me, then gets into it with me, insisting that I shouldn’t wear one. I don’t know how to respond; I feel chastened, even though I know I’m in the right.

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Pandemic blog 40: overdispersion?

So the “overdispersion hypothesis.” This has been a thing for a while. Suppose the spread of COVID is highly heterogeneous, with only a few infected people producing much of the transmission; then a) it means you can reduce the exponential rate a lot, or flip to to exponential decay, by targeting superspread events, even if you do only modest suppression on ambient socializing; b) there might be a lower herd immunity threshold, as the people gathering en masse attain high antibody prevalence faster.

How is that relatively optimistic hypothesis looking? I’m finding it hard to figure that out. This piece from the Washington Post suggests that a lot of scientists think small everyday gatherings are sufficient to drive out-of-control spread, even without large infection events.

This seems like a really important question! If paying bars and restaurants to stay closed, wearing masks when we go in buildings, and pausing big indoor weddings and parties is enough to control the pandemic until the vaccine gets here, that sure seems like it’d be the way to go. But if that’s going to be far from enough, we need to know that too.

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Pandemic blog 39: pandemic election

Oh yeah, we had an election. Joe Biden won. I could have written about it but actually a lot of other people were also writing about it. I did do an interview for the Atlantic the day before Election Day, on how to think about “probabilities” as they apply to non-repeated events like elections.

COVID didn’t dampen turnout; in fact, it was the highest-turnout election since 1908. (Taftmentum!) A lot of people are interpreting this as a signal of the high level of interest in the election, and the high level of enthusiasm of Trump fans for Trump, and of Biden fans for flushing Trump. The enthusiasm is real! But also: millions of people voted by mail, many, like me, for the first time. And voting by mail is really easy and convenient! I wonder whether some people will keep doing it even when there’s no pandemic. (I don’t think I will; I usually vote early in-person at the library that’s a few blocks from my house, but if that option weren’t so convenient, I really might.)

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Pandemic blog 38: The greatest Ray/Dodger

The greatest Rayger?

Anyway, this is one I do every year for the World Series. This one was pretty simple; the Rays haven’t been around very long, so there aren’t very many players who logged serious time on both teams. There are two contenders with a case. James Loney was either a Dodger or a Ray for most of his career, and he had a solid 11-year career. Never an all-star, 6th in Rookie of the Year voting for LA in 2007. J.P. Howell also played most of his career for LAD and TBR, but never on the same team as Loney. He had some very good years in the bullpen for some very good Dodger teams but the only time he saw the World Series was with the 2008 Rays, and he was bad, losing two of the games.

Wilson Alvarez also played for both the Dodgers and the Rays! But he just feels like a White Sock to me.

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Pandemic blog 37: the short season

We are heading for a World Series and while the rest of the world has been turned awry, one thing is as usual: the Baltimore Orioles are not in it.

But!

I have been high on the Orioles in the past. I thought the team had much more talent than their awful record in 2018 suggested, and indeed they were not quite as bad in 2019. But last year, I think their still-terrible 54-108 record was roughly in line with who was on that team. Now you take that team, which already traded Andrew Cashner at the deadline, and you also trade Dylan Bundy, Miguel Castro, Richard Bleier, and Mychal Givens, so you’re now down two starters and three of the guys who threw the most bullpen innings, and oh yeah, the best hitter on the 2019 Orioles, Trey Mancini, is getting cancer treatment and is gone for the year, and Jonathan Villar, probably the best all-around position player, is traded away too, and oh yeah, Anthony Santander gets injured halfway through the season, what are you looking at?

People were saying this team could be worse than the awful 2018 team. They were saying this team could lose 50 out of 60.

They didn’t! Instead, they took another step up towards respectability, going 25-35, with a Pythagorean record of 28-32. They didn’t even finish last in the AL East this year (sorry, Red Sox.)

How did it happen?

Well, first of all, everybody hit. Pedro Severino hit. Renato Nuñez hit. Rio Ruiz hit. Anthony Santander hit until he got hurt. Ryan Mountcastle, whose star as a prospect seemed to have dimmed, finally came to the majors and did nothing but hit. A joy to watch. Players who in previous years seemed to have clearly established that not even a lick could they hit, like Cedric Mullins and Chance Sisco, hit. They hit in weird ways. DJ Stewart hit .193 but walked and homered a ton and ended up with a solid .809 OPS, the best ever by a player hitting below the Mendoza line in 100 or more PAs. (He edged out old 2001 Mark McGwire at .808.) On the other side, Jose Iglesias had one of the strangest batting seasons ever, hitting .373 (36 PAs short of qualifying for the batting title, which no Oriole has won since Frank Robinson’s tricoronation in 1966) but walking and homering just 3 times each. It’s hard to walk and homer that rarely and still be a good hitter! But this guy doubles off the wall like mid-2000s Brian Roberts. His .956 OPS was by far the best ever for hitters with 100 PA, at most 3 homers and at most 3 walks. Jerald Clark of the Twins in 1995, a player I have no memory of at all, comes closest, and it’s not that close.

What remained of the bullpen was pretty good, too, making up for an expectedly spotty starting rotation.

What’s the future? The hitters, let’s be honest, are probably not as good as they looked this short season. On the other hand, by 2021 the first of the prospects should start to show up. Dean Kremer, who came in the Machado trade, is already here and showed signs of real promise. Yusniel Diaz should be up. Mountcastle is here to stay. And maybe, just maybe, it’s Adley Rutschman time.

I don’t think the 2021 Orioles are a .500 team but I think there’s reason to think the absolute wretchedness is past — if ownership wants it to be.

Pandemic blog 36: undecided

Oh yeah, on top of everything else, there’s an election. Ordinarily, this time of year, I’d be spending some of a nice weekend day knocking on doors around Madison and making sure everyone’s registered to vote. This year, no door-knocking, not on the Democratic side, at any rate. So I did some phone calling, though it’s not something I love doing. And among other people I talked to one actual honest-to-God undecided voter.

Talking to strangers about politics makes you realize lots and lots of people don’t fit into the political boxes you understand from Online or TV or the Paper of Record. This voter was an African-American Iraq war vet in Georgia. He didn’t like what Trump had said about veterans. He didn’t like Harris’s record as California AG. He doesn’t like that Biden is in favor of a mask mandate, which he sees as “dictatorship” like what he saw in Iraq. He thinks the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security is too low and the elderly can’t live on what they get. He thinks a one-time $1200 payment is too little stimulus for ordinary people and most of the COVID relief went to big companies instead of into people’s pockets. He wants to know why we couldn’t have had monthly COVID relief checks like other countries. He thinks there should be term limits for Congress and judges. He worries that Biden is old and that Harris will become President and that based on his experience in combat women tend to “falter in the heat.” He thinks both candidates are “playing the race card.” He thinks Congress bickers too much and doesn’t do anything. He thinks we should throw them all out and start fresh.

I did not convert this guy to Joe Biden — how could I? I told him he had thought about the issues a lot more than anybody else I’d talked to, which is true. I tried to give him some sense that the reason I’d spend my afternoon calling strangers on the phone is that there’s a real difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and that difference directly affects things he cares about. He’s still undecided.

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Pandemic blog 35: Updates

What’s going on with some of the topics previously covered?

Slimming: The initial weight loss reported slowed down, but hasn’t stopped, even though I started eating take-out from restaurants in July and have been doing so pretty regularly. Now at about 18 pounds below pre-pandemic weight. Why, I wonder? Is it really just the lunch out at work and the snack at the coffeeshop forgone?

Pandemic elections: 100,000 people in Dane County have already returned their absentee ballots for November. The city is setting up “Democracy in the Park” events where voters can turn in their ballots to city pollworkers; Republicans are trying to have those events declared illegal, because (this is me editorializing) they make it easy and convenient for people to vote whose votes they’d rather not see cast. There is a lot of noise about slowness of the mail, but it’s been fast here, and I mailed my ballot in; received by the clerk in just two days. The underlying worry here is that political actors will try to retroactively have legally cast ballots invalidated after Election Day, leaving voters with no recourse. The fact that mailed-in absentees are expected to be predominantly Democratic (only 44,000 ballots returned so far in Crucial Waukesha County) creates an obvious means of attack. I don’t really think that’ll happen but people are thinking about it under their mental breath.

Writing: The book is almost done! A draft is written, I’m going through and revising and putting in more endnotes now. To me it seems completely different from How Not To Be Wrong, while Dr. Mrs. Q says it seems exactly the same, which seems a kind of sweet spot: I can hope the people who liked the other book will like this one, while feeling for myself that I’m not putting out the same product again and again like a hack.

Impossible Meat: We’re still eating a lot of it! I have absolutely learned to read it as meat and no longer think of it as a substitute. But we’ve converged on using it exclusively in sauces; as a burger, it still doesn’t totally satisfy.

Smart Restart: After the big surge with the opening of classes, UW-Madison shut down in-person instruction for two weeks and put the two first-year dorms where cases were concentrated into isolation. The positivity rate on campus has dropped back down to around 1% and the campus outbreak doesn’t seem to have created sustained exponential growth in Madison’s general population; but it does seem to have brought our daily case load back up to where it was months ago, from which it is, again, only very slowly dropping. When R_0 is a little less than 1, even a brief bump up in prevalence can be very expensive in terms of long-term cumulative case numbers. Now we are starting football again. Is that smart? There won’t be any fans in Camp Randall (which means the economic catastrophe for local businesses of a year without a football season is going to happen unblunted.) Then again, there’s something hypocritical about me saying “Hell no, why take the risk” since I’ve been watching and enjoying baseball. The enjoyment of millions of fans actually does have value. MLB, because lots and lots of money is riding on this, has mostly kept its players and employees from suffering outbreaks. The Big Ten can probably do the same — if it cares to. What I worry about is this. By all accounts, in-person teaching hasn’t been spreading COVID either. But when we had in-person teaching, everyone felt things were more normal, and thinking things were more normal, they relaxed their social distancing, and that generated thousands of cases. There was indirect spread. Will football generate the same?

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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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