Category Archives: ab

Equinox

Spring arrived right on schedule, just a little snow left in the shady places, sunny out and windy in the high 60’s. AB and I did our first real bike ride of the year, going out about 15 miles to the very agreeable Riley Tavern where you eat outside on picnic tables. A lot of people are watching Wisconsin’s basketball season slowly sputter out as the Badgers fail to mount a comeback against the much higher-seeded team from Baylor. Riley Tavern serves amazing ice cream sandwiches with two chocolate chip cookies instead of the rectangular brown things; they’re not made there, they’re from Mullen’s Dairy Bar in Watertown. The thing about an ice cream sandwich is, they use the rectangular brown things which are soft and not very interesting because you can bite right through them without messing up the ice cream. Any cookie with a little more of a resistance to the tooth tends to smoosh the ice cream out the side when you bite down. That’s unacceptable. Mullen’s has somehow found a way to use a cookie with a real bite but give the ice cream itself enough structural integrity to hold itself in place while you eat it. Extraordinary!

I’d figured it had been warm enough long enough for the bike trail to be dry, and that was sort of true, but in many places it was badly rutted from the people who’d ridden on it when it was muddy, and even though it wasn’t really muddy anymore, it was soft for a couple of miles, so that your weight pushed your back wheel down into the dirt, which clutched your tire so that you were perpetually in a kind of low-grade partially submerged wheelie. We fought our way through at about 5mph for the whole stretch. So a more strenuous 30 miles than the usual. But the last 5 miles home, on pavement, felt like absolute gliding.

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A Saturday

This is just to record what a Saturday during what we hope are the late stages of the pandemic looks like here.

Slept well but had complicated dreams; the only part I remember is that I ran into Mike Sonnenschein in Pittsburgh while eating a gigantic meatball I’d bought at a hipster bookstore, and he invited me over, but when I got there, it wasn’t Mike’s house anymore, it was Craig Westerland’s. Akshay Venkatesh was there too. We were going to work on something but nobody really knew how to start and Craig and Akshay were absently flipping through their phones. The thing was, Craig had a tiger for a pet and the tiger got out of its cage and seemed really threatening. It was a bad scene.

A cold wave from the arctic settled in here overnight and it was 7 Fahrenheit this morning. AB and I made French toast with the challah that was left over from last night and watched Kids Baking Challenge on Netflix. Then I had to go out into it and scrape the car, remembering, as I do every time I scrape the car, that I broke the head off the scraper so I have to use the jagged plastic edge of what used to be the head, which works well at breaking up the big chunks of ice but is pretty bad at getting the window fully clean. I’ve lived here long enough to not find 7 Fahrenheit that bad, for the fifteen minutes it takes to scrape off the car. I wore the voluminous sweater that’s so ugly I wear it only on the coldest days. I’m not even sure it’s that warm, but psychologically the body feels it wouldn’t be clad in such an ugly sweater unless the sweater was warm, and that creates the right sensation.

Quiet afternoon. CJ had a mock trial competition against teams from Oregon and Brookfield. AB and I worked on some fractions homework. I posted an early-term course questionnaire for the real analysis course I’m teaching for the first time in my life, and I went through another 50 pages of page proofs of Shape. How there can still be so many typos and small verbal infelicities, after I and others have gone over it so many times, I don’t really know. And there will still be some I miss, and which will appear on paper in thousands of printed books. I wrote a math email to Aaron Landesman, about something related to my work with Westerland and Venkatesh (no tigers.) In honor of Dr. Mrs. Q’s half-birthday we got takeout from Graze for dinner. They had the patty melt special, which I’ve only seen there once before, and which is superb, certainly the best patty melt in the city. I got it with Impossible since we don’t eat milk and meat together in the house.

After dinner, we did what we’ve been doing a lot of weekends, play online games at Jackbox with my sister’s family and my parents. Then we all retreated into our zones. AB is doing some homework. CJ is talking to friends on the phone. I washed dishes while I watched a movie, Fort Tilden, about people being out in the city, in the summer, coming in and out of contact with other people. It was funny.

I’m going to put AB to bed and then think, just a little bit, about a cohomology group whose contribution I don’t understand.

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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 17: bike

Beautiful real spring day today and AB and I got on the bike late in the afternoon and did an 11-mile ride, just to take in some air and some healing ultraviolet light. AB asked me “What if it snows again this year?” and it was my regrettable duty to concede that I couldn’t rule that out.

By contrast with the grocery store, almost nobody on the bike path was wearing a mask; maybe 10%? We didn’t either. It was pretty easy to stay far away from people, and everything I’ve been reading suggests that outdoor transmission is rare. Tell me if you think that’s antisocial.

You could see that people were working to comply, getting into single file and hugging the edge of the path when someone came the other way. All except the guy with a big red parrot perched on the back of his bike, who kept stopping and letting kids play with his parrot. When I mentioned this to a neighbor she said “You saw the parrot guy? I’ve heard about him but I’ve never seen him in real life!” Somebody on Reddit saw him a few months back, on the same path we were on. Last we saw him he was still heading southwest, deeper and deeper into Fitchburg.

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Pandemic blog 16: links

We have mostly settled into a routine here. In the morning the kids have school. The 8th grade has a couple of on-the-screen meetings most days, but the 3rd grade has almost no real-time instruction, just assignments described in video clips by the teachers. That feels right to me; I’ve heard about kids in other cities asked to be in front of the laptop camera for six hours a day as if it made sense to hew to the usual schedule, and that sounds nuts to me. In the afternoon AB has “camp” for two hours where she does art projects with a counselor and a group of kids, mostly from here and there in the US, one from Costa Rica. CJ is still baking a lot — oatmeal raisin cookies yesterday.

It works, basically. I had a lot of ambitions for “things I’ve always wanted to do with the kids but we’re too overscheduled to get to them,” and most of those have been unrealized. I wanted us to play music together and record some tracks. I wanted CJ to do a coding project. I thought, being in the house all day, we could do some reorg and cleaning of the house. Those things didn’t happen (for the good reason that the kids didn’t actually want to do them.) On the other hand, both kids are doing AOPS courses, AB and I have learned to throw a Frisbee forehand, CJ and I watched The Mandalorian (much better overall than any of the last three movies). I always felt I should get into gaming with the kids and AB and I are now working our way through Pikuniku.

Of course, the fact that I can even think about opportunity as well as burden is because I am in the very lucky position of having a job that doesn’t go away during a pandemic, and I don’t have people in the house at high risk of serious illness, so I can safely accept the modest risk of infection that comes with shopping, taking walks, etc.

Nobody I know has died of this yet. Two people I know have lost parents, another an aunt, another a grandparent. I guess it depends what you mean by “know.” John Conway died of COVID last week. Is that somebody I know? He’s somebody I’d chat with when I was around the Princeton math department. His famous theorems are familiar, but in the round of admiration attending his death I learned one I didn’t know; given any six points in R^3, you can partition them into two groups of three in such a way that the resulting two triangles are linked. That’s cool, but the proof is even cooler — it turns out that the sum of the linking numbers over all 10 such partitions is always odd! My favorite kind of existence proof is “there are an odd number of these things so there aren’t zero of them.”

Our neighborhood bakery and our favorite breakfast place got PPP small business loans so they can continue to pay their employees for the next couple of months. That loan program ran out of money in 28 seconds or something but Congress is planning to fill the bucket with money again, they say. Campus is still closed but the undergraduates are rebuilding it in Minecraft. The governor has released a plan to start reopening schools and more businesses, once cases in Wisconsin start showing a consistent decline. That looked like it might happen soon, but now there’s a new outbreak in Green Bay, tied to spread in the meatpacking plants there. (Yes, non-Wisconsinites, that’s why the football team is called that.) The workers who keep the food supply going, just like the doctors and nurses treating patients, are unavoidably going to be exposed to a lot of risk, because, unlike me, they do work that can’t be done on a screen and can’t not be done.

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Pandemic blog 13: Violent Frisbee

Already discussed: the fracas over the April 7 spring election, which should have been postponed, or held by mail if it was held at all. To my great surprise, Jill Karofsky, the liberal running to unseat Scott Walker appointee Daniel Kelly from the Supreme Court, did so, with a bang, winning by about 11 points. Incumbents usually don’t lose Supreme Court races here and I thought Democrats’ political attention was taken up by the Presidential primary, by now all but over. Since Trump’s election, conservative candidates have won only one out of seven statewide elections here, and that one (Brian Hagedorn for Supreme Court) was by half a percent.

Why did Karofsky win by so much? One natural theory is that the election being the same day as the Democratic primary helped bring Democrats to the polls. Boosting this: Bernie Sanders made the apparently strange decision to campaign in Wisconsin, stay in the race until election day, and then immediately drop out before the results were reported. It all makes sense if you understand his motive to be getting his voters to the polls to vote for Karofsky as well as him.

But did it work? This chart from Charles Franklin, who knows Wisconsin politics like nobody else, says otherwise:

If it was the Democratic primary driving Democratic voters to the polls, there’d be a bigger turnout boost in more Democratic counties. There wasn’t. So either the primary didn’t really boost turnout at all, or Republicans were equally motivated to go to the polls and vote for Trump against — well, the state GOP didn’t allow Trump’s Republican primary challengers on the ballot, so against nobody.

Was turnout actually higher because of the pandemic? Maybe people are more likely to vote when they’ve actually got a ballot to mail than they are to find time on Election Day.

Our first Seder without family since 2006, when I broke my arm so badly a week before Pesach that I couldn’t travel: Dr. Mrs. Q, baby CJ and I did it alone. This year we had grandparents in by Zoom both nights. But I had to cook Seder dinner, which I’ve never done. We all have things we don’t do in the kitchen for no reason except it’s not our habit. For me it’s giant pieces of meat. Just not what I cook. Don’t know how to roast a chicken or a turkey, don’t ever make leg of lamb (butterfly? spatchcock?) and I have never, before this week, made a brisket. But it’s easy, it turns out!

I was extremely successful, to my surprise, in hiding the afikoman. Both nights I thought it was in too easy a place and both nights my kids required multiple hints and were very satisfied with the search. Either I’m more cunning than I thought or my kids are not born hunters.

We did a gefilte taste test this year; traditional vs. tilapia. Tilapia is better!

With two days left to go we have eaten just about all the eggs.

We have been playing 4-person Ultimate in the backyard, AB and I vs CJ and Dr. Mrs. Q. They always win. The team of AB and me is called “Violent Frisbee” and AB has made us a flag:

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Pandemic blog 8: enter the hermit

It’s family blogging time! Since school is out we need some kind of writing activity so we’re all blogging, not just me. I did not require any particular subject. CJ is blogging about the movies he’s watching in his friend groups’ “movie club ” — he has the Marvel bug now and is plowing through the whole collection on Disney+. AB’s blog is called “The Nasty Times: Foods that Were Never Meant To Be Eaten” and each entry is about a food she considers nasty. The first entry was about mushrooms and she is currently composing “Why Onions Do Not Belong in Sloppy Joes.” I know, I know, who doesn’t like mushrooms and onions? Well, me at AB’s age — I made my mom take them out of everything, much to her annoyance. Now I’m getting my comeuppance.

I have two big longboxes of comics in the basement, almost all from 1982-1986, and AB and I spent part of the morning starting to sort and organize them. Perfect example of a task that feels like productivity and is not important in any way and yet — satisfying. Also nice to see old friends again, covers I haven’t seen in years but are familiar to me in every detail. This one seemed fairly on point:

I am still thinking about the masks. Why so unpopular in the US? Maybe it works like this. You are told (correctly) that wearing a mask doesn’t provide strong protection. Let’s say (making up a number) it only reduces your chance of transmitting or contracting the virus by a half. To many people that is going to feel like nothing: “I’m not really protected, what’s the point?” But in the aggregate, an easy, cheap measure that reduces number of transmissions by 50% would be extremely socially valuable.

talk about class of 1895

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Pandemic blog 3: usefulness, rules

One wants to feel useful. Of course, to an extent we are being useful by staying at home and not coming close to anyone outside the family. It’s incremental but somehow all this shared solitude generates a community spirit. We’re all in this, alone, together!

Of course when math is what you do you wish math were more useful, not in the true-but-abstract way we talk about math being useful, but useful today, in the face of what faces us. My colleagues Maria Chikina and Wes Pegden wrote up a model suggesting that we might do better to isolate younger people less than we are but older people much, much more. (Though whenever I leave the house I see older people are visibly out and about. Maybe it’s not up to “us.” Also, I am not really very much younger than older people anymore.) I was talking with Lior Silberman and Rachel Ward about pooling samples to mitigate what seems to be a shortage of COVID tests. Except nobody seems to really agree on whether there’s a shortage of tests or a shortage of administrative wherewithal to deploy the tests. Or maybe it’s swabs. There may not be enough swabs. And some people think we’re past the point in the United States where testing is useful, and maybe everybody should just treat themselves as if they’re infected. Anyway, they say you can test negative when you’re already infected but the viral load hasn’t built up enough for your sputum to set off the RNA detector.

Some rules everyone agrees on. If you must go outside, is to keep six feet of distance between you and anyone else. (Someone on Twitter asked whether they could still have sex, and got the answer: “If you can do it from six feet away, great!”) Wash hands for twenty full seconds, interlace the fingers to get the in-betweens, dig nails of one hand under the nails of the other to get any virus lurking under there. (Other sources recommend twisting the nails against the opposite palm in a circular motion for the same effect.) Some people are getting takeout, other people consider that risky. They say the virus can live 24 hours on cardboard, a few days on plastic and metal. Our neighborhood bookstore is closed for browsing but Joanne the proprietor is taking special orders. Two of AB’s came in so we stopped by to pick them up. I seemed more concerned about staying six feet from her than she was about staying six feet from me. I felt like a hero for having a no-touch credit card. She said the hard part was not really understanding when it was going to end. On the way home a guy with a stroller crossed the street so as not to pass us on the sidewalk.

The May conference in Germany on arithmetic statistics I was organizing for the Simons Foundation was postponed to an unnamed later date. Our moduli spaces conference here in Madison, which my student Soumya Sankar put a ton of work into, planned for next week, was cancelled too, of course. Just eight days ago we thought we were deciding whether or not to cancel it.

It’s so small in the big picture but I find myself moved by the small things I’m used to that are cancelled. United has shut down the direct flights from Madison to San Francisco and Los Angeles. I have to doubt they’ll come back soon, in the austere travel environment to come. The Isthmus, our alternative paper that’s been in press for 44 years, is shutting down. Maybe it would have gone out of business anyway. Most of those papers have.

Games played with kids: Mastermind 1. Monopoly 1. Big Boggle 4. Set 4. I am planning for Scrabble tomorrow.

I wrote to a friend on Monday, “I think we are going to be, like, playing 30 mins of Scrabble and then sniping at each other and I’ll relent and let AB watch Worst Cooks on the iPad. And I’ll look at Twitter and fume at all the academic parents who are like “it was so good for the kids and I to finally get the chance to act out Socrates’s dialogues, thanks coronavirus!!” So with that in mind I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I actually did a lot of math with AB today. Things I had been meaning to sit down and work through with her but didn’t find time when I didn’t have hours of time I needed to somehow fill. There are moments, lots of moments, where she rears back from instruction but today, for whatever reason, she was into it, and we just kept going. Area of isosceles triangles via Pythagorean theorem, then Heron’s formula — she liked very much the idea that they don’t teach it in regular geometry class. (They don’t, do they?) She is pleased with the word “semiperimeter.” In the context of areas, some approximation of square roots by decimals. Positive and negative exponents. And finally the Euclidean algorithm. In school they’re reducing fractions to simplest form and this was satisfyingly magical, to show how you can learn what to divide by without dividing.

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Commutativity, with fractions

Talking to AB about multiplying rational numbers. She understands the commutativity of multiplication of integers perfectly well. But I had forgotten that commutativity in the rational setting is actually conceptually harder! That four sixes is six fours you can conceptualize by thinking of a rectangular array, or something equivalent to that. But the fact that seven halves is the same thing as seven divided by two doesn’t seem as “natural” to her. (Is that even an instance of commutativity? I think of the first as 7 x 1/2 and the second as 1/2 x 7.)

Entitlement, age 9

Every night I put AB to bed and tell her I love her. Lately she has taken to responding, “I should hope so!”

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