Category Archives: ab

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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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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Brewers 6, Marlins 5 / Bucks 104, Celtics 102 / Orioles 6, Tigers 0

I’ve lived in Madison for 13 years and this is the first time I’ve noticed anybody caring about the Milwaukee Bucks.  It’s definitely the first time I’ve cared about the Milwaukee Bucks.  But now the Bucks have a legitimate superstar in Giannis Antetokoumnpo  and a likeable cast of supporting characters like 19-year-old former refugee and skinny blockmaster Thon Maker.  The kids had a rare unscheduled day on Sunday and the Bucks were in the playoffs against the Celtics and there were nosebleed tickets on Stubhub for $40 apiece so why not?

You may know that I kind of hate driving so if I’m gonna drive all the way to Milwaukee it’s got to be for more than a Bucks game.  When I thought about what the kids would really want to do it was pretty clear — see the Brewers, stay over, then see the Bucks.  So that’s what we did!

Notes on the Brewers:

  • I got lost in the impossible off-ramp spaghetti surrounding Miller Park and we ended up not getting into the ballpark until the second inning.  The Brewers were already down 4-0.  4-0!  To the sad Miami Marlins, the team Derek Jeter is using as a tax dodge, the team so bad Marlins Man cancelled his season tickets!
  • But as soon as we sat down, Travis Shaw muscled a huge home run to left center.  Didn’t even look like he got all of it, he kind of sliced it.  But Travis Shaw is a big strong man.
  • Brewers just keep creeping back.  Crowd stays in the game, at no point do you really feel the Brewers are out of it.  Three straight Brewers hit what look like go-ahead home runs but each dies at the wall.  (Ryan Braun at least gets a sacrifice fly out of it.)   In the 8th, Derek Dietrich loses an Eric Sogard fly ball in the, I dunno, the lights?  The roof?  He plays for the Marlins and he just doesn’t care?  Anyway the ball plunked down right next to him, Shaw hustles in from second to tie it, Eric Thames, who starts the play on first, tries to get in behind with the go-ahead run but is tagged out at or rather substantially before the plate because Eric Thames made a bad decision.
  • Josh Hader looks like he should be playing bass in Styx.
  • Then comes the bottom of the 9th and the play you might have read about.  Still tied 5-5.  Jesus Aguilar, who’s already warmed up twice in the on-deck circle, finally gets his chance to pinch-hit against Junichi Tazawa.  Gets behind 0-2.  And then just starts fouling, fouling, fouling.  Takes a few pitches here and there.  Full count.  Foul, foul, foul.  And on the 13th pitch, Aguilar launches it to center field.  I thought it was gonna be one more death on the warning track.  But nope; ball gets out, game over, fireworks.  I felt like my kids got to see true baseball.

On to Milwaukee.  Bucks play the Celtics at noon, in what, if they lose, could be the last ever game played at Bradley Center.  (This is a bit of a sore point for UW folks, who absorbed as a budget cut the $250m state contribution to the arena’s cost.)  We have breakfast at the hotel and chat with a nice older couple in Packers/Celtics gear — what?  — who turn out to be Boston forward Al Horford’s aunt and uncle from Green Bay.

This is only the third NBA game I’ve been to, CJ’s second, AB’s first.  We wander around inside the arena for a bit.  Two separate groups of Bucks cheerleaders come up to AB and applaud her curly hair.  I think people are especially struck by it when they see us together, because I don’t have curly hair, except here’s a little-known fact:  I do have curly hair!  I just keep it short so it doesn’t curl.  In 1995 or so it looked like this:

Anyway.  The atmosphere, as I have promised AB, is more intense than baseball.  Bucks build up a 19-point lead and seem poised to coast but the Celtics come back, and back, and back, and finally go ahead with 52 seconds left.  Jaylen Brown plainly capable of taking over a game.  Aron Baynes has a very dumb-looking haircut.  Milwaukee’s Thon Maker is ridiculously skinny and has very long arms.  He’s just 21, a former refugee from South Sudan.  We saw his first game as a Buck, an exhibition against the Mavericks at Kohl Center.  Those long skinny arms can block a shot.

Game tied at 102, 5 seconds left, Malcom Brogdon (called “The President” — why?) misses a layup, and there, rising like a Greek column above the scene, is the Greek arm of Giannis Antetokounmpo — the tip-in is good, Celtics miss the desperation last shot, Bucks win 104-102, crowd goes berserk.

 

I was going to blog about this last week but got busy so let’s throw in more sports.  Bucks eventually lose this series in 7, home team winning every game a la Twins-Braves 1991.  The next Friday, I’m giving a talk at Maryland, and the Orioles are playing that night.  It’s been five years since I’ve seen OPACY.  I brought CJ along this time, too.  The Orioles are not in a good way; they’ve won 6 and lost 19, though 3 of those 6 were against New York at least.  Attendance at the game, on a beautiful Friday night, was just over 14,000.  The last baseball game I went to that felt this empty and mellow was the AAA Tucson Toros, several months before they moved to El Paso and became the Chihuahuas.  Chris Tillman, tonight’s starter, was the Orioles’ ace five years ago.  Now he’s coming off a 1-7 season and has an ERA over 9.

So who would have thought he’d toss seven shutout innings and take a no-hitter into the fifth?  Never looked overpowering but kept missing bats.  His first win in almost a year.  Manny Machado, surely now in his last year as an Oriole, strokes a home run to dead center to get things started.  It’s a beautiful thing.  It doesn’t even look like he’s working hard.  It’s like he’s just saying “Out there. Out there is where this ball should be.”  Pedro Alvarez homers twice, in exactly the opposite manner, smashing the ball with eye-popping force.  Jace Peterson, who the Orioles picked up off the Yankees’ scrap heap, steals third on the shift when the Tigers third baseman forgets to pay attention to him.  He did the same thing against the Rays the night before.  I am already starting to love him the way I love Carlos Gomez.  Maybe now the Orioles are going to go back to being a bad team that makes good use of players nobody else wants, like Melvin Mora and Rodrigo López.

Besides me and CJ, this guy was at the game:

Never get tired of that flag.

 

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Bike/ski weekend

Last week, for the first time in my life, I bought a new bike.  For the last twelve years I’ve been riding a Trek hybrid I bought used when I moved here.  Before that, from about 1992 through 2005, I was on my mom’s 1967 Schwinn Breeze, which looked exactly like this one.

Anyway:  I got a new bike.  I got CJ one too.  Then AB was upset but she doesn’t get a new bike because she is growing very very fast and probably won’t be able to sit on the next bike she gets for more than a couple of years.  So we went to Dreambikes and got her a new used bike, knobby tires, shocks on the front fork, very cool.  The three of us took a spin around Wingra yesterday, about 7 miles, which is AB’s record for a non-stop ride.

Today was the last day of the season at Cascade Mountain, and my kids for the first time in many months and no activities scheduled, and the high for today was 55 degrees, and who doesn’t like to ski in shirtsleeves?  So off we went.  We were worried it would be packed.  But it was empty.  I guess everyone else in Wisconsin was using the first warm day of pre-spring to do outdoor activities not involving ice and snow.  But those who were there were festive.  There were a lot of guys in flannel shirts open with bare chest underneath; is that a look?  Several people in tutus.  A guy who played the guitar while skiing down the mountain.  A skiing Pikachu.

By mid-afternoon it was like skiing on a snowcone.  Huge puddles in the lift line.  But we had a great time.  If I were particular about the quality of my skiiing I wouldn’t be skiing in Wisconsin, would I?

 

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Driftless Father’s Day

This Father’s Day I found that, by some kind of unanticipated-gap-in-the-Red-Sea-level miracle, neither of my children had any events scheduled, so I gave myself a present and did something I’d been meaning to do for a year; take them to Dubuque.

It’s not far from Madison.  You drive southwest through the Driftless Zone, where the glaciers somehow looped around and missed a spot while they were grinding the rest of the Midwest flat.

At the exit to Platteville there was a sign for a “Mining Museum.”  We had about six seconds to decide whether we all wanted to go to a mining museum but that was plenty of time because obviously we all totally wanted to go to a mining museum.  And it was great!  Almost the platonic ideal of a small-town museum.  Our guide took us down into the old lead mine from the 1850s, now with electric lights and a lot of mannequins caught in the act of blasting holes in the rock.  (One of the mannequins was black; our guide told us that there were African-American miners in southwestern Wisconsin, but not that some of them were enslaved.)

This museum did a great job of conveying the working conditions of those miners; ankle-deep in water, darkness broken only by the candle wired to the front of their hat, the hammers on the rock so loud you couldn’t talk, and had to communicate by hand signals.  Riding up and down to the surface with one leg in the bucket and one leg out so more men could fit in one load, just hoping the bucket didn’t swing wrong and crush your leg against the rock wall.  There’s nothing like an industrial museum to remind you that everything you buy in a store has hours of difficult, dangerous labor built into it.  But it was also labor people traveled miles to get the chance to do!

Only twenty miles further to the Mississippi, my daughter’s first time seeing the river, and across it Dubuque.  Which has a pretty great Op-Art flag:

 

 

Our main goal was the National Mississippi River Museum; slick where the Platteville museum was homespun, up-to-date where the Plateville Museum was old-fashioned.  The kids really liked both.  I wanted fewer interactive screens, more actual weird river creatures.

The museum is on the Riverwalk; Dubuque, like just about every city on a body of water, is reinventing its shoreline as a tourist hub.  Every harbor a Harborplace.  OK, I snark, but it was a lovely walk; lots of handsome bridges in view, all different, an old-timey band playing in the gazebo, Illinois and Wisconsin and Iowa invisibly meeting across the water….

Only disappointment of the afternoon; the famous funicular railway was closed.  Maybe they could have posted that on their website or something.  But in a way it’s good they didn’t; if I’d known it was closed, I probably would have decided to put off the trip, and who knows if we’d ever have gone?

On the way back we stopped in Dickeyville to get gas but missed the Dickeyville Grotto; would have stopped there for sure if I’d known about it.  Dinner in Dodgeville at Culver’s, the Midwest’s superior version of In-N-Out, where I got my free Father’s Day turtle.   I like cheese curds and brats as much as the next guy, but I gotta say, I think the turtle is my favorite of the many foods I’d never heard of before I moved to Wisconsin.

 

 

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AB for President

AB was talking about being President this morning.

Me:  I think you could be a really good candidate; you’re funny, and you get along with almost everybody.

AB:  And I have great hair!

She gets it.

Robin laid a gun

OK here’s a weird piece of kid culture AB brought home:

Jingle bells, Batman smells

Robin laid a gun

Shot a tree and made it pee in 1981

This dates back at least to 2007 apparently.

It scans and rhymes very nicely but makes so sense at all.  What can it mean?

It seems like we are witnessing a kind of cultural hybrid; the “Jingle bells / Batman smells” of my childhood has here combined with a “Jingle bells / shotgun shells” tradition I was unaware of until now, which is actually older than the Batman version.  A lot of the “shotgun shells” versions found online involve Santa meeting his death in a hail of bullets, but “shot a tree and made it pee” is not uncommon.  I wonder how many utterly nonsensical kids rhymes we know are actually hybrids of different songs, each of which at some point sort of made sense?

 

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Math!

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I really like talking with AB about arithmetic and her strategies for doing problems.  All this Common Core stuff about breaking up into hundreds and tens and ones that people like to make fun of?  That’s how she does things.  She can describe her process a lot more articulately than most grownups can, because it’s less automatic for her.  I learn a lot about how to teach math by watching her learn math.

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