Archive for the ‘General Life’ Category.


Toblerone Logo

I love Toblerone, but I never paid attention to its logo.

This Swiss chocolate was created in Bern (Berne) more than a hundred years ago. A legend says that Berne’s founder loved hunting and vowed to name the city after the first animal he met on his hunt. The animal happened to be a bear, and so the town was named Berne. The bear became a big deal for the town; you even can find the bear on the town’s flag and coat of arms.

Theodor Tobler, the creator of Toblerone, put the famous local mountain, Matterhorn, in the logo of Toblerone and hid a bear in the image. He obviously loved his country and town.

Tobler was clearly a wordsmith and invented a fascinating name for his chocolate. As Wikipedia explains, the name Toblerone is a portmanteau combining Tobler’s name with the Italian word torrone, which is a type of nougat used in his chocolate. However, Wikipedia doesn’t explain that the word Toblerone also contains a secret: the word BERNE (bear).

After writing this, I couldn’t resist and bought some dark Toblerone chocolate. Now it brings me pleasure in more ways than one.


My Virtual Stars

I like rewarding my students. Before covid, I used to give them star stickers for good ideas. When I started to teach remotely, I wondered what I should do instead. I could tell them that they had won a star, but it felt too weak. The next idea was to show them a star and tell them that it belonged to them. But that still felt insufficient. Then I had an epiphany. I would say to them they earned a star, show it to them, and stick it to my face. So they, and all the other students, would see it for the rest of the class. The photo shows how I looked at the end of a successful lesson.

Tanya getting a prize at a linguistics Olympiad

Another picture shows what my MathRoots students posted on our Discord channel.

Students about Tanya's stars

Now that I am back teaching in person, my students asked me to continue sticking their stars to my face. Sometimes I forget about the stars and, after my class, wander around MIT star-covered.


Smart Brake Lights

I was driving on Mass Pike, when the cars in front of me stopped abruptly. I hit the brakes and was lucky to escape the situation without a scratch.

Actually, it wasn’t just luck. First of all, I always keep a safe distance from the other cars. Second, if I see the brake lights of the car in front of me, I automatically remove my foot from the gas pedal and hold it over the brake pedal until I know what the situation is.

On a highway, if the car in front of me has its brake lights on, usually that means that the driver is adjusting their speed a little bit. So, most of the time I don’t have to do anything. Seeing that the car in front of me has its brake lights on is not a good predictor of what will happen next. Only after I see that the distance between me and the car in front of me is decreasing rapidly, do I know to hit my brakes. That means that brake lights alone are not enough information. Differentiating between insignificant speed adjustments and serious braking requires time and can cost lives.

I have a suggestion. Why not create smart brake lights. The car’s computer system can recognize the difference in the strength with which the brakes are hit and the lights themselves can reflect that. They can be brighter or a different color or pulsing, depending on the strength of the pressure.

The drivers behind will notice these things before they will notice the decrease in the distance. This idea could save lives.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Number Gossip Has Been Killed

I recently received an invoice from Jumpline, Inc. requesting a payment for hosting I had never heard of Jumpline before and I didn’t have a webpage with that address. So I thought that it was spam.

Because the invoice had my name and address, I decided to call them and check what was going on. It appeared that Jumpline had swallowed Hosting Rails, the company that was hosting my Number Gossip page. Still, I didn’t have a clue what the invoice was about.

I asked the representative whether the web address was related to Number Gossip, and he said no. So I canceled the hosting. My work schedule is the busiest in July, so I forgot about the invoice and didn’t check my website.

Then I received a letter from Christian, a Number Gossip fan, who told me that the website was down. I called Jumpline again.

It appears that the representative didn’t know what he was doing and misled me. The web address was an internal name for my Number Gossip site. They had deleted all the files and were unable to restore my website.

Now I have to decide what to do. I do not want to go back to Jumpline as they are very unprofessional in these ways:

  • hey didn’t notify me that no longer exists.
  • They didn’t give me a new password that would have allowed me to look at my account. I had to do everything by phone.
  • They sent me a confusing invoice that I was certain not to recognize.
  • Their representative didn’t have a clue what was going on.
  • They couldn’t restore the webpage I had for years although they had only canceled it less than two weeks before.
  • The representative promised to connect me to a manager and hung up.

Can anyone suggest a company that can host a website that is written in Ruby on Rails?Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Picasso’s Diagnosis

Portrait of Dora MaarI have a problem with my binocular vision. The muscles that are responsible for moving my eyes outwards are very weak, much weaker than the muscles that move my eyes inwards. When I am very tired, I can’t focus on people or things that are far away. I start seeing doubled monsters with extra eyes and noses.

Luckily, instead of looking scary, the monsters look familiar. In fact, they look exactly like Picasso’s portraits. I bet Picasso had problems with his eye muscles.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Should You Date a Mathematician?

The book How to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed by Graham Masterton has a chapter on how to choose a lover. It highlights red flags for men who need to be approached with caution. There is a whole list of potentially bad signs, including neglecting to shower in the previous week and talking only about himself.

The list of bad features also includes professions to avoid. Can you guess the first profession on the list? OK, I think you should be able to meta-guess given the fact that I am writing about it. Indeed, the list on page 64 starts:

Avoid, on the whole, mathematicians…

I am an expert on NOT avoiding mathematicians: in fact, I’ve married three of them and dated x number of them. That isn’t necessarily because I like mathematicians so much; I just do not meet anyone else.

When I was a student I had a theory that mathematicians are different from physicists. My theory was based on two conferences on mathematical physics I attended in a row. The first one was targeted for mathematicians and the second for physicists. The first one was very quiet, and the second one was all boozing and partying. So I decided that mathematicians are introverts and physicists are extroverts. I was sure then that my second husband chose a wrong field, because he liked booze and parties.

By now, years later, I’ve met many more mathematicians, and I have to tell you that they are varied. It is impossible and unfair to describe mathematicians as a type. One mathematician even became the star of an erotic movie. I write this essay for girls who are interested in dating mathematicians. I am not talking about math majors here, I am talking about mathematicians who do serious research. Do I have a word of advice?

I do have several words of caution. While they don’t apply to all mathematicians, it’s worth keeping them in mind.

First, there are many mathematicians who, like my first husband, are very devoted to mathematics. I admire that devotion, but it means that they plan to do mathematics on Saturday nights and prefer to spend vacation at their desks. If they can only fit in one music concert per year, it is not enough for me. Of course, this applies to anyone who is obsessed by his work.

Second, there are mathematicians who believe that they are very smart. Smarter than many other people. They expand their credibility in math to other fields. They start going into biology, politics and relationships with the charisma of an expert, when in fact they do not have a clue what they are talking about.

Third, there are mathematicians who enjoy their math world so much that they do not see much else around them. The jokes are made about this type of mathematician:

What is the difference between an extroverted mathematician and an introverted one? The extroverted one looks at your shoes, rather than at his own shoes.

Yes, I have met a lot of mathematicians like that. Do you think that their wives complain that their husbands do not notice their new haircuts? No. Such triviality is not worth mentioning. Their wives complain that their husbands didn’t notice that the furniture was repossessed or that their old cat died and was replaced by a dog. My third husband was like that. At some point in my marriage I discovered that he didn’t know the color of my eyes. He didn’t know the color of his eyes either. He wasn’t color-blind: he was just indifferent. I asked him as a personal favor to learn the color of my eyes by heart and he did. My friend Irene even suggested creating a support group for the wives of such mathematicians.

While you need to watch out for those traits, there are also things I like about mathematicians. Many mathematicians are indeed very smart. That means it is interesting to talk to them. Also, I like when people are driven by something, for it shows a capacity for passion.

Mathematicians are often open and direct. Many mathematicians, like me, have trouble making false statements. I stopped playing —Mafia— because of that. I prefer people who say what they think and do not hold back.

There is a certain innocence among some mathematicians, and that reminds me of the words of the Mozart character in Pushkin’s poetic drama, Mozart and Salieri: —And genius and villainy are two things incompatible, aren’t they?— I feel this relates to mathematicians as well. Many mathematicians are so busy understanding mathematics, they are not interested in plotting and playing games.

Would I ever date a mathematician again? Yes, I would.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Repairing a Point Mutation

Olga AmosovaMy friend Olga Amosova worked as a molecular biologist at Princeton University. Last time I visited her, we talked about her research.

She told me that she and her group designed a repair for a DNA mutation that is highly localized. “What’s the point,” I asked her, “of repairing DNA mutation in one cell?”

I was amazed to learn that not only is there a practical use to her research, but that there is something urgent that I myself must do.

There are many diseases that are caused by localized (so called “point”) mutations. The most famous one is Sickle-cell disease. In Sickle-cell disease, defective hemoglobin causes erythrocytes to adopt a sickle shape that makes it difficult to pass through blood vessels. It is a very painful and debilitating disease. However, it turns out that the results of the research of Olga and her group could make the lives of people with such mutations much easier.

Stem cells have two amazing abilities. They grow fast and they can be turned into any type of cells in the human body. If the mutation is repaired in just one stem-cell, it can be selected and turned into a blood progenitor cell. These progenitor cells produce erythrocytes that actually transport oxygen. If these repaired cells are added to the patient’s blood, they would produce good hemoglobin for half a year. This would improve the patient’s quality of life tremendously.

So what do the rest of us learn from Olga’s research? That we must save all left-over stem-cells that are produced in childbirth, like the umbilical cord and the placenta. It’s not only Sickle-cell, but many other diseases that could benefit from using stem-cells. Research is moving so fast that these frozen stem-cells might become relevant in surprising ways — not only for the child, but also for relatives of the child — like you yourself!

So what’s the urgent thing I must do? My son recently got married, so I must finish this post and send it to my son in case they get pregnant.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Sayings of Mikhail Zhvanetsky

Mikhail Zhvanetsky is the most prolific and famous Russian humorist. Here are my own translations of some of his best lines.

  • Better a small dollar than a big thank you.
  • Better dinner without an appetite than an appetite without dinner.
  • Don’t drive faster than your guardian angel can fly.
  • I drive too fast to worry about cholesterol.
  • Best alibi — be a victim.
  • A pedestrian is always right. While he is alive.
  • Any car will last you a life-time. If you are hasty enough.
  • Better a belly from beer than a hump from hard work.
  • A bald patch is a glade trampled by thoughts.
  • It is difficult to crawl with your head proudly held high.
  • It’s a shame when other people have your dreams come true!
  • The lottery is the most accurate measure of the number of optimists.
  • A courteous man will not criticize a woman who carries a railroad tie awkwardly.
  • The highest degree of embarrassment? Exchanged glances in a keyhole.
  • Everything goes well, but past me.
  • Let them laugh at you, rather than cry.
  • While you measure seven times, others will already make a cut.
  • It is not enough to find your place in life, you have to be there first.
  • If a person knows what he wants, then he either knows too much or wants too little.
  • And then he took a knife and shot himself dead.
  • Thinking is too difficult, so most people judge.
  • The more I look in the mirror, the more I believe in Darwin.
  • Of two evils, I choose the one I haven’t tried before.
  • Do not run from a sniper, you’ll die tired.
  • You came — thanks; you left — many thanks.
  • All great men are long dead, and I am feeling so-so.
  • Never exaggerate the stupidity of your enemies and the loyalty of your friends.
  • To save a drowning man, it is not enough to lend a hand; it is necessary for him to offer his hand in return.
  • What a pity that you are leaving at long last.
  • An idea came into his head and now it is desperately trying to find his brain.
  • I am infinitely respectful of the terrible choices of my people.
  • Some have both hemispheres protected by a skull, others by pants.
  • For illusions of grandeur one doesn’t need grandeur; illusions are quite enough.
  • Good always wins over evil. Hence, the winner is always good.
  • Only on your birthday do you discover how many useless things there are in the world.
  • You can recognize a decent man by how difficult it is for him to be nasty.
  • Everything in this world is relative. For example, the length of one minute depends on which side of the bathroom door you’re on.
  • In the form I filled in before the surgery there was this question: Whom should we call in case of an emergency? I wrote: A more qualified surgeon.


The First Western IMO

The International Math Olympiad started in Eastern Europe in 1959. Romania was the first host country. The Olympiad grew and only in 1976 did it move outside the Eastern bloc. The competition was held in Austria.

I was on the Soviet team in 1975 and 1976, so I was able to compare competitions held in Eastern vs. Western countries. Of course, the Austrian Olympiad was much better supported financially, but today I want to write about the differences in how our team was prepped.

Before our travel to Austria the Soviet team members were gathered in a room with strangers in suits for a chat. I assumed that we were talking to the KGB. They gave us a series of instructions. For example, they told us not to leave the campus during the competition, to always walk in groups, and to avoid talking to kids from countries that are enemies of the USSR. They warned us that they would be watching, and I was scared to death.

Now that I am older and wiser, I understand that their goal was to frighten us. Our team traveled with adult supervisors, who were trusted by the KGB. But for several days during the grading period of the competition, our supervisors were not allowed to see us. So the KGB wanted us to be too afraid to be very adventurous when we were left on our own.

In addition, the KGB had a Jewish problem. In general, Jews were not allowed to go abroad. I had many Jewish friends who qualified for the pre-IMO math camp where the team was chosen, but who were not able to get on the IMO because of delays with their travel documents. Some local bureaucrats were eager to impress the KGB and therefore held up visas for Jewish students, preventing them from being on the team. But the team selection process itself wasn’t yet corrupt in 1976. So every year despite the efforts of the system, some young Jewish mathematicians would end up on the team.

Before 1976, the Olympiad was in the Eastern bloc, so the KGB wasn’t quite so concerned about having Jewish members on the team. But Austria was not only a Western country, it was also the transition point for Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. The speed with which the IMO moved their competition to a Western country was much faster than the Soviet bureaucratic machine could build a mechanism for completely preventing Jews from joining the team.

One very strong candidate, Yura Pass, didn’t get his documents, but two other Jewish boys made it on to the team that was going to Austria. They were joking that they would be the only Soviet Jews who would go to Austria and actually come back. They did come back, only to go forward later: both are now math professors working in the US.

Because we had Jewish members on our team, it gave the KGB a special extra reason to scare us. But the biggest pressure was to win. We were told that 1976 was the most important year for the Soviet team to be the best. We were told that capitalist countries spread rumors that the judges in Eastern bloc countries favored the Soviet team and that the relative success of the Soviet team throughout the years had not been fully deserved. Now that the competition was in Austria, the suits told us, the enemies of the USSR were hoping for the downfall of the Soviet team. Our task was to prove once and for all that the Soviet students were the best at math, and that the rumors were unfounded. We had to win the team competition not only to prove ourselves, but also to clear the name of the Soviet team for all the previous years.

We did have a very strong team. The USSR came out first with 250 points, followed by the UK with 214 points and the USA with 188 points. Out of nine gold medals, we took four.

We could have gotten one more gold medal if Yura Pass had been allowed on the team. Yura was crushed by the machine’s treatment of Jews and soon afterwards quit mathematics.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

My Dr’s Orders: Hit on Men

I was terribly shy when I was a teenager. I worked on this problem and overcame it. But when I moved to the US my shyness returned in a strange form. I was fine around Russians but shy around Americans. At first I assumed that it was a language problem.

I became friends with a Russian sexologist and psychotherapist. He pointed out that I never initiated a conversation with Americans and so I realized that my shyness had returned. He prescribed an exercise for me: I had to invite a new American guy to lunch once a week.

Why guys? Maybe because he was a sexologist or maybe because my problems with self-esteem were more pronounced when I was around men. In any case, I decided to do the exercise.

To paint the full picture I need to add some relevant details. At that time I was married, although I didn’t wear a ring, and wasn’t especially interested in other men. The reason I didn’t wear a ring was that Joseph, my husband at the time, did not himself want to wear a ring. As I love symmetry in relationships more than I love rings, I didn’t wear one either.

The men I was about to invite to lunch were mere acquaintances, because I had not yet made any American friends. So although I didn’t intend to hide it, they may not have realized that I was married.

Two things surprised me in this exercise. First, it was very easy. Most people agreed to do lunch with me.

Second, every man I invited mentioned his girlfriend. This was unexpected. From my experience with Russians, I anticipated that every man would hide his involvement with someone else, even with a wife, at least for some time. At the very least, many Russian men would try to flirt.

The Americans were different. Unclear why I had invited them out, they wanted to be upfront with me from the start, just in case I was interested in them. Since that experience, I admire the way that American men come clean.

I never invited any of these guys out twice: I just needed a supply of new men for my exercise in overcoming my shyness. I wonder if they thought I was put off by their confessions. Perhaps my loss of interest in them after the first lunch confirmed their suspicions that I was attracted to them.

The sexologist’s exercise was a success. Today I have no trouble inviting someone to lunch.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail