Archive for the ‘General Life’ Category.

Follow Your Heart?

“Follow your heart!” This is the most common advice for young people contemplating their future career path. This is not good advice. At some point in my life, the most popular aspiration among my friends’ children was to become opera singers. But the world only has room for a few opera singers. All of these children ended up doing something completely unrelated.

Aspiring to be a mathematician is a much more practical dream. There are so many professions that are friendly to mathematicians: actuary, finance, economics, teaching, computer science, cryptography, and programming, to name a few. Unlike opera singers, skilled mathematicians can find a way to get paid for their mathematical gifts.

However, most of the youngsters around me want to be research mathematicians. This is a different story. My adviser, Israel Gelfand, told everyone that if they could survive without mathematics, they should drop it. I did drop mathematics for some time to care for my children, but I couldn’t live without mathematics. I fed math to my children for breakfast and pursued math hobbies that could fit a single mother’s lifestyle. Well, that means I was mostly working with sequences for the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences and building the database for my Number Gossip website. But I digress.

I agree with Gelfand. Research in math as a career choice is non-trivial. Here are some of the big issues:

  • Money. An entry-level salary for MIT undergraduate alums is about twice as much as graduate students’ stipends. This discrepancy in income continues for a long time.
  • Location. It is challenging to find a professorship. People looking for academic jobs are expected to send hundreds of job applications and accept a position anywhere in the country. This might be unacceptable for people who value their family and roots.
  • Time. Many research mathematicians I know work 24/7. Not always by choice. Some want to secure a future tenure and need to publish papers in addition to teaching innovative courses. Some do want to do research but are too distracted with their routine and administrative tasks. As a result, their research spills out into nights and weekends.
  • Gender and such. Discrimination is a separate big problem for women and minorities, which I do not want to discuss today.

So what would I suggest for young people who love math?

Many people who love math do not really love math per se. They love the way of thinking that math encourages. They love logic, generating ideas, precision, innovation, and so on. This makes their potential job search much wider. Such people might enjoy programming, cryptography, data science, actuarial science, finance, economics, computer science, engineering, etc. I know students planned to become mathematicians but tried an internship in finance and found their real passion.

For those who want to be closer to mathematics, there is always teaching: the world needs way more math teachers than research mathematicians. Plus, teaching provides a strong feeling of making an impact.

So what do I suggest for young people who love opera singing?

Many skills are less in demand than mathematics. It is important to be realistic. So here is my advice:

  • Expand your skill set. If you love opera singing, working as a voice coach might be a solution.
  • Explore secondary interests. If you also enjoy programming, you might find your happiness by building music software.
  • Have a backup plan. You might become a lawyer to support yourself and your family and keep your love of music as a hobby, for example, by singing in a choir.
  • Meet yourself halfway. You might get a half-time job to feed yourself and work on your music business for the other half of the time.

I know a former Soviet mathematician who worked as a night guard and used his quiet work time to invent theorems. He was a good mathematician but couldn’t find a research position because he was Jewish. He later immigrated to the US and found a professorship. So sometimes my advice for opera singers works for mathematicians too.


An Affair

Many years ago, I visited a distant country and rekindled my friendship with a nice couple, Alice and Bob. I changed the names and do not remember the exact words. But here is the story.

One evening, I found myself chatting with Bob, and he decided to open up. He told me he was having an affair. After he finished his long story, I asked him whether he thought Alice might also be having an affair. He replied, “It’s impossible. She was never a passionate person. And recently, she became even more cold and distant.” I didn’t follow his logic but didn’t pursue the topic.

Several days later, I chatted with Alice, and she decided to open up. She told me that she had met someone and was having an affair. She told me that she never quite enjoyed sex with her husband, but the new guy fitted her perfectly. For the sake of symmetry, I asked her whether she thought her husband might also be having an affair. She replied, “It’s impossible. He is too busy at work, and recently, even more so. He goes on business trips twice a week and is always tired.”


A New Version of an Old Joke

Here is a famous old joke about Russian propaganda. I heard it when Leonid Brezhnev was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan was the president of the US.

Joke. A Russian newspaper wrote an article about a two-person race between the Russian and the US leaders. They wrote, “Brezhnev got an honorable second place, while Reagan was almost last”.

Here is a modern version of this joke I heard going around.

Joke. A Russian TV commentator: Biden cowardly goes to war-torn Kyiv, while Putin heroically hides in his bunker.


Putin’s Waste

Putin’s bodyguards `collect his excrement on trips abroad and take it back to Russia with them’. This was an article in the Independent. Presumably, Putin is afraid that someone can analyze his waste to get information about his health. Here is a quote from the article.

According to the report, members of the Russian president’s Federal Protection Service (FPS) are responsible for collecting his bodily waste in specialised packets which are then placed in a dedicated briefcase for the journey home.

Here is my joke on the subject.

Joke. Putin’s guard collecting his waste wrote a book of memoirs. The book has two chapters: Number One and Number Two.



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