Archive for the ‘General Life’ Category.


007 officeFor the last three years I’ve been coming to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton every spring for the Women and Mathematics program. Every year I am assigned to an office in the main building: Fuld Hall.

The problem is that there is a different office that I crave. Every year I go and check on it over in Simonyi Hall, where the Mathematics Department is located. This year I took this photo of the empty name-tag, hoping that one day it will say Tanya Khovanova.


Russian Solidarity

I was driving on MassPike when, for no apparent reason, a car driving in the opposite direction started flashing its headlights. I remembered the Russian tradition of informing the oncoming traffic that the police are nearby. So I adjusted my speed and very soon I saw a police car. I got this warm feeling in my heart because I didn’t need to panic or check my speedometer. I mentally thanked that anonymous Russian driver and started wondering why the tradition had not been adopted in the USA. Is it because we are so responsible that we want to punish speeders, or do we think that the police are on our side?


Can You Force Your Parents to Pay for Your College Expenses?

Suppose you got accepted to the college of your dreams, say MIT. If you are so poor that MIT gives you a full financial package or you are so rich that the cost is not an issue, then you might throw a party. Everyone else, however, needs to wait for the financial package letter from MIT. The dream depends on the willingness and the ability of the parents to pay.

Suppose your father looks at the bill in shock. Then he takes you for a walk and tells you to forget about MIT and go to the state college, as he can’t pay the requested amount.

If you know for sure that your father has the money, what is the first question that you should ask him? The first question should be: “Are you still married to my mother?” If you are not completely clueless, you ought to know the answer to this question already. The family status of your parents may be the deciding factor in whether or not you can get your father to pay.

If your parents are divorced, your college expenses might be covered by their divorce agreement. In this case, there would be a legal document designating how your parents need to pay. If your father refuses to pay, your mother can use the divorce agreement to threaten your father with a complaint. The threat might be enough. If it is not, the court will probably force the reluctant father to pay according to the divorce agreement. So if your parents are divorced, it might be a good idea for you to scrutinize their divorce agreement.

Even if your parents’ lawyers neglected to include college expenses in the divorce agreement, you might still be able to finance your college education. Your mother, for example, might sue your father for college expenses.

I wonder what happens if the divorce agreement covers your college expenses, but neither parent wants to pay. I’m curious whether or not it is possible for the child to sue the parents based on the agreement he/she is not a party to. If any reader knows the answer, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

If your parents are together, there is no divorce agreement to protect your interests. It seems that legally the situation favors the children of divorced parents. If your parents do not love each other and have stayed in their marriage for your sake, it might be to your financial advantage to persuade them to divorce well before you need to go to college. Do not disregard reminding their lawyers to include college expenses in the agreement.


Misunderstanding between Databases

I wrote a story a while ago about how a clerk at my previous job mistyped my resignation date, substituting January 2007 for my real date, January 2008. As a result, my medical insurance provider decided that I wasn’t covered in 2007, and requested that my doctor return the money he had already received.

After several phone calls my medical insurance was reinstated, but I kept receiving bills from my doctor. When I called my insurance, they assured me that everything was fine and that they had paid my doctor. However, my doctor continued to send me bills.

After half a year of phone calls back and forth, someone finally explained to me what was going on. My insurance company had initially requested the money back. The money was never returned to them, because my doctor’s office would not pay them a penny until I had paid the doctor first. In my doctor’s database, my visits were marked as unpaid.

When the problem was cleared up, the insurance company stopped requesting that the doctor pay them back. But the computer at my doctor’s office didn’t understand that stop-the-request command. It didn’t know what stopping the request meant.

The computers were talking different languages and I was caught in the middle.


Link, Blogroll and Review Exchanges

I used to receive emails requesting link exchanges with other websites. They promised to increase my page rank by creating additional hyperlinks to my pages. I ignored them. If they thought my website was good, why did they need my reciprocity to link to me? Besides, their websites didn’t have anything to do with mathematics; they were the sites of dental services or Honda dealers.

I have resisted the temptation so far. The links that I have on my websites are to sites that I recommend. Sometimes I wonder through other people blogrolls and add good links to my blog.

At other times a blog roll exchange happens: I have Google Analytics installed on my sites. From time to time I examine my traffic. When I see a new traffic flow from a particular website, I check that site out. If I like it, I add it to my blogroll.

I wouldn’t mind people writing to inform me that they have a link to my website and asking me if I’d like to reciprocate. But this doesn’t happen. Instead, strangers write to me offering to put up a link to my website on the condition that I put a link to them. I do not like this imposition.

Recently I received a request for a blog review exchange. I went to that blog and found that all of its postings were reviews of other people’s blogs, presumably those who had agreed on this kind of exchange. I checked out several of those other blogs and I didn’t find any of them very interesting.

I missed this opportunity to receive that blog review, but on the other hand, if I start linking to random crap, I might lose the respect of my readers.

My previous paragraph reminded me of a Russian joke:

I wonder how a person whose website comes up first in a Google search for “random crap” feels.

Russians assume that such a person will be embarrassed. They do not understand Americans who welcome negative publicity, and purposefully would name their website


America’s Got Talent

I do not know why I like the television show America’s Got Talent. Sometimes I picture myself on a stage doing what I love to do the most: entertaining people with mathematics. But it wouldn’t really work on the stage of America’s Got Talent. The audience makes its judgment in the first five seconds of a performance. There is no way I can teach a new math idea in five seconds.

Back to the show. I especially like the auditions. I noticed a strange correlation between what people say before their performance and what happens on the stage. In short, if a person brags that he/she has the greatest talent and that the judges will be blown away, the performance is likely to be pathetic.

My first thought was that the producers were editing it this way in order to boost the drama of the show. Now I wonder if it could be something else. Perhaps people who do not have much talent need to build up their confidence to appear on the show. And, vice versa, people who have talent can afford to be modest.

I didn’t see the same correlation when I watched Britain’s Got Talent. Could this tendency be a part of our American culture? After all, the message that confidence is all we need to succeed permeates the whole culture.

A pre-stage interview with one of the contestants on the show was especially telling. She said, “I could be the next greatest act in America, because I have the courage, the self-esteem, the confidence, the faith and hope and belief in myself.” Talent wasn’t mentioned at all.

Yesterday I had a nightmare. I was on the stage of America’s Got Talent and Piers Morgan, my favorite judge, was questioning me:

Piers: Do you have a talent people will pay for?
Me: Yes, I do.
Piers: What is it?
Me: I sing so badly people will pay me to stop.


Ratso’s Story, by Sue Kelman

My guest blogger is a friend and a wordsmith Sue Kelman:

* * *

Rizzo (Ratso to his friends) was my cage mate. We had a nifty pad at Children’s Hospital — all we could eat with no scrounging, clean beds, quiet surroundings, and plenty of activity to keep us occupied.

Rizzo’s favorite was the maze. Each week he bragged to us about how fast he made it through to the cheese. Larry over in Row-D was always the slowest. All the guys used to razz him about it. No matter how hard he tried, Larry took the wrong turn every time. I think his mother spent some time out at a psych hospital, so maybe they messed with her brain and that affected Larry. Who knows? I suspect that know-it-all visiting researcher from MIT knows what happened to Larry but he’s probably keeping it under his hat until he publishes his results in JAMA. Putz!

Okay, so one day, Rizzo just came back from one of those tests where they make us hit a little button when the red and green lights go on. Personally this is my favorite gig because of course there’s no running around, but Rizzo likes to throw a monkey wrench into the research data. So every now and then, even when he knows how we should respond, he does just the opposite. I told you, he’s one smart rodent.

Rizzo’s pretty famous, too. Oh he’s not as famous as that talking grey parrot that used to be over at Harvard, but he’s been around. For a while he was a top gun — the big performer for a group of genetics guys. He’s had his DNA tested more times than Mike Tyson.

Then they lent him out to Hematology where, I swear, the guy’s already had 15 blood transfusions. No wonder he’s healthy as a horse.

Me, I’m just your average lab rat. I know the drill: wake up, eat a few pellets, perform, eat some more pellets, doze off, and wake up to do it all over again. Not a bad life if you can stay away from those vivisection weirdos. They’re like Dr. Mengele all over again.

I’d tell you more but Rizzo’s gonna tell us about the time he got out of his cage and made it almost all the way to the Starbucks wagon before they caught him. Great story and he’s a real raconteur. None of that Stuart Little crap. We fall over laughing every time we hear it. Gotta go.


My Toilet Invention

One of the best inventions of recent years is toilet seat covers. So whenever I visit a bathroom without seat covers, I curse and make my own out of toilet paper. This is not very effective, as toilet paper doesn’t stay nicely in place and it takes a lot of time, when time might be of the essence. Besides it wastes a lot of tissue.

When I come into a toilet and see a lot of long pieces of clean toilet paper lying around, I know that someone else tried to create a seat cover before me.

So here is my idea. Why not make individual packages with folded toilet seat covers, like kleenex packets? When I couldn’t find toilet seat covers in my local pharmacy, I started wondering how to patent my idea and dreaming about a lot of money. But before I let myself get too excited, I checked the Internet. My new toilet-seat-covers-to-go were already available. So I bought some. Now, every time I flush them, I watch my potential patent going down the toilet.


A Hole for Jews

Sasha Reznikov and meThis story happened in the summer of 1975. I was 16. Before that, I was naive and brainwashed; by the end of the summer I had grown up. All that summer I was stunned and didn’t know what to do as I watched this story unfold.

I was invited to the summer training camp for the International Math Olympiad. There I became friends with a fellow team member Sasha (Alexander) Reznikov. Sasha had dreamed of being a mathematician from childhood. He was gifted and brilliant and when he was in the 7th grade he got noticed by professional mathematicians. They told him that the only way to become a mathematician is to do undergraduate studies at the math department of Moscow State University. He was also told that the math department doesn’t accept Jews. Sasha was Jewish.

But there was a hole in the system. If he could get to the International Math Olympiad, he would be admitted to the place of his choice by an order of the Ministry of Education. As the IMO was conducted during entrance exams for universities, there was this special arrangement for the team members. Besides, the Soviet Math Olympiad wasn’t yet corrupted, so the Olympiads would give him a chance.

Sasha was brilliant, but he had a disadvantage — he was 2 years younger than his classmates because he had skipped grades. Since the IMO is only for high school students, he had to make it to the IMO before he graduated at 15 years old.

He worked very hard and really pushed himself, and he made it on to our team. The photo of two kids is of Sasha and me that summer.

We had a supervisor — Zoya Ivanovna — who was a Ministry liaison. She was to compile the list of team members for the Ministry of those who should be accepted without entrance exams to universities and colleges. The team had eight people, so every year the list consisted of eight students. That year was special, since we actually only had six people on our team who were high school seniors. Two of us, Sergey Finashin and I, were not yet seniors. But Zoya Ivanovna who was a good-hearted lady decided to sneak in eight people and added our two alternates to the list. As our alternates were preparing for the IMO instead of preparing for entrance exams, this was a generous and fair thing to do. Everything was fine and everyone was happy.

Sasha Reznikov and me

Until one day when strange things started to happen. We were invited for a meeting where Zoya Ivanovna told us that there was a problem with Moscow State University. We were told that the math department has a limit of four people who can be accepted without an entrance exam, and we had five students applying. Zoya Ivanovna asked if there was a volunteer who might reconsider. At this point Alexey Muzykantov said that he would volunteer since he was an alternate. Besides, he was always as interested in physics as in math, and would be happy to study in the physics department.

After the meeting I stumbled upon Zoya Ivanovna crying in the ladies room. She told me that she didn’t know what to do. The problem was that out of five people applying for the math department of Moscow State University, three were Jews. Three Jews were too many out of the 400 people annually accepted to the department. Our team coordinator, Valentin Anatolievich Skvortsov, was working at the math department, where he was being pressured. Zoya Ivanovna told me he had been threatened with expulsion from the Communist Party if he didn’t reduce the number of Jews by at least one. Being expelled from the Communist Party was a serious threat at that time and Zoya Ivanovna was eager to help, so she invented this idea about the limit. The idea didn’t work, because Alexey Muzykantov, who removed himself from the list, wasn’t Jewish.

After several days, Sasha Reznikov’s mother appeared at the summer program. She told me that she was being pushed to persuade Sasha not to go to Moscow State University.

I asked Zoya Ivanovna why she chose Sasha. She told me that out of the three Jews, one was from Moscow, so she didn’t consider him, and Sasha was much younger than the third student and, besides, he had health problems. So she tried to convince Sasha’s mother that Sasha would be better off in his home town Kiev than in Moscow.

Sasha went to Kiev University. The system had had a hole through which two Jews passed that year, so even though Sasha had made astonishing efforts, he hit a wall. He was crushed.

Later he tried to transfer to Moscow State University, but was ridiculed, humiliated and denied. Eventually Sasha moved to Israel and got his PhD in mathematics. He died in 2003 by, according to rumors, suicide.


Celebrating with a Consenting Adult

Sue KatzI am celebrating the first hundred essays I have written for my blog. My English teacher and editor Sue Katz edited most of them. Sue Katz not only corrects my English mistakes, but also helps me to choose better and more descriptive words and rearranges my text so that it doesn’t sound like a direct translation from Russian.

If you’re looking for an editor, she’s superb.

Sue is an extremely interesting person. She was one of the first women to gain a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and taught martial arts and dance on three continents. Now she concentrates on her blog and writing. In her blog Sue Katz: Consenting Adult she writes a lot about sex and also about current affairs. She reviews books and movies and expresses her interesting and unique perspective on things. Some of my favorite posts:

I am not only grateful to Sue for the excellent professional job, but also for encouraging me. She laughs at my jokes and is a devoted fan of my blog. Thank you, Sue!