Archive for the ‘General Life’ Category.

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.


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.


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.



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.