I buy almost everything on Amazon. Recently, I ordered a back stretcher. It took half an hour to assemble, and after the first use, it changed shape. However, this story is not about quality but about a card that was included with the item.
In the box, I found a gift card that wasn’t a gift card but rather a promise of a $20 Amazon gift card for a 5-star review. Hmm! A bribe for a good review.
I looked at the card more closely, and it had the following text.
WARM TIPS: Please DO NOT upload gift card pictures in the review; it will affect your account.
This is not only a bribe. It contains a threat.
Initially, I assumed it was Amazon, but it makes more sense that the company making this thingy is behind it. I gave Amazon the benefit of the doubt and went to their website to leave a 1-star review. I related the card’s story to warn others that the 5-star reviews can’t be trusted. Amazon rejected my review as it didn’t comply with their guidelines. Is Amazon in on it?
I wrote a different 1-star review, which did comply. It seems I can complain about the product, but I can’t complain about the bribe and threat.
I called Amazon’s customer service, and they promised to investigate. This was three months ago. This crappy product, with a stellar average 4.6 rating, is still out there.
I am sure I was fooled many times on April Fool’s Days. But I do not remember any stories, except one. It was quite painful and had a lot of potential for humiliation.
I was in high school, and our school didn’t have enough rooms for all the classes. So that particular semester, our classes happened during the second shift: from 2 pm to 8 pm.
One day, I received a call from my friend that school was canceled the following day. My friend told me that I had to notify half of the class. We had about 40 students in our class. She would call everyone whose last name started with the letters A through N, and I would have to call everyone else.
To set the stage, I was really, really shy. Calling people was torture. On the other hand, I was a very responsible person. So, I was walking in circles around our family’s phone with my hands shaking. Then, suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head: the day was April 1st.
It was a great excuse: if I told people not to come to school, they might not believe me. Hooray! I can procrastinate until the next day. Because we wouldn’t start until 2 pm, I would have enough time to notify everyone in the morning.
When I woke up the next day, the other light bulb went off: I didn’t need to call anyone; but I definitely had to have a chat with my “friend.”
I am deeply fascinated with my family’s history, so I took it upon myself to enlighten my children about our family tree. One day my son retorted, “This is not a family tree; this is a family bush.”
He was right. I was married three times and had a child from two of my three husbands. My ex-husbands had other children. So our family “tree” branches out in chaotic and weird ways. My two sons are half-brothers, and each of them has other half-siblings. With mathematics all around them, my sons decided to quantify their family connections: they named a half-sister of a half-brother a quarter-sister.
I didn’t have any children with my first husband, Alexander. But he remarried after our divorce and had two children. I’ve never met Alexander’s offspring, but my children hang out with them. Go figure! This is not just because the world is too small; rather, my exes are mathematicians and work with each other. So, theoretically, if Alexander and I had a common child, Alexander’s children would have been quarter-siblings to my sons. In real life, we didn’t have a child. Still, can my sons call Alexander’s children virtual quarter-siblings?
Every summer when I was little, my mom would take us on vacation to a rusty village far away from Moscow. I do not remember much, mostly just cows grazing on the grassy fields. However, one particular memory is really special and vivid.
I was five years old, tired of another day in the fields, lying in bed about to fall asleep. I started counting. I do not remember what. I am sure it wasn’t sheep; it could have been cows. Then, I got bored of small numbers and jumped to a thousand, counting from there. Then, I jumped to another even bigger number. After a few jumps, I realized that I could always add one to a previous number. The number of numbers must be infinite. Wow!
I will always remember the feeling I had. It was like touching eternity, being one with the whole universe.
You can imagine why I became a mathematician. From time to time, I am touching eternity and getting paid for the bliss.
As my readers know, I am devoted to my students. When I need something I can’t buy, I try to make it. That is why I crocheted a lot of mathematical objects. One day, I resolved to have in my possession a Seifert surface bounded by Borromean rings (a two-sided surface that has Borromean rings as its border).
However, my crocheting skills were not advanced enough, so I signed up for a wet and needle felting workshop. When I showed up, Linda, our teacher, revealed her lesson plan: a felted soap with a nice pink heart on top. It looked cool to have soap inside a sponge, not to mention that wool is anti-bacterial. But I had bigger plans than soap and eagerly waited for no one else to show up.
When my dream materialized, and, as I had hoped, no one else was interested in felt, I asked Linda if we could drop the hearty soap and make my dream thingy. She agreed, but my plan didn’t survive for long. As soon as Linda saw a picture of what I wanted, she got scared. Seifert surfaces were not in the cards, so soap it was. I told her that there was no way I was going to needle-felt a pink heart onto my felted soap. I ended up with a blue Sierpiński gasket.
We had a great time. Linda was teaching me felting, and I was teaching her math. I am a good teacher, so even felters working on a farm enjoy my lessons.
After the workshop, I went online and found my dream surface on Shapeways. In the end, I was happy to just buy it and not have to make it.
But my felting workshop wasn’t a waste of time: tomorrow I will wash myself with a gasket.
The most famous thinking-outside-the-box puzzle is the Nine-Dots puzzle. This puzzle probably started the expression, “To think outside the box”. Here is the puzzle.
Puzzle. Without lifting the pencil off the paper, connect the nine dots by drawing four straight continuous lines that pass through all the dots.
Most people attempt something similar to the picture below and fail to connect all the dots.
They try to connect the dots with line segments that fit inside the square box around the dots, mentally restricting themselves to solutions that are literally inside the box.
To get to the correct solution, the line segments should be drawn outside this imaginary box.
Do you think that four line segments is the best you can do? Jason Rosenhouse showed me a solution for this puzzle that requires only three lines. Here, the outside-the-box idea is to use the thickness of the dots.
A section of this paper is devoted to my students, who sometimes give unexpected and inventive solutions to famous puzzles. Here is an example of such a puzzle and such solutions that aren’t in the paper because I collected them after the paper was published.
Puzzle. Three men were in a boat. It capsized, but only two got their hair wet. Why?
The standard answer is the following: One man was bald.
Lucky for me, my creative students suggested tons of other solutions. For example,
One man was wearing a waterproof helmet.
The boat capsized on land, and two men had their hair already wet.
As my readers know, I collect Russian license plates. They are actually American plates, but the letters form words readable in Russian. This is possible because the shapes of English and Russian letters overlap. Here is my new favorite plate. It is actually not the best plate, but rather makes the best picture ever.
The plate says Moscow, the Russian capital. And the car is parked next to the Ukrainian flag. I am from Moscow too, and I too support Ukraine in its war against evil Putin, who wants to restore the Russian Empire. Did you know that now he wants Alaska?
Thinking about genders, we used to have only two options: male and female. Now we have more. I have a lot of young acquaintances who are non-binary. So I started to rethink my gender identity.
I was a typical girl: at least, I thought I was. I hated playing with boring dolls. I preferred cars, or even better, construction sets and board games. In second grade, I wanted to be a ballerina but later fell in love with Sherlock Holmes. My dreams switched to becoming a detective or a spy. In fifth grade, I signed up for rifle-shooting training. That same year, my school forced me to compete in an orienteering event, and I won.
Orienteering became my favorite sport, and I did it for many years. I was really good with maps. I would go to a competition, leisurely walk my course and win. Other kids were running around like crazy, but I always knew where to go and was overall faster than them. With time, other kids learned to read maps better, but I myself never learned to run faster. So I stopped winning, but I enjoyed the sport anyway.
It goes without saying: I loved math. Solving math problems was the best entertainment ever.
Later, to my surprise, I discovered that most girls liked shopping and wasted a lot of time on make-up. Not many girls were even interested in math. I actually liked that. I started having crushes on boys since second grade and enjoyed being the only girl in math clubs, having all these nerds to myself.
I grew up in Soviet Russia. While growing up, I wasn’t bombarded with gender stereotypes. My first eye-opening experience was when I was 17 years old. My long-time boyfriend knew that I liked mathematics, and this was okay. But when I told him that I planned to go to college to study mathematics, he didn’t approve. I broke up with him on the spot.
My mom used to tell me that most men do not like brainy women. My reply was that there are more men who like brainy women than brainy women. I got a new boyfriend the day after my breakup.
My gender identity didn’t bother me much in Russia. What bothered me was the Russian tradition for both spouses to work, but the house chores and child-rearing duties fell only on women. I read somewhere that, on average, in Russia, women worked for 4 hours a day more than men. Life was unfair to women but not to their self-esteems.
As I said, I grew up thinking I was a typical girl until I came to the US. This happened 30 years ago, and I was 30 at the time. In the US, I got bombarded with gender stereotypes: they made me feel inadequate and doubt my femininity. Just for reference: by that time, I was in my third marriage breastfeeding my second child. Still, according to those stereotypes, I was not a real woman.
For some time, I wondered what was wrong with me. Then, I was elated to find a book called Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women by Anne Moir and David Jessel. (This was many years ago.) Among other things, this book talks about the differences between men and women with respect to the brain. According to the book, men are better on average at abstract thinking and spatial visions, aka math and maps. Women, on the other hand, are better at connecting with people and have higher social intelligence. Boys are less interested in games related to storytelling, aka dolls, preferring more concrete activities. And so on.
The book also describes situations in which girls don’t fit the paradigm. The authors attribute this variation to the mother’s hormones during pregnancy. I found myself described perfectly in the section titled “girls who have been exposed to male hormones in the womb.” I am pretty sure that my mom didn’t take any hormone supplements while pregnant with me back in Soviet Russia. On the other hand, the description in the book was spot-on.
This book classifies me as “a male brain in a female body.”
I was glad to find myself after a period of self-doubt. I was glad that I wasn’t alone and even fit into a special category with a name.
Several years later, I met Sue Katz, a writer who also has a blog Sue Katz: Consenting Adult. She made me realize how ridiculous the whole story was: I was pressured by gender stereotypes to feel bad about myself. Then I was grateful for a book based on those same stereotypes, only because it described women like me and gave me permission to exist. I liked the book because I accepted those stereotypes in the first place. If there were no stereotypes, there wouldn’t be any problems at all.
Why can’t I just be me?
Over the past few years, I have become happier than I have ever been. I do not care what society thinks about my gender. I am no longer ashamed of not feeling 100 percent female.
I like that people in the modern world embrace the idea of individuals being themselves. For example, my daughter-in-law, Robin Dahan, designed a whole line, You-Be-You, for her company, Dash of Pep.
Am I non-binary? I do not know and do not care. I am just me, proudly wearing my You-Be-You socks.
Many years ago, I wrote a blog post about an amusing fact: John Conway put Moscow, the former capital of the USSR, as a coauthor: A Math Paper by Moscow, USSR. Thus, Moscow got an Erdős number 2, thanks to Conway’s Erdős number 1. At that time, my Erdős number was 4, so I wondered if I should try coauthoring a paper with Moscow, my former city of birth, to improve my Erdős number.
This weird idea didn’t materialize. Meanwhile, my Erdős number became 2 after coauthoring a paper with Richard Guy, Conway’s Subprime Fibonacci Sequences. I relaxed and forgot all about my Erdős status. I couldn’t do better anyway, or could I?
I recently heard about a cheater who applied to grad schools. In addition to a bunch of fabricated grades, the cheater submitted an arXiv link to a phony paper. What is fascinating to me is that the cheater put real professors’ names from the university the cheater supposedly attended as coauthors. The professors hadn’t heard of this student and had no clue about the paper. So the cheater added fake coauthors to add legitimacy to their application and boost the perceived value of the cheater’s “research”. As a consequence, the cheater got a fake Erdős number.
I hope that the arXiv withdrew the paper. Cheating is the wrong way to improve one’s Erdős number.
But here is another story. Robert Wayne Thomason named as coauthor his dead friend, Thomas Trobaugh. The paper in question is Higher Algebraic K-Theory of Schemes and of Derived Categories and can be found at https://www.gwern.net/docs/math/1990-thomason.pdf. This paragraph in the paper’s introduction explains the situation.
The first author [Robert Wayne Thomason] must state that his coauthor and close friend, Tom Trobaugh, quite intelligent, singularly original, and inordinately generous, killed himself consequent to endogenous depression. Ninety-four days later, in my dream, Tom’s simulacrum remarked, “The direct limit characterization of perfect complexes shows that they extend, just as one extends a coherent sheaf.” Awaking with a start, I knew this idea had to be wrong, since some perfect complexes have a non-vanishing K0 obstruction to extension. I had worked on this problem for 3 years, and saw this approach to be hopeless. But Tom’s simulacrum had been so insistent, I knew he wouldn’t let me sleep undisturbed until I had worked out the argument and could point to the gap. This work quickly led to the key results of this paper.
This precedent gives anyone hope that they might achieve an Erdős number 1. You just need to wait for Paul Erdős to come to you in your dreams with a genius idea.