I saw “Hidden Figures”

Here is a picture of my dogs sleeping.

What I saw: “Hidden Figures,” a movie, at a local theater in Mt. K.

What I did beforehand: riding lesson. Bacon and eggs. Dog walk. Watched my husband polish his shoes. Kissed the Bacon Provider goodbye (again). Sewing. Bought a ticket online so I wouldn’t be too lazy to go.

What I wore: very dirty jeans. Snow boots. Two coats. Mittens and scarf.

Who went with me: about 50 white people and 2 African Americans.

How I got tickets: online, a few hours before.

Why I saw this show: because my friend H. said to.

Where I sat: towards the front, right behind the only people of color.

Things that were sad: I sometimes remember not to be a completely disagreeable person. But generally speaking if you want me to stay away from a movie, tell me it’s inspiring. I believe this is not a movie about exemplary women doing exceptional things. I believe this is a movie about black women saving everyone’s asses and never getting credit.

Things that were not funny: did the women whose careers at NASA were dramatized in this film start a new, great tradition of American female engineers and mathematicians? No. No, through no fault of their own, they did not. Women were still underrepresented in the sciences when I tried to get a PhD in math in the mid 1980s, when I couldn’t get a female professor as a mentor because there weren’t any. Yes, we have female astronauts now (since about 1978), and people of color do become engineers, but it didn’t stop one of my master’s examination board from (successfully) getting me to crack  during my orals, and it didn’t dissaude the President of Harvard from saying publicly that under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from “innate” differences between men and women (and not only did he never have to take it back, his career continued to flourish). Things are better, but they aren’t good.

Things that were funny: straight talk about Jim Crow laws.

Something I ate: popcorn.

What it is: a likable story about NASA in the 1960s, racism, the failures of white feminists, misogyny, and how technology destroys middle class jobs.

Who should see it: people who need to forget about a real or imagined episode involving urine, Russian women, the president-elect, and a hotel room; space buffs, math nerds, engineering enthusiasts, middle school social studies teachers, chalkboard fanciers, arithmetic fanatics, movie fiends, car-stuck girl junkies, NASA nuts, aficionados of scenes of women running in high heels. 

What I saw on the way home: I stopped for pho and bubble tea to take home to 19. There was a football game on the TV. A guy was sitting with his dad, their table crowded with plates, introducing him to Vietnamese food. He asked the waiter for the yellow sauce. It took the guy behind the counter a couple of tries before he found the yellow sauce the guy wanted. “What’s it called?” he asked. “So I know next time.”

“Fish sauce,” was the answer.
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What I saw: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” at the Barrymore Theater on 47th between 8th Avenue and Broadway

What I wore: rust corduroys (with stretch!) and Chinese-made Australian boots
What I did beforehand: ate remarkably mediocre Thai food
Who went with me: R., a twenty-something friend
How I got tickets: online, full price
Why I saw this show: my cousin L. suggested it on FB
Where I sat: in a prime number seat, third row orchestra

Things that were sad: graphic depictions of the struggles of a young man in the autism spectrum, with a side serving of family dysfunction
Things that were funny: the main character has the blunt charm sometimes found in the personalities of high-functioning people in the autism spectrum
Things that were not funny: Why oh why do we only get books and plays and movies about disabled people if they have nearly inhuman superpowers? Dear Readers, not every high-functioning, neuro-atypical person in the autism spectrum is a math whiz!

What it is: a Tony-award-winning play, adapted with care and accuracy from the young adult novel of the same name. Probably the most intricate production I have seen since I started the “What I Saw” blogs.

Who should see it: parents of frustrating children, teens who appreciate an outsider-narrator, fans of pet rats, math nerds (stay past curtain call), anyone who saw “but I cd only whisper” earlier in the week for a two-part spectacle of low-budget vs. high-budget theatrical depictions of perceptual storm on the part of a main character (and then let’s get coffee to discuss)

What I saw on the way home: cold, sizzling rain on the pavement and distant lightning illuminating the sky of Hell’s Kitchen

Groundhog Pie day

Last night, I stayed up too late, and slept poorly. At first light the cat started bugging me, meowing and placing a paw on my chin. I could see in the wan light of morning that it was still snow-covered out there. I patted the cat, feeling like winter here will never end. The cat settled in next to me, and I slid back into restless sleep.  After another half an hour, the cat stretched out on top of me, putting both paws on my mouth. I patted him, knowing by the blue quality of the morning light that we had heavy cloud cover and snow yet on the ground; I fell asleep again. We played this game for several more repetitions. I overslept.
I tweeted yesterday that I hate Pi Day. An old friend H____ from my college math teaching days offered up her take on it, tweeting, “Many of my students wished me a Happy #PiDay on the way out of class today. Everyone was just smiling and happy.”
She continued, “I had such fun this week talking about #PiDaywith my students, sending them Pi links, etc. They were super into it,” and, then, “We talked about some of the cool properties of the number pi. And while the 3/14 thing is silly, we took it in good fun.”
She compared Pi Day to, “the stupidity of Groundhog Day,” adding, “taking a day to celebrate Pi … is a delightful thing.”
H____ was right, of course. People pretend that nerds have inherited the future, because a couple of nerds like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became billionaires. But most nerds just do ordinary jobs for regular salaries, and while they may share messy hair or dirty glasses or a fondness for a particular mock turtleneck, being a nerd is more about your passions than your fashion. I can’t think of other days of the year that my affection for things mathematical is necessarily appreciated.
Several lifetimes ago, I was a college math teacher, and then a stay-home mom, and after a long time away from the classroom I got a job teaching math in a nearby Catholic girls high school.
Coming from a college teaching background, my contact with students had been mostly limited to 2 or 3 days a week for either an hour or an hour and a half, and office hours. I had done some student advising, but it was always cut and dried, about picking courses and a major. In this job I was taking attendance, reporting dress-code violations (in theory), supervising clubs, doing parent-teacher conferences, writing college recommendations, and listening and handing out Kleenex when girls came to me to cry about things.
I was surrounded by them, from a little past 7 a.m. when I arrived, until some time past 3 p.m. when I dashed out with an arm-load of grading, late to pick up my own kids from their schools across town. I had them in my room as soon as I unlocked the door in the morning, I ate lunch with them in my room at noon-ish; I went to the bathroom with them. I had a room cleaner assigned to my classroom, who cleaned the white boards, swept, and wiped down and rearranged the desks each day after school. Once a week I walked the neighborhood before school, with a safety vest and a clipboard, writing down the license plate number of any student car that was parked in violation of the rules.
That first year, I never conducted an exact head-count of my students until late February, when the head of the math department asked me for it for ordering pies for Pi Day. I had never heard of Pi Day before this job. What a silly reason for a celebration. It had never occurred to me that March 14 might be written 3.14, perhaps because I always thought the ordering day-month-year more logical. As a math person, I understand affection for numbers. I put a line through my sevens, for clarity. My favorite integers are, in order, 8, 0, and 24, and though I do like e and the square root of 2, I love i. Ok, yes, I’m a huge numbers nerd. But, Pi Day? Really?

Crumble-topped Apple Pie

The department chair allowed 6 pieces per pie, because, she said, they were small pies. She ordered enough crumble-toped apple pies from Borrachini Bakery to feed a piece of pie to every math student in the school. This number was essentially the full enrollment of the school, minus the one or two seniors who were headed to art school and didn’t take math their senior year. Like most of the math department, I had a teaching load of five classes: four honors and one, non-honors section, known as, “college prep.” The honors classes had the highest enrollments, with a maximum of 26 students in each, and the majority were full classes. I had perhaps 104 honors students, and an additional 20 college prep students. At 6 pieces per pie, that’s 20 2/3 pies, but, of course, pies don’t come in a fractional form, so let’s make that 21 pies.
The mood on Pi Day was always festive in the math classes, the way it was on spirit days when the girls came dressed head-to-toe in their class colors, or Halloween, or the last day before a break, or any day when snowflakes were seen falling outside the hundred-year-old windows.  Maybe I should call the mood distracted. They were excited for pie, of course.
From the moment that the pies were brought to my classroom, in big stacks of tidy pink boxes, the smell of the pies was intense. Apples, sugar, apples, sugar. Apples! Sugar! And from the first moment of cutting a pie with a pie server I brought from home for the purpose, more apples, and more sugar. By the time the first 26 students had their slice of pie during first period, I was already done with the smell of pie. The desk set aside for pie slicing was already sticky. My garbage can filled up with paper plates and sticky forks and gooey leftover apples and sugar, and don’t forget the empty pie boxes, four boxes per class. The floor around the desk with the pies got sticky. The floor around my desk got sticky. The floor around the trash got sticky. The doorknob got sticky. The room got even stickier through the day. Sticky.
By the end of the day, my clothes were sticky with pie. The light-switch was gooey with pie. My nose was coated with pie. My eyes felt gooey with pie.
This morning on Facebook, my former student and room cleaner G____ had a status update:  Happy Pi Day, everyone!! (Totally craving some pie.)” 

She is in graduate school now.

Why you should love logarithms

A problem involving factoring and logarithms

I was recently in the midst of a pitched battle, waging war against the forces of ignorance  with the weapon of algebra, when The Battlefield (who is 14), opened his unenthusiastic eyes and asked me why he needs to know how to factor polynomials.
I have taught algebra in the high school and college setting. I have tutored people in middle school and helped people study for the GRE. I have fielded the question of “Why do we need to know this?” hundreds of times. The answer always falls into three categories: because it’s on the test, because it’s good for you, because if you learn it you can go learn calculus.
When you are The Battlefield, and as determined to never need much math in adulthood as a landmass could be, being able to recognize the difference of two squares is not your problem. It is an age-old conflict between the forces of chaos and the forces of order. In my endless engagement with the dark morass of ignorance, I foolishly persist in adding another reason to the three listed above: because it’s cool. Obviously, I am an over-educated idiot.
Some educated adults feel free to express disdain for topics in math that they once found baffling, and logarithms is a common enemy for these folks. The logarithm is actually a very handy thing, invented at a time before people understood exponents, back when long division had to be done by hand.  The history of logarithms is a very interesting story, which I will have to tell another day.
I have in my repertoire a story I tell whenever the existence of logarithms requires justification (beyond the four reasons already mentioned).  
Imagine you are a marine biologist, I say,  And you have been asked to survey all the animals you find living in a specific cubic kilometer of  Hudson Bay and record their population size on a graph. What might you find? A pod of 9 Beluga whales,  perhaps a few more arctic cod and sculpin fleeing the hungry whales, but what if there was a bunch of zooplankton, where individuals are millimeters long but there are millions of individuals, or a single Bowhead whale, eating zooplankton? How would you record the numbers in a graph?
Even if you made things simple, such as whales 10, fish 100, zooplankton 100,000,000, you are going to have trouble showing that on a graph. The scale is going to be a problem, even if you have a really, really big piece of paper.
Common log, which is base 10, is a good way to show the magnitude of numbers, and in our example, the log of our population numbers yields whales 1, fish 2, and zooplankton 8. Yes, common log counts the number of zeros, and gives us data we can easily fit onto a small graph. Our only further responsibility is to ensure that we identify the scale as logarithmic. Hopefully our audience understands.

Just Not Good

Can you evaluate this double integral?  Even if you can’t, isn’t it a smart-looking thing? I have a laundry list’s worth of crackpot ideas, and one of them is that we don’t do enough real, challenging mathematics on a regular basis to appreciate how beautiful and amazing it is.  People think math is arithmetic, which is like saying that novel-writing is spelling. People also think balancing their checkbooks is math, and that’s simple accounting, based on arithmetic. In countries like Romania, there is no gender gap in mathematics achievement because mathematicians are revered. Everyone wants Americans to study more math and do better in math,  and I think the only way we  get there is to change how we as a society view math.  We have to get to the point where everyone thinks math is cool.
Pay the best math teachers like professional athletes. Put problems like the one above next to the Wednesday crossword puzzle in the New York Times. Stop letting adults and teens and children say, “I’m just not good at math.” Dogs are not good at math. People invented math. Everyone can do math.
Before I was a math major in college, I was an English major. I believed I was meant to write fantasy novels for teens about horses and cats and angry apples.  I kept a journal because an aspiring writer is supposed to keep a journal, filling it with drawings and story ideas and names of characters, interesting phrases and words, and page after page of complaints about the imagined injustices heaped upon me by my bad, unlucky life. I wrote short stories, and they were never very long, and bit by bit they got shorter and shorter until I wrote the shortest and best short story I ever wrote: “The drummer died.”
That is the whole of it.
I don’t think I’ve gone a day in my life without at least one inventive thought, yet for all that creativity, I suffered from writer’s block so intense that I even made a writer’s block. All of my ideas seemed boring. Everything serious I tried to do was actually silly or just embarrassing. Stories had no endings, plots never went anywhere. The drummer died.
I changed majors in college, temporarily alleviating the crushing guilt of wanting to do something but not figuring out how to do it.  I got an advanced degree, a job, had a kid, had another, and so on.  I like everything I wrote six years ago and nothing I wrote six minutes ago.  I still struggle with the voice that asks, “Who gives a shit?” Maybe I’m just not good at writing.