Friday, December 31, 2010

Don't Stretch My Suspension of Disbelief

Nearly every time I saved a draft of a blog post, it never got posted. So I will try to knock off this entire post tonight, even though I keep telling myself that I should finish off tomorrow. If this post doesn't properly get my point across, n'nu.

I recently watched the movie Pi and was sorely unimpressed. Here's the story in brief: Max Cohen is a crazy mathematician who is searching for patterns in numbers, specifically the stock market and the decimal expansion of (i.e. "the digits of") pi. Max's teacher pressures him to give up his search, comparing him to Icarus (the guy from Greek mythology who flew too near the sun). Max meets this Jew who does mivtzoim like a Lubavticher but is actually a member of some occult kabbalistic group which is looking for the 216-digit number which will tell them the 216-letter name of god. Just to add to the fun, there's a Wall-Street firm trying to use Max's research to make money. His computer is doing some calculations for him (we never find out what) and outputs some outrageously improbable stock predictions followed by a 216-digit number and then dies. Max agrees to share his research with the Wall-Street people in exchange for a new computer chip. He does the calculations again, get the same number, and the computer dies again. The Wall-Street people try to get the information from him at gunpoint, but he is whisked away by the occult pseudo-Lubavitcher, who brings him to the synagogue, where the leader of the kabbalistic group tries to force the 216-digit number out of him. He refuses. He lives miserably ever after.

I understand that when you watch a movie, you agree to "believe" that certain things are possible, even though they're not. So I have no problem that the janitor in Max's building just happened to see Max searching for a computer print-out in the trash and the Wall-Street lady just happened to bump into the janitor to find out about it. It's a movie. The improbable happens in movies.

I also have no problem that the Lubavitcher-numerologist translates "etz hachaim" as "tree of knowledge." That gematria-wise a 216-letter word does not correspond to a 216-digit number is also OK. I'm pretty pissed they thought that members of occult kabbalistic groups try to put on tefillin with wholly uninterested strangers like Lubavitchers do. But I understand that it's a movie. People don't get everything right.

And that the girl next door has a crush on Max even though in real life no girl would get near this guy? Again, it's a movie. The producers needed to throw in some romance to make it interesting.

But there are some inaccuracies that touch the essence of the movie that you cannot overlook. And that's why this movie sucks.

Max is looking for meaningful patters in the decimal expansion of pi. Well guess what, buddy, there really shouldn't be any pattern there. Remember that it's an accident of history that we use a base-ten numbering system. We very well could have had a base-sixteen or base-twenty numbering system in which pi's digits would be completely different.

Mathematicians definitely spend a lot of time searching for patterns in stocks. But they look at the percentages, not at the digits. The digits are completely meaningless. Max resembles an eccentric mathematician (he's anti-social, lightning quick with arithmatic, and obsessive) but he doesn't think like a mathematician. He thinks like a regular schizophrenic.

Max's computer is supposed to compute something (we're never told what) but instead keeps on crashing. We're supposed to understand that it crashes because he was computing something that was supposed to remain mysterious. Computers don't crash when you make them compute something mysterious. That's just not how computers work.

And then the computer spits out The Number, which Max didn't ask for. That's not how computers work. If you ask it to crunch number about stocks, it will spit out stock-related numbers. It won't spit out the number that holds the secrets of the universe.

Oh yeah. We're never told what Max is searching for. What kind of pattern is he looking for in pi and in the stocks? What kind of calculations is his computer doing? What is the 216-digit number supposed to stand for (other than "a string of digits that Wall-Street people and occult kabbalists want to study")? I feel like the meat of the movie is missing.

The response to all this would be something to effect of: the movie is about man's search for hidden knowledge, about the desire to manipulate the world, and about the need to let things remain mysterious.

To paraphrase Rabbi Chanina the Bible-teacher, go outside and tell that to your literature professor. That's hogwash. A good work of fiction creates a fictional world which resembles the real world in important ways to illustrate true ideas about the real world. For example, Brave New World creates a fictional world where people have flying cars, and everybody has what they need. But that fictional world resembles the real world in that people deal with pain, pleasure, religion, and boredom the same way they do in our world. Therefore it's a good book. Another example is Logicomix (which happens to be a stupid book, but that's besides the point). Logicomix is chock-full of historical inaccuracies, but it's about a real person's (Bertrand Russel's) struggle with a real issue (Russel's paradox) with real implications (the foundations of set theory, logic, and mathematics). So it can tell us something useful about the real world. But Pi creates this fictional world in which math is not at all like real math. So what does it teach us?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

WHY? WHY? WHY? Whose idea was this?

CCNY is not rich. Despite student protests, they raised the tuition recently. We haven't had working elevators in the science building for around a year. There definitely isn't money to throw around. So why are they wasting $4,400 on a lottery? Do they really have no better use for the money?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Je Me Souviens

I'm in Quebec, and I've made some observations about the French language.

In America, "dead-end" calls to mind a sad little street that literally dies on you. "Cul-de-sac" calls to mind a nice suburban, residential street which ends with a neat curve, perhaps with some flowers near the curb and plenty of room for a comfortable u-turn. When the bus pulled into its first stop in Montreal, it turned onto a street with a sign saying "cul-de-sac." To my disappointment it was just a plain dead end.

In America the word "overt" is always used to mean "figuratively open," and is often used in a high-falutin' way. In Quebec, stores have signs saying "ouvert" to let people know that they're open for business.

It is a bit amusing to hear Americans speaking French with an unabashedly American accent, as in the sentence "Don't park there! It's an arret d'autobus."

On a practical note, if you ever gain control over a province, don't force people to speak your language. It's not very nice.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

At Home with the Heisenbergs

Elisabeth Heisenberg: I can't find my car keys.
Werner Heisenberg: You probably know too much about their momentum.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Miss My Blog

It was nice to be able to write neat little posts, well-written enough that I could be proud of them, poorly written enough that they didn't require much effort. Then y'all would discuss them, and I would feel like my thoughts are worth discussing. Then I would discuss your thoughts on your blogs, and make you think that your thoughts are worth discussing. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, our discussions would degenerate into silliness and we'd go to sleep. But, in the words of Eminem, "those days are gone / they're just memories."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Never Trust an Activist

Activists get so excited about their cause, that they'll say anything that makes their cause sound more important.
Consider this story on CHI:
Shluchim all over the United States received an unmarked package in recent weeks containing missionary Hebrew New Testaments along with other missionary materials.

The packages arrived in non-descript packaging printed with “Wishing you a Shana Tova – a gift from an anonymous friend.”

“These recent events demonstrate that the missionary threat to the Jewish community is more serious than ever” wrote Rabbi Zalman Kravitz of Jews for Judaism, in an email responding to Shluchim who have received these packages.

“I got it, recognized it right away and I threw it into the garbage” said a Shliach.

Nonsense. If the missionaries think that sending New Testaments to the shluchim was a wise way to spend their money, they obviously don't understand the people they are targeting. We should be relieved and amused. Chillax, Rabbi Kravitz.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


According to a source in the committee said that Rabbi Chabib circumvented the election committee by sending an email expressing his desire to run in the upcoming elections directly to Rabbi Avrohom Rosenberg, the Dayan on the case. The source also said that Rabbi Chabib acted inappropriately by not seeking the endorsement of either current Rabonim or any other Rov in the neighborhood.
Translation: Rabbi Chabib is being sneaky by not picking a side. No fair! How will we know if you're a good guy or a bad guy if you don't pick a side?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Yearly Riddle

Beginning in July and continuing indefinitely, what will e, TRS, le7, Cheerio, Sebastion, and Arguing with Myself all have in common?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Q: What is the definition of an extroverted mathematician?
A: A mathematician who looks at your shoes when he talks.

[quasi source]

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I Have Learned to Love Perdue Chickens, but I Have Not Learned to Love Snags

This Friday night I ate at my neighbor's house (the same neighbor whom I met because he was looking for a Shabbos goy). At the table there were the host and hostess, yours truly, and a divorced guy. It was really my first close-up encounter with snags so I was interested in re-evaluating the stereotypes I hold about them and was looking forward to hearing what stereotypes they hold about "us." There was some stereotype busting, but I think there was more stereotype reinforcing.

The host, who's been married around a year, talked an awful lot about girls he had dated. I know that he once went to Chicago to date a girl. I know that his best friend married a girl whom he had dated. I know he had been pressured to date the divorced guy's ex-sister-in-law. Don't you think that in Chabad it would be really bad form to talk about a girl you didn't date in front of the girl's ex-brother-in-law and your wife? Maybe it's true that in the snag world guys date bajillions of girls and dating is no big deal. Oh yeah, and the guest is looking to marry a divorced "girl." These girls who are getting married for the first time aren't for him...

The host and the guest spoke a lot about the beautiful places they had visited and the various hotels that had stayed in. They also spoke a lot about the rich, important businesspeople of the snag world, how much property they own, how much they lost on Madoff, etc. The conversation basically flipped between discussing Lubavitch and discussing "gorgeous" vacation spots/money/houses. The host and the divorced guy both knew an awful lot about the latter's ex-in-laws and their finances. They have a six-bedroom house in Sha'arei Chesed, Jerusalem and the ex-father-in-law has over $120 million. They spent $250,000 on the divorce. The guest only spent $100,000. I also know how much rent the dude is currently paying. Ach! Misnagdim ligen nur in gelt!

When Rubashkin came up, they were surprised to hear me talk about "Rubashkins" in general. They didn't realize that most Lubavitchers know at least a few members of the Rubashkin clan. But both the host and the divorced dude knew the new guy who took over the plant. So Agri went from being one of "our" businesses to one of "their" businesses.

They both were under the impression that there was a religious reason that Lubavitcher guys don't tuck in their shirts. The other guest started telling me this nonsense about how you need to have your shirt untucked for tzitzis-related reasons. I had a bit of a hard time convincing them otherwise.

The host was shocked to hear that my mother and my grandfather had grown up on shlichus. He didn't know that shlichus existed back then.

The host thought that in Lubavitch it's normal for guys to learn just Likkutei Sichos and not Gemara--after all 770 has more copies of Likkutei Sichos than Gemara. He was also under the impression that 770 is the main Lubavitch Yeshiva.

The host asked me why it is that all Lubavitchers still think the Rebbe is god super cool. Don't they realize that, to quote the host, "he's looking at the onions from the bottom?" Why aren't there Lubavitchers who keep the Lubavitch minhagim, wear the Lubavitch clothes, sing the Lubavitch songs, but just dump this Rebbe stuff? After all, his father's Bobov affiliation pretty much consists of that stuff. If only I could have explained to him how many people there are who eat on Yom Kippur but still think the Rebbe is god...

The guest wondered how Lubavitchers are able to come to a place where they know nothing and nobody and are able to take the place over. I tried to explain the supreme I'm-saving-the-world-so-get-outta-my-way arrogance Lubavitchers have.

At the end of the meal, the host tried saying that the Rebbe did what he did because he wanted power and kavod. This I didn't let him get away with.

All in all, a fun time was had by all, as they examined the exotic creatures living in their neighborhood.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Is This a Super-Good Deal, or What?

I was looking to buy a suitcase, and I stumbled upon this item on ebay. A five-piece set for $45 + $20 shipping. First I thought, "Wow! That's way to good to be true." So emailed the seller. He said he is in fact selling five pieces for $45. Now I'm thinking, "Well, if it's true, maybe it's not that good a deal." What do you think? Should I jump on this, or will I be buying something I don't need. I only need one small suitcase. But this guy is selling five for the price of one! What do you think?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Why I Need a Manager

Subject: Math Tutor
From: CM

Saw your posters advertising math help. I am in Math 201, but am having trouble with algebra. Was hoping you are available to sit down with me and work on some problems.
Thank you,


From: e
To: CM
Yikes! Math 201 can be very difficult if you algebra isn't up to speed.

For me, the most convenient time to meet would be Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday before 11 a.m. Does that work for you?

From: CM
To: e
Unfortunately, I have Chemistry lectures and lab M, Tu, W, F mornings. Thursdays I have work.

If we can not find a time that work for both of us, perhaps you can recommend someone?



From: e
To: CM
I don't know any other math tutors. How about I call you later and we
discuss the options over the phone?

From: CM
To: e
My number is below, I'm done with class for the day.

I called CM, and we discussed scheduling options. After much back and forth, we decided that Friday afternoons would be the best time to meet. Throughout our conversations, both via email and over the phone, one issue was conspicuously absent: he never once asked me how much I would charge or mentioned anything about money. "Aha!" I thought to myself, "I can fleece this sucker. After meeting him once, he'll be so enthralled with my superior tutelage that when it comes time to say goodbye and he asks me my rates, I'll tell him it's $45 an hour, and he'll agree to it. Or maybe he'll bargain me down to $40. But I certainly won't lose him entirely if I'm just a wee bit greedy." Thus I had blithely thought on Tuesday afternoon.

We were supposed to meet Friday at 2:00 p.m. At 1:05 I got a text, "Hi, it's CM. Finished class early, I'm in the engineering library." I texted back, "All right. I'm coming over." As I hopped across the campus, I told myself, "Well, $45 is a bit greedy, but I can definitely ask for forty. Don't chicken out e, ask for forty!"

We met. We discussed limits and derivatives. Then we moved on to a simple limit problem. I knew how to evaluate the limit using some shortcuts, but I could not for the life of me remember how to do it without the shortcuts. My student didn't either. Time was up and he got up to leave. "How much did you say it would be per hour?" he asked, "$25?"
"Aurgh!" I thought, "Did I really say $25? Am I mishearing? Did he maybe get mixed up with that other tutoring sign hanging all over campus advertising $20 an hour? Well anyways, I can't ask for $45 when he's expecting $25 and I couldn't even evaluate the limit!"
"$35," I manage to choke out.

Aurgh. From now until the end of the semester I'll be making ten dollars a week less than I could have made if I only I would have had a bit more confidence. When I was just starting to get involved in tutoring, a friend of mine (who has since graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in applied mathematics) told me that he too dabbled in tutoring. "It's not hard," he said, "The only reason it didn't work out for me was because I didn't handle the business aspect well." Aurgh. The business aspect.

Oh yeah. Ten minutes after CM left, I remembered how to evaluate the limit.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Lonely Man of Math

(Why am I publishing this comic, rather than the many other fine specimens available at Because this one is narrow enough for blogger to display normally.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Banana History is More Interesting Than You Thought

Did you know that bananas were first cultivated ten thousand years ago? Did you know that bananas cannot survive without active human help? Did you know that before the 1950's a different breed of bananas was common--but that breed is now extinct? Did you know that our current breed of bananas may become extinct in the near future? Read more at Damn Interesting.

Incidentally, this totally destroys this silly creationist argument.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Where are the Haredim Headed?

Airplane Mechitzahs, ritual laptop smashings, unabashed and self-righteous blackmail. How much longer can this trend last? Is there a point when Haredism will regain its balance, or will they continue getting crazier? What will the Haredim of our children's generation look like?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Join the Fray!

A travesty has been perpetrated against two venerable bloggers. We are not taking it sitting down. Join the fray!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Folks in Charge are out of it, and the Innocent Sheep Suffer

I'm supposed to prepare my students to take the regents in June. That means that I need to start covering ground much quicker. So last week I assigned almost the entire chapter one for homework. I just finished grading it. Aurgh!!! 93 flipping annoying problems. The results were abysmal: 64%, 60%, 48%. This was supposed to be a review of what they learned in past. But it's hardly surprising that they did so poorly. I didn't spend any time time in class going over it.

Now here's my dilemma. Should I spend time tomorrow discussing chapter one? But we need to go full steam ahead to meet the deadline. And if I spend tomorrow doing chapter one, I won't be able to assign stuff from chapter two for homework.

Should I just move on to chapter two? How can I teach more when they have shaky foundations? What if I review the stuff in chapter one that's relevant to the immediate future and deal with the other stuff later. But that will make my lesson plan even more disordered than it is already. I feel guilty not covering the material in order. A good teacher should have a clear lesson plan. If my lesson plan is so jumbled, that means I'm...

Now we've moved from practical questions like what to teach to value judgments like "good teacher," "responsible teacher," and ch"v the opposites. Which brings us to everyone's favorite value judgment: blame.

So who's to blame for my students imperfect education? Not them. They're kids. They don't take the homework as seriously as I want them to, but they do do it and hand it in on time. And of course they make mistakes--they had 93 flipping problems and they hadn't been taught this stuff since god-knows-when.

Am I to blame? I never had a chance to teach them this stuff. I think that if I explained to them how to do the problems they would do well.

Well why am I not given the opportunity to teach? Because I was hired in November instead of in August. Because I was hired to teach only once a week. Because nobody had told me what I was expected to teach or what they had already learned.

They still haven't arranged for me to start teaching twice a week (as if that would solve they're problems. In order for these kids to be ready by June, they'd need me to teach them five times a week!)

And here's what really pisses me off: kids all over learn math as a series a steps to follow in order to solve a problem. They never understand what the problem represents. The kids work way too hard remembering which steps belong to which problems instead of opening their minds. Or they focus on which types of problems they'll be tested on and which types they won't. Or they focus on which format their answers must be written in. This is wrong! I beg you, o powers that be, let me teach them algebra and trigonometry, not how to pass some stupid test!!

I shouldn't feel bad that the kids didn't do well on the homework or that the average grade on the exam I gave them was 70%. That's not my fault. I'm giving the kids the best education possible under the circumstances.

But I see the results of the authorities' irresponsibility--not them. So how can I not feel responsible?

So here's my moral dilemma. What do I teach tomorrow? Do I go over chapter one until the understand it, or do I rush onto chapter two? Was I hired to teach math, or was I hired to prepare kids for the damn Regents?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Where, Oh Where, have all the Fundies Gone, Oh Where, Oh Where can They Be?

Back in my day, I would have given the author of this piece such a tongue lashing... (Today I only give such tongue lashings when under the influence and discussing math.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Even though, he may tarry / Even so, I wait for him

Waiting for the Messiah can make you feel like this.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


(A conversation which took place in Kharkov, Ukraine, between me and a bochur whose parents were from Russia)

D: In the USSR, it was illegal for regular people to have a copy machine or microfilm. The government didn't want people to be able spread information easily or quickly.

e: Wow. That's crazy. I'm proud to be an American. At least I know the press is free.

D: The Soviet government was built on lies. If people had access to non-government-sanctioned information, the government would fall apart.

e: That reminds me of how the Protestant Revolution started after the invention of the printing press, when people could get their own Bibles.

D: The people in charge always want to limit the information available to the masses.

e: But in our glorious republic of freedom, the government is not afraid of truth. They have nothing to hide. (This was during the Bush-era, when the Republicans controlled Congress, and it was cool to be pro-government.) And if they did have something to hide, we'd find out about it right away.

All: God bless America!

Well, apprantly Hereidism is based on falsehood too, because the Hareidi top-honchos are scared of information. That's right. We're not discussing pornography, evolution, Bible criticism, or any of that evil stuff. We're discussing information about what's happening in the Hareidi world. They want you to learn the news only from "respectable" newspapers like Hamodia or Yated. People should hear the news from blogs? or maybe get new ideas from anonymous commenters? People who the rabbis can't track down or censor? God forbid!!

Monday, January 25, 2010

It runs in the family

I was at my sister's wedding last Monday. (It was super awesome, but don't ask for details now. It's after my bedtime.) We were lining up to take a picture of the kallah and her siblings. "What order should we be in?" someone asked. Size order, age order and gender segregation were all quickly rejected by the assembled. "How about alphabetical order?" I* suggested. We lined up in alphabetical order (e, Me, Mi, Ne, Ye, Yo) and were duly depicted. My father noted that we followed the English alphabet, but we went from right to left (e on the far right, Yo on the far left). N'nu. We goofed. Perhaps the photographer can flip the image around.

* I'm not a 100% sure it was I who suggested alphabetical order. If anyone who was there is reading this (j.k., you listening?) and thinks I'm misremembering, please speak up.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Aaron's Arduous Amorous Adventures

Aaron (Moses' brother): Hey, Reuven! I heard that things aren't so hot between you and Shimon. Well, Shimon wants to make up.

Reuven: Yeah, yeah, we all know your trick, Aaron. Don't BS me.

A: No, I'm telling the truth this time. He really wants to make up.

R: What about the hundred dollars he owes me? Or when his cow gored my cow? Huh?

A: Well, he told me--

R: Don't bother with the explanations, Aaron. The truth is that I just don't value Shimon's friendship. He has lots of character traits which I don't appreciate. He watches too much TV. He eats greasy food. He asks his mother for advice when he should be making his own decisions. And his pants and shirts always clash.

A: Shimon's less-than-desirable character traits should not be the only criterion with which you decide how much to value his friendship.

R: Oh yeah? Then what criteria would you recommend, Mister I-love-peace-and-pursue-it?

A: Um, well. Friendship is about... uh... it's about getting to. Uh, How about we ask the blog community for help on this one?

Based on what do you decide whom you want to be your friend?

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Aurgh! This eats me up! "Lol" used to mean "laughing out loud." Today it is a punctuation mark.

Allow me to explain. An exclamation mark doesn't tell the readers anything new. It just tells them how the writer feels about what he or she wrote. For example:
"I'm going home" tells us where the author is going. "I'm going home!" tells us the exact same fact, but also tells us that the author is excited about this trip.

"Your mother-in-law called you an ugly bitch" tells us what your mother-in-law said about you. "Your mother-in-law called you an ugly bitch?" tells us the same fact and also tells us that the author is feeling surprised and incredulous.

Now we turn our attention to the new punctuation mark: "lol."

Below is an actual Facebook conversation:

Friend's status: everytime (sic.) I go to a cemetery I think "those lucky sons of bitches!"

Sympathetic friend comments: One day (unfortunately) you and I will be there as well. In the meantime try to enjoy your luck that you are of the "lucky" carbon to be alive. Afterwards you'll have eternity to be those "lucky sons of bitches."
*sigh* if only I can heed my own advice and preachings lol.

Suicidal-sounding status updater: I am enjoying it. Very much. Don't you see? lol

Please. Neither of these people was laughing out loud. "Lol," like the exclamation and question marks, tells us how the author feels about what he or she is writing. "Lol" means "Don't take what I'm writing too seriously. I don't really mean it. I don't know what I mean, so let's just pretend that I'm joking. After all jokes don't need to make sense lol"

Monday, January 11, 2010

How to Bake Sweet Potatoes

Right after I moved to my current residence, my mother suggested that I microwave or bake sweet potatoes for a snack. They weren't very exciting. They were kind of dry and hard work to finish. Usually I'd buy two sweet potatoes at a time and bake one of them right away. The other would often end its life wilting on the window sill.

But then my eyes were opened.

I went to my grandfather's house, and there I saw how to bake a sweet potato. Here's the recipe I have learned from my grandather's wife:
Slice the sweet potato in half. (I usually slice them into thirds, because I'm impatient.)
Put the sweet potatoes in a pan sliced-side down.
Here's the crucial part: Put a little oil in the pan
Bake until very soft.

I bake them on 500° because I want them to bake quickly. Perhaps a lower temperature would be better. I know not.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


If you asked me to define the word "funfer," I would probably start funfering.