Edinburgh Half-Marathon

One of the best things about my dearly beloved is that he pushes me out of my comfort zone.  Well, he’s done it again: I have officially signed up for the Edinburgh Half Marathon on May 27, 2017.

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This is officially way outside my comfort zone.  Even when I was at my peak fitness point, I considered myself “the anti-runner.” I even justified it with physiology – small feet + short shins + long femurs = minimal torque = bad running.  I have essentially no justification for this, but I’ve used it to rationalize my distaste for running for years.  For whatever reason, I never experienced that “runner’s high” that everyone talks about.  I knew the feeling from biking, but I never found it with running.

But now I’m going to try to find it.  I don’t think I will ever be totally comfortable running with Jeremy.  He’s fast, and my competitive drive would get in the way.  BUT I think we could both be runners, and I’d like to be more able to keep up with him.

My goal for the next 10 weeks: no complaining about running.  Maybe in my head I’ll think, “Oh, I really don’t want to do this.” But I won’t give in to moaning, and I won’t say it out loud. No sighs, no facial expressions…I’ll act like I enjoy running, and hopefully I’ll trick myself into believing it!

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Women in Math: The Symposium

On Saturday, Tori and I hosted a symposium to celebrate Women in Math – sponsored by the UChicago AWM.  We had undergrads, grad students, a post-doc, and tenured faculty talking about their own research (in the case of women), and the work of female mathematicians (in the case of the men). Unfortunately, we started a little too early in the morning – attendance was very low for these talks, which were universally excellent.

In the afternoon we had a larger attendance.  Most of the talks were more about women in math than about math itself.  Kiki Zissimopoulus ran an excellent session on how to teach to an inclusive classroom. We explored what an inclusive classroom is, what constitutes ‘mathematical thinking,’ and ways that we can foster an inclusive environment in our own classes.  I was excited to apply some of these ideas to my own teaching – especially the idea of strategic learners and deep learners, and trying to encourage deep learning techniques (returning to old homework problems, repairing errors, etc).

We also had a fascinating session by Stephen Meyer, of UChicago Astrophysics, about Implicit Bias.  He gave an interesting presentation, which centered on a study of letters of recommendation for male and female medical candidates.  The statistical differences are striking, and hard to ignore: twice as many letters for women as for men included ‘doubt raisers’ – comments like, “She worked hard on projects she accepted,” which are interpreted negatively, while offering surface support. Only 3% of the letters for women referred to them by their titles, while 12% of letters for men did so – and there was no difference in the number of women who had such titles compared to the number of men. Letters for women are much more likely to address training, personal life, and teaching than letters for men.  On the other hand, male letters tend to address research much more than female letters. Perhaps the most interesting method of analysis was looking at the most common words following possessives: “her research,” “his colleagues,” etc.  Overwhelmingly these words followed social stereotypes.  All of this is true regardless of the gender of the recommender – one of the most insidious aspects of implicit bias.  And, as Professor Meyer pointed out, this effect is multiplied by the biases of the readers. On a related note, this is a cool resource (shown to me by Kiki Zissimopoulus) about gender biases revealed by word usage in teacher reviews.

We also had a great session on Impostor Syndrome, run by Claudio.  He ran it as a workshop, and at one point asked us to turn to our neighbors, look them in the eye, and tell them something that we are proud of.  I found this incredibly difficult – even though he had told us to do it, even though I knew they would not think of it as bragging, even though I knew they wouldn’t laugh or make a face. Even so, I was near tears by the time I said anything. What was interesting (and surprising) to me was that everyone in our little group had a quote-unquote “rational” for thinking they did not really belong in the UChicago PhD program. I was able to look at my fellow grad students and see that they were being absurd – they are excellent mathematicians and well suited to UChicago – but I can’t do the same for myself. Very frustrating, to know that one is being irrational and yet be unable to escape from those thoughts.

We closed the night with mathematical trivia, put together by Mathilde. The questions were perfectly chosen (though I may be a little biased since my team won).  Questions ranged from mathematical trivia (How many 4-dimensional platonic solids are there?), to historical personages (I am a French mathematician whose hand was buried apart from my body.  Who am I?), to estimation questions (How many kangaroos are there in Australia?). We had a great time, and it was fun to get competitive over something small.  My team won a bag of tropical fruit as a prize – a UChicago math department tradition started by accident in my first year.

All in all, I think we did a good job of the symposium, given that it was planned in less than two months.  We even (after adjusting slightly) had the right amount of food! (Plus some non-perishables that we’ll use in our next event.) Goodness – I was exhausted afterwards, primarily over the stress of making sure everything ran smoothly.  We luckily had a lot of volunteers to help run each classroom, deal with setting up projectors, and even clean up the food after meals. I have no idea how anyone can run a several-day conference! But it was a great experience, and next year we’ll do more early planning, get more speakers, and all in all have a great time.

Intelligence Squared: Has the political establishment failed America?

I went to a debate on February 23, hosted by the UChicago Institute for Politics and Inteligence Squared.  IQ2 hosts “Oxford-style debates”; there are two teams of two people.  Each speaker makes a 15 minute opening statement, followed by a round of questions from the audience, and then 5 minute closing statements from each speaker.

The topic on hand was “Has the political establishment failed America?” It’s a wishy-washy topic, and hard to get a handle on – who counts as “political establishment,” what does “failed” mean, and even what does “America” mean (citizens, or the idea of America). I find it hard to grapple with questions like this. On one hand, there is a sense in which any question precisely worded would have a straight-forward answer, or at least it would have a series of studies that argue for opposing views.  In this case, a debate would be either pointless or dull.  But if you go too far in blurriness of a question, then each side can choose an interpretation that best suits their case, and thus talk past each other.  There was a lot of “Just because the political establishment has not always failed America, or just because the political establishment doesn’t fail America in every way, does not mean that the political establishment has not failed America” on one side, and on the other, claims that “‘Political establishment’ is such a meaningless phrase, and is up for so much interpretation, that the only response to this is to vote no.” And so the debate, which should be a coming together of opinions and ideas to create a consensus, devolves into a battle of who can persuade the most people that their definition is the best. Both sides talk past each other.

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The Pro team: Michael Eric Dyson (Georgetown University) and William Howell (UChicago).

Michael Eric Dyson, of the Georgetown Sociology department, was a fiery speaker and incredible orator.  His words were rhythmic and alliterative, emotionally powerful and compelling.  When I took a moment to step back and think about what he was saying, I realized that he wasn’t really addressing the question at hand – he was talking about Trump and the Republican party in general.  Though they are the current political establishment, you can’t address their failings and not address the system that brought them to power. Just because he was such a good speaker, here is a video of him talking about racism and Trump.

The other member of the Pro team, William Howell, is a member of the UChicago Harris School in Public Policy. He was my favorite of the debaters, because he stayed on the question the entire time.  He also didn’t attempt to evade the question by arguing that we shouldn’t be answering it all – he accepted the premise of the debate and tried to live within those confines.  Unfortunately, he did seem a bit arrogant.  He was also pushing for broad institutional reform – he even implied changing our entire form of government – which was a bit more extreme than I am ready to support.

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The Con team: Jennifer Rubin (The Washington Post) and Eric Oliver (UChicago).

Eric Oliver gave the opening statement for the Con team.  Admittedly, following Mr Dyson is a big task.  However, his attempt to equate anyone who supports the motion with Donald Trump and his supporters was logically flawed in the extreme.  Indeed, while the Pro teams most pervasive problem was trying to turn the debate into a referendum on Trump and his policies, the Con team’s was over-inflating the facts and an inability to wrestle with inconsistencies.  Yes, Donald Trump ran on subverting the establishment.  That does not mean that President Donald Trump is not now a part of that establishment.

The other half of the team, Jennifer Rubin, is a conservative columnist for the Washington Post. I found her to be a poor speaker and prone to logical fallacies, but I worry that I only think that because she is (1) female, and (2) conservative.  I so fundamentally disagreed with much of what she said that I’m not sure I can be an objective judge of her abilities.

Intelligence Squared debates are won by convincing more people to join your side.  They poll the audience at the beginning and end of the debate, and compare the scores. I began as an “Undecided” voter, and ended supported the Pro team.  But much of that support came not so much from agreeing with their arguments, but disagreeing with the Con side’s approach.  Both teams made valid points throughout; the political system is failing America in terms of discrimination of all sorts, environmental planning, and protections from big companies.  But on the other hand, American quality of life goes up and down periodically, and it would be wrong to place that at the foot of the political establishment.  Especially since it is the establishment that has stepped in to stop so many of the most egregious outrages – the courts stopping Trump’s travel ban, the federal government (evnetually) stepping in for Flint, MI.

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So, who won?

The final result was that 4% of respondents switched from Pro to Undecided, and the rest stayed the same.  So Con technically won, I suppose?

I got to ask a question at the end of the debate. I asked to what extent each team’s argument was historical – did the Pro team think there was ever a time when the political establishment was not failing America? Did the Con side think the political establishment had ever failed America? And if yes, when did it change?  Unfortunately, neither side really answered my question; in fact, both sides seemed to argue the opposition’s point! Afterwards, at a reception hosted by the IoP, one of the speakers noticed me and told me that I had asked an excellent question.  Very flattering – but next time, please answer it!

Skiing in Door County

I went home for two days to get some cross-country skiing in.  I love skiing – it’s peaceful, steady, exhausting, fast…everything good. The steady action is almost meditative.  I’ve been skiing since I was tiny – my parents have photos of me in a little pink and purple snowsuit, toddling along on my miniature skis.  But before I could even walk, my parents were pulling me in a pulk – sled you attach to your waist and pull behind you.  They were traditionally used to transport supplies and people during ski journeys in the Nordic countries.  I have vague memories of getting strapped into the pulk, feeling the plastic of the sled flex under my back as we moved, hearing the roar of the sliding snow, and watching snowflakes fall from the sky and onto my face.

I never pulled a pulk until this winter, when my friend Liz purchased one for her baby Grant.  Liz is learning how to skate ski, so while she gets her feet under her I get to pull the baby.  It’s a different motion than skiing without the pulk – you have to be more smooth, move your hips differently so that you aren’t constantly jerking the sled. Grant is funny – he likes to sing along with the sliding sound for a bit, and then he falls asleep. The pulk doesn’t cause much of a problem on the flats or downhills, but going up a steep hill can be a battle! Sometimes I have to let Dad pull for me, when I am too tired.

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Dad, Liz, and the Baby G at Snowkraft.

I love to ski at Snowkraft Nordic in Sturgeon Bay. A local man runs it.  He spends hours and hours making sure that the trail surface is perfectly smooth, the grass just the right softness, the trees trimmed to perfection so that you can ski there when nowhere else has snow.  He goes and grooms at 2am, when the snow is coldest, to keep the trails as perfect as possible. The result is some of the best ski trails in the state.  And because of the careful maintenance, they can be skiied on when nowhere else has snow.  He also uses up every inch of his land to make fun, twisty trails that make good use of the natural terrain. The Orchard trails are built along a ridge, so as you travel east to west you climb a surprisingly steep grade! Then you turn around and whoosh back down the hill, speeding around S-bends and banked turns. The trails in the pines are flatter, but also beautiful, fast, and impeccably groomed.  I can’t wait to get back!

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Snowkraft ski trails.  The Orchard is hilly!