The Voldemort of Calculus Classes

This year, I encountered the world’s worst calculus class, a mutant-frog specimen of undergraduate mathematics: UC Berkeley’s Math 16B. It’s an exercise in cynicism; a master-class in spite; a sordid and cautionary tale of everything that can go wrong in curriculum design.

16B is my blood-born nemesis. Neither can live while the other survives. Continue reading

Wealth, Acclaim, and Fancy Catered Lunches (or, Why I’m a Teacher)

Occasionally, friends ask me why I teach.

You could ask the same of any profession. Why did you become a grant-writer, a therapist, a sanitation engineer? Why dentistry? Why human resources? In crude and reductive terms, I see four basic justifications for any vocation:

  1. Compensation. Take air traffic controllers. They work longish hours in a maddeningly stressful workplace, but take home excellent money (over $100,000 per year) and can look forward to a long, well-pensioned retirement.

  1. Perceptions. Compared with air traffic controllers, most professors earn less money. But they draw another sizable benefit: prestige. Humans are social creatures, invested by nature in what others think of us. High status is no small thing.

  1. Quality of life. A pleasant workplace, friendly coworkers, reasonable hours, a short commute—all those little frills around the edges of a job sometimes matter as much as the job itself.

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Ray Bradbury is My Anti-Vonnegut.

My Vonnegut phase lasted from ages 22 to 25. I read every book he’s written, even the crappy ones (hello there, Slapstick). I loved his voice, his humanism, the jokey poetry of his anecdotes. I’d often argue that Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is only his fifth-best book (beaten by Cat’s CradleJailbirdGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater;  and Mother Night).

By the time I hit Breakfast of Champions, though, I’d fallen out of love. His cynicism grew stale, and his dark, dry wit began to feel like knee-jerk pessimism. Vonnegut felt like a guy at a party I’d spent too long talking to. We’d run out of things to say. His negativity was beginning to grate.

So here I am, age 26, in need of a new literary imagination to commune with. I want somebody who, like Vonnegut, writes science fiction but transcends the title “science fiction author.” Somebody with an imagination as vast as Vonnegut’s, with a voice as distinct, but with a poetic idealism to replace Vonnegut’s vernacular realism. Vonnegut growls. I want somebody who sings.

Enter Ray Bradbury.

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The Self-Pity Paradox

In the self-pity paradox, a distressed person interprets any attempts to reassure them as further evidence of the very thing that’s distressing them. For example…

Red Queen: No one ever believes me!

Alice: Well, I do.

Red Queen: There you go again! I say that no one believes me, and scarcely a moment passes before you’re disbelieving me again.

Alice: I’m not! I said that I do believe you.

Red Queen: Precisely! If you believed me, then you’d have agreed that no one believes me. Continue reading

Playing to Lose (or, What Mucking Around with Sports Rulebooks Has to Do with Math)

At the 2012 Olympics, eight badminton players were disqualified for trying to lose on purpose.

Their incentive was simple. In the next match, the loser would face an easier opponent than the winner. It’s as if the teams were told, “Okay! The winner will have to climb Mount Everest, while the loser will have to watch the IMAX film Everest. Now, everybody, play your best!”

Instead, the Olympic athletes impersonated bumbling beginners—serving into the net, missing easy returns, and failing again and again to sustain a rally. The crowd booed, the referees fumed, and commentators grieved for the poor paying customers, who had inadvertently bought tickets to a farce.

In a recent post, the inimitable Jeff Kaufman asks an interesting question: What if all athletes everywhere suddenly caught losing fever, and began pursuing their own defeat? Would the resulting games all be as boring and self-defeating as badminton was? Or would some of these reverse-sports be fun and competitive in their own right?

In short, how would games change if we all played to lose? Continue reading