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

To the Class of 2014

I’m so proud of you, OCHS ’14!

I wish I could be there for your graduation. But since I can’t, I’m holding a small ceremony right here, right now, on this blog, in your honor.

You spent the last four years making sacrifices. You forfeited sunny afternoons to homework. You stayed up all night to earn a C+ on a paper, knowing full well that another school would have given you an A just for showing up. You tucked in your shirt, or else incurred your teachers’ bottomless and inhuman wrath.

The school changed around you. Teachers came and left. Principals, too. Clubs appeared; soccer teams were born; the halls went from hospital-white to blinding yellow-and-blue. You watched older students vanish, one year at a time, and younger students arrive in hordes, until suddenly the school was scarcely the same at all. Through these last four years, only one thing at OCHS really remained constant:


Continue reading

Mailbag: STEM Stereotypes, Intellectual Inadequacy, and the Crocodile Tears of the Math Student

Every so often, I comb through the Google search terms that have led people to my blog. Then I reply to them as if they were letters. It’s a thing.

Q: top 100 romantic kiss photographs?

A: You must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere on the internet. Common mistake. Just reverse course and keep walking until you see a sign marked “Buzzfeed.”

Q: I feel inadequate that ive never taken high math.

A: In reply, anonymous sir or madam, I invite you to meditate on the opening lyrics from Disney’s masterpiece The Lion King:

From the day we arrive on the planet
and blinking, step into the sun
There is more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done…

This year I learned (or tried learning) to play the guitar, to rock-climb, and to write fiction. Next year I hope to travel, cook, and read more graphic novels. In college I studied cosmology, constitutional law, and evolutionary psychology. As a good friend recently told me, “You’re a dabbler at heart.”

But man, the things I haven’t learned yet! Continue reading

I think the SAT’s scoring system is gibberish.

Two weeks back, I wrote a piece at Slate (edited by the wonderful Laura Helmuth) arguing that the SAT should stop giving different scores to virtually identical performances. In particular, I advocate a switch from increments of ten (500, 510, 520…) to increments of fifty (500, 550, 650…).

The basic argument is simple: Reporting “510” and “520” as distinct scores suggests that they’re meaningfully different. They aren’t. When you retake the SAT, your score typically fluctuates 20-30 points per section on the basis of randomness alone. A 510 and a 520 are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable.

I’ve seen lots of thoughtful counterarguments to my piece—some strong, some weak, some dripping with that mucus-like film of nastiness that coats internet comment sections.

Now—to reply! Continue reading

Star Trek with Bad Drawings (by me, age 6)

EDIT: Apparently this is my 100th post! This blog has gotten a totally implausible 1.9 million views in its first year. Thanks so much for reading. Today, I pay tribute to my 6-year-old self by showing his bad drawings to the world as well.

I found these drawings in the basement of my childhood home. Apparently by age 6, I had already achieved 95% of my current drawing abilities, as well as developed into a pretty serious Trekkie.

I’m traveling right now, so rather than rap about math education, I’ll take this post to reflect on Star Trek villains. Don’t worry: my thoughts are as clever and provocative as my drawings are beautiful.

star trek - borg ship

Apparently my phonetic interpretation of “Borg” didn’t require an “r.”

The Borg were cyber-zombies, half-robot and half-humanoid. At age 6, they terrified me. They kind of still do. Continue reading