Maurer/Stier 2014 Annual Letter
206 Benjamin West Ave
Swarthmore PA 19081-1421
Jan 4, 2015
Fran’s section – Prologue (12/27/2014) Steve, Leon and I went up to New York City to see Mom on Wednesday, went with her to the New York String Orchestra (I remember going 40 years ago, when Alexander Schneider conducted), devoured lox and bagels from Zabars, saw a movie (the Imitation Game) and ate at Shun Lee Cafe with her & Steve’s family, fulfilling the commandment that Jews observe Christmas with Chinese food & a movie.
I’m especially grateful that Mom is well – she had two bouts of C. difficile this year--two hospital stays and 6 weeks in rehab – it took a lot of determination on her part to get back to living independently.
Mom: Her first bout had lasted for a couple of weeks before she was hospitalized in late April (we were hoping it could be overcome at home, because hospitalization itself has risks for seniors) – her white blood cell counts were sky-high by the time she reached the hospital, she was eating very little, and very weak.
The ER was terribly crowded – gurneys lined all the corridors (and several patients had entourages). We had a curtained booth, fortunately. The nurses were efficient—started IV, gave medicine, got blood taken, but terribly busy with the crowd. Because Mom had C diff, she needed a pvt room. Mom asked the nurse where could I buy some food (notice, she’d eaten next to nothing for 3 weeks and she’s worried abt her overweight daughter’s missing dinner), and I went & got a sandwich & cookie.
...Around 1 AM I misused him vs. he and Mom corrected me. About 3 AM Mom was moved into a funny room on the burn unit (no attached bath), and nurses bustled around her transferring her to a bed & making her comfortable.
(The quote above and those throughout my section are from burbagrams – weekly emails about the burbs).
I took turns with my sisters, Beth & Gloria over the next weeks.
She was in The Amsterdam (a nursing home across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine) from mid-May through June—Beth, Gloria and I switched off keeping her company over weekends (when there wasn’t much programming). It was weeks of hard work, but was able to manage with a few hours a day of health care aides by the time she got home.
She had another bout of C. diff in September, just as she was set to embark on a cruise up the Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul – Gloria flew down from MN to be with her—but recovered within a week.
Leon: The UW physics department has 6 bulletin boards for grad students – Leon, being in his 7th year, no longer has his picture posted. He continues running long simulations, biking in the summer, XC skiing in the winter, gardening and bird-watching.
Leon found the bug in his program that was causing the anomalous results – it seemed to be some adjustment the computer was doing when he compiled his code using the high-optimization option. It went away when the level of optimization was lowered. Now, L has 1,700 simulations going – he’s using 14% of UW’s computer power all by himself (his previous high-point was 4%).
He’s been XC skiing a lot – competed in 3 of a series of races. First time, his technique was poor and he wiped out on hills that don’t normally give him a problem. But his technique’s improved, as have his times: 36 min, 33 min, 30 min (so presumably if the linear trend held, he’d be finishing before he started in 11 more tries). He’s been skiing at night (some of the parks have lit trails) – temperatures are slated to rise above freezing next week, so everything’ll turn to mush.
He came home & helped a lot with Passover
4/6/2014: I sort of swept out the shed (mice had gotten into a pkg of grass seed). If I come down with an unexplained fever over the next few weeks and lapse into unconsciousness, we’ll know why, won’t we. (We store our hametz in the shed during Passover).
4/13/2013: Leon did a much more thorough job of cleaning out the shed than I had Of course, I worry I’ve exposed him to a hantavirus. Leon teases me about my worries – do I worry about multiple topics at once, or do worries about Steve, Leon, Aaron traipse through my head in quick succession?
He and Genia (a post-doc in Forestry & Wildlife Ecology, from Russia) came for Thanksgiving (we were 18 in all) – we sat around for days talking mostly academic shop, as one meal merged into another. The house seemed very quiet once everyone left.
Aaron: The 2002 Subaru that he bought from us years ago had developed a leaky main engine gasket in late January, and the check engine light went on, indicating transmission problems. He continued to drive it for several more months as he searched for an economical replacement, as I worried it would die in the middle of the highway, leaving him stranded. He eventually replaced it with a 2002 Hyundai (which also had check-engine-light issues).
He came East with Alex for Pesach
There’s a recipe for macarons (i.e. French-style macaroons) in the NYT that Louise & I had been eyeing (I thinking it was too complicated for me to attempt; Louise’s niece tried them and found them hard to do). I’d forwarded the recipe to Alex, and when she got here she said, sure – she did things like that all the time. They came out just like in the picture, complete with the caramelized sugar filling and chocolate drizzles (I was awed) in spite of that she only had a corner of the kitchen to work in. And they were scrumptious.
Aaron left Acumen in September to start a Masters in Statistics at U of Chicago. He drove to Chicago from SF via Tahoe, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Houston, Vicksburg, Memphis and Indianapolis, visiting friends & touring Civil War battlefields on the way.
Coursework proved demanding; he’d get up every morning, head for a library, and work problem sets. He spent most of Thanksgiving break in his room, doing problems and writing a course project. For winter break, he’s in CA, with Alex.
Steve: Last spring, finishing up his last year of full-time teaching, and continuing as academic head of MathPath, was hard for him. He got a tarp down in his garden plot, but never got a chance to plant anything.
The plot is 10 x 30’ and S is v. particular about his tarps; he likes 4 mil painters’ tarp. (I thought mil meant millimeter, but S pointed out 4 millimeters would be something like a 6th of an inch. Mil means a thousandth of an inch). He has enough tarp for this year, but what about next year?
Home Depot no longer carries the tarp S likes in stores, but carries it on line, but there are shipping charges (oh, horrors). There are are 3 categories of on-line items: (1) shipped to stores for free (2) shipped only to home, for free if order > $45 (3) shipped only to home, but there are always shipping charges. The other items S wanted to order from Home Depot don’t offset the tarp shipping charges, but S will wait until he needs items that would offset tarp shipping charges. As Leon said, when S explained his quandary about how to obtain tarps next year, “it’s good to have a plan”.
He’s now ½ time, but volunteered to teach 2 courses in the fall and 0 in the spring (because fall enrollment is far heavier). When he’s not teaching, he’s at his computer.
S has been home all week (fall break) – he’s been glued to his computer with tasks like revising the MathPath web pages. And then because he saved the html pages with names that included mmddyyyy (where m = month, d = day, y = year), instead of yyyymmdd (which, when the names are sorted ascending would give the sheets in chronological order) he had to figure out a UNIX routine that would rename the pages in the order he wanted. (I know all about this problem; had long since settled on yyyymmdd when labelling file versions.)
It takes a crowbar to separate him from his laptop. I nag him to go to the gym, but he’s only been once all week.
The tremor in his left hand is stronger, and he gets more tired, but he is otherwise little changed, e.g.
Mom and I have been discussing our large cricket population, which we've had for at least a year, in the basement and kitchen. I have been puzzled by them for 2 reasons:
* they don't look like the crickets I remember from childhood; they have very large back legs, and they hop high and wildly
* they don't chirp
Wikipedia to the rescue. Turns out we don't have "house crickets"; we have "camel crickets". Furthermore, there has been an invasion of Asian camel crickets in recent years and camel crickets domestic and foreign outnumber house crickets in the east. The crickets we have don't look quite like the photos online of Asian camel crickets - they are darker - so I am going to take photos and contribute to the camel cricket survey going on nationally (see one of the websites below).
Most writers consider crickets harmless, or even helpful scavengers around the house, although they do eats clothing if hungry. The one person who seems to regard them as a serious pest is my former colleague Colin Purrington - let me know if you think he has gone off the deep end, or maybe his webpage is a parody.
House: Our house looked pretty decrepit at the start of the year: peeling paint (inside & out), leaks in the flat roof
The ceiling is crumbling above my chaise long (! how dare it), sending plaster chips down all over the upholstery. S says the bank by the stream is eroding, and he needs to get contractors in to look at it & repair that side of the house. Now of course I imagine the LR splitting in half and walls falling into the stream in the middle of Seder...
Steve just went out on the flat roof to clear off ice –my function is to watch from A’s room & call 911 if he falls off the roof. I took a picture of him & the icicles outside A’s window & posted it on Facebook (explaining my role) and DP (once L & A’s pediatrician) speculated I was establishing an alibi.
As of this writing, we have a reinforced retaining wall by the stream, a new flat roof, and the inside and outside of the house have been repainted.
Work: Early in the year, I’d wondered why our section wasn’t hiring replacements as people left. I learned in April what everyone else in the section had already figured out-- that MetLife’s Japan office would be taking over the work we’d been doing, (a cost-saving move, we were told). We will be moved into “Emerging Actuarial Issues” (EAI)—a sort of in-house consulting unit at the start of 2015.
I’ve done valuation for most of my career, and documented each reporting period in thick 3-ring binders. It feels very funny to take the binders apart and toss the contents, like the scene in About Schmidt where Schmidt returns to the office after retirement, and finds his files have been put in the trash.
I got involved in a study of MetLife Korea’s health and life insurance – it was interesting working with the Korean actuaries (mostly women, unlike Japan), and learning about the products, and coding them onto our experience-study system, and then getting the software to run (the servers we in Wilmington usually use are slow and clunky, and the software had “memory issues”-- for a week, runs curled up and died for no reason we could discern).
We did get the experience study to run, by using the good server & cutting down our study categories & requesting fewer reports.
Once I had the preliminary run, I had two reports, each 200,000 – 300,000 records, that had to be summarized & combined. I finally figured out a way to use concatenations of characteristics to make keys, use the keys to make pivot tables, use the sumif function to put counts of claims beside the pivot tables, and then copy the whole thing to another tab and make a pivot table of THAT.
MetLife decided to start calculating an additional set of financial measures, and EAI had an oversight role – in our case, for the Pacific region. There was a learning curve as we got organized:
One of the consulting firms, located in Hong Kong (henceforth, HK) started setting up twice-daily meetings, emailing us that the meetings would be at 8:30 AM and 4:30 PM HK time, which is to say, 9:30 PM & 3:30 AM East Coast time. Then the 3:30 AM meeting got moved to 5 AM in the course of the (Wilmington) Monday workday. During (our) evening the meeting was first moved to 6 AM & then cancelled, which I knew because I checked my blackberry, but poor AB, who doesn’t use a bb, sent his alarm for 4:50 AM Tues and dialed in for nothing.
As part of the oversight role, I got to accompany my boss to Seoul for a week in December—business class on Korea Air Lines was delightful (bevies of helpful flight attendants in jaunty neck-scarves), and it was so much easier to talk in person than over conference call lines. (It was bitter cold. All I saw was the three blocks between the hotel and our office, and small, friendly restaurants in back streets clustered around the hotel and office). (for more detail, see blog).
Me: Some of my Mom’s father’s relatives (Greenmans) did a small family reunion in 2010 – this year we did a bigger one, including some Cooperman cousins.
We all met for dinner (meat-free antipasto & salmon) and talked & talked & talked. Mimi’s essay on her Dad (my Grandpa, Fred) had talked how he & his brothers (Bernie, Mike) assimilated more quickly than his sisters (Minnie, Anna, Jennie, Beatrice). The essay made a great impression, esp. on Monroe & Myron.
I’d been aghast to hear that Bernie and my grandfather had skipped Myron Fenster’s Bar Mitzvah (70 years ago) to go to the Harvard-Yale game, but Myron was philosophical. There was a lot of pressure to act American then. There was discrimination against Jews. It had bothered his mother, Bea a lot, but it hadn’t bothered him.
I continue as Social Action chair at the synagogue (click here for our blog), and am co-chair for the Chester/Delaware County chapter of Heeding God’s Call (blog here), a faith-based gun-violence prevention group. Ohev Shalom became a participant congregation over the spring.
Homicides run 60+ / 100,000 in Chester --almost all from guns, almost all young, African -American me—( compared with about 5/100,000 in the US as a whole, or 1 or 2/100,000 most European countries). I wish I could convey the burden of trauma in that rate – the grieving mothers, the young boys who dream of being able to get up and go outside without fear of being shot.
Fran’s closing: I signed up for Nextdoor Swarthmore (a sort of Facebook for neighborhoods), which is big on found mittens and curb-alerts (e.g. furniture or discarded baby equipment, that might be of use to someone). The biggest crime story this week was a fox that killed 4 chickens. We’re a couple miles north of Chester, but it might as well be another world.
I almost always finish this on New Year’s night, when Swarthmore’s streets are lined with luminaria. Wishing you safety, and peace, and health in the coming year.
(Steve writes) I closed my section last year saying I was looking forward to going half time for 3 years before retiring and not working so hard. Well, it hasn’t happened – yet. I taught a full load both last spring (my last full-time semester) and this fall. Indeed, each semester I did one course I had never taught before. Add MathPath, and I was 3/2 time all year.
Teaching a new course can be fun if you have time to prepare for it, but I ended up doing “just in time” preparation, which is not fun, and of course less good for the students.
MathPath. We had another successful year (location: Mount Holyoke) and I continued all the work for it I have described before. But another aspect, which I have shied away from discussing directly, came to the fore. The camp was originally the sole proprietorship of its founder, George Thomas, but in 2004 he set up a nonprofit to run it. Let’s just say that two key questions were never resolved: who thereafter controlled the assets of the camp (like it’s name) and what was fair compensation to George for founding the camp and creating the assets? Usually IRS insists that such issues be completely settled before it will grant tax-exempt status, but in this case they were not, and since then the situation only became more muddled. As a result, IRS could fine us, or revoke our tax-exempt status, if they did not like how we resolved those two questions now. Depending on what happened, going forward there might not be any MathPath, or not one I could work for.
With much effort and legal counsel, the matter is settled. After much hard bargaining between George and the rest of the Board (represented by me), we reached a settlement that the lawyers said meets IRS requirements. One piece of the settlement is that George is now retired from MathPath management (although he will continue to teach with us, I am happy to say) and I have become Executive Director in his place. In actuality, I have been doing most of the ED job for several years now.
I am enormously grateful to George for taking the huge risk of founding MathPath. I certainly would never have done it. But like many founders, George wasn’t really the right person for the next stage. Let’s hope I am the right person, and that my health holds up for long enough. In any event, I have my retirement project.
I think I have a good mix of characteristics to be Executive Director. I know a lot of people in the math community and am willing to call on them. I am a mathematician through and through, in that I have a mathematician’s sense of interesting questions, elegant arguments and sense of humor, even if I am not as interested in research as most are. I like talking over and over again about fundamental points of logic and good writing, and am good at making up or identifying examples that illustrate them. I like kids. These traits help me be a good teacher for MathPath – the ED should be hands on – and good at recognizing others who will be good also. Finally, I like organizing big projects and doing managerial minutiae, leaving others free of it.
At several stages in the last 20 years my career has heavily involved legal issues – when I was president of the local swim club, when I headed the College’s committee to create an IP Policy, and now with MathPath. Surprisingly, I always found the legal issues very interesting. Perhaps the lawyer genes from my father and his brothers were having late onset expression. Just before my last leave, and with my future with MathPath in doubt, I hit on the idea of going to law school in retirement, and then, say, working for the ACLU. I even inquired with the College whether I could take a law school course or two during that leave, inquired with law professors I knew whether law schools allowed such interlopers, inquired with the PA ACLU whether they would be interested in hiring me (for minimal pay) if I carried out this plan, and talked to one or two mathematician turned lawyers I had heard about. Swarthmore’s provost and president were enthusiastic about the idea but pointed out that leaves were funded to improve one’s professoring when one returns from leave. The ACLU said they might be happy to use my services pro bono but money for even minimal pay was tight and jobs were filled competitively.
Neither of these responses really discouraged me. What discouraged me was when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 2 years later and began to see the effects. I can’t handwrite quickly or very legibly anymore, and even computer typing takes me twice as long as before (if you see some stray letters in my part of this annual, they are due to my left hand jerking as I type and hitting some random key that I didn’t notice), so attending law school doesn’t sound like it will be very doable, even if my mental powers stay intact. Some of my friends immediately pointed out: insist on your rights from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that, even though these days I can’t give a test without some students getting double time from that law. But now that MathPath is stable, my decision is clear. In the perhaps limited time I have left to be effective, I should go with something I already know how to do.
Our house. As Fran has said, we had a lot of work done this past summer and fall, and there is more coming up. It seems strange to be contracting for work which will mostly benefit future owners (after, presumably, garnering us a higher sale price). Before I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Fran and I disagreed about how long to stay. She wanted a big house indefinitely so that we could keep holding Thanksgiving and Passover for large numbers of relatives. I thought it was silly for the two of us to dawdle around in much more space than we need, and pay the upkeep, for a few days a year when lots of relatives might come. But now, when to move may be decided by something else: How long will I be able to negotiate the house? Though I was the one who first proposed moving out to an apartment in a senior community, Fran is the one who now says, after every trip to the attic, we’ve got to start throwing things out. She remembers what our friends Jon Walters and Terry Fromsen said when they moved a year ago from the next street over to Center City. Terry did nothing the last few days before the moving deadline but throw things out with little time to think about what might need to be kept. “Start throwing things out now” was her advice.
The company that does our house painting is owned by a man Dave who lives in Swarthmore and has become our friend. When he came over a few months ago to do estimates, almost the first thing he asked me was: How much longer are you planning to stay here? Well, that’s a good question, I said. We can’t decide, but assume 5 years. He and I then went around the house inside and out. For now on the inside I just wanted him to fix walls that had had some water damage, but I asked him if there was any other painting we would need to do inside later for showing the house to buyers. He looked around – we were in the kitchen. Yes, he said, tone it down.
Tone it down? I should explain that I’ve always been enamored or the strong dark colors of Mexican interiors. For the first 20 years in this house, I couldn’t convince Fran, and we had the usual off-whites, except for my study, which has walls alternating brown and orange. But eventually she came around to the idea and now many of our rooms are strong yellows or blues, and the kitchen is orange and yellow.
Dave said that these days people are too busy to want a fix-it-upper. They want something they can move into as is. So if I want a house, which will attract a lot of offers, go back to those light interior colors.
Family. My Uncle Gene died, my mother’s brother, younger by 6 years. He was the last blood relative left alive in the nuclear families above me. Only he could tell us who many of the people were in the family movies from the 1920s and 30s. Turns out he had prepaid for his final care and his funeral, and had left specific instructions, e.g., no extreme methods to keep him alive. A class act.
Fran has already written about Aaron, Leon, and herself. I’ll just second what she said.
Health. My description a year ago continues to be accurate: my tremors are a sizeable nuisance (despite more medication) and my back problems are a more serious problem, because they make standing and walking hurt. I list to one side. (My best guess is that these back problems are originally orthopedic, but Parkinson’s has exacerbated them.) My primary physician authorized a month of paid physical therapy for me last spring. It didn’t make much difference, in part because I found little time for practice beyond the sessions themselves. But I learned the exercises and can use them going forward. It’s clear that exercise is crucial in slowing the physical progression of Parkinson’s. If I can’t make time for daily exercise this coming semester, that says something bad about my will.
Reading the literature on Parkinson’s is depressing because there are so many things that can go wrong, from swallowing, to compulsive behavior to trouble falling asleep. Fortunately one rarely presents all the symptoms; indeed one couldn’t, because some of the symptoms are direct opposites, e.g., trouble falling asleep and trouble staying awake. Turns out I have added one additional symptom this year, trouble staying awake. It can take me a half hour to type a 3-sentence paragraph, because I fall asleep every third word for 5 seconds and when I wake up my hand resting on the trackpad has deleted the paragraph and scrolled me down the page. After fighting it for several months, I’ve decided the best solution is to go with the flow. If the extreme sleepiness comes on, and I don’t have to be somewhere, I just take a nap. After an hour or so I wake up refreshed and have no trouble working at my desk for a few more hours, until the sleepiness comes back. This leads me to be asleep, or up, at unusual hours, but it seems to be working for me. Besides, I’ve always kept irregular hours.
Like most older people (I am 68), I actually have a number of medical issues, some others getting worse as well. But I think I’ve said enough on this topic for one annual. Fran and I have a number of quotes that have stayed with us from books we read to kids when they were young. To quote the father in Cheaper by the Dozen, personal health problems are “not of general interest”.
Travel. If I were you, I think I would like the travel part of our annuals best – no heavy philosophy and interesting tips on things to see. Remember the pornographic letter-sealing ring from the Norwich museum last year? Alas, there wasn’t any travel for me last year, except for a trip to Baltimore for a math conference, and from which the only travel excitement was that when I got in my car to return home, the engine wouldn’t start. The reason for no pleasure travel: under our usual schedules no time works really well for both of us, but with no teaching this spring we could make a trip then. And indeed, Fran has begun planning a trip to Provence for March.
Closing. For all my words so far, my mood is probably not clear. I feel in a state of transition, not knowing quite where I will come out. I am beginning to feel some distance from Swarthmore College in a way I never thought I would, being all my life a devoted alum and a devoted teacher. I guess that means I am right to be retiring. I am pretty clear about what MathPath will need from me, and it’s work that I mostly like, even if it no longer has the excitement of something new. But hanging over everything is my health, and I am always a pessimist. How long will I be able to teach, to run MathPath, to live in our house, to travel? It may be 20 years, it may be 2. I don’t know. I do know that, having aged very little according to most people from age 15 to 60, I now feel I am aging very quickly.
And despite all that, I am mostly happy, a point that is probably obscured by what I write – I had to do this, I suffered that, I’m too busy. First of all, there are some odd things that give me immense pleasure. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy packing boxes, using mailmerge to print and address envelopes, and then shipping all these things and tracking them online. Subclinical Asperger’s? I still get excited in fall foliage time seeing a particularly brilliant tree. And finally, Fran and I are getting along well and quietly enjoy each other’s company. As we often say after discussing some problem, “but we are still here”. We are glad you are still here too.
(Leon writes) The biggest piece of news for this year is that I haven’t had another seizure.
I also joined the University of Wisconsin outing club (the Hoofer Outing Club -- HOC). I had been interested in the outing club at college, but my interest was quickly (and probably wrongly) quashed by the first meeting. The Dartmouth outing club handed out “awards” at each meeting for people’s activities on trips. If I recall correctly, one was the “Woody Woodpecker” award: a makeshift plaque with a stickfigure carved on it and a long dowel protruding from the stickfigure’s groin. You can guess what the award was for. Since I was coming from the Boy Scouts, that was too much of a culture shock. (In hindsight, the gap wasn’t as large as it seemed, but that dowel really weirded me out.)
So, I was hesitant to join the HOC out of fear that it also might be crawling with undergrads. Thankfully, they were in the minority; many members were graduate students, postdocs/scientists, and community members. It proved to be a good fit, and I took part in many activities (including cross-country skiing, mountain biking, kayaking, and canoeing).
I also met my girlfriend (Женя/Genya) through the club during a cross-country skiing trip. My (excited) mother has already linked to a picture of us and noted her line of research and nationality. It has been interesting bridging languages and cultures. It never occurred to me that the existence of english spelling bees marked such a flaw in the language. Still, I'm glad we don't have Russian grammar. Maybe I'll understand it better in a year.
We had a lot of fun skiing together, and last year’s winter provided excellent conditions. Since cross-country skiing uses practically every muscle in your body, it’s easy to stay warm -- even at -5 F. This translated into the best biking season I’ve had, including a few races, fast group rides, and three rides >100 mi.
It was also a good year for travel. I did my first road trip in ages by driving out to Boston and visiting friends and family. Along the way, I made a brief detour to Hanover, NH to bike around some of my old haunts -- enjoying the mountains and dirts roads (pictures). I forgot how much I loved biking there. I hadn’t been back to Hanover since 2008 since I’m not interested in reunions, but I’m glad to see it’s basically as I’ve left it.
I met up with some more friends for a 5-day backpacking trip in New Mexico (Aldo Leopold Wilderness, Gila National Forest). We were in a remote area and didn’t see another soul after entering the wilderness (although we did see a cute, skittish bear). There was a log-book in an abandoned fire lookout station at the summit of Reeds Peak (on the Continental Divide Trail), and the previous entry was two weeks before our visit. The scenery was beautiful and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better view of the night sky. However, we ended up biting off more than we could chew -- in part because many sections of the trail were in a sorry state. A forest fire had burned part of the area in 2012, and rains subsequently washed out miles of trail (and any good route). However, we survived, and it was probably my favorite activity of the year.
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