Maurer/Stier 2007 Annual Letter


206 Benjamin West Ave

Swarthmore PA 19081-1421

December 31, 2007 (postdated!)



Steve writes. Apologies for the lateness of this annual.  I returned from 3 months in Germany on Dec 23 and it has taken a while to settle in, given the usual holiday activities.


I'll mostly write about that visit, but first other things, briefly.


Last school year, my 3rd as math/stat chair, was especially busy. In addition to the usual, I was now chair of one of the book series of the math association, I was teaching an advanced analysis seminar I had not taught in 14 years, I had to lead a sudden job search when one of my colleagues was tapped to be Dean of Students, and I led a big push to develop a new department brochure for Swarthmore applicants. In the increasing competition for good students, brochures and websites have become quite important. The previous brochure, at least 10 years old, was very factual with no pictures.  Today brochures have to be people oriented, with catchy photos and graphics. Even I found the old brochure boring, and I think I wrote most of it. Anyway, drafting the new text, orchestrating the photo shoot, negotiating back and forth with the (non-mathematical) design and copyeditor people, was lengthy. Maybe I am poised for a new career in advertising.


Anyway, I was quite exhausted come last June, and glad to be getting a year's leave. June itself was especially busy. In a major press I finally finished up the linear algebra chapter for the EDC high school series, prepared for MathPath and put chair business in shape to hand over. My only qualm was that I was leaving Don Shimamoto, as acting chair, an even busier year - but just for a year; I agreed to be chair for 3 more years upon my return.


MathPath in July in Colorado Springs went quite well. I've been the key writer of the application test for several years, but this was the first year I read all the submissions and made most of the admission decisions. Some smart middle school kids are very obscure math writers, and sometimes it took a while to decide how much talent was there. Colorado College has a beautiful location, with Pikes Peak and the Front Range looming over it.


Aaron. His college quest turned out better than I expected, as he duly noted at the time. But I don't have to say more, because much to our surprise, he decided at the last moment to write a section for our letter. Below he describes his decision process and how he feels it has worked out.


Leon. He's applying to grad school in physics, in hopes of becoming a professor, and being quite methodical and self-directed about it. We're proud of how grown up he has become. My main concern is whether he is good enough at physics to eventually get a job he likes.  (I'm glad I became a professor, but the profession has gotten less attractive. You are expected to do even more things well, it's harder and takes longer to get through grad school and pre-tenure stages, especially in sciences, and there are fewer places where you don't feel like a cog in a machine.) I did get him to speak to his professors to get some idea of his prospects, and he has dug up some sobering information online, so he's going ahead with his eyes open.


Germany. I explained in last year's annual the opportunity that arose, with kids off at college and me on leave, to make a symbolic return of my family to Berlin by teaching at ECLA, the English language European College of Liberal Arts. The plan a year ago was to go there in Spring 08, but it turned out to cause fewer conflicts to go in the Fall (with Fran and my 25th anniversary trip to Italy postponed to Spring 08). My plan was to work much less hard than usual (only one course) and do a lot of sightseeing and train travel.  When my brother Ed heard this, he asked, was this a delayed junior year abroad? I laughed, but that's about right.


I've always been interested in history, especially of wars and dictatorships. As a Jew I've had a horrific fascination with the Third Reich. So for me, going to live in Berlin was quite consciously a decision to go live in the heart of the former beast.


I was not disappointed. Sometimes I sought out the beast, as on the day I set out to visit both Gestapo Headquarters and Stasi Headquarters. (A cheery plan, you may say, but this is just the sort of thing that appeals to me.) The Gestapo building was badly bombed during the war and later leveled by West Berlin, but today there is an excellent open-air museum on the site (Topographie des Terrors).  I spent most of the day there and only really got through about half of it.  Among other things, it brought home more forcefully than I remembered how radically and brutally the Nazis transformed Germany and took all power in just a few months after Hitler became chancellor. Stasi headquarters, a massive building in a massive complex, is as it was then, also with an excellent museum.  I got there another day, and again only got through part. One floor housed the billboard displays that the Stasi's own publicity staff prepared on the occasion of the 25th birthday of the DDR (East Germany), highlighting all their great deeds saving the nation. I was particularly struck by their poster about Amnesty International, a western so-called human rights organization whose goal was to slander the DDR. But not to worry, the Stasi had shut down their East German contacts.


But even when I wasn't looking for it, memories of the beast were all around. There are Gedenktafel (plaques) on buildings all over Germany. One day, walking down the residential street in the Pankow district where my office was, but a block beyond where I usually go, I saw a plaque on a building and got up closer to read it. It said, this house belonged to the Jewish factory owner Georg Hermann. In 1942 he, his family, and 11 other Jews who were forced to live here were deported to various extermination camps. Then each person was listed, with death year and location. (I've translated the plaque for you, but all such plaques were in German, or sometimes German and English.)


Or, on another occasion I was admiring from the outside the nicely fixed up town library in the center of Pankow, when I looked up and saw written on the top, "former orphanage of the Jewish Community of Berlin". Then I found a sign saying, in remembrance of the November Progrom (Kristallnacht) there will be a free tour of the orphanage at 10am on Saturday Nov 10.  The tour turned out to include many other Jewish buildings and plaques in Pankow. It was led by a sweet old lady who seemed to know just about everything about the former Jews of Pankow. (Most of the Jews of prewar Berlin, including my murdered relatives, lived farther south, in Mitte or Prenzlauerberg, then shabby inner city areas but since reunification quite trendy.) Except for me and a Romanian ECLA student, all the 20 or so tourees were Germans, mostly old but not exclusively so.


Perhaps the reminder that most touched me was a gravestone-like marker that I happened upon in a flower bed near the center of the city Jena.  It read, "In Spring 1945 the center of Jena was destroyed by bombing. And so the war that went out from Germany came back here. We remember the victims."


Many of the museums, especially those called government Documentation Centers, emphasize pictures, maps, copies of newspaper pages, etc., and make a point of critiquing any belief that anything good came of the Nazi period. I visited the documentation center at Prora, the beach area on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen where the Nazis proposed to build a resort for 20000 workers at a time.  It was never finished, but the immense monolithic buildings are still there, mostly empty, with little else around. So, at least the Nazis wanted the average German to enjoy vacations.  No, says the documentation center, it was all a plan to look good and regiment the workers. Well, at least Hitler built the autobahns and put people back to work by doing it. Not really, says the documentation center.  The autobahns were started under the Weimar Republic, and employment building them was only a marginal factor in the reduction of unemployment.


It's not just recent history for which there is this honest accounting. I went to the outstanding Luther Museum in Wittenberg. (After passing by train several times through Lutherstadt-Wittenberg on the way to cities farther south, it dawned on me that this place wouldn't be called Luther City for nothing. Indeed, it is the Wittenberg where he posted his 95 theses on the church door.) Late in his life Luther became very dyspeptic and published several vicious rants against Jews. Original copies were all there, with sample scurrilous passages quoted. To be fair to Luther, he was anti-Judaism, not anti-Semitic. He was angry that Jews had not converted to his improved Christianity and welcomed them when they did.  However, his prescriptions for what to do with the Jewish infidels was not much different from later Nazi prescriptions for those with Jewish blood, a point duly noted in the formal apology in the 1980s of the Lutheran Church, also quoted in the museum. Also, Luther wrote equally vicious attacks on the Pope and on Turks, with original copies also on display. Indeed, there was a whole room devoted to "propaganda", and how this religious war was the first conflict largely carried out through the relatively new media of the printing press.


I don't know any country that confronts the evils in its past so openly.  Fran remarks that Japan certainly has not. The president of ECLA (a professor of Spanish) says that Spain has not. What about Russia? Anyone know?


It's not just about the past. I also don't know any country with so many public service billboards.  Immigration is an issue in Germany.  Well, I saw billboards saying, "immigration, our future".  And many billboards urging Germans to be a Pate (patron, godfather) to poor kids in Africa or elsewhere. As well as many signs to recyle.


But, is this all show? What do Germans really think of Jews and immigrants? Or, do they think "the Nazis did all this, not us"? Well, like in the US, it's a big country and opinions vary.  There were occasional reports in the papers of attacks on foreigners and epithets at soccer games against Jews or foreigners.  I experienced nothing personally, but 3 ECLA students (an American, a Brit, and a Palestinian Israeli) reported that once, when they were on a tram together, they were yelled at by some skin heads for not speaking German. Fortunately, other Germans on the tram scolded the skin heads, deflecting their interest.  (This reminds me.  The German teacher at ECLA, an East German, told me that one time in the DDR he complained to the police because skins heads came through his street at night yelling fascist slogans and threatening his black Venezuelan neighbor. The police refused to make a report, because this couldn't have happened; "all the fascists are in West Germany".)


A few years ago, the NYT correspondent in Germany referred to the country as "modern, earnest Germany, always trying to do the right thing". I agree. I don't think it's show. Maybe the government is out ahead of the people, but not I think by a whole lot. If it was way ahead of the people, I would worry that its education efforts would backfire, as with Leon and Aaron, who are sort of anti politically correct, because being politically correct was emphasized so much in public school. Maybe the German schools are the same.  But on the street, while the observant person can't fail to notice the messages about history, they are not in your face.  This strikes me as the best way to keep the memory alive.


Whatever else Germans think, most of them, East or West, hold to nie wieder Krieg - never again war. So their history has worn off on them at least to this extent.  We Americans might work harder to develop the same attitude.  That German teacher at ECLA visited the US for the first time last summer.  One of his reactions: it's like Russia, lots of military monuments.  In Germany, though there are lots of reminders of war, there are very few memorial depictions of soldiers or weapons (except for those built by the Russians).


Trains. Riding trains was a major purpose for this trip, and I was not disappointed. You can get almost anywhere in Germany by train, and I did. There are so many lines that you can often get between the same pair of cities by several different routes. Around main cities not only are there many lines going out like spokes, but there are other lines going between the spokes. And all of this is very well documented online. Even when I didn't take a trip, I had great fun typing in the end cities and times and seeing all the routes, connections, prices, and types of trains.


But mostly I did take trips. With fast and frequent trains, about a third of Germany was easily accessible from Berlin by day trips on the DB (Deutsche Bahn, German Rail).  A few other places I went to on overnights. I got myself a BahnCard 50 - for someone over age 60 this cost 104 euros, and then every ticket is halfprice, for a year, with none of the restrictions of most special deals, like having to take a particular train. My one regret is that I had to do much of this late in the year, when there is little daylight (only from about 8am to 4pm), so that my pleasure at sightseeing out the window was limited, because I needed to leave before daylight and return after dark. But just sitting on the train is fun for me.


The situation in Berlin was even better.  A regular one-trip transit-authority ticket gives you 2 hours on any combination of busses, trams, S-bahn (city trains, mostly on or above ground), U-bahn (mostly subways) and DB regional rail (red trains, as opposed to the fast long-distance white trains). Just to get downtown from my apartment there were 5 good routes. And every stop has detailed information about local routes and times, and even more information is available online, including an excellent interactive map of Berlin. Most routes run every 10 or 20 minutes, even on weekends or into the night.


It's hard for me to express to non train fanatics how much fun I had.  My first full day in Berlin I used a day ticket to visit all the magnificent long-distance train stations in Berlin and many regional and local stations, for instance, by riding all the way around on the S-bahn inner loop. What a pleasure, throughout my travels, to see so many stations with so many tracks (often going under and over each other just outside the stations), and with so many of those tracks having trains on them at the same time. Many of the train stations are classical sheds.  Almost all of the stations had interesting architecture, even the occasional abandoned station. The new main station in Berlin had to grow on me, but it did.  It is 5 stories, with N-S trains at the bottom and E-W trains at the top, and all in glass with open lines of vision to all 5 stories at once.  Transparency is a major theme in today's Germany.


I bought a digital camera for this trip, and if any of you are train fans, I have lots of pictures I can share. (If you think this is peculiar, rest assured that I am not alone.  There are tons of other people's train pictures already on the web. My favorite: when I was studying up on Prague transportation, I discovered a U-Tube movie of an entire trip of a Prague subway train as seen by the driver.) I also have photos of non train stuff.


Recommendations.  When I discuss travels in annuals, I usually include a list of favorite things that are not standard in guidebooks.  Here are some. (The standard things were great too.)



What did I miss most in Germany? American breakfasts!  For all the porridge in German fairy tales (think Goldilocks), you can't find any hot cereals in the stores. For breakfast Germans eat cold cereals (including American ones), cold cuts, and yogurt.  After some effort, I found, in the natural foods section of a larger store, Vollkorngreis (wheat ground to the grits level) and Kleine Haferflocken (small oat flakes), which allowed me to make a sort of slow cooking cream of wheat and oatmeal. I once asked the German chef in the ECLA cafeteria why Brei (porridge, hot cereal) has died out in Germany. Because we hate it, he harrumphed, somewhat offended that I might be asking him to make it.


ECLA.  This is certainly the smallest academic institution I've been associated with - this year about 40 students and 20 faculty and staff(!). It's view of liberal arts is a bit different from mine.  I think of liberal arts as a frame of mind - method of inquiry more important than topic of inquiry, applying different modes of thought to a question, not limiting one's study to topics one thinks will help in a career, asking why instead of what, open ended questions. ECLA's view differs on the first two two categories. It's somewhat of a great books program, and thinks that everyone needs to study philosophy, morality, literature and art. Right now it runs a one-year program, that students come to at whatever point they find it appropriate, some right after high school, some after a few years of university, some after an undergraduate degree, some after a masters degree, some after working for a few years. They are planning an expansion to a 4-year program.  You can learn more at


I think I showed them that math can fit with their current program; it will certainly fit with their expanded program. I had fun being a student as well as a teacher. I attended the core course (on classical Greece) and even gave a guest lecture on Greek ideas of mathematics. I participated when the Kant elective discussed mathematics. I took an advanced German course and occasionally attended screenings in the film course.  It took me a while to settle on a topic for my own course, but eventually I narrowed in on symbolic logic and some philosophy of mathematics.


The greatest thing about ECLA for me was the students. ECLA provided me with free meals at the dining hall, so mostly I ate there.  This way I got to know the students, and to a lesser extent the faculty, who tended to eat there at lunch and sometimes dinner. The students were really sort of amazing, in that they were so internationally oriented.  Take for example the 1 male and 3 females from Kyrgyzstan. They all spoke excellent English, as well as Russian, Kyrgyz, and some German.  They had all been to the US as exchange students in high school. They had all gotten undergraduate degrees at the American University of Central Asia, typically in something like economics. Now they wanted a humanities year, before deciding the next place they might go. One of them was of Korean ancestry. What was she doing in central Asia?  Stalin had moved the Koreans living in the far east of the USSR, just as he had moved many other groups. It was an education to hear their views of their home country, of Germany, of the US, and to learn of their expectations of themselves, and their parents' expectations. (For the girls, the parental expectations were a mix of internationalism and doing the dishes.) Same for talking to the Ukrainians, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Turks, the Germans, and so on.  It was also fun to get to know the 4 students in my math seminar, from Estonia, Moldova, Germany and Mexico. As I said in an earlier annual (when describing some amazing Swarthmore international students) I think these kids who have learned to move between cultures will take over the world.


ECLA, and the apartment they provided me, are located in the Pankow district, northeast of the city center. Many of the leaders and nomenklatura of East Germany lived there. Today Pankow has a bimodal population: young families, with lots of kids on bikes or babies in strollers, and retired communists (many also on bikes). Pankow is actually quite pretty, and quiet, and I very much enjoyed walking around it.  It wasn't badly damaged during the Battle of Berlin - the Russians were already eyeing it for their administration - but neither was it fixed up much during DDR days. Since reunification, one building after another has been renovated or replaced. You can tell when a building has been renovated, because it changes color from the dull stucco brown that was once almost universal in Germany to Mediterranean colors - beige, yellow, orange, pink.  I have some photos of buildings split down the middle by this color change.


Indeed, several sections of east Berlin are nicer today than west Berlin, because some have only been renovated recently, with considerable attention to individuality.  Pankow is especially nice, as most buildings had been individual homes or small apartment buildings.


Oddly, the ECLA buildings are among the ugliest left in Pankow. East Germany had a standard concrete block design for embassies. There were 1-story, 2-story, and 3-story versions, and ECLA bought up some of each cheap, scattered around over several blocks. Anyway, they are functional, and ECLA has fixed them up inside.  Each faculty office, for instance, has a seminar table.


Berlin as a whole is a spacious city.  It has more land area than New York but under half the population. (Back in the 1920s, Berlin absorbed all its suburbs, including Pankow.) The up side to this space is that there are many big parks, and rents are low - hence Berlin has become a chic city with many artists moving in.  The down side is that abandoned real estate is just left standing; the space isn't needed. You can be walking through a very nice section where suddenly there is an abandoned building - an old DDR government office, a house that hasn't been fixed up, or an empty lot. Other east German cities have abandoned factories, but not all this abandoned space within residential and business areas.


Enough. For all sorts of reasons my visit in Berlin was fascinating and educational.



Fran's part - Executive summary:  Youngest leaves for college,  husband has brief fling with German and trains,  middle aged Mom finds solace in granite countertops, trips to Brazil, and 4 idyllic days in Prague.


Aaron:  Once Aaron's applications were submitted last January, I worried and worried.  Most kids apply to at least one rolling-admission safety school early in the fall, but Aaron had waited and waited - in February  he found he'd been waitlisted for non-honors Penn State, Univ Park.


A still hasn't talked to Ms. W (his guidance counsellor) abt Penn St.  I fret considerably.  Mom said - don't nag him; what good will it do?  I said, you nag Sid.  She said, that's different (she's right, isn't she); he can do something abt it.  A agreed.  Wise woman, your Mom, quoth he.


...all I want to know is that he's been admitted to one of the 8 or so schools outstanding.  I keep thinking - the probability of being rejected at them all is around .75 to the 8th power (i.e. each accepts around 25% of applicants), so maybe 10% maybe more?  ulp.


My cohort of mommies talked of little but college admissions & apps.


Fortunately, he heard he'd gotten into Bowdoin in mid-March.  I cried, kissed him, read the letter, and then repeated the whole process several times.  Steve harumphed.  I resolved to stop nagging.  Word spread fast - by the time Steve emailed his brother Ed,  Ed already knew because (Ed's son) Jeff's fiancee, Helen had already noticed on Facebook that Aaron had joined the group Bowdoin 2011. 


A has been admitted to Hamilton & Colgate (in addition to Bowdoin & Carleton and U VT), wait listed by Cornell & Penn State, rejected by Amherst (didn't bother him a whit).  I knocked on his door one eve... He was out on the roof burning his rejection & wait list letters. How different from the wondergirls of Newton North.  I was reading the (NY Times) paragraph where the boyfriend of one describes how the girl likes Kirkegaard & Descartes (Aaron didn't know who either was & it didn't faze him).  L reminded A that there was a dog named Kirkegaard in Thanks for the Fish.  But, asked A, do these wonderwomen know what an eigenvector is?...


I'm of course basking in the reflected glory.  I tried basking in front of Louise at lunch, and she gave me a look & pointed out that I'd spent months moaning "Oh, who will want my child", and wringing my hands over how slow he was to do his apps, and being waitlisted at Penn State.  Now all of a sudden he's a model child & I'm a Model Mommy.


He made prospie visits to Carleton (where the football coach showed him around and he ate s'mores on an island in the campus lake with the football team), Wesleyan (his visit fell on April 20th ) , and Bowdoin.  For his 18th birthday (April 29th), he wanted a $200 check to pay Carleton's deposit.  He'd filled out the forms to decline the other schools.  He ate birthday cake with us (the same chocolate cake with white icing I've baked for L and A since they were 4), and went out to mail the letters and visit an unspecified friend.  He was off a Junior license, he reminded us, we couldn't call the cops on him for driving after 11.


A's close friends Nate and Ken both chose Carleton, too.


The rest of his Senior year passed in a happy blur.


Fri was Relay for Life (kids camp in the football field & walk around the track 24 hours to raise funds for cancer). Brought them pizza after getting home from work - they'd built themselves a kind of fort around their tents out of disassembled cardboard boxes, with a low door in the front.  Like a bunch of huge 4 year-olds, building castles with the sofa cushions.  (except when this one guy crawled through the door w/ a young woman sprawled on his back...). 


He went to the Prom with a girl from Euro AP and two of her friends and I scurried home from work to take pictures:


Aarthi had these 6" heels on, and her mom was worried because she'd never worn heels before.  Her ankles sort of shook in them.  Aarthi also doesn't carry pocketbooks, so a friend took her cellphone.  Anyway, I took pics for a while (Aarthi's Mom, Joythi, said, the next time you see him in a tux, he'll probably be getting married) until A protested (saying he was going to melt), and they all piled into the minivan of one of the girl's father's, and off they went.


We had parents over for dinner (one Dad had worked with Aarthi's Dad), including (by accident), the Mom of Aaron's date from last year (I'd phoned invitations in a rush, and had confused two moms with similar names- A outraged), and we all chatted companionably about how hard it was to extract information from sons.  I was relieved the next day we'd all survived the ordeal.


But, of course, I don't really know anything - just that their prom wasn't excessive (no limos - well, they seem to have snagged a ride back in Ezra S's limo, for total cost of $25, no bride-like up-dos) and he's back in one piece, and she's pretty, with an expressive mouth.  I was putting platters away, looking at the bowl that was once Ruth Sykes, and the plates that were Lucy's, and wondering would women I don't even know someday put these things away in closets, and remember me for a moment or not.


There was Commemoration in the Swarthmore College Amphitheatre - kids talked about their school years and laughed at in-jokes. 


They finished & each kid brought his Mom a red carnation.  Aaron & Ken E started joking abt Carleton ("i'm going to a small college out in the MidWest; you wouldn't have heard of it"). Ben Hawkinson leaped down over a row of chairs from the terrace above & started joking around w/ Andrew K.  Nate, Ben & I think Andrew were holding Justin horizontally across their arms, each one clenching a carnation between his teeth.


Graduation (at the Villenova Gym) was the usual mix of earnest speeches and distant views of the grads.


Half were in flipflops & shorts, half in the (specified) formal garb.  We cheered & shouted when A's name called, but a man was walking in front of us at the one moment I could perhaps have gotten a shot that showed his face. 


So I was wild to get shots of him before he shed cap & gown. [I never did get any shots of L, whose graduation had been in the cramped HS gym, on a thunderstormy night]  ... Found A and took multiple pics of him w/ L (but he wouldn't put his cap back on, and complained his dress shirt was too tight in the neck).  A strode through the crowd (us in his wake) hailing friends and going up to hug each.  Amy Jewett exclaimed "preschool to High school!" (she knew him from Trinity).  We made our way over to the car; A put on his cap for pictures w/ Grandma.


The cohort of Moms at the synagogue met for brunch (as we'd done after our kids' Bar/Bat Mitzvah year) and toasted each other.  We'd survived.


Aaron slept, played computer games, and hung out with friends until mid-August, when I took him to Northfield for the start of football camp.  His roommate's family was vacationing in MN (roommate's Mom - an audiologist- comes from Minneapolis - from a huge French-Canadian family - and they visit every summer for a month), and we met them for dinner.   I'd imagined from the name they'd be very WASP-y, but in fact Dad (stage crew at Radio City Music Hall) is ½ Jewish.  Granger is a foot shorter than Aaron, wants to major in bio or physics, and had read & liked the required reading book.  He and A fell into a long conversation about bands that seemed to satisfy both of them.


Next morning, we shopped at Target, walked around campus and found football camp signin (A spied a couple of huge young men who directed us), A lugged his belongings up 4 flights to his temporary room.  There was a program on the Football Parents group (which tailgates to most games - most of the players are from MN or WI). 


...sat next to A as he ate w/ team members (they were talking about teams - most knew kids going to other MN colleges like St. Thomas that Carleton will play against) looking at the back of his neck - a bit spotty & hairy but thinking how dear he was.  Coaches convoked the team again; that was parents' signal to leave.  Blessed him mumblingly (it being Fri night) & stumbled off with a lump in my throat.


I mused on Loss and Change:


Izzy asked S was he sad (at the pool; he was recording laps) and he had to think for a min why she'd ask.  L thinks I must be abnormal; if everyone got so shook up when a kid went to college, no one would become a mother.   JL (encountered walking yest) asked was A in MN and had he gotten organized & bought clothes had I bought him a jacket and did he have enough warm clothes???   I started in on how bereft I'd feel in a month w/ L and S gone and then realized she's a widow for godssake & said boy, I shouldn't be saying this to you, and she laughed & said we'd go for walks.  Mom said she always felt shook up when I left - she'd stand at the gate & wave & wave & I'd wave once & be off to my next adventure.


Leon:  Leon proudly loaded his gear into our 1996 Subaru the day before Yom Kippur, to drive up and keep his (also non-fasting & also Jewish) friend Adj company at Brandeis on Yom Kippur.  He rear-ended someone outside Worcester, MA & totalled the car.  My sister, Beth, drove out to get him (very shook up) & took him & his stuff home.  By the next afternoon, he and Adj were playing board games with friends (how the Brandeis students while away YK afternoon).


He's in his last year and applying to grad school.  We hear mostly about problem sets


5/22/07:  Phone call w/ Leon.  Told him 4x how good it was to hear his voice, but that I worried that he worked too hard.  (he said he's done almost nothing but problem sets & bike riding).  Shouldn't he spend more time on women and drugs, to get the full breadth of college experience? 


He gave me a laymans acct of his courses.  Relativistic electrodynamics:  that Maxwell's Laws (4 diffl equs set up in the 1870's or so) can also be derived from the th. of special relativity, but that the course is really a misnomer, since electrodynamics is almost the only part of physics that doesn't chg. w/ relativity.  Complex analysis is Laurents' series (like Taylor series, but with negative powers)


I occasionally try to dispense advice, with limited success:


I talked L into going last night to Peking in Media for dinner.  I drove over (all 3 miles) while he criticized my driving (too timid on corners, and I didn't notice a stopsign in time so one stop was slightly more abrupt than it needed to be.  Didn't I realize all the energy I was dissipating as heat on my brake pads?). ..I drank 2 gl of wine & dribbled MuShu vegetable juice down my shirt (he drove home) and tried unsuccessfully to convince him that should he have a Significant Other in the future, he should take the SO to dinner sometimes (like once / month) if the SO likes it, even if he thinks it's a waste of time & money.


When he sent us his Personal Statement for grad schools to edit, I couldn't comment on the content (he's interested in quantum computing and spintronics), or on his chances (everyone I meet has tales of PhD physicists having to change fields), but there was a low-key kind of devotion in what he wrote that made me terribly happy.  His entrance essay 4 years ago was on Robert Heinlein - it was boyish and artless.  He's learned so much in 4 years.

Leon, Aaron, & friends had a LAN party on Saturday - networking 10 or so PC's and spending the night in virtual battle.  As usual, I retreated upstairs.  I ventured down the next morning, expecting the usual sea of wires and young men asleep and saw no evidence at all of a party except a stack of pizza boxes in the mudroom and a running dishwasher.  They'd cleaned up.


Work:  At the end of last year, I was working through Pimsleur's Portuguese I (each lesson exactly filled my drive to work), where Jorge and Maria have endless drinks and discussions of who'll pay.  Then they both got sick (any wonder?) and drank cups of milk and looked for the Dr's office.   I worked through the next two Pimsleur courses, and got a human teacher -  at 25, she seems so young - who comes intermittently,  we're maybe 2/3 of the way through a (very quirky, fast-paced) text for foreigners learning Portuguese. 


The unit I was working on (subjunctive) started with a man asking the garage to do various maintenance items on his car, each time he set out for a distant city.  Then, there was a series of letters from the garage cashier to Ms. Lonleyhearts about her unmrequired love for the customer who kept coming back to the garage for more and more maintenance.  Then there was a story about a man who took his mother-in-law to view a farm she'd been left.  The mother-in-law died suddenly, and the man & his wife had to drive the body back to her native city.  They drove & drove, then had to stop for gas.  While they got gas, someone made off with the car & corpse.


Spent 5 weeks in Sao Paulo over the course of the year (3 trips), and feel pretty comfortable there.  When I arrive, the department secretary has my ID badge and computer air-card ready (so my laptop can reach the internet).  Being in a fancy hotel, addressed as "a senhora"  goes to my head a bit.  The "Club" breakfast room is on the 23rd floor, with ripe fruit & fresh croissants & views over the city,  and a waitress that asks how "a senhora" slept.  (I asked her once what time she had to leave home to get to work - 3 AM). 


My driver (the company contracts with one of the taxi-drivers based nearby)  speaks lovely, slow Portuguese, and we joke and discuss politics.  A different set of actuaries (or accountants) takes me out to lunch every day:


One lunch w the juniorest of the actuaries (all still going to night classes & working by day)  centered on the joys of adolescence.  They all work 8-5 or so (so get up around 6) and THEN go off to night school, arriving home around midnight.  I got started (I always do) on Aaron's summer - TV & worlds of warcraft & facebook & weightlifting, interspersed with a few trips to the shore.  Their faces lit up, and they all said, they were like that once, and they didn't realize how happy they were.


Bit by bit, I'm learning my way around.  I can read regulations &  follow meetings in Portuguese now, and learn from people without any English, without needing someone to translate for me.  The programming work was still a huge slog for most of the year - for example, fumbling with this huge, awkward SAS program we run to expand a certain code from one character wide to two took me a week (I'm a clumsy programmer).


I was authorized by late last year to hire someone to help me with Brazil's work, but it took a while. The department was hiring for a number of new positions;  my position was a low priority, and a number of candidates turned us down.  I must have phone-screened or interviewed 30 candidates (almost all from the People's Rep of China) in the first half of the year.   The (H1B) visa situation is complicated. 


Zhenyin started in mid-August, and has been a very, very quick learner, and a huge help.


I'd managed to corrupt an ALFA model (this persnicketty modelling software we use), and lost scenarios, and dumped it into Zhenyin's lap to fix.  Usually people get a week or so of training on ALFA before messing around, but I dumped this thing in his lap (well, I had done a lot of documentation on it), and gave him maybe 45 min of demo, and said,  see if you can get this text file to load, I can't get it to work.  So he tried this and tried that.  He made a macro to print the text file out (because .prn files have a limit of 240 char per line).  He periodically bopped up with some question, then went down to tinker some more.  And he got the file to load, and got the model to run.  I kept thinking of a Yiddish phrase Sid said once:  Katchkele, vilst schwimmen?  (little duck, would you like to swim?  it's used when the answer to a question is obviously yes).  I think of him as katchkele now.  


I also got authorized to bring one of the actuaries from Sao Paulo up for a couple of years.  Again, the paperwork and visa process took the better part of the year, but Rogerio started in November. Most of the year, I felt like Sisyphus, rolling my huge rock up and down the halls of the department, but it'll get easier soon.


Home:  I'd extracted an ok to renovate the (24 year old) kitchen while Steve was in Germany.   Shopping for cabinets and granite countertops was intoxicating, but (of course) the actual construction seemed to drag on a long time.  The refrigerator and (nonfunctioning) stove stood in the dining room (which was piled high with boxes and bags) ; I had the microwave and makeshift cooking area in the family room.  I washed dishes in the mudroom sink and balanced the dishrack on the mudroom bench.  There were the usual mixups and delays, but those made it all the sweeter to stand enraptured by the flow in the grain of the new countertops (Juparana Columbo, a with pink/white/grey swirls).


I'd resolved to get a new (smaller) car to commute with and pass the 2002 Subaru Outback down to Leon.  Tried a Prius, thought of trying out other cars (worried how the Prius would handle snow), when, Christmas eve, Morning Edition had a long, long piece on melting glaciers.  I went with the Prius.  It's the 3rd on our block purchased this year.


Prague:  October was our 25th anniversary - we didn't make it to Italy (yet) but Steve proposed visiting him in Berlin and then going by train to Prague, in late October.  Pankow was pretty  (sycamore-lined streets) and it was neat to see the people Steve had talked about.  Prague was gorgeous.  Our hotel ( converted from a row of 16th century houses) was on the Castle side of the river - every day started with walking across the (14th century)  Charles Bridge, lined with Baroque religious statues. 


The Jewish quarter had an ancient cemetary, with prayer-laden papers crammed into the lettering on the oldest stones; 4 synagogues had become museums of the people who once lived in the quarter  - one had walls covered with the names of all the deportees, and hundreds of pictures from Theiresenstadt.  The oldest synagogue dated back to the 13th century-  I'd never been in a Jewish place that old. 


The Lobkowitz Palace (near the Castle), had been newly converted to a museum by family who had reclaimed paintings (Breughel and Cannaletto) and manuscripts (Beethoven symphonies 4 & 5, which had premiered in the palace).  There were galleries of aristocratic ancestors from the Spanish Courts.  The museum tour was narrated by Mr. Lobkowitz, who'd been a realtor married to an elementary school teacher in Boston until after the Velvet Revolution.  Now they had multiple palaces. 


Social Action:  Am still Social Action chair; we're still serving soup kitchen dinners (but a committee-person organizes most of the time) and reading to the after-school program & having the families to bowl & for cookie-baking etc on Martin Luther King day.  Our Congressman (Sestak) came to speak at this year's fundraiser brunch, and we netted about $3k again.  The new activity this year is to help raise capital to start a coop grocery store in Chester, which hasn't had one for 16 years. 


me / us:   Steve tried hard to stay in touch through email and Skype, but the 6-hour time difference was hard, and the house seemed awfully quiet.  He was very happy riding trains in Germany - he was loathe to return, and still grumbles a bit.  I'm so glad, now, to be able to curl up against him at night again.


We're both such odd, cantankerous souls - I'm so grateful L and A seem to have less difficult adolescences than we did, and don't seem prone to depression or compulsiveness.  When I put the Carleton sticker on the Subaru's back window (underneath the Dartmouth sticker), I felt like I'd gotten a passing grade in parenthood. 


Steve got me a (really nice) bike for my birthday -  hoping we can go for rides together when I'm more used to it again & when the weather's warmer.  I need to read up on Roman history (all I know is from Steven Saylor mysteries) and start scoping out Karen Brown's picks for "charming" Italian inns.  We're both getting paunchier & creakier, but life is very good.



Leon writes.  Math and Majoring and Academics. I took a lot of math in high school, and by the time I reached college, I thought that I'd had enough. After taking multivariable calculus, I didn't take math for a year. When I decided to major in physics (as opposed to economics), I learned that I needed to take differential equations. I did well in that class, so I decided to take two more math classes over the next two terms. That was my situation when I wrote this letter last year. Although I didn't exactly say it, I didn't do as well in those classes as I'd have liked, and I didn't plan on taking more.


I intended to only take two classes winter term (as opposed to the usual 3) - intermediate electricity and magnetism (a core undergraduate class) and intermediate quantum mechanics (which, despite the title, was populated mostly by first year graduate students). On a whim, I signed up for real analysis, a math course taught by the professor who taught the differential equations class. The subject has a reputation for being boring - basically you use the triangle inequality (|x+y|<|x|+|y|) and a property of real numbers called completeness to prove calculus - and I figured that I'd drop it if my other two classes panned out.


It would be an understatement to say that the term did not work out the way I planned. I now see it as something of an academic watershed - I wish it had happened sooner. The quantum mechanics class was very difficult, and my studying methods weren't working. I made two (obvious) minor changes that made a huge impact - writing in text books, and attending office hours.


In high school, writing in books was verboten. The professor in my required freshman writing class encouraged us to write in our books, but I somehow didn't make the connection between writing in English books and writing in science textbooks (perhaps because I didn't really start reading my textbooks until sophomore year - I relied almost exclusively on notes instead). I don't recall exactly when the break through moment came - I think some steps were skipped in a derivation and I was so frustrated I just started writing on the nearest piece of paper, the book. Now, I don't know how I could live without writing in such books  - it's an excellent way to both figure out what's going on and to keep focused (it's also useful for review and reference, because you don't have to derive everything over again).


I also started going to office hours out of frustration - I couldn't figure out what several homework problems meant. I guess I didn't go to office hours before that because of some macho "I can do this all by myself" notion - I've since discussed this with fellow students and found that I wasn't the only one with that idea (for part of freshman year, that idea extended to group work - I eventually came to my senses). For the quantum mechanics class, I ended up more or less camping out in the professor's office to get the first problem set done.


While all this was going on, I was still taking real analysis, and applying the methods I was learning from quantum mechanics. It was proving to be quite enjoyable, but I was very busy (I was still working on the free electron laser I mentioned last letter and doing work that's written about further down) and I decided that a class had to go. I dropped the quantum class figuring that, given the difficulty of the first problem set, I didn't want to stick around for the second one. I now think that I could have pulled it off, but at the time I don't think I realized the effectiveness of my new techniques. I made some other small changes as well - perhaps encouraged by a talk by Cal Newport '04 who wrote a couple of books about effective study habits (he believes that a number of small changes can have a large effect). These changes mostly dealt with when (in short burst, including during small blocks of time during the day) and where (obscure places that are quiet, sparsely populated, and not my room) I worked.


One consequence of all this is that I did well in real analysis, and I've since taken more math classes and done well in them. I'm now a double major.


Cycling.  Every spring that I've been at college, I've take part in collegiate road bike races. I was never particularly serious about it - it was mostly for the discounts on equipment, people, and excuse to be off campus. However, last year, I decided to do some training in the winter off season, and it paid off. I scored (a few) points at an early season race at Bucknell (the first points of my collegiate racing career), and, much to my surprise, I won the final race of the season at Vassar (some pictures are available on my profile on the cycling wiki - it's linked to from my web page). Granted, this victory was in a low category, but it was the first time I'd won anything for doing a physical task. I'm planning to step up my preparation this coming term, so hopefully I'll have more success this spring.


Teaching.  The winter before last, I took an introductory electronics class that I described fondly in the last letter. Unexpectedly, the professor asked me to be a lab teaching assistant for the class last winter. Besides being one of the best paying jobs on campus ($15 per hour) it was a lot of fun. I troubleshot people's circuits in lab, which often required an explanation of some theory that the circuit's creators were hazy on.


Last term I was a grader for a multivariable calculus class (it appears that I'll be doing it again next term as well). It was a little shocking to see how little of it I remembered, so it was good review. It was also good practice because I plan to be doing more grading in the future.


Robotics.  In high school I was president of my school's robotics club, which participated in the FIRST robotics competition. I intended to help mentor a local team when I got to college, but work and a lack of a car got in the way. However, I was planning to have a car at school this year, and I learned of an opportunity to help mentor a team participating in the FIRST Lego League competition (the elementary and middle school FIRST competition), so I decided to join in. Unfortunately, I got myself in to an accident while driving up to school, and, while nobody was hurt, the car was totaled. However, the mentor organizer was able to pair me with another student who did have a car.


The team was comprised of fifth graders who had never taken part in the competition before. They were surprisingly calm and pleasant to work with (maybe I didn't know what to expect - I've had little interaction with fifth graders since I was in fifth grade - I wonder what I would have been like to work with). They did like overly complicated solutions to problems, but they were usually receptive to my advice, and I think that I did a decent job of leading them to solutions, rather than saying "You should do it such and such a way". The programming was accomplished with a language based off LabVIEW - a visual programming language I'm familiar with because it's commonly used to automate laboratory experiments - so I was at home with it (when I was in fifth grade, I learned BASIC, and I'd used logo for controlling legos before then. No fancy graphical interface, just text... kids have it so these days...)


In truth, it was kind of fun to work with the kids - it was not a position I had really been in before. They ended up doing well for a young rookie team and seemed to enjoy it, so I think that they'll be back at it next year. I might finally get involved with the local high school team this coming term as well.


Physics Research.  I've been fortunate to have taken part in several varied research projects. In high school I worked in a lab that studied non-linear optics. Two falls ago I worked in a plasma physics lab. Last winter I continued work on a free electron laser. And last summer I got in to a National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Undergraduates at Lehigh University. The last one was special because it was the fist time I did an experiment - that, to our knowledge, had not been done before - and came away with data that was my own. My previous work in physics labs was more along the lines of construction or interpreting other people's data.


The group I worked with at Lehigh was looking in to the electroluminescent properties of rare earth ion (REI) doped semiconductors (e.g. a small amount of Europium (a rare earth element) mixed in to aluminum nitrite (a semiconductor)). When an electrical current flows through these materials, some of the energy is transfer to the REIs and gets turned in to light. These REIs give off more or less the same color of light independent of what semiconductor they're placed in. The hope is that one could, for example, mix some Europium in to silicon and make lasers on microchips for transferring data within a computer. The problem is that the REIs give off much less light than expected in this situation. The group ruled out simple explanations for this, and suspected that the REIs interact with the semiconductor in an unusual way. My experiment measured the rate and time it took for energy to transfer from the semiconductor to the REIs. This experiment had been done with a few materials, but it required hours of sitting in front of an electron microscope in a dark room while manually reading off data and controlling several parameters. I automated the experiment and wrote a program to compare the data with a simple model we made up (an abstract is available on my webpage). In the end, I didn't come up with anything groundbreaking, but it was an excellent learning experience.


Grad School.  As my parents have mentioned, I'm applying to grad school in physics. I really like doing physics experiments, and that's the only real way to do it. In a way, the thing I like the most is the engineering aspect. First off, you engineer an experimental setup. In addition, the type of physics that attracts me has some practical purpose, so you're also engineering a device. So why not be an engineer? To do experiments, you make one off devices that can require optics, mechanical parts, electrical components, electronics, programming, you name it. Most engineers I've talked with have to deal with one aspect of a large project, don't spend a lot of time doing stuff hands on, and have to worry about things like mass producing their design. That's not stuff that I'm interested in. In addition, like most other aspiring physicists, I'm interested in the laws that govern the world around us. In short, deciding to apply to grad schools was a no brainer.


Or it should have been anyway. The problem is that I've been getting mixed messages (from everyone) about my prospects for admission, and what the job market is like beyond that. Every now and then some report will come out saying that there aren't enough scientists in the United States, but the evidence seems to point the other way.* Others have made the point that the pay isn't great in academia and competition is tough (even after the grad school and the postdocs).** I'm hoping to start down that path anyway, but I'm going to keep my eyes open. I'd be interested if anyone has comments on the subject.


*Researchers Dispute Notion That America Lacks Scientists and Engineers, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/16/07





Aaron. (Jan 1)  Usually  I haven't bothered to contribute to my family's annual letter, but since I'm going to be stuck in the Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and ultimately (hopefully) Minneapolis airports and various airplanes for somewhere in the order of 12 hours due to the wonders of bargain airfare shopping and winter weather, I've decided to break the habit. Anyhow, if you haven't been reading this letter for a while or have forgotten most of last year's content, let me introduce myself. I'm Aaron, the youngest, largest, and farthest flung son of the Maurer-Stier family. I'm currently a freshman at Carleton College (class of 2011), which is my ultimate destination in this marathon travel session.


In last year's letter, which was sent out right at the worst part of the whole admissions process that ultimately landed me at Carleton, my mom probably went on about how worried she was about it, how I had so many applications yet to submit, and how I hadn't gotten in anywhere.  Thankfully all those issues have been resolved.  By the respective due dates of January 1st and 15th of last year (depending on the college) I had submitted all the proper applications, and spent the next two months waiting around for news of my fate.


This began arriving in the latter part of March with an acceptance letter from Bowdoin, to which I had not only been accepted, but to such a degree that the admissions office had sent me the news a couple weeks early so I could spend the time contemplating just how much I would like to go there, which at the time was very much. Being the first college which I was accepted to, Bowdoin made sure that my mom's greatest fear, and in fact mine as well, did not come to pass, namely that I wouldn't get into college. This had two effects: my mom's level of stress went from severe to only extreme, and I was able to truly begin being a lazy senior. Over the next couple weeks I received news from the rest of the places I applied: Accepted to Bates, Carleton, Colgate, Hamilton, Wesleyan, and University of Vermont (despite not submitting so much as my transcript); wait listed at Cornell (which I only applied to in the hope of being able to reject an Ivy league school) and Penn State (which ironically I had applied to as a safety school, but way too late in the process), and rejected at Amherst (which was no surprise considering after they had deferred me for early decision I realized that my application there was rife with spelling mistakes). In total this gave me a record of 7-1-2, which would be good enough to get most high school football teams into playoffs.


After the bliss of having so many institutions of higher education validate my eighteen years of life passed, I had to get down to the business of  deciding which one to go to. Bowdoin was probably in the lead if only because they had gotten back to me first, but I became much more interested in Carleton after the head football coach called me up congratulating me on my acceptance to Carleton (which incidentally I hadn't heard since the letter had gotten lost in the mail) and trying to convince me to come there and play football. This had me intrigued, because no other school had really given me a look for football and the coach was a young guy trying to rebuild the program.


This helped me narrow down my choices to Bowdoin, Carleton, and Wesleyan (thrown in by virtue of its US News and World report ranking). Over the course of April, I went around visiting these colleges, which is necessary to get any real idea of the college as well as to avoid going to my inconsequential high school classes. My first visit was to Carleton, where I met the football coach and his various assistants, as well as many of the players and other members of the student body. The trip left me pretty excited for the maize and blue, but I still needed to visit the other colleges. Within 20 minutes of arriving at Wesleyan  I knew it wasn't for me, a fact which didn't stop me from having a good time however. Finally I visited Bowdoin, where I once again met the football coach as well as numerous students and players, and liked what I saw. The first couple days after I got back from Maine, I was pretty uncertain about which school I wanted, but within a week I realized my gut was saying Carleton, so I sent off my deposit.


The rest of the school year was very enjoyable and relaxed. It consisted of a whole slew of parties, events, and nostalgia leading up to graduation, as well as a minor miracle in me getting no grade worse than a B-. After graduation I had a rather uneventful summer aside from a few jaunts to the Jersey shore. It mostly consisted of sleeping, eating, and weight lifting in preparation for my first season of collegiate division three football.


That season began in mid August with training camp. My mom and I flew out, rented a car, and drove down to Northfield. After a day of shopping at Target and various meetings for parents, she and the rest of the players' families left and it was football time. In essence, camp is 2 straight weeks of football, followed by another week of mostly football. You live with the team, you eat with the team, and on top of that the coaches keep you busy almost all of the time. In an average day, we had 4 hours of practice, 2-3 hours of conditioning and walkthroughs, and another 2 hours of meetings. It was tough, but I enjoyed it. The football team is a great bunch of guys, and it was nice being able to come in on an even footing with the rest of the freshmen, as opposed to in high school, where having started playing late I was always playing catch up.  I was doing very well for the first part of camp, but a series of injuries essentially stopped me from playing for the last week and a half. By the time I was healthy the rest of the student body had arrived and classes had started.


The classes I had gotten were "Black Slaves, White Masters" (my freshman seminar), "Comparative Political Regimes," and "Intro to Ancient Greek." I had mixed feelings about my seminar; on the one hand I learned a ton of interesting stuff, on the other the way that the professor led the class bothered me. He seemed to enjoy being a hardass beyond its usefulness in teaching, and would go out of his way to make our lives difficult in a fashion that was neither productive nor helpful. My political science class was the one that I thought I was going to enjoy the most, but in the end I just never really got into the material. Finally, ancient Greek can only be described as a mistake, as I was the only member of the class who hadn't taken Latin or who wasn't fluent in two foreign languages. I barely managed to keep afloat in the class for half a term before I dropped it.


Usually the first couple weeks of freshman year are extremely awkward as people try to get to know people on campus. With football, I had the advantage of knowing the entire sixty odd players on the team, so it wasn't too bad. The one difference is it took me longer to reach out to the people on my hall, but once I did I made numerous friends. The students at Carleton are a great, relaxed, nice, laid back lot. While much of the student body is from the east and west coasts, a Midwestern mentality prevails, which stands in contrast to the other schools I had been looking at, which had much more of the preppy, New England mindset.


All in all I think 2007 has been a good year. I survived high school, got into college, and managed to do pretty well in my college classes. The Carleton football team didn't have a great season, only winning three out of ten games, and in general I felt that after I missed the week and a half of camp that I didn't play as well as I would have liked, but I am still extremely glad I played, and plan to work hard and come back bigger, stronger, and faster for next year. I'm very excited for winter and spring terms at Carleton, where with much more free time now that the football season is done I can take advantage of what Carleton has to offer even more. I hope all of you have a great 2008.



the end!