Maurer/Stier 2008 Annual Letter


206 Benjamin West Ave

Swarthmore PA 19081-1421

December 31, 2008 (postdated!)


Fran writes - Executive summary:   Steve and Fran settle happily into empty-nest-dom, and travel to Italy to celebrate a quarter-century of marriage.  Leon starts grad school in Physics at U WI; Aaron continues with football, history & math at Carleton.  Fran watched the fall of AIG in horrified fascination. 


I started blogging last spring for the synagogue, hoping that posting photos and accounts of congregants' good deeds would bring new volunteers for our projects.  That blog is at . 


6/15/08: Am obsessed with the little blog I started - really a website for Social Action, but this way I can post myself.  I put up pictures.  I embed maps (with some difficulty - I copied a message in and then tried to embed Google maps, and kept inadvertently breaking up html statements.  Leon showed me I should have copied in the message without all the formatting Word does,  bit by bit, so as to know where to embed the map).  I'm not sure anyone looks at it, actually.


This year, I put the hyperlinks, extended flights of parental pride, travel-log & pictures for our annual into a blog, too, at . 


Leon got his applications out for grad school in Physics,  waited to hear in great suspense.  He got in a bunch of places; decided on U WI after an "awesome" visit. 


He and the Dartmouth bicycle team stayed at our house in early March


Stayed late Friday ... got home maybe 8 PM, had shabbat, and started hauling out bedding for the 10 bicyclists to arrive at 11 ... V. rainy, so of course I was worried they'd crash.  One kid arrived maybe 10 (he was off for the quarter, and we chatted about his quarter in Morrocco studying Arabic as we made up the trundle bed in A's room).  The rest pulled up in this enourmous white van w/ matching trailer about 11.  Leon disappointed I'd done Shabbat already, so we did it again (minus the wine - they were afraid of getting dehydrated), and I translated the blessings for a kid who asked.  They ate lg amts of challah & cereal & tumbled into bed.  They were up and out by 7:15.


POURED rain till late afternoon.  ... Team trooped in around 5 - Claire had come in 2nd.  They all took showers; I went & walked.  Bright sky when I started, but cold front & hail came through as I was finishing.


Came home, made 2 lasagnes, heated up many trader Joe's hors d'oeuvres & broke out the big bottle of yellowtail Shiraz.  Carley (girlfriend of guy on team, at Mt. Holyoke) made garlic bread, leon grated cheese. Toby made a v.g. vinaigrette.   Long, merry dinner - they sat around and teased each other at great length.  4 of the team share a house  -- two keep not buying food & sitting around & longingly saying they should go buy some.  Leon got teased about the melamite plate he pulled (the goopy one I made for him when he was maybe 6?).  Toby's mom had tossed her plates (which shocked me).  They cleared the table & watched TV and were all asleep by midnight...They were all gone by 7:15 AM.


His thesis research eventually yielded the results he hoped for:


Leon's yearbook pix had come - I kept staring at this handsome man with a trim beard & well-cut hair in a tie & jacket.  He's been hard at work on his thesis, which has to do with constructing a thermometer that measures v. low temperatures.  He hadn't gotten the result he wanted when we spoke last weekend, but this week we got an email entitled "Wahoo", informing us that There's a dip in the conductance around zero bias. Yay!


He graduated from Dartmouth in June:  Mom, Sid, Steve and I went up to Hanover (Aaron was in the midst of finals). [much more detail on burbaldiaries blog].  We had Adriano & Robin (Leon's friends since before kindergarten) and their parents over to celebrate. 


V. animated discussions of commencements,  the Russian bells in Lowell, our trip to Italy ...   Endowments of different colleges, ranking of endowment per student.  Is Grinnell high because of Warren Buffet (this was at the KIDS end - I was amazed Leon would have looked up all this info).  Women (per Adriano, Scandinavian fade quickly, you need to take them when they're young (!!)).  Search committee considerations for Pres. Bloom (retiring from being Swarthmore pres at the end of next year).  I moved from the young to the old end - occasionally a phrase would float down - A talking about "balls and sugar tits".  WHAT??? Said Terry (director of Womens Law Project) and Robin (sociology prof).  This, per Aaron, is what two girls on his hall on the womens' rugby team call themselves.


The oldsters wandered off about 10:30; the young'uns played Railroad Tycoon (a newish computer game) till 2 AM.


He took off for 3 weeks in Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy with Adriano, arriving home in mid-July, while Steve was still at Math Path.


At dinner, Leon announced he was entering the character of Steve.  Things had gone sadly downhill.  The refrigerator was full of rotten food.  He'd sat at lunch eating from a huge bag of expired lettuce, and thinking it really wasn't very good.  WHAT was it doing there?  (I'd forgotten to take it to the LifeCenter [a soup kitchen], on 7/6 [when we served dinner there].  There was a rotting mango on top of the fridge - WHY?  (I can't see it.  Aaron chimed in that I'm always putting things up there and then forgetting they're there because I can't see them.  He claimed I needed a ramp to roll things back off the top of the fridge). ...I sat there, giggling so hard my sides hurt, helplessly . 


He bought a cookbook by Rachel Ray (dinner in ½ hour), found another grad student to room with in Madison, and got into subsidized housing.  He and Aaron loaded up the green Subaru and set off for Madison, arriving around midnight, having called every few hours to reassure me they were alive. 


He worked hard to find his way around Madison, get through problem sets (the first years appropriated an undergrad lab and worked them as a group every weekend), and learn to teach (he was ½ time TA for a mechanics class that didn't require calculus as a prerequisite.  They were mostly blonde, female pre-pharmacy students.).  Steve & I visited him in October, en route to Carleton's Parents Weekend. 


We took him to a well recommended Indian - L said all ethnic food had been mid-westernized, so you had to order v. hot to get mildly hot, but I thought what I got was pretty hot. The First Yr grad students frequent a set of food carts at the end of State St.  A Korean and an Indian student were in competition to see who could withstand the most pepper sauce.  The Indian exclaimed (after eating some):  I cannot feel my face. 


Steve attended one of his sections, and had all kinds of detailed feedback and advice.  I sat looking at the two of them and thinking Leon looked happy & engaged.  (for other takes on the life of a physics grad students, see skits by the 3rd year students on U Tube, at


Aaron:  The kids tease me all the time for being inept with electronics.


6/9/08:  shameful confession:  I got a new phone in Feb & just figured out that to answer an incoming call, you need to hit "ok", rather than "send" (which was what my old phone required).  [for 5 months, I've hit "send", gotten odd beeps, and then looked to see who sent the missed call & called them back].  Of course, I could have read the fm (rtfm being geek-speak for "read the fxxxxxx manual").  Told this to Leon as we ate takout around 9 pm & he roared, & made me promise to write this in my burbogram.


6/15/08: S was complaining about a $5.49 download charge on the month's phone bill.  A maintained it was a charge for people who don't know what button to push to answer the phone.


He's happy at school,  goes to class and does his homework, in spite of my not having finished the needlepoint exhorting him to "got to class and do your homework" until last summer (i.e. a year after he started college).  We discussed his quarter on the way up to Mohonk for Mom's 85th birthday (see blog for pictures).


Talked abt school - his grades for the whole year were varieties of B, even when he liked his classes (he didn't like anthro—v. disorganized & had subst. prof, but did like the history teacher).  He'd misunderstood a particular theorem in the math, which had hurt him. He didn't like studying much in general.  But there will be fewer distractions where he'll live next yr, he thinks.  And besides, MAYBE I'll finally finish his needlepoint.  He plans to earn a lot, but not clear how.  He cited the underwear gnomes of South Park, whose business model is:


*       Gather underpants

*       ???

*       Profit!!!!


So and Alex (Beth & Andy's kids, aged 9 & 3)  seem so tiny next to him:


Alex & I ambled off to the Granery for lunch.  His gait is 3 runs & a jump.  He tumbled at one point & was a bit forlorn till he saw So, who was at the Granery (the outdoor picnic area).  A & S are so cute - he keeps saying, watch this, So!


So and Alex played w/ each other & then teased each other, till A shifted Alex to his other knee, which put him out of So's reach.


I learn much more about his life (and the Swarthmore young adult scene) when the conversation's not one-on-one.  Dinner with the family we used to carpool to Hebrew High with yielded all kinds of new info.


What was the actual etiquette of unisex washrooms? (per Aaron, all signs removed long ago on his hall,  men use the urinals w/o embarassment).  What proportion of lesbians does Bryn Mawr have?  (not as many as Smith).  Do college students date?  Bryn Mawr has legendary parties, incl Halloween parties attended by men from as far away as West Point.  The lesbians have the most formal dates.  Had I read Gail Collins that morning (the vampire who cuddled but wouldn't make love)? 


Going to Carleton's parents' weekend allowed us to see him in his new habitat.  He, Granger, and Caz share a triple; he & Granger have their beds bunked, but the bunked beds swayed, so A put his springs on the floor and put up reinforcements of duct tape & wood splints.  A claims that if the top bunk falls on him, it'll be a mere tap, since Granger weighs abt 120 lbs. 


S and I both went to A's Greek Religion class (a pretty dry lecture on the Eleutherian Mysteries [Demeter looking for Persephene] where the participants bathe in the sea with baby pigs (thus identifying with them) and then sacrifice the piglets (eliciting a moan of sympathy from the class & parents).  Football game was picture-perfect, except Carleton lost in overtime.  Afterwards, parents swarmed onto the field--I looked up at A (who hadn't gotten to play); unusually massive in cleats & shoulderpads, and kissed him goodbye repeatedly & told him he really, really needed to work on his Spanish pronunciation. 


AIG:   Rogerio, who came up from Brazil to work for me last November, was a huge help fixing the mechanics of the financials, learned to do a lot of the Wilmington work very quickly.   I'd given him the last volume of the History of US (Joyce Hakim), and he worked through it with his English teacher - even tho his English was good, he let me keep talking Portuguese with him (and was very tactful about supplying verb forms when I got stuck).  


We got Brazil's assets modelled for the first time, and wrote up what we'd done.  We hosted 2 of the accountants in the spring (for training on US GAAP) - one had never travelled outside Brazil (even tho her English was excellent), and exclaimed she thought she was in a movie, surrounded by people speaking English.  A colleague & I had a good time working with the accountants in Sao Paulo on budget in early Sept. 


9/15/08,  walking up College Ave at 6:10 or so, I heard Morning Edition talking about AIG just after Lehman's collapse, and thought OMG.  By the time I got back, S informed me excitedly that a NYT piece he'd read last night had AIG going out of existence in 72 hrs.  I squawked at him that I needed to hurry & get to work, and he was walking back & forth across all available counterspace, and asking me what did I want to do with a tiny container of 10-day-old pesto.  He (wisely) fled, as I read the NYT piece, listened to NPR on efforts to bail out AIG ... Work was pretty subdued.  Knots of people talking.  Everyone watching as the stock price dipped to around $3  but then recovered (if $4.8  is recovery).  Patterson was going to allow AIG parent to use $20 billion of subs assets - but would that be enough?  Horrible, sick feeling in my stomach, watching the stock price dip.


Tues was more of the same - no info from NY;  sounded early in the day like Bernanke was saying no bailout from the Fed.  Everyone in a pretty miserable state - I was far from the worst.  I didn't realize till later how many long-time company employees had been investing 10% of salary for years and years and years in AIG stock (they got 15% off, on the price, on the condition of holding it 2 yrs). 


I'd never bought the co stock, and kept saying (like a mantra):  the house is paid for; there's money for the kids' college, we still have savings; Steve has a job.  If I lose my job & can't find another, I'll learn DreamWeaver & be webmaster for the synagogue & the Chester coop and read to my munchkins at the shelter.  I'll stop buying such expensive groceries &  read & maybe I could get a M. Ed and be a math specialist & help kids or Moms training for their GEDs w/ math. 


At one point, Jackie O and I started talking abt the election & how much we hated Sarah Palin, and I was amazed to realize that I hadn't worried about AIG for 5 min straight (and that, for two straight days before that, I hadn't given SP a thought).


Our (ALICO's) COO gave us pep-talk (we were the jewel in AIG's crown & wouldn't be sold), but then disappeared.  We learned we would be sold in an analyst call by the new CEO (of AIG).  Since then, many important people have held town hall meetings to reassure us that whatever our new owners,  we'll be treasured.   As of now, the joint venture with Brazil has been sold (in late November), and ALICO is being marketed.  Who knows what the future brings?


Synagogue:  It's been a long year at the synagogue, too.  Our rabbi's making aliyah with his family;  the education director has left in mid-year.  We are so blessed to have our current president (had been the kids' pediatrician) - a very energetic, funny, upbeat guy.


Steve:   Italy was gorgeous  (see blog for much, much more detail) - I'm so glad we can still get around by car and cope in an unknown language.  


I'm so grateful to be able to snuggle up against him in bed at night.  I can't imagine what these last months would have been like without him. 


A Brazilian colleague suggested throwing a shoe at 2008 (he'd heard it was in fashion), and hoping hard that 2009 is better.  Wishing you all a peaceful, healthy, and prosperous year.



Steve writes. Apologies for this late annual; I'm writing this 1/10/09.  It's my fault we're late, because I have had the busiest year I can remember.


I returned to being chair of math/stat from a year's leave in mid August, a bit of a shock under any circumstances. But this year right from the start had special demands: helping the several new hires chosen last year; planning with the Biology dept our very first hire in biomathematics; lobbying (eventually successfully, despite the economy) for another tenure-track statistics line and beginning the search; leading the dept discussions and report on whether we can responsibly carry out Swarthmore's intention to reduce the teaching load from 5 semester courses per year to 4 with little or no increase in faculty.  But then there were several unexpected urgent staffing problems.  First, one colleague announced she was going out on maternity leave in the spring.  Then another colleague got sick.  First she was going to be out for a week, then two weeks, then she was back, then she had to go out for the semester, then she was coming back next semester, then she had to be out for the year. She really wanted to come back, and we wanted to leave the door open, but each new medical report meant I had to devise a new plan, including a sudden search for adjuncts, whom we almost never hire.


On top of all these, a management issue came to a head for MathPath, the summer camp I help run.  I've been Academic Director for a few years, but over a year ago the Founder asked me to join the Board, indeed, head it.  I agreed, but realized that in this position I must eventually pay attention to the finances, which had always been somewhat mysterious.  I eventually came to see that the finances are precarious, not a good situation even in prosperous times.  Let's just say that we have been making a lot of time-consuming changes, which I hope will lead to a sound bottom line eventually. It's a risky effort for a good cause.


Oh, there was political campaigning in there somewhere too, and some difficult editorial decisions for the book series I edit for the Math Association.


Anyway, the whole time since mid August has been nonstop work and nerve-racking. I'm always behind.


At least the MathPath camp itself went very well this summer.  We were at U Vermont in Burlington, a very pleasant city, at least in the summer.  In terms of academic program and facilities, I would say camp was the best and smoothest ever. Vermont was close enough to home that I could drive up there and take my bike.  Riding from the dorm to the dining hall each meal was beautiful. You bike along the top ridge of the city, and could look east to the Green Mountain peaks and west to Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.  But it wasn't such a great location for the students.  This summer it rained a lot and there were a lot of mosquitoes (at home too - maybe throughout the east). Enrollment was down, perhaps because airfare to Burlington is expensive (Southwest doesn't fly there) and there were limited flights for our unaccompanied minors.


Let me talk about just one thing from the pleasant period last spring when I was back from Germany but still on leave: Fran and my spring trip to Italy.  She has described it in great detail on her blog, so let me add around the edges.


For me, the organizing principle was Hannibal and the 2nd Punic War, partly because ancient history gives me a window to reflect on life and death from a distance (e.g., you can win the battle and lose the war), partly because it allowed me to choose among places that I had not seen in my only other visit to Italy, as part of a big European trip with my parents in summer 1962.  This time we got to the far south, which most American tourists don't visit, and to the Tuscan hill country.


Fran and I got along pretty well.  After 25 years of marriage, we may finally have reached a travel compromise that works.  She gets to pick most of the places to stay (from Karen Brown) and I get to pick most of the places to go.


As usual, let me name some favorites.




for pictures of the column. (I give you Wikipedia in Italian because the English article is only a stub) Actually, you have to take your pictures from certain angles to make it look like the column is isolated, as there is a lighthouse and other relatively recent buildings nearby.  But the cape as a whole still has a wild and remote feel, especially in the clear Italian air we had almost every day of our trip.




I came to think of last year's leave as a trial run of what retirement might be like for me, and it seemed pretty nice - if we have enough money to support it. I worked on math projects as well as pet projects, but the pace of everything was very relaxed compared with now.


Enough.  I hope the new year finds and keeps you well. These are difficult times, but there is room for hope. I thank those who have written to us and hope to hear from others.



Leon writes

The End of Undergrad. The last two quarters of college passed smoothly. I spent a lot of time working on my senior thesis -- a project to build a type of low temperature thermometer. I made a last minute switch from a disintegrating research group, so I didn't have much time to become acquainted with the unfamiliar machines and techniques needed for fabrication. In the end, I managed to get results the day before my thesis was due. It was interesting experience to work with machines that cost more than 4 years of college tuition (like the fancy electron microscope I got to use) because you can do some amazing things (like viewing objects at 80,000x magnification) but that you can also make very expensive mistakes. At any rate, I'm almost certain to use these skills again, so I'm glad that I acquired them before grad school.


As graduation neared, I spent some time thinking about my college experience. While I was satisfied with it, I knew that I hadn't taken advantage of many opportunities (e.g. I only did a handful of activities with the Outing Club -- when applying I thought that was a highlight of the school). Although I couldn't at the time, I now know how to describe my college experience. It was very graduate studentish. I did research for my last 2 years, I TAed or graded several classes, and I spent a lot of time on school work. More on that later. Maybe it wasn't the best way to spend college, but I think the fact that I liked it bodes well for the next ~5 years of my life.


Delaying Entry Into The Real World. At the conclusions of last year's program, I had just completed my physics graduate school applications. So I passed winter (and part of spring) term waiting to learn my fate.


I got quite caught up in the waiting -- perhaps making up for my smooth undergrad admissions process (one school rolling admissions, one early decision, got in to both, process over). I even went so far as to start frequenting an online forum for aspiring physics graduate students. Reports of the first acceptance letters in early February triggered a two month period during which I checked my mailbox (at least) daily -- much to the joy of the mailroom staff who often had had to cram letters in to my irregularly emptied box.


As I mentioned in last year's annual, I received mixed messages about my admission prospects, so I weighted my choice of 10 schools towards the less selective end. In hindsight, my concerns were overblown, and the effect of my school selection was that I applied to 4 safety schools (which isn't horrible, but I could have applied to more reach schools instead).


One of the perks of the graduate school admissions process is that some of the schools will pay for you to fly out and visit -- then they ply you with as much food and drink as possible. Unfortunately, I was only able take up one such offer -- to the University of Wisconsin Madison. It was an enjoyable visit, which included a trip to the "Essen Haus" where much beer was drunk from large, boot shaped vessels. The students (and faculty) were a good-natured group, as demonstrated by the "Holliday Colloquium" videos that my Mom linked to.


In the end, my choice came down to University of Wisconsin Madison and University of Pennsylvania. It was not easy to reach a decision, but I decided on Wisconsin in the end. I liked their research better (my senior thesis advisor's main collaborator is there, and they have a larger department with a larger variety of research), and location ended up being a wash. Being so close to Swarthmore had advantages, but I'm not such a fan of large cities, and everyone seems to agree that Madison is a great place to live. Also, the opportunity to live somewhere other than the northeast appealed to me (although, in hind sight, perhaps I should have chosen a warmer place).


Europe. After High School, I had planned to go on a trip to Europe with two friends. For better or worse, the plans fell through. Last summer, I managed to revive the trip with one of the friends. The plan involved a fast paced expedition to a number of base cities (Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Bern, Milan, Innsbruck, and Munich) with a number of side trips to be decided on the fly.


This was my first time off the continent in 6 years, and the first big trip I'd done without parents. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot easier to get along with someone my own age than with a family (even though our travel styles clashed a fair amount).


Highlights included hiking in the Swiss Alps, drinking lots of good beer (in Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany), the Deutsches Museum (the best science museum anywhere), and Alessandro Volta's frog leg batteries (which I'd learned about during a history of physics class the previous spring). I'd elaborate, but I already wrote up some of travels (and included pictures) on the aforementioned physics forum. See:


The thread starts with my post, and follows with replies (including some by a guy who did a similar trip). I also have two followup posts on that page (one showing my Bavarian breakfast and another of a hike in Switzerland).


The 6th School. I moved out to Madison at the end of August.


My funding was through being a Teaching Assistant. I was assigned to non-calculus mechanics -- a ~600 person class with 2 lectures per week for pre-health majors. I had 3 sections (24 students each), each of which had 2 discussion sections and one lab a week. Since there's only so much you can get out of such a large lecture, and the Prof didn't hold office hours (for obvious reasons), TAs ended up being the main teachers, which is not a system I was familiar with. The equivalent class at Dartmouth has ~100 students, no discussion section, professor office hours, and the graduate students have two terms of TA training.


We got a week of TA training. I thought this was a good idea, since I need all the training I can get. Given the time restraints, the training was good, except they kept leaving gaps which our profs were to fill in (how they wanted the labs done, what we should go over in discussion section, what to do for weekly quizzes, etc.), but this didn't really bother me. The profs would fill in these gaps, right?


Then the other 9 TAs for my class and I met with our two profs. Pretty much all they said about labs and discussion section was, "grade to an average of 80 with as wide a distribution as possible." No attempt to standardize grading across TAs. Little input on how or what to grade in labs or how to make the quizzes. Overall, not much guidance (there was certainly some, i.e. "we'll focus on conceptual issues in class, so you should focus on working examples in discussion section," but that's kind of vague). Thankfully, a couple of the other TAs had worked on this class before, so we got together afterwards and sorted a couple of things out, but it was still pretty much every TA for him or her self. And it's not like the profs seemed uncaring about the class -- they seemed like nice folks and their reviews seem to agree.


So the first few weeks were kind of rough. During TA training, we had been given a short presentation on how to do group work (and several papers claiming it was the superior way to lead a discussion section -- as opposed to just working problems on the board). So I tried a mix of lecture review, board work, and group work. This worked well for a while, but the pace of the lectures started to pick up, and it became clear that I didn't have time to do all three. So I requested feedback from the students about which parts they liked. To my surprise, the average ranking from most to least useful was board work, lecture review, and group work (my ranking was group work, board work, lecture review).


I had already decided to cut back on the lecture review, and mix it in with the board work, but the big questions was what to do with the group work. Research showed that it was effective when done correctly, and I was following the recommended format fairly closely. Who was wrong? My current theory is that board work can give a false sense of confidence -- it's easy to see a problem done and then think, "I can do that. No problem." But it's not always true -- working the problem through is the way to find out. Combine this belief that board work is as effective as group work and the fact that it takes less time to do a question on the board than in a group, and the perceived efficiency of board problems could explain the reasoning behind their ranking. They also had plenty of opportunity to do group work on the homework (and many of them did), so perhaps discussion section group work was superfluous.


In the end, I cut the group work, both because it was unpopular and because the increased class pace made it too hard to both do group work and board work (I felt some board work was necessary). My students seemed to do fine, but I still wonder if that was the right decision.


The other aspect of first year graduate student life was taking classes, and that wasn't new. I took two classes. Classical Mechanics was similar to my second undergrad class in the subject, but the problems were harder -- in undergrad we'd do problems with math that worked out nicely to build intuition. In this class, we mostly did gory problems that didn't really help with understanding. My second class, Quantum Mechanics, had less overlap with undergrad classes, and was also a lot of work. Both classes had weekly problem sets due on Monday, so that often meant spending 20-hour weekends in the physics building working as a group. Between TAing and classes, it was the highest sustained workload I've had, so I'm glad that I passed the test. I've been told that first years soon realize that grades no longer matter, we start taking the outrageous problem sets less seriously, and everyone lives happily ever after. Or something.


One final big change is not living in a house maintained by others (parents, who maintain a self stocking refrigerator) or in a dorm (with associated cafeteria). I'm living in a 2-bedroom graduate student apartment with another first year physics student I met though the aforementioned graduate student admission forum (it's $375 per month per person with utilities included -- a steal even by Madison standards). Cooking is very important because eating out can get expensive quickly. I've been pretty successful at it (baked beans, curry, sweet potato and sausage stew, chicken livers, beef and barley stew, pasta carbonara, pretty much anything that I can cheaply make a large batch of). No ramen so far. If you've got good recipes along those lines, let me know.



The end - no contribution by Aaron this year