Real Genius

A friend had never seen Real Genius, and I managed to do a good enough sales job that he wanted to watch it. I certainly had not seen the movie in the past decade, at least not with anyone who hadn’t seen it before and loved it for all the science nerdiness and adoration of clever practical jokes.

When I watch something with someone else, I am only partly in my own experience. Part of me is thinking and seeing along with them. Seeing this film that I have loved for years with someone who wasn’t already a fan meant that I was forced to see it with adult eyes. I was cringing at the way the women were treated, at the casual bro-culture evident in the film. From the opening scene with the meeting room full of men casually joking about weapons of war, to Chris Knight’s interview at Darlington Labs where, despite his juvenile humor, he gets an overture from the sexy Sherry Nugil who is trying to sleep with the Top Ten Minds in America. All of whom are male of course.

Mitch, the main character, is as sweet as ever. 15 years old, the youngest student admitted to Pacific Tech (loosely based on CalTech) mid-year, he was out-of-place in high school and is clearly uncomfortable in his early awkward moments at PacificTech. The arc of this story is predictable; he starts to meet his kind of people. He is taken under the wing of Chris Knight, a legend in the National Physics Club, a former prodigy, now grown into a confident, rebellious and muscular young manhood. Chris is soon to graduate, but he missed his younger self and so he asked Professor Hathaway if he could room with Mitch.

Next enters my favorite character, Jordan. Jordan, with her short-hair, an incredibly fast cadence to her speech, always arrives on scene with some interesting device she’s built herself and an experiment to test it to see if it works as she intended. Jordan is the saving light of this movie for me. 19 years old and hyperkinetic, she was, undoubtedly, the vision I had for myself of the sort of girl that I’m not exactly, but that maybe I would want to be.

Real Genius (1985). You are showing your age. Maybe we have made some progress in the past 31 years. I still love the practical jokes. I still look at Jordan and hope I see myself. The juvenile humor doesn’t quite work anymore. Maybe it shouldn’t have back then either.

Keep In Touch

First day of a new mathematics seminar, a tried idea that has not had much success in my department before. We need to create a better community with our majors, and, well, no one has any other ideas. I took point on putting it together. My first idea was a meet and greet with games for faculty and students. My colleagues indulged me, and we had students and faculty continue playing well over the hour mark, and feedback was good that this was fun. I was pretty sure I could see it in the students. I think there were even some good conversations about how math could be seen in the games. Cross fingers we can carry this momentum forward to victory!

I get a little overexcited and overstimulated by things like that. I came home wanting a hug. My wish was to be granted, the following arrived in the mail today, from a former student. 20160926_194126 She’s recently completed a tour in the Peace Corps, and enclosed was a souvenir and postcards from her post-Corps trip as she returned to the USA.

I had a voicemail waiting as well from another student who took the GRE today and kicked some serious GRE booty. Somehow I got some credit for that, but I’m not the one who was butt in chair doing the studying.

I tell students that I love to hear from them in the future. If ever they want to write and wonder if they should, YES, YOU SHOULD. And it’s true; I absolutely do.

Lessons learned geocaching and mountain biking

Lessons learned while geocaching

  1. Just because you know where it is, doesn’t mean you can find it.
  2. A good question to ask is, if I were the person hiding it, where would I put it? I.e. put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  3. A GPS (or any fancy piece of equipment) can only help you so much. After that, you are on your own.
  4. Sometimes we all get functionally fixed on something, and can’t see what else is there. If you aren’t finding what you are looking for, think differently about the situation.
  5. Persistence pays off. You may not have your out-of-the-box thought the first time you try, so don’t be afraid to go home and return. Keep at it.
  6. If you really are getting frustrated, ask a friend for a hint or help.
  7. There are a lot of interesting things around you that you’d otherwise never notice.

Lessons learned while mountain biking

  1. There’s nothing wrong with riding up and down the curb in front of your house until you are comfortable with how your bike handles obstacles. I.e. don’t worry about starting small and taking baby steps forward.
  2. Uphill is hard. Keep at it, and you will improve. But know when you need to stop and catch your breath. Or get off and walk.
  3. There’s no shame in walking something that’s beyond your ability level. Better safe than sorry.
  4. You probably won’t get hurt much when you are starting out and scared of everything. You will get hurt when you develop competence and confidence and start riding at your limit. And if you are going to continue, you do have to get back on the bike.
  5. Downhill is fun, but downhill can be scary. If you’re going to ride it and not walk it, get your butt behind the seat, go easy on the brakes, and trust your bike. I.e. you don’t have absolute control. You have to give up some of your desire to control completely in order to have any control at all. (Think: controlled fall. But it is a fall. If you let it, your bike will do its best to take care of you.)
  6. If you can’t stand getting bruised, you are in the wrong sport. But who wanted to be a swimsuit model anyhow?
  7. Listen to your body; it will tell you the difference between minor bruises and really hurt.
  8. Listen to your brain/spirit. It will tell you when you need to take a moment because your fear is taking over your ability to perform.
  9. If you listen to yourself, and take care of yourself, you will find that your fears and anxiety lessen, and that falls that don’t result in real injuries become much less frightening.
  10. Ice is nice. If you know you’re bruised, put a cold pack on it. Take care of yourself.
  11. Persistence pays. Just keep riding, and you will grow stronger and more skillful.
  12. Every fall has a lesson. Make sure you take the time to learn it.

I came off my bike twice tonight. The first time was annoying, but I knew I was fine. The second time, I know I hit the ground pretty hard. I knew I wasn’t really physically hurt; I’d have a bruise, but nothing really wrong. My brain, however, wasn’t having such an easy time of it. I had to sit for a few minutes to pull myself together, because that fall scared me pretty badly.

The one and only panic attack I have had was on a mountain bike ride. There was a rocky, cliffside trail, and eventually, I did, indeed, take a fall down the rocky downhill side. I was bruised up, but not otherwise physically damaged. I was also in a race, and I felt obligated to push forward to get the best time I could. A few minutes later, I was having problems breathing, and it had nothing to do with how hard I was riding. My brain, logically and calmly, analyzed the situation, and informed me that I was having a panic attack. A part of me was all fascination: it’s true that you can’t breathe when you are having a panic attack! The logical part was very calm and said I had to get off the bike, sit quietly, and calm down. It was like I was partially outside of myself observing what was happening. All while something in me was panicking so badly it was taking away my ability to breathe. I wonder if I scared the corner marshall I came across at that time. I took a seat in his chair while I steadied myself. I walked almost every obstacle after that. My nerves were shot, and I knew it.

The terrain, loose dirt and rock, which was skeetering my bike around, plus the dark, did my anxiety level no good for the fall tonight. Four rides in three different places do not get you used to the way mountain bikes handle on different types of trail. I had a light, and that helped, but it wasn’t enough.

Two of the guys on the ride tonight came back to check on me after that second fall. I couldn’t even speak. I realized if I tried, I was going to just start crying. I figured they would appreciate it if I resisted. I held up my index fingers in the universal sign for “give me a minute”. It was hard to breathe, and hard to choke back those tears. If I had been with friends I might have just had my cry and gotten it done with. Those two, more sensible than perhaps they realized, just restarted their conversation and left me be to take care of myself. Which was probably easier when I didn’t feel like I was the center of attention. That didn’t take long, although it felt long for a few moments there. I was lucky, we were almost to the end of the trail; after I pulled myself together, there wasn’t much more riding for me to do. It still took a solid half hour to an hour after we got back in our vehicles and drove down from the trail head until I stopped feeling shaky and scared.

Mountain biking is like that, at least for me. The places I go are peaceful and beautiful. And the trail demands all of my attention, so no worrying about this or that or the other thing while I am riding. It’s almost like meditation in that I have to have a singular focus. I ride my bike and do nothing but ride my bike. I am constantly growing, not just in strength, but in skill. I learn how to do more and more as I go on. But it’s not without its price. I do fall off sometimes, no major injuries, but plenty of ugly bruises and, in the past, I’ve had an occasional lasting sprain or strain. It’s certainly not fun to get hurt, but there’s something fundamental that I learn about who I am by getting knocked around a little. Every fall has a lesson, if I stop to observe, think, and learn it. I won’t do Gu; I don’t do sleep deprivation, or working so hard I vomit. But I will continue to do this. Sometimes I wish I could skip this part, the being scared more than the falling off, but I know I am learning a lot, and growing, and that is why I signed up for this.

County Fair and Rodeo

I spent some time at the county fair and rodeo this weekend; getting to know the big event in my new small community.

I heard a woman ahead of me in line at the grocery store, talking to the clerk, “No, why bother to go to the fair and rodeo alone?” I had to laugh a little to myself, since that was exactly what I was doing. I’m sure it’s different when you’ve gone a bunch of times as a family, so she’d have seen it already. But that’s the casual attitude of people with families; if I didn’t bother to do things alone, I would be home alone most of the time. They don’t get my life. I’m sure I don’t get theirs either.

One thing I noticed that bothered me. The demographic population at the fair was probably 90% white (unscientific guesstimate). I imagine that might also fit with the demographics of the county, but the rodeo is a big draw from all over, one of the finals on the national circuit. If so few people of color were there from lack of opportunity, that seems sad. The one notable minority group I saw in some of the events was the Yakama Indians. I didn’t see as many just wandering around.

Walking through the exhibits, I was surprised at how big and intimidating cows and pigs are. Renewed appreciation and respect for those who farm and who deal with such large animals. That is out of my skill-set, and out of my comfort zone, by a wide margin.

I’m sure we all heard about cow-tipping in high school or college. You really think some city kid is going to walk up to one of these large animals and tip it over? What if it gets mad at you and steps on you? I do not think so.

I also left with a renewed appreciation for 4H and their programs. I wish I had had an opportunity to be involved with that as a youngster.

Goodbye Austin

There’s the little house on Woodward Street, the first house I owned. Small and just perfect for me. I miss you, little house, and I miss the little fantasy of growing old in you. Goodbye little house.

There’s Amy’s Ice Cream. I’ve never been the biggest ice cream fan, but I was glad to take someone who truly enjoyed you there, for this last time. Goodbye Amy’s.

There’s the friend’s house where so often I’ve stayed when I’ve come to visit. A cousin recently moved in to the guest room. I was so glad to have dinner there one last time, and to see everyone. I know the friends will keep in touch, but goodbye to the visits. I will have many fond memories of you. The times we had Salt Lick for dinner, the times we’ve cooked. The movies we’ve watched (even that one that none of us liked!). Even the times, like last night, when I got overwhelmed by my allergies to the cats, achoo, achoo. I hope you know how grateful I have been for the hospitality, for the friendship, for all of the memories. Goodbye, goodbye.

There’s the Town Lake Trail. How many times did I run that 4 mile loop from First Street to the Mopac bridge, and back again? Not recently, but there were years of getting out there at 6:30 in the morning to meet friends to run. I remember the time we saw a hot air balloon skimming just above the water, and we were afraid the people would fall in and we’d have to rescue them in the winter cold. Walking down to the Trail of Lights. Spotting poison ivy next to the trail. Finally renting a kayak on Town Lake, a thing I meant to do some day for years, and have done several times in the past years. Biking around you today, and seeing the new boardwalk — connectivity. Such a jewel for the City of Austin. I am sure it took political effort and willpower to get that built, but, like always, the most valuable part of the trail is the last piece built that connects it all together. Goodbye Town Lake Trail.

Barton Springs Pool. Rarely visited when I lived here. Not the best place for swimming laps, we were always going somewhere else for that. But your water is amazing and cold as blazes, just as everyone says. You get out and are cool for a long while afterwards, even walking or biking in the sun. And so pretty, this piece of Austin. You can do back dives and back flips off the pool, even though I didn’t today. It is so cold, so cold, in that diving area. Goodbye Barton Springs Pool.

One last trip to REI, one last trip to Title Nine Sports, but I’ll find you again in Seattle. Central Market on the other hand, the original one, only in Texas for you. I remember when you were built in 1994, and I remember too, the little table that overlooked the market. I came early and camped up there at least twice on Christmas Eve to see all the crazy overwhelmed shoppers below in the long long lines. It was such fun to sit upstairs, above it all, watching everyone’s last minute preparations in peace. The Sunday morning trips to the South Lamar store, with a newspaper, hoping that today might be the day that I’d end up in a conversation with the man that would become the love of my life. It never happened; rarely did I talk to anyone else. I still liked having my breakfast and reading the paper and enjoying being there. Goodbye Central Market.

All the friends I have here, made in graduate school, and afterwards. Martial arts friends, and bicycling advocates, those I went to school with or worked with. Lunches and dinners after martial arts class, brunches at Austin Diner. You don’t lose people in the same way you lose places, since you can still keep in touch. I will miss you too, especially those I see most often often. Maybe some of you will take a trip to Seattle and we can meet up. I am sure I will be back. At least on occasion. Goodbye friends, I wish I got to see all of you on this last trip.

Did I just smile for 3 hours straight?

I think I must have smiled for 3 hours straight. This was my first time at graduation on the stage as faculty. Giving the diploma to my student was awesome in and of itself. I think my smile almost broke my face.

I got to give my research student his diploma at graduation.  Here we are, backstage, immediately afterwards!

I got to give my research student his diploma at graduation. Here we are, backstage, immediately afterwards!

If that was not enough, one of our associate deans was there, and he provided some mentoring. He told me I could move around on stage and go greet the students backstage if I knew them. Every time I recognized a name of a student that I knew, I jumped up, and went to give out congratulations and hugs. The other faculty probably thought I was nuts. I didn’t care. I think the students were glad to see me, glad I recognized them (although sometimes I did mis-identify which class they took from me), glad I was there with congratulations and hugs. I loved it. I just loved it.

Eventually I figured out who to talk into taking photos.

The only regret for the day is that I missed taking a photo with a friend graduating with a Ph.D. early in the ceremony. But I got to be there. I got to be a part of it. I got to see it. That made it a great day.

Ordinary Kindness

At lunch with a friend earlier in the week, my wallet/change purse dropped onto the sidewalk without me noticing. An hour later, before I even realized it was missing, two Aggies were knocking on the door to my office, returning it to me. I didn’t get their names; I was too surprised to discover my mistake. I know I said thank you, but it deserves being said again. Thank you. Ordinary kindness like this is one of the things I love best about College Station and my TAMU students in particular.

It was the end of class today. One of my students with a robust sense of humor let me know he hadn’t missed a single class. I blew him a kiss much to his and the rest of the class’s amusement. Ordinary kindness. Thank you, thank you for that moment.

Another had his wife and small child by class today, at least before the hour started. I think I got the blowing kisses idea from the little one, who blew a few at me. I returned the favor. Life’s happy little moments; I’m always glad to meet a student’s family, parents or children or spouses.

End of the semester wrap up — I had time and took a few minutes and shared some of the wisdom I have struggled with.

  1. Figure out what work activities you do that make you feel happy and alive. Do more of that.
  2. If you aren’t liking what you are doing, try other things until you find something that makes you happy.
  3. Some people are just mean. Avoid them.
  4. Find people who make you feel good and spend more time with them.
  5. Don’t waste your 20s. Don’t spend time in relationships with people you don’t really like and whom you aren’t treating well. Don’t spend time in relationships with people who aren’t treating you well
  6. Realize that we think that we are going to get through school and get a job or a family or whatever it is, and we will have arrived and things will be good. But we don’t always end up where we expect, and even when we do, there are always problems. Life is struggle. If there is one gift I could give you, it would be resilience.

We ended class a few minutes early, with hugs and handshakes and wishes for good final exams.

The Fibonacci in Tool’s Lateralus

On Friday we rocked out to Tool’s Lateralus for a while before math class.
Even though there was a flood in our building,
and now we had the baseboards and 2 feet of wallboard removed in my classroom and in others.
Sound travels much better than usual.
No one came down the hallway to complain to me for making too much noise.
I did close the doors just in case.

I was sad to turn the video off, but it’s long.
We missed a day Monday, and we had to start class.
Back to business as usual.

I remember one day,
I played that video in linear algebra,
where we also studied the Fibonacci Sequence.
A young man turned to me and with incredulity in his voice asked,
“Where in the hell did you find that?”

I had to laugh, because everyone sends me math things,
but my magic is to know when to use them.
Even when no one reacts, I know that sitting in my classroom
some student is listening and thinking.
Maybe this little bit of inspiration is enough to take them in a direction
that neither of us ever imagined.

One thing we forget in math class
while we are doing calculations,
trying to remember which angle is which on the unit circle,
Is that all of this math and the fact that it works out the way it does,
in such neat little packages,
all of these are miracles, one right after the other.
That we can understand this at all,
that means each of us is also a miracle.

It took thousands of years before calculus was invented,
and we’ve forgotten all the intermediate steps,
all the times someone tried something and it didn’t work out,
all that got thrown away like scratch paper.
All we see is the final result, the neat little packages,
and we dare to think, “how boring.”
Stop before you say that.
Be amazed for a moment that we figured this out at all.

From Edward Frenkel’s recent article in The Atlantic

Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography: “I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.” Mathematics is not about studying boring and useless equations: It is about accessing a new way of thinking and understanding reality at a deeper level. It endows us with an extra sense and enables humanity to keep pushing the boundaries of the unknown.

The Best Book You’ve Ever Read?

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the question, “What is the best book you’ve ever read?” Or, what are your favorite books? The books that really stick with people as favorites tend to be exceptional.

I posted a “name this novel” on Facebook:

I suppose it is because I have lived a rather restricted life myself that I have found so much enjoyment in remembering what I have learned in these last years about brave people and strange scenes. I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging and black stockriders, of Cairns and Green Island. Of a girl that I met forty years too late and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again that holds so much of my affection.

I was surprised that not one of my friends answered it.

The quote is from A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. A reviewer wrote, “Probably more people have shed tears over the last page of A Town Like Alice than about any other novel in the English language.” I do, every time.

Alice, originally published in 1950 under the title The Legacy in the United Kingdom, is a Second World War history, a romance, and an adventure novel all wrapped up in 277 pages. And don’t let the fact that it is part romance deter male readers; you will not regret picking this one up.

The story opens in the 1930s when solicitor Noel Strachan is called to rewrite the will of a client into a trust for his nephew or niece. Then we move to the post-war years, when the client has died, and Noel must track down his surviving heir. Jean Paget, anonymous short-hand typist, comes in to quite a bit of money. And what does she want to do with it? She wants to go back to the far east, to Malaysia, to build a well.

(Let me warn you now that there are some “spoilers” in what I write next, though I hardly think of them that way. The beauty of this novel is not in how it surprises you. It is in how the story turns whether you are reading it for the first time or for the tenth. But just in case, let me insert a photo so you have a chance to turn away now.)


And thus we enter the first part of the novel which is Jean’s experiences during the war years, as a prisoner of the Japanese, marched from place to place with a group of women and children. Half their number die out on the roads. Along the way, she meets an Australian prisoner, Joe Harman, a cowboy/cattle rancher, who steals to help the group of women, for which he is eventually tortured and killed.

After Jean gets to Malayasia and builds the well, she discovers that Joe has lived, grievously wounded, perhaps permanently crippled. She heads to Australia to find him.

Meanwhile, guess who shows up in Noel Strachan’s office looking for her?

The final third of the novel is the story of how Jean goes about trying to make the remote outback town where Joe lives into a suitable place for a woman to live, stay, and raise a family.

I have spent the winter writing down this story … And, having finished it, it seems to me that I have been mixed up in things far greater than I realized at the time.

The beauty of this novel is in how Shute makes it happen. He writes about ordinary people who have an extra-ordinary sense of right and wrong. They simply go forth and do the job that is in front of them to do.

If you are a fan of World War Two lore, you may, rightly, object that women prisoners were never marched from place to place in Malaysia. In the words of Nevil Shute himself:

…and this is true. It happened in Sumatra.

After the conquest of Malaya in 1942, the Japanese invaded Sumatra and quickly took the island. A party of about eighty Dutch women and children were collected in the vicinity of Padang. The local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for these women, and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area; so began a trek all round Sumatra which lasted for two and a half years. At the end of this vast journey less than thirty of them were still alive.

In 1949 I stayed with Mr. and Mrs. J. G. Geysel-Vonck in Palembang in Sumatra. Mrs. Geysel had been a member of the party. When she was taken prisoner she was a slight, pretty girl of twenty-one, recently married; she had a baby six months old, and a very robust sense of humour. In the years that followed, Mrs. Geysel marched over twelve hundred miles carrying her baby, in circumstances similar to what I have described. She emerged from this fantastic ordeal undaunted, and with her son fit and well.

I do not think I have ever before turned to real life for an incident in one of my novels. If I have done so now it is because I have been unable to resist the appeal of this true story, and because I want to pay what tribute is within my power to the most gallant lady I have ever met.

Project Euler

Lately I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to do with an honors class I am teaching in the fall. The three things you can give a student that will help them most in the future are: good communication skills (make them write, make them give presentations), programming skills, and work on decent-sized projects that go beyond the routine weekly homework. These are discussed in this Washington Post article: Starting College? Here’s how to graduate with a job.

I’m getting burned out on teaching large projects and lots of writing. That’s not appropriate for this class anyhow. But I could throw in some programming problems. And we might do a small project with some writing/presentation. Or we might not! #1 Rule for the Moment: take it easy on yourself, Dr. Jinx. You have a lot of irons in the fire, and you work too hard.

One of my students recently pointed me to the Project Euler ( website, which is a compendium of nice problems requiring programming and basic mathematics to solve. I am sure friends into math and programming have mentioned this site to me in the past, but I didn’t have the motivation to go check it out.

There are several small problems early on the site that I can use for my students. Then they get more interesting/harder. What I wasn’t expecting was how much fun I would have solving these.

I’m 21 problems in. The problems are getting harder. I am building a small library of general-purpose tools to make solving them easier.

I worked in software for 10 years, and when I got out, I questioned myself on many counts. Did I really like doing math, or was I just sucked in because I was one of the few women who could, and I seemed to be reasonably good at it? Did I really like programming, or did I just get sucked into it, too? While it seems possible that other paths might have been good ones for me, it also seems that I got a first-hand look on how environment can deeply effect your enjoyment of things. A poisonous environment can cause you to start to dislike and feel incompetent at activities that you are actually reasonably competent at and enjoy.

The number one advice I tend to have for students is to find people and environments that make them feel good about themselves and spend more time in them. I wish I had gotten and taken that advice myself.

Whether you are a supervisor or a teacher or a Ph.D. advisor, good advice to keep in mind is to put some thought into keeping the environment supportive and healthy. While yes, whatever you are doing is work, if you can make work fun, you win. Your employees and students will work hard and happily for you in that case.