Quick Take: The Professor and the Madman

Joanne played this audiobook for me on our last long drive; something was vexing me and this true, compelling yarn proved to be the perfect tonic.

I wouldn’t normally warn about spoilers for a book first published in 1998, but I learned today that this book was made into a movie starring Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt which premiered this year (2019) in limited release. If you’re worried about it, there are some slight spoilers below; you can come back and read this after you’ve seen the movie or read the book.

The story starts dramatically with a murder, an unprecedentedly brutal homicide by the standards of London in the 1870s. Dr. William C. Minor, an American whose mental health had eroded since his service in the Civil War, shot George Merrett in the throat and then waited calmly for the police. It had been a terrible mistake he confessed; he was attempting to chase away a man who had broken into his room to torment him, a figment of his dementia. He was soon committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, creating the circumstances where he would become one of the most prolific contributors to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The book proceeds, at least at first, as a bibiography, by which we understand a biography focused on two subjects. (Editors of the OED please note: this may be the first recorded use of this word as I have just now made it up. This is probably moot however as it doesn’t really seem to be a very good word after all; it sounds like a stutter and is too easily mistaken for ”bibliography.”) The second subject, the titular professor, is Dr. James Murray, who rose from humble beginnings to become the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary throughout the lion’s share of its creation.

Their stories and the interplay between the two men is enthralling, but ”The Professor and the Madman” is far more than a shared biography of two men. The author turns lovely phrases and paints vivid scenes. There is a fascinating account of the debate about whether the word ”protagonist” could ever be used in the plural. The story of the creation of the OED becomes a history of all English lexicography and is far more compelling than it has the right to be.

Like most biographies, the ending is bittersweet. Dr. Minor’s end is pitiful as his facilities continued to desert him. The end of Dr. Murray’s life is a study in unfinished business. He toiled on the OED until his passing just shy of his 80th birthday and did not live to see its completion. But at least there is the coda of the OED itself; completed and now well on its way to a third edition, it can stand as a monument to both of these men’s lives.

Thus, I strongly recommend the book. I can’t speak for the movie, but we plan to check it out at our earliest convenience.

Bottom Line:


Winchester, S., The Professor and the Madman, Harper Collins, 1998.

Quick Take: The Billion Dollar Boy

A few weeks ago, I was thinking back fondly about Heinlein’s juvenile novels. I used to read those all the time even once I aged out of the YA target audience. These hold up nicely. Not too long ago, Joanne and I enjoyed Starman Jones and Have Space Suit Will Travel as audiobooks on a long drive or three.

My nostalgia turned to the Jupiter Novels. In the mid to late 90’s, Tor books published this series as an homage to these works of Heinlein. I read a couple and they were pretty good. Maybe I’d like to reread a couple of those or track down the ones I hadn’t read, I thought.

By an odd coincidence or a creepy not-a-coincidence, if Facebook is eavesdropping on us, I soon received an e-mail from Arc Manor Publishers offering a free copy of the e-book of The Billion Dollar Boy by Charles Sheffield. This was one of the Jupiter Novels and it was one that, to the best of my recollection, I had not read.

And it was fine. After the first couple of pages, I knew in broad brushstrokes how the plot would unfold. The main character, a spoiled rich kid would, through some contrivance, end up in space. He’d be forced to earn his keep while he discovers amazing things and some dramatic stuff occurs. By the end, of course, he’s no longer an entitled jackass. Wikipedia tells me this is essentially the same plot as Captains Courageous.

But even with the predictability, this is a fun read. The story moves along quickly. The happenings are engaging, the conflict is exciting and the resolution is satisfying. The Billion Dollar Boy is nothing more or less than the science fiction equivalent of ordering comfort food in a restaurant. It’s not exactly what you grew up with and it’s fundamentally unchallenging but it’s reminiscent enough to be enjoyable.

Bottom Line:

A Flag for Elmira

We’ve settled into the new house enough that we’ve finally installed the flagpole. That was a non-trivial project; there’s nothing like a simple task to remind you of your total lack of aptitude for all things handy. This is the first time we’ve lived in the City of Elmira; we’ve lived in Horseheads and Southport and Newfield, but not within the city itself. To mark the occasion, the first flag that we’re flying from our new home is a proposed flag for the City that was designed by Alex Chichester. Last month, I unboxed the very flag that we’re flying and provided links to Alex’s story, about the flag, why he designed it and some of the community’s response to the flag. You can find all of that here.

The current city flag can be seen to the right and it’s nice enough. I asked about purchasing a copy of this flag from the city and I may yet buy one, but to be honest, it’s somewhat bland. The seal is a standard, city seal, but it’s the sort of seal that’s designed for the printed page. It works best on letterhead or in a book where you can look at it carefully and appreciate all of the detail.

Today, I thought I’d look at the proposed flag, which I’m inclined to call the Chichester Flag through the lens of the North American Vexillological Association’s five principles for good flag design as delineated in Good Flag, Bad Flag. Alex’s design is an objectively good flag. Here we go!

Principle 1. KEEP IT SIMPLE: The Flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.

Here the Chichester Flag shines. The basic design a purple background with a blue horizontal band across the center. Many flags have shared this basic design, which could also be described as three horizontal stripes in two colors. Latvia, Austria, and Cambodia among others, share this basic design. The two joined gold rings as well as the choice of colors make the flag stand out as distinct from the other flags with similar designs. Simplicity is important and it’s no coincidence that NAVA lists this principle first as flags are meant to be seen from a distance and to either drape or to move in the wind. The Confederate States of America had three national flags in its four years of existence because the first two were easily confused with other flags.

A few weeks ago, while I was driving, I encountered a good illustration of this principle as the car in front of me had a small Canadian Flag sticker on its rear window and it was recognizable as a Canadian Flag even when it was many car lengths ahead of us. You can see this in the leftmost picture below. I pasted the official Elmira flag (middle) and the proposed flag (right) into the same photo and the difference is evident. The proposed flag is recognizable while the official flag could be many other things at this distance, such as the flag of Anchorage, Alaska or Honolulu, Hawaii.

Principle 2. USE MEANINGFUL SYMBOLISM: The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.

The Chichester Flag has nice clear symbolism. The blue band represents the Chemung river which runs through the city. This is apt; the original settlement in the area was founded at the meeting of the Chemung River and the Newtown Creek. It was the completion of the Chemung Canal that connected the Chemung River to Seneca Lake and ultimately to the Erie Canal System. This allowed Elmira to become a regional center of manufacturing and shipping. There is little doubt that the Chemung River had a profound influence on the city and the community.

The two golden interlocking rings represent the uniting of the city’s north, south, east and west sides into a single community. This works both figuratively and concretely as the four sections of the rings that cross the blue band can be seen to represent the four driving bridges that cross the river within the city.

The colors of the flag are also significant. The Elmira College colors are purple and gold and those colors are ubiquitous on campus. The college, which sits in the heart of the city was founded in 1855, nine years before the city was incorporated from the village and part of the town of the same name. The new flag’s designer, Alex said, “I personally identify the city with the color purple,… It’s probably a lot to do with Elmira College. Also, there’s purple and golden wildflowers all over town.”

The wildflower rationale is frequently echoed in stories about why the college chose purple and gold as their school colors, although those stories usually invoke irises, the school flower. The other reason the college usually shares as an inspiration for their choice of colors is that purple and gold were among the colors of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (you can read a bit more about that here). This reason might be even more salient. Elmira had significant links to the women’s movement and this includes the college itself, which was the first college in the U. S. to offer degrees to women that were equivalent to those that were being offered to men.

Elmira also played an important role in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. When we consider this along with the ties to the women’s movement, the fact that the purple portion of the flag evokes an equals sign (=), the flag elicits all of this history.

Principle 3. USE 2 TO 3 BASIC COLORS: Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.

There’s very little that needs to be said here; the flag contains three colors that contrast nicely. A useful measure of this is whether the flag remains recognizable and attractive when rendered in grayscale. It does. The black and white version remains both striking and distinctive.

As an interesting side note, the NAVA manual defines the basic color set as “red, blue, green, black, yellow and white” and states that other colors “are seldom needed in a good design.” At least part of the reason is that “flag fabric comes in a relatively limited number of colors.” I wonder if this is still true; it seems to me that printed flags have become more common and easily obtained in the 14 years since the manual was written. Either way, the connections between Elmira and the color purple are significant enough to warrant its use.

Principle 4. NO LETTERING OR SEALS: Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.

This is strongly related to the “keep it simple” principle. Seals are difficult to see at a distance and text on printed flags appears reversed on the back, making it difficult to read. To make the text readable on both sides dramatically increases the cost of the flag. The Chichester flag has neither text nor a seal.

Principle 5. BE DISTINCTIVE OR BE RELATED: Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

[Iroquois Confederacy flag]

The Chichester flag can claim both of these characteristics. The color choices and the interlocking rings set the flag apart from other flags with similar designs making it distinctive while it shares some similarities to related flags. The similarities to the Elmira College flag, shown above, are evident. The gold rings can also be seen as an homage to the current Elmira flag as they share its color and evoke its main motif, the circular seal. In a nice coincidence, the purple color refers back to the flag of the Iroquois Confederacy, who inhabited this area of North America before the arrival of European settlers.

Final Words:

This was an enjoyable project and a nice inaugural flag for our new home. I’d never ordered a custom flag before, but the process was easy and straightforward. It’s easy enough that I will probably order more custom flags in the future, when I’m interested in flying something that isn’t easily available.

It is also been exciting to be able to fly a flag that, as far as I know, has never been flown before. That’s been a great deal of fun and I want to thank Alex for allowing me to use his design.

And speaking of Alex, I hope that his campaign to have his flag become the official flag of the City of Elmira is successful. It’s a beautiful flag and his arguments about using the flag to invigorate the community and brand the city deserve careful consideration. If you’re interested in such things, please check out his videos. I think you’ll find them compelling.


Image Credits:

Tom Foolery

Charlie Jacobson shared an article from Slate yesterday: Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire, honoring Tom Lehrer on the occasion of his 90th birthday. It reminded me of just how much I enjoy Mr. Lehrer’s work. It also reminded me that the last time I subjected a class to one of his songs, (We discuss arithmetic in other bases in Cryptography, so we listen to “New Math“) I resolved to write my first ever fan letter. Thing is, the article above is from April 2018, so Mr. Lehrer is now a bit over 91 and a half. To quote the great man himself, “I believe that if any songs are going to come out of World War III, we had better start writing them now.”

Mr. Lehrer is a genius! I believe that I purchased a copy of “That Was The Year That Was” while I was in junior high school and promptly wore it out. I would make a point of listening to Dr. Demento every Sunday hoping to hear his stuff. It was a delightful surprise when I realized that Lehrer also write “Silent E” which I had loved from the Electric Company back in second or third grade. I still find myself humming that song nearly a half-century later.

I often say he’s the only mathematician I consider a role model and when I told a class last week that by becoming a professor, I’d figured out how to stay in college for the rest of my life, I was intentionally riffing on Lehrer’s “attempt to extend adolescence beyond all previous bounds”. He’s probably one of the biggest influences on my sense of humor, such as it is, which I suppose isn’t a very nice thing to say, but there you go.

The Slate article reminds us of Lehrer’s quote about Henry Kissinger. The first time I’d heard it, I thought it was that “All other forms of political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize” and that’s stuck with me even though I’ve tried and I haven’t been able to verify that version of the quote. It’s always struck me as much more interesting than the version that I usually see, which is merely to say that political satire has become obsolete. But “politics has become too nutty to satirize” is an easy joke, while the other version is profound. To expand on it: “Henry Kissinger has won the Nobel a Peace Prize after being instrumental in the bombing of Cambodia and other horrible things. The only way that could possibly make sense is if the award itself was actually an act of satire. And it is such a perfect and succinct bit of satire that we’ve clearly reached the apex of the art form. No one else should attempt political satire because everything else will seem empty and futile in comparison. Political satire is obsolete.” It may just be headcanon, but that’s what I choose to believe Mr. Lehrer actually said.

The Slate article continues “…and in 2002 he remarked, still less optimistically: ‘Things I once thought were funny are scary now. I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.’” Brilliant.

It’s worth the investment of time to track down all of Mr. Lehrer’s songs, but for those of you who are just getting started, here are a few of my favorites.

We Will All Go Together When We Go:

That’s Mathematics:

Silent “e.”

Wernher Von Braun:

I Got It From Agnes

Who’s Next:

Coming Flag-tractions

In a couple of weeks, we’ll be moving into the city of Elmira. We’ve lived in the area for some time, but never actually in Elmira itself. To mark the occasion, we wanted an appropriate flag to fly for the first month or so in our new home.

Meanwhile, a young man named Alex Chichester has designed a new flag for the city and he’s been promoting it. It’s a lovely design and it deserves a chance to become our new flag. We decided to fly his flag when we moved to the city. I contacted Alex and he graciously allowed me to have a copy made. After speaking with a number of nice people, I decided to work with a company called Asley who produced a lot of the flags we’ve flown at home for the last year or so. The new flag finally arrived yesterday. Here’s our first look at the finished product.

I’ll have more to say when I start flying the flag, but if you’re interested, here are two of Alex’s videos regarding his flag. He promotes this better than I can.

And if this has piqued your interest in flags and vexillology, here’s an excellent TED Talk on city flags and flag design.

More soon (ish).

Factoring Quadratics

A couple of weeks ago I covered factoring in my College Algebra class, which we’ll mainly use for working with quadratic equations. This always makes me think about a method for factoring quadratics that I’d never seen before moving back to New York state. Years ago, I looked it up on what I think was an NYS Department of Education website which called it the “AC method” for factoring quadratics. When I tried to find this again, I only found it on YouTube called “slide and divide” and the “Berry Method.” Both of those names seem unnecessarily arcane to me, but for this post, I’ll call this process “slide and divide.” The references to an “AC Method” that I say today were actually talking about the “grouping number method” which we’ll come back to.

I hope that the fact that it’s become difficult to find references to what I think of as the AC Method is evidence that it’s going away. It needs to.

When I was in high school, I remember that factoring quadratics that looked like ax^2 +bx + c was pretty straight forward when a = 1, but when a was different from 1 it got trickier. The only tool we were taught was trial and error, but you need to develop some intuition to use trial and error efficiently. Both the grouping number method and slide and divide attempt to give students a systematic process that builds on the experience of the a = 1 case to help them with the a \neq 1 case. If you’re a mathematician, and you’ve seen the slide and divide approach, you probably found it horrifying. I know I did. It goes something like this: say you want to factor the following polynomial.

6 x^2 - x - 12

You begin by replacing the leading coefficient with 1 while replacing the constant term with the product of itself and the leading coefficient.

x^2 - x - 72

Why do we do this? I’m not sure it’s ever made clear. But this is a lot easier to factor since the leading coefficient is one. We just need to find two factors of -72 that add up to the coefficient of the middle term, -1, namely -9 and 8 . These become the constant terms of the factors


We then replace each x with 6x


…and then remove the common factor from each binomial.


With that, our quadratic polynomial is factored.

The single redeeming feature of this process is that it actually works, but think about these steps. Where did the 6 in front of the x^2 go? Why does it make sense to multiply it into the -12? For that matter, why do the 6xs magically reappear? And why is it okay to just cancel the common factors from the penultimate step? If I thought about it for a moment, I bet I’d actually have even more questions.

I’ve had a few students who wanted to use this method to factor, but none of them was ever able to explain why it works. That’s the ultimate problem with this method. It’s a list of meaningless steps that, once forgotten, will be gone forever because it doesn’t attach to any understanding. If you teach mathematics, it’s incumbent upon you to make your material meaningful to your students. Some people naively believe that this means you have to teach mathematics in a context that is directly relevant to the students’ interest, but in my opinion, that’s not true. You need to help them understand what’s happening and why it’s being done. Each step should have a clear and understandable rationale that helps to drive the process forward. Slide and divide does none of these things.

This process is not irredeemable, however. It is possible to work slide and divide in a way that gives it these characteristics. Let’s go through this in our original example.

6 x^2 - x - 12

The idea behind this method is that, if we can rewrite the polynomial with a leading coefficient of one, it will be easier to factor. To do this we need the leading term to be a perfect square. We can make that happen by multiplying the polynomial by 6. Because we don’t want to change the polynomial, we’ll divide by 6 at the same time.

= \frac{36 x^2 - 6x - 72}{6}

A simple substitution will give us a leading coefficient of 1. We define u = 6x.

= \frac{u^2 - u - 72}{6}

Just like we did above, to factor our numerator we need two factors of -72 that add up to -1, that’s still -9 and 8 .

= \frac{(u - 9)(u+8)}{6}

To get back to expressions that involve xs, we undo the substitution. That makes it clear why the 6xs return.

= \frac{(6x - 9)(6x+8)}{6}

And now, we’d like to get rid of the 6s since we don’t need them any longer. Where did the 6 in the numerator go? It’s inside the common factors of the two binomials. We can factor those out…

= \frac{3(2x - 3)2(3x+4)}{6}

…and they clearly cancel with the 6 in the denominator. That leaves us with our answer.

= (2x - 3)(3x+4)

That’s pretty cumbersome and so slide and divide leads you to a no-win-scenario. The quick way doesn’t engender understanding while the more rigorous approach isn’t quick.

So, what should we teach instead? The grouping number method that I mentioned earlier. To set it up, let’s think about what happens in the following polynomial multiplication.



=8x^2 -2x -12x +3

=8x^2 -14x +3

Normally, you’d just skip the second step, but it’s important to realize that what you’re really doing is using the distributive property twice. Additionally, let’s think about the -12 and the -2. It’s clear that they add up to the final coefficient of x, but it’s also true that their product (-12)(-2) = 24 is the same as the product of the leading coefficient and the constant term, (8)(3). Notice this has to be true. In either case, it’s the product of 4, -1, 2 and -3, merely in a different order.

So, how do we go in the other direction? That is, how do we factor instead of multiply? We’ll demonstrate the grouping number method on the polynomial 8x^2 - 14x + 3.

The grouping number of a quadratic polynomial is the leading coefficient multiplied by the constant term.

So, in this case, it would be 8 \times 3 = 24.

Next, you want to look for two factors of your grouping number that add up to the coefficient of x. In this case, (-12)(-2) = 24 and (-12)+(-2) = -14. We use these two numbers to rewrite the middle term to get the following.

8x^2 - 14x + 3 = 8x^2 - 2x - 12x + 3.

In other words, to rewrite the polynomial in this way, you find two factors of your grouping number that add up to the coefficient of x and use those to break down the middle term.

Why rewrite the polynomial in this way? Because it sets us up perfectly to factor by grouping.

Factoring by grouping is a technique for factoring a polynomial with four terms. In a nutshell, to factor by grouping, you remove the greatest common factor from the first two terms, then remove the greatest common factor from the last two terms. If the resulting binomial factors are the same you can factor this out to get the product of two binomials. Notice, that’s using the distributive property twice, just in the opposite direction as before.

Therefore, to finish factoring the polynomial we can factor by grouping.

8x^2 - 14x + 3

= 8x^2 - 2x - 12x + 3

= 2x(4x - 1) - 3(4x - 1)

= (4x - 1)(2x - 3)

Notice this exactly reverses the steps of the multiplication with which we started.

In short, as long as you have no common factors, the quadratic polynomials where the grouping number can be factored into two numbers that add up to the middle coefficient are exactly the ones that can be factored by grouping. All the others are prime.

The Serapis Flag

The Serapis Flag

There are many variations of the United States Flag that were used in the early days of the republic. One of the more interesting is the Serapis Flag which we are now flying. Its existence is intimately tied to the Battle of Flamborough Head fought 240 years ago 0n 23 September 1779.

John Paul Jones

The story of the Serapis flag begins with the story of John Paul, a ship captain. Paul fled his native Scotland after killing a crewman who mutinied over wages, presumably refusing to trust his fate to an Admiralty Court. Paul emigrated to the colonies, renamed himself “John Paul Jones” and befriended Benjamin Franklin. He joined the Continental Navy, rose through the ranks and became the United States’ first famous naval commander. He is sometimes called the Father of the U. S. Navy. By 1779, Jones was in command of the Bonhomme Richard, named in honor Franklin’s pseudonym from Poor Richard’s Almanac.

The Serapis vs. the Bonhomme Richard

Bonhomme Richard was a former merchant ship that had been armed and upgraded to a ship of war. It led, under Jones’ command, a small squadron of ships. Near Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, this squadron encountered a British convoy under the protection of the HMS Serapis. Conflict ensued and Bonhomme Richard took severe damage from the better armed Serapis. When the British captain asked if the Richard had struck her colors (meaning that they had lowered their flag as a sign of surrender) Jones is said to have replied with the famous “I have not yet begun to fight!” The flag, in fact, had been destroyed in the battle.

Eventually, the tide of the battle turned and Jones managed to lash Bonhomme Richard to the Serapis. The American crew was able to board and capture the British ship while their own ship, badly damaged and on fire, sank into the North Sea.

But what does this have to do with the Serapis Flag? Only this. Jones, now in command of the Serapis, put into a neutral Dutch port for repairs. British officials accused Jones of being a pirate and demanded his arrest. He was, after all, sailing a captured ship which was not flying the colors of any known nation. Bonhomme Richard’s flag, remember, had been blown into the sea. A flag was hastily created for Jones’ ship and entered into the Dutch records, allowing the Dutch to officially recognize the captured ship.

The Serapis Flag was created according to a description of United States flag that was provided by Benjamin Franklin, who was then Ambassador to France.

“It is with pleasure that we acquaint your excellency that the flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white, and blue; a small square in the upper angle, next the flagstaff, is a blue field, with thirteen white stars, denoting a new constellation.”

The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States

And thus, this slightly garbled recounting of the Flag Resolution of 1777 is responsible for the distinctive look of the Serapis Flag. Because of this, the flag is also known as the Franklin Flag. It remains popular today and is frequently used in historical displays because of its uniqueness and its recognizably American character.


Picture Credits:

Adventures in Punditry

I like trying things I haven’t done before. A few years ago I got my one and only speeding ticket and I attended the court date. I’d never been to court before and it was interesting.

About two weeks ago, Steve Coleman, who was a Vice-President at Elmira College, invited me to be a guest on his local public affairs program. Steve’s been doing this sort of thing for years as a self-styled “Ph. D. of Politics.” Coleman and Company is now a weekly half-hour webcast that appears on Sunday evenings on MyTwinTiers.com, the website for the local WETM-18 news. Steve puts together an interesting show and it’s worth checking out.

And this isn’t just something new, this is something I’ve always wanted to try. I’m a politics junkie and I’ve been watching things like the McLaughlin Group or Face the Nation or The Rachel Maddow Show for years. I’ve done my share of groaning at the teevee and doing arm chair punditry inside my own brain (“Eleanor! Pat’s just trying to wind you up! Don’t take the bait!!”). I always thought it looked like fun.

If you’re at all curious, the process was straightforward. Steve e-mailed his plan for the show to us on Sunday with an update on Tuesday so we’d know what to expect: presidential politics, impeachment, Iran and then our own chance to sound off on something.


I probably over prepared. Then Joanne and I showed up at the studio about a half hour before we were set to tape on Thursday. We got to meet Denis Kingsley, the other guest, who is a real gentleman. Seeing the inside of the studio reminded me of my trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The tour took us through Mission Control and standing in these spaces is utterly unlike what you’d expect.

We took our places and started the taping; taped, incidentally, “before a live studio audience” thanks to Joanne.

I probably should have cut Eleanor some slack. A lot of the stuff I’d thought about beforehand got left on the table because it was nowhere in my brain to be found when I needed it. I think my biggest missed opportunity was after Denis asserted that Elizabeth Warren would be unelectable if she got the nomination. I should have pointed out that the person the democrats really wanted to run against in 1980 was Ronald Reagan; they thought he’d be easy to beat. And no one seemed to honestly believe that Donald Trump could get the Republican nomination much less win the presidency in 2016. Some folks remained in denial until the electoral college actually voted. That, too, is why we have elections.

But this was a lovely experience. It was great fun and I really have to thank Steve for the opportunity. Unlike traffic court, I’d happily do this again.

So now I’m a bona fide “political analyst and commentator.” Coleman and Company featuring yours truly in the role of “company” will be available Sunday the 22nd between 4:30 and 5:00 pm here.

The 2020 Democratic Debate Round 3

This isn’t a live reaction to the third debate. Life happened. But I do want to look at the debate and have my own reactions before I really dive into the coverage. Thanks to the magic of TiVo, I can watch this debate today, or any day. Now where’s that damn remote? Here we go!

This debate was sponsored by ABC News and the moderators are George Stephanopoulos, Linsey Davis, David Muir and Jorge Ramos.

Who was in round 3? The contestants… er… candidates on the stage are:

  • Former Vice-President Joe Biden
  • Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren
  • Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
  • California Senator Kamala Harris
  • South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigeig
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
  • Former Representative Beto O’Rourke
  • New Jersey Senator Cory Booker
  • Former Cabinet Secretary Julián Castro, and
  • Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

That should be close to ABC’s (or the DNC’s?) perceived ranking of the candidates with the more prominent candidates taking center stage. We know that the “big ticket” tonight is Warren vs. Biden. Biden is the ostensible front runner while Warren seems to be the challenger who is gaining ground the quickest. Those two haven’t been on a stage together yet and folks are curious how the encounter will play out.

Booker came out strong and Yang is going to give $1000/month to 12 families for 12 months. Buttigeig seemed taken aback by that before regaining his footing. I can’t put my finger on why, but I’m not impressed by Harris. Bernie sounds like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, at the end of the famous filibuster. He must be working hard; he’s lost his voice. Warren’s opening was excellent and got a good response from the audience. Biden is in good form, but the “we refuse to postpone” riff was a little flat.

Early on, Warren is better on the will-you-raise-taxes question this time. The only relevant question is: taxes + premiums, will the total be more? Will the average family be paying less? Biden is doing well so far, but I don’t know if he will be able to stand up to the tag team of Sanders and Warren. Klobuchar gets the first word aside from the Biden/Sanders/Warren center stage. I don’t feel like she’d playing at the same level. Warren is making the argument that people will keep their current doctors in a more efficient system.

Buttigeig weighs in. “I trust the American People to choose what’s best for them.” He’s got a progressive idea expressed in terms that should ring true for conservatives. He does that alot and it’s pretty good.

And here’s the sort of thing that makes me uncomfortable about Harris. A Medicare-For-All Plan that’s part public and part private fundamentally isn’t Medicare-For-All. She either doesn’t understand that or she wants to have her cake and eat it too.

Biden’s definitely doing better this time around, but he looks like a muppet nodding along with O’Rourke.

Castro’s going after Biden pretty hard. It seems desperate and the crowd doesn’t like it. And Buttigeig is right; Castro’s coming across like a jackass and its going to turn people off.

Yang: “I am asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” Hilarious.

Booker’s pretty good making the “don’t let the best be the enemy of the good” argument and later on racism. He’d clearly thought that through. Buttigeig is strong there as well; I want to know more about his Douglas Plan. Castro, Harris, O’Rourke all pretty good here.

But unlike in his Senate run, Beto always seems to be trying too hard.

This debate seems pretty friendly; there are some squabbles and there are folks promoting themselves, but it’s cordial.

I would have expected these guys to be reflexively anti-tariff but it’s more nuanced than that. Buttigeig is again performing much better than you’d expect based on his office.

Wait! Did Harris just make a dick joke? Backing up… well, no but “that guy in the Wizard of Oz” who turned out to be “a really small dude” was the actual Wizard of Oz. If you’re going to evoke the movie, watch the damn thing. Also, turning the moment into an implied short joke aimed at the moderator is not smart. Also also, that’s kind of a Trump move and he’s much better at that than she is.

OTOH, if you’re going to sneak in a dick joke, trade policy might be the safest spot.

Everybody sounded pretty good on Trade, National Security, Education. Nothing seemed particularly surprising.

Biden got a question on reparations. It sounded pretty tone deaf to me. Using social workers “to confront the problems that come from home.” Might have been meant innocently, but doesn’t come across that way in context. It reminds me of when he called Barack Obama an “African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy .”

Protesters. What are they yelling about? I want to know!

Boy, hearing Biden talk about losing family members was both gut wrenching and compelling.


This was, for the most part another respectful cordial debate. It was palpable from the audience and the other candidates that wanted it that way when Castro tried to go after Biden. That did not go the way Castro thought it would.

So, no real fireworks and I think, again, this debate is unlikely to shake things up much. The “top 5” in the polling, Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris and Buttigeig, will probably remain the top five. If anyone is likely to drop in the polls based on this debate, I think it would be Harris; this might have been her weakest performance so far. Of the remaining five candidates on the stage, I think Booker is the most likely to break out of the pack.

I might have more to add after I absorb some of the coverage.

Picture Credits:

  • Featured Image: TampaBay.com
  • Biden and Warren: LA Times

My Favorite Math Comic Strip

This began life as an answer to “What is your favorite math comic strip?” on Quora. Within hours it became my most viewed, most commented and most liked answer on that site. I share it here for your enjoyment.

What is your favorite math comic strip?

There’s a lot to choose from. You really can’t go wrong with Calvin and Hobbes, Foxtrot, XKCD and Math With Bad Drawings. I’m hoping to find some new favorites when I read through all the other answers here.

But, three comics immediately come to mind. Here’s two runners-up and my favorite.

The second runner up:

As a mathematician, I can’t help but appreciate this one.

The first runner-up:

Based on the artwork, his one has to be pretty early in the strip’s history. The look on Calvin’s face as he exclaims, “Imaginary Numbers?!” makes me chuckle to this day. Hobbes’ definition, “Eleventeen, thirty-twelve and all those” is priceless. What is your favorite math comic strip Lovely.

And the winner is…

I knew immediately this one was the answer because I remember reading it in the Palm Beach Post and laughing really hard. It’s interesting to me that the real punchline is in the third panel. In retrospect, the first panel may be even funnier once you’ve read the rest of the comic.

Somewhere there’s more. If I can find it, there’s a file of the comics I used to have taped to my office door at the University of Miami. It’s not directly Mathematics-related, but it contains a nice comic about the “Academic Beer Head Theory.” The basic idea is that you shouldn’t cram for exams because if you pour the knowledge into your brain too quickly it gets all foamy and spills out your ears. I’ve been quoting that to students for years. When it surfaces, if it ever surfaces, I’ll add a couple more here.