Andrew M.H. Alexander

Tempe, Arizona
25 September 2010

Dear friends and relations,

It has been a beautiful autumn day in East California, with temperatures that have almost—almost!—dropped into the double-digits. I am taking advantage of the weather by turning the fans in my house down to the “medium” setting and bundling up in 100% cotton shorts and a t-shirt (as opposed to wicking t-shirts and athletic shorts).

Today is Saturday, which means I didn’t have to get up at 5:30 AM. Instead I have been up since noon, sitting on the couch drinking pot after pot of tea and writing. Between teaching five classes, biking to school two hours every day, playing frisbee, and wasting time on the internet, I have very little free time. But what free time I do have I have been using (over the course of the last month or so) to type up all of my precalculus notes. This sounds boring, so hear me out. (I swear I’ll stop talking about math in a moment.)

There exists no good precalculus textbook (or curriculum), and last year I was making things up as I went along, either writing my own problem sets or photocopying them from books. This year I am keeping the material the same, but—now that I actually know what I’m teaching more than a day in advance—am devoting my out-of-class hours to writing Andrew’s Pre-Calculus Textbook. I have about 70 pages so far, all beautifully LaTeX’d with pictures and graphs and problems and deranged stories with far too many footnotes. It is excellent. One of the cool things about teaching math is that since the majority of math teachers (and textbooks) suck so much, there’s so much room for innovation and improvement. What’s the economic term for that? When you’re exploiting a market inefficiency that no one else is? I don’t know. But it’s apt here.

It has been especially rewarding this year seeing how good my 12th graders (who I had last year) have gotten at math. I am moving so much faster with them than I was with the 12th graders last year. I can run the class almost entirely as a seminar. The final exam for last year’s 12th graders was to prove Euler’s Identity using Taylor series (having never seen the proof before), but I’m worried that that would be too easy for these kids, who will have had two years of not-shittily-taught math! In spring quarter we’re going to be doing basic logic/set theory/algebraic structures. I am soooo excited.

Last night I went to a U of C alumni event in Tempe, the highlight of which was meeting a stoner ASU grad student (UofC ’04) studying meteorites. He had dreadlocks and apparently the meteorites he studies were made right after the Big Bang (within 5 million years). They’re the oldest rocks in the universe, dude. He told me about the dating process: they look at the presence of this otherwise-rare magnesium isotope that is the decay product of {a radioactive isotope of aluminum that decays really quickly and only ever existed in the universe right after the Big Bang}.

Also at the alumni event, I ate really fancy hors d’œuvres and met a Republican judge named “Ken Magnum.”

Later that evening, the co-op house I live in was having a fundraiser party/concert to buy a new amp for the shows we have. I baked maple syrup-cinnamon-oatmeal cookies for the bake sale and nibbled on too many of the green-tea-frosting cupcakes I was supposed to be selling. The bands that played were all really good. Highlights included 1) a girl punk band that did a hip-hop song in which the lead singer (with blond hair, cute glasses, and a short dress) rapped about bikes (with choreographed dancing and her bandmates singing backup and laying down beats), and 2) two dozen fairly inebriated/intoxicated people turning our living room into a mosh pit, complete with crowd-surfing. Eventually the cops came and shut it down. After that I sat on the back porch with eight or ten other people, talking about how much we missed losing teeth (“Dude, it was so much fun to play with them with your tongue!”), and about the politics of pizza-delivery. So, it was a success.

Today I have been grading tests and reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in addition to writing the precalc notes. I am reading Wittgenstein because one of my senior thesis advisees wants to read it for his thesis. I am about halfway through, and I don’t think that I really understand it, certainly not well enough to give a one- or two-sentence gloss. But it is very fun to read. I can spend an hour and a half and read five pages, spend another hour skimming through the next five pages, and that’s all I can manage in a session. Then, the next time, I have to start again with the last five pages, and read them again. I love it. The book is so abstractly and tightly written that it forces you to read it, to really read it. I am an incredibly lazy reader, and Wittgenstein doesn’t let me be lazy. If I’m not reading the way I’m supposed to be reading, it’s immediately obvious. I have to read every section two or three times in succession, underlining multiple times, and keeping running notes in the margins and on my laptop.

(At one point there was a passing reference to transfinite cardinals. The reference was so subtle that anyone without knowledge of them wouldn’t have recognized it as a reference to anything, but anyone with that knowledge would have seen it instantly and understood the serious implications. It made me wonder how much of the rest of the book was flying over my head without my noticing it.)

This is one of the things I like about my school (Catholics notwithstanding)—that they understand how difficult it is to really read. It has frustrated me since high school how lazy and poor of a reader I am, and I haven’t improved much. At the U of C I always wanted to read every book like I’m reading the Tractatus, but time and deadlines and other classes and oh god oh god oh god. So I am as lazy and irresponsible as ever, but here (even more so than at the U of C) I am surrounded by people whose sole vocation is reading, and so I feel continually bad about my own ineptitude. Which is good. Perhaps if I just feel guilty enough about being a poor reader, I’ll magically become a better reader! (Downside: I’m the only person here who has any clue as to what mathematics is.)

Speaking of reading, I learned a new word today: “peregrination.” As in: “Andrew’s peregrinations will take him to New York and Ithaca next week. If you’re around, you should hang out with him.” (Also as in the falcon. Appropriately.) It couples nicely with another one of my favorite words, “deracinate” (meaning “to violently uproot from one’s native surroundings.”)

Anyway, um, I have a lot of emails to write and papers to grade and books to read. The end of the quarter is nigh! Fall break is but days away! I hope, for your own sake, that Ph * * * * x is not in any of your future travel plans, but if it is, I have a spare camping mattress and a tent and a backyard where the lights from the parking lot across the alley almost look like stars.