A Mathematician Walks Into A Bar Again … And Other Places

Some time ago I told this true story about a night at the local bar.

I was back at that bar again a few days ago. I go there probably once a month or two. It’s close by and is a bit of a dive. There was no bouncer this time. As I got to the bar, the bartender had her hands filled with beer mugs as she was trying to open the door. I got the door for her. She said thanks. Let’s call her \(B_{1}\)

The Bar

It was fairly dead that night. The music wasn’t even playing. At the bar was just me, a couple, who looked like they were on probably a fourth or fifth date, a few chairs left of me, and a ruffian or two a few chairs down to the right of me. I ordered my nachos and my beer and mindlessly watched some soccer highlights. I mean football. The sport with the endless kicking of the ball.

I think if “they” just widened the net by, say four feet in both directions, the US market for soccer would grow immensely. If I remember correctly, baseball had become too slow, too boring. So to entice homeruns and more hits, in general, the mound was lowered in 1969. And wham! Baseball was back! They should do this with soccer — widen the nets; ten goals a game! Anyway, that’s what I was mindlessly thinking while mindlessly watching the sports channel and enjoying my nachos and beer.

– “Another beer, hon?” said the other bartender. Let’s call her \(B_{2}\).
– “Sure, why not.”

The couple left and then the ruffians left. Hopefully, the ruffians weren’t going to rough anyone up. And in came a waiter who just got of his shift. \(B_{1}\) and \(B_{2}\) greeted him knowingly and started chatting him up. Everyone likes to talk shop. \(B_{1}\) and \(B_{2}\) were going on about the inane patrons they had that day and the waiter, half-listening, complained about his day. Misery loves company! Math misery loves … hmm, I don’t know. What does math misery love? Maybe math misery loves writing. Maybe that’s why I write.

Anyhow … there’s a story in here somewhere. I’ll get to it.

– “Are you done with the nachos, hon?”, said \(B_{2}\).
– “Nah, I’m still pickin’.”
– “How about another beer?”
– “No, not yet.”

The waiter left, but reserved his seat. Like it would matter.

– “You’re a quiet one, aren’t you?”, said \(B_{2}\).

\(B_{1}\) interjected on my behalf, “Yeah, he always comes and quietly eats nachos and drinks his beer.” Ok, so maybe I come here a bit more than once a month or two.

Then turning towards me, \(B_{1}\) asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, where do you live that you can just walk here?”

– “Oh I live right down the street at the corner of Wabash and Lake.”

(Movie reference! Bonus points if you know the movie.)

– “So what do you do?”, inquired \(B_{1}\)

Ah yes, there we have it. What do I do … I am a mathematician.

– “A mathematician? Whoa, so what does a mathematician do?”

And I gave my cocktail party reply: “I’m also a programmer. So I write software to help people and businesses analyze their data. You know, statistics.” I can predict these conversations. We all can predict these conversations. They’re fun in that way.

“Math was not my strong suit.”
“Yes, it’s nobody’s strong suit. I hear ya.”
“Say, do you know SPSS?”

Ok, I didn’t predict that. “Yes, I do know SPSS.”, I said.

– “That’s so cool. Anyone I mention SPSS to looks at me as if I have two heads. SPSS was great! It did all the stats for you! So do you work for a company?”, \(B_{1}\) replied.
– “I work for myself. You know the math that SPSS does? That’s the kind of software that I could write, but usually the need isn’t that elaborate, but it’s technical enough that I would be brought in to write the program.”
– “Oh so it’s like you’re a consultant?”
– “Yeah, that’s right. What about you? What did you study?”

Now I got roped into this conversation. This bar is great! Somehow I always get to do math of some sort!

– “I got my Bachelor’s in Psychology, but the only jobs out there are in Human Resources. And who wants to do that?”
– “Oh is it bad?”
– “Yeah, first nobody in the company likes you. And then you have to work with all these catty, gossipy women. That’s why I’m working towards my Master’s in Industrial Psychology. There are more opportunities.”
– “Have you considered a PhD?”
– “I thought about it, but I think it would be depressing having to listen to everyone’s insanity. I think I would go crazy.”
– “In another life, I would have been a psychologist. I think it’s fascinating.”
– “Really, you would have been a psychologist?”
– “I debated between psychology, linguistics, and mathematics. Ultimately I chose mathematics. The people around me at that time were mathematically inclined, so I chose that route.”
– “So what’s your name?”
– “Manan.”

Now we did the name dance. How do you pronounce it, yadda yadda. \(B_{2}\) overheard the conversation and joined back in.

– “So you’re the brains of the operation aren’t you?”, \(B_{2}\)
– “Only the legal and ethical ones.”, I replied.
– “You’re really good at math, huh? You know my cousin’s daughter is mildly autistic.”

Aww, COME ON!!! Why does this happen?!! Either that’s a very awkward non-sequitur or … correlation / causation confusion.

The likelihood that the conversation gets directed towards autism when I am speaking with someone for the first time and my math background becomes known is fairly high. I have this type of conversation probably about three times a year. The first few times, I got irritated. But as is the case with repeated exposure to negative bias, we become numb to it and learn how to deflect it.

Some time ago, I remember informally polling a bunch of my math buddies about their experiences with the math-autism conversation phenomenon. To my surprise, I wasn’t alone in this. They too had been on the receiving end of being told that they were autistic or were very similar to someone else who was diagnosed with some form of autism or that they had a “beautiful mind” — one of the reasons why I’m dreading the Ramanujan movie . Maybe it has something to do with things like this. Maybe we see these articles and studies and hear stories with autism and math in the same sentence that we eventually associate the two to go hand in hand.

Cultural bias perhaps?

What about you, dear reader? Similar experiences?

My beer was finished and only the non-cheesy nachos were left. After a few more minutes of idle, inane chit-chat, I headed out.

The Hotel

Ages ago a friend of mine was getting married. It was a destination wedding in some tropical environment.

I looked in the area for some hotels and found one that was in the Goldilocks zone — not too expensive, but close enough to the water with rooms that had a beach view. Their website even showed what the view was like from each room. So I called to book a room.

– “Hi, this is Beachy Beach Hotel. how can I help you?”
– “Hi, I’d like to book a room for this Saturday. King-size, non-smoking, with the water view.”
– “Ok, let’s see what we have available. Are you staying for the weekend?”
– “Yeah, check-in on Saturday, check-out on Monday.”
– “Ok, give me just a minute.”

♬ ♬ ♬ ♬ ♬

– “There we are, it looks like we have the Beachy Beach room available.”, said the woman on the phone.
– “Ah, yeah, that’s what your website said.”
– “Oh you saw our website? Is that how you found us?”
– “Yes, I was looking around for hotels in the area and yours is one of the ones I saw online. Just doing my comparison shopping.”
– “Yeah, that’s smart. So do you want the Beachy Beach room?”
– “What’s the rate?”
– “It’s $129 per night.”
– “Any discounts? Like AAA?”
– “Oh yeah, if you’re a AAA member you can get a 10% discount.”
– “Ok, let’s go ahead and do that.”
– “How will you be paying?”
– “Credit card.”
– “Alright, can I have your name?”
– “Manan.”
– “Don’t you just hate it when your parents give you those ethnic names?”, she asked innocently.

What. WHAT. WHAT?!! WHAT??!?!

This is a new one. I don’t know how to even respond to this. Should I blow my stack or laugh because of how amazingly naive this is? I was so confused. All I could spew out was a series of “uhhs” and “umms”. I needed a second or two to process. But I didn’t get that time. She continued with the amazing:

– “My parents gave me an ethnic name, too. Really frustrating.”

Ok, well now I’m curious to know how insane this conversation can get.

– “Oh yeah?”
– “Yeah, they gave me this strange French name.”
– “What’s your name?”
– “Michelle.”

This is a true story.

Where Are You From?

Probably three or four times a year, I’ll have this conversation. And I am not the only one to have this conversation.

– “Where are you from?”
– “New Jersey.”
– “Oh. No, I meant where did you grow up?”
– “New Jersey.”
– “Oh. Hmm, what’s your nationality?”
– “American.”
– “Uhhhh. I mean what’s your cultural background.”
– “I watch the Super Bowl and have beer and nachos and buffalo wings. I love playing and watching baseball and American football. I listen to Beethoven, Mozart, Guns ‘N Roses, U2, and the Gipsy Kings. I saw “Hey, McFly!” in the theaters. I love pizza. And sushi. And Ma Po Tofu. And Palak Paneer.”

And then the fifth and final question is often “Where are your parents from?” because they just want to hear me say “India” or “Indian” and they aren’t getting that out of me. I’m doing this on purpose. Partially for my own amusement, partially because I’m hoping they’ll go away.

Eventually, they’ll ask a question that’s correct enough for me to reply, “India” or “Indian”. And then, their response is, “Oh, so you’re Indian!” No. I’m human and if we want to classify beyond that, then I’m an American with an acute understanding of Indian culture. Heck, I’ve had friends who’ve known me for almost two decades say something, “But you’re Indian!” in reference to my not knowing something about Indian tradition / culture, etc.

I know where they’re coming from. I have brown skin and a “foreign” name. That’s what they notice. They don’t hear the perfect English for some reason.

It’s a curious thing what we choose to focus on.

Math And Science

– “You guys are really good at math and science.”, said a professor to me.
– “What do you mean?”, I asked.
– “Asians. You guys are good at math and science. It’s how you’re taught in your home country.”
– “Hate to burst your bubble, but I’m a product of American schools in America.”
– “Then it’s got to be something in your genes.”
– “I don’t see what my pants have to do with this.”

I don’t know how people come to these crazy conclusions. It’s mathematics for crying out loud!! People from one part of the Earth didn’t evolve to have a genetic predisposition to mathematics!! That doesn’t make sense! — unless if a geneticist provides overwhelming evidence to the contrary and an evolutionary explanation.

I also know where this crazy professor was coming from. Just look at the distribution of ethnic groups in graduate programs in the math and sciences. That’s how he’s drawing his conclusions.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you want to talk about bias against certain groups of people, then read on.

While I have not seen it first hand, I have heard directly from the women affected of being pushed out or otherwise strongly discouraged from graduate studies in mathematics by math professors. Interestingly enough, the stories that women have told me are almost identical in nature to what college athletes have told me about their experiences in graduate math programs. Maybe they’re all good at telling the same sob story. But that’s hard to believe, statistically and psychologically.

The biases expressed in the stories are subtle. There is a condescension implied in the questions asked, the way papers are marked, the types of research problems they are given. It’s interesting and sad, but the general assumption is one of stupidity.

Maybe it’s ego. Maybe it’s the fear that she could solve a problem that he couldn’t. Who knows.

Now, before we go off making our own conclusions. Let me be very clear: the vast majority of mathematicians I have worked with are not biased in this way. And of course, I can’t know that to be true with certainty because I am not part of the negatively affected group. But I would be shocked and amazed if the people that I know acted with this type of bias.

Anyway, I can go on for 10000 more words on this matter. But I’m around 2300 now and my limit is 2000 for blog posts.

So why am I writing about this craziness on my math blog? It’s because of this conversation.

In closing, I talked about other people’s biases towards me or others I know. That’s a bias in and of itself. We all have biased views. It’s inescapable. I am sure I have my biases that I am unaware of. And there are biases that I have that I am made aware of, say for example, when I didn’t predict SPSS. Bias! Inevitable. Inescapable. You should see the edits for this article.

Some biases are viewed as more harmful than other biases. Some biases are actually more harmful than others. And still some biases are outright evil. I hope I have none of the evil, harmful biases.


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