Jordan and the Dream of Rogen

The other night I dreamed I was going into a coffeeshop and Seth Rogen was sitting at an outside table eating a salad.  He was wearing a jeans jacket and his skin was sort of bad.  I have always admired Rogen’s work so I screwed up my courage, went up to his table and said

“Are you…”

And he said, “Yes, I am… having the chef’s salad.  You should try it, it’s great.”

And I sort of stood there and goggled and then he was like, “Yeah, no, yes, I’m Seth Rogen.”

I feel proud of my unconscious mind for producing what I actually consider a reasonably Seth Rogen-style gag!

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Math blog roundup

Lots of good stuff happening in math blogging!

Puzzle: low-height points in general position

I have no direct reason to need the answer to, but have wondered about, the following question.

We say a set of points P_1, \ldots, P_N in \mathbf{A}^2 are in general position if the Hilbert function of any subset S of the points is equal to the Hilbert function of a generic set of |S| points in \mathbf{A}^n.  In other words, there are no curves which contain more of the points than a curve of their degree “ought” to.  No three lie on a line, no six on a conic, etc.

Anyway, here’s a question.  Let H(N) be the minimum, over all N-tuples P_1, \ldots, P_N \in \mathbf{A}^2(\mathbf{Q}) of points in general position, of

\max H(P_i)

where H denotes Weil height.  What are the asymptotics of H(N)?  If you take the N lowest-height points, you will have lots of collinearity, coconicity, etc.  Does the Bombieri-Pila / Heath-Brown method say anything here?



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Life, friends, was boring. xkcd says so.

From a recent xkcd:

But kids, it’s not true! I was here before there was Internet, and I can tell you, people were not bored more often than they are now, and the boredom was not of a finer and more concentrated quality. The mouse-over text says, in an incredulous tone, “We watched DAYTIME TV. Do you realize how soul-crushing it was? But people still watch daytime TV! Even though there’s the internet! People like daytime TV.

xkcd used to take a slightly different stance on this:

Actually, it’s not clear what stance is being taken here — maybe xkcd really does think nature is of interest only insofar as as it generates ideas for status updates.

The right answer is that xkcd doesn’t think anything at all, because xkcd is a comic strip, whose job is to be funny, not to have consistent principled stances concerning how we have lived and what we should do.  There’s a post I never get around to making about how much I disagree with something in one of Louis CK’s famous bits, and one reason I never make this post is that it’s kind of dumb to argue with a comedy routine, because comedy routines are not arguments.

In conclusion, boredom is a land of contrasts.  John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14″:


Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.


God I love this.


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Yakov Sinai wins the Abel Prize

And I had the job of delivering, in a format suitable for non-mathematicians, a half-hour summary of Sinai’s work.  A tough task, especially since you can’t ask any experts for help without breaking the secrecy!  I like what Tim Gowers wrote in 2011 about doing the same job the year Milnor won.

I was very happy when I learned (after agreeing to make the presentation) that Sinai had won — mainly for the obvious reason that he’s such a deserving recipient, but selfishly because he didn’t realize either of my main two fears.  On the one hand, I feared that the laureate would be someone whose mathematics was so deeply different from anything I know that I would really struggle to say anything at all that I felt confident was correct.  On the other hand, if the winner were someone in number theory, I would feel an intense responsibility to convey the full picture of the winner’s work and how it fit into the entire sweep of the subject, and I would feel terribly guilty about any simplifications I made, and the thing would be a mess.  As it is, the talk was not exactly easy to prepare but I never worried I actually couldn’t do it.  And I learned a lot!

Anyway, the video of the whole ceremony, including my talk starting at about 9:00, is here.

(Note:  All the sound on this is coming from my mike.  So I know it seems like every joke I crack on here is followed by some seconds of uncomfortable silence, but no, seriously, some people laughed, you just couldn’t hear it!)

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Math Bracket 2014

It’s that time of year again!  Presenting the 2014 math bracket.  School with the best math department wins every game.  As always, all rulings were made by a group, so don’t yell at me if your department loses to one you consider worse.  Also, this year the bracket team was entirely number theorists, so the rankings are no doubt biased to overweight the people we know.  (Previously:  Math Bracket 2013.)


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Rescinding an offer when the candidate tries to negotiate

From the Philosophy Smoker, via Liz Harman:


As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.
1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.
I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.


Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

Talk amongst yourselves.


We are all Brian Conrad now

The quality of streaming conference talks has improved a ton, to the point where it’s now really worthwhile to watch them, albeit not the same as being there.  Our graduate students and I have been getting together and watching some of the talks from the soiree of the season, the MSRI perfectoid spaces conference.  This has been great and I highly recommend it.

One good thing about watching at home is that you can stop the stream whenever anybody has a question, or whenever you want to expand on a point made by the speaker!  We usually spend 90-100 minutes to watch an hour talk.  One amusing phenomenon:  when we have a question or don’t understand something, we stop and talk it out.  Then, when we start the stream again, we usually see that the speaker has also stopped, because someone in the audience has asked the same question.  This is very reassuring to the graduate students!  What’s confusing to us is invariably also confusing to someone else, even to Brian Conrad, because we decided to always presume that the unseen, unheard questioner was Brian, which is pretty safe, right?  (One time we could sort of hear the question and I’m pretty sure it was Akshay, though.)

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Scientists aren’t experts on what makes jokes funny

Ben Lillie:

This week I finally realized what bugged me about the talk I was hearing about the science of science communication: Nothing. The issue is what I wasn’t hearing.

This was catalyzed by a short news item Lauren Rugani linked on twitter. A scientist had run a study where they discovered that sometimes a punchline is funnier if words from the punchline had been mentioned several minutes earlier. From the abstract:

“These findings also show that pre-exposing a punchline, which in common knowledge should spoil a joke, can actually increase funniness under certain conditions.”

This is shocking. Not the conclusion, which is clearly correct. The problem is that the conclusion has been known to comedians for at least the last several thousand years. When I trained in improv comedy the third class was on callbacks, the jargon term for that technique. The entire structure of an improv comedy set is based around variations on the idea that things are funnier if they’re repeated. And yet to the authors it was “common knowledge” that this will spoil a joke. There is a long tradition of people who know, from experience, how this works, and yet the idea of asking them is not evident anywhere in the paper. This is the problem — the sense that the only valid answers come from inside science and the research world.

Yes!  Everybody knows by now that when mathematicians try to do mathematical biology alone, without people with domain knowledge of biology in the room, they do crappy mathematical biology.  “Digital humanities” or “neuroaesthetics” or “culturomics” &c are just the same.  New techniques drawn from science and mathematics are fantastic research tools now, and they’re only getting better, but it seems like a terrible idea to study cultural objects from scratch, without domain experts in the room.

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New How Not To Be Wrong web presence

I’ve put up a web page for How Not To Be Wrong; the reason it looks good is that I was smart enough to hire Will Amato instead of trying to do it myself.  It goes THWOCK!  But if you look at it on a phone you won’t get to hear it go thwock because thwock is Flash.

If you think static web pages are dead and believe in the glorious social future, go like my author page on Facebook, and you’ll get news about reviews, events, media, etc.




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