Are ranks bounded?

I was only able to get to two days of the arithmetic statistics workshop in Montreal, but it was really enjoyable!  And a pleasure to see that so many strong students are interested in working on this family of problems.

I arrived to late to hear Bjorn Poonen’s talk, where he made kind of a splash by offering some heuristic evidence that the Mordell-Weil ranks of elliptic curves over Q are bounded above.  I remember Andrew Granville suggesting eight or nine years ago that this might be the case.  At the time, it was an idea so far from conventional wisdom that it came across as a bit cheeky!  (Or maybe that’s just because Andrew often comes across as a bit cheeky…)

Why did we think there were elliptic curves of arbitrarily large rank over Q?  I suppose because we knew of no reason there shouldn’t be.  Is that a good reason?  It might be instructive to compare with the question of bounds for rational points on genus 2 curves.  We know by Faltings that |X(Q)| is finite for any genus 2 curve X, just as we know by Mordell-Weil that the rank of E(Q) is finite for any elliptic curve E.  But is there some absolute upper bound for |X(Q)|?  When I was in grad school, Lucia Caporaso, Joe Harris, and Barry Mazur proved a remarkable theorem:  that if Lang’s conjecture were true, there was some constant B such that |X(Q)| was at most B for every genus 2 curve X.  (And the same for any value of 2…)

Did this make people feel like |X(Q)| was uniformly bounded?  No!  That was considered ridiculous!  The Caporaso-Harris-Mazur theorem was thought of as evidence against Lang’s conjecture.  The three authors went around Harvard telling all the grad students about the theorem, saying — you guys are smart, go construct sequences of genus 2 curves with growing numbers of points, and boom, you’ve disproved Lang’s conjecture!

But none of us could.

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The Amanda Palmer TED talk

They showed it during TEDxMadison.  Here’s what struck me.  She talked a lot about art, a lot about selflessness, a lot about performance.  Many forceful moments.  But there was only one point at the talk where the audience stopped her with a wave of applause, and that was when she put up a slide referring to a large sum of money.

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Thoughts on TEDx

I gave a TED talk!  OK, not exactly — I gave a TEDx talk, which is the locally organized, non-branded version, but same idea.  18 minutes or less, somewhat sloganistic, a flavor of self-improvement and inspiration.

I was skeptical of the format.  18 minutes!  How can you do anything?  You can really just say one thing.  No opportunity to digress.  Since digression is my usual organizational strategy, this was a challenge.

And there’s a format.  The organizers explained it to me.  Not to be hewed to exactly but taken very seriously.  A personal vignette, to show you’re a human.  A one-sentence takeaway.  General positivity.  A visual prop is good.  The organizers were lovely and gave me lots of good advice when I practiced the talk for them.  I was very motivated to deliver it the way they wanted it.

And in the end, I found the restrictiveness of the format to be really useful.  It’s like a sonnet.  Sonnets are, in certain ways, all the same, by force; and yet there’s a wild diversity of sonnets.  So too for TED talks.  No two of the talks at TEDxMadison were really the same.  And none of them was really like Steve’s TED talk (though I did read a poem like Steve) or Amanda Palmer’s TED talk or (thank goodness) like the moleeds TED talk.

No room in the talk to play the Housemartins song “Sitting on a Fence,” which plays a key role in the longer version of the argument in How Not To Be Wrong.  So here it is now.

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HNTBW Publicity Roundup 5

Review up at the Boston Globe:

If the feel of sand between your toes gets you thinking about Zeno’s Paradox or Pascal’s Wager, Ellenberg’s book is ideal beach reading. But even if your interests lie elsewhere, you may find it a challenging but welcome companion.

at NewCity Lit:

To the mathematician, math is a curious process of assumption and provocation. “How Not To Be Wrong” is part exposé—concepts most of us are never privy to are explained along with obvious surprises we just need to hear over again.

at Nature:

 Ellenberg, an academic and Slate‘s ‘Do the Math’ columnist, explains key principles with erudite gusto

and at Canada’s The Globe and Mail.

For audio fans, here’s an interview at the New Books podcast.

But actually, most of the publicity this week came from the WSJ “Hawking Index” article, which got covered all over the place.  I like this Washington Post followup, which applies the methodology (such as it is!) to political memoirs.  More good coverage from the National Post, featuring obligatory CanLit content.  And here’s how it looks in Indonesian.

Christopher D. Long decided to see what happened if you tried to model “quotability” using a more serious dataset, scraped from Goodreads, instead of just screwing around like I did.  His top 10 included some expected entries and some surprises.  Any ranking where Eleanor Roosevelt and Groucho Marx place first and second is obviously doing something right.

 

 

 

 

Hey, what’s that book you’re not reading?

bookfreshpressIn the Wall Street Journal this weekend I define a new metric aimed at identifying books people are buying but not reading.

How can we find today’s greatest non-reads? Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)

At the end I suggest we call this number the Piketty Index instead, because Piketty’s unlikely megahit Capital in the Twenty-First Century comes in with an index of 2.4%, the lowest in my sample.

But it’s not the winner anymore!  Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices scores an amazing 1.9%.  But somehow I feel like HRC’s book is in a different category entirely; unlike Piketty, I’m not sure I believe it’s a book people even pretend to intend to read.

The piece got lots of press, including a nice writeup at Gizmodo today.  So I thought I’d add a few more comments here, to go past what I could do in an 800-word story.

  • Lots of people asked:  what about Infinite Jest?  In fact, that book was in the original piece but got cut for length.  Here’s the paragraph:

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  HI 6.4%.  There was a time, children, when you couldn’t ride the 1/9 without seeing a dozen recent graduates straining under the weight of Wallace’s big shambling masterpiece.  Apparently it was too heavy for most.  Yes, I included the endnotes in the page count.  This is another one whose most famous line – “I am in here” – doesn’t crack the Kindle top five.

  • Other books I computed that didn’t make it into the WSJ:  Stephen King’s new novel Mr. Mercedes scores 22.5%.  How To Win Friends and Influence People gets 8.8%.  And How Not To Be Wrong comes in at 7.7%.  In fact, the original idea for the piece came from my dismay that all the popular highlights in my book were from the first three chapters.  But actually that puts How Not To Be Wrong in the middle of the nonfiction pack!
  • Important:  I highly doubt the Piketty Index of the book is actually a good estimate for the median proportion completed.  And I think different categories of books can’t be directly compared.  All nonfiction books scored lower than all novels (except Infinite Jest!)  I don’t think that’s because nobody finishes nonfiction; I think it’s because nonfiction books usually have introductions, which contain lots of direct assertions and thesis statements, exactly the kind of thing Kindle readers seem to like highlighting.
  • Challenges:  can you find a book other than The Goldfinch whose index is greater than 50%?  Can you find a nonfiction book which beats 20%?  Can you find a book of any kind that scores lower than Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices?

 

I hate bad buts and I cannot lie

From today’s New York Times:

Scarlett Johansson gainfully posed in underwear and spiked heels for Esquire’s cover last year after the magazine named her the “sexiest woman alive.” But a French novelist’s fictional depiction of a look-alike so angered the film star that she sued the best-selling author for defamation.

The inappropriate “but” is one of the sneakiest rhetorical tricks there is.  It presents the second sentence as somehow contrasting with the first.  It isn’t.  Scarlett Johansson agreed to be photographed mostly undressed; does that make it strange or incongruous or hypocritical that she doesn’t want to be lied about in print?  It does not.  To be honest, I can’t think of any explanation other than weird retrograde sexism for writing the lede this way.  “She got paid for looking all sexy, so who is she to complain that she was defamed?”  Patricia Cohen of the New York Times, I’m awarding you anWonderWomanHellNo

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Many Words, by Little Red Wolf

One of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard lately.  Came over the PA in Froth House.  What th– what is this thing, I must have it!  You know the drill.

This is by Little Red Wolf, a Madison band, who have a great new record, Junk Sparrow, recorded by Brian Liston at Clutch Sound, the same guy who did my audiobook.  Range!

Of course the strange piano note, the one that kind of insists despite everything that it’s the right note and thereby colors the whole song with its weirdness and stubbornness, is sort of the same one that Weezer uses to devastating effect in “The Sweater Song.”   And yet the two songs are completely different.  Though the latter is also very, very beautiful.  And now that I listen to both again there’s also something in common about the way the wordless aah-ahh’s are deployed, but it might just be that everybody in the world, whether AOR-indie or alt-country, loves Doolittle.

Wait, are there readers of this blog so young as not to have heard “The Sweater Song?”  Very likely.  So OK:

 

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Mathematical progress, artistic progress, local-to-global

I like this post by Peli Grietzer, which asks (and I oversimplify:)  when we say art is good, are we talking about the way it reflects or illuminates some aspect of our being, or are we talking about the way it wins the culture game?  And Peli finds help navigating this problem from an unexpected source:  Terry Tao’s description of the simultaneously local and global nature of mathematical progress.  Two friends of Quomodocumque coming together!  Unexcerptable, really, so click through if you like this kind of stuff.

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Elliott Bay and TGK

One final note about the book tour — Elliot Bay Book Company, who handled sales at my talk in Seattle, won a special place in my heart forever, because not only did they have lots of copies of How Not To Be Wrong, they also brought along a small stack of The Grasshopper King!  And they even sold a couple.  Nice to see that little green paperback again.

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Food I ate

Of course the really important thing about traveling isn’t seeing old friends or selling books, it’s eating things you can’t eat at home.  So here’s my list of some notable things I ate.

The Koji Uehara burger at Mr. Bartley’s.  A new one, very good.  With onion rings, of course.

Peking ravs at the Hong Kong. Traditional.

A double cheeseburger at Charlie’s Kitchen.

Big sub at the amazing Bub and Pop’s.

Green curry from Regional Thai, which 15 years ago was my favorite place to eat in Chelsea (maybe tied with Rocking Horse Cafe.)  Still good.

A crottin, taken to go at Murray’s Cheese Shop and eaten while walking.

Schnitzel and bright-pink Berliner Weissbier at Lederhosen deep in the West Village.

My Ferry Terminal usual:  salami cone from Boccalone and mac and cheese at the Cowgirl Sidekick.  This mac and cheese possibly my national favorite apart from the one at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, which was farther uptown than I got this NYC swing.  (This also explains why no belly lox this time.  Though now that I think of is, this could have been my chance to try Russ and Daughters.)

I’m over Mission burritos.  Sorry.  So this time I had Mission pierogi at Stuffed.  Dumb name, decent pierogi, but surprisingly awesome sauerkraut, more like halbsauerkraut with a jolt of I think caraway?  My recommendation: just buy their sauerkraut, buy a taco somewhere else, put the sauerkraut on the taco, resell it at your popup fusion cart.  Become wealthy beyond human ability to imagine.

BBQ sampler, including kalua pig, from the 808 Grinds Hawaiian cart in Portland’s city of food carts.  The fried chicken, surprisingly, was the standout.  But if it doesn’t move, Portland, it’s not a cart.  You must accept this, Portland.  You’ll feel better when you do.

Four-chowder sampler at Pike Place Chowder.  Long line?  Tourists?  Yes and yes (though shorter lines, and fewer tourists, than at the Original Starbucks down the block.)  But really, really good chowder.  And eating chowders in a flight formation is, I think, the right way.

Terrific black fideus at Aragona.

 

 

 

 

 

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