Monthly Archives: July 2012

Ladies and gentlemen of the Bronx I give you Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman

After two road victories against the hated NYYs, the Orioles stand in second place at 55-49.  Back in May, when this team was leading the field at 25-14, I said they were probably a .470 team on talent but stood a very good chance to finish with their first winning season in 15 years.  Since that day, their 30-35 record is good for a .460 winning percentage; so I think I did pretty well!

What a weird team.  The wheels keep coming off, and then it’s like, “hey, look, I found another wheel, albeit one just as rickety as the one that recently came off.”

The much-deserved death of the perfect 10

Slate just re-posted my 2008 article in praise of the new gymnastics scoring system.  I stand by it.

“The new ‘open-ended’ scoring system was designed in part to prevent us from outgrowing the rules,” international gymnastics judge Judy Schalk told me via e-mail. Before the new system, just about all elite competitors performed routines difficult enough to bring the start value up to a 10.0; sailing over that threshold earned you no more points than barely clearing it. With the new system, gymnasts have the incentive to keep making their routines tougher and more complex. In every other sport, the competitors in Beijing are superior to their predecessors and get better scores to prove it. Why should gymnastics be the only sport without world records?
With the new system, gymnastics comes into compliance with the Olympic motto. That’s “faster, higher, stronger,” not “more graceful, more beautiful, closer to perfect.” It’s no coincidence that the Olympic sports that have historically chased the latter ideal are the same ones in which the women’s game overshadows the men’s: gymnastics and figure skating.
Figure skating ditched the perfect 6.0 after crooked judging in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics embarrassed the sport. The old scoring system already had many discontents, most famously great French champion Surya Bonaly, who showed her disdain for the judges at the 1998 Olympics by landing a backflip on one skate. It was illegal, it carried a mandatory deduction, and she was the only woman in the world who could do it.

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Nobody likes us

When Ted Turner told his father he was majoring in classics, he got an angry letter in response.  The senior Turner had little patience for anything theoretical, academic, or abstract:

There is no question but this type of useless information will distinguish you, set you apart from the doers of the world. If I leave you enough money, you can retire to an ivory tower, and contemplate for the rest of your days the influence that the hieroglyphics of prehistoric man had upon the writings of William Faulkner. Incidentally, he was a contemporary of mine in Mississippi. We speak the same language—whores, sluts, strong words, and strong deeds.

It isn’t really important what I think. It’s important what you wish to do with your life. I just wish I could feel that the influence of those oddball professors and the ivory towers were developing you into the kind of a man we can both be proud of. I am quite sure that we both will be pleased and delighted when I introduce you to some friend of mine and say, “This is my son. He speaks Greek.”

I had dinner during the Christmas holidays with an efficiency expert, an economic adviser to the nation of India, on the Board of Directors of Regents at Harvard University, who owns some 80,000 acres of valuable timber land down here, among his other assets. His son and his family were visiting him. He introduced me to his son, and then apologetically said, “He is a theoretical mathematician. I don’t even know what he is talking about. He lives in a different world.” After a little while I got to talking to his son, and the only thing he would talk to me about was about his work. I didn’t know what he was talking about either so I left early.

If you are going to stay on at Brown, and be a professor of Classics, the courses you have adopted will suit you for a lifetime association with Gale Noyes. Perhaps he will even teach you to make jelly. In my opinion, it won’t do much to help you learn to get along with people in this world. I think you are rapidly becoming a jackass, and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the better it will suit me.

And here’s Ben Franklin, talking about a member of his philosophical society, the Junto, who just couldn’t manage to fit in:

THOMAS GODFREY, a self-taught mathematician, great in his way, and afterward inventor of what is now called Hadley’s Quadrant. But he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation. He soon left us.

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Humanities Hackathon

Had a great time today talking graph theory with a roomful of students and faculty in the humanities at the Humanities Hackathon.  Here’s a (big .ppt file) link to my slides.  One popular visualization was this graph of baby boys’ names from 2011, where two names are adjacent if their popularity profile across 12 representative states is very similar.  (For example, names similar to “Malachi” on this measure include “Ashton” and “Kaden,” while names similar to “Patrick” include “Thomas,” “John,” “Sean,” and “Ryan.”)


The visualization is by the open-source graph-viz tool gephi.

I came home only to encounter this breathless post from the Science blog about a claim that you can use network invariants (e.g. clustering coefficient, degree distribution, correlation of degree between adjacent nodes) to distinguish factually grounded narratives like the Iliad from entirely fictional ones like Harry Potter.  The paper itself is not so convincing.  For instance, its argument on “assortativity,” the property that high-degree nodes tend to be adjacent to one another, goes something like this:

Real-life social networks tend to be assortative, in the sense that the number of friends I have is positively correlated with the number of friends my friends have.

The social network they write down for the Iliad isn’t assortative, so they remove all the interactions classified as “hostile,” and then it is.

The social network for Beowulf isn’t assortative, so they remove all the interactions classified as “hostile,” and then it still isn’t, so they take out Beowulf himself, and then it is, but just barely.

Conclusion: The social networks of Beowulf and the Iliad are assortative, just like real social networks.

Digital humanities can be better than this!


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Torsion in the homology of arithmetic groups, and an Iwasawa algebra puzzle

Kudos to Nicolas Bergeron, Paul Gunnells, and Akshay Venkatesh for organizing a wonderfully interesting conference at BIRS on torsion on the homology of arithmetic groups.  If you had the bad luck not to be in Banff last week, never fear:  they’ve put in an ultra-fancy new recording/streaming system and you can watch most of the talks online.  The introductory talks by Frank Calegari and Nicolas are a great place to start.

I was raised to think of torsion classes in homology as a terrifying mystery that one dealt with by tensoring with the rational numbers as quickly as possible.  But our knowledge about these things is actually starting to accumulate!

Here’s a puzzle that came up while I was talking to Simon Marshall, whose work makes crucial work of the story about completed cohomology of towers of manifolds that Frank Calegari and Matt Emerton have been steadily telling us.

(remark:  everything below is written off the cuff and no details are checked.)

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The map of adjectives

I am the child of two statisticians, and as a result my childhood reading included the great sourcebook Statistics: A Guide To The Unknowna collection of essays by some of the great statisticians of the century.  The thing that made a lasting impression on me was the map of adjectives from Joseph Kruskal’s article, “The Meaning of Words.”  Psychologists gathered survey data about pairs of adjectives describing personality traits, asking  to what extent the traits were similar or different, until they had enough responses to estimate a “dissimilarity measure” for each pair.  Then they used multidimensional scaling (pretty new in 1968, I think) to map the adjectives onto the plane in such a way that the distances between adjectives matched the measured dissimilarities as well as possible.  That such a thing was possible was a relevation to me — I guess I knew on some level that arithmetic could be translated into geometry, but I didn’t know that meaning could be translated into geometry.

Here’s the map, from Rosenberg, Nelson, and Vivekananthan’s original paper:

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Guess the state by its popular names

I’m messing around with some Social Security baby name data, preparing examples for the upcoming Humanities Hackathon at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, where I’ll be teaching a one-day course on networks and graphs.

So here’s a quiz.  I give a list of baby names which were strongly overrepresented among babies born in state X in 2011.  You name the state.

  1. ['Jamison', 'Keagan', 'Nolan', 'Cullen', 'Finley', 'Dane', 'Bennett', 'Clay', 'Clayton', 'Sullivan']
  2. ['Santiago', 'Roberto', 'Iker', 'Alberto', 'Joe', 'Jose', 'Arturo', 'Gael', 'Armando', 'Raul', 'Gustavo', 'Juan', 'Mauricio', 'Julio']
  3. ['Francis', 'Nasir', 'Semaj', 'Shane']
  4. ['Ivan', 'Ismael', 'Edgar', 'Uriel', 'Francisco', 'Ramon', 'Damian', 'Gerardo', 'Emiliano', 'Sergio', 'Fernando', 'Esteban', 'Joaquin', 'Ernesto', 'Cesar', 'Moises', 'Diego', 'Ruben', 'Maximiliano', 'Johnny']
  5. ['Brendan', 'Conor', 'Seamus', 'Ronan', 'Theodore', 'Jadiel', 'Jacoby']
  6. ['Lawson', 'Khalil', 'Jamari', 'Chandler', 'Brantley', 'Cason', 'Davis', 'Braylen', 'Mekhi']
  7. ['Trenton', 'Remington', 'Kale', 'Dayton', 'Blaine', 'Clark', 'Karter', 'Jase', 'Lane', 'Gunner']
  8. ['Alonzo', 'Zaiden', 'Ezekiel', 'Trace', 'Orion', 'Cruz', 'Asher', 'Milo', 'Brodie', 'Jonas', 'Finley', 'Soren', 'Archer', 'Kellan', 'Ryker', 'Dillon', 'Zane', 'Kade', 'Nash', 'Kian', 'Cyrus', 'River', 'Uriah', 'Porter']
  9. ['Muhammad', 'Ali', 'Ahmed', 'Mohamed', 'Moshe', 'Aron', 'Solomon', 'Mohammed', 'Justin', 'Alvin', 'Mohammad', 'Wilson', 'Abraham', 'Ibrahim']

Hint:  most of these are pretty big states, and one of them is Wisconsin.

Hint 2:  Knowing about football will help you with one of these and knowing about baseball with another.

I think these are pretty hard.

Answers below the fold:

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There were anti-vaccination activists in 1736

From Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox, taken in the common way.  I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation.  This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

Update:  I should have Googled this — Howard Markel gives a much more detailed account in the New York Times, including the relevant fact that one of the chief anti-inoculators was Franklin’s older brother, James.

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Since someone asked me today: yes, the Stanley Higgs who appears in my novel was named after the Higgs boson. I thought it would add a very slight tinge of cosmic mystery to the character. Not any more, I guess.

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Clock radios are well-designed

A clock radio has a slider that selects the mode: “Alarm, Music, Off, On.” The “Off” position is the third position of four. I only just now realized that this is the result of conscious thought. Placing “Off” on either end makes it very easy to turn the radio off with a swipe of the hand, which is exactly what an alarm must not allow. The very meager amount of extra difficulty created by putting “Off” in one of the two interior positions probably makes the radio quite a bit more effective.

It’s possible everybody else in the world has already thought about this.


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