Author Archives: JSE

That Jeff Koons feeling

Jed Perl opposes Jeff Koons:

The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them.

But four paragraphs later:

Koons knows how to capitalize on the guilty pleasure that the museumgoing public takes in all his mixed messages. He knows how to leave people feeling simultaneously ironical, erudite, silly, sophisticated, and bemused.

Does Koons make people feel things, or does he not?  Or are irony, erudition, silliness, sophistication, and bemusement feelings that don’t count as feelings?

Jed Perl writes well but I find his judgment strange.  About Jeff Koons I have no opinion.  But I remember his name because of the piece he wrote about Francis Bacon, which seems to suggest that people like Bacon not because of anything in the paintings, but because the artist sports a biography and attitude that appeals to mushy-minded would-be avant-gardists.  “The Bacon mystique,” Perl writes, “is not grounded in his paintings so much as in a glamorous list of extenuating circumstances.”

To me this makes no sense.  I went to a small museum which was showing some of Bacon’s paintings and I was knocked over by them.  Whoa, what is that?  I had no idea who he was, or whether he was glamorous, or whether it was cool to like him.

I think it’s OK to say (as Perl also does, later in that piece) that Bacon is a stupid painter and only people who are stupid about painting like his paintings.  But it’s crazy to deny that people actually do like Bacon’s paintings, as such, not just the idea of Bacon’s paintings, or the idea of being the kind of person who likes Bacon’s paintings.

Tagged , , , ,

So… yeah

Lately CJ has a habit of ending every story he tells by saying

“So… yeah.”

I first noticed it this summer, so I think he picked it up from his camp counselors. What does it mean? I tend to read it as something like

“I have told my story — what conclusions can we draw from it? Who can say? It is what it is.”

Is that roughly right? Per the always useful Urban Dictionary the phrase is

“used when relating a past event and teller is unsure or too lazy to think of a good way to conclude it”

but I feel like it has more semantic content than that. Though I just asked CJ and he says it’s just his way of saying “That’s all.” Like “Over and out.”

So yeah.

Squeeze! Squeeze!

I hope the world never runs out of awesome Earl Weaver stories.

I saw Earl Weaver put on a suicide squeeze bunt, in Milwaukee. It worked. Everybody asked him, ‘Wait, we thought you told us you didn’t even have a sign for a suicide squeeze, because you hated it so much.’ Earl said, ‘I still don’t.’ I asked him, ‘How did you put it on then?’ He said, ‘I whistled at Cal Ripken, Sr., my third base coach. Then I shouted at him, ‘Squeeze! Squeeze! Then I motioned a bunt.’ I said, ‘Paul Molitor was playing third. Didn’t he hear you?’ Earl said, ‘If he did, I’m sure he thought there was no way we were putting it on, or I wouldn’t have been yelling for it.’

This is from the Fangraphs interview with the greatest announcer of our time, Jon Miller. His memoir, Confessions of a Baseball Purist, is full of great stuff like this. I didn’t know until just this second that it had been reissued by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tagged ,

The 1979 Houston Astros hit only 49 home runs

49 home runs! That’s nuts. They hit more triples than home runs. Their home run leader was Jose Cruz, who hit 9. In September they went 20 straight games without hitting a home run, the longest such streak in modern baseball. And that was after they went 15 games without hitting a rome run in July!

Must have been a pretty bad team, right? But no! They won 89 games and finished second, just a game and a half behind the Reds. That 15 game homerless streak in July? They went 11-4 in those games.

Tagged ,

Benson Farb’s ICM talk

One of the things I’ve been spending a lot of time on mathematically is problems around representation stability and “FI-modules,” joint with Tom Church, Benson Farb, and Rohit Nagpal.  Benson just talked about this stuff at the ICM, and here it is:

In the latest stable representation theory news, Andy Putman and (new Wisconsin assistant professor!) Steven Sam have just posted an exciting new preprint about the theory of representations of GL_n(F_p) as n goes to infinity; this is kind of like the linear group version of what FI-modules does for symmetric groups.  (Or, if you like, our thing is their thing over the field with one element….!)  This is something we had hoped to understand but got very confused about, so I’m looking forward to delving into what Andy and Steven did here — expect more blogging!  In particular, they prove the Artinian conjecture of Lionel Schwartz.  Like I said, more on this later.

Boyhood: one more note

I thought of one more small thing, concerning the last scene.

Continue reading

Tagged ,

Breuillard’s ICM talk: uniform expansion, Lehmer’s conjecture, tauhat

Emmanuel Breuillard is in Korea talking at the ICM; here’s his paper, a very beautiful survey of uniformity results for growth in groups, by himself and others, and of the many open questions that remain.

He starts with the following lovely observation, which was apparently in a 2007 paper of his but which I was unaware of.  Suppose you make a maximalist conjecture about uniform growth of finitely generated linear groups.  That is, you postulate the existence of a constant c(d) such that, for any finite subset S of GL_d(C),  you have a lower bound for the growth rate

\lim |S^n|^{1/n} > c(d).

It turns out this implies Lehmer’s conjecture!  Which in case you forgot what that is is a kind of “gap conjecture” for heights of algebraic numbers.  There are algebraic integers of height 0, which is to say that all their conjugates lie on the unit circle; those are the roots of unity.  Lehmer’s conjecture says that if x is an algebraic integer of degree n which is {\em not} a root of unity, it’s height is bounded below by some absolute constant (in fact, most people believe this constant to be about 1.176…, realized by Lehmer’s number.)

What does this question in algebraic number theory have to do with growth in groups?  Here’s the trick; let w be an algebraic integer and consider the subgroup G of the group of affine linear transformations of C (which embeds in GL_2(C)) generated by the two transformations

x -> wx


x -> x+1.

If the group G grows very quickly, then there are a lot of different values of g*1 for g in the word ball S^n.  But g*1 is going to be a complex number z expressible as a polynomial in w of bounded degree and bounded coefficients.  If w were actually a root of unity, you can see that this number is sitting in a ball of size growing linearly in n, so the number of possibilities for z grows polynomially in n.  Once w has some larger absolute values, though, the size of the ball containing all possible z grows exponentially with n, and Breuillard shows that the height of z is an upper bound for the number of different z in S^n * 1.  Thus a Lehmer-violating sequence of algebraic numbers gives a uniformity-violating sequence of finitely generated linear groups.

These groups are all solvable, even metabelian; and as Breuillard explains, this is actually the hardest case!  He and his collaborators can prove the uniform growth results for f.g. linear groups without a finite-index solvable subgroup.  Very cool!

One more note:  I am also of course pleased to see that Emmanuel found my slightly out-there speculations about “property tau hat” interesting enough to mention in his paper!  His formulation is more general and nicer than mine, though; I was only thinking about profinite groups, and Emmanuel is surely right to set it up as a question about topologically finitely generated compact groups in general.







Tagged , , , , ,

Notes on Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is certainly the best movie I’ve seen this year, likely the best movie I’ll see this year.  But I don’t see a lot of movies.  After the spoiler bar, some notes on this one.  I meant to write this right after I saw it, but got busy, so no doubt I’ve forgotten some of what I meant to say and gotten other things wrong. Continue reading

Tagged ,

August linkdump

  • The company that makes OldReader, the RSS reader I fled to after the sad demise of Google Reader, is from Madison!  OK, Middleton.  Still part of Silicon Isthmus.
  • I never new that Mark Alan Stamaty, one of my favorite cartoonists, did the cover of the first They Might Be Giants album.
  • Hey I keep saying this and now Allison Schrager has written an article about it for Bloomberg.  Tenure is a form of compensation.  If you think tenure is a bad way to pay teachers, and that compensation is best in the form of dollars, that’s fine; but if California pretends that the elimination of tenure isn’t a massive pay cut for teachers, they’re making a basic economic mistake.
  • New “hot hand” paper by Brett Green and Jeffrey Zweibel, about the hot hand for batters in baseball.  They say it’s there!  And they echo a point I make in the book (which I learned from Bob Wardrop) — some of the “no such thing as the hot hand” studies are way too low-power to detect a hot hand of any realistic size.
  • Matt Baker goes outside the circle of number theory and blogs about real numbers, axioms, and games.  Daring!  Matt also has a very cool new paper with Yao Wang about spanning trees as torsors for the sandpile group; but I want that to have its own blog entry once I’ve actually read it!
  • Lyndon Hardy wrote a fantasy series I adored as a kid, Master of the Five Magics.  I didn’t know that, as an undergrad, he was the mastermind of the Great Caltech Rose Bowl Hoax.  Now that is a life well spent.
  • Do you know how many players with at least 20 hits in a season have had more than half their hits be home runs?  Just two:  Mark McGwire in 2001 and Frank Thomas in 2005.
Tagged , , , ,

Plagiarism, patchwriting, Perlstein

Some people are complaining about Rick Perlstein’s new book, claiming that some passages are plagiarized.  Most of my friends think this is nonsense.

Here’s a passage from Craig Shirley’s Reagan’s Revolution:

Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.

And from Perlstein:

The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.


Whenever he flew, Reagan would sit in the first row so he could talk to people as they boarded the plane.  On one occasion, a woman spotted him, embranced him, and said, “Oh Governor, you’ve just got to run for President!”  As they settled into their seats, Reagan turned to Deaver and said, “Well, I guess I’d better do it.”


When Ronald Reagan flew on commercial flights he always sat in the front row.  That way, he could greet passengers as they boarded.  One day he was flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  A woman threw her arms around him and said “Oh, Governor, you’ve got to run for president!” “Well,” he said, turning to Michael Deaver, dead serious, “I guess I’d better do it.”

The second passage is cited to Shirley, the first isn’t.  But I don’t think it matters!  You shouldn’t paraphrase someone else’s book sentence by sentence, even if you cite them.  If you’re going to say exactly what they said, you should quote them.

Is this plagiarism?  It is, at the very least, patchwriting:  “restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.”  Mark Liberman at LanguageLog has a long, magisterial post about patchwriting in Perlstein’s book, pointing out some places where Shirley himself patchwrites from the New York Times.

I once came across a magazine article whose lede was patchwritten from an article of my own.  I talked to a few trusted friends about how to handle it.  Uniformly, they said:  it’s not nice, but it’s not plagiarism, and you shouldn’t accuse the other author of stealing your stuff.  In the end, I alerted the other author to the issue without accusing her, and she apologized, saying she’d done it in a hurry and didn’t realize it was so close.  Which is probably true.

So I guess it’s not plagiarism and Shirley is not going to win his $25 million lawsuit against Perlstein.  But I don’t really like it and I think when we do journalism we should strive to write our own stuff.

Tagged , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 552 other followers

%d bloggers like this: