Category Archives: poetry

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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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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Adam Smith on mathematicians and poets

I got this strange and interesting passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments from Mark Lewko’s blog, which seems to be quiet at the moment but I hope it comes back!

The beauty of poetry is a matter of such nicety, that a young beginner can scarce ever be certain that he has attained it. Nothing delights him so much, therefore, as the favourable judgments of his friends and of the public; and nothing mortifies him so severely as the contrary. The one establishes, the other shakes, the good opinion which he is anxious to entertain concerning his own performances. Experience and success may in time give him a little more confidence in his own judgment. He is at all times, however, liable to be most severely mortified by the unfavourable judgments of the public. Racine was so disgusted by the indifferent success of his Phaedra, the finest tragedy, perhaps, that is extant in any language, that, though in the vigour of his life, and at the height of his abilities, he resolved to write no more for the stage. That great poet used frequently to tell his son, that the most paltry and impertinent criticism had always given him more pain, than the highest and justest eulogy had ever given him pleasure. The extreme sensibility of Voltaire to the slightest censure of the same kind is well known to every body. The Dunciad of Mr Pope is an everlasting monument of how much the most correct, as well as the most elegant and harmonious of all the English poets, had been hurt by the criticisms of the lowest and most contemptible authors. Gray (who joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope, and to whom nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more) is said to have been so much hurt, by a foolish and impertinent parody of two of his finest odes, that he never afterwards attempted any considerable work. Those men of letters who value themselves upon what is called fine writing in prose, approach somewhat to the sensibility of poets.

Mathematicians, on the contrary, who may have the most perfect assurance, both of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries, are frequently very indifferent about the reception which they may meet with from the public. The two greatest mathematicians that I ever have had the honour to be known to, and, I believe, the two greatest that have lived in my time, Dr Robert Simpson of Glasgow, and Dr Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh, never seemed to feel even the slightest uneasiness from the neglect with which the ignorance of the public received some of their most valuable works. The great work of Sir Isaac Newton, his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, I have been told, was for several years neglected by the public. The tranquillity of that great man, it is probable, never suffered, upon that account, the interruption of a single quarter of an hour. Natural philosophers, in their independency upon the public opinion, approach nearly to mathematicians, and, in their judgments concerning the merit of their own discoveries and observations, enjoy some degree of the same security and tranquillity.

The morals of those different classes of men of letters are, perhaps, sometimes somewhat affected by this very great difference in their situation with regard to the public.

Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.

It is not always the same case with poets, or with those who value themselves upon what is called fine writing. They are very apt to divide themselves into a sort of literary factions; each cabal being often avowedly, and almost always secretly, the mortal enemy of the reputation of every other, and employing all the mean arts of intrigue and solicitation to preoccupy the public opinion in favour of the works of its own members, and against those of its enemies and rivals.

Now that the public reads no more poetry than it does mathematics, have the moral habits of poets and mathematicians converged?

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There are no new gags

Free idea for my philosopher friends:  put out a call for papers for a volume about baseball and philosophy, called “What Is It Like To Be At Bat?”

Amazon tells me that somebody has already produced a book of articles on baseball and philosophy, but hasn’t used this gag.

But Google tells me that the gag has already appeared several times:  in a blog post, in an article by John Haugelund, and, somewhat memorably, in the last stanza of a poem by Michael Robbins that appeared in the Awl:

I never promised you a unicorn.
But still. What is it like to be at bat?
Just having T.M.I. tattooed on my balls.
The heavy lice that hang from them
run in blood down palace walls.

There are no new gags.  I think Robbins’s poems are interested in the contemporary fact of there being no new gags.

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Sometimes, sometimes and always

Peli Grietzer is kind of thrillingly good on one of my very favorite poems, Ashbery’s “At North Farm”, especially

the way that things done for the sake of some eschatological hope or fear end up sort of indistinguishable from normal minor daily habits after enough iterations of the eschatological thing not happening.

I have posted “At North Farm” in the blog before, but why not again?  Poetry is written to be repeated.

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

Each time I read this there’s something new — this time, the way “sometimes, \\ Sometimes and always” reads as a list of three things, the first two identical.

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Marianne Moore, the baseball fan

I just learned from Chris Fischbach, publisher of the great Coffee House Press, that Marianne Moore once threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium.  I always thought she was a Dodger fan!  My hope is that she threw the pitch and then said “I, too, dislike them.”

I forgot that there was actually baseball in this poem!  See:

the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
                   do not admire what
                   we cannot understand: the bat
                             holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
        a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea
                                                                                         the base-
       ball fan, the statistician—

 

(line breaks kind of destroyed by WordPress, sorry)

I’m actually not sure how to read this — I think the catalog here is not delineating who “we” are, but rather what we cannot understand and thus do not admire.  What makes a baseball fan hard to understand?  Maybe this makes more sense in 1924, when the first version of the poem is written, and we’re not so far from the point where the term “fanatic” for a baseball rooter acquired its permanent abbreviation.  But why is it hard to understand the bat looking for something to eat?  The other animals in the poem are, indeed, engaging in some weird repetitive unparseable motion, but the endless quest for food seems like something we fail to admire precisely because we do understand it.

The appearance of the “bat” before baseball is presumably on purpose but I don’t really understand the work it does.

Also, the famous phrase from this poem, “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” is not so far off as a description of mathematics.

Anyway, per BaseballLibrary, Moore was a Dodger fan for most of her life but felt so betrayed by the team’s move to Los Angeles that she switched to the Yankees.  Understandable but unforgivable.  She’s the baseball equivalent of those people who repent for their youthful liberal overreach by becoming right-wing culture warriors.

 

 

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Jane Yeh, On Ninjas

My friend Jane Yeh has a new book of poems out and it is about ninjas.  Here’s the title poem:

They eat four-cheese pizzas with three of the cheeses removed.
They make friendship bracelets out of aluminum foil and poison.
They open windows just by thinking about opening windows.
They take ballet lessons to improve the speed of their circular arm movements.

The ninjas are coming, coming to save us from muggers
And disorganized thieves and slobs who want to kill us.
The way to spot a ninja is to look for someone wearing black pajamas—
Preternaturally neat black pajamas—with a hood for cover.

The way to tell one ninja from another is by the ankles.
The way to tell one ninja from another is you can’t.
They know how to levitate by thinking about birds’ feet.
They make terrible cater waiters because no one can hear them coming.

Their mission is to save us from chaos with their acute tumbling skills
And their climbing proficiency. They don’t want to dismember
Bad jazz musicians or art teachers or con men, but they will.
They know how to escape from a trap by running in place very, very fast.

They can change places with each other by thinking about numbers.
They know how to turn themselves into fog to avoid attending boring parties.
They make single-serving Lancashire hotpots to show their culinary mastery.
They take turns doing the laundry. (It’s easy; no whites or colors.)

The ninjas are here to help us. They are as ruthless as history
Or defenestration. They are pitiless as a swarm of bees, or evolution.
They know how to throw fireballs and do their own taxes.
They hate litter and small children. They are here to fix us.

 

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Some of my best friends are cross-dressing kingmakers

Steve Burt profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

I thought the profile was a little too heavy on other people talking about Steve and too light on Steve talking about Steve, so here’s Steve’s long and in part autobiographical essay about Game Theory (the band, not the branch of math) which is subtitled, I’m guessing by Steve himself, “An awkward essay about a deeply ambivalent band with a very unpromising name, including notes on nerd camp, fear of sex, Northern California area codes, and autobiographical digressions, with a book review near the end.”  If you want to read something more directly about poetry, here’s Steve’s essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” from The Believer, which lays out, to the extent that it can be laid out, the state of American poetry as it looks from one vantage.

 

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Knuth, big-O calculus, implicit definitions (difficulty of)

Don Knuth says we should teach calculus without limits.

I would define the derivative by first defining what might be called a “strong derivative”: The function f has a strong derivative f'(x) at point x if

f(x+\epsilon)=f(x)+f'(x)\epsilon+O(\epsilon^2)

I think this underestimates the difficulty for novices of implicit definitions.  We’re quite used to them:  “f'(x) is the number such that bla bla, if such a number exists, and, by the way, if such a number exists it is unique.” Students are used to definitions that say, simply, “f'(x) is bla.”

Now I will admit that the usual limit definition has hidden within it an implicit definition of the above kind; but I think the notion of limit is “physical” enough that the implicitness is hidden from the eyes of the student who is willing to understand the derivative as “the number the slope of the chord approaches as the chord gets shorter and shorter.”

Another view — for many if not most calculus students, the definition of the derivative is a collection of formal rules, one for each type of “primitive” function (polynomials, trigonometric, exponential) together with a collection of combination rules (product rule, chain rule) which allow differentiation of arbitrary closed-form functions.  For these students, there is perhaps little difference between setting up “h goes to 0″ foundations and “O(eps)” foundations.  Either set of foundations will be quickly forgotten.

The fact that implicit definitions are hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach them to first-year college students, of course!  Knuth is right that the Landau notation is more likely to mesh with other things a calculus student is likely to encounter, simultaneously with calculus or in later years.  But Knuth seems to say that big-O calculus would be self-evidently easier and more intuitive, and I don’t think that’s evident at all.

Maybe we could get students over the hump of implicit definitions by means of Frost:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.

(Though it’s not clear the implied uniqueness in this definition is fully justified.)

If I were going to change one thing about the standard calculus sequence, by the way, it would be to do much more Fourier series and much less Taylor series.

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John Stuart Mill and scansion

There are lots of good reasons to read Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi’s network-theoretic defense of democracy against market fundamentalism on the one hand and hierarchic paternalism on the other.  But at the moment I just want to quote their quote of John Stuart Mill:

But the economical advantages of commerce are surpassed in importance by those of its effects which are intellectual and moral. It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact.

And I’m not even quoting the quote because the quote says something interesting, which it does — it’s just because scansion is on my mind, thanks to Paul Fussell, and I was struck by the grace of “Commerce is now what war once was.”  To write with authority you have to have good ideas, but you also have to pay attention to the sound of your words.  Writing is a formalization of sound, not a formalization of thought.

 

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