## 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.

## 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
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.

## 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.

## 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.

## In which I agree with Pushkin

“Imagination is as necessary in geometry as it is in poetry.”

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## Stephen Burt interviewed in Publishers Weekly

Steve Burt interviewed in the PW series, “The Art of the Review:”

Classes can reveal the properties of their members more fully (to understand the differences between calcium and magnesium, for example, you should know why they are both alkaline earths) but classes can also obscure them (the Pagans and the Germs were both American punk rock bands, but to me their songs sound nothing alike). Classes should be used with care everywhere; there’s probably no way to fully avoid them.

But you aren’t asking about classes in general; you are asking why poetry critics and reviewers seem to classify and classify, whereas fiction reviews try to avoid it. Perhaps it’s because few books of poetry can count on a buzz produced by their authors, or by a publicity campaign, or by grassroots, independent-bookstore-sales-driven chatter, all of which can justify (to assigning editors, to casual readers) space and time for extensive reviews of single volumes. Poetry reviewers, poetry critics, even very academic ones, need other pegs on which to hang their claims.

Novelists, necessarily, work in sustained solitude, when they are working (however gregarious they become otherwise), whereas poets can work in solitude in short bursts and then come together to discuss—and make programs and slogans about—what they made.

Poets also seem to attach themselves and their work more often either to their peer group, or to their teachers; some poets can tell you where and with whom they studied almost in the way that classical musicians can tell you about their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers.  If novelists do that, I haven’t seen it.

For more, buy Steve’s book, Close Calls With Nonsense.

## Math And: Arielle Saiber on Italian poetry and Italian algebra, Friday, Oct 23 at 4pm

Something to do tomorrow (besides eating the Beef n Brew slice): the Math And… seminar is very pleased to welcome Arielle Saiber from Bowdoin for our Fall 2009 lecture.  Arielle is an Italianist of very broad interests, with academic papers on Italian literature, the early history of algebra and geometry, Dali’s illustrations for Dante, and the polyvalent discourse of electronic music.  Tomorrow there will only be time to unite the first two.

23 Oct 2009, 4pm, Van Vleck B239: Arielle Saiber (Bowdoin, Italian)

Title “Nicollo Tartaglia’s Poetic Solution to the Cubic Equation.”

Niccolo Tartaglia’s (1449-1557) solution to solving cubic equations, which renowned mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano wanted but Tartaglia resisted, led to one of the first intellectual property cases in Western history. Eventually, Tartaglia agreed to give Cardano what he so desired, but only if the latter promised he would not publish it. Cardano promised, and Tartaglia sent him the solution. Wasting little time, however, Cardano published the solution (along with a ‘general’ solution that he himself developed). Tartaglia was, not surprisingly, furious and began a vicious battle with Cardano’s assistant, Ludovico Ferrari (Cardano refused to engage Tartaglia directly). But vitriolic polemics aside, there is something else rather curious about this ordeal: the solution Tartaglia gave Cardano was encrypted in a poem. This talk looks at the motives behind his “poetic solution” and what it says about the close relationship between ‘poeisis’ and ‘mathesis’ in this period of mathematics’ history.