Category Archives: writing

Loudly and bravely

Wallace Shawn:

As I write these words, in New York City in 1985, more and more people who grew up around me are making this decision; they are throwing away their moral chains and learning to enjoy their true situation:  Yes, they are admitting loudly and bravely, We live in beautiful homes, we’re surrounded by beautiful gardens, our children are playing with wonderful toys, and our kitchen shelves are filled with wonderful food.  And if there are people out there who are envious of us and who might even be tempted to break into our homes and take what we have, well then, part of our good fortune is that we can afford to pay guards to protect us.  And if those who protect us need to hit people in the face with the butts of their rifles, or if they need perhaps even to turn around and shoot, they have our permission, and we only hope they’ll do what they do with diligence and skill.

The amazing thing I’ve noticed about these friends of mine who’ve made that choice is that as soon as they’ve made it, they begin to blossom, to flower, because they are no longer hiding, from themselves or anyone else, the true facts about their own lives.


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 , , ,

“Like a girl”

I wrote a New York Times op/ed last week about the relationship between teaching math and coaching Little League.  Several people wrote me to say that I shouldn’t have written the following passage:

My level of skill at baseball — actually, with every kind of ball — is pretty much the opposite of my mastery of math. I’ve reached 40 and I still throw in the way that we used to call, before they started showing college softball on TV, “like a girl.”

So obviously my goal here is to undercut the stereotype and present it as obsolete.  But the people who wrote me argued that to use the force of a sexist phrase to give my sentence a little oomph is a problem, even if (as I once heard J. P. Serre say about a piece of notation) “I mention it only in order to object to it.”

So I asked about this on Facebook, and maybe 60% of people thought it was fine, and 40% said that they winced when they read it.

Which means it’s not fine.  Because why write something that makes 40% of readers wince in annoyance?  Especially when a) it’s in no way intrinsic to the piece, which is otherwise not about gender roles, and b) the piece itself ties math to baseball, a boy-coded activity, and has much more material about my son than it does about my daughter.

I think “like a girl” can be an OK place to go if you need to.  But I didn’t need to.  So I think I shouldn’t have.

One of my friends suggested I should have said instead that I throw “like a mathematician.”  Better!


Tagged ,

How do you share your New York Times?

My op/ed about math teaching and Little League coaching is the most emailed article in the New York Times today.  Very cool!

But here’s something interesting; it’s only the 14th most viewed article, the 6th most tweeted, and the 6th most shared on Facebook.  On the other hand, this article about child refugees from Honduras is

#14 most emailed

#1 most viewed

#1 most shared on Facebook

#1 most tweeted

while Paul Krugman’s column about California is

#4 most emailed

#3 most viewed

#4 most shared on Facebook

#7 most tweeted.

Why are some articles, like mine, much more emailed than tweeted, while others, like the one about refugees, much more tweeted than emailed, and others still, like Krugman’s, come out about even?  Is it always the case that views track tweets, not emails?  Not necessarily; an article about the commercial success and legal woes of conservative poo-stirrer Dinesh D’Souza is #3 most viewed, but only #13 in tweets (and #9 in emails.)  Today’s Gaza story has lots of tweets and views but not so many emails, like the Honduras piece, so maybe this is a pattern for international news?  Presumably people inside newspapers actually study stuff like this; is any of that research public?  Now I’m curious.



Tagged , , , ,

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

Tagged , , ,

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.

Tagged , , ,

There is hope for our country

On the USAir shuttle today, a girl of about 15 was seated across the aisle from her mom.  The girl had a Danielle Steel novel.

At the end of the flight:

MOM:  How did you like the book I lent you?

DAUGHTER:  I didn’t really read it.

MOM:  Oh, why not?

DAUGHTER:  Because the writing was really bad, mom!  She’s a bad writer!  Good writing makes a story better!


Tagged ,

Should Andrew Gelman have stayed a math major?

Andrew writes:

As I’ve written before, I was a math and physics major in college but I switched to statistics because math seemed pointless if you weren’t the best (and I knew there were people better than me), and I just didn’t feel like I had a good physical understanding.

But every single mathematician, except one, is not the best (and even that person probably has to concede that there are still greater mathematicians who happen to be dead.)  Surely that doesn’t make our work pointless.

This myth — that the only people who matter in math are people at the very top of a fixed mental pyramid, people who are identified near birth and increase their lead over time, that math is for them and not for us — is what I write about in today’s Wall Street Journal, in a piece that’s mostly drawn from How Not To Be Wrong.  I quote both Mark Twain and Terry Tao — how’s that for appeal to authority?  The corresponding book section also has stuff about Hilbert and Minkowski (guess which one was the prodigy!) Ramanujan, and an extended football metaphor which I really like but which was too much of a digression for a newspaper piece.

There’s also a short video interview on WSJ Live where I talk a bit about the idea of the genius.

In other launch-related publicity, I was on Slate’s podcast, The Gist, talking to Mike Pesca about the Laffer curve and the dangers of mindless linear regression.

More book-related stuff coming next week; stay tuned!

Update:  Seems like I misread Andrew’s post; I thought when he said “switched” he meant “switched majors,” but actually he meant he kept studying math and then moved into a (slightly!) different career, statistics, where he used the math he learned: exactly what I say in the WSJ piece I want more people to do!

Tagged , ,

Amie Wilkinson’s commencement speech

You want a good commencement speech?  This is a good commencement speech.  From Amie Wilkinson, at the Berkeley math department graduation ceremony.

The only way to begin is to start.

So let’s start with death. From today onward you will die a little death every time you bother to notice it. By this I mean a death of possibilities. Imagine a tree with many branches, directed into the future. Each is a potential future, a life path. Up until now, you’ve probably been climbing the large trunk of this tree, following what seems the natural path, ignoring some smaller branches along the way. Looking up, the tree has always been lush, dense and even impenetrable, rich with potential.

Click here to read the whole thing (pdf)

Tagged ,

Yes, newspapers, you need us!

The story so far:  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece called “Professors, we need you!” in which he mourned the loss of the public intellectual of yonderyear:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

And so on from there.  You’ve heard this song — we speak in our own jargon, we’re obsessed with meaningless turf wars, there’s too much math, “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose” (must we?)

Lots of pushback on this, as you can imagine.  But the predominant tone, from professor-defenders like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo or  Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker and Ezra Klein in Bloomberg View, is that it’s not really academics’ fault our writing is so bad and unreadable and sealed off from the world.  It’s our bad incentives — the public intellectualizing we’d like to be doing isn’t rewarded by our tenure committees and our academic publishing system!

I’d put it a different way.  I think our incentives are fine, because our incentive is to be right about things, which is our job.  Newspapers have different incentives.  I’ve been writing for general-audience publications for years, and I can tell you what editors mean when they say a piece is “too academic.”  They don’t mean “there’s too much jargon” or “the subject isn’t of wide interest.”  They mean “you didn’t take a strong enough position.”  When I write about a matter of current controversy, I often get asked:  “What’s the takeaway?  Who’s right here and who’s wrong?”  In real life there are no takeaways.  In real life one person’s sort of right about one thing and the other person’s sort of right about another thing and understanding the nature of the controversy may require a somewhat technical unraveling of those two different things which are thoughtlessly being referred to as one thing.  Most editors hate this stuff.  That’s why they don’t print it.  But it’s the work you have to do if you want to say things that are true.

I’ve been lucky to have done a lot of my journalism for Slate.  A lot of other academics write for them, too, and you know why?  Because they might tell you “this is too complicated, can you say the same thing but clearer?” but they’ll never tell you “this is too complicated, can you say something simpler and more bullshitty instead?”

Tagged ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 588 other followers

%d bloggers like this: