Category Archives: writing

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.

 

 

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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

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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.

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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!

 

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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!

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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)

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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?”

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What do Aner Shalev and Nike Vatsal have in common?

My mother-in-law was toting around a book of short stories translated from the Hebrew and I saw a familiar name on the front:  Aner Shalev.  Not the same Aner Shalev as the group theorist I know, surely — but no, I checked, and it’s him!  Good story, too, actually not a story but an excerpt from his 2004 novel Dark Matter (or I guess I should say Hachomer Haafel since it doesn’t seem to exist in English.)  It was good!

Sometime last year I was in a coffee shop in Berkeley doing math with Tom Church and on the bookshelf there was an old issue of Story, and in the table of contents I found Vinayak Vatsal.  Not the same Vinayak Vatsal as the number theorist I know, surely, but….  yep, it was him.  I only got to read the beginning of Nike’s story because I was supposed to be doing math, but that one was good too, what I read.

How many mathematicians are secretly placing stories in literary magazines, I’d like to know?

 

 

 

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Stoner

Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams, has been named the 2013 Waterstones Book of the Year.

Pretty cool to see an old book recognized!  I read this a while back; it’s one of those books often mentioned as a “forgotten classic” and I read such books out of a sense of obligation.  But sometimes, like this time, it pays off.  (See also:  Independent People, The Bridge on the Drina.)  Stoner represents a certain strain in the mid-century American novel that I really like, and which I don’t think exists in contemporary fiction.  Anguish, verbal restraint, weirdness.  Among famous authors, maybe some of Salinger, maybe some of O’Connor (but not glowing like O’Connor, more subdued, and not funny like Salinger, more deadpan.)  Besides Stoner I am thinking of James Purdy and Richard Yates — not even so much Revolutionary Road but The Easter Parade, which is grinding and merciless but at the same time strangely mild-mannered, in the same way Stoner is.

What else belongs here?

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“The global warming crowd has a problem”

Such a weird lede in this op-ed from Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.  “The global warming crowd has a problem” sounds like he’s going to lay down 800 words of climate change denial!  But no — what he means is something more like:

“Climate scientists have a PR problem, because we’re experiencing a short period of flat temperatures, which makes people think incorrectly that warming has stopped — and part of the blame for this is down to climate scientists themselves, who underrated the amount of natural variation and led people to expect an uninterrupted warming trend.”

Cheers to him for trying to say something this complicated in a NYT op/ed (though warning:  if Brad DeLong is right about the way Muller gets his “temperature plateau,” the article sort of falls apart.)

Still:  I wonder what proportion of people read this quickly and took away from the piece that Muller was smacking down the “global warming crowd” and rejecting the claims of climate change as hooey.

This is related to the question of whether Malcolm Gladwell is to blame for people thinking there’s no such thing as talent and all you have to do is practice oboe for 10,000 hours and you’ll be whatever somebody who’s really good at oboe is called.

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