HNTBW Publicity Roundup 4

Newspaper reviews are starting to come in.

Manil Suri at the Washington Post:

Ellenberg’s talent for finding real-life situations that enshrine mathematical principles would be the envy of any math teacher. He presents these in fluid succession, like courses in a fine restaurant, taking care to make each insight shine through, unencumbered by jargon or notation. Part of the sheer intellectual joy of the book is watching the author leap nimbly from topic to topic, comparing slime molds to the Bush-Gore Florida vote, criminology to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The final effect is of one enormous mosaic unified by mathematics.

Mario Livio at the Wall Street Journal:

I have a small piece of advice for readers with little or no mathematical background (who can actually benefit from this book the most): Even if a few of the explanations seem a bit long, read them with patience—you will be amply rewarded.

Jonathon Keats in the New Scientist:

How Not To Be Wrong is a superb primer, helping readers engage more sceptically with numbers.

Orlando Bird in the Financial Times:

There are plenty of popular maths books around, but this one strikes a particularly fine balance between rigour and accessibility.

And some recorded interviews.  I talked to Chris Mooney on the Inquiring Minds podcast; turns out his book has a chapter on Condorcet too, and we talked about math and its relationship with political liberalism.  Mooney has a related article in Mother Jones.  I was also on the Motley Fool podcast and Arik Korman’s iHeartRadio show.




Sympathy for Scott Walker

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel suggests that the slow pace of job creation in Wisconsin, not recall campaign shenanigans, may be Scott Walker’s real enemy in his upcoming re-election campaign:

In each of Walker’s first three years, Wisconsin has added private-sector jobs more slowly than the nation as whole, and the gap is sizable. Wisconsin has averaged 1.3% in annual private-sector job growth since 2010; the national average has been 2.1%. Wisconsin’s ranking in private-sector job growth was 35 among the 50 states in 2011, 36 in 2012 and 37 in 2013.

Combining the first three years of Walker’s term, the state ranks behind all its closest and most comparable Midwest neighbors: Michigan (6 of 50), Indiana (15), Minnesota (20), Ohio (25), Iowa (28) and Illinois (33).

I think this is slightly unfair to Walker!  Part of the reason Michigan is doing so well in job growth since 2010 is that Michigan was hammered so very, very hard by the recession.  It had more room to grow.  Indiana’s unemployment rate was roughly similar to Wisconsin’s in the years leading up to the crash, but shot up to 10.8% as the economy bottomed out (WI never went over 9.2%.)  Now Indiana and Wisconsin are about even again.

But I do mean slightly unfair.  After all, Walker ran on a change platform, arguing that Jim Doyle’s administration had tanked the state’s economy.  In fact, Wisconsin weathered the recession much better than a lot of our neighbor states did.  (The last years Wisconsin was above the median for private-sector job growth?  2008 and 2010, both under Doyle.)   There’s some karmic fairness at play, should that fact come back to make Walker look like a weak job creator compared to his fellow governors.



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People I saw

Another post for my own records, just to keep track of all the old friends and new acquaintances I was happy to see while traveling for How Not To Be Wrong.  Ordered roughly chronologically and from memory:

Paula and Jay Gitles, Aleeza Strubel, Daniel Biss, Stephen Burt, Jessie Bennett, Jay Pottharst, Bob and Donna Friedman, Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, Larry Hardesty, Moon Duchin, Mira Bernstein, Jerry and Cynthia and Rachel Frenkil, Audrey and Scott Zunick, Joe Schlam, Dick Gross, Noam Elkies, Ben and Elishe Wittes, Eric Walstein, Larry Washington, Manil Suri, Ivars Peterson, Tina Hsu, David Plotz, Josh Levin, Amy Eisner, Deane Yang, Michelle Shih, Warren Bass, Meredith Broussard, Jon Hanke, Tom Scocca, Cathy O’Neil, John Swansburg, Mike Pesca, Kardyhm Kelly, Charlie Jane Anders, Mimi Lipson, Annalee Newitz, Ken Katz, Jill Himmelfarb, The Invisible Cities, Patrick LaVictoire, Akshay Venkatesh, Ravi Vakil, Gary Antonick, David Carlton, Liesl Bross, Miranda Bross, Mark Lucianovic, Tom Church, Yuran Lu, Daniel Kane, Leslie Rappoport, Douglas Wolk, Derek Garton, Matt Haughey, Josh Millard, Brian LaMacchia, Lionel Levine, Ana Crossman (and her mom), Heather Evans (and her mom), Bianca Viray.


It was very social!  And sorry to the people I’ve inevitably skipped.


Quarreling with Cato

Last week Salon printed an excerpt from How Not To Be Wrong, in which I tweak Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute for asking the rhetorical question “Why is America trying to become more like Sweden when Swedes are Trying to be Less Like Sweden?”  I describe the vision of economics implied by the headline as “linear” (or, more generally, “monotone”)  In particular, the headline seems to take the view that smaller government is either a good thing or  a bad thing, independent of context.  If it’s good for Swedes, it’s good for us too.


Mitchell didn’t like what I had to say very much, accusing me of calling him a “buffoon”.  He complains that he doesn’t hold any such simplistic linear view.


And that’s right!  He doesn’t.  Nobody does, if they sit down to think consciously about what their views are.  But when you sit down to write a zingy headline, sometimes you just reach for something that expresses your vague rules of thumb instead of your carefully articulated beliefs.  (And yes, as a fellow blogger, I get that sometimes you stretch your point a little bit when you reach for that headline; take it from the guy who just published a piece about Berkson’s fallacy called “Why Are Handsome Men Such Jerks?”)


The headline makes it sound like there’s something incongruous about Sweden shrinking its government while we grow ours.  But there’s nothing strange about that at all – unless you have in mind something like the linear model that Mitchell correctly disavows.

So what is Mitchell’s actual view about the relation between Swedishness and prosperity?  He says it’s governed by something called the Rahn curve.  According to that curve, or at least Mitchell’s take on it, prosperity peaks when government spending is about 20 percent of GDP, and declines roughly linear thereafter.  As of 2012, there was only one country in the developed world, sorta-free Singapore, whose government spending was that low.  Which means that in the range occupied by countries from the United States to Sweden, from Australia to Korea, the relation between Swedishness and prosperity is more or less exactly the one I drew in the picture Mitchell objects to.  It may well be that the US government should spend less on its citizens.  But contra Mitchell’s headline, Sweden’s best course gives no guidance concerning ours.

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Oh but hey I forgot to include the biggest book news of the week:  How Not To Be Wrong is a New York Times bestseller! It’s at #19 among hardback nonfiction books on the June 22 list.

It’s sort of a weird thresholding phenomenon.  I doubt the numerical difference in sales between #19 and #27 is very great.  But apparently it really does make a substantial difference for the book’s future, that it Just Made It instead of Just Missing It.

So thanks to all who bought the book.  I hope you like it!





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HNTBW publicity roundup 3

On Wisconsin, the UW alumni magazine, ran a feature about the book by Jenny Price, which features of photo of me peering out of a transparent cube of drawings from the book:

More local stuff: I was interviewed on Madison’s WORT radio on Monday.

And more radio:  I went on Leonard Lopate’s show on NYC on Thursday.

Annie Murphy Paul, who’s writing a book about learning called Brilliant, interviewed me on her blog (crossposted to

And the newspaper reviews have started to come in!  First one is from the Guardian, by Alex Bellos, who has a new book of his own, called (in the US) The Grapes of Math.  I started reading it just before I left, and it looks great.  There are several places where he touches on things that show up in How Not To Be Wrong; but math is so roomy that in each case Bellos sets out in a different direction and tells a totally different story starting from the same mathematical idea.  Anyway, here’s Bellos’s review of How Not To Be Wrong.

Finally, I was somewhat denounced by the Cato Institute.  I’ll have a bit more to say about this one later…


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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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HNTBW publicity roundup 2

How Not To Be Wrong got a really nice review from Laura Miller at Salon.  I like that she foregrounds the interweaving of mathematical and humanistic ways of treating problems, which is really central to the book, by me anyway.

In the Guardian, I get the “digested read” treatment; Jim Crace boils the book down to 800 words.  It’s sort of weird seeing your own style parodied:

Now let’s move on to some other more straightforward problems. Like is there a God? If you’re using the standard p>0.5, then yes, but don’t just take it from me. Look at the probabilities. Now as we’ve already seen in Boylais’s postulate, every straight line is a curve and every curve is a straight line and if we add everything up then 75% x 1000 + 24% x (-200) = 750 – 50 = 700. So there is more likely to be a God than not, especially if you employ Pascal’s wager. Take the sequence RRRRRR and RLLLRL. One appears more uniform, the other more random. Except they both have the same probability of coming up. Spooky? Then get this. Neither was a random sequence because I wrote them down.

My British editor has taught me that this is called “taking the mick.”

Steven Mazie is more or less on board with my criticism of the argument by design in Big Think.

Becky Holmes has a piece about me and the book in Madison’s alternative weekly, Isthmus.  It features a photo of my head superimposed atop a drawing of a classical geometer in a robe!

New York magazine’s Maggie Lange generalizes the “handsome guys are jerks” theorem.

Good stuff on the role of “geniuses” in research math at Persiflage, with many number theorists weighing in in the comments.

And the claim that I know what time you should get to the airport crosses back over the Atlantic to appear on the Today show.  I gotta say, in a minute and a half the hosts do a better job explaining the idea than any of the British newspapers.  U – S – A!  U – S – A!







HNTBW publicity roundup

This is a roundup post, mostly for myself so I can have a short record of where people wrote or talked about the book.

I was on NPR’s All Things Considered on Monday, talking with Robert Siegel about various pieces of How Not To Be Wrong.  I liked that Siegel’s questions mostly started by reading a couple of sentences from the book.  The point, after all, is to give some impression of what the book’s like, not what I’m like.

More radio:  I did a half hour live on WPR’s Central Time, even getting to answer some call-in questions.

I did a live chat at io9 (the science/SF wing of Gawker) where I answered questions people posted in comments.  Good questions!  I think I covered them all.

Sarah Gray interviewed me in Salon.  The format is unusual; it looks like they printed direct transcriptions of the recorded interview, with all my pauses and runon sentences and “like”s intact.  E.G. I say

Yeah. In essence math is in the humanities, in the sense that it is a fundamental part of the human condition, it’s a fundamental part of what makes us human, always has been. Imagining people not thinking mathematically is like thinking about people not making music. We’ve been doing it since there was civilization and we always will be doing it. It’s like one of the central activities that we undertake. And obviously there are people who do it more and people who do it less. And there are people who call themselves unmusical but they’re probably not completely unmusical right? So I would obviously, I would hope that those things would not be in opposition and I don’t think they have to be.

Which is indeed what I said!  But recorded more faithfully than is usual.

On Slate, I’ve got a series of blog entries going up, most of which are partly excerpted from the book.  Here’s the first one, in which I defend the much-maligned term “number sentence.”  Probably best that Slate didn’t like my proposed headline, “You’re Goddamn Right It’s a Number Sentence!”

Jonathan Wai, a big-time researcher on gifted kids, pushes back on my WSJ article in Psychology Today.  I don’t think we actually disagree so much; in particular, he’s right that we don’t do much to nurture the many talented kids who, unlike me, grow up far away from money and universities.  I thought online education might be the answer to this but now I’m not sure.

The Sunday Times (the England one, not the New York one) interviewed me and ran a short piece about the book (paywalled.)  The Times wrote a bit about my treatment of George Stigler’s slogan, “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time in airports.”  Picking up on that, all the other British newspapers wrote stories about how an American mathematician had worked out a new formula for the optimal time to get to the airport!  The Daily Mail piece is typical.  Then I was denounced in the Independent for being a hyperrational efficiency expert.  Eventually Andy Kiersz in Business Insider wrote something about the modest claims the book actually makes…

As I write, How Not To Be Wrong is the 49th best-selling book on Amazon!






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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