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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Land of Milk and Honey and Hummus and Beet Ballerinas

I visited Hebrew University for a week in January, and Peter Sarnak, no doubt thinking of my sadly out-of-date How To Eat Dinner in Princeton page, asked me if I was going to blog the restaurants of Jerusalem.  OK, so here’s a go.  Let’s start with the best thing I ate in Israel:

Beet Ballerina

This is beet ballerina with goat cheese at Cafe Itamar, on Moshav Ora just west of Jerusalem.  (Here’s an English writeup.)  “Ballerina” is a kind of pasta I saw on several menus in Jerusalem; I think it’s more or less campanelle?  Simple dish, but really well-made.  The pasta looks beautiful and tastes kind of rooty without really aggressively beeting at you, if you know what I mean.  And the rest of the meal was almost as good.  Cafe Itamar was a casual place, concentrating on the produce from the moshav’s collective farm, somehow very Israeli indeed despite having a fairly straight European menu of pastas, pizzas, and salads.  Worth the trip from town.

We spent one morning in the shuk at Mahane Yehuda — burekas and sweet, gelatinous sachlav at Gveret Burekas, kanafeh somewhere in the market, and then a terrific lunch at Mordoch, where a woman sits in at a back table speedily rolling kubbeh, which then appear in an awesomely sour yellow vegetable soup.  And there’s hummus, lots of hummus.

And more hummus at Hummus Asli in Tel Aviv, where we had the best malawech we ate in Israel, much flakier and lighter than the one we got at the the Yemenite Jewish restaurant Tamani in Jerusalem.  And the only falafel I ate while I was there, because I don’t think of myself as liking falafel, but Asli falafel changed my mind.  I didn’t eat any more falafel because I wanted to leave the toggle switched to “yes.”

As for Tamani, it was heavy and rich, a kind of soul food — good, but what I was really hoping for was something more refined, specifically the honey-rosemary chicken I remembered eating at the Yemenite Step twenty years ago.  There’s no more Yemenite Step and I guess no more honey-rosemary chicken either.  Was that all the hummus?  That was not all the hummus.  Because there’s also the Lebanese Restaurant — which my brother-in-law tells me isn’t Lebanese, but that’s the name, the Lebanese Restaurant — in Abu Ghosh.  Hummus, hummus basar (i.e with spiced meat), more kubbeh, this time fried, all served family style on long wooden tables in an immense, crowded, punishingly loud room.

Only one shawarma, but it was a shawarma laffa, or as Americans might call it, “burrito-style.”  Why don’t we eat it that way here?  I guess we do — here’s a picture of one from Illinois, which gives the general idea.  A burrito place has a sidebar where you can get salsa, and a shawarma laffa place — or at least Hashamen, the place my brother-in-law likes —  has a sidebar where you can get amba, which, wow.

 

 

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Why does United want to charge me $800 for premier status?

I flew a lot (by my standards) on United last year, including a trip to Israel, and came about 5,000 miles short of qualifying for their lowest tier of premier status.  I got a flyer from them in the mail saying I could make up the difference with cash — but it turns out the cash cost of making up the 5,000 mile gap is $800.  This is not an attractive offer.  I’ve had premier status on United before, and it was pleasant, but not $800 pleasant; I think I was upgraded maybe a couple of times over the course of the year, and I’m not sure what real benefit I got from getting to board first.

Still, those benefits would be enough to make me more likely to choose United, especially for longer trips when the chance of upgrade and access to the Economy Plus seats means more.  So why are they asking for so much money, I wonder? Wouldn’t just giving me premier status be a good value for United?

The threshold has to be somewhere:  somehow they’ve calculated that the people who fly 25,000 miles a year are the ones whose business they want to attract with premier.  But of course I did fly that much last year; just not all with United.  So my question is:  doesn’t United know this?  I am not the kind of guy who’s careful to log out of Facebook and Google before buying a plane ticket, so lots of data vendors know which plane tickets I’ve bought.  I would guess United knows that I spend money with other airlines, which is foregone revenue for them.  Or do they not actually know this?

It’s also possible that premier is a money-loser for United, and they don’t want so many people to have the status.  (Maybe they make enough money selling those Economy Plus seats a la carte that it doesn’t make sense to let a lot of people claim them free?)  Evidence for that:  they’re making premier status harder to get.

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Loved and reviled

The jacket copy for the paperback of Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be? starts, in large bold type:

By turns loved and reviled upon its U.S. publication…

That’s pretty bold jacket copy writing, to come right out and say that the book you’re considering buying was reviled!

In fact, it was very good.  One thing I like about it is the way that the title seems to leave room for an invisible adjective which shifts the sense of “How,” i.e.

How ______ should a person be?

where the implicit word in the blank space shifts around a lot as the novel progresses.

 

The way I am now

Inspired by this really wonderful Jody Rosen cut-up, made entirely of sentences written by David Brooks containing the phrase “we live,” I tried the same with my blog, using just sentences that assert something about the way I am.  Here’s what you get:

I am impressed by Biddy Martin’s political savvy.  I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book about cultural anthropology.  If I’d been born in New York, I might have been a Yankees fan, but luckily for me, I was born in Maryland, so I’m not.

I am away from my desk.

I am ahead of the curve on Carsick Cars.  I am pedantic about people’s Christmas cards.  I am not up to speed with modern methods of music consumption.  I am not the kind of guy who has opinions about DC hardcore.  Like everyone else, I am wildly cheering Peter Scholze’s new preprint.

I am not one of the most radical signatories to the “Cost of Knowledge” statement.  I’m not so sure.  So am I stuck?  I am not stuck!

Now, I am not a low-fat dude.  I’m a Jew married to a Jew.  I’m proud of Madison.  I’m wholeheartedly in favor of Barry Bonds.  And in that spirit of the early 1990s and inarticulate anxiety, I am listening to Veruca Salt.

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Boris Grebenshikov

My recent post about the Polish Beatles reminded me of my favorite Eastern Bloc rocker, Boris Grebenshikov.  OK, I don’t actually know if he’s my favorite, but I have never really fallen out of love with his unsuccessful attempt to crack the US market, “Radio Silence.”  He used to be in a band called Aquarium, which I remember the Soviet participants in the International Math Olympiad being really into in 1988.  They wrote “Aquarium” in Sharpie on our T-shirts so we’d know what was going on in Leningrad.

I’ve posted this song on the blog once before, but that was four years ago, so here it is again.  Bonus:  young David Letterman.

 

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Good student bad student good professor bad professor

From an essay called “Why Your Professors Suck”:

Good student: “When will the midterm be?”
Me: “Why do you care?”
Good student: “Um… I’d like to be able to plan when I should study for it.”
Me: “Oh, okay. I don’t know when it’s going to be.”
Good student: “Um… Okay. What’s it going to cover?”
Me: “I’m not sure, but it’ll be really great!”
Good student: “That’s good, I guess. Can you be more specific?”
Me: “Not really. But why do you care?”
Good student: “Well, you’re the professor!”
Me: “I am? That’s odd. You know, I got mostly Cs and Ds in college. Maybe you shouldn’t be listening to me.”
Good student: “But you do have a PhD, right?”
Me: “Sure, but any jerk can get a PhD. Just think about all your professors. It can’t be that hard!”

The author presents this as a special delivery of some much-needed real-world wisdom to the boringly conformist “good student.”  But I think it comes off as free-floating nastiness directed at a kid asking a perfectly reasonable question.  Discuss.

Update:  Actually, I think what follows this exchange makes it even a little worse:

This sends my “good” students into conniption fits. My cynical students enjoy watching these interactions.

Basically, I think I like my cynical bad students more than my good students because the good students are wrong and the cynical bad students are right.

So yeah — it’s not just pure nastiness, it’s served with a charming helping of “humiliate the disfavored student in public while the favored students look on and enjoy.”

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Ask Uncle Quo: should I change my name when I get married?

Commenter RG asks:

Not relevant to this post, but curious to your thoughts: Debate is about a 26-28 year old woman who wants to keep her last name in marriage because of her professional identity. My response was to laugh, what identity do you have at that age? I said, sure there are a couple of hot shots – you came to mind – but I bet they could change their name to a peace symbol and still retain their professional identity. She’s not going into witness protection, FFS. curious what you think about name changes at marriage, reputation, and loss thereof? You seem like someone who would have considered it.

I wanna be like Cathy and answer random people’s questions on Sunday mornings!  In homage to Aunt Pythia I will answer as “Uncle Quo.”

Changing your name seems to me like it would be a massive gluteal agony.  Short answer, independent of any issues of professional identity:  Why would I ask my wife to do something I would never do myself in a million years?

Well, here’s one reason why:  there was a time and a place where not having the same name as your spouse was sufficiently weird that it carried with it its own long-term irritations.  But those days, in the social tranche where I hang out, are not just going, they are long, long gone.  As I said in the comments to the other thread, when I think about couples I know at UW, mostly in the “parents of young kids” demographic like me, it’s very hard for me to think of any who share a surname; the only example I can think of is a couple who both took a double surname (separated by a space, not a hyphen) with the wife’s original surname last.  When I think of couples I know in Madison outside the university, I do know some where the wife adopted the husband’s surname, but in each case they go by three names, no hyphen:  “firstname birthsurname newsurname.”

Professional identity:  in math, at any rate, of course this matters!  If you’re 28, you likely already have a Ph.D. and a couple of papers out, maybe you’re finishing a postdoc and you’re about to apply for tenure-track jobs, you’re going to be on a list of 400 applicants and you want someone on the hiring committee to recognize your name and look at your file, and you’re suddenly going to change your name to something nobody’s ever heard?

WonderWomanHellNo

 

As for me and Tanya, we got married 10 years ago and never considered changing names.  We had some vague idea of using my last name “socially” but we quickly realized there was no social situation where that felt appropriate.  Occasionally we get invited to a bar mitzvah by my older relatives on which Tanya is called by my last name.  And I changed my middle name on the Harvard alumni list to her last name.  Our kids have two middle names, the second of which is Tanya’s surname, and their surname is mine.  Nobody seems to be confused about the fact that we’re a family.

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Galley!

photo

 

Wow.  Rather amazing to hold the thing in my hand as an actual book, or almost-book.  Duty compels me to remind you that you can pre-order, if you want, at Amazon.

How do you like my boombox, by the way?

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Apparatchiks

Izabella Łaba, who grew up in Communist Poland, wrote a long, fascinating blog post about the lived realities of socialism:

If I were to name the most “socialist” things that I see or hear about on this side of the pond – “socialist” referring to the reality I’ve experienced, not to the latest myth du jour – Obamacare or “big government” would not be especially close to the top of the list. (If you recall, the problem with the “big government” in the Soviet bloc was a little bit more particular than it just being big.) On the other hand, big U.S. banks and other “too big to fail” entities are pretty good analogues of the coal and steel communist corporation. Pork barrel politics. I’ve mentioned Wall Street already. Academic politics, in so many ways that it just hurts to think about it. But also bureaucrats and politicians who try to micromanage academic research they don’t understand and use arbitrary indicators of “usefulness” to evaluate it, much like communists instituted a set of “criteria” to control production.

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