Balonely, “Stories”

Oh and while we’re talking yelpy indie from outside the coastal capitals, I don’t think I mentioned how much I’m into “Stories,” by Spokane band Balonely:

 

The band is the guy you see playing guitar and his mom, who plays bass (seen in the video emerging from behind the bar.)  It totally seems reasonable to ask “how can young people playing electric guitar and singing about Stuff In Their Life still be interesting after all these years” but I’m still interested!  I love the way this kid duckwalks.  I love the way he lays out “Okay.  Uh huh” like a young Jonathan Richman.  I love the way he delivers “You know what they say, they say…”  Here’s Balonely on Bandcamp.  Whole record is good.  Hear also:  “Shape.”

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Quad Cities (The Multiple Cat, pizza)

Once I bought a used CD because the name of the band was The Multiple Cat and the name of the album was “Territory” Shall Mean The Universe and just how could you not?  I was rewarded.  The Multiple Cat was a 1990s band in the Quad Cities (Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, headquarters of John Deere and hometown of Lara Flynn Boyle.)  I’ve never been there but I have listened to this album a lot. It is not quite as philosophical as the name of the band (Schroedinger?) and the name of the album (Wittgenstein?) suggest.  But very richly weird.  My top track:  North? which starts out as a kind of burbly, groovy chat-song and then about two and a half minutes in blossoms out into, I don’t know what, major-key chippy synths start to poke in, there’s a vocal line (“Saaaaay to me”) which I think must be sampled, it becomes majestic.  Hear also: My Year As a Girl, which is not about trans stuff as far as I can tell, but is, whatever it’s about, a real indie-disco stomper from years before Franz Ferdinand was everywhere.

Anyway, The Multiple Cat faded out and songwriter Pat Stolley got involved running Daytrotter.  But now it turns out they’re back!  Have been for a few years.  Their comeback record is called The Return Of.  Not The Return of the Multiple Cat, that would be too obvious, just The Return Of.  Highlight track:  “Vampire Bats, Mall Rats.”

In other Quad Cities news, their microregional pizza sounds pretty great.  On the other hand, the last microregional pizza I made a point of investigating, Old Forge pizza in Northeastern Pennsylvania, didn’t blow me away.

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2018: The year of reading books that are older than me

I’ve started a program of picking a constraint every year and striving to make half the books I read satisfy that constraint.  This year it was to read books that came out before my own copyright date, 1971.  Here’s the 2018 reading list, with links on books I blogged about:

  • 20 Dec 2018: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
  • 3 Dec 2018:  Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Gregory Hays, trans.) (161-180)
  • 24 Nov 2018:  The Word Pretty, by Elisa Gabbert.
  • 15 Nov 2018:  The Fiancée, and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov (Ronald Wilks, trans.) (1904)
  • 19 Oct 2018:  Wieland, by Charles Brockden Brown (1798)
  • 7 Oct 2018:  Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852-53)
  • 6 Oct 2018:  Mr. Eternity, by Aaron Thier.
  • 15 Sep 2018:  Mind and Matter, by John Urschel and Louisa Thomas.
  • 6 Sep 2018:  A Spy In Time, by Imraan Coovadia.
  • 1 Sep 2018:  Cat Country (貓城記), by Lao She (William Lyell, trans.) (1932)
  • 10 Aug 2018:  Maigret and the Headless Corpse, by Georges Simenon (Howard Curtis, trans.) (1955)
  • 31 Jul 2018:  Before The Golden Age:  A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s (Isaac Asimov, ed.)
  • 26 Jun 2018:  Less, by Andrew Sean Greer.
  • 20 May 2018: “The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department,” by Wang Ming (1956)
  • 10 May 2018:  The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy (1958)
  • 1 Apr 2018:  Indoctrinaire, by Christopher Priest (1970)
  • 28 Mar 2018:  Riots (Problems of American Society series), Anita Monte and Gerald Leinwand, eds. (1970)
  • 14 Mar 2018:  The Surprising Place, by Malinda McCollum.
  • 9 Mar 2018:  99 Variations on a Proof, by Philip Ording.
  • 18 Feb 2018:  How To Leave, by Erin Clune.
  • 10 Feb 2018:  The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman.
  • 27 Jan 2018:  Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1963)
  • 20 Jan 2018:  The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard (1962)
  • 19 Jan 2018: Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915 (Peter Maresca, ed.)
  • 10 Jan 2018:  The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.
  • 4 Jan 2018:  Why Men Fail, Morris Fishbein and William White, eds. (1928) (second post)

Society is Nix and Before the Golden Age are slight cheats: both books came out after 1971, but they anthologize material written well before, so I decided they counted.

One of my goals in doing these theme years is the idea that a whole year spent in a part of the bibliosphere I mostly skip will broaden my reading habits permanently.  Maybe?  I feel like this list has more translated works than I used to typically read in a year, and maybe I can credit the 2016 theme.  But only 5 of these 25 books are by women, so my 2015 theme is maybe not doing its work.

Other notes:

Best of the year:  A lot of the theme books were good, but this year, for the first time, none of the theme books really excited me enough to enter my idiocanon.  I should have reread some Edith Wharton or something.

What I learned from the project:  Based on two examples, 19th century novels in English care a lot about the difference between how men should be and how women should be (I think contemporary English-language novels are still like this) and the plot is often driven by sums of money and questions about how they will be distributed (I feel like contemporary English-language novels are seldom like this and I wonder why not?)

Based on Wieland I think the prose style of 18th century English is just inevitably always going to be swampy going for me and I probably won’t push myself harder to read more.   It was pretty metal, though.  Wieland and Bleak House have spontaneous combustion in common, something you also don’t see much of in contemporary English-language novels.

The Dud Avocado was truly funny and reminded me that people actually wrote and published books in the 1950s that were quite sexually frank.  I thank whatever librarian at Sequoyah knew the book and put it out on the front table so browsers like me would see it.

Biggest disappointment:  The Drowned World is a super-famous and canonical SF novel and I just thought it was bad.  A few well-done set pieces but doesn’t really function as a novel or as science fiction.  If you were going to read Dangerous Visions-era SF with a similar title I would recommend Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World instead; he maintains the level of high mind-changing weirdness that Ballard only occasionally touches.

Outside the theme:  Four contemporary books I loved.  Malinda McCollum’s The Surprising Place is an anthology I’ve been awaiting for years.  The old stories are as great as I remembered.  The new stories even greater.  Aaron Thier’s Mr. Eternity is a concept novel (interlocking narratives ranging from the 16th century to the 25th) which shouldn’t work at all but kind of mostly does.  Many beautiful lines.  Sort of Cloud Atlas meets (T. Coraghessan Boyle’s) World’s End if anybody but me cares about those two books.  Erin Clune’s How To Leave is a very very funny take on living in Wisconsin and only gradually coming to grasp that you don’t live in New York.  Reader, I blurbed it!  I first met Elisa Gabbert as a commenter on this blog.  She  is great on Twitter.  So it’s not surprising she is great at pocket essays.  But it is surprising, happily surprising, that her small-press book The Word Pretty got noticed and raved about by the New York Times.  Sometimes the system works!

Old stuff I meant to read and didn’t get to:  Rereading The House of Mirth.  Reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End which I have often started but never finished.  Ditto The Man Without Qualities.  I was going to read more classical stuff but never even got to the point of figuring out what to plan to read and not get to.  Just in general I think I spent too much time in the kiddie pool of the pre-1971 20th century, a period I’ve already spent a lot of time reading.  After all, when I was a kid, there wasn’t much else.

Edits

New Year’s Eve is a time to think about what we’ll remember from the year about to expire, so this is a post about memory.

A few years back, Christina Nunez, who went to high school with me, wrote a blog post which included this recollection of the history class we both took:

This class was supposed to be an “honors” class, but it slowly became apparent that we were learning nothing at all outside of the reading and research we were required to do on our own. The classes were taken up mostly by two things, in my memory: watching videos about cathedrals, and listening to our teacher talk unrestrained about stuff that had nothing to do with history. Mr. C was a relatively tall, big man with a belly, a mustache somewhere between horseshoe and walrus, and a very sharp, incisive way of speaking. His way of holding forth made you feel—in the beginning—that it might be important to listen, because something was going to be revealed. He would punctuate his lectures, which often had nothing at all to do with history, with questions to the group. “Who here has ever had a dream?” he would ask, and we raised our hands, and then waited for the point.

Later, we learned not to bother raising our hands or waiting for the point.

Toward the end of the semester, a kid named Jordan had taken to sitting in the back of the class on the floor, backpack in front of him, and sleeping either slumped over or with his head lolled back against the wall. This was typical teen behavior made slightly untypical by the fact that Jordan was an academic prodigy. He was the kid who got a perfect score on his SATs before we were even supposed to take the SATs…

So when a kid like Jordan sat at the back of class sleeping, it was amusingly refreshing, because kids like us who got placed in those classes tended not to be the ones sleeping at the back of class. But it was also a little unnerving, because he was signaling a truth that was sort of scandalous for this particular track at this particular school at this particular time: this class and this teacher were an absolute fucking joke.

Mr. C tolerated this open act of defiance from Jordan for I don’t know how long before he finally got sick of it. One day, he began yelling. Jordan ignored it at first, but then he was roused to perform a sleepy, casual and yet brutal takedown of Mr. C as a teacher. It was something along the lines of I don’t need to take this class, you have nothing to teach me, I am learning nothing here that I can’t learn from a book. Et cetera. Mr. C lost it. I think spittle formed as he ordered Jordan out of the classroom. The kid picked up his backpack and walked out. I had never seen Jordan act remotely disrespectful, and had never seen a teacher so boldly—no, deservedly—challenged, and it was kind of thrilling but also a little sad. All of us, including Mr. C, were wasting our time in that room, and there was really nothing to be done about it.

That’s a pretty great story!  It obviously made a big impression on Christina, and why not?  I did something memorably crazy and out of the ordinary.

But I don’t remember it.  Not at all.  Not even with this reminder.

It happened, though.  Here’s how I know.  Because what I do remember is that I wasn’t allowed in Mr. C’s classroom.  I remember sitting outside in the hall day after day while all the other kids were in class.  Who knows how long?  I remember I was reading a Beckett play I got out of the school library.  I think it was Krapp’s Last Tape.  It never occurred to me, in the thirty years between then and now, to wonder what I did to get kicked out of class to read Beckett by myself while my friends were open quote learning close quote history.

I opened up a Facebook thread and asked my classmates about Christina’s story.  It happened; they remembered it.  I still didn’t.  And I still don’t.

It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would do, does it?  It doesn’t seem to me like the sort of thing I would do.  My memory of high school is that I followed all the rules.  I went to football games.  I went to pep rallies.  I liked high school.  Or did I?  Maybe, because I think of myself as somebody who liked high school, I’ve just edited out the moments when I didn’t like it.  Who knows what else I don’t remember?  Who knows who else I was angry at, who else I defied or denounced, what else got edited out because it didn’t fit the theme of the story?

And who knows what’s happening now that I’ll later edit out of my 2018?  Maybe a lot.  Most things don’t get blogged.  They just get lost.  You can’t have a new year unless you get rid of the old year.  You keep some things, you lose more.  And what you lose isn’t random.  You decide what to remove from yourself, and, having decided, you lose the decision, too.

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Cities, Villages, Towns, and Scott Walker

Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly Robin Vos, still smarting from Scott Walker’s loss in his re-election bid, said “Evers win was due to Dane County and the City of Milwaukee.”  It’s typical GOP politics here to split off Madison and Milwaukee like this, as if liberalism in Wisconsin is a pair of dark blue inkstains on an otherwise conservative shirt.

Not so.  There are liberals all over your shirt, Mr. Vos.

You can find tons of interesting data about Wisconsin elections in Excel spreadsheets at the Wisconsin Elections Commission page.  This already gives you the ability to do some quick and dirty analysis of where Evers’ victory was won.  In Wisconsin, every municipality is either a City, a Village, or a Town, in roughly decreasing order of urbanization.  So it’s easy to separate out Wisconsin into three parts, the Cities, the Villages, and the Towns.  This is what you get:

CITIES:  Walker 542148 (40%), Evers 808145 (60%)

VILLAGES: Walker 257858 (55%), Evers 208596 (45%)

TOWNS:  Walker 495074 (62%), Evers 307566 (38%).

That’s a pretty clear story.  Evers won in the cities, Walker won by a bit in the villages and by a lot in the most rural segment of the state, the towns.

But wait — Madison and Milwaukee are cities!  Is that all we’re seeing in this data, a distinction between Madison and Milwaukee on the one hand and real Wisconsin, Republican Wisconsin, Robin Vos’s Wisconsin, on the other?  Nope.  Take out the cities of Milwaukee and Madison from the city total and Evers still gets 521265 votes to Walker’s 477447, drawing 52% of the vote to Walker’s 28%.  There are decent-sized cities all over the state, and Evers won almost all of them.  Evers won Green Bay, he won Sheboygan, he won Appleton, he won Wausau.  Evers won Chippewa Falls and Viroqua and Oshkosh and Neenah and Fort Atkinson and Rhinelander and Beloit.  He won all over the place, wherever Wisconsinites congregate in any fair number.

Craig Gilbert has a much deeper dive into this data in the Journal-Sentinel.  The shift away from Scott Walker wasn’t just in the biggest cities; it was pretty uniform over localities with population 10,000 or more.  Update: An even deeper dive by John Johnson at Marquette, which brings in data from presidential elections too.

There’s a general feeling that the urban-rural split is new, a manifestation of Trumpian anti-city feeling.  Let’s look back at the 2010 election between Scott Walker and Tom Barrett, an election Walker won by 7 points.  2010, when Donald Trump was just Jeff Probst in a tie.  But the urban-rural split is still there:

CITIES: Walker 505213 (46%), Barrett 603905 (54%)

VILLAGES:  Walker 207243 (59%), Barrett 143297 (41%)

TOWNS:  Walker 416485 (62%) , Barrett 257101 (38%)

Here’s the thing, though.  You can see that Walker actually didn’t do any worse in the towns in 2018 than he did in 2010.  But his support dropped off a lot in the villages and the cities.  And if you take Madison and Milwaukee out of the 2010 totals, Walker won the remainder of Wisconsin’s cities 53-47, which is actually a bit ahead of his overall 2010 statewide margin.

I don’t think Donald Trump has made Wisconsin politics very different.  I think it’s still a state that calls its own tune, and a state where either a Democrat or a Republican can win big — if they have something to say that makes sense all across the state, as Walker and Ron Johnson used to, as Evers and Tammy Baldwin do now.

 

 

 

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The great qualities with which dullness takes lead in the world

He firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way — and like the sting of a wasp or serpent his hatred rushed out armed and poisonous against anything like opposition. He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes lead in the world?

(William Makepeace Thackeray, from Vanity Fair)

 

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Why is a Markoff number a third of a trace?

I fell down a rabbit hole this week and found myself thinking about Markoff numbers again.  I blogged about this before when Sarnak lectured here about them.  But I understood one minor point this week that I hadn’t understood then.  Or maybe I understood it then but I forgot.  Which is why I’m blogging this now, so I don’t forget again, or for the first time, as the case may be.

Remember from the last post:  a Markoff number is (1/3)Tr(A), where A is an element of SL_2(Z) obtained by a certain construction.  But why is this an integer?  Isn’t it a weird condition on a matrix to ask that its trace be a multiple of 3?  Where is this congruence coming from?

OK, here’s the idea.  The Markoff story has to do with triples of matrices (A,B,C) in SL_2(Z) with ABC = identity and which generate H, the commutator subgroup of SL_2(Z).  I claim that A, B, and C all have to have trace a multiple of 3!  Why?  Well, this is of course just a statement about triples (A,B,C) of matrices in SL_2(F_3).  But they actually can’t be arbitrary in SL_2(F_3); they lie in the commutator.  SL_2(F_3) is a double cover of A_4 so it has a map to Z/3Z, which is in fact the full abelianization; so the commutator subgroup has order 8 and in fact you can check it’s a quaternion group.  What’s more, if A is central, then A,B, and C = A^{-1}B^{-1} generate a group which is cyclic mod its center, so they can’t generate all of H.  We conclude that A,B, and C are all non-central elements of the quaternion group.  Thus they have exact order 4, and so their eigenvalues are +-i, so their trace is 0.

In other words:  any minimal generating set for the commutator subgroup of SL_2(Z) consists of two matrices whose traces are both multiples of 3.

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It’s right by the airport

I went to California last week to talk math and machine learning with Ben Recht (have you read his awesome blogstravaganza about reinforcement learning and control?) My first time on the brand-new Madison – San Francisco direct flight (the long-time wish of Silicon Isthmus finally realized!) That flight only goes once a day, which means I landed at SFO at 6:15, in the middle of rush hour, which meant getting to Berkeley by car was going to take almost an hour and a half.  So maybe it made more sense to have dinner near SFO and then go to the East Bay.  But where can you have dinner near SFO?

Well, here’s what I learned.  When I was at MSRI for the Galois Groups and Fundamental Groups semester in 1999, there was an amazing Chinese restaurant in Albany, CA called China Village.  I learned about it from my favorite website at the time, Chowhound.com.  China Village is still there and apparently still great, but the original chef, Zongyi Liu, left long ago.  Chowhound, too, is still there, but a thin shadow of its old self.  When I checked Chowhound this week, though, I learned something fantastic — Liu is back and cooking in Millbrae!  At Royal Feast, a 10-minute drive from SFO.  So what started as a plan to dodge traffic turned into the best Chinese meal I’ve eaten in forever.  Now I’m thinking I’ll probably stop there every time I fly to San Francisco!  And it’s right by the Millbrae BART station, so if you’re going into the city, it’s as convenient as being at the airport.

So that got me thinking:  what are good things to know about that are right near the airport in other cities?  The neighborhood around the airport is often kind of unpromising, so it’s good to have some prior knowledge of places worth stopping.  And I actually have a pretty decent list!

LAX:  This is easy — you can go to the beach!  Dockweiler State Beach is maybe 5 minutes from the airport.  It’s a state park, not developed, so there’s no boardwalk, no snack stand, and, when I went there, no people.  You just walk down to the ocean and look at the waves and every thirty seconds or so a jumbo jet blasts by overhead on its way to Asia because did I mention 5 minutes from the airport?  You’re right under the takeoff path.  And it’s great.  A sensory experience like no other beach there is.  I just stood there for an hour thinking about math.

BOSTON:  There is lots of great pizza in Boston, of course, but Santarpio’s in East Boston might be the very best I’ve had, and it’s only 7 minutes from Logan airport.  Stop there and get takeout on your way unless you want to bring yet another $13 cup of Legal Seafood chowder on your flight.

MILWAUKEE:  I have already blogged about the unexpectedly excellent Jalapeño Loco, literally across the street from the airport.  Best chile en nogada in the great state of Wisconsin.

SEATTLE:  The Museum of Flight isn’t quite as close to Sea-Tac as some of these other attractions are to their airports — 12 minutes away per Google Maps.  But it’s very worth seeing, especially if you happen to be landing in Seattle with an aircraft-mad 11-year-old in tow.

MADISON:  “The best barbecue in Madison, Wisconsin” is not going to impress my friends south of the Mason-Dixon line, or even my friends south of the Beloit-Rockford line, but Smoky Jon’s, just north of the airport on Packers Avenue (not named for the football team, but for the actual packers who worked at the Oscar Mayer plant that stood on this road until 2017) is the real thing, good enough for out of town visitors and definitely better than what’s on offer at MSN.

CHICAGO:  No, O’Hare is terrible in this way as in every other way.  I once got stuck there for the night and tried to find something exciting in the area to do or eat.  I didn’t succeed.

You guys travel a lot — you must have some good ones!  Put them in the comments.

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Ringo Starr rebukes the Stoics

I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius and he keeps returning to the theme that one must live “according to one’s nature” in order to live a good life.  He really believes in nature.  In fact, he reasons as follows:  nature wouldn’t cause bad things to happen to the virtuous as well as the wicked, and we see that both the virtuous and the wicked often die young, so early death must not be a bad thing.

Apparently this focus on doing what is according to one’s nature is a standard feature of Stoic philosophy.  It makes me think of this song, one of the few times the Beatles let Ringo sing.  It’s not even a Beatles original; it’s a cover of a Buck Owens hit from a couple of years previously.  Released as a B-side to “Yesterday” and then on the Help! LP.

Ringo has a different view on the virtues of acting according to one’s nature:

They’re gonna put me in the movies
They’re gonna make a big star out of me
We’ll make a film about a man that’s sad and lonely
And all I gotta do is act naturally
Well, I’ll bet you I’m a-gonna be a big star
Might win an Oscar you can’t never tell
The movie’s gonna make me a big star,
‘Cause I can play the part so well
Well, I hope you come and see me in the movie
Then I’ll know that you will plainly see
The biggest fool that’s ever hit the big time
And all I gotta do is act naturally

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On not staying in your lane

This week I’ve been thinking about some problems outside my usual zone of expertise — namely, questions about the mapping class group and the Johnson kernel.  This has been my week:

  • Three days of trying to prove a cohomology class is nonzero;
  • Then over Thanksgiving I worked out an argument that it was zero and was confused about that for a couple of days because I feel quite deeply that it shouldn’t be zero;
  • This morning I was able to get myself kind of philosophical peace with the class being zero and was working out which refined version of the class might not be zero;
  • This afternoon I was able to find the mistake in my argument that the class was zero so now I hope it’s not zero again.
  • But I still don’t know.

There’s a certain frustration, knowing that I’ve spend a week trying to compute something which some decently large number of mathematicians could probably sit down and just do, because they know their way around this landscape.  But on the other hand, I would never want to give up the part of math research that involves learning new things as if I were a grad student.  It is not the most efficient way, in the short term, to figure out whether this class is zero or not, but I think it probably helps me do math better in a global sense that I spend some of my weeks stumbling around unfamiliar rooms in the dark.  Of course I might just be rationalizing something I enjoy doing.  Even if it’s frustrating.  Man, I hope that class isn’t zero.

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