HNTBW paperback publicity roundup

Gonna put all this stuff in one post:

I was at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, talking about various aspects of outward-facing math.  We taped an episode of Science Friday with Jo Boaler and Steve Strogatz, mostly about K-12 teaching, but I did get to drop Russell’s paradox on the audience.  I also did a discussion with David Leonhardt, editor of the New York Times Upshot section, about the future of quantitative journalism, and sat on a big panel that debated the question:  “Is Math Important?”

The big news from England was that Waterstone’s chose HNTBW as their nonfiction book of the month for June.  That was a big factor in the book riding the Times bestseller list for a month (it’s the #5 nonfiction paperback as I write this.)  I went to London and did some events, like this talk at the Royal Institution.  I also got to meet Matt Parker, “the stand-up mathematician,” and record a spirited discussion of whether 0.9999… = 1 (extra director’s cut footage here.)

I was on Bloomberg News, very briefly, to talk about my love for dot plot charts and to tell a couple of stories from the book.  (Rare chance to see me in a blazer.)  I also wrote a couple of op-eds, some already linked here:  In the New York Times, I wrote about states replacing Common Core math standards with renamed versions of the same thing, and in the Wall Street Journal, I talked about the need for a new kind of fact-checking for data journalism, where truth is not enough.

The book just came out in Brazil this month; good luck for me, I was already invited to a conference at IMPA, so while I was there I gave a talk at Casa do Saber in Rio, talking through a translator like I was at the UN.

I think that’s about it!



Alexandra Florea on the average central value of hyperelliptic L-functions

Alexandra Florea, a student of Soundararajan, has a nice new paper up, which I heard about in a talk by Michael Rubinstein.  She computes the average of

L(1/2, \chi_f)

as f ranges over squarefree polynomials of large degree.  If this were the value at 1 instead of the value at 1/2, this would be asking for the average number of points on the Jacobian of a hyperelliptic curve, and I could at least have some idea of where to start (probably with this paper of Erman and Wood.)  And I guess you could probably get a good grasp on moments by imitating Granville-Soundararajan?

But I came here to talk about Florea’s result.  What’s cool about it is that it has the a main term that matches existing conjectures in the number field case, but there is a second main term, whose size is about the cube root of the main term, before you get to fluctuations!

The only similar case I know is Roberts’ conjecture, now a theorem of Bhargava-Shankar-Tsimerman and Thorne-Taniguchi, which finds a similar secondary main term in the asymptotic for counting cubic fields.  And when I say similar I really mean similar — e.g. in both cases the coefficient of the secondary term is some messy thing involving zeta functions evaluated at third-integers.

My student Yongqiang Zhao found a lovely geometric interpretation for the secondary term the Roberts conjecture.  Is there some way to see what Florea’s secondary term “means” geometrically?  Of course I’m stymied here by the fact that I don’t really know how to think about her counting problem geometrically in the first place.


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Sure as roses

I learned when I was writing this piece a few months ago that the New York Times styleguide doesn’t permit “fun as hell.”  So I had a problem while writing yesterday’s article about Common Core, and its ongoing replacement by an identical set of standards with a different name.  I wanted to say I was “sure as hell” not going to use the traditional addition algorithm for a problem better served by another method.  So instead I wrote “sure as roses.”  Doesn’t that sound like an actual folksy “sure as hell” substitute?  But actually I made it up.  I think it works, though.  Maybe it’ll catch on.

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Translator’s notes

The Brazilian edition of How Not To Be Wrong, with its beautiful cover, just showed up at my house.  One of the interesting things about leafing through it is reading the translator’s notes, which provide explanations for words and phrases that will be mysterious to Brazilian readers.  E.G.:

  • yeshiva
  • Purim
  • NCAA
  • Affordable Care Act
  • Rube Goldberg
  • home run
  • The Tea Party (identified by the translator as “radical wing of the Republican party”
  • “likely voters” — translator notes that “in the United States, voting is not obligatory”
  • home run (again!)
  • RBI (charmingly explained as “run battled in”)

I am also proud to have produced, on two separate occasions, a “trocadilho intraduzivel do ingles” (untranslatable English pun)


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Is the evil impulse good?

I learned this teaching from Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon last week and have been turning it over in my mind:

Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: ‘Behold, it was good’ refers to the Good Desire; ‘And behold, it was very good’ refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says ‘very good’ after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says ‘and God saw that it was good’) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: ‘Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.’

This is from Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.  Ambition, here, is understood as a manifestation of Yetzer Hara, the evil impulse.  David Holzel writes about this view of yetzer hara in the context of the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” the one where Captain Kirk splits up into Good Kirk and Bad Kirk.  Holzel says the yetzer hara isn’t really all bad, and Nahman seems to agree.  Here’s a Talmud story on a similar theme:

It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of Rabbis encountered the Yetzer Hara amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed him and wrestled him into a chamber pot, where they held him. Ready to destroy the Yetzer Hara, one Rabbi interjected. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy him. Hold him for three days and see what happens!”
The Rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. Immediately, they knew what they had to do. They let him go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without him. (Yoma 69b)

But here’s what I don’t get. If the yetzer hara is a morally neutral complex of desires (the physical/material/selfish part of human nature) why is it called the evil impulse?  It could have been called something else — “the animal nature” or something.  I feel like it’s a basic feature of Jewish thought that things are called what they’re called for a reason.  Nobody argues that lashon hara isn’t actually bad.  If it weren’t bad it wouldn’t be called lashon hara!

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Cold Topics Workshop

I was in Berkeley the other day, chatting with David Eisenbud about an upcoming Hot Topics workshop at MSRI, and it made me wonder:  why don’t we have Cold Topics workshops?  In the sense of “cold cases.”  There are problems that the community has kind of drifted away from, because we don’t really know how to do them, but which are as authentically interesting as they ever were.  Maybe it would be good to programatically focus our attention on those cold topics from time to time, just to see whether the passage of time has given us any new ideas, or cast these cold old problems in a new and useful light.

If this idea catches on, we could even consider having an NSF center devoted to these problems.  The Institute for Unpopular Mathematics!

What cold topics workshops would you propose to me, the founding director of the IUM?

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William Deresiewicz gets David Foster Wallace now

Just looking at William Deresiewicz’s piece on Mark Greif in Harper’s, where he writes:

Like David Foster Wallace, albeit in a very different key, Greif is willing to be vulnerable, to forgo the protections of irony and nihilism.

True!  (At least of DFW; I don’t know enough about Greif.)  And satisfiying, because I complained before about Deresiewicz mischaracterizing Wallace:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

Maybe he reads my blog!

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I will never find all the bad sentences

Even now, a year after the book came out, two weeks before the paperback arrives, I’m still finding bad sentences in it.  The one I just noticed:

It was scary when a statistical model deployed by the Guest Marketing Analytics team at Target correctly inferred based on purchasing data that one of its customers—sorry, guests—a teenaged girl in Minnesota, was pregnant, based on an arcane formula involving elevated rates of buying unscented lotion, mineral supplements, and cotton balls.

I must have written “based on purchasing data” and then tried it again in a higher pitch with “based on an arcane formula … cotton balls” but forgotten to take out the original, leaving a sentence with a weird, redundant double “based on.”  Who knows how many mistakes like this are left in the final text?  How many will I never catch?


The interpretation of dadbod

When I was in graduate school I read a lot of Freud (OK, I read a lot of Janet Malcolm writing about Freud and, inspired by that, a little bit of Freud) and I caught a whiff of the good old family romance when I encountered “dadbod”:

“In case you haven’t noticed lately, girls are all about that dad bod,” Pearson wrote. “The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.’ ”

“There is just something about the dad bod,” Pearson continued, “that makes boys seem more human, natural, and attractive.”

OK, I thought, I’m a guy who’s read a lot of Freud, I’m probably reading too much into this.  Sometimes a trend piece is just a trend piece.  But then:

Pearson: My dad has read it. He called me this morning to talk about it. My dad is super into CrossFit. He’s super, super fit and really healthy. He actually found a comment where someone had uploaded a picture from Facebook saying, “This is her, this is actually her and her dad!” My dad looks young. People think we’re dating all the time, because he’s in such great shape. He told me that he got a kick out of it. He sent it to my entire extended family, saying, “Look how funny my daughter is!” He’s really enjoyed the comments and the attention.

Alrighty then.


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Show report: Janeane Garofalo

I had forgotten almost completely that there was once, about twenty years ago, a thing called “alternative comedy,” which seemed about to break out and become part or even most of the mainstream practice of standup as “alternative music” (though by then it was already rare to hear it so referred to) had done with mainstream radio.  That didn’t happen.  Standup, today, is still mostly made of jokes.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But Janeane Garofalo, it turns out, is still going around doing a different thing, talking, being weird, looking at notes, enjoying herself.  People laugh.

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