Monthly Archives: December 2008

The superintendent’s writing awards, Adam Ostrow, and me

I’m at my parents’ house, looking through Adventures in Writing, a collection of winners of the 1987 Superintendent’s Writing Awards from the Montgomery County Public Schools. My 10th grade self is represented here by a very earnest essay on The Glass Menagerie (big finish: “Either way, the contrast provides an effective comment on society.”)

I flipped through the table of contents hoping to find famous writers of today; the biggest name I came across was Adam Ostrow, now editor-in-chief of Mashable, then a sophomore at Gaithersburg High School. His story, “Insignificance in the Two Thousand Nineties,” does a pretty good job with the future — his late 21st century teen views images of new clothes on his computer and pays for them via direct deduction from his bank account. When he needs to arrange some travel, he “telecomms” to make a plane and hotel reservation. Count against Ostrow that the reservation is from Pan Am. And it’s to the moon.

Best line in this story: “Just then a robot came in with what was to be his lunch.”

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Serge Lang: Rats in a Box

A colleague of mine sent me a very interesting document: Serge Lang’s article/memoir “Rats in a Box,” written in 1970 and explaining his views on the Vietnam War and his decision to leave Columbia in the aftermath of the unrest of 1968. The ambivalent and introspective tone of this early work is quite striking, especially if you’re used to Lang’s later, more strident “files” on the mathematical inadequacy of Samuel Huntington, the cause of AIDS, or the proper attribution of conjectures about modularity of elliptic curves.

But what each one of us individually does, I don’t know. If I have to worry about writing papers like this one, getting information, get articles xeroxed, read the press thoroughly, keep up with proceedings in the Senate, read what Admiral Rickover has to say, send out letters, fight against effort reports, get involved in affairs at my own university, find out what projects are there, what’s going astray, I can’t do mathematics. I can’t do what I like to do and what I’m really best qualified to do, because of lack of time and lack of energy — and I have more than most. But all this involvement requires a lot of concentration, and if I have to concentrate on this type of things, I can’t concentrate on mathematical theorems and on educating students. It’s a genuine choice — I cannot do both.

Reader survey: which of your beliefs will your descendants vehemently reject?

The other day the New York Times ran a selection of 1968 poll data on the op/ed page.  In April of that year, 31% of Americans agreed that “Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his assassination on himself.”

This makes me wonder which beliefs, currently held by 30% or more of the U.S. population, will be universally considered absurd or even despicable by Americans of 2048.  So, readers — nominate such beliefs in the comments.  But to make it interesting, the belief has to be one which you presently hold.

Here’s mine:  “People should strive to keep the details of their personal lives from becoming publicly available.”

(For more antique polling nuggets, see my previous post on Public Opinion 1935-1946.)

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Just wait till I take off my shoe and reveal the lower shriek

If I’m going to make fun of what philosophers think is funny it’s only fair that I cop to laughing at this:

(via Graham Leuschke)


After Virgil

is the title of Steve’s new poem, which is dedicated (blush) to me, but really should be dedicated to my parents, my son, or my next President. It starts like this:

At last, today, we can talk about something else–
about rock and roll again, for example, or
about the relative merits of green and black tea,
about anything that we know will have nothing to do
with the national perils and chances that kept us fixed,
like greyhounds in harness, despite ourselves, on the tracks
of the polls, of the ground game, of cellphones and robocalls,
of the neck and neck, the face to face, the fears
we harbored all year for the winner in that great race
where two hundred million people could join, or jeer.

Read the whole poem at InDigest.

(It shouldn’t be double-spaced, by the way; WordPress cognoscenti are welcome to explain how to fix this.)
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This is apparently very funny if you’re a philosopher

I had dinner with a bunch of philosophers tonight at Sardine and the following story was told, to much acclaim. One of the philosophers was standing outside an Irish bar on Capitol Square when a woman came up to him and said, “Is this the same bar as the one on Monroe Street?” The philosopher replied, “No; a bar can’t be the same bar as any bar except itself.”

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December linkdump

  • I finished White Teeth, and enjoyed it a lot, but didn’t think it had the finished snap of On Beauty. Here’s James Wood’s 2001 review of White Teeth, which I would describe as “impressed but not admiring.” This is the review where he coins the term “hysterical realism” — which is a good term, but not one I think is particuarly appropriate to Zadie Smith. He criticizes White Teeth, fairly, as the type of book in which the author’s hand (in the barely concealing glove of coincidence) gathers all the disparate characters together into a big, brassy finale, where the themes of the novel are reprised in grand chorus. But he should have mentioned John Irving, who I think of as the modern not-quite-literary progenitor of this move.
  • Submissions are now open for an academic volume on the Red Sox and Philosophy.
  • I wish Cosma Shalizi blogged more. I also wish he were at Wisconsin instead of Carnegie-Mellon so I could have sat in on his course on data mining; at least the notes are online.
  • This week, Nature runs an interesting commentary: “Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.” I think the questions it asks are hard, and I don’t know what I think the answers are. I do think the state of calm focus in which we do our best mathematics is a physical state; and a pill that could get you to and keep you in that state would be tempting to many of us. On the other hand, I used to find yoga a good way to get my mind in that state, and I don’t do yoga any more. So maybe enhancement isn’t as much of a draw as we think. Also: shouldn’t it be “cognition-enhancing,” not “cognitive-enhancing?” (via MetaFilter)
  • The cover story of the September 6, 1948 issue of Life was “The Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin.” Thanks to Google you can now see all of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photos from that story, as well as the ones that didn’t make the issue. (via Letters from Here.) Where was this photo shot? The shape of the lakeshore looks like the view from Union Terrace, but the Terrace was already covered in flagstone by the 1930s.
  • And finally: my favorite Superman panel ever, and the source of my favorite expression of dismay: whatthsuperman
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Some visitors, and countable unions

A busy few days: we had a run of interesting visitors this week in Madison, including Thomas Lam, who gave a beautiful talk about total positivity (a subfield of algebraic combinatorics, not a self-help philosophy); Melanie Matchett Wood, who explained how to parametrize binary forms of degree n in the Bhargava style, not only over Z but over an arbitrary base scheme (which is to say, not really in the Bhargava style!); and Davesh Maulik, who showed us how one can rather miraculously count rational curves on a single K3 by counting rational curves on a suitably chosen one-parameter family of K3s, and then “dividing” by the Noether-Lefschetz theory attached to the family. Very agreeably for number theorists, a key point is the product formulae of Borcherds, which provide modular forms on the moduli space of K3s whose zeroes and poles are supported on the countable union of subvarieties where the Picard number jumps upwards from its generic value.

This led to an amusing conversation at lunch about countable unions of subvarieties. Here’s a remark: if A is an abelian variety over the complex numbers, it’s completely obvious that A(C) contains some non-torsion points; the torsion locus is a countable union of varieties of strictly lower dimension (in this case 0) and thus can’t cover A(C). On the other hand, if A is over Fpbar, every point of A(Fpbar) is defined over some finite field, and thus all these points are torsion. The case of Qbar is intermediate in difficulty; indeed, there are nontorsion points on every abelian variety over Qbar, but this is not, in some sense, by “pure thought” — one might, for instance, use the argument that torsion points have height 0 but that there are plainly points of arbitrarily large height on A(Qbar). This uses some actual theorems, not just a comparison of cardinalities. Similarly, one can ask: are there elliptic curves over an algebraically closed field k with End(E/k) = Z? When k = C, the answer is obviously yes. When k = Fpbar, the answer is no, thanks to Frobenius. And when k is Qbar, the answer is again no, but maybe one has to use a bit more — for instance, that a CM elliptic curve over a number field has potentially good reduction everywhere.

In general, it’s pretty hard to see whether a countable union of subvarieties of X/Qbar covers all the Qbar-points! Here are two well-known open questions in this vein.

Continue reading

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Fund the Montgomery County math team

Montgomery County is no longer going to fund the county’s participation in ARML, the American Regions Mathematics League. (Funny name, right? In my day, young whippersnappers, it was the “Atlantic Region Mathematics League,” and stopped at Chicago. By the time the rest of the country got in on the competition, the acronym was too well-branded to change. Nowadays, teams from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Phillipines, and Colombia compete. “All-Encompassing Regional Mathematics League?”)

Montgomery County has been sending a team to ARML since the very first meet in 1976. These days, they send four full teams of 15 students each, plus a separate team of middle-schoolers. So all kinds of kids come, not just the child prodigies and the math obsessives — which is a terrific feature of the “mathletic” culture that our coach, Eric Walstein, has built up over the last thirty years. It would be a shame to see the county ARML team disappear, or radically contract to the 15 superstars only.

I don’t understand the intricacies of school funding well enough to complain knowledgably about Montgomery County’s decision (but feel free to do so in comments!) I think the idea is that MCPS expects the math team to have alumni and friends who can afford to help out with a little money. If you’re one of them, you can send a check made out to “Blair Math Team” to

Eric Walstein
Montgomery Blair High School
51 University Blvd – east
Silver Spring, MD 20901

Please do not write “TNYWR” for the amount.

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Erdös 2.0

Will the next Erdös be someone who hangs around at home, reads a lot of math blogs, and posts solutions to open problems in the comments?

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