Monthly Archives: January 2012

Oh, drubbles

Two CJ neologisms:

  • “Oh, drubbles” — this means roughly the same as “Oh, drat.”
  • “Bluz, bluz, bluz” — this means something like “bla bla bla” or “yadda yadda” and is to be uttered in a world-weary tone of voice.

I actually think both of these are superior to the more standard expressions of those emotions.

Also, CJ ate five eggs and four pancakes for breakfast this morning.  Wowza.

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No good news for Wisconsin Democrats in the first Marquette Law Poll

My colleague Charles Franklin is running a year-long project at Marquette Law School to poll the heck out of Wisconsin in what will surely be a very interesting political environment.  The first poll is out, and it can’t be making Wisconsin Democrats very happy.  Full results here.  All potential recall challengers trail the Governor, though not by much, and the public is either positive or neutral about the most visible parts of Walker’s legislative plan (higher fees for state workers, voter ID, curtailing of collective bargaining.)  Majorities think that Walker’s program will increase jobs in the state and is “better off in the long run” for Wisconsin.  Cutting funding to public schools and BadgerCare, on the other hand, is deeply unpopular, and presumably those issues will play a big role in the recall campaign.  The Governor has access to a titanic amount of money from out of state, and will make sure people here don’t miss out on hearing his point of view.  His opponents may rise in the polls as they gain statewide name recognition, but it’s hard to see in the numbers a huge “anybody but Walker” sentiment.  On top of all that, Tommy Thompson, the only really popular Republican in the state, is going to be back on the campaign trail running for Senate.

The election is a long way away, but Democrats have to be seen as starting from behind.

My guess is that they have a better chance of capturing the State Senate (though I’m told that if Van Wanggard is tossed, his Democratic replacement has less than a year before being redistricted into an election they’re almost sure to lose.)  I wonder when Marquette starts polling the senate races?

(Note:  I was surprised to see that 43% of Marquette’s sample identified as “independent” — but it turns out that 40% of all Americans now give their party ID as independent, the highest proportion Gallup has ever recorded.)

Despite the title I should include the one piece of good news for Democrats; the President remains popular here and seems at the moment to be well ahead of any potential opponent.

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Malcolm, by James Purdy

A really remarkable novel in its aliveness and strangeness.  It is hard to paraphrase or describe, but I would recommend it to anyone who liked both Winesburg, Ohio and Twin Peaks.



Long on Romney

Lord knows I am no political forecaster.  But surely there’s a better than two-thirds chance that Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee for President?  Good time to buy his shares on InTrade?

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Is commercial writing more honest than academia?

William Deresiewicz thinks so:

I far prefer the discipline of the market to the discipline of the disciplines. Here’s the incident that brought things into focus for me. The last time I wrote an academic article (on Jude the Obscure), the editor sent it back with all kinds of niggling comments. What especially galled me was her insistence that I “fix the pronouns.” In other words, I had committed the cardinal sin of using the word “we,” long discredited in certain circles as an instrument of repressive liberal universalism. Never mind the fact that I had used the pronoun in a different sense entirely, merely to refer to “we” readers of the novel, Hardy’s implied audience. Now I’d have to mar the piece—it was for a Festschrift for my graduate advisor, so the prospect was especially painful—and for no good reason other than the imbecilic crotchets of one individual. Who was this person, anyway? She taught in a prestigious department, but when I looked her up, I found out that she was mainly a bureaucrat: lightly published but on lots of boards and committees.

This is a trivial instance, but I saw far graver versions of it all the time: people who were blocked from getting jobs or keeping them, people whose work was rejected for publication (a body blow in academia, of course), and only because a single individual decided to stand in their way, a single human bottleneck, and often for motives that were purely personal, or self-interested, or just plain arbitrary. The market is indeed no respecter of higher values, but at least the transactions are honest. If a publisher thinks your book will sell, they’ll buy it from you. There are no hidden agendas. They aren’t going to care if it conforms to the latest intellectual fashions, or whether you’ve cited their friends. You’re also shooting at a vastly bigger target. Millions of people buy books in this country; only a tiny fraction need to purchase yours to make it a success. In academia, where job openings are scarce and only a few journals exist in any given field, a handful of gatekeepers decide your fate.

Let me see if I understand.  Deresiewicz’s editor at an academic journal doesn’t like the collective “we.”  This is “imbecilic” and “niggling,” and worse — the secret reason his editor changed the pronouns was PC orthodoxy run amok!

The editor in question hadn’t been publishing much herself.  My assumption is that she’s devoting the larger share of her time to undergraduate teaching, which is exactly what handwringers about academia are always telling us we should be doing!  But Deresiewicz seems to feel she spends most of her energy forming task forces to hunt down pronouns that might be giving comfort to capitalism, or something.

Deresiewicz is lucky indeed if he’s never written for a commercial client that changes his pronouns.  In my experience, editors will cheerfully change pronouns, punctuations, spelling, and word choice in order to fit their stylebook, whether I think it “mars” the piece or not.  They will also write headlines that make stronger claims than does the piece itself, and strip away whole paragraphs.  Only sometimes do they ask for your approval.  And commercial editors most certainly do care whether your piece conforms to the latest fashions; they have to sell it, after all!

I once wrote a book review for a large-circulation publication, which came back with the word “failure” removed from the final paragraph.  I wrote back saying that the book I was reviewing was, in fact, a failure.  I was told by the editor that they had relationships with major publishers, that the books they reviewed were by definition not failures, and that if I wanted to get paid for the piece I was going to turn in a version of the piece without the word “failure” in it.  So that’s what I did.  I suppose their agenda was hidden only from their readers, not from me.  Should I feel good about that?


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Graham Burnett wrote a very big book about whales

My friend Graham has written an 800-page book for the University of Chicago Press about the history of whales, whaling, and whale science.  It sounds kind of amazing:  lots of politics, lots of bizarre anecdote, lots of footnotes, lots of smelly tissue and secretions.  Here’s the NYTimes review.  Graham also edits the always-interesting culture/science/deepthought/art magazine Cabinet.

Seems a good time to say again what I said about Dan Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line:   “This why we have books and not just blogs; this is why we have historians and not just editorialists.”

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Tukey before he was Tukey

There’s no end to the interesting tidbits to be found in The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s, an oral history project hosted by the Mudd Library.  I liked this, about the great statistician John Tukey, from an interview with Joseph F. Daly and Churchill Eisenhart:

Daly: … Tukey was about as pure a mathematician as you can imagine.

Eisenhart: When he first came.

Daly: All he was interested in was axioms and set theory and stuff like that. But eventually he found out there was life after ultrafilters and things, and he had fun in statistics.




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Was Russian election turnout too non-Gaussian to be real?

 We’ve talked about attempts to prove election fraud by mathematical means before.  This time the election in question is in Russia, where angry protesters marched in the streets with placards displaying the normal distribution.  Why?  Because the turnout figures look really weird.  The higher the proportion of the vote Vladimir Putin’s party received in a district, the higher the turnout; almost as if a more ordinary-looking distribution were being overlaid with a thick coating of Putin votes…  Mikhail Simkin in (extremely worth reading pop-stats magazine) Significance argues there’s no statistical reason to doubt that the election results are legit.  Andrew Gelman is not reassured.

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Emotional Equations

Not a joke:  briefly at #1 on Amazon today was Emotional Equations:  Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success, a book that claims to reveal the simple mathematical formulations that govern emotional life.

Publisher’s jacket copy: ” “Equations like “Despair = Suffering – Meaning” and “Happiness = Wanting What You Have/Having What You Want” (Which Chip presented at the prestigious TED conference) have been reviewed for mathematical and psychological accuracy by experts.”


And yes, that even goes for —

Wait, are you sure you’re ready for this?

“Wisdom is the square root of experience.”

P.S.  One of the Amazon reviews suggests that despite the inanity of the equations that give the book its hook, the actual text is reasonably good, standard, empirically supported self-help.  The presence of blurbs by Daniel Goleman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi supports this hypothesis.





Random Dieudonne modules, random p-divisible groups, and random curves over finite fields

Bryden Cais, David Zureick-Brown and I have just posted a new paper,  “Random Dieudonne modules, random p-divisible groups, and random curves over finite fields.”

What’s the main idea?  It actually arose from a question David Bryden asked during Derek Garton‘s speciality exam.  We know by now that there is some insight to be gained about studying p-parts of class groups of number fields (the Cohen-Lenstra problem) by thinking about the analogous problem of studying class groups of function fields over F_l, where F_l has characteristic prime to p.

The question David asked was:  well, what about the p-part of the class group of a function field whose characteristic is equal to p?

That’s a different matter altogether.  The p-divisible group attached to the Jacobian of a curve C in characteristic l doesn’t contain very much information;  more or less it’s just a generalized symplectic matrix of rank 2g(C), defined up to conjugacy, and the Cohen-Lenstra heuristics ask this matrix to behave like a random matrix with respect to various natural statistics.

But p-divisible groups in characteristic p are where the fun is!  For instance, you can ask:

What is the probability that a random curve (resp. random hyperelliptic curve, resp. random plane curve, resp. random abelian variety) over F_q is ordinary?

In my view it’s sort of weird that nobody has asked this before!  But as far as I’ve been able to tell, this is the first time the question has been considered.

We generate lots of data, some of which is very illustrative and some of which is (to us) mysterious.  But data alone is not that useful — much better to have a heuristic model with which we can compare the data.  Setting up such a model is the main task of the paper.  Just as a p-divisible group in characteristic l is decribed by a matrix, a p-divisible group in characteristic p is described by its Dieudonné module;  this is just another linear-algebraic gadget, albeit a little more complicated than a matrix.  But it turns out there is a natural “uniform distribution” on isomorphism classes of  Dieudonné modules; we define this, work out its properties, and see what it would say about curves if indeed their Dieudonné modules were “random” in the sense of being drawn from this distribution.

To some extent, the resulting heuristics agree with data.  But in other cases, they don’t.  For instance:  the probability that a hyperelliptic curve of large genus over F_3 is ordinary appears in practice to be very close to 2/3.  But the probability that a smooth plane curve of large genus over F_3 is ordinary seems to be converging to the probability that a random Dieudonné module over F_3 is ordinary, which is

(1-1/3)(1-1/3^3)(1-1/3^5)….. = 0.639….

Why?  What makes hyperelliptic curves over F_3 more often ordinary than their plane curve counterparts?

(Note that the probability of ordinarity, which makes good sense for those who already know Dieudonné modules well, is just the probability that two random maximal isotropic subspaces of a symplectic space over F_q are disjoint.  So some of the computations here are in some sense the “symplectic case” of what Poonen and Rains computed in the orthogonal case.

We compute lots more stuff (distribution of a-numbers, distribution of p-coranks, etc.) and decline to compute a lot more (distribution of Newton polygon, final type…)  Many interesting questions remain!

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