Category Archives: language

Devil math!

The Chinese edition of How Not To Be Wrongpublished by CITAC and translated by Xiaorui Hu, comes out in a couple of weeks.

ChineseCover

The Chinese title is

魔鬼数学

or

“Mo gui shu xue”

which means “Devil mathematics”!  Are they saying I’m evil?  Apparently not.  My Chinese informants tell me that in this context “Mo gui” should be read as “magical/powerful and to some extent to be feared” but not necessarily evil.

One thing I learned from researching this is that the Mogwai from Gremlins are just transliterated “Mo gui”!  So don’t let my book get wet, and definitely don’t read it after midnight.

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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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William Giraldi cares only for beauty

Erin Clune, the feistiest blogger in Madison, goes off very satisfyingly on William Giraldi, who wrote in the Baffler about drinking away his paternity leave while his wife took care of their kid.  Not in a “why am I such a worthless loser” kind of way.  More of a “paternity leave is a scam because being a dad isn’t actually any work” kind of a way.  Given his feelings, he doesn’t quite get why paternity leave exists, but he’s pretty sure it’s a scam, perpetrated by, you know, this kind of person:

 I instantly pictured a phalanx of ultra-modern men parading down Commonwealth Avenue, jabbing placards that read “It’s My Seed, So Give Me Leave,” or some such slogan.

But never fear — William Giraldi is not one of those men!  He is a real man.  He knows what it’s all about.  In another reflection on new fatherhood, he writes:

My best friend, a Boston story writer, married an Irish Catholic woman from Connecticut with two siblings, an older and younger brother, neither of whom she adored, and so now the diaper work and up-all-night obligations get split down the middle. Furthermore, his bride aspires to be a novelist of all things. His hair has gone grayer, and all those short stories canistered in his cranium stay in his cranium. I, on the other hand, married an Asian woman born in Taiwan who has an identical twin and three other siblings—two of them younger, adored brothers she tended to daily—and although she’s an artist with an aptitude that astonishes me— Katie crafted the mobiles above Ethan’s crib; they rotate and revolve with a perfection that would have impressed Johannes Kepler himself—all she ever wanted to be was a mother.

novelist of all things!  Didn’t she get the memo from her vagina that she wasn’t supposed to make art anymore?  Or, if she did, that it should be for kids only?  I’ll bet her novel totally sucks compared to Katie’s awesome mobiles.  I’ll bet Kepler would not have been impressed with her novel at all.  Taiwan, man, that’s where women are women.  Which reminds me of an even more charming turn in this essay:

The birthing staff at Beth Israel: Nurse Linda and Nurse Sara, seraphs the both of them; Doctor Yum—Doctor Yummy—the preternaturally beautiful doctor on call (because our own preternaturally beautiful doctor was in Greece on a date (Ethan arrived two weeks early); and one other nurse who entered stage left rather late in the act.

Yep — Giraldi takes a little break to note the hotness of the Asian woman who’s in the process of delivering his child.

Yummy!

But what do I know?  I’m a feminist and an academic.  Giraldi doesn’t have much use for my kind.  Here he goes again, in the Virginia Quarterly review complaining about smelly English professors and their theories:

These are politicizers who marshal literature in the name of an ideological agenda, who deface great books and rather prefer bad books because they bolster grievances born of their epidermis or gender or sexuality, or of the nation’s economy, or of cultural history, or of whatever manner of apprehension is currently in vogue.

But not William Giraldi!  He is not one of those smelly people.  He has no ideology, or if he does, he manfully wrestles it into submission because he is interested only in beauty.  Of books, of Asian ob/gyns, whatever.  That bit above is followed by many many paragraphs of complaint, which I can’t quite bring myself to reproduce.  But you can read it yourself, or just cut and paste a few dozen randomly chosen sentences from any book about “political correctness” or “tenured radicals” written between 1990 and 1995, and you’ll get the general idea.

What really bugs Giraldi is that academics, in his view, can’t write.

But all too often you’ll be assailed by such shibboleths as historicize, canonicity, disciplinization, relationality, individuated, aggressivity, supererogatory, ethicalization, and verticality before you are mugged by talk of affective labor, gendered schema, sociably minded animism, the rhetorical orientation of a socially responsive and practical pedagogy, historical phenomenology of literariness, associationist psychology, hermeneutic procedures, the autonominization of art, an idiolect of personal affection, the hierarchy of munificent genius, and textual transactions, and then you’ll be insulted by such quotidian clichés as speak volumes, love-hate relationship, the long haul, short shrift, mixed feelings, and playing dumb.  Why the needless redundancy “binding together”? Have you ever tried to bind something apart?

No, but then again, I’ve never encountered a cliché that wasn’t quotidian, either.  As for “bound together,” it’s good enough for the Bible, which suggests that no man put asunder what God has etc.  (“Joined together” is a more common rendering, but you can’t join things apart either.)  All this stuff about quotidian cliché is a bit rich, anyway, from a guy who called somebody’s second novel a “sophomore effort.”

Those technical terms, well, some of them I know what they mean:  “affective labor” is a real thing which as far as I know has no other short name, and “canonicity” means “the condition of being canonical” — would Giraldi really prefer “canonicalness”?  “Idiolect” is a handsome and useful word too.

But I don’t think Giraldi cares that much whether a word is handsome, or expresses a piece of meaning precisely and swiftly, because here’s the thing:  William Giraldi is a terrible, terrible writer.  Some special, willful deafness to the music of English is needed to have written “epidermis” in that first paragraph above.  Giraldi mentions “the significant struggle every good writer goes through in order to arrive at le mot juste,” but his own struggle always seems to end with a word he can admire himself for having typed.  It is not the same thing.  Again and again, until it kinds of hurts to read, he goes for the cheap ornament.  His wife doesn’t make mobiles, she “crafts” them.  His friend’s stories aren’t in his head, they’re in his “cranium.” It is not an apprehension that’s in vogue, or even a kind of apprehension, but a manner of apprehension.  In that book review I mentioned, he refers to the title of the book, I kid you not, as its “moniker.”  Better a hundred “gendered schemas” than launching a paragraph with “There has been much recent parley, in these pages and elsewhere…”

Reading Giraldi’s prose feels like sitting in an extra-fancy bathroom, with black and white tiles and gold trim everywhere and a fur-lined toilet, and no windows, into which someone has just sprayed a perfume whose label identifies it as “woodland fresh.”  Or like listening to William F. Buckley on an off day.  Or like listening to William F. Buckley on an off day in that bathroom.

Giraldi closes his book review with a reminder of “the moral obligation to write well, to choose self-assertion over mere self-expression, to raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew.”  (So that’s what’s wrong with my ruck — it’s enervated!)

Look, I’m on board.  But you have to actually do it, not make gaudy gestures in the direction of doing it.  He should have looked at his essays with a slow cold eye and thrown out everything that did no work.  It takes time and it’s not fun and it doesn’t help you settle your scores.  But writing well requires it.  Maybe that’s how he should have spent his paternity leave.

 

 

 

 

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I hate bad buts and I cannot lie

From today’s New York Times:

Scarlett Johansson gainfully posed in underwear and spiked heels for Esquire’s cover last year after the magazine named her the “sexiest woman alive.” But a French novelist’s fictional depiction of a look-alike so angered the film star that she sued the best-selling author for defamation.

The inappropriate “but” is one of the sneakiest rhetorical tricks there is.  It presents the second sentence as somehow contrasting with the first.  It isn’t.  Scarlett Johansson agreed to be photographed mostly undressed; does that make it strange or incongruous or hypocritical that she doesn’t want to be lied about in print?  It does not.  To be honest, I can’t think of any explanation other than weird retrograde sexism for writing the lede this way.  “She got paid for looking all sexy, so who is she to complain that she was defamed?”  Patricia Cohen of the New York Times, I’m awarding you anWonderWomanHellNo

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Mathematical progress, artistic progress, local-to-global

I like this post by Peli Grietzer, which asks (and I oversimplify:)  when we say art is good, are we talking about the way it reflects or illuminates some aspect of our being, or are we talking about the way it wins the culture game?  And Peli finds help navigating this problem from an unexpected source:  Terry Tao’s description of the simultaneously local and global nature of mathematical progress.  Two friends of Quomodocumque coming together!  Unexcerptable, really, so click through if you like this kind of stuff.

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Reader survey: how do you say “asked”?

One more note on the subject of “Do I actually speak English?” I learned from reading How Not To Be Wrong aloud that, even when I’m speaking slowly and carefully, I pronounce the word “asked” as “ast.”  (At least, that’s my preferred transcription; I concede that “assed” might be more faithful.)  Is that what all native English speakers do, or is it a regionalism?

Hmm, this post from the invaluable englishforums.com has a description that matches what I do very closely:

“asked” is not pronounced /ast/, although it may seem that the ‘k’ is missing when you hear it.
By placing your jaw, teeth, tongue, etc. in the proper position for saying the ‘k’ you can create a sort of pause at the point where the ‘k’ occurs. This makes it sound different from /ast/, even if the ‘k’ is only present in a sort of hidden way (no release or aspiration of the ‘k’). Pronounce /ask/, stopping in the ‘ready-position’ for saying the ‘k’. But then, instead of finishing the ‘k’ sound, say a ‘t’ at the end!

See also.

And here’s a discussion in which the characters on How I Met Your Mother are separated into those who pronounce the k in “asked” and those who don’t.  (Only one does.)

How do you say “asked”?

 

 

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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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Names and words

When you get the copy-edited manuscript of a book back, it comes with a document called “Names and Words,” this is a list of proper names or unusual words in the book which might admit variant spelling or typography, and the list is there to keep everybody on the production team uniform.

Here’s the A-B section of my list.  I think it gives a pretty good sense of what the book is about.

Niels Henrik Abel

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Aish HaTorah

Alcmaeon of Croton

Alhazen (Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham)

Spike Albrecht

Ray Allen

Scott Allen

Akhil and Vikram Amar

Apollonius of Perga

Yasser Arafat

John Arbuthnot

Dan Ariely

Kenneth Arrow

John Ashbery

Daryl Renard Atkins

Yigal Attali

David Bakan

Stefan Banach

Dror Bar-Natan

Joseph-Émile Barbier

Leroy E. Burney

Andrew Beal

Nicholas Beaudrot

Bernd Beber

Gary Becker

Madeleine Beekman

Armando Benitez

Craig Bennett

Jim Bennett

George Berkeley

Joseph Berkson

Daniel Bernoulli

Jakob Bernoulli

Nicholas Bernoulli

Alphonse Bertillon

Bertillonage

Joseph Bertrand

best seller

best-selling

R. H. Bing

Otto Blumenthal

Usain Bolt

Farkas Bolyai

János Bolyai

Jean-Charles de Borda

Bose-Chaudhuri-Hocquenghem code

Nick Bostrom

David Brooks

Derren Brown

Filippo Brunelleschi

Pat Buchanan

Georges-Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon

Dylan Byers

Daniel Byman

David Byrne

 

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Words that appear exactly 25 times in How Not To Be Wrong

15,18,20, along, Baltimore, calculus, check, completely, drawing, early, economic, else, extra, feel, geometric, holes, John, known, lead, nature, obvious, outcome, particular, pay, precise, principle, share, sphere, student, thus, wanted.

Sounds good, right?

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