Category Archives: offhand

From the NYRB:

In 2009, police in Long Branch, New Jersey, were alerted to the presence of an “eccentric-looking old man” wandering around a residential neighborhood in the rain and peering into the windows of a house marked with a “for sale” sign. When the police arrived, the man introduced himself as Bob Dylan. He had no identification; the officer, Kristie Buble, then twenty-four, suspected he was an escaped mental patient. It “never crossed my mind,” she said, “that this could really be him.”

The funny part is, it was actually Jonah Lehrer!

David English

Got the Sunday Times, which I don’t usually do, and in the Book Review letters section I saw a familiar name:  David English, of Somerville, MA.  I started noticing this guy when I was in grad school.  He writes letters to the editor.  A lot of letters to the editor.  Google finds about 10 pages of hits for his letters to the Times, starting in 1993 and continuing at a steady clip through the present.  He wrote to the New Yorker and New York Magazine, too. And I thought I remembered him showing up in the Globe letter column, too, but Google can’t find that.

Who is David English of Somerville, MA?  And has he actually had more letters to the New York Times published than anyone else alive?

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There’s no sick burn like a sick barista burn

I bought today’s State Journal at Victor Allen’s.

Barista:  Newspaper.  Victor Allen’s.

Me:  What?

Barista:  We were talking about how maybe we could draw a younger, more college-age crowd if we got people to post that they were here on Instagram, so like if you bought a newspaper you’d take a picture and caption it “Newspaper.  Victor Allen’s.”

Me:  Sorry, I’m in the old category, I don’t use Instagram.

Barista:  Maybe you could post it on your Myspace.

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Silence: an experiment

Just back from the NICAR, the tribal gathering of all data-oriented journalists, where I gave a talk about the importance of talking openly about uncertainty.

Last night at the conference there was a moment which, for reasons having to do with the demographics of mathematics, was unusual for me:  I was standing in a circle of five people, talking about a technical subject, centered on a talk I hadn’t attended, and the four people other than me were all women.  And it occurred to me:  this is actually a situation where it would be totally natural and appropriate for me not to contribute to the conversation.  So let me try.  Let me try to actually let this discussion go on for five minutes without opening my mouth.

And first of all let me say that I successfully did it.  But it was hard.  I felt twitchy and uncomfortable, just standing there silently.  And it was hard for me to learn about the topic being discussed, because some portion of my mind was still working hard at autogenerating answers to “What could I say now?”, interfering with my ability to listen.

I’m not proud of this.  I think when you’re a man, and you get older and acquire some amount of professional status, you start to feel like it is a kind of universal physical fact that people need to hear your view about the topic under discussion.  Whatever topic it is!  Whether you actually know anything about it or not!

Or maybe it has nothing to do with general social forces, and it’s just me.  In either case, I’m going to try being silent more often and see if I can get used to it.

 

 

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Idle question: are Kakeya sets winning?

Jayadev Athreya was here last week and reminded me about this notion of “winning sets,” which I learned about from Howie Masur — originally, one of the many contributions of Wolfgang Schmidt.

Here’s a paper by Curt McMullen introducing a somewhat stronger notion, “absolute winning.”

Anyway:  a winning set (or an absolute winning set) in R^n is “big” in some sense.  In particular, it has to have full Hausdorff dimension, but it doesn’t have to have positive measure.

Kakeya sets (subsets of R^n containing a unit line segment in every direction) can have measure zero, by the Besicovitch construction, and are conjectured (when n=2, known) to have Hausdorff dimension n.  So should we expect these sets to be winning?  Are Besicovitch sets winning?

I have no reason to need to know.  I just think these refined classifications of sets which are measure 0 yet still “large” are very interesting.  And for all I know, maybe there are sets where the easiest way to prove they have full Hausdorff dimension is to prove they’re winning!

 

 

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Negative footprints

There should be a word for when you’re shoveling dry, powdery snow off the driveway, but the places where you stepped are slightly compacted and stick to the concrete, leaving raised snow “footprints” when the rest is shoveled away.

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So you think you can shop

CJ and I, on the plane back from Thanksgiving today, had a good idea for a reality show:  somebody has to buy every item in the Skymall catalogue and then make use of all of them in one day’s time.

 

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Drowned out

Conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds is mad mad mad mad mad about .. well, I’ll let him tell it:

After years of effort, the European Space Agency’s lander Philae landed on a comet 300 million miles away. At first, people were excited. Then some women noticed that one of the space scientists, Matt Taylor, was wearing a shirt, made for him by a female “close pal,” featuring comic-book depictions of semi-naked women.  And suddenly, the triumph of the comet landing was drowned out by shouts of feminist outrage about … what people were wearing.

Drowned out!

Let’s sit with that a minute.  I just searched for “Philae” on Twitter and you know how many tweets I had to scroll through before I found one that mentioned Matt Taylor and his shirt?  32.  That sounds about right — I’d say 3% of the coverage I saw of the comet landing had to do with Matt Taylor’s shirt, and 97% had to do with the fact that we awesomely landed a robot on a comet.

But for Reynolds, the 3% drowns out the 97%.  3% is too much.  1% is too much!  Any little speck of feminist content is like the pea under the mattress for these guys. They can’t rest because the 3% is digging into them, it keeps them up all night, the feminism is still there, I can feel it, make it stop make it stop!

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Francis Galton could be kind of a jerk

As here (from Hereditary Genius, p. 21)

Every tutor knows how difficult it is to drive abstract conceptions, even of the simplest kind, into the brains of most people—how feeble and hesitating is their mental grasp—how easily their brains are mazed—how incapable they are of precision and soundness of knowledge. It often occurs to persons familiar with some scientific subject to hear men and women of mediocre gifts relate to one another what they have picked up about it from some lecture—say at the Royal Institution, where they have sat for an hour listening with delighted attention to an admirably lucid account, illustrated by experiments of the most perfect and beautiful character, in all of which they expressed themselves intensely gratified and highly instructed. It is positively painful to hear what they say. Their recollections seem to be a mere chaos of mist and misapprehension, to which some sort of shape and organization has been given by the action of their own pure fancy, altogether alien to what the lecturer intended to convey. The average mental grasp even of what is called a well-educated audience, will be found to be ludicrously small when rigorously tested.

 

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That Jeff Koons feeling

Jed Perl opposes Jeff Koons:

The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them.

But four paragraphs later:

Koons knows how to capitalize on the guilty pleasure that the museumgoing public takes in all his mixed messages. He knows how to leave people feeling simultaneously ironical, erudite, silly, sophisticated, and bemused.

Does Koons make people feel things, or does he not?  Or are irony, erudition, silliness, sophistication, and bemusement feelings that don’t count as feelings?

Jed Perl writes well but I find his judgment strange.  About Jeff Koons I have no opinion.  But I remember his name because of the piece he wrote about Francis Bacon, which seems to suggest that people like Bacon not because of anything in the paintings, but because the artist sports a biography and attitude that appeals to mushy-minded would-be avant-gardists.  “The Bacon mystique,” Perl writes, “is not grounded in his paintings so much as in a glamorous list of extenuating circumstances.”

To me this makes no sense.  I went to a small museum which was showing some of Bacon’s paintings and I was knocked over by them.  Whoa, what is that?  I had no idea who he was, or whether he was glamorous, or whether it was cool to like him.

I think it’s OK to say (as Perl also does, later in that piece) that Bacon is a stupid painter and only people who are stupid about painting like his paintings.  But it’s crazy to deny that people actually do like Bacon’s paintings, as such, not just the idea of Bacon’s paintings, or the idea of being the kind of person who likes Bacon’s paintings.

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