Category Archives: offhand

Ringo Starr rebukes the Stoics

I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius and he keeps returning to the theme that one must live “according to one’s nature” in order to live a good life.  He really believes in nature.  In fact, he reasons as follows:  nature wouldn’t cause bad things to happen to the virtuous as well as the wicked, and we see that both the virtuous and the wicked often die young, so early death must not be a bad thing.

Apparently this focus on doing what is according to one’s nature is a standard feature of Stoic philosophy.  It makes me think of this song, one of the few times the Beatles let Ringo sing.  It’s not even a Beatles original; it’s a cover of a Buck Owens hit from a couple of years previously.  Released as a B-side to “Yesterday” and then on the Help! LP.

Ringo has a different view on the virtues of acting according to one’s nature:

They’re gonna put me in the movies
They’re gonna make a big star out of me
We’ll make a film about a man that’s sad and lonely
And all I gotta do is act naturally
Well, I’ll bet you I’m a-gonna be a big star
Might win an Oscar you can’t never tell
The movie’s gonna make me a big star,
‘Cause I can play the part so well
Well, I hope you come and see me in the movie
Then I’ll know that you will plainly see
The biggest fool that’s ever hit the big time
And all I gotta do is act naturally

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On not staying in your lane

This week I’ve been thinking about some problems outside my usual zone of expertise — namely, questions about the mapping class group and the Johnson kernel.  This has been my week:

  • Three days of trying to prove a cohomology class is nonzero;
  • Then over Thanksgiving I worked out an argument that it was zero and was confused about that for a couple of days because I feel quite deeply that it shouldn’t be zero;
  • This morning I was able to get myself kind of philosophical peace with the class being zero and was working out which refined version of the class might not be zero;
  • This afternoon I was able to find the mistake in my argument that the class was zero so now I hope it’s not zero again.
  • But I still don’t know.

There’s a certain frustration, knowing that I’ve spend a week trying to compute something which some decently large number of mathematicians could probably sit down and just do, because they know their way around this landscape.  But on the other hand, I would never want to give up the part of math research that involves learning new things as if I were a grad student.  It is not the most efficient way, in the short term, to figure out whether this class is zero or not, but I think it probably helps me do math better in a global sense that I spend some of my weeks stumbling around unfamiliar rooms in the dark.  Of course I might just be rationalizing something I enjoy doing.  Even if it’s frustrating.  Man, I hope that class isn’t zero.

dBs, Dentists

Two songs that seem very much of a common kind, though I find it hard to articulate exactly why. Maybe the high, incredibly clear vocals. Maybe that they’re songs about love that aren’t about pleasure.

The dBs, “Black and White”

The Dentists, “Charms and the Girl”

The Dentists song was one of those lost songs for me for years, something I’d heard on a mixtape some WHRB friend had made — all I remembered was that opening, the note repeated again and again, then the four-note circle, then the notes repeated, then the four-note circle, then the tenor vocal coming in: “I have heard / a hundred reasons why…” When I finally found it again, thanks to tech magnate and indie-pop culture hero Kardyhm Kelly, it was just as great as I’d remembered.  It’s not on Spotify.  Is that what we define as “obscure” these days?

If I have caught a foul ball it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants

“Combined cap and baseball mitt,” A patent by Richard Villalobos, 1983.

 

This is meant for fans, not players. The idea is that if a foul ball comes towards you, you may not have time to grab a glove you’ve stashed at your feet. Rather, you quickly slip your hand into the cap-mounted glove and snag the foul with your hat still attached to the back of your hand.

No matter what new problem it sets for parents

The nursery school, therefore, appears as a counter influence against the almost hidden processes by which society through the parents undertakes the premature exploitation of children’s interests in behalf of its own conventionalized and not very natural program of life.  It thus happens that one of the first considerations in a nursery school program is that after satisfying the expectations of the family with regard to the physical care of children it should keep its further thinking in firm alignment with biological rather than social understandings with regard to the present and future welfare of the child, and this no matter what new problem it sets for parents, and no matter what amount of diversity of opinion may arise between them and the school.

(Frederick W. Ellis, introduction to Harriet M. Johnson’s Children in the Nursery School, 1928.)

Sinking Ships — The Cinema Clock

This post is to remind myself of this great 1980 release from a band that apparently nobody knows anything about.  I like the way it starts out like a Joy Division rip and then gets much bigger and more interesting (not more interesting than Joy Division, more interesting than a Joy Division rip.)

 

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Hmoob

I’ve lived in Madison, a city with a really big Hmong community, for more than a decade, and I only just now learned something kinda basic about the most common transliteration system for the Hmong language.

Hmong, like Chinese, is tonal.  When you write Chinese in pinyin, you draw a tone mark over each syllable to indicate tone; like mā (‘mother’) or mǎ (‘horse.’)

In Hmong, the tone is indicated by an extra character placed at the end of the syllable.  The character looks like a Roman consonant, but it’s not — it’s a tone mark.  So “Hmoob,” which is the Hmong word for the Hmong language isn’t pronounced to rhyme with “tube” — the syllable ends with a nasalized vowel, and the character “b” is just there to tell you to pronounce the word in a high tone.  “Hmoov” (“flour”) differs from “Hmoob” only in tone.

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Missing LeBron

When I was a postdoc in Princeton I subscribed to the Trenton Times, because I felt it was important to be in touch with what was going on in my local community and not just follow national news.  The only story I remember was one that said “hey, a basketball team from Akron is coming to play against a top prep-school team in Trenton, and they’ve got this kid LeBron James they say is incredible, you should come check it out.”  And I really did think about it, but I was a postdoc, I was trying to write papers, I was busy, too busy to drive into Trento for a high-school basketball game.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, subscribe to your local paper because local journalism badly needs financial support, and maybe actually take seriously the local events it alerts you to.

 

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The first pancake is always strangely shaped

Alena Pirutka gave a great algebraic geometry seminar here last week, about (among many other things!) families of smooth projective varieties containing both rational and non-rational members.   We were talking about how you have to give a talk several times before it really starts to be well-put together, and she told me there’s a Russian proverb on the subject:  “The first pancake is always strangely shaped.”  I am totally going to go around saying this from now on.

 

Ocular regression

A phrase I learned from Aaron Clauset’s great colloquium on the non-ubiquity of scale-free networks.  “Ocular regression” is the practice of squinting at the data until it looks linear.

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