Category Archives: offhand

I can’t even tell when I’m on the Internet anymore

I asked the barista in the Starbucks in Target to settle an argument between CJ and me — should it be referred to as “Tarbucks” or “Starget?”

Barista:  I don’t know, I think both.

Other barista:  No, it’s Tarbucks.

Barista:  It’s Tarbucks?

Other barista:  That’s what they call it on Reddit.

It’s true!

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The dime of America

I take it as a near-certainty that, assuming we’re still using physical currency throughout my life, some denomination of that currency will eventually feature Ronald Reagan.  But where will he go?  You can’t really evict Jefferson or Washington or Lincoln.  Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson seem more vulnerable, but somehow it’s the coins that really read as “inner-circle President” — would Reagan’s boosters really settle for grubby green pieces of linen, that get filthy and torn?

But here’s what would work.  Put Reagan on the dime.  Instead of Roosevelt?  No — in addition to Roosevelt.  Nobody cares about the shrubbery on the back of the dime.  Roosevelt on the obverse, Reagan on the reverse.  The two radical revisions of the American idea that shaped the 20th century, separated only by a thin disc of copper.  A government big enough to crush Hitler versus a government small enough to drown in a bathtub.  Now that’s a coin.  Flipping that coin has stakes.

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Dane County Fair: Flippin’

1.  I realized today that the Dane County Fair might be the only place my kids ever go which is reasonably representative of the socioeconomic and demographic mix of Madison.

2.  The usual:  funnel cake, Ferris wheel, etc.  But something special this year was Flippin’, a steampunk-themed acrobatics show.  Boy does that sound unpromising.  But it was actually kind of amazing.  Especially the Wheel of Death.

I didn’t think the Wallendas, who we saw at the fair a couple of years ago, could be beat.  But these guys might have done it.  There’s a bizarre optical illusion when one of the wheelers leaps as the wheel reaches its crest; his motion is almost in sync with that of the wheel, so it feels to the eye like you’re watching something happening in slow motion.  I was floored.

Three of the four members of Flippin’ are Españas, members of a family that’s been in the circus for five generations.  The dad, Ivan, is in the video above with his brother.  His two kids were in the show we just saw.  The mom, in 2004, fell 30 feet doing a routine and was killed.  I think that’s kind of how it is in these families.

 

 

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Rolling the dice on Iran

David Sanger in today’s NYT on the Iran deal:

Mr. Obama will be long out of office before any reasonable assessment can be made as to whether that roll of the dice paid off.

Which is true!  But something else that’s true: not having a deal would also be a roll of the dice.  We’re naturally biased to think of the status quo as the safest course.  But why?  There’s no course of political action that leads to a certain outcome.  We’re rolling the dice no matter what; all we get to do is choose which dice.

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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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Cold Topics Workshop

I was in Berkeley the other day, chatting with David Eisenbud about an upcoming Hot Topics workshop at MSRI, and it made me wonder:  why don’t we have Cold Topics workshops?  In the sense of “cold cases.”  There are problems that the community has kind of drifted away from, because we don’t really know how to do them, but which are as authentically interesting as they ever were.  Maybe it would be good to programatically focus our attention on those cold topics from time to time, just to see whether the passage of time has given us any new ideas, or cast these cold old problems in a new and useful light.

If this idea catches on, we could even consider having an NSF center devoted to these problems.  The Institute for Unpopular Mathematics!

What cold topics workshops would you propose to me, the founding director of the IUM?

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William Deresiewicz gets David Foster Wallace now

Just looking at William Deresiewicz’s piece on Mark Greif in Harper’s, where he writes:

Like David Foster Wallace, albeit in a very different key, Greif is willing to be vulnerable, to forgo the protections of irony and nihilism.

True!  (At least of DFW; I don’t know enough about Greif.)  And satisfiying, because I complained before about Deresiewicz mischaracterizing Wallace:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

Maybe he reads my blog!

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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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