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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What I learned at the Joint Math Meetings

Another Joint Meetings in the books!  My first time in San Antonio, until last weekend the largest US city I’d never been to.  (Next up:  Jacksonville.)  A few highlights:

  • Ngoc Tran, a postdoc at Austin, talked about zeroes of random tropical polynomials.  She’s proved that a random univariate tropical polynomial of degree n has about c log n roots; this is the tropical version of an old theorem of Kac, which says that a random real polynomial of degree n has about c log n real roots.  She raised interesting further questions, like:  what does the zero locus of a random tropical polynomial in more variables look like?  I wonder:  does it look anything like the zero set of a random band-limited function on the sphere, as discussed by Sarnak and Wigman?  If you take a random tropical polynomial in two variables, its zero set partitions the plane into polygons, which gives you a graph by adjacency:  what kind of random graph is this?
  • Speaking of random graphs, have you heard the good news about L^p graphons?  I missed the “limits of discrete structures” special session which had tons of talks about this, but I ran into the always awesome Henry Cohn, who gave me the 15-minute version.  Here’s the basic idea.  Large dense graphs can be modeled by graphons; you take a symmetric function W from [0,1]^2 to [0,1], and then your procedure for generating a random graph goes like this. Sample n points x_1,…x_n uniformly from [0,1] — these are your vertices.  Now put an edge between x_i and x_j with probability W(x_i,x_j) = W(x_j,x_i).  So if W is constant with value p, you get your usual Erdös-Renyi graphs, but if W varies some, you can get variants of E-R, like the much-beloved stochastic blockmodel graphs, that have some variation of edge density.  But not too much!  These graphon graphs are always going to have almost all vertices with degree linear in n.  That’s not at all like the networks you encounter in real life, which are typically sparse (vertex degrees growing sublinearly in n, or even being constant on average) and typically highly variable in degree (e.g. degrees following a power law, not living in a band of constant multiplicative width.)  The new theory of L^p graphons is vastly more general.  I’ve only looked at this paper for a half hour but I feel like it’s the answer to a question that’s always bugged me; what are the right descriptors for the kinds of random graphs that actually occur in nature?  Very excited about this, will read it more, and will give a SILO seminar about it on February 4, for those around Madison.
  • Wait, I’ve got still one more thing about random graphs!  Russ Lyons gave a plenary about his work with Angel and Kechris about unique ergodicity of the action of the automorphism group of the random graph.  Wait, the random graph? I thought there were lots of random graphs!  Nope — when you try to define the Erdös-Renyi graph on countably many vertices, there’s a certain graph (called “the Rado graph”) to which your random graph is isomorphic with probability 1!  What’s more, this is true — and it’s the same graph — no matter what p is, as long as it’s not 0 or 1!  That’s very weird, but proving it’s true is actually pretty easy.  I leave it an exercise.
  • Rick Kenyon gave a beautiful talk about his work with Aaron Abrams about “rectangulations” — decompositions of a rectangle into area-1 subrectangles.  Suppose you have a weighted directed graph, representing a circuit diagram, where the weights on the edges are the conductances of the corresponding wires.  It turns out that if you fix the energy along each edge (say, to 1) and an acyclic orientation of the edges, there’s a unique choice of edge conductances such that there exists a Dirichlet solution (i.e. an energy-minimizing assignment of a voltage to each node) with the given energies.  These are the fibers of a rational map defined over Q, so this actually gives you an object over a (totally real) algebraic number field for each acyclic orientaton.  As Rick pointed out, this smells a little bit like dessins d’enfants!  (Though I don’t see any direct relation.)  Back to rectangulations:  it turns out there’s a gadget called the “Smith Diagram” which takes a solution to the Dirichlet problem on the graph  and turns it into a rectangulation, where each edge corresponds to a rectangle, the area of the rectangle is the energy contributed by the current along that edge, the aspect ratio of the rectangle is the conductance, the bottom and top faces of the rectangle correspond to the source and target nodes, the height of a face is the voltage at that node, and etc.  Very cool!  Even cooler when you see the pictures.  For a 40×40 grid, it looks like this:

 

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I looked at him good

From a US Senate investigation, Reports of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, concerning the Fort Pillow Massacre, which I had never heard of until today.

Question. Did you see any buildings burned?

Answer. I staid in the woods all day Wednesday. I was there Thursday and looked at the buildings. I saw a great deal left that they did not have a chance to burn up. I saw a white man burned up who was nailed up against the house.

Question. A private or an officer?

Answer. An officer; I think it was a lieutenant in the Tennessee cavalry.

Question. How was he nailed?

Answer. Through his hands and feet right against the house.

Question. Was his body burned?

Answer. Yes, sir; burned all over—I looked at him good.

And this:

Question. We have heard rumors that some of these persons were buried alive; did you hear anything about that?

Answer. I have two in the hospital here who were buried alive.

Question. Both colored men?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. How did they escape?

Answer. One of them I have not conversed with personally, the other I have. He was thrown into a pit, as he states, with a great many others, white and black, several of whom were alive; they were all buried up together. He lay on the outer edge, but his head was nearer the surface; he had one well hand, and with that hand he was able to work a place through which he could breathe, and in that way he got his head out; he lay there for some twenty-four hours, and was finally taken out by somebody. The others, next to him, were buried so deep that they could not get out, and died.

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A very How Not To Be Wrong Christmas

My bookselling friends tell me that December is the big book-selling month of the year.  (These Census figures show even bigger spikes in January and September, but these are from textbooks, which make up a really big chunk of the total book market.)

And indeed, sales of How Not To Be Wrong shot up in a very satisfactory way during the holiday season; according to Nielsen BookScan, the book sold more copies in the Dec 15-21 week than it had any week since the first month of release in June.  The book also rose up the Amazon rankings; having settled in in the #1500-2000 range for a couple of months, it popped up to around #700, about the same level as August, and stayed there for two weeks.  Two days after Christmas, pop — immedately back down to four digits.  The increase in ranking suggests that How Not To Be Wrong was unusually popular around Christmas, even relative to other books.

One thing I don’t quite get, though; the Kindle edition also got a notable rankings boost in the second half of December, though a bit smaller.  Where is that coming from?  Do people buy books for other people’s Kindles as Christmas presents?

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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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Logical endpoints

More on Aaronson (see previous post for context):

I was struck by this commment Scott made on Gil Kalai’s blog:

Yes, I admit, I do have the moral philosopher’s (or for that matter, the mathematician’s) habit of trying to take stated principles to their logical conclusions, even if many people would regard those conclusions as “irrelevant” or “absurd.” (To take a different example: “People should have the right to own whatever weapon they want, since merely owning it doesn’t harm anyone.” “OK then, what about nuclear missiles?” “That’s irrelevant and absurd! I was talking about guns.”) Is this habit something I should apologize for?

and this reddit comment he quotes approvingly:

I think the reason Dworkin comes up in discussions like this is because her thinking is the logical endpoint of mainstream feminist theory.
It goes something like this:
1) Women are systematically oppressed by men
2) If 1 is true, how can a woman ever consent to sex or practically anything else with men? Any “consent” a woman gives will be given under duress because she is being systematically oppressed.
3) If any “consent” a woman gives is under duress (because every decision and choice a woman makes is under duress because she’s being systematically oppressed), then women can never ever give consent in any dealing with men.
Dworkin, to her credit, was so logical that she came to this conclusion and accepted it. All logical thinkers will probably come to this conclusion which is why nerds and STEM people will like and understand Dworkin. She’s logical. She makes sense.

For my own part, I find this idea of taking political and moral principles to their logical conclusions to be very weird.  And I don’t think it’s “the mathematician’s habit,” as Scott says.  At least, it’s not this mathematician’s habit.  Being a mathematician doesn’t incline me to apply Boolean operations to ethical principles; on the contrary, I think being a mathematician makes me more alive than the average person to the difference between mathematical assertions (which do behave really well under logical operations) and every other kind.

In particular, I don’t find the argument by the reddit commenter very compelling.  There are lots of feminists (I think almost all feminists!) who sound nothing like Andrea Dworkin, and who pretty obviously think that there exists sex between men and women that isn’t rape.  Is that because they can’t do logic?  I am a STEM person and a feminist and I think systematic sexism exists in the world and I don’t think heterosexual sex is rape.  Is that because I can’t do logic?

No — it’s because I think there are very few assertions about sex, power and feminism which stand in a relation of authentic logical entailment.

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The turd and the bean, or: the strange life of male nerddom under patriarchy

Everybody’s talking about Laurie Penny’s awesome essay responding to Scott Aaronson’s courageously candid blog comment, all touched off by the canceling of Walter Lewin’s online course after he sexually harrassed one of the students.

Scott is frustrated that shy, nerdy men are seen as “privileged.”  He thinks they’re the opposite of privileged.  I don’t see things the way Scott does, but I’m glad he wrote what he wrote.  It must have been pretty hard to do.

Scott feels a certain distance from feminism because of stuff like this:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

But here’s the thing.  Were those workshops, and the feminist writers he read in college, trying to tell him it was a monstrous thing for a man to try to date a woman?  Here’s one clue:  most feminists, like most women generally, are straight, and date men.  Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends.  Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men.

So where, if not from feminists, was he getting the idea that a romantic approach was inherently a kind of assault?  That’s patriarchy talking.  It’s patriarchy that gets between your ear and your mind and turns “Be sensitive to the cues of the person you’re approaching and wait for consent” to “You’d better not even try,” because it’s patriarchy that presents conquest and seizure as the only allowable model for a man’s sexuality.

Now here my imaginary Scott Aaronson protests, “but I didn’t think all expression of het interest was assault, only that my own wasn’t guaranteed not to be, and nobody would tell me how to get that guarantee.”  To which I can only say:  yep.  When you take driver’s ed they don’t tell you any formula that absolutely positively guarantees you won’t crash your car, hurt yourself, hurt someone else, ruin your life.  If you demand such a guarantee they’ll tell you “All I can say is never drive, it’s the only way to be sure.”  But if this leads you to never drive, because the risk is too great to be borne?  That’s a problem with your risk assessment, not a problem with driver’s ed.

It’s sad and kind of crushing to read what happened to Scott.  He says he wanted to be a woman, or a sexless being.  He thinks that’s because feminism made it seem intolerable to be a man.  But it wasn’t.  Partly it was because he attached vastly more anxiety to the difficulty of dating than most people, even than most shy, nerdy, romantically inexperienced people (hi, teenaged me!) do.  And partly it was because patriarchy gave him a false and vicious idea of what a man was.

That first line again:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.

He was both!  You can be — in fact, it’s hard for a man not to be — both beneficiary and victim of sexism.  Those two things don’t cancel each other out like positive and negative terms in an equation.  They are both there, and they both count.

Turd and bean soup is a terrible soup.  But:  when your friend, who has only turds, says, “I’m hungry, I wish my soup had some beans in it,” it is no reply at all to say “but my soup is filled with turds and the beans kind of taste like turd.”  They are still beans.  Even as your mouth fills with the rich flavor of turd and you feel like puking, the beans nourish and enrich you.

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How many rational distances can there be between N points in the plane?

Terry has a nice post up bout the Erdös-Ulam problem, which was unfamiliar to me.  Here’s the problem:

Let S be a subset of R^2 such that the distance between any two points in S is a rational number.  Can we conclude that S is not topologically dense?

S doesn’t have to be finite; one could have S be the set of rational points on a line, for instance.  But this appears to be almost the only screwy case.  One can ask, more ambitiously:

Is it the case that there exists a curve X of degree <= 2 containing all but 4 points of S?

Terry explains in his post how to show something like this conditional on the Bombieri-Lang conjecture.  The idea:  lay down 4 points in general position.  Then the condition that the 5th point has rational distances from x1,x2,x3, and x4 means that point lifts to a rational point on a certain (Z/2Z)^4-cover Y of P^2 depending on x1,x2,x3,x4.  (It’s the one obtained by adjoining the 4 distances, each of which is a square root of a rational function.)

With some work you can show Y has general type, so under Lang its rational points are supported on a union of curves.  Then you use a result of Solymosi and de Zeeuw to show that each curve can only have finitely many points of S if it’s not a line or a circle.  (Same argument, except that instead of covers of P^2 you have covers of the curve, whose genus goes up and then you use Faltings.)

It already seems hard to turn this approach into a proof.  There are few algebraic surfaces for which we can prove Lang’s conjecture.  But why let that stop us from asking further questions?

Question:  Let S be a set of N points on R^2 such that no M are contained in any line or circle.  What is the maximal number of rational distance among the ~N^2 distances between points of S?

The Erdos-Ulam problem suggests the answer is smaller than N^2.  But surely it’s much smaller, right?  You can get at least NM rational distances just by having S be (N/M) lines, each with M rational points.  Can you do better?

 

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More Disney

More notes from Walt Disney World:

  • I felt bad for Cinderella.  The wait to see her and Rapunzel was only 10 minutes; if you wanted Elsa and Anna, the line was an hour and a half.  If I were Cinderella I’d be pissed.  “Enjoy it while you’ve got it, Flavor-of-the-Month, but in ten years, I’m still here, and you’re Mulan.”
  • Speaking of deprecated Disney Princesses, you know who’s totally absent from Disney World?  Pocahantas.  That was a pretty big movie!  Is Pocahantas absent because of newfound cultural sensitivity about depictions of Native Americans?  Highly doubtful, given the fact that the heap racist Indian Chief is still front and center in the Peter Pan ride.  Also, a little digging reveals that Pocahantas can indeed be seen at WDW, in the Animal Kingdom park.  Because, you know, state of nature!
  • Disney World at Christmastime is very, very Christmasy but not at all Christian.  This is a delicate tightrope to walk and I think they do a nice job.  No cross, very little use of the word “Christmas.”  Lots of trees, lots of secular carols.  One small nativity scene tucked away at the back of Hollywood Studios.
  • Most underrated attraction:  The Hall of Presidents.  Animatronic Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address is authentically moving.  And it seems a nod to modern ways of doing history that Andrew Jackson is singled out in the movie as one of the most important Presidents, by virtue of being the first non-aristocrat to hold the office.  (Though not much is said about Andrew Jackson’s record in office, which brings us back to the “sensitivity to Native Americans” issue.)
  • Epcot was the weakest of the three parks we went to.  Too much shopping, not enough riding.  It would be improved by having fewer massively packed sit-down restaurants and more snack stands of all nations.
  • Speaking of the future:  it’s weird that the cars on the Tomorrowland Speedway aren’t futuristic at all, but rather big gas-guzzling go-carts.  Why not go electric?  In general, Disney seems content to let Tomorrowland rest in a nostalgic “what the future used to look like” mode.  In 2014, could they really build something that felt like the future and also felt like Disney?
  • Finally:  lost in all these words is the fact that Disney World is actually pretty fun.  Especially if you go with somebody like my brother-in-law, who knows the place inside and out and can dodge lines with expert efficiency.  We spent 16 straight hours in Magic Kingdom on the first day and it didn’t feel like too much.  I wouldn’t be inclined to go again, but I’m not at all sorry that we went.  And my kids, by no means Disney freaks, loved it.  CJ is still talking about the roller coasters and the tech of Soarin’.  And AB was just happy she got to see Olaf and R2D2 and bring home a stuffed Mickey.
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Trader Joe’s is the Disney World of grocery stores

We’re back in Madison after three days at Walt Disney World.  CJ and I went to Trader Joe’s to pick up stuff for dinner and realized:  Trader Joe’s is Disney World.

Reasons:

  • Part of what you’re paying for is a sense of, well, “fun.”  WDW employees — who are called “cast members” — wear costumes.  Trader Joe’s employees — who are called “crew members” — wear Hawaiian shirts.  It is part of their job, not just to be pleasant to customers, but to appear actively happy to be talking to customers.  And maybe they are!  You can imagine that if you were the kind of person who likes chatting with strangers you’d be drawn to working at WDW or TJ.
  • Iron-clad branding.  Just about every single thing you can buy, see, or eat at Disney is Disney-branded.  Same for Trader Joe’s (even if the product is surplus Sabra hummus repackaged in Trader Joe’s tubs.)
  • Limited selection.  Disney World restaurants have short menus; they need to get thousands of people in and out fast.  There aren’t twelve roller coasters like at Six Flags, there are two.  At Trader Joe’s there aren’t a hundred different kinds of Cheerios.  Just the Trader Joe’s kind.  The problems of choice are taken away from you and this release is itself a kind of fun.

Unfinished thought:  both Disney and Trader Joe’s are trying to project a spirit of California.

 

 

 

 

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