Rachel Kushner (w/ comma poll)

From Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers:

I realized I’d been wrong.  She was not the pedigreed rich.  He was and she was not.  Sometimes all the information is there in the first five minutes, laid out for inspection. Then it goes away, gets suppressed as a matter of pragmatism. It’s too much to know a lot about strangers. But some don’t end up strangers. They end up closer, and you had your five minutes to see what they were really like and you missed it.

This is great!  My one question is about the commas in the last sentence.  If it had been me I probably would have omitted the comma after “closer,” but I sort of think Kushner’s version is better.  Then I wonder:  what about leaving the one after “closer” and adding another after “like”?

Hey, this is a good opportunity for a poll!  I’ve never put one in here before, let’s give this new WordPress functionality a swing.  (Non-standard comma used there on purpose, pedants.)

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Are UW-Madison professors underpaid?

It’s well known that UW-Madison salaries are notably lower than those at peer institutions, at every level of seniority.  But wait, says Chris Rickert in the Wisconsin State Journal, that doesn’t necessarily mean our faculty is underpaid!

At UW-Madison, assistants are paid, on average, about $82,000 a year, associates about $93,000 and full professors about $123,000 — ranking them 10th, seventh and 12th, respectively, in salary compared to 11 other state-identified peer institutions, according to data from the university’s Academic Planning and Institutional Research office.

Obviously, more full professors means more people in line for full-professor salaries and greater pressure on the budget for professorial salaries overall. At UW-Madison, that’s no small detail, as about 59 percent of UW-Madison professors have attained full status, according to the university’s Data Digest.

By contrast, figures from the American Association of University Professors show that, on average, only about 31.5 percent profs at all universities and about 30.8 percent at public universities are full professors.

This is a really good point!  You could imagine that maybe our pay isn’t underscale at all — maybe we just promote people faster, so that our full professors are less senior and thus make less.  That’s Rickert’s take:

I’m left to wonder whether the university has adopted that old human resources trick of placating employees by inflating their titles more than their pay.

In an era of declining state support, this would help keep a lid on the cost of higher education while simultaneously allowing university officials to complain about how poorly paid are its best and brightest.

But this can actually be checked!  You can use the Chronicle of Higher Education Faculty Salary Survey to get the mean salary for any university at any seniority level, and the number of faculty members at each seniority level, and compute the overall faculty mean that way.  I did this for a few of our peer institutions and got:

full $145 816 $123 755 $135 494 $139 943
assoc $96 556 $93 252 $90 407 $94 763
asst $90 405 $82 363 $77 329 $85 502
$117,133 $106,618 $104,595 $111,172

So the mean UW tenure-track gets paid slightly more than people at Iowa, but notably less than counterparts at Ohio State and Illinois.


Shin-Strenner: Pseudo-Anosov mapping classes not arising from Penner’s construction

Balazs Strenner, a Ph.D. student of Richard Kent graduating this year, gave a beautiful talk yesterday in our geometry/topology seminar about his recent paper with Hyunshik Shin.  (He’s at the Institute next year but if you’re looking for a postdoc after that…!)

A long time ago, Robert Penner showed how to produce a whole semigroup M in the mapping class group with the property that all but a specified finite list of elements of M were pseudo-Anosov.  So that’s a good cheap way to generate lots of certified pseudo-Anosovs in the mapping class group.  But of course one asks:  do you get all pA’s as part of some Penner semigroup?  This can’t quite be true, because it turns out that the Penner elements can’t permute singularities of the invariant folation, while arbitrary pA’s can.  But there are only finitely many singularities, so some power of a given pA clearly fixes the singularities.

So does every pA have a power that arises from Penner’s construction?  This is what’s known as Penner’s conjecture.  Or was, because Balazs and Hyunshik have shown that it is falsitty false false false.

When I heard the statement I assumed this was going to be some kind of nonconstructive counting argument — but no, they actually give a way of proving explicitly that a given pA is not in a Penner semigroup.  Here’s how.  Penner’s semigroup M is generated by Dehn twists Q_1, … Q_m, which all happen to preserve a common traintrack, so that there’s actually a representation

\rho: M \rightarrow GL_n(\mathbf{R})

such that the dilatation of g is the Perron-Frobenius eigenvalue \lambda of \rho(g).

Now here’s the key observation; there is a quadratic form F on R^n such that F(Q_i x) >= F(x) for all x, with equality only when x is a fixed point of Q_i.  In particular, this shows that if g is an element of M not of the form Q_i^a, and x is an arbitrary vector, then the sequence

x, g x, g^2 x, \ldots

can’t have a subsequence converging to x, since

F(x), F(gx), F(g^2 x), \ldots

is monotone increasing and thus can’t have a subsequence converging to F(x).

This implies in particular:

g cannot have any eigenvalues on the unit circle.

But now we win!  Because \rho(g) is an integral matrix, so all the Galois conjugates of \lambda must be among its eigenvalues.  In other words, \lambda is an algebraic number none of whose Galois conjugates lie on the unit circle.  But there are lots of pseudo-Anosovs whose dilatations \lambda do have Galois conjugates on the unit circle.  In fact, experiments by Dunfield and Tiozzo seem to show that in a random walk on the braid group, the vast majority of pAs have this property!  And these pAs, which Shin and Strenner call coronal, cannot appear in any Penner semigroup.


Anyway, I found the underlying real linear algebra question very appealing.  Two idle questions:

  • If M is a submonoid of GL_n(R) we may say a continuous real-valued function F on R^n is M-monotone if F(mx) >= F(x) for all m in M, x in R^n.  The existence of a monotone function for the Penner monoid is the key to Strenner and Shin’s theorem.  But I have little feeling for how it works in general.  Given a finite set of matrices, what are explicit conditions that guarantee the existence of an M-monotone function?  Nonexistence?  (I have a feeling it is roughly equivalent to M containing no element with an eigenvalue on the unit circle, but I’m not sure, and anyway, this is not a checkable condition on the generating matrices…)
  • What can we say about the eigenvalues of matrices appearing in the Penner subgroup?  Balazs says he’ll show in a later paper that they can actually get arbitrarily close to the unit circle, which is actually not what I had expected.  He asks:  are those eigenvalues actually dense in the complex plane?
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Ordinary business expense

From today’s NYT:

But even if Hyundai is eventually forced to pay the full amount of the damages, the punishment could be substantially reduced through a tax loophole that permits the company to save millions of dollars by deducting any court-ordered punitive damages as an ordinary business expense. The result, critics say, is that taxpayers are in effect subsidizing corporate misconduct.

What’s terrible about this isn’t that companies are allowed to claim the fines they pay for malfeasance are an ordinary business expense.  What’s terrible is that it’s true.

Update:  I misspoke, as a commenter points out.  A “fine” — that is, a penalty you pay to the government — is not deductible.  What may be deductible are punitive damages, paid to people you injured or whose river you despoiled.  Prepare your return accordingly!

Bad lesson

From the New York Times, “Why You Should Tell Your Children How Much You Make”:

When Scott Parker wanted his six offspring to know more about the value of money, he decided to do something that many parents would consider radical: show them exactly what he earned.

One day, he stopped by his local Wells Fargo branch in Encinitas, Calif., and asked to withdraw his entire monthly salary in cash. In singles. It took 24 hours for the tellers to round up that many bills, so he returned the next day and took away the $100 stacks in a canvas bag.

His oldest son, Daniel, who was 15 at the time, remembers the moment his father walked into the house and dumped the $10,000 or so on a table. “It looked like he had robbed a bank,” he said.

Parker was trying to teach his kids a lesson about the value of money.  But the lesson I would learn from this is “If somebody, like a bank teller, works in a service job, and makes a lot less money than I do, I can make them spend a full day of their life carrying out an incredibly tedious task without thinking about whether this is a reasonable way for them to spend their time.”





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Full professors make more money than bus drivers

Former Republican Congressional candidate and current UW-Madison history professor John Sharpless stands up for us against the Governor:

He said he arrives no later than 9 a.m. and leaves no earlier than 5 p.m. During that time, he said he’s either teaching, preparing lectures, doing research, attending required committee meetings, advising students and managing teaching assistants. Sharpless added that he often spends his evenings reading and grading papers.

“None of this seems like work to a guy like Walker because he lives a different life,” he said. “And I’m not going to make fun of what he does. I’m sure being a governor is a lot of work. He has to spend a lot of time in Iowa and South Carolina and North Carolina and courting other Republican big-wigs. That taxes the man horribly.”

But just to make it clear he’s still on board with GOP, he drops this in:

“I will retire with a salary that’s less than a Madison bus driver,” he said.

UW-Madison salaries are public records, so I can tell you that Sharpless’s is just under $80,000.  In 2012, only 9 employees of Metro made more than $70K.  And the ones who made that much, I’m pretty sure, are the ones who worked tons of overtime.

In other words, what Sharpless said is likely true in the strict sense of

“There exists a Madison bus driver whose salary this year exceeds mine”

but gives the wrong impression about typical full professors in the history department and typical bus drivers.

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Death to the 529 / long live the 529

Obama flip-flops faster than I can blog!  Prezzo has already walked back his proposal to change the 529 college-saving tax break, but I have a post about it queued up, and by gum I’m gonna publish it.

Here’s the plan that just got shelved.  From now on, capital gains on contributions you stow in a 529 plan won’t be tax free anymore — they’ll just be tax-deferred, as with a retirement plan.  In essence, it takes away a tax break whose benefit flows predominantly to high-income families (some 529 money is held by middle-income parents, but under Obama’s plan the $500 or so they’d lose on their 529 was more than offset by an AOTC expansion.)

OK, this Congress is as likely to roll back a tax break for high earners as they are to rename Reagan National Airport after Pete Seeger, so this isn’t actually happening, but I’m just saying, that’s the plan.

People are mad, and feel like they’ve been bait-and-switched. My FB feed, populated by dutiful savers like me, is full of ire. Mark Kantrowitz, in the New York Times:

He went as far as saying that the proposal could be characterized as a broken promise. “People saved money in 529 plans because of the expectation that the favorable tax treatment would continue,” he said.

But why does the New York Times let Mark Kantrowitz say this when it’s plainly not true? I saved money in a 529 plan. And the favorable tax treatment for that money will continue. When I take it out, I won’t pay a dime on any capital gains.

For money I put in later, it’s another story. But so what? If something’s on sale today, nobody’s breaking a promise to me when it’s not on sale tomorrow. I guess it’s strictly true that the proposal “could be characterized as a broken promise.” But it would be better to say it “could be characterized as a broken promise by people who don’t mind characterizing things as different things.”

A broken promise would look more like a state government defaulting on money it owes the thousands of middle-class taxpayers whose pensions it mismanaged.


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Letter from my great-grandfather

Last summer when I was at my Grandma Sylvia’s house in Tucson I copied out a handwritten letter her father, Jack Sussman, had written to her and her husband.  Here it is, for safekeeping.  Misspellings from the original.  My grandfather (also named Jack) had asthma, which is why they had moved to Tucson while my great-grandparents stayed in the Bronx.

June 12, 1944

Dear Sylvia and Jack,

First of all I want to apologize for not writing to you for such a long time. The family and I are in the Best of health. I ame also interested very much in Jacks health. I Believe that it is very important he should see a doctor more often. the same applies to you. Shirley is telling me that you dont look so good. I would like to mo wath is the matter with you. Mother and I would like to se you but it is too much expense we would rather se you come here.

I wish you a happy anniversary I hope that when your lease expires Jacks Sickness should also expire. love and kisses


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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.


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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