Why was 7.333… disgusted by 7.666….?
My philosopher friends today are all talking about the resignation/firing of Colin McGinn, a pretty well-known philosopher as I understand it, who as it turns out has been sending e-mails to his graduate students describing…. well, there’s no real reason for me to describe it, I leave that kind of filth for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Philosophy and math have roughly the same male-female ratio, but philosophy has blogs like What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? and math, as far as I know, does not. Is that because math has actually created a culture friendlier to women than philosophy has? Or is it because philosophy is closer to the social criticism tradition and philosophers are more likely to want to talk about these things openly?
I have one small data point. I once heard a philosopher give a talk in which there was a weird joke about you have to be careful not to sleep with your graduate students because [some philosophy joke I didn’t get and don’t remember.]
Or rather, it read as weird to me, because I think it’s highly unlikely that someone would say something like that in front of a roomful of mathematicians under any circumstances. Or if they did, there would be a burst of murmurs and everyone would be looking back and forth with the “Did he say that?” look. On this occasion, only I was looking back and forth. Nobody seemed to think it was weird, not the women, not the men. It was an informal, jokey kind of talk. But still.
Given the weirdly ambivalent best-friendship between Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, it’s sort of a strange choice to invite Franzen to give this year’s Kenyon College commencement address, the 2005 edition of which seems destined to be the essay of Wallace’s that stands in the popular imagination as a portrait of the man himself. (Not without reason. And if you haven’t read it, then maybe do that instead of continuing on with this somewhat small-minded blog post.)
Franzen’s essay is good, but I thought he made a mistake in one place:
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Surely the joke is much stronger without Trump, or the parenthetical: “You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or running for president.” Then, instead of going for Leno-style yuks, he’s actually gently reminding the high-achieving students at a fancy liberal-arts college that an unreflective drive to achieve, and to win, is second cousin to corrosive melancholy. That would have been a good nod to Wallace. And it still would have gotten laughs, while gently turning the knife.
Instead, Franzen talks bird-spotting, reiterating the similar material in his much-discussed New Yorker piece on Wallace and solitude. This part didn’t sway me. Jonathan Franzen likes birds, we get it. Not all enthusiasms have a lesson to teach.
I was going to write a post about Baryshnikov’s homotopy-theoretic proof of Arrow’s theorem — and I will! Because it is cool! — but it’s gotten very late, so instead here’s a nerdy joke I heard on Marc Maron’s podcast.
Guy walks into a bar, says “Gimme a martinus.”
Bartender says, “You mean martini?”
Guy says, “If I wanted two, I would have ordered two!”
I highly recommend Maron’s podcast, by the way, as long as you’re interested in hearing stand-up comics talk about their anguish, the terrible mistakes they’ve made, and the weird alcoves and deformations of their inner lives. Also, there are jokes.
I was pleased to see that my culture hero Matt Groening, likes my other culture hero Gershon Legman:
Examining humor too closely does seem to destroy it. I think an example of that would be the movie The Aristocrats, the retelling of the filthy-aristocrats joke over and over again in so many different ways by all these comedians. What’s fascinating to me is not the joke, which is pretty bad, but the inability of the tellers of the joke to understand what it is they’re giving away with their own versions of the joke. [Laughs.] To me it’s like truth serum. So what that says about the work I do and the work they do in collaboration with others, I’m not sure exactly. But I will say that definitely hostility and fear are at the core. There’s a great couple of books that are really demented, ultimately, but have moments of insight, and they’re both written by Gershon Legman. One’s called Rationale Of The Dirty Joke, and the other one’s called No Laughing Matter: An Analysis Of Sexual Humor, and they’re Freudian analyses of dirty jokes. I think anyone who is a humorist or working in comedy should read these books if they want to understand better about their own internal insanities.
Legman’s books (really one long book in two volumes) run to about 1,500 pages and are a masterwork of obsessed cognition like few others I’ve encountered. At their core, as Groening says, is the claim that every telling of a dirty joke is a vengeful act of aggression; and that to know someone’s favorite dirty joke is to know against whom, or what, they desire revenge. Here’s how it starts:
Under the mask of humor, our society allows infinite aggressions, by everyone and against everyone. In the culminating laugh by the listener or observer– whose position is often really that of victim or butt — the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility and signals his victory by being, theoretically at least, the one person present who does not laugh.
In an excellent New Yorker piece, Jim Holt writes about Legman and about the strange project of joke-collecting more generally.
Legman mentions at one point that John Sanford’s Seventy Times Seven is a “Great American Novel,” which was enough incentive for me to take it out from the library. It isn’t great, but it’s good, and its virtues are unusual. It features the kind of flourishes conventional to the big 1940s social-realist American novel — words runtogether in a way that I think of as “e e cummingslike” but which Steve Burt tells me are, in this context, imitation Dos Passos; little departures from the prose fiction format into stream-of-consciousness, court stenography, lines of attributed dialogue as in a play. But it is in fact a very simple book — really just about two characters, one who’s had it hard, one who’s had it easy, and the resentment of the one towards the other. The resentment builds in what feels like a physical way, like pressure on the boundary between two regions of different mass densities. Which is what makes it work as a piece of 1940s social realism — to participate you have to believe that economics and sociology and maybe psychology too are a lot more like physics than we now think.
The book is well-written in places but feels antique in others. I think Sanford makes the idea of the book too explicit in the last section — but maybe to participate in 1940s social realism you also have to make the point of your book more explicit than we now like.
Fun fact: Seventy Times Seven was reissued in paperback with the more commercial title Make My Bed In Hell.
CJ and I went shopping today, a couple of hours before the Wisconsin-Cal Poly game. There were red-shirted crowds tailgating on every exposed piece of asphalt. “When the people are wearing red and white it means they like the Badgers and they’re going to the football game,” I explained.
At the next stop sign, CJ said, “The stop sign is red and white, so it can go to the football game!”
My mom pointed out that Elliot Sober did not, in fact, write the “If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?” joke. She says she heard it as a child from my great-grandfather. And it’s older than that: one version of the joke appears in the 1858 comedy Our American Cousin (most famous nowadays as the last play Abraham Lincoln ever saw.) The comic engine of Our American Cousin is the upper-class twit Lord Dundreary, who brought the house down with business of this nature:
Dun What do they keep in pigeon houses? Oh! pigeons, to be sure;
they couldn’t keep donkeys up there, could they? That’s the dairy,
Geo Yes, my lord.
Dun What do they keep in dairies?
Geo Eggs, milk, butter and cheese.
Dun What’s the name of that animal with a head on it? No,
I don’t mean that, all animals have heads. I mean those animals
with something growing out of their heads.
Geo A cow?
Dun A cow growing out of his head?
Geo No, no, horns.
Dun A cow! well, that accounts for the milk and butter;
but I don’t see the eggs; cows don’t give eggs; then there’s the cheese–
do you like cheese?
Geo No, my lord.
Dun Does your brother like cheese?
Geo I have no brother. I’m so delicate.
Dun She’s so delicate, she hasn’t got a brother. Well,
if you had a brother do you think he’d like cheese?
Humanities at Wisconsin are said to be underfunded and demoralized, but you’d never know it from the excellent “What is Human?” symposium the Center for Humanities is holding tomorrow at Fluno Center. At 1:45, Ian Hacking will speak on “Humans, aliens, and autism” — perhaps he’ll expand on some of the material in this 2006 essay from the LRB. Hacking’s two books on the development of probability theory, The Emergence of Probability and The Taming of Chance, are probably the best I’ve read on the history of mathematics; to stay bound to the theme of this post, he is one of the only people writing really humanely about mathematical practice. (The late Thomas Tymoczko was another.)
Speaking at 11:15 is our own Elliot Sober, who is that most powerful of creatures, a philosopher who knows Bayes’ Theorem. (See also: Adam Elga, K. Anthony Appiah.) Sober’s title is TBA, but he may well talk about (or, more likely, against) the “design argument” against Darwinism. (He’s definitely giving a talk on that subject at 7:30 this Thursday night, in 1315 Chemistry.) A very vulgar version of the design argument looks like this. The probability that intelligent life would arise, if there were no divine guidance, is nonzero but spectacularly small. The probability that intelligent life would arise, if a divine being created it, is 1. Now Bayes says you should think that divine origin of human life is very likely, even if it was very unlikely in your prior. Sober’s new book, Evidence and Evolution, takes on the design argument and its many more sophisticated variants, and more generally tries to work out what we mean by “evidence” about the origins of life. Bayes flies everywhere.
Sober is also credited with the following joke:
A boy is about to go on his first date, and is nervous about what to talk about. He asks his father for advice. The father replies: “My son, there are three subjects that always work. These are food, family, and philosophy.”
The boy picks up his date and they go to a soda fountain. Ice cream sodas in front of them, they stare at each other for a long time, as the boy’s nervousness builds. He remembers his father’s advice, and chooses the first topic. He asks the girl: “Do you like potato pancakes?” She says “No,” and the silence returns.
After a few more uncomfortable minutes, the boy thinks of his father’s suggestion and turns to the second item on the list. He asks, “Do you have a brother?” Again, the girl says “No” and there is silence once again.
The boy then plays his last card. He thinks of his father’s advice and asks the girl the following question: “If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?”
(This philosophy joke, along with many others, appears here.)