Category Archives: Bibliophilia

Multiscale Structure of More-than-Binary Variables

When I face a writing task, my two big failure modes are either not starting at all and dragging my feet indefinitely, or writing far too much and having to cut it down to size later. In the latter case, my problem isn’t just that I go off on tangents. I try to answer every conceivable objection, including those that only I would think of. As a result, I end up fighting a rhetorical battle that only I know about, and the prose that emerges is not just overlong, but arcane and obscure. Furthermore, if the existing literature on a subject is confusing to me, I write a lot in the course of figuring it out, and so I end up with great big expository globs that I feel obligated to include with my reporting on what I myself actually did. That’s why my PhD thesis set the length record for my department by a factor of about three.

I have been experimenting with writing scientific pieces that are deliberately bite-sized to begin with. The first such experiment that I presented to the world, “Sporadic SICs and the Normed Division Algebras,” was exactly two pages long in its original form. The version that appeared in a peer-reviewed journal was slightly longer; I added a paragraph of context and a few references.

My latest attempt at a mini-paper (articlet?) is based on a blog post from a few months back. I polished it up, added some mathematical details, and worked in a comparison with other research that was published since I posted that blog item. The result is still fairly short:

What Would I Buy With $3 Million for Math[s]?

Leading off the topic of my previous post, I think it’s a good time to ask what we can do with resources that are already allocated. How can we fine-tune the application of resources already set aside for a certain purpose, and so achieve the best outcome in the current Situation?

This post will be a gentle fantasy, because sometimes, in the Situation, we need that, or because that’s all I can do today.

Last month, Evelyn Lamb asked, how should we revamp the Breakthrough Prize for mathematics? This is an award with $3 million attached, supported by tech billionaires. A common sentiment about such awards, a feeling that I happen to share, is that they go to people who have indeed accomplished good things, but on the whole it isn’t a good way to spend money. Picking one person out of a pool of roughly comparable candidates and elevating them above their peers doesn’t really advance the cause of mathematics, particularly when the winner already has a stable position. Lamb comments,

$\$3$ million a year could generously fund 30 postdoc years (or provide 10 3-year postdocs). I still think that wouldn’t be a terrible idea, especially as jobs in math are hard to come by for fresh PhD graduates. But […] more postdoc funding could just postpone the inevitable. Tenure track jobs are hard to come by in mathematics, and without more of them, the job crunch will still exist. Helping to create permanent tenured or tenure-track positions in math would ease up on the job crisis in math and, ideally, make more space for the many deserving people who want to do math in academia. […] from going to the websites of a few major public universities, it looks like it’s around $2.5 million to permanently endow a chair at that kind of institution.

I like the sound of this, but let’s not forget: If we have $3 million per year, then we don’t have to do the same thing every year! My own first thought was that if you can fund 10 postdocs for three years apiece, you can easily pay for 10 new open-source math textbooks. In rough figures, let us say that it takes about a year to write a textbook on material you know well. Then, the book has to be field-tested for at least a semester. To find errors in technical prose, you need to find people who don’t already know what it’s supposed to say, and have them work through the whole thing.

If we look at, say, what MIT expects of undergrad math majors, we can work up a list of courses:
Continue reading What Would I Buy With $3 Million for Math[s]?


In 1940, Jorge Luis Borges published “Definición de germanófilo” [“Definition of a Germanophile”], in which he explained what kept happening when he tried to discuss the threat of Nazi Germany. I quote a passage from Eliot Weinberger’s translation:

I always discover that my interlocutor idolizes Hitler, not in spite of the high-altitude bombs and the rumbling invasions, the machine guns, the accusations and lies, but because of those acts and instruments. He is delighted by evil and atrocity. The triumph of Germany does not matter to him; he wants the humiliation of England and a satisfying burning of London. He admires Hitler as he once admired his precursors in the criminal underworld of Chicago. The discussion becomes impossible because the offenses I ascribe to Hitler are, for him, wonders and virtues. The apologists of Amigas, Ramirez, Quiroga, Rosas or Urquiza pardon or gloss over their crimes; the defender of Hitler derives a special pleasure from them. The Hitlerist is always a spiteful man, and a secret and sometimes public worshiper of criminal “vivacity” and cruelty. He is, thanks to a poverty of imagination, a man who believes that the future cannot be different from the present, and that Germany, till now victorious, cannot lose. He is the cunning man who longs to be on the winning side.

And the thing about the politics of the blood is that it keeps on pumping.

Those Who Aspire to Solaria

A certain mindset sees the movie Aliens and thinks it would be awesome to be a Space Marine. Because it’s like being a Marine, but in space.

A certain mindset skims a bit of cyberpunk fiction and thinks the future will be amazing, because Ruby-coding skills will clearly translate to proficiency with katanas. You know, katanas.

A certain mindset learns a little about the Victorian era and is instantly off in a fantasy of brass-goggled Gentlemen Aviators, at once dapper and wind-swept, tending the Tesla apparatus on their rigid airship. All art in the genre carries the tacit disclaimer in its caption, “(Not pictured: cholera.)” In the designation steampunk, the -punk has nothing to do with anarchy (in the UK or elsewhere), the suffix having been conventionalized into a mere signifier of anachronism. A steampunk condo development promises units for the reasonable price of 2 to 7.5 million dollars apiece.

[To be fair, Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), which is in some part responsible for the whole wibbly-wobbly steamery-punkery, did spend some of its time with the run-down and the passed-over. It also, I’m guessing unintentionally, underscored the incoherence of the premise, when in its final pages, Ada Lovelace describes a fanciful notion of the late Charles Babbage, whose fictional version dreamed of doing computation with electricity. The fictional Babbage’s never-implemented plan relied on such hypothetical devices as resistors and capacitors. The book’s plot begins in 1855; the Leyden jar was invented 110 years earlier. Carl Friedrich Gauss built a working telegraph years before the historical Babbage even designed his Analytical Engine. But our aesthetic can’t allow that, of course.]

It is against this background that we should read “Silicon Valley is a Science Fictional Utopia,” a recent piece in Model View Culture. I have enjoyed and appreciated MVC quite a bit in the past few months, which is why I was rather flummoxed to find a statement in that essay that just refused to parse. The overall thesis sounds roughly right to me, but not all the examples seem to fit as written. Here’s the part that jumped out at me:
Continue reading Those Who Aspire to Solaria

Things I Don’t Get, Part the Eleventy-Billionth

It always baffles me when people think The Incredibles is an Objectivist movie.

It examines, under the surface of an adventure story, the psychological foibles which can lead people into Randroidism. That’s a very different animal. But some people seem to take “When everyone is special, no one will be” as the movie’s actual moral. Let’s unpack that.

First, who says it? 1. The villain. Yeah. That’s always a great place to look for the moral of a story. And, ironically, Buddy/Syndrome is special: he has the same superpower as Bat- or Iron Man. 2. A middle-aged man who feels unappreciated and projects his own troubles onto other situations. Again, yeah. Basically defines “reliable source,” I’m sure.

What’s the first event that sets the conflict in motion? It’s not the lawsuits against the supers. It’s Mr. Incredible failing to live up to a social obligation by brushing off Buddy.

What’s the first thing we see Mr. Incredible do in the present day? He helps a woman long past her productive years to loot a corporation. He doesn’t exploit his knowledge of the system for his own benefit; instead, he risks his own job, acting against his own self-interest, to benefit another person who can do nothing material for him in return. And the movie unambiguously portrays this as the right thing to do.

What’s the happy ending—or, rather, the coda? The supers learn to rein in their powers, to come in second best, so they can remain incognito and be there when civilization needs them. Again, the movie depicts this as a clear-cut good thing. But Rand had something to say about people who deliberately do less than their best in order to fit in better. When Dagny Taggart suggests she do just that, Francisco D’Anconia slaps her face so hard she tastes blood.

Stepping outside the text of the movie for a moment, does Syndrome’s “make everyone super so no one is” plan actually make sense? No. If you could buy rocket boots, they’d be, in principle, analogous to mountain bikes or skis or rollerblades. That is, they’d be a technology that opens up new kinds of activity: hobbies for some, pro sports for others. Saying they’d erase individuality is like saying camera phones were the doom of cinema, or that the mechanical typewriter was the end of literary genius. The plan doesn’t hold up, either within the movie or outside. But it doesn’t have to: it’s a fantasy from the mind of a maniacal supervillain.

The villain is a man who built his entire life around his grievances. The hero, as they do in many stories, has a few points in common with the villain. But the hero learns to see beyond, and rise above, the flaws they share with the villain. That’s what puts them on the hero side of the ledger.

On that note: the people who claim that Lois Lowry’s The Giver is an Objectivist novel. Yes, the quiet, emotionally intimate story about slowly learning wisdom through suffering, where a child risks starvation and freezing to death in order to have a slim hope of making his community a better place after he is gone. The story of how family is a matter not of blood but of love, how the flattening of natural beauty is to be mourned, how solitude can be joyful and loneliness painful in equal measure. The book that literally, not figuratively, says this:

“Giver,” Jonas suggested, “you and I don’t need to care about the rest of them.”

The Giver looked at him with a questioning smile. Jonas hung his head. Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.

But apparently for some folks, anti-authoritarian is automatically Objectivist. Because the world is simpler when you’re a misunderstood teenager.

Less Heteronormative Homework

A few weeks ago, I found an old physics book on a colleague’s “miscellaneous” shelf: University of Chicago Graduate Problems in Physics, by Cronin, Greenberg and Telegdi (Addison-Wesley, 1967). It looked like fun, so I started working through some of it.

Physics problems age irregularly. Topics fall out of vogue as the frontier of knowledge moves on, and sometimes, the cultural milieu of the time when the problem was written pokes through. Take the first problem in the “statistical physics” chapter. It begins, “A young man, who lives at location $A$ of the city street plan shown in the figure, walks daily to the home of his fiancee…”

No, no, no, that just won’t do any more. Let us set up the problem properly:

Asami is meeting Korra for lunch downtown. Korra is $E$ blocks east and $N$ blocks north of Asami, on the rectangular street grid of downtown Republic City. Because Asami is eager to meet Korra, her path never doubles back. That is, each move Asami takes must bring her closer to Korra on the street grid. How many different routes can Asami take to meet Korra?

Solution below the fold.
Continue reading Less Heteronormative Homework

Here’s a Question for You

Did any futurologists from last century predict online harassment? All I remember is VR, full-body haptic interfaces, video-telephones that would translate as you talked…. It was all this kind of thing:

  • “Unused computes on the Internet are harvested, creating … human brain hardware capacity.”
  • “The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments…with full visual realism.”
  • “Interactive brain-generated music … is another popular genre.”
  • “the underclass is politically neutralized through public assistance and the generally high level of affluence”
  • “Diagnosis almost always involves collaboration between a human physician and a … expert system.”
  • “Humans are generally far removed from the scene of battle.”
  • “Despite occasional corrections, the ten years leading up to 2009 have seen continuous economic expansion”
  • “Cables are disappearing.”
  • “grammar checkers are now actually useful”
  • “Intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel.”
  • “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) software”
  • “Autonomous nanoengineered machines … have been demonstrated and include their own computational controls.”

All of these are from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), specifically its list of predictions for 2009.

The most insightful-in-retrospect predictions I recall were from Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication (1993), but that book was about honest errors and confusion, not venom and spite. Surely someone speculated about the Net enabling new ways of making people’s lives miserable, but I’m having a hard time recalling examples which are really pertinent. I can’t help thinking that the downsides which people had in mind weren’t the ones we face now.

Art for After the Ladder Pulling-Up

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Forgive all the cartoon talk. I spent the day trying to understand, whatever I didn’t understand, about [The New Republic]. More Monday.

Me: I’m reading this as saying that ’80s cartoons are essential for understanding TNR.

TNC: Yes. But I haven’t figured out why…

This little exchange, and the Jem and Robotech discussion which led up to it, got me to thinking about the cartoons of my own childhood. In turn, that called something to mind from my years of studying the Found-in-Used-Book-Store-Basement Canon. Quoting from Antonia Levi’s Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation (1996):

Why do young Americans stick with an art form that is so foreign and so difficult to understand, an art form that actually makes them work? Generation X’s image does not usually include much emphasis on the work ethic. Yet, this is the generation that has chosen to tackle a challenging art form purely for the purpose of entertainment. One reason, of course, is that the Baby Busters simply aren’t as lazy as Boomer curmudgeons would like to believe. The other reason, however, is that anime more than repays the effort by providing its fans with a fantasy world more compelling and more complete than they can find anywhere else. Okay, it’s escapism, but for a generation whose defining characteristic is that they are the first set of Americans who will not do as well as their parents, good escapism is worth a little effort.

Plus ├ža change, amirite?

Concerning “Great Books”

Shimer College: the worst school in America?

Subhead: This tiny, eccentric institution in Chicago was just voted the worst place to study in America. But does Shimer, which shuns lectures and has no societies or clubs, deserve such an accolade? Jon Ronson went there to investigate.

In the body, we have a bit more detail:

This is a ‘great books’ college. The great books of the western tradition, not the professors, are the teachers: Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Aristotle’s Poetics and Homer’s Odyssey and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity and Kafka and Derrida and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Machiavelli and Shakespeare and the Bible.

Continue reading Concerning “Great Books”

“It Should Have Been Obvious”

I can’t find my copy of The God Delusion. It wandered off to join the fairies in the Boston Public Garden, or something. This is only a problem when I’d like to look something up in it, to point to a passage and say, “Ah! If we’d read more carefully, we could have guessed that Dawkins was that terrible all along. It should have been obvious, even before he discovered Twitter!”

I could say more on this, and perhaps if the book turns up, and I have important work to procrastinate on but no Columbo episodes to watch, I might write at greater length. For now, I’ll just comment on a little thing which I don’t recall anyone pointing out before. The epigraph of the book is the Douglas Adams quotation to which I alluded, the one to the effect that the beauty of a garden should be satisfaction enough, without having to imagine “fairies at the bottom of it” in addition. This quotation comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where it is part of Ford Prefect’s inner monologue. Ford is rejecting Zaphod Beeblebrox’s claim that their stolen spaceship is currently orbiting the lost planet of Magrathea. To Ford, Magrathea is “a myth, a fairy story, it’s what parents tell their kids about at night if they want them to grow up to become economists”.
Continue reading “It Should Have Been Obvious”

“the proudest products of our little world”

Ah, the “who speaks for Earth?” parlour game. It’s up there with “which historical figure would you like to have for dinner” and “if you could be a fictional character for a day” for entertaining displays of merrily frivolous erudition. Who—drawing, if we like, from all human history—should be our representatives to an alien civilization? What, in our fantasy, would the aliens appreciate, and who embodies those qualities? Danny Inouye? Lyudmila Pavlichenko? Honinbo Sansa? Sappho? Eratosthenes? Josephine Baker? Emmy Noether? Malcolm X? Alan Turing? Ahmes? Yoko Kanno? Srinivasa Ramanujan?

And what do our choices say about ourselves, about the way we codify canons and build cultural capital?

Per this entertaining development, I’m reminded of something the science writer Timothy Ferris once wrote:

Imagine that we here on Earth have made contact with an interstellar network and have downloaded thousands of simulations from its memory banks. All over the planet people are putting on VR helmets and immersing themselves in the art, culture, and science of alien worlds. We in turn have uplinked whole libraries’ worth of Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, Homer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt, Newton and Einstein, Darwin and Watson and Crick, the proudest products of our little world. Yet we appreciate that our wisdom and science are limited, our art to some degree provincial. There may be an audience somewhere among the stars for Virgil and Dante and Kubrick and Kurosawa, just as there may be some humans who genuinely enjoy the poetry of the crystalline inhabitants of Ursa Major AC+ 79 3888, but it is apt to be a limited audience. Our movies and plays are not likely to find a wide popular following in the Milky Way galaxy—any more than many humans settling down on the sofa after dinner are likely to watch an infrasonic opera that lasts ten years, the cast of which are alien invertebrates who dine on live spiders.

Continue reading “the proudest products of our little world”


One day, I’ll be able to explain the story behind how I got into this, but looking back on all the oddities of it, I’m not sure that a medium other than manga could do it justice.

My Struggles with the Block Universe [arXiv:1405.2390]

Christopher A. Fuchs, Maximilian Schlosshauer (foreword), Blake C. Stacey (editor)

This document is the second installment of three in the Cerro Grande Fire Series. Like its predecessor arXiv:quant-ph/0105039, “Notes on a Paulian Idea,” it is a collection of letters written to various friends and colleagues, most of whom regularly circuit this archive. The unifying theme of all the letters is that each has something to do with the quantum. Particularly, the collection chronicles the emergence of Quantum Bayesianism as a robust view of quantum theory, eventually evolving into the still-more-radical “QBism” (with the B standing for no particular designation anymore), as it took its most distinctive turn away from various Copenhagen Interpretations. Included are many anecdotes from the history of quantum information theory: for instance, the story of the origin of the terms “qubit” and “quantum information” from their originator’s own mouth, a copy of a rejection letter written by E. T. Jaynes for one of Rolf Landauer’s original erasure-cost principle papers, and much more. Specialized indices are devoted to historical, technical, and philosophical matters. More roundly, the document is an attempt to provide an essential ingredient, unavailable anywhere else, for turning QBism into a live option within the vast spectrum of quantum foundational thought.

As the comment field says, “CAUTION, do not unthinkingly print from a printer: 2,348 pages, 4 indices, 6 figures, with extensive hyperlinking.”

MSwtBU was originally submitted to the arXiv on 10 May 2014, the anniversary of the predecessor volume and before that of the Cerro Grande Fire, which started the whole business. To my knowledge, it is the longest item currently on the arXiv.

omg 2000+ pages. There goes my free time.
— Dave Bacon, via Twitter

Time Capsule

While looking through old physics books for alternate takes on my quals problems, I found a copy of Sir James Jeans’ Electricity and Magnetism (5th edition, 1925). It’s a fascinating time capsule of early views on relativity and what we know call the “old quantum theory,” that is, the attempt to understand atomic and molecular phenomena by adding some constraints to fundamentally classical physics. Jeans builds up Maxwellian electromagnetism starting from the assumption of the aether. Then, in chapter 20, which was added in the fourth edition (1919), he goes into special relativity, beginning with the Michelson–Morley experiment. Only after discussing many examples in detail does he, near the end of the chapter, say

If, then, we continue to believe in the existence of an ether we are compelled to believe not only that all electromagnetic phenomena are in a conspiracy to conceal from us the speed of our motion through the ether, but also that gravitational phenomena, which so far as is known have nothing to do with the ether, are parties to the same conspiracy. The simpler view seems to be that there is no ether. If we accept this view, there is no conspiracy of concealment for the simple reason that there is no longer anything to conceal.

Continue reading Time Capsule