Good, closer, best

It’s funny how the good-better-best sequence misbehaves if you apply it to the word “friend”. A best friend is a perfectly good superlative of a good friend. But if you say Joe is a “better friend” than John, that introduces a negative tone. The right thing is to say that Joe is a “closer friend” than John.

As my mother told me and my sister, comparisons are odious.

[20 September 2018]


Jack London and the French

At the end of a happy year in Lyon, during which I see I’ve written five of these notes related to France, I will finish with three more. Here is the first.

Jack London is one of those authors Americans have heard of and possibly read as teenagers. But if you ask an American these days to list some important American novels, I doubt they’ll think of The Call of the Wild or White Fang.

But the French will! I marvel at how alive Jack London is in this country. He is seen as one of the essential American authors. Translations of his books are on their shelves and in their bookstores, well-read and well-loved.

You may expect me now to remark that this shows a limitation of the French perspective, perhaps that they are trapped in a Wild Western image of America that is long out of date. But I read Croc Blanc this year, and I loved it too. It’s marvelous! Truly a book for the ages.

So I have reached the opposite conclusion. Americans, knowing their culture in detail, are aware of a thousand things, and this is natural. But from a distance, one may see more clearly the main lines, and in my opinion, the French have got this one right.

[15 September 2018]

Bad logic in a good cause 3: unconscious bias

We all want hiring to be fair.  In support of this goal, lately we are required to not notice a glaring gap of logic.  Orwell called the necessary skill doublethink.

The issue is what’s termed “unconscious bias”.  The Royal Society has issued a position paper, and we are required to read it for hiring in the Oxford Mathematical Institute.  Here is the logic of the paper in the context of gender and mathematics:

(a) There is no evidence that males or females are intrinsically more able at math.

(b) Nevertheless, many of us unconsciously suppose a man is more likely to be outstanding at math than a woman.  (Pointer here to a famous web site at Harvard.)

(c) This is a contradiction: position (b) is unjustified.

But both (a) and (b) can be true!  Statement (a) pertains to intrinsic ability, whereas (b) pertains to the adult products of decades of socialization and education.  Alas, four out of five math PhDs are men.  We must try to change this, and fighting our biases in hiring is indeed crucial — but let’s not pervert logic along the way.

Here are the RS’s slippery words.  “…You unconsciously associate science with men and arts with women….  There are such strong cultural stereotypes that they feel truthful, when research has shown over and over again, that they are not.”

[1 September 2018]

Zurich, Los Angeleeze, and Thomas Wilson

For years I have proudly known that Zurich, in English, has no umlaut. This is a word in English, and it’s simply irrelevant what the German version may be.

At the same time I have scorned the British for their mispronunciation “Los Angeleeze”. That’s just plain wrong and ignorant, I have thought.

Painfully, slowly, I have accepted that these two positions are inconsistent, and I am duty bound to recognize that in British English, that Californian city is Los Angeleeze.

Just when I thought I had put this all behind me, here comes a new challenge! One of the main squares in Toulouse is the Place du Président Thomas Wilson. The French, who can’t get their heads around middle names, are calling Woodrow Thomas! So let me ask you, then: am I duty bound to accept that in France, the 28th American President was Thomas Wilson?

Good mathematics students

I just got a message from my colleagues at NYU mentioning that some undergraduates have done well in a certain math contest. Their names are Ruihan Yang, Fangyuan Liu, Chang Li, Ximing Cheng, Suru A, Wentao Zo, Dong Hyun Kim, Priyesh Chakraborty, Tianrui Xu, Shibei Guo, Jaewoo Chang, Ritvik Joshi, Jiadai Xia, Zhihao Tang, Yunji Wu, Aiwen Xu, Siqing Zhang, Zian Chen, Junlin He, Yucheng Wang, Zhijian Yang, Yi Yin, Zijia Lu, Yue Ying Zhang, Junlin Liu, Ziyi Tang, Shiyu Zhang, Pengcheng Han, Weiyi Lu, and Zhengxu L.

[12 April 2017]

Henry James and J. S. Bach

Here in Washington Square Village I’m rereading Washington Square and am reminded of how wonderful Henry James is. Such perfect and perfectly hilarious use of words! Of course, some things he writes are explicitly funny, but the most exquisite are those that one could not say are funny outright and yet are, in some deeper sense, hilarious. This is exactly what Bach does to me. Nobody could accuse the cantatas or the Brandenburgs of being strings of one-liners… why do they bring such smiles of amusement?

I think the secret is the same in both cases: mastery. Bach and James are so utterly in control of their crafts that we sit back and enjoy. Our inner laughter is a response to their strength.

[19 September 2015]

I am Paul McCartney

I have long had a theory about the Beatles and Bob Dylan. I know their songs intimately, every note, every cough, every crackle. My theory is, I know the recordings better than they do. Paul McCartney has played Yesterday thousands of times, no two of them identical. What chance has he got against me with the thousands of times I’ve heard the 1965 version?

Today I had the chance to be McCartney. I had a fine afternoon working with my new student Abi Gopal, who seems to have read all my works and knows them backwards. Toward the end of the day I proposed that we try a certain trick adapted from my AAA approximation paper of a couple of years ago. He agreed that this was a good idea, and then gently showed me that I hadn’t remembered the algorithm right.

[10 March 2018]