Interests and interests

The word “interests” in English has two meanings:

(a) things that are to your advantage,

(b) things you find interesting.

Most people run their lives according to (a) to a degree I find had to fathom. Calculations of self-interest may be conscious (a Senator supporting Trump’s election lies) or not-so-conscious (a cyclist going without a light since the police don’t enforce that rule). (The calculation may be essentially valid or not, but that’s not my concern here.)

Which brings me to (b). So many people’s interests are so narrow! I think that’s often because they are mainly interested in things they perceive as related to their self-interest. Most people, to a degree I find hard to fathom, are not very interested in topics or activities beyond what will advance their lives and their careers. So (a) and (b) end up entwined after all.

[16 October 2022]

Residences of a lifetime

According to my best count, there are 16 different places that I have lived for a year or more. This becomes 22 if you look at six months or more, and 35 for three months or more.

13 years: 23 Barberry Rd, Lexington, MA, USA (1955-70)
9 years: 11 Church Way, Iffley, Oxford, UK (2013-)
7 years: 36 Jack Straws Lane, Headington, Oxford, UK (1998-2006)
6 years: 11 Hemlock Way, Ithaca, NY, USA (1991-1997)
4 years: Harvard College, Cambridge, MA, USA (1973-77)
3 years: 16 Upland Rd, Cambridge, MA, USA (1984-87)
3 years: 9 Fuller Rd, Lexington, MA, USA (1987-90)
3 years: 61 Sunningwell Rd, Oxford, UK (2009-12)
2 years: Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH, USA (1970-73)
2 years: 242 Curtner Ave, Palo Alto, CA, USA (1978-80)
2 years: Euclid Ave, East Palo Alto, CA, USA (1980-82)
2 years: Washington Square Village, New York, NY, USA (1982-84)
2 years: John Towle Close, Oxford, UK (2007-09)
1 year : 141 Moreton Rd, Summertown, Oxford, UK (1997-98)
1 year : 10 Rodean St, Fig Tree Pocket, Brisbane, Australia (2003-4)
1 year : 49 rue St. Jean, Lyon, France (2017-18)

[22 January 2023]

Annoyance at bad writers

When I look at a mathematics paper, often I am annoyed at how badly is written. Once I decode the underlying idea being so poorly expressed, often I am annoyed at its shallowness. How can this person be so dim?

There’s an obvious paradox here. My success as a mathematics professor results precisely from my thinking more deeply and writing more clearly than most of the competition. If they were all like me, I would be just average. So why am I annoyed by the very thing that has made me successful?

I tried to figure out a resolution of this paradox and eventually realized that not every paradox has a resolution. My love of strong ideas clearly expressed is genuine. So is my love of personal success. Sometimes, one’s loves may point in contrary directions.

[8 January 2023]

Republicans and Democrats, men and women

Decade after decade, though the political landscape changes, Republicans and Democrats remain more or less equally balanced in the fight for political power. The Economist’s Lexington column this week tries to explain this effect, asking “Why is the country divided so evenly?”

The analogy with sex ratios in biology suggests to me that the explanation may be dynamical as well as political. The familiar paradox is that to maximize offspring, humanity would do better to have 10 women for every man, but that’s not how it happens. In such a world, men would end up with many more descendants than women. This would give a huge selection advantage to parents who gave birth to more than the usual small fraction of boy babies, quickly pushing the ratio back towards 1:1.

With political parties it won’t be as clean or as reliable, but I imagine there may be an analogous dynamic in play.

[7 January 2023]