Category Archives: books

A postscriptum on diversity and learning a language

“The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling. Because they were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be “unnatural,” and that it cannot last because it is incompatible with human nature. But even they may one day know fire, hunger, and the sword.”

— Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind

I grew up in Europe, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I’ve often had to try to explain my country of origin to those born and raised on this side of the Atlantic. Facts can be learned. It’s the lack of imagination that can be the greater problem. It’s disbelief that learning is in fact needed. It’s making assumptions instead of asking questions. It’s demanding a simple picture where the truth is complex. It’s presuming social or political homogeneity where the reality is ripe in conflict and discord. It’s failing, or perhaps not wanting, to understand just how far the circumstances of a different time and place might be from the here and now. and to accept that, were we placed there and then, we would likely behave the same way as those who were in fact so placed.

I’m neither a historian, nor a social scientist, nor willing to accept an unpaid second job. I can only do it in small steps, for my own pleasure. Even just for that, I needed a language that I could use. I needed examples and templates, in English, that I could try to work with. For a long time, I could not find what I wanted. English-language history books, for the most part, neither understood nor cared much about our life down on the ground. At the same time, I had too little in common with those Eastern European writers whose goal in writing was to distance themselves from their own background before witnesses who shared that background and, often, the distancing. That was not the argument I wanted to have. History has already passed judgement on communism and I’m satisfied enough with its verdict. I do, however, want to argue with those who view us with a mixture of pity and condescension, who consider the details of our history unimportant, who dismiss without looking the artistic and intellectual accomplishments of the Eastern Bloc as “couldn’t possibly have been any good,” who bounce the word “communism” here and there like a beach ball but have no idea how that system actually worked.

If you are reading this, you may have already seen my last post on the legacy of Communist and Soviet symbols in Poland:

I learned to give little thought to the walled-off parts of the city. The [Soviet] soldiers were easy to ignore in my daily life: they marched through our streets on their way to or from exercises, but otherwise they and their families stayed within their gated communities. I grew up mocking the unkempt buildings with newspapers in place of window curtains, but also reading children’s books from the Russian bookstore, which was open to the public; as a university student, I returned there for mathematical monographs unavailable in Polish. We resented that the Soviet food stores were well stocked even when ours were empty. Poles, especially children, would sometimes sneak in and shop there: a guard might look the other way, a Russian woman might allow a Polish kid to come in with her. I dreamed of travelling the world, becoming a scientist or an astronaut, but did not know and probably could not imagine what it might be like to live in a city without the Soviet army.

For comparison, here’s an article on how living with Confederate flags and statues in the south of the US was “like having a crazy family member.”

For those of us not born and bred below the Mason-Dixon, it can be really jarring to encounter symbols of the Old South sprinkled all over the place, as though by a casual hand. But given the ubiquity of these symbols, it makes sense that you’d kind of have to let them fade into the background, or you might never leave your house. […]

Everyone deserves to have local pride; it’s just that for a lot of black people in the South, getting to do that means having to swim in the racial messiness that comes with civic life there. The cultures of Southern black folks and Southern white folks have always been defined by a peculiar, complicated familiarity. That might explain why so many black folks have — by necessity — come to look on displays of the Confederate flag with something subtler than apoplexy, why Naima just rolled her eyes at the flags on her campus and moved on. Like a lot of black Southerners, she clearly had a lot more practice holding all of these ideas in her head at once than we Northerners do. The flag matters to her. Of course it matters. It’s just not the only thing that matters.

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Art in the life of mathematicians

IMG_3130

This book has been in the works for some years now, and I’m thrilled to finally have a demo copy to show you. The book will be published by the American Mathematical Society. The demo copy has been produced (impressively quickly!) by the Hungarian publisher Ab Ovo. I’m very grateful to Anna Kepes Szemerédi for envisioning this project in the first place, and for all the hard work she has put into it.

I have contributed an essay on photography. You can download it here, and here is the gallery of the photos I offered to be used in the book. The photo on the cover is also mine. I hope that this will encourage you to purchase the book when it becomes available; I’m only one out of many contributors (see the cover for the list of names), and the book format will add further value through graphic design. If you’re expecting “mathematical art” as exemplified for example by the Bridges conference, I must warn you that this is not what I do. (In the essay, I explain why.) There is some overlap with one of my blog posts from last year: the post was adapted from an earlier version of the essay, and then I used it in writing the final version.

Anna first approached me about this in late 2011. I was much less confident then, both in my photography and in my writing. I have worked on both since then. One thing I wish I’d seen before I submitted my contribution is this classic piece by Linda Nochlin on the absence of great women artists in the history of art. Here’s what she says about “the lady’s accomplishment”:

In contrast to the single-mindedness and commitment demanded of a chef d’ecole, we might set the image of the “lady painter” established by 19th century etiquette books and reinforced in the literature of the times. It is precisely the insistence upon a modest, proficient, self demeaning level of amateurism as a “suitable accomplishment” for the well brought up young woman, who naturally would want to direct her major attention to the welfare of others–family and husband–that militated, and still militates, against any real accomplishment on the part of women. It is this emphasis which transforms serious commitment to frivolous self-indulgence, busy work, or occupational therapy, and today, more than ever, in suburban bastions of the feminine mystique, tends to distort the whole notion of what art is and what kind of social role it plays.

This got me thinking back on what I wrote about photography and wondering for a moment if I might have fallen into the trap of “suitable accomplishment.” In the end, it clarified for me the distinction between the commitment to the process of getting better, and the expectation of achieving a certain level of excellence, and the expectation of gaining public acclaim. I have always been anything but unambitious. Nonetheless, I have never aimed to be a “great artist.” I am not altogether indifferent to success in art, as evidenced by this self-promotional post, but what made me pick up the camera is the pleasure I find in taking photographs. My enjoyment of it is not conditional on finding an audience, receiving public recognition, or on any presumption of greatness. Instead, it comes from trying to get better at it. The pleasure is not in taking the same photographs over and over again, but in expanding my range, improving my technique, seeking out new ideas and solutions. The seriousness of my commitment is in my engagement in the process.

I suppose that this does not make me a lady.

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Obedience training

This happy and cheerful period on my blog would not be complete without some mention of Anton Makarenko’s “Pedagogical poem,” aka “The Road to Life.” (Full text available here.) Makarenko, in case you don’t know, was one of the founders of Soviet pedagogy, best known for his work at the Gorky colony and the Dzerzhynsky colony, and for the book in question.

The Soviet government was chaotic and disorganized through much of the 1920s, with multiple factions and doctrines competing for dominance. On a practical level, the Bolsheviks had little if any experience with actual governance and running of the state institutions, and whatever blueprints they might have thought they had rarely survived confrontation with reality, so they made it up as they went along. Makarenko was one of such improvisers, controversial at first for his methods. Evidently, not everyone – even among Bolsheviks – shared his ideas, especially as they pertained to child labour and military-style organization of educational institutions. Stalin’s rule put an end to those voices in the 1930s. Makarenko was vindicated in a Resolution of the Central Committee of the Party on “pedological distortions” in 1936, became respected and imitated, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour in 1939. (Warning: that link is to a Soviet-era hagiography piece in PDF.)

In 1920, the Bolshevik authorities tasked Makarenko, a 32 year old teacher at the time, with establishing a new colony for juvenile delinquents in the countryside near Kharkiv, Ukraine. (This eventually became known as the Gorky colony.) Initially, the staff consisted of a manager and two more teachers; the buildings were in a state of disrepair, the furniture, equipment and almost everything else of value having been stolen. After two months or so of preparations, the colony welcomed its first six charges, who immediately set about ignoring their supposed superiors, undermining their authority, and demanding food and service while refusing to do any work. One was arrested for robbery and murder soon after his arrival. The colony continued in that manner for a few months, until Makarenko finally found a way into their hearts, which he describes thusly.

And then, one day, the storm broke. I suddenly lost my footing on the tight rope of pedagogical practice. One wintry morning I asked Zadorov to chop some wood for the kitchen stove, receiving the usual cheerfully insolent reply: “Do it thyself! God knows there are plenty of you here!”

It was the first time any of the boys addressed me with the familiar ‘thou.” Desperate with rage and indignation, driven to utter exasperation by the experiences of the previous months, I raised my hand and dealt Zadorov a blow full in the face. I hit him so hard that he lost his balance end fell against the stove. Again I struck him, seizing him by the collar and actually lifting him off his feet. And then I struck him the third time.

I saw to my astonishment that he was simply aghast. Pale as death, he kept putting on and taking off his cap with trembling hands. Perhaps I would have gone on hitting him, if he had not begun to whimper out: “Forgive me, Anton Semyonovich!”

And then… they happily lived ever after. When Makarenko ordered the boys to work that day, they complied:

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Kobo, 8 months later

Since my Kobo review continues to attract interest, I might as well post an update on how the device has been working for me.

Based on the Google searches used to find my review, everyone and their dog wants to know whether they can read PDF on a Kobo. Some of you would even like to put math and other research papers on it. Well, I tried, reported on it in the earlier post, and gave up. I did transfer a few PDF novels to the device but have not yet tried to read them. As for keeping my math library on it, there are just too many obstacles. The screen is too small for comfortable reading of normal TEX output. Navigation within files is cumbersome, as is switching between files (you can only have one file open at a time). There is no organizing system, so that even if I managed to transfer my entire math library to the Kobo – one file at a time, probably – all of it would end up together in one big folder and it would take me forever to scroll through that to find what I want. And then it would be a pain to update the papers when they get replaced on the arXiv. Various partial fixes have been suggested, but overall, reading math papers on a Kobo would be like making scrambled eggs on the hot plate on my coffeemaker. Could be done, I suppose, but I can darn well afford to buy a frying pan.

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The girl who played with Fermat’s theorem

I finally got around to reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy over the last couple of weeks. In case you too are late to the party, here’s a New York Times article about Larsson, his books and his legacy, and here’s the trailer for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the Swedish movie based on the first book in the series.

The best thing about the trilogy is its feminist angle. The villains are “men who hate women” (the Swedish title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), and here Larsson has a point of view that’s all too rare in mainstream popular culture. His female characters aren’t just props against whom crimes can be committed so that the action could advance. They’re actual human beings who have agency, fight back and take control of their lives, even as they remain damaged by the experience. Larsson does not romanticize domestic or sexual violence – it’s not about love or sex, it’s about control and humiliation – nor does he spare the legal and welfare systems that let the victims fall through the cracks too often. (The Robert Pickton case comes to mind, for several reasons.)

Parallel to this, and not entirely unrelated, is the nagging sexism in the workplace, the media, and the society at large:

She had been the first journalist to pounce on the story, and without her programme on the evening that Millennium released the scoop, it might not have made the impact it did. Only later did Blomkvist find out that she had had to fight tooth and nail to convince her editor to run it. […] Several of her more senior colleagues had given it a thumbs-down and told her that if she was wrong, her career was over. She stood her ground, and it became the story of the year.

She had covered the story herself that first week – after all, she was the only reporter who had thoroughly researched the subject – but some time before Christmas Blomkvist noticed that all the new angles in the story had been handed over to male colleagues. Around New Year’s Blomkvist heard through the grapevine that she had been elbowed out […].

This is stuff that I normally only read on feminist websites. I’m not used to seeing it in #1 New York Times bestsellers.

The first book in the series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is also the best one and I’ve caught myself wishing that Larsson had stopped there. It feels like a cop-out when we learn in the third book that “All The Evil” (Larsson’s term) was really the work of a few deranged individuals overstepping legal boundaries and that the negligent legal system of TGWTDT just needs a good kick to snap back into place. If only it were so simple.

The worst thing about the series is the mathematical interludes in The Girl Who Played With Fire. We’re told that Lisbeth Salander, the goth hacker played by Noomi Rapace in the movie, is also a puzzle-loving math genius who solves Fermat’s last theorem, or thinks she does, in a passage that Tim Gowers singled out for attention some time ago.
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The geek factor

Richard Morgan explains the problem with contemporary science fiction:


A preparedness to accept very poor levels of quality in fiction (as discussed above) so long as the gosh-wow factor is cranked up sufficiently high. Recently I was asked in an interview if I watched much TV and in response I cited
The Wire as the finest TV drama around. This wasn’t what the interviewer was after, so he rephrased the question and asked me if I watched much SF&F TV. But the way he prefaced the remark was, I think, very telling. Of course they’re not in the same class as The Wire, he said, but have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica or Heroes?

Now my question is why isn’t there any SF&F TV drama in the same class as The Wire? There could be – look at movies like Bladerunner or Alien, novels like Geoff Ryman’s Air or Peter Watts’ Blindsight, comic-book work like Alan Moore’s From Hell or Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s not that the talent isn’t out there – it’s that the genre as a consumer demographic assigns negligible value to that talent. We would rather wallow in threadbare franchise mediocrity and clichéd visions thirty years past their sell-by date. So sure, Watts and Ryman are in print – but set their sales against those of the latest interchangeable pastel-shaded elf or magician-in-training brick or the interminable Halo/Star Wars-type franchises. There’s just no comparison.

I grew up on a constant diet of high quality science fiction. Stanislaw Lem wasn’t just the leading Polish science-fiction writer – he was one of the best contemporary Polish writers, period. That pretty much set the high standard. Of course we also had the translations of the likes of Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin. But then I left Poland and, around the same time, lost interest in the genre for many years. (Almost 20 years, in case you’re interested.) Turns out, back there we’d only had a small fraction of Western sci-fi available in translation, but those titles were selected for their high quality. We couldn’t afford the Star Wars novels within the financial constraints of the Polish publishing industry in the 1970s and 80s, and they probably wouldn’t have looked that good next to Lem on a shelf, anyway. Over here, though, the Star Wars and Star Trek sequels can take up half of the sci-fi section of your local bookstore, most of the other half being similar in style. I did not want to have to browse through that. It was depressing to even walk up there.

Then the internet happened somewhere along the way, and when I started looking around, the sci-fi writers had the best blogs and web pages. No big surprise, really, if you think about it. The blogs are worth reading just for the lively commentary on everything from the writing craft to the political issues of the day, but what’s relevant here is that this is how I found book recommendations, free writing samples, short stories, even full length books available for free download. I also discovered that I rather liked some of them.

That brings us back to Blindsight, the best new sci-fi novel I’ve read in a very long time as well as one of the best novels of any genre that I read last year, available for free from the author’s webpage. I was going to say more about it, then decided that I couldn’t really improve on this Bookslut review, so I’ll just refer you there. The mathematicians here might be interested to know that the main character of Blindsight is, among other things, a “topologist” – a brilliant projection of the current meaning of the word. (You may have heard that Peter Watts made the news recently for other reasons; that story, as depressing as any sci-fi dystopia that I’ve seen, has finally come to a conclusion. But I digress.) I have not read Air or anything else by Ryman, or anything by Morgan for that matter. Perhaps that should be next on my list.

I guess what I’d like to know is whether the association with science might be hurting the literary quality of science fiction. Continue reading

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Maanam

My favourite Salman Rushdie novel is The Ground Beneath Her Feet. If that ever gets made into a movie, this is what Vina and Ormus should look like. That’s how I always see them.

Yes, I know that several things would be wrong with that picture, starting with the ethnicity. Still, this particular clip comes as close to it as anything I know.

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