Category Archives: politics

A politician, a linguist and a mathematician walk into a bar

Or at least I wish they did, because they’d have interesting stuff to talk about.

This being the political convention season, I came across an article at Smart Politics evaluating the grade level of convention speeches, based on numerical analysis of data such as the length of sentences and usage of multisyllabic words. According to the analysts, Michelle Obama delivered a speech at 12th grade level, the highest ever by a wife of a presidential nominee in convention history and several grades above all of Obama’s State of the Union addresses so far. Ann Romney, by contrast, clocked in at 5th grade level. Here’s an Ann Romney sample from the article:

“This man will not fail. This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America! … Look into your hearts. This is our country. This is our future. These are our children and grandchildren. You can trust Mitt. He loves America. He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance. Give him that chance. Give America that chance.”

For comparison, here’s a sample from Michelle Obama’s speech:

“He’s the same man who started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down, fighting to rebuild those communities and get folks back to work, because for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”

It’s actually quite stunning to see Barack Obama’s SOTU speeches rated at 8th grade level, considering his high reputation for eloquence and intellectual accomplishment. I have not read “Dreams From My Father” (and I already have a long reading list, thank you very much), but Michiko Kakutani professes high regard for Obama’s “ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire”, his “appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading”, and praises his book as “the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president”. Obama’s writing, successful or not, has never been short on either ambition or complicated words. Famously, he wrote this appreciation of The Waste Land in a letter to a girlfriend back in his college days:

I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements — Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism — Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance.

Clearly, the guy can hazard statements, maintain dichotomies and perceive choices with the best of them when he wants to. So, what gives?

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Joe, meet Pavlik

Joe Lieberman on the need for vigilance:

[Lieberman] urged Americans to be especially vigilant in reporting any leads to authorities in the coming days.

“This is a classic ‘If you see something, say something’ moment,” he said. “If you see suspicious behavior, call the police immediately — and that includes if you see suspicious behavior by someone who is a friend or family member.”

Mr. Lieberman, I think you might have enjoyed meeting Pavlik Morozov.

Pavel Trofimovich Morozov (Russian: Па́вел Трофи́мович Моро́зов; November 14, 1918 – September 3, 1932), better known by the diminutive Pavlik, was a Soviet youth glorified by Soviet propaganda as a martyr. His story, dated to 1932, is that of a 13-year old boy who denounced his father to the authorities and was in turn killed by his family. It was a Soviet morality tale: opposing the state was selfish and reactionary, and loyalty to the state was a higher virtue than family love. His story was a subject of compulsory reading, songs, plays, a symphonic poem, a full-length opera and six biographies. The cult had a huge impact on the moral norms of generations of children. There is very little original evidence related to the story, much of it hearsay provided by second-hand witnesses. According to modern research, the story (denunciation, trial) is most likely false, although Pavlik was a real child who was killed. Morozov’s story was the basis of Bezhin Meadow, an unreleased film from 1937 that was directed by Sergei Eisenstein.


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Truth, images and consequences

If you haven’t checked out the link in my last post, I will have to spoil the surprise for you. The link goes to a Weierstrass Institute webpage promoting its successful bid to host the permanent office of the International Mathematical Union; the item of interest is the photo gallery of 12 distinguished mathematicians who supported the bid. All 12 are male, white, probably in their 50s or 60s.

My point was that such imagery could have alienated part of the constituency that the institute was addressing. The IMU Executive Committee for 2007-2010 includes two women (Cheryl Praeger and Ragni Piene), Ingrid Daubechies has just been elected President for the 2011-2014 term, and Christine Rousseau has been elected one of the two Vice-Presidents. As for race, it must be said that Germany is an overwhelmingly white country and Berlin an overwhelmingly white city, but then it might be added that the IMU mandate specifically includes reaching out to developing countries and its office will have to be able to support that mandate. I wonder if anyone at IMU flagged that photo gallery. Maybe they did, but other considerations prevailed in the end.

I would have left it at that. It was a PR misstep, easy fodder for a quick blog post but ultimately not that consequential. But then the commenters came up with reasons why, perhaps, the pictures should have been all male. They argued for “truth in PR”: if the reality were all male, it would have been wrong to falsify the image by including women who clearly didn’t belong. This, I believe, deserves a longer response. It’s not merely a question of “lying is bad”. You have to think a bit harder, consider the context, look past the easy templates to find alternatives.
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Filed under feminism, politics, women in math

The less than friendly skies.

I’m not deluding myself that anyone in the Obama administration is actually reading this blog. Still, the more of us speak up the better, so here it goes.

You did say, Mr. President, that you would support science. “Restore it to its rightful place”, if I remember correctly. You have put a good deal of money behind that promise, and we’re very grateful for that.

You must know – if not as a President then as a former academic – how much we depend on international collaboration, including travel and movement of people across borders.

The new TSA regulations, if they stay in place, will make our travel to the U.S. just about impossible.

Right now, it’s mostly affecting the holiday travellers who have to get back home from their Christmas holidays. They have no choice but to shut up and put up with it. But come January, you might see a drop in the attendance of international participants at professional meetings. Some of the NSF panelists might not show up, or institute board members, or many others who volunteer their time and expertise without compensation and expect to be treated like the decent human beings that they are. And the research stars that your top universities would like to recruit might pass on that interview because they don’t want to have to fly in diapers.
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Paint it red

I grew up in a socialist country.

I’m reminded of it every time I hear that public health care is socialist, or that financial regulation is socialist, or that regulating the auto industry is socialist, or that taxation is “spreading the wealth” and therefore socialist. I don’t get the impression that this refers to the “socialism” of the Scandinavian variety. More likely, it refers to the Soviet Union and its then-satellite countries – exactly where I was born.

I suppose I should recognize those various socialist things – oppose them, even – as marks of the failed system that I grew up with. But I don’t. Instead, I try to find a way to explain life under socialism to someone who doesn’t know it and I come up short every time. It’s not just explaining why apples are not like oranges. It’s explaining why apples are not like hockey and oranges are not like patio furniture.

Yes, we did have more political repression and government regulation. Yes, we had censorship, rationing and fewer consumer articles. People understand that. But then you mention to someone the high prevalence of tooth decay, and they respond, “sure, I bet you didn’t have fluoridated water”, and then you don’t know if you’ll be able to answer that in less than half an hour, so you smile, say that it was actually a little bit more complicated, and change the subject.

Take for example taxation. Do you think it’s socialist? If so, you’ll be interested to know that neither my parents nor I had ever filed a personal tax return before I left Poland at the age of 23. Continue reading


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Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on gay marriage: “Not only is it a radical social idea, it is a purely socialist concept in the final analysis.”

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On every cloud a magic charm she sees

In the words of General MacArthur said, “We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction”.

Well. Dyzma's closing speech was shorter and more to the point.

Update: For the correct attribution and context of that quotation, see here. Also, fixed the broken link.

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