Category Archives: writing

A response to Scott Aaronson

Scott Aaronson has been kind enough to respond on his blog to a couple of my tweets. I would like to thank him for his interest and engagement, and encourage everyone to take the time to read his entire post. There is also an excellent discussion in the comments.

Much of the discourse focuses on the use and misuse of jargon in social and physical sciences, and specifically on words such as “privilege,” “delegitimization,” or “disenfranchised.” I’ll address that in a moment, but let me first say that my main reason for objecting to the comment that started this discussion was the phrase “This isn’t quantum field theory” at the end. I understood this, in the context of that comment and the comment to which Aaronson was responding, and in light of the similarity to the well known phrase about rocket science, to imply that social sciences do not have the same complexity as quantum field theory and should not need a multilayered structure where concepts are defined, compared, then used to define further concepts, whereupon the procedure is repeated and iterated, so as to make advanced discourse possible and manageable. Aaronson has now explained that this would be an oversimplification of his position, and I’m glad to stand corrected.

I also would like to speak to some of the other points that he makes about language, feminism, social science, and clarity of writing. I’ll try not to repeat the arguments that his commenters have already made, perhaps better than I could have done it. Still, I have no desire to hide (as some have suggested) behind Twitter’s 140-character limit and avoid making my case at more length. And so, here we are. I will just quote the last two paragraphs from Aaronson’s post, but please do go to his site to read the rest:

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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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The limits of writing for free

Earlier this year, and to the disgust of much of the science writing community, Jonah Lehrer gave a speech at the Knight Foundation in which he apologized for his misdeeds. He was paid 20K for the appearance. Lehrer, you might recall, is the bestselling science writer who recycled old articles for pay, plagiarized stuff, and fabricated Dylan quotes he used in one of his books.

That’s the first data point. The second one is more recent. Last month, Nate Thayer started a lively debate on the future of journalism by publishing an email exchange between himself and an Atlantic editor who asked for an article for free. See for instance this analysis by Felix Salmon and a must-read response from Alexis Madrigal. But the article I’d like to highlight is Ezra Klein’s “Revenge of the sources”:

The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free. […]

Now, the people who were once sources can write their own blogs, or they send op-ed submissions or even feature articles to editors looking for vastly more content. Think about Brad DeLong’s blog, Marginal Revolution, or the Monkey Cage. This work often doesn’t pay — at least not at first — but it offers a much more reliable, predictable and controllable form of exposure. It’s a direct relationship with an audience rather than one mediated by a professional journalist.

Time for the third and last data point. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the “main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences”, declares in its funding guide (page 32) that:

Investigators are expected to participate in activities that seek to engage the public with engineering and science. Results from individual research projects may provide opportunities to engage the public through various forms of media communication.

In official terminology, this is Public Engagement, part of something called Pathways to Impact which is a mandatory component of a grant application. This guide advises the researchers – among other things – to plan a public engagement strategy, develop “an activity timeline or Gantt chart” (?), and “[t]hink about [their] public engagement role as one that is ongoing”. (On paper at least, this seems to go quite a bit beyond NSF’s “broad impact”. While “public engagement” is listed as only one way of fulfilling the “impact” requirements, in practice many researchers might not have other options available.)

In other words, academics are told to practice journalism for free – the same thing to which Nate Thayer and others reacted so strongly.

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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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Just what I needed.

Yesterday I tweeted a link to a web page that produces instant drabbles. (Don’t ask.) There should be a similar page for instant math papers, I thought. We could all use an extra paper or two when we apply for a grant, come up for promotion, or (shudder) go on the job market. In response, Ahavajora suggested this link. So, I tried it. Here’s my brand new instant math paper:

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What if mathematicians wrote travel articles?

Some time ago I suggested that scientists might not always make the best writers. I guess I wasn’t the only person ever to make this profound observation. Slate has since published this piece on how political scientists would cover the news; see also here. As hilarious as these are, I would say that there’s more to the picture. The story below is inspired by this one (hat tip to Terry Tao). Believe it or not, there are actual reasons why we have to write like this sometimes. I’m as guilty as anyone. In fact, I’m in the middle of revising one of my papers right now…

In this article we describe the plane flight that Roger and I took to San Francisco. The purpose of our trip was to meet Sergey, our collaborator on the paper “The structure of fuzzy foils” (J. Fuzzy Alg. Geom. 2003) who also co-organized with me an MSRI workshop in 2005. Our main result was to arrive at the San Francisco airport at the expected time and meet Sergey there. To accomplish this, we relied on a regularly scheduled flight on a commercial airline. For the history of aviation (including commercial aviation) and the general background, we refer the interested reader to Wikipedia (see also Britannica).

This article is organized as follows. We first explain a few preliminary steps, including the travel to the airport and the check-in procedure. The main part of the trip was the actual flight, which we discuss in a new paragraph. We conclude with a few remarks on arriving at the destination airport.

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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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