Links: Pynchon, Marissa Mayer, Larry Summers, Finance, Blogging

I have a bit of a backlog here, but really what’s so important about being timely with these things? Who cares if many of these came out in the end of August…it’s been a busy semester. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

  • Pavlov Poke for Facebook.

  • Slate: This browser shortcut is like ctrl-z for the entire internet

  • An interesting article on Pynchon. Good quotes:

    “It’s my sense,” [a librarian talking to one of Pynchon’s old navy shipmates] mused, “that when you’d stop in Barcelona and the sailors would go to bars and whorehouses, he’d go to see a death cast of Chopin’s hands.”

    Pynchon later wrote that his time abroad during the Suez crisis turned him “from a Romantic into kind of a classicist,” which he defined as a writer who thought “other people were more interesting than I was and therefore better to write about.”

  • An interesting article in Business Insider about Marissa Mayer and a worthy response in Slate by David Auerbach. Auerbach, by the way, has written quite a few interesting articles in the past year; I recommend checking him out for more. (See, e.g., Auerbach on Aaron Swartz.) Also, yay for Stanford’s Symbolic Systems program, Marissa Mayer’s major.1

  • The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article with letters from Paul Samuelson to his nephew Larry Summers. (Trick of the Day: For paywalled WSJ articles, all you have to do is search for the article on google [it might only work for google news] and click on the link that way and you can circumvent the paywall.)

  • Andrew Sullivan on how blogging makes your writing better. There are drawbacks in terms of time, the way blogging makes one feel obligated to stay up-to-the-minute rather than taking a more contemplative approach. But much of is it true—certainly about Morozov. Maybe I’ll even stop using footnotes… A good point, too, for writing education. In another incarnation of my writing course, I might look into this. (Let me warn, though, that there’s a huge danger of the fetishization of “new media” in writing pedagogy. Also, I think it’s important to respect students’ wishes for privacy–and even to offer an in loco parentis protection of students’ future wish that they had been more discreet when they were younger. Maybe as an 18-year-old I might not have minded having to blog my opinions, but as a 28-year-old, I’m really glad that such things aren’t online.)

  • This looks like a cool course. It’s a shame that math really is too disparate for such a thing to work. For one, papers take much longer to read. But the big thing is that I really can’t understand an advanced paper in a different subfield.

  • Gay Talese on George Plimpton and the Paris Review crowd searching for Hemingway

  1. I am a SymSys pseudo-alum; Mike Krieger—worth circa $100m now—and I were the first two members of the class of 2008 to declare Symbolic Systems, and I worked as an RA in the Symbolic Systems theme house as a junior, but I ended up switching to math and never bothered to take an introductory cognitive science course requirement, so I didn’t even graduate with a minor in SymSys. Still, the influence of symsys on my freshman seminar on math, linguistics, and writing, and on much of my thinking, is profound. 

Wieseltier on Scientism

Leon Wieseltier offers a great sermon against scientism.

The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate. The credibility of physicists and biologists and economists on the subject of the meaning of life—what used to be called the ultimate verities, secularly or religiously constructed—cannot be owed to their work in physics and biology and economics, however distinguished it is. The extrapolation of larger ideas about life from the procedures and the conclusions of various sciences is quite common, but it is not in itself justified; and its justification cannot be made on internally scientific grounds, at least if the intellectual situation is not to be rigged. Science does come with a worldview, but there remains the question of whether it can suffice for the entirety of a human worldview. To have a worldview, Musil once remarked, you must have a view of the world. That is, of the whole of the world. But the reach of the scientific standpoint may not be as considerable or as comprehensive as some of its defenders maintain.

None of these strictures about the limitations of science, about its position in nonscientific or extra-scientific contexts, in any way impugns the integrity or the legitimacy or the necessity or the beauty of science. Science is a regular source of awe and betterment. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. Science is plainly owed this much support, this much reverence. This much—but no more. In recent years, however, this much has been too little for certain scientists and certain scientizers, or propagandists for science as a sufficient approach to the natural universe and the human universe. In a world increasingly organized around the dazzling new breakthroughs in science and technology, they feel oddly besieged.

Above all, let us note the strength and the verve of Wieseltier’s pen. There’s so much to say on these topics.

First, I think it needs to be said that science—as opposed to scientism—should be to be taught to and mastered by far more than scientists; in this, the humanists (and many others) have failed. (I should make clear that my notion of “science” here encompasses mathematics, probability, computer science, economic reasoning, etc.—all the Gamutian topics.) Saying this is not at all inconsistent with supporting Wieseltier’s thesis against scientism.

Second, Wieseltier’s admission that the humanities have gone wrong with their turn towards postmodernism and political correctness is true and worth repeating. (I did like his stab about how these unfortunate trends are supported by precisely this fetishization of the sexy and the new that scientists and deans share.1)

Finally, and most importantly, we need to remember that the greatest danger of scientism is not its encroachment upon the academic humanities–part of me wonders if there’s that much worth saving in the academy, whether we might just leave it to the literary journalists, who did it so much better anyways. Rather, the horror of scientism, its great and naive blindness, is in its complacent denial of the fundamental existential questions.

O, New Republic, you are a fickle beast—so good at times, which makes up for all those other times. Yes, the New Yorker might be reliable, clearly edited, fun—and it might even on occasion stray into really intellectual fare, especially when Louis Menand is writing. But this, this is the stuff that matters.

  1. An aside: I heard somewhere that mathematicians and physicists differ in the following sense: physicists tend to cluster towards hot new topics, following fads, while mathematicians tend to have the opposite tendency. I know very little about physics, but this seems a pretty fair characterization in math—a discipline which doesn’t seem as riven by existential doubt as physics (especially of the theoretical sort) is. 

An Update on My Math & Linguistics Freshman Writing Course

I thought I should provide a quick update on the freshman writing course I’m teaching this fall, Language, Logic and Information: Using Mathematics to Understand Writing, Communication and Argument. (For more, take a look at the website for the course, which is now full of lots of material.1 You can also check out my original post introducing the course and discussing its philosophy.) We’re six classes in, and it’s been going well—it’s been exhausting but exhilarating!

We began, in the first class, by talking a bit about the two core disciplines for the course, math and linguistics. To start, we worked through the mutilated chessboard problem as an example of what mathematical truth and proof is.2 I particularly liked how this problem—and the initial attempts one makes towards a solution—introduces themes about algorithms and computation that will become more important later in the course. Then we spent some time on ambiguity in natural language. This was a teaser for what’s to come in October, when we’ll start using the tools from linguistics to understand language more carefully.3

The following four classes, culminating in last Wednesday’s class, served as an introduction to logic. We’ve worked from the thin (and inexpensive) book Keith Devlin has self-published for his Coursera MOOC An Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. We covered the basic propositional connectives—and, or, not, and the conditional—and then moved on to existential and universal quantifiers. The propositional logic stuff seemed to go pretty well for the class. The conditional was a bit more confusing, but truth tables provide a nice and concrete way of working with these connectives. Quantifiers were not surprisingly more difficult. (Especially difficult were subtleties involving what domain we were quantifying over.) I wish we had more time, but I think I succeeded at least in introducing my students to the ideas and language of logic.

Now that we’ve finished the foundations in logic, yesterday we talked about mathematical proofs. We went over the two famous proofs from Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology: the infinitude of primes and the irrationality of the square root of two. The first major writing assignment will be for students to write an exposition of a basic mathematical proof. The focus of the assignment, since this is a writing course, will be on how clearly they can write about the proof, not the math. They have the option of writing about a proof they’ve seen in class, so all they have to do is understand the proof; they don’t have to prove new things.

I like the approach Devlin takes in his book, focusing on the unity between the math/logic and “softer” disciplines like linguistics and psychology. (This is no surprise, since Devlin worked at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford, the disciplinary home of the Symbolic Systems program that was foundational in my undergraduate education and has strongly influenced this course.) For example, in the logic section he has problems about Alice the bank teller, from Kahneman and Tversky’s conjunction paradox. I took advantage of this and assigned some reading about Kahneman and Tversky, highlighting this as an example of the role of mathematical thinking outside of traditionally scientific domains.

As we enter the second part of the course, we’re going to transition towards linguistics, while also addressing various topics in writing and argumentation. (I should note that I’ve been emphasizing these rhetorical aspects from the start, even as I teach the more mathematical content.) You can take a look at the course website to see the topics I’m planning on covering for the remainder of the course. I still haven’t finalized the readings for the second half of the semester; based on a lot of wise professors’ advice, I’ve taken a more flexible (albeit time-consuming and stressful) approach of adjusting the schedule and the readings class-by-class based on my students’ needs. Suggestions welcome!

I should note two other projects that we’ve done so far. The very first assignment I gave the class was to send me an intellectual self-description by email.4 I like the idea of establishing from the start a tone that celebrates ideas, as universities should; this assignment helped do that, I think. Also, this assignment helped students start thinking about audience from the beginning. As you can see in the assignment, I explicitly encouraged students to think about how they would write such introductory emails addressed to different audiences.

The other thing I’d like to mention is the extramural reading project, a weekly requirement that my students read good writing outside of the class. The idea behind the project—for more info, see the handout I gave my students about it—is that everyone needs to read lots and lots of good writing if they want to become good writers themselves.5 Each week, students have to spend two hours reading from high-quality sources of writing outside of the assigned readings, and then spend 10-30 minutes writing an email to me responding to the readings.

Please stay tuned for more! I’ll try to post an update a few more times during the semester, and you can also take a look at the course website, which will be updated more frequently. Once the semester is over, I’ll have a longer post recapping how the course went.

One last thing: I’d like to thank the numerous people who’ve offered me advice and support over the spring, summer, and fall. It’s been very helpful and greatly appreciated!

  1. Footnote aficionados will enjoy the syllabus, where Edward Tufte’s excellent designs have enabled me to make such notes far more prominent, as they deserve! 
  2. Thanks to Vladlen Koltun, whose CS 103X course almost a decade ago at Stanford introduced me to this problem, and helped me transition to studying pure mathematics. 
  3. I also briefly mentioned Gricean implicature, but I didn’t have enough time to get into it fully. In November, we’ll spend a class on it. If anyone has suggestions for good introductions to the topic for me to assign, I’d welcome them! (Is it too much to assign Grice’s original paper?) For now, I hope that priming my students with Grice will make his ideas more accessible in November. 
  4. Thanks to Chris Potts for the idea of turning what I’d planned to be a much shorter thing into a more substantial assignment. 
  5. In the next week or two, I’m going to post to the course website some thoughts expanding on this and related ideas, explaining my theory of how to become a better writer (and thus, implicitly, my pedagogical theory of how writing should be taught). 

Links: Economics, Breaking Bad, the Moon, Entrepreneurship, Albert Murray, Etc.

Shockingly, it’s difficult to keep up a blog while finishing a Ph.D., designing a new course, and looking for jobs. I have some drafts of substantive posts that I hope to polish up and publish soon. For now, some more links.

  • Interesting article on the relationship between people’s behavior and the lunar cycle, from the Economist.

  • A good, subtle point about imputed rent in a letter to the editor of the Economist by Matt Carey, from the August 10 edition. Also see the bottom letter there, by the witty Bryan Dunlap, on entrepreneurship.

  • If you can get behind the New Yorker paywall, a really interesting profile by Henry Louis Gates of Albert Murray, the African-American cultural critic who recently died. Interesting discussion of, among other things, Murray’s complicated relationship with Ralph Ellison.

  • Good point from Matt Yglesias on Amazon and profitability.

  • Graeme Wood has an interesting article in the Atlantic about a US soldier who defected to North Korea several decades ago.

  • As an undergrad at Stanford, I remember reading the Ph.D. comics in the Daily and being perplexed. Now that I’m a grad student, they’re great–except that only an increasingly small fraction of them are funny. Question: Is this cartoon inspired by this much-funnier version of the joke in xkcd?

  • Dylan Matthews on Breaking Bad: what it gets right and wrong. Thank you, especially, for discussing that weird obsession with purity. Let’s think about economics, everyone!

  • Interesting argument by Brian Palmer in Slate against annual checkups.

  • The poll Which famous economist are you most similar to? isn’t as useful as simply answering the questions and then clicking on the questions to see other economists’ answers. (It’s particularly useful to see where you disagree with the consensus of economists; the site can highlight these for you.)

    As I answered questions, I bopped around a lot between closest economists; I ended up with Christopher Udry. The things I care most about—Pigovian taxation, etc.—are, as pointed out in the faq, widely agreed on by economists across the political spectrum.

    One thing I noticed was that there were a few few questions of the form “A causes B”, where B is something that is implied to be good. I might agree that this proposition is true but nonetheless think that B isn’t in fact good. Here we see judgment aggregation paradoxes coming up again! If the question is really getting at “Do you think A” is good, then perhaps the most honest answer is not to answer the question literally.

Links: Misapplications of math, journalism, AIDS, EB White, Pricing, Gifted Students

  • A tremendously sad story about skewed incentives that make certain people try to get AIDS.

  • This is a pretty outrageous misapplication of mathematics to psychology.

  • Journalism teachers on journalism school

  • An interesting profile of several talented students in a magnet program near DC, 20 years ago. The piece focuses on a young woman, Elizabeth Mann, as she confronts the challenges of being one of the only women in this elite world of high school competitions and gifted courses, especially in math and computer science. This is obviously very relevant to issues still facing us today.

    One thought I had: wouldn’t it be far better if there weren’t so many competitions in high school? (I’m talking both about the competitiveness of grades/rankings and the academic competitions like quiz bowl, etc.) I was lucky to go to a top-notch public school where there wasn’t class rank, and where the extracurriculars were about pursuing excellence and following a passion, not beating anyone else. Yes, I’m envious of that Montgomery Blair magnet program for the curricular offerings–I wasn’t challenged in many of my classes, and I had to fight to have any flexibility to pursue my academic interests at the right level. But I developed tremendously as a person by doing sports (a far more appropriate and humbling locus for competition), the student paper, and music, and came into college far more mature—both personally and intellectually—than if I had been a valedictorian1 of high school who’d spent my time doing academic competitions.

  • Felix Salmon on Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Washington Post

  • An interview with E.B. White from the Paris Review. A delightful read.

  • A good article by Schumpeter in the Economist, arguing that businesses need to think more about pricing. (More to come soon about pricing and economics!)

  • Yglesias: What everyone is missing about the decline of newspapers and the rise of the internet

  1. Which I wouldn’t have been at PHS if we had class rank, not that it matters one iota. An important point, in addition to all the obvious pedagogical reasons for not having class rank: Anyone with a shred of intellectual sophistication can tell you that in many cases it’s an utterly meaningless ranking even if you did believe that high school grades were important to measure closely at this level. The most obvious problem is that two people taking a different number of weighted courses–as in the Blair Hornstine saga—can’t be fairly compared. More generally, the grading scale isn’t designed to suss out differences at this high level; it’s better for lower grades. The same issue occurs, of course, with the SAT, which among its problems doesn’t do much to distinguish between all the people who score in the 750-800 range. (What would be useful is if there were some sort of mechanism to help elite colleges figure out who should and shouldn’t be accepted, among those with whose tests scores and grades put them in this elite level. But that’s a complicated issue.)