Life: Making the right mistakes edition

The statement of the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil conjecture must have sounded crazy to its creators. . . . the idea that this was true. . . must have sounded totally outrageous at the time. This was a leap of faith, in the form of a question that [Taniyama] posed at the International Symposium on Algebraic Number Theory held in Tokyo in September 1955.

I’ve always wondered: what did it take for him to come to believe that this wasn’t crazy, but real? To have the courage to say it publicly?

We’ll never know. Unfortunately, not long after his great discovery, in November 1958, Taniyama committed suicide. He was only thirty-one. To add to the tragedy, shortly afterward the woman whom he was planning to marry also took her life, leaving the following note:

We promised each other that no matter where we went, we would never be separated. Now that he is gone, I must go too in order to join him.

. . . In his thoughtful essay about Tayniyama, Shimura made this striking comment:

Though he was by no means a sloppy type, he was gifted with the special capability of making many mistakes, mostly in the right direction. I envied him for this, and tried in vain to imitate him, but found it quite difficult to make good mistakes.

—Edward Frenkel, Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, which is recommended.

What mistakes have you made lately?

Thoughts on the movie Gravity

* Gravity is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time and possibly the first to really make 3-D live up to its possibilities (Avatar, discussed at the link, was okay but overrated).

* Most movies described as “thrillers” use the term to connote a serial killer or supernatural beast or government conspiracy as the generator of primal fear of death, and yet to me they aren’t all that thrilling. Most feel silly and artificial. By contrast Gravity is one of the tensest, thrilling movies I’ve seen.

* The movie feels big—sublime, even.

* Few narrative works, whether movies or novels or TV shows, are genuinely about man versus nature.

* Few contemporary narrative works glorify astronauts or scientists (Contagion is an exception) or make people want to be one. Gravity is an exception. I’m amazed that it got made at all.

* One underlying message may say that we have to get off this planet or die on it or die trying. Rebirth is a potent motif in narrative art, as observed by Campbell, Frazer, and others; one could even argue that birth is a dominant motif in evolutionary biology. In Gravity it is enable by technology.

Links: Fashion and fiction, travel is overrated, modern art, Average is Over, and more

* Francine Prose: “Commerce, fantasy, fetishism: Should we care about fashion?” For a long time I answered no but increasingly I now answer yes. Note especially how she points to the paucity of literary descriptions of fashion, which I have long been blind to.

* Travel is much more boring and aggravating than people give it credit for.

* CDC: Many U.S. Girls Not Getting HPV Vaccine Despite Its Effectiveness.

* Is it modern art or a four year old’s drawing?

* “A bachelor’s degree could cost $10,000 — total. Here’s how.” The short version is, “Unbundling.” I think we are going to see some version of this tried in various places.

* Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.

* There are few if any new and interesting things to say about Shakespeare.

* Which Job Skills Will Be Most Important In The Coming Years?

* “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” As an alternate explanation, see Philip Greenspun, “Women in Science.”

* What we eat affects everything.

* If You Aren’t Technical, Get Technical. One could also replace “technical” with “literate,” although “technical” certainly has more immediate financial returns.

* Roosh: Katie J.M. Baker Purposefully Distorted My Work.

Your hours

Raymond Chen has a hilarious and quietly insightful post in “I wrote FAT on an airplane, for heaven’s sake,” which ends this way:

During the development of Windows 3.0, it was customary to have regular meetings with Bill Gates to brief him on the status of the project. At one of the reviews, the topic was performance, and Bill complained, “You guys are spending all this time with your segment tuning tinkering. I could teach a twelve-year-old to segment-tune. I want to see some real optimization, not this segment tuning nonsense. I wrote FAT on an airplane, for heaven’s sake.”

(I can’t believe I had to write this: This is a dramatization, not a courtroom transcript.)

This “I wrote FAT on an airplane” line was apparently one Bill used when he wanted to complain that what other people was doing wasn’t Real Programming. But this time, the development manager decided she’d had enough.

“Fine, Bill. We’ll set you up with a machine fully enlisted in the Windows source code, and you can help us out with some of your programming magic, why don’t you.”

One deeper point: Bill “wrote” FAT on an airplane, but in a sense he’d been learning how to write it for a decade or decades. Any complex thing anyone does is built on a wide, deep, specialized foundation. Writing works that way too—I may “write” a given post or essay or proposal in a few hours or days, but in a sense I’ve been learning how to write for at least a decade. Maybe longer. When a post is executed cleanly and well, it’s not because I have some magical ability. It’s because any time spent at the keyboard is the tip of a spear that extends back through thousands of books and hours spent practicing things I’ve done wrong or seen other people do wrong.

Everyone has or should have a skill like that, or should be developing one. What’s yours?

(Chen wrote a similar follow-up post.)

We all become close readers in romance

That evening, as he was returning home, Charles took up again one by one the words she had used, trying to recall them, to complete their meaning, in order to re-create for himself the portion of her life that she had lived during the time when he did not yet know her. But he could never see her, in his mind, differently from the way he had seen her the first time, or the way had just left her.

We all become close readers in romance, where words matter so much and yet are never sufficient. Charles is speaking early in Madame Bovary, which feels shockingly modern (especially read in conjunction with How Fiction Works); most capital-C Classics don’t. Lydia Davis’s introduction is helpful.

Novels in which I root for everyone and no one at the same time are rare, and rarer still in a novel in which most characters express commonplace sentiments like Charles’s. Those ideas work in the context of Madame Bovary. I wonder how and maybe always will.

All of us have had the moments of trying to take “up again one by one the words she had used,” although the gender pronoun will change based on orientation, and all of us have had those words feel inadequate as we try to “complete their meaning”—an infinite amount of commentary can’t complete meaning. In romance and art this is especially painful until it is accepted.

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