Life: The purpose of life edition

“I may think socializing is a way to waste time,” Zhang says. “Also, maybe I’m a little shy.” [. . .]

Seven days a week, he arrives at his office around eight or nine and stays until six or seven. The longest he has taken off from thinking is two weeks. Sometimes he wakes in the morning thinking of a math problem he had been considering when he fell asleep. Outside his office is a long corridor that he likes to walk up and down. Otherwise, he walks outside.

“What is the purpose of life” is a question everyone answers with their life.

The blockquote is from “The Pursuit of Beauty: Yitang Zhang solves a pure-math mystery,” and the article is itself beautiful and brilliant. Edward Frenkel gets name checked, and his book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality could be profitably read in tandem.

Sometimes when I read articles about income distribution and fights over slicing up the massive economic pie I think of articles like “The Pursuit of Beauty.” What would a world in which people signaled less and did more look like? But the preceding sentence is itself signaling, so I’m part of the problem by saying so.

Links: Becoming fluent in math, “How to be attractive to women,” essays, and more

* “How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math: Sorry, education reformers, it’s still memorization and repetition we need.”

* “How To Be Attractive To Women, Pt. 1: Our Embarrassing Stories,” which I wish I’d heard and absorbed when I was 12 or 13. I made pretty much all the mistakes discussed at the link.

* “Science proves that you love your dog like a baby,” which is unsurprising given how many people use pets as emotional substitutes for children.

* What is an essay? by John Jeremiah Sullivan, which should be read in tandem with Paul Graham’s “The Age of the Essay.”

* Yet another police brutality video: “Kid tapes cop smashing car window, dragging man away after tasering him.”

Links: Service, evil, math, writing, death, David Fincher, and more

* “It is often more satisfying to serve others than to cultivate your own egotistical freedom.”

* Camille Paglia: “The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil.” In some domains it also cannot understand ambiguity. See also my essay “If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them (paging Caitlin Flanagan).”

* “How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math: Sorry, education reformers, it’s still memorization and repetition we need.”

* Someone got here by searching for “why chose pa instead of medical school.” Brilliant. That sort of person is exactly the one I sought to reach.

gazing-2018* Why academic writing sucks.

* Why are so few politicians willing to admit error?

* D.G. passes; see also his last post “Choosing life in the face of death.”

* “‘Any boy who tells you that he hasn’t seen porn is lying. Porn changes what you expect from girls:’ In the age of relentless online pornography, chatrooms, sexting and smartphones, the way teenage boys learn about relationships has changed dramatically.

* Playboy’s David Fincher interview.

* “Forfeiting The Patriarchal Dividend,” which is interesting for novelists and others; note again that linking does not imply endorsement.

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?

Links: Teen sex attitudes, writing lessons, sentence origins, math, cities, tea, languages, and more

* Parents Just Don’t Understand: A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives. See also: “ Sex? Not my kid! A new book explores parental delusions about their teens’ sexuality.” Notice this: “[S]exual threats are seen [by parents] as ever present — from someone else’s sex-crazed kid, someone else’s corruptive parental influence, someone else’s perversion. Rarely do parents attribute the risk to their own child’s sexual desire or agency. Surprise, surprise.”

* The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned; unfortunately, I think most academics either never learn or forget this:

When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.

* Where do sentences come from?

* “[A]lgebra isn’t harder than other subjects, it’s more objective. Therefore, it tends to make educational fraud more visible. People rarely fail algebra and succeed in other subjects; they fail in all subjects and algebra is the only one where it can’t be ignored any longer.”

* How communities are banding together to create high-speed, affordable broadband access.

* Allen Wyler’s Dead Ringer unintentionally shows the importance of creative writing classes. The novel starts: “A dark, ill-formed premonition punched Lucas McRae in the guy so hard it stole his breath.” But premonitions don’t punch people in the gut—other people do. “A second later it vanished, leaving only a lingering vague sense of foreboding.” We don’t need “lingering” and “vague” one word will do, and the phrase itself is a cliche anyway. This is the sort of stuff college sophomores discuss in “Introduction to Writing the Novel.”

* Survival Lessons From an Ancient Failed City:

Today’s sprawling cities expanded in a period of mild weather too, with no anticipation that seas might rise or energy resources could be depleted. Angkor and modern cities resemble one another in that they were built to survive in only the most benign weather regimes. The roads, sewers and the like of the modern suburb are based on an assumption of mild weather and cheap energy. Recent events like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and subsequent Midwestern intense storms show how poorly modern infrastructure performs in extreme weather.

* Everyone loves smut, says Patty Marks of Ellora’s Cave, who turned kinky fiction into millions before E.L. James.

* How to start an online tea business. My best guess: don’t.

* Bryan Caplan: “To understand why Americans don’t learn foreign languages, simply reverse this reasoning. We don’t learn foreign languages because foreign languages rarely helps us get good jobs, meet interesting people, or enjoy culture.” I approve of learning foreign languages and admire people who do, but I doubt the typically American derives much benefit because the typical American has to travel too far to make use of the foreign language. For most people, learning programming languages is probably far more useful in terms of both job skills and “learning how to think.” This view is close to David Henderson’s point: “Thoughts on Second Language.” Here is a counterpoint. It is possible that foreign languages would be much more useful from a very young age, but then the same could be said of Python. It’s possible that I haven’t seen foreign language benefits in my life because I haven’t learned enough of a foreign language to receive real benefits.

* You’ll never be Chinese.

The Indian Clerk

In college literature courses I heard and disagreed with endless refrains about the supposed division between the sciences and humanities, while in computer science I heard endless jokes about liberal arts majors’ only job skill being the question, “Would you like fries with that?” I opposed both smug camps, and David Leavitt’s excellent The Indian Clerk is there with me, making art and science equal part of the intellect. The Indian Clerk follows the great self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s time at Cambridge before and during World War I. His curious journey came thanks to G H Hardy, who helped bring him from India to Britain, and over several years the two worked together in numerous areas of math that went over my head when I tried to research them. Leavitt, however, builds a cohesive novel on this unusual partnership.

The novel covers Ramanujan’s stay in England without going much into the hidden genesis of his talent in India. We get the interior life of Hardy; The Indian Clerk is told chiefly from Hardy’s view, and concerns Hardy as much as his nominal subject, who is to me as enigmatic at the end of the novel as the start. In part this is because Hardy is neither interpersonally nor emotionally perspicacious, English/Indian cultural barriers are never fully surmounted, and, in a clever twist on unlike people forced together, mathematician culture emphasizes the quality and quantity of work above other considerations. As told through the fictional Hardy, the culture of mathematicians encourages the necessary but, it is implied, false belief that social culture matters not at all. The epigraph acknowledges the issue: “Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immorality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.” But the story of Ramanujan and Hardy fascinates enough to drive a wonderful novel more for the unprecedented circumstances surrounding their collaboration than for purely technical achievements. To be sure, the former cannot exist without the latter, but it is the latter that most inspires.

Explaining technical and other issues is part of what Hardy, like any scientist or mathematician, must do. Much of the novel concerns the difficulty of relationships and expression, and statements like this early one are common: “Hardy tried to put his position in a language O.B. would understand.” Or, a few pages later, “For [Hardy], goodness was indefinable, yet also fundamental, the only soil in which a theory of ethics could take root. And where did goodness lie? In love and beauty.” Math is what he most often perceives as beautiful, as when he says, “I cannot tell you what pleasure I continue to take, even today, in the beauty of this proof; in the brief yet extraordinary journey it represents, from a seemingly reasonable proposition (that there is a greatest prime) to the inevitable yet utterly unexpected conclusion that the proposition is false.” These passages also demonstrate the myriad of math metaphors explaining the ideas of the characters; it’s a worthy method too infrequently used in novels, and Cryptonomicon’s similar usage made it far more successful.

Still, math is only an aid to understanding the world and not understanding itself. The racism of Hardy’s colleagues against Ramanujan reminds us of prejudices among those in technical fields. It’s facile but true to lament that more people aren’t judged by ability or knowledge rather than appearance, but while I couldn’t help perceiving that idea, Leavitt is far too deft a writer to make banal if true statements in the fashion of Harper Lee. Hardy attacks the discrimination problem like a technical one, and successfully, even when similar approaches fail in other domains. Being a homosexual, Hardy faces problems like Ramanjuan’s, as homosexuals long have in Western society. This makes another parallel is laid between him and Ramanujan. Hardy’s outsider status, both in terms of financial upbringing and sexuality, helps explain his willingness to overlook Ramanujan’s native country and at his math.

The puzzle comes together from multiple sources: Hardy as a younger man, Hardy as an old man, and occasionally from minor characters. This structure suits a novel with historical figures and uncertainty; anyone who wishes to know the end of Hardy or Ramanujan can easily do so just by typing either’s name in a search engine. Leavitt uses a dual structure, with a present-tense timeline beginning in 1913 and a later, past-tense timeline in which Hardy is giving a mostly imaginary lecture at Harvard in 1936. Thus, he incorporates both the rush of events happening as well as the melancholy of things remembered. The things remembered include Britain before the devastation from World War I and Ramanujan before the mystery illness that took his life. The hints of what will happen never go beyond foreshadowing, giving the narrative fresh urgency instead of muted elegy.

The Indian Clerk has tremendous depth that I’ve only accounted for in small part because it is bigger than many critically esteemed works, and I suspect that many critics will try in vain to plumb its depths for a long time to come. Whole sections involving important characters have been left out. The Indian Clerk provides much pleasure and imparts much wisdom, even if too many subplots in the latter half sometimes flatten the effects. But I do not hesitate to call it the best novel published this year, and it is the kind of book that should narrow the artificial, academic rift between science and art. Commentary on both subjects and many others fill it without impeding the action, and one of the larger subjects is uncertainty, as at the end of part three when Hardy says, “One wonders what would have happened had the war not broken out. many wonder this, for all sorts of reasons. There is of course no answer.” It must be a painful thing for a mathematician to exist, especially in an era before or near the time of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorum. Just as it appears that mathematical discoveries will go on forever, so too will attempts to understand great art, of which math is a subset. The Indian Clerk concerns itself with the inability to know what others think and what causes history’s lunatic journey, and that uncertainty, about racism, about the relationship of abstract math to life, about life itself, will keep me interested in The Indian Clerk for a long time.

To learn more see Leavitt’s extensive blogging at The Elegant Variation.

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