ما همه ایرانی

Many people are angry and heartbroken at the consequences (on themselves, their loved ones, their friends and coworkers) of the executive order that has banned refugees, as well as legal immigrants and green card holders, from certain countries from entering the US for the next few months. A common question is, what can we do? A few possibilities:

  • Donate to the ACLU. They have a long history of fighting for civil rights and, on Saturday, they immediately sprung into action and where able to get a stay on the ban, whose implications are still not clear.
    As you are contemplating donations, consider also supporting Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is unrelated to the current refugees/immigrant crisis, but it is relevant to what will probably be future crises instigated by the current administration. (The SPLC does a great work in tracking and documenting hate groups.)
  • Sign this petition, which has received significant media coverage
  • Do what you can to make sure our professional societies produce a response. Both the outgoing and the incoming presidents of the AMS have signed the above petition, and I understand that the appropriate committee of the AMS  is considering making a statement. I don’t know if the ACM is planning a similar action, and if you have access to the ACM leadership, please lean on them to do so.
    (Edited to add: ACM put out a statement Monday morning, and so this the AMS.)
  • Call your representatives in congress, especially if you live in a state with Republican senators or in a district with a Republican representative. Don’t email: call and ask to speak with the staffer who is responsible for immigration matters.
  • Reach out to colleagues, students and staff who are affected by the executive order. If you have channels to do so, pressure campus leadership to cover their legal expenses, which could be substantial.

If you have other ideas, please share them in the comments.

The vocabulary is political

Remember when the (GW) Bush administration decided that torture should be called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and then the New York Times, like all other American news sources, started to call torture “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and people wrote angry letters to the public editor, and the public editor eventually wrote that if the White House decides that torture should not be called torture then calling torture torture is a political issues on which reporters should not take sides?

And Paul Krugman wrote a column in which he said that if the Bush administration declared that the Earth is flat, then the New York Times would have an article headlined “Roundness of Earth disputed,” in which it would make sure to have quotes both from round-Earther and flat-Earther?

Part of the reason for all this, as explained in this very good article in The Atlantic, is that political reporters (as opposed to political opinion writers) need access, that is, they need White House officials to talk to them, whether on the record or off the record. The ability to withhold access gives administration officials great leverage.

And so Myron Ebell, who works in a think-tank financed by the coal industry, and according to whom climate change is a vast conspiracy perpetrated by left-wing scientists, some of which scientists he has personally attacked, and who is being considered to lead the EPA, is now a climate contrarian, according to the New York Times.

Maybe soon enough, outside the opinion page, the New York Times will start calling racism “race realism.”

We need to occupy unsafe spaces

Today an atmosphere of grief pervaded Berkeley, and a series of emails came from higher and higher up the chain of command, culminating with one from Janet Napolitano, reaffirming the University of California’s commitment to its principles of inclusivity, diversity, and all things that are good. Here is an email from the Vice-Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion:

Dear Cal Students, Staff, and Faculty,

We know that the results of yesterday’s election have sparked fear and concern among many in our community; in particular our immigrant and undocumented communities, Muslim, African American, Chicanx/Latinx, LGBTQ+, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, survivors of sexual assault, people with disabilities, women, and many others. We are reaching out to you with a message of support. UC Berkeley leadership remains steadfast in our values and committed to the safety and well-being of all of our students, faculty, and staff. We condemn bigotry and hatred in all forms, and hold steadfast in our commitment to equity, access, and a campus that is safe, inclusive, and welcoming to all.

Various communities have organized the following community spaces and resources:

  • A community space for undocumented students tonight at 6:30pm in Chavez Room 105.
  • CLSD and CLPR are hosting space at the Shorb House, 2547 Channing Way from 12pm-5pm for students to come by. Faculty and staff will be there in community with our students for support.
  • MCC is holding a safe space for POC/Black students from 8pm-10pm this evening.
  • QTAP is hosting a QTOPC dinner in Anthony Hall at 6pm.
  • The Gender Equity Resource Center is open today, until 5pm, for those who wish for a quiet space for contemplation and community. GenEq is also hosting the following healing spaces:
    • Women’s Healing Space – Today, November 9th, 1pm-2:30pm
    • LGBTQ+ Healing Space – Today, November 9th, 2:30pm-4pm

Now, without discounting the value of having a good place to quietly sob with like-minded people, this strikes me as the message you would send after the Charleston shooting, or the Orlando shooting. This was not the act of one disturbed person. Sixty million Americans went to the trouble of going all the way to the polling place to vote for Trump, or of filling up their absentee ballot, and then mailing it in. That’s one in four adult Americans, a diverse coalition of white people: educated white people and less educated white people, male white people and female white people, religious white people and secular white people, and, one should note, even a few people who are not white. White people who thought it’s their constitutional right to discriminate against gay people, white people who think it’s ok to grab women by their pussy, and that you can get away with it if you are a star, white people who think muslims should not come to the US.

Our students will meet these people everywhere. They will be their neighbors, their coworkers, their bosses, and maybe their in-laws. When our students graduate, there will be no safe space.

And if there were, that is not where they should go. Because those sixty million people will not change their minds by talking among themselves.

But the oppressed cannot be left alone to speak out for themselves.

A feature of rape prevention programs is bystander intervention training: telling people how to recognize a situation in which someone is at risk of assault, and intervene.

We need white people to speak out against racism, christians to speak out for the religion freedom of non-christians, men to speak out against misogyny, straight people to speak out for LGBT people, Republicans to speak out against Trump.

And we need them to do this where it is not safe to do so, because otherwise all we have is angry people talking to the like-minded on the internet.

Edited to add a useful link

They are perfect for each other

Now that Ted Cruz has chosen his running mate, everybody is wondering: who is going to be Trump’s pick for vice-president?

It would make sense if, to mitigate his negatives, Trump chose a person of color and someone who has a history of speaking out against income inequality.

He or she would have to be someone who is media-savvy and with some experience running a campaign, but definitely not a career politician. And of course he or she should be someone who endorsed Trump early on, like, say, in January.

Continue reading

On Berkeley and Recycling

For the past few days, I have been getting emails that are the Platonic ideal of the U.C. Berkeley administration.

Today, there was a one-hour presentation on recycling and composting at Soda Hall, the computer science building. This is worth saying once more: a one hour presentation on putting glass, metal, and certain plastics in one container, clean paper in another, and compostable material in a third one. We received an email announcement, then an invitation to add the event to our calendar, then two remainders.

But what if one cannot make it? Not to worry! There will be a second one hour presentation on recycling, for those who missed the first one, and for those that were so enthralled by the first one that they want to spend one more hour being told about recycling.

Meanwhile, I have been trying since February to get a desk, a conference table and a bookshelf for my office in Soda Hall. So far I got the desk.

I asked Christos what he thought about the two one-hour presentations on recycling, and he said it reminded him of a passage from a famous essay by Michael Chabon:

Passersby feel empowered-indeed, they feel duty-bound-to criticize your parking technique, your failure to sort your recycling into brown paper and white, your resource-hogging four-wheel-drive vehicle, your use of a pinch-collar to keep your dog from straining at the leash.

Sometimes I think that when the administration started hearing about MOOCs, they must have started to dream about a future with no professors, because the students all take MOOCs, and no students on campus, because they all take the MOOCs from their home, and the campus would just be filled by Assistant Chancellors of this and that, giving each other training workshops. And this would be like the episode of Get Smart in which Max infiltrates a criminal gang until he finds out that everybody is an infiltrator and there is no criminal left.

I almost fell for it

This year, the chair of ICALP decided to play an April Fool’s prank three weeks early, and I received the following message:

“Dear author, we regret to inform you that the margins in your submission are too small, and hence we are rejecting it without review”

I was almost fooled. In my defense, the second time that I applied for a position in Italy, the hiring committee judged all my publications to be non-existent, because the (multiple) copies I had sent them had not been authenticated by a notary. So I am trained not to consider it too strange that a paper could be evaluated based on the width of its margins (or the stamps on its pages) rather than on the content of its theorem.

Alexander Grothendieck

Alexander Grothendieck died on Thursday at age 86 in Saint-Girons.

Grothendieck, who started his work in functional analysis, is known for his far-reaching (and still incomplete) program of creating new foundations for algebraic geometry, a work that he led at IHES in the 50s and 60s and that is documented in the thousands of pages of EGA and SGA. If modern algebraic geometry is built on schemes, has applications to number theory, has definitions given in a category-theoretic language, and is completely incomprehensible to the novice, it is all thanks to Grothendieck’s vision.

In his 40s, and the top of his game, Grothendieck left IHES over the issue of military funding, and progressively detached from the mathematical community, while embracing environmental and anti-war causes.

Grothendieck’s life story, from his escaping Nazi Germany, to his revolution in mathematics, to his radical politics and later hermit life, is spellbinding. Some of it is told in a great two-part article in the Notices of the AMS (part 1, part 2) and I would also recommend this more technical essay and this more philosophical one.

Grothendieck has a flair for effective naming, he had a way with words, and he liked elaborate metaphors. Here is his famous “how to break a nut” analogy describing his style of mathematical research

I can illustrate the second approach with the same image of a nut to be opened. The first analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible
through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!

Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Campus

I am still in shock at the news that Microsoft decided to shut down MSR SVC and fire, literally from one day to the next, almost all the scientific staff.

It is shocking that the company decided that it was a good idea to destroy an investment they had made over several years; I am only familiar with the theory side of MSR SVC, which had great success in nurturing young talent and developing breakthrough ideas and results. The work on privacy led by Cynthia Dwork, for example, informed the thinking on privacy of higher management, and on how one could find new ways to balance European privacy law with the data collection necessary for advertising. This is one of the returns of having academic research in a company: not so that they can implement in C++ their algorithms, but so that they can generate and communicate new ways of thinking about problems. (Cynthia is one of the few people retained by Microsoft, but she has lost all her collaborators.) Microsoft’s loss will be other places’ win as the MSR SVC diaspora settles down elsewhere.

It is also shocking that, instead of planning an orderly shutdown, they simply threw people out overnight, which shows a fundamental indifference to the way the academic job market works (it can take a full year for an academic job offer to materialize).

I am not shocked by the class demonstrated by Omer Reingold; the moral stature of people is best seen in difficult moments. Omer has written a beautiful post about the lab, whose comment section has become a memorial to the lab, with people posting their personal remembrances.

Here at Berkeley and Stanford we will do our best to help, and we will make sure that everybody has some space to work. There will also be some kind of community-wide response, but it will take some time to figure out what we can do. Meanwhile, I urge everybody to reach out to their friends formerly at MSR SVC, make them feel the love of their community, and connect them to opportunities for both short term and long term positions, as they weigh their options.