I stared into the abyss, and the abyss stared back into me and said “what the hell is wrong with you people up there?”
Tag Archives: things that are terrible
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.
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 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.