What mathematicians do have in common, what is in a way our foundational habit, is the tiny move Urschel executes between the first thing he says and the second.
We say things, or write them down, in order to see if they feel true. We say it and then we think about it. And whatever’s slightly not right, we circle back and revise, making more precise, shaving off the parts that don’t pass inspection. It’s our process in math and it leaks out into the way we talk about our desks and our lives.
Urschel is a Ph.D. student at MIT, working on applied math, a field for which “purposeful messiness” is actually not too bad a description. Urschel doesn’t spend his time in the purely abstract reaches of abstract number systems or exotic geometries that could never exist in the physical world. In applied math, the structured rigidity of theory is always just barely containing the messiness of the world we live in. For Urschel, a big part of that world is computation. A pure mathematician like me might ask, in an airy way, which problems have answers. Urschel is more likely to ask which problems have answers that an actual computer can figure out without using all the planet’s electricity or running until the galaxies crap out. Among his specialties is optimization, which, in non-technical terms, means “the mathematics of doing things better and cheaper with machines.” As you might imagine, it’s hot right now.
What I really wanted, though, was Fuji. In Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, the mountain is sometimes central, but more often incidental, a jagged inverted V in the background as men and women go about their business, rowing boats, flying kites, carrying heavy loads. Hokusai was a painter of the ukiyo-e genre – this roughly translates as “images of the floating world” – and Hokusai’s was a world alive and incessantly in motion.
My first view of the mountain came from the window of the shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. The trains are an adventure in themselves; painted white and blue, they have the long noses of purposeful anteaters, and travel at 200mph, with an annual average delay of only 54 seconds per train. We passed rice fields brushing up against bungalows and rickety hotels; and suddenly, emerging from the clouds like an idea being born, Mount Fuji – grey-white shading to white-blue at the top. It was Hokusai’s Fuji; a mountain watching in stillness over a buoyant, moving world.
Yet here, nothing seems born in vain. Much is made out of tender and artful salvage. In the dining room, a painting on a copper plate echoes copper moldings. The kitchen has padded leather doors reclaimed from a movie theater. A French door is installed sideways above the cabinets, making the ceiling seem surprisingly airy. In some mystery, this vibrant cacophony is also sublimely still.
In coming to Spencer’s house I was entering the domestic space of a brilliant black middle-class woman, who, in addition to being a poet, was a literary writer, hostess, and activist. From this home and garden, Spencer wrote nationally celebrated poetry. She also worked to build the town’s first black library; helped found its NAACP chapter; and crafted a much-needed way station and salon for black intellectuals traveling in the dangerous and segregated South. The guest bedrooms upstairs were graced by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and Du Bois and Paul Robeson as they made journeys to read and talk and gather new material. From the bright red bedroom overlooking Pierce Street, James Weldon Johnson wrote and sent off pieces of God’s Trombones. The house and gardens are full of the ghosts of black artists, thinking. Standing there, I was inside the Harlem Renaissance, except not: I was also hundreds of miles south of Harlem, in Southern Virginia, in a town whose history is (to say the least) not known for racial tolerance. This house’s story, like Anne Spencer’s, is rich.
While it’s impossible not to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as you walk through this city, where he spent the final decades of his life, what little remains of his world here has been altered almost beyond recognition.
The house where he and his family lived was demolished a century ago. Next door, St. Thomas Church, where Bach was a cantor from 1723 to 1750, was overhauled in Gothic Revival style in the 1880s. St. Nicholas Church, where the “St. John Passion” was first performed in 1724, got its current cupcake-pastel interior decades after Bach died.
And Bach certainly would never have heard Arabic being widely spoken, as it is now, in the bustling, largely immigrant neighborhood of Neustadt. It was here, on a mild weekend afternoon recently, that Yo-Yo Ma bounded into a room in a community center, Stradivarius cello in hand, and moved swiftly around a seated circle of adults and children, grinning and giving one long high five.
Fry makes a convincing case for “the urgent need for algorithmic regulation”, and wants the public to understand the compromises we are making. And, in the case of Facebook and users’ data, “how cheaply we were bought”. This book illustrates why good science writers are essential.
It's a mistake to think Anne Tyler's novels are sweet or gentle. Her heroines often think of themselves as gentle, or daffy perhaps, just as her heroes' self-image is often one of essential decency wrapped in bluff social awkwardness.But such is her skill at erasing the traces of herself in her inhabiting of whichever fictional personality is steering a story, and such is the frequency with which her lead characters' often misguided self-image stifles other viewpoints, that it's easy for the casual reader to become confused between the qualities of the novel and the personality at its narrative centre.
Take a step back to look at her plots in cool summary, however, and one notices how, time and again, quite brutally, they strike at the heart of domestic stability or conventional happiness. Women walk away from their children, like Delia Grinstead in Ladder of Years - or, like Rebecca Davitch in Back When We Were Grown-Ups, wake up two decades too late to realise they married the wrong man. Children accuse their mothers of abuse (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) or simply treat them like children (A Spool of Blue Thread). Her greatest strength is her understanding of weakness.
Allen comes across as smart and tenacious. I’d read a book by her on the music industry and modern pop production. I’d read an essay by her on the Leveson inquiry too. She’s taken quite a battering. And she’s alright, still. More than all right.