CORRUPT DATA: Conference at Columbia April 13-14, 2017

The Center for Contemporary Critical Thought’s Digital Initiative presents a two-part conference series

Cambridge Analytica: Tracing Personal Data (from ethical lapses to its use in electoral campaigns)

Thursday, April 13, 2017 | 11:00am | East Gallery, Maison Francais

by Paul-Olivier Dehaye with Tamsin Shaw | Cathy O’Neil as respondant | moderated by Professor Michael Harris


Civil Society and Personal Data Use: necessary and salutary responses

Friday, April 14, 2017 | 12:00pm | Jerome Greene Hall 103

by Paul-Olivier Dehaye and Jerome Groetenbriel | moderated by Profesor Michael Harris | introduced by Professor Bernard E. Harcourt



AMS letter on the immigration ban

From the AMS website.  See also the letter dated January 31, signed by 164 organizations and universities.

AMS Board of Trustees Opposes Executive Order on Immigration
Monday January 30th 2017

Providence, RI: The members of the Board of Trustees of the American Mathematical Society wish to express their opposition to the Executive Order signed by President Trump that temporarily suspends immigration benefits to citizens of seven nations.

For many years, mathematical sciences in the USA have profited enormously from unfettered contact with colleagues from all over the world. The United States has been a destination of choice for international students who wish to study mathematics; the US annually hosts hundreds of conferences attracting global participation. Our nation’s position of leadership in mathematics depends critically upon open scientific borders. By threatening these borders, the Executive Order will do irreparable damage to the mathematical enterprise of the United States.

We urge our colleagues to support efforts to maintain the international collegiality, openness, and exchange that strengthens the vitality of the mathematics community, to the benefit of everyone.

We have all signed the online petition of academics opposing the ban. We encourage our colleagues to consider joining us in signing it and in asking the Administration to rescind the Executive Order.

Robert Bryant, President of the AMS
Kenneth Ribet, President-Elect of the AMS
Ruth Charney
Ralph Cohen
Jane Hawkins
Bryna Kra
Robert Lazarsfeld
Zbigniew Nitecki
Joseph Silverman
Karen Vogtmann

UPDATE: The online petition is experiencing a delay in accepting emails and displaying new names. [1/31/17]

Contacts: Mike Breen and Annette Emerson
Public Awareness Officers
American Mathematical Society
201 Charles Street
Providence, RI 02904
Email the Public Awareness Office


Founded in 1888 to further mathematical research and scholarship, today the American Mathematical Society fulfills its mission through programs and services that promote mathematical research and its uses, strengthen mathematical education, and foster awareness and appreciation of mathematics and its connections to other disciplines and to everyday life.

Scientists March on Washington

The website was created on January 21.  The story seems to have broken just this morning in the Washington Post, and it is gradually being picked up by other media.  No date has yet been set, but the movement is growing literally as I type, to judge by this snippet from the Post’s article:

In short order, the march had a Facebook page (which currently has more than 200 more than 48,000 more than 150,000 members), a Twitter handle, a website, two co-chairs, Berman and science writer and public health researcher Caroline Weinberg, and a Google form through which interested researchers could sign up to help.

Sen. Al Franken to address Atlanta Joint Mathematics Mtg


The AMS Committee on Science Policy (CSP) will be hosting a panel discussion at next month’s Joint Mathematics Meeting in Atlanta.  Karen Saxe, who worked for Senator Al Franken as the 2013-2014 AMS/AAAS Science and Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, invited the Minnesota Senator (and former Saturday Night Live cast member) to speak to the panel, and he obliged by sending a video to be played at the meeting.  Here is the full CSP panel program:

AMS Committee on Science Policy Panel Discussion 

Friday, January 6, 2:30 pm — 4:00 pm

Place:              Atlanta Marriott Marquise, Atrium Level, Room A704   

Title:                “Grassroots Advocacy for Mathematics and Science Policy”

Organizers:      Jeffrey Hakim, American University ( )
Douglas Mupasiri, University of Northern Iowa ( )
Scott Wolpert, University of Maryland ( )

Moderator:      Karen Saxe (, Director, AMS Washington Office

Panelists:         Catherine Paolucci, Office of Senator Al Franken (

Douglas Mupasiri, University of Northern Iowa (

Scott Wolpert, University of Maryland (

Description:     The AMS Committee on Science Policy has organized this panel to discuss ways to engage with elected officials in addressing policy issues of concern to the mathematics community, including research funding and education.  Panelists will discuss the importance of grassroots advocacy and building relationships with legislators to further goals.

The video is about three minutes long, and those of you who cannot attend will be able to watch it at the AMS website — details to be supplied later.   In the meantime, if you’re wondering what “Grassroots advocacy for mathematics” looks like, Karen directed me to this blog post about a recent (Capitol) Hill Visit by a Villanova student delegation, organized by the Association for Women in Mathematics.

Speaking of Washington, I found the following quotation from Nietzsche’s Transvaluation of all Values in the chapter on Sade and Nietzsche of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment:

The weak and unsuccessful must perish; this is the first proposition of our philanthropy.  And they should even be helped on their way.

Also this quotation from Sade’s Justine:

How in truth can  you require that he who has been endowed by nature with an eminent capacity for crime… should have to obey the same law that calls all to virtue or to moderation?

If these sentiments remind you of individuals, living or dead, who have been mentioned in the news recently, you will be relieved to see that, more than one month after national elections, the officials entrusted with the business of the Republic appear not to be guided by Sadist ethics.


Urgent news from Leicester

Tim Gowers has once again done the university community a great service by using his blog to publicize the impending decimation of the University of Leicester’s mathematics department.  More like a double decimation:  of the department’s 23 full-time staff, 5 are slated to lose their jobs, with the research staff shrinking by close to 30%.  Rather than repeat the details, which you can find presented with Gowers’s customary clarity on his blog, I am using this space to encourage readers and their friends to sign the protest petition.  The petition already has over 2500 signatures, many of them alerted to the situation (as I was) by reading Gowers’s account.

Leicester is being cut back across the board, but the cuts in mathematics are particularly severe.  For a crash course in the neo-liberal conception of the university, you can read the relevant chapter in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos, featured in an entry on this blog last year.

This blog has been suspended but it will be revived occasionally for urgent news items like this one.

UPDATE:  Vladimir Tasić points out that this sort of thing is happening with increasing frequency in Canada as well.


Time to move on

wainua               Figure 6.1 (Clairaut's diagram)

Snail image:  Creative Commons licence courtesy of Te Papa; Clairaut’s love formula from Chapter 6 of MWA

My tireless editor Vickie Kearn at Princeton University Press has brought me the welcome news that Mathematics without Apologies will be coming out in a paperback edition next spring.   I started this blog for two reasons, and one of them — to clarify my intentions in writing the book — will vanish when I add two or three pages to the preface of the new edition.   The new pages — I have already written them — will devote one paragraph or so to each of four topics, provisionally under the headings charismamemoirsutility, and ethics; each paragraph will address some of the points raised by comments on this blog as well as in some of the more negative reviews.

My other reason  for starting this blog was to find some outlet for the wealth of material that I was not able to incorporate in the book.  Most of this material has remained untapped while I composed comments on current events or new findings, and I was idly wondering when I would get around to sifting through the 7 GB  or so that is gathering nanodust on my computer’s hard drive.  My Eureka! moment came when I realized that I had already devoted a considerable amount of my free time to writing the book during the better part of three years.  Perhaps I didn’t really want to return to the old material?  With the new preface, I can finally declare the book finished and move on to something else.

Will it be another book, maybe one that will win me the mythical seven figure advance?  Or will there be another blog, or the same one under another name?   That’s for the future to decide.  Meanwhile, this one will remain visible, but with no new entries.

My thanks to the regular readers and occasional visitors who helped keep the blog from slipping into solipsism.  And my special thanks to authors of comments who, by disagreeing, often sharply, with opinions expressed here, demonstrated that the meaning of mathematics is still a matter of controversy.

This was supposed to be the last entry, but I’m now thinking I should include part of the new preface material — or all of it, if PUP allows it.  Meanwhile, in order not to let anything go to waste, here is the post on which I was working when I realized that this blog had reached the end of its natural life…

I Cunfirenti

This was originally going to be an appendix to the playlist near the end of Chapter 8:  an exploration of the attitude to mathematics in the genre of organized crime ballads.  The deeper meaning of Rick Ross’s 2009 single Mafia Music was exposed even before it was released,  but I was unable to find an interpretation of the unexpected appearance of mathematics in the middle of this rap à clef:

I thought about my future and the loops I could pin.
Walked out on a gig and I turned to da streets,
Kept my name low key, I ain’t heard from in weeks.
I came up with a strategy to come up mathematically,
I did it for da city but now everybody mad at me.

Apart from Rick Ross, Gödel is the only person Google finds who can “come up mathematically.”  My guess is that Ross’s strategy (unlike Gödel’s) involves money.  But Ross is not really a gangster, and Mafia Music is not really a mafia song at all; in fact, by naming names the song breaks what I’m told is the most fundamental of all the rules of the Italian Malavita, namely the rule of omertà, the iron law of silence.

Now it struck me when I saw this that the mathematical profession has its own version of omertà, probably not very different from other forms of academic rules of silence, having to do with forms of behavior that straddle the line that divides the unpleasant from the unethical.  The behavior protected by mathematical omertà differs from other varieties in that it tends to inspire less literary commentary.  Instead it consists in scandalous rumors whispered in corridors when they are not being shouted across barroom tables, but that must under no circumstances be mentioned in public.  (There was a scurrilous exception in a well known literary magazine a few years ago, but I will not dignify it with a link.)

I am particularly sensitive to this rule just now, because in the past few weeks I was shocked to learn of abuse of power by several colleagues I would not have believed capable of such behavior (and by a few others I can easily believe capable of anything).  Whether being the repository of such confidences is one of the perks of my charisma, or whether it’s the abusers who feel newly entitled as a result of their own charisma, the mildest punishment I could expect if I chose to betray the dark secrets of the mathematical profession is not to be privy to such secrets in the future.  Breach of Mafia omertà is treated more harshly than that.  Many of the songs on the delightful album La Musica della Mafia are devoted to the many kinds of punishment the gangster ethic  —

Laws that don’t forgive those/Who break their silence

reserves for traitors — cunfirenti, in Calabrian dialect.  For example, the song entitled I cunfirenti promises that they will find “their final resting place in concrete walls” (‘Mpastati ccu cimentu e poi murati).

The album’s title is imprecise; it’s not a collection of songs of the Sicilian mafia but rather the ballads of their Calabrian declension, the ‘Ndrangheta, who deserve to be better known, and not only for their songs:

Its success at drug smuggling catapulted the ‘Ndrangheta past its more storied Sicilian rival, the Cosa Nostra, in both wealth and power. Italian authorities now consider the ‘Ndrangheta to be Europe’s single biggest importer of cocaine.

What I find most charming about this collection is the contrast between the lively rhythms of many of the songs and the uniformly grim, often bloody, content of the lyrics.  For example:

Malavita, malavita
Appartegnu all’Onorata
Puru si c’impizzu a vita
Eu nun fazzu na sgarrata

Which means

Malavita, malavita!
I am one of the honorable society.
And even if it costs me my life,
I will never surrender.

If you’re looking for mathematical content you have to skip to the last verse:

Ed eo chi tingu sangu ´nta li vini
Su prontu d’affruntari mille infami
A chista genti ci rispunnimu
Pidi sunu pronti centu lami

Which means

And I who have blood flowing through my veins
Am ready to face 1000 traitors
As they know all too well
That 100 sharpened knives are ready for them.