All posts by shakeddown

Annual Birthday Post

It’s my birthday. I’ve had friends of all sorts talk to me today, from people I talk to every day, to people fulfilling their social obligation to send birthday greetings, to people who were happy for the chance to talk to me. I think I value the third group the most, today.

To be honest, it’s not enough. I’m still sad. I miss… not my exes, exactly, but the set of people I could really talk to. which is close to the set of people I’ve dated, in both the set-theoretic and the metric senses, but not quite it. And, unfortunately, pretty much entirely contained in the set of people I don’t talk to anymore.

I’m trying not to mope too much about it. As much as I feel like my life will never change, it’ll change pretty seriously soon enough. I’ll have a new job, in a new city, with a new community, all of which should be radically different than the ones I have now, and all of which have a reputation for being pretty nice, even for people like me. Hell, maybe I’ll even manage to have a new me.

There’s the blessing we say every year. Next Year in Jerusalem! And they do say these days that San Francisco is supposed to be the Jerusalem of nerds. It’s where Neil Armstrong descended out of Heaven as the Right Hand of God. So I guess I’ll see if it lives up to it’s promise.

Whichever way it goes, next year I’ll probably look back at that and laugh, but whether it’ll be because I’m laughing at how naive I was, or because I’m cheerful, remains to be seen.

The kaballah of my name

The overt meaning of “Shaked” is “Almond Tree”.

The kabbalistic meaning is “One who makes divine puns.” This we derive from Jeremiah 1:11-12, which says:

11 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.

12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am working to see that my word is fulfilled.”

This verse requires explanation.

The prophet Jeremiah, like all biblical prophets, is reluctant to do God’s bidding. This is understandable, as God’s bidding to prophets is usually to go visit a city full of evil people, berate them for their sinful ways, and tell them about all the terrible punishments God has in store for them. People who are evil and sinful by biblical standards (which accept Lot offering his daughters to be raped by the mob, or David killing two hundred philistines for their foreskins, as perfectly normal and acceptable) tend not to appreciate this.

God, however, has to convince Jeremiah to go through with this as quickly as possible, and decides to use the ole’ “make a pun off a random object” method of persuasion1. When Jeremiah points out a random almond tree (“Shaked” in Hebrew), God answers that he is “Working” (the other meaning of the word “Shaked”) to see that his word (in this case, “don’t worry, it’ll be fine) is fullfilled.

The prophet Jeremiah, reassured by this divine mastery of puns, happily goes forwards on his quest2.

The English meaning of “shake” can also be derived from God using an almond tree to shake Jeremiah up. This is not a coincidence, because nothing is ever a coincidence.

1. The other person famous for doing this is Ben Johnson, who claimed he could make a pun on any subject. When someone asked for a pun about the Queen, Johnson protested: “But the Queen is not a subject”.

2. Contrary to God’s reassurances, Jeremiah later proceeds to spend most of the book agonizing over the failure of his mission, consumed by bitterness at those who oppose or ignore him, and accusing God of betraying him.

RIP John Glenn

Senator Astronaut Colonel John Glenn died today at the age of ninety five. That sentence is not so much “life goals” as what a comic book prints to show you how awesome the guy who just dies was. Add in the parts about “surrounded by his loving family, including his wife of 73 years”, and it gets so tacky no self-respecting comic book writer would write it (well, maybe Rob Liefeld).

Despite being a classically nerdy mathematician, I’ve never really been into the whole space thing 1 . I don’t believe in settling faraway planets or spreading across the galaxy. I think the reason for the Fermi paradox is that it’s practically impossible to spread your civilization, or even information, across the galaxy. Tim Urban’s Elon Musk series managed to convince me that it just might be possible, in a few centuries, to establish a permanent Mars colony. It certainly seems impossible to travel beyond the solar system, even assuming Hard-SF levels of technology.

But recently, I’ve started thinking what it was like back in the sixties. When we were just experimenting with rockets, and anything seemed possible. Most of this chapter really happened, and remembering those people, sitting in a tin can going around the moon for the first time and reading the book of Genesis while the whole world watched… it means something.

We don’t have that anymore. I don’t think we can. Economic productivity is shrinking, spaceflight is approaching the limits of the possible, and it doesn’t seem to be because of anything like a bad government policy. It’s because we’ve run out of things to do. Trump ran on a platform of making America great again. He didn’t really have any specifics, and couldn’t, because we’ve run out of achievable things to strive for. We’ve reached the moon already. And we’ll never get to Alpha Centauri.

So today, let’s remember John Glenn. I’ve seen him called the last real American hero. This seems true. Not because we have no heroic men left, but because we have no more goals for them to conquer.

But when we did, it was pretty great.


Except for the time when I was six when we went to the national air and space museum, and my dad got me a model of the Saturn V rocket. I managed to break the antenna-thingy off before we even got home, after which the rest of the rocket survived undamaged on my desk for the next fifteen years.

Hebrew Translation of Hallelujah

שמעתי יש אקורד נסתר
שדוד ניגן לאל ושר
אך לך אין שום עניין בלא-ידוע
,הוא פותח עם אקורד ברה
,מינור יורד, מאז’ור עולה
מלחין המלך את ההללויה


האל רחוק, בלתי מושג
והיא רוחצת על הגג
יופיה העיף את זקנתך לרוח
בחבל דק קשרה אותך
חתכה את כתר שיערך
…חילצה מחלציך הללויה


אמרת לשווא נשאתי שם
,איני יודע מה השם
?וגם אילו ידעתי, מה אכפת לך
יש פרץ אור
בכל מילה
לא משנה את מה שמעה
…שבור או מקודש, זה הללויה


,ניסיתי קצת, זה לא הרבה
,רציתי רק ללחוש את זה
…הייתי ישר, לא באתי בך לפגוע
,אפילו שהכל החוויר
אבוא מול אלוהי בשיר
…עם שום מילים חוץ מההללויה


Translation of the Leonard Cohen version of Hallelujah. First two verses due to Tomer Sharon.

Also, Translation of the UNSONG version:

אומרים שיש מילה קדושה
שג’אלה קרא לאלוהים בשמה
אך אין לך שום עניין בקסם, או מדרש
מתחיל עם תו, אחר כך ריש
אושר נפעם, ייחול חרש
המלך מדקלם את המפורש

האמנת, אך עם ספק חלוף
הא הא יוד תו מם תו וו קוף
ספינה שלפנינו הניפה מפרש
היא ראתה את הדגל המונף
ראתה חלום כעלה נידף
המלך מדקלם את המפורש

אמרת לשווא נשאתי שם
ואז איבדתי את השם
החזרתי אותו ממני אל השורש
אבל הדים נשמעים בכל מילה
לא משנה מה שקרה
לא ככה מאבדים את המפורש

Thoughts of the day

The biblical Abraham was known as the first father of his people. Going by this, we would expect the famous American president named Abraham to be the first American president. So what gives?
Well, the biblical Abraham isn’t known for kicking things off. He’s known for introducing the modern moral law. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln is famous because he set the moral law (that slavery must never be legal).
But, we ask, if the biblical Abraham isn’t analogous to the first president, who is?
Well, the first American president was named George, which comes from the greek word for earth, and is known as the father of his country. In the bible, the first man is Adam (Hebrew for earth), and the rest of humanity is known as sons of Adam.
This is both reassuring and worrying about the notion of American decline. The reassuring part is that in implies America is analogous not to the nation of Israel (which gets punished at the drop of a hat, and was destroyed in the end as its rulers lost its faith), but to the whole of humanity (which was only terribly punished once or twice, both when there was only one good man left in the world). So as long as America has ≥ 2 good men left, it’s safe from divine retribution.

(Note: This was inspired by UNSONG. “George” meaning “Dirt” is from there; the rest is original to me).

Dang Stupid Cubs *mumble mumble*

So I’m a bit torn about the world series.
On the one hand, winning 8-7 in the tenth inning, (in a thunderstorm!) after coming back from being 3-1 behind, is suitably epic. And 108 is a pretty nice number (one of the most commonly encountered 3-digit numbers in math).
But on the other hand, well… as a modern adult, I’m not really allowed to believe in magic. But there are always a few weirdly inexplicable things. Wolfgang Pauli died in hospital room #137 (which, aside from being the inverse of the fine structure constant, is the gematria value of the word Kabbalah). There’s the thing with those people who vanished in Siberia, and nominative determinism. And until yesterday, there was the thing where a baseball team that got cursed by a man with a goat would never win the world series.
So now there’s a little less magic in the world. I hope you enjoy your stupid baseball trophy, Chicago.


I was planning to finally get down to write one of those really controversial ideas I always plan to get around to writing. The title was supposed to be something like “The pros of discrimination by demographic.” But Its been a rainy day in Minneapolis, and I’m feeling more contempletive than confrontational. So stories of Minneapolis it is.

I’m here for a weekend conference, in the form of joint AMS meetings, which basically means a bunch of unrelated series of lectures in the same building. Officially, i’m here for the session on chip-firing in graphs, which is what my research is in. Unofficially, I do not understand algebraic geometry, and as roughly three-quarters of the talks are about the algebraic geometry of chip firing in terms of divisors on manifolds (or about tropical geometry, which is even worse), I find some other lecture to go to. A lot of them are great – the best ones are just twenty minutes of describing one simple idea, like stack sorting (what is the minimum number of passes through a stack it takes to sort a list) or graph centrality (trying to come up with good ways to measure how central a vertex is in a graph).

But on the other hand, I hate conferences. Even at their best, they’re depressing. You fly somewhere to meet a bunch of people you’ve sorta met before and try to socialize with them in a weird semi-formal environment between talks while drinking terrible conference coffee. You try explaining your research to them, or having them explain theirs to you, despite the fact that you’re probably in completely different fields and don’t really have any idea what the other person’s saying. Then you mumble an excuse and go get a coffee refill, from coffee dispensers that somehow always have exactly enough coffee to fill one cup, if you’re willing to wait two to five minutes for them to trickle a full cup’s worth of coffee in. And then there are the talks. I won’t get into conference talks, because then I really start ranting.

Going to conferences always makes me feel guilty. I get travel funding through some well-meaning body or other, and it seems like such a waste. They gave that money because they were hoping I’d use it to advance the state of human knowledge. Instead, I’m listening to a bunch of talks I don’t understand and feeling generally miserable (not that it would really be any better if I was having fun hanging out).

I did meet a friend from my summer program there. It started off slightly awkward, the way it does when you hanging out with someone you’re used to interact with as part of a group, but a few minutes in it got pretty comfortable. It was a huge relief, after having to fake friendliness the whole conference, meeting someone I actually felt friendly towards. Actually, it’s more than just the conference – I secretly suspect most of my social contacts are people I only talk to because human interaction is supposed to be good for me. It’s such a relief to find people with whom this doesn’t feel like forcing myself to eat beets.

Minneapolis was cold this weekend. It wasn’t supposed to be – the forecast said twenty degrees – but it got around freezing on Saturday afternoon. This is actually a pretty great example of baysian statistics: No matter what the forecast says, “Minneapolis is cold” remains a useful heuristic, since the prior temperature distribution for Minneapolis is lower than it would be for, say, New York.

Navigating Minneapolis was challenging interesting: My phone stopped working a week ago, so I had to navigate by memory and hastily-penned maps on the backs of receits, as my forefathers once did. Fortunately I did not have to spend fourty years in Minneapolis. Fortunately, I say, because the closest mount Nevo is in Utah, meaning I would have to cross the entire midwest on foot. I have a hard enough time doing it by plane; it’s all giant green or yellow squares, and looks like a windows 95 screensaver. I may have to get a new phone, but I interviewed with company X last week, and I’m waiting to see if they offer me a job before I decide if I should get one of their phones or one of their competitors’. (Yes, apparently I really am that childish and petty. But then, I wouldn’t want to buy an expensive phone only to find out the next day that the company that made it didn’t want to hire me).