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’re 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 receipts, as my forefathers once did. Fortunately I did not have to spend forty 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).

On my philosophy of religion, and why Bill Gates is a better christian than Donald Trump.

I swear, this isn’t going to be a random internet rant on how terrible Donald Trump is.

I’ve been thinking a lot about faith lately, mostly as a consequence of reading books that use religion as a central plot point, with various degrees of seriousness.

For example, I’ve been thinking about the idea of pride as a sin. The classic question about pride is, when does it count as a sin? Is it a sin to say “Well I make a pretty good apple pie, if I do say so myself”? Or do I have to claim I make a better apple pie than GOD HIMSELF?1

The answer, as I understood it, goes something like this: The sin of pride isn’t in having self-esteem, or confidence. It’s about thinking of things in terms of how they affect you, and your self-worth in particular. To quote Iroh, “pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source.” We are more vulnerable to shame when we feel pride, because we’re thinking of things in terms of how they reflect our self-worth, and we feel more keenly anything that would affect it negatively.

Going back to the pie, the sin would be in just thinking of making the pie in terms of how it reflects my status. If I didn’t truly care about the fact that actual people were going to eat the pie, that’s a sin. Here’s a way to measure it: Say I find out someone doesn’t like the pie. If I’m a truly great and humble man, I’ll be disappointed that he didn’t enjoy himself, and resolve to try something else with the next pie to make it taste better. If I’m just a normal guy, I’ll be a bit hurt that someone didn’t like my pie, and move on. And if I’m unusually prideful, I’ll get very angry at him. I’ll make up all sorts of shady excuses about how he has no ability to appreciate pie, how he’s just out to get me, how he’s just an idiot who’s opinion shouldn’t count. Because I’ve tied my self-worth to the pie, and if my pie is terrible, that means I must be terrible too. And I will fight tooth and nail to avoid having to think that I’m terrible.

Having lived in America for just over four years, I recently made a christian friend, who I asked about this. And he reminded me of an important hole in my attempt to understand the religious view on pride; I’d forgotten about God.

His explanation of the christian view of pride went like this: Pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, because it’s the lack of sufficiency in Christ. And if God isn’t enough for you, you turn to the other sins to compensate – gluttony is trying to fill up the God-shaped hole in you with food, Greed is trying to fill it up with money, and so forth. We all need God, and when we lose him, we desperately reach for anything we can to fill the void, but it’s never enough, and we hurt ourselves and others by reaching for the wrong things.

In some ways, this isn’t too different from my original idea. If you don’t think of God, you start thinking too much of yourself (an expression which can mean both thinking too highly of yourself, and thinking about yourself too much; this is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence). In terms of the pie, the sin is in basing your self-worth on the quality of your cooking, because you can’t base it on God’s love. Unlike my original version2, this version offers a solution: When you feel prideful, look for you connection to God and base yourself in that, rather than your pride.

This brings me back to the title. Donald Trump may call himself a christian, but if there is one thing he has never had, it is sufficiency in God. He builds giant towers and puts his name on them in golden letters and that’s still not enough fame and glory for him, because nothing will ever be enough.

Compare the vaguely unreligious Bill Gates, or at least his generic public image, as I don’t know him personally. He seems like a shy, somewhat nerdy guy who somehow ended up with more money than he knew what to do with. He wound up giving most of it to people who needed it – not because he’s a saint who lives in monklike austerity, but because he has more than enough money for what he needs, and doesn’t mind giving some of it away. Because he has sufficiency, though probably not in God.

I’m not religious, and don’t see God as a necessary part of sufficiency. For me, sufficiency is about relaxing your worries about your self-worth and realizing you have enough. I think of church as a social and emotional experience, not a mystical one.

In Geometry, it sometimes helps to add theoretical “points at infinity”. For example, we sometimes like to think of straight lines as circles with infinite radius, that pass through this point at infinity. We can use this to solve regular geometric problems that seem like they have nothing to do with any “points at infinity”. I think of God in the same way: As a theoretical concept, but a concept that’s useful for solving problems in the real worlds, if we believe in it. And there is evidence for this. Religious people are happier and healthier than non-religious people in similar circumstances. It’s almost enough to make me wish I believed in God (though judaism has a much worse ritual-to-community-action rtio than most variants of christianity, and I’m far too culturally jewish to ever consider conversion anyways). And we can think about sufficiency in this way: true sufficiency is just being happy in yourself, but faith can help you get there.

But the interesting thing about this is that it could also work backwards! Let’s assume that that the christians are right about God. If there is a benevolent God who watches the fall of every sparrow, then he most assuredly watches over us, who are more valuable than many sparrows. Can you imagine that we wouldn’t be able to feel it, if we opened our eyes and looked?

But if we didn’t believe in God, if we didn’t like going to church or had just plain never heard of religion, we wouldn’t associate it to God. We’d just feel generally at peace. And we’d assume that was all we were feeling, that we had just found a way to feel sufficiency in ourselves and let go of our pride. And we still wouldn’t verbally believe in God – but in the way that truly mattered, we would already be connected to Him.

I have to admit, I secretly hope this is true.

1. For anyone out there who wants to play the reverse game, and try to be as sinful as possible: Caps Lock are always a good way to go.

2. My non-God-involving version does appear, in a way, to offer a solution by suggesting you worry less about your self-worth and more about the actual effects of what you do. This isn’t particularly helpful, since it doesn’t give much new information beyond “be nicer and less prideful!”. The closest I’ve come to an actual solution is to try and spend more time with people you like and respect, which over time makes it feel more natural to consider others’ feelings (and has the added benefit of being something you should probably do regardless). Again, this isn’t exactly revolutionary.