More scary maths

I was just working through the sheet music for “As Time Goes By”. I don’t remember ever having heard the intro — it was left out when the song appeared in Casablanca, and seems never to have been performed since. It begins with the lines

This day and age we’re living in gives cause for apprehension,

With speed and new invention, and things like the third dimension.

Yet, we grow a trifle weary with Mister Einstein’s theory,

So we must get down to earth, at times relax, relieve the tension.

“Third dimension” — pretty scary! (Those interested in the influence of geometric ideas on early 20th century literature, in particular the work of Franz Kafka, could look at this paper. Though typically the anxiety about dimensions started at four.)

I’ve commented earlier on suggestions that math education should be confined to the rudiments to spare children from math anxiety, and the use of math anxiety by unscrupulous politicians to distract attention from their policies.

Unterwegs mit Mum

According to the NY Times, “The Guilt Trip” is a “mild-mannered dud” of a comedy, in which Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand play son and mother on a road trip together for some not very interesting reason. But I’m amused by the German version of the title, above, which translates to “Travelling with Mum”. It has many of the classic qualities of German film titles that I catalogued in “What’s German for G.I. Joe?“: The modest wordplay of the original title has been stripped out, replaced by a straight three-word description of the plot. But then, you wouldn’t want the audience to fail to notice that the film is a foreign import, so the English “Mum” has to be in there. Except, the film American, so it really should have been “Mom”, but who knows the difference?

Of course, a really classic German film title would have played the description out longer, something like “A Totally Crazy Week in the Car Travelling Across America with Mum” (on the model of “The Unbelievable Trip in a Wacky Airplane” — “Airplane” in the original — since it helps to be sure the audience knows it’s a comedy).

Without a net

One linguistic phenomenon that fascinates me more than it probably should is when a word or phrase can have opposite meanings in different contexts. Like the English word cleave (e.g. Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife”, as opposed to a meat cleaver.)

I recently watched Ken Burns’s controversial 15-hour documentary Jazz. One segment, focusing on Miles Davis’s turn to fusion and electronica, was titled “Tennis Without a Net”. This quotes the critic Gerald Early, who appears in the segment, but of course refers back to Robert Frost’s bon mot about free verse (“tennis with the net down”). The implication is that music is a game, whose spectators are judging above all the players’ adroitness in accomplishing inherently simple things under complicated artificial constraints. Free jazz has also been tagged with this undead witticism.

So playing “without a net” means making things too easy, too safe, since no one can say if you’ve gotten it wrong. But “performing without a net” can also mean taking exceptional risks, as in the title of the Grateful Dead’s 1990 album “Without a Net”. There the metaphor is the circus acrobat’s net, and the implication is that the band’s free improvisation is particularly risky, since they are performing live without the support of a predetermined musical structure.

And this reminds me again of Natalia Cecire’s fascinating attack on statistics as an “inherently puerile discipline”, because its highest priority is “commitment to the rules of the game”. (I should make clear, as I argued before, I disagree with Cecire’s opinion of statistics, but I find the framework she lays on it both creative and useful.) Are statisticians making their research too safe by performing with the net of mathematical methodology, or are humanists like Cecire setting themselves a too-easy task by playing with the net of rigorous quantitative analysis down?