Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The sex appeal of brainy women

This is yesterday's news (last week's news, actually), but perhaps you haven't heard the story about the Delta Zeta sorority at DePauw University, in Indiana. A review conducted by the sorority's central organization found that 23 of the 35 sisters were insufficiently committed to recruitement, and they were purged from the organization. Coincidentally, those 23 included all the overweight and non-white members. Half of the 12 white and thin survivors were so outraged that they quit. The NYT article has more on the story. (Inlcuding the story of a recruiting event in which thin white sisters were bused in from another university.)

Although the writer means well, the article itself rubs me the wrong way in a couple of places. For example, I can't even begin to count the ways the following paragraph is wrong:
Despite those incidents, the chapter appears to have been home to a diverse community over the years, partly because it has attracted brainy women, including many science and math majors, as well as talented disabled women, without focusing as exclusively as some sororities on potential recruits’ sex appeal.

And then
“I had a sister I could go to a bar with if I had boy problems,” said Erin Swisshelm, a junior biochemistry major who withdrew from the sorority in October. “I had a sister I could talk about religion with. I had a sister I could be nerdy about science with.”

Because, see, what would those nerdy, unappealing, math and science majors have to say about boy problems, or what would possess them to go to a bar?

And this is in an article that decries stereotypes about women.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Put. The Candle. Back

When I was in high school, I watched Young Frankenstein a few times too many, and so did some of my friends. We would sometimes reenact the "Sit down please. No, no, higher" gag at inappropriate times, or say "What a filthy job" when the weather threatened rain, and repeat our favorite lines ("You take the blonde, I'll take the one with the turban," "he is going to be very popular," "A.B. Normal") for no particular reason. Overall, I knew the movie pretty much by heart, in Italian, that is. (In Italy, foreign movies are dubbed, often by famous actors, not subtitled.) And the "quiet dignity and grace" scene is always with me whenever the excitement of the proof of a major result gives way to the realization that the proof has a fatal flaw.

I have never, however, seen the movie on a big screen. That's about to change, because the Castro Theater, that has already delighted me with big-screen showings of Manhattan, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odissey, The Rear Window, Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and several other movies that came out before my time, is showing Young Frankenstein this weekend!

The funniest scenes in the movies are surreal and incongruous, so the context in which the movie is being screened is oddly appropriate. The movie will show on Saturday at midnight, preceded by a show by Heklina (of Trannyshack fame) and Peaches Christ (of Midnight Mass). What do drag queens have got to do with a nerd cult classic that, as far as I can see, is not camp at all? And then, the whole thing is somehow part of the International Bear Rendezvous of 2007. The bigger (and fatter, and hairer) question then being what do bears have got to do with drag queens and Mel Brooks?

All I can say is that this is the kind of thing that in New York, for all the superior choice of several art movie houses, cannot be found. Score one for San Francisco!

And The Seventh Seal is going to play next week! Now if only they would show The Blues Brothers...

[Update 2/19. I stand corrected. Now I see that every good comedy ought to be preceded by a drag show and to be seen with more than a thousand roaring bears.]

Monday, February 12, 2007

What Is Good Mathematics?

A very interesting "opinion piece" by Terry Tao. I liked the list of five "hypothetical" ways in which a mathematical field can lose its ways. And the story of Szemeredi's theorem, used as a case study of good mathematics, is so beautiful that it's always good to hear it told.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Runaway Brains

The runaway brains

Two symptoms that all not is not well with the Italian research and university system are the number of Italian researchers who move abroad (noticeable) and the number of foreigners who move to Italian universities and research institutions (nearly zero).

Substantial, and expensive, structural changes would be needed to make good use of the talent that abounds in Italian universities. Instead, like in a mismanaged company, every few years there is a "reform" (it would be called a "reorganization" in a company) that is not accompanied by any additional funding, and whose effect is typically to just add to the misery, until, that is, the next reform a few years later.

Anyways, a few years ago, it was decided that something had to be done about Italian researchers moving abroad. This brain drain problem is more colorfully called fuga dei cervelli in Italian, which means, more or less, runaway brains.

The return of the brains

The response was the following zany scheme. A special fund was created to support visiting positions of Italians (or, actually, foreigners as well) employed by foreign research institutions. The fund would pay for a visit of length between three and five years at an Italian university.

The plan was called "rientro dei cervelli." The official English translation is "brain gain," but it actually means "the return of the brains."

Notice that the three year minimum seemed to have been cleverly chosen so that one had to give up one's job in order to take the position. One can be away for one year, by taking a sabbatical or a leave, possibly two years by combining a sabbatical or a leave, but few places would let you away for three years.

After five years, however, it's unclear what the "returned brain" is supposed to do.

The cheated brains

The program started in 2001, and the first positions have been expiring last year. Supposedly, people were expected to apply for jobs at Italian universities, but for the last few years a scandalous underfunding has created a complete freeze in hiring. Within the larger tragedy of a whole generation of researchers who have not been able to find jobs, lied the smaller farce of the "returned brains" that had no job openings to apply to.

Finally, another special fund was set apart to create tenured positions for the "returned brain" people, so that they could stay in Italy, as in the spirit of the whole thing.

But not so quickly. Each appointment of a "returned brain" to one of those positions had to be approved by the CUN, the National Council of Universities. This union-like outfit interpreted the regulations so that people could only be appointed to positions lower than or equal to those from which they quit five years ago in order to go back to Italy. So if someone was a postdoc abroad at the time she went back to Italy, well, no job for her, even though in the intervening five years she has led a lab and has now sufficient experience to be an associate professor.

Things weren't too bad for Aldo Colleoni, however. According to news report, he was able to secure a tenured professorship at the University of Macerata in light of the fact that he was previously a professor at the Zokhiomj University in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Indeed, such university does not seem to exist, and Professor Colleoni does not appear to have ever worked outside of Italy. As the honorary counsel of Mongolia, however, he was able to authenticate his documents himself when he applied for the Italian position. (If the news reporting is accurate, this might be the most brazen case of resume-padding ever.)

Nature has an article that valiantly tries to explain the whole mess (thanks to Luca Aceto for the link). There are also online comments.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Adopted Brother

Yesterday's exchange between Stephen Colbert and Debra Dickerson on the subject of the "blackness" of Barak Obama was priceless.

(video via The Raw Story)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies, and National Review (Part II)

Some time ago, the New York Times reported on census data that shows that only a minority of American women are married and living with their husband. Thomas Sowell writes in National Review to complain about the way the Times misleads with statistics. He repeats points made earlier, in the same magazine, by Jennifer Morse. (Namely, that the claim depends on the definition of "woman" and of "living with.")

But this is part of a pattern, Mr. Sowell writes, because,
Innumerable sources have quoted a statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce — another conclusion based on creative manipulation of words, rather than on hard facts.

The statistic is partly based on the fact that, in recent years, there have been about half as many divorces as marriages in any given year. It is of course not quite correct to project that half of the marriages are going to end in divorce: if the number of people getting married increases with time then, all other things being equal, the ratio of divorces to marriages in a given year underestimates the true fraction of marriages ending in divorce. Conversely, if the number of marriages goes down with time, one has an overestimate. I would suppose, however, that demographers take such trends into account in their models.

Sowell's objection is, of course, considerably more creative:
The fact that there may be half as many divorces in a given year as there are marriages in that year does not mean that half of all marriages end in divorce.

It is completely misleading to compare all the divorces in one year — from marriages begun years and even decades earlier — with the number of marriages begun in that one year.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

CCC 2007

The list of accepted papers is online. I am so curious about the Feige-Kindler-O'Donnell paper!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Italian Dream

With the new Center-Left government of Romano Prodi, politics in Italy has been back to being boring (which is, by the way, a good thing - Ask a Taiwanese, not to mention an Israeli, if they wouldn't rather prefer their country to have a boring political life) and incomprehensible. There has been much drama about a proposal to create a form of civil unions open both to unmarried opposite-sex couples living together as well as to same-sex couples. As best as I can understand it, the controversy is over whether the new law will protect the rights of the couple, or the rights of the two people who are in the couple. Or perhaps it's the rights of the two people as members of the couple versus the rights of the people as individuals. See? I told you.

Then there is the case of the expansion of the American military base in Vicenza, which has been approved by the government despite widespread, and bipartisan, local opposition. The majority in the Senate presented a motion to have a debate on something about this, but then opposition presented a counter-motion to "approve the decision of the government," and the motion of the opposition passed. Even though they are a minority, but they voted formally in favor of the majority, though it was to spite them...

Anyways, it's not wonder that the New York Times has not been talking about Italian politics for a while. Unlike me, they try to write about things that their readers actually care to read. (Even though, for some reason, Maureen Dowd is still writing in the Op-Ed page.)

Until yesterday, that is, when Veronica Lario, wife of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, sent a letter to the editor of Rupubblica, one of the top two Italian newspapers. In the letter, she complains about Silvio flirting with women at an award cerimony for certain TV prizes, sort of the Italian Emmys. The letter was published in the first page, and, as can be imagined, it was widely commented about. In his typical mix of personal, public, and political, Berlusconi wrote a public reply (in which he apologizes and proclaims his eternal love for his wife) that circulated through the press office of Forza Italia (the political party he founded and leads).

Now, this is the stuff that the New York Times likes to write about. Among various cheap shots, the article has the following most insightful quote from Beppe Severgnini:
[Berlusconi] embodies the Italian dream of being everything, of pleasing everyone (and indulging himself in everything), without giving up anything.