8th November 2021

Entanglements

Oxford English Dictionary Word-of-the-Day

18th October 2021: hákarl, n. An Icelandic dish comprising the meat of a Greenland shark that has been allowed to ferment (traditionally by burial in sand for up to twelve weeks) then hung to dry for several months.

19th October 2021: beardom, n. The condition or state of being a bear or of being like a bear. Also: the realm of bears.

20th October 2021: dingolay, v. Caribbean (chiefly Trinidad and Tobago). To dance in an exuberant or uninhibited way. Also more generally: to twist or turn one’s body.

21st October 2021: otototoi, int. Expressing grief or pain: alas, woe.

22nd October 2021: fastenment, n. A device that closes or secures something; a fastening.

23rd October 2021: festie, n. A person who attends festivals, esp. regularly; a festival-goer.

24th October 2021: fast foodery, n. A restaurant selling fast food.

He’d been adventurous, gustatorily speaking, once upon a time. Spiced bat, reeking hákarl. The world was shrinking now, though. Recently, it had been all he could manage to collect a few tins from the shop, which he’d slowly make his way through, without pleasure, absorbing the calories in his deepening beardom as if a first hibernation loomed inexpressibly on the horizon of the future. There were many things he used to enjoy, which now would stir no feeling, the memory of which he could merely entertain abstractly, an intellectual puzzle, a thought experiment, from inebriated dingolays to the ache of a loving tryst, things that would once inspire a cry of joy or pitiful otototoi. But that was before, when he was maleable, liquid. The ice had gotten in, and pulled shut the casket lid, clasping its fastenment, and icing up the lock to prevent the entry of any key. The exuberant friends were the first to go, those frivolous besties and festies, fellow patrons of the fast foodery when there was simply no time to lose between events and experiences and the next big things. Then he was left with those tortoise-paced introverts, before they too grew impatient with his brooding. And now, he fades away, alone. Powering down for a long, long time to come.

1st November 2021

Entanglements

Oxford English Dictionary Word-of-the-Day

11th October 2021: plutomania, n. Excessive or frenzied pursuit of wealth.

12th October 2021: mariachi, n. A small group of Mexican strolling musicians who perform traditional folk music.

13th October 2021: cakeage, n. In a restaurant: the cutting and serving of a cake that has been brought in by a customer from off the premises; (hence) a charge levied for this service.

14th October 2021: redivivus, adj. Brought back to life; come back to life, revived.

15th October 2021: zeeping, adj. Designating a high-pitched noise like that produced by friction or something travelling at speed; (also) that makes such a noise.

16th October 2021: fairy bells, n. Any of various plants having somewhat bell-shaped flowers, as the foxglove, Digitalis purpurea…

17th October 2021: almond butter, n. A creamy dessert made with sweetened ground almonds. Now historical and rare.

They saw themselves dripping with gold. It hung off them, cold yet molten, in folds of phenomenal expense. These visions were just daydream dances of undeniable plutomania. Yet, one could imagine them perceived, like some ugly twinkle in the eye. Here, in the luxurious booth, tucked away in a quiet section of Cantina Andaluzia, they saw themselves across the millions of cotton threads of the tablecloth. The festive mariachi waltz was a dull, low-volume texture. Above it, the tickling of glass and cutlery, like the constant snapping of threads on the wire of a suspension bridge, babbling gossip and laughter, occasional hushed hagglings over corkage and cakeage and happy birthday tooo yoouuu.

Arise, arise, redivivus.

And, barely perceptible above the restaurant din, a soft zeeping — like the opening of foxgloves, a vibrating ring of fairy bells –floats and lands, smeared like almond butter on the eardrum of our most distinguished guest.

8th June 2020

 

A few days ago, #BlackintheIvory started trending on Twitter, documenting Black experience in academia. The stories were unsurprising and are an important front in the recent surge in #BlackLivesMatter activity. A little under sixty years previous, in the Jim Crow South, Vivian Malone famously suffered an attempt to obstruct her enrolment at the University of Alabama. Across the Mississippi, another V. Malone had faced the barriers of segregated education.

 

VMM

In August of 1961, in her home town of Waco, Texas, Vivienne Malone-Mayes applied to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics at Baylor College, Texas. She already held B.A. and M.A. degrees in Maths and was teaching the subject at Paul Quinn College. A few days after she wrote to Baylor’s admissions board, she received the following reply.

 

August 28, 1961

Dear Mrs. Mayes:

Thank you for your letter of August 24. I have discussed it with my superiors in office here but have nothing favorable to report. We have not yet taken down the racial barrier here, although I have been hopeful that it would be done eventually. It seems that everyone is waiting for everyone else and no one will take the initiative in such matters.

I sincerely wish that it were possible for me to process your application for admission to Baylor University as a student.

Very sincerely yours,

Alton B. Lee, Registrar and Director of Admissions

 

(It’s worth noting that Baylor didn’t even offer a Ph.D. Mathematics programme at that time, which Lee does not feel it necessary to point out). It was the University of Texas at Austin that would, in 1966, confer the title Dr. Malone-Mayes. After which, Baylor College had slightly lowered one racial barrier and offered Dr. Malone-Mayes a professorship. Yet, of course, as Claudia Henrion notes, “The obstacles she [Malone-Mayes] confronted were both large and small, and it took tremendous determination to pursue this path in relative isolation as an African American, and as a woman in mathematics, at Baylor”(Henrion, 1997).

Despite her personal strength and the support of her Church, Malone-Mayes’s health problems, in particular, were exacerbated by Baylor’s institutional racism. Her story is a key study in what bell hooks famously described as ‘systems of domination and the inter-relatedness of sex, race, and class oppression’ (1984) – yet one that also reclaims and reframes mathematics from something unattainable and abstract to a powerful pedagogical ally.

1st June 2020

 

regressus in infinitum – you can’t get to “100” without first passing “50”; you can’t get to “50” without first passing “25”. Und so weiter. This infinite regress is vicious, of course, because ‘you’re required to complete an infinite number of actions before attaining your goal, which – since the whole point of ‘infinite’ is that there’s no end to the number of these actions – renders the goal logically impossible’ (Wallace, Everything and More, pp. 48-9). Nothing changes. I know nothing of the Sisyphean hell, an eternity, a temporal ∞, of pain now smouldering in American cities. But I can see the infantry viciousness – ignorance sharp as knives and quick as a whip. Think critically, down on the street level. Analysis pending. Analyse. Limiting processes, the summation of infinite series, infinite processes, indefinitely continued without ever coming to an end. Such a series may be convergent, in which case it has a finite value or limit to which it approaches, or divergent, in which case it has no such limit. It was Weierstrass who proved that the infinite of Zeno’s Dichotomy is actually not an infinite regress requiring endlessly proliferating subtasks, but rather one task of traversing the distance from one side to its limit (the other side) – a convergent infinite series, whose limit we’ve been approaching for centuries. Or, perhaps, we instead find ourselves at a function’s exceptional point of singularity – undefined.

25th May 2020

 

On the 18th of November 2016, Sarah Kendzior implored her fellow Americans to “write about who you are, what you have experienced, and what you have endured”. What follows is a condensed, public-friendly version of my continuing attempts to honour the imperatives.

 

Write down what you value; what standards you hold for yourself and for others:

I value fairness, vision, and vitality. I try to be kind, curious, tolerant, and honest, and I try to empower others be the same.

 

Write about your dreams for the future and your hopes for your children:

I dream for a courageous future, where the braindead megaphones have long since fallen silent, and the birds don’t have to scream to be heard.

 

Write about the struggle of your ancestors and how the hardship they overcame shaped the person you are today:

My ancestors suffered and inflicted colonial atrocities. With little more than their words and their hands some acquiesced and some resisted. Their stories teach me that nothing is determinate, that there are always choices, that education can help you make the right ones – whether for the good of the self or the good of others. Even both.

 

 

Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them:

I will never underestimate greed. I will never consider a human being as anything less (or more). I will not stop calling out lies.

 

Write a list of things you would never believe. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will either believe them or be forced to say you believe them:

I will not believe in (false) equivalence, that there are always two equal sides – some things people say are just incorrect; some things they do are just plain wrong.

18th May 2020

 

It’s been a fairly productive week. I’ve kept on top of marking, organized upcoming Summer projects (some of which even pay!) and, most importantly, have completed a draft of my chapter for a forthcoming book on David Foster Wallace. Getting back into critical reading was a vital step, but it was still a very strange experience to be writing at this level, on a topic very close to my PhD research (but just different enough to require significant effort to reframe, especially on a very restricted wordcount). Getting these words on the page again is sparking all kinds of creative connections in my head. I’m feeling a bit manic about it all, simultaneously struggling to keep up with my thoughts and completely exhausted, what with all the global crises erupting all around. Thus, I’m loath to set any other deadlines, or even to really start something new. I don’t think I can handle simultaneous projects right now – going to try to get better at completing things sequentially for a change.

11th May 2020

 

The whispers of change themselves can bring about such change. “Stay home” will be dropped and, without the rumour being addressed, it effectively was. For days it was allowed to hang in the air. And VE was used as an excuse to selfishly indulge in empty-calorie gratification with jingoistic pomp. Then, our baited breath was released when we were given “Stay Alert” …to what? Milhouse saw the whole thing happen. But the kicker, for me, was that wonderful example of Fashionable Nonsense was used to demonstrate how the “Alert Level” (which is either 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) :

BadCovidFormula

While some have tried to argue that this is straightforward and intuitive, if you regard the relationship described as that in a complex plane, it is quite clear that a) this would need to be defined (which it isn’t); b) this would not be useful for a public-awareness infographic; and c) the formula was used to try to impress rather than inform. Yet, even considering popular interpretation, the relationship described by “+” is pretty analogically descriptive of the response to crisis so far: make irrelevant additions to turn incoherence into novelty.

Nevertheless, it has spurred me to start collecting, with greater energy, other examples of such mathematical representations of the current pandemic that abound in the media. Should we be fortunate to have the time and space to culturally analyse them, it would, I’m sure, make interesting reading.

4th May 2020

 

It is May and I have got round to some critical readings, (hooray!) albeit not the most immediately relevant. I’ve begun Stephon Alexander’s 2016 The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music And The Structure of the Universe, which opens with that famous gloss by Einstein on his theory of relativity, “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception”. Flicking through, I’m most interested in the diagram that John Coltrane gave to Yusef Lateef as a birthday present in 1961 – that modified circle of fifths mandala.

 

coltrane-circle-new

That’s about as far as I got. Thinking and writing clearly about music and mathematics is one of my favourite things to do – the clarity is something really special. But it feels a long way off, right now. Exhausted, and other marking and contractual uncertainties keeping me unproductive. And so, I’m done. Does this count as a post? A micro-post?

27th April 2020

 

I think I’m beginning to overcome a real funk and funky ennui that has made it very difficult indeed to work this past week. It may have been the sunshine – unseasonably hot, and in Glasgow of all places, especially in our little south-facing suntrap – which slowed everything way down, but it was also a shiftlessness. Kafka, 28th July 1914 : “I am more and more unable to think, to observe, to determine the truth of things, to remember, to speak, to share an experience; I am turning to stone, this is the truth”.  Although not nearly as bad as Kafka’s “Despairing first impression of the barrenness, the miserable house, the bad food with neither fruit nor vegetables” – we’ve got fresh veg delivered from the local grocer – 45 days in the same limited square footage has certainly turned me towards the stonelike. I’ve tried reflecting on my teaching practice and taken heart in returning to marking essays in order to reinvigorate through dialogue with students about texts I love and care about. I seem to be able to read fiction, albeit in very short bursts, but there has been a block in reading criticism. However, easy does it, that can be my small goal to achieve by the week’s end.

20th April 2020

 

I’ve been stunned beyond adequate reflection by the Orwellian propaganda drama coming out of the White House – meltdowns; cancelling funding to the WHO in the middle of a pandemic. This as the (unsurprising) news of UK leadership failures has finally been published, by The Sunday Times, no less! I managed to tear my eyes away from the news long enough to finally get round to watching Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl – incredible storytelling and way too resonant for today’s crises for comfort.

 

Despite the melancholic distractions, I calmed myself down from all this terror with another junction of maths and literature – a choral arrangement for a famous Biblical story (unnamed so I don’t get sued). Exploring the polyphonic arithmetic required to move from sombre Gregorian Chant to ecstatic four-part harmony with just four tenor voices, and manipulating the simple note arrangements on the staves is pretty soothing.

 

The past few days have also permitted some beautiful reading in the sun. I finished Saunders’s extraordinary Lincoln in the Bardo, and was particularly moved by the melancholy between worlds and unfinished business, note “A Heavy Bough Hung Down” – a song that evokes both Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (“Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”) and Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche or Love’s Misery, Canto II (Lust Conquered), 162:

Now those pageant beauties which of late

Had there trim’d up a Temple for Delight,

Were all unmask’d ; and Melancholy sate

Shrouding her hideous self in mid-day night.

The heavy nodding Trees all languished.

And ev’ry sleepy bough hung down its head.

 

This otherwordly delight has kicked me into getting through stacks of pleasure reading beyond some online-exam-prep work: returning to Morrison’s Beloved and Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is liberating and devastating all over again, and is also helping reorient my own critical writing. While I’ve been picking away at a chapter on Wallace and Infinity, I should (cloudy weather permitting) be able to complete a draft, from the overwhelming notes, by next week.