Archive for April 4, 2009

The MSM: Full of Surprises

April 4, 2009 Leave a comment


I don’t know what to make of the sports article in today’s Wall Street Journal, on the Leisure & Arts back page of the Saturday/Sunday Weekend Journal section. Allen Barra, whose biography of Yogi Berra has just appeared, has an article headlined Pujols Is Baseball’s Best. Well, yes. What else is new? I’m always happy to read more about Albert Pujols and his greatness, but this is hardly headline worthy. And yet, after a lead-in about the timeless question of who the best player in baseball, we read the following passage, italics added by me:

[T]he standards for greatness would appear to be simple: The best player in the game at any given time would have to be an outstanding hitter, a good defensive player, and at least a competent base runner.

Who, then, qualifies as the best player in baseball today? The answer might surprise even some dedicated baseball fans, but ask around and the name that pops up the most is 29-year-old Albert Pujols. The Dominican-born St. Louis Cardinal is a quick, intelligent base runner, though never called upon to steal bases. He is a superb first baseman, regarded by many as the best fielder at his position in the major leagues. “First base isn’t the hardest position to play,” says Lou Piniella, manager of the Cardinals’ archrivals, the Chicago Cubs, “but Albert adds an extra dimension. He’s sure-handed, and just about nothing gets by him. And he has very good range for a guy his size.” (He’s 6-foot-3 and about 230 pounds.)

But it is with a bat in his hands that Mr. Pujols excels. “If you define an effective hitter simply in terms of the runs he produces,” says Caleb Peiffer of Baseball Prospectus, “Pujols is just the best in the game — a tremendous power hitter who seldom strikes out. He might be the most consistent player in the game. He draws a lot of walks. He might be the best right-handed hitter in baseball history.”

I don’t doubt that this answer might surprise some casual followers of baseball, but dedicated baseball fans? Who could possibly be surprised. Sure, one can argue the point, but any dedicated baseball fan, if asked to name the three best players, would surely include Pujols, the only debate being who the other two are.

Yet another example of the fecklessness of the mainstream media. Maybe soon we can have a headline announcing another surprise: waterboarding is torture. Oh, wait. Not in the WSJ. But that’s another matter.

Categories: Newspapers, Sports

The Rewards of Calculus

April 4, 2009 Leave a comment


The Weekend Journal section of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an architecture feature on a house that Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, is quoted as calling “one of the most important private houses built in North America in a long time.” The story opens with a bang: “In 1999, a slight, unassuming man approached architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe with a whopping proposition: Build a house with curves, glass and a concert hall. No deadlines, no design restraints. The final cost: $24 million, nearly every penny the man had saved over 60-odd years.” So who is this unassuming man? His identity is revealed in the fifth paragraph.

The home’s owner is equally eccentric. Jim Stewart, who will only say he is in his 60s, is a top-shelf classical violinist who earned his millions writing calculus textbooks. The math professor named the building “Integral House”, after the calculus sign. Soft spoken — he stumbles frequently when asked questions about his success — Mr. Stewart also loves to throw spectacular parties like his annual Halloween costume ball (last year he donned a red dress to appear as the courtesan Satine from the movie “Moulin Rouge!”).

Wow! You can make tens of millions of dollars from a calculus text! I knew it was big business, but not that big. Stewart’s book lists at Amazon right now for $207.95, with a 20% discount offered, bringing the price down to $166.36, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s now the dominant calculus text in the country. Let’s say 200,000 freshmen and sophomores buy it each year. Royalty income would then be several million dollars annually. Our department went through a multi-year process of reviewing and revising our calculus curriculum a decade ago, culminating in the selection of Stewart’s book as our text. That’s good for a few thousand sales per year.

What about the used-book market? Doesn’t that cut into sales? Well, yes, but that’s what makes the whole textbook business so sordid. Publishers have authors revise successful texts for core freshman/sophomore courses every three years or so, whether the texts need revision or not, in order to undercut the sale of used books. Universities are forced to switch to the new text to ensure adequate supply for the students, and then the old texts no longer work, because the exercises have changed. Ostensibly the new exercises are one of the areas of major improvement in a text, taking into account new results and new areas of application. The thing about calculus, though, is that it hasn’t changed a whole lot in centuries. Newton and Leibniz got a pretty good start in the 1600s, and by the 1800s the subject as we now teach it was pretty well established. A great deal of new, beautiful, and important mathematics is published every year, but not in calculus. Certain areas of science change so rapidly that revised texts may be essential — though probably not every 3-4 years. Calculus doesn’t change rapidly though. That’s the thing about math. Our truths are permanent. We don’t come up with new theories that make the old ones obsolete. Like plate tectonics in geology. Not going to happen. Calculus is calculus.

Nonetheless, the dominant texts keep getting revised. One of the most stunning lines in the WSJ article, to me, was one near the end stating that Stewart “estimates he worked 355 days last year.” If this work was on the latest edition of Calculus, I must wonder why all that work was really necessary.

Enough of that. Let’s admire the fruits of Stewart’s labor. Do read the article, and check out the accompanying slideshow, with eight shots of the house.

Perhaps I should add that I haven’t actually used Stewart’s book, so I have no opinion myself on it. I gather it’s an excellent text. But, after teaching calculus off and on for 20 years, I haven’t taught it for the last 13.

Categories: Architecture, Math, Music

Lost Tribes Video

April 4, 2009 Leave a comment

Embedded above is a video by Andy and Carolyn London. Their description: “The latest short film from London Squared Productions. Urban Anthropologists, Andy and Carolyn London interview some of New York City’s more overlooked citizens.” And they call it Lost Tribes of New York City. Those of you familiar with Nick Park’s fabulous Creature Comforts videos will recognize the genre. (And if you’re not familiar with Creature Comforts, rent the DVD immediately. There’s a 5-minute short from 1989 in which he interviews zoo animals and then a series of TV shows from 2003 on British television. A US version aired briefly last year. You can get a DVD of the 2003 series along with the original short.)

Instead of animals, the London video has … well, see for yourself. It’s just three minutes. (HT: Andrew Sullivan.)

Categories: Film, Society