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Paul Erdos: Model Academic

17 Apr

I get that it’s hard to avoid jumping on the apparent irony in Paul Krugman accepting roughly 1/4 mil. per annum for a non-teaching faculty position at CUNY, where he will be focusing his efforts on the study of income inequality

Fair enough.

Frankly, though, I’d rather they give him a cool million and cut ex-Chancellor Goldstein’s emeritus salary, which will see him take home over $500,000/yr for the next seven years, after which he will continue to receive a substantial pension.

Let’s also keep in mind that Krugman is almost certainly taking a substantial pay cut here. He was a tenured faculty member at Princeton where he easily stood out among even that apex university’s most distinguished professors. He was awarded the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, the crown jewel of a generally awe-inspiring CV. He has a regular column in the New York Times, a platform from which he’s established himself as our foremost public voice of reason on political and economic matters and as an often admirable scourge of the ruling classes. Is that a justification for exorbitant pay? No. But given the funding major research universities dole out to hire MBAs for ever-expanding administrative bureaucracies and athletics, I’d rather they start bringing up faculty pay across the board while gutting the rest of the budget. 

While we should by no means accept the deplorable state of American academe, as things stand it’s all-but-axiomatic that to be a successful academic in the US is to take a healthy bourgeois salary from an institution which saddles students with crippling debt and breaks the backs of criminally underpaid adjunct faculty. To single out Krugman and not your favorite academic celebrity simply on account of his research interests is symptomatic of the click-driven ephemeral outrage cycle that draws ire away from more deserving—but less readily digestible/apparent—targets.

That said, it’s worth considering the exceptions and asking why academics don’t do more to emulate them.

Like Krugman, the Hungarian mathematician and peripatetic couch crasher Paul Erdős had a storied and academically fruitful stint at Princeton.

But unlike Krugman, Erdős lacked a suitable disposition to plant his feet there. From Joshua Hill’s wonderful essay, ‘Paul Erdős: Mathematical Genius, Human (In That Order)’:

Erdos at Princeton - Edited

And unlike the vast preponderance of successful academics, Erdős gave away most of his inessential earnings and prize money to humanitarian causes, friends in need, and as rewards for answers to mathematical problems he didn’t have time to solve.

By most accounts, his only regular personal expenses were food, housing (for when he’d get booted from friends’ apartments), stationary, and amphetamines. Paul Hoffman relates the following in his biography of ErdősThe Man Who Loved Only Numbers

At five foot six, 130 pounds, Erdös had the wizened, cadaverous look of a drug addict, but friends insist he was frail and gaunt long before he started taking amphetamines. His hair was white, and corkscrew-shaped whiskers shot out at odd angles from his face. He usually wore a gray pinstriped jacket, dark trousers, a red or mustard shirt or pajama top, and sandals or peculiar pockmarked Hungarian leather shoes, made especially for his flat feet and weak tendons. His whole wardrobe fit into his one small suitcase, with plenty of room left for his dinosaur of a radio. He had so few clothes that his hosts found themselves washing his socks and underwear several times a week. “He could buy more,” one of his colleagues said, “or he could wash them himself. I mean, it takes zero IQ to learn how to operate a washing machine.” But if it wasn’t mathematics, Erdös wouldn’t be bothered. “Some French socialist said that private property was theft,” Erdös recalled. “I say that private property is a nuisance.”

The only possessions that mattered to him were his mathematical notebooks. He filled ten of them by the time he died. He always carried one around with him, so that he could record his mathematical insights on a moment’s notice. “Erdös came to my twins’ bar mitzvah, notebook in hand,” said Peter Winkler, a colleague of Graham’s at AT&T. “He also brought gifts for my children–he loved kids–and behaved himself very well. But my mother-in-law tried to throw him out. She thought he was some guy who wandered in off the street, in a rumpled suit, carrying a pad under his arm. It is entirely possible that he proved a theorem or two during the ceremony.”

All of his clothes, including his socks and custommade underwear, were silk, because he had an undiagnosed skin condition that was aggravated by other kinds of fabric. He didn’t like people to touch him. If you extended your hand, he wouldn’t shake it. Instead, he’d limply flop his hand on top of yours. “He hated it if I kissed him,” said Magda Fredro, a first cousin who was otherwise very close to him. “And he’d wash his hands fifty times a day. He got water everywhere. It was hell on the bathroom floor.”

Although Erdös avoided physical intimacy, and was always celibate, he was friendly and compassionate. “He existed on a web of trust,” said Aaron Meyerowitz, a mathematician at Florida Atlantic University. “When I was a graduate student and we had never met before, I gave him a ride. I didn’t know the route and asked him if he wanted to navigate with a map. He didn’t want to [and probably didn’t know how to]. He just trusted that I, a total stranger, would get him there.”

What little money Erdös received in stipends or lecture fees he gave away to relatives, colleagues, students, and strangers. He could not pass a homeless person without giving him money. “In the early 1960s, when I was a student at University College London,” recalled D. G. Larman, “Erdös came to visit us for a year. After collecting his first month’s salary he was accosted by a beggar on Euston station, asking for the price of a cup of tea. Erdös removed a small amount from the pay packet to cover his own frugal needs and gave the remainder to the beggar.” In 1984 he won the prestigious Wolf Prize, the most lucrative award in mathematics. He contributed most of the $50,000 he received to a scholarship in Israel he established in the name of his parents. “I kept only seven hundred and twenty dollars,” Erdös said, “and I remember someone commenting that for me even that was a lot of money to keep.” Whenever Erdös learned of a good cause–a struggling classical music radio station, a fledgling Native American movement, a camp for wayward boys–he promptly made a small donation. “He’s been gone a year,” said Graham, “and I’m still getting mail from organizations he gave donations to. Today I got a postcard from an Israeli girls’ home.”

In the late 1980s Erdös heard of a promising high school student named Glen Whitney who wanted to study mathematics at Harvard but was a little short of the tuition. Erdös arranged to see him and, convinced of the young man’s talent, lent him $1,000. He asked Whitney to pay him back only when it would not cause financial strain. A decade later Graham heard from Whitney, who at last had the money to repay Erdös. “Did Erdös expect me to pay interest?” Whitney wondered. “What should I do?” he asked Graham. Graham talked to Erdös. “Tell him,” Erdös said, “to do with the thousand dollars what I did.”

And for a glimpse into how this heterodox lifestyle cashed out in his scholarly routine, this is the Erdős entry from Mason Curry‘s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work:

Screenshot 2014-11-24 at 1.44.54 PM

Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 1: “If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue.”

10 Nov

The first time you see Rashid Khalidi launch into one of his strident cri de coeurs, punctuated by fierce hand gestures and presided over by an intense, indomitable gaze, it can be a little unnerving.

But Khalidi’s indignation at the widespread misconceptions and propagandistic falsehoods which inform both popular and governmental understandings of Israel-Palestine in the US is tempered by an amiable and generous pedagogic spirit. After hearing the veteran Columbia historian speak last Wednesday at a Brooklyn For Peace-organized talk in downtown Brooklyn, I have little doubt as to the primacy of that educator’s spirit.

As I stumbled in a few minutes after 7pm, I noticed that the audience–predictably large, filling the capacious meeting hall nearly to capacity–was on the whole much older than I’d expected. Mostly folks in the 60s-and-up demographic–what I’d call “retirement age,” if such a thing could still be taken for granted–wearing the frowny, impatient countenances of veteran New Yorkers. The middle-aged crowd marginally outnumbered millennial BDS booster types among the rest.

The lecture centered on the malign American role in the past three decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Khalidi published a groundbreaking book on the subject in March of this year called Brokers of Deceit. You can read a reliable and insightful review of the book by historian Vijay Prashad here; and here is a clip of Khalidi answering questions about the book in, fittingly enough, Jerusalem.

For the last leg of the talk, Khalidi bridged the exposition of his book with some (partially extemporaneous) commentary on John Kerry’s ongoing efforts to jumpstart that interminable farce we call the “Peace Process.” The professor’s take was, predictably, almost wholly negative (“A fool’s errand!”)–and rightly so.

For Khalidi, these latest negotiations represent the continuation of a policy that dates back at least as far as the aftermath of Menachem Begin’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Khalidi characterizes this policy as one of US diplomats rhetorically posturing as unbiased mediators while actively closing ranks with Israel. This game, he informs us, of necessity always ends badly for the Palestinians.

Looking backward, on the basis of what I’ve just talked about, it’s pretty clear that the United States up to this point has in fact made a settlement much less likely. I’m very wary of making predictions…but I would offer that it is impossible to build anything lasting on the kind of rotten foundation that the United States has already established through its orchestration of this process.

We have a situation here where parties are negotiating on the basis of gaping inequality. One is occupier, one is occupied. The ostensible mediator overtly favors the stronger party. You have to know that it’s a big fat American thumb pushing the scale down even further on the side of the overwhelmingly dominant party.

The Olso accords and all the agreements thereafter, which form the basis of this process, are entirely based on Israeli blueprints–Begin’s blueprints for expansive Israeli settlements, actually–that were intended to prevent an equitable two-state settlement.[1]

I think Begin has basically succeeded. I don’t think a Palestinian state is very likely. Whatever transpires with…Secretary Kerry…these conditions seem to guarantee the outcome will not be a just and lasting peace in which the Palestinian people end their century-long odyssey and where both peoples end up living in peace and justice and security, whether it’s in one-state or two-state or some kind of federal arrangement …

The process that the Secretary of State is engaged in cannot produce such an outcome. It can only extend into the future the entirely unsatisfactory status quo.

As to whether we might hope to see any positive change in this state of affairs (of which “unsatisfactory” is a pretty understated assessment), Khalidi would by night’s end address several key sticking points. Regarding the role of the Arab states, he made the following diagnosis:

This [US] policy can only continue as long as undemocratic governments continue to dominate the Arab world. Governments like that of Saudi Arabia. These governments have basically capitulated on this issue. They talk a good game where Palestine is concerned, but in no case have they been willing to put the Palestine issue at the top of their agenda with Washington. In no case have they been willing to jeopardize their relationship with Washington over this issue. And the main reason that this is the case is that none of these are democratic governments. They don’t respond to the wishes of their people. People in the Arab world are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinians and completely baffled as to why the United States should follow the policies it does.

If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue. It poisons everything else.

In a follow-up post I’ll include a transcript of Khalidi’s remarks on the transformative potential of changing popular opinion vis-à-vis Palestine. The sound on my recording is a little fuzzy here and there, so it might be a few days before I’ll have time for the painstaking work of jamming an earbud into my osseous labyrinth while I relisten to the same 4 second chunks of audio ad nauseam.

[1] Here’s the same analysis explained more carefully in Brokers of Deceit:

If one examines them carefully, there can be no question about it: the Camp David agreements, the Madrid framework, and the Oslo Accords on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority and the permanent occupation and settlement regime that resulted from this structure of commitments on the other, all of these things, summed up in the term “the peace process,” are in the end one single construct. This construct is and was always designed by its Israeli architects (and their American subcontractors) to be an impermeable barrier against true Palestinian emancipation, rather than a route in that direction. Thus, this construct does not, cannot, and is expressly meant not to, address the roots of the conflict, which lie in the unending subjugation of the Palestinians, and their refusal to accept their lot. We should not be surprised: all of these elements are inextricably bound to a scheme originally devised by Menachem Begin to avoid such emancipation, and to ensure permanent Israeli control of, and settlement in, the occupied territories, the core of what Begin called “Eretz Israel.” Israel’s pitiless occupation regime not only guarantees more oppression and Palestinian resistance to this oppression. It also guarantees continued, bitter resentment of the United States for helping to devise, uphold, and defend this regime, a resentment felt particularly acutely in the Arab and Islamic worlds, in much of Europe, and beyond, where these realities are concealed from almost no one. (135)

Money Quotes

24 May

I recently left Boston for New York City to be with my girlfriend.

She works as a junior research associate at an economic consulting firm. I regret to report that as of this moment I’m still on the hunt for full-time gainful employment.  For now I get by teaching guitar lessons over Skype and taking intermittent freelance writing gigs.  We live in a small, offensively priced studio on the Upper West Side.

2013-05-28 20.34.56

Tonight it’s raining. And when it rains I tend and like to sit by an open window, mixing alcohol with caffeine while I read literature. On this May evening I’ve had Martin Amis’s rather grimy novel Money in my lap. The book’s narrator, John Self, has some apt things to say about New York, some apt things to say about unemployment.

On the street awash in scrum outside my window:

I wondered, as I burped up Broadway, I wondered how this town ever got put together. Some guy was dreaming big all right. Starting down in Wall Street and nosing ever upward into the ruins of the old West Side, Broadway snakes through the island, the only curve in this world of grids. Somehow Broadway always contrives to be just that little bit shittier than the zones through which it bends. Look at the East Village: Broadway’s shittier than that. Look uptown, look at Columbus: Broadway’s shittier. Broadway is the moulting python of strict New York. I sometimes feel a bit like that myself. Here the fools sway to Manhattan time. (32)

And on the desolate nihilism and slow-boiling resentment of an unemployed, screwed-over generation:

And now I am one of the unemployed. What do we do all day? We sit on stoops and pause in loose knots on the stained pavements. The pavements are like threadless carpets after some atrocious route of flesh-frazzled food and emetic drink: last night the weather gods all drowned their sorrows, and then threw up from thirty thousand feet. We sit flummoxed in the parks, among low-caste flowers. Whew (we think), this life is slow. I came of age in the Sixties, when there were chances, when it was all there waiting. Now they seep out of school–to what? To nothing, to fuck-all. The young (you can see it in their faces), the stegosaurus-rugged no-hopers, the parrot-crested blankies–they’ve come up with an appropriate response to this, which is: nothing. Which is nothing, which is fuck-all. The dole-queue starts at the exit to the playground. Riots are their rumpus-room, sombre London their jungle-gym. Life is hoarded elsewhere by others. Money is so near you can almost touch it, but it is all on the other side–you can only press your face up against the glass. In my day, if you wanted, you could just drop out. You can’t drop out any more. Money has seen to that. There’s nowhere to go. You cannot hide out from money. You just cannot hide out from money any more. And so sometimes, when the nights are hot, they smash and grab. (144-145)

And this was in 1984! Oh, there is nothing new under the sun. I suggest readers think about the resonance of this passage in concert with the resonance of this comment by Eric Hobsbawm on the historically confounding austerity response to the financial crisis of the late 80s.

2013-05-28 20.36.33

Outside the rain is easing off. Broadway thrums with commuters, commercial life.  Now two white high school girls are screeching at one another as cooler heads drag them apart, still gesticulating with crimson-cheeked rage; now an immaculately dressed woman in her 50s looks on blithely while her geriatric dachshund squats, arthritic legs aquiver, to poop on the sidewalk.

Manhattan’s elite classes, for all their stringent co-op rules and wrinkled-nose disdain for the poor, are surprisingly okay with feces-smeared sidewalks and urine-soaked tree beds.