From the “amusing recommendation engine” files: pe

People who bought Alexandre Grothendieck: A Mathematical Portrait from Amazon also bought some nice-looking Japanese chalk which I’ve seen referred to as dream chalk and praised on MathOverflow. (And a bunch of math books, but you probably expected that.) Mathematicians, as you may know, are one of the last populations on earth to have a fondness for chalk, although I found this ecologist praising chalk.

When I left academia, I remember thinking of it as “putting down the chalk”. I’m not looking to go back to teaching, and I don’t miss having random dust on all my clothes, but I kind of miss it. In the “real world” we use whiteboards, which are superior in some ways — no dust!. But they’re inferior in other ways — their markers always seem to run out of ink and people don’t bother to throw them out, so any work at a whiteboard begins with searching the office for the one set of whiteboards that works.

Actually in the “real world” we mostly sit at desks and use computers. It’s difficult to get real thinking done this way; when I need to think up new ideas, as opposed to writing the code that implements them or communicating the results, I get better work done with a pen and paper. I wonder if this is an artifact of my age – 30, which is just old enough to remember the time without computers, as observed in The End of Absence by Michael Harris. (He puts it as “people born before 1985”. I’d rephrase this as “1984 or before” because of the symbolic significance of 1984.)

And to marry recommendation engines and surveillance: in the spring Alexis Madrigal pointed out that Amazon’s recommendation engine had created a guide to dealing drugs.

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