Saturday, October 29, 2011


I have wanted to go to Milwaukee ever since I read Betsy, Tacy, and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace, as a little girl. In the book, Tib's Aunt Dolly is from Milwaukee, and the girls decide that Milwaukee has an evocative magic as an imagined destination. Betsy writes a poem that begins, "We're off to Milwaukee, Milwaukee. Milwaukee, Milwauk, MilewakEE." And then in one of the Betsy-Tacy high school books, Betsy in Spite of Herself, Tib's family has moved away to Milwaukee, and Betsy goes to visit Tib and her family in Milwaukee for Christmas. "It's practically a foreign city," Mr. Ray tells Betsy in preparation for her trip, which will immerse her in German-American culture of the turn of the last century.

And now here I am in Milwaukee!

The beauty of the city is taking my breath away. I'm staying with beloved former-grad-student Theresa, who lives ONE BLOCK off Lake Michigan in a charming old neighborhood; we're just back from a long stroll along tree-shaded streets with stunning lake views. As this trip is in part for me a Betsy-Tacy literary pilgrimage, I've requested that we have lunch at an old-time German restaurant, Karl Ratzsch's, and then we'll go to the Milwaukee Public Museum, which has a much-visited recreation of an old-time Milwaukee street scene from precisely the era of Betsy's Christmas visit to Tib.

My talk yesterday at the Marquette Philosophy Department went well, a talk on the concept of "artistic integrity": how best to define it, how to recognize when it has been compromised. The central feature of all my philosophy talks is that the thesis is false and the argumentation for it bad, but the questions explored are fascinating and I address them in an engaging, lively, and thought-provoking way. The falseness of the thesis and the badness of the argumentation invariably become glaringly apparent the moment the first person asks the first question in the Q&A period, the question that poses the inevitable counter-example that destroys the entire argument from start to finish. But everyone joins in helping me to make the paper better, and we all have a most intellectually jolly time.

And then last night I got the post-talk reward of a legendary Wisconsin FRIDAY FISH FRY for dinner, complete with polka dancing - followed by a tour of the Whitefish Bay pumpkin festival's display of hundreds of grinning jack o'lanterns. And now I get my Betsy-Tacy pilgrimage to boot. So it's worth giving a mildly embarrassing talk, with its grave but not utterly unredeemable philosophical flaws.

It's all part of getting to be off to Milwaukee, Milwaukee! Milwaukee, Milwauk - MilwaukEEEEEE!


  1. We just finished reading our second Betsy-Tacy book, thanks to your recommendation -- this one was "Betsy-Tacy go to the big hill" (or something like that). We are LOVING IT! And our new book is "7x9=Trouble", which we never want to stop reading except that it's time to go to bed.

  2. Oh, I'm so glad you love Betsy and Tacy! And even gladder than you like 7 x 9 = Trouble!

  3. Claudia, your strategy for giving talks and writing papers, described a few days ago in Revise and Resubmit, seems incredibly brave and trusting. I can't imagine trying such a thing myself nor a physics community that would accept it. Do you think that there is something about your speaking or writing style that makes this successful? Or do you think that the intellectual communities that you interact with are more supportive?

  4. Scott, I don't know. Maybe it's a difference not in my personality or my intellectual community, but in the disciplines? Maybe there's more wiggle room in the humanities than in physics. I don't think of physics as a wiggly discipline. And maybe I've exaggerated my strategy a bit, in a rush of self-deprecation. I DO try to do a pretty good job before I put it out there for the world. I just know that my pretty good job is ONLY a pretty good job, and that I need collaboration with others to make it great. Or great-ish.

  5. Collaboration is also essential in physics, but it usually happens at an earlier stage -- before you even begin to think about writing a paper you need to find friends with the right skills to build the experiment.

    I think another factor may be the greater specialization of knowledge in physics. When giving a talk you are lucky to have an audience member who is able to offer constructive criticism of your work, and then you may need a week's work of experiment or calculation to decide if the advice was good. It is quite difficult for an audience to be able to contribute to the work.

    There are some highly specialized workshops where you can find an audience with exactly the right expertise. In that setting it is more acceptable to present incomplete work, hoping to get some help (and maybe a long term collaboration) from the audience. Those workshops are loads of fun, but they are few and far between.

  6. In philosophy, and other humanities disciplines, "Works-in-Progress" talks are standard, and most of the point of academic conferences is to get feedback on work in order to get it to the point where it can be submitted for publication. So I guess I'm just unique in being so cheerful about some of the more, shall we say, challenging feedback.

  7. You're making me homesick for my hometown, Milwaukee. I grew up there. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I'm sure the Marquette crowd loved you!