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David Sedaris (3) vs. Stanislaw Ulam; George H. W. Bush advances

Best comment yesterday came from J Storrs Hall:

I have eaten
the money
that was in
the piggybank

you were probably
for retirement

Forgive me
it was delicious
so sweet
read my lips

But it’s not clear if this is an endorsement of Bush, for his economic policies, or Williams, for his poetry.

In judging the contest, I’ll go with Jrc:

This is like a mediocre World Cup group stage match between two countries with the combined population of Florida. No one really cares, the quality isn’t real high, and you just sorta root for the team least likely to ever play in a world cup again.

It’s now or never for Bush – its not like he’ll crack a Presidents of the United States category. Or Vice-Presidents or Directors of the CIA for that matter. William Williams can compete again in three years in the double-name category. Seed him somewhere between Boutros Boutros and Fan Bingbing.

So it’s David Cop-a-feel for the win.

Today we have a power matchup. Sedaris, seeded third in the Wits category, is a legendary storyteller—especially if we don’t mind that he changes the details to get the stories to work. Stanislaw Ulam is unseeded in the Mathematicians category—jeez, even the legendary Euler and Erdos are unseeded there—but he wrote a wonderful autobiography and of course would have a lot to say about HMC and Stan.

Again, the full bracket is here, and here are the rules:

We’re trying to pick the ultimate seminar speaker. I’m not asking for the most popular speaker, or the most relevant, or the best speaker, or the deepest, or even the coolest, but rather some combination of the above.

I’ll decide each day’s winner not based on a popular vote but based on the strength and amusingness of the arguments given by advocates on both sides. So give it your best!


  1. zbicyclist says:

    One of the virtues of this contest is that I find myself looking up information about some of the contestants I am fairly unfamiliar with, so it’s an opportunity for learning.

    I did not know Ulam developed the Monte Carlo method “The modern version of the Markov Chain Monte Carlo method was invented in the late 1940s by Stanislaw Ulam, while he was working on nuclear weapons projects at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Immediately after Ulam’s breakthrough, John von Neumann understood its importance and programmed the ENIAC computer to carry out Monte Carlo calculations.” (Wikipedia)

    In fact, I’d assumed the Monte Carlo method was an old method, seldom used in practice before computers due to the tediousness of the calculations.

    So that’s a vote for Ulam, although there’s no joke here.

    I’m irritated at people who get irritated at Sedaris for changing some of the details in his stories. I’d always assumed Sedaris was writing fiction — perhaps inspired by actual events, but not particularly tied to the actual facts.

  2. Sedaris writes (in “The Gift of Owls”):

    “Hugh began with warblers and meadowlarks. He sketched some cardinals and blue tits for color and was just wondering if it wasn’t too busy when she asked if he could add some owls. It made no sense nature-wise—owls and songbirds work different shifts, and even if they didn’t they would still never be friends.”

    OK–but Ulam can measurably and definitely out-cardinal this. He gets my vote.

  3. Phil says:

    My issue with Sedaris is the same as with John Oliver: sure, he’s enormously entertaining, but he’s all over the place: I can hear him or read him anytime I want, and it turns out that in practice although I am happy to hear him I wouldn’t go much out of my way for it. I mean, Sedaris was here a couple of times last year, I could have gone to see him but I didn’t. So that’s a big strike against Sedaris, as far as I’m concerned.

    Stan, though…well, just look at his Wikipedia page. He wasn’t nearly as prolific as Gelman in terms of number of papers — a measly 150 — but there’s the Borsuk-Ulam theorem, the Mazur-Ulam theorem, the Kuratowski-Ulam theorem, the Ulam spiral, the Ulam conjecture in number theory, the Ulam conjecture in graph theory, Ulam’s game, the Ulam matrix, and on and on. Just playing the odds, surely one of these would be interesting to hear about.

    Or he could tell us about his collaboration/feud with Edward Teller. “If you’re walking down the street and you run into a Hungarian going the other way, hit him in the face as hard as you can. He’ll know why.” Ulam knew the Hungarian Martians so maybe he can confirm or debunk whether the Hit the Hungarian principle is actually a good one.

    Ulam, easily..

  4. Ethan Bolker says:

    I’ve nothing funny to say here.

    I find David Sedaris cloying.

    I can’t unremember that one of my mentors who had collaborated with Ulam on set theory was very bitter about Ulam’s H-bomb breakthrough.

  5. Tom says:

    Would Stan and Monty Python ever meet up in this bracket (I haven’t checked). It could be billed as ‘The Full Monty: Monte Carlo vs Monty Python’

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