Berkeley: Day 7

“This California dew is just a little heavier than usual tonight.” Oh Debbie, how I could have done with your sweet parting words as I headed out into the evening torrent, water gushing down every street, trees creaking in the wind, road-crossing better accomplished by native canoe than western boot. The sun was not ‘shining all over the place’, and I waded down Stuart Street to a dismal refrain, neither singing nor dancing, but slowly developing trench-foot. At least the rain wasn’t mixed with Hollywood milk.

After 4 years of drought the rains have finally come to California. Three storms in the space of a week, and Strawberry Creek, the Berkeley campus brook which had run dry, now flows in spate. The drainage systems are ill-equipped for such downpours; it was only yesterday, many days after my aquatic night-time stroll, that I realised that the local residential streets have no drainpipe whatsoever. All the water which falls on their great asphalt expanse flows on the surface, gathering down the Berkeley hills, and the road becomes a river. Every road is on a slope here, and to power-walk anywhere is to accept a day caked in sweat. The byways fail to follow to furrows of the earth, but are laid down instead in the traditional unwavering US grid. If I had known all these things beforehand, I might have thought twice about heading out into the night to meet up with the mathematical gang who were frequenting a local trivia night. We did well on the Russia-themed Round 1 — the quiz questions having been rigged by Putin, perhaps — but fell down with our lack of knowledge on the finer points of beer manufacture. In the age of McCarthy, we would have been the first against the wall.
The purpose of last week’s Pseudorandomness workshop, at least in part, was to foster communication between the computer scientists and the additive combinatorialists, communication which will, one hopes, bear great fruit in the coming months. Fernando held out the olive branch by performing his exposition of the Arithmetic Regularity Lemma strictly over \mathbb{F}_2^n, the main object of computer science, and Julia’s description of Higher Order Fourier Analysis was also restricted to the finite field case (where the theory still remains rich, interesting, and knotty). Considering the reverse direction, I was astonished with how many of the computer science talks I felt I understood well. The nexus of ideas — from pseudorandom generators, through to extractors, to expanders, then to eigenvalue bounds, then to notions of graph regularity, then to the C_4 cycle count of the graph, then onto Gowers norms and arithmetic combinatorics — appeared like a vision. Amusingly, there seems to be a certain duality between what a number theorist means by a ‘pseudorandom measure’ and what a computer scientist means by a ‘pseudorandom generator’ — we compose our pseudorandom function and our test functions in a different order.

In many ways this has been a week of great levity. I’ve been reunited with old friends, and met new ones; I’ve found a second-hand book shop called Moe’s, where I plan to prop up the bar; I’ve been treated to a lovely homemade meal by Anna and Salil in San Francisco, and liquid-nitrogen chilled cookie dough ice-cream; I’ve eaten pizza from a speciality cheese shop; I’ve walked up the hill to MSRI, and eaten my homemade stew overlooking the bay. But of course, there were more fateful world-events this week. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, I met a homeless black man on Shattuck Avenue. He wore a red jacket, and had a warm smile which creased the skin beside his eyes. Perhaps he was about fifty. I bought a copy of the newspaper he was selling — ‘Street Spirit’, the local equivalent of ‘The Big Issue’ — and he asked if he could say a prayer with me. Travel changes a man: back home I would have meekly refused him, escaped off into the atheistic night, worried about the influence of a cloudy God on the forgotten people of the state. It takes a human being to help the homeless, for human action is all there is; if you say all your prayers to a distant God, your godless rulers won’t be listening. Yet, under the American shop-front lights, on the eve of the apocalypse, I stayed and held his gloved hands as he blessed us both. Because what else is there for him to do? The state falls, and, come the morning, there’s no amount of supplication that will take his cause to the seat of power terrestrial. Can you hear Billy singing? “Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose, so the Bible says, and it still is news. . . ”

Trump was inaugurated at twelve noon in Washington, nine in the morning in Berkeley, and I just managed to catch his hand on the bible before my morning lecture. I am normally a rather passive individual, but times change, and I am changing with them. My aunt marched through San Francisco in protest against the Iraq war, fourteen years ago, and I would march again, from Civic Center to Justin Herman plaza, as part of the San Francisco manifestation of the global Women’s March movement. I estimated that there were about 7000 of us on the underground train from Berkeley to San Fran, going to join a crowd of around 100 000 in the UN Plaza. We were crammed against one another, jostling for space and for air, but all strangely happy. I have never felt such togetherness.

Once in the open, we flooded towards the rally which was happening in the plaza itself, but such was the melee that we could only flow around, up to Market Street, humans as liquid. Being a travelling man I had had to come as I was, but about me there were signs aplenty, face-paint, glitter, pink hearts, drawings of Fallopian tubes giving the finger. I ended up next to a bunch of five med-school students from San Francisco State University, who took me under their wing. They had taken the precaution of writing their signs in waterproof ink, wisely, as the rain clattered down just before kick-off, and the simpler signs began to sag. The march was begun by a vanguard of cable cars. Their 19th century wooden respectability, juxtaposed against such colourful dissent, seemed like a visual oxymoron. However, the entire event was to me a crash course in the city’s seeming contradictions, in its people, and in its ebullient life. Half-way down a young woman stood on top of a street-sweeping vehicle, waving an enormous rainbow flag, Les-Mis style. A man in a motorised wheelchair was blasting out reggae. Dancers were having a party inside the glass-front of SF Camerawork.

My new medical friends headed home, but left me one of their signs, which I nursed back to Berkeley through the stormy night, a memento of my first march. I left them my email address, in the hope that the photos that were taken of us together might be sent on, but I haven’t heard from them since. Perhaps I never will; these five kind people will be forever lost, except in memory. I meandered up into China town, water oozing from my drenched coat and rucksack, I had dinner, and went home from Powell Street BART station.

I hope, when I come to tell the story of these coming years to my children, that the tale will not be of my idleness. For that to be the case, what was begun on Saturday January 21st must continue, must grow, must morph from protest into power, and I must continue with it. Maybe that won’t happen. But, at least, I will be able to tell them that I did do something, one tiny thing, that I travelled across the bay and walked for what I believed in. The best sign I saw? An image of Carrie Fisher, as Leia Organa with the following moniker: “A woman’s place // is in // the resistance.”

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