Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Your Favorite Stooge

Okay, so I’m driving along listening to WREK, the Georgia Tech, student-run radio station. I usually listen to WREK while in my car. It has a nice eclectic selection of music and, even more importantly, there aren’t any damned commercials.

Anyway, this student DJ comes on doing a promo for an upcoming show that is hosted by some guy named John. He’s listing various things about John, and mentions that his favorite Stooge is Shemp. Say what? His favorite Stooge is Shemp? Everyone with any comic sense at all knows that the best Stooge was Curly. The Three Stooges were never as funny without him as they were with him. Of course, the best Stooge and one’s favorite Stooge don’t necessarily have to be one and the same. And with a bland name like John, what the hell else can you expect?

And does any of this matter? Of course it does, especially here in the good, old US of A. Even Newsweek knows it. They publish four different editions of their magazine, one each for Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the United States. In the current issue, the three editions directed toward foreign audiences has a cover that shows a Taliban fighter with the headline, “Losing Afghanistan”. The United States edition’s headline is “My Life In Pictures”. It refers to a story about photographer Annie Leibovitz’s pictures of actress Angelina Jolie’s family. So you see, questions like, “Who’s your favorite Stooge?”, are important in this country.

That being said, feel free to vote for your favorite Stooge in the Comments section for this entry.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Lee's Lieutenants

I must confess that I’m fascinated by military history. No, I don’t sit around replaying famous battles with those hand-painted, lead soldiers, and I’ve never been to one of those ridiculous Civil War re-enactments. Nonetheless, I read a lot of military history.

I can’t really say why I’m so fascinated by the history of war. I’m certainly no fan of the military, and I made damn sure that I didn’t get caught up in the horror that was the war in Vietnam. What’s more, I don’t think that there is such a thing as a good war, or a just war. Even when a war is seemingly necessary, the only people who really benefit from it are the ruling elites. Those who do the actual fighting and dying are just their chumps.

So again, what is it that is so intriguing about military history? Perhaps it’s the fact that war is one of the few experiences in which everything is on the line, and in which dramatic, historical changes can be made. This can be appealing to lots of people, particularly the young. At the outbreak of World War One, there was partying in the streets of London, Paris, and Berlin. Millions of young men where all excited and ready to go, probably for the reasons stated above, and what came of it? Death, death, and more death on an industrial scale. It didn’t take long for the excitement to wane.

All this is to lead up to saying that I recently finished Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study In Command by Douglas Southall Freeman. The book is a study of the leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, and it is considered a classic of its kind. The original is in three volumes. I read an abridged version that was still awfully long, over 800 pages of small type.

Ironically enough, Freeman’s middle name, “Southall”, sums up his point of view. He is all about the South and, though the three volumes were originally published in 1942, he writes as though addressing a Confederate audience with which he is in full sympathy. The Confederate soldiers are “our boys” and, from time to time, he even occasionally refers to some of the more well-known Southern officers by their nicknames. It seems kind of unbelievable, but there was apparently an audience for that sort of thing as recently as sixty years ago.

It should be said that there is a lot of good information in Lee’s Lieutenants and, in spite of Freeman’s perspective, the book is no hagiography. He is very objective in his evaluations of the Confederate leaders, but I found myself shaking my head again and again. Freeman’s point of view is unrelentingly chivalric. He refers to various generals as knightly, gallant and honorable. It’s as though his model was Sir Walter Scott. What makes this just plain obscene is the nature of the American Civil War. It was the first truly industrial war, and men were killed on an industrial scale. There was nothing at all chivalrous about it.

This book brought to mind my reading of Kevin Phillips’ Cousins’ Wars. In that book, his thesis is that the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War were all just the continuation of a single conflict, that between the Royalists and the Roundheads. Freeman is an out-and-out royalist. Lee and his general represent the aristocracy and the ordinary soldiers are the yeoman. One doesn’t need an actual monarch to be a royalist. The king is just the boss of bosses among the aristocracy.

Phillips also maintained that this conflict has continued in America. I would tend to agree and, under George W. Bush, the royalists have triumphed. How long this will remain the case remains to be seen.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

International Mathematical Olympiad

In my entry on Gregory Perelman, I mentioned that he got a perfect score in the International Mathematical Olympiad, a contest for high-school math students. This contest features problems that, though they do not require knowledge of higher mathematics, are considered to be very difficult to solve. I thought some of my readers might like to see a sample problem.

Since it is difficult to use true mathematical notation in this format, I will use “**” to indicate exponentiation or, as some like to call it, raising to a power. For example, three squared is nine, and would be indicated as follows: 3**2.
Okay then, here’s the problem.

Determine all pairs of integers X and Y, such that: 1 + 2**X + 2**(X+1) = Y**2.

It’s simply stated, is it not? Well, you’re welcome to try your hand at it. I don’t know what the solution is.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Natural History

I’m always looking for good science fiction, but it’s damned hard to find any that’s worth reading. Most of it, even the so-called classics, is just trash that is so badly written that I can’t get past the first paragraph without wincing.

Here’s how bad it is in the genre. A while back I was reading some site where a literary agent was answering emailed questions. One person had apparently been unsuccessful in placing his scifi manuscript and was asking about the feasibility of publishing it himself. The agent replied that he shouldn’t bother, because the standards were so low in science fiction that, if he couldn’t get his manuscript accepted for publication, the novel probably wasn’t any good. So, there you have it.

And here I have it. I’ve actually found an excellent sci-fi novel, Natural History by Justina Robson. It’s set in the 26th century, where the Forged, hybrids that are part machine and part animal, but with human minds, do all the dirty work for their fully human masters. They are the enslaved lower castes of the future, and they don’t like it. A Forged independence movement has arisen and they are considering an exodus to a recently discovered, Earth-like planet. The humans have other ideas, and therein the story lies.

Natural History isn’t a difficult book, but it isn’t an easy one either. It requires careful reading. Most science fiction writers indulge in lots of exposition, explaining the fictional world that they have created, so that the reader can get oriented. Not so Robson. She drops you into her universe, and it’s up to you to figure things out as you go along. Though it demands more from the reader, I like this approach. Not only does all that exposition get boring, but it takes away a lot of the mystery. Robson immerses you in a strange fictional world that feels as weird and unsettling as it would no doubt be were you to actually find yourself there. I can definitely recommend it to those who enjoy the scifi genre.

I found out about this novel from Bookmarks magazine. I’ve subscribed to it for a couple of years now. It comes out six times annually, and it is aimed at the sort of middlebrow audience that might be interested in readers’ discussion groups. In each issue, about fifty recently published books are reviewed. For each one, a concise summary is provided, as well as a sampling from various reviews, and a brief critical evaluation. Most of the books they review don’t interest me, but I find a couple in each issue that I think would be worth a read. That’s enough for me, and perhaps it would be for you too. Check it out.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


In Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a man recently went on trial charged with criminal solicitation to commit aggravated assault, corruption of minors and reckless endangerment. And what, might you ask, did this man do to get himself in this fix? Well, it seems that he was coach of a T-ball team, and that he offered to $25 to one of his players to hit an autistic and mildly retarded teammate with baseballs. It seems that this coach thought the disabled kid was a liability and wanted to get him off of the team.

When I first read this, I thought it was a joke, you know one of those items from a site like The Onion. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Onion is a site that satirizes news stories.) Unfortunately it is factual. I verified that by checking the web site of TV station WGAL.

This leaves me baffled. I can see where a professional baseball manager might solicit one of his players to bean an opponent. I wouldn’t approve, but I could see where someone might do that because something is presumably at stake. Nothing that I would consider important, but something to many people. In this case though, it was frigging T-ball, and these were nine-year-olds. For Christ’s sake, it’s probably all you can do to get them to concentrate on the game, and this bozo is worried about some kid being a liability.

What motivates a character like this? I sure as hell can’t say. He probably still lives with his mother. Maybe he got his butt kicked by a gimpy kid back when he was in high school. In high school, a retarded kid might have scored higher than him on the SATs. I’ll bet he still has Army men that he plays with at night down in his basement. The WGAL site said that league officials told them that this man had not applied to coach next year. Well, duh. Hopefully, he’ll be down on old Buttfuck Prison Farm sharing a cell with Big Bubba.

And on the subject of baseball, here’s something equally stupid, though ridiculous rather than depraved. In his new movie, Jack Nicholson was asked to wear a Boston Red Sox cap during one scene. However, he’s apparently a lifelong Yankees fan and refused, so the director agreed to let him wear a Yankees cap. That’s too bad. I used to like Jack.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Gregory Perelman

The New Yorker recently published an article about the Poincare Conjecture. This is a mathematical problem that has finally been solved after about a hundred years. Gregory Perelman is the man who accomplished that feat, and the The New Yorker article is about the tempest in the academic tea pot that his solution caused. I encourage everyone to read the article for the full story. (I’ve included the link at the bottom of this entry.) However, for those of you who aren’t so inclined, I’ll talk a little about Perelman and the conjecture.

In its essence, the Poincare Conjecture is easy to understand. In the field of mathematics called topology, shapes can be classified according to how many holes they have in them. On the basis of this scheme, a space in the shape of a doughnut, called a torus, is in a different classification from a sphere, because the torus has a single hole in it, while a sphere has none.

What are called continuous transformations can be applied to the spaces in topology. These are changes to the space that do not involve tearing the surface of the space. For example, a sphere can be transformed into something with the shape of a football. No problem there, but spaces with different classifications cannot be transformed into one another using a continuous transformation. You can see this for yourself. Make a ball of clay, then try to reshape that ball into a doughnut without breaking the surface of the clay. It can’t be done.

The Poincare Conjecture states that any space with no hole in it can be reshaped into a sphere using a continuous transformation. This seems obvious when one thinks about it, but it is not unusual for a mathematical conjecture to appear obvious, even to non-professionals, while being exceedingly difficult to prove. Many brilliant and accomplished mathematicians have had a go at the Poincare Conjecture, and it was finally proved for all spaces but three-dimensional spaces. However, these are the most important kind, especially to physicists, because the space that we know and live in is described using three dimensions. That’s why it was such a big deal when Perelman proved the conjecture for the three-dimensional case.

In many ways, Gregory Perelman is the stereotypical, eccentric mathematical genius. In 1992, he spent a semester at NYU. During his time there, he wore the same brown corduroy jacket every day. He claimed to live on nothing but bread, milk, and cheese. His fingernails were several inches long because he saw no reason to cut them. At age twenty-nine, in the mid-nineties, he returned to Russia to live as a recluse with his mother.

Odd enough, for sure, but it wasn’t mere eccentricity that led Perelman to become a recluse, It was professional politics. The mathematics profession is subject to the same sort of political machinations that are to be found in all academic disciplines. Many of the best mathematicians have enormous egos, and are much concerned over getting credit for their discoveries. Perelman apparently thought that they cared about their careers more than the mathematics, so he left the profession. As he vehemently states in the New Yorker piece, he’s not a politician, and obviously has no intention of playing at being one. Good for him!

It is for that reason that Perelman has become the first man to decline the Fields Medal. The Fields is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the field of mathematics. It is given out every four years, usually to three or four people. The winners of the Fields Medal invariably become figureheads for the profession, and that is evidently the last thing that Perelman wants. That’s why he turned it down, and it seems that there’s a question of integrity involved on Perelman’s part because he has also refused another prize of one million dollars to the first person to prove the Poincare Conjecture.

Characters like Perelman intrigue me. I was a bright kid, and scored in the low genius range on IQ tests and such. However, I was by no means a prodigy, though I certainly envied them. It seemed that the whole world of the intellect was open to them, and that’s what I wanted. It was only much later, when I was an adult that I realized what it really was about prodigies that I envied. The life of the mind is the only thing that truly matters to me and to be a genius like Perelman, or Einstein meant to be a demigod. And why not, if Plato is to be credited, and knowledge is virtue?

I was browsing some science blogs last week, and ended up on the blog of a math professor at James Madison University. He was talking about Perelman’s accomplishment, and pointed out that to most math professors it’s another world. As he said, to address the big, open problems requires a monkish devotion, and the relevant mathematics is only to be found in difficult articles in the journals, many of them hundreds of pages long, which leaves out most mathematicians. As this professor said, he stood no chance of understanding what Perelman was doing.

I’d love to write a novel about a character like Perelman, but I wouldn’t know how to go about it. How do you create an interesting book about someone who lives so completely in the mind? It would indeed be like trying to write a novel about a contemplative monk, a task that is well beyond my powers.