Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nerdy By The Digits

In college, I majored in mathematics, and I worked for many years programming PC's, so it's no surprise that I'm a bit of a nerd. Not that I ever used a pocket protector or wore big glasses with black, plastic frames, but those are just media cliches anyway. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman was known as a womanizer, and a quite successful one at that. Another Nobel physicist, Sheldon Glashow, upon visiting Turkey for reasons of physics, was most interested in finding some good hashish. (For those of you who doubt me, I refer you to the following two books. For Feynman, there's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick. For Glashow, there's The Second Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics by Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann. I recommend the latter book to anyone who is interested in twentieth-century physics. It does a good job of walking the fine line between explicating the physics and talking about the scientists themselves.)

This is all by way of prefacing a neat little trick that appeals to the nerd in me. Now, everyone knows that you can represent any number between one and ten with your fingers. Just raise the number of fingers that correspond to the number you want to represent. Okay, then, ask yourself this. Is there another way to use your ten fingers to represent numbers and, if so, what's the largest number that you can represent? The answer is, yes, grasshopper, there is another way to do it, a way in which you can represent any number all the way up to 1,023.

Okay, now for the details. Here's how it works. Place both of your hands palms down on a flat surface, then make fists. Lift the little finger on your right hand. That's the number one. Now, back to the fists again. This time, raise the finger next to that little one. That's two. Bring up the little one, so both are showing. That's three. The middle finger alone, the proverbial bird, represents four. (It may here occur to some of you that one could hence use the word "four" as equivalent to the bird. That's really heavy duty though and, if you think that's neat, there's only one word to describe you, NERD, in all caps.) Bring up that little finger with the middle one and you've got five. By now you should be able to see what I'm doing. I'm using the ten fingers of the hands to represent binary digits. The little finger of the right hand is two to the zero power, which is one. The little finger of the left hand is two to the ninth power, which is 512. Hence, the largest number that can be represented is twice that 512 minus one, namely, 1023. Now, how about that, huh?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Makes Me Want To Say, Ouch!

What is it about those who write country music that makes them want to indulge in tawdry word play? I was watching a football game a few weeks back and they had some country singer on at halftime. I didn't catch his name. He's undoubtedly familiar to devotees of the music, and he was singing about a high-maintenance woman who didn't want her no maintenance man. I groaned out loud when I heard that. I truly did. Talk about self-parody. How could that fool actually get out there and sing something like that? It's a comment on the intellectual level of those who attend football games that they didn't laugh him out of the stadium.

Now, it's not that I don't like country music. I enjoy the shit-kicking music of the sort that Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Jr., and David Allen Coe were doing in the '70's and '80's. That's a guilty pleasure though, since some of it is implicitly racist, but it has a certain raucous appeal. It's the kind of music that makes you want to go to some bar, drink too much beer, and, to paraphrase Henry Adams, kick some small man's ass. As far as I'm concerned though, old Bocephus is just the flip side of Lou Reed. Had he been born and raised in New York City, that's who he would have been. Those sun glasses he always wears are the telling detail in that regard.

Lest anyone think that I'm picking on our white, blue-collar brethren, hip-hop music is just is bad. Talk about doggerel. Some of these characters actually think that its clever to string together one tacky rhyme after another. I ran across a hip-hop video on TV not long ago, where the singer strung together a series of words that all ended in "-ment". For Christ's sake, how does he open his mouth and make such crap come out? Again, it isn't hip-hop music per se. I've heard music from the genre that I like, and no, I'm not talking about Vanilla Ice. I couldn't name any artists though because it's music of a generation that's younger than me, and I've never felt the urge to educate myself about it.

Back in the day, I often tended to romanticize the sensibilities of the common man. This was mostly in reaction to the pretensions of the "more refined" arts. That was a mistake though. It doesn't really matter where an art form comes from. Most of what's on offer out there just isn't worth it. A while back, Gabriel Garcia Marquez said something to the effect that as he got older he stopped reading new novels, returning to the classics instead, because he was old enough that he no longer wanted to waste time on lesser works. It's a sentiment that I can understand, though I don't totally agree with.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I haven't blogged in a while. I'd like to blame the holidays, but I can't. They had nothing to do with it. My novel did. About a week before Christmas, I finished the last, complete draft. Since then, I've been reworking the weak sections, and damned if there aren't a lot of them. Every time I've thought about blogging, I've decided that I'd work on the novel instead.

In reworking the novel, I'm amazed about how badly I can write at times. It makes me want to pull the hair from my head, though my hair is thankfully too short for that. One thing I can't seem to resist is commenting on what is happening in the novel. For example, I might write something like this, "X happened, and Y happened. That couldn't be good." Now, what the hell is the purpose of that final sentence? The preceding description should be sufficient to lead the reader to make the judgement that I want him to make. I find that I write best when I rely on simple declarative sentences that describe the action. If I want to comment on what is happening, it's best to do that in dialogue. I'm not saying that this is the only way to write. I'd love to be able to write like Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow and make it work, but I can't. It's my temperament. I tend to be the sort of person who wants to cut the bullshit and get to the point. Unlike most people, whose first drafts are overwritten, mine tend to be overly sparse. I have to go back and flesh things out.

The other big problem I have is just plain lazy writing. The usually results from a failure to devote sufficient time to the work of the imagination. As a consequence, I don't understand the scene in sufficient detail and that invariably leads to flat prose. It can also lead to reliance upon hackneyed expressions and, when I say hackneyed, I'm not just referring to the blatant ones. Here are some phrases that I find cliched, though they might not obviously be so to lots of people. "He didn't know what had come over him." "His finances were shaky." "Her voice was filling with (name emotion)." "Run into a number of problems." "Tackle a difficult problem." You'd be surprised at how difficult it can be to come up with fresh prose. I figure that it takes me an hour or more to write 300 words of solid prose, so you can imagine how much time it's taking me to write a 90,000 word novel.

I've been think about following the lead of my friend David Matthews by posting sections of the novel in my blog, but I have yet to make up my mind about that. I may do it, but not until I'm certain that I have finished with it.