September 2012 Archives

Tue Sep 18 14:58:42 EST 2012

Alex's Adventures in Numberland

I've got a bit of a weakness for pop-maths books: the first make keeps giving them to me, and I keep reading them. At their most rigorous, they'll have a sketch of a proof sketch and the rest of it is more about the mathematicians or intuitive understanding of the results. The latest book I've read in this vein is Alex Bellos' Alex's Adventures in Numberland, and it's a decent one. Not great, but decent. (Normally I prefer to link to the author's site, but in this case I'm getting warnings of malware coming from a .ru site, so it's just an Amazon link.)

Bellos start with a discussion about numbers and the words used for them, starting that off with an anthropologist's research into how isolated tribes perceive quantities and handle the concept of number. From there he wanders through a number of fields such as geometry, number theory, topology, puzzles and number systems. There's interesting trivia throughout: in some Japanese abacus clubs, they teach advanced students to calculate with a visualised abacus instead of a real one. The most advanced students can use this mental abacus to add up fifteen numbers flashed in sequence on a screen for 0.2 seconds each, while playing a word game.

The section on Vedic mathematics was something I hadn't seen mentioned before: the idea that there are mathematical truths hidden in ancient Hindu holy books. It sounds a bit fishy to me, but there's a presentation of a faster long multiplication method which is pretty neat, wherever it came from. Bellos seems to have taken the "mystic mathematics" a bit far, and often goes on a bit of a quasi-mystic ramble near the end of a chapter. The results are interesting enough on their own, and don't need embellishment.

The section on puzzles is a lot of fun and the tribute to Martin Gardner is heartwarming. There's a section on calculating machines, covering everything from slide rules to the Chudnovsky's home-made supercomputer, with a stop for the Curta, a hand-held mechanical calculator that produces results when you crank the handle. The section on crocheted approximations to hyperbolic surfaces is also quite cool, especially as it's a hard area to set up useful intuitions. Overall, there's a fair amount of interesting stuff in the book but it's a little bit padded out.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: readings

Tue Sep 18 13:49:25 EST 2012

The Curse of the Traveller

The idea of this post is something that I've felt for a while, but I'm moved to write about it because of darien_gap's excellent Reddit comment that gave it a name:

... have you ever heard of The Curse of the Traveler?

An old vagabond in his 60s told me about it over a beer in Central America, goes something like this: The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love, the more things you see. It drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that's perfect (we all know there's no Shangri-La), but just for a place that's "just right for you." But the curse is that the odds of finding "just right" get smaller, not larger, the more you experience. So you keep looking even more, but it always gets worse the more you see. This is Part A of the Curse.

Part B is relationships. The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. But the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them. Since all these people can't travel with you, it becomes more and more difficult to cultivate long term relationships the more you travel. Yet you keep traveling, and keep meeting amazing people, so it feels fulfilling, but eventually, you miss them all, and many have all but forgotten who you are. And then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you've seen, and you will always feel a tinge of loneliness, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more than they will want to hear them. The reason this is part of the Curse is that it gets worse the more you travel, yet travel seems to be a cure for a while.

It's a rather sad thought and it struck a note with a number of other people in the thread. I wouldn't be writing this if it didn't resonate with me, too. darien_gap goes on to suggest that part B is mitigated these days by modern communications technology, but I find that part A is helped most by the internet. I could live just about anywhere and do the things that I do. But for each place I've lived, I've only kept a few really strong friendships, despite all the talk about keeping in touch when I move on. I keep in regular contact with one friend from Leeds, none from Sydney and a handful from Melbourne. It'll probably be the same with Hobart. Worse, every time I return to Canberra my longtime friends are just that bit more distant. The experience of living on the ship is also so alien that it's hard to share that with anyone who wasn't there, either. The photos don't cut it and I don't have the right words to describe it. And then there are the true super-seamen like Irving Johnson. Their experience is as far removed from mine as mine is from my friends'. Even with the video and his commentary (he took a hand-held video camera to sea in 1929, making the video Around Cape Horn), there's no way I could understand what he's been through.

This post isn't meant to kick off a pity-party. After my return from Leeds, I knew what would happen with each move, and yet I've continued to move from city to city, knowing on some level what would happen.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: windeward_bound, miscellaneous

Mon Sep 10 22:27:26 EST 2012

Mandela: A Biography

Biographies are one of my favourite types of book. There's obviously a bit of a selection bias here, but I always enjoy reading about people who have managed incredible things. (Nobody would seriously publish a biography of Ted the Office Worker.) Most recently, I read Martin Meredith's Mandela: A Biography, but I have only just had a chance to write about it.

The attempts by the anti-apartheid groups to obtain basic rights read like a dystopian novel; petitions to the government were ignored, any sort of protest action was violently put down and once someone was targeted by the state, it didn't matter if they were innocent or not - if they were acquitted by a court they'd be arrested for something else before they left the courthouse. Slacktivists on the internet are fond of "row row fight the power" rhetoric, but this is what standing up to a repressive regime really looks like: having your personal movement regulated by pass laws; being driven into hiding, seeing your family for short snatches if at all; and being prepared to accept a death sentence without appeal to make a political point.

Aside: Does the internet make it easier or harder to get a protest movement into the streets? I've seen it asserted that Twitter enabled the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia, Egypt and so forth, but online slactivism may act as a relief valve for the dissatisfied, preventing a movement from gathering momentum. Discuss (5 marks).

And then there was the fact that Mandela was sentenced to life on Robben Island, with (at the time) pretty much no expectation of ever leaving. As it was, he was imprisoned for 27 years. How do you face something like that? And yet he maintained a routine of daily exercise (waving his arms around in his tiny cell), persistently lobbied the prison for better conditions and became the main representative for the other inmates.

It was disappointing to read how the post-apartheid government became bogged down in controversies over wasteful spending, corruption and personal scandals. How did that happen? Regardless, I'm glad I read this book. The things they had to endure to obtain basic human rights I still can't quite comprehend. Would I be able to survive that sort of systemic repression? I have no idea.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: readings