Sunday, March 25, 2007

Book Report

When I am not at work, not writing, not cooking or eating, and not watching Horatio Hornblower, I am reading. Here is what I have read lately, in chronological order:

Yes, I majored in English. Yes, this is a book about physics. It may seem that I have no business being interested in special relativity, but I don’t see why that should stop me. There is nothing quite like sitting in your kitchen eating Cheerios and discovering that all the geometry you did in high school, and there was a lot of it, years and years of it, was only ONE OF TWO kinds of geometry that have so far been invented. I remember teachers saying, “This is Euclidean geometry,” but they never said, “And the other kind is Gaussian geometry, which projects lines onto spheres instead of planes.”

Spheres! Not planes! That is amazing. That is really amazing.

Also amazing: apparently, if you made the attempt, every second for 15 billion years, to walk through a wall, you would actually go through it once, because probability says that is how often the atoms that make up you and the wall will align perfectly so as not to interfere with each other. I only make the attempt to do this once every several years, usually when half asleep, usually with doors, and never with any scientific agenda in mind, but it’s good to know these humiliating incidents can now be construed as research.

Also amazing: anti-matter. It’s so amazing I can’t understand it. All I know is that it blows my mind.

Last but not least, this is impressive: so far, no experiment has disproved a theory in quantum physics. And quantum physics involves some crazy stuff. So that’s pretty cool.

The Humbled Blue Orb, in spite of its title, has several very good qualities, the main one being that the author has the rather extraordinary ability to explain very confusing concepts in physics. I knew a physicist once. The only thing he ever explained to me that I understood was how to make orange gumdrop cookies. So I would say David Klein, though an enthusiast and not a Ph.D., has a rather rare talent. Unfortunately, the copyediting was virtually nonexistent and I can’t tell you how tired I got of reading about “the law of conversation of energy.” Nevertheless, for some breakfast-time physics reading, it doesn’t get better than this.

Unless you prefer to read about DISEASE when you eat. This book was lying around at work and I was encouraged to take it home. Whenever there are unwanted books lying around at work, they end up on my desk, because I am like that person who can’t turn away a stray animal, only with books. And when I saw this, I reacted to the creepy bird-faced plague doctor much as a normal person would react to being handed an adorable fuzzy kitten, which unnerved a number of my co-workers. Is the plague not universally fascinating? Am I the only one who thinks a disease that can kill you within hours is totally awesome? I just don’t understand how you can look at this cover and not want to read this book.

Here is something I did not know: 40,000 years ago, when homo sapiens were hunters and gatherers, they were taller than we are now. And because they were more or less nomadic, they did not often stick around long enough to pollute their own water supply, and therefore suffered from much less disease. Thus, the book argues that progress creates perfect conditions for disease. I do not find this to be a helpful statement, since we can hardly go back to hunting and gathering at this point, but the fact that I do not find the argument compelling does not diminish the satisfaction of knowing a whole lot more disgusting things than I did before. As cool as it is, septicemia was getting old, and now I’ve got loads of new material. I won’t go into it here, because it will put Megan off whatever meal she is always eating when I tell her gross things, but I would just like to say that schistosomiasis was almost too much even for me. Almost.

I’ve had kind of an E. M. Forster thing going since randomly picking up A Passage to India last summer. I never know quite what to expect from him. He is a little like Shakespeare in that you’re not sure whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy until the end. The Longest Journey is apparently Forster’s personal favorite of all his novels. It is also apparently his least popular. I think the problem is the title. Compared to A Passage to India and A Room with a View, the title is more appropriate for the content but less evocative in general. Rather like the novel itself. However, at the halfway mark, I am still very much enjoying it. There’s almost nothing I like more than a novel, and Forster writes very novelly novels, complete with the requisite peevish old lady:

“I’m tired of you. Go and bathe in the sea.”
“All right.”

That’s quality.

This is another stray book. I am not reading it and probably won’t, but I am keeping it for its cover, which did not seem unusual to me until a co-worker picked it up and said, “Tolkien’s Tart?” I am still laughing about it.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Classic Simon

Anonymity protected by Heslington's Hat.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Philosophical Experiment for the Deranged: Probably the First of Many

Disclaimer: For years I thought it was cable and the internet that distracted me from writing, but in the absence of those it has become clear to me that in desperation I will turn to anything that seems like it might be easier than sustaining a narrative, and when I say "anything", I mean I really have absolutely no standards.

Over the lifetime of this blog, we have learned a great deal about differences.

We first had occasion to learn the difference between camels and llamas, which is that according to accepted methods of scientific classification, some of them are called camels and some of them are called llamas. As to which is which, you can just flip a coin.

There was then some confusion over Vikings and pirates. To review: neither of them ever wore horned helmets, and in both cases “the” was a popular middle name. You can flip a coin on this one, too, but make sure you keep an eye on it.

Even now, the difference (or lack thereof) between my dog and a Shetland pony remains in dispute, though I have pointed out a number of distinctions could be made. For example, while it is common knowledge that you can ride a Shetland pony, if you try to sit on my dog, she’ll sit down, too, and when you’ve fallen on the ground, she’ll get up, turn around, and sit on you. Nobody has ever heard of a Shetland pony doing that. No coin-flipping. My dog is not a Shetland pony.

Today, we are going to learn the difference between the examples above and the one I am about to mention, and the difference is that there is some basis for confusing llamas and camels and Vikings and pirates. And I SUPPOSE I can see how a parallel, THOUGH CLEARLY FACTUALLY INCORRECT, might be drawn between a golden retriever and a horse ONLY for purposes to do with EFFECTIVE RHETORIC as well as the VEXING of FRIENDS, which is an equally noble cause.


Crickets and yams? What does Ivan mean to imply when she suggests that I am confusing yams with crickets?

Crickets are shiny; yams are dull. Crickets are loud; yams are quiet and unobtrusive. Crickets are annoying when they get in the house; if having yams in the house annoys you, that would appear to be a separate issue, don’t you think? Crickets are crunchy although you should never try to verify this; if your yam is crunchy, you cooked it wrong. Crickets are easily startled; yams are stoic. Crickets wear top hats and have been to Times Square; yams are down-to-earth. Crickets have brains; yams are, erm, vegetables.

A cricket could never be mistaken for a yam.


I once read an article in Philosophy Now (this will eventually turn out to be pertinent) in which a philosopher proved that werewolves could exist by making a list of extenuating circumstances that, if they all occurred at once, against all odds, would make it possible to make a logical argument that a very particular sort of human (who has suffered much more than his or her fair share of personal misfortune) is in fact a werewolf.

I’m sorry to say the article struck me as a rawther deplorable misuse of the laws of logic, not to mention time and effort. And quite aside from it being a silly undertaking, where’s the challenge? You find a very hairy man suffering from various combinations of mental illnesses and suddenly BAM! he’s a proven werewolf. We probably share three quarters of our DNA with turnips; of course it isn’t hard to make the short jump from man to man-wolf. If you’re going to engage in this ridiculous brand of alchemy, why not give it a more difficult test? Why not try it out on the really tough questions? Why not ask yourself: can you prove a cricket is a yam?

Of course you can! And, for your convenience, I have already worked it all out in three easy steps. (Please stop here and re-read disclaimer.)

According to the standards established by our friend the (surely unemployed) philosopher, if Item A looks, acts, and thinks as Item B, then Item A is Item B. So all we must do is fulfill these requirements.

Step One: How to Dress a Yam

One’s first consideration when turning a cricket into a yam must be appearances. Richard Taylor could do it better, but you will greatly improve your chances of creating a convincing yam if you start with a rotund cricket. If you can possibly find one who is also sensitive and suggestible, those qualities will come in handy later.

Once you have chosen your cricket, apologize to him and tell him how the werewolf had it worse. Then dunk him in water and roll him in dirt and grit. This will create a yam-like flavor. I mean texture. Don’t worry about the legs; you can pass them off as sprouts. As a final touch, place the fat, dusty cricket on top of a bowl of actual yams, creating a sort of yam tableau. This will put viewers in a yam frame of mind, making them far less likely to suspect that one of the yams is a cricket. If for some reason the cricket doesn’t blend in, roll him in dirt again. Do not under any circumstances allow anyone to scrub him.

Step Two: Playing the Yam

Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, having hypertrichosis does not mean you’re a werewolf and a cricket dressed up as a yam does not a true yam make. As previously shown by our philosopher, in order to be a werewolf, one must not only look like a werewolf, but one must also behave as a werewolf. One can only assume the same goes for yams.

If this sounds intimidating, take a moment ask yourself: what do yams really do? That’s right. Nothing! Therefore it will not be difficult for the cricket to conduct himself as a yam. Simply tell him to sit and stay. If you have chosen a properly rotund cricket, he will be way ahead of you here. If you have chosen an emotionally receptive cricket, he will be better prepared to give a subtle and moving performance, but frankly, it will be hard to tell the difference.

Step Three: Inside the Mind of a Yam, Such As It Is

Again, step back and contemplate the yam in relation to the rest of the dynamic cosmos: it has got to be one of the most inert masses in the universe. Yams don’t even know they’re yams. And on account of them being not even stupid, this step is even easier than the last one. Rather than going through all the ridiculous effort of raising the cricket as a yam from birth, or hypnotizing it so that it thinks it’s a yam even though it does not understand what it truly means to be a yam and says irritatingly unyamlike things such as, “Hello, I am a yam,” you must merely sing the cricket a nice lullaby and put it to sleep.

Et voilĂ : you have a corpulent, dirty, immobile, catatonic cricket which you might be able to fool a couple of philosophers into thinking is a yam. In retrospect, it would have been more lucrative to prove that the cricket is gold so that you could sell it to the philosophers and use the money to pay for an internet connection so that you don’t have to perform strange experiments on innocent insects in order to procrastinate and can just check your e-mail like everyone else, but I suppose we all have a different idea of fun.