Archive for December 24, 2008

My Chalabi Number

December 24, 2008 Leave a comment
Erdős Number 1

Erdős Number 1

Just a few days ago, I wrote about my discovery that I’m connected mathematically to the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, ending with the thought that I might even have attended conferences with him. My pal Sándor Kovács has kindly pointed out to me in an email that one can quantify just how close Chalabi and I are.

The relevant measure of distance is one that has been used by mathematicians for decades in measuring their level of connectedness to the late, prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős. Erdős has an Erdős number of 0. If you wrote a joint paper with Erdős, your Erdős number is 1. If you didn’t, but you wrote a joint paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős, your Erdős number is 2. And so on. A widely known movie industry counterpart to this involves measuring how closely connected a movie actor is to Kevin Bacon by calculating the actor’s Bacon number. It is 1 if the actor appeared in a movie with Bacon, 2 if the actor didn’t appear with Bacon but appeared with someone who appeared in some other movie with Bacon, and so on. (See Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for more on Kevin Bacon, here for a discussion of Erdős number, and here for a discussion of six degrees of separation. You’ll find more links at these sites.)

With this notion of measure in hand, what is my Chalabi number? In other words, what is the length of the shortest path from me to Ahmed Chalabi? Five. MathSciNet has a handy tool that lets you type in the names of two authors, and it then finds a shortest path from one to the other. (Shortest in terms of the data in its database. Shorter paths may exist via links, or papers, it doesn’t know about.) The path from me to Chalabi that MathSciNet provides is: Irving-Small-Goldie-Chatters-Khuri-Chalabi, with each successive pair having written a paper together.

Lance Small is my old friend and co-author at UCSD. Alfred Goldie was one of the giants of ring theory, a fascinating man whose obituary in The Independent from three years ago is worth reading. Chatters is another English ring-theorist, whose book Rings with Chain Conditions, written with C.R. Hajarnavis, I used to use all the time. As we get farther down the path, my connection weakens. I was familiar with Soumaya Khuri’s work, but I don’t recall whether I met her or not. And of course that brings us to Chalabi himself, whose connection to me is still more remote. Did I meet him? The best bet, if I did, is that he would have been in Antwerp with me in August 1978 at a large ring theory conference. This is about the time he would have been working on the paper with Khuri, his paper that represents his largest foray into ring theory. (One thing about that conference. We spent lots of time in the lobby of the modern Antwerp hotel where the conference organizers put us, a hotel located on the edge of a ring highway, halfway between the university campus and the wonderful central city, but near neither. One of our pastimes was to play with the prototype of a funny device created by the brother of one of the mathematicians, a cube, parts of which one could rotate in different directions until one managed to line up the colors, one color per side. Little did we know that two years later it would be an international sensation.)

What’s my Erdős number? It’s 4. There are lots of length 4 paths from me to Erdős.

How does Hank Aaron manage to have Erdős number 1? You see, he and Erdős jointly autographed a baseball when they received honorary degrees from Emory University.

Categories: Culture, Math, Politics


December 24, 2008 Leave a comment


I have been reading Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire off and on over the last two and a half months, mostly on since finishing Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War a few days ago. (And soon it might be off again, since maybe, just maybe, I’ll be getting the new biography of V.S. Naipaul that I discussed in an earlier post as a present tomorrow. Then again, given the difficulty FedEx is having getting packages to us, it may be a while before I see the Naipaul book.)

I found out about Byzantium from Glen Bowersock’s review in the New York Review of Books in September. I’m about one-third of the way through it now, in the midst of a chapter on iconoclasm, and I’m learning a lot. The book isn’t a straight history. Rather, it moves back and forth across time while examining different facets of Byzantine history and culture, such as icons, the law, Christian theology, government, war, and architecture. One can hardly help making connections on every page with our own culture and politics. But how could it be otherwise? After all, we’re talking about a millennium of history, including the evolution of Christianity, the rise of Islam, and developments from France and Spain across the Mediterranean to the Arabian peninsula and beyond, all centered of course on Constantinople.

We have three I’s we’re supposed to travel to: Ireland, Italy, and Israel. We’ll have to add a fourth: Istanbul.

Categories: Books, Culture, History

Christmas in Paris

December 24, 2008 Leave a comment


Twenty-five years ago this minute we were flying to Paris on the Concorde for a memorable Christmas. (And a memorable flight too!) My sister married a Frenchman in August 1980 and lived with him in Clermont-Ferrand for three years. My niece Joëlle was born in October 1982. The family moved to Paris in August 1983. (I showed up in Paris right after they moved there, after attending a conference in Antwerp and spending a couple of days in Amsterdam to pass the time until they got settled.) A few months later, my father decided we may as well all go to see them, with the holidays serving as a convenient time to get away. So off we went.

Well, first I had to get to New York. It was my third year in Seattle, and I had just gotten to know Gail in the preceding months. She took me to the airport, we said goodbye, and I flew off to New York a few days before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we headed to Paris, arriving around 11:00 PM local time. We headed into town and arrived at our hotel, which is the hotel my parents regularly used when they were in Paris, the Hotel Plaza Athénée. It’s a gorgeous hotel, on Avenue Montaigne between the Seine and the Champs-Elysées. And Christmas morning was beautiful.

My sister and her family were down in Nice to see her sister-in-law (Jacques’ sister) and her family, due to fly back to Paris around noon on Christmas. I had been given the task of heading over to their apartment early on Christmas morning to attend to the parakeet. Avenue Montaigne leads to the Pont de l’Alma, which happened to be the bridge over the Seine that itself led to my sister’s apartment, just a few blocks off the river on the other side. I didn’t sleep long, and by 6:00 AM on Christmas morning, I headed over. It was so peaceful. Fog. Almost no cars. Quiet. The walk over the bridge was dreamlike. And I got to do it six times, three in each direction, because something went wrong with the plan for getting into my sister’s apartment. I don’t remember the details. Presumably the concierge was supposed to let me into the building. Oh, I know. I had a code to punch in to get through the main door, but it wasn’t working, so I got there, tried and tried, then headed back to the hotel, and then repeated the process. On the third time, maybe it worked, or maybe the concierge did let me in. I must have had a key for the apartment once I was in the building. Maybe it was left with the hotel concierge. Anyway, I performed my bird duty, and as a bonus I had those wonderful walks over the Pont de l’Alma.

There are many stories to tell from the trip. But I’ll leave it at this, except to mention two other highlights, dinners at two famous Paris restaurants: La Tour d’Argent and Lucas Carton. The dinner at La Tour d’Argent was our major family holiday dinner. The Lucas Carton dinner was just for the four of us — my brother, sister, her husband, and me. And what I remember most about that was how tiny the portions were. It might have been the first time I had been at an elegant and expensive place that seemed to put as much emphasis on presentation as on food. I’m sure it was the first restaurant I went to where the food was brought out with fancy silver covers over the plates, and with the waitstaff dramatically lifting the covers all at once when the plates were all in place. I would have traded that in for a couple more lamb chops. Now, of course, I know better. Eating less is good. Presentation is good. But I couldn’t get over how little food there was, and how much empty space there was on the plate. (This reflects yet again my cultural illiteracy when in France, as described in one of my first blog posts.)

Time flies, if I may make an original observation. I can hardly believe this dinner was twenty-five years ago. Merry Christmas for those who celebrate. Happy Holidays for all.

Categories: Family, Travel

Still More Snow

December 24, 2008 3 comments


See that arrow built into the ‘E’ and the ‘x’ in the FedEx logo above? (I hadn’t noticed it until Joel pointed it out to me last summer.) It seems to have the wrong shape. It should be circular. But I’ll get to that.

We woke up to snow again today, as predicted. It was due to turn to rain by noon, and it has done so even sooner, after some icy, sleety, snowy interlude. I anticipate getting my car out later this afternoon — its first outing in a week — so we can meet up after Gail’s workday for Christmas Eve dinner. (I better get out, or we won’t be having dinner together.) But I’m here to complain. Two annoyances:

1. FedEx can’t get here. UPS has made it. They came in the snow on Thursday. They came in the aftermath of the snow yesterday. USPS has made it. Well, not on Monday, but otherwise they have. FedEx, though, is not up to the task. They’ve had an Amazon shipment in Seattle since Friday evening, due for delivery Monday. It didn’t go out at all on Monday. It went out yesterday (Tuesday), but didn’t get far. Their tracking data includes the entry at 3:27 PM yesterday: “Delay in delivery due to external factors.” At 5:52 PM it was home safe at Fedex. And that’s the last item. They seem not to have even tried to get it out today. The current status is “shipment delayed.” No big deal. It only has assorted presents for tomorrow. At least we’re all here. But still, their competitors made it. Why didn’t they?

2. The garbage and recycling people can’t get here. Indeed, according to today’s news release at the Seattle Public Utilities website, no residential garbage or recycling has been picked up since the snow started last Thursday. A week of no service. Our recycling bin is filled to the brim, and tomorrow we will have lots of new recycling. Oh, nevermind. We won’t. We won’t have any presents to give out because FedEx can’t get here. No problem. Our garbage can is filled too, but at least it will be picked up in a week. The recycling will have to sit around for two weeks.

How can a few days of not particularly huge snowfall bring everything to a standstill?

Categories: Family, House