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Martin Gardner, RIP

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Martin Gardner died Saturday. I wrote about him just last month, at which time I noted that although “not himself a mathematician, Gardner is one of history’s great popularizers of mathematics, through his long-running “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. He is as well one of the great debunkers of pseudo-science.” I own several compilations of his Scientific American columns, plus his one novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, an odd book about religion and theology.

You can read more about Gardner in the NYT obituary, or by clicking on various links at the Scientific American website. For instance, several people pay tribute here and a 1995 Scientific American profile is republished here.

I have little I can add to what others have said. Here are some of the thoughts of Douglas Hofstadter, famed polymath in his own right:

. . . so few people today are really aware of what a giant he was in so many fields—to name some of them: the propagation of truly deep and beautiful mathematical ideas (not just “mathematical games,” far from it!); the intense battling of pseudoscience and related ideas; the invention of superb magic tricks; the love for beautiful poetry; the fascination with profound philosophical ideas (Newcomb’s paradox, free will, etcetera etcetera); the elusive border between nonsense and sense; the idea of intellectual hoaxes done in order to make serious points (for example, one time, at my instigation, he wrote a scathing review of his own book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener in The New York Review of Books, and the idea was to talk about the ideas seriously even though he was attacking the ideas that he himself believed in); and on and on and on and on. Martin Gardner was so profoundly influential on so many top-notch thinkers in so many disciplines—just a remarkable human being—and at the same time he was so unbelievably modest and unassuming.

Categories: Math, Obituary

Ethel’s Unexpected Appearance

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

When I’m in my car, thanks to its satellite radio, I’m able to listen to Sirius XM’s On Broadway station. This is a curious experience. Most of the time, the station provides an education in the mediocrity of so much Broadway music. I know this is an unfair judgment; much of the mediocrity surely arises from the lack of context.

Who wants to hear music from South Pacific or Guys and Dolls over and over again? Why ruin the best of Broadway by over-playing it? Sirius XM doesn’t do this, fortunately, but as a result, I frequently tune in to songs from shows I don’t know. Thus, I am the one to blame for the lack of context, for not seeing enough musical theater, and I should be grateful, which I am, that the station exposes me to so much with which I would otherwise be unfamiliar.

And then there are the times when I tune in to the sublime. Like last Wednesday morning, as I drove home from an early morning errand. I know that song! It’s from Gypsy. Another great Stephen Sondheim song.* But wait. I know that voice! Why, it’s Ethel Merman! And so it was.

I was transported to my childhood. First I thought it was the song’s doing. Small World. I do love that song. Then I realized that no, it wasn’t the song, it was Ethel. I had forgotten how much her voice had permeated my childhood years. My parents would attend Broadway musicals and bring home the cast albums, which my father would proceed to play all weekend on our living room’s monaural hi-fi. And of course there was the radio. Ethel was everywhere.

I can’t find a link on the internet to her singing the song. For a snippet, go to the Amazon listing of the 1959 cast album (pictured above), scroll down to the song samples, and click on #4. That’s her, in a duet with Jack Klugman — yes, that Jack Klugman, better known to a later generation for his TV roles in The Odd Couple and Quincy, who doesn’t actually appear on the snippet. For a full version of the song, but with Bernadette Peters rather than Merman, you can listen below:

I went to several musicals on Broadway in the ’60s, but none in the ’50s. In particular, I didn’t see the original Gypsy. Worse, I didn’t see any of the Gypsy revivals, each of which featured a great actress as Rose: Angela Lansbury in 1974, the surprising Tyne Daly in 1989, Bernadette Peters in 2003, and Patti LuPone in 2008. I need to make it a point to see the next one.

*I should be more precise. Stephen Sondheim was responsible for the lyrics. The music was composed by Jule Styne. I wrote here two months ago about my love for Sondheim, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and here, a year ago, about seeing a production of Sunday in the Park with George. Gypsy was Sondheim’s second musical, following West Side Story by two years. How’s that for the start of a career? (Next came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first musical for which he wrote both the songs’ words and music.)

Categories: Music, Theater

61 Hours

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been a while since I posted. One reason is that Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher thriller, 61 Hours, which I wrote about* ten days ago after reading Janet Maslin’s pre-publication rave review in the NYT, came last Tuesday, publication day.

I started it immediately, but read in small doses only, since I had other obligations last week and knew that if I went far enough, the obligations would end up pushed aside in favor of the book. Once an important event concluded Friday evening, I was free to lose myself in the book, but by the time I got home and caught up on sports and news, it was 10:30 and I was way too tired. Saturday was the day. I was finished by 1:00.

What should I say? I dare not say too much, in case you might read it at some point. Anyway, we’re not talking about great literature. Just a thriller. But a thriller by one of the genre’s masters, a thriller whose principal character is as brainy as he is brawny. What I most enjoy are the opportunities to watch him display deductive reasoning at its best. He could have been a mathematician, or at least a logician. 61 Hours supplies many such opportunities. As usual, Reacher stumbles into a wildly implausible, though imaginative, plot, laced with a few wonderful characters and many faceless ones.

I’m happy I read it. As always, I can’t wait for the next one, which will be out soon. (Ordinarily, Jack Reacher returns early each summer, but this time Child has produced two books at once, to be published in quick succession.) While I wait, I’m sure I’ll read one or two of the earlier ones as part of my remedial Reacher research.

I’ll conclude by noting two unusual features of the book, each frustrating in its own way. [Alert: You may not to read beyond this point.] First, Reacher takes an extraordinarily long time to figure out who the mystery bad person is, even though the person’s identity is evident early on to any reader. There is no reasonable explanation for his denseness. Second, the book’s conclusion leaves several ends untied, in anticipation of the next Jack Reacher novel. One can pretty well guess what may have happened, but I’d rather know now than wait five months.

*The book cover pictured in my first post is the wrong one. I chose it from the book’s website, but what I chose is the UK cover, not the US one. The US one is pictured above.

Categories: Books

The Supremacy of Law

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Eric Holder

On the last day of our visit to Washington, D.C., in January, after my business concluded in mid-afternoon, I returned to our hotel, bundled up, and headed down Pennsylvania Avenue to the National Gallery of Art for a visit described here. In a separate post that I wrote a week later, I talked about passing the Justice Department headquarters on my way down Pennsylvania Avenue and seeing, engraved on its side, John Locke’s (or William Pitt the Elder’s) words “Where law ends, tyranny begins.”

Two weeks ago today, Gail and I took a shorter version of this walk, from Ford’s Theater on 10th Street down to Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street to the Justice headquarters, and then down Pennsylvania again to the National Gallery. Last week, I discussed the walk and gallery visit, but left for another time some remarks on another saying engraved on the building.

Our text for today: “No free government can survive that is not based on the supremacy of law.” I realize — to my astonishment — that expressing disappointment with the Obama administration in this context places me on the radical fringe, but disappointed I am.

I never know how much to say on this subject, since I am not an expert, and since whenever I do write about it, I end up quoting or linking to others. Almost every day I find some item I am tempted to blog about, then decide to pass. For today, let me mention just one example, Obama’s assumption of the right to assassinate US citizens without due process. This has been written about for months, but finally was given full attention in simultaneous articles on April 7, by Scott Shane in the NYT and Greg Miller in the Washington Post. Shane wrote:

The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have shifted from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.

Mr. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and spent years in the United States as an imam, is in hiding in Yemen. He has been the focus of intense scrutiny since he was linked to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November, and then to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25.

American counterterrorism officials say Mr. Awlaki is an operative of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate of the terror network in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They say they believe that he has become a recruiter for the terrorist network, feeding prospects into plots aimed at the United States and at Americans abroad, the officials said.

It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said. A former senior legal official in the administration of George W. Bush said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president.

What ever happened to arresting and trying people? Do we really give the president the authority to judge and sentence someone without a jury trial or a defense?

As usual, Glenn Greenwald got here ahead of me. He had already been writing about Obama’s assumption of the right to be judge, jury, and executioner before, but on the day that the NYT and WP articles appeared, he returned to the topic with a lengthy blog post. I have nothing more to add.

I just wish we had an independent Justice Department, a concept that vanished during the Bush years but that Obama (I thought) promised to return to. In a replay of the Bush years, Obama’s political advisors (Rahm, Axelrod) appear to carry more weight than the attorney general (that’s him, at the top of this post).

Oh, and the same week that those two articles appeared, Obama withdrew the nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. After the mockery Bush (and Bybee and Yoo and Bradbury) made of that office, Johnsen was an ideal choice to restore the supremacy of law. But Obama was never willing to push for her Senate confirmation, letting her languish for a year before she withdrew. (See further commentary here.)

At least the words are still on the building. We can hope.

Categories: Law, Travel

O’Hare Eames Chair

May 18, 2010 2 comments

When I think of the famed designer couple Charles and Ray Eames, what first comes to mind are their iconic lounge chair and ottoman, pictured below.

Two such chairs and the ottoman graced the house we moved into when I was ten, and are there still, decades later. I was unaware of the Eames at the time. (I’ll confess, once I learned of them, I imagined they were brothers. It hadn’t occurred to me that Ray was a woman and that they were, in fact, a married couple.)

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal page one feature article, Daniel Michaels reported from the Passenger Terminal Expo 2010 in Brussels on the latest in terminal seating. Pictured inside the paper were some newer options, but I was stunned when I saw on page one the drawing at right of that most familiar of all terminal seats, with the caption, “The Eames seat.”

I had no idea. Is there a chair that has been sat in by more people in history than this one? Probably not. And it’s yet another Eames chair.

It turns out, as everyone in the trade must know, that the Eames designed this chair for the opening of the expanded O’Hare Airport in 1962 (at which point O’Hare became the principal Chicago airport and Midway was relegated to minor status). The chair is still available. At the Herman Miller website, it is called Eames Tandem Sling Seating and given the following description:

Eames tandem sling seating serves millions of travelers every day and does it comfortably and reliably.

Designed for O’Hare International Airport in 1962, the sleek, contemporary design remains in style for all kinds of public transportation stations. Around the world, people find it a comfortable, inviting place to wait. And terminal operators appreciate its space-saving flexibility, durability, and easy maintenance.

I’ve never been a fan of the Eames tandem. It looks inviting enough, and I suppose it’s comfortable enough, but not when I’m about to sit on an airplane. I’ve had enough back problems over the years that the last thing I want to do before being locked into a plane seat for hours is lie way back in a chair with minimal lower back support. Often, when confronted with the tandem, I have chosen to stand, or walk around. I eventually succumb and take a seat, but after a few minutes I force myself to get up again, more out of fear of what the position I’m in might to do to me than any actual discomfort.

Eames. I still can’t get over it.

I can’t write about the Eames without mentioning my favorite of all their work, their mathematics museum exhibit. I first saw it in 1966, at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. I had always assumed it originated there, but yesterday I learned (here) that it was initially commissioned in 1961 by IBM for the new Science Wing at the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center) in Los Angeles. A duplicate opened later that year in Chicago. The Museum of Science and Industry considers its opening sufficiently important that it is listed as one of the highlights in the museum’s history, the only highlight between 1956 and 1971.

The California Science Center re-mounted the exhibit temporarily in the summer of 2002, as explained at the time in a press release, which notes that “the exhibition . . . won the hearts of several generations of teachers and students during its tenure at the California Science Center (formerly California Museum of Science and Industry) from 1961-1997.” The New York Hall of Science installed a permanent version in 2004, and a case study of the mounting of this exhibition is provided here, along with photos. Below is one of the photos, depicting the famous history chart.

If you have a chance to see the exhibit, please do.

I’ll conclude with one more Eames production, the powers of ten documentary from 1968, which you can watch below.

Next time you’re in New York, after visiting the Hall of Science, head to the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History and see Scales of the Universe, a wonderful exhibit that shares the theme of depicting relative scales from the sub-atomic to the extra-galactic. And next time I find myself waiting for a plane in an Eames tandem, I’ll be thinking about those scales.

Categories: Design, Math

Haunting the Library

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Improv Everywhere posted their latest mission at their website this morning. You can watch the video above. It’s enjoyable enough, but not one of my favorites, perhaps because I was never much of a fan of Ghostbusters.

The video presentation of the mission shouldn’t be watched in isolation. Read also the description of the mission that follows the video at the mission webpage. Of particular interest is the fact that the mission originated through a request by the New York Public Library to host a mission as a means of publicizing their current financial difficulties.

Watching the three ghosts enter the library’s reading room, I found myself thinking of an on-line discussion at Andrew Sullivan’s blog last week regarding the wearing of burqas and niqabs. The discussion’s starting point was a piece by Christopher Hitchens at Slate on the issue of banning the wearing of burqas in France. Hitchens notes, as part of his discussion, that “[o]n the door of my bank in Washington, D.C., is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn’t bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning: A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt. This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official.”

Sullivan made reference to Hitchens’ article here, then continued the thread with several more posts sharing reader reactions. Of particular interest in the context of the New York Public Library mission is this reader’s comment:

I work in a public library in a very large American city and have encountered several women in a burqa at the reference desk. Immediately I am struck by how our culture is not set up for a woman to be almost completely covered like that. I am a woman, and have found myself several times by myself at the reference desk trying to converse with another woman, who happens to be veiled. The veil made it difficult to hear these women since it covered their mouths. It occurred to me this burqa is not designed for a free society where women are allowed and actually expected to speak for themselves. Body language communication was impossible to read from these veiled women which is such a huge part of conversing, almost as big as the words actually said.

Watch the video again. See the guard question the first ghost. Notice the reactions of the patrons when ghosts sit next to them. There’s no religious context here, just the oddity of sharing space with someone whose only visible facial features are his, or her, eyes.

Categories: Humor, Movies, Theater

Thirty Years Ago

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Mount St. Helens, May 19, 1982 -- two years after the eruption

The 30th anniversary today of Mount St. Helens’ eruption has prompted assorted remembrances, as well as a look at the state of affairs at the mountain today. (For example, the Sunday Seattle Times feature article was an excellent piece on the return of various species, especially frogs, and today’s lead article discusses the advances in volcano monitoring.)

Where was I when the mountain erupted? Newport, Rhode Island. I hadn’t moved to Seattle yet, but I had accepted a job here just months earlier, so I knew I would be coming this way. As a result, I had paid closer attention to the Mount St. Helens news that spring that I might otherwise have. That day, May 18, 1980, I took a day trip down to Newport from Boston with my then-girlfriend Christine. We toured a couple of Newport mansions, though I don’t remember which. Marble House was surely one. Later in the afternoon, we drove around and found an outlook to the water. Looking at the map now, I would guess that we took Ten Mile Drive and stopped at Ocean Drive State Park. Wherever it was, we parked, walked down to some rocks, sat, and enjoyed the magnificent ocean view. On our return to the car, we turned on the radio and learned about the eruption.

Not the most dramatic story. Gail’s should be more interesting, since she was living here, but hers too is a little short of drama. She was still closer to the mountain than Seattle, down in Black Diamond where her father then lived. She had to go to work that day at Northgate, the historic shopping mall in the northern end of Seattle. When she got ready to leave, her father warned her that she couldn’t drive, the mountain had blown up. This didn’t deter her. She got in the car and drove away. And indeed, the eruption didn’t have much effect on Seattle, thanks to the direction of prevailing winds. Years later, I would drive in eastern Washington state and see ash deposits left behind by the mountain, but none of that headed this way.

Not much of a story. I know. Two summers later, in August 1982, I got my one close-up look at the mountain. Christine was here in Seattle for part of the summer and we drove down to Portland to visit Gerry, who was out from Boston to see his parents. The five of us had a lovely day’s drive up the Columbia River to Hood River, then south to Mount Hood and back to Portland. At the end of our stay, Gerry was to come up to Seattle with us to spend a day before returning to Boston. As we drove north on I-5, somewhere north of Kelso, we saw a sign advertising Mount St. Helens sightseeing flights available at Rocky’s Flying Service in Toledo, Washington. (I never knew the significance of “Rocky” — was it the name of the company’s eponymous pilot or a reference to Rocky the Flying Squirrel?) Gerry and Christine insisted that we get off I-5 and learn more. The small airfield was a few miles away. I kept saying, as we headed to it, that I wasn’t too keen to go up in some tiny plane. By the time we reached the field, I had become somewhat anxious. We met with the pilot who would take us, learned the cost, and then had to decide what to do. All eyes were on me, since Gerry and Christine were going up, with or without me. It was my choice. No pressure. Join them or wait for their return.

I didn’t want to miss out, but I also didn’t want to go up in the tiny plane. Finally, the pilot pointed out to me that he had his ass up there too. Aha! I got it. He had every bit as much a stake in our safe return as I did. I was convinced. Off we went.

It was 2×2 seating. I was in the rear right. I held on to the bottom of my seat. I don’t think I let go for the entire trip. We headed east until we were more or less due north of the crater. Then we turned south, approached the crater as far as was allowed at the time (the crater was still smoking; the FAA had strict regulations), made a u-turn, and reversed our route. What a sight! Blown down trees everywhere. Trucks everywhere. Timber companies were engaged in a massive salvage operation. And there was the shell of the mountain, a sight I’ve since seen many times on commercial flights, though never at so low an altitude. (The photo above, from wikipedia, just happens to have been taken at around that time. You can see what we would have seen.)

That’s my Mount St. Helens story. Not much, but it’s all I have.

Categories: Life