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Journal of No. 118

January 23rd, 2006

BBQ & books @ 08:53 am

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It was nice enough here that we(*) barbecued on Sunday. I think our last BBQ of 2005 was November, so I guess there's a whole month in Southern California when you can't barbecue.

(*) More accurately, Rebecca barbecued, while I watched football and listed crud on ebay.

Finished two books recently.

#1: The Quick and the Dead, by Vincent Starrett. It's a collection of short stories, mostly in a supernatural vein, rather different from his tediously prolific mystery work. Starrett seems to go for the anticlimactic ending far too frequently for my tastes. There was really only one story that I liked a great deal; unfortunately, I know that I can't set into words precisely what I like about it. I was telling Chun about it on Saturday, and I think I completely failed to communicate anything useful about it. Possibly, the tolerably large quantity of whiskey in both our systems offered some barriers to communication.
In any case, the story in question is "Penelope", and I'll only set the stage. The first 90% of the story is sort of an English clubroom story. A Tale from the White Hart, or something Jorkens might reel off after being offered a whiskey. A tall-tale that is really not quite believable, but which doesn't offer enough detail to actually disprove, other than its manifest absurdity. And yet, the final 10% serves to throw the story upside-down and cast it in a different light. It's still a somewhat trivial story, but the manner of its construction and story-telling is what I found so interesting.

#2: The Music of the Primes, a nonfiction book about the Riemann Hypothesis. The author, Marcus du Sautoy, is an Oxford mathematician. I think one of the things he succeeds at best is making analogies and metaphors so that the lay reader can understand what mathematical research is like. I'm afraid the naive view that many people have is that people who study mathematics are able to multiply really big numbers together. Although that's far from the case, it does have some relevance to this book, since the cryptological algorithms that secure electronic transactions (and that you use everytime you see an "https" in a URL) involve multiplying together two very large prime numbers. The system works because it is much harder to factor a humongous number into its two primes than to multiply two numbers together. If you think you can factor a humongous number, you can make some pretty sweet money doing it.
As I was saying before I got distracted, du Sautoy doesn't demand that his readers learn a lot of math. It's written for a general audience, but in those rare cases where I'm familiar with the advanced math, I think he does a fantastic job in using apt similes and analogies to explain the insights that various people have had into the nature of the primes (which is bound up with the Riemann Hypothesis). Furthermore, he does a great job in presenting the characters of the mathematicians that have been involved in the historical development of this branch of mathematics. From a bicycling Casanova to Alexander Grothedieck, winner of the 1966 Fields medal, who now lives in a remote village in the Pyrenees, convinced that Satan has changed the value of the speed of light from exactly 300,000 km/s.
A strange and wonderful book.
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Journal of No. 118