Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Joy

He's the reason for the season.

Santa and his bag of loot, that is. Capitalism at its most glorious. And what a nice Christmas it was. As soon as I'm done typing here, I'm gonna go sit in my new leather rocking recliner. Ahhhhhh! On top of the loot collection feature of this holiday, we also made a batch of my mother's Christmas cookies. I hadn't made them in a decade or more and the activity of making them, the smell of them, and the taste of them evoked wonderful childhood Christmas feelings. Besides, it's about the only time I get to use the mace from the spice rack. Here's the recipe:

Rosie's Christmas Cookies

3 eggs
1-1/2 c. sugar (only "killer white" will do)
4 c. flour (sifted)
2 c. citron-type candied fruits (chopped fine)
1 c. nuts (chopped fine - I use the grater wheel on my mouli grater)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. mace

Cream eggs and sugar. Mix in everthing else. Roll into logs and refrigerate for an hour. Slice thin and dredge in sugar. Bake on a greased cookie sheet at 350 for about 12 minutes. Place in a sealed container with sliced apple. This is to soften them up to an edible state. Me, I never do this step.

This is a VERY dry batter. Don't be surprised. I got to use our fabulous red "professional-style" mixer this time, unlike my past efforts. Man! Was that ever so much easier than stirring that batter by hand. Hooray for technology! Oh, and, by the way, I can't *really* recommend these, in an abstract sense; they're kind of an acquired taste. Kinda like a cookie version of fruitcake. But I like 'em and that's good enuf for me!

One other amusing thing. There's a website which rates the readability of your blog. I plugged in my URL and got back the determination that it's:

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

I didn't know my writing style and content were that approachable. How wonderful of me to be so inclusive. How broadminded of them to consider a blog which uses "fuck" at least once per post to be suitable for elementary school readers.

So, Merry Fucking Christmas, children! Welcome to Uncle Franko's blog where we tell the shit like it really is. Approved for your use by The Blog Readability Test algorithm and the half-wits who cobbled that stupid shit together while they were stoned on something truly mind-altering.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Math Rant (Part 2)

[This is part 2. If you arrived here first, don't start here, you'll just be confused. Well, even more confused than if you had started with part one; so, start with part 1.]

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke said that in 1973. I find it a profound comment on the human condition. More on that in a minute, after I chat about Clarke.

This is the third of "Clarke's Laws," which are obviously somewhat tongue-in-cheek; they mathematically parallel Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics or, in Clarke's own pseudoegotistical words, "Three laws were good enough for Newton, so, modestly, I'll stop there." Naturally, soon thereafter (In 1999, specifically, so I guess that's not soooo soon.) he proposed his Fourth Law, which states: For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.

What a wag! Parenthetically, Asimov also ultimately outdid Newton but went the other way and added not a Fourth Law but a Zeroeth Law to his three on robotics.

But on to the point I'm creeping lethargically toward. Map this law of science/magic against current society, or most (all?) societies in history, and you'll find (*I* find, anyway) two interesting phenomena which are, at first glance, unrelated or perhaps seemingly opposite, but are, on deeper examination, inevitable lemmata of this sardonic law. That's a great word, isn't it? Lemma/lemmata. Wasn't there a grade Z movie about a "forbidden dance" called something like the lemmata? Ok, I'm just fucking with you. The dance/movie was the "Lambada." Pretty close, huh? Oh, if you're now interested in the movie, be warned by one reviewer's comment. He said: I'd rather watch Barney and friends. Ouch!

Both lemmata are, essentially, examples of magical thinking, sometimes called analogical reasoning. That sounds kinda pedantic, doesn't it? Let's stick with "magical thinking" although it might be more proletarian and more accurate to call it antilogical nonreasoning. I'm gonna digress from the usual conceptualization of magical thinking and address it in the two ways I see it in action in society.

I must admit, however, that I would like to do a lengthy post on the cargo cults because they seem to me to be a perfect example of Clarke's third law and magical thinking in human society and they occupy the same cultural region as my favorite disease, kuru. Ya gotta love a 100% fatal disease with the unique symptom of uncontrolled laughing. More on that some other time, maybe. Gives you a fresh perspective on the societal (nutritional?) value of brains.

Yes, both of these examples are part and parcel of the innumeracy which is at the root of my rant, if you consider rigorous, logical, scientific thinking in general as an adjunct of the specific of numeracy, which I'm gonna define here as being comfortable with a broad range of mathematical concepts without necessarily being a mathematician. (See the quote which closes this portion of the rant for more on this particular notion.) So what are my two lemmata?

Imprimis, all science/logic/numeracy is abstemiously abstract and meaningless to daily reality.

Secundus, science/logic/numeracy is meaningful and important to daily and long-term reality but WAAAY too complex for ordinary mortals to understand and therefore we might as well not try. Let's just leave it to those mutants who walk among us who actually understand that crap in some kind of idiot-savant gestalt.

There is no tertius, for which, I'm sure, you're zealously thanking your favorite deity. If you're currently without a favorite supernatural boojum [Also check out the use of this term in cryogenics, superfluids within a gnat's hair of absolute zero. Science is cool!], may I suggest The Flying Spaghetti Monster? I love that particular divine being. He's just so… noodly! And so appropriate here because he's a close cousin to Russell's Cosmic Teapot and Bertrand Russell is certainly a monumental figure in mathematics, if for no other reason that the fact the he penned the mighty tome, Principia Mathematica. Ya gotta have some serious testicular fortitude to write a book in the twentieth century and name it that. I don't think he ever expected best-seller status, ya know? You go, Bert!

Let's consider lemma 1. Essentially, it's all bullshit with no bearing on reality.

In ancient times, Zeno's paradox, specifically the one about Achilles and the tortoise, is the prime example of this. Infinite regression means that movement is actually impossible. You can't get there from here. Actually, you can't get anywhere. Of course, ordinary daily reality amply demonstrates (proves) that this is a silly notion. Obviously we all get up every day and move about in the world. Therefore all math is silly and mere intellectual masturbation.

The perfect modern example, for me, is the populist concept of chaos theory. Even intelligent, educated science popularizers like Crichton turn chaos theory into a universally applicable Ubertheory of Everything. Randomness rules all; nothing is predictable. It's the ultimate stochastic universe. Therefore, everything is random and learning about math/science is useless and meaningless in real life. Again, ordinary daily reality amply demonstrates (proves) that this is another silly notion. Obviously we all accurately predict coming events every day. (The sun will rise in the East tomorrow. I'll bet you a year's pay.) Therefore (Say it with me now.) all math is silly and mere intellectual masturbation.

One quick side note. Whatever else you say about chaos theory, ya gotta love it for giving us "strange attractors." Man, that reminds me of an ex-girlfriend from before I met and married the inestimable Ronnie. And who doesn't love Cantor dust? It's kinda like fairy dust but stranger. Yes, even stranger than Big G's fairy dust which I sometimes suspect is illegal in most of the Western world. Do Big G and the Logarithm Fairy count as "strange attractors?" So many questions, so little time.

And now a brief word about lemma 2. It's useful for so many things around the house and around the universe. Don’t touch that mouse! You'll want to be here for what comes next.

Lemma 2 says basically: Ok, all that math stuff is important and useful but reserved for a tiny subset of mutant humans. Regular folks can't comprehend it.

For instance, have you seen that TV show NUMB3RS? Man, those folks can figure out anything but it's all a mystery to me. Of course, while they're in their ivory tower writing arcane symbols on the whiteboard, some flatfoot cop is finding out the same thing by asking around the neighborhood. Duh!

And that "Beautiful Mind" guy, Nash. Tres bizarre, non? It's just so complex. Really? His big conceptual breakthrough, which overturned a paradigm entrenched for a coupla hundred years, resulted from an encounter in a bar with a beauteous babe and her pedestrian pals, something which any low-grade moron would understand intuitively. The Nash equilibrium. Whoa! Very significant sounding. Oh yeah, and then it took him forever to prove it mathematically. Duh!

Or quantum mechanics. How can the cat in Schrodinger's box be alive and dead at the same time? It muddles my poor, little brain. Superposition? Is that, like, having good seats at a Seahawks game? But when you open Schrodinger's box, the cat is not simultaneously alive and dead; it's whichever happens to be the case for you, your eigenstate. Cool word, cool concept (thought experiment); but c'mon. Duh!

And good old relativity. People complain all the time about how they can't understand it. However, Einstein himself used to have the easy, perfect explanation of relativity. Well, special relativity, anyway. General relativity we'll leave for another discussion. Einstein explained it this way: If a pretty girl sits on your lap for an hour, it seems like a minute. If you sit on a hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour. (All together now:) Duh!

Einstein also famously said, "If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn't call it research." I like that one.

Ok, this is already longer than part 1; so I'll call this part 2 and warn you that part 3 is gestating. I'm taking just a bit longer than a Planck time unit with this rant but we'll get somewhere eventually.

I'll close with a quote by Bertrand Russell for your amusement:

Pure mathematics consists entirely of such asseverations as that, if such and such a proposition is true of anything, then such and such another proposition is true of that thing. It's essential not to discuss whether the proposition is really true, and not to mention what the anything is of which it is supposed to be true. If our hypothesis is about anything and not about some one or more particular things, then our deductions constitute mathematics. Thus mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.

Another smartass, like Clarke and Asimov. What is it with these science/math guys?

So, lemme actually finish this part (Really. This time I mean it.) with a quote about the quotidian math experience most of us had in school and why math instruction *should* be better than the idiotic crap we all put up with. From cut-the-knot.org (the name is an homage to the Gordian Knot), an interesting math website:

I hope, in time, more emphasis will be put on the abstract side of mathematics. Drills contain no knowledge. At best, after sweating on multiple variations of the same basic exercise, we may come up with some general notion of what the exercise is about. At worst, the sweat and effort will be just lost while the fear of math will gain a stronger foothold in our consciousness. Moreover, if it's possible at all for a layman to acquire an appreciation of math, it's only possible through a consistent exposure to the beauty of math which, if anywhere, lies in the abstractedness and universality of mathematical concepts. Nonprofessionals may enjoy and appreciate both music and other arts without being apt to write music or paint a picture. There is no reason why more people couldn't be taught to enjoy and appreciate math beauty.

What's coming in Part 3? What can I say? More of the same.

[Go to part 3.]

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Math Rant (Part 1)

Where to begin?

America is an innumerate nation. I can't even add a qualifier to that statement; it's too abysmally true. We are so innumerate that most people confuse simplistic number manipulation (addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication) with "math." Nothing could be farther from reality.

Here's the sad part. People will argue about your numeracy based on how efficient you are at these basic computational skills. Get over it, folks. This is not "math;" these are monkey skills. At best. Pigeons have been trained to do them, too, sometimes outperforming U. S. college students. Wanna do basic computation efficiently? Use a freaking calculator. And I say that as a guy who finished college when the slide rule was king and who is still not so comfortable with those newfangled electronic thingies.

So lemme anticipate your response. You figure a kid needs to understand *how* the answer is derived. He hasta grok the concept; it's not sufficient to simply get the answer. Ok. Actually, I personally agree with that to an extent; but let me ask you a question.

For whatever reason, your boss needs you to obtain a logarithm for him. Right now, of course, because this is cutthroat American corporate capitalism we're talking about and if you wait until tomorrow, your job'll be outsourced to a slave-labor company in China or Thailand or Canada and you'll be out on the street begging for spare change. Whatcha gonna do? Obviously, the simple (smart!) answer is that you're gonna look it up in a table or use your calculator.

Hypocrite. [VBG] No, make that a [snide grin]

Do you know and understand how to derive that log you just looked up? No? Base 10? Base e? Do you even know what e is? BTW, did you know that e is transcendental? Like, wow! Far out, man! Groovy, dude! You mean you're gonna be content with merely having the answer? Do you think that table of logs was delivered from on high by the Logarithm Fairy?

Whoa! I just got a vivid mental picture, kind of a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Big Gay Al from South Park. Big, bulky guy with a half-chewed cigar in the corner of his mouth. 2-day beard. Very hairy forearms. Lovely blush pink tutu and gossamer wings. Pink toe-shoes and white tights. A halo populated with twinkling, spinning logarithms and a long, thick, oversized log log double decatrig slide rule sticking out the front of his… , errr, I mean, a slide rule as a wand. Yeah, that's it. A slide rule wand.

But back to the topic at hand, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If you're content simply having the log "given" to you by your calculator, then it should be ok for your kid to be "given" the answer to his problem by his calculator. If you still insist that he must understand the concept first, then you put your calculator away and derive that log yourself with no help from the Logarithm Fairy.

He's probably busy right now anyway. I think he and the Universal Gravitational Constant Fairy, Big G, are out on a date. The Big G stands for something other than "goodness," I can tell you! Remember, F="BigG"(m1m2/r^2) and I'm pretty sure that F stands for "Big Fun" for big math fairies! It's the original, actual, scientific Law of Attraction. Well, it's the *equation* of attraction, anyway.

So, if you're gonna require your kid to memorize the "times tables" and learn at least one algorithm for doing basic calculations, why would you stop there? Those skills alone do NOT constitute numeracy. Monkey math. Monkey math. Monkey math. And I say again, MONKEY MATH! (Pigeon math?) Nothing more. Stop there if you want to, certainly; but don't kid yourself that you've now transcended your innumeracy. e is transcendental. I worked with e. I know e. You're no e. [With apologies to Senator Bentsen and President Kennedy, but never to Dan "potatoe" (sic) Quayle.]

Besides, consider this second question on this topic, do you actually think that memorizing the times tables and memorizing one or more algorithms to do simple calculations constitutes "understanding the concept?" As a counter-proof, I offer you the high school success stories who populate the cash register employee niche at our fast-food chains. How many of them can actually make change on their own without having the register give them a value? We're talking simple subtraction here. How many, huh? These are the products of a decade or more of American math instruction and they can't fucking subtract. I can't think of an adjective abject enough for this situation. "Pathetic" is pathetically inadequate.

So where does that leave us?

Well, I'm gonna stop for now and call this Part 1. Therefore, that leaves us at the end of Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 where the action really heats up.

[Go to part 2.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

13 swordfights

In the spirit of the Thursday Thirteen meme, I offer thirteen superb movie swordfights in something like an ordering but not really in specific order. I just couldn't do that.

01. Sanjuro (English: Thirty-something [the nameless ronin who was Yojimbo (Bodyguard) has a new adventure]) (1962). The final duel. I could write ten thousand words about this duel and in the end I'd still just say: Watch it. Then, watch it again. Then in slo-mo. Then in frame-by-frame. Then again at full speed. This duel is quintessential iai. If you've never seen this movie, rent it NOW. You'll love it. If you don't, lemme know and I'll declare you non-human. After you watch it, tell me your favorite character. I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.

02. The Princess Bride (1987). I am not left-handed either! I could quibble about specifics. Cary kind of "rabbits" a bit. They both drag their trailing foot some, Boris-Karloff-mummy style. Blah, blah. But why quibble? It's an exquisitely-crafted duel. I love it.

03. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Arthur and the Black Knight. It's only a flesh wound! No more need be said.

04. Zatoichi to Yojimbo (English: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo) (1970). I had to include one Zatoichi movie of the coupla dozen in the series and I like this one a lot. The eponymous duel. This is a list of swordfights, so that's what I'll reference here; but my actual favorite scene in the movie is when Yojimbo fools Zatoichi about how high up the stairs he is during the fire. Making fun of a blind guy! What could be more enjoyable?

05. Scaramouche (1952). The duel in the theater. You killed my brother. Big mistake. Lots of actual, valid fencing information given during Stewart Granger's training scenes.

06. Basil Rathbone vs. Errol Flynn. Pick one, any one. I'll go with "Captain Blood" cuz it's set in the Caribbean and I love the Caribbean. Basil was generally acknowledged as the best fencer in Hollywood in his era but he usually played the antagonist so he always lost the movie duels. Of course Errol Flynn was quite the swordsman, too, but in a different sense of that word.

07. Shichinin No Samurai (English: Seven Samurai) (1954). Fencing master vs. obstinate guy. Oops! Guess the fencing master was right. This is the sine qua non of movies. One of my all-time favorites. Exquisite.

08. The Wind and the Lion (1975). El-Raisuli vs. the German cavalry officer. An overlooked movie which I find simply completely delightful. Prepare to charge the palace! If you've never seen it, give it a try. Sean Connery and Candace Bergen are wonderful, Brian Keith does a great Teddy Roosevelt, and Steve Kanaly and the U. S. Marines charge the palace.

09. Myamoto Musashi trilogy, specifically # 3, Ketto Ganryujima (English: Duel on Ganryu Island) (1954-6). Bokken against katana. It's based on what is probably an actual even, so that makes it kinda cool. Very tense.

10. Mark of Zorro (1940). Basil Rathbone vs. Tyrone Power. Two competent fencers making it look absolutely fierce on the silver screen. Rumor has it that the director simply told them to "go for it" and the death should happen at *that* spot. However it was choreographed, it's a good one.

11. Three Musketeers (1921). Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the Jackie Chan of his era. Supreme physicality.

12. Three and Four Musketeers (1973). Duel on the icy river. From the cinema verite school of gritty realism where the duellists actually get tired and are clumsy at times. I like it and these are great popcorn movies. Raquel Welch ain't too hard to look at, either.

13. Yojimbo (English: The Bodyguard) (1961). I need three coffins… Make that four. Not really a great swordfight per se but the iconic tone-setter of what constituted ubercool for its generation. When remade as "Fistful of Dollars" this character established Clint Eastwood's persona and career.


Ok, that's thirteen, although I could go on. If you have something you'd like to propose or recommend, please lemme know. For the sake of clarity, I'll state some guidelines for your responses/submissions:

1. "Swordfight" is to be considered an inclusive term, not exclusive. Any edged weapon counts, as do sci-fi or fantasy energy weapons which approximate, simulate, or emulate cutting, like lightsabers or forceblades.

2. Having read the previous paragraph, you may be having an "Aha!" moment and are preparing your submission of your favorite duel from the Star Wars series. Unless it's something involving Darth Maul, lemme advise you to forget it. I'll listen to an argument for Darth Maul because he moves like a competent weapons guy but all other Star Wars bladework is crap IMO. Go ahead and submit, if you feel moved to do so; but be prepared for a scathing critique in response.

3. All my selections were sword-related. I can think of a coupla interesting knife fights which would be good possibilities, based on my expansion of the definition of *sword*(fight) to include things other than swords per se. Also, I love Jackie Chan and think he's the nonpareil movie combat guy of the twentieth century; but offhand I can't think of a swordfight of his which I found worthy of inclusion here. Maybe you remember one that I don't. That'd be cool cuz Jackie Chan is the shits!

4. Ok, having harshly stated my disdain for the bladework in Star Wars and having threatened you about submitting a duel from that series, lemme abjure my rabid statement in section 2. Go ahead and send your favorite Star Wars duel, if you feel compelled to do so. I promise I won't dump on your delusions choices. I loved 4, 5, and 6. The less I say about 1, 2, and (please, sweet Jesus, spare us!) 3, the better.

Sincerely,
Frank (fencer, kenshi, iaidoka)