Saturday, June 30, 2007

I'm happy to report I am rabies free

I just finished reading Rant by Chuck Pahlihalinukanukaluau. It was perhaps in some ways a mistake, given my hypochondriac ways, as the title character is a venom-addicted redneck who spreads rabies to the masses (a superspreader - patient-zero is an obsolete term). Chuck P. being a writer who does his homework (most writers do their homework, but the proliferation of books by people who never should have written books like Sean Hannity and Shaq, and the festering cess-pools of blogs by graphomaniacal opinionated jerks has diluted the quality of the term 'writer'), the reader is treated to all the essential details about the effects of rabies, and he throws in info about other deadly diseases and plagues on top.

The 'Party Crashing' business in the book makes one think of a guy pitching a movie ('It's like 'Fight Club', but WITH CARS'), and throughout I couldn't help but think, yeah, sure, you feel alive in that moment when your car hits another, and then you get 40+ years of your lower back killing you. It's entirely unglamorous if you screw it up and don't manage to obliterate yourself, James Dean style. I am old and risk-averse, though, so fuck what I think. Did I like the book? Yes. SPOILER ALERT: Chuck does some interesting and unexpected things over the course of the book. END OF SPOILER ALERT.

The book has made me paranoid about my cats or insects in the house giving me a horrible illness, but I've been paranoid about my cats ever since reading about how Toxoplasma from cats can make people...paranoid.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Book lust: The Codex Seraphinianus

The Believer is not merely a magazine, to me it also serves the role of a cool friend who tells me about music, books, etc I would never have known about otherwise. You can't really put a price on it, but they did, and I subscribe. I'm not really as sad and lonely as that makes me sound, honest. The point is, I love that magazine.

In a recent issue there was an article about the Codex Seraphinianus, a surreal and puzzling book by the Italian artist Luigi Serafini. Today, in general use, 'surreal' means something horrible you don't believe is happening. 'Being in a car crash, it was so surreal.' 'September 11, that was just surreal.' 'Spending the morning on the phone with tech support, it was surreal'. But this is surreal in the original artistic sense of something being mind-bending bewildering, art that defies rationality or understanding. According to wikipedia, surrealism is a movement that oh, I'm just playing, I'm not going to quote wikipedia here.

The CODEX is an encyclopedia for an imaginary world, complete with an entirely made-up language (which no-one has managed to figure out in the 25 years since it first came out) and base-21 (fingers, toes, and nose?) number system. But this imaginary world is not full of elves and hobbits and magic jewelry. A couple doing the beast with two backs thing morphs into an alligator. Strange mushroom-headed individuals fit skeletons with skins hanging from hooks. Trees uproot themselves and swim across lakes. A special bowl can be plugged into the wall, and it will chew your food, so you can drink it thru a straw. And, a personal favorite, on the signal, capsules walking around on human legs burst open to reveal...angry leopards.

Some nice person scanned the entire thing and put the pictures on flickr, but I wanted to see it for myself. Pictures on computer monitors can suck. They are small, they lack detail. One doesn't feel the paper or the weight of the book. If you read things on the computer, you are cheating yourself, unless it's a rinky-dink blog or such.

I first checked with IU's Lilly Library, the place in Bloomington to go if you're looking for rare books. The helpful person I spoke with told me they didn't have the book, and actually, no library in Indiana had it. That was not too surprising, as the book is rare and has a tendency to disappear from libraries. Copies can go for $300-$500. The guy told me I could probably get it through an inter-library loan, so I called the Monroe County Public Library, and they found a copy in the library of a college in Tennessee (I won't say which one, don't want any of my Tennesseean readers ripping off the library to make a few bucks on eBay).

Last week, I got an email notice that the book was in, so I grabbed it and was immediately glad I'd gone through the trouble. I saw many thing's I'd missed in the reprinted pictures and the flickr images I'd seen. Flipping pages is much smoother than pointing and clicking (the lack of comprehensible page numbers makes navigation tricky, but there is a bit of logic to the way the book's laid out). Leisurely flipping through the pages and taking in the sometimes mind-blowing images has been fun.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

No Practical Applications

In a previous entry I expressed my sincere admiration for my great-grandfather's quote that he'd rather be poor near a great library than wealthy in some land of ignorance (specifically, Oklahoma ca. 1920). Another great quote I've always loved is this one from mathematical god G.H. Hardy:

I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world."

When he said this, he was mainly expressing his relief that his work hadn't been used to find newer, bigger, better ways to separate large numbers of people from their lives. Aside from that, it's a nice 'fuck you' to the people who ask the budding mathemagician 'Oh, you study math? What are you going to do with that?

Then there's this one from Richard Feyman, for the Physicists:
Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it.
Most budding mathemagicians (and physicists) eventually find 'real jobs' when the constraints of wanting money for food and such force them to do so. Some do become math professors, sure, in the way that some kids fucking around with a guitar in their parents' basement eventually get recording contracts, and some kids eventually get to spend a couple years playing AA, AAA baseball, maybe even making it to the major leagues.

Still, the need and drive to do entirely useless things is strong with the mathematically afflicted (hence this blog). Among other entirely useless and completely unmarketable skills I also juggle, ride a unicycle, and for a while was obsessed with running. Even in my field, I find myself reading about and learning languages I will never use (Haskell), just because they are more interesting than their more established counterparts (Java - simple, practical, mind-numbingly tedious).

In recent years, I have become results-oriented, and to a large degree it's made me miserable. I tend to find getting results entirely unsatisfying. They're a nice by product of doing interesting things, and that's it.