Wednesday, February 27, 2008

this post cost me 30¢ 60¢ 90¢

Ok. Technically my procrastination is costing me such big money. For once in a long time, I actually finished reading a book before it was due back to the library, but since I feel the need to write something on this book, I haven't returned it yet. It was due three days ago.

So, here's something...
The book is A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin. The author was interviewed on the radio show Speaking of Faith and it sounded interesting. It is a work of fiction, though the author is largely true to events that happened in the lives of Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. I'd never heard of Gödel, but I was familiar with Turing (even before his mention in an infamous post by Nacho man).

Both are described in the book as "brilliantly original and outsiders," "loyal to reason and truth," and "besotted with mathematics." Gödel was also a paranoid schizophrenic and a hypochondriac. Turing was gay and possibly a high functioning autistic.

Levin ties Gödel's delicate hold on reality to how he believes he is esteemed by Moritz Schlick, "one of the real ones" who knew to reach out to Gödel through mathematics and had invited Gödel to join the meetings of the Vienna Circle. The struggle depicted for Turing is a tug of war between his materialism and his tentative faith in the soul, the human spirit, God. His love—first love—for a school mate, and the loss of this love, were the basis of and the undoing of his faith.
What Alan feared then, and what he now knows to be true, is that when Chris was gone, he was gone. When Chris died, so began the decline of Alan's faith. And when it was finally gone, it was gone.
I really have no firm understanding of Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorems or Alan Turing's machines, but the passages that describe how each thinks and their personal convictions and the conflictions around these beliefs are beautiful.
There are bolts of luminescence in the world. Hard, brilliant candies that crackle like jewels, fanning pointed rays of gold through an otherwise gray landscape. Sometimes Alan can see these splendors unaided... Sometimes he has to distill them.... Sometimes he discovers them with his mind like the inverse trigonometric function that he managed to express as an infinite series of simpler algebraic forms. These are the best, these dazzling gems of his brain's relentless, systematic expeditions.... To Alan, this is the world: luminous boulders, a string of precious stones. He jumps from one to the next just barely able to balance above the murky sea of fakes and phonies.
Kurt's thoughts touch upon several themes at once. When he is thinking most clearly he often sees things in big groups and not sequential steps. He can work backward and reconstruct a more linear formal logical argument, proving one step after the other for the purposes of a seminar or an article that is read from left to right one letter at a time staggered by a numbered list of equations. But this is not how the most beautiful ideas come to him. Sometimes they emerge whole without justification, like his theorem, which is not at all linear. It is self-referential, a tangled loop. A serpent swallowing its own tale. He wishes he could present this result to Moritz as it appears to him, that he could just open his mouth and have the fully formed shape stretch out.
I could go on, but I'd best return the book. Don't want to break the bank...and there are 22 people waiting for a copy!

[I found a nice write up on this book here. By total coincidence (I swear) she also catches fish.]

Sunday, February 17, 2008

slow on the uptake

A dear friend once said to me, "It's only when you actually try that you realize you are not succeeding." I don't recall the exact context of the conversation, but I recall that it was during a particularly rough period in her life. My friend has a knack for levity, so I laughed a little at how dire it sounded. I was also troubled by how dire it sounded. I wasn't sure how to respond to or process what seemed to me to be—right or wrong—a statement of defeat and hopelessness. It seemed like she was saying "You're not going to succeed, so why try?" It was unsettling. It made me uncomfortable.

So, I presented my friend's statement (sans name) to a teacher whose counsel I very much trust. I expected a validation of my perception, but instead I got this:
...the explanation is simple: before throwing in the towel you must try! In other words, fight the good fight no matter what the outcomes. If you don't, you can never say it was beyond your grip. In life, what is important is the process and not if you are going to come up as a winner. Growth only resides in the process.
This sounded lovely and, of course, I agreed with fighting the good fight, but I couldn't figure out how he'd pulled that out of what my friend had said. He must not have caught the nuances of resignation. And so I dismissed the whole thing.

Just days ago, and over ten years later, I was listening to When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. In the chapter "Hopelessness and Death" she says:
Without giving up hope—that there's somewhere better to be, that there's someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are....Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together. We may still want to hold our trip together. We long to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we've tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under us. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can't be done.
That last statement stunned me: "Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can't be done."

I honestly can't say whether or not my friend intended this meaning. All I know is that her words and my teacher's interpretation were first things that came to mind...and right now I'm feeling like maybe I'm the one who needed to crunch some foil on my nuance antenna. Or would it be more accurate to say that my antenna was dead on, but—because it's ingrained to believe that we can hold everything together—I just didn't know how to process the information? I think that might be the case.

Who wants to quit hoping? Shit. That's a tough one.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

three high points

Three conversations with preschoolers yesterday:

Me: Hey, I really dig your Pumas.
Kid1: My mom got them for me when I was eight.
Me: Really? How old are you now?
Kid1: Four...four and a half. I'm getting big.
Me: You are! You must have grown a foot since the last time I saw you!
Kid1: I eat vegetables.
Me: Ahhh. That'll do it.


Kid2: Do you know my name?
Me: I'm so sorry, I don't! What is your name?
Kid2: Emma. E-m-m-a.
Me: Emma! Hey, my name starts with an 'E' too! See? [pointing to name tag]
Kid2: [toothy grin]
[Later, after choosing books...]
Me: Hi, Emma, wanna sit by me?
Kid2: Do you remember my name now?
Me: I do! It's Emma.
Kid2: [toothy grin]


Kid3: What's your name?
Me: My name is Erin.
Kid3: Erin, I love you.

Makes me wish I never had to deal with grownups.

Monday, February 11, 2008

ay, papi! it's umami.

[This one's been in the hopper for a while. Time to smooth the edges and put it out there. Be forewarned: I'm feeling parenthetical today.]

There is a salad I love to eat that's made at a Neapolitan pizza place. The ingredients seem spare: mixed greens, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and prosciutto in a balsamic vinaigrette. Spare, yes. Delicious? Umami, yes.

Perhaps you've heard about umami. It is a Japanese word meaning "tastiness" or "deliciousness", and is the name that was given to the fifth taste—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty are, of course, the four other long-accepted tastes. Umami has only recently been given due attention, though it was singled out as L- glutamate and named "umami" by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, oh, about 100 years ago.

[Umami is a much more intriguing and sensory term than L-glutamate, don't you think? Unless, maybe, you pronounce it with a sassy Spanish accent: el gloot ah mah tay. But, I digest...]

So, I first learned of umami when reading The Zen of Fish by Trevor Carson (mentioned interesting read—more for the historical kitsch and science-y stuff and much less for the over dramatized stories of the students learning to make sushi). Then I heard this, on National Public Radio. And now for some thoughts on umami.

First, it's great to finally have a name (and to be redundant—what an excellent name!) for the taste sensation formerly known as "yummmmmmmm..."

Second, it's disheartening, though not at all surprising, that with this second coming of umami madness, the taste is increasingly being cheapened, commodified, and utilized as a shortcut for the real deal. Sadly, Ikeda helped this along with his Frankenflavoring, MSG. Most, if not all, of those savory processed foods out there are impostors, masquerading as deliciousness. (There are interesting articles on this in the Guardian, the Science Creative Quarterly, and more recently the Wall Street Journal).

I'm teetering on feeling unknowingly seduced by that pizza place. Is this an "umami bomb" devised to lure me in again and again? Should I feel dirty? Should I care? Makes me think of that song: "If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right." It is a salad, after all, and not some crappy McDonald's gut bomb. Sounds like I'm trying to rationalize an addiction, doesn't it?

I will end with a tangent. After listening to the piece on public radio, I read Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Johah Lehrer. It's gotten mixed reviews, but before I'd read these I read the book and I liked it. It's an ambitious work that takes on the likes of Whitman, Woolf, Eliot, and Cézanne in the context of neuroscience. I can claim ignorance—the umami bit excepted—on most of the content, so my pass lacked the scrutiny a more knowledgeable person might lend. (And again, the panty line that is my lack of knowledge of many things literary and artistic is showing.) Even so, I liked the basic idea that science is not the be all and end all. Artists are not constrained by the scientific process and can sometimes get closer to the ins and outs of perception than conclusions drawn from watching rats in a lab...or fingering skull bumps.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

raucous caucus

I attended my first ever caucus last night. It was incredibly frustrating and incredibly inspiring all at once. I take that back. It was three parts frustrating, one part inspiring. Well worth the trouble.

This was one of the most chaotic and disorganized events I've ever witnessed. I live in a small city, and the turnout wasn't nearly as large as others that made the news, but still. The last presidential caucus yielded about 14 people. This go 'round? 98. That's what, a 600% increase? The folks running the thing were taken completely off guard. The small room in City Hall was crowded and loud--you could hardly hear a word that was said. Not that anyone speaking was particularly helpful.

No one seemed to know what was supposed to happen, or any details about positions that they were requesting volunteers to fill: caucus chair, tellers, secretary, convention delegates and alternates, precinct chair, associate chairs... When I, a born observer green to the process, am driven to direct the caucus chair to put the agenda on track, and to speak, for god's sake,...out a crowd, you have to know it was a mess. My need for order trumped my wallflower instinct.

But 600%! And I was in a room full of (mostly) like-minded individuals who were there to actively participate in the democratic process. What I also loved--I think even more--was that I had a chance to learn faces and begin to be part of a community that I only recently moved to and where I imagine most residents split their time between commuting to work, work, and sitting in front of one screen or another.

On my short walk home, I passed a woman who had put in a pitch during the caucus to promote her friend and fellow school bus driver who is running to be the district representative to the state house. "Have a good night," I said.
"You, too! What's your name, by the way?"
"Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too."

That is a beautiful thing.