The Cute to its Roob

by Henry Farrell on July 25, 2006

Cosma’s review of “Stephen Wolfram”:, linked to below, says that:

bq. Wolfram refers incessantly to his “discovery” that simple rules can produce complex results. Now, the word “discovery” here is legitimate, but only in a special sense. When I took pre-calculus in high school, I came up with a method for solving systems of linear equations, independent of my textbook and my teacher: I discovered it. My teacher, more patient than I would be with adolescent arrogance, gently informed me that it was a standard technique, in any book on linear algebra, called “reduction to Jordan normal form”, after the man who discovered it in the 1800s. Wolfram discovered simple rules producing complexity in just the same way that I discovered Jordan normal form.

I’m in no sense of the word a mathematician, but I too made a “discovery” in my teenage years, and found out years later that I wasn’t alone – Samuel Beckett, since we’re already talking about him, describes the technique in _Watt_. In Beckett’s words:

bq. In another place, he said, from another place, he might have told this story to its end, told the true identity of Mr Nackybal (his real name was Tisler and he lived in a room on the canal), told his method of cube-rooting in his head (he merely knew by heart the cubes of one to nine, and even this was not indispensable, and that one gives one, and two eight, and three seven, and four four, and five five, and six six, and seven three, and eight two, and nine nine, and of course nought nought).

In other words, each single digit number has an unique cube, and if you know this cube, and do a bit of memorization (e.g. that the numbers 0 to 9 have cubes between 0 and 729, that 10-20 have cubes between 1000 and 8,000, and so on), you can derive the cube roots of quite large sounding numbers very easily (as long as they’re whole numbers). For example, to figure out the cube root of 103,823, the final digit is a 3, which means that the final digit of the cube root is 7, and since 103,823 is between 64,000 (the cube of 40) and 125,000 (the cube of 50), the cube root has to be 47.

I’m presuming that if this trick occurred to me and Beckett independently, it must be common knowledge, but haven’t seen it written up anywhere else. I’d be curious to know if someone else (Martin Gardner???) has described it.

The Nobel Prize Winner as Neglected Genius

by Cosma Shalizi on July 25, 2006

A staple of bad movies and trashy novels about scientists (i.e., the kind I read) is the neglected genius whose ideas are rejected with incomprehension by the scientific establishment during his life, because they are simply Too Far Ahead Of His Time to be grasped by lesser mortals, only for the scientific community to rediscover these insights decades later. This sort of thing can make for entertaining fiction (if dreary self-mythologization), but it simply doesn’t happen all that often in real life, especially not when the hero is a part of the establishment, and indeed a much-honored one. It certainly doesn’t show up, with documentary evidence, in the staid, reliable pages of Reviews of Modern Physics. Nonetheless:

[click to continue…]

Two Menances to the Keystone State

by Cosma Shalizi on July 25, 2006

Two of my more public-spirited fellow citizens have recently identified looming threats to our own Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

  1. Our beloved junior senator, Rick Santorum (via Pharyngula):

    Most scientists unfortunately, those that certainly are advocating for this [embryonic stem cell research], and many others feel very little moral compulsion. It’s a utilitarian, materialistic view of doing whatever they can do to pursue their desired goals.

    I, for one, will be happier voting on Mr. Santorum’s re-election in November, knowing that my ballot will play a part in the age-old struggle between utilitarian materialism and deontological idealism, as well as the sagas of human-canine relations and Old Corruption.

  2. Our beloved linguistics professor, Mark Liberman:

    More than a third of all Pennsylvanians are native speakers of a language other than English — and many of them have not even tried to learn English since immigrating, or at least prefer to carry out their daily lives in another language, living together in neighborhoods where their native language dominates. Some people worry that the majority status of English is critically endangered. 25 years ago, a major political figure warned that these “aliens … will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion”, and so far, his prediction seems to be right on the money.

    And let’s not forget what they’ve done to our cooking!

En attendant Bérubé

by Henry Farrell on July 25, 2006

Le Blog Bérubé “last Friday”:

bq. I will therefore postpone the next installment of Irish Blogging (Beckett’s _Murphy_ is on tap for Monday) and devote the day to promiscuous linkdumping and an installment of our ever-popular Arbitrary but Fun stuff.

Le Blog Bérubé “yesterday”:

bq. Today was supposed to be Beckett Day on this blog, but we interrupt our brief foray into Irish Literature Blogging to bring you this important Lieberman Bulletin.

I think we’re beginning to get the joke …

Update: and “today”:

bq. One more thing while I’m working away on my Beckett post (which I will begin writing real soon, I promise).