21 April 2010


Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou is a beautiful graphic novel about math history.

Yes, you read that correctly. Comic book about math.

The story centers around Bertrand Russell's experiences around the turn of the last century, as he and other thinkers tried to formalize all of mathematics— to identify a self-consistent foundation of axioms on top of which all of the rest of mathematics could be derived.

Frege, Hilbert, Wittgenstein, Gödel, and other famous names make appearances in the book. I found the auxiliary characters to be somewhat unmemorable, and the retelling of their stories has been greatly subject to poetic license anyway. What I enjoyed about this book is the fact that it painted such a vivid picture of the early 20th century mathematical zeitgeist. (The graphic novel is an excellent medium for this.) Hilbert and others had great optimism that mathematics could be formalized in such a way that it was consistent, complete, and decidable. In such a world, every well-defined statement about mathematics could be decided one way or the other in a mechanical way. That idea, and its natural extensions— that there could be an arbiter of truth for all factual statements, or even moral statements— were tantalizing to many. (Too tantalizing, apparently, as many of the mathematicians working on this problem really went unhinged.)

Yet, that hope was smashed when Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, in which he showed, among other things, that there would always be statements that could never be resolved (either proven, or their logical negations proven) within arithmetic or any extension of it. These fundamental limitations on the power of mathematics came as a shock to many. Von Neumann reportedly said, "it's all over," when he learned of Gödel's result. It was the death of a long-standing dream.

The authors manage to tell this whole story with a minimum of jargon, and they even turn the depressing conclusion around with a cute moral. All told this is no small feat.

Logicomix is not a math textbook but a drama. It has limited depth (justifiably so). But it's a neat idea and well executed. It is a worthwhile read (especially considering how short it is).

20 April 2010

People who are not in our league IV

Scott Smider of Cambridge, MA:

Cambridge's Scott Smider successfully completed the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon four times consecutively in two days, all to raise more than $10,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in memory of his sister-in-law Elizabeth, who died from breast cancer Christmas Eve 2008 at age 41.

For those of you keeping score at home, Smider ran 104.8 miles. Astounding.

Source: Boston Herald

15 April 2010

Limericks about limericks

I found these meta-limericks amusing:

There once was a man from the stix,
Who liked to write limerics.
But he failed at the sport,
Because he wrote them too short.

There once was a lady from Crewe
Whose limerics went to line two.

There once was a man from Verdun.

Source: rec.humor.funny archives (includes a few more)

12 April 2010

Google shows hotline number for suicide-related queries

The week before last, Google started serving in its search results, above some queries related to suicide (such as [suicide] and [suicidal thoughts]), the number of a suicide prevention hotline:

This special result appears above the usual search results.

Hopefully this will reach some people to give them some help when they need it the most.

This is one of the more striking examples of one of the signs of our times: that for an increasing number of matters, people can (and do) confide in a computer things they would not share with a significant other, parent, sibling, lawyer, doctor, or clergy-person.

Source: New York Times

Groundhog Day; Shutter Island; True Lies

Groundhog Day

Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an obnoxious weatherman who is forced to relive the same day over and over again. It's a cute concept. The kernel of the movie is the story of how Connors redeems himself through introspection and self-improvement. However, I didn't like the execution: the story seemed to stray too far at times into random territory. Connors is confused, then suicidal, then sleazy, then abusive, then persistent, etc. It was just too much for me. The film is still worth watching once, if for no other reason than because the story has become a part of the American cultural lexicon.

Don't forget to read the economists' take: The Economics of Groundhog Day. In a nutshell: "In economic terms the final reliving of the day constitutes what economists refer to as a perfectly competitive equilibrium based on perfect information."

Shutter Island

The trailer makes this look like a horror movie, but it's actually a thriller/mystery. (Good thing, too; I hate horror movies.) Leonardo DiCaprio plays a federal agent sent to the titular island, which houses a mental hospital, in order to investigate the disappearance of a patient. Shutter Island is entertaining throughout, and a good mix of mystery, drama, suspense, and some hauntingly beautiful cinematography. I liked the interplay between Leonardo DiCaprio's character and the two eerie doctors (Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow). This movie comes recommended.

People seem to have mixed feelings about the twist ending. It's no The Sixth Sense, but I thought it worked well. (I didn't feel cheated, as I did at the end of, say, Atonement.)

One complaint though, about the soundtrack: enough with the damned string section already!

True Lies

I started enjoying this movie a lot more once I realized it was not an action movie but an action comedy. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a secret agent who hides his true job from his wife (his cover is a boring computer salesman). His marital problems are the source of much comedy.

In its overall setup it's very similar to a Bond movie (and with an FX budget to match, apparently), except that True Lies doesn't take itself as seriously.

A couple of things stand out for me. A few of the characters, including a used-car salesman who pretends to be a spy in order to attract women, are exceedingly pathetic. And the setup behind one scene, in which Helen (the wife of Schwarzenegger's character, played by Jamie Lee Curtis) goes on an undercover mission, is rather disturbing. There were a few parts that made me rather uncomfortable, and I loved those in an oddly cathartic way.

05 April 2010

Math column by Steven Strogatz

Author and Cornell professor Steven Strogatz has a new weekly column in the New York Times, in which he tries to illuminate various concepts in mathematics and explain their significance and applications.

My favorites so far include the columns on complex numbers and limits.

I think most people (whether or not they are afraid of math) will find at least a few interesting tidbits. It's good to see this kind of mathematical exposition in a popular venue.