Saturday, February 28, 2009

Stay-At-Home Bookrun

The Midstate review of books I haven't read: shipment from Hamilton.

I got out of the habit of ordering books for years but seem to be getting back into it. I wrote up a Bigbox Bookstore run a few months back and it even got somebody's attention (mentioned in an e-mail). And I sure used to like trading with Ned IGOTS Brooks, whose zine, It Goes On The Shelf, consists each issue almost entirely of "books received".

Ethan D. Bolker. Elementary Number Theory: An Algebraic Approach (2007 reprint [Dover] of 1970 original [W.A. Benjamin]). Dover Publications is of course the best friend an impoverished math-student bookjunkie ever had; this lists at 14 bucks (and I'll have had it for about 5; I'm not gonna go digging up the data on these). They've done a redesign and this looks somehow classier than the dozens of Dovers I already owned. I've forgiven them for this in my heart. I've been boning up on ANT so this was a natural. My Ireland & Rosen is badly damaged and I can't read it for pleasure.

Paulo Ribenboim The Little Book of Bigger Primes (second edition; Springer 2004). I've opened this here and there and most of what my eyes fell on made pretty good sense right away which is pretty rare in a math book. Real number theory in as readable a style as that allows.

George G. Szpiro Poincare's Prize: The Hundred-Year Quest to Solve Math's Greatest Puzzles (Dutton [Penguin USA]). Nobody acquainted with the story and with the name of this blog will be surprised to learn that I turned first to Chapter 12, where Grigori Perelman's part of the story begins. It's in "popular" style, with all the metaphor-torturing (and lack of equations) that that entails... but good. I read the review (PDF) in the Notices last year more or less of course. Here, with ads for days of course (from the New Yorker), is "Manifold Destiny" (Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber on the Perelman affair).

Douglas Hofstadter. I Am A Strange Loop (Basic Books 2007). This one's at the top of the most-likely-to-be-read-straight-through list. So far, overnight guest Henry has read most of the first chapter but I've looked at none of it. My admiration for Professor Hofstadter is a matter of quasi-public record (I praised GEB and Le Ton beau in my zine).

Havi Carel & David Gamez, editors. What Philosophy Is. (Continuum, 2004.) I'm pretty ignorant in philosophy; what the heck.

Simon Blackburn. Truth: A Guide (Oxford U Press, 2005). I'll probably start with the chapter on Neitzsche and go on from there if I like that. Professor Blackburn has a rather quaint homepage.

That's it... but there's already another list on the back of the latest "New Arrivals" catty. Intro Circle Pack, Stalking Riemann...

Friday, February 27, 2009

Don't Plan It, Janet

So Henry was in town and stayed the night chez M. (my usual weekend hostess and raison d'etre). I was about to open up my new MacBook to jack in to our new WiFi cloud and show him some of my recent online outpourings as I said, "You'll notice these stickers" (mostly black-and-whites that showed up randomly at the P.O. in my zining days) "are facing me as I get ready to open this up; the apple icon here is actually upside down and is obviously there for other people to look at. But whose computer is it anyway? If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

Ray Bradbury made this aphorism famous when he used as an epigraph to Farenheit 451; you can look up its actual author on Google like I did and immediately forget it like I did if it suits your fancy. Sure is a great saying, though; there's no telling how often I've quoted it over the years (I read F451 in the 70's).

Right in here lately, I've decided to put it into some filler-between-calculations portion of a lecture, along these lines.

"I can't tell you the best way to study this stuff; nobody can. A lot of people, typically after a lot of trial-and-error of their own, when they finally find something that works, they think they've found the one best way and then push like crazy to get everybody to do things that one way. Even teachers do this. And, for better or worse, they can even do it very effectively in the sense that their students learn a lot... which certainly ought to be at least one very important criterion for success...

"But this is not the gospel I preach. I'm the last guy to try to tell anybody how to live—most people seem to consider my way of life pretty unappealing and mostly I can't blame 'em—but I oughta know something by now about reading and doing math problems. And if you go in thinking you already know about what you're supposed to be trying to find out, you might very well be setting yourself up to miss the best parts.

"If somebody were to say to me right in here, Vlorbik, sometimes it looks like you don't know how to teach this stuff, I'd agree with 'em and tell 'em it sure is fun finding out. But if they said it looked like I had no idea how to do it, why we'd just have to part ways on that issue since there never seems to be time to get in more than a small fraction of the ideas that come up... when we're actually interested in the problems...

"So try something! There's this awful tendency to feel as if you should have some better reason to set up a calculation than "to see what happens"... almost as if you needed permission to write in your own notebook! Or like you're going to find out some math you're not supposed to know yet. When fiddling around is one of the greatest study skills of all!

"A lot of people, when they say, learn from your mistakes, they mean, don't do it again. But I say, a lot more than most people think, mistakes are where you're gonna get a lot of your best ideas... it's like when I'm playing guitar..."

And the reason I decided it was high time to put somesuch remarks into my lectures was that I'd already decided it was high time I actually tried to live it. Last Spring I sobered up for a quarter at least in part because of needing to prep two unfamiliar new classes (math ed and calc iii); this was so exhilarating, I decided to make a real effort never to teach 102-3-4 again. Then I cashed in my retirement account and took the summer off. Played a bunch of guitar and wrote my first real song since the 80s. Stuff like that. Then sobered up again for this quarter and, along with blogging even more than I ever used to zine, got the new computer (and a Mac at that).

Hell, I even do some math problems from time to time. If I'm selling learning, I sure as heck oughta be learning something myself, and a lot of the time I feel like I did in my twenties (and, okay, thirties) as a college student and love it.

No guru, no method, no teacher. Funny, I just quoted Van (the Man) in the other new blog yesterday...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Put Me Back In The Mud

I'll just plead artistic temperament, here. Of course I'm a big emotional mess; that's what performing artists do: go out in front of the crowd and feel something. And I have been thinking of blogging as performing... specifically, as a sort of "slow radio". Because while I hope it's obvious that my prose is edited pretty carefully, part of my blogging ethic has always been: do it fast! Get it out there! And (part of) the real subject matter, for me, is always the "sound of my voice".

And, whaddaya know, singing is quite a bit on my mind these days. In fact, you might as well know the worst right away, some days I walk around pretty much everywhere I go singing and always have. (My dad was a first rate entertainer and my brother's a top pro musician, so maybe it's a family thing... but I say this mostly to precaution you that I'm a beginner in music [a long-time beginner, but a beginner just the same].)

The thing is, right in here lately I've been, what I'll go ahead and admit, studying guitar. My act, when it's ready, is voice and guitar, so besides the stuff that just flows out of me (because I happen not to be lecturing or ranting or what have you, and, like I said, I love the sound...), there's now a "practicing" aspect to some of my singing... but I sure wouldn't want to say I'm "studying" that.

My astonishingly-reliable mother has informed me that as I child I once informed her of my opinion, stated as a fact (as must've been a habit of mine even then), that written music was "impossible". My brother and sister took piano, but I took a pass: I was pretty devoted to this part of my ignorance evidently. I think probably it was some sort of Math Anxiety for Music thing. But that's another blogpost.

Because it's studying guitar that was, until recently, my favorite source of "studying studying" brain-candy: examples from experience of how learning happens (for me to mull over as my hands do the actual learning). The guitar just keeps seeming to be telling me how it needs to be worked with.

You can get pretty mystical about this kind of thing real quick as I expect you know and I sure don't want that (just now). Because, forget the guitar. A new MacBook, to an Apple tyro, is a teaches-you-how-to-learn-it machine, literally. Complete with a whole teaches-you-to-be-in-it culture (but wait a minute; that's just to say, a culture).

And so, even before the need for a new blog (with comment threads, which for me right now means "hosted"...) suddenly arose out of nowhere, I recently made some remarks on the iTunes "jukebox" in Vlorblog and uploaded some pictures made with "Photo Booth". The trouble with this is that I'm more than a little self-conscious after decades of calculator-bashing (unrepented of as of now, so don't get me wrong) about doing a "learning about my computer" blog when I'd be unlikely to follow a link on that theme myself. Wheras by contrast, math is the world's greatest subject matter. I've remarked many times on what a tremendous comfort this has been to me as a lecturer... no matter how badly I might be blowing it at any particular time, whatever it is I'm trying and failing to get at is just amazingly worthwhile, so I have the strength to go on.

Playing in the blathosphere was a natural for me. The Web was the "killer ap" to me since I saw it; I could always pretty much take-or-leave anything to do with computers until hypertext grabbed me all at once at first sight. And just as hard as TV had in my childhood.

So in the early days of the web, I just put up a bunch of math links. But by now there's way too much going on and I needed a smaller beat: blogs. Bingo. A-and... what was I saying about culture? An online "community" with some close spiritual kin: students and teachers of math. So wow.

But, well, you know me with the whole "you can't overdo getting too much of too many good things" bit. If the concept of "internet addict" has any validity at all, then I suppose I am one, and expect that it's even pretty obvious (were it not for the Observer Tautology: nothing is obvious [until it is]). So there that is. But... too late to stop now! Anyhow, I haven't suffered any horrible consequences yet... and what kind of addiction do you call that?

So. What's my subject matter, so I can forgive myself when I'm missing my marks? On the other hand, wha. People do personal blogs all the time: "stuff that interests me" is a perfectly reasonable subject for a blog; at some level the only one.

Ah, but how personal?