Book Report: Eleanor Rigby

I have so many of these book reports written up. I should post them more often. I don't post them because lately I'm working long hours. (Which sounds impressive until you find out the reason I'm working long hours is incompetence and ignorance, not dedication. It turns out that learning Javascript, learning a browser compatibility API, and learning a bunch of other things... makes for slow progress on writing useful Javascript code.) So I come home, I fall asleep. Which is silly. Pushing the "publish" button on an already-written book report is easy. So anyhow: Eleanor Rigby, another little novel by Douglas Coupland.

This book brought me up short in a couple of places.

The protagonist's name is Liz Dunn. She points out that there is a pattern to the lives of most of the world's Liz Dunns. I thought, Didn't I go to high school with a Liz Dunn? Then I wondered Did I really go to high school with a Liz Dunn, or did I just convince myself of that, fooled by this book? So I pulled out my high school yearbook, and I really did go to high school with a Liz Dunn.

Coupland generally has a good ear for language, so I wondered what went on here:

How many people with MS does it take to put in a light bulb?

Answer: Five million - one person to do it, and four million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine to write depressing on-line web logs.

That "on-line web logs" sounds so wrong. Who says this instead of "blogs"? The person in the novel who says this... is this phrasing supposed to suggest that this person doesn't know much about the internet?

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Book Report: Mathematical Cranks

My lip-bump had a name: pyogenic granuloma. You can Google that if you enjoy gross photos. Speaking of annoyances, what about those mathematical cranks, eh?

Back in 2006, I reported that R.S.J. Reddy sent me a copy of his book in which he failed to prove that π is approximately equal to 3.146446. Alert reader Nathan Tenny suggested that I read Underwood Dudley's book Mathematical Cranks, It took me a while to get ahold of the book. (I kept hoping to check it out from the U.C. Berkeley library system. Lately, the Math library has been closed on weekends. Which might show something about the intersection between the set of Mathematicians and the set of people with Real Jobs, but let's not dwell on that.) I finally did read it, though.

It was a fun read. I guess I already learned a fair amount about crackpots back when I lurked on Usenet, back when people used to talk on Usenet. (Usenet used to be more about discussion than about warez. I think. At least the groups I hung out on were full of discussion.) So I knew the general advice:

  • When a crank tells you his wrong theory, you might tell him he's wrong; you might keep quiet.
  • When you point out a flaw in the crank's argument, don't be surprised if they "disprove" your statement with an argument along the lines of "layler layler layler I'm not listening!"
  • Don't sic the crank on someone else; that's mean.

This book has more. It has anecdotes. It has correspondence between cranks and mathematicians who have received crankmail. It follows the development of some cranks over the years. It has stories. It has more trends to watch out for.

  • If you point out the first problem in a many-problemed "proof", the crank will figure out a way to replace that first problem with a new problem--and then claim you agree with them.
  • If you say "This 'proof' just doesn't hold together," the crank will say, "No-one can point out a specific problem with my proof."

I didn't follow all of this book. Some of the math was over my head. But most of it was pretty accessible. And you don't need to know math for the most part: my crank was pretty typical: "prove" something by declaring it true and waving your hands.

Reading through this book, I think I got away easy. I've received mail from one mathematical crank. If I worked at a university math department, more cranks would target me. Maybe that was this book's most encouraging message: it could have been worse. I could have received mail from someone who was enraged at the very notion of... of... of a Menger sponge. Or they could offer a "proof" of something in number theory. I never know how to disprove anything in number theory.

Every university should have a copy of this book in their library, for the sake of whatever junior professor gets the task of responding to crank mail and needs to look up that number of the form 6p+43 which is not a square number, this disproving some common crank theory. (I just made that up, but you get the idea.) And that library should be open on weekends. Please?

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Book Report: The Breeze from the East

Mostly, I am not reading books. While I work on the Hogwarts write-up, I am not reading books. Mostly. I've posted some book reports in the past few weeks--but I'd read those books beforehand, written the book reports halfway.

I've been reading comic books and magazines. Quick reads, they don't distract me for long. I guess if it takes me much longer to finish the Hogwarts write-up, I can post some book reports about comic books.

But. But today I read a book. Today I went to the post office. I had recieved a slip of paper, a slip of paper saying that a registered letter was waiting for me. This was worrisome. Who sends registered mail? I have sent registered mail twice in the past, each time to a dishonest landlord. Registered mail means that you're edging towards a lawsuit, doesn't it? Who would send me registered mail? Who had a grievance towards me?

Anyhow, it was a relief when the registered mail turned out to be a book from R. S. J. Reddy, that crank who mailed me a book full of fake proofs that Pi is 3.1464. He might have a grievance against me after the mean things I said about his Pi book. Yet today he had not sent me a lawsuit. Instead he had sent me a book of his poetry. I was so relieved that it wasn't a lawsuit that I read it on my bus ride.

This book was titled "The Breeze from the East", and it is Book 1 of a translation of some presumably even longer poem called "Sarvam Jagannadham". Reddivari Sarva Jagannadha Reddy wrote the original; and A.L.N. Murthy took the time to translate this part of it.

It's a sort of devotional poem, saying that the world is a wonderful place and that we should live wisely and well. It's pretty vague about how one should do this. This allows the reader to project their own beliefs onto the poem and convince themselves that they agree with it, and that it thus must be wise.

I am no doubt being harsh in this summary of the poem. After reading several of Reddy's false proofs that the value of Pi is 3.1464, I look for snake oil in everything associated with him. If anyone else had written this poem, I would think it harmless.

I'll point out the third poem, which mentions Ramanujan.

Einstein, who worked in a patent office, became a great scientist
Ramanujan, who worked in a port office, became a great mathematician
Madame Curie, who engaged little children in tuition, became a gem of womanhood
Raman won the Nobel prize with a small instrument

I guess that these are Reddy's heroes. Ramanujan is one of his heroes. Did Reddy convince himself that he must discover a new value of Pi so that he, too, could be a great mathematician?

Later on, in poem 89:

My intellect solved more skillfully than my imagination

Except for that value of Pi. He pulled that one out of his... imagination.

That was a cheap shot, wasn't it? I guess it's tough to overcome a first impression. My first impression of Mr. Reddy is someone who tells false proofs. Should I hold that against his poetry?

Finally, from poem 117:

A critic knows the imaginative power of the poets.

Ah, "a critic". I guess that's me. To see how I waste the imaginative power of the poets, I guess you can look in the comments of this recent blog post by lessachu. I wrote a couple of haiku there, the one that starts "My development" (arguably funny to people who study software development methodologies) and the one that starts "Dashdash dashdashdash" (arguably funny to people who like Morse code).

OK, not many people will find those poems funny, but at least I'm not propogating false math proofs.

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Book Report: The untold story of the THE TRUE VALUE OF PI

Today I tagged along on the Google Intern Scavenger Hunt. But I am sworn to secrecy about on that topic. So I will not write about that. It wouldn't work to say, "Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, including an undisclosed starting location" Thus, instead, this book report.

A few months ago, I started receiving envelopes of mail from India. The first few weren't signed, but the next few were. They were from Reddivari Sarva Jagannadha Reddy, sometimes known as R. S. J. Reddy. They were about geometry and Pi. They suggested that he'd found a proof that Pi is 3.1464466. I don't know why he sent me mail. Maybe he saw the Book report on Beckman's History of Pi? Maybe he saw my Python program for computing the value of Pi (slowly) by the Monte Carlo method? Neither of these things suggests that I am a Pi expert. (Indeed, I am not). I filed away the the mail with vague plans to look more closely "later."

Then the book arrived. The book by that same Reddivari Sarva Jagannadha Reddy, The untold story of THE TRUE VALUE OF π. OK, I'm not a mathematician. But maybe it was up to me to look at this book. And if this book had some merit, maybe I could bring it to someone's attention. Like, I could show it to a real mathematician and then they might say, "Hey, he's right, the accepted value of Pi has been off a little all these years."

So I went to a cafe, and ordered a big cup of coffee to excite whatever math-related neurons still survive in my brain. And I read. Now I was being very careful as I read because I'm not a mathematician and a lot of those fallacious-proof puzzles trip me up, and I didn't want to fall for a fallacious proof, but I didn't want to ignore a true proof. OK, so, coffee at the Blue Danube cafe on Clement Street, a nice spot to sit and read and draw circles and squares on a piece of paper.

As it turns out, I didn't need the coffee. The proof had a flaw. I was all set for something subtle. Mr. Reddy has spent years of his life developing this theory, so I figured if there was something wrong with it, it would have to be something that one could overlook for a few years. But it wasn't. Here is Reddy's proof:

[Draw a circle inscribed in a square; draw a sqare inscribed in the circle. These squares have different length sides. That difference is 2/6.8284275.] "It is clear from the diagram and deductions based on this the [difference between π and 3] one is forced to accept is 1/6.8284275."

My counterproof: It is not clear from the diagram. He describes the diagram. I drew the diagram. It is easy to see that he has found something close to π. But it is not clear that it is π.

The book contains several more "proofs." In each case, he "proves" that π is 3.1464466... if you accept that his original diagram correctly shows π. Or if you accept a new formula for the tangent function--based on his value for π. Of course, I can "prove" that π is equal to three if I'm allowed to use a tangent function which is based on the premise that π is three. I skimmed about ten of these proofs.

In his article "The Transcendental Number Pi," (collected in New Mathematical Diversions) Martin Gardner wrote

Early attempts to find an exact value for pi were closely linked with attempts to solve the classic problem of squaring the circle. ... Conversely, if the circle could be squared, a means would exist for constructing a line segment exactly equal to pi. However, there are ironclad proofs that pi is transcendental and that no straight line of transcendental length can be constructed with compass and straightedge.

It's too bad Gardner didn't provide any references to those ironclad proofs. Though I can look at Reddy's proof and say "Hey, that doesn't prove it", I don't have a real counter-proof.

Maybe RSJ Reddy sent me these proofs, not because I am a π expert, but because I am a non-expert π enthusiast? Perhaps he's had some luck winning such over in the past?

Looking at the author information, I saw that he was a Zoology teacher. Looking at the inside front cover of the book, I saw that he had another book, a theory of evolution, of "organic bloom". If this theory had as little foundation as his π theory, then I felt sorry for his students.

Still, it was a nice day to sit in a cafe. Mr Reddy had tricked me into wasting some time, but not much time. The coffee and music were good. If the worst problem in your life is that you're worried about some far-away Zoology students getting a bad education, your life is pretty easy.

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