(Roughly) Daily

“Eternity is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child.”*…


Marion Tinsley—math professor, minister, and the best checkers player in the world—sat across a game board from a computer, dying.

Tinsley had been the world’s best for 40 years, a time during which he’d lost a handful of games to humans, but never a match. It’s possible no single person had ever dominated a competitive pursuit the way Tinsley dominated checkers. But this was a different sort of competition, the Man-Machine World Championship.

His opponent was Chinook, a checkers-playing program programmed by Jonathan Schaeffer, a round, frizzy-haired professor from the University of Alberta, who operated the machine. Through obsessive work, Chinook had become very good. It hadn’t lost a game in its last 125—and since they’d come close to defeating Tinsley in 1992, Schaeffer’s team had spent thousands of hours perfecting his machine.

The night before the match, Tinsley dreamt that God spoke to him and said, “I like Jonathan, too,” which had led him to believe that he might have lost exclusive divine backing.

So, they sat in the now-defunct Computer Museum in Boston. The room was large, but the crowd numbered in the teens. The two men were slated to play 30 matches over the next two weeks. The year was 1994, before Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue or Lee Sedol and AlphaGo

The story of a duel between two men, one who dies, and the nature of the quest to build artificial intelligence: “How Checkers Was Solved.”

* Heraclitus


As we triangulate a triple jump, we might send precisely-programmed birthday greetings to Joseph F. Engelberger; he was born on this date in 1925.  An engineer and entrepreneur who is widely considered “the father of robotics,” he worked from a patented technology created by George Devol to create the first industrial robot; then, with a partner, created Unimation, the first industrial robotics company.  The Robotics Industries Association presents the Joseph F. Engelberger Awards annually to “persons who have contributed outstandingly to the furtherance of the science and practice of robotics.”




“I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about”*…


Still, we try…

Americans love the genre of cuisine generally known as “Mexican food”. The cuisine of our southern neighbor has been ingrained in our culture since the early 20th century. In many respects, it has evolved beyond its origins to become something uniquely American (think Tex-Mex and giant breakfast burritos). 

You can find it anywhere, from just across the border to the farthest corners of our northern states. This presents a great opportunity to explore which parts of the country offer the most for Mexican food aficionados. Which city has the most Mexican restaurants? Do some regions of the United States exhibit any preferences for tacos versus burritos?…

Follow the data at: “Tacos vs Burritos Index: The Great Divide in Mexican-American Cuisine.”

* “I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.”  – Anthony Bourdain


As we’re careful not to double dip, we might recall that it was on this date in 2008 that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation making California the first state to ban trans fats in restaurants and retail food establishments. The ban went into into effect on January 1, 2010.  Other states followed suit, and in 2015, the FDA moved to ban trans fats across the nation.  Trans fats have been shown to consistently be associated with increased risk of coronary artery disease, a leading cause of death in Western nations.


Oh, and Happy Hot Fudge Sundae Day!



Written by LW

July 25, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Childhood is a very, very tricky business”*…


Picture from Presto and Zesto in Limboland, ©2017 by the Maurice Sendak Foundation.

Lynn Caponera, president of the Maurice Sendak Foundation, was going through the late artist’s files last year “to see what could be discarded,” she said. “I was asking myself, do we really need all these?” when she found a typewritten manuscript titled Presto and Zesto in Limboland, co-authored by Sendak and his frequent collaborator, Arthur Yorinks. Caponera, who managed Sendak’s household for decades, didn’t remember the two friends working on a text with that title, so she scanned the manuscript and e-mailed it to Michael di Capua, Sendak’s longtime editor and publisher.

“I read it in disbelief,” said di Capua. “What a miracle to find this buried treasure in the archives. To think something as good as this has been lying around there gathering dust.”

Not only is the manuscript complete, so, too, are the illustrations. Sendak created them in 1990 to accompany a London Symphony Orchestra performance of Leoš Janáček’s Rikadla, a 1927 composition that set a series of nonsense Czech nursery rhymes to music.

Voila! So it is that Sendak, considered by many to be the most influential picture book creator of the 20th century, will have another publication in the 21st, five years after his death…

Happy endings at: “New Maurice Sendak Picture Book Discovered.”

* Maurice Sendak


As we go Where the Wild Things Are, we might send powerfully-drawn birthday greetings to Colleen Doran; she was born on this date in 1964.  A write, artist, illustrator, and cartoonist, she has illustrated hundreds of comics, graphic novels, books and magazines. She has illustrated the works of Neil Gaiman (her drawings and adaptation of his “Troll Bridge” was a New York Times bestseller), Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Joe R. Lansdale, Anne Rice, J. Michael Straczynski, Peter David, and Tori Amos; her credits include: The Sandman, Wonder WomanLegion of SuperheroesTeen TitansThe Vampire Diaries comics, Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and her space opera series, A Distant Soil… for which she has received Eisner, Harvey, and International Horror Guild Awards.



“I like my new telephone, my computer works just fine, my calculator is perfect, but Lord, I miss my mind!*…


Before electronic calculators became affordable in the 1970s, logarithm tables and slide rules were the most common calculation tools used by scientists, engineers, financiers, and navigators.  But in the early 1940s there emerged a purely mechanical, pocket-sized calculator, the Curta; the “pepper mill,” as it was known, was short-lived – only 30 years or so – but it remains a mechanical marvel.

More at “Curta: a mechanical pocket calculator.”

* anonymous


As we add it up, we might send intricately-interconnected birthday greetings to Mark D. Weiser; he was born on this date in 1952.  After earning an MA and a PhD in computing at the University of Michigan, Mark worked for a variety of computer-related startups.  But in 1987 he joined Xerox PARC, and began the work for which he is best remembered: he widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing, a term he coined in 1988 to describe the field he pioneered.

Mark was also the drummer of Severe Tire Damage, a garage (pun intended) rock band, the first band to perform on the internet: on June 24, 1993, the band was playing a gig at PARC while elsewhere in the building, scientists were discussing new technology (the MBone) for broadcasting on the Internet using multicasting.  As proof of their technology, the band was broadcast and could be seen live in Australia (by a scientist there alerted by the Palo Alto crew) and elsewhere.

Then. on Friday, November 18, 1994, the Rolling Stones decided to broadcast one of their concert tours on the Internet. Before their broadcast, Severe Tire Damage returned to the Internet, this time becoming the “opening act” for the Stones– so instead of an obscure Australian researcher, the entire world press was watching, and Severe Tire Damage was elevated from obscurity to Warholian fame.  Newsweek described STD as “a lesser known rock band.”  The Rolling Stones told The New York Times: “the surprise opening act by Severe Tire Damage was a good reminder of the democratic nature of the Internet.”



Written by LW

July 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered”*…


Let us say we were interested in describing all phenomena in our universe. What type of mathematics would we need? How many axioms would be needed for mathematical structure to describe all the phenomena? Of course, it is hard to predict, but it is even harder not to speculate. One possible conclusion would be that if we look at the universe in totality and not bracket any subset of phenomena, the mathematics we would need would have no axioms at all. That is, the universe in totality is devoid of structure and needs no axioms to describe it. Total lawlessness! The mathematics are just plain sets without structure. This would finally eliminate all metaphysics when dealing with the laws of nature and mathematical structure. It is only the way we look at the universe that gives us the illusion of structure…

Science predicts only the predictable, ignoring most of our universe.  What if neither Platonism nor the multiverse are the accurate approaches to understanding the reality we inhabit?  “Chaos Makes the Multiverse Unnecessary.”

[image above: source]

* José SaramagoThe Double


As we impose order, we might spare a thought for Philipp Frank; he died on this date in 1966. A physicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science, he was Einstein’s successor as professor of theoretical physics at the German University of Prague– a job he got on Einstein’s recommendation– until 1938, when he fled the rise of Nazism and relocated to Harvard.  Frank’s theoretical work covered variational calculus, Hamiltonian geometrical optics, Schrödinger wave mechanics, and relativity; his philosophical work strove to reconcile science and philosophy and “bring about the closest rapprochement between” them.



Written by LW

July 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life”*…


Portrait of Edmund Burke– who figures formatively in this tale– by the studio of Joshua Reynolds

While the 18th century is commonly perceived as the quintessential age of rationalist modernity, it was also the cradle of a second and strikingly different movement. In fact, at the very moment when rationalist thought seemed to have reached its peak, a comprehensive revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views erupted in European intellectual life. From the second half of the 18th century to the age of the Cold War and today, the confrontation between these two modernities has formed one of the most prominent and enduring features of our world.

The Enlightenment wished to liberate the individual from the constraints of history, from the yoke of traditional unproven beliefs. This was the motivation of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Kant’s Reply to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?, and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: three extraordinary pamphlets that proclaimed the liberation of man. It was against the liberation of the individual by reason that this new “Anti-Enlightenment” movement launched its attack, and its campaign was infinitely more sophisticated and subtle than that of the classical, undisguisedly authoritarian enemies of the Enlightenment. This anti-Enlightenment movement constituted not a counterrevolution but a different revolution. It revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights…

The anti-democratic political tradition that opposed Enlightenment thinking advanced the catastrophic campaigns of Nazi Germany and haunts us still: “The Origins of Anti-Intellectualism.”

* Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge‘”*…   – Isaac Asimov


As we opine on opinion, we might send understanding birthday greetings to Herbert Marshall McLuhan; he was born on this date in 1911.  A professor, philosopher, and public intellectual, he was a foundational thinker in media theory, coining the expression “the medium is the message” and the term “global village,” and predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.

McLuhan was a– arguably, the– central figure at the center of the discussion of media in the 1960s and 70s; his views were controversial and his influence began to wane in the 1980s.  But with the advent of the web, there has been a resurgence of interest in his thinking.

“Only puny secrets need protection. Big secrets are protected by public incredulity…”

– Marshall Mcluhan



Written by LW

July 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty”*…


Maryam Mirzakhani did not enjoy mathematics to begin with. She dreamed of being an author or politician, but as a top student at her all-girls school in Tehran she was still disappointed when her first-year maths exam went poorly. Her teacher believed her – wrongly – to have no particular affinity with the subject.

Soon that would all change. “My first memory of mathematics is probably the time [my brother] told me about the problem of adding numbers from 1 to 100,” she recalled later. This was the story of Carl Gauss, the 18th-century genius whose schoolteacher set him this problem as a timewasting exercise – only for his precocious pupil to calculate the answer in a matter of seconds.

The obvious solution is simple but slow: 1+2+3+4. Gauss’s solution is quicker to execute, and far more cunning. It goes like this: divide the numbers into two groups: from 1 to 50, and from 51 to 100. Then, add them together in pairs, starting with the lowest (1) and the highest (100), and working inwards (2+99, 3+98, and so on). There are 50 pairs; the sum of each pair is 101; the answer is 5050. “That was the first time I enjoyed a beautiful solution,” Mirzakhani told the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2008.

Since then, her appreciation for beautiful solutions has taken her a long way from Farzanegan middle school. At 17 she won her first gold medal at the International Mathematics Olympiad. At 27 she earned a doctorate from Harvard University. The Blumenthal Award and Satter Prize followed, and in 2014 she became the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal, the highest honour a mathematician can obtain.

Before this particular brand of wonder became perceptible to Mirzakhani, she experienced feelings many of us can relate to: to the indifferent, her subject can seem “cold”, even “pointless”. Yet those who persist will be rewarded with glimpses of conceptual glory, as if gifted upon them by a capricious god: “The beauty of mathematics,” she warned, “only shows itself to more patient followers.”

This concept of “beauty” found in maths has been referred to over centuries by many others; though, like beauty itself, it is notoriously difficult to define…

For an experienced mathematician, the greatest equations are beautiful as well as useful. Can the rest of us see what they see?  “What makes maths beautiful?

[From The New Humanist, via the ever-illuminating 3 Quarks Daily]

Maryam Mirzakhani died last Friday, a victim of breast cancer; she was 40.  As Peter Sarnak (a mathematician at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study) said, her passing is “a big loss and shock to the mathematical community worldwide.”  See also here.

* Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy


As we accede to awe, we might spare a thought for Andrey (Andrei) Andreyevich Markov; he died on this date in 1922.  A Russian mathematician, he helped to develop the theory of stochastic processes, especially those now called Markov chains: sequences of random variables in which the future variable is determined by the present variable but is independent of the way in which the present state arose from its predecessors.  (For example, the probability of winning at the game of Monopoly can be determined using Markov chains.)  His work on the study of the probability of mutually-dependent events has been developed and widely applied to the biological and social sciences.



Written by LW

July 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

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