Friday, March 23, 2007

Our Days Are Numbered

I have a vague recollection from years ago.

Actually, many of my childhood memories are fuzzy. Especially the ones that involve me screaming and running away from home.

My therapists and I are working on it.

But there’s one in particular that returned to me quite vividly today. It was a story about some mathematician who had been locked away working on a proof for YEARS. And finally, after all that time, he saw the solution.

At the exact moment that he put pencil to paper, completing the mathematical proof of the existence of God, a divine voice boomed from the sky saying something like, “It’s about time … Tag—you’re it!”

Something about that story disturbed me. Maybe it was that God would be found through math and not philosophy or art. Or perhaps it was the idea that some people were such nerds that that they worked on math proofs for years.

Either way, I thought it was just fantasy—until this week.

According to this story on, a team of 18 researchers have completed four years of effort on a 120-year-old mathematical puzzle. All that work in order to—get this—map a theoretical object with 248 dimensions.

I don’t even know what that means.

And it turns out I’m not alone. As project leader and math professor Jeffrey Adams remarked, “To say what precisely it is is something even many mathematicians can't understand.” The solution to this puzzle apparently is so complicated that it involves more than 50 times as much data as the Human Genome Project—and, if written out, it would cover every inch of Manhattan.

Even the people who devoted their lives to this math problem admit that their calculation has no practical applications. Sure, some extremely mathematically inclined theoretical physicists and other such geeks are getting off on this … but the real world remains unchanged.

Unless we all wake up tomorrow to an odd booming voice saying “you’re it.”

Monday, March 19, 2007

Mission Alphabetica

Like many of you, I love music. I really, really love music.

Over the years, I have gathered much of my favorite genres of music: classic rock and hard rock/metal, often with a progressive twist. Add to that my 80s pop obsession and smattering of other things … and I find that my iPods and 1000+ CD rack are quite full. And I feel like looking through it all today.

So let’s play a game.

For each letter of the alphabet, I will give you the artist with the most CDs in my collection—which will almost always be a classic rock or hard rock/metal artist.

Then I list the artist that I’d choose from that letter if I could only keep the music of one artist per letter. (If the most frequent artist already is my favorite, I choose my next favorite from that letter.)

Finally, I’ll give you one of the artists I have from that letter that stands out as the greatest contrast from the first one. Maybe it’ll be cheesy 80s pop, perhaps something entirely different.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves two things:

(1) Tell me the letters for which you’d choose my unusual, contrasting pick instead of my most common or my favorite one.

(2) Tell me which letter you’d choose if you could only have the artists of ONE LETTER on your iPod. For example, I’d probably choose G—I’d enjoy the variety of Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Godsmack, Gordian Knot, Great White, GTR, the Guess Who, and Guns N’ Roses, among others.

Here goes! (Reminder: The first artist listed is the “most represented,” the second is my favorite if the first isn’t, and the third is my “quirky” CD pick.)

A: AC/DC; Aerosmith; Afro Celt Sound System

B: The Beatles; Black Sabbath; Bell Biv Devoe

C: Phil Collins; Collective Soul; Chemical Brothers

D: The Doors; Dream Theater; Terence Trent D’Arby

E: Emerson, Lake & Palmer; ELO; Everlast

F: Finger Eleven; Fates Warning; Frankie Goes to Hollywood

G: Genesis; Peter Gabriel; Laurent Garnier

H: Steve Hackett; Heart; Harvey Danger

I: Iron Maiden; INXS; Information Society

J: Judas Priest; Journey; Stanley Jordan

K: KISS; King Crimson; Kruder & Dorfmeister

L: Led Zeppelin; John Lennon; Little River Band

M: Dave Matthews Band; Metallica; Wynton Marsalis

N: Nine Inch Nails; Night Ranger; N.W.A.

O: Ozzy Osbourne; The Outfield; Outkast

P: Prince; The Police; Michael Penn

Q: Queensryche; Queens of the Stone Age; Queen

R: Rush; Ratt; Rusted Root

S: Sting; Stone Temple Pilots; Seafood

T: Tesla; Tool; Andy Taylor

U: U2; Uriah Heep; US3

V: Van Halen; Velvet Revolver; Vangelis

W: Whitesnake; The Who; Stevie Wonder

X: --

Y: Yes; Y&T; Young MC

Z: ZZ Top; Rob Zombie; Zebra

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Border Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Swiss

Just the other day I was thinking about threats to international peace and security. (It’s a pastime; I'll get over it.)

I pondered the chances of America going to war with Iran. Or the odds of North Korea invading South Korea. Perhaps the world would use force in Sudan to try to end the suffering in Darfur.

But my focus was clearly on the wrong threat. Because while we were distracted by Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on, we missed the actual danger.

While nobody was watching last week, Switzerland accidentally invaded Liechtenstein.

I’m serious.

The Swiss would have us believe that a regular training exercise went awry. That nearly two hundred soldiers lost their way in the darkness and didn’t notice the border. That they didn’t mean to enter tiny Liechtenstein—a country of 34,000 people but no army—carrying assault rifles.

Let’s look at this with a dose of Amulet wisdom.

Switzerland has been the laughingstock of Europe, even the world, for centuries. Neighbors see the country as a soft land of watch-making chocolatiers, weaklings who can’t rouse themselves to get involved in any of the cataclysmic wars surrounding them.

(Well, except to keep the belligerents’ money safe. They’re good at that.)

Perhaps they’ve heard enough “Swiss miss” jokes. I can imagine they got sick of getting asked why their trademark cheese has so many holes. Or maybe one too many tourists walked through the streets of Geneva yelling “Ricola!”

Whatever the reason, the Swiss are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it anymore.

It’s a good thing all of Switzerland’s other neighbors are all so much more populous than Liechtenstein, with strong militaries and a tradition of successful defense. Nobody needs to worry about having to turn on their heels in a panic, to fall over themselves trying to surrender, and to be overrun by the small Swiss militia.

None of these countries need to fear the Swiss army.

Except you, France.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Send in the Clowns

In recent days, I’ve been assaulted by clowns.

Thanks for your concern—I can feel it—but there’s no need to worry. Jesters did not actually threaten me with physical harm; the assault was solely through the media.

First, I became aware that last month in Colombia, a man shot and killed two clowns at a traveling circus.

Many people probably understand this assailant’s urge.

Coulrophobia—the fear of clowns—is actually quite common. Whether it’s their makeup, freaky hair, or the big red noses, something about clowns scares the crap out of a wide cross-section of the general public.

Shooting them seems a bit extreme … but who knows what circus of horrors was in the gunman’s head from childhood trauma at the hand of a creepy clown?

Right after seeing this news, another clown reference popped up. One of my favorite movies, Office Space, came on. As always, I was hooked.

Of the films many great exchanges, one of the best is this dialogue between software weenies Michael Bolton and Samir Nagheenanajar:

Michael: Yeah, well at least your name isn’t Michael Bolton.

Samir: You know, there's nothing wrong with that name.

Michael: There
was nothing wrong with it ... until I was about 12 years old and that no-talent ass clown became famous and started winning Grammies.

Samir: Well, why don't you just go by Mike instead of Michael?

Michael: No way! Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.

This virtual clown assault prompted me to tell a friend the best clown joke I’ve yet heard:

What did one cannibal say to the other cannibal as they ate a clown?

“Does this taste funny to you?