The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Posts Tagged ‘culture

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A long (long!) article on the Greek financial crisis, by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair:
Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds.

It tells the story of Greece’s tragic descent into utter financial ruin. The entire country seems to have conveniently chosen a bunch of monks to blame for it all, while the faults lie elsewhere.

The story is well worth reading in the full, but to switch topic, these excerpts from the beginning and the end:

But beyond a $1.2 trillion debt (roughly a quarter-million dollars for each working adult), there is a more frightening deficit. After systematically looting their own treasury, in a breathtaking binge of tax evasion, bribery, and creative accounting spurred on by Goldman Sachs, Greeks are sure of one thing: they can’t trust their fellow Greeks.


But there’s a second, more interesting question: Even if it is technically possible for these people to repay their debts, live within their means, and return to good standing inside the European Union, do they have the inner resources to do it? Or have they so lost their ability to feel connected to anything outside their small worlds that they would rather just shed themselves of the obligations? On the face of it, defaulting on their debts and walking away would seem a mad act: all Greek banks would instantly go bankrupt, the country would have no ability to pay for the many necessities it imports (oil, for instance), and the country would be punished for many years in the form of much higher interest rates, if and when it was allowed to borrow again. But the place does not behave as a collective; it lacks the monks’ instincts. It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?

If there is such a thing as civilizational spirit, Greece seems to have lost it (going by the article). A lot of Greeks are very bright, though, so let’s see.

In this regard, Greece seems a scary version of what India may have been, and may still become. Both are wounded civilizations (though Greece is probably closer to dead), and one can see, in India as in Greece, the spectacle of empty pride in an old great civilization by people who cannot legitimately claim much connection or even awareness — while simultaneously the country attempts to discard all that and absorb American culture, and is impatient the process isn’t happening faster.

Well, if an insight from a five-day glimpse is to be trusted. :-)


Written by S

Mon, 2010-09-20 at 07:55:22

Fermat’s last theorem

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Fermat’s last theorem has a long and exciting history. Which everyone knows, so I’ll not mention it here.1 What I suddenly find to be remarkable though, is the very first event. The fact that Fermat scribbled it in a margin of Diophantus’s Arithmetica. That Pierre de Fermat, in France in 1637, was reading an ancient book written by a Greek in the 3rd century. That he was reading it in such a manner that the book’s asking how to split a square into two squares should impel him to not only investigate the question of how to split a nth power into two nth powers, for all n, but to also do it until he believed he had a truly marvelous proof.

When was the last time you made margin notes in a book?

Off topic: The book only answers the question for 16(=4²). Wikipedia has pictures of the relevant page for a 1621 edition, and the 1670 edition that contains Fermat’s notes. (Fermat died in 1665.) I’m not sure I’ve deciphered the Latin correctly (the Greek is right out), but what it says is the following.
[BTW, in case you have been thinking so far and have the objection that 16 cannot be written as the sum of two squares, I should point that for Diophantus, “number” apparently meant “positive rational number”, there were no other kinds of numbers. Negative and irrational numbers were “useless”, “meaningless”, and “absurd”.]
Suppose one of the two squares that add up to 16 is Q=N². [“Q” because it is a square, “quadratum”.] The other square is 16-Q. If the other square is (2N-4)²=4Q+16-16N, [um, why should it be?] then we get 16-Q=4Q+16-16N so 5Q=16N, or N=16/5 and Q=N²=256/25 (which is misprinted as 256/52 in the 1670 edition), and the other square is 144/25, which add up to 400/25=16. So the (an) answer is that 16 = (16/5)² + (12/5)².
You might notice this is not really an answer; all that Diophantus has done is take 3²+4²=5² and multiplied it appropriately to make two “squares” add up to 16. We could do the same for any square, e.g. for 49=7², we could write (7×3)²+(7×4)²=(7×5)², then divide out by 5² to say (21/5)²+(28/5)²=49. For any x, we could take any a and b such that a²+b²=1 (e.g. 3/5 and 4/5) and write x²=(ax)²+(bx)².

1. I found today (2008-11-27) an anecdote. The setting is this: it was April 1994. Andrew Wiles had first announced his proof in June the previous year, and sent it off to a journal, but a hole had been found. It seemed at first it would take only a few hours, then weeks, to fix it, but months had dragged on without success. And on April 3 1994, Gian-Carlo Rota sent out an email announcing that Noam Elkies had found a counterexample to Fermat’s last theorem! So it seemed that the hole was unfixable after all. There was some disappointment all around before it was realised that the email was an April Fool’s joke, that had somehow got incorrectly dated :-) I found it on Wikibooks, but see Lance Fortnow’s blog post for the email.

Written by S

Fri, 2008-11-21 at 15:05:01

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Web phrase occurrences

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Quick post while I get back to work. Someone please help me here…

There are two things I mainly use Google for:

  1. Searching for pages related to a particular something. This is the most common, and intended, use of Google.
  2. Searching for all occurrences of a particular phrase, or more generally a pattern. This might be to compare numbers and compile statistics, or to find what context the phrase is most often used in, or find what are the most common phrases using that pattern.

For example, I just thought of the “My dad can beat up your dad” phrase, and searched Google for “my * can beat up your *”. (Click on link, and see results for yourselves.)

Someone should already have developed a tool/library for using Google (or any other search tool) for doing this, right? Why haven’t I found it yet? Maybe I should contact the “X is the new Y” people… Tell me if you’ve found such a tool.


X is the new Y:
Original(?) diagram,
Updates, Updates on updates,

Written by S

Sun, 2008-02-17 at 15:51:48

Hindi history

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I had a vague idea, but wasn’t aware of the extent:

Wikipedia has an article (version I read); it freely injects opinion into the page and is amusing to read.

Ramachandra Guha’s historical summary from The Hindu

Articles like this are alive and well, I see…

Written by S

Thu, 2007-12-06 at 20:17:37

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Why was the water yellow? What’s with the hat thing?

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We went to a temple today.

Written by S

Sun, 2007-11-18 at 21:11:46

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Net neutrality

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An issue important enough for Google to have a page about it.

Read that page.
Watch this 10-minute video:
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by S

Sat, 2007-11-17 at 05:14:40

Vulgar language

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[This should have been another “Film I saw” post, but I don’t think this deserves one.]

I saw the fifth Harry Potter movie on Sunday night. It was awful.

Also, I’m not sure I heard this, but I think at some point in the movie, Cho Chang said “Anyways”. Which reminds me…

I have (or had) a theory about Indians and a cultural linguistic inferiority complex. We see a fair bit of hypercorrection when it comes to English — and many (too many!) misinformed, well-intentioned people finding fault with perfectly cromulent words and often offering invalid replacements. In addition, there is a tendency, upon hearing a “foreigner” say or use a word differently, to change one’s own usage; it disturbs me how frequently I hear “skedule”. And I nearly cried when I heard “soccer” even on DD.

This brings us to “anyways”, a “word” that has successfully leapt from illiterate, rustic Americans (“dial. or illiterate” — OED) into India’s fashionable shopping malls. I literally cringe every time I hear it, but I promise that it has nothing to do with my considering the film awful.

[I used “vulgar” in the title; am wondering if I could have said villainous, or would that have been too much of a stretch?]

[Non-update: Need to find some place to put this article!]

Written by S

Tue, 2007-10-23 at 10:06:15

The Microsoft Sound

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The Microsoft Sound from Windows 95.
Actually evokes some sort of nostalgia :D

Made by composer Brian Eno, who describes it thus:

The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem – solve it.”

The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3¼ seconds long.”

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

There are many compilation videos on Youtube, such as this one.

Written by S

Sun, 2007-10-21 at 00:22:31

Che: the icon

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A BBC article, and an old nytimes article on the icon. The BBC pictures are nice.

Neither of them mentions Maddox or Che Wearing Che T-shirt T-shirt. :-)

Written by S

Sat, 2007-10-06 at 11:59:10

Postfix operators we learnt in kindergarten

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I don’t know about your school, but in our school we kids went through several years without ever realising what the multiplication table we were saying actually said. As a result, we were all familiar with at least one postfix operator — the postfix multiplication operator “zar” (pronounced “zawr”). As we recited our “tables”:

Two one zar two,
Two two zar four,
Two three zar six,

and so on (always ending with a singsong, triumphant, “two ten zar twenty”.)

“Zar” was routinely treated as an operator (“what is six seven zar?”), and it was quite an epiphany to me (in class seven I think) when I suddenly realised what had been going on; I suspect many of my classmates still haven’t caught on. (BTW, what is the technical name for this, where “ones are” → “one zar”? Closest I know is Allomorph.)

Also, our “into” (for multiplication) is used for division in the US (at least), so our “five into twenty is hundred”, but their “five into twenty goes four [times]”. And the “by” — “thirty by forty is 0.75”, but a thirty-by-forty site is 30 × 40.

More to ponder — which parts of India say “by” in fractions and which say “over”? (Is “3/4” “three by four” or “three over four”? Of course it’s “three-fourths”…) Which ones say “aitch” and which ones say “hetch”? We always learnt it with the aspirated “h”, and that’s the way it seems to be in Chennai too.

“Pronunciation /heɪtʃ/ (and hence spelling haitch) is […] standard in Hiberno-English. In Northern Ireland it is a shibboleth as Protestant schools teach aitch and Catholics haitch.”

Meanwhile, I’ve always wanted to slaughter the (incorrect) Hindi-inspired “give exam” speakers, but it looks like the battle is being lost (in CMI, it had spread to even proper Bangalore/Chennai types). Maybe I should also find and resurrect my old zedzee and emptyset-not-phi rants while I’m in the mood…

Written by S

Wed, 2007-10-03 at 09:24:15

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Indian music in the west: Ravi Shankar

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Indian Express article on India in the west, including the “disastrous” Woodstock.

The disastrous “non performance” was at Woodstock, the greatest pop jamboree ever. But, alas, it was too noisy for classical music. Worse, the flower children closest to the stage took their clothes off and proceeded to make love in the spirit of hippie freedom, even as Allah Rakha closed his eyes and covered them with his hands.
On this, the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, it is worth our while to remember the distinction between cultural “fusion” and cultural “confusion”. Ravi Shankar at Woodstock represented the latter.

From Wikipedia:

Ravi Shankar has been critical of some facets of the Western reception of Indian music. On a trip to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district after performing in Monterey, Shankar wrote, “I felt offended and shocked to see India being regarded so superficially and its great culture being exploited. Yoga, Tantra, mantra, kundalini, ganja, hashish, Kama Sutra? They all became part of a cocktail that everyone seemed to be lapping up!”

From an interview with Rolling Stone:

What did you think of “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”?
To tell you the truth, I had to keep my mouth shut. It was introduced to me by my nieces and nephews, who were just gaga over it. I couldn’t believe it, because to me, it sounded so terrible.

Did you like the Monterey Pop festival?
I was shocked to see people dressing so flamboyantly. They were all stoned. […] Then I saw Jimi Hendrix. I saw how wonderful he was at the guitar, and I was really admiring him, and then he started his antics. Making love to the guitar. And then, as if that was not enough, he burned the guitar. That was too much for me. In our culture we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God.

Do you miss the big audiences you had in the ’60s?
When George became my student, I got a new audience: the younger generation. And, of course, they came like a flood because the whole thing happened together with the hippie movement and this interest in Indian culture. Unfortunately, it got all mixed up with drugs and Kamasutra and hash and all that. I was like a rock star. The superficial people who just came because everyone else was going dropped out. Those who stayed are still there. They’re in middle age, and they don’t have beads or long hair, and they’re free from drugs. I never said one shouldn’t take drugs or drink alcohol, but associating drugs with our music and culture, that’s something I always fought. I was telling them to come without being high on drugs. I said, “Give me the chance to make you high through our music,” which it does, really. I think it’s good I made that stand, and that’s why I’m still here today.

Written by S

Mon, 2007-01-22 at 04:37:22