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