Sunday, June 25, 2000


I re-designed my weblog today to use cascading style sheets. How does it look?

Let me know if you have any problems with it.

The Pragmatist

Last weekend, I went to see a collection of photographs by Glen E. Friedman. He took a number of photographs of skateboarding, hardcore, and rap scenes, and the amazing thing (as mentioned several places in the exhibit), is that he started taking these pictures early -- before these scenes hit the mainstream radar. OK, interesting enough.

But one thing that interested me was the political message underneath the photographs. Friedman seems to feel that each group of people was comprised of idealists; indeed his latest book is entitled "The Idealist". Flipping through a copy of that book, I was treated to an idolization of the idealist over the pragmatist. There, as other places in the exhibit, Ronald Reagan was specifically mentioned as the enemy of the idealist.

Later that evening, I went hope and watched CNN's Cold War documentary on the '80s and "Star Wars" (SDI). One of the things that struck me was how passionately Reagan believed in a missle defense system, and how he risked various arms control agreements that he was interested in, just for the sake of preserving SDI. In fact, the agreements were only signed after the Soviets realized that SDI would never be built as conceived.

So maybe Reagan wasn't a pragmatist (is that what people call idealists they don't agree with?). And I doubt everybody Friedman photographed was really an idealist; in the preface to one of his books, someone noted that the idealism of the skateboarders sounds more like "adolescent dickishness" in retrospect.

But what of this dichotomy between idealism and pragmatism in general? Is it real or is it false? To me, idealism and pragmatism are two balancing forces that need to exist in harmony. If you're an unrelenting pacifist, you may see your entire town slaughtered because you refused to compromise. If you believe that your example will achieve the cause of pacifism, that's one thing. But if you're trying to prevent violence from occuring, well, you lost. Similarly, the pure pragmatist is willing to do anything to achieve...what goals?

In my view, we have a responsibility to be idealists when we choose our goals -- world peace, freedom, etc. But then we have to be pragmatists when trying to figure out how to realize them.

Sunday, June 18, 2000

I Can't Dance, But I Can Type

During my recent excursion at Mensa happy hour, the conversation turned to the subject of dance. Swing dancing, contra dancing -- it seemed like everyone sitting near me did some form of dancing. Not me. I am very...uncoordinated? Klutzy? Arhythmic? My last attempt to go out and dance was a very traumatic experience -- for both my dance partner and myself. I just couldn't seem to learn the steps.

So part of what I need to learn to do is accept that I can't dance; there are many other wonderful aspects to my personality. And hopefully the subject of dancing won't come up every time I hang out with Mensans.

And yet, and I need to accept myself as who I am, or do I need to improve myself? Or both? Always forward I say, so I have strapped on my in-line skates (RollerbladesTM, for those less trademark-averse) and vowed to do battle against my inherent tendency to fall down.

Skating is easy. It must be. I went to a free skating clinic recently and after minimal instruction, everybody was skating smoothly around the parking lot. Except me (OK, and somebody else, but we'll ignore her since she complicates my point). I sucked. I don't like sucking; I like being really good at things.

So here's my plan: stop sucking. Then transfer my newly found coordination skills to other things that I've hitherto avoided due to my klutziness. Skiing? Roller disco? The possibilities are endless.

Can I pull this off? I don't know. It's been a while since I tried to add a new skill like this. But I remember in 10th grade when I took typing class. I sucked. Partway through the first quarter of it, I was failing the class. So I bought a typing book (the typing teacher was useless), and practiced, practiced, practiced. I brought my grade up to a C for the quarter, a B for the next quarter, and I got an A on the final exam, for a semester grade of "B". Only non-A I got during my Senior High years. But boy was I proud of it. And I spend all day using the typing skills on the computer keyboard (except for the ones involving "correction tape").

So I can type. But I can't dance. Yet. Give me a year. Or two.

Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Mensa and Transportation

I got my "Offer of Membership" from Mensa today. On the enclosed envelope, do they really need to say "First-Class Postage Required Post Office will not deliver without proper postage." Hel-lo. I qualify for Mensa, remember? I think I could have figured that out on my own. It annoys me when the power company does this; it's just ridiculous that Mensa does.

The letter accompanying the offer encourages me to "contact your local group and begin participating in some of the activities in your area." Actually, I already have. Friday night, I went to Mensa Happy Hour at Zorba's. Following that, the Singles SIG went for dessert and Xando, and afterwards three of us went over to someone's apartment building to chat. At around 12:45, I announced that I had to leave to attempt to catch the last Metro train back home. As I was riding the escalator down into the Dupont Circle station, I heard the announcement that the last Red Line train for Glenmont was now on the platform. Ouch. Too late. I hailed a cab, and as I was riding, wondered how much he was going to charge me. After all, in DC, they have that silly zone system. I didn't know what they did for DC to Maryland trips. Oh, well, I figured, I'd pay whatever it was and next time be more careful, if it was ridiculous. But he checked the trip counter, looked on a chart, and the total came to $20 with a (generous) tip. Not bad.

The next evening I went to a birthday party of a Mensan I had met the previous evening. The party was in Northern Virginia, and I had a choice between driving and Metro. Plus for Metro: I wouldn't have to watch my alcohol intake as closely. Plus for Driving: I wouldn't have to try to catch the last train again. Plus for Metro: The invitation said I had to get a visitor permit, or my car would get towed. Plus for Driving: I'd have to catch a Metrobus. Advantage: Driving.

And when I got there, the advantage seemed to tip even more in favor of Driving, as the birthday girl informed me that since her apartment building was out of permits, they had canceled towing for the night. And, since I stayed until 2, I would have had to take an even more expensive cab ride home. But when I left the building, my car was not where I had parked it. The same thing had happened to a fellow party-goer. Oh, crap. As we walked back into the building, we heard the maintenance guy telling someone on the phone, "I canceled towing for the evening!" He turned out to be very nice; he gave us a ride to the impound lot, and signed to have the apartment building charged for the towing fee until the "misunderstanding" was cleared up. And I made my way home eventually, although not before getting lost and touring parts of DC and PG County I hadn't planned to see (ever).

So despite my problems getting home both nights, I had a good time. As with any group, some people annoyed me, but I found some interesting people to talk to. So I'm accepting the offer of membership. I just hope I don't forget to put a stamp on my reply.

Friday, June 09, 2000


Raspberry-flavored wine. It sounds like something Prince would sing about drinking right before he got his freak on.

The latest of one of many pieces at that have amused me is Philip Michaels' piece Red, Red Whine. I haven't seen the commercial; let me know if you have.

Thursday, June 08, 2000


I went out last night with friends to play NTN trivia. On the way home, I thought about coming back and writing about NTN, but I ended up in a traffic jam. (At 11 PM! What's up with that?) When I got home, I was too tired to write about it. Martin wasn't.

Sadly, Themestream is no more, so that link no longer works. -- 24 Mar 2005

Monday, June 05, 2000

Uncle Petros

On my plane ride back from Belgium, I read Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture. For those of you not mathematical, Goldbach's Conjecture is that ever even number greater than 2 can be written as the sum of two primes. So, for example, 28=23+5. 100=3+97.

Those of you who know me know that I am a number theorist, so it's hard for me to read this book as anything other than a story about number theory. But I'll try. The narrator's Uncle Petros devotes his life to trying to prove Goldbach's Conjecture. Goldbach's Conjecture is one of the oldest unsolved problems in number theory (since though it has been confirmed for every number tried, it has never been proven true of all numbers). Though it isn't a central question in mathematics, its proof would undoubtedly be a work requiring many interesting advances; in fact, many interesting advances have already resulted from proof attempts.

There I go, making it about the number theory. The point is, Goldbach's Conjecture is a hard problem. Anyone who solved it would likely be known throughout the ages. And that's part of what attracts Uncle Petros -- the chance for "immortality". But the flip side is that anyone who attacks the problem -- no matter how brilliant -- is unlikely to solve it. So Uncle Petros tries, and fails, and is perceived never to solve anything because he can't prove the one thing he is trying to prove. That, says the narrator's father, is Uncle Petro's problem -- his failure to set "attainable goals".

So in a very simple sense, the book is a cautionary tale...set your sights too high, and you're doomed to failure. I have actually seen this happen far too often in mathematics, and it's one reason I'm a little glad to be out of the academic world. "Oh, he only got a partial result." "Oh, his theorems are just generalizations of others' work." "Oh, he has a tenure-track position, but it's not at Princeton." Sometimes mathematicians act as if anything less than transcendant genius is to be derided.

But it's really not that. After all, if nobody ever tries to prove Goldbach's Conjecture, nobody ever will. Clearly Uncle Petros is unbalanced -- having one impossible goal and being tormented by failing to meet it. So maybe what is need is both unattainable goals and accepting an inability to meet them. Reach for the stars, but be happy with the moon.

D&D Update

In the latest installment, we go deep into the earth to rescue some lost miners.

Sunday, June 04, 2000

US 4, South Africa 0

Ben, George and I went to RFK yesterday to watch the US play South Africa in soccer. When George went to get the tickets, he asked for the cheapest 3 seats together you could get. Even though there were $18 tickets, they sold him $25 tickets...which turned out to be great seats. Best seats I've ever had to a soccer game. 10 rows from the pitch, on about the 45-yard-line (if you'll excuse the American football reference). So the extra $7 was definitely worth it.

I figured with the US playing South Africa, the American fans would be the loudest. That's not always the case; when we went to see the US play Jamaica a couple of years ago, the Jamaicans out-cheered the Americans even if they didn't number them. I figure that most Americans aren't interested in coming to a soccer game. But if you're a Jamaican or South African living within driving distance of DC, you're going to show up when your team comes to play. Since there aren't as many South Africans as Jamaicans, US fans did dominate, but there still were a fair number of South Africans. One woman came by waving her South African flag and hit Ben and me with it. I was indignant until a guy dressed in red, white and blue came by with a drum and hit me in the head with that. Yeah, I guess Americans can be even more obnoxious. There were some South Africans sitting behind us yelling all the time in Zulu or some South African language. They'd switch into English every once in a while for obscenities. Or maybe they were swearing in both languages.

The game itself was a lot of fun to watch. I love watching soccer games in person, and it was a nice day to do so. The constant action is hypnotic, and a contrast to most American sports. Most of the game was spent with the US on offense, though both teams had a number of chances to score. The US just had more, and took advantage of them. Cobi Jones was amazing, scoring 2 goals and assisting on the other 2. So we came out of it a winner, and hopefully we'll win the (essentially meaningless) US Cup. I'm really excited about the World Cup qualifying, though. I read that the US may play Cuba at RFK in September; that's definitely a match I want to be there for.

Look here for a summary of the game.

Thursday, June 01, 2000

Kevin Smith Chat

"The UPN pitch meeting was classic. We didn't have to pitch. They said, 'Look, we don't care what the show's about. Just bring it here. We need programs.'

We could've 'xeroxed' our asses for a half hour and they would've let it run for at least two seasons. ABC wouldn't let us 'xerox' our asses, so I regret going with that particular network."

If only the 'Clerks' TV show last night had been as funny as this Kevin Smith interview on