Monthly Archives: December 2014

Stowe on Hawthorne


It’s been a while since I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin,  but I think my assessment of Harriet Beecher Stowe was of a do-good writer, with no especially literary side to her.  But today I was browsing in David McCullough’s book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (2011).  I read that while Stowe was in Paris, she saw some of Rembrandt’s paintings.  McCullough quotes from Volume II of her book Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (1854), where she finds a similarity between his art and the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

He [Rembrandt] chooses simple and every-day objects, and so arranges light and shadow as to give them a sombre richness and a mysterious gloom.  The House of [the] Seven Gables [1851] is a succession of Rembrandt pictures done in words instead of oils.  Now, this pleases us, because our life really is a haunted one;  the simplest thing in it is a mystery; the invisible world always lies around us like a shadow …


This view of Hawthorne is so in harmony with mine, that I just have to grant Ms. Stowe a large measure of literary acumen….  (See my Seven Gables review.)


Note:  The Rembrandt painting above, in the Louvre, is traditionally titled Philosopher in Meditation. 

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Book-bigot blogger bumps into Breaking Bad


It was maybe a year ago that my sister started noodging me to watch the TV series Breaking Bad.  (AMC, 2008-2013).  “It’s like great literature”, quothed she.  You will probably understand when I say that I, an inverterate reader and chronic TV hater, did not take her advice right away.  But I couldn’t get out of my mind that my sister, like myself, is a great reader …

Finally, I gave in.  I didn’t exactly binge-watch in the full fanatic sense of staying up all night, but took in an episode every couple of evenings.  I was soon sucked in, and after viewing all five seasons, concluded that Breaking Bad was beautifully crafted, and more meaningful and important than almost everything else I had encountered on television, that was made for this medium.

After allowing myself some time to come down from my Breaking Bad “high”, I heeded the posting of a Facebook friend whom I trust on such matters, and started watching the series The Wire  (HBO, 2002-2008).  The Wire is also excellent.  In its probing into the interworkings of various segments of our society — cops, criminals, the justice system, workers, politicians, journalists — it could legitimately lay claim to being television’s “Great American Novel”

The most recent series I’ve watched is Deadwood (also HBO, 2004-2006).  This is the story — based on fact — of an 1870’s mining town (or as the residents call it, a “camp”) that goes from lawlessness, to at least an attempt at order when it is annexed by Dakota Territory.  This is a “Western”, but in its rawness probably unlike any other Western you’ve ever seen.  Though not quite in the class of the first two series I watched, this show is certainly worth at least a look.

My sister also clued me in to a book that discusses these and other TV series, starting with Oz (the first HBO series, 1997-2003) and running through Breaking Bad.  This is Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever (2012).  I am looking forward to using this book to point me to more series to watch.  (Hating spoilers, however, I will wait till after being done with a particular show, to read about it.)  Here’s the Table of Contents from Sepinwall’s book:

Prologue Let’s be careful out there… The shows that paved the way

Chapter 1 What we were, don’t matter… Oz blazes a trail

Chapter 2 All due respect… The Sopranos changes everything

Chapter 3 All the pieces matter… The Wire as the Great American Novel for television

Chapter 4 A lie agreed upon… The profane poetry of Deadwood

Chapter 5 I’m a different kind of cop… The Shield takes anti-heroism to the limit

Chapter 6 Do you want to know a secret?… The perfect storm of Lost

Chapter 7 She saved the world. A lot… Buffy the Vampire Slayer gives teen angst some fangs

Chapter 8 Tell me where the bomb is!… 24 goes to war on terror, boredom

Chapter 9 So say we all… The thinking man’s sci-fi of Battlestar Galactica

Chapter 10 Clear eyes, full hearts… Friday Night Lights goes deep

Chapter 11 It’s a time machine… AMC gets into the game with Mad Men

Chapter 12 I am the one who knocks!… Breaking Bad gives the recession the villain it deserves

Epilogue Don’t stop believing… The lasting legacy of the revolution

Where are they now?

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Mathematics for the Thousand

dunham 0236957

I am not easy to please, when it comes to books about mathematics.  (I’m not talking about textbooks, but books that try to “popularize” math in one way or another.)  Couple years ago, I tried The Music of the Primes, by Marcus du Satoy.  One might call this “mathematics for the million” (with apologies to a book by that name, which actually might not deserve this designation).  It skates over subjects, dumbs them down.  Take for instance this reference to a famous theorem:

It’s likely that the twins were using a trick based on what’s called Fermat’s Little Theorem to test whether a number is prime.  The test is similar to the way in which autistic-savants can quickly identify that April 13, 1922, for instance, was a Thursday — a feat the twins performed regularly on TV chat shows.  Both tricks depend on doing something called clock or modular arithmetic.

It’s too bad that, instead of diverting the reader’s attention to autistic-savants, the author did not try to actually explain how Fermat’s Little Theorem works. It really is not that hard to follow, and rewarding to understand.  (Look it up in Wikipedia if you are curious.)

On the other extreme, there is what I would call “mathematics for just one or two”.  Case in point is another book I dipped into recently:  God Created the Integers.  This fat tome, edited by the redoubtable Stephen Hawking, is an anthology of excerpts from famous mathematical works over the centuries … from Euclid to Alan Turing.  Although Hawking writes an introduction to each excerpt, going through the actual treatises is often an arduous task.

A happy medium — why not call it “mathematics for the thousand” — is, I think, struck by William Dunham’s work (cover illustrated above): Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics.  Like Hawking’s work, it is a survey of mathematical ideas over the centuries.  But Dunham puts the ideas into modern language, facilitating coming to terms with concepts that are definitely substantial enough even when presented in that manner.  He is helpful to the reader … but also challenges the reader to come to terms with real mathematics.

For an example, let’s look at Dunham’s treatment of quadrature, an interest of the early Greeks (even preceding Euclid, although it does appear in his monumental Elements).  A simple case is quadrature of a rectangle.  The idea is to construct (using only straightedge and compass) a square with area equal to that of the rectangle.

Quadrature of rectangle (800x559)

We are given the arbitrary rectangle BCDE.  To do the quadrature, extend BE to the right, for a distance equal to ED.  Now find the midpoint (G) of BF, and draw a semicircle with center G and radius GF.  Finally, construct a perpendicular EH to line BF at point E.  The segment EH will now be one side of a square (EHLK) that has an area equal to that of the original rectangle BCDE.

Blog reader, your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to prove that the two areas — rectangle and square — are indeed equal.  (Dunham provides the proof, but isn’t it more fun to try it on your own first?)

I have not yet read most of Dunham’s book, but it is likely that some of the ideas will get a bit harder to grasp than those above.  I know that this was true when I read about “Newton’s Binomial Theorem” in Chapter 7.  But I,  for one, would rather be left with horizons still to conquer, than have things pre-digested and spoon-fed to me …

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