May 29, 2008

Doublespeak

One of the groups lobbying against legalizing gay marriage in New York is called "New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms".

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May 28, 2008

On A Generalization Of The Second Theorem Of Bourbaki

In Moe's I pick up a small paperback, "The Artist And The Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed" by Amir D. Aczel (Thunder's Mouth Press, NY). The world's crying out for a good Bourbaki biography, but this ain't it, unfortunately. It's a confused, repetitive, portentous, and rather plodding attempt to … well, what, exactly? And that's the problem, I think: it's trying to be a bunch of things, and doesn't really do any of them well.

It rather half-heartedly tries to play on the suspense of Bourbaki's identity, but the Bourbaki in-joke won't be any sort of mystery to maths insiders, or anyone who's read the jacket blurb, so that vein can't be mined for much. It's also a weird Grothendieck booster — but that falls flat, too, if only because most non-maths types won't understand why Grothendieck might deserve the adulation (especially since this will almost certainly be the first time they've ever heard of him), but more importantly because Aczel just lets that part of the story trail off, without actually explaining G's importance (he was important, to be sure, but he's the sort of guy — like Tesla, in a different field — who attracts True Believers). He seems to think it's self-evident; but without a good maths or maths history background, it's not clear at all.

In fact, the one thing it might have done to pull the whole thing together would have been to help explain the maths and the maths background, but the book seems to assume either (or both) that the reader can't or won't understand the maths, or that they already know it. It's a strange omission, for sure: a history of a mathematical identity (in several different usages of that term) that doesn't explain the maths at all.

The book's also a claim that Bourbaki was either a spark of Structuralism or sparked Structuralism, something that I hadn't heard claimed before and that struck me as potentially interesting. But as with so much of this book, that trail just sort of petered out after a lot of suggestive but inconclusive tidbits. I'd guess Bourbaki was very weakly both a spark of Structuralism and sparked Structuralism (there's a lot of vague metaphorical stuff in common if you don't spend too much time looking at the details), but it seems a real stretch to make him one of the great Structuralist prime movers.

And the book claims that Bourbaki almost single-handedly founded modern maths, which strikes me as ludicrous: Bourbaki was an interesting sidetrack or sideline at best, and, like the book's many claims, really went nowhere in a sea of words. I don't know any mathematicians who spend much time reading Bourbaki (I personally find him more unreadable than most maths writers, and given the field, that's really saying something), and few think of Bourbaki's rigid and scholastic attempts to reground mathematics as having led anywhere much at all.

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May 23, 2008

Something Should Be Done About It!

There's a motif that repeats itself on TV news broadcasts across the US almost nightly nowadays. It's quite surreal: a harassed or belligerent local driver is sympathetically interviewed about ever-rising gas prices by a reporter as he or she fills a vast SUV or pickup with gas on their way to or from work (they're almost always the sole occupant of that vehicle, natch). The gist of the interview is nearly always that the interviewee is convinced that somehow, somewhere, someone Out There is ripping them off by broaching their natural right to cheap gas, and that someone — our fearless government, perhaps, or maybe just their local member of Congress — should punish the responsible evil oil companies and energy traders in the name of fairness and all things American, and let oil prices return to their natural low prices. Nothing much is ever said in these little riffs about reduced supplies or increased demand, or the plummeting dollar; and nothing's said at all about our almost total addiction to gas-driven economies or lifestyles. As one of my local Californian senators was quoted the other day somewhere in the Washington Post: "Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accused them of offering 'a litany of complaints that you're all just hapless victims of a system.'"

So it might seem. But wait a minute: our Dianne was talking about the oil companies here; they're the "them" she was referring to above, not the US people as a whole. Once again a US politician wants to cast the US people as the victims here; no surprise there, I guess. No one ever says "oh, let's hold the US people as a whole responsible; we're driving too much, we've spent decades designing and building lives and lifestyles that are utterly predicated on cheap gas". No, they say we're victims of the oil companies, and as long as we fight back we'll all return to the glory days of a dollar a gallon.

Like I said, surreal. Guys, cheap gas isn't coming back. It's gone. Sure, it might recede back to half what it is now for a while (or it might never go below what it is now, i.e. about US $4 per US gallon), but don't bet your future on it. You did that last time — it's why we're all suffering now.

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May 19, 2008

The Battle Of Algiers

What better time to watch a film about an occupying Western power that uses torture and brutal hypocrisy in the service of civilisation and democracy? The first time I saw "The Battle Of Algiers" was as some sort of tenth-generation samizdat copy in the same City University film course that got me to see la Jetée. It seemed more remote then, something to be studied as a self-conscious artefact of the 60's or of self-important European Cinema, like some sort of cross between a French gangster movie and half-forgotten black-and-white TV newscast footage of the Vietnam war from my childhood. Now it also seems more like a humane and generous attempt to show the human face of dehumanisation, to show in simple terms the deadly and deadening complexities of occupation, terrorism, "authenticity", and resistance.

Will there ever be an equivalent for Iraq? Probably not — whatever you might say about the FLN and the pieds-noir, there was a strong strain of Western influence and history underpinning the FLN, and a basic level of (wrong-headed) understanding of Algeria in the pieds-noir that few Americans are likely to be capable of in Iraq (there just isn't the shared history, for one).

(There was one jarring scene in the film where Colonel Mathieu off-handedly comments on how he'd like Sartre even less as an enemy (or something similar) — did the old windbag ever have that sort of influence?)

(Part of Flix).

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May 15, 2008

The Ruling

The ruling: it's hard not to ask (a little bitterly) what took so long?, but it was still a bit of a pleasant surprise. What won't be a surprise (or any sort of pleasure) will be the reaction, the backlash, the strident defense of some fetishised and idealised notion of family, the restriction of family in the name of "freedom". I'd use the word "irony" if that word didn't imply a certain distance it's hard to feel….

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May 11, 2008

Four Years

Four years of Tight Sainthood so far, a century in blog years (well, by some counts — even the most ardent bloggers rarely last more than three years with a single blog). Unlike the last few years, this year most Googlers ended up here searching on the term "justified terrorism", which brings up this rather anodyne posting. That article also turns out to be the single most-read posting based on this year's stats, which is surprising, to say the least (no one ever reads things like this, for example :-)). Last year (and the year before and the year before the year before) the word "pudenda" was what got most Googlers here (for this article). The term "Woy Woy" is now (less surprisingly) a strong second in Googling here (which reminds me that I must write some more Woy Woy articles — I've been meaning to do one on Woy Woy food (it did exist, honestly) for years now). I still know of only a handful of regular readers, nearly all of whom I've met at one time or another in real life (and most of whom are not in the US), but there's definitely a few lurkers Out There.

I can see continuing Tight Sainthood another year, perhaps; we shall see….

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May 09, 2008

Graphic

Death and destruction in Oakland: the SF Chron's map of homicides in Oakland, 2007 and 2008 (so far, anyway; you have to check the 2007 box to get the 2007 icons to show up as well).

As one of the news items linked to a North Oakland shooting on the map for this year puts it, "[Oakland] Police on Monday were investigating a string of weekend shootings in Oakland that killed seven men, and authorities tried to reassure residents that the city is a safe place to live and work". Riiiight. At least there was only one homicide in my immediate neighbourhood, a very recent and rather unusual once-off, luckily enough (I walk past where it happened almost every day). There hadn't been any before that since the Brinks guard shooting in 2006 (which was big news even in Oakland), then none before that for quite a while, at least on this side of the railway.

Just to (once again) put this into perspective: the area covered on that map is physically about the same size as inner Sydney.

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May 05, 2008

Here And There

Thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of people are dead after a typhoon runs rampage in Burma; food riots break out in Sudan, Bolivia, and sundry other places; Zimbabwe's deadly electoral contortions continue…. But that's all there. Here, by contrast, the first thirty minutes of the broadcast TV news this evening is about a small local chemical spill, sundry acts of local violence, a new airline luggage checkin policy, and the inevitable Cinco de Mayo celebrations. It's another world Out There. Who knew? Who knows?

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May 02, 2008

Learning From Los Angeles

Another Moe's remainder: "California Crazy & Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture" (Jim Heimann, Chronicle Books 2001), a fun, good-natured, and sunny book on programmatic architecture that I devour in a day or two's part-time reading between work assignments. It concentrates mostly on 1920's and 1930's commercial buildings in the urban and suburban bits of the great Southland, the natural habitat for such architecture, but there's plenty to go around elsewhere, including some long-gone weirdos in Oakland, of all places (Berkeley, not surprisingly, didn't really go in for that sort of thing).

It's inevitably missing one of my fave programmatic buildings, the old dinosaur-shaped house that used to lurk in the desert scrub next to the Lucerne Valley Cutoff south of Barstow, a building that's now just littered about the Mojave in a thousand pieces of decayed wood and shot-up plaster in the middle of nowhere, but that used to squat just off the isolated dirt track there with a certain fun humour and rough style (I don't think it was ever completed, but I do remember it at one time being recognisably a dinosaur).

And that's part of what makes this book a pleasure: the reminder of the difference between fun and irony. Postmodernism so often appropriated earlier programmatic architecture for art by wrapping it in irony and sucking the fun out of it; but an essential element of much programmatic architecture is its sense of unforced humour and silliness. Knowing allusions to the originals might be cute and sometimes whimsical, but they're rarely much fun.

And where did they all go? "Who Killed Our Monstrosities?", as an unnamed writer quoted by Heimann puts it. It's hard not to sympathise with that sentiment, but the danger with things like this is nostalgia-driven preservation and even reconstruction; these things really live in their own present, make sense in their original time and place only. When removed, they become self-conscious signs of signs, signs of themselves in effect. But of course the real monstrosities are out there now, waiting for the future to back-validate them. We just don't know it, I guess.

(One of the other little pleasures for me with this book is seeing glimpses of the way Ventura Boulevard used to look like, this so-familiar untidy long strip of a short slice of my life, apparently once dotted with nicely weird and silly buildings in a semi-rural setting, now just the Ur-strip-mall…).

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