Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bloomsday 2012

It's Bloomsday, and people will be gathering to hear recitations of Ulysses by James Joyce!  I'm glad that the weather is pleasant here in Philadelphia.  The big local Bloomsday event will be at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, which houses Joyce's autograph (hand written) manuscript of Ulysses.  As you can see from the above, the Rosenbach is not a large museum, so the audience gathers outside.

Bloomsday is our most literate celebration.  It doesn't draw as many Philadelphians as, say, the annual Wing Bowl, but it shows that some of us still read.

I, unfortunately, won't be attending the Bloomsday celebration.  I'm committed to an afternoon of chores.  This evening I will be managing a comedy club, where I can listen to some comics do knob gags.  (Yes, I made some bad life choices.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012



At times, people have accused me of being a smart guy.  I always demur, and point out MY idea of a smart guy: the Hungarian-American polymath John von Neumann (1903 -1957).

Von Neumann made important contributions to dozens of mathematical fields.  He is considered one of the founders of game theory, continuous geometry, operator theory, and computer science.  He could do computations in his head at lightning speed, and his photographic memory allowed him to quote from any book he ever read (in multiple languages)!

He was one of the first professors at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey.  He worked on the Manhattan Project and was credited with coming up (and naming) the Cold War theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

On the other hand, he was a terrible driver (he liked to read books while driving) and enjoyed dirty jokes in Yiddish.  Nobody's perfect. 

Here's the usual story about just how smart von Neumann was.  It's a famous problem called "the fly puzzle" and there are two ways to solve it - a quick easy way and a longer hard one.  Here's the version that's on Wikipedia:

Two bicyclists start twenty miles apart and head toward each other, each going at a steady rate of 10 mph. At the same time a fly that travels at a steady 15 mph starts from the front wheel of the southbound bicycle and flies to the front wheel of the northbound one, then turns around and flies to the front wheel of the southbound one again, and continues in this manner till he is crushed between the two front wheels. Question: what total distance did the fly cover? The slow way to find the answer is to calculate what distance the fly covers on the first, northbound, leg of the trip, then on the second, southbound, leg, then on the third, etc., etc., and, finally, to sum the infinite series so obtained. The quick way is to observe that the bicycles meet exactly one hour after their start, so that the fly had just an hour for his travels; the answer must therefore be 15 miles. When the question was put to von Neumann, he solved it in an instant, and thereby disappointed the questioner: "Oh, you must have heard the trick before!" "What trick?" asked von Neumann, "All I did was sum the infinite series."
I've also heard that von Neumann took a minute or two to solve this puzzle - which is quite natural, since he was computing the sum of the infinite series.  The person who posed the puzzle to him assumed that he had figured out the easy way, since no normal mathemetician could have done the long way in such a short time, without pencil and paper.  But von Neumann could, and did.

Even when I was in college and studying calculus, it would have taken me a whole blackboard and the better part of an hour to solve this via summing the infinite series.  (Nowadays I couldn't do it with a gun to my head!)

You want to accuse someone of being smart?  John von Neumann was a smart guy!

The above photo may be subject to copyright. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

No More Click, No More Clack

Oh, this is sad:  Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a.k.a. "Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers," are retiring.

NPR has announced that their most popular show will end new programs in September.  Their staff will splice together "Best of" shows, compiled from their 25-year archive.  But there will be no more new shows.

The elder brother, Tom, is 74 years old, and the duo feels that it's time to go.  Or, as they put it, it's time to "stop and smell the cappuccino."

They have actually been doing the show for 35 years out of WBUR in Boston.  It has only been carried on NPR for the last 25 years.

I haven't listened to "Car Talk" regularly in years.  But I liked knowing it was there, and that I could catch it if I wanted.

Personally, I'd sooner that anything else on NPR be canceled.  That includes Garrison Keillor's long-running "Prairie Home Companion."  Hell, that includes the NPR shows that I've been a guest on!

Nothing lasts forever.  But I know I'm going to miss Tom and Ray.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Skyscrapers of Wood

Years ago I worked in new construction.  I didn't do it for long; it was hard work, and, as a plumbing apprentice, the pay was low.  But it gave me an appreciation for construction techniques.  (It also gave me sore knees and bruises on my shoulders from carrying around 22 foot lenghts of pipe.)

Even after I was out of construction, I remained interested in new innovations.

So I was astonished to read in yesterday's New York Times about Cross-Laminated Timber, or CLT, which is so strong that it forms the basis for a nine-story residential tower in London.  A wooden skyscraper!

Widely used in Europe, CLT consists of panels of multiple layers, up to 6 inches thick.  Within each panel, layers of wood boards are glued together.  The grain of the wood in each layer is perpendicular to the adjacent layer, giving the panels tremendous strength.  The result is a substance strong enough to replace steel, yet made from sustainable resources!

Trees, of course, absorb carbon dioxide, so CRT has a low carbon footprint.  And the panels (which look rather like giant, thick plywood) are made to size and cut in advance.  This makes construction faster.  As with any pre-fabricated building, the panels are simply bolted together.

The article even claims that CRT panels are slow to burn: as the outer layer becomes charred, it protects the inner core from heating.

The use of CRT panels is just beginning in the United States.  So far I haven't heard any negatives about the use of CRT.  I'd be interested in seeing a building constructed with this technology.

Manufacturing CRT in the USA might also solve an environmental problem: we have millions of dead pine trees, killed by beetles, still standing and posing a fire threat.  Recycling some already-dead trees into CRT could be part of the solution.

Has anyone heard an negatives about CRT technology?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Great Read: ALPHA, a thriller by Greg Rucka

I just finished Greg Rucka's new thriller ALPHA, and it's a great read.  I enjoyed Rucka's Atticus Kodiak series, but this book - featuring Special Forces operative Jad Bell - is even better.

My only complaint is the dust jacket copy, which describes Jad Bell as a "Delta Forces operative" - something which is never stated in the book itself.  Such copy isn't written by the author, so it may or may not be accurate.  Rucka leaves it a mystery as to which military force his hero belongs, only mentioning that its boss, Colonel Ruiz, answers directly to the President of the United States (which might be a bluff).

The battleground between terrorists and Jad Bell's team is a fictional amusement park.  Again, the dust jacket describes it as "the world's largest theme park" - something not mentioned in the book.

But these are minor quibbles that shouldn't impact your enjoyment of the book.

The most interesting (and extensive) interview Rucka gave for this book release was a two-part conversation with Brian Michael Bendis.  Both Rucka and Bendis have also written for comic books.  It's tough to make a living as a mid-list writer, even in popular genres like thrillers.  Moonlighting as a comic book author is one way to earn a decent income.  (Believe me, I'd jump at the chance to write for comics!)

I know one successful novelist/comic book writer who claims that it never takes him more than three days a month to write a 22 page comic book - and that includes scripting the dialogue once the artwork comes back!  That leaves him plenty of time to work on his novels.

The Greg Rucka interview is on the publisher's website, Mulholland Books (an imprint of Little, Brown and Company).  This link will take you to part one of the interview; there is a link to part two at the end of part one.  Enjoy!