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.