2003 Notebook

The Gender of Functions

This morning I was speculating about postmodernism and mathematics, specifically Luce Irigary's claim "E=mc2 is a sexed equation". That got me thinking about the gender of different functions. Irigary argued that E=mc2 is male because it contains the constant c (the speed of light in vacuum), which is the fastest anything can travel. This extreme of speed connotes maleness, as opposed to speeds found in daily life, such as 5 km/h (walking speed). These speeds are presumably female.

If E=mc2 is male, what is the gender of functions such as sine and cosine? At first thought they appear to be female, since they represent cyclic things: circular motion, wheels rolling, waterwheels turning, navigation by the stars, etc. All of these are intimately human. By Irigary's reasoning, they're female.

...and yet...

Sine and cosine can be written as Taylor series. Yet by Irigary's reasoning, aren't infinite series male? Taking a limit is an extreme operation; it manipulates quantities smaller than any in the quotidian realm. Once again, mathematics explores an extreme, pushes borders -- something males do.

So are sine and cosine female, male, or hermaphrodite? Or could it just possibly be that the whole exercise is fundamentally flawed?


Pro and Con

This evening, NPR's Fresh Air had a segment on the linguistic evolution of the word "protest". Its new use as "any demonstration or rally" (e.g., "pro-war protest") weakens the word's connotation of opposition to authority. Thomas Frank would be fascinated.

This got me thinking. Isn't the opposite of a protest a contest? That would make contestants the opposite of Protestants. That's a strange notion.


The Victory of Free Software

In the last six months, I've added two commercial applications to my software collection. One was a game given to me by a friend; he'd found a copy discounted to $5. The other was a utility I needed, even though I'd probably use it at most once a year. It too was discounted to $5, as it was an old version. In its box was a $15 rebate offer, which to my surprise the company honored. So I got the software I needed and made $10 to boot.

This got me thinking about free vs. commercial software. I have at least fifty applications on my computer, yet less than twenty are commercial software. In fact, in the last few years, I've spent almost nothing on software. My (paid-for) copies of Photoshop and Illustrator are so out of date that Adobe has stopped trying to induce me to upgrade, yet they still meet my needs. There just aren't any more commercial programs I need. Furthermore, when I find that I do need a utility to do things like log network traffic, download a Web site, or connect to a Linux box, increasingly often free programs are available to do the job. My conclusion is one that most software businesses reached years ago: the consumer market is dead (with the exception of games). Free and open source software killed it.


Small Thoughts

Web space is cheap, which has led to sprawl. For example, this site's grown to be more than one person could read in an evening. What if it were limited to a very small, fixed size? Pruning would have to be aggressive, with less important content making way for better. That would be an interesting challenge.

In an ideal world, I'd invite noted thinkers to form a Small Thoughts community. I'd like to see people presenting new ideas honed to their essence.


Cultural Note #1

If you were designing a neighborhood, a place for people of all ages to live, would you deliberately put in areas that are lethal, particularly to young children?

In my culture we do. These areas are known as streets.

It's a testament to our cultural neurosis that we create and inhabit places wherein one of the earliest, most important lessons we teach our young is that large areas of their environment can kill them. What kind of lesson is that to learn? What are the long-term psychological effects of living in a place where lethal danger is ubiquitous?

Why don't we create places that produce confidence and joy instead? Why don't we design neighborhoods kids can roam without fear?


The So Very Wrong Sentence

While reading Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs, I ran across this quote on page 169:

We are also engaging in a process of cultural reclamation, where the individual is put back into the loop of information production and dispensation.

-- Steve Mann & Hal Niedzvicki, Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer, Doubleday Canada, 2001, p. 177-8.

As an example of poor writing, it excelled in so many ways that I found myself coming back to it several pages later. Let's enumerate some of the problems:

  1. "engaging in a process" -- how about simply "doing"?

  2. "cultural reclamation" is an oxymoron. Culture isn't something you reclaim, or even consciously create. It's something society as a whole creates.

  3. "into the loop" is jargon, and wrong. Information production and dispensation isn't a loop.

  4. "information production" -- speaking.

  5. "dispensation" -- "distribution" is clearer.

This doesn't even begin to discuss the sentence's underlying assumptions. Consider the varied metaphors: there's "cultural reclamation", which seems to be a social struggle; "into the loop", straight from the field of cybernetics; and "information production", which casts creation as a mechanizable activity. The leaps between metaphors almost gave me conceptual whiplash.

This sentence begged to be rewritten. Here's my version:

We are changing society by giving everyone the ability to speak and be heard.

The only doubt I had was whether "changing" should be "trying to change". It depends on how confident the authors want to appear.

Later in Smart Mobs, there's a sentence which also serves well as a paraphrase of the original:

...many-to-many media confer a power on consumers that mass media never did: the power to create, publish, broadcast, and debate their own point of view.

-- Rheingold, p. 197.

Ah, the joy of having a good editor, and the pain of that lack!


Further Evidence of the Victory of Free Software

During the past day, I finally discovered the name of the odd pattern I learned to juggle more than a decade ago, during a CF Foundation picnic. It's a three-ball pattern that involves alternate arm crossings; unlike many patterns, though, each ball moves along a different path. For years I've wondered whether the pattern had a name, but my investigations never uncovered one.

With the help of a friend's digital camera and some open source software, the mystery is no more. My friend took a short video of me juggling, which I then sat down and analyzed. I then used JugglingLab to recreate the pattern. The software even made an animated GIF [69K] of it.

Once again, open source software fills my needs. Should I be surprised?

Oh, the pattern? It's just a variant of the simplest three-ball pattern, the cascade. (Here's the Juggling Markup Language for how I throw it.) And all this time I had thought it unusual!


There May Be Something To Them, After All

On April Fool's Day, 2000, while I was returning a friend's car, I listened to music on the local public radio station's evening music show. I'd heard it before, and appreciated the DJ's eclectic taste. This evening, he was playing songs appropriate to the day, songs about fools and their foolishness.

As I pulled into my friend's driveway, a striking song began. It was a bluesy vocal number in which the singer lamented her ability to fool herself when falling in love. Something about the song and the singer's voice kept me riveted, and wondering "Who is that? She's worth investigating.". I get that feeling only every two or three years, so when I do I pay attention.

I continued listening to the radio until the DJ identified the song. It was "Foolin' Myself", sung by none other than Billie Holiday. I'd known who she was, but this was the first time I'd ever heard her sing.

My reaction was mixed. On the one hand, it was good to know who the singer was. If I hadn't learned, I would have remembered the song and puzzled over the identity of the singer years later. (That's the kind of person I am.) So it was good that the mystery was solved right away.

At the same time, another part of me was groaning inside. "Just what the world needs, yet another gay man who loves the work of Billie Holiday. Could I possibly be any more stereotypic, becoming fascinated by someone in the gay pantheon without even knowing who she is?".

That got me thinking about stereotypes. Could there be something to them, after all? How else do I explain my almost instinctive fascination with that song?


Personal Idioms: The Tingle

We all have our own personal idioms. A friend uses the phrase, "had their bowl this morning", to describe someone who's done something stupid. (For the record, the bowl is filled with Fuck-os, the breakfast of fuck-ups.)

I don't have many personal idioms, but two come to mind. One is "the Ping", discussed elsewhere on this site. The other is "the Tingle", which is in some ways the opposite of the Ping. The Tingle is the feeling you get when you meet someone interesting and attractive who, even though you don't know each other, pays you attention beyond what the circumstances warrant. For example, a bearded, longhaired guy who wore Hawaiian shirts and worked at the guitar shop downtown had that quality. Even though it was years before we actually conversed, he'd always smile when we saw each other on the street. That connection always gave me the Tingle.

The Tingle is a rare thing, for me. I get that feeling from maybe one person a year. Would that it happened more often.


Personal Idioms: Ticklers

n., a maddeningly familiar fragment of a story, song, etc. whose context you can't recall.

Ticklers bother me. When one gets lodged in my head, I worry it like a dog with a bone until I remember its source. Sometimes I solve them in hours; the longest took a year or two.

Here's an example. While gaming with friends a few weeks ago, a scene came to mind. A young woman has to babysit, although she doesn't want to. She utters sarcastic phrases like "I am so hurt" and "I'm sure you would have pulled through somehow". Where did this come from?

The answer is (of course) chapter six of Matt Feazell & Walt Lockley's Cynicalman epic The Death of Antisocialman. Edie Haskell is babysitting Bother, who wants to play hide & seek. Her flippant responses are to Bother's accusations that she doesn't care about him. It took me about a day to recall the source.

I suppose someday I'll let ticklers be, but for now I'm compelled to find their sources. It's like poking at a bad tooth.



I've added a page of ticklers I've experienced (along with some I'm experiencing as I write this).


Last updated 7 April 2005
All contents ©2003 Mark L. Irons

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