Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Not Only Sarabonne has Roommates

My roommate: You know how people should really celebrate Easter? By dressing up as zombies. Doesn't Easter commemorate Jesus' becoming a zombie? What do bunnies have to do with it?
Me: Well, you know that the Easter bunny developed out of earlier, pagan traditions.
Roommate: Yeah, I know. Hey. I knew some Christians who wouldn't celebrate Halloween, because they say it's devil worship. They should make up for it by dressing up on Easter.
Me: What about the girls who want to dress slutty? Oh, I know! They can dress like Mary Magdalene.
Roommate: Yep, the only Biblically sanctioned costumes are zombies and Mary Magdalene.
Me: Well, the zombies in the Bible don't try to eat people's brains.
Roommate: The Christians are the zombies! They eat Jesus' flesh and blood.
Me: Right! That's why they're called born-again. Baptism symbolizes dying in the water and emerging reborn--as a Jesus-eating zombie.
Roommate: Totally. We've just figured out what Christianity is really all about. We should make sure our message gets out before Easter.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's my blog, and I'll cry if I want to...

...and I'll recommend books that no one will ever read.

There's this perennial discussion whether math is "real" or not. My personal opinion is that it isn't. Are you "really" out when you get hit with a ball in dodge ball? Does something about you change when you get hit? Not really. If the recess bell rang right then, your outness and your friends' inness, would suddenly disappear. The property of "being in" or "being out" exists only within the game. So you're "really" out as much as the game is real, which I don't think is a whole lot.

Math is the same way. Is it a "real" truth that every odd-dimensional square matrix with real entries has at least one real eigenvalue, but some even-dimensional square matrices with real entries have no real eigenvalues? Well, it's a real truth in this game of mathematics.

Why are dodge-ball properties less real than say biological properties or physical properties? A wise man once said, "Reality is that which does not go away when when you stop believing in it." If we stopped believing in physics or biology, they would still exist. Nobody would know about their existence, just like nobody knew their existence for thousands of years before science came around. Dodge ball, on the other hand, exists only as long as we believe in it.

And math is the same.

If my blog had any readers other than those who have heard this lecture from me before, they would doubtlessly be clamoring, "What do you mean? Two and two would still be four, even if nobody knew it!"

To which I respond, would the polynomials still form a ring if nobody knew it? Would Gaussian integers still have unique factorizations (up to multiplication by a unit) if nobody knew it? Would "P implies Q" be equivalent to "not P or Q" if nobody knew it? Would e^(ix)=cos(x)+isin(x) if nobody knew about it? More simply, would (-2)*(-2) still equal positive four if nobody knew it?

The book Negative Math: How Mathematical Rules Can be Positively Bent, by Alberto A. Martínez, discusses this question at length. His answer is pretty much "No." Supposedly his book uses only basic algebra and a minimum of mathematical symbols and is easily accessible to people with rudimentary mathematical knowledge. I read it. I enjoyed it. It opened my eyes. But I don't think anyone reading this blog would enjoy it. So instead of telling you all to read it, I'll just tell you one of the central points of the book: If we wanted to, we could have made the rules of mathematics different than they are. Very different. It would have made math more suitable for some purposes and less suitable for others. Our current version is pretty damn good, and we should have no regrets. But things could have been very different.

To make matters worse, I believe City College's copy of this book is missing, even though the catalog keeps on telling me to "check [the] shelf." So I can't even get my mathematically inclined friends to read the book. Yes, life is tough.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Science: It Works Bitches

Non-Yiddish speakers, a large proportion of my blog's readership, are often told anecdotes and then told to minimize their enjoyment because the punchline "sounds better in Yiddish." They are often then subjected to gratuitous incoherent funfering.

Well today I will present to you all an anecdote which I heard in Yiddish whose punchline works much better in English! Joy!
A yeshiva boy and a heretic were once chatting about all sorts of abstract, metaphysical phenomena. The heretic was getting fed up with the yeshiva boy's thickheadness and interrupted him with a question
Heretic: What do horses eat?
Bochur: Hay
H: And what do they excrete?
B: Horse drek
H: What do cows eat?
B: Hay
H: And what do they excrete?
B: Big, flat cowpies
H: What do goats eat?
B: Hay
H: And what do they excrete?
B: Little ballies of goat drek
H: They all eat the same hay, yet the excrete such different drek! Why is that?
B: (shrugs shoulders ignorantly)
H: Well if you don't know shit, then why do you think you know about heaven?
OK. I'll admit it. The version I originally heard had the roles of the heretic and the bochur reversed. But seriously, don't you think this version makes much more sense? There's no way for an old-school yeshiva bochur to find out about animal digestive systems. But a heretic could just go to his friend the biologist, who is statistically likely to be a heretic himself, and find out why different animals make different kinds of poop.

I also lied when I said that the punchline is better in English. Sure "you don't know shit" has a double meaning in English, which it doesn't have in Yiddish. But what I translated as "you think you know about heaven" was originally something about "krichen in himmel." The verb "krichen" literally means "to crawl." But in English you can't say "Why are you crawling in heaven?" So I had to use the lame-sounding "why do you think you know about heaven." I'm sorry. This post did end with me harping about Yiddish words which cannot be accurately translated. I'm sorry.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Memories of Times Ago / Stirring the Strings of my Soul

Way back in my youth, in shiur Aleph mesivta, we learned Kuntres Uma'ayan with our not-so-venerated teacher, whom we called Larry. How exactly he got the nickname Larry was shrouded in the mysterious mists of ancient mesivta folklore. (Bochurim graduate after only three years, so folklore ages quickly there.) Anyhow, Larry would often show up late. I and one of my tablemates made up the following two songs about Larry's tardiness, which I happened to remember while showering this morning. (OK. I admit. I showered this afternoon.)

TTTO: "Always Late," from Shmuel Kunda's "The Magic Yarmulke"
Lyrics: Based on actual words said despairingly by my chavrusa early one morning
Kuntres Uma'ayan
Don't know what's flying
My notes are falling all over the floor
Ma'amer Zayin
Bechinas Acharayim
As Larry turns over in bed with a snore
Always late
Always late
Shiur Aleph they just hate
That Larry's always late

My tablemate and fellow songwriter wanted it to be "Shuir Aleph appreciates / That Larry's always late." But I thought my version fit better with the original song. Plus Shuir Aleph isn't a bunch of lowlifes who appreciate not having to learn. We are mature young men who just hate when our teacher doesn't show up.

The next song is titled "Ain't Gonna Miss Larry's Shiur." It parodies a song made by (or about?) Tiferes Bochurim titled "Ain't Gonna Miss Rabbi Lipskier's Shiur," which itself was a parody of "Ain't Gonna Work on Saturday." The Tiferes version featured such lyrical gems as "We drink ginger keil" and "We sleep on the bunk / To get closer to Havaya." I don't remember any more of it. Nor do I remember all of our version. With apologies to my past self and my tablemate, I will trascribe this song as best I can.

I was in the mikveh at seven thirty-eight
I thought that I would get it, for coming in so late
But I when I got to Mesivta
Boy, was I surprised
Larry hasn't shown up; it's already eight oh-five!
Ain't gonna miss Larry's shiur
Ain't gonna miss Larry's shiur
Ain't gonna miss Larry's shiur
Because he never shows up.