Does this make me a polymath?

In the spirit of Curt’s post from April and my own post from last November, here’s a rundown of a few of the things I’ve been reading the last few weeks:

  • God’s Debris, by Scott Adams. Billed as a thought experiment masquerading as fiction, the Dilbert creator’s first foray into “serious” writing is kind of silly. The entire book consists, basically, of a near-omniscient old man questioning his naïve interlocutor’s assumptions about the universe. It raises some legitimate questions, but provides no really satisfying answers, sort of like a late-night discussion between stoned philosophy majors. In fact, that may well have been Adams’ inspiration. On the plus side, it’s free and short.

  • A Mathematician’s Apology, by G.H. Hardy. Considered by many mathematicians as the definitive justification for doing pure mathematics, Hardy’s book stands out as much for his bitterness at the age-related decline in his mathematical faculties as for its defense of mathematics. That’s not to say that the book is without merit; Hardy’s justification of mathematics on purely aesthetic grounds is about as well-stated as I’ve ever read and certainly all subsequent such arguments owe a heavy debt to this book. Unfortunately, Hardy’s aforementioned bitterness, coupled with his rather heavy-handed elitism, occasionally makes reading the Apology feel like listening to your grandfather talk about the merits of rap music. On the other hand, the Apology also gains a certain anachronistic appeal due to developments since its publication in 1940: one of Hardy’s primary justifications of pure mathematics in general and especially of his own field, number theory, is that such pursuits will never yield any military applications (this was especially relevant, of course, in 1940). Of course, with the rise of public-key encryption since the mid-1970s, this is now an absurd claim: modern encryption is intimately connected with and derived from advances in number theory (including some of Hardy’s own results) and it would be rather difficult to argue that encryption doesn’t have military applications.

  • Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig. A fascinating book, as much for the historical context it provides to the current copyright debate as for its supposedly radical suggestions for altering copyright law. Lessig makes a compelling case that the conception of property rights embodied by current copyright law and organizations like the MPAA is both inconsistent with American tradition and indeed quite intellectually extreme. While I have considerably mixed feelings about his proposed solutions, I think he does an admirable job of arguing that there is a serious problem and that it doesn’t just have to do with intellectual piracy. In fact, my biggest complaint about the book the excessively insular tone it takes towards its readership; apparently, Lessig seems to think that the only people who care about these sorts of issues are “crunchy lefties”, even though he’s intellectually aware that his argument is more broad. See, e.g. the following quotation:

    But there’s an aspect of this story that is not lefty in any sense. Indeed, it is an aspect that could be written by the most extreme pro-market ideologue. And if you’re one of these sorts (and a special one at that, 188 pages into a book like this), then you can see this other aspect by substituting “free market” every place I’ve spoken of “free culture.” The point is the same, even if the interests affecting culture are more fundamental.
    Still, it’s a good book and it’s a free download, so there’s no reason not to check it out.

  • Tartuffe and Other Plays, by Molière. Aside from “The Misanthrope”, I’d never read anything by Molière until this book, but I’d been increasingly coming across references to him in other reading. Unfortunately, I don’t speak French nearly well enough to read this in the original and Frame’s translation is, to put it bluntly, crashingly inelegant, but enough of Molière’s genius managed to survive to make reading this book eminently worthwhile. While “Tartuffe” is obviously the most famous of these plays, the ones that held the most (admittedly, somewhat anachronistic) appeal for me were the two responses to critics of “The School for Wives”: “The Critique of The School for Wives” and “The Versailles Impromptu”. What’s perhaps most amazing about these plays is that they work (at least as literature; I don’t know how well they would hold up in the theater) despite how absurdly meta they really are. For example, a one-sentence summary of “The Versailles Impromptu” would probably be something like the following: A play written and produced on short notice at the behest of the king about the process of making a play on short notice at the behest of the king in which the playwright/director/lead actor decides to take the easy way out by producing a satire of the criticism of his satire of the criticism of his satire of over-protective and jealous husbands. That such a thing is even coherent, let alone enjoyable to read, is as impressive a testament to Molière’s skill as anything I can think of.

  • Hacker Crackdown, by Bruce Sterling. The sci-fi writer’s foray into journalism yields an interesting history of both hacker culture and the legal backlash against hacking in the early 1990s. One word of caution: this book was published in 1994 and deals primarily with events that took place before 1992, so if you’re looking for something about Internet-era hackers, you’ll have to go somewhere else. That being said, it’s still surprisingly relevant to the modern day, especially with regards to the heavy-handed approach taken by law enforcement and big business (AT&T and the Baby Bells in the book, ISPs and music labels today) in dealing with illicit online activities. When Sterling talks about the “purely theoretical” (and quite extreme) damages invented by BellSouth for the posting on various bulletin boards of one of their internal documents or of the indiscriminate confiscation of computer equipment that was demonstrably unrelated to that crime, it’s hard not to see parallels to more recent events. Another free download.

  • Letters to a Young Mathematician, by Ian Stewart. Stewart says that

    Letters to a Young Mathematician is my attempt to bring some parts of A Mathematician’s Apology up to date, namely those parts thatmight influence the decisions of a young person contemplating a degree in mathematics and a possible career in the subject.

    For the most part, he succeeds admirably. Stewart really does do a pretty good job of explaining just what, exactly, it is that mathematicians do, though of course his descriptions are most directly relevant to his own field (complex dynamics and dynamical systems). One major advantage Stewart has going for him is that he’s a very engaging writer, the sort of guy who seems like he’d be a lot of fun to have a beer or five with. This quality is especially apparent by contrast with Hardy, who would probably be appalled by the mere suggestion that he would be the sort of person to have a casual beer with the likes of you. I would definitely recommend Letters to a Young Mathematician to anybody who is either interested in pursuing a career in mathematics or who is just curious what the hell those mathematicians are up to, though I would warn any potential readers that Stewart’s basic conceit (i.e. that this is a hypothetical series of letters to an up-and-coming mathematician, starting when she’s in grade school and ending when she gets tenure) gets old after a while.

  • Glasshouse, by Charles Stross. One of the big complaints about Stross’ last sci-fi book, Accelerando (yet another free download), was that it was, in the end, about an upload culture and that, once people stop being human, they stop being interesting. In particular, by the end of Accelerando, the protagonists live in a culture so technologically advanced that physical death is meaningless provided you back up regularly, physical bodies are as interchangeable as clothing and distance is something understood in the abstract but essentially meaningless. As a result, there’s not exactly a lot of drama in people’s lives. In Glasshouse, Stross manages to re-inject some human interest into this universe by addressing the most obvious potential wrench in the works of the idyllic setup in Accelerando: data corruption. The protagonist of Glasshouse is a veteran of the most destructive war in human history, a war neither he nor anybody else quite understands or even remembers because it was fought against a nebulously-defined group of Luddite fanatics who figured out how to selectively delete people’s memories, especially those related to what the war was about. Now that he’s accidentally signed on for a purported psychology experiment run by those same fanatics in an inaccessible station literally in the middle of nowhere with access only to supposedly late-20th/early-21st century technology, with no offsite backups and stuck in the body of a petite woman, it all boils down to whether he can figure out what’s going on and beat down the bad guys before he is, truly and permanently, killed. The somewhat artificial addition of traditional human fears and anxieties like death, body image and social norms into the post-human milieu makes for better drama and setting most of the action in a more-or-less recognizably turn-of-the-21st-century environment lets Stross shift his attention from producing technical fireworks to actually writing the story. Of course, it also allows him to make fun of the more ridiculous aspects of our own society, which is always good for a few laughs.

  • Finally, some articles of note.

    First, for research-related work, there’s:

    For teaching:

    For fun:

    Short Story:

6 Responses to “Does this make me a polymath?”

  1. Sputzele Says:

    I do not see a reason for which the English translators of Molière should be bad….anyhow.. I wouldn’t know. may I kindly suggest you to try reading books in “easier French” than Molière’s to start with? You shall be able to boost your French this should do for getting you into reading in French and no trivial books either

  2. shonk Says:

    I don’t know that all translations of Molière are bad; I just know that Frame’s isn’t very good.

    I’ve actually read a couple of Robbe-Grillet’s books (in translation). If I ever have the time to seriously sit down and try to improve my French, I’ll give the books you recommend a look (and, obviously, ask my brother), but that will probably have to wait for a few years.

  3. Sputzele Says:

    Please, young man, can you delete then all my former 3 comments, here is a cleaner formulation of what I had wanted to say….about the issue of language precisions and translations Maybe you can develop some thoughts on this problem

  4. shonk Says:


    I’ll try to formulate an answer to your question later tonight or tomorrow.

  5. Sputzele Says:

    Thank you for cleaning up my mess. Re comments: whenever no hurry: have to work also on more substantial stuff no doubt– and comments of course if the issue is of interest to you.. when you do that- leave a comment with the link to your elucubrations on my page merci d’avance.. Putzele

  6. sputzele Says:

    It appear that the thing about Inuits have more words for snow is a pure.. tale.. should have checked first..

    For your reply: take your time.. I will also check and precise my blabla..


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