You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2010.

You don’t get to make fun of California any more, until November.

Last year, I wrote on the losing tactic of promoting oneself by disparaging the competitors, using a parable attributed to Silvio Micali.

This week a Dilbert cartoon covers the same ground.

While searching for the origin of the expression “biggest and baddest” (long story — by the way, I wasn’t able to find it), I came across the following books:

The titles seem already the imagined setup of a Simpsons episode in which Lisa is riled up against corporate sexism. (Remember the episode with the Malibu Stacy doll that says “math is hard, let’s go shopping,” which was based on a real Barbie doll?) The contents do not disappoint.

The biggest and baddest book (the table of contents can be read on Amazon) is all, more or less, encouraging interest in science, engineering, and even math: there are dinosaurs, DNA, how a cell phone works, how an MP3 player works, what is the biggest bridge, what is the weirdest dinosaur, what is the fastest production car, and so on, including math-based card tricks.

The girls book is mostly about make-up, manicure, ponies (no, really, there are two sections on horses and one on ponies!), and superstition. The book includes a tarot card, and it dwells on astrology, palm reading, and miscellaneous fortune telling.

What is most galling, however, is the review of the girls book on the National Geographic blog for kids. Not only it is a positive review, but it has excerpts such as

“It is also a JUST for girls book because it talks about girl stuff which is really fun. (…) Did you know that if you are dreaming about a door than there are opportunities ahead? (…) Another chapter that stuck out to me was Palmistry. The book told you which line on your hand is your lifeline and what it meant. It said that since my lifeline was long and curved that I will have a long and healthy life!”

This is on the website of the National Geographic, one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions in the world.

p.s. To be fair, the girls book has a section on “overcoming math phobia,” a section describing the difference between astrology and astronomy, and a section on “women in technology,” which includes a reference to Ada Lovelace and from which I learned that actress Hedy Lamarr (whom I knew as the first actress to appear nude in a mainstream movie) co-invented a technique for information transmission wherein the frequency of transmission is continuously varied (requiring more bandwidth but improving throughput).

For a while (through grad schools and for several years afterward) I took notes and wrote calculations on loose printer paper. In theory, I would collect the notes into folders, or maybe even punch holes and collect them into binders; realistically, I would always lose them.

Then I thought I would start using notebooks. I went to the corner Walgreens wanting to buy a notebook which would be spiral-bound and with blank pages. Spiral-bound because it always stays open flat and it’s easy to tear off pages, and with blank pages because I cannot write math on ruled paper. It turns out that this was an extravagant demand: all notebooks were ruled. I searched some more, to the same conclusion, and then started using “sketchbooks,” which have plain paper and spiral binding, but have heavy, rough, paper meant for drawing.

Then, one day, hanging out in Japantown waiting for a movie to start at the Kabuki theater during a film festival, I found my dream notebook at the Kinokuniya stationery store. Spiral (actually, “double ring”) bound, with thin, smooth and very white paper, and a beautiful cover design. I bought one, and went to the theater, but it was still too early and we had to stand in line for a while. So I took out the notebook and started thinking about the problem I was working on at the time. And right then and there, I had the main idea in the analysis of one of the algorithms in what later became my paper on approximation algorithms for unique games.

So, I kept buying them, until Kinokuniya stopped carrying them, and now there is nearly no trace of them of the internet. (If you want to try look it up yourselves, it’s the “Expedient” notebook made by Kyokuto ltd., in China.)

I thought I was being a little “peculiar” in being so difficult about what to write on, until I talked about it to other theoreticians, and then I found out that there are many people who, in fact, like to write on unmarked paper and can’t understand why the option is so hard to find in America.

As a happy ending, I was out of town for New Year’s Eve, and I happened into a Muji store. It turns out Muji sells plain-paper notebooks with double-ring binding, and while they don’t look as neat as the Expedient ones, they are just fine, and cheap, and now I have four of them, on which I hope to prove lots of new theorems this coming Winter and Spring quarters. Wish me luck!

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