Thursday, May 01, 2008

Winter Reading

Admittedly, I haven’t written much for the past few months. But I have been reading.

Armed Madhouse, by Greg Palast. The elections, the hurricane, the war, No Child Left Behind, voter IDs and why the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 could have a six million vote edge right now, today.

“Caging lists” are used to target registered voters through first-class mailings. Those who don’t respond can be challenged at the voting booth. Sounds fair, right? John Doe isn’t at that address. Guess what, John Doe might not be at that address because he is in Iraq. He also stands a chance of challenge if he lives in a senior citizen center or a transient facility or within a certain zip code — meaning a black neighborhood.

Then there are the “felon” purges, when registered voters are struck from the rolls because their names appear in a list of felons. Sounds good, right? Felons can’t vote.

Oh, but in some states they can! And why not? If they have served their sentence, on what basis is their right to vote further denied? Even if one believes that felons shouldn’t be allowed to vote, can one justify purging someone like me from the rolls because of a list of felons from another state?

I have a very common name; there were four Jerry Smiths in my sixth grade class. Is there a bad Jerry Smith out there who shares some variation of my name? Is that why I can’t vote? If the issue is a Constitutional right, who has the burden of proof? Should I have to prove that I am not that other guy, or should the state be required to prove that I am?

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I’m not worried at all about being disenfranchised — I’m a middle-aged white man! My name doesn’t sound black or Latin or Muslim or Native American or foreign in any way.

Not to change the subject, but the Supreme Court recently upheld an Indiana law on voter identification. In my opinion, a specialized voter ID amounts to a poll tax, which I thought was un-Constitutional. But I digress. Armed Madhouse is a great book. Try to grin as you read.

No Logo, by Naomi Klein. The apotheosis of branding, first as a marketing strategy and then as a model corporate structure. The Nike corporation is a perfect example. Nike sells a vision of sport. Nike doesn’t make any shoes or shirts; those are produced in foreign factories were labor is cheap and human rights are cheaper. Hey, free market, right?

The branding battle continuously encroaches on the very notion of public space. Imagine one extreme of the public/private property-rights “spectrum,” that point along the continuum where every cubic foot of space is privately owned and controlled. In such a world, there is no public space. Now you understand the drive to privatize public assets.

The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler. What will the passing of “cheap” fossil fuel prices bring? How high must fuel costs rise before they impact the price of “cheap” products from China? How about “cheap” crops? How about “cheap” plastic bags?

(Kunstler and Palast have differing perspectives on “peak oil.” However one dates the doom, fossil fuels clearly represent a finite resource with significant externalized costs. Oil production will decline at some point, but “cheap energy” will decline long before that.)

Freedom Evolves, by Daniel C. Dennett. Consciousness, free will, morality.

Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction, by Susan Blackmore. I was about half-way through Freedom Evolves when I put it down to read Blackmore’s very short introduction. Then I returned to Dennett’s book.

Bush v Gore 2000. The decision is available online. You know, I’m funny about details. The first thing I noticed was its full title. Gore is correctly identified as Albert Gore, Jr. But President-to-be Bush is incorrectly identified as George W. Bush. I thought everyone knew his daddy was also named George.

Through, I found a link to an excellent explanation of the ruling. It is clear, informative, even humorous — except for the fact that it’s true. The decision should resolve any questions you might have about the 2000 election, the 2004 election, or the 2008 election yet to come.

(Incidentally, in an interview on CBS, Justice Antonin Scalia declined to discuss the decision. “Get over it,” he said. “It’s so old by now.” In the same interview, he denied that torture constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because, he explained, torture isn’t punishment.)

Care for some π?

This question came up at a party: When mathematicians calculate pi, how do they do it? What are they dividing into what? I didn’t know, so I looked it up.

Of course, an ancient Greek did it first. Using a sexagesimal mathematical system (based on the number 60), Archimedes investigated pi by inscribing regular polyhedrons inside and outside a unit circle.* As the number of sides of such polyhedrons increases, their peripheries approach pi.
Many people have learned to approximate pi by dividing 22 by 7. The result is a repeating decimal greater than pi but close enough for ordinary purposes. A German mathematician named Ludolph van Ceulen honed the parameters of pi down to a region between 22 divided by 7 and 223 divided by 71. The first 35 digits of each approximation were carved on his tombstone.

More recent mathematicians have calculated pi down to a surrealistically long series of digits. Still, Archimedes’s achievement stands out.

Pi, or something very like it, in sexagesimal notation.

* The number 60 has many factors: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. And of course, 6 times 60 equals 360 — the number of degrees in a circle.

It never ceases to amaze me how much the ancient Greeks figured out and how much the later European Christians systematically forgot. The Dark Ages were dark for a reason. The Greeks established that the world was round. The proof is simple. They knew the moon orbited the earth, and they arrived at good approximations of the relative sizes of the earth and the moon. All that knowledge was stamped out after Christians were no longer the oppressed but the oppressors.

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