Political Animal

Lefty Blogger Disease

LEFTY BLOGGER DISEASE….For the past couple of years the LA Times has had an editorial page columnist named John Balzar, and I like him a lot. He’s an ex-Marine with moderate liberal instincts and a practical, humanist frame of mind, and he writes interesting columns that don’t just echo what everyone else is saying. Unfortunately, he also seems to have succumbed to lefty blogger disease:

Our civic arguments are frequently unforgiving and growing more so. On matters of state and culture, art and music, in matters of our public lives, we speak to each other in the language of stridency.

The correspondence sent my way in these months by thousands of readers is representatively volcanic: If only people knew better! If only you knew better! If only everybody was as wise as someone else!

Today’s column was his last, and although he doesn’t say why he’s leaving the column writing biz, it sounds like he just got tired of the format (gotta have an opinion twice a week) and the stridency (criticize George Bush even mildly and watch the Times server crash under the email load).

It’s true that I read more lefty blogs than conservative ones, but I don’t think that explains the frequency of liberals who quit blogging or go on hiatus, complaining that the shrill tone of the blogosphere is just too much and they need to get away from it. Conservatives rarely seem to have that problem. I don’t know if they actively thrive on the vitriol, but at least they seem to have a higher tolerance for it.

I realize there’s no answer to this question, but I still wonder: what are conservatives so damn mad about? When even Andrew Sullivan ? Andrew Sullivan! ? gets besieged with “vituperative” email for a criticism of George Bush that registered about 0.1 on the Richter scale, shouldn’t the right side of the spectrum consider taking a step back and checking to see if the vast socialist conspiracy is really quite as bad as they think it is?

As for lefties, we need to develop thicker skins.

Sports Trivia

SPORTS TRIVIA….Chad Orzel muses on an important question: is there any sporting event that has a greater ratio of build-up time to actual event time than the Kentucky Derby? He suggests that the run-up is a couple of weeks, while the race itself takes two minutes, an astonishing 10,000:1 ratio.

Chad considers and dismisses things like the Olympic 100-meter dash, which is embedded in a larger tournament, and is only able to come up with the occasional one-round knockout in professional boxing as a true competitor to the Derby.

Any other ideas?

The Riemann Hypothesis

THE RIEMANN HYPOTHESIS….I finished my book on the Riemann Hypothesis, and unfortunately I didn’t think much of it. It turns out that I’ve already read another book by the same author, and I didn’t like that book too much either, so maybe I just don’t like his books.

But it goes beyond that, I think, and the problem is one that infects an awful lot of popular books about math: most of them discuss things that require at least some familiarity with topics beyond basic arithmetic. In this case, for example, you really need to know what a complex number is.

So the author has two choices: (a) write the book for an audience that already knows what complex numbers are, which reduces your potential readership to a Very Small Number, or (b) explain complex numbers.

Most authors, including this one, choose option (b). This is annoying to me because I then have to wade through dozens of pages I don’t need to read, something that has to be done with care since these pages invariably also contain details here and there that are important to other parts of the story.

What’s more, I have my doubts that this works anyway. First of all, I wonder just how many non-mathophiles are going to read a book like this in the first place, and of the ones who do, I wonder how many actually end up understanding the kinds of tortured analogies that are usually used to explain difficult concepts. In this case the author analogizes complex numbers to streets and cross streets in New York, and then tries to convince us that the cross streets are somehow related to the square root of -1.

Fair enough, and I don’t know that I could do any better, but does it actually help? Does anyone who didn’t understand the concept in the first place understand it better after reading an explanation like this?

I honestly don’t know, but I can’t help but think that these efforts are doomed. The book has plenty of scary looking equations, and I’m pretty sure that simply saying “don’t be scared!” doesn’t do much to broaden your audience. It might be better to simply assume that anyone interested in a topic like this is already familiar with high school algebra, accept the fact that this will reduce your audience a bit, and be done with it.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, a lot of this has to do with the skill of the author. For example, a very good book about math that I read a few years ago was The Mystery of the Aleph, by Amir Aczel, a short book about Georg Cantor and transfinite set theory. Aczel did a great job of explaining the math in an understandable way, weaving it seamlessly with interesting historical background and a biography of Cantor himself. My recollection is also that Aczel simply assumed, for example, that his readers knew what an exponent was and didn’t waste time trying to teach basic algebra. It made for a much better book.

The Music Industry vs. the World….Part LXXVII

THE MUSIC INDUSTRY VS. THE WORLD….PART LXXVII….The music industry, frustrated beyond the bounds of rationality by internet music downloading, is apparently considering viruses as a way of fighting back:

A more malicious program, dubbed “freeze,” locks up a computer system for a certain duration ? minutes or possibly even hours ? risking the loss of data that was unsaved if the computer is restarted. It also displays a warning about downloading pirated music. Another program under development, called “silence,” scans a computer’s hard drive for pirated music files and attempts to delete them. One of the executives briefed on the silence program said that it did not work properly and was being reworked because it was deleting legitimate music files, too.

Other approaches that are being tested include launching an attack on personal Internet connections, often called “interdiction,” to prevent a person from using a network while attempting to download pirated music or offer it to others.

I’ve written before that I genuinely sympathize with the industry’s plight, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to just twiddle their thumbs while their entire business implodes. But even so, this is like lobbing a nuke at the Bay Area because you don’t like Nancy Pelosi. What the hell are they thinking?