Math, and The Simpsons

Math and The Simpsons

I finally got a copy of Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets. You can also check out an excerpt from Singh’s book at Slate: “Homer’s Last Theorem

[update: Here’s another book excerpt, this time from Homer3, one of my all-time favorites. Slate: “One, doh!, three: Homer Simpson is a math genius. Really!“]

Interesting to learn that Fermat’s last theorem was an easter egg of sorts in Season Ten’s The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace.

homer 3d n and npWired has a great list of  top Simpsons Math moments: “The Simpsons Has Been Tricking You Into Learning Math for Decades.” Henry Kissinger’s glasses and ““the sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side” will still be my favorite, especially for the Wizard of Oz allusions. But “Girls Just Want to Have Sums” gets points for its educational topical relevance, even if it does end on a cop-out at the end.

Jordan Ellenberg from UW Madison wrote a solid review of the book: “Mathematics and Homer Simpson“, with the following reflection:

One “Simpsons” writer tells Singh: “I think the mathematical mind lends itself best to writing very silly jokes, because logic is at the heart of mathematics. The more you think about logic, the more you have fun twisting it and morphing it. I think the logical mind finds great humor in illogic.”

Homer math fermat's theorem

And while we’re on the subject, the best website on the subject has to be Sarah J. Greenwald and Andrew Nestler’s

Mother Jones (“How the Simpsons Have Secretly Been Teaching You Math“) shares a cool article and podcast with even more info.

Lastly, Simpsons math geeks will also want to check out this 9-minute video:

Do We Really Care How Long It Takes Us To Read a Book?

Delay iphone reading app

What if we could know exactly how long it took us to read a book before we bought it? Does it really matter?

This article from Publishing Perspectives (“Should Books Tell You How Long They Will Take to Read?“) got me thinking. In particular, PP mentions a new type of reading app:

“the Delay App, which asks readers to indicated the amount of time they would like to read and, in turn, the app offers them selections that can be read during that period.” 

Here’s a link to the related press release (PP: “Dutch Delay App Gives You Stories Tailored to Your Free Time“), and it does take an interesting approach: marketing ebook content by length of reading time.

With the Kindle, for instance, we get an estimated reading time based on our reading speed and pace at which we scroll through pages. From personal experience, I started out as a big fan. But lately, if I want to read simply for the sake of reading (right now, I’m reading Anna Karenina), the thrill has worn off and I longer get a thrill out of knowing how many hours and minutes are left in the book.

Part of that is probably related to the fact that the Kindle estimated reading time varies from fairly good to terrible. Reddit definitely comes in handy if you are looking for a way to reset that pesky Kindle timer: “How to fix Kindle reading time estimates.

suggested reading timeAnd here’s another interesting viewpoint, from Flavorwire: “No, Alexis Ohanian, I Don’t Want Books to Tell Me How Long I Should Spend Reading Them“:

“… the purpose isn’t so much informational as it is, I think, sort of hilariously disciplining of both author and reader. A slow reader will feel guilty; a fast reader will feel pride; in both cases the feelings serve no useful purpose. For a writer of any real caliber the thing is actively self-debasing. This is an author saying to you: “I have written a book. Isn’t it great? It is, but it is only worth five hours of your time. It might take you longer to read War and Peace, sure, and you might have to do a couple of re-reads. But the whole sum of human knowledge on offer in this book: it’s five hours only. I’m just efficient like that.”

My Kindle Paperwhite tells me that War and Peace should take about 30 hours. I don’t know how much of a bearing that has on my life or my reading experience.

What’s the point of all of this? I doubt the suggested reading time is a trend that will really catch on. But, as more and more of everyday life becomes quantified and organized into more and more slices of data, I can’t help but wonder that there is some importance in resisting over-scheduling certain things, like our reading time.

Very Cool: “Graphing the History of Philosophy”

Graphing the history of philosophy

(Click on the image above for a way bigger and more interactive version!)

Simon Raper of Drunks&Lampposts has created this amazing visualization “Graphing the History of Philosophy“, derived from the Influenced By section for every philosopher on Wikipedia. Some detail on his methodology:

“Each philosopher is a node in the network and the lines between them (or edges in the terminology of graph theory) represents lines of influence. The node and text are sized according to the number of connections (both in and out). The algorithm that visualises the graph also tends to put the better connected nodes in the centre of the diagram so we see the most influential philosophers, in large text, clustered in the centre. It all seems about right with the major figures in the western philosophical tradition taking the centre stage.”

The whole thing really is worth a close look (and there’s even a helpful download link of the 8MB complete file).

io9 (“The complete history of philosophy visualized in one graph”) has a good breakdown of this massive philosophy cluster:

“Conspicuous by his absence is Descartes, but Raper offers a possible explanation: The chart only measures direct influences, and it’s likely that Descartes’s tremendous contribution has trickled through second and third degree associations. Alternately, it could also be the fault of strictly using associations established by Wikipedia editors.

Other highly influential philosophers (rightly) include Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Leibniz, Rousseau, Hume, Wittgenstein, and even Noam Chomsky.

The graph also shows a certain amount of “clumping” that one would expect — a logical grouping of philosophers within their respective traditions, and in close relation to their precursors and eventual offshoots.” 

Bertrand Russell The History of Western Philosophy book coverHumanities in a Digital Age (“Visualizing the History of Philosophy?“) also offers a thoughtful counterpoint about the vagueness of influence involved, along with a more exact description of what we are looking at: “If we are after a graphic representation of what late-twentieth- and early twenty-first-century contributors to Wikipedia would have been likely to say about the relations of influence between figures in the Western tradition, this likely does a very good job of delivering us that.”

It’s a very cool visualization. And there’s always the old-fashioned way, like one of my favorites: Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy.

Books, Blogs, and Our Memories

Remembering Blogs, Remembering NovelsI came across this snippet, while doing some research, from GalleyCat: “Your Brain Can Remember a Blog Post Better Than a Novel“:

“It might be easier for your brain to remember this post than it is to recall details from a perfectly composed novel.

In a new paper in the Memory & Cognition journal, researchers discovered that “mind-ready” and casual formats like blog posts, Facebook status updates or Twitter writings might be easier for your brain to remember. These are powerful lessons for writers to learn about connecting with readers.”

Maybe … or, maybe not. Perhaps blogs that are more visually-oriented tend to stick in the memory better, but  personal experience tells me that I can still remember a novel better than the blog posts I read even yesterday (maybe because we’re concentrating more on novel reading than the more distracted, casual reading we do with blogs?)

Does this suggest that we remember fact better than fiction? The kind of evocative fiction involved in novel reading would seem to be easier to visualize. And then again, blogs (generally speaking) are easier to edit and update than novels — so unless we go digging around cached website copies, who’s to say how well we remember those blog posts?


While we’re on the topic, have you read Slate’s excellent 2010 (“The Ministry of Truth“) piece in its experiment on “changing history”? Cool, and kind of creepy. Definitely worth a read.

Digital words are more fluid than printed words, and this is a topic that I find endless fascinating; one of my favorite recent TED talks: Elizabeth Loftus and The Fiction of Memory.

On Book Vending Machines

Library Vending MachinesBookRiot (“The Library Vending Machine“) had a post which caught my attention, complete with YouTube video link, about the first 24-hour library vending machine in the United States. It’s a neat idea, and perhaps more scalable for  areas without the benefit of branch libraries: 

“This particular model costs $200,000, which includes a touchscreen terminal that patrons use to check materials in and out. The machine can also serve as a Wi-Fi hotspot, with either open or password-protected internet access. Patrons can also pick up holds and pay fines with credit cards.”

After all, if we have iPad vending machines (how are these profitable? why?), why not books? Which isn’t to suggest that book vending machines themselves are a new thing. The Huffington Post (“A Brief History of Book Vending Machines“) shares some helpful historical context, with book vending machines dating back to 1822, including the 1937 Penguincubator. And I know I have a photo somewhere of the now-defunct novel vending machine at London Heathrow Airport in 2010*: 

“Although vending machines have long been considered acceptable for newspapers, they’ve never really caught on where books are concerned. Books aren’t disposable items like cigarettes or candy. As a result, there’s something counter-intuitive about buying a book from a device that dispenses soda pop. Bestselling titles may help to diminish this disconnect, but do little to improve reading’s perceived intellectual value.”

Novel Idea Vending Machine London AirportGood point: there is something wasteful about a book we read once and discard, even if it is only a John Grisham novel that is read once, kept on a bookshelf for five years, and then sold at a garage sale for twenty-five cents.

If it were me, I’d put the book vending machines in places where people are forced to wait with almost nothing to do … like post offices, or unemployment offices. They’d move backlist items like hotcakes.

[update: Hey, there’s even one in Sunnyvale, CA!  From San Jose Mercury: “County’s first library vending machine serves books at the push of a button“]

[update 2: I found my Novel Ideas photo, too]


And, check out this great Pinterest board of Book Vending Machines photos, new and old.

Peru’s Lucha Libro: Writer vs. Writer

Well, this one is too good not to comment on. From PRI: “Peru makes book writing into a spectator sport and invites aspiring writers into combat

“It’s a twist on Lucha Libre, Mexico’s version of pro wrestling, where competitors put on masks and pseudonyms to duke it out in a ring.

Peru’s Lucha Libro is kind of like that, without the violence. It’s literary “wrestling.” New writers don masks, and head onto a stage where they’re given three random words, a laptop hooked up to a gigantic screen, and five minutes to write a short story.

At the end of a match, the losing writer has to take off his or her mask. The winner goes on to the next round, a week later. And the grand prize? It’s a book contract … 

‘It’s also about changing the idea that literature is boring. This turns it into an event. Because it’s not just about the opportunity for a young person to become a writer,” he says. “It’s also about having a place for young people to hang out – and to read.”

Writer vs. Writer: Franzen vs. ChabonHey, there’s probably worse ways to get a book contract. And writing as a spectator sport? Why not? All of the lucha libro (similar, but different, from the weirdly fascinating Mexican lucha libre) writing is projected on screen: does the crowd boo typos? Cheer a snappy epigram?

Writing sometimes seems antagonist enough, so why not make the writer vs. writer theme as literal as possible? Funnily enough, the three word structure reminds of Six-Word Memoirs.

Check out The Believer (The Believer: “Lucha Libro“) for an excellent story, complete with totally-apt Roland Barthes quote [the link is to a snippet, full article is subscription-only].  And you can visit the official competition website, En español:

Publishing Perspectives (“Lucha Libro: Masked Peruvian Writers Battle for a Book Contract“) has some good insights not only about the Lucha Libro phenomenon but also about the Peru publishing industry: “in Peru, paperbacks often cost between twenty and thirty dollars, pricing them far beyond the reach of many Peruvians. Because of this, readership is low and “publishing contracts are even harder to come by the in the United States.” But even so, the land of Maria Vargas Llosa and Cesar Vallejo has more than its share of writers hoping for their big break.

Peru This Week shares some cool, stylized videos of the literary tournament which you can check out here: “Check out a funny battle of words at Lucha Libro 2013” —

So … a new “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Book?

millennium-trilogy-coversThe mystery of the fourth Stieg Larsson book has been ongoing for quite awhile now. We know that Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson had originally planned as many as ten books for the best-selling Millennium Trilogy, and was working on a fourth novel up until his untimely death in 2004. Then the status of the book was trapped a bitter legal dispute involving Larsson’s estate and his partner.

So it comes as a mild surprise, that a fourth book will be released some time in 2015.  From GalleyCat: ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Series to Get Fourth Book Next Year”:

“Swedish journalist David Lagercrantz is writing the fourth book in Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy and the follow up to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series will come out next year. The new book will start where Larsson’s wildly successful series left off.

Radio Sweden has the scoop: “The new book will not be based on any notes left behind by the late author, and instead will be a stand-alone sequel to the series. It will be released on the tenth anniversary of publication of the first book, “Men who hate women/The girl with the dragon tattoo”, next year.””

The Telegraph has more details of note: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: new author signed up for fourth book“:

“The head of publishing at Norstedts, Eva Gedin, told AP the book will be an original work that includes nothing from the fourth book in the series that Larsson began writing but hadn’t finished when he died.

 …  According to his colleague Kurdo Baksi, Larsson had been working on a fourth Millennium book when he died. The manuscript, which was 75 per cent complete, was set in Ireland, Sweden and America and featured Salander’s twin Camilla.”

I don’t know. It could work out, but I’m a bit skeptical. Still, it’ll be an interesting story to follow.

Arrested Development: Running Gags Edition

NPR Arrested Development

How did I miss this? Back in May, NPR made an interactive guide to every running gag in Arrested Development: previously, on arrested development. And, I love it. The occurrence/joke in background/foreshadowing format is very smart. Apparently, there were more “… and always leave a note” gags than I remember. From a completely unscientific eyeball test, it looks like “Tobias is gay” gags are the most recurring, which sounds about right.

Also worth a look: the Recurring Developments website.

And of course, this 8-minute supercut of the top 18 Arrested Development running jokes:

OK, so maybe Season 4 didn’t live up to all of the hype (but, could it have, really?) We still might have a Season 5, and the latest word sounded cautiously optimistic — Huffington Post: “Mitch Hurwitz Admits ‘Arrested Development’ Missteps, Plans For Season 5 & Movie.”

Arrested Development and Philosophy

Arrested Development and Philosophy is still one of my favorites.


Which reminds me of something else: xkcd and YouTube comments.



“Librarians in the Digital Age” [Infographic]

digital_librariansFrom GalleyCat: “Librarians in the Digital Age” (click on the image to the left for a much larger viewable version) —

“The University of Southern California has created an infographic called, “Librarians in the Digital Age,” which explores how digital technology is changing libraries.”

 Most interesting to me is that the number of ebooks at libraries tripled from 2003 to 2011 (you can probably skip the second half of the graphic, which touches upon the somewhat obvious changing role of the librarian over the past few years).


Speaking of libraries, I’ve been wondering about the One City, One Book programs that have been around for the past several years.

On the one hand, anything that involves building a sense of community and reading has some inherent good in it. On the other hand,  getting an entire city to read one book at the same time is a lot easier said than done. For example, from The New York Times: “Want a Fight? Pick One Book for All New Yorkers“, an article I am linking for the sole purpose of the following gem:

‘” ‘I don’t like these mass reading bees,” said Harold Bloom, unofficial custodian of the literary canon, professor at Yale and part-time New Yorker. He said reading was too private an experience for such municipal orchestration. ”It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once,’ he said.”

 Because, reading books together and eating Chicken McNuggets are like totally the same thing. Reading is a private experience, but it needn’t always be.

Have you checked out NPR’s Book Concierge? It’s not bad.

NPR Book Concierge

I’m always big on new kinds of book discovery, so NPR’s recent launch of its Book Concierge web app certainly caught my attention.

From GalleyCat:

“The Book Concierge lets you mix and match from 21 different categories of reading. You can combine your moods to come up with what will fit.

When you launch the app, you are greeted with view a visual feed of book covers for all of NPR’s top books of the year. Then on the left hand side bar you can pick and choose tags.”

The Book Concierge is simple, pretty slick and does a decent job of that browsing-a-bookstore-feeling. Although a phone or tablet version would be great, too.

I think I like the Book Concierge a little more than the annual end of the year NPR Book Lists, something which they even thoughtfully addressed here: “The Top 5 Reasons We’re Taking A Break From Lists” (there aren’t really five reasons; just list-fatigue, which is plenty of reason).

BookRiot also chimes in with their review, too: “Test Driving NPR’s Book Concierge App.”

And, since I was in an NPR Book List kind of mood, here’s a useful GoodReads list of NPR-related book lists: “GoodReads: NPR Book Lists.)