Tuesday 4 August 2015

Mythical Morning

Martin Gardner wrote his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American religiously, reliably every month for 25+ years. That takes a certain amount of native brilliance, a huge stock of curiosity and, perhaps most important, stamina. But after a while, if you stick at it, your readers get sufficiently numerous and dedicated that they start to help drive the train.  Something Gardner wrote would fire a connexion in someone's mind and a letter would be written that would induce Gardner to develop the idea in his column which would trigger . . . and a sustained thread would chunter on for months.

At the beginning of 2014, I promised I'd have a rant about Douglas Hofstadter. I'm sorry if you've been kept in suspense for 20 months, but that time is now. When Gardner finally retired from Sci.Am. in 1981, the empty space was filled by Hofstadter whose influential, massive [800+ pages] and recursive Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid had been published in 1979. Hofstadter renamed the column Metamagical themas, which is an anagram of 'mathematical games' <geddit?>, and went off to mine and expose the seams of his own mind as Gardner had done before.  Well, he ran out of steam in a little over a year and/or the editor pulled the column because so many readers complained about the waste-of-space in their subscription. I remember the whole fiasco well because I was in graduate school in Boston and Sci.Am used to appear in the lab every month.  The first two or three pieces were about self-referential sentences which is interesting enough ["This sentence no verb" . . . "This sentence is thirty-three letters."] and can develop some interesting logic conundrums if you like that sort of thing but not 10,000 words of interest.  Hofstadter was clearly as sharp as a tack and bright as a pin but without a quite brutal copy-editor "WTF do you mean here, Douglas?" could easily disappear up his own worm-hole in space-time. The clever-clogs intellectualism is exposed in the title of his huge book - do you see how the initials of the sub-title reprise the initials of the three men whose work is picked over (and over and over) in the Gurt Editorless Book.  Nevertheless, I read the book from cover-to-cover in grad school and learned quite a lot about musical composition and the relationship between music and maths.  About five years ago, I thought I'd reprise the experience and got GEB-EGB out of the library. It hadn't worn well in the intervening 25 years: tedious, self-congratulatory, too-clever-by-'arf, poorly editted and frequently impenetrable.  The only greater disappointment I've had with a re-read was Catcher in the Rye read in my 50s - horrible people, horrible language . . . horrible.

Stephen J. Gould, who also wrote an insanely sustained Natural History column every month claimed he could only do it between baseball, beers and his day job if he sat down one evening a few days before the deadline and wrote it all out in a single sitting . . . no edits.  Nevertheless, you can imagine doing that if you have 30 days between deliveries and you live a rich and fulfilling life with lots of inputs. Rachel "Silent Spring" Carson also had a frightening talent for pushing out material. I don't know how that chap churns out The Blob every freakin' day; he must spend the whole of his waking hours restlessly surfing the blogosphere for stuff to rip off.  But there are some youtube channels and vlogs that are quite extraordinary in their output: every weekday, rain or shine. These regular guys (mostly guys, I'm afraid) have attracted page-views in the millons - 5 orders of magnitude more than the attention given to The Blob.  Part of this must be the reliability of new stuff appearing every day; but writing about things that a lot of people care about must also help.

I'm currently on a Good Mythical Morning GMM jag, dipping in and out of the back catalogue [N=999!] of Rhett and Link's 10-12 minutes investigations, chats and repartee. I cited one such piece on the uses of urine just last Sunday. They've been going for about 5 years and have probably long outstripped any column in any pre-internet medium in terms of word-count and/or diversity of interestingness.  Now they have achieved a critical mass of devoted followers, like Martin Gardner of old, they are getting a lot of copy from the listeners.  I'm not going to make a habit of GMM but I can see why people might want to wake up to face the working day with 10 minutes of Rhett and Link going bonkers or making you think a bit.  If it makes you hang about at home long enough to eat breakfast, it's probably good for your health and productivity. But not too much breakfast, folks, there's an obesity epidemic out there which Rhett and Link are fighting rather well despite eating a lot of stuff on camera [L is a $10 'Meat Mountain' sandwich from the Arby's fast-food chain - it's just a snack for the average American]

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