That unforgettable Sci Fi story about a man who rediscovers how to perform calculations by hand

One of those works of fiction that I read innumerable years ago but I’ve never been able to forget was Isaac Asimov’s 1957 short story, “The Feeling of Power.” Set in the distant future when computers perform all calculations and design new technology without further input from man, it is the story of a humble technician who rediscovers the process of doing math on paper, by hand.

I had forgotten its author and the title, and was delighted to come across it in an old Science Fiction anthology I packed for pleasure reading on a trip.

While the narrative gist of a handful of stories and novels linger on in my memory, very few titles do the same. I’m one of those annoying people who says:

“You know, it’s that book about the guy who…”

Sometimes I follow up that gem with:

“I think the cover might have been blue?”

I may intrigue you, but I’m unlikely to be an efficient resource for putting the work into your hands. Unlikely, that is, unless I still own the hard copy, and the cover is, in fact, blue! If I find it (probably while you’re sitting at my dinner table), I’ll send it home with you, then promptly forget to whom I’ve loaned the book.

Returning to “The Feeling of Power,” I recommend it. It’s a short ten pages, and a quick read. I can see why it stuck in my mind so many years ago, but I also found much more to appreciate this time around. I remembered very strongly the tone of the ending, but had forgotten many details of the narrative.

It should be particularly appealing to anyone who loves math–or perhaps to those who find it hateful who would like to imagine it forgotten!–and to anyone who likes Sci Fi in general and Asimov in particular.

Here’s the particular anthology I brought on vacation. It was published in 1985.

Asimov was a prolific writer, and I’m certain “The Feeling of Power” appeared elsewhere in print. I actually thought I’d originally read this story in one of those elementary school reading textbooks full of disjointed works by a variety of authors. If anyone knows whether Asimov ever published in such volumes, I’d love to hear about it!

Does poetry offer the best analogy for humanity’s greatest scientific breakthroughs?

In the novel The Robots of Dawn, third in Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy, a preeminent scientist, the best on his or any other world in his field, says:

“You know it always bothers some of my colleagues when I tell them that, if a conclusion is not poetically balanced, it cannot be scientifically true. They tell me they don’t know what that means.”

Baley said, “I’m afraid I don’t, either.”book Asimov Robot novels - 1

“But I know what it means, I can’t explain it, but I feel the explanation without being able to put it into words, which may be why I have achieved results my colleagues have not. …”

I made note of the quote as I re-read this classic novel last week because it echoes so closely something I myself have struggled to put into words for my entire adult life.

As a teenager, I chose the identical comparison for explaining my delight with certain physics experiments:

[The experiment’s demonstration of the concept] is so perfect. It just sings. It’s like poetry.

I know I’ve repeated the phrase, “it’s like poetry,” many times in conversation about great ideas. I have yet to find a better expression for “the intuitive sense of the rightness” of a theory. It’s definitely something to do with harmony and balance.

Having devoured Asimov’s Robot novels in middle school*, it is now obvious to me that I’d read the quote with which I began this post well before I myself used the poetry simile. I’m now begging the question, did I get this idea from Asimov, leaving it to quietly percolate for another half dozen or so years before I re-expressed it, taking a distant memory for my own idea?

Or is this notion a truth, existing in the intellectual universe, waiting to be uncovered by one likely mind after another?

Does anyone else find herself using this expression to express a certain balanced perfection in knowledge?**

If you do, did you also read Asimov at a formative age?

Is poetry as distillation of language from the prosaic to the artistic a fundamentally apt metaphor for great leaps in scientific discovery and the expression thereof, or does the comparison only resonate with creative writers? Pardon me, please, for lumping my humble efforts with the greatness of Asimov in this respect!

Finally, as an aside, I want to shout to the world that the Robot series holds up well for revisiting decades after their impressive effect on a young reader. Asimov was a genius, and these books remain a fantastic diversion.

*roughly age 12

**Here’s a person writing about science and poetry in a literary journal. She maintains that the disciplines aren’t mutually exclusive, though they might seem so to less perceptive thinkers. A search also shows me that someone once had an e-zine at poetryandscience.com, but the link appears to be broken so I can only wonder at what took place there.

Baltasar Gracián’s 17th C “Art of Worldly Wisdom” offers sound guidance today

§80     TAKE care when you get information. We live by information, not by sight. We exist by faith in others. The ear is the sidedoor of truth but the frontdoor of lies. The truth is generally seen, rarely heard. She seldom comes in elemental purity, especially from afar—there is always some admixture of the moods of those through whom she has passed. The passions tinge her with their colors wherever they touch her, sometimes favorably, sometimes odiously. She always brings out people’s disposition, therefore receive her with caution from him that praises, with more caution from him that blames. Pay attention to the intention of the speaker; you should know beforehand on what footing he comes. Let reflection test for falsity and exaggeration.

Emphasis is mine.

Written in the 17th Century, Gracián’s thoughts in The Art of Worldly Wisdom* seem equally apropos today; perhaps even more so.

Replace “the ear” with “the internet” in sentence four:

The internet is the side door of truth but the front door of lies.

I’d say that fits.

What a powerful tool for crowdsourcing information and bypassing traditional nodes of centralized power.

What an easy way to disseminate propaganda, falsehoods, and forgeries, enticingly wrapped up with all of our cognitive biases.

It behooves us all to think critically about our sources of “truth.”

Let reflection test for falsity and exaggeration.

Humans are uniquely blessed with critical faculties. We live in an era uniquely abundant in sources to which we may—and must!—apply our highest powers of thought.

If we fail to do so, our technology may prove to be our undoing, calling to mind the soft, feeble Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Think! Or prepare for your descendants to be fed to the Morlocks.**

*I’m reading Joseph Jacob’s translation on my Kindle

**Metaphor!  Follow the link about Eloi or pick up a copy of The Time Machine and find out for yourself.

Books by my bedside 2017/09/14

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books-2017-08-2x-1-e1503620159745.jpg

Non-Fiction

History, Politics & Social Science

Anti-Education by Nietzsche, Friedrich

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Gracián, Baltasar

Churchill & Orwell: The fight for freedom by Ricks, Thomas E.

College Disrupted:The great unbundling of higher education by Craig , Ryan

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Goodman, Matthew

Grand Hotel Abyss: The lives of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries, Stuart

Margaret Fuller: Bluestocking, romantic, revolutionary by Wilson, Ellen

Walden by Thoreau, Henry D.

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur Spanish I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics by Schmidt, Stanley F.

 Books Math Life of Fred Prealgebra

Fiction

Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen

Edge of Evil by Jance, J.A.

Finding Her Way (YA title) by Faigen, Anne

M.C. Higgins the Great by (YA title) by Hamilton, Virginia

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland (YA title) by Rebekah Crane*

Reading Notes:

I’ve been reading a fair amount for two disparate reasons. Continue reading

Freedom or equality? Leadership or charlatanism? The True Believer and its relevance today

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements, Eric Hoffer wrote:

29.

Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority.

Equality without freedom creates a more stable social pattern than freedom without equality.

This is a thought I spent a lot of time with. It’s one to roll around in your mind for a bit and savor. It isn’t obvious, but it seems likely to be true.

What do we do with this fact if it is accurate? Does it help us create the society we want? Is there anything we can do about it if it doesn’t?

Get the book from Amazon here, or borrow it from your local library like I did.

When I first started my blog, Really Wonderful Things, many months ago, I also started browsing and following many others via the WordPress Reader. One of those blogs led me to The True Believer, though I failed to note the link and can’t find it now.

This is one of the most powerful reads I’ve enjoyed in the past several years. I made note of nine sections in a file I keep for absolutely brilliant thoughts. I noted excerpts from §12, 18, 29 (above), 30, 47, 56, 91, 93, and 98.

As I understand it, Eric Hoffer was a self-taught philosopher employed as a manual laborer. His book became a bestseller after President Eisenhower quoted it in a speech.

I don’t typically read Philosophy for entertainment. I’m simply not drawn to the abstruseness of others, preferring instead to wade through disparate straightforward and concrete facts to construct my own syntheses. It’s how I keep myself entertained as a stay at home mom.

Here is a plainly written collection of observations on the nature of mass movements that, at least in my opinion, still speaks directly to some of the major issues of our time.

I’ll leave you with this thought on political leaders and why they can get away with blatant untruths:

91.

…The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.

Charlatanism of some degree is indispensable to effective leadership. There can be no mass movements without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts. No solid, tangible advantage can hold a following and make it zealous and loyal unto death.

Does it strike you as relevant to current world leaders?

Welcome back to school; I miss you while you’re there!

I dislike sending my little guy back to school on the day after Labor Day. In direct contradiction to the nonsense spouted in television commercials, not all parents cheer to have their kids out of the house.

If I were selfish, I would educate both of my children at home, to suit my personality and my interests. I send the younger one to school instead because it suits his.

I miss our long, quiet summer mornings. There’s time for us, then, to sit down together over breakfast. I miss saying yes to late night stargazing and other adventures because there’s no need to worry about a busy schedule.

I miss DS2‘s good company around the house during the day. He’s blessed with great wit and a loving temperament. He’s generous with his hugs.

I am excited to begin the new school session with DS1 here at home. He studies year ’round, but our schedule changes to a different pattern every September, December, January, and June. This choice is energizing, and keeps subjects feeling fresh.

DS1 is a pleasure to keep at home with me. We’re both fairly introverted, so we often work quietly, side by side. Quietly, that is, until one of us gets excited about a project or idea. Continue reading

Including a Kindle for ultralight carry on travel: when is the weight justified?

To travel with the Kindle, or without the Kindle? That is my question before each trip.

Much of my travel kit is so definitive, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I carried anything different.

For over a decade, I’ve had a silk sleeping bag liner or “sleep sack” (dubbed by our family as “the sleestak” because that’s funnier) with me on every flight. It doubles as a blanket, protects me from chemical-laden hotel bedding, and acts as a neck pillow or cushioned armrest while rolled up.

I could go on and on about other items in my carefully curated collection of travel gear. Most pieces serve multiple purposes. Many of them delight me because they remind me of adventures past. I know what I need, why I need it, and (usually) where to pack it with very little contemplation.

When it comes to my Kindle, however, I’m weighing its inclusion before every trip.

Kindle - 1The truth is, I never need to bring the Kindle. I have a smartphone and a tablet, both of which include the Kindle app. Unlike the dark ages of my youth, I never need to carry a stack of paperbacks (it took four for a cross country flight) these days to ensure having entertainment for hours of airline isolation.

I often do bring one codex in spite of the weight of paper and ink. I like to read a physical book. Books, however, don’t often work best for my physical limitations.

The reason I read on a Kindle is mundane. I have arthritis in my hands and wrists. There is no less taxing way to hold a library in my hands than my Kindle Voyage.* Continue reading

Books by my bedside 2017/08/12

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts by Hammer, Joshua

White Trash : the 400-year untold history of class in America by Isenberg, Nancy

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Kidneys by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Liver by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Mineshaft by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Fractions by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Decimals and Percents by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Memoir

Casting Lots : creating a family in a beautiful, broken world by Silverman, Susan

Fiction

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Backman, Fredrik

Books 2017.08.12 fiction - 1

Reading Notes:

I haven’t been feeling very well for a week or so (not interesting to talk about), but one happy consequence of spending hours on the couch is that I’ve had more time for casual reading.

US History of White Trash

After two weeks of grumpy interactions with Isenberg’s White Trash, I let it go when my digital library loan expired and I don’t intend to finish it. There’s some interesting history here, but I found myself annoyed by what felt like intentional misunderstandings by the author more often than I gained insight into America’s past.

Typical example: stating that Thomas Jefferson was failing to enact political change while describing an episode of gradual political change. I think the author meant that Jefferson should have done more, and more quickly, but I quickly tired of watching the author grind her axe.

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Now here’s a book I couldn’t return to the library before completion.

To me, Timbuktu means “the ends of the Earth.” Timbuktu is synonymous with exotic foreign locales. Timbuktu is a place I knew by name before this book but with little understanding of its unique place in the history of learning and culture.

Bad-ass Librarians was written by a journalist, and it sometimes reads like a series of articles glued together to make a book. It’s worth reading anyway.

The provocative title aside, this is the story of ordinary (and extraordinary) people in Mali fighting back against a jihadist invasion of the region around Timbuktu. This book celebrates the thinking person’s ability to triumph over willful ignorance and wanton violence.

Here’s a rare celebration of centuries of African scholarship as glimpsed by the West. The threat to its tangible artifacts—a treasure trove of rare, priceless manuscripts—by Islamist extremists made my heart pound. I’m left with a yearning to see some of these documents for myself, and a renewed interest in learning some Arabic.

I can think of no better way for me, personally, to express my wish for peace in this world than through the cross-cultural sharing of books.

Adoption & Jewish motherhood in Casting Lots

Casting Lots came to me by way of a philanthropical organization that sends free books to Jewish families. Usually, it’s the kids who get the loot, but this month, there was a gift for me.

I am familiar with comedienne Sarah Silverman. I was intrigued to read that the author—her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman—is considered “the funny sister.” There’s certainly a family resemblance, including some of the crude punchlines that I most associate with Sarah.

In spite of that (because I get why potty humor is funny, but it’s not my first choice for entertainment), I enjoyed most of the time I spent with Casting Lots. It is, at its core, an engaging personal story. Silverman would be someone interesting to have a cup of coffee with.

The subject of international adoption is one I’ve considered for myself and observed through friends and family, and it is genuinely moving to follow her along this path to parenthood.

Her take on Judaism in general resonates less with me, and I see this story as a readable tale that happens to be written by a Jewish woman, not a Jewish parenting book, per se.

Mathematics textbooks, specifically, the Life of Fred

I wrote about this the other day, but I’m brushing up on my pre-algebra terms and presentation in preparation for working with the child* of a friend as a math tutor.

Life of Fred is a nontraditional approach to teaching math. Author Stanley F. Schmidt, PhD, presents the subject from elementary arithmetic up through college level courses in Linear Algebra and Real Analysis, all told through the lens of a 5 ½ year old professor named Fred at fictional KITTENS University.

Yeah, most of it really is as wacky as it sounds.

And yet: my younger son has read many of these books for fun, and more than once. He’s begging me to buy the Life of Fred: Calculus textbook so he can finally learn Fred’s origin story.

I’m in no rush to get my elementary schooler into calculus, but I’m impressed by a math book that promotes such a devoted following in a child who regularly declares himself averse to “being taught” anything.

We’ve had the elementary and intermediate arithmetic series for years, but I’ve just ordered the three volume pre-algebra series (Pre-Algebra 0 with PhysicsPre-Algebra 1 with Biology, and Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics) and Life of Fred: Beginning Algebra Expanded Edition.

I can’t speak to using this collection as a stand-alone mathematics curriculum, because that isn’t how I chose to use these books with my home educated child.

I do think that the method employed—every math problem to be solved is presented in the context of a character’s real life and search for solutions—might be exactly the right remediation for a child who has internalized the notion that learning math means memorizing occult procedures.

I spent the better part of two days perusing all of my current mathematics texts, then more hours compiling lists and ordering next year’s curricula in this and other subjects for DS1 and The Scholar.

The math curriculum I did use extensively with DS1 is also pictured above. (Beast Academy, by Art of Problem Solving.) Because I’m so familiar with them, I only picked out chapters and exercises for The Scholar to begin with; I didn’t read extensively from any of these. I mention them now because I can wholeheartedly recommend BA as a complete home school curriculum. They are also suitable as enrichment for a weak classroom program, or a student who needs a challenge.

*I’ve dubbed her The Scholar

Poring over pre-algebra textbooks to appease my non-math anxiety

I read six math textbooks yesterday from cover to cover, and I perused at least half a dozen more.

Math books textbook Laundry

Observe that the clean laundry was folded onto one of the stacks of textbooks, because it had to be done, but there was no energy left to move any of these objects elsewhere around the house

Why would I do such a thing? It’s because I’m feeling unprepared for pre-algebra. That’s making me anxious.

Wait, what?!?

I’ve said it before, but I’ve also learned that I must repeat it: I’m a lady who is good at math.

And, I’m going on about that again because I’m undertaking something new.  My current anxiety hinges on my ability to impart my knowledge of, and suitable appreciation for, the application of math… to someone else’s child.

A friend and her daughter are going to learn at home this year, like DS1 and I (and millions of other American kids) do. In addition to offering general advice, and pointing my friend toward excellent textbooks and home school collaboratives, I’ve agreed to help the girl by teaching Pre-Algebra.

As usual, when my friend floated this idea a year ago, I enthusiastically agreed. I offered encouragement, pointed out the pitfalls of which I’m aware, and sent her a steady stream of supporting research for whatever it was we talked about while all of this was theoretical.

It’s pretty fair to call me an enthusiast. In what area of interest? Well, whatever might be my fascination of the moment. I’m a serial enthusiast, and my intellectual appetite often exceeds my physical stamina.

Also, I work a project until I’m thoroughly exhausted; then I walk away* depleted. And I do walk away. It’s common for me to return to areas of interest after these desertions, but I don’t take them all up again.

My interest in a subject rarely subsides, but my activity in that given area rarely draws a shallow curve or a sensible straight line of steady progress. Jagged peaks and desolate valleys do a better job of depicting my levels of effort over time.

You can see it on my blog. I’ve considered composing posts and spacing them out on a sensible schedule of distributed areas of interest, but… I don’t really want to. Because, when I’m obsessed with camping equipment, or studying German, or maximizing minivan efficiency for a road trip, or the vital importance of true mastery of algebraic concepts, that is what I want to talk about, almost exclusively

until the next month, when I move on to the next thing. It’s fair to describe me as somewhat obsessive. I also accept the label of dilettante.

Which brings me back around to what I’ve done. I’ve hitched a young lady’s wagon to my erratic star, and it’s making me nervous.

I’m not a math teacher. I’m only marginally reliable. What have I done?

And yet…

…my young friend, whom I’ll call The Scholar, is exhibiting patterns I expected from the story I heard about her school experience. I gave her a series of pre- and post-tests from my various textbooks, and here’s what I uncovered:

  • She sees a novel problem, and she’s inclined to shut down. She sees each one as an opportunity to be judged a failure, not a chance to learn a new way to answer her own questions in the future.
  • She was given rules to memorize for calculating answers, but no explanation for why such rules work (or has no recollection of the explanations.) Math is a set of magical black boxes she’s supposed to carry around forever, weighing her down instead of providing tools she can use to accomplish much more with less effort.
  • She asks me if her answer is “bad.” She means, “incorrect,” but her feelings are out of alignment with the scale of the mistake.

When The Scholar asked if her math was “bad,” I pointed out that she wasn’t spitting on babies and kicking puppies. Making a mistake means she didn’t know what to do, or she didn’t do it right all the way to the logical conclusion. Incorrect? Yes. In pre-algebra, we are actively seeking convergent answers! But this is not a moral failing.

Life is full of emotionally fraught situations that put us through a wringer. Math isn’t one of them. Either we know how to proceed, or we learn—or look up—what to do. This should actually be a carefree process in the realm of feelings. This is purely intellectual.

The bad feelings here are a result of prior training. I think this is what happens when math is taught by someone with a phobia who doesn’t love, or at least appreciate, the subject.

So I’m not a math teacher, but I’m going to take a swing at this. Based upon the evidence I’ve gathered from my sheaf of pre-tests, my influence is likely improve the situation. It’s possible that it already has.

You see, one instruction I’d given The Scholar was to please indicate near each test section any strong reactions provoked by the content. A lot of those she recorded were negative. But a few problems were annotated, “fun!” That’s heartening to see, and it surprised her mom.

It’s been a long time since The Scholar enjoyed any element of her math education. We’re definitely going to include some of these “fun” puzzles in her upcoming assignments. All computational skills practice will benefit her. Puzzles and well-designed apps can offer her skills practice with less pain.

I could go on at even greater length about the positive qualities of the math curricula I’ve been perusing. As you can see from my photos, we own more than one set of elementary texts. I couldn’t even lay hands upon DS1‘s pre-algebra book (publisher Art of Problem Solving‘s Prealgebra) for my photo shoot. He and his grandfather were still busy with it and couldn’t be bothered to give it up on my (frivolous) account.

Math books textbook Life of Fred

Life of Fred

For a child who’s learned to hate math, I can’t recommend strongly enough a perusal of Life of Fred (Stanley Schmidt’s utterly unconventional collection) and/or the comic-book formatted Beast Academy series (another contribution from Art of Problem Solving.)

Math books textbook BA

Beast Academy

It doesn’t matter if the stated age range is “beneath you.” These books are fun to read, and I’d guess even most educated adults would learn something new about a subject they consider mastered by spending time with them. I did.

Upon reflection, I’m really grateful that my latest project will give me another turn through the workaday skills of pre-algebraic math, and in the company of a bright and unconventional kid like The Scholar.

I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.

 

*Perhaps sometimes better described as: I fall down and lie at rest and let the subject move away on its own.

Books by my bedside 2017/07/22

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books 2017.07.22 - 1

Non-Fiction

History

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts by Hammer, Joshua

Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s : three men, five great wines, and the evening that changed America by Cerami, Charles

White Trash : the 400-year untold history of class in America by Isenberg, Nancy

Language

The Little Schemer by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Memoir

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Kamkwanba, William

True Crime

In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences by Capote, Truman

Fiction

 

The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places by Begler, Peter

 

Reading Notes:

Do you have a logical mind? Do you enjoy mental puzzles and games? Maybe you do, but you’ve never tried any computer programming? Or you know something about programming, but haven’t read this book?

books 2017.07.22 - 2Consider picking up a copy of The Little Schemer.

Your library might have The Little LISPer instead. It’s the same thing, just an older edition. Consider them equally good reads unless you have a specific need to learn the Scheme dialect of the language, LISP.

Though the first edition of The Little LISPer is as old as I am, I didn’t read it in college, where I majored in Computer Science. I picked it up a year ago for fun.

The Little Schemer is one of the most mind-stretching things I’ve ever read.

You don’t need a special application or even a computer to learn from this book. A pencil and paper or text editor will do. For an intellect that revels in a certain kind of logical thought, it is well worth the effort to give it a whirl.

This isn’t about learning a piece of technological equipment. It’s strength training for your mind.