Monthly Archives: April 2023

Readers of this blog — friends, family, acquaintances mostly — know how I bounce from cynical/topical commentary to odd, hopefully quirkily-entertaining features and then to my arcane articles on physical/mathematical topics.

I’ve found there’s no way to predict what topic will resonate with whom.  This has led me to more-or-less follow my whims and see what happens.  And that, I’ve decided, is okay!

With that, I’m starting a series of posts that are basically links in an adult brag bracelet.  Scrapbook items from a seven-decade life.  Things treasured only by me, but you get to take a peek.

Embarking on this at my age is what psychologists call life review — except I am not going to get into my shouldas and wouldas with you.  Stanford professor William Damon agrees: “Rather than dwelling on past problems, looking forward with a life-fulfilling purpose requires looking backward in an open and receptive way.”*

In his book Wild Problems, recommended by fellow blogger-friend Enrique Guerra-Pujol, Stanford economist Russ Roberts (what, we all work for Stanford now?) states the obvious in a succinct way that is worth repeating:

Human beings care about more than the pleasures and pains of daily existence.  We want purpose.  We want meaning.  We want to belong to something larger than ourselves.  We aspire.  We want to matter.  These overarching sensations — the texture of our lives above and beyond what we call happiness or everyday pleasure — define who we are and how we see ourselves.  These longings are at the heart of a life well-lived.

The scrapbook items I plan to share in my life review have the above-and-beyond texture that Roberts alludes to, namely, the quality of mattering, at least to me and quite often to someone or something else besides me.

Mattering is most likely what this blog has been about, all along.  So here goes!

A Note from Martin Gardner

I am sure I have mentioned Martin Gardner to you, as he was one of the main influential forces in my intellectual life — and I’m hardly alone saying so.  As cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter put it, Martin Gardner’s monthly Mathematical Games feature in Scientific American may have been “about ‘recreational math,’ which sounds frivolous, but in fact the column was about beauty and profundity in math and many other fields as well.” 

Gardner’s column, which he wrote until 1986, was always the first thing I read when the magazine arrived, and was more likely than not to be re-read a second, third or nth time.

Having a fondness for numbers and games myself, I got it in my head one day in 1979 to devise a puzzle of sorts which I called the Heisenberg Box.  I will spare you all the details, but it basically is a stack of n drawers with n marbles loaded at random into the drawers; the problem is to figure out how many marbles are in each drawer.  The catch is, the act of opening a drawer to inspect the contents will (silently) cause one marble in that drawer to drop to the next lower level.  The objective is to determine the original configuration of marbles in the fewest possible moves, without destroying information.

I did some exploratory work on the puzzle (true confession: I must have used our office computer for this, and maybe even some of my work time!) and sent a write-up on the problem to Gardner, c/o the magazine.  I was impressed that (a) Gardner even took time to read what I had sent him, and (b) that he responded so favorably (see note attached).

Now, Gardner did not actually wind up mentioning me or my puzzle in his columns, but instead suggested that I submit my work to Journal of Recreational Mathematics (which is sadly now defunct).  I did so and the journal accepted my article, as they did a few other submissions of mine later on.  So I have Martin Gardner to thank, not only for spurring my curiosity and interest in puzzles, but for my becoming a published author of sorts.

In any event, I figured that I possessed something special in my personal, hand-typed and signed note from Martin Gardner, and so I have made sure to hang onto it all these years.

There is an annual conference/event, called Gathering for Gardner, which is convened by the mathematically-inclined friends, admirers and devotees of Gardner.  I always wished I were talented enough to attend (potential attendees must be invited or self-nominated), but I just discovered that there are virtual events for the public, which I plan to check out.

So, this forward-and-backward-looking scrapbook page is dedicated to Martin Gardner, 1914-2010, a generous and gifted writer who was not himself a mathematician but whose wide-ranging and infectious interests inspired — safe to say — hundreds of thousands, including me.


* Such forward-oriented perspectives must have served Damon well — he learned, decades after the fact, that his father, declared missing in World War II, had not only lived on but had served as a diplomat and fathered three daughters by his second wife, a French ballerina.  But that is Damon’s story to tell.
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A Robert Louis Stevenson card from the Authors gameI learned of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) when I was maybe 9 years old, courtesy of the go-fish card game Authors.  Stevenson’s doleful countenance on the cards made more of an impression on me than did the titles of his works, the most notable of which were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island.  Sadly, the game did not sway me to read his works or, for that matter, any work by any author in the card game’s 11-deity pantheon.*

I bring up Mr. Stevenson now because, recalling him from the Authors game, I decided the other day to look him up in Librivox, an archive of recorded written works in the public domain.  Something I often plug into to fall asleep.

How surprised I was then, as I dialed up Stevenson’s short story Markheim, to find myself captivated by his writing.  The man tells a gripping tale, imbued with a dramatic flair that almost makes the start and finish beside the point.  My follow-up Stevenson selection was The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, an allegory of choice, chance and fate.  This story felt a bit contrived but its telling was just as suspenseful and rich in detail.

I ultimately arrived at the Librivox doorstep of Kidnapped, a novel published by Stevenson in 1886.  The tale is ostensibly about David Balfour, a young and earnest Scotsman who, recently orphaned and seeking to secure his inheritance, is kidnapped by an unscrupulous seaman (aren’t they all!) hired by David’s miserly uncle to make David — and his claim to the family estate — disappear.

But the meat of the story is about David’s post-kidnap adventure and evolving relationship with Alan Breck Stewart, best described in modern terms as a Scot activist/militant.  David meets Alan thanks to a chance collision between his kidnapper’s brig and a smaller boat ferrying Stewart to an unnamed destination.  The collision hurls Stewart onto the bowsprit of the brig, from where he is brought on board and from whence the real action begins.

David and Alan’s relationship is often described as a bromance (Kidnapped was dismissed as a “boy’s story” in Stevenson’s time) but I could make the argument, without authority, that the tale is about the perils, turmoils and vulnerabilities of gay relationships of the era.  It certainly reads as more-than-a-friendship to my 21st-century eyes.

In fact, I speculate that the title Kidnapped refers not to David’s confinement on the brig — which comes to an abrupt end via shipwreck — but to the capture of his heart by Alan.  This becomes clear as David, navigating his way back home, struggles to resolve his love for the risky Alan vs. his instinct for self-survival, a conflict which Stevenson casts in ever-sharper contrast as the story hurtles forward.

You will have to read (or listen to) Kidnapped yourself to see if you see what I see.  But in any event, there is more to Robert Louis Stevenson than a card with a mournful face and the titles of some boy’s stories printed on it.  I’m glad I went fishing and discovered him.

Postface… or Perhaps Just Part II

Songwriters Card This got me to thinking that there should be a children’s card game called Songwriters which captures the artistic tastes of its generation (mine) and would be just as dated as Authors was when it was published.  For authenticity, the portraits of the songwriters would have to be just as formal and stiff as in the original game.

My own Songwriters deck would feature 13 of them, like a regular deck of cards.  Here they are, in alphabetical order, along with the songs that would appear on each set of four:

Chuck Berry: No Particular Place to Go, Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen.

David BowieSpace Oddity, All the Young Dudes, Young Americans, Changes.

Willie DixonSpoonful, Back Door Man, Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You.

Bob Dylan: Blowin’ in the Wind, Tangled Up in Blue, Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower.

George Harrison: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun, Something, My Sweet Lord.

Eddie Holland: Heat Wave, Stop! In the Name of Love, You Keep Me Hangin’ On, Reach Out I’ll Be There.

Carole KingYou’ve Got a Friend, It’s Too Late, So Far Away, I Feel the Earth Move.

John Lennon: Help!, I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever, Imagine.

Paul McCartney: Yesterday, Hey Jude, Blackbird, Maybe I’m Amazed.

Sarah McLachlanAdia, Angel, I Will Remember You, Possession.

Cole Porter: Anything Goes, Just One of Those Things, I Love Paris, Night and Day.

Carly Simon: That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be, Nobody Does It Better, Anticipation, You’re So Vain.

Paul Simon: The Sound of Silence, I Am a Rock, Mrs. Robinson, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Brian WilsonGood Vibrations, Surf City, God Only Knows, In My Room.

Neil Young: Down by the River, Heart of Gold, Ohio, Southern Man.

Can someone please produce a set of these cards?  I am dying to ask a fellow player if they have a Hoochie Coochie Man in their hand.


* The Authors pantheon, for the record: Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott (the only woman), Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  I remember thinking that Lord was a weird middle name.
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