Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2

David Hockney’s Image of the Pearblossom Highway in L.A.’s Antelope Valley

One of my favorite parts of Los Angeles County is the remote Antelope Valley, which hugs the north edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Pearblossom Highway (California Route 138) connects the Antelope Valley Freeway to Victorville, enroute to Las Vegas or Northern Arizona. I may not be known as a devotee of modern art, but I love David Hockney’s photo collage, described as “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2,” which actually does capture the elusive light of the desert and the eerie Joshua Tree cacti (Yucca brevifolia) lining the highway.

One of my favorite L.A. parks is in this area, the Devil’s Punchbowl County Park, which sits at the junction of several earthquake faults, most notably the San Andreas. In fact, many of the more interesting geological features were sculpted by the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake’s Richter 7.9 forces.

The Getty Museum South Pavilion


Martine and I had lunch at the museum’s café and split up as we pursued our separate interests, coming together at 4:30 pm in the bookstore. Every time I visit an art museum like the Getty, I get ideas for several posts; so you may hear more about my visit in the coming week.

Juggling with Infinity

The Worm Ourobouros, One of the Symbols for Infinity

I have just finished reading Amir D. Aczel’s book on the mathematics of infinity, entitled The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity (New York: Washington Square Press, 2000). Although I am an ignoramus when it comes to theoretical mathematics, I was able to follow this book pretty much throughout; and I found it utterly fascinating.

The most important contributions to the mathematics of infinity have come from two Europeans, first Georg Cantor of Germany and then Kurt Gödel of Austria. In vainly attempting to prove their theorems regarding infinite sets, both men went mad. Cantor died at Halle’s Nervenklinik in 1918; and Gödel of starvation in Princeton, NJ, of all places, in 1978.

Georg Cantor

What sent Cantor to the clinic multiple times were his difficulties in finding a proof for the so-called Continuum Hypothesis, which, stated all too briefly, is that there is no set whose cardinality is strictly between that of the integers and the real numbers. In other words, it relates to quantifying systems of sets containing infinite values, whether real or integer. Got that? Well, it killed Cantor and also Gödel.

Kurt Gödel

Even though at the end his mind was wasted, and he insisted that people were trying to poison him, Gödel finally understood one very important fact:

Gödel and [Paul] Cohen have brought us to a sobering realization: hard as we may try, there will always be some truths forever beyond our reach. Human beings may never understand the deep nature of infinity. This is perhaps something that Kabbalah practitioners understand on an intuitive level, without requiring a mathematical proof. To them, infinity was God or things that are God’s. One such infinity was the chaluk, God’s infinitely bright robe, at which no human can look.

It all makes sense. To prove something, one has to be able to see through to its essence, which is difficult when infinities are involved.

 

 

Why I’m Such a Lousy Chess Player

White to Move and Mate in 2

Actually, I do not know the solution to the above chess problem, although it is a famous one by fellow Hungarian György Bakcsi. I suppose, given a large expanse of time, I could figure it out. (My source is here, but no solution is given.)

I probably would never have gotten into this position. You see, I am an odd sort of chess player. Instead of seeking unbalanced positions that lead to a win, I seek balanced positions that have a high aesthetic value. And that’s when I lose. I have frequently lost to people who learned the moves from me. I’m very good at teaching people how to play chess; but I’m not very good at teaching people how to win at chess. Oh, I can go over the corridor mate, the fool’s mate, and various other typical positions as samples; but I am useless at showing how to set up the position.

And yet I love chess. If I could, I wouldn’t mind traveling with a chess set and chessboard, setting it up in a public place, and going over the moves of such great players as Capablanca, Alekhine, and Keres. You know what would happen, though? Someone would come up and offer to play chess with me. I would invariably turn my would-be opponent down, because I am more interested in studying chess than playing, especially with strangers.

No matter, I still love the game. When the children of my friends try to interest me in their computer games, I always tell them there is only one game for me, and that is chess. It is infinite. The different combinations of the first 10 moves by white and black alone is a number larger than the number of atoms in the universe.

Massaraksh!

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky with the Soviet Union in the Background

The expression means “World Inside Out!” It is the most frequently used expression in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s great novel of the Noonday Universe, Prisoners of Power (Обитаемый остров, 1969). Over the years, I have read twelve of their works, most of which were excellent or better. The best by far, though, is Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине, 1972), which was made into an equally great movie by Andrei Tarkovsky called Stalker (1979).

Both are dead now (Arkady in 1991 and Boris in 2012), and only slowly is the world beginning to realize what it has lost. It is not easy to find their works in print (except for Roadside Picnic); it is only on the top floor of the Los Angeles Central Library that I am finding a treasure trove of their work. And I will read them all, making my way through their collection like a Beetle in the Anthill (Жук в муравейнике, 1980) —itself the title of another Strugatsky work.

In the first paragraph, I referred to the Noonday Universe, which is a theme of about half the Strugatsky novels I have read. According to Wikipedia:

The victory of communism and the advance of technological progress on the Earth of the Noon Universe resulted in an over-abundance of resources and eliminated the need for most types of manual labor.

Mankind is capable of near-instantaneous interstellar travel. Earth social organization is presumably communist, and can be described as a highly technologically advanced anarchistic meritocracy. There is no state structure, no institutionalized coercion (no police etc.), yet functioning of the society is safeguarded by raising everyone as responsible individuals, with guidance of a set of High Councils accepted by everyone in each particular field of activity.

One of the controversial occupations is progressor. They are agents embedded in less advanced humanoid civilizations in order to accelerate their development or resolve their problems. Progressors’ methods range from rescuing local scientists and artists to overthrowing local governments.

The main governing body is the World Council, composed of the brightest scientists, historians, doctors and teachers. The local matters are handled by the regional versions of the council. Planetary councils are present on each Earth colony (e.g. [Far] Rainbow), as well, although “colony” in this context refers to a planet that wasn’t home to any sentient life before the arrival of Terran settlers. In the Noon Universe, Earth has never attempted to seize permanent control over any other civilization.

The universe is populated by a number of sentient races. Some of them are humanoid, while others are so alien that humanity didn’t realize that they were sentient for decades. Several sentient races maintain diplomatic relations with Earth’s society. Many planets in Noon Universe are inhabited by races identical to humans in all but minor genetic differences. It has been speculated that they were humans who wound up on other worlds due to the Wanderers’ manipulations (as Beetle in the Anthill shows, that is hardly unprecedented).

The Wanderers are the most mysterious race in the Noon Universe. Technologically advanced and highly secretive, the Wanderers are suspected to manipulate sentient beings throughout Noon Universe for their own purposes. While those purposes were never clarified, it was hinted that they try to “progress” various sentient beings.

The Noonday Universe is a kind of allegorical device used by the Strugatsky Brothers to subtly disguise a critique of the Soviet system in a fashion that has been described as Aesopic. For instance, the world in Prisoners of Power is crippled by a stupid bureaucracy. The Earthman Maxim Kammerer, whose spaceship is stranded on the nameless planet, is immune to many of the methods used by the “Creators” to keep their people under their control, and even survives several bullets which he simply “passes.” Eventually, he allies himself to the society’s underground and dedicates himself to toppling the control mechanisms that keep the people prisoners of power.

I have read the following Strugatsky titles over the years:

  • Space Apprentice (Стажеры, 1962)
  • Escape Attempt (Попытка к бегству, 1962) *
  • Far Rainbow (Далёкая Радуга, 1963), the first one I read and still one of my favorites *
  • Hard to Be a God (Трудно быть богом, 1964) *
  • The Final Circle of Paradise (Хищные вещи века, 1965)
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (Второе нашествие марсиан, 1967)
  • Prisoners of Power (Обитаемый остров, 1969) *
  • The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Отель «У Погибшего Альпиниста», 1970)
  • Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине, 1972), definitely the best of the bunch
  • Definitely Maybe (За миллиард лет до конца света, 1977)
  • Beetle in the Anthill (Жук в муравейнике, 1980) *
  • The Time Wanderers (Волны гасят ветер, 1986) *

The titles above appearing with asterisks are considered to be part of the Noon Universe series. Of the Strugatsky Brothers’ twenty-seven novels, only some four have not appeared in English translations.

Looking Past Devastation to Hope

Nathan Altman Portrait of Soviet Poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

I love this poem. Its first stanza is like the United States under Trumpf, or Russia under Stalin—take your pick! Then, in the second and third stanzas, the devastation turns to hope. The poem’s name? “Everything.”

Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children.

There is something of the seer about the gaunt poet, who under her bangs sees into futures that might possibly, hopefully lie in wait for us.

 

Nouvelle Vague

Patrick Modiano, Winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature

To date, I have read five of Patrick Modiano’s novels and loved all of them. In order of publication, they are:

  • Missing Person (1980)
  • Young Once (1981)
  • After the Circus (1992)
  • Out of the Dark (1998)
  • In the Café of Lost Youth (2007)

With each of them, I felt I was back in the 1960s, in the world of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), the Paris of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless and Giani Esposito in Paris Nous Appartient. Relationships are quickly entered into, but turn into quicksand. In After the Circus, we are not altogether sure of the main characters’ names. Describing his roommate, “Lucien” writes:

He had something in common with my father: they both wore suits, ties, and shoes like everyone else. They spoke unaccented French, smoked cigarettes, drank espresso, and ate oysters. But when in their company, you were seized by doubt and you felt like touching them, the way you rub cloth between your fingers, to make sure they really existed.

Earlier, he writes, “But topographical details have a strange effect on me: instead of clarifying and sharpening images from the past, they give me a harrowing sensation of emptiness and severed relationships.” That’s a good summary of the feeling of the novel: emptiness and severed relationships. “Lucien” is never sure when he parts from his girlfriend “Gisèle” that she will not just disappear forever into the warren of streets without a word of warning.

Fortunately, Modiano is a prolific writer, and many if not most of his works have been translated into English. Of the five novels I have read, I prefer the three most recent ones.

How to Stop Those Tweets

Girls, Are You Wearing Stiletto Heels?

I figure if we can get a troupe of Mexican dancers to render the Trumpf’s tiny hands inoperable by dancing on them with their stiletto heels, the people of the United States would breathe a sigh of relief. Never before has a president’s unedited prejudices gone straight from his putative brain out to the world at large without any editing.  Things have come to such a pass that I think it were best of Twitter were put out of business.

It’s not just covfefe that worries me: Trumpf and Kim Jong-Un of the DPRK are waging a constantly escalating war of threats that could take us to the brink of nuclear war. I am worried less about what Kim could do to us than what China and Russia would do if we attacked North Korea. Even now, we are sending bombers in international airspace just east of the Korean peninsula.

Our president is so out of control that no one can rein him in. Even Kelly and his other generals are helpless when Trumpf is alone at night with one hand on his cell phone and the other on the launch button.

So let’s get the Mexican dancers out there. It would be most appropriate.