Sunday, March 28, 2010


Part 2

Bernhard Riemann was a mathematician unparalleled in the field, who kept cryptic notes in the pages of tomes of number theory, teasing future math historians to no end. He suggested he had a secret formula for predicting prime numbers—something mathematicians have been reaming their skulls over for quite some time—but left little evidence for his peers and successors beyond a trail of bread crumbs resonating with the familiar juvenile taunt of nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah. The rest was burned by his housekeeper.

Mathematics peaked for me round about college-level algebra, starting a steep, steady decline shortly thereafter. It was while taking a course at the community college concerning itself with the business applications of calculus when I determined two things:
  1. math is an incredible study in the hands of other people
  2. I should never, ever own a business.
Amidst the graphs, the Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and my TI-86, I was well aware that I was on numerical frontiers unimaginable to myself even two years before, coinciding with the increasingly bizarre plot turns on the WB’s Superman saga Smallville—in both cases, I knew my time with the subject was running short.

Ironically, this also happened to be the point I developed a profound respect for the subject of numbers. I was reading a treatise by Oxford mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy on the historical and modern quest to find reason in prime numbering, Music of the Primes. Here was a mathematician who tried hard to make high concept number theory accessible to the lay public. In 2006, du Sautoy published an article in Seed, a New York science periodical, describing the relationship between Douglas Adams’s meaning of life, 42, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the prime number holy grail known as the Riemann zeta function. However, halfway through Music of the Primes, du Sautoy enters—by way of German prime number pioneer, Bernhard Riemann—the fourth dimension, in order to better explain the seemingly random distribution of prime numbers, a series of numbers only divisible by one and the number itself. Three dimensions might be the only reason anyone enjoyed the film Avatar, but graphing in four asks too much.

I picture mathematics as a revolving globe, with my head at its center. Calculus resides on the farthest exterior surface of my skull, just barely making contact with the scalp. The Riemann zeta function exists much further out into the middle space; but, it fascinates me. I am enchanted to think that there might be reason to the seemingly random, and to see it is a matter or shifted perspective, experience, and dimension. My (limited) understanding is that I—as all human beings, animals, and other life teeming on this earth—exist in four dimensions, that of height, width, depth, and duration, but I am certain my mind only fathoms three—the three I can adequately graph, on paper, in two dimensions. Here we have Bernhard Riemann who, of his own accord, managed to tear himself away from traditional boundaries to explore number theory in four whole dimensions, to attempt to map the true extent of human experience, in order to solve one of the greatest mysteries in mathematics.

Riemann died before proving any of his theories. You might say that he is a martyr, a pioneer who refused to return before he explored everything he had set out to.

Somewhat less high-concept was the premiere of the CBS crime drama, Numb3rs, which I watched with fervor for the entirety of its first season. This program had its lead characters—brothers, one of whom was an FBI agent, the other a mathematics professor at a fictional science institute in California—together managing to solve murders through probability and other applied mathematics. This was probably where I first heard the name Bernhard Riemann, and also probably when I decided that being a university professor might be fun. Incidentally, the younger, mentally tortured, mathematics professor brother vaguely resembled my own calculus instructor, so the already blurry line between TV and reality, for me, grew dimmer, and I carried on through the rest of the calculus course actually believing I might go further in math studies. The spell was broken later that spring, after graduating high school and realizing my general mathematics requirements for college would be waived.

I never looked back. Consequently, I now have my mother balancing my checkbook against my monthly bank statements. This might seem a juvenile request for someone in his twenties, but, my mother being an accountant, I think it as reasonable as a dentist’s son asking to have his teeth cleaned. That, and my check register rages like the sea. Asking my mother to plumb its depths is more akin to asking a veteran mariner to sail the waters of the Bermuda Triangle. In this triangle, figures change at their own whims and receipts come and go as they please. Anyone daring to navigate her way through it would seem morbid, but, for better or worse, my mother is about as seasoned as they come.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Up & Coming / Has-Been

Over the last few months I have been receiving email updates from one of the editors at HarperCollins Publishers concerning the forthcoming Pacific Northwest Reader, in which my essay "My Washington ID" will be featured. Mid-April marks its latest proposed release date, when it will sit on shelves at independent bookstores around the Oregon, Washington, and Idaho region. To tease you a bit, here's a sample paragraph from that particular essay:

Between Leavenworth and Wenatchee are stretches of road populated by apple trees with white skin and gnarled branches, the heart of Washington’s apple country. Washington has been leading the country in apple production since the 1920s. Once, while rafting the Wenatchee River, our guide pointed to some irrigation ducts just visible near the peaks of the surrounding hills. “We call that the apple juice pipeline," he said. “You know Tree Top?” The six of us in the raft nodded. I’m sure he meant it was for irrigating the apple orchards, but I couldn’t help but imagine gallons and gallons of apple juice being pumped around the state. Now, every time I pass through the sprawling Wenatchee valley, I think of that—that, and the unassuming chic of agri-tourism.

Again, look for The Pacific Northwest Reader in the middle of April. Village Books and Powell's Books will most definitely be carrying it. In fact, Powell's bookseller Gigi Little will be running snippets from essays featured in the book on her own blog to promote the release. And you can bet if places like Auntie's Bookstore and Elliott Bay Book Company don't have it on hand by the end of April, they can order it for you. Don't expect to find it in the big box bookstores or online book traders.

And if you haven't seen my latest work, check out The Outlet blog, Burnside Writers Collective, and order the inaugural issue of Seattle's newest literary magazine, The Wanderlust Review. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that more of the like is in store.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Part 1

There was a time I didn’t understand subtraction. Oh, the theory made sense: things were being taken away from me all the time—television privileges and allowance by my parents, and my brother took just about everything else: Hot Wheels, the TV remote, pogs. What didn’t make sense was pencil-to-paper arithmetic. Addition I got. Hannah had three apples and John gave her two more; I knew Hannah, then, had five apples and a pushover. Subtraction was a trickier business.

First you had the minuend, a big number, on top. Then, you took away the subtrahend, the smaller number below it. Finally, you had the difference. I tested well in theory; but, the first few goes alone at it left my second grade teacher, Mrs. Reed, puzzled.

The words didn’t bother me so much. In fact, I loved names, the weirder the better. The words let me understand what the numbers were failing to show me. There’s a story taking place on the page of the math lesson of which, I’m sure, neither Hannah nor John could make heads or tails. You had the minuend—just feel it as you say it—almost royal, like the minuet of the French ballroom. There was the subtrahend, the wily hunchback living below the castle, greedily waiting to take what he wants and leave the minuend wanting. In the end, the kingdom was a different, smaller place: the subtrahend had had his way, the minuend suffered.

Mrs. Reed seemed to appreciate the drama in the same way my parents appreciated my tirades concerning the G.I. Joe caper of ’95, which is to say, not at all. Instead, she called my parents in for a conference. “I’m concerned about David’s math skills,” she began. “We’ve been learning about subtraction, and he doesn’t seem to be catching on quite like we would hope. Lately, he just bends over his desk and cries.”

This was not entirely false, but not entirely causal either. Mrs. Reed would not have noticed me crying that day if not for that stupid know-it-all Junie Wilde, whose pretentions as the teacher’s pet were only hindered by the shocking ignorance she broadcast every chance she had to open her mouth. It was she who heard me sniffling at my desk, my head not half an inch from its surface.

“What’s wrong?” Junie asked, leaning in close so I could smell the deep-fried frizz she called hair. “Do you need help with your math?”

“N-no,” I managed amidst a torrent of snot and saliva. I wiped the excess on the sleeve of my blue turtleneck and turned the other way.

Junie’s hand shot up, and Mrs. Reed walked over to our desks. “What is it, Junie?” As a teacher, she tried to mask her reactions to Junie’s constant irritation, but you could tell Mrs. Reed would just as soon chew insulation as carry a conversation with this girl. “You know this is silent time for everyone to work on their math.”

“Mrs. Reed, David’s crying because he needs help with subtraction.”

That wily hunchback.

The truth was that I was crying because subtraction reminded me that I was actually in school now (albeit a private Christian school whose rural whereabouts in an already small town rendered it the equivalent of homeschooling for a very large family, but a family nonetheless) instead of home with my parents. After two years being homeschooled, I’d joined the ranks of the classroom, and it was all still very new to me. Adaptation is another challenging concept to me. Subtraction itself didn’t reveal this to me; my struggle with it was actually a metaphor for the trouble I had adjusting to my new institutional circumstance. But I couldn’t expect Junie to comprehend that as she seemed to understand very little at all.

I very much wanted to learn subtraction, and, after my teacher’s conference with my parents, I paid close attention during lessons, making time to sort out the ones, tens, and hundreds place in their respective order. We used M&Ms and pennies to make the process as comprehensible as possible.

As it turned out, taking single digits numbers from numbers with more digits I didn’t have a problem with. What tripped me up was the concept of borrowing digits from one column to use in the next column over. For instance:

2 3 4
- 1 5 6

One must borrow from the 3 in the tens column to take 6 from 4. This makes 4 into 14, and 3 into 2. Remember, this is supposed to make sense to a seven-year-old. Only, at age seven, I was taught that a person who borrows must return the thing borrowed. So, in my mind, 3 helped 4 become 14; in turn, the polite thing for 4 to do would be to return 1 to 3. In effect, the transaction is a two way street, and instead of yielding a difference of 78, I would suggest 188 is the proper answer, as 3 would “pay it forward,” so to speak, when borrowing from 2.

Clearly what I did not take into account was this world’s penchant for selfishness, and common sense. Were 6 to be taken from 14, 4 would have nothing to give back to 3—now 2—because the loan had been given away—to 6. This taught me a valuable lesson about debt collection; and, later, this lesson would be reinforced by crime dramas like Law & Order, where high society addicts were reduced by the debts they kept with their dealers. Had Mrs. Reed introduced me to NBC primetime television, I might have gotten on board with borrowing sooner.