Baffled mathematicians discover that one is not, in fact, the loneliest number

“Frankly, we were shocked,” admitted Dr. Sue Deaux-Nimm, Senior Professor of Mathematics and Assorted Philately at the moderately prestigious MT University. “We mathematicians, much like you ordinary goons, had long accepted that the song was right — that one was the loneliest number. But we couldn’t have been more wrong.”

After some thought, she added, “Well, we could have been more wrong, in a variety of ways. But we were pretty wrong.”

She and her colleague — Dr. Chuck Waggon, Junior Professor of Mathematics and Various Nonmathematical Uses of Numbers — announced their discovery at a press conference yesterday. Several persons, who could conceivably have been reporters, were in attendance.

“One is the second-loneliest number,” explained Dr. Waggon. “It turns out the loneliest number is 37,505,111.62555555 repeating. The proof is absolutely solid and leaves no room for doubt. But, I mean, it’s just so weird.”

“It’s bizarre,” Dr. Deaux-Nimm affirmed. “Why that number? We can’t think of any reason at all. And we tried for several hours.”

“Several,” nodded Dr. Waggon. “I mean, you look at plain old 37,505,111 with nothing after the decimal point, and it isn’t yearning for companionship at all. So, like, what’s the deal?”

(The question What is the deal? has since been referred to the Philosophy Department, which evidently has already been working on that problem for some time.)

Both mathematicians, however, were quick to reassure their listeners that the loneliest person still is — and will continue to be — you, the person reading this article.

Have a good weekend!


A lover, not a fighter

Well that’s neat

The word child can mean young person, but it can also mean offspring. The difference is small but distinct. A five-year-old boy is a child (young person) even if we have no idea who his parents are. And a middle-aged woman can say she has three children (offspring) even if they’re all in their 20s. (Hence the odd phrase adult children.)

We rarely think about this distinction, since we have a single word to cover both meanings. But it wasn’t always that way. I just learned that child has meant young person for pretty much its entire existence — back to Old English at a minimum — but the offspring meaning is relatively new, dating only to the 12th century. Before that, the word for offspring was bairn.

In summary: Isn’t that neat?


The last month has been a whirlwind, and the next month will be a whirlwind too. I can’t get into a lot of details yet, but life in Buckleyland has been changing — a lot. Good changes, but stressful at the moment. We’ll be glad when it’s over. And of course it’s been Christmas time too, so that’s added to the frenzy (but in a positive way). Christmas is more fun with kids, and we went to visit Betsy’s sister for the holiday, so we had a total of three munchkins’ worth of fun. Also, yesterday we got to see my friend Pat and his family for the first time in ages, which was likewise great and featured two munchkins’ worth of fun.

It’s been a little over a month since my last blog entry. Strange that the times in life that you most want to write about, allow the least time for writing. In closely related news, it’s been a little over a month since I last worked on Crane Girl. Just yesterday I finally picked it up again and re-read my new draft. Still excited about it. Maybe I’ll have some time to work on it today.

Here’s a picture of Evan, to prove that we still have him:

He continues to be wonderful.

As for me, I just finished reading the gigantic nonfiction book Why Nations Fail, which is excellent but probably could’ve been about half as long (spoiler: nations fail when citizens don’t get to participate in the government or the economy), as well as the complete short stories of Oscar Wilde (also excellent). My latest book is a fabulous Christmas present called The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (yes, really).

Have a lovely day, hypothetical reader, and a better-than-satisfactory weekend. I’ll keep you updated — sooner or later. Good luck with your own personal whirlwind(s). Happy New Year!

Crane Girl progress meter

I most likely won’t reach my NaNo word count goal for November, because of Various Reasons, but I’ve written a lot more this month than I would have without the goal, so I’m still feeling good. What’s more, I’ve got some momentum going — dare I say it, some excitement — and I’d like to keep it up, because I want to finish this novel sometime in the next three decades.

So here it is — my Crane Girl word count progress meter!

As you can see, I just passed the 10,000-word mark recently.

Why is it all fancy? Why can’t you just have a solid blue bar like a normal person?

Because this is more fun, and hopefully more motivating.

Okay but why the Avatar characters? What’s the connection with Crane Girl?

No connection, I just like Avatar.

From bottom to top, we have Suki, Sokka, Toph, Katara, Zuko, and Aang. Not that you asked.

Whose art did you steal? I know you’re not that good of an artist.

I don’t care for your tone, but the artwork is taken from the show itself (from the first episode of Korra, actually). I did some editing — okay, a lot of editing — in Paint.NET, and voila! Progress bar.

Geez, how long did this take?

I don’t want to talk about it.

If you’d taken all the time you spent on creating and explaining this progress bar, and spent it actually working on your book …

I said, I don’t want to talk about it!

Why is the goal 128,000 words?

The first draft was around 127K, and the second draft will probably be longer. Really, anywhere in the 125K-150K range wouldn’t be a surprise. But 128K is just a good, semi-arbitrary number to shoot for.

Are you going to put word count updates on the blog?

Yeah, probably every week or so.

Why are you doing this to us?

Well, it’s not really about you. I’m just trying to motivate myself.

None of this interests me at all.

That’s not a question.

No, it’s really not.

I see what you did there.

Okay, I’m off. More words today!

Disney’s dictionaries

Being a dad gives me a flimsy excuse forces me to watch old Disney videos, and I’ve gotta give credit to the writers of Aladdin. In the span of a single three-minute song in a kids’ movie, they managed to use all the following words:

  • bazaar
  • coterie
  • fakirs
  • genuflect
  • menagerie
  • physique
  • salaam

Vocabulary warms my icy heart. Well, that and coffee.

Have a good weekend!

Postmortem: Meditations

Meditations, written by Marcus Aurelius almost two thousand years ago, is one of the Great Works of Western Literature (and I capitalized that, so you know it’s serious). It’s a fairly short book with no narrative or overall structure, just a series of little notes — scraps of philosophy, bits of advice, quotations, observations — about how to live a virtuous life. Countless readers over the centuries have relied on its wisdom. And it sat on my shelf for many months, unopened and unloved.

One of the few pleasant side effects of airplane travel is getting time to read. On the way down to New Orleans last Saturday, I read Meditations start to finish in just a few hours.

The translator, Gregory Hays, wrote an introduction that’s one-third as long as the text itself, and he makes a number of useful points. Here’s the single most important thing to understand about this book:

The author never meant for it to be published.

Even the title was added much later, by someone else. In fact, by all indications, Marcus Aurelius never meant for anyone besides himself to read these notes. They are for his own use and his own betterment.

The rough, personal nature of the writing explains some of its quirks — for instance, why it seems so disorganized. And, above all, why it’s so extremely repetitive.

How repetitive?

Apart from the first chapter, which talks a bit about the people in his own life, the vast majority of notes are a rephrasing of one of these closely linked themes:

  • Don’t seek pleasure. Don’t avoid pain. If you’re in pain, even intense pain, just ignore it.
  • Life is short. You’re going to die. Everything changes. Man up and get on with it.
  • Don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you. If they hate you, screw ’em. If they love you, well, they’re gonna die sooner or later.
  • Expect nothing from other people and you won’t be disappointed. Be nice to everyone.
  • Everything you do should be for the common good. Avoid books, art, music, and philosophy, except to the extent that they help you reach your selfless goals.
  • See things for what they really are. Don’t get starstruck or sentimental. Even the purple Imperial robes are just sheep hair dipped in shellfish guts.
  • History’s a big cycle, the same things happening again and again, with just the names changed. You think you’re special? You’re not special.

Here’s an example of one of the actual notes (a very short one), just to give you a taste:

To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.

All of this draws heavily on Stoic philosophy — the source of our modern word “stoic.”

For me, the book was an odd mix of depressing, inspiring, illogical, and wise.

There’s a lot to criticize about this kind of thinking. For starters, it’s not very practical. Saying “Ignore pain” is easy enough, but standing up to actual pain in real life is a lot more likely to succeed if you have a strategy.

My needle phobia, for instance. I’ve made big progress on that front, partly from just “manning up,” but mostly with the help of specific techniques: systematic desensitization, deep breathing, distraction, and so on. I’ve found these tactics far more useful than just telling myself “Don’t be afraid” or “Ignore the fear.”

What’s more, such demanding all-or-nothing standards can leave you rudderless when you fail to meet them — as you inevitably will, over and over. For me, self-discipline works a lot better when I ask not only “How can I make sure I do this?” but also “What will I do when I fail?” Such notions find little traction in this book.

I think there’s a logical gap, too. It seems inconsistent to me when you say “It doesn’t matter if I die, it doesn’t matter if I feel pain, everything around you will soon be gone,” but then also, “Devote your life to helping others because that’s all that matters.” Why do their lives matter so much, if your own death is such a trivial thing? I’m not arguing against sacrifice — if it’s necessary — I’m just talking about perspective.

More broadly, I think the quest for total selflessness can lead to a peculiar selfishness of its own. Expecting total virtue from yourself, martyring yourself for the common good, still places you on a sort of pedestal in your own mind. It often feels like people who just help others, without going on some quixotic quest to eradicate their own selfishness, end up doing a lot more good.

On the other hand, there’s something refreshing about such a spartan, clear, uncompromising worldview. It’s inspiring to hear someone say, “Look, just do the right thing. You don’t need a special method for it, it’s not going to be easy or pleasant, but just start on it, right now.”

I was also struck by the part about not focusing excessively on books, philosophy, and the arts. I’m a book guy, obviously. I love stories, whether on paper or on a screen. I tend to think of good stories as noble in their own right — and I still do think that. But I also know I have a tendency to get mired in fantasy worlds, to dwell on the characters and plots of TV shows and movies and novels so much that it distracts from real life, and dilutes the power of the stories, too. Even reading the news can become a kind of fantasy if it moves past understanding the world and into escaping the world.

Over the past few days, because of this book, I’ve been trying to focus more on what I really need to do, and on not getting mired in fantasies. And I’ve noticed a difference in my life already. I’m getting more done, I’m reaching more of my goals, and I’m happier because of it.

I know from experience that such life changes don’t last — at least, not in a clean, unbroken line. My life has been an endless series of cycles: up and down, productive and unproductive, happy and unhappy, disciplined and undisciplined. This will be another, and it will end.

But I’ve been thinking about those cycles, too. If I can keep in mind that the changes are cyclical, I think that’s an improvement in itself. When I’m “up,” it will remind me to be vigilant, to watch out for whatever might start a downward spiral, and try to avoid it. When I’m “down,” it will remind me that it’s temporary, and not to get too upset about it — I just need to look for the next chance to start upward again, and maybe that chance is right away.

Anyway. Meditations is a weird old book, and it has some problems, but it’s short and thought-provoking and maybe worth a read if you’re into that kind of thing.

Or not. You’re busy already. Instead of reading a book that says “Do the thing” — maybe just do the thing!

Have a good day.

Seeing my play performed

I recently mentioned that I was planning to fly down to New Orleans to see a performance of the Buffy play I wrote, Summers’ Fall. Well, the big night was this past Saturday, and now I’m back.

It was amazing.

To be honest, I was nervous. When I wrote the play, I never imagined it being performed, so a lot of the lines worked better on the page than the stage (or so I feared). And the TV episode it’s based on is the season 5 finale, “The Gift,” which draws heavily on the complicated plot of everything that’s come before. What’s more, it’s kind of explain-y near the beginning. Between all that, plus the difficulty of understanding Shakespeare-style language anyway, plus the likelihood that a lot of the audience would be brand-new to Buffy, I was really afraid people’s eyes would glaze over in confusion and boredom.

But nothing of the sort.

Good actors (and directors) have a way of rendering tricky dialogue understandable with tone, gestures, timing, facial expressions, and so on. I remember, years ago, reading one of Shakespeare’s comedies (I forget which) and thinking it was dull, but then laughing my ass off when I saw it performed. With good theater, you don’t need to understand every word or every little plot point to appreciate the story.

All the actors were great. I don’t remember anyone’s names (sorry! a lot of new people to meet all at once) but they captured the TV characters’ mannerisms beautifully. Anya and Xander’s banter, dumb jokes, and low-key romance felt exactly right. Spike was goofy and heroic, intimidating and tragic, just as he should be. Buffy, Dawn, Willow, and Glory were all very good. Tara, who was insane for most of the story, projected real (and pitiable) insanity, which is no small feat. And Giles was perfectly Giles, just absolutely spot-on.

Some parts were different than I had imagined, usually for the better. For instance, at one point Giles says:

Such hard, bright, violent trade should be abhorr’d,
But on this night, a scholar wields a sword.

I envisioned this as a serious, dramatic line, and in fact the “hard, bright, violent” bit is a subtle reference to a very sad moment in early season 6. But in the performance, they used the lines for comedy, showing Giles out of breath and struggling to keep up with Spike. And it worked perfectly.

The group (called NonProphet Theatre) did two other “Shakespeare Teevee” shows: an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia before Buffy, and an episode of Friends after. Both of those were great too.

And I got to meet Rob Mitchell, the director of all three plays (and the writer of the other two) — he’s the guy who emailed me originally asking if they could use my script — and I met a number of the actors, too, which was really cool.

Beyond all that, there’s something incredibly gratifying about sitting in an audience, watching a performance, listening to the lines, and thinking I wrote that. Normally writing is a solitary thing, both for the writer and the reader. Seeing the words come alive that way, with so many people involved, was something else. Of course, Joss Whedon wrote the original episode, so I can’t claim credit for the story, but still. Quite an experience.

Maybe I should get into this whole playwright thing. Y’know, after I finish Crane Girl.

Elections are like potties

What goes into them isn’t pretty. But you gotta have ’em, and you gotta use ’em.

And sometimes, if you do a good job, you get a sticker!


Anna again