Monday, September 26, 2011

Retired Math Professor Breaking Bad! Pot Trafficking, Explosions, Guns, Hookers, Prison!

As a new-bee first semester University of New Mexico student, 17 years old and terrified of Calculus I and the thick 1000 paged text book, I watched in trepidation as this tall, long haired, blue jeaned, leather booted professor sauntered into the classroom.  This was a time where calculators were most likely pencils or slide rules, Mitchell Hall (one of the classroom buildings) wasn't wired and punch cards were used to communicate with computers.  I watched, as he slowly paced cat like, from one side of the room to the other, occasionally licking his lips, obviously in deep thought (one could only hope it wasn't because he was hungry for Freshmen).

Picking up a piece of chalk, we all watched in anticipation of a complex formula, or convoluted Mathematical idea that would cause us to rush to the registrars afterwards to find a new section, or perhaps change our major (what good is engineering anyway?).  Turning to face us before writing, he most seriously stated "This is a very important book that everyone here should read".  Our hearts expired, please not another book we thought.  Back to the board he wrote, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."  Smiling, we knew this would be an interesting math class, and he did not disappoint us.

I have to confess, I haven't read that book, and he still passed me onto Calculus II.  But, what I did read was his 2005 self published book, "The Golden Years of Jess Martin". I loved it, but then I always liked listening to Jeff talk, and his voice in the book is the same as his voice in person.

I read this book in 2008, so I will not review this from my memory.  Instead, I will copy the review I wrote back in 2008 from Amazon.  However, separate from that review, I recall that it got really wild and crazy, and I've always wondered if the fictional blowing up of the humanities building (that is the building where the Math department used to live) had a deeper meaning.  The end of the book didn't hold together as well for me as the first half, though the whole book was really fun to read.

This would not make a good book club discussion book, but is a dirtier, lighter "escape from reality" book to read.

So, here is the Amazon review (dang it, the Amazon criminals won't let me copy and paste it, so here is a retype):

This was an extremely entertaining book, fast paced, unpredictable, with great characters. The characterization of Jess and the people he deals with was realistic;  written by an author who understands people and their motivations.  You will even find yourself having sympathy for a double crossing hooker!

This was similar to Breaking Bad, a new cable series, but where the chemistry teacher (turned bad) uses chemicals to solve his drug business complications, Jess uses mathematical logic that has tastes of higher level thinking to conquer the messes that go hand in hand with pot trafficking.

I found the settings of a prison in CA, the bar and society in Southern NM near the Mexican border well described and interesting.  I only wish Jess could have retained some of his innocence, as I really liked the character who was a newbie, but after enough time in the business, it just wasn't possible.

I think the best thing about this book was that I couldn't predict what was going to happen next.  I am hoping for a sequel.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible is a great discussion book.  It is well written, interestingly set in the Belgian Congo before, during and after the transition from a Belgian territory to a dictatorship when the country was lead by a self serving ruthless dictator, Mubutu and became known as Zaire.  The tale of this countries' people was spun using a fundamentalist baptist missionary family's struggles in a primitive village, Kilanga.

A sad event is foretold in the first chapter of the book.  The story then proceeds in the first person, told from family members, Orleanna Price and her four daughters, weaving you along subplots. All paths lead you to the sad event that will ruin everyone's lives.  This book is read the way one gawks at a car accident inclusive of twitching body parts, fire and blood.  The story spans their lives starting with their pilgrimage to the Congo as a young family in 1959.  It is interesting that there is no chapter where we hear the story told by Nathan, the father.

This was an exciting book filled with life and death moments. Learning about the hardships of surviving in Africa helps to broaden one's view of the importance of things American's take for granted, such as not being killed by the local wildlife and having not just good food to eat but enough food to eat.

It is a great book, so why should I follow this with more to be said?  To not mince words, this book was godless.  Well, perhaps worse than godless. Kingsolver needs to be certain that she has chosen the right side of the good and evil, believer and nonbeliever fence, as she has certainly taken sides.  I think that the true point of this book is to convey her idea that the missionaries in Africa are the real sinners.  That there is no God, the only salvation in life is ourselves, and forgiveness even from the regrets we experience in our own lives is only attainable through our own resolve to forgive ourselves.  With this is revealed the life of the true Atheist.  "The teeth at your bones are your own, the hunger is yours, forgiveness is ours." 

Why did she call this the Poisonwood Bible?  Only Kingsolver knows for sure, but I'll take a guess at this.  The poisonwood tree in the Congo is a pretty nasty tree that causes one to break out in horrible painful boils.  The Bible is a book of truth, when crossed by a poisonwood tree causes something quite horrible as per her tale.

Kingsolver makes it clear that the missionary work by the main character in this book, Nathan Price, was a horrible sin against the Congolese people. Granted, Nathan was a twit.  He was inflexible in light of incredible African diversity, making him truly horrible at communicating God's love to these people. At the end of each of his church services, he says "Tata Jesus is bangala", where the word bangala can mean precious but can also mean poisonwood, Kingsolver's joke on Nathan.

I've no doubt that there were many missionaries like him with good intentions of sharing their beliefs with other people but insensitive to the culture of the communities.  However, I believe God to be kind and loving of his creation (one caveat, this doesn't mean that we will not suffer and die, as this is part of our biological existence).  The belief in God's condemnation based on the fact you may be born in Africa instead of a Christian community somewhere else is clearly nonsense. God is greater than our own biblical interpretation, and the belief that God loves all of us, that God is faithful and that only God can judge is my foundation.  I see no reason that Kingsolver found the need to crucify God based on some men's narrow interpretation of the bible.

So, in that light, I found the book without soul.  However, Kingsolver is truly a Queen of writers.  My favorite book of hers is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a true tale of family gardening.
Animal Vegetable Miracle

Friday, September 2, 2011

How to make a crossword puzzle, and solution for Tiffany's Turn of the Century New York

Hi all.  Here are the solutions for the puzzle.  It was fun to make, and I hope it was fun to do too.  Though, I have to admit, I would have to use Google for a few of the entries (and I used Google to come up with a few of the entries).  Also, it took quite some time, but I figure anything worth anything will take some time to do.

One puzzle about making this puzzle was to figure out how to do this on the computer.  So, since this in itself was a puzzle, I will also tell you about my solution!  I'll say, if anyone has some shortcuts to this, I'm game, but my rule is that it can't include software that costs money.  That will make this puzzle too easy.
First, I started with a web site that gave me a starting point for the puzzle.  I gave the site 20 words, and it fit 17 of them together and gave me a pretty bad puzzle.  That is, there were few words that had more than one connection to another word.  This is the site that I used, which by the way, I think is a pretty good site:

Next, I printed this out and thought about some more words that would fit the puzzle theme.  I drew on the picture by hand until I had fit in quite a few theme words.  But, still I needed more connection words to make the puzzle good.

Step three was another website that was great for finding those connections words.  This site allows you to search for dictionary words of a certain length that have your special characters in the right place.  For example, you can type in h**p and it will return all the words that match this pattern, say harp, hasp, heap, help, etc....  This site is as follows:

OK, so now I had my answer sheet.  Next, I created a table in Open Office and made it look like a grid.  I figured out how to superscript characters so I could type my number 1., 2., etc to identify rows and columns.  I created the clues, colored all unused squares so it looked nice, and I have to say this was full of errors and took a very long time.  I could see how puzzle software would be a good tool to have at this point.

Then, the last problem was how to share this.  I use a Mac, so had no problem saving pages in pdf format.  You can select this option whenever you print a page.  Then, my Mac pdf reader allowed me to save in jpg format, which is what is posted below.  Total software cost - $0.00.  Total time cost - ridiculous.