Sunday, December 26, 2004

Visiting and home

Today, even more than Friday, was a day of visiting. We had bread and soup, meat and cheese, coffee and cookies. I helped make bread in the morning -- something I haven't done often at home since my move, mostly because of the logistics of counter space management -- and was quite well pleased by my efforts. Basil, black pepper, and garlic are good bread seasonings. The soup was good, too: ham, beans, and potatoes was an old favorite when I was a kid, and it still is; and the veggie stew was nearly as good (both were good, but I'm biased). Then the aunts and uncles came, and Scott and Brittany, and we sat around and chatted. And then everyone dispersed -- except, of course, my parents and the cats and me.

In a way, I felt like I ought to be saying farewell, too. Home is an elusive word, but right now it's attached to an apartment in California as much to a house in the woods in Maryland. But I'm here for a little longer, and that's fine -- particularly since, now that the house is quiet, I can avoid the worst teasing about still being in graduate school. Of course, I'm sure I'll be just as hectored once I graduate, too: as it's said, if you're so smart, why ain't you rich? Well, I like comfort well enough -- particularly little comforts like warm socks and hot tea -- but I don't really think I want to be rich. Most of my family understands and approves of my aspirations well enough, though, so that's enough complaint from me.

One of my holiday books is Innovation and Its Discontents by Jaffe and Lerner. It's brief (about 200 pages with 20 additional pages of end-notes), informative, and well-written. The subtitle, How our Broken Patent System is Endangering Innovation and Progress, and What to Do About It, spells out the author's thesis pretty well: namely, that changes in the US patenting system since 1982 have caused patents to be granted too easily and patent rights to become too potent a weapon, so that the monopoly granted by a patent can hinder as much as it helps. As you might imagine, the anecdotes sometimes leave me grinding my teeth -- just as is the case with recent books on copyright law -- but I regard the information as not only interesting, but probably personally useful. It's like learning about export restrictions and government classifications of what things are sensitive: however boneheaded I think certain aspects of the current system might be, it's best to know enough to try to avoid running accidentally afoul of them.

On a tangential note: LAPACK, an enormous and widely-used library of freely available dense numerical linear algebra codes, is undergoing another revision, with which I'm tangentially involved (I was responsible for the last revision of CLAPACK, a C language translation of LAPACK; I hope that this LAPACK release will finally allow CLAPACK to slide into graceful oblivion, but the details of this hope are a topic for another day). Things are just getting under way, but one of the questions which came up in the very first discussions was how should the copyrights be managed? When the early versions of LAPACK came out, a bald statement along the lines of This is free; use it for commercial or non-commercial purposes as you see fit, but while the codes are as good as we know how to make them, we don't guarantee them and won't be held liable seemed like quite enough. But now it's not. The idea that lawyers must be involved in order to give software away rankles, but it seems that without the lawyers, some big companies will shy away. Fortunately, the universities involved do have legal departments who, I suppose, are capable of giving advice on such things.

On a ligher note, last night I picked up and re-read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, the second book in a sequence of the same title. It's billed as a children's book, and it has been on my shelf since I was much younger; but the writing is good (better than Rowlings', I think), and I like the story. Besides, the story is set around this time of year, and is a good deal less sappy than most such stories.

Children's literature is also a nice break in technical reading, which I've been pursuing in parallel with my leisure books. I brought with me Nick Trefethen's Spectral Methods in MATLAB, which I recommend for its clarity and brevity as well as for its usefulness (if you find yourself solving boundary value problems). Also, my parents gave me a copy of Luenberger's Optimization by Vector Space Methods, a book which presents a wide range of material -- much wider than might be suggested by the title -- in a very natural geometric setting. Luenberger uses the language of linear algebra and functional analysis (which is basically linear algebra in infinite-dimensional spaces) to describe and unify ideas that come up in all sorts of interesting areas: pure analysis, mechanics, statistics, control theory, finance, and numerical methods, among others. I wish I'd known about this book and read it as a companion to Royden when I was taking my graduate analysis course (or perhaps I wouldn't have wished for it when I took that sequence in 97-98; I've learned some things in the intervening years). In any case: it's a grand book, and I recommend it for those who are interested in -- and not terrified by -- the unifying language of functional analysis or the many applications of ideas of linear algebra, convexity, and optimization.

On a note somewhere between Susan Cooper and David Luenberger, let me note that the columns on the Mathematical Association of America web site are often both interesting and very widely accessible -- I'll recommend it even for my friends who didn't go much beyond high-school mathematics. And if you're a puzzle fan, read the December article in the Math Games column.

Did I say I planned to spend the break reading and entirely ignore this blog? Well, the best-laid plans fall awry, and perhaps it's just as well.

  • Currently drinking: Mint tea