Sunday, January 30, 2005

Arrivals, Books, and Complaints

I've already written about the fifth floor printer in Soda Hall, which went out of service some months ago. The problem was fixed by putting a sign on the printer saying that it would be out of service until further notice. As a result, the fifth floor print-and-copy room no longer has a copier or a working printer; the microwave and the sink both still works, but I wouldn't lay odds on their maintenance should they eventually fail. The locks on the third floor main entrance to Soda Hall have been on the fritz for the past month, and at the start of last week a sign appeared on the door directing traffic to the fourth floor entrance at night and on weekends. The copiers seem to have disappeared altogether from the math library, though, and my friends in civil engineering -- now returned to Davis Hall after a semester of earthquake-safety retrofitting -- are still without desks and chairs; relatively speaking, I have little cause for complaint. The urge to complain, though, is nearly as fundamental as the urges toward sex or money; to be ruled by any of the three is unseemly, but to deny any one completely bespeaks either serious illness or a sort of saintly state that -- at best -- I think most of us might admire from a distance. Some might claim that it's all one and the same, and that such a saintly state is a sort of mental illness; but I think that claim can only be given credence to the extent that all psychology is pathological, and that everyone's crazy but me and thee -- and I'm not so sure about thee.

Despite the lurking fear that the remaining printer might also fail, or that the third floor entrance might freeze up at an inopportune time, I was able to visit the office yesterday to print the information I needed for my flight. So here I am in the hotel lobby in Miami; my flight was uneventful, my poster is ready, and my wireless network connection here seems more reliable than the connection at my desk in Berkeley. Later, perhaps, I'll use the network to get some work done -- there are some simulations I'd like to re-run for a nearly-finished paper, and my laptop has too little memory to handle them gracefully -- but right now my brain is telling me that it's 6:30 in the morning, and that I've been up since we landed at 3:20 am PST (6:20 EST). Mathematical work will wait until after I've had coffee.

Web surfing requires much less mental effort than mathematics -- at least for me -- and so I've been catching up with the news. It seems that voter turnout in Iraq is high, thanks in no small part to Al-Sistani's injunction that Iraqi Shiites should vote as a sort of religious obligation. We'll see what happens from here. Contemplating Iraq makes me less inclined to complain about things in my own life, if not so much that I'll cease to do so entirely.

The Sunday Book Review was interesting, too. I have a surfeit of interesting books to read right now. I'm nearly finished with The Vintage Mencken (ed. Alistair Cooke), but I also brought Euler: The Master of Us All (William Dunham), The Way I Remember It (Walter Rudin), and A Stroll with William James (Jacques Barzun); and I have other books to read once I return home. Nevertheless, I would be tempted to add Jared Diamond's Collapse to my list, based on the merits of the Times review; whatever faults he may find with the conclusions, Easterbrook does make it sound like an interesting book. There is also an essay by Steve Johnson on how new software for searching personal documents may actually change the way we think. I don't agree with the conclusions; indeed, I think that unless one defines the verb to think so broadly that the word loses the usual meaning, the idea of a personal search engine changing how we think is preposterous. On the other hand, search tools do influence the chains of things about which we choose to think, and the essay is entertaining.

I think I'll find that cup of coffee now.