Highlights of Oh Nine

I’ll begin my survey with the big fishies of my secret Washington DC studio.

Here’s some of their friends.

A sea shell (hold it up to your ear and you can hear koi talking).

Another year of hero worship, lovin’ the greatest guy ever to hold the pencil — J.A.D. Ingres.

Hanging out at the easel with my pal, Alice the Cat.

Remembering catapillars climbing up children.

Me, the morning that I learned our hamster was a mother ….

And courtesy of Benedicte, the mother and children themselves ….

On which occasion, upon learning the number of hamsters-in-progress, I was heard to utter “oh nine!”

Some “here’s looking at you, kid.”

Blanca the Hamster gets a new friend, Pompi the Chinese Silky Chicken (thanks again to Benedicte as well as to Gabrielle Bryden owner of Pompi and author of their saga).

Then, there was also my moment in the sun, for which I thank the North Koreans (sort of, I guess).

More big fishies at the secret studio.

Some fun with clouds.

And here’s hoping that 2010 will be a time-path to some good stuff for you and yours.

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Learning Beauty

alice at the easel

My kid had math homework this weekend that she didn’t know how to do, and since she hadn’t brought her textbook home, she lacked instructions and definitions to help guide her back toward the path.  Unfortunately, while being a rational enough gal, I have no talent for numbers or numerical relationships.  Dad is good at math, but he happened not to be available at the height of the crisis.  The homework consisted of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing positive and negative numbers.  I vaguely recalled that rules exist, but couldn’t remember what they are.  So I suggested to my daughter that she experiment — perform some different approaches and see what results she got, and from those results have a guess at which rule is “it.”

She wouldn’t.  And so I pulled Music of the Primes off the shelf and started reading.  Music of the Primes is Math, the Movie — or an elegant, suspense-filled heart-tugging page turner of a math adventure book.  Yes, I know that’s hard to believe but tis true.  Math made thrilling for folks like me and thee.  Math the dream.  Math the you-should-have-been-there experience.

Unfortunately, Music of the Primes wasn’t working for her.  Too grown-uppy.  And by sixth grade a certain sense of, shall I call it, false reality sets in and a child gets mislead into supposing that “the answers” are out there sitting on a drab shelf ready to be innocently “learned” at the public school house.  I cannot blame my kid for having internalized this sensibility; it’s been drummed into her for years now.

Given the data available at the start of the nineteenth century, Legendre’s function was much better than Gauss’s formula as an approximation to the number of primes up to some number N, but the appearance of the rather ugly correction term 1.08366 made mathematicians believe that something better and more natural must exist to capture the behaviour of the prime numbers.

Such ugly numbers may be commonplace in other sciences, but it is remarkable how often the mathematical world favours the most aesthetic possible construction.  As we shall see, Riemann’s Hypothesis can be interpreted as an example of a general philosophy among mathematicians that, given a choice between an ugly world and an aesthetic one, Nature always chooses the latter.  [my emphasis] It is a constrant source of amazement for most mathematicians that mathematics should be like this, and explains why they so often get wound up about the beauty of their subject.

Imagine that: choosing a mathematical order — a beautiful one over the ugly alternatives — that in math one can sketch out ideas and test them, and even choose among them using an intuition that surprisingly sometimes matches the visible natural order.  In so many spheres of life we are offered chances to choose, to act, to inquire boldly, to investigate, to discover.  Oh would that we could instill even a nano-quantity of that free-spiritedness into the school house!

Above, Alice has boldy chosen to paint a dog leaping.  She has no qualms at all about portraying her Public Enemy Number One.  And she even makes him beautiful.

Painting like I Play

alice's violin2

This is Alice’s violin, not mine, but I play a little.  I play “by ear” and “par coeur.”  As I grow in playing I find that I retrace steps I once took in becoming an artist.  Thus I learned where the notes are on my violin by trial and error.  I started playing at a rather late era for violin, so I felt there was no time to waste.  Couldn’t be bothered reading music — never have been very good at it anyway.  Plus jazz being the great love of my life, most every line I yearn to play hasn’t been written down in any interesting fashion, and if it were it’d be far beyond my meager sight-reading abilities.

So I learned awkwardly, making tons of mistakes, to locate pitches.  I reasoned to myself that it was similar to singing.  You don’t know what muscles you’re using to make a note — and usually don’t know what pitch you’re singing.  You just sing.  I told myself I would train my fingers to do what my throat muscles do.  Just go there.  And after a while they have begun, gradually more and more, to obey.

Now some of you know that a pitch can be played in more than one place on a violin.  Certain notes have locations on more than one string.  The same pitch has slightly different “coloring” depending upon where it’s played.  But it’s still fundamentally the same note.  And there’s the rub — here’s where your unconscious mind can do wonderful magic if you let it — if you are willing to play the fool — go out on a musical limb and jump!

You see, I — like any student violinist — am trying to learn to play faster!  And to do this requires a certain amount of letting go.  I listen to the music in my head, listen to it getting faster, and I try to keep up.  As a child when you jumped rope, once they began to swing the rope faster, you just had to jump faster!  And you stay in for as long as you stay in.  It’s kind of like that. 

But because you can play the same note in various places, and because I am improvising, I don’t know which location my hand is going to choose.  When I succeed (I’m getting better, more and more I succeed), I don’t afterwards know which location my hand chose.  Think about that for a minute.  My hand chose.  My fingers have learned where these notes are, and they find them.  But my conscious mind cannot keep up.

One really can do this, and the proof is in the listening.  And when you paint — because I was getting back to that you see — the same holds true.  You can paint without knowing what you are doing.  Sometimes it goes best when you don’t know.  You see, you choose.  It happens quickly.  Your hands move.  Presto chango.  The picture appears.

It can happen like that.  I like it when it happens like that.  Sometimes cluelessness is a virtue.

Alice Wins A Gold Medal!

Congratulations Alice!  This pretty much raps it up for my coverage of the Cat Olympics.  There are still one or two more events, but none that include our Alice.  And, naturally, the whole Cat Olympics is now being eclipsed by the human version.  But I’ll keep you posted about Alice’s other adventures.  She always has some.  She’s quite a cat.

[Top of the post:  Alice with her medal, as drawn by the young artist.]

Alice, Olympic Yarn Ball

The stands are crowded to capacity!  Yarn Ball is the big event for Cat Olympics!  Indeed, not only are the stands filled to overflowing; security is very tight too.  You have no idea how hard it is to keep the fans out of the game.  When you’ve got yarn rolling in front of  150,000+ cats, you know the tails and whiskers are twitching!

Alice has gained an early lead, but there’s still a lot of yarn on the ball.  This is anybody’s game, and this year’s contenders are fast cats.  We’re rooting for Alice, of course, and it looks like she’s got a great shot at the title.

[Top of the post:  Alice and other Olympic athletes in the Yarn Ball Chase at 2008 Cat Olympics in Beijing, China as drawn by the younger artist of the household]

Alice at Beijing: Fishing

Alice is doing well in the first rounds of Cat Fishing Competitions at Beijing.  As you probably know, the cats have to climb down the ropes, catch a fish at the rope’s end, and successfully carry the fish back up the rope to the end.  So far Alice has only dropped one fish and hasn’t fallen into the water even once.   (Cats hate that, you know.)

She’s been doing fabulously well at this Olympics!  I’ll keep you posted on her progress.

[Top of the post:  Summer Olympic: Fishing Competition, by the young artist of the household]

Alice wins at Mouse Tennis

Mouse tennis is not an Olympic sport with which most people are familar.  The name may mislead you.  It’s not a game for mice.  It is a game cats play with mice.  (Poor mouse!)  It is very much like regular tennis, only some unfortunate mouse has to be the ball.  Alice has made a very strong showing from the beginning, but had to earn her triumph. 

Alice the Cat beat Miss Callico and won the match in an 8-6 nail-scratcher. The match started slowly, with Miss Callico going up three games to none, but Alice the Cat came back to tie it 4-4.  Afterwards they traded games until Alice finally won two in a row to take the match.  As you can see, the crowd went wild.  Congratuations Alice!

For mouse lovers in the audience, you’ll be glad to know the tennis mouse escaped before the traditional, triumphant mouse “snack” could take place.   Consequently Alice celebrated her win after the game with a bowl of dim sum over at Sagwa’s house.

[Top of the post:  Alice’s Mouse Tennis match at the Beijing Olympics, by the young artist on the premises]

Great News! Alice is in Beijing!

Did you even know there was a Cat Olympics?  I didn’t.  We were aware that Alice is much traveled, and even that she speaks Chinese.  In fact she was in China when the PBS television show  Sagwa was being made.  Actually she and Sagwa are pals!  Imagine, Alice nobnobbing with celebrities!  But we were not aware of her interest in athletic competitions or that she had qualified for the Cat Olympics.

Well, in the first competition, Alice is a winner!  For those who don’t know, the Cat Olympics preceeds the Human ones.  And Alice’s first competition was Marathon Tree Climbing, where each cat must climb 26 trees!  As you can see above, Alice was in an early lead.

I’ll try to keep you posted how Alice is doing.  We’re all so excited here with our amazing toy — oops — sorry, it’s just slipped.  Officially speaking, Alice is not a toy.  (She’s very sensitive on that issue.)

[Top of the post:  Alice’s First Event, Marathon Tree Climbing, by the younger artist]