January Diary
Tabloids, snooty waiters, and the offside rule.

From the cover of Dinner with Churchill


John Derbyshire

Funny stuff, literature. With the Charles Dickens bicentenary almost upon us, and me struggling to get out a work of fiction in e-book form, one’s thoughts naturally turn to literature.

The other day I was browsing in Hockett’s Course in Modern Linguistics — an old favorite of mine. The book is probably out of date by now: My edition is dated 1958. Hockett has some memorable passages, though.

He has a whole chapter on literature, one of his best. From which the following.

Let us, in imagination, join a circle of Nootka Indians [Whoa! The book’s dating itself right there . . . ] who are resting around the campfire after their day’s work. One old man tells a story, which runs as follows in English translation:

Kwatyat caught sight of two girls. “Whose daughters are you?” said Kwatyat to the two girls. The girls did not tell him who their father was. Many times did Kwatyat ask them who their father was, but they would not tell. At last the girls got angry. “The one whose children we are,” said they, “is Sunbeam.” For a long time the girls said this.

And then Kwatyat began to perspire because of the fact that their father was Sunbeam. Kwatyat began to perspire and he died. Now Kwatyat was perspiring and he swelled up like an inflated bladder, and it was because of the girls. Now Kwatyat warmed up and died. He was dead for quite a little while, and then he burst, making a loud noise as he burst. It was while he was dead that he heard how he burst with a noise.

The individual words and phrases of this story are mostly intelligible, but the narrative as a whole makes little sense to us — we might as well have heard it in the original Nootka. Yet as we look around the fire we note that the speaker is being followed with close attention and interest. The Nootka audience is getting something from the performance that we, as outsiders, cannot get.

I’ll say. I wonder what stories these people tell around their campfire?

Math Corner. The solution to last month’s puzzle is here.

This month, just a book recommendation. I have a friend who is a keen magician. Not real magic, of course; there is no such thing. He does conjuring tricks, mainly with cards. Here’s how keen the guy is: He took a job teaching high school in inner-city Los Angeles just so he could be near to the Magic Castle. (It helps here to know that he has black belts in half a dozen martial arts.)

Well, over the dinner table once he mentioned a name. “Mentioned” doesn’t quite catch the spirit: He spoke the name with awe, as one would of a prophet or a really good stock picker. The name was that of Persi Diaconis, who is both a professional mathematician — at Stanford yet — and a magician of, according to my friend, awesome skill.

The name rang a bell. I get a lot of comped books, especially about math, and don’t have time to give them as much attention as I ought. That was the context in which the bell rang: The name Diaconis had been on a book some publisher sent me. When I got home I dug it out. It’s this one; there’s a good review here; and I leave you to discover its delights for yourself.

The math is quite deep — de Bruijn sequences, Steiner points — and the book includes a very touching memoir of the late Martin Gardner. I think it’s fair to say, though, that it’s more for magicians than for mathematicians. Great fun, nonetheless, and some surprising results, all of which defy the space requirements of my Math Corner.


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