Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Flashback 2007: "Time to pick up the pace"

    Today being Pi Day, I thought I would reach back into the vault and disinter another column about the mathematical holiday, there being quite a few, given my boys' inclination toward numbers.  
     Though in this case I'm torn, since this is from the day when my column ran over a thousand words and filled a page. Do I present the single, pi-related tidbit, in recognition of readers' social media-stunted attention spans? Or the full range of comments and risk alienating the easily-bored? I decided, since some readers have time on their hands, to go with the latter. Though feel free to skip to the second item, read that, and call it a day. No one will know.


     We're still at war, right? In Iraq. In Afghanistan. American soldiers dying every day?
     I mean, it didn't end suddenly and nobody bothered to tell us, right?
     Because there was Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who you would think has a million urgent matters on his plate, the first dozen involving keeping our troops from being scattered alongside dusty foreign roadsides.
     Yet there he was, pedaling furiously away from his ham-headed comments that homosexuality is morally wrong, batting aside demands for apology, as if this were the most pressing military issue facing America today.
     Make no mistake. The "Don't ask/Don't tell" policy is institutionalized deceit and cowardice, and itself immoral, in that honesty is a virtue, one that some of us would rank even above the glittering good of heterosexuality.
     And one day, the military will rid itself of this particular phobia, and finally join the rest of the civilized world.
     But that can wait until 2008. First things first.


     Today is Pi Day or, to be precise, π Day, since March 14 can be written as 3.14 and the irrational number we call π — well, some of us call π — begins 3.14 before sailing off into infinity: 3.1415926535....
     And yes, I wrote that from memory, but only because my oldest son has "Pi-Offs" with his pals, where they compete to see who can remember the most digits of '. ("Shouldn't you boys be off smoking somewhere?" I want to ask them.)
     In case it has been a while since math class, ' is the ratio between a circle's circumference (the round part) and its diameter (an imaginary line through the center).
     Fixation with pi is surprisingly common — go to mathematicianspictures.com and you will find a blizzard of slick pi merchandise: pi t-shirts and pi mugs and pi posters, including a 4-by-8-foot, $200 monster displaying the first million digits.
    Some people, it seems, are hungry for pi. "It's pretty astonishing isn't it?" said David Blatner, author of The Joy of π. "It's the only mathematical constant that any educated person knows. [But] pi is also a fascinating mystery. It's infinitely long. That's very strange, and completely non-intuitive. To this day, I hear from people who believe they've figured out pi to the last digit, or discovered that it's really 3 1/8 or whatever."
     Meanwhile, at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, students from the Key Club and Mu Alpha Theta boards will be celebrating Pi Day today by selling $1 slices of pie with proceeds going to charity.


     That is the question up in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, where the American Legion ignited a dispute by donating the World War II howitzer that sat in front of its former Pfingsten Road headquarters to the village.
     They want the weapon next to Village Hall, and there was a meeting there Monday night to air opinions on the matter:
     The anti-gun people said, basically: A gun is a weapon. Weapons promote violence. Violence doesn't solve anything. A big gun next to the village hall would send a bad message to our youth, promoting war, violence and militarism.
     The pro-gun people — many wearing their VFW watch caps — said, basically: A gun is a reminder of war, where soldiers sometimes are called upon to give up their lives in defense of our freedoms. A big gun next to the village hall would remind our feckless youth about the sacrifices made in their behalf.
     I went there, not to report, but to put in my resident's two cents, which can be summarized as: I grew up in a small town not unlike Northbrook where our town square had a Civil War cannon and a plaque made out of scrap from the battleship U.S.S. Maine. The only reason I know there was a Maine, or that it blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898 is because that plaque is there. Hard as it is to believe, with all these W.W. II vets still here, but the years will pass and memory will fade. If you place the howitzer next to the Village Hall, without question there someday will be children in Northbrook who only know there was a World War II because they noticed the big gun sitting there.
     I meant to add that there is an obvious compromise — place the gun, but allow the peace cohort to protest there, filling the barrel with daisies or whatever. That seems fair.
     But it's nerve-wracking speaking in public — even for a big media star like myself — and before my time was up, I fled back to my seat, heart pounding, mouth dry. (Editor's note: the gun got the nod). 


     You do not read the University of Minnesota Press catalogue. But I do, which is why I have a copy of Murat Aydemir's Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning in my, ah, hands.
     I ordered it, thinking it would be one of those pleasant omnium-gatherum cultural histories. The reader, cringing and entranced, would be led through a spunky view of world history, beginning with Onan and ending with Cameron Diaz's special hair gel in "There's Something About Mary."
     My plan was to read the book and present the fascinating parts to you. Alas. I had forgotten the ability of academics to take even the most promising subject and bury it in verbiage. Here is a representative sentence:
     "Placing semen on a semantic axis consisting of the oppositions between past and future, retrospection and anticipation, belatedness and precipitousness, the third and final dimension concerns temporality and historicity."
     That was in the introduction. By the first chapter, we are thrown Derrida and all those French guys who have made such a hash of academia. I began to skim, figuring there must be one interesting tidbit, somewhere, to share with a general audience.
     There wasn't.


     Jim Seguin of New Lenox was kind enough to send this fun nun pun:
     Several elderly nuns were in their third-floor convent one night when a fire broke out. The nuns took their habits off and tied them together to make a rope to get out of the burning building via the window.
     After they were safely on the ground, a news reporter came over to one of the nuns and asked her, "Weren't you afraid that the rope you made out of your habits could have broken, especially since they are so old?"
     "No, of course not," the nun replied. "Everyone knows that old habits are hard to break."
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 14, 2007


  1. Leave it to academia to make ejaculation boring.

    And we're all out of Afghanistan and Iraq...right?

  2. A spunky view of world history. Incredible.

  3. Deep Dish Blueberry ala Mode at Lockwood Castle! No academic could ever obscure that memory.

  4. I'm having apple pie today. My wife brought one home, instead of a pizza. I'm so old that I remember when everyone routinely said "pizza pie"--later shortened to just "pizza"...except in New York. I think New Yorkers still say "pizza pie"...or just "pie." As in..."Hey, gimme a slice-a pepperoni pie" In a town near me, there was an old shack...a closed-down beer joint...with a Fifties "PIZZA PIE" sign on the outside wall. Before I could snatch it, the place was knocked down. Hope somebody got that sign.

  5. I was wondering whatever happened to Peter Pace, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when that 2007 column appeared, and Wikipedia informs me that he was out of that position at the end of September of that year. I see that in fact there's been a brisk turnover of JCS Chairmen every few years on average, mostly leaving on September 30, so it looks like there's some process in place to keep fresh talent at the top. Hopefully, anyway.

    I have to add that the current placeholder, General Mark Milley, looks like someone right out of Central Casting for the role of CJCS. The late cartoonist Jeff MacNelly would have easily drawn him as a Bald Eagle, probably with tailfeathers sticking out the back of his uniform.

  6. I sadly forgot it was pi day. Thank you for the reminder although I will lack the celebratory pie tonight.
    Note: Yesterday I drove pass our local national guard post where two large tanks are parked. (No I didn’t go out and buy a gun or commit acts of violence). I did think that I should stop one day and see if there is a plaque or other information listed by it. Everything has a story behind it.


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