Share this project


Share this project

Part math book, part online event, Punk Mathematics is an introduction to mathematical thinking for people who question everything.
1,022 backers pledged $28,701 to help bring this project to life.

the journey of log-base-10 of (2000 factorial) miles begins with--

Posted by Tom Henderson (Creator)

3-word version: 

I'm not dead.

1300-word version:

About eight weeks ago -- i.e., when my last update should have been posted -- my lovely and talented Official Stalker took me to a family party. After a few minutes of stretching out the kinks from my ride in the trunk, I had a chance to speak with the O.S.'s sister. This woman has more than a decade's experience in newspaper writing; currently, she is working on a master's in creative nonfiction, the culmination of which will be a book of family and world history stretching back to just before the end of the second world war. 

As I rubbed at my fading ligature marks, she asked me: "So, how is your book going?"

"Going? Well... I'm about 18 months into writing," I said. It's good policy to start with factual statements. It's honest and gives you a moment to think. But then I froze, as I often do when trying to describe the process of writing from inside the process of writing. I tried to find words and no words appeared; instead, an image of my writing space loaded into memory:

I saw my bookshelf bending in a gentle catenary beneath the weight of Raymond Chandler and Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and Italo Calvino (for voice and structure), Ian Stewart and Rudy Rucker (for exposition that makes you want to delve deep into the math dimension), Kathy Acker and William Burroughs and Nicholson Baker (as reminders that literature can do and be whatever the hell you want), while on the shelf beneath, a couple dozen math books -- some hard and some soft, some technical, some handwavey -- were arranged in rough correspondence with the chapters that are to contain transformations of the ideas I steal. I thought about the stack of unlined spiral notebooks on the floor: the bright red one into which I copy lines of anarchist scientific philosophy for my alter ego to proclaim; the black ones in three sizes crammed with diagrams and mindmaps and dual lists of words linked with arrows to signify potential connections between social and mathematical notions; the nine-by-twelve that I glue-sticked with a Punk Mathematics logo, containing 30,000 reference- and research-free words scribbled on core mathematical notions for disrupting kyriarchies.  And I thought about the famous index cards, two thousand or so, my very first attempts to get it all down: during this conversation they were hidden under the couch -- some in snowdrifts of rectangular white, having been flicked across the floor from the breakfast table, others waiting as though with lit fuses in flat black cardstock boxes -- at the time, you see, I would finish my daily word dump in bed, step out into the living room eager to work, and then become overwhelmed by 2,000 index cards demanding to be placed in the supposedly unique correct order out of 2,000 times 1,999 times 1,998 times 1,997 times...times three times two times one possible orderings: a number 5,700 digits long. (Happily, my neuroticism level has fallen enough that the cards are now in the main writing space, providing valuable random input.) And the invisible tens of thousands of words spun into the computronium void of my laptop...

The images came and went, and I breathed in to say something intelligent about the hulking word-heap at home. But the O.S.'s sister spoke first: "Oh, so it's total chaos." It was not a question. She knew. 

She went on to describe her own book. "I am two years into a three-year program.  I have lists of single words. I have lines that are just...floating, unattached. It is going to take another year, because that's how long this sort of thing takes. You just keep generating material. Generate material every day. If you keep generating material, form will emerge. Setbacks? Don't worry about them. Setbacks are progress."

By the end of the conversation, my Homework Brain slipped peacefully into a coma, and then death. Have I mentioned Homework Brain? Homework Brain is the part of my mind (and perhaps yours?) that wants to first, create categorical boxes with sharp corners and clean edges, and then second, fill them in neatly, in ink and your best handwriting, with no mistakes and no nasty biological-style growth. Homework Brain is survived, but not much mourned, by Generative Work Ethic. I find a short assignment. I generate material, I go off on tangents. I stop working and rest, and I repeat the process the next day. Sometimes I copy from heroes, sometimes I word-vomit, sometimes I try to explain myself in an update. Some of the files I add material to are like organs, with their own visibly developing internal structure; other files are just aggregations of so many undifferentiated cells. So it goes. 

Using this process, I've found myself adding more autobiographical elements (e.g., theories I became a mathematician because of how much I hate numbers), fictional elements (I guesstimate that the final book will be about 20% novella, unless the fiction boils off in the final revision, leaving only flavor compounds), and so help us, poetic elements (most of which I sense will be consumed, my tendency toward overly-precious lines being expanded into prose, but hey, you never know).  It seems weird, but it also feels like photocopied zines and old Re/Search books and my high school's literary quarterly -- a book can have a lot of different things in it. It's fine. 

What's less fine -- what feels seriously not-so-great -- is how much that conversation drove home just how deeply, deeply stupid I was when I started this project. I thought it would take three to six months to knock this thing out; I thought I could create multimedia alongside writing (I guess because doing two or five new things instead of one new thing at a time would be easier?); I thought I'd be in a super-sweet networked creativity phase by now, where we pore over the text via collaborative wiki and identify where I am unclear, where I am wrong, where I suck. But it's not there yet. It's good to know that I have helpers available, that it's okay to make guesses and leave TKs, but I'm still in a stage of "writing with the door shut."

Alright. What else is on the to-do list, beside daubing words onto medium in the petri dish and watching which ideas flourish into something nice and infectious?

* Finally learning IRC. I'd like to be able to hang out and ramble about what I'm working on, and hear what the rest of youse mathpunx are up to.

* Adding a tag cloud of my jillion or so notes in my swipe file to I have trouble imagining it would be interesting to anyone but me, but I used to think that about symmetry groups and commutative diagrams.

* More podcasts are upcoming. My friend and co-improviser @JJHawkins has agreed to produce a weekly show with me. Emphasis on *produce* -- JJ has racked up 160 episodes for his own conversational show, Mars Needs Podcasts, by recording even during personal events that would have me in a fetal ball in the closet. His theatrical responsibilities will keep us from starting for a few weeks, but we plan to do some field recording from people on their math opinions in a couple of weeks.  (Got suggestions on how to ambush complete strangers on math and their mathographies? Send them to [EDIT: That email is bouncing as of May 16th at 4:30PST; let your subconscious mull the question for a day or so while I whip the hindquarters of the appropriate Subversive Math Donkey.])

Very special thanks to @waxpancake, @hillby258, and @CapHector, for patient and encouraging nagging, and @pixelrickie and @li3n3 for emotional-linguistic support duty. I've been so frightened of losing typing momentum that it was really hard to stop and take the time to remind people that, so far as I can tell, I'm (still) not dead.


Only backers can post comments. Log In
    1. Boon Sheridan on

      Thank you for introducing me to "Homework Brain." That is all.

    2. Ross Ramsay

      I signed on for a book. I expected it to either kill you or take years. Take the time you need. Keep deadlines, they help structure (and yes, they will go whizzing by, don't worry about that, set a new one, and keep working at it). You are an entertaining and intelligent man. Translating that into a fully formed book isn't a simple thing, but I feel, when you are done, it will have been worth it. I am glad to see an update from you (especially one that starts "I am not dead" I like to know you are alive and mostly well), but I understand your need to be shut up with a typewriter, a pipe, and a mound of notes making noises like the furnace in Home Alone. You've got our support, craft something beautiful, or ugly, or wacky, or dense, or whatever it is that you need to craft. I know I'll enjoy it however it comes out (because you are fascinating, and the book will reflect that).

      Have you considered getting a camera crew to document your descent into racontuerial madness? seems like it could be interesting in a Sam Raimi, Stephen King, David Lynch, M.C. Escher kind of blend.

    3. Daniella Jaeger on

      Don't die! Take your time.