For reasons that are probably mere coincidence and not a result of my being an especially good boy over the past year, Santa was exceptionally good to me this Christmas. He provided a wealth of fun moments with family, friends, and new found friends in locations from Philadelphia to Upper Darby in Pennsylvania, and from Vineland to Trenton to Titusville in New Jersey.
Several wise men and women bore gifts, including an eclectic array of holiday reading material that deserves special attention:
The Golden Ticket — P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible. This book by Lance Fortnow, published by the Princeton University Press in 2013, was not actually a gift but rather a loan from a friend who knew that I was interested in learning more about this conundrum that occupies some of the brightest minds in the mathematics corridors of Rutgers, Princeton, and the Institute for Advanced Study, among other places.
Just reading the first few sentences of the preface made me reach instinctively for a pencil to take some notes:
“Nearly half of Americans carry a smartphone, a computer more powerful than the supercomputers of just a couple of decades ago . . . Computers can perform tremendous computations, from simulating cosmic events to scheduling complex airline routes. Computers can recognize our voices, our faces, our movements . . . There seems to be no limit to what computers can do.
“Or is there? This book explores . .. . the most important challenge in computer science, if not all of mathematics and science, the oddly named P versus NP problem . . . P refers to the problems we can solve easily using computers. NP refers to the problems to which we would like to find the best solution. If P = NP then we can easily find the solution to every problem we would like to solve.”
Hmmm, I think to myself. Better get ready to sharpen that pencil. “The Golden Ticket” could be a challenging read.
Time — The Illustrated History of the World’s Most Influential Magazine. What better complement to a book devoted to the complexities of P = NP than a picture book? This 432-page oversized, heavily illustrated book, compiled by Norberto Angeliette and Alberto Oliva for publication in 2010, delivers image after astonishing image.
But it also has telling introductions, mostly written by former Time editors and writers, before each section. The preface, written by then managing editor Richard Stengel (a member of Princeton’s 1975 NIT champion basketball team and later a Rhodes Scholar), reminded me of some of the lessons I learned during my brief tenure at Time in the late 1960s and early 1970s:
“From the start, Time wrote about the news through personalities — events were not abstract and impersonal, people made news, and Time helped you understand those people. It’s an old notion: men and women make history as much as history makes men and women.”
Dipping into the Time book made me recall Dan White’s 1978 biography of Coach Pete Carril, which covered Princeton’s NIT championship season. Stengel was on that team but did not start, and he was brash enough to challenge the coach’s assessment in an interview for the book. Not too many magazine editors get tested that way.
The Only Game in Town — Sportswriting from the New Yorker. This 2010 anthology was edited by the magazine’s managing editor, David Remnick, a 1981 alumnus of Princeton.
Since Remnick was one of the star pupils of John McPhee, the New Yorker writer who also teaches expository writing at Princeton, I stuck my toe into this book by re-reading John McPhee’s 1965 New Yorker article on Bill Bradley, who was just completing his senior year at Princeton and had just been named as a recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship as McPhee was completing his reporting. McPhee ended his piece with a bit of speculation, based on Bradley’s impending two-year commitment to study at Oxford rather than play in the NBA:
“Bradley would be remembered as one of basketball’s preeminent stars. And like Hank Luisetti, of Stanford, who never played professional basketball, he will have the almost unique distinction of taking only the name of his college with him into the chronicles of the sport.”
I would like to think that, even back in 1965, I would have pulled out that pencil, crossed out the word “will” and replaced it with “may.” Bradley, never one to take his press notices too seriously, returned from England, joined the Knicks, played 10 years, and was a starter on two NBA championship teams — in 1970 and ’73.
The Innovators. This new book by Walter Isaacson follows his 2011 biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson is another former managing editor of Time magazine, quoted in the illustrated history mentioned above. Leave it to an old Time Inc. hand to begin his work with a clever curve ball.
Isaacson’s book jacket promises a story of “How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” But Isaacson begins with the story of how Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and a smart and insightful woman but probably not a genius (and definitely not a geek or a hacker), wrote a lyrical description of one of the first calculating machines. Her 19,000-word “notes” about the operation of Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine,” published in a leading scientific journal in 1843, helped “sow the seeds for a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later,” Isaacson writes.
Since I was about to go see the movie, “The Imitation Game,” based on the World War II codebreaking work of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park in England, I skipped to the section on Turing’s stay at Princeton prior to the war. All fascinating stuff, and much of it not easily absorbed by this business and entertainment editor. I will return to this one with a sharp pencil and some notepaper.
Last, but certainly not least given the previous sentence, on my holiday reading list: How to Sharpen Pencils.
Yes, that is the title and this 218-page book is devoted to that single act. The subtitle describes it as “a practical and theoretical treatise on the artisanal craft of pencil sharpening for writers, artists, contractors, flange turners, anglesmiths, civil servants — with illustrations showing current practice.”
The book’s author, David Rees, describes himself as “the number one #2 pencil sharpener,” and the packaging of my copy of the book clearly demonstrates his mastery of the craft. It comes with a perfectly sharpened No. 2 pencil contained in a clear vinyl tube, as well as a sealed plastic bag containing the clippings from that sharpening procedure. Both the bag and the tube have labels affixed, certifying the date of the sharpening and degree of sharpness — 8 on a scale of 10.
When he is not sharpening pencils Rees hosts a National Geographic television show called “Going Deep with David Rees” on the National Geographic Channel and on Hulu. The show explores subjects such as tying shoelaces and lighting matches. By going to the extreme Rees also shows the value of just a little digging into any topic — an important lesson for all of us grab-a-quote-and-run journalists.
This turns out to be not only an entertaining read around the Christmas tree but also an inspiration for my New Year’s resolution. Rees — thanks to my enterprising son — personally inscribed the book to me (in pencil, of course):
“To Rich, with best wishes. STAY SHARP.”