Saturday, July 26, 2008

Aldo Andreotti's Math Lesson

It was long ago in Pisa. Scuola Normale Superiore, Science Division. The students were waiting anxiously for the famous geometer, Aldo Andreotti, a legend of modern day italian mathematics.
The place: a lecture room, in the old Palazzo dei Cavalieri. Time: evening, before dark.
November, perhaps. Perhaps not.
At a certain point, a clumsy, chubby fellow shows up and announces that Prof. Andreotti will be late, and that he will start the lecture in his stead. There was nothing remarkable about it, the fellow writes formulae monotonously, one after the other, on the wide chalky blackboard.
Time passes, endless, tedious time.
Then, suddenly, as if materializing out of thin air, Professor A. shows up. He stares at the formulae, dismisses briskly the chubby and clumsy fellow, and begins writing, as if talking to himself.
He may have continued for a few minutes, he may have asked a few questions, I have no clear recollection.
Once again, as suddenly as he had appeared, he stops.
He sits on his chair, his jaws contracted, and looks at all of us, with a deep, almost annoyed, penetrating eye.
There is a sense of oppression, of thick clouds gathering, a palpable mute tension.
Professor A. finally open his mouth and utters the following words, in a strong tuscan accent (how strange it sounded in that momentous event):
- Let me tell you one thing. Math is hard, very hard. I worked all my life to understand it, and it is still hard. Each day. You must be prepared to work just as hard, or you better not waste your time, better go out and work in the fields-
(the last sentence, -andate a lavorar' ne' campi - echoes in my mind like a harsh, ironic mantra)
Then he pauses, an unfathomable pain engraved in his face, he toils with something on the desk, perhaps a cheap packet of cigarettes:
-The lesson is over-
I will never forget that class, Professor Andreotti, as long as I live. It took me so many years to understand it, but now I know. You were right, math is hard, and so is everything worth while in this world.You better be prepared to do your best, or let it go, before it is too late to regret it.
PS For the cognoscenti, Aldo Andreotti appears in the monumental and very idiosyncratic mathematical autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck, Recoltes et Semailles. Andreotti is one of the rare individuals whom AG seems to remember with affections, from his previous academic life.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Poetry Readings IV: Gerard De Nerval's Divine Enchantress

Recently I have been visiting, after so many years (too many, alas!), my native homeland, la bella Italia, and have drank once more the heady cocktail of life that Toscana offers to all. In a brief stop from my restless motorcycle rides up and down the Apuan Alps, I was glancing into the greenery of the Mediterranean landscape, and all of a sudden the first verse of Nerval's Myrtho resounded like a hypnotic melody from a never forgotten past:


Je pense à toi, Myrtho, divine enchanteresse,
Au Pausilippe altier, de mille feux brillant,
A ton front inondé des clartés d'Orient,
Aux raisins noirs mêlés avec l'or de ta tresse.

C'est dans ta coupe aussi que j'avais bu l'ivresse,
Et dans l'éclair furtif de ton oeil souriant,
Quand aux pieds d'Iacchus on me voyait priant,
Car la Muse m'a fait l'un des fils de la Grèce.

Je sais pourquoi, -bas, le volcan s'est rouvert...
C'est qu'hier tu l'avais touché d'un pied agile,
Et de cendres soudain l'horizon s'est couvert.

Depuis qu'un duc normand brisa tes dieux d'argile,
Toujours, sous les rameaux du laurier de Virgile,
Le pâle Hortensia s'unit au Myrte vert!

here is my translation:
Of you I think, Myrtho, divine enchantress
Of proud Posillipo, bright with million fires,
Of your face flooded in the clarity of the East,
Of black grapes mixed with the gold of your braids.

From your goblet I too drank euphoria
in the furtive flash of your smiling eye,
When at Iacchus' feet I was seen suppliant
For the muse has made me one of Greece sons.

I know why over there the volcano erupts once more…
Because yesterday you stroked it with your agile foot,
and suddenly the horizon was buried in ashes.

Since a Norman duke broke your clay gods,
Forever, under the branches of Virgil's laurels,
The pale Hortensia & the green Myrtle entwine !

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Grail of Java Web Development

Almost a year ago, in a post on metaprogramming, I announced that I would spend a few lines on my experience with Grails. I must tell you why I needed it: I wanted to develop some quick-and-dirty R&D Web prototype for my former employer, and also another one for my own pet project (a bleeding edge social web application, more later...).

I am a java fellow, not too keen on web programming (yes, I have done J2EE, servlets, a bit of Spring, and all that jazz, but my core interest is algorithms dev, not web architectures, plus patience is most definitely not my chief virtue), thus I needed something that would get me going real fast.

Rails? yes, but I had no time to learn Ruby well enough, and moreover I had some java code I wished to reuse, without any further ado.

The choice was obvious: Grails.

I have got to say that the very first minutes were truly blessed: seeing an entire web app coming out of nowhere was extremely gratifying. Customization? Well, it was a bit of a pain, to tell you the plain truth. Groovy is easy, but is still another language, and things are not entirely trivial when it comes to going beyond a simple CRUD app. However, all in all, big thumbs up.

The best part is, there are many plugins available.
You need security? ACEGI plugin.
You need search? Worry not, there is a searchable plugin based on Compass and Lucene.
Do you want to do some fancy Ajax stuff? Plenty of choice. For instance, the GWT plugin.
Bottom line: you have (most of) the tools you need.

Is Grails scalable enough for a true enterprise app? Some say yes (I tend to believe them), some say no, but fact is, I do not know yet for sure (I''ll tell you in a while). What I do know is, if you want to develop some web prototype at the speed of light (almost), and you do not want to go out of your familiar java turf (why should you?), stick to Grails.

PS I have already written on Graeme Rocher's blog this one, but I am going to repeat it here and now: as a social web researcher/developer, I would love to see some plugins dealing with the OpenSocial API, or perhaps a FaceBook API plugin, i.e. some way to get a template of a social web app right off the shelf, as it were. As I am a big believer of the programmable social web, I think this step would skyrocket Grails to another dimension of adoption and success. Hopefully something along those lines will be available soon.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Stephen Jay Gould on Deep Time

Stephen Jay Gould's book Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle is dominated by a grand theme:
Deep Time

In our age of computers, we talk of billions of years with nonchalance. The fact that we can compute these huge expanses of time fools us into believing that we can grasp them. But, is it so? Can we genuinely understand even, say, a period of mere 100 years? I would answer in the negative. Our entire life experience is confined to a few decades at best, and the age of our grandads is already mythology.

No, we cannot understand Deep Time, beyond a sense of awe. It is thus sobering to realize that this notion is quite new in the history of ideas. Only a few hundred years ago the world was young. Then, Deep Time appeared to hunt us forever.

We are not just microbes in space, our life is ephemeral in time as well. Let us never forget how ephemeral....