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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2001/05/21
by David Steinberg

Never Anger a Mathematician

* *
I went out last month to see Sound Tribe Sector 9 at the Sit and
Spin. They’re a fun band. They try to be a middle ground between an
electronica sound and a straightforward jamming guitar-based
band. While their jams can definitely work and be impressive, they
do all sound like the middle part of a jam. During their show, I
began to long for beginnings and endings. However, this is not a
column about STS9’s music, it’s a column about their beliefs.
One of Sound Tribe Sector 9’s quirks is that they have a philosophy
based around the Mayan calendar. They handed out little fliers
explaining their beliefs. The front had a picture asking,
Which ruler would you use as a standard of measure?"
giving the choice of our traditional month-based calendar
and one with 13 months of 28 days with one day that doesn’t appear in
any month (365 = (13*28) + 1). So far so good. This is another
variant of the simplified calendar approach that some people would
prefer. The back, though, doesn’t explain the benefits in the usual way
(the big one is that you would always know what day of the month Christmas
and July 4th would be on. The 4th would always be on a Wednesday,
as would the 25th.). Instead of that, they go on a rant about the
spiritual superiority of the Mayan system.
Note to whoever wrote this thing: "I’m your worst nightmare." Not
only do I know math, I have a public forum in which I’m allowed to
talk about both math and jambands. Your entire goal should have been
to keep this out of my hands. Why?
"The Mayan mathematic, based on an elegant and more sophisticated
dot-bar notation system, is vigesimal, not decimal, that is, based on
20’s rather than 10’s. This gives the Mayan mathematical system a
fractal and exponential flexibility not exhibited by the decimal or
duodecimal (by 12’s) system on which the Gregorian calendar is based."
Ah such a treasure trove in only a paragraph:
(1) "Mathematic" does not mean a system of mathematics. It means
someone who is predisposed to learn math.
(2) Note the introduction of words such as "vigesimal" and
"duodecimal" that are never used again in the flier. It’s a classic
case of the rule, "Use academic words and people will think you know
what you’re talking about."
(3) A fractal is a class of shapes. Period. That’s what it
is. Replace it in the sentence with "circle" and it makes equal
sense, "This gives the Mayan mathematical system a circle and
exponential flexibility…"
(4) What is exponential doing in that sentence? The only time
exponents come up when you’re talking about your base system is that
the "hundreds" place when you write numbers would be (20)^2 instead of
(10)^2. I don’t see how changing one arbitrary rule with another one
gives you any more flexibility.
If they meant that it’s exponentially more flexible, well again, that
makes as much sense as saying a 40 letter alphabet is better than a 20
letter alphabet because you can express more ideas in it. It’s just a
tradeoff between longer words and a more complicated system to
remember. It’s not like there will be a number that can be written in
base 20 but not in base 10.
You know, it’s possible to combine mysticism with mathematics. I do
it all the time. However, there’s a difference between doing so with
an actual understanding of mathematics (look how these two seemingly
unrelated ideas actually have this strange deep connection; isn’t
that neat?) and doing so by writing the word "fractal" at random in
the middle of sentences. (There is a sentence later on that says,
"...the tzolkin gave the Maya the fractal yardstick [1] by which they could construct calendars…")
Postscript: The flier did mention
a web page where you could go for more information. I
decided to check it out to see if it made any more sense. Maybe this
was just a poor summary of a complex idea. As soon as I read, "So
immersed was humanity in the 12:60 timing frequency, that it could not
properly heed the call of the Time Shift, July 26, 1992, Blue Cosmic
Storm. Agents 11 and 22 had decoded the mathematics of
fourth-dimensional time, which support and give form to the Thirteen
Moon calendar, and presented these codes in their entirety as the
Dreamspell tool-kit. However, the human mind had become further
entrenched in its own error, and as a result could not comprehend the
meaning and significance of the Dreamspell,"
( I gave up on
that goal. That URL should be good for some laughs, I’m sure. As a
free hint to all such writers, let me explain one thing. There is a
difference between disagreeing and not understanding. Sometimes
people will understand your ideas just fine and still manage to think
you are wrong.
[1] Fractal yardstick? I’m not sure it’s
possible to come up with a worse metaphor. One of the main concepts
about fractals is that their size is not fixed. The closer you look
at it, the longer their sides are.
For an example, think of the Atlantic coast. A giant would be able to
walk down the coast in a straight line. A normal person would have to
walk around the Chesapeake Bay and all of the other inlets. An ant
would have to crawl around every single bit where the ocean moved in
for an inch.
If you asked "How long is the Atlantic coastline?" the answer is, "It
depends on how big you are." There is no one answer for this. A
"fractal yardstick" is a meaningless term, and another sign that the
writers of this flier had absolutely no idea of what they were talking
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico
State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music
at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and has never been the same. His Phish
stats website is at and he was the stats section editor
The Phish Companion.

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