Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.

The three versions extract different pains, different moods. The song, among the earliest written by Dylan, and initially covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, seems to bridge the energy of country from the mountains (Southern Appalachian, thinking of Mother Maybelle and Carter Family songs) with the individuality of rock that was emerging during the 1960s.

When the rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I will be gone…

He wrote this song (and Blowin’ in the Wind, and Girl from the North Country) when he was about 20 years old – freshly arrived to New York City from Minnesota – with a “farm boy” allure still present but already a poet capable of churning out those haunting sentences that we saw printed on the wall of a beautiful cafe in Oxford, those supremely lyrical melodies – balanced up to some point by his unruly voice and tuning. He used the name of a famous poet when he chose his own artistic name (Dylan Thomas -> Bob Dylan).

It ain’t no use turning on your light babe, the light I never knowed, and it ain’t no use turning on your light babe, I’m on the dark side of the road…

Of the three versions I at present feel closest to the “rawest one”: Dylan, his seemingly untrained voice and his guitar (no harmonica yet, apparently, at that point), and no production, so to speak. Of course, I can see how the beautiful rendering by PP&M, with its carefully inflected voice, its balanced production, the harmonic blending of the three voices, the stresses coming from careful use of head-singing at crucial points, was a boost to the song, for audiences that apparently were not quite ready for Dylan’s own highly idiosyncratic way of singing. Then, of course, the freewheeling version – the best known today perhaps, the first I heard, with Dylan himself, now with his harmonica, with more polished and balanced use of voice of guitar. Every version I hear I love, but of the three at this point I am preferring the rawest, the least produced, the most “brouillon-like”.

Don’t think twice, it’s alright. So long, honey babe … where I’m bound, I can’t tell. Goodbye is too good a word, babe, so I just say fare thee well…

Of course, different sadnesses, of different kinds – different departures (in a way, we are always saying those words, even when we “stay”: we are constantly “on the dark side of the road” with respect to something, to someone, to oneself, to one’s former versions). I can’t really say, can’t really imagine how many times I have had to say a version of those words to myself, to my infant self, to my young self, to my friends, to countries (to Belgium, to Israel, to Finland on a boat heading for Stockholm in the dark night of winter).

Even mathematically (or mostly mathematically) this is something that (painfully) happens more often that we would like.

How could someone at age 20 know all that?

¿qué pasó con el sistema postal?

El twit de @ovidio sobre la porquería que es el sistema postal en Colombia coincidió con una reunión del comité de postgrados en que algún otro problema con el correo surgió… en este caso dentro de Estados Unidos.

Y pienso en lo extraño que es que, en tiempos de correos electrónicos casi-instantáneos, se haya vuelto tan azaroso, tan arriesgado, tan salvaje usar un servicio que hace 50 años funcionaba decentemente.

A varias personas que no suelen hablar carreta les he oído decir que hace 50, 60, 70 años el correo en Colombia era ejemplar. Yo mismo alcancé, hacia 1975, a mandar cartas de Ibagué a Bogotá cuando me quedaba donde mis tíos y escribía a mis padres a contar que había llegado bien. Era absolutamente obvio para todo el mundo entonces que una carta de Ibagué a Bogotá se demoraba un día, o a lo sumo dos si pasaba algo bien raro. Pero ya en 1975 decían que se había dañado bastante el correo. Que de Bogotá a Bogotá antes llegaba el mismo día una carta, cosas así.

Hoy en día a veces recibo algo por correo normal (ya casi no) – Colfuturo creo que usa todavía el correo normal para mandar tarjetas de saludo a sus exbecarios. Una carta de Bogotá a Bogotá se demora 17, 23, 35 días. Ya nadie sabe cuánto dura, ya nadie espera que llegue nada. Como si Bogotá se hubiera vuelto un Macondo tardío después de cuatro años de lluvia, en términos de lo que esperamos del correo.

No me sorprende para nada que a @ovidio no le haya llegado aún a Bogotá una carta que mandó desde Alemania hace dos meses. Nuestros libros enviados desde Israel (varias cajas) hace unos años se demoraron 10 meses en llegar. Cuando íbamos a la bodega de Adpostal en la Calle 26 cerca del aeropuerto a averiguar, veíamos miles de cartas en montoncitos y letreros escritos a mano que decían Apartadó Villavicencio Tumaco Barranquilla etc. etc. etc. Nos explicaron que TODO llega a esa bodega y ahí lo reparten. Nos dijeron una vez que nuestros libros “estaban en el puerto de Madrid” (?!?!?). Otra vez nos dijeron que todo lo que salía de Israel pasaba primero por Líbano (?!?!?) y se redistribuía Medio Oriente a partir de ahí. Otra vez nos dijeron que la Fiscalía había incautado todo el correo por algún lío legal y que de pronto nuestras cajas de libros estaban en la bodega de la Fiscalía. Finalmente, cuando llegaron intactas las cajas de libros, no lo podíamos creer.

Lo triste del asunto es que no es solo Colombia (claro el caso de Colombia es peor, o de pronto simplemente es que somos tan adelantados aquí que nos inventamos cómo degenerar un sistema postal que fue ejemplar en tiempos de mis abuelos —- y otros países nos seguirán).

El caso de Estados Unidos es preocupante. Al principio de los años 90 era buenísimo el correo. Llegaba todo en un día dentro de los 48 estados contiguos. Cuando volvimos a Estados Unidos a vivir en 2002-2003 nos sorprendió empezar a oir más y más cuentos de “se pierde” “se roban los cheques” (aunque la gente todavía manda cheques) “se demora”. Empezó a pasar más y más que las cartas se demoraban tres días, cuatro días, una semana. Pregunté en el correo varias veces por qué pasaba eso, y me salían con excusas tipo “snowstorm” “strike in California”… el fondo común era la expresión de desidia y fastidio del empleado que en realidad está pensando para sus adentros “who the fuck are you and why the fuck you asking this – we work all the fucking time in this shithole and it’s none of your fucking business to ask me why your fucking letter has not arrived yet”… Y cuando uno lee que el porcentaje de masacres de locos dentro de las oficinas postales en Estados Unidos es altísimo, uno mejor no pregunta tanto – sobre todo cuando la mirada de los empleados expresa tanta desidia, tanto fastidio y tanto odio.

En Francia oigo cuentos similares sobre La Poste. ¿En Alemania tal vez no? En Italia ciertamente no, pero orondos le dicen a uno que “non possiamo guarantire che questa lettera arriverà”, incluso si la lettera va de Roma a Roma. Cuando uno los mira aterrado, dicen “ah, è anche possibile di aggiungere una siccurezza – costa soltanto 1 € di più – e così è più probabile che la lettera arrivi”. Una pregunta cuándo llega la carta si uno compra el seguro adicional y lo miran a uno con cara de “no pregunte cosas tan complicadas, dai, va prendere un gelato e ti calmi”.

(En Finlandia funciona bien, al igual que todo, pero es mejor guardar el secreto. Nadie debe saberlo, y nadie debe ir a ver cómo es ese paraíso. @ovidio sabe bien que en Finlandia las cosas son distintas del resto del mundo, incluída Suecia)

Parte de la clave de la degeneración está, tal vez, en las políticas de “re-ingeniería” que se han ido tomando el mundo. Re-ingeniería de los sistemas postales. En vez de mantenerlo simple y claro, como seguramente era en 1950, se inventan que “todo tiene que ir a una bodega en Bogotá, pasar por un sistema, meterle un código de barras”. Y el sistema se bloquea porque la base de datos está mal mantenida o porque se fue la luz o porque Daisy no llegó hoy y es la que tiene la clave.

Estoy seguro de que una carta de Lorica a Barranquilla en 1950 iba en el bus directamente, con sentido común. Hoy estará perdida ahí en un arrume en una bodega en la Avenida Eldorado.

coming across Rota’s writings

How twisted and how weird, the way Rota – Rota’s writings, Rota’s ideas, even Rota’s recipe for pasta with tomatoes and garlic – and Rota’s Boston and Los Álamos – seems to be part of the background of my life ever since that first visit to Boston, back in 1993.

Around that time, we started dense, intense discussions with one of Rota’s MIT pupils – Mark E. – who was back then a student of Keisler. In 1993, we went with María Clara for the first time to Boston (I went to a logic meeting, she came with me and we both incredibly enjoyed that city, despite having had during the trip several glitches, including being almost thrown out of our first place because of a misunderstanding). Mark – who had been an MIT undergrad, opened the key to many Boston marvels to us. One of those marvels was the Rota way of looking at things – or at least, Mark’s version of it. Blended with incredibly passionate philosophical (anti-analytical, phenomenological, heideggerian) discussions (on the continuum, on art, on late Wittgenstein, on sufi and buddhist approaches to ego, or the lack of it, on Conway games, etc. etc.) was always a light (but deep) touch, a conciseness of expression, an essential playfulness. And an Italian obsession with things like cutting garlic the right way (crosswise, of course not the French way), sautéing the garlic at three different moments (so you get the flavor of roasted garlic plus the middle flavor plus freshly cut garlic at the same time).

Life changed for me after meeting Rota’s writings. Not just because of endless discussions with Mark – among the deepest and liveliest philosophy I have ever had the chance to glimpse – or the mixture with Rotesian pasta and wine (the fact that Mark was then so sensitive to philosophy and so utterly unsensitive to art was mind-boggling, yet triggered even better discussions – he actually forced us to read Heidegger for a tough argument we needed to pass through).

Rather, the fact that those writings have triggered so many things in myself and, I think, among some friends (certainly Alejo, Santiago and Fernando). Pondering phenomenological issues every single day (in and outside math), taking distance from things, objectivizing what should be subjective and learning to think in layers and Fundierung, as a kind of life process – never falling prey to reductionisms and always doing (without even noticing) eidetic variations on things that are presented to us in an opaque way, and are finally caught not by direct observation but by varying parameters, by putting them in different contexts.

I opened a book I had not looked at for years – Numbers, it’s called – by eight German authors including Ebbinghaus and Hermes – as I wanted to read some background for a second-semester class I am teaching on Numerical Systems, for math, statistics and physics majors. The book seems to contain deep insight on the way the natural numbers, the integers, the rationals, the reals, the complex numbers, quaternions, p-adics, Cayley numbers, surreals, infinitesimals arose [of course, I only get up to the complex numbers and some rings of polynomials in my class!].

In the book was a copy I made of Rota’s review of the book, in Advances. It contains true (explosive!) gems:

Perhaps the teaching of mathematics should be subjected to the strict and unbreachable subdivision of the ancient Greek mysteries. There is exoteric math, that we should and will teach to non-mathematicians, to their enjoyment and profit; and there is esoteric math, that should be reserved only for closed-door interaction among card-carrying mathematicians or would-be mathematicians.

In this otherwise laudable book, the two kinds of math are dangerously mixed and presented as if they were one and the same kind. This fatal mistake committed by the editors presents us with an opportunity to stress the expediency of books with strictly exoteric math and to avoid circulating among the wide public all esoteric parts of our subject.

There is nothing more deadly for a non-professional mathematician than being taught a rigorous version of facts that he or she always held to be obvious.

The two chapters on real and complex numbers are downright dangerous. Giving rigorous presentations of the obvious has always been, and always will be, the dark side of mathematics, the side that makes mathematics disliked and unwelcome among physicists and engineers, the side that from time to time threatens to do away altogether with the teaching of pure mathematics in schools and colleges.

… speaking now of the exoteric side, the chapter on division algebras and topology tells every reader that mathematics has something new to contribute, something that the reader will find fascinating and did not even fathom.

… the authors have missed the chance to introduce yet another generalization of the concept of number of which the public at large (even the mathematical public) is largely unaware, and that is the ring of ideles. This ring can be motivated starting with the p-adic numbers, which in turn can be motivated by the naive notion of “carrying to the right” … the fields obtained by carrying to the right are not homeomorphic as topological spaces for different bases p. The ring of ideles sets up a carrying algorithm (to the right) cleverly based on cyclic groups which does not play favorites among the p’s. Where else but in a book like this one would such a motivation for the ring of ideles be given? Certainly not in a book of algebra, where the author invariably does his or her best to conceal this fundamental motivation.

A propos of Cantor, one does not understand why cardinal and ordinal numbers have been dropped in a book that (implicitly) pretends to treat “every” aspect of the concept of number; for example, a description of what is going on in the theory of large cardinals might have made fascinating reading.

Who cares about the history of π?

At a time when mathematics is suffering from a serious loss of status (and of faith), the circulation of this book among an already fed-up public is another time bomb to be defused, the sooner the better.