AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

BY ANY OTHER NAME


I have often pondered in these pages about the personalities attracted to the art of political science. There are few souls that so hunger for power and attention. There are even fewer egos or ids that can thrive in the organized anarchy that passes for modern democracy. And if every once in a great while the field throws up a skilled dissembler of half truths, it is just as likely to an uncover an occasional preposterous paranoid psychotic. The trick for the voter is identifying which is which before they go on the public payroll. As an abject lesson in spotting the lunatics among the loonies, I shall now relate the story of Byron Anthony Looper, a politician, who in the words of his defense counsel, knew how to lose an election. It is a skill more valuable than you might first imagine
He might have been a gentleman by act of Congress, but in 1985, in his third year at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Byron was thrown from a horse and so badly injured his knee, he was given an honorable discharge. Then he might have been a Democrat, thanks to his uncle Max Roach Looper, a state Representative from tiny Dawsonville, Georgia. But Byron lost his first election in 1987, and after three years as a legislative aide, legend has it that he went to Peutro Rico
He claimed to have worked there as an assistant to a university president, but the university does not seem to have existed, nor did the president. And according to Modesta Blansett, who dated him while he was still in Georgia, Byron was a real charmer, except when he drank, which was often. On those occasions he “exhibited a dark, angry temper”. Byron had two traffic tickets for drunk driving in Hall County, Georgia, and in March of 1986 he pleaded “no contest” to a third. In 1987 he picked up another DUI conviction in Atlanta. Then, like many people approaching thirty, Byron felt the need to re-invent himself. So in 1993 he returned home, one hundred miles north as the crow flies, to the 931 area code, to the Cumberland Plateau of central Tennessee.
As a small boy Byron had left Cookeville, the farming and industrial community bisected by Interstate 40, 80 miles east of Nashville and 100 west of Knoxville. But times and circumstances had changed Byron. His “pinstriped oxford cloth and double-breasted suits” and power ties no longer fit in amongst the 24,000 overhaul wearing farmers in the Putnam County capital, nor even with the 11,000 students attending Tennessee Tech, nestled in the center of town. Still, shortly after his arrival, Byron decided to register to run as a Republican against the popular local Democratic state Representative Jere Hargrove.  Mr. Hargrove remembered being puzzled just a few days after Byron had filed his paperwork, when the conservative Democrat received a letter from Byron Looper, seeking help in getting a job with the Farmers Home Administration. Hargrove never responded “because I thought it was crazy.” He remembered the campaign which followed as “dirty”. And for Byron it was unproductive. He lost. Again.
Still, Byron refused to give up. As the Republican county Chairman Scott Ebersole remembered, “He was playing politics all the time.” Byron even took out an ad in the political magazine, “Campaigns & Elections”, seeking the help of a consultant. William Lindsay Adams, based in Louisiana, answered the ad, but found his interview with Byron made him “uncomfortable”. “Byron told him that if a candidate wasn't in the race at the end, it wouldn't cost him very much to win”. Adams quoted Looper as saying it would just be “about 35 cents” – the price of a bullet. Adams stopped answering Bryon's calls.
Then in 1996, Byron found Republican backing for a run against the 14 year Putnam County Tax Assessor, Bill Rippetoe. Their support was understandable, since if elected, Byron would be the first Republican to hold a county wide office in recent memory. Byron took part in no debates, and made no public appearances. But he did run a lot of negative radio ads, claiming that Rippetoe had fixed tax assessments for his friends. There was no evidence for this, of course, but Rippetoe was not prepared to respond. And to prove his philosophy on property taxes, Byron invested $4.95 to legally change his middle name from Anthony to “(Low Tax)” - parentheses included. He did run one positive ad, promising he was “a new kind of leader”, and introducing his wife Terry to the voters. However, Terry Guess was not his wife, but merely his girlfriend, who was also his landlady. He was renting a room in her house. But by the time the truth had come out, Bryon had finally achieved his dream – he won the election by 1,100 votes. And immediately he learned that old lesson about being careful what you wish for.
A week after taking the oath of office, on Thursday, September 12, 1996, Byron called a press conference to announce he had discovered $100 million worth of property taxes had not been paid. But before the reverberations from that headline had reached the farthest corners of Putnam county, from Hanging Limb to Muddy Pond, the County Commission, to which Byron reported, responded that $100 million was the “normal backlog” for property taxes at this time of year. They also suggested that Bryon should just do his job and stop holding press conferences. After further checking, Byron held a press conference to announce they were right. Then he left town – for Peutro Rico.
This time Byron was gone three weeks, which in town the size of Cookeville did not go un-noticed. When he returned he cleaned house, firing dozens of staffers, and hiring a “Security Chief”, who swept the office for listening devices. None were found. He also assigned three employees to photocopy more then 5,000 pages of County Commission records. When this was questioned, he held a press conference to announce he had uncovered “a good ol' boy network” and was suing to make the documents public. This required the Commission to reveal the documents already were public. This time “Low Tax” was forced to issue a written apology. Said County Executive Doug McBroom, “His attitude was that we're all dumb, and he was here to save us...but he kept getting caught.”
At one of his many press conferences, Byron was faced with an allegation that he had fired staffers because they were Democrats. But Byron had a ready answer for that charge. It was preposterous, he said, since he was secretly a Democrat, too. A quick look at the records revealed Byron was telling the truth, he was a registered Democrats. Whereupon, the party had him purged. The Republicans, were perfectly happy to have him as a member since, beggars can't be choosers.
Meanwhile, the work in the Tax Assessor's office became increasingly chaotic. Byron would disappear from the office for days at a time, and when he did show up, he spent time trying to transfer properties to the tax rolls of neighboring counties – specifically properties owned by members of the County Commission who were giving him such a hard time. His new Security Chief got into a fist fight with a voter. Some property owners were charging Byron had “shaken them down” for political contributions. And when they did not contribute, Bryon increased their property tax assessments. Under Byron's stewardship, records had gone missing, and his remaining employees had spent 90 hours working on his next campaign, for the congressional seat held by Democrat Bart Gordon.
His campaign had barley gotten off the ground when in March of 1998, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation hit Byron with a 14 count indictment for official misconduct, theft of services, misuse of county property and misuse of county employees. In the primary Bryon came in third in a field of four Republicans But the resourceful young man had an ace in the hole. He was the only Republican who had also filed to run against the popular five term State Senator, Tommy Burks . By default Byron made it on the November ballot in that race.
Nobody expected Byron to win, evidently not even Byron. But Tommy Burks had been a politician to long to be over confident. He told a friend, “This Looper boy is absolutely crazy. I believe he's capable of doing anything.” And then in August, another lawsuit was filed against Byron, from an unexpected source. It was filed by Byron's former girlfriend and landlady, Terry Guess. She alleged that in December of 1997, after they had broken up, Byron had assaulted and raped her. And when she ordered him out of her house, he had filed a false transfer of ownership of her home to his name. But Terry's breaking point came when she discovered she was pregnant. Now, with the baby due in a few weeks, she sued Bryron, asking for $1.3 million in damages and child support. Byron did his best to “handle” the suit. He held a press conference. He referred to Terry as “a former stripper”, and complained “She left me with heart palpitations, a small box of memorabilia, and a red G-string.” It was a good line, but it did not help.
But Byron had uncovered a “quirk” in the election laws of Tennessee which he felt certain would bring him victory. Early on the Morning of October 19, 1998, Byron (Low Tax) Looper drove a black sedan onto a unpresuspossing pig and tobacco farm, and stopped next to a pumpkin patch, along side a pick up truck. And then he fired one 9mm round into the skull of State Senator Tommy Burks, killing him instantly.
According to Tennessee law, a candidate who died within 30 days of an election, must have his name removed from the ballot. So Byron figured he would win by default - emphases on "fault". But what Byron had not counted on was that his clever cover up would dissolve so quickly. In a matter of hours the cops were able to show that Byron had bought the sedan in Georgia, resold it there to a dealer a few hours after the murder, and worse, Byron had been recognized at the scene by two of Tommy Burk's farmhands. Plus there was his confession to a childhood friend a few hours later. On election day Byron was in jail, and although he was still the only living candidate on the ballot, Charlotte Burks, Tommy's widow, received 30,252 write in votes against Byron (Low Tax) Looper's 1,531 votes.
Yup – that Byron (Low Tax) Looper. He sure knew how to lose an election. And a court case. He changed lawyers eight times, but in August of 2000, Byron was still convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, at the Morgan County Correctional Complex. And that was when he got another name change. He is now known as inmate #323358 . And this one looks like it might stick for awhile
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

ETERNAL TRIANGLE Pt. One


I wonder why they call it “news”? The one thing it never is, is “new”. Every headline merely documents a  sad, sustained repetition. History does not repeat itself. People do. As an example, I give you the obtuse triangle of “Big” Jim Fisk, Helen Josie Mansfield and Edward Stokes; a triangle which would have been familiar to Pythagoras and would have bemused Sigmund Freud, and might have informed John Edwards and Governor Mark Sanford - among others - if they had been willing to consider themselves as not quite unique.
Jim Fisk was born in Vermont on April Fools’ Day in 1835. His father was a traveling “bummer”, selling pots and pans and trifles. When he was 15, "Big" Jim ran away to join “Van Amberg's Mammoth Circus and Menagerie”, and returned three years later with a splash of color and bombast,  which he marketed into a fortune. In the midst of the Civil War, together with Jay Gould - the most hated man in New York - “Big” Jim took over the Erie Railroad.
But it was “Big” Jim who decided to move the Erie’s corporate offices into the upper three floors of the Grand Opera House (above), which he owned. For while Jay Gould had no interests outside of making money, Jim Fisk was a man of many prodigious appetites, many of them involving divas of one kind or another. Jim had been married to his dearest Lucy when he was 19, but she resided in far off Boston with her own lady love, Fanny Harrod. And while Jim kept both ladies in luxury, and even visited them occasionally, he spent most of his free time with “actresses” in New York, and was a regular visitor at the business house of “the notorious Annie Wood”. And it in the dim red light of Annie's parlor that Jim was  introduced to his personal Helen of Troy, Josie Mansfield.
Josie was a beauty in an age when a sexy woman had some "meat on her bones". One admirer noted her
“…full, dashing figure". He also noted "Her eyes are large, deep and bright…Her voice is very soft and sweet”.  It was Josie’s mother who first recognized the girl’s talent as “an incorrigible flirt”, and used her as bait in a badger game, played in Stockton, California. A pettifogging local attorney named D.W. Perley , while in a state of undress, was caught "courting" the girl.  To cover the scandal Perley wrote at least one check at gunpoint. There was some quarrel over the proceeds of this venture, and shortly thereafter Josie secretly married and ran off with Frank Lawlor, an actor.
She followed Frank cross-country on the music hall circuit, arriving in New York City in 1864. Here, two years later, Frank came to the shocking discovery that Josie “was going astray” on him. Although why that should have shocked him, seems an open question.  In any case, they divorced, and Josie sought a career more suited to her talents, in the bordello of Annie Wood. There she enticed Annie to introduce her to the genial and jovial and generous Mr. Fisk. He was enchanted. She was enriched.
Over night Josie went from being behind in her rent to the “Cleopatra of West Twenty-third Street”, to the owner of record of a four story brownstone (after some $65,000 worth of improvements) - conveniently located just around the corner from "Big" Jim's Opera House – with four servants, a wardrobe filled with dresses, and a jewelry case accented by real jewels.  But having achieved everything she had hungered for, Josie was now bored. And that was when she made the acquaintance of one of “Big” Jim’s business partners, Edward Stokes, and fell head over heels in love for him.
It was understandable. Where Big Jim had few social skills, Edward had an excess. Where “Big” Jim was physically blunt and crude, Edward was handsome and dashing. He was a privileged, pompous and prideful dandy, with a trophy wife and a 9 year old daughter. Josie was experienced enough to recognize that Edward was also a spendthrift and an inveterate gambler, regularly losing a small fortune on race horses. An affair would be dangerous for them both. Josie depended on "Big" Jim for her income, and Edward was partnered with “Big” Jim in a Brooklyn oil refinery. Edward ran the place, and “Big” Jim’s Erie Railroad transported the refineries’ oil at a discount.  It would seem that because of a hunger for self delusion and self destruction in 1869 Edward and Josie began an affair -  they thought behind “Big” Jim’s back.
Such a triangle could be maintained only so long as all the parties carefully judged the angles. But algebra was a skill that none of the three possessed in quantity or quality. In January 1870 Josie announced that she no longer wanted to see “Big” Jim unless he made her financially independent. She reminded him,  “You have told me very often that you held some twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars of mine in your keeping…a part of the amount would place me where I would never have to appeal to you for aught” And now, she said, she wanted "her" money.
The entire point of their relationship, as far as “Big” Jim was concerned, was that Josie had to appeal to him for everything. He was hurt, and responded, “Have I not furnished a satisfactory mansion? Have I not fulfilled every promise I have made?” And then he let it be clear that he was fully aware of her affair with Edward. “You may well imagine my surprise at your selection of the ‘element’ you have chosen to fill my place. I was shown today his diamonds, which had been sacrificed ... at one-half their value ….You will, therefore, excuse me if I decline your modest request for a still further disbursement of $25,000” Jim even began calling Josie his Little Miss “Lump-sum”.
Having received a definitive “no”from her sugar daddy,  Josie began shifting her demands. First, she threatened to publish “Big” Jim’s love letters.  Then she said was willing to spend an evening with him. Then she hinted she would share secret details of his Erie stock manipulations. Through an intermediary “Big” Jim asked Edward how much he would require to return those love letters and return Josie as well. Edward asked for $200,000, and that seemed to have hit “Big” Jim’s limit, again.
Of course,  "Big" Jim still sent Josie cash when she asked for it - $500 on November 7th, $300 on November 10th, another $500 a week later. Now why did he do that? He must have known that most of the money allowing Edward to gamble.  Of course November was also the month that “Big” Jim cancelled the shipping discount for the refinery he shared with his paramour.  Yes, “Big” Jim was hurting his own profit margin, but Edward was being squeezed much harder. And Big Jim could afford it. Edward grew so desperate that in January of 1871 he collected a $27,500 debt owed to the refinery, and pocketed it.  Almost as if he had been waiting for this, “Big” Jim had Edward charged with embezzlement, and had Edward arrested. The Lothario spent a weekend in jail before he could raise bail.  Edward swore his revenge for the insult..
Why “Big” Jim had not done this sooner remains a mystery. The man was a Wall Street cut throat, merciless and cruel to his business competitors and partners. Yet he seems to have been sheered of his strength before Josie's demands. The lady now sued "Big" Jim, demanding the pay her $50,000 (the $25,000 she insisted he owed her, plus interest). Edward joined in, suing “Big” Jim,  to force him to buy out Edward’s share of their refinery for $200,000. And at last the entire mess was out in the open, where the press could profit by it.  And they always love that. This story, they knew,  was just beginning.
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NORMALIZATION


I can't make up my mind about climate change. Will we adjust our behavior in time, or does the human species lack the intelligence to survive? I hope the answer is yes and no, I worry the answer is no and yes. It seems to come down to how you define “intelligence”, by the smartest of us or the most obstinate? There are over 7 billion human brains working at this moment, and too many it seems are convinced meteorologists can't accurately predict if it will rain tomorrow, so of course scientists can't predict the average temperature a hundred years from now. But the first is almost impossible to predict, while the second is just extremely difficult.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration says “The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time”, while the Climate Impacts Group offers a more pragmatic definition; "You pick your vacation destination based on the climate but you pack your suitcase based on the weather." And it all started with a Swedish triple threat – he was an arrogant, racist atheist. But he was a very smart chemist. In fact Svante Arrhenius was so far ahead of his instructors that they gave his PhD dissertation a “C”, and in 1903 that same work won him the Noble Prize in Chemistry.
Growing up with those long cold Swedish winter nights made Svante (above) curious as to why we weren't still having ice ages. Being a chemist he naturally thought chemistry might provide an answer. His knew that the sun heated the ground during the day, and reflected some of it back into the air as infrared radiation, otherwise known as heat. He suspected that the more carbon dioxide and water vapor there was in the air, the less of that reflected infrared radiation could escape into space. What he came up with in 1896 was his greenhouse law; “If the quantity of (carbon dioxide) increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.” He ran the numbers, and found, as he wrote a decade later, “...any doubling of the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air would raise the temperature of the earth's surface by 4 degrees Celsius; and if the carbon dioxide were increased fourfold, the temperature would rise by 8 degrees C.” Svante had predicted global warming and climate change.
Poor old Svante. He had to do his calculations the old fashioned way – using unpaid graduate students who labored for hours with pencils and papers and slide rules. And he made a couple of bad assumptions. He figured clouds were pretty much a wash, since they both reflected sunlight from their tops, and trapped heat under their shadows. He was right about that, but he missed how sensitive the climate was to carbon dioxide by half. In other words he saw that burning coal and oil and wood released carbon into the air, but he didn't realize how really bad that was. In fact, being Swedish, he was looking forward to more beach weather.
It was the geologists who provided what I think is the most convincing piece of the puzzle, they just did not know it for a long time. You see, they were looking for gold and diamonds and copper and coal and oil and even water, which they did by first drilling a lot of holes all over the place. Now, each hole was an experiment, and these rock farmers recorded everything about the holes as they drilled them, including the temperature at various depths. Eventually the more social geologists were able to collect a record of what they called the geothermal gradient world wide. They found that as a general rule at anything less than 200 feet the temperature was about 11 degrees Celsius – or 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Below that you have to figure in ground water, rock type, how close you are to a volcano - but as a general rule the temperature goes up about 1 degree Celsius for every additional 1,000 feet down the hole you go. And it wasn't until much later that other graduate students noticed that as a general rule, up close the general rules did not add up.
Plotting out the temperatures in great detail and very exactly, and allowing for volcanoes and such, still produced a steady rising curving as you went down. But on the other end, at the top of the holes, things were a little odd. The line there seemed to be steeper than it ought to - not enough that it kept the rock hounds up at night, but it did nag at them. And then somebody compared the carbon 14 dating of the rocks through which these holes had been bored, at the top. And suddenly the ages and the temperatures of the upper rocks in the odd zone made sense. The closer you got to the surface, and the younger the rocks got, the higher the temperatures were above that general rule, beginning about 500 years ago, about the start of the industrial revolution, when a growing number of smoke stacks started spewing out all that carbon that Svante had measured .And in 1998 three scientists, Henry Pollock, Shapeeng Huang and Po-Yu Shen provided confirmation of global warming. “The subsurface temperatures ...indicate that Earth's mean surface temperature has increased by about 1.0° (C) over the past five centuries.”
So two independent fields of science, chemistry and geology, had each independently produced a picture of a warming planet for the previous 500 years, and predicted it would continue to warm. Together they produced a coherent, unified story with an explanation. Glaciologist, the only scientists whose field of study melts if they don't work fast enough, had independently stumbled on a third proof. Snow falling on glaciers today has more carbon in it than water melted out glacier ice formed five hundred years ago, and far more than the snow that fell a thousand years ago. And the amount of carbon in the snow is increasing. And it wasn't until very recently that meteorologists got into this discussion, which was to be expected, since, their field of study is what every other scientist calls “background noise”.
Let me give you an example of that noise; from December 1st , 1801 to January 31st , 1802, only about an inch of snow fell in Albany, New York, a spot which on average gets closer to 32 inches during those two months. The temperature ranged between 4 and 10 degrees Celsius (40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit), when it is normally around minus 3 Celsius (mid 20's Fahrenheit ). Along the Ohio River, in eastern Ohio, 3 inches of snow fell on November first in 1801, but after that they suffered not even another hard frosts for the rest of the entire winter. In January of 1802 tulips and violets bloomed in New Haven, Connecticut, and on the 28th of that month Salem, Massachusetts saw the thermometer hit 15.5 degrees Celsius (60 Fahrenheit). No less a numbers freak than Thomas Jefferson became convinced that “The change which has taken place in our climate is one of those facts which all men...are sensible of...”  And this was before the industrial revolution!
Less than 20 years later came the other extreme, the summer of 1816. On June 6th, snow fell in Albany, New York. Ice was observed on rivers and lakes in July and August as far south as Pennsylvania. Farmers in Massachusetts got a crop in that summer, but so little that oats were selling for 10 times what they had sold for the previous year. World wide probably 40,000 people died of starvation. It was referred to as “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”, or “The Year Without a Summer”, and it was probably caused by the April 10th , 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, the largest volcanic eruption in the last ten thousand years. To my mind, that is the real difference between weather and climate – weather is a record of extremes, and climate is a record of the average between them.
Yes, the 700 volcanoes that erupt every year throw about half a million tons of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and a super volcano like Tambora may doubled that amount once or twice a century. But ever day humans spew 88 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Can there really be any doubt about why old extremes are becoming our new normal, or what is responsible for it?
Every scientific method we use to look at the past 500 years, every experiment we come up with to test what has happened over the last five centuries, tells us that the new normal is climate change, and that our industrial revolution is the one new factor over the last five hundred years that is driving our new normal to new climate extremes.  From this point forward there really is only one question more we have to ask. Does the human species lack the intelligence to survive? And the answer is up to you.
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Sunday, March 16, 2014

A PLATE OF HUMBLE PI

I suspect the problem begins with the oft quoted but not well understood phrase, “pie are squared.” In the first place, it’s not. It is a fact that you cannot square a circle, and yet it is done everyday, out of sight for those of use who are math-impaired. This is so because  pi is the relationship between the length of the line forming a circle, divided by the distance across that same circle and then multiplied by Pi. And this somehow always works out to be 3.141592653589793238…etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitas, iadd nfelicitous, and never repeating. This makes Pi an irrational number, which is confusing again because I find all numbers irrational, even on Pi day (3/15).
To find the area of a living room you simply ask a realtor, and then subtract 10%. But to find the area of a circle you must  measure the radius of a circle squared -  or to put it another way, the radius of the circle times the radius of the circle. In the shorthand of math-speak that becomes, A(rea)= piR squared. This is true math-media.      
What this mystery formula really means is that you can never turn a circle into a square of the exact same size: close, but never exactly. And it doesn’t matter if it is a great big circle or an itty-bitty one. Pi is always 3.141 etcetera, etcetera.
If you are a math freak this is obvious, while the rest of us have to be satisfied with accepting that Pi is an irrational number and live with it. But I ask you, what is the value of knowing pi? 
I had a fourth grade teacher who was so obsessed with having her students memorize the value of Pi to twenty decimal places that she had us memorize the following poem: “Sir, I send a rhyme excelling, In sacred truth and rigid spelling, Numerical sprites elucidate, For me the lexicon’s full weight”. Each of the 20 words of that poem has the number of letters required to read out the first twenty digits of pi. I had to memorized that poem again in my thirties because as a ten year old I couldn’t spell the word Nantucket, and as a sixty year old I rely upon a spell checker to detail any word long enough to rhyme with  “elucidate”. So this poem was as much a mystery to me then as the number Pi remains today.
But I am older now and I have grown so used to making mistakes in public that I hardly notice the embarrassment anymore. So I openly admit that I still find pi a puzzle. Besides, every time I make a mistake, I learn something new. Things my mistakes have taught me so far include, never turn down a chance to use the bathroom, never loan money to attractive women, never invest in a Nigerian lottery ticket, never give out my social security number over the net, and never question the value of pi. 
Legend has it that the great Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse was struggling over the solution to pi when a Roman soldier blundered into his garden. The old man supposedly snapped, “Don’t touch my circles!”, whereupon the chastised legionary pulled his Gladius and separated Archimedes’ head from his face. I suppose that if Archimedes had been sitting in his bathtub, as he allegedly was when he discovered that displaced water could be used to measure density (Eureka!), something else might have been separated. But, suffice it to say that before computers, finding pi was a great big pain in the Archimedes. He managed to figure out that pi was somewhere between 3 10/71 and 3 1/7. He might have done better if he had invented the decimal point, first.
About the year 480 CE the Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi figured out that pi was a little more than 3.1415926 and a little less than 3.1415927. After that the decimal point zealots took over. The German mathematician and fencing instructor Ludolf van Ceulen worked out pi to 35 decimal places. And in 1873 the amateur geek, William Shanks, worked it out to 707 decimal places. But William made one tiny little mistake in the 528th number and that threw everything else off. But it was such a good try that nobody noticed his screw up until 1944. Today computers have figured pi out to one trillion digits to the right of the decimal point and still no repeatable pattern has been detected. It is still a little bit less than 3.15 and a little bit more than 3.14. All that has changed is the definition of “a little bit”. It keeps getting smaller and smaller -  but it will never be zero.
Still, pi remains the “admirable number” according to the devilish little Polish poetess Wislawa Szmborska. While being infinitely long it includes “…my phone number your shirt size, the year nineteen hundred and seventy-three sixth floor, number of inhabitants sixty-five cents, hip measurement two fingers a charade and a code, in which we find how blithe the trostle sings!” (…and no, I have no idea what or who the hell a trostle is. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t either. Do you?)
Daniel Rockmore, in the pages of "The Chronicle of High Education" for March 12, 1999, wrote that Pi was "Foreign, unpredictable, otherworldly, yet as common as a circle...it's easy to find, but hard to know. Why, among mathematicians there still rages a fierce, unsettled debate about whether pi is a "normal" number--that is, whether the digits 0 through 9 each occur on average one-tenth of the time in the never-ending decimal expansion of pi. The questions that surround pi's normalcy make it a veritable poster number for the fashion world's ambiguous and androgynous advertising campaigns."  And you thought mathematics was not sexy.
A physician and crackpot amateur mathematician from Solitude, Indiana named Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin thought that he had “solved” pi to the last digit - and none of this irrational numerical horse feathers for him! He decided to make Pi his own personal private property by copyrighting it. But in order to profit from his discovery (you know how wealthy the Pythagoras estate is) Dr. Goodwin needed a legal endorsement. And rather than subject his brainchild to the vagaries of the copyright peer review, the good doctor instead offered his theory as an accomplished fact to the local politicians. The proposal, Indiana House Bill 246, “…an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered…to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost…provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature…”. this insanity actually made it through the Committee on Canals and Swamps (Perfect place for it!) in record time, and was passed by the full house on February 5, 1897, by a vote of 67 to 0.  Who says politicians don't spend time on important issues?
Unfortunately, in the Indiana Senate some wiseacre showed the bill to a visiting Purdue party- pooper, Professor of Mathematics C.A. Waldo. And now we at least know where Waldo was in 1897. The lawmaker asked if the professor would like the honor of meeting the amazing Dr. Goodwin, and Professor Waldo replied that he already knew all the lunatics he cared to know, thank you very much. And with that comment Dr. Goodwin’s brief bubble of fame was burst. On February 12, 1897 any further vote on the bill was postponed indefinitely. Hoosier lunatics have since moved on to more productive fields.
It was not a victory for logic so much as an avoidance of a victory for ignorance, which is pretty much the same thing that happened in Tennessee about 30 years later when they tried a man for teaching evolution.
Still pi remains one of the most popular mathematical equations, if mostly poorly appreciated by those of us who aren’t trying to generate a random number or navigate a jet plane across the North Pole, or predict the next stock market bubble, or launch a satellite, run a radio station, process an X-ray or a Cat-scan, drive a submarine, drill for oil, purify gold or etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitas, add infelicity.
Just trust me, and always trust pi. It lifts your spirit, gives you a sense of security and keeps your circles on the square. To share it just try singing..."Pi, Pi, Me oh my, Nothing tastes sweet, wet, salty and dry, all at once, ...oh my, I love pi!
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