Video Treasure: The Man Who Knew Infinity

Directed by Matthew Brown
Warner Brothers, 108 minutes, PG-13 (racism themes)

I’m one of the most right-brained people on the planet, so I surprised myself by viewing two films about math in the same week: Hidden Figures and The Man Who Knew Infinity. How to say this? The first is more important sociologically, but the second is a better film, although not many people saw it when it was in theaters.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a biopic about Srinivasa Ramanunjan (1887-1920), whose brief, brilliant career inclines one to believe that sometimes nature is way more important than nurture. He grew up in Madras, India; was modestly educated; dutifully submitted to an arranged marriage to a ten-year-old girl in 1909; and toiled in low-level accounting posts before attracting minor attention at home. Hardly the sort one would consider Cambridge material at a time in which the British raj was intact and most Brits considered Indians racially inferior “wogs.” But Ramanujan had an inexplicable gift for computation and he filled notebooks like da Vinci on amphetamine. His work was so  advanced that many thought him a charlatan, but Trinity College Fellow G. H. Hardy was intrigued enough to test that theory.

The Man Who Knew Infinity concentrates on the professional relationship between the intuitive and sensitive Ramanujan (Dev Patel) and his hard taskmaster mentor Hardy (Jeremy Irons). To call the two opposites hardly does the description justice; Hardy was such a cold fish that he had colleagues, but no lovers, no passion other than work and cricket, and even his few “friends” such as John Enensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) had to resilient to insult or be able to parry like Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam). Cambridge was Hardy’s element and Ramanujan’s isolation ward.  Call it a relationship between fire and ice….   

The film follows Ramanujan’s need to prove himself during his time at Cambridge (1914-19), both metaphorically and literally. Like Hidden Figures, it’s also about overt and covert racism. There were few dark faces at Trinity College and fewer still white ones willing to believe that an Indian could possess superior intellect. Racial slurs were the order of the day and even the mildest of questions could be construed as insolence. Nor did it occur to the bright white minds of Cambridge that a Hindu man might not eat meat or find chapel edifying—or that perhaps he might miss his wife or his native land. Ramanujan’s problem with Hardy was that he intuited answers but seldom process. He was a “pure” mathematician in the strictest sense—one who saw his equations as gifts from his god, believed them to be true, and saw no need to question them, even when they were demonstrably wrong. In Hardy’s West, though, a math equation without corresponding proofs gains labels such as conjecture, speculation, and unsound reasoning. So can fire and ice learn to make water? Can one man become more earthly and the other more sensitive? Can either convince others to drink? Brown is unsparing in plumbing the depths of British xenophobia and how it intensified once the Great War (World War I) erupted. A world in which logic is kicked in face by the boots of unreason ought to strike you as chillingly familiar.

Ramanujan was a brilliant star that burned out too soon, which makes The Man Who Knew Infinity equal parts inspirational, triumphant, and tragic. Brown’s ability to let us see the last of these is one of the things that makes this a better film than Hidden Figures. Excellent performances from Patel, Irons, Jones, and Northam move the narrative crisply and make it compelling for right-brained people like me. Ramanujan’s work was pathbreaking in fields such as partitions, number sequences, the properties of fractions, and a whole host of other things I can’t pretend to understand. In all, he produced more than 3,900 equations and results—almost all of them correct. Ramanujan possessed true genius, though it remains mysterious as to how it was acquired. But here’s a result to consider: this is a really good film. As proof, I offer myself—as unlikely candidate to get excited about a math film as you can possibly imagine. Give this one a try; I think you’ll find a winning equation.

Rob Weir      


MLB Central: Are the Indians Poised for Big Things?

MLB 2017 Central Time:

The Tribe is my pick for the World Series

American League:

You gotta love Terry Francona and the Indians. They almost won it all last year with 60% of its starting pitchers on the DL. Look out this year, if Bauer, Carrasco, Kluber, McAllister, Tomlin, and Salazar are healthy. Andrew Miller may be the best relief pitcher in baseball and Allen isn't far behind. Plus, the Tribe gets Brantley back to supplement a solid parade of hitters, including Kipnis, Lindor, Chisenhall, Santana, and Naquin. Add free agent Encarnacion and the Indians are loaded top to bottom. My pick for the World Series.

The Royals are enigmatic. They could challenge the Indians, or they could tank—neither would surprise me. Duffy, Hammel, Karns, and Kennedy can't compete with a healthy Cleveland staff, but they're solid. They will need more out of their # 5 (Vargas? Wood? Young?). They also need Moustakas, Cain, Gordon, and Hosmer to hit like they did in 2015, not last year. Soler was a good pickup but he's hurt. I'm not sold on Moss, a low OBP guy, but Orlando looks like he's almost ready.

The Tigers are starting to look toothless. Yes, Miggy Cabrera and both J.D. and Victor Martinez can still rake, but Iglesias has fallen so low he's on the trade block, Kinsler might be on the decline, Avila is no longer a starter, and any team that starts Justin Upton is playing roulette. Two relative unknowns will join him in the outfield (Jones and Mahtook). Detroit will also need Verlander to be an ace again, Sanchez to recover his mojo, Zimmerman prove he can pitch in the AL, and pray Fulmer doesn't have a sophomore slump. Is Greene an MLB pitcher or an AAA guy?

The White Sox were the AL equivalent of the Padres in that they thought they were buying a Rolls Royce in the 2015-16 offseason and ended up with a Yugo. They wisely blew it up and how they do this year isn't really the point—the ChiSox are looking a few years down the road. For now they still have Quintana as their ace and Robertson in the pen, though I doubt either will be there by the trade deadline. The rest of the staff will probably be guys you either don't know well (Covey, Ynoa, Gonzalez) or wish you didn't (Shields, Holland, Rodon). Three guys are legitimate hitters (Abreu, Frazier, Melky Cabrera) and the rest are hope-they-develop types.
The 2016 Twins were everything that can go wrong with a youth movement. They have to be better this year, right? Only if Hughes, Gibson and Santiago pitch better. Count me among those who don't think Ervin Santana will ever be a reliable MLB pitcher. The hitters? There's a declining Mauer, the budding star Dozier, and a bunch of former high-profile prospects trying to shed the "bust" label (Buxton, Sano, Escobar, Sand, Castro). If these guys don't gel this year, it might be time to back up the van.

National League:

The Cubs won it all it 2017 and now wear the unfamiliar hat as the oddsmaker' choice to repeat. That's a pretty tall order. Winning the Central will be tough enough. Their pitching features Jake Arieta, but then it's guys who could go either way: Lackey, Lester, Anderson…. Will Hendricks win 16 games again? The lineup is formidable: Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Russell, Zobrist, Schwarber…. Look for either Szczur or Almora to relegate Heyward to the bench.

The Pirates could challenge if the pitching holds. Cole is the real deal, despite a down year in 2016. Red flags: Nova is Mystery Man and young guns Kuhl and Glasnow are unproven. The Bucs feature a potent lineup: Cervelli, Freese, Mercer, Marte, McCutchen, Polanco…. If the Cubs slump or are slow out the gate, Pittsburgh is capable of stealing the division. Their farm system is loaded.

The Cardinals suffered injuries and a down year in 2016, but no one should take them lightly. Lynn, Wacha, Leake, Carlos Martinez, and the back-from-the-dead-again Adam Wainwright make up a potentially dynamite staff. They will need Carpenter, Wong, Adams, and Peralta to step it up. Outfield production is questionable, unless Fowler is the stud they think he is and Grichuk hits for a higher average. Piscotty looks to be a keeper, though.

The Reds will hit— Votto, Duvall, Cozart, Peraza‑ but not consistently enough. Billy Hamilton might be the fastest man in baseball, but an OPS of .664 cancels his speed. The pitching? On paper it looks dreadful. Of the returnees, only Finnegan won as many as 10 games last year and he lost 11. Feldman becomes the ace without having yet thrown an inning for the Reds and that's not a good thing. Unless the young guys are better than projected and mature fast, the Reds are in for a long year.

The Brewers are a near carbon copy of the Reds. They feature some good hitters— Braun, Villar, Thames— and lots of guys who won't make anyone forget Robin Yount. Maybe new pickup Travis Shaw will help. Garza needs to get off the DL and pitch better, Zach Davies needs to repeat his 2016 stats, and Peralta needs to reverse his, or the Brew Crew will rival the Reds for batting practice pitching. But they have greater potential and Milwaukee has a strong minor league system that could help.


            AL Central: Indians, Royals, Tigers, Twins, White Sox (you can flip the last three any old way)

            NL Central: Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers, Reds           


The Sellout is Powerful, Poignant, and Wickedly Amusing

Paul Beatty
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 288 pages.

African-American writer Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was controversial in Britain as the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. That news didn't yield a yawn in the United States, where most wouldn’t know the Man Booker from Booker T. and the MGs. But its content makes it a hot potato. Beatty’s novel is deliciously wicked and ambiguous. Is it satire, or a rant? Does it praise black culture, or lampoon it? It is musing upon black power, or surrender to emasculation? Only two things are clear: Beatty thinks discussion of a post-racial society is risible bullshit, and if you’re a person who can’t read, say, or stomach the word “nigger,” you shouldn’t go within a country mile of this novel.

Beatty's style is summed by his main character's personal motto: "Cognito, ergo Boogieum–I think, therefore I jam.” Beatty excels at jams, gibes, and riffs. He's also a published poet, and the first third of this book is essentially a prolonged attitude-heavy, profanity-laced, chip-on-the-shoulder prose rap about the state of Black America. It is incisive, barbed, distressingly real, yet funny. Beatty also takes aim at the ways in which black humor is homogenized (by black and white scholars alike). He's from the school that doesn’t shy from snaps, vulgarity, and verbal jousting. Take, for example, his rant on how he's tired of seeing black characters being described by hues such as "honey-colored," "chocolate," or "mocha:" "How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren't there any yogurt-colored, eggshell tone, string cheese-canned, low-fat milk white protagonists in these racist no-third-act-having books?" Or this one on how "hard" it is to talk about race: "…I actually think the country does a decent job of addressing race, and when folks say, "Why can't we talk about race more reasonably?" what they really mean is, "Why can't you niggers be reasonable? … And by race we mean niggers, because no one … seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, or America's newest race, the Celebrity."

The novel is also about the anonymity of black men in white America, a point he makes by veiling the narrator’s very name. His surname might be “Me,” though his on-again/off-again bus driver girlfriend calls him “Bonbon.” His Los Angeles–"the city that's always passed out on the couch"–looks nothing like La La Land, he’s nobody’s idea of a kid from the ‘hood, nor does the ‘hood' resemble expectations. Bonbon was raised by a single father who was brilliant, yet crazy as a March hare—a social scientist at a local community college whose son was his favorite lab rat for lessons on racism and self-reliance. Call it childhood in an absurdist African- American Skinner box. Among his father’s other projects: he's a co-founder of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals—a combination black Chautauqua, social center, and liar’s bench—the community “Nigger Whisperer” who calms agitated locals in potentially violent confrontations, and a farmer. Did I say farmer? Yes. The local neighborhood is a section of Los Angeles called “Dickens,” one of the novel’s numerous literary wordplays. Dickens was designed as an agricultural enclave, thus he and Bonbon also keep livestock, tend fruit orchards, and line their urban fields with manure. (Dickens is imagined, but farming actually does take place in parts of Compton.) Bonbon’s father also made sure his son was well-educated, well-spoken, and neatly attired, which meant spending a lot of time in white society. As Bonbon caustically remarks, “I was the diversity” seen in dozens of brochures. Within the 'hood, this also makes him the "sellout."  

Bonbon’s life takes a dramatic turn when his father is gunned down by the LAPD and local developers unincorporate Dickens in hopes of gentrifying it. The latter plan distresses Hominy Jenkins, who hitherto enjoyed the attention of (often white) visitors seeking him as the “Last Little Rascal.”* Hominy had so internalized his subordination that Dickens' disappearance renders him a non-entity. He's so down that he asks Bonbon to enslave and whip him and begins calling him “Massa.” Bonbon, in turn, decides to reestablish Dickens by putting up signs, painting lines in the road, and declaring Dickens a re-segregated all-black community.

What ensues is a reverse-race riff on amendments thirteen through fifteen. Needless to say, Massa and Hominy throw numerous constituencies into an uproar. Is theirs the ultimate self-loathing, or perverse brilliance? Don’t look to Beatty to resolve that question. His alter ego character remarks that his father taught him that black people don’t think alike but, in fact, they do: every black person thinks he or she is superior to every other black person! Beatty uses the character of Foy Cheshire as his foil. You name the conceit or scam, and Cheshire has it. Among his schemes is the rewriting of classic novels from a black POV—usually the originals with a few words strategically changed—and he wants “his” novels in the school curriculum. Foy Cheshire: black nationalist, or Jim Dandy minstrel huckster? And what do we make of the very master/slave relationship between Bonbon and Hominy? The implication, I think, is that being white requires domination of at least one black person.

Yep–a controversial book. It’s also brilliant: a joy to read, laugh-out-loud funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking. It’s what you’d get if you mashed James Baldwin with Chris Rock. Is it racist for a white guy to laugh at any of this? I’m guessing that Paul Beatty’s answer would be, “Who’s to say?” Just don’t tell him that race no longer matters.

Rob Weir       

* The "Little Rascals" is the name of the pack of poor street kids from the Hal Roach comedy shorts Our Gang, which played in theaters between 1922 and 1944, and was syndicated for television during the 1950s and early 1960s. It was the first to show white and black kids as peers on a semi-equal basis, though it also traded in cringe-worthy stereotypes. There was never a black character named "Hominy," but there was "Buckwheat" and "Farina." The other two black characters were named "Sunshine Sammy" and "Stymie."


MLB Preview: NL and AL West

MLB 2017: The West

American League:

The AL West looks to be a two-team race between the Rangers and the Astros, with the Mariners the dark horse.

If Darvish stays healthy and Perez bounces back, the Rangers should win on the strength of pitching (Hamels, Griffin, Ross) and a fearsome lineup: Lucroy, Andrus, Beltre, Gallo (who will arrive soon), Profar, Carlos Gomez, Choo, Odor…. Not many easy outs here. But the staff isn't deep and that could be the Achilles' heel.

If the Rangers falter, the Astros are poised as they have a deeper staff: Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, McHugh, Musgrove…. The hitters beyond Altuve, Beltran, Springer, and Reddick are more serviceable than fearsome and they are putting a lot of faith in a McCann bounce-back, which I find unlikely. Let's see if Correa is the real deal, or a flash in the pan. Ditto a full year of Yuli Gurriel. MiLB pitchers Martes and Paulino are on the cusp.

The Mariners have been "promising" for so long they're a "Cry wolf!" team. King Felix heads the staff and Iwakuma is a wonderful #2, but they need Gallardo and Paxton to pitch to their promise, and for Smyly either to figure it out or take a hike. Tony Zych is a name to watch. Do they have a closer? As for hitters, there is Cano, Seager, Cruz, Valenica, and pray for walks.

The Angels have a Mike Trout problem. He's the best player in baseball, but he's only the Angels' MVP if they trade him. The rest of the lineup is a declining Pujols and Carlos Perez, the overrated Revere and Maybin, and guys who need career years for the Angels to dream of third place (Calhoun, Escobar, Espinosa, Cron). It's moot, though, as the Angels pitching is two wings and a lot of prayers: Nolasco, Richards, Skaggs, Shoemaker. Name to watch: RHP Kenyan Middleton, but the Angels have the worst prospects in MLB. Trading Trout would change that.

Not much hope for the Athletics. The pitching is Damaged Goods Sonny Gray, Graveman, and guys you've never heard of and probably won't by mid-season. The lineup is cast-offs such as Ploufee, Lowry, Joyce, and Rajal Davis, plus a few legitimate MLB players, Vogt and new pick-up Khris Davis. Looks like a 100-loss team to me unless there is lightening in a minor league system rated so-so.

National League:

Kershaw, Maeda, Ryu, Kazmir, Hill, and a rehabbed McCarthy. A lineup of Grandal, Corey Seager, Adrian Gonzalez, Turner, Puig, Pederson, and a deep minor league roster that threatens to displace several of these guys. Let's put it this way: The Dodgers could lose the NL West, but it's hard to see anyone would can beat them.

The Giants, as usual, can pitch: Bumgarner is the best in MLB if Kershaw isn't, plus there's Cueto, Samardzija, Cain, and Matt Moore to round out a staff that rivals the Dodgers. Alas, as usual, the Giants lineup underwhelms once one gets past Posey, Belt, Crawford, and Pence. This team could really use a bat or two.

The Rockies are a perpetual mystery team. Their ace out of spring training is Tyler Chatwood. Ever hear of him? He won 12 games last year and that should tell you a lot. The Rocks will hit homers at high altitude, especially guys like Desmond, Reynolds, Blackmon, Arenado, Story, and Carlos Gonzalez. It's hard to know what this team will do. The Rockies have the 6th best MiLB system in baseball and I expect to see a busy shuttle between Albuquerque and Denver.

If the Rockies' young players stumble, the Diamondbacks could sneak into third, though they are the Mariners of the NL in terms of unfulfilled promise. On paper they are a good team, if Corbin, Greinke, Miller, and Walker pitch like they can. The hitters include the magnificent Goldschmidt, plus Owings and Lamb. The problem is there are too many holes in between.

Patience is in order in San Diego as the Padres are rebuilding after their foolish attempt to rely on guys who never lived up to their hype. Picking up Jared Weaver was a step backward, but Cahill, Richard, and Chacin are decent arms, if healthy. Who will hit? Count me among the Wil Myers Unbelievers. Poaching Solarte from the Yankees was one of their better moves. Luis Torrens could be another. Three rookies will start and expect to see lots of kids shuttle in and out; the Pads have the third best farm system in baseball. Hard to know what to make of the Padres; last or third is equally plausible, but I think they are 2-3 years away.


            AL West: Rangers, Astros, Mariners, Angels, A's

            NL West: Dodgers, Giants, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Padres.


Good and Bad Ideas: From Bluexit to Pizza Shoes

Bluexit, Pizza Sneakers and Other Good and Bad Ideas

Kevin Baker's recent article in the New Republic contains loads of really good ideas. He proposes that blue states simply surrender to red state visions of what the United States should be like. He's hardly the first to observe that the "United" part of our national formulation is more idealistic than real: the United States increasingly looks like Yugoslavia for the 21st century. But Baker thinks there may be a way to salvage some semblance of unity. Call it a you-go-your-red-way-I'll-go-my-blue-way strategy. In Baker's words, we can envision this as either the "New Federalism" or "virtual secession." Baker suggests we should cut taxes to the bone, but insist that each state pay its own freight.

Like many blue-staters, Baker notes that the more charitable the blue states have been, the more they've been reviled. Among his findings:

            --Hillary Clinton won just 487 counties in 2016, but those same places generate 2/3 of all the nation's economic income

            --Red states are twice as likely to depend upon the government for funding

He suggests that the blue state zones (Maine to Virginia; the West Coast plus Nevada and Hawaii; and the Rockies from Colorado to New Mexico) should operate as autonomous cultural and economic enclaves with the proviso that these states get to keep all the revenue they generate and spend it within the region. The implications of this include:

            --If red staters want to use the Mayo Clinic, they will have to pay higher rates to do so
            --States will have to foot their own bill when a disaster occurs

            --The military will have to be pared back to World War One levels (about 125,00 troops)

I like this show-us-our-own-money approach. Here are the states that pay more than a dollar in federal taxes for each dollar of services they receive (blue states in blue):

            CA, MA, WY, OK, NJ, UT, CO, NY, KN, OH, NB, IL, MN, DE

Here are the welfare bums of America, listed in order of those drinking deeply from the public trough (blues states in blue; ratios = discrepancy between what they get/pay):

            SC (8:1), ND (>6:1), FL (5:1), LA, AL, MS (40% of entire state income), HI, NM, KY, WV, IN

It's evident that blue states are, for the most part, footing the bill for a bunch of welfare states. And why is oil-rich North Dakota getting so much government largess?

The situation becomes starker when we look at the states in which 10% or more of the population receives food stamps. That's the case in twenty-four states, of which just ten are blue.


 I recently spent five uncomfortable nights in an electric hospital bed, which is a decidedly bad idea. They are supposed to be ergonomic, but if you're not of "average" height and weight, they turn you into a human pretzel. Every time one moves, the bed "adjusts" by using a series of electric motors to change the bed's alignment and "support" whatever body parts have moved.

Shall we start with the fact that said motors retard sleep efforts? If only that were the worst problem. In use, various body parts are raised or dropped according to preprogrammed notions of comfort and in disregard of human variations. If, like me, you are four inches and forty pounds short of "average," you're confined to a device straight out of Torquemada." Want to cut medical costs? Start with dumping these $16,000+ monstrosities in favor of decent mattresses and beds that crank into the desired position and stay there.

On the good ideas side of the ledger, University of Illinois professor Kathryn Anthony has written a new book titled Defined By Design in which she concludes that much modern design is about designers and marketers, not consumers. This explains why so many clothes and shoes are no-size-fits-anyone nightmares, why childproof caps are the norm (even though there are more cap-related injuries than there have ever been accidental poisonings), why non-recyclable and cut-inducing clamshell packaging is on everything, and why most products somehow discriminate by gender, age, and somatotype.  Anthony's work is long overdue. Let's hope it inspires the formation of consumer and public groups that will force designers to subject ideas, buildings, and products to public scrutiny rather than constructing things that are extensions of their own egos. 


Obamacare is turning out to be a miscible hybrid of good and bad ideas. On the good side, Obamacare has brought medical coverage to tens of millions who'd otherwise have none. On the bad side, the best that can be said of it is that it's better than no coverage. Republicans have vowed to kill the program since Day One, which makes it poignantly ironic that Republicans might be the ones to salvage it. Many Republicans, especially governors, are discovering that the US medical system is so broken that flawed Obamacare is better than anything else they can cobble together. The real answer, of course, is universal healthcare, but until things change to make that more than magical thinking, Obamacare is as good as it gets.


Sometimes ideas germinate that are just so incredibly dumb that they stretch conceptions of bad. Exhibit A: Pizza Hut's introduction of "Pie Tops," a sneaker with embedded apps that allows your shoes to order 'za through Twitter or Amazon Echo. This sounds like a discarded Monty Python routine. Who pays if the shoes order a large mushroom and onion that its wearer didn't intend?