Lauren Ipsum Review

I've been trying to read to the wee nerd every night over the summer. I had a pretty spotty track record previously. As with many parenting things, my dream of gently reading him to sleep at nap time in the hammock didn't turn out quite as I'd imagined. The novelty was just too much for him to settle down...ever. We had to be swinging continuously, which takes a bit more concentration than you might think when done concurrent with reading. Then there's the frequent position changes and the inevitably resulting drops to the ground.

We've made progress at bedtime, though. One of the stories we've completed is Lauren Ipsum by Carlos Bueno. It was a big hit, In fact after a few days break, he insisted we start it again from the beginning. If you want a sound bite describing it, I'd say it's the Alice in Wonderland for the 21st century, although I might need to defend that statement.

Alice was penned by Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician, under the pen name Lewis Carroll. There's been no shortage of scholarly interpretations of his work. For decades, the Freudians claimed ownership Alice with a series of dark and even malign interpretations that were arguably more fanciful than the stories themselves. It's only relatively recently that scholars have started to do what seem obvious in retrospect: look at potential links between Dodgson's stories and his chosen profession, other works, and publicly stated opinions. Melanie Bayley has written an excellent treatise that makes good points that many of the apparently disjointed and nonsensical themes are related to the new math concepts that Dodgson was dealing with every day.

As an aside, I'd like to state for the record that I tend to be skeptical of the Rorschach-like pattern recognition that we see in much literature studies. On of my high school teachers gave me a striking and completely non-ironic example the day she told the class that a poem was clearly about sex. You see the author had the audacity to describe the sky as blue. "Blue makes you think of the ocean, which makes you think of waves, which makes you think of orgasmic waves." So the next time someone comments on your blue shirt, you've clearly got grounds for a sexual harassment suite. On the other hand, deliberately wearing anything blue is apparently tantamount to flashing your coworkers. Nothing inhibits a high school student from writing more than the knowledge that you can't string two words together without revealing you most secret desires the world, or worse, some nutcase will conclude that you're a necrophiliac neo-nazi because I mentioned the black color of boulder I nearly broke my arm on while running across it on a dark night.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I find an analysis that is clearly based on the author's openly stated opinions to be a lot more believable. You see, Dodgson was a respected, though not very consequential, mathematician in Oxford. At a time when algebra was being turned upside down by strange concepts as imaginary numbers, projective geometry, quaternions, and symbolic algebra, all essential to many modern algorithms and computer programs. Dodgson was one of the old guard, fighting a losing battle against these "nonsensical" new creations that moved mathematics away from reality in some big and (to him) worrisome ways.

From chapter to chapter, Alice moves from one absurd situation to the next. Most of them are new, abstract mathematical inventions moved into a "real world" context, with surreal results. Melanie Bayley gives an excellent, blow-by-blow explanation over at the new scientist.

Lauren Ipsum is a similar story of a girl lost in a strange land with strange rules. There are some clear contrasts however. While Alice is a satire of new and disagreable (to the author) mathematical practices, Lauren is a stealthy, playful introduction many well established mathematical and algorithmic thought processes. Along the way you get little glimpses of geeky cultural artifacts like Conway's game of life, the wandering salesman problem, probabilities, recursion, daemons, steganography, timing attacks, the dangers of brute force approaches, scaling problems, and that old problem of the boat, the wolf, the goat and the mandelbroccoli. Along the way, there are cameos of some interesting characters from history and philosophy, including Baudot, Ampere, and Fresnel, as well as Theseus' ship, and Achilles and the Tortoise (looks like he finally caught up after all, as he now rides the tortoise). You also learn early on about the dangers of jargon (for one thing, you should never feed them).

Of course, a five year old isn't going to recognize any of these things as important concepts in algorithmic thinking. They're just going to enjoy the story of a plucky girl who makes her way through a strange world based almost entirely on her wits. I think putting these ideas in a children's book is a brilliant idea, because now they won't seem so scary when crop up in classes in the future. And they shouldn't be scary. They're fun to play with, as Lauren proves. This is a fun read for any adult, and something the kids will enjoy immensly.