I recently stopped to take this photo of my odometer. They don't keep track of tenths of a mile anymore, otherwise I would have waited until 88888.8

Whenever our family went driving when I was young, I checked the odometer to see whether an interesting number was coming up. For example, perhaps we were about to hit 45678.9 or 50505.0. My brother and I would get in position so we could watch the magic moment. If you read my previous post about numbers, you are already nodding your head in recognition.

Those of you who are a certain age will remember that automobiles used to have mechanical odometers—mechanical!—including a wheel for tenths of a mile. Because the tenths wheel was in constant movement, the precise number 45678.9 lasted only for the briefest moment, and then was over. Are we there yet?

The grand prize, of course, was when the odometer rolled over from 99999.9 to 00000.0. That only happened twice: once in our old 1967 Chevy station wagon, and once in my own car. These days, odometers don’t have a tenth digit, but do have a hundreds-of-thousands digit. This means that I’ll never have my car long enough to see the odometer reach 888888, and so must settle for 088888 (in the old days, I could have had 88888.8).

I’m not sure how to explain my fascination for symmetrical odometer readings when I have so little for seemingly symmetrical calendar dates such as 11/11/11. Part of it is that the date is really 11/11/2011, which isn’t symmetrical at all. Or that the same date is 14 Cheshvan 5772 in the Hebrew calendar, or in the Mayan calendar, which aren’t symmetrical either. On the other hand, the odometer readout could be in base 8, in which case 88888 would be 255470, or in base 16, which would be 15B38. So the next time your insurance broker asks you what the odometer reading is, ask him “base 8 or base 16?”


I used to write down numbers.

Well, for a few weeks in fourth grade, I wrote down numbers until I grew tired of it. On a sheet of ordinary paper I simply wrote one number after another and kept going.

… 2371 2372 2373 2374 2375 2376 2377 2378 2379 2380 2381 2382 …

You get the idea. WHY THE HECK DID YOU DO THIS, I hear you cry. As Tevye once said, “I will tell you. I don’t know.” I remember classmates leaning over to watch me to this, especially when an interesting number was coming up, like 4444. Fourth grade must not have been that exciting if David’s numbers were the best show in the room.

opalka numbers
One of Roman Opalka's early "details"

This whole episode flashed back into my memory this week when I read an obituary of painter Roman Opalka, who died on August 6th at age 79. Opalka wrote down numbers, only he kept at it for the rest of his life. He called each of his paintings a “detail,” and they all had the same title: “Opalka 1965 / 1-∞”. Each detail was the same size as his studio door in Warsaw, and the numbers on each detail picked up where the previous one had ended. As he painted each number, he whispered its name in his native Polish. He started the project in 1965, and painted about 400 numbers each day. By the time he died he was well over 5 500 000—he used no commas—though he had originally hoped to reach 7 777 777.

At first he painted white numbers on a black background, but in 1968 he changed to grey, and in 1972 he began adding 1% more white to the grey background each year. By the 2008 the ground was essentially as white as the figures: both the numbers and the visibility merging into infinity.

You’re welcome. No really, you’re welcome.

Whatever happened to “you’re welcome”? No, I’m not complaining that people aren’t polite anymore, far from it. But “you’re welcome” as a reply to “thank you” seems to be falling rapidly out of use. Instead, I hear people replying to “thank you” with… “thank you”. Huh?

I hear it all the time. I listen to a lot of radio shows and podcasts with interviews. At the end of every chat, the host says “Alice, thank you for speaking with us” and Alice usually replies “thank you.” My unscientific estimate is that this happens 80-90% of the time. The rest of the replies are almost usually some variant of “it’s been a pleasure”. But I rarely hear “you’re welcome”.

While I have various gripes about how Americans use the language (such as using “less” when “fewer” is called for), this one seems more perplexing than anything else. Saying “you’re welcome” hardly seems controversial, but clearly this has been a trend for some time. Back in 2004 I remember listening to Terry Gross interview former NPR host Bob Edwards on Fresh Air. At the end of the talk, Gross thanked Edwards for coming, and he replied “You’re welcome,” and after a pause he added “I’ve never liked it when people answer ‘thank you’ with ‘thank you.’ ”

Anyway, so you are welcome. Really.


Giving a lift to the Senator

David and Mike
With former Alaska senator Mike Gravel at the Hillside Club

It’s not every day you have a United States Senator in your car.

The featured speaker at last night’s monthly Fireside Meeting at the Hillside Club was former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. I work nearby his home, so I volunteered to give him a ride to the Club. We had a very enjoyable chat on the drive over, and we arrived in Berkeley early enough for me to give Mike a quick architectural tour.

Gravel served two terms in the Senate from 1969-81, and is remembered for his attempts to end the draft and for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. There was a pretty good turnout for Mike’s talk, and he answered many questions both supportive and skeptical of his ideas. I fall into the skeptical camp, but if there’s any lesson to be learned from our polarized times, it’s that learning to be friends with those with whom you disagree is a great virtue.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Giants are the Champions of the World

The little boy whose Giants just won the World Series

About 1968, a father starting taking his son to Giants baseball games at Candlestick Park. It was a long drive so we didn’t go that often, which made it a very special treat. I learned to root for the home team, and if they didn’t win it was a shame. I watched Willie Mays and Willie McCovey hit home runs. I learned to drop my peanut shells on the concrete, and how to watch the outfielders instead of the ball. As the years went on, the Giants continued to not win, and it was always a shame. The 1970s and 1980s were, with a few exceptions such as 1978 and 1982, a wasteland of poor teams, forgettable players, and cold night games at the Stick.

The tide began to turn in 1987, when the Giants won their division for the first time in 16 years and lost the pennant by a whisker. In 1989 they won the pennant that had eluded them since 1962, only to lose to the A’s in the earthquake Series. In 1993 the Giants did not get sold to Tampa. On 29 September 1999, I attended the last night game at the Stick (the final game, the next day, had been sold out for months). The next spring, an utterly delightful new ballpark appeared. What a spectacularly fine place to watch a ballgame. Everything that the concrete tureen of Candlestick was not.

But still we couldn’t break through. In 2002 we won the pennant again (thanks to the ridiculous rule that is the wild card), only to have the title wrenched from our grasp with eight outs to go.

And now, a group that I thought would barely make the playoffs has won it all. This little boy was moved to tears when the last batter struck out, and the Giants stormed the field in delirium. After watching my team for 42 years, they had finally done it. A generous man bought champagne for everyone at the sports bar where I was watching the game. I raised my glass and, echoing broadcaster Vin Scully’s famous proclamation in 1955, said to the room “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Giants are champions of the world.”