Mission Statement

Some dubiously-deserved encomiums from Matt are driving in hordes expectant anonymouses. All of them are eager to see what it is this latest, hidden corner of the internet has been doing so fabulously without their knowledge. They should read this post.

I, too, am interested in finding out what this blog is all about. As its author, I feel a certain responsibility to know that sort of thing, but I never really got around to it. The blog started (on blogspot), as a place to post the challenge problem of the day I was giving to my quantum mechanics students at the EPGY high school summer camp a few months ago. The title “A Smoother Pebble” was already taken, so I grabbed “Arcsecond” in an intended irony that I haven’t yet materialized – the blog’s topics were supposed to spread out over any and everything I found interesting.

Perhaps I’ll simply start with who I am:

My name is Mark. My middle name is Douglas. “Mark Douglas” is just about the most harrowing thing you could ever call me, a fact ensured over the first eighteen years of my life by the diligent efforts of my loving mother.

I like tomatoes a lot. I even like just sitting them on the table and looking at them for a while, especially if there are four or five of them, not too big, and all connected by the same green stem. Sometimes I have the ambition to cook, in which case I assemble all the ingredients for a nice meal on my kitchen counter. Then I eat them, one by one, and beam with pride at having saved all the time and effort requisite for cooking and cleaning up. I immediately spend that extra time walking around in small circles on my living room, endlessly repeatedly my autocongratulations. I recently told my landlord the rut in the floorboards was hardly noticeable.

One time, when I was seven, I played hide-and-seek with my sisters and cousins. Normally, my strategy was to climb a tree and hide there in plain sight, then mercilessly taunt the seekers’ stupidity afterwards. When I found I couldn’t contain myself, and was actually taunting the seeker during the game, and thereby losing very quickly, I adopted a new tack. This particular time I crawled deep inside a thick group of bushes. At the center, I discovered a small, enclosed hollow. I hid there for three hours. It was cool and quiet. The floor was a thick, soft bed of bush needles, which was much more pleasant than it sounds. When I came out, my playmates told me they had already eaten all the dessert. It may be just a lie, but I’m fairly sure I felt sorry for them, because they had the weakness to give up on what they were doing (looking for me) in favor of dessert. They would never be as good as I am at sitting very quietly, trying not to be noticed.

Last summer I spent ten days at a meditation camp, never talking, sitting very quietly, and trying not to notice myself. It was awful. Remind me to tell you about it some time.

It was quite obvious in elementary school that teachers are the smartest people in the world. They can answer every question and teach you only the smallest portion of their knowledge. It came as a shock in middle school when I realized I was actually smarter than some of my teachers. By high school, I was smarter than all of them, and naturally extrapolated this fact to the simple conclusion that I was the smartest person alive. Then I went to Caltech, where I soon received the first of many kind, loving ass-whuppings. This issue remains unresolved.

I work part-time as the technical assistant to Art Congdon, an astronomer who has muscular dystrophy and is paralyzed from the neck down. Occasionally, we’ll have a complicated calculation to work through. I will begin on the white board, carefully working through each step in our calculation until, ten minutes, hundreds of little crossed out lines, thousands of arrows pointing mostly to other arrows in an unintended Escher-like effect, and several “alpha”s mistakenly taken as “two”s later, I announce that I might possibly have an answer. Then Art will ask me what it is, and when I tell him, he’ll gently give me the correct expression, which he calculated in his head, and then point out the most likely places I made an error in my own work.

I like being alive, but especially so at those times I am running. I decided to start running in 11th grade so that I could put it on my college applications. Five years later I was the captain of the venerable Caltech cross country team, which very nearly did not get last place that year. I once carved a lightning bolt into my head (but just the hair part of it) and used it to get passed by ten people in the last mile. It came out looking a bit disappointingly like the Gatorade logo. I don’t really like Gatorade. My best friends are also runners. It’s a mostly-innocuous cult. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.

I am quite disturbed by my own misunderstanding of mathematics. Some platitudinous advice, normally attributed to whoever happens to be the advice-giver’s favorite famous smart person, is that you don’t understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother/freshman class/dog/anonymous people on the internet. That’s essentially what I’m trying to do. But it turns out the platitude is incorrect. Really, you don’t understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother, and then she can explain it back to you and get it right. I take this as a simple explanation for why orphans have lower SAT scores.


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