Saturday, May 31, 2008

Laundry fun

A five-person band (banjo, ukulele, Fisher-Price xylophone, tambourine and drum) walked into the laundromat while I was watching my clothing rotate. They walked around, looking for a perfect corner, gave some very loose instructions to a girl following them with a hand-held camera, and then played (and sang!) a song as they walked around the laundromat, outside, and down the street.

I wish I had had a camera with me. I usually have at least one (cell phone), normally two (digital camera), and sometimes three (Epizeuxis). But I had only Syllepsis, and no camera. So I bemusedly watched, making eye contact with my fellow launderers to verify that everyone else could see (and hear) the band, too. Surreal.

This post's theme word is soma, which has many meanings. Two good ones are "elixir of immortality," and "the entire body of an organism except germ cells." Its most popular meaning seems to be "an intoxicating drug, often fermented into a beverage."


French toast must have a moustache. (The tiny wings are a bonus!) I love this image, though I think it would be better on stickers than on a shirt.
This post's theme word: lagniappe, "something extra."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Short elevator

I'm getting my physical therapy in a building that has only three levels -- basement, ground, and ground++. They have adorable signs posted just above the elevator call buttons.
Yes, you may suggest it, but while on crutches I felt entitled to use the elevator to get to the basement. I'm shackle-free now, but I still can't take stairs normally. So I'm using the elevator, and just accepting it when lithe young college students headed to work out give me dirty looks.

This post's theme word: braird, "the first shoots of grass."

Olaf Stapledon

From a letter written by Olaf Stapledon to his great-grandson:
... it is the world and not his soul that claims a man's attention and his care. It is this world of lands and seas and cornfields and cities of jellyfish and flies and chickweed, of pigs in their sties and roving gulls, of miners and profiteers, and thinkers an screaming babies, of armies and trade unions, colleges and prisons and panic-stricken nations, of electrons and multitudinous streams of sums, of applied maths and aesthetic and moral experience. What need to seek heaven for the ghost that a man supposes himself to be when all these vivid and needy realities clamor around him?
I first heard this on Starship Sofa (episode "Letters to the Future") and it was so good that I had to listen to it twice. Words with real weight behind them. I spend most of my day consuming words -- reading, writing, listening to podcasts (all my own vivid and needy realities) -- and that final sentence rang in my head for weeks after I heard it. What need, indeed? For all the clever and intelligent papers I've ever crafted, I have never written with such power.

This post's theme word: impecunious, "having little or no money." A good word for graduate students to know and use, as it advertises both our over-education and impecuniosity. (Yes, it's a real word! -- and much better than the alternative "impecuniousness.")

Thong scrofula

I should really add punctuation between those two words, but their combination is repulsive and delightful.

I came across this atrocity of a product in the drug store today and was duly appalled.
Is there actually demand for such a contraption? I mean, aside from the IRONY that you add this big, bulky thing to your almost-nonexistent underwear... adding to discomfort... giving you awkward lines that will certainly show through your pants... it reminds me of an SNL sketch (#30 here). I know I've posted about this before, but why is the "feminine hygiene" part of industry -- consumerism, advertising, "educational material" -- so out-of-whack? And again, why is it not balanced by some ridiculous counterpart product directed at males?

This post's featured quote is from one of the recent flurry of organizational, inquiring, instructional, information-filled emails about my upcoming group expedition to Africa. C. directs us simply and purposefully:
No one bring scrofula.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Fiction allows us to...

I read a story earlier this week which featured an especially haunting and disturbing description of rape. It reminded me of this:
Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through these other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives. (Neil Gaiman, American Gods, pp. 411)

This post's theme word: minatory, "baleful; threatening or forshadowing evil/tragic developments."

Unfettered, I fly

Today has been my first full day of independent walking -- no crutches, no brace. It's been delightful. (Now I'm at home, recovering and icing my much-exercised knee.)

This post's theme dessert is zabaglione, an Italian sort-of-custard made with egg yolk, wine, and sugar.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I love rugby, as do many other people (true and hilarious).

This post's theme song's SFW lyrics are: "... some ... just ... my man! I'll ... another ... better than the other ..." This is probably less than a quarter of all the words in the song.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Triumphant return

Yesterday I returned to my favorite gym, where the staff all know me by name and the building is a castle. My knee, which looked like this:
four weeks ago, is now cleared to do light bicycling. Oh joy!

Endorsed by my physical therapist, I ventured today to the market entirely crutch-free. It was weekend-level crowded, but I was far more nimble on my own two legs than I would be navigating the hordes with my crutch, waiting for people to notice my handicap and kindly make way.

This post's theme word: to caracole, "to make a half-turn on a horse in dressage." I caracole, cavort, gambol!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Christening Epizeuxis

Tonight with the installation of emacs, Epizeuxis was born.

Named in the grand literary-device tradition of Lila's electronics, Epizeuxis joins the family founded by Zeugma, and including Synechdoche, Chiasmus, Metonymy, Syllepsis, Irony, and Litotes. (Quine is the oddball in more than mere name.) Their common 'z' is not all that Zeugma and Epizeuxis share; they fill many of the same roles. And since Zeugma is on its second or third life (5+ years and still going -- huzzah for organ donors!), I am optimistic that Epizeuxis -- with its sturdier design -- will easily outlast its grandparent. (A moment of silence for our comrades Chiasmus and Metonymy, whose lives were brutish and short, and Synechdoche, suffering from a chronically dead battery.)

It should be noted that the installation of emacs was crucial. (SimCity alone did not suffice.) Not all of my electronics are worthy of naming; Epizeuxis jumped the queue, leaving three other nameless items cowering, abased in the electronics drawer.

[UPDATE: I am idly considering whether I should set up my swarm of electronics to Twitter. I don't know anyone who uses Twitter, and I don't have the right gadget to read it continuously, but I would be amused if my electronics sent updates "I am now reading a pdf file" to their other electronic friends.]

This post's theme word means "the repetition of a word with no others in between, for vehemence."

Customer service

I just had one excellent customer service interaction with Telus, and a series of terrible experiences with health insurance companies. Let us examine their differences:

good experience:
  • listened to "on hold" music for < 60 seconds
  • customer service guy was friendly, compassionate, understanding
  • problem fixed by first person I talked to
  • money refunded!
  • future similar problems prevented by permanent changes to my account
bad experience:
  • listened to interminable "on hold" music
  • customer service guy 1 was confused, bounced me to someone else
  • customer service guy 2 was more confused, esp. since I had no idea who he was or why "I" had called him
  • problem still not fixed, or even isolated
  • money not refunded, though it should be!
  • end result: telling me to call someone outside the company, then "call back when you have figured it out"

I have worked in customer service, and I know how difficult some customers can be. I am not one of those, however; I am friendly, understanding, sympathetic to the customer service agent's powerless plight. I also use the should-be-patented M. approach to customer service, wherein we (not me vs. him) are working together to understand, and eventually fix, the problem. My fallback strategy is to weep inconsolably until the problem is fixed, but I have a feeling that that would not work as well on the phone as it has (demonstrably!) in person.

So for now, I have left several very clear messages in voicemail boxes across Canada, and I am giving them a day to respond before I increase my telephonically-transmitted vexation.

This post's theme word: babbitt, "a self-satisfied narrow-minded person who conforms to conventional ideals of business and material success."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Book debugging

S. told me to prove the lemma "A iff B" (from his soon-to-be published book) for practice. "A only if B" was really easy, but the other direction was not clear. I tried it many different ways, and reduced it to several different statements C, D, E. I did not know whether C, D, or E was true. So I asked S. in our meeting today "is it the case that C?" and he said, "of course not!" This was befuddling, and I lost my way for awhile, so we talked about it. After both staring at it for a long time, I figured out that "A if B" was false by coming up with a counterexample.

Book debugging: a story of triumph!

This post's theme word: keming, "the result of improper kerning."

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Yesterday marked three weeks since my surgery. I'm down to only one crutch, but yesterday this crooked crutching gave me a wicked full-body crick from being twisted asymmetrically. Two crutches, though preventing both hands from carrying items, are a symmetric mode of transport. There is a crick in my neck, in my shoulders, in my back, in my hip.

This post's theme word: strigil, "an instrument with a curved blade (used esp. to scrape sweat/dirt from the skin)."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Black thumb

During my four years at college, I managed to kill almost every plant that I owned, including some supposedly-indefatigable cacti. This artificial plant -- which requires all the care of a real plant, gives feedback, and can be "reset" if it dies -- allows people like me to develop our horticultural skills. (Thanks, Engadget!)
This post's theme word: setiferous, "producing or having setae."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Timeless questions quiz

Off the top of my head, here are some timeless questions. (Reader challenge: do not resort to the internet!)

Section I: Cite, or state the "answer."

(1) To be or not to be? -- that is the question.
(2) What rolls down stairs (alone or in pairs), rolls over your neighbor's dog, what's great for a snack and fits on your back?
(3) And hast thou slain the jabberwock?
(4) Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
(5) Now, tell me: who's your housekeeper, and what do you keep in your house?
(6) Is there, is there balm in Gilead?
(7) Did I just hear an alarm start ringing? Did I see sirens go flying past?
(8) Have you no consideration for my poor nerves?
(9) Could I be Leander, on a wave borne to a new home across this lonely sea?
(10) Why did Constantinople get the works?

Section II: Cite. (I don't know the answer offhand.)

(1) And isn't it ironic, just a little bit?
(2) Where have all the flowers gone?
(3) ... or am I rewriting history?
(4) You guys had a riot? On account of me? My very own riot?
(5) Is it too late to start, with your heart in a headlock?
(6) ... or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?
(7) Where's the fish? Where's the fish? Where's the fish?
(8) Not even Wensleydale?
(9) Why, God, why tonight?
(10) Who looks at a screwdriver and says, "I think that needs to be more sonic"?!

Section III: Complete the question. Then answer it.

(1) Dr. Livingstone, ________?
(2) If all your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, ________?
(3) Why ________________, _____________?
[UPDATE: I forgot these two:]
(4) What would _____ do?
(5) How many ______ does it take to get to the center of ________?

For bonus points, describe a scenario or short story in which all of these questions are asked.

This post's theme song: "Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel?" (It's me! It's me!)

Other people are different from me

Let a worldview be an n-dimensional real vector, where each entry represents a weight (relative importance) of some aspect of the world. WLOG we can normalize these vectors, and consider them as a solution space for the problem of "how do I prioritize things in the world as inputs that influence my life?" For example, I'd have a heavy weight for, say, mathematics, and a low one for 18th-century French literature; a devoted humanities student, vice-versa.

But it's not that the humanities student's vector is nearly orthogonal to mine. It's that he has a paintbrush and a palette of oils representing different philosophical schools, and he's riding a unicorn through clouds of poetry. He's operating in a totally different paradigm. He doesn't even have a vector. Yet we inhabit the same world -- we can meet and interact, so some parts of my worldview must align with his.

This is what it is like to be trapped in my head. I've no idea what it is like to be trapped in anyone else's head -- I've never been there -- and at best I can simulate it according to parameters I conceive and choose. If I'm running simulated annealing on a solution space and you are gimbling in the mimsy borogrove-infested wabe, how can I grasp anything about you? Even if you describe it to me, I will still have no sense of it, just a description.

That inadequacy is apparent here (oh, irony): I write, but what can you really understand from this about me or how I work?

And if this gulf of unknowability really separates people, how do they "get to know" each other? You are just "getting to know" an increasingly detailed abstraction of me that you construct in your head based on my observable behavior.

Sometimes I want to abandon the meta-abstraction and go distribute food in third-world countries. Then I remember how bad I am with people, and how much I love the power of meta*, and I stick to academia.

My apologies for making these existential high-school-level musings so frequent. I've drafted lighter posts (with pictures!), and they'll be up soon.

This post's featured writing implement: my science pencil, which heat-sensitively turned from green to yellow as I wrote.

This post's theme facebook group: Currently Undergoing an Existential Crisis.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bureaucracy vs. birthday

Since moving to Canada, I have repeatedly had my birthdate mistaken in official paperwork. My study permit (that was a long headache to fix), my health insurance, my hospital registration. When I ask to have this fixed in person, where they can see me, they are always very apologetic and astonished -- no, I do not look like someone in my thirties. Or forties. Or fifties. (In the same vein of errors, no, I am not male. Yes, they actually made that mistake.)

I hope that one day, when I grow up and enter my thirties, forties, and fifties, I will be taller. But not male. I am quite comfortable in this gender, thank you very much.

This post's theme quote comes from Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), commenting on Amazon's Kindle:
It's a sad day when... you have to say to yourself, I can't leave this William Maxwell novel on the street, and yet I also want this goat cheese.

Social peanut butter

Other people are mysteries. I cannot understand them.

A. and I discovered that we both use the following scheme to model other people's behavior:
Assume other people are thinking, behaving, and decision-making just like you are.
After all, your only known model of the inner workings of a mind is your own. This may be a terrible approximation, depending on the person you are trying to simulate.

When this model breaks down, I default to viewing other people as enigmas. (For example: inexplicable-to-me behavior at airport security checkpoints, odd supermarket-traversing paths, abuse of sidewalk-usage protocols.) This default case is invoked quite frequently, as I am a compulsive, acute observer of others' behavior.

What does this mean to everyone out there who is not me?

By being silent and awkward around you, I am actually demonstrating my respect for you as a unique person (in my own odd way). I'm quite outgoing around people I already know, those who have put in the long months/years to get to know me to the point that I'm comfortable around them. I'm also social around those with whom I share an instant recognition of common background. (College roommates are examples of the former; conference nerds, the latter.)

What does this mean for me?

The accumulated effect of this strange policy is that it takes me a long time to warm up to you, and once you're my friend, you're stuck. It will take a long time for me to forget you. This is why I've been sending postcards and letters to my dispersed, graduated friends around the world: I move in social slow-motion. Like walking through peanut butter. Even after eight months here, I'm still not adjusted; my mental self-image has trailing emotional tentacles stretched back to college, and no firm roots yet taken in Toronto (mmm, mixed metaphors). (At least, I don't feel adjusted; what does adjustment consist of, but feeling adjusted? Objective self-assessment is difficult if not impossible.) This is all amenable to posting online, somehow -- I don't know how -- if I don't understand myself, how can I ever understand others?

I sometimes spend entire days here working quietly by myself. At the end of the day I realize that I haven't had a single face-to-face conversation (of more than a few words) with another person all day. I wonder: how will I make friends if I'm no good at socializing? Then my other obsessive thoughts crowd this out, and I have no worry left over for the friends I don't have yet.

This post's theme word: paroemiology, "the collecting and studying of proverbs."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Public sign editing

I sighted this while wandering around Toronto:
I often see stop signs with bumper sticker revisions, but this one is really well blended -- the right color, and even the right texture (at least in this grainy cell phone picture).

This post's theme words: lacuna ("unfilled space") and farrago ("confused mixture"). I cannot remember if I used either of these before, but I've certainly used them now, so I can cross them off my list.

Squid sighting on my street

I love this uhaul truck advertisement:
This post's theme word: pantagruelian, "enormous" or "displaying extravagant and coarse humor."

Monday, May 5, 2008


M. told me that I should blog this. So I do, with apologies to Dr. Seuss. Here is a modern-day thneed:As you can see, the thneed is the ultimate in privacy-ensuring, anti-glare laptop devices. I do not recommend it for airport usage, though -- someone could be rifling through your purse right next to you and you'd never know. Plus, airport security would probably confiscate it, or your laptop (1, 2, 3, 4). (Thanks, Engadget!)

This post's theme song: the "everybody needs a thneed!" song from the animation. Now it's stuck in my head.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

I spy with my little eye...

Can you spot the foreign object in my knee?

This post's theme imaging technology: x-rays.