Tuesday, August 23, 2011


We felt the earthquake up here in Toronto!

I was in my office, on the fourth floor of a cinderblock building. All the furniture started to vibrate. Glasses of water were particularly impressive. My officemate and I spent a few minutes debating whether it was an earthquake or just (alarmingly) the construction being done in our building, until we heard from other people (online, not in our building) that they felt it too. Twitter was a really good resource for this.

How exciting! An earthquake!

I don't think anything was damaged. In the evening I passed an on-the-street TV news anchor asking passers-by if they felt the earthquake. Almost everyone said no. The earthquake must have been specially tuned to the oscillating period of my building.

I filled out this USGS form, and you should too. For science!

This post's theme word is drumlin, "a long, narrow, whale-shaped hill of gravel, rock, and clay debris, formed by the movement of a glacier." A long series of glacial earthquakes shaped the drumlins in this area.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Spraypainted bikes

These bikes have appeared all over Toronto. They are beater bikes, spray-painted in single neon colors, locked to signposts and bike posts and fences across town. There is no additional information except the tiny letters "GOOD BIKES" painted on the frame.
Is this some kind of guerrilla advertising campaign? If so, what is it for? It is so guerrilla that I can't even tell what I am supposed to go buy.

[Update: A. pointed me to The Good Bike, wherein an OCAD student -- behind this project to brighten the city -- blogs about the beginnings of the project.]

This post's theme word is scumble, "to modify a painting/color by applying a thin coat of opaque paint to give it a softer or duller appearance." That bicycle could do with a bit of a scumble, don't you think, old chap?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cartographic octopodes

The "land octopus" is historically used on maps to emphasize evil imperialism ... or is it communism? See for yourself. (HT: MetaFilter.)
This post's theme word is solferino, "purplish red color." An imperialist octopus spreads the thick, solferino gore of its rivals across the globe.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gruesome suppurations of foul-smelling hideousness

This delightful tale comes from Frank Key's Hooting Yard.
I was sitting on a bench in a bower on a bright summer’s day. It was a Wednesday, or possibly a Thursday, in August, in the year after the Kennedy assassination, far far away in Dallas, and the air was heady with verbena, and hollyhock. I was eating my snack. All of a sudden, gruesome suppurations of foul-smelling extraterrestrial hideousness began oozing from my marmalade and fish-head sandwich, and I swooned. When I came to, I had a tiny radio transmitter implanted in my forehead, but I remained unaware of it for the rest of my sordid and sorry life.
My new band names abound! The titular hideousness. "Tiny radio transmitter in my forehead." "Sorry and Sordid Life." "The Titular Hideousness." Frank Key has a way with words -- and with enunciating them on his podcast -- that makes them all land as if immensely important and simultaneously drivel. It delights.

This post's theme word is contumely, "contemptuous or insulting treatment arising from arrogance." The alien anthropologists exhibited remarkable contumely.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Concerning the Protestant hegemony

Over the weekend A1 and I had the opportunity to talk with A2. (They are numbered for the sake of clarity; my identity-protecting initial scheme has limitations.) During the course of our long and fascinating discussion, I often lost the thread of the current argument and found myself tuning back in with (nearly) a blank slate. My mind was insufficient -- out of practice -- to store so many complicated and interconnected soft topics. (I'm good at hard topics: give me a handful of mathematical definitions and some theorems anytime.)

At one such moment, I found myself listening to a sentence which ended:
"... secularism is, itself, a symptom of the Protestant hegemony."
I promptly gagged on the water I was drinking and spent the next few minutes attempting to recover my aplomb. This is not because I thought the speaker silly, but rather because, at first glance and lacking the depth of background understanding and nuance which this statement surely requires, it struck me as a funny sentence. Because, you know, secularism is usually defined as the opposite of religion (religiosity?), and whatever the Protestant hegemony is, it has to do with religion. It's right there in the title.

In due time -- politely allowing for my recovery -- A2 explained the statement to my satisfaction. (I cruelly withhold this information from you. May your imaginations run rampant!)

This left me with the reflection: in the humanities, scholars get to define not only their fields, but the very meanings of the words that they use to define, describe, and discuss those fields. In this way they are not so different from we mathematicians -- forever defining new numbers, and types of numbers, and theorems about types of numbers, and even theorems about which theorems are true about types of numbers.

This left A1 with the reflection: it's not only that graduate school has made it impossible to talk with non-scholars. Graduate school has made it impossible to talk with anyone who is not a scholar in the same research discipline! Egads! We stand wrapped in our own elaborately specialized topics, islands of knowledge separated by an ocean of understanding that words cannot quite bridge; never mind trying to get to the layman's mainland.

Say that five times fast.

[Update: if you want more out-of-context amusement from A2, check out A1's twitter feed Oh, The Humanities!.]

This post's theme word is hypergolic, which describes two substances that spontaneously combust on contact with each other. The joint dinner of the Physics Association and the Sociology Club proved hypergolically argumentative.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Little sigh of relief

I just finished writing a paper. It's part of my qualification for candidacy so it has some import; on the other hand, professors and students alike tell me it doesn't really matter and so it might have less import. On the third hand -- the gripping hand -- or whatever noodly appendage is available -- this paper is only one part of my qualification: the rest is a presentation-and-grilling session, for which I now prepare. To quote Parade, "This is not over yet."

The writing felt like pulling teeth. There is something about academic writing that I truly dislike. It does not merely lack poetry; the poetry is bruised, abused, and forcibly expurgated. Sentences are dry and declarative. Words have one particular meaning and that meaning is sharply constrained to the topics under discussion. Having finished this piece of writing (at least for now), I want to write escapist fantasy. I want to be a novelist. I want to be a sculptor. I want to leave my keyboard to cool on my desk, and shortly I will.

But before I go, here's what I plan to do. WHEREAS academia is dessicating my delight in words, phrases, sentences, and constructions, I PROPOSE to begin a project, to be EXECUTED in my leisure moments, CONSISTING of one story, or many stories, using the sentences from the Bulwer-Lytton contests (EITHER as opening sentences OR as sentences appearing elsewhere), THEREFORE reviving my enjoyment of life.

This post's theme word is skueomorph, "a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original." Like copper-coated zinc pennies. That story is only a skueomorph of the inspirational first sentence.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Corporeal suffering

Every muscle and soft tissue from my ribs to my knees hurts. My eyes are red and unpleasant. My right ankle feels like it's trying to turn into some fourth spatial dimension, and only tender tendons are wrenching it back into the standard three for walking purposes. I slept poorly, woke up at 5, and refused to get out of bed until the alarm, as if I could force myself to sleep.

This is what I get for (1) original sin, (2) lounging around yesterday eating ice cream, and (3) running this morning. I'll avoid two of those things tomorrow. (I might run.)

I cannot wait until we uplift-transmogrify-singularityize into incorporeal plasma energy beings.

This post's theme word is valetudinarian, "chronically sick or concerned with one's own health." Also available as a noun. The veterinarian wasn't the valedictorian of her class, but she was a valetudinarian.