Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March retroblogging

I have been working down my stack* of draft blog posts, motivated mostly by the chore of emptying my full camera memory card. So it may surprise you, reader, to find that there is now posted content which, if dates and timestamps are to be believed, you have neglected for months!

You may have missed:
This post's theme word is recrudescence (n), "a renewed activity after a period of dormancy." I hope this month's recrudescence compensates for past negligence.

*actual data structure unknown but some unholy union of stack, queue, heap, and random-shuffle-with-random-deletion.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Cross-cultural Easter candy landscape

Yet another cultural difference for the records.

I associate Easter with pastel-colored candies (like the iconic Peeps and mini-eggs), Cadbury creme eggs, and whole, solid-chocolate rabbits. Plus seasonal changes, religious mutterings, gradual warming, school holidays, snow melting, and ritually hiding tiny chocolate eggs in challenging locations (sometimes locating last year's outstandingly-secreted eggs at the same time).

The season is already quite warm here; rather, it never got cold enough to trigger my winter-detector. Early flowers have been blooming. The clever French staggered-national-school-break schedule means that my part of the "Easter" vacation is not proximate to the calendar date. (This is done so that "every family gets to take a skiing holiday", avoiding overcrowding schedule conflicts, I am told.)

The big difference --- from my perspective --- is the candy landscape. The various pastel-colored sugar atrocities deeply ingrained by my childhood are not available; the import supermarkets have creme eggs only.
Instead, the French* prefer elaborately crafted chocolate figures. Packaging is pastel-colored, but the edible itself seems to be mostly chocolate (albeit, often white "chocolate" which has been colored). These ornate figures are then whimsically arrayed.
Bunnies figure heavily, as do eggs. But also cats, fish, chickens and roosters (separately; chickens often roosting on an entirely-chocolate nest which itself contains chocolate eggs), pigs, and assorted other childhoodish livestock. (See above: cow, duck, etc.)
 Most unexpectedly, there is a resurgence in giant pyramids and transparent plastic bricks packed with Ferrero Rocher (overflowing its usual calendar-containment zone near Christmas).

This post's theme word is eidos, "the formal sum of a culture, its intellectual character, ideas, etc." The chocolate chicken is no French eidos, but in provides an interesting glimpse into celebratory childhood comestibles.

*or at least, Parisian; or at least, Parisian on-display-near-my-work-and-home-and-throughout-the-metro-area [standord blogging anecdata generalization disclaimer here]

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Psychological bloodletting and endnote 24

I am crazy about David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Obsessive, even. And although it is encyclopedic, with extended scenes from different time periods imbricated (which juxtaposition serves narrative/explanatory purposes as often as it serves arbitrary/obfuscatory purposes), and contains a scene* beyond which I always decide that I am addicted to reading the book (in the terminology and categorization provided by the book itself!), I keep returning to it. As a mental palate-cleanser. It is not bland or neutral, but rather, it forcibly pushes the mental "aftertaste" of other reading from my mind, through its sheer volume, verbosity, and compelling structure. The challenges of the book (and esp. of interpreting the book, something it begs and also impedes) are the enduring attraction.

Timestamped annotations left from earlier readings indicate that I reread Infinite Jest once a year, very consistently in March. I have no hypothesis to explain this. Habit?

Reading the book is relaxing. It is massively complicated, a twisted anti-chronological structure with endnotes, and sub-endnotes, and sub-cross-endnotes forming a tangle of contextual connections and free-wheeling dissociations, interchangeably and with little warning. Everyone in the book is tense and anxious, balancing carefully their internal monologue with their external appearance. I find that this creates a calming reading experience. It is psychological bloodletting --- it draws out all anxieties and tops them with such extremity that they seem minuscule and paltry in comparison.  (Some rereaders have the diametrically opposite theory.)

Endnote 24 occurs only 7% of the way into this gigantic tome. It is easily my favorite part, though far from a climax or even a narratively important fact. It's not even a scene; it is simply an annotated filmography. The subversion of such a formulaic, structured text adds to its humor. The entire lengthy endnote is a wry grin, an extended wink, a game of authorial self-one-upsmanship which makes me laugh out loud. I love the academic-ese writing, forced to describe academia-subverting nonsense.

This time around, I started taking notes, then abandoned the project as too large and a probable duplication of earlier fan work. So I turned to the internet to find a chronological version of the story. And to find out what happened, although a lot of that seems to be hypotheses from close-reading fans.

If my twisted sentences and phrases above have not given it away, and their very content has not given it away, let me make it clear: I have been reading Infinite Jest for the past several weeks, and it permeates my idle thoughts.


This post's theme word is otiose, "serving no practical purpose." The novel is lengthy and abstruse, but far from otiose. Unlike this otiosest blog post.

*the Canuck/Lenz showdown, whose radical violence and dissociation spurs me to read faster, faster, through everything that follows. Perhaps to overwrite in my mind the violence, or perhaps because I am impatient to see that the heroes survive and cope with the physical and psychological and logistical fallout.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The inspirational cat?

A local artist paints many portraits of cats. The storefront window is full of these paintings, and one extremely lifelike statue that I stopped to watch for a moment. Then it moved!

Perhaps this cat provides the inspiration for the others?

Or maybe he just stopped by to spend some time with buddies.

This post's theme word is limn, "to portray in words," or "to draw or paint, especially in outline." I cannot accurately limn my surprise at the sudden motion of one cat among many.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Rationally changing one's own behavior; or, withholding judgment


I have been slowly reading my way through the thoughtful series How To Actually Change Your Mind, which describes itself as "a sequence on the ultra-high-level penultimate technique of rationality". I recommend it as interesting and clearly written (plus in small, digestible chunks which gradually accumulate in the corners of your mind to build a central thesis). I encourage you to sample the text, although I don't necessarily endorse every opinion expounded therein.


This advice on rationality reflects my own behavior.

Since ~12 or so I have observed myself gradually become a quieter person. It's an interesting development to watch in the first person. Yes, I am aware of the weirdness of separating my own behavior from the self which is observing said behavior. And yet. Here I am, typing, and you unseen-yet-anticipated audience are reading. Shall we continue?

Through no conscious campaign of my own, I have been gradually converging on the same approach advocated by the rationalist "How To Actually Change Your Mind" program. Namely, to quietly observe and hold off loudly expressing prefabricated thoughts or proposing solutions.

Historical progression

At first, in middle- and then high-school and college, I thought I was choosing to be quieter in social situations because of a reluctance to be judged until I had observed my observers. I wanted to have the benefit of informational power (imbalance), as it were --- basically everything I do and think eventually works its way around to being expressed as information and privacy, so: I wanted to observe and judge others without actually revealing much about myself. I'm fine with being judged; I just want to get the measure of my judges before I am subjected to their judgment.

Social acceptability

And this makes a certain amount of sense. Plus it is more socially acceptable to be a little quiet, and otherwise pleasant and smiling, than to walk around with a videocamera and a field notebook and obviously take indelible records of transient social interactions for later perusal and processing. So as long as my observation is discreet and entirely in my own mind, it seems socially acceptable. (Now you have an inkling of one of the many sub-processes that is always running in my background; but this is so abstract that I think it unlikely your interactions with me will be affected.)


But it's not as if I have become a shy or retiring person. I am still able to carry on high-volume conversations and hold my own in, say, a loud bar or a party of Americans. The change is probably most perceptible to me, and as an internal process, and entirely the opposite of the judgment I suggested above.

Here is what it is: I don't judge, I just watch.

I've noticed this tendency more abroad, of course, where I am consciously aware of the possibility of cultural differences leading to weirdly-crossed social expectations. So I probably watch more on this continent than I would on my home continent. But unlike many, many expats' accounts, my ongoing first-person narrative doesn't have much judgment. I see something strange, I try to  figure out why it seems strange and what is happening. Often I learn a new vocabulary word or idiom. And that's it. I move along, things don't bother me or irritate me, I am my own calm little center, I am a zen master. Well, mistress. Rather than accumulating a series of judgments or stereotypes, I am building a library of actual observations; when I am called on for a generalization, I can go right to the observations without the added-rounding error of trying to generalize from judgments with all sorts of extenuating factors hidden.

And I quietly and with a snicker of self-awareness congratulate myself on implementing one step of the carefully-considered rationalist's paradigm without any specific outside guidance. I'm in a fairly content and self-satisfied and cheerful place in life. Whence I blog.


This post's theme word is a tie between expostulate, "to reason earnestly with someone in order to dissuade" and tergiversate, "to change repeatedly one's attitude; equivocate." I recommend their combined usage in silly poems. I wanted to expostulate, to press you to tergiversate; so long did we prolong debate, that hours have passed and it is late.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pi day

Happy π day!*
Adapting to my locale, I used mirabelles (illegal to import to the US!) and a toaster oven to celebrate. The severe limitations of my micro-kitchen and single pie dish mean that I was limited to one celebratory dessert, and not the usual half-dozen-plus-board-game-party.
Happy dessert! Celebrated on nerd forums everywhere. You may also be interested in these resources: (1) Sad that pi day is over? (2) Rant against pi day: Vi day.

This post's theme word is diktat, "an order or decree imposed without popular consent or upon a defeated party." The Gregorian calendar's vagaries of calculation and representation compel the diktat: pi day occurs on a bleak, cold day in March, when pie fruit is least available in the northern hemisphere.

*It is π day for places that write the date US-style: month/day/year. For European-style dates (day/month/year), π day either doesn't exist or will take place the 3rd of February, next year (which, after all, will be the 14th month of 2015, in a manner of reckoning). I also like Vi Hart's "Engineer's Pi Day" on 3/14/16... see you next year!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Clickbait is sheer humbug

An instance in which the precision and clarity of the writing (and sad continued state of the English language) means that the word "modern" has not become dated:
... modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.
This ancient criticism from Orwell's Politics and the English Language applies today. A robot can make plausible spammy content titles,just by using formulas and "long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else." We should call clickbait "sheer humbug". (Although I advocate the adoption of this formulaic phrase, I am aware that such encouragement and behavior is exactly what Orwell rails against. A self-aware twinkle in my phrase-adopting eye.)

I'm rereading Infinite Jest as a way to purge such language from my mind, whether by frightening it away or by overwriting those parts of memory. If truly "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity", then Infinite Jest, for all its meandering ,difficult sentences and apparent lack of clarity, is overwhelmingly, achingly sincere. And in each style-separated section, DFW does convey something very particular and clear. It's just the kind of clarity that lets you see the many layers of sediment lying beneath the lens and the still water. I really like this book (and Orwell).

This post's theme word is snowclone, "a hackneyed sentence structure." Denigrating overused sentences is the new rock and roll... psych! Snowclone'd.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

City on fire!

Welcome to the first-Wednesday-of-the-month Air Raid Siren Test! Don't worry, there's not a real air raid. And although it sounds like the city is on fire, with loud and pervasive sirens ringing from unidentifiable, distributed sources across all neighborhoods (my home, public parks, the city center... for some reason the newer-built neighborhood around my office doesn't have a siren yet), actually everything is totally fine.

Do you hear me?

Probably not, there are AIR RAID SIRENS.

Everything is fine, relax.

This post's theme word is hebdomary, "of or occurring every seven days; weekly." We are thankful that the air raid siren test is not hebdomary.