Thursday, April 30, 2015

Another month of retroblogging

Once again I have spent my month sporadically picking over my giant pile of drafted posts. The retroblogging continues! (Previously.) Here are some new old posts that the RSS subscribers may have missed, including an entire series from the October Jaunt to Switzerland.

Photos from travel and everyday life:
Things I read or watched:
This post's theme word is guerdon, "a reward or recompense." (Also a transitive verb.) May these pointers to backdated historical posts provide their own guerdon.

Friday, April 17, 2015


"Turncoat" by Steve Rzasa.The prose begins a bit... dry? It made me think I don't really like short stories. Then the story picked up, and I remembered that I do like short stories (I just like long stories more, because there is more of them to like). I smiled at the mention of "Saint Kurzweil". The plot twist is entirely given away by the title --- lack of imagination there? or straightforward authorial titling, like artists who call their art "untitled study in blue #3"? --- and the conclusion was cute. Not terribly thought-provoking, but a fun little verbal romp in the world of uploaded-humans-and-AIs versus non-uploaded-humans.

If this were the first chapter of a book, I'd keep reading.

This post's theme word is adumbrate, "to foreshadow" or "to give a rough outline or to disclose partially" or "to overshadow or obscure." The monolexical title adumbrated the conclusion.


Another Hugo short story nominee under my reading belt: "Totaled" by Kary English. I can honestly say I've never read a story from the point-of-view of a brain in a jar. Now I want to read more of them. The story was well-written. engaging, interesting. It didn't press the often-overused "melancholy" button too much, which is my usual complaint against short stories. I liked it.

This post's theme word is osculable, "kissable" (also consider using osculatrix, oscularity (a kiss), osculary (anything that should be kissed). The brain in a jar was enticing but inosculable.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Parliament of Beasts and Birds

Well, here's an early indication that this year's Hugo nominees will be different from past years'. I just read "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds" by John C. Wright (it's short; you can, too). The writing is stilted and awkward, inconsistently jumping between levels of tone and diction (high-level, multi-claused sentences are mixed in awkwardly with things like all-caps "NO DOGS ALLOWED"). The story is told with the timelessness of a parable (each animal represented by one capitalized example: Fox talks to Lion talks to Worm, etc.) but with some weird references that break the tone and make it seem modernish. A few things stand out as weird burrs of writing, which I would prefer to see sanded smoother: the past tense of "shine" is "shone" (esp. to match the fancy tone of the rest of the story; the technically-acceptable "shined" really stands out as awkward); Google tells me that gopherwood is the substance of the ark, but why bring it up so specifically? It doesn't serve any purpose but to make the story more Bible-sounding.

The entire story comes off as a heavy-handed parable, although an unclear one; the morals are scattershot all over the place, up until the oppressive series of rhetorical questions that finishes the story. Overall, I'd say this story is not unredeemable, but it is a prime example of showing-not-telling and needs rework to become more engaging and purposeful. Maybe this is what other nominees' stories looked like, before editors and other advice-givers helped to reshape them.

This post's theme word is atavism, "tendency to revert to ancestral type (or something ancient)". The atavistic format of the story did not belie its apparent moral.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Voting systems and the Hugo awards

The ciiiiiiiiiii-iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-iiiiiiiiii-iiiiiiiiiiircle of life! It turns! The stars wheel around (as do we), and another year has passed: welcome back to the announcement of Hugo nominees! As in past years (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I am going to try to read all the fiction (novels, novellae, novelettes, shorts stories) and think about them. (You'll notice that my extensive retroblogging project continues with these lists.) No promises how far I'll get through posting my thoughts this year, but links will follow.

One note before we begin. A fortuitous confluence of events means that I recently heard a seminar by Rida Laraki, on the subject of voting systems. It was a fantastic seminar, and I am certainly going to read some of his research. The takeaway points were these:

  1. All voting systems are "wrong" for some scenario of voters and gaming the system. (We just have to decide which flaws we prefer to other flaws. Thanks for the pessimism, Arrow's theorem and similar.)
  2. Most of the time spent making a decision should be spent selecting the voting mechanism and explaining it to voters, not campaigning.

How does this relate to the Hugo awards? Well, there's a giant kerfuffle happening right now over a campaign ("Sad Puppies") which produced a voting bloc and dominated the nominations in several categories. It is political, and social, and polarizing in some corners of the blagoweb. My main reaction is that I am sad that this strategy has been so effective, because it quashed the dispersed-voice-nomination-effect which brought me so many wonderful reading lists in past years. I'll still try to read the list below, but I'm appending another list of books I suspect might have made it onto the ballot in the absence of bitter canine whelps.

I feel that (1) trumps (2), since any adjustment to the voting system now will be reactionary, and if we change the voting system every time it produces a result we don't like, that doesn't seem too far (in theoretical terms) from simply weighting certain votes as "better" than others. It's meta-gerrymandering.

Best novel:
  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  • The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  • Lines of Departure by Marko Kloos
  • Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Best novella:
Best novelette:
Best short story:

Suggestions I've gleaned from elsewhere:
  • Echopraxia by Peter Watts
  • The Peripheral by William Gibson
  • Lock In by Jon Scalzi
  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • My Real Children by Jo Walton
  • Annihilation / Authority / Acceptance (trilogy) by Jeff Vandermeer
  • The City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennet
  • Cibola Burn by James S. A. Corey
  • Defenders by Will McIntosh
  • The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
  • The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
  • Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
  • Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
  • Trial by Fire by Charles E. Gannon
  • Coming Home by Jack McDevitt
... and now I am out of time to look for more possible-nominees, so I will certainly not have the time to read this entire list. The fun is in the attempt, of course.

This post's theme word is febrile, "of, relating to, or characterizing a fever; feverish." She entered a state of febrile reading.

Bleak outlook for academic postdocs

This article in Nature offers a bleak outlook for science postdocs.

The problem is the aggregation of individual human actions. If the system as a whole could change (as per the US National Academies' recommendation, or the article's call for synchronized, systemic global change), then the problem would be easily fixed. Of course! Simplify away all the complexities, and a theoretical approach can surely offer many solutions [she says, tongue-in-cheek].

In the absence of unanimous, organized global overhaul of the scientific research system, what to do? I take the retrospective of Dr. Thuault-Restituito seriously. I have come to a similar conclusion, luckily much earlier in "the pipeline." I am lucky to have the luxury of choice --- if the system is not treating me nicely, I can take my training and education and leave. I can contribute, and find stable, productive, interesting employment elsewhere. I am mentally and personally flexible. I can switch universities, or countries. I can leave academia. If everyone had such freedom (and stubborn self-respect), then again we would find ourselves in a simplified system where decade-long underpaid, precariously-renewed postdocs are eliminated, for lack of a population willing to subjugate themselves to such treatment.

Aside from solving my own (local) problem by simply refusing to participate, I feel some social obligation to contribute to improving the complicated system as a whole. I'm just not sure how to do that from my current position (or indeed from any position whatsoever, even as director of an entire government's science funding agency).

As with all things in science, we continue to fumble towards* understanding and improvement.

This post's theme word is lebensraum, "space required for living, growth, and development." Some postdocs are academic bonsai, continually pruned and hemmed-in, prevented from obtaining the lebensraum needed to progress professionally.

*my least-favorite preposition to see in any scientific context, esp. when accompanied by "understanding"!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Don Pasquale

Modern technology is a delight --- yesterday I watched the Zurich Opera's live performance of Don Pasquale. No passport, flight, train, or international travel required: I got to watch from here, where it was broadcast live in a fancy theater. (The crowd was even more homogeneous than usual: mostly gray- and white-haired. Whereas in the nosebleed seats where I dwell at the opera house, I have some coeval audience peers.)

The opera was a delight, too. Zero deaths! It featured many of the little flourishes that make opera buffo such a pleasure: eavesdropping servants in the corners of the stage, silly staging (trigger warning: teddy bear dismemberment and beheading), hiding in shrubberies to sneak to a midnight tryst. Pulling faces behind the patsy's back. The traditional cross-dressing was replaced by one woman pretending to be another woman, each with dramatically different personalities, wardrobe choices, and vocal flourishes. It ended with a wedding, of course, and a big chorus number. The incredible Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina got cheered back onstage for a reprise before the opera proceeded to the next scene.

The set was a single, large rectangular building which rotated (silently! to not interfere with the ongoing music, even at pianissimo): recto, the titular character's house interior; verso, exterior. Various partial rotations were used for different exterior scenes, with cunning delivery of verdure and lawn furniture, as necessary. The rotating set was briefly used to break the fourth wall during the final scene, but otherwise not as fully, hypnotically used as the incredible set of this production of The Barber of Seville.

If I were in a student setting where an essay, of some literary and scholarly merit, were required of me (a hypothetical to which my brain is predisposed), my thesis would certainly concern the rotating set and the fourth wall. Characters occasionally made asides to the audience (whether in the libretto or at the director's choice), and the fact that the patsy Don Pasquale's house, as well as his interior monologue, intentions, and general mental and physical state, are entirely open to observation, criticism, and judgement --- not only from Ernesto and Norina, but also from the doctor, the servants, and of course the audience itself --- certainly lends itself to the kind of overreading and overwrought analysis in which I delight and (uselessly) excel. Further supporting this approach: the entire opera is staged to open with two characters literally unfurling the wings (walls) of the residence, unrolling them to reveal Don Pasquale's home (and personal state). Plus of course the staging, where certain colors, statues, teddy bears, clothing, and furniture are used as shorthand for his general mental state.

Basically, it's the same hypothesis and academic paper I always write: how form and structure, predict, shape, inform, etc. (your favorite and most pretentious verbs here!) meaning by controlling how, and in what ways, the audience interacts and engages with content.

Meta-essay. My brain always defaults to one level up the hierarchy; I am always in meta-mode. (Simply making this observation has bumped me even one step higher, to meta-meta-mode, which exceeds my late Friday afternoon brain sugar capacity for processing; plus the preceding phrase bounces me one level up the hierarchy, and this observation bounces me again, and again, and again..)

This post's theme word is iatrogenesis (n) or iatrogenic (adj), "an adverse effect resulting from medical advice." Don Pasquale's iatrogenic marital problems are neatly resolved by the end of Act III.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Phantom sock

A bland, mildly amusing, G-rated personal anecdote follows, ideally suited to a vanity blog like this one.

Several weeks ago, I lost a sock somewhere in my tiny apartment. Impossibly. I searched everywhere and couldn't find it. "Everywhere" includes moving all the furniture around to look underneath and behind; sorting through all clean and dirty laundry, unpacking and repacking all shelves. Checking jacket pockets. Rolling up the carpet to look underneath.

No sock was to be found.

No one entered or left the apartment during the period the sock was lost. My initial hypothesis was that the sock-stealing elves, frustrated by my laundromat vigilance, had made a risky foray up to my apartment for their denied booty (James Bond-style, scaling the building with suction cups).

Then tonight I found the second sock while shifting my wet laundry into the dryer. My modified hypothesis is that the sock got staticked and rolled up inside some other laundry. I was happy to be reunited with my prodigal sock, and I consigned it to the dryer secure in the knowledge that this sock would soon be cosy, dry, and reunited with its partner.

This sock is a renegade.

I have now folded, and re-folded, all of the laundry. The Prodigal Sock has not returned. It's not stuck to something. It's not still in the laundromat. It baulked at the prospect of reunion, and has made itself even scarcer than before.

Oh where, oh where could my sock have gone? Oh where, oh where could it be?

Further updates as the situation unfolds. (Hopefully the laundry won't. I've folded it twice now.)

This post's theme word is tmesis, "stuffing a word into the middle of another word." I un-fucking-believably lost the wily sock again.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Infinite Jest

Phew and egads! I finished rereading Infinite Jest. Relief is accompanied by psychic emptiness, a hollow longing to experience the entire thing again.
... the novel is about many things: fathers and sons; mothers and sons; addiction; communication; entertainment; politics; greatness, mediocrity and failure. It’s a coming of age story alongside a recovery story that is also possibly a love story, all wrapped in a cloak-and-dagger-ish mystery about international realignment and terrorism. Choose your favorite combination and go with it. The book is about a lot of things. -- Mike at Fiction Advocate
The hardest part, psychologically, emotionally, was reading the extremely violent scenes. The Antitoi brothers' deaths, Gately's shooting, the Mt. Dilaudid scene: these are described in straightforward words, treated with the same flat descriptive affect as the extended discussions of drug withdrawal, depression, and early-morning tennis practice. And this consistent authorial treatment is painful to read, because it creates the associative comparison that, for example, being depressed is just as psychically painful as suffering bullets, stabbings, blood loss, head trauma, etc. Reading the violence was unpleasant, not because the violence itself was distasteful or grim or extreme (although those things are true), but because it made so many other things, which had seemed vaguely painful at a clinical remove, become retrospectively intensely painful and excruciating.


I understand that this was the a purpose of the book. The reading experience now is colored by DFW's suicide; descriptions of suicidal and anxious, trapped-in-your-own-head scenes are particularly pointed and affecting. When I read:
What's unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. ... everything unendurable was in the head, ... (p. 1055)
If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one. (p. 859)
... then my heart aches, and I am sympathetic and sorrowful that such pain can exist, and can have hurt someone who could so beautifully express the isolating pain in a way which is anti-isolating, which is relatable and unifies the human experience. Yet the words themselves, and expressing them by such clear and enlightening means, can worsen the problem:
Please learn the pragmatics of expressing fear: sometimes words that seem to express can really invoke. This can be tricky. (p. 226)
The novel balances on this edge, not by a sustained series of tiny nudges, but by massive swoops to either side: extreme fear, personality-obliterating anxiety, emotions invoked and clinically discussed and manipulated, each in turn. Rote cliches repeated until they gain meaning, lose it, and eventually become both antaclastically significant and a series of meaningless phonemes.

One overarching goal, or conclusion, or hypothesis of the novel has stood out to me in a few places, on different rereads. It is the conclusive-sounding, earnest, non-ironic idea that we need to give ourselves away.
American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. Some just prefer to do it in secret. (p. 74)
This is echoed later, with links that grab many of the other threads of the novel.
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately---the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. (p. 1102)

Certainly the drug-addiction plots, the tennis-academy plots, the terrorist-plotting plots, the militant grammarians, the film studies, the weird undercover assignments, the personal vendettas --- they all fall under this neat summary: the characters care deeply, dedicate their lives to giving their lives away. Although many of them phrase it as an escape rather than a gift; they all seem to be trying to flee some personal fear by this selfless giving-away of themselves.

It seems that Infinite Jest is fractally interesting. Every closer examination reveals another lurking meaning. I have the sense that each individual sentence could be deconstructed in this way, fruitfully although perhaps meaninglessly: the book holds together so well, it seems unlikely that its individually analyzed components would be as effective at achieving its goals. And in any case, I've written a dissertation already, and have no interest in sinking my time into this recondite time-sponge, especially since it will likely reduce my own enjoyment of the novel. In the end, I let the book describe my feelings about it:
This should not be rendered in exposition like this... (p. 113)
... so, what about rendering it in Legos?

This post's theme word is cathexis, "the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree)." Infinite Jest uses the word "cathexis" effectively, as well as embodying in several different ways the never-ending loop of self-reflexive cathexis-spurred paralysis.