Saturday, October 31, 2015

Seasons change, decades pass

Another couple months, another set of life experiences and retrospective thoughts about them, posted to the internet for all of noisy posterity to (send robots to read, process, glean, and) enjoy. The daylight is noticeably shorter now, we rolled our clocks back in the historically-inherited acknowledgement of centralized time-measuring standards, and tonight everyone dresses up as something else and begs strangers for carbohydrates.

Seems like a reasonable time to reflect on the past decade.

It involved me leaving a lot of things behind: several countries, my life as a student (never again!), relationships tried and broken, and between 10 and 20 pounds.* Oh! Also my original (birth) ACL, gone forever, consigned to history and oblivion (although its replacement's image is immortally online). Now I have a gauche unmatched pair of ACLs. Most of these changes require no special comment; I do reiterate, here as elsewhere, my strongly-held belief that knee injuries should be avoided and knee surgery is not a suitable pastime. (Exceptions possible for knee surgeons.)

Even my fellow crack-of-dawn gym women have commented on the kilograms, though ("Vous étiez ronde... vous avez maigri"). Two sides of the coin (as usual: ignore the metaphorically inconvenient edge). The nice: Of course it is always nice to receive compliments from humans. Robots, not so much. Second, the cool part about converting fat (voluminous) into muscle (dense) is that my skin nerves are closer to my muscles, so I can feel in my skin when I contract my muscles (as well as the normal nerve feedback from the muscles themselves). For some muscles in particular this sensation is novel and thrilling (intercostals!). The irritating: Buying all new clothes is a chore and so everything I've bought is stretchy, it'll fit me as long as I avoid supervillain shrink- or giganticize-rays. Also, now I am even less imposing, and so rush hour subway commutes are a continual struggle to evade crushing and obtain access to enough oxygen at my elevation. Maybe a subway snorkle? Then I could breathe, plus everyone would know there is definitely someone there in that spot-that-looks-like-it's-empty-space-between-tall-people.

I've retroblogged a little recently, but a lot is sliding because it is job-application season in academia.
I have a lot more photos from Japan, and the queue is full of all photos chronologically following that trip. Yes, I evilly withhold content from you while informing you of its existence. I am the gatekeeper of Lila-related ephemera, kneel before me! etc., etc.

This post's theme word is gloze, the transitive verb "to minimize or to explain away," the intransitive verb "to use flattery; to make an explanation; to shine brightly," or the noun "a comment; flattery; a pretense." His gloze glozes, but it is a gloze rather than glozing.

*As a theorist, I acknowledge that a factor-of-two approximation may dissatisfy others, but it depends if you measure from the maximum in the time interval or the average. High variance in the past decade, is my point. Yes, I have the data (much to my theorist shame).

Monday, October 26, 2015

Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas is Ian (M.) Banks' first science fiction novel, and his first set in the extended universe of interstellar civilizations, most prominently one called simply "the Culture." The book focuses on Bora Horza Gobuchul, a spy and agent for the Iridians, who are at war with the Culture. Borza is humanoid, and provides the narration with an accessible entrance-from-the-outside, introducing us readers to the Culture with a critical eye. (He is, after all, voluntarily fighting a war against them, even though he is not Iridian.)

The Culture are a utopia, a moneyless post-scarcity society of plenty dedicated to freedom, fairness, pleasure, and interesting problems; it is managed with a light touch by (sentient) superintelligent computers. Horza sees this as a dystopia, fears and hates the computer intelligences; he argues with his actions and words that the Iridians --- a warlike, three-legged species of keratin-plate-covered giants who are religious fanatics --- are better than, or at least not as bad as, the Culture. It's an interesting authorial approach, since obviously readers will sympathize with the humans in the Culture, and probably prefer their well-managed, worry-free utopia over the Iridians, who are pretty horrible.

The Iridians keep slaves, and are not sentimental, and view even useful humanoid allies like Horza as subordinate not-quite-people. ("What they must feel for the swarming biped tribes of humankind! ... We are nothing to them: mere biomatons" p. 304) But they prefer biological life to computational, and that is enough to motivate Horza through the many disasters, emergency decompressions, painful beatings, and existential crises that he undergoes in the course of the novel.

I like it. Banks is a phenomenal writer --- I read his very disturbing The Wasp Factory years ago and its vivid horrors are forever burned into my brain. The narrative picks a delicate path across interstellar civilizations, giving enough detail to really challenge the imagination without bogging down in endless exposition. Cool ideas that could be the focal point of entire novels are used as background dressing for chapters or even single scenes. The novel's title comes from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a line I've never understood and can't say I understand better after the novel. But I like both works, so their linkage at some fundamental level in the Banks' mind is like a savory nugget, that I can pleasantly return to musing about in my free time.

I unreservedly recommend this book, and will keep you updated with the joys of the rest of the Culture books as I methodically devour them during my commutes.

This post's theme word is noosphere, "the sum of human knowledge, thought, and culture." The Culture's noosphere is replete with curiosities, mysteries, and in-jokes.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Parc Martin Luther King

The contrasting sharp lines of the crisp sidewalk and the crane-filled horizon are nicely offset by the autumnal gradient of trees.
This is the Parc Martin Luther King, with a postmodern dystopian style. I half-expect to see Aeon Flux swinging from crane to crane, leaping and sliding in slickly high-speed cartoon spy style.

This post's theme word is obambulate, "to walk about." I obambulated in my quest to visit every fontaine pétillante (potable carbonated water fountain) in Paris.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Science-fictional chase scene setting

This tunnel near my office is illuminated with pillar-streetlights outlined by sculptural elements. They are vaguely reminiscent of DNA helices, if they had been used as design elements in a subterranean tunnel used in a chase scene in one of Tom Cruise's science-fictional movies.
The sidewalk side is ominous, but the car side is not better, with headlights sweeping across the ceiling and wall features.

This post's theme word is cimmerian, "very dark or gloomy." Go over the bridge, not underneath --- too cimmerian, with its hints of trolls, gremlins, and totalitarian government police forces chasing Mr. Cruise.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Métro Arts et Métiers

Arts et Métiers not only has the coolest museum, it has the coolest subway stop. It's like the inside of a Jules Verne novel.
Apologies if this is a repeat, it's just so cool that I want to tell people about it.

This post's theme word is numismatics, "the study or collection of coins, currency, notes, and similar objects like medals." The steampunk submarine was numismatically decorated, with copper fittings offset by framed pennies.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A huge chunk of Philip K. Dick's back catalog is available from the library as ebooks, and as an upstanding member of the scifi-consuming population, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not recognize when one of PKD's plots or fictional worlds or throwaway idea flavoring was recycled by the parsimonious referential imaginations of today. Thus do I undertake to report on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which sad dystopic future of course formed the basis of Blade Runner. Like the movie, the book is dark, depressive, and gritty, although often leavened by spurts of comic relief which did not make the translation to film.

The plot focuses on bounty hunter Rick Deckard (likely a human), who uses a test of empathy (and a laser pistol) to filter his quarry from the humans left on Earth after a mass exodus to Mars. The humans left behind are mostly too damaged to merit inclusion in the exodus, and have been left on a radioactive-fallout-covered Earth to live as best they can. This includes the reportedly-mentally-deficient J. R. Isidore, who despite his categorization swings wildly between high and low levels of diction when narrating.

The usual Dickian mistrust of the world is pervasive; as Roger Zelazny writes in the introduction, "The worlds through which Philip K. Dick's characters move are subject to cancellation or revision without notice." Legally "deficient" Isidore pines, "If I hadn't failed that IQ test I wouldn't be reduced to this ignominious task with its attendant emotional by-products." (p.60) which offers a pretty good example of the sort of reader double-take that this book induces throughout. For several chapters around the middle of the book there are authorial hints dropped everywhere, the reader can't help but trip on them, suggesting that Deckard himself is an android, but later most of these hints are revoked. He finds a fellow bounty hunter who it seems certain is an android, but turns out to be human; he fails to empathize with some things, but later empathizes with others, so it's all okay.

A main focus of the book, and of the characters inhabiting the book's supremely editable world, is whether androids --- fully biological in construction --- can empathize, and how much, and what sorts of empathy are required to validate someone as a full person. Personhood is a focus, as it gives protection against the imminent threat of bounty hunting, but also it gives a larger protection in the book's strange and mostly-unexplained alien (?) religion of Mercerism, by which humans (and only humans, not androids!) can empathically fuse with all other religious participants, thereby escaping the bleak radioactive present reality. (Nevermind that they escape to a different bleak reality.) The takeaway message seems to be thus:

  1. Empathy makes personhood. (Anything passing the Turing test should receive the rights of a full human.)
  2. Opera does not protect against murder.
  3. Owls and spiders are valuable and underappreciated.

This post's theme word is ailuromancy, a form of magic especially focused on/with cats. (Brought to you by Mieville's Kraken, p. 400.) The electric veterinarians were not experts in ailuromancy, and so relied on their insurance policy to cover the dead (real) cat.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Better than advertising

I appreciated this chalk-graffiti inside the frames that some enterprising artist put there before the ads could be installed:
It's vaguely like Celtic knotwork, or stylized ocean waves, or simply idle doodles writ large.
Someone with a lot of time filled in the entire hallway of billboard frames.
It's great. I wish the Powers That Be would leave it, the pale dusty chalk a nonintrusive visual tickle instead of the blaring colors and words of advertisements.
The emptiness of the spaces is also very satisfying.

This post's theme word is bursiform, "shaped like a pouch or sac." The bursiform squiggles could read visually as a variety of abstractions.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Le Nozze di Figaro

I indulgently watched the nearly four-hour-long opera Le Nozze di Figaro last night, a production by Opera Zurich, as broadcast in a comfortable theater in Paris. It was fun, as always, the jokes funny and the musical jokes precise (thanks, Mozart!) and beautifully executed.

One really nice thing about watching operas broadcast in movie theaters is that the camera can zoom in much further than my unassisted eyes, so previously-hidden details become visible: tiny facial movements, costuming specifics. Corners of props and the patterns in the wallpaper. It's nice. Also, the movie theater seats are squishy and comfortable, and viewers have fewer compunctions about coughing during the music. (It recently got colder here, so everyone is sniffling and switching to heavier scarves.)

This particular production had a slightly ribald director --- much of the staging was fairly explicit, to my surprise. (I have previously seen only G-rated versions.) Plus the "trapped in the closet" sequence (hah!) featured a rifle being loaded and brandished across the stage, which was unexpected and added a particularly dark and violent edge to the Count's suspicions about who is hiding in the closet. This echoed the violence of stabbing scissors and knives into all of the cardboard boxes onstage in the first scene (one of which, of course, contains mischievous Cherubino).

I've settled into a version of adulthood that I quite like, where the unusual times I am out late on a weeknight, in a crowded venue, sneaking out of work early to wait in line, I am there to watch an opera and I am among the youngest 10 people in the room (by several decades, although kudos to the three <10 acts="" all="" by="" four="" i="" intoxicated="" it="" kids="" made="" only="" sober="" through="" totally="" who="">leitmotifs
 and the neverending escalation of "sua madre?" "sua madre!" "sua madre?" "sua madre!" "sua madre?" "sua madre!" which, once it starts in my brain, never quite reaches the point of musically ripening into the next verse (hint: "sua padre?" etc.) and just continues, forever.

This post's theme word is Apollonian, "serene, harmonious, disciplined, well-balanced." The Apollonian music was matched by the symmetrical staging (with the exception of the odd number of ponies onstage in act IV).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nerd joke re: genetic engineering

A nice snippet of a joke from SlateStarCodex (and a much longer, serious, sober post), but too long for Twitter: "everything about genetic engineering raises thorny scientific and ethical quandaries, and I can only hope we don’t drag our feet in creating the eight-foot-tall IQ 300 supermen who can solve them."

Aaaaah, nerd jokes.

This post's theme word is hebephrenia, "a form of insanity occurring at puberty." I wonder: will the genetically engineered superhumans will still occasionally evince hebrephenia?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

City on fire[works]

I'm culturally immersed, is what I am, and so often things happen around me which I find unusual, surprising, unexpected, and notable. Take, for example, the loud explosive sounds I heard tonight, whose source I identified as some fireworks being set off a few blocks away.
... and the lunatics yelling at the moon, it's the end of the world, yes!
The light was visible just over the rooftops, in luminous bursts. I think the fireworks must have been low ones --- maybe just very bright, loud firecrackers --- being set off in the park, or perhaps in some permissive building's courtyard.

No idea why. October 10th? Was it a celebration of sports, or history, or current events? Educate me or guess in the comments below.

This post's theme word is auscultate, "to listen to the sounds made by internal organs to aid in diagnosis." My experience in civil auscultation suggested a group party.

Tales from Earthsea

I'm on the last stretch of these delicious Earthsea stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. The fifth book, Tales from Earthsea, collects several short stories set in everyone's favorite diverse, mostly-brown-skinned, women-valuing archipelago non-industrialized fantasy world (plus magic and dragons are real). These stories precede the novel stories, and fit in the interstices between those longer works: we get short glimpses into the deep history of the world, as well as smaller episodes in the lives of well-known characters.

The stories are short and sweet, full of the small details of characters enjoying moments --- sun on their faces, the last bite of a perfectly ripe pear, placidly drawing water and completing household chores --- whose calming affect I so enjoy in all the works set in Earthsea. Yes, there is some conflict, but usually the story is driven, instead, by characters trying to find out information, or seeking to build something new, and the conflict happens somewhere offstage and is only commented-upon by onstage characters. There are some confrontations, some climactic scenes, but more numerous are the scenes where people tend their farms, and go for long walks, and teach each other the words to long historical lays.

Earthsea is a lovely place to visit. Ursula K. Le Guin's notes, too, extend this envelope of comfort beyond simply the stories in the books. It is clear that what I enjoy, and find so heartening and interesting and comfortable and rewarding as a reader, is some innate property of the author, and the books are simply a medium carrying this psychological effect from her to me. Her authorial notes (appended to the end of my library copies of the books) make it clear that, although the words are sometimes simple, and the characters are often uneducated, the author has thought, deeply, about what the stories mean, how they should be presented, and what effect they have on the world.

Plus there are dragons!

A wizard's staff is always described as being "exactly his height", but since people gradually become bowed and stooped with age, does that mean that older wizards' staves (staffs?) also bend or shrink?

This post's theme word is enjoin, "to order or prescribe a course of action," or "to forbid or restrain. " The wise of Earthsea spend much time enjoining their own powers, rather than using puissance as an excuse for action.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

In a hole in a hill there lived a hobbit...

This hill mysteriously appeared in a courtyard at the Louvre. I suspect it was some marketing gimmick, but it ignited my imagination nonetheless.
It is covered with purple stalks of flowers, possibly lavender, possibly fake lavender, possibly something else entirely.
Clues of marketing gimmick: the door to the interior is labelled "Dior" in fancy letters. Dramatic lights surround the hill for nighttime viewing. Security fence and guards prevent the curious public from approaching too close.

This post's theme word is agee (adv), "to one side; awry." The manmade hill tilts agee; I wouldn't walk there, if I were you.

Le Tout Nouveau Testament

Le Tout Nouveau Testament (The Brand New Testament) is a film nicely established by its first line: "God is real, and he lives in Brussels." The premise is extended by the stipulation that God lives in a top-floor apartment, which he has never left since the beginning of time, with his wife and 10-year-old daughter (his son having snuck out in a well-documented episode and Gotten Into A Bit of Trouble With The Romans). He runs everything through an outdated computer in his bigger-on-the-inside home office. And "runs everything" really means everything: we see him devising weather disasters, the rule that "the other line always moves faster", and managing individuals' lives, all through this computer.

God is also kind of horrible, true to the Old Testament version of things. Corporal punishment, strict rules, no empathy with suffering. His daughter sneaks into his office, SMSes everyone on the planet with their exact date of death, changes the root password, and then escapes the apartment (Jesus told her that the washing machine has a secret tunnel down to the Earth!). When God (of course) follows her, to try to retrieve (1) his daughter, and (2) access to his omnipotent computer, he is confronted with the unpleasantnesses of the world that he devised. To great comedic effect. The directors, editors, and writers clearly want God to be an unsympathetic character, and they are successful. His sympathetic daughter, of course, seeks apostles while on Earth and has a scribe (homeless man) following her, writing a new testament. She does some miracles, just light ones --- doubling a sandwich, walking across a canal. Nothing showy, but played for laughs in contrast with God's clear lack of powers (he plunges into the canal, and is hungry, dirty, and eventually deported).

It was a neat movie, although it didn't contain as many laughs as I expected from the premise. Many of the apostles' stories (interwoven, of course, throughout the film) were lonely and bleak, and invited serious reflection in the audience. (The color palette, dominated by greys and rain, echoed this.) These were intercut with cute "news" segments showing ridiculous things, but the overall tone was more somber than expected. (I think I expected something more silly, like the tone of Amélie.)

I recommend.

This post's theme word is naches, "emotional gratification or pride, especially taken vicariously at the achievement of one's children." Not much naches is on display here.