Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Inexplicable subway ad

Dear internet:

Please explain.

There was no company name, no tiny print in the corners. Just this equation, whose terms do not look familiar to me. Even the number 0.622 looks unfamiliar, and I don't know what "he" might stand for here --- heat? Some sort of differential equation about heat?


As seen in Gare du Nord, Paris, November 24 (still there December 2).

This post's theme word is alembic "an alchemical apparatus for distilling." (From MiĆ©ville's Kraken (p.175), of course, as he is the source of all eldrich vocabulary.) The alembic equation yielded no clarity to the problem.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Neal Stephenson's Anathem is my least favorite of his books. This is high praise, of course, as his Cryptonomicon is my favorite book. As the Wikipedia article states, his works touch on mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, currency, and history of science. And indeed, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle do touch on all those things, in detail, wonderfully imbricated. Unfortunately, and this is my main complaint, Anathem is just about philosophy. It takes place in a parallel-ish universe and the meat of the story consists of philosophical teaching/exploratory dialogues, starting from the barest of first principles. The point is that they get somewhere, I know, and I don't want to spoil it for the uninitiated. It's excellent, interesting, and it includes a joke that still makes me chuckle aloud to think about. (I'd quote it here, but it's a total spoiler. It has to do with a protractor.)

This reread made me think, again, how much I would have loved to live in a parallel universe where research universities are self-sufficient cloisters, and the university-seeky people are all welcomed inside and valued for their functional abilities. Gender is no obstacle. Everything fits together nicely, it's very satisfying.

I am uniquely privileged in this academic universe to be natively fluent in English, the effective language of scholarship in my field (and most others). I am reminded of this when I watch my colleagues switch from idle conversation (French) to academic conversation (English) --- somehow, my language, which for most of my life has been the only language used around me, is a special tool that my colleagues had to acquire in the course of their studies. It's as if I grew up in some secluded enclave where Latin were the language of daily usage: I would seem more academic, sure, but... it's weird. Sometimes when I zone out at work it is because I am imagining everyone around me speaking Latin. Or French! --- you know, the language of (mathematical) scholarship up until very recently! But mostly my Anathem-inspired daydreams are about everyone speaking Latin, and they involve weird grammatical constructions to backwards-translate the computer science terms that derive from Latin roots, at the distance of many centuries' semantic shifts.

This is a bit of a scattershot post, but I'll finish it with a long quote and then call it a day. This quote tries to simultaneously explain and motivate the lives of cloistered scholars, and also the development of the novel's story, and of all novels' stories, and maybe of all stories altogether. Also of society. It recurses to a meta-level I am currently unequipped to dissect. Translations of book-specific terms provided in [brackets]. Page 355 onwards:
So I looked with fascination at those people... and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who'd made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day's end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn't live without story had been driven into the concents [academic cloisters] or into jobs like Yul's [ad-hoc wilderness guide]. All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Saeculars [non-academics] were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part? We avout [academics] had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things. Even if it didn't always move fast enough... , it did move. You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story.
It's interesting to note, on reflection, that even inside this novel there is a special branch of academics solely devoted to removing people from their own research-story by providing evidence (and citations) of prior academics who already discovered (and published!) the same results. But the scholar-monks keep going anyway, powered, I suppose, by the same magical brain-pixie-dust that powers me and all my coworkers and all academic colleagues across the world. (A thirst for knowledge?)

I haven't read Seveneves yet, but it's in my queue. I hope it has more of Stephenson's particular type of episodic writing; I prefer it to his straightforward novels.

This post's theme word is gradgrind, "someone who is solely interested in cold, hard facts." The gradgrind's conversational tactics were unorthodox.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Iron King

The streets of Paris were quiet today, and fairly empty. I think people stayed in, or stayed out of the city. It was one of those surreal afternoons where the usual standard of behavior --- don't talk to people on the subway, don't make loud disruptive noises in public --- was being eerily pervasively applied, so that combined with the reduced crowding, everything seemed vaguely dreamlike. As if all of life was experienced at the remove of a cotton ball in the ears, strangely muted. Plus there were no buskers out, and plenty of police in the city center, visibly standing at subway funnel-points.

A fitting day altogether for me to finish Maurice Druon's The Iron King, which culminates with the death of Philip IV (the Fair). GRRM's introduction calls this story "the original game of thrones," but it was not nearly full of enough end-of-chapter Dan-Brown-style plot twists. People mostly acted as their previous descriptions caused one to expect them to act. This could be partly the authorial style --- it is strongly historical-retrospective, as scenes are often described as "very important for what was to come" or "shaping the future history of France". Not many cliffhangers, and of course much less gruesome violence and sex than HBO would require. (This book series has been adapted twice to TV, but I have not yet seen either.)

It is a curious sensation to read a fictionalized account of Real History when I am completely unfamiliar with the actual story. I can read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (fantastic, thrilling, mentally delicious fictionalized account of Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII's reign) and have a good idea of how the overall story goes, of how it fits into the general course of history, of what mentions of oppressed local ethnic groups are important, foreshadowing, nods to modern issues. This is Absolutely Not The Case for the history of the monarchy of France. My full knowledge of these monarchs comes from a single rainy afternoon in the Cathedral at St. Denis, when I viewed all their tombs, crowded together in a concentration of magnificence, a true timeless monument to the art of marble carvers. And also I guess from broad stereotypes about Marie Antoinette?

So this historical novel can still have surprises for me. I had not previously realized that when we discuss peasants being associated with manor lands, what we mean is slaves --- people who are trapped where they are born, required to labor there for the benefit of someone else. Nevermind if they were allowed to hold money or learn to read, they were effectively slaves. So by the intermediate value theorem, there must have been a point at time when the serfs were freed. By decree, since there wasn't a liberating revolution, or maybe by degrees of decree, gradually. This is a neat realization: the historical point when serfs became people, capable of some (limited) self-determination, and (limited) freedom of movement!

It's also great to see the monarch's move toward (1) bureaucracy, for smoother-functioning kingdom administration through the changes of monarchs, and (2) consolidating Earthly power separate from the sway of religious institutions, two developments which I used to think of as primarily English and as happening about 200 years later. Of course France was there first, and subtler --- no revolution here, no disputed succession. (Not yet, at least --- there are 6 more books in the series.)

I of course enjoyed the fact that I am familiar with the city descended from the Paris described in the book. I have been inside several of the buildings that were, once, the palaces where these intrigues took place. I have stood where they burned heretics, though I did not know it. Also, basically all the buildings in a 10-minute-walk radius of Notre Dame were once palaces. I imagine a network of ziplines that allow commuting between palaces without ever touching the plebian ground.

This post's theme words are several:

  • appanage, "a source of revenue, such as land, given by a sovereign for the maintenance of a member of the ruling family", and
  • hydromel, "a mixture of water and honey," and
  • expiate, "to make amends for; to atone," and
  • cynosure, "an object of attention" or "something that serves to guide," and
  • hieratic, "of or associated with sacred persons or offices."
The king offered an appanage to expiate his offense against the hierarchs, a sort of cynosure to draw their attention to his kindness and sweeten their dispositions like hydromel.

A bit of a stretch, I know, but I'm tired. Can you do better? I'll replace it, with authorial attribution; leave better suggestions in the comments below.

Ancillary Mercy

Ann Leckie's trilogy wraps up with Ancillary Mercy, in which the main character remains in control of a Mercy-level ship, much to my structural disappointment.(Previously: 1, 1', 2, 2'.)

It is a good book. It blurs with the first two in my mind, the characters and dilemmas running together to form one giant glob of plot, so sticky it grabs issues from all fields of thought and coheres them into one object, one magnificent study of How to Properly Conduct Oneself, A Guide for AIs and Humans Alike, with Special Focus on Tea and Gun Safety. Some choice quotes:

  • "you certainly don't have to apologize for insisting your lover treat you with some basic consideration." p.101
  • "You realize... that it's the meds that make you feel like you don't need meds anymore." p.131
  • "Life in the military isn't all dinner parties and drinking tea." p.197

I don't want to comment on any of the plot, whuch unrolls in interesting fashion, not quite the way I would have expected another space opera to resolve. BUT: What is going on with the Presger? This is another race of aliens, super-powerful, not apparently constrained by the same physics or even the same consistently-applied rules of biology, as us. And their characters add a lot of levity to the proceedings, since they speak fluently but have apparently no cultural training, and so are constantly making Alice-in-Wonderland-like non-sequiturs. The novel repeatedly teases right up to the edge of describing something certain about the Presger, then skips over it and simply describes the outcome. My brain is stuck trying to puzzle out how their magical control of physics works. (Why, and how, was the fish still alive?!)

This book, and its trilogy, brought me much enjoyment. I hope to revisit the world of Ann Leckie's imagination soon, and plentifully. Long may she write and be free to explore what she wants with her words.

This post's theme word is wellerism, "an expression involving a familiar proverb or quotation and its facetious sequel. It usually comprises three parts: statement, speaker, situation. Examples: "We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car. Or: "Prevention is better than cure," said the pig when it ran away from the butcher." The Presger translators provide abundant grounds for wellerisms and other wordplay.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ancillary Sword (again)

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword still impresses with its absolute failure to hit any stereotype of the sequel. It is just as engaging, as exciting, as well-developed and -paced and -written as Ancillary Justice; it is not leaning on the first book for any support. It's great. For those who are interested in scifi, or interested in the sort of books that suggest that there is a thoughtful, considerate way to be a person in this world, which will improve your own life and all those around you, read this book. Read it anyway, even if not.

It's not quite at the level of John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale, which made me openly weep on a streetcar once (long, multi-book buildup to a cathartic release one tired evening commute), but it is differently good and still deeply compelling. Something about these books is targeted right at my particular present combination of attitude, thoughts, psychological outlook, brain chemistry, professional preoccupations, etc., and so the books are just resonating along my entire being.

This post's theme word is versal, "universal; whole." No one is quite versal, but we all limp along as best we can, and in the best of company.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ancillary Justice (again)

An excellent book. Still. On this reread (previously), parts of it --- where, despite the genderless society and advancement-by-merit, everything is nepotism and in-group and out-group prejudices anyway --- were so true to life, so precisely fictionally parallel to injustices in reality, that they infuriated me. I had to put the book down, my blood boiling, and wait to calm down, to remind myself that the point of the book is to upset this ruling-class hierarchy. And that I already know how things turn out (in this novel at least), and that some of the most hateful characters are duly punished by the authorial hand of justice.

It doesn't feel very just, though. Which I suppose is one aspect of the pointedly polysemous title.

I am in complete awe of Ann Leckie for producing such a perfect jewel of a book, fully-formed, springing from her mind like Athena from Zeus'. Of course much work and development surely went into it, but still: Ancillary Justice is a novel of consummate perfection. It works on so many levels, it is a space opera and a manifesto on gender and privilege and interpersonal relationships and the meaning of trust and life goals. No one is too small to matter, and no one is too big to have flaws.

Read it already! I'm rereading it to work my way up to the third piece of the trilogy, which has floated to the top of my queue. So, you know, expect to hear about Ancillary Sword soon.

This post's theme word is posset "a drink of hot milk curdled with ale." Brought to you by China MiƩville's Kraken, p. 127. The specialty of frozen planet Nilt's beverage selection is essentially posset --- warm, fermented milk, repeatedly described in the most unpalatable terms.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Opera master class

I just saw a master class in opera conducted by Philippe Jordan. Four students presented three pieces, sang through them with various interruptions and corrections, picked up in the middle, made small changes. It was fascinating to see the tiny details of instruction that could have a big impact on the performance. And it was nice to know that the education I received in my Literature & Arts B course on opera --- part of my broad-spectrum liberal arts education, from which cocoon I've emerged an extremely specialized species of math-butterfly --- was spot on. The lines and motifs and dynamics we took apart, meticulously, even pedantically, in the class on opera, were exactly the details that the singers and pianist and conductor also deconstructed.

Perhaps we're all just a product of the same music-studying machine, churning out adoration of Mozart's every trill and embellishment. But at least we match!

This post's theme word is apophenia, "the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data." Opera is the antithesis of the apotheosis of apophenia: the culmination of connotation, in every gesture, word, costume, and backdrop.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Seasonal juxtaposition

In my clime-of-origin, November is already blustery and cold. Snow is possible. So no matter how many times I experience it, the transition to "winter holiday" decorations feels premature and rushed in this tropical locale. Just look:
Yes, that is a snowflake-shaped electric lamp, suspended above a tree still green and flush with leaves. Very silly.

This post's theme word is amaranthine, "unfading, everlasting," or "of a deep purple-red color," or of course "of or relating to the amaranth." That is no amaranthine tree; it is merely an overzealous neighborhood decorating committee.