Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 retroblogging

The curtain closes on 2015 and my furious, year-end sprint to clear my blog queue, or at least slow its rate of growth. I am trying to tag all the retroblogged posts with the "retroblog" tag, so that you can try to peruse them, although I recognize that the fact that they are interspersed with other posts, and with previously retroblogged posts, does not make this easy.

My project:retroblog tag is from 2012, which shows that I am very consistent in my lagging and also my resolution to catch up. There's a new tag, simply "retroblog", which gets applied to everything blogged vastly out-of-time, without marking it as my 2012 project which may never reach resolution.

Here are the posts that are newly, retroactively inserted into the blogging timeline since last we reckoned:
I'm embarrassed that this list is so short, and also about that last item. But really, why? I fell short of a goal I set myself which no one else really cares about. Take that, internet! Take my confessional failure to succeed at arbitrary self-set goals, and churn on it. There, now it's gone, isn't the flash of internet information great? Squeeze some emotion out, and move on.

This post's theme word is discomfit, "to confuse or embarrass." or "to thwart the plans of." O! discomfiting blogging failure! Woe is me, etc., etc.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Traced against the sky

No matter where we walked in [the touristy part of] San Antonio, an orange squiggle followed us, always just catching the corner of the eye. It is La Antorcha de la Amistad,and it makes me think of a 3D-printed puzzle or unusual key. Maybe to a geometer's lair?
The color gradients across the sky and the sculpture were very appealing to me.
I'm not sure how the lock would work, exactly --- maybe you put the key in, turn slightly, move again in the z axis, turn again, then shimmy in a move given by a simple equation in polar coordinates?

Maybe it's the extrusion of some more complicated being into our space, and the intruder is trying to be polite and not move in the hopes that no one will notice.

This post's theme word is bidentate, "having two teeth or toothlike parts." Thank goodness the tentacle was only bidentate.

Austin dawn

The fact of living on a sphere, and gradually rotating to face a flaming ball of plasma and gas, is occasionally lovely and dramatic.
Just look at those early-morning colors, splattered across the bottom of the cloud layer. So neat. Plus, thematically appropriate: Austin orange, everywhere.

This post's theme word is purl, "to flow with a rippling motion," or "the sound or curling motion made by rippling water." The sunlight streams across the purling clouds.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


Elizabeth Bear's Pinion tells the story of people on a shipwrecked generational starship, and their struggles with each other and the starship's fragmented AI to try to escape their own demons (as well as the star system, whose binary star is about to have an explosively destructive event).

The book is permeated with biblical imagery and metaphors, as well as quotes from the "New Evolutionist Bible," which bears a certain thematic resemblance to the New Testament, although its contents and subject matter is different. The various AIs title themselves "Angel of X", as in: Angel of Death, Angel of Life Support Services, Angel of Knives, Angel of Memory, Angel of Electricity, Angel of Communication, Angel of Wires, Angel of Stars, Angel of Voids, Angel of Poison, Angel of Biosystems, Angel of Propulsion, ...

The humans, and their enclosed habitats, are not quite familiar --- they are the result of centuries of advanced bioengineering tinkering, a project whose original goal was to improve en route to the destination, and whose proximate goal has been to self-modify and selectively breed and improve in order to survive stranded in space. The biblical theme continues here, as many humans have wings, or space-hardening adaptations, or perfect memory, or echolocation, or other senses not easily tersely-summarizable.

The book is great, enjoyable, well-written. The characters are interesting, sympathetic without being helpless, smart without being geniuses, weak without needing rescuers, crafty without relying on deus ex machina. They each have limited knowledge, as do the AIs, as do we the readers, and Bear handles these deftly, gradually unfolding a comprehensive picture of what is happening throughout the (enormous, interstellar!) spaceship, as well as throughout the ship's remaining infosphere, and at a social and interpersonal level (and even internal, psychological level) with and between the characters. It is self-aware without being trite, or exploiting dramatic irony, but readily acknowledging the various points of the book that are internally consistent, but nonsensical to the reader, for example (p. 150):
Primogeniture is a stupid way to run a starship.

This post's theme word is ruction, "an insurrection" or "a disorderly quarrel." A starship ruction is no small thing, mere "mutiny" is an insufficient descriptor.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Company cars as status symbol

Metafilter pointed me to a BBC documentary with a series of interviews with men, apparently travelling salesman, who talk about their [company-provided] cars, and the status they display, and empower, in situations of driving, and sales, and society. The power of conformity. Some of them explicitly mention wanting specific cars in order to exhibit a certain status, and others abhor those cars for being associated with that same status (because they want to be recognized as higher-status).

I found that I kept waiting for the punchline. It sounded so stereotypically consumerist, so hyperbolically, purely brand-oriented, that I was looking for winks to the camera. Modern insincerity.  (Or at least an explicit brand tie-in --- they relentlessly repeat the brand names and features and status --- apparently tie-ins are modern, too.) But it seems irony is a twenty-teens modernity, because these interviewees don't care about alienating the viewer. They frankly discuss the importance of cars-as-status-symbols in their lives in a way that I find appalling.

For example:

  • One guy changed his car from the standard car that went with his job to something cheaper and more fuel-efficient, for reasons of economy: "What a disaster that was. My business failed, and I lost a lot of money, I lost my nice big house, and it was even a major factor in the breakup of my marriage." @44m30s Subsequently, he got a new job, which came with a Mercedes, and was trying to "rebuild" his life.
  • Regarding different models: "The big difference between a GL and a GL-A is the A. Because the A stands for: I am bloody brilliant, I am quicker than you on the road. It is an extension of a man's ego. ... an A badge on the back, it means, 'I've got status,' that's what it means."
  • On working up the corporate ladder in order to obtain a better car: "I'll die! If I have to work until I sweat blood and die, I'll get one of them." @31m

It's weird to hear people talk so earnestly about these markers of social/consumption status that are all (1) no longer relevant, and (2) so outstripped by today's markers. All the cars they are driving are old and unremarkable now --- clinging to them seems quaint. But of course we have modern equivalents (flashy smartphones come to mind) which will look just as dated to future critics. And as arrogant and insufferably classist as these interviewees sound, we produce much more abhorrent media in much greater volumes to repulse our future descendents (certain reality TV, youtube channels, vine ephemera, and whatever the latest thing is... micro-vine? snapchat?).

Part of me is worried that I am disdainful of these rapacious car-drivers because I think myself better than them, which is just as icky. I want to be incomparable to them. I don't have a job as a salesman, I don't worry about the letters on the backs of cars that indicate the specific luxury options. I reassure myself that possessing and identifying this worry means I don't actually compare myself to them, but then of course if I need reassurance it's because we are comparable. And so on. It's a vicious mental cycle, the sort of thing that reading too much LessWrong all at once can induce.

Basically they're all just signalling, which I am fine with. It seems like it should mean nothing, but then again, it means something precisely because they all care so much. Repeatedly the men talk about how they are more courteous on the highway to cars that outrank them, and how they spurn cars that are inferior. It seems a strictly enforced hierarchy, then: "better" cars pass ("You're just acknowledging that he's got more power than you." --- I think he means physical engine power, but of course it seems to be social power, too), and "worse" cars are not allowed to pass ("... his attempt at overtaking me has failed, and that's a success." 23m20s).

What I have condensed from LessWrong, SlateStarCodex, and elsewhere on the intellectually-self-improving, hyper-literate internet, is that identifying signaling is useful in finding a way to interact with the system that works towards your own goals, or helps reveal underlying truths. So, as with all slightly unpleasant experiences, I can perhaps focus on a positive takeaway --- learning by contrast --- from this variously unpleasant, infuriating, and unsettling clip.

Spoiler alert: there never was a punchline.

This post's theme word is parping "that makes a honking sound." Via Miéville's Kraken, p.257. I thought it was a tuba, but the unusual parping sound originated from a roadside dispute between cars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Yule logs

The celebratory Christmas-themed rolled, frosted cake is called a "buche de noël", a Yule log.  
It comes in many flavors, sizes, colors, and options.
It is a fancier, dressed-up, high-quality Twinkie. (I'm guessing. I've never actually tried one, except maybe in French class in the US, so that barely counts.)
The tiny sizes are called "buchettes", loglettes.

This post's theme word is yare, "easily maneuverable, nimble," or "ready, prepared." The logs for Yule are yare. Yare Yule logs, come and get 'em!

An utterly perfect day

The day is clear and crisp, like an autumnal day, full of promise and energy.
The sky is full of clouds that are worthy of a fresco.
The light is diffuse, bright, soft, forgiving.
The weather, location, pressure, local cuisine --- it is all in wonderful synergy today. I feel ready to have my portrait painted, or to head an army and invade a neighboring country. I could levy a new tax, or break with the Pope. But probably this is a surfeit of reading historical novels.

This post's theme word is mondegreen, "a word or phrase resulting from mishearing a word or phrase, especially in song lyrics." Today is a perfect day to dance through the streets and belt pop mondegreens, leaving a wake of bemused locals.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Cue the pipe organ

The nighttime lighting on this church's gothic façade is dramatic. It nearly evokes lightning from the sky, except that it was cold and clear tonight, and simply pleasant all-around.
The Paroisse Saint-Eustache, near Les Halles.
I imagine the gargoyles frolicking in this junglegym long after all humans have gone to sleep.

This post's theme word is marmoreal, "resembling marble or a marble statue, as in smoothness, whiteness, hardness, coldness, or aloofness." The marmoreal rooftop inhabitants unfold their slow, alien lives just above our heads.

Christmas markets

Living in Europe is living in exotic lands, which oscillate between the boring quotidian and the fascinatingly foreign. Markets in the street? Bizarre, and probably an impediment to free circulation in my home zone. But here, a normal seasonal thing, as if the seasons still drove the production of agricultural products. As if we lived before electricity and refrigeration and quick, cheap transport.

But who can argue with this pile of cheeses?
The green, blue, and pink ones are worrisome.
"Look at these bountiful piles!" is the theme of the displays. As usual, all goods are sequestered by type, and each merchant has one extremely narrow specialty. This contributes to the quaint dissonance, the romantic peculiarity of being an immigrant.
Piles and piles, plus hanging from the roof.
The overall winter holiday cheer here is engaging and fun, with a usual French focus on the edible and drinkable delights. Roasted chestnuts, mulled cider and wine, cheeses and meats, waffles and crêpes. An entire hidden alley where children could sneak away to see animatronic animals (including that ever-present Christmas Octopus!) and a complementary alley where adults could sneak away to taste champagne and sautéed mushrooms. And of course, everywhere candy, interspersed with all other goods. It's a sugary season, for the eyes and tastebuds alike.

This post's theme word is decorticate, "to remove the outer layer, such as the bark, rind, husk, etc." Most preserved winter foods must be decorticated before mastication, ingestion, and digestion.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: n+1 (again)

I laughed aloud at Caity Weaver's summary of the movie:
You might be thinking, “Surely the weapon has shields, to protect it from such an attack?” Yes, Shirley, the weapon does have shields to protect it from such an attack. Here’s the gang’s plan for disabling them: “We’ll disable the shields!” It works.

This post's theme word is nestor, "a wise old man." The movie suffered a curious paucity of nestors.

Friday, December 18, 2015


This very pleasing fruit display used mirrors and standard-size rectangular boxes.
The mirror symmetry is part of the pleasing visual aspect, as well as the variety of colors and the roundness of the apples. I like that the mirrors and shelves are both angled, so that the reflected image is showing a side of the fruit not visible from the front.

Apples, apples, apples.

As seen in Lausanne, Switzerland.

This post's theme word is tegular, "relating to, resembling, or arranged like tiles." The tegular apple crates filled the shelf and my view.

Star Wars: n+1

No spoilers: It was cute, with the expected (large) amount of fan-service, call-backs, and foreshadowing of predictable events. The villain was actually villainous, with depth of character and a psychological edge that was scary.

As always, the evil side made a series of logistical, engineering, and personnel choices that resulted in catastrophic failure of a[n ill-conceived] plan. I would be really surprised if this did not happen in a Star Wars movie. Also, explosions in space made noise.

I predict that rolling robots will be a popular toy in the upcoming months.

I shared the audience with several storm troopers and one wookie. They did not fight where I could see. No jedi, at least not that I could tell, but I guess they could be disguised as normal people.

This post's theme word is anserine, "of or relating to a goose; silly, stupid." Yet another anserine evil plan thwarted!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Santa's path

For the convenience and delight of local children, Santa's appearances on the Champs Elysées are prescheduled and at a fixed location.
He gets a boost up to the sleigh (by ladder/elevator scaffollding), and then traverses the sky, pulled by reindeer (and rigging). For maybe 20 meters. Then he disembarks and descends, and probably meets his adoring fanbase. I didn't stick around for the crowds at the appointed time and place.

I did think about what kind of toy-workshop capers could be executed in the designated absence of the boss.

This post's theme word is agrement, "formal approval, especially one given by a country to the proposed diplomat from another country," or "grace notes: notes applied as an embellishment on a piece of music." Mr. S. Claus received his agrement and entry visa to France in early December.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The End of the Sentence

The End of the Sentence is a novella by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard. It's a mystery, suspense, horror sort of story, where the tension rises because vague warnings are sort of menacing, and the psychological tenor of the writing suggests the horror of the unknown. It's fear-porn, for those who like the titillation of the uncanny.

I read it because I sometimes just follow recommendations from I should know better. The uncanny and unknown doesn't titillate me; it makes me want to set up a falsifiable hypothesis and a series of experiments. It makes me want to find out what exactly is going on; I don't enjoy wallowing in the feeling of mystery and uncertainty. Ominous, unknown monsters are only as scary as your mind can scare itself; my mind is much more interested in the known monsters. Given the choice between fearing a haunted house and fearing earthquakes, I'd certainly fear earthquakes more: they're real, they're measurable, they're hard to predict.

So obviously I wasn't crazy about this novella. It was well-written, but the morsels of information that were dangled as horror-bait just irritated me. Every vague allusion to "the crimes of my past" or "my guilt" just made me impatient for the reveal. What were the actual crimes? I can completely suspend judgement until I know; it seems useless to judge the narrator for how guilty he feels or acts.

I will admit, with some guilt of my own, that I read to the end in the hopes that the title would be a pun, and that the "end of the sentence" would be the end of an actual, verbal sentence, and not just the end of a jail term.

My bad.

This post's theme word is flagitious, "extremely wicked or criminal." The flagitious behavior was duly punished.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Friday night III: La Voix Humaine

La Voix Humaine is an opera for one voice. Alone. I have never encountered such a thing, but this was curious and fascinating and jarring. The production I saw featured very stark scenery --- an ornately tiled floor and a single white sofa --- and a straight-overhead camera view, which was projected on the backdrop. This gave an unsettling double-view of Barbara Hannigan in the role of "Elle" (simply: Her), who threw her body across the stage in sprawling and unusual configurations.

The opera's premise is that She is talking on the phone, and so at first it seems natural, and intimate, that we see Her sprawl on the floor, drape herself across the sofa, lunge, and flop as one does when engaged in a protracted phone call, meandering across the stage as the topic of conversation wanders. The doubled view, once from the front and once from squarely above, makes the single performer fill the space; her every gesture seems significant, and the way her limbs trail behind her voice, aligning with patterns in the floor-tiles one moment and then skewing disorderly across them the next.

The music is dissonant and bizarre, which pretty accurately reflects the way it feels to hear only one half of a not-particularly-discursive intimate phone call. This discomfort is enhanced by the frequent breaks where the call is interrupted or dropped, and has to be re-established; the phone rings, the orchestra beeps and plucks. I never really felt like any songs happened, just a sort of long series of short bursts of tones and phrases, although I leave this categorization to the musical experts.

It was great. The staging of this production gradually suggests, and then strongly suggests, and then outright reveals, that She is an unreliable narrator --- even though we are watching her, as she describes her actions, there is a weirdly discordant process happening. I found it very engaging, but I was also nervous the entire time, faintly on edge about what would happen. Continually reevaluating what happened earlier, what she said, what it sounded like, how she moved, and comparing with my current version of events. The music definitely reinforced this tension. The Wikipedia plot summary does not reflect the plot of the version I saw; this production used the same libretto, but told a much darker story with a definite conclusion.

I don't want to spoil it, because I hold unreliable narrators in great esteem. I enjoyed watching it once, but I don't have any particular desire to watch it again; too tense.

This post's theme word logomarchy, "a dispute about words," or "a battle fought with words." Beware the telephonic logomarchy.

Friday night II: Le Château de Barbe-Bleue

Bluebeard's Castle struck me as darkly humorous, like a twisted gothic take on an already-perverse Gorey story. Let me summarize the plot (spoiler alert):

Bluebeard brings his love, Judith, back to his castle for the first time. She loves him dearly. (A pause to note: Ekaterina Gubanov's voice was seductive, luscious, dark, complex. Fantastic. Compelling.) But his castle is so dark! Won't he give her a key to open some rooms, and let in the light? Bluebeard reluctantly gives her a key: to the dungeon, it turns out, which is full of chains and torture implements and they are covered and dripping with blood. Very shocking, but Judith soon begs Bluebeard for another key, to air out his dim and shady castle, and sings of her love for him as motive.

The next key opens the armoury, where all his weapons are ranked and stored, but every blade is stained with blood, which pools on the floor and is rusting everything. Pretty bad housekeeping. Judith may sing beautifully and her love is very compelling, but she does not see where this is heading, and asks for more keys. Apparently each door has its own key in this castle, and Bluebeard is something of a security nut, although the ease with which he metes out his keys to Judith suggests that he has, at best, intermittent relationship boundary issues.

Judith gets three more keys, having assured Bluebeard of her very strong love and her aversion to the dark and forbidding atmosphere in the castle. In a turn of events, the next key opens the jewel-house, full of ornate jewelry, but as Judith tries it on she finds that all of the jewelry is coated in blood. Unsettling. She pauses, but Bluebeard is getting into the reluctant swing of things and opens the next door: surprise! It opens onto a garden; at least one audience member is confused by the geometry of space in Bluebeard's domain, further obfuscated by the very abstract staging (Krzysztof Warlikowski) and direction (Esa-Pekka Salonen) which has the rooms, each a transparent fishtank-style chamber, sliding across the stage on rails so that they semi-obscure each other. The pool of blood extends over more than one room's floor, and when the rooms line up the edges of the blood match; it is a gruesome puzzle, but Judith can't put it together. Maybe the fifth balcony's elevation gave me a perspective she lacks. Literally.

A garden is nice, though, right? Yes, full of lovely flowers --- but they are [let's all say it together!] bathed in blood! Bluebeard has unorthodox horticultural practices, to say the least, sanguinely watering his blooming plants. Bluebeard proceeds to open the next door, which reveals a vista, stretching over all Bluebeard's holdings: lands stretch away from the window (or balcony? again, geometry is not a strong point here), and Judith is astonished at their beauty. At last, the castle is open and airy, well-lit.

That's not so bad, you think, and there's not a single thing on the balcony that is drenched in blood! Maybe Bluebeard's housekeeping is not so atrocious. Right. But wrong. Clouds scudding across the sky cast blood-red shadows over it all, and again the music and Judith's mood turn sour and foreboding. She sings of her fear, but then also... her love? and she demands more keys; no room can be left locked to her. One gets the sense that, as with many operas, there is a belabored metaphor here; apparently, the composer-libretticist duo had some nagging romantic relationships, and felt that women demanded access to every corner of a man's heart. If I were writing an essay, that is the metaphor I'd stick with, as it is heavy and obvious; essay details would weave in and out of musical terminology and staging, adding up subtleties to reinforce whatever particular point I fixed on as the focus of the essay.

But this is no essay; welcome to blogging, where text has less structure, unclear intent, and the writer's voice can be boldly first-person! (Look at how atrociously I break my paragraphs and break into my narrative.) I was satisfied with Bluebeard's dark castle, but Judith demanded more keys, and to fling open all the doors. Bluebeard insisted that this was as light as the castle would get, which nearly caused me to emit an uncultured guffaw: why did he have her start with the dungeon and armoury, then? And surely he knew that they were blood-splattered. He wasn't surprised by it.

By and by, Judith and her persistent, yet fearful, yet determined, yet cautious love wheedle another key from Bluebeard. The stage was filling with rooms, so I got the sense this had to be close to the end; little physical or emotional space remained. Behold! A new room rolled out, and not a single thing in it was bloody. Quelle surprise! Instead, it contained a mute child and a lake of tears. (Only the lake is mentioned in the opera, so the eerie child must have been a production detail.) Bluebeard is super-sad about this and asks Judith to please not ask him any questions. She gets upset and takes off the bloody jewelry she is still wearing from before. This audience member has a momentary reflection that some relationships are just really, really ill-fated.

Judith obeys his request, kind of, though she is still persistent in an indefinite way. She keeps cajoling and eventually obtains a key, definitely the last, which Bluebeard gives her but begs her not to use. She immediately uses it; so much for feminine fidelity and obedience, and her love having any sway over her actions.

To everyone's great surprise, the final door does not conceal the corpses which produced the blood used as (apparently) household decoration throughout the castle. Instead, it reveals three inexplicably-living women, Bluebeard-the-polygamist's current wives. He sings a consummately creepy song about how great they all are, praising each one specifically and showing her off to Judith, before forcing Judith to put the bloody jewelry back on and join them in the wife-prison-room.

The end.

Based on this opera alone, aliens would form a bleak expectation of the relations between human men and women. And also of human interior decorating. But our musical taste is excellent.

This post's theme word is avulse, "to pull off or tear away." The repulsed woman avulsed the gorey jewelry.

Friday night I: Palais Garnier

I live a life of sumptuous luxury. (Alternating with canny poverty, so that it all averages out.) Last night was a brief dart into the extravagant, rococo Palace Garnier to see a double-feature opera, Bluebeard's Cast-Bleue and La Voix humaine.
Palace Garnier's entrance hall is a masterwork of frothy carvings and trompe l'oeil paintings imitating the same.
Built for the opera, as a stage and centerpiece to impress audiences, with the surrounding blocks and roads shaped to make way for it, Palace Garnier is extremely palatial, though it was never a royal home. The lights are now electric but give a decent impression of dim, warm gas-lights.
This is the zone where fancy alcohol is offered beforehand and during intermission. I think the Phantom of the Opera lives in this wing somewhere.
The curtains are real, but there are also painted-on curtains. Real windows, and painted. Real arches, and fake. The sky is real, but the ceiling blocks it with a painted sky; it is always sunny, with fluffy clouds, inside the opera hall. Real cherubs, real half-naked or all-naked nymphs, flitting around the ceiling like birds trapped in a train station. I took some mandatory blurry, ill-lit selfies [not pictured here].
Nimble, pert women --- mostly naked, some bewinged --- crowd about the corners of the ceiling, as if searching for the source of the heavenly music.
If rococo ever makes a comeback, I will gladly count myself among its devoted followers. Modern buildings' off-white walls and grey architectural features, the devotion to sheer flat surfaces and huge reflective windows, forces far too much introspection and beggars the imagination, offering no fodder for daydreams. Much better to beggar the purse, I think, in gilding intricate details so hidden in the ceiling that they are invisible from the floor.
An aura of elegance and refinement is subtly and unsubtly reinforced by the Louis XIV-style gilding of anything stationary.
The music was lush and vibrant, although it did not match the rococo theater, and the set and direction was minimalist, stark, and unsettling. Even in the nosebleed seats, where knees and shoulders are jostled together and there are no aisles, it was a wondrous spectacle to behold. (Plus, we were close enough to the ceiling to count the feathers on cherubs' wings and wonder if the sconce-supporting nude maidens' metal arms ever tire.)

This post's theme word is cosset, "to fondle, caress, pet, indulge, pamper." The cossetting dark embraced the audience of the opera house.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

His Dark Materials

Oceans are wide and crossing them --- even in fast airplanes --- takes time. The time is easily passed in reading and worrying about blood clots forming in stationary extremities. This blog post will focus on the former.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is a trilogy of novels, and in retrospect I'm pretty sure they are categorized as "young adult" novels, not only because the protagonist(s) are 11-13ish children/pupating humans, but also because of the general attitude demonstrated in the books. I read these books first in high school, and I remember enjoying them immensely; I revisited them in college, when I remember no distinct pleasure; and I reread them just now, and found them irritating. So it seems I've aged out of the target demographic for this, and into an age and decrepitude where I can hobble onto my lawn and shout at the upstart youngsters whilst waving my fist (cane optional) in the air.

Book one, The Golden Compass, features a young girl who is entitled, naive, stubborn, not at all sympathetic. Interesting things happen around her and she actively ignores them. She is afflicted with a cruelly pervasive and powerful case of Protagonist Syndrome, whereby no venture of hers can fail and every incident for which she is present --- even accidentally, even peripherally --- ends up revolving around her actions. She is absolutely crucial (in book 3 this persists even when she is drugged unconscious for several weeks, which beggars the imagination). She accidentally sets off on a quest, and accidentally accomplishes it, and then also accidentally accomplishes a side quest wherein she deposes a king and installs a new one, basically just as something to do to fill an afternoon. Whenever she lingers around adults long enough to hear Portentous Conversation, it is heavily laden with foreshadowing. Explicitly:
"... this child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she's just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can't change?" (p. 235)
As per the title, she is recklessly entrusted with the care of a magical "compass", a device which only she can read, and which knows all truths in the universe. It is my sober adult displeasure that she doesn't ask whether P=NP.

Book two, The Subtle Knife, adds to the narrative a young boy. He is actually quite sympathetic, and savvy, and intelligent, and observant, and reasonable in his consideration of choices and actions. It also introduces a grown woman, an ex-nun-turned-experimental-physics-professor (explain that career path, wheedles the reality-check in the back of my mind). The boy receives the titular knife, which is a magical knife (of course --- welcome to the genre of fantasy, The Only One of its Kind, which can cut portals to parallel universes. And is controlled with feelings, because: fantasy.

Book three, The Amber Spyglass, gives the titular (and magical!) object to the physicist, since she is the only main character without a magical device. Like a real scientist, she has to build her tool herself. This is essentially the only part of the book that makes any sense. In the rest of the book, the children run rampant across the author's imagination, swapping between parallel universes at the drop of a hat, having dream-visions which are real, face-to-face meeting big-g God (and witnessing his death, spoiler alert), visiting the afterlife/underworld/land of the dead (which this mythos constructs as simply another parallel universe, somehow).

I ended up liking the boy a lot more than I remembered. And the scientist lady. And what I pieced together, as an adult reader who tore through the books voraciously and was not distracted by the coming-of-age emotional tugs, was that dark matter are particles of consciousness which is misconstrued (? maybe) as original sin in the Catholic tradition. Somehow, sentient, verbal, apparently-free-will-possessing creatures do not possess consciousness in the same way; only humans are special, only humans have souls (somehow also attributable to dark matter!) and ghosts and an afterlife (in a parallel dimension, remember!). Global warming is also wrapped up in the book's proffered explanation of dark matter, as are dementia and obsessive-compulsive disorders. As is evolution, apparently the result of messing about with dark matter, and also of a grudge-match between angels, who, yes, are real.

I think the story works, emotionally, as a coming-of-age story, even though I'm not sure what lessons the protagonist learns other than "growing up is hard and full of challenges, but I can never fail!"

As a piece of coherent fiction, it fails. Its universe(s) are slapdash, a little bit of frankly whatever the plot needed to stay interesting in this chapter, cliffhangers that turn out to be inconsequential, powerful resources which are not called on to solve problems until the last possible instant before oblivion, etc. We learn that angels are real, and pervasively present, and can interact with humans and transmit information faster-than-light. (A good part of books 2 and 3 involves various parties searching for the protagonist, often on behalf of the omnipotent angels, which makes no sense whatsoever.) This should make essentially the entire plot trivial, all problems easy to solve, all difficulties tractable.

I've aged out of this series, I suppose, and into the age where I can endlessly read on the topic of information transmission in WWII, which is relevant, compelling, and scientifically accurate. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for fantasy.

This post's theme word is torpid, "lethargic, apathetic, dormant, benumbed." "The two female Scholars sat up very slightly, though their dæmons, either well behaved or torpid, did no more than flick their eyes at each other." (p. 59)