Sunday, January 31, 2016

January retroblog roundup

I am getting better at posting content, although of course the date-stamps and quality of the content remain quite variable. Bah! humbug. This activity is for me anyway; I'm not making any ad revenue, I'm not getting any writing contracts, I'm just participating in the social media-o-drome (alternately: blagoweb) by sharing some content. I am the worldwide expert at me, so this is your best site for on-the-ground reportage from my real life.

Welcome, internet.

This month, we relived these exciting moments of the past:
And also we revisited this media, consumed and now mulled over for some time:

I also declared personal book-blogging bankruptcy, and so I'm now only trying to blog things I've read since 2016 began, but right when I finish them (plus sometimes a day or so to think about it). I'm using Beeminder to help with this. We'll see how it goes.

This post's theme word has been sitting in my theme-words queue for awhile: gamp, "a large umbrella." There goes that tramp with a gamp!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Dark Vador

Some translations are inexplicable. I thought, foolishly I now see, that Darth Vader was a fictional character whose two-word referent was... entirely invented. Apparently not, since it was translated in the French version of all Star Wars stuff as "Dark Vador."
The venerable Louvre is graced with this poster... and exhibit!
"Mythes fondateurs: D'Hercule à Dark Vador"
Darth --> Dark? "Dark" is a word in English, so the fact that this is the French translation of "Darth" is especially backwards. Also, I thought "Darth" was a sort of honorific or title; "Dark" is neither of those things.

Vader --> Vador? I guess the vowel swap makes it easier to pronounce in French. This is now my preferred pronunciation, heavy on the final rolled 'r'.

This post's theme word is ullage, "the amount of liquor by which a cask or bottle falls short of being quite full." There's a certain intangible ullage in that translation.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Elizabeth Bear's generation-ship saga continues with Sanction. I really disliked this book. Maybe because I loved the first book so much. I had high hopes for the excitement, and drama, and the sheer imagination inherent in the established setting/characters/history, and this book completely failed to deliver on every possible front.

Extreme spoilers below the break.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sexual harrassment in academia

This post on sexual harrassment as a long con in academia is worth a signal boost.
As such, defeating sexual harassment... will require a fundamental restructuring of the way we do business, and a reeducation of our field—all of us—in matters related to the culture of science and academe. This will not be easy because our culture fosters a deep distrust and even hostility toward the "soft sciences" such as sociology and psychology that provide us with the best tools for addressing our pervasive inequities. But if we are truly interested in a meritocratic scientific community that makes full use of its talent pool to understand the Universe, we'll see this as a worthwhile investment. Until we do, there will be more stories filling more inboxes as we collectively shoot ourselves in the feet.
Thank you to the author, who used his male privilege to make a stink and write a post that would have received worse internet harassment, dismissal, and personal criticism if it had come from a woman.

This post's theme word is roue, "a debauched man, especially an elderly man from a wealthy or aristocratic family." The academic roue was booted in a rout!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Bizarre expressionless mannequins

Paris storefront windows put up special Christmas-themed displays. Lots of what you expect: snow, pine trees, something cartoonish or childish.

But this one.

This one, I cannot fathom.
Are the women greeting the new year?
Why are they dressed only in giant bows and party hats? Why are their limbs strangely elongated and distorted? Is this social commentary on the unrealism of mannequins, or on the way women must present themselves, bundled, primped, and covered in sparkles, to be glamorous in our society?
Your interpretations welcome in the comments below.

This post's theme word is hiemal, "of or relating to winter." Behold, the inscrutable hiemal display!

Musée d'Orsay en fête

I saw a concert at the Musée d'Orsay last night as part of a weekend-long celebration. The music was a nice selection --- all in French, even the librettos usually performed in Italian --- and the frission of being in the museum after hours, of nestling in amongst the statuary to listen to music, was very pleasant. The acoustics fulfilled exactly the expectations of a refitted train station; the soaring ceiling, so open to light and space for visually-experienced art, simply sucked up a lot of the sound. What sound remained was bounced around in off-beat echoes. Also, some of the stage lights were pointed directly at the crowd, I guess so that the glare-induced headaches would distract from the echoing cavern.

An interesting experience.

An unconventional use atop an unconventional use of a train station.
HT: R, who found this event, suggested attendance, and accompanied me. We had fun.

This post's theme word is lyceum, "a lecture hall or an institution that provides public lectures, discussions, concerts, etc." Each lyceum has its own acoustic profile, suitable to certain activities above others.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Parisian winter, hot and cold

Let's take a moment to appreciate Parisian winter. It is mid-January, and currently raining. Paris is warm and tropical --- compare with the northeast habitable parts of North America, where winter certainly goes below freezing, and includes snow, blizzards, scraping ice off the car, shoveling the driveway, bundling up outside. This comparative heat has the side effect that Parisian residences are not properly insulated for cold weather. Those beautiful, wide-swinging windows have no storms, and are often just a single pane of glass.

The consequence? Paris winter feels cold.

Especially in my poverty garret, with no apartment to insulate me above, the heat escapes with a ferocity that can be felt on the skin: stand still, and the window side of your body will be noticeably colder. The thermometer registers 50-55F (10-12C) as the resting temperature, which is a little too cold to be really comfortable. The available heating option is electric, which is (1) not very efficient, and (2) expensive. Combine these with (3) it takes about 3 hours to heat up, and only 1 hour to lose the heat, and the result is what a positive attitude might term "a quaint return to historical realities". I read about radiant heating. I sometimes wear a hat indoors.

I have used insulating tape to firmly close the gaps around the window frames, and block the most egregious and palpable wind-whistling suspects. But there's only so much this stopgap measure can gain me. The walls are cold, about which I can't really do anything. I can see how thin they are, there's no air buffer in there, or any real insulation. They keep birds out.

This past week the temperature has dropped below freezing, unusual for Paris. I am thankful for whatever heat is being radiated through the walls and floor from my neighbors, and kept me this handful of degrees above the outdoor temperature. Cooking helps heat up the tiny space, too, as does simply inhabiting it. By far the cheapest way to heat the space is to purchase chemical energy stored in digestion-accessible calories, eat it, and generate the heat using my body.

But inhabiting the space has other side-effects. It adds both heat and humidity to the air, and when the temperature drops outside, this forms condensation.
Morning condensation.
I awake, I steel myself to emerge from my sleeping cocoon, and I squeegee my sleeping breath off the windows. This is Paris in January. Subjectively I am experiencing more cold than I ever did in North America. I remember fondly the days when I lived in a city which had a legal mandate for the minimum winter temperature landlords must provide. One day I'll look back on the bread and cheese paradise of my current life, and be nostalgic for window-squeegeeing.

This post's theme word is nesh, "afraid of the cold." Uninsulated attics are not for the nesh.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


Claire North is an author and, I think, should be a legally controlled substance. The novel Touch is all-encompassingly good. Don't pick it up unless you have a chunk of unallotted time, because once you begin to read you may not be able to stop reading.

The fantasy element of Touch is that some people --- some consciousnesses --- can transfer from person to person via physical contact. This makes those consciousnesses effectively immortal, given the prevalence of hospital-bed goodbye kisses, emergency first responders, and their own clever contrivances not to be stranded alone at death.  (The action scenes thus enabled have a number of unusual elements layered over the usual dramatic side-switching reveal, as one might imagine.) There are many such consciousnesses, and they sometimes meet, and they of course become intimately entangled in the lives of people they inhabit.

Like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, this book seamlessly blended hook into explanation-of-the-gimmick into plot-development. The writing is solid, it caught my attention, and the plot and characters and meta-characters were fascinating. I wanted to know what happened! --- and not in the artificial Da Vinci Code sort of way. There are no cheap tricks here.

Highly recommended.

[Side note: Surprisingly little discussion or consideration of gender identity, class politics, etc., for a book in which these things are fluid and also by choice. Lots of discussion of degenerative joint pain in knees and hands. Arthritis is a much bigger deal than womanhood.]

This post's theme word is theurgy, "a system of magic to procure communication with beneficent spirits". Were you talking with that theurgic salesman?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland --- For a Little While

Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland --- For a Little While is a delightful prequel to her other Fairyland novels. It tells the story of a girl who slips into Fairyland --- as so many storybook-children seem to --- and attempts to right the governmental problems they are having. Why are distant fantasy realms always suffering under oppressive monarchs? This is where the parallels to traditional fairytales end. Valente's Fairyland delightfully upsets the fairy status quo, and reading it is like the joy and wobbly experience of first reading Alice in Wonderland.

The titular girl is one protagonist Mallow, who is not prone to the usual protagonist's follies: "I am a practical girl, and a life is only so long. It should be spent in as much peace and good eating and good reading as possible and no undue excitement." Most protagonists are a bit silly or dense as plot motivation, but Mallow can simply recognize that "the story had to start sooner or later. I had only hoped it would be a little later, and I could rest for another spring in my library. ... But there's no practice like real living, and anyway it's mandatory." So clearly the nonsense situations that befuddled Lewis Carroll's Alice will be no obstacle to this modern post-Alice protagonist. A girl who knows what she wants and says so, acts in her own interest, is neither shy nor retiring (yet wants to peacefully read on her own, thank you very much) --- a heroine after my own heart. Mallow, and the entire story, is bait for bookish, practical types --- exactly the sort of person who would read the lengthy expository title and begin to read at all. (Valente is a pied piper of readers; I'd follow her out of town, dancing merrily.)

This modern narrative awareness is lovely, delightful, like a brain tickle.
The capital of Fairyland has always been accustomed to moving however it pleased, drifting across glaciers or beaches or long, wheat-filled meadows. It moved at the need and pace of narrative, being a Fairy city and thus always sharply aware of where it stood in relation to every story unfolding in Fairyland at every moment.

A quick, whimsical read. Recommended. (The entire thing is online at the link above!)

This post's theme word is concinnity, "a harmonious arrangement of various parts." Fairyland's parts stand in perfect verbal, geographical, and narrative concinnity with each other.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Online dating, frankly

Online dating seems to encourage a kind of window-shopping, where the process is glorified without any acknowledgement or progress towards its ultimate goal. And let's not forget the commodification --- most dating websites are incentivized to keep you on the site, searching and dating, instead of getting you out into the world to meet people and spend time with them. Because then you spend less time looking at their ads!

If you think too hard about this, you will realize that your main function on this planet is to look at, and occasionally click on, advertisements. This is depressing and beside the point, today, so let's set it off to the side -- maybe a few meters beside this point --- and try not to catch it in our peripheral (mental) vision.[1]

I confess that I am a woman on an online dating website. Wait, wait, don't message me yet! Actually, by reading up to the third paragraph, you are already ahead of 90% of all people I interact with online. Congrats! To boost yourself to the top of the heap, it is necessary to have that certain je ne sais quoi. Except that of course I do know what it is. Recently I received some stellar introductory verbal salvos, outstanding for quality.

Example the first opened with a long, mathematically sound musing on the relationship of correlation and causation, as well as a testable hypothesis about correlation causing causation. The message included the sentence: "And thus, we enter the realm of the mad gods." No reference was made to my physical appearance. (The closest they got was a game-theoretical analysis, with the interjection "your behaviour actually reinforces the statistical correlation.") Stellar. A+. Five stars, would message again. (I replied.)

Epistolary author the second began with a lengthy and verbose and self-aware description of how the resplendent majesty of my profile knocked them breathless and wordless. They went on to make several "deep cuts" references and demonstrate intellect and reflective thought capabilities. Again, no reference was made to my appearance, or nationality [2], or sexual appetite. (I mention these things as they are the most frequent topics of very, very bad messages.) Nice! Funny, erudite, and well-executed.

The third victim exposed here to infamy opened their profile with, "The problem with Internet dating's frictionless market is..." Who wouldn't fall for that? --- I ask in all nerdiness.

What have we learned? I appreciate fluency in English and good writing skills. I anti-appreciate references to my physical appearance. Bonus points are earned for sustaining message quality over a nontrivial duration.

I'm sharing to amuse you, the internet, and because these messages were such high-quality that I feel greedy keeping them to myself. May you all have as promising and engaging correspondents in the new year!

This post's theme word is duopsony, "a market condition in which there are only two buyers, thus exerting great influence on price." The speed-dating night flopped because of uneven gender balance and resultant duopsony.

[1] My thoughts have footnotes and asides and alternate phrasings branching out of them, a possible symptom of too much David Foster Wallace and Tristram Shandy.

[2] I here confess that the post title is a badly-conceived pun on dating in Paris. No apologies, but we shall discuss this no further.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Eisenberg Constant

Eugene Egner's The Eisenberg Constant is a short story about a man who has paid to live in a fixed loop of time, and who is experiencing some bugs in his home installation. The story is quite simple: he waits three days until a technician can make a house call to troubleshoot the problems. It's also complicated --- since he is familiar with his fixed one-week loop, while he waits he wanders around, noting differences from the usual functionality and trying to stay sane and coherent, while time jumps and judders around him. It's a delightfully Philip K. Dick-ian story, which doesn't loop itself in the usual manner of time travel stories... after all, the apparatus is experiencing bugs!

I rate this story as suitable for a transoceanic plane ride and the accompanying musings about trusting your life to a piece of complicated machinery which completely encases your body for long periods of time.

This post's theme word is insalubrious, "detrimental to health". A survey of fictional literature produces the composite idea that time travel is insalubrious.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Alien husks

The ways in which the inhuman and transitory artificial environments of airports are decorated always suggest strange alien decision-making processes. What effect is the art supposed to have? To hold passengers' attention while they wait? To brighten their days? To give them something to contemplate other than the unusual fluid dynamics upon which heavier-than-air flight relies?

Mimi Bardagjy's sculptures call to mind alien husks, the discarded shells of deep-sea creatures, or abandoned multi-creature egg casings. They are lit in a clinical way that makes them seem creepy.
Close examination shows (and the description confirms) that the ridges and indentations are human-finger sized, so that the entire thing is like a tube of putty gripped in an impossibly-many-fingered fist.

They are creepy and delightful.

This post's theme word is calyculus, "a cup-shaped structure." Behold these discarded ceramic calyculuses!