Monday, February 29, 2016

February retrobloggin'

What a cool day. I'm probably out enjoying my extra day by leaping from stair to stair, bridge to bridge, tower to tower. Possibly singing at the same time.

I'm chugging along, with Beeminder on my tail. This month I reduced the number of outstanding draft posts substantially, from 382 to... whatever 382 minus the bullets below is. Hopefully I didn't lose too much ground to new draft posts this month.
Most of the retroblogging seems to be processing and sorting photos that I intended to blog, but got caught somewhere in my camera, on a memory card, or on a folder on my desktop. (Helpfully, the folder is called "sort these".) So here, enjoy these captured photons of my past.

This post's theme word is rhadamanthine, "inflexibly just or severe." The Beeminder penalties for defaulting on personal goals become increasingly rhadamanthine.

Friday, February 26, 2016


Peter Watts' Blindsight is a novel set ~75 years in the future, when advances in neurology and computing have merged to reshape all of human civilization into something only distantly recognizable from the present day. Many people semi-upload themselves and live entirely in a simultated "Heaven", enabled by post-scarcity redundancy of human labor. AIs and AI-like bio-machine hybrids exist, as well as quantum computers and engineering projects on the scale of "seat an energy collector just above the sun and shoot a beam of energy anywhere in the solar system."

So when the entire planet gets paparazzi-ed by alien probes, of course a ship of computer-augmented humans are shot off to see if they can make first contact with whatever's floating out there. Humans, and one genetically-reconstructed "vampire", a formerly-extinct humanoid predator who hunts humans and is allergic to right angles. The book is full of flavorful tidbits like this, keeping the reader off-balance: there's a sense of the riotous diversity of an actual future Earth hovering in the novel's background, weird and akilter and intellectually tempting and forever out of reach. (I went back over my highlighted sections and they seem spoilery or like punchline-giveaways, so

We readers are helped to bootstrap by the fact that the main character, Siri Keaton, is recognizably somewhere on the Autism spectrum (although I don't think it's ever put in those words), and spends a lot of time figuring out what people mean and putting them inside a meaningful context. Also, this is his job --- he is a professional interpreter-and-explainer of complicated ideas.

And there are a lot of very cool, complicated ideas.

The characters and plot are great but Watts' science background shines through the novel, piercing it with incandescent rays of awesome descriptions of how the brain works to build the experience of consciousness. Magnetism, evolution, genetics --- this book s a post-Halloween intellectual goodie bag. I don't want to spoil any bits, but I give it my wholehearted recommendation. The ending was so outrageously magnificent, so transcendently thought-provoking, that I completely forgot all the awesome bits at the beginning of the book. On rereading, the details surprised me and slid into place in the larger picture, invoking a level of delight that was missing on my first pass. (There were also some parts that sounded like dangerously stressed-to-breaking metaphors for science and complicated ideas, which on rereading are not actually being abused in the way I initially thought.)

I've started in on the sequel, Echopraxia.

This post's theme word is xerophyte, "a plant adapted to growing in a very dry or desert environment." Whales might have trouble understanding xerophytes, but they apply for research grants anyway.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Carol tells the story of a woman (the titular Carol) who meets another woman (Therese); they strike up a friendship and go on a car trip. This is the most boring possible plot summary, because I'm not sure how to convey the content of a film which was so deeply visual. Almost the entire plot was carried on in nonverbal facial cues. Carol and Therese chat, and converse, and sometimes just look at each other, and flirt; but the boundary between these things is extremely fluid. At times the camera itself felt like it was flirting, the particular way it framed part of someone's face to shape the way the audience was allowed to read their expression.

The film is a visual and emotional feast, leaving me sated and digesting (mentally).

The setting (1950s New York City) provides a delectable selection of high fashion: heels, crisp and luscious makeup, fur coats, gloves, strict and uniform social rules and roles which everyone ought to aspire to. And the story unfolds slowly, just as the protagonist is revealed slowly: Therese is quiet and reticent. The audience is shown how she moves through her day, but no voiceover frames our understanding. We must read her feelings and thoughts in how she moves, in how she dresses, in how she acts, in her expressions; we must squeeze every drop of substance from her infrequent utterances. This forced me enticed me to pay attention, and probably caused me to be more emotionally invested.

Which is the point of the film (IMHO).

The entire plot is carried on tiny glances, offhand gestures, the way one person walks or tilts her shoulders or touches her hair. It is a film which studies how people assemble themselves from a collection of tiny decisions, and responses, and unconscious tics. How and why are people attracted to each other? Why do they get along (when they do), and why do they clash (when they do)? How do personalities and attitudes change over time? It was fascinating to see characters behave differently in different settings. Carol makes a big impression as a decisive, in-charge, dominant figure, but later we get to see the range of her personality; she is sometimes emotionally weak, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes gives support and sometimes desperately needs it. Therese, when choosing to summarize herself, characterizes herself as "never able to say 'no'" and "I don't even know what I want to order for lunch", but elsewhere we see her repeatedly say no in the face of aggressive and relentless social pressure, and she definitely makes her own choices throughout the film, even if she chooses to hide them or frame them as part of someone else's story.

Inevitably, a story with so much framing involves a photographer. I think this sort of low-hanging metaphorical fruit is unavoidable to directors and writers. The metaphor was applied with a very light touch.

I really appreciated a chance to see women characters who are fully realized, who get to have many dimensions, strengths and weaknesses, who are not predictable, who make their own choices and live with their consequences and don't have to be wrapped up neatly at the end of the film. And I appreciated that for once --- for once! --- the male characters, even those with immense influence (as any realistic 1950s plot cannot avoid the fact that social structures give men power over women), are not allowed to elbow their way to the center of focus. The men were okay; some were despicable, some were sad, and as a nice boondoggle, all of them also got to be fully-dimensional characters.

Easily my  favorite summary came from Q., who said, "Some male reviewers described the movie as 'Two women stare at each other for two hours.' But I realized: it's a movie for people who can read faces."

This post's theme word is polylemma, "a choice involving multiple undesirable options." The specter of divorce is a polylemma hanging ominously over Carol.

Friday, February 19, 2016

On social niceties

During this lull in my professional life while I wait to hear from job applications, I am spending some extra non-research mental cycles going on dates. Other people might just say "I was lonely" but my self-rationalization has long since surpassed such a simply summarized state. Welcome, this is my blog, have we met?

A frequent remark I hear is, "I felt so natural and relaxed around you! Like I could just be myself." This comes, I think, with an subtext (conveyed by delivery, framing, nonverbal cues, etc.) of "this was so special and unusual, we really got along and are a good match!" If this were a movie,it would cue some emotional, peppy music the viewers would be swept into a montage of cutesy date things: riding the merry-go-round, pointing at something together off the Eiffel Tower, sipping drinks at a café while illuminated by the soft glow of sunset. I'm pretty sure it is intended as a compliment to me.

But what I hear is, "You were successful in your cognitive and emotional labor to set me at ease, and I am completely unaware of how much effort goes into social niceties! I think everything just happens."

Because of course we had an easy casual conversation. I worked hard to make it so. Rather than tap my feet, or shift uncomfortably, or fail to make eye contact, I redirected my anxious energies and spinning brain to the Jane Austen circuits: I spoke calmly, I set you at ease, I redirected us from unproductive topics and smoothly suggested interesting topics. I did not comment on your awkwardness, unless I thought it would help. I put a lot of meta-thought into the first date, and I have the conversational skills to show for it: my statements are precise, and clear, and friendly, and pleasant, with a flair for the bizarre, sarcastic, and intellectual to avoid actually appearing anodyne. I'm myself, but the nice version that goes on first dates. If you are fluent in English, you might also appreciate my wordplay and the careful phrasing --- again inspired by Austen --- by which I express both a nice idea and a smirk. If you're not fluent in English, I did all those things anyway; there's no "off" switch.

Then I probably went home and typed up a report and sent it to my Date Review Committee for feedback.

It's interesting to receive so many of nearly-identical compliments. It reinforces that I actually do have some consistent skill, as witnessed by independent observers.

It's also interesting that the meta-level deduction "That date was good because the conversation was so easy and relaxed" doesn't go one level higher. Or, you know, maybe it does, but perhaps my interlocutors' social niceties are preventing them from conveying something more than the simple compliment to me. (That would be neat. If you're one such date, who found this blog and read this far, I'm interested to hear more.)

Lest this post appear to brag, I apparently lack this skill and aura in the workplace. Today I was eating lunch alone at the communal default lunch table, and a colleague came in with his lunch. We know we have two languages in common, as well as a common workplace and intellectual interests. He chose to sit at another table, by himself, rather than joining me. So my appeal as a conversationalist has limited context.

This post's theme word is ugsome, "dreadful, loathsome." The ugsome interlocutor is not to be endured.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


I went to see Deadpool with no background knowledge of the comic books on which it was based. The trailers and billboards playing around Paris suggested that it would break the 4th wall.

They were accurate.

Spoilers below the break.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

February Paris

It's only nominally winter here. The February daffodils have arrived; I didn't even know such a thing existed.
Parc de l'Île Saint-Germain, this morning.

This post's theme word is dysthymia, "a mild depression." Got dysthmia? Try daffodils!

Valentine's Day words

A nice, depressing, abstracted rumination for Valentine's Day: "lovers cradling one another on the beach, murmuring the three words that are the highest expression of what they mean to each other".

It's not that I'm aromantic. It's just that I am romantically susceptible to cynicism, and intellectually vulnerable to torrents of well-punctuated words. I know my weaknesses.

This post's theme word is aleatory "depending on the throw of a die". Luck in romance is partially aleatory. (Of note: aléatoire means "at random", and is very useful for attending mathematical talks in French.)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Unfit bits

Fitness. The quantified self. Local eating, clean eating, health trends. We take a certain mental attitude to these topics, and it is almost always earnest and serious. Health is serious!

I like the idea of a fitbit, some tiny device which will quantify my daily physical effort. I like collecting and fiddling with such data. (Earlier this month I reached my 30,000th squat since January 2013.) But my brain is much more interested in picking at the weaknesses of such systems, and so the unfitbit appeals much more.

Unfit Bits from Surya Mattu on Vimeo.

Health and fitness may be serious, but sneakiness? always more fun.

This post's theme word is thewless, "cowardly; lacking energy." The unfitbit system is perfect for the quantified thewless self.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Floornight is a novel by nostalgebraist, published free online. In my ongoing effort to read more broadly across various sources and media, I stumbled across it a few times: lots of rationalist, LessWrong, effective altruism sites/commenters link to it. So it is popular in a particular corner of the internet, where my wanderings have brought me recently.

The novel's setting is a near-present-day future, where some branch of physics discovers laws that delimit the soul: what it is, how to measure it, what it can do. This is immediately made top-secret by the governments of the world. The story focuses on a team of scientists/mathematicians/spies/technicians/bureaucrats, most of them identifiably human people. (Plus one sentient (?) AI, and some other... souls.) All human characters are apparently in the 20-30 range, but bequeathed with such genius for their particular subspecialty that the world governments have given them free rein to bootstrap themselves (via research) to godlike powers. These all live and work in a giant spherical building/compound on the ocean floor, where most radiation does not reach but where there is a lot of soul energy/radiation happening.

What will happen? The division/recombination of souls serves as a potential source of unlimited clean energy, but what are the ethical ramifications? Why does the setting and collection of characters emotionally read like a college dormitory? How will this rag-tag group of non-neurotypicals combine their intellectual and interpersonal powers to save the universe? I write this tongue-in-cheek, fully aware that it is a snarky summary, but nevertheless: accurate.

The book is uneven, and I write that in full knowledge that comparing it to copy-edited novels out of major publishing houses is completely unreasonable. It is full of very cool ideas, and they are introduced in intriguing ways. Some parts of the book --- in particular, each character's introduction --- read like unnecessarily prolix introductions to the idea of non-neurotypical-ness. As the story progressed, I grew increasingly convinced that it would not be able to fulfill the promise of the early chapters, in terms of character development and plot, making sense, and emotional payoff. The ending managed to surprise, and was satisfactory in a certain way (spoilers displaced below the break).

Certain moments and phrases shone with a thrilling verbal iridescence.

One character speaks in rabidly purple prose. This scratches a mental itch for me and is quite satisfying:
  • "I can sense already a new texture to this exchange, a thing like exorbitantly expensive velvet felt by touch alone, a luxury ever-so-slightly beyond the bounds of convention, whispering in synechdoche's coy tones, to the perceptive observer..." (p. 119)
  • What a simpler character would render as "falling asleep" instead comes out as "wending their swift way toward that inimitable conjunction of pure repose and outrageous hallucination", which is a great way to describe it. (p. 119)
  • "... the thousand natural shocks that matter is heir to." (p. 182) I don't know what to contrast this with --- is the immaterial soul not subject to natural shocks? --- but the words flow beautifully. And ending such a pretentious sentence with a preposition puts the nail in the coffin for me.
  • "you and I are, as they say, royally fucked: fucked like no royal has been since Henry VIII, and with consequences of similar religious significance." (p. 50) A cute joke, spanning the lowbrow and highbrow in successive clauses.

Some other interesting prose arises when describing particular characters and their particular outlook on life. "Martin's life, as he presents it, is a sequence of occasions for joy." (p. 87) This seems a nice way of introducing an unreliable, but pleasant, character. Elsewhere, a quite reliable character yields: "his vision of a good like consists of an endless sequence of tasks, executed without complaint." (p. 116)

This description of enjoyment of pop music resonated nicely: "the crystalline quality of certain pop songs, of the unrepentant jubilance of a synthesized melodic line" (p. 163).

This post's theme word is plangent, "loud and resonant, with a mournful tone." "... and he suddenly hears a plangent minor chord in his head, the purest and saddest chord in the wide world of music theory, ..." (p 61)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Rodin museum

The weather today was clear and cool, an invitation to emotionally open up, to start anticipating spring, to remember that not all shirts have long sleeves. I went to the Rodin Museum, which was plentifully supplied with gorgeous midafternoon light in its luxurious windows.
Behold: the real estate mere mortals will never inhabit.
It was beautiful. The art was pretty nice, too.

This post's theme word is septentrional, "northern." The septentrional prospect from Rodin's house is less impressive, as the gardins lie to the south.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


I have recently read many things; I read voraciously and voluminously. This morning I finished Nnedi Okorafor's "Lagoon", which took all kinds of unexpected turns and, in the end, snuck away from a nice resolution. I find that her style as an author is mostly to leave the reader with incomplete ideas and stories, and while usually this is frustrating, something particular about the way she does it really draws me in.

Lagoon's protagonists are an unlikely crew --- a marine biologist, a soldier, and a rap star --- who are selected as the primary contacts of the aliens who have set up a base camp in their ship in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria. They are not especially willing or eager, and "selected" sums up their training and objectives. No one knows what is going on, and the book creates an incredible atmosphere of carefully-balanced chaos.

It's like watching someone spin a dozen plates atop a dozen sticks. While juggling the sticks.

The three main characters' lives are interwoven with many others: their families, their friends, their nannies, people they pass in the street. Local students' clubs, the man who owns the bar on the beach fronting the aliens' landing. Okorafor has an incredible and ruthless flair for showing readers glimpses of full characters, and whisking them away in a minute, or a day, or gluing them in the center of our vision so that they occlude the rest of the plot. She is not using any authorial tools I recognize, and the novel has no signposts to reassure or orient the readers. The city of Lagos, and the country of Nigeria, are thrown into pandemonium by the arrival of aliens, and the reader is not really allowed any distance from this turmoil; there's no space to draw back and form an outsider's perspective on the entire thing.

The "normal" narrative chapters are interwoven with chapters from the point of view of fish in the harbor, and bats flying across the sky, and other inexplicable viewpoints that I just let wash over me. Some chapters are only one sentence long. Some parts are creative curlicues: in a book written in a sort-of-omniscient third person, the descriptive sentence
And that is all that Adaora, Agu and Anthony will ever remember about that thirty minutes of their lives. (p. 244)
is a sort of double-tease, since it deprives the characters and the readers of ever knowing what happened. It occurs in a chapter titled "Second Contact" and you've now read most of the chapter.

I like the fact that there is a marine biologist, who puts science explanations on the otherwise-magical things the aliens can do (change matter into other matter, control EM waves, etc.), but this is done quietly in the background, the same way that everyone understands that cell phones work using circuits and software, but we don't constantly talk or think about it. We just use the phones, and when they break, we sometimes can fix them. So the science-fiction/fantasy elements of this book were smooth and unnoticeable.

The book, like pretty much everything Nnedi Okorafor writes, made me think closely about social issues, made me look forward to the future, made me feel guilty for my luck and privilege, and made me incredibly happy by its mere existence. I'm glad she is getting so much exposure and encouragement, because it means there will be plenty more to read and enjoy.

This post's theme word is paresthesia, "a sensation of prickling, tingling, burning, etc. on the skin." Aliens have given you telekinesis? Paresthesia is the least of your worries.