Saturday, December 31, 2016

Watch Your Mouth

Daniel Handler's Watch Your Mouth is a decidedly adult novel. It provides a nice counterpoint in my mind to his children's books, which are sarcastic and occasionally murderous but reasonably PG.[1] Watch Your Mouth consists almost entirely of breathless sex scenes [2], with interstitial innuendo/opera crossover wordplay. The novel's first half is full of stage directions, framing the story as an opera, which devolves into less and less distinct observations until the inevitable operatic finale.

The opera-novel's first-person retrospective narrator is smart and clever [3], but the novel itself casts him into doubt: he is a self-acknowledged unreliable narrator, and perhaps even a narrator suffering weird delusions and a memory disorder. The book starts (several times, in fact) with a usual setup, a comfortable framing of the story to follow, and then gradually --- through judicious and entertaining use of stage directions and references to different leitmotifs, staging, costumes, and orchestration cues --- the story becomes more and more sinister, as well as deranged and unbelievable and nonsensical. The narrator tries to describe things he witnessed, except he can't quite describe exactly what he witnessed, so he ends up describing everything in hedged and allusive terms. This manages to be oblique about plot details while being explicit about sexual details, which is weird but not so gross and repellent that it would stop me from reading more, to see what happens. (I believe the usual mode is to now compliment the author: that was masterfully done, to describe so much while leaving everything utterly uncertain!)

The conclusion, of course, is as in every opera: a dramatic death scene.

But the story, and its light fourth-wall-breaking, does not end there. Even as the death scene denouement trickles to a feeble closure, the narrator refers to how incomplete the tale feels and how much of the novel is still in your right hand! This obviously is only true for physical copies of the book, but as luck would have it, I was reading a physical copy, so this trick landed and seemed cool and witty. Then the remainder of the book was even more disjointed and off-the-rails, with the added twist that maybe every 2 or 3 pages, Handler masterfully convinced me that either (1) it was all real, and this was a sort of fantasy-nightmare world, or (2) the narrator was having a mental breakdown, which we were seeing from the inside. The first such switch is neat. The switch back requires overcoming some reasonable skepticism. The next switch, and the next, and the next? I don't know. I oscillated between believing the book literally and disbelieving every single event, and that is a precarious balance to strike, and an astounding effect to sustain for so long.

In conclusion, I liked it, even though the subject matter was squicky.

This post's theme word is sercroupierize, "to have sex with several people in succession." (Not in many online dictionaries, apparently.) The book's sercrouiperizing narrator was very off-putting, but somehow always turned-on.

[1] Many iconic children's movies start with the double murder of the protagonist's parents, so... I'm just saying, any cognitive dissonance you may have with my downplaying of murder as on par with sarcasm, and completely suitable for children --- take it up with the culture-makers. I'm just an observer.

[2] The sex scenes may be breathless, but they are also not terribly erotic. They're just kind of... the shotgun approach to horniness, where everything gets utterly slimy and the characters have to take breaks every few hours for coitus, for no apparent reason.

[3] Well, he's either "smart and clever" or "incompetent, idiotic, and deranged". It's hard to tell. You'll see.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Needs more garlic

Like all social media, this blog too shall ultimately devolve into food and travel porn. Be glad I have decided to spare you the endless selfies.

Behold, a garlic and rosemary-speared  dough:
And, after baking, the beauty of olive-oil-roasted spices emerging from a fluffy bread base:
Gluten, your siren song wafts on currents of oven-driven air.

This post's theme word is zymic, "relating to fermentation." We are thankful for zymic advances in baking science.

Sunday, December 25, 2016


Cookies, cookies, and more cookies! Texas receives a special shout-out for being the most fun cookie cutter to use. The pi/2 fork rotation is also pretty fun. 
The fuzzy focus is a side effect of lens smudging, not postprocessing filters. (I'm traditional that way.)
Rolling crumbly cookies by hand is my least favorite, as it involves a lot of labor per cookie.

This post's theme word is girn (verb intr.), "to snarl, grimace, or complain" or (noun), "a grimace or snarl." The plethora of dessert options brought nary a smile to the family gathering.

Saturday, December 24, 2016


I am able to supply an approximate of authentic ramen on-demand (given certain supplies and materials).
Photo credit: M.
Properly, the egg should be soft-boiled. And kimchi is a nonstandard variant.

Welcome to vacation: a designated period when there is enough spare time to chop lots of tiny pickles and engage in fancy plating and food-photography.

This post's theme word is xerophilous, "adapted to a very dry or desert environment." Soup is not popular in xerophilous societies.


'Tis the season to review the year and my performance. What skills have I improved? What lessons have I learned? What have I achieved? What mistakes did I make, how did I recover, how will I avoid them in the future?

For your reading enjoyment, here is some feedback regarding me:
I'm sure you're well aware that Lila is intelligent, talented, vivacious, and enthusiastic. And these qualities shine forth every day. Lila's abilities are considerable, but what I find even weightier is the wisdom, grace, and poise she demonstrates in managing them. While Lila probably has an interesting and well-reasoned opinion on almost any class topic, she offers these only at the appropriate time and when they are of general interest. Lila has an unusually developed sense of audience. She knows what the moment requires and considers the needs of others. This perspicacity will always serve Lila well. 
I am fortunate to teach many very bright students, many very talented ones, and a number of students who are thoughtful beyond their years. But I have few students for whom all three may be said. Lila is certainly among these. 
... from my seventh-grade English teacher.

I find it interesting to hear (for the first time) this prĂ©cis of my personality; my memories of seventh grade are not tinged with wisdom, grace, and poise. I do remember worrying about whether my clothing was cool enough; maybe this "sense of audience" extended to other realms. These positive behaviors and this pattern of thoughtfulness in engaging with others is something that I hope I have preserved and carry forward into my daily life, where perspicacity is required and poise is necessary.

I have more recent feedback (from students --- hello, students! I hope you are enjoying your break), but I will not share it here, as it was elicited with promises of anonymity. Suffice it to say that I am carefully considering how to incorporate feedback to make the 2017 release of Lila an even better one. I aspire to be worthy of the same praise that I received in seventh grade.

This post's theme word is blandish, "to coax with flattery." Blandish all you like, these grades are final.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Unimpressed octopus(?) lawn sculpture

The eye/face expression seems... unimpressed. As if to say, "really? this is all you want me to do? sit on your lawn?"

This post's theme word is quaggy (adj), "marshy; flabby; spongy." Amongst invertebrates, "quaggy" is more complimentary than we vertebrates usually consider it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is large, interesting, and fronted by an extremely imposing set of steps and vista.

I quite enjoyed one of Picasso's paintings entitled "Female Nude", which absent the title I might have guessed was "collection of brown and off-brown rectangles in a stack". This sort of extreme distortion of a representation is very appealing; partly for the puzzle (can you find the female nude in there?) and partly for the aesthetic joy of stacked rectangles.

Frits Thaulow's "Water Mill" is incredible:
... as in, I do not credit my eyes. The painting is playing some incredible brain-perception trick, in that the water reflection looks photoreal in the center, yet just off-center it is clearly impressionist, with fine details merely suggested by broad brushstrokes. And the water mill building itself at the top of the painting is a low-polygon-count-style backdrop, reminiscent of a video game level. (I'm thinking of Braid in particular, but maybe Braid was just done in a style reminiscent of Thaulow's "Water Mill"?) By brain reads the whole thing as a photograph, but when I closely examined any detail (in person these are much more easily perceived than in this photo of the painting), I could clearly see that this was the result of paint applied to canvas. Mystifying. Cool.

This is also one of the unusual paintings of water in which the water is not predominantly blue, but still looks obviously like water.

This post's theme word is mazarine (adj), "a deep, rich shade of blue." The churning bubbles lightened the mazarine of the depths into a foamy whiteness in the shallows around the mill.

So many cookies

Truly, a lot of cookies.

This post's theme word is aciniform (adj), "shaped like a cluster of grapes." Hark! Do I see aciniform cookies across the room? I shall go investigate.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Reunion summary, part II

Months of persistent nagging, often several times a day, was insufficient this time. Most of the class defaulted and failed to submit any self-summary for our next reunion (and accompanying book). This forced the alumni office to give us an extension and step up the guilt-tripping to previously-unexplored reaches of extremity.

Lo! and behold: it worked. Well, a bit. I'll admit that I didn't put as much pizzazz and creative obfuscation into this one as the last one. (In my defense, I now have a job which offers me a lot less free time for creative writing projects on the side.)
My quest for evil mastermindhood continues apace. I have maximally levelled up on the education ladder, and collected one degree of each type (arts, science, philosophy); I now demand to be addressed by my full title ("Professor Doctor Master..."), which is becoming an onerous time-delay during dramatic entries.

Since last we met, I moved to Canada, and then, when that proved insufficiently French, I moved to Paris itself. O! that epitome of French stereotypes: the glorious boulevards, the wine/bread/cheese, the magnificently sneery accents. Many truly marvelous adventures were had, which this margin is too narrow to contain. After nearly a decade abroad, I reluctantly returned to domestic shores in pursuit of that most elusive of quest objectives: tenure.

I return to the US a well-travelled, multilingual, and even-more-highly educated person, all things which serve me well for making small talk and getting pigeonholed. As a professor of computer science, I know a lot about both pigeons and holes. Ask me sometime.

I promise to give you homework. (Due date: the next reunion.)
If unnamed editors change anything, that'll pretty much determine my non-participation in future editions. (Last time they threatened that editors might take action, but the final version was what I had submitted, ridiculosity unchanged.)

These periodic check-ins seem decreasingly relevant in the networked social media sphere in which I dwell: everyone I want to hear about, I already do hear about; we are already in touch. And everyone else? Reading about them in the paper-printed book (!) will be useful, but mostly for tracking how many future CEOs and congresspeople I knew in their early 20s.

This post's theme word is aesculapian, "relating to medicine," or "a doctor." I usually introduce myself as "a doctor, but not the type that helps people", but I am considering condensing this to "a non-aesculapian doctor", to alienate all but the most erudite.

Friday, December 2, 2016

How should groups make decisions?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question. Today's lecture was on Arrow's Impossibility Theorem so I quite reasonably asked:

How should groups make decisions?

I framed the question as a group deciding where to go for dinner, given the individual ranked preferences of each person over all the dinner options. So one student, confronted with impossibility, wrote, "just starve, we're going to die anyways. ^_^". Another summarized national exhaustion with "I don't like decisions" and yet another echoed the first with "why bother, we will all die anyways".

Others took a more whimsical approach:
  • anarchy
  • define a "mom"  friend, listen to them
  • attendance sheet surveys
  • attendance sheet popular vote
  • separation of power
  • choose 50 US residents at random (with replacement), repeat sample 100,000 times, choose most popular winner
  • a long and indecisive debate
  • only consult those with the loudest voices
  • not first past the post
  • dictatorship
  • elect a dictator
  • math
  • select the most privileged person, ask them
  • compromise
  • hand raising
  • someone should make an impassioned speech
  • oracles
  • trial by combat
  • long discussions
  • flip n coins
  • throw questions into the void and wait
  • Quaker Process (Organized Consensus)
  • no groups; return to hunter gatherer society
  • debate
  • pick the best one
  • rolling dice
  • compromise
  • capitalism!!
  • by assuming I'm always right
  • alphabetically

A subset of students were excited by the idea of a dictatorship, but wanted to further specify which dictator in particular:
  • politburo with Josif as head
  • establish [student in class] as dictator
  • Option 1: oligarchy consisting of Ina Garten, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Amanda Freitag
    Option 2: The Purge

In the margins of the attendance sheet, students sketched political signs and placards and then later students annotated them (by adjusting the name) or voted (by writing "+1" nearby).

I don't know what a "complementary probabilistic majority" is, but it sounds neat. Gold star for piquing professorial curiosity.

By popular vote, "compromise" was the only method which received more than one vote. But several other votes were similar (the above, two voting to "die anyways", and several picking debate/discussion).

This post's theme word is consonance (n), "agreement or accord" or "a combination of sounds pleasing to the ear" or "the repetition of consonant sounds, especially at the ends of words, such as st in the phrase first and last." Consonance and assonance together underlie many tongue-twisters.