Wednesday, July 19, 2017

17776

17776 ("What football will look like in the future") is a piece of fiction by Jon Bois, published on the sports website SB nation. Its exact categorization is evasive: experimental fiction? multimedia experience?

It's very cool, in any case, and the entire project is now published. No uncomfortable waiting now, just a lot of scrolling and loading. (And warning: it doesn't seem to work entirely on mobile.) It posits a future, many thousands of years from now, and what game(s) football may have gradually shifted into... and so much more. Purpose, humanity, climate change, the Fermi paradox... it's all there.

This was very engaging, even if I am left with a lingering worry that I'm not getting it. Certainly there were some references I missed, but there were sentient satellites watching a thousand-year-long game of hide-and-seek.


This post's theme word is gesamtkunstwerk (n), "a work of art that makes use of many different art forms." The internet facilitates a vast new landscape of gesamtkunstwerks!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Penric and the Shaman

Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric and the Shaman is one of the 2017 Hugo nominees (for novella). It is a straightforward fantasy-medieval-plus-magic setting, telling a story that pretty clearly can stand alone, but has lots of signposts and hooks pointing to its existence in a huge universe of available stories. (Indeed, there is an extensive and complicated author's note / reading-order guide appended to the end of the novella.) It tells the story of the titular Penric, himself possessing a dazzling array of magical and social powers, who gets sent on what definitely has the feeling of a sidequest. This ultimately involves a bit of travel, some clever conversations (both inside Penric's mind and outside), and a sprinkling of shamans.

I'd definitely read more of these books, though I might need to print out the reading-order guide to keep track of where I want to start and how to progress.

This is the third 2017 Hugo nominee which used the word "cabochon". Was there some kind of contest for writers last year that involved inserting this word into stories? I'm delighted to find that a newly-acquired vocabulary word is getting such exercise.


This post's theme words, featured in this work, are:

  • scud (v), "to move or run swiftly, esp. as if driven forward; to run before a gale", 
  • withy (n), "a flexible slender twig or branch", and
  • lour (v. intr.), "to look sullen; to frown."
The louring caterpiller scudded down the withy at the sight of a bird.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Taste of Honey

Kai Ashante Wilson's A Taste of Honey is one of the 2017 Hugo nominees (for novella). It tells the story of minor noble Aqib, who lives in a city heavily formulaic in its social structure, religion, and familial obligations.  Aquib is pretty oblivious about interpersonal signals, but somehow still manages to have chemistry, and then fall in love, with a foreign soldier visiting on embassy. He is faced with a choice --- flee home with his lover, or stay and fulfill his political/family obligations?

This choice fractures the story. It is told out-of-order, with some events of the "present" (meeting, falling in love), and some an entire lifetime in the future. This does not dissipate the weight or narrative tension of his choice, because we see scenes from both possible futures. He is happy in both, and sad sometimes, and has fulfilling lives no matter what his choice --- the story definitely comes down in favor of one choice, but the fact that he finds a place for himself in both branches seems an interesting moral, and leaves some exploration to the reader.

I liked it, though in length, topics, and writerly style, I probably wouldn't have picked this for myself.

The story also managed to cram in several new-to-me words. I had expected this of China Miéville's entry (he is dictionary-trawler extraordinaire), and it was nice to see so many:

  • thew (n), "muscular strength"
  • actinic (adj), "of, relating to, resulting from, or exhibiting chemical changes produced by radiant energy, especially in the visible and ultraviolet spectrum"
  • fatidic (adj), "relating to or characterized by prophecy"
  • tiffin (n), "a light meal, especially lunch."

This story also used the word "cabochon", which is pretty neat. (See previously.)


This post's theme word is mansuetude (n), "gentleness, meekness." His fatidic thews belied the mansuetude that he grew into as he matured; his appetite meant frequent tiffins, and he was often too shy to ask for more food in the actinic and judgmental dining hall.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning takes place in the future, a 25th century whose views of our modern day are as colored by weird historical narratives as our views of our own history. The book is described as "political science fiction", a genre I'd never heard of, and its philosophical leanings make it a good partner to Stephenson's Anathem, in that both books academically examine political and philosophical structures that don't --- quite --- exist in our present reality.

This book is excellent. I can see why it's a 2017 Hugo nominee.

I love an unreliable narrator, and the gradual reveal of different layers of story was done very well. The narrator is educated and wary of his audience, but also makes vast assumptions about our familiarity with philosophical, social, economic, and political history and theories. He plays fast and loose with ideas and with pronouns. He has very little free will and yet manages to make pivotal, important decisions for the plot. He is an open liar, but still an interesting narrator. (Many chapters ended with cliffhangers, which isn't my favorite style, but they varied and were interesting and none of them ended up feeling like cheap gimmicks.)  The fact that this highfalutin' philosophical world where everyone is ideally healthy and educated ends up being... bad [spoiler: corrupted by the same interpersonal intrigue as a typical HBO show] is very intellectually crunchy and satisfying. I immediately purchased the sequel book, although it can't jump to the front of my queue since I'm trying to read all of the Hugo nominees before the voting deadline.

One lingering unfinished thread: the title is an oblique reference to Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene, act 2, scene II), and wasn't ever referred to during the novel. Shakespeare is mentioned a few times, as a famous bard (page 54), as someone now only understood with footnotes (page 55), and as a literary wordsmith alongside Voltaire (page 337). Romeo and Juliet are mentioned only as being one of many famous pairs of lovers depicted in a gallery of paintings (page 132). "Lightning" is referenced as the usual weather pattern, and only once it is used to reference a person: "I am the window through which you watch the coming storm. He is the lightning." (page 220), but this doesn't mesh well with the phrase "too like the lightning"; while many plot points are too rash, too unadvised, and too sudden, the character thus referenced has not ceased to be ere one can say he lightens. Is this an extremely oblique way of foreshadowing his death?

It's an ongoing mystery, and one I'm happy to seek in the sequel, much more sensically named Seven Surrenders --- since there are seven nation-states, this one seems easy to decode.




This post's theme word is aretocracy (n), an invented structure for electing government officials according to from-each-citizen personal nominations. Its exact details are not clear. The Humanist faction-state favors an aretocracy, but this is susceptible to charismatic cults of personality.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Ninefox Gambit

Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit is a fun bit of military, space-battle science fiction. It opens in media res, mid-battle, and that is where the book does its coolest things. I'm in favor of any book where a character's aptitude for mathematics makes her especially powerful and desirable as an ally.

I was baffled by the line between metaphor and physical reality in this book. The premise is that certain formations --- of people's bodies, of spaceships, of... space stations? --- are powerful according to whichever calendrical standard one follows.  This is never explained, and neither are the special area effects / technological effects of certain calendars. Under one calendar, a gun which amputates-at-a-distance works; under another calendar, it is useless slag. Under one calendar, standing in a particular formation protects from incoming artillery; under another, it does nothing. I was never exactly sure when the poetic descriptions of battles were literal and when figurative, since the physical reality was rarely described, but the ephemeral effects of calendars were often mentioned. It was never really clear why the calendar has such an effect, or why one couldn't just switch from calendar to calendar, as convenient for the particular technology at hand.

The book ended with a neat, tidy climactic battle, and set itself up to be the first of a series, with a fairly predictable protagonist-quest-outline of the subsequent books. I liked this book fine, but probably by bafflement and the formulaic one-person-takes-down-an-empire setup will combine to influence me away from reading subsequent installments.


This post's theme word is polonian (adj), "bounding in aphoristic expressions" or "a native or inhabitant of Poland." The polonian prose dissuaded me from further literary exploration.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Obelisk Gate

 N. K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, a 2017 Hugo nominee, continues where The Fifth Season left off --- instants later. This means that it continues the momentum of the first novel, and since I am inhaling these books between fever-naps, I can continue to read, with no break between installments. This momentum is no slow-building thing; like the continental plates in the book itself, it starts with a lot of powerful momentum already. The Fifth Season is dedicated "For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question", a theme which is reinforced by later explicit guidelines for slavery, which state "Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default." (The Fifth Season, p. 61) These are generic enough to hook my attention: whether commenting on the explicit formation of an underclass, or the implicit ways in which gender often sidelines women, these quotes shape how I approached the book and the themes that stood out while reading.

If that was not enough, the series begins with a murder and progresses by showing that the main characters are not invincible or immortal. Jemisin does not shy away from killing characters who, in a typical fantasy context, I would have earmarked as protected-by-narrative-importance. Quite early, we have this narration:
When we say "the world has ended," it's usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.
But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.For the last time." (p. 15)

If the force of subjugated peoples were not enough, the blazing reference to T. S. Eliot is certainly a strong hook, a demand for attention and an indication of the scope and importance of the narrator's tale.

All these layers continue in The Obelisk Gate, where we finally see the culmination of the intertwined threads of The Fifth Season, and some new narrative threads begin to spread out. One would think that in a three-book series which begins with "this is the way the planet ends", there might not be very much more to say or do, but Jemisin's main characters reach to grasp their fate in full knowledge of the limits of their power and the lifetimes available to them. The novel progresses in the usual fantasy way --- people study hard, focus their attention, and are able to harness increasingly absurd amounts of mystical power --- but the a-few-months-ago apocalypse, and the characters' individual motivations, make this book enjoyable. There is, of course, some fantastic writing to carry the entire thing, a nice dollop of words atop a teetering pile of ideas.

I liked it.


This post's theme word is cabochon, "a gem polished but not faceted." The ability to control magic is a cabochon in children; a sparkling, cut jewel in trained adults.

The Fifth Season

N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, a 2016 Hugo nominee, is excellent. It alternates between several stories of women in the land of “the Stillness”, so-called ironically because its continental plates are so mobile that the inhabitants’ architecture and social structures are centered around the common occurrence of earthquakes and other geologic activity. In the face of such disruption, society demonizes the few people who have the power to control seismic activity, since they have enormous destructive potential. The magic training school --- which inevitably exists, this is fantasy --- emphasizes both that it is difficult to learn to control this ability, and that certain magical potency is innate. Geomancers (not their actual nomenclature in the novel) are denied personhood, ostracized, killed, or collected as slaves and subjected to the cruel and often lethal regimen of the magical training school, then permanently enslaved by the government in service of providing geologic stability to politically-important regions.

This book was excellent. It reminded me of many other things, which I want to emphasize does not mean that it actually shared any deep similarities with them.

In giving women agency and the freedom to exhibit a variety of motivations and character traits, it reminded me of Le Guin's Earthsea series; also, of course, it featured a variety of not-particularly-Western people, often described by the color of their skin (almost none of which were "white"), coping with an uncooperative earthquake situation. Yes, there was magic. Yes, there was racism. Yes, family and social structures were highlighted and important. But whereas Le Guin's stories usually turn inwards, focusing on small-scale solutions and interpersonal conflict, Jemisin's story grew bigger and bigger, accreting import and severity as the characters (inevitably) levelled-up in magic and in their understanding of what is really going on with the social structure. The scope ballooned in typical fantasy style, and it did it magnificently.

There's always an interesting feature of reading a novel (especially digitally): the images conjured in my mind are completely my own, not even influenced by cover art. I appreciate that Jemisin consistently reminded her readers that her characters, and everyone in her world, was a shade of brown, lest our whitewashing imaginations run away with us. The geography --- unsurprisingly an often-described feature in a book about lethal geological activity --- was often described in magical-intuitive terms, as if one could sense the pockets of magma circulating below. Vegetation gets short shrift. This was okay with me, as it meant that my brain often substituted settings from From Dust, a video game where gameplay consists of reshaping geography by dropping lava and trying to avoid too much destruction of villages.

Describing a book by its magical system, and then by similar-but-distinct things that it reminded me of, is surely a disappointing and unsatisfying type of recommendation. The book was great. You should read it for yourself. I'm not alone in liking it; it won the Hugo award!


This post's theme word is sorb, "to take up and hold by ad/absorption." The soil can only sorb so much groundwater before a disastrous flood ensues.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Way of Shadows

Brent Weeks' The Way of Shadows is a good palate-cleansing fantasy book: solidly in a fantasy-world-but-pretty-obviously-medieval-Europe-by-culture-and-civilization, chronicling the rise of a no-name peasant who, through hard work and cut scenes, grows up to become a totally rad assassin and an imposter in the upper echelons of landed-gentry society.


It's a good example of the type and a fun read, without being so riveting that it is difficult to put down, or so predictable that it is hard to pick up.

The fourth wall was solidly in place, but at the point where the actually-magic-but-inevitably-overly-oblique Cassandra-like prophet comes along, it very briefly seemed like it might verge into breaking the fourth wall:
"... your purpose in life isn't your happiness. We're part of a much bigger story. Everyone is. If your part is unsung, does that make it worthless?" (p. 181)
The hint of irony is, of course, that if this dialog is in the very novel I am reading, then of course it is not unsung. It's been documented and transmitted to me! The author wasn't interested in this angle, and continued with the assassin thriller plot.

This book would make a good action movie. It's not grimdark, it ranks at approximately LotR on the drama-fantasy scale, with some acrobatic battles and some tense emotional conversations about inheritance/power/leadership. Unfortunately, women get sidelined for most of the book, with one plot-important woman stereotypically described as fierce-and-protective ("he saw her cry for the first time" was used at least twice to indicate that something was extremely emotional).


This post's theme word is vituperative, "uttering or given to censure; containing or characterized by verbal abuse." Her lukewarm review was mildly negative without venturing into vituperative.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Proper system revision documentation

Dear readers,

If you can read this, then an incredibly unlikely sequence of steps has succeeded. Huzzah!

There is currently some sort of eldritch alignment of planets whose main influence is to rewrite critical boot sectors of all my hard drives. (Perhaps concomitant with finishing a semester?) Alas! Time to reformat and reinstall, in every operating system known to man. If one more computer fails, I'll be reduced to publishing tweets via carrier pigeon. This blog post may have been written via telegraph STOP

This means I get to start a new "installation notes: what I did" file. And so I am revisiting my past logs, little missives from my past self, to make sure I set up all the bells and whistles just right. (Keyboard shortcuts are the main way I interact with these light-boxes I relentlessly stare into.) Usually these logs are curt and useful, but sometimes they range into quite colorful and narrative tales, for example (details and lengthy intro expurgated to prevent your eyes from bleeding):
After fiddling with [hardware], I find that [software flag] is again disabled. Augh. The following commands did not work to re-enable it: 
sudo [heinous and expurgated set of commands]
This time, banging around wildly on [list of unusual keyboard keys] and crying openly into my hands worked.
... it's important that every log includes instructions for how to replicate the steps that ultimately led to a successful setup. Apparently at the time I felt that the strange wizardry that made my keyboard commands work included crying, and included the notes necessary to replicate it.

Don't worry, I have extensive notes on which "fiddling with [hardware]" caused this weird thing, and I am very carefully not reproducing that. Also, according to the logs, I have not solved any computer problem by weeping since 2012. My streak continues!

Writing to you from the edge of known OS support forums,
 --- Lila

P.S. While writing this post I jinxed my wifi card and it refused several times to maintain a connection. Go figure. I also managed to get exactly the perfect alt-tab behavior, so it's a wash.


This post's theme word is lazaretto (noun), "a medical facility for people with infectious diseases", or "a building or ship used for quarantine", or "on a ship, a space between decks used as storage." I fear my brain is the lazaretto between different computer systems.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Living life publicly

From Gaby Dunn's podcast, "Bad With Money", episode "Get Rich or Die Vlogging" @ 19 minutes:
Youtubers are allowed to have struggled --- in the past tense --- because overcoming makes us brave and relatable. But we can't be struggling now, because then we're labeled whiners.
This observation resonates strongly on any number of dimensions. The incredible skewed, biased versions of ourselves we're encouraged --- by explicit and implicit social pressures --- to present on social media. The way that public behavior is policed and monitored, especially in any minority group (bonus points for each category you don't fit: white, male, cisgendered, straight, wealthy, speaking unaccented English, able-bodied, no mental health issues, ...).

The idea of having to maintain a sort of "purity" of one's personal brand is insane.

There are arenas of life, even outside the weird social-media William-Gibson-esque semidystopian future which we all inhabit, where this bizarre packaging and marketing of oneself is promoted, standard, ideal. I am thinking particularly of applying for jobs,  where there is enormous pressure to present oneself in an idealized version, having overcome struggles but not now being engaged in any particular struggle.


I'm so glad I am employed. The amount of psychological pressure this lifted is still astonishing.


This post's theme word is pungle (verb tr.), "to make a payment; to shell out." If you want my labor, you'd better pungle and pungle hard. I know my worth.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Flashbacks" and nightmares

The balance of the universe is restored, as today a student informed me that they were having "flashbacks" to my course last semester. The word "nightmare" was used more than once.

Me: "Well, I hope you used your experience to warn future students away from my class!"

Student (chuckling): "No, I told them all to take it! It was really good."

I'm not sure if it's Stockholm syndrome, sheer sadism, or a third option, but I'm glad to see that my veneer of frighteningly demanding professorhood has been restored. (See a few weeks ago, when a student called me "benevolent".)



(On a more serious note, I am now awash in guilt and concern over the negative impact that my job has on student mental health.)


This post's theme word vituperate, "to use harsh or abusive language." In manner and outward appearance mild and approachable, she nevertheless invoked the same fear as if relentlessly vituperating her students.

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Benevolent"

Update from the educational front lines:

A student called me "benevolent" --- to my face.

Context does not excuse this breach of the "I am an implacable monolith demanding only and exactly the highest degree of intellectual rigor from you" façade. Perhaps I will have to reconsider my open-door-and-visible bowl-of-candy office policy.


This post's theme word is honeyfuggle, "to deceive or swindle, especially by flattery." Attempts to honeyfuggle your professors are charmingly inept and ineffective.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hugo nominees 2017

The Hugo finalists for 2017 have been announced. The slight changes in the voting procedure have modified the style of voting and the sorts of ballots that are produced: this one seems to have succeeded along the metric of "a diversity of authors, not just one slate advanced by a particular sub-group of voters." Huzzah!

As always, I am trying to read all the materials. I've been doing more reading now that all term-time grading is off my plate, so I am, if not catching up, at least falling behind at a slower rate. (For once, I'm slightly ahead --- I have already read (although of course not blogged yet) Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky.)

Best novel:
Best novella:
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
  • Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
  • This Census-Taker by China Miéville
Best novelette:
  • Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock
  • “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan
  • “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde
  • “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon
  • “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong
Best short story:
  • “The City Born Great” by N. K. Jemisin
  • “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong
  • “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar
  • “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn
  • “An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright
If you're interested in how far I got in the read-all-Hugo-nominees in previous years, check out 20162015, 2014, 2013, 20122011, 2010, 2009. I do gradually go fill in the links to my reviews as I read these, but they're all incomplete and this one probably will be, too, for awhile.

This post's theme word is edacity, "greediness, good appetite." This reader's verbal edacity knows no bounds, though her timely posts are not only bounded but quite finite.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Problems with self-reference and recursion (Aronson's sequence)

The most delicious, frolicksomely frustrating things to think about are the problems which reference themselves. Recursion is such a twisted mind-trap. Having just exposed my class to the joys of the halting problem (animated video explanation), and using it to show that all sorts of other problems cannot be solved --- one of the duties of professorhood is teaching students how to solve problems, but the peculiarities of my work are that I teach students which problems they can't solve --- I was delighted to read a snippet about Aronson's sequence:
‘T’ is the first, fourth, eleventh, sixteenth, twenty-fourth, twenty-ninth, thirty-third …
Here's the introduction on Futility Closet.

Here is Aronson's sequence on the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (one of my favorite sites!).

I want to know how the sentence ends, but of course the sentence can't end as long as I'm stuck thinking about the way I expect it to end. I'm sure that some sufficiently proficient linguist-mathematician team could come up with a satisfactory, and finite, end to the sentence. I'd buy that book!


This post's theme word is pabulum (noun), "bland intellectual fare: insipid or simplistic ideas, entertainment, writing, etc." Using the word "fare" makes me think of other food analogies. The collection of results stemming from Gödel's (In)Completeness Theorems are savory intellectual nuggets, with not a morsel of pabulum.

Monday, February 27, 2017

When you are sick, your comfort food is

I've almost completely lost my voice, but that of course should stand as no impediment to the dissemination of knowledge, which is my primary goal. So I got miked and gave my lecture in a husky "late night radio DJ" voice.

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

When you are sick, your comfort food is:

Soup, in increasing order of specificity:
  • soup
  • noodle soup
  • ramen
  • chicken noodle soup
  • chicken noodle soup heavy on the noodles
  • chicken noodle soup and ginger ale

Other starches or sugary foods:
  • bread
  • crackers
  • triangle toast
  • cinnamon sugar toast + apple cinnamon tea
  • cookie dough
  • jello
  • Skittles
Outliers:

  • ginger
  • beef rice pudding
  • congee
  • water with lemon juice and pulp
  • water
  • tofu
The most extreme outlier is "hot toddies" --- someone's family has adopted the same "use alcohol to burn out the germs" approach that I've heard bandied around by half-joking grandparents.


This post's theme word is leechdom (noun), "a remedy or medicine." What a wondrous panoply of leechdoms!




Friday, February 24, 2017

Your favorite childhood memory, in one sentence:

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

Your favorite childhood memory, in one sentence:

Certain students obeyed the structure of the question, replying with a complete sentence:
  • 4 kids make a mess in a muddy backyard.
  • Carrier has arrived.
  • Summer Camp is awesome!
  • That's personal!
  • I ate a banana
  • I was bad at softball
  • A TV gave me a concussion
  • oh god why are there so many ferrets
Others only left sentence fragments, abandoned noun or verb phrases left dangling, their tenuous wisps reaching back into memory:

  • climbing trees
  • soccer games
  • breaking my femur
  • summer with grandparents
  • going on field trips
  • playing
  • figuring out how to use a water fountain
  • vacation in Thailand
  • infantile amnesia
  • video games
  • [illustration of a ghost chasing pacman eating dots]
  • corner
  • go karting
  • spending time with family
  • playing with dogs
  • scoring winning soccer goal
  • going to beach
  • carefree summers

My cold, robotic, grown-up professor grinch heart is warmed by these snippets of lives happily remembered. I'm curious about why "breaking my femur" would be one's favorite childhood memory, but I suppose context counts for quite a bit in comparing memories...


This post's theme word is defervescence, "the abatement of a fever." I vividly remember being sick in childhood, but the gradual defervescence left no distinct impression.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Your ideal pet is a ________.

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

Your ideal pet is a ____________.

  • a clabul fish (<-- a="" fish="" globul="" handwriting:="" li="" maybe="">
  • a bagumon
  • The Monkey King, Wu Kong
  • lynx
  • beagle
  • Tyrannosaurus Rex
  • Shadowmere
  • a fat cat
  • excitable dog
  • plant
  • the bird-like reptiles from Avatar
  • dragon
  • fox
  • AI
  • pug(s)
  • doge
  • fat Scottish fold
  • parrot
  • cat
  • dog
  • Samoyed
  • tutrle
  • gooden doodle
  • jerboa
  • Time lord
  • computer
  • O
  • corgies
  • fat dog named Bubba
These ranged from the general to the very specific. I'm delighted that there were animals listed that I had to look up (see links above); I'm always looking for more knowledge to absorb! (If you can figure out what a "glorbul fish" is, let me know.)



This post's theme word is secretory (adjective), "relating to the release of a substance from a cell, gland, or an organ." My secret pet was soon discovered due to its particular secretory properties.

Friday, February 17, 2017

What is the title of your autobiography?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the title of your autobiography?

I've expurgated names below to protect the innocent. As a side effect, this protects the rest, too.

Some people went with an extremely literal title:
  • A Book about ME
  • "Don't Read This Book"
  • I
  • [student's own name]'s Autobiography by [student's own name]
  • "Book"
  • A Book about [student's own initials]
  • The Life + Times
  • [student's own name]: A Life
  • "I Should Write an Autobiography -- Selected musings of [student's own name]"
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of [student's own name]
I'm a bit worried about that last one --- does that student for some reason expect to live a particularly "brief" life? Yikes.

Others made obscure references (?) that I hope would be thematically highlighted and tied together in the text of the autobiography:
  • "Thoughts About Everything"
  • "The Little Engine that Could"
  • My Life by Bill Clinton (<-- amp="" art="" cover="" have="" li="" might="" misleading="" publisher="" the="" trouble="" with="">
  • "Sir"
  • "Eh,"
  • Content Free
  • "No"
  • Untitled
  • I don't know
  • 1337
  • "ε"
Others chose something self-deprecating:

  • "Fashionably Late and/or Asleep"
  • A look at where it went wrong
  • The Science of Laughing at Yourself

My favorite was easily "A look at where it went wrong", not only because it's a good hook --- I'm interested! I want to read that book! --- but also because either this student already thinks it's gone wrong, or this student anticipates that it will all go wrong sometime, for sure, and so that's a reliable autobiography title. Plus it's already funny. The title, at least, is going right!



This post's theme word is proem, "an introduction, preface, or preamble." My autobiography consists of a series of proems --- I just haven't gotten to the significant stuff yet!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What is the longest amount of time you have gone without using the internet?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the longest amount of time you have hove without using the internet?

Sorted by size, the answers ranged:

  • 0 secs
  • just now
  • dunno, let me google it
  • seconds
  • does time exist outside the internet?
  • at least a minute
  • the time it takes to use the bathroom
  • 5 days (not including before)
  • 1 week
  • 2 weeks
  • not sure; 2 weeks since starting
  • 5 weeks (not including the before time)
  • 1 year
  • age 0-4
  • age 0-5
  • 6 years
  • 6.5 years
  • 7 years
  • 8 years
  • 9 years
  • not long enough

This seems a fairly bimodal distribution, and it just tells me who took the question literally (and thus had to include all their pre-widespread-internet existence) and who took it to mean time since they first used the internet. I suspect that in a few years, this bimodality will shrink, as today's middle-schoolers could easily have been using internet-enabled devices in their preliterate days. Maybe even preverbal.

This post's theme word is apheresis, "the loss of one or more sounds or letters from the beginning of a word." A common example is the change in pronunciation of knife from (k-nyf) to (nyf) or the formation of till from until. Another meaning of apheresis is "a method in which blood is drawn from a donor, one or more blood components (such as plasma, platelets, or white blood cells) are removed, and the rest is returned to the donor by transfusion." I wonder if the written archivability of the internet means that written apheresis has slowed, or if the prevalence and ease-of-transmission of abbreviations will speed apheresis of letters in written words.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

What is the name of your (future) rock band?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the name of your (future) rock band?

Students were all over the place with this.

  • Name Pending
  • Axaxaxau Mlö
  • Hello hello
  • Archangels
  • Wonder Wall (we would only do covers of Wonder Wall)
  • DM & the B's
  • Sam
  • The Rock Belt
  • Merry-Go-Round
  • The 3 [student's own name]s
  • Frank
  • Goofy Gookers
  • Leb
  • LOL
  • F2 and the Dlis
  • Select of Feed
  • The Rolling Stones
  • 101 Dominant
  • [student's own name]'s band
Some students chose to go more mathy with their band names:

  • P=NP
  • Automata
  • Nonregular
  • Current
  • The Klein V Group
I like the idea that you'd have to include a pronunciation guide if your band was named just the symbol ∅ (pronounced: "empty set"), which would in turn increase the math literacy of band-introducers everywhere.

By far my favorite --- and quite nerdy --- potential band name was "The Dewey Decibels." I don't know if they play particularly loud music, or music in a very thoroughly specified order, but I want to see their set list. Their album tracks would be titled things like "019" and would be strictly ordered by topic.

(Later in the day, a student not enrolled in the class submitted "Hooks and Mantels" as a potential band name, which I also think is very catchy.)


This post's theme word is disaffect, "to alienate the support or loyalty of someone." The disaffected fans of band "Disaffected Fans" have a lot of trouble disambiguating their messageboards from the still-enthusiastic fans of Disaffected Fans.

Friday, February 3, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky

Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky is a lovely novel about two slightly-weird childhood friends whose lives diverge and then coalesce in adulthood. Patricia finds out as a child that she has magical powers --- maybe --- or at least that magic is real, and in a merciful jump-cut, we see her as a child and then emerge from magic school as a fully-trained adult. Lawrence's life follows a scifi, not fantasy, thread, as he assembles a dynamically-learning computer in his closet in childhood. After the jump-cut, we see him as a flashy tech start-up nerd, immersed in a decidedly non-magical world of science and charisma.

Patricia and Lawrence are, by the inevitable laws of narrative necessity, entangled romantically. They are also on two opposing sides of a destroy-the-planet/save-humanity scheme wherein each thinks themself the hero and the other the villain. It's a cute setup and the denouement predictably relies on their interpersonal bond to bring magic and science together to prevent the destruction of the world. This cutesy-ness is counteracted by the fact that both characters are allowed to have real personalities, their relationship has real flaws, and in general almost nothing works out nicely even after the bow is tied around the plot.

The writing strikes a friendly tone, sort of like the kind of observations one might overhear from a late-night philosophy session in college:
You know... no matter what you do, people are going to expect you to be someone you're not. But if you're clever and lucky and work your butt off, then you get to be surrounded by people who expect you to be the person you wish you were. (p. 139)
It's also playful, and the personality shining through is sarcastic. Extra fun for me:
One day the Singularity would elevate humans to cybernetic superbeings, and maybe then people would say what they meant.
Probably not, though. (p.130)
And inevitably, there was that one sentence that sparkled above the rest of the book:
Even as Patricia said it back to him, she felt like her whole history was taking on a whole new focus, the landscape of her past rearranging so that the stuff with Lawrence became major geographical features and some other, lonelier, events shrank proportionately. Historical revisionism was like a sugar rush, flooding her head. (p. 214)
Historical revisionism like a sugar rush? Yes, please, more simile!


This post's theme word is scrutate (tr), "to investigate". Don't scrutate too closely, the bits of magic between the atoms are not invariant under observation!

[Update: this book was nominated for a 2017 Hugo award! Huzzah!]

What's the scariest thing you have ever done?

I take attendance --- even in my own absence --- by having the students answer a question.

What's the scariest thing you have ever done?

Swarthmore students apparently often encounter danger outdoors:

  • almost fell off the side of mountain while hiking
  • climb a mountain at night
  • walked home from my town in the dark
  • run for my life from a crazy dog through a snowy forest in Maine
  • run through a forest during severe thunderstorm
  • bridge jumping in Ecuador
  • skydive?
  • saw a shark
  • almost fell off a waterfall
  • almost got lost in a forest
  • cage dive with great white sharks

Some people accurately experience fear at physical illness:

  • been so dehydrated I had intense stomach pains and thought I was dying
  • get sick before seminar
Some people accurately experience abstract fear at political situations:
  • voted in the 2016 election
  • live in the US during the Trump presidency
Unsurprisingly for an upper-level, abstract course in mathematics and computer science, there were several who expressed introvert fears:

  • socializing
  • life
  • socializing
  • talked

Other "scariest" experiences were mixed or inexplicable:

  • been in a plane that had to emergency land and so dumped all its gas out the window
  • play League of Legends
  • I slept
  • crossing an intersection while it's covered in ice in front of a truck
  • ate wings with ghost pepper sauce
  • played against Martin
  • taken this class

This question didn't lend itself to joking answers, but one nevertheless made me laugh out loud: an answer that referred to a message from the homework-insta-marking algorithm: "1 attempt remaining."


This post's theme word is exungulate, "to pare nails, claws, etc." Beware the Jabberwock, my son, for he is freshly back from the manicurist and, though exungulated, as slashing and catching as ever!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What inanimate object would you wish to eliminate from existence?

I take attendance by having students answer a question.

What inanimate object would you wish to eliminate from existence?

Some students used their wish for the betterment of all:

  • fossil fuels
  • plastic in the ocean
  • greenhouse gases
Others clearly hold personal grudges, whose explanations and origin stories I can only hypothesize:
  • mushrooms
  • sporks
  • red onion
  • fire moose
  • sandals
  • toe shoes
  • socks
  • aglet
  • ties
  • styrofoam
  • rocks
  • my hallmates' alarm clocks
  • stickshift cars
  • SSBM
"SSBM", based on a 10-second internet search, is either surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, or Super Smash Brothers Melee. Either way, it's destructive.

Some had very specific college-student-related ideas, ranging from "that makes sense" to "that seems actively hurtful towards me, your professor, I'm standing in this room right now trying to teach you":
  • problem sets
  • math
  • final exams
  • pens
  • this pen
  • sign-in sheets
  • this question
  • Swarthmore College
My favorite was the dull, "nothing", because it supports the hypothesis that we live in the best of all possible worlds.


This post's theme word is aglet --- a new word for me! --- which is the term to refer to the metal or plastic tube at the end of the shoelace that stops it from fraying. In a world without aglets, we bungee-cord our shoes on each morning and saunter about, oblivious to the alternate realities we have narrowly avoided.

Friday, January 27, 2017

If you had one (1) omnipotent wish, what would you do with it?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

If you had one (1) omnipotent wish, what would you do with it?

The recursive answer was very popular, of course.
  • more wishes
  • some more (>1)
  • ability to have infinite omnipotent wishes
  • more wishes!
  • more wishes
  • get more omnipotent wishes
  • have an infinite number of omnipotent wishes
... though I'm slightly disappointed that, in a course where we have discussed how different infinities are not the same, a student failed to specify which kind of infinity of wishes. I guess to some extent it doesn't matter, since as long as you have one more, you can wish for another kind of infinity more. Too bad we won't get to do any transfinite algebra in this class.

A variant of "more wishes" was:
  • omnipotence for myself
... which is nice, because if you truly are omnipotent, then I suppose you can later perform any wish you come up with. But still, it shows either a lot of future planning or a lack of imagination. A further variant was:
  • omnipotence (for myself); failing that, mind control
... which I appreciate for providing a fallback wish, just in case I do actually have the power to grant wishes, but get to pass them through an approval/veto process first.

Many wishes were to violate the state of reality:
  • ability to teleport
  • be able to travel between any place in 1 min
  • control time
  • be on vacation all the time
  • more sleep
  • be lucky all the time
  • be able to fly
  • allow effective space travel
  • travel trillions of years into the future for a  [unreadable] moment
  • I would blow up the sun!
(That last one is... worrisome.)

Students definitely skew studious with their wishes:
  • omniscience
  • ask for infinite intelligence
  • CS!
I appreciated those whose wishes were simple, constrained, or benefitted others:
  • a plate of really good BBQ ribs
  • a big sunny field filled with ponies
  • win for my team
I have no idea what to do with the possible, but maybe not in this reality at this moment, wish for:
  • true love


The winning wish is one that is impractical, feasible, does not violate basic physical laws of reality, and is charmingly petty:
  • really good at melee

I'll grant that just... as... soon... as... my omnipotent powers manifest.


This post's theme word is canaille (n), "the common people; the masses; riffraff." Don't mix your wishes in with those of the canaille --- buy upscale wishes here!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What was the name of your childhood imaginary friend?

I take attendance by having students answer a question.

What was the name(s) of your childhood imaginary friend(s)? (And what species?)

A lot of people wrote, "None", indicating either some very subtle pointer reference, or that this was not an interesting question.

Most imaginary friends were human; names included

  • Johnson
  • Fred
  • some odd gibberish I don't remember
  • Jim
  • Lun
  • Wa
  • Bob?
The only unusual ones were "Husky the Husky" (believably childish-sounding), Alex the Timelord, and Bob the turtle. Also bloo the "blue", which is no species of which I am aware.



This post's theme word is camarilla, (noun), "a group of confidential scheming advisers." I had an entire camarilla of imaginary friends, but their identities shall be obscured to protect the innocent.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What your favorite number?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question, although that policy has come under [my] scrutiny and it will change a bit this semester. (I'm using clickers in-class so I already know who is there, approximately.)

What is your favorite number?

One student said i; everyone else picked an integer with < 5 digits. I'm not sure much valuable or amusing information can be gleaned from this, although I do have follow-up questions. If the question had been framed differently, it might have solicited this information in addition.

Favorite numbers that I think are explicable (or at least Google-able):

  • 0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 4
  • 7
  • 10
  • 13
  • 42
  • 69
  • 1995
  • 2996
  • 3301

Numbers that require additional justification:

  • 29 (primality? permanent age of all famous people?)
  • 32 (age? factorization? course number?)
  • 37 (age? primality? course number? looks cool?)
  • 816 (area code?)
  • 20 (total # of toes? current age?)
  • 71 (film title? pointy when written? year of something?)
  • 77 (smallest possible integer requiring 5 syllables in English, apparently?)


This turned out not to be as interesting as "what is the largest number you have counted to out loud?" Question framing is so important.


This post's theme word is skint, "having no money; broke; poor". The question was imagination-skint.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

What is the best present you ever received?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the best present you ever received?

Many mentioned objects:
  • a dog
  • a puppy [ed. note: age specificity appreciated!]
  • a tablet
  • an iPad
  • a Mac
  • GameCube
  • blanket
  • socks
  • ramen
  • a physics book
  • all the white chocolate chips
  • red button-down onesie
  • scarf
  • nice headphones
Some mentioned trips:
  • a trip to Canada
  • a surprise visit
  • tickets to Barcelona vs Bayern Munich
  • tickets to go see Hamilton
Or other ephemera:
  • education
  • time with good friends
  • school
  • I forgot
  • taking CS46 [ed. note: early brown-nosing appreciated]
  • love 💙
  • family

But the sweetest by far were the ones who said the best present they ever received was "life." Awwwww.




This post's theme word is lief (adv.), "willingly; gladly; readily" or (adj.), "dear, beloved" or "willing." I would just as lief receive a onesie as a scarf.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation is a lovely modern building --- designed to conserve a certain claustrophobia from an older building --- housing an enormous collection of Renoir paintings, iron door hinges, and a smattering of other artworks, farm implements, and historical furniture.

Wandering through it is overwhelming. There is such a profusion of art, so closely mounted and tiling the walls, that viewing and appreciating each piece individually would take much longer than is feasible without dying of dehydration. (Or being shuffled out of the museum at closing time, which has happened to me.)

It is just possible to be struck with certain artworks, in the time available. Photos are not permitted, but I can perhaps source and link to some of my favorites. (Yes, of course I took notes.)

The watercolors of Demuth's "Bicycle Acrobats" suggest a kind of airy defiance of gravity. I thought this was very impressive technically, since I associate watercolors with clouds, ponds, indistinct flora --- and this piece has motion, with definite lines and boundaries.
Demuth's Bicycle Acrobats
I reliably found that art I admired from a distance turned out to be by Glackens. His lines, his colors, his ocean scenes; I'm not sure what did it exactly, but I liked a lot of art which (upon reference to the tiny labels or the art-key-pamphlet) turned out to be Glackens'.
Glackens "Woman Walking"
Glackens "Beach at Dieppe"
Glackens "The Bathing Hour, Chester, Nova Scotia"
I think maybe it's his palette of blue oil paints. They're very appealing.

I also quite enjoyed Klee's work, which was less representational but still imbued with a colorful fun.
Klee's "Village Among Rocks (Ort in Felsen)"
And finally, reprising my visual enjoyment of blue, and boats, and water, we have Signac.
Signac's "La Rochelle"
(Signac and Seurat are both excellent. I liked all the pointillism on display as it foreshadows --- in my ongoing mental narrative --- the rise of pixels, while contrasting sharply the number of man-hours required to produce the work.)

I was also quite intrigued by a number of the iron implements (tongs/scissors/andirons/rakes/shovels/hinges/hinges/hinges/hinges) adorning the walls, but no particular one stood out and you really should visit them in person for the full door-hinge experience. No terse cultural correspondent can possibly summarize such an event.


This post's theme word is hendiadys (n), "a figure of speech in which two words joined by a conjunction are used to convey a single idea instead of using a word and its modifier. For example, "pleasant and warm" instead of "pleasantly warm"." The suitable hendiadys for the Barnes Foundation is that it is interesting and full.