Friday, September 29, 2017

What is the largest number you have counted to out loud?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the largest number you have counted to out loud?

Again we had traditionalists: 0, 10, 50, 100, 101, 1000, 1001, 1024.

Also the unusual ones: 2, 4, 13, 21, 68, 751, 827, 922, 690,000.

Also those who wanted only to give bounds: "at least 10", "<1>=1", "probably like 15".

Also, or some reason, people who count to non-integer numbers out loud? 3.5 or 3.1415926535897932386424.

And of course "a millillion (by millillions)", all of which: [sic].

My favorite was the editorialized "100, the largest known number". The award for "wrote the longest reply and went over into a paragraph in the margin, but still somehow didn't answer the prompt" goes to "I was trying to break an iron ore in minecraft with my hands. It took like 300 hits. I didn't count, but I should have."


This post's theme word is adynaton, "hyperbole in which exaggeration is taken to a ridiculous and literally impossible extreme." I never needed a word for extra-hyperbolic hyperbole until I heard someone claim they had counted to O(∞) aloud; what adynaton!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What song was most recently stuck in your head?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What song was most recently stuck in your head?

Students are in a different cultural bubble than I am, so please forgive any typos I've introduced in accidentally transcribing their handwriting, and also... I can't even tell if some of these are actual songs, or just a series of words strung together.

  • Taylor Swift's new song
  • Promiscuous - Nelly furtado
  • Heart of Glass
  • Rabbit Heart
  • DARE
  • Cherub Rock
  • That one remix of the horrible meme song that doesn't have a name?
  • chocolate chip cookie
  • cold cold man
  • wake me up when sept ends
  • coconut song on YouTube
  • Diamonds
  • Anime un Po'
  • I am Moana
  • Pakkanen
  • Liang Zhu
  • My Way by Frank Sinatra
  • Wagon Wheel
  • the Schumann piece I'm learning
  • In a sentimanta [sic] mood
  • Something Just like this
  • Brite Lites
  • Super Rich Kids - Frank Ocean
  • Rich Love
  • Apartment
  • Dvorak New World Symphony
  • Despacito
The winner was "Dragon Tales", with two (!) votes, which I won't look up but will instead guess is a theme song to an animated TV show.


This post's theme word is epimone, "the rhetorical device of frequent repetiton of a phrase or question; dwelling on a point." LMFAO's iconic song "Shots" seems to have been mostly written by epimone, or a regular expression like:  "(shots)*".

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What is the punchline of your favorite joke?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the punchline of your favorite joke?

(I asked this previously in 2016 but that attendance sheet was so hilarious that it went missing, and I never saw the survey results. So neither did you.)

Some punchlines were to popular jokes:

  • orange you glad I didn't say banana
  • to get to the other side
  • A-salted
  • they always take things literally
  • a one-eyed grape
  • that's what they said
  • ba dum ching
  • awkward silence
I hear you, awkward silence, I hear you. (Someone also wrote "crickets", which could be a description of the noise emphasizing lack of laughter, or an actual punchline consisting of the word "crickets".)


Some punchlines made it seem possible to fill in the missing joke setup:

  • hose A, hose B
  • "moo"
  • mooooooo
  • "Broccoli, 49 cents!"
  • A plant!
  • Royal Executive Bond
  • Juan on Juan
  • Red Wedding [<-- dark="" humor="" li="">
  • jk, rowling
  • cheep!

Some punchlines were inscrutable:

  • It's a brick!
  • [student's own name]
  • "Not Today"
  • "Well, in the state of Wyoming, it's illegal to wave your firearm in public."
  • Tony
  • blue, blue, blue, blue.
  • suh, dude

Protest vote appeared as "my jokes are spontaneous, not scripted". Depleted imagination wrote, "can't remember, sry". One student actually wrote both the setup and the punchline, in violation of the question.


This post's theme word is persiflage (n. formal!), "light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter." Knock-knock jokes? I shun such persiflage and rely solely upon puns for my humor.

Monday, September 25, 2017

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

I take attendance by asking the students a question.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

As before, many students picked onomatopoeias:
  • swish
  • poof
  • shmrshmrshmrshmr
  • boom skrrt
  • clap
  • bloooop
  • whoosh!
  • cloooop
Others chose to describe it in other ways:
  • little air molecules getting pushed off to adventure
  • magnificent
  • jazz hands
  • sound of hand and face clapping
  • like Pacman
  • nothing
  • the sound of silence
  • a very faint buzzing
Still others used their response to issue a protest against the question:
  • What is the sound of a tree falling in the woods when no one is there to hear it?
  • the answer to zen riddles must be spontaneous, and I've already heard this one
  • inconceivable!
  • clap, otherwise it wouldn't be clapping.
This week's Melancholy Monument has a plaque at the base engraved in honor of the various students who wrote, "the sadness of a missed high five", "the sound of sadness", and simply, "sad".


This post's theme word is krummholz, "stunted trees near the timber line on a mountain." The clumsy hermit's logging expedition near the krummholz avoided people but resulted in a lifelong lack of a left hand.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Give me a joke, please

I take attendance by having the students answer a question fill in MadLibs.

A _______ walks into a bar. The bartender says, "______________."

This was intentionally open-ended because I want the students to be a little bit creative, and I'm not sure I've optimally tapped their creative reservoirs of energy-to-come-up-with-something-to-write-on-the-attendance-sheet. (Part of the trick seems to be starting the attendance sheet with someone who writes something witty, so that other students have an example when it gets to them.)

The traditional response, of course, is: A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Why the long face?"

The literalists were there again, for example: A man walks into a bar. The bartender says, "oh wowhaha lol slapstick humor." Also "gymnast / hmmm... I should have put that higher..." and "man / Are you okay? That looked like it hurt."

There were some cute ones:
  • An electron walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Why so negative?"
  • An e-flat walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Sorry, we don't serve minors."
    (Alternate: A person under 21 walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Leave.")
  • A past, present, and future walk into a bar. The bartender says, "This is a tense situation."
  • A bartender walks into a bar. The bartender says, "I quit my job."
  • A bug walks into a bar. The bartender says, "#@$%(%@203åDEL▟"
  • An underscore walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Longer underscore."
  • A backpacker walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Take a hike!"
The recurring Non-SequitAward goes to: A woman walks into a bar. The bartender says quack, because the bartender is a duck.

I truly didn't anticipate that punchline.


This post's theme word is blet (v. tr.), "to overripen to the point of rotting." I'm retiring that joke; I've bletted it thoroughly.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

What is your personal motto?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is your personal motto?

This year had a different tone than last year.

The positive:
  • be happy
  • don't give up
  • You can do it.
The cultural references:
  • Hakuna matata
  • deus vult
  • That's my secret, I'm always dancing.
  • age quod agis
  • just keep swimming
  • You do you.
Those aiming for moderation:
  • no worries
  • it's gonna be okay
  • whatevs
  • Everything is okay.
  • #flawless
  • Learn. Think. Create. 
  • while (alive) { live() }
The climbing-based mottos for climbers who climb enough to justify a climbing-based personal motto, which to my astonishment is a set containing more than one student:
  • More chalk
  • Always heel hook
The unfortunate: "sleep deprived since 2014!"

The decidedly pessimistic note goes to "Never address your problems," and the could-go-either-way pin goes to "Don't care unless it helps you."

The Non-Sequit-Award is tied between "look at dogs a bunch" and simply "bird". (Is "bird" a verb now? What are these youths doing with language nowadays? *shakes fist at sky, mumbles to self*)


This post's theme word is bovarism (n), "a romanticized, unrealistic view of oneself." My motto: be the bovarism I think I am already!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Quoth the raven

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

Quoth the raven, "________________". (See previously.)

Traditionalists were numerous (four!), some with a modern take:

  • nevermore (x 4)
  • forevermore (I know this b/c the Simpsons)
  • evermore
  • never (Swarth)more
  • To Whatever End
Alternate animal noises:
  • tweet
  • moo
  • woof
  • quack?
  • "caw"
  • skrrrrt
  • caawwww
Some students apparently thought the raven was trying to politely decline something, or greeting someone, or continuing an ongoing conversation:
  • hello
  • sup
  • suhhhh
  • hi
  • no
  • eat my shorts
  • I'd rather not
  • party like it's 1999
  • I'm ravin' mad

I have no idea how a raven would pronounce ":(", but I'd like to see it attempted. Similarly, "burp" could be an interesting spectator event.

The "Modernity Makes Me Feel Old" Medallion goes to "that's so raven", for taking my highfalutin' literary reference and turning it into a pop-culture reference accessible exclusively to tween-targeting advertising conglomerates.

The Non-Sequitur Plaque goes to the student who wrote, "*drops cheese". Runner-up is "swallowing in sadness", about which I can only say: [sic].

This post's theme word is otic (adj), "relating to the ear." In a moment of otic confusion, I hallucinated a chortling, cheese-dispensing raven.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Your hidden talent?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is one of your hidden talents?

Once again, my students are brimming with talent. "Sleeping" and "procrastinating" (and variants thereon) were popular, of course --- remember, these are undergraduates. They don't yet know how to sugarcoat those as "restoring my equilibrium" and "organizing my schedule around my personal priorities".

The fundamental talents to cover the bottom part of Maslow's hierarchy.

  • guessing all the ingredients used in a dish
  • catching gummy bears in my mouth (<-- a="" addendum="" an="" disputed="" in="" later="" li="" student="" this="">
  • navigating with cardinal directions (I'm bad at left and right though...)
  • I can distinguish flavors in food really well.
  • putting too much cinnamon in everything somehow

Psychological, middling-Maslow needs might be met by:

  • Calming down a group of 30+ children.
  • appearing unexpectedly

And the only thing for self-actualization is, of course, self-reference and other circular reasoning:

  • Hiding my talents from others.
  • can't tell
  • paying attention to lecture while filling out the attendance sheet

Touché.

I am most astonished by the student who wrote "flying".


This post's theme word is foozle (v), "to botch or bungle", or (n) "a botched attempt at something." I thought I could juggle, but my complete foozle indicates it's a very hidden talent.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What is your favorite kitchen implement?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question. This week's question is sourced from WiCS (I want to give proper attribution, in the spirit of good citation etiquette).

What is your favorite kitchen implement?

Spatulas come out ahead, rubber spatulas in particular. Other single-handed tools are popular, too: ladle, spoon, tongs, whisk, and whatever a "flipperer" is. The two-handed "mortar & pestle" is a cool choice. Many people picked cooking vessels: pan, colander, steamer, toaster, saucepan, or the stove. One person, thinking perhaps of their value on the product of the implement, said "coffee press." The future is always automated by those who pick "stand mixer."

Kudos and the Thinking Big Prize go to "multiple sinks".  The "????" Trophy (a golden plaque covered in question marks) goes to "peanut butter stick", which I can only figure is like a glue stick, but for spreading peanut butter? I'm definitely picturing a cylinder of peanut butter which gets gradually extruded, and which you dispense by friction onto your food.


This post's theme word is kayfabe (n), "portrayal of staged events as real, especially in professional wrestling." The "Kayfabe Cooking Corner" is a little too meta for a cooking show concept --- maybe try something simpler, like: 101 uses for a whisk?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What's your favorite fruit?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What's your favorite fruit?

Students had a clear plurality winner: mango, with 8 votes. Huzzah! Tied for second-place were grapes and pineapples; tied for third place were strawberries and apples. (It's a good smoothie so far.)

Other fruits that appeared: orange, banana, dragon fruit, peach, blueberry, lychee, cucumber, squash. (The smoothie has slightly derailed.)

One worrisome student wrote simply, "nightshade." (No longer a recommended smoothie.)

One fruit-lover picked the entire category of "stone fruit."


The Professor's Apology for a Bureaucratic Mix-Up Award goes to the student who wrote, "the 'being on the list' fruit".


This post's theme word is shermanesque, "brutally thorough, especially in defeating someone." The mango's popularity was shermanesque; other fruits cower in fear.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

If you were a superhero, what power would you have?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

If you were a superhero, what power would you have?

Listed from usual to much less usual, students replied:

  • invisibility
  • flying
  • run fast / super speed
  • teleportation / being in multiple places at once
  • shapeshifting
  • time travel / ability to stop time / napping, but while I nap, time stops
  • slowing time
  • existing forever / immortality
  • I would just be Aquaman
  • superior intellect
  • honestly this might be awful but reading minds
  • rearrange atoms - make whatever I want
  • greening the world
  • produce infinite pasta

I appreciated the computer science-themed answers, too:

  • brute-force algorithms in constant time
  • moving nondeterministically
  • solving P vs. NP


The "Wait, does that mean... ?" prize for most thought-invoking superpower goes to "breaking the fourth wall". A Most Meta Medal goes to the superpower, "make one more person a superhero."

But my favorite was the keep-your-dreams-manageable student whose superpower would simply be "to not be lactose intolerant."


This post's theme word is acnestis, "the part of the body where one cannot reach to scratch." (Etymology: from From Greek aknestis (spine), from Ancient Greek knestis (spine, cheese-grater).) My superpower would be the ability to eliminate my acnestis and satisfy an itch by scratching anywhere!

Monday, September 11, 2017

What does the fox say?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question. Today's timeless question was:

What does the fox say?

I ask because I actually do not know the answer --- are foxes one of those animals that emits a human-like scream? I have a vague memory of learning something like this. One student confirmed: "It sounds like children crying and is super creepy."

Many people answered with onomatopoeia or other sounds:

  • ahhhhhhhh!
  • moo
  • ughh
  • screaming in the Crum
  • WA WA WA WA WA WA WA WA WA WA WA WA WA WA WA
  • meow
  • ring ding ding ding ding ga ding
  • "..."
  • qwak
  • bleh
  • oo
  • wah
  • nati nati nati noo
  • QUACK!
... of which my clear favorite is the callback reference that foxes make "Bluth family chicken noises" (reference).

Then there were the replies that suggest the fox can speak (sometimes at length):
  • noooooooooooooo
  • I'm sleepy
  • suhhh, dude
  • bird
  • Hello I am a fox
  • stop talking about me
Then there were the editorial answers, describing what the fox says rather than rendering what the fox says:
  • nothing
  • It's Monday, the fox is still sleeping
  • Too much annoying stuff
  • Isn't there a song about this?
  • This song was way too popular
  • I disagree. This song was not popular enough and we should bring it back.

This post's theme word is bombilate, "to make a humming or buzzing noise." The fox snuck up on me without bombilating! -- how is that even possible?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question. I didn't manage to find her last year, so I asked again:

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

The unsure:
  • IDK
  • who dat
  • no idea
  • Wonderful question, I'm from the South.
I guess Carmen Sandiego might be a regional/cultural thing.

Some students suggested a good collection of places I'm totally willing to go in an around-the-world montage/vacation:
  • Toledo, Spain
  • San Jose
  • Los Angeles
  • San Diego
  • Cornfield, USA (<-- --="" an="" challenge:="" finding="" have="" i="" li="" location="" might="" slightly="" such="" trouble="" underspecified="">
  • on Earth (<-- --="" ditto="" even="" li="" more="" underspecified="">
  • Gallifrey (<-- --="" a="" challenge:="" challenge="" distance="" expenses="" hugely="" li="" pose="" significant="" still="" time="" travel="" underspecified="">
  • Swarthmore-specific answers, of course:
    • Clothier
    • Swarthmore
    • Willets 325
    • on my comp in 2005
    • here<-- attendance="" be="" for="" just="" li="" might="" present="" registering="" someone="">
    • Bell Tower
    • in class
    The remaining answers were eclectic. On-topic for Algorithms Award goes to "unsure, but there's probably an algorithm we can use to find out." The Unhelpfullest in Searching Prize is tied between "wherever you look last" and "Have you checked under the couch?" The Trophy of Nerd Supremacy goes to "Schrodinger's Box, with the cat."


    This post's theme word is retral (adj), "located at the back" or "backward." The professor calls on the retral students first, so sit near the front!

    Thursday, September 7, 2017

    How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?

    I take attendance by asking the students a question.

    How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?

    • As much as woodchuckily possible.
    • all the wood that a woodchuck could chuck if it could chuck wood
    • too much ☹
    • lots
    • Lot 51
    • depends on if he had a snack before
    • depends on his emotions
    • a truckload
    • a chuckload
    • O(n*n)
    • at least 17
    • 10 pieces of wood
    • some
    • 2
    • none 😑
    • *if* a woodchuck could chuck wood
    The most popular answer was "enough." Official Tip of the Cap to "to get to the other side" for making fun of the questions, and Professor's Preferred Award to "We only need to prove that the wood exists, nothing more."

    Previously on: Algorithms.

    This post's theme word is loblolly, "a thick gruel", "a mire or mudhole," "an assistant to a ship's surgeon," "a pine tree with long needles and strong wood", or "an evergreen." The lobllolly prescribed me loblolly made of loblolly while I recovered from my motorbike accident. What happened? Oh, I hit a loblolly and fell into a loblolly, then the loblolly fell atop me.

    Wednesday, September 6, 2017

    Why did the chicken cross the road?

    I take attendance by having students answer a question.

    Why did the chicken cross the road?

    Two traditional people went for "to get to the other side."
    Others made it bird- or chicken- specific:
    • to beat the egg
    • because it's a bird.
    • to avoid being dinner
    • to become dinner
    • to escape the farm
    • to get hit by a car
    • Chipotle > Chick-Fil-A
    Many people tried to make this question class-specific:
    • to study algorithms
    • to get to the other side in constant time
    • the algorithm told it to
    • to study the runtime of doing so
    • to find its friend on the trail
    • to add this class (from the waitlist)
    • I'm tired. & trying to pay attention to what we're doing in class
    ... ouch. I try to make the class fun, engaging, and interesting, but I guess there can be such a thing as too many attention-grabbing events. I'll try to rein it in.

    Others went off on in various directions:
    • deep question...
    • for cookiez
    • cuz it was bored
    • to do what it was destined to do
    • because it had a reason to do so.
    • to look at the sparkly thing
    • It's a mobius strip.
    • entropy?
    • It forgot its phone.
    • because it did
    • so that it could be right (it was on the left side)
    The teacher's favorite award goes to "motion is an illusion." I'm thrilled to hear it!


    This post's theme word is dégustation, "the careful, appreciative tasting of various foods, focusing on the gustatory system, the senses, high culinary art and good company; more likely to involve sampling small portions of all of a chef's signature dishes in one sitting." (This was one of the specific French vocabulary words I only acquired after subtly translating with my phone under the restaurant table.) Welcome to our cheese dégustation! I recommend you start at this end of the table.

    Tuesday, September 5, 2017

    I Hate Everyone But You

    Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn (comedy duo with YouTube channel Just Between Us) write/create/star in funny video sketches, and vlogging(?)/advice snippets, and also have now written a book!

    The book is called i hate everyone but you, and it is a modern epistolary novel --- it consists of text messages and emails sent between two friends (parallelling the real-life friendship and characters of the authors). The book contains some pop culture references, some timely culture references (the issues of today!), and lots of feelings between best friends attending college on opposite sides of the continent. In two completely different ways, they manage to have "usual" college first-year experiences, with the added update (from my now out-of-date memories) that everyone has a smartphone all the time, which makes documenting and contacting anyone instantaneously available.

    I liked it. The book was cute (it's marketed as YA, so it's a little outside my usual reading zone) and funny. In an amusing meta-twist, one character suggested to the other, "Maybe start a YouTube channel! Those things can blow up!" (p. 109), and later links to the Just Between Us channel and says "You're such an Allison" (p. 282) to the obviously-an-Allison-analogue character. 

    I also appreciated the overwrought, highly-dramatic versions of their lives that the characters wrote in emails; there are certainly emails in my own "sent" folder that are as ridiculous, condensed, and silly. In the midst of juggling a description of many people attending a party, we have this snippet (p. 158):
    Cassidy preferred to join a grating conversation about the semicolon. He could later be heard quoting Oscar Wilde from the other room. The night proceeded without further incident until...
    Possibly it's not as funny without the context, but I'm unwilling to type in pages of text and besides, you should read it for yourself! It's a quick, fun read.


    This post's theme word is tarnal, "damned." The comments section is full of the tarnal dregs of the internet.

    Monday, September 4, 2017

    What is your favorite color?

    Welcome back! Today we celebrated labor in the traditional manner: by laboring!

    'Twas the first day of classes. I took attendance by asking students a question. Here at the beginning, while I'm getting to know them and they are getting to know me, I try to ease them in to the practice of answering a question.

    Usually, of course, these questions are rather open-ended and have no correct answer. I ask them for the sake of amusement, and a chance to make a silly joke, and a way to occasionally learn something new about my students. However, this question has a correct answer.

    What is your favorite color?

    Among the wrong answers, "blue" was again a clear crowd favorite, with purple and gold far behind, and everything else isolated singletons. "All in the spectrum of ocean blues" covered most of this swath, plus added poetry to the otherwise terse answers.

    Two outliers liked "beige" and "gray", respectively, which seems like it might hint at a hipster trend in preference for blandness? I'm old, what do I know, these millennials, am I right? Last year someone liked "light tan", so maybe I should collect these students and help them form some sort of special interest group.

    Several students correctly answered "green", though they might have outside knowledge that informed this answer.

    The One-Quirked-Eyebrow Prize goes to the student who, following their heart, answered "heron."


    This post's theme word is handsel or hansel, which is either a noun, "a gift for good luck given at the beginning of a new venture," or "a first payment or installment", or a transitive verb, "to inaugurate or do something for the first time." Declaring "green" is a good hansel, but I will expect much more from you in the future.

    Friday, August 25, 2017

    "C" is for creepy Cortana

    Cortana is the Microsoft version of Alexa, who is the Amazon version of Siri, who is Apple's version of an embryonic Skynet, as fantasized by data-driven marketers who prefer all subservient voices to be feminized. She's just as creepy, intrusive, and frightening as the others. I can't figure out how to turn her off. After disabling her once, I am now on a screen, quoth:
    Hey, look, it's the "me"part of set-up! Can I have permission to use the info I need to do my best work? 
    To let Cortana provide personalized experiences and relevant suggestions including when your device is locked, Microsoft collects and uses information including your location and location history, contacts, voice input, speech patterns, searching history, relationships, calendar details, email, content and communication history from text messages, instant messages and apps, and other information on your device. In Microsoft Edge, Cortana uses your browsing history.
    FUCK NO. This paragraph makes my skin crawl; it makes me want to incite a lawsuit; it could be the summary voice-over for the beginning of a movie about stalkers and abusive relationships.

    Later, in a more detailed explanation, they say,
    When your location is used by a location-aware app or service, your location information and recent location history is stored on your device and sent to Microsoft in a de-identified format to improve location services.
    The red flag here is de-identified, which basically means "schoolchildren in 2025 will be able to link this data to your name and fingerprints as part of routine homework assignments." De-identified means "your privacy is not really protected against anyone clever, or educated, or with enough data" --- and that almost certainly includes the reams of data that are being collected by this very procedure. In fact, a little later in the same document,
    As you use Windows, we collect diagnostics data... This data is transmitted to Microsoft and stored with one or more unique identifiers that can help us recognize an individual user on an individual device...
    This documentation also says that some of the data collected may "unintentionally include"... as if anything about this human-authored operating system were unintentional.

    The entire new-Windows-device setup --- with the four separate times I have now disabled my own device from eavesdropping and blurting out perky spoken questions --- was very slimy. It feels like a modern update of Clippy, that universally-reviled and -mocked piece of computing history. Basically, it has convinced me that I definitely do not own my device, the data on it, or any analytics about how it is used. (There is no way to turn off automatic updates, either.) So I'll only be using it for the one program I want, instead of as a multipurpose computing device.


    This post's theme word is deterge, "to wash, wipe, or cleanse." I require a psychic emollient to deterge the scummy Big Brother sense of using a Windows device.

    Sunday, August 6, 2017

    Video consumption

    I know what you're thinking. You're wondering, "what can I watch and listen to to better imitate Lila in thought, action, and deed?" This blog is for you, oh my sycophants, and of course also for my parents, who are approximately 2/3 of my readership. (That's a lower bound.)

    Since reading a heap of Hugo 2017 nominees, I've swung far to the other side (while still voraciously reading) and watched... some... movies. (Gasp!) Don't worry, I retain my innate personhood, and independently-verified snarkiness readings have been off the charts this summer, so I'm not losing my precious "edge."

    In this blog post:

    • Wonderwoman
    • Star Trek: III (*reboot timeline)
    • Pitch Perfect
    • Vikings
    • The Rise of Catherine the Great


    Wonderwoman was reportedly a male-gaze-free movie (see this and this), but it seemed plenty gaze-y to me, with lots and lots of glamour shots, power posing, and wind-blowing-directly-through-hair. Her appearance was its own subplot! Also, years of weightlifting have left me perpetually dissatisfied with the insufficiently-muscled arms of women playing physically strong characters. If she is actually going to overhead press an entire tank, then could she please have visibly-defined triceps? I suspect that even by examining her physical appearance this closely, I am somehow contributing to a cultural problem.

    The coolest part of the movie was that, during a climactic fight, an explosion temporarily deafened Wonderwoman and the audience. This meant that even the dramatic music cut out, which was a fantastic way to show that the fight was still tense, visceral, and compelling, even without the swelling music and loud explosions. Without even being able to tell what characters were shouting at each other! Unfortunately, the movie retconned this cool moment several minutes later by having a flashback in which all audio was restored. Boo.

    As for plot: no comment from me; I don't understand how the marketing-fandom-executive trifecta synergy works; superhero movies make no sense. I once saw a kabuki play in Japanese in Tokyo, and I got a last-minute ticket for the second act only. There were no surtitles, so I had no idea what the plot was, I could not understand the speaking, and every single gesture and facet of the performance and set seemed imbued with a mystical relevance that I could only hypothesize. This was basically the same, except much less interesting.

    I tried watching Star Trek: a third thing, as endless scifi sequels are probably easier to comprehend, but I found it was replete with the same sort of overhashed writing. As if the script was an amalgam of several scripts, and even that script was lost about halfway through shooting. I think there were several plot points that could have been solved by characters just talking with each other, or occasionally sending a text message. This is in keeping with (apparent) modern movie-writing style. Honestly I tried to forget this as soon as it ended, because it didn't include any cool effects and there was no unreliable narrator. Why bother?

    Pitch Perfect was a much better palate-cleanser, for being fairly bland with little bits of cute music and several lines that seemed both realistic and funny. It left unexplained how a singing group that spends most of its time practicing a dance routine can manage to perform musically-complex arrangements flawlessly, but ... it also didn't explain how so many 25-30 year-olds were in college.

    Vikings is basically Toxic Masculinity: The Historical Drama. I watched it because I am waiting for the next season of Versailles to be released, and I wanted to see more George Blagden performances. It's weird to see Louis XIV dressed up as a grime-covered heathen. I couldn't stomach very much of this show, as it relied too much on close-up shots of men brooding over their own hurt egos and deciding to murder each other (and ancillary women and children). That's not plot development, IMHO.

    The Rise of Catherine the Great was terrific!

    ... which, I mean, of course I liked this. It was a dramatized history, with very slow plot progress, in German and Russian (and some French), with subtitles. All "place settings" were untranslated onscreen, and also untranslated were the numerous times that the camera looked over someone's shoulder as they wrote a politically-significant letter in Russian. I suppose it might be intellectual snobbery, but I actually enjoyed it a lot more because of the linguistic authenticity, even though that made it less directly accessible to me. Aside from the language, the slow plot, the lovely costumes, ... how to explain my delight? Oh, that's right: a historical digression.

    Once, when I had roommates with Netflix, my influence on the group Netflix profile became clear when the mysterious, opaque genre-generating algorithm suggested an entire collection of videos under the heading "British Period Pieces Featuring a Strong Female Lead". This series -- though not British -- fits squarely into that concept-space. I found it by only lightly-algorithmically-influenced browsing, but I'm confident that I would have found it faster Netflixily.

    I recommend it.

    I also recommend, you know, reading books. Lots of them (I've now added several histories of Russia to my queue). If that's not your style, then the other summer 2017 Lila fashion is singing to yourself in the car: try it today!


    This post's theme word is quiff (n), "a tuft of hair brushed up above the forehead," or "a woman considered as promiscuous." The production featured several historically-accurate quiffs!

    Wednesday, August 2, 2017

    We're done, Verizon. [mic drop]

    ... and I'm out (previously: In which I am about to cancel my Verizon home DSL and Verizon update). The service continued to be terrible, intermittent with bad. Both options were disagreeable to me, as a customer, but the variability was even more frustrating. Could they not simply deliver a consistently bad service?

    I priced it out, measured my usage and the bandwidth available, and I'll get more consistent, sufficient service by doing almost anything else. My personal favorite is to inscribe individual packets by hand on nuts, and pass these off to squirrels and birds, who by means of their own mysterious communication networks, eventually pass me back the data I requested. (Current bug: this arrives in the timing and placement of bird poops on my car windshield, which I must decode by hand. Don't worry, I'm writing a script to do it automatically.)

    In a practice which apparently recurs annually, I add to my list of "forsworn companies" every August. This time it's Verizon: never again, Verizon. You have forced me to listen to at least 10 cumulative hours of your "on hold" music. Never again.


    This post's theme word is inveigle (v. tr.), "to get something or to persuade someone to do something by deception or flattery." They could no longer inveigle me into subscribing to the service.

    Friday, July 28, 2017

    Verizon update

    An update: the squeaky wheel does, indeed, get the grease.

    After being maximally noisy in a public forum (Twitter) and expressing, at length and in excruciating detail, my dissatisfaction to a customer service agent, Verizon did actually restore my service yesterday evening.

    When I say "restore", I mean "restore" --- for example, this morning when I awoke, my modem required a reboot before I was connected to the internet again. (This is pretty standard for my experience of Verizon's home DSL; it often stops working when left unattended, and requires a reboot to connect to the network properly again.)

    My subscription-abandonment is forestalled, but that sword of Damocles continues to dangle...


    This post's theme word is fulminate, "to explode or cause to explode" or "to issue denunciations." My fulminating rage is tamped down, temporarily.

    Thursday, July 27, 2017

    In which I am about to cancel my Verizon home DSL

    I have not had home internet service since July 18th. My provider is Verizon DSL. At this point I have called, emailed, tweeted, and interacted with their phone/troubleshooting menu so many times that I am bored and incredibly frustrated with the system. I might just cancel --- which would be functionally indistinguishable from my current situation of no internet connection, with the exception that I'd know I could stop trying to get them to fix it, and also stop anticipating that they'll send me a bill for this non-service.

    Are you a Verizon agent, customer service representative, or technician? Let me answer your questions.

    • The DSL light on my modem is blinking red.
    • Yes, it continues blinking red even if I reboot the modem. Go ahead and "run diagnostics" from your end.
    • The modem is plugged directly into the phone jack, with no splitter.
    • This situation persists even if I use a different phone cable to plug the modem into the jack.
    • I do not use my home phone service and don't have a corded telephone, so I can't tell you if the phone is working.
    Previously (see my outage from July 4 -- July 7, for which you have a ticket in your system), you sent a technician (the helpful Joe!) to my home. He confirmed that the problem was in your wiring infrastructure that delivers the signal to my home, and not inside my home itself. 

    "There is a ticket for the Central Office." since July 19th... but no progress. 
    • I called on July 19 --- I was told that someone would come to my home July 20, and I needed to be at home from 8am to noon.
    • I called July 20, at noon, when no one had come --- I was told that no one was coming, after all, because the problem was in the infrastructure of Verizon's wired network, but it would be repaired by 4pm today.
    • I called July 21, in the evening, when I still had no service --- was told that they're working on it, it will be fixed in 24-48 hours, and to stop calling. Verizon would certainly call me with any updates.
    There have been no updates.
    • I tweeted @verizon today --- got three different replies, asking questions answered by the bulleted information points above, then got sent to a Verizon chat window.
    • In chat, was told that "there is a ticket for the Central Office", which will take 24-48 hours to reply via email, at which point I'll get an update from "Verizon Social Media Team" on Twitter.
    I'm not optimistic about actually receiving any promised update. (I'm going to wait until the end of the day today, though, before cancelling --- on the off chance that they do actually manage to make progress and get back to me.)

    Alternatives? Verizon FIOS (recommended by my neighbors on NextDoor) is not available at my address, so my only alternative internet provider is Comcast. By consensus on NextDoor, Comcast service is terrible and customer service is worse. At this point, tethering my computer to my cell phone looks like the cheapest and most effective way to get home internet service. 


    This post's theme word is pernancy (n), "a taking or receiving of rent, profit, etc." Charging for a nonexistent service is atrocious pernancy.

    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.

    Wednesday, May 31, 2017

    Theory of computation jokes

    I encouraged my students to write jokes (about the course subject matter!) on the back cover of the midterm and final exams. (Writing a joke was worth 1 point of extra credit.)

    I then foolishly didn't copy these jokes into my permanent lecture notes! I chalk this up to my first-year teaching experience; I'll not make such a grievous error again.

    I only remember a few, usually the GROAN-inducing ones; so here, with no attribution, I share them with you below.

    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!