Archive for ‘books’

2017/01/02

January Second

So yesterday we made 144 dumplings (or 145, or possibly 143, or even 146); this seems like a small number!  The Records are surprisingly spotty in recent years, but apparently we made 203 in 2013 (I don’t recall noticing the coincidence before)and 159 in 2012.  Older records are currently inaccessible because of the whole “I’m not entirely sure who it was that used to be hosting my personal websites, but they’ve stopped” situation.

I ought to do something about that sometime.

Anyway, although they were gross (haha!), the dumplings were as always delicious. Possibly even more delicious than sometimes, due to every last spoonful of an entire jar of Hoisin Sauce going into the mix, which it’s possible we don’t always do.

I finished The Throwback Special, which the little daughter gave me for Solstice, and Said Things about it on The GoodReads:

The Throwback Special
(4/5 stars)

A relatively mundane (if odd) event, told in often sparkling, lovely, mordant, satirical, effulgent, ironic, occasionally entirely over-the-top prose. The characters constantly overthink everything, and the author overthinks on top of that, so every event is garlanded with emotion, dilemma, philosophy, elation, dread. It is funny, silly, deep, insightful.

You will annoy those around you by reading sentences aloud.

and I did in fact annoy (and/or amuse) those around me by reading sentences aloud, and also sent the little daughter random texts like

Tommy’s face looked weird because he was doing exercises to strengthen his pelvic floor.

which is in fact a quote from the book.

Oh, and Happy New Year! Here is my Second Life New Year Card, whose sentiments apply to all y’all RL (as we say) persons as well.  Kindness and compassion, kindness and compassion.

(The people in the picture are, as is traditional, both me.  I have never lured M into Second Life; I suspect she thinks it is weird.)

Back to work tomorrow!  Which, despite involving getting up entirely too early and spending hours away from home and all, I am in various ways looking forward too; still loving Google, and the commute, and the City.

Now to choose another book to read.  And to continue mostly not playing WoW!

 

 

 

 

2015/07/10

Not a good comparison

97

My mind is like the Autumn moon
Shining clean and clear in the green pool.
No, that’s not a good comparison.
Tell me, how shall I explain?

Han Shan, Cold Mountain (trans. Burton Watson)

I dreamed last night (or I probably did; see below) that I was with some people, and we were laughing about someone who claimed that they’d been officially declared Enlightened by some mystical Teacher, and someone asked me, hey, you’re all into that Zen stuff, I’d think you’d take this more seriously?

And I nodded and said something like:

You know, except for a few annoying [something] sects, it’s not like you go to your teacher and show how you’ve progressed and eventually the teacher says “okay good, you’re enlightened now”.  They might say “okay, keep going” or “okay, here’s what you should work on next” or even like “okay, I think you are ready to teach some students of your own”, but never “okay, you’re enlightened”, that would be just…

and I shook my head and laughed.

(Where the [something] was some Japanese or Chinese word, maybe kensho, or RInzai (no offense to any Rinzai folk in the waking world), or some dream-word entirely, but there was a word there.)

The reason I say above there that I probably dreamed this last night is that it’s like the most literal, ordinary, realistic, unadorned dream I can recall having had, so it’s not by any means impossible that it wasn’t a dream at all, but actually happened sometime recently, and I’ve just lost track of the actual time and place and details and who was there and what that missing word was and all.

It all sort of blurs together, amirite?

So I say to you,
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

ol’ Buddha, the Diamond Sutra (right at the end there)

2015/02/03

A footnote in Kaufmann’s translation of “I and Thou”

I was struck just now to find, tucked away at the end of a footnote discussing the technical details of one of the many tricky bits of translation in Buber’s “I and Thou”, this paragraph from Kaufmann:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disputing it.

It is easy to read this as a sort of jarring Philistinism, as though Kaufmann is wondering wistfully (or grumpily) why Buber has to use all of these coinages and poetic turns of phrase, all of these images and metaphors, rather than laying out his argument clearly, in simple and common words, perhaps as a set of bulleted lists (maybe a PowerPoint deck!), so that one could analyze it logically and decide whether or not it’s likely to be true.

Which seems like a hysterically inappropriate thing to think, given that what Buber is doing here is laying out a particular way of thinking about the nature of reality and each individual’s relationship to God (or equivalent). A deeply personal way of seeing the world, that he invites the reader to consider, and (implicitly) to adopt or not according to taste.

This isn’t really a thing that admits of being true or false, or of being expressed in plain and simple words (or at least of words where “what is meant” is immediately evident without special attention being paid to the question).

For me at least, Buber is saying, “think of the things we do as divided into two kinds: the I-It and the I-You; then think of…”. This is in the imperative, and doesn’t admit of being true or false (or likely or unlikely).

And surely Kaufmann, being the translator of the silly thing, realizes this.

I see only three plausible theories here so far: that Kaufmann is just pulling our leg in this paragraph (which would be wonderful); that there is an entirely different way of understanding Buber under which the paragraph makes more sense (I would be very curious what that way is); and that Kaufmann really does fail to understand the material as anything more than muzzily-expressed truth-claims that, if only more concretely written down, one could study objectively in the lab (this seems both the most obvious, and in some way the least plausible, explanation).

It’s a funny world. :)

2014/12/30

Liebe ist ein welthaftes Wirken

Kaufmann translates this, from Buber’s “I and Thou”, as “love is a cosmic force”, but gives us the original in a footnote to see for ourselves.

One thing I like about German and how synthetic it is (in the technical sense that I just learned; I was going to say “agglutinative“, but that turns out to be wrong) is that you can look at the parts of many words, and see how the meaning compares to the sum of those parts.

The most simple-minded translation of that phrase might be “Love is a worldly work”, which has the same nice consonance of double-ues, but a very different sense, since the English “worldly” has strong connotations that are almost the opposite of Kaufmann’s “cosmic”.

It’s interesting that the translator chose “force” here, rather than the obvious “work” (which would have read a bit awkwardly), or perhaps “act”. Because Buber is talking about love in the context of “those who stand in it and behold in it”, “force” probably makes more sense than “act”, since you can stand in a force (a force field!), but not so much in an act.

$50 FINEBut then I wonder why Buber wrote Wirken rather than say Kraft. And then I am at, or perhaps well beyond, the very end of my competence as a translator. :)

The other day the little daughter, watching me staring into my phone and clicking and swiping without end, commented more or less “you’re taking in so much content; I don’t know if that’s healthy”.

I found myself very much in agreement with that thought, and put the phone away (temporarily) and looked at various stacks of books sitting unread here and there, and picked up “I and Thou”, read the Acknowledgements and Translator’s Key, skipped Kaufmann’s very long Prologue (these things should generally be at the end of a book, in my ever so humble opinion, so that one can encounter the work itself with more or less fresh eyes, and then read the prologue-writer’s thoughts about it afterward, when one has already one’s own ideas to compare them to), and started very slowly into the work (Werk, Wirken, Kunstwerk?) itself.

It’s a very dense book, or feels like it deserves to be treated as such, which means that I have to be careful not to spend so much time on each sentence that I eventually drift off and do other things before I get past the first chapter.

As I tweeted not long after starting (and yeah, I know; somehow Twitter and the Face Book and now even plague have all taken up residence in my ways of relating to the world):

I can’t of course actually empty the cup, and I admit I’m not really trying all that hard to.

Currently, a few more pages in, I’m wondering if Buber will go from talking about the ineffable relating that is I-You (and that he identifies with, or as, love in some sense), to a realization that the duality present even in I-You (because after all there is still I, and You) is at some level an illusion. Because that would be so Buddhist.

There are no sentient beings,
And I vow to save them.

It will be interesting either way; if he does get to some kind of non-duality, I’m sure it will have a flavor all its own. If he doesn’t, it will be interesting to see if he simply stops short of it, actively considers and denies it, or goes off in some other direction entirely.

I’ve been meaning to read this book since college sometime :) and it’s nice to finally get to it.

Solstice was nice, thank you for asking, if a little atypical. All four of us were here together, but instead of the usual Christmas Dinner with ham an’ all, we went out to the local diner.

The story: M smelled gas in the basement, so on I forget maybe the 22nd we had the gas man come and test things, and he found there was a leak somewhere in the kitchen range, and while we were moving the range out from the wall it got caught on something and when we pushed on it a little to get it past the something, the entire glass front of the oven door very enthusiastically shattered into a zillion pieces and fell onto the floor.

That was exciting!

We called the appliance place who sent out a person who determined that the range was old enough to vote, and that no one makes parts for it anymore (either for replacing the door glass or fixing any possible leak).

A new range arrived yesterday and I have baked my first loaves of bread in it, but between the breaking of the old and the installing of the new we could cook only in the microwave and crockpot, and although we considered trying to design a satisfying Solstice dinner around those, in the end we decided the local Diner would be more fun.

And it was very nice.

How do Diners do it, by the way; anyone know? How can you have that enormous a menu of available things, and be able to produce absolutely any of them in a reasonably short span of time? Are they all designed to be producible from some smallish set of ingredients, and you keep those around and ready at all times? Do all of the chefs know how to make all of the things? Are there big recipe books? Or do they look at the menu when the order comes in, figure out what you are probably expecting, and wing it?

2014/08/25

Fifteen years!

Wow, you’d think something would have changed after a week away; flying cars, or aliens walking around Manhattan, or at least a new subway line or something, but NO, everything is pretty much just the same!

Weird.

Extremely attentive and/or precognitive readers will suspect rightly that we were away for a week because we were in Maine; the first time that happened was in 1999, and this is 2014, so it’s been fifteen years!

And since that first Maine trip was when I started writing a weblog, and this is in some sense the same weblog as that, this is the fifteenth anniversary of the weblog!

Woot!

Here is a picture of Maine:

Renewal

Isn’t that gorgeous? Along with M’s sister’s family, and their father and stepmother, we rented a house on top of Dodge Mountain, overlooking Rockland and the bay and points East, with a lovely deck, and chairs to sit in, and tables to put your book and your wineglass on, and beds to sleep in, and all.

It was great.

I did a lot of reading, as usual. That book there is “Karma and Rebirth” by Christmas (sic) Humphries. I wrote it up for GoodReads (hope that link works for not-me people).

(I will resist the obvious temptation to produce lots of weblog content by pasting in all various book reviews I have written instead of just linking to them!)

I read that because I happened across it in some used book store (perhaps Hello Hello Books?), shortly after watching Hemant Mehta’s rather offputting “Can Atheists be Buddhists“, and it seemed like a nice synchronicity.

The Mehta piece is offputting for a few reasons:

  • His conclusion is basically “no”, and I’m sort of both of those things, so yeah.
  • The reason his conclusion is basically “no” is that, he says, although Buddhists don’t believe in a deity, they do believe some stuff (specifically Karma and Rebirth) that Isn’t Scientific, and therefore atheists won’t believe it.
  • This implies that for Mehta “atheist” doesn’t just mean “doesn’t believe in God” for some value of “God”, it means “only believes stuff that is Scientific”, and that seems like just sloppy thinking or sloppy word-usage or something,
  • His conclusion that Karma and Rebirth are Not Scientific seems very offhand and not particularly well thought out; as for that matter is his assumption that all Buddhists believe in either or both of them in any form.

Some day I will have to write a post on Buddhism and Scientificness and Karma and Rebirth and all, and why atheists can in fact be Buddhists, and vice-versa, at least when they are me. Not today, though. :)

Another book, that I’m sure I bought in Hello Hello Books (which is a great bookstore, by the way), and then I read and enjoyed very much, is Doris Grumbach’s “The Pleasure of Their Company”, which I also wrote up for GoodReads. It was good.

I do love lying about in Maine, feeling the wind and reading books and thinking about things.

Also I went out on a boat! And held a lobster!

Here is a picture from on the boat, with the notable deck hand Dana holding the lobster in question:

Dana with the lobster

and here is the lobster, with parts of my hand holding it:

Lobster

and a little girl looking dubious in the background.

We did many other things in Maine! I took three of the four kids to the beach one day, but the sun was behind clouds and the sand was too wet and rocky and the waves too small and they got cold, so we didn’t stay very long.

Here are some rocks!

Rocks

They do look coldish.

We went into Rockland a couple of times (although sadly we were not in town for this

Internet Cats

which I bet would have been noteworthy), and into Camden a couple of times (here is a classy black-and-white shot of some water in Camden:

Water in Camden

just because we are posting lots of pictures; more and/or different ones can as usual be found on the Insta-Gram).

Reading back through some of the various Maine and post-Maine postings in the weblog over the years, I see lots of variety in terms of thoughtfulness, randomness, introspection, and so on. I did feel introspective, in a good way, and renewed, in a good way, by it all this year, but in writing about it I’m mostly just writing random things, I think. :)

Maybe largely because I didn’t feel like writing about it at all while I was there (too busy doing it?), and now am writing about it retrospectively, having been home for a couple of days and back to work one day, so somewhat back in the quotidian mindset. Or something?

Here is another picture :) this one of ol’ Red’s Eats (where we didn’t eat this year) as randomly enhanced in its usual drive-by way by Google Plus:

Red's Eats

Kinda neat, I thought.

What else? I read some other books, acquired some other books, sat zazen a bit, had some thoughts, drank some wine, ate some lobster and some blueberry pie, enjoyed some sun and wind.

And I’m not unhappy to be home. :)

About all one could ask for, really!

2014/08/04

Eventual thread convergence

Speaking of the really bad science in teevee shows like Numb3rs, and speaking a long time ago about that really annoying book that Stephen Wolfram wrote, we are extremely amused to read that:

Wolfram Research served as the mathematical consultant for the CBS television series Numb3rs, a show about the mathematical aspects of crime-solving.

Wahahaha.

No further comment required.

2014/05/25

The Daisy Knitter

Because everyone’s schedule was actually going to be in sync, we had all four of us planned some time back to go down to the Zoo today. We recently realized that it was going to be Memorial Day Weekend, and were a bit worried that the Zoo might be unpleasantly crowded.

We needn’t have worried, because as it turned out the Zoo was completely inaccessible.

(After an hour or so waiting in traffic, we got within shouting distance of a parking lot entrance that was closed with a LOT FULL sign. A topless young man jumped out of the car ahead of us and went over and talked to the people in orange vests near the sign; as he was coming back M called out the window to him “What did they say?”.

“We’re fucked!” was the metaphorically accurate reply.)

So we drove Northward a bit to Peekskill, had coffee and hung out at the Coffee House (I got a tee shirt!), took pictures on our cellular phones, looked at lots and lots of books at The Bruised Apple, had yummy little pizzas, I mean flatbread, at Gleason’s, and (not in this order) wandered through the Flea Market buying random things.

The most notable random thing I bought was this:

artifact

(shown larger than actual size).

When I asked the owner of the case it was in (with various pieces of costume jewelry, old pocket knives, police whistles, compasses) how much it was, he said “Ah, you’ve got a good eye, look at this”, and he showed me that, if you twist the knob in the center, a stubby bit of wire pokes out from the end of each of those ribs you see radiating from the center in the picture. “That’s five dollars.”

A bargain, clearly! So I bought it.

(Here is an image of it with the wires extended, too.)

And, this being the future, I was able to type the patent number into my cellular telephone while standing there at the Flea Market, and determine that my new possession is technically speaking a Former for Artificial Flowers, patented by Antonia Dolia in 1930 or so.

Turning of the disc on completion of the operation varies its position and withdraws the wires 5 within the casing, the formed flower being thus free for removal to leave the device free for further manufacture.

So with that, and having a nice day in the car and in Peekskill, in lovely weather, with the all-four-of-us family, this has been a lovely day, despite the inaccessibility of the Zoo.

Now the little daughter has gone for a quick tango-related jaunt into The City, and the little boy is off somewhere with his chums, and M and I are sitting here typing on computers and watching people hit tennis balls about on the television.

Earlier I was reading Fred Pohl’s “The Annals of the Heechee”, but got really really tired of being told like three times per page about how Robinette Broadhead is a computer program, and how that means he is so much faster and more parallel than meat people, that I put it down to do something less tedious.

You can therefore partly thank Pohl’s bit of Mary-Sue-ism for this weblog entry. :)

Him, and the (patented) Daisy Knitter.

Now I am thinking of taking this plain grey tee shirt that I have and maybe tie dyeing it with bleach or something. Or maybe a nap…

2014/05/11

Blurbs and Synopses

Tully

When her live-in boyfriend loses his job and starts drinking, Tulia dreads becoming like the battered women in the shelter where she works. Then one night while he is out on the town, a seriously injured woman appears in her apartment, calling herself Tully, which was Tulia’s childhood nickname. She talks incoherently about the Peace Corps, which Tulia almost joined years ago, before losing consciousness. Dealing with the riddle of this other self will set Tulia’s life, and Tully’s, on end.

booksSounds of the Tide

In a series of brief summer meetings over a dozen years, a young man and an older woman invent their own kind of love on a rocky New England beach.

Snack Bar Only

A man whose life is at loose ends takes an introspective cross-country tour of golf-course restaurants, in a covered pickup truck.

The King of Storyville

A fictionalized account of the red-light district of New Orleans in the early XXth Century, loosely centered around the career of jazzman Joe Oliver.

Levels

In a world sharply divided into the wealthy few and the desperate many, a brother and sister from the wrong side of the tracks stumble on a secret that could re-make everything, if they can stay alive long enough to reveal it.

Two Loaves of Bread

Lucia and Maria are children together, baking bread in the community ovens. As they grow up they also grow apart, until decades later they encounter each other on opposite sides of a heated political battle, and the past and present collide.

Whisper through the Flames

With the U.S. and China on a brink of an apocalyptic war, enigmatic messages apparently sent from the future may hold the only hope of survival.

VOZ

The surreal tale of the collapse of a major corporation, as those around it descend into chaos and strange magic.

Usually Night

A collection of poems about humanity’s efforts, national and international, to travel to space and back; illustrated, with accompanying notes from the authors.

2014/05/09

I get snarky on Dan Brown’s “Inferno”

All sorts of many things have been happening, and I have not been weblogifying about them!

(I have been posting pictures of some of the more visual ones, which you can look at and get some vague, or precise, ideas.)

But I did finish (the Kindle edition of) Dan Brown’s Inferno, and I wrote a snarky review of it for Amazon (because it was awful and being snarky is fun), so here ya go!

Mediocre (two stars)

So mostly this is the usual rather awful Dan Brown novel, with one pleasing twist, and one piece of additional awfulness to make up for it.

It’s the usual awful Dan Brown because it is basically an implausible scavenger hunt starring the annoying Robert Langdon, who is even more distracted than usual by historical and architectural trivia while he is supposedly trying to save the world. The female protagonists fall for him because of course they do, and he goes on and on and on and on about things utterly unrelated to the plot (although, to be fair, the travelogue stuff is generally somewhat more interesting than the ostensible plot or the activities of the cardboard characters).

It is awful because (perhaps sensibly) the editors don’t seem to have bothered editing the text (why bother when it’s going to sell a zillion copies anyway), and while words like “unstraddled”, “faceup” and the endlessly-repeated “bloodred” might be amusing if this was an experimental free-verse poem or something, scattered around in the otherwise flat and conventional prose they are just distracting and illiterate (would it have been so hard to type “dismounted”, “face up” and “blood-red”?). He uses “enormity” to refer to a statue being large, just like a high school kid, and no one corrects him. The book even has “telegenic effluvium” for “telogen effluvium”, which is embarrassing just to read, but I’m willing to assume this one is just someone not bothering to double-check a computer spell-checker.

It is awful because he gets his name-dropping quotes of Oppenheimer and Marx freaking _wrong_ (and the correct versions would have worked so much better), which inevitably makes the reader wonder if there are equally sloppy mistakes in the travelogue and art-history sections, which would be a pity.

It is awful for the usual inexplicable references to specific irrelevant brands and people. “Maurizio reversed the boat’s Volvo Penta engine, expertly backing away from the bank.” (Targeted at those readers whose first action on getting onto a Venetian gondola is to check out the make of the engine) “… already skimming across the lagoon in a futuristic black tender — a Dubois SR52 Blackbird…” (because the atmosphere would have been completely different if it were, say, a Windy 8M, a Novurania Launch 600, or heaven forbid some kind of ChrisCraft.) “Monteverdi, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini composed pieces based on Dante’s work, as had one of Langdon’s favorite living recording artists — Loreena McKennitt” (Because of course we are endlessly fascinated with Langdon’s every music preference and clothing habit; don’t get me started on the heavily symbolic-of-nothing Mickey Mouse Watch he wears.)

It is awful for reasons that I could bore you with for quite some time (the ellipses! the completely implausible reactions to things! the dumb things that supposedly hyper-intelligent characters say! the painfully ignorant throwaway statements about what “Darwinists” believe! the more or less unchallenged and far from correct statements about how overpopulation is going to kill us all!).

It is redeemed somewhat by a large twist somewhat more than halfway through, that I admit I didn’t see coming at all, and that gave me that few minutes of delight in thinking “wait, but then…” and “oh, so that’s…” and paging back through the book to see what it actually said in various passages that now have completely different meanings post-reveal. The twist made a couple of things that had seemed weird and wrong on first reading make perfect sense; also a good and pleasant feeling.

But then, the crowning weirdness, that I can imagine feeling right and somewhat satisfying in a different book, but for me utterly deflates this one, is that (_mild spoiler warning_) it turns out at the end that everything all of the characters have done since the first page of the book has been for nothing, has made no difference at all. The world would have been just the same if they’d all woken up to the big serious threat by the Bad Guy, and thought “ah, to heck with it” and turned over and gone back to sleep (aside from the more or less indirect and accidental deaths of a couple of minor innocent characters, and some serious traffic problems in Venice). So, I mean, what? It really doesn’t matter at all that Mary Sue Langdon figured out the faux-clever clues before the bad guy’s deadline? So… why did I read this book, exactly, then?

It’s possible that this is Book One of a series, and that in some sequel it will all turn out to have mattered. But if so that sequel will be yet another awful Dan Brown novel, and really, is it worth it?

The sad thing is that there’s a good chance I will eventually read whatever awful book he writes next, because they are easy to read and fun to feel superior to, and everyone else will also read it so there is the whole Cultural Awareness thing.

And while I am also reading Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, it is going much more slowly…

2014/01/30

Four webcomics

So here, randomly, are four webcomics that I’ve become more or less addicted to.

(Or maybe not so much randomly, as so I don’t forget myself!)

These are all of the “have a wonderful time binge-reading all the existing ones for hours when you first discover them, and be suddenly distraught when you get to the latest ones and the Next button stops working, and you have to wait a day or a week for the next one waaaahh” kind.

So you can do that. :)

Questionable Content: I wouldn’t really expect to like this so much, as it’s mostly just squishy relationship stuff among a bunch of vaguely artsy vaguely techie young persons in some urban setting, with just a bit of SF thrown in here and there (there’s a whole “we have working AI” subplot that showed up more earlier on and not so much lately). But I do! I guess I like the people, and they are fun to hang around. (The art has evolved amazingly since the beginning.) Updated weekdays, I think.

Sinfest: Very cool metaphorical or surreal or fantasy or something strips, but with realistic and sympathetic characters (some of them demons, robots, God, the Devil, Buddha, the artist, his pets, etc). Interesting development of characters and themes over time. Updated I dunno several times a week?

Oglaf: haha woot! Funny sick twisted sexy usually-pornographic comics about anything and everything, often in a medieval-fantasy sort of setting. Some recurring characters and themes and plots, but also just craziness. And porn. Not for the easily offended. :) Updated like Sundays or something.

Cura Te Ipsum: a great and wonderfully-drawn SF novel of a comic, about a guy who goes around with a bunch of alternate-universe versions of himself, including some female ones, some that are kids, a few that want to kill them all (himself last), and so on. A bit of the feel of Gerrold’s classic, but with more mystery and character development and a gory antagonist and so on; doesn’t feel at all derivative. Also it’s a comic! (And there’s an active fanbase that comments extensively on each page, and either praises or whines about the frequent use of Latin, Dr. Who references, and so on; but I haven’t read all that many of the comments, because the story is the important thing.) Just got to the “oh no I’m caught up!” stage on this one last weekend, and am still in withdrawl. Updated Monday Wednesday Friday, which is not often enough wahhh!

Suggestions for other worthwhile webcomics welcome in the comments, which we do have a comments section for down there ya know!

:)

2013/11/11

Extra-solar pond slime

So today I went to a talk by Lee Billings, author of Five Billion Years of Solitude (which, note, I haven’t read yet, although I now have a signed copy; I’ve just heard the talk).

He is all about how incredibly cool it would be to find out that there is life on some planet outside the solar system (by deducing, say, a particular unstable mixture of gasses in its atmosphere that we can’t account for except by life), and that we are not investing nearly enough resources (money) in building the just-now-becoming-possible huge honking telescopes that would help us find such planets.

Or alternately, he says, it would also be extremely important in some way to discover that there isn’t life on any extra-solar planets that we can find, and that therefore we are even Specialer than maybe we thought.

There has recently been an Enormous Boom in the finding of planets outside the Solar System, apparently; an inneresting fact that I hadn’t known. Significant numbers of them are sort of vaguely Earth-like in various ways; also inneresting.

Extra-solar planets

But, as I said during the Q-and-A period (for which I may appear on the YouTube at some point in the future!) I’m not sure how interesting it would really be to know that there is, say, probably pond-slime on Kepler 22b.

The two reasons the speaker gave for the importance of looking for extra-solar planets with life (besides raw coolness, which I don’t think is a good reason to spend billions of dollars, really) were (1) having more places for humans to live by the time the Sun swells up and eats the Earth or whatever, and (2) knowing whether or not We Are Alone In The Universe (hence the title of the book).

In terms of having more places to live, I think that by the time the Sun swells up (a few hundred million years), and even by the time we’re conveniently able to go in large numbers to other solar systems, we’ll long since have just remade ourselves so that we don’t need certain sorts of planets with particular chemistries to live on, so that particular issue will be moot.

And in terms of knowing whether or not we are alone, I think it’s far more important to know whether there’s anyone sentient out there than it is to know whether there’s any carbon-oxygen-based life out there. Given a few dozen billion dollars and the choice between looking for photosynthesis, and looking for intelligent signals, I’m going for the latter.

The extra-solar pond slime is just going to have to wait…

2013/11/07

some additional words

So I woke up with some Upper Respiratory invasion on Saturday morning, and didn’t feel pretty much normal until yesterday sometime. That was no particular fun!

It did allow me to determine firsthand that, while the New Employer do as a general rule like team members to interact in person, if you need to work from home for three days because of an invasion of replicators, it is No Problem.

Also, they do Working From Home, like everything else remotely technical, very very well. Really very well. Remarkably. Quite.

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2013/07/20

Avid fans of mediocre fiction

There are all sorts of fascinating things going on.

One fascinating thing is the breathtakingly rapid evolution of media of all sorts; and one fascinating part of that thing is these here “e-books” which are available “on-line”, more or less directly from the authors.

The web-site Amazon Dot Com, to pick a very notable example, has a whole ecosystem, one might say polysyllabicly, built around these essentially self-published and to a great extent disintermediated artifacts, where one can buy (or acquire, for the significant numbers that are nominally free) copies of these books (and the associated licenses to read the copies, which are enforced by one’s own computers and reading software, in an odd and facially improbable bit of co-optation), and rate them with small integers, and leave comments on them, and rate and comment on other people’s comments, and see what other books people who have purchased this one have also purchased, and so on for quite some time.

(Here is a link to this stuff, or at least a link that, at the moment, when followed by me, leads to something like the “Books” subtree of the largish “Kindle” tree, which also includes the Amazon-branded reading devices (you can also read these e-books on various other devices), and non-book things (magazines, who knows what-all) that can also be read on them.)

Not all of the e-books are all disintermediated and self-published; some number of them are also acquired and edited and published by publishing houses large and small and new and old, brought out at the same time as, or before or after, old-fashioned non-e versions of the same book, actually printed on paper in ink. These I am not talking about so much here today; there are interesting things to say about them, but to the extent that they are selected and polished and marketed in roughly the same way books were a decade or three ago, they are not, comme on dit, in my fovea at this time.

(Haha, the WordPress spell checker does not know the word “fovea”. I suggests that perhaps I mean “forgave”. Also, it scolds me for writing “WordPress” with a small “p”, even though the publishing software, obnoxiously in my opinion, automatically capitalizes that “p” for me automatically at publishing time, heh.)

So anyway, he said loquaciously, about those e-books that are all disintermediated and self-published and all.

Many of them are really badly-writen.

(This may not come as a huge surprise.)

Some of them are in fact very good. For instance I discovered by following some winding path through the Internets the Wool books by Hugh Howey (looks like the first one is available free, which is nice; I recommend it). They are books that might not have made it out of the slush pile at a publishing house (or they might have; who can tell), but eventually bubbled to my, and lots of other people’s, attention via the ecosystem of self-publishing, and are now apparently doing rather well. There are rough edges here and there (I recall something about what the protagonists’ wife was said to be doing at the start of the first book that by the end of the third it was unlikely anyone would have been allowed to do, and seemed to be from some earlier and now-abandoned version of the plotline, for instance), but no worse than in many normally-published books I’ve read.

But many of them, even most of them I would dare say, requiring for their publication only that (1) the author thinks it is good (or at least would like to publish it), and (2) the author pushes some buttons on their computer (significantly fewer buttons than it took to write it, in most cases), and therefore having successfully vaulted only a pair of very low bars, are not very good at all.

And yet some of these not-very-good-at-all books have, or appear to have, avid fans in the ecosystem, who rate them at the top of the set of possible integers, post glowing reviews comparing them favorably to all other books previously written in the genre, give “unhelpful” ratings to negative reviews posted by others, and so on.

It makes one wonder.

For instance, is the difference between Post-human, by David Simpson, rated four-and-a-half stars out of five, and Wool by Hugh Howey (linked above), also rated four-and-a-half stars out of five, just that I personally thought the latter was pretty good (my review gave it five of five stars) and the former pretty bad (my rather scathing review gave it just two)?

Once the magnetic field was in place, he was free to bolt upward, unhindered by friction, air pressure, temperature, or anything else. In seconds, he was above the stratosphere, using his mind’s eye to plot an automatic course for Venus.

I think Howey’s book is better than Simpson’s in ways that don’t come down to just my personal opinions. Simpson’s contains technology howlers about glowing green magnetic fields that allow humans to fly through space at interplanetary speeds without benefit of spaceship; Howey’s has just some rather powerful psychoactive drugs that unreliably suppress memory and alter behavior. Simpson’s has an evil antagonist with god-like powers who keeps the protagonist alive to allow him to do something he (the antagonist) would clearly have had no trouble doing all by himself. Howey’s bad guys are subtler and more realistic, and in that way more terrifyingly evil.

Simpson’s protagonist is the most intelligent person in the solar system (scientifically measured!), and everything goes right for him, pretty much all the time. Howey’s various protagonists are more ordinary people, more conflicted and confused, and when they have any triumphs at all they are partial and sometimes worrying ones.

(And nearly every time one of Simpson’s comic-book superheroes turns on the stupid all-powerful magnetic field, Simpson has to say that he “ignited” it. Drives me up the walls, I tell ya.)

I don’t want to pick on Simpson’s book in particular, really; I’m sure there are other four-and-a-half-star ebooks that are worse. But the case of Post-Human is notable for at least a couple of reasons (and here we will segue gracefully into the lazy weblogger’s device of unordered lists):

  • For awhile, Simpson was offering a free book to anyone who gave him a five-star review on Amazon (he has since apparently stopped, and I hope it was because it’s against the rules).
  • But there are still four and five star reviews being written, and many of the negative reviews also have an unusual number of “unhelpful” ratings, so that last point can’t explain the whole effect.

What now? Just a bunch of thoughts:

  • Maybe the many glowing reviews and downratings of negative ones for the Simpson book are just fake; results of bribery, or posted by Simpson himself, or by some entity hired by him (I would not be surprised if there were companies that will create shadow-puppets who will boost the Amazon rep of a book for money). It would be interesting to look at the other reviews posted by people who have given very glowing reviews of very average works.
  • Maybe only some of them are fake and/or a result of the above-mentioned bribery, and the rest are from people who wanted to get on the bandwagon, in some to-be-determined sense.
  • Maybe some of the people who accepted the Simpson bribe are experiencing that interesting psychological effect whose name I forget and have decided that (since they can’t be bribed that easily!) they really did love the book, and go around downrating negative comments just to prove it.
  • Maybe I am wrong, and the Howey book is not objectively any better than the Simpson one, and it’s just that the problems with the latter happen to bother me personally more than those with the former.
  • Maybe I am not wrong, and by my objective criteria the Simpson book really is worse, but there are a significant number of people who don’t care about those objective criteria to speak of at all, but enjoyed the book greatly for some other reasons that I don’t really understand. That is sort of an interesting thought.
  • I have a vague impression that there is sort of a whole subculture of people on the Internets who write and read and praise and advertise not-very-good books, either (see above) they have never really read a good book, or they actually prefer books that are objectively (in whatever sense) bad, or for some other reason. I recently came across a weblog reviewing some mediocre self-published Amazon ebook as “an Amazon Bestseller!”, where that phrase was apparently copied from the book’s own page on the author’s website; I was nasty and posted a polite comment pointing out that the only sense in which it was an Amazon Bestseller was that it has an Amazon Bestseller rank, which every book on Amazon appears to have, and that in this case the rank was somewhere over one million. So “best” only in the most technical of senses. Presumably, though, there is some in-crowd feeling to be had in posting a positive review of a Best Seller?

Looking at many of the glowing reviews of the Simpson book (and for that matter other books I find poorly-written), my impression is that many of the reviewers are somewhat less than literate themselves, and/or less than civil, that in particular people who leave negative comments on negative reviews and otherwise defend the books in the commentary part of the ecosystem, tend to sound like trolls (broadly construed). What sorts of things do these people have in common? What are their motivations?

And, sort of conversely, will we eventually have a system in which I can mark those people as having opinions generally Irrelevant To My Own (or even Contrary To My Own), so that the system could take this into account in its own recommendations? “This book has a 4.5 star rating, or 2.25 stars if we count only people whose opinions you are likely to care about.” Is anyone doing that yet?

And that is about the end of my thoughts on the subject for the time being. Reading over it I see that I come across as something of an elitist jerk, but when it comes to books I am rather content being an elitist jerk. :)

Good reading!

2013/01/18

Reading the first paragraph of Durrell’s Justine

The sea is high again today,

What do we know, or think, or guess, or assume, from those six words?

The narrator is by the sea. Not necessarily, of course; there could be satellites or telephones involved, or there could be no narrator at all but just an omniscient narrative voice. But the spatial immediacy of “the sea” (rather than “the sea at Brighton” or “the sea outside her window”), and the temporal placedness of “again today”‘ both suggest a particular person by a particular sea, speaking at a certain time.

Justine coverThe sea is high. With wind most likely; high waves and whitecaps rather than high tide. The sea has been high before, we suspect yesterday at least. It is probably daytime now (“today” rather than “tonight”).

Is the height of the sea a good thing, or a bad thing? A joy or a challenge? We don’t know from the first six words, so onward.

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.

Now that is a sentence.

Probably this is not someone clinging to a piece of wreckage in mid-ocean, or hoping for calm seas to launch a tiny fishing boat. This is someone in a position to thrill to the wind.

But notice that it is a flush of wind. “Flush” and “thrill” call to mind the cheek flushed hot with blood from some personal thrill. So here the blown surface of the ocean is the skin, thrilled and flushed by the wind; the wind is the blood of the sea. But the wind also flushes cheeks from the cold. Chill and thrill, wind and blood, skin and sea. And only a dozen words in!

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter

A specific time now, and a cold one. Is this favoring the cold side of the previous sentence, chill and wind over thrill and blood?

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring.

Balance is restored. The second sentence mirrors the first, calls out the cold and the warm more explicitly, and more abstractly.

Notice that there is now someone in the text, and it is you. He did not write “I can feel”, “He could feel”, or “can be felt”.

Note also that it is not the warmth of Spring, or its coming, its approach, its flavor or texture. The inventions of Spring!

Also it is “winter”, but “Spring”. A subtlety of balance here? The concrete winter by the sea in contrast with the symbolic or idealized Spring that invents? Or just some typesetter’s quirk?

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday,

Now, looking up above the sea, there is the sky; a sky of hot nude pearl. What a phrase! Is it hot as in actual heat, or hot as in glare? Pearl is a color, the texture of color; what is it for pearl to be nude? Bare, simple, unadorned. So my eyes imagine the sky bright and (of course) pearlescent (nacreous!), hotly pale to look at, but not enough to heat the air (my cheeks still flushed with the wind).

And we’ve been aware of the sky in the morning, before midday, and at least up until midday; perhaps all morning, or a good piece of the morning, standing on a headland watching the sea and feeling the wind (and the inventions of Spring).

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places,

Sheltering from the wind, and also from the hot glare of the sky. This is a place with crickets, and also a place with some shelter. Think of sheltered places large enough, small enough, for crickets. No mention of people, of whether there are any people seeking shelter also.

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes,”

Here is the wind again, crossing a sentence and a half to thrill again, and this time to unpack the great planes. What great planes? Is this a pun on the Great Plains? Is the wind blowing into the cargo holds of enormous airplanes, scattering underwear from suitcases and printouts from briefcases out across the runways? Probably not. :)

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…”

Not just unpacking, but actively and violently unpacking, ransacking! The printouts and underwear are scattered far and heedlessly, the wind is looking for something (for what?) in those cargo holds. Or the great planes are (more likely) the planes of the sea, the earth, and sky. The wind violently unpacking the plane of the horizon, flushing the cheek of the sea, bringing both the cold of midwinter and (with the hot nude sky) the inventions of the Spring, as though it were searching for something. For what?

And that’s the entire first paragraph. We aren’t entirely certain we know what the great planes are (spoiler alert: eleven pages later I’m still not entirely certain), but we have had built in our minds a balanced structure of warmth and cold, winter and spring, blood and sea water, topped by hot nude pearl, and underlain by those sheltering crickets. Earth and Air and Water, and we can either allow that heat to stand for Fire, or let that spot stay empty, and be left, after this first paragraph, with (among other things) a missing place for Fire, like a missing tooth, that might (or might not) be resolved in later paragraphs.

Yes, this is a somewhat pretentious reading! :) But when I started reading this book (which regular readers will remember we bought in Boston the other week), I was so struck by the language (not in a Barthelmian or Leynerian way, but in an entirely or mostly entirely other way) that I stopped and read the first few paragraphs over and over, and then the same for the first page, the first two pages. And I decided to write a weblog entry about it!

(A serendipitous and perspicacious airline seat-neighbor suggested that I ought to be reading poetry that way if I like reading that way; I agreed while admitting that I’d never really managed to do that. What poet should I try it on? The burning tyger? The mistress going to bed?)

And that’s all! :) I’m incredibly sleepy at the moment, having gotten home from the airport and Secret Expeditions this morning at about 3am. I am still awake mostly because I am hoping Verizon will call back about whether or not they can actually give us what the salesmen promised to get us to switch to FIOS, and also because I wanted to actually post this (actually to post this) before it went out of my mind. But now I think I will give up on Verizon for the night and go to bed and/or to sleep. And you can post comments! :)

Night!

2013/01/13

Reviews: “Belief or Nonbelief” and “Pallas”

Two of my reviews have just Gone Live on Amazon, my “email” informs me, so I will stick them here as well so that they are in more places, and my fame can spread more quickly.

Belief or Nonbelief, by Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (non-ebook version)Belief or Nonbelief
Two out of Five Stars

This is billed as a spirited exchange between a believer and a non-believer, but really it’s much less than that. Eco is a barely-lapsed Catholic intellectual, and as he says himself the basic structure of his thinking is still very much based in Catholicism.

Except for the final brief pair of chapters, the book consists of Eco asking Martini to talk about the Church’s answer to something, and Martini answering with the Catholic party line.

And because this is the Father of Semiotics and a Catholic Cardinal, the language is full of fifty-thousand-dollar words and content-free metaphors. Here is Eco, for instance, perhaps imitating one of those online Random Postmodern Text Generators:

“Christianity invented History, and it is in fact a modern incarnation of the Antichrist that denounces History as a disease. It’s possible that secular historicism has understood history as infinitely perfectible — so that tomorrow we improve upon today, always and without reservation, and so that in the course of the same history God reconstitutes himself and in a manner of speaking educates and enriches himself. But the entire secular world is not of the ideological view that through history we understand how to look at the regression and folly of history itself.”

Say what? Secular historicism has understood that God educates himself? You don’t say!

And when Eco asks how the Church knows when human life begins, Martini’s answer is that it’s at the moment of conception, because that is when there is a new being with a face. Which must be a metaphor for something (since a fertilized egg is way to small to have a face), but we’re left to guess for ourselves exactly what it’s supposed to be a metaphor for.

In the final exchange, Martini finally asks a question of Eco rather than vice-versa. The question itself is nothing impressive, just the usual “how do atheists justify their morality without an invisible friend in the sky to do it for them?”; but Eco’s answer is solid and almost clearly stated. There’s nothing all that special, he points out, about basing your morality on a deity (believers are just as prone to immorality as anyone else), and our own desire to be treated well and our natural tendency to empathy make a fine alternative.

So anyway. Most of the book is throwaway concepts couched in needlessly elaborate prose, but at least it’s short. The last chapter is worth a read.

Pallas, by L. Neil SmithPallas
Three out of Five Stars

This is a good solid yarn; strong and smart good guys you can root for, nasty evil bad guys to boo, interesting SF ideas, rockets and personal helicopters, a hooker with a heart of gold, old ladies packing heat, and all sorts of fun stuff.

Like so many stories with political intent, it completely cheats on the political message. No one in the socialist polity is good, no one in the capitalist one is bad. The capitalist society doesn’t need to tax anyone because it doesn’t need police or real courts, because everyone in the society is basically an angel (for some reason the society doesn’t even need fire stations; this is noted in passing but never explained).

Showing that your favorite politico-economic system would work for a society of angels is not a very big challenge!

The one nod that Smith makes toward reality is that when the entire world (asteroid) is threatened by a natural phenomenon, the “freeloader problem” arises, and it’s not clear how the rather expensive solution is going to get paid for without something icky like taxes. But the solution is just that Our Hero pays for the whole thing himself, and the problem is solved.

This isn’t realistic, though; if Our Hero had any actual competitors, the resulting extra costs he bears would put him at a disadvantage to them, and he would go out of business. Fortunately for the story, he has no actual competitors, because he is the only person to realize that in a society where everyone wants to be armed and guns are expensive to import, it might make sense to open a (wait for it) gun factory. Ooooh!

(The real Freeloader Problem here, which Smith ignores entirely as far as I can tell, is the environment envelope around the asteroid, which requires constant maintenance by guys with rockets and space-suits. Who pays for all that, exactly?)

Definitely a fun read. Just don’t try to use it as a guide to public policy in the real world.

2013/01/04

Dumplings, Dastards, and Drivel

(Before I decided that the dumplings really belonged in here, I was considering titles like “Douchebags and Bullshit”, which is somewhat coarse, or “Rotters and Rubbish”, which wasn’t bad.)

So this year we made 203 New Year’s Dumplings. The little daughter having come home special for the ceremonies, and the little boy being home from school between terms, we were four healthy adults, and the leftovers of that 203 didn’t even last through the end of January Second.

(See prior New Year’s post for prior history of dumplings.)

Here is my New Year card over on the Secret Second Life weblog. The sentiments apply to all Real Life friends too also. :)

On dastards (cads, bounders, douchenozzles, arseholes), see quite a few of the comments to this Asher Wolf posting on why she left the CryptoParty movement that she founded or co-founded, and how the hacker community contains too much, and too much tolerance of, sexism and misogyny and general nastiness.

Many of the comments are supportive, but many are also just facepalmingly awful. (I posted what I thought was a satire of that kind of comment, and despite my having tried to make it obviously absurd, it was enough like the run of actual negative comments that I had to put in a followup saying that it was intended as satire, because people were responding to it as though it, well, wasn’t.) And the evil-density in the twitter comments was even higher (if harder to link to).

I understand why people come in and carefully and condescendingly explain how she is all wrong, and bad things happen to everyone, and it’s not misogyny, and rape hardly every happens, and things like that; they are just blind to their various degrees of privilege, and are shoring up the bulwarks of the protective walls they have up around their egos.

Pretty standard human stuff.

I less understand why people come in and say that someone “needs to shave her pits”, or says that some particular person attacking her is “way hotter” than someone else is. I mean, wut? How is that even remotely relevant to anything?

Either (1) this is actually the way that they think, (2) they are just rather nastily trolling, or (3) talking about the way they “think” is a bit of an overstatement, and they are basically being Eliza machines in this instance.

Also pretty standard human stuff, I suppose, as are the strings of obscenities and the attacks on her website; I just don’t understand it as much, and it makes me (even) sadder.

And on drivel (or rubbish, or bullshit), I am reading Belief or Nonbelief, and while I’m not done with it (despite how short it is), I cannot keep myself from fulminating, or at least weblogging, about it. It’s a series of public letters between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who is a Cardinal (a Hat Cardinal, not a Wings Cardinal, obviously).

Eco is sort of The Semiotics Guy, so he is all into signs and how and what they signify (if at all), and so on, so it’s not too surprising that he can wander up big ethereal staircases of language until he gets so far above the concrete that his words not only fail to signify anything material, but fail to signify even any identifiable concepts. And of course Martini is an intelligent person in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and spending most of his thought-time in environments as far from real life as possible is probably one of the few ways it’s possible to be one of those for very long and stay sane.

Hilarity ensues.

The first bit is about hope and life and ideas of the end of the world and stuff; it was written somewhere in the late 90’s. Eco, referring to the last book of the New Testament, writes

Revelation can be read as a promise, but also an announcement of an end, and thus gets rewritten at every step, even by those who never read it, as we await 2000.

Say what? People who have never read the book are constantly rewriting it? Squinting at the whole paragraph really hard, what he means is something like “people are always thinking about how the world might end, and Revelation talks about trumpets and hailstorms and stuff, but nowadays we think more in terms of acid rain, nuclear waste, global warming, and stuff”.

It does sound cooler and less obvious if you talk about the constant rewriting of a book by people who have never read it, but that way of talking has the disadvantage of being incoherent and/or wrong.

Here’s another great passage:

In this way, each one of us flirts with the specter of the apocalypse, exorcising it; the more one unconsciously fears it the more one exorcises, projecting it onto the screen in the form of bloody spectacle, hoping in this way to render it unreal. But the power of specter lies precisely in its unreality.

Yowza! We unconsciously fear the end of the world, so we flirt with it by projecting it (“hey baby, ever been… projected?”) onto the screen (does that mean “we imagine”? or “we make movies about” or…?) in the form of bloody spectacle (we imagine global warming as bloody spectacle? could well be true of the movie version, I spose) in order to (unconsciously, still?) render it unreal (because things on the screen are unreal I guess), but in vain because (as our unconscious is apparently not clever enough to recognize) making it unreal just makes it more powerful.

And the sentence just before it is about “irresponsible consumerism”, which is somehow linked to all that other stuff.

There’s probably some unpacking of this that is actually making a coherent truth-claim that might perhaps be falsifiable, but in essence I think it’s more like poetry; a bunch of words piled on each other not to make some coherent truth-claim, but for some more diaphanous aesthetic reason.

The very next paragraph deserves copying down here also (perhaps only because I’m getting more into the spirit of the thing):

I’d be willing to bet that the notion of the end of time is more common today in the secular world than in the Christian. The Christian world makes it the object of meditation, but acts as if it may be projected into a dimension not measured by calendars. The secular world pretends to ignore the end of time, but is fundamentally obsessed by it. This is not a paradox, but a repetition of what transpired in the first thousand years of history.

Leaving aside the absurdity of referring (as I think he is doing here, but really who can tell) to the years 1-1000 CE as “the first thousand years of history”, it’s hard to say what most of these words might plausibly mean.

Just how common is “the notion of the end of time” in “the secular world”? He has presumably said “the end of time” rather than “the end of the world” for some reason, but I don’t know what it could be. “The end of time” is a notion that barely makes any sense at all in “the secular world” (since time is not something that can end, absent something really weird and non-secular happening), much less being extremely common. The dimension that is “measured by calendars” is time; I’m not sure what it means to say that the Christian world acts as if the end of time occurs in (or “may be projected into”) something besides time. Is he saying that most Christians think of the Apocalypse is a metaphor for something moral or aesthetic, rather than something that will actually take place at some point? That is most likely true, but as far as I know the Official Story of the “Christian world” is that it’s going to happen (for some value of “it”) at some actual time, perhaps any day now.

Maybe he’s just saying “your typical actual Christian person doesn’t actually believe that the world is going to end, or at least doesn’t act that way, whereas your typical secular person worries alot about global warming”. But he sure says it funny if so.

Here’s another character-string, that I don’t think I’ll even try to tease a meaning out of (although the first few words seem like a real screamer, in the “obviously false unless it means something different than it seems to” sense):

Christianity invented History, and it is in fact a modern incarnation of the Antichrist that denounces History as a disease. It’s possible that secular historicism has understood history as infinitely perfectible — so that tomorrow we improve upon today, always and without reservation, and so that in the course of the same history God reconstitutes himself and in a manner of speaking educates and enriches himself. But the entire secular world is not of the ideological view that through history we understand how to look at the regression and folly of history itself. There is, nonetheless, an originally Christian vision of history wherever the signpost of Hope on this road is followed.

On rereading, I’m suspecting more and more that Eco, that wag, is using some prose generator here. (Secular historicism has understood that God reconstitutes himself? Orly?)

Cardinal Martini’s response to this first burst of words isn’t quite up to this standard, but he does use a huge number of words to basically say “oh, well, Christians don’t really have to worry about the end of the world because God is going to take care of them, after all, so naturally the secular types are the ones who obsess about it”.

He does, though, note that

History has always been seen most clearly as a journey toward something beyond itself and not immanent… this vision does not extenuate but solidifies the meaning of contingent events into an ethical locus in which the metahistorical future of the human adventure is determined.

which is getting there.

(And which, once one spends a few minutes picking it apart, turns out to box up considerable volumes of likely-false assumptions inside words and passive-voice constructs like “always” and “most clearly”, “been seen” and “is determined”, which are just the post-graduate version of sprinkling one’s Internet postings with “clearly”, “obviously”, and “certainly”.)

(And for that matter uses a quaintly archaic sense of “extenuate”. Hm, is this a translation, or is the English the original?)

In the next exchange (and the only other one I’ve finished reading), Eco turns the discussion toward the meaning and beginning of life, and the question of abortion, not so much as to get closer to real concrete questions as to show that even on a subject like this he can mostly avoid them.

Here is Eco:

When the banner of Life is waved, it can’t but move the spirit — especially of nonbelievers, however “pietistic” their atheism, because for those who do not believe in anything supernatural the idea of Life, the feeling of Life, provides the only value, the only source of a possible ethical system.

which is bullshit in both common senses: it’s false, and it’s not clear that it’s actually concerned at all with true and false, but just wants to sound good.

(The quotes around “pietistic” in reference to atheism are rather bizarre, as it suggests that “pietistic atheism” is a term that someone else has used, and that Eco himself is using referentially, although he has shame-quote-level reservations about it. But in fact the term “pietistic atheism” is actually pretty rare, so… I dunno.)

And of course just “waving the banner of Life” doesn’t necessarily move the spirit; some people’s spirits are (quite healthily) resistant to being moved by the waving of any banners, and there are all sorts of sources of possible ethical systems besides “the idea of Life, the feeling of Life”.

And so on and so on.

Eco then makes the very good point that a key question is exactly when a human life begins, that we don’t have a really good answer to it, and that it seems like a question that we may never have a really good answer to, even though it’s so important. (I like him saying this, because in my own analysis of the whole abortion issue, these facts are at the core of why it’s so hard.)

The Cardinal responds by subtly taking issue with Eco’s emphasis on “Life”, saying of course that it’s really all about God, and “the life of a person called upon to participate in the life of God himself.”

“Participate” is a great word there, like when the news says that a person is “linked to” some terrorist group. The postmodern “informed by” is another one. They all let you sort of draw a narrative line between two things without actually making any truth-claim that might turn out to be wrong. I have no idea what it actually means to “participate in the life of God himself” for Cardinal Martini, and I’m not convinced that he really does, either. At the high cloudy levels that he’s talking, “participate” is all that’s needed.

Moving on to just when there starts to be “a concrete life that I can label human”, Martini uses some more “obviously” words:

But we all know that we have … a clearer sense of genetic determination starting from a point that, at least in theory, can be identified. From conception, in fact, a new being is born.

There ya go! “We all know” that “in fact” a new being is born at conception.

Here “new” means as distinct from the two elements that united to form it.

This may be a nice definition of “new”, but the more important term is “being”. When someone ingests a couple pieces of food and they start to dissolve in the stomach, there may be some point at which they squish together and there is a “new” food-glob which is distinct from either the hotdog or the bun, but there’s no “new being” here to worry about, unless and until the relevant molecules make their way into a developing fetus which is (say) eventually born.

So he’s doing an end-run to try to slip “identity begins at the moment of conception” (something that the Church has believed for only a small fraction of its history, as Eco mentions and Martini ignores) into the discussion as though it was something we now know as a fact.

Okay, that’s par for the course. :)

Here is some more novel and amorphous stuff, on the topic of why the product of conception matters, and why we should protect it:

Beyond these scientific and philosophical matters lies the fact that whatsoever is open to so great a destiny — being called by name by God himself — is worthy of enormous respect from the beginning.

Why is that? Is there anything that God himself can’t call by name? Does God have names for people in a way that he doesn’t have names for animals, or fruit, or dust-motes? This is a piece of Catholic doctrine, or something, that I wasn’t aware of. Why would being called by name by God, as opposed to any other aspect of a putative relationship to God, be the thing in particular that makes a person “worthy of enormous respect from the beginning”?

If it turned out that God also had names for individual rocks, would we be morally obliged to make sure that any rock that begins to split off the side of a mountain does in fact split off, and to have “enormous respect” for it from that point on? Why or why not?

And yes, the question seems absurd. But it’s directly implied by the Cardinal’s words, so I will refer him to you on that issue.

We are talking about real responsibility toward that which is produced by a great and personal love, responsibility toward “someone”. Being called upon and loved, this someone already has a face, and is the object of affection and attention.

I think we are still talking about a just-fertilized egg here. The great and personal love must be God’s (since, sadly, not every instance of conception involves great or personal human love), as must be the affection and attention (since, this early in the game, no human is aware that anything exists to lavish affection and attention on).

But the someone already has a face? What could that mean? A fertilized egg most definitely does not have a face; it is too small. Is this a metaphor for something? If so, it’s not clear for what. Does he mean that he thinks the look of the face of the eventual person (if any) resulting from the fertilization is already determined, by the genetics of the sperm and egg? That’s probably not true, certainly not before the gametes are all done fusing (when exactly is “the moment of conception” at this level of detail, anyway?). And why “face” rather than “form” or for that matter foot-size? Are those less important, or is it all just some metaphor and “face” sounds better?

The next sentence is:

Every violation of this need of affection and attention can only result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

How did we get from the fertilized egg’s being the object of affection and attention (from God), to a need for affection and attention? In fact the fertilized egg, at this point, doesn’t have any need for affection and attention, unless there’s some religious claim here that it needs it from God. But presumably nothing could violate God’s affection and attention. (I’m not sure what if anything it means to “violate” a “need”.)

The claim being made here seems to be that from the moment of conception there is a new being that as a need for affection and attention, and any failure to provide for that need will result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

But that’s false. Something like half of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise spontaneously aborted very early (and so presumably their needs aren’t being provided for?), and no one who isn’t God ever knows they existed. No conflict, no profound suffering, no painful rending.

The obvious counter here is that the good Cardinal didn’t mean that. And that’s likely true, but then we’re just left wondering exactly what he did mean.

The end of this letter doesn’t help much, except to suggest that it’s all about faces again.

There is a splendid metaphor that reveals in lay terms something common to both Catholics and laymen, that of the “face”. Levinas spoke of it movingly as an irrefutable instance. I would rather cite the words, almost a testament, of Italo Mancini in one of his last books, Tornino i volti [Back to the Faces]: “Living in, loving, and sanctifying our world wasn’t granted us by some impersonal theory of being, or by the facts of history, or by natural phenomena, but by the existence of those uncanny centers of otherness — the faces, faces to look at, to honor, to cherish.”

Which, I think, is nice, even profound, as poetry, but as any sort of discussion of a subject falls rather flatly short of, well, of meaning anything.

Living in our world was granted us by the existence of faces? You don’t say!

2012/12/27

On second thought, hobbit…

So we went and saw that Hobbit movie that’s out now. It was kind of fun just as a movie, although I wouldn’t be awaiting the next two parts all that impatiently. (The Great Goblin was fun, but I don’t know if the audience will have played enough 8-bit platformers to get all the subtle retro references in the Escape from Goblin Town scene.)

As a movie version of that Hobbit book, it had all the problems that everyone else has complained about: too slow, too padded, too many unnecessary differences from the Tolkien. (That awkward moment in making a short novel into three long movies because there’s just so much content, when you realize that you need to promote a relatively minor goblin (who was actually dead by this point in the book) into a Big Scary Antagonist just so the first movie will have enough plot.)

But that’s not what I want to talk about.on second thought

What I want to talk about is the urgency of someone writing a good fanfiction story / series / novel / trilogy about the alternate Lord of the Rings in which Galadriel fails the test in Caras Galadhon, and things proceed as predicted…

In place of the Dark Lord, you will set up a Queen, and I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain…all shall love me and despair!

This seems to me to have a huge amount of promise if done right. Not the “she turns evil immediately” scenario, because that would be boring. The “she uses the powers of the One Ring, which would be truly enormous in her hands, to do great good things, which only slowly and subtly start to go terribly wrong as the inherent evil of the Ring’s power slowly corrupts her” scenario is the interesting one.

(One would have to be careful to avoid too many “the dangers of using corrupted power” references to the humungous “Wheel of Time” series, but that shouldn’t be too hard.)

So what happens in this alternate universe? Much of Sauron’s power is now not only lost to him, but in the possession of an implacable enemy with great power of her own, and her own unsullied Ring (Nenya, the White Ring, Ring of Adamant, Ring of Water). Galadriel is not of the Maiar as Sauron is (right?), but with those two rings, and Sauron’s weakness, I like the idea that she vanquishes him pretty easily, at the very start of her reign, so that she starts from a (dangerous) position of power and triumph.

Maybe she can use the Nazgul to do the job, the Nine Riders controlled by the Rings of Men. It would be simplest if they were actually wearing their Rings; then we could see her reaching out to them through the One, quickly or slowly turning their darkness to light, and perhaps Nine Bright Paladins cutting a swath through Mordor, letting in the armies of men and defeating the whole dark shebang.

But from what I read on the Intertubes it seems more Canonical that Sauron actually held the Nine Rings himself, and controlled the Riders through them. So perhaps we need some subtler scenario in which she uses the One Ring to cause the Nine Rings to come to her, or to stir up enough goodness in the Riders to let them resist Sauron’s control of their own Rings long enough to free them, or even destroy them.

It seems unlikely that the Riders themselves can be returned to any kind of mortal life after a Fall of Sauron; it could be fascinating to have them around as sort of disembodied Lights in the Shadow Realm, who start out by doing dazzling good, and only gradually slide into bright and blinding corruption.

We know that in the world of Galadriel Triumphant, all shall love her, and despair. So we start out with a new empire of goodness and beauty and love, and we slide into despair. There is of course a vast literature on how love goes wrong and leads to despair. :) So all we’d have to do is pick one form of that (a good one, of course), and let it play out in the world of Lord of the Rings.

Love for the Lady becomes mandatory, of course. Sacrificing oneself for that love is good and noble. In battle, perhaps for instance. Do we have suicidal dragon-hunts in her name? Jousts for the honor of Galadriel turning into deathmatches? Perhaps whole squadrons of knights, eventually whole armies, go to battle to prove (through victory) that they are more deserving of the Lady’s Love, or that they Love Her more truly.

Three of the Seven Rings of the Dwarves probably still exist. (Maybe some of the other four can still show up also; Gandalf might have been mistaken about them being destroyed by dragons, you never know.) What can Galadriel do with these? Their main, relatively boring, effect seems to be to make Dwarves angrier and hungrier for gold (and shorter and hairier, I would guess). Under the Lady, the Dwarves will lust for gold so that they may make fancier and more valuable gifts for Her. They will of course come to blows and likely internecine wars over that as well.

So far this sounds mostly like people fighting each other over Her, which isn’t bad, if a little obvious. How do we get to Despair, in maybe a less obvious and more interesting way? Galadriel is already somewhat ethereal; perhaps as she wears the Rings she becomes even moreso: angelic, diaphanous, almost phantom. Her presence floats about the Empire, fills the air with brightness and love and exultation, only to leave behind emptiness and longing, and ultimately despair, as her attention moves on.

So we have a world of wonders and beauty, noble warriors and astonishing Dwarven artifacts, love and enchantment, gradually crumbling into a ruin of glaze-eyed fighters battling for the slim hope of an instant of Her attention, as Her spirit, increasingly indistinct but always maddeningly alluring, floats over all, moaning beautiful but incomprehensible songs as the world falls into despair for a glimpse of Her, and the Nine Paladins make sure that no one dares say anything against Her.

Wow, creepy. :)

There are probably a dozen other promising ways the story could be written, also. Googling around, I’ve found a very few attempts (the one piece of fanfiction I stumbled across was just silly comedy, and very short), and a few threads discussing the idea (mostly technical topics about the differences in power between Galadriel with the Ring and Gandalf with the Ring, and so on).

If anyone has a pointer to any more complete considerations or fictions, along the lines above, or any more thoughts and ideas on the subject, fire away. For some reason I am really attracted to the idea. :) Although I may have gotten it somewhat out of my system by writing it down here now…

2012/12/21

Various things!

Russel Brand is pretty funny. (The one with the Westboro Baptist Church loonies seems viral at the moment, but there’s lotsa others, with less icky persons. Including Sarah Silverman, on whom I must admit having a slight enormous crush.)

We went up to Boston to retrieve the little boy yesterday (and came home today). So with that and that I was in two big cities in three days, neither one because of its airport. I suspect this is a New Record for me!

Boston is cool.

We wandered Newbury Street, all the way from the I-90 entrance to the Common and back. Lotsa stores and stuff, which weren’t all that interesting, but also people and graffiti —

Oh, wait, that reminds me of a picture I took! Hold on a sec whilst I find it and put it onto flickr…

Here:

Newbury Street sidewalk

(Anyone know who w.i., or perhaps w.t., is?)

There was a whole wall of multiply-overlayed graffiti also (including another instance of this one), but for whatever reason I didn’t get a shot of that.

(Since the drop of every sparrow is now multiply noted, here’s someone else commenting on this adage (basically noting that it does not, either), and here’s a Tweet wondering whether or not.)

We stopped at one of the three (!) cupcake places on Newbury Street and got some small and overpriced but really quite yummy cupcakes (I had chocolate ganache, mmmm).

We stopped at Raven Used Books, which has really really good books, and I got a copy of “Justine” (Durrell’s, not de Sade’s) (this edition, assuming Abe Books links are relatively long-lasting), and a copy of “The Dissident Word” (The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1995) from the discount table out front, and then a copy of the Oxford University Press “Islam: A Very Short Introduction” (I think I know a bit about it at this overview level already; on the other hand I’m sure there are holes in even my relatively shallow knowledge) and the Shambhala Dragon edition of The Sutra of Hui-Neng, Grand Master of Zen (With Hui-Neng’s Commentary on the Diamond Sutra), which I’m pretty sure I don’t already have.

Then for an early dinner we stopped at Trident Booksellers and Cafe (why does any store bother not selling books, eh?), and had yummy food items and looked at all various books. I noticed there was a guy with a laptop and a beard at another table looking through an issue of Buddhadharma (to which I (also) subscribe), and a little later he passed by our table and saw I was holding the Sutra of Hui-Neng, and he remarked that it’s one of his favorites and we talked for a few seconds.

Oh yeah and at Trident I also bought John Powell’s “How Music Works” for possible use in upcoming (someday) versions of my algorithmic music composition programs. I was going to just put it into some wishlist and maybe get the digital edition, but (a) it was on sale for a nice low price in Trident, and (b) it includes a free CD, and can a e-book include a free CD? I mean, it could, in principle, contain all the bits from the CD, but does it?

In some free newspaper stall on the street I picked up the latest Phoenix, and looking through it while resting in the little boy’s room (before or after Newbury Street, I don’t remember) I found a pointer to Howling Dogs by the impressive porpentine, which reminded my (in color scheme, even!) of my own Forked Stick (which I never finished, but that might not matter, and you might enjoy poking around in also).

I thought that was some nice synchronicity.

When we finally got to relatives’ house for spending the night, I was tired.

Here is me, being tired:

Tired

So after that I slept, and we got up this morning, zoomed back into Boston in the rain and wind and scooped up the little boy after his last final, and drove home. The wind and rain calmed down as we drove, and by the time we got home it was fine really.

So that’s those things!

2012/12/15

Fractionally Reserved

I’ve run across an internet troll or two railing against fractional reserve banking in the past, but I had the impression it was sort of a fringe-of-a-fringe thing, in the same realm as the “NASA faked the moon landings” idea.

(Fractional reserve banking is where the bank can loan out some of the money that is deposited with it, as explained by Professor Stewart in that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.)

But now I’ve just finished L. Neil Smith’s Pallas (a wonderful and awful piece of escapist fiction that I ought to write more about, related to that Waking from Libertarianism posting that I also ought to write), and in one memorable scene an “overstuffed” banker is arranging a loan to Our Hero from his (Our Hero’s) best friend and lover (a hooker with a heart of gold and a big bank account), and the narrative voice mentions that the banker can’t just lend him money himself because he (the bankers) isn’t rich, and he can’t loan from the bank’s deposits because fractional reserve banking is considered “felony fraud”.

Now L. Neil Smith isn’t exactly a moderate, but I have the impression he’s more or less a mainstream libertarian writer, so this suggests that the idea is at least a bit more popular than secret government treaties with space aliens.

Last time I was within hearing distance of a troll blaming our economic problems on fractional reserve banking, I used a little just-so story to show how it seems perfectly consistent with libertarian ideas about individual liberty and so on. He replied by contemptuously dismissing me as not understanding, which is what that flavor of troll does when you ask a hard question, and I didn’t pursue the issue.

But if L. Neil Smith is saying the same thing, it occurs to me I should write out the just-so story in a little more detail, and put it here in the weblog where it can be picked up by Major News Media.
bank
So, the story.

Without fractional-reserve banking, a banker is just a particular kind of warehouse guy, one who specializes in storing high-value low-volume stuff (like gold nuggets, hundred-dollar bills). You give him a box with your gold in it, and he promises to keep it safe and give it back to you when you ask, for a mere four-fifty a month. Maybe he even specializes in stuff that is valuable solely for its monetary value, in which case you give him two thousand dollars worth of gold, and he promises to give you back the same value in gold (although not necessarily the same actual atoms), when you ask for it, for either four-fifty a month, or possibly some fee scaled to the value of money on deposit.

This guy isn’t going to make much more money than any other warehouse guy, probably; he can charge more per cubic foot because the stuff is more valuable, but then he also has to spend more on security for the same reason; a vault costs more than a simple warehouse, and the guards have to be paid more to resist the extra temptation offered by small valuable stuff that’s easy to resell.

(Similarly, at this stage of the story, an investment guy is pretty much just a matchmaker. In the example in Pallas, where Cherry has lots of money and wants to lend some to Emerson, and they already know each other (in the Biblical sense, even), he serves no purpose at all except to allow Smith to show that he doesn’t like bankers.)

Now one day a warehouse guy of the “you give us money, we give you money back” type notices that there is all this money sitting in his warehouse, and it’s doing nothing. And he starts up a brand-new service, where if you sign up for it, he will take oh say ten percent of the money that you give him, and lend it out at interest. He will then keep part of that interest for himself (his profit on this great idea), and use the rest to lower your monthly fee.

Sure, it’s possible that if you want all of your money back at once, and when he tries to call in the loans that he’s made with ten percent of it, the people with the money won’t be able to come up with it all at once, but that’s not very likely really is it? That small risk is worth the lower monthly fees, at least to some depositors.

And in version 2, he has the bright idea of changing the contract so that it says that if that does happen, he can use on-deposit funds from anyone else in the program to pay back the difference. Then he can only come up short if lots of people want to withdraw more than 90% of their funds at once, and at the same time lots of people that he’s lent to can’t pay up when he calls in the loans. And (since this is such a good idea that he is prospering, and has lots of depositors and lots of borrowers now), the chances of that are so small that he can actually insure himself against it.

This works out really well, and he dominates the money-warehousing market because of his low fees, and dominates the money-lending market because he has lots of money to lend.

Since this is a libertarian just-so story, his success naturally leads to competitors improving on the idea!

One competitor in particular notices that people have so much faith in this whole system now that hardly anyone ever gets cold feet and wants to withdraw even half of their money all at once. So in his contracts, it says that he can use up to 60% of the deposited funds for loans. Also, because he can get insurance against the bank runs that seldom happen anyway, he can say in his loan contracts that he will never call in the loan unless the client doesn’t keep up the payments; naturally this extra sweetening of the loan contract means he can charge higher interest.

His calculations show that with this much money to lend, and these higher interest rates, not to mention needing a smaller vault, he’ll be able to make a modest profit and not only eliminate the monthly fees to his depositors, but actually pay interest on deposits!

Naturally, customers flock to him, and eventually almost everyone in the money-warehousing industry is doing it this way.

So now we’ve got fractional reserve banking: you deposit money, the bank keeps some of it in the vault, lends the rest out at interest, and pays some of that interest back along to you, the depositor. Banks are insured against runs up to some amount. All of this is clearly documented in the contracts between depositors and the bank, borrowers and the bank, and the insurance company and the bank.

There is no fraud of any kind.

Basically, if we want to describe it more briefly and collectively, a bunch of people have got together and said “hey, we never need all of our money at once, so why don’t we pool it together and lend some of it out at interest, and get free profits?”.

It’s not at all clear that there’s any step in here that a libertarian government can step in and stop. No one is being lied to, no one is being forced to do or not to do anything. People are voluntarily deciding to try to maximize their individual utility by making certain agreements with other people. And the result is pretty magic; there’s lots of loan money available to start new companies and invest in new things and carry out research, and yet on the other hand there’s also lots of liquidity, and you can withdraw some money to buy that special Solstice gift anytime you want.

I admit I don’t quite understand the railing against it by internet trolls and L. Neil Smith; but whatever objections they have to the resulting institutional arrangements, it seems pretty clear that there’s nothing inherent to fractional reserve banking simpliciter that a libertarian government can forbid and still keep its credentials.

Unless I’ve overlooked something?

2012/10/14

North and Back Again

Now the Internet connection is out entirely. That is, we can get to the owners’ wireless router, but the rest of the Internet isn’t visible from there. (Night before last, when there was all that wind and the remnants of rain, we couldn’t get to the wireless router even all that reliably, but the rest of the Internet was sporadically accessible when we could.)

And, perhaps suspiciously, there seems to be no cellular service here this evening either, although there has been prior days. Maybe Linekin shuts down even harder than we thought, the week after Columbus Day.

Devoted long-time readers of this weblog (especially in its prior incarnation) will be concluding with joy around this time that we are once again writing from on vacation somewhere in Maine, and that conclusion will be, or is, correct!

(The pumpkin quickbread will need to be checked again in about ten minutes; since I don’t know this oven, and I’m baking it in a glass baking dish for want of a proper loaf-tin, the time’s highly uncertain.)

 


 

We drove from home to Boston on Friday for Parents (Parent’s? Parents’?) Weekend at the little boy’s school; that was fun, mostly for getting to see the little boy, but also random schoolish events (the sample Ear Training class was especially neat). Then up here on Sunday, to the little cottage above the larger house where we stayed in hmmm 2009, probably, although I seem to have Not Mentioned It In The Weblog, which is odd. Unless I just can’t find that entry in between being distracted by all of the other ones.

On Sunday we tried to go to the nearest-by good lobster-type restaurant, but it had apparently just (like, maybe minutes before) Closed For the Season. (We’d been a bit afraid that, coming up this late, everything in general would be Closed For the Season, but the owners here had assured us that most things would still be open.) So on the advice of the other folks leaving the nearest-by-but-closed place we drove down toward Ocean Point, found a place to park around the bustling Ocean Point Inn, and made our way inside.

Turns out it was the last night for the Ocean Point Inn before they also Closed for the Season, and it was “going to be a madhouse”, and they could not give two random persons with no reservation a table, but we could take two of the last four seats available at the bar, so we did, and had some very yummy lobster stew and I think blueberry pie, and sat talking to the bartender a bit when she had an instant to breathe. Busy night, definitely, but “tomorrow, free!”.

 


 

On Monday we went and walked around in Boothbay Harbor like we always do, went to many of the Usual Stores, bought a few random things (including me the usual few books at the Friends of the Library Used Book Store), admired stuff, had ice cream at the usual ice cream place (their last day before Closing For the Season!). Odd with no children or other relatives orbitting (orbiting?) about, but pleasant and familiar, and a gorgeous day. We had dinner at the Lobsterman’s Co-op; I had my traditional actual lobster, which was very good. Monday was, naturally, their last day before they Closed For the Season.

Tuesday I woke up with a sore throat and fever and no energy at all, so Tuesday and Wednesday we did basically nothing at all, which is really okay because we’d planned to do considerable nothing-at-all, and my being down for the count just forced it to be at that particular point in the schedule.

(This is awkward and/or frustrating; I called one of the owners a few hours ago on her cellphone, cell numbers being all that they gave us, about the Internet not working, and after asking if I was sure I had done the password right and all, she said that they would “take a look when we get back”; and now it is like quarter to nine in the evening, and I can’t really tell if anyone’s arrived back over there or not, and I am too shy and retiring to call them again before they contact us. I am such a connectivity addict!)

So Tuesday and Wednesday were extremely relaxing, modulo a bit of fever and all which were quickly moderated by Night and/or Day Quils produced magically by M from the nearest grocer.

 


 

Thursday, which was yesterday, I felt considerably better, and we went to Freeport, the home of L. L. Bean’s vast megastore into which we didn’t actually go, and scads of other stores of various descriptions, some amusing, some good sources of Outlet Bargains, and so on. We found a great British Goods store, which M (being the prime Anglophile in the house) will probably have weblogified significantly about by now (and where I got some nice teas, including a lovely green tea with lemon, for my recovering throat).

We ate lunch at a restaurant attached to the Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine empire; Linda Bean being the something-great granddaughter of the original L. L. Bean himself, and now a luminary of all that is Maine and lobstery and prosperous. She seems from my little reading about her to be quite the Ron Paul Republican type, which is pretty in keeping with someone who started her own commercial empire from (one speculates) merely quite a bit of inherited wealth and corresponding contacts and self-confidence. Sort of like Mitt Romney’s semi-famous line about how he inherited nothing, in the sense that he passed along the actually cash-money inheritance that he got into a trust for his children. But inheritance is so much more than the cash money passed along…

Anyway! And today being already Friday, how did that happen, we went into Wiscasset (“Prettiest Village in Maine”, or other slogan to that effect), and waited in line and had lunch at the extremely famous Red’s Eats, strategically positioned at the Wiscasset end of the Boothbay-to-Wiscasset bridge in such a way that the length of the backup both ways on Route 27 there pretty accurately reflects the length of the line to buy lobster rolls at Red’s. (We’ve always observed that notable correlation, but this is the first time we actually stood in the latter line ourselves.)

The lobster rolls were very good, largely I think because they contained very large amounts of very fresh lobster meat, still in the form of claws and tails and whatnot. And the sweet potato fries were a nice addition. And the Maine blueberry cake.

It was cloudy and chilly and windy during all of that, and we ate our lunch in the car, but when we emerged it was sunny and almost clear, and it stayed gorgeous like that as we wandered about the town and bought various smallish items of a vacationy sort, including a copy of The Submarine Boys on Duty and an oldish Texaco road map for me, and various things for M that she can weblog on or not.

We stopped by the grocery for random things on the way home, I made (and somewhat burned, as it turned out, but don’t worry it wasn’t because you were distracting me with weblogging) a pumpkin quick-bread from a box of mix (and water and oil and a couple of eggs), we found that the Internet didn’t work, and pretty much here we are, caught up to date!

 


 

Incredible how many years we’ve been coming up here. This is the first Empty Nest trip, with the little daughter all out being a college graduate and gainfully employed adult, the little boy a college Freshman in Boston, both of them living in apartment buildings (something that neither M nor I have ever done, and I sometimes feel that they are already more authentic grownups than I am because of it). We really haven’t figured out the whole Empty Nest thing at all yet, that’s going to take awhile just to seem real, much less to get used to.

Thirteen years, in fact, hasn’t it been? Since those very first postings to the then-new (and now-very-stable) davidchess dot com and associated domains. How young we all were! Although in the mental map in my head (that I suppose I formed when I was about twelve, and have updated only lightly since) fortyish and fiftyish are about the same really; so us adults haven’t aged much. :)

We didn’t come up here in 2011 or 2010, at least that’s our current theory. And then in 2009 we were up here, with M’s sister’s family, just across the street there, but apparently I managed to not weblog about it at all. So I last weblogged from hereish back in 2008. Reading back there, I note that (a) there is commentary on the Red’s Eats traffic situation, and (b) even then I was talking about how sporadic my weblog posting was becoming. That latter trend has certainly kept up, eh?

 


 

I could do the usual List of Books Lying About, but right now I am too lazy to get up (well, to get up again; I just wandered off to the kitchen upon remembering that I’d been heating water for hot cocoa, and got that, and came back). And what does one do about the iPad? It has various books on it, and it is lying around, but do they all count? Or just the ones that I at least halfway intend to perhaps read whilst up here?

(Not to mention the infinite number of books and potential books and book-like-things that are also virtually lying around when the Internet connection is working; but that’s obviously a whole nother universe.)

This house, cottage, is across the road from the one that is right on the water, and that has its own dock. And we’re further up the Bay than we were those first years, and the water is calmer. So I’m not sitting by the open window breathing the air and listening to the waves plashing (and, come to think of it, the air is supposed to be well below freezing tonight, and it’s headed there already, and we don’t have any windows open). Still, though, there are waves out there, plashing quietly, and a million extra stars up in the black sky (I saw them all, looking up when I strolled over earlier to see if the owners were home and might be able to fix the network connection, not that I’m in withdrawl or anything no no nothing like that). And it’s quiet, very quiet, and a car going by makes one lift one’s head to see what that sound is, as opposed to at home say where a sudden cessation of background motor sounds would have the same, if opposite, effect.

Those first times up here were so, what?, pivotal, or not pivotal so much as exemplary, maybe, thematic. Life-changing not in the sense that life would have been some other way without them (although to an extent it would have been), so much as life-changing as in showing in a lovely clear way how life had changed, having sentient children, a prosperous family, having chosen certain life paths over others, being in a rental house on the coast of Maine rather than crouched with tired fingers in a harvesting shack on the edge of some large and well disguised marijuana field somewhere in California, listening for helicopters and planning what to do with the next big payout.

Just for example.

And then over the years they’ve become more familiar, comfortable, known, part of life rather than some sort of distillation or fragment of metaphor. Being the first Empty Nest vacation is definitely a new thing, but still such a definitely-new thing that I have nothing much to say about it; that train has arrived, but the cargo has not yet been unpacked. The definitive bit of Empty Nest weblogging has yet to be written, and that may not happen on the coast of Maine at all.

 


 

There’s a road somewhere between here and elsewhere called New Meadows Road, and there’s a river near there called New Meadows River. And, thinking as I sometimes do about places and how they get their names, I found the river one sort of baffling.

I mean, it’s relatively straightforward how you get some meadows called New Meadows, because there were some other meadows first, and now there are these new ones also, the New Meadows, and if then a road goes in that runs by, or on the other side of, the New Meadows, that could be New Meadows Road.

But the river, that river was already there. It was there before the New Meadows were there, and it seems pretty likely that the New Meadows are close enough to the (if you will) old meadows, that even when the old meadows were relatively new, people knew about the river (rivers in general, and this one in particular, being no small things or easy to overlook), and had to refer to it now and then.

Did everyone just call it “the River” all that time, and it wasn’t until after the New Meadows were named that for some reason it became necessary to call it something? Not really convincing.

Was it originally called the “Odious Bobcat River”, and people living along it got tired of the name, and consciously redubbed it “New Meadows River” for psychological reasons? It would be a good story, and it’s possible, for all that one naively doesn’t think of persons in antique times being into that sort of PR.

M suggests that the meadows and the river could, after all, have been discovered (or discovered to the extent of needing names) at the same time, and rather than having started using some new meadows a stone’s throw from the old ones, it could be that our intrepid explorers came around some curve in the forest track, or reached a hilltop, and behold there were some meadows, gleaming in the sun as though newly-minted, and a river flowing merrily beside them, and they named them the New Meadows and the New Meadows River accordingly. (Although M says that “Fresh Meadows” might have been a better name in that situation, I pointed out that perhaps they had looked on the Internet and found that Fresh Meadows, Maine was already taken.)

 


 

Ha, and now it appears that the Internet is available again! (Approaching bedtime on Friday night, it is.) So I will stop typing for now and see what the world has been up to, and post this probably once we are back home, quite likely typing more in between now and then, in the traditional burglar-resisting style.

And now and now, it is near bedtime Saturday night, and we have various things all packed up, some even in the car, for the long drive home tomorrow. We went for a lovely walk and climb over the rocks way down at Ocean Point, taking lots of iPictures, and then back into town for seafood and icecream (the icecream store was actually open, although officially closed for the season, the owners we suspect having dismissed the thirteen year old counter persons until the Spring, and having fun selling off the last few flavors to weekend tourists themselves).

I won’t post the list of books lying about, because for one thing some of them are already in the car. But the ones I finished include Modesitt Jr’s “The Parafaith War”, which I enjoyed (from the blurbs I sort of expected a fast-paced clever-idea story, so because it’s actually a rather slow and thorough growing-up sort of story I found it extremely slow moving until I adjusted my expectations), and something named “The Buck Stops Flynn”, which was odd and quirky, and Sam Harris’s “Free Will”, which turns out to be very short and to say pretty much what I expected in my “Getting Free Will Wrong” entry the other day, but which I may eventually write a more nuanced entry on.

And that’s it! :) Probably no more typing here tonight, and possibly no more until I figure out exactly how and where to post this once we are back home. Probably to the shiny new wordpress weblog. Should I also post it to the old traditional davidchess dot com weblog as a Special Anniversary Update? If I remember how? Maybe!

In any case, be well, have been well, and whatever tenses English is missing. And thanks, as always, for everything.

 


 

(And now we are home! Things not mentioned above include half an hour of zazen sitting on a mossy stone on the scenic Maine hillside, which I’m not sure just when occurred, and a stop at a Cracker Barrel on the way home for our direct intravenous cholesterol injections. The cat is going completely bonkers at the return of her staff, and we are unpacking. Welcome home!)