Monday, August 13, 2018

I could never dream of such nuance.

One of the many curious things you learn in calculus is that "infinity" is not exactly a single thing: that, yes, a set of things can be infinite, but infinite sets can have different "cardinalities," and with some straightforward (as these things go) math, in some calculus situations you can algebraically cancel out infinities the same way you might cancel out the n in 5n/n. In an ordinary everyday life, you'd never know the difference.

I have learned many subtleties in the world of boring bedtime literature. There are different ways to be boring! And they are not alike.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

  • Here we have sentences, actually quite pithy by later standards, but still of considerable length, which do the reader no favors as s/he tries to untangle where Gibbon has been superseded by actual archeology, where his observations are still illuminating, and where he (unaccountably to modern eyes) suffers as both a scholar and commentator from assuming the Bible is historically accurate and not presenting any good theories as to why the entire ancient world failed to notice the flood of miracles leading up and including the Crucifixion, which encourages in the modern reader the sense that, while our ways of understanding history are always improving, at the very least Gibbon deserved to be supplanted by the slavering hordes of archeology, geology, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, textual criticism, physics, and chemistry.
  • I hope you're interested in ships, whale biology, and ships that hunted and skinned whales, because there are very, very long and detailed interludes on all that, and more. And others less interesting. Although, there are no ships until 25% through the book. Before that, you're treated to a long-form essay about the pulpit in the Seamans' Chapel. (Not its symbolism or significance. Just the pulpit.)
  • An over-indulgent pot-smoker whose rambling self-monologues every so often deliver an hour of genuine brilliance.
Paradise Lost
  • It is 3 AM. You have been driving for 17 hours. Jamie wouldn't have called if it weren't a real emergency; you pray to gods you don't believe in that the trouble isn't the cartel again. 
  • Hundreds of square miles of corn and soybeans, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse or rest stop.
  • Your muscles twitch with accumulated coffee and Adderall, but you are lulled by the metronome thunking of the expansion joints in the pavement.
  • Nebraska has come for you.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


Here is the sort of thing that happens if you learn stuff for fun:

I finally started in on Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London excellent series of paranormal/urban fantasy police procedural novels. The protagonist is an African-British police constable, who among other things was training to be an architect, dropping out when he discovered he couldn't draw, but with a practiced eye, he guides the reader through the centuries of British buildings. The fourth book, Broken Homes, focuses on a failed modernist high-rise building built when architects thought they could build a better society by separating living space from retail or work space, raising people up, literally, by building upward.
(The astute reader will notice this is the exact opposite of the "mixed-use" standard we're currently working with, where homes and shops and businesses are all together; this is not an accident, as all of these projects failed in pretty much the same ways. Nobody bought into these ideas when they were introduced in the 1920s and 1930s; it was only World War II's destruction of Europe's housing that provided an opening.)
At the same time, I was reading J. G. Ballard's novel High-Rise, which takes place in a modernist skyscraper, and whose first paragraph hints at a dystopian narrative:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.
While that was all fresh in my mind, I suddenly had a yen to listen indiscriminately to episodes of the fabulous 99% Invisible podcast, which I'd previously dropped because a lack of commute also means a lack of podcast-listening time. And I just happened to hit a two-part episode about--wait for it--an enormous modernist tower project in the Netherlands, called the Bijlmermeer. You can guess what happened to it, although it has its own Dutch spin on things, like the role of Suriname, the project's pragmatic and seemingly effective redevelopment, and then there's the thing where a 747 crashed into it.

I actually found a podcast devoted to hunting down this kind of inter-relatedness, though mostly from the Renaissance and earlier: The Endless Knot, brought to us by a pair of delightfully nerdy history/language professors.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

getting there!

After about 9 months of violin, much of the noise sounds like music!

It's still a ridiculous instrument, sensitive to the smallest misstep in timing, or barely-perceptible muscle tension. It's a lot like singing that way, where you get these odd tips that are often not physically possible--my favorite is "sing while opening more space between your upper and lower molars"--but using that image, you can get your body into the right position. "Relax your sternohyoid muscles" is not helpful feedback for most of us.

My new teacher told me about "leading tones," which may have been in that second semester of Music Theory that I dropped out of. In the violin context, it means that certain notes--predictably, thank heavens--get played at a slightly higher pitch than normal, which amounts to placing your finger a millimeter or two higher than you would normally. In science-y terms, if you would normally play a B at 493.88 Hz, unless the next note is C, in which case you might play it at 494.5 Hz. He said, "Our brains make it sound better that way," and it did explain some passages whose correct intonation has escaped me.

On the other hand, it is a tremendous sense of accomplishment to actually get better at playing the violin, because the violin does not help you in the slightest.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

cures for insomnia

Paradise Lost is...slow. Not with Moby-Dicks's virtuosity, but in a run-of-the-mill way that you can expect when reading epic poetry as a 21st-century modern. My last study of poetry was half a lifetime ago, and even my private school knows better than to push their freshmen too far beyond Shakespeare, so to the extent I ever knew that blank verse is unrhymed (usually) iambic pentameter, I forgot. (I did not forget that Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, probably because I had a few years of studying theater before switching gears to computer science.) I may need to switch back to The Iliad, which offers some surprises, even though I know much of what there is to know (in English) about its background and storyline. Maybe because it's been so influential, Paradise Lost isn't promising anything interesting, when I have consumed many books and podcasts covering the poem, and its historicultural associates, from all kinds of angles.

It is a very refined turgidity, though. The scrupulously identical meter of each line, without no regard to sentence or speaker, is exhausting.

On the other hand, simply anticipating reading Milton, on the way to sleep, seems to help me sleep. So, hey. Mission accomplished.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day

We went to the Father's Day breakfast at the lake, and I ate a couple of pancakes and some orange juice, thus proving that age does not magically bestow wisdom. It's been a sleepy afternoon.

It's been a fine decade of parenting J, though of course he'll take some more time to grasp and accept the extent of my father-figure presence in his life. His biological father is a walking storm of issues--in his Magnanimous Mode, he said he could pick J up at the lake, allowing that I "might have some fatherly feelings" for the boy--who, like a toddler enforcing his ownership of a toy he doesn't actually like, guards his "father" place in J's world by assertion rather than by, I dunno, being a good father.

Fatherhood has granted me some priceless, heart-warming moments.
Around age 6ish, I was driving J somewhere by myself and he was angry I hadn't brought an iPad for him (or whatever), and he yelled "AAAAGH! YOU'RE THE WORST DAD, I MEAN STEPDAD, EVER!!".
But the all-time winner, even though it's second-hand:

One of J's birthday parties was at the place in Half Moon Bay where he took pony-riding lessons for a few years. His oldest friend, the son of Anna's oldest friend, met Bio-Dad, who introduced himself as J's father.
"I thought Chris was J's father."
And that's what happens when you don't show up.

Monday, June 4, 2018


I'm getting a new violin teacher, since the current one is moving to Austin for a 2-year residency with her string quartet. I had my first lesson with the new guy this weekend, and it looks like a good change: he's less dedicated to Classical Violin™, and I suspect has more experience teaching adults.

(Teaching adults is definitely a newer thing for the previous teacher, who compulsively tuned my violin at the start of every lesson--at the recital I discovered that this is normal, since of course most kids can't do it, especially for violin--and slipped uncontrollably into the "we" voice at times. She's Canadian, and very nice, and it doesn't bug me that much overall, so it hasn't been worth trying to change.)

Teacher #2 seems totally cool with my "close enough for rock 'n roll" tuning that one would expect from a guitar player (unlike many other instruments, the standard guitar tuning mathematically cannot be perfect, and then also my actual violin playing is the real tuning challenge, not whether my strings are in 100% perfect fifths), and his coaching feels more useful generally.

Evidently he also likes Nordic fiddle music! These guys, for example, who have a new album out:

And was interested to hear about a new band (Dreamers' Circus), as well as not one but two weird Swedish instruments which are not the nyckelharpa: the 5-course modern cittern, and the träskofiol, which of course is a large wooden shoe with violin fittings tacked on. So I'm feeling like he's better suited to help me reach my goal of playing folk music in bars.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


Leela seems to have developed kennel cough, roughly defined as "horrifying hacking noises with occasional small puddles of sputum." It was a little unnerving, but seems to be clearing up. I'm not sure a dog's anatomy really accommodates "spitting" vs. "vomiting" in the way we're used to. She has no trouble eating, sleeping, or being a pain in the ass, though, so I expect it will pass.

I've missed having some properly dull bedtime reading, ever since I finished Moby-Dick. I keep trying, but I'm 99.9% pure curiosity by weight, so I keep finding stuff interesting. Non-fiction doesn't work so well, although A Natural History of the Piano delivered a decent dose of turgidity with a subject I am at best indifferent about. No, I needed to look elsewhere.

I eventually get around to reading Dan Brown's novels (he of The Da Vinci Code), which are unchallenging as literature, but interesting as art history. The latter book takes much of its plot from the pseudo-nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, material much better explored by the graphic novel Preacher (now a decent TV adaptation!). Angels & Demons was the Illuminati book, and The Lost Symbol was Masons. Secret societies make for fine paperback fodder, and you can save some time by reading The Illuminatus Trilogy, which literally has all of them, or save even more time by reading Everything Is Under Control by the same author, essentially a catalog of conspiracy theories and secret societies (real or imagined).

Ever get the sense that a ton of people did drugs in the 60s and in the end it did not do some of those people any favors?

Dan Brown also wrote Inferno, another escapade with his usual protagonist (a "symbologist," which is not a real thing but does provide endless excuses to be chased after by secret societies using secret symbols), but Inferno lacks any conspiracy theories. Instead, it's about...Dante Alighieri. And Florence. And Dante in Florence. It has no pretense to being anything more or less than the novelization of an art history course about Florence in the 1200-1700 C.E. period. At the end of the book, the heroes have not 100% saved the day, which is an unexpected dose of ambiguity from one of English's greatest hack authors.

I read the book a while ago, and was reminded of it because I watched the movie, which was terrible, in ways that were only surprising because usually a Dan Brown novel is not something you could make an enjoyable, let alone intelligent, movie out of, but no. They took a Dan Brown book and dumbed it down. Out of habit, maybe.

Well, hell. I've never read Dante. I don't like poetry. What translation should I use? Already more work than I want to put in. I'm near the end of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast, and the last section is about the origins and development of Satan. Our conception of Hell is Dante's, but our conception of Satan is Milton's (brought to modernity by Neil Gaiman's graphic novel Sandman, and Mike Carey's brilliant spinoff Lucifer). I've never read Paradise Lost, but it bypasses the translation problem, and it's pretty dull to read! (At least as of line 450 or so, the language is somewhat unaccountably easier to read than the roughly-contemporary Shakespeare. Maybe I'll learn why, some afternoon when I should be working.)

I leave you with what is surely the most famous English-language description of Milton's work: