This is a log of my media consumption. I might get around to consuming stuff at To read.
July 2015. Ex Machina (movie).
June 2015. Inside Out (movie).
It is surprising to see a movie successfully have as its central conflict the imbalance and repression of anthropomorphic emotions.
February 2015. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
January 2014. The Trial by Franz Kafka.
I started this book in the middle, and trying to figure out what was happening was actually pretty fun. After a couple of chapters of that, I did start at the beginning. Spoiler alert: Joseph is clearly guilty.
There is a parable which I think would make a fantastic sequence in a movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it already has been.
January 2014. Frozen (movie).
December 2013. The Phantom of the Opera (musical).
My family went to go see this musical at the Orpheum theater when I was back in Minnesota. I remember thinking the movie version was good, but the musical was excellent: music, singing, staging, sets.
I found the first half to be more powerful than the second. The first is the development of Christine and the “Angel of Music” at the opera house, where the second is the unmasking of the phantom. While I appreciate the idea of their hopes and dreams dissolving because the Eric under the mask is revealed, I didn’t find it to be compelling. We learn a murdurous genious is cannot handle love and so tells Christine to leave him; that’s not compassion but aversion. I guess it seems the second act itself is wearing a mask: I want to believe there is something more, something promising, but really the grotesque is all that is lying underneath. Webber actually made a sequel to this musical, and, perhaps revealingly, it’s about Eric as a carney at Coney Island.
I didn’t realize that pit orchestras tend to be composed of local musicians (which I found out because my siblings knew a couple of the violinists). I wonder why they bother to have live musicians when it’s somewhat clear that the music is largely pre-recorded? I suppose it’s both for the show of it, and it adds some amount of uniqueness to each performance.
November 2013. Gravity (movie).
The setup is that astronauts are repairing the Hubble, but the dreaded Russians have been doing missile testing on their own satellites, creating a large cloud of metal debris that is in on collision course with the space shuttle. With the shuttle destroyed, she has to find it in herself to have the courage to get back to Earth, and in the process, become reborn.
The special effects were unobtrusive, which is amazing considering that the entire movie is of the characters free-falling through space. I saw the movie in 3D, and it wasn’t just novelty, it was part of the storytelling. For instance, there were point-of-view shots inside a helmet, looking out into space. Seeing that spherical visor right in front of me helped me understand what it would be like to be there.
People have been complaining about the script. I think such complaints are made without thinking about what real dialogue in that situation would be like.
October 2013. House of Games (movie).
This is an intriguing movie. I feel like discussing it might spoil the effect of sitting through the story, so I won’t say much. To remind myself about the movie later: it’s about a psychologist who has written a book and has become successful. One of her patients comes to her and says he has a gambling problem, and she promises (unlike a normal psychologist) that she will actually help him. The movie seems to be about femininity clashing with masculinity, and how weak, feminine activities like psychology (which deal with squishy things like emotional state) are no match for the strong, masculine activities in the Real World (where emotional state never gets in the way). There’s interesting analysis about the movie elsewhere online. In any case, the movie seemed like a big dream, itself clashing with the archetypes.
After we watched the movie, we watched videos of Ricky Jay, greatest magician in the world.
September 2013. Let Over Lambda: 50 Years of Lisp by Doug Hoyte.
I had to force myself to finish this one. Mr. Hoyte thinks very highly of Lisp (an opinion I could get behind), but he does it in a way which belies an ignorance of other languages and programming languages as a subject. It’s clear he has an incredible amount of practice writing applications in Lisp, and he does show some interesting uses of metaprogramming with macros, but the way in which he exposits this I found to be incredibly irritating. He references Paul Graham’s On Lisp a number of times; perhaps that would have a more illuminating discussion of concepts such as anaphoric macros (which is done somewhat hazily in LOL). What kind of book devotes an appendix to espousing the virtues of Vi over Emacs? What kind of book switches to a pseudomathematical voice to define “important concepts” like in the following?
What kind of book? This one.
Let L be a programming language, F a feature in that programming language, and A and B arbitrary programs in L. F provides a duality of syntax feature if the modifications required to change A into B become fewer than in a version of L without F.
September 2013. The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemmingway.
Based on how a friend described this book back in high school, I expected it to be quite boring. It was a short book, and I wanted something short to read, so I decided to read it (plus, I decided that the criticism of 10th graders should be taken lightly in regards to reading). I can see why this book was a “great American novel.” I enjoyed reading these philosophical wanderings of a man being pulled along by something great and beautiful far into the sea.
August 2013. Beauty and the Beast (movie).
I hadn’t watched this for over a decade, and when I had seen it I was very young. The silly slapstick was certainly silly, but it was, overall, quite excellent. I was amazed at how well they portrayed the feelings between Belle and the Beast: you could easily see them sparkle in their faces.
The songs’ lyrics were funny. Some of the songs were written in a way where you had to wonder if it was actually good or just bad enough it was good. An example is the expositional song called “Gaston:” it has so many words crammed in!
August 2013. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (movie).
While watching the credits, I was surprised to see that it was based on The Odyssey. Sure enough, I could call some plot points ahead of time because of my basic familiarity with the classic; I’m thinking in particular about when the Sirens were about to make an appearance.
I thought the movie was well put together, and I liked the attention to detail (for instance, running gags about the hair product and certain catch phrases). My only complaint might be that I thought the pacing was too quick, but that may have just been because the Coen brothers wanted to do so much in such a small amount of time.
July 2013. Hijacked (movie).
A view into the workings of a corporation during a time of stress: a hijacking of a company ship by pirates. The pace of the movie is very slow, which gives time to experience the confined quarters in which the pirates put the crew, to see the evolving psychological states, and to view some good cinematography. Nothing like I imagined it would be based on the preview for the other ship hijacking movie which came out recently (that one appeared to be much more action-packed with no emotional scarring or your money back!).
July 2013. Monsters University (movie).
Sequel (prequel) to Monsters, Inc.; interesting in that it goes against the standard theme of “against all odds, if you try hard, you will succeed,” and instead says that “embrace what you are and be good at that.”
May 2013. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges.
I really need to read this book again. I like the tone of dusty pseudo-erudition, his being a careful scholar of un-reality. What I didn’t expect before reading the book was that I would get a glimpse of Borges himself, which was unfortunately hazy at best. I think part of the key of understanding the book might be seeing what isn’t related, but this is likely a difficult exercise.
What are the labyrinths? This is a motif which shows up in almost all of the stories. It seems to be the idea of getting lost in levels of meaning or of playing with falsehoods.
May 2013. Iron Man III (movie).
It is what it is. It’s nice to be able to both worship and reject the cult of the industrialist! And, wooo, Christmas and America and the President of the United States! (Product placements, too!)
May 2013. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
How to describe this book? The “bridge” is a semiotic fantasy, kind of like Cosmicomics. But the “stones” are descriptions of made-up cities given by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Throughout, it is unclear who is talking to whom, whether either or both are imagining their interactions, or whether they are actually in each other’s presence — like how eXistenZ makes it clear the hierarchy of media is flat (dreams within dreams are just dreams, for instance), it’s clear Invisible Cities is just words on a page, a book, so any and all of these possibilities are “true.”
The voice in the book seems to follow the same progression as in Cosmicomics: it starts out good, but by the end it’s just dragging on, and the descriptions of the individual cities get to be (unnecessarily, in my opinion) double in length what they were in the earlier descriptions.
I like the idea, though, of the constraint of making the whole book about describing cities, and then trying to carve out some meaning from these constraints. It’s probably very Oulipo of him to do that.
April 2013. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
I haven’t read these for a long time, and I last read them in Project Gutenberg; I didn’t realize there were typesetting-based jokes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because of that (for instance, the tale the mouse told was in the shape of a tail, and Alice mistakenly thought he had gotten to the fifth bend of it, to his dismay).
They are overall full of wordplay ond nonsense, very amusing in what I imagine the Victorian England sense of the word to be. One thing I find annoying about the books is how thin-skinned and prone to snapping to anger the characters are — lots of yelling and being annoyed by each other.
One page in Through the Looking Glass concerning the song “A-Sitting on a Gate,” which is called “Ways and Means,” named “The Aged Aged Man,” and whose name is called “Haddocks’ Eyes”, reminded me of George, so I read the page to him. He said he was flattered that the page would remind me of him because that page was perhaps his favorite in the book and also quite influential for him. Introducing this exchange in the book is what I think to be a funny broken expectation:
‘It’s long,’ said the Knight, ‘but very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it—either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else—’
‘Or else what?’ said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.
‘Or else it doesn’t, you know. [...]’
While the books admittedly are amusing, I think I rather like The Phantom Tollbooth more.
April 2013. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
Around fourth grade, I remember being in a library, trying to find the “best” book to check out — because, of course it wasn’t like I could just go back on another day for more books — and, after taking my time (rather: my great while), my dad said in a suspiciously scripted voice “I read The Phantom Tollbooth when I was ten. I still have the book report I wrote, which began ‘This is the best book ever,”’ and this immediately persuaded me. On the way home, I realized the meaning of his voice while reading the book’s back cover. Whatever his methods, it all worked out because I remember really enjoying the book (hence my wanting to read it again).
The writing is hilarious; the style reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse (i.e., a happier Douglas Adams). The pun density is exceptional, the story is well paced, the moralizing is decent. Recommended.
Interestingly, here’s a passage which reminds me very much of Borges:
“In this box are all the words I know,” he [King Azaz the Unabridged] said. “Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer all the questions which have never been asked. All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. [...] All you must learn to do is use them well and in the right places.” (page 98)
Mathemagician-inspired, I think I’m going to occasionally refer to my writing implements as “magic staffs” from now on.
April 2013. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
This Entertainment is very intricate and involved. I’m reminded of a Brahms symphony: the work’s fabric’s motifs are stitched together in various juxtapositions which let you see meanings you hadn’t previously considered, and the presence of motifs relates otherwise unrelated-seemings contexts. It all just seems very connected. Writing the book must have been an obsession of Wallace for quite a long time.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Infinite Jest itself is a piece of anticonfluential literature; James O. Incandenza is treated in an almost painfully self-referential manner (q.v. the parts where Hal is watching his father’s movies in the video rooms and they are complaining about how heavy handed the symbolism is — it’s like the joke is that Wallace is misdirecting the reader so that the reader doesn’t realize how intentionally heavy handed Wallace is being!), so his filmic proclivities might carry over to the book itself.
One of J.O. Incandenza’s Entertainments which seems fairly central is Cage III — Free Show, in which there is a carnival sideshow where the audience is the show: people are turning into giant eyeballs while watching people undergoing unspeakable degradations for the purpose of watching the first group turn into giant eyeballs. The concept which shows up in different contexts is a thing which exists between two forces, but I haven’t developed this well enough myself to explain it — and Wallace took a thousand pages to explore this concept, so I don’t feel bad not being able to do it here. In particular, I want to relate this to the core of the book: the problem of psychic holes — where do they come from, and how does one mend one?
I found the treatment of mathematical concepts to be unpleasantly transparent; while I saw these references as broad strokes to paint a certain kind of conceptual figurant for the scene, it did make me wonder what other things were done in such broad strokes as to be non-sensical.
A general feeling I had about the book is that the content felt like it was from the Vipassana nanas in the so-called “Dark Night of the Soul” or “Knowledges of Suffering.” Dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, desire for deliverence. The book can be very uncomfortable to read because of this. I find the the lack of resolution and the lack of anyone reaching any sort of equinamity (discounting the static characters of Lyle and Mario) to be somewhat interesting in light of that.
For a book which is so long, it’s surprising to me that I don’t have more to say right now, but it’s just too big (“gargantuan” proclaims the book’s back cover) with too much content to discuss in this format. I have a friend who reads this book every year. While I don’t think I’d go that far, I’m probably going to read it again at some point (but first I’ll read something light like The Phantom Tollbooth).
(Later: I’ve been feeling like something has gone missing from my life after having finished with and moved on from this book. Withdrawal from the Entertainment...)
March 2013. The Art of Dreaming by Carlos Castaneda.
I was talking to a coworker about lucid dreaming over lunch, and the next day he lent me this book (labeled “occultism/parapsychology” on the back). It is supposedly recounting the experiences of Castaneda as he was learning sorcery from a guy in southwest North America, in a tradition that predates known human habitation of the continent. While he’s written other books on the subject of sorcery, this one was focused on dreaming.
Dreaming is contrasted with merely having dreams: it’s a skill involving maintaining sufficient focus while having dreams. With enough skill, one can actually enter other worlds which are as real as the one we are used to.
The book presents a theory for dreaming, which is intertwined with a theory for perception. I will try to summarize the theory, but it’s bound to be inaccurate and reduced into my own language. There’s this concept of energy which seems to represent the basic material of the universe. Each entity is some conglomeration of energy, called a luminous ball, and it has a shape. Sentient entities have, in addition to this, an assemblage point, through which energy travels to “assemble” perception for that entity. The position of the assemblage point in relation to the luminous ball is a way of perceiving the universe, and the luminous ball changes shape (the “old sorcerers” would try to have a greatly elongated luminous ball because surface area corresponds to amount of universe energy one experiences, and volume is conserved). It is said that other worlds are in the position of the assemblage point. With sufficient training, a sorcerer can see both the luminous ball and the position of its assemblage point (hence this theory is testable (?)). When in a dream, the assemblage point is more free to move, so energy which normally does not pass through the assemblage point is interpreted by the mind into a weird dreamscape. One can learn to fix the assemblage point in a single spot to experience a world in that spot. Positions of the assemblage point outside the luminous ball are outside the human realm. Dreams can be differentiated from dreaming another world by detecting the energy composition of objects; mere dreams are composed of objects without energy.
The path to learning dreaming goes through some number of gates. The first gate is the ability to fix dreaming focus, and this is accomplished by practicing being able to focus on ones hands in a dream (for instance). The second gate is the ability to “wake up” into another dream while dreaming (or by changing a dream by focusing on a new, distant object from within a dream). After this, something which suspiciously sounds like the Dark Night happens:
What happens is that the dreamer encounters “inorganic beings,” which are another kind of sentient entity, and their energy feels like pangs of fear. Interestingly, interacting with them can get you lost among what I expect are called “the powers” elsewhere; the inorganic beings are able to teach a dreamer the art of dreaming, the book explains, to ensnare you in their nets and capture your awareness.
“You have entered now into the most dangerous facet of the sorcerers’ knowledge,” he began. “It is sheer dread, a veritable nightmare. I could joke with you and say that I didn’t mention this possibility to you out of regard for your cherished rationality, but I can’t. Every sorcerer has to face it. Here is where, I fear, you might very well think you’re going off the deep end.” (page 45)
The third gate of dreaming is the ability to see yourself dreaming, which entails actually dreaming you’re in the conventionally real world. After this, it seems the next gates involve going to other worlds physically and not just in a dream.
Another part of the path for learning dreaming seems to involve lots of hallucinogenic drug use. Castenada goes missing for six days near the end of the book because of what I assume to be datura (for which the saying goes you either find yourself in the middle of a desert, in jail, or dead, and in any case without clothes on) because everyone seemed to keep finding themselves without clothes on.
The book itself was entertaining, but the prose was a bit stilted, and the pattern of 1) teacher gives teaching, 2) student argues, 3) student practices, makes big mistake, and 4) teacher reprimands and tries to clean up after student got a little tiring.
March 2013. Runny Babbit by Shel Silverstein.
I got a bunch of Shel Silverstein books in the hopes of turning some of his soems into pongs. This one was sull of foonerisms; quite a billy sook indeed. In one of the poems, the ends of the words were swapped instead, which was a clever variation. I was hoping to see wiplets of trotated rords at some point, but, alas, it never happened.
January 2013. Mathematical Treks: From Surreal Numbers to Magic Circles by Ivars Peterson.
This is another one of those books which is a compilation of Martin-Gardner-like columns, but in this case they were written by Ivars Peterson and not Martin Gardner. The writing was solid (much better than Ian Stewart), but it was very light on the mathematics. Though, because the columns were so short and unsubstantial, it made for easy reading on the subway.
I liked the matchstick problems he gave. An example of one is: what is the minimum number of matchsticks so that there is an arrangement of them where the matchsticks only touch at their ends and each vertex has exactly four matchsticks incident to it? I believe the answer to this is twelve, but it’s a little tricky to find an arrangement. Trickier is with five at each vertex instead of four. These are good games to play at bars with their free matchsticks (that is, right before beginning to fling the matchsticks with the tab on the top of a metal can).
One article was about Paul Erdös, and it contained a theorem he had proved when he was young:
It seems very believable to me, but I haven’t yet found a proof for it.
Let n > 2 be an integer. Then there is a prime p such that n ≤ p < 2n.
January 2013. The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg.
I was supposed to have read this book back in sixth grade, but I don’t think I must have read it very carefully, because I didn’t remember much from it at all. What prompted me to read the book again was that a coworker was showing me his fountain pen, and we discussed the various ways by which a fountain pen can be refilled. This reminded me about The View from Saturday because of Noah Grishom’s calligraphy.
The main focus in the plot is these four sixth graders and their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, and how they became a group they called “the Souls.” However, they simultaneously became a state-competition-winning Academic Bowl team, so Mrs. Olinski is trying to discover whether the Souls or the Academic Bowl team came first; did she or they choose the other? The view from the Saturday tea times leads to some kind of answer.
There were a few techniques in the book which struck me. The first was the use of something like extended metaphor, where some experience would be developed, and it would show some other experience in a new light. One example of this is Nadia and the sea turtles; she later realizes that she, like the sea turtles, had some switch flipped and needed someone to help her move to where she could grow up. The second was that the significance of many things was left to be inferred; it would be clear that something was significant, but Konigsburg wouldn’t spell it out and say why it was. I think this helped to show how unified the Souls were, because they understood each other when much was left unsaid (however, I thought some of their unity was creepy, like the simultaneous “welcome” to Mrs. Olinski for tea time).
A theme which was strongly developed was that of the importance of kindness to oneself and to each other. This was explored in some obvious ways, for instance contrasting the kindness of the members of the Souls with the meanness of Hamilton Knapp. What one could call a sub-theme was how politeness is a way of expressing kindness. Further still, was how some kinds of politeness are speaking correctly, using fountain pens for calligraphy, being generally cultured, and taking a four’o’clock tea. I find it to be interesting how particular old-style ways of doing things slip in as being good examples of how one should behave, since they were, after all, in use before “the decline of Western Civilization.”
I found it to be amusing that Mr. Singh, the Indian guy, was the one who spoke in knowing riddles; almost uncomfortably stereotypical. But, he was the one who worked on a cruise ship for at least a decade, so he has an excuse to be worldly.
I thought the book was in general very well written and structured, and it was like a breath of fresh air after Mostly Harmless.
January 2013. Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams.
Clever and amusing, but dark, hollow, and un-funny, except maybe for the bit where they find Elvis Presley in a diner. The whole killing off all possible Earths thing is the kind of thing you do when you’re really tired of a franchise. Also, the prose seemed forced and overly wordy. (And what was with Adams’s penchant for inappropriately exact numbers?)
A parallel Trisha McMillan, who ends up being a news anchor rather than running off with Zaphod, interviews an astrologer, and this reminds me of something which I happened to read while reading this book (http://denisdutton.com/cold_reading.htm), in which is a particularly Douglassian remark:
One idea that isn’t explored in the article is how the Barnum Effect can be used intentionally and non-delusionally to help people think through things. Perhaps astrology-like-methods can be thought of in the same way as Polya’s problem solving heuristics.
Astrology, to cite but one example, is frequently cast in the role of an outmoded competitor to modern astronomy. This is a misunderstanding of the function that astrology plays in people’s lives. Astronomy is about planets, stars, and galaxies; astrology, however, is about me, and the special place I have in the grand cosmic scheme. It explains my unique personality, my special hopes and desires. From astronomy I learn that I am but an insignificant creature in some minor corner of the universe; astrology tells me I am someone unique and important.
It occurred to me that perhaps the astrologer to Trisha is like me, the reader, to Douglas Adams, and I’m supposed to infer that Douglas Adams himself wasn’t happy with something, based on how cynical he is about the universe. If Trisha’s meant to be an analogy for him, then I wonder, what is it that Adams felt he missed out on?
December 2012. The Artist (movie).
Set in Hollywood when silent films were making way for talkies, The Artist is itself a black-and-white (mostly) silent movie, following a silent actor whose career washes up and his love interest, an up-and-coming actress.
The soundtrack was excellent, sounding exactly like music from the silent-movie era (largly because it was lifted from movies around then), and it captured a sense of longing which was appropriate. Aside: you can reproduce some of the feeling of the longing in The Maple Leaf Rag by changing the chords to major sevenths.
I was hoping the movie would be a bit more avante garde and self-aware, but it dutifully kept you within this actor’s ego. There was something unsatisfactory about the movie in that it felt a bit like that recent Muppet movie. Maybe because it sometimes seemed more like an homage than a movie in its own right.
December 2012. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams.
The second and third books of the trilogy got progressively darker. The theme of insignificance in the universe and loathing of bureaucracy held out as the humor fell away.
The fourth book, So Long, had a much different tone that seemed more detailed. Even though it wasn’t as humorous, I liked it for what it is rather than being viewed in the light of the first book. Marvin’s final moment of peace was even touching.
I think it was in Life, the Universe and Everything that the accidental immortal showed up to insult Arthur. The back story of the immortal struck me as a bit peculiar: the “eternal dark tea-time of the soul”? Is that a reference to the dark night of the soul, as described by Saint John of the Cross? What is with Arthur’s pseudo-spirutuality as he contemplates the bistro-mathic drive? What about all of the descriptions of people being blown apart and reassembled or being disoriented, and thinking about the universe differently because of it? It seems like something was going on with Adams.
December 2012. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (movie).
I liked the slower tempo of the movie; it was around the tempo of The House of Flying Daggers. I’m not sure it was worth seeing Radagast the Brown carting around with his quick and bird-pooped hares and hairs, respectively. But, the movie was fun to see, and I’ll probably see the next two, too. Hopefully they don’t keep doing the things-flying-at-the-screen thing which are hallmarks of made-for-3D movies.
There is a lot going on in some of the scenes, and perhaps too much. One instance of this is in the goblins’ mines, where the dwarves and Gandalf are haphazardly making their way through all of these swinging platforms and countless goblins, surviving many improbable encounters. Maybe it can be regarded as Bilbo telling his story bigger than it actually happened, but in any case the improbability hurts the suspension of disbelief (I seem to remember Big Fish doing a much better job telling tall tales).
The music was funny; in the scene where Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf are in pine trees at the edge of a big, sheer cliff, and where the trees are falling one at a time, the composer actually had diminished seventh chords raising by a half step for each tree. Who actually does that?
December 2012. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
I’ve read this book before, perhaps around 2007, and I remember it being good. Somehow, I was able to appreciate it much more this time around. Somewhat terrifyingly, I also realized the forgotten origin of much of what I thought was my own ideas, jokes, and wordplay.
I remember not getting the following joke at all:
I thought it was just meant to be some kind of miscommunication between cultures, but it actually a pun which uses “late” as in “deceased” (ha ha).
‘Come,’ called the old man, ‘come now or you will be late.’
‘Late?’ said Arthur. ‘What for?’
‘What is your name, human?’
‘Dent. Arthur Dent,’ said Arthur.
‘Late, as in the late Dentarthurdent,’ said the old man, sternly. ‘It’s a sort of threat you see.’
This book is a true piece of science fiction; it’s not just a comedy in space. Adams stresses just how unimaginably huge the universe is, all the while contrasting this with the smallness of our existence; it’s a really lonely, humbling thought. As if that weren’t enough, he overlays this with stories of the absurdity in thinking that anything about the universe makes any amount of sense. “Oh no, not again.”
I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy (in five parts). I’m curious to see if I’ll think any better of his later books, which I only remember being “much bleaker and not as good.”
November 2012. Wreck-It Ralph (movie).
Despite the corniness and unresolved contradictory ideals, the movie was enjoyable to watch. Clever, too. Time to discuss some of the ideals.
Ralph was supposed to be O.K. with being a bad guy, since that didn’t mean he was a bad guy (i.e., role versus quality). So, you’re not supposed to go against your program, or role. However, Vanellope was glitch, but really had another role (which actually didn’t make too much sense), but her weirdness was preserved despite her intended program. Why couldn’t Ralph’s not wanting to be a bad guy be preserved?
Ralph wants some acknowledgement from the other characters in his game, and, being tired of having to live in a dump for the last thirty years and watching Fix-it Felix and the townspeople party after hours, he decides to go against his program and win an award to show everyone that maybe he deserved awards, too. So, at the end of the movie, the townspeople are shown giving him awards, and he is happy. Moral: awards make you happy.
November 2012. Moonrise Kingdom (movie).
This was by the same director as The Royal Tenenbaums. It was cornier (a main character got hit by lightning and continued unfazed), and had more dii ex machina (for instance, Mr. Narrator came to break up a fight), but the movie was still enjoyable. It was the story of two emotionally disturbed twelve-year-olds finding true love and being more reasonable than the adults (maybe about reasonable-ness; I think that might have been the intention). It seems Wes Anderson was being a bit daring depicting the intimacy between Sam and Suzy, but I suppose it was kind of cute.
The Benjamin Britten for the soundtrack was a pretty good idea. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra set the mood as an opening piece. The Boistrous Bouree (from Simple Symphony) made appropriate chase music.
November 2012. The World is Round by Gertrude Stein.
I found this book at Raven Used Books on Newbury street in Boston, and I thought, “hmmm... Gertrude Stein was mentioned in that Sister Bernadette book. Raeez also mentioned her as possibly being interesting, having done experiments in automatic writing. I should read some of her work.” The tone of the book reminds me of Breakfast of Champions because of it’s saying-the-obvious-thing way of saying things. But, this book, in contrast, doesn’t have as much local structure. The text has some rhythm to it, and it seems Stein was willing to displace meaning for rhyme. In fact, the flavor of the book seems so much whatever-came-to-Gertrude’s-mind, that I’m fairly convineced that it was a piece of automatic writing.
The writing is also very conversational and it has no commas to help you out. However you do you really do get used to her style after a while and it’s fun that is if you can bear the aimlessness of the exposition but it’s fun to run through.
“This is what happened. Of course Rose could not keep a lion in school, she could not have kept him even if he had been blue which was her favorite color but she certainly could not keep him when he was yellow brown which is the natural color for a lion to be even if the lion has a name as well as a mane and that name is Billie.”
Or, a hard-to-parse sentence: “They all had names and her name was Rose, but would she have been she used to cry about it would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose.”
November 2012. Handbook for the Recently Enlightened by Duncan Barford.
Despite the gaudy (and possibly misleading) title, this slim book is a fairly clear explanation of the concept of “enlightenment.” The book seems to have two main ideas. The first is a definition of enlightenment, which is the realization of the absolute (i.e., getting acquainted with some kind of non-relative truth which Barford calls “emptiness,” or the perception of not having perceptions, or something like that). The second is an argument that all traditions which are trying to grapple with some kind of absolute knowledge come to the same absolute knowledge. Among these ideas, he discusses to some degree how one may go about experiencing “emptiness,” as well as some of the dangers when trying to conceptualize a non-conceptual experience.
After this, Barford talks about some assorted topics. For instance, he points out how there’s a strange correspondence between glands in the endocrine system and the traditional locations of the “chakras” (and how talk about “energy flow” is fairly useless and without discrimination), and gives a conjecture that they are emotions without a cause. He also discusses how the idea of astral/ethereal/physical planes are a good map for the kinds of human experiance: thoughts, emotions, and raw perception.
November 2012. The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse.
This is a work of fiction by the German/Swiss author Herman Hesse, who’s probably better known for the novels Siddhartha and Steppenwolf (neither of which I’ve read).
The book pretends to be the biography and collected works of a guy named Joseph Knect, who was the Magister Ludi, that is, the master of the Glass Bead Game. The biography is purported to be written by a scholar from the twenty-third century who thought that Knecht’s life was worth preserving, despite custom against a cult of personality. Knecht was a member of a scholastic (vs. monastic) Order in a place called Castalia (in reference to the nymph who could inspire poetic genius), which was created as a culture state at the end of the “Age of Wars.” The book is as much as a biography of Knecht as a description of Castalia “for the layperson.” The Order is founded on two principles: the first is the pursuit of truth and the preservation of culture, etc. etc. etc., and the second is something to do with meditation. Furthermore, there is a game, which is the book’s namesake, which draws together all patterns and truth, and the heiroglyphs of the game are drawn when it’s played, and people meditate a lot on the deep meanings thereof. Music is very important to Castalian culture, but only if it’s good music. None of that post-1600s decadence such as dynamics or... harmony... is allowed.
Structurally, the book is something like a piano sonata. The first movement, the biography, is the densest and most thematic/motivic. The second, the collected poems, is the more meditative middle movement. And, the third, the collected Lives (i.e., short historical fiction with Knecht as the main character), are like the rondo movement, where the same theme is shown multiple times in different contexts.
The biography was much too repetitive for my liking, tending to say the same thing twice in neighboring sentences without any extra clarity. It also tended to describe descriptions of things rather than just describing them. For instance, there was a point where it describes how one character said something funny and how everyone laughed; as some people say nowadays: “cool story, bro!”
The voice of the biography was supposedly a scholar trying to piece together Knecht’s life, but this voice was only tenously held together. It was at times very pedantic and qualified statements about Knecht’s life very carefully, but at others the scholar went off on long descriptions of the internal state of Knecht’s mind! It’s hard to see how anybody but Knecht could even write such descriptions. It seems Hesse kind of dropped the ball on keeping up the pretense, but it’s quite possible I’m just missing something.
I liked the final three stories. But, the theme of “sacrificing oneself for one’s student” became rather tiring, especially after having to read the whole biography.
The heavy influence of eastern philosophy was interesting. I’m not sure how much Hesse actually understood of the philosophy, or if he actually was inspired by a more-more-than-cursory understanding of it.
The concept of “Universalism” in the Glass Bead Game, which is the idea of having a universal language for describing all concepts and relations in human thought, and the idea of getting at the “center” of all truth, is very fanciful.
I don’t remember who recommended or for what reason I was recommended this book. It was by no means a terrible experience, but it definitely took some amount of willpower to keep going. I couldn’t help but think of it as an Atlas Shrugged with a different philosophy (but at least Hesse seemed to be essaying rather than promulgating the philosophy of Castalia).
November 2012. Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction by Timothy Gowers.
The title sums up the book fairly well. In it, the author explains what it means to do mathematics and gives basic examples from number theory, geometry, and analysis. He also gives some philosophy of mathematics, introducing the abstract viewpoint in which there are no “real mathematical objects” that we are manipulating, and instead there are rules with which we manipulate symbols. He sums this viewpoint up in the statement that “a mathematical object is what it does.” Furthemore, to dissuade one from taking the “real mathematical objects” point of view, he gives the example of the roots of x2 + 1. Which is the true choice for i? (They are indistinguishable).
I somehow never realized that hyperbolic geometry is a proof that the parallel postulate is independent from the first four axioms of Euclidean geometry. I wonder if this is related to the technique I heard about from model theory called forcing for showing independence of axioms.
Gowers is an excellent writer. At some point I plan to read his larger “introduction,” The Princeton Companion to Mathematics.
November 2012. A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy.
This book is, according to C. P. Snow (a close friend of Hardy who wrote the preface to the edition of the book I read), “a passionate lament for creative powers that used to be and that will never come again.”
In the Apology, Hardy tries to justify mathematics, and with it, his own life’s work. He draws the distinction between the interesting and the not, and how it relates to usefulness. He argues that there is a certain “depth” and “generality” which the “useless” subject of pure mathematics provides that is “serious” and “interesting,” unlike what more applied and “useful” pursuits offer.
One thing which people seem to remember from this book is that mathematics “is a young man’s game,” which Hardy substantiates by saying that he can’t think of anyone who had initiated any mathematical advance past the age of fifty.
One other thing is his saying that mathematics is a good pursuit because of how harmless it is, and how pure mathematics like number theory, because it is so useless, has never harmed anyone in times of war. People tend to say that, well, number theory is now being used for cryptography, which is very useful for both online commerce and for the Department of Defense. I’m not convinced, though, that this kind of mathematics would pass Hardy’s requirements of depth and generality, especially for something like RSA, which is essentially just an application of Fermat’s little theorem.
Some advice: “A man who is always asking ‘Is what I do worth while?’ and ‘Am I the right person to do it?’ will always be ineffective himself and a discouragement to others. He must shut his eyes a little and think a little more of his subject and himself than they deserve. This is not too difficult: it is harder not to make his subject and himself ridiculous by shutting his eyes too tightly.”
The preface reminds me of an essay I read recently by F. Scott Fitzgerald called “The Crack Up”, which is about another creative mind which lost the will to create. Similar to Fitzgerald, Hardy lived like he was a young man, and depression greeted when his age finally caught up to him.
November 2012. Fearless Symmetry: Exposing the Hidden Patterns of Numbers by Avner Ash and Robert Gross.
The book is a technically-oriented popular mathematics book which tries to explain how symmetries helped prove Fermat’s Last Theorem. In particular, it tries to explain generalized reciprocity laws (which deal with computing the characters of certain elements of representations of the Galois group of the algebraic closure of Q. Quadratic reciprocity is an example which can be cast in this language.)
I found the book to be a bit too hand-wavy for my tastes, since such an exposition makes it easy for the reader to have very little idea of what’s going on, but I appreciated learning about what is going on in modern number theory as well as some of the motivation. Even though I say the book is a bit hand wavy, the authors definitely give enough details to understand (or have a good flavor for) the basic mathematical ideas they are trying to convey.
I’m fairly impressed by what they managed in this book given their constraint of trying to make it accessible to a mathematically-inclined popular audience, while still getting to talking about characters of group representations of the Galois group of the algebraic closure of Q and how these relate to the number of points on an elliptic curve over finite fields, and finally how this relates to proving Fermat’s Last Theorem! Some chapters definitely felt hastily constructed, especially the one introducing matrix groups, but considering that I already know about them, and that they aren’t the central focus of the book, I can’t complain too much.
November 2012. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (documentary).
There’s this sushi restaurant in Tokyo that was owned and operated for the last 75 years by this guy named Jiro. It’s in some basement, is spartan with only ten seats or so, yet has a 3-star Michelin rating, which apparently means that it is worth visiting the country for the restaurant alone. Jiro decided that the purpose of his life was to make the best sushi he could possibly make. And, judging by the Michelin rating, it seems he has accomplished that (although he still believes there is improvement to be made). The documentary looks at him, his two sons, some of his apprentices, and some of his dealers. Recommended.
October 2012. The Royal Tenenbaums (movie).
About a repentant father who saves his family from a sinking battleship. Sometimes a bit campy, but overall quirky and entertaining. I generally liked the narrator with book prop exposition; it made the literary-sounding descriptions of the characters seem to work well in a movie setting.
October 2012. Math Hysteria by Ian Stewart.
This is a book full of magazine columns Stewart had written for Scientific American, I believe, to continue Martin Gardener’s Mathematical Games. There are a number of interesting diversions, such as the numbers-on-hats problem and strategy for dots-and-boxes. Unfortunately, Stewart likes to wrap some of these up into a kind of annoying story full of the worst kind of puns. His writing tries to make things simpler/digestible for a general audience, but I feel like his presentation glosses over exactly those parts which are useful for understanding. Despite my criticism, I did enjoy reading a good portion of the book, and Stewart curated some good topics.
August 2012. Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey.
It’s that time of year when immense quantities of stuff percolate down tEp’s mighty stairwell and into the center room. This year, some of that stuff consisted of a stack of Will’s books he left when he went off to Korea, and among them was this quirky volume.
It’s a book about diagramming sentences. It seems like it tries to be Breakfast of Champions, interspersing anecdotes with pictures (in this case the pictures are diagrams of sentences from the anectodes). And it tries to make a thing of “Sister B’s” barking dog as a shorthand for 1950s parochial school with moderate success. The writing was technically immaculate, but, for instance, the metaphors in the book really tended to fall flat.
The author discusses the writing of various authors from the point of view of sentence diagramming. Gertrude Stein came up. She was mentioned by Raeez as someone who was interested in normal motor automatism, which I suspect is the cause of some of the strange sentences which the author was trying to make sense of.
20 August 2012. eXistenZ (movie).
Had a theme about virtual reality and how the line between the game world and the real world can be blurred. There were real-actor-played NPCs in the movie which managed to fall into the uncanny valley pretty well, using awkward pauses while requiring keywords to keep the conversation going. The movie was uncomfortable for me to watch, though—there was lots of random violence/danger and inserting things into spinal columns without sterilization.
At some points, it seemed like eXistenZ was a frame-story-within-frame-story kind of movie. A good example of such a work is Inception, which was probably an experiment to juggle the maximum number of frame stories a human could understand, but it does this by creating rules for dreams which don’t make sense: once one is dreaming, there aren’t actually more levels to dreaming, and the idea that there might be levels to dreaming is only an effect from it being possible to experience waking up or falling asleep while in a dream. In contrast to Inception, eXistenZ made the games-within-games effect blur because, once one is playing a game, a game within the game is still the game itself.
August 2012. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
The ideas of destiny present in this book remind me a lot of the little I know about The Secret. Otherwise, I suppose this is a charming tale of how if you listen to the dreams you have when you are asleep, you will get incredible treasure, the girl, and knowledge of how to turn yourself into the wind.
August 2012. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino.
This book is a collection of short stories by Calvino. It was generally entertaining and had good imagery, but the themes got repetitive by the end. The book explores, by way of cosmic anthropomorphisms, the relation between the signed and the signified, a man’s love for a woman (and the pain of it being unrequited), and the rise of thingedness.
Possibly the most memorable story is The Distance of the Moon, which vividly describes the moon back when it was closer to the Earth and how there was this rich cheese-like substance people would farm from it, which they could get to using long ladders. Despite the setting, it’s mainly a story of unrequited love.
Many of the stories are about the rise of some property: Daybreak is about the solidification of form in a nebula, A sign in space the first sign, Without Colors the first colors, How much shall we bet? the first predictions, and The Spiral the first seen (and therefore the reason for the seer).
A funny (and silly) quote from Without Colors is, after Qfwfq can see color because of the newly formed, ultraviolet-blocking atmosphere, “I was still amazed at discovering fire was red, ice white, the sky pale blue, the earth brown, that rubies were ruby-colered, and topazes the color of topaz, and emeralds emerald.” Or, in The Light Years, inhabitants of millions-of-lightyears-away galaxies see it important to put up a sign saying “You Have A Flannel Undershirt” based on observations using their advanced optics.
Overall, Cosmicomics was fairly clever, but I think the short volume was about the right length.
August 2012. A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne.
I liked seeing a snapshot of life from the 1760s, which was around when Sterne wrote this book. The edition I have has numerous footnotes explaining every allusion and French phrase, and these were exceedingly helpful for understanding the book.
A Sentimental Journey concerns a Mr. Yorick who, realizing the debate he is having with a friend in England would be better resolved in France, immediately packs, notes the overcoat he has on “will do,” and sets off on a boat. The book is a series of episodes of the adventures Yorick has during his travels, and, unlike other travelogues, Yorick mainly recounts interpersonal interactions rather than descriptions of the sights. Some of these scenes were cute, like when Yorick was helping a lady into a stagecoach to try it out, but the proprietor of the stagecoach realized he had the wrong key, so Yorick and the lady were frozen in place for a minute, holding hands, not knowing exactly what to do.
Italy is barely mentioned, but my understanding is that Sterne died before he could finish the final volume.
I realized during the humorous scene where a count cannot differentiate the story’s Yorick with Hamlet’s Yorick (and so helps him get a passport because he is the jester to a king after all) that the Poor Yorick Entertainment, the company which produced Infinite Jest IV in the book Infinite Jest, is a pretty good allusion.
August 2012. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
This is much better than the popular-culture depiction of the story. I’m also glad I read The Sorrows of Young Werther shortly before reading Frankenstein since it is one of the three books which the demon comes across when he is learning language (and it was horrifying to me that that was one of the first books such an impressionable creature should come across).
The frame story of Marlow writing letters of Victor Frankenstein recounting his misadventures (and sometimes Frankenstein himself telling the story which the demon recounted) reminded me of the concept of the double proscenium at the Bayreuther Festspielhaus, an opera house built by Richard Wagner, whose idea was to distance the audience from the opera through these large, nested window-like proscenia, which had the effect of enhancing the mystic element of his operas. Similarly, I think having these levels of stories in Frankenstein (the outermost of which is in the desolate, powerful, and therefore Romantic-loved arctic) enhances the story. In particular, it seems to increase the profundity of the fantastic events; one reason for this is the ethos from having Marlow vouch for the story of Frankenstein.
19 July 2012. The Perfection of Yoga by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness).
I was heading for the bus to New York City from South Station in Boston, and a guy with a really intense expression was standing in a hall saying he was giving away this small book. I told him that I would read it. He was reluctant to give it to me though, saying that it talks of non-standard models of afterlife, in which there is no Hell. He asked if that was appealing to me (and whether I was OK with another model of afterlife), and I told him I wasn’t sure because I needed to read the book to decide, and I told him I would read the book if he gave it to me. He seemed to keep trying to insist that I should be concerned that the book would challenge my world view, and I kept trying to insist that I really meant to read the book. After a few rounds of this, he relented.
The book discusses yoga from the point of view of the Bhavagad Gita and how the stretching yoga of modern times is nothing like the real yoga which Krishna himself directly transmitted to humanity. It also says that everything it talks about is irrelevant because we are no longer in an age where meditation/yoga can lead to enlightenment. However, it points out that it is sufficient to just chant
for one to have a chance for a better next life.
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
July 2012. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe.
Poor Werther, who loved someone who could not love him back. There’s something about his character that reminds me of a more-with-it Herbert from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (At least, it’s Herbert’s voice that I think of when I read anything Werther says out loud).
But, the book is very Romantic with nature scenes and suffering and whatnot. The innovation of switching to a modern novel form to summarize what Wether’s letters were incapable of recounting was a nice change in pace, and there was some quaintness to Goethe needing to explain why he was entering narration form.
I would say “spoiler alert,” but it was so painfully obvious how the book would end from nearly the beginning that I don’t see it necessary. It’s too bad that none of his friends seemed to realize that Werther’s continual talk of suicide was some sort of warning sign that maybe he was considering suicide as a real possibility. But, if they had stopped him, then The Sorrows of Young Werther wouldn’t have had the beautiful ending of self sacrifice. At least it wasn’t as symbolically overbearing as in Dead Poets Society.
June 2012. Ice Nine by Kurt Vonnegut.
An idea explored in Ice Nine is what happens when someone enters an intellectual oubliette and feels no responsibility to society. Felix Hoenikker, who developed the atomic bomb and ice nine, is a case study for this idea.
Bokononism was entertaining and compelling (so much so that there are people online who claim to be Bokononists). Pedantry alert: for some reason, people tend to pronounce Bokononism as “bo-kah-nun-ism,” but the word “Bokonon” comes from the San Lorenzon pronunciation of “Johnson,” so it should probably actually be pronounced sort of like “bahknun-ism” with a really soft “k”.
June 2012. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
This book is very strangely structured: it was like the author was trying to derive sense of the world from basic principles, and then the author at some point finds the thread of a story, and develops that thread to some kind of completion. However, the thread falls apart during a period of self referentiality in which the author enters the scene and interacts with the characters.