Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Last week, I discovered an infestation of morels near my house. Well, OK, I've only found four of them, but if I were really motivated, I bet I could hunt around for enough to justify claims of a colony. I'm pretty sure they're the real deal: they're hollow, their caps are joined to their stems at the base (not the top), and they have a nice pitted and ridged crown. Here's a picture of one of them.

It's a lovely organism, but the idea of putting the damn thing in my mouth drives me batshit. It's not that it's exotic-looking--not much worse than a cauliflower really--it's that the idea of eating weird-looking shit I find outside is wrong. I can look at pictures and field manuals all day, but until I see someone else pluck it, prep it, and pop it in his or her mouth, my stomach clenches at the very idea. Damn shame too, because I've always wanted to taste morels.

I want to blame evolution, but it's not the lowness of the lifeform that sparks the revulsion. (After all, I can't imagine a life without yeast.) I'll eat a lily bulb before a garden variety bug or snail, but I'll scarf a dandelion or a pansy from my yard before I start shaking out pine cones for nutty treasures (which I quite enjoy of course). And I eye those baby spring ferns with deep apprehension. I want to saute the curly little bastards, but...

I'm an open-minded eater, but there are certain foods for which I hold an unreasonable horror. Partly it's because they're slimy and gross, partly because they just seem like they shouldn't be eaten, partly because they remind us of the animal nature of our dinners: tripes, brains, eyes. I can't imagine eating an animal's kidneys and I find the thought of sweetbread to be offensive, but I like calf's liver and heart. And I just love sausage. (Not like that, you pervert.) One time I had jellyfish, and even though it tasted like fishy noodles, it was hard to divorce my mind from the puddles of stinging beach goo. Seaweed tastes similar, but I've no problem with it. Lobsters taste good enough to get past the sea-bug vibe. Snails haul their big slimy foot awfully close to teh line, but I'll guzzle raw clams at the picnic. What's the difference? (The thing with the salt, for one.)

One of the better parts of Michael Pollan's recent book, was a (qualitative) discussion of food aversions, the odd combination of learned and instinctive behavior. The role of learning in person, he says, is irreplacable--edibility is something that really needs to be shown. Maybe that's why, against all reason, the American mind doesn't revolt against a twinkie in the same way it does against, say, chicken feet. As usual, it's the marketing.

Edible shrooms hold a certain freakish terror of their own. No matter how much I love some of the storebought varieties, I share the common human suspicion that yard fungus is deadly poisonous until proven otherwise (and even then, even then...). If I beat the odds and found (and recognized) a truffle, bet that I would chuck it horrified back into the trees. I'd make a second-rate survivalist. If I were suave, come the apocalypse, I could use those book-smarts to at least convince some tasters. Some people are made to be leaders, others to whisper in their ears. To my future band of ragged starving misfits: remember that I'm too valuable to kill. I can recognize a morel for you to try.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Fonts for the Memories

[What? It's been a week already?]

Slate had a pair of interesting (at least as far as these things go) articles on typeface* geekery today (here and here). The world of reading aesthetics is, not surprisingly, full of prejudice. For those people who can't go five minutes without thrusting endless rows of the things before their watery, myopic eyes, the presentation of words on the page or the screen matters a lot, and preferences worm their way in to the brain to imprint themselves somewhere just below the level of conscious thought.

For reading, I'm still all about the Times typeface, or one of the dozen usual variants of it. I'm not super particular about it, so long as it's something decently seriffed, stately, fully justified, and proportionally spaced, like in all of those half-remembered novels from my childhood--it's what respectable prose writing should look like, way more serious than the urgently penned capitals of my innumerable dogeared comics, or the vast and random array of ironically emphasized styles of MAD magazine. The aspect ratio might change a little in the book printing, the spacing, the boldness, but it was always something tall and gabled, a font bespeaking decency, old money, dignity.

In those unheralded formative years of mine, after Led Zeppelin's peak roughly, and before Nirvana's, sans serif typefaces had a certain unsavory meaning. They connoted a dated gosh-wow sci-fi feel, dusty and cobwebbed under the banality of actual post-Cold War modernity. They were the guilty pleasures of my parents' day, almost of my grandparents'. I'm grateful for the article's dissection of Arial as a streamlined, zippy-but-dumb Helvetica. Helvetica is the ubiquitous roadsign typeface, with a couple of curves and tails offering the reminder of the old-school sophisitication that must be sacrificed in the name of clarity. Arial, by contrast, needs to have a rocketship underneath it. (Not that there's anything wrong with rocketships.)

I suppose this opinion is thanks in part to my young computer experiences, such as they were. I remember those ugly all-caps early computer displays--a string of pidgin English, delivered in a shout, and followed by a block of a cursor blinking inanely at the end. I always peeked at those early gray boxes in fascination, but the promise of doing cool shit with those mysterious boxes tended to dissolve in five boring minutes of effort. If the programming bug ever bit me in those days (or ever), I'd probably be rich now. I wanted to believe, but I didn't have the patience to become a convert.

Not that I ever got that far from the church though, even while I was a stranger to its deeper mysteries. I learned to type on one of these beasts, bought by my parents out of some sense of obligation to the times. Those Tandys were early advertisers of office utility (and the fact that the Radio Shack brand didn't have an underground network of pirated and swapped games had a lot to do with my parents' purchase). A lie, that. That machine had an evil and primitive word processing program that was already obsolete at the time of purchase. It could produce lower case though, and I remember the dot matrix recalcitrantly whirring out a barely legible mixed typeface for my school reports, some Arial bastard with Roman Is. My poor mother attempted to crank out a number of book manuscripts with that turd, perforated wheel guides carefully torn off, sheets separated and then lovingly packaged. (I transcribed one from its hard copy three years ago for her for Christmas, and keep meaning to follow through with the others). Mom never submitted in Courier (which I admit is a lot easier to scan by eye), but then she also never quite got anything published.

In college, there was, of course, more writing. As an engineering student, I don't think I imprinted quite as strongly as a liberal arts sort might have, and anyway there wasn't any word-wrangling platform ubiquitous enough at the time to lock in my aesthetic. (I got my degree in '94, as Bill Gates was still perfecting his stranglehold on office software tools.) There was a huge network of public workstations (unix-based I think), blessedly with laser printers. Sometimes I wrote lab reports on a program called Slate, but usually I just used a generic text editor. If I was running really last minute and didn't have time for the haul across campus, I borrowed my roommate's typewriter. There was email on campus (and it was new!), and I engaged in some other text-based nerd-tivities I'd rather not disclose just now. None of it used the tired zip of streamlined letters. They were all stately and decorated at the ends, giving my playtime the illusion of respectability.

A lot of the writers interviewed in the Slate (magazine) article are annoying ("my preference of Courier means I'm better than you"), but I am not without my own pretensions. All of my accepted manuscripts have been for academic publications (not as great as it sounds, but pride baby, gotta have it). My graduate advisor insisted that everything be written in Times font for those (usually, I shudder to say, as he suggested words and phrases from behind my shoulder), because that's what the journals expected. I consider Microsoft's version of Times New Roman to be the graduation point of my writing efforts. I mean, I was (am) a second-rate scientist, but I could totally write circles around that guy.

Maybe it would have ended there, but the internets were coming about at that time too, slamming me with that space-agey Helvetica ripoff again. Every online publication seems to use it, and it's grown on me, I admit (I mean, look around). It's tough to read anything for very long on a CRT, and simpler and bolder typefaces help ease the eyestrain immensely. I've gotten somewhat ecumenical in my tastes: Arial (or similar) for on-line reading or for presenting data, Times for prose, Courier to tempt that Damocles sword of the rejection slip. Different fonts for different haunts. I've never been a purist anyway.


*Note to self: remember this site

Friday, May 18, 2007

Book Review: The Story of The Stone by Barry Hughart

Grade: A
This one's for august, who is by far the best Chinese historian that I've ever met. I don't know if he intentionally takes his nickname from his scholarship, but I've only encountered one dude for whom that word is a standard adjective. Maybe the big J-Dog bends his eye to the wrong side of the cube every once in a while, and who knows, maybe he even slums it in redneck country long enough to inspire clever English-wielding sinophiles like august and Barry Hughart (who lives in the Arizona). If the Jade Emperor ever does make a visit, I hope he dresses the part...

August ran an excellent series of posts recently on Chinese Daoism, and I'm indebted to him (and Wikipedia) for any understanding of its basic precepts that might have informed my reading. It would be a blast to read a contextual critique of Hughart's work, by someone who could separate from the Daoism from the deism maybe, or to contrast it againt the resurging Confucian ideas that formed the seventh century political backdrop of this novel. (To this western barbarian, it seems a difference between resignation toward the bureaucratic evils of the time and a dutiful embrace of them.) August could certainly do a better job than I at picking apart all of the cheerful and quite intentional anachronisms and historical deviations too.

Not that it's a political novel by any means. It's more its own sort of hybrid of detective fiction, ghost story, love story, and mythic parable, set against the worst sorts of historical horrors--tyrants, murderers, genocidal madmen, endemic corruption. Hughart handles it all with an irresistable light heart. He has a soft spot for the oppressed, for lonely genius, for doomed lovers, and the prose is a masterpiece of understated humor (which doesn't preclude laughing out loud in parts). The Story of the Stone, like his other novels, concerns the adventures of Master Li Kao, an impossibly aged and knowledgable scholar with a slight flaw in his character, and his assistant, Number Ten Ox (the narrator), a peasant with immense brawn, heart, and humility. Together, they traipse about the empire--from imperial and barbarian courts to the tombs of tyrants and boys' hideouts, to the Ten Hells even--solving supernatural mysteries like a debased, crafty Holmes on the back of a gigantic, charming Watson. Part of Hughart's genius is to let real pathos sneak past the tender narration and fabulation now and then, catching a genuine and sometimes heartbreaking glimpse of the rot of power and the nobility of the honest heart.

If there's a fault with The Story of the Stone, it's that it has the misfortune of following Hughart's first novel, which was in many ways a singular work. It had to succeed a story of an ancient China that never was with an ancient China that sort of was, and as such, it takes a couple dozen pages to get its groove back. Like a lot of mysteries (not that I read many) there are a lot of plot points in the air at any time with little help of emphasis, and after a while I stopped trying very hard to follow the twists in the labyrinth, and just let the author walk me through it, enjoying the sights. It's a great ride.

Story as a standalone novel is twenty years out of print anyway, but apparently an omnibus edition was released in in 1998 due to popular demand, which may be even harder to find. (I think Bridge of Birds is still quite easy to get your hands on, however. That book is the only story I've recommended to my mother that she enjoyed, ever. I figure that has to say something about its universal appeal.) Hughart was evidently quite upset with his publishers, and unable to support himself writing for a living, quit sometime after the release of his third novel.


Organization and such
Genre: , ,

My Redneck Christmas (Mandolin Photos)

I am not a hillbilly, I swear. I'd never fit in those parts, even if I've grown a certain, um, tolerance for some of the music over the last three years. I have no pickup truck, no hound dog, I'm not religious, and every time I say the word y'all, I intend it ironically. Ah well, this thrills me anyway.

The mandolin my father built is done. I'm going to take a minute here to brag about his work. It's beautiful. I love the color of it (which is of course impossible to see in the photos). The highlights are tobacco brown instead of the usual black/gray/white. The shamrock is a required ornament (I wanted one anyway, as it goes with the brand), and I didn't have any special design for the inlays, other than the monogram. Dad had me looking through catalogues, and frankly, I didn't see any that I liked better than what he usually does.

The top of a mandolin is spruce, and the back is maple. Maple is particularly beautiful when it is stained, and the backs of these instruments--no fancy inlays or cutouts required--are gorgeous. My old mandolin has (below), in Dad's opinion, the nicest-looking back he's made. The finish really brought out the flame pattern. You can see it on the new one too, but the stock he bought for this one didn't have the same striking flames.

It plays great. Dad actually changed the angle on the neck a ballhair, so that the strings are a more constant distance to the frets over the whole length of the fingerboard. This makes them easy to push down (easier to hammer on and pull off too), and my speed and precision suddenly seem a lot better. I keep sliding over the new frets though. The neck is also a little thicker than I'm used to, but it doesn't impede my playing like I thought it might, and I'm not having a problem reaching the G string, so that's fine. With the faster action though, the strings sometimes buzz the frets if I hit 'em too hard (everyone thinks I play better quietly anyway), which may change as the instrument ages. The strings put tremendous stress on the neck (there's a steel truss rod in there), and it may pull up minutely over time.

Of course it's probably wasted on me. I still suck. I shot a video of me playing the thing, but Google video is still "processing" it a day and a half later. (I probably shouldn't have put "hot nude co-eds" in the filename.) It's just as well, trust me. You should learn to play these things when you're young.

Update: Here it is. The tune is called "Kitchen Gal." No doubt I'll regret posting it.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Natural Labyrinth

I was reading recently about the ideas of wildlife corridors. Conservationists have been floating the idea around for thirty years or more that the encroachment of habitat can be alleviated by--if large open spaces are out of the question--then by providing a lot of smaller spaces that are interconnected. When there is continuity between environments such that predators can roam, pollen can spread, even where species can migrate long distances, then the impact of human presence can be significantly reduced because the forest creatures are not uncomfortably cornered into shrinking squares of space. Wildlife corridors from Yellowstone Park to the Yukon and along tiger and elephant routes in India are being pursued (no doubt with varying degrees of ineffectiveness).

It's been a (reasonably asked) open question as to just how successful these corridors actually are in preserving species and their habit(at)s. Last year, a study out of UCSB was published in Science (sorry, the link is a report of a report) showing significant improvements in biodiversity as they measured it in controlled swatches of North Carolina woodland. Evidently, that's the first quantitative report of the positive effects of functional connectivity, even though organizations have been acting on that hypothesis for a couple decades.

Ordinarily the idea of pushing a policy based on speculation would really annoy me, but these are policies with pleasant side effects. Living close to minor, local versions of wildlife arteries has really improved my quality of life. The upside of my crappy neighborhood is the illusion of seclusion. The view from my back porch (on the right) occludes most of the neighbors. If you look closely, you can see children crossing the stream on a log. My daughter loves to play down there, and regularly drags her little sister and her neighborhood friends on expeditions "down the bank". (Only one of those kids is mine.)

The woods, such as they are, extend between back yards along two streets. Turn ninety degrees to the right and you can wave at the neighbors across the way in the winter. If you go far enough along the direction of the photo, there is a road to cross, but once you do that, you can meander westward behind the scenes until you get into a state forest. If you cross the street that bounds the east end of the stream, then you're in another sizable chunk of sparsely molested wooded area, cut through only with a railroad and a rarely traveled road or two (and dotted with official and unofficial landfills, and harassed by dorks on ATVs). I've seen deer, foxes, and coyotes that've managed to make their way along the mangy appendage of the state forest to my back yard.

Here is a picture that I took on a walk with my daughter in December through the eastern half of the woodland dumbell. That hill you see was completely forested last spring, but it's being cleared for new developments. McMansions probably, judging from the neighborhood on the other side of the hill. The higher ones should be able to see the roof of the new Wal-Mart that is currently being built a ways down below. [Nah, I don't think it's high enough in hindsight.] Can't stop progress. Maybe those people will work there when the balloon payment on their creative mortgage hits.

If you were ingenious at solving those IQ-test spatial projection problems, you might enjoy crystallography as a hobby. Luckily for me, I was only all right at them, and I'm able to get my kicks from more primitive versions of morphology. One neat thing that's possible in three dimensions is bicontinuity. If you were walking on the monkey bars below (imagine an extended network of them), you could get to any point in the cube. You could do the same thing if you could travel the space between the lines. A lot of bicontinuous structures occur naturally on a microscopic scale. Any system of immiscible phases can have this property, but you can also do cool shit with it on purpose. The picture on the right is a representation of an inverse opal, taken from somebody's presentation on photonic band gap structures. It's made up of the spaces in between close-packed spheres. You can actually fabricate structures like this in the lab by slowly depositing tiny glass balls from a suspension and then filling up the spaces in between.
I love monkeying with the philosophical ideas of bicontinous structures. A viable way to mix civiliztion and nature is one agreeable way to consider it, although as a practical matter, you need to add a third dimension of bridges for the bears and elk to cross the highways that cut through the wildlife corridors. But you can go more universal too. I'm pleased that nature may contain hidden but as yet unseeable dimensions, and I want to imagine networks of activity invisibly occuring in this weblike alternate continuum. We can map our brains like this too maybe, cognitive labyrinths of the human experience, something apart and yet intimately close to the inanimate network of stones and trees. It's even a fine interstitial universe in which to pretend spirits can cavort when the light is just right.

Even if it's better that we mostly confine ourselves in the man-made phases, it's good to know there are others.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Book Review: The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

Grade: A
"The intent of the Goddess is neither known nor knowable. She makes us dance, male and female, in ever converging gyres that bring us ultimately each to our own destiny, and that destiny is always the same and never escapable. She does not tell us why."

"'Woe!' he cried. 'Alas for those who seek after Truth, for such is the Goddess's most hoarded treasure. Ah, she is cruel and unfathomable, and bitter, bitter is her vengeance.'"

This one's for ThyGoddess. She wasn't originally chalked up to go first, but she did insist, and some, um, beings you don't want to disappoint. (Plus, I feel like I owe her one.)


If you think about it, the old tales were always scary. They were, if not ostensibly, always morality fables, trying to pin the caprice of nature to a human ethical map. If the fairy stories lost their puissance over the last couple hundred years, it's because people found modern things to fear, things of their humanity's own making. At its core, Swanwick's novel uses the lessons and characters of the old tales to capture the horrors of a contemporary setting, and finds that the fit is, um, fantastic. I love this book.

And what god (or goddess) isn't an exaggeration of human qualities? Whether we're talking mercy (the antithesis of nature) or vital randomness (the essence of it), we've painted our pantheon with the mirrors close by, anthropomorphizing the cold universe with all of our human spite and wonder. In the context of the story, it's an open question who painted the spiral universe of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. The novel concerns the early life of Jane, a human girl, trapped in a fey world. She starts off indentured to a factory that would do Dickens proud, filled with sprites and trolls and elves in the roles of workers, supervisors, and plant engineers. It is, of course, a formative story, and as Jane escapes from one setting to the next (high school, college, high society, false hierarchies all) the evil and the drama and the love is captured in startling hyperbole. I've said it before, if you're going to use a supernatural setting, everything is what you do with it. Swanwick uses the hyper-human personae of the supernatural for satire. I mean, if you're a certain sort of reader you've seen factory trolls and the like a hundred times, but in the real world, the scarier goblins are in the bureaucracy, and some of the Swanwick's vignettes with these creatures are classic (failed engineers mutilated for shame, a bibliophile bookseller who can't part with his stock, an ancient professor decanted once a year for a lecture). I can't say that Swanwick's prose is across-the-board fabulous, but when he gets rolling with his synthesis of fantastic and mundane language, he is outstanding. I especially loved the chemistry.

I'm impressed with the structure of this story too. As it develops, it grows a feeling that the world's coming apart at the seams, even while the story retains an overall coherence. Jane graduates from one society to another, escapes each really, and in each setting, the stakes get higher, ultimately threatening the consensus reality itself. She goes through several iterations of a life's drama (without losing the overall dramatic arc), and the drama is exaggerated to frightening proportions. She's a heroine (a self-made chemist!) with tragic flaws (a thief, a floozy). The situations are at times shocking--sexual, violent--but I found myself biting my lip as Jane struggles to find her destiny each time, all the while losing to a growing and nearly unavoidable temptation. She breaks through each wall, bodies (literally) in her wake, to find herself living the same story in a new setting. It would spoil the book, perhaps, to reveal what the established reality is (or isn't), but even the ending is not conclusive.

The Goddess of this book is something like a prime mover or a demiurge, and favors the human girl stuck in fairy world. The final loop takes us through a double thick layer of metaphors for hope and fatalism--does the universe give a shit or not?--and it's favorite source of quotes for me. Where has Jane been? Is she really free? What's it all mean for any of us? Read it. I've seen this done before, but rarely this well.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Right now I'm grooving on...

  • ...bluegrass instrumentation, country influences, acoustic sonority, demanding instrumental part writing, and meandering melodic phrasing.

In other contexts, I've found myself to like
  • pop metal qualities, a subtle use of vocal harmonies, repetetive melodic phrasing, extensive vamping, minor key tonalities, and dirty guitar solos
  • varying tempo and time signatures, meandering melodic phrasing (again!), mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, a composed melodic style, and many other similarities identified in the music genome project. (This station is not yet well developed.)

This Pandora website kicks ass.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Contrarian Bullshit Ed.)

Some time ago, Demosthenes2 wrote a Fray post on three levels of thinking.* It was one of those that stuck with me, and I sure wish I could find a cite for it. As I recall it anyway, level one thinking involved sucking down wholly packaged ideas--usually without chewing--and regurgitating them loudly--often without provocation, at the dinner table. Having moved past dogmatism, the sophomore(ic) level two thinker lives to poke holes in every established manner of thought. Level three had something to do with mature independent blah blah something. That guy does like to go on.

1. Contrarian Bullshit and Statistics
The engineer in me loves to conflate mature analysis to number-crunching--not that you can't lie with statistics or dazzle with pie charts or anything--but low-level thinkers have a tendency to not really weight anything properly, to follow one possible chain of cause and effect and proclaim away as though it were the only important one. And some of the lying trends are sometimes falsifiable, which is a good reason to poke at them. If you don't have the time, and need a rule of thumb, however, the number of links in the causal chain is usually a pretty good depth gauge for the bullshit.

Playing in the real world--or at least the sometimes verisimilitudinous worlds of policy and economics--means that all such chains are hard to follow because you can't control the inputs very well, and you don't understand the initial conditions (damn butterflies with their incessant wing-flapping). More, there are human casualties to the approximations. The fact that lives are quantized does matter, and while you can't account for all the anomalies in any analysis, minimizing the bad consequences of policy is as important as maximizing the good, as Claude Scales has suggested here. (Hippocratic policy beats hypocritical policy.) Acting on models of spherical, frictionless, er, humans with no external forces can have deadly consequences, and simplifying assumptions should be thrown around with great care of the context.

But that doesn't mean that speculation and conjecture can't be interesting and fun. (Especially considering that otherwise it's "work".) Context, as always, is everything.

2. Solar Desalinization
Considering ensemble effects, the whole round earth is a fine place to draw a control volume. If you do a heat balance on the earth, you're really down to four effects: solar radiation absorbed, solar radiation reflected, heat radiated out to space, and heat energy generated at the surface. Your initial condition is the surface temperature at whatever time you call zero. (Since the temperature distribution across the ball of the earth is impressively not flat, it's probably better to draw your control volume as a shell, which means you'll have some boundary conditions too, at the bottom of the crust say: constant temperature or close enough.)

Most people are aware that this is a good-enough way of looking at global temperature balance (some argument about all the factors that change the globe's reflectivity and absorptivity remains), but it's also a limit on how much energy is available to do stuff. There are really only two sources that are not finite: there's mining heat from the earth's mantle (that should last a while), and, whether it's biomass or silicon, there's solar. The cool thing (so to speak) about solar, is that it doesn't really affect the heat balance (unless there's enough spread out to really affect the absorption coefficient). It just gives that energy something to do on the way down its natural path. And what's life anyway, if not a pointless little whirligig kicked up in the dust of the universe's insensate march toward heat death?

I was thinking about fresh water yesterday. Maybe that will cause more wars eventually than the oil will. Wouldn't it be great if we could efficiently desalinize seawater? Wouldn't it be great if that energy was completely renewable? Duh, Keifus: this one is already working, and adding technological steps may make it more controllable, but it sure ain't going to make it more efficient. If we wanted to increase the generation of fresh water, we'd have to lower the reflectivity of the oceans or something, warm up the...

And you thought the butterflies caused trouble!

3. Research and Development
Solar sounds like a good place to sink our research dollars, eh? But who would fund that sort of thing? Having dabbled in the area (I'm supposed to be a professional researcher, my bosses would prefer me to be a professional negotiator, but dabbling in half-ideas is basically what I do), it's my understanding that there was a lot of venture capital sunk into solar power in the seventies, and the technology grew a lot of stigma because it didn't achieve much return very quickly. Plus, oil got cheap again.

By common agreement, solar power needs to drop to about $1 per Watt to become competitive with fossil fuels, and for the time being, you're stuck with either low efficiency or expensive materials. (Ignore, for now, the matter of all that open space you need to gather it.) Cheap, efficient solar? Maybe possible, but at least a decade off, depending on the oil. You can still get funding for solar R&D: aerospace is a driver (you can't carry a jerry can on the back of the shuttle), and the commercial market's slowly getting grown. Looking twenty years out, you'd think that it would be a huge opportunity, given climate change and oil scarcity. Can we count on investors to think in quarter-century time scales? What do you think.

What caused the decline of corporate R&D? Was it economic or was it cultural? Could Bell Labs have existed without a telephone monopoly? Possibly not, but I fear that the investment culture has become short-term (and the intellectual culture has devolved). It's as though that great post-war manufacturing and innovation surplus (that my parents' generation mistook for their deserved way of life) has been slowly cannibalized. Maybe it was inevitable, but it's an article of faith with me that we could have sustained the boom longer if we kept priming the front end, with a better eye on the horizon. Right now, basic R&D gets mostly funded by (1) the military (which doesn't do real basic at all) and (2) by universities, mostly on the government buck. Even though I'm turning anecdote into data here (hi, hipp), not to mention recycling thoughts (a five-trick pony, that's me), I've seen agreement among my more assiduous peers. R&D is a toughie for the level 1 and 2 libertarian types.

4. Foreign owned: who cares?
Oh, but by monopoly or luck, we once did R&D, and by the Good Ford, the U.S. was the king for a while there. It was pointed out to me yesterday that Toyota and Honda are the new saviours of the American auto industry. Evidently, our crumbling manufacturing infrastructure is desirable to those who'd like to develop new markets, and, I presume, the shipping costs are less if they're building cars for American markets in America (who else is dumb enough to buy SUVs en masse?). There's some yellow streak (not that kind) in me that's annoyed that this isn't being done by American manufacturers, but lets face it: 401k or no, I'm no member of the ownership class. I'm not the sort of person that can network his way to success. Sadly, I need a job.

Income inequality is way up (look at the BLS). Level 1 market types say, "hey, the economy's growing, so stop whining," but even while profit creeps up, wages remain stagnant (anecdote + Paul Krugman), and CEO payscales skyrocket unconscionably. So if it's Toyota's providing the yahoos a salary or if it's GM, do I give a shit who the owners are? Not really. In fact, I feel a little kind of good about sticking it to the man.

(Except that I don't think Toyota hires a lot of American scientists.)

5. Electability
Just for the record, I fucking hate politics, but since I'm speaking of oil and vision, wasn't there a guy running for office who actually faked caring about those things sort of convincingly? What was his name again?

I thought Al Gore was all right. Sure, he was a dork (ahem), but he was a hell of a lot less innumerate than his challenger, more aware of the world, and, sighing or not, light years ahead on the articulation scale. Reading about his support for Iraq bombing in hindsight disappoints me, but still, he was the best Pepsi product I can remember. His wife was a scold, but I'd put up with her too if I were Al.

So. Level 1 political thinking: it's the party platform, vote for the team, Yankees suck. Level 2: Supply side contrarianism, issues voting, and--wait--how does voting for the "electable" guy fit in? Is that bullshit too? Look, I supported Kerry in '04, and it was, like most Kerry supporters, not because I loved the guy but because I thought he was the least obviously flawed candidate. Saying that electability is bullshit is likewise bullshit. Electability ain't so much guessing what your fellow citizens will vote for so much as it is guessing who's going to go down easier with the media. The press will crucify the candidate who they can't imagine getting laid in high school. The electable guy or gal is the one that the reporters aren't slavering to deconstruct into a teenage clique. Gore in 2000 got hoisted as the moody chess champ against the avuncular high-functioning retard. No contest.

So in 2008, who's the one most likely to going to sweet-talk the press and provide them free drinks? That's who's electable. And thus is the lowest common denominator reached.

Good night, everyone.

*UPDATE: D2 mentions that it came from an essay by William Golding (yes, that William Golding) called Thinking as a Hobby. I got the levels backwards (figures), but as our Greek friend says, it's definitely a good read.

UPDATE2: Claude pointed out the link. Don't ask with what.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Introducing my "Books for Buds" project

I was asked recently how I generate my reading lists. The answer is that I used to follow a couple of science fiction groups as a recommendation engine, and also pick up the occasional suggestion from more general discussions. I'd pulled out a few buy-on-sight authors from the ghetto (a lot of whom are underappreciated), and I'm still happy to scratch that speculative itch when it arises, but my tastes have expanded a lot in the past decade, and I've come to value the second sorts or recommendations more, where I've honed less of an instinct. (Publishers will almost always package the genre-bridging stuff idiosyncratically, which is helpful; I wish I knew the name for the disciplined-but-intriguing writing I tend to enjoy.)

So I'm looking out to my you--my online readers, acquaintances, nemeses, compatriots, heroes, friends--to help re-stock my to-read pile. Or in some cases, to elevate the priority of some of the books that have been gathering dust down there for years. The idea is that I'll read a book that calls to mind a person (or personality) that I know online, for one reason or another. It could be a common posting theme of theirs, a reminder of a specific conversation, a book that I know was important to them, a play on their name, or a book that jibes with how I measure their character.

Given the rate at which I read, it won't happen all at once. It'll be probably be an ongoing thing. I've got an incomplete list of books chosen for posters, but what they actually are will be a surprise. Maybe you've got a book that you feel represents yourself or someone we know? I'm looking for recommendations for people not yet on the list, and they all aren't set in stone yet, either. Feel free to make suggestions here, or email me at

Here's the list of posters for whom I've already chosen books to read:

  • Archaeopteryx (tentatively)
  • Artemesia
  • august
  • bacon
  • daveto
  • Ender
  • Gregor Samsa
  • hipparchia
  • IOZ
  • MsZilla (tentatively)
  • Splendid Ireny
  • switters
  • TenaciousK
  • ThyGoddess
  • twiffer
Some were obvious, but some took a while to choose. So you can see why help would be appreciated. Fortunately, I don't read particularly fast.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Doorways to Elsewhere IV: Review of Ægypt by John Crowley

Grade: A
Sticking with the external theme here, Crowley's Elsewhere, in a trivial geographic sense, circumscribes the Litchfield Hills, the Catskills, nips western Massachusetts, and maybe the southern tip of the Adirondacks. It includes New York City, sort of by reluctant default, but digs its magic out of the distant and wooded suburbs. Ægypt strays to different continents, and it's a whole lot bigger than eastern New York state, but it's hard to imagine that magic manifesting in any place other than the (fictional) Faraway Hills. (I'll admit that gives it a certain personal appeal.) In previous novels, Crowley has let the mythology of the British Isles immigrate to the Northeast. This time, it's legends of the Renaissance.

Given these aspects of the setting, I'm tempted to compare this novel to Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin: it's filled with a similar sort of magic-infused history, swinging similarly wide, epic loops. It's got a common quality of breathless observation that's beautiful but ends up all going down the same. With no special destination evident plot-wise, it was an easy enough novel to put down, and it took me twice as long to read as something this length normally would. But of the two, Crowley is really the superior writer. Where Helprin couldn't help himself from pouring it on ever thicker, Crowley prefers to meander inward (and the deeper you go, the bigger it gets). Crowley is better at remembering the childlike dimension of wonder. And as the shape of the story finally begins to resolve itself, it does get more gripping. It's all about having faith that the author is in control.

You could probably say that Crowley pointedly goes nowhere at all. The plot, such as it is, mainly involves a Renaissance historian (or alternate historian) moving from the city to the hills to write a book. This book, most likely. In one of the several self-referential nuggets, he "'would attempt one more book...a book composed of groups ambiguous but clear, great solitutes that look on and look away from each other; a book empty and infinte at its center...' Actually, though...these enormous thoughts were a little premature." And certainly a little bold. Ægypt tries to straddle the transition between any number of mystical dichotomies, and the door between fiction and reality is just one of them. (Whole sections of the novel are excerpts from other fictional histories of magic.) It recursively bridges dreams and waking, heaven and earth, cosmos and microcosm, reality and memory (the universe itself is the ultimate mnemonic palace of the universe). The author character delves richly into Hermetically flavored magic, a Renaissance vision of occult Egypt (Ægypt) brought into being--or maybe into acknowledgement--by nothing more than it's belief. It imagines a universe permeated and held together by countless angels, significant of numerology, full of heretics, Elizabethan sages, and astrological mutterings. In 400 pages, John Crowley takes us through one single door, across which nothing changes but history, and even if it looks exactly the same on either side, the transition is astounding.

[Note: This novel hasn't been in print for some time. The structure suggests that this it is missing several parts (the sections are named after houses of the zodiac and there are only three), presumably as sequels, and he's published others in the same universe. I've not read them yet, but alarmingly, it looks like Crowley's been descending into (more) verbose plotlessness. I'll reserve judgement.]

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