Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mirror Story

I know I've talked to quite a few people about mirror stories. I think they are fun, and have (finally) written the rough draft to one. I'm going to post it in one order here and in another order over on, so you can choose which to read if you like. First installment today, second installment tomorrow! That way, I'll also get different opinions based on when people check! I am clever that way.

It was a cool, dark night, and wolves were howling at the moon, barely visible through the trees. It was on nights like this that Joseph Daedalus most loved living in the middle of the woods. In a city he wouldn’t have been able to build a tower higher than the tallest trees, and in a city he certainly wouldn’t have been able to sit on the top of that tower, his clockwork butler serving him tea, listening to nothing but the howling of the wolves, the whispers of the ghosts, and the soft tick-tock of his butler beside him.

This, Joseph thought, was paradise.

And then there was an abrupt halt to the paradise in the form of a loud horn going off – the door. Who would be outside, in the middle of a haunted forest, at this time of night? Joseph hurried down to the door, to beat the butler. He pulled opened the door to reveal a young boy. “My name is Tobias Priestly, sir, and I want to learn your trade,” the boy said.

“What trade? Do you want to be a blacksmith?” Joseph asked, “A clock-maker?”

Tobias shook his head innocently, eyes wide as if there could be no mistaking Joseph’s trade. “No, sir,” he said seriously. “I want to be a sorcerer.”

Joseph laughed. “No,” he said, and made to close the door. Tobias yelped and caught his hand, though, crying, “Please, sir! I can already do some spells! I won’t be troublesome, I promise! And there are wolves outside, and ghosts, don’t send me away at night, please, sir!”

“No,” Joseph repeated. “If you can do some spells already, why don’t you use them to keep the wolves and the ghosts away?” He shook his head to Tobias’ pleading expression. “I will not teach you any magic.”

“But why not?” Tobias whined.

“Because…” Joseph sighed in frustration, looking at the too-big eyes tearing up on Tobias’ young face. It was altogether too pitiful. “Look. I’m not a magician. I’m an engineer, a blacksmith, a mechanic, a clock-maker. I build machines, I don’t cast spells. I can’t teach you to be a sorcerer because I don’t know the first thing about magic. Now why don’t you go find some crazy old wizard living in those haunted woods and study under him like normal magicians do.”

Tobias frowned in confusion. “But if you aren’t a magician, how did you kill all those dark sorcerers?”

Joseph sighed. “I don’t want to go into it.” Tobias didn’t look away, didn’t shrug and leave, just stood there stalwartly waiting for an answer, and finally Joseph caved. “I made devices, clever devices. Ones that maybe you have never seen before. I used them to kill the dark sorcerers.”

Tobias grinned. “Well, then, even if you aren’t a magician I still want to learn from you.” He laughed and stepped inside the door, casually sneaking in beside a dumbfounded Joseph.

“What?” Joseph asked. “Why?”

“If you aren’t a magician, then you must be something better!”

Joseph smiled, his reserve melting away with the boy’s gleeful expression. Not that he had much choice, since Tobias was already examining the clockwork butler, which had come rolling along its track towards its default station next to the door. “Well, then, come in,” Joseph said as he closed and locked the door behind him.

Tobias was a runaway and only twelve years old, but he was clever and a good worker. He paid careful attention to everything Joseph taught him, and was even prompter in his response to orders than the clockwork butler. Joseph taught him how to assemble finely tuned clocks, devious locks, music boxes, and tiny automata. Tobias loved all of them. When he grew big enough, Tobias learned how to make the finely cut gears for his machines, as well as swords and sheilds and mail. Joseph taught him how to make magnets by pounding iron, how to harness steam power to run a machine. For his journeyman project, Tobias built a little riverboat with a turbine that could use steam to power its way upstream.

And all the while, a shadow grew.

See, it never was long before a new dark sorcerer came about and decided that he would avenge the deaths of his compatriots at the hands of Joseph Daedalus. Joseph averaged one magical duel every two or three years, and so by the time Tobias was a journeyman and eighteen years old he was long overdue. And so, it happened.

The advance guard, a smoke-dragon, came from the west as the sun set. Joseph saw a dark spot in the sky, moving quickly although the day was calm, and leaned over to Tobias. “Do you see that?” he whispered.

Tobias nodded. “It’s not natural; moving too fast for that.”

“Go get the steam-powered fan, and set the butler to follow you with the iron net with lead weights and the crossbow, with adaptor. I’d say a few of the one-hundred pound sets should do the trick.” Joseph grinned. “We’re about to have a storm.”

Tobias nodded, grinned back, and hurried downstairs. Joseph finished his tea, watching the dark clouds slowly spiralling towards his tower. After this would be a zombie horde, or an orc army, or something. And then the final battle with the dark sorcerer himself. Or maybe this would be much more direct, and the dark sorcerer would be riding the smoke dragon? Joseph cleared his throat, and studied the sky. He didn’t ask for fights with these people, they searched him out. It was the least he could do to defend himself.

The clockwork butler came back first, and Joseph took the crossbow from him and set it on the floor, arming it quickly and setting the rest of the nets beside it. He then set the butler to bring back ammunition, in case he missed or the weight was too small to do anything but slow down the smoke dragon. The butler whirred and clicked for a moment and then turned around and left. Tobias was up shortly and dropped the heavy fan to the floor, filled the base of it with coal to start the steam, and lit it. It would take a full twenty minutes for the coal to get hot enough to start pushing the steam through the turbines and rotating the fan, but the smoke dragon was still barely more than a speck on the horizon. Tobias returned downstairs for more coal, just in case, but soon the two men were standing on the top of the tower, ready for battle.

“Is it always like this?” Tobias asked, “You can see it for miles?”

Joseph shook his head. “No, sometimes they try to appear in the middle of a workshop, and that prooves more difficult. But by and large, I think that these sorcerer types like the showmanship of a huge apparition. So we usually have warning.”

Tobias yawned. “It almost seems like he’s taking his time,” he commented. The fan began to spin, and Tobias laughed. “We’ll be ready long before he gets here.”

Joseph looked over at his pupil and smiled. “Just wait,” he said. “Don’t underestimate them, no matter how foolish they appear,” and he turned back to the considerably larger smoke dragon. “Be ready when I say,” he cautioned, and Tobias positioned himself to rotate the fan as needed.The dragon put on a final burst of speed, and Joseph shouted “Now!” and Tobias turned the fan, now at full power, towards the apparition.

The man on the back of the dragon just laughed, as he hovered in the middle of the cloud of smoke. “You think that will destroy my dragon? You are even more foolish than I thought, Daedalus!”

Joseph coughed and Tobias could barely breathe, but the smoke was swirling around them, disorganized, and underneath the sorcerer, a broomstick appeared. Tobias laughed until he couldn’t breathe at all, and fell into a coughing fit, but Joseph restrained himself and instead took careful aim and shot a one-hundred pound iron weight into the back of the broomstick. The sorcerer and his “dragon” careened out of control, only to be reeled in by another shot from the crossbow, this time a net of iron-chains. The power left in the broomstick fought the weight of the iron chains, and slowly sunk to the ground. Trapped in iron, the spell ended, and the smoke began to disappear. Joseph walked over to the wizard who had seemed so confident just a moment earlier.

“I had thought you would have known better,” Joseph said. “Word does get around. They all said you were very clever.”

The sorcerer, huddling under the weight of the iron chains, reached his hand out form beneath the net. “You have bested me…” he said, and trailed off.

Joseph was about to laugh, but suddenly he couldn’t breathe. He felt an invisible hand clenching around his throat, and struggled to look toward Tobias, signal for help, but couldn’t even move. He was suffocating. He looked down at the sorcerer, who was laughing maliciously. Clever. This one was clever.

And then, just as suddenly, it stopped. Tobias shouted something, and the sorcerer screamed, and Joseph fell to the ground. “You… you do use magic,” was all Joseph heard before he blacked out.

Joseph woke in his own bed, Tobias playing the part of dutiful doctor and the clockwork butler serving as nurse. “You’re awake!” Tobias chirped, and the butler asked, “Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, please,” Joseph answered before he properly realized that it wasn’t Tobias asking, it was the butler, and that the clockwork butler had never spoken before, so he was fairly certain that the clockwork butler was not supposed to speak. “You can talk,” Joseph said.

“Would you like some tea?” the butler replied.

Joseph blinked. “How can it talk?”

Tobias smiled. “Just a small improvement, sir. I gave him a voice.”

“You made him sentient,” Joseph corrected.

“Would you like some tea?” the butler asked again.

“Yes, please, now get it!”

Tobias laughed and set the butler to procure tea. “No, I didn’t make him sentient. Sometimes he does a better impression of it than then. You still need to physically set him to do each task. I just gave him a voice; he is as much an automaton as ever.”

“You used magic.”

“Yes, I did. How else would I have given him a voice?”

Joseph shook his head, and covered his eyes as he remembered the fight with the sorcerer. “Undo it!” he shouted.

“Why? I really don’t see what the big deal is! I used a harmless spell that will allow him to speak. I didn’t summon a spirit to inhabit his body! And if this is about magic in general, well, my magic saved your life and helped defeat that sorcerer, so you aren’t in a position to be complaining about it!”

Joseph tried to push himself up in the bed so as to look more imposing. This was unacceptable, he wouldn’t take this kind of outright insubordination from his pupil. “You are here as my pupil, on my whim. If you don’t follow my orders, I can and will kick you out! I was clear from the beginning – no magic! Now, you are going to remove that spell and then you are dismissed.”

Tobias sighed. “Fine. I’ll take off the spell, and then I’ll leave. But I still don’t see why you’re so afraid of magic.”

The butler rolled in on its track, silent but holding tea, and Tobias put his hand on its steel forehead. “Goodbye,” it said, and then nothing.

“It’s done,” Tobias said, resigned. “Everything is back to normal. And I know that you don’t owe me an answer, but I would appreciate to know why you’re so afraid of magic before I leave.”

Joseph rubbed his eyes. He wondered how long he had been asleep. “Magic changes you,” he said. “You start out young and happy, independent, ready to take on the world, and in a year of studying magic you turn into a wraith, skin like paper, prematurely hunched, a servant to the power as much as anything else. The more you use it, the worse it gets. I’ve seen it happen. It happened to my brother, it’s happened to friends. You can’t control power like that, it controls you. I uderstand that an occasional spell doesn’t turn you into a dark sorcerer, but it’s a slippery slope and one you can’t climb back up. Better, in my mind, to just never use magic.”

Tobias nodded, and started to leave, but then turned and said, “I’ve been studying magic these six years, while I’ve been in your tutelage. I was as powerful as that sorcerer who tried to kill you, and I am in control of my powers – healthy and happy, just like you said. I think that they can be controlled, if you keep an eye on your humanity. I think they can be tempered by cleverness and engineering, the things I learned from you. I warn you, I am going to continue to learn magic.” And with that, he turned and left.

Joseph just shook his head sadly. It was impossible that Tobias could control it, wasn’t it? Although, he had never heard of someone lasting even five years, and he had also never heard of someone gaining enough power to defeat a sorcerer – even in the simplest, most extenuating cases – without forfeiting their humanity. And Tobias was an unusually determined boy, as he had proved when he was twelve. Maybe, just maybe. Maybe it was enough that Joseph could allow himself to hope.

Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarian and father of the Panopticon, is kept in a box in University College London. There is a myth that they take him to board meetings, where he is listed "Jeremy Bentham, present but not voting" and does not vote unless a measure is split evenly - in which case he invariably votes for the measure. This is considered to be not true. What IS considered to be true is the fact that his head was replaced with one made of wax, because the old one had begun to decompose, and students were continually stealing it.

Imagine: "What's that you got in the bag, Tim?"
"Oh, nothing. Just Jeremy Bentham's head."

Really, if anything, the fact that it is a fake wax head makes me want to steal it even more. Also, I think Jeremy Bentham would be an AWESOME scav item. Or possibly using that principle but someone closer to the heart of U of C, like Milton Friedman.

Thanks, Wikipedia.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pleasantry and Vaclav Havel?

My current beef is about pleasantries. You know, when someone asks you "How are you doing?" and what they really mean is "I know you. We should acknowledge the acquaintance, but I do not really want to know anything about your life." They expect you to respond "Okay" even if everyone in your immediate family other than you (of course) has just died in a grisly murder. Or rather, they don't expect to actually hear about how you're dealing with the aftershock of discovering the bloody scene of the crime, the loss of both parents and three siblings, or...

Not that I have experience with that. I just like hyperbole.

Of course, I also know that there are certain situations where it is perfectly okay to respond to "How are you doing?" with "Oh gosh, it's awful. My parents just died in a plane accident" or even "I am feeling generally low but do not know why." There are just other situations in which those answers would be unacceptable, and this is not purely determined by whether or not they are true. Negotiating that is what makes us socially acceptable human beings. In fact, there are several people I (my family) know who don't negotiate that; they share too much. When you ask them "How's it going?" you are guaranteed to hear an at least ten minute tirade about whatever they are currently upset about. They are weird. It is hard to be friends with them, because they never let up. You can never have a casual conversation with them, it is always intense and meaningful. Who would want that? Blah.

But it also goes the other way; there are people who never share anything and just put on a happy face because they don't feel comfortable doing it. Or something. Because whenever they hear "How are you doing?" they respond "Okay," and stop there. I am like this. To use an example, at the beginning of every session, my therapist asks me "How are you doing?". Clearly, she means the question in a non-pleasantry way. I know this. But my response is "Okay," and she has to ask again, ask for details, before I actually share any. This is absurd. I am paying her to listen to the story of my life and help me work out the problems within it. I am paying her to hear more than just pleasantry. But my response is still just the vague "I'm fine," that I associate with civility and social contact. By responding in the shallow, social way, I am wasting time and money. But I still do it because I am distinctly uncomfortable doing anything else.
I am not comfortable with the fact that anyone actually wants to hear what's going on in my life, or that anyone cares one way or another how I am actually doing when they ask the question "How're you doing?"

I know that there are situations in which a good friend asks me how I am doing and it would be appropriate for me to actually share my emotions. I also know that there are people I can go to and say "I am feeling like crap and need to talk to someone. We are going to talk about my problems for five minutes and then other stuff" and that would be okay. The problem is that although I can say conclusively that when my therapist asks me how I am doing, she means it in the non-social sense, I cannot say which friends and which situations other than that are actually appropriate for heart-to-hearts or confiding or complaining or whatever it is that I do. I mean, I have a vague sense that at some points most of my friends would be receptive to it, but I can't say with any certainty what those are, and so I default to "Okay."

Which isn't exactly healthy, and leads to me feeling like I can't confide in anyone.

I was going to tie this into Vaclav Havel. I think he is the bees knees. I was going to compare that sort of social pleasantry to the veiled message of the "Workers of the World Unite!" sign. When you ask someone "How are you doing?" what you are really asking them is "Do you know who I am and are you willing to pretend that we have a connection?" You don't want the actual connection necessarily - the actual information - just the smile and the wave and the pretense. In social situations, this pleasantry serves the purpose of making everyone think (or force themselves to think) that they have connections while really only isolating people further. It forces people to find connections to eachother through flatter, shallower means, to express these connections through the way they dress or the music they listen to rather than actual sharing of stories and emotions. It allows you to superimpose your own trials and tribulations on other poeple who may or may not be going through them, simply because you don't have any contradictory information. My friends are the people who dress like me, who listen to the same music I do, and must be going through the same things I am. My friends are exactly like me, because we do not talk about enough of our lives to force differentiation. It means the friendship exists as a thin delusion, and will be brought quickly to an end whenever you find some potentially minor difference to pull it apart. Since society rests on this vague sameness, this shallowness, it all crumbles if you actually try to interact with it on a meaningful level.

Of course there are exceptions. I have fundamental differences and disagreements with people who I count as my good friends. Everyone does. But there is an element to which you are always surprised by those differences, you are caught off-guard when a friend is devout if you are an atheist (and vice versa), you are shocked when your friends do not understand why you did something or why they do not share your confusions.

I don't know if that actually ties back to Vaclav Havel very well. But I like it anyway.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Karen pointed this out at work today. Awesome. I feel like the first should be 'doesn't work' and 'works' instead of 'works' twice. My favorite is either the first or the second-to-last. Hers is "Do not believe in miracles - rely on them."

And as I have too much civ reading to know what to do with it, that's it for today. Maybe tomorrow I will post about Vaclav Havel. Maybe not.

On a related note, La Vie Boheme has been stuck in my head all day.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I should be doing a physics problem set. Or a biochem problem set.

On that note,

I am mildly disappointed with children's literature these days. Not that it isn't fun - it's loads of fun, for the right kind of kid. (of course, if you are a kid who doesn't like fantasy, you're dead meat). But it is exactly this break with reality that I find the most puzzling and the most disappointing. I think it might be a british/american switch - that the british way was more common earlier and has been overtaken by a more american method. Consider Peter Pan, or, to a lesser extent, Alice in Wonderland. In both cases, there is only one magical world and it is predominantly populated and created by the imagination. Especially in Peter Pan, the Neverland is immediately accesible to anyone who dares to imagine it. That's the point. Even remembering the games we used to play allows adults to see into the world of the Neverland, although we won't necessarily give up our hard-won seriousness and pay it a visit. My sense is that Alice in Wonderland was somewhat similar - especially in that it is a place of nursery rhymes and games, not a real place with real people so much.

Compare that to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oz needs a physical journey to get there, unlike Neverland - hence the tornado. It is populated by real people with real problems; racism, war, etc. Later on in Baum's series there are whole long lists of neighboring countries across the deadly desert. The counties in Oz even have colors associated with them, and names that sound childish and amusing - Munchkinland, Quadling Country, etc. Even the Deadly Desert or Shifting Sands has a hint of the alliteration and rhyme that has become all too common in place names in children's books. Moreover, the Oz books have a 5th grade reading level, much simpler than either Peter Pan or Alice. The erudition and vocabulary in Peter Pan, the inside jokes with a parent, are gone. So is most of the narratorial voice, especially in the later books.

Of course, I devoured the Oz books as a kid. There's nothing wrong with them, they are perfectly good for a child to read. The only pit fall - the only thing they aren't as good for - is for a parent to read to their child. That's when the narratorial voice really comes out, it's when the inside jokes and vocabulary are accesible to a reader, and it's when the link of imagination becomes so important.

As an adult, I know there is no emerald city, that the things in Oz are simply impossibilities and bear no resemblance to reality. I can't imagine a time when there could have been a Munchkinland. I can, however, remember a time in my life when I thought I could fly, when my imagination was so rampant and powerful that the things I now know to be fantasies seemed oh-so-real and frightening. Sometimes, late at night, my imagination is almost that strong now - but it's darker, too, more full of zombies and vampires and ghosts, less full of fairies and mermaids and talking rabbits. Point being that any reader can remember a time when their imagination was strong enough to take them to the Neverland, if the Neverland is really all about imagination at base. But no reader can remember a time when magic was real, really real, not just a product of your imagination.

But again, that doesn't matter if it's just a child reading it -- they have the imagination to not care about whether something is real or not. The only difference is that Peter Pan, the novel, is much more interesting to a grownup reading it than, say, The Series of Unfortunate Events or even Harry Potter (although I love Harry Potter; just not as much as I love Peter Pan). The vocabulary, too, is important here - when a parent says an advanced word while reading, a child will either (most likely) ignore it since it is gone so fast or (perhaps) ask the parent what it means. It lets them figure out how to use those words and adds to the experience with the parent. However, if a child is reading a book alone and comes upon a word he doesn't understand, he can't just skip over it unwittingly; there it stands on the page in indelible ink, puzzling and jarring. He can't ask his parent immediately either - if the child is reading alone then presumably the adults are doing other things and do not want to be interrupted. So the word simply takes from the reading experience instead of adding to it.

Which brings me to a conclusion that I made a while ago, at lunch with my father, which is that parents don't read to their children anymore, after a child can read. Or maybe parents don't read to their children as much -- we have this idea that children should read quietly, on their own, without assistance. And that is what children's literature is for. For children to read alone. Which is why you can be more fantastical, and simultaneously why the vocabulary drops and the narratorial voice all but disappears.

I remember my parents reading to me and my brother long after we could read. (Then again I was reading the Oz books at age four, so I am very glad at this). They didn't read modern children's literature (with the exception of Harry Potter, when that came out, because it's so much good clean fun that it was hard to resist). They read C.S. Lewis, a bit, and Tolkein, a bit. I learned to read by struggling through Peter Pan with my mother. Children's literature was a group activity. I love to think of that being the way it is meant to be - these wonderful, imaginative books bringing parents and children together.

The second difference is the myriad of places common in modern children's literature. If an adventure doesn't involve a trip to at least twelve different locales, it can't rightly be called an adventure at all. Which isn't a childish point of view in the slightest, but a very adult one. An adventure, for someone who is looking for adventures, could be simply in the backyard. Physical distance is not necessary. Which is fortunate to older, british writers - because in Britain, there is no space. Everything is nicely crammed.

In the States, however, there is plenty of space. (Especially at the time of Baum and the others). Think of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn - travelling down the Mississippi. You can go from town to town in the States, and there have always been stories of children doing it. There are always new places to discover, and each new adventure happens in a new place. Don't like something? Instead of changing it, why not just move on to a new location? The endless plains of the central U.S. parallel the huge worlds of children's literature we now see - getting from A to B is not as simple as wandering next door. You must go through C and D and E and the miles and miles of trails between. So children's literature is no longer nicely crammed, but rather takes place with much travelling between locales. Even in the sequels to Peter Pan that I have read, (official ones), the authors find the need to insert new places, new maps, new nations. The world is bigger now. So so are our imagined worlds.

I don't know how much of that is true - I don't know if parents aren't perhaps reading more to their children, or if children's literature has always been like that and of the older ones we only see those that stand out because parents enjoy them as much as children. But there is something to be said for someone who can write children's literature that grownups like.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Saturday musings

These are left-over from Saturday, since I spent most of the weekend sans computer.

4:00 PM, Millenium park:

A wedding party passed me, of high schoolers, parking their hummer limo on the side of the street and taking pictures in Millenium park - the obnoxious bride playing the part of prom queen.

Then again, for most of history, 18 was considered quite old enough for marrying (as was 16 and even sometimes 12). Now it is so young. Maybe half of that is an over-educated intellectual class; if you expect men and women to go to school until they are 22 (or later) which is the everyone-going-to-college paradigm, then 18 is still a child, still in need of education. And this over-educated system is far from universal even today. Besides, what is a wedding in today's society that a date to prom isn't, at base? The only difference is that a wedding is supposed to be permanent, but with the divorce rates throughout the western world being what they are, it seems obvious that even among people who wait until they are "old enough", marriage need not be permanent.

Really, my shock at seeing a teenager prancing around millenium park in a bridal gown speaks more to what my preconceptions of a proper wedding are than anything else. What is my idea of taste in such things - does it only include a secret trip to the local court (witnesses hand-selected and parents notably excluded), sans honeymoon or reception, like my parents? Or is the line drawn at the level of making such things public affairs - do I want to keep my wedding a secret from strangers? But what do I care, today, if some high school student I never knew and never will gets married?

However, part of me wants the entire scene to be a high school theatre group; taging a wedding somewhere public to show absurdity? Stage a wedding and then stage people crashing it, or the groom running away, or a groomsman shouting at the last minute that he can't take it any more - he is madly in love with the bride (or groom) and wants them to call it off (or he is madly in love with a bridesmaid and wants to make it a double wedding. Whichever). Or whatever, only something to add to the absurdity of it - so the strangers are the point, and testing what we think about the limits of decorum is the point, and all of that.

6:30 PM (Corner Bakery):

The man sitting to my left is a tourist planning his route of attackof the city: He has before him three open maps and he has covered the small table with them, pouring over them and comparing them, a general preparing an invasion of the territory.

He takes out another map and holds it up, comparing. Shall he take the Art Institute first, and go north from there, or install his sentries at teh highest ground with a strategic attack of the Sears Tower allowing him to easily see enemy forces from miles away? Is the Museum of Science and Industry in the south worth it or would the added mileage hurt morale and stretch his forces too thin - being a better target for another offensive, another time? Should he regroup in Greektown at dinner time or continue the assault to Chinatown? Or perhaps Pilsen? And, most importantly, when the attack fails (as it surely will) how much time will it take to pull out troops through O'hare?

Friday, May 18, 2007

"The Attraction Newton Forgot"

Yes, I am still excited about this. More exactly, I had an idea about it and I want to work it out somewhere other than the margin of my copy, since that is nowhere near enough space. (And no, that isn't supposed to be a joke, although given the play it might as well be.)

SPOILERS AHEAD. Don't read if you care. It's not a play where the surprise ending is important, but I don't know, maybe you don't want to hear my crackpot theories before seeing it yourself.

In Court's brochure they say that one of the main themes of the play is "The attraction Newton forgot" - basically, that Newtonian mechanics is deterministic and the thing that messes everything up is, to put it as Thomasina does, "The action of bodies in heat." Basically:
Chloe: The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it's trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren't supposed to be in that part of the plan.

Valentine: Ah. The attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden.
Now, there are a lot of oddities in this. First of all, Thomasina also could be talking about the second law of thermodynamics, which does break Newton's paradigm in that it is not reversible - and it in fact tells why so many things in life are not reversible (another theme of the play). But in Stoppard's way, he's making a parallel between the second law of thermodynamics and carnal embrace or love or crushes or lust or whatever it is that "the attraction that Newton left out" really is at base, and it's been picking at my brain.

Partly because half of the play has a bit of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque determinism to it, because it chronicles the goings on in a house at the beginning of the nineteenth century, while the rest of the play takes place roughly present-day, and is the story of scholars trying to find out what happened. Certain things are known in advance - for example, one of the characters goes crazy. One of the characters dies. But we never see any of this. And, truth be told, the ending of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always bothered me, because it seems like there must be some way to DO SOMETHING, and that half the reason R&G are doomed to their fate is (besides the fact that it's Hamlet so everyone is bound to die) the fact that they never actually do anything until it is too late.

The thing is, I never put the goings on about sex/the second law of thermodynamics and the goings on about predetermination together until tonight, and given the end of the last scene, it makes SO MUCH SENSE. All of a sudden it's like "The grim ending with death and madness doesn't need to take place, you can just waltz instead!" because, well, that's what the ending IS.

And I might be crazy, but I'm going to stick to my guns.

At the end of the play, we "know" two things about the future of Thomasina and Septimus: Thomasina dies in a fire in her bedroom the night before her seventeenth birthday, and Septimus subsequently goes crazy and lives as a hermit in the hermitage in the garden (with his turtle, Plautus). However, the last scene for these two characters takes place on the night before Thomasina's seventeenth birthday, and Thomasina is not in her room ready to be burnt alive - she is downstairs with Septimus, waltzing. The very last lines from these characters are:

Septimus: Take your essay, I have given it an alpha in blind faith. Be careful with the flame.
Thomasina: I will wait for you to come.
Septimus: I cannot.
Thomasina: You may.
Septimus: I may not.
Thomasina: You must.
Septimus: I will not.
Thomasina: Then I will not go. Once more, for my birthday.
And the very last direction of the play is: "Septimus and Thomasina continue to dance, fluently." IF Thomasina isn't in her room, the predetermined fire doesn't happen, she doesn't die, and Newton's laws and predestination be damned - all because of the schoolgirlish crush on her tutor. (Or her love for him, depending on how much of a sap you are). Which is really what the quotes at the beginning of the post are about, right?

And in my opinion, this last one sums it up nicely:

Septimus: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore.
Thomasina: Then we will dance. Is this a waltz?

The second law of thermodynamics comes down to a waltz.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is. It's how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm. It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing. People were talking about the end of physics. Relativity and quantum looked as if they were going to clean out the whole problem between them. A theory of everything. But they only explained the very big and the very small. The universe, the elementary particles. The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about - clouds - daffodils - waterfalls - and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in - these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks. We're better at predicting events at the edge of the galazy or inside the nucleus of an atom than whether it'll rain on auntie's garden party three Sundays from now. Because the problem turns out to be different. We can't even predict the next drip from a dripping tap when it gets irregular. Each drip sets up the conditions for the next, the smallest variation blows the prediction apart, and the weather is unpredictable in the same way, will always be unpredictable. When you push the numbers through the computer you can see it on the screen. The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. Its the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.
OMG Arcadia.

It is the play about EVERYTHING. Especially academics, because it is unclear to me that Tom Stoppard can write about people who aren't academics. But it's science and it's poetry and it's research and it's sex and it's love and it's ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING rolled into one, because it's ONE enthusiasm and ONE sort of emotion. And it's a bunch of actors running around the stage pretending to be total geeks, which is absolutely wonderful in its own sort of way. The scenes (like the one I quoted from above) where two people get into a heated discussion about something and then awkwardly realize that they're sitting rather closer to eachother than is totally comfortable (and yes there are a couple) are so wonderful and so true and so very much how it... how it works. Because the ideas are more important than the people.

So. Yes. If you are in Chicago, SEE THIS SHOW. If you EVER have the opportunity to see it or read it or whatever, DO IT. Because it is AMAZING.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Systems Bio. GAH.

An idea:

Biological networks are, by and large, scale-free networks (with a few high connectivity nodes and many low connectivity nodes, rather than mostly average-connectivity nodes). These seem to evolve continuously and quickly, rather than in a punctuated way (which is how random networks evolve, btw). Which, at first glance, goes against a "punctuated equilibrium" model until you realize that in punctuated equilibrium you aren't just modelling the evolvability towards one trait but rather the sequential evolution of many traits. ALSO, many protein people (and DNA people?) note significant homology between varying domains of different proteins and propose a mix-and-match model of evolution. FINALLY, transcription factors are overrepresented in genes which have significantly diverged from the human/chimp, human/ape or human/primate common ancestor. A couple ideas:

1) Do scale-free networks give you "punctuated equilibrium" when faced with a changing environment/target? If this is true, it would navigate the apparent difference above and explain why we observe scale-free networks with punctuated equilibrium evolution in nature.

2) What happens to network evolution when you preferentially change "transcription factors" (nodes which effect the state of other nodes)? This might shed some light on specifically human evolution and what makes us different from our closest evolutionary cousins.

3) Do random networks evolve into scale-free networks when you can add connections biased towards "transcription factors"? If this is true, it would go some distance to explain why biological networks are by and large scale-free.


So as I have one of the most Biology-heavy backgrounds in the Systems Bio class and certainly in the PCBio program (by which I mean I am either the first or second most Biology-heavy person in PCBio, depending on how you rank Pearl and myself), it seems odd at first that I want to think about computer science. But then again, I was caught explaining BOTH of the computer-science papers to my cohort, which puzzled me at the time.

I stopped being puzzled when I started going on a rant about STELLA and how horribly, awfully boring and ridiculous a programming language it was (but how it was particularly designed to allow one to easily create a dynamic network). I think I started talking about linked lists after that.

Which reminded me of Mr. Hiedler's class. And cults.

Oh Montgomery Blair.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Springtime for Hitler

Megan posted about mass-murder. I am responding at length here rather than clog her comments board.

First off, she links to an article about elementary school teachers scaring students by pretending that a drill was real. She claims that if you teach people how to behave in real situations, all the time telling them it's a drill, they'll know how to respond (and will respond properly) in the case of a real emergency situation.

I'm going to draw on personal experience here, so it's with high schoolers and not eleven year olds. I honestly can't say how eleven year olds would react to "dangerous" situations, but during my junior year of high school there were a few terrifying weeks when there was a sniper on the loose in the area. Every couple days, another person would be shot by the sniper and the school would freak out. Now this isn't the same as a gunman actually being in the school building, and I use the comparison ONLY because it is the best parallel I know. Point being, that when the announcement came over the intercom that we were experiencing a "Code Blue" situation, Megan was right - students didn't freak out. Instead, they thought it was a drill. In fact, I was the only person in my class to think, "Wait, they didn't say drill. This is for real."

Point being that while this very well might be different if you say something like "There's a masked gunner in the school. Hide under these desks," if you have a known procedure and drill it every so often, when an administrator says "This is a Code Blue situation", the students will probably daze off and hear "This is a Code Blue drill situation", and not take it seriously at all. Which is exactly what happened, even after I told my classmates that they were most likely incorrect. And while they didn't take it seriously, they still followed the rules for a "Code Blue" fairly precisely. It was within a standard deviation, I think.

My second example is more similar in the immediacy of its danger (but still nowhere near the same), and the point of it is that even people who are very well trained to respond to emergency situations react badly at times. When confronted with death, danger, and so forth, people panic. They lose control. The example being a little boy who started drowning in the pool over the summer. The lifeguard who was nearest watched in shock, and the lifeguard who was farther away swam through the pool to rescue the kid. This happened several times, actually, with one particular lifeguard doing almost all of the saving because he was the one who responded well to a crisis situation. These people are well trained, it's their job to be on the lookout for problems, and the issue wasn't that they didn't take it seriously enough - everyone saw what happened. The issue is that some people just panic. I've heard great stories from EMT friends about people just freezing in the middle of a call, or forgetting what to do. It happens. That's humanity. The only way to get someone to respond well to crisis, that we know of so far, is to innure them to crises - the seasoned veteran or the person who has been working in the emergency room for years can deal with situations better than the new recruit or the medical student. It takes a long time, but you do get somewhere.

Point being, for elementary students, there is no good way to actually train them on how to deal with a crisis situation. No matter what you do, they probably won't react well to a dangerous situation. Either they won't believe it, or they'll panic, and a very small number of them (remember, these are eleven year old kids, not exactly responsible, calm adults) might have the self-possession not to hurt themselves. Those teachers made a poor choice, but there isn't really a good choice available.

She goes on to talk about what the best ways to stop mass-murder are, and her basic argument (as I understand it) is that you can't legislate to people who are already breaking laws, so the best option is to "treat it at the source" with gun control and with psychiatric help for likely sociopaths.

First off, while I support gun control, I also think that there is absolutely no problem with someone who is sane and just happens to like hunting (or shooting ranges or WHATEVER) to have a gun. In terms of what people do with their private lives, so long as they aren't hurting other people, it is not the place of the government to legislate. However, having some control over guns, to prevent known (or unknown, I guess) sociopaths from using them, is probably a good idea, and having required safety measures to prevent small children or theives from getting them is also a good idea. BUT, no matter how tightly we regulate guns, and even if we outlaw them entirely, people will still get them. And if we outlaw them entirely, the only people who will get them will be the people likely to misuse them. Which is kind of... silly, in my opinion.

I have a couple problems with the proposal of "psychiatric help" to prevent sociopathy. In some cases (e.g. tumor in hypothalamus pressuring amygdala) there is something that can be treated by external action, and in those cases medical assistance is certainly our best bet. But most cases are not like that, as the VT shooting shows clearly. Psychiatric treatment isn't as simple as treating the flu or strep throat. Even comparing it to cancer, where INCREDIBLE amounts of personal strength is necessary to see a treatment through doesn't do it justice. Because in each of those cases, there is a clear physical cause - something that drugs, or a surgeon, can remove - and the personal strength required is the strength to see a treatment plan through, to go through pain and hardship and not succumb to depression. In psychiatric illness, however, you aren't fighting against a bacteria or a virus or even your own mutated cells. You're fighting against your own psyche, and that causes huge amounts of trouble unknown in other diseases. External treatments are not totally effective, and the treatment plan takes huge amounts of effort on the part of the patient. Basically, an antibiotic (or a trio of antibiotics) will cure you of the bubonic plague whether you want it to or not. But NO TREATMENT will cure you of a psychiatric disease unless you want it to and are willing to go through hell and high water to cure yourself. Sociopaths are known specifically for thinking themselves better than others, why would they want to be "healthy", when "healthy" is equivalent to "normal"?

Secondly, there's the problem that not all sociopaths are bad sociopaths. Our society prizes some of the traits of sociopathy, admittedly in milder forms. Men (and women) who are a little bit rebellious, and impulsive, who are aggressive enough to take action without worrying about it, who stand by their beliefs through fear of pain, and who don't dwell on remorse and the past are in fact lauded. Looking at a list of the symptoms of sociopathy doesn't just call to mind the mass murderer stuck in prison, but also many of our nation's leaders. I once heard (from a source I would trust) that most people who run for president are (at least a little) sociopathic. Don't forget that most sociopaths are on the outside charming and witty. Determination, bravery, creativity, pride, these are all things that we WANT to be part of our society, but they are exactly the things that, when present in too potent a form, and not tempered by empathy and care for others, are the hallmarks of sociopathy.

Again, you're faced with a problem almost without solution. You can restrict the means for getting a weapon, in which case dangerous criminals still have weapons while you are still restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens. You can try to treat sociopathy, but it seems to be patently hard to treat, and removing all forms of sociopathic urges from our society is something that we distinctly do not want to do, since the same things that seem to make a good leader are a start on the way towards sociopathy. As depressing as it might sound, maybe there is no way to really prevent these outbursts, and the only thing that we can do is to train people to handle crises better - which, as any EMT can tell you, is certainly difficult but can be done. Which brings us full-circle, to the idea that drilling lockdowns and other emergency procedures is the best way to save lives. It seems obvious to me that the longer a gunman spends prowling the halls looking for people to shoot, the shorter he spends actually shooting people - and the longer the police have to get to the scene before people are shot, the better. Shooting through locks isn't as simple as the movies would have it, and the windows on the doors of most classrooms (if present) don't provide a good way to reach the doorknob. Unless he knew that people were inside the room, would he really try that hard to get through the door? It would be like prying open a tough can of tuna to find only water inside. Lame.

As far as I can tell it, that's the best argument there is for drilling lockdowns and so forth. It's not an ideal option, but it might be the best one that we have.

Monday, May 14, 2007

This layout brought to you by boredom and procrastination

I've been wanting to do a stained-glass inspired layout for a while. But that will have to wait. This one is inspired, instead, by Cirque du Soleil's Grand Chapiteau. I like the semi-transparent boxes so you can better see the spiral. Fancy. I also was warped by my experiences in middle and high school about web-design, to feel that a cleaner, sharper look was better. So that while at first I thought it would be really cute to have the whole thing actually look like a tent, I decided against it in preference to something more abstract and streamlined. And of course, no frames. (That was the other thing I was told I can't say how many times - if you can do it without frames, don't use them).

We'll see how long this layout lasts. Over the summer I should have even more time to waste, so there might be some rapid-fire layout changes. Or maybe I'll actually have a life. Hah, that would be funny.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sports Acro

My brother pointed me to acro links on Youtube today (this for instance), and it makes me want to get back into that sport or SOMETHING LIKE IT in any case so much more. When I stopped, I was 11 and at about this level, judging by tumbling pass. But my routine was all about fighting with my partner, not about something silly like dancing with him. The skills have changed so much since then; I haven't been able to find anyone doing quabet 1 1/2 (which was my favorite skill, but a bit rare at the time I guesss), and there's this freaky new crotch-catch thing that I find really odd and definitely don't remember. Maybe Daniil just didn't do that kind of skill, who knows. I always felt less artistic and more... gymnastic than the california teams. *shrug*

Point being that there is a group doing sports acro in Chicago, these guys, but they're currently practicing in a makeshift space in Evanston (I think) and I would need a car to get there easily - the CTA is awful about it. Which sucks. And there are these people doing trapeze and silks, but they're way far west at the end of the green line so it comes down to the same thing; semi-reasonable commute if I have a car, but not so much on the CTA. I've e-mailed someone about maybe starting an athletic club at the U of C for circus acrobatics, since the Circus club proper is an artistic organization and therefore doesn't have insurance for crazy shit like that. For a few miraculous weeks in winter quarter, someone was teaching silks through the circus, and I would love to do that again. So maybe if the acro group meets on saturdays, I can dedicate my saturdays to going up to evanston and back to do that, and have this other club to practice with during the week? But it doesn't seem worth it to get a car in Chicago just so I can do that sort of athletics, even though I watch the videos and desperately want to join in. Gah.

It's just... the gymnastics club isn't practicing this quarter so I am high and dry and without a physical activity to do. I should work on flexibility, and I've started stretching every night again, which is good, but not really good enough. If I don't have a goal and a cohort, I'm going to stop before the week is out, just like every other time I've tried.

It can't hurt to give it one more shot though, I guess. And maybe this summer I'll get zipcars and shorten the commute. Really, it would just be one and a half months - and the weekends until the second weekend in june are already scheduled, so one month - of crazy CTA. I could do one month. Probably.

The other option, of course, is to do cheerleading. But the cheerleading here, I think, is more shouting and less pyramids. Maybe that will be my next choice if Tamsen gets back to me in a negative fashion. But for now I'll just keep my fingers crossed.

*sigh* Maybe all of this is a stupid pipe dream. My parents say I should get into Yoga or Pilates or a martial art; something that I can do for the rest of my life. It makes sense; this kind of high-impact sport is notoriously dangerous and hard on people's bodies, especially as they get older. But I know that there were grownups on the Acro team when I was a kid; people with real lives and real jobs, in their late 30s. Which means that I could do this for 15 to 20 more years if I wanted to. That's a long time, and I can cross the bridge of needing to do something lower impact when I come to it. I just want something exciting now, something fun, youthful, and off-the-wall. I mean, I lost one sport because of an injury, and I really want to prove to myself that I didn't lose sports in general, but just one sport. I want to prove that I can be intensely athletic, do things that normal people just can't do, be dangerous and insane and beautiful and not stuck in my room scared to do anything for fear of hurting myself. And I'd like it to be the things that diving was when it was good; and the things that diving lost when it turned bad. I want something incredibly demanding on multiple people, with a strong team spirit and sense of camaraderie. Acro should be like that, if any sport is. And that just takes getting back into. Or something.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

My mother is a Freudian?

I'm used to most people laughing at Freud and how ridiculous he is. But in the first half of "Civilizataion and its discontents", the following passage really jumped out at me:

Another technique for fending off suffering is the employment of the displacements of libido which our mental apparatus permits of and through which its function gains so much in flexibility. The task here is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against the frustration from the external world. In this, sublimation of the instincts lends its assistance. One gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from the sources of psychical and intellectual work. When that is so, fate can do little against one. A satisfaction of this kind, such as an artist's joy in creating, in giving his phantasies body, or a scientist's in solving problems or discovering truths, has a special quality which we shall certainly one day be able to characterize in metaphsychological terms. At present we can only say figuratively that such satisfactions seem "finer and higher". But their intensity is mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and primary instinctual impulses; it does not convulse our physical being. And the weak point of this method is that it is not applicable generally: it is accessible to only a few people. It presupposes the possession of special dispositions and gifts which are far from being common to any practical degree. And even to the few who do possess them, this method cannot give complete protection from suffering. It creates no impenetrable armor against the arrows of fortune, and it habitually fails when the source of suffering is a person's own body.
I do not think I have made a complete enumeration of the methods by which men strive to gain happiness and keep suffering away and I know, too, that the material might have been differently arranged. One procedure I have not yet mentioned - not because I have forgotten it but because it will concern us later in another connection. And how could one possibly forget, of all others, this tenchique in the art of living? It is conspicuous for a most remarkable combination of characteristic features. It, too, aims of course at making the subject independent of Fate (as it is best to call it) and to that end it locates satisfaction in internal mental processes, making use, in so doing, of the displaceability of the libido of which we have already spoken. But it does not turn away from the external world; on the contrary, it clings to the objects belonging to that world and obtains happiness from an emotional relationship to them. Nor is it content to aim at an avoidance of unpleasure - a goal, as we might call it, of weary resignation; it passes this by without heed and holds fast to the original, passionate striving for a positive fulfilment of happiness. And perhaps it does in fact come nearer to this goal than any other method. I am, of course, speaking of the way of life which makes love the centre of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved. A psychical attitude of this sort comes naturally enough to all of us; one of the forms in which love manifests itself - sexual love - has given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happines. What is more natural than that we should persist in looking for happiness along the path on which we first encountered it? The weak side of this technique of living is easy to see; otherwise no human being would have thought of abandoning this path to happiness for any other. It is that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love. But this does not dispose of the technique of living based on the value of love as a means to happiness.

It struck me particularly that my mother had said (basically) the same thing to me on several occasions. First, that it is an easy and obvious source of contentment and happiness to put your energy into work, class, writing, etcetera, and that those activities are a relatively surefire way to get satisfaction out of life, second that nothing is as effective at making you happy if you refuse to let it matter one way or another, and third that the most effective way to be happy is to have lots of friends and a social life (and sex too, I guess. But since she's my mom she tends to avoid that part). I guess my mom is just a Freudian at heart.

It's a fairly common occurance for me to read a text expecting to find it outdated and ridiculous and to find, instead, that I identify with it and it reminds me of my parents. Maybe my parents are just outdated and ridiculous. The same thing happened with my father and Aristotle; the entire class was talking about how ridiculous certain parts of the Nicomachean Ethics were, while I was just impressed by the similarities between (admittedly, other) parts of it and the lessons my father had tried to teach me as a child.

What it probably is, is that my parents read all of these texts when they were my age as well. They read Aristotle in their first years of college, and Freud thereafter, and Weber, and Durkheim, and Smith and Marx and all of them. They took Hum and Sosc and Western Civ, none of which have changed very much. My biology classes are probably significantly different from the biochem classes that my mother took, but a course on classical literature, sociology, or history won't have changed much since then. So the lessons that they learned in their core classes are still being taught today. Maybe every legacy kid here has the sense of deja-vu when they go through their core classes.

I wouldn't be that surprised.

But still. Freud? Everyone knows he's a perverted wanker. Everyone laughs at him. Even I laugh at many of his ideas about femininity. Why do I identify with his ideas?