article question

Suppose I have a phrase, like “measure-preserving transformation” which I abbreviate by “MPT.” Would I then say “T is a MPT” or “T is an MPT?” My gut instinct is that I would write the former and speak the latter, but that’s inconsistent. It’s probably the latter, since it’s “em pee tee,” right?

leading the blind

I parked my bike near the library this morning, masking my inability to make it up the hill by my need to return some books. As I walked across the brick and concrete landing to the main entrance, I passed two students on a bench commenting on a blind man making his way by fits and starts to the door. “Oops, there he goes,” giggled one. “He’ll make it in ok,” commented the other.
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time for a book

I just read Snow Crash for the first time, and I have to admit that I was a little disappointed, but not because I thought the book was trite. It is, after all, a product of its time, and its vision of avatars in the Metaverse has affected the discourse on the way in which we view human-computer interaction. I was disappointed in myself for not having read it earlier, say in high school, when my friend Usama was ranting about what a piece of genius it was.

It’s not the same feeling as wishing you had discovered an author or book earlier. For one thing, I had very strong feelings about when I should have read it. I would have spent more time digesting some of the more tedious connections like “language is a virus” and “the operating system of a society” to understand them. The second difference is that I felt reading it now diminished the book’s power. Not only did I give some of the analogies short shrift, I felt that they detracted from the narrative drive.

This led me to wonder about whether other books have their time and place in people’s lives. The Catcher In The Rye is a good candidate, but what about Lord of The Rings? Are there books that should be read ideally upon reaching middle age? Upon retirement? Reaching college? Losing your virginity? I don’t believe that every book should be associated with a rite of passage or vice-versa. But I do think some books have maximum punch at a certain time in your life, and while you can put yourself in that position again when you read it, it’s not the same as being there.

Lessig

Lawrence Lessig’s new book, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and Culture and Control Creativity is available for free under a Creative Commons license. Although it’s not unprecedented in the world of academic publishing, this is being done though Penguin Books and is for a (relatively) mass-market book. I, for one, am pretty excited.

Is this going to stop me from going to my local bookstore and browsing a copy on the shelf before deciding to buy it? No. But it allows me to do a pale imitation of skimming a book from my office when I don’t have the luxury of meandering down to the bookstore. I don’t really know anyone who can stand to read a book entirely on a screen (be it CRT, LCD, or plasma), but perhaps I know only the vocal minority. I probably will read the first chapter of his book — more thoughts on that later.

insight in the brain

I sometimes cruise PLoS Biology, a free online biology journal that is slowly gaining a reputation, and they had a really cool article on Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight. It’s worth a read through the abstract and introduction. There’s some fMRI stuff, a lot of brain anatomy that I know very little about, and some hand waving about Archimedes, but it’s pretty interesting to see (if you didn’t know already) how neuroscientists investigate problems like “insight.” Although many of my friends were Course 9 (Cog Sci), but I never really took any of those classes, hence my “gee whiz!” attitude.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia

By Edward Albee. Every so often I get it into my head that family dramas are boring apolitical bourgeoise conceits that don’t really get me excited about The Theatre, but then I read something by Albee and realize how effectively and intelligently he cuts through our ridiculous facades in way that says something profound while remaining thoroughly theatrical. Martin, a 50 year old architect who has just won the Pritzker Prize and a huge new commission, has a dreadful secret.

In Scene One he is getting ready to be interviewed for TV by his childhood friend Ross, and bustles about the house with his wife Stevie. They love each other very much, and they love their gay son Billy. All is well. Martin is too distracted for the interview and Ross cancels it. They quarrel and make up, and in the process Martin confesses to Ross that he has been having an affair with a goat named Sylvia. Ross is incredulous and threatens to tell Stevie.

And in Scene Two, Stevie has the letter from Ross and she and Billy are letting Martin have it. Billy is sent to his room — Stevie and Martin continue to have it out. She trashes the apartment in her rage and threatens to hurt him as much as he hurt her. She storms out.

In Scene Three, Billy comes back down to find Martin in the ruins. They make up, sort of. Ross enters at an inopportune moment — Ross and Martin have it out, and at the end Stevie returns with Sylvia, the latter’s throat slit. A powerful stage moment if ever there was one.

It’s an amazing little piece of work, for the simplicity of the writing and the way in which the little beats in the dialogue build the characters for us but also further the action. There’s an economy in Albee’s writing, but it’s not an economy of text. It’s more that he doesn’t waste time in exposition, in having the characters have long reminiscences about events in the pre-story or speak of the present as an analogy to the past. It’s all in the present more or less, and the backstory is made part of the frontstory. I think the biggest lesson to take away as writer is that small things can be built into big things, and to let your dialogue scurry about — eventually it will find its way up.

non-dangling conversations

I had three really good conversations with friends recently, but unfortunately only one of them was with someone local. Walking with Dave Taylor from downtown at midnight and talking about life and math and work and love made me realize how short the walk home really is. I caught up on the phone with Deb and talked about buildings and theater and life after school and the acting bug. And then I talked with Dustin about renovating your life, just obsessing about some new thing for a month as means of reinvigorating yourself, how to clear out back tension, and real life human ninjas. As I told Dave — if every night could be like those then my life would be most blessed.

I would issue a desultory philippic, but the urge to rant has left me of late. Perhaps it’s this Shins‘ album, Chutes Too Narrow, which is pretty good. Other fun new music in my ears comes from Les Sans Culottes. And now to finish my taxes. Vile ravishing (and impovrishing) beasts that they are. In California we write our check to the Franchise Tax Board, which, as Josh Kornbluth pointed out, sounds like a Mafioso family.