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Pre-Christmas Bloganza

December 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Yeah, I am completely aware the title is lame. That’s half the reason I decided to go with it. If I can’t be lame for the sake of being lame every now and then, what’s the point of pretending to be anything but lame?

I am also completely aware that previous sentence made little sense.

That’s actually how I feel about Christmas, though. I don’t think it makes much sense sometimes. I am an atheist, which might come as a big surprise to some of the family I have that might read my blog by accident. To some this means that my celebration or participation of Christmas is pretend or, at best, disingenuous. “Put Christ back in Christmas,” they say. “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the rhyme goes.

Perhaps this is one perception, or reason, for participating in Christmas. I rather think that it is almost entirely secular in the United States, at least in popular culture. Sure, we get the hymns about Jesus like “Joy to the World,” but I’m not sure how a pine tree and Santa Claus is part of any modern religious tradition.

I see Christmas as a time to spend with family. My uncle and I drink Cabernet Sauvignon as we banter about politics, history, or other esoteric subjects. My cousins and my great uncles will come around to chat, play a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, or just gorge on the mountain of food my grandmother cooks, somehow managing to produce food enough for a small army. And that means more to me than any rendition of “Silent Night” ever could.

So, in some respects, I feel like I’m pretending when I celebrate Christmas. A good chunk of my family doesn’t know I’m an atheist, as far as I know. I have no problem going through the motions of some religious rituals, like when my young cousin wants to pray before a meal, for the sake of group cohesion. I don’t think this is hypocritical of me because I liken it to my grandparents nodding politely as they listen to me talk about some new scientific discovery, which they invariably have no interest in.

So perhaps I celebrate a holiday that doesn’t mean for me what it means for my family, and in doing so, I’m making a decision to pretend. Maybe I’m doing it out of a mutual respect for my family that they return in their own way.

Well, with that out of the way I’ll get to other things. I probably won’t be writing again until after Christmas (and maybe even the New Year) so I’ll try to get a lot of things out of the way. First of all, the Doctor Who Christmas special will be coming up on Christmas day, and I’m excited about it. I don’t have anything to say about it that isn’t self explanatory in the trailer. Perhaps later I’ll spend some time putting together a more intellectual argument about Doctor Who.

I have also found a very interesting blog called ERV run by a virologist. It can be pretty esoteric, so if you’re not interested in this topic it probably isn’t for you.

This is a bit of old news, but I want to briefly touch upon this list of free science books. It provides an amazing resource for anyone interested in pursuing independent amateur studies of sciences ranging from physics to chemistry.

Related to that, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers free online courses across a variety of subjects. MIT OpenCourseWare is definitely worth checking out. I’m hoping that other colleges will offer free online classes for anyone with an internet connection as time goes on, not just because higher-education is prohibitively expensive, but because knowledge should be available to everyone.

David Brin, one of my favorite sci-fi authors, offered advice for writing your first novel: write a murder-mystery. I think it’s fairly good advice, especially, as he notes, for science fiction writers who might get caught up in the technology or the gadgets that attract people to science fiction and forget to write an actual plot.

And, finally, this article by Stephanie McDaniel, entitled “Where a Hugo Award–Winning Author Goes to Read, Write, and Relax in Chicago,” is a quick, fun read.

Well, that does it for now. I’m going to be working as hard as I can to finish up the rough draft of my novel so I can let it sit for a bit and work on some short stories. See you after Christmas!

The Notebook as Mirror

December 13, 2013 1 comment

About six years ago, when I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan with pie in the sky ideas about the things I might be able to do with a degree in English, I trudged along State street in Ann Arbor with a mission. My head was full of all of these stereotypical ideas about what a writer must possess to be a real writer. I had a laptop computer that I could cart around to coffee houses to write as I sipped at a piping hot cup of Earl Grey, making sure that people could really hear the clacking of my keyboard. What I lacked was a notebook.

Sure, I had normal spiral bound notebooks full of the kinds of random, self-absorbed musings that are so popular with the young. I even color-coded the things I wrote based on topic because I was convinced it lent my scribblings a mantle of legitimacy. But I didn’t have a Moleskine notebook, which seemed to be part of the costume of the Writer™ that I wanted to wear.

So that morning I set out for the Borders on the corner of Maynard and Liberty. The freshly-fallen snow crunched beneath my boots as I weaved through the sidewalks, crowded with people and chairs, even in the dead of winter. Borders itself was a large store, a rectangular prism set beside the road and across the street from a vintage theater.

The notebook was sitting on a rack, one of many different varieties. Hard covers and soft overs and mini-notebooks led to confusion and feelings of authorial inadequacy. I was failing a vital test, it seemed, if I couldn’t even figure out which kind of notebook I needed. Should I get lined pages? Blank pages? The selections were endless.

In the end I grabbed a softcover notebook that had lined pages and stuck with it, hoping that was the end of my tribulation. So I packed my laptop and my new notebook and hit the city, on the lookout for interesting things that might spark my imagination so I could start scribbling in this magic notebook.

Such a simple thing, isn't it?

Such a simple thing, isn’t it?

When I realized that walking around in the bitter cold with a notebook wasn’t really the smartest idea, I walked into a coffee shop and picked out a seat close to the big window near the sidewalk. I could people watch and have my computer out to write, and my notebook could be proudly displayed as an accoutrement of my craft. According to my very wrong view of writing I was doing everything that it seemed a writer needed to do.

As the hours passed and I looked at more pictures of cats on icanhazcheezburger than I care to admit, I realized that the notebook was looming over me. I put it away in my backpack to break the storm cloud that started to form over it and get back to the important business of cats obsessed with ground beef.

Days passed, and the notebook stayed in my backpack. I was sure that the ideas would start coming. That the intimidation would break and I would finally think of something to put into it and, man, would it be the genesis of a brilliant writing career. I could point to this notebook as the manuscript for a hundred different ideas, and when they needed personal notes of mine to aid an exegesis of my work, this is the notebook that they would use.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t that conceited, but it isn’t entirely far removed from the truth. Perhaps that self-absorption was important for the inevitable realization that my writing suffered from several defects, as it still does. But the notebook was eventually removed from my backpack and stuffed into my desk, to be forgotten until almost two years later, on a date.

I had ordered tickets to an AC/DC concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills and was looking forward to this outing as my first real date with a woman I had met at U of Michigan, Aida. She was a sassy and intelligent spitfire who hailed from Bosnia-Herzegovina. A survivor of the Siege of Sarajevo, she had many fascinating stories to tell and she saw fit to share many of them with me.

Call me a hopeless romantic.

Call me a hopeless romantic.

The day before I was to take her to this concert I had been going through a pile of old things that I had packed during a move and came across that empty notebook. I picked it up with reverence, sliding the band and flipping through the empty pages. Maybe enough time had passed; maybe I could finally think of something to add to it.

So I took it with me to Auburn Hills. There were many experiences that would have merited entry into the notebook. The couple behind us lit a joint and started to “puff-puff pass” to the people around them. The excitement of the crowd was electrifying. It was the first time I had ever been to such a venue and I just wasn’t used to the noise. When AC/DC finally came onto the stage, and the rest of the crowd stood to jam with Angus and the band, Aida and I remained seated, just listening to the music and enjoying our time together.

I remember looking into her brown eyes and being enraptured by her smile. She was wearing a purple/blue blouse and a bracelet  with rather large, smooth stones. She had a small glittery clip in her hair that left a few marks on the side of my head as the night wore on.

I had finally thought of something to put into my notebook; something that, even at the time, I felt was too cute by half. I was in a playful mood, and I hoped that she was as well.

It is really cheesy.

It is really cheesy.

Well, she was. And as the band played on, and the energy started to affect even us as we sat there more in tune to each other than the boisterous sea of people, she brought her hand to my cheek, turned my head, and kissed me. She smiled, and then stood up, grabbed my hand, and made me dance with the people around us to Hell’s Bells.

Unfortunately the relationship didn’t last long after that, but it broke the spell I had placed on the notebook. After the concert and a long drive home, I opened the notebook and started to write on the last page a short missive on how the first and last pages of the notebook like this were scary, and why I have to fill them up first. I thought that if I had filled the last page first I could write throughout the notebook freely. Where before I had imbued the notebook with a mystical sense of destiny, I now treated it as a repository of random scribblings, marking events such as a first kiss or an observation of human behavior.

I think it was at about this time that I started to carry the notebook around with me everywhere again. Most of the pages are still empty, but the ones that I have written on have no overarching purpose. Indeed, a few pages are dedicated to a list of science fiction books that I want to buy that I picked up from the first volume of the science fiction journal Extrapolation.

Some of these books are hard to find.

Some of these books are hard to find.

The notebook is battered and, at places, torn. These defining characteristics are what make having it so attractive, however. I don’t place so much importance on the self-important vision of a the Writer™ anymore, but it’s something that’s hard to completely get over. It’s just an old dream. Foolish, yes, but still bearing the whimsical and unrealistic hopes of my youth. I’m more likely to write a bad joke about biologist porn (“prepare to accept this most generous donation of haploid cells”) than I am anything truly noteworthy of the human condition, but every now and then I do catch something worth writing about. Perhaps a semi-biographical short story about my grandfather based on the wild stories he tells of his youth, or a meandering piece exploring the story behind an older man walking around with a five year-old newspaper tucked under his arm.

The point of all of this is that I realized that the notebook I carried had only to be a reflection of myself, and not a canvas on which to paint high-minded and slightly pompous pictures of the human condition. Once I filled in the first page with the cheesy shot at romance, and the last page with a note on how last pages aren’t the end of a story, it was so much easier to jot the thoughts that flew through my mind.

I think that this, of all things, was my first real step in my development as a writer. My stories are supposed to be representative of me, and who am I? I’m certainly no Melville or Milton. I don’t have the depth of DeLillo nor do I have the foresight of Asimov. I am a little boy from nowhere, who trudged along in the snow one morning to buy a notebook because he thought he had to do it to be a writer. I am part fool, and I am part dreamer.

And maybe one day I’ll be able to write a book that reflects this. A book that I can call my own. A book that, with any luck, a few people will read.

Are Machines Capable of Creating Art?

December 11, 2013 Leave a comment

I suspect that to be able to honestly answer the question of whether or not machines are capable of creating art will require a completely new conception of what, exactly, is art. I tend to think of art as something that is produced by the human mind that stirs an aesthetic response that may not be easy to convey with words. More broadly, I also think of art as being something which can exist as the natural state of the universe, such as a picture of a nebula.

If the Carina nebula doesn’t stir a sense of cosmic wonder and awe within your soul you may need a pair of glasses to see it better.

For me, it’s really difficult to really pin down what art is, much less what is good art. Iamus is, briefly, a machine that was designed to create full pieces of classical music without human intervention. The only way I can talk about Iamus’s music is subjectively, based on my own aesthetic sense. With that said, I’ll start by posting Iamus’s composition “Adsum” so that I can begin a critique of it.

The first thing I notice when the music starts to play is that I’m wondering, “Is the entire orchestra playing off key?” The entire piece sounds out of tune, and as a result, the effect of the otherwise brilliant technique by the orchestra is lost amongst the cacophonous mess of Adsum. Surely I do sense an underlying pattern and logic to the piece, but as it plays on to about the 3:20 mark it feels as if there is an increasingly random quality to it.

One of the pleasures of listening to Mozart or Beethoven is feeling emotions buried in the music, and with every note sharing in a sense of joy or loss or wonder. Adsum makes me feel many things and nothing all at once, as if my brain is trying to piece together different colored threads and force them into a coherent pattern where one does not exist.

If you, like me, get a headache from listening to that piece for too long you have my most sincere apologies.

So what is this weaver of discordant music, Iamus? According to wikipedia, Iamus is a “computer cluster (a half-cabinet encased in a custom shell) located at Universidad de Málaga…” that can “…create a full composition in different musical formats…”

This is the headache inducing musician.

The “Melomics” page at the Grupo de Estudios en Biomimética shines further light on the processes by which this computer creates music:

These innovative systems applies non-conventional evolutionary algorithms to composing songs without human intervention. The algorithm operates on data structures (functioning as genomes) which indirectly encode the melodies: each genome undergoes an artificial developmental process to generate the corresponding song.

While music is, at its basest form, mathematics, I think that the amelodic (to my ears) nature of Adsum belies this fact. I think that this speaks to the idea that music, in an aesthetic sense and not just a collection of mathematical variables, relies on more than just algorithms. There are, at least, two people involved in the creation of music: the musician and the listener. I don’t doubt that the music produced by Iamus is technically classical music in structure and execution, but when I listen to it I can’t relate it to any classical musician I have ever heard.

There are rumblings around the net (here, for instance) that Iamus may be the next Mozart. I do not share that sentiment. I think it may be a step on the evolutionary ladder toward machine intelligences that could produce music that doesn’t strain the ears, but Iamus itself seems unable, as of now, to do so. If Iamus is the forerunner to this technology, its name is especially prescient as in Greek mythology, Iamus was granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo. It is conceivable that modern composers may get a glimpse of what the musical future has to offer through Iamus, which could spark new creative flames within them.

But perhaps I’m thinking too narrowly. Maybe art demands that I broaden my scope and think beyond the not-so-dulcet tones of Adsum. The first production by Iamus was entitled “Hello World!” and is played with a clarinet, a violin, and a piano.

It’s not really that bad, but I still wouldn’t put it on par with a modern composer, and it suffers from the same lack of sense that I feel that Adsum has. But beyond that, what does “Hello World!” actually mean? When I first began programming, the first program that I coded was a basic “Hello World” design. It was object-oriented, so when I pushed a button on the “Form” a text box displayed the phrase “Hello World!”

In many ways, I think that we may be witnessing the birth of a complex process that will grow more sophisticated and produce music that may be more appealing. “Hello World!” was Iamus’s first loud declaration of being in this world, and though it might not create music which one like myself would call pleasing, it does create music. And in this sense, I think that not only is the music that Iamus creates art, but Iamus itself is art. I can conceive of Iamus itself as an instrument of music, and the notes in the score to be interpreted by the human playing it. As time goes on, and the software grows and evolves, the music has the potential to be truly groundbreaking and original.

Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll get a hologram version of Iamus who can sing “Rondine al Nido” with the best of them.

Ralph Williams, Shakespeare, and Turtles (That Go All the Way Down)

December 5, 2013 Leave a comment

My tenure at the University of Michigan as an English major wouldn’t have meant anything if I hadn’t taken a class by the brilliant Ralph Williams. Williams was the kind of professor that was able to touch you without any obvious effort; the kind of teacher who stays with you, even four years after you took his classes. The first time I met the man was at a small departmental reading of Paradise Lost. Compared to the students participating (including myself), Williams had this command of the text that hinted at oneness with it. Where I might trip on the cadence, Williams would read it masterfully. (This would also be the first time that I’d meet the other professor that shaped my experience, Eric S. Rabkin).

The easiest thing to remember about Williams was that he didn’t merely just recite the text in class and then orate on the themes or the tropes or the historical traditions; he would make the text come alive. It wasn’t just his voice, filled as it was with raw emotive power and a tremor that stressed the gravity of the text. It was his hands that enunciated and flew in every direction.

The things that are more difficult to remember, as if the memories must be guarded and accounted for every now and then like a buried treasure, are the ways that he was personal. The force of his personality was such that it overpowers the other things, and makes them, and by extension you, feel small. Every morning before class he would, of course, run up and down the aisles and shake people’s hands, count the people in the class, shout hellos and “caio!” as he stormed along. He was on a permanent caffeine high, or so it seemed, and his energy was infectious. I remember I had been sick for a few weeks with pneumonia during his English 401 “The Bible as Literature” class. When I finally returned to the class after the sickness had passed he stopped and looked me in the eyes with such intensity. I am a sinister person, as I joke, being left-hand dominant. The very nature of the academic auditorium compels me to sit at the left edge of a row to make use of the table fixture without contorting my body.

Says Williams, “I’ve missed you these past few weeks. The class was less without your presence.”

Says me, stunned, “Er, well, ah, thank you, professor. I’m happy to be back.”

Williams returned a smile that was genuine in every sense.

I’m sure he didn’t actually know who I was, but in a class that numbered no less than two hundred with several people in the community who were invited to attend, I was very touched. But that was Williams; it was his life to reach out to people and communicate the passion that literature stirred in him, and along the way make you feel like you fit into something great.

Before he’d begin the lecture, after his greetings and his traditional “Good morning [or afternoon], and a rich welcome to you. Are there any questions for me before we begin, for oh is the wind so ever up,” he’d announce what he called “rubrics” for each class. He’d list every major point he’d be discussing with us, and it wasn’t always obvious how they would connect to the literature (be it Beowulf or the Bible). The one that I remember, apart from the jokes about his essential Canadian character and how it made him bashful about discussing King David’s sex life, was the reference to Bertrand Russel’s recollection that entailed that the planet was supported on the back of a giant turtle, and that it was turtles “all the way down.” I’m rather ashamed to say that I can’t remember what this rubric connected to with regard to our reading of the book of Genesis, but what I do remember was the zeal with which he said it.

I never got the opportunity to take his Shakespeare class (instead taking Douglas Trevor’s class). The U of M Department of English has added a nine part series of lectures by Williams onto the U of M College of Literature Science and the Arts Youtube channel wherein he talks about Shakespeare.

In “Ralph Williams on Shakespeare, Part 1” Williams introduces the series and gives some background on the text of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the video is how he covers Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He gives two distinct readings of the monologue with different intonations that hint at the possible motivations Hamlet might have. This language, lack of stage direction opening Hamlet to multiple interpretations, and what Williams calls the “appalling honesty” of Shakespeare’s “moral imagination” create, as Williams explains, “the greatest drama in history.”

I encourage anyone interesting in Shakespeare to watch all nine parts. Even if you disagree with Williams (which I admit happens every now and then), he gives you many rich ideas to ponder as you read and reread the plays.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t plug the 2011 movie “Answer This!” which stars Ralph Williams playing himself (with a different name). There’s a great scene where he introduces the new students to his Bible as literature class which I had heard directly from him when I took it. The movie itself is pretty good, and can be found on Netflix.

Hypothetical Physics

December 4, 2013 Leave a comment

As a geek I’m naturally a huge fan of the xkcd webcomic. It’s a witty take on math and science and is generally accessible to people who are not experts in either field (I have a passing familiarity compared to the grand and complete wealth of the knowledge that exists).

I’ve been reading the “what if?” blog attached to the webcomic for a while now, and I figured I’d just go ahead and make a short post to share it. what if? is a fantastic take on hypothetical science questions ranging from how many data punch cards google’s datacenters would take to what would happen if you tried to fly a plan in different Solar System atmospheres.

One of my favorites is one about orbital speed. Randall Munroe somehow makes some of the dry topics of physics and makes them interesting and comical, not to mention easy to understand because he includes very cool graphics in his own unique art style. For instance:

Yay! Space!

It’s a good way for someone, like me, who loves science to get introduced to new ideas that they can learn about in more detail later.

The Republic of Thieves Review

December 2, 2013 Leave a comment

I was recently introduced to Scott Lynch‘s Gentleman Bastard series by Anastasia Klimchynskaya, my t’hy’la. I have a love/hate relationship with fantasy as a genre, in that I love the promise, but hate that few books actually meet their potential (notable exceptions include, but are not limited to, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe). For every book like The Hobbit there are ten books like Twilight.

I wasn’t immediately stricken by The Lies of Locke Lamora, but the story and Lynch’s writing style eventually grew on me. It was much easier to get into the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, partly because the characters, style, and setting were already developed. The third book in the series, The Republic of Thieves, presents a completely novel scenario for protagonist/thief Locke Lamora and stalwart companion Jean Tannen, and as thieves, their role as advisers for the “Deep Roots” party is a perfect fit for their talents.

In the third volume, we’re introduced to Sabetha Belacoros as an actual character, and I feel that she represents a strong female role model. She is, perhaps, cleverer than Locke and just as stubborn and unafraid. Most of the time she bests him in the battle of wits, and it seems to me that she has a firmer grip on her emotions and has more strength in this regard than does Locke. I like that she has the strength to make difficult decisions and be unapologetic for them. As the adviser for the Black Iris party she gives Locke more than a run for his money and it is genuinely touching to see them reconcile their feelings for each other with their assigned roles (which carry severe consequences should they not deliver). What Locke can actually hold over her is a kind of experience that he gained in the first two books that are unique to his particular narrative which I believe that Sabetha will eventually match.

I really liked how well-written the political aspects of Karthain’s Five-Year Game are written. Some of it was a heavy-handed commentary of the American political system (at least, that’s how I interpreted it). The Five-Year Game is what the Magi of Karthain call the election process of the ungifted, those that cannot use magic, to the Konseil of Karthain, the governmental body that serves as a facade for the purposes of the Magi.

Particularly pleasing was how well the flashbacks to the Gentleman Bastards of yesteryear fit into the events that were unfolding in the main narrative. It was also good to see the return of Calo and Galdo and get a fresh dose of their antics as the Asino brothers, even if it was bittersweet because of their ultimate fate.

One of the largest disappointments of The Republic of Thieves, however, was that the book was so focused on Locke and Sabetha that Jean was relegated to a minor role with little development. After Red Seas Under Red Skies, where Jean gets a lot of focus and development, I felt like one of the best characters in the series was robbed. I hope that he plays a larger role in The Thorn of Emerblain because there is a lot to like about his character, his intelligence and loyalty being two of the most important. Indeed, there was a lot of room in this book for Lynch to explore the consequences of the events surrounding Ezri in Red Seas Under Red Skies and their lasting effects on Jean.

With that said, the book has a lot to offer. The dialogue is as sharp and witty as ever, and the complex, winding relationship between Locke and Sabetha is laid as bare as it is going to get. The twist about Locke’s identity leaves a huge mystery for the reader to ponder, and the return of an old enemy from The Lies of Locke Lamora just makes you hunger for more. Plus, one of the most unreasonable and annoying aspects of the first two book, the magi, was explored and explained enough for the idea to finally work without feeling like there’s a huge deus ex machina hanging over the story.

The Republic of Thieves offers a very satisfying reading experience and some of the best worldbuilding since George R.R. Martin. While some mysteries brought up in the first two books are answered (some only partially), many more are raised in this book.

Final rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)

Doctor Who Awesomeness

December 1, 2013 Leave a comment

The last two days I’ve been convalescing from a nasty upper respiratory bug and have had an excess of time to waste. This will be a relatively short post so I can just, you know, geek out about the fantasy/sci-fi hybrid show Doctor Who. I haven’t done much to hide my love for the show, even if I haven’t necessarily talked that much about it. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to say about the show, as well as much to criticize (the role of women (or lack of role of women) in the story next to the Doctor is one such thing). With that said, I really enjoyed The Day of the Doctor.

Doctor Who is one of the rare things in my life I don’t want to think too deeply about. Maybe this is because I like how whimsical and funny it is, and I don’t want to complicate that with other concerns. I’m okay with that.

Anyway, I came across a couple of posters advertising the Christmas special and season eight with Peter Capaldi as the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor (well, really, thirteenth).

The BBC is evil. I will have feels.

The BBC is evil. I will have feels.

I’m going to be sad to see Matt Smith go, but I look forward to seeing what Peter Capaldi can bring to the role.

Before I go, I’d like to leave this entertaining video made by Peter Davidson called “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.” Enjoy (if you like Doctor Who you’ve probably already seen it–so–um–I guess that means that I’m behind).

The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot