Archive for October, 2012

Recorded bear attacks in Finnish history

October 30, 2012

Hamina, 1901

A hunting trip goes bad when drunken hunters celebrating a slain bear are surprised by its mate. Several are killed in the ensuing chaos, some by the bullets of their companions; and as the survivors flee, they draw the bear after them into the village.

The bear damages several buildings, mauls a dozen villagers, and invades the local church. The villagers are unwilling to confront the beast and set the building aflame, and an hour later witness a burning, screaming bear erupting through the steeple, dragging the church bells on its neck. Neither the bear nor the bells are ever seen again.

Local legends continue to tell that at times of great calamity the bells can be heard clanging in the woods, and were heard at the start of the World Wars and on the election of Tarja Halonen to the presidency; this is nothing but outrageous superstition and partisan political hatemongering.

Lapua, 1931

During the spring floods, the backward village of Lapua is cut off from the rest of the world. Telegraph lines remain standing for an additional week, and the villagers report several bears trapped on the same shrinking ersatz island. Towards the end of the third day the bears get restless, and the villagers, some three hundred in number, barricade themselves in the White Guard Hall.

The flood continues for a record-breaking twenty-one days, and when the waters recede and rescue teams enter, they find the village devastated: houses burnt down by lightning or malice, all the stones at the churchyard knocked down, half-eaten horses and dogs littering the streets, and the Guard Hall empty with all of the doors and windows broken.

There is no sign of the villagers or of the bears, though the latter are believed to have swam away as the waters receded.

A popular conspiracy theory states that the villagers fled the Hall and built a ship — but were turned back at bayonet-point by the local authorities who, because of anti-ursine prejudice, feared the sail was a co-venture and there were bears aboard. The ship, turning back, was then capsized and sunk by the storm; all humans aboard perished. This is some theory, given that no shipwreck was ever found on the drying fields, much less dead bodies or bayonets. Though the period was one of fierce anti-ursine discrimination, there is not a single confirmed case of a fatality resulting from real or perceived ursine rights activity and agitation in all of Finnish history, ever, and the URA&A-people who claim otherwise are engaging in nothing but deliberate perversion of history.

Finnish history has enough perversion in it already, without people adding deliberate lies into it.

Helsinki, 1951

During the preparations for the 1952 Olympics, a formerly protected wild animal forest passage is cut down; as a result the east-west passage of small animals is blocked, and bears are drawn into the area. After several fatalities the army organizes a walking rifle line to scare away the bears, but succeeds only in driving them towards the city center. Mounted riflemen pursue the bears, and take down the biggest one, four meters and over three metric tons, outside the Parliament.

The exact place the bear perished is marked with a brass plaque; the opposition parties have a habit of stopping there for impromptu press conferences, since the opposition is known as “the bear parliament”. (Even when the Bear Rights Alliance isn’t in the opp… wait, those deranged extremists are always in the opposition, with their “one claw for all” rhetoric and all. Why can’t they be sensible like the Agrarian Moose Union?)

Oulu, 1991

A great midnight bear is woken up in January by a construction crew, woken from a slumber of centuries probably. Over 2000 people are evacuated, over one-half of the city’s population.

Nature lovers stand up for the beast, but the beast is not willing to engage in constructive dialogue. The negotiations go bad before they even begin, and nineteen militia and nine nature advocates are killed. The bear then lunges into the audience, injuring seventy-one civilians and killing four.

Just as a catastrophe seems imminent, a brave biology professor dons a pelt and a pair of horns and engages in a ritual challenge display. The beast is momentarily confused, and when army sappers mine the ground it is standing on, the beast is finished.

Shortly afterwards, in a staggering display of bad taste, the University of Oulu’s student guild adopted a black crowned bear as its mascot. The League of Bear Victims sued, and after twelve years won the case, arguing that the mascot was a violation of non loquor de ursus.

Espoo, 2002

In 1999, while blowing the tunnel for the new westward metro, an explosion caves the tunnel floor into older, seemingly natural caverns below. By the best estimate the caves stretch for dozens of kilometers in every direction, including down, and have been blocked away from the ground for over seven hundred years. After initial panic of the usual “eyeless albino bears” sort a single spelunker is persuaded to investigate the caves, and she finds them empty and silent. The metro planners note one of the caverns is just wide enough and in the right direction, and use this unexpected windfall to save their project from fatal cost overruns.

Three years later (and only one year late) the new metro line opens, but the very first subway train to go in never comes out. A robotic rover sent to look for it records nothing but darkness and stone and the sounds of what might be regular, rhythmic wind. After three days the tunnel mouths are dynamited closed and the west metro is abandoned.

Shaving fetish booth

October 19, 2012

Came across the phrase “shaving fetish booth”. This was in relation to some adult entertainment expo somewhere.

I tried, with my considerable knowledge of fetishes and sciences, to imagine what this could be.

I

There’s the booth; most people walk past it, hurriedly, burdened with dildos and leaflets in transparent plastic bags.

The booth is bare, just a metal frame with white cloth walls; no table, no wares, no brochures. Just the mock-room and a white plastic sofa with three people on it.

Three people, all of them bare, nude in the most fundamental way; not a quarter-inch of hair on any of them. What’s worse, though they are supposed to be hot, they themselves are feeling mightily cold.

II

There’s the booth, surrounded by the buzz of a crowd and a shaving machine.

The barber knows his job, which is good, as the man whose chin he is shaving is trembling, a huge smile stretching his bristles into a jowly hellscape for the Gillette’s navigation.

To add to this complication, there is the lighting: there is too much of it, all the spotlights and the constant flash-flash of cameras; and the other assault on the senses, the noise, the aaahs and ooohs and how-many-blades-ya-reckons, the adoration of aficionados.

Through all this, the barber cuts like his tool, calm, unhurried, precise, and titillating.

III

I squat, and look.

“Like I said”, the girl says, “shaved.”

I look up at her face; she seems plenty bored. “Is that all?”

“That’s all.” She hands me a glossy four-by-six photograph, waving a pen. “It’s signed. And if you make the joke about the tattooed cat, I’ll kick you.”

“You haven’t”, I start, uncertain, “considered shaving more?”

“What more? You see any hair down there?”

“Like your head, maybe?”

She looks down at me, and brushes a strand of blond hair off her eyes. “Is that a thing?”

I shrug. “Probably is.”

“What do you call it, then? Bald-fancying?”

I shrug again. My calves are beginning to ache. “I guess, if you were fancying a guy. Probably BBC or something, like, ‘Big Bald Craniums’.”

“I think BBC is taken already. Wouldn’t want to confuse those two.”

“Good point.”

IV

“Shaving fetish, huh?”

“Sure thing, sir. Here’s a straight razor for the extreme S&M enthusiast. Vibrates randomly.”

“Wouldn’t you cut— oh, S&M.”

“I see sir is quick with the uptake. Might I interest sir in this special-made artisanal novelty electric razor sheath, fits most models—”

“Wait, why would you ever want to rub your face with a— um, I see.”

“And the power cord can be put inside these balls. And it comes in the equivalent female form as well, if sir prefers that; it will be inconspicuously labelled a ‘shaving kitty’ in the shipping, and for additional stealth will be hidden between two sheets of paper wrapped around a statuette of a cat, shaving.”

“Very clever. Because of the spouse?”

“Because of the children, sir. Think of the children.”

“In this place, I rather wouldn’t.”

“Sir is most wise. Would sir prefer to increase his wisdom with our instructive books and videos? Each comes with a pair of blank brown covers.”

“What’s this, ‘Pleasurable Burn: An Introduction to Whole-Body Shaving’?”

“Comes with a free extra-large can of shaving cream, and a package of band-aids.”

“And… ‘Shave the Whales’?”

“An amusing collection of over three hundred hilarious anecdotes for the discerning apogonophiliac.”

“A what now?”

“From the Greek word pogon, meaning a beard. With the meaning of, one who does not fancy beards; a shaving enthusiast.”

“Razor pervert?”

“If sir so insists.”

“And… ‘Male Pattern Hotness’? Oh I see, balding people.”

“Something of a borderline thing, I admit, but sir must admit the models are not unattractive.”

“Well, yes… but the lens flares are a bit too much.”

“Genre expectations, sir, genre expectations.”

Four horrible short stories about animals

October 10, 2012

I : IMPLIED HORROR

I woke up feeling like a cat had died in my mouth.

Then, finding the kibble tray untouched, I began to think about my sleepwalking issues.

*

II : SCIENCE!

Dear Munston county high school PTA, the expression “raining cats and dogs” is problematic. Dropping felines and canines on people is not the equivalent of rain, no matter how heavy. If anything, it is a hailstorm with padded hail.

Plus, dropping the said animals in sufficient density to simulate rainfall would mean a descending blanket of growling, yowling fur; and continued such rain would not sluice off, but rather gather in hissing and barking piles and drifts, more like snow than rain.

Thus — get your hands off me, I have science to report! I am the science teacher, you hired me to do this!

Look up, you fools! The ceiling is rigged — hamsters are the perfect size — look up! LET IT RAIN!

*

III : DIALECT

“I’m herding cats”, the old man said.

“Can I watch?” I said.

“I’m herding them pretty badly.”

“Oh?”

“Wid a club. Wid nails. An’ fire. An’ a dawg tied to it.”

“That can’t be a good way to do it.”

“Hey, what, watch it or ye’ll get herd yousself.”

*

IV : THE PURRING

I always knew we would be replaced by human-cat hybrids eventually.

I did not expect Johnny to come to work with a cat glued over each ear, though.

“Tinnitus”, he mumbled, his cat-framed face smiling.

A slight purr echoed off him, amplified by his empty cranial cavity no doubt; but it was less irritating than the air conditioning’s hum.

At lunchtime he got up quickly, muttering something about the toilet.

The next day he was more of a cyborg: both cats had thin, clear plastic tubes installed into their behinds, leading to what I suppose should be called a double feline colostomy bag on Johnny’s belt.

His lunchbox held three servings of kibble; his own seemed the saddest of the three.

With a shudder, I noticed his hair was braided into the cats’ fur; and when a shapely young lady walked past, two tails rose from behind his head, swaying like tentacles, framing themselves like horns.

The next day Johnny came to work looking like he had been in a fight, losing badly.

“What happened?” I asked. His face was a criss-cross of scratches.

“Cats don’t like to bathe”, he muttered, a cat staring angrily, unblinkingly, at me from both sides of his face.

“Mrowr”, the cat on the left said.

“And when they don’t purr, I feel sad.”

The rest of the day was uneventful, except when Liz dangled a cat toy over the partition wall, and the cats jerked forward, driving Johnny’s face into the partition’s rough linen-y embrace.

Thinking about that later, that seemed a bit off. The cats were tied to Johnny’s head; how could they cause such a movement? Was it mere imbalance on Johnny’s part?

The day after that, the cats seemed miffed.

“Aren’t you going to take your hat off?” I asked.

“It’s not a hat. It’s pants.”

“It’s on your head, isn’t it.”

“Johann downstairs told me I have to wear pants”, Johnny said.

I did not want to, but I looked at his crotch. He was wearing pants. And whatever that turbaney thing was, wrapping round his head so that only his face, and two cat-heads, peeked out.

“He was behind me in the cafeteria line. He does not appreciate feline genitalia at eye level.”

“Not many people do.”

At this, he gave me a weird look and went away.

His lunch was a tuna sandwich. As he ate it, the cats licked their lips. That was unnerving.

What was worse was when Liz sent Johnny a cat photo, one with some kind of a situation-appropriate, though I cannot say what that could be, caption.

Johnny looked at the picture on his monitor, really stared, a look of terrified horror coming over his face, sweat beading on his temples — I thought Liz had come up with a real winner of a caption — and then he bolted up and ran out, bent over, hands over his crotch.

A really good caption — but on my inspection, it wasn’t.

The cat in the picture was nice, though.

After work, I happened to walk out with Johnny, and out of the blue, he said: “I feel boundless contempt for all humanity.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. And dogs should be exterminated. And there should be mouse farms! And I want a cow in the next cubicle over, for milk!”

“You’re kind of creeping me out here, Johnny.”

“What? These are perfectly normal, natural urges!”

And he turned to stare at me, six eyes, four in cat faces and two in a human face, all in sync. The purring was suddenly deafening in the corridor’s silence, a vibration that made his eyeballs tremble.

The gaze of the cats remained steady, though. Unflinching. Unnerving.

Full of contempt for all humanity.

“Do you, er, do you ever take the cats off, Johnny?”

He recoiled like I had asked him to tear a hand off.

“How dare you say such a thing, human?” he shrieked — well, yowled, more like. The cats opened a pair of mouths of sharp teeth and hissed at me, their eyes malevolent and aware.

In a second he was on me, pushing me against the wall, face contorted in conflict, fingers at my throat, his nails digging at the back of my neck like claws.

I did the only thing I could think of: I flailed, reached out with my hands, grasped a half-full canister off his belt, and yanked on the tubes leading upwards from it as hard as I could.

Three pairs of eyes widened in shock, pain and a portion of indignant outrage; and his hands went slack for a moment.

In the moment, I pushed him back and swept the horrid cat-turban off his head. It hung over him for a second, like an octopus clinging to its prey — it screamed — I tore, tearing hair and cloth — and the thing hit the floor with a scream of such anger and despair as I’ve never heard.

Johnny tottered on his feet for a second, then fell down too, in a dead faint.

After my breath evened, I buttoned up my collar and called an ambulance. Some kind of an episode, I said. Probably overcome by stress. Acted a bit funny, then fainted.

Johnny got a week of sick leave, and then came back a bit more skittery than he had been; he had no memory of the cat time, none at all. Stress related, he told me; that was what the doctors had told him.

What happened to the cats, I’d rather not tell. I feel no remorse, though, for they were evil cats; and there is no human evil to compare to the cold malevolence which sits, purring, in the unspeaking, simmering hearts of the feline beast.

Still life, with a puzzle

October 7, 2012

Here’s my bicycle, pictured a few hours ago, at close to the end of a ride into the outskirts of the city. Guess how my ride ended?

Let me tell, then—

I did a loop towards the city, round the university, taking the third most optimal home-university route — as a mathematician, I need to know these things — and then headed towards a jogging path (the fourth most optimal route back). It was nice driving: 7 pm, full dark, no stars, half the leaves on the ground and the rest in the trees, the world painted in black and gold, the aftermath of a rainy day with no promise of renewed waterfall; some joggers, some cyclists, but few people overall, and no sound but the crunch of tyres.

So I zoom along the jogging path — a dirt track in the woods, occasionally running over roads, going parallel between the lake and that direction’s exit road out of the city — that’s not a hint for my city, because every Finnish city is on a lakeshore, or on the seashore if you count the Gulf of Finland etc. as seas — and I get to the point where I should turn right and head home.

Eh, I say to myself, this is not only fun, but also exercise. I’m not altogether sure of the topology if I go ahead; and so I do. The path weaves on, through the woods, with houses occasionally intruding closer. It becomes an asphalt path, crosses over two footbridges and under two roads, splits and merges (and I try to keep to the route that’s the obvious way to go no matter which way you’re going — and then it becomes a winding drag up a steep, unkemptly forested hill I’ve never known existed, and which apart from the path looks like it belongs in a Robert Holdstock novel — and wheezing, I stop the bicycle, take a few breaths, and take out my camera.

Because originally this outing was because I found my old Canon and decided to see if it still worked. So I snap a few pictures of the wilderness all around me, the tangled trees, the wet leaves, the darkness yawning and stretching behind every tree — and stop, naturally, for the minute it takes for a jogger to jog past, because otherwise things would have been just creepy — and then I turn back, thinking that it’s a few kilometers back, but the good thing with strange terrain is it looks all new when you go back, too.

Well, that’s the good and the bad thing about it… but I don’t get lost.

No, I get a few hundred meters back-wards and then turning the pedals seems to take a lot more power, and the back tyre says floppity-floppity, and after a few minutes of cursing and hitting it with the pump, it is obvious the back tyre has a hole in it.

And an hour later I kick up the stand under an overpass, take the picture above, and walk the bicycle the last half a kilometer to my porch. (So the answer to the riddle is: I got a puncture! Look at the back tyre! Look how the bottom part is flat under its weight! Just look at it.)

(For clarification: I don’t carry a tyre (tire?) repair kit with me, or even own one. I live in a city. It’s always — always — less fuss to walk the thing to my regular bike shop. This might be different if I was good with practical things, or a lot more stingy: but time and money are interchangeable, and I prefer to throw away money to keep from wasting time and fingers in gross mechanical tasks.)

Right idea, bad example

October 4, 2012

An article on the Atlantic about the Game of Thrones TV series and why it shouldn’t have been possible to make.

An interesting article, but it stumbles into the usual trap of “right idea, bad example”. Witness (numbers in brackets added):

Martin’s first two warnings were even more daunting: Game of Thrones was just too big and too complicated to work. [1] Every one of its numerous noble families has a unique totemic symbol and slogan. [2] It contains at least four functional religions, each of which has been explained in a considerable amount of detail. [3] It features a fictional language, created for the series, which has 14 different words for “horse.”

The first claim, “unique totemic symbol and slogan”, is true in the world of Westeros; but the books (so far) don’t actually give the symbols and the slogans for all of the noble families. The symbols and slogans that are relevant to any sane interpretation of the plot are still fewer — maybe Tully, Lannister, Stark, Targaryen. That’s four symbols, four slogans; five if you count “A Lannister always pays his debts”. (The actual Lannister slogan is “Love your family.”) The symbols and slogans of the other families aren’t particularly important. Still, we know dozens; a fair example, or as fair as any of these three will be.

The second claim, “at least four functional religions […] explained in a considerable amount of detail”, seems funky to me; but perhaps my personal definition of “considerable amount of detail” is wrong; I tend to think “enough detail” means the Dune Encyclopedia or the Rivan Codex. The one religion that readers have seen most of is the Faith of the Seven, the southern default of Westeros. The Wiki of Ice and Fire collects what we know about it: five pages, tops. (That is, five pages of A4 with very lax printer settings.) That’s the most fleshed out religion: the Red God R’hllor has half that, the Old Gods are a few lines on weirwood trees and godswoods; the rest you could fit on one sheet of paper.

I would argue that all of that detail of the Seven can be semi-trivially shown as background detail on TV. The High Septon is a kind of a Pope? The local speech has “septon” and “septa” for “priest” and “priestess”? There are seven faces of God? There are kind of monks, kind of paladins, kind of churches? All are familiar pieces, put together in ways which make them easy to show on the TV background. The viewer is not terribly misled (but not strictly speaking correct either) if she assumes this is all Christianity with surface differences. (If you dropped “septon” and “septa”, you could keep the whole religion in the background, and every viewer would understand it. As it is, I’m sure there are legions out there who think Septa Mordane’s first name is “Septa”. And more legions who’d say “Septa who what now?”)

Maybe there would be difficulties if the religious practices were alien and complex — ritual limb-removal, arcane conflicts of authority, hallucinatory prayer comas, Lemuralias with beans for the dead; but the Faith of the Seven is a background element, a kind of septenary Catholicism.

I’m not saying this as a negative thing, mind you. I’m not saying it would have been the right creative decision if George R. R. Martin had included multi-dozen-page appendices on the theology of the Crone and the Maidenian Heresy and the resulting Deballing of the Septons, or if he had introduced something so alien it took hundreds of pages to explain; I’m saying that the world of Ice and Fire has detail everywhere you look, but taking one (arguably not terribly plot-important) area of it and making a bold claim doesn’t do Martin’s work justice.

And I like the Drowned God and the Red God on the level of aesthetics; but it’s not true that they’re areas of difficult amounts or kinds of detail.

The third claim is that the Dothraki language has “14 different words for ‘horse'”. Which is not true of the books; the books have a few scattered phrases of Dothraki. The language sketched for the TV series (as the quote says) by David Peterson of the Language Creation Society, based on the scattered words and phrases in Martin’s work, has 14 words for ‘horse’ I suppose (and no words for snow?). This is true but irrelevant. Those fourteen words are not an example of a huge vocabulary of plot-relevant Dothraki (and thus a good example of the dangerous amount of detail), but a deliberately chosen and thus developed example of the equinocentrism of the horse-lord culture.

(The dictionary linked to above has (for a rough estimate) 1500 words in it; it’s impressive and because of a chronic case of Tolkienitis I’m a big fan of projects like this; but it’s not an example of impractical amounts of detail.)

And languages anyway are not that difficult for TV, from the strict production viewpoint: you can always use subtitles. (That can be a problem for the audience, but not for the production.) You can switch which language is represented by English, too; languages are not a good example of a problem in making TV because, again, the language is an ornament. It’s not plot-critical.

What would have been better examples — from my viewpoint as a loud-mouthed wonk fan-boy — would have been the number of characters and their complex relations; and the way the books withhold certain information, reveal it very subtly, let you believe lies for hundreds of pages, answer great mysteries a very long time after they’re raised, and throw gallons of hints and half-prophecies at you. (Then again, it’s not very interesting to say “And [NAME EXCISED], who’s killed at the start of the first book, we discover who killed him towards the end of the third book, maybe 2600 pages later, when much greater problems and mysteries have risen and made the answer to that simple mystery a truth without any profit”!)

Which, again, is not knocking the Song of Ice and Fire, but saying that examples like those in the Atlantic may astonish the ignorant, but they’re not true, or then irrelevant.

Likewise, I do occasionally drag out the desiccated corpse of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, and the note on page 362 that from this leaden symbol manipulation 1+1=2, a result of some utility, eventually follows — but I usually end up implying the wrong thing, that being that this is how mathematics is universally done; this is a good example of the kind of detail that all mathematics is done in. Of course not; the Principia was a very special kind of a project, a specific kind of madness even, and isn’t representative of mathematics as it is usually done. The usual kind of mathematics is less… and more. Less of such an exemplary spike of rare height, and more a great big field, hip-high in fertile soil as far as the eye can see.

So too with the Song of Ice and Fire.