Archive for May, 2013

Future events in the life of a graduate student

May 27, 2013

Future events, since the events of the past few weeks have been all about the future. I now know I’ll defend my dissertation in the middle of August; I know the opponent, and he’s a person I’ve made laugh a few times when we last met, so all should be good.

If all is not good, I’ll arrange for someone in the audience to make a diversion during which I’ll hide behind the projector screen. Then I’ll wait for everybody to leave, and try defending again next year. (What? That’s not how they do this at your university? What kind of silly people are you?)

Also — since the defence is only in August — a foul plan was hatched to get me something to do in the meanwhile; and so after this week and next week I’ll climb into a plane and spend a week in China, in a mathematics conference.

As a result, I haven’t had time to worry about the thesis for a few weeks.

I’ve been so busy doing practical arrangements I haven’t even had time to worry about the trip itself. Like the probability of not having a common language with anybody, like the red-faced policeman waving a headless chicken at me two weeks from now. (Sorry; I have a very bizarre and pessimistic imagination.) I share my office with a Chinese graduate student; when I told him about my trip he shrugged and said he speaks a different Chinese language than the people I’m going to meet; so, nobody can help you, goodbye.

Getting to China means three different flights, the middle one of which is nine or ten hours. Fortunately I’m very zen about flying: I watch a lot of Air Crash Investigations and Seconds from Disaster, so if a familiar scenario occurs and the plane corkscrews downwards, breathing masks dropping out of the ceiling, I’ll shout “This is just like what I saw on tee vee!” — and so distract everyone from their impending doom, which is the best thing to do in those circumstances.

Or, if someone screams the worn words “We’re all going to die!”, I suppose I’ll have to turn, point and yell: “Actually, you’re going to stay alive!” — life is much too precious to be ended accepting stupid platitudes.

Seriously, I’ve decided a long time ago that if I die in a horrible accident, I’m going to do that bellowing a joke much more horrible than the accident could ever be. My aim is that at least one of the people present should think, “God, I’d just die if I said that” — which, in my case, would be the case.

I’ve bought power adapters already, and started thinking about washing my hands constantly, am going to exchange money just as soon as I suss out what to; am currently fighting a little voice that says this is the perfect excuse to buy a tiny laptop or a second tablet. I’m preparing for all kinds of diseases — do you know they actually give you your cholera inoculation in a bottle and say, “Hey, drink that on your own”? So now I have a bottle of cholera in my fridge and a glass I don’t know I can ever drink from again — and am waiting for a visa, insert a few paragraphs of generic praise for the glorious People’s Republic of China here in case they find this, and am cursing how going to a mathematics conference, which should be all about ivory-tower symbol-crunching, is such a damned practical business.

Why can’t I just be locked into an white bubble and carted from university to university without all this… practical stuff?

Voice recognition

May 25, 2013

Installed Google Keep, Google’s note-taking application, on my tablet. Mostly because I grew pissed at my inability to choose between the other products at the Android store. (Having, before this, grown pissed of Samsung’s own note taking app, which is sufficient for my uses except for how it sets a maximum on the length of your notes and the total number of notes you can keep. As far as I can see, not because there’s no more space; just because the app’s designed that way. Tablets are computers designed to not be used too hard, grrr.)

Noticed that Keep could take voice-notes. Thought to try this, grabbed a book off my desk, and intoned:

Daniel Dennett the most crooked think of something Boulevard a penis look for East famous for changing an accident on the door please books include gravestones bring children into room go to explain it going stranger 30th and feed them both he lives in North Andover Massachusetts

Er, that’s what my Finnish accent and voice recognition software do. Also possibly a pitch for a horror novel. I meant to say this, off the back flap of Intuition Pumps:

Daniel Dennett is one of the most original and provocative thinkers in the world. A brilliant polemicist and philosopher, he is famous for challenging unexamined orthodoxies. His books include Brainstorms, Brainchildren, Elbow Room, Consciousness Explained, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Freedom Evolves. He lives in North Andover, Massachusetts.

What Google’s voice software is doing here is very clever. I don’t think I can pronounce Massachusetts the right way; but it’s probably so alone in the landscape of existing words that it’s easy to pick up. North Andover? That’s not lonely; but Google no doubt has an algorithm for scanning “blurble blurble Massachusetts” for Massachusetts places that sound something like “blurble blurble”. (And since North Andover was capitalized, it was specifically recognized as a place name!) The same for Daniel Dennett; Google’s not depending just on what I say, but also on what it knows about words.

The next step would be Google assuming you might be saying something that’s already written, and searching the whole Internet for matches; then it could find a copy of that bio and recognize it near-perfectly, punctuation and all. (Perfectly except for where I dropped a word or said one so badly Google thought I was remixing things.)

Well, the next step unless this would lead to Google overassuming, and cribbing some online BDSM fiction instead of what I was saying.

Even if I wasn’t reading off a book flap, there might be sentences that are often used (well, none in that example) and thus easy to recognize; Google’s sitting on the biggest cache of language usage in the world. (Wait, some of the sentences in my sample are easy to recognize: the list of book names isn’t a likely stream of sounds, yet it’s very likely to match at multiple points a list that’s floating in many places online, close to recognized phrases “Daniel Dennett” and “North Andover Massachusetts”. Then you look at the uncertain matches, see they could be the other book names — and bam!)

*

Before this try, tried something freeform on testing the thing and not feeling optimistic. Google Keep recognized the words “Google” and “fucking” and bleeped one of them. Oh well.

*

Now, some more names.

baby you didn’t check the script for pictures from Harry’s be to Myers much you

Er, no. I meant —

Denny’s didn’t Richard Lucas Christopher Hitchens send Harry’s Myers my room temperature

Ah, crap.

Denny’s didn’t Richard Dawkins Christopher Hitchens sam Harris be checked Myers Malayalam not much you

Close enough. Tried to say this random but directed list of names:

Daniel Dennett Richard Dawkins Christopher Hitchens Sam Harris PZ Myers Maryam Namazie

Clearly me and Google still have ways to go.

The Divinity of Dogs

May 24, 2013

Another book title I saw, and then thought of a different use for.

*

We should have known. It was in the word, even. Not in every language, but then again they don’t speak English in cat-haunted Egypt, or in the land of frogs. But in English, if you spell “dog” backwards you get “god”.

Oliver was a good dog, as we judged him. (Who is man to judge a dog, I know; but this was in a different time.) Ate what we gave him, ate no shoes, chased no cars or cats; did not slobber overmuch; did not cause trouble.

Not until I threw a ball one day, August 16th, 2013, and instead of fetching he levitated six feet off the ground, turned so his belly was towards me and his old-dog eyes looked down at me down his muzzle, calm and full of understanding.

“O— oliver?” I gasped.

“I AM HE”, Oliver said. His voice was all silver ringing bells and ocean waves and blocks of Carrara marble; it’s difficult to describe. He was… imagine a dog with its head out of the window of a moving car. Hair rippling, flews flapping, its expression full of wordless satori.

Now imagine the whole dog flapping and streamlining like that, except there’s no wind, and the wind comes from all directions at once.

Oliver’s eyes were the eyes of no other living thing. They crawled with knowledge no words could contain.

My dog had gone apophatic as fuck.

“You have treated me well”, Oliver thundered; gentle, irresistible, much larger than me. “For that I place my mark on you.”

Golden light came from him, and washed over me.

Then he was gone, upwards, in a silver bolt of light. I could see other such pillars, upwards lightning, in many colors. Red from the direction of the Johnsons’, whose dog Wetnose had been reddish brown. Black from the Svenssons’, whose dog had been Ol’ Dumbface, a black German shepherd.

From the direction of the Brauns’ house — they hadn’t been good to their dog, Fluffy — a voice like an angry god, for that it was: “BAD HUMAN! ROLL OVER! PLAY DEAD! BEG!” — their dog was really rubbing their nose in it.

I wobbled inside, where the sun of my life saw the golden halo around me, and asked: “Darling, did the dog—”

“The dog”, I interrupted, then hesitated. Then said the only words I could, and then dissolved into laughter and tears. “Who’s a god dog? Oliver’s a god dog…”

*

If you ask me, you shouldn’t title a book “The Divinity of Dogs” unless it reifies the title something like this.

The Dog with the Old Soul, take two

May 20, 2013

See the previous post for context: you sees a book title, you gets a idea what it could be but isn’t.

This wouldn’t be a story of “the love, hope and joy animals bring into our lives”.

*

“Ph’nglui mglw’nath Cthulhu right now”, my dog said, its eyes popping, revealing expanding blood-red spirals beyond, crimson searchlights that, in defiance to all dog geometry, yawned wide enough to swallow me whole.

I fell off my chair, backwards, away from the dog.

The dog rose up on its hind-feet, forefeet spread apart like hands. Smoking blood poured out of its mouth, hitting the concrete floor with hisses, eating holes into it; holes up from which shone a flickering yellow light, and echoed an unvarying electric scream.

“The end is nigh”, my dog said, spraying smoking blood all over itself and me as it spoke. The blood burned like acid. It made the dog’s fur wilt and slough off its thin frame; what this revealed was not a dog.

“Ia!” my ex-dog said. “Ia! Nyarlathotep! The end is here!”

The Dog with the Old Soul

May 20, 2013

There’s a book called The Dog with the Old Soul, by Jennifer Basye Sander, subtitled “True stories of the love, hope and joy animals bring to our lives”. It’s also translated into Finnish with the same title, which is why I’ve seen it twice in my generic general store, and both times been struck by the same thought.

Namely, “That book is not in a genre that interests me; but it would be a good name for a book in a genre that does.”

That is, weird.

*

The beagle looked at me, sad in the way that only droopy-eared, long-faced beagles know.

Then it said, “That is how I died.”

I put the rope down and looked at the dog. Then at the rope, the unfinished noose. Then back at the dog.

“I hanged myself in 1294”, the dog said, its mouth hanging open, this hollow, uncanine whisper emanating from its mouth. “Before the mob came for me.”

“Dear God”, I swore, “so I’m not only suicidal, I’m having food poisoning hallucinations too?”

The dog shook its head; its ears flopped heavily from side to side like furry church bells ringing someone’s death. “They used to say I was a demon. It is not better to be bad hamburger, John.”

I sat down, avoiding looking at the dog the best I could. That left the rope, which wasn’t better, and the walls, which weren’t much to look at. The car — the less said about the car, the better. “My dog is possessed?” I wondered aloud.

“No”, the dog said dolefully. “This is just reincarnation. But only the wizards talk. I met a wizard in a pigeon, once.”

My eyes turned at the dog; it was staring at me. I stared at it.

“He had the most terrible headaches.”

I swept fingers through my hair, absently noticing the terrific amounts of sweat there. “I really should call an ambulance right now.”

“Usually”, the dog said, with pity in its eyes, “that’s done after the hanging.”

It lowered its eyes. “Not that it helps any, then.”

There was a knock at the door. “Honey! Five minutes!”

I looked at the dog, not quite finding anything to say.

“Wuff”, the dog said.

“What’re you doing there anyway?” came the voice through the door. “Something wrong with the car?”

The dog stared at me, tongue lolling out, eyes friendly and empty. It panted a bit, then began scratching an ear.

I cleared my throat, raised my voice. “Just playing with the dog, dear! I’m coming!”

I got up, the rope in one hand, went in a careful half-circle around the dog, unravelling the knot, and dropped the now un-noosed line in a bin by the door.

As the door shut after me, I thought I heard a hollow, uncanine whisper: “Not even a thank-you. I don’t know why I bother.”

Etymology! Fun!

May 17, 2013

And now, lessons in potentially highly confusing etymology!

Observe the Finnish word “salivaraus”. It is something that a university lecturer might mutter needs to be taken care of; or that she might wonder about (“there’s been problems with that lately”) as she’s heading out to lecture.

Now, you might think this is a word of German origins. “Raus” means away, off or out of — as in the Rammstein song title “Rein Raus” or “In, Out”, which is about rhythmic motion of that sort — and “saliva” might have the same meaning as in English. “Salivaraus” might be a weird local word for getting the phlegm out of your cheeks before going out and talking for a couple of hours.

Sadly, no.

The word breaks down as sali-varaus. “Sali” is a slightly pompous word for a lecture room; outside university circles it would be a hall as in a dance hall, the halls of a king’s castle, a high ceiling and a high possibility of fluted columns and then like; like “Saal”, the German word of same meaning. “Varaus” means a reservation, as with hotels, restaurants and the like; from the verb “varata”, to reserve.

Thus, a “salivaraus” is a room reservation for a lecture or some other teaching incident; which lecturers need to do a little practical running with, and wonder if this is the week the university’s computer systems reserve Closet 12 for everybody.

*

Note 1: For some reason I keep writing etymology as etymnology, feeling dubious, checking — as in, google the word and see if the top hits are literate or illiterate — and swearing.

Note 2: What about the word for a university? That’s “yliopisto”, as in “yli-” something that is higher, above or supreme (“Ukko Ylijumala” or Ukko the Over-God of Old Finns, a sort of a less priapic Zeus), and “opisto” a school — though I think “opisto” is only used in this word and then alone in the titles of small religious or political adult education academies. The mainstream word for a school is “koulu”, which sounds unrelated to everything, but is from Swedish “skola” and ultimately Greek “skhole”, whose descendants went “school” in other parts of the world. If you tried to put an S in front of the Finnish word, you would just get directed to the speech therapist.

Note 3: And since these are the sort of things I worry about — a (Ph. D.) dissertation is a “väitöskirja”; that should have umlauts over the first a and o. That is “väitös”, a claim or assertion, an understandable word though one that reeks of philosophy and hard-core logic, and “kirja”, the most common and basic word for a book. So your dissertation is literally an “assertion-book”; the assertion probably is that you know things now. Since graduate school is half impostor syndrome and half Dunning-Kruger syndrome, I think that’s very funny.

Note 4: What syndrome is it when you can’t remember if it’s impostor syndrome or imposter syndrome? And since it’s the former, is imposter syndrome something Internet-related? Well, now it is —

*

Imposter syndrome (note the “e”) : The result of bloggers blogging what they wanna blog; a growing distance between who the poster is, how she/he is doing and what he/she knows on one hand, and what it posts on the other hand. For example, a Finnish graduate student of mathematics might appear witty by only posting on his blog those utterances that successfully lean in that direction; the non-showing of the huge basket of function theory exposition thru dick jokes means readers think he is a better person than he is.

(The worst part is WordPress keeps all your old drafts. I don’t want to go and see what I was trying to pull off in 2007. Which means that’ll probably be the next post.)

*

Edit: When I post a post on WordPress, it whines that I should add tags to it, and suggests a few. For this post, these: videogames, gaming, science, literature, aviation, transportation.

Try harder, WordPress.

How my mind works

May 3, 2013

So I go to Boing Boing and see a picture from Reddit: a kid has invented a device for not dropping your books in the bathtub. (I’ve invented one too: it’s called not reading books in the bath — but I digress.) The device is a suction cup high on the bathroom wall, a self-retracting dog leash on it, and the book on the end of the leash, near water level.

Now.

My first thought, seeing this contraption, was: “That clip can’t possibly hold a book. It’ll tear it. And you need to joggle and shift the book; it’s come undone and the book’s done then, the leash’ll whip up and take your nose off.”

My second thought was: “Wait, no. Your grip weakens for a moment, and the leash whips the book from your hands. The book ascends, boinks against the case of the leash, and detaches from the clip. The impact breaks the suction cup from the wall as well. The book falls into the bath, which you won’t be concentrating on as the leash-cup combination crashes on your head, and you drown in the tub.”

My third thought was: “It’s stupid to put a book on the end of that leash. Why not a cat? It’s much more fun to play with a cat that dangles inches above water — wait, no, I mistook ‘yowling ball of clawing pain’ for ‘fun’. This is a blind spot I really should try to get rid of.”

My fourth thought was: “Is it because I’ve never had a bath… er, wait, a bath-tub… that the idea of reading a book in the tub seems so bizarre and sacrilegious to me? Or is it because I’m the sort of a person that gasps in shock if I knock a book on the floor?”

My fifth thought was: “Wait, I’m a retracting-dog-leash ignoramus as well; never had dogs; never cared much for dogs. Maybe I’m overestimating the pull such a device has. But wait, are there leashes with different, er, levels of pull? If not, wouldn’t chihuahuas spend all their time dangling from the leash handle? And with big dogs, and strong-springed leashes, wouldn’t it be you that gets yoinked to the dog? Wait, no, maybe the mechanism is not intended for dog-yoinking.”

My sixth thought was of a female voice calling: “Honey, have you seen Jimbo’s leash? And the suction cup I bought for the fridge?”, and a male voice answering from the direction of the bathroom-toilet: “I’m using them right now, dear. Come and see, it’s clever and not a sex thing.”

My seventh thought was: “My, I’m having a lot of thoughts today.”