Archive for July, 2013

A cat fantasy

July 30, 2013

Went to John Scalzi’s blog — famous blogger and sci-fi author; bacon hub of the universe — and saw he was looking for a new caretaker for his mother-in-law’s cat.

Said, “Great! Inspiration!”

*

“Look what’s on eBay. ‘JOHN SCALZI (WHATEVER)’S MOTHER IN LAWS CAT!!!’, for sale.”

“That’s strange.”

“I know! Like who would want to—”

“I mean, only 300 bucks? Is it fake?”

“Uh, there’s… there’s a picture of… right, someone holding the cat in one hand and, in the other… ugh, a black-and-white photo, taken with the biggest, blurriest scope the DEA ever had… a picture of Scalzi handing the cat to this creeper, it says it is. So it’s a John Scalzi-handled cat if nothing else.”

“That’s cheap! Let me sign in—”

“Wait. It’s not the whole cat.”

“Wait, what? This better not be what—”

“See? ‘This auction includes a signed print of the confirmation diptych and a tuft of authentic John Scalzi cat fur tied with an authentic wire from John Scalzi’s car.’ And there’s a dozen of these auctions! Poor bald cat.”

“Wait, signed by whom? Scalzi or this creep?”

“I would reckon… oh hey, Twitter. Scalzi is having car problems.”

“Must be those wires.”

“Right.”

World War Ah Fuck

July 23, 2013

You can see the problem straight from the name of the movie. “World War Z”.

The historical world wars, one and two, were big, epic things. To make a movie of one of them by gluing a camera to the ass of one man would be silly; it would be a Forrest Gump-like comedy, an unrealistic lark, with our protagonist showing up wherever things happen whether he wants it or not. If you then have a bigger cataclysm than either of these two wars, and title it in such sweeping fashion, there’s some expectation that you are going to do justice to the scale and complexity of the conflict.

Or, you know, just glue a camera to a guy’s ass and see what happens.

Max Brooks’s book, almost incidentally also called World War Z, gets this. It doesn’t have a protagonist; it has a narrator. The narrator is the least important figure in the story, though the frame story is his. What he did during the war isn’t important, because he did nothing important. His importance is in finding the people who have stories to tell, because no one single person can tell the whole. The broken people that our narrator interviews after the zombie war have their own stories, and together they make up a story of not just humans, but humanity. Instead of war stories, the story of a war: World War Z. That the individual stories are disjointed, separated from each other, just emphasizes the chaos and the terrible extent of the war.

In the movie, the chaos of the conflict is represented by gluing the camera to a pogo stick and turning the lights off. A daring audiovisual storytelling decision, that.

The movie has no narrator, but a protagonist — the few times the protagonist tries to narrate things, he’s capable of nothing more except generic platitudes that could work just as well for a diet as for a zombie apocalypse. See the last minutes of the movie.

Also, in the book the conflict is world-wide: a world war. Through the stories we see the lives of people, as they were and as they became, in Mississippi, China, Russia, South Africa, lots of other places which aren’t named AMERICA! and in which no conspicuous Americans cavort around, stealing the spotlight and the importance of the stories told.

In the movie, we see: New York, in AMERICA! An American base in Korea — we briefly see a native; just briefly, don’t worry. Jerusalem — don’t worry, our protagonist is American and, unlike in the book, we won’t say anything about the Palestinians, rah rah Israel! — and then Wales, which is almost like America, don’t you worry, o, you skittish viewer. You don’t have to struggle over feeling sympathy for people who don’t look like you. Drool into your popcorn and watch the untouchable protagonist running around.

Let’s just take one character from the movie: Tomas. The little kid from New Jersey. He is barricaded in with his family when the protagonist crashes in with his. Shortly after the protagonists leave, the zombies barge in. The whole family except for Tomas is killed, then resurrected; he’s chased up to the roof and to the protagonist’s rescue helicopter by his father, mother and sister who are now monsters that want to kill and eat him. For the resulting trauma and shock we get… a five-second clip of the protagonist telling Tomas to man up and look after his womanfolk. Because your father chasing you with fangs and claws and staring eyes, hey, who wants to see a boy dealing with that. In the book we would have gotten the equivalent of five minutes with Tomas; in the movie we get nothing, because the protagonist’s sickeningly ideal and lily-white family take up all the screentime. Because hey, they lost a stuffed animal or some such great trauma.

In the book, the zombies are slow. You can run away from them; the problem is, where do you run? They are like death and taxes: running is a temporary solution at best. The problem is that the whole world is collapsing, with all the attendant problems and human insanities; one of the main threads of the book is that once miracle cures and utopian refuges don’t appear, one has to stop running, take a shovel, and start bashing zombies in the head. Then, after a few years, those that remain can win a vigilant peace until Zed War Two.

Possibly this is too grim for the idiots who write movies. Or they couldn’t find a way for Brad Pitt to take up a shovel all over the world and hit the zombies with it for five years. (One could trace most of the failures of the movie to this: it has a protagonist, not a narrator. Then you insert a family, jettison some original pieces, insert protagonist heroics, jettison a few more pieces, insert running and screaming, do away with flashbacks, insert some concrete victory the protagonist can find, jettison — and in the end, nothing of the original is left.)

In the book, the zombies are slow; the book’s menace is not that the zombies jump you, but that they corner you. In the movie? The movie starts with the protagonist’s family having a saccharine breakfast in a peaceful world. By lunchtime they’re facing gunfire and rapists at the local mall. It’s not just the zombies that are quick; everything is quick almost to the point of comedy.

During the finale, our protagonist injects himself with a vial of random disease — because the stupid magic bullet here is that the zombies don’t eat the terminally sick. They taste funny or something. Then he waits fifteen minutes and, hooray, the zombies don’t touch him! I am not a biologist, but I am pretty sure diseases don’t work that way. Even if you inject yourself with smallpox, it’s not as if a giant placard of “SICK! AND INEDIBLE!” immediately appears over your head. Surely this should take days, weeks even.

But hey, it’s not like the book is some practicality-attendant thing with a perfectly deadpan serious in-world companion volume called the Zombie Survival Guide. Moving along!

In another development, our protagonist has a family. They’re saccharine non-persons; uninteresting blobs of female baggage. They take the space of a story, but theirs is a story where nothing interesting happens. Nothing would have been lost if they had been eaten during the first ten minutes; indeed it would have made the movie better. At least then our protagonist wouldn’t have left on a world-having mission with no way to contact the UN… but with a phone to contact his wife with.

This could have been framed as the wife’s job being to look after the phone, and alert the UN people when it rang; but I’m not sure if there was any such agreement. (Related: the book makes a big deal of making difficult, cruel, questionable decisions for survival. The movie has the UN people being callous dicks towards the unerring protagonist’s saintly family, for no good reason. Different strokes, I guess!)

Also, the UN apparently didn’t give him any papers or identification, as in Wales the locals didn’t know who he was; in the world of this movie it’s much better to hope you have a phone you can use to get in contact with someone who says he’s the vice something of the UN. You know, credentials! If he had encountered a passport check, why, he would just have handed the magic phone to the inspector. Which is how this UN does things; one wonders how the managed to commandeer a US aircraft carrier to be their home base.

Also: our protagonist, Gerry Lane, sleeps for three days in Wales. When he wakes up, the locals are insistent on knowing who the hell he is. In the three days they apparently did not: (a) find any papers on him, (b) try the exotic satellite phone he had, or (c) ask the woman he came in with. Because, hey, women, what do they know.

And the zombies: well, after one bites you, you have (for one strain) twelve seconds and then you are a zombie too. (For the Korean strain, ten minutes — for the Jerusalem strain, well, our protagonist assumes twelve seconds, but how does he know? What fun it would have been if he had been wrong, and five minutes later… chomp! Israeli lady teeth on you neck, Lane!) These zombies are not death or taxes; they’re more a tsunami of flesh. Which is showy; but has nothing to do with the book.

The book has a lot of interesting set pieces; the movie has none of those.

None.

No Paul Redeker, no downed plane, no Japan, no China, no Tibet, Russia or India; the movie starts after the first stories and ends before the stories of the reclamation.  I can’t recall any extended scene that was from the book. (The movie has Israel walled in, but unlike in the book, the wall doesn’t held. Probably too few Americans holding it.) The makers could just have changed the title and Gerry Lane’s name and Max Brooks couldn’t even have sued them for stealing his ideas.

(I hope Brooks got lots of money for the movie rights; he sure as heck didn’t get a faithful or even a particularly good movie. Hopefully the money buys time to write something big and tasty again, and not just such zombie marginalia as he’s done since the book.)

(Apparently J. Michael Straczynski, a god among men for the creation of Babylon 5, wrote the first iteration of the script. It took place after the war, like the book, and was apparently very good. What went wrong after that I don’t know, but it went wrong repeatedly and with great force to the forehead, and in the end this genius stroke of a movie crawled out.)

After the griping, the good parts of the movie. One, there was a really chilling line about North Korea and teeth. That’s pretty much it; otherwise this was a generic high-budget zombie runner-screamer-shooter with the name of an unrelated, unique and great book.

Dear newborn Brit royal,

July 23, 2013

It sucks to be you.

You have been born into a combination of a glass house and a monkey house. You will never have a life like you want. Not a carefree childhood; certainly not a carefree adolescence. All your mistakes will be scandals. (How many people need to keep themselves in their pants because they fear being featured in the evening news?)

You won’t ever be alone: there will be people who’ll take pictures of you for money; the less you want yourself pictured, the more insistent they’ll be. There will be people who have known for decades (or centuries?) what school you’ll go to, what bland and inert statements you’ll make on certain important days, and what careers and other pursuits are acceptable for you. (Probably something military; it’s how your family got into their present bind.) As a small compensation, you can choose any charity you want; all that is required of you is a few pictures of you, and a few bland speeches. And as for mealy-mouthiness, well, you can season that with as much patriotic rah-rah and thick gravitas as you want! As for actual content — sorry, you are supposed to have gravitas, not power. Yours is not a job, but a cruel and unusual life sentence.

This all is because a long time ago your ancestors thought themselves special, and set themselves apart from the common people. As a punishment, their descendants — you included — now serve a life in a distributed-jailer prison. This is a modern invention: a prison without actual walls or cells, but with a whole island of jailers, glaring at you through glassy eyes and glass eyes wherever you go, eternally powerless and set apart. Eventually you will put up the walls and cells yourself; I hear some of the old ones, repurposed from the castles of long-dead tyrants, are quite posh. Not that poshness is a good substitute for freedom, of course.

Most of the people who love you will not love you, but some abstract image of you. The same is true of those who will hate you. Most of the words said at you, or by you, will be so polite you won’t ever know if there’s any content or truth in them. No matter; the words will not convey anything of power or importance, because that’s not your family’s job anymore. It’s your job to be a walking, talking annex to Madame Tussaud’s, and any parts not present in the actual exhibits aren’t required for your job either. The something more you could be is not allowed for you.

I don’t really know what advice to give you for getting out of your peculiar bind — but I would meekly suggest nurturing a deep hatred of the insane system that spawned you, and running away as soon as you can. There are cabins in the backwoods of Finland where no paparazzi has ever been. I can scare up a false moustache and a floppy hat on command.

Don’t let the crown get you, boy!

PS. Don’t show this to Kate and William. They couldn’t say they could understand.

Edit. Charles Stross said what I said, except better. Curse those people who are, like, professional writers and actual subjects of the Windsorian hereditary neuter-dictators!

How improve a sauna with technology

July 18, 2013

You could install a heat sensor in the stove, and a pipe above it: whenever the temperature was something, water would come out of the pipe. With enough data on the properties of the stove and its stones, you could have absolute temperature and humidity control!

(Wait, no, doesn’t sound good. Not many maniacs or supervillains have gone for absolute temperature and humidity control!)

Better still, you could install a microphone and program a computer to do speech recognition. Pick ten random words, and shoot water on the stove when one is said. Then choose a new random word for that spot.

And if there is a minute of silence, water!

And always water for “Aaah!” and “Hot!” and “Stahp!”

Come to think of it, this is almost a sport already.

Or, since a sauna stove takes hours to warm up with the traditional wood-burning, you could replace the burner with an afterburner — with a whole jet engine. I’m sure you can find them for cheap somewhere. Just don’t keep it on for too long or the stove melts.

And be sure to make sure your stove is well attached to the floor. Otherwise seven miles away your neighbor is going to have a nasty surprise.

“Hallo? Police? Some… somebody just threw a sauna stove through my window. My second-floor window. No, officer, I haven’t been drinking—”

Also, make sure the floor is attached to the ground.

“Hallo? Police? I wish to report what I think was an aircraft accident. Apparently it hit a sauna up there at seven miles, and— Hallo? I have the thing on my patio, officer, ceiling beams and all!”

(This has been another proud production of me, dad, sauna and too much imagination.)

Man of Steel

July 16, 2013

Saw The Man of Steel. Found it illogical, sappy, and very pretty; pretty much what certain men want.

I could make a thousand misinterpretations of the movie, but that would require seeing it again. Here’s just one.

(One note: So the Star Trek movie had to include “Khaa—an!” even if it just deepened the feeling this was a parody of a Trek film and not an actual Trek film; but this movie couldn’t find a spot for “Kneel before Zod!” — I am disappointed, Hollywood.)

*

Man of Steel is a movie about Kal-El/Clark Kent, an alien in human society, and his struggle against the wounds inflicted on his psyche by his two fathers.

One, Jor-El, was an alien ideologue and agitator — whose image is softened by us seeing him only through his own proclamations. Sure, without his opponents even Rush Limbaugh might sound like the voice of benevolent reason, and his enemies a pack of shrill shrews. Maybe his audience with the rulers of the planet was like Orly Taitz’s fifteen minutes of fame?

And Jor-El the scientist — an off-hand remark tells us he’s an engineer of spaceships, which explains his fixation on living space in outer space, and makes us doubt his diagnosis of the planet’s geological problems. Maybe his doomsaying was meritless, and the deadly problems really began with the Zodite rebellion? One doesn’t hear much about hollow-mined planets, but military doomsday weapons run amok are a common worry.

Jor-El believed that things used to be better; that technology had eaten the soul of his people; that the rulers were obstinate and foolish in disregarding his warnings; that the looming disaster facing the planet could be conquered by grit, painful childbirth, and returning to the old ways of expansionistic empire. (Okay, no need to rush quite this far…)

Jor-El was quick to say the current system was monstrous, assigning every child an occupation at birth, and his alternative was FREEDOM! — well, what words to better make Kal-El, grown up in the odd world of Am-Erika, agree with him? Maybe Zod was a typical case, a man happy with his assigned lot, and grief-mad when made incapable of executing it. Maybe Jor-El — of the scientist caste or the leader caste? — was the one-in-a-million aberration of an otherwise working system, strange and uncomfortable as it may seem to us, who aren’t told its nuances and numbers.

He sent his son, Kal-El, to the planet of the Hu-Mans. Kal-El could pass for a human — this is curious, because surely there were medical check-ups and swimming pools and the like. It is beyond imagination that these aliens would have nipples where we have them; genitalia where we have them. (Or is this why young Kal-El was so socially isolated? “Never show those tentacles to other children, Clark!”) It is more plausible that Kal-El was a human-alien hybrid, a part of Jor-El’s cataclysmic, delusional, desperate, Alex-Jonesy plan of perpetuating only that part of the alien race which agreed with him. One of Jor-El’s ideological enemies, Zod, preferred a military invasion; Jor-El a stealthy, genetic one. He impregnated his son with the whole genetic diversity of Krypton, and then sent him to the world of happily breeding monkeys. Jor-El might even have preferred Kal-El never knowing his ancestry: time enough to reveal his ghostly presence, ready to lay down unchallenged truths, when the seed of Krypton was widely sown.

The other father was Jonathan Kent, a human, and of the school which instructs you to hide whatever makes you special and different. If you don’t like this, you’re instructed to wait for some vague special, different day which may take 33 years to come, or never come. You don’t make that day come; you just wait for the world to start rotating in a different direction. As a result, young Clark Kent didn’t have a happy childhood. He was told everybody would fear and hate him if they saw how special he was; this was a splendid self-fulfilling prophecy, and we aren’t shown him having any friends. No doubt his parents felt conflicted about that: a normal child should have friends, but what if they found out Clark was not normal but queer.

One gets the feeling that the chances were fifty-fifty between this story of Clark Kent, and the plot of Stephen King’s Carrie.

We don’t see Clark playing with his powers, or using them to help his family. He treats them as a deformity, not as a gift. This is so probably because Jonathan’s twisted morals would have treated their use as cheating and as flaunting one’s shameful difference. Jonathan Kent is the sort of loving, overbearing father youngsters who are different run away from — though usually not to Alaska and similar Chris McCandless-y exiles, but to big cities where differences are appreciated.

Jonathan Kent died like he lived: choosing to widow his wife and orphan his adopted son rather than shame his family by making a fuss.

Clark Kent, or Kal-El, whichever we want to call him, would have his job cut out for him, trying to survive under the looming shadows of these two bad men.

Rat basketball at Heureka

July 15, 2013

I was at Helsinki the past few days. (At Helsinki? In Helsinki? Well, above Helsinki, as I approached it by plane…) There, I visited — as I always do, if I can — the science center funhouse Heureka. A lot of the place is geared at teens or younger people; but it’s always a fun visit nonetheless. (This time: Body Worlds — plastinated people and terrified children! And the hemisphere auditorium showing spacey movies from the sciencey space-atoriums of New York and Los Angeles!)

(“Space-atorium” sounds better than “planetarium”, doesn’t it? I should write to Neil deGrasse Tyson with this…)

Fun, that is, all is fun until you start to leave and get magnetically drawn into the souvenir store. Then you moan at the papercuts as your bills fly away and your bank card zips through every reader in sight. Then you stagger away, laden with knick-knacks and gewgaws and puzzle toys, moaning, “Why do I need a pseudo-holographic glossy postcard of the Pleiades? And the temperature-density water clock — I should turn back for it — No! I cannot be made to turn back —”

One of Heureka’s current attractions is rat basketball.

No, not with humans playing with rats as balls. That would be cruel, and doesn’t happen behind the ice cream shed, midday every day, tickets 10 euros if you know who to ask.

No, the rats play basketball among themselves. It’s set up in a glass box the size of an aquarium, behind a glass screen, three times a day. There are eight rats, big, glossy and lively. Those that want to come to play scamper over the sides of the glass box and play; there’s no forcing. The ball is a sphere from a roll-on deodorant bottle, drilled with holes; the rats use their paws and teeth. The hoops are maybe ten centimeters high on the walls of the box, easily stand-on-two-legs reachable.

Mono-colored rats are one team (there’s a total of four of them), and double-colored ones the other (also four of them, or as many as come to play). All are girl rats, because otherwise there would be unsports-rat-like shenanigans and then too many players.

The rats are trained (and rewarded) with rice (I think boiled? I’m a pasta-type student, not the rice-type) whenever they move the ball towards the right goal; during the game, with fully trained pro rats playing, only an actual goal (a hoop? I don’t know) gets them rice. They’re enthusiastic though goofy players; usually from two to five of them come out to play at once.

The more members of a team there are in play, the more lively the game becomes, because there’s no team play. If there’s just one player of each team playing the game tends to be one scoring, then scampering to an end of the center line for the reward, while the other takes the ball and does the same.

I’m not this observant; most of this comes from what I remember from the spiel of the judge and reward-giver, who was human.

A highlight was when one crafty rat sat down on her own hoop; no scoring for the other side! (A lesser highlight was when a rat scored an own goal, and then wandered around the field, as if half hoping for a reward nonetheless.)

Now.

I am not a fan of sport, but I would watch human basketball if it was played like rat basketball.

Those players of each team that feel like playing can come play; the others can stay in their cage. There are no rules except that when you make a goal (or whatever it is called), you get a personal reward from a great big hand that reaches over the sides of the arena. A grain of rice probably wouldn’t do, and not a hot dog, even; possibly money or drugs, then. I bet that after most players were hooked on something nasty, they would be pretty willing to come out to play for it.

It would be grossly unethical to do this with rats, but sportspeople are volunteers! Plus do you say you don’t want to see a field alive with bulky basketball players, high, mad, and all jockeying for the ball for a second go, gripping it with their claws and teeth?

That’s sport!

I was to China, part 2

July 1, 2013

(In part 1, our trepid mathematician left a small university in Finland on a happy, early Saturday morning, heading for a mathematics conference in China. The few Finns going the same way include Professor, a man of age, poise, grace, and occasional grump; and Comedian, who is younger and not given to good taste in humor. The flights have taken them to Helsinki. then to Shanghai, where most of the Sunday day has been spent running around in the company of local mathematicians. In the 36 hours since the departure, our protagonist hasn’t really slept.)

So, Shanghai airport, Sunday evening. The boarding stuff and the plane were the same they are the world over. I get to sit on the right side of the aisle; there are three seats to either side of it, and I’m next to the aisle, well away from the window. Then again, this is a non-polar region; the night comes early even in summer. Next to me is a slightly harried-looking young father with a wee infant. (As in “random Scots-flavored adjective”, not as in “spraying urea everywhere”.) This is lucky for me, because the infant officially occupies the seat between us, but stays in the father’s arms for the flight.

Not so luckily, as the two hours pass, the child gets more and more agitated, whimpering, crying and generally expressing its dislike of flight.

Then again, the approach to our oceanfront destination is from inland, where there are mountains, rain and gusts of air, so I am kind of envying the child’s social freedom to scream and clutch other people.

Mind you, I’m not saying the flight was badly flown or anything; but when I’m tired, any veering, banking excitement is too much for me; it doesn’t help that occasionally the announcements are only in Chinese; I keep looking at the other passengers, waiting to see them start screaming so it would be socially acceptable for me to do likewise.

A few times, I could swear the child was blubbering “Äiti!”, but probably most words for mother are similar, and similarly adopted from baby-talk. The father, on the other hand, was busy saying calming “no” and “noh” and the like; the same non-words and the same tone of voice a Finnish father would use.

We landed; I tried to look back if the plane had smoking engines, missing wings, but couldn’t see anything. It was dark and wet.

The organizers — a few graduate students, I suppose, short and callow — were waiting. Half an hour for the next them-organized bus to the hotels, they said.

Screw that, Professor said, except with more politeness and force; get us a taxi.

They got us a taxi; Professor really really doesn’t tolerate inefficiency gladly. Plus, obviously, what is a new and exciting adventure to me is old hat to him, and he’s seen it, because of the numbers, done better before.

The taxi is some old car; I keep thinking of Ladas and other Soviet models but that was its type and style, not strictly age or name. The driver is old, stocky, slightly unkempt; a few minutes into the drive he lights up a cigarette (on the other front seat, I roll my eyes and say nothing), and after a few drags tosses it out an open window. Then spits out the same window, too.

Oh, and open windows?

When we step out of the terminal, hot air hits us in the face. It’s dark by now, and the humidity and the heat are like a badly heated sauna. It’s that uncomfortable feeling of dashing through the sauna room to close a hatch, or retrieve a towel, when you’re clothed and your clothes are sticking to you, sweat is crawling out of your forehead, and — but this is no sauna, and this topsy-turvy alien climate extends to sweaty black infinities everywhere around you.

So the taxi driver — who has no air conditioning, because his is not a new car — drives with both front windows cranked fully open. Professor and Comedian are on the back seat, treating this all as old hat. Because I’m tall, I’m on the other front seat, clutching my shoulder bag and being busy being terrified.

Because the driver’s not driving by speed limits; he’s doing a hundred kilometers per hour or more. Now and then, there are flashes of light off the road; after a few I form the terrified hypothesis that these are traffic cams, each and every one flagging him for a ticket.

We’re on a highway, two lanes each way, separated by a hedge; there are no overhead lights: darkness above, ahead and after. There’s roadwork, here and there. The driver doesn’t slow for the speed limit 80 signs.

Or speed limit 60 signs.

Or speed limit 40 signs.

At speed limit 30, he slows. A little. And then accelerates again.

The road’s a highway, he’s doing a hundred kilometers per hour, and the highway has no lights.

It has big warning signs, though, repeating.

The first says fasten your seatbelts.

The second says beware of drunken drivers.

The third says don’t toss objects out of the car.

The third one worries me most, because it wouldn’t exist unless that was a problem. I don’t even know what I’m fearing will come out of the darkness and hit our windshield; but nothing pleasant, of that I’m sure.

Cigarettes? Spit? A sandwich? A poodle?

Eventually we get into the actual city. There are streets. There are lanes; nobody minds them. There are lots of cars, and two scooters for each car. No helmets; two or more people on each scooter. The scooters drive like cars. The cars drive like tanks. I’m fairly certain I’m in some sleep-deprived fugue state by now, and next fire-breathing dragons will erupt out of the ground and nobody will express the fuck I’m feeling even then.

Then we’re at the hotel, and I’m grateful.

The hotel’s tall, forty stories, big; the architecture doesn’t even hint where in the world it is. When you walk deeper into the lobby, there’s a statue, a sphere of constellations: the Western ones, executed by some Chinese artist. The conference organizers are here too. I walk dazedly along their table, checkbox my name, get my badge, and a cloth bag full of conference stuff — programs and notepads and like, plus cunningly hidden lunch tickets inside a folder that seems to hold just a pen if you’re tired and careless — and pay my conference fee in crisp, stick-to-each-other American dollars — pay for the conference dinner and the excursion too — the organizer-graduate student in charge of this is apologetic, they’ve ran out of change — I wave a hand and tell them to get my excess 25 USD to me when they have the time.

 

I, you see, have very patrician instincts for money for someone of as plebeian origins and means as I am; a graduate student without desires or money, a rural high school teacher father and before that only farmers and darkness. And when I’m tired, I rapidly stop giving a toss about things like money.

Sometime the next day that helpful graduate student brings me my USD change; I smile and thank him and reflect that if he had forgotten I would have forgotten too. (Then again, to me it’s just the price of a book, and travelling is supposed to be an unreasonable money sink; for him it’s official duty, and 25 USD in China is more than I think — but hey, since I’ve never been really poor, I don’t value money.)

Next I go to the hotel desk and get my reservation turned to an actual room; number 2001, first room on the twentieth floor; I feel a sudden urge to make Clarke-Kubrick jokes and get a sudden feeling they might require more explanation than is good for a joke. I hand in my bank card, unsure if it will work here — I’m laden with cash, in case it doesn’t — and before I know it, I’ve signed over a 4500 CNY deposit, twice what the room will cost in the end. (And, some 50 euros per night in what is pretty nice luxury? Nothing to sneeze at.)

The room is full of nice semi-hidden features; I will be in too much hurry to use all of them. The bathroom has a tub; I don’t have the time. A closet has bathrobes; with my shoulders I don’t even want to try them; and slippers, which are just a touch too small. (I don’t complain; with my frame I’d have no time for anything else if I did. The whole world is built for 180 cm dwarves, and when I try to explain this everybody just laughs!) Over the tub on the wall is something like a bell, the sort you would ring at a reception; closer inspection shows the nipple in the middle of it lets out a clothesline the attaches to the opposite wall. The sink is in a nice wooden table; one drawer slides open showing three different kinds of a shaving machine socket. (I don’t need none; I’m going for an Esko Valtaoja look; I’m still busy on the bottom part.)

The view outside — well, I’ll have a look at it when morning comes and I get up, refreshed and full of new anxieties. The travel part’s over, and went fine; now’s the time to make a fool of myself among my own people!

The view outside is partly obscured by droplets of water trailing down the window, outside: it’s a lot more hot and humid outside than here in the air-conditioned hotel. (Actually, towards the end of the week the air conditioning seemed to turn towards chilly, instead of nice; I didn’t have the time or energy to look for a switch. Besides I’m from Finland; chilly, it spells home.)

The bed is double-sized, with a mountain of pillows at the head, nice but not super comfy; every day I’m too played out to undo it, and just fall asleep on top on the covers, positioned corner to corner because the mountain of pillows takes up so much of the length of the bed.

Every evening, I come back to find the covers flipped over at one corner, as if in a hint: “You’re supposed to sleep under this one, foreigner!” — but I don’t take the hint.

There’s a TV, too, and an old desktop computer. Didn’t have the energy. Had a tablet; the hotel wi-fi’s password was a string of lucky number eights and your room number. Each evening, when I extracted myself from conference-related business around nine o’clock, I depressurized by reading few pages of manga (Nononono) or watching an episode of anime (Honey and Clover), scribbled a few notes (hence, this text) and then went to Z-land. My sleep schedule tends to be so silly and random I don’t even notice if the time difference was affecting me.

Come Monday morning, I was up early: there was nobody at the breakfast except Professor.

He’s kind of scary: it took me until Thursday to be at the breakfast before him. (Pro tip: when the hotel says the breakfast starts at seven o’clock, it really opens twenty minutes before. And the experienced travellers are there; and also people like me, who compensate for social ineptness by trying to get everywhere early just so they can commandeer the scene.)

Slowly, people with badges on green ribbons round their necks gathered in the hotel lobby; people of all ages and colors, chatting with each other, occasionally taking hold of a badge, squinting at the name and minusculed university and country on it. Finland — China — Saudi Arabia — India — Germany — AMERICA! — Japan — Lebanon — Russia. (There are mathematicians everywhere, because we don’t need big expensive machines to do our work; or big difficult environments to observe. And affiliations lie: some of these people are of Chinese origin, working in Finland; or of Russian origin, working in America; not a particularly interesting point, unless you are a foaming-at-the-mouth nationalist.) Some of those here were old friends; some new acquaintances. Some were dressed casually; some very casually. Some were in suits; the older ones, usually. Some had a bag, or the conference’s canvas bag, holding papers or a laptop or a tablet. Most were slightly befuddled, beaming with excitement or unfocused good cheer. As far as I know, every single one of these people was honest, not given to formalities, of good sense of humor and proportion, an expert in esoteric things they liked but didn’t get to talk about much except at events like this. These were mathematicians; my people.

Well, not exactly my people. Professor is a god among these people, the advisor of dozens, but he is not my advisor. This conference is more about the thing I’ve seen Professor and Comedian tell about in their seminar; though I’m going to give a talk and my subject is under the conference headline it’s not the speciality that the conference has mostly been always about. If the conference title is “Forest animals” and it has been always mostly about moose, I’m an expert in squirrels.

No matter; these are mathematicians; I am a mathematician (when your thesis defense is two months away, I suppose you’re allowed that self-identification); these are my people. I like my people, and they haven’t yet driven me away with sticks, so all is fine.

(To be continued: with boring conference descriptions!)