Lewis Carroll, Sylvie, and Feet of Clay

The Beaver kept looking the opposite way / And appeared unaccountably shy. I have loved Alice for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how many times I borrowed The Annotated Alice from the public library when I was in grade school; I read it so many times that I knew Gardner’s humorous, thoughtful commentary nearly as well as the text. (His multi-page, ramified analysis of “Jabberwocky” is particularly fine).

One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received, even better than the Lego Galaxy Explorer, was my own copy of AA. Even now, it sits on a bookshelf with the rest of my Carroll collection, between the lesser-known More Annotated Alice and a not-particularly-complete, leatherbound Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. Despite its sentimental value, its place on my bedside bookshelf has been supplanted by the magnificently-produced Definitive Edition. When arriving home late, the clock approaching midnight, I’ll often read a chapter or two after climbing into bed.

My mother, mercifully, did not approve of Disney movies. My first encounter with the horrible, horrible thing that those bowdlerizing bastards did to poor Alice was a Disneyized picture book at my cousins’ house. I recall well that surge of shock and contemptuous, righteous wrath at the inane perversion of a wonderful story.

But back to Carroll: the library also had a copy of the Complete Works, which I explored as I grew older. I was quite interested in the handwritten manuscript of the original Alice’s Adventures Underground, but the rest seemed thin and unappealing. I tried Sylvie and Bruno several times, but it was distressingly boring, and I felt strongly that Carroll shouldn’t be boring. The one redeeming feature was the recurring Gardener’s Song, stanzas of which are woven through the text.

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread,’ he faintly said,
‘Extinguishes all hope!’

This year, I determined to read all the Carroll in my collection, and it’s been quite an interesting experience. The poetry is largely dreadful, with occasional flashes of wit. Wonderland and Looking Glass retain their depth, whimsy, and charm, and Snark is as superb a piece of meaningful nonsense as has ever been written in English.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best-
A perfect and absolute blank!”

The piece I have found most affecting, though, is Sylvie and Bruno.

It’s awful.


I wanted to like it . . . but it’s a horrible conglomerate of cloying sentimentality; Carroll’s idosyncratic, obtuse, Christianish moralism; and miserable poetastery. What little story exists is tedious and poorly plotted, and the “Tottles” poem is almost physically painful to read. The least unpleasant aspect of the books is the Victorian conversations, which at least have some elements of interest.

If Alice is a fairy-tale for everyone, Sylvie and Bruno is a fairy-tale for Lewis Carroll.

Carroll’s prefaces to Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded only compound the distasteful impressions: above, I compared Disney to Dr. Bowdler, but Carroll actually proposes bowdlerizing Bowdler!

. . . A “Shakespeare” for girls: that is, an edition in which everything, not suitable for the perusal of girls of (say) from 10 to 17, should be omitted . . . Neither Bowdler’s, Chambers’s, Brandram’s, nor Cundell’s ‘Boudoir” Sharespeare, seems to me to meet the want: they are not sufficiently ‘expurgated.’ Bowdler’s is the most extraordinary of all: looking through it, I am filled with a deep sense of winder, considering what he has left in, that he should have cut anything out!

Alice is timeless, despite all her references to Victorian culture; Sylvie and Bruno come through as the fantasies of a particular, not very happy man who is very much clamped by the mental shackles of his own time.

I’m not sorry to have read it, but Carroll’s infatuation with Sylvie and his loving portrayal of the unpleasant Bruno have left a bad taste behind. Perhaps in a few years I will give it another try. For the moment, though, I’d rather re-read Little, Big; John Crowley uses S&B as one of many threads in his weft, and I’m curious to see what new facets might be revealed upon a new reading.


History and Commuting

I spend about eight hours a week commuting, between work and school. Many people drive more than that, but I’ll certainly say that this is more than enough for me. Listening to the radio is not a good solution for me . . . the news is both shallow and rage-provoking, while music stations provide little control and incessant commercials.

Audiobooks (and to a lesser extent, podcasts) have been a great boon over the last few years. My local library system has an extensive selection of unabridged books on tape, and I’ve dipped deeply into their selection.

First words of advice: don’t go for the abridged versions. I once made the mistake of listening to one of these travesties for a book I knew quite well: it was butchery. The resulting text lacked any depth or subtlety . . . not only paragraphs, but also portions of sentences were removed!

I’ve had the best luck with non-fiction, particularly history. It’s easy to engage with the narrative for a half-hour or an hour, and it sets a thoughtful tone for the day. It’s great not to dread traffic jams . . . no matter how bad the congestion becomes, the drive remains a mental oasis in a sometimes stressful day.

papercraft polyhedra

More Modular Origami

Display window with modular origamiHere are a few more origami polyhedra that I had lying around the house. The white, central polyhedron is an isocehedral degree 3 type I geodesic sphere. (As with the degree 5 version in a previous post, I used a computer to get the chord factors right.)

Just above and to the right of the geodesic sphere is a rhombic triacontahedron; you may recognize the shape from the 30-sided polyhedral dice sometimes used in role-playing games. Continuing clockwise, the picture shows a flower-colored snub dodecahedron; a smaller rhombic triacontahedron; two snub cubes; an isocahedron; four interlocking tetrahedra with a small rhombic cuboctahedron in front of it; a spiked rhombic cuboctahedron; a cube with decorated faces; and another isocahedron.

Making these is quite relaxing, much like knitting. As they get larger, though, the level of obsession needed to see one through to completion grows geometrically.


Caffeine Management Strategies

While growning up and through the years immediately after college, I suffered from headaches – not migraine-level, but still painful and debilitating. Finally, I began to identify the pattern: the headaches typically started from 36-48 hours after the last time I had consumed caffeine.

Once identified, the pattern became painfully clear: as long as I ingested caffeine evey 24 hours, headaches were almost eliminated . . . until I decided to go off caffeine after several years of steady caffeine consumption. The result was nearly a week of horrible, piercing headaches. I would continue to repeat that pattern several times over the next decade, because I simply didn’t want to give up the pleasure of coffee.

Recently, though, I’ve found a better path. I won’t claim that this will work for everyone, but it has been quite successful for me.

I noticed that if I had a cup or two of coffee on the weekend, I would not have a headache. I’d often exploit this on long road trips: one day of caffeine was not enough for addiction. With some experimentation over the past year, I’ve found that if only consume caffeine every three to four days, I can avoid nearly all of the undesirable side-effects.

computer science

What is Computer Science, anyway?

There’s a predictable kerfluffle of an exchange on Slashdot over the state of computer science education, prompted by yet another article declaring the death of computer science. Per normal, the Slashdot discussion is fairly equal parts tedious, inane, obvious, and shrill.

Much of it boiled down to rehashing the differences between computer science (too much math, according to the Real-World Programmers, not enough according to the electrical engineers), programming (vocational training for those who can’t cut it in computer science, according to the computer scientists), electrical engineering (for those who can’t understand or appreciate algorithmic analysis, again according to the computer scientists), and computer engineers (nobody seems to be quite sure where they fit).

Instead of leaping into the fray, I’ll just mention my favorite quote about what comp sci is not. Edsgar Dijkstra is said to have said,

Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.

There are fascinating classes of ideas out there that we couldn’t start to discuss until computers had been invented . . . computer science is the exploration of those new frontiers.

(Scan from How it Works: The Computer is courtesy of gillicious.)

language reflections

On Not Having a Classical Education

When I was in my last year of college, I took a course on ancient comedy and satire. Sure, I’d grown up reading Greek myths. I could rattle off names of lineages of Roman god. Even so, I’d never really been exposed to the historical events of that period. The first part of the course was a historical “refresher” for something I had not previously realized I was lacking. Until that course, I had never even heard of the First or Second Triumvirates, never head of Pericles outside of a list of Shakespeare’s plays, nor given any thought to how much of our modern systems of governance are derived from Greece and Rome.

At that point, I began to wish that I’d had a proper classical education, that I had grown up reading Caesar and Livy, that I’d been forced to decline and conjugate until it was burned into my schoolboy brain.

Instead, I had grown up with a computer. That had, of course, its own pedagogical fecundity, but I wanted Greek and Latin. I had studied a bit of biblical Greek at the local community college during high school, but I didn’t really understand what other doors it could open. When I arrived at Simon’s Rock, Japanese had seemed much more exotic, complex, and appealing.

After college, I began reading, trying to fill the void inside with knowledge: Herodotus and Suetonius, Durant and Fuller, Courtesans and Fishcakes. For a while, it was enough.

Now, though, the classics are calling. On the bookshelves downstairs are volumes in Latin from the library of my wife’s grandfather, who was a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan. For years, I’ve snapped up Loeb editions when I’ve encountered them in used bookstores. Still, they are unread. It’s always, someday, I’ll learn Latin. Someday, I’ll be able to read classical Greek.

In December, I determined that someday should not be postponed forever, and that I would take action. I was tempted to wait until I was finished with grad school (in computer science, so twist it how I might, I can’t connect the two), but I knew that there would always be a dozen very good reasons to put it off.

Over the holidays, I began to research the best way to proceed. I found two great resources: TextKit and LatinStudy. The former collects a large number of textbooks and grammars, and maintains a forum for discussion. LatinStudy takes a different approach, running a mailing list for groups who are working through the same texts. I’ve joined one of these groups; in forty weeks, I’ll have worked through Wheelock’s.

Old school as it may be, I’ve been carrying my handwritten flashcards with me. A classical education postponed still has its satisfactions.

games religion

. . . Gang aft a-gley

flow.pngReally. You were going to have a nice post on would-be messiah Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, recently self-promoted from reincarnation of the apostle Paul to second personification of the big J. himself (though he seems a bit conflicted . . . he nattily sports a ‘666’ tattoo on his arm, according to MSNBC). Thanks, reddit, for the link.

But, reddit giveth and reddit taketh away. I’ve just lost two very enjoyable hours of my life playing flOw, a well-crafted, ambient game where you guide a stylized micro-organism through the sorts of challenges that face most micro- and macro-organisms: eating, and avoiding being eaten. So instead of reflections on cults and prophet motives (a salary of $98,000 plus perks, to start), you get a link to an aethetically appealing time-waster. Such is life.


I'm Dreaming of an Orange Candlemas

orange-snow.jpgThis dim and sleeting Imbolc brings reports of orange snow in the Siberian forest. The snow has been variously described as “oily”, “musty-smelling” and “rotten-smelling”, and the color ranges from orange through red and yellow. Quite a number of possible explanations have been propounded: airborne dust from storms in Khazakstan; Aral Sea mud; pollution from a nuclear power station, metallurgical plants, fertilizer factories, or oil refineries.

In a thoughtful touch, residents are advised not use the snow for their “household or technical needs.”

Charles Fort documented a number of falls of red snow in his books. From The Book of the Damned, Chapter 27:

But distinctly enough, we are told of one red rain that it was of corpuscular composition — red snow, rather. It fell, March 12, 1876, near the Crystal Palace, London (Year Book of Facts, [287/288] 1876-89; Nature, 13-414).(5) As to the “red snow” of polar and mountainous regions, we have no opposition, because that “snow” has never been seen to fall from the sky: it is a growth of micro-organisms, or of a “protococcus,” that spreads over snow that is on the ground. This time nothing is said of “sand from the Sahara.” It is said of the red matter that fell in London, March 12, 1876, that it was composed of corpuscles —

Of course:

That they looked like “vegetable cells.”

A note:

That nine days before had fallen the red substance — flesh — whatever it may have been — of Bath County, Kentucky.

From Lo!, Part 3 Chapter 4:

A red substance fell with snow, near Mildenhall (London Daily Mail, Feb. 22). It may have been functionally transmitted organic matter. “Pigeons seemed to feed upon it.”

Russia has dispatched a team to analyze the fall. For more on this story, track the full media coverage at Google News.

computer science sleep

. . . While Visions of Merkel Hash Trees Danced in Their Heads

One of the regular requirements of grad school is total immersion in a particular topic. During the most intense periods, the subject matter often finds its way into my dreams. While I won’t attempt to describe them in detail, I will just say that having dreams where dynamic Bayesian networks play a critical role is at least a bit disconcerting.

I’ve just finished powering through twenty papers on multicast security, and rather than blog further about it, it’s probably better simply to go to sleep and try not to dream about hash functions.

language politics

Protologistic Vocabulary of the Day: "To Wuck"

My friend Craig mentioned a phrase he’s been using lately: ‘to wuck up’, which he defines as, “to screw up as badly or worse than the current president has managed to over the last six years”.  His question to me was this: How does one go about spreading its use into popular language?

While it doesn’t have the intensely scatological memes of ‘santorum‘, ‘wuck’ is still a protologism with some propagation potential.  (Incidentally, the ‘santorum’ Googlebomb has managed to retain its #1 Google rank as of this writing.)

Here are my suggestions to get things off the ground: start posting comments on liberal blogs, try to get a few people using it.  Once there are some independent references out there, add it to Wiktionary’s list of protologisms.  Set up a one-page website on wucking and submit it to reddit and digg; if it’s clever enough, it will have a good chance of rising high enough in the rankings that lots of people will see it.

What are you waiting for?  Get out there and wuck things up.