Monday, November 30, 2009

Frivolous, timewasting nonsense, but rather excellent.

The Nietzsche Family Circus: a randomized Family Circus cartoon with a randomized Friedrich Nietzsche quote. Always perverse, occasionally uncanny.

Similarly, check out (if you're not already aware of it) Garfield Minus Garfield, "a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression [and I believe the synopsis originally added meth addiction, which seems apt] in a quiet American suburb."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The highlight of my perusal thus far is certaily the clown communion. I'd heard about the clowns. I had not heard that horned helmets were also involved.

And if you were wondering, yes, the Orthodox do put in an appearance. Justification is found in the comments, possibly.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Slate has a rather fun article about the problem of communicating the dangers of nuclear waste far, far into the future. There are substantial and interesting linguistic issues, of course, but the crux of the question is how any warning system can possibly avoid being the equivalent of a giant, red, "Do Not Push" button. But the think tanks working on the problem really seem to be enjoying the opportunity to unleash their sci-fi nerditude, and who can blame them? Proposals seem to range from Neal Stephenson's Anathem on one end to H.P. Lovecraft on the other:
...the report proposes a system of redundancy—a fancy way of saying throw everything at the wall and hope that something sticks. Giant, jagged earthwork berms should surround the area. Dozens of granite message walls or kiosks, each 25 feet high, might present graphic images of human faces contorted with horror, terror, or pain (the inspiration here is Edvard Munch's Scream) as well as text in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Navajo explaining what's buried. This variety of languages, as Charles Piller remarked in a 2006 Los Angeles Times story, turns the monoliths into quasi-Rosetta stones. Three rooms—one off-site but nearby, one centrally located, and one underground—would serve as information centers with more detailed explanations of nuclear waste and its hazards, maps showing the location of similar sites around the world, and star charts to help intruders calculate the year the site was sealed....

Proposals for the "earthworks" component demonstrate that the whole project of communicating with the future is really a creative assignment, more dependent on the imagination than on expertise. What'll really scare off 210th-century tomb raiders? The report proposes a "Landscape of Thorns" with giant obelisklike stones sticking out of the earth at odd angles. "Menacing Earthworks" has lightning-shaped mounds radiating out of a square. In "Forbidding Blocks," a Lego city gone terribly wrong, black, irregular stones "are set in a grid, defining a square, with 5-foot wide 'streets' running both ways. You can even get 'in' it, but the streets lead nowhere, and they are too narrow to live in, farm in, or even meet in."

I have to admire their restraint in avoiding the words cyclopean and squamous. Navajo, eh? Well, it is New Mexico we're talking about here, so Athabascans really ought to figure into any dystopian scenario under consideration.

Returning to the Anathem angle, I've heard the "nuclear priesthood" idea floated in the past as well. Given the documented history of religious institutions, this strikes me as not being the solution, to say the least (and my concommunicants get no exception here). Besides, can you imagine the types who would volunteer for ordination?

Thinking about such matters on a government salary: nice work if you can get it! Were any of these scenarios actually to come to fruition, they could be a major tourist draw in this century. The Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce ought to be lobbying like mad for the more lurid options.

Many of you have probably seen this already, as it seems to have gone rather viral. But that's good news for once, and I'm happy to aid and abet:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: Encyclopedia Brown: Sundown in Adaville

American letters can boast few geniuses. Skillful craftsman and observers, yes, but the flash of insight which leaves everything you read afterwards changed, I can think of only two writers, both stylistically inferior. One is Poe, and the other is Hammett.

Let me make myself clear. I'm not claiming that Hammett is superior to (say) Faulkner as a writer, but that his writing irreversibly changed literature itself. The noir novel, and the noir hero, the detective, are instantly recognizable, and that is evidence of the force of Hammett's perception. Which brings us to Sundown.

Encyclopedia Brown, boy detective, is a well-worn figure. Solving cases before dessert thanks to the trivia he has absorbed, he fulfills every nerdy, obsessive pre-teen's dream of power and acclaim. Despite his enemies' physical prowess, he invariably triumphs, saving the downtrodden, punishing the wicked, and outpacing the adults. All at 25¢ a day, plus expenses.

The shock of Sunset, then, is to begin with Encyclopedia running. He knows his pursuers are faster, and as he tries to escape, his planning is constantly interrupted by a flow of now useless information:
The blindworm is neither blind nor a worm.
There are no penguins at the North Pole.
Turtles have exceptional night vision.
--I've got to get away from them--
Nathan Samuels began the United Federation of Planets.
And instead of Encyclopedia regnant, we see him the victim of an appalling crime. His life does not improve through the rest of the book.

The plot, which would be criminal to reveal, centers on the revelation that Adaville is, with the willing aid of the police chief, a Sundown town. As outside forces begin to expose the Adaville elite, the illegitimate powers within struggle to maintain their positions. Alliances are made, broken, and remade. Battlelines are drawn. Men and women die. And slowly but inexorably Encyclopedia Brown is stripped of each ally in turn.

The noir hero, of course, always stands alone. His moral code is uniquely his, and he follows it without compromise in a world in which morality and hypocrisy are equivalent. What makes Sunset work so well is watching Encyclopedia manipulate those around him, from his best friend and his father to his worst enemy (Bugs Meany, as abominable as ever) while trying to stay his own course.

Our distance from the detective is greater in Sunset than in previous books. We aren't given the insight into his motivations we might like, and certain chapters are heavily elliptical. This is a book which rewards re-reading. We do learn to see his relentless absorption of trivia as a method of imposing order on a chaotic, meaningless universe: god may be dead, but the melting point of platinum is constant.

The book wraps up in destruction, naturally. The noir hero, dedicated to truth, must destroy or be destroyed by the lies of the rest of the world once he comes into contact with it ("takes the case"). In all, a satisfactory addition to the genre, and an excellent addition to Encyclopedia Brown canon.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Heard moments ago on New Mexico public radio:
"It's a whole box full of Pandoras."
Almost as good as an Aubreyism.
Landscapes of Mars
Since 2006, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been orbiting Mars, currently circling approximately 300 km (187 mi) above the Martian surface. On board the MRO is HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, which has been photographing the planet for several years now at resolutions as fine as mere inches per pixel. Collected here is a group of images from HiRISE over the past few years, in either false color or grayscale, showing intricate details of landscapes both familiar and alien, from the surface of our neighboring planet, Mars. I invite you to take your time looking through these, imagining the settings - very cold, dry and distant, yet real.
Bit slow to load, but well worth the wait!
And in Herodotus-related news:
The remains of a mighty Persian army said to have drowned in the sands of the western Egyptian desert 2,500 years ago might have been finally located, solving one of archaeology's biggest outstanding mysteries, according to Italian researchers.
Also via Megan McArdle.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Origins of the Japanese people and language by Jared Diamond. Interesting, and a nice summary. I didn't realize that linguists were classifying Japanese and Korean as far outliers of Altaic.

Via Megan McArdle.