December 28, 2004

2005 Reading List

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:46 PM

As a counterpart to the previous post, here's a list of the books currently in my stack to be read.

Of course, this list is subject to modification, and in particular A Feast for Crows will jump to the front upon its release...

2004 Favorites

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:01 AM

As promised, here are my favorite media items from 2004. This is hardly a fair competition, since my media selections over the year were relatively small in number. Most of the books I read were not 2004 releases, and are therefore excluded from this list; in a nod to objectivity, I am also removing from consideration James Hime's excellent novel Scared Money. It's unfortunate that I haven't had a chance to play much of Half-Life 2 (as I have been away from my gaming computer during the vacation), and have only just started China Miéville's Iron Council, as these would certainly be contenders.

With those caveats, here's the list:

Books: The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is at his best when the pace is fast and the action is chaotic, and so the middle volume of the Baroque Cycle is the most fun of the three. It also helped that the focus of the book was on Jack Shaftoe, my favorite character from Quicksilver. Jack's pirate adventures (and a few memorable scenes involving his brother Bob) make it well worth suffering through digressions like Eliza explaining economics to French nobility. And while the ending may be abrupt, Stephenson wraps the series up nicely in The System of the World.

Music: Misery is a Butterfly by Blonde Redhead

The first song from this album that I heard was "Falling Man", and it seemed to reach through my ears to strike my soul like a tuning fork, ringing a melancholy resonance. As the title suggests, misery is a central theme in the album; when I'm feeling sad I can lose myself for a while in this music. Blonde Redhead has a rich and baroque sound here that is very different from their previous work; this is apparently a result of switching labels to 4AD.

Movies: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

I was expecting another Dude, Where's My Car?, but it turned out to be much funnier and smarter. Sure, it's a stoner movie, but it's also about individuality and race, and the American dream. And it's hilarious.

Games: Ninja Gaiden

This game is infamous for its difficulty, but it isn't the annoyingly cheap difficulty of its NES predecessors or the level-memorization that a game like Contra requires; it's more like a demanding teacher whose challenges, once overcome, are in hindsight highly effective lessons. Thus, I could expect to die a few times on any given boss, but after these defeats I would come back with a more graceful and polished technique, and emerge victorious. Even the minor battles look cinematic, and there's a special thrill to executing a combo that defeats four or five opponents. This was an almost perfectly balanced game with exceptionally smooth controls, and I enjoyed every minute. (But I'm still scared to play on Hard Mode.)

Discoveries: The above picks are chosen from 2004 releases, but I wanted to mention some older items that I only just discovered this year.

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (2003)

Cyberpunk noir detective novel with a brilliant premise and an appealing anti-hero. You know all this, because I've been raving about this book all year.

Angel (1999-2004)

After finally getting into Buffy the Vampire Slayer last year, I was skeptical about its spinoff; I had become thoroughly sick of the tortured, brooding dork by the end of Buffy's season 3 and wasn't particularly interested in seeing more of him. But in Angel Joss Whedon revitalizes the character with sharp writing and the right amount of self-mockery, and rounds it out with a terrific supporting cast. I'm eagerly anticipating the last DVD set (early in 2005) and lamenting the show's cancellation.

Danse Macabre by The Faint (2001)

The name says it all: dark and energetic new wave music. When work gets too frustrating, I put this on the playlist.

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (2001)

Another one I've been raving about for a while. It's a horror novel disguised as fantasy disguised as steampunk. All genre cliches are either tossed out entirely or subtly parodied, and Miéville replaces them with a rich and imaginative world, and some very scary and bizarre monsters. This book infected my dreams; read it. (The Scar is equally good.)

December 27, 2004

Site Outage

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:15 PM

The management apologizes for today's server outage; this was a result of a scheduled power shutdown in the building which we had completely forgotten about. Everything is should be back to normal.

December 26, 2004

Picks of the Webcartoonists

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:41 PM

John Allison of Scary Go Round is having the characters in his strip review his top 20 albums of the year at the rate of 4 per day. So far I own 75% of the picks...

Meanwhile, the Questionable Content guy has his own top 10 list up, of which I own 0% but have heard a few. I just can't get into Modest Mouse. But The Futureheads and Arcade Fire both sound interesting.

Penny Arcade is doing their top 10 video games; I am 0 for 3 on the first set, having resolved not to pursue another Nippon Ichi game until I finish Disgaea.

I was thinking of posting a few picks myself; probably just the top one or two in a few different media categories. Stay tuned...

December 25, 2004

Holiday Message

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:24 PM

Happy 362nd birthday to Isaac Newton, and happy solstice-oriented holidays to everyone.

December 24, 2004

Friday Humanblogging: White Christmas

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:32 PM

Tonight we have captured a true rarity: snow in Houston! Here's my father investigating this meteorological anomaly:

My last memory of snowfall in Houston is from (I think) January 1984; I'm sure it has snowed at least once in the intervening years but I would have been elsewhere at the time.

December 19, 2004

Learning Curve

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:56 PM

I am learning how to drive a manual transmission. Like most skills requiring physical coordination, this is not easy for me. At least this is a task for which both positive and negative feedback are strong and instantaneous...

December 17, 2004

Friday Dogblogging!

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:46 PM

It's once again time for vacation filler. My short-lived catblogging run was ended when the subject stopped visiting my back door. However, while at home I have access to another photogenic animal: Merlin, the family dog.

That laser-like gaze is focused on my brother's tuna sandwich.

December 15, 2004

Blog and run

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:52 PM

I'm taking a few minutes from wrapping up in lab to encourage you all to go read this excellent post at Preposterous Universe on the argument from design.

December 13, 2004

Escape [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:59 PM

With the lack of blogging around here, it's like I started my vacation early! Actually it's due to spending more time doing actual work. Soon I'll be able to leave the lab for a while, though. Here's my itinerary by destination:

16 Dec: Houston, TX
25 Dec: Austin, TX
26 Dec: Houston, TX
29 Dec: New Canaan, CT
3 Jan: Berkeley, CA

I'll need to make more effort than usual to keep posting during this period so you all don't wander off. Or recruit guest bloggers (volunteers?).

Last week's quote (Not a word of this to anyone else, o shrouded one...) was spoken by Locke in the classic SNES RPG Final Fantasy VI. I'm feeling uninspired with the quotes lately; the new one is difficulty: Easy; 1 point.

In other news, I have now seen all 144 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

December 9, 2004

Chisels Out

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:09 PM

Via Atrios, more chipping away at the wall of separation:

Ten Commandments Backed by Bush Administration in Court Fight

Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The Bush administration, saying that religion ``has played a defining role'' in the nation's history, urged the U.S. Supreme Court to permit Ten Commandments displays in courthouses.

At what point does the "historical role" argument stop being valid? I obviously think it's ok for public school teachers to talk about Christianity in history class when discussing the Protestant Reformation or the Great Awakening or whatever, and the Bible is important enough in Western literature that there's reason to cover it in English classes. But this issue of Ten Commandments in the courthouse is such a transparent attempt use the government to promote religion, and the "historical role" justification so flimsy, that there's no way it's a good thing. Where's the line?

Now, I don't really think this is materially that big a deal except for the possibility of a dangerous precedent. Atheists and people from other religious traditions may feel uncomfortable seeing the Decalogue displayed in a public building, but beyond that there's not a lot of harm being done. The real problem with judges like Roy Moore isn't the way they decorate, it's the decisions they hand down on issues like gay rights.

December 7, 2004

Tail of the distribution

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:07 PM

Kevin Drum has an important point here:

This is something that too few smart people appreciate: in most things that matter, you're not competing with the whole world. You're competing with a tiny subset of the world that's probably at least as smart and knowledgable as you — and probably more so. Caveat emptor.

The example that prompted this was investment, but it's equally true in physics. I only gradually realized that my ability puts me somewhere in the vicinity of the median among physicists, and as a corollary, the competition for the few jobs in the field (should I decide to stay in academia) will be very tough.

UPDATE: I was thinking more about this and realized something else. Back when I was an academic hotshot (this mainly means high school), I felt that this status in a way excused my weird, anti-social personality quirks: shyness, poor conversational skills, an inability to parse language and detect nuance. I was still unhappy about having these flaws, but they didn't matter that much because (a) it seemed like a trade-off for being really good at physics, and (b) I saw physics as a kind of calling for which it was worthwhile to set aside normal human interaction. Now this thinking by itself is pretty irrational, but over time I had to give it up anyway; nowadays I routinely meet people who understand physics at a level far beyond my capabilities, but also have well-developed social skills, so there's no way to maintain the illusion that "I can be weird because I'm a physicist". As I've found myself closer to the population median than the high end, my character flaws have become more prominent, and correction of them has become more urgent—this may just be a convoluted way of saying an obvious fact: not being the best at something is forcing me to become more well-rounded.

(I want to clarify that I don't think weirdness is necessarily a flaw; just that aspects of my weirdness happen to be flaws.)

December 6, 2004

Metamorphoses [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:30 PM

Last week's quote (I would pass my body on to a newborn, and rest.) was from a very striking passage in the book I'm reading, Perdido Street Station. The passage is told from the perspective of a garuda (a race of sentient birds) whose wings have been cut off, and who is traveling to a human city on a quest to regain the power of flight.

One day I realized that I no longer dreamed of what I would do when I was whole again. My will burned to reach that point, and suddenly there was nothing. I had become nothing more than my desire to fly. I had adjusted, somehow. I had evolved in that unfamiliar region, plodding my stolid way to where the scientists and Remakers of the world congregated. The means had become the end. If I regained my wings, I would become someone new, without the desire that defined me.

I saw in that spring damp as I walked endlessly north that I was not looking for fulfilment, but for dissolution. I would pass my body on to a newborn, and rest.

The part of the book in which this appears is called "Metamorphoses", and in addition to those that occur in the story, the novel itself undergoes a metamorphosis here; the first part of the book primarily lays the groundwork for Miéville's (very complex and original) setting and for the events to come, but at this point the plot takes off, and the book transforms from merely interesting to really gripping.

New quote is difficulty: Moderate; 2 points.

New sidebar feature: I'm putting a link to an mp3 of the song I'm quoting in the "frequency space" section.

December 3, 2004

Links: Science, Fiction, and Fantasy edition

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:13 PM

A somewhat random interview with fantasy author China Miéville, one of whose books I am currently reading.

Preposterous Universe comments on the latest development in the Columbia prayer study, making reference to Hume's argument against miracles.

Chris Mooney has a story on just how much scientific concensus exists on whether human emissions are causing global warming.

Evidence from torture now admissible

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:10 PM

The US Government wants to use evidence acquired from torture in the military tribunal trials of "enemy combatants".

Recall that US citizens have been detained as enemy combatants while captured on such infamous battlefields as O'Hare airport.

I don't really have much to say about this (besides a wordless scream of horror), but Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber has more.

December 1, 2004

Get religion, any religion

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:28 PM

Slacktivist catches a scary quote from Justice Scalia:

US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia used an appearance at an Orthodox synagogue in New York to assail the notion that the US government should maintain a neutral stance toward religion, saying it has always supported religion and the courts should not try to change that.


"There is something wrong with the principle of neutrality," said Scalia, considered among the court's staunchest conservatives. Neutrality as envisioned by the founding fathers, Scalia said, "is not neutrality between religiousness and nonreligiousness; it is between denominations of religion."

One hears this a lot from the "Christian nation" crowd, and it's so incredibly disingenuous that I don't know why they even bother. Neither Scalia nor anyone else really thinks people should believe in something, no matter what it is—as if Scientology or Cthulhu worship is just fine as long as you're not an atheist. Especially not when people like Scalia are coming from a religion that claims it is the only way to salvation. No, what Scalia means here is not that just that the state should promote religiosity, but Christianity (and in the Slacktivist post, Fred Clark suspects that his use of "denominations" indicates only certain forms of Christianity).

Why Scalia thinks the Deist founding fathers had this in mind, I have no idea.

Santa as a tool of The Man

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:00 PM

Via James Wolcott, we are told that it's good for kids to believe in Santa Claus, because:

"On balance the tale of Santa Claus is a powerful tool that may serve to nurture social and cognitive development, particularly in a technological society where children mature earlier."

A child's belief in Father Christmas was also an act of faith and many youngsters draw parallels between him and God, she said.

But she argued although they might question their belief in God when they find out Father Christmas does not exist, they do not lose their faith in the long term.

She said: "Their capacity for faith in a higher, transcendent power is not lost just because Santa proves to be mortal."

Put differently, it teaches them to believe lies told them by authority figures in order to keep them obedient. Yeah, that sounds real good. Much better than teaching them skepticism or critical thinking.

Actually, one might hope that when a kid learns that Santa doesn't exist, he will be more apt to question other things he is told, so it's a bit disappointing if this psychiatrist is correct.