Monday, September 24, 2007

Daily Habits...

are in fact a good thing. That's why I'm deciding to push myself into writing at least one thing every day. There was a post on one of the many blogs I read on a daily basis about a week ago that I can no longer find; maybe if I find it I'll post it. It spoke about giving yourself an interview, because sometimes the person you know the least is yourself. Well, I demonstrated this fact in two ways today.

The first was during yoga practice. Twice a week during my lunch break I go to a yoga class instead of my large lunch. It is a welcome interlude to the day and usually sets me on a good track to be more productive in the afternoons. Today our instructor taught us several mudras. A yoga mudra is a hand position that is used in breathing exercises or meditation. Let me first state that I am a practical yoga practicer, meaning that I don't believe in the spiritual side, but rather practice for the mental benefits of meditation and the physical benefits of the various positions. We were doing a meditation practice where several hand positions were held around the chest or waist, and by breathing one could feel the motion of the diaphragm. We entered one of the mudras where you make a double pointer shape with your hands (palms together, index and thumb extended, rest of fingers folded) and invert it, placing the thumbs at the bottom of the sternum and the index fingers against the bottom of the throat.

The moment I entered this position and started breathing, I started laughing. It was incredible, almost like a switch. I could hold the fingers half an inch away from the chest and be okay, but the moment I made contact with the chest I laughed. Honestly I was a little unnerved by it. Of course the yogi explained that it was possibly a freed energy center and that I was holding tension in that spot. Whatever. All I know is that my body has some funky wiring and when this mudra is performed I break out in laughter. I can still do it now.

The second thing I learned was while playing Big Brain Academy for the Wii. I rented the game through Gamefly to know if it was any good. It's interesting to say the least; the game has some rather challenging "brain puzzles" and although I doubt it's akin to an intelligence test, I can sense my brain straining (or at least flexing) when I play it. One of the puzzles is an art puzzle: there are two canvasses, one complete and one empty. The Wiimote pointer turns to a piece to be placed on the canvas to complete the picture. On the higher levels the picture flips. I am used to this: on a Playstation eye-toy game I once had, one of the games was to break small barriers in midair by coordinating your real-life movements with that on the screen, and every once in a while it'd flip the screen. Back to Big Brain, when you get to the highest level the canvas spins instead of flips. I can handle the flips just fine, but I can't get my head around the spins. I miss every one, almost like my mind has a mental block against solving it. Is it a form of dyslexia? I also had a similar problem with a counting puzzle where numbers rotated inside of balloons and I was confusing -68 as -89 and similar errors (which would be understandable if I hadn't missed it with the leading negative sign). The more I play that game the more I know my mental strengths and weaknesses. It's interesting to say the least.

Anywho, I'm out. Longer day tomorrow than today. But now that I'm dedicated to write about it, I'll start forming some new habits, and that's a good thing to shoot for.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book Review: Only Revolutions

I forced myself to finish this book, and was hoping for bigger and better things from Mark Z. Danielewski. Unfortunately, I was disappointed: half at myself for not understanding the story better, and half at Danielewski for not telling it better. For a book about dualism, I guess this is appropriate. So have an author fail this way is a depressing homage to all of the great experimental writers who failed in similar ways by concentrating on the form so hard that they eventually forgot they were telling a story first and writing it second.

Danielewski is a good author with big ideas and loves to toy with them. House of Leaves was a great book in this regard; his experimentation with colors, text placement, font choice, and manipulation of features like footnotes, bibliographies, and appendices are what made Leaves stand out. However, these "gimmicks" didn't make Leaves work. What made Leaves work as a book is that it told a coherent story with characters that we cared about, in situations that we could imagine in such a way that two people reading the same paragraph would render similar experiences, and these literary experiments worked to enhance this underlying story. House of Leaves was about a labyrinth, and the book taking this form is perfect for this story.

For exactly the same reasons that House of Leaves worked, Only Revolutions failed.

Once again, Danielewski is playing with form; this time, it's an epic poem told twice from the perspectives of Sam and Hailey. This dualistic poem concept isn't new: over 400 years ago John Milton wrote two poems about the same pastoral scene from two different perspectives: L'allegro and Il Pensoroso well before he wrote Paradise Lost. The beginning of Only Revolutions even speaks in similar couplet beat to these two poems. There is a ton of structure to the book: 360 pages arranged in 45 chapters of 8 pages each, each page has 180 words on it, 90 from each side, half right side up and half upside down. The stories are synchronized even for being 100 years apart, each page in the same section of the story as the alternate poem. A date appears on the both tops of each page indicating the date of that page for that narrator. The days decelerate for Sam who starts in 1863 and moves chronologically at a year/page until the end of his story when it moves at a day/page; Hailey's story starts on Nov. 22, 1963 (at the moment of JFK's assassination no less) and accelerates from a day/page to a year/page, ending in 2063. On the side of the poem are headlines from the day's events, and these also attempt to synchronize with the words of the poem alongside it. The first letter of each chapter also spells out "Sam and Hailey and Sam and Hailey and Sam and Hailey and" (also this is not new: Michael Ende started each of the 26 chapters of The Neverending Story with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, and Milton also used acrostics multiple times in Paradise Lost). Even the colors of the o's on each page match the eye color of the current narrator (extremely useful for remembering where you were). For a literary work, this book is an achievement in structure.

However, where this book succeeds in form it falls in substance. Sam and Hailey's story is virtually nonexistant, when and if you can pry it from the form that muddies the writing. Example of prose[sic]: "And allso their gyre's screw/Though I still tear loose of this crew./--Tootaloo girls!/ And Eighteen NewlyWeds wash pale while Double Dutching and buzzing YoYos:/--O hang on." Yes, Danielewski's using Carroll's word gyre correctly (meaning to spin like a screw). That's from Hailey's side; Sam's side is at first utterly incomprehensible until you compare with Hailey, a dictionary, and a lot of patience. Thankfully even Danielewski tires of this near the end, and the story makes a little more sense. Even with that, the events that peep out ramble more randomly than Allen Ginsburg. Multiple attacks from "THEM" (you think I'm kidding?) and "the Creep" add levels of allegory to suggest that Sam and Hailey are to represent the American Dream, always being sixteen and on the road. Now, don't get me wrong; I love allegory and satire, and when done correctly these methods of storytelling really push a point across. However, the allegory falls apart when it isn't hammered home. Imagine if Gulliver's Travels were told like this:
Samsarra Llemuel!
young sailor full of

life: --splayed on the ground in strife
TwoHundredThousand tiny threads of panic
and tiny voices of near static
Illusions of lilliputian eggs, and which side of budding wars
--Let go of me you whores!
I yearn to cross the See and be small

Allegory makes sense if you really understand the story and the unmistakable opinions of the author. Swift really hammered home his message, and it was unmistakable his impressions of royalty, politics, and human folly, and even when he abstained from opinion it was clear that he did so. Danielewski's impressions of the American Dream are anyone's guess. Let's throw allegory aside for a moment: even if all he was looking for was just a love story (yeah right), even that falls apart. The prose to one another is more over-the-top than any harlequin romance, sex scenes are raunchy and one-dimensional, and jealousy doesn't even make sense when you can't tell if a character is flesh-and-blood or really just a concept (I swear I read that section about New Hope/Old Hope/Dying Hope a hundred times).

One might argue that I'm just too dumb to understand the story, and that if I were smarter and tried harder to read it I would love it. That's the problem though: if a story's only theme is that it is told in obscure kennings, arcane language, and indecipherable metaphor, it fails to become a story and transforms into some form of elitist test that only "proper" readers should be able to comprehend. I have no problem with flipping the book over every 8 pages, or appreciating the word count, acrostics, font re-sizings, or circular chronology. I loved it when e.e. cummings represented a cricket's movement with a spaced out word, or when Calvino gets all metaphysical when writing a book about reading a book about writing a book, or Ende's clever use of italics to flip narrator, main character, and reader's roles. And I loved it when I was crawling through columns of words in House of Leaves, because I had a reason for doing so. Unfortunately, Only Revolutions didn't give me a gripping enough reason to delve into the prose, and thus it fails, even in spite of the obvious brilliance of its author.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pattern Recognition

This is one of Gibson's most clever works, and really gave me an idea of what I love most about his writing, more than anything he wrote in his Neuromancer phase. Gibson is a crowd watcher, as evidenced by the arcade-game styling of his code jockeys in his cyberpunk phase (as research for Neuromancer, he went to arcades watching people play intently, losing awareness of the world around them), or like several stories in Burning Chrome having that Stranger in a Strange Land quality of someone watching an alien world unfold and eventually embrace them. People recognize Gibson as a cyberpunk author, but that really isn't his world anymore, as evidenced by his later works.

I'd venture to call this his post-punk phase, with books like The Difference Engine and the Virtual Light series (only read the first of these). This book is totally stand-alone (although I understand that some of the characters come into play in Spook Country), and tells an intriguing story that feels more present-day than futuristic.

I must be careful about this, because it was written in 2003, so what I call present was future for him. In fact I have a hard time calling this book science fiction, because it's not futuristic, just highly predictive and plausible. Such short term future novels would be easier to write from simple probabilistic argument (much easier to predict out a few unmentioned years than it is several decades like his earlier work). He schemes a book that feels cutting edge and slightly off of the timeline, and beacuse of this choice it gives the book a mystical sheen that makes it always feel ubermodern.

This isn't his only trick though; his characters make this novel work. Cayce Pollard is someone you feel no immediate recognition for and yet she draws an immense empathy. Her mother's a professed psychic, her missing father was a CIA agent/contractor, and from the two she draws many of her personality traits, akin to a mystic practicality that guides her through this "rabbit-hole" of stories.

Cayce is very sensitive to trademarks and in some ways commercialization in general. She makes a living working for companies trying to pick out new logos and to figure out what the latest underground styles are. Her allergic reaction to the Michelin trademark plays a role in several sections, and sometimes "Bibendum" seems to be her anti-avatar, being one of the most globally recognized trademarks. Plausibility of such an "allergy", psychological or otherwise, Gibson pans this character trait to expose globalization in all of Cayce's dealings, and seems to be his method of illustrating the evils of commercialism. It is a clever device; near the end of the book you end up cringing along with Cayce when said trademarks or popular fashion enter the frame of the story.

However, it's easy to see how Cayce's idiosyncrasies could have flattened her character if Gibson hadn't tried as hard as he did to flush her out. Her interaction with characters like Parkaboy, Boone, Damien, Dorothea, and Bigend bring out more of her personality than it does them. Much of the story is told in email and forum postings, a very interesting device to use for conversation. Email is looser of a medium than snailmail, but more thought out than IM or IRL conversations, and also has this weird intimacy that shouldn't be attributed to a protocol more akin to electronic postcards than it is sealed bank documents. Through this intimacy Cayce talks about her parents, her fears, her emotions in a way that makes us also understand her mental state better than the omniscient author could have ever spelled out.

In fact, email plays as a central plot point, when Cayce is writing more of a cathartic letter to a central character, not meaning to send it, and accidentally sends it. I can't think of the many times this has happened to me, and the dread and wonderment that it causes. It's all of these tiny actions and expressions that makes Gibson's characters less futuristic and more presently human.

Ack, writing more about this book would reveal plot that is better left discovered. Let it be said that this is a very striking novel, and although it may lose its sheen in a couple of decades it stands today as one of Gibson's most clever novels.

Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release

My weekend was a bit of a one-note, although as shaped and designed as anything out of a synthesizer.

Roll back to Friday after work. We just packed up our section, as my team is moving from our spot to another one, which is kinda depressing; you become emotionally attached to any place you spend more than 40 hours a week at for more than 12 months, and I usually surpassed 40, and it was longer than 12. Same job, different surroundings. I left at 5, which was a break of sorts for me (usually only get out around 7 or 8).

I went home and got ready to run, leaving around 6. I only wanted to spend half an hour out running, but I got lost in several subdivisions, and when I reached the Merritt when I thought I was headed south, I knew I was kinda lost. I flagged down some people for directions, and didn't make it back until 7:30. At that point I debated the second part of my plan: to go to karaoke in New York. Having a lot of topics on my mind, I decided to clear my head and go.

There is an awesome little karaoke bar on 2nd Ave. between 43rd and 44th, called Keats. The staff there is really friendly, and the crowd is very laid back and enthusiastic. I had a wonderful time, not noticing the time until 3am. Whoops, trains back home stopped at 2. I decided to stay until they closed, and then find an all night diner (a great one is a few blocks north, around the 50s) to eat some breakfast and then get home. I made it home at 8am and then proceeded to crash for 8 hours, then eat and crash again.

I slept until 8 this morning. It was a total mind clear, and I feel much better because of it. Been cleaning the apartment, and then finishing a very clever book by Gibson called Pattern Recognition, which I'll review later on today. I may go running today as well, and this time in more recognizable territory.

I also plan to do some coding, making my sack lunch for tomorrow, and starting my next book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Murakami. I have read several others of his books, including Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (my first), his book of short stories about the Kobe earthquake which was fascinating, and A Wild Sheep Chase (one of his most haunting). His recent stuff hasn't hit any chords like his older stuff, so I'm going after his "classics". I plan to finish this, Kafka on the Shore, and Norwegian Wood by the end of the year, as recommended by the group of people who read his books on Goodreads. He almost has a cult status on the net, but have never met people IRL who were big fans of his work. The only other person I know who has heard of him referred to him as a Japanese Stephen King, almost derisively, which is IMHO an unearned title. Murakami has a mastery of prose that puts King to shame, and his books bear the soul of a writer that intimately cares about his characters as if they were his children, faults and all recognized and forgiven.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


About time I wrote another of these. This one is not mine, and it's not particularly difficult, but I liked it because it elucidated in my own head some properties about roots:

Let xi be the roots of the equation x5+2x+5=0. What is the sum of all xi5, without jumping to Mathematica for the answer?

I have another one, but I'm tinkering with this new operation I've been looking at that is commutative, not associative, nilpotent, and has some cool closure properties, and wanted to first come up with a problem that uses that operator. I guess the proper term for this algebra is a nilpotent loop, and it has some really interesting math behind it (not to mention some intriguing open problems in that algebra and some sibling algebras).


So my habits of procrastination happen in spurts and droughts. Hence the two week absence. The cool thing is that I have friends that I can depend on to kick my tail in gear when I haven't been posting (thanks K!). That and karaoke both helped to unwind the soul and get me typing again.

K also asked me about the name of my blog. Viviomancy is a made up word (because the squiggly red line tells me so), that I forged from three word stems. Vivi- means lively and vivo- means life (which are not quite the same thing: robots and programs can be lively without being alive, and some living people can be downright despondent!), and if these two had a bastard child it'd be named vivio-. -mancy is a root meaning divination, which can mean fortune telling, but the definition I prefer is "successful conjecture by unusual insight or good luck". Joining these definitions together, I define viviomancy as the act of falling into a vibrant life through serendipity or action through non-traditional reasoning. I shouldn't say "happy" here: nobody can guarantee that through action. I only hope to make my life infinitely interesting and energetic.

Originally this was a blog about my new years resolutions, and for the most part I've kept up with aspiring towards some of them. I do read a lot more (especially without cable, see below). I exercise more, and hope that next year I'll get into another open water swim (too late to do one this year). Karaoke was an easy one on my list. My diet is much better since packing my lunch, and twice as good since May (a watershed month for many reasons). I have finally owned up to my finances, and am making headway towards being totally debt-free. My Japanese is getting better, but my Arabic hasn't yet taken off. I am procrastinating less (even with the lacuna of the last two weeks, this is the longest I've ever kept up this kind of website) and I do wake up in the morning to my alarm clock. However, I am missing some things: I haven't skydived, seen a shuttle launch (only a few more years left for that), am nowhere closer to getting a PHD and only minimally closer to getting that six pack. I like the fact that I have a long way yet to go and still have accomplished so much.

However, even with all those accomplishments, I realized that I was missing the point of having those goals: to make my life infinitely more interesting. This would take a lot more redefinition and focus, and a realization that happiness wasn't the target (because it's always fleeting). I had to focus on bringing up my energy, my creativity, my drive. I may not always be happy, but at least I'll be satisfiably intrigued (or intriguingly satisfied?), and that's success in my book. There's no sense in boredom, even if such ignorance is bliss.

So, what am I doing to become more vibrant? My first step was eliminating the things that dragged me down, either through their incessant grabbing of my fleeting attention with banality or through their monolithic representation of some obligation that I must complete (of which it also dares me to ignore). The highest on my list was TV. I am in fact cable-less; I gave it up entirely a couple of months ago, and it has done wonders for my soul. I do watch my two favorite shows on iTunes: Lost and South Park. The rest was easy to give up. I get my news off the net through Google Reader or by glancing at news sites like Digg or WSJ. I also get audio versions of New York Times and some sections of the New Yorker as podcasts, for my walk to and from work. I'll talk about more subtle robbers of attention in future posts.

I have a lot more to write, but I also have real housekeeping to do tonight, and some sleep to catch up on. I will post a smaller math post not connected to this one, and call it a night for now. I will be writing on subsequent days on how I'm working towards this larger, overarching goal.