Thursday, October 28, 2010

Finding focus

Reading these helps me get back into writing. They all have an enviable density that I strive to emulate. The Chabon excerpt is just spectacular. There are others but these are the ones I reach for time and again.

Vladimir Nabokov
Speak, memory: An Autobiography Revisited

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

William Gibson
New Rose Hotel

Hiroshi showed all the signs of having settled in. He’d found a German girl with a taste for conservative loden and riding boots polished the shade of a fresh chestnut. He’d bought a renovated town house on the right square. He’d taken up fencing and given up kendo.

Michael Chabon
The Martian Agent

A spatulate darkness, shaped like a shark, poured itself along the rue and alleys of the Vieux Carre. It splashed against the sides of houses and shops, then surged up walls of brick and clapboard to flood the Quarter’s rooftops - drowning chimney pots, weather vanes and tin flues - before brimming over the volutes of a cornice and ladling itself once more down an iron balcony to the street.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Slow saucers

Great essay in this new (to me) gem of a magazine. Another one I'm noting that I'm sure I'll want to find at another time. It's great on how the characteristics of UFOs change to match the times in which they are seen. Fabulous.

Six-legged societies

I've been thinking a lot about how and why societies are organised and this look at ants and how they organise their world has straightened out some of my thinking.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Steal this post

I guess there are other measures that could mean this isn't as surprising as it sounds - cyber theft exceeds physical theft - but its still an interesting moment.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Skewed economics

A great look at Somalia and the weird way its society has adapted to rampant criminality. There's even a stock exchange based around the performance of the different pirate gangs.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Trap streets and rooms

I'm a big fan of trap streets as they offer such juicy opportunities for the real and virtual to mix. The link is getting stronger thanks to the growing number of navigation apps on smartphones.

Alchmey and Newton

Newton spent more time on alchemy than on the physics that established his immortality. There's a growing collection of digital copies of his alchemical papers.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Useful Russian words

ne boltai - don't babble
voronok - black raven (Russian equivalent of the Black Maria)
poryadok - order
ushanka hat
pospeshish - lyudei nasmeshish - if you do things in a hurry you will make people laugh
kozha da kosti - skin and bones
sushki - tiny sweet bagels
dvoika - failure
gluposti - silliness
dvoechnik - a failure
pyatorka - success (five)
chut chut - a tiny bit
molodets - good for you
kulturnaya - cultured
blat - connections
gorit i gorit - burning and burning
holod sobachii - dog's freezing cold
vodovorot - whirlpool
lishnie lyudi - useless people
chuzhoi - not part of the family
svoi - part of the family
besporyadok - disorder
rukhami ne trogat - do not touch with hands
Nyet hud bez dobra - there is no evil without good
hozyain - master
dushi - serfs/souls
ukaz - a decree
uzhasnaya - awful
chernila - ink (a name for cheap port)
svolochi - bastards
Most of these were taken from Elena Gorokhova's ace biography A Mountain of Crumbs.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Bout time

Lots of useful information about the arms trade and lots of great settings. Very Gibsonian.

Future gazing

Great insights into what is happening now and how tech/life might develop.

Bot history

Steve Gibson versus the IRC bot handlers (PDF) because I'll need to find this again.

Market maker

Smart tale of a man who prowls second-hand book stores armed with a barcode scanner linked to the web - he only buys the books he can make a profit on.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Search that

I'm very late on to this but it is such genius that I want to record it - a user name that is hard to find online because it has a non-printing character in it. Too cool.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Potions please

The story of Tristan and Isolde must be the first to mention a love potion. It is also, as far as I can see, one of the few to explore the consequences, or lack of them, of drinking such a potion.
The story is that Tristan is bringing the fair Isolde back from Ireland as a wife for his uncle, King Mark. The Love PotionImage via Wikipedia
On the way, the pair manage to drink a love potion that means they fall in love. In some versions they are tricked into drinking it, in others they do it with full knowledge. They continue their journey, Isolde marries Mark, but the two lovers are constantly sneaking away to spend time with each other. The potion, of course, frees them from any responsibility for their actions.
Queen Isolde prepared the potion as a way to ensure that her daughter and King Mark fall in love. Is it something that all Queens get taught? Knowledge of these kinds of things seems taken for granted in fairy tales.
Beyond this, fairy tales that feature magic potions are pretty rare. As far as I can tell. There are a few such as The Little Mermaid, Snow White (kind of), The Water of Life, The Black Bull of Norroway, Donkey Cabbages, the Blue Bird and a few others.
Reading a few fairy tales made me realise that the world they depict is pretty damn strange. Plus some of the basic laws of this world reveal themselves. For instance, if you go weeping in a garden or forest someone will turn up to help you. Usually they have magical powers and will offer to help you in return for you aiding them. These bargains often do not turn out well.
Of course, the whole moral landscape of the fairy tale has been ably mapped out and classified by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vladimir Propp did the same but with more emphasis on the function of the motifs in the stories. There is even a webpage that lets you generate your own Proppian folk tale. I just tried it and got this as a sample par...
"From the corner of my eye, I saw the man from the mountain open his razored jaw and draw a poisoned needle from underneath his tongue. I watched the needle fly from his finger through my father's ear and out the other, turning all his fluids into ones of pure jade and stone. Then the foreigner strapped my jaded father to his back and continued to ride into forbidding wastelands."
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Sea and surgery

This archive of journals by Royal Navy medical officers (1793 - 1880) looks like an absolute goldmine of felt experience. I wonder if Patrick O'Brian made use of them for Maturin before they were widely known.