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Archive for the 'Academic Geekiness' Category

Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

If this is not the only post you read this year comparing Beatrix Potter‘s books to Sex in the City, please share your blogroll with the rest of the group.

Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

I started thinking and talking about this question a few years ago. (I labeled it a “personal-intellectual project” of which my “Who’s the medium now?” set of posts in 2010-2011 is one expression). The only counter-example I know well is Dougal Dixon‘s After Man: a Zoology of the Future. An author friend, Alec Nevala-Lee, pointed me to “hysterical realism” (a term for packed-to-the-gills works such as many by DF Wallace, Pyncheon, Don DeLillo, and Zadie Smith) as potential counterexamples:

From James Wood’s review coining the term:

Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with “ideas and themes that I can tie together–problem-solving from other places and worlds.” It is not the writer’s job, she says, “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.”

My dad offered many more well-known and better-loved counter-examples: Beatrix Potter’s books. “They’re about animals, not people.” “Of course they’re about people!” I said. “How so?” “Because they’re about how people feel and think and interact with each other.” My dad then accused me of tautology: I define any work of fiction as being “about people.”

That might be a fair criticism, but not with respect to Beatrix Potter stories, and particularly not with respect to The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. Its first line may be, “Once upon a time there was a Pussy-cat called Ribby, who invited a little dog called Duchess, to tea,” but The Pie and the Patty-Pan is, in fact, exactly like the Sex and the City (TV) episode “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.” Both are surface-funny and subtext-baffling, showing absurd examples of what one may and may not say in certain social circles, what kinds of miscommunications or properly understood communications can or cannot threaten a friendship. Both poke fun at social conventions but apparently without denouncing them. The little animal details in Potter’s book like Duchess begging for a sugar cube on her nose or the doctor being a known and accepted kleptomaniac by virtue of his species (magpie) is probably all that makes Potter’s version easier for me to stomach than HBO’s.


This is very similar to my argument for Invisible Cities and The Twilight Zone being about people: they use tight, focused, beautiful metaphors to externalize a mind or soul’s internal conflicts. And I think it’s an argument very relevant to speculative fiction fans: the main message of a show like Babylon 5 is always, “Aliens are just people, too.”


Gamers solve decade old HIV puzzle in ten days

This one speaks for itself.

Hat tip to my brother Jared for the link.


Puzzled by the intricate structure of the M-PMV retroviral protein… scientists have striven to find its chemical key for ten years now. Each enzyme has millions of possible combination in which it can fold its atom bonds, and determining its precise structure is a very laborious enterprise even for high-end computers with large processing power.

As a long-shot University of Washington biologists sent the virtual 3D model of the M-PMV to the online game Foldit, where gamers folded and turned it into a myriad of combinations. Eventually, and remarkably enough, the gamers obtained the optimum one – the state that needed the lowest energy to maintain….

“They actually did it in less than 10 days.”

Yeah gamers!

The reason why computers haven’t been able to do this, despite their evidently superior processing capabilities, is that they’re still far from being capable of having human-like spatial reasoning.


I buy that argument as part of it.  I also wonder about the characteristics of the neural super-net that is collaborative human interaction.


Interestingly enough, Foldit records the players’ actions and processes them in an algorithm which will eventually help the AI behind the game to someday be able to compile successful structures on its own.


Well, whether you buy that might depend whether you believe that algorithms can generate strong AI, or not.


Good stuff.

P.S. Let’s see if this successfully cross-posts to Facebook and Twitter…
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HRSFAlum Academia hits Pop Culture

A shout-out to HRSFAN Aaron J. Dinkin, linguist of the dialectological variety, who appeared as a Major Quoted Someone for Slate last month in an article on the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS aka NCS).

The article is raising awareness of some recent (~our lifetime) re-jiggering of “linguistic turf” for short vowels (cat, cot, caught, &c.), which seems to be radiating outward from areas like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit &c. The write-up is fun, and Aaron sounds in his element.

I like the content of the article, but am not sure where the tone is coming from. Aaron, Emily, and anyone else with opinions and/or data, please chime in:

  • Why does the introductory expert, William Labov, explicitly present the NCS as a PROBLEM? It’s kind of cool to be catching systematic pronunciation change in the act — especially if it may truly be as big a vowel shift as we’ve seen (heard) in the past millennium. And it’s not like Northeast/Midwesterners feel like we can’t understand or be understood by others. Is this actually an aesthetic judgment? I think most of us already feel English vowels are dead ugly, and don’t care except (possibly) in an operatic context.
  • Are the experiments described as supporting lack of self-awareness on the part of NCS speakers (Preston, Niedzielski) presented accurately? Neither seem damning to me. How is “flipping a mental coin” for cat v. cot in isolation — if in one’s own pronunciation they are homonyms — different from flipping a mental coin for to v. two v. too in isolation?

The Daniel Bartlett Memorial Mathematics Lectures

I just ran across this description of the Daniel Bartlett Memorial Mathematics Lectures. Hosted at the University of Arizona, they honor Dan Bartlett ’03, a HRSFAlum who passed away in 2006.

This isn’t particularly timely, I realize, but I thought others might be interested to know about it regardless. While news of Dan’s death did percolate through the alumni community, I at least had not heard any specifics in connection with it. The linked page includes a very nice section about Dan.

The lectures themselves are apparently designed to inform a general audience about higher mathematics, and are held annually at the University of Arizona (Dan was studying Algebraic Geometry at the UA math department at the time of his death). The next one will apparently be held this fall, and information about it can be found here.

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Superhero Law Blog

I just ran across Law and the Multiverse, a blog which tackles legal issues raised in superhero comics. I’m not a comics enthusiast or a lawyer myself, so I have little expertise with which to judge its quality, but I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who know more about either of these things than I do.

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Kevin on Tor about Watson on Jeopardy

Kevin Gold has got two very thought-provoking articles on the jeopardy match-up between human jeopardy champions and IBM’s AI “Watson”, up on Tor’s website. Check them out here and here.

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Tolkien academia for a popular audience

This Washington Post article discusses the story of a Tolkien scholar whose strategy of producing podcasts about Tolkien’s novels for public consumption seems to have won him some success in academia, not to mention a large online following.

The hub of his online activities is a website called The Tolkien Professor, which includes the aforementioned podcast lectures, links to both primary sources and criticism, and information about skype-in office hours.

Aside from the content of his work, Corey Olsen’s career trajectory strikes me as interesting in several respects. It reflects a more-or-less successful bid to make a career of studying genre literature in the academy. It reflects what I view as a commendable effort to reach out of the academy and engage a popular audience with academic research–I would love to see this happen more often, and to be rewarded rather than (at best) tolerated. Finally, of course, it raises the question of college classes being made available free and online–a trend which is extremely exciting, but which is not uncomplicated by questions about the future of academic institutions in a world where higher education costs are skyrocketing. Are universities going to go the way of the newspaper? How should we feel about that if they do?

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Four Revolutions

At the intersection of current affairs and computational linguistics, Language Log’s Philip Resnik has written a thought-provoking piece about how events in Egypt are fueling a shift in computational linguistics. He calls it the “social media revolution”, and main idea is that whereas current computation techniques are good at dealing with large, clean data sets (such as newspaper text, which comes in complete sentences, is edited, etc.), future techniques will need to deal with large *messy* data sets such as Twitter posts. In fact, the shift is well underway, and he discusses some of currently relevant applications. It’s a great window into the cutting edge in natural language processing.

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Who’s the Medium now? Part III

In the past few months I have been hoping to cultivate a personal-intellectual project regarding the many ways readers think about the stories, characters and authors they encounter. This is proceeding more slowly than I might have liked, but mostly for good reasons—there are so many other wonderfully interesting things to explore in parallel! (Two weeks into my freshman year at Harvard, a young man from my entryway declared forcefully at dinner, “It has always been too long since one has read The Little Prince. One should be reading it constantly, non-stop, day in, day out. Unfortunately, there are other books that require one’s attention.” Two days later I fell deeply in unrequited love with him.)

But at the very least I can return periodically to the questions raised for me so fortuitously by a good visit, so, here, allow me to follow up on a question I mentioned my post “Who’s the Medium now?.”

When a friend stated she cannot enjoy art from creators with whose views she disagrees, I asked first, “Does this also apply to non-fiction?” She said, “I don’t read non-fiction.” As she is in a graduate program in a humanities discipline, my response was a look of some bafflement.

She clarified that she essentially does not read any books in a ‘non-academic non-fiction’ type genre, and that there are some books “I have to read to do my work.” Although she has since clarified that these academic books are enjoyable, her initial phrasing gave me the impression that she read them only because she has to.

I do not know, though I would welcome more insight from her, what formed her preference (aversion? categoric disinterest?), or whether she considers it something good, bad, or indifferent about herself. Perhaps she merely has so much good fiction to read she has decided not to distract herself with some of the enticing offerings of “actual” present and past. (I occasionally wonder how I will ever get to any new books, since there are so many wonderful books to re-read: not just The Little Prince, of course, but also How to Eat Fried Worms, Watership Down, and the Fionavar Tapestry—although I more recently realized I can’t handle that world again.) Or perhaps her identification of an author’s ground axe(s) with the art makes her especially suspicious of authors working in actual facts. Or perhaps it simply hasn’t interested her so far.

But I doubt that good non-fiction cannot interest her. This world is, after all, a wondrous place, full of far more variety and subtlety than we can grasp. Good fictional worlds share the same qualities, to my interpretation: but it takes less skill in an author to go beyond the reader’s imagination when facts are involved.

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. (NOT SO in the case of Macbeth: the historical Lady Macbeth’s given name was Gruoch, but I understand there is no documentation beyond that of her being particularly intimidating or formidable.) But it is very often more interesting. The much-married Henry VIII of England and his extensive, fractured family provide a favorite example of mine. (My main source is Alison Weir’s joint biography The Six Wives of Henry VIII; among the prosaic fictional treatments I have briefly encountered are The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Autobiography of Henry VIII.)

When King Henry married Anne Boleyn, she was very likely in her early-mid thirties, pushing the safe limits for childbearing years in her time (and even in our time, pushing the easy limits for conception). So although Henry was fixated on securing his succession with a legitimate male heir, that was not a strong argument for marrying this woman.

Furthermore, the extrication process from his marriage to his first wife (his brother‘s widow), Katherine of Aragon, had dragged on for seven years, due in no small part to Queen Katherine’s own exemplary political and personal connections and her popularity with the British people. Henry could not expect to gain in domestic or foreign clout by repudiating the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Finally, during all but the last few months of the political and religious wrangling leading up to Henry’s “divorce,” he and Anne most likely were not sleeping together.

Which pretty much leaves Anne Boleyn’s own personal magnetism as the one most likely proximate cause for Henry’s insistence on marrying her. And I have to say I have a heck of a lot of respect for a woman who had an intensity of magnetism that maintained such a hold for so long over the imagination of a man who had very little rational expectation that she could bring to his complex life any relief (beyond, presumably, in bed), and every reason to wish he might be able to forget her.

Nancy Kress’s short story “And Wild for to Hold” is the only fiction I’ve seen on Anne that can so much as hold a candle to the compellingness of her history. (If only Siân Phillips had ever had a chance to play her!) Unfortunately, Kress’s treatment does not depict Henry or any of the other wives, each of whose own stories was fascinating and tragic in a uniquely real-life way.

I told my friend about Henry-and-wives the day she said she doesn’t read non-fiction. She was fascinated.

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Merits, representatives, and access

Probably dozens of you noticed Charles Murray‘s recent Washington Post essay days before I did. I came across it yesterday, looking over my husband’s shoulder as he chuckled at one of the (no doubt legion) bemused/snarky response weblog posts, one that block-quotes the several paragraphs listing examples of cultural touchstones that “members of the New Elite” are not familiar with (starting 3/4 of the way through Murray’s essay) and turns them into a “quiz” that readers can use to “rate” their own eliteness. So far, I have only read that response and Murray’s own essay; I will probably try to read up a bit on other responses once I have my own thoughts in a bit of order.

If I were Murray, I would be seriously upset—livid, to be specific—with myself and my editor for dropping those paragraphs into the essay, where they all but beg to be seized upon by hundreds of clever Netizen writers, dressed up (and talked up) as if they were the whole point, and swiftly shredded, item by item.

Because, you see (or, at least, as I see it), the examples paraded rather colorfully about are quite tangential to the fairly subtle, multi-faceted, and very much discussion-worthy issue Murray states: How does/can/should a governmental system strive for balanced representation, given that achieving balance along any one continuum means foregoing all consideration of one or more other salient measures?

Americans generally have liked to think of our culture as individualistic, and of our individuals as less bound by their personal, family, and local history than in earlier Western cultures (let alone non-Western). Nonetheless, for centuries the American elite was, as in Britain, France, Germany &c., by and large defined by blood and money, and the powerful were drawn almost entirely from the elite, although with ambition and ability one could push impressively far. Some of that has changed. But is an elite defined primarily by ambition and ability more diverse than its predecessors? In terms of the modes of thinking it naturally employs, the constituencies it can identify (with) and represent, and its abilities for intellectual cross-fertilization, perhaps not.

What type of segregation is imposed rather than alleviated by meritocracy? If admission to Harvard were merely a matter one’s parents’ connections, with one’s own accomplishments, hopes and plans incidental, one might very well encounter among one’s classmates more diversity of hopes and plans. (Of course, it does not follow from this that one necessarily would appreciate or even notice that available diversity.)

But to break the hold of a meritocratic elite, what could a culture or government do? Lottery admission to top schools, on the primary, secondary, or post-secondary level, wouldn’t do it, because even once in, a young person would have to succeed on his or her own merits. One neat idea got some new publicity in a Time opinion piece from Joe Klein earlier this fall: choose representatives quasi-randomly, but push them to inform themselves on the issues before them by reading and interacting with expert opinions. Turns out that, given power, the “average” person often will embrace responsibility.


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