Monday, May 26, 2003

Through recommendations or whatnot, these are the books i am going through next (all summaries from Amazon):

Our Lady of the Circus by David Toscana

The Amazing Mantecon Brothers Circus, a down-at-the-heels roadshow of freaks, failures, and outcasts, dissolves after its arrival at an abandoned Mexican town. With no water, no food, no clocks, and no mirrors, the characters in Santa Maria confront, often humorously, the very essence of life and survival.

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

In this novella, written in 1976, narrator and authorial alter ego Hanta meditates on the 35 years he has spent at a hydraulic press in a dark cellar, compacting waste paper and books proscribed by various regimes. Though he no longer weeps or protests when rare treasures appear in his press, the books that he must destroy become his whole life, his only companions.

The Life of Insects by Victor Pelevin

This time, Pelevin sets his story in a sleazy Crimean resort town, where his characters eat, drink, make merry, make love... and turn into insects. This is no soft-focus allegory: the author is superbly specific about his entomological creations.

New Ideas from Dead Economists: An Introduction to Modern Economic Thought by Todd G. Buchholz

In this revised edition of a book first published in 1989, economics is accessible, relevant, and fascinating. It's even fun--for example, when he uses the cast of Gilligan's Island and Henny Youngman jokes to explain complex economic theories.

Islandia: The Epic Underground Classic by Austin Tappan Wright

On his death, Austin Tappan Wright left the world a wholly unsuspected legacy. Among this distinguished legal scholar's papers were thousands of pages devoted to a staggering feat of literary creation - a detailed history of an imagined country complete with geography, genealogy, representations from its literature, language and culture.

Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss
The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi

If you read mysteries for insights into other cultures and different periods, this excellent translation of the first novel by Akimitsu Takagi, who became one of Japan's leading crime writers, is an eye-opener

Thursday, May 22, 2003

the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed
the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O
that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like
fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes
and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and
the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and
Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the
rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and
how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he
asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my
arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts
all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will

James Joyce, Ulysses
I lose my keys because I am absent-minded and I sometimes wonder whether I have lost other pieces of myself here and there, tucked inside my books, dropped stupidly at a street corner, left behind in some former house. Days go by and it feels as if there is something i need to remember, that this day has its own undusted place and has been re-ordered, remixed, lost in the shuffle and chaos of my past. These pieces of me are gone, likely forever. In these small moments, the past lingers like a dull echo, a faded photograph that has lost its color and brilliance.

Saturday, May 17, 2003

I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy.
Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you've defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.
[Fear] seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a worldess darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.

-from Martel's Life of Pi

Friday, May 16, 2003

I learned piano on my own. By banging on pianos I managed to deduce some of their patterns, decipher some of their encrypted beauty.

Much of what i created, I discovered later through a smattering of theory, was in minor keys - particularly A-minor and F#-minor - with many of the bass lines formed as simple triads. Minor keys are the musical incarnation of dark romance, of passion and abandon.

This week i started playing piano again. I picked up the sheet music for Tiersen's Valse d'Amelie (mp3 file), which seems to be well within my range.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Two MP3s:

Black Box Recorder - These are the things
Blackalicious - Make you feel that way
Random thoughts while walking to work today:

- The evolution of childrens drawings as a cultural map. When I grew up, all of us kids drew the same car, the same house, the same trees. The car was boxy with an ample trunk, like a Ford LTD. The house is a small frame house with a working chimney. The tree was a stick with a bush of green leaves perched on top. Where did these cultural figures come from? To start with, I grew up in San Diego, where few houses have chimneys. Are kids of today drawing cars that look more like SUVs?

- In college, studying physics, I would rarely read entire papers - short though they may be. I read abstracts and summaries. And from the digest I would then work out on my own how the authors had developed their conclusions. More times than most, I failed. Stumped, I then skimmed the paper to see what I had missed. Often the authors had taken another unexpected line of thought entirely. But, it is good to see the problem from many perspectives, to not be channeled into an inevitable train of thought. Most ideas are not inevitable, it is us that decide to make them so.

- Reason and logic will only take you so far. Devout fans of those two will find their world constrained. I am a fan of the unexpected leap. The intuitive flash, the unexpected insight that does not seem to follow from anything else. It is a willing blurring of the world. Often it is a matter of becoming unattached from words and terminology. A devotion to words is a devotion to the knives which carve up the world. Some ideas are unexplainable and we can only gesticulate and point.

- Some precepts have been hard for me to learn and accept. As a kid, I didnt understand how science could proceed without being one large tautology, like a dictionary that explains every word in terms of another word. But what word is fundamental? What are the axioms? (my teachers considered me hopeless and i failed my elementary school science classes)

- I am reading The Life of Pi and it is a wonderful parable. Our struggle through life is reduced to a story about a boy and a tiger drifting on a boat. Their survival is a mutual struggle. Pi manages to control his fears and hopes and anxieties as he confronts life in all its naked horror and beauty.

- Monday we skinny-dipped in a small pool carved from the stone out under the trees and the glorious sun. A family of deer strolled by and gave us wary looks.

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Gone for a few days to celebrate a friend's birthday.
We are headed here, where you should go too when you have a chance. It is not the type of place that is well-advertised. More of a word-of-mouth type thing.

This is one of the best spots in California. The big decisions here are whether to sit and read your book, get a glass of wine from the kitchen, or go soak in the tubs. There's a shallow pool great for lying down in and staring at the stars.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Today was my first day back climbing at Mission cliffs. A few months ago I badly sprained my ankle. I was on crutches for a while and when I did start to walk again it was a slow, painful thing. My ankle remained stiff and its only recently that it regained the range of motion that it once had.

I am an amateur climber but I can see the appeal. Staying aloft, clinging to the wall, requires that you focus entirely on this one task. There is no room for daydreaming or stray, idle thoughts. Each step is like a puzzle element. You calculate the moves that are both safe and that will lead you on a sure path to the top.

I am tempted to write more here about my younger days, but I will do so later. Surfing had this same appeal. Beyond you and the ocean there is nothing else. For the moment, the rest of the world seems futile and immaterial and this thing, you and your surfboard and the unsteady waves and the lurking depths beneath you, have the capability of infusing your mind with a sense of meaning.

Die hard surfers have the same sometimes vacant look of serious climbers. They discovered another world and part of themselves now resides there. This world is not so serious when you realize, when you know deeply, that it is only one of many.

Monday, May 05, 2003

My interest in astronomy was awakened when I was 16 years old. Through a recommendation from an older classmate, I went to the Thacher SSP program.

The class size was 36 and we were all housed together in a mountain campus for six weeks. This sequestration made us all very close. Many couples formed among the co-ed group and strong friendships were forged. One friend of mine, made that summer, lives in Germany now where he works for the Max Planck Institut. Another works as a cryptographer here in the Bay Area.

Besides lectures and other activities, our main project was to observe a particular celestial object and spend the summer tracking it across the sky and calculating its orbital components. We were broken up into teams of 3 students and assigned to track the orbit of some celestial body - we were lucky to get the comet Giacobini-Zinner which was then streaming through the solar system.

We used an old telescope that demanded heavy involvement from us. It had no tracking mechanism so 'tracking' consisted of one of us staring into a small guidescope for up to an hour, picking a tracking star, and keeping the telescope focused on it by making fine adjustments to where the telescope was pointing. It was hard work but the end result is that we had helped to make new observations which we collated with other "real" astronomers across the globe.

The experience transformed me, it drew me in deeply. I still remember all of it, the luminescent stars, the fleeing little comet and us three kids in a small observatory, bleary-eyed and bathed in infrared light.

Friday, May 02, 2003

Buenos dias, profesora! Como esta? Yo soy musica.

(Me saying the above (wav file))
Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.
Jorge Luis Borges

The practice mirror is to be used for the correction of faults, not for a love affair, and the figure you watch should not become your dearest friend.
Agnes De Mille

Our inventions mirror our secret wishes.
Lawrence Durrell

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Most summers as a child, my family would make its way down to my grandmothers house in Mexico.

The house was not what it once was. Before my grandfather died, they had had not only pigs and chickens but also cows and a small stable of horses. My grandmother, to make ends meet, had sold off most of the livestock and even sold off tracts of land.

Nevertheless, the now small house still had its charms for me. In Mexico, many houses are built around a central patio. The patio is open to the elements and is surrounded by covered corridors. The rooms of the house are off of these corridors, surrounding the patio. When it rains, for example, the safest way to get from room to room is of course to walk around the central courtyard. But, the best and fastest way, certainly for a small child, is to run madly through the rain.

My mother would pass the summers cooking and gossiping with neighbors. All the people in the small village would walk from house to house to stop and chat, moving almost synchronously, like some large coordinated dance. Children, including my brother and I, would hop around like cats, climbing random fixtures, sitting at first quietly and then making sudden, unexpected dashes, playing with slingshots and soccerballs, whatever we could find.

My father would spend most of his days sitting in the sun listening to old records, Beethoven, Mexican mariachi, Benny Goodman, even Chuck Berry. He would invite over his own friends, other men, and together they would concoct some new liquor, usually a mixture of tequila and the juice of an exotic fruit.

My father also often had some project, or perhaps better said, some crazy idea that occupied him wholly throughout the summer. In these schemes, he would recruit us kids since we were cheap labor and were always game for something new.

One summer he declared to us kids that after some initial investigations of his own, he had come to the conclusion that there was hidden treasure somewhere in the walls of my grandmothers house.

There were old stories and rumors, he explained, that sometime during the Mexican Revolution, my grandmothers house had hosted a small cadre of bandits (for some reason the word bandit always summons up for me a picture of an unshaved man with an eyepatch) and that the bandits had arrived with stolen treasures. Apparently they had left the house to go one some new raid but then never returned, presumably either captured or had a bad run-in with other bandits. In any case, my father concluded, the treasure must still be inside the house.

And so it began. My father was our commanding general. We were his dutiful lieutenants. He had made a rough sketch of the house and pointed out to us where he believed the treasure might be hidden. Our first task he explained was to scout out likely hiding places. He showed us how we should knock on walls and listen for the sort of non-thud sound that would betray the presence of a hollow.

In retrospect, I do wonder why my mother showed no reaction to having a small army of neighborhood kids stalking through rooms, knocking on walls, crouching in corners. She must have dismissed these antics as the impenetrable games of children.

The next phase arrived rather quickly. My most vivid memory is of my brother telling me excitedly that something had been found and that even now my father was out back excavating it. I ran out behind the house and discovered my father kneeling on the muddy ground with his hands reaching into some hollow he had dug up. I've found it! There's a metal box buried in the walls!, he turned to me and said in triumph and then returned to his work.

My father did indeed make a find but it was less than he expected. The metal box was an old ammunition container and inside the box was no treasure, it was nothing but paper - old receipts, tax documents, scribbles. This box more likely held the secrets of an old tax dodger than of a pirate. Still, my father diligently studied all the papers, hoping some new mystery, perhaps a battered treasure map would be revealed.

It was in the following days that the women of the house, to their horror, discovered my father's excavations. They were outraged that he had been digging small holes in my grandmothers house, all for what they considered a childish game. My father, under their stark glare, made a sheepish confession.

It was hard not to feel pity for my father and, at first, we did help him to undo his destruction. But my mother, in a fit of vengeance, deemed that my father would have no help. That it was his idea, not ours and so it was his burden.

I wouldn't say my brother and I were happy to be characterized as unwilling pawns. But, if it meant we got to run off and play while my father plastered walls, then so be it. The rest of that summer was fairly miserable for my father although some of his elder friends did come to help him, mixing strange tequila drinks with him and listening to old records as they leisurely rebuilt my grandmothers house.