Sunday, November 25, 2012

The greatest poem ever written - Love and tensor algebra

From Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, translated by Michael Kandel:

In an attempt to test out a new "bard machine":
"Very well. Let's have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit."
"Love and tensor algebra? Have you taken leave of your sense?" Trurl began, but stopped, for his electronic bard was already declaiming:
Come, let us hasten to a higher plane,
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n,
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

Come, every frustum longs to be a cone,
And ever vector dreams of matrices.
Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:
It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space
Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways.
Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,
We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I'll grant thee random access to my heart,
Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love:
And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove,
And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not - for what then shall remain?
Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converge, O lips divine!
The producs of our scalars is defined!
Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
Cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a2 cos 2 φ!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No comment | The Book of Words

You know that feeling, when you read a book that someone has told you is brilliant? And you know to go in with low expectations, because obviously people have different tastes. And then... nothing. You have no opinion of the book; you are left with nothing from its writing or its characters. Neither like nor dislike, just an empty, gaping hole of no-opinion.

So that's what I had with Jenny Erpenbeck's The Book of Words.

There may be a cheap explanation: I was heavily distracted when I read the second half of the book. I had to stop midway through the week, picking it up again over the weekend, and to say that I gave The Book of Words my full attention over said weekend would be a complete and utter falsehood - I didn't. I flitted in and out of the book, using it as a means to pass the time. Not exactly a stellar way to read.

But I don't really like this "distracted" explanation for one main reason: a good book manages to displace a reader from his/her distracted state and engage them. The Book of Words just didn't engage me. And it's not the first time, either. I've been trying to review Yoram Kaniuk's Sapir winning 1948 for weeks now, but I realized that part of my struggle with it has been that it left little to no impact on me. These are books that I spent time reading, yet they have not affected me in the least.

I hate this situation because it always feels as though I'm the one who's in the wrong. I'm the one who isn't clever enough to understand all the references and subtleties of Erpenbeck's story (if there is one). I'm the one who didn't understand the strength of the writing (even it didn't leave much of an impression). I'm the one who's wrong for not understanding why this is a good book. Having no opinion is worse than having a negative opinion. If I didn't like a book, I can explain why. When I leave a book like The Book of Words, however, I'm emptied of all opinions and thoughts. I have nothing to say.

There you have it: I have nothing to say about The Book of Words, only that I didn't understand it. Whether or not this is because of everything else that's going on right now is irrelevant. The fact is, I read a book. It made no impression. I won't recommend it. End of story.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who says we don't read?

This is from a few weeks ago, but still: Told. You. So. Little is as frustrating as constantly being told that my generation doesn't read. Little is as delightful as finding further proof that this claim is wrong.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Footnotes vs. endnotes

If there's one thing reading in Hebrew has taught me, it's the value of a properly placed footnote. Unlike English, where footnotes are almost exclusively reserved for nonfiction or particularly whimsical books (Jonathan Stroud, Terry Pratchett, I am looking at you!), footnotes are fairly common in Hebrew translated literature, as a means of bridging the typically wide gap between cultures. This can lead to some fairly boring translations (translations of tatami are unnervingly common...), but occasionally provides interesting information on play-on-words, or locations, or... anything else.

I realized a few years back - I like footnotes. I know: technically they break the flow of the story, they can be unnecessary, they can be randomly specific or absurdly vague... But overall, I've found footnotes to be extremely useful in certain cases. They are easy to read if I want, easy to ignore if I don't, and their benefits overall outweigh any of their detriments.

Endnotes, on the other hand... I do not like endnotes. Here's why:

  1. They appear only in classics.
  2. They are usually about historical cultural differences, usually plot irrelevant.
  3. They are impossible to read within the flow of the story.
For example: I was reading Middlemarch a month ago (I will discuss it soon, I promise!). My edition has these long, bizarrely detailed endnotes about the most random details. They didn't add anything and were just entirely unnecessary. At some point I stopped reading them. So what's the point? This has happened to me many, many times and I just don't understand it. The only justification I can find for endnotes versus footnotes is in the case when they're long and even then, sometimes it'd probably be better if the notes themselves were shorter. Is this just a personal thing? What do you think - footnotes or endnotes? Or nothing at all?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Death of the dedicated eReader? I think not...

This is an interesting and vaguely weird article about the potential death of the eReader. Yes, you read that correctly - now we speculate as to when eInk technology will become obsolete because of tablets and alternative eReading devices. To which I say the same thing I say every time someone freaks about the impending death of the book: um... no? Or rather, I suppose: probably not?

The reason I am fairly confident that dedicated eReaders will survive (in some form) is similar enough to the reason I think that print books will survive. While there are relatively few people in the world who are considered dedicated readers, there is still a fairly large global market for people who read enough to justify buying an eReader. Some will prefer the shift to digital, true, but not all digital is made equal. I cannot see someone like my aunt - who now reads exclusively off her Kindle - making the move towards an iPad or any other tablet computer. It's just not the same. Every time I've tried to read off tablets, I've found that it's a little more distracting than my Sony Reader. The reason I like my Reader is because it mimics the traditional reading experience incredibly well (while also giving me a few bonuses, like internet access). A device as glossy as my laptop? Not quite as appealing.

What I find especially interesting about this article, though, is that it establishes eInk devices as part of our general reading history. By attempting to spell its doom, Jeremy Wagstaff is essentially acknowledging eInk's position as a legitimate reading form. And like with the case of critics crying about the demise of the printed word, I get the feeling that this article will only emphasize just how wrong it's assessment is...