Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: August, 2003

In Brief:

Data Mining the Amazon. The only insight I’ve gained from this little preview is that people who buy political tracts just buy weird stuff in general.

Desiree Dolron. Here’s some photography that eerily resembles paintings.

Jet Budelman. Emotional photojournalism in black and white.

Male Librarian Centerfold. Funny thing is, I totally relate to his stories. I worked as a librarian once and boy, were there some crazy patrons.

The Blog Herald. Fresh blog news, hot off the presses.

Writing to the Moment. An entire class about blogs! I’m totally jealous.

Shag. Retro-illustration. Stylistically clean and quirky. And as a Scorp myself, this is really amusing.

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Version 1.8

Well, it’s back to a minimalist design.

I can’t seem to stick to just one template. I always have this need to “reinvent myself.” Am I fickle? Am I unsatisfied with myself? I don’t know, maybe I’m all of that along with everything else.

Actually, I had a completely different layout in mind in the beginning. It was gray and boxy and had non-intuitive navigation. I really liked it. But the picture I wanted to use with it required permission from the illustrator–permission that I never got. I have a feeling that he just chucked my correspondence in the trash and never bothered to read it, let alone respond.

I envy the people who can leave their sites looking the same way forever. It’s like building a brand name. People come back knowing what to expect and after a while, they start feeling chummy and consider you an old friend. They feel like they’re on “your side” because they’ve been there since the beginning.

Every time I change versions because I feel like it, I also feel like I’m alienating everyone else. Just when is she going to change the site again? It’s a measure of unpredictability and most people, common sense tells me, don’t like change.

Anyways, just be glad I’m not feeling mischievious enough to put titillating pictures on this site so that the next time you read me at work, you might get in trouble.

On another note: I’ve also completely rewritten the about section.

The Mystery of Consciousness
John R. Searle

As a compact collection of reviews masquerading as essays, The Mystery of Consciousness is Searle’s answer to boiling down the various (and sometimes obfuscating) theories in modern neurobiology to succinct and clear ideas. Primarily, the author has focused on the giants in the field: Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman, Roger Penrose, Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers, and Israel Rosenfield.

I’ve studied the theories put forth by these scientists but haven’t read their books concerning the topic (except for Francis Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul) so I have very little basis to critique on except for Searle’s lucid writing. His assessment of Crick, however, was much in line with mine when I read The Astonishing Hypothesis–an excellent primer on the biological basis on perception, but quite weak on the philosophy.

One interesting facet about this book are the little discussions the author has with some of the originators of various theories. For instance, Searle gets into a bit of a spat with Dennett who claims that human consciousness is only a collection of memes and that we are little more than zombies mechanically doing things and saying things as the situation warrants and not because we actually mean it.

On the other extreme of the spectrum is Chalmers who supports panpsychism, i.e. that consciousness is everywhere. That means that not only you and I have consciousness, but so does the dog. And the thermostat. And the rocks. And the entire Milky Way. Searle rightly calls this view absurd–if it is so, then consciousness should be in the heart as well as the brain, but we know that isn’t true. As a defense, Chalmers manages to trip over his feet by denying that he ever said that.

It’s a good compendium of the present theories about consciousness. I only wish I had read the rest of the books first.

* * *
Unconscious Mutterings

  1. Kiss:: Lips
  2. Nothing:: Much
  3. Reach:: Up
  4. Late:: Owl
  5. Stump:: The Genius
  6. Dreams:: Weird
  7. LOL:: Lord oh Lord (this always comes to mind first for some reason–maybe because I don’t like this particular acronym–instead of “laughing out loud”)
  8. Ornament:: Trinket
  9. Neck:: Wring
  10. Guitar:: String

A Few Random Notes

I really don’t like other people humming or singing to themselves. Actually, I’ve known it to be irritating for quite some time, but I’ve realized that the sort of annoyance I’ve reserved for this is beyond that. Somewhat like a buzzing cricket inside your head that won’t go away. But worse. It doesn’t matter if the person is an accomplished singer with perfect pitch or sounds worse than a bleating goat. It doesn’t matter if I’m concentrating on something terribly important or drifting off to lala land.

I don’t hum or sing to myself (I’m too quiet, remember?) but I don’t mind if something like a radio is playing in the background either. The radio, at least, is satisfied to remain in the background and has an off switch. Singing to oneself is too much like overhearing a conversation that’s disguised as one that I’m not supposed to hear. But it’s too loud and intrusive–as if people are shouting “Here I am!” two inches away from my face, demanding attention like whining kids who haven’t had their diapers changed.

I do realize, however, that some people can’t abide silence. There must always be something going on. To them, silence is the equivalence of sensory deprivation. It would drive them mad. But for others, this singing aloud seems like an ingrained habit for attention-seeking and crying wolf.

Maybe my dislikes only shows my inflexibility and lack of tolerance. Or maybe I’m too repressed. But I have never asked anyone to stop singing even as it grated tortuously on my sensibilities.

The mailbox has vanished.

It’s not like I’m expecting snail mail for the next week, but it would be helpful to know where it went. My housemates and the neighbors have no idea what happened. There have been no warnings from housing. The ground where the mailbox had been planted is completely pristine. It’s as if it never was there in the first place at all.

Pamela
Samuel Richardson

In a nutshell, a young woman manages to keep her virtue intact throughout various trials and as a result nabs a husband who is both wealthy and of relatively high social standing. Thus the subtitle, Virtue Rewarded.

The novel was actually quite popular during the 18th century and people began naming their daughters after Pamela–in admiration for the character or even in hopes that their children will be as “lucky.” In the second half of the novel, Pamela lists no less than 48 points in order to be a good wife, and if that wasn’t good enough, Richardson once again summarized Pamela’s good characteristics at the end.

Pamela has also been regarded as the grandmother of all bodice-rippers, although the modern bodice-rippers often have female characters quite willing to shed their clothes. It’s disconcerting, however, that in the first half of the book, Pamela’s would-be husband is a boor and a rake: he hides in closets to spy on her, attempts rape, reads her private correspondences, kidnaps her, and has an extremely volatile temperament. On the contrary, after he marries her, he’s always described as kind and generous.

Perhaps this was the first crystallization of what women at the time (and most likely probably still) think that they can do–reform men with marriage. But this day in age, especially in western societies, the modern woman would not regard her “virtue” as her sole bargaining chip. Nor would she put up with bad behavior from a mate, let alone a potential one on the first date.

* * *
Three books in one week so far! I haven’t done that in a long time. But I’m not sure how long this streak will last. Before I had put up a blog, I had a relatively large section of reviews for books I had been reading, which of course, nobody visited. I’ve probably mentioned it before numerous times, but the current books I am reading are always listed on the bookrolling page (also can be found under “links”).

Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Peter Høeg

The authorities say that a small boy played along the roof and then fell to his death. They close the case. But Isaiah’s neighbor, Smilla Jaspersen knows they’re wrong. She has a “sense of snow” and the boy’s footprints doesn’t look like he had been playing. They looked like he had been running away from something. Or someone.

The novel is a mix between character study and action adventure. Smilla is a tough, cold heroine–bitter, cynical, and not entirely likeable. But she has fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities: her relationship with her father, her fears of commitment, her dual cultural identity. She’s tactless and violent. She’s smart. And she likes nice clothes.

Høeg’s descriptions of the secondary characters are also just as quirky. The mysterious mechanic who is a stutterer and a dyslexic also knows how to tape phones and rig doors in case a third party is listening or breaking into an apartment. The former secretary of the Cryolite Corporation who is ultra-religious and rule-abiding decides to help Smilla on her quest. And of course, there are others, too numerous to list here.

The turn in believability, however, came when a forensics expert and Smilla’s father (also a doctor) helps her identify some x-rays. Their speculations bordered, well, on the science fiction. It came as no surprise, then, that the big bad villain is none other than an unscrupulous ex-microbiologist with a miserable childhood, involved in drug trafficking, and obsessed with fame and glory.

The author was definitely on the roll with his depictions of psychological motivations (and his not so subtle dig of the mathematician trumping the biologist) but I found the last part, especially the plot, tacked on as if it was required to be there to become an international bestseller.

* * *
The Thursday Threesome: Health, Wealth and Happiness

Onesome: Health- A loved one dies unexpectedly. You’re the next of kin. Do you donate whatever organs are useful, or does the idea freak you out? Should someone have planned ahead?

I don’t know. To be honest, if someone close to me died, the shock would be great enough that I wouldn’t be thinking about anything let alone organ donations. I think I still have enough cultural hang-ups that I would hesitate to donate organs that weren’t mine.

Twosome: Wealth- Your beloved Great Aunt Fern dies and leaves you two million dollars (after taxes!). But there’s a catch. You have to spend it all in 24 hours. Buying stocks and bonds doesn’t count and there’s a $500,000 limit on a new home. You may give some of the money to charity, but don’t use it as a cheat to make it work out. How would you spend the money?

I suppose the answer you’re looking for isn’t supposed to be altruistic. Well, I’ll spend it on books. Maybe a computer or some other techno-gadget. And getting rid of my college expenses.

Threesome: Happiness- John F. Kennedy defined happiness as “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” What is your definition of happiness? Have you attained it?

I don’t think anyone can obtain absolute happiness. Relative happiness and contentedness, perhaps. I guess the key is to do what you want to do. Don’t let anyone force you to do or be anything that is their idea of the perfect decision.

More Links:

Old people have a sense of humour. I never thought it was a question of having or not having a sense of humor, but whether or not it was the same kind of humor. Most older people I know personally don’t have the same type of humor that I do. Then again, most of my peers don’t share my sense of humor. Maybe they should do a study on me to see if I lack a sense of humor.

Sweet benefits for chocolate lovers. So it’s supposed to be good for your heart. I’ve also heard that eating only egg whites are supposed to be better for your cholesterol. Simply old wives tales and anecdotal experience confirmed.

Free Blank Outline Maps of the Countries and Continents. (via Shawn Allison) Okay, I’m no geography buff, but I have an idea on how to use these that have nothing to do with their original purpose. Writers who are world-building can use them! Instead of drawing your own map, you can use these blank ones for your own world–just turn the countries sideways or backwards or upside down or even splice and glue different ones together.

Death of a Schoolboy. I am struck by how helpless all the adults sound in this article. I will offer some guesses (although they are probably all wrong): the mother didn’t pull her son out of school when she found out that he was being bullied because she is a single mother who can’t afford to send her children to a different school. The school officials did nothing because they may have feared backlash from the other childrens’ parents claiming favoritism.

Table of Condiments That Periodically Go Bad. I’m not sure if I already posted this, but oh well. I find it amusing.

Steinways With German Accents. Steinways are too darn expensive. All I can do is stare and drool.

Random Linkage:

5 Times More Fla. Kids to Repeat 3rd Grade. I’m not sure how I feel about repeating a grade. When I was in grade school, I always had this irrational anxiety about being held back, that someone would tell me that I’m not good enough to advance to the next grade. The kids who skipped grades did nothing to ease my anxiety. If anything, I harbored a secret skipping-grades-envy. I guess this stemmed from the time when I was “held back” a grade (for about a week or two) when I moved to the United States–the American teachers were suspicious of Canadian teaching methods. I also once had a neighbor whose mother held her back instead of the school system due to “social maturity.” Privately, I thought that was a ridiculous reason. In some ways, that girl was a lot more “socially mature” than I was.

12-year-old begins medical school. The first-year medical students moving in next door are at least a decade older than this kid, but looking at the picture, he doesn’t really look that different than every other geeky Asian doctor wannabes. I have no idea what goes on inside a genius’s brain or exactly what the dynamics are like in his family, but I know plenty of Asian parents who could kill to have this kind of kid. Let’s just hope that these Asian parents (or any parents, really) don’t read this story and start bullying their own kids to “do better.”

Cell transplant restores vision. I’m not as surprised as the BBC that there is a discrepancy between visual perception and the mechanics of vision. There have been plenty of studies done previously which showed that visual perception is all in the brain. People who have damage in the visual areas of their brain typically don’t see like normal people even if the eyes themselves are working perfectly. My guess is that the man in this article developed different neural circuitry when his vision was damaged by compensating his other senses. Many visual cues such as depth perception are learned and not innate.

CD-Recordable discs unreadable in less than two years. I’m totally paranoid now. I guess I need to make backups of my backups.

Microbes in Hot Springs Test Notion of Global Travel. They say that the exception will prove the rule. I don’t know–I’m witholding my judgement for the time being. Most of it sounds like speculation at the moment.

The End of Evolution? Here’s some more scientific speculation. Well, one thing’s for sure. The human body plan is not going to go through any radical changes during my or your lifetime.

Past Life Analysis. This silly generator told me that in 925 I was a writer, dramatist or organizer of rituals.

The Glass Bead Game
Hermann Hesse

Although some reviewers have gushed that the book had “changed their life,” The Glass Bead Game is by no means a comprehensive tract on philosophy despite lengthy character monologues on the contrary. Nor is it on the surface about the subject of the title. It’s a fictional biography of Joseph Knecht, the Magister Ludi or Master of the Game. However, Knecht isn’t simply good at playing the Glass Bead Game which is only vaguely sketched out as a mixture of chess, history, and a musical theory exam, he is the master at playing with life. He enters the rat race as an anonymous orphan in a public school and ends at the pinnacle of his career in the highest position that exists.

Hesse illustrates human nature in a way that the reader slowly realizes that he has known all along and has perhaps refused to acknowledge because it is neither pretty or ideal. Aren’t we all in some sort of rat race, looking forward to what is next on the hierarchy and ignoring our urges and fears and wants?

It took a very long time for me to finish this novel because every few pages I would have to put the book down just to think about what Hesse said and how relevant it was to me. I was stuck for a while after the section detailing Knecht’s life in his early twenties because I was a little apprehensive at what would come next. Up until that point, Knecht’s life bore an eerie similarity to mine–it was almost as if Hesse was going to write my future in the next pages.

There are also a couple of other points that struck me as valid. Knecht is cloistered in an academic environment that is inward-looking, arrogant, and isolationist. The type of academia described was as stark and fanatical as religious hermits who ignore the outside world. In fact, they disdain it, not unlike real life professors stuck in their ivory towers. Another point, although relatively minor in comparison, was the suppression of Knecht’s creative urge in favor of doing something more “intellectually worthwhile.” Is everything becoming so focused that anything that gives a hint of pleasure is regarded as frivolous?

The aspect of The Glass Bead Game that I didn’t like, however, was its lack of female characters. Yes, the author died before the time of major feminist movements and yes, the female characters were not major characters, but I didn’t see why he could paint such vivid characterizations of the men yet let the women languish in flat, cardboard states. All the female characters were wives and smothering mothers. They were also ambitious, selfish, and painted as distractions in the form of lust. To be spiritually and intellectually pure, the protagonist kept out of contact with them and didn’t think about them–much like, I suppose, a monk in a secluded monastery.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend the book, especially if you feel up to the task of wrapping your mind around something quite substantial.

If you’re curious, I first found out about the book on this website.