Radio Free Albemuth, the Film

Fans of Philip K. Dick delight!  “Radio Free Albemuth”, the film, premiered on October 7th at the Gotham Screen International Film Festival.  For those who don’t know, Radio Free Albemuth (RFA) is one of Dick’s last novels, and was basically a warm up exercise or first version of his strange and incomparable gnostic hallucination known as Valis. For some reason RFA, Valis, and my favorite PKD novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, are often considered the Valis Trilogy, but I don’t think there is any evidence PKD thought of these in these terms about these three novels.
It seems that the film is currently just being screened at film festivals, and I can’t quite back up from the website whether or when it is destined for wider release.  Come on Holywood, you know PKD is worth some dollars!  By the way, Alanis Morrssette plays the character Sylvia in the movie.
In other PKD news there are rumors that Ridley Scott is producing a miniseries of PKD’s The Man in the High Castle.

Hella! Huh? Meh. + "How Many Licks? Or, How to Estimate Damn Near Anything"

What prefix do you use for 1027? If Austin Sendak has his way, it will be ">hella (also Time article here.) The diameter of the observable universe is about one hellameter. As a fellow member of the club “people from Yreka, CA who do physics,” I strongly support Austin’s idea. Indeed it now tops my list of proposed prefix changes, a list that includes “tiny-” for 10-5 and my former front runner for 1027 “bronto-.”
But the real question is what do we call 10x when we don’t know x? I suggest the prefix “huh”. Examples: “My answer of about 5 huh-people wasn’t good enough to land me a job at McKinsey and Company.” “Einstein calculated that the cosmological constant was about huh inverse seconds squared.”
Another prefix that is needed is to express when you don’t really care what the hell the size is. For this I might suggest “meh.” Example: “The circumference of a African swallow’s leg is about mehmeters, thus rendering it incapable of carrying a coconut.”
Which reminds me. A while back I got a review copy of How Many Licks?: Or, How to Estimate Damn Near Anything by Aaron Santos. Aaron has written a delightful little book on order of magnitude estimations. It’s full of fun little questions (how long would it take you to dig to China using a spoon. Well not very long if you are Chinese!) and then a description of a guess on how to calculate these sizes. He of uncertain principles reviewed the book earlier, and while I agree with the criticisms, I also think perhaps people like the uncertain principlizer and myself aren’t really the best audience for this book. The proper audience, to me, seems to be elementary to high school kids who are just learning the idea that “rate times time equals distance.” Thus I wouldn’t give it as a present to a college age student, but for a young kid who shows some interest in science I think its extremely important to learn how to estimate and to think hard about sizes and what particular numbers really mean, and this book nicely fills this niche.

Sonnet 59

In the New York Times today there is an interesting article about Helene Hegemann whose debut novel, “Axolotl Roadkill,” drew wide praise. You know this story: turns out that the book contains plagiarized passages (plagiarism: check, sales rising: check.) What I find fascinating about the story, however, is not this rehash of a tried and true marketing tactic, but Ms. Hegemann’s defense of herself, summarized in this quote:

“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

Why do I love this quote? Well first of all I love her use of the word “authenticity,” by which she certainly means a definition of the word “authentic” along the lines of: “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” In this view of the word, if what you do rings true with others, well then you are legit. But, amusingly, authentic also means “not false or imitation”—a definition the victims of her plagiarism might find a bit off. Even more amusingly the word “authentic” has an etymology from the Greek “authentƒìs” meaning perpetrator or master. Ah, the forms of language, how I love thee!
But beyond her garbled defense, I also find the quote fascinating because of Ms. Hegemann use of the Ecclesiastes defense:

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun – Ecclesiastes 1:9-14

(Google this passage leads you to such fascinating acts of logic flagellation as “If there is nothing new under the sun, how is it possible for people to keep finding new interpretations of Scripture?”.) I’ve always found this passage, and this view of the world, to be a uniquely human bastardization of what we see going on around us in the universe. Now certainly what Ms. Hegemann means in this sentence is that all literature is—must be—derived from past works: that all the good ideas have already been written about. She might even believe that her version is better (cue Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote)!
But to me what this view of literature shows is a vast narrowness in thinking about originality in the world. It makes me wonder, for example if Ms. Hegemann has ever picked up a copy of the glossy journal “Science”? For example, in the copy of this rag sitting beside me in this coffee shop I find the article Faintest Thrum Heralds Quantum Machines. This New Focus article describes recent work on cooling quantum systems spatial degrees of freedom to their ground state (which apparently the group at UCSB has achieved…no paper yet!) Now I’m not going to argue that today we are faced with a glut of repetitious rehashing of the multitudes of ideas, acts, and creations of the past. But we are also surrounded by a glorious amount of new creation: today scientists have created a large mechanical device which is so cold that it has a single quanta of energy. Baring knowledge of a vast alien civilization among whom this achievement was a past record, this seems to me a singular original act.
Everywhere I look, I see original acts: homomorphic encryption, a field effect transistor in graphene, and the imprint of the Lie Group E8 on an experiment describing a perturbation of the transverse Ising model. Nothing original Ms. Hegemann? I beg to differ.
But Ms. Hegemann probably shouldn’t feel that bad. I mean, she’s got great company in her mistaken view of originality. Quote “Sonnet 59”:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’er better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Yes, dear Shakespeare, you plagiarized, borrowed, rehashed, and “mixed” Greek tragedies. But you were dead wrong about your not being an original. And today those who can’t see the original in the world, well, perhaps they just need to change their job over from novelist over to today’s more creative work force: scientist.

What To Read?

Lately I feel like my reading material has gotten stuck in a rut. The feel is that everything I’m reading is a rehash of something I’ve read before. Okay, maybe it is just that the rain has returned to Seattle 🙂 Since I’m a subscriber to the belief that books that show you something outside of your current view of the world are the most important, a challenge to all two of remaining readers of this blog: what should I be reading that is most likely to be of such high information content? Recommendations? (For comparison, I think my library is available on librarything. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever, though you should be warned that I was a literature major, so I’ve done most of the snotty literature.)

Science Fiction Prototyping

Last Friday I went to at talk by Brian David Johnson from Intel. That sentence sounds like any other that an academic could write–always with the going to seminars we acahacks are. That is until you hear that Brian David Johnson is a “consumer experience architect” in the Digital Home – User Experience Group at Intel. Okay that is a bit odd for a typical seminar speaker, but still lies in the “reasonable” range. And then you find out the title of his talks is “Brain Machines: Robots, Free Will and Fictional Prototyping as a Tool for AI Design” and you say, whah? Which is exactly what a group of about forty of us said upon hearing about this seminar, and is exactly why we showed up to hear the talk!
Continue reading “Science Fiction Prototyping”

Igon Value Problems Over Dilettante Matrices

Friday the 13th is, apparently, a day of must read articles. This time it’s Steven Pinker’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures. Readers who have taken linear algebra will be amused:

He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aper√ßus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

Cormac Interview in the WSJ

This interview with Cormac McCarthy by the Wall Street Journal is well worth reading (Coincidentally(?) I just started rereading the Border Trilogy.)
This amused me

[CM:] Instead, I get up and have a cup of coffee and wander around and read a little bit, sit down and type a few words and look out the window.

simply because I can attest that yes, indeed, this is what he does! And, well, because my time at the Santa Fe Institute followed a similar pattern 🙂
On the other hand here is a more ominous reason why I enjoyed (my too brief) time at SFI:

WSJ: What kind of things make you worry?
CM: If you think about some of the things that are being talked about by thoughtful, intelligent scientists, you realize that in 100 years the human race won’t even be recognizable. We may indeed be part machine and we may have computers implanted. It’s more than theoretically possible to implant a chip in the brain that would contain all the information in all the libraries in the world. As people who have talked about this say, it’s just a matter of figuring out the wiring. Now there’s a problem you can take to bed with you at night.

Nobel Lit

The Nobel prize in Politics Literature has been awarded to Herta M√ºller “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”

New Pynchon Novel Out

Well there goes a chunk of my time. A new Pynchon novel is out: Inherent Vice. According to this New York Times review it’s much more like Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49 than Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m sure there will be much teeth gnashing among the literati, but personally, I’m a huge fan of Vineland
I’ve previously mused that a reason that Vineland gets poor reviews is (a) “Gravity’s Rainbow” is pretty epic and has a subject with which current readers can approach without dislodging their own beliefs too much, and (b) literature professors don’t like being told the sixties failed.
Anyway time to see if it’s in the bookstore! I’m particularly excited to hear that there is a character named “Shasta” and that Lemurians make an appearance. Pynchon’s definitely spent some time in my old neck of the woods!