Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Art Beyond the Human

April 16, 2017

Well, I’d read about bower birds since childhood, and later about paintbrush-wielding elephants, but the former seemed to be the sole example of deliberate manipulation of the surroundings to create beauty.  Until I saw BBC’s Life Story – here’s a clip from it, a video of a stunning piece of mathematical art created by a puffer fish.  One more nail in the coffin of human specialness!  Although I will put us on the top for destructive potential.

The puffer fish’s remarkable performance reminded me of an article I’d read recently, about mathematics as performance and play, with particular attention to sea slugs – but I suspect one can argue that all of nature is performing what we might call mathematics, or at least that mathematics is one of the things nature performs, embodies, articulates, along with art.

How very fortunate for us humans not to be alone as artists and mathematicians!

Thoughts like a herd of reindeer on a cold December night

December 23, 2016

It is a dark night in December, a cold and dreary New England night. I am returning to this blog after a long absence, because the times we live in – such dark times! – compel even as reluctant a voice as mine to declare itself. To breathe is to be alive, but to inscribe with electrons on a screen is to be alive a little more loudly. So to speak.

So, to speak.

The thoughts going through my head are like a herd of reindeer on a frozen tundra. Questions arise. How does one survive this life? How do you reach out when the doors are shut? What separates truth from untruth? How do you know when something is true, or not true, or something in between? How do I know, hunched against the winter cold in a little wooden cottage, that there is anyone in the world outside? There are hints and intimations – an airplane flying overhead, the distant traffic on the highway making the road sing in a deep, soft, low tone. The creatures of the night all know to be silent, but I wish they would say something, just for conversation. An owl’s hoot would be a friendly thing to hear through the double-paned window, at least if one is not a rodent. But right now the existence of the world outside seems strangely hypothetical.

So I will take a few random steps outside my cottage and into this blog, simply putting one foot – one word – in front of another. You can follow the trail if you wish, or not, whoever you are. Assuming you exist of course.

Winter break is a day away now, and it is both welcome and unwelcome. So let me pick up the first crumb on the path – look, it’s a book, a tome. It’s called The Restless Clock, by Riskin. The first chapter is a treat. I didn’t know that Europe was populated by mechanical saints and toys and trickeries during Medieval times! No wonder the Newtonian paradigm with which we are still afflicted took such a hold! Another book – Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble – begins like a roll of multicolored wool – but the strands are woven together in strange ways – as I read the first chapter, I feel I am being woven into the book, into the strands. And there’s Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter. I imagine words being made into dough, shaped into stories, and the thought makes me hungry. For words and bread. Words are my matter too, as are equations. Certain equations are as beautiful as poems. A conversation with an astrophysicist reverberates in my mind, and I am distracted for a moment by blazars. Separated from an article of clothing by a mere vowel, these extraordinary celestial objects represent Nature at her spectacular and melodramatic best. Supermassive black holes in a feeding frenzy – only my late dog at his food bowl would be a worthy rival.

A prolonged exposure to undergraduate papers perhaps has a deleterious effect on the mind. There are so many huge and terrible things happening on our beleaguered planet, and amazing things too – but I am robbed of speech of those things for this moment. I will get to them soon, but not before the job is done. I wonder to what extent the job at hand has kept us sane, kept us from acting, kept us acting, kept us with or from each other. Right now for me the job at hand is a source of utter exhaustion but also the fire before which I warm myself before it is time to stare, once more, into the dark.

Swimming Upstream

July 8, 2013

I was listening to an old Hindi film song not long ago in which a man addresses a woman thus.  “You, who are smiling so, what sorrow does your smile conceal?  Tears in your eyes, laughter on your lips…”  The original is much more elegant than my translation, but the idea is clear.  There are people who might be some of us, or all of us at some time or another, who are — despite appearances — swimming upstream through a river of sorrow. 


Two Stories! And a rambling ode to sleep

April 5, 2012

While the year has seemed alternately creeping like an aged snail and galloping like a drunken horse, I am stopping time for a moment to take a deep breath and celebrate the fact that I have two stories out or coming out this year.  I sent out one story last year and unsurprisingly published just that number (not counting reprints).  Plus the fact that life is full to bursting and often hard (although I wouldn’t exchange it for anything — I’d just trim bits here and there and try to fit in a hundred years of sleep) makes it very difficult to write.  My head is buzzing with ideas between worrying about tax forms, mortgages, tottering piles of student work as yet unmarked with the fearsome red pen, among many other things — ideas, but (in case you haven’t got the point) no time.  So if I achieve even a modest success — two stories in one year is pathetic by most standards but a modest success by mine — that is cause to pause and pat myself on the back.  Before getting back to mortgages and taxes and student papers describing the physics of a universe not our own.

So one story is up at Lightspeed Magazine, a somewhat strange piece but one close to my heart.  I am rather fond of the protagonist.  This is my Lightspeed debut and I am glad.  I submitted this story on January 1 and it was accepted on January 2, which explains at least in part the name of the magazine.

The other one is an alternate history novelette called A Handful of Rice which is forthcoming in an anthology in the fall edited by the celebrated Ann VanderMeer: Steampunk Revolution.   It is a swashbuckling sort of story I think.  I really enjoyed writing this.

If —and I dare hope this for about 5 nanoseconds — if I manage to write and submit and publish two more stories this year I will be happy.  4 a year is my record and I am slated to write two more pieces for two other anthologies so I hope the Muse will oblige instead of sulking in a corner and mumbling about lack of time.

Talking of time, it’s up.  I mean it’s down, too, and all around, but at the moment it is pointing toward bed and sleep.  I am so sleep-deprived that I dream (while awake) of writing a version of Sleeping Beauty in which Beauty wakes up at the kiss, punches Handsome Hero on the snoot for waking her up, and falls happily asleep for a hundred more years.

So if you, a hypothetical person just returned from a long, rambling sojourn somewhere, filled to the brim with sleep as a cloud is with water vapor, if you come babbling at me about how relaxed you are, do not be surprised if I a) punch you in the snoot or b) fall asleep listening to your twaddle.

Now that I have a moment…

March 11, 2012

I have a moment!  I have a moment!  I have a so-called Spring Break!  With a tottering pile of papers and other work, including saving the world and discovering an inhabitable planet just in case, my euphoria doesn’t really seem justified.  But even a moment or three where I don’t have some pressing deadline (I have deadlines but there are none in the next five minutes) calls for a celebration. 

I am too tired to do much more than report on a movie I saw recently.  It was a documentary called A City Dark, about how street lighting and electric lights in general have changed humanity’s relationship with the night sky.  I got to see the sky in places like Arizona and New Mexico, (I’ve actually really seen the sky in NM years ago and never forgotten it).  There are so many stars!  And you can see the hazy veil of Akaash Ganga, the Milky Way.  There is something special about living under a sky like that.  I think it would make me feel connected to something larger, help me put my life in perspective.  Some of my fondest memories from childhood are of sleeping in cots on the rooftop terrace of my grandparent’s house.  The movie maker seems to be saying something similar — that the loss of that ages-old relationship with the night sky traps us in cocoons of light, where we only see ourselves and each other and all the “works of man.”  Which I imagine feeds our pathological solipsism as a species.

Other species are even less fortunate.  City lights distract turtle hatchlings in Florida.  The movie shows intrepid biologist heroes rescuing as many baby turtles as they can.  Similar heroes prowl the bright canyons of big cities, looking for disoriented migrating birds killed or injured by collisions with skyscrapers. There is even a potential connection between breast cancer and the absence of darkness.

The movie acknowledges that lighting makes us safe, decreases crime.  But it says that while we fear the dark, we (like other species) also need the dark.  The solution is actually relatively simple, and in this day where energy is getting ever costlier in more ways than one, it makes sense. Reduce all but essential lighting at night, and put a hat over all the lights so that we don’t have light pollution going up into the sky.  I wonder whether motion-sensing lights wouldn’t also be part of the solution.

I left the movie theater changed.  I kept thinking of the poem in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.  Go see the movie.  It’s worth it. 

The World’s Still Here

February 29, 2012

Well, it looks like the world is still here.  I’ve been so busy that it has been hard to find a moment to breathe. Much of the busy-ness is good, there’s just too much of it!  So this moment represents an attempt to breathe, and what better way to do that than to write a short, reflective post?  

Snow has fallen after months here in the Northeastern US.  It is at the moment just a thin blanket but I am still astonished at how a snowfall changes everything.  Sounds are muffled and the world becomes luminous.  My appreciation of snow is tempered by the need to shovel it when it is above a couple of inches, but for the moment it is nice to watch it falling outside my window.  Over a cup of tea and samosas it would be perfect, but I have no milk and no samosas.  Sigh. 

There is an interesting discussion about Climate Change over at Strange Horizons to which I’ve contributed.  Worth checking out. See here for a roundtable with some pretty cool authors and here for my article on the Durban talks in December.   

That’s all, folks, for now. 



A Tale of Two Stories, and More

December 17, 2010

Greetings, World!  Although I am currently wading through acres of undergraduate papers, most of which seem to be describing the physics of universes not our own, I am determined to take little islands of time to think about writing, life in general, and, yes, other universes.  While the dog sleeps, and sunlight slants into the room, and the humidifier gurgles sleepily, my poor, overtired brain leaps from thought to thought like an inebriated grasshopper.  I wonder vaguely about thermal energy transfer through glass versus the greenhouse effect, or nerve conduction issues in dogs recovering from spinal surgery, or the creative fire of the Nawab of Awadh, who, upon being exiled from his homeland by the British, lamented in the form of a बिरह गीत, a song of separation, the immortal Babul Mora, which I am trying to learn while washing dishes or falling asleep.  In my current state written sentences run on like my thoughts, which resemble a very long goods train carrying all manner of things from old attic junk to flocks of starlings. 


On Ordinary Things

September 5, 2010

Note: I recently found this piece I’d written in January, and decided to complete it and post it since I won’t have time to post much in the next few months.

What is ordinary?  That which is routine, usual, normal, according to the dictionary.  Of course this is context-dependent.  A coke can tossed in the bushes by the sidewalk is a not unusual sight in the streets near my house.  Ordinary litter.  But imagine a coke can on Mars….


Oil Spill Blues

June 26, 2010

Enough has been written in blogs and news articles about the BP Oil Spill for me to need to add much.  It is really hard to hear about it and see the pictures and commentary and be unable to do anything.  I remember this interview they did with a biologist on NPR who was in a boat bringing back oiled birds to clean, and she was in tears.  I am full of rage and sorrow and sick sick sick of the oil economy and human greed and stupidity, and our misplaced extreme faith in technology. 

So what can you do, beyond contributing to animal rescue organizations?  I have been thinking long and hard about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while we must obviously continue to follow the news and push world governments away from fossil fuels (where are the protesters, the artists, the writers?) we cannot let this opportunity pass to do something related but different.  As in local.


Dispatches from Oinkfluland

October 25, 2009

As I battle what my doctor thinks is almost definitely the swine flu (alias H1N1) I make various rude gestures to factory farms in general and the one in Perote, Mexico, where the sickness first began, in particular.  Apparently this possible connection between factory farming and the swine flu was not widely reported in the US media (surprise!) with some exceptions but as I play reluctant host to the virus I can’t help but think (in my less-exhausted moments) about human greed and stupidity and how this greed an stupidity seems to bite us back, again and again.  I feel a visceral sympathy for the pigs who go through hell in those factory farms (and for the intelligent, emotional animals they are, it must truly be hell) and the humans who are the victims of this sickness. 

In the meantime various things accumulate, as they do when one is not much good for anything but being horizontal and wishing one had another head, preferably a pain-free one.  Apart from responsibilities to the household there are papers piled up for correction, an interview, responses to comments on my blog, and a bunch of iou’s in walks and treats to the dog, who really can’t understand why I’m being such a bore. 

In the rare moments of relative clarity and energy (induced mostly by masala tea and Tylenol) I’ve managed to read Terry Pratchett’s new book, Unseen Academicals, although I think I may have imagined parts of it that he didn’t write when I was particularly feverish — my recollection of it has a weirdly four-dimensional feel — and am now reading a Himalayan travelogue by Ruskin Bond, called All Roads Lead to Ganga.  It is bringing back memories of Garhwal, 1980, so many years ago.

One thing that I am very pleased about is that the International Day of Climate Action, which was this Saturday, October 24, was a great success, with over 5000 events in 181 countries.  The slide show on the 350 site is inspiring.  There was an event in my town but for obvious reasons I couldn’t be there. 

And now it’s time for more tea.