Triangles

December 30, 2008

Earlier this month, I saw something on a blog I read about triangles and squares, of the literary variety. It’s an interesting idea; odd numbers are tragic, even numbers are comic. I don’t know if I agree with it. The Holy Trinity is odd, after all, but the Christian universe is comic.

But what I find interesting about triangles is how many possibilities
such a simple shape offers. Take your standard tragic love triangle. You have three people – normally, two male and one female, or two female and one male – and each of their personalities. Then you have the different relationships between each of them. For example, Mr. X likes Mrs. Y; Mrs. Y likes Mr. Z; Mr. Z is friends with Mrs. X. Then you have the relationship each of them has to the interactions between the other two. In the given example – Mr. X would probably be upset that Mrs. Y liked Mr. Z and not him. Mrs. Y, perhaps, would not want to get in the way of Mr. X and Mr. Z’s friendship. Mr. Z (who, let’s say, is not interested in Mrs. Y) would
support Mr. X’s ambitions and try to get Mrs. Y to change her mind. And what would never happen is all three of them get together and just talk out their situation. Three is too complicated.

Two is easy. You get two people together, they talk to each other, they work out whatever problems they might have. But with three, people find it hard to be completely honest. They can’t say something to one person without worrying about what the other will think about what was said. This doesn’t make them dishonest, but it makes them not completely honest. Three is too complicated.

I’m reminded of something I read once about Dante’s Divine Comedy. It takes him a long time before he can figure out how to have a scene involving – really involving – three people at once. He had the problem of it seeming like a series of two-way dialogues. Or the part of Perelandra where the Green Lady can’t talk to both Ransom and demon-Weston at once – she keeps going back and forth, but can’t actually have a three-way conversation. Three is too complicated.


Last.fm vs. Pandora

December 23, 2008

I’ve been using two different internet music streaming websites on and off for a while now – Last.fm and Pandora. They’re different, and complementary in a way – one of them relies on statistical analysis, the other on analysis of the music itself.

Last.fm, in essence, looks at what music you’ve listened to so far, finds other people who listen to the same sort of music, and suggests for you music that they listen to. It does a decent job of finding bands close to the ones you listen to – it’s how I found several of my favorite bands. But it does a rather bad job, I think, of diversifying – it won’t really suggest bands you might like that aren’t in almost the exact same genre as what you’re currently listening to. It doesn’t help that you can’t divide your music into different profiles – all of them are lumped together for suggestion purposes, even if, while you’re interested in genre A and genre C, but have no interest in genre B, which is between them.

The people at Pandora, on the other hand, actually sit down, listen to each song, and record information about it, and give you songs that are musically similar to the ones you have listened to already. This does a decent job of suggesting music you’d like, and I think manages to be more diverse in its suggestions (I’ve found several bands I find interesting and not exactly the same as the other stuff I listen to through it, though most of those I’ve never pursued). It helps that you can have different, unrelated “stations”, and in each of those explore a different sort of music. But, since the people at Pandora are working quickly, some of the songs are rather badly described, and since they’re doing the descriptions by hand they can’t get that many done. Last.fm has more music available, I think.

This dichotomy seems to apply to a few different things… just using statistics versus actually looking at what is being sorted. Movies, for example; a lot of movie services will do “suggestions” based on what other people listen to (a la Last.fm), but I read recently about a service that plans to be more like Pandora – actually watching the movie and describing it.

Or take automatic translation. My understanding is that currently, it’s done mostly with the Pandora method – it translates individual words using a dictionary and applies different preprogrammed grammatical rules. But they’re thinking that a way to get more accurate translations might be to use the Last.fm method – create a database of a bunch of documents that are considered well-translated (by humans, I guess), and then when automatically translating a document, take each phrase and find where it is used in one of the documents in the database and use that translation. The translating device doesn’t have to actually know what the words mean to do this.

After describing these things, I can’t help but think, not about how these two stack up against each other, but how they are both somewhat deficient. Neither of them is as good as just getting a person to do it. Actual music recommendations from an actual person are probably better than either Last.fm or Pandora; movie recommendations from someone you can trust (be it a friend, a professional critic, or a blog you read regularly) are better than the suggestions of a machine; getting a human to translate a document is surely more accurate than either automatic method. Both automated contextual and textual analysis are poor substitutes for an actual person doing it – their only advantages are in speed and
convenience.

Not that those aren’t great advantages. I’d definitely recommend using Pandora and Last.fm, for as long as they’re both free. But neither can substitute for a person who is knowledgeable about music, if you know one. The same for music; the same for translations.


Words, Words, Words

December 18, 2008

I have just posted two new poems in the writing section, Fibonacci and I Did Not Stop To Say Goodbye. Enjoy! Or, uh, not. Your choice.

Also, for those interested, I have new two short stories that I consider “finished”, though not edited to perfection, that I don’t want to post here because I’m considering submitting them to contests and stuff. If you’d be interested in reading either of them and giving C&C, you can email me. One is called “On The Staircase” and is about a pickpocket on an infinite spiral staircase, the other is called “Induction on Log N” and is a surreal account of a self-causing universe with strange laws of physics inspired by the LEGO world my brothers and I created as children and probably will not be understood by anyone not related to me.


Musings about Modesty

December 18, 2008

[Be warned; this post is written from an implicitly Catholic viewpoint, and how it looks at sexuality will probably seem really weird to anyone who’s not Catholic – and perhaps to most people who are, as well. It’s really just me rambling about clothing and modesty and sexuality for seven hundred words.]

I remember a few months (years?) ago, we had a debate on the Wesnoth forums about standards of modesty. Some of the Europeans, talking about how nudity was more acceptable there, were trying to make the argument that nudity was not necessarily sexual, and it was just us American puritans who made it so – if we just required less clothes in the first place, lack of clothing wouldn’t be considered as intentionally provocative.

Well, coming back from Europe after three and a half months, I think I can say… nope, that’s completely wrong. Nudity really is always sexual – at least how it appears in Europe. I saw advertisements for pornographic movie theaters, “adult” websites, etc, all involving female nudity – advertisements you would never see in the US, they would be illegal – but certainly never saw nudity somehow used in a non-sexual way. Perhaps it is, sometimes, but it seems obvious that the primary effect of making nudity more socially acceptable is to make raw sexuality more socially acceptable and pervasive…

Anyway, the point is, it seems obvious that nudity and sexuality can’t really be separated from each other. But… what, with respect to clothing, is not always sexual? I mean, can we really separate clothing or the lack thereof from sexuality? I’m reminded of the part in Perelandra where the devil is teaching the Green Lady to wear clothing. He is teaching her modesty in order to teach her licentiousness…

Perhaps it’s not clear what my point is. Well, my point is a question – what does it mean for someone (well, a female, primarily) to “dress modestly”? The idea is that dressing immodestly is dressing in a sexually provocative manner. But women can dress without revealing much skin and still be provocative (obviously), and they can dress while revealing a lot of skin and not be very provocative (harder to find examples of, but just think of what the difference between “cute” and “hot” is – it’s not necessarily how much clothing is worn) – it seems to be the intent, not the actual manner of dress, that matters…

But this seems to contradict what I said at the beginning. If it’s the intent, not the amount of clothing, that determines modesty, why did I not see any non-sexual nudity in Europe? Why was all of it so highly sexualized?

Obviously there is some sort of correlation, even if it’s not exact, between how revealing clothing is and how modest it is. It’d be hard to be modest wearing a bikini; it’d be hard to be immodest wearing a burqa. But we don’t want to force women to wear burqas, and anything less than that will be sexual in one way or another; all clothing is, really. There must be some sort of middle ground, but I don’t know how one would find it.

And there’s also two factors here I’m conflating, I think – how modest the clothing is, and how chaste the woman is. Someone could wear a bikini but not be being intentionally immodest. I actually know some girls who would do, and have done, that…

I don’t have any grand theory of sexuality and modesty to lay out. My point, I guess, is that this is more complicated than most people realize. It’s not as simple as, “cover yourself up already!” – otherwise Catholics would require their women to wear burqas, which we don’t. But there have to be some standards or something – what I saw in Europe, which was basically the breaking down of standards of decency, was definitely not Christian in nature.

Perhaps the line is drawn where the clothing stops being intended to bring out the beauty of the wearer, and becomes about emphasizing the sexuality of the wearer… though, those two seem almost impossible to separate. So I’m not sure it’s actually possible to formulate a rule for how a girl ought to dress modestly.


Back Home

December 15, 2008

Finals are over, the partying has stopped, I’ve left Rome, and now I’m back in the US. I got back Saturday night, actually.

So it’s Christmas break now; I have a bit more than a month to read, write, listen to music, watch some TV and movies, and hang out with my family. I plan on doing all of these things.

Specifically, I plan to read Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, a bunch of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins, anything by Gene Wolfe I can get my hands on, and probably Frankenstein (this is not a comprehensive list, obviously);

I plan to work some more on the Orbivm campaign I’m slowly writing, and to edit the short story I finished last week, and to figure out what of the stuff I’ve written in the last six months I’m actually willing to post online (probably very little);

I plan to listen to some more of Silly Wizard and The Chieftains, and perhaps find some other bands I’d be interested in hearing more of;

I plan to watch season 4 of the Wire and, hopefully, season 5, depending on whether my mom gets it for Christmas, and to see Wall-E (I finally saw The Dark Knight last night).

So, yeah, that’s my plan for the coming five weeks. Nothing else much to say for now; I’ll be back with real posts in the next few days, probably.


On Friendship

December 7, 2008

I often joke that I have too have friends – my facebook account (yes, I have one of those, unfortunately) claims that I have 168 of them. This is obviously not entirely serious, but, really… isn’t it possible to have too many? I’m not talking about facebook friends, but about the real kind. Can you have too many?

One way of looking at it is, you only have so many hours a day to put into each friendship you have. If you’re not willing to put enough effort into keeping a certain person as your friend, and they’re not willing to spend enough effort to keep you as their friend… well, then you won’t end up as friends. Even if you don’t want to say that you need to dedicate X hours a week to each friend, I think there’s a certain level of emotional involvement you need for each friendship – otherwise it’s not a real friendship – and you can only have that with so many people. I don’t want to say that you only have so much love to go around and you have to ration it, or that once you give a certain amount to one person, you can’t give it to someone else, but it does seem obviously true that you can only do one thing at a time. Much as you might like to (and I wouldn’t like to), you can’t have everyone as your friend.

As I write this, I am thinking of someone I know who wants to be friends with everyone she meets. People find it really cute and endearing and all that how she is really nice to everyone no matter what and tries to be friends with them… but it is also somewhat sad, I think… because I know that most of these people will not take her seriously; they will (and do) see her as just this strange girl who is unreasonably nice, not be inclined to really be friends with her at a less than extremely superficial level, and she will end up having no more close friends than I, the unnaturally antisocial one, do.

I suppose, of course, that much of what I’m saying here depends on your precise definition of friendship… how is friendship to be defined, anyway? Should it be defined in such a way that this girl I speak of has many friends, or very few?


Natural Talent

December 3, 2008
This is something interesting that I’m going to post here even though I wrote it for somewhere else first. On the Wesnoth forums, we’re discussing the question of natural talent, specifically in the disciplines of art and music. Is it actually natural? Are they related to each other? Etc. My answer to the (rather open-ended) question is as follows:
With respect to both art and music, I fall into the same category [as Eternal] – I naturally had above-average, but not exceptional skill, but was not motivated enough to actually pursue it, and so now I fall into the category of being better at it than everyone who never took it seriously, but worse than everyone who ever did take it seriously.

For music, for example, I’m pretty sure I was better than most people; in the school orchestra I would always make 1st chair (I play(ed) cello), make all-city and all-region, etc. But I never practiced more than an hour or so a week (they tell you to practice three). When I got to 11th grade, I kept playing it, but not as often because my high school didn’t have an orchestra and I had to take private lessons, which are only once a week and didn’t motivate me to practice as much. Now, I’m in college and haven’t picked up my cello for almost a year; if I picked it up now, I could probably carry a tune on it, be mostly in tune, and maybe even be somewhat musical in my performance, but I’d be much worse than anyone my age who played an instrument regularly.

So, right now I don’t consider myself an art or a music person, even though I sort of did when I was a kid. But it’s not that I wasn’t encouraged, or was disappointed by the realization that I wasn’t really very good and had a lot to improve (I knew that fairly soon) – it was more that I realized just how much damn effort would be required to actually become good at it, and decided I’d rather become good at other things. I could have tried to be a jack-of-all-trades, and become good at mathematics, writing, music, drawing, and maybe a few other things, but I decided to focus on a few.

And, actually, it really was Wesnoth that helped choose the things I would focus on – I started writing campaigns, and found I was decent at it and people kinda liked them, at a time when I was not nearly good enough at art to do portraits (though I tried for a while – the results can probably be found around the forum – and in theory I’m still trying to improve, just slowly) and nowhere near good enough musically to contribute (obviously – musicians here are amazing). So I kept writing, got better at it, and now am in love it and am willing to put a lot of effort into getting better.

I’m also a math nerd, though that doesn’t really show up on the Wesnoth side – but that’s also really more natural talent than actual willingness to put effort into it. I’m still doing math, and plan to major in it, but I don’t yet know whether I have enough internal motivation to keep me at it when I could be writing instead.

So, basically, (like most people here) I am fairly intelligent and, when you are young, that corresponds to being naturally good at most things you attempt. Art, music, writing, mathematics, science, whatever. It’s just a question of which ones you are motivated to get good at – because you can’t be good at all of them. I don’t think it’s so much a question of giving up on one, as of embracing another and thus necessarily abandoning the others along the way.


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