who the heck knows anything, anyway

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I've had a lot of time to introspect

There are a few things that have been taking up a lot of my brain-space lately; not the least of which are grad school applications but let's ignore that one, because it's about incessant in its pestering as the fly that seems to have teleported into your kitchen and keeps head-butting the closed window. Let's list, since I do love a good list, and then expound upon those that require expounding afterwards.

-Busy Monsters, the debut novel by William Giraldi
-short story revision
-the Occupy movement
-what makes a person "brave"?

1. To start with, we have the novel I finished reading last week (I know, I'm slow/preoccupied): Busy Monsters. I basically refuse to give a plot summary (I'd bung it up), but know that it's great. Giraldi has written a novel that made me laugh aloud at LEAST every other page without once sacrificing character, plot, or overall complexity in general. The intelligence of the work is subtle and astounding; every time you realize what's happening with the layers, and the asides, and the off-handed snark, (and, and, and!...) it's a little revelation. Plus, it's the sort of book you just rip through. It was my ideal vacation book: equivalent to most people's latest Dan Brown read, except it was legitimately good. Really difficult to describe, but I can't rave about it loudly enough. That being said, I probably wouldn't recommend it to everyone. Like anything funny, the audience is a bit slimmed based on individual sense of humor. It's dry and smart, with occasional bits of the vulgar. The main character/narrator, Charles Homar ("memoirist of mediocre fame"), is not always likable, but he is remarkably human in those particular moments. And his fiance is obsessed with giant squid!

It's just amazingly fantastic--which was a pleasant surprise, because I've grown to be unapologetically skeptical of contemporary writing in my old age. (Add to this: William Girladi is hella smart. I love reading interviews with this man. If you can get your hands on the interview in Poets & Writers magazine from a few months back, I highly suggest doing so.)

I'll just share the first sentence with you, and you can decide if it's maybe your thing (if you're still on the fence after, I'd say go for it. If the first sentence sounds hokey to you, I'd say: still go for it. But if it's an instant turn off--which it might be--then I probably wouldn't try to slog through it. Might get a bit uncomfortable):

"Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man."

And it gets so much better from there.

2. Revision is not pleasant. People, this is why you hear successful authors talk about how editing is the "real work". It's particularly true when the story is too emotionally close to you and you'd rather throw it in a drawer, prompting it to acquire that nice, musky-drawer scent for a few years, than try to confront whatever issues you have with it. Unfortunately, I need it for grad school applications. I've only got two short stories (can't use excerpts) that combine to meet portfolio length requirements, and one of them is this stupid devil that I've hated looking at since I wrote it. Apparently, it's not bad (okay, Daniel even said he likes it), but I personally think I need distance from it. Sadly, distance shan't be afforded. Alas, earwax. (There's no real conclusion here. Only angst.)

3. I think the Occupy movement is incredibly important right now, no matter where it ends up leading. I'm not going to subject anyone to a political monologue here*, but I do recommend reading some of The Guardian's articles about it and taking a look at a few Twitter trending topics (#OccuptWallSt, #OWS, etc). I've found that many people I know are uninformed, due largely to the shoddy job of US news sources in covering the goings-on. The Guardian is a UK news source, and it would appear that one-step removal has kept them in the business of covering news and not making things up. Daniel will tell you that this whole thing has me incredibly fired up. I'm trying not to lose sleep over it, but that's becoming increasingly difficult.

4. Bravery. I'll struggle with this last one forever, I think. No need to dig deeper on it. I bet most people can relate to the feeling.

*If you're desperate for my opinion, this is how I described it to someone about a week ago:
"People are not asking for a collapse of capitalism, but for a close in the disparity gap. The distribution of wealth in this country--and globally--is absurd (ex: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distribution_of_wealth#In_the_United_States), as is political corruption. Just as it was once suggested that Church and State be separated, it should now be emphasized that Wealth and State be separated. Otherwise, (for example) voting the corrupt out of office will be impossible; in order to successfully run for office, you need millions of dollars (either your own, or from wealthy backers, thus perpetuating the cycle of favoring the wealthy). It has nothing to do with laziness and everything to do with equality. The problem is not that There Is A Middle Class, but that the middle class is dying--leaving a very small percent among the wealthy, and a growing population of the under-served working class."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oxford: Week 1

(or, Another Daniel Guest-Blog)

Oxford! We've been here for 1 week, today. Almost exactly, actually-- I'm writing this at 5:40, and we got in at 6:40 last Sunday, so! An hour less than a week in Oxford.

For me, this week has been very busy, in a good way. The morning after we arrived, I walked down to the Future of Humanity Institute's office fairly early, arriving at about 9. Turns out that's too early to start saving the world, and most FHI people didn't show up until later (a few of them work late into the night most nights). That was fine, though; the walk was good, and it was nice to get acquainted with the office before things got too hectic.

I sit at a desk in the common area of the office. Behind me is the meeting and break area, which has a table, chairs, couches, and the all-important whiteboard. The great perks of sitting in this area are that 1) I see everyone semi-regularly when they emerge from writing to get tea or food, and 2) I can eavesdrop and crash the interesting discussions that people have during their breaks. For the first couple of days, I spent so much time discussing that I hardly had time to do any computer work-- as a metric, I didn't need to recharge my laptop until day three.

Stuart, the FHI's newest Research Fellow, has been my most consistent co-conspirator so far. He's been very helpful in getting me looped into the work that's already going on there, and we share a strong interest in friendly AI theory. Another visitor, Owain (who is unfortunately leaving on Monday), has also been central to my experience so far. The three of us have spent about half of each day working through our ideas for human-friendly motivational systems on the whiteboard. I have a couple of great new ideas for projects to work on, and these have arisen largely from the whiteboard sessions.

I've also had a lot of good chances to talk with Professor Bostrom, the director of the FHI. He generates good ideas and finds flaws in proposals extremely quickly, and he's been instrumental in pushing forward our ideas about how to teach AIs what to value. I've also been discussing grad school ideas with him, and as a result am significantly more inclined to pursue a computer science Ph.D than I was a week ago.

Other fun folks I've met are Sean (project manager), Toby (ethicist), Anders (fellow), Eric Drexler (invented nanotechnology! famous people bingo, check!), and a neuroethicist and a moral egoist whose names escape me at the moment. In short, it's fun to be at a school again, just in terms of meeting people.

I'll have more to say about work, I think, and I'll need to take pictures of the office, but that's good enough for now.

This weekend, it's been nice to be able to spend more time with Killian and poke around Oxford. Yesterday, we saw Midnight in Paris (not world-changing, but very enjoyable, and it's short). I also bought a box of "Teatime Varieties Great Value 85 Biscuits":

Today, we walked for a few minutes from our flat, over the canal (the Thames, though it's known as the Isis in Oxford), and into Port Meadow, a common grazing area and park. Pretty! Afterward, we also visited St. Sepulchre's graveyard and Worcester College.

As always, more photos and things to come. Halfway done with the trip!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Picture Picture

Ok. Want to see ALL OF THE PHOTOS thusfar?


This here should provide you with The Full Vicarious Edinburgh Experience, and includes at least five pictures of Catherine's cat.

I realize that we fail in The Capturing of Oxford On Film (or...pixels?), but since the weekend is right before us, that will be changing! I think this link should still be good as we add more pictures, so check it again on Monday for some new ones (there will probably--hopefully--be a nice new blog post, too, so I'll be sure to remind you).

As for the events of today, I bought a headband half-price at Topshop, which was peachy, and then two barrettes from a little boutique in Jericho. I also had a pint (with lunch!) at a place called, fantastically, Jude the Obscure. Sadly, JtO was a little bit weird with the customer service. I realize bartenders have to be on the lookout for riffraff and can't always be in the best mood, but I'm starting to get mentally worn out by all of the patronizing behavior. It wasn't horrible, and we've only been out to a couple of places since getting into Oxford, but the servers in Edinburgh were waaaaaaaaaay nicer. Here, they look at me like I'm an idiot. Which, you know, is why I hated a large number of Portland establishments. So that's what I'll have to work on--finding a nice place with nice people where I can write/read/doodle and not feel like I'm The World's Greatest Inconvenience.

However, while lunching I did finish editing one of the short stories for my portfolio! (Well, on paper. Working on fixing the Word doc right now, actually). Now I just need to figure out a good title, after which I can move on to: editing Story No. 2,  and drafting both a CV and the dreaded "personal statement". This weekend, in fact, is both Daniel's and my Grad School Application Weekend, in which we stop procrastinating and (begrudgingly) get some work done. Very exciting. ...yep.

Alright. Back to that editing I was just telling you all about. Now go look at some pictures! :)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oxford! or: I Have No Idea How Long We've Been Here

My computer tells me that it's Wednesday. That hardly seems possible. Monday and Tuesday each lasted about an entire year. Last night, I thought it was Thursday night. Yep. Good times.

We don't have any pictures yet--except for one of a snail we found in our flat (he was very cute)--so I will just tell you about the past few days, and you can expect pictures of the city this weekend.*

Monday was a day of adjustment. Daniel was out at dinner meeting until fairly late, so I did the following things: I walked around the neighborhood, found a canal, left the canal quickly (I think the stretch of it near us is the sketchy part of town), went to two little neighborhood markets, got all caught up on Occupy Wall Street news, and must have done some other stuff I don't remember. Yesterday, I had tea in a cafe because our power was out (and then I read there for two hours), listened to last week's "Wait, Wait" + a few other podcasts, and drew some pictures I ended up quite liking.

Today, I walked about half-way to FHI with Daniel, then bought groceries at the co-op (not the cheapest thing ever, but their pre-packaged spices--they sell nothing in bulk here, gah--are waaaaay cheaper than back home. I will refrain from making a joke about the East India Company, because that's possibly rude), listened to This American Life until the internet pooped out (which it does a couple of times a day in this flat), took a nap, and here I am! Very exciting, right? Haha. Well, it's actually been a pretty good couple of days. Daniel is getting lauds from his peers all over the place, and I'm enjoying both the walks I've been taking and the book I've been reading (Busy Monsters. It's...amazing. I'll delve into more detail on that once I've finished it). The city really is outstandingly beautiful.

Also, these are pretty hilarious:

photo by Lee Nachtigal,
via funnypicturesfunnypics.com
Ok, so now for some logistical info, in case you want to use the magic of Google to check out the 'hood until I can get some good pictures this weekend:

We're staying just a couple of blocks outside the Jericho neighborhood. It's pretty hoppin', and not a far walk from downtown, the train station, all of the university buildings, etc. Our current plan for the weekend is (a) to go see Midnight in Paris at the Phoenix Picturehouse and (b) to check out The Old Bookbinders. Daniel got some tips on how to drink whisk(e)y--and suggestions about which kinds are super delish--from a wonderful guy named Andrew who is part of Catherine's New College posse back in Scotland; The Old Bookbinders has one of the less-widely-available ones. We haven't been to a bunch of pubs on this trip (surprising, right? I think it's because we're here for so long and have to buy groceries. Going out every night would be nuts) so I'm trying to find some really good ones to check out on our down days. I still need to go to the Eagle and Child one of these afternoons, but something about the hallowed place that is Tolkein and Lewis' old stomping grounds makes me jumpy. Sure, any ol' tourist could go there and find it charming, but for an aspiring novelist? Places like that have special powers; visiting requires mental and spiritual preparation. Maybe I should go to confession first. Haha.

There you have it. An update. Mostly for my dad, because he's very demanding about wanting the updates. (Love you, papa)

The only other thing is that I miss everybody a bunch. I do, I do. A whole bunch.

Here's that cute snail I told you about.

photo by daniel

over and out.

*Since Daniel spends most of the day at FHI (from, like, 10 to 7), and taking pictures with no people in them is  not the most exciting, weekends will probably become picture days. Unless I do something REALLY EXCITING. But, ahem, that's rather unlikely.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sort-of-Last Day in Edinburgh, and Trains to Oxford (Or: Days 5 & 6)

The first leg of our trip is officially done. Yesterday was our final big day of touristing through Edinburgh's city center (we'll have a few more days up there at the end of our trip before we fly back, but we wanted to see most of the big stuff during this first go-around) and today we spent almost seven hours riding/nearly-missing/catching trains. We should have had twenty minutes to make our final connection in Sheffield, but our previous train left eight minutes late. Daniel wins 10 points for putting up with my panic. Fortunately, all of that platform navigating is (for the next few weeks, at least) done, and we are settling in to our flat in Oxford, which is where we will be hangin' out for the next few weeks. But let's jump back to yesterday for some re-capping and a few pictures:

First, we walked to Leith and checked out an awesome used book store called McNaughton's*. When I say "used book store", I don't mean by West Coast standards. Instead, imagine the Rare Books section of the Pearl Room at Powell's: that's what I mean. Only, it's in a small, sub-street-level shop with one girl at the counter (reading, naturally) and all of the books are just there for the perusing. It's strange to be in a part of the world where they just have old books lying around. The U.S.--the Pacific NW, in particular--is such a new little baby when it comes to all things not-geo/ecological. A cute baby, but still a baby. 

Sadly, the only picture of the bookstore is rather poor quality, and I'm too lazy to get it off of my phone. I do, however, have pictures of my lunch from Cafe Marlayne: 

pretty pretty cafe (and pretty daniel, too)

they called it "boudin noir" on the menu. tricky tricky.
(the infamous--delicious!--black pudding)

haddock with a poached egg, hollandaise, and spinach
Daniel and Catherine got sandwiches, but I looked at the menu and picked the two things I knew I had never tried before. It was the richest meal I've had, possibly ever; I couldn't even finish the haddock, despite its being spectacular (and fish is the one thing I'm really picky about). And it was only £10 for this two-course lunch--side of beans, broccoli, and potatoes included! Totally sold. Cafe Marlayne. If you're in Edinburgh, go there. Apparently they also have a full restaurant, which Catherine says is The Amazingest**.

Calton Hill was after lunch. Check out that view, man.

After this was window shopping, tea, and the bus ride home. We were going to go out, but then we decided to nap and eat leftovers instead. 

This morning, we caught our first of three trains at 10am, with only a little confusion about how the tickets worked. This is what the Scottish countryside looked like today:

Yep. Sixty degrees and sunny. The walk from the train station to our flat was just lovely. 

Oh, and I am going to add that an 80ct package of PG Tips only costs £2.75 at the corner store half a block away. Even with the conversion rate, that's so friggin' cheap. Most things may cost a bajillion dollars here, but at least my tea habit will be well sated. Aaaand the corner store is called the Grog Shop. They basically sell milk, tea, sugar, and booze. Good times.

More to come soon!

*Coincidentally, this is my family's Scottish name on my mom's mom's side.
**I'm paraphrasing

Friday, October 14, 2011

Edinburgh: Days 3 and 4!

Hello dear readers! This is Daniel, guest blogging from the UK.

Yesterday, Catherine took us to see the Palace of Holyrood. We got lots of insider info from her, including why being painted wearing black was so posh (answer: black dye was the most expensive) and why the Stewarts commissioned big noses on all of their portraits (answer: to symbolize their lineage in Scottish royalty!).

Holyrood is a "working palace", meaning that it's still in use by the Queen for state functions. It was more than a little surreal to be in a Royal Residence, with thrones and everything; I usually think of kings and queens as fictional, and as one of Catherine's British friends said, "you territorials don't really do these things". There was some pretty serious history in there (Mary, Queen of Scots' bedroom!), really neat stuff. Here's Killian and Catherine in the courtyard (no photography inside, sadly):

We also took a look at the ruins of Holyrood Abbey:

Today, Killian and I visited the Royal Botanic Garden. It was a great place to practice some photography, and Killian was an excellent model.

I was slightly less well-behaved.

Bonus points: can you find Killian in these pictures?

Till next time!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Day 1 and 2 - Edinburgh

Ok guys. Get ready for so many pictures.

Let's start with Day 1 (October 11):
We spent a lot of time in airplanes, so we pretty much just took a three hour nap and then ate dinner at the Roseleaf Pub:

Catherine shows us a map of the city


my first cuppa tea in the UK
(Scottish Breakfast)

my dinner: shepherd's pie, with a side of peas*
and what I think was some kind of squash

daniel's "veggie weggie welly-ton"--
which was way more delish than it sounds.
After dinner, we walked home through Leith (I've thought of the Proclaimers a few times this trip), and then went to sleep.

Day 2 (October 12):
First, I need to mention that Daniel and I woke up around 7:30am. After quick breakfast, Catherine was off to meet with her PhD adviser and run some errands, so Daniel and I were on our own until 5:30. This is what we did:

the Monymusk Reliquary! It's teeny!

the Lewis chessmen!

OLD COMPUTER! The pattern woven by the Jacquard loom
was programmed on punch cards (in the 1800s, guys)

We walked for about 45 minutes from Catherine's to the National Galleries, had lunch in the cafe at the downtown library, and then spent the afternoon admiring cool Scottish antiquities at the National Museum of Scotland. At 5ish, we met Catherine near her office at New College and then walked to The Auld Hoose Pub to eat a million nachos with her PhD bros. We got home around 9:30. It's now 11:48pm and I am basically falling asleep while trying to post this, so hopefully you are all ok with it being short and sweet! G'night!

*Stacy: I laughed when I saw them.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

ready, set...

(NOTE: my internet pooped out right as I finished this last night, so, you know, all of this stuff is still true, but minus half a day and some late-night sleep insanity. I'm only going to edit the time of departure in my first paragraph, because parents will probably be reading this, and I don't want to spark confusion)

Daniel and I are leaving in two days. --Wait, scratch that, a day and a half  ONLY A DAY. What? You don't know what I'm talking about? That's because I've barely mentioned this trip. I'm trying to tell myself it's not some unhealthy superstition, but it might be. The weirdest part is that I'm still having a hard time trying to convince myself that this trip is even real. We'll be in Edinburgh on Tuesday morning, drinking tea and catching up with my friend Catherine (look at her tumblr, Notes from Bewilderment!). Seriously, what? Scotland? On Tuesday? My brain does not comprehend.

But we are actually going. !!! We'll be in Edinburgh and Oxford for a total of one whole friggin' month. In preparation for this trip--which, like the best of high school romances, seems to be trying the whole "aloofness equals sexiness" routine with me--I've packed a fatty fat suitcase of rad clothes and made myself a new glasses case, because Watson ate my old one last time I was home.


(homemade glasses case.)

In other recent news, I finished one of those short stories I've been yammering on about! By "finished", I mean "completed a first draft" but it still counts. The word "completed" is in there! This one's going into the grad school portfolio, so I'll probably spend a lot of that twelve hour flight I have ahead of me with my thoughts buried deep in revision sauce. Sounds great, right? Heh.

Actually, it has been pretty great. Shockingly. Fully expecting to have that feeling of pulling teeth at the end, I hit this point with the last few pages where I was basically in a trance; five hours passed without me looking away from my desk once. The words just rolled out until I hit the  final stretch, and then ending was magically perfect, and the last sentence was great, and Daniel read the whole thing and said I accidentally might have written in some themes. You know, the kind that just sort of sneak in, Flannery O'Connor- and J.R.R. Tolkein-style. Did I intend to draw attention to the relationship between religion and socialism in 1920's Russia? Nope! Accident! Can I shed some light on what it means? NOPE! Haha! I'm going to leave that for future high school English students to "unpack." Anyway, it was awesome. I am, in fact, proud of it. I might even shop it around, once it's cleaned up. Maaaaaybe.

I'm going to make the rest of my important updates into a list because it's 1 o'clock and I'm plum[b]* tuckered.

# Daniel will be an occasional guest blogger whilst we are abroad! WE ARE LIKE A TEAM.
# If you know how to find the lost remains of Saint Columba, let me know. It would really make my quest a lot easier. And, in fact, if you know of any relics I could feasibly see--Margaret, Andew, *ahem* COLUMBA--(again, keep in mind: Edinburgh and Oxford), let me know. I have a "thing" for saints. Hagiography is kind of my middle name, if you know what I mean.**
# Oh, and, uh, we bought a camera. That way, our pictures will be nice! So, so nice.


am I not cool, with my camera face??

Oh my gosh, I'm going to say goodnight before I lose my ability to write sentences, because I have already lost my marbles. Clearly.

night night.

*what is the consensus on this? is it plumb tuckered, or plum tuckered? You know what? Don't even care, I am so tuckered right now like woah.
**I mean that it is literally my middle name. Killian Hagiography Czuba. DO YOU DOUBT ME?