Surface and Essences

Douglas R Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sadler

When I was a 13-year-old nerd, I toted around a copy of Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid until it fell apart and I had to buy my grandfather a new copy. Apart from a collection of his columns for Scientific American, I haven’t read any of his work since then: I think I got a bit tired of it. Reading his new work, which is an exploration of the role analogy plays in human consciousness, made both these old feelings return – first the enthusiasm, and then the fatigue. Unlike GEB,which has lots of variety – dialogues, Escher reproductions, musical scores, whole chapters on foundational logic - Surfaces and Essences is uniform, prosy, long and rather relentless. I think I agree with Hofstadter and Sadler’s thesis, but it’s a shame that most of the books argument takes the form of thought experiments rather than, say, psychological studies. Mostly, it made me want to re-read GEB for the first time in years.

I did enjoy the chapter towards the end of the book about Einstein, but I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of well-written explanations of relativity.

Learning Haskell

Chris Okasaki – Purely Functional Data Structures
Simon Thompson – Haskell: The Craft of Functional Programming
Bryan O’Sullivan, Don Stewart, and John Goerzen – Real World Haskell

My team at UTS, the eResearch Support Group, has just finished off two major projects, for which I wrote a lot of integration code in Perl and hacked around a lot more than I cared to in Velocity, a horribly ugly template library for Java which is now at the top of my least-favourite-technologies list.

Despite the fact that my job involves less coding than it used to, and that this proportion is likely to drop further, I needed to clean all the glue out of my brain, so I’ve returned to teaching myself Haskell. The last time I attempted this was about five or six years ago: since then, an open-source ecosystem seems to have developed around what was once a very academic language. There are web frameworks and package repositories and things which aren’t really possible in other languages, like a search engine by type signature.

The best way to learn a language is to do something useful with it, and I have a work project for the end of next year in mind: whether Haskell is the right choice or not is something I haven’t quite decided yet.

I read the first two of the three books a couple of months ago: The Craft of Functional Programming was a good way to remind myself of the basics, but I didn’t have the time or energy to work through the exercises, so it didn’t stick. I looked up Purely Functional Data Structures because a friend who is much brighter than I  mentioned it; it’s not so much about Haskell per se, as it is a demonstration that the kind of reasoning which makes for efficient data processing in imperative languages can be applied to functional ones. Not having a background in computer science, I think I understood about forty percent of it, but it left me with the feeling that those who deeply understand such things will have taken care of the details and written great libraries for me to use.

I’m currently reading Real World Haskell properly and doing all of the exercises in spare moments and it’s a lot of fun. I think I’ve even started to understand, or remember, what monads are. (In a side-effect-free programming environment, state – or a sequence of imperative instructions, which is really just a particular kind of state – can be modelled as a sequence of nested evaluations.)

Six Novels in Woodcuts

Lynd Ward

Vertigo

A box set from the Library of America which I was lucky enough to get for Christmas. Apart from collections of Little Nemo in Slumberland and Krazy Kat, I’m fairly ignorant of the history of the graphic novel, and was unaware of Lynd Ward until I saw this in the LoA’s catalogue. The six novels, published between 1929 and 1937, are wordless sequences of beautiful, dramatic woodcuts: the subject matter ranges from Faustian parable  - God’s Man -  Faulkneresque multigenerational saga in Madman’s Drum, to the last work, Vertigo, a multifaceted portrait of the crisis of capitalism in the Great Depression. They’re all good, but I think Vertigo is the best.

Tiny Kingdoms

I’ve started a new sequence of strange things at my other Twitter account, @FSVO:

TINY KINGDOMS: a catalogue and history of the principal Tribes, Bands and teeming Nations of the EARTH. In which are incidentally narrated, the FIRST FIRES; the foundation of the STONE CITIES; the first appearance and activities of the ENEMY; The coming of the first FOOD ASSEMBLAGES and FALL of the CITIES; the rise of the FOOD TOWERS; The onset of the AGE of MONSTERS; the colonization of the NEW WORLDS, up to the present day.

In other FSVO news, I’m hoping to get the text of last year’s long poem ‘Stepwise Palace’ up on the web sometime soon.

Among Others

Jo Walton

I have been terrible at keeping my promise to review books as I read them this year, and I have to catch up before I can’t do them justice: which Among Others really deserves. As someone who spent the 80s reading as much sf and fantasy as its heroine, I found myself wondering, but not caring very much, to what extent the references to Heinlein and Delany would go over a casual reader’s head. It’s as good a book about growing up nerdy as I’d expected, and the supernatural elements are very well done.

It was only when I’d finished that I realised that the author was the critic who had been writing such enjoyable appreciations of classic sf and fantasy on Tor Books’ website. The title of her anthology, What Makes This Book So Great, sums up an sort of enthusiasm which is very rarely publicly expressed, for whatever socio-cultural reasons, about non-genre fiction.

Materiality: Precious

The third issue of Materiality: PRECIOUS is available now from the Pinknantucket Press!

Along with many other good things, it includes my story “The Faithful Alchemist”, set in the fabled and impeccably pretentious city of Louchébem.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve added an index to those fragments of the Louchébem corpus which have already appeared in these pages.

Cremaster Cycle Cheat Sheet

Prompted by reading Alison Croggon’s entertaining review of his awful-sounding River of Fundament, I remembered that in 2004 I’d seen the whole of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle in a screening at the AGNSW and wrote up a handy bluffer’s guide. The old staff homepage server it lived on is long gone, but I found a copy on the Wayback Machine, so here it is again:

The Cremaster Cycle Cheat Sheet