Real World

29 November 2016 Leave a comment

Yang said that he wanted to focus on experimental and applied problems, staying away from theory.

Ye Wenjie recalled her father saying, “I’m not opposed to your idea. But we are, after all, the department of theoretical physics. Why do you want to avoid theory?”

Yang replied, “I want to devote myself to the times, to make some real-world contributions.”

Her father said, “Theory is the foundation of application. Isn’t discovering fundamental laws the biggest contribution to our time?”

Yang hesitated and finally revealed his real concern: “It’s easy to make ideological mistakes in theory.”

From The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu.

Categories: Vagaries

Manchester (Day 2): Chestnut Tree

19 September 2016 Leave a comment

In Nashville, I made my way across town from the Megabus stop to the Greyhound station. The ride to Manchester was about an hour.


Tennessee, from the Greyhound.

The plan had been to arrive in Manchester the day before the festival, and take a hike to the festival grounds. I’d printed out the map, and it looked like it would be a two-hour march (5 miles = 8 km = 2 x 4 km, with equipment).


I’d verified that the festival grounds would be open, and I hoped to arrived by evening to find a good spot to pitch my tent. I knew that most of the arrivals would be on the morning of the following day (the first official day of the festival), and that most people would be driving in to the festival.

Regarding the tent, I’d obtained it for the grand sum of $10 at the thrift store in Northfield, which amounted to accommodation costs of about $2 per night – plus a couple of dollars for things like the inflatable pool mattress (a handy hack I read about on Reddit) and the butane stove.

The thing about old tents is the smell – fortunately I’d found this out before the trip. I’d laid out the components for my own inspection after purchasing it and been knocked almost bodily back by the odor; the smell was somewhat improved after I aired and sunned the canvas and groundsheet.

I also had to figure out, by trial-and-error, how to pitch this particular tent. In keeping with my sergeant-ly approach thus far, I did a tent-pitching dry-run on a sunny afternoon, on the grass outside Watson Hall. I was slowly fumbling through the possible configurations of parts, and finding that the set likely had elements from more than one source, etc., when I was greeted by two people curious about what I was doing, and who very helpfully stuck around to help me figure out how to set it up; I promised T. and T. that I’d write back about how the festival went, and this series could be read as my long overdue response.



I would have checked in directly at the festival, that is, if I had not met S. and J. (see previous entry) in Chicago.

In Chicago the Megabus coaches stop along South Canal St. People filter down the length of the sidewalk, trying to figure out which knot of passengers is the right one to join. I met S. and J. while looking for the south-bound bus – like me, S. and J. were transferring from the bus arriving from the north (me from Minnesota, them from somewhere in Wisconsin). We matched up because I hear them asking for which bus was headed to Bonnaroo. When they found out that I’d also decided to take the long bus journey from up north (me from Minnesota, them from Wisconsin), that I was headed to Bonnaroo for the first time, and that I was otherwise on my own, these veteran Bonnaroovians effectively took me under their wing.

I’m going back in time, here – this was technically just after midnight, right at the beginning of Day 2. I arrived with my new friends in Nashville after about 11 hours on the bus, and we ended up having tickets for the same Greyhound to Manchester as well. We arrived in Manchester some time in the early afternoon.

Whereas my initial plan had been to hike from the bus station in Manchester to the festival grounds, S. and J. knew that there would be golf buggies for hire at the bus station to take people to the festival grounds. We ended up catching one of these instead, after a stop for groceries (bread, beef, beer). This was my first glimpse of the unofficial economy that annually springs up in Manchester around each iteration of Bonnaroo.


I also mentioned that I’d initially planned to check in at the festival grounds (‘the Farm’), but here, as well, my new friends’ veteran status opened up other possibilities. Our golf buggy drove towards the farm, but we got off a short ways before the main gate – rather than pitch our tents on the open un-shaded grounds of the farm, instead we pitched up in the backyard of a house on a plot adjoining the festival grounds.

S. and J. were known to the house-owners, presumably from having stayed there during past festivals. After a short chat with the domestic authority, we were cleared to stay. We picked out a spot under the chestnut tree (good shade), and commenced clearing the ground of half-buried chestnuts, which would dig into your back if you were unfortunate enough to have pitched on top of some. (In fact, the tree-trunk you might have seen in the picture of the tent is this tree’s.)

I don’t remember doing very much after pitching up – I’m pretty sure I had a beer, and I may have eaten – but I quickly inflated the pool mattress, put my sleeping bag on top of it, and went to sleep. I do know I was probably exhausted from being on the road for about 30 solid hours, because I slept solidly from that afternoon until about 2 p.m. the next day.

Categories: Vagaries Tags: ,


“Starbucks with breakfast at O-Week? This is the high life.”

I suppose, five years ago, that I must have been much more excitable.

But I was excited to start university. Life in the army camp had been richly educative in its own way, and although I eventually found my groove, I’d had to flail through many stages of it; I hoped that university, in contrast, would be a challenge more up my alley.

Still, this was an abstract anticipation.

I’m writing this at UTown Starbucks, sitting outside and looking out across the Green. I remember I spent a number of hours here in my first and second years of school (diurnal and nocturnal hours, respectively).

It was also here that the feeling of looking forward to university life first went from abstract to real for me. It might have been the second or third morning of O-Week, and I’d just jio-ed some guys to go buy coffee.

Not that I was consciously thinking this way at the time, but in that moment I’d just translated familiar things from my life-context – tapau-ing food and drinks for friends, buying Starbucks – into the context of my life beginning at NUS and UTown.

I’d not call it a decision, but I think of it as a first step taken into the new situation. I’d taken something I knew how to do, and put it into the routine of a new community of people –  perhaps the first step onto a slippery slope, since before I knew it I’d signed up to be Ops Manager for the next FOP.

Since then I’ve put more of myself into this place, but I’ve also come to experience new and different things – ‘takeaways’, I suppose you could call them, though it’s usually more of a give-and-take, isn’t it? I’ve also generated routines that are going to be associated with this place; if they crop up again somewhere else, maybe I’ll remember how I used to do this or do that at school. 

But whether at that first O-Week, or during the long days and nights at Cinnamon College, a lot of what I will remember will be of the me- and the you-among-us, e.g. ‘Remember when we met at that event where so-and-so did that thing and we laughed so hard?’

So I commence.


Categories: Vagaries

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Categories: Perspective

Review: Legend of the Galactic Heroes (Ep. 1-26)

4 June 2016 1 comment

I started watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes after reading this warisboring article posted by a friend on FB.

So far I’ve watched the first movie (chronologically, the first one to be released), but the backbone of the LotGH universe is the 110-episode series (released between 1988-1997, but presently easy to find online). I’ve just completed the first 26, and I’m pausing to record some of my thoughts so far. (Spoiler: It’s really good.)

I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first movie, and I thought the series started off slowly. The two things I’ll mainly be commenting on are theme and depiction of action.

I’ll start with the second item, because in retrospect, it was interesting to realize how thoroughly my expectations about how war and destruction should be portrayed had been shaped by the genre of the modern blockbuster. War and destruction are always visually stunning (think epic landscapes, VFX), and nowadays to be a blockbuster is to be action-driven, at the risk of a film being critically panned as failing to engage, or even being indulgent.

A feature of the LotGH universe is that space battles feature tens of thousands of ships, and potentially millions of soldiers (e.g. the Battle of Astarte), engaged in long-range interchanges of fire with focused-beam weapons. Though the reported numbers are epic, the visuals of spaces battle aren’t as flashy as in Star Wars, or as close-in as Star Trek (not that there aren’t brutal melees). Watching an LotGH battle, at least in the first 26 episodes, mainly involves abstract visuals of fleet movements (literally moving blocks of color on a technician’s screen), commanders arguing on the bridge, beams of light flashing across long distances between the opposing fleets’ battle lines, and only the occasional close-up of a ship disintegrating or a bridge officer perishing.

In fact, most of the explosions we see are at long range, in the form of sporadic bright flashes on opposite sides of space. The usual soundtrack to epic space-battles is classical music.

Really, what struck me was a difference in the considerations behind depictions of death. Whether in superhero blockbusters or a fantasy series like Game of Thrones, the current conventional logic is that the greater the extent of death or injury, the more catastrophic the portrayal (or the more violent a portrayal that can be justified).

The portrayal of the deaths of thousands and millions in LotGH (at least in the first 26 episodes) goes against this logic. The visuals of entire fleets of thousands of people exploding in space appear as distant, muted, expanding spheres of light, like an unprecedentedly low-key fireworks display.

At first, my reaction was that the music and the portrayal were really due to the technical limitations of the period, or budget concerns, but as time wore on, I came to appreciate that even if these were real limitations, they were masterfully negotiated, because the depiction of death in massive battles in LotGH is really a deliberate challenge to the viewer to try and appreciate the gravity of the lives being expended, very much despite the way it’s portrayed.

The broader effect this achieves is that as we the viewers struggle to do so, we participate in resolving what might otherwise be an irresolvable thematic tension.


Part of the experience of watching a sci-fi military anime is learning about the universe (the state of technology, the political structures in place, etc.); but at least for the first 26 episodes, all – literally, all – the drama of LotGH is interpersonal.

This is a point worth commenting on as well, because by today’s standards it would probably have been a weakness. The lack of situational drama is really because we tend to know which side will win. We’re even primed, more often than not, to be able to predict which characters will die. There is even a lack of any kind of existential uncertainty as well, because through the narration and the viewpoint of some of the characters, we tend to know the overall score between the large warring factions as well.

But to return to the point that all the drama is interpersonal, a lot of the first arc deals with things like the main characters’ respective histories (i.e. youth and childhood), and how this shapes their motivations and interactions with other people, etc.; but even things like the outcomes of battles are usually simple projections of the human situation on a command bridge, e.g. is the commander able to usefully process feedback from his staff officers? The outcomes of battles are shown as reflecting directly on the character of the commanders and their advisors.


Whether or not the viewer thinks a particular character is a good commander is perpetually (almost monotonously) an issue, and by design our investment in several of the main characters is the direct result of our coming to view them as exceptional commanders, possessing exceptional qualities.

During the show’s ‘present’, the same main characters tend to be High Admirals (or thereabouts), and this is what leads to a problem of involvement: How do we really sympathize with the potential struggles of these characters, at the head of fleets of millions of men? On the one hand, we are invited to consider their histories and their friendships. On the other, I find we’re also very much invited to critically judge and feel involved in their battle plans.

The parallel problem (to the problem of involvement) is the tension I referred to earlier, between appreciating the gravity of massive-scale death, and how insignificant it looks from a distance, and how insignificant it sounds when recounted as percentage losses to the fleet. That battle manoeuvres are set against classical music and massive death is a fireworks show puts death and violence at an abstract distance for the viewer, yes, but the point is that reconciling the abstractness of battle plans and the lives of the men under their command is something that the main characters are also shown to struggle with. (Though this is certainly not as belaboured a point as, say, whether a commander is able to listen to feedback or not.)

The result is that the viewer has to participate in reconciling the two otherwise disparate realities, and in doing so takes on part of the burden of resolving the cognitive tension arising from having to simultaneously appreciate the moral struggles of the main characters, as well as their obligation to perform what are almost exclusively abstract functions: on a screen, the lines of battle for 10,000 ships are just lines, and the extent of expected losses – also, the very question of whether losses can be avoided outright – is a question of concentration of forces, about shape and density and weight.


The point of genius is that, at the climax of the arc (around ep. 23), the thematic conflict is the timeless paradox of whether violent means justify noble political ends. As it turns out, both the protagonists – by now, the respective leaders of the military forces of the warring empires – are confronted with this paradox, in their respective entanglements. In classes about ethics or political philosophy, this is often presented as a primarily moral paradox, with abstract calculation of utility on the one hand, and a consideration of moral duties and ‘bright lines’ on the other.

The drama at the end of the first arc manages to transcend this, I would argue because this is the same paradox that the viewer is confronted with from the very start of the series. The dramatic success is that, by this point, we’re able to not just appreciate the paradox, but we’re able to appreciate the characters’ powerlessness despite their thorough appreciation of the paradox – this is the real drama, the one that inspires pity for the tragic hero(es).


Some things change after episode 26. In episode 27, we get our first sustained look at fighter combat (we see only short glimpses before), through the eyes of the supporting characters. The visual presentation changes as well, with some panel composition and montage that forcibly evoked the mecha anime genre. We get more engine whines and explosions in the soundtrack. It looks like things are going in a different direction from here.

The theme music and visuals change after episode 26 as well. From episode 27, an epigraph appears after the title, the translation of which is:

‘In every age,
In every place,
The deeds of men
Remain the same.’

Indeed, the thematic development of the first act culminates in this, now a foreboding of future tragedy, rather than merely an evocation of the greatness of deeds, times, and men.


(In)definiteness in Singlish

12 April 2016 Leave a comment

While writing chapter 4, I ended up having to precisely specify the parameters of a search over a space, and ended up writing a section that wound up being Appendix B.

Having un-knotted that theoretical tangle, it remained to tie up the rest of the analysis, which I produced in a relatively short time. The past week of writing has flown by quite quickly.

Last night I wrote through the night and through breakfast.

The last stretch, through a haze of tiredness: moving all the excess material into an auxiliary file, then making a conclusion. I started on the acknowledgements, then the abstract. (Later I felt like I wasn’t sure who wrote the abstract.)

But I got everything submitted at 11:25 a.m – this was dutifully recorded at the EL department office. Early after all!


Then I slept.

In the evening I reviewed my writing again. I read the abstract and found it was actually pretty serviceable.

After dinner I read the rest of it.

Especially because chapters 5 and 6 were made quite quickly, and because I wrote the last bits without feeling entirely sure about whether I was awake in my body, I was slightly anxious about what I’d find; but aside from finding that page 33 was a bit of a mess (a misplaced parenthesis, some missing words) I’m quite willing to endorse what I found. 

So, I’m happy, and happy with it.

1. Leaving the office, I swung by the EL Honours Room, dropped by the library to trade in my tomes on grammar and semantics (oh, faithful companions) for The Dictionary of the Khazars and The City & The City. I took a walk to engin Macs for a packet of french fries, which I consumed on the walk back to UTown. I’d put on Punch Brothers to listen to, then realized that the song was ‘Familiarity‘, and that definiteness is familiarity.

2. While waiting for lunch with #04-107, I sat down somewhere to try to read, but I ended up nodding off in a chair somewhere else. I woke up for a glorious 麻辣鍋.

Categories: Events

Depth of Field

18 March 2016 Leave a comment

At the Steve Reich concert tonight, I realized that the concert hall is very often where I feel focused. Something about the experience of listening and appreciation makes me start to recognize what I want to see happen. I start to have some idea about how I might plan my days, what I might change, etc. These aren’t usually unrealistic changes, or things I feel might be Good in some way but that I somehow remain unsure of (this happens a lot with reading confident-sounding articles of a certain genre) .

This post inspired in part by a segment from Channel Criswell’s analysis of the cinematography of Spike Jonze’s Her.

Categories: Reflection