Saturday, November 28, 2015

Saturday Serial: Sherlock Holmes "The Case of the Shy Ballerina"

Friday, November 27, 2015

Here's something cute, following along the language talk the other day. See if you can read this:

Hint: The plaintext is in English. You don't need to know Chinese to read it, but knowing something about how Chinese works might help. Priming not required, although depending on how flexible your recognition vocabulary is, it might be faster to guess some chunks from context rather than reading them explicitly.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is a food-based holiday for USians, so naturally I am celebrating it with RAT. This year, Yuki is thankful she's still around for Giant Meal For No Reason Day -- three rounds of any given holiday is a pretty good run for a tiny furry ball of genetic defects. She's lost both sisters, but seems to be doing fine as an only rat. As usually happens with only-rats, she's gotten a lot more pushy about climbing the cage door to let me know it is Time For Rat-Tending NOW, but mainly, Yuki seems to be enjoying being able to nom all of the new holes in her nest box herself.

In addition to her customary new box to shred and new bedding to roll around in, Yuki is also getting her own tiny Ratsgiving dinner. Observe:

Salad with dressing and buttered crust of bread, rosemary chicken stew with mashed potatoes and peas, and for dessert, egg nog porridge with a dab of jam. No, I never have much to do over the holiday weekend, why do you ask?

She is actually getting this over a couple of days, because it's far more than even Yuki, the Massive Waddling Belly, could possibly eat in one sitting. (Not kidding, She is hee-yooge. Jazmin calls her "Ocitita" -- Little Girl-Bear. She's certainly fat, but beyond that, she's just a very big rat.) And I made Thanksgiving dinner for me, not her, but don't tell her that; she's happiest when she thinks she's being spoiled beyond all reason.

Also, I'm getting Ferrero Rocher chocolates for dessert instead of porridge. Don't tell her that either, because I'm not sharing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I have realized in the past few years that I am not really kidding when I talk about having a 'magic language sense'. There is something about the time-worn repetition about true language that catches my attention when I see it, even if it's not a language I speak, or it's disguised as something else. There is a limit; blocks of Enigma text don't trip it, for instance, although intellectually I've inhaled enough about cryptography to recognize that's what it (probably) is. The format typically used by numbers stations says to me that there is a message there, although since it's probably an arbitrary correspondence code I have no idea what it says, or that it's not all padding and gibberish.

A big tip off that I'm actually noticing something, even if I don't precisely know what it is, is that the language sense works better when I have context, and generally best when I have large amounts of text to look at. Perhaps an equally big clue is that asemic writing trips it backwards -- I'm so used to all kinds of writing having that prismatic overlay of meaning that when it's not there, it takes me quite a while to realize that the scribbling is meant to resemble or evoke the impression of text, if I ever do.

Knowing that writing has a meaning and being able to decipher it are two different things. I finally got around to looking up Arabic calligraphy a few months ago, because I knew it said something and wanted to know how to figure out what. This sucker over on the right looks perfectly well like writing to me, although I'll be damned if I know what it says -- the artist was drunk as fuck (no, really), and calligraphic art involving ideographs is not typically meant to be read, as such. There are, like, writing parts in it, more than anything, and the line squiggles back and forth in ways that suggest the writer had some sort of stroke order in mind, but ultimately just couldn't be bothered.

Most asemic writing doesn't even tickle the language sense. The Codex Seraphinianus (left), beautiful as it is as a work of art, looks completely wrong. That is, in fact, the whole of my first impression of it, although after looking much longer I can piece together where the reaction comes from: The font is meant to emulate handwriting, but those letterforms are much more complicated than anything that could have evolved from habitually writing words as long as the ones seen in the text. Humans are much too lazy for that, honestly. There is a suspicious amount of repetition not just in what you get at the end of words -- and I say this as a native speaker of a language that only distinguishes one major case, one grammatical number, and one present-tense conjugation, and chooses to mark them all with an S -- but also in the beginning. I also note a few spots where one symbol occurs three times in a row, right in the middle of a word, which, for reasons yet obscure, is virtually unheard of in a regular orthography.

The Voynich Manuscript (right), I'm iffy about. If it's anything, it's an invented language -- it looks wrong, both to my eye and evidently to sophisticated cryptography analysis, for natural language. The letters are much more natural than the Codex, though, and it was clearly developed by someone familiar with writing and literacy in general. Compare to the examples on this page, for instance. It looks most like the Latin, which is medieval and generally appalling to read, which is understandable, since ergonomics wouldn't be invented for another few hundred years.

[Note that I actually cannot read all of the things in each of those above-linked thumbnails. The French one starts "It is the command of the Monseigneur de Grenoble de..." something something something, lots of stuff involving what I suspect may be the 'royal we'; the Italian is something about theology written to a priest; the Latin is on the topic of Rome, although mainly what I spot are a lot of conjugations of 'to be'. The German and Spanish, aside from the odd grammar word, are completely indecipherable. So if you ever wanted the comfort of knowing that I have limitations, here you are: I am powerless against terrible handwriting in languages in which I am not fully fluent. You're welcome.]

The thing that has come closest to fooling me into thinking it's real writing so far is Xu Bing's A Book From The Sky. The title page is reproduced at left. This may be cheating, somewhat, since I don't really read Chinese, but I do read Japanese well enough to plow through Meitantei Conan games in it, so that has to count for something. It's rare for me to look at a Chinese text and recognize no characters in it; a lot of the common words, especially prepositions and other grammar words, use characters that are still in use (sometimes in simplified form) in Japanese, even if the native Japanese prepositions are written in kana nowadays.

I couldn't say definitively that the characters used in that text aren't real Chinese, but my first instinct is to say they aren't modern Chinese -- the page looks, for lack of a better description, too busy. Characters generally evolve from complicated to simple, and while there are a lot of complex characters that remain in the traditional set used in Hong Kong, it would be unusual for even a text that short to contain that small a number of characters common enough to have evolved a simpler form over time. The fiddlier the character is, the older it's likely to be. Characters that remain fiddly to this day are usually ones that aren't used often enough for people to have gotten lazy about drawing them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Here is everyone's regularly scheduled reminder that Stressed Writer writes better when not Stressed over money matters. I have a Patreon, a GoFundMe, and a PayPal donation link.

Just to prove you get something out of this, today I'm going to tackle a reader question from the last round, a request to write more about gifted kids and What They Go On To Do With Their Lives. What do gifted kids do with their giftedness?

The short answer is: I don't know. The slightly less short answer is: It depends on a lot of stuff.

Despite what the adults told you from birth through high school, there are an awful lot of gifted kids who never go on to change the world. There's a distinct over-representation of high IQs in the fields where you'd expect it, like college faculty, but that doesn't mean that most gifted kids grow up to work in research or higher education -- the field isn't big enough, and it self-selects for other qualities in addition to intelligence. "Genius," to a lot of people who aren't geniuses, encompasses either careers that require a thousand years of formal training, or artistic pursuits that run on what might as well be dark magic.

In America especially, "genius" is also informally restricted to "intelligence that somehow makes you a lot of money," which is so far from true I have no idea where that one even started. (Possibly with the Baby Boomers, a lot of whom viewed the jump from "blue-collar" to "professional" the same way people today would view the jump from middle-class to the 1% -- as the difference between always struggling and never having to worry about where the car payment was coming from.) The pay scale for merely "being an evil genius" turns out to be shit, so there are a lot of very smart people going the Einstein route and working as patent clerks, simply because being a patent clerk doesn't take up any brain power to speak of. They go to work, draw their check, and go home to spend their mental energy on more interesting things.

There are reasons that a lot of very smart people are very underemployed. One is that it's difficult to get someone to buy something if they don't grasp why they should want it. The whole thing that got you labeled a genius in the first place is the ability to think of things nobody else thought of -- and if nobody else has thought about it, they have no idea why they should hire you to do it. The idea that it might be handy to pay someone to think about stuff that you can't, won't, or just don't want to does not gel with most people. They haven't thought of it, so the idea that it's even a thing that should be thought about does not compute. You want to think about it, then you can go do that on your own time, and on your own dime.

With genius kids that probably should be working genius jobs but aren't, it's often a matter of certification. It would take me more money than I will ever earn in one lifetime to get officially certified at all of the things I can actually already do. Without the pieces of paper, they're just hobbies that nobody pays any mind. Or, worse, they assume since I'm not professional, clearly I'll be happy to do this for free. For every person who tells me I ought to get paid for something I do, there are five more who would be offended if I asked for money, because if I were serious about it, I'd have slogged through school.

[This is especially annoying if it's something I once attempted to major in, only to discover that there was no such thing (yet). The main reason I didn't get an entire bachelor's degree in "stuff pertaining to video games and video gamers" is because I could not find anyone on the faculty who had any idea what I was talking about, and consequently couldn't find anyone to grade me on it. The best I found was one guy in the Electronic Media Production department who admitted to once owning an Intellivision. Some of these things are around now, but I'm at the oldest end of the first generation to have had home video games around literally all our lives. When I was an undergrad, so were all the people who got their PhDs right away and started the programs that exist today.]

The certification process is at least as much of a stumbling block as the money. Gifted kids are notorious for picking things up quickly, often without ever having any formal classes, and frequently without anyone else ever noticing they're learning until they pop up one day with unexpected expertise. What is often not understood is that they're not learning faster, they're learning differently -- what looks like instant mastery from the outside is almost never 'going through the normal process at great speed', it's 'going through a wonky idiosyncratic storm of cross-connection and analogical reasoning that happens to come out at the same place as the normal process, mostly, but much faster and from a weird direction'.

A lot of gifted kids -- me among them -- test well, and class really poorly. I do brilliantly at things where I'm required to write (or craft, or produce) something which, when shown to a genuine expert, would convince them that I know what the hell I'm doing. I do incredibly badly at things where I am required to demonstrate that I am learning things via a set process, at a set rate, using set techniques. I went through a few of my required high school classes in one summer specifically because I had already figured this out, and told my parents that if I were forced to sit through an entire semester of that drivel, I would fail it. (My high school wouldn't even let you enroll in these until your final year, and failing them would prevent me from graduating -- my parents ponied up for summer classes.) I flunked a few other things in college before I figured out how to game the system/avoid it.

It may be nigh-impossible to get certified in something that you are in fact already good at, simply because the process is only designed for people who aren't you, and the economics of being able to do the thing for pay are only designed for people who have the certification. Which puts you back at 'patent clerk'.

It can also be remarkably hard to get a regular job when you are catastrophically overqualified for everything on Earth. When your main talent is learning, then by the time you get out into the adult workforce, there is literally no such thing as a job that requires all of the things you know how to do. It's much better for me in Boston, where people sometimes manage to get PhDs in things just because they like doing it, and still do mundane things for a living. Other places, not so much. If you happen to be in an economically-depressed area, you often won't get called specifically because you come off as intelligent/educated -- crap employers with crap jobs often don't want to hire anyone they think will be uppity about things like 'asserting their rights' or 'quoting labor law', or just has the confidence and opportunity to quit said crap job so fast they leave a Wile E Coyote-like hole in the wall the nanosecond something better comes along.

[People who don't get the chance to go to college still seem to have this idea that having a college degree automatically opens doors, no matter who or where you are. I was so desperate for a job at one point, back in Arizona, that I started handing out resumes that listed my second, unfinished BA and didn't list my first, completed one. One woman at the job I finally got, who dropped out of school to have her kids, told me very earnestly that I should do everything I could to finish my degree and get out of there. She looked crushed when I confessed that I had a degree, and had to quit telling people about it so I could get enough work to eat.]

One thing you will get continually, if you have demonstrated aptitude in multiple things, is people asking, "Why don't you work in X?" where X is a field that they aren't in. Nobody thinks their own job is glamorous. Sometimes they're just confused; occasionally you get someone who thinks you're slumming it just to show other people up, and resents you for it. As far as I can tell, there is no way to explain any of this to anybody's satisfaction. I've always found it easier to cultivate an air of eccentricity and let people assume you show up where you do because unfathomable genius reasons, but YMMV.

In short, most genius kids don't wind up doing anything with their lives, at least from the perspective of either great economic or great academic success. Most of the great things of which they are capable are things which society has no way to assess. They are valuable because they are new and different, but that also means there's nothing against which to measure them and calculate their worth.

Intellectually, my own personal opinion is that the people who did the most with their specific spark! of genius were philosophers, which in the modern day tends to translate to 'person who writes or speaks of science or other intellectual topics to the popular masses', whether it's in the context of fiction, non-fiction, or entertainment. It's a vocation that requires expertise in a lot of different things that look completely unrelated, until they are. I'm probably biased because 1) I'm proficient in a lot of the things it requires already, not because I was trying for a career in this but just because I enjoy them all, and 2) someone I personally know has recently been hit directly in the face with the Frying Pan of Immense Success doing that, so I now have concrete proof that this is a thing that really happens.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Monday Mystery: The Dominici Affair

Today's mystery is still mysterious mainly because the investigation and inquest were what can only be described as a shitshow of epic proportions. The English Wikipedia article on Jack Drummond, a wartime chemist specializing in nutrition, gives the bare bones; there is only a stub about the murder itself.

The real details of the operation are over on, where a lengthy write-up details a police operation that would have embarrassed the Keystone Kops.

Sometime during the night of August 4, 1952, the Drummond family (Jack Drummond, his second wife Ann, and their 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth) were brutally murdered along the side of Route nationale 96 near Lurs, in what is now Alpes-des-Haute-Provence. They had been driving through southeastern France in a green Hillman station wagon when they evidently stopped near a farm rather hyperbolically known as Le Grand'Terre ("the Mainland"), where a person or persons unknown bashed their heads in with the butt of a carbine rifle.

The farm was occupied by a family by the name of Dominici: head of the family Gaston (75) and his wife Marie (73), their son Gustave (33), Gustave's wife Yvette (20), and Gustave and Yvette's 10-month old baby, Alain. Just to show you what we're getting into here, Marie was apparently nicknamed "the Sardine" -- I double-checked, and no, « la Sardine » is unambiguously the fish and not also a term for someone from Sardinia. The family was originally from Italy, but Gaston's great-grandfather migrated over to farm in southern France in 1800. The tone of the article implies that, by French standards, in 1952 they were still considered un-integrated immigrant n00bs.

The story -- and I say "story" because it is widely acknowledged that big chunks of the following have got to be fiction, it's just that nobody is sure which ones exactly -- goes that the Dominicis were all gathered to celebrate the end of the harvest season. Marie "the Sardine" Dominici neglected to close the sluice gate when irrigation was finished, causing a small landside, and several of her kin had noted, as they came in, that it thankfully had not obstructed the railroad tracks. The celebrants heard "six or seven" shots fired about 1:10am on the night of August 4-5.

At 4:30am, a passer-by on the route named Marceau Blanc saw the green Hillman by the side of the road, a camp bed behind it, and curtains obstructing the right-hand windows and the windshield. At 4:50am, Joseph Moynier saw none of this. At 5:20am, Jean H├ębrard saw the camp bed leaned up against the car. Around 6:30, a couple of brothers on mopeds stop at the farm and are casually told that there were shots in the night, and that Gustave had found the body of a girl while checking on the landslide in the railroad culvert. One of the brothers leads yet another passer-by right to the corpse of little Elizabeth with what was later noted to be a suspicious rapidity. Eventually they bothered to look a little farther afield and found Jack and Ann as well.

(The last guy lied about it, and then finally coughed up the truth to the gendarmerie. When asked why he lied he variously gave the reasons: "Gustave told me how she screamed when she died," "I half-heard whispering from the Moped Bros that alarmed me," and "I don't know.")

Yet another random guy was camping out in the countryside the night before, when around 7 in the morning he wandered up to see what was so interesting about the Hillman that a commotion had sprung up, and saw a camp bed and a body covered with a blanket. The French article doesn't mention him doing anything, so apparently this was not interesting enough to take action. When the cops didn't show up, they sent the extremely pregnant lady, Yvette, off by bike to the neighbor's to phone them, and by the time the cops did show up, people were already trampling all over the crime scene. One of the policemen found a bicycle identified as Gustave's near the crime scene, and then somehow lost it again. They lost track of Yvette completely when she fucked off into town with her parents to do the shopping and didn't come back until 4pm.

The inquest and trial deteriorated still further. Gatson and Gustave both drunkenly confessed, then recanted. A neighbor claimed Gustave had told him that he'd discovered Elizabeth still alive, and done nothing to help her. The family began pointing fingers at one another. Gaston -- a 75-year-old man who hobbled around with a walking stick -- was eventually convicted of the murders, but later released on the grounds that he was a 75-year-old man who hobbled around with a walking stick, and unlikely to be killing anyone else any time soon. Alain, just a baby at the time, today insists that the Drummonds were murdered by the Soviets for spying. Or refusing to spy. Or handing over secrets. Or not handing them over. Or something.

General consensus today seems to be that, while Gaston was fully mean enough to have done it, he probably didn't. It was 1) one of his equally-violent sons, or 2) the KGB, and the French government used Gaston as a scapegoat because Soviet murders in the south of France would have sent up a panic during the Cold War. Someone named Fergusson wrote a book about it in 1997, which the library hath not coughed up yet, but which you can nip off and read yourself if you can find a copy.