2015 in Review: Highlights

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Scrambles highlight: what you can observe from Observation Peak

Movies: I didn’t see that many movies in 2015, and only two that I can remember in theatres. The movies I saw that I thought best, in order of increasing lightheartedness: The Colour of Pomegranates an extraordinary achievement of cinematography and some of the most memorable shots-as-imagery (the books in the wind!), but having none of the other parts of what makes a movie. The Buttoners a maximally dark comedy I tried to sneak into at VIFF ’98 (?) despite being underage, and finally saw last year. Persistence paid off, although I think 14 year old me would have liked the movie even more.

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Scrambles highlight 2: the glacial valley on the way up to Marriott is way prettier than the view at the top

24 Hour Party People a movie about the late 70’s Manchester scene, Joy Division et al., which is hilarious due to Steve Coogan delivering some really funny lines as Tony Wilson. Whit Stillman’s Barcelona which has the same kind of humour as all Whit Stillman movies, and which is apparently the type of humour exactly calculated to maximally appeal to me.

 

Books: I wrote a thing about it. Of the books on that list, the best book I read was probably “Faithful Ruslan”

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Scrambles highlight 3: Lady Peak summit

Hikes and scrambles: 2015 was a pretty productive year in terms of peaks attempted, at least by my standards. My favourite scramble was Observation Peak on the Icefields Parkway. Gorgeous, snowy views, interesting scrambling moves, weird weather, and only one other party on the mountain. Other highlights were Lady Peak in Chilliwack on my birthday, and an ill-fated attempt at Sun God Mountain as a “present” for dad.

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Scrambles highlight 4: dad contemplates ever letting me pick a scramble destination again

Trips: for the first time in several years, I didn’t make any trips outside of the US and Canada, and I liked it like that. Of course, it’s a shame to not be able to see people I like who live outside of North America, but there are so many things to see here as well. My two favourites were the trip to Tofino, where we slept in the Heptapus, saw a giant dog, ate delicious food and had ideal surfing conditions, and the trip to New York City, where it was wonderful to see A., K., and M., three people who are totally different in temperament and values, but with each of whom I felt good and felt at home, and each of whom found what they wanted in New York and seemed happy there.

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Donald Trump is Ron Burgundy

trumpburgundyLast US presidential election cycle, Zuuko made the observation that Romney was Principal Skinner. This election cycle, I’m going to stay ahead of the game by making my own candidate-fictional character analogy.

I was reading Trump’s press release for why he skipped the FOX debate, and it struck me that this is exactly how Burgundy would have written it. I had to double check that the press release didn’t contain “I have many expensive leather-bound books” for example. Donald Trump is Ron Burgundy. Okay, so I’m not the first person to think of this analogy (c.f. the existence of the above image, and of this quiz). That doesn’t make it any less true.

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2015 in Review: Overheard

Like the books post, this also involves more than strictly one calendar year of overhearing things.

A Beautiful Mind
[a Minnesota Wild fan sitting in a bar with his buddy]
You know what I like? Money.

I Call it the Richard Stallman Mantra
[woman in line at Lucky Donuts]
That’s what I keep telling myself: just cause you’re crazy, doesn’t mean your program isn’t good.

The Returns on Laziness are Amazing
[A MOTU-wannabe at All India Sweets]
I’m telling you, my whole investment portfolio is based on this: people’s laziness and people’s ignorance

You Might Say She Was Transported
[two retiree couples discussing an acquaintance while on a train]
I don’t know if it was the elk fornicating that drove her to the Caribbean

Ask your father about schadenfreude
[A mom and a four-year old in conversation]
—That’s just funny
—It’s terrible!
—It’s funny-terrible

Guess which line was by Winnie the Pooh
[graffiti in SFU bathroom]
—Fuck bitches Get money
—Fuck money Eat honey
—Develop skills Invest in your children’s education

I’m Saying this Ironically
[hip-techie types at a Mission coffee bar]
But wouldn’t it be cool if you could scratch into the future?

This story isn’t about her—it’s about her brother’s observation skills
[SFU freshmen gossipping in the cafeteria]
—Why would her brother call her a slut?
—Because she’s a slut

Not the kind of baking I’m taking about, Uncle Dave
[three generations at an ice cream shop]
—I went through a baking phase
—Oh yeah, I did too, it was called college

I bet she actually has an MA in art history concentrating on the surrealists
[Guy explaining “The Persistence of Memory” to a girl at MoMA]
He’s famous for these floppy clocks

This interview is going well
[a group meeting I was passing by in the hallway]
—What’s your background?
—Uh, nothing

Overheard wisdom
[guy walking down the street, to his friends]
You don’t have to be smart to laugh at fart jokes, but you’d be stupid not to.

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The Best Books I Read in 2015

..actually, since the last time I did a “best books I read” so this will include some books I read in late 2014. Once again, none of these books were published this year, so it doesn’t really matter. I’ve had pretty bad luck this year with books, and the good books I’ve read were mostly either children’s books, or things where I already knew and liked other books by the authors. Many books that I expected to really like disappointed me, from Knut Hamsun to Ayn Rand to Maya Angelou to Lyudmila Ulitskaya to Raymond Chandler to David Foster Wallace to Stanislaw Lem to Ursula Le Guin. Hoping for a better 2016, in this regard.

Moominpappa at Sea (Tove Jansson, 1965) This is a magical book. There are no evil characters in it, but there are no simplistically good ones, either. That is, everyone is basically good, but they all have very real character problems. Take Moominpappa, whose intentions are good, but whose extreme need to feel needed makes him put himself and all his family into a lot of trouble. Or Moomintroll, who is kind and sensitive but easily seduced by the artistic and the “cool” to the point where he can be cruel without noticing it. Basically, the moomins are almost too realistic. And so to read a warm, loving story about them is just wonderful.

Eastern Approaches (Fitzroy Maclean, 1949) Apparently a part of the inspiration for James Bond, Fitzroy Maclean led a supremely interesting life in the 30’s and 40’s. First, he was an ambassadorial attaché in Moscow, witnessing the show trials, and travelling surreptitiously to Central Asia, closed to foreigners at the time. He then joined up with a regiment of parachuters in North Africa, and finally acted as the liaison between England and Tito in World War II Yugoslavia. This book details these derring-do-filled exploits. Through it all, Maclean displays the British colonial stiff-upper-lip-ism that’s totally dead as a culture now, and I think was already mostly dead then. Not that stiff-upper-lip-ism is without its problems. When confronted with something unexpected, it very often involves acting like a dick. I’m pretty sure if we had to interact with Sir Fitzroy, we would think him insufferable. But luckily, we don’t have to interact with him. We just get to read his book. Reading T.’s version, held together by duct tape, singed by fire and eaten by mould somehow adds to the experience of adventure.

Верный Руслан (Faithful Ruslan, Georgij Vladimov, 1962-1979) A story told from the point of view of a GULAG guard dog that finds itself without a purpose or a master when the labour camp is closed. The book’s portrayal of the camp cost Vladimov his membership in the Union ofjpg1748858996 Soviet Writers, and the manuscript had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West. This is a short book that makes its point incredibly forcefully. And it’s also one where you often feel uncomfortable about yourself, because it’s impossible not to identify with the dog. The cruel, vicious, ignorant, loyal and noble dog. It’s one of two books that I remember that has ever made me cry.

A Bend in the River (V.S. Naipaul, 1979) One of the purposes of literature is to let us transcend ourselves and our environment. Another is to feed our curiosity about the wider world. And so I find myself more and more drawn to stories set in places that I know little to nothing about. That way, even if the plot or characters or style disappoint, I can still get something out of it. I gave this book to my dad, thinking he shared my sentiment. Apparently he doesn’t at all – and yet he loved this book, it was that good. It’s the story of an Indian-African who leaves the East African coast to live in a Central African town among the upheavals of independence and war. A fascinating glimpse into a world I know nothing about, it is also more universal than that. It seems to me a very sober and deep book about colonialism and post-colonial societies.

Gantenbein (Max Frisch, 1964) I think this is one of those books where different people, or even the same person reading at different times in their life, may get something totally different out of it. The most direct interpretation of this book as an ironic look at life probably really appeals to teenagers and this guy M. I met once who was adamant that “Fight Club” is the best movie ever. So initially I was annoyed at this book. It seemed way too cynical to view life as this interplay of manipulation. To view people as concerned with appearances not just above, but to the exclusion of, everything else. And then to have the smug, cunning author creating and putting together these people seemingly just out of hatred for humankind. But then you realize there is more to it. The narrator is recreating a tragedy in his own life, and playing out the mind games that we all play with ourselves – reviewing and altering conversations, reactions, inner thoughts. And when we do this, we indeed play a manipulation game – the alterations are a game even if the original isn’t, because we’re trying out different moves and seeing what effect they might have. And Frisch writes up this game as a novel, showing that this is really a process of creation and storytelling. Thus my interpretation of Gantenbein is that it’s making an argument. It’s saying that the search for a narrative, rather than human interaction itself, is the deeply cynical process.

The Golden Compass (Phillip Pullman, 1995) A world that’s simultaneously nostalgic and totally foreign, with high adventure, cool names, armoured bears, witches and the Far North. A heroine that you identify with very strongly. Writing that’s suitable for kids but rich and ornate and careful and good at capturing inner lives. And, in a time when that word gets thrown around a lot unjustifiably, actually pretty subversive. I liked the continuation of the trilogy much less.

La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia (The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, Dino Buzzati, 1945) Written in a style of a storyteller rather than a writer, frequently breaking into rhyme mid-story, just because it can be done. A kind and strange fairy tale that, like much of Buzzati for adults, is inventive and bizarre, but also sad and wistful and about lost innocence. I probably missed a lot, since it’s in Italian, but the story is great, and the pictures (also by Buzzati) – including feasting bears, a ghost dance and pig balloons – are a wonderful treat.

Novelty (John Crowley, 1989) A compilation that contains two short stories that I didn’t like, and two novellas that I did (“In Blue” and “Great Work of Time”). Great Work of Time in particular is a joy to read, and is both nostalgic and inventive in a way that is hard to achieve (although the Golden Compass also achieves a similar effect). It’s a sci-fi fantasy that concerns a secret society created to right the wrongs of history. It should also be recommended to everyone who participated in the great “Would you go back in time to kill Hitler” debate of 2015.

Eiger Dreams (Jon Krakauer, 1992) Before I read this book, I thought it would be a good book to give to teenage or tween-age me to get me excited about mountains sooner, and thus become a cooler person. This assessment was totally correct. So I learned no meta-lessons from reading this book. But that’s OK, because it was really enjoyable and got me excited about mountains. My favourite essay may be the one about Chamonix and the show-offy Frenchmen: “You did not solo and you did not fly? Did you not find the experience – ‘ow you say in English – banal?” Get it for your 12 year old precocious niece/nephew. They’ll get excited about mountains and become a cooler person. They’ll thank you later.

Little Virtues (Natalia Ginzburg, 1962) Reading Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction, you soon realize that she is very wise. In a previous books roundup, I mentioned about one of her books that it is the book that I think is most like life. So it stands to reason that her non-fiction would also be filled with wisdom and an understanding of life. And it is. I wouldn’t say this is as good as Family, but it’s just as crisp, and often just as wise. The title essay, about how to raise children, may be seen as preaching to the converted by some, but for me is one of those where you get immense enjoyment out of reading a writer who is a kindred spirit.

Одесские рассказы/Конармия (Odessa Stories/Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel, 1920-1937) The Odessa stories are, for the most part, hilarious comic grotesques of crooks among Odessa jewry. Red Cavalry is a a much more savage grotesque depicting the Russian Civil War. It can be hard to take, with young men barely out of school committing horrible violence with total sangfroid and no care for human life. Separating it from other savage books is Babel’s beautiful style, putting in highly lyrical interludes of scenery and poetic images. It seems equally jarring and yet equally welcome in both the comic grotesques and the murderous ones. Part of the power of reading these short stories together is that they are talking about the same world, only a few years apart. The connection is made in “Froim Grach” – one of the last of the Odessa Stories, where you see the old corrupt silly world making way for the new merciless, rigid world that was to come.

All the Strange Hours (Loren Eiseley, 1975) These are the memoirs of anthropologist and science writer Loren Eiseley. Written in a lurching, poetic style, it can be a little disorienting at first. Unlike how I assume most other biographies work, the moments that matter to Eiseley are not ones that would matter to wikipedia. We meet no famous people, witness no historical events, and it’s pretty hard to ascertain even Eiseley’s profession. And yet this is how remembering your life probably feels. What makes the book stand out is the almost prophetic tone in which it’s written. And that tone seems to reflect how Eiseley experiences his life, whether it’s losing his hearing for half a year, or even just meeting a cat.  The most interesting to me is the first part, which is mostly about being a drifter riding trains during the Great Depression. But all of it is interesting and all of it is worth reading. And throughout it all, you feel a great longing for a world gone by.

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Should translations of rhymed poems be rhymed?

Yes. Continue reading

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2015 in Review: Quotes Part 2

Continuing with quoting stuff

“If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports” —Umesh Vazirani

“The reason the President will put the military on alert, but not, say, put banana plantations on alert, is that in his opinion the aliens are more likely to attack than to ask for bananas.” —Scott Alexander on Bayesianism

“Но чем внимательней, твердыня Notre Dame,
Я изучал твои чудовищные ребра,—
Тем чаще думал я: из тяжести недоброй
И я когда-нибудь прекрасное создам…”
—Мандельштам Notre Dame

“This may seem odd, but it’s a fact. It is just those who acquire their wisdom from the greatest philosophers who are most incapable of turning their ideas to good advantage. Evelyn Weston, for instance, was trying to earn a livelihood by translating old French ballads into English. If you consider that at the time of our story England was being rocked to the foundations by a dramatic slump in the demand for translations of old French ballads, you will not be surprised to learn that Miss Weston and her mother lived in great penury…” —Eno Rejto The Blonde Hurricane

“Радости нужен повод:
день ли рожденья, год
свадьбы – гуляй, коль молод.
Горе само найдет.”
—Олег Чухонцев

“It’s in principle super easy and in practice hampered by stupid shit like faulty BNC cables. C’est la vie expérimental.” —Alan comments on his Quantum Zeno Effect experiment

“I don’t even remember why I have a hat in my fridge” —Yimin

“The silence of God is God” —Carolyn Forché

“Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor” —Heman Melville Moby Dick

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.” —Brian Eno A Year with Swollen Appendices

Ted: Positive thinking is fine in theory, but whenever I try it on a systematic basis, I end up really depressed” —Barcelona

“Wretched are we who not only practice the evil that is ours by nature but must also serve as an instrument of evil for those who abuse their power.” —José Saramago The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

“For where is the bee that can claim, this honey was made by me?” —ibid.

“One might speculate that a sense of participation in a friendly, supportive peer environment may require a partial suspension of one’s critical thinking skills.”Patrick Terenzini’s paper Influences Affecting the Development of Students’ Critical Thinking Skills quoted by Scott Alexander

“Rejection is one thing, but rejection from a fool is cruel” —Morrissey I Don’t Mind if You Forget Me

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2015 in Review: Quotes Part 1

Like 2013 and 2014, 2015 was a year where I wrote some stuff down. Some of that stuff was quotes that I liked, which I now gather here.

Eli: Just so I’m aware, did Leon Trotsky make a laughingstock of his family in front of the entire city?
Leon: It’s only half the city, Eli, the french people don’t care” —The Trotsky

“Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin” —Terry Pratchett Wyrd Sisters

“People are all we have left. To eat.” —The End Tree doing on-stage banter

“Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage” —Lewis Hyde, quoted by David Foster Wallace in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

“The question isn’t whether Ayn Rand will let you turn her into a girl power icon. It’s whether she can stop you. And she can’t” —Maureen O’Connor on Ayn Rand

“Our dreams are never realised, and as soon as we see them betrayed we realise that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.” —Natalia Ginzburg Little Virtues

“…there are two kinds of poems. There is the kind you write; there is the kind you talk about in bars. Both kinds have value and both are poems, but it’s fatal to confuse them” —John Crowley Novelty

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the human race” —H.G. Wells quoted in Art Hobson’s physics textbook

“What kind of times are these when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors”
—Bertolt Brecht

“humor is a good way to reach tweens, Millennials, and the extremely infirm, who can’t be reached through traditional, long-form articles full of well researched, upsetting data.” — Eugene Mirman on joking about the Seattle earthquake

GF: I’m sick of you pretending you’re a detective. We should split up
ME: Good idea. We can cover more ground that way.” —@MatCro on twitter

“There’s a joke about a planet full of people who believe in anti-induction: if the sun has risen every day in the past, then today, we should expect that it won’t. As a result, these people are all starving and living in poverty. Someone visits the planet and tells them, “Hey, why are you still using this anti-induction philosophy? You’re living in horrible poverty!” “Well, it never worked before…” ” —Scott Aaronson Quantum Computing Since Democritus

“Arriving is easy — the hard thing is to disembark” —Stanislaw Lem Eden

“И поговоривши короткое время глупости, мы с ней вскорости женились” —Исаак Бабель Конармия

“Who can say if the last
to climb these stairs
will be journeying
downward or upward”
—Denise Levertov

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