Category archives for miscellanea

Why Is There No E Sharp?

In an attempt to at least try and get to know my theremin a bit better, I caved and bought Carolina Eyck's The Art of Playing the Theremin. I mean, her instructional videos on YouTube are great, but they don't really give you a proper sense of how to move your fingers when playing a tune. Her book, on the other hand, does.

It's probably obvious to everyone else in the world, and I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting, but it turns out that you have to know how to read sheet music in order to fully benefit from the book. Crazy, right?

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On Pulling Musical Notes Out of Thin Air

I am an unapologetic Downton Abbey fan. The series is full of memorable scenes, but one in particular has stuck with me. Daisy, one of the scullery maids, is asked if she turned on the electric lights in one of the rooms and she replies "No. I daren't".

It seems like such a minor, throwaway line, but I feel like it succinctly captures how the uninitiated must have felt about electricity back then. Daisy is downright afraid of it. Steam and fire are very direct and literal sources of energy, but electricity is much more abstract. You never see the electricity moving or burning, even as the motor spins or the lamp shines.

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Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

I saw Blade Runner 2049 recently. I have some (not very original) thoughts to share. Spoilers ahead.

The original Blade Runner only really caught my attention in my adult years. Unlike, say, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Superman, it was not one of my "childhood movies". I saw it once when I was very young, found it boring and weird, and then promptly forgot about it until I was made to watch it sometime in my 20's or 30's with my eyes fully open.

Once I did, That movie drips atmosphere. I'd be lying if I said it's one of my favourite movies of all time - I feel like that kind of designation is less about the movie itself and more about my frame of mind at the time I see it - but it's definitely up there as one of the movies I admire most from a visual standpoint. It's still beautiful 35 years later.

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On Trying to Escape Your Past

There's an Irish joke that runs as follows:

A journalist, researching for an article on the complex political situation in Northern Ireland, was in a pub in a war-torn area of Belfast. One of his potential informants leaned over his pint of Guinness and suspiciously cross-examined the journalist: "Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?" the Irishman asked.

"Neither," replied the journalist; "I'm an atheist."

The Irishman, not content with this answer, put a further question: "Ah, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?

This joke resonates with me. I think it's both funny and profound. Funny for obvious reasons, and profound because it succinctly illuminates the importance people attach to labels.

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Graffiti and the Art Test

If you're in the tech industry, or you're just generally interested in technology, chances are you've heard of the Turing test. It's usually billed as a litmus test for intelligence in machines. The idea, in its most basic form, is simple. A judge converses with two subjects, one of which is human and one of which is a machine, via some sort of mechanism that hides the physical characteristics of the subjects. If the judge cannot tell the human from the machine, we say that the machine is intelligent. Simple as that.

The Turing test has been a major source of controversy in Philosophy of Mind circles, but the irony is that Turing intended it to be a way of sidestepping debate. In his view, asking whether a machine could think was about as useful as asking whether a submarine could swim; the answer, of course, completely depends on what you mean by "machine" and "think". These are questions with very subjective answers, so instead of going down that particular rabbit hole, he came up with his test. He thought it was a reasonable one for a very good reason: we use it to judge the intelligence of other people every single day. One judges the intelligence of another person based on conversations with said person. There's no other way to do it; you don't get to peer into their brains to watch the gears move. Why shouldn't machines be subject to the same treatment?

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The Plural of Book

I just finished a book called The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher. It's pretty awesome if you're interested in a) how grammar evolves over time and b) how the very notion of grammar (verb tenses, prepositions, etc.) emerges in the first place.

The author describes, for example, the Latin case system, where nouns can have different endings depending on what role the noun is playing in the sentence. You say "cactus", for example, if it's used as a subject, but you use "cactum" if it's used as an object.

This was the first time I'd ever heard of such a thing. It means that you can pretty much place the words in your sentence in whatever order you like, without changing the meaning, because the subject and the object are identified, not by word order, as in English, but by the endings on the word. Cool. Insanely difficult, but cool. Apparently Russians still do it. They have my sympathy.

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On Billiard Balls and Scorched Cats

I once got into a relatively lively email debate with a friend of mine concerning the nature of free will. One of us argued that we had it and the other argued that we didn't. The exchange ended when he sent me an email explaining that he was agitated and losing sleep over the matter.

My life is weird sometimes.

People hear that story and often assume that my friend was the one who believed in free will and that I was one who didn't but in reality the reverse was true. I believed in free will; my friend did not.

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Oatmeal Stout Under the Watchful Eye of Abandoned Silos

For a long time I've been trying to gauge my personal feelings about this building:

This is the old Canada Malting factory. It's in the heart of Saint Henri, in Montreal, next to the McAuslan brewery on Notre Dame, right on the Lachine canal. I live about a 20 minute walk away. It's huge, intimidating, in extreme disrepair and very well-graffitied. It's been abandoned for decades.

Ferreting out my reaction is not as easy as one might imagine. Introspection, at the best of times, is a tricky business.

But, hey, I can try. My immediate reaction is to be in awe. It looks like something out of a dystopian future - like there's been some horrific war, or we've run out of oil, or the Machines or the Apes or the Party have taken over. You vaguely expect Mel Gibson to show up on a motorbike.

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In Defence of the Dark

I'm addicted to a site called It's basically a catalogue of various literary and artistic devices used in various forms of media (books, movies, TV). It's fun because the site gives names to practices that you already recognize but haven't bothered to identify in any specific way. Examples include Genre Blindness, which explains the tendency of Bond villains to reveal their entire master plan to the spy rather than just shooting him, and Lampshading, which is an attempt to diffuse an obvious plot hole by having a character draw attention to it.

Another one of these articles is called "Darker and Edgier", which describes a "a Tone Shift that seeks to make a work of fiction 'more adult'." This should be familiar to anyone who has seen a recent superhero or science fiction movie. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, for example, is a grittier version of Tim Burton's Batman - which is itself a much grittier version of the awesome campfest that was the 1960's Batman TV show. Battlestar Galactica is another notorious example - it's a remake of the campy 1970's TV show and is, at times, extremely depressing.

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Guilt by Association

How exactly am I supposed to react when I hear about the particularly brutal gang rape and murder of a 23 year old medical student in India?

There is, of course, the obvious stuff. There's horror, sadness, and anger mixed together. There's also a certain amount of incredulity. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and I have a hard time imagining that anyone is capable of this kind of thing.

If I'm honest with myself, there's a kind of smugness too, because you think that sort of thing doesn't really happen here. And, to be fair, it doesn't - at least, not on the scale on which it happens in certain other parts of the world. I think it's fairly non-controversial to say that being a woman in Canada or the U.S. is safer than being a woman in India.

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Toronto Versus Montreal

Debates about the relative merits of Toronto versus Montreal are rarely level headed. Each city has its champions and its detractors and, unfortunately, the loudest are often the least objective, having only ever lived in one city or the other, but not both.

I've lived in both, for extended periods of time, so I feel I'm in a better position than many to dispense some useful observations on Canada's two largest cities.

Observation #1: Toronto is much bigger than Montreal, and feels like it, too

On a warm day, you can walk lengthwise from one end of downtown Montreal to the other without really breaking much of a sweat. You'd be hard-pressed to do this in Toronto. The situation is made more extreme by the fact that a large chunk of the island of Montreal is taken up by an airport. So the amount of usable space in Montreal is even less than the size of the island might suggest.

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Why Watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Is Not a Waste of Time

I've been recently spending a significant amount of my free time watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" on DVD. I never watched them when they were on the air, but now I'm catching up.

This has earned me accusations of being hypocritical, since I apparently tend to be critical of people who spend (what I consider to be) too much time watching TV.

Well...yes and no. I don't think I'm critical of people who spend a lot of time watching TV. How could I be? I watch a lot of TV myself. I am, on the other hand, critical of people who spend a lot of time channel surfing.

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Solar System Simulations

When I was in high school, I used to program two dimensional solar system simulations for fun (as you can surely tell, I was extremely popular and desired by all the ladies far and wide). I would put a "sun" in the middle of the screen and I'd spin "planets" around in simulated orbits.

There are essentially two ways you can go about programming solar system simulations. Technique 1, which for lack of a better term I will call the explicit technique, means deciding (or realizing) at the outset that the orbits of your planets will be elliptical, and then writing your program based on that. The explicit technique works because there are certain exploitable patterns in elliptical planetary orbits that can be harnessed to great advantage. Planets move faster when they are closer to the sun, for example, and slower when they are further away, in mathematically determined ways. One can derive formulae for the position of the planet on the orbit versus time.

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Let It Snow

Cheesy title, I'm aware, but Montreal just got something like 30-60 cm of snow, depending on which weather report you read, and it's gorgeous.

I live on the 26th floor of my apartment building and from up there it's a bit difficult to see just how much snow we got. I get to the street level this morning and I see snow banks higher than my waist. I don't remember having this much snow since I was in primary school, and I was smaller then so my memories might be playing tricks on me.

I'm sure there's a lesson in all of this about global warming (why is it that I can't recall snowbanks this high in such a long time?), but for the moment it's nice. We might just get a white Christmas this year.

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The Intersection of Art and Science

Someone at work commented that, one night, she got into a long rambling discussion about the intersection between art and science. I said that art and science don't intersect, and she said she disagreed.

It's possible that there is a disagreement over terminology. When one says that art and science "intersect" I have in my mind some kind of act that combines the two, i.e. discovering some objectively reproducible feature of the universe by painting a nice picture would count as an intersection between art and science because by doing one, you're doing the other.

In my mind, just using the results of one field in another doesn't count as an intersection. So a musician using an electronic keyboard doesn't count as an intersection between music and electrical engineering and a sculptor making something out of clothes doesn't count as an intersection between sculpture and textiles.

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Duckie Fuzz

I went to my friend Neil's bachelor party last Saturday (July 28th). I met the group at the Saint-Sulpice around 2:30pm and I didn't leave till 10:20pm or so. It was a fun day.

It ended up being a kind of a mini pub crawl, and one of the places we ended up was Foufounnes Electriques, a punk bar on Saint-Catherine Street. I had been in there only once before but it was only now that I actually noticed the decor and ambiance.

Something about the whole experience rubbed me the wrong way. An easy explanation would be the death metal music playing on the speakers, but I don't think that was it. I'm not a fan of death metal, but I'm not anti death metal either. Maybe it was the art on the wall. There was one of white clothes on a clothesline splattered in blood, another of a man wailing whilst holding his dead son in his arms, and yet another of some sort of crime/death scene, with blood pooled on the ground. Are you detecting a theme? So was I.

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Seeing Green

Evelyn's birthday passed a few months ago. We were at a bar with her friends and I somehow got into a discussion with some guy about the nature of seeing green.

I'm sure the thought has run though many people's heads in some form or another. It basically goes like this: what if your green is not my green? Ignoring colour-blindness, when I look at the grass I register it as "green" and so do you. We are both, of course, able to verbalize this, but there's no way to tell if we're really seeing the same "green". What if "green" to you is really what I consider to be "red"? There'd be no way of knowing - you'd still call it "green", it's still the colour we both associate with grass, etc.

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I Don't Even Like Heights

Several months back I won a free gliding session with Vol Recreatif in a raffle. My natural laziness, combined with my nervousness about heights, combined with the fact that gliding is only fun if you have good weather, meant that I only managed to get myself to the airfield this past Saturday with the help of a friend of mine who actually has a car.

First things first: air gliding is not hand gliding. You are not exposed to the air. You and a pilot are seated in what looks like a single wheeled airplane with no engine. You're towed to a certain height by an actual (old, rickety, propeller-driven) airplane and then released to coast and drift gently back down. The whole thing takes maybe thirty minutes.

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Why I'll Never Be a Good Speller

English spelling is notoriously...arbitrary. Any and all attempts to pin down a spelling rule will be met with at least six different exceptions - and you can be sure that the exceptions will be words that you will actually want to use. A study in English spelling is basically a study in evolutionary history. It's a study of various French invasions and vowel shifts. And, most of all, it's an exercise in brute memorization.

Contrast this with mathematics. Useful mathematical results are derived from previous mathematical results, using nothing but pure logic. A mathematical result is what it is because it had to be that way. A mathematical result simply couldn't be anything else and still make sense. Note that this is, more or less, the exact opposite of what one can say about English spelling conventions.

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What it Means to Have an Opinion

I have strong opinions on certain topics, but unlike some people I know, I try to justify my opinions (see, for example, my philosophy page). Whether I succeed or not is another matter, but I think that the attempt at justification deserves at least some credit. And I've been known to change my mind if I'm convinced I'm wrong.

I take a somewhat dim view of the idea that all opinions matter, or that no one is ever wrong. I know at least one or two people who seem offended whenever anyone tried to point out flaws in their ideas. I think this goes beyond not being able to handle criticism; they are of the belief that every opinion has a bit of right in it. I know other people who consider it the height of rudeness to try and convince another person to change his or her beliefs. There's a tendency today to treat opinions like an outgrowth of your body, like a limb, and to equate the desire to change it with the desire to cut off one's hand. With this sort of attitude, one does not debate so much as exchange ideas.

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