It took me a while to figure out why I like Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues music video. It’s because I like watching the words falling down one by one.
This is an illustration of the “Brain Sea”. I found it near the end of a comic book by the Taiwanese artist Push. What is the Brain Sea? In Mandarin Chinese, “Brain Sea” (腦海) is a common expression that refers to the mind. This is the end scene of the “Nine Lives Man” saga, where the protagonist (who has been reincarnated into countless life forms in the 3-volume Sci-Fi series) asks the ultimate question: What is the point of all this? The answer is that it’s all in the brain sea of Push, the comic book author. The next page shows the author finishing the final panel, and he thinks to himself: “What a crappy ending! Who will buy this very serious but also very silly book?”
During the lockdown, I finally found the time to read the first volume of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. In general, I can’t say I like them as detective stories, because what I am looking for in this genre is brilliant deduction, and Father Brown doesn’t do that kind of thing. However, I was very impressed by a story titled The Sign of the Broken Sword. It’s a very unusual detective story, in which Father Brown analyzed the accepted narrative of a (fictional) historical event, and concluded that the overlooked inconsistencies could only mean one thing: the narrative was manufactured to cover up a deeper, tragic truth.
Since I started to read Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones, I realized how much Borges was influenced by Chesterton. In fact, his short story Theme of the Traitor and Hero seems to be modeled on the Father Brown story. In the first paragraph, Borges even acknowledged that this story was inspired by Chesterton and Leibniz. Again, the main character uncovered the hidden truth behind a historical account, except that Borges took the idea to a weirder place. In his story, a historical event involving thousands of people was staged like a large-scale play, to advance the agenda of certain forces.
(SPOILERS) We watched a video of Cirque du Soleil’s O. I actually watched the show live in Las Vegas with my wife many years ago, but I had completely forgotten how it begins. Before the curtain opened, a clown invited a man in the audience to participate in a little sketch. The man was reluctant first, but eventually agreed to play along. As he approached the curtain, he was suddenly sucked in to the fantasy world of O in a very spectacular way. The next scene revealed that the man was actually part of cast, who was planted in the audience.
This is a clever trick that breaks the fourth wall, giving the illusion that any one of us in the audience could have entered this magical land. Zoe (almost 5yo now) had never seen anything so postmodern before. She kept asking where the man was on the stage. I asked why she cared so much about him. Given all the crazy stunts on stage, I hardly paid any attention to this guy, who played a minor role in the plot. Zoe answered that she wanted to make sure that the man returned to his seat.
Thomas Pynchon likes to talk about Godzilla in his novels. In Inherent Vice, there is a funny scene where the main character Doc told his girlfriend Penny that the 1964 Japanese movie Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster was a remake of the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday. Later that night, Doc caught Penny sobbing at the TV, because she watched the Japanese monster movie as a romance. Pynchon is good at writing this type of plot that is ridiculous but oddly touching. I watched the Ghidora movie after reading Inherent Vice. It is obviously nowhere near a remake of Roman Holiday (we are talking about a movie that is mostly about actors in rubber suits fighting other actors in rubber suits), but the writers must have lifted some plot elements from Roman Holiday.
I recently watched a Godzilla spin-off movie Rebirth of Mothra with my 4.5yo daughter, and I had a Pynchon moment. It’s a tragic scene where a comically giant moth caterpillar watched her mother, a giant moth, died and sunk into the ocean. It’s an unbelievably ridiculous scene featuring hilariously looking monsters. But it was genuinely touching. The filmmakers managed to tug a heart string with a giant moth and a caterpillar.
In the 70’s, it was fashionable for intellectuals to abuse the term “grammar” to refer to any underlying principles. In one of his essays, Italo Calvino used the term “the grammar of tree” to refer to…. essentially developmental plant biology. I thought that was pretentious. But heh, in R programming, people are talking about the grammar of graphics and grammar of data manipulation again. It’s fashionable to call functions “verbs” again. Hello, structuralism! (PS: A philosopher friend informed me that this abuse of the word grammar started with Wittgenstein)
One music album that I used to play a lot of was called Night of Short Lives. It was published in the 90’s under the artist name Frame Cut Frame. It’s very hard to describe what kind of music it was. The publisher called it “unclassical music”, because the music had the classical texture, but not the classical form.
The CD was just one of those random things that I had. I don’t remember why I had it. I had no idea who made it or why it was made. It was published by an independent Belgian label called SubRosa so I had assumed that it’s European. But I just discovered it’s Australian! The music is by Brett Dean, with sampled sounds by Simon Hunt. Brett Dean turns out to be not just a random Aussie who made this obscure album. Wikipedia shows that he is one of the most celebrated Australian musicians!
I found this in a box in the garage that hadn’t been opened in many years. I made it when I was a PhD student at UC San Diego. It’s a set of visual stimuli that I designed for a brain mapping experiment.
I have been reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winters night a traveller. One chapter is particularly interesting because it draws heavily on the imagery of optics (one of Calvino’s obsessions). It makes a reference to the 19th century British scientist David Brewster for his invention of the kaleidoscope. I hadn’t read about Brewster before so I had to look him up. He was so much more than the inventor of kaleidoscope. He was a major figure in 19th century optics, and made important discoveries about the polarisation of light.
This part of If on a winter’s night a traveller reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which also uses optics as a central metaphor. Interestingly, Against the Day makes references to Augustin Fresnel and Étienne-Louis Malus, but apparently not to Brewster.
I finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s novel V. about a month ago. I was thinking about writing a review, but what’s the point? Given its classic status, it has been analyzed to death. So just a couple of thoughts. This was Pynchon’s first novel, so we have to ask if it compares well to his later masterpieces. I think a novel worthy of Pynchon’s name must do two things: 1. It must induce a mindfuck. At some point, you must feel that this novel is 10x denser than what your brain can process. 2. There must be a couple of magic moments of sublime beauty. You must pause and say “Oh wow. That’s just beautiful. I have no words for it.” V. does both. Pynchon did it the first time. However, the novel does feel different. V. reads like it’s made up of several short stories. They are connected stories but you can detect the boundaries. No other Pynchon novel gave me that impression. The other thing is that V. is very cinematic. Many chapters end with dramatic scenes that I can visualize as climactic moments in epic movies. Later Pynchon novels are more organic, subtle, and abstract. This makes V. more accessible, but not lighter. I found reading V. a thoroughly satisfying experience. Many parts of it will stay with me for a very long time.