In high school I read a small novel by a (then unknown to me) Scottish author, Iain Banks, called “The Wasp Factory.” It was… deliciously grotesque. I would later learn that Banks, under the name “Iain M. Banks,” also wrote science fiction. His science fiction works were set in the universe of the Culture: “a fictional interstellar anarchist Utopian society.” It sounds awesome because it is awesome. His Culture novel “Use of Weapons” is one of the coolest science fiction books I’ve ever read. I was and still am hooked.
Banks died last year of terminal cancer. I happened to be in Scotland two weeks before he passed away, not knowing how close he was to death. When I got home & heard that he had passed, I immediately reached for my copy of his novel, “The Crow Road.”
In it, one of my favorite passages (one that I often recall): Rory’s mantra.
All your nonsense and truths,
your finery and squalid options,
combine and coalesce, to one noise
including laugh and whimper, scream and sigh,
forever and forever repeating,
in any tongue we care to choose,
whatever lessened, separated message
we want to hear.
It all boils down to nothing,
and where we have the means and will to fix
our reference within that flux;
there we are.
If it has any final signal,
The universe says simply,
but with every possible complication,
and it neither pressures us, nor draws us out,
except as we allow.
Let me be part of that outrageous chaos …
And I am.
Allow me to repeat:
LET ME BE PART OF THAT OUTRAGEOUS CHAOS… AND I AM
Shortly after his death, asteroid 5099 was renamed IAINBANKS in his honor.
Matchstick puzzles are a set of visual puzzles that require you to re-arrange an arrangement of matchsticks into some new formation. The re-arrangement is bound by certain rules or limits and (usually) requires some lateral thinking to arrive at the solution.
When I was a teenager, my uncle, who was visiting us from France at the time, introduced me to my first matchstick puzzle. Having heard of my love of puzzles, he was keen to keep me (and himself!) entertained. At a family barbecue he pulled out a pack of toothpicks (not enough matches around!) and arranged 15 of them like so:
(click the picture for a larger view)
He then asked me to remove three matches & what should remain is three squares. Remove three matches. No more, no less.
It took me roughly 15 minutes of off and on experimentation before I arrived at the solution. Try it yourself!
My answer to that ubiquitous question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was always “a Doctor or Martin Gardner” (with the usual follow up “you know, the famous puzzler, mathematician, essayist, magician, and writer extraordinaire??”)
David Suzuki once did a “Nature of Things” documentary on Martin Gardner entitled “Mathe-magic.” The 1 hour special was fascinating beyond my imagination, with discussions about the mathematics of juggling, John Conway’s “Game of Life,” hexa-flexagons, and myriad other mathematical simulacra. (you can actually watch/download the documentary here.)
In one of the introductory scenes, a puzzle designer named Scott Kim began drawing the the first name “Martin” in a fancy script. When he finished, he rotated the paper over 180 degrees, and it read “Gardner.” In-frieking-credible.
I would later learn text like that was called an AMBIGRAM1 – a word or phrase that can be read in more than one way or from more than a single vantage point.
And, ambigrams have shown up in a lot of pop culture over the years:
A 3-D ambigram on the cover of Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter; and, rotational ambigrams on the covers of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and the special anniversary edition DVD of The Princess Bride
Remembering that Martin Gardner documentary, I became inspired to try my hand at an ambigram of my own name and doodled on scraps of paper for what seemed like hours… But, I eventually came up with something. So, here’s my name in two images one of which is just the other but rotated 180 degrees:
Before I could develop an addiction (and start drawing everyone’s name I knew in similar fashion), I did some quick google/flickr searches and the results were disheartening – so many talented, imaginative folks out there.
the term “ambigram” looks like it originated with Douglas Hofstadter [↩]
THE THREE SPHINXES OF BIKINI, by Salvador Dali (1947)1
Between the years of 1946 and 1958 (after World War II), the United States conducted 23 nuclear tests at the Micronesian atoll, Bikini. The tests caused the radioactive contamination of the entire system of islands. The (roughly) two hundred Micronesians who inhabited the islands were relocated by the US before the tests, and eventually brought back in 1968. The US lost a lawsuit to the Micronesians in the amount of $100 million when it was discovered, ten years later in 1978, that the levels of radioactivity were still dangerously high.
These experimental explosions on the atoll of Bikini inspired Dali to paint the Three Sphinxes of Bikini.
Dali was a Surrealist painter. From the point of view of Expressionism, paintings in general are supposed to emphasize the expression of inner experience instead of providing a more-or-less photographic portrayal of reality. The artist is concerned with the subjective emotions and responses that scenes, objects and/or events arouse. In Surrealism, it goes one step further: it’s the unconscious that is emphasized. Paintings express the workings of the mind by using symbolic imagery and interesting juxtaposition of subject matter.
When looking at the painting, the imagery itself is very striking. There are three figures: a human head, a tree, and a third figure in the distance that could be a human head but looks eerily like the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. In fact, all three figures share the same uncanny configuration of the mushroom cloud. The juxtaposed similarity suggests a strong and unconscious relationship between humanity, nature, and destruction.
When I look at the painting, I can’t help but imagine that the human head is Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” looking through the tree (nature) and straight into the heart of the explosion.
The joint work of the team of scientists he led in the Manhattan Project culminated in the first man-made nuclear explosion in 1945. While witnessing that explosion, Oppenheimer was both filled with AWE
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one
and simultaneously filled with DREAD
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another
Now I am become Death
The Destroyer of Worlds
I originally wrote this brief thought on Dali’s painting on my old WordPress blog back in December 2006. For posterity, I wanted to republish it here [↩]
On one of my sporadic trips to the outskirts of the interweb, I learned of the striking similarities between Disney’s 1994 The Lion King and Tezuka’s 1965 anime series Kimba the White Lion. The so-called “controversy” is was chronicled here (kimbawlion) and touched upon here (wikipedia), with the most striking similarity being the whole dead-father-appears-in-clouds-to-console-son scene.
Admittedly, much of the evidence is at times anecdotal. Still, there is enough material there to form a strong conspiracy theory. From what I can tell, quite a bit of imagery from the Lion King looks borrowed from Kimba, although not much of the plot is. In fact, the Lion King is really more a re-hash of Shakespeare’s Hamlet than anything else – which is itself a retelling of ancient precursor legends
(i.e. nothing is original).
But none of that really matters to me. What I love about this controversy is that I finally get the joke in the Simpsons episode “Round Springfield” where Mufasa’s ghost appears alongside the ghosts of Bleeding Gums Murphy, Darth Vader, and James Earl Jones and says:
“You Must Avenge My Death, Kimba… I Mean, Simba.”
Proof once again that the writers for the Simpsons were second to none
hromanYou Must Avenge My Death, Kimba… I Mean Simba
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Antisocial Personality Disorder (AKA being a sociopath) is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others. This may be characterized by:
(a) Failure To Conform To Social Norms
(b) Repeatedly Performing Acts That Are Grounds For Immorality
(c) Impulsiveness And A Failure To Plan Ahead, Financially
It’s not that I’m actively furthering my characterization as dork incarnate; usually I keep these sorts of things to myself. We all have our vices and it seems that I can’t resist the tangled web of an esoteric documentary. But two words in last night’s movie caught my attention and elicited this exposing:
It is a great paradox. Chocolate, a natural cause of constipation, is now being marketed as its own remedy. What better way to cure constipation than by indulging in it! Zizek reveals this fact, then launches into a ten-minute reflection that examines the chocolate/laxative structure through a landscape of capitalism, politics, and ethics.
George Soros and Bill Gates are, according to Zizek, chocolate laxatives personified. Soros stands for ruthless financial exploitation but at the same time is one of the world’s well-known humanitarians. He spends half his day speculating on how to make money through financial exploits, and the other half of his day giving a portion of it back in the form of charity. The morning is chocolate, the afternoon is laxative.
On Bill Gates:
“The two faces of Bill Gates are exactly like the two faces of Soros: on the one hand, a cruel businessman, destroying or buying out competitors, aiming at a virtual monopoly; on the other, the great philanthropist who makes a point of saying: “What does it serve to have computers if people do not have enough to eat?” – (Slavoj Zizek, “Nobody Has To Be Vile,” 2006)”
Zizek also asks that we think about this in the context of today’s wars, those that are declared as wars for peace. The United States’ war in Iraq was not advertised as an establishing of a hegemonic presence in an unstable part of the world, but was rather about the helping of an Iraqi people devoid of the joys and pleasures of democracy. What better image of a chocolate laxative is there than the dropping of parachutes of food and medicine to a war-ravaged people after their destruction through an operation of war?
(Other chocolate laxatives in the world? Decaf coffee and Marijuana, which Zizek describes as “Opium without Opium”.)
We used to live in a world where ethics told us to repress, to control oneself, to do things in moderation. Think unsexy thoughts, think unsexy thoughts. We used to feel guilty when we indulged in pleasure. Now, the ethical injunction is to go to the end of the pleasure scale. We feel guilty when we can’t enjoy a pleasure. Please yourself like there’s no tomorrow!