Sci-fi from Scotland

Today I had the chance to go back to the excellent National Library of Scotland, which is not a public library, but one in which you must be a registered Reader to access the (voluminous) archives. But still, even as a visitor, I’ve been awed on both of my visits by their rotating exhibitions. Last time it was on writers who were published by John Murray. This time there was a Scottish cinema display (Brigadoooon!) and, which captivated me longer, a couple of display cases showing sci-fi books by Scottish authors.

I already knew Iain M. Banks, although I didn’t know he was Scottish. Ditto Charles Stross. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t solely write detective novels; it turns out he produced some sci-fi as well (“The Lost World” is now on my list). There were many other great items I wished I could browse, but given finite reading time I restricted myself to adding only a few more. David Lindsay wrote a book called “A Voyage to Arcturus” which has garnered rapturous reviews on goodreads. Hannu Rajaniemi is Finnish by birth, but currently resides in Edinburgh, so his book “The Quantum Thief” was included (he had me at “dystopia in which the main character has to break out of The Dilemma Prison”).

Note: the Library is planning a special exhibition on late 1700’s correspondence (letters) between famous Scots and the founding fathers of the U.S., which unfortunately I’ll miss (starts on July 4). I read an article in their magazine about the upcoming exhibit, which emphasized Scotland’s contribution to the American Revolution (“more than a third of its [the Declaration of Independence’s] signatories were men of Scottish descent.”). It’s always fascinating to see your own country through the lens of another. You can learn more about their American collections here.

Psychotherapy from violin practice

I was delighted to discover Laurel Thomsen‘s Violin Geek podcast. It’s full of tips for the beginner (and not-so-beginner), and already I’ve found a more comfortable thumb position and am improving my ear training, thanks to Laurel. What I wasn’t expecting was an episode on self-criticism that turned out to contain wise words beyond the violin setting.

Her advice for dealing with self-criticism, when it begins, is:

1. Adopt a “detective” approach. Instead of thinking, “I really screwed that up!” try asking “Why did the sound come out that way?” I like this because it not only keeps things on an even emotional keel, it also keeps you detached enough to adopt a problem-solving perspective. It makes sense that you’d have a better chance of fixing things in this state of mind than if you’re getting angry and frustrated with yourself.

2. Find the positive thought that lies underneath the self-criticism. This was a new one on me. For example, you’re kicking yourself because you keep flubbing the three-measure run of sixteenth notes. You ask yourself why you’re frustrated. Your answer might be that you really want to get this piece right for the recital next week, so you can avoid embarrassing yourself in public. Or maybe you’re a general perfectionist. Or maybe you want your parents to not regret the lesson money. Or maybe you want to impress your girlfriend. Whatever it is, likely it’s more positive than the self-flagellation is, and it can be a motivating thought to focus on during difficult exercises. (She also comments that some motivations, like practicing only because your parents want you to, might indicate a need to switch instruments or hobbies.)

From there she transitions to a discussion of “unmet emotional needs,” and that’s when it really starts feeling like a therapy session. But I appreciated what she had to say, and it’s a reminder that those of us prone to self-criticism should watch out for it even in recreational hobby settings!

Cyrano wrote sci-fi?

It wasn’t all about the big nose and fighting duels. Cyrano de Bergerac also ventured into the realm of science fiction, although his two novels weren’t published until after his death. (He died young, at age 36!) The books are “L’Autre Monde: ou les √Čtats et Empires de la Lune (The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon)” and “Les √Čtats et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun)”. I haven’t been able to read the books myself, but from reading about them online I gather that Cyrano was less concerned with scientific realism and more interested in using the fantastic realm as a platform for social commentary (and criticism). As such, his work is very much in line with a major current running through later science fiction; the displacement of people and personalities into a new environment uniquely enables us to gain perspective on our own strengths and weaknesses.

Would his prose hold up today? Would it be amusingly or irritatingly naive in terms of science? Would Jules Verne have approved (200 years later)? I may never know! I dug up a copy of the original text online, but it is not only in French, it’s in ancient 17th-century French, and it would take me approximately a century to muddle through it. Someday, in my copious spare time…

The Five Laws of Library Science

Library Science has a fundamental philosophy, first articulated by Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan. He was a mathematician and a librarian, so naturally he’d be led to identifying Laws. The Laws are simple:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his [or her] book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

I admire these few, short rules for their concreteness, their simplicity, and their import. They hint at a deeper underlying philosophy (here I use philosophy in its “how to live your life” sense, not its “abstract argument” sense).

Rule 1 seems obvious, but on closer inspection it is not; instead, it helps combat natural protective (to keep the books clean and untorn and unmutilated — that is, unused) or collector (books are not (just) wall decor) impulses.

Rule 2 recognizes fundmental human diversity. If that isn’t a big concept in a small sentence, I don’t know what is.

Rule 3 actually seems a bit questionable to me, but I guess implies that every book may appeal to someone, even if it doesn’t appeal to you (or offends you — censorship beware!).

Rule 4 urges efficiency in the organization of books, the process of finding them (search), and the process of checking them out. Yes!

Rule 5 is the biggie — an open acceptance of change. How rare to see an institution acknowledge and embrace the fact that change is inevitable? Patrons change, demographics change, materials change, and the process by which those materials are disseminated definitely changes (the very wording of these Laws is now outdated, since we must replace “book” with “media” to reflect today).

Now I’m wondering what primary Laws one could identify in Machine Learning, or even Computer Science. Do we have fundamental principles? Can they be similarly tied to ethics? What would they be?

(Yes, yes, the Three Laws of Robotics. Next?)