Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Demonologist

In between finishing IT Strategy and starting Data Mining I managed to sneak in a book. I picked up the Demonologist at Harvard Bookstore on Tuesday night and finished it on the train into Boston Friday morning. I highly recommend it. It is still in hardcover though.

The book is the story of David Ullman, a tenured professor of literature at Colombia who specializes in Paradise Lost. Ullman is lured to Venice with his daughter where he encounters a demon. The demon steals his daughter (in such a way that it appears to the rest of the world--including Ullman's soon to be ex-wife) that she drowned.

Ullman pursues the demon across America,  aided by his best friend Elaine O'Brien and using Paradise Lost as his guide. This isn't a coincidence--the demon makes it clear that his interest in Ullman is due to his professional expertise. Ullman finds himself  examining texts that he knows well--this time looking for literal meanings--not figurative ones.

This is plot-driven fiction. I do not recommend it for the beauty of the prose. I do not find the behavior of all of the characters entirely believable--the duct tape that holds the plot together is visible under the velvet drapery. For example Ullman's wife is leaving him, but makes no try to gain custody of their daughter. O'Brien--the female-best-friend-with-whom-the-protagonist-has-never-slept--has bone cancer and only a short while to live when she joins the crusade.

The journeys across country serve no purpose except as a chance for the characters to muse between demonic revelations. They seem to be part of the plot because that's what heros do--go on journeys. The whole story could have remained the bounds of New York City--unless the author chose to have his characters travel because he wished to make some point about the banality of evil--it's not all about heroin addicts in the big city. Maybe he felt that New York City was already too potentially demonic--too like Pandemonium--and that's why he made his characters travel.

In spite of these shortcomings I found it a good read--it made me want to re-read Paradise Lost. Perhaps that's its appeal--it is Paradise Lost lite. There is more to it that that though.  It is another attempt to imagine the motivations of fallen angels and, for a change, one shelved outside of the science fiction section. Don't get me wrong--I love sci fi--but it's nice to read something without the snark now and again.

I feel the author could have done more character development of the demons and demonic possession. The protagonist talks a lot about the Bible and Paradise Lost, but to me this book is a descendant of The Exorcist as much as it is of Paradise Lost.

Perhaps grad school is lowering my internal bar--suddenly anything with a better plot than the Mythical Man Month seems like a page turner.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Belated New Year's Resolution

"I don't like food anymore" Strong Sad 2003

A few years ago after my first full year of grad school I was at my sister's and brother in law's Christmas party apologizing to my sister for the fact that I couldn't bring myself to eat more than a few mouthfuls of the excellent spread her husband had cooked. I found myself saying that I found I just didn't like food anymore. "What are you eating?" she asked. I explained that I mostly subsisted on a diet of canned soup and Odwalla bars "Bleck--there's your problem--you're the vegetarian who doesn't like vegetables."

I'm a picky eater. I'm a vegetarian (although since moving to MA I've included fish in my diet) and even though I tended to eat frozen food or canned soup I like to think it was relatively good frozen food and canned soup--there were no ingredients I needed Wikipedia to help me identify and it's all organic--right? To which my sister has always responded that it's still not real food, made from real ingredients.

Cooking meals from real food may be cheaper than nuking an Amy's dinner, but it costs more time--something that is at a bit of a premium for me at the moment. However, my sister has 4 children. While I can certainly argue that she, feeder of six humans, gets a better return on investment for cooking real food, I can hardly argue that it is easier for her to cook real food than it is for me to do so (no one who has spent an hour in the company of her "piggies" will ever argue that it is easier for her to do anything than it is for me to do so.)

Then there was the weekend of Snowpocolypse. I had a paper to write so I went to the Whole Foods by North Station and bought $80 worth of frozen/canned vegetarian food (along with good coffee and iced cookies.) I was not going to have to worry about cooking at all that weekend. Except, by that Sunday I never wanted to eat another frozen whatsit again.

I decided that I was done eating things that came out of cans--this includes beans and tomatoes.

This year my goal is to stop eating canned things (until such time as I take up canning myself) and to eat no more frozen, pre-prepared food.

We'll see how this goes

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Graduate School

I have 14 weeks until I'm done with grad school and they give me a degree! I am so relieved/ impressed with myself that I considered attending commencement. I feel like completing a graduate degree is an accomplishment where as--in my case anyways--completing an undergraduate degree was par for the course*. I got an eviction notice written in Latin and I would have skipped commencement but my parents insisted I attend-"We paid for this--you will walk" said my mom.

I would not trade my undergraduate education for anything (although I might have, in hind sight, done a few things differently) I met some awesome people--including my best friend--at Carleton and studied (or at least pretended to study) a whole bunch of interesting stuff. I was disconsolate when they kicked me out.

My graduate education is another matter. Grad school is fun! You get to learn about all sorts of interesting things--like DNS poisoning or how DHCP really works. You get to meet people who are interested in the same weird things that interest you. Why would you want to spend your Saturday nights drinking beer and watching movies about Moon Nazis with your friends when you can spend them talking to your study buddies about the paper you have to write?

I can't wait to be done with graduate school. But I feel good about having done it. It was't any fun spending July 4th last year trying to understand two's complement or reading the RFC that describes SMTP. These things were hard in a way that getting an undergraduate degree in French literature was not.  In grad school almost every final paper I turned in scared me--I think I understood the concepts but what if I guessed wrong? Aside from working full time the whole thing was hard in a way that college wasn't. Some of this may be because my brain is older. Some of this may be because I'm working full time. I suspect some of it is because I'm making myself learn things that don't come easily to me.

Not all of it is an uphill battle or I'd have given up.  And some parts of the whole thing fell into place as easily and obviously as some of my undergraduate analyses of good literature. This is not to be discounted or overlooked--the joy of discovering that something you find fascinating comes naturally to you is wonderful.

All of it (or almost all of it) falls into the category of "Stuff I want to know" but without grad school to goad me I wouldn't have bothered to *really* learn the history of Flame or consider the difficulties of storing and manipulating very large numbers that must be very,very accurate.

Getting a degree will mean that someone thinks I've understood even the difficult concepts well enough to be validated.

*I recognize that this is because I'm from a middle class background and my parents could afford to send me to college.