Thursday, December 27, 2012

random observations:

(rambling chinese vacation edition):

1. due to jet lag, woke up at about 5:30am yesterday, lay in bed for ~1.5hrs. of course a thousand random thoughts ran through my head, but for a while a lay there watching the augenlicht. long, long ago i noticed how it cycles: against the dark, reddish-black background, a brighter cloud coalesces around the fovea, then fades, then coalesces again. the cycle is somewhere between 5-10 seconds, the cloud is a very low-frequency modulation (maybe ~5degrees across) of the high-frequency noise grain.

what i noticed yesterday was that as the cloud fades, some parts of it seem to 'stick'; this is hard to describe. imagine that the cloud was displayed on a screen, and that its brightest parts, around the peak, were 'clipped'; then, as the could fades, the clipped parts persist, then brighten noticeably, then dissipate as the cycle continues. the impression is similar to a very bright afterimage floating in front of a fixated object, except that my eyes were closed, and i was certainly dark adapted. the clipped portions are sharp-edged, small (half or a quarter degree across), with the spatial appearance of little interconnected droplets of a liquid. i wasn't able to tell if they had the same structure on each cycle, but it seemed that they did.

i cannot guess meaningfully what this is. some sort of pattern formation machinery being stimulated by the structure of the cloud cycle, which has a slower decay constant? it seems familiar, so i might have noticed it at some other time in the past when i found myself lying in bed, unable to go to sleep. when i was in college, that happened a lot, because i would have classes in the morning and force myself to bed, despite wanting to stay up until 2 or 3, and so i'd lay in bed for hours sometimes, waiting to sleep.

i also noticed that i could very clearly see the 'eye crank lines', especially when looking down, whereas usually i can't see them when my eyes are closed.

2. when we finally got out of bed yesterday morning, discovered it was snowing. it eventually stopped snowing and started raining, so the weather yesterday was miserable. still, we drove down south to visit family. we went to visit j*'s father's older sister, who i'd never met before, in a village in another corner of fanchang; her home was like something out of a fairy tale, not so surrounded by garbage and chaos like some of the other villages (which are still nice to visit, don't get me wrong). i had jingping take some pictures. there was a mountain running up directly on the side of the village, with a bamboo forest; spread out away from the mountain and the village was a large expanse of vegetable gardens. we had lunch cooked on a wood stove (and with some electricity). i hope that china is able to keep from totally losing this world as it moves on into the future.. all they really need is to find a way to deal with the garbage.

on the way down there, we drove on a new highway which took us through several tunnels beneath the mountains. at some point, to the right, in the distance, maybe a mile or so distant (in the south of wuhu, there are mountains and there are flat plains, and stark, sudden transitionsn between them), through the snowy, rainy, smoggy haze, i saw a massive building, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. it looked like something in DC; the size of the pentagon, ten or twenty stories wide, sixty stories wide. then, a little further south, a gigantic factory or processing plant, like a refinery or the biggest concrete plant you've ever seen. then, a mountain. i didn't bring the GPS to track where we went this time, but i can probably figure it out from memory. this reminds me of last year, something i never wrote down; on the bus back to shanghai, in the distance i could see a glowing tower, probably a hotel, surrounded by nothing else. it was probably fifty stories high, and surrounded by what looked like a 4th or 5th-tier town. maybe we'll see it again this time, since we're probably taking the same bus back.

also on the wuhu note, i've noticed lots of songbirds here in the subdivision, first time in four winters. maybe whatever drove them away is getting better?

3. dinner at uncle's restaurant. dog meat tastes weird. it was worth a try.

4. still on the roman history kick, been reading Tacitus' history of the 'year of four emperors', on the civil war that commenced with the death of Nero. it really is great reading. in the section on Otho's last stand and suicide, i paused for a while and thought about how all this had happened. i still don't know much about roman history, but i've read livy, so i know something about the beginnings of the republic and how it came to be; and i've read plutarch's lives of marius, sulla, crassus, pompey, and caesar, so i kind of understand how the republic cascaded into the empire.

i thought, the romans had all these lawful institutions for separating power, trading offices more-or-less peacefully and agreeably, avoiding autocracy and civil wars. they kept this up for hundreds of years, but only because to have faltered would have probably meant the end of rome, because there were still so many other powerful players in the vicinity. only after those players - the etruscans, the gauls, carthage - were subjugated, only then could the internal struggles really commence. the rise of the emperors, through the disruptions of marius to caesar, put an end to those struggles by ending all the power sharing. but that meant that once an emperor had failed, the struggles would flare again, and there would be civil war. the situation described - and witnessed first-hand - by Tacitus was the first of several times that this would happen, and it would eventually bring the end of the empire.

so i thought all of that, putting together the pieces that so many others have put together so many times, and then i turned the page, and Tacitus himself begins a digression where he outlines the same reflections on the same reasoning, and again i was impressed at the immediacy of reading the thoughts of a person who lived and died more than 1800 years ago.

5. despite the preceding item on how great Tacitus is, i switched yesterday (at the beginning of the next book of Tacitus, on Vespasian's rebellion) to reading Darwin's 'on expressions of man and animals', or whatever the title is. i've wanted to read this for years, never got around to it until there it was, Free on Ibooks. reading Darwin is great because of the way he makes his thinking so transparent; he explains everything iteratively, first in broad terms, then more and more specific, each time tacking on anecdotes or examples with more and more density. origin of species and the descent of man were written similarly, spiraling down from general statements to specific demonstrations, with examples at every level, but there was less anecdote; here, Darwin is on every page noting a story from some friend or acquaintance, or describing the behavior of his own dogs or farm animals. so, the story is solidy anecdotal, but still convincing, because you can see how he is being led at each stage to a question; if such-and-such is true, we should observe this, and here is an example that we all know, or an anecdote that i'm sure you'll recognize (e.g. how a dog acts when in anticipation of something he likes).

i also like all the talk about "nerve-force". the idea that this nerve-force overflows from the channels of immediate use, into channels of frequent or necessarily convenient use, and only later into less frequently used channels, is important in a lot of his examples. also, his 'principle of antithesis' in explaining some expressions is, i think, an interesting example of something more general than an adaptation aftereffect. for example, the excited dog, when it finds that it will not get what it expects, will look dejected - the 'hot-house face' - with this expression explained as, essentially, the aftereffect of adaptation to an excited manner. i think i will look more into this idea of antithesis in behavior..

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