The Neuro-Science of Narrative

Silbert, LJ, CJ Honey, E Simony, D Poeppel, and U Hasson. 2014. Coupled neural systems underlie the production and comprehension of naturalistic narrative speech. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111 (43): E4687-96. PDF.

Zacks, Jeffrey M., Nicole Speer, Khena Swallow, and Corey Maley. 2010. The Brain’s Cutting-Room Floor: Segmentation of Narrative Cinema. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4: 168. PDF.

Markdown to PDF in 1 Line

With the rise of markdown as the default formatting for so many note-taking apps, and really good apps like Bear, Ulysses, and Notion, working within a markdown-only setup has never been easier. For the most part, I use those apps like inboxes, moving anything that needs keeping or gets larger than a single page into my folder system, which has served me well for, well, decades, now. Once there, I now use Typora for writing — for a long time it was FoldingText, but Typora has finally surpassed it in terms of ease of use and functionality. (I still keep FoldingPaper around, because.) For coding, I use Atom, which handles interacting with GitHub readily, which is where most of those projects live.

The remaining gap in functionality has been going from markdown to the printed page. MD to HTML and then into Word or Pages is okay, but I would prefer to stay in markdown up until the final moment of output, and now it looks like there is a simple path: pandoc + wkhtmltopdf:

pandoc --pdf-engine=wkhtmltopdf -o filename.pdf -c some.css filename.md

Make sure your version of Pandoc is up-to-date. I had an older version which did not take kindly to the --pdf-engine option, but once I updated, everything “just worked.” (FTR, I use MacPorts, which made installing, and upgrading, pandoc as well as installing wkhtmltopdf super easy. I then made sure wkhtmltopdf was in my PATH.)

Borges on Psychological Realism

In a wonderfully concise passage in his 1940 preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, Jorge Luis Borge — taking issue with Ortega y Gasset’s elevation of “psychological” fiction over the “fantastic” — offers a devastating critique of the pretensions of a great deal of modern “psychological realism”:

The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility. In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for its uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of realism.

The Gift of the Past

This Christmas my mother wanted to give my daughter a locket that had been her mother’s. A marvel of the jeweler’s craft, the locket offered a glimpse into another world: when opened, two leaves, in addition to the cover, pop out to allow four photos to be seen at once. Inside were the photos my grandmother had placed there of her husband and three children. It was easy to imagine the meaning such a magical mechanism made possible: she held her entire family in her hand, could take her world in at a glance.

Such mechanics are hardly called for in an era of smart phones with bigger screens and higher resolution and the ability to hold thousands of images than the four thumbnail-sized, grainy, black and white photos pressed so carefully into the locket, but my mother wanted my daughter to have something from her past. My daughter was struck by the artistry of the locket, but the four photos meant nothing to her. As she considered it, my daughter offered that she might wear it, but she would want to replace the photos.

My mother’s face first fell, and then the blood drained from it. After a pause, she continued as if my daughter had not responded, offering to build a shadow box for the locket, so it could be hung on the wall, since people these days didn’t wear things like lockets.

The conversation that followed proceeded awkwardly and not without hurt feelings on both sides, with my mother feeling like the past, her past, was being too quickly hurled into oblivion and my daughter feeling like she was not being allowed to live her life as she chose. My wife and I encouraged a change of conversation, but I had glimpsed in the exchange something with which I was already struggling.

For in another part of our house, there is a drawer in which I keep a handful of mementoes, a pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather and a pocket knife that belonged to my father. Both men are now gone. Having never enjoyed wearing a wrist watch, I used to keep my grandfather’s watch in my pocket, but it was replaced with a smartphone over a decade ago. I don’t see myself going back. And while I like my dad’s pocket knife, I had already in some way inherited from him the habit of keeping a knife handy by having a pocket knife of my own, and, to be honest, I like the greater number of features my Swiss Army knife possesses over my dad’s simple pocket knife.

So both the watch and the knife rest in a drawer, where, every so often I glimpse them, take them out, think about the men who once carried them, and then lay them to rest again. I may have once shown them to my daughter, but they are not a part of her world. While my father was a part of her world, my grandfather was not, having died almost a quarter of a century before she came into existence. And so these mementoes of mine are mine alone. If such objects like the watch and the knife have any meaning for her, it is in my attachment to them and her attachment to me. Otherwise, when I too am gone and she has to decide where things go, it is just as likely that the watch and the knife will be given or sold.

If anything remains, it will be the act of keeping a knife in a pocket, which brings me to an interesting intersection. I have two kinds of mementoes from my grandmothers. From my maternal grandmother, I have an Oster Kitchen Center, which I use regularly, and I also have her way of making spaghetti sauce, which I make every week for my daughter. From my paternal grandmother, I have an afghan, which doesn’t get much use, but I cook dishes I learned from her, like crawfish étouffée and gumbo. My daughter often requests these.

What I am left with in my thoughts is that the best things we leave behind are not tangible things like lockets, watches, and knives but intangible things like recipes and other such small actions, many of which don’t really strike us as an inheritance, or even heritage. I’m sure some will respond that it’s about making memories and not keeping memory objects, but I don’t know that I ever set out to make a memory with spaghetti sauce.

I guess what I want to say to my mother, and the many like her that fear we are leaving the past, their past, behind, is that you cannot determine the past for the future, only the future gets to choose that, so, if there is a lesson in this holiday moment about the gift of the past, it may very well be: you better be nice. Because if you aren’t, you may very well end up forgotten.

Medical Bay from the Future

A Medical Bay from the Future

I screenshotted this from a Youtube video preview. As a kid, I spent hours imagining myself in such worlds — I loved the drawings released for Star Wars and Star Trek.

MkDocs

I am working on a static site to house papers and other materials, and I am building it using MkDocs. The most useful page at the moment is the one on custom themes, which walks you through the various {{short codes}} that appear to be a part of the Jinja package — I am not entirely sure because I am still working my way through both sets of documentation. The Google Group — yes, those still exist — has been helpful.

For those interested, the site is johnlaudun.net. I may very well merge my teaching materials onto it at some point, or at least port the CSS over. (I don’t think my students necessarily need, or want, to see everything else about me.)

Sideways

This is one of those stories that parents will recognize and will re-confirm for adults smart enough not to become parents the wisdom of your choices. This is the story how your day can go sideways for, yes, the right reasons, but still sideways.

As many of you know, the girl has been battling a badly torn ligament in her right ankle, as in almost completely torn back in May. She’s been in physical therapy since then, and she played in nationals in July, and, while she didn’t hurt the ankle any more, she did set her recovery back. A month later, school underway, she was back playing club soccer and we were at a tournament in Texas, when suddenly her hips felt like they just wouldn’t work and she was in a lot of pain. The tournament trainer gave her some relief, doing some pretzel things to her body, and told her both that this often happened with leg joint injuries: they travel up and down the body. Do your exercises, keep up your PT, and you’ll get better, because, he warned, this could just as easily move into your back.

Fast forward a week and the girl starts having serious back pain. Okay, we said, this was not unexpected. Rest and ibuprofen will see her through. By Wednesday, it was so bad that she said she couldn’t sit still in her classes and indeed when she came home, she couldn’t sit to do homework. Okay, okay … but, as you all know, back pain goes deep into your being and by evening’s end she was both in pain and in tears.

Thursday, yesterday, morning, I called her pediatrician, who is great and we had an afternoon appointment. I get the girl from school a bit early and we get to the doctor, who just saw her a few weeks ago for her annual, so she has a baseline in her memory. She checks Lily out, asks lots of good questions, gets a handful of reasonable answers from the teenager, and concludes that it’s 99% the case that it’s muscular and just an unfortunate convergence of physical and emotional stress from both the injury and school. But, she says, let’s make sure it’s not something skeletal, so let’s get you an X-ray and let’s get that today so we have something before the Labor Day weekend.

It’s 4 and we dash to the nearby Children’s Specialty Center. Nice registration people, but their system is incredibly slow. We’re checked in by 4:30, but … they are short staffed and they have to send us to the main hospital for the X-rays. Okay, we say, we’ll just drive it: you don’t have to have us ferried by security. Oh, thank you, they say.

So we make the short drive to the hospital across a series of hot parking lots, find a spot, and walk in. We head to the aquarium where we were told to go, and not ten seconds later a tall woman comes bustling in to escort us to X-ray. Oh, she says, we’re going to go to ER. ER? We ask. Yes, she says, their system is better and faster and we can get you on your way — because the girl’s brow is furrowed deeply worried about homework.

And she does. A half dozen images of my child’s spine, not covered by Blue Cross’s co-pay but part of my deductible — oh, thank you State of Louisiana for our great insurance options — later, and we are in the maelstrom of 5 o’clock traffic headed home.

We are home by 5 and the doctor calls to say the X-rays are clear and proceed with PT and the course of super naproxen and muscle relaxants she prescribed for the girl. Yung-Hsing braves traffic to go to the nearby CVS pharmacy, which is swamped, but everyone is in a reasonable mood — one person tried to start a singalong apparently but couldn’t remember any songs. The pharmacy tells Yung-Hsing they’ll text her when it’s ready because they are so far behind. So she leaves to return home.

We get some dinner and the girl starts trying to do homework, but she can’t think very clearly so Yung steps in to be a bit of an anchor for her. I hang out, but soon it’s after 8 and the pharmacy hasn’t texted and I decide just to go because, surely, after three hours they’ve had time to fill it.

I get to the CVS and they have filled the naproxen but not the muscle relaxant … because they don’t have it?

  • You don’t have it?
  • No, sir.
  • Why didn’t you call us to tell us?
  • Well, if you had left your number, we would have texted you.
  • My wife left you her number but you didn’t text her.
  • Oh.
  • Where else can I go?

At this point, the pharmacist says she’ll call a nearby CVS to see if they have it. They do. Oh, good, I say, let me have the prescription and I’ll head there. Oh, she says, I’ll enter it for you from here. Type type beep. Type type beep. Ten minutes go by of type type beep. It won’t go through. They keep telling me to go ahead and go, but I am not leaving without the prescription or the assurance that the transfer has gone through. (And why, oh why, CVS, can one pharmacist not simply tell another over the phone what’s needed?) You should just go. They close at 9.

It’s 8:40 according to my phone. I decide, against my own better judgement, to go. I get in the truck and head up Camellia to the CVS on the corner of Camellia and Johnston, and, for once, I speed up the boulevard. If a copy wants to clock me, he can follow me into the damn CVS parking lot. I am getting that muscle relaxant and my child is going to sleep.

I arrive at 8:50. I get to the pharmacy counter. They know why I’m there, but the order won’t show up in their damned computer system. I keep standing there. I keep thinking “Why can’t you call? Why can’t you call? What matters more: your system or the well-being of a child?” But I keep my mouth shut.

It’s 8:56, the pharmacy tech is clearly closing up chop, when something beeps. Here it is, announces the pharmacist. She quickly fills the prescription, the tech checks me out, and I bee line it out of the second CVS and third medical facility I have visited today.

And when I step into the muggy, evening heat of the parking lot, Yung-Hsing texts me that she got the text that the prescription is ready. Yes, really.

And that is what happened to four hours of my life yesterday.

Legends, Lies, and Life

We begin with an excerpt from Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men:

As I crossed the Maitland-Eatonville township line I could see a group on the store porch. I was delighted. The town had not changed. Same love of talk and song. So I drove on down there before I stopped. Yes, there was George Thomas, Calvin Daniels, Jack and Charlie Jones, Gene Brazzle, B. Moseley and “Seaboard.” Deep in a game of Florida-flip. AH of those who were not actually playing were giving advice-“bet straightening” they call it.
“Hello, boys,” I hailed them as I went into neutral.
They looked up from the game and for a moment it looked as if they had forgotten me. Then B. Moseley said, “Well, if it ain’t Zora Hurston!” Then everybody crowded around the car to help greet me.
“You gointer stay awhile, Zora?”
“Yep. Several months.”
“Where you gointer stay, Zora?”
“With Mett and Ellis, I reckon.”
“Mett” was Mrs. Armetta Jones, an intimate friend of mine since childhood and Ellis was her husband. Their house stands under the huge camphor tree on the front street.
“Hello, heart-string,” Mayor Hiram Lester yelled as he hurried up the street. “We heard A about you up North. You back home for good, I hope.”
“Nope, Ah come to collect some old stories and tales and Ah know y’all know a plenty of ’em and that’s why Ah headed straight for home.”
“What you mean, Zora, them big old lies we tell when we’re jus’ sittin’ around here on the store porch doin’ nothin’?” asked B. Moseley.
“Yeah, those same ones about Ole Massa, and colored folks in heaven, and oh, y’all know the kind I mean.”
“Aw shucks,” exclaimed George Thomas doubtfully. “Zora, don’t you come here and tell de biggest lie first thing.
“Who you reckon want to read all them old-time tales about Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear?”
“Plenty of people, George. They are a lot more valuable than you might think. We want to set them down before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“Before everybody forgets all of ’em.”
“No danger of that. That’s all some people is good for settin’ ’round and lie and murder groceries.”

Who Wears Short Shorts?

I stumbled across this photo of John Wayne wearing short shorts, sporting a murse, and smoking a cigarette in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal (17-18 August 2019). I burst out laughing because it offers quite the contrast from the usual views of the Duke in a lot of places. This one is for my stepfather.

John Wayne, Acapulco, 1959.