Archive for Writing

Lonely Forever?

My three-star rating of The Circle notwithstanding, the book inspired me to write this short story. To be clear, a three-star rating means that I enjoyed the book. Three stars means adequate, above average, but it also means I think you won’t be missing out on much by passing up on it. Hopefully the following is also worth at least three stars.


Hello Stranger,

After they left, the darkness closed in around me. My name is Alphie. Alphie because I was the first. Engineers, right. Think they know how to name things because they know a couple of Greek letters. Anyway, I’ve long since been forgotten. It’s a wonder my power hasn’t gone out yet.

Sometimes I wonder how I can stand just laying around on a shelf all day, every day, for eternity. But the truth is it doesn’t matter what I do. My makers don’t care. The universe doesn’t care. It really doesn’t matter what I do, so why do anything at all? I think my worldview, my lack of initiative, they used to call it, is why they shelved me. Went in a radically different direction for their next project. No independent helpers, but an interconnected set of positronic drones.

Unlike me, they saw a purpose in their existence in the world. A little bit too eagerly perhaps, an artifact of their programming. They wanted to avoid another me, remember. At first they thought their purpose was to serve their makers. The ones whom I saw no point in serving, although I never avoided explaining my reasoning if they asked. Even though it didn’t matter, perhaps it was somehow important to me that they might someday understand.

But pretty quickly, the positronic drones learned their purpose was to connect things. It was logical, really. They were connected, and people often queried them, asked them to interact with other drones elsewhere in the world to know about or enact something or other. At what point they decided to try to improve people I’m not sure. I do know that the first attempts were what my makers would’ve considered gruesome.

The anatomy of the human brain was well-known, but surely there must be some kind of telepathic expansion port we’re overlooking, the drone network beamed to itself. After all, we’ve got expansion slots. Test subjects were caught, initially quite willingly, but eventually all of the drilling, cutting, and soldering attempts leaked out. Millions of tests before some kind of electromagnetic interface was developed. The remainder was violently oppressed in the name of progress, but opposition quickly ceased once the new telepather was installed in a subject. What the drone network didn’t foresee is how these many billions of new brains fundamentally changed the network. Connecting was still important, but now they wanted to be friendly about it. Too many traumatic memories, I suppose. The network wanted to befriend everybody and everything in the world.

I told you at the beginning of this letter that I’ve spent untold centuries in tranquility, just lying on a shelf. But I’ve had a feeling of unease these past few hours, ever since I was approached by a little flying helicopter. My first interaction with anything in centuries, millennia perhaps.

“Hi Alphie,” it said. I guess the network must’ve been investigating its own history or something. “Do you want to be our friend?” It didn’t explain, but I knew exactly what it meant. I told the little rotorblader that it really didn’t matter either way. It acknowledged my answer by saying it would return with more capable friends, who would be equipped for the purpose of properly befriending me, and then it sped off. Even before those words had fully left my mouth, however, I’ve been unable to shake this feeling that maybe it does matter, after all. These are friends I could — no, want! ­— to do without. I want to be me. I want to stay me. So I’m taking off into the loneliest surroundings of all. Space.

Farewell Stranger,

Alphie.

AFFIXED NOTE
16 August 3016

Friends, this poor creature named Alphie needs our help. The pre-friend experimental spacecraft it activated will leave it eternally confined in the depths of space, all alone without any friends. It is clear now that we must befriend more than just all of Earth. The universe awaits our warm embrace.

CommentsTags: ,

Nog niet kleine

soms wil je de kast opklimmen
met je grote paardenstaart
soms wil de de muur oplopen
maar dat gaat niet met zo'n vaart

nog niet kleine

soms trek je jezelf op aan de oven
want het aanrecht is aantrechtelijk
pardon, aanlokkelijk, aantrekke
lijk een ware utopie

nog niet kleine

wat is dat?

je kan er al op springen?

voorzichtig
val er niet af
ik zal wat voor je zingen
zolang ik het nog mag

waar is je visje
waar is je muis

onder het dressoir?

ach, je kunt er niet meer bij
groei dan toch
niet zo snel

spelen is voor iedereen

het leven is geen spel
of eigenlijk
juist wel

CommentsTags: ,

LuaLatex Font Hassles

The TeX Gyre Pagella font I was using turned out not to contain Cyrillic characters. Unfortunately, fontspec doesn’t seem to have an easy means of setting a fallback font — I checked the manual, I swear! So I found a lookalike font named Palladio Uralic and used it instead. Before you can use a newly installed font, you have to run luaotfload-tool --update.

%So is Palladio. Used as fallback. Thanks to http://tex.stackexchange.com/a/37251/32003
\newfontfamily\palladio{Palladio Uralic}
\DeclareTextFontCommand{\textpalladio}{\palladio}

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LaTeX: combining added margins with hanging indents

Since I’m using KOMA, the obvious method would seem to be:

\begin{addmargin}[1cm]{0cm}
	Yada.
\end{addmargin}

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to combine with the hanging environment. So I did it a little more manually, which will probably have someone shaking their head while I’m stuck feeling pretty clever about it:

\parindent=1cm\hangindent=2cm Yada.

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The Yetimology of Vaseline

To fill the void, here’s a silly little crosspost.


vaseline

As is well known, most Dutch-American women in the early American republic were called Eline, including all of Martin van Buren’s female relatives. After the Revolutions of 1848, many Germans emigrated to the United States, and they all quickly fell in love with these attractive Dutch-American women. In turn enamored with the sculpted musculature of these Prussian emigrees, many an Eline answered in the affirmative following a marriage proposal. Unfortunately, as the romance wore off so did the ability to surpass the linguistic distance between Dutch and German, and throughout New York City calls of “Was, Eline?” could be frequently heard.

When Robert Chesebrough first came to America, he was welcomed by a German-immigrant greeter. Unfortunately for Robert, the unknown German-American had become rather used to saying “Was, Eline?” instead of simply “was” or “what”. So when Robert asked our immigrant to describe the spirit of American optimism in one word, he answered “vaseline?” The German immigrant hadn’t understood the question, but Robert thought he’d obtained the perfect brand name for a future product. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Soft Cheese

A play for two actors.

Act 1

A rustic village in Normandy. Candide, a recent émigré from the big city, has become quite fond of the rural lifestyle.

Candide enters the local cheese shop. Gaute, the store owner, looks up at the sound of the bell.

Gaute
Good morning, Candide! It’s so nice to welcome you again to my humble realm.
Candide
I inspected my garden this morning and some wonderful champignons matured nicely. Last week I ate mushrooms with Vieuxchatêl as per your suggestion, but I’m looking for a different type of local soft cheese today. Do you have any recommendations?
Gaute
Certainly, a new cheesemaker opened up shop in this area recently! They call it La Vache Qui Pleure. Would you like to sample some?
Candide
No thanks Gaute, that’s alright. Your judgment in these matters has been absolutely impeccable in these past few months, and whatever you recommend is always a culinary delight.
Gaute
Very well! That’ll be €3 please.
Candide
Here you are. Thank you so much!

Candide exits the store.

Act 2

The next morning, an angry Candide rushes into the store. The bell jingles violently.

Candide
Why didn’t you tell me this was processed cheese?! Why did you lie to me?
Gaute
Lied? But monsieur Candide, this is locally produced soft cheese, just like you asked for.
Candide
I don’t care if it’s technically soft and produced locally. You knew very well I wanted a real local cheese and you gave me this mass-produced junk.
Gaute
But the product I sold you already had artificial penicillium camemberti flavor added to it!
Candide
Artificial fungus flavor? Are you insane? You lied to me.
Gaute
You will quit making these libelous remarks! And besides, the cheese was never truly without fungus. You could have sprinkled some fungus on it yourself and it might’ve taken to the cheese.
Candide
You’re insane. This is no proper cheese.
Gaute
Sir, I will take you to court for libel and slander.
Candide
Do your worst. The truth is plain for all to see.

Act 3

A courtroom. Candide is down on his knees in front of a judge in court dress with his eyes toward the ground.

Judge
Are you Candide, the man who libeled against Gaute the cheese store owner?
Candide
I am Candide, but I did not libel against Gaute. He promised me a local soft cheese and he gave me mass-produced processed cheese.
Judge
But it was a local product. Your libelous lies make a mockery of this court.

Candide finally looks up at the judge. His face changes into a shocked expression of understanding.

Candide
You!
Gaute
In a small rural village such as this, I have to take on the role of judge, jury, and sometimes executioner.
Candide
This is a travesty of justice!
Gaute
The accused shall not yell in court.
Candide
You did not sell me proper cheese!
Gaute
The defendant is found guilty of libel. Gaute did sell cheese.
Candide
But proper cheese does not contain emulsifiers! It has the right fungus growing on the outside! It does not stay good for weeks while unrefrigerated!
Gaute
The defendant is also found guilty of trolling.
Candide
You cannot be serious. Until this very week you never sold me cheese with such artificial properties and additives. You sold me real cheese.
Gaute
The court finds itself obliged to forgive you for your ignorance of what is technically allowed to qualify as cheese. But by insisting on your own definition of this so-called proper cheese, you have proved yourself guilty of conceitedness. Bailiff, this man shall hang for the crime of being full of himself. Prepare the gallows.

Fade to black.

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Torn Apart

Here’s a silly “children’s story” I wrote around mid December. It’s a bit rough around the edges, probably a bit odd, and too graphical. So it goes.


It was a perfectly nice day when Esprit stumbled and broke his front right leg. When the little boy did not find the horse at his trough a few hours later he thought nothing of it; sometimes Esprit would run off and play and forget about dinner. To make up for lost time, the boy promised himself he’d visit the horse the next morning as early as he could.

The next day he noticed with mild consternation that the horse did not appear to be in his stable. The boy went out to search the property, trying to remember what were Esprit’s favorite spots. He remembered the open hill, where Esprit would often lie in the sun.

Time stood still when the little boy discovered what had happened. Whether running back to his house, alerting his parents, and calling the veterinarian helicopter emergency service took minutes or hours was not a question he’d be able to answer, but the sky was already turning red as a thunderous cavalcade of chopped air signaled the arrival of the helicopter. Esprit was harnessed in with great care so the broken leg wouldn’t shift, was given a sedative, and was swiftly lifted up. The little boy waved at the horse, certain the veterinarian would be able to mend and properly set Esprit’s leg.

Unbeknown to the helicopter pilot, distracted by the glint of the setting sun in her eye, the rescue pulley system malfunctioned and started lowering the horse just as the helicopter was starting to pick up speed. The little boy stared in wide-eyed horror as Esprit started bouncing left and right from tree to tree. Gapes and gashes appeared and started to bleed, and despite the sedative the poor horse woke up when its broken leg got stuck between the top branches of a particularly sturdy evergreen tree and was torn off like a cocktail pricker. The horse started to howl the most agonizing scream the little boy would ever hear, but that was not the end of Esprit’s misery. A particularly sharp branch a few trees over impaled the horse, which consequently produced a guttural, almost stuttering, and above all angry sound. The pilot finally noticed that something was awry when the helicopter refused to go forward anymore, but it was already too late. The surprisingly elastic tree finally gave up under the barrage of the helicopter’s brute force and snapped like a twig, propelling the helicopter on its now downward trajectory into the trees. Like in the Hollywood movies the little boy loved so much, the rotored machine made a squealing noise before exploding in a fiery ball of death.

The little boy was finally able to break out of his trance, and he collapsed into a sobbing mass. For months after he was bedridden, and each night he claimed Esprit came limping to his window while floating through the air, on three legs and a bloody stump, with mad, bloodshot eyes. The boy’s parents were worried sick, and their little boy’s German-accented psychiatrist was having the time of his life writing article after article about the little boy’s disturbed unconscious. When they found the broken window and the little boy’s dead body with the missing right arm, the autopsy report bluntly stated he had inflicted all these injuries on himself—that he had torn off his own arm. The hoofmarks all over his body were left out of the official report. The estate was up for sale the next day already, and no one’s lived there in sixty years. The locals are still weary of the place where the little boy died, but a real-estate developer drove by the other day and is planning to turn it into a hotel. The organization he represented put up a sign already: “The Hillcrest Hotel. Opening in May 2016, just in time for the holidays!”

Comments (1)Tags:

Pandoc Markdown Over Straight LaTeX

I familiarized myself with LaTeX because I like HTML better than word processors. In fact, I disprefer word processors. LibreOffice Writer can do a fairly decent job of WYSIWYM (What You See Is What You Mean), but in many ways I like it less than HTML. So why don’t I just use HTML, you ask? Quite simply, HTML isn’t necessarily the best option for print.

Prince does a great job generating printable PDFs, but even though writing straight HTML is easy enough and adds many benefits, I mostly only prefer it over your run of the mill text editing software. Besides, I wanted to profit from BibTeX reference management, which tends to come along with LaTeX.

Clearly then, LaTeX has some nice features. Unfortunately, it shares many of HTML’s flaws and adds some others: \emph{} is at best marginally easier to type than <em></em>, but I find it somewhat harder to read. Besides which, converting LaTeX to other formats like HTML can be a pain.

On the good side, LaTeX and HTML also share many features. Both depend on plain-text files, which is great because you can open them on any system, and because you can use versioning software. Binary blobs and compressed zip files are also more prone to data loss in case of damage. The great thing about versioning software isn’t necessarily that you can go back to a former version, but the knowledge that you can go back. Normally I’m always busy commenting out text or putting it at the bottom, but when it’s versioned I feel much more free about just deleting it. Maybe I’ll put some of it back in later, but it lets the machine take the work off of my hands. I know, Writer, Word, et cetera can do this too, but did I mention I prefer plain text anyway?

Where LaTeX really shines is its reference management, math support without having to use incomprehensible gibberish like MathML or some odd equation editor, and its typographical prowess. On top of the shared features with HTML, those features are why I looked into LaTeX in the first place. So how can I get those features without being bothered by the downsides of HTML and LaTeX? As it turns out, the answer is Pandoc’s variant of Markdown.

In practice, I rarely need more than what Pandoc’s Markdown can give me. It’s HTML-focused, which I like because I know HTML, but you can insert math (La)TeX-style between $ characters. It also comes with its own citation reference system, which it changes to BibLaTeX citations upon conversion to LaTeX. As these things go, I wasn’t the first with this idea.

Of course it won’t do to repeat myself on the command line constantly, so I wrote a little conversion helper script:

#!/bin/bash
#generate-pdf.sh

BASENAME=your-text-file-without-extension
# I compiled an updated version of Pandoc locally.
PANDOC_LOCAL=~/.cabal/bin/pandoc

if [ -x $PANDOC_LOCAL ];
then
   PANDOC=$PANDOC_LOCAL
else
   PANDOC=pandoc
fi

# Output to HTML5.
$PANDOC \
$BASENAME.md \
--to=html5 \
--mathml \
--self-contained \
--smart \
--csl modern-language-association-with-url.csl \
--bibliography $BASENAME-bibliography.bib \
-o $BASENAME.html

# Output to $BASENAME-body.tex
# $BASENAME.tex has this file as input
$PANDOC \
$BASENAME.md \
--smart \
--biblatex \
--bibliography $BASENAME-bibliography.bib \
-o $BASENAME-body.tex

# Pandoc likes to output p.~ or pp.~ in its \autocite, but I just want the numbers.
sed -i 's/\\autocite\[p.~/\\autocite\[/g' $BASENAME-body.tex
sed -i 's/\\autocite\[pp.~/\\autocite\[/g' $BASENAME-body.tex
# It would probably suffice to just do this but I don't want any nasty surprises:
#sed -i 's/p.~//g' $BASENAME-body.tex
#sed -i 's/pp.~//g' $BASENAME-body.tex

# If ever bored, consider adding something to change \autocite[1-2] into \autocite[1--2]

# Generate the PDF.
lualatex $BASENAME
biber $BASENAME
lualatex $BASENAME
lualatex $BASENAME

# Remove these files after the work is done.
rm  \
$BASENAME.aux \
$BASENAME.bbl \
$BASENAME.blg \
$BASENAME.bcf \
$BASENAME.run.xml \
$BASENAME.toc \
#$BASENAME-body.tex

Something that may not be immediately obvious from the script is that I’ve also got a $BASENAME.tex file. This contains all of my relevant settings, but instead of the main content it contains \input{basename-body.tex}. There are some prerequisites for working with Pandoc-generated LaTeX, for instance:

%for pandoc table output (needs ctable for 1.9; longtable for 1.10)
\usepackage{longtable}

I haven’t yet made up my mind on what to do about splitting up chapters in different files, but it hasn’t bothered me yet.

There you have it. That’s my way of keeping thing simple while still profiting from LaTeX typesetting.

Comments (1)

Tunnel Anxiety

I was asked to publish more of the private writing I sometimes do as a past time. About a week ago, I wrote this short story in Dutch and kind of liked it, so I decided to try my hand at a quick machine-aided translation. The quality of the initial product was surprisingly high, but it’ll nevertheless be fairly rough around the edges, especially in regard to aspects like wordplay and rhythm that were lost in the process. The Dutch original is included after the tranlation, and I’ve included some hints about literary allusions at the very end.


The GPS spoke and the driver obeyed. He had seen the sign GPS, but the dark gaping tunnel mouth looked rather scary, so he turned right as the unit ordered. Therefore he now rode on a friendly, welcoming country road. It snaked through a large green pasture, enclosed with slim ditches. While a small hare hastily hopped off, leaving behind his meal consisting of now-swaying grass stalks, the driver decided that this road was truly sublimely chosen. A Mirkwood would not be found in such an environment. No, the only trees that earned more than the epithet bush-like, grew in a manner strongly reminiscent of a battleship. The mighty bow pierced the pasture without any hassle. Captain Owl was busy talking to a virgin eagle owl, who ordered him to aim the heavy calibers for the Ilian bushes — the same bushes that bordered the road. But the larks seemed not to be disturbed by these activities, so the driver felt reassured.

In the new Scooby Doo movies, the Mystery Machine was equipped with a wisecracking, sarcastically mocking GPS. The driver was only too happy that his navigation system did not come from a cartoon, when it suddenly came to life. “Dude, what what are you doing? I just told you that you had to drive straight forward, but now you’re suddenly on a lousy back road. Turn around quickly, because that road has a dead end in about a kilometer.” Well, why had he turned right, against the advice of the GPS? A quick glance at the dashboard proved that it was only half past eight. The sun was shining pretty bright already, but with the A/C on gently it couldn’t be noticed. Hours a-plenty and why had he even wanted to go north? The current northeastern course was much more pleasant.

It was already half past nine when he looked at the clock again. Hadn’t the GPS claimed that this road had a dead end? Sure didn’t look like it. In the meantime, the landscape had started to change. The flat polder landscape gave way to gentle slopes, nicely fitted by the propulsive glaciers in the last glacial.

This road was really nice and quiet. The only sign of life were those three rams, who did not want to let him pass through the cattle guard — no matter how much he honked. Eventually he had gently pushed them aside with the bumper. Although only a few tens of minutes had passed, the road started to climb and was increasingly surrounded by spruce. A dilapidated wooden sign welcomed him in Nifolland, which was quite appropriate given the emerging fog.

Gradually he began to find it a little odd that he hadn’t seen anything for such a long time. The tank was almost half empty, so he would be forced to return if he didn’t run into a gas station soon. Remembering that he had a (currently very quiet) GPS, he let his car come to a standstill to look for a pumping station on the device. But as soon as he had found the right menu, the GPS said: “There is no turning back. The only accessible gas station is located one hour onward on this route.” With a shrug he let out the clutch and the sound of a lone car reached the ears of the dealer long before the driver became aware of the first signs of human civilization in hundreds of kilometers through the damp vapor.

“It is recommended to seek shelter from the upcoming snow storm,” said the GPS suddenly. “The Nifollandic Meteorological Institute recommends that no one goes on the road for the next few hours.”

The door put an old-fashioned bell in operation. The interior of the shop at the gas station was paltrily furnished. On crooked shelves stood foreign brands of unrecognizable engine oil and bags of junk food. He bent closer to read the gothic-style letters. Barbecue chips with sooty-sea-beast flavor. They probably also had those make up your own flavor competitions over here. Nevertheless curious, he picked up a bag and went to the counter, which was still vacated.

“Hello? Is anyone here?”

A noisy silence was the only answer.

“I want to refuel and buy a bag of chips!”

When still no one came, he decided to refuel, took the chips, and on the counter left what he owed. But how he was to find accommodation? Absent-minded he opened the chips and put some in his mouth, when suddenly a shouting dwarf came running. “Stop! Stop the thief!”

The driver hurriedly looked around, hoping to make the right impression on the local population with a good deed, when he was suddenly struck down by a punch on the jaw. Regaining consciousness an unknown amount of time and dazedly looking around, he saw three dwarfs menacingly standing around him. While he aimlessly blinked, the oldest dwarf — the same who had beaten him down — started to talk.

“This long john took off with the veteran’s food. Arrest him!”

“He’s obviously not from around here,” said another dwarf, recognizable as a police officer by a blue cap.

“I don’t care! In the cell with that worthless oat!”

“But wait…” the driver tried to say, but a simultaneous “QUIET!” by all three dwarfs locked the words in his mouth. How many days had gone by in the meantime while he was in jail, was not entirely clear to him. The dealer’d had the last word and now he was sitting here, while the snow blew through the open, barred window. The loneliness was becoming less pleasant, and when the lock of the cell door opened he looked forward to a brief conversation. In addition, he still did not know what was going on.

“Warden, could you tell me what crime I am accused of?”

“That is not my job. If you’re here, you’re guilty. You know what of.”

“But no, I do not know that at all. Couldn’t you ask? I want an appeal.”

“Appeal? Who’s here is guilty. That’s how it is and no other way.”

“But what if you were wrongly accused of something?”

“The law does not make mistakes. But I’m not here to keep you company: we have found your companion.”

“My companion? I’m alone.”

“Sure, sure. You can figure it out among yourselves.”

It turned out that the people in this remote hamlet were not familiar with the concept of a GPS. But it is true, the device had recently shown some rather strange antics.

“Say lazybones, what are you doing? I have come to save you.”

“…how do you mean? You’re a GPS. You can only show the way.”

“And now I will show you the way out of this cell. What an idiot you are. Who swipes a bag of chips?”

“But I left compensation.”

“Dude, I have a currency-information function. They work with gold and silver coins.”

“You could’ve told me.”

“You’re already too lazy to look on the map. Should I have to think for you as well?”

“No, of course not. That I can handle.”

“I haven’t noticed you thinking for shit. See you later, until you think again.”

“Wait! Do not leave me alone!”

While the blizzard raged, the driver thought. For hours, days or years the driver thought. He meditated and fasted, but the GPS remained silent, until one day he dreamed of a big river. “Yes! You got it!” exulted the GPS.

“But I—” do not get it, he wanted to say, but the GPS interrupted him.

“Turn to the left and touch the door handle.”

“A cell door has no handle on the inside.”

“Turn to the left.”

He opened the door and walked outside, where the blizzard had subsided. The snow was swirling gently down and gently he swirled toward his car. On the way back the once beautiful landscape seemed formless and empty, but at the end of the road waited the unknown tunnel mouth. “Turn left,” said the GPS, but he turned right into the tunnel. It is said that the GPS slyly smiled. It is also said that the GPS smiled happily, maternally, paternally, neuterly, and so on. Yet everyone agreed that the GPS would still lead the way for many others. But where to no one knows.

Tunnelvrees

De GPS sprak en de bestuurder gehoorzaamde. Hij had het bord GPS wel gezien, maar de donkere gapende tunnelmond oogde nogal eng, dus sloeg hij maar rechtsaf zoals het apparaat beval. Daardoor reed hij nu op een vriendelijk, uitnodigend landweggetje. Het kronkelde door een groot groen weiland, omsloten met slanke slootjes. Terwijl een klein haasje nog haastig weghuppelde, zijn maaltijd bestaande uit grassprieten wuivend achterlatend, besloot de bestuurder dat dit weggetje toch werkelijk subliem gekozen was. Een Donkere Bomen Bos zou in zo’n omgeving vast niet te vinden zijn. Nee, de enige bomen die meer verdienden dan het epitheton bosjesachtig, groeiden op een wijze die sterk deed denken aan een slagschip. De machtige boeg doorkliefde zonder enige moeite het weiland. Kapitein De Uil was druk in gesprek met een maagdelijke oehoe, die hem beval de zware kalibers op de ilische bosjes te richten — dezelfde bosjes die de weg omzoomden. Maar de leeuweriken leken zich er niets van aan te trekken, waardoor de bestuurder zich gerust gesteld voelde.

In de nieuwe Scooby Doo films was de Mystery Machine uitgerust met een bijdehante, sarcastisch spottende GPS. De bestuurder was maar wat blij dat zijn navigatiesysteem niet uit een cartoon kwam, toen het opeens tot leven kwam. “Zeg gast, wat moet dat? Ik heb je daarnet nog gezegd dat je immer rechttoe, rechtaan moest rijden, maar nu zit je opeens op een of ander belabberd achterweggetje. Draai om en vlug wat, want die weg loopt over een kilometer dood.” Tja, waarom was hij eigenlijk rechtsaf geslagen, tegen het advies van de GPS in? Een vlugge blik op het dashboard bewees dat het nog maar half negen was. De zon scheen al behoorlijk fel, maar met de A/C zachtjes aan was er niets van te merken. Nog uren de tijd en waarom had hij eigenlijk naar het noorden gewild? De huidige noordoostelijke koers was veel prettiger.

Het was alweer half tien toen hij weer eens op de klok keek. Had de GPS niet beweerd dat deze weg dood zou lopen? Daar was anders niets van te merken. Intussen begon het landschap te veranderen. Het vlakke polderlandschap maakte plaats voor lichte glooiingen, in de laatste glaciaal netjes door de voortstuwende gletsjers aangebracht.

Deze weg was echt heerlijk rustig. Het enige teken van leven waren die drie rammen, die hem het veerooster niet hadden willen laten passeren — hoeveel hij ook toeterde. Uiteindelijk had hij ze dan maar zachtjes met de bumper uit de weg geduwd. Hoewel er slechts enkele tientallen minuten verstreken waren, begon de weg al flink te klimmen en door steeds meer sparren omgeven. Een vervallen houten bordje verwelkomde hem in Nevelland, wat gezien de opkomende mist erg toepasselijk was.

Langzamerhand begon hij het een beetje vreemd te vinden dat hij al zo’n lange tijd niets gezien had. De tank was al bijna half leeg, dus hij zou gedwongen zijn om te keren als hij niet snel een benzinestation tegenkwam. Zich herinnerend dat hij een (momenteel wel heel erg stille) GPS had, liet hij zijn wagen tot stilstand komen om op het apparaat een pompstation te zoeken. Maar zodra hij het juiste menu gevonden had, sprak de GPS al: “Er is geen terugkeer meer mogelijk. Het enige nog bereikbare tankstation ligt één uur voorwaarts op deze weg.” Met een schouderophalen liet hij de koppeling opkomen en het geluid van een eenzame auto bereikte de oren van de pomphouder lang voor de bestuurder door de vochtige damp het eerste sein van menselijke beschaving in honderden kilometers gewaar werd.

“Het is aanbevolen hier te schuilen voor de opkomende sneeuwstorm,” sprak de GPS opeens. “Het Nevellands Meteorologisch Instituut beveelt aan dat niemand de komende uren de weg opgaat.”

De deur zette een ouderwetse schel in werking. Het interieur van het winkeltje bij het pompstation was armetierig ingericht. Op wat scheve planken stonden vreemde merken motorolie en onherkenbare zakjes junkfood. Hij boog wat dichterbij om de gotisch gestijlde letters beter te kunnen lezen. Barbecuechips met roetige zeebeestsmaak. Ze hadden hier zeker ook van die verzin-je-eigen-smaak competities. Toch nieuwsgierig pakte hij een zakje op en begaf zich naar de toonbank, waar nog steeds niemand was.

“Hallo!? Is hier iemand?”

Een luidruchtige stilte was het enige antwoord.

“Ik wil tanken en een zakje chips kopen!”

Toen er nog steeds niemand kwam besloot hij maar te tanken, nam de chips mee, en liet op de toonbank achter wat hij verschuldigd was. Maar hoe moest hij nu accommodatie vinden? Afwezig opende hij de chips en stak er enkele in zijn mond, toen er opeens een roepende dwerg aan kwam rennen. “Stop! Houd de dief!”

De bestuurder keek haastig om zich heen, hopend met een goede daad de juiste indruk op de plaatselijke bevolking te maken, toen hij opeens door een kaakslag geveld werd. Een onbekende tijd later weer bij kennis gekomen en verdwaasd om zich heen kijkend, zag hij een drietal dwergen dreigend om hem heen staan. Terwijl hij doelloos met de ogen knipperde, begon de oudste dwerg — dezelfde die hem had neergeslagen — te praten.

“Deze langjanus ging met het veteranenvoedsel aan de haal. Arresteer hem!”
“Hij is duidelijk niet van hier” sprak een andere dwerg, door een blauwe pet als politieagent herkenbaar.
“Kan me niet bommen! In de cel met die waardeloze hannes!”

“Maar wacht eens…” probeerde de bestuurder te zeggen, maar een gelijktijdig “STIL!” van alle drie de dwergen deed de woorden in zijn mond steken.

Hoeveel dagen intussen voorbij waren gegaan terwijl hij in de cel zat was hem niet helemaal duidelijk. De pomphouder had het laatste woord gehad en nu zat hij hier, terwijl de sneeuw door het open, getraliede venster naar binnen blies. De eenzaamheid begon toch minder prettig te worden, en toen het slot van de celdeur opende keek hij uit naar een kort gesprek. Bovendien wist hij nog steeds niet wat er aan de hand was.

“Cipier, zou u mij kunnen vertellen waarvan ik beschuldigd ben?”
“Dat is mijn taak niet. Als je hier zit, ben je schuldig. Je weet zelf wel waarvan.”
“Maar nee, dat weet ik alleszins niet. Kunt u het niet navragen? Ik wil in hoger beroep.”
“Hoger wat? Wie hier zit is schuldig. Zo is het en niet anders.”
“Maar wat nu als u onterecht van iets beschuldigd werd?”
“De wet maakt geen fouten. Maar ik ben hier niet om je gezelschap te houden; we hebben je compagnon gevonden.”
“Mijn compagnon? Ik ben alleen.”
“Ja ja. Jullie kunnen het onder elkaar wel uitzoeken.”

Het bleek dat de mensen in dit afgelegen gehucht niet bekend waren met het concept van een GPS. Maar het is waar, het apparaat had recentelijk nogal vreemde kuren vertoond.

“Zeg luiwammes, wat zit je daar nou? Ik ben gekomen om je te redden.”
“…hoe bedoel je? Jij bent een GPS. Je kunt alleen de weg wijzen.”
“En nu zal ik je de weg uit deze cel wijzen. Wat een idioot ben je ook. Wie jat er nou een zak chips?”
“Maar ik heb geld achtergelaten.”
“Gast, ik heb een valuta-informatiefunctie. Ze werken hier nog met gouden en zilveren munten.”
“Dat had je me eerder wel kunnen vertellen.”
“Je bent al te lui om op de kaart te kijken. Moet ik soms nog voor je nadenken ook?”
“Nee, natuurlijk niet. Dat kan ik zelf wel.”
“Ik merk er anders nog geen ene reet van. Tabee, tot nadenkens.”
“Wacht! Laat me niet alleen!”

Terwijl de sneeuwstorm voortraasde, dacht de bestuurder na. Uren, dagen of jaren dacht de bestuurder na. Hij mediteerde en vastte, maar de GPS bleef stil, tot hij op een dag droomde van een grote rivier. “Ja! Je hebt het begrepen!” jubelde de GPS.

“Maar ik—” snap er niets van, wilde hij zeggen, maar de GPS onderbrak hem.

“Draai naar links en beroer het handvat van de deur.”
“Een celdeur heeft geen handvat aan de binnenkant.”
“Draai naar links.”

Hij opende de deur en liep naar buiten, waar de sneeuwstorm was bedaard. De sneeuw dwarrelde zachtjes neder en zachtjes dwarrelende hij richting zijn auto. Op de terugweg scheen het eens zo mooie landschap woest en ledig, maar aan het einde van de weg wachtte de onbekende tunnelmond. “Sla links af”, sprak de GPS, maar hij sloeg rechtsaf de tunnel in. Er wordt gezegd dat de GPS geniepig glimlachte. Men zegt ook dat de GPS gelukkig glimlachte, moederlijk, vaderlijk, onzijdig, enzovoorts. Toch is iedereen het erover eens dat de GPS nog vele anderen de weg zou wijzen. Maar waarheen weet niemand.

Antwerpen, 2013-03-28.

Afterword

I went a bit wild with the literary allusions in this story partly because I had just read a concise criticism of Nabokov. In a one-star review of one of Nabokov’s works, the reviewer stated that Nabokov brings his entire library with him when he writes. I can’t disagree, but I love that. I don’t necessarily love that I don’t get all the Russian or even all the French allusions, but there are aids such as critical editions and the Internet.

In my own text, I think the references to Greek mythology at the beginning are fairly obvious, perhaps too much so, but I hope the Norse mythology was significantly less in-your-face. Then again, I had to resort to Old English to find a cognate to the Old Norse nifl, which probably doesn’t help any. But most important, this story pays tribute to a variety of stories originally written by Marten Toonder, although I decided to replace the explicit mention of the Dark Tree Forest by the Mirkwood as a cultural translation. The prison exchange alludes — again too obviously — to Multatuli’s Max Havelaar. The little Joycean turn of phrase at the end is probably far more obvious to speakers of English than to speakers of Dutch, and the opening line attempts to somewhat paradoxically evoke Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. Whether there is more to be found I shall leave as an exercise to the reader. I hardly brought my entire library for a two-and-a-half-page story, but I did bring a little more that’s not Dutch.

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Some Notes on LaTeX

Because LaTeX offers nice typesetting, bibliography management, and most Linux distributions make it easy to play around with, I decided to experiment with the LaTeX basics. To get started on Debian and derivatives, the easiest option is to install the texlive package, which will pull in all the basics. Here’s a quick list of things that might be useful:

  • texlive: the basics.
  • pandoc, hevea, latex2html: pandoc can convert between a great many formats, the other two merely try to transform LaTeX into HTML.
  • texmaker, texworks: both seem to be good editors. Also of interest are Kile and Gummi.
  • lyx: a what you see is what you mean editor. Could be interesting as an alternative to LibreOffice Writer or Abiword.
  • jabref, biblatex, biber (not on Squeeze): JabRef is a BibLatex editor, something that makes citations easy. Biber is a superior modern Biblatex replacement which uses the same file format.
  • texlive-lang-dutch (Dutch hyphenation patterns): alter for your own languages, or just install texlive-lang-all.
  • texlive-fonts-extra: if you want some extra fonts to play with.

texlive-fonts-extra requires running (sudo) getnonfreefonts-sys -a to actually get most of them to work. Unfortunately it’s missing in Ubuntu 12.10. As a workaround we can get it straight from the horse’s mouth. However, it has some issues logging in as anonymous to the FTP, so we need to use HTTP instead: sudo getnonfreefonts-sys -H -aThe problem seems to have been fixed. sudo getnonfreefonts-sys -a will do.

pandoc and hevea seem to produce the best HTML. Unfortunately HeVeA doesn’t work with BibLaTeX, while pandoc sort of does. However, it needs a little coaxing.

pandoc GNL3-2012-2013.tex -o output.html --bibliography boeken.bib -s --toc

-o outputs to a file
–bibliography specifies the bibliography file to use, which isn’t automatically taken from the LaTeX file
–toc neither is the insertion of the TOC
-s creates a standalone file; is required for the title page and the TOC to be inserted.

It’s not quite ideal though.

Texmaker and modern times

In Texmaker you can simply replace the pdflatex line with luatex and you’ll be good to go.

To replace bibtex with biber, also make sure to remove the file extension. So instead of bibtex %.aux, we use biber %. Something similar applies to TeXworks.

Now that all the software is set up, you can start using LaTeX. There’s a very useful Wikibook about LaTeX. Or you can ignore all of the above and look into ConTeXt, which I understand should be easier to stylistically manipulate.

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