A while ago (actually, a very long while ago), I decided it’d be interesting to interview the family of some of my friends. While, I suppose, that wouldn’t typically be interesting (well, I still think it would!), this family in particular IS interesting. Hans and Monica, the parents, are a physicist and engineer respectively, who worked with lasers and fiber optics and have a whole mess of patents, and Janet and Kaethe, the daughters, are both cool and very artistically inclined (Janet, in fact, did the Kittysneezes logo). They’d probably hit me if I were to mention the whole “Family of Geniuses” thing, so I won’t. But, still, I thought it was pretty neato.
By the way — Hans hasn’t really responded yet; I’m not sure if he wants to or not. Kaethe said that he didn’t have to, and that’s fine by me. If he ever changes his mind, I’ll interleave his responses here and re-post the interview! If not, well, rest assured, he’s a really cool, laid back fun guy. (Also, some of the responses might be a little dated. I know, for instance, that Kaethe’s most recent movies are out of date, since I happened to see three with her, and she watched two more on DVD while I was visiting a couple weeks ago. So there you go.)
Janet’s the only one with a web presence (unless you count the various scientific papers online by Hans and Monica. If you do a search on google for Kaethe’s name, you get this site, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing to do with her, unless she’s got some sort of German school going on the side.
Part the First:
What’s your favorite T-shirt (or if you prefer not to wear t-shirts, your favorite article of clothing otherwise)?
Monica: I have discovered the perfect top for me, a tunic-shaped super-soft blouse from a company called Tianello that is willing to make it custom, based on some 10-or-so patterns and 20-or-so color dyes. I have probably bought 2 dozen by now. I grew up admiring restraint and subdued colors, and at 54, I’m finally rebelling and wearing bright colors that would have made me cringe 20 years ago. When I get stressed, I relax myself by using Photoshop to imagine what my next Tianello color/pattern combination should be. A totally ludicrous obsession. Imelda Marcos Of The Blouses.
Janet: Judging by wear, I adore my Ren Faire “The floggings will continue until morale improves” t-shirt, probably because I don’t read it every time I look down and get tired of it. When I was 15 I started wearing t-shirts from SF fandom in response to cool kids around me wearing things like “Computer Wizard Camp ’88” ironically. The form of that is maybe my shirt from NoReasCon. I thought it was clever that they weren’t fully ironic because I actually do go to cons and such. I don’t think people always get sincerity. I just bought a pewter-on-red silkscreen of Han Solo, we’ll see if that’s enough to bridge the gap or if it just means I’m lame. My actually being interested in this question does that. Yay lame!
Kaethe: I miss this shirt I owned when I was about 5 until 11, which was this plaid shirt that was somewhat reminiscent of the one that Timmy wears in Jurassic Park. I dressed up as that character in Kindergarten for Halloween. Should’ve been a velociraptor. With feathers. But that shirt was lost at summer camp in I believe 8th grade.
At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?
Monica: Last section of Mozart’s Requiem
Janet: The Fiery Furnaces’ “Teach Me Sweetheart”.
Kaethe: Overture for Don Giovanni. Janet knows, it’s the most overly played song on my iPod.
If you had the power to eliminate two films from the history of the world, what would they be?
Monica: Nothing is coming to me.
Janet: Hobbs End and Troll 2, which are both movies Josh thought would be amusingly bad but were really just superfluous.
I don’t think anything I could feel strongly about would deserve to be erased. A third or rather first film that should not exist is What the Bleep Do We Know!? I sometimes have difficulty articulating my hate for this movie. For one thing, it’s funded entirely by this pseudo-Buddhist cult and features the cult leader in soft focus as the most vapid of a series of talking heads. It tries to make stupid people feel smart by pretending that quantum physics can be understood without actually thinking about it, and by doing so, made me feel stupid. It has absolutely ridiculous Flubber-like 3-D animations of brain chemicals, and the protagonist talks in the deaf voice. Basically it takes every facet of subjectivity I hold dear and preaches it back as if its audience were three and frightened of science and had formerly believed everything they heard or saw and weren’t about to stop now. Also, writing “love” on a bottle of water makes it freeze in more organized crystals. It personally offended me.
Kaethe: I don’t think I would. That would be a pretty sucky superpower. I would prefer to have a black hole in my thumb, which I actually just so happen to have.
What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?
Monica: I don’t know any bands.
Janet: You caught me on a day I am on a Fiery Furnaces kick. So there they are.
Kaethe: Goth Slaughterhouse
What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?
Monica: Paintings by Janet and Kaethe as well as by Hans’ father and by my father’s cousin.
Janet: My own paintings. Everywhere. The ones I love most and which are unsellable.
Kaethe: On the best wall, there’s a door to the bathroom, vents, a closet that isn’t my closet, and a window. Things on walls in this room that belong to me are either maps or a particularly prominent Star Wars poster. And some balloons!
Where is the place where you would do anything to be?
Monica: On a massage table.
Janet: I have a Charlie horse right now. It hurts.
Kaethe: Oh, it’s somewhere in My Mom, but I can’t exactly remember the exact location.
What’s the strangest thing you own?
Monica: Huh. Either the pieces of an old clavichord once owned by an aunt, or one of my less well-known pieces of BDSM paraphernalia, such as the one known as the Scavenger’s Daughter.
Janet: I prefer to think of the extent to which I use things. And I don’t use the strangest things I own. I’d like to think of something insubstantial but I can’t remember any of those, and I’m material. My dead hermit crab in a salsa jar? A machine that gives small shocks for sexual purposes? A sense of entitlement? A strange quark! Just for a fraction of a second there. Did you miss it?
Kaethe: What I consider strange is that I own a bobblehead doll of some jockey from a horserace I went to. I don’t know what strange means.
Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?
Monica: Nothing jumps to mind as the favorite. A lot of things have given a day or two of immense satisfaction — an experiment or scientific simulation that worked; printing a photograph that captured a person or landscape’s beauty; making it to the top of a mountain (THAT’s been a while!); playing in the pit orchestra for an opera or a musical.
Janet: I like the time when I had mono and was failing the one class I was taking and was constructing a painting entirely in my head and I decided that that was the ultimate art, was doing nothing and thinking about doing a lot. But then I actually made it the next year (it’s an eight foot by ten foot ceiling painting with a central oculus and a ladder into space and a bunch of hastily-painted people floating and some naked chicks framing it), so take that, Hegel.
Kaethe: Eh, it’s hard to say, favorites don’t exist, etc etc etc. I particularly like this short story I wrote called “The Doom Clock” in 4th grade, and I’m proud of a vocabulary test I took in 10th grade where I managed to mention Windex in absolutely every sentence I came up with.
What’s your highest bowling score?
Monica: Last time I went bowling I was 11 years old, and I really don’t remember.
Janet: Don’t remember. 150 or something?
Kaethe: Er, can’t remember. I once bowled with a broken finger!
Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?
Janet: Odd Nerdrum.
Kaethe: Edgar Degas. Is not my favorite. But I’ve had to answer this question enough times that he comes to mind. OH, I would not say myself!
If you could make one band reconsider their decision to break up, which would it be?
Monica: I couldn’t even name a band that has broken up.
Janet: Your Mom.
Kaethe: Air USA.
What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?
Monica: I’ve barely gone since Kaethe left for UCLA, really can’t remember.
Janet: Running With Scissors, Hot Fuzz, Spider-Man 3 (2-Disc Special Edition), damn this is embarrassing, there are so many better movies I’ve been meaning to go see, and so many terrible movies constantly running in the background on the monstrous screen.
Kaethe: Half Nelson, The Last King of Scotland, Paris, Je T’Aime, Paprika, Pirates of the Caribbean – At World’s End.
What’re your top three movies?
Monica: Original Star Wars, Original Robin Hood, Star Trek IV.
Janet: Inland Empire, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Fifth Element.
Kaethe: I’ll say my least favorite 3 movies. Excess Baggage, Pleasantville, Picasso: Magic, Sex, Death.
Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?
Monica: Well, the stuff that’s on the walls – Janet’s, Kaethe’s, and the other relatives. Then some others that Hans and I have separately inherited from our relatives. One is a painting that Hans’ father claimed was a Corot, but I suspect was one of the thousands of Corot fakes. His father got it in trade for a food package in Germany after WWII.
Janet: Besides my own, I bought The Princess of Swords by Robert Scott (although he does digital art, so it’s a signed print), and I have a bunch of ink drawings of happy naked people and animals done by a very, very high hippie, that my great aunt had on her wall when we cleaned her apartment. And a drawing Kaethe did from a teen magazine, except the vapid flower-basket-holding model is holding a bloody gun in the other hand. I just realized it’s not absurd to have blood on a gun because she could have been pistol-whipping someone. How many years of denial did that take me? And now you’ve ruined it.
How are your DVDs/VHS/Betamax tapes organized?
Monica: In dusty piles.
Janet: Alphabetical by title. I didn’t do it. They’re mostly not mine.
What is your favorite game?
Monica: None. I’ll get obsessed for a few weeks — Sudoku or solitaire or SimCity — and then get bored, or play games that others want — scrabble or hearts — but not willingly, since I hate losing.
Janet: Sim City, I guess. I really want to be more hardcore and board-game-oriented but that’s pretty much it. I also dug the hell out of Riven. But I cheat at all of them.
Kaethe: I like watching games being played. I generally dislike sports. I usually enjoy playing some games. My favorite game to watch people play is probably chess.
What sort of pie do you enjoy?
Monica: Now that I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, ANY pie sounds wonderful.
Janet: Fruit pies are for old ladies.
(I’m an old lady. Raspberry or Peach a la mode)
Kaethe: All pie. Cherry pie. SOMETIMES Key Lime.
If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?
Monica: Who is David Byrne?
Janet: “So you think you were too good for RISD, punk?”
Kaethe: SPEAK TO ME.
Have you ever watched short track speed skating?
Monica: I guess so, if they are in the Olympics.
Janet: no. Have you? [Yes, yes I have. It’s rad.]
Describe some horrible/otherwise amusing local commercials.
Monica: Totally at a loss here. i don’t watch TV, can’t think of any commercials I’ve seen on the internet or in magazines.
Janet: Haven’t turned the TV on for months, although last time I did there was a view of the building lobby on Channel 6 with Mexican music playing. It was mysterious and beautiful.
Kaethe: I wish I could, but I don’t watch TV all that often.
What are your five most favorite books in the world?
Monica: Pride and Prejudice
Heinlein, The Door into Summer
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Sassinak
CJ Cherryh, Cyteen
Tanya Huff, Summon the Keeper
Catherine Asaro, Catch The Lightning
Lois MacMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion
Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Forbidden Tower
I can’t choose 5. And even here, I often love a lot of books by the same author.
Janet: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Infinite Jest by DFW
The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Shea and R.A. Wilson
Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
Kaethe: Gremlins Don’t Chew Bubble Gum, The copy of the Encyclopedia for the letter P dwelling on the shelf in the playroom, The Sirens of Titan, Candide, and Lord Jim.
What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?
Monica: A program review of any scientific project other than my own.
Janet: I was at a Home Depot once and saw those industrial-sized drill bits. I bet those are really boring. Actually, at the time, they struck me as extremely sexy.
The avoidance of boredom is practically a religion for me, and yet I don’t have a clear memory of that which I most fear.
Kaethe: I don’t get bored.
If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?
Monica: Janet. Kaethe.
Janet: Experiment One or Test Subject. Okay, really, Eris. Hopefully for a boy.
What would be a better weapon, a gun that fires dogs or a gun that fires cats?
Monica: I’d be more scared of the dogs, I think. They would both panic, but cats can’t really do more than surface damage. And cats are stupid but a dog could be crazy.
Janet: Cats, hell yes! The dog might not survive being shot as well as a cat, and cats are sharper. Also, a gun that fires guns would be better than both of those.
Kaethe: I am choosing not to answer that question. Some dinosaurs are fucking VICIOUS though.
What is your favorite meal?
Monica: Chicken cubes in cream sauce in patty shells.
Janet: My next one.
Would you trade your sanity to write something incredibly beautiful/perfect?
Monica: No. Emphatically.
Janet: Tried that, got nothing yet.
Kaethe: I would not. I don’t believe in beauty or perfection or trading. And I don’t trust language.
What is reality?
Monica: It is what it is. And I try to make my mental model of the world match it as closely as possible.
Janet: I was only recently discussing this with someone who defined it as “everything, including illusion and perception, anything that could be or is”. It’s pretty good, except that I define Everything as a universe centered on myself, and the only way to get beyond that is by shrugging and preferring otherwise. Copernican revolutions not recommended.
Kaethe: It sounds pretty shifty to me… so I quote the dictionary: “the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.”
Part the Second:
I really tried to look up stuff about what your work with lasers involves and is about so I could ask all sorts of intelligent questions, but unfortunately, while I found a ton of scientific papers, it was all pretty much miles over my head. So, I’m kinda hoping to ask in a more dumbed-down version, whatcha doin’ with dem der lasers?
Monica: Hmmm. Shall I give you my take on it as of 10 years ago, or 20? Right now, I think lasers are a purchasable commodity and nobody really wants to pay for research in them any more. 36 weeks until I retire! That said, they are really fun to play with. The last couple of years I’ve been doing things with optical fibers made into lasers, trying to make arrays of them emit together as though they were really all one laser.
Kaethe: Put them on radioactive killer sharks.
Since Janet’s an artist, and Kaethe’s also artistically inclined, have the four of you ever considered collaborating on an art piece involving both artistic statements and whatnot as well as the science of optics?
Monica: No. Beauty is in my internal perception, and I can’t really communicate it unless someone already has the same perception. In which case a mutual grin is all the communication one needs. So I don’t really want to make statements; nobody ever gets them.
Janet: I’ve thought of it, but I don’t think any of us are creative enough. I’d sort of like to come home and be near my parents and able to discuss things about nonlinearity. To be honest, I feel I’d have to actually be experimenting with engineering to come up with something visually and conceptually arresting. It would be a huge leap, but a leap upward, at least for me.
Kaethe: I hate art. And science. That is the worst idea I have ever heard in my entire life. But it isn’t my favorite worst idea, because I haven’t thought that hard about it.
I know that both Hans and Monica studied under Richard Feynman — what was that like? Do you have any good Feynman stories?
Monica: We met at one of his lectures, but to say we were his students would highly offend theoretical physicists everywhere. The most common thing everyone would say was that he would make the subject matter seem transparently simple, then you would go away and realize there was no way you could do that yourself.
Janet: I think they just went to lectures. I made a puppet of him in 4th grade and a bad book cover at RISD and don’t care what other people think.
Kaethe: You are incorrect. Attending a lecture someone gives at work does not mean you study under them. I am sorry that you are constantly wrong.
What do you think of more frivolous (if that’s the right word) uses of lasers, like the Laser Harp (basically a sampler triggered by the breaking of light beams which triggers sounds via photosensors noticing that the beam’s been broken) or every prankster’s favorite, the Laser Pointer?
Monica: Never heard of the harp, but it’s as good a use for a laser as anything else. Without the laser pointer, I would not be able to get my cat back inside when she escapes.
Janet: I’d say that those are, perhaps because they are considered secondary outcomes of technologies, far more important outcomes than missile targeting, although probably not as important as fiber optics cables that get people more entertainment, faster. And laser pointers entertain cats, so that’s pretty much the highest aim of human enterprise, right there.
I guess my parents will have something clearer to say about how distant Pure Research is from Development and its outcomes, despite the often-invasive involvement of social factors in funding and direction.
Kaethe: Oh, it’s all in fun! Frivolity is what we live for! Hurrah!
Which are better — Opera or Musicals (of the American form, since I suppose an argument could be made they’re one and the same)?
Monica: Both. As long as the musicians are good.
Janet: Operettas, the parodies of opera that became musicals. I also like the current parodies of musicals, but not what they will become.
Have you seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch? [Not yet, actually — though I’ve heard a few songs from it. There was a tribute record a while back that They Might Be Giants and Yoko Ono were on — sadly not together — and I downloaded those cuts from it…. I mean, bought the CD one time for each cut on there I wanted to hear. It did seem pretty good, though. I’m a fan of, parody-wise, the South Park film, and non-parody-wise, Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story. I’d like to see “Monty Python: Spamalot”, though that’s mostly because I’m a big Python geek, and I hated the film version of the musical based on the film The Producers, but Kaethe says the stage version is much better.]
Kaethe: AHHHHHHHHHHH. I WILL ANSWER THIS QUESTION ON A PERSONAL BASIS WITH YOU LATER, FOR IT IS FAR TOO EMOTIONAL FOR ME. (How can you make this comparison? They are completely different! Operas are about singing, music, love, ego. Musicals are about stage design, music, appearances, razzle dazzle, love, ego. And are you referring to Italian opera, English opera, French opera? To me this is like asking, which is better, films made by directors born in New York, or old/foreign films? Or perhaps which do you like more, the computer or the typewriter? I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Although musicals are obviously a form of entertainment that can be traced back to operas, the tradition of musicals I would say are more derived from a tradition of German theater culture. I think operas are somewhat of a basis for the tradition of film, and the music in films. American musicals are in a different time than operas, and so are films. And it’s been mostly recently, it seems, that masses of people have decided to watch these kinds of entertainment on a larger scale. But I won’t go into the history of opera here. Differing forms of communcation aren’t always things that must be compared, and I don’t feel like I should choose one above the other.)
If everyone has seen the Codex Seraphianius, what’re your impressions of it. If not everyone has seen the Codex, why hasn’t Janet shared it with folks yet?
Monica: No. Janet’s tastes are way more intellectual than mine, so I don’t trust the things she recommends to me.
Janet: Er, it’s up on my shelf and I keep forgetting to show it to everyone who comes in the apartment. I haven’t looked at it enough. I sort of can’t take large doses, although large doses make you enjoy it more. Everything makes me feel unimaginative in comparison. I did recently look into its inspiration, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voynich_Manuscript , which people have put even more effort into “decoding” with less of an idea of what motivation the maker would have for imbuing it with or without explicit meaning.
And I resent what my mother said. I’ve been recommending perfectly unintellectual things to her.
Kaethe: We don’t see Janet that often! It’s amusing.
What is perhaps the most compelling/enjoyable thing about food and eating?
Monica: Maybe tastes and smells lock in memories.
Janet: Spice is the variety of life.
Kaethe: AHHHHHHHHHHH. I WILL ANSWER THIS QUESTION ON A PERSONAL BASIS WITH YOU LATER, FOR IT IS FAR TOO EMOTIONAL FOR ME. (Everything)
Where do you stand on the Anglicization of German, i.e. getting rid of some of the weird characters and umlauts? i.e. “Kaethe” for “Käthe” and whatnot.
Monica: My parents were German Jews who escaped before the worst of the war, and refused to teach me German out of bitterness when I was very young. So frankly I don’t care what happens to their language. But I do get pissed when Americans are not articulate and correct in English.
Janet: On the ground and/or floors, but more often I sit or lie down.
Kaethe: I could not care less! Accents get tedious though. To type.
With so much in the media about the Science V. Religion wars, where do you stand — are the two diametrically opposed, or is it a false dichotomy dreamed up by the desire for the news to have a straight Pro-Versus-Con viewpoint?
Monica: I think they are completely opposite. To my mind, the philosophy of science is what i wrote above in your question about reality. Reality is what it is. Religion is the imposition of a structure on the world that pre-filters every observation, so that ones mental model can no longer be a good representation of reality. Obviously there have been brilliant scientists who are religious. Humans have an endless ability to be rational in one sphere and blind in another. But I don’t even completely trust the lab observations made by the religious scientists I know. I worry that they are too likely to filter their observations with some preconceived theory.
Janet: I do think dichotomizing is damaging, but there’s definitely a distinction between those ways of thinking. For example, I feel that the reason I always question whether I’d make a good fundie and whether I’m approaching science as if it were religion and so on is because I was basically raised to think scientifically. At the same time I feel brains and society have somehow evolved to desire faith, and it’s present in assumptions we need whether we like it or not. But as long as we’re constantly using different brain functions to examine each other, and different people to question each other, well, it’s a good thing. I’m pretty terrified by anti-science attitudes in Amurka. But I’m a cynic and all I can think of to do about it is switching careers.
Kaethe: Science is not a matter of belief.
I suppose, if you’re so inclined, you can explain to folks why two sisters have different last names. But you already told me, so now I know. But maybe other folks would like to know.
Monica: Just alternating by birth date. When we married, I gave Hans the choice that his name could be for the boys, mine for the girls, or we would just alternate. He chose to alternate. They have the other name for one of their middle names.
Kaethe: Well, maybe they don’t.