Archive for June 21st, 2008

Tin pest: a video

June 21, 2008

Mathew Peet at Bainite points to a New Scientist report and video on a problem known as tin pest in the literature:

The transformation of tin from it’s metallic state into a powdered state is increasing important due to the use of lead-free solders, which are almost pure tin.

The transformation involves two naturally occurring forms (allotropes) of tin, the semi-conducting powder form is labeled the alpha-tin and the metallic form is a beta-tin. The transformation usually occurs at low temperatures, it’s auto-catalytic, and has been observed in church organs in cold northern European countries and the buttons of Napoleon’s army when invading Russia. The auto-catalytic nature of the transformation lead to the name ‘tin pest’ because the reaction looks to eat into the metal.

The reaction can usually take several months but Davide Di Maio and Chris Hunt at the National Physics Laboratory, accelerated the transformation by seeding the tin with a cadmium-telluride powder. Cadmium-telluride has the same (diamond cubic) crystal structure as the powdered form and can therefore act to nucleate alpha-tin from the (tetragonal structured) metal.

The video that is embedded in Peet’s post is really cool and is a must-see!

Life is shadow and art is substance

June 21, 2008

Here is Colm Toibin describing Henry James’ attitude towards novels and their writing:

As he imagined his books, he saw life as shadow and the art he produced as substance. He believed that language and form, the tapestry of the novel, could produce something much richer and more substantial than mere life, something that offered what was chaotic and fascinating a sort of complex and golden completion.

It is often more useful to look at a drama already in the making as the seed for James’s work rather than an individual character. He was interested, as his initial inspiration, in scenes rather than souls; he made his characters out of the dramatic moments he created for them, treating moral conflicts and matters of secrecy, infidelity and power with infinite subtlety. In his work, a single look, a single moment of recognition, a single ambiguous resolution took on enormous force, became the fuel that powers the great engine of his novels. He dramatised the intensity in the relations between people, playing freedom against pattern, restriction against openness and chaos against harmony.

The piece also gives several instances of a few lines plot summaries and notes that James wrote down in his notebooks, and what novels they became later. That part is very fascinating for me because it gives a glimpse of how novels are born in the minds of the writer.

Three years later, he listed six possibilities for new books, four of which became novels. One was to deal with “the girl who is dying, the young man and the girl he is engaged to”; this became The Wings of the Dove (1902). Another became The Other House (1896). A further novel he listed by its actual subsequent title, The Awkward Age (1899). And one more he summarised as: “The father and daughter, with the husband of one and the wife of the other entangled in a mutual passion, an intrigue.” This became The Golden Bowl (1904).

Take a look!

Hat tip: To Jenny at Light Reading for the link and recommendation.

The necessity of re-reading!

June 21, 2008

Adam Thirlwell in a piece in Guardian titled Begin Again (via Literary Saloon):

Perhaps all novelists dream of the close reader: perhaps every reader tries to be one. But no reader, however perfect, reads a text as closely as the novelist would want, with the adequate amount of concentration. And even if a reader has concentrated, so much is lost, because memory is so defective. The art of reading, like every art, is an art of detail. (That’s why they’re arts.) But no one can retain all the details, nor the details’ thematic form. Mostly, what remains is an impression, an isolated sentence.

The only hope is rereading. “A good reader,” said Nabokov, “a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” The only hope is continuous repetition. How else, after all, can anyone see the form? And if you can’t see a work’s form, then it isn’t really reading at all. But who, therefore, has the time to really read?

I measured, sadly, the constant overtaking of books actually read by the crescendo of books I had bought or borrowed or been given. The books I had abandoned. And I began to think about all the novelistic techniques – of recurring characters, counterpoint, minor characters, thematic echoes – which depend on a work’s grand length and the reader’s prolonged concentration. All these small techniques seemed clues to a larger disquiet, a repressed truth.

Every novel – this is my worry – is invisible.

Take a look!

Twain on Austen!

June 21, 2008

From this piece of Emily Auerbach (via Maud):

Mark Twain expressed unparalleled hatred of Jane Austen, defining an ideal library as one with none of her books on its shelves. “Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it,” Twain insisted in Following the Equator.

In his extensive correspondence with fellow author and critic William Dean Howells, Mark Twain seemed to enjoy venting his literary spleen on Jane Austen precisely because he knew her to be Howells’ favorite author, In 1909 Twain wrote that “Jane Austin” [sic] was “entirely impossible” and that he could not read her prose even if paid a salary to do so. Howells notes in My Mark Twain (1910) that in fiction Twain “had certain distinct loathings; there were certain authors whose names he seemed not so much to pronounce as to spew out of his mouth.”

His prime abhorrence was my dear and honored prime favorite, Jane Austen. He once said to me, I suppose after he had been reading some of my unsparing praise of her—I am always praising her, “You seem to think that woman could write,” and he forbore withering me with his scorn, apparently because we had been friends so long and he more pitied than hated me for my bad taste.

Rather than pitying Twain when he was sick, Howells threatened to come and read Pride and Prejudice to him.Twain marveled that Austen had been allowed to die a natural death rather than face execution for her literary crimes. “Her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy,” Twain observed, apparently viewing an Austen novel as a book which “once you put it down you simply can’t pick it up.” Yet one becomes suspicious of Twain’s supposedly frenzied loathing when he confesses that he likes to reread Jane Austen’s novels just so he can hate them all over again. In a letter to Joseph Twichell in 1898, Twain fumed, “I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read “Pride and Prejudice” I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Take a look!

Tiger Woods of light reading!

June 21, 2008

Jenny Davidson recommends Lee Child:

Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am obsessed with Child’s Jack Reacher novels, which seem to me the utter pinnacle of light reading! Seriously, if you’re thinking about writing a novel and you care at all about the virtues of popular fiction (pacing, voice, character, story-telling stuff), these books are worth a read. Lee Child is the Tiger Woods of light reading, he just does it better than everyone else, one feels oneself to be in the presence of greatness!

I haven’t read any Lee Child so far; may be it is time that I did!

Internet and the writing style!

June 21, 2008

Caleb Crain at Steamboats are ruining everything writes about the changes in literary styles that internet brings about (via Tyler Cowen at MR):

I would like to raise the question, How is the internet changing literary style? The question has at least two aspects. First, Which traits of style change when writing goes online? Second, What are the forces that cause these changes to come about? There is a third aspect, a moral one, which I will try to defer answering until the end of my talk but which shadows the first two, namely, Are these changes an improvement?

Along the way, there is also a broader definition of literary style:

By this point, you will have gathered from my references to feelings and to social context that the definition of literary style that I’m working with is broad. I suppose I define it as the way a writer expresses himself in words, and I would defend the breadth of my definition by arguing that whenever a writer expresses himself he also chooses how he will present himself—even if he chooses to keep his personal self out of view, insofar as that is possible. A writer is someone who has turned his self-presentation in language into an art or a profession, just as an actor has his self-presentation in person. Feelings and social context—or rather, linguistic effects that suggest feelings and social context—may be as crucial to a writer as metaphor and diction.

An interesting piece!

The rise, decline and fall of the semicolon

June 21, 2008

Paul Collins has an interesting piece in Slate tracing the history of the use of semicolons and how telegraphy killed it:

The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 font set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.

Back then, the semicolon wasn’t for interrogation or relating clauses; punctuation was still largely taught around oratorical pauses.

Poe’s 1848 comment came just three years before the founding of Western Union. The next decade saw lines strung across the country to create what science writer Tom Standage fittingly dubs the “Victorian Internet.” And that’s precisely when semicolon usage begin to slump.

Perusing telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion. Punctuation was charged at the same rate as words, and their high price—trans-Atlantic cables originally cost a still-shocking $5 per word—meant that short, punchy lines with minimal punctuation were necessary among businessmen and journalists.

By the new century, simplified punctuation migrated into textbooks; one 1903 guide recommended that “Boys and girls … should as a rule use a period when they are tempted to use a semicolon.”

The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that “All [semicolons] do is show that you’ve been to college.” New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was “semicolon boy.”

Yet semicolons serve a unique function, so it’s tempting to think that some writers will always cling to them. When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling. Yet English was not this student’s first language.

He was an exchange student—from France.

A nice piece; take a look!

Evolution for non-biologists

June 21, 2008

John Hawks is starting a series; and, as you can see from its description, it sounds very, very interesting:

I’m going to start a series of articles about the common sense aspect of evolutionary theory. What about evolution is actually practical knowledge? How can it help people understand things relevant to their own work or lives? This goes beyond the gee-whiz, “Where do we come from,” National Geographic-kind of interesting question. That’s nothing more than a framework for idle curiosity: it presents evolution as a kind of adjunct or substitute for religious inquiry.

I want to convey something more important. It matters that we evolved. The process of evolution allows scientific predictions that we can use to make things happen, to make them work. Evolutionary biology illustrates and informs us about decisions that society will have to make in the next 20 years; decisions that I want my students to be informed about.

When I teach evolution, I emphasize a common sense perspective. Understanding a science means knowing the boundaries of the possible. Biologists sometimes say that anything might be possible in biology — it is, after all, highly dependent on historical events that might have turned out very differently. But while it’s true that a wide range of things might have happened, it is not true that anything at all might have happened. Knowing evolutionary theory — including its mathematical basis — lets us understand the limits of the possible, the likely, and the fundamental trade-offs that balance them.

I can’t promise that every example I describe will outline a practical problem, but they will all apply to the problems that face us today. Gene testing, behavioral modification, conservation, biotechnology, global warming — all those are problems that demand not only economic logic but also biological logic

1. Should we be worried about the polar bears?

2. Up to sixteen percent of American elementary students are categorized as ADD/ADHD. This diagnosis often comes with additional investment and help with learning, but also with social stigmatization and pressure to take pharmaceuticals such as Ritalin and Adderall. If this behavior pattern is so bad, why does it exist?

3. The U. S. government routinely recommends high consumption of dairy foods on the part of its citizens, for a healthy life. Yet vast majority of the world’s adult population, including millions of Americans, exhibit ill effects from drinking whole milk, and certain milk products, in the recommended amounts. Why?

4. Honeybees are dying. So are frogs. Is it a crisis? Why is it happening?

5. Geneticists are finding alleles that contribute to the risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and diabetes. Many of these alleles occur in a few populations but not others — for instance, Europeans versus Africans. Why?

6. We are told that polar bears are endangered because of global warming. Yet some people claim that polar bears are simply brown bears underneath the fur. Are they right? Does it matter?

7. The ratio of boy births to girl births varies among human populations. Some of this variation is natural, some is influenced by human practices such as selective abortion. How can we tell which is which?

8. Corn (maize) is increasingly important to the world’s economy. It is the single largest mode of converting solar energy into starch, making it useful for food, feedstock, and ethanol conversion. Maize is a new species, which has existed for less than 10,000 years. How did this happen? What more is possible?

9. The number of known primate species has vastly increased during the past 30 years. Yet almost none of these represent populations new to science. What gives?

10. Some futurists are predicting a coming “singularity,” in which humans merge with unimaginably intelligent machines to create a future beyond the scope of any current predictions. What does our past evolution say about this prospect?

My series will be covering many of these topics and many others. I’ll be drawing from human genetics, ecology, agricultural sciences, geology, paleontology, and history. Remember that my audience is broad, so if you’ve seen part of one of my stories before, I apologize — most people probably don’t know the story, and most of my readers haven’t been following the blog since it started.

Where possible, I’ll draw things back toward humans. No, I don’t think humans are always the most important topic in evolutionary biology. But let’s face it: I’m an anthropologist!

I plan to publish an essay here every Friday for the foreseeable future.

Needless to say, I am looking forward to it, and those of you who are not subscribed to his blog, might want to add John Hawks to your feed readers!