engineering, humor, STEM

Creativity Averted Catastrophe

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before-afterDesigned and built long before there were supercomputers, the great Gothic cathedrals often developed cracks and bulges.hernia-support-belt_200x206

When more buttressing did not look like it would be enough to avert a catastrophic collapse at Amiens, the engineers there devised a way to get the net effect of putting a really big and really strong hernia support belt around the cathedral walls.  Cathedrals don’t wear clothes; how do U hide such a belt?  How do U cinch it?  How do U accomplish all that with medieval technology?

The answers are sketched in the Wikipedia article on the Amiens Cathedral and visualized in a 2010 NOVA episode on PBS: Building the Great Cathedrals.  (To read more detail, look for “iron” in the transcript.)  U can blame me for bringing up hernias.

Dunno whether the engineers at Amiens were called ingénieurs at the time; at least one of them should have been called créatif.  The cathedral is an enduring monument to the faith of many and the creativity of some, including a few engineers.

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STEM, tanka

Becalmed — Then and Now

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Strictly speaking, this post is not a response to Becalmed ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #91 because I used neither the challenge photo nor an image that I made.  By posting after the challenge closed, I hope to acknowledge the inspiration w/o having a pingback look too much like a bungled response.

For sailors on the open sea in the past, to be becalmed was always a hardship and sometimes a disaster, as described in Goethe’s poem Meerestille (or Calm Sea).  I got the image and English translation dislayed in this post from a website celebrating German Romantic literature.  U can read another English translation of Goethe’s poem here.

My tanka expresses yesterday’s fears in today’s language.

calm-sea_849x1024

Becalmed in Olden Times
 Viking longships moved
 with oars pulled by aching arms.
 Oarless ships stood still.
 Oarless crews waited for wind,
 while food and water ran low.

As the photo and poem in the challenge so aptly illustrate, to be becalmed can be a pleasant experience nowadays.  Admire the crescent moon and furl the sails.  Start the engine and head for home.  Be confident of getting there.

My tanka expresses yesterday’s fears in today’s language, lest we forget how high we have climbed and how far we could fall, in technology if not in poetry.

haiku, photography, STEM, tanka

Willing to Muddle Thru

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curtain-complex

Like the conflict between living in the moment and planning for the future, abstract/concrete (or general/specific) is a conflict that can only be managed, not avoided or resolved.  Trying to be 100% one or the other does not work.  We must muddle thru, preferably with awareness that what works for one person at one time will not work for all people at all times.  This post muddles thru the abstract/concrete conflict with a mostly abstract tanka inspired by excerpts from the mostly concrete poetry in 2 posts by others.

Consider the first of 4 stanzas posted in {underground (20170523)}:

© Crow
i have learned the hard way
that just because something
has been buried does not mean
it’s dead

It could stand alone as a fine short poem.  It also inspired the fourth of 7 short stanzas posted (along with an interesting biographical sketch of the 17-th century painter Caravaggio) in {Caravaggio Dreams}:

© Poet Rummager
Do you not see what I’ve buried deep,
has dug itself out to find me?

Maybe it’s because of my math background that I felt these excerpts were more powerful standing alone than in their original contexts, with concrete details about zombie cannibals and Norse gods (Crow) and a dream encounter with Caravaggio (Poet Rummager).  While I do prefer cremation to internment and do appreciate Caravaggio’s pioneering of expressive chiaroscuro, I found all those details distracting.  I was moved by the quoted stanzas despite what went with them.

One of the virtues of haiku poetry is that there is scant room for anything irrelevant, so I tried putting my takeaway into a haiku.  But I found that format a little too restrictive.  What happened after whatever was buried deep had dug itself out?  My haiku left open the possibility that it might have just toddled happily away, w/o the ominous implications of the first line from Crow’s stanza and the last 3 words from Poet Rummager’s stanza.  Wanting my poetry to be forthrightly ominous rather than ambiguous, I extended the abstract haiku to a tanka with (as it happens) concrete imagery in the 2 added lines.

Empty Grave
I buried something
that was not already dead.
It dug itself out.
~ ~ ~ ~
It shook like a wet dog and
followed my scent to find me.

it-dug-itself-out

© Doddis | Dreamstime.com

Tho a uniform level of abstraction might be nice, I can live with the muddle.  At least in visual art, the distinction between abstract and concrete is somewhat muddled anyway (and not just because of photography).

curtain-simple

history, humor, politics, STEM

Make America AMERICAN again

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Wish I knew how.  Some of the ways being tried look promising to me; some look counterproductive.  In roughly descending order of promise, I will list 10 of them and add sad emojis for the 3 counterproductive items that end the list.  Pressed for time?  Read #1 and #2 (the most promising items); then skip ahead to #9 and #10 (the most counterproductive items).

First, let me say where I am coming from.  In ancient times (before the phrase liberal Republican became an oxymoron), progressives could be Republicans.  Tho imperfect, that option made sense for pragmatic progressives who disliked deficits, knew how the road to Hell is paved, and would not kowtow to “conservative Democrats” (white racists in what was then the “Solid South”) for the sake of party unity.  In ancient times, I was a Republican.  Now I am a Sanders/Warren Democrat who also donates to the Working Families Party.  That imperfect option is the best available for me today.

America has changed a lot more than I have.  Many changes for the better are in imminent danger of being undone.  Many changes for the worse accelerated when George W Bush became POTUS, were slowed but not stopped under Obama, and have accelerated drastically under Donald Trump.  Paranoia is not one of my faults; I hope I am mistaken in seeing a clear and present danger to liberal democracy itself (on top of 4+ years of monumentally bad governance) in the Age of Trumpery.

  1. Tea Party Tactics
    The all-too successful efforts of the Tea Party to obstruct Obama’s agenda included many tactics that could also be used by honorable people to obstruct Trump’s.  Some progressive former Congressional staffers have compiled the Indivisible Guide for badgering legislators.  In addition to many helpful refinements of what I already vaguely knew, the guide has an insight so jolting that I will discuss it separately, after this list.

  2. Voting Rights
    There are many ways to prevent elections from throwing the bums out.  Savvy modern tyrants need not be so crude as to refuse to hold elections or refuse to let any serious opponents campaign.  Republican state legislators have raised gerrymandering to a high art, passed voter ID laws carefully tailored to depress voting by “conservatives” much less than voting by other groups, and so on.  Election administrators can open fewer polling places in areas where the “wrong” kind of voters are common.

    One of the many ways that the ACLU defends civil liberties is by filing lawsuits against such shenanigans.  Please support the ACLU and anybody else who defends voting rights.  For more on subtle ways that voting rights can be hollowed out behind a facade of democracy, see While Democrats Chase Russians, Republicans Keep Rigging Elections by Richard Eskow.

  3. State & Local Elections
    Far too many progressives act as if voting for POTUS once every 4 years would suffice to make good things happen.  Government in the USA is not that simple. Pseudoconservatives also pay attention down-ballot and in off years.  It shows.  Our fragmented system makes it extremely difficult for POTUS alone to get much done that is worth doing.  Down-ballot results in one election can also have nasty consequences up-ballot in the next one.

  4. Boycotting Trump-branded Stuff
    Tho Trump’s claim to be a “successful businessman” is a wild exaggeration, he does care about money.  The website #GRABYOURWALLET lists many casinos, hotels, products, and retailers.  With careful reading of the website’s spreadsheet, U can separate the retailers who actively push Trump-branded products (or otherwise support Trump) from those who just sell them along with various competitive products.  Boycotting the retailers who just sell them is counterproductive.

  5. Protest Marches
    They seem to have mobilized and heartened opposition, but I cannot help wondering how many of those who march and shout now were perfectionists then, when many progressive purists refused to hold their noses and support the only alternative to Trump who could have won on 2016-11-08.  I hope nobody thinks that denouncing Trump in a raucous crowd is as good as thwarting him.

    My big worry is that protest marches will become old news and that some protestors will try to freshen them up by marching w/o permits, snarling traffic, provoking cops to overreact, and so on.  The resulting legal battles will divert resources from the defense of voting rights.

  6. Ridiculing Trump
    Intense and well-deserved ridicule did not keep Trump out of the White House.  It is hard to ridicule Trump w/o also ridiculing his supporters.  I must confess to having sometimes yielded to temptation on this point.  But anything that is perceived as ridicule will only delay the awakening of those Trump voters who are not bigots or plutocrats but who had good cause to feel abandoned by smug neoliberals and turned to Trump in desperation.

    On the other hand, years of relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton eventually built up an exaggerated and indelible image of dishonesty.  (Tho far from being a paragon of integrity, HRC is relatively honest, as pols go.  The last paragon at the presidential level was Abraham Lincoln, whose honesty did not preclude being calculating and shrewd.)  Maybe years of apt and varied ridicule can accomplish something beyond catharsis for snipers like me.

  7. Fact Checking
    Copious documentation of staggering mendacity did not keep Trump out of the White House.  That those who ridicule Trump are more likely to amuse each other than erode his support is sad but not shocking.  That much of the electorate does not give a rat’s ass for truth is another story.  As with ridicule, I see some small hope that years of hammering away may eventually break thru.

  8. Calls for Impeachment 😦
    The question is not whether Trump deserves to be impeached and convicted.  He does. So what?  Impeachment and conviction cannot happen unless both the House and the Senate are flipped.  Suppose that unlikely event happens in 2018.  Trump’s term would be served out by Mike Pence, whose agenda is just as vile.  By being less abrasive than Trump, Pence might be even more effective in pushing for bad laws and lulling people into accepting thinly veiled fascism.

  9. Centrism 😦 😦
    Obviously, the Democratic Party must somehow reach out to the Reagan Democrats who came back for Obama but did not stay back for Clinton.  How to do that is controversial.  Despite my own broadly centrist inclinations, I believe it would be a huge mistake now to take any more advice from Third Way or anybody else who thinks Dems can win by sounding at all like decaffeinated Republicans.  Dems need a coherent progressive alternative that seriously addresses Rust Belt concerns, not an echo of Republican quackery pasted onto support for LGBTQ/reproductive rights and sanity about guns.  While I do support those rights and that sanity, I am starting to understand why they have so little traction.

  10. Normalizing Trump 😦 😦 😦
    Exhortations to come together after a bitterly contested election are a venerable American tradition, dating back to Jefferson’s inaugural address in 1801.  Still in shock on 2016-11-09, I reblogged an eloquent one.  At the same time, I reblogged a very different reaction that was also eloquent.  It was a struggle to work out my own subtler response with a look back to 1814.

    Looking back not quite so far as 1814, I recall that paranoid slave owners violently rejected the results of the 1860 election.  That did not end well.  Looking just a little ways back, I recall my own anger at McConnell’s nauseating pledge to subordinate governing to making Obama a 1-term POTUS, after Obama won in 2008 w/o any help from vote suppression or Russian meddling.

    Putting this item last in the list was painful, but not as painful as seeing Trump confirm a truckload of grim expectations (bigotry; chaos; corruption; …) within a month of inauguration. A wait-and-see attitude did make sense on 2016-11-09.  It does not make sense today.  Will the sane and decent people in the USA wait until it is too late to avoid covert fascism behind a facade of democracy?

What is the jolting insight mentioned in list item #1?  When opposing a nasty Trump initiative that advances a subversive hidden agenda, do not (repeat—not!) try be constructive by offering a better way to deal with whatever problem the Trump initiative purports to address.  Keep the opposition to Trump broadly based and unified, focused on the vileness of the snake oil and not distracted by internal debates about what should be done instead of swallowing snake oil.

I come from the very collegial culture of STEM and can remember when American politics was less adversarial and more collegial than it is now, tho never as collegial as STEM.  (Yes, there are rivalries in STEM and maybe still a few chances to do some good by reaching across the aisle in politics.)  Tho jolting and saddening, the advice to oppose w/o trying to be constructive is wise.

Does my claim in list item #9 that “Dems need a coherent progressive alternative that seriously addresses Rust Belt concerns” contradict that advice?  No.  Context is crucial. Trying to prevent a particular criminal folly by those currently in office is one context.  Trying to elect officials who are much less likely to engage in criminal folly is another context.

Image published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US

In some ways, the American Experiment is back in 1778: hanging by a thread (in what Thomas Paine rightly said were “times that try men’s souls”).  Many images of Valley Forge would be appropriate; I especially like the well-known painting by Edwin Austin Abbey of Baron von Steuben instructing George Washington’s pickup army in carefully selected European tactics/techniques that would help it win.

Washington’s eye for talent looked beyond billionaires who had donated lavishly.  Washington did not tweet jabs at “Krauts” while assuming that anybody who sounded like a Hessian was on the other side.  Washington saw that an immigrant from Prussia could kick ass for the cause.  The rest is history.

grammar, humor, language, science, STEM

Narrative Starkness and Word of the Year

For reasons explained in the post excerpted below, Kurt Brindley advocates “narrative starkness” that omits extraneous details about the characters in his fiction. Unless a character’s appearance (or gender or sexual orientation or …) matters to the plot, readers can imagine whatever they like. Readers may later get a jolt if some details become relevant later and are different from their imaginings. Maybe such a jolt will loosen the grip of a stereotype.

Apart from applauding Kurt’s starkness (and his ability to write humorous introductions for serious issues), the purpose of this post is to remark on a major difficulty with starkness and how the Word of the Year for 2015 may help.


My Uncolorful* Character(s)
Originally posted on
Kurt Brindley:

I don’t know about you, but as for me – unless it is absolutely critical to the movement of a story – I don’t need to always know every item in each room, or the style and brand of every shoe in the protagonist’s closet.

So it should come as no surprise then when I tell all you other reader dudes*** that I try to write my stories in the way that I prefer to read them: with limited and only absolutely necessary descriptive telling.

While I am very happy that DADT was finally axed and homosexuals are now allowed serve without any restrictions to their being, it was all of that nasty DADT stuff that became the impetus for me writing my novel.

And my goal in writing it was to force the reader to have to apply his or her own values, via perceptions and stereotypes, upon the characters in and events of the story. Consequently, it was important for me as a writer to not tell the reader what I wanted them to think by way of character description, but to allow them to draw their own conclusions.

This equality stuff sure is a difficult nut to crack – witness the all-white Oscar nominees for this year’s Best and Supporting Actors/Actresses – and I’m not about to attempt to try and crack it here.

Except to say that screenwriters can certainly have a hand in keeping an open playing field for actors of all races and ethnicity by – you guessed it – laying off the descriptive details in their screenplays and leaving it up to the director to cast the best actor for the role based on the story’s content and need and not on the screenwriter’s biases.

*Yeah, I know “uncolorful” is not a real word, whatever a real word may be, but I it sounds less negative to me than “colorless” so, for what it’s worth, I’m going with it.

**gender specific

***non-gender specific

View original


Yes, “uncolorful” is awkward.  The aesthetic that urges omission of extraneous detail is well-established in STEM (as in “abstract algebra” or “Occam’s Razor”), but I cannot think of a good word or short phrase for wider advocacy of specifying only what really matters.  An “abstract” character is no more appealing than an “uncolorful” one.

It gets worse.  Writing smoothly and vividly but abstractly is tough.  George Orwell’s forever relevant 1946 essay Politics and the English Language includes a hilarious comparison between a memorable Bible passage and a translation into flabby blather that tries to make the general point w/o the concrete examples:

… the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, …; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

becomes

… success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but … the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

In one way, a recent event may make narrative starkness a little easier. The American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year award for 2015 went to “they” when used as a 3rd person singular pronoun that is gender-neutral.  I hope this usage sticks.

Suppose I want to write a story whose characters include a Navy sailor and a PhD scientist.  I could call them “Ensign Wood” and “Doctor Stone” to give them names that leave their genders unspecified.  But the old he-she-it gang gives me no appropriate pronoun to use.  Tho adequate in nonfiction writing, the clunky alternatives “he/she” or “(s)he” are hopeless in speech.  For my story, those pronouns may be making a misplaced fuss about being gender-neutral.  I can use “they” instead.  The ADS will have my back if grammar Nazis attack.

It is nice to see that a humble pronoun has gotten the WOTY honor and may even help those who are fighting the good fight.  I have no appropriate haiku to end this post, but a limerick I read long ago does come to mind.

The function that’s nowhere defined
is an orange with only a rind.
But it turns up the hero
(like the null set and zero)
in many a proof you will find.