humor, photography, STEM

Tamed But Not Stifled

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As Patrick Jennings remarks in

« Imagination ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #129 »,

a world seen without imagination would be sadly plain and gray.  Imagination can be fun.

It is fun when Patrick sees a reflection (of a dark building with a bright light) and imagines a dragon breathing fire.

breathing-fire

Breathing Fire © Patrick Jennings

It is fun when I see a decorative gourd and imagine a phallus going soft after sex.

penis-gourd_800x1067

Phallic Gourd © Mellow Curmudgeon

It is fun to imagine being able to fly.

Both Patrick and I are adults who might enjoy imagining flight but would not jump off a balcony and try to fly.  It is definitely not fun when a child (or a nominal adult with an assault rifle) acts on wild imaginings.  How can wild imagination be tamed but not stifled?

While there seems to be no single simple answer, the methods of STEM do rather well.  We soak imagination with other things, many of which have rhyming names: calculation; experimentation; observation; replication; validation; verification.  Yes, it is hard work.  We often get ourselves soaked, with perspiration.

Sometimes we get consternation, when we find that what we fondly imagine cannot happen.

Sometimes we get wings.

Wright_1903_800x385

Image downloaded from Imgur has been lightly cropped.

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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.

grammar, humor, language, science, STEM

Narrative Starkness and Word of the Year

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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.