Monday, May 31, 2010

Experiments for the Mind

I feel like I'm cheating when I use my blog simply to “pass along” what was easy enough to find, or even what wasn’t. I feel that a blog, if it isn’t buzz, should at least be original. I’m a slow writer and a perfectionist. Sometimes there is only time to use twitter as “greatest hits” and the blog as show-and-tell. I can’t guarantee that I’ll find my own buzz, but I’ll try to write my own blogs more often.

The Oxford “one-word essay” I blogged about reminds me of a small incident from my own life. High school, psychology class. We were thrilled when our request for a psychology class was granted, as the biology teacher happened to be qualified for psychology.

Once, the teacher gave us a set of short-answer questions about how we felt about certain things, I don’t remember the topics. After this, he put a peculiar essay question on the board. It was something along the lines of “What does a zebra have in common with a corkscrew?”

It was kind of like the Oxford one-word essay, open-ended; to compose a response from scratch with no direction beyond the meandering of our own mind. I had never been so excited by an assignment! At 17 my mind was in a curlicue of energetic imagination, and I wrote in a blitz, unwilling to stop at time’s-up.

antique Victorian corkscrew 
for sale here 

The teacher then gave us a second set of short-answer questions; and then he told us why.



Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oxford University One-word Exam

Oxford Tradition Comes to This: ‘Death’ (Ex-pound)

From left, the author Hilaire Belloc is said to have failed to get into All Souls College. But fellows included Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and Sir Christopher Wren.

From the New York Times:
[headings mine]

All Souls College is scrapping its one-word exam, on which applicants demonstrated their intellectual flexibility.

Published: May 27, 2010

'OXFORD, England — The exam was simple yet devilish, consisting of a single noun (“water,” for instance, or “bias”) that applicants had three hours somehow to spin into a coherent essay. An admissions requirement for All Souls College here, it was meant to test intellectual agility, but sometimes seemed to test only the ability to sound brilliant while saying not much of anything.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Literary or Expository

I have been neglecting my creative writing again, what I call my ‘literary’ contribution. My friends know this, know I would like to be writing again. So when they read this blog, they say Congratulations ! You’re writing again!

A touched-up version of a portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra Photo: Getty Images, Bettmann/Corbis

I try to explain that ‘literary’ writing is different.
They say But I like your blog!

I try to explain that what I’m doing here is journalism, not literature, and my ‘downfall’ embarrasses me. Instantly I am a snob.

I’m not saying that every nonfiction blog, essay, book is automatically unliterary. ‘Literary’ has creative style and meaningful content. Nonfiction can be just as literary (I am a snob but not THAT much); for example the poet Diane Ackerman’s fascinating A Natural History of the Senses.

I have in mind a hierarchy of writing. My Monarchy includes the ‘classics’ like Proust, Dickens- authors recognizable simply by last name; I add to that moderns I discover at the wonderful Battery Park Library such as Daniel Mason (The Piano Turner). Reading 'classics' exclusively feels a bit provincial, timid, uninspired, like only listening to NPR- It’s so much more fun to discover a new or unknown ‘classic’ and feel really smart for finding it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Most Elegant Experiment of All Time

The Doppler Effect—Waves emitted by a source moving from the right to the left. The frequency is higher on the left (ahead of the source) than on the right.

Here is a web-sensation "scientific experiment" (you saw it on Yahoo).
--But I know an experiment that "trumps" it big-time!

First, this experiment from Jeanne Marie Laskas, advice columnist at Reader’s Digest -presumably done in her own kitchen at home:

"Does the toast really always fall buttered-side down?

Scientists in the Ask Laskas Kitchen conducted a study for which they first toasted an entire loaf of bread, one slice at a time. They buttered each slice, and dropped it from a variety of heights ranging from tabletop to ceiling. Among their findings: A dropped piece of toast never lands on its edge; stomping your foot and yelling "Darn!" does not change a thing. . ."
Ask Laskas link here

The Most Elegant Experiment of All Time

Here however, history provides us with what has often been called “the most elegant experiment of all time,” performed by Christian Johann Doppler (1803-1853), an Austrian experimental physicist and mathematician, living in Prague at the time. His experiment "trumps" the Laskas experiment in every way possible.

1845: An early English steam locomotive hauling a tender and three carriages adapted from horse-drawn coaches. (Photo: Lambert/Getty Images)

"Doppler reasoned that if a source of sound is moving toward a listener, the waves in front of the source are compressed, thus creating a higher frequency. On the other hand, the waves behind the moving source are stretched out, resulting in a lower frequency.
“After developing a mathematical formula to predict this effect, Doppler presented his findings in 1842.

"Three years later, he and Dutch meteorologist Christopher Heinrich Buys-Ballot (1817-1890), a professor in Utrecht, conducted a highly unusual experiment to demonstrate the theory, near the Dutch town of Maarson, along the Rhine Railroad.

"There is a minority version of the story, that Buys-Ballot was one of Doppler’s critics, and performed this experiment hoping to disprove Doppler's theory, but ended up verifying it instead.

“Buys-Ballot arranged for a band of trumpet players to perform on an open railroad flatcar, playing a calibrated note on a steam locomotive on the Utrecht-Amsterdam line, while riding past a platform on which a group of musicians with perfect pitch. . . sat listening."

"The listeners stood on the platform and wrote down what note they heard as the train approached and then receded. What the listeners wrote down was consistently first slightly higher and then slightly lower than what the moving musicians actually played.

"Sources vary as to whether the musicians were playing in the key of E flat, A, or A sharp! Perhaps all of them, at different times?

“The experiment went on for two days, the flatcar passing by again and again, while the horns blasted and the musicians on the platform recorded their observations.

“Doppler repeated the experiment with a second group of stationary trumpet players on the station platform to provide a reference. They and the moving musicians played the same note as the train passed. Listeners could clearly hear that the notes sounded different. The moving and stationary notes seemed to interfere, setting up a pulsing beat.”

Trumpet in F by John August K√∂hler, London, ca. 1838 
Utley Virtual Gallery website link

“Though Doppler and Buys-Ballot must have seemed like crazy men to those who were not involved in the experiment, the result—as interpreted from the musicians' written impressions of the pitches they heard—confirmed Doppler's theory."

“At the time when Doppler announced his findings, there was no easy means to test them. The fastest form of transport which carried a horn was the horse-drawn mail coach. This only moved at about ten miles an hour – too slow for the Doppler Effect to be noticeable. It was only in 1845, when a scientist took a trumpet aboard a train locomotive, that the effect was first demonstrated.”

"Doppler chose sound waves as a more convenient means of confirmation, since it was by then feasible to make a train travel the 70 kilometer per hour [another source says 60] needed for the experiment. Yet the first experiment, in 1845, failed. The train did not manage to travel at a constant speed, and the hired trumpet players (one group on the train and three groups along the tracks) were not disciplined enough to play the right tones at the right moments.”

"Doppler never enjoyed the fame he sought. He died at the age of 50 in 1853, just as the scientific community was beginning to accept, and see the value of, his discovery.”

A direct-quote collation of these sources, that is, a free-editing and interweaving of direct quotes from these five sources:

Science of Everyday Things:
Kendall Haven
Estafanous, Barash & Reves
David Darling
Lofgren & Wilk

Monday, May 24, 2010

An English Teacher Tackles Harry Potter

                    Snape's lab image link

Don't worry, no big spoilers in this review.
I am a grown-up, and a bit of a literary snob. But- I read the seven J. K. Rowling Harry Potter books basically in record time. I became the expert amongst my schoolchildren friends, of every character, motive and secret.

Rowling is a terrific writer. Is she among the great writers? Stephen King thinks so. This is everybody's favorite discussion! The scenes at Harry’s aunt’s house for example are mediocre. For me, the books are at their most amazing in plot, energy and luxurious detail, than in actual style (though solid), and her characters often tend to the archetypal. But the reading experience- I was spellbound.

I was surprised, having seen a movie first, that Harry Potter is a hothead, not a cool pale Daniel Radcliffe. Harry is continually indignant, which was puzzling- do modern kids relate to that? If you knew someone like that, he would get on your nerves. (Alan Rickman [above] is perfect.)

If you are a writer, you may find many of the plot twists guessable, as Rowling follows standard literary tradition. But guessing ahead gave me even more pleasure, because it allowed me extra insight into characters and scenes.

About the only things I had not guessed by, let's say, Book Three, were Dumbledore's secret, and of course that little surprise Harry got mixed up with there near the end (Just bragging!). And no one expected all those deaths.

I am in awe of Rowling’s astonishing complexity. An endless succession of characters, situations and details looping in and out of each other, that's what established Rowling as one of kid's books' greats. Rowling's mind is a labyrinth, carried out over 3000 packed pages. Apparently it took Rowling over 17 years to write.

I am old-school- it’s too much excitement for me! The plot is as headstrong as Harry, plunging from one deadly adventure to the next. There is never that delicious dangling anticipation. The moment something is expected, for sure it will happen by the end of the page, instant gratification. I found the remorseless action exhausting- I was always thinking “Oh no here we go again!”

As Stephen King praised on the seventh bookjacket, Rowling’s books "raise the bar" for children's writing. -But raise the bar to what? Don't get me wrong- I loved it! But I do hope the “old bar” won’t become too boring for the “new kids.”

" Portmanteau "
Rowling is especially strong and creative in her word and name inventions for people, places, items, spells and incantations (using Latin), etc.; including puns and “portmanteau” words (words blended to make one new word), etc.

Brief examples: the bad guys of the House of “Slitherin” and its professor “Severus Snape,” who instructs Harry in the study of “Occlumency” (closing the mind against invasion). Wikipedia: “from occlude, ‘to conceal,’ and mens, Latin for ‘mind.’”

The web is full of interpretation of list after list of Rowling’s word and name inventions. A two-second search found this article explaining just Latinate spells she invented for Book 6: article link

Seven books, over 3000 pages and 17 years:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Sunday, May 23, 2010

a little history: Michelangelo, his marble, his patron

A little offbeat history, from Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power (Penguin 1998) [directly quoted]


"In 1502, in Florence, Italy, an enormous block of marble stood in the works department of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. It had once been a magnificent piece of raw stone, but an unskilled sculptor had mistakenly bored a hole through it where there should have been a figure's legs, generally mutilating it.

"Piero Soderini, Florence's mayor, had contemplated trying to save the block by commissioning Leonardo da Vinci to work on it, or some other master, but had given up, since everyone agreed that the stone had been ruined. So, despite the money that had been wasted on it, it gathered dust in the dark halls of the church.

"This was where things stood until some Florentine friends of the great Michelangelo decided to write to the artist, then living in Rome. He alone, they said, could do something with the marble, which was still magnificent raw material.

"Michelangelo traveled to Florence, examined the stone, and came to the conclusion that he could in fact carve a fine figure from it, BY ADAPTING THE POSE TO THE WAY THE ROCK HAD BEEN MUTILATED [emphasis mine].

"Soderini argued that this was a waste of time- nobody could salvage such a disaster-but he finally agreed to let the artist work on it. Michelangelo decided he would depict a young David, sling in hand.



Friday, May 21, 2010

Who Will Say Kaddish? Jewish Idenity in Modern Poland, by Larry N. Mayer

WHO WILL SAY KADDISH?: A Search for Jewish Identity in Contemporary Poland
photos, Gary Gelb

A book about modern Poland and the renewal of Polish Jewish identity, now fragile, after the Holocaust and communism. Probably the only book of its kind in its multiple levels and viewpoints. An intelligent, insightful writer with himself much to say.

Based on his extensive interviews (and research) in Poland, Mayer maneuvers through a highly ambiguous thumbprint of Poland’s now dispersed, diverse generations. Mayer manages to put that ambiguity expertly into words, making him the perfect guide where there’s not merely one truth. Intellectual, sometimes tough going, but this writer knows how to see and convey the ambiguity of the world around him. Mixed in with an exploration of his own personal identity (child of Polish Holocaust survivors).

Artful b&w portrait photos by Gary Gelb that warmly convey this intensely foreign yet sympathetic world.

Reviews:  amazon reviews

Publisher, Syracuse University Press website link

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

literary discoveries

"greenest library in new york" 

I have made a terrific literary discovery just browsing the library. The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason.

I've read that Werner Herzog is making a movie of it. It is an eccentric book in which the geography, the atmosphere, is essential to the meaning. Like Thomas Hardy who reveals his characters through his landscapes. Werner Herzog is just the guy to do that!

Another way to make literary discoveries: just ask your friends from other countries what they consider classics. Two books that my friend from South Africa read as part of her school curriculum, yet we in USA have never heard of: The Power of One by Bryce Courtney. And the young adult book Jennie by Paul Gallico.

Not all neighborhood libraries are full of junk. I have just discovered a new neighborhood library that has obviously hand-picked their literature section. Hooray for the opening of the Battery Park branch on North End Avenue in Tribeca.