March For Our Lives – Princeton, 2018

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Credits: photography and collage – my son.

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This is not a time to keep silent


It’s time to mourn and weep for the dead in Florida, time to try to help the wounded to recover. It’s not a time to keep silence. It’s time to speak, again and again until lawmakers face the fact that guns are used to massacre schoolchildren.

“Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old suspected shooter, used an AR-15 semi-automatic style weapon during the massacre, law enforcement officials told the Associated Press. The highly deadly military-inspired rifle has been the weapon used by several mass shooters. The AR-15 was most notably used during the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. that claimed 27 lives, including that of the shooter.”

Sandy Hook Elementary School. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It’s time to SHOUT as loudly as possible until the SHOUT reaches lawmakers, and something is actually done about gun control.


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2017 is drawing to a close

Finally, 2017 is drawing to a close. I can’t say that it was one of the better years to look back at. This is why I’m not going to do any “2017 in …”, but just post a few pictures from September to December 2017 (months I did not blog).



Delaware River


The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the detection of gravitational waves!!!

“While from the outside, it may seem surprising that this Nobel Prize was awarded a scant 2 years after the discovery of gravitational waves (often, Nobel Prizes are awarded many years after discoveries), for the three laureates, it actually comes at the culmination of decades of effort. LIGO may have only recently detected gravitational waves, but its journey to doing so began nearly 45 years ago.”
From ‘Nobel Prize awarded to LIGO Founders‘ Caltech News Release


Autumn colors

A Literary Moment:


Statues of Robert Burns and Walter Scott, in Central Park, Manhattan.


The snow is here

Rutgers University, New Jersey

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An anniversary of an experiment that transformed the world

Two hundred years ago, the relationship between magnetism and electricity was not an established fact. It had been known that thunderbolts created certain magnetic effects, but there was no proof that magnetism and electricity were related, until 1820, when Hans Christian Ørsted demonstrated that changes in electric current flowing in a wire produced a change in the orientation of a compass needle. In the experiment credited with the discovery of electromagnetism, Ørsted observed that at the moment an electric current from a battery was switched on, a nearby compass needle was temporarily deflected from its stable position of pointing towards the magnetic north. The needle also moved when the electric current was switched off.

Within months after Ørsted discovered that the change in an electric current (from none to flowing, and vice versa) produced a temporary magnetic effect in its vicinity, André-Marie Ampère showed that each of two parallel current-carrying wires, placed close to each other, generated magnetic lines of force. The force caused the wires to be attracted or repelled from each other depending on the relative direction of the currents flowing in the wires.

After Ampère and Ørsted established that electricity could be converted into magnetism, scientists tried to do the reverse: to create electricity from magnetism.

The first to succeed was Michael Faraday. On 29 August 1831, Faraday made one of his greatest discoveries, in which he demonstrated generation of electricity in a wire by means of the electromagnetic effect of a current in another wire. He used an “induction ring” which he made from insulated conducting wire wound around a wooden cylinder as a helix. The helix was covered by a layer of muslin, then a second conducting wire was wound on top of the muslin. Faraday repeated the process of adding insulated coils several times, then connected the free ends of all the even coils to make one continuous length. He did likewise with the odd coils. Having two helices, he connected the ends of one helix to a galvanometer (a device invented a few years earlier to detect the presence of an electric current) and the other to a voltaic battery.

Although the effect was very small, the galvanometer needle was deflected one way upon switching the battery on and the other way when disconnecting it. This effect is known as electro-magnetic induction – changes in the electric current in the first wire, and hence the magnetic field produced by it, induced a current to flow temporarily in the second wire.

Faraday’s induction ring was, in effect, the very first electrical transformer. Nowadays, it’s on display at the Royal Institution’s museum (see the museum web page).

For an overview of early research in electromagnetism, see the article “The birth of the electric machines: a commentary on Faraday (1832) ‘Experimental researches in electricity’”, from Pholosophical Transactions A, (2015).

Faraday’s induction ring:

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Wolfish Pursuits and RoseMary Inn

Three Little Bops

“ ‘Mr. Spratt,’ began Archibald, slowly bringing himself up to speed like a chilled gecko. ‘Is it true that Mr. Wolff once belonged to the Lupine Brotherhood, a secret society dedicated to traditional wolfish pursuits such as the outlawed Midnight Howling?’
‘Yes, I understand that to be the case,’ replied Jack, ‘but that was over fifteen years ago. We do not deny that he had been investigated over various charges of criminal damage arising from the destruction of two dwellings built by the younger pigs, nor that Mr. Wolff threatened to ‘eat them all up.’ But we saw this as an empty threat – we produced witnesses who swore that Mr. Wolff was a vegetarian of many years’ standing.”
From The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

Wolves are carnivores. But in Northeast U.S., your have about the same chance of meeting a vegetarian wolf as meeting a wolf living in the wild. Which is to say – practically none. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims that “wolves were hunted and killed with more passion and zeal than any other animal in U.S.” And why? Most Native Americans revered gray wolves, trying to emulate their cunning hunting abilities. But white settlers had a different attitude. While settlers progressively depleted the populations of wolves’ natural prey (mostly large mammals such as deer and elk), the numbers of domestic animals increased. Having little choice, wolves replaced their diet with sheep and cattle. Determined to protect livestock, “ranchers and government agencies began a campaign to eliminate wolves. Bounty programs initiated in the 19th Century continued as late as 1965, offering $20 to $50 per wolf. Wolves were trapped, shot from planes and snowmobiles, dug from their dens, and hunted with dogs. Animal carcasses salted with strychnine were left out for wolves to eat. This practice also indiscriminately killed eagles, ravens, foxes, bears and other animals that fed on the poisoned carrion.”

Although there are no wild wolves living in New Jersey today, The Lakota Wolf Preserve offers a sanctuary for about a dozen wolves born in captivity. On a hot July day, the wolves looked not like dangerous predators, but more like cute, lazy dogs. Yet the massive fences that separate between different packs and between them and the human visitors, suggest that in this case looks are deceptive. Here are some pictures to illustrate what I mean:

Continue reading

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What makes a good book?

“What do you think makes for a ‘good’ book?… Is it too subjective to define or are there specific and universal elements that make up a ‘good’ book? How can you pull the reader in rather than push them away?”
From a thread on Writers’ Cafe.

Obviously, tastes are subjective, be it about food, a novel, or whatsoever. Some judge a book by its literary merit, others by how engrossing or memorable it is. Writers and others interested in storytelling look for unifying elements in stories we (the generic readers) like.

In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain, a writer and lecturer on writing, tried to answer a related question: “What is the source of readers’ satisfaction with a story?”

According to Swain, a story is a record of how somebody deals with danger. And if it is told properly, it hooks us, because we are curious about other people’s troubles. A story starts rolling when a change plunges a character into jeopardy. Change causes fear, fear creates tension. And readers like to worry.

So, tension created at the beginning, builds up and intensifies in the middle of the story (all these turns and twists cause complications, to which characters must respond). Excited by the danger, we are tense and eager. The escalating tension carries us through most of the story. At the climax, it is focused sharply.

Is keeping readers’ tension sufficient to be counted as a “good” story? According to Swain, while excitement keeps readers turning pages, it doesn’t constitute satisfaction.
Readers need resolution, that part of a story that comes after climax, where the hero demonstrates that he deserves to win. There, fear is dissipated and the accumulated tension is released. Finally the hero is satisfied and happy. He/she can relax, and so can the reader.

I can think of classics and modern successful novels that don’t follow this pattern (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and of blockbusters and bestsellers that do follow this version of “hero’s journey”, but I’m not going to dwell on examples and counter-examples, because I think that Swain’s reasoning as to “Why this is so?” is way more interesting.

So, according to Swain, we turn to fiction for encouragement and reassurance, and in particular to experience through a story what we believe in but not necessarily encounter in our daily life. One of the things we yearn to see is a relation between “what we do” (the cause) and “how we fare” (the effect) and demonstrations of individual worth and individual reward. If a resolution happens due to accident or coincidence, many readers will feel cheated, because they’d rather like to see an outcome where man (the book is from 1965!) masters fate. Personally, I don’t feel that way – I wouldn’t mind if the Death Star was blown by some quirky accident, but let’s return to Swain’s arguments. First, we worry about the hero, gradually we are shown why he is worthy, then we take part in his triumph. Seeing the protagonist rewarded feels good, because it contributes to our sense of control and security, reaffirms the wishful thinking that a cause-effect relationship exists between deed and reward. Yet, seeing the courageous hero rewarded and the ruthless and selfish villain punished isn’t enough.

Fiction is a venue for escape from the everyday reality, from not being in control, from feeling inconsequential and unable to challenge the laws laid down by men, nature, and practicality. In life we are wary of change. In fiction we seek danger and boldness, and are turned off by a mundane situation and powerless characters. A story that satisfies readers’ emotional needs is populated with characters that fascinate us, characters whose experiences we share as they challenge the impossible (wizards, vampires…), the unattainable (hot twenty-something self-made billionaires…), the forbidden (serial-killers, pedophiles…), or the disastrous (raging nature, on Earth or beyond…). Reading a good story, we take part in an adventure we’d never attempt in life. While we expand our horizons through seeing different worlds through the eyes of heroes and villains, we also satisfy repressed desires and emotional hunger without risking anything.

Back to the initial question – what is a good story? I think that an answer is too subjective to define. But the aspects described above make a story widely appealing.

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Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher

“I’ve spent so many years not telling the story of Harrison and me having an affair on the first Star Wars movie that it’s difficult to know exactly how to tell it now. I suppose I’m writing this because it’s forty years later and whoever we were then – superficially at least – we no longer are now.”
From The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Forty years is a blink in terms of intergalactic travel, but on Earth, most people were not born when the first Star Wars movie was released (the world population has grown from about 4.2 billion in 1977 to about 7.4 billion). Still, listening to George Lucas and the movie’s actors reminiscing about casting and filming at the movie’s 40th anniversary celebration, it seemed that only a few years have passed. And when Harrison Ford smiles, despite the lined face, Han Solo comes to life once again. Yet, there was a big difference – Carrie Fisher did not take her rightful place on the stage with Lucas, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Peter Mayhew. She was remembered, but the heartfelt tribute from George Lucas did not bring back Princess Leia’s face and voice.

Nothing can do that. Movies, books, none of them is a substitute for the living person. Even the memoir Carrie Fisher had written shortly before she passed away gives only a glimpse into what she experienced as a young actress who became an iconic princess:

“… I’ve spent the lion’s share of my life, starting at nineteen and continuing forty years on jauntily in the present, being as much as myself as Princess Leia. Answering questions about her, defending her, fed up with being mistaken for her, overshadowed by her, struggling with my resentment of her, making her my own, finding myself, keeping company with her, loving her…”

She wrote about being so insecure at the beginning of the filming of the first Star Wars, that she pretended to like Princess Leia’s hairdo:

“What do you think of it?” George asked me.
Now, remember, I hadn’t lost the requisite ten pounds and I thought any minute they’d notice and fire me before the film even started.
So, I replied, “I love it!”

And on being a girl in a dominantly male environment:

“…I was essentially the only girl at this party, and it would be more entertaining to have the only girl at a party completely off-her-ass drunk than not…
They kept pushing me to have a drink, and finally the people pleaser in me took over and I agreed to let one of the crew get me one.”

She answered the question “Why she was writing?”:

There were two reasons that I wrote the diaries, the first one being that I’d always written, since about twelve. It seemed to calm me, getting anything that might be chaotic behind the eyes onto the page in front of me where it could do me less harm…
The second reason I wrote them was that I couldn’t talk to Harrison. Basically about anything, but especially about the entity that was “us” – not that there actually was such a thing…”

Frankly addressed the fame that came so unexpected:

“Fame can be incredibly intense, and of course none of us had any idea that anything like this would ever happen…Suddenly this little movie needed no promotion. But because no one could ever have anticipated that, we ended up doing the junket anyway, which became a definition of overkill.”

Talked about money issues:

“To be sure, though, I had a considerable amount of money in my early twenties. Wow! Then I didn’t have to think about such things. I could pay someone to make sure my bills were paid and my money was locked up tight and under no immediate threat of theft…
Two decades and a pilfering business manager later, I was out of money.”

And what she did to earn more when it became needed:

When I was initially approached about going to Comic-con, the giant comic book convention, I said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead at one of those has-been roundups.” But, as it turns out, I’ve been caught alive at those roundups often enough to wish I was dead.

Obviously, there is much more in the memoir, but for the 40th-anniversary I want to return to the quote in the beginning of the post. The Princess Leia we knew was a young woman. Can we accept that she also might have changed – superficially at least – during these forty years?
In Carrie Fisher’s own words:

“One little girl came by who’d been told she was going to meet Princess Leia; Imagine her excitement, that is, until she saw the new me.
‘No!’ she wailed, squirming her head away from the sight of me. I want the other Leia, not the old one.”

But the actress learned to accept it all, and sometimes was even grateful to her fans. Here is an example of a fan’s comment and Carrie’s response:

“Anyway – I wanted to tell you.” He shrugs, then adds, “Thanks for my childhood,” and walks off. Wow, what a thing to be given credit for, to be thanked for! Because he didn’t mean his whole childhood – he meant the good bits. The parts he escaped to. I’m grateful for those good bits he shared with me.”

May The Force Be With You !

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