Becoming Superman

Style was the clothes; voice was the body.
The instant I hit that realization I felt a circuit close inside me, switching on an engine in my brain. Suddenly all the little unrelated things I knew about writing (or brashly thought I knew) arranged themselves into a pattern so clear and precise that it knocked the breath out of me.”
J. Michael Straczynski, Becoming Superman

Becoming Superman is an autobiography of a science fiction and comics writer, J. Michael Straczynski. It is also a page turner, a powerful story that amazingly enough, is real. As Neil Gaiman concluded in his introduction: “We follow him through several careers, and in each career he learns how to do it, how to set out and make something happen that ought, by any stretch of imagination, to have been impossible. It’s his willingness to learn, his quiet persistence, and his willingness to do the work that are his superpowers. He has become a diamond.”

Reading the book during a weekend, I found there another “superpower”: hate. Hatred for a father he describes as a monster formed the author’s worldview, sustained him physically at times he might otherwise crumble, and shaped his character when the closest he had to a “role-model” were comic book heroes like Superman. This is not, however, a hateful book. The author’s hate does not drip from every page. It is used like lampposts placed to illuminate bends on a road, so a passerby would see what he had experienced as a boy and while growing up, what he overcame, and what he still has to cope with. Continue reading

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Jane Austen and the institution of Marriage

“…I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
Charlotte Lucas to Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice.


A book cover using Thomas Lawrence’s
The Children of Sir Samuel Fludyer (1806).

One day a “lost” Jane Austen novel might be “rediscovered” in some attic. The news will spread across the world long before experts will have a chance to study the manuscript, and the few known facts will soon be drowned by speculations about its authenticity. Would it be deemed a forgery, even if the handwriting, the style and word usage are comparable with these found in Austen’s letters and previous works, but the story as a whole lacks the qualities that endeared Jane Austen’s novels to so many readers for such a long period?

One thing we can be sure about this hypothetical manuscript is that it will involve romantic relations and treat the institution of Marriage. Expectations from this institution have evolved considerably in the last couple of hundreds of years, and yet Austen’s treatment of the subject still appeals to modern readers. Or or at least so I thought until I read a recent article in The Atlantic that challenges this assumption. In a piece titled “What Jane Austen Thought Marriage Couldn’t Do”, S. Chamberlain makes claims based on evidence from Austen’s novels. In the following I will address some of those points.

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William Blake in the twenty first century

Reader! lover of books! lover of heaven,
And of that God from whom all books are given,
Who in mysterious Sinai’s awful cave
To Man the wondrous art of writing gave,
Again he speaks in thunder and in fire!
Thunder of Thought, & flames of fierce desire:
Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear,
Within the unfathomed caverns of my Ear.
Therefore I print; nor vain my types shall be:
Heaven, Earth & Hell, henceforth shall live in harmony.

from the preface to Chapter I, Jerusalem, by William Blake

Twenty one decades separate between William Blake’s only solo exhibition and the retrospective exhibition, titled “William Blake”, that has recently opened at Tate Britain.
The first exhibition was at Blake’s brother’s hosiery shop in Soho. Sixteen pictures were displayed for show and sale, including “The Ancient Britons”, the largest picture Blake ever made. The price for admission was one shilling, the same as the much larger and more prestigious exhibitions at the Royal Academy and at the British Institution. Blake’s exhibition was attended by few, and the only review it received was from The Examiner. It was published anonymously in the issue for 17 September 1809:

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The Stranger from Paradise, A Biography of William Blake


Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Philips (1807).

G. E. Bentley Jr’s biography of William Blake, The Stranger from Paradise, follows the creative life of a promising young artist, whose genius and unconventional mindset, both fueled his art and hindered his career. It recounts the growing rift between Blake and the art world, the emergence of his unique style and his unsuccessful attempt to reach the public directly. The last section (before notes and bibliography) is less extensive, as if the biographer was in a hurry to conclude the progressively unhappy story. It skirts around Blake’s poverty and declining health, focusing on the artist finding contentment and on the emerging interest both in Blake’s visions and in his paintings. When the book ended, I wanted to read more.
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Sophomore novel: to publish or not to publish

“Whether I’ll publish the story depends on whether others like it.”
Myself, January 2019.

I ended my last post prophesying that the decision about publishing the nearly complete manuscript would be based on my readers’ reaction to the story. This was not what happened. Instead, I collated more information about the current state of self-publishing, and then reevaluated my options. Here is what I’ve learned.
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January is this time of the year…

It has been four years since I (self-)published my novel, Initial Conditions, in January 2015. I began writing a second, unrelated story, in the spring of that year. It progressed very little until NaNoWriMo in November. In January 2016, I read my 75K-words manuscript and could not understand what it was about. Several half-hearted attempts to salvage it resulted in six chapters, which I sent in January 2018 to a beta reader. The reader liked the premise, but gently made it clear that the execution did not deliver; the story was not engaging. A year later, I have nineteen chapters – an almost completed novel, except the last act. I don’t know yet if the story works for anyone beside myself, but, looking back, I can see the roadblocks that I wish I was warned about.
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Farewell to 2018

Visiting New York on one of last days of the year seemed like a good idea. An extravaganza of lights, food we like but don’t have anywhere near home, the hustle and bustle of a city known for its showmanship and endless variety. From a distance, Manhattan shone with promise – an amalgam of Greek Revivals and skyscrapers, an epicenter of creativity and magic – just being there was bound to cheer one up, to elevate the gloomy mood that clouded most of the year.

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I recalled these expectations several hours later, after half a day spent in the city. So far, New York did not disappoint. Everyone in our family found something they liked to eat at the Chelsea Market; my sons enjoyed browsing dead-tree books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore; I window-shopped, eyeing the lush, festive displays that one day would probably appear in an unfinished draft of my novel.

It felt good to imagine that we landed in a modern fairy-tale, but then, vacant spaces between the fanciest stores on 5th Avenue shouted that retail reality was not as glamorous as the dressed mannequins, and the prices of the gelato and the French-sounding pastries brought to mind how many home-cooked meals (or school lunches) each bite-size serving could buy.

My personal bubble burst while jostling for a space on a sidewalk on our way to see THE Christmas Tree (at the Rockefeller Center). I don’t know if there were hundreds or thousands of people there, but I felt that they all came to New York for the same purpose, to catch a piece of magic, a glimpse of something bright and shinny, and yet untarnished by revelations and scandals. And so we inched forward, crowded but determined to pass by the famous tree. There were too many people to come close and see the details, but it sparkled from afar, a symbol of continuity, of stability, and maybe a glimmer of hope for a better year.

Happy 2019 !

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mèþru’s Sokolataboureko, or chocolate wraps

Summertime is not the best time for baking, but mèþru’s chocolate wraps are quick to make and delicious to eat.

Reblogged: from Sokolataboureko, or chocolate wraps — mèþru’s word stuff

After making baklava a while back, I had some leftover frozen phyllo dough. Because it was a difficult recipe, I decided that it was a one time thing. I needed something else to do with the dough. I tried filling it with honey, but it burned. (I liked the taste, but burnt honey is not…

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick (100 g) unsalted butter
  • 200 g bittersweet chocolate bar
  • 8 sheets of a 9 x 14 inch phyllo dough roll

Steps:

  1. Melt the chocolate over boiling water
  2. Cut the butter into small cubes; add it to the chocolate
  3. Mix well and remove from heat
  4. Use a tablespoon to spread the sauce in a line about half an inch wide on top of two sheets of dough
  5. Gently fold the dough around the sauce. Be careful, as phyllo very easily breaks or tears with the slightest touch.
  6. Repeat 4-5 on the same sheet next to the rolled part. Repeat this step until the entirety of the two sheets are covered.
  7. Repeat 4-6 to create three more pieces. Cut the four pieces a necessary to fit them on the baking pan.
  8. Put all the pieces on a pan with parchment paper. Bake for 6-7 minutes 400 F/ 200 C.
  9. Give it a short time to cool and enjoy!

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Lighthearted takes on fiction and physics

Two comics by John Atkinson, thirst-editions and simplified-physics.

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Richard Feynman’s 100th birthday

Richard Feynman

“There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician.”
Hands Bethe, Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate.

Richard P. Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American theoretical physicist, a laureate of the Nobel Prize in Physics (1965) and inventor of Feynman diagrams, introduced in 1948 and still widely used today in studies of collisions and scattering of elementary particles.

Five particular achievements of Feynman were crucial to the development of modern physics (according to Encyclopedia Britannica):

First, and most important, is his work in correcting the inaccuracies of earlier formulations of quantum electrodynamics, the theory that explains the interactions between electromagnetic radiation (photons) and charged subatomic particles such as electrons and positrons (antielectrons).

Second, he introduced simple diagrams, now called Feynman diagrams, that are easily visualized graphic analogues of the complicated mathematical expressions needed to describe the behavior of systems of interacting particles. This work greatly simplified some of the calculations used to observe and predict such interactions.

Feynman diagram of electron-positron annihilation

Feynman provided a quantum-mechanical explanation for Lev D. Landau’s theory of superfluidity — i.e., the strange, frictionless behavior of liquid helium at temperatures near absolute zero.

Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann devised a theory that accounted for most of the phenomena associated with the weak force, which is the force at work in radioactive decay. Their theory, which turns on the asymmetrical “handedness” of particle spin, proved particularly fruitful in modern particle physics.

And finally, while working with experimenters at the Stanford Linear Accelerator on the scattering of high-energy electrons by protons, Feynman invented a theory of “partons,” or hypothetical hard particles inside the nucleus of the atom, that helped lead to the modern understanding of quarks.

Murray Gell-Mann was reported to grumble that Feynman “spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.” One of my favorite Feynman anecdotes is titled “It Sounds Greek to Me!”, from the book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman:

One time, in 1957, I went to a gravity conference at the University of North Carolina. I was supposed to be an expert in a different field who looks at gravity.
I landed at the airport a day late for the conference (I couldn’t make it the first day), and I went out to where the taxis were. I said to the dispatcher, “I’d like to go to the University of North Carolina.”
“Which one do you mean,” he said, “the State University of North Carolina at Raleigh, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?”
Needless to say, I hadn’t the slightest idea. “Where are they?” I asked, figuring that one must be near the other.
“One north of here, and the other is south of here, about the same distance.”
I had nothing with me that showed which one it was, and there was nobody else going to the conference a day late like I was.
That gave me an idea. “Listen,” I said to the dispatcher. “The main meeting began yesterday, so there were a whole lot of guys going to the meeting who must have come through here yesterday. Let me describe them to you: They would have their heads kind of in the air, and they would be talking to each other ,not paying attention to where they were going, saying things to each other, like ‘G-mu-nu. G-mu-nu.’”
His face lit up. “Ah, yes,” he said. “You mean Chapel Hill!”
He called the next taxi waiting in line. “Take this man to the university at Chapel Hill.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I went to the conference.

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