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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A Romantic Moment on a Yacht

During the spring break, we visited Maryland, focusing on the northern Chesapeake Bay, between Havre de Grace and the capital, Annapolis.

Havre de Grace

The tourist season has not yet started in Havre de Grace. The views and the peacefulness of the waterfront more than compensated for few closed restaurants and an ice-cream shop.

A view to Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay:

The boardwalk on the waterfront:

I have read about the Little Free Libraries, but it was the first time I saw one. I wanted to add Initial Conditions to the collection, but of course, I didn’t have a copy with me.


A blue house on a local road near Aberdeen drew our attention:

A big sign read:

Inside, we discovered a sparkling space with minimalistic furniture and decor, and… flavorful, delicious food!


Historic old Annapolis was a pleasant place to start a day in.

We passed the governor’s mansion:

and a reminder that taxes benefit everyone:

Boats and water have a relaxing effect:

Especially when glimpsing a couple having a romantic moment on a yacht:

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The Real Jane Austen???

“In the popular imagination, Jane Austen spent nearly all of her life sitting in a parsonage, working on her embroidery, gossiping about the neighbours and writing novels confined to ‘three or four families in a country village’.”
From The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne

A popular imagination is an interesting source – for who can deny that there are millions of people that have heard about Jane Austen, but never read her books, nor watched the movies based on them. If they know that writers usually read a lot, they might expect the lady to be well-read. And if they happen to hear that Austen described many balls and naval officers, the streets of Bath and grand houses like Pemberley, they can expect her to also travel a bit. But what if someone is suddenly interested to find out the “real” Jane Austen? After reading the Wikidepia article, s/he might want to learn more about Austen’s daily life and the sources she drew her information from. Can The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne, live up to the task?

My impression is that Ms. Byrne had focused on details rather than draw a cohesive image of the legendary Jane Austen. Her agenda, it seems, was composed of two goals:
One was to dispel the portrait of Jane Austen fostered by her family, a portrait of a woman who lived a life of “of usefulness, literature, and religion” in an enclosed, sequestered world. Since this is not the first Austen biography that I have read, I know that this task has been achieved previously.

Byrne’s second goal was way more ambitious. Throughout the book she tries to convince the reader that Austen was a free-spirited career woman. Or, in Ms. Byrne’s own words “… the consummate professional, the woman prepared to devote her life, and to sacrifice her prospects of marriage, to her art as a novelist.”

In my opinion, the evidence that Ms. Byrne has brought to argue for her image of Jane Austen is highly speculative. Some of it is based on recollections of family members who barely knew Austen. Even more troubling is the “evidence” drawn from a modern interpretation of Austen’s novels. An example of the latter is the biographer’s statement that Eliza (Jane Austen’s cousin and later also her sister-in-law) “was a muse for Jane Austen”. This speculative assertion, however, does not rely on anything Austen herself communicated about Eliza; it was deduced just from the fact that Austen dedicated her youthful story Love and Friendship to Eliza and maybe used details about Eliza to bring to life a secondary character like Mary Crawford. Yet, if Ms. Byrne is right and Eliza was indeed “Austen’s muse”, why did Eliza’s influence not extend to the more prominent characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot?

Another assertion that I found puzzling is that Austen had a very modern openness about sex. The biographer wrote that “Jane Austen was certainly not prudish about sex”, but how does she know that? We can hypothesize whether Austen spoke freely about sex in her private correspondence, but both “yes” and “no” are just guesses. Maybe such letters existed, but none of them survived. In the absence of supporting evidence, either letters or recollections from those who knew Jane Austen, the biographer supports her conjecture using a very speculative interpretation of Austen novels:

“Jane Austen also wrote about woman’s sexual pleasure. In the character of Lydia Bennet she presents us with a lusty teenage girl who enjoys sex before marriage with Wickham with very little concern for the consequences…
The image of the torn dress as a symbol of sexual disgrace is also used in Pride and Prejudice. Lydia sends a request to her maid that she should ‘mend a great slit in my worked muslin gown’. We do not have to be Freudians to recognize a shocking image of her sexual transgression. Lydia’s “slit” can’t be mended, except by forced marriage, which is exactly what happens, though no one is fooled by the ‘patched-up business’.”

Okay, I’m not Freudian, nor do I belong to any other school of psychology. For me a passage about a careless teenager who wants her torn dress to be mended is not a proof that Austen wrote about sex. I’d like to see some solid evidence for that hypothesis, which is peddled as if it were a fact.

The last point I want to question is the assertion that Austen made a conscious choice to promote her writing career at the expense of matrimony. The biographer tells us that Austen “did not want her voice to be stifled by marriage. She was, I believe, happy to remain single.” Again, this claim is not grounded in Austen’s correspondence. Apparently, Austen “did not envy the women of her acquaintance who were married and exhausted by husband and children”. Let’s stop and think for a moment: is there a man or a woman who wants to be in the shoes of those exhausted women? It is quite plausible that Austen dreaded the reality of giving birth year after year, or that she feared the possibility of dying in childbirth. Do such natural feelings imply that a woman does not want to have a family? The biographer names men that Jane Austen rejected. But did Austen love (or at least liked enough to tie herself with) any of them? There is no indication that she refused a man she loved in order not to have children. There is no evidence to support the claim that she was a happy spinster, who did not regret Tom Lefroy or whoever had inspired the immortal Mr. Darcy.

I was not convinced by Byrne’s conclusion that Austen was happy not to have children. The biographer argues that Austen’s letters reveal her great love of children’s company, even those who were not related to her. We can only speculate whether she pined for her own kid or was one of those people who prefer to play with the children of others. I think that Austen wanted a family but only with the right man.
Byrne writes: “Love of children is often a guide to characters in the novels. Mr Knightly forgives Emma’s wrongdoing against Mr Martin when he sees her holding her baby niece in her arms…”. Captain Wentworth watches Anne Elliot when she kneels before injured Charles Musgrove, but when Charles’ stout two-years-old brother comes in and fastens himself upon Anne, Wentworth silently removes the troublesome toddler from her back.
Can a writer who did not care about having a man and children describe with such tenderness both Knightly’s and Wentworth’s response to a woman tending to a little child? For me, this is Austen’s cry for a real partner, a man whose understanding and emotions would be similar to those of Knightly and Wentworth.

Reading The Real Jane Austen, I found a plethora of details about Jane Austen and her family, their attitude toward slave trade, her love of shopping, what different nieces thought about the famous aunt and much more. The biographer depicted a witty and talented woman who “revised and improved and honed” her craft until she became a self-assured professional writer. She showed that Austen wanted both money and approbation, and that she was a dedicated follower of fashion. However, the portrayal of Jane Austen as a modern woman was as unconvincing as the claim that in her novels Austen wrote about sex.

To sum up, the biography tackled various facets of Jane Austen. Some of them were interesting to explore, but in all, they did not combine to form a portrait of the genius that Austen was.

Those interested in speculations about possible causes of Jane Austen’s premature death will be better served with the CNN article, “Jane Austen poisoned with arsenic? Not so fast, experts say”.
Those who prefer a more sentimental and visual approach (and don’t mind Jane Austen speaking with an American accent), might enjoy the movie Becoming Jane.

Image at the top – from the movie Becoming Jane
Jane Austen’s writing box – image from The British Library Board

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