In a Word

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haliography
n. a description of the sea

Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield climaxes with a dramatic tempest at Yarmouth:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

Tolstoy wrote, “If you sift the world’s prose literature, Dickens will remain; sift Dickens, David Copperfield will remain; sift David Copperfield, the description of the storm at sea will remain.” The scene formed the conclusion of Dickens’ public readings from the novel, and was often hailed as the grandest moment in his performances. Thackeray’s daughter Annie said the storm scene was more thrilling than anything she had ever seen in a theater: “It was not acting, it was not music, nor harmony of sound and color, and yet I still have an impression of all these things as I think of that occasion.”

Small Business

To help interest young students in chemistry, James Tour of Rice University devised “NanoPutians,” organic molecules that take the form of stick figures. The body is a series of carbon atoms that join two benzene rings; the arms and legs are acetylene units, each terminating in an alkyl group; and the head is a 1,3-dioxolane ring.

This gets even better — by using microwave irradiation, Tour found a way to vary the heads, creating a range of NanoProfessionals:

The synthesis is detailed on the Wikipedia page.

Lights Out

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I pass on to Eclipses. When the Moon (see above) gets between the Earth (see below) and the Sun (do what you like), the resulting phenomenon is called an Eclipse of the Sun. When the Sun gets between the Earth and the Moon there will be the devil to pay. It will be called the Eclipse of the Earth and is likely to be total.

— H.F. Ellis, So This Is Science!, 1932

Who’s Serving Who?

This summer has brought us one step closer to the technological apocalypse — a robot just successfully hitchhiked all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

Created to study how people interact with robots, hitchBOT was outfitted with speech recognition software and equipped with legs and arms, one of which was permanently fixed in a hitchhike position. Links to Wikipedia and social media enabled it to make small talk with the humans who drove it westward.

On the 3,700-mile journey, the gregarious robot fished, camped, and attended a wedding, where it interrupted the bride’s speech by saying, “I like to make friends.”

“This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, ‘Can robots trust humans?’,” said Frauke Zeller, a computational philologist at Ryerson University. “Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots.”

Gender Studies

Most restrooms use simple labels such as MEN and WOMEN, but some are more creative. R. Robinson Rowe shared his collection in Word Ways in February 1977:

rowe restroom diagram

He added, “I was reminded of an incident at the treaty congress in San Francisco in 1952, when Japanese delegates unfamiliar with our language were briefed on the nomenclature of hotel restrooms: MEN would be a shorter word than WOMEN. An amused press reported their confusion and embarrassment when they were lodged in a posh hotel with facilities labelled GENTLEMEN and LADIES.”

Once for All

cary guffey -- close encounters

Asked to choose a single “master image” to sum up his work, Steven Spielberg chose this shot from Close Encounters, in which little Barry Guiler opens his living-room door to see the “beautiful but awful light” emanating from an alien spacecraft. “And he’s very small,” Spielberg said, “and it’s a very large door, and there’s a lot of promise or danger outside that door.”

The scene in which Barry encounters midnight visitors in his kitchen won praise for Spielberg’s direction of untrained 3-year-old actor Cary Guffey:

The story is recounted in Joseph McBride’s 2010 biography of Spielberg: “I had to the left of the camera a cardboard partition, and to the right of the camera a second cardboard partition. To the left of the camera, I put Bob Westmoreland, our makeup man, in a gorilla suit — the full mask and hands and hairy body. To the right of the camera, I dressed myself up as an Easter Bunny, with the ears and the nose and the whiskers painted on my face. Cary Guffey didn’t know what to expect. He didn’t know what he was gonna react to. His job was to come into the kitchen, stop at the door, and just have a good time. … And just as he came into the kitchen, I had the cardboard partition dropped and Bob Westmoreland was there as the gorilla. Cary froze, like a deer caught in car headlights … I dropped my partition, and he looked over at me, and there was the Easter Bunny smiling at him. He was torn. He began to smile at me — he was still afraid of that thing. Then I had Bob — I said, ‘Take off your head.’ Bob took off his mask, and when Cary saw it was the man that put his makeup on in the morning, Cary began to laugh. Even though it was a trick, the reaction was pure and honest.”

Equal Opportunity

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/642737

Can two dice be weighted so that the probability of each of the numbers 2, 3, …, 12 is the same?

Click for Answer

Mob Rule

graves and brown patent

Eugene Graves and William Brown patented this grim game in 1902. A row of effigies stand on blocks under a gibbet. Each effigy is fitted with a noose, and the players take turns shooting balls at the blocks, “representing summary punishment meted out to the victim.”

In the patent abstract, the effigies are described only as “notorious criminals and persons opposed to law and order”; Graves and Brown note that these can be varied to suit the “location, place or country for which the game is especially designed.”

“A flag may be provided for each figure to designate the character or nationality of the effigy.” We’re lucky this didn’t catch on.

Church Work

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By 1905 parts of Winchester Cathedral were in danger of collapse — the 13th-century builders had rested their structure on a bed of peat, which had been sinking under continuous pressure of 40 tons per square foot. In order to shore up the building, diver William Walker was enlisted to work in the church’s flooded foundations, replacing the peat with sacks and bricks of concrete.

Walker worked in total darkness for more than five years, from 1906 to 1911, handling an estimated 25,800 bags of concrete and 114,900 concrete blocks while wearing a suit that weighed nearly 200 pounds. “In addition,” notes the cathedral’s booklet, “as he was working in a graveyard, there was some risk of infection. However, Walker seems to have regarded his pipe as his sovereign remedy against all possible ills and immediately on his return to the surface, he always lit his pipe.”

As he worked, the business of the cathedral went on as usual. A journalist for the Standard described the scene in 1906: “The last Amen is sung, and the choir and clergy pass slowly and silently into the vestry. Outside the foreman blows his whistle. The great helmet of the diver with its staring goggle eyes, appears above the brink of the shaft, and the diver is helped out of his slimy, dripping shell. And soon choristers and workmen mingle beneath the shadow of the Cathedral.”

When the work was completed in 1912 Walker received the thanks of the king and was appointed a member of the Royal Victorian Order. During World War I a memorial tablet was laid in his honor on the cathedral’s west wall, and a statue of the diver was unveiled in 1964. On a BBC memorial program in 1956, Walker’s assistant William West was asked to remember him. “I think his habits was like mine,” he said. “He was fond of a smoke and when he come up, spell sometime, somebody told him about germs, which didn’t worry him. And he say: ‘Where’s my pipe? Don’t lay it down there.'”

From Life

http://www.marcquinn.com/work/view/subject/self%20(blood%20head)/#/3203

Sculptor Marc Quinn chose a unique medium for his 1991 self-portrait Self: The life-sized bust is fashioned from nine pints of the artist’s own blood, collected over a period of weeks, poured into a mold, and frozen. It sits in a transparent cube with its own refrigeration unit.

“I have come across viewers who, on seeing Self for the first time, describe a sensation akin to tingling, a kind of spinal over-excitation, or a curious shudder — that involuntary somatic spasm referred to in common speech by the phrase ‘someone walking on one’s grave,’ writes Cambridge philosopher Peter de Bolla in Art Matters (2001). “And for some these immediate somatic responses may quickly give way to a variety of thoughts associated with formally similar presentations of the human head or face: the death mask, waxwork, funerary sculpture, embalmed body, or anatomical model. When this happens, the frisson of the physical encounter rapidly mutates into a jumble of thoughts as if an impulse — call it a spark of affect — sets in motion a series of reactions that leave their trace in whatever permeable surface they encounter.”

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