Home   About   Links   Archives   Tech   
 · You Got Style ·
   You Got Style
· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Ben Franklin at 300 — Our Colonial PowerPoint Man ·

I hear Philadelphia is powering up "Benergy" this year, and on Benjamin's Franklin's birthday, it's good to draw on it. Though Boston may still claim his birth, Philly, of course, owns his work. Indeed, think libraries, fire houses, nations, universities, post offices — even humble lightning rods.

Did I say humble? Alas, only advisedly! For if you conduct Old Ben's virtue to ground in Quaker Philadelphia, you'll understand still another point: "Benergy" is only an electrifying figure for something more methodically stylish.

Consider this apt quotation from E. Philip Krider's recent Physics Today article (January 2006) — Benjamin Franklin and Lightning Rods:

In the fifth letter, Franklin described how discharges between smooth or blunt conductors occur with a "Stroke and Crack," whereas sharp points discharge silently and produce large effects at greater distances. He then introduced what he viewed to be a "Law of Electricity, That Points as they are more or less acute, both draw on and throw off the electrical fluid with more or less Power, and at greater or less Distances, and in larger or smaller Quantities in the same Time." Given his interest in lightning and the effects of metallic points, it was a short step to the lightning rod:

 · 'Benergy,' Stylishly Grounded · I say, if these Things are so, may not the Knowledge of this Power of Points be of Use to Mankind; in preserving Houses, Churches, Ships, etc. from the Stroke of Lightning; by Directing us to fix on the highest Parts of those Edifices upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground; or down round one of the Shrouds of a Ship and down her Side, till it reaches the Water? Would not these pointed Rods probably draw the Electrical Fire silently out of a Cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible Mischief!

Clearly, Franklin supposed that silent discharges from one or more sharp points might reduce or eliminate the electricity in the clouds above and thereby reduce or eliminate the chances of the structure being struck by lightning. From his earlier observations, he knew that point discharges work best when the conductor is grounded and that lightning tends to strike tall objects. Therefore, even if the point discharges did not neutralize the cloud, a tall conductor would provide a preferred place for the lightning to strike, and the grounded conductor would provide a safe path for the lightning current to flow into the ground.

Good work, is it not? Some physics here properly grounded — equally sharpened by some clever Autobiography — and we're half way already to James Clerk Maxwell.

So here's to Old Ben's style, still going strong at 300!

Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

· Engendering the Science of Style ·

Israeli scientists have had some success in quantifying differences between men's and women's writing styles recently. "Imagine, for a second," writes Clive Thompson in the Boston Globe (7/6/03), "that no byline is attached to this article. Judging by the words alone, can you figure out if I am a man or a woman?"

I was intrigued by Thompson's "He and She: What's the Real Difference?" because, in A Writing Teacher's Blog last June, John Lovas properly identified me as a male writer, "based on tones." But Thompson's piece identifies yet other criteria. Moshe Koppel, Anat Shimoni, and Shlomo Argamon of Israel's Bar-Ilan University, Thompson writes, "found that the single biggest difference is that women are far more likely than men to use personal pronouns — 'I', 'you', 'she', 'myself', or 'yourself' and the like. Men, in contrast, are more likely to use determiners — 'a,' 'the,' 'that,' and 'these' — as well as cardinal numbers and quantifiers like 'more' or 'some.'"

Naturally and properly, I was intrigued by Thompson's article. So trying their test informally on my own "This" Again — Thoreau "Revised," I concluded, to my surprise, that I was perhaps more like a woman there. But then again, since I identified "my wife" as "such a wife," maybe I'm a man, too. After all "this is," as Thoreau writes, my "father tongue," by "heroic," readerly revision.

Well, I'll let you decide. By the way, if you need more science on such matters, I'd suggest Hara Marano's fine Psychology Today article, The New Sex Scorecard. Some of you might even care to run "Hara" through the Israeli style-cruncher. Obviously, I'll have more to say on this theme.

Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

· Mudflats, Cruise Ships, and Casinos: Where the Wild Thing$ Are ·

Each spring, hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds visit mudflats here on their way to Alaska. It's quite a sight. I've witnessed it for twenty-five years and been joined since our refuge was approved in 1988 by birders galore. These birders are stylishly outfitted with books and binoculars, scopes and tripods, cameras and, increasingly, cash. We naturally appreciate them all.

Our Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that annual wildlife viewing generates $918 million, beating fishing by $64 million and hunting by $568 million. Although cash flows are often as skittish as passing birds, we Washingtonians like what we can get by way of pecuniary predation. We are like local mudflat raptors hereabouts — eyes fixed keenly on the muddy prize.

My raptor-expert friend Dan got a flock of 25 birders Saturday, for instance, to attend his PowerPoint lecture on Peregine Falcons. At $10 a head, Dan's monies have added to monies raised by others to help the state's principal Shorebird Festival. Even some eco-skeptics are impressed.

Since 1994, with a team of volunteers, Dan has banded 73 Peregrines. From a total of 427 field investigations, his discoveries have been truly helpful — particularly in fixing knowledge of migrants and residents. His statistics indicate emergent patterns: in summer migrant Peregrines apparently follow their prey northward. So, I might add, do passing Norwegian cruise ships. · Casino Girl ·

But what, then, of our residents? Dan reports that 4/D (a Peregrine accounting for a full third of annual resightings) is seen mostly hanging out near our newest Indian Casino. It seems she's found something truly lucrative.

We naturally call her "Casino Girl."

Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

· A Punny Thing Happened on the Way to . . . ·

Electro-Magnetism. Yes, you heard me right, electro-magnetism — the mysterious but mathematically-formulated, exactingly-controlled energy powering our literary relations here at · You Got Style · I think about it often in November, especially when the winds I last wrote about threaten to break the lines linking my machine to yours. Tricky business that, as old Ken Lay would say, and my late dad, who once proudly wore a 50-year IBEW pin as a lineman for the Pacific Electric Railway — where he said, quite properly, "Red Cars" (L. A. style). He also knew how to say, "Hot stuff."  · Pacific Electric Logo ·

I got to thinking about all this while I was writing Under the Weather Tuesday. You'll recall I was doing a deliberate double-take on weather/whether and a subtler, single-take on rafters. Although I felt like apologizing — even writing first, "Forgive my puns. I couldn't resist." — I decided to drop my sad pleading and, with the authority of James Clerk Maxwell behind me, stand up plainly and honestly for some electro-magnetic juice delivered straight. Maxwell, you say — literally or figuratively? Literally, though it's still, as you'll see, very tricky business.

What I have in mind is the witty first paragraph to his essay "Are There Real Analogies in Nature?" Included in Campbell and Garnet's 1882 biography of Maxwell, it remains a good literary-philosophical supplement to his more famous A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Although Maxwell's scientific equations aren't my subject, his speculations in that essay seem in some ways their equal, especially in the wisely affirmative answer he gives to his essay's leading question (not surprisingly given Maxwell's Scottish-Presbyterian style, the answer has a nice moral tinge — slightly shaded by Kantian reflections on the larger methodological-scientific questions that prompt it). In any event, since my present interests are stylistic, I'll just cite Maxwell's witty (I think you'll agree) first paragraph. The subject is the reciprocal relation of puns to analogies.

In the ancient and religious foundation of Peterhouse there is observed this rule, that whoso makes a pun shall be counted the author of it, but that whoso pretends to find it out shall be counted the publisher of it, and that both shall be fined. Now, as in a pun two truths lie hid under one expression, so in an analogy one truth is discovered under two expressions. Every question concerning analogies is therefore the reciprocal of a question concerning puns, and the solutions can be transposed by reciprocation. But since we are still in doubt as to the legitimacy of reasoning by analogy, and as reasoning even by paradox has been pronounced less heinous than reasoning by puns, we must adopt the direct method with respect to analogy, and then, if necessary, deduce by reciprocation the theory of puns.  James Clerk Maxwell, 'Are There Real Analogies in Nature,' in Lewis Campbell and William Garnet, Life of James Clerk Maxwell, London: Macmillan, 1882, 235-44.

Although I don't want to reciprocate the transposition here — by going astray into deconstructive excursions into catachresian takes on Paul de Man, say — it seems worth noting that, stylistically speaking, Maxwell's text seems to be onto something. In any case, as mine has expressly that aim, I thought to conclude with a good short story, one brought to my attention earlier this week in a widely-shared punny email. Slightly edited for dramatic emphasis, I give you

Taco-Bell Liver & Cheese

Three handsome L. A. dogs are walking down Whittier Boulevard when they chance to see a beautifully enchanting Poodle. The three dogs fall all over themselves in an effort to be the first to reach the lovely creature, but all end up arriving in front of her at the same time. The three are speechless before her beauty, slobbering all over themselves — hoping for just one enticing, encouraging glance. Aware of her charms and of her obvious effect on the three would-be suitors, she decides to be kind, telling them:

"The first one who can use the words 'liver' and 'cheese' together in an imaginative, intelligent sentence can go out with me."

The sturdy, muscular black Lab speaks up quickly and says,

"I love liver and cheese."

"Oh, how childish," says the Poodle. "That shows no imagination or intelligence whatsoever."

She turns then to the tall, shiny Golden Retriever and asks,

"How well can you do?"

"Um. I HATE liver and cheese," says the Retriever.

"My, my," replies the Poodle. "I guess it's hopeless. You're just as dumb as the Lab."

She then turns to the last of the three dogs and says,

"How about you, little guy?"

The last of the three — tiny in stature but big in fame and finesse — is the Taco Bell Chihuahua. He gives her a sly smile and a quick wink and, casually waving to a passing Red Car, says to the Retriever and the Lab:

"Liver alone, cheese mine."

"Hot stuff," my dad would say. "Tell me, how much do we owe?"

Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

· Metaphors \ Methods \ Models — Dirty-Hand Style ·

If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that three times in these posts I've alluded to the subject of dirty hands. I thought to reflect today on the subject, and the seeming inconsistencies in my three takes.

You may recall in Wetting a Line \ Whetting the Points that I first approved of Thoreau's view that getting one's "hands" dirty knocks the "palaver" out of one's writing. I still believe that, yet in Jacques Barzun "Takes On" Wayward Educationists, I confessed, I'm afraid — somewhat contradictorily — my regret in not literally "washing my hands" of educationists' styles. Now if you're like my philosophy students, you're likely asking with Martin Heidegger some question like this: "Hey, what gives?" since I ignored in Gardening and Writing the Point-Defiance Way how Marianne Binetti's style is, necessarily, if also insufficiently so, dirty-handed too. I mean: "How are you ever going to garden otherwise?"

So as not to be evasive, I'm going to go straight to right stuff on this question and cite Thomas DeQuincy, the great English writer and — in his treatise Style, published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1840-41 — a thoughtful student of style. DeQuincy focused on "pursuits" he thought "favorable to a culture of style" — that indeed "force[d]," he believed, "that culture . . . drawing much from our own proper selves, [but] little (if anything) from extraneous objects."

DeQuincy marks for us, it should be noted, an important philosophical difference, one drawing on a Kantian vocabulary implicitly tuned to such concepts as subjectively- and objectively-defined pursuits — that is, those drawn between ordinary common sense on the one hand, and modern science on the other: wherein a topic like "dirty hands" is considered metaphorically stylish in literature, but methodologically not in science. Although I admit it is a helpful distinction, I would add, too, it is indifferently spelled, in either case, "dirty hands" — and so may model, explicitly, like my italicized words, a slipperier, still more important truth.

My point turns on DeQuincy's common, but I think too-simplistic assumption that

[a] man who has absolute facts to communicate from some branch of study external to himself . . . is careless of style; or at least he may be so . . . for what he has to communicate neither readily admits, nor much needs, any graces in the mode of communication; the matter transcends and oppresses the manner. The matter tells without any manner at all. Thomas DeQuincy, Style, in William T. Brewster, Representative Essays in the Theory of Style, New York: Macmillan, 1905, 142.

Although initially tempting, DeQuincy's main assumption fails here since, though a scientist may of course find his point in matter, he must nonetheless communicate it still in words. Indeed, one of the most celebrated dirty-hand stories in history illustrates my point. Dr. Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis, the Hungarian discoverer of microbial pathogens, failed at first to report his discovery and so, for a time at least, lost public credit for it (although his discovery did happily save many lives, as anyone familiar with the story knows). But my real point lies deeper, for it can be argued that Dr. Semmelweis's reticence came not so much from his literary shyness as from a deep, subtle, stylishly philosophical understanding of the point of scientific discovery: namely, that it is less a matter of finding any "matter" as such than a "method" by which that matter's existence can be suggested but never proved per se (or an sich, as Kant would say).

What's called the Hempelian model of the scientific method explains as much. Attributed to philosopher Carl Hempel, it turns, simply, on the analysis of logical inference in scientific inquiry, wherein the results grasped by its research must rely on invalid formal arguments (on affirming the consequent, to be precise), yielding practical benefits but revealing theoretical traps, too. So whenever good scientists report results, they usually say: "The data suggest [but don't 'prove'] the matter in hand." So in a manner of speaking, we have, in such phrasing, scientific style modeled — though Semmelweis had it, of course, in the extreme.

In extremis, indeed, if you followed my link above, for you know he finally died of the "matter in hand." So in a manner of speaking, not only did he show that getting one's "hands" dirty knocks the "palaver" out of one's writing, but suggested, too, that not till we discover "'imaginary gardens with real toads in them'" — to borrow a different Marianne's words (Marianne Moore's in "Poetry") — can we ever hope to learn how to knock the "palaver" out of our lives. Perhaps that's the matter Thoreau also had in mind.

Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

 · XML RSS · Copyright © 2007  YouGotStyle.org
 · MT- Powered ·     

Unless otherwise stated, all original materials of whatever kind included in these pages, including weblog archives, are licensed under a Creative Commons License.
April 2013
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30        
  Last Posts
  Category Archives
  Monthly Archives