Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

Making trouble today for a better tomorrow…

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Entries Tagged as 'writing'

Technology and progress: Past and present

October 29th, 2014 · Comments Off on Technology and progress: Past and present

My mother was 70 in 1988; my daughters 13 and 6.

My mother could remember when an electric iron and central heating were huge tech novelties.

I can remember my first pocket calculator (which cost a fortune!), and I remember how long I kept using my CRC handbook and sliderule anyway, not the new toy. I remember my first VHS, the freedom of time-shifting or just re-watching good movies. And my first home computer! But all those were commonplace items to my two daughters.

My daughters remember a time before there was an Internet; a time before smartphones, Siri, ubiquitous constant connection via the “cloud.” To their children, all those will be unremarkable facts, as commonplace as deliveries from the coal man and the ice man were to my mother’s household in the 1920s.

My mother was 8 years old when women got the vote. Soon thereafter, her aunts daringly drove from Northampton to Springfield in order to have their long hair “bobbed” by a barber. Oh, the freedom of not spending hours every day maintaining long hair — and oh, the wonderful freedom of owning a car!

All new technology pokes and prods our shared culture. Even despite some nostalgia, most of us would be reluctant to give up our latest new tech freedoms.

Here’s hoping the book that inspired these thoughts (The Second Machine Age, by Erik Bryniolfsson and Andrew McAfee) will provide more answers than I can now see by myself.

Tags: geeky · Heroes and funny folks · Wide wonderful world · writing

Wordsworth strongly deprecates one shade of green

May 25th, 2011 · Comments Off on Wordsworth strongly deprecates one shade of green

Day 3 offtrack: Shades of green by betsythedevine
Day 3 offtrack: Shades of green, a photo by betsythedevine on Flickr.

William Wordsworth (7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850, as we say in Wikipedia) has strong opinions on the moral value of scenery. His poems celebrating the Lake District inspired poets who inspired the Romantic Age. Less well known, but also deserving of some mention, was his absolute hatred of a particular tree that had been introduced to the Lake District during his lifetime.

The larch. Yes, the larch, a tree that figures heavily in one much-loved Monty Python episode, was to Wordsworth simply despicable. For example:

… as a tree, it is less than any other pleasing: its branches (for boughs it has none) have no variety in the youth of the tree, and little dignity, even when it attains its full growth: leaves it cannot be said to have, consequently neither affords shade nor shelter. In spring the larch becomes green long before the native trees; and its green is so peculiar and vivid, that, finding nothing to harmonise with it, wherever it comes forth, a disagreeable speck is produced. In summer, when all other trees are in their pride, it is of a dingy, lifeless hue; in autumn of a spiritless unvaried yellow, and in winter it is still more lamentably distinguished from every other deciduous tree of the forest, for they seem only to sleep, but the larch appears absolutely dead.

And so on, and so on, at very great length in his instructive and often quite funny book Guide to the Lakes. I hope that he would not have disapproved any of these greens, however.

Tags: coasttocoast · England · funny · Travel · Wide wonderful world · writing

Then longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

May 20th, 2011 · Comments Off on Then longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Lakeland view by eleda 1
Lakeland view, a photo by eleda 1 on Flickr.

William Wordsworth, 1810, says the Lake District is beautiful this time of year. Sitting in Logan Airport, hoping that’s so ….

Yet, as most travellers are either stinted, or stint themselves, for time, the space between the middle or last week in May, and the middle or last week of June, may be pointed out as affording the best combination of long days, fine weather, and variety of impressions. Few of the native trees are then in full leaf; but, for whatever maybe wanting in depth of shade, more than an equivalent will be found in the diversity of foliage, in the blossoms of the fruit-and-berry-bearing trees which abound in the woods, and in the golden flowers of the broom and other shrubs, with which many of the copses are interveined. In those woods, also, and on those mountain-sides which have a northern aspect, and in the deep dells, many of the spring-flowers still linger; while the open and sunny places are stocked with the flowers of the approaching summer. And, besides, is not an exquisite pleasure still untasted by him who has not heard the choir of linnets and thrushes chaunting their love-songs in the copses, woods, and hedge-rows of a mountainous country; safe from the birds of prey, which build in the inaccessible crags, and are at all hours seen or heard wheeling about in the air? The number of these formidable creatures is probably the cause, why, in the narrow vallies, there are no skylarks; as the destroyer would be enabled to dart upon them from the near and surrounding crags, before they could descend to their ground-nests for protection. It is not often that the nightingale resorts to these vales; but almost all the other tribes of our English warblers are numerous; and their notes, when listened to by the side of broad still waters, or when heard in unison with the murmuring of mountain-brooks, have the compass of their power enlarged accordingly.

There is also an imaginative influence in the voice of the cuckoo, when that voice has taken possession of a deep mountain valley, very different from any thing which can be excited by the same sound in a flat country. Nor must a circumstance be omitted, which here renders the close of spring especially interesting; I mean the practice of bringing down the ewes from the mountains to yean in the vallies and enclosed grounds. The herbage being thus cropped as it springs, that first tender emerald green of the season, which would otherwise have lasted little more than a fortnight, is prolonged in the pastures and meadows for many weeks: while they are farther enlivened by the multitude of lambs bleating and skipping about. These sportive creatures, as they gather strength, are turned out upon the open mountains, and with their slender limbs, their snow-white colour, and their wild and light motions, beautifully accord or contrast with the rocks and lawns, upon which they must now begin to seek their food.

Tags: coasttocoast · England · Pilgrimages · Travel · Wide wonderful world · writing

John Brockman, founder of the feast

December 28th, 2009 · Comments Off on John Brockman, founder of the feast

John Brockman, founder of the feast

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

John Brockman and Katinka Matson were in Cambridge this weekend, throwing (as usual) an enjoyable party… which none of my iPhone pictures came out, but I like this one of John, seen here with just a bit of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, the author of the (soon to be published) Bursts.

There was quite a bit of talk about the Edge question for 2010 (which remains secret until it gets published there January 1.) I was also very intrigued by the ongoing DNA mysteries that Ting Wu explores in her Harvard Med School lab — and by the diverse places that Katinka Matson finds the flowers for her humongous photographs. I also learned that Frank Wilczek considers evolution a very roundabout way to deliver paltry amounts of information. I am looking forward to reading Connected by Nicolas Christakis and James Fowler, especially the chapter that begins with epidemic laughter. And if I had been sitting closer to Marvin Minsky or Benoit Mandelbrot, I might have learned something novel from them as well.

And then there was the Harvest’s sticky toffee pudding! Thanks once again, John Brockman and Katinka Matson.

Tags: Boston · Cambridge · Frank Wilczek · Science · Wide wonderful world · writing

NYC-loving author Donald Westlake will write no more

January 3rd, 2009 · 3 Comments

Snow-covered lion on Columbia campus

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Kind, cynical funny mystery writer Donald Westlake died on New Year’s Eve. If you don’t know the prolific Westlake or his funny goofball career criminal Dortmunder, you should fix that. Westlake was a ninja at making a huge mess of funny and surprising stuff that gets sorted out to your stunned but smiling satisfaction in his last few pages.

One of my Dortmunder favorites, Don’t Ask, starts with Dortmunder in a traffic-stuck frozen fish truck but lurches him forward into the theft (more than once) of an 800 year-old femur disputed by two angry countries.

More Westlake wonders, all of them suitable to keep you happy on airplanes, even when jostled by turbulent weather or children…

Trust Me On This

Newswoman Sara Joslyn goes to work at notorious tabloid and runs afoul of murder mystery while working on stories of century-old twins, a star’s honeymoon, and a “body in a box”; romance as a bonus with great police intervention which I’m restraining myself from describing.
Baby, Would I Lie?

Sara Joslyn again, now working for cute boss Jack at a trendy New York magazine called Trend, re-meets some of her tabloid pals in Branson country-western land and gets tangled up in an even more tricky mystery.

Begun in 1986 and/or 1990, according to its preface, this book recounts a struggle carried out by one angel and one demon against God’s plan for the end of the universe. Remarkably similar in its premise to Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens (1990), which I also love, this book takes a different pathway, both darker and funnier, to — but of course I don’t want to spoil the ending.

I am now regretting I never wrote Westlake any fan mail — this blog post must now suffice. He was a true craftsman whose work made the world better, not least by making us laugh.

Tags: funny · Wide wonderful world · writing

Happiness, Hilbert space, and an New Year

January 1st, 2009 · 2 Comments

Happy New Year

Originally uploaded by Stuck in Customs

Pop, bam, fizz! Another New Year arrives, with fresh round of wild ideas from

“What will change everything?” was John Brockman’s question this year. “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” He’s now posting responses given by more than 150 wide-angle guessers — people from actor Alan Alda to quantum teleportationist Anton Zeilinger — with Frank Wilczek and Betsy Devine filing separate guesses.
Homesteading in Hilbert space,” predicts Frank Wilczek:

…The quantum world is a New New World far more alien and difficult of access than Columbus’ Old New World. It is also, in a real sense, much bigger… Our fundamental equations do not live in the three-dimensional space of classical physics, but in an (effectively) infinite-dimensional space: Hilbert space. It will take us much more than a century to homestead that New New World, even at today’s much-accelerated pace…

Happiness,” counter-predicts Betsy Devine:

In the next five years, policy-makers around the world will embrace economic theories (e.g. those of Richard Layard) aimed at creating happiness. The Tower of Economic Babble is rubble. Long live the new, improved happiness economics! …

Here are other short samples from just a few more of the best:

“The robotic moment” says Sherry Turkle

I will see the development of robots that people will want to spend time with. Not just a little time, time in which the robots serve as amusements, but enough time and with enough interactivity that the robots will be experienced as companions, each closer to a someone than a something. I think of this as the robotic moment…
“A forebrain for the world mind” says Danny Hillis

…If there is such a thing as a world mind today, then its thoughts are primarily about commerce. It is the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, deciding the prices, allocating the capital…I call this the hindbrain because it is performing unconscious functions necessary to the organism’s own survival, functions that are so primitive that they predate development of the brain. Included in this hindbrain are the functions of preference and attention that create celebrity, popularity and fashion, all fundamental to the operation of human society. This hindbrain is ancient….
“Molecular manufacturing” says Ed Regis

…Program the assemblers to put together an SUV, a sailboat, or a spacecraft, and they’d do it—automatically, and without human aid or intervention. Further, they’d do it using cheap, readily-available feedstock molecules as raw materials. The idea sounds fatuous in the extreme…until you remember that objects as big and complex as whales, dinosaurs, and sumo wrestlers got built in a moderately analogous fashion…
“We are learning to make phenotypes” says Mark Pagel

…the thing that we think of as “us”,can become separated from our body, or nearly separated anyway. I don’t suggest we will be able to transplant our mind to another body, but we will be able to introduce new body parts into existing bodies with a resident mind. With enough such replacements, we will become potentially immortal: like ancient buildings that exist only because over the centuries each of their many stones has been replaced…
“Malthusian information famine” says Charles Seife

…There seems to be a Malthusian principle at work: information grows exponentially, but useful information grows only linearly. Noise will drown out signal. The moment that we, as a species, finally have the memory to store our every thought, etch our every experience into a digital medium, it will be hard to avoid slipping into a Borgesian nightmare where we are engulfed by our own mental refuse…
The use of nuclear weapons against a civilian population” says Lawrence Krauss

…Having been forced to choose a single game changer, I have turned away from the fascinating scientific developments I might like to see, and will instead focus on the one game changer that I will hopefully never directly witness, but nevertheless expect will occur during my lifetime: the use of nuclear weapons against a civilian population…

I join Lawrence in hoping that his prediction won’t come true.

Tags: Frank Wilczek · geeky · Science · Wide wonderful world · writing

Henry James on book tour: “My profane lucubration”

September 18th, 2008 · Comments Off on Henry James on book tour: “My profane lucubration”

Henry James

Originally uploaded by jadc01

I’ve been spending some time in the NYPL, reading old letters written to my godmother and namesake, author/editor/suffragist/ball-of-fire Elizabeth Garver Jordan.

Quite a few of these are from Henry James (1848 – 1913), whose books could not have been more different from her cheerful fictions. I transcribed for you, dear readers, one typed example (his penmanship is appalling) from Box 3, folder 14, labeled “James, Henry 1904 – 1905.”

I break it up here to give your eye some blessed white space, but his actual letter is one long breathless paragraph. James was on a lecture tour, and she had straightened out for him some problem about his reading at a convent school. I do not know the identity of Miss E. L. Cary, though an earlier letter from James thanks Elizabeth Jordan for introducing them. And “the whilom Parker”? Your guess is as good as mine.

95 Irving St., Cambridge, Mass., March 2, 1905

Dear Miss Jordan,

Forgive my again flying to you, in gratitude, on the wings of the great Remington. [Remington is a brand of typewriter.]

Your kind activity of yesterday, culminating in your second telegram, has given me the peace that passeth understanding. Tuesday fourteenth will beautifully do; by this I shall solemnly abide, and I am now writing to Sister M. Rita to this comfortable effect. I might have wired her directly yesterday — that came over me, to my confusion, ten minutes after I had wired you; but I lost, in my anguish and shame, all presence of mind, and just instinctively clutched at you. May the peace I just spoke of have been now completely brought to you! — with my renewed liveliest thanks.

Your letter is luminosity itself, and everything, I am sure, will go merrily forward. I don’t quite imagine what all those sequestered young souls will make of my profane lucubration; but that is their own affair, and I am fortunately not afraid of their being, as who should say, shocked or scandalized.

It interests me much to hear of your pleasant impression of the whilom Parker — so pathetic a figure as he had, these last months, appeared to the mind’s eye. If I had known you were to meet him, I would have asked you to kindly mention that I would have voted for him could I have voted for anyone — instead of being, through long absence, a poor practically disfranchised creature. But even that crumb of comfort I gather he doesn’t affect you as missing.

You must show me Mrs. Spencer Trask* on the first opportunity — for my curiosity is insatiable. Let me add, for your reassurance, that I have edged away from the “Pen and Brush” quite as gracefully, I think, as I have, with a fine discrimination, sunk into the arms (as it were) of Miss E. L. Cary — for a performance in Brooklyn, on the basis of the proper equivalent, on May tenth p.m.; so you see into what excellent “form” you have got me.
Yours most truly, Henry James.

*Footnote: Katrina Trask, author and wife of “millionaire banker” Spencer Trask. They created (much later) the artist colony Yaddo. Her writing is said to fit “easily with that of other society people with high literary talent.”

Tags: funny · Travel · Wide wonderful world · writing

In NYC with Henry James, Jack London, Mark Twain, and Frank Wilczek

September 18th, 2008 · Comments Off on In NYC with Henry James, Jack London, Mark Twain, and Frank Wilczek

Elizabeth Jordan (1865 – 1947)

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Frank is on book tour for The Lightness of Being, but oh boy — he is much better off than poor Jack London!

How do I know? I’ve been reading Elizabeth Jordan’s boxes of letters, mostly from the years she was editor of Harper’s Bazaar (1900 – 1913). One of these came from Jack London, who was sadly following his Call of the Wild on a three-month lecture tour around the US, most recently landing him in a commercial hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

In her own day, people speculated that she had a romance going with Henry James*:

The story runs that when Henry James proposed marriage to Elizabeth Jordan, he wrote a letter couched in so involved and complicated a style that she could not possibly understand it. She answered it in a note so illegible that he could not possibly read it.

Not bloody likely, says Ms. Jordan’s goddaughter (me) — not least because her penmanship was much better than Henry James’s. His 30-plus letters to her over twenty-some years are breathless and surprisingly flirty, when I can read them. I did transcribe one long one, blessedly typewritten.

I wish I had transcribed a long very sad letter from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) on black-bordered stationery about how much he missed his wife, who had recently died. But I ordered a photocopy, which the NYPL says they will send me about one month from now. I’ll share it with you then.

* How times change — recent speculation is that she had a romance with Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy!

Tags: Travel · Wide wonderful world · writing

This blog is not dead…

June 20th, 2008 · Comments Off on This blog is not dead…

Great Tew churchyard

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

… though it has been slightly buried by packing, then travel, then jet lag, and now the unpacking.

It has been wonderful spending a springtime in England.

Roses, campanula, hardy geraniums, and the peaceful, sleepy cooing of pale-gray doves.

Wide meadows with elderflower and hawthorn tree borders, whose stiles Miss Elizabeth Bennet might have slipped through on her long walk through the fields to Mr. Bingley’s house.

Small village shops where Alice in Wonderland might have bought apples or candy.

And in London, I swear that I once saw Bertie Wooster coming out of a tailor’s shop, proud of but unnerved by his coat’s rather daring new color.

But now my own real life is starting up again, which is a good thing.

Tags: England · Travel · Wide wonderful world · writing

Tolkien’s table, Merton College

June 1st, 2008 · 1 Comment

Tolkien’s table, Merton College

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Is this the table where JRR Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings? Is it the setting he had in mind for Elrond’s conference where 4 hobbits, 2 men, and one each of wizard/elf/dwarf pledge their faith to a fellowship of the One Ring?

It may well be both of these, for it is a fine old stone table in the gardens of Merton College, one where (it is said) Tolkien would often sit outdoors writing on fine days like yesterday in the years after 1945, when he became Oxford’s Merton Professor of English language and literature.

Merton (founded in 1260 by Walter de Merton) has many lovely medieval spaces set among peaceful lawns and well-tended gardens. I would not be surprised in Tolkien’s vision of Lothlorien’s elegant retreat from a dangerous world owes something to his own experiences of life in this setting.

Tags: England · Heroes and funny folks · Wide wonderful world · writing