The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Tue, 22 Feb 2005 Slogging Along with Turin

So, I'm working my way through the second book of Lost Tales. The early versions of Beren and Luthien were easy to read, especially with the somewhat comic scenes with the cat-lord, Tevildo. The draft of the story of Turin Turambar, entitled "Turambar and the Foaloke," is not so easy. It is long, and grim, largely in a very formal style, and it veers perilously close to reading like "the telephone book in Elvish." This is in part because so many of the names are different in the version of the story with which I am most familiar.

I'll have to fortify myself by listening to my recorded version of the tale of Turin Turambar as it appears in the Silmarillion. If that doesn't get me through it, I'll set it aside for now and move on to the next story. Maybe I'm just tired today.

In our bedtime storytelling we're in the midst of the Council of Elrond, the point at which fellowship is formed and the story really gets moving. The night before last we were in the hall of fire, and I read out loud Bilbo's poem about Earendil. I had long thought this was one of the more abstract and dull of the poems in the book, but now that I am older, when I read the poem out loud I find it stunning: an amazing vocabulary, great subtlety of wording, with alliteration and internal half-rhymes, makes it perhaps the best single poem in the book, in my haughty and egomaniacal opinion.

Shortly I'll have the chance to read Tolkien's early Tale of Earendel (an earlier spelling), which contains several earlier poems. I'm very much looking forward to it. It makes me laugh even more at Bilbo's cheekiness in reciting a poem about Earendil in the house of Elrond. But it is a remarkable poem, and the elves were not mocking Bilbo when they asked him to recite it again. It also makes me wonder what it would be like to be old enough to remember personally a world that is now only myth -- but since I was born in the 1960s, perhaps I do -- and wonder further what it would be like to have a constellation for a father!

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Mon, 21 Feb 2005 Lisp Group

I'm looking for people interested in meeting to talk about Lisp, Scheme, and other languages of that ilk. I have set up a meetup.com group, the Ann Arbor Lisp Languages Meetup; the group home page is here:

http://lisp.meetup.com/54/

As of yet, we have not met, because no one has joined the goup. I'm posting this here in part so that anyone Googling for an Ann Arbor, Michigan, Lisp User's Group, or Scheme User's Group, will find it.

I would also like to get this topic syndicated via RSS onto the Planet Lisp aggregate site (planet.lisp.org), but as of yet the Lisp content is a little light, so I wait until there is a little bit more of interest here before asking them to syndicate my feed. The RSS feed for this topic is available as:

http://thepottshouse.org/blosxom.cgi/root/geeky/programming/lispish.rss

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Cesium

So, I decided to order a couple of pounds of pure bismuth to melt down with my son, in order to attempt to create bismuth crystals. In case we can't get any visible crystals, I also bid on a really pretty specimen on eBay. We might also see whether crystallization can be improved by using a "seed" crystal. I don't know whether that works with metals or not.

I mentioned cesium as being another metal that would melt in your hand. Well, some web sites describe a couple of other metal elements as being liquid at "room temperature," but really it depends on the temperature of your room. Cesium melts at about 83 degrees Fahrenheit, gallium at 86, and rubidium at 102.

It is a bit odd to talk about the "melting point of francium," since it is an unstable radioactive element that would be insanely difficult or insanely dangerous to accumulate in a quantity large enough to be visible, but the melting point of francium, presumably calculated via mathematical modeling rather than by observation, is listed in the books as 27 degrees Celsius (about 81 degrees Fahrenheit). Bromine and mercury are both liquid at what I think of as comfortable "room temperature" -- around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, this is technically true -- cesium will melt in your hand, but I should probably also point out that when it was done melting in your hand, it would then melt your hand, or, rather, burn its way through it in an extremely painful way. Cesium is extremely hazardous, and pure cesium must be kept under glass in argon. A cesium FAQ list at the University of Rochester says:

"Cesium is an alkali metal, in the same group as lithium, sodium, potassium, and rubidium, and is similarly reactive, but to a much higher degree due to its extreme electropositivity. It reacts explosively with water, and with ice down to -116 C. In air, it catches fire spontaneously and burns with a brilliant sky-blue flame...

Its hydroxide is the most powerful aqueous base known, and will eat through glass, flesh, bone, and numerous other substances."

Wow.

The FAQ is here:

http://www.cs.rochester.edu/users/faculty/nelson/cesium/cesium_faq.html

This is too bad, because it is very pretty; if mercury is quicksilver, cesium could be called quickgold. It would be a beautiful specimen to have in an element collection, but it is far too dangerous to have a specimen, even a nicely ampouled specimen, in the house with small children (or even with me; I would no doubt want to handle it all the time too). Oh, well.

Of possibly more interest are the non-toxic metals with low melting points. More on those when we get our bismuth!

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Mercury

So, I should mention that I have a jar of elemental mercury. I have not weighed it, but I would guess that it contains two or three pounds. It is currently in zip-lock bag, in a tin, padded with foam rubber, on a shelf. It came from my stepfather's basement; I think he probably picked it up from a General Electric salvage lot in the 1970s. He used to bring home all kinds of interesting electronic and mechanical stuff. It was apparently not widely known then that mercury was toxic.

There are a couple of things we could do with this. We could pay someone to dispose of it for us -- probably the safest option. We could donate it to someone setting up an element display. We could just keep it as-is and put off making any decision as to its disposition. Or, we could have it ampouled in some way to make it display-worthy for our own element collection, and keep it locked up until the kids are old enough to be trusted around it.

It is somewhat oxidized and not shiny; this can be remedied by squeezing it through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. But although I used to handle this stuff as a kid, and did the filtering procedure before, I am reluctant to do it in our apartment, especially not with a child and a baby on premises. And then I'd have a cheesecloth or coffee filter contaminated with mercury.

What I'd really like is to find someone who would filter it (to "polish it up") and then put it in a heavy walled and attractive display bottle, top the jar off with argon, and seal it up. This is presumably a dangerous procedure; I don't even know how this kind of thing is safely done, but it must be done often, at least with smaller quantities, because ampoules like this are included in commercially available element displays.

Presumably, you'd need a vapor hood, and would do it wearing protective gear.

If you know someone who would like to take on a project like this, and who would be willing to accept the risk of a mercury spill, get in touch. It would be especially great to find someone who would do it in exchange for splitting the mercury into two jars, keeping half for his or her own element display.

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Fri, 18 Feb 2005 History Volumes 2 and 6

I have finished reading the early versions of the story of Beren and Luthien, in volume 2 of the History of Middle Earth. This draft is interesting in part, as I have said, because of Huan's nemesis, the evil cat Tevildo, and because Beren is apparently also an elf, but one of a different social class and community. The great love between elf and mortal man apparently had not become part of Tolkien's mythology yet.

The Tevildo material is interesting -- it seems that Tolkien may have been a dog person. One of the cats is actually killed and skinned. Tevildo's lieutenants act like cats, making enormous leaps and twitching their tales. Some of the story borders on comic fable. It is hard to decide whether Tolkien included the comic element wtih full deliberation, or whether he found himself distracted by writing an "origin" fable of the antipathy between cats and dogs in the midst of telling the story of Beren and Luthien. I tend to think the latter is true.

Intentionally, or not. I think he may have eliminated the entire Lord of Cats component of the storyline because it generated that comic feel, and in the later versions of the Silmarillion, he wanted to maintain that high mythological air. This is, I feel, a slight loss. Tolkien famously hated allegory, but the story of Tevildo is not allegory but fable, and I think Tolkien enjoyed writing fable. He may have come to feel that the form was unworthy; if so, that's a shame. I feel that a truly integrated Silmarillion, with "lost tales" framework story intact, could have subsumed both the mythological style and the fable style, though broken down by complete story, perhaps; the combination of styles within the story of Beren and Luthien perhaps did not serve that story well. The storytellers are actually different characters, so it would make perfect sense that they would tell the tales with very different voices.

I received the last two outstanding orders from Amazon: volumes 6 and 8 of the History. Volume 6 was apparently the hardest for Amazon to get, but get it they did. Although all the rest were in mint condition, this one looks a bit shopworn -- not abused, but the cover is scuffed. The binding on this one is a bit distorted, but that is a manufacturing issue and hardly Amazon's fault. Still, it makes me wonder what various and sundry means they use to procure their books -- this volume looks like it came off the shelf of a retail store.

There also was no discount on this volume. Sadly, they also have raised the price of all the available volumes slightly now, although most of them are still far below list.

Anyway. I began reading Return of the Shadow last night. There are a couple of remarkable things about Tolkien's drafts. The first is that many of the ideas and phrases really did spring full-blown from J. R. R. Tolkien's mind in the first draft. Sometimes they are the most clever and recognizable bits, such as when Bilbo tells his assembled guests "I don't know half of you half as well as I would like, and less than half of you half as well as you deserve." Indeed, the whole structure of the party, the speech, and Bilbo's disappearance did not change much.

The second remarkable thing is that Tolkien had no outline. The party was a set piece that he put down on the page, but there was as of yet no vision behind it. In several of the succeeding drafts he tried to get up some momentum for the story, but wound up repeatedly writing himself into a corner. Bilbo goes off and gets married and lives happily ever after. No, that pretty much derails the story before it gets off the ground. Bilbo goes off to Rivendell and lives happily ever after. Same problem. Hmmm. Maybe it isn't Bilbo who gives the speech -- Bilbo is a little too fat and happy to be the protagonist at this point -- but Bingo, his son. Or maybe Bingo isn't his son, but his second cousin. How old is Bilbo, anyway? How many years have gone by? Is this his party, or Bingo's party?

At this point Tolkien had only some very sketchy ideas about where to take the story. There was no deep history behind the ring. He had some vague ideas about Bilbo wanting to go acquire himself some more dragon-gold, or see a live dragon again, or travel across the sea, as part of the ring's curse, but it was not connected to his more ancient and rich mythology. He wanted to re-create the success of the Hobbit, and satisfy his fans, but he also didn't have a lot of interest in telling another children's story. His heart lay in his "Lost Tales," the over-arching legendarium of Middle Earth. The Hobbit was not really connected to this existing body of material at all. The challenge that Tolkien had before him, in order to get himself interested in the story, was to find a way to connect it to that deeper world.

It took him many chapters and many revisions before this began to happen; prior to this, he was mainly "writing his way into the story," as Tom Shippey described the process.

This is unintentionally a great encouragement to writers everywhere. Tolkien proved it: you don't have to know just what you are doing, before you start. If you are truly a writer, the process itself will generate the interesting ideas.

It also reveals the fault lines in The Lord of the Rings. Clearly, there was room for a progressive series of plot outlines in Tolkien's process. Ideally, a writer would use both techniques.

It is now much more clear why the early parts of the story feel so uneven. This long story, generated by repeated revisions and in fits and starts, also suffered, in some sense, from incomplete revision. The process of discovery of the plot is still visible. The seams show. The ringrwaiths, for example, in the early chapters, are not very terrifying, because Tolkien, like Frodo, didn't know what the ringwraiths were, and what terror they represented. And once he knew, he did not rework all the older scenes to fit the ringwraiths as they became later.

There are other places where the seams show. The Bombadil and Old Man Willow episodes, for example, really don't fit into the story arc. Tolkien included them because he had already imagined these characters in his comic rhymes, and thought it would be fun to give the hobbits something to do on their journey to Rivendell. He was right, and this recycling gives us an interesting and enigmatic episode in the story, but only because he was such a gifted writer. Lesser writers should take this as an encouragement that writing itself is the primary tool needed to generate ideas, but that a little planning can go a long way in producing a finished product with a more integrated and unified feel to it, especially if you are not a Tolkien yourself.

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The Elements

So, my latest eBay obsession is beautiful specimens of pure elements. There are some sellers that specialize in unusual collectible pieces such as spheres of pure zinc, cadmium, or highly polished silicon, ingots or cylinders of aluminum or tungsten, and balls or lumps of some of the more expensive metals like osmium and iridium, which are neck-and-neck for the honor of densest readily available element, and which have to be melted in strange and very expensive contraptions such as electron-beam furnaces.

Beryllium and lithium are reactive, and iridium and osmium are very expensive, so my second thought was that it might be fun to have some less expensive specimens the represent radically different atomic weights, such as equal-sized pieces of zinc and tungsten. If I can't find equal-sized pieces, it would be cool to find similarly shaped pieces of the same mass, which would differ in size to a comical degree. I could also pick up an ingot if indium, which is an interesting, non-toxic metal that is extremely soft, and can be melted on a stovetop. I did not see any scandium, which is very expensive, or cesium or gallium, which will melt in your hand.

Tracking down a full set of attractive, pure specimens could very well be a full-time, and fascinating, hobby. A good place to start might be a set of attractive metals, like niobium and hafnium. But I probably should not try to take on yet another hobby, especially since I don't have a nice spot to set up a display of these speciments. Sigh.

Besides the pure element specimens, eBay also has great mineral specimens, such as beautiful black tourmaline and fluourite crystals, which would go, presumably, on a different shelf. There are also some amazing fabricated specimens, like a silver-doped bismuth crystal geode that looks like a robot egg, and a piece of Gadolinium Gallium garnet with crystals of platinum embedded in it.

I had a great collection of display-quality mineral specimens when I was young, but someone it got lost or thrown out while I was in college, when my parents moved. I've always regretted that: there were some beautiful specimens, like big cubes of pyrite and some very nice amethyst crystals, a s well as various granites and volcanic obsidian.

Theodore Gray's web site (theodoregray.com) has the fascinating details of his collection.

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Thu, 17 Feb 2005 Destructuring

My friend Alan has been asking me questions about some Lisp programming idioms involving macros, such as destructuring-bind.

Destructuring, the idiom, is a technique in which the shape of a data structure can be determined at runtime, and the contents of the data structure bound to a set of variables.

More later.

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