+2 Earrings of Powerful Resistance

I always thought resistors had a certain chic appeal, with their banded color-codes. And so, during a recent trip to Radio Shack, I decided to pick up materials for making some ultra-geeky jewelry. It turns out that Radio Shack does still sell racks of electronic components, including resistors and capacitors.

Since I’ve never made any jewelry before, I appealed to a friend for a jewelry-making lesson. She’s made lots of her own necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, and showed up with books and magazines full of instructions and inspirations. She also brought lots of useful tools, mainly in the form of several different kinds of pliers and cutters. After playing around with the components a little to decide how to arrange them, we got to work.

I learned how to shape the wires coming out of the ends of the components into little rings so they could be connected. I gripped the wire with the rounded pliers and used another pair to tightly wrap the wire into a circular shape. After snipping the end of the wire, I used the pliers again to bend the sharp, free end in towards the component so it wouldn’t poke or snag. While the tools are great, I can see that it takes some experience to get used to using them most effectively (I kept wanting to put them down and work with my less precise but more familiar fingers instead).

My jewelry-crafting friend came up with the clever triangular arrangement and donated the hematite cubes that serve as the join point. The cubes didn’t have a hole large enough to pass both wires through, so we put one through and twisted the second one around the first, which was the most technically difficult part of this assembly.

We determined that the wires attached to the resistors and capacitors served quite well as jewelry wire, although apparently it is somewhat more flexible than is typical. However, I wouldn’t want to stick it in my ear (resistance wire is made from a nickel/chromium alloy which could irritate the skin of those with a nickel allergy), so we connected the earrings to sterling silver earwires.

Those are 1-μF capacitors. I wonder how many of my readers can specify the resistance of the resistors? (As a reference, here’s the resistor color code.) And in case you’re curious, here’s more info about how resistors actually work or how capacitors actually work.

Other cool ideas:

The line of Mason and Dixon

The Mason-Dixon line today has a lot of cultural significance, since it came to serve as a conceptual boundary between the free states of the North and the slave-holding states of the South during the Civil War. But neither Mason nor Dixon were involved in the Civil War. They weren’t even Americans (gasp!). In fact, they were Englishmen hired a hundred years before the war (in 1763) to survey their eponymous line. The Provinces (not States) of Pennsylvania and Maryland hired Charles Mason (then 35) and Jeremiah Dixon (then 30) to settle a border dispute. The job cost the provinces’ controlling families (the Calverts in Maryland and the Penns in Pennsylvania) £3,512 — although Mason and Dixon weren’t actually able to survey the entire distance, allegedly due to a run-in with Native Americans (but they got pretty close). They also surveyed the border between Maryland and Delaware, which was apparently the harder feat due to its more complex description.

The sheer magnitude of (and the motivation for) this kind of surveying feat is hard to imagine today, in the age of Google maps and satellite reconnaissance. Beyond the tedious nature of the actual surveying, Mason and Dixon (why never Dixon and Mason?) also had to deploy physical markers so that local farmers and other folk could literally see the boundary. They marked their line with “crown stones” every 5 miles, which had the Calvert coat of arms engraved on the south-facing side and the Penn arms on the north-facing side, and smaller “M”/”P” stones every 1 mile. Apparently many of these still remain today and you can go see them—I wish I’d known that while living in Maryland!

So why were Mason and Dixon of England chosen for this job? Their travel costs alone surely inflated the surveying bill. Wikipedia notes that “Colonial surveyors had been unable to accurately establish the boundary due to their poor training and inadequate scientific instruments.” Thomas Pynchon wrote a historical-fiction novel about their experience called (of course) “Mason & Dixon”. I’ve actually opened this book a couple of times at the library out of curiosity, but so far have found it entirely unreadable (apparently Pynchon requires “investment” on the part of the reader). Here is the first sentence:

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,– the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, Heated Sugar,– the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.

I mean, I can sort of see the liveliness conveyed in this storm of commas and Punctuated Words, but it just smashes into my brain like a blizzard, and really what I want is some clear cool prose to tell me about Mason and Dixon. On the other hand, Mark Knopfler was apparently so inspired by the novel that he crafted a much more accessible song, providing these mini-biographies of the main players:

I am Jeremiah Dixon; I am a Geordie boy
A glass of wine with you, sir, and the ladies I’ll enjoy
All Durham and Northumberland were measured out by my own hand
It was my fate from birth to make my mark upon the Earth.

He calls me Charlie Mason; a stargazer am I
It seems that I was born to chart the evening sky
They’d cut me out for baking bread, but I had other dreams instead
This baker’s boy from the west country would join the Royal Society.

Despite its rather weird use of uneven rhythm and simplistic notions, I find this song (Sailing to Philadelphia) persistently haunting. The song doesn’t even touch on their actual surveying, taking place as it does during their journey to, and anticipation of, the American colonies. But maybe that’s what gives it such staying power: it describes the build-up before the action, the drawn-in breath before the speech.

I admire these men for the work they did, akin in some ways to that of the Antarctic explorers, although in more hospitable conditions. Pennsylvania and Maryland were likewise pleased with the outcome, and both men were inducted into the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge (what a name!). Could they have known that their Line would persist to today? Even if they dreamed of that longevity, they surely could not have imagined the role it would play in the Civil War, years after their deaths.

Geology and Sherlock Holmes

A couple of months ago, I visited Edinburgh, Scotland, and had a glorious time exploring the local geology. One of my favorite non-geological sights in the city was the National Library of Scotland. Like the John Rylands Library in Manchester, it is not a public library, but rather one in which you can “register” to become a Reader and then do serious research, gaining access to original texts, rare manuscripts, illustrated maps, and so on. The National Library of Scotland had a wonderful exhibition, open to us non-Readers, featuring light-up displays with accoutrements associated with several famous authors, including one of my particular favorites, Isabella L. Bird, as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It occurred to me that I’d never actually read anything by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Back home, one day I came across this commentary on Sherlock Holmes as a forensic geologist, and all the pieces clicked together. Geology, Scotland, and Holmes—I had to sample one of those stories!

I decided to read “A Study in Scarlet” (published 1887, full text here, thank you Project Gutenberg), which is not only the first Holmes story that Doyle wrote, but also the one referenced in the context of geology. In it, Watson after meeting Holmes notes down his knowledge of geology as “Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.” Like Andrew Alden, author of the commentary I mentioned above, I was taken by Doyle’s choice of Utah as the setting for the story behind the London murder that is unraveled by Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. His characterization of Mormons and their culture in the early settling of Utah is, um, colorful, but so is his depiction of the wide fertile valleys the settlers were so grateful to find, and the bitter steep canyons that surrounded the area. I waited for more geology to take an active role in the story, but alas.

The story itself is amusing and captivating, with a clever mystery to solve that is, happily, all explained in the end. It’s not a mystery that the reader is seriously meant to be able to solve independently, as some crucial bits of information are later revealed as being in Holmes’s possession and not available to the reader; but it is still entertaining to watch Holmes work, and above all to see what a strange, quirky, and moody character he was. (In 1891, Doyle wrote to his mother, “I think of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.”) I also learned a new word: jarvey (British slang for a cabdriver).

Overall, what perhaps connects Holmes most strongly to geology is his emphasis on reasoning “analytically”, by which he means working backward from evidence to deduce how things came to be the way they are now. This is equally useful in solving crimes and in understanding the long slow evolution of the rocks and structures we see around us today.

Where is the soul of research?

I recently finished reading “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” by Matthew Crawford (see my review). He argues for the merits of trade or craft worker, such as that of plumbers and mechanics and (some) doctors and carpenters and so on. These occupations share a fundamental connection to the real world and a dedication to improving it in some particular way. (Crawford has an odd tendency to also refer to these jobs as the “stochastic arts”. Here he seems to use “stochastic” to mean “trying to fix a system that you didn’t design and therefore cannot fully control”, which is rather a departure from the typical meaning of the word.)

In Crawford’s view, the opposite of a trade worker is a “knowledge worker,” someone who manipulates abstract bits of knowledge, often using a computer. This is the occupation family to which many are urged these days, freeing workers from a specific place of business (“work from home!”) and often from specific tangible output (“I developed a template for a work process for the development of websites to stimulate creativity!”).

Knowledge work gets a bad rap in this book. As a knowledge worker myself, I can see and agree with the problems Crawford points out. Number one is the lack of a specific result, or at least a meaningful specific result. A mechanic can point at a car that now runs. There’s no obvious way for me to measure productivity and success in my job that translates so directly into helping others, or reducing entropy, or any other self-evident good. Instead my productivity, at the rare times when any attempt is made to quantify it, is measured via indirect quantities like the number of papers published or the number of grant dollars won. These are so far removed from actual significance or impact that it’s hard to feel genuine pride or accomplishment if they go up, or genuine lack if they go down. I think this is why I find volunteering at the library ultimately more satisfying; although I’m engaged at a “lower” or more “simplistic” level, in the end I can actually count how many books I’ve shelved or patrons I’ve helped or donations I’ve sorted. The result of my work is self-evident. I agree with Crawford that there’s something good for the soul in being able to see the fruits of your labor like this.

Crawford also argues that a benefit of craft or trade work is that it forces us to submit ourselves to an external order. Either the plumbing leaks or it doesn’t. This is dictated by the constraints of physics, in terms of how water flows and whether there’s a gap in the fittings. You can’t redefine the rules or wish the problem away; instead, you work within those constraints to fix the problem. He sees this as a good prescription for avoiding narcissism. I can definitely see this, too. In research, it is easy to redefine the evaluation metric, or experimental methodology, and totally change the outcome, because you have control over the rules of the world.

For these two reasons (lack of meaningful metrics, and the ability to redefine the constraints at will), it is supremely hard to know whether you are actually good at such a job, and whether you ever improve. In a statement that perhaps stuck with me the most, Crawford writes, “To be capable of sustaining our interest, a job has to have room for progress in excellence.” Stated that way, it seems obvious that a job with nebulous and shifting measurements of output would ultimately lack motivation. And so the question arises, for me personally: Where is the “soul” in research? How can I find concrete ways that the work to which I devote most of my waking hours actually matters? How will I ever know whether I’m getting better at what I do? Is this gap due to a lack of imagination on my part, or a fundamental problem with the type of work itself? Would my energies be better spent doing something else?

I recommend the book to anyone interested in these same questions.

The Call of the Bee-Loud Glade

Recently I discovered this enchanting poem, written by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet and playwright:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Who can read those lovely lines and not be put in mind of Thoreau, down to the very mention of beans? And it seems that Yeats was indeed a fan of Walden’s most famous occupant. His father had read “Walden” to him when he was a boy. (What a great idea!) Consider this story, from Yeats’s autobiography, about how the poem came to be:

Sometimes I told myself very adventurous love-stories with myself for hero, and at other times I planned out a life of lonely austerity, and at other times mixed the ideals and planned a life of lonely austerity mitigated by periodical lapses. I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem “Innisfree,” my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. I had begun to loosen rhythm as an escape from rhetoric and from that emotion of the crowd that rhetoric brings, but I only understood vaguely and occasionally that I must for my special purpose use nothing but the common syntax. A couple of years later I could not have written that first line with its conventional archaism — “Arise and go” — nor the inversion of the last stanza.

I find his description here fascinating, for I too have felt just that same tug, on random occasions, triggered by a fountain or a tree or a bit of music. And I love getting some insight into his own view of his work, the idea that he “could not have written” the first line just a few years later. I assume by “conventional archaism” he refers to the use of the term in biblical writing, and yet it seems not terribly out of place here; the narrator is expressing not just an idle vacationing whim but instead what, to me, sounds like a very personal, overpowering, internal calling. He will arise and go because until he does, the summons of the lake water will follow him everywhere he goes.

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