Quote of the day

The flame of conception seems to flare and go out, leaving man shaken, and at once happy and afraid. There’s plenty of precedent of course. Everyone knows about Newton’s apple. Charles Darwin said his Origin of Species flashed complete in one second, and he spent the rest of his life backing it up; and the theory of relativity occurred to Einstein in the time it takes to clap your hands. This is the greatest mystery of the human mind — the inductive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.

— John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday

While the language police are having donuts

As anyone learning it as a second language will tell you, English could use some tidying up. The orthography alone is a mess: a “Spelling Bee” would be completely silly in most other languages, where letters are used with some relationship to phonetics. Never mind Chinese. Then we have all those idiomatic traps (in front of, but behind);  illogicalities, real and seeming: loosen = unloosen, raveled = unraveled, inflammable=flammable; and all the words whose negating barnacles can no longer be pried off:

 It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened….

What we don’t have, and could use, is the wonderful Italian kit of modifying suffixes .  I know, when you have two words for everything from Latin and German, plus colonial uploads like bungalow, yada yada…  But wouldn’t you like to be able to stick -accio/a on something to tersely express disdain in the middle of a noncommittal sentence (Tea Partaccia), or signal affection by just saying “Spotuccio!” when your dog brings your unchewed slippers?

They stack, too: “Spotinuccio” for the little pug. This needs care, however, as they can trip over each others’ feet, so if you try this, heed the following, what happens when rough and untrained hands are allowed to meddle with machinery.

The violin was christened a “small viol” (violino). It isn’t really a viol (square shoulders, tuned in fifths, etc.), but violino/violin it is, OK.  A double bass is a great big one, violone, and it really is exactly that.  The tenor of the violin family was named a “small big viol”, or violoncello (its official name, also in English, and note the second o) even though it’s more properly a violinone (skipping the viola, but see below) and not any kind of viol.  Worse, the pieces got disconnected, and we absurdly call this second-largest of  the strings a cello, literally “a small”. By curdled analogy, the tenor, larger mandolin (mandolino = small mandola, OK so far) is a mandocello.

The Germans got off this derailing train with Geige, Bratsche , and Bass-Geige, but even they passed up Kleine Bass-Geige for violoncello. Bratsche is its own mystery, supposedly an attempt to bring   viola da braccia, “arm viol”, across the Alps. But (i) how can that word not denote a horn? and (ii) how could it not have been called violaccia from the start?

Perovskite solar

Cross-post at CleanTechnica on perovskite solar cells.

Cross-post at CleanTechnica on recent progress in making cheap solar cells from synthetic perovskite crystals. If you are curious, it’s got enough links in it to stuff by people who actually know what they are talking about.

It was an interesting challenge for a dilettante, one I’m not in a hurry to repeat, to report on news at the research frontier to a general audience.

You shouldn’t take my piece as evidence that perovskites will win out over competing lines of development. My hunch in their favour is based on little more than an aesthetic pleasure in a project to use the very stuff of the earth’s rocks to save its biosphere, and a touch of alma mater sentimentality: one of the key labs is in Oxford. It is evidence that in the medium term pv solar is not limited to the current commercial menu, two sorts of silicon and one thin-film. The solar learning curve will continue. Just as well: it’s half of what stands between us and climate catastrophe.

CleanTechnica cut the photo of Michael Grätzel of Lausanne, the pioneer of the solar perovskite field. Doesn’t look like a superhero, but then real heroes don’t. The cell he’s holding is from a precursor project that did not pan out commercially, a useful reminder of the risks. I do hope he gets his Nobel.

Michael Grätzel holding  a dye-sensitized cell
Michael Grätzel holding a dye-sensitized cell

Annals of commerce

Let’s see, today we have Ebola, Gaza, Ukraine, and our freedoms under siege by an invasion of children.  Maybe we need a break for something a little less ponderous. Advertising never lets us down:
(1) ARCO thinks we want to buy gas everyone waits in line to avoid. “Eat at Joe’s! Nobody else will!”  Did this work in focus groups? Anybody shooing customers out the door to get a nice inviting empty store?
(2) Coors is selling beer with incredibly expensive little adventure sports productions, whose point is that their beer is really, really – wait for it – cold! Uniquely so: the cold is brewed into it by some secret process!  No other beer can possibly be that cold! This is probably well-targeted to the intelligence of their market, but…
(3) The Viagra people invite us to identify with a guy who drives around pulling a team in a horse trailer to rescue his truck, apparently because he (i) never figured out how to put the thing into 4WD,  or is too dumb to (ii) just drive around a mudhole instead of into it in the first place, or (iii) unhitch the trailer, drive up onto dry ground, and pull the trailer out with a rope. I guess the one who gets to play with the most toys at once wins.
(4) Finally, a blast from the distant past: Rheingold beer had a series of ads showing this or that ethnic group having a party…Greeks breaking dishes, Jews dancing the hora, and like that…drinking Rheingold, with the voice-over (from memory): “New York, a city of dozens of different groups and cultures. Who would think it would have only one largest-selling beer? Well, there is such a beer, and it’s Rheingold.”  I watched a fair number of those before the bell went off in my head: “You would think one beer would outsell all others, but no: it’s a dead tie, down to the last bottle!”