Friday, December 31, 2010

Motivation and Resolutions

Today, blogging buddy Charmaine Clancy provided a wonderful reason to NOT make New Years resolutions in the form of this TED talk:

The tl;dr version (er, or should that be that too-long-didn't-listen version?) is:
Psychologists have found that if you tell someone about a goal, you're LESS likely to do the work necessary to achieve it because you've already derived some satisfaction just from the act of sharing your dream.
The speaker, Derek Sivers, does note you can share your goals as long as you do so in a way that doesn't allow you any satisfaction from the other person's attention.

For example, saying, "I need to lose weight, so I'm going to have to go to the gym three times a week this year. Kick my butt if I don't, okay?" is acceptable because you're going to hear your friend say, "You bet," and not "Oh, wow; good for you!"--which would give you a pleased feeling that tricks your brain into believing you've already made progress.

This means McKoala's Public Humiliation Writing Challenges are a great way to motivate yourself. No waxing eloquent over your big dreams is allowed there--you must produce results or you risk a Koala smack-down!

Also of relevance to this issue something I read recently on Discover Magazine's website (although I can't find the link to the specific article anymore, sorry;) which reported the findings of psychiatrists who discovered that:
You can increase your likelihood to follow through with a resolution if you ponder whether you will do it, rather than telling yourself you will do it.

It turns out we all have a tendency to resist orders, even if it's ourself who is giving the order. You'll make better progress toward your goal if you ask yourself "Will I do this?" rather than telling yourself "I will do this."
So apparently, resolutions really don't work (something I'm sure we've all suspected.) You can motivate yourself better by pondering whether you want to chase your goals, and then, if you decide to, by getting to work rather than telling anyone about it!

Of course, this probably means your blog's rate of new posts will suffer terribly.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Science is Beautiful!

Whoa-oh! Behold the first-ever x-ray photograph of a lightning strike:

You can click through on the image to read Geekosystem's short article about the image. Apparently the camera was the size of a refrigerator and had to be shielded in lead!

Image via Geekosystem

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Day After Christmas

(with apologies to Clement Clark Moore and Henry Livingston)

'Twas the day after Christmas
And all through the store
There were backstabbing buggy-thieves
And price-cuts galore

Nan's stockings were sagging
And Gramp's temper was hot
As they trawled for a parking stall
In the boxing day lot

The grandkids were nestled
Six-deep in the back
Envisioning gizmos
Snagged cheap off the racks

And Ma in her sweatpants
And I in my britches
Had just settled down
To shiv some rude bitches

When out of Security
The guards sprang like a shot--
We aborted our fisticuffs
Afraid we were caught

The lights on the breast of the hard-worn lino
Gave the lustre of death to us sale-hungry souls
When what to our greed-brightened eyes should appear
But a mask-wearing fat man and eight deadly reindeer

They elbowed and headbutted
Jabbed antler and boot
They nabbed all the deals
And they bagged up the loot

More rapid than eagles
His coursers they came
And he swore and he shouted
And he called them by name

"On Dancer! Get dollies!
You, Prancer! The TVs!
Comet, to hardware,
And Donder, get movies!

To the backs of the stockrooms
To the ends of the mall
We've laid off the elves
So we must take it all!"

With Security chasing
His bad-antlered boys
He knocked out a clerk
With a big bag of toys

And squeezed through the gates
To the scream of alarms
While the shoppers all flung themselves
Sideways out of harm

But I heard him exclaim
As he bowled over a bruiser
"It comes back in your stockings
Next year, you big losers!"

The travesty that is these words was perpetrated, for your entertainment, by J. J. DeBenedictis

Peace on Earth (yeah, I'm looking at you, fat man)
and happy holidays to all!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holly-days!

Big bro has wafted in from Iceland and adjusted enough to keep awake past 7 PM in the evening.

Li'l sis and her husband have already opened their presents.

Mom bounds up and fetches us food at the least provocation, despite our attempts to coax her into just sitting still and chatting.

Dad is very stoic and gracious about how little access he has to his own computer while we're all here.

The inlaws and the outlaws and the over-99- and under-5-year-olds are all due to descend in the morning for the festive paper armageddon.

And I'm really happy to be here.

I hope all of you are happy too, wherever you are and regardless of whether you celebrate the same things I do. Best wishes to you all, and peace on Earth.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tissue Paper to Fill the Corners With

I didn't post this week and I'm feeling guilty about it, but (as is common this time of year) I'm distressingly busy.

So I'm going to do something that is somehow easier and just write silly poetry for you.


Lament of the Physics Student
Sung to the tune of Jingle Bells

Fudging data, fudging data
My write-up's due in an hour
My error bars are bigger than Mars
And the voltmeter's got no power

Oh! Fudging data, fudging data
I wish I could hand it in late
I hate to cheat but I need a 'C'
Or I won't graduate

Dashing through the halls
Looking for my prof
Ask him for some help
He just starts to scoff (Ho, ho, ho!)

Data tables I will fill
Caffeine I will swill
Goodbye I'll say to my GPA
If the T.A. isn't thrilled

Oh! Fudging data, fudging data...
(Chorus repeats)


Lament of the Physics T. A.
Sung to the tune of Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Students whine
I'm not listening
In their eyes
Tears are glistening

Things didn't go right
They need some more time
But I'm locking up the lab for the night

Label your graphs
And show your units
If you went to class (once in a while)
You would know this

I'd be filled with delight
If they'd get out of my sight
But I'm locking up the lab for the night

On your benchtop you can build your project
And pretend that you have read the lab
I'll say, "Are you done yet?" You'll say, "Almost,"
Then take three hours to put it in my hands

They screwed it up
When they did it
They're begging me
For five more minutes

But it's late and its dark
And I still have to mark
I'm locking up the lab for the night


Untitled, and somewhat un-silly

Sing a lament of unwrapped presents
Of unmailed packages and unsigned cards

I'll sing a song of happy children
Of paper fallout and cookie shards

Wring your hands over stretching credit
Stretching waistlines and stretching nights

I'll rub my hands for delicious feasting
Loved ones near me and sparkling lights

The stress is real, it's not all play
I feel your worry, I know your strain

But for all this havoc under skies this grey
You'll know it's worth it come Christmas day


(I didn't write the words to this one, but I love it, mostly because whoever made it up knew their physics.)

We Three Quarks
Sung to the tune of We Three Kings

We three quarks
Fine particles are
Strange and Charmed
We traverse afar

Fields and forces
Spin, of course
All divided by
ħ ("h-bar")

Oh, quarks are wondrous
Quarks are light
Quarks have colours
Clear and bright

Ever intriguing
Ever misleading
All the physicists in sight

We three quarks
Trade gluons all day
Are made in this way

Confined inside
We always hide
Unseen forever, stay

Oh, quarks are wondrous
Quarks are light
Quarks stay smugly
Out of sight

Ever intriguing
Ever misleading
All the physicists in sight


Have any of you written, or do you know of, some silly holiday song parodies? Post them in the comments! Let's get festive, folks.

Fame and glory--or perhaps only a good-natured sing-along--await you here.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, December 10, 2010

This may sound weird, but did anyone send me candy? From, like, Spain?

I got an odd package in the mail.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Brought to you just because it's beautiful!

Image via EpicWinFTW

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, December 05, 2010

What Works: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

This edition of What Works focuses on one of the most rip-snorting, unrestrained and wonderful fantasy novels I've read, The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan.

This book doesn't hold anything back, and for that reason I'd only recommend it to people who know they can handle foul language, graphic violence and graphic sex. That said, hoo boy do I recommend it! The novel is brilliant and shocking, with wonderful characters, great writing, and a hugely imaginative, quasi-science fiction take on the idea of elves.

Ahem. Enough fan-girling. Here's an excerpt, and please note there is some very rude language here.
The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

And from within the closed iron cylinder, more precisely from the mouth of one downthrown open hatch in a row of five that were set into the underside of the hull, came the furious, repeated clang of metal pounding on metal. The sound, it seemed, of something trying to escape.

Glances went back and forth, hands dropped to the hilts of well-worn weapons. The Emperor's messengers drew closer at a pace that declined with every step they took into the shadow of the fireship's propped bulk. Finally, they piled to a halt just inside the circumference of the dry-dock framework that supported the vessel, and a good dozen paces back from the hatch, all of them careful not to step on any of the drooping feelers that trailed from the hull and lay flopped in the shipyard dust like so many discarded carriage whips. No telling when something like that, no matter the intervening years of disuse, might twist and snap to sudden murderous life, coil about an unwary limb and jerk its owner off his feet and screaming into the air, to be lashed back and forth or slammed to a pulp against the grimy iron flank of the ship.

"Syphilitic son of an uncleased, camel fucking CUNT!"

A massive metallic crash fringed the final word, but could not drown it out. The messengers flinched. In places, blades came a few inches clear of their sheaths. Hard on the echoes of the impact, before anyone could move, the voice started up again, no cleaner of expression, no less rabidly furious, no less punctuated by the clangour of whatever arcane conflict was raging in the confines of the hull. The messengers stood frozen, faces sweat-beaded from the fierce heat of a near-noon sun, while recollected witch rumours crept coldly up and down their bones.

"Is it an exorcism?"

"It's krinzanz," reckoned a more pragmatic member of the party. "She's off her fucking head."

Another of the messengers cleared his throat.

"Ah, Mistress Archeth..."

"...motherfucking close-mouth me, will you, you fucking..."

"Mistress Archeth!" The Reachman went up to a full-scale shout. "The Emperor wills your presence!"

The cursing stopped abruptly. The metallic cacophony died. For a long moment, the open hatch yawned and oozed a silence no less unnerving than the noise that had gone before. Then, Archeth's voice emerged, a little hoarse.

"Who's that?"

"From the palace. The Emperor summons you."

Indistinct muttering. A clank, as the engineer's hammer was apparently dropped, and then an impatient scrambling sound. Moments later, Archeth's ebony head emerged upside down from the hatch, thickly braided hair in stiff disarray around her features. She grinned down at the messengers, a little too widely.

"All right," she said. "I've done enough reading for one day."
There are a bunch of things that work really well in this excerpt, so I'll outline the ones that stick out to me.

001) The group of messengers are treated as a composite entity, not individuals. Their emotions and actions are described homogeneously.

This is useful because one of the things novels don't do well is deal with complex scenes featuring lots of characters. When there are too many elements in a scene, the reader can't keep the positions, names and conversations straight in their head.

If you must portray a scene with many people in it, either you need to focus in on one small piece of the scene at a time, or work very hard to keep the reader clear on what is going on, or you need to do what Mr. Morgan does and simplify things.

Describing a group of people as if they're a single entity accomplishes this. None of the messengers are given names and they're either described as a homogeneous group or treated as interchangeable. Anything else would be confusing to the reader.

010) Almost every action and emotion is shown, not told.

The messengers bunch together and slow their pace; they touch their weapons; they sweat. Fantasies about murderous ship-tentacles and witch powers pass through their (collective) mind.

But the author doesn't say these men are frightened. That's implied.

Likewise, Archeth's rage, and then her silence and subsequent movement to the fireship's hatch, are only described. The author keeps us firmly inside the head of the group entity that is the messengers. The scene's action is something the reader has to work out from pure description.

The reader can also work out that Archeth is black (in a book that has thus far only featured white characters) without the author needing to say so explicitly. Archeth will prove to be a starkly unique person in The Steel Remains--literally half-alien--and this is a natural way to introduce one of her most obvious differences.

011) The character of Archeth is set up in a memorable way, and in a way that will likely make at least some readers empathize with and like her.

She's an engineer, but when we meet her, she's beating a machine with a hammer and swearing viciously at it. This is a moment most of us can empathize with.

When she then gets surprised by the Emperor's representatives, she is probably embarrassed, but she recovers quickly, offers zero apologies and even makes a joke of it. In other words, she's a confident and bold person, although possibly a little gonzo. This makes her quite likable.

In Summary: What works best about this excerpt is the author makes some very smart choices and shows a firm grasp of his craft. He simplifies the thing that would be most confusing (the individual identities of the group of messengers), skillfully shows (rather than tells) the reader what the characters are doing and feeling, and establishes his major character in an engaging and memorable manner.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Slippery Green Energy

Some things just don't need much introduction. Here's a Christmas tree powered by an electric eel:

Link via Discover Magazine

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: