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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

the big and the small of it

"The commonly held assumption that as primates evolved, their brains always tended to get bigger has been challenged by a team of scientists at Cambridge and Durham. Their work helps solve the mystery of whether Homo floresiensis — dubbed the Hobbit due to its diminutive stature — was a separate human species or a diseased individual." continue...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

in camera

When Janice went back to the house — finally, after her lawyer had told her to — she wished she had brought a camera, or her mother to witness all this. There was a new wall running the length of the hallway, bisecting the foyer and ending at the staircase. Unpainted wallboard, the seams and screw holes bandaged, gagged with patches of plaster. Where the partition had been dragged into place, the hardwood floor was scratched with parallel grooves — like claw marks.
   "Which half do you want?" Frank said when he finally looked up at her. She had never seen his hair so thick, not since they'd first met. She decided it was the plaster dust giving it body, adding to the gray. "The side with the sun room, or the kitchen?" He finished a stroke across a seam with a flourish and the sound of the blade against dry wallboard made her think of the way he skied — his turns: tight, bum-wagging arcs, the edges of his skis digging till they found ice.
   "Jesus, Frank, you're crazy. You know that?" There was a burning, adrenalin flush running through her — she could feel the air going in and out of her lungs. She wanted him crazy, she realized then. Part of her wanted him doing things like this so their friends would have stories to tell each other about why she had left him.
   The night before, on the phone, she'd told him she wanted her half of the house and she regretted that now. She remembered fairy tales where three granted wishes ended in heartbreak — a slip of the tongue, words spoken in haste. Retribution.
  "What in God's name are you doing, Frank?"
  "Giving you what you wanted. Your wish is my command."
   For an instant she thought he had been reading her mind. Her words had set things in motion, pushed him over the edge. Her departure had unleashed some creature inside him that could do things like that — read minds, bend spoons. Take her words and fashion them into events.
  Frank put down the tub of drywall compound and wiped his hands on his jeans. He flicked a crust of it off the end of his thumb in her direction saying, "Do you want some coffee or are you here for the show?"
  There was plaster dust on everything; he hadn't bothered to cover any of the furniture — the aquarium water looked murky, the fish sluggish — but it made the room brighter somehow, like a hotel room at a seaside resort.
  He leaned against the door jamb and folded his arms; the hairs on them were flecked with white pollen sacks of plaster dust. Janice watched his eyes trace the length of the new wall. He was better looking now than when they were first married. In their wedding pictures he reminded her of one of the Bee Gees. Her friends, all of them, every one of them back then, looked like overripe fruit. Flower Power gone to seed: ruffled shirts and wide collars; cartoon ties; frothy sideburns obscenely pubic in the camera's flash. Her wedding dress had been a mid-thigh mini, and they had danced their first dance to some sappy song by the Carpenters. Something about angels; but she couldn't for the life of her remember how it went.
  In the pictures Frank's face, with it's hollow cheeks (made all the more so by long sideburns) seemed unexpressed, bud-like. An unfurled flag. She remembered it as handsome: trendily gaunt and angular, perfectly suited to the helmet of his thick black hair. And his body (skeletal, hairless, white as raw chicken skin) as the ideal rack to hold up the accouterments of fashion.
   She recalled that it had been raining when they drove away from the reception in their new going-away clothes, the shaving cream on the car windows spelling things they couldn't read. Frank had stopped in the parking lot of a Mac's Milk and used the soggy Kleenex flowers from the antenna to wipe it all off.

Three days later when she came back to the house with a camera she found that he'd changed the locks; so she went round to the back door and broke the glass with her elbow stuck inside her purse — just like she'd seen in a movie. The glass was harder to break than she had expected — tougher, more forgiving. Not at all like in the movies: glass made of sugar, friendly glass that didn't cut; chairs that crumbled like bread sticks over people's heads. The world of gingerbread houses, Hansel and Gretel.
   That night she lay awake in her mother's spare bedroom thinking about the new wall running down the middle of the hallway. She had taken the roll of film to one of those one-hour photo places. None of the pictures had turned out the way she wanted them to. The wall looked as if it had always been there, as if it belonged there.
  She got out of bed, padded out to the kitchen wall phone and called him. It rang five times but she didn't hang up. She left a message on his answering machine: "I'm putting the house up for sale. My lawyer says if you won't sign the listing he can get a court order." She could see him awake now, in their bed, slowing scratching at his chest, listening to her voice echoing down the new hallway.
  They were "joint tenants," the lawyer had said. Or "tenants-in-common" — something like that. Since the house was in both their names, she would need his signature on the listing.
  "Joint tenants." More fairy tale, lawyer talk. I put a spell on you. Power words. "Tenant-in-common."  Maybe she should leave him another message. She wondered what the recording tape did to her words — whether they got stale like bread or turned into something more potent like old orange juice. The clock on her mother's ancient avocado stove flipped over one of its little black pages and it made her jump. It was 2:36. Janice opened the fridge and looked in, not knowing why. For the light, she thought. The comfort of the light, the sight of her mother's food — there was no other fridge like it. If she'd been blindfolded and brought here she would have known it was her Mom's — everyone's fridge like a fingerprint.

  She was in her own kitchen — her and Frank's kitchen — leaning against the counter near the sink thinking her new blue suit jacket would end up with a line of plaster dust across the back of it. Frank was sitting at the kitchen table. "What do you want. I’m on my lunch break," he said, peeling an orange. When he shifted, the hammer in his tool belt rattled like something officious.
  After a time he said, "I got a call from your sister the other day — have I told you that already?" Janice shook her head. Frank had an obsessive fear of repeating himself. His father had died of Alzheimer's.
  He warmed his hands on a cup of coffee. "She's coming into town to see us. She thinks we're being — 'ridiculous' about all this," he said, raising himself up in his seat the way he did when he wanted to make a point about something. He was smiling at her but his eyes were watery, as if his smile were pushing out tears.
  She looked over to where he had taped a piece of cardboard over the broken pane of glass she'd broken to get in the house and wondered whether that had something to do with it — what he was trying to tell her with his strange smile.
  This was two days after she'd taken the pictures. He had called her eventually, curious to know whether it was she who had broken the glass in the door. They didn't need a court order, he said. He would sign the listing willingly. When he was through with the house, no one would want to buy it anyway.
  There was another wall now — an extension of the other one, really — where the door under the staircase used to lead from the sunroom side of the hallway to the kitchen.
  When he left her alone to go back to whatever he was doing she opened it and found wallboard again: new two-by-four studs and wallboard — the back of it this time. Dove-gray with the manufacturer's name stenciled on it.
  It touched a memory Janice couldn't quite place (the sight of seams showing where plaster has oozed through and hardened). She must have come upon it in the corner of another house somewhere — in the back of a closet or in an attic — seeing it in the light of day again: the other side of the skin. Ageless.
   Janice was drinking a cup of his coffee — her coffee, out of her coffee maker — and he was telling her, now, about tensile strength, compression, things like that. Frank was a structural engineer.
  "The only flexibility is in the paper," he was saying. "You cut the paper, it falls apart." Frank took a razor knife out of his tool belt, picked up a piece of scrap wallboard and scored it — lightly, gently, with the finesse of someone skinning a rabbit — then broke it in two with the fingers of one hand.
  The coffee was doing nothing for the dryness in her throat. She could see drizzle through the kitchen window beading up on the hood of her car and it seemed odd that so much moisture was only a pane of glass away. She refilled her cup and used the powdered coffee creamer; she wondered if it was made from the same stuff that had settled on all her dishes.
  The next day she came back with the real estate agent and watched as Frank obligingly signed the listing agreement. "I'm going to buy you out, Frank," she said even before he had a chance to look up from the paper. He just smiled at her and picked up the tool belt. He went through the dining room into the foyer and climbed the stairs.
  "Between you and me I think you better get this place looked at before you go doing anything rash," the agent said, looking up at the ceiling, following her husband's footsteps, listening to the chime of planks, the rumble on the hardwood floor above. Coming in the front door they'd had to step over a fresh pile of lumber out in the hallway. There was a line of holes spaced about two feet apart she hadn't noticed before running the length of the kitchen ceiling and out into the dining room.
  The agent was the husband of a friend of hers at work and he was going to give her a deal on the commission, given the nature of the situation — her wanting to buy the place from herself. He tested the kitchen floor, bouncing a few times with the tip of his tongue showing, and his shiny metal pen jiggling in his shirt pocket.

The day they put the "FOR SALE" sign up on the front lawn she presented Frank with an offer on the house. It was less than he had agreed to sell it for, but she figured she would give herself room to maneuver. He took the agent's nice pen, crossed out her figures and signed it back to her at the full price. "I'm not going to settle for anything less and neither should you," he said smiling past the agent.
   The agent just frowned, not getting his little joke at all and slid the paper towards her through the plaster dust and orange peel, right away saying "You have to sign it back too, remember, you both being the vendors. Up there where he changed it back to the asking price."
  Janice picked up the pen and put her quick scrawl right up near Frank's over the new numbers he'd written in, thinking it all through like a puzzle: me and Frank holding out for more. Then, in her mind putting the other hat on, the buyer's hat. Deciding what to do next.
  After a moment she said, "I can sign it back now, right? If I want to? As the purchaser?"
  "I haven't ever done it this way before," the agent said. "You want to think about it first? Look upstairs, maybe?"
  "Just tell me what I have to do."
  "What's your new offer? You going to meet him halfway or what?"
  "I just sign it again, right?"
  "Yeah, twice. No. Maybe it's three times, I don't know. Let me have a look at that." The agent sniffed then slid forward in his chair, straightening up and blinking at the paper on the table. Frank was leaning back, busy scratching at the underside of his forearm, at a white scab of drywall compound, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
   Janice looked outside at the sun beating down on her patchy lawn and then at Frank, his thick hair — then quickly back to the window, at the glass clouded with plaster dust. "Once we settle on a price, I don't want you changing anything back, okay? Leave everything the way it is right now, okay? Frank?"
Copyright © 1995, 2007 by Michael Hale

the measure of all things

Since the advent of digital technology the definitions of the words “accuracy” and “precision” have become confused, their subtle distinctions lost. In a digital world the quality or value of a measurement has become synonymous with the ability to determine a calculation to the twelfth, or even fiftieth decimal point—and beyond. Dazzled by the precision of a calculation, we have come to assume that the effort taken to determine the measurement (the calibration of the actual stuff of the tangible world), the “accuracy” of the measurement, is demonstrated by the “precision” of the expressed result.
   But if one looks at the words themselves, the etymology of them, it is here that the distinction between “accuracy” and “precision” becomes clear: According to the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) the word “precise” comes from the Latin adjective precisus: cut off, abrupt, shortened; from the past participle of the Latin verb precidere meaning, to cut off (in front), cut short, abridge. Here are the O.E.D. definitions of “precise": Definitely or strictly expressed, exactly defined, definite, exact. […]correct. Punctilious, scrupulous, correct. Sometimes, Over-exact […] Exact, neither more nor less than, perfect, complete: as opposed to approximate. Distinguished with precision from all others, identified, pointed out, or stated with precision or exactness […]

   According to the O.E.D. the word “accurate” comes from the Latin adjective accuratus: performed with care, exact; from the past participle of the verb, accurare, meaning, to apply care to. Here are the O.E.D. definitions of “accurate": Executed with care; careful; of things and persons: exact, precise, correct, as the result of care.
   And later, as the word evolved—and for the most part, became synonymous with “precise": 3. Of things, without special reference to the evidence of care: exact, precise, correct […]
   The concept of “care” is the critical distinction, I think. You can be accurate without necessarily being precise—as long as you “take care” to get the facts straight. For example, we can do everything possible, with all the resources at our disposal, to determine a realistic estimate of Canada’s wheat production in metric tons for 2004 and come up with a result of, say “about thirty million” and be closer to the truth (again “the actual stuff of the tangible world”) than if we quickly (and possibly carelessly) determined the output to be, say “23.56834943 million metric tons.”
   In the past, in an analog world, (“This cabbage weighs about two pounds.”) accuracy was the result of successive measurements that raised the order of approximation . The precision of the measurement was directly related to the care with which the measurement was taken. Precision followed accuracy (careful calibration): one was the direct result of the other (imagine a balance scale with progressively smaller counterweights).
   As the analog measuring tools became more sophisticated, (The analog clock, for example, evolved in refinement from an apparatus with an hour hand to one with hour and minute hands, to one with hour, minute and second hands.) we moved towards higher and higher orders of approximation; but the ability of the tool to provide a “precise” measurement was directly proportional to the care with which the tool was used. Inaccurate measurement was always imprecise. 
Not so with digital tools. In a digital environment, accuracy is seldom at issue: a careless measurement will be as precise as a careful one.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

the two and the many

There are two types of thinkers in the world, it seems to me: those who take the unlimited fuel of the imagination and transform it into the soaring flight of counterpoint and unexpected juxtaposition we call creativity—and those who wrangle with the scarce and chaotic raw material of the real world and struggle for some semblance of order.
   There are no winners or losers in this contest. In fact, there is no contest at all: for each side of this conflict is essential to the complex and frustrating dialectic of what the human condition is all about.
   The result, however, is a gestalt of civility and barbarism; hedonism and spirituality; godliness and devilment; scarcity and abundance; that makes this world such a wonderful place to spend a life.
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