Saturday May 7, 2016

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Marching Through a Novel

Each morning my characters
greet me with misty faces
willing, though chilled, to muster
for another day’s progress
through dazzling quicksand,
the march of blank paper.
With instant obedience
they change clothes and mannerisms,
drop a speech impediment,
develop a motive backwards
to suit the deed’s done.
They extend skeletal arms
for the handcuffs of contrivance,
slog through docilely
maneuvers of coincidence,
look toward me hopefully,
their general and quartermaster,
for a clearer face, a bigger heart.
I do what l can for them,
but it is not enough.
Forward is my order,
though their bandages unravel
and some have no backbones
and some turn traitor
like heads with two faces
and some fall forgotten
in the trench work of loose threads,
poor puffs of cartoon flak.
Forward. Believe me, I love them
though I march them to finish them off.

“Marching Through a Novel” by John Updike from Selected Poems. © Knopf, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1952, Geoffrey W.A. Dummer first presented the concept of the integrated circuit, also known as the microchip, which is the basis for all modern electronic equipment. The integrated circuit is an advanced form of the electrical circuit, which is made up of a set of components — a transistor, a resistor, a capacitor, and a diode — linked together in a variety of ways.

The transistor, which controls the electrical power — turning it on and off — was a big advance over the vacuum tubes used in the first computers. Vacuum tubes are like light bulbs: they generate a lot of heat, and they eventually burn out. They're also much bigger than their successors, the transistors. Early computers powered by hundreds of vacuum tubes were unreliable and required a lot of room, and the invention of the transistor in 1947 solved those problems. It had a few of its own, though, since each connection in the circuit had to be intact for it to work, and soldering all the circuits required to power a huge supercomputer was a very big job indeed. It also took time for the signal to travel through all the wires connecting the various components.

Geoffrey Dummer, who was a radar scientist working for Britain's Ministry of Defence, got the idea of making the various parts out of a single piece of silicon, which would eliminate the distance between components, speed up the signal, and do away with the need for precise soldering. It would also be smaller, enabling it to be fit into much smaller devices. He presented his paper at the U.S. Electronic Components Symposium; the Americans were willing to take a gamble on the idea, but the British government wasn't, and it was years before the United Kingdom had a semiconductor industry.

Today we rely on integrated circuits to run our computers, our phones, our watches, and our calculators. They're also used in microwaves, TVs, stereos, cars, refrigerators, and kids' toys. Pretty much anything you plug in is going to have at least one microchip in it.

Today's the birthday of British writer Angela Carter (books by this author), born Angela Olive Stalker in Eastbourne, England, in 1940. Primarily a novelist, she also wrote poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, radio plays, and film adaptations, and she contributed articles to The GuardianThe Independent, and New Statesman. Her novels include The Magic Toyshop (1967), The Passion of New Eve (1977), and Nights at the Circus (1984).

She moved easily from magical realism to feminism to science fiction to gothic horror to surrealism in her work. Her short-story collection The Bloody Chamber (1979) was a sensual, feminist reinterpretation of classic European fairy tales. It was eventually adapted for radio, and then film, as The Company of Wolves.

She died of lung cancer in 1992, and Salman Rushdie wrote in The New York Times: "She was the first great writer I ever met, and she was one of the best, most loyal, most truth-telling, most inspiring friends anyone could ever have. I cannot bear it that she is dead."

It's the birthday of Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning (books by this author), born in Camberwell, England, in 1812. His mother was an accomplished pianist, and his father was a fairly well-off bank clerk whose personal library contained 6,000 books. Robert was educated at home and was a voracious reader from an early age. He loved the Romantic poets, especially Shelley, and at 14 he became an atheist and a vegetarian, to be more like his hero. Browning entered the University of London when he was 16, but grew annoyed at the slow pace within the first year and dropped out, preferring to pursue his own studies. He picked up lots of random information, and his poetry was sometimes criticized for its obscure references.

His relationship with fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett is one of the most famous in English literature. They began a prolific correspondence — hundreds of letters during their 20-month courtship — which began when he sent her fan mail. They eventually eloped, against her father's wishes, and moved to Italy. Browning's poetry was largely overshadowed by his wife's, at least during her lifetime. She was popular and successful, and a serious contender for the post of poet laureate in 1860, though that honor ultimately went to Tennyson. He generally received negative attention, if he received any attention at all. His long poem Paracelsus (1835) had been well-received, and gave him his entry into the London literary scene, but his follow-up, the experimental Sordello (1840), was ridiculed, and when he and Elizabeth moved to Italy, his critics beat him up for abandoning his homeland. Even his two-volume collection Men and Women — his most widely read work today — barely caused a ripple. He returned to London in 1861 after Elizabeth's death, and in 1868 he published his first real critical and commercial success,The Ring and the Book.

Browning also wrote several plays, none of them successful. But writing for the stage taught him how to use the dramatic monologue to reveal character, and he adapted it to his poetry. It became a defining characteristic of his work, and his most important and lasting contribution to the art, inspiring the likes of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost. He also inspired horror master Stephen King; Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (1855) was the springing-off point for the long-lived Dark Tower series, which King describes as his magnum opus.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®