Monday, September 28, 2009

112. Ununbium


Don't Blink!

I need a temp-orary dog … for a temp-orary job … on a temp-or-ar-y place like … Oh, hello! I was just singing to myself. I like to sing while I work. It helps me to focus.

You're here to learn about ununbium, are you? Well, keep your wits about you. It has a half-life of only about 240 microseconds. Think fast! It's gone.

The problem with ununbium is that it has an unstable nucleus. The center, as Yeats put it, cannot hold. But that's probably more technical detail than you want to hear. Let's cut to the chase. Ununbium is here today and gone so immediately as makes no nevermind at all. For most purposes it might as well not even have bothered showing up.

So if you want to work with it, like we do here in the machine shop, you've got to be efficient. Even before you shape the ununbium into something usable, you've got to have the chore it's supposed to perform all set up for it. Because the manufacturing, use, and disposal of an ununbium device are pretty much simultaneous. It's tricky as tricky can be. Before you begin, you have to have all your tools in place and all your motions swift and practiced and above all sequential. One step out of phase, and bam! Disaster.

That's why the machine shop is so empty. Normally there's two dozen machinists working here. Today it's just me and Gene. All the rest are recovering from what happened yesterday. If it hadn't been for Gene's quick thinking and that bottle of hair spray … Well, we'd all be dead now.

It's an interesting story. If we had more time I'd tell you it. But we don't.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It's (copernicium) a gas, you dolt.

    And swift, not fast:

  3. ...alysdexia, you have no right to call anyone a dolt.

    1) I'm not a scientist, so I can't dispute your first statement - that relates to how this element exists in normal conditions, right? But, this short story is a work of fiction, set in an imaginary, futuristic setting. Clearly (to anyone who understands how literature works), it's not the exact physical properties the author is trying to communicate but what it represents emotionally (ie the absurdity in its name and the length of its existence - I thought I should spell it out for you).
    2) "Think fast!" - is this what you're referring to with your second point? First of all, it is correct - at the very least it’s idiomatic, and so commonly used that I'm surprised you don't recognise it. As for that web address of yours: whoever wrote that must have been living inside a sealed box for several centuries, because they use archaic words and spelling. How can you take that list seriously when the poster uses "wriht" and “lyft”? Besides, most of those so called 'comparisons' (what the poster actually means is 'opposites') are not accurate at all. For example:
    This time I can't be bothered to point out why these aren't strictly valid. Perhaps (and I emphasise 'perhaps') they were correct in formal English a long time ago, but our language has evolved a lot and I'm assuming that we are using the same modern English as the author here. In any case, both you and whoever posted that list seemed to have missed another important fact about language: we have many different words that describe/contain the same general concept. Take fast and swift; they both indicate speed (look here if you don't believe me or rational thinking itself). However, I've only seen swift used for physical motion eg running swiftly, whereas fast has a more general use as the opposite of slow. How do you explain this, you might ask? It's called nuance; this is when a 'rich' (as in full of aestheic depth and variety) language has many words that have a similar meaning but have different implications, or has words with multiple meanings.
    These are an example of nuances in the English language. I point this out because nuance is particularly important in literature, say, like these short stories. The author can use swift and not fast, because they are both adjectives of speed and he clearly wants to imply one thing and not the other (I believe it is more a case of style than anything else though). Are you yourself involved in science or computing? Only you seem to view language in purely binary terms. Which is very boring, incorrect, and only reinforces the stereotype of the logical, but artistically arid and emotionally distanced person involved in non-humanities disciplines (flaws which the author seems to lack - probably why he writes fiction and you only criticise fiction).
    I would like to apologise. I don't normally rant randomly like this, nor do I intentionally insult. But I happen to enjoy these short stories, even as a scientific ignoramus. And then I read your comment alysdexia...pretentious, condescending and dripping with a false sense of self-worth. See if you can analyse the use of English in that last sentence. Idiot.
    PS - It's been a few months since your post, and if you've changed your position since then, then I'm sorry for insulting you unnecessarily. Also, to avoid hiding behind anonymity: I'm a male student in the UK, with very little scientific knowledge. In comparison to most real scientists, mathematicians and computing technicians I am just another dumb ape who can speak and push buttons.

  4. It's so; therefore I do.

    1: It's both.
    2: As in not "think free"? Whoever is not a they. By arkaic, you mean correct or proper.

    There is no modern English:

    None can meng meanings of words when they become contradictory or absurd; these talkers hav no clue about their wordbrukes and abuse. Each word has one main meaning not to bend ever; nowadays you get cretins who advert things with a "great price" or talk about "(nescient) folks or day", as if that's good for us. Fast has nothing to do with speed. Glue is fast; seatbelts are fast; ropes are fast; monks are even fast. Anyone who believes otherwise is a malliterate retard. As a Commonwealt, you would hardly wit anything about English, and thus your comebacks about that and me are empty. My comparisons aren't wrong.

  5. I may have to split this into a double-post...

    You're not a native English speaker, are you? Only you have difficulty with the whole language, even while you claim to speak 'correct' English. Let me point out examples:
    1) 'arkaic' is spelt 'archaic'. The word comes Ancient Greek, not Latin (I know because I've studied both) where they use 'ch' for 'k'
    2) Oh, boy, we're in for a long one. I read what you had to say in that link, and I reject it. Frankly, if you really felt that language is static and that only the original form is the correct one, you should be using Anglo-Saxon - not even that, because that too is an evolution from previous languages. Language is a part of culture - the biggest part of it, and it evolves along with the people that use it. You use the word 'absurd' - look up where it comes from ( and you'll see what I mean. Every single word you use has developed from something else, ever since homo sapiens decided he needed a way of communicating. No word is pure, because people always need better ways of communicating their ideas and thoughts. You mean ‘pure’ in a good way, yet any word that can’t evolve with people and culture gets left behind and becomes obsolete.
    3) There’s no such thing as modern English? Look at these stories, or a newspaper for G-d’s sake! Compare that with any English text older than 100 hundred years and you’ll see a clear difference from the English of the past – hence the adjective ‘modern’.
    4) Meng is not a word. If it is one, it certainly isn’t from Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek or French. It would also be a new word, departing from your ‘correct’ useage
    5) You claim a word only has one meaning, yet you use 'fast' to mean several different things. Glue is fast, in the sense that the chemical process is fast-acting (this usage comes from those advertisements that you hate so much btw). Seatbelts and ropes can be fast, when you when 'fast' to mean they hold together, yes? A monk 'fasts' - this is what led me to believe that you aren't a native speaker. When a monk 'fasts' - you're using a verb here - they stop eating. You not only manage to mix up nouns, verbs and adjectives, but you contradict your point that 'Each word has one main meaning not to bend ever' by using three different meanings of 'fast'. Oh the irony!
    6) As I suspected, there is no such word as 'malliterate'. You're wanted to say I'm badly taught, and made up a long word to sound fancy, didn't you? I think the word you're looking for is 'illiterate'
    7) Your usage of 'retard' isn't proper! the word 'retard' comes from the Latin 're'+ 'tardus' - in both Latin and older English texts it simply meant delayed or slow (check if you don't believe me). In the twentieth century (I think) it was applied to those with mental disabilities, and in modern English it is now an insult by association. You just used a word without understanding it's 'correct' meaning. Sadly, sometimes we do lose words to time, such as this word. It means the language becomes less rich, and the people who use it less intelligent (like yourself).

  6. 8) It's 'Commonwealth' not 'Commonwealt'. You're trying to use 'proper' English, aren't you? It doesn't work. 'Common' comes from Latin, while 'wealth' comes from Anglo-Saxon (it should be wela btw, I just checked on Wikipedia). Either your word is nonsensical, or you have to accept that the word is not 'pure' and that it is a result of English being a language with many external influences.
    9) Your use of 'wit' comes from Shakespeare (or his contemporaries) I believe, who was an innovator. Part of the reason he is so highly regarded is that he changed English and helped to develop it into its current form. Plus you're using it wrong - you intend it to use it as a verb, but structuring your sentence as if it is a noun.
    10) I'm not a ‘Commonwealth’, I'm English. Yes, the UK is part of the Commonwealth, but it's usage distinguishes the British people from the rest of the Commonwealth. At least that's what it means over here - perhaps your use of the words differs from mine? Oh look, an example of a word's meaning modified by different cultural perspectives!
    11) Comeback is a 21st century word (or at least from somewhere around the millenium) as well - it's a portmanteau of 'come' and 'back', to create a new word with a very different meaning to the original two words. Just so you know that once again, you're either a hypocrite or ignorant. The second one would be worse, since you're pretending to be an intellectual.
    12)You're right, my 'comebacks' are empty. You're clearly delusional, convincing yourself that you're 100% right and that no one can correct you - my limited logic clearly won't work on you. The best I can hope for (apart from relieving my stress) is that people will read your comments and mine and see the truth. alysdexia, how many people agree with you? Has anyone ever praised you for being so 'correct'? Are you famous for your use of English? Does anyone (apart from yourself - quoting yourself is a real giveaway) respect you as an authority on the English language? Please, share with me any evidence that justifies your position. After all, language is a part of culture, so for it to be correct it has to be supported by the rest of that culture's population - I believe that is what the people at Oxford treat language as, right? How many people consider you smarter than the entire University of Oxford?

  7. Nobody's a native English speaker. English has been dead for 1000 years.
    1: It's best arkæc; h is either fricative or a consonantal modifier in Vulgar. Aspiration is a bad pick.
    2: pure := clean. I don't write in Englisc or Seaxisc for the Great Vowel Shift; [Middel] English was the best time to build off, to lend both inflectional and constructional freedom. We were a'talking about the main meaning of a word, and the forgetth and downfall of English for Latin or other words.
    3: You didn't understand my link. It's "Einglish" or "Standard" today. And God is not a name, J·hudi. Os, Zeýs, Anat, B·riqht, Emmanuel, and Logho are names.
    4: See mingle. By what terms did you say it wasn't a word?
    5: No, it's one /main/ meaning, and it was the same adjective for all three. See the comparisons.
    6: malliterate ≠ illiterate. One has to make up all words some time or another. Not only do you expect me to talk in mongrel Latinate words instead of English, you win't even allow me to make words or pick accurate constructions.
    7: it's -> its. It was not improper; you are.
    8: I didn't say it was clean. A person is not a Commonwealth; a person may be a Commonwealt. If you knew anything about English or reading comprehension, you wouldn't bring up these lame andsakes.
    9: I didn't strew wit as a noun! And Shakespeare was a lunatic akin to Nero; I'v nothing to do with him or his time.
    10: Shyster, I never said you were a Commonwealth. If you knew how to read...
    11: millennium. Who cares if it's a 20th century word? A shyster is worse than either of your fake labels for me.
    12: I'm not known outside the internet. If my words are unknown, they cannot be supported. For words to be correct they must meet reckenth and not underberth alone.

  8. Sorry to the author, and anyone else on this page, but I have to respond, if only to correct my mistakes.

    1) For someone who's so keen on etymology and the 'purity' of words, you've completely mangled the word archaic. All I can do is repeat what I posted last time. Look it up, it's from Ancient Greek (the 'ae' symbol is Latin btw).
    2) Pure does not equal clean, not necessarily. Semantics aside, you claim that Middle English is the best form of the language. If it was so amazing, why does no-one speak it anymore? Are you suggesting that everyone suddenly became stupid at the time of the Renaissance, and that only you (whoever you are) have some secret knowledge? Middle English was a very poor language, because it was not standardised and (interestingly for you) people tended to misspell and create new words. Hence why it was slowly developed by its speakers into its modern form.
    Besides, you're not using Middle English anyway, you're using a hodgepodge of words from 'old' and modern English.
    3) Eh? Well, you've misunderstood me then. 'Standard' is the technical term (and has been used for a long time now), 'modern' is simply an adjective that describes the state of our language in the present day. And God is a name - whatever your religious practices, 'God' is the Anglicisation of 'Dominus', the original name for God in Latin scripture. Christians, for whatever reason, chose to capitalise a generic noun and use it as a name. Don't blame me for it, look at any Bible.
    4) I have to admit here that my knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon language(s) is inferior to yours, because I spent my school days learning English instead.
    5) Err, no. Just no. Unless your use of 'monk' was coincidental, which I find hard to believe. Think about it - what do people mean when they say that 'monks fast'? And what do they mean when they say that 'ropes hold fast'? I assure you, they're different.
    6) Hmm, you call Shakespeare a lunatic for practically inventing the modern English language, and insist on the purity of words, so that all modern English is bad for creating new words and new meanings. Yet you're allowed to make up words, using a Latin construction. I guess it's that 'everyone else is an idiot because they've stopped using an obsolete form of English (which I don't use either)' thing, huh?
    7)Yes, you picked up on one of my grammatical mistakes. That happens occasionally, and I don't claim to be infallible. It's far better than being inaccurate about everything else though
    8) Commonwealt isn't a word as far as I know, which is why I assumed you had tried to make 'commonwealth' sound like an Anglo-Saxon word. Since it turns out I was right, just read what I said last time.
    9) Again my bad - you did in fact use wit as a verb. Like Shakespeare did. I guess I was confused by the rest of your incoherent post.

  9. 10) No, you called me a 'commonwealt'. This is a made-up word as far as I can tell, and that wasn't my point anyway. My point was that the word has a different meaning for you and I, because of our different cultural perspectives. Which proves your point, that words cannot be changed, wrong. It also proves your point that language has nothing to do with culture wrong. (As an interesting aside, do you know where the word 'commonwealth' comes from? The parliamentarians, after the English Civil War, who created the word to describe republican England. A word that follows directly from culture.)
    11) Apparently you should care, since you think Middle English is the most amazing language and that everything afterwards is a corruption.
    12) I wasn't talking about the internet specifically. If you're in a book, make a scan of it. I can't comment on your last sentence, which seems to be about 50% German, except to indicate back to what I said last time. I, and everyone else it seems, believe that the 'correctness' of language is decided by the people who use it - or, if one is feeling cynical, whoever is the victor.

    You say that the only correct words are ones that remain strict to their etymology and original meaning. Yet you use modern words and modern meanings - like the word 'retard' (got no reply for that then?), or any of these: a, and, the, if, be, for etc. I'd like to see you use the original forms for those words.
    You say that Middle English is the purist language, that Latin and anything after this 'language' is a corruption. You seem to forget that the term 'Middle English' is a term to describe what was a very muddled, developing era in linguistic history. Middle English has to be one of the most 'mongrel' languages of all. It was a mixture of the Germanic languages spoken by the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Roman Britain; the Scandinavian languages spoken by the Vikings; the Medieval French of the Norman invaders; a bit of Ancient Greek; and Latin, which the Middle English scholars (yes, the ones who spoke this language you think is so brilliant) revered as the legacy of that ancient civilisation. Latin is in fact one of the purest languages, closer to Indo-European (the theoretical language that was the origin of all languages today) than Middle English ever was.
    You say that because you know the Middle English 'language' (which is more a period of history than a specific language anyway), you are superior and correct. Yet you use almost as many modern English words as me, and words that even I would hesitate to use. So which one is it? Nobody 'forces' you to use modern English - except that you wouldn't be able to survive if you didn't use it. Language is a practical tool - we use in everyday life - and literature is when this practical tool is transformed by authors, poets and playwrights into works of art. You fail at English because you seem to think the other way round, that people should adapt to your arbitrary 'perfect' language.
    You say on one hand language should be pure and words follow their original meaning; on the other hand you write in a mixture of 'old' English and 'modern' English, and you are even more flexible with meaning than me. As well as referring back to my earlier post (where I challenged you to prove that you were a reputable authority) I call you a hypocrite, and an ignoramus in linguistics, history, and culture. Just to show you that this is my final word, and that I can't be bothered to dwell on minutiae with you any longer, I repeat what I said last time: alysdexia, how many people agree with you?

  10. 1: I mangled nothing. This is in Roman writ so I'll stick with Latin fonètics. αρχαίκ becomes arkæc.
    2: 2: = (equals; likens); := (is, means). They're the same word, one in Latinate, the other in English. Get lost. You believe English was the worst wherefore everyone could spell as they spoke? rather than now when someone would be thouht wrong to do so, and thus mest words are misspelt as how they're not spoken? New words make a language worse?! You're daft.
    3: Anyway, nobody speaks "English" today. God and Dominus are not names but clepts; God in no way means Dominus and you are ignorant of any Latin or other classics you may flaunt. God in Latin is Deus; Dominus in English is Lord. (However, its cognate is Timbing.)
    4: No you didn't; it was Einglish.
    5: A rope or monk is fast when either clives or clings to something. The root for each is samely.
    6: Nes, English did not beget many new words; it mangled the old words, and took and mangled outside words. Some words' meanings became self-contradictory, meliorate, pejorate, and mostly nonliteral. Overall English, Latinate, and other outside words settled in a superfluose mess, and in hundreds of years all classes would pick words of the latter when there had been the self-same words in English already; the lackwits would then say English had no such word for a wist or meaning when it had that and thousands more, in Englisc.
    7: Lecsical mistake more like.
    8: You were wrong, but not thas you don't know words.
    10: for I? You're a dolt. You don't know the first things about grammar and nomenclature. Nothing proved wrong "my point". 1 cannot become 2 no matter who says what; this is the same sake. (Did you know commonwealth, republic, and dèmocraty are the same word in three ytonges?)
    11: Each word is not a corruption; one's build and bruke (usage) may be.
    12: How could you say if if I said I'm unknown? You don't know anything about Thewdish either; -th is seen in English only, and you can't help yourself of a dictionary to sound out the bits.

    "retard" is identical when and now, and so is "slow". What /about/ a, and, the, if, be, for...? All are true. English by definition is not a mongrel; we talk in more than English at any time wherefore nobody has seen to thruwendan (translare) every outside word into English. When I take words such as candle, cancer, port, I don't clipe them as English but as Latinate. Nobody eles in the world will or can tell this important distinction.

    Old Latin is cleaner than Vulgar or English, so what¿ I want bestness, not cleanness. (Forget your Modern English; there's no such thing.) Which words do you hesit to use and how am I more flexibil with meaning? This is not about my stead on English but your misbelief of what English is; therefore you cannot say whether I fail and wherein.

    I don't know whits believe me; they don't say. However, some said my "English" was incorrect or atrociose when all they had was their blind modern-yet-immodest standard.

  11. You are seemingly both trolling. Ever heard of an 'idiolect'?

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  15. (Edit: Dammit! 3 times and technology failed me, going to try splitting up the post again, sorry)
    I just looked up idiolect now. It's similar to what I was trying to get across, that language is essentially decided by the people who use it and not its history. Apart from trying to show that alysdexia's first comment ('swift not fast') is wrong, I ended up arguing that modern English is proper English.
    As an anthropology student I would have to disagree with the idea of an idiolect though. (From my understanding) language is a 'tool' used by society to communicate words, ideas, orders etc. that are culturally determined. You may conjure a different image or memory than me when you think/say the word 'hand', but at the end of the day we (assuming that you're a British person from central London of course) share a base meaning that is drawn from our upbringing within that society. I don't think that you can define this story as being written in an idiolect anyway, because:
    a) as a creative work of fiction the author is deliberately subverting in a way that draws our attention changed meanning/shape of the word. Mr Swanwick choses to use 'temp-orary' because the breakage in the original word elicits a response - we recognise that change and what new meaning is expressed

  16. The short(er) version: I reject alysdexia's 'purist' approach because it's arrogant, and disconnected from the reality of the modern world. Unless you're part of some previously unmentioned community of people that hates modern language but not modern technology. I reject your 'ideolect' view because I believe meaning is primarily determinded by society/culture, and that the theory can't be applied to a single short story. I maintain that language and meaning is a social construct, and even the subversion/manipulation of language and grammar depends on an understanding of the original meanings. The idea of an idiolect only applies when talking about the narrator, which my original posts were not concerned with. Finally, Mr Swanwick was correct to use 'fast' and not 'swift', at least according to my socially determined sensibilities about the English language. This is the point from which everything else sprung.

    (Wow, when I think of it in perspective I guess I was trolling! Especially since I'm ignoring alysdexia and her confusing garbage anyway. It wasn't intentional trolling though, I promise.)

  17. The garbage is yours. When one says "think fast", think fast on /what/?