Thursday, March 31, 2011

All the Umbrellas in London

Worthwhile things I have blogged recently:
And, after a long absence, the end-of-the-month visual index:

Day of Thunder

A conversation that happened in my office today:
“Is Thor a god.” 
Me: “Yes, he’s a Norse god.” 
“Are you sure? The trailer made him look like an alien.” 
Me: “I am sure. He’s a god — the Norse god of thunder. We named Thursday after him.”

I mean, everyone knows that aliens don’t have magic hammers.

Do You Like Scary Deleted Scenes?

It’s not a spoiler to say so, I guess, but when I watched Scream 4 I didn’t see this scene.


Unless I zoned out for it, it wasn’t in the movie. Seem like a pretty elaborate scene to leave on the cutting room floor, no?

That’s not to mention that Marielle Jaffe’s “Time for someone new to die” line and the scene it appears in — the homage to the water fountain scene in the original — also didn’t show up. It is in the trailer, however.


Did I go to the bathroom and forget that I stepped out for a few minutes?

The Fair-Weather Umbrella

Things that occur to me on the drive home: English-speakers use two words to refer to the devices we carry around to block out the weather, and neither traces its etymology back to the purpose we’d most probably think of first. I’m talking about umbrellas. The word umbrella goes back to the Latin umbra, “shade,” so an umbrella, etymologically speaking, is a little, portable shade you carry around. However, when we use the word today, we immediately associate it with rain. The types that block out the sun might actually be called shade umbrellas, at least when they’re not being called parasols, which I guess would refer less often to the large porch-spanning variety and more often to the lightweight umbrellas that ladies might use to shield their faces from the sun. But parasol, etymologically speaking, means ultimately what umbrella does: “protection from the sun” — from the Italian para-, “protection against,” and sole, “sun.” I know etymology doesn’t dictate meaning, but I still think it’s interesting that the two words we ended up using for these things didn’t originally have any connection with the very useful function of keeping rain off our heads.

In French, if I understand correctly, the popular word is parapluie, with that second part meaning “rain.” Spanish has parasol and paraguas. And the German has Sonnenschirm and Regenschirm, with just Schirm, “screen,” being a catch-all — or, if you want to complicate this, an umbrella term — for the generic device, irrespective of whether it’s used in sun or in rain. Actually, now that I think of it, I wonder how universally a language’s word for umbrella has the extended meaning of “an overarching thing or concept.” Because if you’ve ever seen one — again, regardless of what you use it for — it makes for a handy metaphor.


Final wonderment: Why didn’t bumbershoot ever catch on?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Attack of the Whale-Gorilla

Though it shames me to admit it given recent events, Godzilla has been on my mind. I know — lame, crass and superficial, like being at war with Norway and fearing a valkyrie invasion. Nonetheless, the big gray guy has been popping into my thoughts a lot more often than he has at any other point in my life. And it got me thinking: Where’d he get his name, anyway?


Anyone who doesn’t know that the Anglicization Godzilla comes from the Japanese Gojira deserves to lose all film geek status, but I feel like few people know that Gojira comes from a combo of the Japanese gorira — meaning “gorilla” and itself a Japanization of that word — and kujira, “whale.” At one point, the creature was conceived of as a hybrid gorilla-whale, which makes me suspect that Godzilla could owe even more of a debt to King Kong than I initially believed. There’s also an apocryphal story about Gojira being a nickname for a hulking employee at Toho Studio, which has produced the Gozilla movies, but no one has yet proved it.

A bit more: Remember that dead-eyed, awful American Godzilla? With Matthew Broderick? And Jamiroquai? The one that managed to be more of a Jurassic Park rip-off than an actual Godzilla movie? According to Wikipedia, The city-destroying lizard thing from that movie goes by two names: GINO (an acronym for “Godzilla in name only,” coined series fan Richard Pusateri) and Zilla, the name given to the American creature by Toho staff, who allegedly found it inferior and decided that it did not deserve to have God in its name. Which is awesome. Alongside the real Godzilla and more respected monsters such as Mothra and Ghidorah, Zilla is actually featured in Godzilla: Final Wars, the 2004 film that serves as a fiftieth anniversary mark for the franchise. In it, real Godzilla fells Zilla almost instantly. Take that, Matthew Broderick (and to a lesser extent, Maria Pitillo).

I know, I know. I should just rename this blog “Drew Reads Wikipedia.” If you can think of a better place to read endless information about stuff only a small faction of geeks truly cares about, then I’d love to hear where.

Whales plus other things:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What a Douche!

It’s with pride and sense of symbolism that I tell you that Sanam sent me the below clip. It’s definitely up my alley and, truthfully, I’d seen it before — and perhaps you have too — but I never wanted to post it on my blog because of everything about it. I mean, it meets all the characteristics of something that should interest me — Japanese, weird, overtly sexual, female-empowering (but arguably not), macabre and bizarre. But given that Sanam took the time to send it my way, I suppose it truly is my kind of thing and should therefore should be associated with me until the internet stops.


In closing, I’ll quip that this gives proactive new meaning to the insult that I’m too polite to use against anyone: frothing cunt. And then I’ll ponder why the male character doesn’t just step slowly away from the spumeload, given that its oozing toward him with the speed of a half-interested snail. But who am I to criticize vagina attacks?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Pixelated Death

This is art.


Bonus points for including Athena.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mademoiselle Sheep

Today, a fact about a cute animal — and then a fact about a far less cute animal. You know, for balance.

First, the pleasant: I learned there is this word chilver that refers specifically to a female lamb. Despite growing up around sheep and having a New Zealander for a father, I’d never heard this word until today. And I only found it because it shows up in Wikipedia’s article on rhymeless English words — specifically as an obscure rhyme for silver. (Sorry, silver, you’re less special now.)


According to a few sources — including a 1976 issue of Nature and a 1912 etymological dictionary of English surnames — the word exists, and I guess that makes sense. But I’m even more surprised that I can’t find any sort of counterpart — an obscure one-word name for a male lamb. Weird, right?

Now, the less pleasant animal fact: The technical term for a group of stinkbugs is intrusion. I feel like etymological research isn’t necessary to figure out why this is.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Boat for Navigating Scrabble Boards

Some words basically exist only for Scrabble players.
umiaq (OO-mee-ak) — noun: a large, open, paddle-propelled boat made of skins stretched over a wooden frame and used by the Inuit for transportation.
This is the word that Nate used against me in online Scrabble. He won. Now, umiaq is a valid word that some people might use all the time, but for the portion of the world that doesn’t think, read or speak about Eskimo-related matters, it’s essentially a Scrabble exclusive, especially because it can be spelled umaik, umiac, oomiac and oomiak (though weirdly not oomiaq, according to Wikipedia). Basically, as far as Scrabble-players are concerned, this word was designed to turn seemingly useless combinations of letter tiles into double- and triple-word scores.

For someone who likes weird words, online Scrabble makes for some good discoveries. In regular, live Scrabble, you can’t just keep trying random letter combinations hoping they turn out to be words because you’d end up making your opponents never want to play with you again. On a computer, however, the game checks for you, so guessing like Nate did can actually pay off. At least that’s how I now know about this obscure word — one of the very few ones loaned into English that have a “Q” and a “U” but in that order and not next to each other. Others: burqa (the head covering), qiviut (“the wool of the musk-ox,” which sounds like a sequel to Clan of the Cave Bear), suq (an Arab marketplace), taluq (an Indian estate).

Umiaq, which in Inutitut means “woman’s boat” shared a root with the word qajaq, “man’s boat,” which made it into English as the much more familiar word kayak. So for these, thank the Eskimos. (And Nate too, I guess, with his stupid ladyboats and his stupid Scrabble victory.)

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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Friday, March 25, 2011

Horror in the Grocery Store

First, a disclaimer: Yes, this is technically another post about Scream, superficially, anyway. But it’s also about me. I’m not sure that generates any more incentive to read this post, but that’s what I can give you.


Let me set the scene. The grocery store — the one nearest my house and the one that has been the setting for my oddest interactions since I moved to Los Angeles. I’m in line for check out when people come queue up behind me. I casually look to see who’s there, and in the instant I glance at the girl standing closest to me, I feel a twinge of recognition. I turn away, and that’s when I realize it’s a combination of “I know her!” and “The last time I saw her, she was dead.” The reaction hits me hard enough that I look back at her, mostly because I’ve never had to process the strangeness of seeing a person who I’ve previously seen die. It’s a pretty awkward double take. Had I been acting in a movie, the director would have accused me of overplaying the scene. I’m lingering. She notices. “Hi,” she says, annoyed and on the offense. I realize how weird I must seem and force a smile. “Hi,” I say, surely sounding like a creep. I turn around, this time for good, but I imagine that her disdain for me burns a hole into the back of my head.

I reacted in the way I did because I saw this actress die in Scream 4 just a few days ago. Though she’s acted in other projects, they’re mostly teen and tween fodder, and I’ve never watched them. Consequently, her performance in Scream 4 — in which the most memorable thing she does is get stabbed to death — is all I really know of her. And yet here she is, alive and buying food, just like me. It feels strange having to so quickly reconcile a real-life actress with her fate as a character on a screen, and I’d never experienced it this way before. Moving to Los Angeles, I figured that I’d occasionally see actors, and I have and it’s never been a problem. But at the grocery store, it was a problem, because it aggressively conflicted with the way I watch movies. When I walk into a theater and the lights go down, I wholeheartedly buy into the universe presented before me. I’m not a crazy person who thinks that what happens in movies and TV actually happens in real life, but the only way I know how to experience these stories is to surrender my reality to the one on the screen, at least until plot holes or bad acting or some technical fault render that world too implausible. And that’s what I did at and throughout the Scream 4 preview, even though the movie presented a few obstacles to that kind of viewing. Regardless, it felt jarring to have that illusion broken so suddenly.

It’s tough for me to put in words, I guess. I’m not traumatized and I’m not in disbelief, but I think I might appreciate more separation between my fiction and my fact. To use the Scream movies as an example, there are two actors who have died in the series who I’ve later seen in real life: Drew Barrymore (at Coachella a few years ago) and Elise Neal (at a party in LA a few months ago). Didn’t bother me. I’m familiar with both as actors outside of the Scream movies, and a comforting amount of time went by between seeing the movies and seeing the actors. Tonight was different.

Can I use an example? Great. I will. In searching for something to compare it to, I arrive at that scene in Mulholland Drive when Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring venture into the closed-up apartment, see the corpse and then go running out, images of them fragmenting off and spinning around their bodies for a few moments before converging back on the actresses. It’s an exaggerated example, I know, and yes, using a movie to explain the weirdness of reconciling a movie with real life might indicate that I’m an individual who has issues grasping reality. Whatever. The point is that the characters Watts and Harring play in that scene aren’t real, and that fake, Hollywoody reality eventually gives way to something harsher and grittier. Someone analyzing the symbolic language of film might interpret the scene with the visibly fragmented characters as foreshadowing for the beginning of the end of the fake reality. And that, in a muted, I-swear-I’m-not-crazy sense, is what I felt today. (Speaking of David Lynch weirdness, I at this point should probably mentioned that this morning I saw Laura Dern in my office parking lot. I recognized her and said hello. Yeah, Los Angeles is weird.)

What else can I draw into this mess of thoughts and movies and perception and myself? Only that I watched this week’s Community after the grocery store incident, and was taken aback by the Abed plotline, about him visiting the set of Cougar Town and experiencing a similar disconnect between “stories” and reality. He talks about seeing Courteney Cox and her being the trigger for his realization about fictional characters being false. And it was strange, given that I saw this very woman just a few days ago at the press conference for Scream 4. In fact, it was at that press conference that Hayden Panettiere, of all people, did a good job of summing up my feelings about the difference between real life and these fictional worlds we tend to invest ourselves in. Panettiere mentioned how strange it felt to her to grow up liking the Scream movies and then to be in this new one rather than just experiencing it by watching it. Granted, this sort of experience hits actors a whole lot harder, I’m sure, but I have to hand it to little Maddie Harrington for putting into words an uncanny, hard-to-describe sensation that I’d later experience — as a result of one of her costars, no less.

In the end, I learned nothing. Movies are fake, and I continue to know this. But that doesn’t mean that the way I watch movies and TV and any other staged fakeness might happen differently now.

I promise the next thing I post here won’t be Scream-related. But I think there’s a few more waiting to happen in the not-too-distant future. Apologies, non-fans. But hey — it’s just a movie.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Can You Fucking Clean Up the Bathroom When You’re Done?

Speaking of the Scream movies, how horrifying and bizarre are Rolling Stone’s photos of the female cast of Scream 2? Horrifying because of the blood spatter, bizarre by virtue of the lack of fucking half the female cast of Scream 2 and also because it’s proof that Heather Graham, Neve Campbell, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jada Pinkett and Tori Spelling once had to hang out.


Holy shit, 1997 was a long time ago. Also: Why does Neve Campbell have the absolute worst outfit of the group? Was someone not informed that she was the star? Or did she just want to look twelve?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Artificial World, Ordinary Lights

I literally rubbed elbows with Neve Campbell today. Can you believe that?

I mention this not to brag, exactly, but to point out of the strangeness of my life now compared to what it was when I first found out about this actress, when I sensibly presumed her name was pronounced to rhyme with Eve. That was a long time ago, but today we interacted, in the most technically accurate sense of the term. This was not unexpected: I was at a press event for Scream 4 and we were trying to pass each other in a crowded hallway. She shared a similar interaction with dozens of other pressfolk between the elevators and the hospitality suite, I’m sure, but it was noted and remembered by a guy who can so vividly remember being fourteen years old and stupid, being ridiculously well-versed in horror movies but never having seen a slasher film on the big screen, being in a dark theater and nerves exploding as he watched Neve (and Drew and Courteney and Rose and that’s it) attempt to evade pointy, corn syrupy death. But there she was, fifteen years older but still beautiful in that weird “pigtailed innocence but come-hither sensuality” way that someone, somewhere once described her as having.

I must say, from the movie fan’s perspective, the lack of distance between actors and audience kills the drama, generally speaking. I turns out I prefer my screen actors to remain on screen. But to a guy who really, truly loved that first Scream movie on a personal level — because it introduced him to a world of film genres as well as the concept of cinematic metatexts — and cared for (to an extent) the sequels, the whole experience of seeing a preview screening of Scream 4 and standing in the presence of the actors made me feel the passing of the years between 1996 and now in a way that thinning hair and slowing metabolism haven’t. And it made my current life feel strangely imaginary in a way I’m not sure I understand.

Regarding my thoughts on the film, I will say this much: I’m reluctant to give spoilers as to the identity of the killer in Scream 4, but I’ll at least say that I didn’t expect the killer to be an angry, unemployed Jennifer Love Hewitt (playing herself, of course).

I kid. But seriously: Maybe it will seem less strange if I think about it more? Or less?

Scream, previously:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fast, Strange, Great, Sad Life of Joe Carstairs

NOTE: A comment on this post accused me of stealing the information from a book, which I presume to be Kate Summerscale’s The Queen of Whale Cay, the biography of Joe Carstairs. I have not read the book, and the information in this post came principally from an article Summerscale wrote for the Richmond Review in which she offered an abbreviated overview of Carstairs’ life. (The article was formerly available here, but that website does not seem to be available presently.) In the original post and in the current, modified version, I linked to Summerscale’s piece, quoted it several times and mentioned Summerscale by name. However, I should have lauded Summerscale from the get-go, and I apologize for not doing so in the original posting. I also got information from the Wikipedia entry for Joe Carstairs (which I neglected to explicitly cite in the initial post) as well as other sites already linked in the post, and what follows is an assemblage of that information. But considering Summerscale’s status as the go-to authority on the subject, it’s likely that much of that basic info was probably generated by Summerscale’s research, and I would like to emphasize that point. If you’d like to read more about Carstairs, buy Summerscale’s book.

In a way, the lives of certain great and eccentric people do not easily lend themselves to biographies and biopics, simply because someone reading these books or watching these movies would likely find the stories unbelievable. These people lived too large, as corny as that sounds, and all the more so if they’re not already well-known. I can hear the objection: “If it really happened this way, this fantastically, why don’t more people know about it? Why haven’t I heard about it before?” A writer adapting these people’s lives, I suppose, might have to choose between watering down the details and risking that the reader will decide that too much was embellished — saturated when a light tinting would have done the job. To illustrate this point, I offer you Joe Carstairs, an indisputably interesting woman who looks like an amalgamation of Alice the maid and Sam the Butcher and whose life reads like a pair of adventure fiction writers trying to one-up each other.

See for yourself:

According to Wikipedia, Marion Barbara Carstairs, nicknamed “Betty” and then later nicknamed “Joe,” apparently, was born in 1900 in London to Jabez Bostwick, one of the founders of Standard Oil, and Fannie Evelyn Bostwick. A tomboy from childhood, Carstairs grew up dressing like a man. She also drove ambulances for the Red Cross During World War I.

See, that’s enough to qualify her as interesting, but none of these facts are the most interesting ones.

After the war, she established the X Garage, an all-female chauffeur service.

That right there could be the set up for a movie — and really this script should be written at once — but this is still not the most interesting thing about Joe Carstairs.

She romanced many high-profile women, among them: Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Deitrich, and Dolly Wilde (niece to Oscar), whom she met in her ambulance-driving days. But she also married in 1918, though only to appease her mother and to get access to her trust fund. The marriage was annulled after her mother’s death.

Good stuff, right? Keep going.

At the time of her death, Carstairs’s mother was married to the Russian doctor Serge Vonoroff, famed for his theory that grafting monkey testicles onto those of humans would improve sex drive, memory and eyesight, among other benefits. According to Wikipedia, Vonoroff had initially proposed “transplanting the testicles of executed criminals into millionaires, but, when demand outstripped supply, he turned to using monkey testicle tissue instead.” A 1999 article in Nature speculated that Vonoroff’s transplants could have been what introduced the human race to AIDS, which had previously existed only in simians.

Fascinating, but more of an aside, really. A footnote, for sure. A companion piece, maybe?

As of 1934, Carstairs was known as the “fastest female speedboat racer in the world.” Though she never broke the world speedboat record, she risked her life to compete against the men in her chosen profession. She held her own. Additionally, “in her boatyard she built some of the most beautiful and powerful boats of the day,” writes Kate Summerscale in her article in the the Richmond Review — and, I’m sure, the book Summerscale later wrote about Carstairs as well.

And now you’re starting to see how this woman is like an onion of impressive, weird and impressively weird.

At the height of her career, however, she retired from the public eye — or whatever sort of eye followed the feats of competitive speedboating — and moved to the Bahamas. From the Richmond Review: “I am going to live surrounded only by coloured people. … I am not even taking a motor car, for when I bought the island there were no roads. Now I am building roads and a residence, but my only means of transport will be two ten-foot dinghies. The island is about 1,000 acres in extent and is nine miles long. I cannot say if I will ever return.” She purchased the island, Whale Cay, for £40,000 — “a trifle by comparison with the £500,000 or so she had spent on motorboat racing,” accord to the Review, and then she later bought several more islands: Bird Cay, Cat Cay and Devil’s Cay, as well as several other properties on larger islands. On Whale Cay, however, Carstairs lived and ruled like a queen — she governed, she advised subjects about proper diet, she named babies born there, she arranged marriages, she provided feasts and earned the love of her “subjects.”

Hold on, we’re getting to the interesting part.

While lovers came and went, Carstairs’s constant companion during this years was Lord Tod Wadley, a doll — “a boy that would never grow up,” as the Review describes him. Carstairs lavished presents upon the doll as if it were her living, breathing child. From the Review: “Suits from Savile Row, shoes from Italy, golf clubs, cowboy outfits, sailor's suits, a wristwatch that ticked, revolvers, a Bible, a dob, and his own dolls. Poems were written and sculptures made in his honour. … Carstairs had dozens of studio portraits made of her doll: One shows him alone with his reflection in a mirror and is labelled Narcissus.”

And, at last, here we are.

Carstairs died in 1993, and her absence from Whale Cay undid her determined attempt at what she deemed civilization on the island. It reverted back to wildlands. In her profile on Carstairs, Summerscale notes her own confusion at reading Carstairs’s will and finding no mention of Lord Tod Wadley even though riches and toys and mementos had been assigned to a great many loved ones. “It seemed astonishing that she had not provided for his future, as she had for all her other precious objects by entrusting him to the care of a friend.” Finally, the answer, and the final line of the article: “Evidently no friend was close enough. I discovered that, in accordance with Joe Carstairs’ wishes, she and Wadley had been cremated together.”

In my opinion, that epilogue — beautiful and sad, suggestive of her inability to connect with other people but also the most humanizing thing I learned about this real-life tall tale of a woman — is also the most interesting thing about Joe Cairstars.

I may to need read Summerscale’s book now.

“Now That’s Interesting,” previously:

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Moon’s Lamppost

Not sure which Wikipedia article I found most eerie and unsettling. First, there was the one on Crybaby Bridge, the urban legend trope of a bridge from which passersby can hear the crying of a phantom baby. From that page, I ended up on two that freaked me out even more. First, there was the one on melon heads, bulbous-noggined humanoids who supposedly lurk on certainly rural roads, waiting to assault normals. Actual quote from the article: “According to local lore, the melon heads were originally orphans under the watch of a mysterious figure known as Dr. Crow (sometimes spelled Crowe, Trubaino, Krohe or Kroh or known as Dr. Melonhead).” And then there was the one about Helltown, a town in Ohio allegedly beset with a haunted cemetery, a moving tree, satanist, the Ku Klux Klan, mutants (including a supersized python) and a highway that leads to Hell.

Sometimes Wikipedia is strange.

Bemusement Park

This Saturday, I went somewhere that should not exist. Or if it did exist, it should have stopped existing, because everything about it makes me think that the world would reject it. However, it endures, against all logic, and you too can maybe one day visit and appreciate it in all its head-scratching glory. This thing is the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s a joke. Kind of. It’s also performance art. It’s also a legitimate tourist attraction. It’s also in Culver City, of all places. And I can describe it as a mock museum, I guess, but that doesn’t convey much about the experience of going there. And it’s an art installation, but on a much larger scale than you’ve probably seen before.


I can compare the Museum of Jurassic Technology to a David Lynch film. In experiencing either, there’s an uneasy humor that forces you to be okay with feeling uncomfortable. Also, both create that awkwardness by twisting a familiar setting. WIth Lynch, it’s the intersection of Americana and the surreal. With the Museum of Jurassic Technology, there’s that same meeting of down home hokey and otherworldly, but the uneasiness is mainly generated by the contrast between everything you have come to expect from a museum and what you’re seeing: obviously false things, possibly false things, truthful things tweaked to be somewhat false and things that are just baffling. Some exhibits make you laugh. Others don’t have an obvious joke, and you’re left with a brain full of this: “Am I missing the joke? …Or is the lack of a joke the joke? …Or is the joke that I’m here? …Or is the joke on the visitors who don’t get the overall joke?” Have you ever read the Eggers brothers’ Doris Haggis-on-Whey books? They purport to be educational but they teach false information, such as that giraffes control what we see in mirrors and that snot comes from Detroit. The Museum of Jurassic Technology works similarly but less gleefully. The place is literally dark, to the point that some plaques are hard to read. Intentional? Also, some of the exhibits don’t seem to work properly. You press a button and nothing happens. You pick up a phone expecting to hear an audio track explaining an exhibit, but you only hear electronic beeping. Again: Is it intentional? Even if it isn’t, the museum gets away with it. The place so confounded me that when I finally found the bathroom, I was afraid to use it because I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t actually an exhibit and that my peeing wouldn’t end up being broadcast on a screen in another part of the museum.


You may have noticed that I haven’t described the exhibits. I feel like I shouldn’t, just because anyone wanting to go should experience it without much of a preconceived idea of what they will see. I went in only vaguely understanding what the place has to offer, and I think I enjoyed it more as a result. Indeed, the museum seems keen on preserving the aura of mystery. For example, if you do what I did and follow up your visit to the museum with a trip to its Wikipedia page, you’ll find a straightforward write-up. First sentence: “The Museum of Jurassic Technology is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the lower jurassic.” No hint of the museum’s true nature — that is, the joke. It’s as if the museum’s creator and curator wrote the article himself and Wikipedia editors tacitly agreed not to out the place. That’s not to say that the article is misleading; it’s just cleverly withholding the whole truth.

In the end, I can only offer these two bits: Go, if you’re in the Los Angeles area and feeling like you’re needing stimulation. My trip to the Museum of Jurassic Technology was easily the most intellectual thing I’ve done in the six months since I moved here. However, the second bit of advice I can give you is this disclaimer: It may well be that I completely missed the point of this museum and my comments are therefore not to be considered in decided whether to visit the museum and what to make of it once you’ve left.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

As Much as I Can Bear to Write About Sprinkles

Really, what the fuck is a sprinkle? Value-wise? Like, over the course of your life, how much difference could be made by a single sprinkle on a cupcake? The answer should be none. In fact, if the answer is anything but, you’d better be an heir to some confectionery legacy, because sprinkles, ultimately, are nothing. They might as well not have names.


Of course, these things do have names. (The nerve.) While most English-speakers do just fine with sprinkles — for example, in contexts such as “I prefer not to eat sprinkles because I don’t appreciate pointlessness on my pastries” — not everyone makes it so easy. Technically speaking, sprinkles must be sprinkled — that is, dropped aimlessly. The tiny, pointless candies that get purposefully arranged on pastries go by other names, such as nonpareils and dragées, and even the randomly scattered ones can be ants or hundreds-and-thousands or jimmies or brucies, depending on the shape of the pointlessness and where you’re eating it. But by far the best alternative to sprinkles would have to be the one that also sounds like a mean name to call a woman you don’t like: hagelslag. Granted, the term comes from Dutch, a language that boasts a lot words that sound like mean things, but this is the one I’m latching onto. Hagelslag, as a culinary item, allegedly came about in 1936, in response to letters a little boy wrote to the Venz candy company requesting a chocolate bread topping. (It goes without saying that the lad was “mummy’s little candy boy,” a regular Agustus Gloop, so jolly with his candy-stuffedness.) Venz complied with the fat child’s demands and produced chocolate hagelslag, “tiny cylindrical candies” named for a Dutch weather phenomenon that literally translates as something like “hail-strikes.”

If it surprises you that such a complicated, region-specific vocabulary exists to describe something that itself might as well not exist, know that there’s some disagreement over the term among members of the hagelslag community. (Community known for choco-stains around mouth, pockets.) Apparently, if you want to get technical about it — and we all clearly do — true chocolate hagelslag must be made from at least 35 percent cacao. From Wikipedia: “If the percentage is under the 35 percent, it has to be called cacao fantasy hagelslag,” with the more elaborate name oddly going to the inferior product. Marketing ploy? Act of pity? Is the fantasy that you’re eating chocolate when you’re actually eating a product that is substantially more nothing than its more prestigious counterpart would be? I am unsure. But I don’t doubt for a moment that the distinction is addressed quite seriously by the Augustus Gloops of the world.

Finally, before I never talk about these things again: fairy bread. Is a thing, apparently. And while it sounds a little rude, the nature of it is more offensive than the name. Fairy bread, according to Wikipedia, is a common treat in Australia and New Zealand consisting of white bread cut into triangles, slathered with margarine or butter and covered with sprinkles (or whatever you feel like calling them now).


I guess by some people’s standards this would pass for dessert, but I can’t help feeling like fairy bread would suck only slightly less than, say, peanut butter smeared on playing cards, and that the moms serving it have probably just stopped trying. But perhaps fairy bread, in all its awfulness, is an appropriate destiny for a dessert component that just doesn’t have all that much going for it, no matter who weirdly complicated its nomenclature might be.

Digestibles, previously:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hole in the Sky

The post from earlier today about the names of the planets got me thinking: Why is Uranus the only planet in our solar system to get its name from Greek mythology? All of rest take their names from Roman mythology. Well, except for Earth. (You know, Planet Dirt, as its name could be interpreted, though the Romans did have an “mother earth” goddess, Terra, and Italian person would refer to our planet as Terra.) Had astronomers kept the pattern and used the name of Uranus’s Roman equivalent, the seventh planet would be called Caelus, but they instead used Uranus, the Latinized version of the name of the Greek sky god. Weird, right?

I would like to imagine the name resulted from some astronomer foreseeing how fun later generations would have with anus jokes. However, anuses apparently didn’t factor in, at least any more than they do into every other decision. This celestial body — initially called Georgium Sidus, “George’s star,” in honor of King George III — became Uranus when scientists generally agreed with the logic of astronomer Johann Elert Bode, who pointed out that because Jupiter’s father was Saturn, then this new planet should in turn be named for Saturn’s father. Grandpa, father, son — in order. Makes sense, I guess. But because some of the involved parties were English-speakers, and I presume they had anuses, I’d still like to think that at least some of them were in on the joke. They had to be, right?

A small post-script: My fifth-grade teacher insisted that the name of this planet was pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable. Insisted. I cannot forgive her.

An additional post-script, added after the fact: The awkwardness of the name Uranus is totally compounded by the fact that the adjective Uranian was in the late nineteenth century used to mean “homosexual.” Oh, how the jokes write themselves.

A Fuller Moon (For a Limited Time Only!)

This week, an eyes-on-the-sky, neck-craned-up word.
perigee (PAIR-uh-jee) — 1. the point nearest the earth’s center in the orbit of a moon or satellite. 2. the point in any orbit nearest to the body being orbited.
Though the term would otherwise be unknown to those who don’t think much about the night sky, it’s in the news this week, for tonight our moon reaches its perigee. What’s more, it’s also a full moon, meaning that it will be particularly bright — 30 percent more so than when it reaches its apogee, or the point in its orbit farthest from Earth. (It’s odd, but I knew the word apogee, though I can’t remember ever hearing perigee until this week. Probably why I was fired from my job as a moon doctor.) This “supermoon,” according to the Washington Post, will also be the “biggest” since 1993.

a brighter moon, though you have little basis for comparison

Strictly speaking, the implications of this celestial IMAX show are limited to the tides, though I’m sure plenty of people out there would like to blame the closeness of the moon for the various calamities befalling our planet. I’ll leave that debate to religious nuts and scientists to duke out. I’m more concerned today with the language of celestial movements.

Perigee, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, comes from French, which got it from the Medieval Latin perigeum, which in turn got it from the Greek perigeion. And that word breaks down into peri- — meaning “around,” like in perimeter, or “near,” as in perinatal — and , meaning “earth,” like in geology and related to Gaia.

For those who closely study these matters (and who apparently want to confuse and exclude novices trying to listen eavesdrop on them for god-knows-why), there’s a whole cryptic vocabulary for the closest-to and farthest-from orbit points, or the apsides (singular: apsis). So, like, perigee and apogee refer to specifically to Earth, while the sun gets perihelion and aphelion (both from the Greek helios, “sun”) to describe the objects orbiting around it. And the movements of stars within a galaxy get perigalacticon (closest to the center) and apogalacticon (farthest from the center), both of which are awesome. Really. Say them outloud. Movement of bodies around stars (as opposed to our sun) get periastron and apostron. And black holes get three options: perimelasma, peribothra and perinigricon for the points unfortunate enough to be closest to this gaping nothings, and apomelasma, apobothra, and aponigricon for the presumably safer points farthest away. (Melasma, a skin condition, simply means “dark spot.” I’m not sure where bothra or nigricon come from, though I’d guess the latter has something to do with the color black.)

For the other planets and Earth’s moon, the vocabulary devolves into the kind of multisyllabic unpronounceables common only to sci-fi novels and medication brand names. Here they are, as short as I can make them:
  • Mercury gets perihermion and apohermion, after Mercury’s Greek counterpart, Hermes.
  • Venus gets three: pericytherion, pericytherean and perikrition. (The “apo” group looks just like you’d expect. In fact, I’ll just leave those out from here on, since they’re all the same roots.) The first two come from the Greek island Cythera, which sits near where Venus was supposedly born from foam in the sea. Why choose this? According to Wikipedia, because the proper adjective form of Venus, venerean, sounded too much like venereal, and a similar situation prevented them from using the goddess’s Greek name and calling all things from the planet Venus aphrodisial. Thus, cytherean got a chance at the big time, and apparently was used in science fiction writing to describe Venus-born oddities in the first half of the twentieth century. Perikrition apparently comes from Kritias, which which Wikipedia describes as “an older name for Aphrodite,” which, considering how old Aphrodite must be, sounds funny to me.
  • For our moons, it’s once again wonderfully complicated. Periselene (from the moon titaness Selene), pericynthion (from Cynthia, another name for Artemis), and perilune (from Luna, the Roman version of Selene) could be used interchangeably. And, really, who’s counting? Why don’t you just go ahead and do that? For certain astro-nigglers, however, pereiselene refers to artificial bodies, perilune to objects launched from Earth’s moon, and pericynthion for objects launched “elsewhere,” whatever that means. NASA apparently chose pericynthion to describe the Apollo project.
  • For Mars, it’s periareion and apoareion, from the Greek god Ares.
  • For Jupiter, it’s perizene and perijove, though Wikipedia perplexingly notes that the latter is “occasionally used” and the former is “never used.” I guess people just don’t like talking about Jupiter?
  • For Saturn, it’s perikrone and perisaturnium, though the former (from the titan Kronos, the king of time) is preferred.
  • For Uranus, it’s periuranion, because this planet was actually given the name of the Greek version of the god and not that of Caelus, his Roman equivalent.
  • For Neptune, it’s periposeidion, after Poseidon.
  • And for that poor nothing Pluto, it’s perihadion, after Hades.
I can’t explain exactly why I find this all so fascinating, but I suppose it’s probably combination of me being a mythology nerd and me being impressed that planetary scientists actually thought this naming system through, deciding that since the peri- and apo- prefixes were Greek, they would combine more smoothly with Greek gods’ names instead of the Roman ones. Or perhaps these guys, being scientists, decided to keep the formulas pure, as they would in any other setting. In any case, the resulting words, clumsily Greek though they may sound and look, create this beautiful bond between old world religion and the most fascinating studies about our giant galaxy that I find rather touching.

And, just so I conclude on a note that doesn’t sound so schmaltzy, I’ll point out that Autocorrect, you naughty rascal you, kept repeatedly trying to turn perigeum into perineum.

Planets and such, previously:
Previous strange and wonderful words:
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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Physics of Black Coffee, Bran and Bumpy Bus Rides

Since it’s Friday, the majority of you who read this blog will not actually read this post today. Perhaps you’ll read it tomorrow. Perhaps you never will. Regardless, I’m determined to keep it simple, and so I’ll just tell you that there exists a particular physical phenomenon called Brownian motion. This is a funny name for anything. Hilarious, even. Feel free to disagree, but you’re wrong.

Enjoy your Friday.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Woozy Canary

I think I’ve finally fixed all the wonky links I’ve been posting. Because most of the links had URL garbage in them but not all of them did, it seems probable that I’m responsible for them. However, I’d like to think that it’s someone else’s fault, and so I will do just that. And this is who I’m blaming.


Fucking Tony Danza, getting in my blog, monkeying around with code and screwing shit up. Tony Danza, don’t you have a grocery store to cut a ribbon at or some Italian pride parade to officiate?