Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Question for Spatula Number One

This week’s word is more notable for its meaning than its origin. Either way, it’s something few people would have reason to use often, but that’s exactly what you should have come to expect by now. It’s also has the distinction of being the first word-of-the-week that I learned mere days before it was featured on A.Word.A.Day, which it was late last year.
espalier (i-SPAL-yer or i-SPAL-yay) — noun: 1. a tree or shrub that is trained to grow in a flat plane against a wall, often in a symmetrical pattern. 2. a trellis or other framework on which an espalier is grown.
I wouldn’t have guessed that the “i-SPAL-yer” pronunciation would be the preferred one, but like I said — it’s not something most of us would have reason to speak, except for a certain kind of garden party or tour of some historical estate. I’m also not sure, exactly, why anyone would want to force a tree to grow into a shape its DNA wants so desperately to fight, but then again it’s mere meddling compared to the Dr. Frankenstein work that is the art of animal-form topiary. It is our desire, I suppose. After all, if man left well enough alone, we wouldn’t today have toy poodles and the appletini.

The word, according to Wiktionary, can also be a verb, as in, “Hey, Hector, let’s espalier this holly tree! I just can’t stand it in its offensively natural tree-shape.”

The end result is entertaining enough:

image from wikipedia

The etymology, perhaps, is less so, at least until I get away from trees and into swords and human bodies.

The American Heritage Dictionary claims espalier comes from French by way of the Italian spalliera, “shoulder support,” which in turn comes from the Italian spalla, “shoulder,” which goes back to the Late Latin spatula, meaning “shoulder blade.” This surprised me, as the Latin and scientific word for this particular body part is scapula and I’d never thought of the words as having a connection before. The same dictionary’s entry for spatula — which, by the way, can mean refer to the kitchen tool or what sounds like a tongue depressor, apparently — credits it as coming from a diminutive version of the Latin spatha, meaning “broadsword,” which elevates the act of scraping cookie batter from a bowl to whole new heroic levels. (The Latin spatha — and also the botanical term spathe — come from the Greek spathē, also meaning “a broad blade.”) From what I read, American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t reconcile these the two similar-sounding, similar-looking words scapula and spatula, which I thought was strange.

The more familiar backblade-related word, scapula, just meant “shoulder” in Late Latin, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. This site also claims that its origin is unknown, but it suggests a similar word: skaphein, meaning “to dig out,” and notes that not only does the bone look a bit like a digging implement but that early people may have actually used scapulas for digging. For its entry for spatula, the Online Etymology Dictionary offers little new, but proposes a connection with the word spade.

I couldn’t make any more sense of the situation. A Google search for scapula spatula didn’t turn up much, aside from evidence of the body part acromium, which confusingly means “the spatula-shaped outgrowth of the scapula.” I also turned up a Wikipedia page on the practice of scapulimancy, which would be so much cooler if it were called spatulamancy. Confusingly, the Wikipedia page for spatulamancy redirects to the one for scapulimancy.

Presumably, there’s more of a connection between scapula and spatula than I’ve found using my limited resources and my armchair etymologist’s license. It seems possible, at least, that the “c” and “p” in the former turned into the “p” and “t” in the latter, though I couldn’t imagine why. Of course, I would greatly appreciate an explanation about how these words converge — and if they don’t, why not.

Wasn’t I supposed to be talking about trees? Damn.

Previous words of the week:

Friday, January 30, 2009

“F” Is for Failing to Keep Your Head

Corny as it may be, I can’t help feeling like this poster for the 1981 slasher movie Night School is amazing.

image courtesy of final girl

Also amazing: A slasher movie set at night school. “Please don’t kill me, Mister Ghostface! I’m just trying to get my GED!”

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Camp Song, Ecuador, and Sexy Koopa Shells

Found in an effort to determine how to spell the name of the song “Kumbaya,” though not in reference to the song itself so much as an adjective referring to all things hokey and falsely spiritual: the city of Cumbayá, Ecuador, which has no doubt suffered more than its share of American tourists bursting out into renditions of this campfire standard.

Additionally of note: The title of “Kumbaya” comes by way of Gullah, specifically for “come by here.” Gullah is sometimes also credited as giving English goober, as in the synonym for peanut, though the American Heritage Dictionary traces it further back to Bantu and likens it to the Kongo or Kimbundu word n-guba.

Something even better: Another word that comes to English from African languages, American Heritage Dictionary claims, is cooter, which I find hilarious. Only it’s not the use of the word I’m accustomed to but instead something that means “turtle” in certain regions of the southern United States. It goes on to say that cooter is related to the Mandingo word kuta, which also means “turtle.” Now I’m wondering if the cooter turtle could have some connection with the other “seaward” interpretation.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Racecars, Lasers, Aeroplanes

Katherine Barber’s neat little book, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs, gives some interesting news regarding the Clueless catchphrase “as if.” Barber claims that the expression is far from post-Moon Unit Zappa teenspeak. In fact, the first documented use of it as the kind of canned retort that Alicia Silverstone and company made popular is the 1903 Frank Norris novel The Pit. The exchange, as Barber re-creates it: “Maybe he’ll come up and speak to us.” “Oh, as if,” contradicted Laura.” Strangely, the phrase seems to have faded from phrase until 1981.

And here I thought that Clueless just ripped most of its lingo from Bio-Dome and Encino Man. Turns out it was turn-of-the-century novels.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wake From Your Dream With a Wolf at the Door

Note: One of the two parties involved in the below conversation about a certain adolescent detective may be using a pseudonym.
Rodham A. Poliobrace: i had the most wonderful dream. veronica mars and i were slowly falling in love while i helped her with her cases. it was such a disappointment to wake up.

me: oh, i hate those. but what a fun afterschool activity for you, walking around with a magnifying glass and whatnot

Rodham A. Poliobrace: mhmm. mostly i think i just brought her clients, but every time i saw her, i looked dreamily into her eyes and she into mine

were you actually just her secretary?

Rodham A. Poliobrace: sex secretary. although i didnt get to that part of the dream, sadly

me: next time you have it, ask her for a job description. i'm curious to know exactly what your duties were

Rodham A. Poliobrace: will do.
The Veronica Mars movie, by the way, would seem to be a go — or at least more of a go now than it was previously.

Encyclopedia Drew and the Mystery of the Knock-Off Clock

(A narrative of obscured origins.)

Where to begin?

I have websites saved on my list of Google bookmarks that I cannot remember saving. Nor can I remember why I found it necessary to save these sites for later viewing. Like this: the Wikipedia page for the fictional card game Cripple Mr. Onion, which I saved on December 13, 2006. I have no clue why. I don’t play cards and I have almost no awareness of the works of Terry Pratchett, from which the game originated — and, for all I know, remains.

Other things have meaning, but I can’t remember why or how the entered my life. This post concerns this type of mysterious bookmark — specifically one concerning Cinnamoroll.

A quick Google search tells me — and likely you too! — that Cinnamoroll is a Sanrio character, which apparently means he exists in the same universe as Hello Kitty. I have almost no understanding of the Sanrioverse. In fact, the closest my personal universe has ever come to treading into this land of things anthropomorphic, big-headed, and relentlessly cheerful was a girl in my seventh grade class who had a Sanrio-themed pencil set. She was mocked ceaselessly, even after the pencil set stopped going to school with her.

Regardless of whether I acknowledge the Sanrioverse or not, Wikipedia tell us that Cinnamoroll is “a white puppy with long ears that enable him to fly, blue eyes, and a plump and curly tail that resembles a cinnamon roll. He starred in his own anime movie which was released in autumn 2007. Some people mistake Cinnamoroll for a rabbit because of his long ears and rabbit-like looks. Cinnamoroll was created in 2001.”

Somehow, I or someone who knows me stumbled onto a YouTube clip of a Japanese commercial for a Cinnamoroll toy. Now, I am not an eight-year-old girl, but to this day the toy looks like one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

Call it good marketing. I don’t know if it’s the jingle or the fact that doll seems to be powered by, among other things, a motorized ass, but I can’t help but think this toy must be amazing. If it had been available to a younger me, I would have demanded it and then told no one that I had it. Its mechanobutt would drive it to countless flips and twirls in my room — my own private dancer. Also, in my imagination of how this would go, it would sing the song from the commercial and move in time with it.

Somehow — whether before The Age of Cinnamoroll or during, I’m not sure — my house came into possession of an alarm clock that looks a hell of a lot like Cinnamoroll, though just enough unlike him that its creators would avoid a lawsuit. The alarm clock lives in Aly’s room, though knock-off Sanrio appliances aren’t really her thing.

One day last summer, while I was home and bored, I took photos and videos of various strange things in the house and included in the long list of subjects was the Pseudo-Cinnamoroll alarm clock. As a YouTube user informed me via comment, the clock is Korean, not Japanese, thus more points in favor of the theory that it’s a knock-off.

The video has been viewed 435 times since I posted it in July. This itself I find strange, that 435 people would sit through even a short video of an alarm clock making noise. But I must remind myself that people will watch anything on YouTube. Even the video I took to document our downstairs neighbor covering A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” which I posted under the title “not worth your attention, this video” and with no tags, still managed to get sixteen views. (Yes, she had no idea I took the video. No, you can’t see her in the video so I don’t think it’s creepy. Yes, all the sound was recorded from within the walls of my house, which means she was singing too loudly. And no, she doesn’t do a very good job, but that wouldn’t stop her from singing the song as loudly as she could — often repeatedly but sometimes alternating with “Son of a Preacher Man.”) No comments have yet clarified whether the character is supposed to be Cinnamoroll or just something that happens to look just like him.

I am personally unable to say which came first — the Cinamoroll clip or the clock — but both have been languishing on the Google bookmark list and I felt they needed to be freed and shared with the world. Spencer or Aly could probably talk me through how the house apparently became fixated upon them for a period, but until then, they shall remain parts of one of the stranger and more Asian-influences Encyclopedia Drew mysteries yet.

EDIT: The story has been clarified, not that any of you all were on the edge of your seats. Aly received the clock from a roommate some time before she moved in here. The Cinnamoroll video was found in an effort to look into what character the clock was ripping off. While Spencer was in Hong Kong, he took some photos of licensed, legal uses of Cinnamoroll’s image. He — she? — apparently shares equal standing with Hello Kitty nowadays.

Previous Encyclopedia Drew mysteries:

Smoke Monster Beta

Now I can’t remember what directed me to this particular YouTube clip, but I found myself here regardless, watching the first third of a Ducktales episode titled “Nothing to Fear.” (Click over to the YouTube site if you actually watch this through. The remaining two thirds are there — minus commercial breaks!) In it, a strange black cloud hovers over Scrooge McDuck’s estate and somehow manages to bring to life the fears of anybody unlucky enough to be standing under it.

(Please note: If you do actually want to watch this video, be forewarned that it may play rather loudly. Blasting the Ducktales theme from your office may not be the best way to earn the admiration of your boss and coworkers.)

The whole point of drawing online readers attention to the clip is the relative similarity between this as-sinister-as-Disney-gets raincloud and the smoke monster from Lost. It works, I suppose, even if the similarities probably don’t offer any insight into how Lost writers might try to explain this roaring, chattering, magpie-imitating, tree-felling entity that may or may not have taken the forms of a black horse, the undead Mr. Eko and resident therapist Harper Stanhope. In fact, I honestly doesn’t have any real bearing on Lost, because if the last episode’s big reveal is that the whole show — the plane crash, the island weirdness, the time travel — was merely port of a ploy on the part of Magica De Spell to get Scrooge’s Number One Dime, then I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours of my life I’ve wasted.

However, I can at least offer this: I have the vaguest memories of this episode, but for all I know the Dharma spooks put them in my brain during those years I don’t remember.

EDIT: Immediately after posting this, I found that the Number One Dime has its own Wikipedia page. Should I be surprised? Saddened? Spiraling into a Ducktales-spawned wiki-hole?

ADDITIONAL EDIT: I feel this blog of all places should make a note of the greatness of the name of Scrooge’s arch-nemesis — the equally Scottish but ultimately evil megabuck duck Flintheart Glomgold. Of course, few members of Ducktales’s target audience would have ever realized.

THIRD EDIT: Yes, by the way, I did fall into that aforementioned wiki-hole.

Monday, January 26, 2009

2424 Appealing Development Boulevard

A conversation at work sometime back reminded me of that certain awful fate that befalls so many planned communities. Let’s see if you can guess what I’m getting at with the following hints: Fox Hollow Road, Acorn Way, California Poppy Lane and Quail Circle.

Yes, I speak of terrible, nature-themed street names. They’re especially bad when the streets’ namesakes are the very species that were displaced by the development itself, but they grate even when this is not the case. Too often, they sound as though they were designed specifically to lull the naïve into thinking that living on these streets would be better somehow — better connected with nature, less likely to devolve Revolutionary Road-levels of suburban angst.

There’s a development in Goleta that bothers me in particular. It’s the one behind Francisco Torres, just off Storke Road. It gets my vote for the worst street names in the county and includes such clunkers as Willowgrove Drive, which few willows call home; Sweetwater Way, which flies in the face of all the lousy-tasting water running through all areas adjacent to UCSB; and Cool Brook Lane, which might be accurate about two months a year but should be renamed “Fire Hazard Lane” for the other ten.

Of course, these names don’t sound as terrible as the communities with streets named after the developer’s wife, daughter, mother, and mother-in-law. After all, who wants to live at the corner of Diane Street and Amber Road? Or, in the case of the last two, Enid Drive and Flatulent Sow Lane?

I wonder if I can apply to name new roads. I wonder if I can convince the county planners that I could do a better job putting two words together for something that people will have to read, write or recite every day.

Just Call Me Angel of the Ocean

Meet the marine equivalent of those “49 percent angel, 51 percent bitch” license plate frames: the sea angel, a shell-less variety of slug that swims through the ocean using flipper appendages. Its name is no misnomer — most of the time. While idly flitting about underwater, the sea angel (suborder Opisthobranchia) looks so much like an angel I’d say it deserves to be cut out of wood, painted with straight out-of-the-box colors and hung in the home of some bored housewife making a half-hearted effort to affirm her Christian identity.

If you watch the whole episode through, you’ll see where the 51 percent bitch comes in. When this creature lunges at its prey, it sheds any resemblance to an angel. “Sea demon,” I guess, is a less catchy name.

Its schizoid personality was enough to make it my weird animal of the moment, outweirding even the walking frog fish and the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish.

[Source: Pink Tentacle, via Neatorama]

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Ground Beneath Her Gold, Dead Feet

Everything old is new again, except when those old things are actually based on older things, thus making them somehow even older than they already were.

Context: Watching the weird American version of BBC tonight, I saw the opening half-hour to Goldfinger, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. (I was so young, in fact, that I didn’t see any reason why Pussy Galore wasn’t a perfectly fine name for a lady.) During the scene in which James Bond discovers the corpse of Jill Masterson — painted in gold and displayed on Bond’s hotel bed, nude but ever-so-tastefully — the score recalls the opening chords of the famous “Goldfinger” theme, but in a quiet, somber way befitting the scene. This music was sampled throughout the 1996 song “Six Underground,” by Sneaker Pimps — a high school throwback reference if there ever was one. Time was, at the dawn of my freshman year, that you couldn’t listen to alternative rock radio without hearing “Six Underground” once an hour.

Hear it for yourself. First “Six Underground.”

And now the score to the tragic death of Jill Masterson.

It’s also worth noting that the song became especially popular when it was included on the soundtrack to the 1997 Val Kilmer film The Saint, the most recent incarnation of the adventures involving a man named Simon Templar. If you wanted, you could draw some parallels between Templar and Bond. They’re not exactly the same, but both men have more in common with each other than they would with, say, Sarah Plain and Tall or William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

A revised maxim: Everything old often remains old.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hot Cross Buns, So to Speak

Those of you who follow what I do here may remember my distress over the word ypsiliform, which can either mean “having the shape of the letter ‘Y’” or “having the shape of the letter ‘U.’”

In context, it’s practically impossible to tell which definition is correct, and, therefore, I concluded that the word was useless. Yes, I admit that the occasion on which someone needs to describe a thing as being Y- or U-shaped comes along rarely enough that the word would still be fairly useless even if the meaning were clear. Essentially, my complaint is like having a fear of sombrero-clad yetis — not of any legitimate concern but interesting to talk about anyway.

Yeti or no yeti, sombrero or no sombrero, I bring up this previously featured word-of-the-week because the one I’ve chosen to write about today is a lot like it in one way and nothing like it in another.
decussate (dee-KUSS-ayt or DEK-eh-sayt) — adjective: having the form of the letter “X”
Despite referring to a letter only one alphabetical slot over from the one that ypsiliform refers to — or two over, if you take the “U” definition — decussate manages to be an entirely more sensible word. It just means one thing, all the time. At times, decussate and its forms can refer to specific types of “X”-shaped formations — neurologically speaking, the crossing of nerve fibers; botanically speaking, certain leaf arrangements — but it always essentially means that thing: shaped like an “X.” Altogether a far superior word than ypsiliform.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, decussate comes from a combination of decem, the Latin word for “ten,” and word for a common Roman coin,
the as. Specifically, the words married and had the baby decussis — literally “ten asses,” asses being the plural of as. (Amazing, I know.) The Roman number system — which we all learned in elementary school, for some reason — represented the number ten with an “X” and I’d imagine that the coin in question probably had an “X” on it at some point. Either way, the name eventually came to be associated with a criss-cross formation.

Useless though it would have been, I can only imagine how much better life would be if it meant “having the form of ten asses.”

Previous words of the week:

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Lady in the Armor

You could say that Final Fantasy V doesn’t offer any unusual gender goings-on, I suppose, but the female samurai begs to differ.

Sexual politics aside, the title is exceptional anyway in that that it was the only Super NES-era entry in the series that never made it outside Japan during that system’s lifespan. When it final did reach the U.S. years later as a release for the PlayStation, the translation was a bit strange, at least in my opinion. I’ll point out some of the reasons I belief this as a go about discussing the subject at hand.


Essentially, I feel that Final Fantasy V stands out from the rest of the main Final Fantasy games — that is, no spinoffs or sequels to specific titles —because only it offers a larger number of playable female characters than male characters. For the most part, these games follow an unwritten rule that three women — no more, no less, and often with one of them being a child — should be playable. Beginning in Final Fantasy III, the game that basically solidified the notion of what a Final Fantasy game was, three women joined the party: Sara, Aria and Unei. They participated in the game less actively than did their counterparts to later games, however. Final Fantasy IV offers Rosa, Rydia and Porom — all three principally being magic users and the latter two being children. (Rydia grows up midway through the game and turns into a bit of a sexpot. Feel weird about it.) Final Fantasy VI has Terra, Celes and Relm, the last of these three being the young one. In Final Fantasy VII, there’s Aerith, Tifa and Yuffie, with the last being teenaged but nonetheless childlike, especially in comparison to the previous two. In Final Fantasy VIII, there’s Rinoa, Quistis, and Selphie, with Selphie being “the kid” in the same way Yuffie is. (It also briefly features one additional playable character, Edea — probably the first controllable Final Fantasy character who happens to be “a woman of a certain age.”) In Final Fantasy IX, there’s Garnet, Freya and Eiko, the last once being a child in the literal sense. (There’s also a badass, eyepatch-rocking female paladin named Beatrix, but she’s only controllable for a brief part of the game.) I’m stopping here, because these games are the only ones I’ve actually played and therefore the only ones I can talk about with any kind of understanding. If I’m not mistaken, however, all the subsequent games follow the rule as well, save for Final Fantasy X-2, which is a direct sequel to Final Fantasy X and stars only female characters, and Final Fantasy XI, which lacks any default playable characters and is a whole other animal altogether.

Final Fantasy V doesn’t break this rule, really. It has Lenna, Faris and Krile, the last of whom stands about half as tall as her colleagues. However, it only features two male characters, Bartz and Galuf. A tiny cast though the game might have, the female characters still comprise the majority.

Of course, it doesn’t appear that this would be the case at the game’s outset. Very quickly into the game, the four available slots for party members get occupied by Bartz, Lenna, Galuf and Faris, the last of whom is the fourth to join and also the one who does it under unusual circumstances. Though Faris is actually the long-lost sister of Princess Lenna, and, consequently, a princess herself, she dresses and acts like a man as a result of the fact that she captains a pirate ship and her crew may not be as forward-thinking as the people who made Final Fantasy V. Faris never really changes her manly ways, though at one point she wears a dress for her official recognition as Princess Salsa.


Yes, that’s right. “Princess Salsa.”

The name probably should have been Sarisa instead, but as I mentioned previously, the translators made some decisions that I might have not. On the whole, the cast of Final Fantasy V is probably the one that least lends itself to Googling, mostly because most characters are known by more than one name, depending on which translation one is referring to. In the original Japanese text and the fan-made translation, Bartz is Butz, but the game’s official translators apparently found that name too hilarious. Lenna’s name is sometimes translated as Reina, since its representation in Japanese characters can be Anglicized into either. And poor Krile completely got the shaft. Some translations offer her name as Kururu or Cara, but the official translators opted for Krile instead. In my mind, even Carol would have worked.

The way in which Krile joins up merits mentioning too. Galuf’s granddaughter and yet another princess, Krile appears partway into the game, but only joins late in the story, after Galuf kicks the bucket, leaving a lot open in the four-member party. Though she’s just a child, Krile magically inherits Galuf’s physical attributes and any abilities he may have learned in the game. In short, she gets to swing an axe as fiercely as a man. And it’s not every day that a little girl gets to do that.

Krile’s sudden strength is not unique in Final Fantasy V however. In fact, the game is the very model of egalitarianism. Whereas most other games in the series introduce characters with preprogrammed abilities, the leads in Final Fantasy start each as blank slates. The player develops each character’s ability as he or she chooses, possibly eliminating any bias that associates certain one gender with certain abilities. In the big list of female Final Fantasy characters above, all but Tifa, Yuffie, Selphie and Freya excel at magic rather than hand-to-hand combat. (Terra and Celes straddle the line in that their the only characters who can use magic from the moment they join the player’s party, yet they both are strong brawlers.) This needn’t be the case in Final Fantasy V, however, as players can assign jobs as they choose. Bartz can be the wizard, Galuf can be the healer, Lenna can be the knight, and Faris can be the bare-fisted martial artist.


In fact, the game seems to be set up to toy with gender. Even if a player chose to abide by gender stereotypes and make Bartz and Galuf the weapon-swingers and Lenna and Faris the magicians, Krile would end up being a huge exception to this when she inherits Galuf’s skills.

So that’s that. All in all, a good name that continues to stand out for many reasons, its take on gender among them. Thankfully, I can report that Final Fantasy’s rather progressive take on gender is no longer unique, among latter-day entries in the series or games in general. It’s opened up quite a bit. Final Fantasy V’s job system — blank, customizable characters — takes a note from a similar set-up in Final Fantasy III, whose party originally consisted of four generic male characters. In a remake of Final Fantasy III for the Nintendo DS, these little nobodies were replaced with characters with names, faces, personalities and genders. Through three were male, one, Refia, was female, and I took much joy in dressing her up like a viking.

More recently, Final Fantasy IV received a direct sequel that continues the story told in that game. Among the nine new controllable characters in this game, titled Final Fantasy IV: The After, five are female. Newcomer Leonora might get stuck in the typical magic-user role, but that gets balanced out by Ursula (a monk), Hal (a book-wielding scholar and gambler), Izayoi (a female ninja, the proper term for which is apparently kunoichi). Princess Luca from the original game, who returns all grown up and in the likely role of a robot-savvy engineer. Even better, the curiously-named Minus gets to be another relative rarity: a female villain.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Dog Who Laughs

One thing I learned today: The dog in Duck Hunt who laughs at you when you fail to kill your flapping, quacking targets has a name.


Though his mean-spirited mockery of your Light Zapper skills might have earned him the name “Dick” or “That Fucking Dog” or something like this, he’s apparently known as Mr. Peepers, at least to certain members of video game-playing society. A Google search would seem to support this fact, anyway.

Off less interest to me but, perhaps, of greater interest to the rest of the world that remembers Duck Hunt, is the fact that Mr. Peepers can be reprimanded for his derisive ways. In short, you can shoot him, but only in a bonus round in the arcade version of the game, Vs. Duck Hunt.

It’s even a bit cathartic just watching the video.

Names and games, previously:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hungry Hungry Hippos, No Holds Barred

Two possible lessons to be learned here: Either you should not underestimate Wikipedia, or, if you do, you should do so quickly because its failings may be soon edited into nonexistence. One or possibly both of these get to be the moral of story that began with my visit to the Wikipedia page on the children’s board game Hungry Hungry Hippos.

Go there now, if you like, but you won’t find anything all that strange — aside from, perhaps, the information that all four hippos have names and that, in some versions, the purple hippo is replaced with a fifth, pink hippo. But that that little factoid appears on the page really shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever had reason to look up a toy or TV show or song that he or she enjoyed in their youth.

Until a few days ago, however, the page included a section marked “Tactics” that read as follows:
Tactics for the game vary by players but these are some of the most common strategies.

Mashing: when a player constantly hits the lever to scoop up as many balls as he can. Commonly used by younger children.

Sniping: when a player stalks a ball and waits until it is in his range to hit the lever and scoop it up.

Cheating: when a player does anything not explained in the rulebook; i.e. harming another player, harming the gameboard or picking up the balls with his hands.
Yes, it’s the third tactic that I mean to draw your attention toward.

If it’s not enough that the person who wrote this would have not only done so without questioning whether cheating constituted a tactic, this person’s concept of cheating also includes physically harming other players or damaging the equipment used to play the game itself. Which makes me thing my own Hungry Hungry Hippos days were rather tame. And, also, that I’m happy I didn’t every play it with this particular Wikipedia user.

Still Screaming After All These Years

On the heels of my post about the movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, I offer this, however unenthusiastically: We will someday see Scream 4. By which I mean that we may someday see commercials and billboards promoting it and likely bearing the text “Scream 4.” Whether any of us will go see the actual film is another matter altogether.

An allegedly credible source recently leaked the news that director Wes Craven (whose filmography includes the previous Scream movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the poorly conceived but hilariously named Shocker) and screenwriter Kevin Williamson (Scream and Dawson’s Creek, both of which he departed from before their conclusions) may retream for another round of self-referential horror comedy, this one, of course, involving a newer, younger set of potential body bag-fillers. Whether the rumor even approaches the truth remains to be seen, of course, but the possibility of Scream 4 ever hitting theaters prompted me to reflect on the original movie.

image from new york post

Looking at this blog as a gauge of what has grabbed my attention over the past few years, a reader could hardly tell that the first Scream played a major role in my teenage years and, now that I think about it, helped me love movies in general. I haven’t written much about Scream here, perhaps because the passage of team has strengthened my critical eye and perhaps because I eventually realized that the people who rave about slasher movies are, in general, weirdos.

Whatever the reason, the three Scream movies now represent a part of my life that feels longer ago than it actually was: high school. And rightly so — the movies basically framed my high school years, with the first coming out at the start of my freshman year and the third in the winter of my senior year. A relic of my former life though these movies may no be, they nonetheless made an impact on me — and pop culture in general.

In short, this: The mantra of the frightened movie-goer who is trying to mentally escape the dread of being slashed to death on the spot by a cinematic psychokiller is “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie,” or so we’re told. When it comes to Scream, however, I’m willing to argue that it’s not only a movie.

image from

Outside the context of my life, I think it’s interesting to look at Scream in the context of the flood of that particular type of self-aware, teenage-centered TV shows and movies that followed and which were released between the time I was 14 and 18 years old. Many owed a debt to Scream in some way. Think about it: Scream put Williamson on the map. Following its success in 1996, we had Dawson’s Creek, which Williamson created; the “true” TV series incarnation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which mixed teenaged angst, pop culture references and horror in a way that it may not have been able to do successfully were it not for Scream; and movies like She’s All That, which starred an astounding number of alumni from previous Kevin Williamson efforts. And She’s All That was released in 1999 — only three years after Scream hit theaters — which goes to show how quickly Williamson built a small teenspoitation empire. Even today, anytime a twentysomething actor playing a Billy Everyteen spouts a pop culture reference to emphasize a point, I think of Williamson, the guy who once turned a conversation about an edited-for-TV broadcast of The Exorcist into a PG-13-appropriate booty call.

Independent of the pop culture continuum, Scream resonated with me personally because, to put it simply, I was the perfect person to watch it. The 14-year-old version of me who wandered into the theater to watch Scream literally knew nothing about it save for the fact that the girl from E.T. was in it. Seriously. That’s it. I didn’t even know that Drew Barrymore’s character died in the first ten minutes much less that she would do so in a particularly gruesome manner. (“Her insides on the outside,” as the late Tatum Riley put it so succinctly.) Beyond that, I hadn’t seen horror movies before Scream. I’d read about them — allowing me to understand a lot of the film’s in-jokes — and had always been to type to scan the backs of the VHS boxes in the video store horror section until would make me stop. But I’d never actually sat and watched anything that would have actually scared me. (Okay, I had technically seen Halloween 5 at a fifth grade birthday party sleep over, but — and this is full disclosure here — I hid my eyes for most of it. Also, the movie sucked, I realize now, and seeing it without knowing who Michael Myers was or what had transpired in the previous films made it more confusing than anything else.) While I sat watching Scream, all these factors combined to create a perfect storm: I sat in my seat completely engrossed, my leg shaking with anticipation and my body involuntarily jumping at the kind of scare scenes a horror movie veteran would have seen coming a hundred miles away.

Immediately after, I went home and did my homework, using this new thing called “the inter-net” to read about how the movie came to be and the various sources it drew upon. As a result, I rented Halloween. I rented Suspiria. I even rented “that werewolf movie with E.T.’s mom in it.” I started reading movie reviews — of Scream specifically, but soon whatever happened to be out. I bought movie magazines. I suddenly had some idea what was coming to a theater near me before it actually did. I had a passion.

It helped, of course, that the movie was actually good. I’ll still argue in its favor today, perhaps less wholeheartedly than I might have when I was still a teenager but with reasonable vigor nonetheless. Scream was funny and scary, I thought, and that’s not an easy combination to pull off. (Case in point: The Frighteners, directed by a pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson.) It had some great lines, among them, “Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.” And, finally, it was far better acted that just about every slasher movie in history. I honestly think Barrymore has seldom acted so convincingly outside the opening “Jiffy Pop” sequence.

One review of Scream — in Entertainment Weekly, if I remember correctly — called it the first movie to ever merit comparison to both Clueless and Psycho. I agree with this claim. It probably was, and this fact helps demonstrate the final reason why I think Scream deserves to be remembered as more than just a scary movie that managed to make money: It embodied the late 90s in one glaring, unfortunate way, what with its creation of a media-saturated teenaged world that would be repeatedly punctured by violence. Keep in mind that all those teenybopper movies and TV shows I mentioned took on the world during the years when the post office shooting spree trend gave way to the school shooting spree trend. In the way that school shootings unnerved those of us who went to school those small towns where nothing bad ever happens, the students of Scream’s Woodsboro High had to fear being struck down in their adolescent prime, likely for no reason, likely at the hands of someone they knew and had previously trusted not to kill them. I can’t realistically compare the grief that school shooting survivors suffered to the phony dread of slasher movies, but the fact that Scream had revived the genre to the point that its peak coincided with the Columbine High School massacre seems noteworthy, though not for the alleged cause-and-effect relationship that some claimed at the time.

All the preceding arguments may not win over those who never bothered with Scream or did and left the theater unmoved, I suppose, but they represent my reasons why those people perhaps should have bothered or might want to reevaluate their stance on the film. These reasons also encapsulate my motivations for doubting the motivations behind making Scream 4. As Ain’t It Cool News noted about the news of the purported sequel, “It seems possible that Wes Craven could be persuaded to come back to direct. Why? I’m told he's a big fan of the money.”

Indeed, I do assume that greed is a motivating factor here, and not some belief that some aspect of the Scream saga needs to be told again or some desire to once more parody the slasher films of the 80s. After all, those movies — with their photogenic, talentless serial killer fodder — aren’t even the dominant off-shoot of the horror genre anymore: It’s now Hostel-style gore flicks and bloodless remakes of Asian fright flicks. (The latter of which became a profitable type of movie only in the wake of The Ring, the script for which was written by Ehren Krueger, who took over the writing duties for Scream 3 after Williamson bailed to work Wasteland, his short-lived TV series follow up to Dawson’s Creek. And the torture porn and J-horror retreads already get mocked by the Scary Movie series, which itself began as a parody of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and even takes its name from the Scream’s working title.

As most do, the Scream series deteriorated with each sequel, but not by much, at least, with Scream 2. Scream 3 did not fare as well, but even at the hands of a less talented screenwriter less familiar with the series, it still managed to offer some neat ideas, including some novel takes on the series-spanning theme of life and death interacting with the their representations in Hollywood. But though it ended the series with a series with more of a whimper than was deserved by the gasp of air that was the first movie.

No, the Scream series doesn’t need to extend into the new millennium, for the reasons I just mentioned — greed shouldn’t extend the life of movie franchises, the target of the series’ humor has been pretty well staked, the world may have moved to far beyond the point where a pop culture-saturated horror seems necessary — but also for my own indefensible, personal reason: I want to keep the 90s where they belong. For me, Scream was and is this particular time period in such away that I don’t look forward to watching some latter-day, tacked-on sequel try and absorb the pop culture that we now have ten years down the line. It can try, of course, and it might even succeed, but I’d much prefer to leave Scream, Scream 2 and Scream 3 in the same time period that allowed the bands appearing on their soundtracks to be popular. (Take a look at them, if you have a chance, and get a refresher in recently forgotten bands: Sugar Ray, Tonic, Less Than Jake, Orgy, System of a Down, Fuel even Creed, for god’s sake. Scary indeed.) Really, if there’s ever any hope for “smart” horror movies, one of the few to actually fit in that category should know better than to slowly let the life drain out of it over the course of endless sequels.

Monday, January 19, 2009

An Open Letter to the Little Girl Who Slept Through the Obama Inauguration Concert

Dear Little Girl,

I hope you’re happy. You’ve ruined Barack Obama’s presidency before it even started.


Sure, you probably feel like konking out for the entire performance was justified. After all, you were sleepy. You had to wake up extra early in the morning to put on your pink little suit and then organize the concert.

Oh wait. Someone else organized the concert. You didn’t do anything. Because you’re, like, seven or something.

All you had to do was sit there, pretending to be attentive and quietly endorsing the notion that this event truly was one united by a sense of hope and equality. But no. You didn’t do this. You just sat there, slumped over, with your mouth hanging open, ruining almost every shot that photographers and videographers tried to take of Obama enjoying the event with his family, valiantly trying to pretend that some little stinker in the row behind him hadn’t already ruined the whole day.

In all seriousness, Obama’s public persona will likely never recover from this insult. Any attempt he makes in the future to bring our nation together and solve its problems has been preemptively undercut by the specter of your unconscious face. It mocks us. It says, “Who needs this? This is lame. I’m seven. I need juice. My mouth is dry because I let it hang open for three hours in 40-degree weather.”

Yes, I’ll admit that the concert itself wasn’t perfect. As far as public representations of racial diversity go, this one could have made a better effort to include people who were neither African-American or Caucasian in prominent roles. (You may or may not be aware of this, as you were asleep and your parents probably didn’t tell you because they are so mad at you right now. SO MAD, YOUNG LADY!) I mean, the only on-stage pair who both represented other races was Kal Penn and George Lopez, which leads me to believe that someone who invite speakers to the event doesn’t know very many Asian or Hispanic people. This was counterbalanced somewhat by Tiger Woods, who brings a whole new level of diversity to any event he attends, of course, but this itself was spoiled by the inexplicable decision to have Garth Brooks sing “Shout,” which couldn’t have less to do with America.

All this is no matter, however, because your obvious disinterest is the one thing that we took away. As all the major write-ups of the event had noted, you, little girl, were all anybody noticed.

Needless to say, when other countries buy the Statue of Liberty and turn her into a electronic billboard that notifies all passers-by of how much more their currencies are worth in comparison to the American dollar, I’ll think of you and wonder if you’re happy now.

Thanks for nothing,

A final note outside the sarcasm brackets: Seriously, in twenty years when this girl’s parents show her the photos proving that she napped through the first installment of one of America’s most historically important inaugurations, she will be so embarrassed, even if she is Obama’s niece and especially if she grows up to love the work of Stevie Wonder.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What the Wild Things Look Like

Even if your childhood came and went without a guest appearance by Maurice Sendak, you should be excited about movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, which despite utilizing the combined creative geniuses as Spike Jonze and Dave Eggars has encountered a bit of trouble just being allow to exist. (Read all about it, and be thankful it’s not Where the Wild Things Almost Were.)

Yesterday, Ain’t It Cool News posted a link to some images that give a notion of what the titular monsters will actually look like. The website Slashfilm has posted some photos of limited edition skateboards featuring the cinematic versions of the wild things.

See the remaining boards over at Slashfilm. And be excited: This may be one childhood memory that Hollywood may not ruin for us all.

One for All, Religious Persuasion Notwithstanding

For this week, a word in the spirit of the situation in which many CD-less, iPod-less motorists have doubtlessly found themselves: scanning radio stations and coming across music that sounds worthwhile enough until a close listening of the lyrics raises the possibility that the song may be Christian-themed.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Is it Christian?

Should that matter?

If it’s not Christian, what, exactly, is the relationship between the male singer and this “he” that he’s going on about?

Like that.
catholicon (ka-THAH-li-kahn) — a cure-all, a panacea, a supposedly universal remedy.
Like the scenario described above, this word has probably made those unfamiliar with it question whether it refers to something inherently religious in nature. After all, anyone familiar with the Catholic church would know that it makes liberal use of icons of all sorts — paintings, statues, stained glass art of varying degrees of quality and those candles you see at Mexican grocery stores. Why shouldn’t the phrase “Catholic icon” be contracted down to the handy-dandy portmanteau catholicon?

Here’s why not: catholicon has more in common with the “lower-case ‘c’ catholic than the proper noun Catholic, which has taken on a life of its own, as words tend to do. The common adjective catholic can just mean “universal,” which isn’t applicable to the religion Catholicism unless one’s concept of the universe is restricted to the South America, Central America, Arizona, Massachusetts, a few major European countries, some islands, and Burundi. (Seriously, this should not be anyone’s concept of the universe. There are migrating birds that have a broader understanding of the universe than this.), which introduced me to catholicon, traces the etymologies of all these words back to the Greek katholikos, meaning “general,” which in turn comes from the Greek kata, “according to” or “by,” and holou, “whole.” (Yes, the name of a religion can is the equivalent of “according to the lowest common denominator,” if you choose to look at it that way.) Going a bit further, the holou comes from the Indo-European root sol-, which also appears in such English words as solid, salute, save, salvo, and soldier, or so tells me anyway.

I can think of another reason why someone might think that catholicon has religious associations, but it’s more of a stretch and probably only exists in my head. The word sounds a lot like the name Catherine, which, as a result of the martyr St. Catherine, is a popular name for little Catholic girls. (Seriously, go to any of the places listed in the “Catholic universe” described above and marvel at the astounding number of women whose names are either Catherine or some variation on it.) Possibly as a result of the fact that I went to Catholic school and met a great many Catherines, I feel the name and the religion became inextricably linked.

In writing this entry, however, I decided to look into whether catholic and Catherine have any connection — mostly out of my curiosity about whether the name could be literally translated as “good for everyone” or “something general that everyone can do.” Because that would be amazing.

Interesting though Catherine’s history may be, it apparently doesn’t owe much at all to the old roots that give us catholic and catholicon, or at least not directly.

Name etymology website Behind the Name posits that Catherine and its variants come from a Greek name that can be represented with the Roman alphabet Aikaterine. (That initial vowel sound gets preserved in the Russian form, Ekaterina, the Online Etymology Dictionary points out.) Beyond Aikaterine, however, the history is debated. It could go back to an older Greek name, Hekaterine, which comes from the Greek word hekateros, which means “each of the two,” confusingly. Others say that Catherine goes back to the name Hecate, which is shared by a Greek goddess who eventually became associated with witches. (I think Buffy featured Willow spouted some wiccababble involving her name once or twice.) In any case, pretty far from Catholicism.

There are a few other theorized origins. Regardless, the arrival of Christianity caused the name to be associated with the Greek word katharos, meaning “pure.” And that happens to be the most widely accepted origin for the name of the Cathars, the Christian sect popular in the 12th and 13th centuries. Which is another fun religious association.

In any case, I think it’s funny that a name that could be translated as “pure” or “universal,” depending on which etymology you pay heed to, is anything but, what with its debated history and corrupted history and possible association with a witch goddess.

If only there was one answer that could make everybody happy. Ahem.

Previous words of the week:

Friday, January 16, 2009

Here Comes the Supercopter

Some might call him a squatter. I chose to call him a delightfully unexpected guest. He lives on the window in the hallway.

spider on my window

My camera’s zoom exaggerates his size slightly, however; he’s actually slightly larger than my thumb rather than slightly smaller. Neat, right? The camera does not exaggerate his hairiness or overall creepiness.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


A preface: Don’t read this. It’s nothing. It’s my way of disconnecting some dots and nothing more. Posting it here only narrowly won out of the alternative of deleting it upon having finished it, which I think I have.

“Countercultural.” The word has rankled me for a long time, not because I oppose the revolutionaries and anarchists and free-thinkers who live to buck the things that a given society consider clean and conventional but only because it has always implied to me a certain reactive nature that I don’t like and that doesn’t necessarily lead to a productive conclusion. Rather than saying “Let’s do this,” the countercultural person could just say “Let’s not do this,” which doesn’t get us anywhere. Why object if you can’t think of a better way to speak or act or wear your hair or prune your trees or whatever? To me, the person or idea or goldfish or pie being described as “countercultural” often only named the problem without offering a solution. If they had, they’d be “revolutionary” or “anarchical” or “free-thinking.”

Though I feel I had been thinking this way all along, I realized that it was so only recently, when I had remarked that someone I know was stubborn and combatively opinionated. Ida, the person I made the remark to, responded by saying that this person was actually “countercultural” and that she had always admired this quality. In choosing this word, Ida instantly reformed my understanding of the word so that I now hate it, even though the idea it gets attached to could be worth hearing. The countercultural person could, every now and then, offer something helpful — and, failing that, could at least spew out the occasional complaint that my brain could grow into a solution, even if all the rest just spill fall to the ground and die. Being so adamantly anti-counterculture — however one chooses to interpret that bastard of a double negative pair — I suppose I’m being as shortsighted as the irksome person whose opinions I find so unhelpful.

Also, I have little room to talk, as I myself often end up doing the opposite of what should be done, whether as a result of conscious decisions or not. For example, around the time my skin stopped seeing the sun, I decided that I hated the one solid-white shirt I have, preventing myself from wearing the my single article of upper-body clothing that would have made my arms and face look less pasty by comparison. And the one January during which the whole of southern California was beset by unnaturally summery weather in January, my body decided to get a cold, allowing me both to enjoy the indignity of what is essentially a summer cold during the winter. Wherever I go, I carry enough winter dreariness in my nasal and sinus cavities that I feel obligated to forgo any out-of-season fun I could be having. Though it’s not intentional, it’s counter-intuitive that I’d behave in this way, as well as counter-several other things.

Essentially, if you gave me an apple, I would decide that I actually needed a grease fire. If you gave me a bassoon, I’d want a contrabassoon. I have yet to decide whether the offer of a contrabassoon would make me ask for the regular bassoon or demand the invention of a contracontrabassoon.

Ralph, There's a Coyote on Your Head

Do you think Davy Crockett dresses effeminately? Do you think he has the right basic idea with his rustic mountain man look but blows the whole concept with that sissy raccoon cap? Do you look at Mr. Crockett’s headwear and wish that he could somehow fit more animal up there?

My friends, I have an answer to these problems you have with Mr. Crockett and, likely, several others as well: the Bridger Mountain Coyote Fur Hat, from the hardcore outdoor outfitter company Cabela’s.

Yes, you can prove you manliness to the world — and Mr. Crockett can too! — by purchasing some feral dog carcass for use as headwear.

You might think the Bridger Mountain Coyote Fur Hat — which is appearing on Back of the Cereal Box thanks to my introduction to it by Coworker Ben — was enough of a spectacle on its own, but the weirdness factor goes up to eleven when you read the user reviews of this product. I can only hope this is posted as a joke.

From AlextheEngineer, who gave it four stars out of five:
I have purchased a number of fur hats in my day but this is by far the warmest and most comfortable. Not only does it keep the back of my head warm but you can wrap the legs around your face to block the wind. The only reason this hat did not receive 5 stars is due to the fact that I was attacked by a bird thinking it was wounded prey while I was out for a walk. A rare but unfortunate occurrence when wearing an animal pelt on your head. Also great in the rain. Didn't smell at all after it was wet and it makes a great present. I'm getting one for my wife.
Which should make everyone think that Alex would be better off just getting Mrs. Alex another ironing board cover, especially because she must be a little miffed to hear him going on about the notion of wrapping legs around his face for additional warmth.

From AlantheBeastmaster, who gave it five stars and who, based on how he chose to format his user name, seems like he must be at least friends with AlextheEngineer if not in full-blown cahoots.
My close circle of friends decided I was the only one who could pull off wearing this hat. Boy were they right. Fantastic. Now that my wife and I live in Tennessee, it is gems like this that help us blend in and gain respect from the locals. If birds decide to attack my hat they have another thing coming. While I don't own many dead animal hats, I look forward to many days fishing with my wonderful coyote headpiece. The coyote was a marvelous animal and it is just incredibly warm around the back, neck, and sides of the face. This was the best gift of the year. 5 Stars for my new spirit guardian.
Funny how his guardian is an inanimate corpse resting on his head.

If these testimonies don’t convince you that the Bridger Mountain Coyote Fur Hat is what you need to survive the harsh winter months, then consider this: It can be yours at the low-low-LOW price of $199.99.