Sunday, May 31, 2009

Give Us Your Money, Stupid

The below advertisement for the San Ysidro Ranch, which I pulled and scanned from an issue of Vanity Fair, presents a few problems.

First, the image itself: If a hotel wanted to cater to an elite class of customers, then why would its marketers want the single graphic representation of the establishment to be a crudely drawn man and woman that don’t even look particularly like travelers? Seriously — look at them. I’d guess their creator was either a somewhat talented six-year-old or an adult artist trying to emulate a child’s drawing style but unwilling to ditch all pretenses of design aesthetic. I’m not one to rip apart kid’s art in the style of “Ding Ding! Here Comes the Shitmobile!”, but I’ll at least say that the graphic doesn’t make much sense, especially for an ad that ran in Vanity Fair.

The there’s the message: The ad is trying to promote the San Ysidro Ranch in a way that suggests the hotel is good despite not being well-known. So why set up the communication of that message by implying that the reader is stupid? The ad asks a question — “Think you know a lot about traveling?” — to which the reader can answer either yes or no. Like a lot of other people who will probably never stay at the San Ysidro Ranch, I answered “no,” but I’d suspect that the hotel itself is more interested in the people who would answer “yes.” And a “yes” sets the reader up for a fall if he or she doesn’t know how to answer the question posed in the next line of text — “Then what was named America’s best hotel by Forbes Traveler?” Really, a person could know tons about traveling and could have never heard of the San Ysidro Ranch. Why tell self-described travel experts actually don’t know all that much, especially since they’d probably be the group most likely to take umbrage to such a slight?

Give people good news — “Hotel you’ve never heard of is surprisingly good and has accolades to prove it!” — and not good news plus an insult — “If you’re so smart, why haven’t you heard about this good hotel, stupid?”

Previous attempts at visual literacy:

Greek Green

Another chromatic word-of-the-week. Apologies to the colorblind.
verdigris (VER-di-GREES) — noun: 1. A blue or green powder consisting of basic cupric acetate used as a paint pigment and fungicide. 2. A green patina or crust of copper sulfate or copper chloride formed on copper, brass, and bronze exposed to air or seawater for long periods of time.
Artists might have reason to know the first definition, but anyone who has spent time around old metal stuff should recall seeing the instance of the second definition. I only learned of this word recently, from a post on Bradshaw of the Future that traced the verdigris’s possible connection to the word ooze.

The post also introduced me to the notion that the word’s association with a greenish-gray color is erroneous. Someone with a basic knowledge of French might think that verdigris comes from the French color words vert, “green” and gris, “gray.” And that would be a good guess, too, especially considering that the sound-alike ambergris does, in fact, come the words for “amber” and “gray.” But the word actually comes from the Middle English vertegrez, which in turn descends from the Old French vert-de-Grice, literally “green of Greece.” Feel free to share any ideas about how this particular green became associated with Greece, because it’s apparently not known, at least according to the Online Etymology Dictionary’s entry on the word.

Previous words of the week:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tight Ends of Industry

A Back of the Cereal Box field reporter sent in the following image, taken at the UCSB arts library. It’s with no small amount of amusement that we should note that the nineteenth volume of the Dictionary of Art spans all entries between “leather” and “macho.”

leather to macho

I would joke that this book contains leather, macho and everything in between, but the cruel rules of alphabetical order dictate that the entry on Mapplethorpe would most like be in volume twenty.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Girls’ Schools That I Feel Should Exist

Nay, I demand that they exist.

Arnetia McPiggedly’s Academy for Young Harridans

The November Cotton Flower “Home” for Unwed Mothers

Church of the Mysterious Menses, a Conservative School for Ladies

The “Ramblin’ Rose” Last Ditch Reform School

The Toots Fillmore Ladies’ Academy and Resort Casino

Turn the World on With His Hop-Hop-Hop

Dina gave me something that I’m now happily regifting to you all: footage of the jerboa doing its thing.

The thing it does, of course, is bringing joy to the world through bird-like hopping. Not to be confused with such similar species as the Kangaroo rat, Australian hopping mice, and some crime-against-nature offspring born from the drunken mating of a titmouse and a dormouse, the jerboa is native to regions of between northern Africa and central Asia. The above one, who hops to a soundtrack that seems to have been taken from a video game, hails from Africa, while the below one is a pygmy jerboa and therefore comes from temperate Asian deserts.

Both specimens glimpsed in these videos, however, seem to live in sterile, lab-like environments. Maybe they’re adapting.

Bonus points for the second one: It falls off its pedestal about 32 seconds into the clip.

Previous things from Dina:

Monday, May 25, 2009

More Deadlier Than the Mail

I received a letter at work. This letter had undergone two experiences that most don’t: being partially destroyed, possibly through the intervention of an angry dog or toddler, and then being encased in a plastic sleeve.

The evidence:


The back of the evidence:


I don’t know what amuses me more: the decision to protect the letters that have already been partially torn open, the giant block letters reading “WE CARE” at the top of the standard issue apology message, or the fact that it leaves a space for a postmaster signature that, at least in this case, remained blank.

Eat Your Waffles, Fat Man

To cut to the chase, I’ll just say now that The Brothers Bloom made good on my months and months of expectations. I’ve been following production of Rian Johnson’s follow-up to Brick since quite literally the day after I saw Brick and I can happily report that Johnson did not suffer a sophomore slump. I’m actually writing a review for paper later today, but I’m first posting here some odds and ends that most likely will not make the final cut for the in-print article, even though they may well prove to be more interesting than the review itself.


I’d advise you to avoid the text that follows if you haven’t yet seen The Brothers Bloom — and you should seeThe Brothers Bloom — because my tidbits give some major plot points away. I’ve only seen the film once, and since I feel like this might be one of those that improves upon multiple viewings, it may well turn out that some of what I’m laying down in the following points is actually rubbish. However, what follows at least what’s bouncing around in my head.

Foremost, I left the theater unclear as to whether Penelope (Rachel Weisz) is a real girl or if she is actually a “character” in some massive con constructed by Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) in hopes of ensuring his brother, Bloom (Adrien Brody), the happy ending that he claims such a production should provide. In the end, I don’t think Penelope is a fake — and I don’t want to think that she’s a fake — but I wouldn’t put it past Johnson to have written the character so that she appears to be this way. I’ve never read whether he did so intentionally, but I know quite a few people watched Brick and left thinking that the character The Brain could have actually been a figment of the main character’s imagination or possibly a manifestation of his deductive mind whose seeming physical presence gave the protagonist a means of working out the film’s mystery without doing so completely inside his own head. The theory about The Brain, or at least how it’s explained to me, doesn’t hold much water and is probably more a result of directorial design. Similarly, neither do any Penelope-as-plant theories, but they’re still interesting to consider.

My evidence for Penelope possibly being less-than-genuine include the following:
  • At one point, Bloom describes Penelope as reminding him of a character Stephen would have written. While the film never focused on the myriad incidental characters Stephen famously writes into his cons, Penelope would seem to neatly fit in: Her being a recluse conveniently precludes her having any associates outside of what is offered in the span of the film’s central caper. And the one thing tying her to a life outside her experience with Bloom and Stephen — her mansion in New Jersey — is conveniently exploded into nonexistence two-thirds of the way through the film. It’s all very neat, but then again, these very reasons make her an ideal mark.
  • The audience never finds out how Penelope talked the Czech police into not arresting her in Prague. Bloom mentions this, and Stephen curiously suggests that it’s more satisfying not knowing. This bit comes off as a joke, but it’s nonetheless suspicious.
  • The end of the film makes a point of showing off Stephen’s blood on Bloom’s shirt. As it’s pointed out earlier in the film, real blood turns brown in about thirty minutes; costume blood stays bright red. When Penelope initially looks at Bloom’s shirt, the blood is red. Later, after Bloom has fallen asleep and then awakened, the blood is brown, which would seem to indicate that Stephen truly did die. However, the way this information is presented allows for the argument that this too is staged — specifically by Penelope while Bloom was unconscious. This line of thought falls apart upon close inspection — how, exactly, would she have switched a shirt Bloom was wearing or somehow turned the fake blood brown? — but the ambiguity is there, if only for a fleeting moment.
Despite these points in favor of Penelope having been created and constructed by Stephen, there’s significant arguments against this being the case. Most obviously, Stephen really seems to be dead at the end of the film. The car bomb that supposedly killed Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi)? Probably not what it seems. No body. Stephen? Pretty damn dead. Also, when Penelope sneaks into the castle in Prague, she’s out of Bloom’s sight but still acts like a scared-shitless innocent — not a plant who had been coached to perform a role.

The film maps certain tropes of drama onto those of the confidence game — and with good reason. Just as Stephen claims that a good con gives everyone what they want in the end, so too does a good play or movie. In many ways, Stephen’s cons work more like elaborate performance art or interactive theater than what typical con men do. Bloom himself notes that Stephen constructs cons “like Russians write novels,” or something to that effect. In this sense, Stephen is actor and director — and isn’t it a stereotype that every actor ultimately wants to direct? It’s particularly fitting that the film’s second-to-last major scene takes place in a run-down theater. It’s the end for Stephen, nearly the end of the movie and probably the last drama to unfold in that particular playhouse, which looks like it’s going to fall over at any moment. The fact that Stephen literally dies on stage would seem like good evidence for anyone trying to prove that this big kill is fake, but I don’t think this is the case. I’m pretty sure Johnson wanted us to think of Stephen as very much so dunzo, with the fact that his final moments occur in a theater being symbolic and not a hint about something secretive.

The names of the title characters are assigned rather strangely. Whereas the elder Bloom Brother gets a regular first name, the younger one is only addressed as Bloom. Unless his name is Bloom Bloom — which wouldn’t be inappropriate, given the handful of ways the film reminded me of Pushing Daisies — his first name is simply never uttered and not listed in the credits. It’s not unheard of that this would be the case. (For example, the “I” in Withnail and I is never named in the film.) But if Bloom is actually Adrien Brody’s character’s first name, then this film’s brother-brother pair would be the only one besides the Mario Bros. to have a first name arbitrarily applied to both in the way a last name usually would. An online contest was apparently held to give the younger Bloom a first name — or at least so says this article, which, curiously, was written by someone named Dan Bloom — but there’s no indication of what the results of that contest were.

Speaking of names, the pairing of the names Bloom and Penelope made me think of the marrieds in Joyce’s Ulysses, even if the female half of that pair is actually named Molly. The book’s final chapter — Molly’s chapter, arguably — is titled “Penelope.”

An alternate name Stephen makes up for Bang Bang is something like Yen-Ling or Yeng-Ling or maybe even Yuengling. If it’s the third, it would be a name shared by the popular East Coast beer brand. Penelope herself event points this similarity out. Nothing too notable here — just me feeling validated because I’ve always thought Yuengling sounded like a Chinese name. It’s not, but then again Bang Bang isn’t Chinese either.

Bloom guesses that Bang Bang only knows three words of English, if I remember correctly. That’s also how many she speaks in the entire movie: She says “Campari” when ordering a drink and “Fuck me” when she realizes her role in a particular scheme will not turn out how she planned it to. Sure, she sings in English later at a Tokyo karaoke bar, but she was reading from words on the screen then.

Also, unless I’m mistaken, Rinko Kikuchi’s roles in English movies so far consist of her playing a deaf girl in Babel and now playing what is essentially a mute in The Brothers Bloom.

I’m not sure what to make of Bang Bang’s use of Barbie dolls — or, perhaps more accurately, Barbie-like dolls — as shells for blasting matter. One could argue that despite the fact that she exists in a noirish world, she’s literally exploding female stereotypes. For one, she’s an explosive expert, for one. For another, she mostly communicates physically, yet doesn’t use her sexuality as a weapon or tool. That a woman named Bang Bang would function fairly independently of her gender seems pretty damn notable..

Considering the film’s noirish leanings, it actually seems rather strange that it contains no real femme fatales. Brick contained three, depending on how you look at them: Meagan Good and Emilie de Ravin’s characters both exhibit some femme fatale-like qualities, and then there’s Nora Zehetner’s character, a true femme fatale and also the fim’s big bad. It seems especially appropriate, then, that Zehetner would appear in the opening few minutes of The Brothers Bloom as a woman who tries to seduce Bloom and is coldly rejected by him, never to be seen again.

Johnson has noted that the anime series Cowboy Bebop was an aesthetic influence on Brick. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character bears a strong physical similarity to Bebop’s main guy, Spike Spiegel. I’d argue that Cowboy Bebop is a palpable influence on The Brothers Bloom too, what with the capering and the four-person schemes. But I’d also suggest ’70s anime series Lupin III as well — in part because Spiegel and Lupin share a number of physical similarities and in part because The Brothers Bloom’s madcap crime schemes seem more like those that would be attempted by Lupin’s four-person team. And as does any good anime, The Brothers Bloom includes a ballad — even if it’s sung at a karaoke bar instead of over the end credits.

On the subject of the lack of supporting players in the film’s central con, it seems especially notable that the film has such a small cast — there’s only really seven characters to speak of — when, again, Stephen is known for such massive productions that the one that ends at beginning of the film has a cast party.

Considering how much I’ve written that can’t fit into the 250 words I have to fit my review, I can only assume that the final product will be an abysmal failure. It should be clear, however, that I thoroughly liked the movie, to the point that I wouldn’t even feel that it would be cheap to spin a sequel out of it — Mr. and Mrs. Bloom, maybe, with Brody and Weisz playing a latter-day, larceny-bent Nick and Nora Charles. Of course, maybe that’s actually a terrible idea. And maybe that’s one more thing I won’t mention in the pending review.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hanging on the Strands of Greens and Blues

A from-the-car photo of the Storke Road off-ramp, its late-evening blues and greens rendered abstractly by the lens of my first-generation Game Boy of a camera phone.

storke road off-ramp

The road to Costco never looked so pretty.

Bonus: A rarity for me — an explanation of this post’s title.

The Password Is Not Suitable for Younger Audiences

On Friday night, the DVD finished and the TV went to what it had been displaying earlier that day: The Game Show Network. In fact, we happened to be just in time for an episode of Allen Ludden-era Password featuring Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched and Jim Backus, a.k.a. Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island. I’d guess the date of the show at around 1966 or so. It was also standard retro-game show stuff until one of the later rounds introduced a word that I didn’t expect to be uttered on TV back in the day.

Elizabeth Montgomery password vibrator

Yes, the password was vibrator, which apparently meant something different than it does now, as it elicited nary a snigger from anyone on stage or in the audience. Spencer guessed the sense of the word referred to a vibrating belt weight loss device, though I actually have no idea for sure what what definition these people would have been familiar with.

wasn’t the only sexually-tinged word thrown Montgomery’s way, however.

I thought this one was also funny, but nothing can be at the creepy-voiced announcing declaring “The password is vibrator.”

Previous instances of sex when perhaps none was expected:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mountains to the Max

Unexpectedly, given the quirkiness inherent in a letter that leads off such great words as ungulate and ululation and which has been enabling that most unusual letter, “Q,” for centuries, I couldn’t find “U” words that seemed particularly deserving of being this week’s word-of-the-week. Maybe because I just learned that Transylvania literally means “beyond the forest” (from the Latin ultra silvam, though some put the etymology at trans silvam, across the forest), I eventually gave into a word that meant something similar.
ultramontane (UL-tra-MON-tayn or UL-tra-mon-TAYN) — adjective: 1. Of or relating to peoples or regions lying beyond the mountains, especially the Alps. 2. When referring to the Roman Catholic Church a. Supporting the authority of the papal court over national or diocesan authority. b. Relating to or supporting the doctrine of papal supremacy. noun: 1. One who lives beyond the mountains, especially south of the Alps.
Normally, I use this space below the dictionary definition to blather on, but the book in which I found this particular word, Peter Bowler’s The Superior Person’s Book of Words, does such a good job explaining it and its eccentricities that I’ll just relay what it says:
Formerly, [ultramontane referred to] that faction within in the Catholic Church which either lived north of the Alps, outside of Italy, and opposed the concept of papal supremacy, or lived south of the Alps, within Italy, and favored the concept of papal supremacy. Nowadays, more commonly used simply to mean situated beyond the mountains. As, for example, Palm Springs. Not to be confused with ultramundane, which means beyond the realities of earthly existence; unreal, unworldly. As, for example, Palm Springs. Not to be confused, also, with ultra-mundane (with a hyphen), which means excessively humdrum. As, for example, Palm Springs.
I’ll point out that like ypsiliform and sinople, ultramontane could be a difficult word to define in context; while it always means the same thing, the given landmass or people being identified as ultramontane would depend entirely on who’s using the word. Essentially, this property of this word should prevent the bear from ever making his much-talked-about journey to the other side of the mountain. Relatively speaking, he would have already been there.

Previous words of the week:
Word nerd? Subscribe to Back of the Cereal Box’s word-related posts by clicking here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Saint Justus, California

A quick follow-up to yesterday’s Hollister-related post: The name of my town would have been something else, if it wasn’t for a certain naysayer. According to Wikipedia, my hometown — originally founded as the San Justo Homestead Association, which took it name from Saint Justus, who attempted to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the seventh century — was initially going to be known as San Justo. Henry Hagen, a man described as a Napa vintner and a member of the homestead association, allegedly argued that California already had enough towns with Spanish saint names and that perhaps the city should honor “someone less holy.” That’s how Wikipedia puts it, anyway. Those on the name selection committee eventually found a namesake in William Welles Hollister, the famed state-crossing shepherd who founded Hollister before deciding to move on to Santa Barbara, where he died. The name San Justo still exists in various places throughout the county, maybe most prominently in the name of Rancho San Justo Middle School.

memorialized here if not in my town’s name

No idea if Wikipedia has this right, but I love that my hometown got its name on what sounds like a whim. “Oh, you don’t like this one? Then how about this thing we just came up with? It doesn’t sound all Spanish-y. And junk.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Encyclopedia Drew and the Case of the Haunted Clock

The longer it’s been since I actually lived in Hollister, the rarer the occasion arises that I think to share my favorite story about it. This story is not representative of my hometown in any way. I’ll say that again, since people often tend to think the opposite: This story is not representative of my hometown in any way.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I headed back home, worked at the newspaper, and watched the house while my parents were away on extended vacation. In all, not a bad way to spend three hot months. By virtue of having the place to myself, however, I had to shop for groceries on my own. I’d never felt more grown up. Sure, I had made grocery trips during the previous year, when I lived in the dorms, but shopping for food myself in my hometown at the store my mom shops at made me feel like an adult in ways that little from my first year of college did.

On one trip to the grocery store, I was standing in line and noticed two older women queued up behind me. I glanced back and saw that they were both around my grandmother’s age and could have very well been friends of my grandma’s, given how social circles work in Hollister. The two women were chatting back and forth with the usual call-and-response pairs that people so often exchange when they haven’t caught up in a while.

Then there was a lull.

Then this: “Did you hear about Pearl?”

(An admission: Though this story should be considered non-fiction, I can’t be sure that the woman being discussed was actually named Pearl. She could have just as easily been named Fern or Inez or Dotty or Mabel or Genuflessa or Eunice or anything else from the stable of names that women of this generation were saddled with. For the sake of telling this story, I’ll stick with Pearl.)

“No. What happened to Pearl?” the other one asked.

“She’s in the hospital. She’s been very sick!” the first woman responded.

“That’s awful! I hadn’t heard. What’s wrong?” said the second woman.

“Well, it started out with a clock she had bought at an antique store,” the first women began to explain. “And right after Pearl brought the clock into the house, she started getting sick. And they didn’t know what was wrong with her. They did tests and they gave her this and that and she didn’t get better. And so then it turned out that there was a ghost living in the clock that she had bought and the ghost was what was making Pearl sick.”

“You’re kidding!” replied the second woman, her voice indicating genuine astonishment — not at the fact that a ghost played a role in the story but that the root of the illness turned out to be a ghost. “So what did they do?”

The answer: “Oh, well, they got rid of the clock.”

I delight in the story for several reasons.

As far as I could tell at the time, no one else heard the story. I looked around to see if anyone’s face might contort in a way that indicated they too were trying to follow the story’s crazy logic, but I saw no such reactions.

I don’t know what kills me more: The first woman’s belief that (a) ghosts can make you sick at all, much less to the point that you would require hospitalization; (b) that ghosts haunt clocks; (c) that this whole mess could be solved by something as simple as throwing away the apparently cursed clock. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the second woman didn’t seem to question one bit of that logic and instead received the haunted clock story much as she would have a story about Pearl falling and breaking her hip.

It didn’t help at all that I’d just previously profiled this women as people who could potentially be my grandmother’s friends. I actually thought about bringing the matter up with my grandmother — “Grandma, do you by any chance have a friend named Pearl who recently spent time in the hospital?” — but I never did, mostly out of fear that investigation would only reveal that I was the only person in town who didn’t think that ghosts made you sick.

Finally, there’s the matter of who the story’s “they” was and how this distinguished group determined that the source of the disease was the clock. It could be that I’ve abridged this part in my mind or it could have been that the woman telling the story never mentioned it. It seems important enough to the chain of events, however, that either I should have remembered it or she should have spelled it out. I really hope the “they” she spoke of actually referred to two groups: the medically professionals at the hospital and some separate group of crazy people who think ghosts live in clocks.

Previous Encyclopedia Drew mysteries:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mother Time

Procrastination rewarded: I recently discovered a seemingly unimportant change between the English and Japanese versions of the video game Chrono Trigger that I find rather baffling. The game opens with the hero, Crono — that is, not Chrono or even Krono but Crono, sans an “H” — being awakened by his mother. As with every other character in the game, her every line begins with her name and a colon, screenplay style, to identify her as the one talking. In the U.S. version, she’s simply Mom. According to this site, however, the Japanese version assigns her a proper name, just as every other character in the game gets: Jina, which I suppose could have been rendered in English as Gina.



This minor character having a proper name helps to reinforce parallels between Chrono Trigger and it’s sequel, Chrono Cross. Both open with the main character waking up and being greeted by their respective mother. But unlike her counterpart in the American translation of Chrono Trigger, the mother in Chrono Cross has a name: Marge.


I wonder what impulse prompted whoever translated the first game for English-speaking audiences to simply call the mother Mom. Did they think American players wouldn’t get who this strange woman traipsing into a young man’s bedroom would be? Did they think we couldn’t wrap our heads around the notion of a mother having a name other than Mom? It’s an odd choice that presumably was made for some reason. Otherwise why make it?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Amazing Sasquatch / Your Powers Are Many

I’d guess that for a lot of the people who watched last night’s Will Ferrell-hosted season finale of Saturday Night Live, the highlight might have been the last sketch, which featured Ferrell singing Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon” along with the entire SNL cast, Tom Hanks, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Green Day, Norm Macdonald, Paul Rudd, Anne Hathaway, Elizabeth Moss, and, for some reason, Artie Lange. Others might have liked the “Celebrity Jeopardy!” reunion or the return of the Mayrelle Sisters. For me, however, the best part was the funeral sketch — which itself was a retread of a wedding toast sketch from the Hugh Laurie episode earlier this season.

The big difference between the original and this one is the out-of-nowhere appearance of Glenda Goodwin — a rather obscure Maya Rudolph character whose handful of appearances have, to my knowledge, never been reproduced in online videos and only one of which appears at SNL Transcripts.

Toward the end of last night’s funeral sketch, Glenda appears — carrying her own microphone — and salutes the dead guy, amazingly, by singing about sasquatches to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

For the record, those lyrics are as follows:
Amazing sasquatch
Your powers are many
You walk through the woods
And get photographed
You don’t need a coat
But you do need a comb
Because your body
Is basically a beard
And then in the second verse, she asks for directions to nachos.

I have no idea why Glenda Goodwin was given a chance to return, but I’m guessing it’s just a coincidence that the character’s first appearance referenced Land of the Lost, the remake of which Will Ferrell was plugging in his hosting gig. The first Glenda Goodwin sketch was a commercial for her legal services, in which she promised to defend clients in cases involving paranormal circumstances such as invisible robots, werewolves, Tyrannosaurus rexes, paintings with moving eyeballs, and the Sleestaks from the original Land of the Lost.

Glenda Goodwin wonderment aside, the wedding toast sketch was better, mostly because Kristen Wiig’s delivery of its final line — “There’s a body in bathroom!” — is unbeatable.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Porno for Tyros

No fireworks this week, just an honest-to-god useful word that I only recently learned about.
tyro (TIE-row) — noun: a novice; someone just beginning to learn a given thing.
Has anyone else managed to get this far in their life without encountering this word? I feel like tyro must have avoided me. Here’s why: When reading, I tend to skip over strange multisyllabic monstrosities but will often take the time to look up shorter that words that I don’t know, the possible underlying logic being that many of the words we English speakers use most often are shorter and that, just maybe, this new, short word has a better chance of working its way into my regular vocabulary than, for example, aequeosalinocalcalinoceraceoaluminosocupreovitriolic.

Straightforward though tyro might be, it’s a head-scratcher etymologically. The hand-dandy Online Etymological Dictionary traces its history as an English word back to the Middle Latin tiro, “young soldier, recruit, beginner.” The trail seems to end there. So, basically, the word hasn’t changed much since we started paying attention to it, but despite that constancy no one’s sure how it came to be. Of course, it may well have skipped around like most other words — we just don’t have any record of it doing so.

Previous words of the week:
Word nerd? Subscribe to Back of the Cereal Box’s word-related posts by clicking here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

We’ll Keep Well-Bred / We’ll Stay Well-Fed

The latest incarnation of what appears to be a Back of the Cereal Box trend, at least based on this post and this post: crazy women and their animals.

And it’s a threefer.

Today, I offer a wealthy woman, name lost in the sands of time, and her retinue, which includes one human man, two jowly dogs, and a monkey dressed in a nightgown who happens to be the only one of the five with the sense to look at the camera.

Also: A terrified-looking Brooke Astor and her angry-looking dachshund, who, despite an expression of focused concern, apparently couldn’t prevent the elder abuse that plagued his owner’s later years

And also also: Birds star Tippi Hedren posing in a pose that I can only hope was re-created years later with Linda Hamilton and a humanoid, cigarette-lighting robot.

A special thanks goes out to Agent Prance Closer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Quick and the Loris

First it was anteaters. Then it was cassowaries. Then I think it was axolotls. Now, for the time being, the coolest animal I can think of has to be the slow loris. Yes, I realize that slow loris sounds like a name some unfortunate girl would have earned in elementary school pre-Great Depression. Perhaps it was, independent of this amazing animal. I don’t care. The slow loris, unhampered by its speed, demands your attention.

See what I mean? It’s like a lemur made love to a monkey and all the best parts combined into a in a single bastard hybrid species. Native to southeast Asia, the slow loris’s Indonesian name, malu malu, translates into English as “the shy one.” I think this is telling, as I can’t count how many kids coasted through my lower school classes by making an innate slowness with purported shyness.

A major negative: Their eyes are prized by practitioners of “traditional medicine” — or as the careless call them, witch doctors.

An even more major negative, in my book: The poor slow lorises must also cope with the fact that they have a sister species known as the slender loris. And that’s just unfair.

Run, slow loris! Come to me! Bury your uncannily expressive eyes in my shoulder and I shall feed you sugar cane and sweet, sweet raisins! I shall name you Doris or possibly Boris but most likely Doris! Your eyes shall remain in your head until I say otherwise.

Weird animals, previously:

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The First Robot Capable of Qualifying for a Boat Loan

Good news, everyone!

According to the latest from Blogger Buzz, thisahere Blogspot blog has and for a while has had the ability to offer RSS feeds for specific post labels. In normalspeak, this: If you want, you can plug into your feed reader only the posts that interest you. It’s like the blog version of the ruby slippers having been there the whole time.

Tickled by all things verbal? Then just tell Mr. Internet that you’d only like to subscribe to these posts. Are you a video game nerd? Then receive only my game-related posts. Like axolotls? Then get nothing but my axolotl-centric posts. Hey, I might write about them again someday maybe!

I realize that I use this blog as a forum to write about just anything, but if you actually hate that kind of openness you can instead now just read one thing at the expense of the others. Make Back of the Cereal Box work for you.

The Purple-Hearted, the Purple Parted

Warning: This post concerns wangs. Well, one wang in particular. A wang… and destiny.

In my word-of-the-week post on sinople — a striking shade of either red or green, depending on your research background — I noted how a briefing on the vocabulary of heraldry reminded me about something that in turn gave a little insight into a subject I’ve been wondering about lately: The existence of the words azure — a heraldic color term that has persisted in modern English as a word meaning “sky blue” — and azul — Spanish for “blue” — constitute one more instance of “R”/“L” confusion occurring between English and Spanish along the lines of miracle and milagro. (And in the comments to that post, Goofy offered me another: the Spanish peregrino and the English pilgrim.)

Something else I glanced over in preparation of the post, however, has led me to something twice as interesting. A text by Cennino Cennini describes a 15th-century perspective on sinople, calling it by the names sinoper and porphyry. The first, again, would seem to exhibit an “R”/“L” switch, but that’s not why I’m writing this. It’s that other word, porphyry. I looked it up and found that it still exists as a term referring to the purple-red appearance of certain rocks. Etymologically, the word porphyry means what it looks like: “purple.” (And yes, that would be yet another “R”/“L” switch. They apparently appear everywhere when you begin looking for them.)

The connection between porphyry and purple reminded me of another subject I’d previously written about on this blog: Porfirio Rubirosa, famed playboy and diddler to the stars whose lingering claim to fame is that his member was so large that it associated his last name with two-hander, restaurant-grade sort of pepper grinders. Cast that image out of your mind for a moment and concentrate instead on what is likely Porfirio Rubirosa’s single strongest chromatic association: Truman Capote’s description of his most famous part as an “eleven-inch café-au-lait sinker as thick as a man’s wrist.” Now that is a chunk of syntax that will follow you past the grave. (That brought an even more vivid image, didn’t it?)

rubirosa seated beside odile rodin at a boxing match. one can only wonder what is on his mind.

However, my sudden awareness of porphyry has led me to discover that the name Porfirio does, in fact, also mean “purple.” Connotations of royalty aside, a name that means “purple” strikes my American ears as unmanly. That apparently didn’t stop Rubirosa. Perhaps certain men can pull off names that would crush others. Fiorello “Little Flower” La Guardia comes to mind.

The meaning of his first name is particularly notable in light of his last name, Rubirosa. In Spanish, rubio means “fair” — pelo rubio is “blond hair.” Rubio, however, shares an obvious etymological connection with the English word ruby and its various relatives, almost all of which mean “red.” (I wonder if some group of Spanish-speakers may have at some point lumped hair colors into “dark” — brown and black — and “not dark” — blond and red — and simply called the latter group rubio.) Considered in light of its second part, Rubirosa’s last name could be literally read as meaning “rose red.” When you think about it, Purple Rose-red is a very strange name for any man, much less one who had so much luck with the ladies.

That is unless we think about the one thing we remember Porfirio Rubirosa for today. Sure, when Capote saw it, the color he saw was café-au-lait. But knowing Rubirosa, this awkward encounter with the human equivalent of a pickled, shelled soft-boiled egg wouldn’t have brought out real its colors — the throbbing purple and red that would have been familiar to the likes of Delores Del Rio, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Kim Novak, Eva Peron, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton.

When I think about it in that sense, Porfirio Rubirosa is probably the only person I can think of who both lived up to and managed to overcome his name. And that, like something else I now find myself thinking of, is no small matter.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sinople Ain’t Simple

During my last alphabetical round of words-of-the-week, I took great pains to explain my hatred for the word ypsiliform, which means “having the form of a ‘Y’” but for various reasons has become easy to misunderstand and misuse, at least in my opinion. In response to that post, occasional commenter Britta noted existence of another word, sinople, which despite only meaning specific things could nonetheless be easily misinterpreted. Months later, I’m finally on “S” again. That tingly feeling? Yeah, it’s the pins and needles you’re sitting on.
sinople (SIN-o-pul) — noun: 1. in heraldic terms, a green or dark green color; the tincture vert. 2. in mineralogical terms, a clay or quartz containing iron oxides, with a blood-red or brownish-red color, used to make the red pigment sinopia.
There you go: In short, sinople can only mean a specific thing in a given context; however, these two contexts actually used the word quite differently. In fact, if you’re looking at a traditional pigment color wheel, red and green are actually complementary colors and therefore opposites. This is all probably a moot point in that few people would know of the word — it appears in neither the American Heritage Dictionary’s online version nor the standard, abridged Merriam-Webster — but the fact remains that if a coats-of-arms scholar and a mineralogist were for some reason collaborating on a painting, it could very well be possible that the former would ask the latter for the tube of sinople, be given a container of brick-red paint and consequently conclude that his partner was an idiot.

“remember: hit the ball into the sinople part of the court.”

The word sinople comes from the Turkish city Sinop, which was built upon land with a red-ochre color to it. This earth was eventually used to create the pigment sinopia. Wikipedia notes that Cennino Cennini wrote of sinopia in the 15th-century text Il Livro del Arte:
A natural color known as sinoper, or porphyry, is red; and this color is lean and dry in character. It stands working up well; for the more it is worked up, the finer it becomes. It is good for use on panel or anconas, or on the wall, in fresco or in secco.
The relatively little written online about sinople makes a tough job of investigating why it would have later become associated with green instead of only red. Even those who profess to know much about heraldic matters say the switch seem inexplicable. A short post on the complicated etymology of another heraldic color wordgules, meaning “red” — lists sinople alongside rouge and vermeil as words that also signified red. In the mid-14th century, the French heraldic vocabulary began using sinople to refer to green. The article guesses that this may have resulted from the fact that the previous — and now current — French word for green, vert, sounded so similar to the word vair, another heraldic term, and that those designing and then gabbing on about coast of arms would have wanted to avoid confusion between the two.

An essay explaining various bits of heraldic vocabulary notes that the French sinople was, despite its enigmatic origins, successful enough as a word meaning green that it made it into Dutch blazonspeak as sinopel. It also offers two other possible explanations for the switch: the popular theory that mediaeval heralds wanted to make their craft obscure — though the author notes that this “defies reason” — and that it could have resulted from an accident on the part of a colorblind herald, as the most common form of colorblindness prohibits the afflicted from differentiating red from green, marinara from pesto, Mario from Luigi.

Whatever the reasoning behind the definition, you know now what sinople means — or at least what it means part of the time. Play those odds! Hate sinople for being ambiguous or love it for being generative to confusion and ensuing sitcom-like zaniness.

I’m going to finish this post by noting something I realized while reading about heraldry that also relates to issues relating to metathesis — specifically the confusion between “L” and “R” sounds that so often occurs when translating English into certain Asian languages. In a previous post, I talked about how the English word miracle and its Spanish counterpart, milagro, and how a similar sort of “L”/“R” switch seemed to have occurred. I wondered how often this happens between English and Spanish but couldn’t think of any other examples. Stuffy old heraldry gave me one more: azure and azul. Both mean blue. Not sure where the switch occurred, but worth noting nonetheless.

Colors, previously:
Previous words of the week:

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Small World / Smallville

A break from all things fire-related, just because I need it: I found out this week that my intern my intern’s grandmother is Superman’s mom.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Jesus! It a Fire!

Remember this morning when I mentioned that I didn’t have the energy to write anything of consequence? That was a few hours before the Jesusita Fire — or, as I like to call it, Diminutive Feminine Jesus Fire — began burning in the hills about the mission, and now I realize that I had foolishly forgotten what it means to have my free time go up in spoke. I actually spoke the words out loud earlier this week: “I don’t see how the story on the double murder couldn’t be lead news in the print edition.” And yet, here I am, at the end of a Tuesday Newsday, knowing that my presumption was wrong and those damned sundowners have once again conspired to consume my plans and belch them back into the air in tiny white flakes.

credit: intern tyler

It’s a bad sort of familiar, but I can’t say that the situation has me as tightly wound as the last one did. Of course, I can’t actually see the flames from my house. That helps. Really, I should say I would have no excuse for not getting used to the situation at this point; with the Zaca, Gap and Tea fires all having previously risen and fallen within the geographic region on which my newspaper reports, I know I won’t be treading into new territory with Jesusita.

A calmer temperament this time around does little, however, to make my immediate circumstances any more tolerable. I’ll be quite happy if I never again have to sit in this old house, sweating in my chair but unable to open the windows because I must keep out both smoke and the noise of helicopters hovering at a distance that sounds perilously close. I am someone who prefers his windows not to rattle in fifteen-minute intervals. I am someone who despite complaints of Santa Barbara snooziness still would rather not live in Action County USA. I am someone who would more enjoys the question “What next?” being asked only in the fashion of delighted birthday children expecting more good surprises.

A positive: In hiking up to Seven Falls, I’ve previously noticed the sign indicating the Jesusita Trail and laughed at my own mental picture of an anime-eyed, pig-tailed ladychrist whose pint-sized frame belies boundless love — specifically for puppy dogs, kitty cats and spinning. Now I see that the diminutive female Jesus is a force to be reckoned with. Let us not underestimate her again.

Taft, You Moron

I’m somewhat depleted of the energies that would normally go toward brightening your day with daily blog topics, so you’ll have to accept little piddlysquats I can offer in lieu of something more substantial.

Things like this: the Wikipedia page on Taft, a California town in Kern County.
According to a display at the West Kern Oil Museum, local residents asked the Southern Pacific Railroad if the station could be named Moro when the rails arrived about 1900. A railroad official, the story says, declined because the name would be too easily confused with the coastal town of Morro Bay. Instead, the railroad directed the station be called Moron. Pictures of local businesses, including the Moron Pharmacy, hang in the museum. After a fire burned much of the town during the 1920s, it was renamed Taft, in honor of the U.S. President of the same name. According to local folklore the town was actually named after a picture of President Taft. During a meeting at the Post Office to come up with a new name someone suggested Taft based on the picture currently on the calendar on display in the Post Office.
Note: I’m not entirely sure that William Howard Taft would appreciate being so closely associated with a thing formerly known as Moron. I prefer to think of the town of Taft as simply “the best of places.”

It says so on a sign, so it must be true.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Messrs. Bad Guy

Things I learned today: Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on the island of Zanzibar. Brian Eno’s real name is Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.


I Love You, Sophie Tucker

I was recently advised to read the story of Sophie Tucker, who survived being lost at sea. If you like, you can read the complete story by clicking this link to the Sydney Morning Herald, but I understand that this workaday world has you running to conferences, selling stocks and attending three-martini lunches, so I’ll also summarize this purportedly amazing tale here. In short, Sophie fell overboard off the coast of northern Queensland in November. While her family assumed she had died, Sophie actually swam five nautical miles to St. Bees Island, whereupon she survived by eating baby goats. Rangers eventually found her and ferried her back to the mainland, a little skinny and a little scared but all in all quite pleased to be reunited with her loved ones.

Sophie Tucker, by the way, is a dog.

Truly amazing, huh? And absolutely incredible?

I felt compelled to note this story because it actually left me with more questions than stirrings of hope. Foremost, why the hell is the dog named Sophie Tucker? Her owner is identified as being Jan Griffith. Why anyone would give their pet a full name with a last name different than their one is beyond me — my hamster Mrs. Leonard Panaggio notwithstanding — but it’s especially a head-scratcher when the name happens to be shared by a celebrity who seems like an unlikely canine namesake: the Russian-American vaudeville entertainer Sophie Tucker, perhaps best remembered for her hit song “My Yiddishe Momme.” And it goes without saying that were it actually this older Sophie Tucker who swam five nautical miles and then feasted on goat flesh, the story would a hundred times better.

On the subject of curious names, I’m also bothered by the fact that Sophie Tucker (the dog) ended up in a location named St. Bees Island, which seems to be populated mostly by baby goats (based on the news article) and koalas (based on this link) and not bees (based on the fact that it’s really hard to Google “bees on St. Bees”). It’s not the possessive St. Bee’s Island but the curious plural St. Bees Island, as if the bees themselves were sainted. I’m baffled. This kind of name is how an author creating a fictional universe would make fun of Catholics and their tendency to make saints out of anything and everything. Even reading the explanation for the name — the island takes its name from a British village whose name, in turn, is a corruption of that of the Norse way of referring to Saint Bega — doesn’t solve my problem, mostly because this means that one place had to have the nonsensical name before it was then assigned to a second, more recently discovered place, even though it should have occurred to someone at some point that the notion of holy bees is a bit odd.

Finally, names aside, there’s the story itself. I guess it’s interesting that she ultimately was reunited with her family, but I would have been a lot more amazed if Sophie Tucker managed to find her way home on her own instead of just hanging out on ol’ St. Bees and eating baby goats, which for all we know she would have been quite happy to continue doing if the rangers had not nabbed her. They thought she was a wild dog, the article notes. “Ms Griffith said she and her husband had contacted rangers after friends suggested the dog — who had earned a name for herself on the island — might be their long-lost pet,” the story notes, oddly recalling the fact that the dog in question actually had a first and last name already. But she did make it and the owner was there to appreciate the dog’s reaction to being returned home, which she sums up with this: “She wriggled around like a mad thing.” Again, a strange choice of words, on her part and the part of the writer who decided that this, of all quotes, was the one to make it into the final draft of the story.

In all, I am a sucker for a good Incredible Journey story, yet in this case I don’t know how I was supposed to feel. I suppose I’m fairly certain that I’m all question marks and ellipses.