Monday, July 30, 2012

Aurochs, Twice in One Weekend

Last week, it was the dodo. This week, it’s the aurochs. What’s an aurochs, you ask? (I’m so glad you asked, by the way.)

via wikipedia
The ancestor to domesticated cattle, the aurochs sounds like the dinosaur of grazing hoofed things. Measuring as tell as six feet at the shoulder and weighing as much as 1,500 pounds, according to Wikipedia, these animals possessed some major muscle, which made their purportedly fierce tempers all the more dangerous. Yet we domesticated them, we turned them into common cows (presumably using the same unnatural selection process that turned wolves into teacup poodles), and then, in 1627, the last aurochs died in Jaktorow Forest in Poland.

All of this was news to me as of Saturday, when I read about the aurochs for the first time. For the life of me, I can’t remember why or how I learned about these animals, but I did. Then, just on Sunday, Spencer emailed me a link to a Cabinet article on the extinction of the aurochs and the efforts of some German, World War II-era zoologists, the Brothers Heck, to revive the species. It’s fascinating, and I strongly suggest you give it a read.

Two takeaways:

First, the Hecks believed that domestication ruined animals by inducing neoteny (the retention of juvenile traits in adults), and the Cabinet article evidences this believe with some rather primitive sketches of animals in their natural forms and then their suckier, mushier, tamer forms. It kind of looks like an adult drew some animals and then a child who couldn’t follow directions attempted to re-create the drawings.

via cabinet
Yes, humans too. Remember, this was World War II-era Germany. And no, I don’t know what’s going on with that fish or why domestication apparently turned it into a giant single-celled organism. Science is weird!

And secondly, the mouflon. The article mentions this animal, and because its name sounds like something delicious, I looked it up. It’s a sheep subspecies, and it’s quite regal.

via wikipedia
Is it wrong if I imagine that mouflon : aurochs : majestic forest wolf :: overfed 4-H sheep : constantly farting Holstein : bug-eyed Chihuahua that shakes when it’s not in the protective enclosure of its owner’s purse?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Only Regret Is Dying of Cheese Poisoning

Because if you’re in your final moments, your bowels pulsing with some bacterial fiesta, this makes for a fun word to scream.
tyrotoxism (TAI-roh-TOCKS-izm) — noun: poisoning by cheese or some other dairy product.
This is a handy word to know, given that we make cheese by doing something that we generally go out of our way to avoid: letting food spoil. Of course, we don’t just slide a pan of milk under the radiator and then have at it six months later. (Well, I dont do that anymore.) No, it’s a very particular process of letting it go bad in a certain way. And in the end, we’ve got a little miracle — a chunk of tasty, isabelline food matter that we stick on a toothpick and eat at parties without considering the logistics of it all.

The second part of tyrotoxism should make sense, but are you curious where we get that tyro from? It’s not apparently related to a previous word of the week, tyro. Instead, it comes from the Greek tyros, meaning cheese. Tyros actually figures into another major food name: butter. According to Etymonline, butter comes from the Greek boutyron, which may just be the word for butter plus bous, “cow.” So if that etymology is correct — we’re not sure it is — butter is just cow cheese. And that is neat.

rotten swiss cheese
(modified from a photo by flickr user zooboing)
Now, if you’ll allow it, I have thoughts about cheese and language that are unrelated to food poisoning.

Etymonline’s entry for cheese covers the non-food-related uses of the word and speculates that cheese’s use as a photo prompt word could have playtime associations that actually predate photography. A quote: “To make cheeses was a schoolgirls’ amusement (1835) of wheeling rapidly so one’s petticoats blew out in a circle then dropping down so they came to rest inflated and resembling a wheel of cheese.” And that’s just adorable. Secondly, our expression the big cheese comes has different etymology that the food word, which comes Old English and traces back to the Proto-Indo European root kwat-, “to ferment.” The big cheese, however, comes from the Urdu chiz, “thing,” which Britons picked up during their colonial period in that part of the world.

Doing nothing to change my perception that Moonraker is the worst James Bond movie and overall just a bad film, there’s a British insult word moonraker that refers to people from Wiltshire who were so stupid that they saw the moon’s reflection in a pond, thought it was cheese and tried to rake it out of the water. And that is also adorable, but for different reasons.

The weirdly named, inexplicably punctuated and deathly boring-sounding website English-Word Information offers a variety of words that, like tyrotoxism, use some form of the Greek root tryo, and holy hell, let me tell you that it’s not pleasant territory to cross into. Basically, if something seems cheese-like but is not actual cheese, the situation has taken a turn for the worst. Among the cheesy horrors on this list are tryemesis (“the vomiting of milk curds by an infant”), tyroid (a fun word that can mean either “necrotic” or just “cheeselike”), tyroma (a tumor that contains cheese-like material) and tyrophagus (a certain species of mites that live in flour or cheese and “cause grocer’s itch,” which no no no I just cannot even).

And finally, an alternate take on how one should pronounce tyrotoxism:



Previous words of the week after the jump.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

“Sorry, Sarah — I Can Control Time Now”

That’s an actual line spoken in a movie that I now regret watching.

What’s the movie, you ask? Oh, it’s The Black Cat, also known as De Profundis, also known as Il gatto nero, also known as Demons 6, also known as Dead Eyes, also known as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat, even though it couldn’t have less to do with the actual Poe short story. If you, upon learning that this film has so many different titles, suspect that it might suck mightily, you’d be right: It’s not a good film. I’ve watched it anyway. And while I have a bit to say about it — among other things, “Holy shit, what the fuck was that?” — I’m going to do a favor for everyone and just show you the best the movie has to offer in stills. Occasionally, this film stumbles into a pleasing composition, and that’s all mostly a result of ripping off Dario Argento, so at the very least you can’t say it’s not colorful to look at.

Trust me, it’s a lot better than actually watching the movie, even passively, and you’ll follow the plot about as closely as I did.












Continued awesomeness after the jump.



























Wow, you really scrolled through all of those? You may share my perverse interest in terrible things!

The weird thing is that I can’t now even remember how I heard about this movie now. But somehow, I ended up reading about the actress Caroline Munro, the brunette actress who looks and dresses like Kristen Wiig doing an impression of Lisa Vanderpump and whose every scene in this movie looks not only out of place but actually spliced in from a Skinemax softcore. And I only expressed even a passing interest in this movie because I’d read that it functioned as some kind of unofficial sequel to Dario Argento’s Suspiria, one of my favorite movies. Netflix had it streaming, and I said “What the hell? I don’t feel like hearing myself think tonight.”

It’s not an unofficial sequel to Suspiria. It actually mentions Suspiria by name and features chunks of its soundtrack. Instead, De Profundis or whatever you want to call it centers around the production a film that would theoretically complete the trilogy that Argento began with Suspiria, continued with Inferno and then left idle until 2007. This movie hit theaters back in 1989, believe it or not. Would you have guessed this by the overall look of it? No, of course you wouldn’t have. I guess this proves that Italy didn’t yet have the late ‘80s in 1989 and so it instead rocked that fuzzy, late 70s-early 80s vibe. The especially strange part about De Profundis is that it doesn’t even complete the trilogy. In the source material that inspired Argento to make the trilogy in the first place, Thomas de Quincey wrote about the Three Mothers — Mater Suspiriorum, the “mother of sighs” who serves as the big bad in Suspiria; Mater Tenebrarum, the “mother of darkness” and the big bad in Inferno; and Mater Lachrymarum, the “mother of tears” and the big bad in long-delayed final part, The Third Mother. This movie, however, concerned a different entity that de Quincey mentioned in the same essay. But whatever. That hardly seems like a flaw in a movie that so bravely struggles against coherence.

So what was this movie actually about? I don’t know. A witch or something? Who was Sarah supposed to be, again?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tonight’s Nightmare, Guest-Starring the Spirit of the St. Louis Blues

Let’s say you hadn’t heard of Alvino Rey until now. It’s okay. I hadn’t either until tonight, but I now know enough to offer a criminally superficial overview of his legacy. Rey pioneered the electric guitar on and off-stage, showcasing his trademark guitar solos whenever he performed but also tinkering with the technology behind the music, even collaborating with names such as Fender and Gibson. Those working in that industry today recognize his importance. Said a Gibson historian interviewed for a Smithsonian article on Rey, “For millions of radio listeners, the first time they heard the sound of an electric guitar, it was played by Alvino.” Now, lest you think his influence might stop with swing nuts and guitar wonks, know that he was also the grandfather of Win and William Butler of The Arcade Fire, meaning that there’s a through-line connecting his midcentury heyday to the weird, artful music being played today.

I don’t doubt people who know more about music could offer an educated opinion about Rey and explain why he’s not as well-known today as Les Paul. I only ended up reading the little I did about Rey because I stumbled upon the following video, which features Rey performing “St. Louis Blues” alongside Stringy, a nightmarish guitar puppet whose face is stretched into a permasmile but who mournfully intones, “I am the spirit of the St. Louis blues. I am so blue. All the day long I am blue.” Also, it’s a creepy robot voice. I kind of think you should just watch it.


Terrifying, yes?

Granted, I’d be hopelessly blue too if I looked like the result of Charlie McCarthy getting drunk and knocking up a ukulele, but the important takeaway here is that not even a misbegotten freak like Stringy can resist the sound of Alvino Rey’s orchestra, which prompts him to twitch his arms and wiggle his feet like he’s suffering a moderate electric shock. Which he may have been.

No, wait — the takeaway here is how standards for creepiness have apparently shifted since this clip was recorded in 1944. No, wait — the takeaway here should be the novelty in Stringy’s voice being supplied by Rey’s wife, the singer Luise King via technology that Rey himself inventedNo! The takeaway is Win Butler marrying his own collaborator, fellow Arcade Fire member Regine Chassagne, opening up the possibility for them to revive Stringy at Coachella next year.

Yep, that’s it. Come on, Win and Regine. You can make this happen.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

An HTMLish Question

A quick one, web-savvy readers: As of last week, I reorganized my big word-of-the-week list. Instead of bullet points like you see here, with the inexplicable line breaks that sometimes even occurred mid-word, I now have the words arranged into three columns. This solves the line break problem and it’s not a single column that you’d sprain your scrollwheel finger trying to get to the bottom of, but I don’t love the look of it.

Does anyone have any suggestions for tidy ways of managing lone lists of links? Thanks in advance if you do.

Why the First Second Is the Longest

Contrary to what this blog might make you think, I actually don’t communicate every thought I have. A lot of what happens between my ears stays there, mostly out of fear that if I ask the “Does anyone else ever notice this?” questions, the response I’ll get will be, “No, that’s only you because your brain is broken.”

However, I’ll occasionally learn that these between-my-ears things happen to everyone. It’s validating. Until I was about six or seven, I assumed I was the only one who could close his eyes and see pulsating blobs of light that eventually transformed into recognizable shapes. Then a friend mentioned them. Me, my little mind blown: “You see them too?” Or that sensation of tripping that you get immediately before you fall asleep? I’d never discussed it with anyone until I learned in a high school psychology class that the hypnic jerk happens to everyone. (Great band name, BTW: The Hypnic Jerks.) And on this very blog, I got to write about my realizations that phonesthemes and logophobia were actual things and not just weird ideas that only I entertained.

Last week, I learned about another one, thanks to a link from Dina. It’s my word of the week.
chronostasis (KRO-no-stay-sis) — noun: the “stopped-clock illusion,” or the perception that the first visual impression following a quick eye movement appears to be extended in time.
Have you ever darted your eyes at a clock and thought the second hand was taking an especially long time to click over to the next position? But after that it began clicking forward in even intervals as it’s supposed to? You’re not alone. That’s chronostasis — literally “standing time.” And while Wikipedia points out that it occurs every time we perform a saccade — another five-dollar word, it means “quick eye movement” and comes from the French word meaning “jerk” — it’s just easier to observe chronostasis when we’re looking at a timepiece or something else that makes regular, uniform changes.

Chronostasis need not even be visual, according to the 2002 Oxford study “Auditory chronostasis: Hanging on the telephone,” which had subjects estimate the elapsed time between tones heard on headphones. According to Wikipedia (and, I’ll bet, that study as well, were I able to read more than the abstract), auditory chronostasis occurs when you dial a phone number, raise the handset to your ear and and perceive the time between rings.

So what gives? According to a 2001 study, it’s a side-effect of our brains’ desire for continuity in spite of those quick eye movements. The neuroscience blog The MacGuffin explains more:
When our eyes move, the image reflected on to the retina is also in motion. This creates motion blur… . A blurred image being utterly incomprehensible (and of no use) to us sighted humans, our brains have a mechanism to circumvent the blur and create a comprehensible image. This phenomenon is known as saccadic masking. During saccadic masking, the blur is suppressed, along with visual processing, and the gap in visual processing that should be experienced as your eyes move from on side to another. The brain then replaces the blur with an image of the very next thing that your eyes fixate on.
And also this:
If the brain is replacing a past image with a current image, does that mean what Im seeing is not really in the present but the past? Yes, in fact, human awareness or what we experience as the present is actually the very recent past; more specifically our consciousness lags 80 milliseconds behind actual events. This is how saccadic masking and chronostasis are possible; before we become aware, our brain has to make sense of stimuli first, which takes just about 80 milliseconds.
And this, friends, is the most interesting thing I’ve learned in weeks, even if it does nothing to clear up the ambiguity of a certain expression about stopped clocks.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Speaking Ill of the Extinct

Looking back at the history of the names humans used to refer to the dodo, you can appreciate that we didn’t care all that much for this bird during our brief period of interaction with it.

dodo display at the oxford museum of natural history, via bazzadarambler  

So there’s dodo, which Etymonline claims comes from the Portuguese doudo, “fool, simpleton.” I’m unsure whether they called it this as a result of the way it looked — remarkably like one of my gradeschool teachers, I’d like to point out — or how it lacked any natural fear of humans and would just trot right up to whatever sailor arrived onshore. It’s probably a little bit of both.

While I trust Etymonline, it’s worth pointing out for the purposes of this conversation that less accepted theories trace the word back to other sources. Wikipedia has collected them, and they’re almost consistently unflattering. For example, Errol Fuller’s 2002 book Dodo — From Extinction to Icon provides two alternate etymologies: the Dutch words dodoor, “sluggard,” and Dodaars, “fat-ass” or “knot-ass.” Before dodo stuck as a name — and boy did it, seeing as how it’s still a term for a hopelessly stupid person, more than 300 years after the actual dodo ceased to exist — there was walghvogel. An explanation, via Wikipedia’s excerpt of Dutch admiral Wybrand van Warwijck’s journal from his 1597 voyage to Mauritius:
[F]inding in this place great quantity of foules twice as bigge as swans, which they call Walghstocks or Wallowbirdes being very good meat. But finding an abundance of pigeons & popinnayes [parrots], they disdained any more to eat those great foules calling them Wallowbirds, that is to say lothsome or fulsome birdes.
Yes, “wallowbirds.” Not exactly a testament to the dodo’s appeal. Others? Wikipedia also notes dronte, meaning “swollen,” and kermisgans, “in reference to the birds fattened for the Kermesse festival,” according to Cheke and Hulme’s 2008 book Lost Land of the Dodo. The poor dodo even gets dinged on the level of its scientific name: After the bird’s extinction, Carl Lineaus named it Didus ineptus, literally “inept dodo.” The current scientific name is Raphus cucullatus, which I’m happy to report is not a ding against the bird’s mental faculties or physical appearance.

Poor dodo. We should have maybe been a little nicer to you while we had the chance, and also then maybe we shouldn’t have introduced all those invasive species that made you die. But in defense of all the name-calling: take another look at that photo of the dodo exhibit. You have to admit: If that face is at all representative of what it looked like in life, it didn’t appear to be having a great time.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Nine Animals That Got Screwed When Scientific Names Were Handed Out (And Six That Didn’t)

Oddly, binomial nomenclature permits animals to have the same genus and species name but not plants. Don’t believe me? Look at every plant name ever. The ones that approach duplication fall just short: Ziziphus zizyphus, for example. Better known as the common jujube — and shouldn’t that be its own blog post? the differentiation between the jujubes that grows in the ground and the jujubes you buy at the movie theater concession stand? — its name is spelled differently at the genus and species levels for no reason other than to avoid tautonym status. Animals and animal-namers, however, don’t have to worry about repetition, and as a result, certain species sound horribly unimaginative. Others don’t. Yes, I have listed the ones that stood out to me.
Ones that sound boring and unimaginative:

Bison bison
Chinchilla chinchilla
Iguana iguana
Gorilla gorilla
Hyaena hyaena
Mops mops
Rattus rattus
Indicator indicator
Gecko gecko
And, conversely, those who sound unusually cool for having their exotic-seeming biological name repeated twice:

Vulpes vulpes
Lynx lynx
Bubo bubo
Cygnus cygnus 
Bombina bombina 
Mephitis mephitis

Of interest, if you have gotten this far: Some Hybrid Animal Math.