Halloween Parade: 2009

There’s a downtown fairy singing out “Proud Mary”
as she cruises Christopher Street
and some Southern Queen is acting loud and mean
where the docks and the badlands meet
This Halloween is something to be sure
especially to be here without you…

-Lou Reed

This time of year I always start getting giddy. While I usually start planning my Halloween costume on November 1st, the first day of October always marks the beginning of actually getting ready for the event itself. If I haven’t already, I buy or make any remaining items I need the first weekend of October. It’s a time for most people to let their hair down–or, in my case, to dye it gray, or put it up, or, this year, to shave it all off and paint my entire body blue…oops, don’t want to give away the surprise. For me part of the fun of designing and building a Halloween costume is keeping it a secret until the day itself. It goes back to when I was a kid. My parents had to know–after all, they helped me out–but I kept it a secret from everyone else.

Aside from Halloween costumes there are plenty of fun Halloween crafts as well. Make Magazine sponsors an annual DIY contest. Check out some of last year’s winners. My favorite is the ‘haunted’ Ouija board that can spell out messages you send to it from a remote device. Now, if only I were smart enough to build one…


The Banned Played On.

The American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week every year in late September. This year Banned Books Week is officially taking place from September 26th through October 3rd, which, by my count, is eight days. And why not add an extra day to that week? Banning books is an important subject. Personally I’m all for banning books. In fact I’m tempted to help celebrate Banned Books Week by lodging a complaint about the library’s copy of The Geometry and Topology of Coxeter Groups. I’m terrible at math, and therefore the presence of such a heavily math-oriented book in the library offends me.

In all seriousness, the ongoing attempts to ban certain books does have its positive side. People challenge books because they find the books themselves challenging. Any book that challenges our assumptions, that forces us to rethink what we believe, is valuable, even if we come through the process with our original assumptions intact. And attempts to ban books contribute to the discussion. I’m not in favor of banning books but every single day librarians look at books and ask themselves, “Should this be part of the library’s collection?” There are numerous factors that go into the decision, but I think what patrons think and what they want should be part of that discussion. Banning a book usually means that one patron or a small number of patrons is attempting to dictate what everyone else shouldn’t read, but I do think there’s value in defending a particular book’s inclusion in a library collection. It serves as a reminder of how important books are, and how important it is to include a wide array of perspectives. Of course the need for a wide array of perspectives is the main reason not to ban any book.

There’s another positive side in attempts to ban books: they draw attention to books that might go unnoticed. Mark Twain once defined a “classic” as “A book which people praise but don’t read.” Earlier this year I wrote about a lawsuit brought against the the West Bend, Wisconsin Community Memorial Library by a small group of people who wanted to “the right to publicly burn or destroy by another means the library’s copy of Baby Be-Bop.”

I’m sure the people who brought the suit recognized the futility of burning a single copy of a book, but according to the original story they were so offended by it they believed the only way to purge their minds of the horror was to destroy the specific copy they read. As far as I know the book remains in the library’s collection, and I know the story prompted people who’d never heard of it to read it.

Part of the issue with Baby Be-Bop is that the book was written for young adults, and the issue of appropriateness will always be a tricky one for libraries to try and navigate. In a very thoughtful letter to a concerned patron, librarian Jamie LaRue says,

I think a lot of adults imagine that what defines a children’s book is the subject. But that’s not the case. Children’s books deal with anything and everything. There are children’s books about death (even suicide), adult alcoholism, family violence, and more…There is a lot out there that is confusing, or faintly threatening, and even dangerous in the world. Stories help children name their fears, understand them, work out strategies for dealing with life.

Because stories are so valuable and so important it’s often better for libraries to err on the controversial side than limit or completely cut off access to a book that might actually help someone.

Most of what we read is private, and librarians have worked very hard to keep the records of patrons private, but I know of at least one case of someone reading something as a public statement. A friend of mine in high school decided to read Mein Kampf. He made sure to read it where people would see him reading it. He wasn’t interested in emulating Hitler or any of Hitler’s ideas. He was reading it purely because it was controversial. He wanted partly to see what all the fuss was about, but also to read it as a statement about the value of considering even really bad ideas. He later told me that he hadn’t thought about the possibility that people would think he was a neo-Nazi. The worst thing about reading Mein Kampf, he said, was that it was excruciatingly boring. He added, “I wish all Hitler had done was write this lousy book, because then nobody would know who he was.”

That’s assuming, of course, that no one tried to get the book banned from a library.


Word Of The Week: September 26th, 2009

There were a few times in high school that I was called a nerd, a label that never quite fit me. I was a geek. And there is a difference, although such labels are sometimes meaningless. In spite of what movies try to tell us high school, like the rest of life, is not really a place where people can be easily pigeonholed as sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, and dweebies. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by John Hughes films, since none of us ever came out of a day of detention, a long-distance trip, or a prom invaded by vampires with our lives significantly improved. If high school had a plot it was Lord of the Flies one day and Gilligan’s Island the next, and there was a time and place where jocks, metalheads, and even nerds and geeks could be equals. I think it was behind the greenhouse, before gym, but that’s another story.

The major difference between nerds and geeks is one of degree. Geeks dress up as their favorite Star Trek character for Halloween. Nerds dress up as their favorite Star Trek character for casual Fridays. Geeks played Dungeons & Dragons. Nerds insisted on being called “Viklas The Orc Smiter” even when they weren’t playing Dungeons & Dragons. Geeks play video games. Nerds write video games. And while nerds tend to be socially inept, geeks are generally a little more, well, ept. Not that I’m knocking nerds. Several decades ago nerds started playing around with these things called “computers” which would eventually enable them to take over the world. Nerds, in spite of having been social outcasts, are responsible all those cool technological devices that everyone not only wants but in fact needs to avoid being a social outcast. Nerds belonged to the math club, and went on to become highly paid engineers or scientists – professions where they’re labeled “eccentric”. Geeks flunked math, but usually compensated by acing English, and often went on to professions where they’re labeled “weird” or “about to be fired”.

You can, in fact, find individuals throughout history who are either nerds or geeks. Thomas Edison was a nerd. Edgar Allan Poe was a geek. Benjamin Franklin was both, because only a nerd would fly a kite in a thunderstorm, and only a geek would write an essay called “Fart Proudly”. Leonardo DaVinci was a geek because he painted the Mona Lisa. I know he also designed an airplane and a submarine, and if he’d been a nerd those designs would actually work. In fact the geek-nerd dichotomy is everywhere. Whole-wheat bread is geeky. Vitamin-fortified white bread is nerdy. Lime Jell-o is nerdy. Black cherry soda’s geeky. All Chinese food is nerdy – except moo shu. All sushi is geeky – except California rolls. Pudding is nerdy. Ice cream is geeky. DVDs are geeky. Digitally available video is nerdy – although it wasn’t that long ago that DVDs were nerdy and videotapes were geeky. Latte is nerdy. Capuccino is geeky. Making a gourmet meal from scratch is geeky. Getting expensive take-out is nerdy. Shakespeare in the park is geeky. Shakespeare on film is nerdy. Liquid soap is geeky. Body gel for men is nerdy – in spite of what the commercials tell you. Geeks know I’m parodying Lenny Bruce right now. Nerds know exactly which items I stole directly from Lenny Bruce’s bit. Pretzels are nerdy. Chips are geeky. Great Britain is nerdy, and so are all their prime ministers – except Churchill. Canada is geeky, and so are all their prime ministers – except R.B. Bennett. And we all, no matter how cool we were in high school, have a geek or nerd inside of us. So be proud and embrace your inner geek or nerd. Just don’t embrace them too much – they’re uncomfortable with physical contact.


What’s In A Name? (Part 2)

In college I had a Smith Corona word processor. I’m showing my age here, but this was before laptops, so the word processor–with its eight-line, gray and blue LCD screen, and disks that could hold up to 32 KB–was a pretty fancy piece of technology. And I named it Edgar, after Edgar Allan Poe. A friend of mine had a really run-down car that she called Fritz because it was always on the fritz. And if you’ve ever bought an iPod, you know that, when you first plug it in, you’re asked to name it. I named mine Major Tom.

Why do we sometimes give names to inanimate objects? Obviously we don’t name everything–I’ve never named a microwave or a chair. I’ve actually known several people who’ve named their cars, and car models all get names that are partly marketing and partly an attempt to suggest the kind of personality each model has. The appropriately named Mustang will always be a legendary car for being so amazingly cool. At the opposite end of the spectrum the equally-appropriately-named Gremlin will also always be legendary. Whoever gave it that name must have known something. The same is true of the Citroën. Honestly, only a French engineer would think to name a car after a fruit, but it’s had the advantage of giving us a whole new meaning for the term lemon. My favorite story, though, is about Henry Ford asking the poet Marianne Moore to come up with a name for his new car model. She had a lot of suggestions, including Utopian Turtletop, but he turned down every one and named the car after his nephew. It kind of makes you wonder if the car would have sold better if it had gotten a more appealing name than Edsel.

I think naming a mode of transport goes back to ancient times when ships were first named, a tradition that’s come down to today. And I’m going to speculate wildly here, but I think naming ships goes back to a time when sea travel was incredibly risky and dangerous, comparable to space travel now. Sailors may have named a ship hoping that this would somehow make it a part of the crew, imbuing it with a personality and reassuring themselves that, by giving it a sort of life, it would be more likely to bring them home safely. One example that comes immediately to my mind is the frigate Medusa, which is famous because of Gericault’s painting of the raft carrying the survivors after the ship ran aground off the African coast. Every time I look at that painting I think, anyone who’d name a ship Medusa was just asking for trouble.

Have you ever named a car or anything else of your own?


What’s In A Name? (Part 1)

We all know Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but he also said,

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

Is there really something in a name, though? Would we still be reading Shakespeare’s plays if he’d been named Shirley Crabtree? I knew a guy in college who said he’d never be successful because he had the wrong name. Fortunately, as I pointed out, he didn’t have to keep his name, and, in fact, he’d be joining a long line of illustrious writers who hid behind noms de plume. Woody Allen’s real name is Allen Stewart Konigsberg, George Orwell was really Eric Arthur Blair, and Lewis Carrol was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. And don’t forget the two Georges, George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, a perfectly reasonable sounding name, and yet you’ll never see it on a copy of Middlemarch, and George Sand, whose real name was Aurore Dupin. Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility was, originally, attributed only to “A Lady”. Samuel Langhorne Clemens took the name Mark Twain, and I once heard someone ask, “Why would you trust a guy named ‘twelve feet deep’?” I’m not sure I’d trust someone who knows that’s what “mark twain” means, but that’s another story. Craig Ferguson originally took the stage name Bing Hitler because he said he thought it would get attention, but went back to his real name because it was getting the wrong kind of attention.

Now that we’re in the information age, though, I think there’s no reason for anyone to take on a pseudonym. If you become successful enough you’re going to have stalkers who are going to track down your real name, and having a pseudonym is just going to arouse suspicion. Although if you’re a struggling writer, maybe you could try changing your name to something else. It could stir up some controversy, and there’s no such thing as bad press. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” But then what would he know? He wrote under his real name.


What Kind Of Farm Is It?

A co-worker of mine just held up a copy of the September 14th, 2009 Times (London) with the big scary headline 20,000 children put at risk by dithering at E. coli farm. While I don’t want to laugh at at-risk children, I had to laugh at the use of the word dithering. It makes it sound like a herd of children just wandered onto the farm, or they were brought there and just left to their own devices. But I also want to know who in their right mind farms E. coli? This is a new one to me. I’ve heard of dairy farms and fish farms and broccoli farms and even ostrich farms, but I’ve never heard of E. coli farms. Apparently this was a school trip, so what were the teachers at this school thinking? “Well, children, we’ve taken you through Botulism Village and Castle Anthrax, so this week we’ll be visiting an E. coli farm.”

Check out the article online, and be sure to notice the link to the related article just to the right.


Word Of The Week: September 19th, 2009.

The other day I was in my office and my boss called and said, “I’ve got a huge project for you. I’m in the coffee shop right now. What can I get you?” And I mused, something mocha. Even though I have no clue what mocha is. I can’t remember the first time I heard the word or whether I’ve ever heard or read a formal definition, but I do remember the first time I heard it used in a coffee shop. It was in the home of the famous “nun bun”, the cinnamon roll that looks like Mother Theresa, but that’s another story. Somehow when I heard the word mocha I just knew it was coffee flavored with chocolate.

Or is it? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s originally a type of coffee, “produced in or shipped from Yemen”, the name being derived from a port called Mocha, or al-Muka in Arabic. Because Mocha coffee was extremely high-quality, I think it’s come to be associated with really good, really dark chocolate. And at least as early as 1892 it was being used to mean “flavoured with coffee, or coffee and chocolate”.

While the term mocha must have been used to mean “A drink made by combining or flavouring coffee with chocolate” must have been around well before 1977, that’s the earliest date the OED‘s editors can find the term in print.

By the way, this is the same boss who rewards hard work with fancy chocolate bars. She certainly knows how to keep her employees motivated.


You Can Hear The Whistle Blow A Hundred Miles.

To say I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, And Mary would be an understatement. My mother played their albums on a daily basis. When I got my first tape recorder I had a lot of fun recording my best friend belching, but what I really listened to–in bed before going to sleep almost every night–was the tape my mother made of Peter, Paul, And Mary songs. On road trips she’d play Going To The Zoo, Zoo, Zoo, although the song I loved best was the one I’d later learn was written by Shel Silverstein, I’m Being Swallowed By A Boa Constrictor.

That song was sung by Mary Travers who, I just learned this morning, lost her battle to leukemia. To be honest I haven’t listened to a Peter, Paul, And Mary song in, well, years, and yet they’ve always been at the back of my mind. When I’ve been in record stores or just listening to music every once in a while the memory of those songs will bubble up. I never told my friends, but, privately, I kept listening to Peter, Paul, And Mary on into college. It sounds cliché, but any time I got on a plane I’d pull out my very battered tape player and listen to 500 Miles.

Hail and farewell, Mrs. Travers.

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The Way The Cookie Crumbles.

Here in the United States we call them cookies. Across the pond, in Britain, they’re called biscuits, and biscuit comes from the French word biscuit. Spelled the same, but it sounds differently, which the Oxford English Dictionary calls “a senseless adoption of the mod.Fr. spelling, without the Fr. pronunciation.” Maybe that explains why millions of Britons are being injured by biscuits. That’s according to The Telegraph and other sources. The study was commissioned by the company that makes the Rocky Chocolate Biscuit Bar. A marketing director for the company said, ““We commissioned this study after learning how many biscuit related injuries are treated by doctors each year.”

They seem to have thrown a pretty wide net. The marketing director said the results included “people who’ve been bitten by their pet cat or dog while teasing them with a biscuit”. Technically that’s not a biscuit-related injury. That’s, well, stupidity mainly. If you’re teasing your dog or cat with a biscuit and you get bitten, you’ve gotten what you deserve, but it’s also not being injured by the biscuit. The same is true of “one gentleman who got stuck in wet concrete after wading in to retrieve a dropped biscuit”. This is not injury by biscuit. It’s injury by concrete.

It’s pretty surprising to me that a biscuit company would be so open about the results. I think they’d prefer to downplay the numbers, although the Rocky Company doesn’t make the custard cream, judged to be the most dangerous of all biscuits. The generic choc biscuit bar (which would include the Rocky bar) does come in third, though. Risk, by the way, is judged by the Biscuit Incident Threat Evaluation.

I also wonder if the real results aren’t higher. The reporting indicates that half of all Brits have been injured by biscuits, but that’s only the ones who are owning up to it. Using my completely unscientific and baseless method of making a blind assumption, I’d guess that between seventy five and eighty percent of Brits have actually been injured by biscuits. And that’s not counting the numbers who’ve been killed by biscuits, who, naturally, can’t report their injury. Oh my giddy aunt! There could be countless British subjects who are at risk at this very moment because they’ve got a box of McVitie’s Digestives in the pantry! How many senseless deaths could have been averted if we knew about this sooner? Was Charles I executed by beheading, or did someone slip some shortbread biscuits into his cell? And we all know Virginia Woolf drowned after weighing her body down with Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers.

People of Britain, stop the madness! (Don’t stop the Madness, though.) For starters you can stop calling them biscuits and call them cookies instead.


Star Stuff.

“I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”-Carl Sagan

A little over a hundred and fifty years ago, on September 2nd, 1859, to be precise, a massive solar storm allowed telegraph lines to keep running even though they weren’t plugged in. Operating purely on atmospheric current—a precursor to and natural form of wifi—telegraph machines sent and received messages. Telegraph operators in Boston reported that they weren’t able to work unless they took their machines off the batteries at each end of the line.

At the same time a beautiful aurora was visible even as far south as Havana. As an article in the September 2009 issue of Wired explains, it was all the result of a massive solar storm, one that was “twice as big as anything” over the previous five-hundred years. According to NASA solar astronomer David Hathaway, the event “actually heated up the surface of the sun well enough to light up the sun”, so at least one astronomer at the time noticed it as two brilliant spots of light.

In an earlier article for Science@NASA, following a much less dramatic solar storm in October 2003, the 1859 event was described as a “perfect space storm”. Another scientist, Bruce Tsurutani, said,

The question I get asked most often is “Could a perfect space storm happen again, and when?’…I tell people it could, and it could very well be even more intense than what transpired in 1859. As for when, we simply do not know.

Not knowing is a very scary thing, especially with something that could disrupt every electrical system on Earth, but there’s something else here. A lot of people tend to think of Earth as a closed system, a marble rolling through space but unaffected by what goes on around us. In fact what happens around us can have serious consequences. According to the Wired article an event like the 1859 solar storm could cause as much as 1 trillion dollars in damage to electrical systems, and that’s not including the potential loss of life. The more we understand the Sun and the space that surrounds us the more we can do to prepare for potential threats. It’s something to think about whenever anyone calls the space program a waste of money, although my grandfather had a funny response to that. Someone once said to him that it was a terrible waste to build expensive lunar modules and then leave them on the Moon. He replied, “Yes, but at least they spent all that money down here.”

And a major solar storm could have one potential benefit: those of us down south would get to see those spectacular Northern Lights.

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