27 December 2023

Rainbow aurora above an Icelandic waterfall

And capped off by the central band of the Milky Way.  Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

"Final Cut"

Explained at Cinerama Film:
György Pálfi’s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen is a quintessential love story, the ultimate experience for cinephiles, and a masterclass in film history and editing. Pálfi’s film is a story that takes us from an initial spark of love through to the varying stages of a relationship. Often labelled as a “recycled film”, the film took three years to make and consists of clips from more than 450 films and tv shows and more than 1400 cuts. The story is told exclusively using these pre-existing scenes varying from slashers to musicals, silent films and CGI-laden blockbusters...

This film is about love, the eternal story of a man and woman uncontrollably falling for one another. The story is predictable and almost clichéd, but that’s precisely the film’s point. After all, don’t most love stories include the exact same panels, archetypes and twists? That’s the reason why we love them and keep watching them. But Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen laces the classic love story with the beauty of motion picture art, suggesting the two are forever interlinked and inseparable. There is something so magical about watching random scenes from our favourite films come together in one glorious cinematic homage to love...

The film’s most significant achievement is how flawlessly the finished product comes together into a stunning feature-length montage that’s far from an exercise in art for art’s sake. It is the ultimate film to watch with your film-buff friends and a love letter to cinema wrapped in a unique and compelling story of love.
Source movies listed in the credits at the end.  Note that on at least one of the links for this film the audio occasionally goes silent, and there is some dubbing of dialogue into ?Hungarian.


Clever.  Via Bored Panda, where there is more science humor.  (re "rickroll")


A screencap I took while recently rewatching North by Northwest for the umpteenth time.  I am intrigued by the stylish wallpaper in the background of the hotel room, which brings back vivid memories of the 1950s

Caiman lurking in rubbish

One of the photographs of the week at The Guardian, which somehow seems emblematic of our times.  Credit: Tercio Teixeira/AFP/Getty Images.

It's virtually a parody of a "Christmas message"

When I saw this travesty, my first thoughts drifted back to Christmas Eve of 2016, when I posted an "alternative Christmas message" from 2008, courtesy of the BBC:
"In the Name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful.

"Upon the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, Son of Mary, the Word of God, the Messenger of mercy, I would like to congratulate the followers of Abrahamic faiths, especially the followers of Jesus Christ, and the people of Britain.

"The Almighty created the universe for human beings and human beings for Himself. He created every human being with the ability to reach the heights of perfection. He called on man to make every effort to live a good life in this world and to work to achieve his everlasting life…

Jesus, the Son of Mary, is the standard-bearer of justice, of love for our fellow human beings, of the fight against tyranny, discrimination and injustice…

"Now as human society faces a myriad of problems and a succession of complex crises, the root causes can be found in humanity's rejection of that message, in particular the indifference of some governments and powers towards the teachings… of Jesus Christ.

"The crises in society, the family, morality, politics, security and the economy which have made life hard for humanity and continue to put great pressure on all nations have come about because… some leaders are estranged from God…

"If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly He would hoist the banner of justice and love for humanity to oppose… terrorists… the world over

"Today, the general will of nations is calling for fundamental change… demands for a return to human values are fast becoming the foremost demands of the nations of the world.

"The response to these demands must be real and true. The prerequisite to this change is a change in goals, intentions and directions…

"We believe Jesus Christ will return… and will lead the world to love, brotherhood and justice.

"The responsibility of all followers of Christ… is to prepare the way for the fulfilment of this divine promise and the arrival of that joyful, shining and wonderful age…

"Once again, I congratulate one and all on the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. I pray for the New Year to be a year of happiness, prosperity, peace and brotherhood for humanity. I wish you every success and happiness."
That message, posted at The Guardian, was authored by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran and considered to be the embodiment of the greatest enemy of the United States.  It is a message of peace, hope, and reconciliation.

In contrast, Donald Trump has hijacked the opportunity of a "Christmas" message to rage that those who oppose him should "rot in hell" - a message of anger, hate, vengeance, and damnation.  It continues to baffle me how he can consistently bamboozle the Christian right into revering him and supporting him financially.  This man has no concept of the principles of Christianity or the meaning of the Christmas story.

Related:  Excerpts from an Atlantic op-ed about the dangers of Christian Nationalism
"The corruption of American Christianity is nothing new: Modern-day pharisees from Jerry Falwell Sr. to Paula White have spent 50 years weaponizing the gospel to win elections and dominate the country, exploiting the cultural insecurities of their unwitting brethren for political, professional, and financial gain, all while reducing the gospel of Jesus Christ to a caricature in the eyes of unbelievers

The crisis at hand is not simply that Christ’s message has been corroded, but that his Church has been radicalized... Mobilizing in response to this perceived threat, the forces of Christian nationalism—those who seek to demolish the wall between Church and state, asserting far-right religious dominion over the government as well as the country’s core institutions—are now ascendant both inside the Church and inside the Republican Party. It is no coincidence that, just recently, Donald Trump began suggesting that he would ban any migrant from entering the United States unless they are Christian. Those who don’t share “our religion,” the famously impious ex-president pronounced, won’t be welcome here if he’s elected again...

Perhaps the only thing more dangerous than authoritarianism is authoritarianism infused with religious justification. It hardly matters whether the would-be tyrant is personally devout; Vladimir Putin’s lack of theology didn’t stop him from partnering with the Russian Orthodox Church to frame the bloody invasion of Ukraine as God’s ordained conquest of a satanic stronghold. To believe that it couldn’t happen here—mass conflict rooted in identitarian conviction and driven by religious zeal—is to ignore both 20th-century precedent and the escalating holy-war rhetoric inside the evangelical Church...

I believe that God took on flesh in order to model servanthood and self-sacrifice; I believe he commanded us to love our neighbor, to turn the other cheek toward those who wish us harm, to show grace toward outsiders and let our light shine so they might glorify our heavenly Father. Not all professing Christians bother adhering to these biblical precepts, but many millions of American believers still do. It is incumbent upon them to stand up to this extremism in the Church.
Comments closed.  Moving on to other matters.

23 December 2023

Thinking of cousins at Christmas

I'm going to close my pre-Christmas blogging with excerpts from an insightful article in The Atlantic.  The Great Cousin Decline discusses how smaller modern families are diminishing the number of cousins for today's young people.
Perhaps you’ve heard: Americans are having fewer children, on average, than they used to, and that has some people concerned. In the future, the elderly could outnumber the young, leaving not enough workers to pay taxes and fill jobs. Kids already have fewer siblings to grow up with, and parents have fewer kids to care for them as they age.

Oh, and people also have fewer cousins. But who’s talking about that?

Within many families—and I’m sorry to have to say this—cousins occupy a weird place. Some people are deeply close to theirs, but others see them as strangers. Some cousins live on the same block; some live on opposite sides of the world. That can all be true about any family relationship, but when it comes to this one, the spectrum stretches especially far. Despite being related by blood and commonly in the same generation, cousins can end up with completely different upbringings, class backgrounds, values, and interests. And yet, they share something rare and invaluable: They know what it’s like to be part of the same particular family...

Maybe you don’t find this alarming, given how oddly indeterminate the cousin role can feel. But cousin connections can be lovely because they exist in that strange gray area between closeness and distance—because they don’t follow a strict playbook. That tenuousness means you often need to opt in to cousin relationships, especially as an adult. And the bond that forms when you do might not be easy to replace...

The typical family experience is changing. Some researchers say that American family trees are turning into beanstalks—tall and narrow. People are more likely to have multiple generations of relatives alive at the same time (because of longer life expectancy) but fewer “lateral” relationships, like cousins and siblings (because of a decreased fertility rate). Although the average number of lateral relatives varies across race and class groups in the U.S., the cousin decline is either imminent or already happening across all of them...

Only about 6 percent of adult cousins live in the same census tract (typically about the size of a neighborhood); the rest live an average of 237 miles apart... 

Compared with siblings, cousins tend to have larger gaps in socioeconomic status, and might grow up in different home environments. In childhood, that can make them good role models—more likely to differ from you and your siblings in ways that could be eye-opening. And in adulthood, given that many people find friends who are similar to them, extended family can provide a rare opportunity to have your opinions challenged...

That’s the funny thing about cousins: In all other areas of your life, you might not be alike at all. But knowing the nuances of your family ties through decades of exposure—however sporadic—is a form of closeness in itself. The low stakes of your own relationship can make you perfect allies—but the potential for detachment also means you have to work for it. You can intentionally insert yourselves into each other’s lives, or you can slowly fade out of them...

Consider this, though: In middle age and older, the cohesion of a whole family can begin to depend on the bonds between cousins. Along with siblings, cousins become the ones organizing the reunions and the Thanksgiving meals. The slightly random houseguests in your younger years become the stewards of the family in your older ones—as do you.

A cousin-sparse future, then, could be a greater loss than people might recognize. It might also make the relationship that much more important: With fewer of them around, cousins may need to depend on one another even more. Families are shrinking—but that doesn’t mean they need to come apart.
Warm Christmas greetings to all my cousins.  I love all of you.

An unusual Christmas image

A devil figure is set ablaze during celebrations in honor of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception in Guatemala City on December 7, 2023. The event marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Guatemala

One of the Photos of the Week at The Atlantic(Credit Johan Ordonez / AFP / Getty)

Christmas song mashup

Clearly mashed by someone tired of Mariah Carey every Christmas.

"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" explained

I remember seeing that sentence many years ago, accompanied by a detailed explanation of how it was grammatically correct.  But I couldn't remember the details, and was pleased to see the construction posted in a discussion thread at the ELI5 subreddit.

The key is to understand that the uncapitalized word "buffalo" can refer to the animal or to the verb meaning "to bully/harass," and the capitalized Buffalo refers to the city in New York state.  One can also insert clarifying words ("Buffalo buffalo, whom Buffalo buffalo buffalo, also buffalo other Buffalo buffalo"), and then omit the clarifying words as is sometimes done in standard spoken English.

See also the Wikipedia page for tons more information. 

"...human kind/cannot bear very much reality"

It feels awkward to be an elderly English major and only realize now that Burnt Norton was an actual place.  I wish I had known 60 years ago what I learned this week:
He [T.S. Eliot] was visiting his friend Emily Hale in Chipping Campden when they strayed into the garden of Burnt Norton House, overgrown and abandoned after the owner Sir William Keyte went mad and set fire to it.

The neglected gardens and the air of decay inspired his poem Burnt Norton, in which he meditates on a moment of joy and reflects on the nature of time. It is a beautiful setting, with breathtaking views towards Wales from the edge of the Cotswolds scarp, but Eliot was a pretty glum poet — the critic Randall Jarrell said he would have written The Waste Land about the Garden of Eden.
I'm sure that information must have been footnoted in tiny fonts or in the backs of anthologies, but I never noticed (or never remembered) it.  So once the narrative gets past the seemingly impenetrable opening lines:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable...
and enters the gardens..
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden... the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
I now understand he was describing a real place.  I still don't fully understand those opening lines, but with advancing age I do understand that all time is unredeemable.

Photo credit Nancy D. Hargrove, via Semantic Scholar.

Addendum:  See also the 2019 post "Thoughts Upon Reading T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets." And note the relevance of Frost's The Road Not Taken.

Medieval knights battling snails

Snails are surprisingly common depictions in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts, often depicted in battle with armored knights.
Sometimes the creatures appear to be hovering, attacking knights in mid-air. Occasionally there is more than one. This is the uniquely medieval phenomenon of the fighting snail – and to this day, why they were depicted remains utterly mysterious...

But for a brief period in the late 13th Century, illuminators – those who decorated books – across Europe embraced a new obsession: fighting snails. For a comprehensive study of these warring gastropods, the art historian Lilian Randall counted 70 examples, in 29 different books – most of which were printed in the two decades between 1290 and 1310. The illustrations are found across Europe, but particularly in France, where there was a thriving manuscript-production industry at the time, says Clarke.

The specific scenarios that warring snails found themselves in varied, but broadly followed the same format of a snail-assailant standing off against a knight. Often, the molluscs have their antenna – technically their upper tentacles, or ommatophores – pointed aggressively forwards, as though they were swords. In one, a snail is shown fighting a nude woman. In a few they're not depicted as regular molluscs at all, but hybrids between snails and men – who are being ridden by rabbits, naturally.
More information, and many illustrations, at the BBC.  Image (cropped for size) credit to The British Library.

22 December 2023

The 2023 King William's College quiz

Posted today at The Guardian.  I'm going to take a break from blogging to join a group of friends across the pond to tackle the quiz.  Readers here are welcome to post thoughts and possible answers in the Comments section of this post.

Poorly-designed signs

Many more examples at Bored Panda.

A chilling new acronym: WCNSF

 The [Gaza] conflict has filled hospital wards with patients classified by the abbreviation “WCNSF” – “wounded child, no surviving family.”

"You're Sixteen" (1960 and 1974)

"You're Sixteen" is a song written by the Sherman Brothers. It was first performed by American rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette, whose version peaked at number eight on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in December 1960 and number 3 in the U.K. in 1961. The original 1960 version of "You're Sixteen" by Johnny Burnette is featured prominently on the 1973 motion picture soundtrack of the film American Graffiti.
In January 1974, a cover version by British musician Ringo Starr, taken from the album Ringo, hit number one. The latter performance reunited Ringo Starr with his former Beatles bandmate Paul McCartney. McCartney is credited on the liner notes of the album Ringo as having played the solo on a kazoo. But reviewer Michael Verity has quoted the song's producer, Richard Perry, as revealing it wasn't actually a kazoo. “In fact, the solo on ‘You’re Sixteen,’ which sounds like a kazoo or something, was Paul singing very spontaneously as we played that track back, so he’s singing the solo on that.” In any case, Starr's version remains one of the few #1 singles to feature a 'kazoo-sound' solo. Harry Nilsson sang backing vocals on Starr's version. The 1978 video of Starr's version features Carrie Fisher as Starr's love interest.

Reposted from 2013 because today is TYWKIWDBI's sixteenth blogiversary.  In previous years I used to write long posts on the blogiversary, analysing viewership, number of followers, or noting trends in the blogosphere, mostly out of amazement that I was still doing this.  Today I'll just note that this is the 18,561st post, and there have been 65,800 comments that I haven't deleted.  Now I'll just move on, write a couple more posts to clean out recent bookmarks, and then take a blogcation for some holiday mental health break time.

The Irish famine of the 1840s

Not great subject matter for the Christmas season, but this is a book that will be of interest to many.  I've previously written posts about the Dutch "hunger winter" of 1944 and about Stalin's Holodomor in Ukraine in the 1930s.  The Irish famine in the 1840s is similarly grim (and similarly not typically taught in American undergraduate schools).  I noticed this book from the 1960s in our library's "new acquisitions" list a few months ago, and put my name on the waiting list because I recognized Cecil Woodham-Smith as being the author of "The Reason Why," about the Crimean War and the charge of the light brigade, which I had read, enjoyed, and blogged five years ago.  Herewith some notes and brief excerpts from the book:
"Furniture was a luxury; the inhabitants of Tullahobagly, county Donegal, numbering about 9,000, had in 1837 only 10 beds, 93 chairs and 243 stools between them.  Pigs slept with their owners, manure heaps choked doors, sometimes even stood inside; the evicted and unemployed put roofs over ditches, burrowed into banks, existed in bog holes." (p.20) 
"Ten years before the famine, the Poor Enquiry of 1835 stated that three-quarters of the labourers in Ireland existed without regular employment of any kind... for thirty weeks of the year, that is, for the whole of the year ecept when potatoes were being cultivated, 2,385,000 persons were without employment because there was absolutely no work to offer them.  Unless an Irish labourer could get hold of a patch of land and grow potatoes on which to feed himself and his children, the family starved." (32) 
"The conditions of life in Ireland and the existence of the Irish people depended on the potato entirely and exclusively.  The potato, provided it did not fail, enabled great quantities of food to be produced at a trifling cost from a small plot of ground... an acre and a half would provide a family of five or six with food for twelve months..." (35) 
"... in the backward areas where famine struck hardest, cooking any food other than the potato had become a lost art.  'There is,' wrote Trevelyan, 'scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceed the boiling of a potato.  Bread is scarcely ever seen, and an oven is unknown..'  (76) 
"No preparations, however... could, in fact, have saved the Irish people from the fate which lay before them... almost in a night, every potato in Ireland was lost..." (91) 
"The winter in Ireland of 1846-47 was 'the most severe in living memory', and the longest.  Snow fell early in November; frost was continuous; icy gales blew 'perfect hurricanes of snow, hail and sleet"... roads were impassable and transport was brought to a standstill..." (143) 
"The British Government has started Irish relief with a millstone round its neck - the 2,385,000 persons who, as the Poor Inquiry Commission reported, starved, more or less, every year in Ireland, whether the potato failed or not..." [starved, but not necessarily 'to death'] (165) 
The "famine fever" was a combination of multiple illnesses - louse-borne typhus caused by Rickettsia and relapsing fever from spirochetes (descriptions p. 189) 
Massive emigration was facilitated by the timber trade, which brought cargoes of timber from North America and previously returned using ballast weights.  The emigrants became new ballast.  Living conditions on those transports was grim. (208-9) 
Once arriving in North America (Canada and the U.S.), "The Irish had no technical skill to offer; they were not carpenters butchers, greengreocers, glaziers, masons or tailors; it was not customary for every man to have a trade in Ireland, and the Irishman's agricultural knowledge was apt to be limited to the spade-culture of a patch of potatoes.  Once his physical capacity for hard manual work had been lost, as it already had been in the famine - 'they are half dead before they start' - the poor Irish emigrant presented a problem which would have been almost insoluble even if strenuous efforts had been made on his behalf.  No efforts were made, however..." (248) 
"in 1847 New York... retained some of the features of a frontier town.  'Vagrant pigs acted as scavengers, and wandered through the streets at will.  They were kept in 'hog pens' on vacant lots, usually by irish owners, and turned loose to forage... on August 20 there were not fewer than ten thousand pigs roaming New York, 'dangerous as hyaenas.' (253) 
"Cabins in Erris were cut out of the living bog, the walls of the bog forming two or three sides; entrances were so low that it was necessary to crawl in on all fours, and the height inside - four to eight feet - made it almost impossible to stand upright.  Floor space was usually from seven to ten feet square... Large families, sometimes of more than eight persons, lived in these 'human burrows'; they were 'quiet harmless persons, terrified of strangers.'" (311) 
"The inhabitants of three villages were evicted by Mr Walshe, with the help of a company of the 49th Regiment: their houses were thrown down and they were turned out, in the depth of the winter, to exist as best they might..." (319) 
"Officially, it was declared that no deaths from starvation must be allowed to occur in Ireland, but in private the attitude was different.  'I have always felt a certain horror of political economists,' said Benjamin Jowett... 'since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good." (375)
I'll stop here.  I couldn't find a place to copypaste this text from, and typing it has been tedious (there are some excerpts in a 1963 Atlantic article); those with an interest in the subject matter (especially if you have Irish ancestry) can find the book at their library.  I would point out that this is a scholarly work of history, laden with copious statistics and extended discussions of Parliamentary activities which will be of marginal interest to most readers.  There are likely some more concise books on the same subject matter which will suffice for most readers, including the Wikipedia entry.

17 December 2023

The GCHQ Christmas Challenge

The GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is the intelligence agency for the United Kingdom.  Each year they offer a "Christmas Challenge" to the public, with guides for teachers who might want to use the materials in classes.  A BBC article explains this year's challenge. The GCHQ 2023 Christmas Challenge, and a GCHQ page of brain teasers.

Have at it, and feel free to post partial answers and hints in the Comments.  I have not found the annual RSS quiz yet, and I'm eagerly awaiting the KWC quiz (anticipated to be published in the Guardian this week).

(The cryptogram at #7 is trivially easy) (and #1 is easy).  I'll leave the others to you.  Or view/browse the video in Bob the Scientist's comment.

16 December 2023

Minnesota state flag to be modernized - updated

The final design will be selected from one of the six finalists above.  The competition was open to the public both for submissions and for commentary.  The redesign was considered necessary because the old state flag, designed at the time of statehood -

- incorporates a "hot mess" of tiny symbols, including a Native American riding off into the sunset.  Many Minnesotans wanted to have a loon incorporated into the flag, but it was decided that the loon was a resident of the north part of the state, while the North Star ("L'Etoile du Nord") is more all-encompassing.  The loon may, however, be included in the upcoming redesign of the official state seal.

Addendum:  The six finalist designs have been tweaked (shape of star, size of star, shade of green, etc) by various professionals, so there are now 86 variations from which the final choice will be made.

More updates: Final design chosen (top right of the original six finalists embedded above) but still needs to be tweaked by professionals.  And the revised state seal will feature a loon and words from the Dakota language:

"A red-eyed loon poses on a Minnesota lake surrounded by pine trees, the North Star and sprigs of wild rice. Above the image are the words: "Mni Sóta Makoc̣e," Dakota for the "land where the waters reflect the sky.""

The final decision re the flag:

The three colors on the right (snow, vegetation, water) were simplified to the one for which the state wants to be known (lakes), and the shape of the iconic North Star was tweaked.  The shape of the state is retained.

Another addendum:  The Republican minority in the state governmet is "ramping up their opposition, hoping to turn anger over the redesign into a election-year vote."
Earlier this month, David Hann, the chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, also denounced the new state flag along with Deputy Chair Donna Bergstrom, arguing that the old flag was historically significant and arguing that the DFL is on a "quest to erase our history." They're raising money by selling "don't PC our flag" and "erasing history" T-shirts on the party's website.
Because... politics.  Endless, endless partisan bullshit politics.  I wish they would quit fucking around and just get some actual work done.

Addendum March 2024: Utah has announced a redesign of their complex state flag, which will now feature a large beehive.

15 December 2023

18th century obstetrical mannequin

The upholstered model included a womb and an extractable baby doll with which her students could practice. The skin and soft organs were made of flesh-colored linen and leather stuffed with padding, and some of the bones were assembled from real skeletons, though wood and wicker later took their place.

“The model is meant mostly for maneuvers that, as others confirm, allow her students to gain confidence, be ‘encouraged, and succeed perfectly,'” writes Nina Rattner Gelbart in The King’s Midwife (1998). “Delivering babies from every conceivable position and presentation will prepare her students for all eventualities. … This machine, as the midwife’s followers will continue to testify, makes an ‘impression that can never be erased,’ ‘an advantage all the more essential because this class of surgeons and these women [of the countryside] do not have the resource of reading … [so] these daily continual maneuvers … [must be] vividly impressed on their senses.'”
Found in the Futility Closet.

Native American sign language

"This film was produced by General Hugh L. Scott and the U.S. Department of the Interior by an Act of Congress, for the purpose of preserving and recording Indian Sign Language in a variety of discourse styles. The meeting took place in September of 1930 in Browning, Montana, and is the largest known gathering of high-ranking representatives from Indian Nations to be filmed up until then. This footage comes courtesy of the National Archives, and was digitized with support from the Office of the Chancellor at the University of Tennessee."
Via Futility Closet, where an abbreviated version was posted.

Unusual sink

Explained at the whatisthisthing subreddit.  Basically, it's how the very rich spend their money.

Disabled woman receives posthumous diploma

NASHWAUK, MINN. — Doctors said Carole Clark McBride would never walk, but she did up until she had a stroke late in life. She wasn't supposed to have children, but she had four. And when her classmates were graduating from Nashwauk High School in 1961, she was told not to bother showing up for the ceremony.

McBride, who had cerebral palsy, had not passed gym, and school administrators said she wouldn't be getting a diploma. She attended anyway and received an unsigned version. McBride, who had otherwise gotten good grades and been involved with extracurricular activities, lived quietly with that slight until she died of congestive heart failure Sept. 2. She was 82.
That cruelty of 60 years ago was corrected this past week in a ceremony at the high school:
Members of the senior class were asked to plan it — which they did as if it was their own, according to class president Olivia Nagler, who passed out programs and spoke during the ceremony.  A slideshow played a lifetime of images of McBride, often with a big floral barrette in her hair and an even bigger smile...
The story with photos continues at the StarTribune.  Sounds like material for an "On the Road" segment.

12 December 2023

The joys of exploring the OED

My acquaintance with the Oxford English Dictionary began in college when my part-time job was in a house library, manning the checkout desk. Near my desk was the multivolume, red-bound 1960s version. When students weren’t using the library (which was quite frequently), I had the satisfaction of being paid $1.50/hour while browsing through the OED.

It was probably 5 years or so later that the compact edition was released – 16,000 pages compressed using such an unimaginably small font that I needed the magnifying glass even when I was younger. It was one of my first book purchases when I was in graduate school, and I have kept that compact OED in my office ever since.

So it was with some interest that this year I encountered a flurry of online reviews of a book entitled Reading the OED. One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages, by Ammon Shea (Penguin Books, NY, 2008). Our library had 4 copies and only 6 requests, so it was available rather quickly.

I'm probably one of the few reviewers to offer an unenthusiastic assessment of the book. As a scholarly work, it's frankly underwhelming. It's a quick read - only 223 pages in a relatively large font, with a dozen pages left totally blank (when I see that I always suspect publishers of padding, but perhaps there’s a typographical reason for needing to start each chapter on the recto rather than the verso.)

The book is formatted into 26 chapters (you can guess the chapter titles), each with 3-4 pages of seemingly random thoughts about books, dictionaries, lexicographers, or the author’s often curmudgeonly approach to his personal life. If you want to learn about the OED itself, there are better sources, including Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, or perhaps his The Meaning of Everything.

The principal value in Shea's book is his selection of interesting words – again 3-4 pages per chapter with a couple dozen words accompanied by abbreviated definitions. Even here the author inserts a rather misanthropic view of interpersonal relationships, especially with regard to children. But the words themselves are a joy to encounter. As Shea acknowledges, these are not words to “know” in the sense that one would want to use them in conversation or even in writing; there’s satisfaction enough in just knowing the words exist.

Herewith some of my favorites...

Agathokakological – “made up of both good and evil.” Which prompted me to look up the “agatha” part, because obviously the “kako” part was the evil (think “caca”). And sure enough, there it was in Greek: alpha/gamma/alpha/theta/omicron/sigma = good. From which an “agathodemon” is a good deity, and “agathism” is the idea that everything tends toward a good outcome [interestingly, not the same as “optimism” which implies that all things are CURRENTLY for the best – I never knew that]. And of course this new knowledge gives me an appreciation for Agatha Christie’s parents’ naming skills.

Ambisinistrous – “having two left hands; clumsy.” The literal (but unappreciated) opposite of “ambidextrous” which is used as “skilled with both hands” but etymologically means both hands are right hands.

Apricity – “the warmth of the sun in winter.” Because “apricate” is Latin for “to bask in the sun.”

Atrate – “one dressed in black.” One dressed in scarlet is “coccinate” and in purple is “porpate.”

Balaamite – “one who is religious for the sake of monetary gain.”

Bayard – “a person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance.” I certainly would like to work this into a blog post. Wish I had known about it during the pre-election season.

Consenescence – “growing old together.” A wonderful term applicable to marital bliss if one ignores the second meaning of “general decay.”

-ee suffixes – a "beatee" is someone who has been beaten, boree is one who is bored, a "flingee" is a person at whom something is flung, a "gazee" one who is stared at, and a "laughee" someone who is laughed at. With Thanksgiving coming later this week, remember that a “sornee” is “one who has been sponged upon by others for free food or lodging.”

Gobemouche – “one who believes anything, no matter how absurd.” Definitely blogworthy.

(more later. It's getting late)

Reposted from 2008 (!) to add information about this book:

Sarah Ogilvie is a linguist and lexicographer who currently teaches at Oxford University.  She wrote this book in part to fulfill James Murray's 1892 request that "lovers of our language will not willingly let die the names of those who, from unselfish devotion and service to that language, have laboured in the cause of the Dictionary."

Twenty-six chapters (of course) present brief biographies of the "ordinary people" around the world who sent in the little slips of paper that Murray and his team in the Scriptorium compiled into the OED.  Those readers included vicars, lunatics, suffragists, murderers, and New Zealanders.  Herewith some interesting anecdotes:
"If we define best contributor or OED Reader in terms of number of slips, then the outright winner was a mysterious character called Thomas Austin Jnr who sent Dr. Muarray an incredible total of 165,061 over the span of a decade.  Second place goes to William Douglas of Primrose Hill [151,982/22 years]... Third to Dr. Thomas Nadauld Brushfield of Devon [70,277/28 years]... with Dr William Chester Minor of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum coming in fourth place with 62,720 slips.  Dr. Minor was not the only one in a mental asylum - all four were, for some period or another, suggesting a connection between word obsession and madness."

"Writing in his journal, [Arctic explorer] Richardson recorded that they soon ran out of provisions and had to survive by searching for small amounts of tripe de roche (lichen), even resorting to eating their moccasin boots... They scavenged for old bedding made of deer skins that the indigenous peoples of the region had discarded the previous winter... but most of them are rotten... those that contain the larvae of the oestrus [warble fly] are most prized by us, and eagerly sought after..."

"... as [Teena Rochfort-Smith] struck a match, the head flew off and set fire to a needlework mat.  Teena threw it down and stamped on it.  She put out the mat but did not notice that the bustle of her dress had caught fire, and, as she moved, it lit the lace curtains.  She first tried to put out the curtains, and then her own dress.  When this failed, and being unable to undo her corset, she raced downstairs and ran outside.  The was fully alight and her dress was melting into her skin and flesh... She suffered fits of delirium and agony for six days [before her death]."

"... the gigantic verb take... took up forty columns and was the longest entry in the Dictionary at the time. (Though it was overtaken by set which was published two years later; and today, at 586 senses, take ranks as the third longest entry after the verbs go (603 senses) and fun (654 senses)."
Lots of stories, plus lots of diversions to discuss groups of words, and where these readers found them.  This is not a book for everyone, but those who enjoy the OED will take much pleasure from browsing it.  

11 December 2023


I never heard this word until encountering it at Futility Closet.  It wasn't even in my Random House - had to dig out the OED and get the magnifying glass:
Apricatev. rare.  [fr. Latin apricat].  To bask in the sun (or to expose to sunlight).  
Citations from 1691 to 1858 - the latter offering this curious turn of phrase:
"Not sunning, but mooning himself - apricating himself in the occasional moonbeams."
Reposted so my wife can once again enjoy seeing our old cat Boo-Boo enjoying the sun at our apartment in St. Louis fifteen years ago.  And reposted again after seven more years because I found it while looking up stuff re the OED.

Cameo sculpted from an Oreo cookie

Created by Judith Klausner from off-the-shelf Oreos (Double Stuf?).  More examples here.

Via Bookofjoe and Madam Jujujive's Everlasting Blort.

Lucy Illingworth - 13 years old, blind, neurodivergent. And a remarkable pianist.

Tomorrow is Saint Lucy's Day.  I was going to repost my 2010 report on The Eyes of Saint Lucy, but I'm going to substitute another Lucy, who showed up in my search of my bookmarks.  I'll let the embedded videos tell the story.  I think I have them in the proper chronological order: the first from the auditions for "The Piano" competition, the second from the actual competition finals, and the third a performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

What is most interesting to me is not that a blind person can perform music at a high level (think Ronnie Milsap, Doc Watson, Stevie Wonder, and others).  But in most cases those performers are composers who create their own music.  It's quite different to perform someone else's composition while blind (as one of the judges says when her performance begins "how does she study?")  I would think Lucy is probably a savant who is capable of hearing a composition and then reproducing it on a piano.  Although there is Braille music notation.

Addendum:  Found this video illustrating part of the instructional technique:

I'll add that IMHO "neurodivergent" is a very welcome addition to the English language, as a more accurate replacement for a wide variety of derogatory and disrespectful terms that preceded it.

Another addendum:  See this video of Lucy in a duet with another musical savant.

And here's Ashley's story.

And one more - a TEDx talk about Derek Paravicini: "Born prematurely at just 25 weeks, Derek Paravicini has suffered from blindness, learning impairment and severe autism for his entire life. Despite his impairment, Derek has the unique gift of perfect pitch, and is able to play any piece of music after hearing it only once."

09 December 2023

Ages of the "founding fathers" on July 4, 1776

Marquis de Lafayette, 18
James Monroe, 18
Gilbert Stuart, 20
Aaron Burr, 20
Alexander Hamilton, 21
Betsy Ross, 24
James Madison, 25
Thomas Jefferson, 33
John Adams, 40
Paul Revere, 41
George Washington, 44
Samuel Adams, 53
Benjamin Frankllin, 70

Via Kottke, where there is a fascinating story about 80-year-old combatant-but-not-founding-father Samuel Whittemore.

Where you fit in the world

An old (2022) Pearls Before Swine, but still relevant.

World championship jigsaw puzzle competition

"Minnesota is a powerhouse in this rapidly growing cold-weather sport [speed jigsaw]. Top-ranked players come from here. The biggest competition in the country is held here. And the sport's national organization is based here...

Puzzling, it seems, thrives in places where people spend a lot of time indoors... It's no coincidence that the biggest jigsaw competition in the country, the long-running St. Paul Winter Carnival Jigsaw Puzzle Contest, draws more than 1,200 competitors to downtown St. Paul in the dead of winter... The USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association put on a national championship held last year in San Diego. And, in 2019, a World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship was started in Spain."
More information at the StarTribune.  The video I've embedded above is full-length coverage (four and a half hours) of the final rounds of the world championship; the first part covers the individual competition, which involved solving this 500 piece Ravensburger puzzle -

- shown in a cropped screencap from the video. I have tried to find a copy of this puzzle to purchase, but have had no success looking on eBay and via Google.  I did, however, find and purchase this 1000-piece puzzle which was used for the pairs competition -

- and have set it aside for a wintry day.  

The video at the top of this post is way too long for most people.  I spent probably 45 miutes speed-browsing through it.  If you would like to see some very happy puzzlers, skip to the 39:00 mark to see the winning competitor (then continue for a few minutes to see others), then skip again to the 4:10:00 mark for the finish of the pairs competition.

Here are links for the USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association and to "Wicker Kittens" - a lighthearted look at Minnesota jigsaw enthusiasts (it begins with a person who mounts completed puzzles on the walls and ceiling of his home, and includes a delightful moment (05:10) of two Minnesota girls simultaneously saying "Oh, Yah.")

Addendum:  Washington Post 2024 article on speed puzzling.

"Motion extraction"

This video explores one of the frontiers of digital video manipulation.  Via Neatorama, where there is a brief textual explanation.

06 December 2023

"Ditzel" explained

When I sold this 1902 KEVII official stamp on eBay, I described it as having a "bold full-date upright Liverpool cancel" and mentioned to the winning bidder that it had a "ditzel" that might be removed to enhance the cosmetic appearance, though it wouldn't add to the substantial monetary value.

The new owner (in Glasgow) messaged me back his pleasure re the stamp but asked for clarification on the word "ditzel," which was new to him.  This surprised me, as I have used the term my entire adult life, so I did some research.  I couldn't find it in my OED, nor in my Random House dictionary.  Thence to the internet, where I found this in a StackExchange post about orthography, asking whether "ditzel" is a "real word":
"When I was a Cardiology fellow at UMass Medical Center, there was a technician who would use a certain word to mean "a little". It sounded like /a ditzle/. I never asked her how it was spelled and later when I tried to look for the spelling in dictionaries, I never found it. The context would be something like: "Can you see any regurgitation on the screen?", "Just a "ditzle", meaning "very little"." ...

[a reply]:  "Although not found in Dorland's Medical Dictionary, the term ditzel is universally recognized among radiologists as a very small nodule found in the lung. ... The origins of this word are obscure."  [Mundsen RF, Hess KR. “Ditzels” on Chest CT: Survey of Members of the Society of Thoracic Radiology. AJR 2001; 176:1363-1369.]
Since I spent 30 professional years examining chest xrays with radiologists, that may be where I picked up the term, but it's not unique to radiology.  Again, from the StackExchange post:
"In surgery we use the term "ditzel" to mean "a little nothing" or a piece of small, inconsequential tissue. For example, surgeon wipes instrument on sponge, leaving small globule of tissue. Nurse asks "Is this a specimen?", surgeon replies "No, just a ditzel. " Meaning it's nothing, junk, unknown and can be ignored."
I passed that observation on to an experienced pathologist, who said that in pathology laboratories, specimens are occasionally sorted into categories for examination:  surgical specimens, small biopsies, and the incidental "ditzels."

So, it is a "real word," in the category of jargon.
Jargon or technical language is the specialized terminology associated with a particular field or area of activity. Jargon is normally employed in a particular communicative context and may not be well understood outside that context. The context is usually a particular occupation (that is, a certain trade, profession, vernacular or academic field), but any ingroup can have jargon.
Lots more interesting information, and many examples (with links to jargon glossaries), at that Wikipedia link.

Question for readers: in your experience, does the term "ditzel" extend beyond the medical field to other professional or technical areas?  Just curious.

Transverse leukonychia

Copied in toto without permission from the New England Journal of Medicine.


One image from a Guardian photoessay about environmental destruction in Senegal.
Dakar’s nine-mile-long Hann Bay used to be known as one of West Africa’s most beautiful, lined with traditional fishing villages, villas and tourist attractions. But for the last 20 years it has been at the centre of the city’s industrialisation, with 80% of the city’s industry nearby. Today it is one of Dakar’s most polluted areas, with canals spilling raw sewage and chemicals on to the beach and into the sea.
Photo credit: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

The people who live in a volcanic crater

The video above is rather interesting.  It began when someone browsing Google Earth spotted a geographic anomaly in Madagascar and wondered who lived in this very isolated location.  What is interesting is how he went about collecting information and eventually recruiting a crew of locals with cameras and drone to investigate.  It's a long (24 minute) video which I speed-browsed using the video progress bar and my keyboard right arrow, but I stopped frequently to admire various aspects of the study.  I'll put a spoiler below these screencaps for those who don't have any time to spare (it's too bad our modern world is so packed with thingstodo that we can't find time to linger over interesting things, because there is so much to wonder at in this world).

The inhabitants are modern-day Madagascar farmers who discovered fertile soil and abundant water in this old caldera.

A "centerline indicator" above a urinal

This is a Canadian accessibility requirement in men's public bathrooms. Centreline indicator The centreline of a urinal shall be indicated by a vertical element that (a) is centred on the urinal; (b) extends to a height of at least 1300 mm from the floor, but never less than 150 mm above the upper urinal rim; and (c) is at least 50 mm wide; (d) is raised at least 3 mm from the wall surface; and (e) is colour-contrasted not less than 70% with the back wall.
Discussion thread at the Ottawa subreddit.  Photo via whatisthisthing.  Some relevant discussion (and a lot of snark) at each link.

WI Republicans: "libraries must tell parents what books their children are checking out"

"Wisconsin senators in the Mental Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, Children and Families Committee debated over SB597 and SB598 which would require public and school libraries to notify parents within 24 hours anytime their kids under the age of 16 check out materials.

[One state senator] believes this bill will not stop curious kids.  “A child doesn’t have to check material out at the library,” Senator Johnson said. “If there’s something that they really want to read and they don’t want their parents to know, they could just sit in the library and read it without having to check it out at all.”..

“A parent who has signed for a child and has access to the child’s card can check to see what that child has checked out at any time,” Elias said. Although the bill is in its early stages, librarians could not help but wonder about the cost. “It is a pretty significant impact on libraries and again has an undetermined fiscal impact for us in terms of reprogramming all of our computer systems.”
The bills are not likely to pass, since Democratic Governor Tony Evers is a former educator, and will likely veto them.  Here's some additional commentary/analysis:
When asked by committee members, the senators denied that the bills were intended to restrict or ban books. But those are exactly the concerns the bills – and others like them – have raised during the last legislative cycle. Since 2020, conservative parents and school officials have taken a keen interest in books that feature LGBTQ topics or characters, certain aspects of American history including  slavery and Native American genocide and other social justice topics. Conservative organizing has driven a wave of book purges in school districts, banning, restricting, or relocating hundreds of titles.

In Wisconsin, multiple school districts have seen those efforts guided by a list of “inappropriate” books compiled by parent groups. Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona), who chairs the committee alongside vice chair Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara (R-Appleton), was provided a version of this list when he was still an Assembly representative. James was sent the list by a parent who said she’d found sexually inappropriate books, as well as material teaching “our kids to hate cops and their white skin.” The parent suggested passing a law to remove protections for librarians so they could be  held criminally liable for providing inappropriate reading materials to children. James and other Republican lawmakers worked on drafts of legislation that would expose library and school staff to felonies for providing “inappropriate” or “obscene” material to young students. Dittrich and Quinn stressed that their bills are not intended to persecute librarians or teachers...

“How hypocritical that Wisconsin Republicans, the party of ‘small government’, want to ban books and know what every individual is checking out from the library,” said Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard. “This Orwellian-inspired overreach is chilling and intimidates our librarians and educators under the facade of parental rights. Senate Democrats do not support these GOP efforts to stifle learning and limit access to information.”
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