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Friday 30 July 2021

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Twelve Months, 850 Languages, 63 Fonts, No Waiting
Or: Thank God for Google Noto!


7/14/2021

Cleopatra Engraving642


It’s the sort of thing where if you don’t do it, somebody else eventually will.

I’m talking about publishing a 470-page book that catalogs the names of the months of the Gregorian calendar, and offers another 50,000 words worth of other fun facts and insights, for 850 languages and dialects. The rarer and more exotic, the better. Many of these languages could vanish at any moment, so time’s a-wastin’.

*    *    *

Metals
Way back in the dialup years, I started a site I called Curious Notions. In the fullness of time, its features would include a 70-scale temperature converter; an article describing the absolute, hands-down rarest gemstone no one else seems to be writing about; Mary Had a Little Lamb rewritten using only the left-hand letters of the keyboard; the current distances to the sun and the moon, plus their velocities, in real-time; and many others. Trivia and significa, you might call it.

By 2010 or so it had also begun to display today’s date in an ever-increasing number of languages. An adjacent TV monitor icon on some would link to a YouTube video to let you hear them.

As the entries in that latter section’s database swelled into the hundreds, I knew I had to channel that mission creep into a book somehow. One where you get to see all twelve months instead of just one at a time, but more significantly, get a closer feel for some of the diverse cultures behind those languages. Out of a total of around 6000 spoken throughout the world, here would be 850 — many of which, largely unheard-of.

My close associate and severest critic, Kukisvoomchor, rose to the challenge. Just like that 70-scale temperature converter, I assured him, this book would be something unique.

Consort
Now unlike a simple date display, the book would open with an Introduction explaining its format and hinting at some of the surprises in store. Each language in the main listings would come with a profile describing it. Further on, there would be a section called Lingo Factinos (What’s a palochka? Is it dangerous?), a Glossary (should you be unclear on the meaning of “dextrosinistral”), and an Appendix (both to help out with the transliterations and, say, to help you bone up on the names Zoroastrian Armenians used for each day in the month). Finally, it would offer not one Index but two, for those who know Sudovian as Yotvingian instead, and for others who wish to check out the Uto-Aztecan language family all by itself.

Resources included online minority language newsletters showing months in their mastheads, articles, localization tables (a gold mine), cold contacts with university linguistics departments, YouTube videos, minority language souvenir calendars, Wikipedia pages (especially their foreign language versions), Peace Corps language primers, tourist phrasebooks, and questions and answers posted in online forums.

Dictionaries? Yes and no. We deliberately short shrifted most of the major languages in favor of the exotic, endangered, or just plain dead and buried. Most lexicons for those, such as they exist, aren’t anywhere big enough to accommodate such minutia as Gregorian month names. Or maybe one will throw you a bone for February and April and you’ll need to use those to hopscotch to other sources. Or maybe this other dictionary is just one-way, Abkhaz to Russian, say, and while you may know Russian months, you have three hundred pages of un-selectable image scans from which to pick them out. Ready, set, go.

Certain underlying abilities do help out, like those to read and use non-Roman scripts and transcribe into or out of them. A substantial knowledge base also comes in handy,
Londara
as you can think of more angles for your Google searches, better interpolate missing data through deductive reasoning, and more confidently referee conflicting sources. Trouble with Makassarese? You happen to recall Bugis is a close relative and might solve your problem. New Church Slavonic’s uber-special psili pneumata diacritic renders like an ordinary acute accent in the font you’re using? You’ll choose another font — just for that character — to display the proper horizontal thumbtack shape. Those sorts of things.

*    *    *

Kukisvoomchor owns neither Quark nor Adobe InDesign. This project called for a different approach, anyway. While it promises 850 languages and dialects, it over-delivers on that. Assiniboine, Chechen, Ingush, and Turkmen show alternate terminologies. That boosts the total to 860 entries, two to a page. And they and the indexes have to cross-reference each other like crazy.

Care to block all these out by hand, one by one? Because their profiles can take up between one and five lines, and their month entries might force rubberized line spacing, their total heights are bespoken and likely to change repeatedly as you correct and revise.

True, you might have that nice, neat page perfectly cut in half, both top and bottom sets offering three lines of profile info and month lists using ordinary Roman alphabet text with no problematic diacritics or other irregularities poking up or down.

But that didn’t often happen and we didn’t want it to. This book needed to be a novelty. The more visually arresting and technically challenging its typography, the better. Crazy Burmese ascenders and descenders, Coastal Salish’s diacritics aflutter, all threatening to clobber each other into illegibility? Bring ’em on! Plus, to stay lively and accommodate different types and quantities of information, those profiles needed to vary in format.

Colorful Samples2



So in summary, we needed to:

1. Compose all those lists, two languages to a page, and apply global or local corrections at will

2. Add and remove foreign writing systems as needed — some coded, others created as images

3. Switch entire language entries in and out when and where we found worthier candidates

4. Despite many unusual challenges, achieve a typographical quality that will surpass most of what’s gone before in that genre

In the Bantu language Makonde, Kenga sombo sako ni nyundo gweka undaona matatizo kwa stali zako. (“If your tool is only a hammer, you will see all problems as nails.”)

The nails: 470 pages, a total of 72,100 words. The tool: Several thousand lines of PHP and pipe-delimited flat file data, all hand-compiled.

Data Record For Komi. Since This Entry In The Book Incorporates Images For Its Komi Script Content (which In This Case I Had To Design And Draw Out By Hand), The Sixth Field Entry, “komi,” Tells The Program Where To Find Them. Komi’s Month Names, Which Consist Of An Image, The Cyrillic Term, And A Square Bracketed Transliteration, Start At Field Nine. Below: The Result.
Data record for Komi. Since this entry in the book incorporates images for its Komi script content (which in this case I had to design and draw out by hand), the sixth field entry, “komi,” tells the program where to find them. Komi’s month names, which consist of an image, the Cyrillic term, and a square-bracketed transliteration, start at field nine. Below: The result.
Komi Page


Blank 642


With all that, assemble an arbitrarily long web page for a browser window and save it out as a properly paginated pdf. Along the way, dust off some HTML tools anathema to best web practices practically since John Kerry got swift-boated: tables and inline CSS, to be precise. LOTS of inline CSS. Even spacer gifs will get into the act — to position the frontispiece and its mate at the back and to crank out the required blank pages.

So it’s up to your algorithms (that’s an Arabic word) to grind out all that outrageous code and allow you plenty of tweaking privileges at the same time. This applies not only to your tabulated month listings but all seven other sections mentioned above. Like that proverbial mallard in the pond, you’re effecting an elegant and engaging read on top while paddling like mad underneath.

The body copy you see both here and in the book is set in Cardo, designed by David J. Perry for epigraphers. These are biblical scholars, archaeologists, and other academic types who need to write out every conceivable character and diacritic from the extended Roman alphabet, no matter how obscure, along with other scripts like Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic, Greek, and Old Italic (for Etruscan, Oscan, Picene, Messapic, whatever).

Italics3
So if you wonder why on earth Cardo offers 2879 characters, there you go. Above, you can also see some of the artistry of Perry’s typeface — the way his letterforms like f and g refashion into their italics, and those ligatures for the many letter combinations like ct, st, fi, fj, and so forth. That was exactly the timeless, storybook-like quality we sought.

The book’s remaining fonts cover the foreign scripts it needed, along with the International Phonetic Alphabet. What we couldn’t find, we drew and displayed as images. Several of these scripts rarely — or practically never — see print. As mentioned earlier, many needed a lot more room above and below the line and threatened to overrun their page’s available vertical space. Those we gave negative margins in CSS so they could freely overlap their upstairs and downstairs neighbors and avoid wresting line-spacing control from their accompanying text.

There have been adventures.

Someone in a forum asked about some advertising text in an Arabic-looking script that may or may not have represented some other language like Persian, Urdu, or whatever. Others also wondered. I volunteered some quick rules of thumb to distinguish Arabic from non-Arabic on sight.

Apparently, several readers excoriated me so abusively that the moderators deleted all their comments — which I never saw — but left mine untouched. My resulting minus-15 score from that imbroglio slowly crept back up toward zero but never quite emerged into the black.

Ubykh


Far cheerier was what took place when I contacted a translation service to help fill in some of the blanks I had for Ubykh, an extinct Northwest Caucasian language of mind-boggling complexity. As shown above, they responded with a photocopy of that page from my original edition. How flattered I was! But since there was no progress, I’ve left Ubykh’s entry out of the newer one. One hates to be erroneous.

On several occasions, my joy in discovering an especially exotic language crashed when I discovered it to have been concocted for a novel or video game.

I should point out, though, that the Dalecarlian/Elfdalian used in the game Minecraft and shown in the book on page 79 is rock solid. I was corresponding with a Swedish-based advisor for my temperature converter some years back. I digressed and asked if he happened to know anyone who spoke Dalecarlian, a North Germanic language that developed in relative isolation in his country. Why yes, he said, one of his old college professors. That was my source for it.

Mascots


So, aquí lo tenemos.

As I write, The Twelve Months of the Year in 850 Languages and Dialects: Second Edition is print-on-demand. That makes the physical book’s production cost higher than it should be, so we’re working on that. Meanwhile, there is a super-cheap pdf version available.

Book Photo




30 billion years ago you lost your car keys.


10/22/2020

BangA
But after overturning every couch cushion and checking through your other pants and jacket, you found them 30 billion years minus 20 minutes ago. Could that be literally possible?

There’s a variation on the Big Bang theory called the Big Bounce. This one assumes there’s enough dark matter-induced gravity in the universe to slow its Big Bang expansion to a standstill, eventually, and then reverse it toward what’s called the Big Crunch. Ultimately, the entire universe squeezes back into the dimensionless point from whence it arose. Everything then starts out all over again with the next Big Bang and the cycle continues, ad infinitum.

So here’s my own variation ON that variation: The Big Rerun. For that, each succeeding universe is absolutely identical — down to every elementary particle and atom, including you and me. Even time itself is duplicated.

BangC
There are all sorts of estimates for the cyclical period of any hypothetical Big Bounce, but for the sake of discussion let’s call it 30 billion years. The Big Rerun aspect of it means you are reborn and live your life over and over, exactly the same way in every detail, with 30-billion-year intermissions in between.

Since you’re nonexistent most of that time, your memory doesn’t carry over and you have no way of knowing any of this is happening.

Now physicists normally scowl at perpetual Big Bounce scenarios in general because they would violate the second law of thermodynamics: As energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it gets wasted and, along with that, there is a natural tendency for order to degenerate into disorder. Everything eventually decays and rusts away, in other words, and that process cannot be reversed. One Bang is all you get.

But really, could you trust any physical law, including that one, to apply to an entire universe progressively crushing itself into an infinitely dense point? Are you kidding? After all, some of the most cherished physical laws break down even under the conditions of a black hole — a veritable Garden of Earthly Delights in comparison.

~~~

So maybe we’re all immortal after all.

Thirty billion years seems like a heck of a long time to wait between each rerun. But since the last Big Bang, about 14 billion years went by before you were born. Did that bother you?

Bang Total




Half-baked idea No. 1:
Automated Snowbound Extrication System (SES) for cars


5/10/2020

Tire
Whenever I’m in a wintry climate, I just love it when someone comes in and complains, “My car is stuck in the driveway.” Just hand over the keys. I’m not any kind of mastermind and honestly don’t know any more about the subject than anyone else, but I CAN free a car stuck in the snow, without external help, at least two thirds of the time. Often after the owner has given up.

As long as there isn’t pure glare ice under the tires or a steep grade tilting away from where I need to exit, and as long as the wheels can move the car at least a smidgen at the outset, chances are good to excellent. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of the fact that snow is both movable and compressible.

You’re creating a rut that gets longer and longer; now and again not even by an inch, other times much more. You’re also widening it from the occasional turning. Eventually you have enough room to get the running start you need, if you accelerate gingerly without spinning the tires, to get out.

Nowadays many or most vehicles offer features like ABS and traction control — and in some cases can park and even drive themselves. So an engineering team should certainly be able to develop software that would not only get you out of a snow trap, but quicker and more efficiently than any human driver.

The SES would be entirely hands-off. Just sit back and let the car do its thing. With feedback from the wheels it knows EXACTLY when to switch directions and how to steer. It figures in the temperature-dependent consistency of the snow, jockeys between reverse and forward gears so smoothly you can scarcely feel it, feathers the acceleration to move the car as fast as possible at mid-stroke without sliding, and perhaps even vibrates the suspension or the wheels at times if that might contribute.

Snow200
Who knows, maybe it could stand a better chance with some of the tougher cases described above. To deal with a patch of glare ice, say, it would know how slowly to rotate the wheels* to maintain their grip — moving the vehicle an inch or less per second if necessary until it’s safely out. No telling what such a system might be capable of. It would demand nothing beyond what the vehicle can physically offer, but then combine that with super-human planning, calculation, and precision.

Just get someone to push or call AAA? Motorists will invariably maroon themselves in snow in the middle of nowhere, in deadly cold, without passersby or an operating cell phone. An SES would literally be a life saver.
* Since no surface is perfectly frictionless, there will always be a non-zero speed a tire can roll on it — and pull a load — without going into a spin.




Odd, entirely unrelated facts #6


5/31/2019

Patterson
Veteran character actor Hank Patterson (1888-1975), best remembered as Mr. Ziffel in the US sitcoms Petticoat Junction and Green Acres (1963-1971), originally aspired to be a classical concert pianist. One of his earliest appearances as an actor was in the 1939 Civil War film The Arizona Kid starring Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes. Since Patterson had gone essentially deaf by the time he was cast in Green Acres, a dialog coach had to lie on the floor off-camera and cue him by tapping his leg with a yardstick. Patterson’s great niece is actress Téa Leoni.

Maxpixel.net
maxpixel.net
There is a condition known as Bonnet’s Syndrome. In its classical form — typically triggered by a stroke or other brain injury — it causes halucinatory human or animal characters dressed in brightly colored costumes, often wearing hats and/or clownlike attire, to appear and move around. It occurs when there’s a gap in the visual field and the mind tries to fill it in. Even while healthy and perfectly dope-free, many or most of us can experience a super-mild form of Bonnet’s Syndrome under certain conditions while gazing for long periods at a blank surface. As the visual receptors in the retina tire from lack of stimulation and stop firing, the antics begin in the form of wavy lines, spots, or other artifacts — even cartoon-like characters.

Red Flower
Speaking of hallucinations, there’s a dark red variety of honey from Turkey called deli bal. This “Mad” honey offers elevated levels of the psychoactive compound grayanotoxin that gets in there when its bees visit certain species of rhododendrons. Historically, deli bal has been mixed with wine for recreational purposes and even employed as a form of chemical warfare by soldiers leaving combs of it around for their enemies to discover and consume. The honey can be lethal to many animals. Though in large doses it can pose a danger to humans in the form of abnormally low blood pressure, nausea, blurred vision and slowed heartbeat, fatalities have been rare.

Guy
The term “guy” for a boy or man — and less formally, it seems, for pretty much anyone — was inspired by Guy Fawkes, who famously tried to blow up the English Parliament in 1605. Similarly, the word “kid” originally referred only to a baby goat. The surname Kidd, as in the famous captain-cum-pirate William Kidd (ca. 1645-1701), shares that derivation. The word began to appear as a slang term for a child in the 1500s and by the 19th century was firmly established as such. Bob Keeshan, who played Captain Kangaroo on a children’s TV show from 1955 to 1984, strongly discouraged people from referring to children as kids as he felt it demeaned them.



I have a theory about that


3/21/2019

Credit: Gage Skidmore CC 3.0
Credit: Gage Skidmore CC 3.0
1. High-profile deniers of climate change, and by extension the enormity of environmental despoilment in general, are for the most part aware of the real situation. The most influential among them tend to be industrialists involved with fossil fuels, uncontrolled logging, and similarly destructive and unsustainable enterprises.

They’re just being fatalistic and working to maximize their fortunes while they can. They know full well that by the time conditions become untenable they’ll either be lavishly retired or dead. Publicly they characterize the environmental problem as a “liberal” myth or hoax, since that’s literally the only way they can explain themselves without leaking their true motives.

2. All human behaviors, no matter how aberrant at one end or noble at the other, are part of an extremely intricate, collective survival strategy that has refined itself over millions of years. The rationales for some behaviors such as childhood bullying and how they contribute toward that goal might be hard for us to explain readily — nature doesn’t care how well we understand it — but ultimately there’s a functional purpose for them.

3. Physiognomy, the pseudoscience of determining personality traits from one’s facial features, has long been discredited. But there’s such as thing as reverse physiognomy. To a greater or lesser extent, people unconsciously tend to adjust their behavior to correspond — at least in a stereotypical sense — to their appearance.

4. Some say only humans are conscious and self-aware. Others extend this talent to their dogs and other cherished mammals; others, to those blackbirds that steal quarters from car washes; and so forth. So where does the line get drawn? Most likely, nowhere. All living things are conscious. The cockroaches. Your potato crops. The very grass you walk on.

We now know, for instance, that trees and other plant life enjoy a range of senses that don’t necessarily correspond to ours, that they respond actively to their surroundings, and that they communicate and issue danger warnings to each other at least electrically through the soil and chemically through the air. Caltech researchers have recently shown that even humans can sense magnetic fields, so there may well be biospheric information traffic in that realm also.

Stopwatch
What obscures our realization of that consciousness is our sense of time. To trees, we move at best in a blur if not invisibly. An hour to a human is like a minute to a tree. Think of that science fiction trope of the hero drinking a magic potion that speeds him up so much that the rest of the world and everyone else in it appears to freeze. This allows him, provided he doesn’t get lazy and linger in one spot too long, to rob that bank unobserved.

Flies, for example, are the opposite. A few seconds to us creaks along more like a minute to them. That’s why they’re so hard to swat. The best strategy here is to take advantage of a fly’s sped-up time scale. If you approach it from the front, ve-e-e-e-ry slowly, it can’t perceive the movement of your hand because it’s thinking too fast. When you finally get within a few inches of its head, where you might even see it start to wonder what your game is, WHACK! It will notice you then, but too late for it to turn around.

5. If all you care about is losing weight, all diets, from the most hair-brained to the soberest, AMA-sanctioned, “work.” The theories and philosophies behind them may differ wildly, but they all force you to restrict your menu choices and, in many cases, eat foods you wouldn’t otherwise. This adds an element of monotony and predictability that makes eating a less pleasurable activity than it was before. Your appetite falters and you take in fewer calories. Even if it’s as little as a 10% difference, this adds up over time.

Goat
So you’ll go ahead and chow down on those rice cakes, watercress sandwiches, bananas, and blanched artichoke hearts all washed down with iced organic goat milk. You might seriously compromise your health on some of those diets, but in any case the pounds will melt away. Then you’ll eventually tire of whatever diet you got sucked into and your body will return to its original state. The only real solution would be to readjust your microbiome — specifically the proportions of the hundreds of varieties of microbes in your GI tract — but the science isn’t there yet.

6. Upon meeting, for the first time, a politician running for state or federal office, ask one question: To the best of your knowledge, would the policies you favor decrease or increase income disparity? Those falling into the first category will say so immediately. The others will evade the question.



Some clerihews


11/26/2018

bentley
The clerihew was named after its inventor, novelist Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1950). It’s a biographical quatrain, rhyming aabb, with the subject at or near the top.

Original by Bentley:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

My own answer to this might be something like:

Said Gian Lorenzo Bernini,
“I’m going out for linguini.
If you must brush off entreaters,
Say I’m designing St. Peter’s.”

Ornament Separator
Let’s try these out:

No right to an attorney

Chieftain Vercingetorix
Gained nothing from his rhetorix.
Caesar listened to him
Then he slew him.

Imhotep

Imhotep the vizier
Could scarcely have been busier,
Nor any project grandioser
Than his stepped pyramid for Zoser.






Animals calling in Latin


9/13/2018

Geta
Geta, Roman Emperor between 209 and 211 CE, liked to quiz people on the finer points of language and grammar. From the section of Augustan Histories discussing him, this would be his answer guide for the Classical Latin terms that refer to the noises various animals make. In English, for example, we would say dogs bark and ducks quack.

Bearsurcant
Birds, small1. stridunt
2. pipiunt
3. zinzilulant
Blackbirds1. zinziant
2. grocant
Camelsblatterant
Cowsmugiunt
Dogslatrant
Duckstetrissitant
Elephantsbarriunt
Frogscoaxant
Geese1. gingriunt
2. glicciunt
3. sclingunt
Hens, when incubatingglocidant
Horseshinniunt
Lambsbalant
Leopards1. feliunt
2. rictant
Lynxesurcant
Micemintriunt
Owlscuccubiunt
Pantherscauriunt
Peacockspaupulant
Ramsblatterant
Shrewsdesticant
Snakessibilant
Sparrowhawksplipiant
Storkscrotolant
Swansdrensant
Weaselsdrindrant
Wild boarsquiritant
Wolvesululant


A few of these verbs reference the name of the animal. For example, the word for bear was ursa/vrsa, peacock was pauo/pavo, and to us a hinny is the foal of a stallion and a female donkey. Also, as snakes hiss, sibilant is the modern English term for any hissing sound in speech like S or SH.



Odd, entirely unrelated facts #5


8/18/2018

Glider
Romance novelist Barbara Cartland was a glider pilot in her early years, concentrating on long distance tows. Her accomplishment of a record 200-mile-long tow in 1931 became the inspiration for the troop-carrying gliders used in World War II. For that she was honored with the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award in 1984.

The woman feeding the birds in the 1964 film Mary Poppins was played by Oscar winner Jane Darwell, best remembered as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath from 1940. Walt Disney brought her out of retirement for the role. She had originally planned to be an opera singer.

Lysol disinfectant was first introduced in 1889 to combat a colera epidemic in Germany. Drinking Lysol was cited as the single most popular suicide method in Australia in 1911. From the late 1920s until the availability of “the pill” in the 1960s, watered-down Lysol was widely used, albeit mistakenly, for birth control. Ads from the era aimed toward married women say, reassuringly, “Yet needs no poison label!”

We English speakers don’t say “oneteen, twoteen” for eleven and twelve. That’s because we rely instead on old Germanic terms for “one left” and “two left” describing those extra items beyond ten. All Germanic languages follow this pattern (for example elf and twaalf for Dutch), then revert to the logical sequence for thirteen through nineteen.

Anchovy
The Caesar Salad was invented on July 4, 1924 at the San Diego eatery owned by Italian-American restaurateur Caesar Cardini and his brother Alex. It originally called for croutons, romaine lettuce (whole leaves that were meant to be eaten by hand), coddled egg, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and black pepper. Cardini himself always insisted anchovies not be added, since the macerated anchovy in the Worstershire sauce sufficed.



My name is Weena. I work Tuesdays and Thursdays


5/15/2018

Weena
You hear this all the time: “Hi-tech is where it’s at! You folks who can’t find good work, my best advice to you is this: Hit the books. Go back to school and pick up some of those shiny new computer-oriented 21st century skills so you can compete in today’s job market. Speak SQL, Python, and jQuery and you’ll be able to write your own ticket!”

Really? Let’s take a look. For this or that individual with certain types of aptitudes, such a thing might well be worth looking into. In terms of making so much as a dent in our ever-growing double whammy of underemployment and income disparity, though, it’s snake oil.

The fundamental purpose of automation is to turn out the same goods and services faster and with ever-fewer resources, especially the two-legged kind. Cost-cutting is always good. If we don’t do it, our competitors will.

But a looming disaster out there threatens to destroy us, and it’s right on schedule.

We’re entering the Post-Work Era, courtesy of Artificial Intelligence-driven robotics. You can talk of “skill gaps” and retrain people this way and that way, but without a drastic restructuring of the economy and of society as a whole there will be absolutely no work for most of the population well before mid-century.

Picture Chuck’s Chewy Chocolate Easter Bunnies, LLC, circa 2030, run with excruciating efficiency by Chuck, Jamie the accountant, and a couple of programmers, Chris and Sandy. A gang of self-repairing robots out on the factory floor expertly crafts hundreds of styles of rabbits, hares, and similarly cute rodents in twelve varieties of chocolate and loads them into a fleet of drone trucks for round-the-clock delivery.

Aside from the executive compensations in the front office, production costs now consist almost solely of raw materials and energy.

Poverty 200
In a free market, most personal livelihoods derive from inefficiency. Get rid of that, and there won’t be any work for C3EB’s customers and consequently nobody — aside from Chuck, Jamie, Chris, Sandy, and an ever-shrinking clique of equally lonely fellow entrepreneurs — to buy its products. And as natural market forces continue apace, get rid of it we will.

We’ll see driverless trucking within the next several years — some predict even by 2022. As I write [Update: 2020], Amazon’s delivery drones have just been certified by the FAA. In the US, trucking currently employs 3.5 million people. Construction, equally destined to cybernize, another 9 million.

Now further, guess who will fulfill those orders before they leave the dock, maintain our infrastructure, and recycle all our trash. And what will become of the garment workers who currently stitch up our Dockers? Or the assembly line personnel who build our Ford Fusions and convert our cows into Big Macs? Humans out, robots in. And when people lose their wages, there goes the market.

So here’s that restructuring: Through corporate taxes, pay everyone a minimum, unconditional stipend — nowadays referred to as a Universal Basic Income (UBI). What you’re doing is spreading the benefits of all that efficiency more evenly, at least enough so everyone can maintain an acceptable standard of living whether there’s a job available for them or not.

Income Chart

Since the same goods and services are pouring out the door as before, in ever greater quality and abundance, there’s nothing artificial about those paychecks. At its core, wealth — hence, money — is productivity. See that ever-growing gap bridged by the green arrow in the chart? That’s where your UBI comes from. It’s the income redistribution that will deliver us from oblivion.

A UBI, for example, would have allowed us to weather the COVID epidemic and shorten its duration drastically. It would cushion the financial impact of earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires. It would have your back as a default disability insurance and eliminate the need for low-income-oriented social programs. It would also encourage R & D, like orphan drug development, that wouldn’t necessarily see an immediate profit.

But here’s where things get even better. We’d still have rank-and-file employment, but most of it would lean toward the concierge-oriented, human touch end. The very thing technology has been progressively robbing us of.

Jack and Sally would ride with the Chuck’s Chewy Chocolate Easter Bunnies drone truck to meet and shoot the breeze with its customers along the route. In hospitals, where perfectly attentive automatons lift, bathe, monitor, and otherwise attend to their patients (and yes, where
Waiter Pouring Wine
AI-driven hardware performs surgery far more intricately, swiftly, and reliably than any human could), staffers could devote themselves to the fun jobs. Cleanup in Room 413? No human required. A comfort crew could circulate to say hello, natter with the patients, arrange the flowers, man the string quartet in the lobby, wrangle the visitors, and even (gasp!) answer some phones.

Phone greeting jobs, in fact, may well see a renaissance and displace most of that depersonalizing “If you’d like a company directory, press 9” we’d so much like to get rid of anyway. To keep involuntary unemployment as low as possible, many work weeks would get super-short. You might show up for two hours a day, or maybe all day but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Or if you’re happy with your UBI or simply despair of finding work, never. People will work because they want to, not because they must. We’ll lead a poverty-free existence resembling that of Weena and the rest of the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s 1895 novella The Time Machine and its movie adaptations — but only in its best parts. There won’t be any Morlocks to eat us and also, unlike our vacuous analogs, we’ll still create, wonder, learn, care, explore, and love just as we always have.

Now we’d expect most objections to a UBI to fall into one of four categories:

1. Ideological: It’s simply wrong to pay people “not to work.”

2. Pragmatic but misguided: We don’t have the money to do that.

3. Fear: Those corporate taxes will kill us.

4. Defeatist/Fatalist: Human greed will never let it happen.

The answer to the first would be, fine. You’re perfectly free to forfeit your UBI, but don’t come crawling back when you get automated out of your livelihood and can no longer keep the wolf from the door. Plus that money doesn’t just vanish. As its recipients spend it on goods and services, it circulates through the economy over and over.

Number two is what I call ceteris paribus (“all other things being equal”) thinking and it’s a common knee-jerk habit among political regressives. For proposals like a UBI, they’ll scream bloody murder over the front-end cost and ignore the trillions we currently spend — on all the social programs and attendant bureaucracies — that it would displace. We do now and will even more in the future have sufficient resources to keep everyone alive, well, and reasonably comfortable if we care enough to.

Number three is the first cousin of number two. Many assume higher taxes are always bad and that all other things remain equal. But they aren’t and they don’t. In this case, our rate of return on those taxes is effectively infinite since they sustain an entire economy and avert a dystopia. That’s good.

For four, the only thing that matters is the net quality of your life, not how much money you have. Your kazillionaires will sacrifice a few commas and zeros from their income streams to support those heavier taxes. But because of their marketplace positions, they’ll still land the biggest bucks and their personal living standard will remain higher than average and similar to that to which they were accustomed. Even cushier, actually, what with self-sufficient robots at everyone’s beck and call, including theirs.

Weena Space


However well it works in practice, idyllically or less so, sooner or later we’ll be forced to implement a UBI or the economy will simply implode. Best to start easing into it now. Pay everyone, say, $600 monthly to start and $800 next year. The longer we wait, the more painful the transition. I’ll bet other societies throughout the universe, such as they might exist, have had to deal with this very same challenge.



Odd, entirely unrelated facts #4


5/12/2018

Human head hair grows at, typically, four-tenths of a millimeter per day. If you have 100,000 hairs, that comes to about 40 meters (130 feet) of hair you’re extruding every 24 hours. A finger nail grows only a quarter the speed of a hair, plus you have far fewer of them. In total, your fingers and toes collectively produce a bit over a millimeter of nail each day.

Kjv
The King James Bible was published in 1611 before English spelling was standardized. Consequently a word like he could also appear as hee or hie. The letters U and V were being distinguished from each other by this time, though in the opposite way we eventually settled on: trust was spelled trvst, live was spelled liue. There was no distinction between I and J, though for Roman numerals with trailing units the final I was printed with that curve: xviij. The project took about seven years. By year three the 50-odd translators still hadn’t been paid for their work so they went on strike until The Most High and Mightie &c himself relented. The first edition was received poorly.

It’s not you: For all practical purposes the human body per se does not generate disagreeable odors. Those such as bad breath, sebaceous and apocrine body odor, the sulfurous components of intestinal gas, and that swamp foot you reel back from when you finally get to take your shoes off at the end of the day are compounds excreted instead by the many varieties of microbes that live with us symbiotically. We depend on some of those thousands of species and sub-species for our survival as quite a few of them process nutrients we wouldn’t otherwise be able to absorb while others defend us against attack from pathogens.

Awww…
Awww…
Researchers at Arizona State University have determined experimentally that puppies are at their cutest (to humans, anyway) at around four months of age. That’s also approximately when their mothers wean them. Since domestic dogs, even those who have gone feral, have depended on human contact to thrive as a species, this ability to bond with us at an early age likely evolved as a survival benefit. As reinforcement, many domestic varieties have been either consciously or unconsciously bred to retain a childlike appearance throughout adulthood. Even wild canines such as foxes, when experimentally domesticated, sport floppier ears and more rounded snouts after only three or four generations. Nature’s pulling a mind game on us!



Pop culture factinos on Richard The Third


5/9/2018

Olivier
Olivier
I’ve just finished publishing the lipogram section on Curious Notions. Since its last entry involves my shameless butchering of William Shakespeare’s Richard The Third, I thought I’d share some notes I collected sometime back on the play’s film versions. There have been at least four motion pictures based more or less directly on it (1912, 1955, 1995, and 2008) along with a number of others focusing on various parts of the story.

Walton
Walton
The absolute barnburner among all of these is 1955’s Richard III starring Laurence Olivier (who also produced and directed), Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, and John Gielgud. Sir William Turner Walton, who collaborated with Olivier on three other films, wrote the score for Richard III which like some of his others is so towering it’s more often than not performed and savored entirely on its own.

Hardwicke
Hardwicke
Sir Cedric has always been one of my favorites. He shows up in approximately eighty films, and I particularly enjoyed him in Richard III as well as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and The Ten Commandments.

He also appeared on TV in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Wet Saturday as a patriarch sanitizing a murder scene his snivelling daughter threatens to blow the lid off of, and on the original Twilight Zone as the tyrannical Uncle Simon who builds Robby the Robot so he can continue browbeating his niece in proxy from beyond the grave. His son is Edward Cedric Hardwicke, now 78, Lord Stanley in the 1995 film version of Richard III.

Young soon-to-be-murdered Edward V was played in the 1955 film by Paul Huson who, most atypically, went on to establish himself as an authority on the occult and write a number of books on it.

Price
Price
Vincent Price starred as King Richard in Roger Corman’s 1962 Tower of London in which he gleefully smothers his nephews played by Eugene Martin (who like Paul Huson above still busies himself in film if not necessarily witchcraft) and Donald Losby (later a familiar face in many TV shows of the 60s and 70s).
Richard Signature




Little Hollywood story No. 3: To Willy Loman


4/27/2018

Way back during the Carter administration I sold encyclopedias door-to-door in Los Angeles. Or to be more precise, I rarely sold encyclopedias door-to-door in Los Angeles.

Farrah
I had been shopping my art portfolio around town in those days. I wrangled interviews with such disparate prospects as the studios of Saul Bass, a company making shower curtains looking for someone to design their patterns, the Farrah Fawcett Fan Club, and a white goods store where the sales manager staged a phone call for my benefit as I entered his office (“Is he worth it? No? Then GET RID OF HIM!!"). I also got a letter from Larry Flynt Enterprises inviting me to drop by but chickened out just in time for him to get shot.

Now this particular help wanted directed me to the Taft Building at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, across from the Pantages Theatre. The Taft is best known for having housed the Hayes office that enforced the Motion Picture Code from 1930 to 1968. For the job: Young folks right out of school welcome? Check! No experience necessary? Check!

They held a five-day class for us to practice our pitch on “Mr and Mrs Jones,” then cut us into groups who would pile into cars each midafternoon and fan out to young, childbearing neighborhoods calculated by the Home Office to be at least slightly less hostile toward door-to-door peddlers than usual. At the time, Monty Python had aired a piece showing “an unsuccessful encyclopedia salesman” (obviously a mannequin) leaping from a high-rise. Ho, ho.

When you canvass “the field” for hours and hours, knocking on doors by the dozen while simultaneously trying to remain invisible to apartment managers, your chief preoccupations come down to water and restroom opportunities. We couldn’t be direct while introducing ourselves, which would have been, “Hi. I’m selling a set of encyclopedias for about six hundred forty dollars, growing to maybe twice that if you opt for easy monthly payments that go on forever. May I come in?”

Rather, you were there to talk about education, to “ask a few questions,” to reply “I can help you out, there” should they explicitly demand to know what you’re up to, and to reveal the contents of your increasingly wondered-about satchel but only if you can get into their living room and adjudge them “qualified” (meaning did they have a phone and a checking account at the very minimum). We strove to be scrupulously honest, though, and never say anything that wasn't, at least technically or obliquely, true. At one presentation I gave to a couple, the wife gave a little smirk and said, “Hmm. Every time we ask you a pointed question you give us a non-answer. I’m a lawyer and I give non-answers for a living.”

Downtowngal [CC]
Downtowngal [CC]
I only averaged a half dozen or so sales a month, though I do recall one couple in particular who did readily sign on the dotted line. In sales, you grab onto what’s handed to you. The husband mentioned he had recently arrived from Egypt. I brought up my childhood King Tut-nuttery and also asked him how on earth you pronounce those mysterious emphatic consonants ص and ض and ط and ظ in the Arabic alphabet. Sold!!

Epiphany: The sort of people who would appreciate our Merit Students Encyclopedia — which was, quite honestly, wonderful — already owned a set of Britannicas or the like plus typically dozens or hundreds of books beyond that and therefore had no need for it, while those who could have benefitted the most were of the incurious type who couldn’t care less which side their spleen was on, how fast hummingbirds beat their wings, or why the capital of Bolivia has such little use for a fire department.

Like 98 percent of the people who sign on, I saw the futility of trying to scrape by on about eighty dollars a week and quit long after I should have. As it happened I would revisit the Taft Building a couple of years later, to have two wisdom teeth pulled by a Sayeed Ali, DDS, also late of Egypt, while I was working on the TV series Buck Rogers. Through the miracle of the modern Internet, I now know Clark Gable also went to a dentist there.



Low counterparts of things usually high


12/22/2014

Low treason Rebelling against one’s boss or, if a slave, one’s master

Low explosive An explosive, typically a gunpowder, whose expansion velocity is generally subsonic

Low Holy Days Celebration periods in the Jewish calendar of secondary importance, such as the Shabbat Hagadol and Yom Rishon Hagadol

Low energy physics The areas of physics not directly involving atomic-scale dimensions, substantial radioactivity, or relativistic speeds

Low Sierra The Sierra Nevada region in the western U.S. of medium altitude — 7000–8500 feet (2100–2600 meters) on the east side and 3000–7000 (900–2100) on the west. This is the sole habitat of the celebrated sequoia.

Low C
LowC
The note two octaves below high C or one below middle C, sounding at approximately 130.813 Hz*. Expressed in technical literature as C 3, this is also the lowest note on the viola and the banjo.

Low German Alluding roughly to altitude, the West Germanic languages and dialects spoken in northern Germany and some eastern regions of the Netherlands. Less formally the term can expand to include Dutch and Frisian and their dialects.

Low temperature superconductor A substance that needs to be cooled to 30 K (-243 °C or -406 °F) or lower to conduct electricity without resistance. In other words, the easier superconductors to procure since any metal will superconduct if you get it cold enough.

Low tension line Informally, a power line carrying 1000 volts or less. (The high tension Ekibastuz-Kokshetau line in Kazakhstan holds the world’s record at the other extreme, 1.15 million volts.)

Low horse The figurative position of someone boasting or arrogantly making an assertion, but doing so while intoxicated or relying on faulty information. (Not especially common, but attested at least as far back as 1930.)

Low altar A secondary, shorter altar in a house of worship placed forward of the main (high) altar. As the officiant can stand between the two and face the congregation, the structure can serve as a kind of lectern. In a temporal context the term can refer to a coffee table or a low-slung chest of drawers.
* Here’s how you arrive at this number: Take the twelfth root of 2, raise it to the 21st power, then divide that result into 440 (the standard frequency of A 4). This is because C 3 is 21 half steps below A 4, and in our 12-tone even-tempered scale each half step multiplies (if going up) or divides (if going down) a frequency by the twelfth root of 2.




Odd, entirely unrelated facts #3


5/11/2014

A man named Quintus Pompeius Senecio Roscius Murena Coelius Sextus Julius Frontinus Silius Decianus Gaius Julius Eurycles Herculaneus Lucius Vibullius Pius Augustanus Alpinus Bellicus Sollers Julius Aper Ducenius Proculus Rutilianus Rufinus Silius Valens Valerius Niger Claudius Fuscus Saxa Amyntianus Sosius Priscus was appointed Roman consul in 169. His name repeats “Julius” three times and “Silius” twice. He was known as Quintus Pompeius Senecio Sosius Priscus for short.

Peach Melba (peaches served with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream) and Melba toast were named after legendary soprano Nellie Melba. Born Helen Porter Mitchell, she had chosen her stage name to honor her birthplace of Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne had in turn been named after British Prime Minister William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, whose title referred to Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, UK. That site’s name evolved from an Old English term for a mill stream or spring and was first mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086.

Ivy Baker Priest
William Windom, great grandfather of TV actor William Windom (My World… and Welcome to It), was U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in 1881 and from 1889 to 1891. Ivy Baker Priest, mother of actress Pat Priest (best known for having played Marilyn on The Munsters), was U.S. Treasurer from 1953 to 1961. Ivy Baker Priest appeared as the mystery guest on the TV show What’s My Line? in August 1954.

You often see old-time newsreel footage of what was originally represented to be the Titanic departing for America in which there are spooky blobs wiggling around on surfaces where you would expect to see the name of the ship. That’s because all genuine moving footage of the Titanic's departure and voyage was lost with it along with its cinematographer, first-class passenger William Harbeck. To sidestep that inconvenient detail the newsreel producers of the day took footage of its sister ship Olympic and had someone paint out its name frame-by-frame. It’s theoretically possible that any nitrate film at the wreck site is still physically intact and viewable, should anyone manage to retrieve it.

Two anagrams of “Ronald Wilson Reagan” are “No, darlings, no ERA law“ and “insane Anglo warlord.” An anagram of "Reaganomics” is "A con game, sir.”

Kerosene was originally marketed as a substitute for whale oil in lamps. It’s a mixture of molecular chains containing between 6 and 16 atoms of carbon, more or less. Gasoline, whose carbon chains average about 20 per cent shorter, was originally discarded as a worthless byproduct of kerosene production though some was bottled and sold off at the time under the trade name Petrol as an effective — if horrendously dangerous — head lice cure.



Little Hollywood story No. 2


11/1/2013

One busy Friday evening I found myself working the cash register at the Hamburger Hamlet at 6914 Hollywood Blvd, right across from Mann’s Chinese Theater.

Promotional Still From 20th Century Fox (1970)
Promotional still from 20th Century Fox (1970)
To the left you see Rex Reed and Raquel Welch negotiating that very same eatery’s terrazzo steps about eight years earlier, so you can do the math. Back then you had to phone in customers’ credit card numbers to validate them and then do your ka-chunk ka-chunk with a mechanical imprinter. Hamburger Hamlet was founded by actor Harry Lewis (you might have seen him in the film Key Largo as one of Edward G. Robinson’s henchmen, the one who keeps making the wisecracks) and his wife Marilyn.

Now a week and a half before, I had thrown in the towel from the strain of that very same job at the Pasadena outlet. The stroke-inducing pace of it, not to mention my inability to scarf down my complimentary dinner fast enough that after a few interruptions to ring up more customers the food would still be there when I ran back, had done me in. The manager said she was sorry I had quit and all, but her Hollywood counterpart Omar had no cashier to work that particular night and so could I please, please drive over there and come through for them just this once.

It turned out to be a singular experience.

Lewis
Lewis
Like me, Omar had lately arrived from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Small world. Both he and his senior waitress were glad to help out when my work load got out of hand. There was also plenty of bittersweet diversion. A customer went wild in the bar section and police had to be called to help Omar eighty-six him, a garishly made-up woman sat at the counter nursing her coffee and muttering to herself (“They told me I was going to be an actress…" one could speculate) for almost five hours before she left, and at around half-past ten two cars collided just outside and their drivers exited and started duking it out.

When the disturbance threatened to work its way toward our front door Omar got ready to lock it. At that point I noticed the bottom glass section had been boarded over, which he explained had taken place earlier in the week when a potential customer crashed through it an hour after closing time to ask for a hamburger.

Ornament Separator

Other memories of that same corner linger, like the time the Popeye cast and crew had my yellow VW Rabbit towed away late one night while I was watching their competition Flash Gordon at the Chinese.

Rabbit
I had parked it legally enough on Orange Drive. But to accommodate the limousines shuttling celebrants to the Popeye wrap party I knew nothing about, the management installed temporary NO PARKING — TOW AWAY signs along that stretch shortly thereafter while I was inside the theater ogling Ornella Muti.

Choice #1: Commit to a midnight stroll twelve blocks northeast to my apartment and then see to getting the car back the next day, likely with added storage fees. Side streets, dark, no witnesses.

Choice #2: Brave a similarly unnerving trek southward, but this time only ten blocks, to the impound garage. (The facility stood just across an alley from where many of us had produced art for a Star Trek movie, but I was in no mood to reminisce.)

I yielded to #2, plus the eighty-dollar extortion. The attendant, a lanky, bespectacled sort in a white short-sleeved dress shirt, lept between me and the car and did the windmill thing with his arms to make sure I didn’t try to escape with it.

Coda: Popeye was critically panned.



Odd, entirely unrelated facts #2


8/25/2012

John B. “Jack” Kelly, Sr, perhaps best remembered nowadays as the father of actress and later Monaco princess Grace Kelly, won three Olympic gold medals for rowing during the 1920s. As a brickwork contractor, he ensured payment by secretly installing a sheet of glass inside his clients’ chimneys to block the draft. When the check cleared he’d have an employee drop a brick down the chimney from the top.

Ja Da
The title song from Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 album (and later 1969 film) “Alice’s Restaurant” exactly parallels, in its phrasing and 8-measure structure, the 1918 song “Ja-Da” by Bob Carleton. If you play them together they harmonize and counterpoint precisely.

Actor Eddie Albert first appeared on television on 6 November 1936 for a live presentation of his 40-minute play “The Love Nest.” The show, also featuring the Ink Spots and comedian Ed Wynn, emanated from Radio City in New York at 346 lines of resolution. (“Green Acres” premiered almost 29 years later on 15 September 1965.)

History’s first charge card transaction took place on 8 February 1950 at Major’s Cabin Grill adjacent to the Empire State Building in New York City. The party consisted of attorney Frank McNamara, loan company executive Ralph Schneider, and press agent Matty Simmons who later founded The National Lampoon. The card was Diner’s Club (#1000).

Author, commentator, spy novelist, and National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr’s first language as a child was Spanish. His second was French.

Incandescent light bulbs convert only a small fraction of their energy input to light, but that extra energy isn’t necessarily wasted. If the bulbs are indoors and the weather is cool enough for the furnace to run, they simply share some of that burden. Modern LEDs generate virtually no heat, but that can actually be a problem for such applications as traffic lights since during the winter the snow and ice won’t melt off.

Ushabti
Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan was such an enthusiastic archaeology buff he rarely hesitated to help himself to any little treasures he’d come across. Throughout his lifetime he amassed a spectacular collection this way. Shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967 Dayan sneaked alone into a dig near Holon, south of Tel Aviv, to try his luck. The dirt caved in on him, leaving only one hand visible. Children happened onto the hand sometime later and directed rescuers to dig him out.



Little Hollywood story No. 1


6/16/2012

Cigar Smoker
Back in 1986 I was working at an animation facility in Burbank, California when we got a job to design and shoot a bunch of writhing pink tunnels for the live action fantasy film Howard the Duck.

I won’t mention names, but a certain concern in northern California had more work than it could comfortably handle at that moment and so farmed this project out to us through our art director on the condition that we keep the whole thing a deep, dark secret and expect no screen credit. Plus there would be hell to pay if they could see any “ridging” (superfine stripes caused by equipment vibration or rattle) in the textures on the final product. The code name they instructed us to use for the film was “Huey.”

It was an exasperating effort involving half a dozen of us but we eventually turned out between 20 and 30 tunnel sequences and several of them wound up in the final film. I had high hopes for “Huey” because I remembered the title character as the wry, cigar-chomping, wisecracking waterfowl not entirely dissimilar to Bobby London’s Dirty Duck who appeared regularly in the National Lampoon’s funny pages during the 70s.

Shortly before Howard the Duck was released to the public we were welcomed to attend a screening at the Alfred Hitchcock Theater at Universal City. The room was packed and I was told Stephen Spielberg was in attendance.

Some Of Our Blood And Sweat: Input Form For Our Huey Specific Motion Control Software
Some of our blood and sweat: input form for our Huey-specific motion control software
Now being perfectly aware of how much blood and sweat go into making a movie — whether it turns out good, bad, or indifferent — I always try to find something to like and appreciate when I watch one. Howard the Duck certainly did have its moments, and I think so even more to this day. But you could hear a pin drop in there at times when it was obvious we were all supposed to be laughing. As we filed out at the end there was a lot of polite murmuring.

The next day at work we were saying things like, “That’s OK, the kids’ll like it!” and “Boy, there was a lot happening in that movie, wasn’t there?” As everyone knows, the film went down in history as a spectacular failure. The trade magazines tried to outdo each other by brandishing headlines like “HOWARD THE DUCK, A NEW BREED OF TURKEY,” “THE DUCK LAYS AN EGG,” and so forth. Rumors even flew that Universal production heads Sid Sheinberg and Frank Price literally got into fisticuffs over who had been more to blame for greenlighting Howard in the first place.

One of the more amusing aspects of this was something Michelle Pfeiffer said in a 1990 issue of People magazine: “You know, I look like a duck. I just do. And I’m not the only person who thinks that. It’s the way my mouth sort of curls up or my nose tilts up. I should have played Howard the Duck.”



Oh no, not another ivory-billed woodpecker


5/28/2011

The other day while I was driving I saw something flutter through the air that I thought was so important I immediately pulled over, got out, and backtracked half a block.

Ivory Billed Woodpecker By Theodore Jasper (1888)
Ivory-billed woodpecker by Theodore Jasper (1888)
It was an enormous woodpecker, mostly black but with small white markings and a head with a scarlet crest.

Now the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) has been presumed extinct for decades and was officially declared as such in 1994. About every couple of years the papers will carry a story about an alleged sighting of them. The ornithological community will then furrow its collective brow and examine all the evidence, but so far its skepticism has prevailed.

As in the case of Bigfoot and the Tasmanian tiger, there are also some infuriatingly ambiguous photographs and sound recordings making the rounds. Cornell University has an outstanding offer of $50,000 to anyone who can lead their researchers to an indisputably living, breathing ivory-billed.

The bird alit on the trunk of a honey locust next to the road and started its rapid thonk-thonk-thonk, but it was cagey enough to stay on the side I couldn’t see. As I rounded the tree it scooched in the same direction to stay ahead of me but eventually decided to hell with it and flew off. As it did so, I could see large white areas on the trailing undersides of its wings.

This was in Michigan. Since ivory-billed woodpeckers live (or lived) primarily in the southeastern US and the Caribbean I wasn’t expecting any big miracle here. It turned out that, yes, what I had spotted was actually a ringer for it, the perfectly common pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). A true ivory-billed would have been even larger — about 20 inches long with a 30-inch wingspan — and would have had more white on the top near its tail. In addition it had a doubled pecking rhythm whereas the bird I saw and heard kept things perfectly even.

“Screw The Gold. Let’s Just Go Find Us Some O’ Them Gaudy Woodpeckers.”
“Screw the gold. Let’s just go find us some o’ them gaudy woodpeckers.”
There’s an ivory-billed lookalike that’s larger yet, and again rare if not extinct: the imperial woodpecker (C. imperialis). Their traffic-stopping appearance sped their final demise as it encouraged people to shoot them simply out of curiosity. The last confirmed live specimen was dispatched in this manner in Mexico in 1956 (specifically Durango, where The Treasure of Sierra Madre had been filmed a decade earlier), so you might keep a semi-jaundiced eye out for this bird, too.



Three unusual afflictions you don’t usually hear about


1/1/2011

Empty nose syndrome

Inside our nasal passages on each side there’s a set of three roughly parallel horizontal folds called turbinates. Since the early 1900s people suffering from serious nasal blockages have undergone surgery to cut away some of this tissue.

It turns out the turbinates induce a necessary turbulence into the airflow through the nose and help slow evaporation, and that overly zealous excision of these structures can paradoxically make the patient’s nose feel even more stuffed up than before. This can be fiendishly distressing and has been referred to as empty nose syndrome. Treatment typically involves restoring the moisture inside with a saline mist.

Zero stroke (or cipher stroke)

Hyperinflation
This was first identified in patients by their doctors during the German Weimar Republic hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The constant stress of having prices rise so feverishly — at the peak of the crisis they doubled every 90 hours — caused some people to pass into a sort of trance and obsessively write down row upon row of zeros on sheets of paper.

The Weimar hyperinflation hasn’t been the worst, though. That honor belongs to the Hungarian version which maxed out in July 1946 when prices were doubling about every 15 hours.

Situs inversus

It’s exceedingly rare, but some people are born with all their major internal organs flipped horizontally so that their heart is on the right, their liver is on the left, and so on. Normally this doesn’t produce any symptoms and the patient only learns of this state of affairs through a routine x-ray or while being prepped for an organ transplant. Humorist Catherine O’Hara is switched around like this.

But there are partial versions of situs inversus in which, say, the heart is on the left side as normal (levocardia) with everything else flipped or the heart alone is on the right (dextrocardia) with everything else in the normal location. Either of these invariably give rise to serious circulatory problems.



Castle or Corman?


11/12/2008

Homicidal
William Castle (1914-1977) and Roger Corman (b. 1926) are known for their [usually] low-budget, [usually] high-concept movies.

Castle typically incorporated some kind of gimmick into his pictures — joy buzzers installed into selected seats, nurses stationed in the lobby, a magic coin, a 45-second “fright break” timer overlaid onto the screen, burial insurance for patrons who might die of shock, and so forth.

Corman is probably best known for 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors which featured a human-eating plant and Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient. It went on to spawn a stage musical — which itself then ricocheted back into yet another movie, directed by John Waters (who himself grew up as a Castle zealot).

Naturally Vincent Price saw plenty of action with both Castle and Corman. He plays child-killing Richard III in Tower of London, and in The Tingler he exhorts us to "Scream! Scream for your lives!!”

In The Thing With Two Heads, Ray Milland is a cantankerous and openly racist physician who, as a consequence of multiple organ failure, has to have his head grafted onto the body of a black death row inmate played by Rosey Greer. Much of the film consists of this bizarre Milland-Greer “Thing” racing around the countryside on a minibike.

The one A-list picture in this glorious morass was Rosemary’s Baby, produced by William Castle and directed by a new Polish kid hardly anybody had then heard of named Roman Polanski. Castle himself appears in a cameo as the man waiting for Mia Farrow to get off a pay phone.

Let’s see if you can tell some of the pictures of William Castle and Roger Corman apart. Click below for the answers:

1. 13 Frightened Girls (banned in Finland)
2. Attack of the Crab Monsters
3. House on Haunted Hill
4. Let’s Kill Uncle
5. Not of This Earth
6. The Thing With Two Heads
7. The Tingler
8. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes
9. Tower of London
10. Zotz!

Answers1. Castle
2. Corman (starring Russell Johnson)
3. Castle (starring Vincent Price)
4. Castle (starring Nigel Bruce)
5. Corman (starring Beverly Garland)
6. Corman as producer (starring Ray Milland and Rosey Grier)
7. Castle (starring Vincent Price)
8. Corman (starring Ray Milland)
9. Corman (starring Vincent Price)
10. Castle (starring Tom Poston)



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