Momentous Monday: Backwards and in high heels

In honor of the Webb Space Telescope let’s look at some forgotten pioneers of science.

The James Webb Space Telescope is about to fire up for first light and soon send back images of a star in the Big Dipper, HD84406. Although this star will be too bright and close to focus on once the Webb is fully operational, it was chosen as an ideal target for calibrating and focusing everything.

But as this next giant leap in human knowledge is about to happen, let’s take a look at some great discoveries of the past that may not have been made by the people you think made them.

The famous astronomer Herschel was responsible for a lot of accomplishments, including expanding and organizing the catalog of nebulae and star clusters, discovering eight comets, polishing and mounting mirrors and telescopes to optimize their light-gathering powers, and keeping meticulous notes on everything.

By being awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and being named an honorary member thereof, holding a government position and receiving a salary as a scientist, Herschel became the first woman to do so.

What? Did you I think I was talking about the other one? You know — the only one most of you had heard of previously because he discovered Uranus. Oh, and he had that whole penis thing going on.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, who was William’s younger sister by eleven years and was born in 1850, did not have a penis, and so was ignored by history. Despite the honors she received, one of her great works, the aforementioned expansion of the New General Catalogue (NGC), was published with her brother’s name on it.

If you’re into astronomy at all, you know that the NGC is a big deal and has been constantly updated ever since.

While she lacked William’s junk, she shared his intellectual curiosity, especially when it came to space and studying the skies. It must have been genetic — William’s son John Herschel was also an astronomer of some repute — and it was his Aunt Caroline, not Dad, who gave him a huge boost.

She arranged all of the objects then in the NGC so they were grouped by similar polar coordinates — that is, at around the same number of degrees away from the celestial poles. This enabled her nephew to systematically resurvey them, add more data about them, and discover new objects.

Caroline was not the first woman in science to be swept under history’s rug by the men. The neverending story of the erasure of women told in Hidden Figures was ancient by the time the movie came out, never mind the time that it actually happened. Caroline was in good company.

Maria Winckelmann Kirch, for example, was also an astronomer, born 80 years before Caroline and most likely the first woman to actually discover a comet. But of course history gave that honor to her husband, Gottfried Kirch, who was thirty years her senior. However, Herr Kirch himself confirms in his own notes that she was the one who found it:

“Early in the morning (about 2:00 AM) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing, she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me, and I found that it was indeed a comet… I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before”. [Source]

Maria’s interest and abilities in science came from a person we might think of as unlikely nowadays: a Lutheran minister, who happened to be her father. Why did he teach her? Because he believed that his daughter deserved the same education any boy at the time did, so he home-schooled her. This ended when Maria lost both of her parents when she was 13, but a neighbor and self-taught astronomer, Christoph Arnold, took her on as an apprentice and took her in as part of the family.

Getting back to Hidden Figures, though, one of the earliest “computers,” as these women of astronomy were known, was Henrietta Leavitt. Given what was considered the boring and onerous task of studying a class of stars known as Cepheid variables, she actually discovered something very important.

The length of time it takes a Cepheid to go through its brightest to darkest sequence is directly proportional to its luminosity. This means that if know the timing of that sequence, you know how bright the star is. Once you know that, you can look at how bright it appears to be from Earth and, ta-da! Using very basic laws of optics, you can then determine how far away the star is.

It’s for this reason that Cepheids are known as a “standard candle.” They are the yardsticks of the universe that allow us to measure the unmeasurable. And her boss at the time took all the credit, so I’m not even going to mention his name.

And this is why we have The Leavitt Constant and the Leavitt Telescope today.

No, just kidding. Her (male) boss, who shall still remain nameless here because, “Shame, shame,” took all of the credit for work he didn’t do, and then some dude named Edwin Hubble took that work and used to to figure out how far away various stars actually were, and so determined that the universe was A) oh so very big,  and B) expanding. He got a constant and telescope named after him. Ms. Leavitt… not so much.

There are way too many examples of women as scientific discoverers being erased, with the credit being given to men, and in every scientific field. You probably wouldn’t be on the internet reading this now if no one had ever come up with the founding concepts of computer programming, aka “how to teach machines to calculate stuff for us.”

For that, you’d have to look to a woman who was basically the daughter of the David Bowie of her era, although he wasn’t a very dutiful dad. He would be Lord Byron. She would be Ada Lovelace, who was pretty much the first coder ever — and this was back in the days when computers were strictly analog, in the form of Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines.

The former was pretty much just an adding machine, and literally one that could only do that. So, for example, if you gave it the problem “What is two times 27,” it would find the solution by just starting with two, and then adding two to it 26 times.

The latter analytical engine was much more like a computer, with complex programming. Based on the French Jacquard loom concept, which used punched cards to control weaving, it truly mimicked all of the common parts of a modern computer as well as programming logic.

Basically, a computer does what it does by working with data in various places. There’s the slot through which you enter the data; the spot that holds the working data; the one that will pull bits out of that info, do operations on it, and put it back in other slots with the working data; and the place where it winds up, which is the user-readable output.

The analytical engine could also do all four math operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

An analog version of this would be a clerk in a hotel lobby with a bunch of pigeonhole mail boxes behind, some with mail, some not. Guests come to the desk and ask (input), “Any mail for me?” The clerk goes to the boxes, finds the right one based on input (guest room number, most likely), then looks at the box (quaintly called PEEK in programming terms).

If the box is empty (IF(MAIL)=FALSE), the Clerk returns the answer “No.” But if it’s not empty (IF(MAIL)=TRUE), the clerk retrieves that data and gives it to the guest. Of course, the guest is picky, so tells the Clerk, “No junk mail and no bills.”

So, before handing it over, the Clerk goes through every piece, rejecting that above (IF(OR(“Junk”,”Bill”),FALSE,TRUE), while everything else is kept by the same formula. The rejected data is tossed in the recycle bin, while the rest is given to the guest — output..

Repeat the process for every guest who comes to ask.

Now, Babbage was great at creating the hardware and figuring out all of that stuff. But when it came to the software, he couldn’t quite get it, and this is where Ada Lovelace came in. She created the algorithms that made the magic happen — and then was forgotten.

By the way, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have a wonderfully steampunk alternate history novel that revolves around the idea that Babbage and Lovelace basically launched the home computer revolution a couple of centuries early, with the British computer industry basically becoming the PC to France’s Mac. It’s worth a read.

Three final quick examples: Nettie Maria Stevens discovered the concept of biological sex being passed through chromosomes long before anyone else; it was Lise Meitner, not Otto Hahn, who discovered nuclear fission; and, in the ultimate erasure, it was Rosalind Franklin, and neither Watson nor Crick, who determined the double helix structure of DNA.

This erasure is so pronounced and obvious throughout history that it even has a name: The Matilda Effect, named by the historian Margaret Rossiter for the suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Finally, a note on the title of this piece. It comes from a 1982 comic strip called Frank and Ernest, and it pretty much sums up the plight of women trying to compete in any male-dominated field. They have to work harder at it and are constantly getting pushed away from advancement anyway.

So to all of the women in this article, and all women who are shattering glass ceilings, I salute you. I can’t help but think that the planet would be a better place with a matriarchy.

For all of the above histories and more, it’s plain to see why finally having a female Vice President of the United States (and a person of color at that) is a truly momentous and significant moment in the history of the country and the world. Here’s hoping that we get the same for the SCOTUS very soon.

Image: James Webb Space Telescope, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons 

Sunday Nibble #95: Unfortunate product names

Sometimes, product names aren’t always as good as they should be.

There’s an old expression, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” It’s often attributed to P.T. Barnum, but there’s no proof that he ever said it. A more interesting way of stating it was very definitely Oscar Wilde’s: “(T)here is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” which appears in the first chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

A better version of the saying (because it has two interpretations) has been attested to about 1931 and that version is “No publicity is bad publicity.” One reading is that all publicity is good, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity because the important part is getting your name out there. The other reading is that not having any publicity is bad because it doesn’t get your name out there.

It’s the same thing Wilde said, mostly, just in a more American, less eloquent way. But that brings us to the subject of this article: Really unfortunate product names. They could be bad publicity by turning people off and making them ignore them. Or they could be good publicity by making people take notice and decide, “Hell, I’ll buy that just because the name is so bad.”

Now, I’m not going to be including things like products  with names that are not dirty in their native tongue but sound nasty to English speakers, so don’t look for Finland’s Megapussi, which is just their term for “big bag” that they slap on a lot of different brands of potato chips.

I’m also not including the infamous website because it’s obviously a parody, and not an unfortunate choice by the company Pen Island. Although why no one started a business with two of those letters moved to the left is beyond me. That place would make a fortune.

Also excluded: Cock Flavored Soup, because I think that it might be a leg-pull by GraceKennedy designed to lead to all kinds of immature humor. While the product is legit — the company exists and is Caribbean — I can’t find any reference to this being a legitimate Jamaican dish, and Cock Flavored Soup doesn’t have any cock in it. There never was, unless the chef got sketchy in the kitchen. Still, if Jamaican Cock Soup does exist, I bet that it goes great with a little Jamaican jerk seasoning.

But, without further ado, here are five product names that could have taken another pass through the marketing committee.

  1. From Greece, welcome to Vergina Beer. As if that’s not bad enough, it’s the name of the city in Greece it comes from, and compound that with that city’s Vergina Beach hotel. All right, technically it’s one of those words that’s not dirty in its native Greek, but it was too good to pass up. I mean, just think of all the awkward conversations, especially in a British accent.

“So what did you do all summer, chap?”

“Oh, I stayed in Vergina.”

“Lucky bastard… I was stuck in Manchester the whole time.”

  1. Actually courtesy of Britain, be sure to stick some spotted dick in your mouth. It’s not a brand name, but the name is bad enough. Basically, it’s a “pudding” with currants and other fruits and veggies in it, and these are what give it its spots. I put “pudding” in quotes because what they call pudding in Britain is what Americans would think of as a really awful hybrid of failed French toast and a stale muffin slammed into a mold (or mould) and then dried out enough to be, well, British cuisine. Basically, if the only thing you taste isn’t egg and stale bread, it’s not really pudding over there.
  1. What should you get once you’ve had your spotted dick? A Wunder Boner might be in order. Note, though, it’s not a new brand name for sildenafil or tadalafil, which are the generics for Viagra and Cialis. Ironically, while a Wunder Boner sounds like it would give one wood, it sort of does the opposite, and it will allegedly make your fish limp in two seconds, or one quick motion of your hand.
  1. From the land down under, probably the appropriate place to use this, we get Wack Off insect repellent. Okay, to be charitable, maybe they were referring to the action of whacking insects off of one’s self. But probably not. Remember, Australia is also the home of Golden Gaytime ice cream, but I’m not going to call that one unfortunately named because, honestly, it sounds like fun.
  1. The most heinous one, though, is probably the newest. What do you get when you cross a brownie with a donut? Sane minds would have come up with the donie, but oh, no. This one had to go in the worst possible direction, and so behold the Bronut. I can only imagine the conversations this one starts.

“Bro, I’m Chase. What can I get you?”

“I’d like half a dozen bronuts, please.”

“Cool, okay. Chad, Brent, Kyle, get out here.”

“Sorry… what?”

“Six bronuts, three dudes, right?”

“Um, no. I meant the… that pastry thing. The one you’ve been advertising everywhere?”

“Bro, these guys are pretty pasty. I mean, could they be any whiter?”

“Bronuts, bro. Like it says here, look at the picture, hell, look at the article on my phone. These ones even have Pop Rocks in them— “

“Heh heh heh. Pop rocks.”

“Dude. Bronuts. Brownie, donut. Do you have any of those?”

“Oh. Oh, sorry. You want the shop across the street, man.”

“Oh, right, got it. Sorry. Sorry, my bad. Hey. What do you sell here, anyway?”

“Chad, Brent, and Kyle.”

“Ah. How late are you open?”

“Ten p.m.”

“Great. Maybe I’ll come back… Chase.” (Pause) “No homo.”

“We’ll be here. Ten bronuts, then?”

“If I find someone to bring back, let’s make it a dozen.”

(They fistbump. Customer exits. Fade out. THE END.)

Then again, maybe the people who named these things knew exactly what they were doing. After all, I’m writing about them now, and a lot of them show up in searches for “Worst product names.”‘ It might be genius.

Saturday Morning Post 95: Truth or Dare (Part 1)

The next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one.

Another boring Sunday night, and it was the three of them again, Kevin, Rick and Pedro, sitting around Rick’s apartment, not much to do and not much energy to do it with. Rick was the lynchpin here. He worked with Pedro and went to school with Kevin, although he was halfway to quitting the job and half a grade point from getting booted out of school. He didn’t really care at the moment. Monday was his day off from work and his first class wasn’t until two o’clock. He sat on the floor, carefully shredding and combing a fat bud in preparation for another bong load while Pedro watched intently and Kevin sat on the sofa, legs crossed, holding Rick’s giant stuffed panda in an almost inappropriate way, chattering a mile and a half a minute about nothing.

“G, it was amazing,” he said, bouncing on the couch. “You should have seen it.”

“Uh huh,” Rick muttered, not listening.

“The cops came and everything, it was classic.” He giggled in that annoying way of his, like a Catholic schoolgirl seeing her first porno, then got a very serious expression. “G, call her.”

“Man, it’s two in the morning.”

“She’ll be up. Come on, call Melinda.”


“Maybe she’ll bring her sister…” Kevin said, almost singsong.

“In your wet dreams, dude,” Rick said.

“I bet they would,” Kevin shot back, grabbing the phone off the dining room table.

“You’re a pig and you’re stupid,” Rick replied. “Here, suck on this and shut up.” He held out the results of his efforts and Kevin put down the phone, grabbing the bong and extending his hand for the lighter. “Melinda and Stacey are not some lesbian sister act. They’re nice girls. You should respect them.”

“Oh, I respect them,” Kevin said, making it sound even more obscene than he intended. “I saw Melinda’s tits once.”

“Yeah, so? I saw your mother’s tits.” Rick shot Kevin a grin, then saw the look on his face, like he almost believed that comment. “Kidding,” he added. “Sorry.”

“Don’t… don’t say stuff like that, okay?”

Jesus, Rick thought, that sure hit some weird soft spot. It was like he’d shot Kevin’s dog or something. “Hey, dude, I said I’m sorry, okay?” Rick offered. Kevin nodded and moped, head down, and then let out a choked sob.

“Shit, Kevin, I didn’t mean it, really.”

Kevin gestured vaguely and Rick and Pedro looked at each other, a little embarrassed. “Kevin…?” Rick started, but then Kevin looked up, a big shit-eating grin on his face. “Psych!” he said. “I don’t cry for nothing. Never.” Triumphantly, he picked up the bong and took a gurgling hit off of it.

“Sometimes, you’re such an asshole,” Rick said.

“I aim to please,” Kevin answered while holding in the hit, passing the bong to Pedro. Pedro took it and fired away while Rick stared at Kevin, incomprehending. Sometimes, he didn’t know why he hung out with this guy. Then he heard Pedro huffing up the smoke and remembered — Kevin did get the best weed Rick had ever had. Pedro was cool. If Kevin was King Asshole, Pedro was some kind of anti-asshole. Quiet, polite, agreeable. That got a little boring sometimes, but at least he wasn’t obnoxious. As Pedro passed the bong to Rick, Kevin finally exhaled. Rick put his mouth over the skunky tube, then looked at Kevin.

“So, when the hell did you see Stacey’s rack, anyway?”

“Melinda’s rack.”

“Same difference.”

“They’re not completely identical. We were playing truth or dare.”

“Aah, of course. And I bet the game was your idea, right?”

“Not that time, no.”

Pedro looked at Rick oddly. Rick noticed, raised an eyebrow. “Truth or dare?” Pedro asked.

“Yeah, some stupid party game for high school girls and sexually repressed college boys,” Rick explained.

“Who usually aren’t sexually repressed by the time the game is over, thank you very much,” Kevin added. He looked at Pedro, who still looked confused. “What, you’ve never played?”

“He’s not a skank like you are, Kevie,” Rick said, then put the fire in the hole and sucked away.

“It’s not a skanky game. It’s like group therapy,” Kevin explained to Pedro. “You really never played it?”

“No,” Pedro answered, shaking his head. “The girls I know aren’t like that.”

“Catholic school, is it?” Kevin laughed.

“He said aren’t like that, douchebag,” Rick barked out, holding the smoke.

“That’s right. Some of the best pussy I’ve gotten has gone to Catholic school.”

“Would that be St. Rosy Palm and the Sisters of Perpetual Motion?” Rick asked, punctuated with the proper gesture. Kevin shot him the finger, then popped off the couch and sat in front of Pedro.

“I still can’t believe you’ve never played it,” he said.

“And we’re not,” Rick said, rapping him on the shoulder and passing the bong.

“I wasn’t suggesting it, ass-wad,” he answered, grabbing the bong. “I don’t see any girls here.”

“No, just a big pussy.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“Bite me.”

Kevin gnashed his teeth in Rick’s general direction, giggled, then took another hit. Rick turned to Pedro. “Don’t mind him, he doesn’t get out much. You okay? You’re kind of quiet tonight?”

“Fine,” Pedro said. “Very stoned, though.”

“Yes sir, I do agree,” Rick said. “This is certainly the most primo example of fine herbage you’ve yet commandeered for our personal use, Kevo.”

“Too many words, G,” Kevin said, passing the bong to Pedro, who declined and passed it to Rick. Rick took another hit, watching the other guys as he did so. Both of them were assuming the horizontal position, happily stoned floor flounder on the cheap carpet. Rick glanced at the clock. Five after two. It seemed like an hour since he’d last looked and it had been two o’clock. Time dilation had been achieved. He slowly eased the bong into position on the table, then lay down himself, staring at the ceiling, fascinated with the faint brown water spot that crept out of the wall and through the off-white cottage cheese. It had been there as long as Rick had. Longer. It would be there, no doubt, long after he’d gone.

Kevin was muttering some stoner monologue, about how there’d be no wars in the world if political struggles were settled with a game of truth or dare. “Like, I bet we’d just smear Fidel Castro in one move. ‘Okay, G, I dare you. Shave your beard.’ He wouldn’t do it, game over.” He laughed again. Rick flinched at the sound, which seemed to echo off the ceiling. It really was a puerile, girly giggle, an involuntary burst that always sounded like Kevin had just been gang tickled by a flock of animate feather dusters.

“Oh, you’re not Cuban or nothing, are you, Pedro?” Kevin asked, Rick flinching anew at that question.

“I was born in Pacoima,” Pedro answered.

“Truth,” Kevin spouted. The response was silence, which Rick knew was the most frustrating thing in the world to him. “I said, ‘truth,’“ Kevin continued.

“We’re not playing,” Rick said.

“I’m bored,” Kevin whined. “Anyway, it’s a drinking game.”

“It is not,” Rick shot back.

“It can be,” Kevin explained. “Anything can be a drinking game.”

“I like drinking games,” Pedro offered from somewhere across the carpet. “None of us’s got to do anything in the morning.”

“Let me get the drinks,” Kevin heaved himself up from the floor and stumbled off to the kitchen.

Rick turned his head, found his nose an inch from Pedro’s right ear. “Now you’ve done it,” he said.

“What?” Pedro asked, turning his head, eyes almost crossing to focus.

“I’ve seen him do this before, he’s always the first one to start this and the first one to back out of anything mildly embarrassing.”

“Yeah, but like he said, no girls here. How bad could it get?”

“You don’t know Kevin,” Rick sighed. Kevin was an instigator, the kind of person who took passive-aggressive glee in giving a group the right nudge, then watching all their neuroses and problems play out on each other while he sat back, always seemingly immune to it all. He had the annoying ability to fade away in a crowd when the sparks started flying, Mr. Innocent in the corner, never connected to the trouble he caused once things got rolling. Rick had no doubt that Kevin had seen Stacey, or Melinda, or whoever’s tits at a party, but he also had no doubt that he hadn’t had to make that demand to get his wish. Just a little clever manipulation of some other poor, dumb schmuck who wanted a peek — toss a few offhand comments into a brain already set on purée, and the resulting cocktail was Kevin’s recipe, someone else’s hemlock.

Why did people seem to like him? That was what Rick didn’t get. But hell, half the time, he liked Kevin, or put up with him, at least. It had to be that face. Not that he was cute. No, it was that he looked innocent and harmless, like an altar boy suddenly thrust into an adult body. No, not thrust. Stretched. He was tall and skinny, and you’d find bigger muscles in a bucket of KFC, although it was a toss-up between man and chicken which one was more deeply fried.

Anyway, no matter how annoying he got, telling him off would have been like punching a kitten.

Kevin came back with the Tequila — the good stuff, not the Cuervo, the putz — and three shot glasses, at least one of which still had most of the gold intact on the three Greek letters down the side. That was the only memento Rick still had from his eighteen-month freshman year at Purdue. That, and there was a faceless picture of his ass still floating around on the Internet, his souvenir to the world from his first and only Freshman Nude Olympics snow run.

But that had nothing to do with why he left.

“So,” Kevin explained, setting the glasses on the table and slopping Tequila into them, “You call truth or dare, and you have to answer honestly or do the dare, or else you drink.”

“And the point of this game is…?” Rick asked, sitting up.

“Staving off boredom,” Kevin answered simply.

Pedro dragged himself to the table and sat there waiting. Nobody said anything for a while. Finally, Pedro asked, “Who goes first?”

“I will,” Rick said. “Kevin — truth or dare?” he asked, knowing already what it would be.

“Truth,” Kevin said.

Ah, yes, always the safe way. “Okay, Kevo,” Rick said. “Are you a big fag?”

“Hell, no,” Kevin answered without hesitation. “My point, and… Rick. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” Rick replied, defiantly.

“And the man’s got serious scrotage,” Kevin said to Pedro, thinking. “Let’s see…” Kevin’s eyes flickered around the room and he bit his lower lip. Then, he picked up the bong and passed it across the table. “Have a sip, Ricky.”

Okay, Rick thought, that didn’t take very long to get disgusting. But he wasn’t going to let Kevin get away with it tonight. He took the bong, looking Kevin right in the eye, Pedro staring in disbelief. Rick smiled, hoisted the bong in a toast and said, “Salud.” Then, he lifted it to his lips and tilted it back. God, the smell could have killed a hog, but he knew the thing was opaque enough that no one would notice he kept his lips shut. The water was cold and rancid, but none of it actually got in his mouth.

He put the bong down and coughed in half-mock disgust. Kevin’s face was motionless, mouth open and Pedro had fallen on the floor, moaning, “Oh, man. Gross.”

“My point,” Rick smiled.

“Fu-u-uck,” Kevin finally said.

“Pedro, truth or dare?”…

To be continued

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #91: Sports, fictional place, dictator

The latest Friday Free-for-All questions. What are your answers?

In which I answer random questions from a website. An ongoing series.

How often do you play sports?

Never. I’ve never been a fan of sports, firstly because I was a premature baby so born with lung issues. I spent sixteen days in an incubator, then had bad bronchitis at seven years old. This left me with issues getting enough oxygen if I exerted myself, especially in the crappy childhood air I grew up with in Los Angeles.

This was also when they made us run endless laps in elementary school for some reason, but I could only ever make it halfway through one before gasping for breath but, of course, the toxically masculine male teachers would just call those of us who couldn’t do it “pussies,” instead of maybe talking to our parents about possible health issues.

For the most part, I’d wind up walking those laps with my other friends who, for various reasons, couldn’t run them at any kind of speed either.

This naturally led to a lifelong disdain for sports in any form — made even a bit worse after I developed viral pneumonia at fourteen, lost about a third of my bodyweight, and never redeveloped the muscles, except in my legs for some reason.

My brain never gave me a problem gasping for air when I exerted it, so that’s the organ I used, and to this day and I could give less than two warm shits about any major sporting event. And I understand that there’s some kind of allegedly important one happening in America soon but, again, I’d have to muster some bit of interest to figure out what it is, and I really don’t care.

What fictional place would you most like to go?

I tend to prefer real places, actually so this is a tough one. It seems like an easy choice at first until you remember how many places are actually dangerous. Hogwarts, never, although a trip to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade might be fun, as long as JK’s TERFy ass were nowhere around.

Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory appears to be okay if you’re an adult and not stupid, and they’ve probably got some great stuff in the gift shop at the end. The Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz could also be really cool at the right time, since none of the witches seem to go there (it’s under the Wizard’s protection,) but the décor, costuming, and everything else Deco is amazing and worth a visit for a photo safari.

From Star Wars, Coruscant would be a romp, since it is the capital planet of the Empire, and it would just be a matter of hitting it at the right time and knowing the right people. A possibly safer location from the other side of the rebellion would be Canto Bite, naturally.

Ideally, though, I’d love to go to that America that only exists in the dreams of the Founders, the pages of the Constitution, and the ambitions of FDR and others — well, with a lot less racism. It’s the one where we managed to create and sustain the Middle Class Dream, expand unions and universal health care to everyone, regulated the living fuck out of corporations on through and beyond the 1980s to the present day, never elected Ronald Reagan or listened to the Moral Majority, and continued the Civil Rights, Gay Rights, and Equal Rights movements of the 1960s without any impedance.

This is especially from the Supreme Court, which would look very different than it does now or ever has, and in which politics and jurisprudence would be kept in strict separation. As if that’s humanly possible.

If you were dictator of a small island nation, what crazy dictator stuff would you do?

Well, it would only be considered “crazy” by capitalists, because they are the ones whom, for the most part, would be the non-beneficiaries of all my dictates. The main one is that nothing here shall be done for profit, except that it supports the person making or doing it and allows them to then turn the excess into tools and material for the next round of work.

Oh — did I mention our immigration policy? You can come from any country or any background, as long as you create art of any kind or know a useful trade (electrician, plumber, carpenter, engineer, IT, etc.) We do tend to discourage fanatically religious types, bigots, conspiracy theorists, or anyone who ever supported a former U.S. President in any way, shape, or bloated form.

Dictates for the people:

  1. Mind your business. This was an early motto for the Colonial U.S., but it holds. If what your neighbors are doing doesn’t affect you, allow them their joy. This doesn’t mean that they can hold loud outdoor concerts at three in the morning, of course. But if the household across the way seems to have more than the usual number of husbands/wives, for example, let them be.
  1. Offer help when it seems needed. Is your neighbor’s front yard looking a bit run down? Have you not seen your elderly neighbor on their regular rounds in a couple of days? Is another neighbor’s mailbox getting full and they never mentioned going on vacation? Nothing wrong with giving a knock on the door or sending a text if you know the number to see what’s up and offer assistance.
  2. Sometimes, your “freedom” does not outweigh the public good Although one of the requirement for immigration and continued residency is to be fully vaccinated for whatever is on the list, every so often something new will come along. Our inclination is to seal the borders until we know what we’re up against, quarantine anyone who’s been off-island within a certain time period, try to capture the virus or pathogen in the wild for study if we can, and require general safety protocols, like masks, social distancing, and no indoor businesses except for buying essentials with limited customers allowed.
  3. Enjoy life. That is an order from your dictator. Don’t spend all your waking hours working, but make sure you have pets, family and/or a close circle of friends.

Theatre Thursday: Fact and fiction

About six hundred and nine years ago, Henry V was crowned king of England. You probably know him as that king from the movie with Kenneth Branagh, or the BBC series aired under the title The Hollow Crown.

Either way, you know him because of Shakespeare. He was the king who grew up in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Yes, that’s a set of four plays and since it was his second, Shakespeare sort of did the Star Wars thing first: he wrote eight plays on the subject of the English Civil war.

And, much like Lucas, he wrote the original tetralogy first, then went back and did the prequels. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V were written after but happened before Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.

Incidentally, Henry VI, Part 1, is famous for having Joan of Arc (aka Joan la Pucelle in the play) as one of the antagonists. Funny thing is, that name wasn’t slander on Shakespeare’s part. That’s what she preferred to call herself.

Meanwhile, Richard III, of course, is the Emperor Palpatine of the series, although we never did get a Richard IV, mainly because he never existed in history. Well, not officially. Richard III’s successor was Henry VII, and Shakespeare never wrote about him, either, although he did gush all over Henry VIII, mainly because he was the father of the Bard’s patron, Elizabeth I. CYA.

If you’ve ever seen the film My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant and staring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, then you’ve seen a modern retelling of the two parts of Henry IV.

Now when it comes to adapting true stories to any dramatic medium, you’re going to run into the issue of dramatic license. A documentary shouldn’t have this problem and shouldn’t play with the truth, although it happens. Sometimes, it can even prove fatal.

But when it comes to a dramatic retelling, it is often necessary to fudge things, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It’s not at all uncommon for several characters to be combined into a composite just to make for a cleaner plot. After all, is it that big of a difference if, say, King Flagbarp IX in real life was warned about a plot against him in November by his chamberlain Norgelglap, but the person who told him the assassin’s name in February was his chambermaid Hegrezelda?

Maybe, maybe not, but depending on what part either of those characters plays in the rest of the story, as well as the writer’s angle, they may both be combined as Norgelglap or as Hegrezelda, or become a third, completely fictionalized character, Vlanostorf.

Time frames can also change, and a lot of this lands right back in Aristotle’s lap. He created the rules of drama long before hacks like the late Syd Field tried (and failed), and Ari put it succinctly. Every dramatic work has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and should have unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.

A summary of the last three is this, although remember that Aristotle was writing about the stage. For film and video, your mileage will vary slightly.

The story takes place in one particular location, although that location can be a bit broad. It can be the king’s castle, or it can be the protagonist’s country.

It should take place over a fairly short period of time. Aristotle liked to keep it to a day, but there’s leeway, and we’ve certainly seen works that have taken place over an entire lifetime — although that is certainly a form of both unity of time and unity of place, if you consider the protagonist to be the location as well.

Unity of action is a little abstract, but in a nutshell it’s this: Your plot is about one thing. There’s a single line that goes from A to Z: What your protagonist wants, and how they get it.

Now, my own twist on the beginning, middle, and end thing is that this is a three act structure that gives us twenty-seven units. (Aristotle was big on 5 acts, which Shakespeare used, but that’s long since fallen out of fashion.)

Anyway, to me, we have Act I, II, and III. Beginning, middle, and end. But each of those has its own beginning, middle and end. So now we’re up to nine: I: BME; II: BME; III: BME.

Guess what? Each of those subunits also has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not going to break that one down further than this. The beginning of the beginning, Act I: B, has its own BME, repeat eight more times.

The end result is 3 x 3 x 3, or twenty-seven.

And that’s my entire secret to structure. You’re welcome.

But because of these little constraints, and because history is messy, it’s necessary to switch things up to turn a true story into a “based on true events” work. Real life doesn’t necessarily have neat beginnings, middles, and endings. It also doesn’t necessarily take place in one spot, or in a short period of time.

So it becomes the artist’s job to tell that story in a way that is as true to reality as possible without being married to the facts.

Although it is also possible to go right off the rails with it, and this is one of the reasons I totally soured on Quentin Tarantino films. It’s one thing to fudge facts a little bit, but when he totally rewrites history in Inglorious Basterds, ignores historical reality in Django Unchained, and then curb stomps reality and pisses on its corpse in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I’m done.

Inglorious Misspelling is a particularly egregious example because the industry does a great disservice in selling false history to young people who unfortunately, aren’t getting the best educations right now.

Anecdotal moment: A few years back, an Oscar-winning friend of mine had a play produced that told the story of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. They were a company composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans during WW II, and joining the company was the alternative given to going to an internment camp.

Of course, being racists, the U.S. government couldn’t send them to the Pacific Theatre to fight, so they sent them to Europe, and a lot of the play takes place in Italy, where the regiment was stationed. And, at intermission, my playwright friend heard two 20-something audience members talking to each other. One of them asked, “What was the U.S. even doing in Italy in World War II?” and the other just shrugged and said, “Dunno.”

So, yeah. If you’re going to go so far as to claim that Hitler was killed in a burning movie theater before the end of the war, just stop right there before you shoot a frame. Likewise with claiming that the Manson murders never happened because a couple of yahoos ran into the killers first.

Yeah, Quentin, you were old, you were there, you remember. Don’t stuff younger heads with shit.

But I do digress.

In Shakespeare’s case, he was pretty accurate in Henry V, although in both parts of Henry IV, he created a character who was both one of his most memorable and one of his more fictional: Sir John Falstaff. In fact, the character was so popular that, at the Queen’s command, Shakespeare gave him his own spinoff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hm. Shades of Solo in the Star Wars universe?

Falstaff never existed in real life, but was used as a way to tell the story of the young and immature Henry (not yet V) of Monmouth, aka Prince Hal.

Where Shakespeare may have played more fast and loose was in Richard III. In fact, the Bard vilified him when it wasn’t really deserved. Why? Simple. He was kissing up to Elizabeth I. She was a Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII who, as mentioned previously, was the son of Henry VII, the king who took over when Richard III lost the war of the roses.

The other time that Shakespeare didn’t treat a king so well in a play? King John — which I personally take umbrage to, because I’m directly descended from him. No, really. But the idea when Willie Shakes did that was to draw a direct contrast to how Good Queen Bess did so much better in dealing with Papal interference. (TL;DR: He said, “Okay,” she said, “Eff off.”)

Since most of my stage plays have been based on true stories, I’ve experienced this directly many times, although one of the more interesting came with the production of my play Bill & Joan, because I actually accidentally got something right.

When I first wrote the play, the names of the cops in Mexico who interrogated him were not included in the official biography, so I made up two fictional characters, Enrique and Tito. And so they stayed like that right into pre-production in 2013.

Lo and behold, a new version of the biography of Burroughs I had originally used for research came out, and I discovered two amazing things.

First… I’d always known that Burroughs’ birthday was the day before mine, but I suddenly found out that his doomed wife actually shared my birthday. And the show happened to run during both dates.

Second… the names of the cops who interrogated him were finally included, and one of them was named… Tito.

Of course, I also compressed time, moved shit around, made up more than a few characters, and so forth. But the ultimate goal was to tell the truth of the story, which was: Troubled couple who probably shouldn’t have ever gotten together deals with their issues in the most violent and tragic way possible, and one of them goes on to become famous. The other one dies.

So yes, if you’re writing fiction it can be necessary to make stuff up, but the fine line is to not make too much stuff up. A little nip or tuck here and there is fine. But, outright lies? Nah. Let’s not do that.

Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

I think we’ve heard enough fake cries of “fake news” over things that are true, but here are five times in the past that people just made things up and pawned them off as real.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later, especially during COVID. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

Uncommon language

Oscar Wilde was probably right. The U.S. and UK have everything in common nowadays except, of course, language.

As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Canterville Ghost, “Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” (This was an observation by the narrator, by the way, concerning an American woman who has been in England so long that she has gone native, so to speak.)

Wilde wrote his tale 133 years ago, and you might think that in all that time, the interconnectedness of the world, the exchange of media and culture, and the common language would have brought British and English (okay, sigh, American English, if you insist) closer together, but you’d be wrong.

Okay, so the big divide happened a couple of centuries ago, when British dictionary guy Samuel Johnson decided to go all fancy and pretentious and base spellings on where words came from, so that British English wound up with ridiculous things like flavour, colour, tyre, kerb, programme, and so on.

Meanwhile, a couple of generations later, Noah Webster got busy with his real English dictionary, and he preferred simplified spellings — flavor, color, tire, curb, program, etc.

But the differences go beyond that, and it comes down to word usage, with some of the differences being unfortunate. For example, it might be quite common in Britain to ask a co-worker or schoolmate, “Can I borrow a rubber?” or “Did you wear your rubbers today?”

In America, not so much. Instead, we’d ask, “Can I borrow an eraser?” or “Did you wear your galoshes today?”

Bit of a difference, eh?

If you’re American and you hear “cooker,” what do you think? Most likely, it’s some large, specialized device, frequently found in a backyard, and used to smoke or cure meat, and not something that everyone has. In Britain, there’s probably one in every kitchen, and you cook on it because it’s a stove.

Also note that stove, oven, and range are not the same thing. A stove is generally just the cooktop, meaning the bit with the burners (also known as a hob in the UK); an oven is the enclosed box that cooks stuff without open flame; a range is the combination of both — presumably because it covers the full range of options.

Meanwhile, in America, you’d assume that a gummy band is some sort of German candy that’s maybe in the shape of One Direction or some other group. In the UK, you’d wrap it around your newspaper, or use it to tie off a plastic bag.

Of course, our rubber bands probably sound like something made out of erasers to them.

One of my favorite weird British expressions is “dummy.” It has nothing to do with ventriloquists and everything to do with babies. In America, it’s called a pacifier. There’s  a wonderful British expression, “spit the dummy,” which specifically means for an adult to react in an overblown, angry, and infantile manner to a situation.

Actually, when it comes to babies, this is where there are a lot of differences in standard terminology between the two variations of English. For example, what’s called a diaper in America is called a nappy in Britain, while nappy in America happens to be a very derogatory adjective used to describe black people’s hair in a negative way. The two words have very different derivations, with the diaper version not appearing until 1927, and being slang for “napkin,” presumably because folding a diaper around a baby’s ass is as complicated as folding a napkin for a formal dinner.

The word diaper, by the way, goes back to the 14th century, and refers to a very expensive cloth. To hear parents tell it, diapers of either the cloth or disposable variety are still expensive. Damn. Just like feminine hygiene products and razors, that shit should be heavily subsidized and practically free.

Two more that are also odd because the British words exist in American but mean something completely different: cot and flannel. In America, a cot is a light, simple, and portable bed, quite often consisting of a foldable frame, often in metal, that locks into place to keep a piece of canvas taut enough to support a sleeping adult. Americans would expect to see cots in summer camps, military barracks, field hospitals, and emergency evacuation shelters.

In Britain, a cot is what a baby sleeps in — an enclosed bed designed for infants too young to not be trusted to roll out of a regular bed. In America, that’s called a crib. Oddly enough, in Britain crib can refer to what Americans would call a crèche (we cribbed that from French, see what I did there?) which is the traditional nativity scene commonly set up around the holidays.

As for flannel, in America it’s most associated mostly with either a generally plaid shirt worn by lumberjacks or lesbians, or a gray material that was commonly used to make suits in a bygone era — and, slight detour, having only known the expression because I’m a film nerd, looking up its origin gave me an “oh, wow” moment. Definitely check out the book that the movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was based on, because it continues to speak to now even though it came out in the 1950s and its protagonist would have been the parent of a Boomer.

But I do digress. The American flannel is a British washcloth.

One that’s a really big difference is pram. In America, that sounds like a mispronunciation of an annual high school tradition, the prom. Ironically, Britain, proms are what the BBC does every year to introduce their new programs. In the U.S., those events are called upfronts. The British word is short for promotionals.

The British pram is the American stroller (or baby carriage if you’re fancy), and it’s basically short for the word perambulator.

One of the more unfortunate British words that really doesn’t cross the pond well is the colloquial term for a cigarette, although as that filthy habit dies out, maybe the word will, too. That word, of course, is the other F-word: fag. “Bum me a fag, mate,” is an innocuous request to borrow a smoke over there. Here, in America, not so much.

And don’t get me started on the weirdness of the word “bom” meaning to loan in this context when it means “arese” in others, and winds up next to the word “fag.” It’s almost like they intended it.

But note how both slang terms — fag and smoke — use synecdoche, with a part standing in for the whole. Now, to Americans it’s obvious that “smoke” refers to what comes from a cigarette. Another slang term that uses the same literary device is “butt.” So how does “fag” come to be a partial stand-in for a whole cigarette?

Well, simple, but you have to go back to an older expression and a meaning that predated its derogatory and homophobic intention. The expression was originally fag-end, and this referred to any sort of loose bit or remaining piece still hanging around.

While no one is definite on it, the conjecture is that it could have referred to the loose bits of tobacco sticking out of the end of a hand-rolled cigarette. Alternatively, it could refer to the part left over when most of the cigarette has been smoked, and this is what would have been bummed, so the query would literally mean something like, “Hey, can I have the rest of that?”

Or not. And probably the most interesting thing about these linguistic differences is that context is everything, and an uninitiated American who can get over the accents (apparently, that’s hard for a lot of Yanks to do) will pick up on the meaning of these strange words, and it works vice versa.

Still, I think that Wilde’s observation was as spot-on over a century ago as it is now. The U.S. and the British Common wealth have everything in common… except for the language.

Noah Webster explains it all

All about the guy who wrote the arguably better English Dictionary — the American one.

Noah Webster was 70 when he copyrighted his Dictionary of the American Language in 1828. This in itself is a meta-event because he was one of the people most instrumental in reforming American copyright law in order to extend its terms, extending coverage from 14 to 28 years, with an option to extend another 14 to a total of 42 years.

The dictionary was originally released in two volumes for the price of $20, which may seem cheap until you adjust for inflation: $471. This meant that, effectively, it was probably only purchased by institutions like libraries and schools. A price cut to $15 ($353) did improve sales and the first edition run of 2,500 copies sold out by 1836.

It’s kind of ironic, really, that the price of a good hardcover version of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is actually the same or less than $15 in absolute dollar amount and would have cost about 64 cents back in the 1820s.

Webster’s original dictionary had 70,000 entries, but how did they happen? Well, not quickly. It took him 22 years and along the way he learned 26 languages in order to accurately track word origins.

His main goal was to define and create a uniquely American version of English, avoiding the classism and mutually unintelligible local dialects of England, and he really started the job not long after American independence.

He also sought to simplify spelling to avoid foreign influences on orthography, which Samuel Johnson didn’t. This is why one of the most notable differences between British and American English shows up in word pairs like centre/center, flavour/flavor, and programme/program.

By the way, Johnson lost more than he won. For example, he wanted to spell words like “public” as “publick,” and extended his “ou” fetish to words like “horrour.”

In modern times, dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, who look for usages of words in the wild and, once they become widespread enough to be commonly known, go through the process of defining and adding them.

Note that unlike Spain or France, the U.S. does not have a single, national governing body that determines the rules of the language or the words in it.

The dictionary is adding words all of the time. Sometimes, new words wind up there fairly quickly. In other cases, it takes a relatively long time. Here are some additions from April and September 2019, and a general idea of how long they were in the wild before they became “official.”

Here are a dozen recent additions.

  1. Bechdel test: Coined by Alison Bechdel in 2007, this was her way of assessing the representation of women in fiction. The question in the test is this: “Does this work feature two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?” Sometimes, the additional requirement of both female characters being named is included.
  1. Bottle episode: This is one of my personal favorites mainly because it relates to my field. A “bottle episode” is an episode of a TV series that takes place mostly in one location, and with only a few characters, and it exists entirely to save money. Often, showrunners will toss in a bottle episode when they know they want to shoot the moon on the budget of their season finale. It can actually make for compelling television, though. Although a number of examples on that list predate it, the term was first used in 2003.
  1. Deep state: This one is older than you’d think, since it’s only recently shown up in the demented ravings of certain politicians. The idea is that it’s a hidden cabal of unelected government officials working behind the scenes to influence government policy in an extra-legal way. The joke is that this system already exists in the open, and it’s called lobbying. The current usage of “deep state,” despite perceptions, goes back much further than 2016. It originated in 2000.
  1. Escape room: I think most people know what these are — elaborate interactive theatrical puzzles in which a group of people gets a certain amount of time to solve a mystery and get out. This is also one of the faster additions to the dictionary. Unlike other words here that date back twenty or more years, the first use of escape room was in 2012.
  1. Gender nonconforming: Added along with top surgery and bottom surgery, the first term originated in 1991, and the other two go back to 1992 and 1994 Gender nonconforming refers to someone who exhibits behavioral, psychological, or cultural traits not usually associated with their biological sex. The two surgeries refer to the procedures used in gender confirmation surgery to respectively make the breasts and upper body or genitals and lower body match the person’s true gender.
  1. Gig economy: This is the modern system of serfdom that forces people to freelance at severely depressed wages and without benefits in order for incredibly well-off companies to save money by not actually providing living wages and things like health insurance, paid time off, and pensions. Coined in 2009, it has very quickly proven to be about the worst possible invention of late-stage capitalism.
  1. Page view: This is a web statistic, as in how many times a specific web page has been viewed by visitors. Considering that the concept of counting visits to a page goes back to the internet dark ages of the mid-90s, when every Geocities page had a hit counter, this concept took forever to finally make it into the dictionary.
  1. Purple: A new definition for the color, extended to refer to states that are neither predominantly Democratic (blue) nor Republican (red). The idea of color-coding political parties goes back to 1976, but the specifics of red and blue weren’t nailed down until the election of 2000.
  1. Qubit: This is the quantum computing equivalent of digital computing’s bit, which is the most basic unit of information. The difference is that a qubit doesn’t store a single digit. It contains all of the possible states of a particle until its collapse to a single value. It was also coined over 25 years ago, in 1994.
  1. Rhotic: This one is surprising, considering that it comes from the world of linguistics, which would seem to be a natural field for harvesting dictionary words. And yet, it took 51 years for it to be added. The term was first used in 1968, and refers to whether or not the consonant “r” is pronounced in words, especially before other consonants (cart, park) or at the end of words (car, jar.)
  1. They: All right, the word itself goes way, way back in English history, arising in the 13th century as the third person plural pronoun. What became official in 2019, though — and which you can now use to shut up pedantic purists — is that the pronoun “they” is now accepted as a gender-neutral singular as applied to a nonbinary person.
  1. Vacay: The term is a very straightforward shortening of the word “vacation.” Surprisingly, it took nearly thirty years to make it into the dictionary, having been first attested to in 1991.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the dictionary. What are some of your favorite words that may or may not have been added? Let us know in the comments!

Sunday Nibble #94: Me encantó Encanto

Another amazing movie from Disney: Encanto knocks it out of the park.

Every so often, a movie comes along that has a message so moving and engaging, combined with strong characters we all feel for, that by the time the third act starts, you’ve already dissolved in tears of empathy, compassion and, ultimately, joy that don’t end until the closing credits.

Encanto is one of those films. Yeah, I was crying my face off from a particular moment near the end and couldn’t stop. You will, too, if you have a heart.

I knew that it was coming to Disney+ eventually but took my time before I watched it because I was hoping that they’d do what they did with Coco and do a Spanish dubbed version of the film, but that’s apparently not happening. (They did do a dub for the foreign market, but it didn’t screen here like Coco did.)

Oh — and it does feel like Encanto could be one of a trilogy of films that started with Coco. Here’s to a third.

Both films deal with familias latinas — Coco in Mexico and Encanto in Colombia. Both stories concern grandmothers who are trying to control their families, either openly or not, although Coco covers a few more generations than Encanto; five generations in the former and three generations in the latter.

So in Coco, it’s our lead character’s great-great grandmother who suffers a loss that leads to everything else, while in Encanto, it’s the lead’s grandmother. This makes sense, though, because Coco’s back story plausibly begins in the 1930s or and while Encanto isn’t set in a specific year, we do know that the miracle that kicked things off for the family Madrigal happened fifty years ago.

Honestly, given Colombia’s history of conflict, it could have been any time in the 20th century, but given some modern references by the children in the film that may or may not just be Easter Eggs for adults, I’m going to assume that it takes place now, with the clock starting in the 1970s. The people in the encanto seem to be from another time because they’re been cut off from the outside world.

The era of the 1970s is not at all insignificant in Central and South American history, of course, and while it’s never clearly stated or hinted at until the end, our lead family, the Madrigals, got caught up in the endless guerrilla fighting alternately backed by the U.S. or USSR, depending on whether the rebels were capitalists or commies.

In the case of Colombia, the U.S. was backing the government, although the USSR may not have been that directly involved because the whole thing had started as a civil war.

Some grownups may carry this baggage into the film while kids won’t, of course, but they will get the idea of a refugee family in danger that is given sanctuary thanks to a miracle (the milagro) that will create a Valley surrounded by tall mountains that keeps away whatever unpleasantness is going on outside.

This is the Madrigal family’s personal Encanto, and it soon becomes clear that their house, known as Casita, is the center of the miracle. Every member of the family, starting with Abuela’s three children, goes through a ceremony in turn where they are taken to one of the upstairs doors. Once the kid takes hold of the doorknob, they gain a special power and the room beyond that now-glowing door becomes their sanctuary — some of which (as one character inadvertently references Doctor Who) are bigger on the inside.

Maribel’s immediate ancestors include mother Julieta, who has the power to heal people with her cooking; aunt Pepa who is overly emotional and can control the weather when it’s not controlling her; and uncle Bruno who… well, we don’t talk about Bruno.

Antagonist Maribel’s two oldest sisters, Isabela and Luísa, have the powers of being pretty while creating roses everywhere and super-strength, respectively, and Luísa is an amazing bit of inclusion and representation.

The character, as animated, has very muscular arms, which is in keeping with her miracle power that allows her to casually carry five donkeys at once, juggle boulders, and even lift buildings. Apparently, Disney didn’t want her to be so muscular but the animators refused to make changes.

Disney relented when Luísa merch began flying off the shelves because people were drawn to the character as, well, originally drawn. In fact, she quickly outsold both Isabela and Dolores merchandise, which were intended as the “pretty princess” options.

Apparently, girls nowadays don’t want the pretty princess. They want the strong princess, and that message is coming through loud and clear.

Another very subtle bit of representation in the film is in the character of Camilo Madrigal, our lead Maribel’s cousin, who is also fifteen. As his parents say, “He doesn’t know who he is yet,” and his special power is the ability to shapeshift — and it’s not limited by gender.

It’s actually not limited by anything (except that he can only change into human form), and so he jumps around between male and female, young and old, and so on. He’s the theatre kid of the family, which is also a bit more code. Camilo’s magical power, really, is being totally non-binary.

Luísa and Camilo are two of the more engaging and interesting characters in the film. The third is ostensibly the villain, the not-talked about Tío Bruno, one of Abuela Alma’s triplets — but there is a lot more to his character than meets the eye, and he is brilliantly brought to life by the animators and especially his voice actor, the always amazing John Leguizamo.

The less said about Bruno is actually the better, because he is a character worth being slowly discovered. One thing I will say about him, though — he is another example of representation and is pretty much coded as the stereotypical gay uncle. Look at the clues: Only boy with two sisters, never married, withdrew and hid his magical gift from the family when it was rejected by them, lived in basically a closet for years while still trying to keep the family together, and really needed to be accepted by his mother.

Reading him like this really adds depth to the character. It also helps make sense of everyone else depicting him as some kind of scary green-eyed monster (especially Camilo, who should know better), which is not at all like an entire generation of gay uncles experienced.

The songs throughout are amazing, but that’s because Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the eight numbers in the film, with Germain Franco, who also scored Coco, providing the non-singing soundtrack. While We Don’t Talk About Bruno ensemble staging has become the runaway hit from the show, sister Luísa’s solo number Surface Pressure, which she performs while also carrying out her literal heavy-lifting duties for the townsfolk, really exposes her character.

So let’s look at every possible way that Encanto is not a big Hollywood movie: Almost entirely latine voice cast, except for white guy Alan Tudyk, who plays a clueless tucán: check. Main cast are all women, with the men mostly in the supporting roles: check. Set entirely in a foreign country most Americans are not familiar with: check. Heavily into magical realism, abetted by musical and artistic styles from the region: double check.

In other words, it’s not a film about white guys in armor saving the world, and it’s all the better for that. It has something to inspire and encourage kids who might see themselves as different or left out in their families, and even has lots of reminders and encouragement for adults who may once have been those kids.

The design of everything is jaw-droppingly amazing, with the use of color, lighting, and character design feeding into every part of the narrative. The animated characters in particular are incredible. They are so well delineated that we know who each one of them is at a glance, but none of them are shallow stereotypes, either.

This is a great family night film, especially if your family doesn’t always get along, and I dare you all to not have the last act go by without it turning into a silently, sniffly cuddle-fest on the couch, during which time everyone will have put their devices down.

There will be hugging it out when the lights come up.

Even if you’re just streaming it alone, this film will talk to you and then sing to you, and it’s very much worth the time to watch it. Hell, watch it a few times.

If you’re a music nerd and have seen the film or don’t mind spoiler-ish material, check out the video below. It’s a deep-dive into the song We Don’t Talk About Bruno, which explains how much is going on not only in what we experience on the surface, but in the musical structure behind it.

Saturday Morning Post 93: Six-Pack Mary (Part 3)

The third and final installment of “Six-Pack Mary,” a short story from 24 Exposures.

We continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

Afterwards, Myron played the guilty angle, telling Doug, “Don’t tell my wife, okay? Don’t tell anyone.” Doug agreed that it would be their little secret and Myron told him it was pretty enjoyable, even if it was… weird.

“But not that weird, right?” Doug said as he hunted for his underwear, pulled them on.

“I don’t know.” Myron put on his best puzzled look. Doug got dressed, shook Myron’s hand and headed out for the front door. Myron followed, let Doug out. “See you Monday,” Doug said.

“Yeah, Monday,” Myron told him before he closed the door, trying to look baffled. As soon as he’d shut the door, he looked to the heavens, pumped a fist in triumph and let out a quiet but heartfelt, “Yes!”

* * *

Doug was a domino. Myron knew full well that he wouldn’t keep things completely secret, but that was all for the better. The guys started approaching him differently, spending more time talking to him, seeming a little more relaxed around him. He knew they knew he was a Six-Pack Mary, queer on beer, and so he upped the ante by acting even straighter, referring to his wife as frequently as possible. By this point, all it took was a whispered comment on late Friday afternoon. “My wife’s out of town, I’m bored.” Sure enough, that would lure one or another of them over and by now, at least in the sack, Myron was venturing the vague comment, “I don’t know, maybe I’m bisexual or something.” He’d even let Doug try to fuck him, but stopped him almost immediately even though Myron wanted it. That was a Big Event to be worked up to, dangled like a beautiful carrot at the end of a very long stick.

Within six weeks, he’d had all of them. All of them except Max. But Joyce hadn’t had him, either. Joyce was mousy, but not unattractive. She was around Myron’s age, but that kind of thing didn’t seem to matter as much to straight boys. Of course it didn’t. Unlike gay men, well, young gay men, it was difficult for straight guys to get laid. It was the law of supply and demand, and so even women in their late thirties still had the supply and got the demand.

Truth to tell, Myron couldn’t get Max out of his head, especially not after that night at the theatre. The kid was hung like an ox and he did have a swimmer’s build, and he seemed so unselfconscious, strutting around naked for a good fifteen minutes. Too bad about Christine. No one ever figured out why she freaked and ran, and then she sailed her car off Mulholland Drive the next morning. It was bizarre, and her accident was the topic of conversation on Monday, putting a damper on much discussion of Max’s performance, except for general comments that he was a very good actor.

That had been months ago, and Myron was getting it at least twice a week, but he still wasn’t happy, because whom he wanted to get and who he was getting were two different things. He was actually getting bored with Chris and Billy and the other Chris and Cary and Doug, even though Billy gave the best head he’d ever had and Doug had a perfect ass and both Chris’s were little hellcats in the sack and Cary was so sweet and gentle that Myron sometimes let him sleep in his arms until morning. He contemplated giving up the whole straight routine. Why not? The hard part was the conquest. Get there once, getting there again was easy.

Except, he couldn’t get there, not even once, with Max. There were rumors that Max had a girlfriend now, even though no one had met her. But he said he was dating some actress, a girl he’d met at an audition for Equus. He didn’t get the part, but he got her and stopped showing up at the random after-hours events. And out of all the boys, he was the one who stopped by Myron’s desk to chat the least often.

Then, one Friday afternoon, Max was excitedly telling everyone he’d just gotten cast in the lead of a new play at some theatre in the Valley, opening in six weeks. He was practically floating as he told Myron the news.

“You get naked in this one?” Myron asked.

“Nah,” Max said. “This time, I’m the only one who doesn’t.” And he walked away, Myron superimposing the vivid memory on that jean-clad ass. Out of all of them, Max was the hottest, and he just kept getting hotter, the little fucker.

And it was a Tuesday, four weeks later, when Max stopped at Myron’s desk, looking concerned. Myron asked him what was wrong.

“Oh, this damn play,” Max said. “I’m having a hell of a time memorizing all the lines, and my girlfriend is in a show of her own right now, so she doesn’t have time to help.”

“You need somebody to help you learn?” Myron asked, hoping he didn’t sound too eager.

“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that, Ron. It’s a huge part.”

It sure as hell was, Myron thought to himself. Then, “No problem. Hey, my wife is out of town, what else have I got to do?”

“Is she ever in town?” Max asked.

“Not often enough,” Myron said.

“Yeah, I hear you,” Max said. “My girlfriend is always at rehearsal, or doing a show, I hardly see her that much anymore. Hey, I don’t have rehearsal tonight, you want to come over after work, run lines?”

Myron almost shouted, “Fuck, yeah,” but instead uttered a subdued “Sure.” Max nodded, wrote down the address, an apartment in the Little Moscow section of West Hollywood. “See you around six?” Max asked, then rolled his cart away as Myron nodded.

* * *

Myron was waiting on the landing as Max came up the steps, grocery bag in his arms. He handed it to Myron as he pulled out his keys, apologized for being late. The bag held two six-packs and a bag of chips.

The apartment was a studio, bedroom separated from the living room by a low wall. The only attempt at decor was a large poster of a Vargas girl, taped to the wall above the bed. Max gestured to the kitchen, which was barely big enough for a fridge, stove and counter. “You can put that there, help yourself. I’m going to change.”

Myron nodded, set down the bag and pulled out a beer, then went to the sofa and sat. It faced the bed, and Max had already taken off his dress shirt and T-shirt, hung them up. With his back to Myron, he took off his jeans, carefully folded them and put them on a hanger.

“So, I’m playing this kid who gets molested by a priest,” he explained as he casually took off his underwear, tossed them into a laundry basket, then put on a pair of gym shorts and a tank top. “Well, not exactly molested, more like seduced.” He turned around, walked to the sofa, grabbing a beer and the chips on the way. “And the big scene, like I told you, damn is it hard. Monologue, monologue, monologue, one after another.”

He picked up a manuscript, handed it to Myron open to a page. “So you must be playing Jimmy?” Myron asked.

“And you’re Father Ralph,” Max explained as he sat down.

“Do I just start reading?” Myron asked.

“Yeah, let me know if I get any lines wrong.”

“Uh… okay.” Myron was nervous, more over having to attempt to act than anything else. Max had such a natural way about him that it was hard to be nervous. Myron read.

“‘I’ve noticed you’re not like the other boys, Jimmy,’” and Myron thought to himself, “That’s for sure.”

Max recited from memory, “Yeah, I hate sports, I like opera and I’m not an asshole — “

“‘Total asshole.’”

“Right, sorry. ‘I like opera and I’m not a total asshole.’ Damn. ‘Total asshole…’ Got it. You want to start that again?”

“‘I’ve noticed you’re not like the other boys, Jimmy.’”

“‘Yeah, I hate sports, I like opera and I’m not a total asshole. What’s your point, father?’”

“‘Is there anything you want to tell me, son?’”

And the scene progressed, and it was one monologue after another. Even though Myron was no theatre critic, he didn’t think it was particularly well-written, but Max was amazing despite the clunkiness of the lines. And he knew most of them, only stumbling once or twice, his eyes focused right on Myron’s as he said them. Those incredible green eyes, drilling to Myron’s soul.

“‘There are many reasons I became a priest,’” Myron read some time later. “‘My family expected it of me, for one thing. And I wanted to do it, preach God’s word and minister to people who are… troubled. You’re troubled, aren’t you, son?’”

There was a long pause in the script, which Max took, leaning toward Myron. “‘Isn’t everyone?’” he replied as Jimmy.

“‘But troubled in a particular way,’” Myron went on. “‘You don’t have to lie to me, Jimmy. I know exactly what’s in your heart.’”

“‘Yeah, father? What’s that?’”

Myron looked at the script, at the stage direction. “Father Ralph suddenly grabs Jimmy’s neck, forces a kiss on him.” He stared at the words, looked up at Max, went, “Uh…”

“Yeah, that part. I’ve got no problem with it, because it’s, well, it’s what the character does, it’s just acting, part of the game. Well, okay, he gets it done to him, except I’ve never done that on stage before. We haven’t rehearsed this scene yet. I think the director is waiting until I’m more comfortable with the actor playing Father Ralph…”

“Oh,” Myron said. Max got up, brought them each another beer — their third — sat down again, closer this time.

“You did a good job reading, by the way,” he said as he unscrewed the top, took a chug.

“Thanks,” Myron said, doing the same. “You’re a very good actor. Especially in that last play, you did an amazing job.”

“Thanks. Hey, was everything… you know, okay in that play?”

“It was a little long, but — “

“I mean me. You know, when I was… that whole monologue at the top of act two. I was really worried about doing that.”

“Being naked, you mean?”

“Yeah. But my voice coach told me that no one is really an actor until they’ve been naked on stage, so I figured I’d get it out of the way. I guess, I’m just wondering, nothing looked funny, you know, physically, did it?”

“No, everything looked… fine. I guess.”

Max nodded, looked away nervously. “Look, um, I don’t know how to ask this, but it’s really important, for this show, I mean…” He paused, took a sip of beer, staring at the floor. “We’ve known each other a while now, and I feel really… comfortable with you. Would it be too much to ask…?”

Myron stared at him, heart racing. “Wh-what do you mean?” he said, voice almost cracking.

“It’s really weird kissing a strange guy but I want the moment to be real, so would you mind rehearsing that part with me?” He looked back at Myron, face turned coyly upward, mouth curled in an uncertain half-frown.

“You mean… kiss you?”

“It’s just a play, but I’d feel better getting used to it with someone I trust, you know?”

Myron hoped the raging hard-on in his pants wasn’t too obvious. He tried to play it cool, looked at the script, shaking his head, taking his time. “Well, I’m no actor. It’s kind of…”

“Weird, huh? Okay, bad idea I guess. Sorry I — “

“Hey, if it’ll help you do your job, I guess…”

“You’re sure?”

“I… what the hell.”

Max smiled. “Thanks. Take it from your last line, then.”

Myron inhaled, nodded, then looked at the script. “‘But troubled in a particular way,’” he read. “‘You don’t have to lie to me, Jimmy. I know exactly what’s in your heart.’”

“‘Yeah, father? What’s that?’” Max responded as Jimmy, leaning close to Myron. And then Myron leaned forward, very slowly, brought his lips to Max’s and in an instant they were all over each other, tongues slithering in sync, hands pulling them tighter together, reaching under clothes, Max practically on top of Myron now. They went at it for a good four or five minutes, and then Max gently pulled away, grinned, looked at the floor.

“You know,” he said, “In the play… I mean, not on stage or anything, but… Jimmy and the priest do it, and, I’m kind of a method actor.”

“And it’s a good method,” Myron said, standing and taking Max by the hand. As they walked to the bed, the script fell to the floor, flopping open on the way. Myron noticed that the rest of the pages were blank, but didn’t say anything. He just smiled as they fell on the bed and continued the scene. As Max pulled off his shirt and lay down next to him, Myron couldn’t help but ask.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, do you?”

“And you don’t have a wife,” Max smiled. “But let’s just let that be our little secret, shall we?”

Myron laughed, then went in for another kiss and felt himself passing out of Chapel Perilous and grasping at last the Holy Grail as the curtain went down on his long performance and he returned, finally, to his real life.

* * *

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