No, heterographs are not charts about straight people. They are words that sound the same but which are spelled differently and mean different things. Here are six of them that tend to confuse people, and ways to remember which is which.


Of course, whether these are pronounced the same or not depends a lot on where you’re from. To me, the first has a very short “s” sound where the C is, and somewhat of a “z” where the S is in the second, but your mileage may vary. The distinction between the two is that the C version is a noun while the S version is a verb. You give advice, or you advise someone.

The way to remember the difference is this. You can give a piece of advice, and both words have a C in them. Meanwhile, what the U.S. Senate does for the President is Advise and Consent, in which case the “c” is not in the first word. Note also that this error is so common that if you google “advise and consent,” the first few results will actually refer to “advice and consent,” which is just wrong.


This was one that daunted me for years as well, until a wonderful TV writer and producer I was once lucky enough to work for explained the difference to me. It’s another verb/noun issue, mostly, with exceptions. “Affect” is a verb. “That story affected me.” “Effect” is a noun. “That story had an effect on me.”

The way to remember which is which is really simple. Verbs are action words and “affect” starts with “A.” Nouns are entities, and “effect” starts with “E.”

Now for the two exceptions. The word “effective” is an adjective, but it’s still not a verb, and isn’t as easily mistaken. “That was an effective marketing strategy.” Meanwhile, the word “affect” is also a noun but in a technical sense, usually limited to psychology, in phrases like “The patient presented with a flat affect.” In this case, “affect” refers to the personality or persona they’re giving off, and “flat affect” means basically a blank slate. This is the only time it will ever be a noun, and you’ll probably never use it like this unless you’re a therapist or psychologist.


What’s in your wallet!

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Anyway, this one is simpler than you might think, because the latter word has only one meaning while the former has all the others. The Capitol is the actual building that a governmental body meets in, so all you need to remember is the “O,” as in “Office,” as in where the government does business. Otherwise, capital refers to the city that hosts the Capitol, or the style of letter versus lower case, or the amount of money available for investment to an entity, or, particularly if you’re British, to a very, very good thing. Smashing! Brilliant!


Wow. Another pair of words a TV producer taught me to distinguish, and this one is probably the simplest of all. Which one has two Esses in it? Simple. The one that stands for “something sweet.” Dessert is the sugary, tasty one. The one with only one Ess is full of… sand. Ta-da!


Another really easy one: If you emigrate, then you’re exiting your country and the preposition is from: “They emigrated from Italy in 1840.” If you immigrated, then you are going into, and the preposition is in, to, or into… “They immigrated to the United States in 1912.”


Another one that’s really old, but really simple: “The principal is not your pal.” Kind of ironic, because the “pal” version is the person who runs a school, but whom you all probably hated with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Meanwhile, principle refers to an idea, a tenet, or the amount owed on a loan short of interest.


Here’s another oft-confused trio that I’m going to have to make up the reminders for but, hey, it’s what I do and why y’all pay me the big bucks. (Snark. Rolls eyes and points to the “tip jar” link. Cough, cough.)

Rain is the water that falls from the sky and gets you wet.

Rein is the thing you hold to control a horse, although metaphorically “to rein in” means to calm down or control anything. E.G., to rein in your emotions. (In Spanish, “saltar las riendas” literally means to jump the reins, but metaphorically means to just lose it — so the opposite of reining things in.)

Reign is what a king or queen has or does.

So, how to remember? Here we go. When it rains and you don’t have an umbrella, you’re probably going to go “Ai! Sky water!”

And a horse is a farm animal, and when you think of farms think of Old MacDonald, who had a farm… E-I. E-I. Oh… (That’s the middle of “rein,” in case you missed it.)

Finally, if you ever met a king or queen, you’d probably say, “Gee…” and that’s the odd silent letter that makes their reign different than any of the others. If that isn’t enough and you happen to actually live in a kingie or queenie country, then just remember the term “Regnent,” which you might see on your coins all the time, or at least abbreviated in the form “E II R,” and there’s another reminder.

Which sound-alike words confuse you or what mnemonics do you have do unconfuse them? Share in the comments, and drop a tip if this was helpful.a

Friday Free-for-all #31: From movies to the apocalypse

This originally started as me answering one random question generated by a website, but the questions eventually got to the point where they didn’t really need long answers. So, instead, it’s turned into a slow-motion interview with multiple queries. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments — or ask your own!

What’s the strangest movie you have ever seen?

I’ve seen a lot of strange movies in my day, having been a film major and a film critic, but as of now, I have to say that the strangest is one called Holy Motors, a piece of neo-surrealism made in 2012 by Leos Carax, a French filmmaker.

It’s impossible to describe, but incredibly compelling and hypnotic. It’s one of those things I just ran across online having no idea what it was, but from the first moments it hooked me and took me on its wild ride. The film is anchored by the incredible performance of Denis Lavant, who, as the lead character in the film plays a ton of them.

Check out the trailer.

The premise seems to be that Lavant’s character, who may or may not be Mr. Oscar, is chauffeured around the streets of Paris at night in his limo by Céline (Édith Scob), his faithful driver of many years. She takes him to his various evening assignments, which involve taking on various roles, with elaborate make-up and costumes that he applies himself en route.

Some of the “performances” seem to be for a specific audience, while others are for no one in particular — or maybe for everyone. In a sense, he’s sort of a one-man flash mob, although it’s also clear that he’s not the only “actor” traveling through this demimonde.

Most of the stories take really weird twists, and yet Mr. Oscar goes on to his next assignment after each previous one, no matter how it ended.

In a lot of ways, it’s clearly an allegory for an actor’s life, who is shuttled from role to role at random, led by the whims of their directors, but the metaphor goes beyond that. And, if for no other reason, there’s this interlude that is well worth the price of admission. In the film, it comes out of nowhere and yet makes total sense.

It’s not your run-of-the-mill Hollywood film because, of course it isn’t. It’s French. And as one of my film mentors once brilliantly explained to me, here’s the difference between Hollywood movies and French cinema…

Both films start the same. Our hero is going to meet some old friends at a café to catch up after a long time over a leisurely lunch and drinks, but his taxi gets caught in traffic. Before he gets there, a terrorist bomb goes off right outside the café, killing all of his friends. The only reason he survives is because he was late.

Hollywood move: He spends the rest of the story hunting down and killing the people responsible.

French cinema: He spends the rest of the story wandering around Paris, disconsolate, trying to find meaning in something, anything, and feeling extreme guilt an angst on being the one who survived due to a mere accident of fate.

Et fin.

If you lived to be a hundred, would you rather keep your body at 30 or your mind at 30? (You only get one)

A lot of people would instinctively go for the “young mind” answer to this question, figuring that they’d like to avoid Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and so on. But if you understand biology, then there’s only one best answer: You keep your body at 30.

Why? Because it’s your body at 30, so it’s your brain at 30, along with your heart, and organs, and blood vessels. Ergo, you’re not likely to develop any of those other mental conditions. And if you keep that body all the way until you’re 100 and then start aging, then you’re going to keep on going until you’re pushing 200.

Also, if your body stays young, you’ll have the energy to act like you did at 30, so while you will mentally have all of the knowledge and memories you accumulated up to the point you started this adventure, you will also have the incentive to go out and keep learning.

So you kind of get the best of both worlds — the knowledge accumulated by your older self, but with the renewed kick-start of your younger self. And, come on. With that combination… watch out world.

Which apocalyptic dystopia do you think is most likely?

Hm. What is, “The one we’re living in right now, Alex?” A pandemic that some world powers refuse to acknowledge, the breakdown of democracy and the possible end of the United States as we’ve known it, weather conditions hitting new extremes on the regular leading to more frequent hurricanes and more devastating wildfires among other things, most of 2020 having become one long but necessary span of isolation, and on and on.

It kind of makes wanting to live to 100 in a 30-year-old body sort of a moot question — although if having that 30-year-old body would enable me to jump on the first colony flight to Mars, or even the Moon, I might just jump on the opportunity.

The spoiler paradox

This is another piece that has been amazingly popular since I first posted it in April 2019. I thought I’d bring it back around to the top, even though the suspense over Endgame and GoT is long over.

In the last few days, I’ve accidentally stumbled across big spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Now, I have friends who have posted online that if anyone spoils either or both of those things for them, then the person doing the spoiling is going to be unfriended.

Here’s the funny thing, though. According to a study done by Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at UCSD in California, although most people say that they hate spoilers, in reality, they actually enhance enjoyment, whether somebody was part of a particular fandom or not.

One of the most archetypal examples, perhaps, is the film Citizen Kane. I’m going to spoil it in the next sentence, so brace yourselves. “Rosebud” was his sled. (It was also William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for something else, but that’s beside the point.)

Oh noes! Movie ruined, right? Probably not. I’d had it spoiled for me long before my first viewing of the film in a high school movie history class, but it didn’t matter. Why not? For me, it was because I got to enjoy watching how the characters in the movie figured out what I already knew, as well as to enjoy all of those moments when they went down the wrong path thinking they were right.

A follow-up study by Christenfeld confirmed this even more. And think about it for a moment. Shakespeare is still being produced and adapted to this day, and so are a lot of other classic plays, but everybody knows how they end. Unless you’re maybe a middle-schooler who hasn’t read it yet, you know who dies in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. But it doesn’t matter. You know who Keyser Söze is, or what’s in the box in Se7en, or who Luke’s daddy is (or Kylo Ren’s parents, for that matter.)

That doesn’t make these things unwatchable. And here’s another way to look at it. How many times have you re-watched your favorite film or TV episode/series or play? Did knowing what was going to happen wreck that experience in any way at all?

The answer, obviously, is “No.”

Another example from my life is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — which we first read in middle school English class, but at least we were fortunate enough to not be subjected to it until the book had gone through name changes in order to purge the title of not one but two absolutely racist terms. I didn’t manage to see the movie version until I rented it long after I’d read the book, but knowing who did it and how did not detract from the experience in the least. In fact, it made it more interesting because I was in the know, as I mentioned above, and seeing everyone else being totally oblivious to it all just made me, as an audience member, feel smart. (We’ll ignore the fact that this version changed the original ending. Argh!)

So, coming back to the present… a funny thing happened before I got around to watching Avengers: Infinity War. I had the whole gotdang thing spoiled for me — who got snapped away, who got killed before that, everything. Did it spoil my enjoyment of the film? Not one bit. Now, full disclosure: I am not a Marvel Fanboy. In fact, I’ve only seen a few of the movies, and really couldn’t care less about the franchise. Likewise, I never got into the Game of Thrones TV series (although I love the books), although I can appreciate them as art, and I do not begrudge their fandom one bit. Hey, if you like either or both, great. Just don’t look down on me for not being into them, and don’t give me crap for being a Whovian and Star Wars nerd. Deal?

(I will judge you if you’re a fan of gore porn horror movies, though. Seriously — what is wrong with you that you call that shit entertainment? On the other hand, since Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, did I just go full hypocrite? Or did I just say, “Hey, gore porn creators, class it up a bit, okay?” I mean, GOT did definitely steal at least one big dinner bit from Titus. Thanks, Arya!)

Now, back to one, as they say in the film biz. I know how Endgame ends, what happens to whom, and yadda yadda. Does that infuriate me or make me not want to see it or unfriend people? Oh, hell noes. It makes me want to enjoy the experience of seeing how they make those things happen. Same thing with the most recent episode of GOT. Ah, so she did what to whom? Bring it, and show me how.

“Spoilers” don’t really spoil anything. We only try to pretend that they do. But, as Professor Christenfeld has demonstrated, they most likely actually enhance the experience.

So when I tell you that I was really surprised when Tony Stark killed Jon Snow, don’t hate me. Thank me. I’ve just helped you enjoy both of those franchises even more.

The Saturday Morning Post #12

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 12. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. This time around, the narrator was a co-worker of Tycho Ford, who was abruptly promoted to an executive-level position in the wake of the great quake that struck L.A. Well, Riverside, but it was big enough to do damage. But let him explain why Tycho’s promotion screwed things up.


Okay, I know that the universe is totally random and shit, but I couldn’t help but take the timing of this earthquake very personally, because it had totally blown my long thought-out plans out of the water and, on top of that, had cock-blocked me big time.

The afternoon it happened, in fact, was a mere couple of hours before I was going to ask the Big Question, and I was pretty sure that the answer was going to be, “Sure.” The question was, “You want to go out, and then maybe stay in?” And the target of that question was a hot and sexy coworker in my department who I got along with really well. But there was a complication to the question, because the coworker had met my girlfriend many times, and the coworker was also a dude.

He was a little younger than me, but very gay, very out, and so painfully beautiful that it was sometimes hard to look at his face. It was like staring into the Sun. He was also incredibly intelligent and funny as hell and, to be honest, he always smelled really nice. I’m not sure what shampoo or cologne he used, but he was like a walk past the toiletries department at one of our ever rarer department stores, but far enough away that it wasn’t like being punched in the throat by an atomizer.

He also knew that I was bisexual and, over the last few months, he had become my chosen sob sister as I bitched and whined about every single way my girlfriend, Mercedes, wasn’t keeping me happy. And yes, I appreciate the irony that her first name and his last name are both cars. His name is Tycho Ford. Sadly, my last name isn’t Dodge or something like that. It’s Baxter. Trivia: Baxter is the female form of the occupation baker. Yeah, English used to gender things that hard.

Speaking of that hard… that had been my perpetual state, at least mentally if not physically, whenever I’d been in Tycho’s presence, or even thought about him, for the two years he’s been here. Seriously. My number one masturbation fantasy since about July 2027 has been bending him over a sofa and slamming his ass while using his shoulders for leverage while licking the back of his neck and whatever else I can get my mouth to while I still have my dick up his ass.

And then the earth shook and it all went to shit. I lost my opportunity to ask and our schedule went into major “Gov owns yo asses now” mode, and he and I wound up assigned to different posts in the disaster area. And then, the next time I saw him was after he’d suddenly been promoted and I’d gotten a text from our regional manager, Gloria, that I was now his assistant, and that he’d picked me.

And… fuck!

See, I knew how the rules worked, and that totally changed everything. At least on the official level, although we all also knew what was going on unofficially: already established couples who hadn’t formerly been superior and report got through fine. Those of us who hadn’t established already? Well, shit. Tycho would get fired for asking, and I’d get severely disciplined for coming on to him.

Speaking of which, I don’t want to say a lot about it, but I had an unfortunate run-in with some little gay fuck in the tailoring department who says that he’s Tycho’s SO, and claims that I jizzed on a flawed suit that I returned. As if. It was goddamn mayo from a Subway sandwich, and if he tries to say otherwise, I’m going to sue his ass for slander or libel or both. And definitely defamation of character.

Bitch is just jealous, because he can see how much I love Tycho.

But, again, the rules stop me from finally revealing it, so I’m not sure what to do. In lieu of anything else, I take advantage of our unlimited TAP cards to figure out where Tycho is staying. I stay a discrete distance from him on the platform before we hop the B Line, then get into the car behind his, and discretely watch through the windows, figuring rightly that no one really pays much attention to anyone in the other cars because they’re too worried about some crazy suddenly going off in their car.

And then I start to see him and this little queer tailor boy traveling together — both ways. What? I found a park near their hotel where I can sleep and no one will question because, hey, post quake, right? A lot of people are camping out at the moment. And so it goes until the Friday ten days after the quake and I follow them home.

Only this time, instead of going all the way to the NoHo Station, they hop off at Hollywood and Vine, and I follow, and they head up Vine almost to Sunset to a club on the ground floor of a forty story Omni Hotel. The club is called NCLU, and it has the typical jet black walls around and into the entry, overly muscled Bouncers/Security, velvet ropes and long lines. Except that Tycho and his little slut walk to the head of the line and they are let in immediately. Meanwhile, I have to stand in the very long line, and it’s about ninety minutes before they finally let me in — after charging me a $40 cover and telling me that there’s two drink minimum.

Motherfuckers. I mean, I could cheap out and just wait across the street, but that would probably be the best way to get spotted, so I pony up, dictating a note into my AI. “Cut grocery budget this week, try to stretch one into two.”

Inside, the club is a well-planned mind-fuck. The walls, floor, and ceiling are jet black, and the only light comes from purple OLED tubes where the walls and ceiling meet. I go down a short hall, around a corner, and then up some stairs — which are marked in red OLEDs. The walls here also have glowing figures on them — characters from Alice in Wonderland, dicks and tits and asses and twats, and, toward the top, large green illuminated arrows with the words “EAT ME” and “DOWN THE HOLE” in them.

It’s another u-turn and then into a gigantic warehouse space at the top of a metal staircase, and the place is insane. Here there are colored OLEDs sweeping everywhere and constantly changing, artificial vape clouding the air,  and some definitely old school shit, like spinning black balls stuffed with different colored… um… portholes? And, OMG, there are even Disco Balls up there — things I remember my mother telling me existed when she was my age, but which were considered “ironically” (another thing people my mother’s age did back then), but which also, apparently, had been big with people slightly older than her and, ultimate irony, were originally popular as dance hall accessories a century ago, in the years of the Great Depression.

As I walk in here and remember my grandmother telling me that latter fact, all I can think is, “Ooh… shiny. So what shit are they distracting us from now?” And then my brain screams at me, “Forty bucks to get in and they want you to spend another thirty on drinks, dipshit.”

“Um… did they specify what kind of drinks?” I wonder.

“No,” that voice sighs, and so I go down the metal stairs into Wonderland, go to the first bar and ask, “How much is a Coke?”

“Eight bucks,” he says.

“And… water?”

“Eight bucks.”

“And… how much do they pay you an hour?”

“It’s $22.50,” he replies.

“Shit. Same non-living wage here, dude. How much do they pay per Coke?”

He just smiles at me in some sort of extreme gratitude and says, “These bottles? They pay 89 cents each.”

“Holy fucking shitballs. Okay, so… they make a fortune, you make shit?”

“Yeah. Sucks. Doesn’t it?” he says. “Who do you work for?”

“City government,” I reply, flashing my ID on instinct, and he looks like he’s going to shit his pants.

“Oh, dude, sorry. Wrong price. For a Coke, or whatever soda, you pay two bucks.”

“Um… why does my employer matter?” I ask.

“City runs this place, ma dude.”



“Okay,” I tell him. “So… bang me a Coke.” I show my city debit card, then stick it in the reader.

He charges me two dollars, so I tip him six.

“Hey. Thanks, man! Oh, hey — you didn’t know. I hope they didn’t charge you full cover.”

“They did.”

“Shit. You want me to talk to the manager — “

“No, it’s fine. Call it a donation.”

By this point, I was over it, and I was going to full on justify this as a business expense for the government. And why not? First, I had to make sure that my boss wasn’t abusing government funds or time (hint: he was not.) Second, I had to check up on our contractors, right? And if I cleared them, no harm, no foul. Right?

Okay, sure. Our particular department, the UECLA, didn’t really deal with places like this — unless you could call them houses of worship, and I’d argue that some of the guys here would — but it was all about CYA.

I grabbed my two dollar Coke and headed back up to the dance floor, taking up a position on the catwalk above it, scanning the crowd for that one familiar face. It wasn’t easy because of the constantly changing lights and moving crowds, but I eventually spotted Tycho and his little whore. They were both shirtless, jeans riding tantalizingly low, and they were grinding each other.

Mental snapshot for the fap bank, then I raced on down, figuring that, by this point, it wouldn’t be weird if I happened to bump into them. On the way down, I peeled off my T-shirt and stuffed it down the side of my jeans to match their style, and then danced my way through the crowd to where they were, taking enough time so that I’d be sweaty enough to look like I’d been dancing all night, too.

When I finally get within hailing distance of them, I realize that the two of them are dancing with a couple of really hot Hispanic guys, who are equally shirtless and sweaty, and judging by the body language, it looks like they’re all well on their way to having a foursome.

Well, fuck.

And then Tycho’s little tailor boy spots me. We lock eyes and I’m not sure what to do, but then the little bastard smiles and waves me over. Tycho notices and so do the other two guys, so I’m trapped, and I walk over to join them.

“Jimmy!” Tycho’s fuck toy gushes weirdly, throwing an arm around my shoulders. “Fancy meeting you here. How are you doing?”

“Okay,” I mutter.

“In case you forgot, or I never told you, I’m Finley, by the way.” He extends his hand and I’m not sure how to take it, so I just give it a brief shake, constantly wondering, “Why the hell is he being so nice to me?”

This is the guy who accused me of jerking off on his “boyfriend’s” suit. Okay. Okay, So it wasn’t mayo from a Subway sandwich. I lied. It was my jizz. But how the hell did he know that on sight?

“I had no idea you’d show up at a place like this,” Tycho said. “Where’s Mercedes?”

“Um… we… broke up,” I lied. “She really wasn’t into all the quake overtime and having to be separate and all that.”

“Oh, right. Where did they put you up?”

“The Lexen,” I lied again. I was actually at a Holiday Inn in Hollywood, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Wow, us too, but I haven’t seen you there. You’ll have to pop up to our room some time.”

“Yeah, I should,” I said.

“Who’s your hot friend?” one of the other guys asked, and Tycho did the quick intro.

“Oh. This is Jimmy, my assistant. Jimmy, we just met these guys. Um… shit. Refresh me?”

“Adam and Tony,” the other one said.

“Right,” Tycho added. “Adam and Tony.”

“Este tipo debe llenar un sándwich con pan moreno y carne blanca,” the taller one said to the other.

“Y monta nuestras vergas toda la noche,” the other one adds.

“Tipos… hablo español,” I reply and they look at me in total shock.

“¡Mierda!” the tall one mutters.

“Pero… todavía deseas que te follemos?” the other one asks.

“Fuerte y duro, papís,” I reply. Sure, I’m usually a top, but I’m willing to make an exception sometimes, and these guys are exceptional.

“You little slut,” Tycho mutters. He smiles but then he sort of freaks. “Sorry. Sorry, no, I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. It was encouragement, okay?”

 “I’m just impressed that you understood all that.”

“What? Dude, it’s almost 2030 in L.A. Who do you know under forty who doesn’t speak Spanish?”

“Yeah, true, I guess.”

“And… we’re okay with that comment?” he asks.

“Why would I not be?” I reply. “I am a slut…”

Image: © 2018 by the author, Vine Street looking north from Hollywood Boulevard.

Friday Free-for-All #9

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If all humans want the same basic things, why is there so much violence and strife between people?

And away we go, then… this is one of the more interesting questions that’s come up so far, and probably also one of the most meaningful and important.

Well, the short answer is in my favorite film right here:

And yes, that bone-toss and cut to: satellite shot is quite intentional, because Kubrick and Clarke were geniuses, but especially Kubrick, because in one single cut he explained everything that I’m about to do with a bunch of words.

As you can see in the clip (and you really need to watch it), the proto-humans involved all want the same basic things — food, water, shelter, etc. Two groups of them have come upon one pond. Now, realistically, there’s more than enough water in there for all of them. Kubrick even emphasizes this point earlier in the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence of the film, when we see various beasts (all of them potential prey for humans and big cats alike) sharing the same body of water to drink from.

What changes the dynamic is when one of those proto-humans (known as Moonwatcher in the book, nameless in the movie) suddenly gets an idea while toying with the femur of a long-since dead and predated tapir type creature.

It becomes at first a tool, and then a weapon — first to kill for food by taking down another tapir-beast (no different than what we’ve seen a proto-leopard do already), next to kill for resources and territory by taking down another member of his own species — something that had not occurred previously in the film.

But here’s the nice hidden ditty in this one. Moonwatcher gets the idea to use this bone in the first place from a mysterious black monolith that just appears one day. On the one hand, and canonically, it was a benign artifact placed long before by an alien race passing through, basically meant to give a little nudge to the local populace at such point that they were able to receive it.

Note that in this world, none of the other beasties on view showed any interest, but Moonwatcher and his tribe did — and, as it turned out, it was really, really unfortunate that the monolith showed itself at first to very tribal animals.

Intent of the alien race: Probably to teach whatever sentient species encountered by their drones (Clarks’s name for them: sentinels) how to make and use tools. Context: At the time that Clarke and Kubrick created 2001, the prevailing idea was that only humans used tools. Yeah… wrong. And even more wrong when the attempted definition was “only humans use tools to make tools.” Sigh.

But… the salient point is that the sentinels accidentally shared advanced knowledge with a species that was not ready for it because it wasn’t ready to share. Ironically, if they had hit up the tapirs or zebras first, the planet might be more successful now. Instead, nope. They enlightened assholes, and in a bad way.

Why? Well, reason number one: Moonwatcher and his bunch — probably immediate extended family — were not willing to share shit that they didn’t even own — i.e., water — with that other tribe over there that, honestly, were probably already his second or third cousins, but nobody was keeping records, and great grandma ran off with that dude, and… whatever…

Not that other animals are immune to this. Mammals are particularly bad at sharing, and birds can be territorial assholes. I can vouch for that one from personal experience with geese and swans. At least in the case of the former, the asshole geese in chief — who actually bit me — wound up as Thanksgiving dinner a couple of days later, so I was vindicated.

What? I was visiting my grandparents on their farm. They grew the goose for food. It’s not like they shot an elephant. And, anyway, see above. That goose was a major asshole.

But, particularly among humans there’s an Us and Them thing going on for no good reason at all, perpetuated only because we are the one species that labels things because we have language and names and insults and so on. One ram facing off another only knows, “Hey, this mine, yours not. Go away!” With humans, though, it gets more complicated. “Here is Mydonia. You are from Theristan. None of you can come here.”

And then let’s complicate it more once humans go into full-on hallucination mode and start making up invisible friends and then declaring that their side gets special favor from some supernatural or imagined entity as long as they do stupid things that make that entity happy, and bingo. There is the formula for creating endless violence and strife.

One imagined entity is a border, and the other is a god.

This creates the two flavors of separation, but they frequently combine into one swirly cone of stupid: Religion and Nationalism.

The thing that causes strife in humanity is the absolute illusion that we are a bunch of separate tribes, each of us battling over resources, and divided by utterly arbitrary and artificial things like religion, nationality, borders, and languages.

But if you look at the Earth from above, you’ll see that the only natural divisions are, well, just that… natural. Oceans, mountain ranges, and deserts are probably the big three things that naturally separate one group of people from another. But… if you go back far enough, the geographic divisions don’t matter, because genetically, there are no divisions.

All of humanity has a common ancestor, and one which pre-dates our humanity and makes us cousins of chimpanzees. Or, in other words, all of us are related, period. We are all one tribe.

Let me repeat that part: We are all one tribe. What we call “races” are just different expressions of genes which were created by accidents of location — i.e., colder climate with less Sun would favor people with paler skin, while hotter climates with a lot of Sun would favor people with darker skin, etc.

And one other thing: It is a big, big planet, so there’s plenty of room for people on it if we divide it up. Eliminating borders and just letting people have their own plot of land to live on, we’d each get half an acre, maybe… although it’s not clear whether that calculation of people over arable land allows room for all of the public stuff, like roads, streets, libraries, fire stations, etc.

Although if we cut that down to half an acre, it’s still a space that’s 104 feet on a side, and that is already a lot bigger than most of the apartments that people, couples, thruples, and beyond already jam themselves into. Hell, cut it down to 52 by 52, you’re still bigger than the typical urban apartment by a longshot — 52 by 52 is a house.

So… if we decided to share the entire planet equitably, everyone would get more than enough. Also keep in mind that a lot of these lots would go to families, and would be based on number of household members, but that the addition of a family member does not necessitate the addition of space equal to the original. I.E., a couple with that 52 x 52 house doesn’t need to add that amount to their square footage to accommodate a child living at home. Rather, their add-on might be more likely in the vicinity of a 10 x 12 or 12 x 12.

So, we have plenty of room, we’re all related, there are no borders, All of that should be obvious and self-evident, and yet we still fight each other, but this comes back to the other brilliant message Kubrick hid in his movie, because his opening sequence was nothing more than the secular version of original sin — the thing that divides us today.

And in the beginning, was not-human, but not-human listened to a not-god, got the message wrong, and committed the first murder, then never stopped doing it.

Yes, there are shades of Cain and Abel in the first act of 2001 as well. Or is that story our collective cultural memory of that first murder by that first proto-human, backed up by the mistaken belief that some higher power had commanded it?

Or, in other words, the biggest creator of violence and strife between humans in the present day — and the thing that must be wiped out — is organized religion. Period.

It’s everything Kubrick warned us about in the first thirty minutes of that film. Start with a group of creatures who think that they are different from another group of the same species, and then they discover a precious resource. Meanwhile, one of them hallucinates or has a major insight and attributes it to a deity, rally ‘round the flag, and Bam! Cain kills Abel; the first murder happens; this occurs across cultures, and the justification becomes, “I was doing it for my god.”

Down through the years, the worst terrorist acts have been perpetrated in the name of religion — any religion. And there’s the crux of the biscuit. If we want to take the next step, get off of this planet, and evolve beyond being just a bunch of silly monkeys, then we need to start.

So my short answer to the question “Why is there so much violence and strife between people?” is: religion and nationalism. Get rid of those, solve a lot of problems.

Friday Free-for-All #8

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Is true artificial intelligence possible with our current technology and methods of programming?

It’s funny that this question should come up, because I’ve long thought no, this isn’t possible with our current technology for various reasons, and just recently I ran across an article about a program called TextFooler, which in effect uses A.I. to mess with A.I.

The project came about as a way to find vulnerabilities inherent in A.I., specifically how algorithms designed to spot auto-generated media stories could be tricked into accepting them as legit, and it basically involves swapping in some synonyms that will not change the meaning to a human reader but which will fool the A.I. into thinking that the text has a different tone than it really does.

A test example given in the article cited above is this: TextFooler will take the source, “The characters, cast in impossibly contrived situations, are totally estranged from reality,” and change it to read “The characters, cast in impossibly engineered circumstances, are fully estranged from reality.”

The net effect in this case is that the target A.I. classified the quote completely incorrectly, seeing it as positive instead of negative. A human could see in an instant that both versions are negative reviews, but the A.I. focuses on the italicized words, which are the changed ones, and weights the latter versions as positive, even though the overall meaning is still negative.

In most cases, TextFooler was able to reduce the accuracy of the A.I. tested to less than 10% while changing fewer than 20% of the words in the source text. In the above example, the change is 25%, but it’s quite likely that changing totally to fully doesn’t have as much of an effect, in which case changing only 17% of the words would do it.

From personal experience, I know that it’s really easy to mess with A.I., and one of its weaknesses is that it can’t deal with ambiguity, which includes humor and especially puns. If we ever get into a serious cyberwar with A.I. backed forces, our best defenders would be squads of Dads, armed with their best worst jokes.

It’s the inability to deal with ambiguity that will keep us from developing true A.I. for a long time, and it’s not something that machine learning can overcome. Human brains just process information differently.

I’ve seen this countless times as new people come onto my improv team. We traditionally end most of our shows with a “jump-out” game, which involves the players making lots and lots of puns based on audience suggestions. Punning is a difficult skill. Some people are naturals at it — I learned very quickly that I was — but others aren’t.

Here’s the difference between a human and A.I,, though. Teach a human the parameters of a pun game, let them try it a few times or watch other people do it, explain how to structure a pun, and suddenly they start to get good at it as well; in some cases, rather quickly.

One of the classic games is called 185, and the basic form of the joke (as we play it now as opposed to the version in the link) is this: “185 (suggestions) walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the (suggestions) say (punchline).”

For example, “”185 horses walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the horses say, ‘Guess we should hoof it out of here, then…’”

Simple for a human to come up with and understand, but for A.I., not so much. The program would have to understand the double meaning of “hoof” — one a common noun related to a horse, the other a slangy and somewhat dated verb — but then would also have to decide, “Is this funny?”

Funny is often based on the unexpected, and here’s another good example from my improv company. When we have a birthday in the audience, we’ll bring the person onstage, make a big deal about it, then prepare to sing for them. The players do some throat-clearing and vocal warm-up, someone sings a tune-up note, and then they launch into it, to the tune of Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay.

Here’s where the joke comes in the unexpected, though. After all of that build up, there are exactly two bars: “This is your birthday song, it isn’t very long — ” And then it abruptly ends and everyone just walks away, now focused on a new subject, making small talk with their fellow players, whatever. It always gets a huge laugh from the audience and, truth to tell, although I’ve seen it a bunch of times and have done it a few myself, it cracks me up every single time.

A.I. ain’t gonna get that, not now, and not soon, Turing test notwithstanding, because it really may not be the best way to detect fakes. That distinction may actually go to the word poop.

But getting back to the Achilles heel of A.I. — computers are only as good as their programming, and there’s an old term you may or may not know: GIGO, which stands for garbage in, garbage out,

The short version is that the output you get is only as good as the input you gave, and if the input was in an unexpected form, you won’t get anything usefull back. For example, if the computer expected a number and you entered “snot,” you’re probably going to get back an error message.

If you’ve ever seen those annoying #NA or #VALUE or #NAME? errors pop up when you’re trying to enter a formula in Excel, you’ve committed a GIGO error.

Now remember that input can also come from internal sources, so if you have a database of words or phrases for an A.I. to look up and find responses to, it can quickly turn into garbage out by tossing some nonsense at it.

For example, if the A.I. says, “Good morning, what’s your name?” and you reply, “My name is Digital Badger Wankstick Flipflap III,” a human would probably reply with, “What? You’re kidding, right?” A.I., though, would see the designated response tags “my name is” (or “I am” or “It’s” or just take any unprefixed response as the name), and reply, “Hello, Digital Badger Wankstick Flipflap III. How are you today?” Particularly smart A.I. might just reply with “Hello, Digital,” but still… the fact that it doesn’t immediately ask, “Is that really your name?” is a dead giveaway that you’re probably not dealing with a human.

In theory, this could be programmed in, but think of how much data it would need. The programmers would basically have to create two tables — one containing actual, normal names across a number of cultures, and the other containing things that are most likely not normal names, then the A.I. would have to search both and respond accordingly.

In computer terms, it wouldn’t add much lag time to the response — maybe milliseconds — but when it came to the size of the program and the lines of code needed, it could bump things up considerably. Not to mention that the data would have to account for all kinds of possible variant spellings.

Hell, as a human, I’ve learned to always ask someone to spell their first name unless it’s totally unambiguous, which is rare. At least in the U.S., my first name is itself the less common variant of John (I’ve also seen it spelled Jhon), and you can have variations like Ralph/Ralf, Marc/Mark/Marq, Karen/Caren/Karin, Jack/Jaq, Alan/Allan/Allen, Jeff/Geoff, Charles/Charlie/Charley, and on and on and on. And yes, I’ve known people with every single one of those variants.

One of the more disappointing attempts at A.I. with a good purpose is Replika, which tried to be a counsellor and source of help, but which failed badly. The idea was that it would get to know you quickly through a series of conversations, but despite having spent a lot of time (as it turns out, over a year ago) chatting with it and answering its annoying questions, it never learned anything, and I never saw its personality change.

Of course, the grandmother of all A.I. is Eliza, who was pretty much the first attempt at this sort of thing. The original Eliza was created back in the early 1960s, believe it or not, although it was not so much an attempt at true A.I. as it was a stab at getting computers to communicate in natural language.

But if you click the first link in the preceding paragraph, it won’t take very long for you to figure out that you’re talking to a program. In fact, IIRC, in my early days of learning to program, studying the code for Eliza was one of my assignments, and it really was an amazing job of using very few clues from the input (with a lot of wiggle room for “noise” thrown in) to select from a fairly limited number of slightly customizable responses.

Also keep in mind that, at the time Eliza was originally written in a long lost language called MAD-Slip (which was decades before I encountered the code in BASIC [which lives on in Microsoft products as VBASIC, yay!], as a training exercise) that the possible size of programs was very, very limited.

In fact, after a little searching, I found out that the version of the program in BASIC was limited to… 256 lines — which is a very, very important number in binary. In fact, it’s as high as you can get in 8 bits, because 256 is 2^8 (or 16^2).

But that’s all the long way around of me saying that, no, we won’t develop true A.I. until we build computers (probably quantum) that can deal with enormous amounts of data, ambiguity and multiple choice, actually learn and reprogram themselves constantly, develop a sense of humor, and play with language like humans can. Meaning… no time soon, and not until we manage to create artificial and literal neural networks that would involve interfacing computers directly with… well, lab-grown brains would be cheating, because that wouldn’t be artificial.

We’d have to figure out how to create a completely synthetic and functional analogue to a human brain. Well, to be honest, we’d have to start simple, and to some extent things like John Conway’s famous Game of Life did manage to cause artificial objects to follow certain rules and either reproduce and thrive or die out, and he did it with a few simple rules, but that was basically creating single-celled organisms, which are not intelligent, only reactive.

But if we want “real” A.I., we’re going to have to fake it by creating biological computers. Or growing brains in labs and wiring them up, but that would probably be all kinds of unethical.

Whether you think so is up to you, but please discuss it in the comments, and thanks for reading!

The Saturday Morning Post #6

Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of a not-yet-titled book made up of thirteen short stories and one novella, each story told by a different narrator and the novella stepping outside to bring all of the stories together. It’s very much a story of Los Angeles, and takes place in some of my favorite parts of the city. You can read from the beginning starting here, or catch up with the previous chapter here.


The last week and a half since the Riverside quake has been exhausting, but gratifying. That’s always the way with disaster relief, and especially when we have to wait for the dilly-dallying of the bigger NGOs — not naming any names. I could have mobilized the UECLA — United Ecumenical Council of Los Angeles County — by the day after the quake, and it would have taken one text an hour after to mobilize my own group, the United Atheists of America, or UAA.

And before you try to point out any contradiction between those two groups working together, I’ll just say that I’ve spent the last decade reminding the religious groups that “ecumenical” is a big tent, and yes it includes atheists and agnostics (and Satanists), even though neither we atheists nor the other two groups will ever consider our positions to be religious beliefs.

I’ve had this job since right out of college. Well, actually, I’ve been in this department since then, but worked my way up fast. I majored in both religious studies and public policy, and the two meshed really well. I’ve been Director of Communications for the UECLA for four years now, and Director of the UAA for seven.

Oh. My name is Rebekah Clement, and you’ve probably seen it on various press releases over the last few years if you live in L.A., as well as having seen it be ripped and defamed for just as long a time if you happen to follow any particular fundie or orthodox religion or subscribe to their newsletters.

Funny thing, though. At least where I work, I have watched the number of regular churchgoers plummet. It was about 30% when I started, and now it’s hovering at 22%. It was certainly interesting, after I’d given the first invite, to see how many people either just wandered off, or followed the couple of totally secular groups I pointed out.

And that kind of thing was a major anchor that kept me from freaking out, because I’d been stuck downtown since the quake doing duty for the county, and then wound up in Koreatown on Friday, embedded with the Red Cross. I’d tried to contact Matt after the quake on Tuesday, but got no answers. I didn’t even get voicemail when I called our landline.

Yes, we still had one, but it was more a requirement from both of our employers than anything else, since governments tend to lag about thirty years behind reality. I mean, honestly, my office still had fax machines. Really?

I was trying to stay calm, but I remembered my parents’ stories of Northridge, which happened two years before I was born. They had lived in Sherman Oaks at the time, and their neighborhood was devastated because it happened to follow the old path of the Los Angeles River. Even though the river bed had been concrete since the 1930s, there was still enough alluvial flood-plain for the whole thing to liquefact in the shaking, and that’s exactly what happened to their two-story house, which basically became a one-story house as the first floor sank eight feet and the upper half of the front façade fell off. Luckily, they weren’t injured and were able to walk across the fallen wall onto dry land, but the place was never going to be rebuilt.

Fortunately, though, my dad had actually bought the earthquake insurance and the supplemental insurance that covered the deductible, so that the payout enabled them to buy a new and pretty similar house a bit more northeast — and for cheap, because it was “freak out and move” period for a lot of transplants, aka “highly motivated sellers.” That’s the house I grew up in. Oh yeah… even though their old house had been wrecked, they still owned the land, so they also sold that off when I was in high school, which paid my college tuition. I think that it eventually became the site of a commercial development.

But… this job had been getting really annoying because I had to pretend to be objective because… “I work for the county,” per my job description. On the other hand, it was getting harder and harder to deal with these bigoted religious assholes who hated anyone outside of their system while smiling and claiming to be inclusive as I had to host ecumenical breakfasts post disaster. Of course, that didn’t mean that I couldn’t point people away from these dicks, and I certainly did — especially when I wound up in the Koreatown Camp.

The Sunday after the Riverside quake, I couldn’t have been happier than to realize that less than a third of the people under the breakfast tent decided to follow some kind of religious leader. In reality, way more than a third of them went off to do theater and improv, another third and change wandered off to just go do… whatever, and the rest of them seemed to follow the several milder mainstream religions — a lot of Catholics, a lot of Anglicans, a lot of MCCs. The only people who seemed to follow the few fundies were the resident Koreans, but that wasn’t surprising. They had been exploited by those monsters since the time of the Korean War, and the colonial hooks were deep in them. I was just surprised that most of the members hadn’t died off by now.

Then again, since this place had been Koreatown in name only since about fifteen years ago, there weren’t a huge number of Koreans to follow.

At least I wasn’t leading the atheist meeting. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but it gave me a much-needed break to try to get in touch with Matt again. This time, I tried calling and texting, since the Red Cross brought WiFi and chargers with them, but I still got nothing. Voicemail picked up on neither. But he had to be all right. He worked in Van Nuys, farther from the epicenter than I’d been when it hit, and we lived on the West Side, in the house on Euclid in Santa Monica that he’d inherited when his grandmother died.

We had also lucked out when they opened up the Q Line, because he could now take the train from Santa Monica to Van Nuys. I’d been taking the E Line since I’d started the job. Hell, it had been so long, I remembered when it was still the Expo Line.

I started googling damage reports and so on, and found nothing major in either of those places. Santa Monica had not been swept away by a tsunami, and Van Nuys hadn’t been sucked underground. In fact, most parts of the Valley seemed to be fairly well-off, which seismologists explained by the various mountain ranges surrounding it creating so-called “earthquake shadows.” I’d had no idea that those were even a thing, but I guess it makes sense. And it was certainly nice payback to the Valley, which had been host to two of our previous big quakes, Northridge and Sylmar, and so had gotten wrecked.

They even brought Lucy Jones out of retirement on the newspods to explain the earthquake shadows. And I don’t think I need to mention how happy I’ve been about California having nothing but female seismologists in the public eye since forever, female senators for almost as long, and, finally, a female governor since the inauguration in 2023. Well, okay. Transwoman, but that still counts.

Suck it, fundies.

But… none of this explains why I still can’t get hold of Matt. The cell phone thing… maybe, but only if all the towers around him are down, or he isn’t able to charge his phone. But the landline is still mystifying, and despite the TelCos spending so many years trying to propagandize us into the idea that we all still needed them in case of disaster, no one ever bought that bullshit.

Of course… while most of our handsets at home were wireless, the base station had one of those really old-fashioned handset on a cradle things, and if the shaking knocked it off, the phone would go “off the hook,” in a literal, not figurative, sense, and that would block all of the other lines. I couldn’t remember whether that would block voicemail from answering or not, because I wasn’t sure whether that lived on the phone or happened at the phone company.

So… phew-ish?

Still… I was stuck down here until such point that… oh, what did the guidelines say? I was here until “…a majority of the faith-community organizations within your district are able to once again provide for the pastoral care of their members in their own, original physical spaces or FEMA-approved emergency structures in the case of buildings that have been yellow- or red-tagged. Alternate venues provided by other existing businesses or residents are also acceptable, provided that they have the same maximum occupancy capacity as the space they are replacing. Representatives are expected to remain on-site for at least thirty days after initial event, with two days of home-leave allowable commencing at the end of shift on the ninth day after the inciting event, and on the ninth-day after return from each home-leave. Except during home-leave, disaster pay and overtime are in effect, and per diem at current county rates and secure, suitable lodgings within two miles by ride service or forty-five minutes via public transit, station-to-station (should the lines be operational), will also be provided in the form of a TAP card. Most lodgings will be single-occupancy except for married couples both of whom are employed by the county or city of Los Angeles, or upon the written request of two un-related employees om different departments, after direct-report review and approval.

I remember watching an improv show by a theater company in my area right after the quake that had a game they called “Yay, Boo!” and this was definitely it. Combat pay and overtime? Yay! Remain on-site thirty days? Boo! Per diem and suitable lodgings provided, yay! Nine days between home visits? Boo! That meant I’d have to wait. There were so damn many registered faith-community organizations within the area we were covering that it could easily take months to get them all accommodated.

And Matt still wasn’t answering, I couldn’t get hold of him on social media, and I wasn’t sure what the hell to do. At least we didn’t have children, so that was a little bit less to worry about…

Image taken in 1948, Fukui, Japan;  now public domain under Australian law. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Bert Cohen. 

Friday Free-for-All #1

I wasn’t sure how I was going to decide what this theme would be. On the surface, it seems like “just write whatever you want to” would work, but I tend to do that otherwise, constrained only by the subject of the day. But then I ran across a site that generates random questions, and realized that this was the way to go. In a sense, I’d be letting AI interview me. But to make it truly random, rather than take the first question, I pulled ten, and then used Excel’s RANDBETWEEN function to pick one from that list.

And you’re all invited to play. Feel free to answer the question yourself in the comments and let’s see what we all come up with. Now with no further ado, here we go…

What personality trait do you value most and which do you dislike the most?

This is a very interesting question because there are so many possibilities for the first one — sincerity, intelligence, punctuality, honesty, integrity, and so on. But beyond all of those, which are all very good things to have in my book, I think the one that anchors them all is curiosity about the world, and a desire to constantly learn new things.

All of the most interesting people I know are still students, whether they only graduated from high school six months ago or whether they’ve been retired for ten years. And they don’t necessarily have to be taking classes, but if they’re reading, listening to podcasts, studying on their own, whatever… it shows. And that kind of interest in self-growth extends to every other part of their life.

These are the people who actually remember things that I tell them when, for example, they can’t figure out how to do something on their computer. Their minds are definitely in “one and done” mode.

Me: “To do thing X push keys Y and Z, and then follow with A and B…”

Them: “Ah, got it, thanks.”

And the truly curious ones do, and never ask me the same question twice. The incurious ones, though? Every five goddamn minutes. “How do you do that thing, again?”

“Jesus, Mildred. I told you. Hit control-whatever, click on particular box, done.”

The great thing about curious people is that they never create the mindset of “oh, this is hard,” or “I can never learn that.” Instead, they dive in with a hearty and enthusiastic need to know and confidence in their ability to know it.

I’ve experienced both sides constantly in my own process of re-learning Spanish again and learning improv for the first time as an adult way out of college. The fellow students I encounter fall into two camps. One group asks questions and accepts answers. The other group complains and whines — “What I said should be right because…” This is always followed by a wrong example, and then they don’t listen to explanations.

The absolute classic version of this for students of Spanish is this: “It should be la agua, because agua ends in ‘a’ so it’s feminine.”

Except… this is one of those rules you just have to know. Yes, agua is feminine, but Spanish doesn’t like to put “la” before a word that starts with a stressed “a.” It’s exactly the same reason that English uses “an” instead of “a” before a vowel sound. It’s just easier to say.

So… the singular version of agua, which is still feminine, uses the masculine article to avoid the “a/a” crash: el agua. Other examples include el águila and el arpa. Note that with indefinite articles, it’s okay to go either way.

But, yeah. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone who is clearly only at a ¿Qué Hora Es? level of  Spanish insisting that they’re right. It’s… cute. Infuriating, but cute.

Now, when it comes to the one I dislike the most, you might think that I’d go for the easy opposite, which is “incuriosity.” However, that’s not it. I can just ignore incurious people and let them go on with their empty little lives. The personality trait I dislike the most is what we could probably classify as flakiness. That is, making a commitment to doing something, and then bailing out with no advance notice or explanation.

Now, this is different from saying you’ll come to something and then letting me know, last minute or not, that you can’t. That is totally fine. If you send a text an hour before with literally any reason in it, or even not a reason, then we’re cool.

“Sorry, stuck at work.”

“Sorry, forgot I had this other thing.”

“Sorry, I really don’t feel like it tonight.”

“Sorry, my S.O. surprised me with other plans.”

Those are all fantastic, and so is something as simple as the no reason, “Sorry. Can’t.”

That’s cool, too, because at least you’ve told me not to wait for you to show up, so you’ve respected me by doing that, and you’re awesome.

But… if you’ve told me, and especially if you’ve done it enthusiastically, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be there for sure,” and then your place is taken by crickets at time and date, and then you don’t bother to catch up later and say why… WTF, really?

That’s flakier than a bowl of morning cereal, and it’s not an attractive look for anyone. Want to know how to get fewer invites to anything? To paraphrase Archer, “This is how you get [fewer invites to anything.]”

Okay, I think they said ants, but whatever. The point is… if someone asks, you answer, and a simple “Yes” or “No” without excuses is acceptable. This is modern life. Enjoy it.

Image source: Image Howard Lake, used via Creative Commons (cc) 2.0.

It’s Talky Tuesday!

As I announced yesterday, inspired by the reception of my Countdown to Christmas series of posts, and as a way to give me a writing prompt every day, I’m going to experiment with a theme for each day. This started with the first Sunday Nibble, followed later by Saturday Morning Reading, with Monday’s subject of history, one of my favorites, revealed yesterday.

Today’s theme is Talky Tuesday because it will be all about another of my favorite subjects: language. Okay, so the “talky” part is purely figurative until I turn this into a podcast, but I couldn’t think of a better word that relates to language and creates alliteration with Tuesday.

And while “Wordy Wednesday” might have seemed like a natural, having only four possible letters — S, M, T, and W — limits the options, especially if one insists as one does on using the full “th” alliteration for Thursday, but finds a better fit of subject for that than another alternate for Wednesday’s theme, which will be revealed tomorrow.

And I know I blew the alliteration on the weekend, but that’s because I came up with those first. I suppose one could become the Sunday Snack, while I’m really tempted to call the other one the Saturday Morning Post. Incidentally, the original Saturday Evening Post is still around and will celebrate its bicentennial next year. While its presence nowadays is more online and it’s owned by the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society (Franklin kinda sorta founded the magazine), it still prints six issues a year. A far cry from coming out in time for the second mail delivery every Saturday, but still impressive in this day and age.

The print magazine in its heyday also made Norman Rockwell a very famous artist and American institution to the extent that many of his cover illustrations are still instantly recognizable to this day to people not at all familiar with the original magazine,

But now you’ve got me going down a side path because I love diving into rabbit holes and sharing interesting bits of trivia, and you’ve managed to get me bringing up history in the set up for the language theme. Gee, thanks!

So let’s bring on the topic at hand!

More frequently confused words

As I’ve discussed recently, English is a mongrel of a language, cobbled together over centuries with the collision and mixing of various other languages and with a propensity after the fifteenth century to borrow words from everywhere. If you’ve ever taken algebra — or a siesta — you’ve used borrowed words. You can also see the roots in the words themselves. In the sentences above, discussed and centuries come from Latin, language, and collision are French, cobble and mongrel are Anglo, and our borrowed examples are, in order, Arabic and Spanish, although Spanish has a ton of Arabic words courtesy of the Moorish occupation of Southern Europe for centuries.

Hint: Any Spanish word that starts with “al” is probably Arabic because “al” is the Arabic equivalent of “the,” and the two wound up stuck together. So… algodón, cotton;  alfombra, carpet (not to be confused with carpeta, file folder); alazar, to hoist or erect (not to be confused with al azar, at random); alcalde/alcadesa, mayor.

But… the point is this. English, like many other languages, has become more of a spoken medium than it is a written one, at least on a large scale. That’s part of the reason why internet news aggregators get choked with video links instead of text, and yeah, this one drives me nuts. No, I don’t want the story read by talking heads who obviously don’t get it because I’m probably not in a place where I can listen to the audio or watch the video, just give me the words, please.

And for god’s sake, make sure that they were edited and proofed by a professional, although I despair more and more by the moment of that ever happening, and in major media outlets more often than not I see articles that my high school English teacher would have failed without remorse.

That said, to the people who don’t read a lot, it does become obvious when they post online, because they will play the “sounds like” game with a lot of words (when they’re not just making up spellings, but that’s something for a completely different post), and frequently manage to grab exactly the wrong word.

Ripped from today’s… social media comments (no, really) here are six more words that are frequently mixed-up and misused.

Away and aweigh

I’ve seen this mistake made frequently when someone is referring to a ship leaving port and getting underway, and given that the arts of sailing and seafaring are very alien to most modern people — particularly those who live in urban or landlocked areas — it’s a very understandable mistake to see “Anchors away!”

I mean, on the surface, that makes sense, right? What are you trying to do? Get away from the port or the dock, and it somehow involves removing the anchors that are holding you there, right? And if you have a naïve understanding of how anchors work, that adds another level of sense to it. Anchors are notoriously heavy, right? So they must work by weighing down the ship (ooh… look at that word!) and keep it from moving until they’re cast away. Ooh. Another seafaring word when you combine them into castaway!

Except… that’s not how anchors work. Anchors may be heavy in human terms (or not), but they weigh nothing compared to the weight of the ship. What they do do is drop to the seafloor or lakebed, and then dig into the sediment with those hooky-thingies on them. You know. The whole reason an anchor is shaped like that. Its job is to grab that mucky slop down below and dig into it so that the ship stays where it’s been moored.

By the way, have you ever noticed that a grappling hook looks a lot like an anchor? Yeah, that’s because it does an anchor’s job in reverse.

But… a ship would never cast its anchors away because then they’d have nothing to moor themselves with at the next port, or to do likewise in an emergency at sea. What ships do do is call “anchors aweigh,” and it’s an expression ultimately built out of old English.

The word “weigh” refers to a really old English expression meaning to lift, measure, or carry, while the “a-“ prefix most likely takes on the middle English mean of “off” or “from.” So… the proper phrase, “anchors aweigh,” means to lift the anchors from… in this case, whatever silt or sludge they’re stuck in. And the word “aweigh” happens to have been coined specifically and only to refer to the concept of hauling up an anchor.

Lean and lien

Yeah, actually seen in a “give me free legal advice because I can’t adult enough to figure out how to google that that’s a thing” post on a social media site, something along the lines of (paraphrased to protect a-hat’s identity): “My bank just put a lean on my car because I missed a few payments. How can I not lose it?”

Well, the simple bonehead advice is, “Talk to your bank and arrange to make those payments, dumbass.” But, on top of that one, if your bank leaned on your car, assuming that your bank is a big building of at least one story, I don’t think that there’d be much of a car left.

The word they were thinking of is lien, and it’s basically any official charge placed against a piece of real property. Anyone who’s ever bought a car from a dealer and contracted to make payments knows it well, since the phrase “lienholder” will appear on the registration until the day you pay that loan off.

There’s also a nice ironic reminder on this one. “Lien” happens to be the French word for “link,” and in its traditional sense, that’s what a lien was — a link between a physical piece of property and the money owed on it. Boom, done. But… go to French websites, and that word means more often than note “click here to go there.”

Fortunately, the quick way to remember and not mistake “lien” and “lean” is that the first two letters of “link” are “Li.”

Illusion and allusion

In this case, the former is definitely used to mean the latter far too often. An illusion is an image, mirage, or the word that GOB prefers to trick. An allusion is a literary reference. You’ll see the former in Vegas constantly. You’ll have to think back to 10th grade English to remember that latter one, which is basically referring to something without referring to it.

Frankly, my dear, allusions can be… tricksy, and not as clear-cut as you’d assume without making an assumption out of it or you and me. But let’s rejoyce in the idea that one doesn’t need to reference a hawk to describe a handsaw unless one is being chased through an empty field by a crop-duster.

And that was a paragraph packed with allusions. The idea that I just made you think of at least a few books, movies, authors, and directors was no illusion.

Ascent and assent

Thanks to that pesky silent “C,” I see the latter word misused to replace the former a lot more often: “The mountain climbers planned to begin their assent at five a.m.”

Well, of course you’d want a mountain climbing team to agree on everything before they start going uphill, but they can’t start the climb until they begin their ascent.

The word ultimately comes to English via French and Latin, with the Latin source being the word “scendere,” to climb. You can easily see the pair of English antonyms that come from this: descend and ascend, along with their noun versions descent and ascent.

The prefixes determine direction. A descent is a climbing from, while an ascent is a climbing to. In our interpretation of “climb,” these become up and down.

Assent, while it also comes from Latin, took a very different route and it comes from the prefix “ad” and the verb “sentire,” to feel. When “ad” is combined with a word starting with “s,” it becomes “as.” The prefix itself implies moving toward, so an assent is moving toward a feeling, i.e. the group coming to a common decision.

Interestingly enough, the French took the Latin word for “to feel” to mean “to smell,” and this lead directly to the English word “scent,” but not to the English word ascent. Go figure. It’s just one of those weird linguistic coincidences.

But… it does give us a mnemonic to tell them apart. What is a smell? “A scent” that goes up your nose. Meanwhile, a message you receive “as sent” agrees completely with what the sender intended.

Mantle and mantel

This pair is regularly swapped, and it’s easy to see why. Strictly speaking, a mantel is the one that’s around a fireplace and nothing else, while a mantle is a cloak or covering, or part of the surface of the Earth that comes above the crust.

But to confuse things, mantel itself is a fifteenth century variant of the Middle English mantel, which came from the Latin mantellum, which means cloak. So, ultimately, a mantel is just a cloak for a fireplace, but if you put a mantle near your fireplace, it’ll probably burn up.

Yes, derivations can be silly and make no sense sometimes, but here’s a way to remember the very special word that only goes around your fireplace. What’s in your fireplace? The fire. In Spanish, that’s el fuego. And what are the last two letters of the right word? That’s right. “El.”

Now, I could confuse things a bit more by giving you an “le” mnemonic for mantle by reminding you that “the cloak” in French is “le manteau,” and that second word should look familiar, but I think the fire clue should be enough.

Sorted and sordid

A rare find in the wild, but indeed it did appear, with the former word being used in place of the latter in the context of “delving into those sorted (sic) affairs,” when, of course, those affairs were sordid.

Again, though, if it’s a word someone has only heard, sorted, like away, makes some kind of sense, if only because sordid affairs tend to involve a lot of bits and pieces, so the assumption that somebody would have to sort them to work them out makes total sense.

The funny part here is that sordid is by far the older word, and while sort came into English in the 13th century, the dictionary only attests “sorted” to the 1950s, believe it or not, and only in a specific jargon usage in geology, although I know many an Australian who’d differ with that opinion, since the love to deal with getting confusing situations sorted, i.e. figured out.

As for sordid, it came from the Latin word for dirty. Specifically, the Latin word for dirt with the suffix –id indicating “born from.” So… filthy things are sordid.

I can’t think of any really good reminder here other than these. First, if it’s dirty it’s got double D’s, like sordid. Or… sordid kind of sounds like the answer when someone asks, “Hey did you read that trashy article in (insert gossip rag here)” and you say, “So I did,” with the proper drawl. (“Sah uh did.”)

And there you go. Which pair of confused words annoy you, or which ones do you always mix up? Let me know in the comments below!

Sunday Nibble #2

Shorter bite-sized pieces with no particular destination meant to enjoy on what should be a day off, or at least a day of fun.

According to Freedictionary, there are 92 English words that end in -yme, although most of them are scientific words made up of “enzyme” with prefixes. One relates to botany (cyme) and the other to medicine (zyme).

This leaves three common words, two of which are probably familiar to everyone and one that is not: Rhyme, thyme, and chyme. The first, of course, refers to arranging words that end with similar sounds — a very common human trick, most needed for a limerick.

Thyme is, of course, an herb used for seasoning, and also well-known from the song Scarborough Fair, which is a traditional English ballad going back to at least the 17th century, famous for the refrain, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.”

The third word, chyme, is somewhat… gross. It refers to the glop your stomach turns food into before passing it on to your intestines.

Each one of these words has a homophone, which is a word pronounced the same but with a different meaning and, often, a different spelling. Those are rime, time, and chime.

Although “rime” is an alternate spelling of “rhyme” (q.v. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), it generally refers to a relative of frost caused when super-cooled water droplets freeze on impact with a surface. I didn’t think it was appropriate to mention until now, but there is a fourth –yme word, berhyme, now archaic, which means to use as the subject of a rhyme, especially to lampoon. “In Poe’s The Raven, the author berhymes his lost love, Lenore.” And this word can go both ways, as either berhyme or berime. Yes, it sounds like to berime would be to coat something in rime, but that word doesn’t exist, and to rime is sufficient.

Time is money, time flies, time is fleeting. The times, they are a-changin’.

Time is simply the measure used to determine that something has happened. No time, nothing happens. It’s also very convenient for putting events in order — “The meeting is at 10 a.m., after which we will break for lunch at 1 p.m., then reconvene at 2:30.” Of course, to a physicist, time is what you measure with a clock.” Why? Because the way that scientists measure time is by observing change. It’s the phenomenon their clock follows, not the other way around.

You’ll know this firsthand if you’ve ever cooked something for the time mentioned in the recipe only to find out that it wasn’t quite done, so you had to keep it in longer. The “bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees” is only a suggestion. The reality is when the thing you’re baking hits the desired internal temperature, which could be 35 minutes or it could be an hour. And if you’re a scientist don’t even try to use time to put events in order, because the first question you have to ask is “Which reference frame am I ordering events in?”

Finally, we have chyme and chime. The latter is both the thing that a bell does and the word my computer keeps trying to auto-correct chyme to every time I type it. Since those bells chiming are usually connected to a big clock, chime relates back to time, and one of the more famous usages of the word is in a Shakespeare quote (Falstaff, Henry IV Part 2, III-ii: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”) This in turn became the title of an Orson Welles film, The Chimes at Midnight, which I haven’t seen, but which looks amazing.

And just to bring all three words together in one thought, Orson Welles basically pulled all the Falstaff bits from Shakespeare, put them back together to make Falstaff the hero in the Prince Hal saga (hint: he was not in the original), and came up with something that George Lucas would describe as “rhyming with the original.” In case you forgot, Lucas said that all of the films in the first two trilogies rhymed. Oddly enough, and haters be damned, I think that the final trilogy managed to do that too.

But, as our ComedySportz referees are fond of saying, “That’s time!”

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