A company town

Despite its size, Los Angeles is a company town, and that company is entertainment — film, television, and music, and to a lesser extent gaming and internet. So, growing up here, seeing film crews and running into celebrities all over the place was always quite normal. Hell, I went to school with the kids of pretty big celebrities and never thought much of it. “Your dad is who? Whatever.”

It looks like that company is finally coming back to life after fifteen months of being semi-dormant. It’s tentative, of course, and we may wind up locking down again, especially if a vaccine-resistant variant suddenly pops up. But, for the moment, movie theaters and live venues are reopening, along with the restaurants and other businesses that survived.

But here’s one thing I don’t think a lot of non-locals understand: None of the major studios are actually in Hollywood. How the city of Hollywood — which is where I was actually born — became conflated with the movies is a very interesting story. Once upon a time, there were some studios there. Charlie Chaplin built his at La Brea and Sunset in 1917. It was later owned by Herb Alpert, when it was A&M Studios and produced music. Currently, it’s the location of the Jim Henson Company. The Hollywood Hills were also a popular location for celebrities to live, and a lot of the old apartment buildings in the city were originally designed for young singles who worked in the industry.

Come to think of it, they still serve that purpose, although given the cost of rent in this town, a lot of those studio units are cramming in two tenants.

The one thing that Hollywood did have in abundance: Movie premieres, and that’s still the case to this day. The Chinese, The Egyptian, and the El Capitan are perennial landmarks, and the Boulevard itself is quite often still closed down on Wednesdays for red carpet openings. Although Broadway downtown also boasts its own movie palaces from the golden age of cinema, it was always Hollywood Boulevard that had the great grand openings. It’s also still home to the Pantages, which is the biggest live theater venue outside of downtown, although they generally only do gigantic Broadway style musicals. (Side note on the Chinese Theater — although it’s technically called the TCL Chinese because, owners, nobody refers to it that way, and you’re still more likely to hear it called what it always was: Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Want to sound like a local? That’s how you do it. You’re welcome.)

There is one Hollywood tradition that does not date from the golden age of cinema, though, and it might surprise you. The Hollywood Walk of Fame wasn’t proposed until the 1950s, and construction on it didn’t begin until 1960 — long after all of the movie studios had left the area.

In case you’re wondering where those studios went, a number of them are in the oft-derided Valley: Universal in Universal City (they like to call themselves “Hollywood” but they’re not), Warner Bros. in Burbank, Disney in Burbank and Glendale, and Dreamworks Animation SKG in Glendale (across from Disney Animation!) all come to mind — and damn, I’ve worked for three out of four of them. On the other side of the hill, in L.A. proper, Sony is in Culver City, 20th Century Fox is in Century City (which was named for the studio), and Paramount is in L.A. proper, right next to RKO, which really isn’t doing much lately, both due south of Hollywood and right behind the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — which isn’t in Hollywood either, but which has a large number of dead celebrities. I think that covers most of the majors. YouTube Studios is in Playa del Rey, on the former sight of the Hughes helicopter factory that also happens to be right below the university I went to for film school, Loyola Marymount.

Like I said, company town.

The other fun part about growing up here is all of the film locations that I see every day, and there are tons. Ever see Boogie Nights? Well, most of that film was basically shot within a five mile radius of where I grew up, with only a few exceptions. Dirk Diggler’s fancy new house once he became a porn star? Yeah, my old hood. Location of the club where Burt Reynold’s character finds Mark Wahlberg’s character? I took music lessons a few blocks away from there. Parking lot where Dirk is mistakenly gay-bashed? Pretty close to the public library where I fell in love with reading.

Remember The Brady Bunch or the movies? Well, that house is only a couple of miles away from where I live now. The OG bat cave? Let me take you to Griffith Park. If you’ve ever seen Myra Breckenridge (you should if you haven’t) the place where Myra dances in the opening is right next to where Jimmy Kimmel does his show now and two doors down from the now Disney-owned El Capitan.

The Loved One (an amazing movie) — Forest Lawn Glendale, where I happen to have at least four ancestors buried. Xanadu? The major setting was the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a burned down wreck in my day, but it’s where my dad used to go on date night to roller skate. Go to the Vista Theatre? It sits on the site where D.W. Griffith built one of his biggest sets for Intolerance, his “mea culpa” for making The Birth of a Nation.

I’m not even going to get into how many times the complex I live in has been used for various epic TV shoots (which is a lot) or, likewise, how the area in NoHo I worked in is used by everybody, from YouTubers to major studios. Although, I can tell you that having to put up with film crews and their needs is always a major pain in the ass, especially when it comes to parking vanishing. That’s right — there’s really no glamor in show biz outside of that red carpet.

But I guess that’s the price of admission for growing up and living in a company town and, honestly, I’ve never had a single adult job that wasn’t related to that company ever. (We won’t count my high school jobs as wire-puller for an electrical contractor and pizza delivery drone.)

Otherwise, though — yep. Whether it’s been TV, film, theater, or publishing, I’ve never not worked in this crazy stupid industry that my home town is host to. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way. What? Wait tables? Never. Although sharing my home town with tourists is a distinct possibility. I love this place. A lot. And you should too, whether you’re a visitor or a transplant. Welcome!

Theatre Thursday: On the shoulders of giants

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!

Wednesday Wonders: Seeing the real magic

In honor of the Magic Castle slowly reopening, here’s a reprint of a piece inspired by my visit long ago to the place, in November 2018. It was my second trip but, I hope, not my last.

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started playing The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!


While English can take a pounding and not break, you really should strive to use it in the best ways possible. Here are some of my favorite confused words and the easy ways to remember which is which and how to use them properly.

Of course, I’ve written before about how malleable the English language can be and still be understood. A famous example — possibly apocryphal — details Winston Churchill’s testy reply to an aide who criticized him for ending his sentences with prepositions. Churchill is reported to have replied, “That is an impertinence up with which I shall not put!”

The word order is completely wrong, but you still understood the intention, right?

Yes, English is malleable — a word which is derived from the Latin word for “hammer,” malleus. This is also where we get the word “mallet.” And what thing do you most think of as being malleable? Probably gold, the most malleable metal in the world which, in that sense, means the easiest to hammer because it’s one of the softest.

But I do digress…

While English is capable of handling a lot of mangling, it’s not something that a native speaker — or a proficient ESL speaker — should really be doing. It’s allowable more as a means of facilitating communication with a non-native speaker. For example, if a cab driver from Malaysia misuses parts of speech or words, I’m not going to stomp on his grammar if I understand what he means. He’s not required to speak at that level.

But… if a native speaker who is trying to communicate makes certain simple errors — especially if they claim to be a writer or journalist or teacher or other user of the language as a tool of the trade — then I am going to leap on that with both feet.

It isn’t that hard to learn certain things and keep them in your mind, or to look them up when in doubt. Not sure whether to use affect or effect? Look it up. Can’t remember whether it should be it’s or its, or who’s or whose? Ditto. And don’t rely on spellcheck. It won’t always tell you that you meant principle when you used principal if you spelled the word right.

There are some simple tricks and mnemonics to remember things, though, and here are some of my favorites — a few of which I came up with myself.

Who vs. whom

To be honest, you can pretty much stick with “who” in all cases in informal speech, but it can bite you hard if you misuse them in formal writing — especially if you use “whom” where you should use “who,” because that more than anything will show that you don’t know the difference and are just trying to be pretentious.

The difference, in technical terms, is that “who” is a subject pronoun and “whom” is an object pronoun. Who does something. Whom has something done to them or given to them. But in order to remember most easily which is what, just remember “he” and “him.” This isn’t a sexist example, by the way — it’s just that since “whom” and “him” both end in M it’s easier to remember.

So… take the question and make it a statement, replacing who or whom with the right pronoun — which should be easy — and you have your answer: “To who/whom does the invitation go?” “The invitation goes to him.” Therefore, it’s “whom.” “Who/whom is walking down the hall?” “He is walking down the hall.” Therefore, “Who is walking down the hall?”


Another tricky one that’s easier than you think, with one very specific exception that you’ll rarely run across unless you’re a mental health professional. One of these words is a verb and the other is a noun, and the key to knowing which is which is right in the words.

“Affect” is almost always a verb, meaning an action word — and it starts with A as well. So, if it’s an action, then it’s almost always “affect.” “She was very affected by the poem.” (“Whom did the poem affect?”)

“Effect” is almost always a noun, which is a concrete object or… an entity. There’s your E, for entity and effect. “The poem had an effect on her.” (“On whom did the poem have an effect?”)

The “affect” as a noun exception refers to the way that someone presents their emotions through expressions and is most often heard in the phrase “flat affect,” meaning that they are showing no emotions through their affect, or appearance.

The “effect” as a verb exception occurs almost always and specifically in the phrase “effecting a change,” so it’s kind of easy to avoid if you’re not sure — although remember, a change is not a living thing, so it’s hard to really affect it.


This one is really easy but, surprisingly, I didn’t know the difference until I was given a simple mnemonic by a TV producer I worked for, who told me (in her notes on a script, no less!) that the way to remember is that a “desert” is full of Sand, while a “dessert” is Something Sweet. Boom, done.

And, I suppose, by extension, you (verb) desert something by Shuffling away… Yeah, that one needs work.

Bonus round: noun/verb

I only just learned this one but… typically, in English, for words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, the emphasis is on the first syllable if it’s a noun, and the last if it’s a verb: Lost in the desert, noun; the soldier will desért his post, verb. Obvious exception — of course: he bought shoe polish and then decided to polish his shoes. Oops… no difference there!


This is one of those words that always gets used backwards, but if you want to appear really educated you’ll get it right. The way most people use it is backwards — “The chess set is comprised of many pieces,” and it’s a synonym for “made up of,” but that’s wrong.

In reality, it’s more direct but also more subtle: “comprise” applies to the thing doing the containing, not the things in it, and it doesn’t need the preposition “of.” So the correct use would be something like “The USA comprises fifty states and various territories.” (Not “The USA is comprised of…”)

E.G. vs. I.E.

Last example, but one that will set you apart, and you only need to remember four little words. “E.G.” is short for “exempli gratia,” and if that looks familiar it’s because in Spanish it would be “ejemplo gratis,” and you probably know the word “gratis” even if you only speak English because it means “free.”

So… e.g. means “free example,” and a free example can be one of many. “The zoo is full of many animals, e.g. lions.” This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have zebras or tigers or bears — oh my — just that you only listed one of them.

I.E. is more exclusive, because it comes from the Latin “id est,” meaning, “that is.” You only use I.E. when you are giving a unique or specific example. E.G. (see what I did there?) “He was only interested in getting his pilot on the Peacock Network, i.e. NBC.” There is only one Peacock Network, after all.

They were going to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, i.e. The White House.

There are a lot more examples I could give, and when I get to apostrophes and homonyms, hang on to your hats, but these should be enough for now. Enjoy — and share your favorite confused words and mnemonic helps in the comments below. Thanks!

Being a basic bit

Zeroes and Ones are the building blocks of what’s known as binary, and the juice that our digital world runs on. Another way to think of it is this. In our so-called Base 10 world, we deal with ten digits, and depending upon what you’re counting, you can either go from 0 to 9 (things) or 1 to (1)0 (dates, place order). Since 9 is the highest digit, when any column hits it, the 9 next rolls back to 0 and the digit to its left increments up, initially from 1.

So after the number 9, we get 10. After 19, we get 20, after 99, it’s 100, and so on. Also note that 100 happens to be 10 x 10, 1,000 is 10 x 100, 10,000 is 100 x 100, etc. This will be important in a moment.

In the binary world, things roll over faster. In fact, the only digits you have are 0 and 1, so counting works like this: start with 0, then 1. But 1 is as high as we can go, so after 1 comes 10, which, in binary, represents 2.

That might seem strange, but here’s the logic behind it, going back to decimal 10. What is 10, anyway? Well, it’s the number that comes after we’ve run out of digits. Since we’re used to base 10, it doesn’t require any explanation to see that 10 always comes after 9. At least in base 10. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first there’s a very important concept to introduce, and that’s called “powers.”

The powers that be

No, I’m not talking Austin Powers. Rather, raising a number to a power just means multiplying the number by itself that many times. In its basic form, you’ll often see Xn. That’s what this means. It’s just a more efficient way of writing things out:

            2 x 2 = 22 = 4

            3 x 3 x 3 = 33 = 3 x 9 = 27

            10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 105 = 100 x 100 x 10 = 10,000 x 10 = 100,000

Here’s an interesting thing about powers of 10, though. The end result will always have exactly as many zeros as the exponent, or power that you raised 10 to. 109. Simple: 1,000,000,000. If it’s 102, 100, and so on.

And the two fun sort of exceptions that aren’t exceptions to keep in mind:

            X x 0 x N = N, aka X0 = 1

            X x 1 = X1 = X.

101 is 10 with 1 zero, or 10; 100 is 10 with no zeroes, or 1.

In other words, any number to the power of zero equals 1, and any number to the power of 1 equals itself. And there you go, that’s all you need except for this: When it comes to determining what the power is, we count “backwards” from right to left. The last digit before the decimal takes the 0 power, next to the left is 1, next over from that is 2, and so on.

Everything in its place

Since places correspond to powers, in Base 10 we would call the digits, right to left, the ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten-thousands, hundred-thousands, and so on places. In binary, you’d have the ones, twos, fours, eights, sixteens, thirty-twos, etc.

Makes sense? Then let’s look at a four-digit number in binary: 1776.

But here’s an interesting trick: in computer logic, it often becomes much easier for the circuits to literally read in the digits backwards in order to do these steps upwards in the proper order. This saves the step of having to figure out how long a string is before assigning the proper power to the most significant digit, which is the last one on the left.

So, to calculate, we’ll count it from right to left, which will make it easier to follow what’s happening. Let’s go with 6771 for ease of use. The 6 is in the zero position, so it represents 6 x 100, in which case this is 6 x 1, meaning just plain old 6.

Next, a 7 times 101, which is just 10, so this spot is worth 70 and we’re up to 76.

Next, 7 times 102, which is 100 times 7. Add that to the rest, it’s now 776.

Finally, a 1 in the spot multiplied by 103, which is 10 x 10 x 10, which is 10 x 100, so… 1,000. Slap that on the rest, and there you go: 1776.

This works exactly the same way in any other base. So let’s look at a typical binary number: 1011 1110. As humans, we could deal with doing the whole thing backwards, but again, let’s make it easy for the machine, feed it in right to left, and watch the sequence in action:

Digit (D) 0    1    1    1    1    1    0    1
Power (p) 0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7
2^p       1    2    4    8    16   32   64   128
2^p x D   0    2    4    8    16   32   0    128
SUM       0    2    6    14   30   62   62   190

Or in base three or trinary, let’s look at 21221121, entered again in reverse:

Digit (D) 1    2    1    1    2    2    1    2
Power (p) 0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7
3^p       1    3    9    27   81   243  729  2187
3^p x D   1    6    9    27   162  486  729  4374
SUM       1    7    16   43   205  691  1420 5794

Now, let’s take a look at an interesting property in Base 10 and see if it translates over.

Dressed to the nines

In Base 10, any number divisible by nine also has all of its digits add up to nine. You can easily see this with the first few pairs of two-digit multiples of nine: 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, and so on. The tens digit goes up by one while the ones digit goes down by one, and that makes perfect sense. Why? Because when you add nine, what you’re really doing is the same as adding 10 and then taking away one.

It doesn’t matter how big the number is. If you can add the digits up to nine, then you can say it’s divisible by nine. To just pull a number out of thin air, I guarantee that 83,764,251 is evenly divisible by nine. I could also put any number of nines anywhere in that number and it would still be divisible, or put the digits in any order. And if you have a number that has all of the digits from 0 to 9 in any order, then it’s divisible by 9.

So does this property hold for other bases? What about Base 8? In that case, we should expect seven to be the magic number. I’ll spare you the torturing of Excel I did to run a  test, but the answer is: Yes. If a number is divisible by seven in Base 8, then its digits add up to seven. Here’s the list from the Base 8 equivalent of 1 to 99 (which is 1 to 77): 7, 16, 25, 34, 43, 52, 61, 70. Now none of those numbers in Base 10 is divisible by seven, but in Base 8 they are. Here’s how and why it works.

When you divide a number in Base 10 by 9, you start on the left, figure out how many times 9 goes into that whole number, carry the remainder to the next digit, and repeat the process. So to divide 27 by 9, you start by dividing 20 by 9. This gives you 2 times 9 = 18. Subtract 18 from 20, you get 2. Carry that over to the next place, which is 7, add 2 and 7, you get 9, which is divisible by 9. Add the 2 from the first result to 1, and your answer is 3.

Did you notice anything interesting there? It’s that you happened to wind up with the number in the Base digit twice. Two times 9, with the remainder of 2 adding to the other digit, and what was the other thing we noticed? That’s right. The sum of the digits is 9, so what’s left when you divide the ten’s digit by 9 has to add to the one’s digit to total 9.

This is true in any other base. Let’s look at our Base 8 example of 34. We can’t cheat by converting to Base 10, so the 3 tells us that 7 goes into the number three times. But since 3 times 7 is 3 less than 3 times 8, that’s our remainder. Add that to the 4 to get 7, and boom, done. In Base 8 34/7 = 3+1 = 4. Convert the Base 8 to Base 10 to get 28, and voila… 4 times 7 is 28. The answer is the same either way when you reduce it to a single digit.

A spot check bears this out with other bases, so it would seem to be a rule (though I’m not sure how to write the formula) that for any Base, B, and any number evenly divisible by B-1, the digits of that number will add up to B-1.

That’s the funny thing about whole numbers and integers. They have periodicity. What they do is predictable. Multiples of any integer will appear at regular intervals without jumping around no matter how far towards any particular ∞ you go. Irrational numbers and primes, not so much. But it’s good to know that the basis of digital computing is so reliable and regular. In fact, here’s a funny thing about binary: Every single number in binary is evenly divisible by 1 because all of the digits of every single number in it adds up to a number divisible by… 1. And a Base 1 numbering system is impossible, because the largest possible number in it is 0. It also breaks the whole Base rule above, because nothing can be divided by 0. Base 1 is the Black Hole of the numbering system. The rest should be pretty transparent.

Sunday Nibble Extra: Power up

You could say that May 16 can be an electrifying day in history. Or at least a very energetic one. On this day in 1888, Nikola Tesla described what equipment would be needed to transmit alternating current over long distances. Remember, at this time, he was engaged in the “War of the Currents” with that douche, Edison, who was a backer of DC. The only problem with DC (the kind of energy you get out of batteries) is that you need retransmission stations every mile or so. With Tesla’s version, you can send that power a long way down the wires before it needs any bump up in energy.

Of course, it might help to understand in the first place what electric charge is. Here’s Nick Lucid from Science Asylum to explain:

But if you think that electric current flows through a wire like water flows through a pipe, you’re wrong, and there’s a really interesting and big difference between the one and the other, as well as between AC and DC current. DC, meaning “direct current,” only “flows” in one direction, from higher to lower energy states. This is why it drains your batteries, actually — all of the energy potential contained therein sails along its merry way, powers your device, and then dumps off in the lower energy part of the battery, where it isn’t inclined to move again.

A simplification, to be sure, but the point is that any direct current, by definition, loses energy as it moves. Although here’s the funny thing about it, which Nick explains in this next video: neither current moves through that wire like it would in a pipe.

Although the energy in direct current moves from point A to point B at the speed of light, the actual electrons wrapped up in the electromagnetic field do not, and their progress is actually rather slow. If you think about it for a minute, this makes sense. Since your battery is drained when all of the negatively charged electrons move down to their low energy state, if they all moved at the speed of light, your battery would drain in nanoseconds. Rather, it’s the field that moves, while the electrons take their own sweet time moving down the crowded center of the wire — although move they do. It just takes them a lot of time because they’re bouncing around chaotically.

As for alternating current, since its thing is to let the field oscillate back and forth from source to destination, it doesn’t lose energy, but it also keeps its electrons on edge, literally, and they tend to sneak down the inside edges of the wire. However, since they’re just as likely to be on any edge around those 360 degrees, they have an equally slow trip. Even more so, what’s really guiding them isn’t so much their own momentum forward as it is the combination of electricity and magnetism. In AC, it’s a dance between the electric field in the wire and the magnetic field outside of it, which is exactly why the current seems to wind up in a standing wave between points A and B without losing energy.

I think you’re ready for part three:

By the way, as mentioned in that last video, Ben Franklin blew it when he defined positive and negative, but science blew it in not changing the nomenclature, so that the particle that carries electrical charge, the electron, is “negative,” while we think of energy as flowing from the positive terminal of batteries.

It doesn’t. It flows backwards into the “positive” terminals, but that’s never going to get fixed, is it?

But all of that was a long-winded intro to what the Germans did on this same day three years later, in 1891. It was the International Electrotechnical Exhibition, and they proved Edison dead wrong about which form of energy transmission was more efficient and safer. Not only did they use magnetism to create and sustain the energy flow, they used Tesla’s idea of three-phase electric power, and if you’ve got outlets at home with those three prongs, frequently in an unintended smiley face arrangement, then you know all about it.

Eleven years later, Edison would film the electrocution of an elephant in order to “prove” the danger of AC, but he was fighting a losing battle by that point. Plus, he was a colossal douche.

Obviously, the power of AC gave us nationwide electricity, but it also powered our earliest telegraph systems, in effect the great-grandparent of the internet. Later on, things sort of went hybrid, with the external power for landlines coming from AC power, but that getting stepped down and converted to operate the internal electronics via DC.

In fact, that’s the only reason that Edison’s version wound up sticking around: the rise of electronics, transistors, microchips, and so on. Powering cities and neighborhoods and so on requires the oomph of AC, but dealing with microcircuits requires the “directionality” of DC.

It does make sense though, if we go back to the water through a house analogy, wrong as it is. Computer logic runs on transistors, which are essentially one-way logic gates — input, input, compare, output. This is where computers and electricity really link up nicely. Computers work in binary: 1 or 0; on or off. So does electricity. 1 or 0; positive voltage, no voltage. Alternating current is just going to give you a fog of constant overlapping 1s and 0s. Direct current can be either, or. And that’s why computers manage to convert one to the other before the power gets to any of the logic circuits.

There’s one other really interesting power-related connection to today, and it’s this: on May 16, 1960, Theodore Maiman fired up the first optical LASER in Malibu, California, which he is credited with creating. Now… what does this have to do with everything before it? Well… everything.

LASER, which should only properly ever be spelled like that, is an acronym for the expression Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

But that’s it. It was basically applying the fundamentals of electromagnetism (see above) to electrons and photons. The optical version of electrical amplification, really. But here’s the interesting thing about it. Once science got a handle on how LASERs worked, they realized that they could use to send the same information that they could via electricity.

So… all those telegraphs and telephone calls that used to get shot down copper wires over great distances in analog form? Yeah, well… here was a media that could do it through much cheaper things called fiber optics, transmit the same data much more quickly, and do it with little energy loss over the same distances.

And, ironically, it really involved the same dance of particles that Tesla realized in figuring out how AC worked way back in the day, nearly a century before that first LASER.

All of these innovations popped up on the same day, May 16, in 1888, 1891, and 1960. I think we’re a bit overdue for the next big breakthrough to happen on this day. See you in 2020?

What is your favorite science innovation involving energy? Tell us in the comments!

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Except…

This is another one of my older posts that keeps getting new traffic over and over,  nd I don’t know why. I thought I’d give it another boost for new readers to discover.

The title of this article comes from an incredibly iconic poster that was created during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Specifically, it was created by printmaker Lorriane Schneider in 1967, and was inspired by her concern that her oldest son would be drafted and die in a war that many Americans considered unnecessary.

However, the Vietnam War is a strange exception and beginning point for a tidal change in American wars. Post-Vietnam, the only benefits wars seem to have given us are more efficient (although not cheaper) ways to kill people, and that sucks. (Incidentally, the Korean War is technically not a war. It also technically never ended.)

But… as weird as it may sound, a lot of the major wars prior to Vietnam actually gave American society weird and unexpected benefits. Yeah, all of that death and killing and violence were terrible, but like dandelions breaking through urban sidewalks to bloom and thrive, sometimes, good stuff does come in the aftermath of nasty wars. Here are five examples.

The American Revolution, 1775-1783

The Benefit: The First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution)

By the beginning of the 18th century, Europe was having big problems because Monarchs and the Church were all tied up together, the state dictated religion, and so on. It came to an extreme with Britain’s Act of Settlement in 1714, which barred any Catholic from ever taking the throne. The end result of this was that the next in line turned out to be the future George I, son of Sophia. Sophia, however, was an Elector of Hanover or, in other words, German. Queen Victoria was a direct descendant of George I, and spoke both English and German. In fact her husband, Prince Albert, was German.

But the net result of all the tsuris over the whole Catholic vs. Protestant thing in Europe, on top of suppression of the press by governments, led to the Founders making sure to enshrine freedom of speech and the wall between church and state in the very first Amendment to the Constitution, before anything else. To be fair, though, England did start to push for freedom of the press and an end to censorship in the 17th century, so that’s probably where the Founders got that idea. But the British monarch was (and still is) the head of the Church of England, so the score is one up, one down.

The War of 1812, 1812-1815

The Benefit: Permanent allegiance between the U.S. and Britain

This was basically the sequel to the American Revolution, and came about because of continued tensions between the two nations. Britain had a habit of capturing American sailors and forcing them into military duty against the French, for example, via what were vernacularly called “press gangs.” They also supported Native Americans in their war against the fairly new country that had been created by invading their land. So again, one up, one down. And the second one, which is the down vote to America, is rather ironic, considering that the Brits were basically now helping out the people whose land had been stolen by… the first English settlers to get there.

And, honestly, if we’re really keeping score, the U.S. has two extra dings against it in this one: We started it by declaring war — even if there were legitimate provocations from Britain — and then we invaded Canada.

But then a funny thing happened. The U.S. won the war. By all rights it shouldn’t have. It was a new country. It really didn’t have the military to do it. It was going up against the dominant world power of the time, and one that would soon become an empire to boot.

The war technically ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, but there was still the Battle of New Orleans to come after that, and it happened because news of the end of the war hadn’t gotten there yet. In that one, the U.S. kicked Britain’s ass so hard that they then basically said, “Remember all the concessions we made in that treaty? Yeah, not. LOL.”

In a lot of ways, the war was really a draw, but it did get the British to remove any military presence from the parts of North America that were not Canada, and opened the door to American expansionism across the continent. It also helped to establish the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, which is to this day the world’s longest undefended border. Finally, it cemented the relationship of the U.S. and Britain as allies and BFFs, which definitely came in handy in the 20th century during a couple of little European dust-ups that I’ll be getting to shortly.

The American Civil War, 1861-1865

The Benefit: Mass-manufactured bar soap

Now in comparison to the first two, this one may seem trivial and silly, but it actually does have ramifications that go far beyond the original product itself. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of bar soap now or go for the liquid kind (my preference), because both were really born out of the same need and process.

Once upon a time, soap-making was one of the many onerous tasks that the women of the house were expected to do, along with cleaning, cooking, sewing, canning, laundry, ironing, taking care of the menfolk (husbands and sons, or fathers and brothers), and generally being the literal embodiment of the term “drudge.” But soap-making was so arduous a task in terms of difficulty and general nastiness that it was something generally done only once or twice a year, basically making enough to last six or twelve months.

To make soap involved combining rendered fat and lye. (Remember Fight Club?) The fat came easy, since people at the time slaughtered their own animals for food, so they just ripped it off of the cow or pig or whatever meat they’d eaten. The lye came from leeching water through ashes from a fire made from hardwood, believe it or not, and since wood was pretty much all they had to make fires for cooking, ashes were abundant. Yes, I know, it’s really counter-intuitive that something so caustic could be made that way, but there you go. The secret is in the potassium content of the wood. Fun fact: the terms hard- and softwood have nothing to do with the actual wood itself, but rather with how the trees reproduce. (And I’ll let your brain make the joke so I don’t have to.)

So soap was a household necessity, but difficult to make. Now, while William Procter and James Gamble started to manufacture soap in 1838, it was still a luxury product at the time. It wasn’t until a lot of men went to war in 1861 that women had to run homesteads and farms on top of all of their other duties, and so suddenly manufactured soap started to come into demand. Especially helpful was Procter and Gamble providing soap to the Union Army, so that soldiers got used to it and wanted it once they came home.

Obviously, easier access to soap helped with hygiene but, more importantly, the industry advertised like hell, and from about the 1850s onward, selling soap was big business. There’s a reason that we call certain TV shows “soap operas,” after all, and that’s because those were the companies that sponsored the shows.

World War I, 1914-1918 (U.S. involvement, 1917-1918)

The Benefit: Woman’s suffrage and the right to vote

It’s probably common knowledge — or maybe not — that two big things that happened because of World War I were an abundance of prosthetic limbs and advances in reconstructive and plastic surgery. However, neither of these were really invented because of this conflict, which “only” led to improved surgical techniques or better replacement limbs.

The real advance is sort of an echo of the rise of soap via the Civil War, in the sense that the former conflict freed women from one nasty restriction: Having no say in government. And, as usually happens when the boys march off to do something stupid, the women have to take up the reins at home, and sometimes this gets noticed. It certainly did in the case of WW I, and suffragettes wisely exploited the connection between women and the homefront war effort. Less than two years after the conflict officially ended, women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Hey! Only 144 years too late. Woohoo!

World War II, 1939-1945 (U.S. involvement, 1941-1945)

The Benefit: The rise of the American middle class

As World War II was starting to move to an end, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was passed into law. It was designed to assist returning service members via things like creating the VA hospital system, providing subsidized mortgages, assisting with educational expenses, and providing unemployment. It was also a direct reaction to the less-than-fantastic reception returning veterans of World War I had received.

In fact, one of FDR’s goals in creating what is commonly known as the G.I. Bill was to expand the middle class, and it succeeded. Suddenly, home ownership was within reach of people who hadn’t been able to obtain it before and, as a result, new housing construction exploded and, with it, the emergence of suburbs all across the country. With education, these veterans found better jobs and higher incomes, and that money went right back into the economy to buy things like cars, TVs, and all the other accoutrements of suburban living. They also started having children — it’s not called the Baby Boom for nothing — and those children benefited with higher education themselves. The rates of people getting at least a Bachelor’s Degree began a steady climb in the 1960s, right when this generation was starting to graduate high school. At the same time, the percentage of people who hadn’t even graduated from high school plunged.

The top marginal tax rates of all time in the U.S. happened in 1944 and 1945, when they were at 94%. They remained high — at least 91% — throughout the 1950s. Oddly, despite the top rate in the 1940s being higher, the median and average top tax rates in the 1950s were higher — about 86% for both in the 40s and 91% for both in the 50s. The economy was booming, and in addition to paying for the war, those taxes provided a lot of things for U.S. Citizens.

Even as his own party wanted to dismantle a lot of FDR’s New Deal policies, President Eisenhower forged ahead with what he called “Modern Republicanism.” He signed legislation and started programs that did things like provide government assistance to people who were unemployed, whether simply for lack of work or due to age or illness. Other programs raised the minimum wage, increased the scope of Social Security, and founded the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In a lot of ways, it was like the G.I. Bill had been extended to everyone.


There is an interesting class of words in English called contronyms. They are defined as words that have two contradictory definitions. You might wonder how this happens. There seem to be three different reasons.

The first is that the words are homographs. If you remember your Latin, this comes from the words “homo” for same, and “graph,” which refers to writing, so homographs are words that are written the same, but that’s the only thing they have in common. Contrast this to homophones, meaning same sound but with different meanings. Additionally, the words should have different etymologies. That is, they did not come from the same source words.

A good homographic example of this is the word “cleave,” which can either mean to join together or to split apart. “The bride and groom cleaved onto each other until hard times cleaved them apart.” The former sense comes from the Old English word cleofian, with the same meaning. The latter comes from Old English clēofan, to separate, which actually is a different word despite looking so similar.

The second way contronyms happen is through a form of polysemy, which comes from the Greek for many (poly) signs (semy, the root of semiotics.) [That link is provided for the sake of showing sources, but unless you’re a linguist it will make your head explode trying to read it. —Ed.] The main point to remember is that contronyms can happen as language evolves and a word begins to be used in a different sense by different groups.

Frequently, this refers to technical jargon, although it doesn’t always create contronyms. A good example is the word “insult.” In the medical field, it refers to a physical injury and not nasty words Medically speaking, adding insult to injury would be completely redundant.

A modern example of a contronym created this way is the word “sick” — in one sense, it refers to something that’s not well off: “Javi is feeling very sick today.” In another sense, it means something that’s really excellent: “Javi busted out some sick rhymes to win that rap battle.”

Finally, contronyms can happen when two different versions of the language use words in a different sense. The classic example of this is the word “table” as used in meetings. In American English, when a bill is tabled, that means that it’s removed from discussion and either dropped or put on hold. In British English, when a bill is tabled, that means it’s brought up for debate.

A few fun examples

There are a lot of contronyms, not just in English, but in other languages. Spanish has its own autoantónimos, and some of them even match their English counterparts. For example, rent/alquilar refers to the act of either renting from someone or renting to someone; sanction/sancionar refers to imposing a penalty or officially allowing something.

They can be a lot of fun, so let’s look at a few from a very long list, used together in their opposite meanings, along with some alternate meanings the word might also have.

Bill: When it’s not on a duck, you can pay a bill with a twenty-dollar bill, so this word has your money covered coming and going.

Bolt: When a lightning bolt strikes nearby, you might be inclined to bolt the door fast and stay inside, or you may bolt in fear and run away.

Custom: Everybody had followed exactly the same custom for years: to custom order for the New Year so that everyone’s shoes were completely different.

Dust: After the detectives dusted for prints, I had to dust the furniture to get it all off.

Fast: After a brief fast, I wanted to run away fast, but alas I was held fast because my belt got stuck to the chair.

Garnish: He was a chef who loved to garnish the entrees with parsley and cherry tomatoes, but was very sad after his divorce when his ex got a judge to garnish his wages.

Give out: (a rare two-word contronym!) He gave out his business cards tirelessly until his energy gave out completely.

Left: By the time there was only one bottle of wine left, all of the guests left and walked to the left, disappointed.

Off: Bob the Burglar thought that the alarm was off until he broke inside and set it off.

Out: It wasn’t until all of the lights went out that they could see how many stars were out at night.

Oversight: The oversight committee thought that they had monitored everything, but they realized their big oversight too late to fix it.

Refrain: “I wish you would refrain from singing that,” the teacher demanded, but the students went on and sang the same refrain again and again.

Rock: Joe was always solid and immobile as a rock until someone started to play rock music, at which point he would rock back and forth uncontrollably.

Strike: During the general sports strike, the replacement archers managed to strike the targets every time. Meanwhile, the baseball batters weren’t so lucky, getting strike after strike.

Throw out: (another two-worder!) I’m just going to throw out this idea for everyone to consider, but we really need to throw out the trash.

Trim: Before we can trim the Christmas tree, we really need to trim some of these branches.

Weather: The house had weathered many a winter season until its walls became too weathered to stand any longer.

Wind up: (two-worder number three!) I don’t mean to wind you up, but after you wind up this jack-in-the-box, we really need to wind up the evening and go home.


Some of the most interesting and fun contronyms lend themselves to neat wordplay, some of which I indulged in above. Since one of the hallmarks of humor is the unexpected, throwing a pair of contronyms into a sentence can be a great tool for spicing up your writing. I would offer an apology for my puns but I think I can write a pretty good apology in support of the concept. And there’s another word with great Greek roots: Apo-, a prefix meaning, among other things, a response or defense; logo, which means word; and –ia, a suffix in Greek indicating either a female singular or neuter plural noun or adjective.

So… words in response to or defense of something. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s not. If I offer an apology for my puns, then I’d say something like, “I am really sorry that I’ve made those puns.” If I write an apology for puns, then it would be a long piece tracing their history, showing examples, and describing why they are a valid form of humor — the exact opposite of apologizing for them.

But I won’t apologize for puns. Especially not when a contronym also has other meanings, because that’s where we can get into triple word score on a single sentence.

I mean, I’m not trying to be mean, but I think that puns are a wicked mean form of humor, you know what I mean.

Photo: “Black Sheep Meets White Sheep” (cc) 2011 by Leon Riskin, used unchanged under Creative Commons license 2.0.

Talky Tuesday: False friends and other stuff

As I wrote about previously, learning at least one other language is something that’s good for your brain, and not necessarily as hard to do as you might think, especially depending on how your native and second languages are related. For an English speaker, Germanic and Romance languages are probably easier to learn than Semitic or Japonic languages. Not necessarily the case — I know plenty of Americans who’ve learned Hebrew as pre-teens or learned Japanese because of a love of Anime and Manga — but sticking to other languages with common roots will help.

And if you learn one language from a family, while you may not be able to fluently speak related languages, you may at least be able to understand them. From learning Spanish, I can often understand spoken Italian, as well as frequently be able to read French and Portuguese. No such luck with Romanian, though. And yes, although it might be a surprise to some people, Romanian is a Romance Language, too. In fact, it’s the one that gave the family its name. Because I’d studied German, Dutch made sense to me when I dabbled in it. And so on.

But… a funny thing can happen as languages diverge from their origins and change. All of the Romance languages came from Latin. They are the remnants of the Roman Empire, after all. But all of them evolved and changed until they went from being street dialects of the imperial tongue to their own very separate things.

The same thing happened with English. It started out as a language spoken by a tribe on an island off of the west coast of Europe with influences from a different language from other tribes on an island off of that island’s west coast. This got a heavy early dose of Latin thanks to Roman invaders. Then, a few centuries later, it was infused with Nordic Languages via the Vikings and, for a while, the kings there were Danish.

That all ended when ol’ William the Conqueror came roaring in in 1066, bringing French with him. In fact, for a long time, the nobility spoke French while the peasants spoke English and everybody went to church in Latin.

We can still see remnants of the Norman Conquest today. It’s so often cited that it’s not really news, but that’s why we have different words for the animals: cow, pig, chicken, sheep; and for the meat from them, beef, pork, poultry, mutton. The former are all old Anglo-Saxon terms and the latter are French. The peasants grew the stuff. The nobility ate it.

The French roots are still really obvious in the latter: boeuf, porc, poulet, mouton. Meanwhile, the Germanic roots are really clear in the Anglo-Saxon words: Kuh, Schwein, Huhn, Schaf. The one odd one might seem to be chicken, Huhn or Hähnchen, until you remember that we call a female chicken a… hen.

Side note, looking at poulet and mouton: The reason that a lot of English words in British spelling have –ou where the American versions have just –o is that Samuel Johnson had a jones for preserving etymology, so words derived from French kept the French spelling — colour, behaviour, etc. Johnson was kind of a pedant — which is just a fancy Latin-based word for “douche.” But I do digress.

The real point here is this: One of the big bugbears that language learners do face is what are called “False Friends.” That is, words in two different languages that look like each other, but actually have very different meanings. At their most harmless, they can lead to silly misunderstandings. At their most harmful, well… that’s self-explanatory.

Probably one of the most famous examples that any English speaker who takes Spanish 101 learns almost off the bat is this one: Embarazada. For those of you who haven’t studied Spanish, I’ll give you a moment to take a guess at what this word means. Hint: It’s an adjective.

While we’re waiting: One of the funniest (to me) Spanish errors someone can make is to leave the tilde off of the “n” in the word “años,” which means years. In Spanish, the phrase is not “He is X years old,” it is “He has X years.” So leaving the tilde off changes a statement like, “My grandfather (is) has seventy years (old)” to “My grandfather has seventy anuses.”

As for embarazada, what’s your guess? If you said embarrassed, then be embarrassed, because it actually means pregnant.

Speaking of actually… it’s generally easy to convert adverbs from English and Spanish and mostly be right. Adverbs that end with –ly in English end with –mente in Spanish. Probably, probablamente. So the word actualmente might look like it means actually… but it doesn’t. It means currently, as in “right now.” Actualmente escribo un artículo por mi blog. Right now, I’m writing an article for my blog.

Easey peasey. Or, in Spanish, pan comido, which literally means “eaten bread,” but I think you can see how that relates to another English saying: “piece of cake.”

Other fun false friends: Carpeta is not a carpet, which is alfombra, a word that Spanish borrowed from Arabic. Rather, carpeta is a folder, particularly a file folder. You’ll see this word all the time if you switch your devices to Spanish.

And there’s another one. Dispositivo might look like it has to do with disposing stuff, but it doesn’t. This is the word for devices, particularly phones and tablets.

If you work for a business or company, then you might feel like they’re getting all imperial on you. Easy mistake to make if you misinterpret the Spanish word therefore: Empresa.

Looking for a way out? Then you don’t want the éxito, which is actually a big hit — un gran éxito is a song or movie or TV show that earns a lot of money. If you really want to go, look for la salida.

If you want to introduce someone in Spanish, then don’t use introducir, because that means to insert something, and I don’t think you want to get that intimate with your… um… introductions. Instead, use presentar.

On the other hand, molestar in Spanish is a lot more innocuous than it is in English. If you molestas alguien en español, at most they’ll look at you funny and walk away. If you molest someone in English, you’ll probably wind up in jail and on a list. Molestar in Spanish simply means “to bother.” As Winnie the Pooh might say, “Ay, que molesta.”

Then, there’s this one: Fingir. I know what it looks like, but what it really means is “to pretend.” But if you go around fingering people in English… well, without their consent, don’t.

Finally, if you want to wash up, don’t reach for the sopa unless you want to bathe in soup. Otherwise, what you want is jabón… not to be confused with the Spanish word for ham, which is jamón. And this word may or may not have appeared in Michael Jackon’s “Bad.”

I haven’t done this in reverse, but let me know if you can. If you’re a non-native speaker learning English, what words in our language look like but aren’t words in your own? And if you’re an English speaker learning something other than Spanish, what false friends pop up in your target language?

Comment below!

Talky Tuesday: If you love it, you’ll learn it

When you’re learning a new language, there’s one excellent method to increase your vocabulary and improve your fluency, and here it is.

Different people have different learning styles. Some people learn visually. That is, if they see it, they won’t forget it. Others are auditory learners, who pick things up via hearing. And there are also people whose learning method is tactile, through touch or physical motion.

Now, some of those skills seem to apply obviously to certain disciplines. Painters are probably visual learners, musicians are auditory, and dancers are tactile. In the case of language, you might think that it’s an auditory skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. Fortunately, you can use different tricks to learn a new language via your own method.

For visual people, it’s all about words, so the obvious best natural ways for visual learners to pick up a new language are reading and watching.

For auditory people, it’s all about sound, so they’re going to want to listen, although videos won’t hurt if they do have sound as well.

For tactile people, it’s all about sensations, so they’re going to be doing a lot of writing things down by hand.

That part of the lesson may seem like a “Well, duh” moment, but the key is in what you’re reading, listening to, or writing. If you want to learn a new language, treat it like your first language.

That is, whether you’re reading, listening, watching, or writing, you’re going to want to do it with things on subjects that interest you. I can’t emphasize this enough. What you should be doing is seeking out online resources in your target languages — generally newspaper and magazine sites — and then focus on the sections that pertain to your interests.

Whether you’re a fan of movies, TV, sports, fashion, politics, or whatever, if the content in the target language you’re scooping into your brain via your preferred method happens to be about topics you already love, then your contextual understanding is going to go through the roof.

Why? Well, because specialized topics happen to use specialized words, and the quickest way to start to understand the heart of a language — which is how words are derived, how idioms are formed, and so on — is to pick up those words that were created to describe your favorite topic.

I’m a fan of film and theater, for example, so a word I see a lot is taquilla, which means box office. As in English, it’s both a literal and metaphorical meaning. It can refer to the physical place where tickets are sold or to the amount of money a film or play took in.

But where did taquilla come from? Well, like a lot of words in Spanish, it came from Arabic (La Conquista lasted for centuries), and taquilla is a diminutive for “taca.” That word, in turn, came from the Arabic taqah, which referred to a window with bars — a good physical description of a lot of actual box offices, actually.

Incidentally, pretty much any word in Spanish that begins with “al” came from Arabic, where the al- prefix just means “the,” similar to how Spanish combines the articles “a” (to) and “el” (the) into “al.” For example, algodón, which means cotton, and which is also the source of the English word; or alfombra, which means carpet, and this gets back to the focusing on what you love idea. Alfombra was permanently cemented in my brain after seeing it in a few articles about movie premieres always in this context: “en la alfombra roja.” On the red carpet.

The best part is that this is not just limited to Spanish, thanks to the internet (either la internet or la red), because you can probably pretty much find resources in any target language somewhere. If you want to read, you can find national newspapers in the native language and probably plenty of websites — and it will also be a big help to adjust Google’s language settings to include your target. If you want to watch or listen, then there are also tons of videos in other languages. And if you learn by writing, you’ll need source material, so transcribing audio or copying the written word will help as well.

But, again, the key to it is this one simple bit: engage with what you’re interested in in the first place, and it will make your target language come alive in a way that rote lessons or drills or routines never will.

Love it, live it, learn it!

Image © Syed Ikhwan. Used via Creative Commons license 2.0.