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.

Theatre Thursday: A Bard’s dozen

I am a huge fan of Shakespeare, so keep that in mind and… here we go…

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that the psychological truths in his plays are so universal that they offer themselves up for endless adaptations and recreations. They can be staged as faithfully as possible to the actual look and feel of whatever era he was writing about, or be stretched and bent into just about anything else. A lot of people may not know it, but the seminal 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet is somewhat based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and when you can easily leap from 17th century romance to 20th century science fiction, it says a lot about the original writer.

The other amazing thing about his works is this, and something I cannot emphasize enough to someone who fears getting into Shakespeare: Yes, it may be hard to read his words on the page, but watch them acted by brilliant performers, and you’ll be sucked in in a second. The language barrier will vanish while the emotional power will take you over.

Here then are half a dozen straight adaptations of his works, followed by half a dozen that only took inspiration but still delivered powerful stories because, after all, the Bard of Avon was a powerful story-teller.

Straight Adaptations (Most to least faithful to the original era of the story)

  1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Probably one of the Bard’s best-know works, which also gave us West Side Story and  Romeo + Juliet, this tale of star-crossed lovers was best told and most accurately cast in Zeffirelli’s version. Unfortunately, years later, the actor Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in the film, took part in the #MeToo movement, when he revealed that Zeffirelli sexually harassed him on set.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999, Kevin Kline)

This is one of the most over-produced Shakespeare plays ever, possibly because it’s really the least substantial, but at least this version managed to nail things down definitively with an amazing cast. I mean, come on… Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, and David Strathairn…  how much more stellar could you get?

  1. Henry V (1989)

Branagh. Shakespeare. Say no more. He is one of the most definitive Shakespearean actors — in fact, he can rightly tell Laurence Olivier to fuck right off (because, honestly Olivier wasn’t that good as Hamlet or Richard III.) But Branagh has brought us multiple Shakespearean adaptations, from Hamlet to Henry V to Much Ado, and all of them are brilliant. Still… his turn as director and star in the pivotal film in Shakespeare’s amazing “War of the Roses” cycle knocks everything else out of the park.

  1. Hamlet (1990)

Despite the allegations about Zefferelli mentioned above, he still gave us a version of Hamlet that rang true, even if Mel Gibson was way too old to play the hero and Glenn Close was way too young to play his mother. Branagh did it six years later, but his exercise was way too academic. Zefferelli’s is visceral and gutsy, and definitely blew Olivier’s bloodless 1948 attempt right out of the water. Unlike Branagh’s, Zefferelli did not adapt the play mostly uncut — which is why his version only runs 2 hours and 14 minutes, while Branagh’s is just over 4 hours.

  1. Richard III (1995)

This is my second favorite Shakespeare play starring one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellan, and the reimagination here is brilliant. It takes this War of the Roses and sets it in an imaginary world where the UK went through a civil war in the 1930s and the fascists won — at first. McKellan plays the humpbacked anti-hero with all of the nasty glee necessary, and is aided and abetted by an amazing cast. (Full disclosure: My actor’s dream would be to play Gloucester/Richard III through the whole cycle of plays he’s in, from all of the Henry VI’s through Richard III… He’s just that amazing a douchebag of a character.)

  1. Titus (1999)

And this is my favorite Shakespeare play, despite most Shakespeare scholars considering it problematic, but in Julie Taymor’s adaptation, it takes off and sings. Her first and most brilliant move was setting it in a Rome that is not specific, but is eternal — it could be anywhere from the time of Julius Caesar to the time of Mussolini, or maybe even Fellini, and it all works. On top of that, the cast is amazing: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Harry Lennix, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Angus Macfadyen. If you’re not sure about Shakespeare, this is probably your best entry point.

Reimaginations (Nearest to furthest)

  1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Quick catch-up: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Hamlet. In the play, they are two old school pals of Hamlet, and they were brought in by the villain to lure Hamlet onto a boat-ride intended to lead to his death. However, Hamlet turns the tables, re-writes a letter and, instead, sentences these two to be executed in his stead. This play, by Tom Stoppard, makes R&G the lead characters, with the actions in Hamlet in the background, and becomes an existential comedy. In the film version, directed by Stoppard, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman essay the lead roles, with Richard Dreyfuss appearing as the lead player — more important here than he was in Hamlet.

  1. Ran (1985)

I saw this film at one of the revival houses in L.A. and went in knowing nothing about it, other than that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. I was about one act into what I thought was some traditional drama set in the shogun era when my brain suddenly clicked and I realized, “Holy crap. This is King Lear.” And it was. Other than a gender swap up top regarding who inherits what, the rest of it is pure Shakespeare, and there are a lot of moments that really stand out visually, particularly the mad king wandering unharmed through a castle that is being pin-cushioned by arrows, and the summary execution of Lady Kaede, which indicates that maybe her blood pressure was a bit too high.

  1. Scotland, PA (2001)

Another odd little adaptation, but one which gets the source material entirely: This is Shakespeare’s story of ambitious monarchs writ large brought down to human scale, and it totally works. Yes, it’s set in a real place, and manages to reset all of the drama of Shakespeare’s original in the context of the petty squabbles inherent to a fast-food franchise. Surprisingly, though, this does not blunt the drama from the Scottish Play one bit.

  1. West Side Story (1961)

As if you didn’t know, this is Romeo & Juliet, updated and with an utterly amazing collaboration with seasoned pro Leonard Bernstein writing the score and newbie Stephen Sondheim providing the lyrics. This was lightning in a bottle, almost perfect in every way from Broadway onward, and the movie adaptation is one of the most incredible musicals ever filmed. The talent on tap is over the top, the numbers are choreographed to perfection (thank Jerome Robbins for that), and put this down as the second best adaptation of Romeo and Juliet ever filmed.

  1. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Also known as The Taming of the Shrew (see how the titles rhyme?) this is another Shakespeare update that is admirable for bringing the bard to a new and younger audience. It’s the same story in a different setting: Petruchio… er, Cameron, wants to date Bianca, but her dad is stuffy, so won’t let her date anyone until her older sister Kat hooks up. Enter Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) who will try to, well, tame that shrew. This all takes place at Padua High School, and it’s all a lot better than you might think it’d be from the description.

  1. Theater of Blood (1973)

All right. Question one: Do you like Shakespeare? Question two: Do you like Vincent Price? Question three: Are you a fan of horror movies? Well, if you answered “yes” to at least two of those questions, this is your lucky day. Theater of Blood is an amazing film in which Vincent Price plays a disgruntled Shakespearean actor who did not win a critics’ award, so goes on to bump off each of those critics following his most recent season of Shakespeare plays. The cast of critics is an all-star bunch of British actors of the 1970s, Price is abetted by the amazing Diana Rigg (what ho, Game of Thrones fans!) and we get the amazing combination of Price and Rigg doing Shakespeare, a comedy gore-fest, and a metric buttload of fantastic British actors, well, acting. Keep your eyes out for murders based on Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Othello, Henry VI: Part One, and Titus Andronicus. Price’s character fails, however, with attempts at Romeo & Juliet and King Lear. Oops… spoilers?

What is your favorite Shakespeare play or film adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

Wonderous Wednesday: 5 Things that are older than you think

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only about fourteen years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843.

Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo.

Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress!

You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones, prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.

CGI

When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that.

Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies.

However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt

Why astrology is bunk

This piece, which I first posted in 2019, continues to get constant traffic and I haven’t had a week go by that someone hasn’t given it a read. So I felt that it was worth bringing to the top again.

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially right now, because I’m seeing a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.

Fact

Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.

Science

What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.

History

If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So…stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.

Experiment

The late, great James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, did a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Plus I don’t think it’s even possible for Uranus to go retrograde from the Earth’s point of view.

Conclusion

If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s probably what created the Moon. So ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.

Wednesday Wonders: How the world almost ended once

I happen to firmly believe that climate change is real, it is happening, and humans are contributing to and largely responsible for it, but don’t worry — this isn’t going to be a political story. And I’ll admit that I can completely understand some of the deniers’ arguments. No, not the ones that say that “global warming” is a hoax made up so that “evil liberals” in government can tax everyone even more. The understandable arguments are the ones that say, “How could mere humans have such a big effect on the world’s climate?” and “Climate change is cyclic and will happen with or without us.”

That second argument is actually true, but it doesn’t change the fact that our industrialization has had a direct and measurable impact in terms of more greenhouse gases emitted and the planet heating up. Also note: Just because you’re freezing your ass off under the polar vortex doesn’t mean that Earth isn’t getting hotter. Heat just means that there’s more energy in the system and with more energy comes more chaos. Hot places will be hotter. Cold places will be colder. Weather in general will become more violent.

As for the first argument, that a single species, like humans, really can’t have all that great an effect on this big, giant planet, I’d like to tell you a story that will demonstrate how wrong that idea is, and it begins nearly 2.5 billion years ago with the Great Oxygenation Event.

Prior to that point in time, the Earth was mostly populated by anaerobic organisms — that is, organisms that do not use oxygen in their metabolism. In fact, oxygen is toxic to them. The oceans were full of bacteria of this variety. The atmosphere at the time was about 30% carbon dioxide and close to 70% nitrogen, with perhaps a hint of methane, but no oxygen at all. Compare this to the atmosphere of Mars today, which is 95% carbon dioxide, 2.7% nitrogen, and less than 2% other gases. Side note: This makes the movie Mars Attacks! very wrong, because a major plot point was that the Martians could only breathe nitrogen, which is currently 78% of our atmosphere but almost absent in theirs. Oops!

But back to those anaerobic days and what changed them: A species of algae called cyanobacteria figured out the trick to photosynthesis — that is, producing energy not from food, but from sunlight and a few neat chemical processes. (Incidentally, this was also the first step on the evolutionary path to eyes.) Basically, these microscopic fauna would take in water and carbon dioxide, use the power of photons to break some bonds, and then unleash the oxygen from both of those elements while using the remaining carbon and hydrogen.

At first, things were okay because oxygen tended to be trapped by organic matter (any carbon containing compound) or iron (this is how rust is made), and there were plenty of both floating around to do the job, so both forms of bacteria got along fine. But there eventually became a point when there were not enough oxygen traps, and so things started to go off the rails. Instead of being safely sequestered, the oxygen started to get out into the atmosphere, with several devastating results.

First, of course, was that this element was toxic to the anaerobic bacteria, and so it started to kill them off big time. They just couldn’t deal with it, so they either died or adapted to a new ecological niche in low-oxygen environments, like the bottom of the sea. Second, though, and more impactful: All of this oxygen wound up taking our whatever atmospheric methane was left and converting it into carbon dioxide. Now the former is a more powerful greenhouse gas, and so was keeping the planet warm. The latter was and still is less effective. The end result of the change was a sudden and very long ice age known as the Huronian glaciation, which lasted for 300 million years — the oldest and longest ice age to date. The result of this was that most of the cyanobacteria died off as well.

So there you have it. A microscopic organism, much smaller than any of us and without any kind of technology or even intelligence to speak of, almost managed to wipe out all life forms on the planet and completely alter the climate for tens of millions of years, and they may have tipped the balance in as little as a million years.

We are much, much bigger than bacteria — about a million times, actually — and so our impact on the world is proportionally larger, even if they vastly outnumbered our current population of around 7.5 billion. But these tiny, mindless organisms managed to wipe out most of the life on Earth at the time and change the climate for far longer than humans have even existed.

Don’t kid yourself by thinking that humanity cannot and is not doing the same thing right now. Whether we’ll manage to turn the planet into Venus or Pluto is still up for debate. Maybe we’ll get a little of both. But to try to hand-wave it away by claiming we really can’t have that much of an impact is the road to perdition. If single-celled organisms could destroy the entire ecosystem, imagine how much worse we can do with our roughly 30 to 40 trillion cells, and then do your best to not contribute to that destruction.

Momentous Monday: Dog talk

Here’s a blast from the past, an article from before the quarantine which is still relevant today. In fact, this one is even more relevant because, when I wrote it in 2019, I had no idea that all three of my dogs would be past tense by now.

I’ve noticed a really interesting phenomenon with two of the three dogs I’ve owned as an adult. Well, technically one-and-a-half, because the first one, Dazé, started out as the family dog that we adopted after the first dog died. Basically, we started out together when I was still doing the whole K-12 thing and lived with my parents when I went to college.

But although she was supposed to have been my mom’s dog, Dazé was having none of that. She decided that I was her human almost from the beginning — we adopted her at 12 weeks old — and when I finally moved out on my own after college and as soon as I was able to, she moved in with me and then never left. She was probably the most intelligent dog I’ve ever met, and also one of the most easy-going. She loved people and other dogs, and yet somehow always managed to be the boss dog in any pack. The first place I moved her to, there was a Rottweiler mix that started as a puppy but who grew into a giant of a dog that could stand on her hind legs and look me in the eyes, and I’m 6’2”. Didn’t matter. That dog, Toad (my former roommate has an odd but wonderful sense of humor) totally deferred to Dazé in everything, and all it took was a look from my dog. She never bared her teeth or made threats or anything. It was amazing to watch.

This carried on later when I lived in a house with two other guys and four other dogs, all of which were much bigger. Dazé weighed about 30 pounds, while the other dogs each weighed at least 90. That didn’t matter. It was a house rule, at least among the dogs, that none of them were allowed in “my” room, even if I tried to beg and coax them in. I remember one particular night when the roomies were both out of town and it was storming something fierce. I’d let one of the dogs, Sarah (an Irish Wolfhound, so you know the scale) into the backyard because she gave me that “Gotta pee” look. But when she was done, I decided to let her in via my room, which had a sliding door that opened onto the yard, rather than through the kitchen. So I opened it, called her in, and despite the downpour and sad look on her face, she really, really didn’t want to.

And what was Dazé doing? Just sitting on the bed, looking calm and harmless. I finally managed to get Sarah to come in, but she slinked so low to the ground and dashed through so fast, that the message was obvious:

“SorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorryokayImout.”

And Dazé just stayed on my (ahemn — her) bed, doing nothing.

I never really did figure out how she had this super power, although I did see one crack in it at a New Year’s Day party held by a playwright friend of mine. Her theory was that since we could never really know the exact birth dates of our dogs unless they came from a breeder (hint: they never should) then we might as well just peg it to the start of the year and go from there. So everyone was invited to bring their dog.

All well and good, Dazé gets along with dogs, but then a party guest who had snorfed a little too much herbal refreshment started giving Milk Bones to my dog and the hostess’ dog, Hank, who was a pretty hefty yellow Lab mix. Well, the inevitable happened. She tossed one too close between them, Dazé went to grab it, and Hank decided to put her head in his mouth. It was more of a warning than an attack, but she ducked and fled, and when she came back to me — and it was very clear that she was in “Daddy, daddy, help” mode — I was able to pick her up like she was a Kleenex. She’d gone so limp in fear that she really seemed to weigh nothing. There was a tiny nick on her head that was bleeding, and it was the one and only moment I ever got to see her lose her mojo.

Flash forward to current dog, who has a lot in common with Dazé, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Dazé finally passed, and she came to me as a fearful rescue, a white German Shepherd mix who started out terrified of me until I just ignored her, but once she realized that it was okay for her to sleep in my bed with me and that I gave her food, she bonded totally. Just like with Dazé, I was her human. However, she never really developed the talent that Dog 1 and Dog 3 did, and although I loved her very much, I have to say that she was the problem child I had to have in order to learn.

When Shadow was five, I decided that she needed a companion, and so I adopted Sheeba, who was 11 months old, and who had been thrown out of a car for reasons I’ll never understand. What struck me about her in the shelter, though, was that she just seemed so calm — and this was even more amazing when I found out on adoption day later that week that I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in after being saved from the streets.

Sheeba is a lot like Dazé. Put her in a pack situation, and she goes into boss mode. The big difference with her, though, is that it’s really clear that she does it physically instead of mentally. Dazé would just give a look. Sheeba tends to get in the other dog’s face and puff up. (By the way, the two of them were just about the same size.)

And yes, she’s gotten into her share of fights — several times with Shadow, and once or twice with friends’ dogs. These mostly revolve around food, as in, “Bitch, back off my dish, or Ima hurt you.” A big thing I learned when I had both Shadow and Sheeba was this, too: As a human, do not try to impose the alpha/beta roles, because it will lead to disaster. See, in my mind, I did the typical parent thing. “Older kid gets first dibs and such.” Yeah, that works with humans. With dogs? Not so much.

If I’d been aware enough from the start, then I would have made Sheeba alpha, and that would have made both of them happy. Instead, I tried to make Shadow alpha, which only managed to piss off Sheeba and make Shadow even more nervous.

Oops.

But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Dazé is that dogs really do speak to us, too. We just have to learn to listen. Now, I’m not sure whether I’m the one who took so long to pick up on it, or she’s the one who took so long to figure out how to train me, but… during the last five or six years of her life, I started to notice that she would approach me with intent, make eye contact, and then basically create a subject-verb-object sentence (SVO) by where she was looking.

The funny thing is that this is actually the way that English works, too. “You do this” is probably one of the simpler examples. Stripped down in dog talk, though, it omits finer points of vocabulary like adjectives and adverbs, although, to be honest, these really seem to come out of attitude — a really impatient, huffy dog is coloring the entire sentence with “fast” or “soon.” In a lot of ways, that’s like any form of sign language, where the tone of the sentence isn’t portrayed in what the hands are doing, but rather in the face and expressions.

In that context, it makes total sense, because our dogs have basically had to figure out how to teach us how to understand their signing. And that’s pretty amazing.

Both Dazé and Sheeba eventually started doing this, and it always took the same pattern. After they’d gotten my attention, they’d make eye contact, which meant “You.” Then they would pointedly turn their head to look at something, so literally using an action as an action word, although I think that “Dog” probably only has one universal word that can mean do, make, get, or give. This really isn’t all that far off from human languages, which not only frequently have one verb that can mean all of those things, but it’s also one of the most irregular verbs in the language. (Side note: It’s almost a guarantee that the verb for “to be” was, is, and/or will be ridiculously irregular through all tenses in every language.)

Anyway, so… look at me, then turn the head — subject, verb. And what happens next? Object, which is where the dog looks — their bowl, meaning “food,” the sink, meaning “water,” the cupboard, meaning “treat,” or the door, meaning “walk,” or… anything else. The point here is that the need the dog expresses it not abstract, and that is probably where the species separate.

After all, a five-year-old can tell its parents, “I want to go to Disneyland when school is out.” A dog, not so much. While they may have a sense of language, they do not have a sense of time. If you doubt that, compare how excited your dog is to see you come home after five minutes vs. five hours. Not really a lot of difference, right?

A long time ago, humans naively believed that we were the only species to develop language, but that’s clearly not true. If we define language as set of syntactic methods to communicate, then most species have language, and humans are not unique. We are probably unique in the sense that we alone use written or inscribed symbols to represent the sounds that make up our language, which is what you’re reading right now, but we do not absolutely know that we are the only ones.

The point, really, is this: We all need to step back from this idea that humans are the superior life forms (hint: we’re not) and, instead, start to listen to all of the others, and to nature itself. If you’re lucky enough to have pets of any kind, start to pay attention and listen. They may be trying to tell you something, and are getting totally frustrated that you’re too stupid to understand. Dog knows that this is how Dazé finally taught me.

Did I mention that the first couple of times she tried the “You give food” thing with me, she actually gave me a dirty look when I didn’t get, audibly sighed in frustration, and then pointedly repeated it until I finally got it? Because that is exactly what she did. And that is why I got it the first time Sheeba did it. Which is interesting in itself, because it means that one generation of dog managed to teach me a language that I was able to understand in a much later generation, and, holy crap, how amazing is that?

Image: Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

How have your pets communicated with you? Let us know in the comments!

Look, up in the sky!

Throughout history, humans have been fascinated with the sky, and a lot of our myths were attempts to explain what goes on up there. In many cultures, the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) were named after deities or attributes of the planets with surprising consistency.

Mercury was often named for its swiftness in orbiting the Sun; Venus was always associated with beauty because of its brightness; Mars’s red color led to it being named either for a violent deity or that color; Jupiter was always associated with the chief deity even though nobody in those times had any idea it was the largest planet; and Saturn, at least in the west, was named after Jupiter’s father.

This led to Uranus, which wasn’t discovered until the 18th century, being named after Saturn’s father, i.e. Jupiter’s grandfather. Neptune, discovered in the 19th century, and Pluto, discovered in the 20th century before being rightfully demoted from planetary status, were only named for Jupiter’s less cool brothers.

Since the planets were given attributes associated with deities, their relationship to each other must have meant something, and so the bogus art of astrology was invented, although it was obviously not complete prior to Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto being added, but then was clearly incorrect during the entire period of time that Pluto was a planet. (Hint: That was a joke. It was incorrect the entire time.)

Since humans are also hard-wired to see patterns, the stars above led to the definition of constellations, the night-time version of the “What is that cloud shaped like?” game.

It wasn’t really until the renaissance and the rise of science, including things like optics (one of Newton’s discoveries), which gave us telescopes, that we really started to take a look at the skies study them. But it is still astounding how so many laypeople know so little about what’s up there that we have had completely natural phenomena freaking us out since forever. Here are five examples of things in the sky that made people lose their stuff.

1. Total eclipse of the heart… er… Sun

Until science openly explained them, eclipses of any kind were scary. For one thing, nobody knew when they were coming until Royal Astronomer became a thing, but only the elite were privy to the information, so the Sun would go out or the Moon would turn blood red, or either one of them would appear to lose a piece at random and without warning. Generally, the belief was that the Moon or Sun (particularly the latter) was being consumed by some malevolent yet invisible beast that needed to be scared away.

But long after modern science explained that an eclipse was nothing more than the Moon passing in front of the Sun or the Earth passing in front of the Moon, shit went down in 1878, at least in low-information areas.

The thing about this eclipse was that it had been predicted close to a century before, had been well-publicized, and was going to put the path of totality across the entire U.S. for the first time since its founding. There’s even a book about it, American Eclipse. But there’s also a tragic part of the story. While the news had spread across most of the growing nation, it didn’t make it to Texas, and farm workers there, confronted with the sudden loss of the Sun, took it to mean all kinds of things. A lot of them thought that it was a portent of the return of Jesus, and in at least one case, a father killed his children and then himself in order to avoid the apocalypse.

2. Captain Comet!

Ah, comets. They are an incredibly rare sight in the sky and well worth traveling to see if that’s what you need to do. I remember a long trek into the darkness when I was pretty young to go see Comet Hyakutake, and yes it was worth it. It was a glorious blue-green fuzzball planted in space with a huge tail. Of course, I knew what it was. In the past, not so much.

In the ancient world, yet again, they were seen as bad omens because something in the heavens had gone wrong. The heavens, you see, were supposed to be perfect, but there was suddenly this weird… blot on them. Was it a star that grew fuzzy? Was it coming to eat the Earth? What could be done?

That may all sound silly, but as recently as 1910, people still flipped their shit over the return of one of the more predictable and periodic of “fuzzy stars.” That would be Comet Halley. And, by the way, it’s not pronounced “Hay-lee.” It’s “Hall-lee.”

And why did it happen? Simple. A French astronomer who should have known better, wrote that the tail of the comet was full of gases, including hydrogen and cyanide, and if the Earth passed through the tail, we would either be gassed to death or blown up. Unfortunately, another French astronomer at the time actually played “Got your back” with him, and that was all it took.

It was pseudoscience bullshit at its finest, propagated by the unquestioning and uninformed (when it comes to science) media, and it created a panic even though it was completely wrong.

The worst part about Halley’s 1910 appearance? It bore out Mark Twain’s statement, paraphrased probably: “I came into the world with it, I will go out with it.” And he did. Goddamit.

3. Meteoric rise is an oxymoron

And it definitely is, because a meteor only becomes one because it’s falling. And while we’re here, let’s look at three often confused words: Meteor, meteoroid, and meteorite.

The order is this: Before it gets here and is still out in space, it’s a meteoroid. Once it hits our atmosphere and starts to glow and burn up, it has become a meteor. Only the bits that actually survive to slam into the planet get to be called meteorites. Oid, or, ite. I suppose you could think of it as being in the vOID, coming fOR you, and then crash, goodnITE.

So the things that mostly cause panic are meteors, and quite recently, a meteor blowing up over Russia convinced people that they were under attack. It was a fireball that crashed into the atmosphere on February 15, 2013, and it actually did cause damage and injuries on the ground.

The numbers on the Chelyabinsk meteor are truly staggering, especially to think that they involved no high explosives, just friction and pure physics (Hello again, Sir Isaac!) The thing was about 66 feet in diameter, which is the length of a cricket pitch, or about four feet longer than a bowling lane. It compares to a lot of things, and you can find some fun examples here.

But there was nothing fun about this asteroid. It came screaming through our atmosphere at about 41,000 miles an hour at a steep angle. The heat from the friction of our atmosphere quickly turned it into a fireball of the superbolide variety, which is one that is brighter than the sun. It exploded about 18 miles up. That explosion created a fireball of hot gas and dust a little over four miles in diameter. The kinetic energy of the event was about 30 times the force of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Over 7,200 buildings were damaged and 1,500 people were injured enough to need medical attention, mostly due to flying glass and other effects of the shockwave. Unlike other items on this list, these events actually can be dangerous, although this was the first time in recorded history that people were known to have been injured by a meteor. The Tunguska event, in 1908, was a little bit bigger and also in Russia, but happened in a remote and sparsely populated area, with no reported human injuries. Local reindeer were not so lucky.

4. Conjunction junction, what’s your function?

A conjunction is defined as any two or more objects in space which appear to be close together or overlapping when viewed from the Earth. Every solar eclipse is a conjunction of the Sun and Moon as seen from the Earth. Oddly enough, a lunar eclipse is not a conjunction from our point of view, because it’s our planet that’s casting the shadow on the Moon.

Conjunctions shouldn’t be all that surprising for a few reasons.

First is that most of the planets pretty much orbit in the same plane, defined by the plane in which the Earth orbits because that makes the most sense from an observational standpoint.

The inclination of Earth’s orbit is zero degrees by definition and the plane we orbit in is called the ecliptic. You can probably figure out where that name came from. Out of the planets, the one with the greatest inclination is Mercury, at 7º. Counting objects in the solar system in general, the dwarf planet Pluto has an inclination of 17.2º — which is just another argument against it being a true planet. None of the planets not yet mentioned have an inclination of more than 4º, which really isn’t a whole lot.

The second reason conjunctions should not be all that surprising is because each planet has to move at a particular velocity relative to its distance from the Sun to maintain its orbit. The farther out you are, the faster you have to go. Although this is a function of gravity, the airplane analogy will show you why this makes sense.

As an airplane gains speed, the velocity of air over the wings increases, generating more lift, bringing the airplane higher. In space, there’s no air to deal with, but remember that any object in orbit is essentially falling around the body it orbits, but doing it fast enough to keep missing.

If it slows down too much, it will start to fall, but if it speeds up its orbit will get bigger. This is directly analogous to ballistics, which describes the arc of a flying projectile. The faster it launches the farther it goes and the bigger the arc it makes. An arc in orbit becomes an ellipse.

Since every planet is moving at the speed required to keep it at the distance it is, things are likely to sync up occasionally. Sometimes, it will only be one or two planets, but on certain instances, it will be most or all of them. This video is a perfect example. Each one of the balls is on a string of a different length, so its natural period is different. Sometimes, the pattern becomes quite chaotic, but every so often it syncs up perfectly. Note that all of them did start in sync, so it is mathematically inevitable that they will sync up again at the point that all of the different period multiply to the same number. Our solar system is no different since the planets all started as rings of gas and dust swirling around the Sun. There was a sync point somewhen.

So conjunctions are a completely normal phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean that people haven’t gone completely stupid with them. The first way is via astrology, which isn’t even worth debunking because it’s such a load. The Sun is 99.8% of the mass of the solar system, so it constantly has more influence in every possible way over everything else hands down. What influence did the planets have upon your personality at birth? Less than zero. The only relevant factor, really, is that people’s personalities are formed by their relative age when they started school, so that is influenced by the season they were born in, but that’s about it.

As for the modern version of people going completely stupid over conjunctions, it happened in the early 1980s, after the 1974 publication of the book The Jupiter Effect by John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann. In short, they predicted that a conjunction of the planets on March 10, 1982 would cause a series of earthquakes that would wipe out Los Angeles.

Since you’re reading this in at least the year 2020 and I’m quite safely in Los Angeles, you know how their prediction turned out. This didn’t stop them from backtracking a month later and releasing a follow-up book called The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered (aka We Want More Money from the Gullible) in which they claimed, “Oh… we miscalculated. The date was actually in 1980, and the conjunction (that hadn’t happened yet) caused Mount St. Helens to erupt.”

Still, just like with the whole end of the world 2012 predictions, at least some people bought into it.

5. The original star wars

The last item on our list is possibly a one-off, occurring on April 14, 1561 in Nuremberg, Germany. Whether it actually even happened is debatable since only a single account of it survives in the form of a broadsheet — basically the blog post of its day. If it had been as widespread as the story makes it seem, after all, there should have been reports from all across Europe unless, of course, the point of view from Nuremberg created the exceptional event in the first place.

It was described as an aerial battle that began between 4 and 5 a.m. when “a dreadful apparition occurred on the sun.” I’ll quote the rest of the paragraph in translation in full from the article linked above: “At first there appeared in the middle of the sun two blood-red semicircular arcs, just like the moon in its last quarter. And in the sun, above and below and on both sides, the color was blood, there stood a round ball of partly dull, partly black ferrous color. Likewise there stood on both sides and as a torus about the sun such blood-red ones and other balls in large numbers, about three in a line and four in a square, also some alone.”

The unknown author goes on to describe the objects — spheres, rods, and crosses — as battling with each other for about an hour, swirling back and forth. Eventually, the objects seemed to become fatigued and fell to the Earth, where they “wasted away… with immense smoke.

Now, what could have caused this phenomenon? The obvious answers are that it was a slow news day or that it was religious propaganda or some other wind-up. But if it were an actual phenomenon and really only remarked on in one village, then it’s quite possible that it was a meteor shower with an apparent radiant, or source, that happened to line up with the Sun.

It was a Monday, with a new Moon. The Sun rose in the east at 5:05 a.m., so the invisible Moon was somewhere around that part of the sky, too. But this also immediately calls the story into question, since the phenomenon seen coming from the Sun happened before sunrise according to the account. But if we consider that to just be human error, what we have is the Pearl Harbor effect. The attackers come in with the rising Sun behind them, making them hard to see or understand.

On top of that, if they’re coming in from that direction, they’re coming in at a very shallow angle. See the notes on the Russian meteor above. This can lead to some super-heated objects, which would glow red as reported, and anything not red hot against the Sun would appear black. If it happened to be a swarm of objects, like a bunch of small rocks and dust or a bigger piece that broke up, all flying in at once, the chaotic motion could certainly make it seem like a battle.

There is a meteor shower that happens around that time of year called the Lyrids, which is very short-lived, although I haven’t yet been able to find out whether its radiant was near the Sun in 1561. But a particularly heavy shower coming in at just the right angle could have an unusual effect in a limited area.

Or… the author just pulled it out of his ass for his own reasons. We can never know.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano, F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

More stupid Excel tricks: a secret power of IF

The hardest part about working with data, especially in large sets, is the people who input it in the first place. The reason they make it so difficult is because they’re inconsistent, not only in their day-to-day habits, but between one or more different people all entering info into the same database.

When you’re creating something solely for yourself, then by all means be as inconsistent or idiosyncratic as you want. But if it’s a group project creating information that someone like me is going to have to derive useful information from at some point in the future, inconsistency can make my job infinitely more difficult.

This is the reason why things like style guides were created — and they don’t just exist for the written word. Accounting and data management have their own style guides. So does computer programming, although that field has the advantage, because the program itself won’t let you get it wrong. Excel is the same way, although it won’t always tell you how to make it right.

Little things can cause problems and cost a business money. Sally may prefer to spell out words in addresses, like Avenue or Boulevard, while Steve likes to abbreviate with Ave or Blvd. Sam is also big on abbreviations, but always with periods. Seems innocuous, doesn’t it?

It does until the only way to make sure that a massive mailing doesn’t go to the same household at the same address twice is to compare the addresses to each other. That’s because, to a computer, 1234 Main Street, 1234 Main St, and 1234 Main St. are all completely different addresses. There’s no easy way to fix that because computers don’t have a “kinda sorta look the same” function.

Garbage in, garbage out

It’s also important that a database be designed properly. For example, names should always be entered as separate units — title/prefix, first name, middle name, last name, suffix. They can be combined later when necessary. A lot of good databases do this, but it’s completely worthless if somebody enters the first and middle names in the first name field or adds the suffix to the last name. You may have heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out,” and this is a prime example of that. All of the right fields were there, but if used improperly, it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the proper fields aren’t always included. One example I’ve had to wrestle with recently is a database showing the various insurance policies people have had with the agency. Now, that is useful and necessary information, as well as something that legally needs to be maintained. And it’s all right that a person gets one row of data for each policy that they’ve had. Some people will have one or two rows, others might have a dozen or more.

So what’s the problem? This: There are no data flags to indicate “this is the policy currently in effect.” This is doubly complicated since it’s Medicare related health insurance, so someone can have up to two active policies at a time, one covering prescription medications and the other a Medicare supplement. Or a policy may have expired after they decide to drop an MAPD and go back to “original” Medicare but the only way to know that is to look for an ending or termination date — if it was ever entered.

The secret power of “IF”

This is where one of my “stupid Excel tricks” came into it. You may or may not be familiar with some of the numeric functions dealing with columns or rows of numbers, but they basically operate on a whole range. They include functions like SUM, MAX, MIN, and AVG. The usual usage is to apply them to a defined range or series of cells and they have no operators, so you get things like:

=SUM([Range])
=MAX([Range])
=MIN([Cell1],[Cell2],[Cell3],...[Cellx])

Here’s the fun trick, though. If you add one or more “IF” statements within any of these functions, you can perform the operation on a sub-range of data defined by certain criteria. In the example I’m giving, it would look at all of the insurance effective dates for one person and determine the most recent one, which is usually a good indicator of which policy is in effect.

Generally, each item you’re evaluating is in the form of [DataRange]=[CellValue], or in actual Excel terminology, it might look like “$A$1:$A$470=A12” for the version entered in row 12. After the criteria ranges, you enter the range that you want to perform the operation on, close out the parenthesis, then enter.

So let’s say that we have last name in column B, first name in column D, and the dates we want to look at to find the latest are in column N. Our formula would look like this, assuming that the first row has the field headers and the data starts in row two:

=MAX(IF($B$1:$B$525=B2,IF($D$1:$D$525=D2,$N$1:$N$525))

If you’ve entered it right, the formula should be displaying the right number. In effect, you’ll have created a column down the far right side in which the value opposite any particular person’s name equals the maximum date value, meaning the latest. Then you can do an advanced filter (oh, google it!) to pull out just the unique name data and date, then use that to do an INDEX and MATCH to create a dataset of just the most recent plan and effective date. (I covered those two functions in a previous post.)

Or… the original database administrator could have just put those current plan flags in the data in first place, set them to automatically update whenever a newer plan of the same type was added, and voilà! Every step since I wrote “This is where one of my stupid Excel tricks came into it” 396 words ago would have been unnecessary. Time and money saved and problem solved because there was never a problem in the first place.

The art of improv in Excel

On the other hand… solving these ridiculous problems of making large but inconsistent datasets consistent with as little need as possible to look at every individual record just lets me show off my ninja skills with Excel.

It’s really no different than improv. Badly entered data keeps throwing surprises at me, and I have to keep coming up with new and improved ways to ferret out and fix that bad data. In improv, this is a good thing, and one of our mottos is, “Get yourself in trouble,” because that creates comedy gold as things in the scene either get irredeemably worse or are suddenly resolved.

Damn, I miss doing Improv, and long for the days when we can finally return to the stage. But I do digress…

Back to the point: In real life, not so much for easy resolution. It’s a pain in the ass to have to fix the curveballs tossed at us by other people’s laziness and lack of diligence — unless we approach it like a game and an interesting challenge. Then, real life becomes improv again in the best sense.

And I’ll find it forever amusing that the same rules can apply to both a spontaneous, unplanned, free-wheeling art form, and an un-wielding, rigid and unforgiving computer program. They both have their rules. Only the latter won’t allow them to be bent. Okay, some improv games have rules that are not supposed to be bent. But half the fun is in bending those rules, intentionally or not.

With Excel and data-bashing, all of the fun is in following Excel’s rules, but getting them to do things they were never intended to.

Image source: Author, sample output from a completely randomized database generator in Excel used to create completely artificial test data for practicing functions and formulae without compromising anyone’s privacy. Maybe I’ll write about this one some day, if there’s interest.

“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.