s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: November 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

L is for Lois Lane

My family used to watch the TV show "Lois & Clark" together every Sunday night. My brother was only 4 years old when the show premiered, but he already wore glasses at that age, and it was nice to introduce him to Clark Kent as a glasses-wearing role model.

One day, shortly after the show premiered, my mom and I were talking about the creator's unique take on the Superman "myth," when I started to make a point, saying "Well, Lois doesn't know that Clark Kent is Superman, so —" when my (know-it-all) little brother sharply interrupted me and exclaimed "Clark Kent is NOT Superman!"

We turned to stare at him and it dawned on us that this was his first introduction to the Superman story and . . . he hadn't quite caught on to the secret identity part, yet.

The ironic thing about this Superman / Clark Kent split is that Superman is so well known as an icon that pretty much everyone in the world knows the truth behind his "secret" identity; almost the only people who don't are a cheerfully clueless group of reporters at the Daily Planet. (Leading the pack is Lois Lane, who is supposed to be a first class reporter, yet who still doesn't see the big coverup right in front of her eyes. The writers of "Lois & Clark" once gleefully parodied this situation, when they introduced a character who came back in time from the future and made fun of Lois for being so dumb.) But, like I said, everyone in the real world knows that Clark is Superman. Well, almost everyone.

"OK, honey. Clark Kent is NOT Superman."

(You and Lois, kid.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My Quirks

Having been asked to name some quirky things about myself, I hereby comply. (I also hereby limit myself to just three quirks; the vinegar obsession will have to wait for another day.)

1. I love wrapping paper.

I currently have 15 rolls of wrapping paper, 3 of which are new within the last month. This would be fine if I had, say, upwards of a hundred presents to wrap, but I only have about ten, so I'm buying about six times as much wrapping paper as I'm actually using up.

I'm particularly fond of foil wrapping paper, especially green and gold, although I also try to remember to buy wrapping paper which doesn't scream "Christmas." I've also currently got wrapping paper which has giant peacock feathers on it, paper with red, orange, and yellow stripes, and silver snakeskin paper.

I love wrapping paper from Papyrus, but the closest store is in Boston. Borders, however, tends to have a decent selection of stuff from either Papyus or Paper Chase. I also got some paper from The Container Store this year, which I think I'll like.

I actually like paper crafts, generally, including origami and bookbinding, but I don't really have the tools to do bookbinding right now and origami is pretty but quasi-pointless once you're done, so wrapping paper is a nice way of indulging my paper-related interests.

2. I rarely buy books.

Mind you, I read plenty of books, I just don't buy them all that often.

In general, I don't see the point. I don't care to reread most books, anyway, and when I do, I'm generally patient enough to wait until I can get it at the library. And as for the books that I want immediate access to — well, those are the ones that I buy. (This ends up being lots of reference and grammar books, and a few other favorites.)

(A more practical concern is that I'd I'd need an extra $500-$1,000 a year to buy all of the books I read, which I simply don't have. Plus, having a due date hanging over my head makes means I'm more likely to finish a book.)

3. I don't listen to music.

This is not to say that I have taken some sort of sacred vow of non-musicality, it's just . . . well, you know those people who say "I should really read a book some time" as if it's something they've been meaning to do because they know it would be good for them? Well, that's pretty much how I am with music. I'll happily listen to it if it's on, and I tend to like most of what I'm exposed to, but I hardly ever go and seek it out, myself. I like stories and I like new information, but music typically presents me with neither, so I don't find it entertaining enough to bother with.

Unfortunately, when I hear someone say "I should really read a book some time," I tend to write them off as a potential friend and it's entirely possible that others are doing the same thing at this very moment. Ah, well, c'est la vie.

I now tag the last three people who commented on my blog: Theric, Optimistic., and Redoubt.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Books: The Fight for English

I love this book. I want to make all of my prescriptivist friends read it. (And I want to throw it at my prescriptivist enemies.)

The full name of David Crystal's book is The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left and although the subtitle does spoof Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, his target is not so much her book, but the more general attitude of "zero-tolerance" linguistic prescriptivism.

The Fight for English is a humorous look at the history of the English language and of English-language prescriptivism. He starts when English was still very subordinate to Latin as the language of the educated, continues as it was subordinated again with the Norman invasion, then traces its eventual rise in literary prominence, together with the rise of language "experts" who continually make dire predictions about the future of the language if some grammatical pet peeve is not stamped out of existence.

David Crystal is no fool. He's written, edited, or contributed to over 200 publications, so he's pretty clear on the need for good editing and proofreading and he agrees that good writing should be elegant and precise. However, he takes issue with people who claim to support those same things, but then get fixated on nit-picky, invented rules which don't serve those ends.

Crystal takes aim at a number of prescriptivist mantras, including ending sentences with a preposition, split infinitives, and conflating "will" and "shall." He crushes the arguments for maintaining such silly rules by demonstrating that (1) most "offensive" constructions have a very long history in the language (thus negating the argument that they are recent corruptions which must be stamped out if the language is to be kept "pure"), (2) they are skilfully used by some of the greatest writers in the English language (which addresses the claim that the constructions are base or sloppy), and (3) in one memorable occasion, actually demonstrates that not splitting an infinitive results in prose which is convoluted and ambiguous in meaning. (One thing he doesn't do as much is get into the deep syntax behind "wrong" constructions to explain the linguistics and cognitive mechanics behind them. If that's more your cup of tea, please visit the Language Log.)

In the last few chapters, Crystal delves into modern usage and prescriptivism from a particularly British perspective, which American readers may not find as relevant. (E.g. "Who knows who first changed the stress from 'controversy' to 'controversy'?" A: No one, on my side of the pond.) However, the book as a whole is a delightful romp through the history of natural language change and those who respond to it by proclaiming that the sky is falling.

Monday, November 10, 2008

D is for . . . Dink!

When my brother was a baby, one of our uncles, M., used to play a game with him where M. would put his finger up to my brother's nose and then give it a gentle poke while saying "Dink!" (We could pretend that this was an important exercise in developing eye coordination and an understanding of cause and effect, but the more likely truth is that we tend towards temptingly squishy noses in my family. Also, I have no idea why "Dink" is the appropriate sound when poking someone's nose. It just sounded right.)

Later, this game expanded so that our uncle would wave his finger up and down saying "nimi nimi nimi nimi . . ." getting closer and closer to my brother's nose until until — "Dink!"

Still later, when my brother had more head coordination, my uncle would say "nimi nimi nimi nimi . . ." then bring his finger almost to my brother's nose, until my brother would bounce his head forward to get the "Dink!" (Because, of course, you want a dink on the nose, for some reason.)

When he learned to walk, the "nimi nimis" would start from the other side of the room, and my brother would have to race across the room to get the "Dink!"

I don't remember why the "Dink!" game stopped. Perhaps he got too old for it or maybe it was around the time my uncle moved, so we didn't see him quite as often. Regardless, it's one of those things that seems perfectly normal and common at one point in your life, and then outgrow it and can forget it ever happened.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Etymological wanderings: deckled edition

My libray was recently asked to scan and digitize an old law book for another library in the state. When we received the book, I had to carefully examine it to see what scanner we should use, taking into account the book's size and paper quality.

The pages of the book had a somewhat ragged, uneven edge, which led my coworker to describe them as "rag paper." I volunteered that the technical term is actually a "deckled edge." (To make matters more confusing "rag paper" is also a technical term, but it refers to paper with a high cotton content ("rag content"), due to cotton rags being added to the paper pulp.)

My coworker asked where the word "deckle" came from, and I realized that I didn't know. (But if you know me, you know I can't let that state of things last for very long.) The German word "decke" means "cover." It's diminutive form is "deckel," which came to refer to a cover placed over a screen when making paper, to force the pulp to be confined to a certain space. Eventually, the spelling changed slightly, and the word "deckle" came to refer to the ragged, untrimmed edge of a sheet of handmade paper.

This reminded me of another term which has the same German root. "Gedeckt" (lit. "covered") refers to a certain type of organ pipe which has a cover on top, instead of being open to the air. Covering the top makes the pipe sound an octave lower, although there are tradeoffs in terms of overtones.

Lastly, the English word "deck" also comes from the same German root, because the deck of a boat can be thought of as a cover for its cargo. Other types of decks are named by extension from boat decks.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Classes I took in college that I didn't need to graduate, in roughly the order I took them:

French 202H (Intermediate French, part 2)
Germ 101-202 (1st year German, part 1 - 2nd year German, part 2)
French 311R (3rd year conversation)
Music 115 (Basic Organ Skills)
Welsh 101A-B (First Year Welsh [part 1])
PE 191 (Weight Training, Beginning)
PE 150 (Ice Skating)
PE 181 (Tennis, Beginning)
ELang 421R (Studies in Language)
FLang 382R (Language Study Colloquium)
Fren 299R (Academic Internship)
PE 125 (Flexibility)
Russ 202 (2nd Year Russian, Part 2)
Phscs 167 (Descriptive Acoustics)
VAStu 103 (Intro to Drawing)
Chin 101 (1st Year Mandarin)

Total number of credits in question: 54

Classes I regret taking: 0