WU (What’s Up) With this ARE (Acronym-Rich Environment)?

It started out like any morning, with me rushing to get the kids out the door in time for school. That’s been a little harder lately as the days have gotten shorter and the mornings darker. But we were on track. Lunches were sorted, backpacks were loaded, and we were just stepping out into the garage when my 14-year-old son said, “OMG, BRB.”

I don’t know what he’d forgotten (besides the English language), but he ran quickly into his bedroom and back again. We were on our way, still with enough spare time that I could stop and ask, “What?”

Spelling
It’s shocking, really, how much time we waste in classroom teaching kids basic spelling and speaking skills. Like they’ll ever use them IRL. photo credit: PlusLexia.com Spelling via photopin (license)

He rolled his eyes. Probably—it was still kind of dark. “It means ‘be right back.’”

I rolled my eyes. Definitely—because he deserved it. “I KNOW what it means. I just think it makes more sense to speak actual words.”

Yes, I will freely admit that in that moment I sounded like an old person. I might as well have told him his favorite music was nothing but a bunch of loud noise or that he needed a haircut because he looks like a felon. BTW, one of those statements is true.

He shoved his stuff into the car next to his little brother and said, “Everyone uses text speak. It’s a thing you’re probably just going to have to get used to.”

Here I should clarify that my son is not generally disrespectful and this was said with a charming LOL.

And the thing is that the more I thought about it, the more I realized he might actually be right. Language does evolve, usually in ways we don’t really anticipate and, no matter how hard we try, not always for the simpler.

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I wonder if whatever he’s typing with his thumbs has the recipient responding with a ROTFLUTS. Though personally I’ve never seen anyone rolling on the floor laughing unable to speak because of a text message, I’m sure it happens.

In March of 1906, American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie certainly tried. That’s when he recruited twenty-six influential men of letters to form the Simplified Spelling Board. Included among the membership were Melvil Dewey, who organized all the library books, and Mark Twain, who wrote quite a few of them.

The board combed through some of the most oddly spelled words in the English language to determine when and why they came to be spelled as they did. Then, so as not to confuse a change-resistant American populace, they recommended a list of just three hundred words that could be immediately simplified by influential organizations.

At least one additional powerful man agreed whole-heartedly. In August of 1906, then President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the implementation of the changes throughout all documents coming from the Executive Branch of the US government.

TRoosevelt
President “Rucevelt,” who IMHO may have overreached a little in this instance. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The press wasn’t having it and launched into sarcastic attacks on “Mr. Rucevelt” and the “notis” he’d taken of this truly important movement. The public largely agreed, and by December of that year, the House of Representatives, controlled by the president’s own Republican Party, issued a resolution supporting their strong preference for established dictionary spellings. They also said Teddy’s hair was too long and his music was too loud.

The president eventually gave up the fight and by 1920, the Simplified Spelling Board had dissolved, leaving behind a Handbook of Simplified Spelling and a nation that wasn’t particularly sorry to see them go.

But, some of those original three hundred new recommended spellings actually did get adopted into American English, including gram instead of gramme, maneuver instead of manoeuvre, and hiccup instead of hiccough. Because language evolves, and I guess I better get used to it.

For now, TYSM for reading and not marking this post TL;DR. I’m going AFK. TTYL.

See? I can evolve.

JK. I don’t textspeak.

Why Does My Wrist Hurt?

Not too long ago I celebrated a big birthday. Okay, it wasn’t really that big. It didn’t end in a zero or anything, but it did feel kind of significant only because once upon a time I read Douglas Adams’s funny little five book trilogy that begins with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

hitchhiker'sI even reread the first book in honor of the occasion. I’d forgotten what a trip it is. The book, which started as a BBC radio play, is unapologetically weird and wildly imaginative. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if for no other reason than just so you can catch all of the pop culture references you’ve been missing for years. It’s a pretty quick read, and you’ll learn how useful it can be to travel with a towel, why you should have more respect for mice, and of course, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

It’s this last bit that convinced me to pick up the book again, because I recently turned 42, which according to Adams, is the answer to that ultimate question. There’s been a lot of speculation from fans over the years as to why Adams, who died in 2001, chose the number.

Some suggest he was paying homage to Lewis Carroll who included the number in a variety of ways in his works, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which in this writer’s humble opinion, should probably not be read at all.

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Good advice for 42-year-olds as well as intergalactic hitchhikers. photo credit: artnoose Don’t panic with blue envelope via photopin (license)

Others suggest that it is mathematically interesting because it’s a pronic number, an abundant number, and sphenic number, which I’m sure is super exciting to those who speak mathematics a bit more fluently than I do. Quite recently it also became the last possible number under 100 to be expressed as a sum of three cubes, a solution which much like the answer 42 in the book, was many years in the making and came about as the result of an awful lot of worldwide computing power. It also led to a fair bit of excitement for the people who get excited about such things.

If Adams had some grand and elaborate reasoning behind his choice for the number in the book, he wasn’t telling. He said he chose it because it seemed like a funny number. And that really probably is all there is to it.

Personally, I was hoping for a little wisdom from it. I mean from reaching the ripe old age of 42, not from the Douglas Adams’s book, which is most useful for the clever jokes.

douglas adams inspired "Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy" H2G2
Douglas Adams, the man behind the universe’s nerdy obsession with the number 42. Michael Hughes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the second most powerful computer that will ever be spits out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The problem is that no one knows the question, so the most powerful computer that will ever exist is created. Complete with a biological component, this computer is called Earth, and it gets demolished in preparation for the construction of an intergalactic highway seconds before it spits out the long-awaited question.

Now, I’ve given this a lot of thought. The series does go on to reveal that the question is “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?” which I do speak enough mathematics to realize is a pretty funny punchline. But in all my gathered wisdom from my 42 years on this supercomputer we call Earth is that the question is more likely one of the following:

Why is it now such a struggle to lose a few pounds?
Why am I tired by 8:30 every night?
Why do I cry when other people’s kids leave for college?
Why does my wrist hurt?
Why, even though I feel a little bit more rundown than I did at 15, or 25, or 37, or even 41, do I also feel a little bit wiser?

Granted I don’t know what it’s like to turn 42 on any other planet out there in the wider universe so I can’t say for sure that it’s the answer to absolutely everything, but right now, 42 feels like a pretty good age to be, and I suppose contentment is as good an answer as any to the question of life.

Why I Want to be a Science-y Lemming

The 1959 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Disney’s White Winter, largely for the wonderful exploration the film made of the strange case of lemming mass suicide. It is one of those fascinating oddities of nature, this little rodent that heads off overpopulation by sacrificing huge numbers of its own into the sea every seven to ten years. Narrator Winston Hibler plays up the drama of such an event, speaking of the thousands of little creatures following one another to their deaths.

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Lemming not in the process of committing suicide. Argus fin [Public domain]
It is a striking image for sure, one that since that documentary has come to symbolize the human phenomenon of group think. As strange as lemming behavior may seem to our larger human brains, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to it. We like to be part of a group, to share in the camaraderie of a single purpose.

At times, that can be a great thing about humans. Together, large group of individuals united in a single purpose can turn the tide of public opinion form wrong thinking into righteous action. And there’s been a lot of good accomplished in the world because of that. For example, the US Civil Rights Movement comes to mind.

But there’ve also been plenty of devastating events throughout history that have resulted from people en masse running headlong into atrocity, chucking their individual ideologies in favor of the group. The Holocaust might be one especially alarming example.

But for better or worse, human nature does things like that. We glom onto the herd and head for the cliff. Sorry to say it Moms everywhere, but yes, if our friends jump off a bridge, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to do it, too. It’s just that lemming-like part of our brains.

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I mean, it looks fun, yeah? photo credit: jeffschwartz decisive moment via photopin (license)

Except that Disney kind of misled us about the lemmings.

I’m embarrassed to admit this story came as somewhat of a shock to me when I stumbled across it a little while back. Though I don’t use it beyond occasionally attempting to give myself a little credibility when writing about science-y kinds of things, I do have a degree in zoology and frankly, lemmings committing mass suicide doesn’t make a lot of sense from a science-y perspective. But I never gave it any thought. Everyone knows lemmings run off cliffs and drown themselves in the ocean.

Of course, lemmings don’t really do that. It turns out the creators of White Winter collected a dozen or so lemmings from local Inuit children and in an Alaskan location that was neither by the ocean nor the natural home of said lemmings, used fancy camera angles and some elbow grease to make it look like the little critters ran gleefully to their own altruistic deaths. In fact, the animals were thrown into a river by the filmmakers. And an Academy Award was won.

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And the award for Best Animal Cruelty in a Nature Documentary goes to. . .

I mean I guess if everyone thinks it’s a good idea to fling a bunch of helpless rodents into the water, it must really be a great idea.

To be fair, the documentary does suggest that mass suicide isn’t the best way to describe what the lemmings are allegedly doing. They are dispersing, or at least they might have been if the documentary had actually captured natural lemming behavior in the wild. For those of you without a science-y zoology degree, that just means the animals spread out over a wider area when their population becomes too dense. Sometimes when they do that, they’ll come upon a body of water in their way, and if they have to, they’ll swim. Some of them might even drown in the process.

But fancy filmmaking, which if you don’t consider the unethical choices made regarding wildlife might have been a good choice for Academy Award recognition, seems much fancier if it tells an awesome story. True wildlife filming is hard, because as anyone who watched that dreadfully boring television experiment in which National Geographic aired continual live footage of Yellowstone National Park can tell you, nature doesn’t just start acting all science-y the moment the director calls, “Action!”

Thinking is hard, too. I mean like really thinking, of the kind humans do when we listen to multiple perspectives even when we’re pretty sure some of those perspectives are being offered up by complete idiots. Or like when we conduct our own research on a controversial issue, looking to primary sources whenever possible and honestly challenging our own assertions. And boy here in the US for sure, and I suspect around the world as well, we have lots of groups shouting at us to throw ourselves off the cliff with the rest of the right-thinking people.

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Admittedly this doesn’t look like as much fun as jumping off a bridge, but it doesn’t look so terrible, either.

I suggest instead, we take another more important and much more science-y lesson from our friends the lemmings. Maybe instead of bunching up in the same place we’ve been, where we’re being crushed by the same ideas shouted louder and louder, we should take a moment to step back, to get away, to put some distance between ourselves and the mob.

Yes, we might come upon a body of water. But I think having a little more elbow room, and listening to our own voices for a change, might be worth the swim.

Outsmarting Sawdust and Dog Hair

The weather has at last begun to turn a bit cooler here in the Midwestern US. Our peak temperatures missed their mark a little bit this year, arriving in early September rather than mid to late August and it frankly made us all kind of cranky. When you steel yourself for 95° F and humid as a bowl of soup by August 15th, and you’re dealing with it instead when all the kids are back in school and pumpkin spice has taken over the grocery shelves, it can be a little disconcerting.

But finally, we’ve arrived and we’re all celebrating. Especially my dog. And my vacuum cleaner. This lengthy summer has been hard on both of them. In fact, one of them didn’t make it through the stress.

Ozzie sleeping
This has been a sleeping-on-top-of-your-blanket kind of a fall. Also, you may not be able to tell from this picture, but I’m pretty sure this dog is practically bald.

Because even though the most extreme temperatures of the season were a little delayed, slightly less miserably hot and humid is still pretty hot and humid if you always wear a thick, black dog hair sweater.

Ozzie faced summer the way dogs do. He slept a lot, most often our air-conditioned house. When he did have to go outside, he found shady spots and never stayed out for too long. And he shed. A lot.

And I mean A LOT. For a while, we were brushing him twice a day and disposing of at least a toy poodle’s entire coat worth of hair each time. Of course, we were also vacuuming regularly, throwing away lots of poodles, until the vacuum decided one day it just couldn’t take it anymore.

The old vacuum lived a good long life. For years it cleaned up baby-slobber covered Cheerios, mislaid LEGO bricks, and various broken bits. It survived moves halfway across the country and back with the ripped-up scars of multiple “Load Last” stickers to show for it. It wore several belts, tangled with birthday balloon ribbons, and chased away quivering dust bunnies from beneath couch cushions and under beds.

vacuum
So far the new vacuum really sucks, which in this case is a good thing.

A good vacuum is one of those things you probably don’t think about too much until you need one and don’t have it. And like most great inventions it’s also one of those things you don’t invent until you realize it’s exactly what you need and you don’t have it.

That was certainly the case for Anna and Melville Bissell. In 1876, the couple ran a crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they received shipments of delicate goods packed carefully in boxes of sawdust.

The sawdust worked great for keeping the fine china safe, but it also made a giant mess on the floor. Mechanical carpet sweepers had been around for more than sixty years and the Bissells had one. It just didn’t work that well when facing all that sawdust.

Melville Bissell
Melville Bissell, a man who outsmarted sawdust because his wife told him to. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Melville decided to design one himself. His sweeper did the job much better. It worked so well, in fact, that customers began to ask for it and a new Bissell business was born. When Melville died at only age 45 in 1889, Anna took over the company as the first female CEO in the US and successfully led Bissell to become a worldwide force in the carpet sweeping industry.

Powered vacuums were introduced at the turn of the century and eventually took over much of the market, but Bissell expanded into those as well. And today the company is still the most popular producer of carpet sweepers used most widely in the restaurant industry because of their quiet unobtrusiveness.

When our vacuum decided it couldn’t handle the dog hair and finally gave up the ghost with a loud death rattle no belt replacement could fix, we didn’t buy a carpet sweeper. We didn’t even replace it with a Bissell. But we did find a vacuum that could do the job much better. Still, I bet it’s as grateful as Ozzie is that the cooler fall weather is finally here.

Bobbling Along With Style

History has not been especially kind to King George IV of the United Kingdom. Many of his contemporaries described him as selfish, unreliable, and just kind of the worst. He was difficult to work with, indulged frequently in heavy drinking, and he was a pretty terrible husband. But he did have one thing going for him. The man had style.

Referred to as the “First Gentleman of England,” George had tremendous influence on style and taste in the early 19th century. He was particularly passionate about architecture and design, and spared no detail when planning his Brighton Pavilion beginning in 1787. Built after Indian architectural styles, then Prince George chose Asian-influenced décor for the interior. And it’s pretty heard to question the man’s impeccable taste when you realize that this choice led to the incorporation of a bunch of bobbleheads.

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This is a Japanese “nodder” doll that dates to the 16th century, though bobblehead-style dolls are probably older than that. Cleveland Museum of Art [CC0], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
According to the website of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, which is a real place in Milwaukee, WI in case you ever want to go, George was pretty fond of these Chinese and Japanese dolls with oversized heads attached with string. Perhaps it was because when nudged, they always agreed with him.

Not a great deal seems to be known about the origin of the bobblehead, except that something like it seems to have developed in parts of Asia prior to 1760 or so when it started nodding its way into Europe and became a fun, manufactured product coming out of Germany.

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This could be yours for just $19.95 on Amazon right now. No, seriously.

The bobblehead doll’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years since its introduction to the western world, but it’s been on the rise pretty steadily now since the late nineties when the San Francisco Giants handed out 20,000 big-headed bobbling Willie Mayses to a crowd of enthusiastic fans.

Since that time an army of distorted, acquiescent, cartoon celebrities, athletes, and even Pope Francises has been released upon the world.

And though I hope I’m not selfish or unreliable or just kind of the worst, I have to agree with King George IV on this one. I find bobbleheads pretty adorable and I do have quite a few. Mine are all of the baseball variety, collected from stadium giveaways.

It’s a fun collection that sometimes borders on the ridiculous. In fact, just this past weekend, the promotional giveaway at the stadium I love the most was a double bobblehead featuring two of the all-time greats from the history of the team. Because my husband and I couldn’t go to the game, we bought our nephew a ticket so he could go and collect our keepsake for us.

cardinal bobbleheads
My husband is fond of saying, “There’s no more agreeable activity than dusting a collection of bobbleheads.”

Our prize has now found a new home in our baseball-inspired family room, which probably isn’t all that influential in the style and taste department. But it is a pretty accommodating place to be, surrounded by nodding statues in matching uniforms.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may recall that uniform has a pair of red birds on it. Also, you may recall that I don’t mention the team that wears that uniform by name when they are in the middle of a playoff run. Yes, I realize that’s not rational, but bear with me here. The last time I blogged about my favorite Midwestern flock of baseball-playing birds during a playoff run without using their actual team name, they won the World Series. I’m just doing my part.

With style.

Stupid Holidays, but Milkshakes

In 1936, a man by the name of Earl Prince invented a machine that could make five milkshakes simultaneously. Made possible by the newfangled freon-cooled refrigerator systems, his “Multimixer” represented the greatest leap forward in milkshake-making since Steven Poplawski’s 1922 invention of the blender. Eleven years before that, Hamilton Beach made a drink mixer, which was soon put to good use making milkshakes at soda fountains everywhere.

blender
I received this Hamilton Beach blender as a wedding gift more than 19 years ago. To the best of my knowledge it has only ever been used to make chocolate milkshakes.

But Prince’s machine was a welcome leap forward because what the American public had come to realize in the forty-seven years since the word “milkshake” first slipped into the English language, was that this thick, chilly beverage was awfully tasty.

Late nineteenth century milkshakes were similar to eggnog in texture and usually contained alcohol. In the early 1900s they received a family friendly facelift with the exchange of whiskey for ice cream and malted milk.

By the time Earl Prince created a way to produce a lot of milkshakes in short order, lending the ability of the then barely emerging fast food industry to get in on the trend, the public was clamoring for them.

I prefer the hand-dipped variety created in a trusty blender. Preferably made with chocolate. Still, I can appreciate the innovation that allows for speed because sometimes you just gotta have a milkshake.

Father's Day Chocolate Milkshake with Bokeh
I’ll celebrate that. photo credit: marrngtn (Manuel) Father’s Day Treat via photopin (license)

And that’s why I was not disappointed to discover that today, September 12th, is a very special made-up holiday here in the United States. Today is National Chocolate Milkshake Day.

I will be the first to admit that here in the US we are maybe a little too obsessed with the stupid holiday. One online source for all things made-up suggests there are more than 1500 weird national holidays that some guy somewhere invented for some probably very silly reason.

But as far as ridiculous made-up holidays go, this is one I can get behind. I’m not sure how far this day of observation stretches back into history, but it’s at least a few years. I have to assume someone made it up because either he owned a shop that sold killer chocolate milkshakes and was looking for a way to drum up some publicity or because he lived near a shop that sold killer chocolate shakes and he was hoping for a discount.

Either way, I’m happy for an excuse to dust off the old blender and celebrate this most excellent day with a chocolate milkshake. Or maybe five.

Happy National Chocolate Milkshake Day!

Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

On March 10, 1842 president of the short-lived Republic of Texas Sam Houston overstepped the limits of his office when he ordered the national archives to be removed from the capital city of Austin and taken to Houston.

Samuel_houston
Sam Houston, a man who is no match for a determined archivist with a cannon. By National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1854., Public Domain

A few days earlier Austin had been the site of a camp of nearly a thousand invading Mexican troops under the command of General Rafael Vásquez, but the army had been run out of the city by the time Houston issued his order. And when the wagons arrived to finally carry it out in December of that year, the danger had certainly passed. Since Houston’s goal was most likely to move the capital to his namesake city, that didn’t much matter to him.

It did, however, matter very much to the people of Austin who took their responsibility to house and protect the archive material seriously—so seriously that vigilante Angelina Eberly (not an archivist by trade but certainly one in her heart) led the charge by firing on the government thieves with a cannon.

Few shots were fired overall in what came to be known as the Archive War and no significant blood was shed, but the documents remained in Austin as did the distinction of being the capital city, even after the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas.

Archives are serious business, as those who care for them will not hesitate to tell you. Personally, I am grateful for their vigilance. Because I’m going to confess something to you, dear reader, that you probably won’t find too hard to believe.

I’m a great big nerd.

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Darth Vader. Also probably no match for a determined archivist with a cannon.

I don’t mean that I spend all my time playing video games on YouTube or that I collect replica medieval weaponry or that I know every detail there is to know about the Star Wars Galaxy. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those pursuits. Except maybe the YouTube thing.

My brand of nerdiness mostly shines through in my obsessive research. I know, if you’ve read this blog much then you are probably giggling about now. It’s true that most of the posts in this space are only sort of researched, and frankly, kind of shoddily. But I make a distinction between what I do in this space and what I do when pursuing the details that inform my historical fiction projects.

I can’t promise I never make a mistake, because I’m sure I do. I probably even overlook the occasional silly anachronism. Some reader somewhere will call me out on it one day and say I should write in a different genre if I can’t even manage to take thirty seconds to Google the etymology of the phrase plays it close to the vest to discover that my character wouldn’t have said that in 1834. As a reader of the historical fiction genre myself I can go ahead and admit we’re a little nerdy and occasionally a little mean.

cannon
I probably won’t face cannon fire to gain access to the archive material I need, but if I make a historical mistake in my novel all bets are off.

So, I do my best to pursue the research as far as I can. For my current work-in-progress, I especially wanted to put my eyeballs on a diary written by one of my historical persons of interest. He’s not a widely known figure and I only discovered the existence of the unpublished diary because of a reference in the bibliography of another book. When I contacted the university library where the source was said to be housed, they couldn’t find it.

I assumed I’d have to give up. Then, not long back, while searching around on the Internet for something else, I found a blog post (some blogs can be a valuable sources of information, just usually not this one) that briefly mentioned the existence of the diary. That’s when I kind of nerded out.

I contacted the library again to find out that the archivist who had written the blog post is now at a different university. I reached out to him there, sent him the link to his post, and a few days later, I had the complete record in my inbox. All I had to do next was send it back to the original library and hope.

And wait, which is what I’m doing now. Because the archivist currently in charge of the diary in question is consulting with an expert to determine whether the physical integrity of the document will allow for safe scanning. If it doesn’t, I may have to travel to the library, which will require a possibly unreasonable amount of effort on my part.

But I get it. I do believe that archives are important enough to protect and maybe even defend with cannon fire if necessary. Because I’m a great big nerd.