Wednesday, January 31, 2007

When did tabloid journalism get started?

Who's asking: Kris Dean, Mechanicsville, VA

Gossip is a basic human need, up there with food and shelter. It's essential to the formation of social groups: we share information in order to bond with each other, and to distinguish "us" from "them." Efforts to curb gossip in schools and workplaces always fail, and make people miserable; the best you can hope for is that the gossip is led by people who are kind-hearted, rather than by the nasty ones. (Of course, the nasty ones usually have the best information.)

Tabloid journalism goes back to the early days of the printing press. Gutenberg invented movable type in 1440, and you can bet some of the first things printed were circulars decrying the crimes and moral transgressions of public figures.

The first cheap, sensational newspapers -- as opposed to single sheets of paper -- appeared in the United States in the early 1830s. These "penny papers" were a 19th-century version of The Weekly World News, reporting things like murders, fires, animal attacks and tragic stories of women gone wrong. The New York Sun, launched in 1833, was the first tabloid-sized paper.

The early tabloids were political bombthrowers and muckrakers, as well as sensation-mongers; by the late 1840s, they had become so powerful that four of them joined with three more traditional newspapers to form the Associated Press, the news wire service that survives to this day.

Five Random Songs

"C'est la Vie," Lowen and Navarro. This album (Walking on a Wire) was one of the best pieces of singer-songwriter pop of the 1990s; what happened to these guys?

"Train in Vain (Stand by Me)," The Clash. I'm excited to see Julien Temple's new documentary about Joe Strummer, which premiered at Sundance.

"'74-'75," The Connells. I think this was the single off this album (Ring), which is baffling, because it's not one of the stronger songs on the record. Kind of limp, kind of whiny, and (at 4:38) it goes on too long.

"Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run," Sufjan Stevens. This wonderful album (Illinois) is the anti-iTunes; it's designed to be listened to as one complete piece, and chopping it up into individual tracks makes it incomprehensible.

"Cry a While," Bob Dylan. From Love & Theft. Old-timey blues, and Dylan's sense of humor shines through.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What is dry ice, and why does it smoke?

Who's asking: Jen Lechner, Freeport, ME

Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. It's made by compressing the gas into a liquid, then freezing it at temperatures below -109.3°F (-78.5°C). It doesn't smoke, it steams; the steam is pure CO2, released into the atmosphere whenever the dry ice is stored at temperatures above -109.3°F.

Because CO2 isn't water, dry ice doesn't "melt" -- it sublimates, passing directly from a solid state into a gas. If stored in a regular ice chest, it sublimates at a rate of 5-10 pounds every 24 hours, and has 2-3 times the cooling power of water-based ice. advises against storing dry ice in a regular freezer, because it's so cold that it shuts off the machine's thermostat.

Dry ice is popular for school science projects because it's fairly safe, as long as you use common sense when handling it: don't let it touch your bare skin, and make sure your work area is well-ventilated. Inhaling concentrated steam from dry ice can kill you, and anoxia (death from lack of oxygen in the bloodstream) is a nasty way to die.

We don't need any dry ice here in Gardiner; we have plenty of the regular kind. Yesterday's official high temperature in Gardiner was 22°F, but it felt much warmer in the sunshine. Amazing how fast one acclimates to the cold.

Monday, January 29, 2007

What sounds do animals make in other languages?

Who's asking: Tom Ehrenfeld, Cambridge, MA

My high school chorus had to learn Aaron Copland's "I Bought Me a Cat," which includes some unusual animal noises: the cow says, "Baw, baw;" the hen says, "Shimmy shack, shimmy shack;" the cat says, "Fiddle-eye-fee."

I have never met a cat who says "Fiddle-eye-fee," and the noise a cat makes is one that most languages actually agree on. In English it's "meow," in French it's "miaou," and in Russian it's "myau." Japanese, Korean and Indonesian make the noise with an "n" instead of an "m" -- "nyaa," "(n)ya-ong," and "ngeong," respectively, but in each case, it's easily recognizable as a cat noise.

Roosters, too, make similar noises in almost every language. English is "cock-a-doodle-do;" German is "kickeriki;" Mandarin is "gou gou." Thai roosters sound a little different: "ake-e-ake-ake," but it's still that hard "k" sound.

It's pig noises where things start to vary. English is "oink oink," but Polish is "chrum chrum," and Japanese is "buubuu." Korean is "kkool-kkool," and Norwegian is "nøff nøff."

English and American dogs say "bow wow," or "woof," but in Greece they say, "gav," and in Catalan they say, "bup, bup."

"Bup, bup"? I just tried it out on Dizzy; he opened his eyes halfway, then went back to his nap. Guess he doesn't speak Catalan.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Picture of the week

Snow is only pretty for the first day or so... we need a new dusting.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

How thick would the ice have to be in order for you to drive a car across China Lake?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon, China, ME

Anna expected that my answer to this question would be that I would never drive a car across China Lake. That's true, as far as driving the car myself goes; I personally would not drive on ice voluntarily, under any circumstances.

But I'd be willing to ride along with someone else, as long as I thought the driver knew what he or she was doing, and as long as the ice on the lake was two feet thick.

The "two feet thick" requirement doesn't come from thin air; it's just over twice the thickness the Maine Ice Anglers association says is safe to drive a 7-8 ton truck on. Where ice is concerned, I believe in an excess of caution.

For the more reckless among you, the Ice Anglers say it's safe to drive a single-passenger automobile on ice that is at least seven inches thick. Keep in mind that the thickness of ice on a body of water can vary radically within a small area; it might be seven inches thick in one spot, but it's only four inches thick a few feet away. Don't be an idiot. Or rather, go right ahead, and take yourself out of the gene pool.

Smelt shacks are out on the Kennebec, but I don't think I'd go this weekend. The weekend of February 17-18 is open fishing, when people without a license can go. A friend has promised to take me if the weather holds, so that might be the best time for me to try it. This same "friend" tells me it's an ice-fishing tradition to bite the head off one's first catch, but I suspect this is a joke. It had better be a joke.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Cold enough for you?

Who's asking: Someone at the Gardiner Public Library

Why yes, as a matter of fact, it is. The thermometer on my MacBook dashboard currently reads -1F, despite bright sunshine. It's breezy, too, so we've got a windchill warning.

How cold is cold? Cold enough that I can't wear glasses or earrings, because the metal freezes to my skin if I go outside. Cold enough that Dizzy has tiny icicles on his chin at the end of a (very short) walk. Cold enough to be able to feel the hairs inside my nose, which is rather unpleasant.

Still no Internet -- maybe, just maybe, it'll be back this afternoon, but most likely not till Monday. Dammit. But they're nice people at the library, and it's well-heated...

What I Read this Week

Joe Hill, Heart-Shaped Box. It's an open secret now that Joe Hill is Stephen King's son; even if it weren't, I'd have wondered. This first novel stands on its own merit, though -- it is scary and original, a truly impressive debut. Judas Coyne, a semi-retired heavy-metal rock star, has collected occult souvenirs for years. One day his assistant asks whether he wants to bid on a ghost that's up for auction; Jude buys it without a second thought. What he gets turns out to be far deadlier than he could have imagined, and freeing himself will require that he redeem his own soul.

Susan Richards Shreve, A Student of Living Things. I picked this book up at the library because it had made a few Best of 2006 lists, and carries the endorsement of Richard Ford. I finished it only because I felt obligated, and can't remember when I've felt so hostile to a book. It's the story of how Claire Frayn copes -- or doesn't -- with the assassination of her brother on the steps of the George Washington University library. I disliked every character in this book, didn't recognize the Washington Shreve describes, and struggled with the present tense narration-into-extended flashbacks structure. Maybe Richard Ford read a different book.

Sammy Davis Jr., Burt Boyar and Jane Boyar, Why Me? The Sammy Davis, Jr. Story. I picked this up for a client's research project; I didn't need to read the whole thing, but did, because it's mesmerizing. A good celebrity biography is cultural history, as well as personal, and the world Davis describes already seems very far away.

Wil Haygood, In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. What a luxury to be able to go straight from the autobiography to this meticulously researched study, which reveals everything Davis kept secret and puts it all into the context of African-American history. I'd be hard-pressed to recommend one book over the other; read them together, if you can.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What language do they speak in Turkey?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher

Um, they speak Turkish.

If you subscribe to the belief that language is destiny -- and I do -- it's interesting to look at the expansion and collapse of the Ottoman Empire as a failure of Turkish to conquer the Romance languages. Even within the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was a stepchild; the Ottoman court used Arabic for its legal proceedings and religious practices, and Persian for art and literature. "Ottoman Turkish," spoken at court, used a lot of Arabic and Persian words, while "pure Turkish" was a language of the lower classes, and not generally written.

Modern Turkish is a political creation, and dates back only to the 1920s. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk came to power, he demanded the creation of a single, "pure" Turkish, with a Roman alphabet. Scholars devised a system of transcribing Turkish sounds into the Roman alphabet in 1928, and by January 1, 1929, the use of the Arabic alphabet to write Turkish was illegal.

The adoption of the Roman alphabet was part of Ataturk's broader goal of Westernization. Nevertheless, the Turkish language is much more closely related to several Asian languages (Azeri, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and more) than to the Romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish). Turkic languages are spoken across a large percentage of the planet, from Turkey to Mongolia.

Still no Internet connection at my house; I'm posting this from the Maine State Library. It's inconvenient, but it does force me to keep more-or-less regular working hours.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When was the first recorded war?

Who's asking: Kris Dean, Mechanicsville, VA

Given human nature, we were probably having wars long before anyone figured out how to write about it. Written history dates back only to about 3100 B.C., when Sumerians and Egyptians separately started to keep records on stone or clay.

Thus, the first recorded war happened in that part of the world. It took place between Sumer and Elam, around 2700 B.C., and was fought in the area that is present-day Basra, Iraq. The first detailed military history records warfare between the Sumerian cities of Lagash and Umma, in 2525 B.C. Lagash won, and its king, Eannatum, commissioned a stone pillar (stele) to honor his victory.

Discussions of a lasting peace in the Middle East must begin with the awareness that this region has been at war for 5,000 years, more or less. In that context, it would be foolish to expect too much out of a two- or three-day summit meeting.

My Internet connection at home is down, for unknown reasons. I'm posting this from Freeport. If it takes me a day or two to respond to an e-mail, I apologize.

Five Random Songs

"Today I Sing the Blues," Aretha Franklin. From one of my all-time favorite albums, Aretha Sings the Blues (naturally).

"Red Red Wine," The Replacements. No, this is not a cover of the Neil Diamond song.

"Heaven," Talking Heads. Hey, we were just talking about this song! From Stop Making Sense, soundtrack to the best concert film ever.

"Sure Don't Feel Like Love," Paul Simon. I found this album, Surprise, a little hit-or-miss, but it's growing on me. This is a track I particularly like.

"Man of Peace," Bob Dylan. Very appropriate to today's question, although I don't want to believe what I once read about this song, which is that it's supposed to be about Anwar Sadat. Bob Dylan's a genius, but he's been wrong about some things.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How many people die waiting for organs every year?

Who's asking: Me

I couldn't find statistics for this on a world-wide basis, but the Department of Health and Human Services says that 17 Americans a day die waiting for a transplant that could save their lives.

On Sunday, one of those 17 people was Barbara Seranella, the author of No Human Involved and seven other novels featuring outlaw-turned-businesswoman Miranda "Munch" Mancini. Barbara's ninth book, a standalone called Deadman's Switch, is due out this April.

As awful and stupid as it sounds, Barbara was one of the lucky ones. She'd already had not one, but two liver transplants; her body rejected the first, and they managed to find a second one in time to save her life. When it became clear that this one wasn't working either, Barbara remained upbeat and active -- at Bouchercon in October, she was gray-faced but radiant.

I didn't know her well, only as bookseller/fan to author, but her visits to The Mystery Bookstore were always an event, even before she got sick. She was funny as hell, and she would say anything -- she had done so much and seen so much in her life that shocking the uptight was the last thing she worried about. And she was kind, kind in a no-nonsense way that sought no credit; many southern California writers can tell stories about the contacts she made for them or the advice she gave.

She was only 50 years old when she ran out of time on Sunday. The best tribute to her I can think of would be for everyone who reads this to go, right now, and print out an organ donor card here. Sign it and put it in your wallet, and tell your family you've done it.

One organ donor can help as many as 50 people. One of those 50 might write the next great American novel -- or direct another great movie, like heart-transplant recipient Robert Altman -- or just get to celebrate one more Christmas with her family.

It's not like any of us will need our organs in the next life.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Why is St. Monica a saint?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher from somewhere in North America

St. Monica (333-387) was the mother of St. Augustine (354-430). Monica's husband, Patritius, drank and beat her until Monica's patience and prayers helped to change his nature, and won his conversion to Christianity. Monica's charity and faithfulness annoyed her son Augustine, but ultimately inspired him, and her constant prayers are credited with Augustine's conversion from Manichaeism to Catholicism. She was the one who introduced Augustine to St. Ambrose, who became Augustine's mentor and confessor. Monica is the patroness of the Archconfraternity of Christian Mothers, whose object is mutual prayer for straying sons and husbands.

Today we would call St. Monica co-dependent, and urge her to seek treatment; she would probably leave Patritius, wash her hands of Augustine, write a self-help book and host a talk show. I'm not sure this is progress.

The California city of Santa Monica is named because explorers found it on St. Monica's traditional feast day, May 4. Since Vatican II, the church has celebrated the feast of St. Monica on August 27, the day before the feast of St. Augustine.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What do you have against adverbs?

Who's asking: Various clients

One of my clients, in fact, went so far as to say, "William Goldman uses adverbs. Are you saying he shouldn't?"

My answer to that was that William Goldman can do whatever he wants. He's William Goldman, and he rules.

The rest of us, however, should avoid adverbs when writing fiction. It's part of my larger rule, which most writing instructors call, "Show, don't tell." I find that advice useless, though what I say is probably just as vague: "Trust your reader."

Adverbs are bad because they do the readers' work for them, or compensate for lazy writing. Don't tell me that your character said something "teasingly;" I ought to be able to infer that teasing from the content of the dialogue. If I can't, the dialogue's not right. If someone's shrugging, you don't need to say that she shrugged helplessly or tiredly or carelessly or defensively; we should already know that from the action that preceded the shrug.

Likewise, modifying your adjectives is seldom a good idea. "Very," "extremely," "rather" and "quite" are weasel words, qualifiers that belong in political speeches and newspaper columns, not in fiction. Fiction ought to be the one place where characters say and do exactly what you intend them to say or do, without reservation or apology. (Unless that's the character.)

Do not write to me to defend your use of adverbs. Instead, examine your conscience and your prose, go your way and sin no more.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Where does space end and heaven begin?

Who's asking: Grace Lechner, Freeport, ME

Let's start with what we know. Space begins where the Earth's atmosphere ends. NASA gives astronaut status to anyone who flies more than 50 miles above the surface of the earth; some scientists say space begins at 400,000 feet (75.76 miles), where rockets start to experience the friction of the atmosphere when they come back to earth.

So where does space end? No one knows. NASA says that space may be finite or infinite, but in either case, nothing exists outside it.

We live in three dimensions, meaning that we have line and surface and direction. We can measure and describe what's around us, and that's what scientists do.

No one has ever been able to measure or describe heaven. Heaven is not on any map. Depending on what you believe, only one person has ever been to Heaven and come back, and Jesus didn't get terribly specific about what Heaven was like.

But people have always believed in some kind of heaven, which suggests strongly to me that such a thing exists (this is the ontological proof for God: if He didn't exist, we couldn't imagine Him). People have always imagined that Heaven looks like the place they've always wanted to be, whatever that is: warmth for people in cold climates, water for desert-dwellers, vast wealth for the poor.

My own theory is that Heaven is no place outside; Heaven is a secret locked in each of our hearts, and it's only when our hearts stop beating that Heaven takes over. I think that Heaven is not a place at all, but the best feeling we ever had, of trusting and being loved and going home.

Grace, who is five, probably doesn't remember where she was before she was born. None of us do, by the time we're old enough to put things into words. But if we were somewhere, maybe that's heaven.

What I Read This Week

Charlie Huston, Already Dead. Huston lays his own modern vampire mythology -- in the tradition of Matheson's I Am Legend -- on the structure of the classic hard-boiled PI novel. Very dark, graphically violent, extremely well-done.

Jess Walter, The Zero. The tag-line of this book is "A novel of September 12." It sat on my shelf for months, because I wasn't ready to put the events of September 11, 2001 into a story that would narrow its scope or reduce its significance. The Zero doesn't do that. New York police detective Brian Remy shoots himself in the head on September 12, but doesn't die; what follows is a surreal journey, as he agrees to work for an obscure government agency -- or maybe it's a private firm? -- and deals with his son's insistence that he's dead. None of it makes any sense; even at the end, you're not exactly sure what's happened. Which is exactly right. The Zero captures that lost, baffled, paranoid feeling of the autumn of 2001 better than I thought anyone could, and will go into a box of things to leave for my (hypothetical, very far in the future) grandchildren.

Charlie Huston
, Caught Stealing. I'm interviewing Charlie next week for another Mystery Bookstore podcast, along with Megan Abbott and Theresa Schwegel; I've read both of Megan's books and both of Theresa's, so needed to catch up with Charlie's. (He's written five; I won't have time to read them all before next Saturday. Sorry.) Huston's first novel is the story of a very, very bad week in the life of Henry Thompson, failed baseball star-turned-bartender, who agrees to care for his neighbor's cat and winds up a murderer on the run. No redemption here, just survival -- that's not giving anything away, because Huston went on to write two more Henry Thompson novels (Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man).

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why do we put candles on birthday cakes?

Who's asking: Lilly Dean, Mechanicsville, VA

Lilly, 4, poses a question it had never even occurred to me to wonder about. Why do we set our birthday cakes on fire? What a very strange thing to do, when you think about it.

The origins of this custom go all the way back to ancient Greece, when worshipers at the temple of Artemis, the moon goddess, used to make offerings of cakes decorated with circles of candles; the ring of light represented the full moon. Hundreds of years later, Germans would put a single candle on a birthday cake, to represent the life spirit. Sometimes they would mark off the candles in segments, symbolizing the passage of the year. (Kathy and I had candles like this when we were little. They were marked off in years, and you were supposed to burn it down an inch once a year, on your birthday. Who knows what happened to those candles; they only went to 21, anyway, so they'd be long gone even if we'd kept up the tradition.)

Candles have always been part of religious rituals, and making a wish and blowing the candles out also has its roots in ancient pagan customs -- the idea is that the smoke carries your wish to heaven.

This morning's temperature of 0F was noticeably warmer than yesterday's -5F. You wouldn't think those five degrees would make much difference, but they do. Dizzy doesn't seem to mind it, as long as the sun is out.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How many grapes go into a single bottle of wine?

Who's asking: The quizmaster at The Liberal Cup, Hallowell, ME

According to the quizmaster -- and several websites I checked this morning, because I didn't believe this -- it takes 600 grapes to make an average bottle of wine. Any winemakers out there who can confirm or deny this? It seemed low to my pub trivia team; our guess was in the thousands (I won't embarrass us by saying how many thousands), because each grape doesn't give off much juice.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of my mother's death, so today is the end of the traditional "year and a day" of deep mourning. I've thought more than once in the past year that it's kind of a shame that we've abandoned the old mourning customs; back in the 19th century, when people wore black for a year and a day, everyone knew that those people would not be their usual bright shiny selves, and might not be working quite as well as everyone else.

Friends who've been through it told me last year, "It [grief] takes longer than you think it will," and that's the truth. Grief is like a lighthouse, it turns and flashes at intervals. Over time, the intervals get longer, but the beam's just as sharp when it hits. I miss Mom, and so do my sisters and brothers. We always will, and that's the way it's supposed to be.

At any rate, I wasn't terribly productive yesterday, and today promises to be not much better. I'm headed to Portland right now to see Richard Ford speak at the Portland Public Library, and plan to be back up to full speed tomorrow. (I'll still wear a lot of black, though. I always did, but not in a Morrissey kind of way.)

First Five Random Songs:

"(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," Elvis Costello & the Attractions. The Strokes, the Arctic Monkeys, the Shins, none of those guys would exist if Elvis hadn't done it first.

"Maybe It's Imaginary," Kirsty MacColl. "I don't know much/But I'd like to know why." Exactly.

"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," The Beatles. My favorite Beatles song. It's one of John's. We've discussed this.

"La La," Cortney Tidwell. This CD was a gift, I'd never have discovered her otherwise. She sounds a little like Kate Bush, a little like Bjork, a little like the girl from Sixpence None the Richer. It's a sound that grows on you.

"Whiskey Bottle," Uncle Tupelo. I once startled a friend by quoting this song -- it's one of my brother Ed's favorite lines: "Whiskey bottle over Jesus/Not forever, just for now."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Where did the name "United Kingdom" come from?

Who's asking: Jennifer Lechner, Freeport, ME

The song says, "There'll Always Be an England," and there pretty much always has been an England -- since the eighth century, at least, when Egbert of Wessex first unified Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

Since then England has been the Pac-Man of nations, gobbling up everything around it (Americans got the idea from somewhere). England and Wales were formally united in 1536; England became "Great Britain" with the annexation of Scotland, in 1707; and "the United Kingdom" formed in 1801, with the addition of Ireland.

The country's official name at that time was "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland." Since 1927, it's been "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

The "Home Counties," a phrase that comes up frequently in historical British mysteries, are the counties closest to London: Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, and (formerly) Berkshire and Middlesex. The designation comes from the old circuit Court of Assize, in which judges from London would travel around the Home Counties to hear cases during periodically-scheduled sessions. Now the phrase refers to the area considered commuting distance from London.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Was the Barbie doll based on a real person?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell, ME

Before I get to this answer, let me state for the record that I have never owned a Barbie doll. Mom did not approve of them. My younger sisters, Peggy and Susan, had Barbies -- originally a gift from our dad, who I guess didn't get the memo -- but I never did, and as far as I know, my twin sister Kathy never did, either. To this day, I wonder whether having a Barbie would have made me a girlier girl, or whether I didn't insist on having a Barbie because I wasn't a girly girl. Too late now, in any case.

Anyway, according to Barbie's official biography, Mattel Toys' co-founder Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll because her daughter, Barbara, had no three-dimensional dolls to play with that weren't baby dolls. Ruth and Elliott Handler introduced the Barbie doll at the American Toy Fair in 1959, and Barbie was among the first toys to have a nationwide television marketing campaign. The rest, as they say, is history.

But it's not the whole story. Before there was Barbie, there was a German doll named Lilli -- the same height as Barbie, the same blonde ponytail -- except that Lilli was the plastic representation of a Bild Zeitung cartoon character who... uh... traded one type of favor for another. In her book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, M.G. Lord describes the process of transforming Lilli -- originally designed to be a gag gift for men -- into something suitable for American pre-teens.

Now, of course, women spend a great deal of money trying to look like Barbie. If the original Barbie doll had been a real woman, her measurements would be 39-18-33; a few years back, Mattel reduced Barbie's bust size and made her waist a little bigger, but she's still not a realistic representation of a woman.

As the immortal line from Sid and Nancy goes, "I'll never look like Barbie. Barbie doesn't have bruises."

In other news, the first-ever Mystery Bookstore podcast is now live. I'm talking with Don Bruns, Jim Fusilli and Nathan Walpow about the stories and songs in their recent anthology from Poisoned Pen, A Merry Band of Murderers. To listen, go to iTunes, choose Podcast, click on "Advanced" from the toolbar menu, and then subscribe to Because this was the first one, there are a couple of technical glitches -- you can hear buzzing at a couple of points -- but we'll sort that out in future episodes.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Photo of the week

It's snowing here, with total accumulation of up to six inches expected. My own winter began in earnest this morning, when I took my first fall on the ice. It was bound to happen... no real damage, but my best pair of black slacks may be permanently mud-grimed.

This photo's old, but I like it... Dizzy was waiting for Santa, or something.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

What is the difference between blue cheese and Gorgonzola?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher from somewhere in North America

Mmm, blue cheese. Did you know that blue cheese provides the distinctive flavor of Cheetos® and other delicious puffed cheese snacks? Well, it does. (Which begs the next question: why, then, are cheese puffs orange and not blue-gray? Then again, would you eat a blue-gray snack food? Possibly not.)

Anyway, "blue cheese" is a descriptive phrase that encompasses dozens of different cow's, sheep's or goat's milk cheeses that are made with the Penicillium mold. (Next question: does blue cheese have antibiotic properties? I'm still researching this one, but Civil War surgeons did pack wounds with moldy bread.)

Gorgonzola is one of the oldest of the blue cheeses, dating back to at least the ninth century. Food historians say the distinctive blue mold on Gorgonzola developed accidentally around the 11th century, but was deliberately cultivated after that. (Gorgonzola was, at the time, a village near Milan; now it is part of the Milanese suburbs.)

Most blue cheeses are named after their places of origin: Maytag Blue comes from Iowa, Roquefort and Bleu de Bresse come from France, Stilton and Double Gloucester come from England, and so on.

One food website I found suggested having a blue-cheese tasting party, with port wine and burgundy as accompaniments. This sounds like a great idea to me... we're supposed to get an ice storm tomorrow night, so maybe I'll just stock up for a party of my own. You're welcome to stop by if you can get here.

Friday, January 12, 2007

If Macs are so great, why doesn't everyone have one?

Who's asking: Jennifer Lechner, Freeport, ME

At the end of my first week as a Mac user, I can only think of three reasons the entire country hasn't switched to Macs: ignorance, laziness and habit.

That's why I hadn't switched, anyway. Contrary to appearances, I am one of the most habit-bound, change-averse people I know. Big changes I can do; little changes make me so anxious they can paralyze me. (A couple of months ago, I switched toothpastes on a whim -- my new brand is Tom's of Maine, cinnamon/clove, and it rocks -- but for two weeks, I kept looking for the old tube of Colgate in my bathroom cabinet, and feeling panicky when I couldn't find it.)

But now that I have a Mac, after all that kicking and screaming, I can't believe it took me so long. In the words of my friend John Erath, I have drunk the Mac Kool-Aid. Every day I discover something new that it does, and it's all so easy it boggles my mind. I didn't have to load a printer driver on this machine; I just plugged in my old printer, and it worked. Same thing with the digital camera. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to store and move files around, but now that I have, that's easier than on PCs, too.

I'm still getting used to a couple of things. The "delete" key is just a backspace, and that annoys me. The aspect ratio of documents in Word is different than on my old machine -- but is the aspect ratio of a physical sheet of paper, so that makes more sense than the PC Word display.

But those are minor. I love the deck at the bottom of my screen, which shows all the programs available to me; the "e" for Entourage bounces adorably every time a new e-mail comes in. The picture quality on my screen is better than any PC I've ever had. The built-in speakers are quite good, though I might get some external ones (I've been warned: the urge to accessorize is the biggest danger of Mac ownership). This weekend I'll be launching the first in a series of podcast interviews for The Mystery Bookstore, and these will be entirely self-produced (by the store's computer guru and myself) on Mac software.

It's a whole new Mac world, and I like it. Join me, my friends! (Okay, that part where I said I wouldn't proselytize? Changed my mind.)

What I Read This Week

One of my New Year's resolutions was to make my way through the pile of paperback originals I've gotten from publishers over the last several months. In the last week or so, I've started four, and set them all aside at page 50. Shockingly, dismayingly bad, every one of them. This will be the subject of a longer post at a future date. In the meantime, I did finish...

Alexander McCall Smith, The Right Attitude to Rain. I needed something restful, but this was a little too restful. The third Isabel Dalhousie novel finds the Scottish philosopher wrestling with questions of love and loyalty, and ends with a surprise that -- I hope -- will liven things up a bit. Isabel's habit of questioning everything she does is charming at first, but distances the reader instead of making us feel closer to her. Frustrating, and I don't know whether I'll stick with this series.

Donna M. Lacey, Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age. John Armstrong "Archie" Chanler, an heir to the Astor fortune, married best-selling Southern novelist Amelie Rives in 1888. For the next seven years they drove each other crazy, as Amelie flirted with a serious of famous and infamous men and Archie pursued his dreams of building an industrial utopia at Roanoke Rapids, NC. Amelie was addicted to morphine; Archie believed he could channel supernatural wisdom through automatic writing, and that he could reshape his face to look like Napoleon's death mask. It ended badly, with Amelie marrying the artist Pierre Troubetskoy and Archie committed to Bloomingdale Asylum -- but the story is fascinating.

It's still National De-lurking Week, and only two people identified themselves yesterday... so if you're stopping by today, won't you please leave a comment to say hello in person? Thanks!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Are elephants more closely related to pigs or to cows?

Who's asking: Patrick Miller, Jacksonville, FL

Actually, neither. While elephants, pigs and cows are all mammals, elephants belong to their own lonely order, Proboscidea, which includes elephants, mammoths, and several other species that are now extinct.

Biologists put animals together according to what they have in common, and at one time they thought that elephants' thick skin was similar to the skin of pigs, so the two species must be related. As they looked more closely, however, they saw that pigs and elephants don't really have that much in common. Now taxonomists believe that the two living sets of animals most closely related to the elephant are the hyrax and the sea cow ("sirenians" -- isn't that a great name? -- manatees and dugongs).

The idea that elephants might be related to manatees makes some sense. But hyraxes?

At first glance, one of these things is not like the others. But since 1945, taxonomists have placed the three types of animals in a superorder called Paenungulates, whose distinguishing feature has something to do with the amino acid sequences in their red blood cells.

I'm guessing they don't schedule many family reunions, though.

In other news, it has come to my attention that this is National Delurking Week in Blogworld. I've already done my part on another site, commenting on a forum I visit often but never post to -- and immediately getting into a snarky argument with a frequent poster. Sometimes it's best just to lurk... but today and tomorrow, if you visit here often and never comment, won't you just sign in and say who you are and where you're visiting from? I'll be fascinated. Thanks.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What happened to the "B" batteries?

Who's asking: Matthew and Henry Lavinder, Mechanicsville, VA

Have I mentioned that my three-year-old nephews are ridiculously bright children, and paragons in every way? Well, they are.

Santa Claus was extra good to them this year, and brought them a number of toys that require batteries. (This is something that seems to disappear in adulthood. The only batteries I ever buy any more are for my toothbrush and my remote controls. Why don't I have cool battery-operated toys? Wait, don't answer that.)

Anyway, the boys were shopping with their mother for C batteries, and Peggy went through the battery display with them: AA, AAA, AAAA, C, D, nine-volt. Where, the boys wanted to know, was B?

B batteries are no longer widely available because nothing uses them any more. Old radios used to operate on vacuum tubes that required two different batteries: an "A" battery to heat the vacuum tube, and a "B" battery that ran the rest of the radio. Improvements in technology did away with vacuum tubes in consumer electronics, which ended the need for the "A" and "B" batteries.

Before I forget, a very happy birthday today to Mr. Tod Goldberg, who may now officially be too old to be called wunderkind any more.

Five Random Songs

I skipped this last week because I had no access to my iTunes. The new MacBook has brought my iTunes back in all their glory. Hurray.

"You Will," Too Much Joy. Back in the late '90s, this was really sharp satire about telecommunications advertising campaigns. Now I have been faxed at the beach, and it doesn't feel so funny any more.

"The Busy Girl Buys Beauty," Billy Bragg. Ooh, it's Mock the Consumer Society morning on my iPod Shuffle! Did everyone read the New York Times article last week about how those fancy skin products do no good at all? My devotion to Oil of Olay has been vindicated.

"Come, Let Us Go Back to God," the Soul Stirrers. From The Ladykillers soundtrack, which I've raved about before.

"You Won't Have to Cry," The Byrds. No one sounds like them, even now.

"Yesterday," The Beatles. Some Beatles songs are so familiar that we don't really listen to them anymore -- and then one might catch us by surprise, as this one did, and we hear it as new and realize what geniuses these guys were. If you haven't listened to "Yesterday" or "Hey Jude" lately on headphones, by themselves and without distraction, I recommend that you do so, just to restore your sense of wonder.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How does skywriting work?

Who's asking: Carl Lavinder, Martinsville, VA

Any plane that leaves a condensation trail (contrail) can skywrite, theoretically. In practice, most skywriting is done by single-engine planes that force compressed vapor, mixed with a small amount of low-viscosity oil, through their exhaust system. Early pilots used a mixture of liquid paraffin; pilots today probably use something fancier.

Either way, skywriting doesn't last long. Each skywritten letter or figure is approximately a mile long and a mile wide, and winds scatter the vapor quickly. A letter or two at a time is all most single planes can manage, before the text blows away. To get around this problem, advertising pilots developed the technique of skytyping, which requires several planes working together to produce text, in a manner similar to a dot-matrix printer.

When I read this, the first question that popped into my mind was, "Well, how did the Wicked Witch write 'Surrender Dorothy' in The Wizard of Oz, then?" It turns out that that wasn't skywriting at all. Jack McMaster, the special-effects man for The Wizard of Oz, created the effect in a water tank, using dyed canned milk forced through a hypodermic needle (the witch's broom).

Sometimes I'd rather not know these things. Next, someone will probably write in and tell me the flying monkeys aren't real, either.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Does my cat know she's a cat?

Who's asking: John Schramm, Tracy, CA

John Schramm says he thought to ask this question when he showed one of his pets its reflection in a mirror; he says the cat looked at himself for a moment, then tried to clamber.

Believe it or not, scientists have done a lot of research into this question of whether animals are self-aware, and showing animals mirror images of themselves is one way they do it. So far, the only animals that seem to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror are humans, great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans), dolphins, and elephants -- and even elephants can't do it, most of the time.

It's not even clear that what most animals see in a mirror looks like another animal to them. Cats and dogs see motion, more than anything else, and static images don't interest them. Dizzy adores Chris and Claire, for example, but doesn't pay any attention to photographs of them. He'd be much more interested in a tape recording of their voices, or in the smell of something they'd recently handled.

The deeper question here is whether cats and dogs have any idea of Catness or Dogness, and the answer is maybe. Cats, particularly, are predators, and predators divide the world into Prey and Predators, including things that might prey on them. Humans are neither, so cats seems to consider us either large and incompetent kittens (which is why they bring us their kills, since we're too feeble to be able to kill our own food) or intransigent tools.

Either way, it's rare for cat owners to say, "My cat thinks she's human," which is something you hear dog owners say all the time. In fact, this is backwards; a well-trained dog does not think it's human, it thinks humans are other dogs. Responsible dog training is based on the idea of adapting your dog's instinctive pack behavior to a pack of humans (or mixed humans and other animals). Dogs like order, and they want to know where they belong.

At the moment my own dog is damp and smelly, after a long walk in the pouring rain. He wanted to go, and I needed the exercise. At least it's not ice, which is what we were supposed to get this morning.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Is all baby babble the same language?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon, China, ME

I'm paraphrasing Anna's question. She noticed that her not-quite-five-month old, Wyatt, makes the same noises as a child of similar age born in the United States, although Wyatt spent his first four months (plus nine months in the womb) in Korea.

So is all baby talk the same language, the way (presumably) all dog talk is the same language?

Actually, no -- but yes, too.

Scientists know that babies hear and respond to speech even before they're born. They don't know the meanings of words, but they recognize recurring sounds and rhythms of speech, and from a very early age, they are more likely to pay attention to speech that follows the rhythm of their mother's.

That said, researchers at the University of Texas have identified four word patterns common to all babies, regardless of nationality. Babies make these noises because of the shape of the human mouth and jaw: "ma-ma," "da-da," "ba-ba," and "ta-ta."

This explains why the word for "mother" in almost every human language begins with or includes that "ma" sound. The word for "father" almost always includes the sounds "da," "ba," or "pa," which is very close to "ba." Following those sounds quickly are "na" and "ya."

In Korean, the word for "mommy" is "umma" (UM-ma) and the word for "daddy" is "oppa" (OP-pah). So whether Wyatt is trying to say "umma," or "mama," he's making the same sounds.

Friday, January 05, 2007

What I Read This Week

Crashing on a deadline today and out of questions to answer, so this will be short. (Send me some questions, folks -- leave them in the comments section, or e-mail me at LambLetters -at-

Dan Simmons, The Terror. An epic horror novel about the doomed Sir John Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, 1846-1849. It's not enough that they're frozen into the ice and darkness, with no means of communicating with the rest of the world and a rapidly-spoiling food supply; the men are being hunted by a monster who makes the ice its home. The only one who seems safe is the mysterious native woman Lady Silence, whose tongue is missing -- not cut off, but chewed. Fascinating, plausible, truly scary, a little long.

Jesse Kellerman, Trouble. Medical student Jonah Stem becomes a fifteen-minute hero when he saves a young woman from being killed on the street. But the NYPD wants to talk to him about the incident -- which left the woman's assailant dead -- the dead man's family is suing him, and the extra attention is just making his life harder. Then the woman herself shows up in Jonah's apartment, and his life is turned completely upside down. Trouble is a terrific, perceptive, paranoid thriller; I read it in a single sitting, which almost never happens any more.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What happens when you flip your rearview mirror and how does it work to cut the glare?

Who's asking: Tod Goldberg, La Quinta, CA

Did you ever notice that your car's rear-view mirror isn't just a flat piece of glass, but a whole capsule with glass at the front? The glass you see at the front of the rear-view mirror is just that -- clear glass, not really a mirror. The mirror is behind the glass you see, and when you flip the rearview mirror up or down, you adjust the angle of the reflecting surface behind the glass.

If I knew how to draw online, I could show this more easily than words can express it. When the rear-view mirror is in its daytime position, the image of whatever's behind your car bounces directly off the reflecting surface at the back of your rear-view mirror, into your field of vision. When you flip the switch, the reflecting surface tilts so that it's looking at your car's ceiling. Light comes in your back window and passes through the front glass of the rearview mirror, bouncing off the angled reflecting surface at the back of the mirror and then back into your eye -- so the headlights you "see" in the mirror are actually reflections of a reflection, and much dimmer than if you were getting a head-on view or a single reflection.

Aren't optics cool? One of my favorite places in Santa Monica is the Camera Obscura in Palisades Park -- it is open to the public and free, just a big dark room where you can see the outside world reflected on a circular white table in the center of the room.

This is my very first post as a brand-new Mac user -- yes, it's happened, and I am now the proud owner of a gorgeous new MacBook. I feel a little like a newly-shaven Hare Krishna. I promise not to proselytize.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Is it true that albino moose were seen in Greenville, Maine?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell, ME

A photo's been circulating online of two albino moose, with an attached e-mail saying the photographer had seen the two near Greenville, which is a good bit north of here, on the southern tip of Moosehead Lake.

I can't confirm or debunk the existence of these particular moose -- one Maine wildlife website I visited said the same photo had been circulating about a year ago, and that the moose were actually in Canada.

But it's possible. Albinism occurs in 1 in 100,000 moose, and more often than that when herds with the trait inbreed, as seems to have happened in southeastern Idaho. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife estimates Maine's current moose population at 29,000, so that means the chances of seeing one albino moose, much less two, are awfully low.

I still haven't seen a live moose, and it's on my list of Things to Do in 2007. You can read all about them on the Fish & Wildlife site here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Are you back online?

Who's asking: Various people

Sort of. Because my computer is still under warranty, it will have to go back to the factory for assessment and repairs. It seems likely that the motherboard was blown, so I've retrieved what I needed from the hard drive and will be renting a new machine tomorrow. In the meantime, the Bragdons have kindly lent me an ancient laptop that has Microsoft Word and a dial-up modem, so I'm getting by. I'm posting this from the Gardiner Public Library, and long may it prosper.

Life and baseball are all about streaks and slumps, and I'd be lying if I didn't say I believe I'm slumping at the moment. The only remedy is to keep swinging, and wait for the streak to come back around.

Happy new year, everybody.